This is a science fiction short story I wrote in 1998. The editors of Asimovs and Fantasy & Science Fiction praised it, but did not purchase it. Neither did anyone else. I am publishing it here under this license: which is more restrictive than the license for this blog.
“Europa the Colour of Blood”
by Erik David Even
As the others recovered, semiconscious, from the trials of acceleration, I kicked off from my perch on the wall and made my way through tangles of emergency netting and oxygenation enab, my destination the nearest exit. I knew a little about craft such as this one, and as long as its panicked ersatz crew were off dealing with some catastrophe, I was going to have a look around.
Aside from the main door, there was but one exit from the chamber, a tiny self-sealing aperture left open probably to facilitate ventilation. I dared not wonder what other ad hoc measures these amateur spacemen had taken to keep their passengers alive; leaving doors open for ventilation could also lead to accumulation of moisture and uncontrolled circulation of dust and detritus. There was no one guarding the crawlspace, as there had been before cast-off. The crew probably assumed their unwelcome guests were still incapacitated. They were, all but one.
I climbed through the aperture and was alone and free — as free as one can be in a square-metre crawlspace. I guided myself cautiously along the tube, unable to shake the sensation I was falling slowly head-first down a well. After about six metres, the crawlspace met a “tee,” its two branches leading up and down in relation to the “floor” of the compartment I had just left.
Recognizing this as a relatively central location, I positioned myself in the center of the “tee,” knees to chest, hands gripping the rail.
Perfect concentration is no real feat for me, after countless years of practice, and my hearing is far more acute than the norm. At first all subtle sounds were obscured by the enormous cacophony of the ship’s systems. I had always imagined spacecraft were quiet, despite their complex viscera of fluid systems and electronics — but everything I knew about astronautics came from the entertainment media, and although many of the programs I had seen were meant to be of a factual nature, I could hardly be considered an expert. I put aside my initial fear that something must be wrong with the ship’s systems. Wait until you know more, I told myself. Concentrate.
I began to separate the noises around me; the sound of fluid forced by its own mass through enab, the hiss of air through synthetic tubing, the buzz of electrical cabling, and the omnipresent vibrations of the vessel’s propulsion systems. Then more subtle sounds; the creaking of alloy components as they cooled from the terrific heat of acceleration, the clicking of tiny switches, the sound of circulating air caught in crevices and hollow components.
Then, the human sounds. In the compartment behind me, the noise of eighty-nine human beings in various stages of consciousness, the low murmur of misery and pain. Hushed voices dry from thirst, quiet sobbing, ragged breath, cloth rubbing against cloth, the chaotic dance of restlessness and delirium. Somewhere below me, not far, more sounds. Dim voices of people I had never seen, the intended passengers of this make-shift ark. Coughing, shoes against steel, a remarkable sense of stillness. Then — a laugh? Quick, quiet, instantly muffled. Weren’t these people aware of the danger we were all in?
Above me, I found what I was looking for, as if my consciousness, blind and without feeling, had sought out my prey by sound alone. Voices arguing, the creaking of emergency netting as it was pulled and stretched, the striking of metal against metal, tools perhaps, and the strange, sinister music of the computers. These people, all male, none older than thirty years, I knew could be no more than fifteen metres away; but the sound of their activity, as it found its way to me through a half-mile of conduit penetrating thick plates of steel, seemed to come from another world. And I suspected that to those frightened young men, their cramped little cockpit was another world, far from the plight of their pathetic charges ensconced in the compartments below.
Little did they know, the young architects of this insane bid for survival, that one more danger lurked the crawlspaces of their leaky break-apart spaceship. Perhaps, with the press of certain death on all sides, they would not care. That would be convenient, but damned unlikely.
I fine tuned my perception, and the noise of their argument coalesced into words. The over-tall engineer with the sunken eyes was yelling at the stocky youth who had been incessantly concerned about oxygen. Their language was mostly technical– was everything on this ship referred to by acronym? There were others present; someone working on the netting, someone fussing with a large sheet of metal, and someone sitting still, only his breath betraying him. This would be the unacknowledged captain, the eldest of the eight crewmen, who never spoke except to suggest a necessary action, “anneal this” or “secure that.” But now he just breathed, and I wondered what thoughts tortured him at that particular moment. The discarding of even basic ship-board procedure? Unchecked radioactivity? The lack of air? The lack of food?
Food. I doubted very much that radioactivity or vacuum could harm me, or so I hoped, never having before encountered such non-terrestrial dangers. And of course, as far as I was concerned, there was food everywhere. But how long would it last? How would I get at it?
My concentration wandered. The sounds of the ship became a single, whole note, like a church choir trapped in the last bar of a hymn, a pulsing roar repeated endlessly. I imagined I could hear sounds from outside the ship, the quiet pulse of space itself. I realized I was losing focus, and brought my consciousness back to the “tee” in the crawlspace. With only the sounds of nearby machinery to accompany me, I headed down the vertical tube toward the passenger berths. It was time to feed.
I had not slept in over ninety hours, and I was beginning to wonder if I would ever sleep again. I felt no fatigue, no sluggishness, only a faint but persistent sense of disorientation. It made no sense, really. Logically, I should be permanently incapacitated, rather than constantly active. But why argue with good fortune?
The crawlspace opened into the ceiling of a larger area, almost qualifying as a corridor. It even had a floor of corrugated foam, useless without gravity. Long red straps buckled to all surfaces supplemented the handrails along the sides of the cylinder. The corridor was about twelve metres long, lined with small thick doors on either side, each I supposed opening on a coffin-like berth. Voices emanated from the compartment beyond, that group perhaps including the enigmatic laughter. The only occupant of the corridor was a crew member, a dark-haired man I had glimpsed only briefly prior to cast-off. He saw me, and brought about his weapon, a short-range concussive wand designed for ship-board combat. I recognized the out-moded device. It had too much kick-back to be effective in zero gravity.
I floated into the corridor and gripped a strap attached to the opposite wall, setting my feet against the “floor.” This put me at a forty-five degree angle to the dark-haired crewman. I glanced behind me. A large airlock-style portal capped the near end of the corridor. From what I had seen of this vessel, there were no dead-ends, just doors into vacuum.
“You.” The dark-haired crewman was speaking at me. “Go back to the ACL. Anyone who can’t stay put doesn’t get water or food.” His speech was sluggish, and I could easily guess why he was hiding in the berth area rather than up top with his mates. His flesh was dry and sallow, his breathing forced. I hoped he was merely exhausted, and not carrying some disease the haphazard medical checks at the Habitat had missed. I had no fear of plague, but I had to be concerned for my food supply.
I looked past him, through the far aperture, and saw only machinery. Somewhere through there, passengers worked with steel and paper, probably preparing food the refugees in the “ACL” would never see. I was not really hungry, but I had to feed now, while I had the opportunity. My troubles had to begin sooner or later, anyway.
I flew faster than thought, an avatar of silence.
Two minutes later, the corpse of the crewman spun slowly down the corridor, settling gently against the airlock door.
I returned to my place amongst the refugees, and considered the ghastly error I had just made. I had fed gluttonously during those last, chaotic hours on Earth, enough to last me for weeks. Now, ten hours out from Habitat, and I risked everything by killing again. The problem was not the need for food, I realized, it was the hunger–the hunger of a man who has fed regularly and richly every night for years, who suddenly finds himself one among the starving. I would have to learn to live with hunger, and feed only when absolutely necessary. Better, I would bide my time, and feed only when a perfect opportunity presented itself.
I was an expert at biding my time.
The first day aboard the ship was a nightmare. Ship! What an extravagant word, to describe eight hastily scavenged interchangeable modules lashed to a twenty year old TA booster frame. One hundred-plus human souls, and me, stacked like corded wood in a flimsy tin projectile headed straight for the second largest gravity well in the solar system. Estimated time to the Jovian system: never, unless some divine being in whom I no longer believed chose to turn spit into caulking, tape into welding, and plastic hose into vacuum-resistant enab. It was hard to believe we were better off than the millions still left back on Earth. But we were.
Some few minutes after my “dinner,” a few of the other refugees began to stir, slipping away from their makeshift berths. As if the rest had been only waiting for someone else to move, suddenly the module was filled with talking, wailing, and coughing, arms and legs in combat with the red straps that hung throughout the cabin, snaring the struggling refugees like divers trapped in kelp. Someone decided to “kick-off” into weightlessness, obviously believing that maneuvering in zero-g was like swimming in water. He slammed violently into some nearby refugees, his arms and legs flailing. A haze of blood exploded into the air, and a fight broke out. A woman started screaming, and somebody produced a knife.
I stayed on my perch, a piece of punched metal welded to the far wall as a base for some straps. I watched the blood billow into the air in a cloud; tendrils began to form as the chaotic air currents in the chamber whipped the cloud into fractal shapes, like storms on a satellite weather map. The world faded; no sound, no sensation, just the image of the blood caught in the air like leaves in a whirlpool, the smell of blood in my nostrils, the taste of it on my tongue.
Crack! Crack! Two concussive blasts, fired point-blank into the center of the fray; in the aperture, straps wrapped around their wrists, were the Captain and two crewmen, the one with the wand braced against the lip of the opening. The chamber quieted immediately. The screaming woman’s companions covered her with their arms and reduced her noise to a quiet keening.
The man with the knife was jerking about uncontrollably, one hand gripping a strap, the other clenching his weapon, his knees pulled up into his chest, where the concussive blast had hit. He had no idea how to maneuver in zero-g, and his flailing to stop erratically bouncing about was only adding to the problem. Others were experiencing the same dilemma, but they had their hands free.
“Everyone relax!” the second crewman shouted. “Relax your bodies, and stop trying to move around! And quiet down, your screaming wastes air!”
The man with the knife, a short Caucasian in a filthy worksuit, settled next to the body of the woman, bright crimson blood bubbling out a gash across her chest. I made myself concentrate on the crewmen.
The Captain pushed his way to the front, and hanging at an off angle from the edge of the aperture, surveyed the scene before him. His eyes glanced over the man with the knife, and to the armed crewman he said, “get that.”
The crewman put his arm over his nose and mouth to keep from breathing in blood, and launched himself toward the assailant. The man slid away leaving a smear of crimson on the chamber floor, maintaining control by gripping the wounded woman’s body. He screamed something unintelligible, and pointed the knife at the crewman. The crewman hit the floor crouched, yanking down hard on a strap to keep from bouncing. He stuck his wand toward the man’s chest and fired, sending the man sliding along the curved floor, arms flailing out for something to grab, until he slammed into a steel plate near the one upon which I was crouched. His knife spun lazily in the air near the wounded woman; the crewman deftly snatched it and passed it to the Captain.
The Captain spoke quickly to each of the crewmen in turn; “restrain him” and “check her.” As the first crewman moved cautiously toward his now-unarmed opponent, I did something I would not understand until later. I pushed off from my perch over to where the man laid, grabbed him and forced his arms around behind his back. He began to yell and struggle, but I hooked my right leg around the edge of the plate, and there was no way he could break free from my grip. The crewman moved up and put the business end of his wand against the man’s throat, which put an end to the yelling.
The Captain’s eyes passed over me for a mere instant, then the man, and he seemed to stare off into space as he spoke.
“Put him out,” the Captain said.
The crewman turned to look at him, but did not move.
“Put him out,” the Captain repeated.
The others had begun to catch on to what he meant. The man began to scream something like “oh my god, you can’t be serious,” except there was more profanity involved. The other refugees became very, very quiet, and even the moaning and keening of the children and the sick died away.
The Captain looked at the second crewman, who was crouched by the woman’s body, his head pulled back to avoid the dissipating cloud of blood. “She’s dead,” the crewman said.
“Then she goes too. Out.”
Gripping his wrists with one hand, I encircled my captive’s throat, only letting him have air when he behaved himself, crushing in hard if he struggled. The crewman maneuvered the woman’s body through the aperture as I followed behind, my prisoner in tow. The Captain spoke to the refugees.
“Does anyone else have a weapon?” There was no response. “Stay absolutely still, and the ventilators will clean the blood out of the air.” He turned to follow us, then turned back. “Check the sick; if there are any more corpses, they have to be put out.” Then he was gone down the crawlspace.
By this time, the crewmen were maneuvering the woman through the “tee,” down toward the corridor with the airlock. My captive was absolutely terrified, but had learned not to attempt to speak or struggle. As I pushed him down toward the corridor, the other crewmen must have reached the airlock. I heard one of them tell the other that the “airlock active” light was on. They relayed this information up to the captain, who squeezed his way past me (my captive made a move to lunge toward the captain, and I almost broke his neck), and disappeared into the corridor below.
Their resulting conversation, of which I overheard every word, told me three things; that the unfortunate crewman had not yet been missed; that the Captain was prepared to accept that the airlock had spontaneously activated due to a malfunction; and that when I had used the airlock to rid myself of the unfortunate crewman’s corpse, I had unnecessarily ejected twenty-seven and a half cubic metres of breathable air, an error the Captain had no intention of repeating with my prisoner and his victim.
I will not dwell on the details of our journey’s first “walking of the plank.” I knew the condemned man’s screams could be heard in the ACL above us, which I am sure was the Captain’s intention. After we sealed the man and the corpse in the airlock, the Captain ordered me above, and I obliged. Halfway up to the “tee” I could hear the air begin to evacuate from the chamber as it was pulled into storage tanks somewhere in the ship’s viscera. I looked down, and saw the two crewman averting their eyes from the airlock’s small round window, one covering his face with his arm. The Captain stared straight into the window, moving only when the time came to open the airlock’s outer door. I resumed my journey to my perch, not wishing to encounter the Captain on his way back.
The Captain came to the ACL a few hours later, accompanied as always by two of his men. He looked at me for a long moment, as his cronies waved their wands about and got everyone’s attention. The he talked for several minutes, laying out the ground rules for our continued presence on ship. I had not known the man could form complete sentences.
He made it clear that we were unwelcome, and that he had taken refugees only at the insistence of the Habitat authorities, who would not let them leave if they did not relieve the orbiting station of as many of the teeming masses as they could hold. Therefore, any breach of the rules, no matter how small, would be answered by an invitation to “get out and walk.” The Captain had already proven his readiness to back up his threats.
Food and water would be distributed equally amongst the refugees, no matter their age or state of health. Unwanted food, or food for those unable to eat, would be consumed by the crew. There would be no sharing or redistribution of rations.
There would be no medical care. Anyone with a pulse would be offered food and water. Anyone without a pulse would be ejected.
There would be no cannibalism. Ironically, he was looking in my direction as he laid down this rule. I was sure it was just a coincidence.
No one would leave the ACL without permission. No fighting, no yelling, no spitting, et cetera. A crewman would explain the toilet accommodations. Refugees would be selected to distribute food.
Then he said, “We’re hoping, when we get to Europa, to find a larger ship. If we do, and where we’ll go in it if it’s there, I have no idea. But that’s where we’re going. We’re not turning around, we’re not changing course. If you don’t like it, you can get out now and walk back.”
He turned and disappeared into the ship’s bowels.
The first month I worked very carefully on developing a relationship with the crew. I did not want to get too close, and become conspicuous, but I wanted to be considered trustworthy and dependable. I realized why I had acted so instinctively in grappling the murderer. I did not want to be expendable. I wanted to have value to those who decided life and death on this ship.
The closest thing to a friend I made was a crewmember called Brown. He was very young, only 19, but had served with the Captain under the European Authority. We talked a bit about our mutual homeland, Britain, but rarely about anything of consequence. I suppressed the urge to dig for information about the missing crewman. He was never mentioned in my presence, nor on those occasions when I eavesdropped on activity above or below. I supposed they imagined he had used the airlock to commit suicide.
Once, as I helped Brown distribute food among the refugees, he stopped to console a young Hispanic girl about his own age. He revealed that he had been to Europa Station, and soon became the object of everyone’s attention. He described the station, its habitat, and the people who lived in it. He spoke of the huge extra-solar spacecraft built there, and how one of these would carry us and other refugees to another star system.
He described the beauty of the moon Europa, of how the earliest probes had failed to capture the breathtaking play of colors across her surface. He told of how, on those rare occasions when the sun, there merely the brightest star in the sky, would be seen to disappear behind Europa’s smooth icy surface, lights like those of a hundred human cities would appear across the dark expanse of her night side. Then, in the final moments before the sun would set entirely, the lights would be extinguished by a rushing tide of red, the ice turned to the colour of blood.
I realized that our frenzied flight from the Habitat had deprived us of an irretrievable last opportunity; to look back and see the Earth for one final time, as the lights of her cities faded forever, extinguished by a flowing tide of blood.
As for what I did with my share of the food and water, I decided to use it to ensure my next meal. A woman and her young daughter had claimed a perch about a metre from mine. The child was only nine or ten years old, and from the beginning was pale and feverish. I surreptitiously passed my rations to the mother, indicating they were to be consumed by her child. I was sure she wondered how I was staying alive, but I knew she would keep silent, remembering the draconian penalty for food-sharing.
I would keep the child alive for eight or ten weeks, until the hunger became unbearable. Then, when they doused the lights so the refugees could sleep, I would feed from her, taking only enough to kill her. The death would be attributed to malnutrition or illness, and a bruise or welt on the ankle or thigh would certainly not be noticed. She would be ejected, and I would plan for my next victim.
I hated it. It was a ghastly, awful plan, and I hated myself for thinking of it. I had never before “fattened” a victim for the kill. I had never before victimized a child. And it had been a long time since I had killed someone I had known personally.
And I really felt I knew this child. By the end of the fourth week, I felt I knew everyone in that chamber. They shared their stories, their fears, and their few weak hopes. I never talked, but I listened. Even during the four or six hours out of twenty I pretended to sleep, I listened.
I had spent much of my life observing humans, hunting them, but I had never felt close to any until then. I began to remember what it was like to be human, to be considered one amongst a group. My kind never congregated, and I had been alone a very long time.
Here, we were all in the same boat, pardon the expression.
It would not stop me from killing the child.
My first real scare came in the ninth week, when my hunger was growing inside me like a gnawing animal. There had been eight deaths, but nine expulsions; the last was a man who had gotten a little too friendly with an unwilling young female refugee. (This girl was to create quite a bit of trouble amongst the crew, being by far the most attractive female aboard.) But when the Captain decided to add attempted rape to the list of capital crimes, the rapist proved remarkably clever at evading capture. My assistance proved necessary, and apparently this second feat of prodigious strength made an impression, for soon I was enlisted to perform heavy labor around the ship.
This gave me my first opportunity to see the rest of the vessel, and I was sorry I had not stayed in ignorance with my fellow refugees. This was the short list of our woes; several steady breaches in the exterior hulls of the pressurized modules; constant clogging of the air re-circulation system; seized or otherwise damaged mechanical systems all over the ship, most notably inter-modular apertures; and the persistent spread of a mossy brown growth along water conduits and in the food storage module.
It was at this time that I learned an interesting little fact about the “airlock activation indicator.” It indicated whether the airlock was activated from the inside or the outside. The crew knew the missing crewman had been murdered.
There were only three parts of the vessel I had not seen; the module below containing our mysterious guests, the “intended” passengers; the cockpit, or command module, above; and one of the large storage pods near the rear of the ship. This last I did not get to see because of my little scare.
I was asked to help maneuver a massy piece of machinery back to this storage module. Two crewmen helped steer at the front and back while Brown and I pushed or pulled on the middle to accelerate or decelerate this big hunk of metal through the weightless environment. In addition to malnutrition and exhaustion, the crew were also feeling the effects of zero-g atrophy, the symptoms of which I was careful to emulate. Moving this machine was a slow, excruciating process, and the pain from my hunger helped me simulate the pain of exertion.
We approached the aperture to what was apparently a long plastic tunnel leading to the storage pod. We settled the machine against a wall and dangled panting from straps as a crewman opened the aperture.
The tunnel had a window. And the window was facing the sun.
To the crewmen, the sunlight must have been nothing, a few dust motes glittering in the air and a bright circle on the opposite tunnel wall. To me, it was a blinding band of white hot fire, its feeble light burning my eyes and face. I screamed hoarsely and flew back uncontrollably, my arms shielding my eyes.
Brown jumped at me, his arms outstretched. I almost batted him away, and might have killed him if I had. Instead I contracted into a ball, trying to face away from the light, and let him grab me and examine my face and body.
“What’s wrong?” he kept demanding, shaking me to get an answer.
The pain ebbed, and as soon as I could answer, I babbled some story about blinding headaches and painful hunger (both of which, at this point, were quite true), and begged to be allowed to return up fore. I think this ended any suspicion about my unusual health and strength. I was careful afterwards to avoid both the aft of the ship and the command module, which would undoubtedly also have a window.
Week fifteen. My hunger was incessant and excruciating. The pain had dulled to an aching throb in my gut, but the need was overwhelming, consuming every cell of my starving, withering body. I huddled in a foetal ball, wrapped in packing blankets and strapped to my perch in the ACL. I did not even pretend to eat my food anymore, and those who distributed rations knew to just give them to the little girl. No one really feared expulsion anymore.
My condition was the least of anyone’s problems. The atmosphere throughout the ship was hot, fetid, and moist. It had become my primary responsibility to scrape the stinking, mucous-like sheets of gunk out of the deteriorating atmosphere filters, a chore that now needed doing every few hours. In the days since my incapacitation by malnutrition, this task was not getting done. Bodies waited for days for expulsion, lashed to the wall at a deserted end of the ACL.
The toilets had failed, and the passenger’s waste was collected in makeshift hose-and-bag apparatuses, to be fed into the over-burdened water distiller. Despite our high attrition rate, the food supplies only dwindled. The water was scummy and viscous. The crew were too busy to police the ACL, and fights and attacks broke out.
The crew had lost two members; one to a respiratory illness, the other in a fatal fight over the pretty girl. When the Captain opted to let the murderous crewman live, there had been a near-mutiny amongst the refugees. But the crewmen were healthier, with more food, and a monopoly on the medication. And they were armed.
Grand total so far; twenty-nine refugees dead from malnutrition or disease, two executed, one murdered; one crewman dead from disease, one murdered, one “missing.” And one night I heard the below airlock activated, the one only ever used for expulsions. There was no sound of a struggle. In the next few days I confirmed that all the remaining crewmembers were still aboard, and I had to assume that our unseen, unheard guests “downstairs” had suffered a casualty.
Sometimes, as my health deteriorated and I spent more and more time huddled on my perch, Brown would come to visit me. He seemed very frightened, and would furtively describe the crew’s activities to me as if he feared his confessions would be discovered. Apparently several of the ship’s power generators had been damaged by impact with space-borne debris, and someone needed to go out every few hours and make manual adjustments. Brown was low man on the totem pole, and was usually chosen for this hazardous duty. He hated the extravehicular trips, and did not trust the outdated spacesuit he was forced to wear. But any lapse in maintenance on the damaged generators would mean frozen death for everyone aboard.
Once, during one of these visits, I demanded of Brown to tell me what we were doing on this damned ship. I grabbed at him feebly, although even in my weakened state I must have seemed amazingly powerful. What did we expect to find on Europa, I asked him, except the same slow death we would have found on Earth?
Brown was distressed. I think that during my stronger days, he had counted on me for a bit of moral support, and now I seemed to have lost all spirit. “Every day that we still breathe, there’s hope,” he told me. “I don’t know if there will be a ship on Europa. I don’t know if we’ll even be able to get on that ship, if it’s there! And I don’t know if there is anywhere for that ship to go.
“Maybe this is all futile. They might just kill us at Europa, like they almost killed you refugees at the Habitat. But we’re still alive. Don’t you see? There’s always hope!”
Brown stopped visiting, and shortly thereafter I fell into total uselessness.
I knew that physically my problems had a simple solution. Unlike several of my fellow refugees, who would probably die even if given immediate food and medical attention, my “illness” would be cured instantly if I fed. I had starved before, and I knew it took only one human life to restore me to perfect health. So why had I waited so many weeks, refusing to feed, until I became a useless husk?
I was depressed. It was that simple. I had no more hope. There was nothing waiting for me at Europa. How could one of my kind survive in a community of only a few hundred or a few thousand? I would become the hunted. I would be destroyed.
So I wrapped myself like a corpse and waited for the end.
One evening, when the lights were dimmed and the refugees mumbled and wept in fitful sleep, I awoke as if from a fever. My depression just broke, like the snapping of bonds from around my body. My hunger had become a low keening noise in my throat, and suddenly my vision was sharp, my ears alert, my muscles coiling under my skin. There was no thought or reason. I wanted to live. I wanted to feed.
I slipped free of my strapping and leaned out to grasp the neighboring ledge. A quick look around convinced me I was unobserved. The child was wrapped in a blanket, surrounded by her sleeping mother’s arms. Her leg and foot protruded over the ledge. I grabbed them, bit in, and began to feed.
Nausea filled my throat– I tore away from the girl spitting and hissing, her blood clotting in my throat. She was dead.
Gagging and coughing violently, I pushed off from the perch, flying backwards into the sea of red straps filling the chamber. Blood filled my nose and mouth, the rancid blood of a corpse, but blood nonetheless. Any shred of human reason was gone. I reached for the nearest victim, I had no idea who, and gripping their neck in one hand, I ripped away the tattered clothing with the other, and plunged my teeth into the heaving flesh of the chest. Sweet fresh blood welled into my mouth, and I fed.
The mother of the girl must have awakened; she began screaming, her daughter’s body still in her arms. The panicked thrashing and hoarse whelping of my victim was waking the others as well, but I did not care. I sucked the life out through the gash in the chest, and felt my strength returning, my flesh becoming sleek and my muscles defined. Power roared through me, from my throat into my extremities. My sanity began to return, and I tossed the wasted husk aside. Gripping a strap and wiping my lips with my arm, I looked into eyes fraught with terror. Billows of blood surrounded me in a satanic halo, leaving patterns of crimson drops on my face and arms.
A sharp blow struck me in the side, and as I swung around to break my momentum I saw a crewman in the aperture. He crouched there spider-like against the rim, waiting for his wand to recharge. I moved much faster than he could have possibly expected, and then I was on him, crushing his neck in my hand and wrenching the wand from him. Some shred of reason in me left him alive. I tossed him behind me into the ACL and pushed off down the crawlspace.
At the tee, I briefly considered my options. Above, a conduit to fore and aft sections, and beyond that the command module. Below, the airlock we affectionately referred to as “The Plank,” and the berths of unseen passengers.
Where was I going to go? What the bloody hell did I think I was doing? I had no doubt that the crew, under the deft leadership of Captain Monosyllable, would soon find the resources to render me incapacitated or dead. I was sure there was a real projectile weapon somewhere on board, and a single burst from a modern machine pistol could blow my head right off. I had managed to take a hopeless situation, and in three minutes time render it impossible.
I had no more time to think — the cries from the ACL were drawing attention from the persons upstairs. I shot down into the lower corridor, and bouncing from the floor onto the airlock door, I launched myself along the tube and into lands unknown.
The first chamber was dark, lined with tiny lights from equipment set in rows of metal racks. The chamber formed an “ell,” leading to a large intra-modular aperture. The little window in the aperture was blocked on the other side, and I could only hope I was not about to be exposed to sunlight. I forced open the aperture, and looked in on a large, well-lighted windowless module.
Comfortable looking cots lined the walls. There was a mini-kitchen, and a working toilet. The air was just as bad as anywhere else on the ship, but I could see clear plastic containers of clean water, and a meagre supply of food that seemed downright opulent compared to what we were getting upstairs.
I was so downright furious at what I was seeing that I almost forgot my predicament. I also failed to notice the occupants of the module, until one spoke to me. He was an older Caucasian gentleman, looking rather well-fed, and dressed in clean clothes. There was a younger man, and a young girl who would not have helped the situation upstairs any if some of the male refugees had known about her. There were a few others, too, six in all, sharing almost half as much room that had been allotted to ninety upstairs.
I did not hear what the older man said, and did not care. I could hear the crewmen coming. Ahead at the far end of the module was an aperture. An airlock. A dead end.
I looked about frantically for any other means of egress. The other aperture was the only way out. The crewmen would arrive any instant. I decided I could force my way past them and back up the conduit — the stun rods could not stop me, and the crew were weak from hunger and g-sickness. I tried to calm myself, and take this one step at a time. I prepared to leap from the airlock door and project myself into my attackers.
It was the first thing around the corner of the “ell.” Clutched in the hand of the leading crewmember. A military-style sniper rifle.
That had not made an appearance during the hunt for the rapist. I was very special indeed.
I panicked. My thoughts were of an explosive smart-shell vaporizing my head, and naught else. I activated the airlock aperture, and while the crewmen were still shouting for the passengers to move out of the way, I slipped inside and shut the door.
The airlock was small, cold, and dark, a smooth metal chamber like the inside of an oil barrel. I peered through the aperture window at my assailants. The armed crewman was leading the Captain and four others toward me, rather lackadaisically, I thought. They must have believed me trapped, all set for my punishment. Brown was not there.
The Captain stopped in front of the window and looked at me. The armed crewman seemed amused by my predicament, but the Captain was not. Perhaps he would have spoken with me, if I had given him the chance. But I knew there was no point, there were too many witnesses to what I had done. Very soon they would know exactly what I was, if they had not figured it out already. Even if they did not believe such creatures as me existed, it would become glaringly apparent under the slightest experimentation.
I knew I had only one option, and not much of one at that. I reached over, and activated the exterior airlock door.
Air exploded from the chamber. I was gripping a handle mounted beside the aperture, and with my newly restored strength I was able to retain my position. Instinctively, I shut my eyes and held my breath.
All sound died away, and a few last vibrations passed through my hand from the cold metal handle. There was a sharp pain in my ears, which ended abruptly. A strange sensation began on my exposed skin, and spread under my clothes. It was like being dipped in icy water, but also like having one’s skin sucked dry by the sun. At first I was afraid there was sunlight streaming in through the open portal, but there was no real pain, no burning. My skin turned numb, yet felt hard and brittle, like burnt leather.
I released my breath and the air was pulled violently out. The burning in my lungs was like the pain in my ears, short and brief. But I could not shake the sensation I was suffocating or drowning. I was still afraid to open my eyes.
The urge to breathe soon passed, as did the chill. I was hanging in weightlessness off the icy metal handle, my eyes clamped shut and my heart still rabbiting in my chest. It occurred to me that the crewmen might be suiting up, preparing to open the airlock door and finish me off.
I opened my eyes. My eyeballs were tight and achy, my vision blurred. It was exactly like… a dim memory of life… it was exactly like leaving one’s contact lenses in too long. I reached up with my other hand and rubbed at my eyes, and then peered into two more eyes staring at me through the window.
It was the captain, and he was horrified. How long had I been exposed to vacuum? One minute? Two? And not only had I not suffered spontaneous decompression, but now I was opening my eyes and looking about! I was proud to be the first person on the ship to elicit an emotional response from the Captain.
Well, eventually they would come to their senses, so I had to act while I could. I turned around, and looked out into space. Vertigo returned — it felt like I was looking down into the sky, rather than up. I kicked off gently and floated to the opposite end of the airlock. My vision was clearing, and I peered over the edge and out across the exterior surface of the module.
There was no sunlight; it was on the other side of the ship. Thank God.
I decided to make my way along the exterior of the ship until I found a way into the aft cargo module. It was dark, with no windows I could see, and maybe they would not look there right away. Also, I might find a weapon there.
Numerous protrusions and handholds littered the outside surface of the module, and with some practice I was able to navigate my way along. I was rather conservative with the risks I took. I did not want to lose my grip and end up orbiting my old enemy the Sun for all eternity. I knew I had to keep in the “lee” of the ship, away from the sunlight. This meant a straight course aft, altering my way only to move along the plastic conduits that joined the larger modules.
It was a slow and painful process. The urge to breathe came and went in fits, and I had to blink constantly to keep ice crystals out of my eyes. Every surface on the ship felt frozen solid — it made me wonder why we had such a problem with heat in the living modules. Once I had to rip my hand from a piece of metal, leaving a frozen chunk of flesh behind.
But there was no pain. The blood of my victim still coursed fresh through me.
I was almost to the aft edge of the module adjacent to the cargo container. There was the airlock I wanted, not seven metres away.
Suddenly, I felt an unaccustomed vibration through the hull, and the feeling that I would fall to my right if I did not hold on. The stars, fixed about me all this time, began to wheel overhead.
They were spinning the ship. They were turning me toward the sun.
Could they have possibly known my weakness? Had they figured out what I was from the incoherent descriptions of the other refugees? Or were they up to something else, unaware that this in itself would destroy me utterly?
I began to crawl against the ship’s spin, but I knew right away it was hopeless; the ship was spinning too fast, and I could not run forever. Could I leap the seven metres, and get through the airlock in time? It was my only chance!
Even as I decided, the sun appeared, shooting over the far edge of the module, obliterating the nearby stars, and casting her pale brilliance across the sheet metal of the ship’s exterior. My first thought, improbably, was that in the sunlight the metal of the ship’s hull looked wet, like a shimmering mirage.
My second thought was that I was not dead.
There was no pain, except the sharp stinging brightness in my eyes. No burning, except for the desiccating cold of the vacuum. No bursting into flame. No screams of writhing, agonizing death.
Soon it dawned on me, with total amazement, that I could see at all. For creatures of my ilk, looking into the sun, even at the merest break of dawn, was like staring wide-eyed into a klieg lamp at six centimetres. Now, I was just looking at the thing, burning bright but bearably in a pitch-black sky. It occurred to me, what would this sun look like to a human? Just “the brightest star in the sky?”
We were too far away!
If I could have laughed at that moment, I would have fallen over in hysterics. As it was, I clamped my foot under a protrusion and danced around in little circles, waving my arms. It was foolhardy, but at that moment I did not feel that anything could kill me. I just wanted to laugh and laugh. I waved my fist at the sun, which I had not laid eyes on directly in one hundred and fifty years. This is what the sun looked like to a human on Earth, a bright silver coin, giving warmth and light rather than fire and death. I was getting my one last look. Maybe she was apologizing for hunting me all those years, and just wanted to say good-bye.
I do not know how long I was out there. The ship had stopped spinning when the sun came into view, and I had once again forgotten my predicament.
I noticed my companion just in time. A crewman in a spacesuit, walking toward me along the hull, about four meters away. I had no idea where he came from, but he was moving a lot faster than I could. He had a wand, which out here would be extraordinarily dangerous — all he had to do was knock me loose, and I was doomed.
I could not see through his face plate in the glaring sunlight, but I imagined he was over his astonishment at seeing someone traipse about in space without a suit. He moved toward me quite purposefully and fearlessly, which was his undoing. As soon as he was in wand range, I shot forward and jammed my fingers through the glass of his face plate.
I was surprised; I broke my hand. He was surprised; he died almost instantly.
I untethered his suit, and tossed him into space. And as I inaugurated the Sun’s tiniest, fleshiest planetoid, I suddenly knew what I would do. As I say, my best ideas come without thinking, without my even realizing what they are. I watched him spin off into nothingness, and commenced my slow journey to the airlock. My hand was already healing.
The storage module was cold, dark, and quiet. Well, of course it was quiet, there was no air — I had let it all out when I opened the airlock. In the darkness I could make out several large storage containers, some tanks, a lot of junked equipment, and a row of spacesuits in various stages of repair.
I moved over to the spacesuits, and my idea suddenly became crystal clear, like a revelation from God. I would live, after all.
He came when I called him, speaking through the intercom. Four crewmen came with him. Brown was amongst them, thank God– I was afraid it had been him outside the ship. He had said they sent him on all the dangerous missions.
The Captain had the sniper rifle. I held my hands above my head as they entered the lighted, repressurized storage module.
He saw immediately what I had done.
Shattered bits of the spacesuit helmets floated in the re-circulated air. Electronic guts poured out through gashes in their chests. Patches and spare parts were already on their long, slow way to Jupiter. And I could tell from the look on the Captain’s face that there were no other suits on the ship.
He was ready to blow me to pieces where I floated– I had to speak quickly.
“If you kill me now with that gun, we will all die,” I said. I wanted him to know that the gun could kill me, so he would not feel compelled to experiment. “I have destroyed every spacesuit on this ship. You have seen that I can survive outside the ship. I am the only one who can make adjustments to the damaged power generators.
“You must let me live.”
All this I said quickly, without pause. I had to make the situation very clear to him. My life, all of our lives, rested in his hands.
He said nothing, but looked at me a long time. His crewmates, terrified or infuriated, knew to keep quiet. They waited, like I waited, for judgment.
It was hard to read the captain’s face, and I was afraid he would decide against me without warning. “I do not have to kill in order to feed,” I said. “I believe it would be worth a few… donations… from the healthier passengers to keep all of us alive.” I almost smiled; those downstairs passengers had been sucking our blood long enough.
He looked right into me, his eyes like the glassy wet steel of the ship’s hull. Then he spoke, his voice quiet but harsh. “Why bother?” he asked. “We’ll just kill you when we get to Europa. There is no hope for you, no future.”
He had lowered his gun, but he aimed his words like deadly projectiles. “There aren’t enough of us for you to feed on. There will never be enough, now. And even if we could preserve your life,” he spat the word with venom, “why would we? Why would we bring with us the worst of what we left behind?”
I could not answer that. But I knew why I wanted to live.
I spoke past the Captain, to my friend Brown, stricken with fear and wonder as he hung in the aperture. “So most likely I will die when we reach Europa. So, most likely, will you. You say I have nowhere to go; again, most likely, neither do you.
“But I am still alive.” I smiled. “There’s always hope.”