Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Darkside

by James Michael White


MISSION NOTE:

Spc. Mikhail Lermontov. That's me. Specialist. What a crock. The only thing I specialize in is dereliction of duty and insubordination, but that's only because everyone else here is an abominable asshole, and has been since the big blooie.

I know, I surprised you with that word -- abominable -- you don't think I look smart enough to know words like that. Just wait. I know plenty of other words, but first you have to know why a normally easy-going fella like myself is so riled-up against my Dark Station chums.

You've got to watch out for Maj. Thomasson. He's the biggest prick -- excuse my language -- that walked this side of the moon. All military down to the genes and those size 12D boots. He can trace his family line all the way back to the Big Bang, and every one of them was some sort of top brass. Hell, his own father is none other than Two-Star Otis Thomasson, last man to lead a successful bayonet charge in war. That one was in Mexico in 2066, you know, when the United States decided to grow some more and a few Mexicans didn't like it. So much for what they wanted. Mexico didn't have anything in it by that time except dope-dealing politicians anyway. Never mind that they were subsidized by secret congressional funding, all to ensure the continuing viability of the Mexican economy.

Then there's Captains Felling and Smith. Felling is a woman, and a good-looking one at that, but she wears her uniform so starched it's like armor. Can't see what's hiding beneath unless you've got a good imagination, and I've got imagination enough for two, imagination enough to serve during those long, bleak silences that so often permeate Dark Station.

That Captain Smith, on the other hand, is a crusty old sumbitch with a face like a catcher's mitt; wrinkled, brown and tough -- looks like it's been socked hard a few times, the effect of which has made it all the harder. He would be General by now if he hadn't made someone mad at him early in his career. You know how it goes. Some military binko runs afoul of some binko-and-a-half, and the binko-and-a-half says to the binko "I'll make it my career to ruin your career." Payback with a grin because the binko-and-a-half rakes in the promotions while the binko suffers every reprimand and piece-of-shit duty that comes down the pike. Like sitting on the dark side of the moon, waiting for a missile-launching go, no-go order. Which is too bad for Captain Smith, because he wouldn't be a bad sort if he was civilian instead of military. All that talk about his wife Dotty and his kid Jamie makes it hard to remember how hard-core he really is, especially when he flips open his wallet to show you the picture of the two of them smiling on a green summer day in little Jamie's blue plastic wading pool, her shiny blond hair tied up in pink-ribbon pigtails while bikinied Dotty grins and points to the camera. It's like she's pointing all the way to the moon in that moment, and Captain Smith never says anything more once he shows you the picture.

Oh, yeah, didn't tell you why Captain Felling is an asshole. I'll get to that in a minute.

First you've got to know about Lieutenant Wilson. Fruity as they come. Neon red buzz-cut, with a Clouseau mustache, always smelling of aftershave like he has nothing more to do here than keep the hair off his face. Wilson's hit on everyone here about twice, including me, but he finally shoved-off after I spouted dirty limericks for an hour. Now, every time I see him, all I've got to do is start, "There once was salacious little lass," and he goes the other way.

Last, there's Cavey Dutch. His real name is Davey, but since he spends so much time in the deep missile runs, I call him Cavey. He's the Sergeant in Charge -- which means in charge of the missile battery. SIC. Kinda fitting if you know what he used to do before he got this duty. That is, he used to fly dead-ships. You know, those morgue shuttles that carry dead off orbital platforms to their proper resting place on earth. All part of the war, don't you know. I figure that makes him an asshole, though I can't say as how he ever bugged me like the others. Of course he does outrank me, so that seems a good enough reason. If not, just imagine what a black man's beard looks like when it hasn't been trimmed for six months, and you'll see how much he's given up. Kind of a gloomy resignation about him, as if our circumstances don't surprise him at all.

Now, back to Captain Felling. The prettiest, shiniest, blackest hair I've ever seen, and eyebrows as haunting as those above the brooding Art Deco eyes on the famous dust jacket of Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby. She and I used to be lovers. She came onto me the moment I arrived some six months ago. What clinched it, I think, was my store of other memorized poetry besides limericks. The first time she touched me when no one was looking I whispered in her ear:

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry "Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!"

She liked it, though she didn't know I ripped that one off from the epigraph to Fitzgerald's Gatsby. We had a fling. Two weeks. Then she dumped me. She's pathological. A nympho in a uniform. Kind of like Wilson, I suppose, except her disorder didn't show up until she got this assignment. Something about being in a confined place, without any light, did that to her. I read the Doc's report.

That was after she killed him.

See, I wanted to figure out why the guy was dead in the loading bay with his head half lasered-off. He had a kind of surprised look on his cold face, like his last thought must have been, "I can't believe this is happening..." Since I was the first one to find him there, I didn't want anyone thinking I did it. He'd been updating psychological health reports to send back home even though there wasn't anyone there anymore to receive them. Hope, I suppose. But I figured someone sliced him for one of two reasons: they'd gone stir-crazy from creeping about in the dark these past five months, or he'd stirred something up during an evaluation. Since I'd been among the first evaluated -- low man on the totem pole -- I already knew about his little project, but I knew Major Thomasson didn't. Doc was like that. Did his homework first, then asked Major Thomasson if he could. If the Major said yes, he'd just hand him the report and look like mister God-Almighty efficiency. If he said no, he'd file it for later.

Of course the Doc's report didn't tell me for sure that Capt. Felling took an unauthorized rock splitter to the Doc's spine and sawed halfway through to the windpipe, but you could see it there between the lines. CAPT. FELLING FEELING INCREASINGLY FRUSTRATED AND TORMENTED BY SITUTATION SHE CAN NEITHER CONTROL NOR ESCAPE. TRADITIONAL COPING MECHANISMS FAILING. I FEAR FOR HER IMPENDING PSYCHOLOGICAL BREAKDOWN. SOON MAY RESORT TO OTHER, INAPPROPRIATE, MEASURES.

Yeah, about a gigawatt with a one-micrometer beam.

Of course I didn't tell anyone. Cavey found the Doc next, and he went straight to Major Thomasson who rounded us all up, or at least the twenty or so he still had some control over. Oh he grilled us. Oh he marched up and down in front of us with those 12Ds clomping on the graviton deck and told us how we all had to stick together because his father was coming any day now with a relief ship, never mind that the comstation had been blown to hell after a single straight month of non-com with anyone on earth.

I stood there with my hands in my pockets and listened to him with only one ear. My eyes were on Capt. Felling and her dark eyebrows as still and gorgeous as can be, wondering if she knew my true feelings, wondering if she would even care if she knew. And then Maj. Thomasson stomped to a halt in front of me and asked again if anyone knew what Doc had been working on before he died.

I'm pretty sure I forgot to mention burning the psych-profiles (well, except for one), but I did mention that maybe Renegade Tom had something to do with it. Renegade Tom was actually Sergeant Tom Perry, who was responsible for taking the other twenty or so of us to go hoofing it across the lunar surface to reach the comstation and blast it to splinters in the last desperate act of a man panicked by doom. It had been a rather cheerful go, as I recall, with much drinking and even a spontaneous chorus of Auld Lange Syne followed by BOOM! fzzzzzt...

Needless to say, Maj. Thomasson didn't believe Renegade Tom had anything to do with the Doc's death. He ordered us all to general quarters, issued only two weapons, one to himself and one to Cavey, then ordered Cavey to shoot anyone who tried to kill either of them. That surprised me. I figured surely he would've given a weapon to Wilson before he gave one to Cavey.

For four days we languished in our dark rooms, served food by autodemand from the galley, while Maj. Thomasson and Cavey hunted the killer whom they presumed would not abide the order to stay put, seeking instead to thrill about the darkness, plotting new schemes of wonder and death.

Silly Maj. Thomasson. I knew the murderer was locked inside her own room, because she kept calling me. I didn't answer of course. I just lay on my bunk, the top of my head pressed against a cold steel rail, thinking it might numb my brain to the line she kept repeating so gloomily, "Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!" And I lay there. And I listened to her talking. Listened to her pouring out her frail and delicate female heart to me in the dark inner surface of the moon.

Hell, we were all afraid, even when we tried not to think about it. A few months of living off of batteries will do that to you, even if you don't feel the cold seeping in. Of course Capt. Felling never mentioned being afraid of the murderer.

Finally, Major Thomasson and Cavey declared us safe. They had located the offending rock splitter and removed its coil, which was now permanently installed in the Major's quarters. It took us two days to realize that some of us weren't around anymore.

Out came the weapons. This time the Major gave one to me and I wondered why until he told me to find out why Spc. Burnham and Cpl. Wu had not shown their faces for the past few days. I went to Burnham's room first and had to pry the door open with rebar shrapnel -- courtesy of one long range conventional warhead fired by one of the Chinese orbitals -- only to find the guy hanging by the neck from a noose he'd tied out of his pants and looped around the inert light fixture. Poor bastard couldn't take it any more, even if it meant strangling himself to death in one-sixth G -- rooms didn't have graviton decks, see. End of story.

Cpl. Wu was a different story. His skull had been bashed-in with the chair from his desk. Still had black hairs stuck to one of the caster wheels. The door to his room wasn't locked like Burnham's had been, so I figured the killer or killers (yeah, right, like I didn't already know who'd done it) simply walked in and cracked him one.

Maj. Thomasson had a fit. He ordered everyone not to kill themselves so-by-God as long as he was in command of this station, then he came up with the screwy idea that we would fix the comstation and by God get some relief up here. That seemed to motivate the others. While they made preparations, I re-tuned the switch on Cpl. Wu's intercom so it was no longer set to my room.

Major Thomasson left Captain Smith in charge while he led the work crew himself. Maybe I should have gone, but I spent my time hiding in the runs, sometimes buzzing an electri-car deep down into the missile array where no one could find me. Down there, the green actinic lights reminded me of earth. Its green leaves. Its green grass. Even the deep kind of green you sometimes see in warm, tropical seas.

So what if the multi-nukes -- the World-Crushers, we called them -- violated international treaties? So what if this was the great secret of how we resupplied our missile platforms while other nations rocketed theirs up from flaming cities? We had the upper hand. We always did. We always would. Melted-metal blobs dripped on the floor around those missiles looked like Cavey had been working on them still. Working on them even if it didn't matter anymore.

Major Thomasson did not have a good trip. When they reached the comstation, they found half of Renegade Tom floating on a tether of shredded spacesuit snagged on the obliterated ruins of the beam-link, little bits of the rest of him and his pals sprinkled like confetti across the moonscape. But that's not what ruined Thomasson's trip. Seems someone spiked the airpacks. Not his, of course, but those of his work crew. Eleven men and women choked on their own carbon dioxide, leaving Major Thomasson to hike the klicks back alone.

Of course we blamed him.

He protested.

Captain Smith relieved him of command, but since there were only six of us left to command, it didn't really seem to matter. The great project was off and it looked like Major Thomasson was to blame.

Of course I didn't believe that.

Just like I didn't believe Two-Star was on his way with a relief ship. I'd been monitoring radio chatter the day of the big blooie. My job, after all, till Renegade Tom went bonkers. I heard the last words myself. Even memorized them: "Oh my God! It's over!" Kinda makes you wonder what the speaker meant until you remember that most everybody was at war with everybody else, and that we could look out our moonwindows and see our own shadow in space. Something else glowed hot that night, and it wasn't the sun.

Still, Captain Smith might have believed someone would have come if only they heard us, because he started drinking and staring at the picture in his wallet, that leathery face of his sinking deeper and deeper into itself. Despair, you know. Then Captain Felling started being nice to him, comforting the despondent and all that. One thing led to another, then next thing you know, Captain Smith sickens and dies.

Ingested a little too much radium.

That implicated Wilson. You see, Wilson had access to the battery replenishers, and the replenishers were radium-based packs. He was in charge of a lot of chemical mumbo-jumbo that I don't understand, but one thing I do know is that radium is supposed to remain inside the batteries.

Major Thomasson took over again and was fit to shoot Wilson on the spot, but then our emergency lights went out altogether. We knew it would happen sometime, of course, but it was a shock anyway. I had a flashlight with me, and when I turned it on, Wilson was gone.

Even more implication.

Except I'd put money on Capt. Felling. Don't ask me how, the battery bay was always locked, but I figured she was a crafty sort.

Anyhow, Major Thomasson ordered that battery bay door opened so we could try to replenish the batteries ourselves, and the duty fell to me. Of course Major Thomasson issued me another weapon in case Wilson tried to get me, then he issued weapons and flashlights to Cavey and Felling and they all went hunting for Wilson because, like it or not, he could coax electricity out of a potato. I didn't think it was a good idea, giving Capt. Felling a weapon, but I wasn't about to say so.

They left. I opened the battery bay. It was easy because someone broke the lock with a one-micrometer laser. Closed, you couldn't tell, but when I swung the rebar shrapnel at the door, that heavy steel clunked and wobbled open under the rebound.

I tell you, I was surprised.

It changed my thinking.

Maybe Capt. Felling wasn't the killer after all. Maybe Wilson took the laser, cut the battery bay lock, and cut the Doc as well. Which wouldn't make a whole lot of sense, considering that Wilson had a key to this lock, except for one thing: a copy of one psych-profile I burned was here. It was Wilson's. LT. WILSON BECOMING INCREASINGLY NEUROTIC. OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE BEHAVIOR INCREASING. FEELING NEED TO LEAVE HIS MARK ON THE WORLD.

Maybe killing people was his way.

I got the woolies.

I closed the battery bay door behind me and shined my light down the long hall, saw lots of black goo seeping out of gray metal boxes the size of refrigerators. Twenty-four batteries. Twenty-four oozers. Enough replenishers for half, except seams of brilliant white-light glowed on the replenishers. Whoever had lasered off Doc's head and lasered through the battery bay lock had also lasered through the replenisher cases, which meant I'd just soaked up more than my daily-allotted USDA radiation allowance.

I jumped out of the battery bay and slammed the door.

It seemed silly to worry.

I was a dead man already.

Just a matter of time.

But I figured I'd go out starving to death, since the water purifiers still seemed to work. The idea of rotting to pieces in my own skin, loosing my teeth and hair, made my guts churn.

A single gunshot rang out in the base, echoing off the hard steel and stone walls like a pinball looking to score on my ears. Somebody was dead, I felt sure, but I didn't like to think of who it might be. And I didn't like standing by the battery bay.

So I went looking for the shot. Wouldn't you know, I found Major Thomasson face-down at the edge of the missile run, shot through the back of the skull, those 12Ds tangled.

But who did it?

Wilson or Felling.

No other choices.

Well, not exactly. Maybe Major Thomasson was the guilty one all along. Maybe he knew what I would find in the battery bay. Maybe Cavey did it.

I didn't really believe that.

I don't know why, exactly, except that maybe it was because I couldn't stand Wilson and wanted to see him as the guilty party; or maybe it was because I didn't like Capt. Felling for brushing me off like she did. I simply did not believe that Cavey would crack.

In the quiet of staring at Major Thomasson's growing pool of blood, I noticed something. A light flashed through the overdome's moonwindows. I looked up in time to see something pass out of sight. A ship. Definitely a ship.

That almost gave me a heart attack. I ran to the observatory and climbed the stairs to the top of the hundred-foot tower. There on the tarmac, right next to the station elevator and waypoint house, I saw an armored lander.

Then I saw a single suited shape run out to meet it, running like a lonely metal filing drawn by a magnet. I knew there were only two reasons to run like that: either God was calling, or the devil himself was chasing you. Fascinated, terrified by the spectacle of what my subconscious recognized as a version of my own future, I pressed my face to the window. A puff of white from one sleeve spun the runner and he, or she, kept kangaroo-hopping toward the lander until a much larger white spray issued from the back of the suit, turning it flabby in an instant. The poor bastard spasmed in the decompressed suit and drifted right past the lander.

Only then did I wonder if the lander itself was occupied, and only then did I look to the exit onto the tarmac, but the airlock gate was already closing, and the shooter was gone.

Which left only me and two others in a vast and failing station.

I didn't have to guess which one of us hadn't been killed out there. Since I was alive, and I felt certain that Captain Felling was also alive, the dead bastard had to be Cavey or that AWOL Wilson.

Shit. I'd forgotten I was dead, too, dosed on mega-rads.

Maybe the shooter figured I should be dead already.

Maybe that was an advantage.

I checked my weapon, then decided it really didn't goddamned matter at all. So-the-hell-what if Captain Felling wanted to kill everyone as some bizarre means of controlling her situation? I dropped my weapon and strolled to the tarmac entry bay, dangling my light at the end of my swinging arm.

Cavey lay face down in front of the airlock doors, three evenly-spaced bullet holes perforating his lungs and spine. His weapon was still in its holster. Whoever hit him did it sneaky. I was glad he wasn't the bad-guy, after all. Poor bastard.

The tarmac entry bay lights, sucking the last bit of life from one of the batteries, faded to half their former brightness, then surged a little brighter when wounded replenishers kicked-in. Brighter, but yellow instead of white. Terminal battery failure. No question. For a moment I considered taking one of the pressure suits off the wall, suiting up, and visiting that armored lander. It could take me back to Earth, but was Earth worth going back to? Or was it a melted ball of radioactive goo? I looked through the entry bay windows at the now distant speck of the runner's floating body.

Wilson or Felling.

I sat down next to Cavey and realized that he must have figured that Dark Station had simply become another dead-ship whirling through space on its way to nowhere. No wonder he gave up, went about like a dog whipped just one too many times.

"Surprised?"

Felling's voice echoed in the bay.

I looked over my shoulder, saw her standing in a pressure suit, her weapon leveled at me.

"No. Not really." I shrugged.

Captain Felling stepped forward. She wore her hair pulled straight back by a wide band that made her face seem larger than normal, strikingly luminous in the failing battery light. Under one arm she held the suit's helmet, its gold-reflective sun-visor rolled back.

"You're not very good at this, are you?" I said.

Captain Felling frowned and in an instant I knew she was not bonkers, saw it in those bright green eyes. I knew what the Doc failed to recognize. I saw why all of this started. That made me smile. My smile made Captain Felling step back and tighten fingers on her weapon.

"So you've finally caught on," Felling said. "A bit late, don't you think?"

I stared at Cavey's bullet holes and wondered what the rads were doing to my cells. "Why do you still carry out your mission?"

At least Captain Felling didn't try to fake surprise, or worse, madness. She lowered her weapon. "You helped me. You re-tuned Wu's com. You burned the psyche reports. You didn't report the Doc's death."

"I just thought you were crazy. I didn't know you were a spy." I glanced at the armored lander and realized that she must have had it in place all along. An escape route. All good plans were first built around one central idea: how do I escape, once the deed is done? Of course she had been sent here to disable the resupply base, to spare her country, whichever one it was, the secret lash of the United States. Suddenly those molten metal drops at the base of the missiles made sense. Missile guidance circuits were locked behind welded plates, plates that had to be cut away if you wanted access to the circuits. The targeting circuits.

"I'm sorry."

I shrugged. "All's fair in love and war. Are you going home?"

Captain Felling, or whatever her name really was, looked out the bay windows at the armored lander. I stared at her eyebrows, hoping I could remember them, her face, at the end.

"Yes I am," she said. "My mission here is complete. The New European Union is safe from the missiles that will never leave this base."

I kept thinking of that glow, that terrible glow that made us all see the moonshadow stretching deep into space. Well, all of us saw it except Captain Felling and Cavey. She had been with him during an arsenal inspection. I had forgotten about that, about the two of them being a mile and a half below the lunar surface. The two of them. Alone.

"It's in bad shape."

"Not everything. I've been monitoring signal traffic." She added, "You're not coming with me. The lander has fuel and room enough for only one. I'm sorry, but I'm already in violation of my orders to leave you alive here, but I think I owe you that, at least, for what you did." She hesitated a moment, then asked, "Why did you do it?"

I shrugged.

"If you're lucky, someone will come pick you up," she said.

"I think my luck has already been irradiated out of me."

She said nothing to that, which still made me wonder if maybe Wilson was to blame for the battery tampering. But when I thought of dripped metal at the base of the missiles, I didn't think too much more about it.

In the end, Captain Felling blasted off the dark side of the moon in a long streak of fiery color, heading like a white star into the night. I retreated, like a wounded animal, into the runs, soothing myself with that green light, dreaming of an earth that no longer existed, knowing that I, poisoned though I was, would be the last soul to remember that it had ever been green. That it had ever been at all.

While the station lights finally faded, I sat reading the one psych report that I hadn't burned: LERMONTOV'S PROBLEM IS THAT HE PINES FOR WOMEN WHO HATE HIM. SIX EX-WIVES ON EARTH ATTEST TO THAT AND, NOW, I FEAR THAT HE HAS HIS SIGHTS SET ON CAPT. FELLING. HE IS A JEALOUS SORT, AND I FEAR CONSEQUENCES FOR ALL OF US SHOULD CAPT. FELLING REBUFF HIS ADVANCES. LERMONTOV IS A TICKING TIMEBOMB WAITING TO GO OFF, A DANGER TO HIMSELF AND OTHERS.

I laughed. There in the depths of the greenly-lighted runs where the nukes stood like vast metal trees all in a row, I repacked an unauthorized rock splitter under one of the missiles, a rock splitter I stole from supplies when that moonshadow fell.

And I considered Captain Felling rocketing toward home, toward her own doom on a wasted planet that she thought was still alive. I suppose I might have made it clearer to her that it was gone, that it was burned to a crisp, and that's why the rest of us here were going slowly insane. But I had not told her because, like I said, she wasn't very good at this. She didn't know that the signal traffic I used to monitor and that still came from earth -- and that she thought were signs of life -- were only repeater beacons, coded to whichever country shot the repeaters into orbit. Navigation marks marking paths through mines and satellites and whirling junk. Nothing more. It might have changed her thinking.

But like I said, all's fair in love and war.

END MISSION NOTE

THE END


© 2009 James Michael White

Bio: James Michael White lives and writes in Oklahoma, occasionally selling stories to magazines like Talebones and podcasts like Pseudopod.org (where two of his latest works can be seen and heard).

E-mail: James Michael White

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