There was a light in the sky that didn’t belong. Ryan blinked, and finding that it was still there told his suit to magnify times six. The glass faceplate of his helmet became a screen and he moved it around until he found the small patch of light again. Except it wasn’t just one light, it was four. Four lights, fixed in the same arrangement as the shuttle that had dropped him on this hellish rock, and gliding across the night’s sky at a pace no star could hope to match.
“Jiminy-fucking-cricket!” he shouted. “They’re early, the bastards got here early!” He ran down from the make-shift shelter he’d made in the cliffs and toward the valley where the habitation modules lay in tatters. Ryan couldn’t believe how fast they’d been, he’d only just got the emergency beacon up in March and hadn’t been expecting so much as a supply-drop before August, yet here they were in June. There was roughly four-hundred AUs between him and Mayflower Station and not only had they gotten his signal, but they’d managed to get a rescue crew out to him before he’d had to risk sustaining himself on the moon’s local flora. It was a goddamn miracle, and when he reached the hab unit he glanced back at the blinking steel obelisk that stood atop the hill and said a silent prayer of thanks to it.
Racing through the halls of the old hab he was suddenly aware of how much of it had been reclaimed in such a short amount of time. Thick, violet vegetation was growing in the supply closet where he and Martinez had fooled around during the first week and Commander Zheng’s office, where the two of them had been chewed out for the incident, had such a heavy sediment buildup in front of the door that Ryan wasn’t sure it would have opened even if the power was still working. Upon reaching the lab he slowed to a clumsy tip-toe, skipping and leaping around the various piles of debris the state-of-the-art analysis equipment had become in the blast until he reached the terminal that he’d jury rigged for short-range comms. Crossing two gloved fingers on one hand, he plugged his suit’s mic into the input with the other.
“This is Acting Commander Edward Ryan of Rohan-4’s Exo-Recon Station Alpha. Planetary shuttle on approach, please respond with confirmation that you aren’t a figment of my goddamn imagination.”
A silence stiller than death followed. He’d dreamed this moment a thousand times before, most of them turning to nightmares. Who was to say that this wasn’t another? Then there was a sharp blip on the channel and relief flooded his veins like an opiate. “Acting Commander Ryan, this is Commander Hammond of UNASA vessel Ibn Battuta aboard Planetary Shuttle Aldrin. We were wondering if you’d like a lift off that rock?”
“A-fucking-firmative,” Ryan sputtered trying not to choke on the growing lump in his throat.
The shuttle wasn’t spacious by any means, the size of a small charter bus back on Mars, maybe smaller, but compared to the cave that Ryan had spent the last half-a-year huddled in it might as well have been the Mahal on Olympus Mons. Aside from the grav-couches in the front, it also had a compact, general purpose area in the rear which housed not only a table and chairs but a small kitchenette. “Is that thing stocked?” Ryan asked, taking a seat after being introduced to the crew. Hammond had two junior officers accompanying him, Srivastava, his pilot, and a stunning, blonde medical officer named Beauchamp.
Hammond waved Beauchamp over to the kitchenette to check. She opened the fridge and nodded. “I could sure go for the steak and potatoes if you have it,” said Ryan. He’d endlessly mocked the sorry attempt at one of Earth’s finer delicacies when he’d thought it was the worst thing he could be eating. But after more than a week of subsisting on little more than ketchup and curry packets, he’d longed for the rubbery toughness of that meat-square again.
A few moments later an empty plastic dish was sitting in front of him, clean enough that anyone might have believed there had never been a thing on it. “By Jupiter,” said Ryan, leaning back in his chair. “Haven’t had a meal that good since we slipped beyond the Belt.”
Hammond gave him a nod and a grin. The lines of the older man’s face were sharp and rigid and when he smiled, the expression looked like it was an unfamiliar thing. Like a puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit.
“So what’s next then, Commander?” asked Ryan when the silence in the shuttle’s cabin reached squeamish levels.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Ryan,” said Hammond. “I’m not sure I follow.” Ryan noticed his accent then, he gave each ‘r’ more punch than someone from Earth or Mars might. It took Ryan a couple seconds to pin it, but then he remembered a fling he’d had with a girl from Io and the harsh staccato she’d given to nearly all her words, a hard accent for a hard people.
“I mean, what do we do now? Are you taking me right up to the ship? Do you want to take my incident report first? Samples and nearly all our equipment got chewed up in the fire, but if you wanted to scavenge for some valuables in the wreckage we could do that too.” When neither Hammond or his officers seemed to react much to this, Ryan went on, “I don’t mean to bust your balls here, Commander, but I’d like to get this ball rollin’. Its been six months since I’ve spoken to anyone I know, had a shower, or even watched a goddamn VR, you know?”
Hammond’s face grew stern in a way that looked natural. For a moment, Ryan thought the older man was going to reprimand him for his colorful language the way Zheng used to, but instead he simply folded his hands and said, “I understand, Mr. Ryan, we’ll get your incident report then we’ll head back to the ship.”
Ryan crossed his arms as the man prepared the hover-cam for his testimony. It was just his luck that UNASA would send him the one crew with an autistic commander for his long voyage back to Mayflower Station. He supposed though, it was better than not getting rescued at all, and besides, Beauchamp wasn’t hard on the eyes and a long journey back meant plenty of time to get to know her.
He recounted it all then, starting with what he’d deduced after scroungingup security footage and data records. It was a bad methane scrubber that had thrown the hab’s atmo out of whack and Burton’s burning breakfast that had given the powder-keg the spark it needed when he opened the oven to extinguish it. Ryan himself hadn’t been aware of these unfortunate coincidences at the time of the incident however. He and Martinez had just been getting back from collecting soil samples when the blast sent them flying through the low-gravity and into the nearby cliff. He woke up a few hours later with nothing more than a migraine but Martinez had hit the cliff face just right and split her spine. There was no waking up for her.
It was difficult reliving those moments aloud. Speaking them didn’t feel so much like therapy as it felt like making the last five months real. For so long Ryan had been living with it all in his head and he supposed that, on some level, he’d been hoping that one day he’d just wake up from it. Martinez would be next to him and all of the suffering would have faded like a forgotten nightmare. But now it couldn’t because now it didn’t belong to just him. Now it was palpable, now it was real.
After he’d finished there was a long stretch of silence where Hammond just stared at him. Ryan couldn’t tell whether it was because he’d been so shocked by the tale, if he was waiting for more, or if the man’s inherent strangeness was to blame. But then, seemingly unprovoked, Hammond unfolded his hands and very politely asked, “Is that all then?”
Ryan scratched at the unruly beard that coated the lower half of his face. “Well, I suppose,” he said, eyes narrowing. “Listen, I gotta be honest here, Commander. I—uh—I kinda expected you folks to be a bit more inquisitive about this whole ordeal. I mean, you’re really sure that you don’t need to check the environment for any contamination damage?”
Hammond raised a hand and scratched at the silver dusting at the base of his own chin, just the way Ryan had done. “No,” he said, while Ryan was still stunned into silence. “You’ve already assured us that your make-shift habitation was environmentally sound.”
“And you’re not going to do anything to check?” he said, the heat of the moment bringing him to his feet. “I mean what the fuck happened at UNASA while I was down here? Did procedure go out the goddamn window?” They weren’t words he should be saying to a superior officer but Ryan didn’t really care about a little time in the brig when they reached the ship, especially if it meant getting away from this nutcase.
Hammond didn’t stand to meet his ire, though he blinked up at Ryan with a surprising rapidity that seemed to make the dull hazel of his eyes flicker golden. “Listen son,” he said in a soft tone that sounded as foreign on him as his smile. “We realize the significance of this disaster and we’ll get a team down here to comb the site before heading back to Mayflower Station, but the primary objective of this operation is search and rescue and that means getting you off this rock as soon as possible. Are we clear on that?”
After a long breath Ryan took a seat again. “We’re clear,” he said, shaking his head. “I-I’m sorry, I think I’ve just gone a bit too long without somebody but myself to yell at.”
“I understand,” said Hammond. “You’ll feel better when you’ve had a shower and a good night’s sleep. Now, let’s get you strapped in. Beauchamp, why don’t you lend the man a hand?”
The pretty young medical officer led him to one of the passenger grav-couches and, though he was still familiar enough and physically capable of doing so himself, Ryan let the woman lean over him and secure all his buckles. When she finished, he smiled at her and was slightly perturbed when she didn’t return the favor. He hoped, as she and the rest of the crew strapped in at the control panels in front of him, that Beauchamp wasn’t the only woman aboard the Ibn Battuta.
When the shuttle leapt up from the rocky surface of Rohan-4, Ryan couldn’t help but weep. He’d been drowning, trapped beneath a thick layer of ice and Hammond’s crew had been a hand, punching through and now they were pulling him back to the surface. And when they broke free of gravity’s bonds, the familiar euphoria of null-g cradled Ryan like a mother reunited with her lost child. He was home, he was safe.
“Just going to take a few moments to calculate thrust maneuvers for our rendezvous with the ship. Don’t unstrap quite yet,” Hammond called back from where he and the other two worked at the control consoles. His voice was warbled and his accent was soft over the shuttle’s dedicated radio channel, but Ryan figured it must just be the crummy speakers in his helmet.
“That’d be a bit ham-fisted, don’t you think? I spend all that time struggling to stay alive down there, then die up here from something as stupid as not wearing my seat belt?” If Hammond or the others had heard him, they didn’t respond. It might have bothered him on a normal day, but today was far from normal. He eased back into the comfortable embrace of weightlessness and closed his eyes until, a few seconds later, a bright green flash from his HUD caught his attention. It was a long-range message, incoming from the Ibn Battuta.
It had been such a long time since he’d received a long-range message through his suit that he’d almost forgotten it was possible. When the blast had knocked out the communications relay he hadn’t been able to send or receive anything from the moon’s surface, but now that he was free of Rohan-4’s heavy static interference, his suit’s transceiver didn’t need a relay to broadcast or receive. Curious, he switched his comm channel from the shuttle’s to long-range. It was a video recording, and when he accepted it his helmet’s visor became a screen again, a familiar face appearing front and center.
“–Standard Sol Time. Message Repeats.” Hammond’s image jumped shakily as the video feed started over and he began to speak again, his face sharp and serious. “Attention all potential survivors of Exo-Recon Station Alpha on Rohan-4, this is Commander John Hammond of UNASA vessel Ibn Battuta. While conducting a rescue operation in response to your emergency beacon’s signal, we came across a–” The man paused, concern shaking the foundation of his calloused sternness. “We came across an unidentified flying object moving toward Rohan-4.” The Hammond on the screen paused again and Ryan sat forward, his stomach sinking despite the lack of gravity.
“Upon closer inspection, we were surprised to find that not only does the object appear and operate identical to our planetary shuttle, Aldrin, it also seems to have perfectly replicated the shuttle’s data-logs and has altered them to show myself and two of my crew, Officers Beauchamp and Srivastava, aboard. It is unknown how they achieved this or who they are, but we believe the culprits are using some sort of advanced mimicry technology and have reason to believe that they are—er—extraterrestrial in nature. Please be warned, do not trust any landing vessel that arrives before August 2112 Standard Sol Time. Message repeats.”
Ryan switched the channel off. It was all coming together now like the pieces of a hideous, macabre puzzle. Their early arrival, Hammond’s bevy of eccentricities, hell, he wasn’t even sure he’d heard Beauchamp and Srivastava speak. Nausea churning his insides, Ryan switched back to the shuttle’s channel. “H-h-hammond?” he said, struggling to keep his voice steady. “That accent of yours, I know I’ve heard it before but I—I just can’t pin it. Where was it you said you were from again?”
The Commander didn’t answer, but he and his crew all stopped fiddling with the panels in front of them at once. Then, after a silence stiller then death, the three chairs turned to face Ryan. The things that sat in them didn’t look wholly inhuman, but the golden, cat-like eyes and the low, hungry moans that warbled over his suit’s speakers assured him that they were anything but.