Stephen Zimmer triple-checked the scans before he put them in a secured container and coded the lock. The second-best security for the scans was a simple lock, and his hands on it until he physically handed it over. The best security was that no one knew he had it.
It was past 0200 on Corinth Station, and Stephen saw no one as he carried the container onto the concourse. The marketplace would be empty, the colorful booths shrouded in cloth and deceptively silent while bristling with sensors. He intended to avoid it entirely by taking a transport shuttle past the marketplace and living quarters to the labs on the far side of the station, silent and dark.
Sweat beaded on the back of Stephen’s neck despite the cool temperatures of the darkened station. There was no actual time in space, but the station kept a diurnal cycle not unlike Earth’s to maintain the biological necessity of day and night. However, there was no reason for anyone to look twice at a low-level laboratory technician walking across the station with a container, as long as they didn’t know what was in it.
That last line of thought did him no good. Stephen had worked very hard to forget the sight of Kalaupapa growths erupting on his sister’s skin. Courtney was diagnosed with the plague at the age of twelve, while they were living on the lunar colony. Stephen was the big brother, and he had cheerfully knocked away any threat from Courtney’s path since they were in nursery school. But this particular threat could not be beaten with fists or cool stares like the heroes of the old vids.
It was the early day of Kalaupapa Syndrome, before they found the meds that could keep them alive. Back then, they simply herded the victims into trucks and took them away. For their own good, of course, and for the good of the community. They called it quarantine.
Phillip and Ann Zimmer hadn’t bought that particular line of bull. As soon as the first growths appeared on Courtney’s face, they were on the run, moving from hostel to cabin to park. They kept Courtney hidden from curious eyes, apart from others. They were careful not to hug her or touch her, to wash her clothes and blankets separately from theirs, that no one would accidentally share her food or even wipe away her tears. It was weeks of hell, for them and for Courtney.
And for young Stephen, who wrestled every night with his fear for his little sister, and fear for himself. Fear that one morning he would awaken to find those horrible growths spurting from his own skin. Fear that he would become one of them. He hid from the world with his family, always looking over his shoulder, and sometimes in his heart he wished Courtney would just get better and it would all be over.
He wouldn’t let himself wish that they would be caught. Every time his thoughts danced toward that awful thought, he squashed them with an iron fist.
None of it mattered, of course. Eventually, some hostel clerk called the authorities. A knock at the door, a brief scuffle. Courtney was gone.
He never saw her again.
It was Courtney that he thought of as he boarded the transport, Courtney as she had been before Kalaupapa. Her clear grey eyes and easy smile, her mischievous habit of hiding his toothbrush, her voracious reading habits and fondness for terrible jokes that inspired only groans in her family.
Courtney, building strange and beautiful structures in her room with her plastisets, always pleading for more material to create more miniature bridges and skyscrapers in her model city. Courtney, eating too much ice cream at their mother’s company picnic and groaning with a bellyache all the way home, while Stephen taunted her with vivid descriptions of gross bodily functions until their father made him stop.
Courtney, weeping when the men in biosuits came to take her away, loading her into the trucks that made the Turpi disappear.
Turpi. Such a simple word, filled with such disgust when anyone dared speak of them, which was not often. They were the mysterious monsters of another generation, the twisted remnants of society living beyond the reach of civilization. Stephen had actually heard an exasperated mother once use them as a threat to make her brood behave, warning them that the Turpi would come get them if they would not settle down and behave. Horrid disfigured and twisted beasts… and Stephen’s little sister.
Funny that when the Turpi boarded the ships to take them to Purgatory, the League’s final solution… there were a lot fewer patients than there had been people hauled away by the biosuits. One in five had simply disappeared before the ships were launched.
Stephen had already wept his tears for Courtney by the time the ships flew. And for himself, in shame for his selfish wish that their lives as fugitives would end. He lay in the dark that night, dry-eyed and furious, wishing with all his heart that Kalaupapa would come and take everyone who wore the biosuits and took away the sick. They deserved it. And part of him felt he did, too.
Now Stephen wrapped his hands around the container and the scans it contained. The station transport was empty, save for one maintenance worker sleeping at the far end. Stephen secured the container on the seat beside him rather than hold it in his lap, but he rested his hand on it just the same. He wanted to keep it close, keep it safe.
The transport trundled away from the station as the maintenance worker slept on and Stephen tried to keep his pulse at a sane level. The car rocked slightly from side to side as it picked up speed, pulling away from the concourse and racing toward the outer ring, skirting the edge of the station on a speed-track to the labs on the other side.
Ordinarily Stephen loved this part of the ride, the moment where the cars shot out of the transport tunnel and turned around the outside of the station, exposing the flexglass portholes to space. He had seen it a thousand and one times, and each time the people on the train would fall silent. Starlight shone on their faces and caught them for a moment, as the transport stopped being a convenience and became something magical.
It was the reason Stephen had put so much effort into his studies, to earn a license as a biotechnician and thus earn a position on the stations. He knew he would be turned down by the Navy because of his family’s criminal history. He did not have the physical strength to work his way on the freighters, or the money to venture out into space on his own.
It was his mind that would carry him to the stars, he knew – his clockwork logic and meticulous attention to detail. He earned his certificate at a very young age, striving to live among the stars. The drudgery of biotech work in faraway stations faded every time he observed the quality of light, the sheen of the starscape beyond the planet below. It was more powerful than any twinkling beauty seen beneath the blanket of a planet’s atmosphere.
But for the first time, the starscape did nothing to ease Stephen’s turmoil. He tried to gain that same peace and balance, but his hand tightened on the container. What those scans could mean for the planets, for the stations, for the League… his heart accelerated apace with the transport’s speed.
For Courtney, if only she had lived.
The hot anger, long dormant in his chest, now burned as if it were the same awful day when the Turpi ships flew up into the sky and the League’s terse message informed the Zimmers that Courtney had not survived to be loaded onto the ships. All for nothing.
The transport trembled a bit on its tracks, a bit rougher than the usual ride. Stephen leaned his head against the cool flexglass to his right, but the thrumming of the motors was much heavier than usual. He sat upright, placing his hand against the wall.
The vibrations were erratic, missing every few cycles and growing more uneven the farther out on the rim they traveled. Stop after stop passed by without pausing to let on passengers. That in itself was odd; the transport was programmed to stop automatically whenever someone was waiting, and it wasn’t unusual for stops to be deserted at this hour. But even at 0200, there was little chance that all the stops on the outer rim were empty. There were always maintenance workers and night-shift cleaning crews at work.
The transport rocked on its rails, almost as though the inertial dampers were nonexistent. Stephen glanced across the transport and say another stop flash by, a pair of workers staring through the flexglass panels in bewilderment as the transport rolled past without stopping.
“Hey, man,” Stephen called to the maintenance worker at the other end. The sleeping worker did not stir.
Stephen decided to risk getting up, unbuckling his restraint and leaving the container temporarily untended as he crossed over to the worker.
As he walked, the transport floor shuddered and wrenched, gravity seeming to rise and fall underneath his feet as metal screeched somewhere.
Stephen’s heart pounded. “Hey, man! There’s something wrong with the transport,” he said, reaching out to the maintenance worker. He shook the man’s shoulder hard, trying to wake him.
The worker’s gray cap fell off, revealing a streak of blood at his temple. The body slumped farther over and fell to the floor of the transport with a thump that seemed very loud to Stephen.
“Oh shit,” Stephen whispered, as the transport shuddered harder. He turned and slammed his palm against the emergency alarm, but of course the transport didn’t stop. An alarm blared somewhere, almost buried under the sound of the screeching metal, but the transport itself actually seemed to speed up.
Stephen scrambled back to his place and knelt on the floor in front of the container. Screaming metal crunched into itself somewhere as Stephen wrapped his arms around the container, protecting it with his own body.
Quickly he popped the lock and removed the data chip from the container. He tore his useless station identification card off his lanyard and slipped the data chip into its plastic holder, pinching it closed. Then he slipped the lanyard inside his shirt, buttoning it up as high as he could.
Please not space, he whispered to himself. He thought he could bear anything but being vented into space. It was a constant danger outside the portholes of the station he called home, and one Stephen had always dreaded. The bitter cold, remembering to exhale so your lungs didn’t explode, hoping the unshielded ultraviolet rays of the nearest star didn’t burn your skin and eyes to a crisp during the fifteen seconds before you lost consciousness. That was the only mercy of space; it killed you fast.
Stephen risked a glance out the porthole. The pylons flashed by faster and faster, and the stars seemed distant and faint. He braced himself between two seats, clutched the metal supports and tried to remember how to pray.
The impact came suddenly, a horrid jolting crunch with a violent impact that threw him back against the seat. He felt a crunch and a flare of white-hot pain in his side. The back of his head struck the seat hard, and immediately he felt sick and dizzy.
The cold leached away the warmth from Stephen’s body in seconds, but he was still breathing, which meant there was no breach yet. The lights flickered and died, leaving him in darkness alleviated only by the silvery light faintly showering from the portholes.
“Someone, please help,” Stephen heard a voice say. For a second he thought it was Courtney, and then he realized it was his own. If everything were normal, there would be a reassuring voice on the other end of the emergency comm, telling him that rescue crews were on the way.
But nothing was normal. The slumped body of the worker lay in the semidarkness, a mute accusation. Stephen let one hand cover the small bulge beneath his shirt, pressing the chip against him.
Another squalling crunch of metal, and a ray of light breached the dark compartment. The transport had crashed at a substation, and someone was trying to wrench the door open.
“Anyone in there?” a voice called.
Irrationally Stephen was tempted to remain silent. The voice might be with them. But there was still enough of the logical scientist to push that aside.
“I’m here,” he replied, startled by the weak, tinny sound of his own voice.
Another crunch. “We’re trying, man, but we can’t get the rescue crews on the comm. Unit must be down.”
Sure, the unit’s down, Stephen thought, suppressing a hysterical laugh. He looked toward the hatch and saw a slim, bearded man with bronze skin using a broken piece of pylon to pry the hatch doors open. Behind him stood two burly sanitation workers who were physically holding the doors open as he wrenched harder against the crushed metal.
“Come on, man,” the bearded guy said. He wore the uniform of a Navy starsailor.
Stephen released his deathgrip on the seats and tried to stand. There was something wrong with his leg – it hung useless from his hip and he had to drag it, daggers of pain shooting up into his back. Every step made his ribs grind with stabbing pain, and his head was filled with angry wasps.
The floor was now slanted away from the hatch. The transport was slipping, he realized – sinking bit by bit away from the station doors like a malfunctioning lift. The artificial gravity was fluctuating wildly, making Stephen even more queasy.
The starsailor knelt down on the floor and reached through the hatch with difficulty, simultaneously holding the broken pylon in place. “Give me your hand, man. I can pull you up.”
Stephen looked up at the starsailor and read the name stitched on his uniform: Rheingold.
“The labs,” Stephen wheezed. “You have to take it to the labs on the far side. Bergman. Please. Get it to him.”
Rheingold blinked. “What are you talking about?”
Stephen reached inside his shirt and pulled off the lanyard, shoving it up into Rheingold's outstretched hand. Rheingold stared at it for a half-second, incredulous, then shoved it into his pocket. “Whatever, man, come on!” He tried to reach through again, but the transport slipped lower, narrowing the opening.
Stephen sank to the floor. “Can’t stand anymore,” he whispered. “I’m sorry, Court.”
Rheingold pulled his arm back just in time, as the transport slid past the opening, nearly catching his hand in the process. Stephen heard him shout something, but it was lost in the screech of metal.
The gravity failed completely, and the terrible weight on Stephen’s chest eased. He floated up into the air before the portholes, bathed in cold starlight.
I did what I could, Court, he thought, just before the wall ripped open.