Michael left Batheba sleeping sweetly, the way they do in old poems. Swaddled safe in a warm nest of repurposed overalls she’d just “happened” to have on hand.
Now that pale, anxious Batheba had finally hounded her way to her heart’s content, a faint smile seemed to linger through the drying tears. Though that slumbering brow already clenched in wise apprehension of the future. As though, even in her sleep, she wanted him to feel bad.
Shit on that. She’d known full well what she was getting into. Michael had only wanted to chat about Angie. He’d carried his fiancée with him for such a long time, he felt a trembling need to unburden himself. Could hardly be laid at his door how rapidly things’d gotten out of hand.
To make matters worse the distinct reek of rutting insinuated its way into the Capsule’s atmosphere. What a place to try and keep secrets! They were all shut in, and drifting slowly away from one another.
Case and point: out in the corridor here came good old John Porliet padding by. Felt like he hadn’t seen him for weeks. Almost knocked Michael on his ass in the rush. ‘Whoa, where’s the fire?’
John grunted and half turned. ‘Words simply cannot express how funny you aren’t.’
‘Get out of the way, idiot! That mad bitch Beth’s gone and locked Paul outside the Capsule. The Captain’s having a conniption!’
Michael experienced the most peculiar tipping sensation. Akin to being swung end over and all the while both eyes reported he hadn’t shifted a millimetre. Swooping illusions happened so frequently out here where jury-rigged power blipped and gravity became happy rumour that it took a solid think to recognise his overstretched fear trying to snap into shape.
‘Why the fuck would Beth pull something like that? They were supposed t’ be in cahoots.’
John shrugged great meaty shoulders. ‘I’ll bet it’s Paul who started it, though. Daft bugger reckons we can’t hear, but he’s been carrying on at Beth about out there. Fucking broken record.’
‘Really?’ His mouth so like an old bone the word caught and ripped his dry lips.
‘Really real bullshit, Michael. You wouldn’t credit what fanciful idiocy’s been bouncing around in here. Seems people can’t abide the simple, practical idea of an empty void. But Paul, now Paul will’ve ducked back out there to try and prove he ain’t crackers. He’s all about the proving, our Paul. I tell you, the Captain’s really gonna strip the skin off his backside for this one.’
No one on the Capsule could depend on their legs too well anymore, but clearly in their stumbling progress they were coming up on the control room. You could tell by the way Captain Orchid’s bellowing boomed louder. Michael and John skidded to an ungainly halt in the doorway, tangling each others’ efforts to stop.
Steely-eyed Beth was holding the Captain and Sal off the control panel with what looked suspiciously like a home ground shiv. The tines protruding from her fist were a dead giveaway. Now didn’t that raise all sorts of tantalising questions about curly-top’s private life.
Even from the door, Michael could see the switch she guarded was still green for safety. Which meant Paul was presumably still twiddling his thumbs like a sucker. That, or hammering futilely on the locked airlock door.
‘Beth, is that a fork?’ Michael burst out disbelievingly. ‘You couldn’t have picked anything else for your craft project? We hardly have enough forks as it is! Well, now I fucking know why, don’t I!’
‘I like this one,’ Beth chuffed defiantly, never peeling her eyes from the Captain. A wise move, that.
‘But a knife is already a knife!’
‘Shut the fuck up about the fork, for fuck’s sake, all of you!’ the Captain barked.
Of all the inappropriate reactions, John burst out laughing. Really bringing it from the gut, and that was a lot of gut. ‘Look at the state of you lot!’ he wheezed merrily. ‘Prancing about. Sharpening forks to save us from the big bad outside. Forks! Why bother? We’re all dead. The sooner we admit it, the sooner we can decently cease to exist.’
That last confided in such secretive glee it made his audience’s skin fair crawl away. Sometimes a person’s awfully quiet. And when you finally discover what’s been bubbling away in them all this time, you want to frantically stuff it back in and slam the lid.
The Captain couldn’t figure whose direction to glare the hardest in. Putting out so much hateful venom her bloodshot orbs might well leap from their sockets and explode. ‘You stow that attitude, Porliet. Nobody here is dead, and I’m making fucking sure things stay that way. Starting with little Missy here letting Paul right the fuck back inside, right now!’
She made it to within two quick strides before Beth lashed out with a gibbon’s reach. Her frighteningly sharp blade kissed the Captain’s arm wide open. Orchid staggered back into Sal’s ready arms. Beth’s small teeth stretched wide, savouring the rank curses that spewed from the Captain’s mouth as though through a sewer grate.
Not only a woman who’d spent patient, secret hours grinding a nasty weapon long before trouble reared its head, but one who’d obviously dealt violence in the past without learning a fucking thing from it.
A life leaking away between incredulous clutching fingers. Another irreplaceable spark gone out in the darkness.
‘You won’t be trampling your way through here, Captain,’ Beth sneered.
Having clamped the Captain’s free hand to the injury where it closed like a vice, Sal stepped up, all business. Although not within Beth’s surprising reach. ‘Alright Hanrekson, you’ve made your point. Out with it. What’s going on here?’
While Beth fished about for words, Sal tilted her head chidingly. ‘You can’t leave poor Paul dangling forever, you know. His air’ll run out.’
Muddled theories were fine for murky corridors and furtive whispers. But now, in the relative brightness of the control room, everyone was staring at Beth expectantly. ‘Paul’s been carrying on about some seriously fucked up shit, ever since he went out there. I don’t believe him. It doesn’t matter what he saw. I won’t. This shit we’re seeing, it’s ‘cause there aren’t enough of us …’
‘Well why don’t we let Paul tell us himself? Then we can make up our own minds.’
‘No way!’ The shiv springing up so fast a spray of red misted Sal’s cheek. She deigned to wipe it away. ‘If he makes you believe too, it’ll end up being real for all of us!’
‘Events don’t come about by force of belief, Beth. Believe me, I’d’ve wished myself off to a deserted island a thousand times by now.’ Leaving the rest of you ass-monkeys here to rot.
The quip wasn’t especially funny, not out of Sal’s impassive expression with its fine mask of red, but the smaller woman giggled shrilly. She wiped the blade on her pants with a quick stropping motion that left streaks of gory warpaint.
‘Don’t you think we ought to let Paul back inside where it’s safe? Beth, we need each other. We don’t have to like it, but we do.’
‘It’s no good, Sal.’ On the verge of tears.
‘Then let’s not make things any worse.’
Beth opened her mouth, then closed it again. Finally, knuckles white around her sharp little weapon she stepped aside from the controls.
With a grunt the Captain shouldered right on by Sal and slapped the console with her elbow, glaring sourly at Beth as though daring her to make a move. Her touch left a bloody red starfish. Kind of sad seeing her still trying to play top dog. She leaned in to the mike, clearing her throat. ‘Paul, you can come in now.’ Graciously, like she’d orchestrated it herself. Beth shook her head. For fuck’s sake.
All they received was a faint crackle spat back from the speakers. If Paul was talking, buggered if they could make out the words.
‘Paul? Paul, can you hear me?’ Surprising concern coming from their noble leader. Had Paul been eroding the walls of the Captain’s iron-clad heart? Assuming she had one.
‘Did you hear that? Did you hear him? Is that Paul?’
‘Only static, Captain. I don’t hear …’
‘Paul! Say again, we aren’t reading you!’
Still the board showed both airlock doors snugged tight. Paul stayed trapped in that narrow space, a place neither inside nor out.
This was stupid. He was probably glaring at the airlock door and tapping his busted suit-mike with his nose. Sal stared back at the Captain and eventually shrugged. Eloquent with sparse gestures she even squared her shoulders in the barest approximation of Sir.
‘Oh, I’ll drag him in myself. That fucker Paul owes me some answers and I’m telling you now, it’d better be fucking good.’ With that death-grip still clamped to her injured arm, fingers digging in mercilessly.
The whole fucking circus piled down the corridor in her wake. Not quite enough room to crowd around and she threw a few careless elbows with her good arm. ‘Quit jostling, fuckwits, you’ve all seen Paul’s ugly mug before. In case it escaped your bitty attention spans, a stupid knobshine recently sliced my fucking arm right the fuck open.’
‘Uh, yeah, Michael, let’s step back. I’d say the Captain’s got first dibs on slapping Paul around for wasting our time.’ John’s tone was jovial but his eyes were dark. Just like that Michael had a real sour taste in his mouth, tideline left by drying saliva. He wanted to remove himself far, far away.
There it was. The inner airlock door, still firmly shut. It hissed, Sal dutifully doing the honours.
The Captain squared to her full intimidating height. ‘Alright Paul you melodramatic fuckwad, we’re all breathless to hear …’
The airlock stood empty.
No. Not quite empty enough.
There was a sad little crumple of clothing facing the door, and a helmet tipped off to one side. Disturbingly like a severed head, until you peered in and saw it was as vacant as the rest of the gear.
The Captain glowered, toeing distastefully through the heap to satisfy herself Paul wasn’t lurking in there somehow. Then she swung to confront Beth, who looked every bit as sick as Michael felt.
‘Did he go back outside?’
‘Naked? Are you seriously even suggesting that?’
‘An alarm would be blaring if the outer seal’d been cracked,’ Sal supplied. ‘We’d have known all about it the second I tried the inner door.’
‘Does Paul reckon this is funny?’ With a snarl the Captain booted the helmet.
Surprising everybody, a mass of fine filaments sprang out as it went spinning across the airlock. The Captain leaped back awkwardly. ‘What the fuck’s all that?’
Beth knelt and scraped some of it into a soft little drift, which if anybody had bothered to ask was clearly a shitting poor idea. Rubbing it curiously between fingertips.
She suddenly shook it loose, eyes bulging. Scrubbing both hands down her thighs to rid herself of the touch. ‘It’s his fucking hair!’
John made an “upk” sound and turned away.
‘Nope. I don’t reckon Paul thinks this is funny at all.’
‘What did you hear, Captain?’ Sal stepped around in front of Orchid, who continued to boggle at the drifting piles of hair like a woman slowly losing her mind. ‘On the radio. Did you hear Paul?’
‘You mean you didn’t?’
Sal glanced around for confirmation. ‘Nobody heard anything.’
‘Well I heard him. Crackly and faint like he was a long way off, but it was definitely Paul. He said sure, ok, he was coming inside now.’
‘Was that all?’ Digging like some terrier scenting a rat. Sal’s instincts were rarely wrong.
‘Then I thought … I thought I heard him say, Oh Sarah. You’re bleeding.’ With a watery laugh the Captain finally looked up, and although her mouth remained unforgiving tears glimmered in her eyes.
While they spoke Beth had been slowly reversing herself back into the hallway. The Captain rounded on her, furious for being made to look vulnerable. ‘Hanrekson! Where do you think you’re off to?’
‘Out of here, that’s for fucking sure.’
‘Pick up that hair.’
‘Pick. Up. That. Hair.’
‘I’ll be fucked if you think I’m gonna go …’
Michael had heard enough, and witnessed far more than he’d ever wanted to see. He backed quietly down the corridor. Past Johnny-vomit-breath, who was leaning unsteadily against the wall with a hand to his aching brow.
Michael was fraying. Dissolving. Angie remained the only one whose vision of him was so profound he actually came alive. He needed her in order to be real. How else would he escape the void?
How could Angie leave him out here like this? What had he done? Only, Michael knew all too well what he’d done, or rather who.
Her? You cheated on me with her? That’s the best you could manage, was it?
Thoughts that continued to thunder and roll as Michael stood looking down at Batheba. Batheba, lying peacefully undisturbed by all the fuss down the other end of the Capsule. So glutted with smug satisfaction she hadn’t heard a thing.
Before he knew or had planned anything Michael had his hands clamped around the comatose woman’s throat. Squeezing and shaking her with all of Angie’s white hot rage.
Somebody was barking at his shoulder, ‘Michael!’ and ‘Oh fuck me!’ The crew pushing through the doorway behind him. A shrieking confusion of many hands dragging him off Batheba.
Still trying to work out what was going on, Michael was hauled off and slammed unceremoniously into one of the larger storage lockers. Face-first, so that by the time he got himself turned around they’d slammed and locked the door.
Only now it came filtering through the muddle that Batheba hadn’t screamed. Not once, her smile unending. And not because she was slavishly eager for any touch of his. Fraught needy Batheba had been bereft of warmth long before he laid murderous hands on her.
In the stillness of the storage locker, Michael’s own thin smile was sliced to pieces by light from the grill. Perhaps Angie hadn’t abandoned him after all.