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 The Only Thing That Counts

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: The Only Thing That Counts   Tue Oct 24, 2017 4:36 pm

Chapter 22- A Plan?                        

            O’Grady came past and told them it was time to see to the plants. Following behind, they coasted for seconds at a time between nudges off the sides, all the way down to the storage bays. A quick examination showed that all the cell cultures were fine and then O’Grady, who particularly seemed to enjoy their company, left with Jodie and Kelly. Steve and Jimmy were left with the task of lightly spraying water into the sealed containers by removing a plug at the top of each.

            Steve put his hand on Jimmy’s shoulder, “You keep working. I’ll see if I can find the virus cache.” He headed down the back. There were so many large cylinders, boxes and containers that he didn’t know where to begin. Undoing the latches of what looked like a temperature controlled chest with a small motor. He discovered frozen food inside it. It must be some sort of back up, he deduced, closing it and moving to the next compartment.

            After some time locating more food, a large supply of medicines and some bottled water, Steve went back to Jimmy and found him inserting the spray nozzle from a squeeze bottle of water into another plant container. “I think this requires something a bit more drastic,” Steve began.

“What are you going to do?” Jimmy expressed some alarm.

Steve ignored the question initially, quizzing him instead, “Are you almost finished?”

“This is the last one... Steve, don’t do anything silly.”

“We have to find those phials.” He scanned the large storage area to ensure they were alone. “Look you go back and I’ll find somewhere to hide and watch when they come and check the virus storage.”

“What makes you think they’ll come and check?”

“Don’t worry, they will. You go back to your sleeping quarters and leave a few floor hatches unsealed. That should give me a bit of time.”

            Jimmy headed back a little unsure of what Steve had in mind. Steve floated toward the airlock. Hiding in there would limit his vision. Escape would also be a problem. Slowly working his way around, he investigated each little corner, stack of containers and recess trying to identify a position where he could conceal himself. A garbage chute at the far end looked promising, but he saw no way of escape once inside. Steve’s initial confidence was fading as he pushed himself back to the hatchway leading to the front of the space craft. His course was slightly off target and it took him right into some spacesuits stored next to the airlock. As he disentangled himself, the possibilities suddenly occurred to him. Because of weightlessness, clambering into the back suit, third in line, would not be too difficult a task. Especially since they were tethered with Velcro straps to keep them secured. He examined the rear suit, loosening the helmet and undoing the double sets of highly precise sealing rings around the waist.

            Looking about the immediate vicinity a plan began to gel. An increased heart rate made his head ache, reminding him of his still tender head injuries. Steve became edgy at the prospect of starting his first explicitly hostile action against his foes. Using an empty bin like container from the horticulture supply locker he put some dry fertiliser into it. Then opening an exact copy of the sliding locker three stations along, he rummaged through some cleaning chemicals until he found what he wanted. He mixed the chemicals carefully. Pausing to gather his courage, Steve measured out in advance his next movements.

            After breathing a short prayer he added a small amount of water to begin the reaction. Quickly he placed it beneath a smoke detector and thrust himself across the expanse to the space suits. Already fumes were beginning to rise from his chemical concoction. Steve hurriedly slid up into the torso portion of the suit and then lowered himself into the open pants section. Finally he put the helmet on his head but left it unattached. Uncontrollable tremors shook his body as he tensed himself for the search party. The incendiary mixture was now spewing forth dense white smoke and the space was rapidly being filled. Even though the stream of fumes didn’t rise as hot gases would on Earth, the container in which the reaction took place projected smoke by funnelling it at the detector. Alarms instantly shrilled as the contacts in the smoke detector were breached by tiny smoke particles.

            There was consternation amongst all the crew and passengers. Rough hands grasped at Jimmy’s collar as he feigned sleep. “Where’s your friend James?” demanded the harsh voice of Colonel Klein. Jimmy couldn’t pretend any longer and opened his eyes to face an angry, red faced Lieutenant Shelley. “Where ... is ... James?” repeated Klein, more insistently this time. The constriction around Jimmy’s neck tightened and he struggled to breathe.

“I don’t know,” was his squeaked reply.

“Where did you last see him?”

“Plants... we were water...” Jimmy managed to utter before Klein called him off.

“Come on Shelly.” Shelley shoved hard and Jimmy thudded against the wall.

            Back in his concealed position Steve was biting his lip til it hurt, trying to calm himself down. With a rush, four men swam across the storage pod with extinguishers. The raucous snort of the pressurised canisters combined with concerned shouts and the alarm that was still blaring, all created a calamitous riot of sound. The four overly excited fire fighters aimed the nozzles at the pungent stream of billowing cloud as it ejected from the bin like a mini volcano.

            They doused the minor fire with an excess of foam. In no time the smoke abated and the air purification system quickly thinned the acrid-white fog. The reaction had already run its course anyway, irrespective of the foam. Piles of thick, creamy foam blanketed the vessel containing the offending chemicals and blobs of lather spilled copiously; some sticking to walls and some floating like giant cream pies across the storage pod.

            “That’s enough!” yelled Shelley as he appeared in the entryway. “You people will have to clean this mess, so the more you make the more you clean.” The unexpected cry had startled Steve who was only a couple of metres away. There was an eerie quiet as the extinguishers were shut off and the alarm ceased blaring almost simultaneously. Klein materialised behind Shelley and said something in his ear.  

            “You men can take a break. The Colonel and I want a few minutes and I’ll call you back to clear this up.” The four soldiers dutifully worked their way to the front carrying the partly expended cylinders and looking questioningly at each other trying to determine if they were in trouble. Klein and Shelley, who were still close to that third spacesuit—that particular inhabited spacesuit—spoke discreetly.

            “If James is behind this, he’ll live to regret it,” Klein said coldly through gritted teeth. Then with an almost too close steely stare at Shelley, and sneering with a sudden appreciation of macabre humour, he added, “then again, perhaps not.”

“Do you think he found the viruses?” concern exuded from the lieutenant’s face.

“We’ll just have to check, won’t we?”

            The two secured the hatch muttering suggestions as to Steve’s whereabouts. Steve tried to refrain moving or prevent himself from inflating his lungs, but the more he strained to resist expanding his lungs, the more he felt deprived of oxygen. He experienced a nearly irresistible urge to gasp for air. They were too close. He thought his whole body was being beaten by the drum of his heartbeat. They must hear it, or see the third suit shudder in unison with his pounding pulse. The drive to gulp in some air became all consuming. Just as Steve prepared to be exposed by a wheezing inhalation Klein and Shelley moved off. Fortuitously Steve’s howling gale of a breath coincided with a wracking cough as Shelley’s throat was irritated by residual fumes. Inside the helmet the sound was magnified and Steve was sure he had given himself away.

            With extreme effort Steve tried to breathe slowly, deeply, noiselessly. His eyes followed the floating forms of the officers toward the back of the section. They hesitated near the refrigeration units that stored perishable foodstuffs and scanned the area suspiciously. The Colonel motioned Shelley to open the fridge, but instead of opening the door Shelley pulled a panel beneath the door. It opened like a draw and revealed regimented rows of deadly glass vials.

He peered to examine a digital readout. “It’s at thirty five degrees.”

“Good. Our silent killer is snug and safe, keeping warm beneath the refrigerator. Close it up.”

The drawer was returned flush with the panelling. “So, you think no one knows it’s here. Why the fire?”

“Sabotage... nuisance value, maybe a diversion.”

“You don’t think it was an accident?”

“It’s possible, but unlikely. These people work with chemicals all the time.”

            As they left the large storage module Klein instructed Shelley to seal the room and keep supervision tight when the plants needed to be tended.

“... and find James,” was the snatch of conversation he extracted from a confusion of sounds as the airtight door was shut and locked. A few seconds later soldiers came in and wiped all the stray wads of foam off the walls, put a lid on the bin and stored it away. They had finished cleaning in less than five minutes.

            A guard arrived just as Steve had furiously worked his way out of the confining suit. He froze, hovering behind the rack of three tethered space suits. Discovery was moments away if he didn’t find some way to distract the sentry. The soldier manoeuvred his way slowly to the far wall and then moved steadily anticlockwise around the huge storage compartment. It would not be long before he worked his way back along the side on which Steve had concealed himself. Coming from that direction, close to the wall he would be seen for sure.

            Frantically Steve looked about him. All at once he knew what he had to do. Taking a bulky mitt off the suit in front he carefully lined up the button which operated the lights. He gave it a firm shove in what he hoped was the exact direction and readied himself. He was staring up at the hatch on the maintenance tunnel when the lights went out. Dragging himself out and clearing away from the suits, Steve nudged himself in what he trusted was the right direction. He planned to make his traverse while the guard’s eyes were still unaccustomed to the gloomy illumination of the switches and gauges on the walls. Steve however, was in the same predicament, but he had been looking toward the lights when they went off. With pupils still not sufficiently dilated, he bumped into the wall. Feeling to the left there was nothing but blank wall. He broke out in a cold sweat as he felt himself drifting away from the wall. Stretching and reaching, his fingertips grasped an electrical conduit which was attached and he drew himself close to the wall. A gentle pull sent him to the right.

            With relief he gripped the locking wheel of the hatch as it appeared in the dimness. Rapidly unlocking the mechanism it opened soundlessly. He pulled himself through without daring to glance back and then took great care in easing the hatch shut with the tiniest of clicks. A quiet turn and he was off gliding past conduits, cables and storage netting filled with canisters and a variety of equipment.

            Steve took the second exit point, a narrow tube that he worked his way down and came out in an opening in the corner of the sleeping quarters. Exiting quickly, Steve made his way to a toilet cubicle and found refuge in a place where he could calm his nerves and use the amenity at the same time. From there he made his way back to the bunks where he dumped himself in and tried to stop his shaking.

“They’ve been looking for you… been past a couple times now… you all right?” It was Jimmy. He peered up from his bunk and looked inquiringly at Steve. Steve nodded not wishing to expose his fears through his quavering voice.

“So what happened?”

“I started a chemical fire in a metal bin.” Realising that wasn’t the most important news, Steve stopped short.

Gathering his self-control he answered a little unsteadily. “I saw where they keep the phials.” Before he could go on there was movement at the end of the corridor and they both retreated into their beds and simulated snoozing.

            Sensing that someone was drawing near Steve struggled to control his breathing. Before he could sneak a peek, rough hands hauled him out detaching the Velcro strapping with a chattering snap. Even with the intended violence of the grasping hands, his movement was moderated by the fact his antagonists had no purchase, or gravity assisted leverage. “Where have you been?” It was Shelley. Steve didn’t have to feign disorientation. The pummelling and shaking disrupted any clear thinking he might have had.

“Where have you been?” the demand was aggravated and was followed by a backhand to the face, stinging him into clarity.

“What do you mean? I’ve been here.”  Another blow followed knocking him almost senseless.

“You weren’t here when we looked. You’ve been down the systems level haven’t you? You left some hatches undone. If we find any damage, any sabotage, you’re dead.” Shelly gave him a backhander across the mouth for good measure. Steve’s head spun. He was trying to emerge from a gooey, opaque fluid. Images flitting past his eyes began to clear away and he remembered. He remembered what he’d just done; he was scrambling for some elusive cogent thought. Blood trickled around his mouth from a split lip. It itched. He just waited for the next blow, resigned to another bashing... and not about to say anything. What could he say?

            “What are you doing?” It was Jimmy shouting. “He’s been in the bathroom. He was nauseous.”

“Then who started the fire?”

“Where?” Jimmy sounded genuinely perplexed.

Shelley sounded less sure of himself, but continued to bluster. “In the storage module, here...” he stopped, realising he wasn’t making sense. “You two were the last ones there. There was a fire in a storage bin.” He stared icily at Jimmy and then at Steve who refused to come round, realising Jimmy’s protestation was shielding him from further battering.

            Jimmy’s voice suddenly had a guilty edge to it. “Was it a large metal bin?”

“Yes, why?” his question was nasally and snide.

“It’s just that the fire could have been my fault.” Jimmy was talking quickly now and with a tone that sounded like guilty embarrassment... “I thought the white chemical in the bottom was fertiliser, so I dumped our left overs into it... but now it seems pretty obvious to me it was a cleaning chemical.”

            Shelley stared at him. The sheer brazen audacity of the story; the bumbling character that Jimmy conveyed, seemed to have convinced him.

He gave Jimmy a withering glare. “You silly fool! You could have killed us all.” He grasped Jimmy’s shirt with both hands and pulled it tight around the neck, just like in a gangster movie. He shoved Jimmy against the bulkhead.

“I’m sorry...” was Jimmy’s muted reply.

“Sorry!” Shelley was aghast. Turning to the infantryman nearby, he mimicked, “He’s sorry.” Shelley tried to storm off to display his disdain for this obvious simpleton, but in the weightless conditions he was stymied by the slack netting on which he attempted to gain a grip to impel him back to the control room.

“He’s sorry,” was the parting disbelieving retort as he disappeared out of view.

            Steve snickered nervously. His lips were swollen and stung as he grinned. “Ahhh” he grasped protectively at his damaged mouth. He smeared the annoying ticklish dribble of blood on his chin.

“Are you okay?” Jimmy hovered near, concern on his face.

“It only hurts when I laugh,” he grimaced, “Boy I’m sure glad you have a fertile imagination.” Steve grinned again painfully.

“Don’t you mean ‘fertiliser’ imagination?” he chuckled to his own immense entertainment.

“Oh, stop, this is killing my mouth,” moaned Steve, trying to prevent a smile breaking out across his face.

            Just then two shapes appeared at the end of the tunnel like corridor. And the two comical conspirators fell silent. There was no need however, as it turned out to be Jodie and Kelly making their way back to the bunks.

“You two have really stirred up a hornets nest,” Kelly started as she drew near. “Shelley was ranting and raving to increase security in all the key areas. You guys are going to be under strict surveillance from now on. What did you do?” As Steve looked up to reply Jodie choked off a cry. “Are you okay? What happened?” she was already dabbing his face with a tissue she had pulled from a dispenser. Steve had been unaware that his blood smeared face looked like he’d been through a meat grinder.

            Jimmy was explaining that Steve had been beaten up because they somehow suspected he was in some way responsible for an ‘accidental’ fire in the compartment they had been working in. Steve assumed the explanation was for the benefit of any guards that might be eavesdropping. Although he pictured Jimmy winking and hamming up his confession, he didn’t care much about what Jimmy was saying. Rather, he luxuriated in Jodie’s gentle touch and soft admonishment that they needed him to be less adventurous.

“What are we going to do with you? She whispered as she stroked his fringe off his forehead. He went to reply, but winced at the movement of his lips.

“Shh...” Jodie commanded affectionately placing a finger on his tender lips. “Don’t answer, you’re a hopeless case.” He opened his eyes to meet hers. Moisture welled up in them, almost as if Jodie suddenly confronted the idea that she may have left it too late to reveal her feelings.

            The moment was shattered by a short alarm, followed by a metallic, monotone message; “Orienting for final stage of traverse will commence in one minute. Please secure the ship.” There was a quiet flurry of activity before the slight nudge from the side thrusters completed the realignment of the crafts position. “Deceleration will commence in one hour.” The computerised voice again signalled a series of checks and the removal of any eating or drinking implements.

            All personnel were advised five minutes beforehand to strap into their seats for the rocket firing. Steve, Jimmy, Jodie and Kelly were escorted back to their seats but this time their minders dispensed with the use of handcuffs. One of them, O’Grady, whispered with a quiet stare, “Apparently someone turned off the lights in the storage compartment.” Steve returned the stare unflinching. Did he notice a tiny, momentary half smile? Waiting for the retro ignition he had the lingering thought of a possible ally.

 

At precisely the scheduled moment the whining of the energy beam began. It felt as if they were blasting ever faster back into the distance they had already crossed, but in truth they were just slowing from their substantial velocity so that they could be captured by the moon’s comparatively weak gravity.
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