The First Dead Man
Clear of the gravity of the Honeycomb cluster, a planet and its two asteroids, far into the void the Triton unfurls its solar sails. Don’t let the hole in the plumbing fool you; that could happen on any ship. The Triton is a well cared for, proven vessel, and it has made this trip many a time. On its bridge, Captain Baswant shouldn’t be worried about the return trip; one more year of travel. She has done it many a time. But she feels uneasy, she’s pacing about the bridge and going over all the controls and calculation. The rest of the flight crew in her presence hear her cluck, hum, tap on screens. They eye each other, sight and hope that she’ll get over this spell. Baswant intersects one of the exchanged gazes. Her second Palmer, and the navigator. She smiles at them.
“You have to relax Captain, can I get you a tea?” Palmer asks.
“No, thank you. I’m good for now.” She replies, her voice carries a soft Hindi lilt that gives away her country of origins, and she then looks back at the maps. “Never hurts to do a extra review, sometimes complacency will sneak up on us. How many times have you and I done this trip?”
“Twelve, twelve good trips.” He turns to smile at her, “I’m pretty sure you know what you are doing cap’.”
“Thank you, Palmer.” She inclines her head a fraction to accept the friendly compliments but doesn’t stop her reviews, because this time around this trip doesn’t feel right. On Honeycomb her boatswain lost his legs at the mid-calf, two other crewmen died, bodies lost to the tunnel inhabitants of the planet. And they are bringing back the mangled remains of a dead miner. None of that makes for an auspicious departure.
She looks at the path the navigator has set for her ship, a formality really. Then the call signal gets her attention. She opens the channel and hears the voice of ship’s doctor.
What now?! She wonders, “Go on Doctor.”
“Captain, the body of the miner, the torso, it…contained life forms.”
Well, that got everyone’s attention, she thinks, as she hears of the pilot, navigator and her second in command twitch or turn to better hear the conversation. She glances and see six pairs of eyes looking at her or the intercom.
“But it was autopsied by you!? And why was it not incinerated afterward?”
“The autopsy was superficial; it wasn’t a murder mystery. We found the life forms way into the chest cavity. After all, the body was two or three days old, and the wounds were clearly due to trauma. Those things left very tiny eggs inside the body and some hatched. They are all dead, the size of sand fleas, crustacean body types, white. Sorry, Captain, the remains were in the morgue, but I hadn’t gotten around to cremating it.”
She pales and shiver in disgust. “Burn it! We are bringing back ashes! Check Haru more thoroughly for the same things and call me back.”
In the sick bay, Doc Napier sighs with embarrassment.
“Captain is right; we should have burned the remains, and stored them for the trip back.”
“We were busy screening the new passengers,” Zara, his intern, whispers then nods her head in Haru’s direction.
In one of the small privacy beds that are part of the ship’s medical center, the young man looks lost to sleep. “And Haru, that was horrible…That kept us busy.”
Doc Napier nods; it had been a shocking surprise when he got an emergency call to the surgery room to deal with a double amputation. After years of nothing more serious than broken bones, average industrial injuries. Or small epidemics of the boogie woogie flu that left people too hungover to even blink. Even the real flu and occasional STDs weren’t too harsh. But yesterday morning his medical skills were put to use.
From the Honeycomb their shuttle delivered him Haru Kim late in the day, the man had lost enough blood that Napier had been worried about brain damage. Maybe not, probably not, but the young man had been as white and cold as snow.
They got him on the surgery table, hooked him up to a blood bag and undid the tourniquets. Whatever had gotten a hold of him had sheared through the flesh and bones of the lower legs as neatly as a bolt cutter. It took him hours to repair the damage, to ensure the kid wasn’t going to die on him. He then applied the protein pain gel and clean up and suture the wound so that once the prosthesis were ready, Haru wouldn’t find them too hard or painful. Then the clean up of the sick bay followed. Then a very short respite, before at last with Zara, he run the health exams for the new six arrivals.
“Yeah, it did. But we were supposed to get it done. Zara, please incinerate the torso and hose down anything it touched with heavy duty cleaner. I’m going to take a closer look at our friend.”
Napier a stocky, barrel chested man, with the waist size to match; he’s getting on with the years, a veteran of a war, something else he calls a skirmish, and decades of work on commercial and industrial ships, but can still move lightly on his feet. He doesn’t want to wake Haru, who’s still weak and needs rest, not to mention depressed as hell, but he needs to be sure. He goes to the small semi-private patient’s room, pulls up a chair next to the young man and gets his syringes, containers, and tubes set up then sits next to him.
“Haru, hey Haru, wake up,” he says and shakes the man’s shoulder.
Haru opens his eyes. The dark circles beneath them are still stark but not as bad as yesterday, at least today he has some color to him. “Wasn’t sleeping.”
“Don’t mope, back home they’ll grow your limbs back. Not even cybernetics, it’ll be real feet and real legs you’ll be getting back. You can even ask them to make you taller.”
“Right now, I’m useless, and I can feel them. I can feel my feet. It’s freaky as hell, but at least they don’t hurt. ” Haru replies, the recent trauma has weakend him and softened his voice, but Napier can still hear the tang of anger around its edges. Haru pulls himself up on his elbows until he’s almost sitting in up in the bed, then moans and shuts his eyes tight. “I feel woozy.”
“Lay back down, the woozy feeling will pass soon as you get something to eat. As for the feet, it’s a phantom sensation, it’s common, and it’ll probably be with you for a while. And you aren’t useless, we’ll get you up on legs exos, and you’ll be walking out of here and breaking everyone’s balls again in no time at all. For now, I’m taking some of your blood, and I need you to poop and pee for me too.”
“Like, fffh…What, why?! What is this, the twentieth century? How ‘bout a heavy duty scan?! You maybe got some leeches you’re dying to try while you’re at it?”
“There’s the Haru we know and love! Some critters that look like sand fleas came out of that miner’s body. I want to make sure you don’t have any weird parasite that hitched a ride. Don’t worry; we’ll do a heavy duty scan too.”
“There weren’t any in the water; they were in the sand.”
“So, you are an expert biologist now?”
“No, but the sand fleas, worms and other critters were squirming and hoppin’ all over down there. But, on the dry stretches. I grew up in a fishing village, I know those critters, and anyway; I had my suit on, read the report.” He replies and crosses his arms.
Napier smiles, nods then gently holds one of his wrists and unfold one of his arms. “I will do that, meanwhile, make a fist.”
“Not taking any chances,” Zara says to herself as she stuffs herself in a too-tight biohazard suit before entering the small morgue down a ways from sick bay. It’s a cold small room, on a regular day it would also smells cold. And it would also smell of medical cleansers and metal. It has a metal floor, walls, and ceiling; inside it’s barren, sterile and minimalistic with scant few edges present for anything alive to hide behind.
But this past two days have been far from regular, and today the stench of rot from the miner’s remains permeate the room, they lie on the metal table near its center drained of color, gray and waxy meat. She sprays the now hollowed-out torso with its lone remaining limb, the internal organs that they had pulled for inspection are just by it, with the harshest biohazard cleaner they have on the ship. She soaks the remains inside and out, over and under, until the man’s faded tattoos, so old that the artless blue and black lines have smudged to ugly blurs, vanish beneath the white foam. The cleaner sizzles the flesh, she flips the flesh and bones over one last time then resprays the back of the torso; finished, she stands back and gives it ten minutes while she watches for anything jumping or crawling out of the foam. Her breath is tight, and her scalps itch but Zara’s focus has the intensity of a hungry hawk watching for baby chicks in a hen yard. Rewarded with an absence of apparent life from the wet mess, nothing crawls about or slithers about that she can see., Zara slides the remains onto a wheeled and shiny stainless steel cart then pushes them over to the incinerator at the far edge of the room.
“So long miner. Good luck wherever you’re going,” she says and hits the incinerate button. “Now I gotta clean up the room…look’it this mess you left here for me miner.”
Zara is a careful woman, she cleans the room from top to bottom, inspecting her work as she goes along. She may be Napier’s attending as a ship doctor but has gone through three years of internship and residency in the busiest hospital of a busy metropolis in one of the worst donuts orbiting near hearth. One day she got up in the morning and decided that heading into space as a ship doctor should be far more relaxing, far more adventurous, and hopefully have less paperwork. That day she handed in her resignation at the hospital and signed up with her best prospect. Even now she doesn’t regret her decision. She takes a deep breath, gives the room one last look and, before leaving it, she disinfects her hazmat suit and steps out it with deliberate care. The entire clean-up took an hour. It could have been faster, but just the idea of alien fleas, or whatever they may be, makes her skin itch and her scalp crawl. By the time she leaves the morgue, there’s nothing left alive in that room, but it takes her a long, hot shower to get rid of that itchy feeling. Finally, there’s just one more thing she needs before she can put it all behind her and head back to work. A cup of hot chocolate. A little comfort after an unpleasant task, and she heads for the cafeteria.