“Not one damn sign of life,” Sila said as she read The Chaser’s sensory data. The bridge’s central viewscreen displayed an outer colony planet. Sensors continued to send data to the woman’s console as the ship probed the planet from orbit but the information was irrelevant. Sila knew the mysterious substance known as the Gasp ravaged the planet. The lack of detectable life on the sensors indicated that. She laced her fingers behind her head and leaned back in her chair.

"What did you expect?” Robby asked from an adjacent bridge seat. “There hasn’t been anyone or anything since we left Ridis.”

“There will be people at Haven, it’s going to be okay,” Benson chimed in from behind them.

“Haven? Shit, Haven’s a sham. You think the Gasp just skipped a colony for funsies?” Robby asked. He scrunched up his nose and leaned toward the viewscreen. “Why is Haven different from Yaswa IV, eh?”

“They found a way to stop it,” Benson said.

“For a doctor, you sure can be dumb. We should change course instead of following a ghost.”  Robby swiveled his chair around and pointed a finger toward him.

“We aren’t changing course,” Sila said, crossing her arms. They never failed to get into this discussion; it went nowhere. Beep! Beep! Her console fired off. Sila huffed and brought her weight forward. A red light flashed in the corner of her screen. “Fuel is low.” She shot a glance at Robby.

“Me!? Why not lover boy?” Robby asked, pointing backward to Benson with his thumb.

“Because I can depend on you,” Sila said, rolling her eyes.

“Bull shit, you just don’t want to risk Benny boy’s life.”

“I can help fuel,” Benson offered.

 “We aren’t discussing this.” Sila huffed. Benson sat back in his seat with eyes downcast to the floor. She kept her eyes on the screen as her fingers fired across the keyboard. “Go suit up, I’ll be there after I find a port.” She pointed at the door. Robby sat still with his arms crossed. “Go!” she yelled.

 “Fine, but I’m taking an extra pack tonight,” he grumbled before he stood up to exit the bridge. Sila shook her head. Why did everything have to be a struggle? Extra food for helping keep the ship fueled? It was ridiculous, but she did not expect more from an ex-con. However, she couldn’t blame him for being scared. Deep inside she felt the fear too.  One wrong move on a Gasp infested planet could mean an agonizing death for the three of them. But they had no choice. It was a far worse fate to run out of fuel in the expanse of space.

Sila returned her focus back to the task at hand. She zoomed in and out on various settlements on Yaswa IV, studying the buildings.

“Are there any other colony planets nearby? I’ve got a bad feeling about this one. There isn’t even grass on this planet. The Gasp hit it hard,” Benson said. “I’m not sure I’ve seen it this aggressive before.”

“None, Yaswa is the last of the outer colonies,” Sila answered. Come on, she thought, bouncing her leg in a vertical motion. “There.” Sila clicked a command on her keyboard, and information on a settlement named Barret’s Town transferred to the main viewer. A little box read, Barrett's Town. Established in the year 6145. Farming colony. United Alliance of Planets, 41.4993 N, 81.6944 W.  “We are heading there.” She pointed to the screen.

“Sounds good,” Benson said as he offered her a weak smile. He turned his focus back to his station’s screen to look over a star map. “Robby doesn’t believe, but I may have found it.”

Sila let her lips crease into a slight grin while she watched him. His hope was one thing she admired about him.

“Yeah? A breakthrough from last time?” Sila asked. She stood up and traversed the bridge to Benson’s station in a few quick strides.

“Based on the last few transmissions we intercepted…” Benson paused and studied the star map on his screen. “Haven has to be in this quadrant of the Antidas System. If we made a jump to these coordinates we’d probably find it. We will need a full tank though.” Benson’s finger hovered in front of a waypoint he marked.

 “We’ll get the fuel,” Sila rested a hand on his shoulder. Benson nodded and stood from his seat. Their eyes locked together and Sila brushed strands of jet-black hair behind his ear. Her other hand wrapped around his slender frame and pulled him close. She moved her head down to kiss his lips.

“Remember, take her in gently and softly. No sudden movements, don’t veer off course.”

 “I’ve got it,” Benson said, squeezing her tight.

“And the landing gear, drop it before you dock.”

“I’ve got it.” Benson moved his head up for another quick kiss before pushing away. She felt content and secure in moments like these, but the fuel sensor’s beeping beckoned her back to reality. “And make—”

“I have a Ph.D. in biochemistry so I think I can remember a landing sequence.”

“Right.” Sila nodded. She leaned over and typed a command on his console. The information on the colony displayed on his screen. “Remember, if Robby or me gets compromised, you take off.” She spoke as she headed for the exit but turned back in the doorway. “Promise.”

“Yeah, I know the drill.” Benson gave her one last look. “Be careful.”

“Always am.” Sila nodded and stepped out into the ship’s central corridor. The airlock’s design was bland with no reprieve from the ship’s bleak metal esthetic save for a row of lockers against the back wall. Inside the lockers were four fierce-looking combat suits. The Iris Armor units were made of a tough composite material designed to withstand bullets and absorb shock. One of those armor suits was a second home to her, and she suited up with hastened efficiency. Robby was standing in the airlock's corner wearing one of the Iris units. The name Okor was above his visor hand written in faded paint. For a moment it was almost as if he had risen from the dead. The dark visor shaded Robby’s face.  Her mind almost slid into a painful memory, but she cut the thoughts short. Okor was a pile of dust back on Ridis Station and they were not. She turned her attention back to the present and keyed up the comm. system.

“We are suited up, drop her out of orbit,” Sila said.

“Roger,” Benson responded, and the ship began the descent into Yaswa IV’s atmosphere. Sila handled the turbulent entrance with grace. The ship shook and rocked as it fought the heat and air resistance. She shifted her weight with the rolls of the ship. The magnets in her boots kept her upright when they hit a rough patch. In contrast, Robby needed to brace himself with the wall. He stumbled a few times and almost fell as they broke into the lower atmosphere. The landing was even rougher. Several hard bounces sent jolts through the ship. Robby toppled to the airlock floor with a yell. Sila looked downward at him and shook her head.

The doors hissed of the airlock hissed as they locked from both sides. Vents pulled in air to equalize the pressure with the atmosphere outside the ship. Afer the process was over af the exterior door swung open. Sila stepped out onto the space port’s landing platform.

She glanced over to see that Benson had landed the ship right into the platform’s thick guard rails. At least it had held, and they were all in one piece. She looked around the port. Similar hexagonal platforms dotted the sides of the large concrete building that anchored the spaceport at its center. In the distance, white geodesic domes made up the bulk of the colony’s structures.

"Get the lines hooked up, I’ll go check out the pump.”  Sila’s boots crunched in the gritty red dust. She walked toward the far end of the platform. Near the pumping machine, a red crystalline form stood guard. One large crystal poked out for the head, others for appendages, and a central formation for a body. Parts of it had crumbled, the wind carrying off a bit every time it blew. Sila shuddered. That could be her or Benson if they weren’t careful.

“We should check the lines,” Robby suggested over the comm. link.

“No, just hook them up,” Sila said. Her eyes fell down to a set of instructions and labels on the station’s console.

“But what if the lines are busted? That shit is dangerous,” Robby argued. Sila dragged her hand down her visor and breathed out.

“Do you know how to clean or hook up new fuel lines? Do you know anything about this system, or where the port keeps their supplies?” Sila asked.

“No,” Robby answered.

“Great! Me neither, hook up the lines.” Sila returned her focus to the console. The screen whirred on after she twisted a knob. No error messages so far. It looked operational, though there was no telling how long it had sat idle. Robby wasn’t wrong either. Liquid Vansium, the fuel used by ships for faster than light travel, was volatile. It was a ticking time bomb if it was not properly stored. 
“What’s taking so long?” Sila asked. She tapped her foot. Nothing but silence in response. She crossed her arms and the speed of her foot tapping increased. “Robby, for fuck’s sake.”

“Don’t twist your panties up,” Robby responded. Sila gritted her teeth. “Almost done, the seals on these hoses are gunked up.” It took another five minutes for Robby to give to the OK to fuel. She punched the button as soon as she could. A low rumbling sound emitted from the machine. Fuel rushed through the lines. Sila sighed and relaxed her shoulders.

“Benson let us know when we are almost full up,” Sila said, watching various status monitors and meters, though she wasn’t sure what any of them really meant. As long as they were green then she assumed they were okay.

 “Sure thing,” Benson said. She took a step back and scanned the rest of the spaceport. Docked ships still occupied many of the platforms as if they just arrived to fuel up or unload. Abandoned on the tarmac below were carts that used to carry passengers, supplies, and gear. If it wasn’t for the crystalline figures scattered about and excessive dust, then it would have appeared if the people of Barret’s Town just vanished.
Sila snapped back to reality when an unsettling rumble emitted from the underground pipes. The platform shook, and she heard something splattering on the pavement. A red-colored message flashed on the screen. Line malfunction, shut off and check line 2-B.

“Disconnect ‘em,” She shouted and reached for the emergency shutoff. Before her hand reached the button, an impact tossed her off the platform. The fueling station erupted into a display of purple and blue flames. For a brief second, she felt weightless as she careened toward the pavement. Sila hit the tarmac hard. A sharp pain flared through her shoulder and down her back. She cried out and laid still, trying to assess the damage. The biometrics in her suit’s HUD indicated nothing life-threatening. The impact gels in the Iris armor had saved her life once again, but the technology did not work miracles. There had to be some damage. She heard another explosion off in the distance and a tremor rocked the ground beneath her.

“Sila!” Benson’s voice filled her helmet. The immediate jolt of sound sent shock waves through her sensitive head. I need to get up, she thought as she clenched her teeth together.

“Fine, I’m fine,” She answered. A metallic taste appeared in her mouth, but she ignored it. The ship was on its side, propped up by one wing. A cursory glance showed light damage. A minor tear along the edge, but it had remained intact. “Benson use the jets to get it up in the air, don’t set her down again,” Sila suggested as she looked at one of the landing legs laying on the tarmac. The positioning jets in the wing fired off, but not the ones directly underneath the hull. The wing crashed into the ground again. “Benson, shit. Jets in the port wing, then use the others to stabilize it.” Sila’s legs shook as she rose to her feet. Once stabilized, she broke into a run.

“Goddamn, well, I’m okay, thanks for asking,” Robby’s voice shot over the comm. link.

“Get back to The Chaser and let’s go, glad to see you’re okay, check your suit,” Sila said mid-stride. Her attention returned to the ship. Relief washed over her as the ship stabilized above the ground. Her eyes zeroed in on the exterior service ladder and she took in a deep breath. Pushing off with her legs, she leaped toward the ladder. Her fingers latched onto one of the lower rungs and she ascended toward the airlock’s door. The airlock door popped open once she called for it. After she was inside, she turned to see Robby making his way up the ladder. Sila’s hand stretched out when he neared the top and she pulled him in.  She shuffled to the side of the door and laid her head against the wall, breathing heavily. The door hissed and locked, signaling safety from the hostile environment.

“Hell, of a fueling run,” Sila said in between deep breaths.

“Yeah, great fun,” Robby said. Sweat dripped from his forehead, and he darted his eyes around the small room. He leaned his lanky form against the wall on the opposite side of the door. He bent his knees and let his back slide down the wall.

“Nothing else to say?” Sila asked. Robby always had something else to say. She looked over at him with a slight grin, but it quickly faded. Her jaw dropped open and her chest tightened. Oh, no. Underneath his helmet and just above the neckline of the armor’s chest piece was a broken seal clasp. The small piece hung loose from where it connected the two pieces. Sila pointed at him, her finger shaking.


“Neck,” Sila uttered. Robby’s fingers fumbled around the neck of the Iris armor until he encountered the clasp. He ceased all movement and his eyes opened wide. For a moment, time stopped as they both struggled to grasp the reality of the situation.

“No, no,” Robby broke the silence and shook his head in denial.

“Benson, Robby’s suit is compromised. Lock it all down,” Sila said with a slight tremor in her voice.

"Huh?” Benson questioned.

“You heard me, lock it down, I’ll keep it contained in the airlock.”

“I’m not, you c-c-can’t,” Robby stuttered, struggling to find words. He scrambled to his feet and moved away from Sila.

“Don’t make this hard,” She said. Her eyes followed him. Robby was a pain, but the last thing she wanted was to toss him out of the ship to certain death. It had to be done.

“No, you don’t get to do this to me!” Robby shouted.  His eyes shifted to the interior door, and he made a run for it. Sila pushed off with her legs and lowered her shoulder. She connected, burying her shoulder into Robby’s side. The blow sent them both to the metal floor. Sila cried out. Her shoulder throbbed with pain, but there was no time to nurse it. She grunted as she crawled on top of the stunned Robby. Her legs straddled his chest, and she squeezed tight to limit his mobility. Sweat streamed down her face as she placed her thumbs down on the broken seal clasp. She applied pressure, and the helmet popped off. She gazed down at Robby’s face. Snot dripped from his nose and his eyes were wide and wet.

"Take us to orbit, fast, open the lock once we get there,” Sila barked on the comms. If he wouldn’t get off the ship, then she’d let the vacuum of space do the job. With a cold calculation, she stared into them. This would be over quick.

"Wait? Orbit?” Benson said with panic gripping his voice.

“We need to kill him,” Sila said. The comm. system went silent. Robby’s arms flailed as he struggled to get free. Just a little longer, she thought as she continued to stare him down. Her eyes flashed to the side when she heard a loud pop. The shoulder piece to his Iris suit cracked. A piece flew off and ricocheted off the closest wall. A rough crystal emerged from his exposed skin coated in a sheen of blood.  Robby emitted a strangulated cry and struggled to get free from Sila. With newfound strength, he tossed Sila off and got on popped onto his feet. Armor rapidly shot off his suit as he walked to the door. His arm was a tangled mess of minerals, torn flesh, and the soft under material of the Iris armor. Robby lurched toward the door and slammed his deformed fist into it over and over. Each punch left a deep dent.

Sila groaned and shakily rose to her feet. She couldn’t let him get that door open. Barreling at him, she attempted an ill-fated tackle. Robby tossed her aside with minimal effort and continued to slam into the door. More strangulating cries echoed throughout the small space as the crystallization occurred around his chest and other arm. Ragged crystals shot out from all over his body. In only a matter of seconds, he was unrecognizable. Robby was near twice his size now as the disease continued to mutate his organs, bones, and blood into reddish minerals. Despite the grotesque nature of the mutations, it gave him the strength to do what he otherwise could not. His arm punched through the metal of the door and he ripped back, taking it off its hinges. He threw it across the airlock and crashed out into the ship’s main corridor.

A knot formed in Sila’s stomach as she lay on the ground watching Robby tear into the ship. It only took one wrong move, and that was her fate too. Robby slashed his arms all around him, tearing into the ceiling and walls. The metal tore with ease, exposing wires and mechanical ducts.
Sila’s right hand fell below her hip and unholstered the service pistol. She entered the hallway and kicked off to intercept the mutating threat. Aches and pains wracked her entire body now.  She adjusted her head around the hallway. Mechanical pipes and hoses hung down from the ceiling in Robby’s aftermath as he continued to tear into the guts of the ship with no sign of stopping. She couldn’t let him get to the bridge… and Benson.

Sila dodged a crystalline appendage as she darted past him. She glanced at area that used to be his head. Amidst bloody crystal shards, she found what she was looking for, signs of something organic… part of a deformed human face. Sila held the pistol out and aimed at the small patch of flesh. The bullet exploded from the barrel and hit true. An ear-shattering cry emitted from the monster as he turned on her. Blood leaked from the small entry wound and dripped on to the crystalline features. A partially deformed eye sticking out from the mangled mess conveyed sheer agony and fear.

Robby swung at her with a heavy fist in retaliation. Sila felt one of her legs stiffen and Robby’s blow crashed into her chest. The air left her lungs as she hit the wall. Struggling to pull in a breath, another attack came at her head. She found her feet just in time; she lunged out of the way and stumbled through an open doorway. It was the engine room!

The large room contained various panels, stations, and a large cylindrical drive centered behind an arched doorway. Staring into the crackling blue energy of the drive core, a plan formed in her mind. Her legs shook as she limped through the archway. Robby was becoming sluggish now, but he wasn’t far behind. Heavy arms drug against the floor as he moved. That’s it, come and get me, she thought as she stepped further into the room. Exhaustion and the nagging sensations from her injuries forced her to one knee. She pulled in a ragged breath and saw another attack out of the corner of her eye. No time to react. An excruciating sensation fired up her leg as Robby’s jagged crystal arm slammed into her. The crystal spikes smashed the Iris armor with ease and penetrated deep into the muscle of her calf. Sila screamed.

“Jump… jump… now!” She yelled through the comm. link gasping between words. 

“W-what?” Benson asked.

“Jump!” She cried out as Robby ripped the crystals from her leg, taking blood and flesh with them. Robby poised for another swing. “Now… anywhere,” she urged. On her uninjured leg, she pushed with just enough strength to lurch forward onto her side. Robby’s strike crashed down next to her. Her eyes set on the exit… she could make it.

The large cylindrical drive came to life. Blue lights danced off the chrome interior of the room and the fuel lines engaged. A whirring noise sounded as the internal mechanisms of the drive came to life. The drive chamber’s door started to slide shut. Blaring red lights joined the soft blue light of the drive, warning any personnel to get out of the room. As she crawled toward the exit, Sila stopped. Blood oozed from the puncture holes in her leg. She let her head crash into the ground and exhaled.

“Benson?” She said over the comm. “I need you to listen,” her voice wavered.

“Sila, where are you!?” Benson asked.

“Just listen to me!” She shouted. “I-I can’t, this is… my suit… it’s been.” There was a clear image in her head of the right things to say but she couldn’t form the words. She lifted her head to see the door closing.

“Where are you!?” Benson screamed.

“Find Haven, take care of yourself,” Sila said and muted comm.  Hot tears streamed down her face. How long had it been since she cried? The reinforced chamber door closed with the sound of hydraulic locks clicking into place. It was only a matter before lethal radiation took her life. Sila grunted as she turned so she was staring down the drive core. Robby had taken to smashing his mangled and deformed fist against the core’s barrier in a slow and methodical motion. A crack formed in the protective layer, but there wasn’t enough time for him to break it. He gasped for air as he labored, his lungs crystallizing. I’m sorry Benson, I tried, she thought just before a fatal wave of radiation and energy shot through her body.

“Sila! Answer me!” Benson yelled after the ship exited from the FTL jump. There was no response. Warning messages scrolled across the screen. He slammed both his fists into the keyboard. He knew what had happened, but he wouldn’t believe it. His eyes shifted around the room until he saw the soft-shelled emergency space suits hanging against the wall. He fitted the suit on and made sure the small oxygen tank was operational. They weren’t designed to last long, but he only needed to prevent contamination long enough to figure out what happened.

The corridor door shot open and out he warily walked down the damaged corridor. The corridor looked like a war zone. Air filter hoses and other mechanical parts hung from the ceiling. He entered the engine room and stopped mid-stride. His eyes fell on the lifeless body clad in black Iris Armor on the chamber’s floor. He dropped to his knees. The corners of his eyes welled with tears. The suit hid her flesh, but he knew how burned her skin was underneath the armor plates. Benson closed his eyes, he breathed out and saw what remained of Robby. A hulking mass of crystals leaning against the core’s case. And just like that… he was alone. One ill-fated trip and he was utterly alone.

Benson did his best to sit Sila’s body up in a natural state, hands in her lap. She wouldn’t have wanted to be laying on the ground when there was work to do. Maybe, if he ever reached Haven, they’d let him bury her body. The radiation should have killed all traces of the Gasp, if it was a virus. There was still so much they didn’t understand about the virus or whatever the Gasp truly was.

Tears streamed down his face as he sniffed snot back up into his nostrils. He turned his attention to the hulking crystal that once was Robby. Anger flashed through his mind as he walked over to the lifeless form. His fists balled up and he punched the hardened crystals. Why didn’t you just die, he thought. It was Robby’s fault. If he had accepted death in the airlock, then Sila… she’d be alive. Lost in thoughts about how the events transpired, a beep rang through his helmet and he jumped.

“Incoming transmission,” A notification sounded out from the ship’s system. His eyes opened wide. Did that mean his jump coordinates were correct?

“I think we did it. I need to go check, but I’ll be back.” Benson looked toward Sila’s body. It had to be Haven… it just had to be! Sila’s sacrifice would not be in vain. Benson broke off into a sprint toward the bridge. Benson almost fell as he barreled into the bridge. His finger shook as he aimed for the command key on the console to play the message. A proximity alarm pinged. On the viewscreen appeared a pair of Dark Hawk fighter craft.

“This is Dark Hawk A-3 hailing from Haven, we picked up your FTL drive signature,” The man’s voice was deep, but it sounded like an angel’s. Benson opened a channel for communication.

“Yes, yes, this is The Chaser UAP,” Benson tried to remember the serial number, but his brain was overloaded. A silence hung over the comm. system for what felt like hours even though it lasted only a few minutes.

“Acknowledged Chaser, welcome to Haven space,” The man responded. Benson breathed out a sigh of relief.  A smile creaked onto his lips even though tears continued to run down his face. 

“You have no idea how good it is just to hear that,” Benson said, rocking in his chair. After everything that had happened, it was… surreal.

“I need to ask before we proceed. Have you, a crew member, or your ship been exposed to any of the Gasp in the last week?” The man asked. His voice was cold and mechanical. A message on the console in front of Benson showed a scan was being conducted from one of the Dark Hawks.

“Uh,” Benson’s mind stalled. It didn’t take a doctorate degree to know where the question was heading. His chest tightened.

“He hesitated, Tate, take him out!” Another man’s voice played over the link, whinier and shriller than the former.

“Yes, but uh, we took care of it, nuked it with the FTL drive,” Benson said. Sweat formed on his brow.

“Ship’s been compromised.” The deep voice returned, and then the Dark Hawk’s comm. link ended.

“No, I’m fine,” Benson yelled on the dead channel. Benson attempted to hail the Dark Hawks. His finger rapidly pressed the command, but there was no response. Alarms blared on the bridge. Proximity alarms and warnings continued to blare out on the Chaser’s bridge. “Attack inbound, attack inbound” a robotic woman’s voice repeated. Benson hung his head down.

 “I’m sorry, Sila,” Benson shut his eyes. The missiles tore deep into the ship and delivered their payload. Pressurized air rushed to escape, and the mechanical drives of the ship reacted with the destructive force. The Chaser exploded outward into the vacuum of space.

Submitted: July 10, 2021

© Copyright 2023 M.L. Flowers. All rights reserved.

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