The Best Alternate History Stories Of The Twentieth Century Part 35

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"Begging your pardon, Captain," I said. "You're quite right. You haven't issued orders, and I apologize."

Then I turned around in my chair, folded my hands in my lap, and waited.

McKinnon sucked in his breath. He stared through the windows at the Fool's Gold, looked over his shoulder once more at the holo tank, weighing the few options available against the ma.s.s of his ego. After too many wasted seconds, he finally reached a decision.

"Very well," he said. He let go of our chairs and shoved himself back to his accustomed seat. "Ms. Bose, prepare to dock with the Fool's Gold. Mr. Furland, ready the main airlock hatch and prepare to go EVA."

"Aye, sir," Jeri said.

"Um, yeah... aye, sir."

"Meanwhile, I'll send a message to Ceres Station and inform them of the situation before we lose contact." Satisfied that he had reached a proper decision, he laid his hands on the armrest. "Good work, Futuremen," he added. "You've done well."

"Thank you, Captain," Jeri said.

"Aye, sir. Thank you." I unbuckled my seat harness and pushed off toward the bridge hatch, trying hard not to smile.

A little victory. Insignificant as it then seemed, I didn't have any idea how much my life depended upon it.

He took the pilot chair and headed theComet across the zone toward the computed position of the invisible asteroid.

"They'll surely see us approaching!" Ezra warned. "The Magician of Mars will be taking no chances, Cap'n Future!"

"We're going to use a stratagem to get onto that asteroid without him suspecting," Curt informed. "Watch."

-HAMILTON, The Magician of Mars (1941)

I'm a creature of habit, at least when it comes to established safety procedures, and so it was out of habit that I donned an EVA suit before I cycled through the Comet 's airlock and entered the Fool's Gold .

On one hand, wearing the bulky s.p.a.cesuit within a pressurized s.p.a.cecraft is stupidly redundant, and the panel within the airlock told me that there was positive pressure on the other side of the hatch. Yet it could be argued the airlock sensors might be out of whack and there was nothing but hard vacuum within the spar; this has been known to happen before, albeit rarely, and people have died as a result. In any case, the Astronaut's General Handbook says that an EVA suit should be worn when boarding another craft under uncertain conditions, and so I followed the book.

Doing so saved my life.

I went alone, leaving Jeri and McKinnon behind inside the freighter. The hatch led past the Gold 's airlock into the spar's access tunnel, all of which was vacant. Switching on the helmet's external mike, I heard nothing but the customary background hum of the ventilation system, further evidence that the vessel crew compartments were still pressurized.

At that point, I could well have removed my helmet and hung it from a strap on my utility belt. In fact, the only reason I didn't was that I didn't want it banging around as I went through the carrousel, which lay at the end of the tunnel to my right. Besides, the stillness of the tunnel gave me the chills. Surely someone would have noticed the unscheduled docking of an Ares-cla.s.s freighter, let alone one so far from Ceres. Why wasn't there an officer waiting at the airlock to chew me out for risking collision with his precious s.h.i.+p?

The answer came after I rotated through the carrousel and entered the rotating command sphere. That's when I found the first corpse.

A naked man hung upside down through an open manhole, his limp arms dangling above the wide pool of blood on the deck. It was difficult to see his face, because the blood that had dyed it crimson came from a scimitar-shaped gash in his neck. Looking up through the manhole, I saw that his feet had been neatly lashed together with a bungee cord, which in turn was tied to a conduit in the ceiling of the corridor directly above.

Since there were no bloodstains below his shoulders, it was obvious that his throat had been slit after he had been hung from the conduit. The blood was dry-most of it, anyway-and the body was stiff. He had been here for quite some time.

I reported what I found to Jeri and McKinnon, and then I gingerly pushed the body out of the way and continued down the corridor.

Please understand if everything I tell you sounds coldly methodical, even callous. First, if you've worked in s.p.a.ce as long as I have-that is, all my life-then death, no matter how horrible it may be, is no stranger. The first time I saw a man die was when I was nine years old, when a one-in-a-million micrometeorite punched through the helmet faceplate of one of my school teachers while he was leading us on a field trip to the Apollo 17 landing site at Taurus Lithrow. Since then, I've seen the grisly results of explosive decompression, fatal radiation overexposure, freak mining accidents, careless suit-up procedures, hull fires and electrocutions, even someone who choked on his own vomit after consuming too much bathtub vodka during a birthday party. Death comes to us all, eventually; if you're careful and wise, all you can do is make sure that it isn't too painful and no one is stuck with a mess to clean up.

Second: if I attempted now to describe each and every body I discovered as I made my way through the Fool's Gold, not only would the result be gratuitous pandering to those who wallow in such details, but I would never be able to complete this testimony.

To put it succinctly, the command sphere of the Fool's Gold was a slaughterhouse.

I found ten more bodies, each more gruesome than the last. They were in crew cabins and pa.s.sageways, in the galley and in the head, in the rec room and the quartermaster's office.

Most were alone, but two of them were together, each apparently dead from wounds they had inflicted upon one another: a man and a woman, who had tried to carve each other up with knives they had taken from the nearby galley.

A couple of the bodies were nude, like the first, but most were fully or partially clothed. For the most part, they had died of stabbing or bludgeon wounds, by means of anything that could be used as a weapon, whether it be a ballpoint pen, a screwdriver, or a pipefitter's wrench.

One woman was lucky. She had committed suicide by hanging herself by a coiled bedsheet she had cast over the top of a door. I hope that she had successfully strangled herself before whoever found her body seared off her right arm with the cutting torch cast nearby.

As I climbed up ladders, poked my helmet through hatches, and stepped over stiffening corpses, I kept up a running monologue, informing the Comet of where I exactly was within the vessel and what I had just found. I made no speculation as to why this ma.s.sacre had taken place, only to note that the bodies seemed reasonably fresh and that most of the bloodstains were dry.

And blood lay everywhere. It was splattered across walls and soaked into carpets and dripping from wall fixtures, until it no longer resembled blood and just looked like spilled red paint. I was glad I had my helmet on, because the visor helped distance me from the carnage, and the rank odor would have made me even more sickened than I was now.

Although I heard an occasional gasp or exclamation from Jeri through my headset, after a while I couldn't detect McKinnon's voice any longer. I a.s.sumed that he had gone someplace private to vomit. This was understandable; the violence around me was mind shattering.

There were four decks in the command sphere, one above the other. By the time I reached the top deck, I had counted eleven corpses. Remembering that McKinnon had told me earlier that the crew complement of the Fool's Gold was twelve, I had begun to wonder where the last body lay.

The hatch leading to the bridge was sealed shut; I used the laser welding torch from my belt to cut the lock. When I grasped the lockwheel and prized it open, it made a faint grinding noise, and it was at that moment that I heard a methodical, almost rhythmic thumping, as if something were being beaten against a bulkhead.

I first thought it was another background noise from the vessel itself, but when I pushed the hatch farther open, the noise it made interrupted the rhythm.

I stopped, holding the hatch ajar as I listened intently. I heard a faint giggle, then the thumping sound recommenced.

Someone was alive within the bridge.

The command center was dimly lit, the fluorescents switched off; the only light came from computer displays, flatscreens, and multicolored switches. The deck was in ruins, as if there had been a blowout, although the external pressure gauge told me it was still pressurized: upended chairs, ripped logbooks and manuals strewn across the floor, the remains of a b.l.o.o.d.y s.h.i.+rt.

The thumping continued. Seeking its unseen source, I switched on the helmet lamp and walked within its beam, my eyes darting back and forth as I searched for the sole survivor of the Fool's Gold. I was halfway across the bridge when my eye caught something scrawled across a bulkhead. Two words, fingerpainted in blood across the gray surface: PLAGUE.


It was then that I knew that wearing an EVA suit had saved my life.

Trembling within its insulated layers, I crossed the deserted bridge, looking for the last remaining crewmember of the Fool's Gold .

I found him in the emergency airlock, huddled in a corner next to the hatch, his knees drawn up to his chin. The jumpsuit he wore was streaked with gore, but I could still make out the captain's stars on its epaulets. His wary eyes winced from the glare of my lamp, and he giggled like a small child who had been caught exploring his mother's dresser drawers.

And then he continued to beat at the deck with the severed human arm he grasped in his left hand.

I don't know how long I stared at him. A few seconds, several minutes, perhaps longer. Jeri was saying something I couldn't understand; I paid no attention, nor could I respond. It wasn't until I heard another noise-from behind me, the faint sound of the hatch being shoved open-that I tore my eyes away from the mad captain of the Fool's Gold .

Bo McKinnon.

He had followed me from the Comet .

And, like the idiot he was, he wasn't wearing an EVA suit.

The little teardrop s.h.i.+p, the Comet, blasted at top speed toward the Earth and its summoning call. Captain Future thought somberly of the many times he had answered that call. Each time, he and the Futuremen had found themselves called on to battle deadly perils. Was it to be the same this time?

"We can't always win," he thought grimly. "We've been lucky, but the law of averages eventually has to turn against us."

-HAMILTON, The Triumph of Captain Future (1940)

Despite the name, no one knows the exact origin of the t.i.tan Plague. It was first contracted by members of the Herschel Explorer expedition of 2069, during the Pax's ill-fated attempt to establish a research outpost on t.i.tan. Although it was later theorized that the virus was indigenous to t.i.tan itself, the fact that it thrived in an oxygen-nitrogen environment led many people to speculate that the Plague had originated somewhere other than t.i.tan's nitrogen-methane atmosphere. There was even hearsay that the expedition had encountered an extrasolar race on t.i.tan and that the Plague had been pa.s.sed from Them... but, of course, that was just rumor.

Regardless, the indisputable facts are these: by the time the PARN Herschel Explorer returned to the inner system, the majority of its crew had been driven insane by an airborne virus. The only reason why the three surviving expedition members, including the s.h.i.+p's commander, were not infected was that they had managed to seal themselves within the command center, where they survived on emergency oxygen supplies and carefully rationed food and water. Most of the unquarantined members butchered each other during the long voyage home; those who did not died in agony when the disease rotted their brains in its terminal stages.

Once the Herschel Explorer reached the asteroid belt, the survivors parked it in orbit around Vesta, then used a lifeboat to escape. Three months later, the Herschel Explorer was scuttled by the PARN Intrepid. By then, Queen Macedonia had decreed that no further expeditions would be sent to t.i.tan and that any vessels attempting to land there would be destroyed by Her Majesty's navy.

Despite the precautions, though, there had been a few isolated outbreaks of t.i.tan Plague, albeit rare and confined to colonies in the outer system. No one knew exactly how the disease spread from the Herschel Explorer, although it was believed that it had been carried by the survivors themselves despite rigorous decontamination. Even though the first symptoms resembled little more than the once-common cold, the homicidal dementia that quickly followed was unmistakable. When someone came down with the Plague, there was no other option than to isolate them, remove anything that could be used as a weapon, and wait until they died.

No cure had ever been found.

Somehow, in some way we would never know, the Plague had found its way aboard the Fool's Gold. In the close confines of the ma.s.s-driver, it had swept through the entire vessel, driving its crew insane before they realized what had hit them. Perhaps the captain had figured it out, yet despite his precautions he himself was infected.

I was safe because I had worn a s.p.a.cesuit while exploring the s.h.i.+p.

But Bo McKinnon...

Captain Future, Man of Tomorrow, dauntless hero of the s.p.a.ceways. In his search for adventure, McKinnon had recklessly entered the vessel without bothering to don a suit.

"Did you shut the airlock?" I snapped.

"What? Huh?" Pale, visibly shaken by the horrors he had seen, McKinnon was staring at the maniac crouched in the airlock behind us. "Airlock? What... which...?"

I grabbed his shoulders and shook him so hard his headset fell down around his neck. "The Comet airlock! Did you shut it behind you, or did you leave it open?"

Unable to hear me now, he stammered until he realized that his headset was ajar. He fumbled with it until the earphones were back in place. "The airlock? I think so, I..."

"I think so? You moron, did you...?"

"Furland, oh my G.o.d..." He gaped at the wreckage around him. "What happened to these people? Did they... watch out!"

I turned around just in time to catch a glimpse of the madman as he lurched to his feet. Howling at the top of his lungs, he charged toward us, flailing the severed arm like a cricket bat.

I threw McKinnon aside. As he sprawled across the deck, I grabbed the airlock hatch and shoved it closed. An instant later the creature hit the opposite side of the hatch. He almost banged it open, but I put my shoulder against it. The hatch held, and a twist of lockwheel sealed it airtight; nonetheless, I could feel dull vibrations as the madman hammered against it with his hideous trophy.

I couldn't keep him locked in there forever. Sooner or later, he would find the lockwheel and remember how it worked. Perhaps then I could overcome him-if I was lucky, considering his berserk rage-but even then, I didn't dare bring him aboard the Comet .

There was only one solution. I found the airlock's outer control panel and flipped open its cover. "I'm sorry, sir," I whispered to the lunatic. "May G.o.d have mercy on us both."

Then I pushed the switch that jettisoned the outer hatch.

The alarm bells that rang throughout the bridge were the poor man's funeral dirge. There was long silence after I shut off the alarms, finally broken by McKinnon's voice.

"Mr. Furland, you just murdered that man."

I turned back around. McKinnon had managed to struggle to his feet; he clutched the back of a chair for support, and he glared at me with outraged eyes.

Before I could respond, Jeri's voice came to me over the comlink: "Rohr, he shut the airlock on the way out. The Comet hasn't been infected ."

I let out my breath. For once, Bo had managed to do something right on his own. "Good deal, kiddo. Keep it shut until I come back aboard."

I stepped away from the airlock, heading for the helm station on the other side of the bridge. McKinnon planted himself in my path. "Did you hear me, Mr. Furland?" he demanded, his adam's apple bobbing beneath his beard. "You just killed a man... I saw you do it! You..."

"Don't remind me. Now get out of my way." I pushed him aside and marched toward the helm.

One of its flatscreens depicted a schematic chart of the asteroid's position and estimated course. As I suspected, someone aboard the ma.s.s-driver had deliberately laid in the new course during a fit of insanity. Probably the captain himself, considering the fact that he had locked himself in here.

"I'm placing you under arrest!" McKinnon yelled. "Under my jurisdiction as an agent of the Planet Police, I..."

"There's no such thing." I bent over the keypad and went to work accessing the main computer, my fingers thick and clumsy within the suit gloves. "No Planet Police, no asteroid pirates. Just a s.h.i.+p whose air ducts are crawling with the Plague. You're..."

"I'm Captain Future!"

The virus must have already affected him. I could have checked to see if he was displaying any of the flu-like symptoms that were supposed to be the Plague's first signs, but he was the least of my worries just now.

No matter what I did, I couldn't access the program for the central navigation system. Lack of a pa.s.sword that had probably died along with one of the d.a.m.ned souls aboard this s.h.i.+p, and none of the standard overrides or interfaces worked either. I was completely locked out, unable to alter the vessel's velocity or trajectory that had it propelling 2046- Barr straight toward Mars.

"And what are you talking about, not letting anyone aboard the Comet until you give the word?" McKinnon was no longer hovering over me; he had found the late captain's chair and had taken it as his own, as if a.s.suming command of a vessel far larger than his measly freighter. "I'm the boss of this s.h.i.+p, not you, and I'm staying in charge until..."

Okay. The helm wouldn't obey any new instructions. Maybe it was still possible to scuttle the Fool's Gold. I accessed the engineering subsystem and began searching for a way to shut down the primary coolant loop of the gas-core reactor and its redundant safety systems. If I timed it right, perhaps the Comet would make a clean getaway before the reactor overloaded... and if we were G.o.dd.a.m.ned lucky, the explosion might knock the asteroid sufficiently off-course.

"Rohr?"Jeri again. "What's going on up there?" I didn't want to tell her, not with McKinnon eavesdropping on our comlink.

At the sound of her voice, he surged to his feet. "Joan! He's working for Ul Quorn, the Magician of Mars! He's going to...!"

I heard him coming long before he reached me. I stood up and, pulling back my arm, landed a right hook square against his hairy jaw.

It stopped him, but it wouldn't keep him stopped. McKinnon was a big guy. He staggered back, his eyes unfocused as he groped at the chair for support. "Traitor," he mumbled, feeling at his mouth with his left hand. "You traitor, you..."

I didn't have time for this s.h.i.+t, so I punched him again, this time square in the nose. Second shot did the trick; he reeled backward, sagged against the chair, and flopped flat on his back.

"What are you doing?"she demanded.

The Best Alternate History Stories Of The Twentieth Century Part 35

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The Best Alternate History Stories Of The Twentieth Century Part 35 summary

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