by Graham B.
Astronauts encounter a horror lurking in orbit.
Wayne Powers checked the makeshift latch to the equipment locker. Little bobbles of sweat floated away from his forhead. In the red light of the engineering module they looked like blood.
“Captain,” a feminine voice cried from the other side of the hatch. “Are you out there?”
Powers slumped against the hatch, not wanting to look through the hatch’s viewing port, to see what was happening to Dr. Campbell. Around him, the bulkheads closed in tightly.
“The incubation period is already past! Let me out!”
The last word was a gargling screech. Powers shuddered, knowing not only what was happening to Campbell’s body, but to her brilliant mind. The madness had started to rot her mind even before blood vessels began rupturing on the surface of her formerly sky-blue eyes.
For the hundredth time, Powers checked himself for lesions, found none, but found no comfort either. Who knew how long this pathogen would incubate? Dr. Campbell had already proven herself wrong when she began hemorrhaging well past her own predictions.
Powers could only watch helplessly as the pathogen had inexorably marched from Mission Specialist David Kensington, to Engineer Carl Repinski, and finally showing up as weeping lesions on Jillian Campbell’s face and arms. The last thing she did before losing her mind to the disease was to demand that he lock her up in the equipment locker.
Powers pressed his face against the hatch, still unwilling to look inside.
“I’m so sorry,” he murmured.
I’ll probably be joining you before long.
“Wayne, it’s so tight in here. Could you let me out?”
“You know I can’t.”
“I want to see the stars.”
“Maybe I could describe them to you?”
There was a pause, punctuated by a cough. He heard something spatter against the hatch.
“I’d like that.”
Powers looked around, but saw no observation ports, only stark white bulkheads punctuated by equipment.
“They’re beautiful, Jill,” he said.
“Tell me what they look like.”
Powers licked his lips.
“They look like diamonds on black velvet.”
“I can’t see any more, Wayne.”
Powers finally looked through the glass.
Dr. Campbell’s face was barely recognizable. The hair, floating about in zero gravity like a fern was still blond. The cheeks were still high and nose still long, but blood dribbled from her mouth and nose, drifting away in pulsing globules. Campbell’s eyes were now opaque, red orbs resembling those of Kensington and Repinski before the mysterious disease seized them with madness and forced them to claw their way through the airlock. Red-tinged tears drifted away and splashed against the glass. How much longer did she have? Would her eyes rupture and spew ichor like the others, without hard vacuum to assist?
His eyes closed as he remembered trying to keep his calm while they retrieved Kensington.
Kensington had been the first.
Powers became aware of something wrong when an unscheduled airlock cycle tripped an alarm. He had taken muster, and Kensington failed to check in. A few seconds later, a shadow darkened the observation port. Powers looked outside and what he saw shook him harder than anything that had ever happened to him as a combat pilot.
Kensington was outside without a suit. As Powers watched in horror, he convulsed and went still, his body continuing on its trajectory away from the station.
It took seventeen orbits to retrieve Kensington’s body. Nothing could have prepared them for what they saw when they finally matched velocities with their colleague.
No one had known the effects of hard vacuum on the human body. Kensington’s eyes were gone, as if they had exploded from their sockets. Blood had burst from his ear canals and congealed, like macabre headphones. Seventeen cycles of heating and freezing had turned flesh to mush.
Campbell, in her dry clinical way, called it the first case study. Powers could not watch the autopsy, but he bore the disturbing news as well as he could.
“As expected,” said Campbell. “Embolism caused by outgassing from the blood. Stroke resulting from extreme and sudden-onset decompression sickness. I don’t understand the extreme trauma to the eyes, though.”
Powers remembered the clinical tone which so contrasted with Campbell’s pleading now.
Where is your expertise, your intellect, your detachment now, Doctor?
“Wayne, tell me more about the stars.”
Powers opened his eyes again.
“Wayne, I can’t see. Tell me more.”
“There are millions, like sparkling grains of sand.”
Despite the red eyes, the fear and pain were manifest in Campbell’s ravaged features, just inches away behind the reinforced glass. He put his hand up to the glass. As if she could have seen the move, Campbell responded by putting her own hand to the glass.
“I’m afraid,” she said. She coughed, and a dark red mist fogged the glass. “What happens next?”
Her tone had taken on the quality of a little girl.
“I don’t know, Jill. But I’m right here.”
“Please don’t leave!”
“I’m not going anywhere, Jill.”
His fingernails itched. He checked his arms again. Still no lesions.
Repinski’s fingernails started to itch before it happened. He was rubbing at his fingertips even as his eyes had slowly become bloodshot. Powers remembered Repinski tearing out his fingernails with his teeth, his red eyes unseeing, then blindly clawing his way toward the airlock, fighting attempts to restrain him. Powers and Campbell strapped him down within the medical module, as he babbled about the station trying to crush him. He later escaped, found the airlock, and met the same fate as Kensington.
Once again, the autopsy had revealed similar causes of death. But this time, Campbell did a cell culture of the liquid which had erupted from Repinski’s ear canals.
“Spores,” she had said. “This fluid is chock full of them. They’re like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Powers had taken his turn at the microscope and had seen what looked like spherical caplets.
“What are they?”
“They’re very tough. I exposed them to vacuum and the same radiation common in low-earth orbit, and they survived. I followed a hunch and did a culture on Carl’s blood and this is what I found.”
On that slide was a mass of pill-shaped objects.
“Yes,” said Campbell. “But the markers are all off. This doesn’t correspond to anything in our taxonomy. I did a mass spectrometer analysis on it. I’ve detected psychoactive chemicals. Ever heard of zombie ants?”
Campbell pulled a tablet computer over and brought up a photo showing an ordinary-looking ant, hanging upside-down from a leaf. Powers noticed a thin white streamer dangling from the ant’s head.
“That thing coming out of its head is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. It’s a fungus that infects the ant and takes control of it, causing it to hang from a leaf near the colony and maximize dispersal of the spores. Turns the ants into zombies for its own purposes. It’s an incredibly clever adaptation.”
“And this bacterium is something similar?”
“Except that these spores spontaneously appeared in the culture I made. This organism’s lifecycle probably requires the spores to be distributed in orbit. It evolved in orbit! It uses those chemicals I detected to force the host outside without a suit. Then it causes catastrophic ruptures of soft membranes, like the eyes, to distribute the spores.”
Campbell was shaking her head in wonder.
“That’s a pretty specific mechanism for propagation, Doctor!” said Powers. “How is it possible?”
Campbell had pointedly looked at the ant photo.
“It’s a whole different form of life. If I could test it further, I could demonstrate how it lives up here, in orbit.”
“Just give me a straight answer, doc! Are we infected?”
Campbell stared back at him, unblinking, for a few beats.
“I don’t know, but life finds a way,” she said with finality.
Life had found a way.
Two dead, and now Doctor Campbell, rotting from the inside out within the equipment locker.
“Wayne,” said Campbell in rasping whispers. “Is it big outside?”
“It’s the most wide open space you can imagine, Jill.”
“It’s so cramped here.”
“Jill. . .”
“LET ME OUT!”
He felt something slam against the hatch, and then silence.
Powers heard two pops, followed by the wet noises of liquids splattering against metal.
“Ohhhhhhhhhh. . .” Campbell moaned.
Powers heard thumps and knew that Campbell was convulsing. He waited until it was over, until the only thing he heard was the sound of his own hard breathing.
He kicked gently away from the locker toward the command module. Equipment that crawled out of the bulkheads from all sides brushed his shoulders as he passed.
As Powers passed a viewing port, he noticed the stars.
The station was on the night side, and the stars were so bright that they seemed to overpower the station’s artificial light. They were beautiful, like sparkling grains of sand. His breath caught and he choked back a sob.
Red tears drifted from his eyes and splashed against the glass.