The clanging sound had been there for several minutes before Kelly really noticed it. Everything on the damn ship rattled or vibrated or squealed. She looked around, floating there in the cramped cylinder of the work habitat, trying to figure out where the new noise came from. It sounded like something banging on the outside of the hull. How the hell could that be?
Maybe some part of the comm rig knocked loose in the meteor strike, or a solar cell was flapping around. Power was certainly down, although she expected that this far out. Some damn thing was broken out there. She laddered herself along the grabs and flew aft to press her ear against the curving aluminium bulkhead. Whatever had come loose was only centimetres from her head, out there in the void of space. Bang, tap, tap, tap, tap, bang …
Which made no sense. There obviously couldn’t be something just flapping around. It came to her it must be Richards. Somehow still alive and trying to signal to her by banging on the hull. But, she’d seen him through the observation ports, drifting away after the meteor – or whatever the hell it was – struck. Seen him tumbling head-over-heels into space, umbilical flailing around and venting 02. He was alive then, judging by the way he waved his arms around and kicked his legs. But they’d lost comms. She’d never know how long he’d lasted out there. Him and the Ares II’s only EVA suit.
She zoomed herself back up to the flight deck, to see if anything was visible from the ports now. She could make out Mars quite clearly: a definite circle, reddy-brown, dead ahead. But she needed to see the other way, back along the fuselage. Damn shame the meteor strike had taken out the steerable cameras too. She pressed her face against the carbonplex window, trying to make out what had come loose. Earth would need to know. Damn it, she needed to know. This thrown-together ship was the only thing keeping her alive.
She could see something just visible in the distorted glass at the edge of the window, grey and snake-like, flapping to-and-fro. What the hell was that? The other end of Richard’s umbilical, she guessed.
She flipped open the comms link to report the situation to Earth. Even if they replied immediately it would be thirty minutes before she got a response. With Earth on the other side of the sun, communications were fuzzy anyway. She hadn’t had a reply for two days now. Still, she sent in her report, trying to sound calm, matter-of-fact. She sat and waited for a response, knowing there was no point but craving some word anyway. With Richards gone she was utterly alone. More alone than any other human had ever been. She tried not to think about it. All she heard from the comm was the background hiss of the void.
Damn mission has been cursed from the start. Thrown together in too much of a hurry, that was the problem. Earth had lost contact with the Ares I as it neared Mars and suddenly they needed a rescue mission. Ares II wasn’t supposed to be commissioned for another year, but they’d fast-tracked it into service, only two of its five pods habitable. Sent she and Richards off against all the rules to find out what the hell had happened to the first manned mission to Mars.
While she waited, she thought once again about the distress signals they’d received from Bohanna, Achebe, Jones, Edrickson and Tzu on the Ares I. Their frantic, garbled screaming had become the soundtrack to her nightmares. What the hell had happened to them? They were the sanest people she knew. The psychological effects of prolonged spaceflight and confinement were well understood, sure. Still, it sounded like all five had flipped at the same moment.
Their insane ramblings replayed in her head now. Their words had been clear enough once the techs defuzzed the signal. Out there … vast! My God, it’s … that eye, that eye looking in at us …
That was Bohanna. Screaming. Nothing ever phased Bohanna. The skipper of the Ares I was the most laid-back person Kelly had ever met. There’d been trouble from fundamentalists before they blasted off, a religious sect raving about them invading God’s domain or some such bullshit. Police said they were dangerous people, fanatics. Instead of ignoring them, Bohanna had met with them, explained the true nature of space from an astrophysicist’s perspective. A stupid, futile thing to do but he’d enjoyed every moment of it, despite the crazies’ warnings and threats. And six months later, there he was, screaming all that gibberish into the comm.
She looked up. The banging had stopped. Maybe something had worked itself loose. But how could that be? She shook her head to put it out of her mind. She needed to stay focussed and she needed to stay busy. Some mass hysteria had swept through the first ship. Her job was to get out there, find out what had happened then slingshot back to Earth with the facts.
Then the banging started again. Alarm thumped through her. It had moved. How could it have moved? It came from over on the port side now. Her throat squeezed dry. She berated herself for being so jumpy. Was this how it had started on the Ares I? Some minor malfunction, some little sound sending their imaginations off into overdrive? She wasn’t going to let it happen to her. It had to be Richards, still out there somehow. Maybe he’d managed to use the umbilical to propel himself back to the ship. That must be it. She had to open the hatch for him immediately, haul him inside.
They didn’t have another EVA rig but they did have vacuum suits, in case the ship depressurised. It would keep her alive for long enough. She wouldn’t have thrusters but she could pull herself along the fuselage, grab Richard’s umbilical. It was risky, but they’d trained to do worse. Nothing could go wrong if she tethered herself. The thought of no longer being alone made her heart pound with excitement.
She thought about telling Earth what she was about to do. Then decided against it. Probably best the people waiting back there didn’t know.
She shrugged her way into the suit. They’d practised the procedure a thousand times back on Earth. The suit felt uncomfortable, pinching her limbs and restricting her movements. She ignored it. With the hatch access sealed off from the rest of the ship she pumped the air out to avoid explosive decompression, tethered herself, then instructed the hatch to unseal. When it was open, she pushed herself through.
The vastness of space yawned around her. After the cramped quarters of the ship, the sight of it made her dizzy, stretching off to infinity in all directions. She was an insignificant mote in these fathomless gulfs. It felt like the unblinking stars stared at her from every direction.
She pushed it all out of her mind. Focus. She had to find Richards. She faced forwards, looking along the smooth metal curves of the ship, Mars dead ahead. She began to twirl herself around to look for him. The comms array was just to her left. Or it should have been. But it had been sheered off the hull by some immense force. A few cables were left, hanging loose from the fuselage like dead worms. Her communications had been going nowhere. How long had they been going nowhere?
She pivoted further around, and then she saw it.
The vast being that had attached itself to the back of the Ares regarded her with a single, enormous eye. It dwarfed the ship. Its shape and size were hard to grasp against the darkness of space. But the lights of the Ares, and the way the being eclipsed the background stars, suggested an ovoid bulk, grey and ancient as moon rock. It lashed countless appendages around, tentacles that ended with a curved claw the size of her body. One claw skittered across the smooth hull beside her, trying to gain a hold, trying to break in through the metal.
She knew the sound it would be making in there. Bang, tap, tap, tap, tap, bang. Had it been out here all along, hooked onto the ship while she worked and slept inside, oblivious?
She stared at the monstrosity while her mind reeled. No, it couldn’t be. Such a creature didn’t exist. Could not exist. Some small, logical part of her brain still worked. The prolonged isolation had affected her after all. She’d listened too long to the babbling of the crew of the Ares I. To Bohanna’s last words. Space is theirs, not ours! Always theirs!
She had to get back inside, seal the hatch, inform Earth. She had to think. But before she could act a claw caught her, plucking her away from the ship. The line tethering her to the Ares snapped as the star-creature sent her spinning off into the void. She spun past its enormous eye. It was lifeless, rudimentary like a shark’s, yet she knew the creature saw her, perceived her. She felt a high-pitched screaming sound ring around in her brain.
Kelly screamed wordlessly into her suit comm, but there was no one to hear.
Simon writes fantasy, SF, mainstream and some stories that can’t make their minds up. He lives in England with Alison and their daughters Eleanor and Rose. His debut fantasy novel is to be published by Morrigan Books in 2013. Find him at simonkewin.co.uk.
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Story illustration by Nick Gucker.