Scot Noel is a Pennsylvania writer who
has been published in L. Ron Hubbard's
Writers of the Future anthology and in Tomorrow as well as numerous small press
magazines. He has also written novellas, interaction text, and rule books
for DreamForge Intertainment Inc., a computer game developer.
James Verran was born in South Australia in 1943.
His interests cover most of the sciences, and although he mainly writes hard SF he also dabbles
in horror, ghost, mainstream fiction and light technical writing. A two-time quarter finalist in
L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of The Future contest, he also has a handful of minor successes in
Australian writing competitions, and was a regular non-fiction columnist for The Mentor,
an Australian SF magazine. He lives in Port Noarlunga, south of Adelaide, with his wife Betty.
is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder.
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All materials copyright 1996-2000 by their respective
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posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).
The Last Leg
by Scot Noel and James Verran
The hull began to ring. It startled Zodiaque's crew, sending them reeling from their bunks to push along tight corridors in a weightless, bleary-eyed confusion. As they raced for the bridge, the absence of alarms confounded them. From the walls, not a single beacon flashed; no prerecorded warnings blared. Unlike her human stewards, Zodiaque's aging computers seemed oblivious to the chiming. Unable to inform the crew as to the source of the noise, their electronic brains remained stumped as well by a pre-existing phenomenon, now intensified: the smell.
Unpleasant, noxious, the odor complicated things. It wafted about the ship at random, an acrid scent tinged with ammonia. Contemptuous of the recycler's efforts to remove it from the air supply, the smell had worsened to become intolerable in places. Captain Leisa Blundell had her Martian crew of three search the hold and the engineering crawl spaces. Finally, she ordered them to unseal and search the old passenger quarters, also without success. There seemed no obvious cause for the phenomena, and no way to alleviate the growing annoyance of either.
Yet within minutes of its onset, the noise ceased, only to begin cycling through a set of random, irritating performances. The sound heightened the crew's sense of misery, sensitizing them to other noises and preventing sleep. During one impromptu concert, Blundell believed she recognized the sound as that of crystal growth distorting the alloy of the hull. It had a distinctive, almost musical timbre, as if some previous crew had tied chimes in the bilges, there to release muffled tinkles with each new breath of the recycler. Swearing, her blood pressure rising at the thought, she put smell and sound together into a single, unwelcome conclusion. Calling her crew together, Blundell parried what she perceived to be their vacant stares by posing for them one simple but important query. "I have a question," she said to the three young men, "about the smell ... the noises." On both sides arms were crossed, lips tensed. Accusation lay heavy in the air. "What I want to know," Blundell finished, "is which one of you bastards pissed into the bilges?"
Three embarrassed grimaces greeted her question. The First Mate's face turned red with anger. "I'll ah, well I'll um --" flight officer Gene Wade stammered, "check it out."
"You mean: check it out, Sir!" Blundell snapped.
"Yeah, that's what I meant, Ma'am ... uh, Sir," Wade replied, then turned to go, mumbling unintelligibly in the new Martian patois.
The First Mate, Oscar Lentov, caught Wade by the shoulder and whispered something in passing. When Lentov glanced to Blundell, his eyes told her everything his Martian words could not: the crew's contempt for her had become a living thing.
Upon returning from his sojourn in the ship's nether regions, the flight officer looked sheepish, even pale. Perhaps, Blundell thought, a bit spooked.
"Look mates, you must've heard the noises down in the aft storage bay." he said. "Not the ringing, but something -- I don't know --" He looked to fellow crewmen Decker and Lentov, but received only fiery annoyance from their sleep-deprived eyes.
"Spit it out, Mr. Wade," Blundell insisted.
"Sounds like something's groping around, behind the walls."
"No," said Blundell, as if answering for all present, "we did not hear it." Turning to Lentov and Decker for confirmation, she saw only pursed lips and hardened glances. "What about the bilges, Mr. Wade?"
"Dry, Sir. I mean, I didn't see a thing, just that noise --"
"Loose insulation moving in the recycler's breeze, that's all," Blundell interrupted.
"Yeah, must be," Wade agreed, utterly unconvinced.
Turning back to their watches, Lentov and Decker began to laugh softly.
Three weeks earlier, Blundell had watched the altimeter in the rising shuttle. They were on their way to rendezvous with Zodiaque.
After trimming the pressure in the primary tanks, she turned to her new crew, three young men who shared an appearance of affected boredom. They grinned, showing sharpened teeth, and she grinned back at them. The epaulets and ratings bars on their uniforms seemed difficult to believe, so youthful did their faces appear, so callow their demeanor. The swirling tattoos each sported about the face and eyes, as well as the unnecessary dental work, all spoke to Blundell of children playing at being warriors.
"Ah, Rebecca," Blundell whispered to the corpse sharing the shuttle with them, "they've just come along to gloat. The headhunters have won."
Blundell had retired, already. Once. Yet there were still favors owed an aging woman whose wit and health were as sound as ever, and if Zodiaque were to be cast back toward Earth as if it had never been needed, then it was time for Blundell to go too, and to stay. An ice crystal plume from Mount Ascraeus reflected pink, pre-dawn light onto the flight instruments until the rising sun silvered the UV filters of the view ports. An instant later the shuttle plunged over the horizon and high into the icy darkness of space. Somewhere in the starry night ahead lay Zodiaque.
For a few minutes, there would be time to relax and appreciate the view.
With the others apparently preoccupied, Blundell closed her eyes, and kept them tight. "Those who remember are soon followed into the grave by those who remember," she whispered to herself.
The young flight officer, Gene Wade leaned forward between the seats. "Say something, Ma'am?" he asked, careful not to look in the direction of the body bag.
Blundell, ignoring him, feigned interest in the controls, tapping a readout and removing a smudge with the heel of her thumb. Then the shuttle began to lose speed as it neared the apogee of its glide, and a moment later Blundell called out: "Ten seconds to boost. All strapped in?"
She watched her small crew scrabbling to check their belts, then hit the button early. The sudden boost punched crew and cargo alike firmly into their acceleration couches, while outside, the super-chilled atmosphere turned the exhaust to ice. It became a crystal fog, more spectacular than Ascraeus's glowing cloud. To starboard, the first fingers of sunlight probed the depths of the Mariner Valley. A second later, it was swept from view as the shuttle streaked upward, toward a planned rendezvous beyond Deimos.
"Message from Zodiaque," said Oscar Lentov, the second in command on this voyage. He removed his headphones. Agitated, his cheeks grew red as he said, "our boost was a few seconds early. It'll cause them extra work. We should have let the computer handle it."
"Poor boys," Blundell said, stressing the sarcasm, "did I upset them? By the way, Mr. Lentov, does that Decker fellow ever say anything?"
Lentov glanced back toward the youngest crewman, but Decker's head was down, his unwavering attention on the computer screen in his lap. Decker's job, cargo security, included the safe conveyance of the late Rebecca Price back to Earth. The rest of the cargo consisted of foodstuffs, for little else spoke so strongly of Martian independence than shipping the larder of the new world back to Earth.
"He's not real good with English," Lentov suggested.
"Or women?" Blundell asked.
"Or dead bodies," Lentov added, "however much you may revere them."
"I've noticed the children of Mars don't revere much of anything," Blundell said bluntly. "Heads up, ladies! We're going alongside. Prepare for cargo transfer."
Zodiaque loomed beside them, graceful and old, like a rocket whose sharp-edged silhouette might have been stolen from some ancient movie. In her side, a bright oval grew until Zodiaque's main hatch lay open and waiting.
Lentov deployed the servobot while Blundell watched, taking stock of Zodiaque and remembering that she had not been aboard the old ship in over twenty-five years.
Although the idea of laying freeze-dried produce in Zodiaque's hold galled Blundell, the old ship's recent efforts had recalled a measure of dignity. While shuttling supplies between Mars and the asteroids, the 'Old Lady' had serviced the Miner's Hospital on the asteroid Carmody IV. Never having found the need to develop a new cultural identity, the asteroids remained a place of rugged individualism, where anyone of wit and presence could carve out a place for themselves. Now, having exceeded her serviceable years, there lay ahead for Zodiaque but a single plunge Earthward, to be followed by decommissioning and oblivion. Outside the shuttle, the servobot trailed a concertina of hooped plastic toward Zodiaque: the makings for a pressurized gangway.
"Do you know her, boy?" Blundell asked Gene Wade. The young man answered without taking his eyes from the ancient hull: "Zodiaque," he said, but not with pride. "Seventy hours work on the solar still and replacing vapor regulators in the bilges, just to get it here. It should have been retired years ago --"
"She," Blundell corrected. "You call ships 'she'."
"The lunar smelters won't call it she," Wade answered.
Blundell looked angrily at her flight officer, and took a deep breath. "That Old Lady opened up this front --" A malfunction alarm cut Blundell's reminiscences short. By the time she assumed the control position, first officer Lentov had already punched the self-test button. The alarm reset. It was the servobot.
A remote override kicked in. Still, the servobot failed to respond. After connecting the gangway, the robot had simply quit.
"Well bless my soul," Blundell observed, with exaggerated concern, "your little toy couldn't hack it. Suit up, ladies. Now, we'll have to do some real work."
Blundell and her crew locked on magnetic boots and waded into the airlock. At the captain's direction, Decker approached the servobot, but a cursory examination did little more than confirm their metal servant's demise. Working together they sealed the gangway and filled it with air, making it a rigid passage between the vessels and fit for the transfer of cargo.
With the robot out of the way, the conveyor hooks were put in place and the cargo transfer began. The shuttle's team maneuvered containers into the pressurized gangway, and at the other end, the crew from Zodiaque caught and stowed the goods. For safety, the airlocks were operated for each passing load, but within five hours the operation was complete.
Having opened his helmet visor a crack to properly greet the Zodiaque crew, Lentov drew their attention to a lingering suggestion of ozone within the tunnel. Blundell ignored the comment. She was busy snubbing the Martian-born captain of Zodiaque, who seemed only too eager to hand over the obsolescent hulk he referred to as "that haunted bitch."
"Did you hear him say she's haunted?" asked Wade. Behind him, Lentov grunted. Decker continued about his work without comment as the last container was prepared for removal.
"Well then," said Lentov as he maneuvered the hermetically sealed, bright plastic bag, concealing the remains of Rebecca Price. "Here's another ghost for the hold."
"That's it!" Blundell shouted. "I won't take disrespect for the dead." Moving toward Lentov she brushed his hand away from the weightless body bag with a violent gesture. "Bad enough we have no casket. Get away from me. I'll take her aboard myself!"
Startled for no more than a second, Lentov moved forward, his whole motion and attitude ready to push Blundell aside. With a raised hand, Flight Officer Gene Wade stepped between them.
"Hey!" Wade barked. He cleared his throat and took a deep breath. "We'll show due respect, Captain." He turned until his eyes met Leisa Blundell's. "And we'd like some in return, Ma'am."
"Nice speech," Lentov grunted. "Don't raise your hand to me again, Mr. Wade. You'll regret it."
Ignoring the First Officer, Wade gripped the side of the body bag in his gloved hands and said, "gently now, boys. Take it easy."
Later, after an exchange of documents bearing the seals of the trading company that now owned Zodiaque, Blundell shook hands, however grudgingly, with Zodiaque's parting captain and crew.
As they watched the shuttle fall away toward the hazy red hemisphere of Mars, Blundell's crew prepared Zodiaque's engines and navi-computers for the last leg toward Earth, moon, and, for Blundell, home. While Lentov tended to the fallen servobot, Wade computed the flight profiles, leaving Blundell to inventory fuel and supplies. Alongside her, the younger Martian crewman went about securing their cargo. It was in that quiet of concentration, with both their tasks oriented along the aft wall of the cargo hold, that crewman Decker spoke his first words directly to the captain.
"There ... is a cashket, Captain."
Blundell looked up from her work. She didn't ask Decker to repeat his words, but her quizzical expression led the young man to think she had not gotten the sense of it. He blushed and tried to form the words more precisely to counter his Martian accent.
"It's ... on the moon -- Earth's Moon, Captain," Decker said. "Brass and gold." He laughed softly to himself. "Imagine shipping it up, just to ... bring her back down ... in it."
"Respect," Blundell all but whispered the word. After a moment she asked, "do you know who she is -- was?" When Decker failed to venture a guess, Blundell continued, "Rebecca Price was the first woman born on Mars. Her parents came from Earth on this very ship. It was Zodiaque's maiden voyage. In their time, the Price's ran the Troll terraforming stations. Eventually, Rebecca captained Zodiaque."
"I've seen the Trolls," Decker said, then not knowing what else to say, added, "Big ... ."
"I was a welder's mate at the Trolls, until Rebecca got me to join the fleet," said Blundell. She paused and took a deep breath. "Know who killed her?"
"No, Ma'am, I mean, Sir -- I mean no, Sir," Decker answered.
"Young men," said Blundell. "Taunting. Martians out to taunt an old woman."
"Not right --"
"Left her exposed to the Martian wind," Blundell interrupted. "Didn't mean to kill her. They said she shouldn't have cursed them." Blundell found her eyes had gone moist, that her heart no longer had room for the sarcasm which had poisoned her every word since the flight began. "How do such things happen, Mr. Decker?"
"I ... don't know," the young man slowly confessed, "why ... such things happen."
Blundell herself was old enough, experienced enough to have some idea of why such things happen. If coaxed into conversation about Mars and its people, as she would be in later years, in social settings far removed from the cargo bay of Zodiaque, she would press forth with analyses of her own that were neither unreasonable, uncharitable, nor far from the truth.
Mars was a frontier in the process of becoming a world. Its dangers fostered in men the hero-warrior mentality of old, even if the real adversary was a cold, dry desert, a harsh realm that beggared the Antarctic night. But the true power of the equation lay in the primal need to increase the population. On all of Mars and the asteroids combined, less than a million souls had come to find their fortune, and of those, a meager handful remained to make of the outer worlds their home.
On Mars, women had become a protected, subservient class, their lot having become the most ancient and precivilized of duties: the bearing of children. No one had chosen it, fought for it, or advertised it. No Council approved it. Within two generations, it simply welled up out of the collective psyche of the race. There was nothing for women like Blundell and Price to do. The change could not be forestalled. They had greeted it with derision at first, and then with stunned silence. Soon they realized the fragility of their changing positions.
The malfunctioning servobot literally became Lentov's baby. When he pulled an auto motivating card, and ran a diagnostic, he was surprised to find the machine's main processor had spiked. He sent Wade to forage for a spare card from the electronics locker, then together they spent four hours restoring the fused edge connector socket. By early evening, Zodiaque time, the ship eased out of parking orbit and accelerated around the planet's limb trailing a bright flare. In the pilot's seat, Wade coaxed her into an arc in the direction of Sol as they catapulted away from Mars.
In five months time, Earth would swing through the emptiness to greet them. Earth, the moon, and the smelters at Luna Base. A few days along their trajectory they began to be plagued by the environmental problems that were to jeopardize their entire mission.
During one of their evening meals, Lentov asked, "have you figured out what that smell is, Mr. Wade?" He referred to the faint, pungent odor which had been wafting intermittently about the bridge.
"Not yet. Usually happens after we blow a bulkhead hatch or equalize pressure. Decker's checked the cargo for humidity build-up."
"Enough complaining," Blundell interrupted. "This is a cramped ship, among the first of her line, but maybe you ladies never smelled a real ship."
Pushing his plate away, with ill-disguised anger, Lentov said, "we've smelled worse. And if I may ask, Captain, why do you insist on using that term to insult us?"
"Ladies?" Blundell asked with feigned innocence. When Lentov nodded she continued. "Why is it, do you think, that Mars does not see fit to lay Rebecca Price to rest, honorably, in the soil of her birthplace?"
The face of the young man grew red. "We are transporting the body of Captain Price to her ancestral home, at the requests of both the Earth government and her family." He interrupted himself by muttering something beyond Blundell's understanding, in Martian. When he continued in English his voice had grown even more thunderous. "As I understand it, interment at Arlington is no insult!"
Loud males had never given Blundell reason to pause, and she brought another bite of food up from her plate in a relaxed fashion and replied, "all right then, neither is my use of the term 'Ladies'. If this trip is not an insult, at least it's a convenient way to put two old, stubborn women out of the public's mind. Giving me command of Zodiaque even makes it look honorable."
"You asked to command Zodiaque!" Lentov shot back, clearly losing the last vestige of his enforced patience. Decker excused himself with a hushed mumble and faded from the compartment. Flight Officer Wade looked as though he were searching for some way to relieve the tension but found himself wanting. When he did speak, his words did not have quite the intended calming effect. "Look, Captain, Mr. Lentov, we're all a bit edgy. There's a cadaver in the crew quarters and that damned smell keeps popping up."
"Health regulations," Blundell interrupted, "prohibit storing human remains with our type of cargo. And the body does not smell!"
"No one said it did, Captain," Lentov replied. "I think this evening is at an end. Time to get some sleep."
Several days after Mr. Wade searched the bilges in search of surreptitious urine deposits, the servobot reported a build up of humidity in the hold, which Decker and Blundell discussed as they searched for a cause.
"A little ... more ... and our cargo will expand," said Decker.
"Good lad," Blundell offered. She watched as the young man's cheeks reddened at the compliment. "Look, here." Blundell pointed to some tiny globules of liquid adhering to a moisture repeller. "That's strange."
"Smells ... worse," said Decker. "Pungent."
"Yeah, well if it were piss, there'd be a lot more of it." Blundell said, then changed the subject with: "Mr. Decker, you should have known Rebecca. She wasn't like me, you know, not bitter. She, well, she made us feel like some attainable, happy future was always there, just in front of us if we bothered to look, or take a step in the right direction." Blundell paused, as if the past were being mirrored for her eyes alone, from the aging metals. "There was something about her, a spark that shouldn't be wasted, man or woman."
"Was it ... wasted?" Decker asked.
"No." Blundell smiled. "It wasn't, Mr. Decker."
"I see," Decker said, thinking it best to change the subject, again. "I recommend ... lowering the pressure. Then turn on the ... desiccators."
"Sounds reasonable," agreed Blundell. "You know, I jumped at this command. The chance to escort Rebecca and Zodiaque back to their graves. Damned stupid of me. Too many memories." "I was excited ... too," Decker admitted, looking about the dark cargo hold. "Never been away from home ... before."
With the ringing in the hull continuing, Blundell had her crew call up recent service reports and repair orders. Lentov tackled the schematics, while Decker and Wade pored over every line of the text. After several days of review and speculation, they met in the galley to review their findings over coffee. "The sounds are part of the Old Lady's death rattle," Lentov warned. "Crystallization in her subframe has accelerated beyond any pace the designers could have imagined. In less than a year the skeleton will become supremely brittle. Even now, sections of Zodiaque's outer skin might crack." Blundell frowned and sipped hot coffee. She had suspected as much, but wanted an excuse to berate Lentov for his alarmist prattle. Unfortunately, he was right. The data, while not incontrovertible, would have led any reasonable officer to the same conclusion. Blundell ordered mandatory isolation of compartments, with their hatches to be sealed at all times between use.
"I'll make ... sure emergency suits ... in every station," Decker said.
"Good," Blundell agreed. "Mr. Wade, you check all hatch O-rings, and place a sealant gun in each compartment. She may not fall apart, but we should be prepared for a few leaks."
Then, as if newly aware of the many stains and dints on every surface, Blundell looked about the galley at the signs of age, the many years of wear.
"Mr. Wade, you were right," Blundell said. "They should have retired the old girl long before this."
Almost as if the ship understood, Zodiaque stopped tinkling and became suddenly silent.
From the bilges, Wade smiled nervously over the internal video system. He was deep in the ventilated crawl spaces between the outer shell and the thermal insulation of the living quarters. A junction of the ship's main electrical harness lay beneath him.
"The thermal control batteries have lost their charge," he said. "I'm afraid we're running on straight solar."
"Okay," Blundell replied. "But tell me how we lost our power reserve, with nowhere to ground it?"
Behind her, First Mate Lentov mused. "Hmm. It's possible we may have passed through a negative particle cloud. That could have discharged our accumulator reserve through the hull." "Captain," said Wade over the video, "the solars are capable of feeding enough juice to keep us from freezing. But we have to locate the short circuit. I'll stay with this as long as I can." After several hours of hatch popping and bilge crawling, Wade found the leak, along with more globules of liquid and a breathtaking dose of the smell. The others listened as he announced over his suit radio, "I'm securing my face plate and going to suit air. The smell's unbearable."
A moment later Wade's eloquent Martian curse was all but drowned out as the crack of a discharge crashed across the bridge. The channel went dead.
Without a word, Blundell and Lentov checked their suits, and grabbing a med kit, Blundell led the way. Leaving Decker to watch the controls they raced to the scene as best they could, fumbling in the zero g, losing precious seconds opening each hatch along the way.
"You're fine," said Blundell, after attending the burn on the young man's throat.
"Damnedest thing," Wade explained. "I found the problem. The carrier lead is frayed. I was trying to figure out how such a thing could have happened, when I saw something and accidentally touched the lead against my suit hardware. It was a shadow -- I don't know -- it whipped by pretty fast." "You took about 150 volts through your button-pushing thumb," said Oscar. "It exited via the throat mike, grounding through the antenna. Take my advice. Don't try it again."
"A shadow!" Blundell said, shaking her head in disbelief. "Mr. Lentov, help Mr. Wade out of here. I'll finish the job properly and meet you on the bridge."
There was no formal acknowledgment of her order, no 'Yes, Sir,' from either Lentov or Wade, only the grunting of the wounded man as he was helped from the confined space. Without glancing at her men, Blundell took over Wade's abandoned tools and got to work.
With the damaged cable repaired and power restored, the noises returned. Subtle tinklings and pingings reigned throughout the ship.
Blundell experimented with cutting power at the main, and the noises ceased within seconds. But not all of them. There remained a barely audible dragging sound, exactly as Gene Wade had reported hearing in the washroom.
Something was moving behind the padded walls.
Lentov and Wade located another source of the metallic sounds and made a surprising discovery. The primary electrical loom was shorting against the hull.
"Zodiaque did go through a dust cloud," Wade informed Blundell, "probably the remnants of a comet's tail. It triggered a major discharge. Zodiaque was like a huge, charged capacitor. Lucky she didn't touch another craft in that state; the hulls may have welded together."
"Then it would have been charged when we docked the Mars shuttle," Blundell said. "Probably," said Wade. "The insulated gangway saved us. As it was we crippled the servobot. But if the hulls had touched ... ."
Thereafter, Blundell and her crew directed their full attention to the electrical carrier's breakdown.
While deep in the bilges, Decker figured it out first. Many of the conductors had been wound into the loom unsheathed, isolated only by groupings of optical fibers: a normal, mass-cutting feature of Zodiaque class ships.'
"They don't normally get saturated with corrosive fluids," Wade explained over the intercom after conferring with Decker, "but those damned patches of stinking fluid have soaked through the old, shrink-tape and etched into the conductors.
"Who knows how long electricity's been trickling into the hull? Electrolytic corrosion's speeding up the degeneration of the metals. That's what we're hearing, Captain."
That left Blundell with the million dollar question: if electrolysis had accelerated crystallization in Zodiaque's hull, what was the source of the electrolyte?
On the next shift, Lentov coaxed data from the archived cargo log, but it held no clue to the source of the mysterious electrolyte.
Zodiaque had never carried anything more volatile than dormant accumulators and fuel cells. The records showed no spoilage, or damage to any corrosive cargo. The only logical source of the highly corrosive, pungent liquid was urine.
"The life support monitors have registered a slightly raised level of hydrogen passing through the air scrubbers," said Lentov as they conferred on the bridge. "The previous crew either ignored it, or never validated the readouts." He paused before concluding: "Someone must have pissed in the bilges."
"Seventy hours repair work in the bilges was logged on the last trip," said Blundell. "If someone did relieve themselves, then zero g and varying accelerations could have spread it like a mist. But why would they bypass the relief system in their suits?"
"Why didn't you ask that when you accused us of doing it?" said Lentov, needling Blundell with her own observation.
"Wait," interrupted Wade. "Even if some bastard did this as an insult, the scavenger system would have dehydrated the solution long ago."
"Whatever it is," Lentov added. "The addition of fresh moisture to old deposits is compounding our immediate problem. In effect, the spent electrolyte is continually being topped off." Blundell looked to Decker, not quite knowing why, but realizing instantly that Lentov and Wade had either followed her gaze or were acting on the same impulse. Luckily, Mr. Decker's head was bowed over his instruments, and he never sensed their stares as they looked quickly and turned away. Lentov shook his head and Blundell and Wade agreed without a word. It was unfair to blame the boy just because he was shy.
At Blundell's orders, the crew set to and sponged the offensive patches of liquid from the electricals as best they could. Two shifts later the globules had returned, most to their same general locations.
Blundell thought of another possibility and discussed it with her crew. "The hull seems to be sweating," she said. "God knows why, or exactly what the condensate is. Recalibrating the dehumidifiers should retard the electrolysis enough to stave off the inevitable. Now the bad news. The computer estimates we may lose hull integrity within a few weeks."
"You're kidding," said Decker. "Kidding, Sir?"
"No," Blundell affirmed. "I'm not kidding. If the crystallization isn't halted, the ship will crack up. Resonance from the retros, a carelessly handled wrench -- almost anything -- and she'll shatter like a champagne flute."
"Captain," said Lentov, "I believe it would be best if we put out a general call for help." "Mr. Lentov," said Blundell, "given our present circumstances, I can only agree. Go for it."
Then Rebecca Price began to make noises.
Blundell had watched Lentov and Wade strap Rebecca's hermetically sealed remains safely beneath the netting of an unused bunk. Their consensus had been against strapping it to the top of the bunk -- better out of sight.
"It woke ... me!" said Decker. "Heard it through the ... bulkhead. That bag was rustling." "So you got up and went over to Rebecca's quarters," Blundell said. "Then what?"
"Stopped when I switched on the light. And more of those stinking patches ... on the fittings in that room. Smells as bad as the bilges."
"What are you saying?" Blundell asked. A tinge of anger rose in her voice. "Since we started this, all of you have gone on about how junk this ship is. I'm sick of your cracks about her being haunted."
"The boy is only trying to tell you what he's heard," Wade interjected.
"Well I don't need stories. I need to know what's going on!" Blundell shouted back.
"I give up!" said Wade. "What are we supposed to do?" With that, the Flight Officer turned sharply and stormed from the bridge. His clipboard, replete with the list of duties set for the next shift, floated freely, tumbling in the wake of his departure.
"You will address your captain as 'Sir'," Blundell called after him. "Mr. Wade, where the hell do you think you're going?"
"Any luck contacting other ships, Mr. Lentov?" Blundell asked when they were on the bridge, alone. "Yes, Sir. Navy Supply Ship Talbot is just over 1.6 million kilometers out and slightly ahead of us. Our greater velocity, and a course adjustment will give us visual in eight days. I've made them aware of our situation."
"Good," Blundell said. "Keep an eye on Mr. Wade, for me, will you?" Lentov shrugged. "Whatever, Captain," he said without enthusiasm.
Blundell herself began to hear noises when alone in most parts of the ship. More than the occasional tinkle or clink of crystallization, she clearly heard sounds of movement within the hull. Yet these sounds ceased immediately when any of the crew moved, or called over the intercom.
During one of her rest periods, Blundell also heard the rustlings reported by Flight Officer Wade; eerie, furtive shufflings that seemed to emanate from Rebecca's cabin.
Sleep eluded her, and after a time she decided to move her bedding onto the netting, one bunk above Rebecca's resting place. In the few hours that remained of Blundell's night, nothing shuffled, moved, or banged to announce its passing haunt. So on her next sleep period, the captain once again floated back into the area where the body was stored and quietly maneuvered herself onto her chosen bunk. She secured the velcro harness. A touch to the pressure pad on her left and the lights were out.
Blundell remembered the sounds of a full crew. At this shift there would be personnel wading through the corridors, pushing off bulkheads or doing all manner of crazy gymnastics to stay in shape. Aromas of coffee, sweat, and breakfast would be about, wafting together in a mix not entirely unpleasant. "Rebecca, we grow old and die," she said to the corpse beneath her, " ... and can't even understand the world we leave behind."
In the moments she began drifting into sleep, a rattling of plastic and a thin, scraping sound startled her back to consciousness. She lay silent, straining to hear over the whispering air circulator. Nothing. Blundell waited in vain, listening while her pulse thudded in her ears. Gradually, she slipped back into torpor, only to be drawn fully awake, yet again, by a rhythmic, grating sound. She held her breath, her eyes wide in the uninterrupted blackness, peering, expecting the shift of one darkness over another that might reveal an intruder.
Then something touched her arm.
With enough noise to wake the dead, Blundell ripped open the velcro straps and flung herself from the bunk, slapping at the nearest control pads in the process. Light flooded the room. So did the sound of a ship's alert. After ricocheting from the far wall, Blundell steadied herself, poised to confront -- she had no idea what!
Seconds later, Lentov and Wade burst into the cabin, shoulder to shoulder through the hatchway. There appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary, except for Blundell breathing hard and holding on to the edge of a bunk. "Jeez, Captain," said the First Mate. "Did you float out of bed or what?" Lentov went immediately to the switch and cut the klaxon sound.
"Sounded like the damned bulkhead was breaking loose," Wade affirmed. "Are you OK? You're white as a ghost." Realizing what he'd said, Wade snickered nervously. After her momentary fright in the dark, Blundell too began giggling. The others stood by, looking puzzled. Decker came up at last, the look of sleep still heavy in his eyes.
Blundell said, "There is something in this cabin, and I reckon it's alive." She paused, rubbing nervously at her neck. "Now I can't think of any other way out of this, so I'm going to open the body bag. Ready?"
Her crew had no time to react beyond shocked expressions. Half-formed questions passed between them as they watched, arms folded, while Blundell struggled to release the bag from beneath the bunk.
When Blundell hauled it out, she gasped with surprise. It had almost no mass, just the hard, loose feel of bones and packing material. She brushed moisture from her eyelashes, then twisted the metal seal from the silicon contact strip and peeled open the edge of the bag.
Several small, black-and-white missiles rocketed from the gaping hole and hurtled past Blundell who somersaulted backwards while her crew ducked back through the hatch in alarm. From his position outside the cabin, Lentov shouted: "What the hell are they?"
The cabin resembled an antique 3D bagatelle, with black-and-white creatures rebounding from every surface. Whatever the lively little beasts were, they moved faster than Blundell's eyes could accommodate. One by one, they vanished into ventilators or through the open hatch to the corridor, where Decker howled with shock as they shot past.
The crew watched, stunned, until the last of the agile animals whizzed past Flight Officer Wade's head, to vanish behind a stanchion in the next cabin.
Blundell turned back to Rebecca's remains, a feeling of revulsion clawed the pit of her stomach. The bag contained little more than yellow and brown bones, along with the tattered remnants of a ceremonial flight suit. The dried flesh had been stripped from Rebecca's bones. Slowly, the three men floated back into the cabin and peered at the bag. Blundell turned it over to reveal a large serrated hole where the corpse's shoulder should have been. The creatures had chewed through some tough plastic to dine upon the prize within.
Blundell looked to her crew. Although gallantly trying to conceal their shock, all three wore masks of white terror. Blundell understood why: they were Martian born.
Quarantined from earth by billions of kilometers of vacuum, none had seen such small, agile animals, not in the flesh. Blundell realized what the creatures must be when she found a nest of shredded fabric crammed into one of Rebecca's empty sleeves.
Hundreds of small, elongated pellets, like grains of rice, confirmed her suspicion. She held up a few for the boys to see. Only a few isolated laboratories between Earth and the asteroids would have had any contact with the creatures that produced them.
"Did either of you notice anything like this when you were inspecting the ship, especially the bilges?"
"Well yes," Wade admitted. "I thought it was something to do with crystallization." Blundell closed her eyes and dropped her head, then began to chuckle. "No," she said a moment later. "They're smart pills. You take one and you'll be smart enough to know mouse shit next time you see it." She paused. "Zodiaque is infested with mice!"
They rechecked the cargo log computer, which did in fact list a damaged package of biological specimens. Four trips back, during a run to the Miner's Hospital on Carmody IV, a container had been crushed in transit and its contents scattered in the cargo hold. The contents, listed as allergen-sensitive mammals; specifically, comatose mice, with embryos, had supposedly all been accounted for.
After discussing the options, Blundell and her crew prepared to lower the air pressure. By unanimous vote, they elected to use decompression to exterminate Zodiaque's uninvited guests. The internals of the ship were too complex to track the mice down, and Blundell had no idea how to poison them. Near vacuum seemed an ideal solution.
They suited up and Wade began by recompressing sixty percent of the available atmosphere into Zodiaque's recyclers. Only after checking the backup tanks and verifying emergency oxygen stores, did Blundell allow her crew to crack the main airlock hatch.
That proved to be a mistake.
As expected, air whistled past at hurricane speed, but they were braced for that. On the bridge, Wade's misplaced clipboard tumbled about, its documents suddenly alive in the wind; however, as they dodged the unexpected flurry of pages, a more ominous threat appeared. A sudden shock, followed by a traveling reverberation, worked its way through the entire framework of the ship, and a bulge grew in the padded lining of the bridge. Something in Zodiaque had sprung. "Close the hatch!" Blundell shouted over the suit-com. "She's breaking up."
When O-ring and plate met, Zodiaque grew still, her corridors as chilling as an open crypt. The main airlock had sealed with five percent pressure to spare.
"Now ... what?" Decker asked, his helmet face plate steaming up as he fought against panic and hyperventilation.
"Now what indeed?" Blundell asked in return, pointing to the bulge. "Pry out those mushroom studs and get the paneling off so we can see what we're dealing with."
One furry, blood-smeared body floated out of the opening, then two, quickly followed by a dozen more. Some still twitched. Behind the panel, a corroded section of the inner skin had burst. Blundell reached through to tap the thin, outer layer of titanium which separated them from high vacuum and the heatsink of space.
"As I see it," said Blundell. "The electrolysis generated a gas between the skins. Lowering the pressure caused it to blow inward." With a gloved hand, she pulled at the torn duraluminum. "Look, the impact honeycomb has ruptured. I'll bet the outer skin isn't rated to stop anything over three millimeters." "You mean meteoroids?" asked Lentov.
"Yes, Said Blundell.
"Damned mice," said Lentov. "Okay, Mr. Wade, break out the argon welder. I'll tack a spare panel into place, then caulk the area with a sealant gun." While Wade was gone, Blundell maneuvered back into the shadows to think. Lentov's solution had the sound of rationality about it, but something as ominous as the sound of crystallization scratched away at the back of her thoughts.
Upon Wade's return, she pulled the welder from his grasp just as Lentov reached for it. Startled, Wade released the dural sheet he had brought as well, allowing it to float freely about the cabin.
"No! No, Mr. Lentov, that gas has got to be hydrogen." Again the First Mate reached for the welder, and again, Blundell moved the unit out of his reach, pushing off the deck to avoid his gloves.
"If it doesn't blow that plate wider than an airlock, it'll do some damage, even at this concentration," Blundell insisted.
Lentov cursed in Martian.
Wade, trying to remain calm, offered to bring the cabin to full pressure to allow the ship's recyclers to alter the mix, but Blundell continued to protest. Zodiaque's scrubbers hadn't been able to remove all the hydrogen to begin with. The only answer was to completely evacuate the ship's atmosphere, and operate the welder in full vacuum.
"I used to weld super lifts on the Troll stations," Blundell said. "I know what I'm doing."
Lentov conceded. "Let's not argue. Just blow the remaining atmosphere."
Blundell checked the life support meters on her suit belt until they indicated vacuum, then went to work. Mentally pacing herself somewhere between sound engineering procedure and desperate haste, she worked almost as quickly as she could have done at twenty, tacking shut the tear and welding the duraluminum patch into place. Afterward, with their suit air almost gone, they brought Zodiaque up to pressure. Blundell and Lentov were the first to remove their helmets; Wade and Decker moments later.
"Okay so far," said Blundell, "but we need to check everything, and I mean everything, especially our rendezvous with Talbot. We'll meet back on the bridge in one hour."
They remained calm and followed orders, smiling to one another as they filed through the hatchway. Lentov remained to deal with the radio work and navigational calculations. The First Mate paused long enough to look Blundell in the eye and say: "Good job, Captain." Blundell herself took up the rear, intending to pick up a full third of the work below decks. Shortly before the hour's close, everyone returned to the bridge. Each carried their own baggage of good and bad news.
Zodiaque's stowaway population had apparently been controlled by cannibalism and the periodic evacuation of air from the cargo hold. They had obviously learned to avoid the crew, and had only experienced an explosion in their population when bountiful providence filled the hold of the ship with freeze-dried produce for shipment to Earth.
"The little beasts must have licked frost from the vapor scavenger lines," said Wade "Some even chewed into the waste conversion unit."
"At least they contributed to it when it churned," said Blundell, laughing when Lentov swallowed audibly.
"About eighty ... percent of the cargo is OK," Decker affirmed.
"Control diagnostics are well within specs," said Wade. "We can still fly this ship."
They looked to Blundell.
"Yes, you knew there had to be more bad news," said the Captain. "Our hull is once again charged like a capacitor -- worse than before. It's unlikely we'll pass through another negatively charged cloud before we meet Talbot, so it won't be safe to get within 200 meters of her."
"Talbot will be within visual range any time now," Lentov said.
"Well, gentlemen," said Blundell, "I've never given the order to abandon ship before, but I have no other option now. Make your preparations."
Lentov frowned. "I disagree."
"We have a mission to finish," Wade chimed in. "Do you think I like this!" Blundell exclaimed. "Do you even know what abandoning ship means? With her hull charged, no one's going to grapple Zodiaque for a tow. We lose our cargo, and I leave behind a friend's body. Zodiaque will become a lost hulk, a Flying Dutchman." She paused. "Even the smelters are more honorable. Rebecca would've told you that. Hell, bits and pieces of Zodiaque may yet have ended in some new Navy sloop. But damn it, ladies, I don't see any other way out!"
"Whoa," said Lentov, gently. Then with a wink, "calm down, Ma'am. All we have to do is tap off the accumulated charge."
"Don't call me 'Ma'am'!" said Blundell. "And ... I won't call you ladies." She sighed. "How do we perform this feat, this legerdemain, Mr. Lentov, without blowing ourselves to hell?"
"I'm not sure," Lentov admitted.
"But ... there's gotta be a way," Decker finished for the First Mate.
Ahead, the sparkling strobes from Talbot were clearly visible as Blundell warned the other ship to keep to station, and that Zodiaque would maintain a discreet distance. Any close maneuvering would be on Blundell's initiative. She also warned the Talbot to arm her laser phalanx and keep it on stand-by. Pieces of Zodiaque might go hurtling in her direction at any moment.
"I can do this alone," Blundell insisted. "You three float over. If this doesn't work ... ."
Lentov cursed in Martian, his eyes narrowing in their dark makeup as he grabbed Blundell by the arm. His burst of red planet jabber encouraged Wade and Decker to follow suit.
"You're going over, Captain," Lentov insisted. "Mr. Decker will take you."
"Zodiaque is my ship!" said Blundell, struggling in their arms. "Damn you! I said Zodiaque is my ship!" She drew a deep breath, deliberately fighting for calm. "I will not," she said slowly, "leave a single one of my crew behind."
"Let her ... go," said Decker. "We should all stay."
"Do you agree?" asked Lentov, loosening his grip on Blundell.
"I don't have much choice," Blundell answered. She wrestled her arms free of Lentov with two quick movements. "There's never been a mutiny on Zodiaque, and I don't intend to let one happen now. Mr. Wade, Mr. Decker, take your stations and await my orders. You too, Mr. Lentov. It's time to get back to work." The tension dissolved slowly as they took their posts.
After giving the problem of the charged hull some thought, Blundell realized that Lentov was right; there was a way to dissipate the charge. Zodiaque's fuel reserves were electrically isolated to prevent unplanned ignition. At least they were supposed to be.
In theory, Zodiaque's engines should provide a neutral discharge channel for a jury-rigged static jumper. When they fired to synchronize with the trajectory of Talbot, Zodiaque's thruster exhaust might just purge the charge from her hull. After the burn there would be an immediate slow build-up, but if they cut all power at the main breakers the instant the thrusters shut down ... . then again, if there were any miscalculation, or if Zodiaque had deteriorated beyond what was already known, spontaneous ignition could blow the ship apart.
When the static jumper had been connected, Wade said, "If we die now, at least we know the ship's not haunted."
"And that Decker wasn't surreptitiously relieving himself in the bilges," Lentov added. "Wha ... what?" said Decker. "You didn't think --"
"Relax, Mr. Decker," Blundell assured him, "he's joking."
"What would you do now, Rebecca?" Blundell asked silently as the others fiddled with the controls, eyes glued to their readouts as columns of green numbers rearranged themselves into the desired configurations. "Captain, my captain. Mars is lost to us. The most I can do now is give these boys their lives. Will anyone remember ... ?" She shuddered. For a second it had been as if a hand fell warmly upon her shoulder, a firm grip, dissolving, ghostly, gone in the instant she turned to see.
Blundell nodded. "Right, gentlemen, we're going in."