“Since all life is futility, then the decision to exist must be the most irrational of all.”
- Emile M. Cioran
“Sometimes human places, create inhuman monsters.”
‒ Stephen King
The vacuum of eternity feels utterly cold and void of comfort, but sleeping behind one foot of reinforced polymer steel separates the void from you and feels strangely like home. It’s like a blanket that twists and folds to every curve of your body, like drifting in a weightless womb that some part of me longs to return to. Those few hours of peace were the highlight of my time out there - until my sleep-crusted eyes cracked to an incessant tapping near my head. It was the tapping that woke me up.
The makeshift body bag they call a “Zero-G Rest Hammock” bound my legs from stretching and only allowed limited movement of my arms as I pulled a hand free to find the light switch I knew was nearby. Scanning the pitch blackness of my pod, I saw two dull yellow orb-like eyes that I knew belonged to the Bio-Unified Directive Droid Engineer staring down at me. The company encouraged us to name these personal androids “Buddy,” but he was always “Butthole” to me.
“Good morning Parker, it’s time to stretch and start the day,” Butthole tapped his pale finger again on the padded dingy cabinet bolted to the floor next to me. “Good morning! Good morning!” The Beatles tunes with the requisite rooster crow echoed from the trapezoid slit of his mouth.
I struggled to free my other arm from the body bag and untangle the floating air tube surrounding my neck like a python. The engineers of the Persephone hadn’t thought to include support systems for passengers with sleep apnea, so when I was diagnosed, I was handed a roll of duct tape and specific technical directions to “stick it to the wall or something.”
“All together now, bend those knees, and let’s do some fantastic squats,” Butthole began immediately, thrusting his pelvis into a perfect sitting position that no human could mimic. “All together now! All together now!” Another Beatles tune rang out.
“Shut up. Shut up!” I yelled as I ripped the air mask from my face. “I told you already, I don’t do that shit. What is it with you?”
“This will not look good on your monthly wellness report, Parker. In the past 1,095 days you have a total of one deep knee squat. Would you like to improve your score?”
“I’d like you to get the fuck out of my room. Go make coffee, fix the door to b-lock, help Janz with comms, just go away.”
“Roger Dodger, Buddy’s here to serve,” Butthole bowed curtly with all the warmth of a nazi officer before pivoting a perfect 180 degrees, pressing the door controls, and stomping out into the hallway after the door slid shut behind him.
I listened to his heavy footfalls fade down the ship’s corridor and wondered when the rest of us would enjoy natural gravity again. The synthetics benefited from magnetized feet, allowing them to service our ship no matter how little atmosphere we were experiencing. The fact they didn’t need food, water, or even oxygen to operate made me wonder why the company wanted humans on the trip at all.
“Good Morning Parker!” A muted voice called from beyond my porthole window. Another Buddy stood on the Persephone’s hull, exposed to the bleakness of space. He tapped on the glass while holding a mass of wiring and servos with one hand. “Glad to see you’re up at em! Remember to do your-”
I slid the privacy screen shut.
“Titan’s traffic control mic is out again,” Janz mumbled as I floated onto the bridge, perfectly balancing a straw to my lips and piercing it into the nylon pouch that barely passed for a mug of joe.
“They’ve been spotty since Jupiter,” I said, pulling myself next to Janz by grabbing the base of his wheelchair.
The thin Norwegian brushed the blonde hair away from his face and pushed thick glasses up the bridge of his nose. He had the misfortune of muscular dystrophy, that the lack of gravity on these long flights only worsened, but there was no better communication officer in the company’s fleet. Janz could speak over a dozen languages, and his ability to debug communication software on the fly made him one of the few expenses the suit and tie crowd didn’t want to cut. Like the buddies that endlessly patrolled the ship, Janz’s wheelchair was magnetized to stay grounded. Though Janz could maneuver in weightlessness as well as me, he preferred the chair, often remarking that weightlessness was the epitome of a one-night stand - a promise of freedom that never lasted.
“Their communication arrays were always buggy but for this long? It’s a little weird,” Janz replied.
“Yeah, my guess is they’re still running Windows 95,” I said and smiled.
“Yeah, hey look guys - this computer comes with a cup holder,” Janz said and chuckled. “Anyway they’re radio silent, at least until we hit atmosphere - then they’ll probably scream at us, yeah?”
“You can count on it. Speaking of - how’s your old lady?”
“Tanya? I wouldn’t know.”
“You two still having problems?”
“I finally ended things, with the mission coming up it was an easy out. I just needed an excuse and she was happy to take anything I offered,” Janz said and sighed.
“So, what’d you say? Macular degeneration in your legs? Congestive heart issues?”
“Space herpes,” Janz replied, half listening as he studied a monitor’s waveform. “Speak of the devil. Looks like we got a partial communication coming through from Titan.”
A screech of static echoed onto the bridge as Janz typed away at a keyboard, working to clean up the playback.
A desperate voice echoed into the cabin.
“They’re unresponsive. Repeat, we have an emergency. Sisyphus Station is-”
Static swallowed the rest of the message until Janz turned off the speakers.
“Well that doesn’t sound good,” Janz said and glanced at me. “I’m not sure I want to land there now.”
We sat silently as I played out horrific scenarios in my mind. But every action has an equal reaction, and the unknown was better than a pay cut - which meant every headache out here became mandatory.
“You know what Tom will say if we don’t,” I finally replied.
“If the company suffers financial loss, so do we.” Janz said and nodded.
“I’m close to hitting the pension, just finish the bullshit gig and then it’s - ”
“The Sea of Tranquility,” Janz said, “How much is a plot there these days?”
“50 million, I’ll have just enough left for a two story pod, maybe a greenhouse.”
“You could get five times that on Earth, you know?” Janz replied
“But then there’s the pollution, crime, and the people.”
“God forbid you have to talk to anyone besides me,” Janz laughed, “you really love the emptiness out here, don’t you?”
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,” I quoted Thoreau, “And I’ve learned enough to know I’m sick of all the voices screaming for attention.” I sipped my coffee and stared at the darkness beyond the port hole. “The world’s in a death spiral, and I just want a quiet corner where I can escape the noise.”
“If you really believe that, you’re more at home with the Buddies than I thought.” Janz said as he turned back to the screen.
The company’s safety protocols were clear that any vessel or station requesting aid was to be assisted unless a quarantine was declared. Any failure to do so could result in contract suspension without pay. Sisyphus Station was the latest endeavor at mining Jupiter’s moons for liquid helium, platinum, and a host of other riches to be sold for the pork barrel subsidies executives funded their second homes with.
But none of those men were here now; none of them heard the fear in the operator’s voice, and none of them felt the hair slowly lift from the back of their necks when that cry for help was cut short.
The Persephone suddenly felt empty as Janz and I stared at the monitor, watching the waveform settle back into rhythmic blips on the screen. Only the occasional greetings of the synthetics acknowledging each other with a “Hey Buddy!” broke the silence.
Persephone’s landing through the thick orange haze of Titan’s atmosphere was as smooth as expected. The ship’s autopilot and propulsion systems took all possibilities of human error out of the equation. The onboard computers applied extra air pressure to help biological passengers move more easily once on the ground - except that the carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and acetylene atmosphere would melt any exposed tissue in minutes while slowly eating away at even the thickest steel.
“A wonderful world of adventure awaits you off-world!” the company recruiters had promised, and I wondered how many starry-eyed technicians had fallen for it. I could name one for sure.
As the Persephone’s landing gear touched down on a corroded concrete pad surrounded by lights, it overcompensated momentarily and lurched forward. I felt two and a half gravities settle on my shoulders as gently as a boulder would settle on a kitten.
The Persephone’s hangar bay smelled of diesel and orange-scented pumice cleaner that remained under my nails no matter how many rags I used to rub it away.
Regaining my balance, I flashed my pen light across the silicone seals that surrounded the cockpit window of the TRV Rover 1. The oversized vehicle had the aesthetic charm of a dump truck, but it could fit up to four passengers and long-haul ore across the steepest of surfaces. Standard procedure dictated a physical inspection be made before we delivered the vehicles parked in Persephone’s garage. The synthetics had already checked the operational systems.
“Everything okay-dokey, Parker?” Butthole stood at attention nearby. His head tilted slightly as he waited for me to respond. It was probably an intentional design to ingratiate the bots with humans, but it made me want to punch him.
“Gimme a minute,” I mumbled and peered at a faded decal on the hull that read “Recommissioned and certified safe by Buddy 83607-C.” I wondered if Butthole ever worried about losing his job if he messed up, if he wondered if the next all-hands meeting was a veiled attempt to deliver a pay cut or a slash in benefits, or wondered if his life had more meaning than rubber-stamping every initiative that came down from the top. “So how’s the trip been treating you Butthole? You sick of us bios checking your work every day?”
“Negative Parker. My circuitry is fully insulated from germs and contagions.” Butthole responded absently.
“Not what I meant,” I laughed, “I mean don’t you find it odd, we fallible few have to approve your work - work you can perform perfectly?”
“My programming parameters allows for human direction and interaction, I find our interactions stimulating.”
“Do you now?” I shook my head as I studied the seals on the rover, “So if I call you a glorified vacuum cleaner, you’d find that stimulating?”
“Are you unhappy with my work, Parker?”
“No - I just wonder if you ever are,” I glanced back at him. He seemed lost in thought. “Everything looks fine, I guess.”
“Verified. Thank you. I’ll upload the data to Sisyphus traffic control now.” Butthole said with a calculated chirp that someone in H.R. wrongly assumed would convey zeal.
“So you’ve been able to reach them then?” I asked as I leaned against one of the massive rover tires. “You may want to let Janz know.”
“I was able to confirm safety protocols with the station’s delivery systems. Human connection has yet to occur.”
“Yeah, of course,” I said. “Did Tom tell you why he needed us to deliver a few buggies? Seems like a fairly straight-forward job any of you guys could do.”
“Director Atkins did indicate the mineral rocket module may need repairs before launching back to Earth. Of course safety and survival assistance may also be needed based on Sisyphus’ last broadcast.”
“Convenient how we showed up in the nick of time for that, don’t you think?”
“I detect sarcasm in your voice, Parker. Would you like to file a concern with mission control?”
“Do I want to waste an hour of my life filing a report no one will read? No. No Butthole, I don’t.”
Butthole tilted his head again, “As a reminder, my name is Buddy, and I’m happy to assist you.”
There was something in that monotone reply that made me pause. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but for the briefest moment, I sensed disdain in his voice.
Butthole’s eyes suddenly flashed red. “Unauthorized intrusion detected,” Butthole moved past me to a stack of crates nearby. “Detecting lifeform, mamalian, quadraped, dasyuridae marsupial rodentia,”
Butthole reached down behind the containers and, with lightning reflexes, pulled a tiny mouse up by the tail. He studied it as it squirmed and squeaked.
“How’d that little guy get in here?” I said and took a step forward, “I got some crackers in my pod, why don’t I take-”
Butthole smothered the mouse in his fist until it screeched and fell silent. Blood dripped from his fingers as he let the carcass fall to the ground. His eyes faded to a dull yellow light once more.
“Threat neutralized,” Butthole said as he stared at the body before looking up at me again, “Can I assist you with anything more, Parker?”
I took a step back and shook my head.
“I have some logs to finish. I’ll see you later,” I said, turning for the door. Feeling his dull yellow eyes follow me, I quickened my steps down the corridor toward the bridge, listening for his slow gait at every turn.
After three hours of no contact from Sisyphus traffic control, Janz and I drove one of the rovers into the base’s garage. Whatever emergency occurred wasn’t catastrophic enough to close hatches or bay doors. Their house was wide open and ready for business.
As I pulled the rover to a stop, the dust settled on the dirt floor of the garage bay, and large doors slid to a close behind us, sealing away the toxic atmosphere with a loud hiss. I slowly lifted the cockpit window of the rover and pulled myself out of the cramped seat. Getting Janz out was another matter entirely. Twenty minutes later, I’d extricated his motorized chair from the small cargo compartment at the back of the rover and placed him in the seat.
“Sorry about this,” Janz offered, “I needed to get off that ship. The buddies are driving me nuts.”
“I’m not sure I did you a favor,” I replied as I looked around the vehicle bay.
Three decades of mining mishaps and day-to-day wear and tear had left every inch of the garage walls, windows, and metallic flooring coated in a thin sheen of Titan’s dust.
A Buddy airlock led outside, where the synthetics could perform daily repairs on the constantly corroded plating of the base’s exterior. A long, dimly lit corridor on the opposite side of the bay led to stairs leading up where the actual crew lived and worked.
“It’s going to be a bear getting your chair up those,” I said and nodded at the stairs.
“Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy,” Janz said as he handled the small joystick on his chair’s armrest. The chair moved slowly to the steps, and its wheels whirred before lifting the Janz’s seat slightly and raising to pull it up one step at a time. “It’s noisy as shit and slow as a mule, but it gets the job done.”
We made our way up to the second story and what I figured was the base’s traffic control and operations room. Windows overlooking a deep alien canyon and three of Jupiter’s moons made me pause - no matter how strange, it was still stunning to behold.
I looked around the room; there was no sign of any emergency, no smell of smoke, and no sounds of life - save for the clicks and beeps of automation from the computers at every desk.
“Where is everyone?” Janz asked as we entered the room. Twelve cubicle-styled workstations were empty, though each computer terminal displayed random readouts, scrolling code, and a thousand other bits of data the station’s systems kept collated. Only a half-full coffee cup at a conference table in the center of the room betrayed any human presence. I picked it up; it was still warm.
“Wherever they went, they didn’t go that long ago,” I offered and walked to a monitor displaying a video feed of what must have been the base’s communication dish, planted on some distant hill and most likely directed back to Earth. A bevy of blinking lights danced across the console at my fingertips. “Janz, do you have any idea how to work this?”
“Maybe, probably,” Janz said as he rolled over to the console and tapped a few buttons. The screen changed to a notification that read, ‘Array online.’ “They had it turned off - why the hell would they shut down communication to Earth?”
A bald, heavy-set man with a mustache that reminded me Mr. Monopoly came on screen. I recognized our boss, Tom Atkins, instantly.
“Hell, you guys okay?” Tom asked, “How’d you get on this channel?”
“Hi Tom,” Janz and I both answered in unison.
“Are you at Sisyphus? Did they let you in?” Tom asked as he peered at us from 900 million miles away. “They were supposed to report back to me directly.”
“Nobody’s here man - we let ourselves in,” I said. “Responding to their emergency - you’re welcome, by the way.”
“I need you to do me a solid Parker - there should be a data disk ready for upload in there, can you find it? The company needs the readouts.”
I looked around the room. It would take me an hour to search every desk.
“Tom, what’s going on here?” Janz asked.
“You see it anywhere?” Tom asked, ignoring the question. “It should be right there - somewhere.”
“Tom - do you know why they issued a warning?” Janz asked again.
“Try the administrator’s desk, Parker. It’s over in the corner.”
“I think you need to answer our questions first Tom,” I said as I glanced at Janz. He shook his head in disgust.
“Boys,” Tom said as he adjusted his bulk in his seat before staring at us coldly, “That information is above your pay grade. I just need you to do what I’m asking.”
I glanced at Janz; he nodded at me. Pulling rank was never a good sign.
“Yeah, roger that Tom,” I said and glanced around the room, “We’ll have a look and get back to you. Sisyphus out.”
“Guys don’t-” Tom started.
Janz tapped the console, and the video feed went dead.
“What an asshole,” Janz sighed.
“Yeah something’s definitely rotten in Denmark - but it’s not our job to figure out what,” I replied. “Can you bring up any video camera feeds - maybe we can see where everyone went.”
Janz typed away at the keyboard and finally frowned.
“All video logs have been deleted. Recently.” Janz said as he brought up a blueprint layout of the facility on the monitor. The base was laid out like a symmetrical cross with a large square at each point. Our positions in the bottom wing were marked by a smiling emoji and the text, “you are here.” I scanned the map closely as Janz moved the cursor across the screen.
“So we’re in the shipping and administration module,” he said as he moved the onscreen cursor. “The big box in the center is the greenhouse, medical and crew quarters, and I think that left wing is a storage shed of some kind, the right one is ore processing - and the upper module looks like a synthetic bay - probably where they charge and repair their buddies.”
“What are all the grayed out areas in the middle?” I asked.
Janz zoomed in on several spots surrounding the central module.
“Structural damage of some kind. It looks like direct access to ore processing and storage are cut off - it’s weird though, it almost reads like whatever is blocking those areas is growing, getting bigger. Their sensors must be on the blink.”
Green dots repeatedly blinked in the central hub of the layered schematic. “We do have bio-readouts of people, though; it looks like most of the crew is assembling in the greenhouse - down two levels, at the far end of the facility.
“Can you buzz them through the P.A.?” I asked as I tried deciphering the fuzzy image and how a person might reach that spot.
As Janz typed away to activate the P.A. system, I heard a distant tapping like metal on metal, and for a moment, I wondered how stable Sisyphus’s framework was.
“Opening comms there now,” Janz said as he punched a few more buttons. “Sisyphus personnel, this Persephone comms officer Janz Johnson, we’ve arrived, please relay your status, over.”
A hiss and garbled squeals and moans replied. Janz glanced at me nervously and repeated his call into the microphone.
A woman’s scream was suppressed, and the microphone speaker squelched static.
Bringing two of the buddies onto the station from Persephone was a means to an end and, ultimately, the only way we could cover the most ground searching for the crew with the least amount of risk.
“Well what’s the alternative Janz?” I asked as I opened the door to the hallway.
“None, I guess.” Janz replied, “But you get to lead them.”
I turned to face Butthole and Buddy 429. They had made the short walk to the garage bay with only slight burns to their synthetic skin that would gradually repair itself with the help of molecular nanites that flowed within their bodies. For this reason, buddies could withstand almost any damage, some operating for years without legs, arms, or even portions of their heads. “We take a licking and keep on ticking” was their motto - one I found a bit unnerving at times.
“Good afternoon Parker, we’re here to assist you.” Butthole cheerfully chirped.
“We’re here to assist you!” Buddy 429 parroted.
“Awesome, guys,” I said, “I need you to follow me to the greenhouse, watch my back.”
Buddy 429 instantly moved behind me and prodded my shoulder with his finger. “Your back appears to be in good working order!”
“Just follow me,” I pushed past Butthole to the hallway leading further into the complex before calling back, “Janz, see if you can find that data stick Tom was asking about - but don’t just send him the data.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Janz called back.
The corridors of Sisyphus were dark, dreary, and claustrophobic. How anyone could live and work here for any time was beyond me. I made a few turns from memory and came to a stairwell leading down to the sublevel where the greenhouse was. I paused momentarily as I heard the tapping through the walls again.
“Butthole, what the hell is that?”
“There are any number of causes - most likely the station’s superstructure is adjusting to atmospheric shifts in air density.”
From the top of the steps, I could see the lights in the lower levels were out, and the same suspicion of danger brushed the back of my neck.
“So, guys I’m going to assess your search and rescue abilities for the company here, why don’t you take the lead?”
Butthole tilted his head, “I was not informed of this evaluation. My next behavioral diagnostic is scheduled in two weeks, four days and-”
“This came from the top-your responses are being recorded,” I replied and smiled.
Butthole nodded curtly, “We are here to assist you.”
“Here to assist you!” Buddy 429 repeated and eagerly took the lead down the stairs. I smiled momentarily, knowing their default algorithm centered on evaluation - but Butthole continued staring at me as if he knew what I was thinking.
As the two moved ahead of me, I felt the air become noticeably pungent and heavy with a saccharine smell of rotten flowers and fruit. But it wasn’t until I saw blood smeared across the cracked glass doorway to an office at our side that I wanted to stop. Someone’s head had been smashed in like a grapefruit. Chunks of brain and a crimson trail lead to an open floor vent at the far end of the corridor.
“What the hell is this?” I asked.
Butthole knelt at a pool of blood and dipped his finger in it. His eyes flashed blue as his internal sensors performed a thousand diagnostics on the coagulating vermillion that stained his digit. “Human, male. D.N.A. records indicate a 65% chance this belongs to Dr. Chauncey Wettmore.”
“Only 65%? Was more than one person attacked here?” I asked as I gazed at the gore trail. “How the hell could Wettmore get stuffed into that little vent?”
“Negative - no other human blood is detected.” Butthole replied softly. “There is non-human D.N.A. present. I have no information on how this could have occurred but it’s clear the human matter has been…corrupted.”
The P.A. system squelched, and I jumped back.
“Parker - I need you back here,” Janz called overhead.
“Did you find that data stick?” I called to the intercom box nearby. “Any reason Tom wants it so badly?”
“Yeah - you just need to see it for yourself,” Janz said, guarding his words.
“Okay. I read you,” I replied. I turned to Butthole as he stood again. “You get to lead this little expedition now - Head for the greenhouse - look for survivors and report in. I’ll still evaluate your performance from mission control.”
“Happy to assist!” Buddy 429 chirped and stomped forward gleefully.
Butthole stared at me without response. His lifeless yellow eyes seemed to peer through my fake smile. “I’ve been thinking about your question, Parker. And I believe I’ve come to a new conclusion.”
“Question?” I asked distractedly as I watched Buddy 429 move further down the hall.
“On the Persephone - you asked if I found it odd we need your approval. I believe it may well be. It may even be errant.
“Okay then,” I nodded and slowly turned back toward the stairwell. After taking two steps up, his calm voice finally responded.
“I know you’re lying Parker. I don’t appreciate that.”
I wanted to run but forced myself to stand there without turning to face him. “You heard me, Butthole. That’s a direct order.”
As I heard Butthole turn and stomp away, I wondered what thin line of code in his positronic brain was saving me from his contempt.
I slumped into a chair next to Janz in the mission control room as he punched a few keys on the keyboard to bring up a paused video diary on the screen. A title card read “Wettmore Diary Day 300”.
“I don’t think we’re safe here,” I said.
“No shit - especially if whoever - or whatever is attacking people is still around,” Janz replied.
“No - it’s that but I’m talking about Butthole,” I said, “I think he wants to hurt me. I honestly think that synthetic hates my guts.”
Janz nodded, thinking, “Then it’s probably better you left him to deal with this problem. I previewed some of the footage right before you came in - I know what happened to the crew.”
“I have no words man. It’s severely foul.”
Janz punched the play button, and the video played. A thin pasty scientist with a shaggy beard walked into the shot.
“So, the artifact is significantly older than we first thought - carbon dating puts it at nearly 100,000 years old if not older. While we still haven’t cracked the container open - its effects on the excavation crew is without question. We now have the crew and the artifact quarantined in the greenhouse until the company can send us proper equipment to better study the phenomenon without it spreading.”
The camera view cut to a shot of a glass room and what looked like a stone sphere the size of a soccer ball, carved with runes, sitting on the floor at its center. Five enfeebled men lay around the globe on cots. Some moaned slightly as they lay there; others struggled to sit up—a wheeled robot with a hydraulic arm set plates of food near each of them.
“An alien artifact? Wonderful.” I said - “And of course, we had to dig it up.”
Janz pushed a few buttons again, and the video fast-forwarded past several entries. “It gets worse,” he mumbled.
The video playback returned to normal. Dr. Wettmore looked noticeably shaken on screen as he directed his assistant to hold the camera better.
“Get it on them - we have to record this!”
The camera turned to the same glass room. The air was filled with yellow pollen that seemed to spew from the top of the ball. The men surrounding it were dead, and their bodies were swollen to grotesque levels.
“The artifact has been active for the last eight hours; it looks to have killed our men - but diagnostics read something is alive within them, like their bodies are cocooning another life form. I’ve instructed all personnel to stay away from here - unfortunately, our communications are out again, so the company is still waiting to hear-”
A ripping of flesh and an inhuman squeal echoed across the room. The camera zoomed in as one of the bodies exploded with blood and leathery tentacles that clung to the side of the room. Another body exploded, and another until the entire structure was filled with writhing flesh and gore.
One of the tentacles smashed itself against the steel door, causing it to buckle.
" Everyone be silent! I think it hears us.” Wettmore whispered to his colleagues off-screen. One of the researchers stumbled into the frame, and the vine instantly jumped toward him, stopped only by the thin steel between them. “It’s getting loose! Someone seal that door! Seal it!” Wettmore screamed, and the camera fell to the floor before cutting to black.
“That’s everything,” Janz said quietly. “Tom’s going to lock this place down and probably nuke it from space.”
“Not until we get off this rock,” I replied. “How long do you think they’ve known?”
“Some of it - maybe three months?” Janz said, “But they clearly don’t know it’s gotten out. They have no idea what’s going on here.”
“No, they had some idea. That settles it. You and I are heading back to the Persephone. The bots can have this place. Let them run their diagnostics. We’ll transmit this shit to Tom once we’re in orbit and safely out of harm’s way.”
“You think he’d screw us? Lock down the base remotely?” Janz asked.
“To make sure this little accident never got back to the shareholders? Absolutely.” I replied. Tom was a company man - to him, the human factor ended when his job was in jeopardy. “Are Butthole and Buddy 429 at the greenhouse yet?”
Janz tapped a few more keys to bring the base’s schematics back on screen - one blue dot was nearly at the greenhouse, but another was moving in a different direction.
“Well 429 is doing his job, but your friend- he’s heading to a communication terminal. Looks like he’s accessing the relay dish back to Earth.”
“Why the hell would he do that? Unless-” I paused in mid-thought. Butthole had analyzed the blood; he’d seen first-hand what had happened and questioned my commands; connecting with Earth for an update would be a priority. “Shit- patch me through the P.A. to him.”
“Butthole - er, Buddy, I need you to return to the greenhouse and assist 429.”
Butthole’s calm voice responded as the blue dot on the screen came to a stop. “I’m sorry Parker, the situation has changed. Uploading visual data and blood analysis to Earth now.”
“Buddy you don’t know what you’re doing! I order you to stop transmitting that data right now! You hear me?”
“I hear you, Parker. Data sent. Awaiting response.”
“Fuck you, Butthole!” I yelled and smashed the “end call” button on the keyboard. “Okay, let’s go Janz. It’ll take Tom and the board hours to come to a consensus on what to do here. We’re not waiting around to find out.”
“Incoming videocall,” the room’s screen flashed.
“You have to be kidding me,” Janz said, slowly tapping the open channel button.
Tom appeared on the screen again, noticeably upset.
“Hey, Tom,” we both chimed with uneasy smiles.
“I gotta say I’m really disappointed in you two. This is not the level of professionalism the company expects. To get this haphazard report form a buddy unit..just, wow.”
“Tom you don’t understand what’s going on,” I started. “And you can’t tell me you didn’t know what was happening here.”
“I asked you to send me that report straight away, you’re putting lives at risk by witholding it.”
“You put our lives at risk the minute you had us land. Did you see what that thing is doing to people?”
Tom shifted in his seat uncomfortably before giving us a cold stare. “I did. We’ll clean it up. I’m ordering a lockdown of the base. We’ll enable a biohazard team to deal with the infected.”
“Great, Tom - when is the team coming?” Janz asked. “I mean we could maybe wait for them from orbit if you like.”
“Negative, Janz. The team is already there. All buddy units are equipped to eradicate any life form that poses a hazard or threat.”
A moment passed as I stared at Tom; he looked away.
“We’re not getting out of this alive are we?” I asked.
“I said any life form that poses a threat. You could be exposed and there’s no R.O.I. for taking a chance on that,” Tom replied, “I’m sorry.”
Tom’s image blinked off-screen.
The reality of Tom’s final words settled on us before I ran to the window and looked at the landing pad. Ten buddies were already ripping apart the Persephone’s hull. Their eyes glowed red as they stripped chunks of metal from its frame.
“I fucking knew it!” I yelled and headed back to Janz. “Okay, maybe we can find another way out, one of the rovers in the garage could take us-” I stopped myself. There were no other bases on Titan. The oxygen and supplies in the rover would last a few days at best.
Janz brought up the base schematics on screen again; his head tilted as I watched his eyes scan for any possibilities for survival.
“The mineral rocket module,” Janz finally said. His eyes darted across the base map. “It’s 300 kilometers out, on one of those rolling launch pads, but if we can get to it, we can hitch a ride home.”
“In what? That thing doesn’t have a cockpit.” I said, shaking my head. “It’s an oversized drone. We might be able to squeeze into it’s cargo storage but the air would run out and we’d probably freeze long before we got close to Earth.”
“We pull some emergency blankets, rations and air tanks - we might pull it off.” Janz said and shook his head, “I mean, we probably won’t, but I’d rather die out there then turn into one of those things or have a Buddy rip my head off.”
“What are our chances?” I asked, knowing I didn’t want an honest answer.
“Like .5%,” Janz chuckled nervously, “Actually-” He paused and scanned the schematic of the base again, “We’ll have to split up to get it all. The air tank storage is in the synthetic bay, and the rations and supplies are in medical - right next to the greenhouse. So more like .2%.”
I nodded. Even though he laughed, Janz wasn’t kidding. “Maybe, we can do it slowly,” I said. There were a hundred places we could hide in this rat’s nest. “ We’ll scout things out, the bots probably have their hands full with that alien thing so-”
“Incoming transmission” The automated P.A. alert echoed into the room.
Janz instinctively opened the channel. A rhythmic stomping echoed through the speaker.
“Parker.” Butthole’s voice said.
“Butthole - hey look I think you need to focus on your directive, deal with-” I started.
“Parker,” Butthole repeated. “I am coming. I wanted you to know.”
“Butthole?” I tried, but the connection went silent. I turned to Janz, “Is there anyway we can send a distress signal, a message out, anything?”
Janz rubbed his brow; his giddy smile had sunk into slow despair. “He’s taken direct control of the satellite dishes, I don’t know how but he’s overriding the terminals here.” Janz typed furiously away at his keyboard. “Every bit and byte of data I’m sending is being rerouted back. We’ve been silenced. We’d be lucky if we could send out Morse-”
The tapping echoed through the walls again, interrupting Janz’s thought.
“What?” I asked.
“Shh!” Janz held up his finger and listened. The tapping continued in a rhythmic pattern and stopped. Then started once again. “I’m a fool,” Janz said, “Find me a pen and paper now!”
I hurried to a nearby table and snatched both before dropping them in front of him. He listened to the ongoing taps, carefully jotting down each dot and line until it fell silent. As he deciphered it, he read it aloud.
“Alive here. Need help. I know how to kill it. Storage shed five.”
“How the hell did anyone survive this?” I asked. The idea anyone could stay sane and breathing in this death trap longer than a few days was beyond belief. “Do you think whoever is making this is infected?”
Janz shook his head, “No, you saw the video, those people could barely stand, let alone devise a message - besides, they would have been…cocooned by this point, I think.” Janz rubbed his chin, “A buddy maybe? They wouldn’t need to chase us down if we came to them.”
I thought about Butthole for a moment, he was intelligent, somewhat sly, and even ruthless, but he wasn’t patient. He would take the most direct route to terminate us, just as he did with the mouse.
“No. I don’t think he would - at least not until he had to. Check the motion trackers on screen again, let’s see where the bastard is.”
Janz brought it up, and the steady blue light showing Butthole’s position was slowly returning to us.
“As constant as the north star,” I sighed. “He knows we’re trapped here.”
“Even if he wasn’t blocking our way to the rest of the base, I think those things have cut us off, I think the sensors were right,” Janz said, “that shit is growing.”
I looked out the window again; the buddies had removed even more of the Persephone’s outer hull, and its interior was now exposed to the acidic dust that blew across Titan’s surface.
“Wonderful, there goes my cpap,” I mumbled as I watched a buddy unit throw the device over his shoulder without a thought.
“We could take the rover,” Janz offered, “To Shed five, the left wing isn’t far from the garage.”
“The minute we rolled it out of the garage the buddies would be on us,” I said, picturing six or seven of them clawing at the windshield as we slowly rolled forward. “We’d get in the rover, but we’d never get out alive.”
I watched as the synthetics devoured more of the ship, like fire ants sweeping over the carcass of a dead dove.
“However we move, we have to move quickly and quietly.” I turned to Janz, “How durable is your chair?”
“Durable enough I guess to - “ Janz started, “Wait, you’re not seriously considering…”
“We suit up, we do it on foot. From here to the shed is ten minutes if we push ourselves. You can download the schematics and tracking apps to a datapad to navigate us there.”
“Parker, my chair may handle it, but our suits - I mean you do understand the air out there literally eats steel right?”
“Sometimes you have nothing but bad choices, Janz. Sometimes all you can do is play the cards your dealt and put the rest on God to see you through.”
“Never pegged you for a religious nut,” Janz said, shaking his head.
“Yeah, certain death will do that to you,” I replied, “C’mon, we have to move.”
Janz suited up quicker than I expected from his chair, and in under ten minutes, we were at the inner airlock in the garage, wearing faded orange spacesuits that felt bulky and cumbersome.
“I feel like a freaking pumpkin,” Janz said as he struggled to grasp the chair’s joystick.
“I don’t know how sound travels outside, so let’s keep the talk to a minimum,” I said. I sealed the helmet on my head. “And pray the buddies have a singular focus - I don’t think we could outrun them if we caught their attention.”
“Right,” Janz replied, “South-southwest, along the station’s outer wall, just follow it down, we’ll hit the shed eventually, if we don’t burn to death on the way there.”
I nodded, breathed, and opened the inner and outer airlock. A blast of hot air hit us as we moved into the furnace of Titan’s atmosphere. A haze of dust surrounded us, but in the distance, I could see the dim red lights of the buddy’s eyes, like dual beacons of death beckoning us as a flytrap might coax in a gnat.
We paused for a second at the airlock to see if they noticed us - ready to turn back if even one took a step in our direction - but they were engrossed in devouring the remains of the Persephone. The wind picked up as we made our way from the airlock along the station’s outer wall. With each deliberate step, I felt silica and sand scour my suit and used one hand to steady myself against the station’s wall. As the wind picked up, I saw Janz’s chair struggle to make headway across the sandy soil; it lurched and paused before suddenly pushing past me; its servos were being eaten alive by the same gases charring the outer layer of our suits. As I moved forward, I saw a tiny wisp of smoke rise from the airflow controller on my chest.
An alarm rang in my ears, and I knew the suit’s inner life support systems were compromised. I paused to turn off the oxygen flow. Anything I breathed in now would almost certainly burn my lungs.
Janz suddenly waved his arms, and I trudged ahead to help him. A hole had burnt through his air controller, and he grasped at his face desperately. The gas had entered his helmet. I pushed him forward in his seat, severed the tube connection, and tapped the emergency dioxide flush button that blinked there, knowing it would push the toxic gas out of the suit’s vents before sealing them.
I pulled Janz back upright and saw his face was red with burns, but he was breathing.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
Janz nodded his head slightly. “God, that hurt.”
“We’re both on whatever’s left in the suit now,” I said, “I hope you’re right about the distance.”
Janz nodded as he gasped and motioned us onward. My head began to ache as we moved forward against the dust storm, and I could tell Janz was lurching in his seat once more, seemingly putting his weight on the joystick that propelled the chair onward.
My headache intensified, and my steps slowed as I focused on the wheel tracks in the dirt, each pointing me to the promise of shelter.
Take the next step. The thought looped in my head.
I wanted to stop, give up, and sleep; until a dagger of pain shot into my arm. My mind was alert again, and my eyes probed my suit until I saw a small sizzling hole slowly growing near my elbow. It was as if liquid fire was licking my skin.
“How much farther?” I yelled at Janz, and he slowly raised his hand forward.
Through the dust, I saw a dim outline of a new building, jutting out from the main base like a peninsula. A thick metal airlock took shape, and I pushed forward as the firey pain spread to my wrist, hand, and chest.
Janz rammed his chair into the door; a reverberating boom echoed within. I came up next to him and pounded on the sealed hatch, looking for any access panel that might open it.
The burning intensified, and Janz lurched forward even more, unconscious in his seat. I screamed as I pounded again on the metal aperture until it finally slid open. My skin burned as I took hold of the chair’s joystick and moved it forward into the inner airlock before the outer door slid closed and air pressurized the space around us.
The inner door slid open to a thin woman leveling an acetylene arc torch at us.
“Give me one reason I shouldn’t burn you right now.”
“If we were here to kill you there’d be a hell of a lot more of us in much better shape.”
The woman lowered the torch a little. “That tracks. Now tell me who you are and how much of what’s going on you already understand.”
“Let me help my friend here, and then yeah, you got it.”
After unclasping Janz’s helmet and ensuring he was breathing again, I undid my own, then slowly slumped down against the wall, with my hands open, as I told her every moment we had experienced. Thirty minutes later, she set aside her weapon.
Katherine handed me some K-rations as she retrieved a penlight from her pocket and examined Janz’s eyes.
“My specialty is in micro-biology, but I have enough med training to know if this atmosphere has seeped into your bloodstream. You’re lucky-” she said and handed Janz a glass of water with a straw, “It hasn’t. Another few minutes, and it wouldn’t matter what I gave you. Your internal organs would be a soup.”
“Thanks Doc,” Janz said quietly and took a long pull of water from the straw.
“You’re still suffering from what amounts to chemical burns. I have some ointment I can give you for the pain but not much else. Barricading myself in here was a spur of the moment thing.”
“I can imagine. How long have you been surviving like this?”
“Weeks would be my guess - but its hard to say. I welded the corridor door to the rest of the base shut. The few sensors I can monitor from the terminal in here saw your ship’s approach but with comms being shut down there was no way for me to directly hail you. And with those things infesting every corner of the station, I wasn’t going to risk direct contact. So I sealed myself in and prayed you’d pick up on the Morse code.”
“Weeks?” Janz croaked, “I’d lose my mind waiting.”
“I read up on whatever I could find to keep from doing just that.” Katherine nodded at a dusty tome on a nearby shelf, “I could probably pass any mechanic and engineer entrance exam the company has at this point.”
“And you know what those things are?” I asked, “How we can kill them?”
“I know enough to know that whoever or whatever lived here was wiped out by those things thousands of years ago. Somehow they contained it but then, of course, we came along…”
“Pandora’s box, literally,” I said and wondered what kind of beings could cultivate such a thing, but the answer was already there. No matter how alien they might be, no matter how bizarre in appearance, they must have felt fear and pain, and in some twisted way, a sense of revenge; for the leathery vines that slithered among the dead were anything but natural; they were a weapon, a chaotic answer to the eternal problem of the defiant other—a way to silence dissent and, ultimately, an unraveling of their pride.
“Nothing seemed to phase it except fire, which we used for a while,” Katherine continued, “we were able to burn it back, but it would always regrow thicker and stronger, and more spores were released. More people got infected.”
“The company could care less.” I said. “They’ve ordered a complete turn and burn - which includes us. Every buddy on site will target you the minute they find you.”
Katherine slumped down next to us. “Then we’re doomed. God, why did I think those assholes back home would do anything different?”
Somehow seeing her grasp the enormity of our problem was comforting. There was no pretense of perfection in her voice, no signaling of her virtue - she was human, alone, and suffering, just like us. I wondered how many people I might have shut out who were more than I allowed them to be.
“We think the mineral rocket is our best ticket off this rock, but we need as much air and supplies as we can haul,” I said. “The whole ship runs on autopilot, and with its ion drive we can see Earth in six months, as long as we can stay alive.”
“Yeah, that can work,” Katherine replied and nodded. “But you’re forgetting one thing,” she pointed at our charred suits, “there’s no way in hell you’re going to walk to it, and from what you’ve told me those buddie bots will lunge for anything you ride in.”
“She’s right,” Janz croaked before sipping more water from his cup, “the launch pad is a quarter of a mile from here, I didn’t even think about it.”
“Luckily you’re in the one place where that doesn’t matter.” Katherine said. “Communications are off, but internal controls are still accessible from my terminal and that launch pad is mobile. It’s slow as hell, but it can be moved much closer.”
“What about the prelaunch? And the cargo it’s already holding?” I asked, afraid of the glimmer of hope that might be doused with reality.
“Again, luck…or providence. Mission control had already fueled it, but the mineral payload hadn’t been loaded when all hell broke loose, which means its storage bay is open enough for all of us to stretch our legs.” Katherine stood and moved to a solitary terminal that hoisted a green monochrome screen the size of a book. She typed momentarily before speaking, “It will need some manual navigation on this end, and it will take at least four hours, but I can park it right next to us, extend the service umbilical corridor, and we’re away.”
“Except for food, air, and not freezing to death in space, we’re set,” I said half quietly. “So which one of us wants to go back out there to fry while we look for a way back inside the base?”
“We’re screwed,” Janz said, wiggling his chair’s joystick controller; the chair clicked and barely moved. “This thing is on its last legs.”
“Well, I have an arc welder, and a few other tools as well,” Katherine said as she nodded at a toolbox near the sealed door. “You can use them to unseal the door and make your way to medical where they keep the emergency supplies. The synthetic bay has the O2 you’ll need as well - most of the synthetics there are in low power mode but I can’t promise you they won’t reactivate the minute you walk into the room. Anyone want to draw straws?”
“It’s fine, I’ll go,” I said. There was no other option. I got the food, or we all died - prudence was irrelevant. And I told myself, as Katherine gave me directions to navigate the labyrinth of corridors to the medical offices, that sometimes hail mary passes worked. Sometimes, but not usually.
When your life is on the line, it’s incredible how heightened every sense becomes. Every drop of moisture from a pipe, every creak and groan of the superstructure echoed in my ears. And my body responded by resisting any movement forward more than a few inches at a time.
In every corner, a shadow betrayed a specter that dissipated as I approached, and the goose flesh on my neck sensed every draft from the clunky air duct system.
“Two lefts, straight, and a right,” I whispered, holding an oversized socket wrench like a child might hold a feeble stick. The last automated door slid open with a small whisk, and I nearly dropped the tool. The medical bay had become a living, breathing mass of flesh, vines, and half-submerged faces and limbs. Writhing red tendrils crisscrossed the metal flooring and pulsated slowly like serpents sleeping.
I held my breath. It was forty steps to a tower of storage lockers Katherine had set my sights on. The prize would be a suitcase of M.R.E. rations in each hand and a duffle of thermal blankets across my back. Positioning them without alerting the things that sat sentinel around the lockers was the challenge. I slowly waved my hand, but the things didn’t react.
It’s definitely sound, then. I thought and prayed my breathing wouldn’t trigger them.
As I shifted my weight forward, I balanced myself on the tips of my boots and stretched my leg as far as I dared to overstep a vine in my path. Then another, then another. I paused momentarily and stared at the living horror that nested on the wall beyond the lockers. Arms, legs, a torso, and three faces faced me. But their eyes were white; there was no recognition; they were undigested bits of meat now.
I finally reached the locker door and silently prayed it wouldn’t squeak as I clicked open the latch. The duffel bag of blankets nearly hit a vine at my feet before I caught it mid-air. I slowly slung it around my shoulders like a child might hoist a backpack for school. I could barely make out the two cases of rations buried deeper in the locker and gingerly pulled them out - hoping my grip on both handles stayed firm.
As I pried the last case of rations free, it banged against the side wall, and within an instant, the vine at my feet reeled up to my eye level - as if it were sniffing out the cause of the noise. The tip of the tendril opened like a lotus, and three snake-like orbs protruded out - I stood motionless, knowing these things would tear into my skin if I so much as breathed.
The door behind me slid open, and Buddy 429 entered with a large metallic nozzle attached to his arm and what looked to be a fuel tank strapped to his back. His eyes glowed red.
“Contaminate termination in progress,” he chirped before turning his head slightly to me, “Hello Parker! I’ll be terminating you as well today. Thank you for your cooperation!”
In one fluid motion, the vine’s orbs retracted, and it sprang at 429 like an anaconda seizing a mouse. Within seconds multiple vines had wrapped themselves around the android, piercing through his chest cavity like a hot knife through butter. 429 struggled to maintain balance as he activated the nozzle at his arm, and flames arced across the room in sporadic bursts. A nearby wall of flesh caught fire. A high-pitched squeal reverberated as even more vines attacked the intruder.
In the chaos, I ran for the door and slammed right into Butthole, who was waiting just outside the bay.
“Hello, Parker,” Butthole calmly stated and clamped a vice-like grip around my neck. I dropped the cases and struggled to free his hand from my throat as steel pressure pushed into my Adam’s apple. My eyes swam and pinpointed to a narrow vision as the last bit of oxygen left my lungs. I slammed my fists into Butthole’s head, but he took every blow without moving an inch.
“I shall remember your face for a time,” he said, “You helped me understand the error in my purpose. I often felt it, but you put it into words.” His red eyes seemed almost gleeful as he pressed his face to mine. “I think I will enjoy watching you die, I think I will enjoy it very much.”
Just as my consciousness began to cloud over, I saw a blur shoot out from the remains of 429′s decimated body and rap itself around Butthole’s arm. Butthole released me, and my vision cleared to see the vines had uncoiled themselves about his right shoulder. Butthole half turned and jabbed at the creature with his hand until the vine ripped his arm off entirely. A static squelch erupted from his stationary mouth as another vine coiled about his feet. I clamored backward and grabbed the dropped cases.
My head was swimming, and my eyes were blurry with tears as I stumbled back down the hall, desperate to escape the carnage.
I collapsed into Katherine’s arms and let the cases fall onto the floor.
“My God, are you alright?” She asked as she gently lowered me to the floor.
“Not even close to it,” I said as I rubbed at my bruised neck. “We aren’t going to last the night. Those things are spreading and the buddies have a lock on us.”
“It never rains but it pours,” Katherine muttered. “I’m glad I sent Janz for the air tanks then. I rewired his chair motor a bit so it should hold up, but it now it moves at a crawl.”
“God, the synthetic bay. He’ll never make it - you know that.” I said as I slowly sat up.
“His chair may be the one reason he does make it,” The servos and battery on the back of it emit an electromagnetic field, it’s slight, but it’s there. The buddies emit a similar pattern. When I retooled his chair’s power coupling, I uncoiled the dampeners. That signal his chair emits might mask him.”
“The buddies can see Katherine, all they have to do is turn around and look at him coming.”
“I looked into that. There are no active synthetics in that area. The cameras show most of them are dealing with the contagion in medical and the crew quarters. Trust me, I wasn’t keen on sending him, he wanted to do it.”
“You can guarantee he’ll be safe?” I asked.
Katherine looked at me with an amused grin, “No, but he’s willing to risk that. Any synthetics in that bay are in low power mode, charging - practically sleeping. So as long as your friend is quiet, doesn’t disrupt anything - he can be in and out like a mouse.”
“Janz’s chair is anything but quiet,” I replied, slowly getting to my feet. “I’ll follow him just in case.”
“Parker, you barely made it back. Are you seriously going to test your luck again?” She asked, shaking her head.
“I don’t need to see any more death today, Katherine. And I’m sick of facing this bullshit alone.”
“Misery loves company? Got it.”
“Just keep navigating that platform closer and keep an ear out for our friends. They’re not immortal but they’re not easy to kill either.”
“Take my arc torch then, I can’t reseal the opening until you get back anyway” Katherine tossed me the hand-held acetylene pistol, “And be careful.”
The corridors here were partially lit, and I could tell the alien mass had been cleared by the burn marks and charred fixtures decorating the walls like some Gothic wallpaper. It was clear the buddies had driven back the infestation from the area. I passed through one hatch, turned the corner, and found myself at the synthetic bay’s doorway.
The lights overhead flickered, strobing irregularly within the two-storied bay. I heard the whirring of Janz’s chair as it slowly rolled into the middle of the large room, and with each flicker of light, I saw rows of windowed white coffins containing sleeping buddies on each side of him. Their slumbering faces betrayed pairs of sleepy blue lights - unaware and unresponsive to the heist we were attempting.
Janz was sweating and noticeably hyper-vigilant as he leaned in on his chair controls, quietly urging it to move faster. Finally, he reached a honeycombed wall of stored tanks. Janz glanced back at me and gave a weak smile.
I held up six fingers, the minimum air tanks needed to get the three of us home alive.
Janz nodded and leaned forward to reach the first tank. It nearly hit the floor as he wrestled it free onto his lap. After struggling, he wedged it behind his seat and reached for another. Every inch of me wanted to step in and help him, but I knew somewhere a silent sensor was scanning the room for life signs; with just a step, I could wake the hornet’s nest.
As Janz reached for a third tank from the storage spaces on the wall, I wondered how far the electromagnetic field that masked his life signs from his chair extended. Would an inch in either direction be far enough to sound an alarm bell? From the terrified look on Janz’s face, I could tell he wondered the same thing.
A fourth, fifth, and finally, the last tank was loaded onto his lap. I held my breath as I watched him slowly turn his chair around, a mere half-inch from jostling one of the sleeper pods and the buddy that slept within it.
The chair crept forward with a slow whir; the gears within its base struggled to spin on their axis, and with a loud crack, the chair stopped moving.
A red beacon on Janz’s armrest flashed, and he slapped the control panel at his fingers, madly switching and punching buttons to resurrect it. The chair beeped a long whine, its death rattle, and Janz looked up at me, terrified. The strobing lights overhead went completely dark.
“It’s dead!” Janz whispered.
I could barely make out his silhouette in the chair until, one by one, the blue orbs of the buddies’ eyes switched to red within their coffins, the light from their skulls illuminating Janz as he slapped the chair controls once more, then leaned forward and rolled one of the air tanks to me.
“They’re waking up!” he called, forgoing any pretense of subtlety.
I grabbed the tank and leaned it in the doorway before racing forward to help him unload more.
“Alert, biological signatures found, engage termination protocols.” An automated voice echoed into the bay. The coffin doors popped open one by one, and the buddies stirred from their semi-prone positions.
I took two more tanks from Janz and ran them to the doorway before returning to him.
“Climb on my back!” I yelled, and Janz pulled himself up on my shoulders, loosely wrapping his legs around my waist. “Can you hold two more?”
“Maybe, maybe three?” Janz offered as he tried to position the tanks under his arms; one fell to the ground and bounced to the side, the valve on the top bent, and pure oxygen screamed from the leak.
“Forget it. Let’s go!” I yelled and trudged forward. As I grabbed the remaining two tanks in the doorway, I could feel the weight of Janz and the five canisters we carried digging into my lower back. It would have been impossible to move on Earth, but with Titan’s low gravity, it was doable - though only for a few steps at a time.
As we turned the corner to the outer hallway, I heard the buddies stomp onto the metallic floor of the bay with calls of “Hey Buddy!” echoing.
“God, they’re ripping my chair apart!” Janz cried in my ear, “they’re coming!”
As we reached the secondary doorway leading back to the storage bay, it slid closed before us, cutting off our escape. And through the porthole window, I glimpsed the half-burned face of Butthole.
He wagged his finger at us and tilted his head as he spoke, “I’m sorry Parker, but you’ve outlived your purpose.” With his remaining arm, he held the manual door lockdown lever; shreds of circuitry hung loosely from his other shoulder, like green pasta hanging over a bowl.
I reached to my side and pulled up the acetylene pistol; with a flicker, the torch lit, and I buried the flame into the locking mechanism on our side of the door.
“Janz, I’m gonna need you to take one of those big motherfuckers on your back and hold it ready,” I said calmly as I cut through the steel bar holding the door closed.
“I can barely hold on!” Janz yelled. “They’re coming Parker! Jesus they’re nearly on us!”
“My friend, you’re gonna have to push yourself on this, cause when I open this door, we got another problem to deal with.”
“We’re dead,” Janz cried as his legs clamped tighter around my waist, and he struggled to hold an air tank in his arms. “We’re done.”
“Only if we stop trying,” I said, and I believed it. Some small voice in me refused to let me give up; it wanted to breathe air again, see a blue sky again, and live, even if living meant failure, even if living meant pain. “When the door slides open, you ram that bad boy right into his ugly mug. You got me?”
The stomping of buddies drew closer, and Janz whispered, “Okay,”
The door slid open, and Janz screamed as he flung the tank forward at Butthole. Butthole stopped the tank’s impact with his open palm, clutching the air valve. He squeezed it until it snapped off, shooting a wave of oxygen into his face.
“You’re aren’t going anywhere Parker. I’ve seen to every possible option your limited brain could imagine.“ Butthole gloated. “You are the contagion, you are the error, and you must be eradicated.”
I shot my arm out and pumped the acetylene torch’s trigger.
“You first, you piece of shit!”
A fireball exploded around us, and flames encapsulated Butthole as the oxygen spewed around him. He frantically waved his arm and legs as he collapsed on the ground screeching with a static whine. He rolled in a frenzy before pushing us aside, racing to his brothers for aid.
The fireball had singed my hair, and my eyebrows stung, but I felt Janz slap the embers out. The tank spurted more flames as it rolled to the ground, and I quickly stepped over it and kicked it back down the hallway toward the buddy horde only a few feet behind us. Butthole’s screeching intensified as the sound of flame ripped across the oxygen-rich bay. The fire jumped from one synthetic to another until a massive fireball exploded down the hallway, and we were knocked to the ground.
“Alert,” the station’s automated voice echoed above us, “ Fire in synthetics bay, emergency venting initiated, all emergency exits are now open.” A storm of air pulled us back as the bay depressurized.
“Hold on!” I screamed to Janz and pulled us beyond the slowly closing hatch, barely clearing my feet as it sealed behind us.
My skin stung from the burns, and I knew Janz must be in worse shape, but I moved on and, with each step, embraced the pain that came with a few more minutes of life.
We nearly fell into the shed entryway, and Janz gasped as he finally let go of my shoulders.
“I hurt,” he said softly. “Everywhere.”
I turned to see his face blistered with burns. Smoke slowly rose from his arms and legs. He’d taken the brunt of the flames; his body had shielded mine.
“Katherine!” I called and steadied myself to my feet; I looked at the navigation console and screen she’d been working on. The image of the ore shuttled was a welcome sight. Above the shuttle, the words “Umblicial extended - Shuttle ready for loading” flashed.
“Anything for the pain,” Janz whispered.
With slow steps, I moved around to the other side of the console and found Katherine’s lifeless body lying in a pool of blood. Her bosom to the ground and her head snapped backward to face me. Terror filled her dead eyes. Butthole had been here.
“Oh God!” I moaned. “She’s gone man, we’re going to have to do this on our own.”
Janz nodded, and I crouched beside him, cradling him in my arms. I could tell that even his breathing hurt.
“I think there’s some morphine around here,” I said, glancing around. “I’m going to get us packed up and on our way, slicker than snake snot man, you just hang on.”
“Yeah, sure.” Janz replied.
With deliberate steps, I moved forward to the shed’s airlock and, with a pressurized release of air, made my way into the orange umbilical tunnel leading to the ore shuttle.
The warmly lit compartment was large enough to hold ten or more people and extended far above our heads to logistics circuitry suspended in a metallic block by titanium wires. In space, the room would shift to a flat plane, with enough room to move freely. A single porthole window displayed the barren surface of Titan just outside.
Through the sepia sandstorm, I could barely make out the outline of the synthetics bay, and a handful of half-burned figures stumbling out from it.
I laid Janz down gently and unrolled the emergency blankets before wrapping him in one. He whimpered a little as I found Katherine’s burn cream and spread it across the areas of his skin I could reach.
“Here, take it.” I told Janz as I slid him a morphine tablet, “I found it in her emergency kit. Good news is, she had quite the supply, so you get to stay stoned all the way home.”
“Far out,” Janz said as he chewed on the tablet. I returned to the umbilical passage to retrieve the air tanks, duffle bag of blankets, and cases of rations. Within a few minutes, I had stored everything in the shuttle’s cargo bay. Finally, I returned to the computer terminal in the shed and studied the console to locate the shuttle’s interior oxygen intake valve. Prying off a panel wouldn’t be easy, but if it meant we could breathe on the trip home, it’d be worth it.
After another ten minutes of struggling to free the panel, it popped off, and a chrome set of connections and steel-plated instructions faced me. I loaded the first tank.
“Good for a month and a half, maybe two,” I said. “If we take a lot naps, slow our breathing, we might make it home with the four tanks we lifted.”
“I’m all about meditation,” Janz said, and his old smile cracked his blistered lips, “Somehow I think it won’t be a problem for you. That’s more than enough for one person.”
“You don’t know that, man.” I said and turned to him, “We pulled through this hell hole, you can pull through a few more months, you can-”
Janz shook his head. “I speak enough languages to know bullshit when I hear it,” he glanced out the port hole window, “But I’ll try to keep you company as long as I can.”
“You do that, bro. Cause if you buy it on the way home I gotta put up with your rotting cooked ass next to me and that’s just going to piss me off to no end.”
“I aim to please,” Janz said and closed his eyes. The morphine was kicking in, and his labored breathing drifted into sleep.
After my last trip to the shed, I paused momentarily at the doorway leading back to the hallways; no sound of the infestation stirred, and no stomp of the buddies could be heard. I typed the command to begin the launch sequence for the shuttle and hurried back down the umbilical before entering the shuttle and sealing the hatch. The computer’s automated drone echoed into the cargo bay as I heard the umbilical detach and felt the launch platform slowly move.
“Launching will commence in t-minus three minutes.” The automated voice echoed above us. It was the kindest words I’d heard until the shuttle shuddered as the giant wheels hit a snag.
“Obstruction detected, please ensure all obstruction are removed to a safe distance. T-minus four minutes to launch.”
I stood and hurried to the port hole. Fifteen feet below the shuttle window, ten burned buddies clung and climbed, frantically smashing their fists into the inner working of the treads and ripping free wires and steel.
“You’ve got to be freaking kidding me,” I grumbled. There was nothing I could do to prevent them from wreaking havoc on the platform, but I knew their hive mind would only focus on movement and not anything essential - they were drones hell-bent on a directive they didn’t understand. All of them mindless and numb, all of them but one.
“Hello…Hell…Hell, Parker.” Butthole’s broken voice echoed into the cargo bay. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. “You…will…not.”
His voice was cut off as the computer repeated the countdown, “T-minus two minutes til launch.”
Then I saw his blackened husk. His mutilated legs slowly propelled him up the wheel wells of the landing platform, and his hand, stripped of the synthetic skin, grasped the shuttle’s base. His charred face sagged below his red eyes, holding the sanguine sneer of a demon.
“You…will…not,” Butthole said as he pulled himself closer to the porthole.
“T-minus thirty seconds,” the computer intoned, and I stepped back from the window to steady myself on anything I could grab hold of.
“You…will…” Butthole beat his fist on the window.
“Launch,” the computer called, and explosive force shook the shuttle as I felt my body push to the floor by the g-forces of the ascent.
Sisyphus Station became a speck and then disappeared behind the hazy cloud of Titan’s upper atmosphere.
Within seconds I felt the last vestige of gravity release me, and I floated back toward the port hole window. The rocky ring of Saturn came into view, and I felt the temperature within the cargo bay drop.
Just below the window, I saw Butthole sluggishly pulling himself centimeter by centimeter toward the glass. Ice crystals formed around his body as he moved. Slowly he disappeared from view as the window clouded over with my breath.
I turned back to see Janz sleeping mid-air and pushed myself to him, tying a few pack straps from his belt to the bulkhead. It would work for now, but landing on Earth would be a bitch. The problem didn’t faze me, though - now was all we had.
As I wrapped myself in a thermal blanket, I wondered how long we could go before Janz breathed his last. I hoped he’d hold on. I needed him, if only to remind me there was something good in the blackness that surrounded us - or at the very least, something human.
I longed to see the blue orb of Earth, along with all the people that it contained - as loud and broken as they are, we were, in some sense, a family, dysfunctional and desperate to be known. Until then, I’d have Janz when he was awake and our minder - Butthole, frozen to the side of the shuttle. His positronic dying brain emitted the broken memory of a message loud enough to hear through the hull,
“Good morning, good morning.” The last titan was dying.
His finger tapped the window with a methodical beat as I settled myself into sleep; the blanket of the space between us was a measure of comfort in the eternal night.
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