When they came out of the drop it looked as though they had made it through cleanly. All of the systems were sound and there were no signs or indications of structural damage. They conducted a point by point check and only when they had finished did Lansdowne notice Blakeslee favoring his arm."Take off your left glove Blakeslee and peel back your suit. I want to examine your arm." "What for?" Blakeslee sounded surprised. "Just do it." Blakeslee removed his glove, peeled back the thin thermal suit. His forearm appeared to flicker, one moment apparently whole and sound and the next shot through with an undulating stream of light. "Son of a bitch!" Lansdowne stared at the afflicted arm. The other two astronauts, Mason and Dombroski, clustered around to see what was the matter. Both started at Blakeslee's arm aghast. "What is it? What's the matter?" Blakeslee massaged his forearm as though troubled by some deep-seated discomfort. He appeared unaware of any specific injury. "This is bad," Mason said. His dark eyes looked stricken. "He's been snagged," Dombroski said and his voice was thick with horror. 'Snagged' was the expression the astronauts used amongst themselves, an unscientific and inexact expression that was frowned upon by Central Command but a vivid and compelling image that resonated with anyone who had ever engaged in deep space travel. The drop cut light years off of interstellar missions but it also posed certain hazards. One was complete destruction and loss of the vessel and crew, a rare event that happened sufficiently infrequently that it was considered an acceptable risk. The other major concern was being 'snagged'. Some part of the vessel, almost always a projecting strut or component, would not make it through the drop cleanly. It would be caught in the complex weave and subterranean currents of the space-time continuum and rendered unstable, not fixed in any one point or time. Sometimes the 'snag' would work itself free and the component would resolidify and become structurally sound again. Other times - there were numerous accounts of such events - the 'snag' would spread and metastasize, afflicting whatever it came into contact with. There was no way of telling, definitively, which way events would trend. The standard solution, the one almost always adopted, was to isolate and jettison the afflicted component. That eliminated the threat, then and there. But if one of the astronauts themselves became 'snagged' the fix was neither so simple nor straightforward. Human flesh - living matter - was particularly susceptible to trauma and injury. By its very nature living matter was fluid. It existed in a constant state of flux and change, regenerating and renewing itself on a daily basis. There was an inherent element of instability that differed markedly from the properties of metal or plastic. Being 'snagged' accelerated and compounded this, set in motion a dynamic that was completely unpredictable. All of the astronauts' discipline, all of their training, was of no avail in fashioning a solution and they fell back upon the time-tested expedients of hope and prayer. "What are we going to do, Commander?" Dombroski said. Lansdowne hesitated. He was used to issuing clear, precise orders, used to seizing control of a situation. But in this instance . . . "I don't know," he said. Mason stepped over to Blakeslee. The two men were friends and shared a bond that went beyond the mere camaraderie of being members of an elite fraternity. They socialized outside of work and Mason, Lansdowne knew, had stood godfather to Blakeslee's son. "How you feeling, Davey? You in pain at all, are you sick?" "I'm all right." Blakeslee was sweating; you could see actual beads of sweat on his forehead. He had gone pale and his left arm and shoulder were afflicted with a tremor. But again, he didn't appear to be aware of it. "I think I banged my arm though. Right as we were coming out of the drop. It's gone numb, sort of." He flexed his hand and light flickered and pulsed through his flesh. "Well leave it alone." Blakeslee's fingers continued to caress his forearm. "You keep fussing at it you're only going to make it worse." "Yeah, sure." Blakeslee nodded in agreement. His fingers worked at the arm without ceasing. "Commander!" Dombroski tried to keep the alarm out of his voice. "We've got to do something. He gets worse, this thing spreads, it could take out the entire ship." Lansdowne looked at Dombroski. He looked at Mason. "Let's give it some time, see what happens. I don't want to act precipitately." Lansdowne didn't want to act at all. Acting, in this instance, meant only one thing: jettisoning Blakeslee overboard, flushing him into outer space as they might an accumulation of toxic waste. It was not a pleasant prospect and getting Blakeslee to the evac bay, that would not be pleasant either. "You may not see it at all," Dombroski prophesied darkly. "We may not be that lucky." This was true, a fact that Lansdowne could not help but be aware of. Sometimes, instead of worsening gradually, the 'snag' would flare, exploding outwards with catastrophic effect. It wasn't likely but it was a possibility - and had to be taken into account. "That's an off chance, the worst case scenario. Odds are, if it deteriorates, we'll know it. The minute that happens, the minute we notice it spreading, that's when we act. Not before." Mason hovered over Blakeslee anxiously. "Davey? Davey? Hey, look at me, buddy." Blakeslee seemed to be staring off into nothing. He appeared listless and apathetic. Mason wanted to keep him from drifting away altogether. "We're going to beat this thing, aren't we. Together we're going to beat it." Blakeslee looked up, looked at Mason, but his eyes remained as distant as before. "Why sure, Jack. Sure we are. If you say so then it's as good as done." It was obvious the words meant nothing to Blakeslee. "Keep talking to him, Mason. About anything, anything at all: his boy, sports, your time at the Academy. Just try and keep him with us. I don't want him to do a slow fade. Because if he does, he won't be coming back." Mason gave a grim nod of assent. Lansdowne pulled Dombroski aside. "Break out the stun gun, set it on maximum. But be discreet about it. There's no need to alarm anybody. I give you the signal, I want you to take Blakeslee down. I want him out completely, do you understand? If we have to pitch him overboard it's best for everybody that he's unconscious. Don't act until I tell you to." Lansdowne's expression was fixed and hard. "There's a chance we may still catch a break. For now, we watch and wait. Any changes, that's when we move." Dombroski nodded and slipped away. Lansdowne could not escape a nagging sense of responsibility. He was the one piloting the vessel, he was Head of Mission. He had selected the coordinates for the drop and given the go ahead. If anything went wrong - and something had gone very wrong - it was he who was to blame. It had been his call and the consequences, good and bad, rested on his shoulders. But that was not the principle reason he was extending Blakeslee an extra measure of slack. The truth was he didn't much care for Blakeslee. The two men approached the world, and their respective places in it, from different points of the compass. Lansdowne was a by-the-book, button down officer who expected, and demanded, implicit obedience to his orders. He believed in the Mission, he believed in the Astronaut Corps and, above all, he believed in his fitness for command. He might be hard on the men who served under him but no more so than he was hard upon himself. He would ask nothing of others that he himself had not endured. He gave a hundred percent, every time out, and expected his men to do so as well. Blakeslee came from a different mold and a different mindset. He was irreverent, quick to poke fun at himself and at others. He never seemed to commit himself wholly to anything. He was competent and got the job done, he was efficient - Lansdowne would not have tolerated him otherwise - but his conviction was only skin deep and did not grip him with the force and passion that made for a truly outstanding officer. And he had a sly, subversive wit that he directed at anything and everything, that he pushed right to the point of insubordination . . . and then talked his way down from again. It was as though all of it - the Mission, the Agency, perhaps even life itself - were just a game to him, just a lark, not to be taken seriously. No, Lansdowne was no great fan of Blakeslee. And that made his predicament - Lansdowne's - even greater. He felt that to be fair, to be certain of factoring out his own distaste for the man, he had to concede Blakeslee an extra measure of consideration: an indulgence he might not have accorded another man. But that was what it meant to live by a Code. You could not embrace it only when it suited you, could not pick it up and discard it as convenience suggested. You stood by it, always, and thus were at peace with yourself. "What the hell is he saying now? HP? Is he talking about the computer bank? Is he lucid?" "HP, Commander, that's his cat. HodgePodge. He's worried whether HP is getting fed often enough, whether he's got his favorite toys. He spoils the beast outrageously, sir, I'm afraid." "All this about a cat?" Lansdowne repeated, baffled. "His life is hanging in the balance, by a thread at the most, and he's concerned about a cat?" "He thinks the world of that cat, sir. He hated to leave him behind. He would have brought him along if regulations permitted it. In fact, we're lucky we don't have a stowaway. Davey spoke about sneaking him onboard." "He did?" Lansdowne was incredulous. The audacity of such an act, the calculated affront to authority, almost took his breath away. "Yes, sir." Lansdowne stared at Blakeslee. He wondered if he really knew the man, whether he had accurately gauged his nature. They had been living at close quarters for months now, cloistered together in a manner that seldom happened outside the Astronaut Corps, and yet . . . Blakeslee remained a mystery to Lansdowne, an enigma. Perhaps that was true of all human intercourse. What man ever truly knew another, understood him thoroughly and to the final measure? "Sir?" It was Dombroski, of course. And his voice held a measure of open panic. Lansdowne took a deep breath, felt pain settle heavily in the pit of his stomach. Blakeslee's arm had grown worse, the flux had climbed higher. It had worked its way into his bicep and would soon invade his shoulder. Lansdowne had watched it, been aware of it with every passing second. It was time. When he spoke it was not to Dombroski but to Mason. "You need to step away, lieutenant. It's no good, I'm afraid. The tide is running against us. We've given it all the leeway we can. Any more," Lansdowne paused, "it could endanger us all." Mason's shoulders slumped, the bright spark in his eyes faded away. He stepped aside without a word - and without looking at Lansdowne. Lansdowne took the stun gun from Dombroski. This was something he had to do himself. He could not delegate it to another. That would be the easy way out and he would not permit himself to take it. He faced Blakeslee squarely. "I'm sorry, lieutenant. But I have no choice. I don't know how much you grasp of what's going on but," Lansdowne paused, looked into Blakeslee's eyes, "some situations are absolute and allow no compromise. With all my heart, I wish that it was otherwise." Blakeslee's expression was mild, his eyes clear, but his apparent composure overlaid a deeper cast of pain and, perhaps, of fear. "I understand, sir. I've let you down. I was always afraid that I might." "No, damn it! It isn't that at all. Nothing of the sort." Lansdowne could still remember Blakeslee as a newly commissioned cadet, fresh from the Academy. Tall and engaging, with an easy manner and a winning smile, he was not unlike the son Lansdowne had lost and of whom he never spoke. Lansdowne had thought to take the younger man under his wing, to guide him in a career in which experience, more than any one single factor, was critical. And he had been rebuffed. Blakeslee was content to remain who he was. He did not so much seem unaware of his personal shortcomings as he felt that, to acknowledge them, was a sign of weakness - and would leave him in the other's debt. He would take refuge in his pride - and had suffered accordingly. Perhaps they had been at cross purposes from the very beginning Lansdowne thought, separated on the one hand by twenty years of seniority and, on the other, by a sense of insecurity that masked itself as bravado. The flux had grown stronger and began weaving a spider's thread along Blakeslee's neck and jaw. Lansdowne had to end this, now. "It has nothing to do with you, do you understand? No one is passing judgment or holding you at fault. This is strictly a matter of circumstance. It might have happened to any one of us." Lansdowne didn't understand the compulsion to explain. But he could not allow Blakeslee to believe, standing as he did on the threshold of death, that this was anything other than simple mischance, an arbitrary and cruel stroke of bad fortune. "I've always admired you, sir," Blakeslee said and his voice was soft and gentle, almost a whisper. The left side of his face appeared to be buckling inwards, consumed by fluctuating bands of light. "Truly. But you have to understand: most of us are not cut in the heroic mold. We merely muddle through. Life is more than a match for most of us, sir. That's the simple truth." Lansdowne nodded, his lips a thin, harsh line that held all of his pain, all of his anguish, inside. He snapped erect. "Goodbye, soldier. Go with God." And he hit the trigger. When they flushed Blakeslee out through the evac bay, he glittered and burned with fire, filled the void with light, spellbinding, incandescent. Like a star, Lansdowne thought, a beacon guiding toward a safe port. Or like a friend, Lansdowne amended himself, fondly remembered.
x x x
This story reminded me of one of my favorite sci-fi yarns: The Cold Equations. Scary and sad at the same time, it seemed a perfect fit for the month of All Hallows Eve. Agree or debate on our BBS. -GM