Copyright © 2018 by Matt Robb
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the author, except where permitted by law.
This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
“And you’re sure he’s … dead?” I asked.
“Been more than two Earth days since we last spoke. In all probability he—”
“Maybe he’s preoccupied with a complicated collector grid repair? Or could it be as simple as a broken transceiver?”
I offered those two options but deep down knew neither were true. Hell, I’d been alone on that trug before. There’s practically no way to hurt yourself. At least not accidentally.
There was nothing subtle about the exasperation I heard in Saharg’s voice. “Tim,” he said, “assume Fabian expired from natural causes.”
Something about the proposed cause of death didn’t sit well with me. “Natural causes, eh?”
“There are no equipment malfunctions. Atmosphere and gravity … normal. I’m hearing clear background audio. But he hasn’t touched any manual control functions in two days.”
I leaned forward and pressed my elbows into the cold command console that wrapped the perimeter of the shuttle’s observation deck.
What could possibly have happened over there?
Saharg continued. “Remember, your species’ biology is largely the same as mine. Fabian likely suffered a sudden cardiac event and expired. There isn’t another explanation.”
The word escaped my lips much too quickly. “Suicide?” I asked.
There was a longer than usual silence before Saharg re-keyed his transmitter.
“It has happened before on solitary assignments such as this … but it’s rare. I’m speaking for brunnels, of course. Obviously has never happened with a human. Last we spoke he said he was looking forward to his return to Earth.”
The audio signal clicked and hissed, a characteristic symptom of a transceiver stuck in a transmit-receive loop. I couldn’t help but think Saharg was purposefully imitating a bad connection.
Maybe humans and brunnels aren’t that different?
Then again, there was the distance of thirty light years of empty space between us.
“Once docked you’ll move Fabian’s carcass into the shuttle before sending it back. Best to let your people deal with the disposal.”
Under normal circumstances Saharg had an excellent grasp of the English language. He took to it far better than any human could learn his. But on occasion he still selected an inappropriate word from the vocabulary that did not translate well in some situations, like using carcass when referring to a dead human body. Regardless, I grew to respect Saharg and was no longer offended by his occasional poor turn of phrase.
“What about his stuff?” I asked.
“Personal items? They’re of no use to him … or brunnels. Use the E.D. chamber.”
Part of me wondered if Fabian wasn’t human whether Saharg would have me put his body in the E.D. chamber, too. I almost asked, but it was a question for which I wasn’t yet ready to hear the answer.
I tapped my fingers on the console and stared forward toward the pinholes of bluish-white light emanating from space.
“So has this … uh … ever happened to you? I mean … personally?”
“To dispose of a carcass?”
“Right. Have you ever had to handle a body?”
Saharg paused. In a Boston-like accent it sounded as if he whispered something Brunellian in the room before returning his attention to me.
“There’s nothing more to be done now. Not for at least three more hours. We’ll speak again when the time comes for action.”
There were at least a hundred more questions I wanted to ask, but Saharg had a way of letting me know when our conversations were finished.
I slumped back into my chair and threw my arms across my chest. “Shree-k’gah, Saharg.”
Shutting my eyes, I briefly considered making my own attempt to radio Fabian in the off-chance he was alive. Maybe he couldn’t speak but perhaps could tap, pound, or make some kind of noise to indicate he was conscious.
I then squashed the idea as quickly as it entered my mind. Saharg was in command and no doubt still monitoring the frequencies. I pictured his gray brows peeking over his glasses as he lowered and shook his head in disapproval, a look he gave me many times before in Calgary.
It was hard to accept a well-intentioned action like that could result in my recall back to Earth, or worse yet, permanent release from the brunnel interspecies program. That’s exactly what the military pilots and astronauts wished to see happen to the small group of us. It strengthened their narrative that they were far better prepared mentally, physically, and emotionally for space travel.
My mind drifted back to Fabian. I hardly knew him.
We met twice before during prior shift changes, and it was during the first I learned he was a high school mathematics teacher in southern Italy before The Courteous Interruption, a phrase some Brit coined for first contact.
By the looks of him I assumed he was a few years older than me, probably in his late twenties. He stood a foot shorter and wore a thick, shiny-black beard in contrast to my clean-shaven baby face. I remembered once shaking his hand and suspecting the hair on his knuckles was a dead giveaway to the quantity of fur that covered the rest of his body.
And now I had the unpleasant task of hauling the hairy sonovabitch across a three hundred meter-long trug.
I was jostled awake in my usual chair on the observation deck by several rough thuds of the transport shuttle as it bounced and scraped against trug no. 4224. From beneath my feet two decks below I could hear the alternating high-pitch whine and hiss of stabilization modules working to align the shuttle’s forward hatch to one on the rear of the trug. Last came a final violent jerk forward as the electromagnetic grapples engaged.
Disappointment set in that I hadn’t awoken thirty minutes earlier to see the trug appear into view on the infrared monitors. Time seemed to pass differently out in space, and I somewhat relied on Saharg’s voice to chirp over the radio and wake me ahead of the docking procedure. Instead, the only external glimpse of the warehouse-sized vessel I saw on this trip was the metallic-brown stern that enveloped the shuttle’s forward view screen. It was a not-so-subtle reminder of my diminutive size and insignificance in the galaxy.
I managed to wriggle my feet back into my sneakers from beneath the console without standing up from my chair.
“Tim to Saharg,” I said. “No response needed. Simply letting you know I am preparing to change vessels.”
I took the lift down one deck and moved swiftly past the galley and vacant passenger quarters toward the shuttle’s bow, jetting my arm into the last doorway to snatch the handle of my wheeled plastic suitcase.
As I approached the hatch vestibule my attention was drawn to the tiny red safety diode nervously flashing within the center of the hatch door. By the time I reached it the color had changed to solid white.
I raised my arm, but before depressing the hatch release, the entire vestibule shook violently and was accompanied by a painful grinding noise from the internal geared mechanism. The flickering red diode then returned for an encore performance.
“Saharg, what’s the status of the hatch seal?” I asked.
I looked down at the black suitcase beside me while I waited for Saharg to respond. Two recessed screw heads stared back at me and the extended handle position gave the appearance of an appreciative grin. I imagined the case was a small leashed Labrador pup waiting to be safely led across a busy intersection, and it was hard for me to hold back a smile from the image. I suppose the sturdy little case did seem like a pet of sorts. Reliable and loyal, its function of holding my belongings served me well out there even though it was designed for Earth-bound excursions. I originally bought it at Rennie’s Department Store a few years earlier for the vacation Kristy and I never took to Cancun.
The vestibule mechanics silenced and I looked up to see the solid glow of a white diode.
“Saharg, can I get a status on the hatch?” I asked again.
In my mind I tried to replay the preliminary training I received on air lock seals. I vaguely remembered Saharg and his team explaining the numerous fail safes in place to prevent accidental hatch openings. Quite frankly, I never had the inclination to put them to the test by pressing the hatch release button in free space, although I was assured it was a perfectly safe action to try when seeking an adrenaline rush.
Has to be safe … right? I’m overthinking this.
My heart quickened as I rested the tip of my middle finger on the rectangular hatch release button. I braced myself for either a catastrophic explosion if the hatch failed, or the heavy odor of rotten flesh if it hadn’t.
I depressed the button until I heard a soft click.
The hatch slid upward with little drama and ahead of me appeared the dimly-lit service tunnel that ran the length of the trug.
There was no odd odor, nor the sight of Fabian’s body in the tunnel. Only the characteristic warmth and humidity created in the trug as a byproduct of crushed space rock.
I crossed the threshold separating the two vessels and the hatch snapped shut behind me. The sound of my footsteps and the squeaky-wheeled suitcase echoed throughout the tunnel.
“Saharg,” I called out again, “I am aboard the trug and could use a friendly voice.”
I waited a moment for the faster-than-light signal to reach Earth and carry back a reply, but there was still no response.
My stomach knotted at the idea of encountering Fabian’s dead body on the floor or slumped over a console up ahead behind a blind corner. With exception of funerals back on Earth where bodies are prepared, dressed, and peacefully-posed in open caskets, this would be my first experience interacting with a dead body ‘in the wild.’
When I find him, please don’t let his eyes or mouth be open!
It then occurred to me I really had no idea what happened to dead bodies as they began to decompose. It’s not ordinary subject matter covered in high school biology or encountered when I worked as a Warren County parks and recreation laborer. I could only guess all muscles in the body relaxed.
Oh man, could his body be lying in pool of blood or feces?
Methods of Fabian’s possible suicide overwhelmed me.
My knees buckled beneath me and I stopped to steady myself against the tunnel wall.
I felt the sudden urge to run. Run all the way down the tunnel back toward the shuttle. But then what? Tell Saharg I could not complete my shift? Would I refuse to collect Fabian and send him back to Earth?
Reality sunk in. There were billions of people on Earth and no doubt I was replaceable to Saharg and the rest of the brunnels. I would have to go about living the remainder of my life on Earth knowing I threw all of it away.
No, I will do this! I have to do this!
“Saharg? You around?” I asked.
I don’t know how long I waited for Saharg to respond, but well enough to feel my body resonate with the equipment vibration through my shoulders and down my back where I made direct contact with the tunnel wall.
As I waited, thoughts came to mind of my childhood and how I often stumbled upon dead squirrels and rabbits in the road when riding my bicycle. I saw puckered-faced rodents leaking caramelized red syrup onto asphalt. I smelled the acrid odor of aging flesh in the hot midday July sunshine. I felt firsthand the Velcro-like release of squashed vermin as I occasionally pried one away from the road using an improvised spatula made from a handful of twigs.
A calming reassurance fell over me that even if Fabian hanged himself using a belt, the image of that could be no worse than the unlucky critters of my youth.
It was then I looked back toward the closed hatch leading into the shuttle. It was going to be a lot harder than I previously imagined to move Fabian’s body over such a long distance.
I pressed ahead and reached the opposite end of the service tunnel. Resisting the instinct to give a courtesy knock, I pulled open the door and entered.
The command center occupied a relatively small portion of the forward-facing top deck of the trug. It was a windowless square room about thirty feet in length with two rows of console stations mounted to the floor in the center of the room. Most impressive to me were the walls, ceiling, and floor consisting of integrated video panels that could be toggled on and off for a panoramic, planetarium-like view outside the trug.
The entire space had a clean modern look by human standards, but really was much too large for a single operator. I often reminded myself the command center was purpose built at a time when forty or fifty brunnel engineers were required to operate the rig.
A morbid thought, but I hoped to see Fabian’s body slumped over one of the command consoles. No doubt he spent much of his waking time aboard the trug at a console adjusting sarnox intermix ratios or studying engineering schematics.
Like a teacher administering a test, I walked with intent up and down both rows of consoles, studying each to see if Fabian dropped from a chair and rolled beneath one.
Clearly Fabian favored a console on the right side of the room, which was obvious because it was the only active console when I arrived. I don’t know why that was a comfortable choice for him in comparison to my own personal preference. Whenever I was on console duty or alone on a shuttle I found I gravitated toward the center-most station. I simply felt more balanced working in that way.
The room was lit much too bright for my eyes. I leaned over the chair of Fabian’s active console and dimmed the lighting to seventy-five percent. While standing there, it seemed like a good time to open the log history and poke around. After all, Fabian was in no hurry to leave.
The logs showed that two Earth days earlier Fabian reversed the trug’s exterior grav-generators to safely flush rock out and away from the rig’s underside intake manifold and stern hatch. This was standard operating procedure to help facilitate a safer docking of the shuttle to the trug. But there was something else. Something ever so slightly out of the usual. What piqued my curiosity is that he’d only need to perform the procedure one Earth day ahead of my scheduled arrival. Instead, he initiated the protocol two EDs ago. Knowing Saharg could not reverse the grav-generators from Earth, he likely wanted to assure a safer docking procedure for me when I arrived. Aside from that anomaly, all other operations of the trug Fabian performed appeared normal.
I left the command center and entered the small hallway leading to the dozen adjoining senior staff quarters.
A glint of light caught my attention from the slightly open door of Fabian’s room. My senses seemed to tell me life was present, but I couldn’t elaborate in any more detail other than gut feel. It was something that started happening more often to me in space, as if my senses sharpened being away from the clutter and noise on Earth.
I pushed open the door to Fabian’s room and entered.
Nothing appeared out of ordinary. The single bunk was made and all drawers of the built-in cabinet were tidily pushed in. The desk was clean and the console monitors were inactive.
When I stood motionless, I heard a subtle rhythmic beat. Plink … plink … plink.
I started to think Fabian’s body was going to be difficult to find, likely somewhere down below on the equipment decks. To be safe, I checked the floor on the opposite side of the bunk.
The beat grew louder. It was a familiar sound now, like drips from a faucet. Slow. Rhythmic. Each plink equally spaced apart. Plink … plink … plink.
The lavatory door was closed and it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks.
As the single inhabitant of the trug there was never a need to close any interior doors as privacy wasn’t an issue. He wanted to visually prepare me for when I found his body.
With my foot I gently pushed open the lavatory door and peered into the darkened room.
My heart thumped through my t-shirt, and with a quick motion I stepped into the lavatory and turned on the lights.
There at my feet, Fabian’s naked body lay face down on the floor.
A parade of water droplets fell one after another from the ceiling-mounted shower head down to floor, each one interrupted by an empty shampoo bottle that partially covered the drain. My eyes watched each drop grow larger, then accelerate downward as it journeyed and crashed against the bottle. Plink … plink … plink.
I stepped out of the lavatory and back into his quarters.
“Saharg, this is Tim. I found Fabian. He fell in the shower. Looks like he hit his head against the floor. I’ll have his body back in the shuttle in about twenty EMs.”
A feeling of peace fell over me. It was done. Fear of the unknown was worse than the looks of him. All that was left now was to move his body back to the shuttle.
I sat at the foot of the bunk and formulated my plan. I’d pull him out of the lavatory and lay him there where I sat, partially on the bunk with his feet hanging over the edge. That would put his body in a relatively easy position for me to pull a pair of pants and a shirt onto him.
I considered whether I could use my suitcase I left in the command center as a makeshift dolly to wheel him through the service tunnel. I wasn’t sure if the lil’ pup could handle the weight of him. Surely it wouldn’t look elegant, but I’d give it a try if it helped speed things along.
I stepped back into the lavatory and stood over Fabian’s body. With an attack plan in mind, I set about to first roll him onto his back, grab him under his arms, and drag him straight back and hoist him onto the foot of the bunk.
I squatted down beside him, grabbed his shoulder and he rolled easily onto his back.
Fabian’s brown eyes blinked open and stared directly into mine.
“Baahhhhhhh!” shouted Fabian.
“Oh, shit!” I said, falling backward and slamming my shoulder into the door jamb.
Fabian stood up and broke into a raucous laugh.
“I gotcha good!” he said.
Fabian stepped around me and entered his quarters.
I rolled up onto my feet and watched him pull his suitcase from the closet, fling it onto the bunk, unzip it, and start to pull on some clothes.
I tried to process what was happening.
“You alright? Your expression though … it was awesome!” he said.
My shoulder wrenched in pain. I turned and walked out of his quarters.
“Oh c’mon … it was funny!” said Fabian.
I returned to the command center and dropped into the first chair, rubbing the pain out of my left shoulder.
Fabian hobbled into the command center a minute later straightening his shirt and tugging on a baseball cap.
It took most of my self restraint to keep from tackling him to the ground and throwing a right hook square into his nose.
I spun my chair to face him and squinted at him with a scowl.
“Lighten up, Timmy!” said Fabian. “Next time it’s your turn to get me. You’ll see.”
I spun back and stared into the command console, pressing a few buttons to activate it.
I said nothing.
I heard the click of the hatch close behind me as Fabian headed into the service tunnel toward the waiting shuttle.
I didn’t bother to call Saharg over the radio. There was no need. He’d learn soon enough Fabian was alive and well. But for all intents and purposes Fabian did commit suicide that day. I never saw him again after that. Score one for the military pilots and astronauts.