Jackson worked his way along the curve of the station's hull. He kept his eyes focused on the steel body of the station. He had heard the endless stories of how "some guys get out here and look off into space and never come back." Space-glory, they called it. Jackson wasn't worried about space-glory only space sickness. The sight of the empty vista made him want to vomit. Not a happy situation inside a contained unit.
The ARC-welder pulled on the umbilical, brought his cutter-sealer up beside him. Jackson was repairing meteorite damage. He surveyed the broken aerials along one branch and realized he would need more piping. He turned back to signal Jonesson who waited at the halfway point.
The repairman waved, but Jonesy did not return his signal. He just stood on the outer hull, motionless like a black statue in the shadow of the conning tower. Jackson did not like the other man's immobility. He began a quick run back toward the lock. Of course, in space, no run is a quick run, but he hurried as best he could. What's gotten into Jonesy? he wondered. Was he space-gloried? Another few long minutes and he'd know.
As Jackson came closer to his fellow crewman he looked hard at the black figure. Too late, he realized, that's not Jonesy! That's --
It was a man. He wasn't wearing a space suit. He was a black man, but not like a normal black man. He was blacker than space: hair, skin, teeth, clothing, everything. He was the Void incarnate.
Jackson screamed, tried to back-peddle. His momentum carried him closer to the strange, smiling man. The ARC-welder abandoned flight and drew his cutter-sealer. The deadly tool burst with a small blue tongue. Jackson held it up, waving the flame like a sword.
The black man laughed. Jackson could hear the laughter. It was impossible but still that deep resonating chortle -- The stranger raised a dark palm to the torch. The flame curled harmlessly against the palm.
Jackson screamed again and ran. This time he didn't stop to think about airlocks or where he was going. He just wanted to get away, get inside.
The torch. He still had his torch. The ARC-man cut at the hull of the station. He would burrow inside, like a rabbit. Run, run, run . . .
"The black man! The black man!" he managed into his microphone.
Then the blackness and the laughter took him.
It started when one of the ARC-men got space-gloried and tried to cut his way into the station. Ambuelson thought nothing of it. ARCs often lost their minds when confronted with the enormity of Space day-in and day-out. That was why the Company paid big money to a fleet of psychologists. Keep the crew sane. Keep the station safe.
The log said that this was the seventh fatality this cycle. Ambuelson compared it to the previous cycle. Eight by this time, he realized. We're experiencing a ten percent improvement. He'd have to mention it to Dr. Whitworth and the psych-boys.
His good mood vanished when he heard about the two maintenance cyborgs that failed to report back. Men crippled in battle or accidents, the cyborgs were enhanced with metallic components. Tireless and efficient, they kept Station H311 the safe, reliable haven it had been for the twenty-seven years it had orbited Hades VI and its black-red sun.
Ambuelson sent his best rescue team to find them. The C.R.A.S.H. party, led by Berglundson, was now half a day-cycle late. Something was happening. Something bad.
Captain Ambuelson was a tall, skeletal-looking man with artificial ears. He leaned forward in his real calfskin chair and picked up the hand-com. "Rosson, is that message ready? Good." With nervous fingers he sent the Emergency-1 signal to Earth. The cylinder would streak away on a tachyon beam. Ambuelson whispered a two-edged prayer: that he wasn't jumping at shadows; and if he wasn't, they'd all live long enough for the Terran ships to save them.
Finished with the emergency recorder, he dialed up Torenson, his Chief Engineer, and barked into the com, "Tor, I've phoned in an E1."
"What? Jim? What was that?" came a distant voice from the bowels of the Hub.
"I know what you're thinking. But something screwy."
"What prompted this, sir?" asked Torenson respectfully.
"We've lost Jackson, Jonesson, Berglundson and his team, the two cyborgs, all outside the ship. I'm not imagining this."
"You were right to call it in, sir --"
"I may have called it in, Tor, but it's up to you to figure out what's going on before those Earth ships get here. I may appear jumpy, but I better not look stupid."
"Of course not, sir. I'm on it."
"Thanks, Tor." Ambuelson hung up. Torenson was a good man. If anyone could save Ambuelson's reputation, it was him. But what if it was more than just his reputation on the line? the Captain wondered, then picked up the hand-com, again.
"Get me Person," was all he said.
Torenson had his work cut out for him. If the Captain had lost nine people outside the ship then he knew where to begin. Only he didn't want to risk any more personnel. The recruiting officers on Earth joked to themselves about Station H311. They called it Station HELL. And it was in many respects. The Hades Cluster was the most remote inhabited station besides the Hyades Ring, but HR27 was largely automated. H311 sported seventy-six crewmen. The loss of nine people was over ten per cent. Many of the remaining sixty-seven would be doing double duty until those nine were replaced.
The Chief Engineer decided on remote robot probes. He'd need Fischerson. He was the best controller on Torenson's engineering team. A quiet, efficient man, Fischerson had a flair for remotes. Torenson phoned in his instructions, while the lift took him away from the Hub, where the main Engineering section lay. He was headed for the outer ring of H311, the personnel quarters.
As the elevator moved outward, Torenson could feel the gravity grow stronger. The circular motion of the station created a perfect one-gee gravitation at its farthest limits. He stepped heavily off the pad and looked at the large red section letters. G-23. Yes, he had the right portion of the ring's housing units. This was where Migliore-4, one of the missing cyborgs lived. Torenson knew him well from the work they had done on repairing the main relay after a Martian space yacht had collided with the antennae. Migliore-4 was quiet -- for a cyborg. Most of the crew avoided the four machine crewmen because of their incessant chatter. Being part machine, the robotic men found it difficult to exist at the slow speed of the human mind. But Migliore-4 was different. He was only slightly annoying.
Torenson walked six doors down, found the right door. He slid his card into the door slot. The portal chimed, "Access Denied."
"Executive override. Torenson. Chief Engineer."
"Access Denied," repeated the door.
The engineer thought about calling Ambuelson but changed his mind. The Captain would give him access but the hassle seemed unnecessary. He drew his slat-wrench and worked at the door slot for a moment. Another tool and the door slid open.
Inside, Torenson found the room sparse. Just the way he remembered it. He wasn't sure why he was here, but he had a feeling something might be here to tell him why the two cyborgs hadn't returned. Men experienced accidents. But cyborgs rarely -- even though they had the most dangerous assignments -- failed to return. Broken, battered, certainly, but they return. A dark suspicion in Torenson's mind said, "If they didn't return it was because they didn't want to."
Fearing the worse, the engineer phoned Sargentson, his second-in-command. "Sarge, where are Hummel-3 and Wynn-6?"
There was no answer. Only screaming.
"Sarge! Sarge! What the hell is going on?"
A frantic, frightened voice answered at last. "It's Fischerson. He's -- He smashed the remote unit. He's -- gone crazy. He says he saw something outside." Static and more noises followed.
Damn, Torenson cursed. I'd better get back. But he'd come all the way out here without even looking. Still, he was needed elsewhere.
Running for the lift, he was quickly on his way back to the Hub.
He watched the chief engineer leave the cyborg's quarters. He had a laser pistol clutched in one hand and was ready to use it. The door slid shut with a hiss. The hidden man stepped out of the closet, pocketed the gun.
Person knew his mission. Ambuelson had sent him to find an answer. The spy had searched the quarters of all the missing people but had found nothing. But here was a different story. The man fingered a small RD disk he had found in the cyborg's secret hiding place, a recess behind a fake panel. Person found it within ten minutes of entering the room. He had snuck in just before Torenson, had tried to lock the engineer out, but failed.
Person was the station's lowest ranking person. He was custodian, responsible for cleaning only. As such he had access to more places, more conversations than anyone. He was also the station's most deadly person.
Thumbing the RD into a portable scanner, the spy reviewed the document. It was long, over six hundred pages with many illustrations and diagrams. These caused Person to pause. Horrific visions and creatures, insane rites and practices. He looked away from the drawings to the words. The text was in some language unknown to him, but a flick of the translate button and the display told him that it was ARAMAIC. The title changed from strange squiggly letters to THE BOOK OF THE DEAD SUN. Person read a sample: "Jesus wept. Because he was not the Black Man."
The last three words were frozen in Person's mind. The ARC-welder, Jackson, he had said, "The black man!" before disappearing. This strange old book had something to do with this whole thing.
I'll have to read as much of it as I can, he realized. But not here. He'd return to his secret office inside the cleaning facility.
Pocketing the RD-reader, he, too, left the cyborg's quarters with a hiss of the door.
Whitworth looked at the dead man coldly. Fischerson, sealed in a hermetic cocoon, looked back with black eyes. The dead man's tag said, third generation clone, as the tattoo on his left arm attested. Dead, while the original Fischer sat back on Earth enjoying his wealth. The idea irked the physician, the only member of the crew to be a "rig," or original human. No "Whitworth-son" for him. Whitworth's DNA had failed to pass the cloning specs. Something to do with "latent genetic traits." So instead of sending a clone to serve in his place, he had had to come to this awful station. Whitworth eyed the body coldly with reason.
"What can you tell me, doctor?" asked Torenson prematurely.
"Let me finish examining him, Mr. TorenSON, and I'll tell you," was the crisp reply. "First of all, he died from loss of blood due to lacerations of the carotid artery."
"Yes, I know. He slit his own throat with a power-shiv," sighed the engineer without trying to hide his annoyance.
"The angle of the cut would indicate self-infliction. But what is more interesting, is the chemical composition of his brain --"
"Well, when most of us die, the blood in the brain slows, then stops with the ceasing of the heart. No pump, no circulation. But Mr. Fischerson's brain is still active. Despite the loss of blood through the neck, the blood inside his head is still moving. It has become self-sealed and self-motile." The doctor pointed blandly at the face which had become red-flushed.
"But that's impossible. Perhaps he's still alive --"
"No, Mr. Torenson. This man is dead. In every way that matters. The activity in his head is not that of a living thing."
"Impossible, I know. But still --"
"What are you going to do with him then?" wondered the engineer.
"Regulations say he should be immediately incinerated, in case of infectious contamination. The space plague directive --"
"But I have invoked a little used medical protocol to retain the head at least for study. If this form of death is an infectious condition, then I need to start an immediate counterculture."
"Burn the damn thing, doctor. All of it."
"You do your job, Chief, and I'll do mine."
5: Security Chief
Anioloson checked the board. The two cyborg locators said they were in H47, the personal quarters of Hummel-3. The chief of security spoke into his head set. "DeGraffson, are they there?"
"No, sir. The place is empty," came back the reply. "I'll try to figure out how they tricked the signal."
"Be careful, Sam. The Captain was right. There was something wrong with the cybies. Assume they're dangerous."
"Copy that," the security man returned.
Anioloson hated waiting. To relieve the stress, he started scanning the rest of the station. He ignored the cybernetic locators. They had lied. Instead he looked for large metallic signals. He found and recognized several repair 'bots, ignored those, too. There were over thirty of the automated devices running about the Hub, Spokes and Outer Ring of H311.
Then he got an idea. If the cyborgs weren't coming across as cybies then they had to be disguising their signals. Anioloson thumbed the com. "Barberson, how many -- exactly -- 'bots have we got on the ship now."
"Ah, thirty-two, if you count the two inoperative ones in shortage," answered the technician.
"Do those two show on our scans?"
"Shouldn't. Their nuclear batteries are stored separately."
"So thirty operative ones then?"
The security officer peered keenly at the read-out. He counted quickly then recounted. Thirty-two. He had thirty-two.
"Chief," piped in DeGraffson from Cabin H47.
"I found out how they tricked the sensors, sir."
"They pulled out their Brandt inhibitors."
"What? That's impossible. That would leave a hole in the head --"
"The size of a grapefruit," finished the security man. "I know. The blood in the bedroom says it wasn't done too cleanly either."
"Why aren't they dead then? There should be two dead cybies in that room."
"I guess something else has taken over that function."
"Another type of machine?"
"Unknown, sir. But whatever it is, we can't find them now."
"Not true, Sam. I've been checking scans of the repair-bots on the station and I have two extra."
"Where, sir? I have ten men with me. We can be there is seconds."
"Hold on." There was a pause of several minutes. "Storage bay 17. They are there."
"On our way."
Merkelson screamed. He had been doing inventory on the last shipment of supplies from Gamma 6 when he had heard the distinct clanking of cybernetics. Seconds later he felt the hard steel of their hands. An irresistible force picked him up and threw him against the wall of the bay. He screamed as a servo-drill spun titanium rivets into his arms and legs.
Finished with pinning the man to the wall, the cyborgs left him while they consulted an RD-reader. Merkelson remained conscious long enough to see the large red wounds on the sides of the cybies heads. He wasn't sure if he heard the words they chanted in their electronic voices. "Ia! Ia! Cthaughn Nyarlathotep! Ia! Ia! Fthagn Fthagn!"
He was gratefully unconscious by the time the cybies started cutting into him with their cutter-sealers.
7: Security Man
The door to Storage Bay 17 fell with a thunderous clang, the edges still red from the cutter-sealers. Johnson took the point and jumped through the charred ring into the chamber. His laser rifle shot a multi-round of detection bursts into the darkness, targeting the two still forms of the cyborgs. The killing beam of the weapon did not follow.
"They're not moving, sir," the point man reported back to DeGraffson, the squad leader.
"Spread out," the commander ordered. The remaining eight gunmen surrounded the immobile cybies.
Johnson stepped past the two prisoners, made a sweep of the rest of the bay. It was small and held no other enemies. "Sir, over here," he called when he found the crewman.
"What is it?" asked the commander, catching up with the point man.
"Looks like it's what's left of Crewman Merkel."
"Bloody Hell!" DeGraffson gasped, surveying the blood-red mess smeared across the whole length of the back wall. The dead crewman had been riveted to the steel wall, then carefully stripped of his flesh. Everything except the head. It hung there limply, fluid dripping from the mouth. Around the corpse were strange symbols drawn in blood and worse.
"What does it mean, sir?" asked Johnson weakly.
"No idea, son. But you better get the photo-bot down here. The brass will want pictures. We'll let them figure it out."
8: Medical Assistant
Wernerson waited for Dr. Whitworth. The medico had been called to see the Captain personally. The assistant knew how much the interview rankled the doctor. To be called down by a clone. Still, the doctor had gone. What other choice did he have? It meant he'd return in a bad mood. Of which Wernerson would face the brunt.
The medical assistant heard a knocking sound. Was Whitworth pounding on the door? No, the noise came from inside the medical bay. The sound was coming from behind the morgue encasement.
Wernerson ran to the plexi-case where the dead engineer rested. Canceling the opaguing command, the glass cleared and he could see the struggling man inside.
He's alive! was his first thought. Despite all their knowledge, the man still lived! The second thought was, I've got to get him out. Wernerson thumbed the release switch. Nothing happened except the unit bellowed: "WARNING! Contamination protocols forbid opening this container! WARNING . . ."
The assistant quickly typed in an emergency measures code. The siren shut off and the hermetic seal cracked with a hiss.
The dead man stood up, naked and thrashing. The medical man rushed to his side to administer an injection. The needle sunk in with an unhealthy gush of blood. The tissue underneath the point bruised like dead flesh.
"Are you all right?" yelled the assistant stupidly. "Can I help you?"
The dead man said nothing, just tore at his own throat. His large muscular arms pulled at his head. There was a tearing sound, like rotten canvas, and the head came away. The decapitated body fell in a white, useless pile.
The head rolled until it hit the wall. The ball of the organ twitched a few times, as sharp points formed along the cheeks. Wernerson saw the points sprout into long legs, which jerked and flexed, trying to right the overturned skull.
He watched dumbly as the upright head leered at him, then pounced like a spider.
Hatherson eyed the two cyborgs with indifference. They hadn't moved since the team had brought them in and placed them behind a barrier of bars and plexi-steel with an electro-field strong enough to resist any laser-beam. Hatherson figured they were dead. If machines could die.
A buzzing noise came from the guard's arm-set. The fifteen minute alarm. Procedures required him to call in to the second guard, behind him in the outer jail. Hatherson thumbed his hand-com. "Hatherson. Everything's quiet. The time is 23:00:09."
"Check. Hatherson, I'm sending Person in. He's doing the floor," the second guard said. The door thunked as the triple bolts drew in. The immense portal swung open on mechanized hinges, admitting the unassuming janitor. The lock re-thunked.
"Hi," the custodian said, swinging his mop over the tiled floor.
"Hurry up," the guard growled.
"Sure, sure," Person answered good-naturedly. "Got a prisoner today?"
"Yes. Hurry up."
The janitor scrubbed the floor by the viewing window, taking in the two silent cyborgs. "Heard they killed some guy down in Bay 17. I had to clean it all up. What a mess."
"Yah, some kind of ritual, DeGraffson figured," the guard offered.
"A ritual, eh? I didn't think cybies went in for religion or any of that."
"They don't. The Chief's wrong. Still, those symbols --"
"Probably just bad cyber-leads, confused signals and that."
"Johnson said they didn't have their Brandts any longer. Never heard of that before."
"That might explain it. Well, I'm done," the janitor smiled.
"One second." The guard spoke into his armband. "Priceson. Open up."
The big door clunked open again and the janitor left.
The guard's arm-set buzzed again for the fifteen minute report. The sound covered the noises inside the cell. As the sentry spoke to the man outside, a red light flashed on the cyborg's chest unit. Servos whizzed and secret compartments opened.
Hatherson saw the laser beam cut through the plexi-steel window. "God!" he cried into his hand-com. The beam burned through his wrist, dropping the communicator from his mouth. His second scream came when another beam sliced through his other shoulder and rifle.
"Hatherson! Hatherson!" yelled a voice from the fallen com.
The two cyborgs left the maimed guard and attacked the big door. Red beams sizzled as cutter-sealers went at the solid titanium disk.
"They didn't have any -- didn't have -- any weapons --" whimpered the dying man to himself. "The electric field -- How?"
His answer came scuttling out of the ruined prison cell. A weird scuttling crab stared into his dying eyes. The crustacean grinned at him with Fischerson's face, before placing a long purple organ under his helmet and into his ear.
"What the hell is happening?" yelled Hoverson. The sleepy look in her eyes spoke of an abrupt awakening. Torenson ignored the question, just grabbed her under the arm.
"Come on. Here take this." The engineer shoved a laser rifle into the woman's pajama-ed arms.
"Why?" Indignation and fear fought for control of Hoverson's voice.
"Because we've got two psychotic cyborgs heading this way and we've got to stop them." Hoverson made no answer. What could she say? "What's your name?" asked the engineer.
"Hoverson. I'm a technician."
"I'm Chief Engineer Torenson. We've just been drafted." He spoke into his hand-com. "Sarge, what's their ETA?"
"You've got thirty seconds. They cut their way through the prison guards and your boys couldn't hold them either," answered Sargentson.
"They still seem to be more interested in reaching the outer hull than killing?"
"Yes. But be careful, Tor. They've still got six bodies down here."
Torenson ignored the advice and turned back to Hoverson. "This is going to be fast and dirty. Get behind that beam and I'll get behind this one. Don't stop shooting until I tell you. If the cybies get to the hull --" He didn't finish the thought. Loud metallic footsteps rang down the hall.
"Make the first one count," Torenson hissed, firing his gun. The beam caught Hummel-3 in the head, burning away what remained of its skull. The metal body collapsed, twitching like a broken toy.
Wynn-6, the other machine-man, ignored Torenson and the technician, but fired a large rocket at the wall behind the gunmen. The explosion sent titanium shards in all directions. Hoverson watched as miniature knives cut into her body, shearing off a leg and an ear.
She lay on the cold floor and watched the cyborg approach the broken wall. Beyond the wide hole lay the red-black glow of Hades. Only the electric force field kept the station from the cold void outside. Wynn-6 reached out with one metal-skeleton hand before throwing himself into the shimmering seal. Another explosion. The field flashed then disappeared.
Hoverson waited for the deadly hiss of air escaping out the breach. Only it never came. Instead of things flying out the hole, things came in. And that was worse. Much, much worse.
The door buzzed. Rosson opened the door. "Please have a seat," he said with haughty indifference. "The Captain is in a meeting."
"I think not," the janitor said, opening the Captain's door. He disappeared behind the frosted glass.
Rosson bit back his anger. He had wanted to send the little mop-jockey away, but knew he could not. The Captain had given Rosson an order the day the new custodian had come aboard. "If that janitor, Person, wants to see me -- at any time -- send him in." Keeping the station clean was important, but there was more. Today, Rosson would find out just how much more.
The buzzer on the secretary's desk whined. "Rosson, come in here. Bring the emergency code recorder."
Rosson entered the Captain's office with the device ready for service. Ambuelson waved a finger at him. He started the recorder.
"This log is a record of a conversation being recorded at exactly --" He said the date, the time, waved the secretary into the only empty chair. "Officers present: Captain Ambuelson, Chief Engineer Torenson, Commander Damicison, Intelligence Officer Person --" Rosson blinked at the Captain's words. The station's janitor had been a spy. "-- and Secretary Rosson." Rosson held a Lieutenant's rank as part of his position.
There was a pause as Ambuelson poured five glasses of whisky. The secretary was reluctant to take the fifth glass. He did when the Captain nodded to him. As he pulled the glass towards him he noticed for the first time that Torenson, the engineer, was injured. His hand was bandaged and his leg had a quickly-made splint. Where was Dr. Whitworth? Why the emergency code recorder?
". . . This log is to tell those who come to Hades VI -- and find nothing here -- what happened. For I intend to destroy this station if no other recourse is left to me. Our present status is questionable: we have a breach in the Hub. Twenty-five crewmen have been confirmed lost. Commander Damicison, first mate, will now read the list of dead."
The Captain handed the Commander a piece of paper. He cleared his throat and began reading aloud. ". . . Bankson, Lewison, Thompson, . . ."
"I would now like Colonel Person to explain -- as much as we have been able to cobble together -- what has happened. Colonel." The Captain sat down, handed over the microphone.
Person began his report in a voice that surprised Rosson. He speaks like a man who has commanded armies, not slopped water around toilets, the attache [acute on e] realized. "I would like to begin with the strange behavior of the cyborgs, Hummel-3 and Wynn-6, since it is their RD disk that explains much of what has happened. In the apartment of Migliore-4 I found an RD which contains the ancient rites of the Cult of the Black Sun, a religious sect that worships above all else, the figure of the Black Man, a terrible god named Nyarlathotep in some cases, and Akripolox in others.
"This being is said to dwell in a sun that burns with a black flame. It should be obvious to all, that that describes the strange coloration of Hades. The cyborgs, covertly, have been worshipping -- for lack of a better word -- this deity. They kept this fact secret, and eventually sacrificed Crewman Merkelson in Storage Bay 17 as part of some rite. According to The Book of the Black Sun -- that is the manuscript on the RD -- this will open the way for the Black Man to rise from the flames and consume the Universe." Person stumbled for a second. A short giggle found its way through his lips. Rosson saw that a haunted look crept about his eyes, but he wrestled the impulse and continued.
"I will leave that aspect now for other occurrences on board the station. Yesterday, Chief Torenson ordered a remote to survey the outer hull of the ship. Fischerson, the operator of this device, went insane, and died of self-inflicted wounds. According to Dr. Whitworth, the dead man showed signs of brain activity. This later proved to be some alien influence. The creature that spawned from Fischerson's head later killed Medic Wernerson and two others of the medical staff. Dr. Whitworth himself was later killed destroying one of these creatures. At last report over a dozen of them were seen inside the station as well as the other two cyborgs, Migliore-4 and Smallman-8, earlier thought lost outside the ship." The spy sat down.
The Captain filled his glass again before finishing the report. "As of this hour, we have lost control of the Hub with the exception of the Captain's office level. Twenty-five confirmed missing, another thirty-three unknown. We will now attempt to send this emergency capsule into space and if possible save or destroy the station. Signed Captain James Ambuelson."
"Commander Mark Damicison."
"Chief Engineer Atkins Torenson."
"Colonel Jake Person."
Rosson opened his mouth to add his name but nothing came out.
"It's okay, son," offered the Captain, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Lieutenant Kevin Rosson," he managed at last.
The secretary pressed the final red switch, then pulled the message cylinder from the recorder. He held it blankly, as if to say, "Who wants it?"
Commander Damicison accepted the tube, placed it inside his uniform sleeve. "Well, Tor, you ready to play interference?"
The engineer dumped a box of rifles on the table, knocking over the empty whisky glasses.
12: First Mate
The plan was simple. Get the tube to the upper office. The launch shoot was housed there next to the command unit. After that the small tachyon engine inside the cell would shuttle the message back to Earth at light speed.
The five men checked their weapons one last time. Torenson took the point. They started down the hall in a V formation with Damicison to the rear. As message-bearer he had to make it to the shoot.
Taking the lift, the group rose two floors to the highest level of the Hub. The elevator door opened and death began. A laser cut into Rosson, searing his throat and mouth. Torenson returned fire and watched the cyborg, Smallman-8, explode into sizzling bits of wet metal.
Four men left the lift. A rain of spider-heads fell on them from above the elevator door. Damicison fired his weapon directly into the mouth of the thing that had once been C.R.A.S.H. team-leader Paul Berglundson. The monster exploded like a ripe grape, covering the gunman in purple slime.
"There's the shoot," the commander yelled, clearing the top of the unit with laser fire. The red beam sliced through the spidery sentries, splattering the computer banks with gore.
"I'll cover you, Mark!" Torenson yelled over the gunfire.
The first mate charged upon hearing the engineer. He had to bake two more head-spiders to reach the console. Behind him, he could hear Colonel Person firing wildly as a spider ate into his eye socket. His screams stopped when Torenson ended his life with a merciful blast.
Damicison ignored the death around him. He tore the capsule from his coat sleeve, and placed it in the slot for expulsion. He primed the device and sent the message off with joyous cry.
"Look!" someone yelled behind him. The commander stared through the command center windows at the madness outside. There was a man outside. Naked, hard to see against the blackness of space, but smiling and playing with -- the capsule.
Three guns immediately fired, melting the glass. The electric field hummed, sparked, then died. Open space. The black man laughed his fluting, insane laugh. And came aboard.
"Station H311, come in. Station H311, do you read me. This is SS Valkyrie. Come in . . ."
Captain Serendipity Jones sighed, as she surveyed the large hole in the Hub of Station H311. She angled her six-person rescue ship so that the sensors on the bottom of the spacecraft could analyze the rent in the station's hull. The electric field was not operating. No air was leaking from the rupture. She assumed that the Hub no longer held any atmosphere.
Next the pilot scanned the Outer Ring. No life signs. She scanned the connecting Spokes. Negative. All dead. Or were they? There was someone down there on the outside of the Hub waving! Somehow her sensors had failed, because she read no life signs there either. The black figure was waving her to the Outer Ring docking port. With a visual wave back, she brought the small ship around.
The approach to the docking port carried the pilot out of sight of the beckoning figure. For long minutes the station's technology rumbled and clanked as the auto-dock worked. Finally a hiss of air told Captain Jones that she was now attached to the station and separated by only an airlock.
For a second, Jones paused. She really didn't know what was going on inside the station. But with the sensors in question, regulations stated she'd have to do a visual inspection. Still, she didn't have to do it carelessly. She took a helmet from the rack and sealed the suit she was wearing. She tongued the remote communicator on and said again, "Station H311. Come in, please."
"SS Valkyrie, we read you," a voice answered.
"Who is this?"
"This is Captain Ambuelson," the response came back.
"What's been going on, Captain? Why didn't you answer me before?"
"Our external relay was destroyed when the explosion punctured the Hub. You probably saw that already."
"Yes, I did. Is everyone okay?"
"We've had some injuries." The voice cleared its invisible throat. "Captain, does your ship have FTL-drive?"
"Yes, yes, it does. Do you have patients that need to be taken back to Earth?"
"Yes -- back to Earth. Welcome aboard, Captain."
Serendipity Jones pressed the OPEN button and screamed.
ARCman Jackson -- Mike Jackson (aka Michael Dean) (Writer/Artist)
ARCman Jonesson -- Timothy Jones (Writer)
Captain Ambuelson -- James Ambuehl (Writer/Editor)
Dr. Whitworth -- Corey T. Whitworth (Writer/Editor)
C.R.A.S.H. Team Leader Berglundson -- Edward P. Berglund (Writer/Editor)
Lt. Kevin Rosson -- Kevin A. Ross (Writer/Editor)
Chief Engineer Atkins Torenson -- Toren Atkinson (Editor/Artist/Musician)
Col. Jake Person -- Per J. Okerstrom (Writer/Artist/Editor)
Fischerson -- Todd H.C. Fischer (Writer/Editor/Artist)
Migliore-4 -- Andrew Migliore (Film Festival Dude)
Hummel-3 -- Franklin Hummel (Convention Dude)
Wynn-6 -- David Wynn (Book Store Owner/Editor)
Sargentson -- Stanley C. Sargent (Writer/Artist)
Security Chief Anioloson -- Scott David Aniolowski (Writer/Editor)
Sam DeGraffson -- Sam DeGraff (Artist)
Barberson -- Simon Barber (Artist)
Crewman Merkel -- David C. Kopaska-Merkel (Writer/Editor)
Griff Johnson -- David 'Griffen' Jackson (Writer) and Jeremy E. Johnson (Writer/Editor)
Medical Assistant Wernerson -- C.L. Werner (Writer)
Hatherson -- Steve Hatherley (Writer/Editor/Artist)
Priceson -- Robert M. Price (Writer/Editor)
Technician Hoverson -- Julie Hoverson (Writer/Editor)
Commander Mark Damicison -- Marc A. Damicis (Artist/Writer)
Bankson -- Warren C. Banks (Musician)
Lewison -- D.F. Lewis (Writer)
Thompson -- G.W. Thomas (the Author)
Smallman-8 -- Randy Smallman (Writer)
Captain Serendipity Jones -- Serendipity Jones (Writer/Editor)
Created: April 10, 1998