Warm seats. Anderson hated warm seats. Almost as much as he hated early mornings. He sat at the desk, head held in one hand contemplating his hatred of warm seats and early mornings, his eyes were bleary, the others were moving around him, their white coats too bright in the artificial light. He was pretending to read the monitor but all he really wanted to do was sleep. On Earth insomnia had plagued him, thoughts of what he was doing with his life ate at his nights, pulling him away from his much-needed unconsciousness. Over a hundred years of cryogenically induced sleep, billions of miles, trillions, he could never keep that straight, from earth, and all he had to show for it was the same existentially-driven insomnia and the same daily grind. Except now the scientists worked around the clock in shifts. The man who shared his desk leaving minutes before he came in, leaving him a warm seat and a keyboard switched to the wrong layout. One day he would find out who was stationed at his desk in the previous shift, maybe, and he could tell whoever it was to stop changing the keyboard layout. He swiped through the settings on the screen until the lettering on the keys set into the desk faded to be replaced by the regular layout.
“We’ve got chamber six.” A voice said, hand coming down on his shoulder, the voice held an odd lilt.
He looked up to the broad-shouldered girl who stood beside him, Lindsay Agyre, he had been paired off with her when their research assignment had been handed to them. Until now they’d been confined to the bullpen, a room of desks and scientists nicknamed because it reminded them of police procedural movies and the room looked like a room of homicide detectives was often portrayed. The invitation to use a research chamber meant they would finally be free of the tight-quarters and relentless noise of the bullpen. Maybe he could sleep there.
When he didn’t reply for a moment, she levelled her gaze at him, “You look horrible Anderson.” she observed his sunken eyes and moved to the obvious question, “Trouble sleeping?”
He nodded, “Yeah, I’ve been having trouble sleeping since I got taken out of cryo,” she nodded as he pushed himself out of his chair, “and this place isn’t helping me much.”
“Well, sooner or later they have to let us off the ship, right?” she smiled, face doing its best to be warm and hopeful.
He looked sideways at her as they walked, she was young, fresh out of a masters degree at university when she had signed up, or so she had informed him when they had first met. Her eyes were bright and clear, and her curls of auburn hair bounced as she walked alongside him. Her attitude always made him feel old, despite her being less than a half-dozen years his junior. Just having her around made him more aware of the crow’s feet forming at the edges of his eyes and the starting of grey hairs at his temple.
“Sure.” His deadpan response bringing an uneasy silence to the conversation.
They found their way to the door that lead to chamber six’s control room. Inside there was a fume cupboard, refrigerator, centrifuge and a gene editing setup that allowed for the manufacture of injectable DNA modification viruses. The scientists called them ‘mods’ for short. On the other side of the room sat a cage of laboratory mice. Their pristine white fur stood our against the slate coloured granules that covered the cage’s floor. This was the hundred and forty-fifth generation spawned from the cryogenically preserved group that they had brought with them on the expedition. They had always known there would be some modifications needed to survive their new world. But even with everyone working around the clock they had been there for months to no avail. Anderson glared through the glass that separated the pair from their test environment. A hunk of earth and vegetation scooped from the planet into the sealed glass pod before them. Sunlight streamed into the chamber from above and a vent was open to the outside world to allow oxygen in. In the sunlight he could see dust floating in the glass cell, the window was tinted to keep the UV light at bay, the sun was stronger here than on Earth. Nobody could go out in it for long, regardless of skin tone. Their new home was a hellscape, worse than they’d feared and now they were there was no way back. The ship had no fuel to make the journey, and to make matters worse, even if they’d wanted to go, the cryogenic process was a one-use-only deal. Going back in was almost assuredly a death sentence. An eighty-five percent mortality rate, at best.
A lab mouse flitted past the window on the far side. it was hairless now, with thick ruddy-hued skin. As it sprinted past Agyre jumped.
“Holy shit.” she murmured, “It survived.”
Anderson frowned and moved closer to the glass, seeking the mutated creature out in the fauna on the other side. He swallowed as it made its appearance again, throat going suddenly dry.
“You know what this means right?” Agyre asked, her voice strained.
Anderson said nothing, his lips turning white as he pressed them tightly together.
A choked gasp escaped Hector as his eyes fluttered open, harsh white light burning at his retinas as his eyes rolled about in their sockets. His head swan for a moment, a machine beeping quietly beside him. He looked across at it, as he got his bearings, the machine’s screen pulsed rhythmically, mirroring his heartbeat. The bed was a cot hanging from the wall, there was another above him. The door was closed, he assumed locked. Another cell, though not the one he knew. The earth cell smelt of dust and stale air regardless of how much it was cleaned. No, this was different, scrubbed clean like a medical room, the tinge of disinfectant soured the air. A chain rattled as he sat up and he recognized the chill of the metal handcuff bolting him to the cot.
The lights robbed him of any sense of time, the taste of the prison’s powdered eggs still lingered on his tongue, but he knew that meal was years ago. He’d signed up for a journey across the cosmos. The lingering taste was the remnants of the meal in stomach when he was frozen.
The door buzzed open and someone walked in clad in white. They wore doctor’s scrubs, face masked, hair covered. All he could see was the eyes, tired, cold, bored. They’d done this before. They moved to the machine silently, checked off something on the digital clipboard they held and took something from their pocket. A hand caught the thin plastic tube running from a bag hanging on the side of the machine. A drip bag with the word ‘SALINE’ printed on one side in block capitals. A cap popped off and was dropped into a pocket and the now exposed needle glinted in the light.
“What are you doing?” he asked, getting up, the cuff rattled and caught him midway between sitting and standing.
The person jumped, glancing at him wide-eyed before they overcame the shock. They turned away and slid the tip of the needle into the plastic tube hanging from the IV bag and depressed the syringe’s plunger.
“Hey-“, the chain rattled as he tried to get close enough to grab them, it pulled taut, holding him two paces away from them and the machine.
They backed away, “Lie down.” the figure commanded and they turned to leave, “You’re not supposed to be awake yet.”
“What did you put in-“ he head spun as the door opened and he sat back on the bed. The room swam out of focus and he held his forehead. The door closed and he lifted his legs onto the bed, they felt unnaturally heavy. He flopped backwards letting out a slow breath, the sedative working its way through his system. His eyes fluttered closed and he tried to fight the unconsciousness rolling over him, tried to focus on the beeping of the machines. But the more he tried to focus, the more the world slipped away.
The gurney wheeled out the door, pushed by one of the pair, their faces masked.
“Younger than most.”, Agyre said, tapping the capped syringe with a finger nervously, “Might be a good thing.”
“Just means more tests later on for older subjects.” Anderson murmured, he stopped short of adding ‘like me’.
Agyre watched the subject trundle past, the clean-shaven blonde in his mid-twenties lay atop the gurney, she wondered what he had done to get a sentence severe enough he would rather travel halfway across the galaxy than stay on Earth. They moved to the elevator and waited as it hummed down the levels of the ship.
Neither spoke but Agyre could tell Anderson wanted to say something so she broke the silence, “What’s up?”
Andrerson looked down at their unconscious patient, “We shouldn’t be doing this.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s no consent for this, not from him.” he gestured to the gurney.
“They gave their consent to possible habitation-related procedures.” she said shrugging, “Besides, the panel agreed.”
Andreson folded his arms, “Yes, the panel is allowed to decide another person’s life for them.”
“One panel already has, a panel convicted him, threw him in a cell and delivered him to this ship, didn’t they?”
Anderson bit, “Yes, they were criminals, but they’re entitled to their own body at least.”
“Tell that to some of their victims.” she murmured, suppressing a shudder.
Anderson let out a aggravated sigh, deep down he felt like a coward for not pushing back against the decision more, but the call had been made, what could he do to stop it now?
The door hummed open and they pushed the gurney on into the brig hallway, rows of identical doors lined either side of the corridor, a bold yellow C was sprayed onto the floor at the elevator door. They strode over it and followed the hallway down. The door to cell 626 buzzed open and they stepped in. The maintenance crew had already been through, fitting the monitoring devices above them.
Anderson pushed past her and unbuckled the safety straps across the patient, “Come on then, I don’t want to spend any more time in here than I have to.”
Agyre nodded and jacked the gurney down until it was level with the cot and they both hefted the patient across onto the blanket. Then, without another word Agyre lifted the gurney back up to its normal position and retreated from the room, Anderson following quietly behind her. At the door her paused, glancing back as a brief flicker of guilt passed through his mind. Then the door buzzed shut and cut off his view of the unconscious patient.
Hector jolted into consciousness, his sleep-drenched mind registering his sudden failure to breathe. He peeled his lips apart and let air fill his lungs. His mouth was painfully dry, head throbbing with the onset of a dehydration-induced headache. He forced his eyes open and, with his arm, blocked the blurry, retina-burning lights that were somewhere above him. He took a few slow breaths and rubbed at his temples with forefinger and thumb, the dull ache that had made camp somewhere just north of his cerebellum throbbed angrily at him. He pushed himself up and rubbed at his eyes, the room was empty now, the cot beneath him still bore the same sheets. The door sat closed at the other end of the room and a new pair of glass bubbles protruded from the roof, tin red lights around their base meant they were recording. There was a sink at the far end of the room and a small single-piece toilet, its seat moulded into the alloy bowl. The screen that was normally fitted around it had been removed, probably at the same time the cameras had been installed. This was a cell in the brig, not the same room he’d been in earlier. The door bore a number, C626 below the glass inspection pane. The inspection pane itself had been covered from the outside. He licked his lips and pushed himself off the cot, there was no catch from handcuffs, this time he was free to move about. The sink was the first thing he approached, drinking the water that bubble from the facuet, it was clear and cool and tasted of nothing, not even the faint trace of copper tang that there had been in the prison on Earth. He went to the bathroom next, washed his hands in the sink and, lacking a towel, wiped his dripping hands on his shirt. Bodily functions taken care of he sat back on the cot, pondering the security cameras and trying to remember the briefing they had given them pre-cryo on Earth. There had been no mention of what they were going to be doing once they had arrived, he had assumed then prisoners would be put to work as labourers, and that was what had been originally advertised. He rubbed at his neck, the gentle throbbing not yet satiated by the water. Perhaps these cells were a temporary measure, just while they got others out of cryogenic stasis. He laid back and folded his arms behind his head, closing his eyes against the ceiling lights and waited, someone would come by soon and explain, or so he assumed.
His arm slid from the rim of the toilet bowl and he collapsed sideways, back heaving as he did so. The bile spilled from his mouth and splattered across raw, sunburnt skin. It stank and the stomach acid make his skin light up with pain, he coughed, lumps of semi-digested food spraying across the tiles. His heart was hammering in his chest painfully. Heart palpitations, his pulse was erratic and weak and the world span around him slowly. His breathing grew more shallow, the taste of bile in his mouth made him struggle to spit. He rolled onto his back twitching, sweating profusely but desperate to avoid the cold tiles. But he didn’t have the energy, his head flopped back onto the floor and the puddle of stomach-acid and partially-digested food began to seep into his hair and clothes, the stench of it rising around him as he lay there. The world rolled in and out of focus and he had to blink several times before it would come back. He had to concentrate on something, his heart was still pulsing off-beat, he had to focus to stay awake, he had an instinct that if he went to sleep he wouldn’t wake up again. Above him the cold steel door stood, black letter stamped under a window set into it. He stared up at it, trying to focus on the letters, C626 it read it bold, block-capitals. He whispered a prayer that someone would find him soon, but outside the hall was dark and silent.
Nobody came to see Hector. A meal was delivered at some point, a tube of blended, shelf-stable paste and a package of tacky, biscuit-like strips of protein bar. His stomach growled, demanding it be satiated immediately. He sighed, collected them from their place on the floor and set about opening both of them. The paste made him gag a little, the sugar they’d put in it seemingly only enhancing the absence of any other flavour. The can of biscuits came with a piece of folded circular card, a makeshift plate, it made sense, these were probably military rations back on Earth. He laid the biscuits out atop it and rubbed at his face. His hand came way with hairs clinging to it, he blinked and then his eyes caught sight of more of the fine, short hair sprinkled across the plate. He looked up, as if he would find a vent somewhere where the hair was coming from, but the ceiling was a single, flat, uninterrupted steel panel. Was he going bald? He gripped his hair and tugged gently, his hand came away clean. No, these were too small and fine to be his hair. He licked his finger and pressed it down on one, the dampness sticking it in place as he brought it closer to inspect. It was short and fine but the same hue as his own hair. He ran a hand over his jaw, stubble scraping at his hand, barely two days worth of shadow. He rested his forehead against his hand and stared at the hairs, fingers scratching at an itch above his eye. The itch persisted and as he scratched more fine hairs rained down. Skin joined the hairs, flaking away in obvious chunks.
He pushed himself from the cot, knocking the plate over in his haste to get to the door. The observation window was still blacked out but its shiny surface was a make-shift mirror in which he could make himself out. His eyebrows were all but gone, the skin where they had been red and raw like a bad sunburn, he could see it peeling around where he’d scratched.
He moved to the cameras, “Hey, look, I understand that I’m quarantine or whatever, but I think something’s wrong with me.” he gestured to his now-absent eyebrows.
The camera didn’t respond. He took a slow breath stepping back and trying not to panic, whoever was behind the cameras would see him and send someone. He chewed at his knuckle, trying to remember if there were any serious side effects to cryogenic stasis, but his memory failed him and he cursed himself for not paying attention. His eyebrows were throbbing painfully now, aggravated by his scratching. They were still itchy but he resisted the urge, instead he tenderly lay his fingers against the smooth skin, letting their coolness sink into the pain. When his fingers were too warm to soothe it he moved to the cot and knelt at its foot, resting his head against the steel frame, doing his best to get it contacting as much of his skin as he could. He sat there with the coolness sinking in, waiting for someone to come to the door.
Anderson was leaning against the glass, eyes fixed on the mouse that lay belly up on the dirt. From what he could see it was completely intact, no lacerations, abrasions or damage of any kind, save for the scratch marks across its back that had long since healed. The rat moved as the shovel went beneath it, sliding it into a plastic carry case. The hazard suit Agyre was wearing on the other side of the glass crumpling as she moved in its bulky form. Another figure stood beside her, a shotgun in hand, just in case there was something in the low foliage of the observation cube they had not seen yet. The pair retreated to the lone door in the side of the observation capsule. The door clanking shut reverberated through the wall, as did the sound of a pressure washer. They had to scrub down before returning to the ship proper. Anderson’s eyes had not moved from the spot where the rat lay, now nothing but a divot in the dirt from the shovel, until the inner door clanked open and Agrye stepped through, followed by the guard. Their suits hung, dripping, in the airlock. The guard, weapon now stowed in the locked bin of the airlock, disappeared through the door back into the corridor and left the pair in contemplative silence. Agyre moved to the isolation chamber and twisted the specimen box into place in the locking mechanism on one side before threading her arms into the thick rubberized gloves that protruded into the chamber. She removed the seals from the specimen box and worked her arm into it to collect the dead mouse, shifting it gently into the main chamber. There she set to work on the autopsy.
“Any guesses as to the cause of death?” she asked, turning the specimen over as he sat at the small desk beside her to take her dictation on a laptop.
“No.” he murmured, “Any obvious signs of wounds sustained defending itself?”
“Outside of the initial wounds it sustained weeks ago, no.”
She turned the mouse over again, “And those have healed completely, save for the obvious scarring.”
Anderson tapped his chin with his fingers, “Perhaps whatever attacked it left behind a parasite or a disease?”
Agyre shrugged, “Could have just been a heart-attack, maybe the new environment stressed it out more than we thought.”
“If it was earlier, I would agree but like you said, it’s been a week, surely it had come to grips with its new environment.”
“You make it sound like a person.” she said, collecting a scalpel and digging the blade in at the top of the ribcage and working her way down.
“Not intentional.” Anderson said, “Though it does make me wonder about our other specimen.”
Agyre paused, she could hear the guilt and anger in his voice, “We had orders to, the sooner we can get people adapted the sooner we get off this ship. Supplies won’t last forever.”
Anderson fumed, he wanted to protest, but she was right, instead he pushed himself from his seat.
Twisting to watch him go she called, “What about the notes?”
“Take your own damn notes.” came his response, floating though the now closing door.
Anderson set off on a slow walk, running the image of the dead rat around in his mind. It was a setback to Agyre and a colossal disaster to him, especially given what they had staked on it. He passed two others in the hall, scientists like himself, talking in quick, quiet, professional voices, a guard was further on, coming towards them. Obviously they were going into one of the observation pods. Anderson spoke to none of them, he did not know their names, besides they were too invested in their conversation to be disturbed, instead he continued on to the elevator and rode it down several levels. Nobody else got on and before long he found the door opening onto another hallway, the letter C was painted on the floor at the start of the hallway to designate it as block C of the brig. He strode past the doors, one by one, their numbers counting steadily up. Each Block had three levels, of which he was on the lowest of C-block, each side of the halls in a block had a different number designation and each side of the hall had twenty-six rooms in an l-shape configuration to fit around the cargo bay that was at the far end from the elevator. He rounded the corner at room C622 and almost collided with a gurney pushed along by one of the guards. The plastic bag was zipped up over one of the deceased and it took him a moment of apology and side-stepping to get around the gurney. It was then that he paused, the familiarity of the face in the clear panel of the body-bag made him uncomfortable. A door banged at the end of the hall and caught his attention, a sterilization of the room was in progress, the blue hazmat suit clad figure stepping inside with a bottle of solvents and a backpack pressure washer.
“Oh no.” he murmured, turning back to the gurney where their test subject lay motionless.
Hector woke with a new itch, and as he shuffled against the blankets it spread. He raked his fingernails across his chest but all it did was leave lines burning across his chest and the uncomfortable feeling of something wedged under his fingernails, as though he had raked them across clay. The itch was spreading like a fire across his body, the more it burned, the more he was pulled into consciousness, the more he was pulled to consciousness the more omnipresent the itch became until he was sitting on his hands, desperately trying not to scratch. The lights came on with his movement and he saw through bleary eyes red, raw skin. Where it wasn’t red, white, paper-thin skin clung to him in large flakes, half brushed off by the rough blanket, half not-quite detached. He turned his attention to his chest, where he’d scratched the top layer had come away as had the second. The skin beneath the upper layers was a deeper red, an angrier, bloodier red. Somehow the colour felt more serious, more distressing. His face was burning now and he staggered to the basin, turning the tap as far as it would go, cool water streaming out. He plunged his face under it, deliberately pressing his hand over the plughole so it would fill and he could immerse more of himself in it. The coldness soothed his face but its juxtaposition against the rest of his body sent his nerves into overdrive. When he came up for air he plunged his hands into the water and threw it across himself, drenching his shirt. The cold material clung to him and relief washed over him. He grunted through the pain, peeling his shirt from himself and dunking it into the basin to saturate it fully.
With water cascading onto the floor around him he pulled it on and repeated the process with the simple linen pants. Finally he collapsed onto the floor panting, hair sodden and dripping, face slick with a mixture of perspiration and water. He still felt unnaturally warm and he wondered how long the water’s comfort would last. The tap clunked back into the closed position automatically after a few more moments. He raised and arm to the light and caught a particularly large flake between his fingers, peeling it away with a sick curiosity. It broke away easy enough, easier than any sunburn he had ever had. His stomach churned as he tossed it to one side in disgust, he could already see the skin beneath it breaking apart, spiderweb cracks running across the skin. He ran a hand across his face and immediately regretted it, his hand came away with a thousand pieces of dead skin clinging to it and his face was left burning. He dragged at his shirt, squeezing the damp cloth onto his face, water, now lukewarm from his body dribbling across it, offering only fractional relief. He dropped the shirt back onto his chest. The scrapes across it felt warmer than the rest, and at the same time, less painful. But he restrained himself, worried it might only be in contrast to the rest of his body and that peeling away any more of his broken, dried skin might just leave him in a worse state.
His eyes moved to the cameras in the corner but he did not move, opting instead to remain in the puddle of liquid until the burning intensified again. How many days had it been since he had asked for help?
The family of mice scurried across the dirt, they were hideous, hairless with thick red-brown skin. But they were alive, and they had stayed that way, which was more important. On the other side of the observation glass there stood Anderson, red-faced and seething and, across from him, sitting on the chair at the desk, staring quietly up at him, was the ship’s captain, the head of the entire colonization project.
“Do you have any idea how much trouble we could get in, human trials at this juncture are insane, we’ve already had one subject die. Testing on mice is all well and good but you’re pushing this too fast, we can’t use them as guinea pigs regardless of what they did on Earth.” he paced around the room, “Frankly it’s barbaric, especially since we’re doing it without warning or consent!”
The captain folded his arms, gaunt face frowning quietly as he waited for Anderson to finish, it didn’t take long, “I understand your concerns, you’re not the first to raise them.”
“If I’m not the first then why have we continued?”
The Captain held up a hand, “Because we have limited time and resources, tell me, how would you describe this planet?”
Anderson glanced at the observation window and mused for a moment, “Habitable, more arid than is ideal for a colony I guess but definitely habitable…” he trailed off.
Anderson watched the rats scurry back beneath the shade, “The fauna are a distinct problem, the UV index is unnaturally high, nice for a very short vacation but not permanent exposure.”
The captain nodded.
“And I imagine there will be issues with people’s vision after a time, probably more rapid vision deterioration, eye surgery might be possible or a treatment could be developed to help defend against those effects. But it would be extremely costly if we have to do it to the entire population.”
Anderson nodded finally, “Yes, it will be an ever-present problem.”
The Captain nodded, “There are two ways we can do this, we can send prisoners out with our machinery and have them toil away to produce what we need to keep this ship running while giving you and your peers more time to find better alternatives. And we deal with all of the ramifications that brings.” he pushed himself from the chair and walked up to the glass, “Or we can adapt ourselves as best we can to this new world at the cost of a small number.”
“But if we change ourselves too drastically-“
The Captain turned to him, “Worried about Earth?”
“It’s been hundreds of years since we left, do you think anyone is going to be climbing back into cryogenic stasis to go back?” the Captain shook his head slowly, “This was a one way trip, we all knew it going in.”
“Still, subjecting people to experimentation like this-“
“Two months.” the Captain replied simply, “We have enough supplies for the skeleton crew we have to survive for two months, maybe three if we ration very carefully. After that, we all die, prisoners or not. Nobody is coming to help us out, once we’re dead, it’s over.”
“I suggest you put those thoughts to one side as best you can, your mice are doing well, take another test subject. Remember, we are running out of time, if five die today and we save thousands, is it worth it?”
Anderson’s guts twisted into knots thinking about it as the Captain, no waiting for an answer, got up and disappeared through the door and down the hall. Anderson tapped at the glass quietly, watching the mice scurry back into the sunshine and disappear beneath another bush. He span as the door opened, half expecting the Captain again. Instead Agyre stepped through, crossing the room to lay a tablet on the desk. There was video on the screen of room C626, a new patient was sitting on the bed, long mousey brown hair hanging around her shoulders as she looked around dazed.
“New patient, she woke faster than the rest, asked for food, I think it’s taking an effect much faster, it might be dependent upon size and meta-“
“You didn’t ask me.” Anderson murmured.
He jabbed a finger at the screen, “You didn’t ask me who should be next for the trial.”
She shrugged, “I didn’t think it mattered, it was stable, the mice are doing great everything points to-“
“That’s not the point.” he snapped, “We’re meant to be a team, we’re meant to make these decisions together.”
Agyre raised an eyebrow, “A subject is a subject, we don’t have time for nice happy fun-time politics, we need to get the job done, I figured since you were busy with the Captain I’d just get everything ready.”
The younger mice scurried out from under the brush as the pair argued, the creatures raced across the opening, darting back into the shade. Somewhere deeper in the brush the vermin’s mother lay, curled up against a rock, unmoving, glassy eyes staring at nothing in particular.
It burned up Hector’s throat, acid eating at the soft tissue as it rolled up into his mouth and out, splattering into the bowl of the toilet. His body shook and his back arched and the process repeated. His arms propped him up on the toilet but wobbled so much after the third retch he slipped and collapsed, convulsing onto the floor. He lay there shuddering and twitching, shivering against the slight coolness of the floor despite the burning heat of his skin. On the outside he was still warm to the touch where the flaking, dead skin had given way to a redness that went much deeper than any sunburn. But his body felt icy cold to him. He lay on his side, spittle dribbling from his mouth, almost resigned to his fate. They hadn’t come for him because of this, this was the end of it, some other-worldly plague that had infected him somewhere along the way. Something dripped in his throat and he descended into fitful coughs, teeth chattering between each, writhing hack. When the cough subsided he groaned, lowering his head to the floor and whimpering for a moment, resigning himself to his fate as he focused on his churning stomach and the coolness where his head met the toilet, sweat had started beading on his skin as his body swung from shiver-inducing coldness to the clothes-saturating sweats one had in the tropics.
He started, body bucking as he jerked back to consciousness. Pain spiked in his forehead as a dull gonging went off roughly somewhere between his ears. The headache throbbed and the acrid taste of hour-old bile lung to his mouth. He pushed himself up, confused and dazed, trying to survey the room. He took time to recognise where he was and why he’d ended up there. The stench of vomit washed over him and he pushed himself up further, depressing the flush lever. The toilet hummed as the base plate shifted and water was pumped through, flushing away the semi-transparent grey-orange mixture of food and stomach acid that had, until an hour ago, been the contents of his stomach. There was a moment’s pause before the hum returned and the base plate slid back into place, sealing off the smell and water. He stumbled to the sink and turned on the tap, filling his mouth with water. It only served to revitalise the acid, making the taste whole again and making him gag as he spat into the basin. He rinsed again, and again, until finally the taste had been dulled, if not banished, and he could stand to swallow the water. After several mouthfuls he stood, rubbing at his face. His cheek had something caked across it, he thought it was bile until his hand came away speckled with red. Dried blood. He traced it up to his brow, his now hairless eyebrows were painful and sensitive and covered in thick, hard scabs. They had started out small where the crack in his sunburnt skin had been but they’d grown considerably over the last few days both broader and thicker. And they’d gone from the dirty-lemon semi-translucent colour scabs normally started as to a thick, opaque, red-brown. The itched but he ignored it, the last time he’d picked at them he’d regretted it, but he was still worried, they had not bled before. Similar scabs had started along his forearms and the backs of his fingers, thin lines of them growing around his torso like a painful, scaly, external ribcage. He pulled his shirt up to inspect them, prodding the scabs made him wince, they too had started to change colour. He dropped himself onto the foot of the cot and stared at the cameras, wondering if they were still watching him. He rubbed his forehead, pausing as he felt the tell-tale tenderness and more hard scabs forming on the points of his forehead and just behind his temple, the hair that had once been there having fallen away at some point, he almost laughed, first his eyebrows, now his hair. His day could not get any better.
The room smelt of urine, and bile, but mostly it smelt of death. Though that might have just been Anderson’s interpretation, the scrub team was still coming but he and Agyre stood in full hazmat suits staring down at the deceased subject, the young woman. She was halfway from the bed to the toilet, hand frozen in a desperate grasp for some unseen object, eyes open and fixed on a point somewhere in the space between her and the wall.
“I told you it was too early.” Anderson murmured, looking at the woman’s glassy eyes, he held the deceased’s gaze for a brief moment before turning away.
Agyre lifted the deceased’s hand, “We’re closer than we’ve ever been, at least we know what was the cause of death this time, that gives us something to work from, she survived longer than any of the others.”
Anderson grunted walking around the room with slow steps, “How many lives are we going to throw away to get ourselves a little closer?”
“We’re almost there, if we don’t get there we have to pray someone does.”
Anderson lowered himself to his haunches and sighed, “I know, the rationing situation is getting more dire.”
Agyre looked from the deceased to the corner of the room that the grasping hand was outstretched towards, “What do you supposed she was trying to get?”
Agyre’s eyes met him, he wasn’t sure if he could see remorse in them or not, if he could the rest of her stance didn’t give it away.
“Do you think anyone else has made better progress?” Anderson asked finally, wishfully, hoping that there was a breakthrough he wasn’t aware of.
Agyre shook her head, “We’re the closest to a viable serum, the others have had worse setbacks.” she shook her head, “Unfortunately we’re the frontrunners.”
Anderson’s gaze went back to the body. Some frontrunners.
His neck ached, his head twisted at an odd angle, somehow in the night he stuffed the pillow into the corner and was now sprawled across the bed at an angle, he could only assume he’d been unconsciously trying to take the pressure off the parts of his body that ached, though it was almost an impossibility, the aches had spread. He scratched at the protruding hardness at the points of his forehead with his blackened fingernails, the scabs were larger, thicker and darker now, but the bleeding around them had stopped despite how red and tender the skin remained. His fingernails and toenails were a different problem entirely, they were the dark blue-black of severe bruising and the skin around them was tender and sore. He was waiting for them to fall off entirely but the past week had just seen them grow more bruised and tender to the touch. Though the tenderness was becoming something he had to ignore, if he tried not to hurt himself he could not do anything so he gritted his teeth and sat through the pain. His stomach was growling angrily so he set about collecting the food they had given him and working his way through it. He ate quickly and afterwards ignored the hunger, his body would work out it was no longer hungry when it all got to his stomach, for now he had more important things to look into. He peeled off his shirt and inspected the rings of scabs that ran parallel to his ribs. To say they were healed gave the wrong impression, instead, they simply did not hurt. The scabs had gotten wider, around the width of his smallest finger, and they protruded from the skin by several millimetres. They had also fragmented into segments along their length, they were not completely rigid but could only flex so far, he had tried to pull at his skin to fold them over and see if they cracked but they held the skin in place with more force than he felt they should. At least the redness around them had gone and he could run his fingers along them without wincing in pain, or more specifically, without them making him wince in pain. He shifted his gaze to his fingers, ignoring the painful black fingernail and instead looking at the backs of his digits, the same strange plate-like scabs across the backs of his fingers, they’d settled too, no longer painful, only further back, the two big sections of scab that ran the length of the back of his hand were still eye-wateringly painful, as were the five enormous scabs that had formed across the back of his forearm. They were the reason he’d wound up sleeping in such and odd position. He went to the observation window to look at his reflection, thankfully his fear about losing his hair had not come to pass, he had lost some where the scabs had formed but no more. His sunburn did not hurt anymore but the deep burgundy skin it had left behind made him concerned. The scabs over what had once been his eyebrows had gone the way of the scabs around his ribs, thicker, segmented, darker but still flexible, they were more flexible than the scabs on the rest of his body, they were just as thick but broken up into five segments across their relatively short length.
His stomach growled again and he frowned, usually he’d have felt full by this point, instead he just felt the need to go to the bathroom. He cross the room and sat down, pants around his ankles, praying that this wasn’t some new diarrheal-based horror from the disease he had. When he had finally finished, he stood over the basin, hands clean, face washed, wondering. His stomach growled again and a spike of pain made his double over for a moment.
He staggered back and looked up at the camera, “Please, can I at least have something more to eat?”
Anderson moved on the screen, shifting across the cell to administer the serum through the IV bag. He would be there for an hour more, until the IV was spent and the equipment was removed from the cell. They’d opted to start administering in the cell after a particularly cunning prisoner has escaped his handcuffs and made his way into the ship proper. The security team had ended up shooting him. B102’s door had been permanently broken then so the team working with subjects there had been reassigned to other teams, perhaps three heads would be better than two. Or so the Captain had said.
He stood across from Agyre, watching Anderson move on the screen with her, “Do you think he’ll be a problem?”
She looked up, “Now or later?”
“Now, we’ve got enough problems without him doing something rash.”
She sighed, “Not right now, no.”
“Not right now?”
Agyre licked her lips and levelled her eyes with his, “I think he will become an issue at some point, he’s not going to let go of what we’re doing, even when everything is done and it’s a great success and we’re living in houses on the surface. He’ll hold onto what has been done here, that’s who he is.”
The Captain nodded, “Of course, and in any other circumstances I would applaud him, but-“
“His morals hold back the research.” Agyre said simply, “At some point the security team are going to have to step in, and you’re going to have to assign me a new partner.”
The captain nodded slowly, “We’ll see how we go, at the rate we’re progressing we may never get to that stage.”
“Do you doubt we’re close, sir?”
He sighed and folded his arms, “I don’t doubt you’ll get us there, what I doubt is my ability to hold everyone together until that point.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
On the screen Anderson had moved, he stood over the bed looking down at the subject, running his hand through his hair. Agyre watched him fret, though there was nothing he could do now the serum was administered, nothing but wait and hope, just like she would be doing. The captain tapped the mute symbol on the screen and Anderson’s voice echoed in the room.
“I’m so sorry.” he whispered to the subject, another woman with short-cropped black hair, her face obscured by Anderson’s form.
Agyre glanced at the Captain again, “Definitely going to be a problem sooner rather than later.”
The redness was obvious to Hector, even in the makeshift mirror, red skin, the shade of blood. Not bloodshot, no the tone was too even for that, it was no longer the red of sunburn either. It did not change, his knuckles lightened when balled his fist but they no longer went white. The pigment was in his skin, not coming from beneath it. The burgundy colour was permanent. He wanted to know what had happened, what disease had he contracted? He had never heard of anything like this. He had returned to begging the cameras to tell him what was going on, something he had abandoned after the first few days. They had given him more food when he had asked so he knew someone was watching. They would have to come at some point, have to explain. Unless you die. The thought was an unwelcome but ever present one. He felt better than he had any day before this though, not the elation of a drug high, just the normal work-a-day regular feeling okay. His stomach was quiet, his bowels reasonable, even his skin, despite its alien appearance and the thick hard scab-plates which still ached, was feeling normal. He paced the room, doing quick circles, reversing direction after a while. When he grew bored of pacing he did some exercise, after he finished he lay on the bed staring at the ceiling, maybe he was dying and this was just a temporary reprieve, like the contentedness a drowning person reportedly felt just before the end. He moved back to the bed and sat down, rubbing at his arms. The skin around the thick hard segments on his arms and hands had begun to heal, but the segments themselves were not shrinking. If anything they were still getting thicker, the top of them had began to flake, but the white scales rubbed away with a little effort and without pain or fuss, leaving the hard plate beneath a shiny red-black. His fingernails were thicker now and a shiny red-black to mirror the strange formations on his arms, he had been chewing them, the first time he had done so since he was in school, but now, with their new thickness, the habit did not even serve to keep them short. The red-brown growths on his head were less well-off, blood still occasionally beaded at the broken skin around their edge and they were growing taller than those on his arms. They were sharper to, the centre of the having broken and pushed out to a point, like someone had pushed a drill through wood, the buckled, splintered broken surfaces pushing together to form a peak. Any disturbance of those growths was still painful, but much less so. He had been caught by one of the protrusions when washing his face in the sink (a process he had begun ritually to try to stop the itching of the beard that had begun to grown in) after howling in pain for a time he had inspected himself, concerned, and partly hoping, he might have dislodged the strange growth. But the growth was still in place, the skin around it oozed with blood, but nothing had moved.
He looked up at the cameras, since he had been locked up he had not seen anyone come or go, save for the doctor before he’d been put in this room. Even now he was not sure that had actually happened and was not some sort of fever-induced dream. If it had not been for the additional food appearing after he asked for it, he could almost imagine everybody aboard was dead. But the food came regularly, enough to satiate him. His appetite had started to drop off again. He did not finish the larger meals anymore, soon they would notice and drop him back to a smaller portion. He laid back on the bed and folded his arms behind his head, straining himself to hear. He could have sworn he heard voices at one point, not an argument, just a discussion. But it was so faint, even straining to hear it he could not be sure it was not just some irregular mechanical noise propagating up the air ducting system. He had thought about using it to escape but the system was barred well and he had a suspicion that somewhere there would be a filtration system between his room and wherever in the ship the air was pumped from, he was in quarantine after all.
Anderson had abandoned his bed, he knew that it also meant abandoning a good portion of sleep, sleep he desperately needed now, but even if he’d stayed he wouldn’t be able to switch off. That thought coupled with the starting of a throbbing headache slowly making itself known to him had forced him from his cot. He rubbed his temples, the painkillers hadn’t kicked in yet, he had more in his pocket if they didn’t end up being enough. Instead of the sleep he wanted he found himself in the lab. The two other scientists who had shared the lab had been reassigned after B102’s door had been broken so the lab was no empty during one of the other shifts. He stood there looking out at the twilight through the slats in the sample habitat’s roof. It was closing in on night time now. The mouse family, which had lived on inside the sample habitat, despite the death of the mother, was nowhere to be see, though fresh markings were visible in the dirt near the observation window.
He picked up a tablet and set it to the video feed of C626, the woman was sitting, leaning against the bed. She was shivering, a cold sweat drenching her clothes. She had barely moved since that morning. He pressed the audio button and the lab was filled with the poor woman’s laboured, gasping breaths. Anderson found himself in the elevator before he knew what he was doing and when he reached the C6 level he pulled on a hazmat suit and made his way down the hall. Thankfully nobody else was on C block, not during this shift. At room 26 he keyed in the code and, after a final glance back down the hall, stepped inside.
The woman’s wide eyes locked onto him, her body shuddering and quaking, “Help.” she breathed.
He closed the door and lowered himself down beside her, “I can’t.” he responded, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”
“Then kill me.” she asked, voice hoarse, “Please?”
“I can’t do that either, I can’t-“
“It’s so cold.” she murmured, “Why is it so cold?”
“What else are you feeling?” Anderson asked, voice as low and as measured as possible, despite how he felt.
“Cold, my stomach hurts, feels like a knife.”
“Stabbing pain, constant or comes and goes?”
She nodded, “Always” she shuddered violently and looked at him, “Mouth so dry, skin-“ she held up a shaking arm, “-burning, won’t stop breaking.”, as if to prove her point a drop of blood rolled from a deep crack in her dried, splitting skin.
Anderson unzipped the hazmat suit and reached in through the opening to his pocket, pulling out the painkillers. He moved to the sink and drew water into his cupped hand, the plastic glove serving as a better cup than his bare fingers could have. He returned and knelt beside her, pressing a group of pills against her lips, she swallowed and drank what she could from his hand.
“They should help with the pain.” he said before pulling the blanket from the cot and wrapping it around her, “And this will help with the cold some.” He lifted her by the shoulders, moving her into the cot as best he could, he could feel her grip on his arm as he did so. It was weak and shaky.
He lay her on her side and as she shivered under the blanket her eyes searched his, “What is happening to me?”
Anderson shook his head, “Something that should never have happened, something I should have stopped.” he pushed himself up and made his way to the door, there he stopped and looked back, remembering how many people he’d seen in this room from the cameras in the corner. His stomach turned as he gripped the handle and twisted, “Truly, I am sorry.” he murmured before stepping into the hall and pulling the door shut.
The jolt awake was the worst yet. He grunted and pushed himself up. The dust beneath him coming up in plumes as he rolled over and pushed himself up onto his haunches. He remembered eating food, less than was normally left. And then, he shook his head, nothing. He rubbed his eyes and looked around. Lying in the dust around him there were others.
One woman was groaning, holding her head, thick, dark plates ran along her arms like his. Her eyebrows were dark segmented plates. But her skin was the colour of brass, bright in the sunlight, just like her flowing blonde hair from which the long dark brown-black growths on her head protruded. Horns, nine-inches long, they grew from the point of her forehead and swept back, a smaller set protruded from just above and slightly behind her temples. He would have believed it elaborate makeup and prosthetics, but he knew the pain his own had brought with them, his hand reached up, searching for the growths, making sure they were real. His hands met the hard protrusions, they had not been painful for a week now and were smoother on the outside, his swept back and down, pulling close to his head before flaring up into points just behind his ears. He pushed himself to his feet, tripping over himself to close the distance between himself and the brass-coloured woman.
“Are you okay?” he asked, voice making her jump.
Another figure moved towards them from a little further beyond, he was brass-coloured too. And then another sat up from behind a half-dead bush, his burgundy skin closer to Hector’s own.
“Where are we?” she asked, staring at Hector, “Your skin-“
Hector nodded and gestured to hers, “It started like a sunburn, didn’t it?”
She nodded grimly, eyes haunted by the pain.
“Hey.” the brass-coloured male said, gesturing behind them as he approached.
Hector turned and found himself staring up at the immense spaceship that he had boarded in a different lifetime on Earth, the one he could only assume he had been trapped on for the past months.
A voice echoed over the top of them, “Hey, you guys, just waking up, come over here.”, it was another figure, with rich copper-coloured skin and short cropped blonde hair.
After exchanging confused looks the still-dazed group moved to him, trudging up the sandbank toward the lone man.
“Welcome to Lanx.” he said as they approached, “You’re going to have a lot of questions, please don’t attack me, I’ve been through exactly the same process, save your anger for the egg heads.” He pointed down the rise to a small group of olive-green tents, “We’ve got a bit of a setup, food, water, somewhere to sleep, and a connection to the ship to fill you all in.”
When nobody moved closed than a few feet Hector took point for the group, “What did they do to us?” he asked, walking right up to the copper-skinned demon, close enough that he could see his own demonic reflection in the man’s eyes.
The copper-demon looked him up and down warily, “They made us into suitable colonists for this world.”
The lights snapped on, blinding Anderson as hands dragged him from his bed, the plastic gloved hands cold to the touch. He was on his feet then, stumbling out of his room and down the hall.
“What’s going on?” he demanded, the hands grabbing him pulling him along at speed.
In the elevator he recognised the security guards in hazmat suits, “What’s going on?”
“You broke protocol, doc.” one said, matter-of-factly.
“What protocol, what are you talking about?” the elevator doors opened onto C-block’s hallway, this time the first level. They went down two doors and at C103 they punched in a keycode and propelled him inside. As he pushed himself back to his feet he heard the captain speak.
“You broke the quarantine protocol for the experimental subjects, Anderson.”
A third hazmat had appeared in the doorway, behind the group a fourth stood.
“Agyre saw what you did, you’re contaminated, and you’re a threat to what we’re trying to do.” he paused, “Until the trials are complete, you’re confined to this cell, if you’re lucky you won’t have to be a test subject.”
The three walked away as the guard began to swing the door closed, the hazmat suit at the rear of the corridor stayed still, he knew it was her, “Agyre please-“
The door thumped and Anderson scrambled to the observation window, but it was blacked out, just like C626. Anderson found himself begging his reflection. If she had moved, or said something, he would never know.
The crying started abruptly in a small demountable building, the ones that had first been unpacked from the ship by the ‘colonists’, though many of them still thought of themselves as the prisoners, almost a year ago. Inside a copper-skinned woman lay on a gurney, coated in sweat, she was breathing heavily as the doctor hurried to swaddle a crying new-born in cloth. The child had burgundy skin like its father and bright blonde hair like its mother. At the points of its forehead were shallow, hard bumps, smooth to the touch, similar bumps could be found above its temples. Tiny pebble-like black bumps formed the outline of eyebrows and larger glossy black lumps ran the length of the child’s arms. The backs of its hands bore the tiny pebbles and it’s tiny digits were capped with glossy black fingernails. They handed it to the mother who took it, beaming as she brought the babe up to her chest, cradling it. Hector stood beside the copper-skinned woman, hand on his would-be wife’s shoulder, smiling down at his new-born daughter. The child had the honour of being the first born on Lanx.