Bodies Not Too Unlike Humanity
rating: +2+x

Two hundred green indicators fill the screen, twenty across by ten down. Callahan grabs the black plastic edges and twists. The joint on the back scrapes. Ten across by twenty down. Bianchi used to have to help him with that, but Callahan has spent 432 hours on duty since then. He twists the screen again. Twenty across by ten down.
Callahan leans back in the pilot's chair and squints at the dot marking the MS Milvatar on the monitor above him. He's never actually seen it move. The station anchored above the wormhole is required to send position updates to any ship in range every three minutes, but Bianchi said he'd seen a fourteen-minute gap once. Maybe they could file a report.
The band around Callahan's wrist vibrates.
He sits up. Every indicator is green. No notifications on the monitor. But then the blue plastic buzzes again.
For irregularities, the orientation bot had said. Remember: investigate all irregularities!
Callahan had hated it. Its shiny plastic face never stopped smiling.
After six hours in the pilot's chair, slinging his legs over the edge and pulling himself to his feet is a painful relief. Callahan stretches his hands up to touch the ceiling. He can reach it with his palms, easily, but it's better than nothing. As soon as the Milvatar is docked on Amphion he's going swimming. He checks the monitor again on the way out. Twenty-three days to berth. Three hours to the wormhole.
Wristband buzzing, Callahan ducks through the cabin door into the hub. On his right, Bianchi is sprawled across the bottom bunk. One arm is flung over the edge. Even with his head propped up on two pillows and an inflatable mat, he still snores. Procedure says the cabin needs to be manned at all times. Callahan still isn't going to wake him up until he needs to.
On the other side, across from the supply locker, the crawlspace hatches are stacked on top of each other. A yellow 4 glows centimeters from the ceiling.
Callahan crouches and sweeps his hand under the locker. Bianchi had thought he was a genius for storing the ladder there. They never needed it. This way, it wouldn't take up space they needed. Kneeling in the dark, feeling dust stick to his skin, Callahan silently curses him. Growling quietly, Callahan doubles over and shoves his elbow into the gap. His hand hits flexible plastic. He drags it out.
When he unrolls the ladder, it's barely as long as it is wide. Callahan grabs the hooks and stands. He finds the metal loops bolted under the hatch and slides them in. Balancing on the first rung, he scrabbles at the handle. He swings the hatch open and lets it go. Magnets catch it before it can hit the bulkhead. Callahan takes a handhold inside and pulls himself up.
Something lies in the crawlspace. Callahan stops with one knee inside.
Nothing else has changed since the final checks before they left dock. Two layers of medical bays line the walls. All of them are closed. Adhesive strips glow above every name tag and biometric chart. In the white glow, the shape looks human. It's curled against the back wall.
The edge of the hatch digs into Callahan's shin. His foot is going numb. So he's not dreaming.
Callahan drags himself into the crawlspace. On his hands and knees, he passes the bays. The shape is dark brown. Black on one end. Callahan's wristband is still vibrating. He's three meters away, then two. Then one.
Callahan stops. His right hand sticks to the floor. When he picks it up, it leaves a steam hand print on the metal. With the tips of his fingers, he touches it. Nothing happens. Callahan lets out his breath. The brown is soft leather. With his finger and thumb, he pulls on it. It doesn't move. He gets a fistful of the leather and jerks it toward him.
The shape flips over. Something hits the wall with a dull clunk. Callahan scrambles backwards. A hand flops onto the floor next to his.
Red hair spills out of a hood. Under it, the man's eyes are closed. He's completely still.
Callahan's wristband buzzes against the floor. He rips it over his hand and stuffs it into his pocket.
No ships had docked since they left the PS Wahieloa. Callahan is sure that no one else could have boarded. He checks the medical bays again. Michaela Kidenda. Occupied. Nguyen Xuan. Occupied. Elisabeth Lee. Occupied. No dark bays. No red lights. One of the man's feet is caught on a handhold. Callahan gingerly tugs on it. Patients aren't loaded wearing boots.
Callahan knows the man can't be here. The thought feels far away. He takes the man's wrist. It's warm. Callahan flinches. He feels for a pulse and doesn't find one.
He'll get him out. He'll get Bianchi. They'll figure this out.
Callahan picks up the man's other wrist. He shuffles backward on his knees. His stomach muscles are burning before he's gone twenty centimeters. He already hates the soft hiss of the man's clothes on the floor every time he moves. He hates almost hitting his head on the ceiling. He hates the way his breathing echoes. Instead of looking at the man, he stares at the biometric charts' blue grids of numbers. For the first time, he wishes he understood them.
His toes hit the edge of the hatch. Callahan sighs, relieved. He pulls the man toward him until he's confident he can reach his wrists from the ladder. Finally, Callahan gets out of the crawlspace. The three-meter ceiling of the hub feels like the Amphion sky. His feet are flat on the floor again. Callahan shuts his eyes. He'll wake Bianchi up soon. Now he just needs to breathe. It won't make a difference to the man.
The ache in Callahan's core fades. His wristband has stopped vibrating. He keeps his eyes closed.
"Callahan?" Bianchi's voice is heavy and slurred. "What's going on?"
Callahan almost laughs. It sounds more like a cough.
"Callahan?"
"Someone…" Callahan clears his throat. He opens his eyes. "Someone's in the crawlspace."
"What?"
"Someone's in the crawlspace."
Bianchi stands up. It's too dark to see his face, but Callahan can feel him looking at him. After a minute he shrugs.
"Let's get them out," he says.
Callahan stands on the ladder. He feeds the man through the hatch. Bianchi catches him from the floor. When Callahan gets to the man's legs, he climbs down. They lay him out. His head is against the cabin door and his feet are on the first-layer crawlspace hatch. Bianchi has to step over him to reach the supply locker. He can't open it all the way. While he digs through it, Callahan hits the light panel and sits down on his bunk.
The man might be thirty years old. Callahan isn't sure. The leather jacket is zipped up to his chin. It's not marked. Neither are his pants. They're black and covered in pockets. The cloth looks heavy.
Bianchi slams the locker door. Callahan jumps.
"Sorry," he says. He holds the first-aid kit.
"He's dead," Callahan says.
"Probably." Bianchi kneels next to the body anyway. He opens the kit and takes out the scanner. "It's shiny side down, right?"
"Yeah. I think so."
"Four centimeters distance?"
Callahan nods. Bianchi holds the scanner over the man's chest.
"Error," it says. "Metallic interference."
"What-"
Callahan rubs his eyes. "Metallic… zipper?"
"Right." Bianchi unzips the jacket. The man is wearing a red shirt under it.
"Callahan." Bianchi says it quietly and fast.
"What?"
He looks close to panic. "Callahan."
Callahan leans forward. "Is-"
The man isn't wearing a red shirt. Blood shines on the teeth of the zipper.
"Help me get it off him," Bianchi says.
Callahan swallows hard. "Yeah." He hooks his fingernails under the edge of the jacket and pulls.
"It won't-"
Bianchi is pale. "I know. Let's… let's keep trying."
Callahan does. The leather doesn't move. His fingers are wet. He tastes acid and swallows frantically.
Rip.
Bianchi collapses backward. He drops his side of the jacket and covers his mouth. Callahan jerks back. The back of his head cracks against the top bunk.
The inside of the jacket is covered in veins. They're torn open at the zipper. Blood seeps out onto the floor. Where the leather was, a web of white spreads out from the middle of the man's torso. Strands loop around slick pink muscle. Callahan can see the outline of the light strip reflected in it.
He does throw up then. It lands between Bianchi's inflatable mat and the edge of the cot. Even after his stomach is empty, his stomach clenches violently. Black spots hover in front of his eyes.
"Hey." Bianchi says. "Do that on your own bed."
Callahan tries to laugh. He wipes his mouth and nose off on the blanket. Bianchi sits up against the bulkhead. The hair on one side of his widow's peak stands straight up. His skin looks grey. Blood stains his blue pants.
"What are we going to do?" he asks.
Callahan shakes his head. He stares at the ceiling.
Bianchi sighs. "Guess we need someone in the cabin."
"Yeah." Careful not to look down, Callahan finds the door handle and steps back into the dark.
Carefully, he sits back down in the pilot's chair. Twenty green indicators across by ten down. Two hours and twenty-six minutes to the wormhole. Outside, Callahan can hear Bianchi going through the supply locker. His mouth tastes awful. He can't remember if there are any mints left.
His wristband buzzes in his pocket.
Callahan can feel every muscle in his body tense. Robotically, he stands.
In the hub, Bianchi swipes a towel across the floor. He's pushed the body against the bulkhead. It's covered in his blanket.
"What?" he says.
"Irregularity." Callahan points to the second-layer hatch. 2 glows yellow in the upper right corner.
Bianchi swipes his hand across his face. "Okay. Okay, check it out."
Callahan unhooks the ladder and kicks it under the bunk. The handle clicks when he twists it. He has to bend down to see through the hatch.
The same dark brown jacket. The same black boots. Curled up at the back of the crawlspace.
"Callahan?"
"There's another one."
"Are you joking," Bianchi says flatly.
"No."
"Not you."
This one's hood is down. The hair is longer. It's the same shade of red.
"Should I leave it?"
Bianchi is silent.
"Bianchi?"
"We should check. In case it's alive."
Callahan digs his fingers into a knot in his shoulder. "Can you do it?"
"Yeah. Guess it's fair."
Callahan ducks out of the hatch. Bianchi hands him the towel.
"There are extra on the bottom shelf," he says. Callahan nods. He drops it on the floor. Using his foot, he mops up a few drops of blood. He doesn't see any more. He kicks the towel into the corner and sits down with his back to the locker.
Bianchi backs out through the hatch. "It's dead."
"Let's leave it."
Bianchi looks over his shoulder. "Yeah." He looks down at Callahan. "Want me to pilot?"
It's not his shift. Callahan doesn't care. "Sure."
The cabin door thuds closed.
Callahan stares at the hatch lights. He's not religious. His father tried with both him and Analise. It only ever worked on her. Callahan tries to remember how she prays.
It doesn't work. Callahan thinks it's an hour later when the first layer's light flicks on.
He knows he should get Bianchi. He knows he should go through the hatch. He doesn't move. The wristband is still buzzing in his pocket. His breath rasps. It echoes through the hub.
Something knocks in the crawlspace. A muffled voice comes through the hatch.
Callahan shoves himself to his feet. He pounds on the cabin door.
Bianchi opens the door. "What?"
Callahan points to the 1. "There's a third one."
"Oh."
"I heard- I think I heard it. It said something."
"Are you sure?" Bianchi doesn't wait for an answer. He kneels at the first hatch and pulls it open.
Red hair less than a meter from the hatch. Bianchi jumps back. Wide brown eyes land on Callahan's.
"Help," the thing says.
Bianchi is breathing hard. Sweat shines at his hairline.
"Bianchi. You saw the first one." Callahan's voice shakes.
"Help." It pulls itself toward the hatch.
Bianchi slams it closed. He spins the latch. Locked.
Knocking still comes through, but no words.
Callahan and Bianchi stare at each other. Callahan's blood whines in his ears.
"I'll pilot," he says, when his heart has stopped pounding.
Bianchi nods.
Back in the pilot's chair, Callahan watches the monitor. Forty-three minutes to the wormhole. Thirty-six. Twenty-eight.
Bianchi comes in from the hub. "It stopped."
Callahan nods. "Okay."
Nineteen minutes.
"You can have my bunk until your shift," Callahan says.
"Thanks," Bianchi says. He swings the cabin door shut behind him. The line of light under it goes dark.
Callahan leans back. The Milvatar's dot twitches closer to the wormhole.
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License