By Steve Carr
Connely had his eyes on the console screen where equations and numbers quickly rolled upward in what seemed like never-ending sequences. He asked Hazel to alert him when anything unusual appeared, but she remained silent other than to let him know when lunchtime had come and gone. He preferred getting his meals from the autofood on his own schedule anyway, and lately the rest of the crew of Roadrunner were a surly bunch, complaining about the time spent in space following an asteroid that was sixteenth the size of Earth’s moon, so eating with them was nearly unbearable. He preferred the company of numbers in a way that he never did with other people, so spending time watching the data roll by was relaxing. Numbers could be boringly constant or suddenly surprising, but never ill-tempered. At times the numbers coming back from the sensor and geological readings of Asteroid QLR4 had been confused and confounding. He rubbed his eyes, easing a tiny bit of the strain, and then glanced up at the viewing screen showing the huge piece of space rock the Roadrunner was following. Somewhere on it, the rover was still sending back its findings and pictures but had come to a complete stop.
Finally speaking up after two hours of silence, Hazel said over the intercom in the science lab where Connely sat, “Allison has entered the ecodisposal unit.”
“Why?” he responded.
Hazel was silent for a moment. “I believe she said she had a headache.”
“That makes no sense,” Connely said. He flicked on the screen in the console that gave him a view of the ecodisposal unit. As the science officer for the Roadrunner he alone was supposed to have access to that unit. He could see Allison leaning against the door that led to the airlock where the biohazardous and radioactive disposables were placed before being released into space. He couldn’t see her face but she was grasping her head. He switched on the intercom connecting him to the ecodisposal unit.
“Allison, are you okay?” he asked.
He had liked her from the first time he met her just before the launch of Roadrunner. Counting the time they had spent in hypersleep at the same time, they had traveled in space together for ten years. She was a good ship’s engineer, and a pretty red head to-boot, although she had no training in chasing asteroids. Among the seven other crew members, she hadn’t lost her sense of humor about being told by the Quadrell Corporation to follow and explore QLR4 until there were answers to the reported anomalies about the asteroid being sent back by the rover.
He repeated the question. “Allison, are you okay?”
She glanced up at the camera in the corner ceiling of the unit. Tears were streaming down her face that was contorted into an expression of pain; her eyes were squinted, her lips pulled tight.
“I didn’t mean to,” she mumbled, her voice filled with despair.
“Didn’t mean to what?” he asked, softly.
She reached out and placed her hand on the red button to open the door to the airlock. “Goodbye, Connely,” she said and then she opened the airlock door.
Alarms sounded throughout the ship. Connely was suddenly connected to the intercoms to the other parts of the ship.
“What’s going on?” Gerzki, the hulking by-the-book ship captain shouted into the intercom on the bridge. “Hazel, give me a report.”
Connely watched as Allison walked into the airlock, shut the door, and a moment later ejected herself out into space.
“Second Engineer Molly Allison has ended her life,” Hazel announced over the intercom.
“Something has happened to Baldwin,” Openrow, the ship’s Life Management Engineer, and the youngest of the crew who’s boy-like features belied his actual age of twenty-six, joined in from the Communications Engineer’s quarters.
Connely, Gerzki, and Openrow looked down at the bloodied body of Dave Baldwin. He was on the floor of his quarters and his skull had been bashed in. A pure iridium rock brought back from another asteroid lay by his body, covered in blood. The ship’s doctor, Laker, who’s appearance was that of a man in need of nutrition – for a doctor he was very thin to the point of looking emaciated – stood nearby entering information into his notepad.
“You saw nothing?” Gerzki asked Hazel.
“I saw Allison in the passageway just before she entered his quarters, but Baldwin had his cameras on blind,” Hazel answered.
“Why would he do that?” Connely asked, and then it dawned on him. The two of them had always been playful with each other, but he never suspected there was more to it. He fought back the pang of jealousy that gripped his thoughts.
“It doesn’t make sense to me either,” Openrow said. “We were going to play a game of chess. That’s why I came to his quarters.”
Gerzki turned to Connely. “How did Allison get the access code to the ecodisposal unit?” he asked.
Connely wondered that himself. He had followed company policy and told no one what the code was. Only Hazel knew it and she was programmed to give it only to Gerzki if he became incapacitated or if there was an emergency. He shrugged. “None of this adds up.”
Laker stooped down and picked up the iridium and turned it over in his hand. Squatting next to Baldwin’s head, he gazed at the dead man’s wound. “It takes a lot of power and rage to cause that much damage,” he said. “Allison’s profile hints at nothing to suggest she would be capable of carrying out such a brutal murder, or any murder at all.”
“Hazel, where are the rest of the crew?” Gerzki asked.
“In the dining room,” she answered. “They’re drinking alcoholic beverages.”
Laker stood up. “A stiff drink sounds like a good idea,” he said.
“Only after you and Connely take care of preparing Baldwin’s body to be jettisoned,” Gerzki said. “We’ll have a proper service for him, and Allison, at 1700 hours.” He then left the room, followed by Openrow.
Laker tossed the iridium to Connely. “If you had become romantic with Allison, that could have been you,” he said, nodding toward Baldwin’s body.
Connely’s face turned red. “I don’t think romance had anything to do with this.”
Connely stared at the image on the console screen of the surface of the asteroid. The rover was repeating the same image over and over. It had not only stopped moving, but it also no longer took pictures beyond one direction. The geological analysis of the asteroid was the same, more or less, as other asteroids. It was made up of iron, nickle, iridium, palladium and a few other minerals. Just another hunk of space rock, he thought. It was solid to its core, but it gave off readings at times that he hadn’t seen or heard of with any other asteroid. He looked at the data rolling by. There was a sequence of numbers that suddenly appeared at times and then disappeared that had him stumped. He tried to isolate the sequences but the computer was reacting as if the numbers had never appeared.
This was the third asteroid he had signed on with the Quadrell Corporation to chase across space in search of an asteroid they thought might be worth mining. The Quadrell Corporation was looking for a super-mineral; a discovery that would change how science thought about geology, and space. He had aged about fifteen years in Earth years in that time, but was much older by hundreds of years if time spent in hypersleep was counted. At age forty-five he felt some regret that he hadn’t spent his life working for a science lab in his home country of Canada, gotten married, and had a houseful of kids. He thought of Allison’s body drifting in space.
“Hazel, have you reviewed all of the recordings of Allison’s time in the days leading up to her final moments before she went into the ecodisposal unit?” he asked.
“Yes, I have,” she answered. “As I reported to Gerzki, Molly Allison showed no signs of derangement. She did see Laker three times for recurring headaches.”
“Headaches?” he replied. “What does Laker say about them?”
“They were headaches. Nothing more.”
He leaned back in his chair and toggled the switch on the console that should have made the camera turret on the rover move, but it had no effect. “Where is Cho?”
“He’s in the gymnasium,” she replied.
“Bless you,” he responded reflexively. A moment later he asked, “Hazel did you just sneeze?”
She didn’t answer.
In the passageway leading to the gymnasium, Connely collided with Openrow who was holding a small bowl of green goop. The young man’s face was twisted into a look of consternation.
“This is what the water dispensers is pouring out instead of water,” he mumbled holding out the bowl. “This just came out of the dispenser in the gymnasium. The only place in the entire ship to get a cup of water is from the autofood in the dining room.”
“What is it?” Connely asked.
“I’m on the way to the lab to have it analyzed,” he said.
The intercom switched on. “Connely, I need you on the bridge, immediately,” Gerzki commanded.
Connely glanced at the gymnasium door and shrugged. I’ll talk to Cho later, he thought. He turned and started down the passageway, leaving Openrow behind. When he entered the bridge, Gerzki and Proshkoff, the second in command and so quiet and mouse-like in appearance he blended into the ship’s small community without much notice, were standing and staring at the viewing screen. The asteroid was glowing like it was being shone on by a dim light bulb. Connely joined the two staring at the screen, and for several moments gawked at the asteroid without saying anything.
“What does it mean?” Gerzki asked at last.
“Hazel, do a spectral analysis of the asteroid,” Connely said.
Hazel coughed. “What are you looking for?” she asked, nasally.
“Why is the asteroid shining like that?” he replied.
She sneezed. “There is no change in Asteroid QLR4,” she answered.
The three men looked at each other.
“Hazel, you don’t see the way the asteroid is glowing?” Gerzki asked.
“No, sir,” she said.
The ship alarm suddenly sounded.
“There’s a minor explosion and fire in the infirmary,” Hazel said and then broke into a hacking cough.
“Keep an eye on the planet,” Gerzki said to Proshkoff and then ran out of the bridge, followed by Connely. When they arrived in the passageway outside of the infirmary, Young and Cho, both first-rate old-fashioned space explorers, were carrying Laker out of the infirmary. His body was badly burned. They laid him on the floor.
“He’s dead,” Young said. Her face was marked with slight burns. “He lit a flame after turning on the oxygen.”
“How do you know that?” Gerzki asked.
“I saw him do it. I was telling him about these headaches I’ve been having and didn’t realize what he was doing until he did it,” she said. “He tried to kill both of us.”
From in the science lab, Connely stared at the image of the asteroid shown on the computer console screen. The glow had disappeared. According to Proshkoff it vanished as soon as Connely and Gerzki had left the bridge.
Cho was standing behind Connely, peering over his shoulder, watching the data screen. “Do the numbers tell you anything yet?” he asked.
Connely turned off the image of the asteroid. “It’s like they want to, but neither the computer, I, or Hazel, can figure out what the occasional numerical anomalies mean.”
Cho flopped back in one of the two chairs in front of the console. His large, muscular frame barely squeezed into the chair. “Do you think what happened to Allison and Laker is connected to the asteroid?” He put his hands on the top of his head, unconsciously displaying his biceps bulging beneath his suit. “And Hazel has a cold. What kind of ship intelligence system comes down with a cold?”
“None I know of,” Connely answered. “Yes, I do think what is happening is because of the asteroid, but I have no real evidence to prove it yet, and no idea how it is being done, but I think QLR4 is playing with us. That’s why I wanted to see you. I think you, I, and Young need to take a trip to the asteroid’s surface.”
Cho smacked his knee with the palm of his hand. “Yippee,” he said. “I’ve been inside this flying tin can for so long I was beginning to feel like a sardine.”
Young squeezed ointment from a tube onto her fingertip and then dabbed it on the bright red burn mark on her cheek as she looked at QLR4 displayed on the flight deck viewing screen.
Standing beside her, Connely’s gaze went back and forth between the asteroid and her. She was an excellent scientist and fearless when it came to taking voyages beyond the confines of the ship she was traveling in. This was the second Quadrell Corporation asteroid chase he had taken with her, and in the previous asteroid that they had explored together on-foot, she had saved his life when he fell into a crevice. He always resisted thinking of her as a female, especially since she did nothing to enhance her appearance as a markedly attractive female, seemed to have no interest at all in acknowledging he was a man.
“You say there’s something odd about it?” she asked. “Can you be more precise?”
“Aside from some occasional erratic data, no,” he said. “It’s only a hunch.”
“What does Hazel say about us landing on it?”
“She’s taken to her – bed – with that cold she has, and is unable to access any of her analytical systems beyond that needed to keep Roadrunner operational.”
Young put the cap on the tube and slipped the tube into the breast pocket of her suit. She turned to Cho, Proshkoff and Gerzki who were standing behind her and Connely. “If four of us leave Roadrunner it will leave only Openrow and Gerzki to operate Roadrunner if something goes wrong while we’re on QLR4.”
“I took that into account,” Gerzki said. “If we continue to be picked off while inside Roadrunner it really doesn’t matter if we take a chance with landing on the asteroid.”
“Couldn’t we just turn around and leave QLR4 alone?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t want to explain that to the Quadrell Corporation,” Gerzki replied. “They seem to have special interest in this particular asteroid.”
“I’m flying Wile E Coyote instead of Proshkoff,” Gerzki said through his helmet mic as he climbed into the shuttle and took his place behind the flight control console. “Proshkoff and Openrow know what to do if there are any problems on Roadrunner. I’m in need of an adventure.”
From inside the Roadrunner shuttle docking airlock, Proshkoff said, “Bon voyage.”
“Openrow, give Hazel some cough medication while we’re away,” Cho said with a laugh.
“She said she has a sore throat and has stopped talking to me,” Openrow answered.
Proshkoff shut the airlock door.
Minutes later Gerzki guided the shuttle away from Roadrunner and began its pursuit of the asteroid that sped through space at twenty-five kilometers a second.
A mile up from the asteroid’s surface Young groaned aloud and grasped the sides of her helmet.
“Are you okay?” Connely and Cho asked her simultaneously through their helmet intercoms.
“My headache just got much worse,” she answered. “But I’ll be okay.”
An hour later Gerzki momentarily held the shuttle in a hovering mode just above the surface of the asteroid. “You three be careful and stay alert,” he said to the others as he landed the shuttle on QLR4.
After the shuttle door opened, Connely stepped out. A buzzing in his helmet began at a low pitch that steadily increased in volume. He tapped the sides of his helmet and looked at Young and Cho as they got out of the shuttle to see if they too were experiencing it, but realized he alone was experiencing it. He walked away from the others, stopped at a distance from the shuttle, hoping the buzzing was only a temporary malfunction in his helmet, but he feared the QLR4 was playing with him, now.
Holding a Geiger counter-like geoscan, Cho walked a few yards away from the shuttle holding it close to the surface of the asteroid while reading the results displayed in the window on the top of the scanner. “The same readings sent back by the rover,” he said into his helmet mic. “It’s just a hunk of mixed minerals.”
Young stooped down and ran her hand across a smooth sheet of rock. She closed her eyes, trying to fight off the headache that felt as if her skull was being crushed. After she stood up it took several moments for the dizziness to stop. “Let me see the geoscan,” she said to Cho.
He handed it to her and then turned toward the shuttle. “I’ll get the other one,” he said.
I’ve been waiting for you Connely, said a voice that entered Connely’s mind.
Connely whirled around, expecting to see someone standing nearby other than the other crew members.
Your intelligence is superior to the others, the voice said. I can learn a great deal from you.
Connely started to call out to the others, but his throat tightened as if there was a hand gripping his neck. Who are you? He thought.
You have called me Asteroid QLR4. Your species has been in contact with me by radio waves for many of your Earth years. You are the first among your species to make direct contact with me.
Connely gasped. “My species! The Quadrell Corporation,” he mumbled. From the onset he had wondered why this particular asteroid was of such interest to them. The mining potential had just been a ruse.
In that instant he watched as Young rushed up behind Cho and brought the geoscan down on Cho’s helmet. Cho spun around, his visor cracked, with his eyes bulging, and his mouth formed in the shape of a scream, he collapsed to his knees. She raised the geoscan and then smashed it on Cho’s helmet. Cho fell to the ground, his body convulsing for several moments before he lay still.
“Young!” Connely screamed into his helmet’s mic.
I will soon have you to myself, QLR4 voiced into Connely’s brain.
“Why are you doing this to us?” Connely said through clinched teeth.
It’s only you I need for now.
Suddenly, the shuttle exploded, going up in a fireball that engulfed Young with it and knocked Connely onto his back. Looking up at the white light of the Roadrunner that had been in stationary holding, he watched as it burst into a fireworks display that slowly dissipated in the darkness of space.
What do you want from me? Connely thought as in horror he stared up at the sky.
Your sentience. To understand the human experience thoroughly before I circle back and destroy your planet.
“I’m only one person,” Connely replied.
The best of your species
Immediately feeling weak, Connely could feel his memories, his life experiences, being drained from his mind. Being taken were his childhood and playing with his siblings in the barn on his family’s farm in Alberta. Leaving him were the sensations of his first kiss from Carol Prestly at the high school prom. The fascination of solving physics equations in Dr. Linstom’s college classroom began to fade and then turned to blackness. The first time being launched into space was erased.
Before he could forget how to do it, he unzipped his helmet from the neck of his suit, and then lifted the helmet from his head.
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