He fell back and relaxed a moment, looking up at the bottom of the top bunk. Had he slept through the turnaround? He wasn't sure, but he had followed procedures by strapping himself in so he wouldn't drift out of bed. Who wanted to wake up on the floor?
He pulled the buckle loose of the strap on his chest and then undid the one below his knees. Half rising, he swung his legs over the side and sat there, hunched over so he wouldn't bang his head on the top bunk. He glanced over at the monitor and saw the timer was counting down from fifteen. Nope, he hadn't missed the turnaround. Time enough to do his toilet before the gravity was cut. He had to get hopping.
Burt stood and took two steps to the door to the toilet stall. He pressed his thumb to a small panel to open the door, then turned around and sat down. Did anybody pee standing up anymore? With vacuum toilets and sometimes less than 1 g, it seemed to make better sense to sit and avoid causing a mess. At least for the moment, while there was still gravity, Burt didn't have to use the relief tube. The timer showed twelve minutes. He stood, and the toilet automatically flushed. After a moment, the door slid shut.
At the recessed sink Burt shaved, then rinsed off the excess shaving cream. He applied skin lotion as the warning buzzer sounded in the hall. He turned to look at the monitor and confirmed he now had five minutes. He went to the tiny closet and selected some of his own clothes. Since he wasn't part of the crew, he wasn't required to wear the standard uniform. His private room was a luxury, even though by Earth standards it was tiny. Crew were housed in dormitory rooms with shared facilities. This was a cargo transport that wasn't built to accommodate passengers, although it did have six private cabins for individuals who wanted to take the road less travelled. If you could forego amenities, it got you where you wanted to go, ofttimes visiting ports cruise ships didn't go to.
The one-minute buzzer sounded. Burt slipped on soft shoes and tied them before sitting back on his cot. The buzzer gave a brief noise for each of the final five seconds, then held a long blast. Burt felt a slight rumble go through the ship. There were a few creaks as metal was bent by the change in force as the acceleration stopped.
Burt looked around, trying to discern the difference. He shifted on the edge of the bed and realized he had moved off the blanket. He was floating. The turnaround had started.
Early in the voyage, Burt and the other passengers had been required to attend a short information session about emergency procedures that had covered how to deal with the 0 g of orbit and the turnaround so they would know how to properly stow their personal effects and not hurt themselves when moving about. During the first half of the trip, during acceleration, the main viewing area faced in the direction of Mars; after the turnaround, the ship faced backwards for deceleration to its final approach and arrival. The turnaround took thirty minutes, and during this time the entire ship remained in zero gravity.
Burt decided he might as well go up front to see what he could see. He pushed himself away from the bed to the door, where he held on to a grip on the wall as he pressed his thumb on a fingerprint reader. The seal around the edge made a sticking noise and then the door retracted into the wall. Burt pulled himself into the hall and his room door automatically slid shut. He headed toward the tube lift, periodically grabbing one of the partially recessed handles along the hallway to both propel himself forward and steer his body. At the end of the short hall, he thumbed another door and went into a central juncture that connected other hallways to the lift. Burt moved in front of the door and waited a moment for the access to open.
The tube lift joined the various decks of the ship. It was small, only big enough for two people. Normally the lift ferried people up and down, the concept of up and down coming from the artificial gravity created by the linear acceleration of the ship. But now that the turnaround had started, there was no gravity, and up and down were no longer valid ideas. Burt held onto some grips as the lift moved through the tube. The relative upward movement did press him somewhat to the floor, but the effect was negligible. The lift slowed and came to a stop. He drifted up toward the ceiling.
The observation area was beside the navigation deck. Unlike a passenger ship built for the comfort of the travellers, the cargo ship had been built for functionality. The observation area was part of navigation and, while passengers were welcome to step up and have a look, they were expected to stay out of the way of the captain and crew. That being said, this captain and crew had proved friendly. Burt presumed the few passengers on these types of flights provided a welcome diversion from the monotony of another cargo run. Burt came in through the left access. Or was he supposed to think of it as the port access? Were nautical terms even applicable to spaceships? Burt shrugged as he shut the door. When he turned around he caught the eye of the captain, who nodded before leaning over a console. Burt pushed off and floated toward the window, a type of bay window made up of individual sections curving across the front of the navigation deck and upwards into the ceiling. Another passenger was already there, holding on to a grip as she stared outside. Burt noticed movement outside, and when he got up close he saw a man in a spacesuit moving around the housing of an antenna off to the left.
The woman glanced at Burt. "Good morning."
"It seems I'm missing all the action."
"The captain thought to have a look. Something hit the ship. Something small, he said, but he wanted to double-check the communication links to ensure nothing was amiss. Apparently it's standard procedure."
Burt nodded. "Hmmm, space seems so empty. It seems hard to believe we would run into anything."
"I think this thing ran into us."
"Can you tell? I was given to understand we were moving pretty fast by now." Burt looked around, wondering if any of the crew might confirm his statement.
"What do you mean?"
"I'm no expert, but our gravity, our artificial gravity, comes from acceleration. We accelerate for half the trip, then decelerate for the other half."
"We've been accelerating for more than twenty-four hours now. If I remember anything about basic space flight, that means we are now going a few million kilometres an hour."
The woman furrowed her brow. "A few million?" Her expression turned into a doubtful smile. "You're kidding." She looked out the window, looking back and forth as if trying to get her bearings. "How can you tell? "
Burt chuckled and looked out the window, too. "In the vastness of space? I doubt you can. Isn't speed relative to something else? It's not like we're whizzing by any signposts out here."
She studied Burt then stuck out her hand. "Penny."
He turned and looked at the extended hand blankly, caught off guard. He then smiled and shook her hand. "Burt, Burt Marshal."
"So, Burt, what brings you to this neck of the woods?"
"I think we may be a tad out of the woods now." Burt smiled.
"But to answer your question, I'm a dentist and I arranged for a working holiday. One of the mining colonies had an opening for a dental practitioner for the month of April and, having never lived off-world, I thought I would take advantage of the situation to see life on another planet."
"Some of the colonies have a hard time attracting health professionals so they package specific work terms as a holiday. Being so far out of the way, being so far from Earth, these places are not on the top-ten lists of destinations for tourists."
"I see. But a month? That's a long time to be away from your family."
"I'm, ah, divorced."
"Oops," said Penny. "I didn't mean to intrude in personal matters."
Burt shrugged and laughed. "I'm not sure it's something any of us can avoid. Life happens and you have to go with the flow." Burt paused for effect, then added, "Or is it roll with the punches?"
Penny half smiled. "You seem to be taking it rather well."
Burt nodded. "Sometimes the best you can do is accept. But what about you? Is it a life-long ambition of yours to visit the Red Planet?"
"I wouldn't go so far as to say it's an ambition, but the opportunity came up and I'm one of those when-opportunity-knocks kind of people."
"Like me then, I take it space travel isn't one of those life skills picked up when you were a kid?"
"Nope. I've never parachuted. I've never bungee jumped. And I've never been shot out of a cannon."
Burt looked at Penny good-naturedly. "You're putting together quite the list of things to do before you die."
"Not really. I don't see the attraction of doing things that could result in my last breath. I'm not that much of an adrenaline junkie."
Burt looked back out the window and said, "So you save it all up and do it in one go: a trip to another world."
Penny shrugged and smiled. "I suppose. It feels so much better to have both feet on the ground. I'm more of a homebody…or a homeworlder."
The suited figure outside moved from the antenna array back toward navigation. Burt couldn't tell, but assumed there was an air lock on the main body of the ship.
Penny and Burt each held on to a grip by the window and turned to see the captain. He was wearing a covering over his shoes and was attached, or stuck, to the floor.
"Yes," said Penny.
"You have a secure transmission from Earth. You can take it in your cabin or you can read it here. It's text only." The captain held out a small tablet. "The fingerprint reader is on the underside on the bottom right."
"Thank you, Captain." Penny took the tablet in her free hand, then let go of the grip to manipulate the controls.
The captain turned and walked away, though Burt thought the other man wasn't so much walking as pulling a stuck foot from a sticky surface and then putting it down in a forward position. Was that easier than floating around? Maybe it was better when standing in front of consoles or moving from one control station to another. Of course, this was only necessary in zero gravity, and the crew had to worry about that only when in dock or during the turnaround.
Burt glanced at Penny, who was busily playing with the device, then politely turned away to look out the window. What a strange place to be. He used to have a family. He used to have a life back on Earth. But all that was upended with the divorce. Does anybody understand why two people drift apart? What would have happened if they had gone to couples counselling as he'd wanted? Would they have worked something out? Would they have rekindled the spark that had brought them together in the first place? It was all academic now. The paperwork had been signed three years ago and Burt had moved on. He had tried to move on. Yes, he had a career; yes, he was busy, but he hadn't yet found his new life, whatever that meant. Taking this temporary posting on Mars was a little out of character for him.
He smiled, still marvelling that he'd immediately acted upon an advertisement in the paper by phoning the agency, getting the details, and then setting about to clear his schedule for a full month. His brother, George, had been supportive. "Go for it," he had told him. George had always taken the attitude that life was to be experienced, if not relished, and he liked to quote somebody or other who said they would rather regret the things they had done than regret the things they had not done. It seemed like a good approach to life, so when opportunity knocked, as this Penny had put it, with a chance to go to Mars, Burt decided to answer the door. How funny to have run into somebody else who was off on an interplanetary adventure for the very first time.
Penny frowned at the device. She fiddled with the touch screen, then looked up.
"Everything okay?" Burt said.
Penny seemed lost in thought. "Yes."
It was obvious she had something important on her mind, and Burt thought to respectfully keep his distance. He looked toward the navigation area and watched the captain and two crewmen in front of the various control panels. Behind them was a monitor showing a countdown that Burt guessed indicated time left until the electromagnetic thrusters were fired up. Burt was proud of himself for knowing about that. Ever since he'd decided to go on this trip, he had studied up on space travel to become more familiar with what, for him, was an unknown part of life. Trekking around the solar system had been commonplace for decades, with research outposts and mining colonies set up on all the planets, but like a lot of people Earthside, he had never stepped off the homeworld to see what else was out there. The Earth was a big place and Burt thought of how little he knew about his own backyard. Why go off-world with everything to do at home?
A buzzer sounded. The monitor showed five minutes were left of zero gravity before the thrusters would start the deceleration half of the journey and 1 g would return to the ship for the next twenty-four hours. It would be nice to have gravity back. While weightlessness was amusing, it was also a pain. People got used to moving around -- Or should he say floating around? -- but he was a 1 g type of guy. Flying around rooms and hallways was a tad unnatural, and he felt so much more at home with two feet on the ground and the ground pushing back. There were also health issues with long-term weightlessness, especially bone loss. If ever there was an argument that a human being was built for life in 1 g, Burt decided that was it.
"We're only a couple of minutes away from gravity. Maybe it's time to give consideration to breakfast," he said.
Penny looked up, a little startled. "What?" She broke into a smile. "Yes, of course. That would be a great idea."
"I'm surprised I got this far without a cup of coffee."
"Now that you mention it, I could use a little something. And coffee, too." Burt checked the clock. "If we wait three minutes, we can walk to the mess instead of floating."
"I didn't see you at mealtimes during the first part of the trip."
"Oh, I was around but got in early to eat and got out. I was investigating the ship."
Penny chuckled. "I mean touring. I spoke with the captain to get permission, then wandered around. Having never been in a cargo vessel before, I wanted see one firsthand. Despite its size, the vessel has a crew of only eight. Everything is automated. I imagine the captain could do everything himself. Okay, almost everything. Loading and unloading requires coordination with ground crews and that necessitates human intervention."
"I should do the same. Take advantage, I mean. I was in the middle of a good book and spent the better part of my day with spies and nefarious bad guys."
"Yes. Imagine that. I start off my big adventure with my nose stuck in a book. I'm going to talk with the captain myself and see if I, too, can get a tour. I should treat this as a once-in-a-lifetime experience and take in all I can."
"Once in a lifetime?"
Burt shrugged. "You never know. I guess we've come back to ‘when opportunity knocks.' After all, I can read a book anywhere. But I have to admit, it was a real page-turner; it's not every book that keeps you that engrossed."
Another buzzer sounded. It was the one-minute mark. Both Burt and Penny looked toward the navigation area. A screen showed the countdown to the engine restart.
"I'm going to enjoy having my feet back on the ground," said Burt. Penny remained silent.
The buzzer sounded for each of the five final seconds, then there was a long blast. A slight rumble went through the ship. Burt felt the gravity increase and he grabbed a grip with both hands to reposition his body so his feet were to the floor. Within ten seconds his feet felt as if they were solidly on the ground.
Burt looked around, trying to confirm his experience. The acceleration had started and there was gravity. He could see the captain was bent over, removing the covering from his shoes. Now that sticking to the floor was no longer necessary, anybody could walk about.
"I think there is a cup of coffee with my name on it."
"Sounds good," said Penny. "Give me a sec." She went over to the captain and exchanged a few words with him before handing back the tablet. Penny strode back to Burt, smiling, then said, "Let's go."
The two of them walked over to the tube lift. A sensor detected their presence and the door automatically slid open. Burt gestured with one hand to Penny and said, "After you."
They went down two decks. The entire level was devoted to food, housing the kitchen, dining area, and refrigeration for storage. While everyone on board was involved in various occupations, especially during the loading and unloading operations, one member of the crew had the principal task of preparing meals. The galley was open to anyone twenty-four hours a day to serve themselves, but dinner was prepared by the ship cook. At specific times throughout the day, he was on hand to make sandwiches or breakfast items.
"Morning, folks," the man behind the main counter said as he moved between a stove and a side table. He had pulled two metal trays with bagels out of an oven and was laying them out to cool. "You're just in time for a fresh bagel."
"Smells good," said Penny.
The man behind the counter turned around and wiped his hand on his apron. He smiled to the two of them and stuck his hand out to Penny. "Barclay, chief cook and bottle washer. Plus freight loader, part-time systems engineer, and medical aid extraordinaire." "Penny." "How can I tickle your taste buds?" Barclay reached over to shake Burt's hand. "Burt. I trust you have coffee back there." "It's our drug of choice." Barclay opened a cupboard and reached in for two mugs slotted between narrow braces.
"That's an interesting system for storage," said Burt.
"Oh, that?" Barclay filled up each of the mugs. "The ship spends a fair bit of time in 0 g. Storage has to keep contents immobilized. Even though the plates, mugs, and utensils are stowed away, they're held in place so they don't float around. Imagine after the turnaround you open a cupboard and everything comes spilling out onto the floor." Barclay chuckled. "Not much fun, and that, by the way, has happened to me. Clean up a mess like that and you remember to secure things in place. Lesson learned."
"Ah," said Burt.
Barclay set the mugs on the counter, then brought out cream and sugar. "First time?" Barclay looked first at Burt and then at Penny.
"Well, yes. Do we give ourselves away?" Penny smiled.
Barclay chuckled again. "I noticed that you didn't look so good in dock yesterday. I took it that this was your first time in zero gravity."
Penny laughed. "Yes, I was feeling a little sick to my stomach. I took something for motion sickness and it seemed to do the trick. I got through the turnaround without much of a problem. I hope that means I'm finding my space legs."
"Everybody's different," said Barclay. He picked up a tray from the side table. "May I offer you a fresh bagel?" He opened a drawer out of sight and produced two plates.
"Oh, sounds good," said Penny. She looked with wide eyes at the tray, then picked off a bagel and put it on a plate.
Penny and Burt spent a good half hour with Barclay listening to stories of his various travels. Other passengers and members of the crew periodically dropped in to get something for breakfast but then went and sat at a table while Penny and Burt remained at the counter. The cook was a character; sociable and amusing. After the second cup of coffee and scrambled eggs, the two of them thanked Barclay for his hospitality and left the galley.
"I set up a tour of engineering," said Penny. "Care to come along?"
They exited the tube lift and went down the hallway.
"Sure. It would be interesting. If you'll give me a moment?"
"No problem." Penny arrived at her cabin. She thumbed her door, and the seal made a slight sound, then the panel slid out of the way. "Uh oh."
Burt stopped and looked back. "What's the matter?"
"It looks like I've had a visitor." Penny stuck her head in the door and looked around.
"How can you tell?" Burt said, approaching her.
"See my suitcase?"
Burt looked in her room and saw her suitcase stored in a mesh enclosure so it wouldn't float in 0 g. "Yes."
"It's turned around."
"Yes," said Penny. "I stored it with the front pockets facing out. The pockets are now facing in. Somebody took the case out, then put it back the wrong way around."
Burt walked to his cabin and opened the door. After peering around, he came back. "It doesn't look like my room has been searched. Then again, I'm not sure I could tell if it had been."
"I don't think a dentist is a threat to anybody."
Burt looked puzzled. "Threat? Are you a threat to somebody?"
"You're a Marshal and I'm a marshal." Penny smiled at her joke.
"Your family name is Marshal? The same as mine? I thought that member of the crew addressed you as Ms. Brandt."
"No, I mean I'm a federal marshal. I was trying to be funny."
"A marshal? You're the police?"
"Yes," said Penny.
"I thought you were on vacation."
"Let's say this is a working vacation for me, too."
"I don't understand."
Penny looked around, opened the door to her cabin, and motioned to Burt to step in. She followed, then turned to watch the door shut. "I don't know if the hallways are being monitored."
"This seems kind of cloak and dagger."
"I signed up to take a trip. That's it. But then at the last minute, my boss got wind there could be a criminal on board."
"What?" Burt looked startled.
"A guy by the name of Timothy Blakely murdered a prostitute in New York last year. The trail went cold until new information recently came forward. That new information turned out to be a definite DNA sample. Just about everybody these days has their DNA on file somewhere, but there are also cases of people falsifying their records. My boss suspected that was the case here. It was a long shot, but he asked me to poke around and see if I could come up with a DNA sample to confirm his suspicions."
"Timothy Blakely is on board?"
"Well, nobody with that name and nobody with that DNA. That's why my boss asked for confirming DNA straight from the person himself."
"Is that legal? Don't you need a warrant or something?"
"It's a grey area. Everybody going into space must have their DNA registered. Using somebody else's DNA is a crime and the authorities have the right to verify identification. As a federal marshal I have the right to verify anybody's DNA along with their identification."
"That doesn't sound grey to me."
"It's one thing to verify identification; it's another thing to tie that back to a crime. Get yourself a good lawyer and you could…well, get away with murder."
"Point taken." Burt looked at the time on the console. "What's next?"
"I have to assume now that somebody on board broke into my cabin to find out who I am. It's not every day somebody gets an encrypted communication, and I'm guessing that tipped off one of the members of the crew I might not be another person on vacation. I can assume they now know I'm a federal marshal and I can assume they are now going to panic thinking I'm here to arrest them."
"There goes my element of surprise, no? My boss only wanted me to verify the DNA, as he intended on leaving the arrest up to the authorities on Mars. Now I may have gotten myself into a conundrum."
Penny looked at Burt with a raised eyebrow. "Well, for starters, we're on a spaceship with no way to get off. The person can't escape; they're trapped. And trapped people get desperate. And desperate people do desperate things. Until this morning, the person knew nothing about me and why I'm here. I had the element of surprise. Now they know who I am but I don't know who they are and I am the one at a disadvantage." Penny looked reflective. "How quickly the tables can turn in a game of cat and mouse."
Burt tried to think of something to say. He was out of his league here. "I get the impression the level of danger has now gone up a notch."
"I'm going to try to be ready." Penny unbuttoned her coat and pulled back one side of it to expose a concealed shoulder holster.
"A gun? Is that wise on a spaceship? This is a pressurized atmosphere."
"It's not a gun with bullets. It's a stun gun. I have no intention of blowing a hole in the hull of the ship. That would be suicidal. This is standard issue for security personnel on ships and my boss made sure I was equipped according to normal protocols."
"Whew. I had a picture of you bringing down the bad guy, breaching the outside, and having us all sucked into space."
Penny gave Burt a wry look. "I'll try not to violate the laws of physics. I'd like to get to Mars, too. But considering that the bad guy has broken into my cabin, I am thinking the gloves are off. He may now be desperate and could do something dangerous."
"So what are you going to do?"
Penny shrugged. "I don't think I have a choice now. I'm going to tell the captain to assemble his crew and I'll have it out with the bunch of them at once. I'll take DNA scans of everyone, then compare them with the DNA sent up from Earth. This ship doesn't have a holding area, but I'll try to improvise something. I'd be worried if I let a known criminal run around the ship. There is no telling what he may do before getting to Mars."
Penny went to the door and opened it. "I'm off." She stepped out into the hall.
Burt followed. "Good luck."
"Thanks." Penny shut the door and headed toward the tube lift.
Burt watched her for a moment, then turned around and went to his cabin, where he brushed his teeth and then sat at the little study desk. He looked around and thought the room, luxurious in comparison to the rest of the ship, was much like one of the dormitory rooms he had known at university. How curious. He guessed it was to be expected that on a ship where real estate was at a premium, luxury was defined not by how big your room was but how big your room was compared to your neighbour's.
What to do next, he wondered. He had finished his book. That tour sounded like a good idea, but maybe this wasn't the best time. If Penny was going to be demanding all the crew line up for DNA verification, there wouldn't be anybody left to give him a tour. Maybe he should wait, then see if he could visit engineering.
Burt glanced again at the desk and noticed a little sticker marked "WBV." He leaned in to read the small print, which explained that the chair in which he was sitting could be programmed to give a whole-body massage that would "exercise musculoskeletal structures" to improve muscle strength and prevent bone loss. Burt had heard about these techniques back on Earth but had no idea such technology had been installed on spaceships. Was every room so equipped? Did the crew have access to such chairs? Obviously there was something to zero gravity that warranted the installation of such a system.
Burt wondered what to do as he looked again at the time. He shrugged. He might as well go up to navigation and see what was going on. There was nothing else to do in his cabin.
When he got to the main deck, he found the captain all by himself. "Hello," said Burt.
"Hello." The captain was studying a console.
"You haven't seen Penny Brandt, have you?"
The captain looked up. "No."
"She was talking about a tour of engineering this morning."
"Oh, yes," said the captain. "Harvey usually takes people around to show them his area. He's proud of his engines. Take the tube down to deck forty, the end of the line."
"Forty? Really?" Burt looked surprised.
"Don't forget the engines are all the way in the back on the other side of the racked containers. The tube is taking you through the central backbone of the cargo support."
"Thanks." Burt went back to the lift and rode it all the way down. He was trying to remember everything that had been in the information video he'd watched before boarding. The ship consisted of two parts separated by a long central tube. The front part housed navigation and living quarters, while the back was devoted to engineering and the magnetoplasma thrusters. A series of supports stuck out of the central tube in all directions, like a pincushion, to which hundreds of freight containers were moored. The ship ferried both raw materials and finished goods between the planets.
When he got off the lift, Burt noticed a hum. There was machinery here and, by the sounds of it, powerful machinery. He looked around but didn't see anyone, so he walked around the area, looking at the equipment, peering at the various console displays, not understanding what any of this was. He kept hoping to run into somebody, but the place was deserted.
Burt had almost walked in a complete circle and was coming back to his starting point when he noticed something on the floor. He stopped and knelt to get a closer look. He wasn't sure, but it looked like blood. Odd. Had somebody been hurt? Had Penny been hurt? Had the nefarious bad man captured the policewoman and was he now in the process of disposing of the body? There were always stories back on Earth of people disappearing, never to be found again. It seemed hard to believe you could get away with that, but the newspapers would support the notion that, under the right circumstances, you could get rid of a body and not be caught.
Burt looked around in the vain hope of seeing something, anything, which would give him a clue about where the blood had come from. Nothing. He rose and crossed his arms, then stood there a moment, thinking. Burt realized he was staring at a door. He shook his head. For some odd reason he hadn't seen it before. He walked over to it and thumbed the door. There was a short buzzing noise, and the door remained closed. He looked again. Yes, it did have a thumb reader. He put his thumb on the panel, and again there was a short buzzing noise and the door remained closed. Obviously Burt wasn't authorized to go into that area of the ship. There was a small window in the door, so he stuck his face up close and looked through to the other side. There he saw another corridor with more machinery.
Burt turned his head, trying to look in all directions. He could see something. He pushed his head flush up against the window and strained to see into the hall. Burt could see a pair of legs on the floor and he recognized Penny's pants. He had been kidding before about the bad guy, but now it seemed as if the bad guy had in fact gotten to Penny. That must have been her blood on the floor.
Burt tried the door again. It wouldn't open. He glanced around. What to do?
On one side of the door was a sign with the word Emergency written in capital letters. Burt stepped over to read it. "In case of emergency, open cover and twist manual door release." Really? It couldn't be that easy.
Burt opened the cover plate, and a buzzer somewhere sounded in repeated short bursts. He had signalled an alarm. No doubt he was going to have the entire crew down here looking for something wrong.
Burt got his hand in and got hold of a handle and twisted it. He heard an audible click come from the door. He stepped back, seized a recessed grip, and pulled. The door jerked, then slid back into the wall. He stepped through and went over to Penny. He crouched over her and held two fingers to her neck in an attempt to feel for a pulse. She was alive. He moved her hair and noted she had a pretty nice gash on her scalp. Somebody had hit her hard. She was out cold.
The voice came from behind Burt and scared the wits out of him. Burt twisted around in his crouched position, then lost his balance and fell over in a sitting position on the floor. Burt stared at the man, wide-eyed.
"Jesus." The man shook his head in resignation. "You can never get away with just one. Things snowball and the next thing you know, you have to kill the entire planet."
The man bent down and picked up a metal bar. Burt hadn't noticed it before. It must have been what that man had used to knock out Penny. Burt reached into Penny's coat and grasped the handle of the stun gun. The man took a step forward and raised the bar to strike Burt. Burt pulled out the gun, pointed it at the man, and pulled the trigger. There was the sound of an electrical discharge, and the man shook all over. Burt held the trigger for a couple of seconds, then released it. The electrical noise stopped. The man dropped the metal bar, and it fell to the floor with a loud clang. He stood stock still, then collapsed to his knees on the floor and fell over on his back. He groaned.
Burt looked at the gun. Wow, did that work or what? He put the gun in his side pocket and got up. He put his arms under Penny and picked her up. Burt manoeuvred her through the door and went back to the tube lift. Burt noticed the alarm buzzer was no longer sounding. He wondered why. Had the man disabled it?
When Burt got to the lift, he stood in front of it but nothing happened. The door didn't open. Odd. He set Penny down on the floor, then waved his hand around the door as he tried to activate the electronic eye.
Burt was pushed to one side. He lost his footing and fell to the floor. A pain shot up his arm. Burt rolled to look back to see what had happened. The man was holding the metal bar as if getting ready to strike Burt. The two of them stared at one another.
"You know the rest of the crew is coming down here," said Burt. "You can't get off the ship, and the authorities are going to be waiting for you on Mars."
The man kept looking at Burt, saying nothing. He sighed and lowered the bar. "Ah, Jesus."
Burt watched him closely wondering what he was going to do next.
"I didn't kill her." The man wasn't looking at Burt. It wasn't as if he was addressing Burt; it was more like he was speaking out loud to whoever was within earshot. "She was wearing these bloody high-heeled shoes, like really high, and when she was walking up the stairs, she tripped and fell down an entire flight. I ran down to her, but she was already dead. I'm guessing the fall must have broken her neck."
"Why don't you tell that to the police?"
The man turned his head to look at Burt. "I'm a convicted felon. I'm a former drug addict. I've spent more time behind bars than I can remember. Nobody is going to believe me. Not now. Not after everything I've done. It doesn't matter what the truth is. The plain and simple of it is that I'm a bad man."
Burt didn't know what to say. This was quite a confession.
"I'm tired." The man idly looked at the bar in his hand, then tossed it to one side. It clattered on the floor. He took a few steps to a larger door. "I've had enough. I don't want to go back." He thumbed a side panel, and the door slid open. He stepped through and touched another panel. The door closed. Burt looked at the sign over the door and read, "Air Lock."
Burt walked over to the air lock door and looked through the viewing port. The man was strapping on a backpack. Burt watched him buckle some clips and then grab hold of a nozzle. The man went to the far side of the chamber and fiddled with some controls. A red light flashed over the air lock door. Burt watched in alarm as the far door opened. The man faltered as he moved toward the opening, then turned back to face Burt and held up the nozzle to his mid-section. He paused and looked right at Burt before pressing something. Burt watched as a little jet of escaping gas spurted out of the nozzle, and the man was pushed away from the hatch and out of view. Burt ran to a larger viewing window beside the lock and watched in awe. The man picked up speed as he moved farther and farther away from the side of the spaceship. Burt stood there staring for twenty seconds, forty seconds, for a full minute. He glanced over at Penny, remembering to check if she was awake. When he looked back, he had trouble seeing where the man had gone.
This was it. This was one of those stories. People disappear. They disappear and nobody ever finds them. Nobody ever finds the body. And eventually, Burt guessed, people stop looking.
Burt heard Penny groan, so he left the window and went over to her. He crouched down as her eyes fluttered open.
"You ran into your bad guy," said Burt.
"Where is he?" Penny tried to sit up.
Burt put a hand behind her back to help support her. "He's stepped out and I don't think he'll be back. Now, you take it easy. Let me help you up and take you to whatever constitutes the infirmary on this ship. Judging from your behaviour, I don't think you have a concussion, but you have a nice gash on your head. I'd like to see if I can do something for that."
"Okay," said Penny. She sat trying to get her bearings. "Oh boy, does my head hurt."
"I'm not surprised." Burt held her arm as Penny stood up. She wobbled, so Burt kept a firm grip on her. The two of them walked to the tube lift. This time the door slid open.
"Now," said Burt, "let's get on with our 'vacations.'"