Part I: The Eye of the Hexagon
I hope we find his corpse floating in orbit. Tahlia imagines Jason tumbling among the rocks and ice within those vast majestic rings, those beautiful hazel eyes staring out at nothing behind a transparent face shield. Her fury chills to anguish and then freezes into a deep heavy guilt. She shields her eyes from a bright glint of sunlight reflecting off of Ring F.
The sight of the planet takes her breath away and she lets her eyes wander to the giant hexagonal-shaped storm that crown's the gas giant's north pole. A living dynamo of gas and wind and gravity. The subject of her life's work. She smiles. She's really here.
She subdues any sign of outward excitement. They're not officially here for science, much as that hurts deep inside her. They're here to find out why Zazel went silent. If the crew is alive or dead.
Her own crew of five sit silent as the tiny dot of Zazel grows steadily closer in the viewscreen. Adrenaline and anxiety swirl into one another and Tahlia has to fight to keep from holding her breath.
"Still no sign of radio activity," Brothers says into the empty silence.
Ahmed turns to Tahlia, a flash of pity in his otherwise emotionless face. A nervous swallow. "On course for docking. We should make contact in 56 minutes and 27 seconds."
Tahlia nods. "Brothers, any other signs of activity?"
David clatters away at the keyboard in front of him, face scrunching with focus and then he shakes his head. "Power's on and life support is running but nothing independent."
Minutes stretch into eternity and then the dot resolves itself into a sleek tiny shuttle floating just along Saturn's western ring plane. White base, wings covered in golden solar panels, cockpit glowing yellow with inner light. There's nothing visible in that glow. It's still too far away. Tahlia taps her fingernails against the console in front of her. A collage of moments floods her memory.
Jason lying naked in bed, watching her dress in front of the mirror, a sly smile arching up the side of his mouth, black hair tossled at the top of his head.
Holding hands under the stars on the hood of his newly restored bright cherry red '57 Chevy, cold metal sticking to the small of her back.
Getting lost for hours, hiking in the autumn-colored trees of Lieber State Park.
The blinding afterglow of her laptop screen after reading the recovered emails Jason deleted between him and Johanson.
Nearly breaking her hand beating on the door of his apartment, screaming for him to let her in.
The clean-typed formal letter from Brizen Aerospace Command informing her that she had been "dismissed" from the crew of Zazel, Jason's familiar signature scrawled at the bottom.
Watching Zazel launch from a nearby parking lot, fingernails digging into her palms and drawing blood.
She exhales, letting the poison in those memories leak out of her in one long release, fixes her stare back on Saturn. Something big begins to overtake the left side of the screen. Ahmed gasps as Zazel's payload doors crack open. "Uh. I didn't initiate the docking procedure yet." He looks back at Tahlia with a mixed expression of excitement and... fear?
Tahlia nods and Ahmed turns back to his terminal.
He shakes his head. "Nothing. I've had the hailing beacon on repeat ever since we first made visual." The doors continue to stretch open in one long flowery bloom. Zazel's docking arm slides gently into the gap between them.
Her petals fully extended, the docking arm rises to meet Perseus. For the first time in weeks, their vessel makes a very loud noise and shimmies unsteadily for a moment as the docking arm attaches itself to the ship's hull. "Docking complete. The ships' computers are talking to each other." Ahmed looks up from his terminal, a disquieted look on his face.
All eyes are on Tahlia now. "Anything about who set up the docking procedure? Why we're not hearing anybody on the radio?"
Ahmed shakes his head. "Nothing yet. The ship's log data is transferring now. I can search through them once they're fully downloaded."
Tahlia stares out at the open cargo hold of Zazel and lets out a long sigh. "I suppose we had better take a look. Ahmed, stay here and keep monitoring the data transfers. Brothers, Melton, Chambers, you'll suit up with me... Someone is in there. Has to be."
The four astronauts stand fully suited before the docking hatch, Tahlia in the lead. Beyond the small oval window, the white brightly lit sterile concave padding of the docking arm's interior tunnel waits with a foreboding sense of anticipation. Tahlia flips on her suit's radio. "Crew of the Zazel, this is Captain Tahlia Braunstein of the Perseus. We were sent by the Brizen International Space Agency to assess your situation and help in any way we can. Be advised, we are docked and preparing to enter."
She turns off the radio and looks at the others. Brothers shrugs. Tahlia listens intently for a long while, half expecting Jason to fill her helmet with laughter any moment.
"All right, here goes nothing."
She unlatches the seal and turns on the decompression chamber. A loud hiss of air shrieks from inside the chamber and then jolts into silence causing Brothers to start. Tahlia exhales and then pulls open the airlock. The sharp reality of where her feet are standing, only a couple billion kilometers from the Earth, and hovering over a giant ball of gas, and a flood of panic rushes in for just a second. She subdues it, stomps it out with a single step forward into the airlock. Her head steadies again. Body follows.
The crew does likewise and they make their way inch by inch through the bright white canopy of the docking arm, pulling hand over hand on the thick leather tether. The tube is quiet. Sterile. Its cylindrical length reaches forward, void of windows, oppressive. At the end of the rainbow, the window of Zazel's airlock watches, waits, unblinking. The certainty hits Tahlia again as they make their way through the docking arm that Jason is dead. Gone. His lifeless body probably bobs around waiting to be discovered just beyond the end of this corridor.
This time the realization brings no guilt, no pain. Not even the flash of anger it had before. She's numb now. More concerned with her own survival. Hairs on the back of her neck stiffening, genetically programmed to react to the danger of a lurking predator in hiding.
Something metal and deep within the milky flesh of the arm rattles and the entire thing shakes for a moment sending the four of them careening against the outer walls and scrambling for the tether. The shaking stops just as quickly as it erupted and they wait before tugging onward.
"Ahmed, what was that?" Tahlia whispers into her radio.
His voice rushes into her ears loud and thick. "I'm not sure. There weren't any stability warnings or pressure alerts. It's possible we just went through some light dust or debris."
Tahlia doesn't reply. If you can't say anything nice...
A millennia seems to have passed as they cross over the halfway threshold of the arm, where the visible perforation reveals the presence of the outer elbow joint. In the space of a single frame of reality, a space-suited arm waves from the end of the corridor, the thick-horned head of a ram smiling from the astronaut's shoulders. Somehow she's sure it's Jason. She blinks and the airlock returns to its former empty aseptic state.
Tahlia blinks a few more times just to be sure.
"Is something wrong?" Chambers this time. Her voice unsteady. Maybe she saw it too.
"I'm fine. Sorry. Our reflection in the glass caught me off guard." Best not to give any of her fellow crew members reason to doubt her judgment or she'll be dragged away from any chance at going over Zazel's research before she can even clamber inside.
The mirror image of four astronauts glimmers in the black orb of the airlock. A welcome change from the dead empty pool it was before. The tether dangles forward like a long thin tongue edging them throatward.
Tahlia keeps pulling herself along, despite the fact that every bone in her body screams for her to turn back now. Ever since that... hallucination, had to be a hallucination, the ghastly image hasn't left her phantom vision. The stretched edges of the creature's mouth into what she could only ever describe as a smile filled with long yellowing teeth threatens to never let go when she suddenly realizes the airlock stands just within arm's length now.
"Okay... here we go." She reaches forward to grab the rotary handle when it begins to move on its own, causing her to jump and nearly lose the tether with her other hand. "Ahmed, did you just disengage Zazel's airlock?"
Tahlia swears under her breath. Someone's alive in there and they're fucking with the wrong woman. So help me, if it's you, Jason, I'm going to throw you out of this goddamn airlock.
The door slides open, only darkness greeting them from inside. Before Tahlia has a chance to turn on her front flood lights, the inside of Zazel explodes with bright illumination. Only empty corridors and blinking instrumentation switches within view. Tahlia pulls herself in, body floating through the entrance with ease.
Grabbing the occasional handlebar to keep momentum, she glides her way toward the main hull. She remembers the ship's layout like the back of her hand. How could she forget? Text-filled screens, bland walls, and the occasional ladder steps blur along her peripheral vision. Her crew members blob along behind her, slowly at first, but then catching up as she nears the hull.
The large and open space of it greets Tahlia with a chill. "Ahmed, close Zazel's airlock."
"Captain, what if--"
"Just do it. Whoever opened it in the first place is in here somewhere and they would be stupid to keep up this charade."
Silence stretches and then the airlock hisses long and high-pitched like a snake and then metal clunks. Tahlia's ears pop hard, nearly making her cry out. She pulls herself over to the main terminal and checks the interior HAB. Everything checks out, oxygen's good, pressure's steady. She takes off her helmet, and the others do the same.
The compulsion to flip on the main monitor and stare into that beautiful ringed globe grips Tahlia, but she tunes it out. Focuses on the task at hand; finding whoever survived and getting some answers. "All right. Let's split up. Brothers, you check the crew's quarters; Chambers, you check the galley and kitchen; Melton, you take the bathroom and the engine room; I'll do the lab and the infirmary." When she’s sure there are no objections, she motions for them to go then starts pulling her way in the direction of the lab.
It wasn’t exactly conscious, but deep down she knows why she gave herself the lab. She has to at least have a glimpse of the data they were getting. She thinks about the jet stream experiment she developed and a nervous excitement puts her into a cold sweat as she grabs hold of another handlebar and shoves herself further forward.
The open doorway of the infirmary catches her eye when she passes, her mind filled with giddy anticipation over wind speeds and vortex consistency numbers.
Had something been moving in there?
She grips tightly on the next handlebar and lets her body break against the thrust of inertia until she’s still and almost flat against the wall. She spins around and looks at the infirmary doorway. She’ll have to take a closer look. The anger is gone now, replaced with a nervous concern. What if whoever survived is dangerous? The thought hadn't really occurred to her, even though Ahmed had all but screamed it into her ears.
She edges her way along the wall, listening intently. There’s a rustle from inside and her heart nearly stops. She grabs hold of the side of the doorway and tugs, sending her body into the room in a rush. She crashes full on into a floating crumpled naked body, long black hair fanning out around her. A cold inhuman shriek stretches in ear-splitting dissonance. Tahlia pushes the body, sending it and herself apart from each other. Her back smacks into the edge of the doorway and the body goes careening into the side of a medical cot and the woman unfolds and turns to face Tahlia, still screaming like a banshee.
The face is wrong. Hair and dark dried blood matt the sides of it in crusted streams from the ears. The forehead scrunches up with fury and the flesh of the eyeballs where the pupils and irises should be is a deformed mess of dull color. The woman's body is crouched, hands out front, finger's tightly cramped into claws, head turning left and right in blind panic.
Tahlia's scream nearly matches pitch with the thing floating before her. When she catches her breath again, she swallows back the nausea. "Johanson?"
There’s no recognition. The ears… the eyes… how could there be? Johanson's breathing is heavy and erratic, spittle spraying from her mouth with each successive exhalation.
Melton and Chambers fling into the room, nearly merging with the wall. “What the hell is-” Chambers’s voice cracks as she takes in Johanson’s condition. “What happened to her?”
“I don’t know. I saw something moving inside and went in to look and caught too much momentum, crashed right into her.”
“We can’t just stand here gawking, we’ve got to do something.” Slowly, tenderly, Chambers moves closer, reaches, puts her hand on Johanson’s shoulder to try and calm her. In an instant, she’s struggling to escape the blind woman’s teeth and claws. Blood bursts away from the two of them in dark crimson bubbles. It takes both Melton and Tahlia to pull Johanson away and subdue her. All the while she growls and jerks as they hold each of her arms.
Chambers hovers in the middle of the room, bubbles still leaking from the gash in her face made by Johanson’s teeth. Brothers slams into the doorway, stares at the scene before him. Tahlia calls out to him, breaking him free of his confusion. “Sedative!”
He scrambles through cabinets and drawers sending random items wobbling slowly toward the ceiling in a sort of floating debris field before he turns, syringe trembling in his hand as he tests the plunger. “Hold her as steady as you can…”