Sample Chapters of Bones Burnt Black by Stephen Euin Cobb
Bones Burnt Black
Stephen Euin Cobb
Through her closed eyelids, a powerful light glared painfully red. Almost awake, she thought, Turn it off!
The light vanished and took with it the pain, but then it came back: bright and red and stabbing. She cringed and squirmed and bared her teeth like an animal. “Turn it off!”
The light went dark.
Voice sounds strange, she thought.
Her voice had echoed claustrophobically, as though her head were inside a bucket. Yet the echo also seemed somehow familiar, as if she’d heard it many times before. Puzzling over this drew her a few steps closer to wakefulness.
Sluggishly, she eased her eyes open; and just as they opened the light came back—white now instead of red and a hundred times brighter without eyelids to filter it. She squeezed her eyes shut in a useless attempt to end the pain.
“Cut it out! I’m awake!” She raised her hands and covered her face, and was further confused when a barrier prevented her palms from traveling the last few inches to touch the skin of her nose and forehead.
The light went out, but within seconds was back.
“I said, ‘turn it off!’” Angry now, she swung an arm to slap the light source away. Missing it completely made her feel foolish which elevated her anger toward rage. Even so, she managed to notice the stiff texture and heavy mass of the material covering her arm and hand and shoulder. She also recognized the unmistakable stench of sweaty vinyl.
I’m in a vacuum suit.
The next time the light went out she glanced around to learn where she was. Black sky surrounded her; black sky dotted with stars. The stars were in motion—all traveling downward toward her feet. Somewhat less than immediately she realized it wasn’t the stars that were moving.
Her slow endless back flip, again, brought her around to face the sun. Squinting, she shaded her eyes against its light with a pair of green-gloved hands.
Why am I outside?
Looking about in every direction, she tried to locate the large orbiting city which was the last place she recalled working. She did not see it. Where’s Huygens Colony?
Then she realized her sky was not dominated by a huge red-orange cloud-covered moon. Where’s Titan?
Searching for the giant ringed planet which should have appeared as large as a grapefruit held at arm’s length revealed that it too was missing. Where the hell is Saturn?
She paused a second then turned the question upside-down. Where the hell am I?
The soft, easily ignored, drum-beat of her pulse began to race in the base of her neck—and by racing, thumped louder. The recurring pain of sunlight inside her eyes was now joined by a new pain—sharp and deep—in the center of her chest.
Got to calm down! She pressed both hands against her gadget-covered ribcage. Mom had her first heart attack at twenty-nine: when she was my age exactly. This is no time to have a coronary!
Monitoring the beat in her neck, she closed her eyes and concentrated on trying to relax. As soon as she estimated her pulse was below one hundred and twenty she proceeded to the next logical step.
Sliding a gloved hand up to the right side of her helmet’s base, she verified that her suit radio was on. “This is—” She cleared her throat. “This is—” She blinked her eyes. “This is—” She paused again.
The drum-beat picked up speed. Who the hell am I?
* * *
“Ship!” shouted the captain, his voice old and gruff. “What’re the gees in here?”
The computer that controlled the spacecraft said, “One point nine: inverted.”
The captain’s head and hands and feet all pointed upward toward the center of the bridge dome. Hanging from his seat belt like a lumpy towel draped over a clothesline, he grimaced. “I’m getting a headache.”
“Captain,” said the ship, “your blood is accumulating in your feet and head. You may be in danger of blacking out. I recommend you get out of your command chair and drop to the ceiling.”
“Too late for that. The dome’s over fifteen feet away. At two gees, I’d break my leg. Maybe worse.”
“Captain, you must make the effort. I can not stop or slow the ship’s tumbling. It will continue to tumble faster. In a few minutes the bridge will be experiencing three and a half gees. That, multiplied by your body’s mass, will produce a force well above the rated strength of your seat belt. If you wait until it breaks you will fall to the ceiling and surely die. If you drop now— Well, at least the results will be less predictable.”
The captain rubbed his forehead with the fingertips of both hands. A thick bulldog of a man, he must have been a powerhouse in his prime. He was white-haired now; in his early sixties but still had the broad shoulders, muscular arms and large hands of his youth. His face was wide, and his square jaw even wider. But compared to his shoulders, arms and hands; his hips, legs and feet seemed genuinely undersized. He wasn’t fat, yet he had a round little belly that poked out between his belt and the bottom of his ribcage. He glanced around the bridge trying to think of an alternate method of getting to the ceiling from his chair.
The bridge of the spaceship Corvus was nearly half the width of the ship and resembled a planetarium in that it had a round floor, a white hemispherical ceiling and no windows. Its only visible furnishings were three large gray command chairs: each shaped like an oversized recliner forever leaning back to direct its occupant’s attention upward at the dome.
The dome was capable of presenting dozens of full color, full motion, full 3-D images simultaneously. Images which could be of any size or shape, and appear anywhere on the ceiling’s curved surface.
Not having identified another way down, the captain rubbed his forehead even harder. “What’re the gees?”
“Two point one.”
“Great.” Pulling his hands down to his waist, he tried opening the seat belt’s closure mechanism, but with twice the weight of his body pressing against it, it refused to let go. He struggled, frantically. “I can’t get it open!”
“Do you have a knife?”
“You know damn well I don’t have a— Aaaaah!”
The seat belt snapped open.
As the captain fell upward from his command chair the tension on the seat belt whipped its metal buckle painfully across the bones in the back of his hand. This pain, however, was quickly drowned in a raging flood of greater pains as his body crashed to the domed ceiling.
The seat belt’s imperfect release had rolled him sideways, causing him to land on his left side. He impacted with a bouncing whiplash-like motion: first his leg, then his hip, arm, shoulder and head.
“Captain,” the ship said, “what is your condition?”
There was no reply.
“Captain?” the ship said. “Captain, can you hear me?”
But again there was no reply.
* * *
She was starting to panic again; starting to feel the pain deep inside her chest; then she remembered. Kim! My name is Kim!
“This is Kim Kah— Kim Kh, Kh— Kim Kirkland! This is Kim Kirkland of the spacecraft—” But again she was stuck.
The only ship she could remember being a crewmember of was the Sagittarius, but somehow it felt like a long time had passed since she’d worked the Mars/Huygens transport.
“This is Kim Kirkland calling anyone. Anyone, please respond.” She waited for over a minute. There was no answer. She switched to the emergency channel. “This is Kim Kirkland calling Mayday, Mayday. I repeat: this is Kim Kirkland calling Mayday.”
She transmitted again several times but after ten minutes without an answer decided she was out here on her own.
The cyclic headache inside her eyes had migrated to the back of her head and expanded to torment the rear half of her skull. My head is killing me! Why?
Running a few glove-covered fingers over the outer surface of her helmet, she discovered a dent three fingers wide located above and behind her right ear. This explained both the pain in her head and the mysterious radio silence. The vacuum suit’s radio transceiver was mounted on the inside surface of her helmet, just under that dent. Whatever put the dent in her helmet had also slammed the transceiver into the side of her skull—presumably damaging both her and it in the process.
Putting her hand down, she sighed deeply. Her exhaled breath struck the helmet’s faceplate and curled back toward her eyes and ears. It tickled her eyelashes and ruffled the loose blonde hairs that framed her face. Ignoring these sensations, she returned to an earlier question: Where am I?
The sun is much too bright for the outer solar system. She tried to estimate its angular diameter and hence its distance. Looks like I’m somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Venus. Maybe near Earth.
Looking around for a star that on closer examination would appear as a small disk—indicating it was really a planet—yielded nothing. This didn’t worry her. She couldn’t land safely on a planet with nothing more than a vacuum suit. What she needed was a ship.
She looked around again, more carefully this time, examining every bright star, hoping one wasn’t just a point of light but an irregular shape, lumpy or elongated, which would indicate it was a nearby spacecraft and presumably the spacecraft from which she was currently on EVA. But none of the bright stars showed any visible detail.
It occurred to her that her ship might be silhouetted against the face of the sun, or—if she’d been unconscious long enough—that it might be far enough away to appear as one of the dimmer stars: a mere shapeless speck. The first of these two possibilities might be impossible to overcome, but the second she could handle by making a simple change in her search strategy.
She looked at the sky’s constellations for a star that should not be there: a star that wasn’t part of the normal sky. If she found one, bright or dim, it would just about have to be the spacecraft she had been aboard. That or—
She looked more closely.
Orion, the hunter, had mysteriously gained weight. His belt was a line of four stars instead of its usual three. The extra star showed no detail and was slightly dimmer than the traditional stars of the belt. It’s either a ship, an asteroid, or a planet too far off to show a disk. There’s just no way to be sure.
She searched the constellations for any additional extra stars but found none.
Guess I don’t have much choice but to assume it’s my ship. Just have to head for it and hope I’m not wasting nitrogen.
Reaching down to the large pocket on the front of her left thigh, she tore open its Velcro closure and pulled out something which resembled an eight inch long aluminum hotdog with no bun. She strapped it to the back of her right forearm and adjusted its straps for tightness.
Containing only compressed nitrogen gas, the little jet pack’s thrust was tiny. But by foregoing combustion it required no ignition system and could be safely used in any emergency—even near open fuel leaks. After two decades of successful use, its design was now considered very nearly fool-proof.
First things first.
Before attempting to aim herself at the extra star she needed to stop her tumbling. Not only was it annoying but it would severely limit the accuracy of her aim during the thrust maneuver. So she directed the jet pack’s exhaust nozzle—which was near her wrist—upward above her head by bending her arm as though showing off a powerful biceps muscle and pressed the jet pack’s release valve.
No burst of gas exited its nozzle.
She pressed the release again.
Twisting her arm as far as she could within the limitations of the vacuum suit, she examined the pack’s canister and spotted a small cone-shaped dent in its curved aluminum wall. At the bottom of the dent was a tiny puncture. Thing’s empty! All the nitrogen’s escaped!
The extra star, accompanied by a host of normal stars, once again moved downward through her field of vision. If it really is a ship it must be twenty or more miles away. Without any propellant it might just as well be a billion.
* * *
Slowly, and without any other movement, the white-haired old captain opened his eyes. As the mists cleared from his mind and he began to recall the how and why of his location he, very carefully, and still moving only his eyes, looked around at his upside-down bridge. He was tempted to turn his head and glance up at his empty command chair but the various pains pulsing and meandering within his body caused him to fear that this might not be a good thing to do. Instead, he tried to shift his weight just enough to pull his left arm out from under his chest. He succeeded only in creating a wave of pain that expanded to fill his entire universe.
That was a mistake he did not intend to repeat.
When he once again possessed control of his mouth he whispered, “Get me Mike. And make it voice-only. I don’t want him to see me.”
Seconds later a new voice echoed on the bridge. “Larry, what’s with all these upside-down g-forces?”
To instill confidence, the captain spoke as loud as he dared. Even so, this was just above a whisper. “Mike, we’ve got some serious problems. I want you to go get that passenger in cabin 5-B. She’s an exobiologist—an ivory-tower type—doesn’t know a thing about spacecraft. Take her to the ship’s center: deck ten. The gee forces will be weakest there.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Just do it. I’ll explain when you get there. And Mike, hurry.”
“But what if she doesn’t want to go?”
The captain was making unsightly faces in response to the various pains shooting back and forth through his body. He tried to keep this to a minimum as he spoke for fear it would show in his voice. “Tell her that her life depends on it. If she still won’t go— I don’t know, hit her in the head with something and drag her there by her feet. Captain: out and clear.”
The taste of blood had grown strong in his mouth. He decided to wait until later to push each of his teeth with his tongue to discover which were loose. “Ship, send a message to Von Braun.”
“To our dispatcher at Hyperbolic Shipping?”
“No, you idiot! SpaceGuard! And use the emergency channel.” He strained his eye muscles trying to look at the images still displayed on the surface of the dome. Because of the angle at which his head rested he could see only the image nearest him, the one pressing cold and hard against his left cheekbone. Viewed at this range the image was highly distorted and hopelessly grainy—so much so that he couldn’t even be sure what it depicted. “Tell them our situation. Send them the recorded images from Kim’s headset and any other information that will help them understand what’s going on out here. Request assistance and an immediate reply.”
“Aye, Captain. I’m swinging the high gain antenna around now. Transmission in— in— Captain, the ship is tumbling six times faster than the antenna’s motors are capable of re-aiming it. I cannot keep it directed at Von Braun.”
“Damn!” He thought for a moment. “What about using one of the low gain antennas?”
“Low gain antennas are not intended for communication at this distance. Once the signal reached Von Braun it would be extremely weak.”
“But by transmitting on the emergency channel wouldn’t a weak signal still be detected?”
“Yes, I think it would. But you understand that the bandwidth would be exceedingly narrow. I wouldn’t be able to send images. The transmission would have to be voice-only.”
“No images? Damn. OK, OK. Send this, verbatim: This is Captain Lawrence Palmer of the commercial carrier and merchant ship Corvus. This ship has been purposely sabotaged by persons unknown.”
He paused briefly. Swallowing was becoming painful. Drooling proved a better choice. “We had just begun the J-maneuver for our docking approach at Von Braun when a bomb exploded rupturing a liquid hydrogen fuel filter near the engines. The resulting leak has already spilled more than a quarter of our fuel and—since it is spraying out sideways—is causing the ship to tumble end-over-end so rapidly that the damaged area can no longer be reached for repairs due to the centrifugal effect. My passengers are probably safe at present, but I’ve lost my chief flight engineer and believe she may be dead. She was thrown from the ship by the centrifugal effect while working on the engines.”
He paused again. His throat was dry and he needed full use of his face in order to grimace properly as he swallowed.
“As for myself, I’ve fallen from my command chair to the ceiling and can’t move without excruciating pain. I think I’ve broken my left arm, right leg and several ribs. Soon, we will have lost all our fuel and will be tumbling out of control. I request assistance and an immediate reply. This is Captain Lawrence Palmer: out and clear.”
“Do you wish to edit before I transmit?”
“No, just send it; but follow it with your own verbal analysis of our situation—in case I left anything out.” He coughed uncontrollably five times in rapid succession. It was definitely uncontrollable; if he could have controlled it, he wouldn’t have done it. Each cough burned in his chest like the fires of hell.
“Aye aye. Transmitting now. The message will arrive at Von Braun in 2.4 minutes. Initial confirmation that they have received this message should return in 4.8 minutes, though a meaningful response will take longer.”
The captain stopped drooling for a moment and attempted to lift his unbroken right arm; a move he thought might be safe. The action, however, only pressed his broken ribs more firmly into the ceiling. When his facial expression returned to normal he asked in the softest of whispers, “What’s the g-force in here?”
The ship spoke in its normal tone. “Two point seven gees: inverted.”
Valley of the Shadow of Death
Mike’s cabin was on deck four. Due to the ship’s unnatural rotation he was now standing on its ceiling.
The overall configuration of the spaceship Corvus was rather like that of a tall building: a skyscraper in space. Its shape was that of a cylinder, one about four times as long as it was wide. The flat ends were the ship’s top and bottom: metaphorically, its roof and foundation. The engines sprouted from the foundation; the bridge was a dome on the roof.
Ship’s decks numbered from zero at the top to nineteen at the bottom. Deck zero was the bridge. Nineteen was the lowest of the four engineering decks and the last pressurized level. Go any farther down and you’d find yourself outside with the engines.
Most of Corvus’s exterior was covered with a mirror finish and a grid pattern of dark lines. This reflective grid-work suggested windows—even in places where there weren’t any—and contributed to the general appearance of a tall building.
Like its three sister ships—all less than four years old—Corvus was designed and built to shuttle people and supplies to the various colonies scattered throughout the solar system. Most, though not all, of these people and supplies originated from the City of Von Braun, which orbits Earth’s Moon. For the last nine months Corvus had been assigned solely to the Von Braun/Huygens run.
Huygens Colony, named after the Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens, was a large well funded research facility orbiting Titan—the largest moon of Saturn. This colony was currently growing so fast and experiencing such a boom-time that far more people traveled out to it than returned. Consequently, as Corvus was now returning to Von Braun, its cargo decks were ninety five percent empty as were eighty percent of its passenger cabins.
Why wouldn’t Larry tell me what’s wrong with the ship? And why’d he cut me off so fast? I was just about to tell him about Val. Mike frowned. And what about Kim? She can’t still be outside trying to work on the engines. Not in these gees!
Mike pushed his cabin door open and raised his foot high enough to clear the door’s lintel and step out into the hallway. He pulled the door closed behind him and paused to consider jumping up to shake its handle to verify that it was properly locked, then decided that would be overkill.
Walking down the hallway, his progress was slow. His movements were awkward and seemed composed of over-reactions. This was his own fault. It had been nearly two years since he’d practiced walking in anything more than the Moon’s one-sixth gravity, and five years since he’d done anything in a full gee.
Physically, he was tall and sturdy, almost to the point of being muscular. He had the kind of rugged face that, if not quite handsome, was at least boyishly youthful—or as boyishly youthful as can be expected of a man forty-one years old.
As always, he wore loose, comfortable clothing. Clothing that, should the need arise, he could work in. He’d never felt at home in clothes that had to be kept spotless or protected from harm. He believed his clothes should be protecting him; not vice versa.
His shirt was flannel: a lumberjack-style plaid in red and black that practically shouted, construction worker. Without even thinking, he’d rolled the sleeves up to the elbow, suggesting a willingness—perhaps even an eagerness—to get his hands dirty.
His pants were just blue jeans, but they had extra pockets on the front and side of each thigh; and like most zero-g pockets, these had flaps with Velcro closures to keep their contents from floating out.
His zero-g boots were soft and black and conformed to the shape of his feet and ankles. With soles the same thickness and flexibility as the uppers, they were little more than black leather socks.
He stepped over a florescent light fixture, around a ventilation grid and past some kind of electrical access panel. Deck four was currently experiencing one gee, and it was growing stronger.
Mike’s walking improved rapidly. Hardly surprising: it didn’t take much practice to remember old skills. And besides, walking is just like riding a bicycle: once you learn you never forget.
He thought of her body, suddenly: limp and pink and dead. He still couldn’t believe it—though he himself had found the dying woman.
It happened less than an hour ago. Corvus had been in zero-g at the time; both its engines having just gone into emergency shutdown. He remembered how he’d pushed-off from his cabin’s door frame and glided the dozen yards down the hall where he’d grabbed a handhold to bring himself to a stop in front of Val’s door.
He’d knocked gently, but the force of his knock caused the door to swing open several inches. That’s odd, he’d thought. It wasn’t even closed. He called out, “Val?”
There had been no answer.
He’d pushed the door open a little farther. “Val? Are you in there?” Still no answer. He shrugged and began pulling the door shut with the intention of trying her again later but before he could close it all the way he caught a glimpse of a tiny curious movement.
Opening the door slightly, he saw several small irregularly shaped objects up near the ceiling drifting slowly across the room. Strung together like a prickly necklace, they tumbled gently as though wafted about by the shifting air currents from the ventilation ducts. He stared at them for several seconds before realizing they were the broken fragments of a small black computer.
How did Val’s pocketsize get smashed?
Easing the door open, he pulled himself inside and glanced around the sparsely furnished room. It looked similar to his cabin and, for that matter, all the cabins aboard Corvus. It was a small white room with one round window on the far wall and an elastic fish-net style tube-hammock stretched horizontally in front of the window. On his left was a dining table and two chairs that could all be folded into the wall. On his right was a small kitchen that could be hidden behind sliding decorative panels; and to his left, just this side of the tube-hammock, was a bathroom that he knew would contain an airflow bag-shower and—
A small bare foot, its toenails painted red, extended out of the bathroom.
“Val? Is that you?” He pushed himself toward the bathroom door and discovered Valentina Cortez floating limp and unconscious. The dark-haired woman was dressed only in white bra and panties. Her breathing was heavy, her eyes were closed, and her skin was a hideous bright pink.
He was so stunned at the sight he forgot to grab the bathroom door-frame to stop himself. He coasted past the bathroom and bumped into the wall near the little round window and tube-hammock. The impact roused him from his momentary trance. “Pocketsize, get me the medsys!” He pushed himself back to the bathroom door.
From his pocketsize, he was answered by a synthetically masculine voice: deep, calm and self-assured. “Medsys here.” It was the ship’s robotic doctor. “How may I help you?”
“Valentina Cortez is unconscious!”
“Please calm down, Mister McCormack. First, take your computer out of your pocket and point it at the patient’s face.”
Mike hurried to comply, fumbling only slightly.
“That’s good. Now show me her body and pan the room.”
Mike did this too.
“How long has she been like this?”
“I don’t know. I just found her.”
“Do you smell anything unusual in the room? Chemicals? Medicines? Strange gases?”
“Have you, yourself, started feeling weak or lightheaded now that you’ve been breathing the air in the room?”
The medsys fell silent for a moment, then said, “Smell her breath for me.”
Mike brought his face near hers. He felt the warm, moist wind of her breath play across his cheeks and nose. He blinked a few times as it ruffled his eyelashes. She was breathing fast and deep but Mike kept watching her eyes. He half expected them to pop open and display shock at his being so close to her while she was so insufficiently dressed. He took a shallow sniff, then a deeper one and was surprised by the aroma. “Her breath smells like almonds. But funny. Kind of bitter.”
“Mister McCormack, I need you to bring her up here to the medical office. The task will be made easier since the ship is, at the moment, in a condition of zero-g. But please, you must hurry. This woman is dying.”
When Mike pulled Val’s limp underwear-clad body through the door into the medical office her arms and legs and head flopped about like those of a marionette. The trip from deck four up to deck two required three full minutes. It was, however, unavoidable since the medsys was not able to travel within the ship.
“She’s stopped breathing!” Mike shouted, sounding out of breath himself.
One of the room’s two large examination arrays swung out from its wall on a stout metal arm and stopped in front of the unresponsive human floating in zero-g. The array’s lights came on and the unit hummed and clicked as it scanned Val with radio and sound waves. This was standard medical procedure: examining her insides to determine where—and if—it could safely touch her without doing further harm.
Mike had once told Kim that this particular model of medsys resembled a chrome-plated outboard motor with eight stainless steel lobsters square-dancing on its top: an image that for some reason did not cross his mind at this moment.
To prevent his drifting around the room at the mercy of whatever air currents might be thrown out by the ventilation ducts, Mike grabbed the nearest handhold. It was located at the center of a wall between an anatomical diagram of the human body and a reproduction of an antique eye testing chart—two items which, in this age, were useful only as decoration.
The examination array spoke with the deep masculine voice of the medsys. “Mister McCormack, if you are squeamish about medical procedures you may wish to step out into the waiting room.”
Mike thought about it, even glanced at the door, but couldn’t bring himself to leave. Once she’d stopped breathing he’d begun to fear the worst, and now he had to know: Was she going to die? He looked at the machine. “I think I’d like to stay.”
“As you wish.” Six mechanical arms swung out of the examination array and gently but firmly grabbed Val’s floating pink body. One seized her around the waist, one around each ankle and wrist, and one around the top of her head just above the eyes. The array then drew blood from her arm, and smoothly lifted her eyelids to examine her pupils. “I’m sorry, Mister McCormack. But I might as well tell you: Ms Cortez is dead.”
Mike stared at the body and squeezed the handhold hard enough to produce pain in his fingers. He recalled how cheerful and full of life she’d been the last time he talked with her. He felt his throat tighten. He fought it, but didn’t win.
He recognized the sensation from a few years ago when his favorite aunt, a kindly woman who’d often baby-sat him as a child had passed away; and from a few years earlier when his saintly grandmother had died; and from a number of years before that when his buddy and partner had ‘bought it’ too. He tilted his head back and looked at the ceiling, then sighed and closed his eyes. “What did she die of?”
“Are you sure you are not squeamish?”
He brought his head down level and looked at the medsys. With a noticeable trace of hesitation, he said, “I don’t think so.”
The array emitted a long black snake-like appendage that slithered into Val’s mouth and continued slithering an additional two feet.
Mike tried to hide his involuntary grimace from the medsys by briefly covering his mouth with one hand.
“Her stomach contains a high concentration of sodium cyanide,” the machine said.
“Cyanide?” Mike’s eyebrows went up. “She was poisoned?”
“Yes, and yes. Either by herself or by someone else.”
Mike’s eyebrows went down. “But she was still alive when I found her. I thought Cyanide killed instantly.”
“Only if hydrogen cyanide is used—sometimes called hydrocyanic acid or Prussic acid—in which case, the victim can fall dead still holding a poisoned drink. But this was sodium cyanide: a cyanide salt. It must first be broken down by stomach acids so that free cyanide can be released into the stomach and absorbed by the blood. Once in the blood, the cyanide then enters into chemical combination with the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin producing a new molecule: cyanhaemoglobin. This new molecule prevents the blood from releasing oxygen to any of the tissues throughout the body. A victim of cyanide poisoning is thus starved of oxygen—the pulse becomes weak while respiration speeds up. It’s also the cyanhaemoglobin in the blood that turns the skin this vivid pink and gives the breath an odor of bitter almonds.”
Mike couldn’t think of anything to say. He just floated next to the antique eye-chart with his mouth open. She was so young. Had so much to look forward to. He thought about the last time he and Kim had had dinner with her. The young woman had displayed a wonderful sense of humor exemplified by the series of amusing stories she’d told about her childhood in Barcelona. Her hair, long and thick and dark, had bounced festively as she laughed. Her eyes too were dark, though her skin had been surprisingly light, almost creamy. Above all, it was her bright and gentle smile that had made Mike feel so at ease. And I think Kim liked her too. He was wrong, of course. He had no understanding of women, even the one he loved.
“Did you know her well?” the medsys asked.
“Not really. I’m a structural engineer; she’s lifesupport. We both worked on the construction of this ship but we never met until this flight.” Mike didn’t mention that he’d found her somewhat attractive. He made a mental note to never mention it.
“Aha!” the medsys said as it withdrew the black snake from Val’s throat and swung the snake’s tip around to a small and rather delicate looking section of the examination array. Mike got the impression it was passing something from the snake to much tinier manipulators. “I’ve found it. I have discovered— Hmmm. No, I see that I was wrong. I thought I’d found the remains of a poison pill, but it’s actually just a small piece of paper rolled into a ball.”
“Paper?” Mike frowned in confusion.
“Yes. And odder still: unraveling the paper ball, I’ve discovered a small tangle of hair wrapped inside. Wait; someone has written tiny words on the paper.”
“What? What does it say?” Mike craned his neck as if expecting the medsys to show him the words. It did not. Instead, it just read them aloud:
Years of waiting are over
All plans have been laid
For injustices suffered
old debts must be paid
“Sound’s like somebody killed her for revenge,” Mike said. “But, why would there be hair in it? Is it human?”
“We’ll know in a minute. I’m running a genetic analysis.”
“Can you? I thought hairs weren’t alive.”
“They aren’t. Hair is just extruded protein; it’s not composed of cells and so contains no genetic material. However, there are often microscopic flakes of skin clinging to the outside of a strand of hair. In this sample I’ve found sixteen such flakes, and it is their genetic material I am analyzing.”
“How long will it take?”
“It is complete. A search of available medical records indicate these hairs belong to one Michael Tobias McCormack.”
“How can they belong to me?”
“There are at least two possibilities: someone could be trying to implicate you in this death; or you, yourself, could be her murderer.”
“But I tried to save her!” Mike spread his arms and showed the machine the palms of his hands, as if a lack of malicious intent could be proven by a lack of weapons.
“When you called me she was less than two minutes from death. A knowledgeable murderer could have timed it that closely.”
“But I didn’t do it!”
“I’m not saying you did; only that there is circumstantial evidence that supports the notion that you might have done it. If you are innocent I am sure there will be plenty of other evidence to support that fact. In the meantime, I must notify the captain. Her family must also be notified, but that task will probably fall to the captain.”
Mike looked down and stared very intently at nothing. “Yeah.” He sounded dazed. “I guess so.”
“And since this is a highly suspicious death, there will be a thorough investigation once we reach the City of Von Braun. So, if you will excuse me, by law I must begin a full autopsy.”
All this had happened less than hour ago, back before the weird gees had kicked in. Now, in the upside-down hallway, Mike stepped over another fluorescent light fixture. Who could have killed her? That skinny Arabic guy with the big black mustache? He looks pretty slimy. Maybe even slimy enough to be a killer. Or that Russian woman with the bright red hair? She looks dangerous in a femme fatale kind of way. Mike frowned at his own stupidity. Looks don’t make you a killer; only killing can make you a killer; and that means it could be anyone.
* * *
The pain behind Kim’s eyes now throbbed in time with her pulse. She wished she could reach in through her helmet and massage her temples with both hands.
A length of nylon rope swung out slowly around the left side of her body. Its loose end waved in front of her like a slow motion whip. Striped in red-and-yellow, it looked to be about twelve feet long.
She checked her belly ring—a three inch diameter stainless steel ring mounted on the front of her vacuum suit just below her belly button. Vacuum suits have a lifting harness of woven nylon strapping sewn into them. The belly ring is the nexus of this harness and the sole anchor point for safety tethers.
One end of a safety tether was clamped to her belly ring, but the tether stretched around her body so far to the right that its end was not visible.
Grabbing the tether near the belly ring, she began pulling it in and coiling it on her left forearm. The whip-like tether dancing slowly in front of her suddenly jerked to the left, swung around her back and fluttered out on her right side. It was indeed, the one attached to her belly ring; but as she finished her coiling she was surprised to learn it did not terminate with the usual metal clasp. Instead, the end was frayed.
She felt certain this must be important—another mystery to add to her growing list of mysteries—but there were bigger, more immediate problems to solve. This one would have to wait.
Turning her head to the left, she stretched her neck and pursed her lips. The white plastic feeding tube’s curved exterior felt sticky as it entered her mouth, so after sucking a few sips of the orange flavored syrup she licked all around it with her tongue until it felt clean.
It’s dangerous, she thought. Awfully dangerous. She turned her head to the right and reached her lips for the water tube. It’s been tried before. Dozens of times. She drew a mouthful of water and swished it back and forth to rinse the thick syrup from her teeth. I think it even worked once.
Reaching down again to the large pocket on her suit’s left thigh, she pulled open the Velcro closure and removed one of her suit’s two emergency patch kits. She opened the kit and looked through its contents until she found a small lock-blade pocketknife.
It doesn’t matter how risky it is. I don’t have any other options.
Opening the knife, she carefully verified that its three-inch blade—factory sharpened and never before used—was in the locked position. Then, holding it with both hands, she pointed its tip at the center of her belly—just above the belly ring—as though about to perform the ancient Japanese suicide ritual hari-kari.
Pausing a moment, she considered the fact that she might actually be committing suicide. She searched her mind for something—anything—to comfort her in what might be her last few minutes of life. She was lucky; she found something.
A calmness swept through her body as she subvocalized the ancient words. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. The words warmed her like a favorite blanket; or like a long parental hug. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters; He restoreth my soul.
Slowly, carefully, deliberately, Kim stabbed through the material of her suit. The blade pierced the outer covering without incident and began its journey through the layer of fiberglass thermal insulation batting.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
The knife met resistance and slowed to a stop. Sharp as it was, strands of fiberglass had accumulated in an uncut mass against the knife’s tip. She wiggled the handle from side-to-side and in small circles to work the blade past those pesky little glass fibers.
For Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.
Her eyes widened when she felt the resilience of soft rubber. The knife had reached the layer that maintained the suit’s air pressure; the layer that prevented breathing air from escaping; the layer which was technically and unceremoniously referred to as ‘the bladder.’
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
She jerked the knife straight in toward her intestines and heard the shrill hiss of precious air shooting out into the vacuum. A white mist sprayed furiously from the hole she’d made. It ricocheted off the knife handle and slapped at her hands and wrists as though trying to shove them away.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord…
End of Sample Chapters
Bones Burnt Black
is available at local bookstores
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Bones Burnt Black ISBN: 0967034671 Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Euin Cobb