The bridegroom was vomiting in the Ladies’.
Giles reported this with a fair amount of excitement, spilling the better half of his pint over Nick’s pressure suit. The cigarette in Giles’ right hand came perilously close to Evangeline’s up-do. Matterly watched two or three untamed hairs sizzle and curl into black. It was a measure of how far they’d gone that no one complained about what Giles’ new habit was doing to the remainder of the circulation system.
“I don’t blame him,” Evangeline grated. “This batch tastes like piss.” She poured more of Giles’ homebrew into her cup.
Everything seemed very far away and yet full of portent to Matterly, as it did when he was drunk. Giles, blearily aware that his cigarette was going to hurt Evangeline long before it blossomed into cancer for him, dropped the butt on the sticky floor. It sizzled as it hit. The sound perfectly mirrored the current state of Matterly’s life, his career, and state of mind.
“You should go check on him,” Evangeline said, elbowing Matterly neatly in the abdomen.
“Why?” Matterly had shrunk into that stage of inebriation in which good times had left for greener pastures.
“Because,” Giles explained, “you’re the Best Man.”
“Damn.” Matterly listed to his feet. He tacked his way to the toilets and leaned against the door. Matterly worked his mouth, tried to remember the bridegroom’s name. Evangeline had told him a few hours ago. No problem, he’d just mosey on back to the table, have another drink, and ask her to remind him.
Then the door opened and Matterly toppled, landing at the feet of the vomit-covered bridegroom.
“Feeling better?” Matterly said. He remembered the name. “Dick!”
“Dicken,” the bridegroom slurred. “Who’re you?” Dicken noticed the state of his jacket and began fumbling with the zip.
“S’me,” Matterly fanfared, getting to his feet, “your Best Man.”
Dicken wriggled out of the jacket. Underneath it he wore an antique sleep-suit, copper-nodes green with age, yellow stains under the arms. Matterly realized his attempt to get to his feet had failed. He also realized, looking up into Dicken’s dark, blood-shot eyes, that the bridegroom was looking in two different directions.
Dicken took Matterly by the hair to tilt his head up. The man’s hands were huge. The man himself was huge. A very small, sober part of Matterly worried that this might cause trouble later.
“I’m the Best Man,” Matterly said.
“Oh,” Dicken said. He belched chemical fumes. “Who’s gettin’ hitched?”
Matterly was sobering up. Couldn’t have that. “You forget already? You been drinking too much,” he said, except Dicken hadn’t been drinking, not at all. And the vomiting wasn’t nerves, was it?
Matterly righted himself with some effort. “More booze!” he exclaimed. It was past time to get this party back on some kind of track. He was Best Man this time. He had to get the bridegroom to the church. Matterly felt something flutter near his bladder. “Not good to be sober,” he said, chewing his lip.
“Excellent.” Dicken’s hand clamped around Matterly’s right bicep. It was an odd feeling. When was the last time any of them had actually touched one another?
Matterly and Dicken tangoed the gently curving floor back to the table. Evangeline had discovered the crisp ends of her hair and was pulling at them thoughtfully. Giles, good ol’ Giles, had a tray of glasses trembling with amber liquid.
“Giles’ really okay,” Matterly reassured Dicken’s ear. “It gets to him, you know?” The circulation fan, its sickened screeching having been ignored far too long, ground finally to a stuttered halt. “It’s all the empty space.”
“Hear! Hear!” Evangeline cheered.
Matterly managed a chair count, saw they were short, and pulled one away from a neighboring table. “Stuck,” he observed, peering intently at the floor. He tugged, but the chair refused to budge. “It’s stuck,” he explained to Dicken, who had taken Matterly’s place at the table and was peering at Nick’s slumped form.
“Of course it’s stuck,” Evangeline said.
Of course it was. Evangeline handed a glass over. Matterly sat on the stuck chair and took a greedy slurp. It didn’t burn nearly as much as it usually did and he downed the rest of it with barely a cough. Evangeline, impressed with his progress, handed him another. Matterly watched the viscous liquid shimmy against the side of the glass. Life support was still working. That was good.
“Oh my God,” Giles said, straightening his loosening pressure suit. “I’ve got it!”
“Got wha’, mate?” Evangeline had formed two pyramids of shot glasses on the table and was counting to make sure she had them even.
“I know what we forgot!”
Evangeline took a glass from the top of the left pyramid and handed it to Dicken. The bridegroom took it as if it were alive, which, judging from the color of the liquid within, it could very well be.
“Don’t. Go. Anywhere.” Giles reeled spinward to the bar. Dicken aimed for his mouth with the shot glass. Evangeline whistled and gave him another.
“What is this crap?” Dicken said.
“Tha’,” Evangeline said, “is Giles’ special recipe.” She downed one of her own. “Nope. Sorry. Tha’s his normal recipe.” She grabbed a different glass and refilled Dicken’s hand. “This is the special one.”
Dicken raised his glass to Evangeline and drank, which started an immediate coughing fit. Matterly slapped him on the back.
“Never could hold his liquor,” Matterly said confidently, although he’d known the man less than an hour.
“I don’t drink,” Dicken said when he could.
This announcement startled the others almost sober. Evangeline leaned back in her chair. “I hear tha’ right?” she said.
“Never have,” Dicken slurred. “Not good for the hand-eye, you know.” He waved both hands as if to prove a point. Evangeline saw they were empty and remedied the situation. Safely anchored with a shot in each hand, Dicken looked much less threatening. “Drink up,” Matterly said.
“Never touch the stuff,” Dicken said, holding both shots level with his eyes. He drank. “I’m a career, career… wait for it.” Dicken raised the second shot in a salute and emptied it, too. The expression on his face pinched, his cheeks flushed further. He gave the glass to Evangeline. “Between you and me,” he said, “that one’s rat poison.”
“Tha’s exactly what I said,” Evangeline agreed.
“‘S’coming!” Giles announced, returning with a jug of something else.
“Wha’s coming?” Matterly said. He took the jug from Giles, dumped it between the diminishing pyramids, and, seeing they were running out of room, swept half a dozen empty glasses to the floor.
“It’s a surprise,” Giles said, pointing at Dicken with a flourish, “for the bridegroom!”
“Aww, that is good, Giles,” Evangeline said. “Tha’s in keeping.”
“You see,” Dicken said philosophically, “that’s what I don’t get.” He had found the large hole in the left breast of his sleep suit and was poking at it with his finger.
“Leave it,” Evangeline said, leaning over to push Dicken’s hand away. “You’ll only make it bigger.”
“Don’t get wha’?” Matterly said.
“You’re my Best Man, right?” Dicken said.
“He’s the best Best Man ever!” Giles exclaimed. He and Matterly clinked glasses. Liquid spilled.
“A toast to the Best Man!” Evangeline cried. Glasses clinked.
“A toast to the Shelby!” Giles said.
“Best ship in the system!” Matterly said. Glasses clinked.
“Bless all who fly in her!” Giles said. He aimed his glass at Matterly’s and missed.
“Hell, Giles, why you have to say tha’?” Evangeline said.
“I don’t actually know you, do I?” Dicken said.
Matterly sighed. He’d just been starting to like this one.
“I’ve never seen any of you before,” Dicken said. His eyes had begun to point the same direction. “I need water.” Dicken tried to get out of his chair.
“Matterly?” Evangeline said.
“Yeah,” Matterly said, lurching to his feet. “I’ll get water for you, buddy.” The bar ‘bot was still spinning aimlessly on the floor. Giles had shot it with the laser tool during one of his temper tantrums and Matterly hadn’t been able to get at the parts to fix it. It had been bloody hilarious for a time. Now it just looked sad.
Matterly asked the dispenser for water. Water sputtered out, then quit with a greyish spurt. Matterly found the tablet nestled in his breast pocket. He hadn’t had to use it the last time he’d been Best Man. That guy (Lee? Yee?) had been so out of it he’d believed them right to the end. He’d even given Matterly the thumbs up when the lock had sealed him in. Matterly blew lint off the pill and dumped it into the glass, stirred with a grubby finger.
“Here ya go,” Matterly said when he returned to the table.
“It’s all coming back,” Dicken said. He took a gulp from the glass, grimaced. “Man, your reclaimer is crap. When’s the last time maintenance had a look?”
The alarm went off.
“Forty-seven twenty-one,” Giles said, leaning over to look at Nick’s timepiece.
“Is tha’ the same?” Matterly asked. He was trying to work the numbers in his head but they’d gone all slippery. At the beginning, though, there’d been days between alarms. Now they had minutes.
“This is just a normal physiological response to long-sleep!” Dicken exclaimed. He grinned triumphantly and finished his water. “That’s it! This is the Shelby!” He trailed off as the drug met the alcohol already in his system. “Oh… ”
“It’s knocked thirteen minutes off,” Giles said. The ship shuddered beneath them. The second alarm went off. Giles zeroed the counter on Nick’s timepiece.
Evangeline took the glass from Dicken’s slack hand. “You better go,” she told Matterly. “It’s testing the lock again.”
“Okay,” Matterly said. One more shot for the road, then he took Dicken by the arm and steered him toward the hatch. “This way, buddy. It’s time.”
Just then Giles’ surprise came on. The sound system crackled to life and the common room filled with Mendelssohn’s Wedding March.
“It’s your wedding day!” Matterly shouted over the music.
The open hatch led to the spinward corridor on D deck. It was a roundabout route, but they had sealed everything above them when the virulence of the disease had become clear.
Thank Christ Dicken was walking on his own, Matterly thought. Groggy from drugs, alcohol, and three years of long sleep, Dicken still had the build of someone who’d grown up planet-side. He must’ve fallen hard to end up a Popsicle on a third-rate mining ship this far the wrong side of Titan.
Matterly led Dicken past gamma lift. It was stuck between decks. Had been for months. Matterly hoped no one had been in it when it jammed, but with the computer down there was no way of knowing for sure.
“Hey,” Dicken slurred. His left foot was beginning to drag. “Wha’s your name again?”
“I don’ know you, do I?”
Delta lift waited for them. Matterly pushed Dicken in ahead of him and toggled the ID band. The lift lurched into motion.
“No, buddy, you don’t.”
Dicken reached out for the handhold as they lifted away from the hab wheel. So not a complete newbie after all, Matterly thought. The lift rose into free-g. Briefly, the porthole in the hatch showed the blackness of the outer system and the habitat wheel of the Shelby. The hub, thankfully, wasn’t visible from here, nor was the rocky disturbance of asteroid 7894. Dicken floated, loose-limbed. Matterly wished they’d blown the damn ship right from the start. He liked Thomas Dicken.
“You’re doing a good thing, Dicken,” Matterly hated himself for using Giles’ line. There never had been any good in what they were doing that he could see.
Dicken picked at the hole where his name badge had been. “I’m a doctor,” he said vaguely. “They need doctors on Oberon Base. I signed a ten-year contract.” The lift entered the hub. Stopped.
“Why in hell you do that?” Matterly said. “You’re an Earther, for God’s sake.” The lift slid open.
Matterly looked down the corridor. Emergency lighting pulsed yellow. Giles had shut off the alarms. At the far end of the corridor, the hatch for Hangar C waited. The Shelby shuddered again. A shadow crossed the porthole of the hatch.
“There was an incident,” Matterly said. Not a word of a lie, that.
“There’s someone in there,” Dicken said, floating hesitantly out of the lift.
This was going to be an easy one, Matterly thought. After all this time, you got to know the one from the other.
Dicken glanced back. “Can you get me a kit?”
Matterly closed the lift. Through the porthole, he watched Dicken fumble for the panel beside the hangar entrance. The drug had made him clumsy. The hatch slid open at last. That’s when Dicken sensed something was wrong. He tensed, arms raised reflexively, head ducked.
Then, shapes moved in the dark of the cargo hold. As usual, Matterly couldn’t see them clearly. He thought, during the few moments when he was fully, horribly sober, that they were still alive in there, all of them. Evangeline said not. Evangeline said the Popsicles were just dead, that it was the virus making them jerk about so, like they were puppets, or some shiny new toy.
Giles said, who cares? Giles said, be glad the Popsicles distracted the virus long enough to buy them some time.
Nick, obviously, had stopped talking to any of them at all.
There was one thing, however, that they all agreed upon: the bridegroom always went the same way. And now, just like all the bridegrooms who’d come before, the virus took hold of Dicken. Tense with fear, Dicken relaxed. His head came up and his whole body loosened as if he were letting go of something. He straightened his stained and yellowed sleep-suit, smoothed the hole over his left breast where his name tag had been, and gave Matterly a big-smiled wave. Then he shoved off the handhold.
Matterly didn’t need to see what came next. Once had been quite enough. He’d never forget the continued loosening: the skin growing slack around the eyes; the smile growing wider as the skin sloughed back from the teeth; the glossy, inevitable pearls of blood that erupted from the eyes and ears and nose and bobbed into the air. The awful jaunty swing into the hangar, blood drops swirling behind the bridegroom like freaking balloons. Worst of all, the waving never stopped. And Matterly waiting, waiting until the Popsicle was in the hangar before he keyed the door shut, set the seal, and vented atmosphere between the lift and the hangar.
Matterly had thought he could handle it, but this was no vid, this was a person, and the memory of it kept Matterly drinking and inhaling and swallowing whatever Giles offered pretty much full time since… Since when? Matterly rubbed his face with his hand. He was slick with sweat and grime. How long had it been?
He, Giles, and Evangeline had been on EVA when the virus had first infected the crew, so Matterly hadn’t been with Jin when he died, but he’d seen enough of it since. The awful wave. The goddamn awful wave.
Giles was waiting for him when the lift returned to the hab, laser tool in one hand, shot glass in the other. Matterly took the shot.
“Remind me why we’re doing this,” Matterly said, knocking back the shot before Giles could see how badly he was shaking. It went down like diamond-edged syrup.
“Something about getting stinkin’ rich, wasn’t it?” Giles said.
Which was bull, not that it wasn’t on their radar, just a little. The virus had claimed seventeen crew members only twenty-one minutes after it had thawed in the hangar. Imagine it planet-side.
Still, Matterly worried things had become unhinged somehow. Maybe raiding the drug supply had been as bad an idea as Nick had said it was.
“I feel freaking amazing.”
Evangeline had dumped a stash of magic in the center of the table and set it alight. Nick couldn’t be happy about the damage to the table, Matterly thought, but he hadn’t said anything about it. Matterly began to giggle. The magic was certainly working.
“Stop that!” Evangeline said. “We have to make a decision. I need you,” she pointed at them all in turn, saving an especially hard glare for Matterly, “to be serious.” Her tablet’s status bar, linked to the Shelby‘s tiny medlab, was unchanged. It had come up with three anti-virus options so far, none of which had worked. Iteration #4 was taking a long time. Right now, it was neck and neck as to what would be ready first: the computer, or the virus. The virus was quiet for now, preoccupied with digesting (or whatever) Thomas Dicken.
“Straws,” Giles said again.
“Screw that,” Evangeline said.
“Then the detonator,” Matterly said.
They had talked circles about blowing the ship and the asteroid. That was early days, before Giles had suggested using Popsicles to buy time for the medlab to do its work. They’d bought time, again and again, and now they were out.
“Screw that, too.”
“There’s no third option,” Giles said. “We’re done here. Detonator or straws. And because you’re the only one with any medical training, there’s no straw for you.”
“No straw for you,” Matterly giggled. He loved the magic. He nudged Nick with his foot to see if Nick felt the same way. Nick was stoic as ever. What a guy.
“The medlab doesn’t need me,” Evangeline said, waving the tablet. “It either works or it doesn’t. If it’s good, the computer’ll pump the entire Shelby full of antivirus. If it’s not… well.”
“We try again!” Matterly said, raising his fist in a gesture of triumph.
Evangeline snorted. “There’s no again, Matterly. If this virus gets to the inner planets…”
“Yeah,” Matterly interrupted. “I heard that more than once.” Matterly scowled at Nick, who’d put paid to any possible rescue by blasting the Shelby‘s communications laser. That had caused a lot of hard feelings, but it was better now. They’d even given the detonator back to Nick, now he could be trusted to hold it.
“Straws it is,” Giles announced cheerfully, and went to find some. Evangeline stomped off to her room. Matterly sat in the cloud of magic, feeling kind of floaty now that they’d gotten to this point. It had been a long haul. Two years out of Titan when they’d scanned that asteroid; a three-month detour to tag and sample it, and they still had had plenty of fuel for the push to Oberon. It was like the universe had finally noticed them: if the asteroid panned out like Jin’s initial scans had said it would, they’d were all going to hang up their ‘suits and retire planet-side they’d be so damned rich!
The universe sure had noticed them.
What were the chances of a virus surviving that long, locked inside an asteroid spinning in the deep dark depths of the solar system? What the hell were the chances? Jin and Matterly, they’d made plans.
The thing Matterly had tried to drown in alcohol and drugs welled up. It sent grief like needles to his fingers and toes. “Shit!” he shouted. He kicked back from the table, but the chair, of course, was bolted to the floor. Matterly kicked the table, the chair. Turned at last and hit Nick, who toppled, detonator switch and all, to the filthy floor.
And nothing happened. Nothing at all. The laboring life support still labored. The lights still flickered. Matterly still hurt, and the only one who’d ever really given a damn was dead from the very asteroid they’d pinned all their future upon.
Nick sure as hell didn’t give a damn. Not anymore.
Matterly lurched from the table. There had to be another way. He went after Evangeline, opened the hatch. Evangeline was standing by the porthole.
“What?” she asked, voice sharp. She’d told them to never come in here.
He’d been going to beg her: think of something! Think of anything! Maybe they should sober up. Maybe if they could take a minute and just think, they’d come up with something useful.
“What in hell is this?” Matterly asked instead. He picked an oval name badge up from the table nearest him. It was blue-on-white. Th’uan, it read. Another, red-on-white, read Bauer. A third, also red-on-white for Mars, said Nambdy. “Shit, Evangeline.”
Every table was covered in the name badges. Every chair. When she’d run out of space on chairs, she’d spread them on the floor. They were puddled at her feet, at Matterly’s feet. Hundreds of them. Hundreds and hundreds. Jesus, Matterly thought. How long have we been stranded out here?
Matterly picked up another. Black-and-white: Dasgupta. Matterly remembered Dasgupta. A Spacer, like Matterly, sick of poverty and second-class citizenship, throwing it all away for something better. Dasgupta had drunk Giles under the table, then vomited the alcohol and the last of the cryo fluid which was still in his system. He’d waltzed Evangeline out of the bar when it was his turn to take the lift, singing the praises of the woman he loved. Who was, Giles had observed in Dasgupta’s wake, likely safe and sound on Venus, having long forgotten Dasgupta.
Evangeline put the newest badge — Dicken’s — onto the table. “They thought the future was waiting for them,” she said. “They trusted us to take them there.”
“They knew there was a risk.”
“Bullshit! Look what we’ve done!”
“That rock was the find of a lifetime.”
“This is not the lifetime I wanted.”
“You agreed. At the beginning. One by one, we agreed.”
“Not to this.”
“You sound like Nick.”
“That a threat?”
“No.” Matterly tried to clear his head. It had seemed so right, at the beginning. That was exactly the problem. Sacrifice a few, save the rest. But the rest hadn’t been saved. They were all dead, too. They could have blown the Shelby at the beginning, the way Nick had wanted. The outcome would have been the same, just less messy. “We did what we thought was best,” he finished weakly.
“This is the future.” Evangeline nodded toward the porthole. There was a clear view to the hub, still tethered to the metal-rich, virus-infested asteroid that had killed them all. “It’s cold and dark and indifferent. We’re dying, Matterly, and no one cares.”
The hatch opened. Light stabbed in from the bar in a gust of drugged smoke. Giles shook a box at them. “Found the straws,” he said. He glanced around. “Never took you for a collector, Evangeline.” He frowned at Matterly. “You wanna explain how Nick ended up on the floor?”
The magic was smoldering along quite nicely. Giles had propped Nick against a chair. There were protein cubes stuck to his face, but if Giles didn’t mind if Nick stayed on the floor, Matterly didn’t mind if Nick’s personal hygiene took a hit. Giles had notched one of the straws with a knife, shuffled them around, and now held them in one fist.
“That’s not fair,” Evangeline protested. “You know which one is marked!”
“What the hell? You want Nick to hold them?” There was silence, and then the three of them burst out laughing. It was a little hysterical, of course, but man, it felt good.
“I’ll draw last, okay?” Giles said.
Matterly thought the three straws were pretty sad. The crew party on launch day had been held in Hangar B so there’d be room for everyone. Now there were three of them left. Four, if you counted Nick, but it was probably time to stop counting Nick. Truth be told, Nick was starting to smell.
“Ladies first,” Matterly said.
“Screw you,” Evangeline said, but she reached for a straw. “If it’s me,” she said before she looked at it, “put me right out of it, okay? I don’t want to know. I don’t need to know. Just put me out.”
Evangeline regarded her unnotched straw. “Aw, hell,” she said. “Another 90 minutes on this shitload of a boat.” But she began to shake, and had to sit down.
“That’s all this is, isn’t it?” Matterly said. “We’re just figuring out who has to put up with this longest?” The magic didn’t seem to be working so well anymore. His hands went slick.
“Yeah,” Giles said.
Matterly reached for the straws. Giles glanced away, almost imperceptibly. Matterly pulled a straw out of Giles’ hand. Weirdly, he noticed that the diameter of the straw was exactly the same as the diameter of the hole the laser tool had left in Nick’s forehead.
“You need to get very, very wrecked,” Giles observed.
With a pop, the table the magic had been smoldering on gave way. The mass of plastic and drug slumped to the floor. “Shit,” Matterly said, flinging his notched straw to the floor. “That’s going to stain.” Then the hab’s spin-rate seemed to lurch. Matterly saw the floor reach up to smack him, and then it was dark.
Evangeline leaned over him.
“What happened?” Matterly managed. Someone had crawled into his mouth and slipped mittens over each one of his teeth.
“You passed out,” Evangeline said. She was working away at something. Matterly remembered.
“How long?” he said, gasping. “God, how long do I have?”
“Shh,” Evangeline said. She tugged at his suit and something came away. Black-on-white. His name badge.
“Ah, no, Evangeline,” Matterly moaned.
“Don’t worry,” she said, patting him. “I’ve reserved somewhere special for you.”
“Here you are, mate,” Giles said, leaning over him. He had a mug in his hand, thick and foul-smelling liquid splashed over the side and onto the floor. “I’ve been saving this brew for today. You get to try it first.” Giles helped Matterly into a chair. One of them had finally taken Nick away, Matterly noticed. That was a friendly touch. It was just the three of them now. The last ones standing. The final huzzah. Matterly took Giles’ offering and tasted it. It wasn’t half bad, and he told Giles as much once he stopped coughing. Evangeline’s tablet displayed the medlab’s progress. Matterly didn’t look at it. Giles had put the detonator on his own wrist. Matterly was perversely glad he would not be the one who had to blow the Shelby‘s engines. He didn’t think he’d have the courage. Hell. He knew he didn’t have the courage. Evangeline pressed his knee still with her hand.
“So, what’s the plan?” Matterly said.
“No change,” Evangeline said. “If this last anti-virus doesn’t work, Giles and I will blow the Shelby‘s main vacuum chamber. That will start a chain reaction to take out the ship and the asteroid. Nick finished the calculations before, you know.”
Giles kissed the detonator. It and the tiny medlab on E deck were the only two pieces of equipment they’d ensured still worked properly.
“We can’t let anyone salvage this mess. Imagine this getting to the inner system?” They had imagined it, many times. It was what they did when they weren’t drinking.
“If it does work, you and Giles will be sitting on the biggest salvage in the solar system.”
They drank in companionable silence.
“Do you think they’re still out there?” Matterly asked.
“Everyone,” Matterly said, waving in what he thought might be the direction of the rest of humanity.
Evangeline took a swig from Matterly’s drink and handed it back to him. “Damned if I know.”
“Hey,” Matterly said, taking another drink. “You could buy some land, you know? Maybe on Gates’ Station or some-such, inner system for sure. You could have it all planted with trees and some other green shit, you know? You could call it Shelby Park.”
“Screw that for a name,” Giles said, refilling Matterly’s cup. “Matterly Park.”
“That’s good,” Evangeline said.
“Matterly’s a stupid name, how about Jin Park?”
“Jin Park? Really?” Giles said.
Matterly considered. “Good point. Sounds like… sounds like a place where kids go to get lucky.”
“Let’s not name it at all,” Evangeline said.
The alarm went off.
Matterly went to jelly.
Giles looked at the timepiece. “33.56.”
“No!” Matterly exclaimed, raising his cup. “I haven’t finished! I’m not done!”
Giles pushed the mug into his face. “I’ll be your Best Man, buddy,” he said. “Drink up.”
Suspicion washed over Matterly. He reared back. The mug emptied onto the floor. “No, man,” he said. He wanted to do it on his own.
“It’s easier like this, buddy,” Giles said. He reached into his pocket, took out another pill, “Like going off to happy land.”
Matterly’s head-shake was more like a convulsion, as if his head and his heart wanted two different things. “No. I want to do this on my own. My own, understand?”
Giles looked disappointed. “You’re not going to go ape on me, are you?”
Matterly’s throat was dry. “I’m not Nick,” he rasped.
Giles sighed and looked at Evangeline. Evangeline shrugged. “At this point?” she said. “Let him give it a shot.”
Giles put the pill back into his pocket. “I’ll just keep this with me,” he said.
“I won’t need it.”
“Just in case.”
“I won’t need it.”
The ship shuddered.
Time to go.
The lights failed as they went down the corridor. The three of them stood in the dark, Giles’ hand clutching Matterly’s forearm.
“Wait for it,” Evangeline said. It was like she was willing the Shelby‘s maligned systems to get to work. Then a flicker, and emergency lighting bloomed along the corridor in a sickly red.
“Sure would suck if the lift wasn’t working, hunh?” Matterly’s voice squeaked out. “Then we might all want Giles’ pill.”
But the lift door opened, only a slight grinding against the frame, which was nothing new. Matterly’s breath blew out in an explosion. “I’m okay, I’m okay,” he said, but he needed Giles to help him into the lift.
All three of them went, because in the end Evangeline didn’t want to be alone and after all they’d been through together it only seemed right.
“Oh, shit,” Matterly said when the lift began to move. Evangeline was holding his hand and that made three times in one day. When had he last been touched? Jin, it must have been. Just before the EVA, he guessed, the two of them so pleased to have pulled it off: working the same ship, an unclaimed asteroid, finally they had it made.
“You sure you don’t want it?” Giles said, holding out the small pill. “Just slip it under your tongue.”
“No.” But, oh, it was tempting. He clutched harder at Evangeline’s hand. The wave, he thought. He didn’t want to do that. He hated that wave. He began to shake.
“God,” he gasped, “sorry.” He pushed his free hand over his chest, sure his heart was thumping to get out. “Can you hear that?” he said. “Can you hear it beating?”
The ship lurched. Matterly screamed, then laughed as his feet left the floor. “Oh, God, guys, I’m sorry. I’m trying to be cool. I’m trying.”
“You sure about the pill?” Giles said, waving it. He was a realist, Giles was. He could always do what needed doing. Matterly respected that. He didn’t even mind that Giles had put the laser tool in his pocket as they left the bar. “It’s going to happen, buddy. It’s your wedding day, now.”
This was ludicrous. The lift was speeding toward the hub. Evangeline’s hand in his became too much and he shook it off. “I already h-had a wedding day,” Matterly stuttered. Somehow, his head was clear. Matterly felt more himself than he had in months. Or maybe that was the magic talking.
Giles’ hand hovered over his pressure suit pocket. Briefly, Matterly thought of making a grab for the laser tool. His hand jerked that way, he convulsed, and Matterly saw a hardness flit across Giles’ face. No. Not like Nick. Not like that. Matterly pressed his hand to his groin.
The lift door opened. Ahead, the corridor flashed red emergency lights. Nothing moved in the hangar.
“Good luck,” Giles said.
“That’s a stupid thing to say!” Evangeline hissed. She was strained-looking. “Sorry, Matterly,” she said.
“It’s okay,” Matterly said. His chest felt tight. Giles pushed him out of the lift. Matterly let go of the handhold and his bladder loosened, urine spreading a warm patch down the leg of his pressure suit. He almost did it then, almost reached back for Giles’ damn pill.
There was a pounding from the hangar.
“Better close that lift, Giles,” Matterly panted, “before I change my mind!”
But the door was already closed. Through the window Matterly saw Giles, the bloody bastard, pop the pill he’d saved for Matterly into his own mouth.
The pounding continued.
Time to go.
Matterly pushed down the corridor, heartbeat loud in his ears. His vision had shrunk to a single point: the hangar door. The lock control was to his right. All he had to do was push the button.
There was motion behind the door.
The lock control. With an effort, Matterly found it. Giles had already disabled the passcode from the lift. If he needed to, he could open the door from the lift, too. Matterly’s hands were shaking so much he was afraid that’s what would happen. “Wait, wait,” he begged. He was going to do this on his own. The light went green.
Matterly hit the button. “At least I’ll know,” he muttered. That was something, wasn’t it? He’d know what Jin had gone through.
He felt absurdly calm. Was that the virus, affecting him already?
The lights in the hangar were dim. Chill washed out. The air smelled oddly sweet. A fist clenched his stomach.
The virus opened him, pulled at his thoughts. The figure in the cargo hold clarified. Beckoned, assumed a shape he knew and loved.
He looked back. Evangeline was slapping the window. She held up her tablet, but Matterly couldn’t make out what had her so worked up. Couldn’t she see it didn’t matter? He felt his lips pull back in a smile, and his hand came up. Just a wave, to let her know it was okay. Matterly could feel the virus working in him, loosening his edges, lifting his fear. Hey, Evangeline, he thought, getting ready to wave, it’s okay!
With a howl, Matterly slammed his hand against the wall. His loosening skin tore and momentum sent him spinning toward the hangar. No! In spite of everything, one thing was still pure. Matterly was going to die, but he knew Jin, and that thing in the hangar wasn’t him. Matterly felt his face twist into a scream, felt blood vessels burst around his mouth. He took that pain, held it close, and with that one small act, he found he still had a choice, if that’s what you could call it.
He didn’t wave.
Matterly was afraid. Who was he kidding? He was terrified.
“To hell with you!” he hollered, the virus tearing his voice box into shreds. He shoved its feel-good away. “I had a life, damn it! We had plans!” He entered the hangar.
The hatch closed.
|J.S. Veter writes Science Fiction and Fantasy in the fairytale setting of Dundas, Ontario. Her fiction has been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, On Spec Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Luna Station Quarterly, and in other publications. She has written four novels and has just completed a middle-grade HiLo sci-fi series called Beast, for kids who want an exciting story but need an easier read. You can learn more at jessicaveter.com|