by Stephen L. Moss
We were all there, crowded around the door to sick bay, when the stowaway came to.
"Where am I?" he asked with a thick Russian accent. The urge to strangle him came over
me, but I quashed it. The war was over. We were all friends now, right?
"You're safe," Doc Obel told him, though that couldn't be farther from the truth. "What's
"Grovnik," he answered. "What ship am I on?"
Obel hesitated, the way docs do when they're about to tell a patient the disease is
terminal, hoping God will strike them down before they have a chance to deliver the bad news.
"There's no easy way to say this," Obel finally said. "You're on the Second Chance, a
Global CDC quarantine ship. Everyone here is infected with influx, a space born pathogen with
no cure. I don't know how you got here, but I'm afraid you can never leave."
How he'd gotten here was by getting himself sealed into our latest food shipment from
the International Space Station. Roberts had found him, zipped up in an emergency enviro-suit,
nearly out of air.
"I just about took his leg off with my saw before I noticed him!" I'd heard Roberts say
when we'd all gathered to see what was going on.
I had pushed my way to the door by this point. I wanted to see Grovnik's face in the
window when the doc gave him the news. He put on a good show, tried to look appropriately
terrified. He even clamped his hand over his nose and mouth defensively. I expect most of the
guys believed him. But I didn't, because I was watching his eyes.
He was exactly where he wanted to be.
"Captain on deck," someone snapped, and we all came to attention. Grovnik, too, I
noticed. Ex-military, obviously. Maybe I'd fought against him in the war.
The Captain skipped in like a child, picking his nose with one hand and exploring his
unzipped fly with the other.
"As you is," he said, his words slurred as if he'd been drinking for three days. Then he
laughed, a giddy, hysterical sound that I still hadn't gotten used to. I glanced Grovnik's way
again. His jaw dropped open in shock. I figured somebody should explain, but it was considered
rude to talk about the Captain in his presence. I would just have to fill the newcomer in later.
We supposedly have a mission on the Second Chance. A command structure, the whole
nine yards. The computer gives us the illusion that we're in control. It was the Captain--we
called him Cyrus back then, back when he still had some of his marbles--who charted our true
course and compared it to the one we'd programmed. They were about as similar as kerosene and
rat meat. Our "mission" is monitoring global cloud patterns. We were trained to push buttons and
turn calibration dials on a whole array of electronic gizmos on the observation deck. But we
stopped showing up for work and no one down on the surface complained. So now we just do
what we please.
The flux--that's what we call it--takes your mind from you piece by piece. They say by
the end you're just like a big baby, mewling and pissing on yourself. It wasn't hard to see that the
Cap would end up just like that before too many more months went by. There were others just
behind him, who couldn't remember words all of a sudden, or found themselves suddenly trying
to take a dump on an easy chair instead of in the head. The rest of us felt more or less normal, but
were forced to watch the daily decline of the worst cases, and wait for it to happen to us.
So partly for fun, partly to piss off the bastards on the ground, we took to promoting the
sickest of us to the highest positions of authority. We figured out how to reprogram the
computer's crew command spreadsheet--we've been able to outsmart it on the small stuff, but
not on anything important. Now, Captain Cyrus handles the weekly briefings with our planet-side
liaisons while we all listen in. It's so funny it almost makes being here worth it.
We waited a beat to see if the Cap would have more to say, but he kept walking down the
corridor. A loud fart escaped him before he turned the corner toward the officers' quarters. He
giggled gleefully at that.
I looked back at Grovnik. He was still staring after our fearless leader like he'd seen a
ghost. I suppose that in a way he had.
We gave him his own berth. The ship wasn't crowded. A few of the boys grumbled about
sharing food and air, said we needed to report the stowaway, get our supplies increased. But the
rest of us shouted them down. When you're powerless, having a secret takes off a little bit of the
I took it upon myself to find out his story. I was military police before I got exposed. I've
got a nosy streak a mile long. He sensed that right away and started avoiding me. So I went to his
I was surprised to find the Captain there, sitting on the floor. Grovnik sat on the bed,
staring at his guest with an expression I couldn't read. When he saw me, his eyes darted around,
as if he were looking for an escape route. Then a resigned expression came over his face.
The Captain was diddling himself with one hand, wiping snot from his nose with the
other. He stared at his glistening fingers as if they were a treasure he had just discovered. Then he
"He bothering you?" I asked. "I know it's a little overwhelming at first."
He shook his head slowly, eyeing the Captain and looking like he was lost in a memory.
"I won't beat around the bush," I said. "You're pretending you got here by mistake, but
I'm not buying it. So why are you here?"
"What do you mean?" he asked. "Who in their right mind would come here
"Exactly what I'm asking you. Now, I'd like some answers. I need to know where you
stand. We may be on Death Row up here, but we try to maintain our quality of life, such as it is.
So tell me, you running away from something, or running toward something?"
He gave me a long look, probably taking my measure, wondering how hard he had to
work me to get me to swallow his load.
"Away," he said. "I . . . I killed some people."
His eyes took on a faraway look as he spoke. "I am a member of the SSSL."
SSSL stood for Space Station Secession League. The lunatics who believed the
International Space Station should secede from Earth. It was probably the silliest group I'd ever
heard of. The ISS had about as much of a chance to function as an independent state as an infant
still attached to an umbilical cord. But there was nothing silly about their tactics.
"So, you're a terrorist?"
"I am a freedom fighter."
"Semantics. Why are you here? Gonna blow us up?"
He shook his head. "I placed a bomb in the Culture Walk. Six died. Six Yankees." He
said this last with a sneer.
"Only six?" Every time I'd set foot on the Culture Walk it had been jammed with people
chatting under flags of every nation and noshing at the pan-ethnic food court. "Must have been a
"Yes, it was small," Grovnik said morosely. "Perhaps the next one will be bigger."
"Then what happened?"
He shrugged. "Our escape plan got fouled up, so I ran to the cargo docks. I hid on a pallet
of food going into the wrapper. Next thing I knew, I was on this ship."
"Okay," I said. "So, if you're telling me the truth--and that's a big if--then you're a
terrorist. If you're lying, you're probably worse."
"I'm not lying, and I am a soldier, not a terrorist. But believe what you want."
"I can check your story out, you know. We may be in prison, but we have internet
"Check it. You'll see that it happened."
"And if it did? Like I said, that makes you a terrorist. And you want me to believe you got
on this ship by accident? You don't seem to upset about the fact that you're trapped here."
He shrugged again. "What can I say? I guess my luck ran out. What is it you Yanks say?
My number came up."
The Cap laughed at some joke of his own, then fell over sideways. I helped him up and he
returned to the business of exploring his various orifices.
"I'm going to do a little research," I said. "If your story checks out, we'll take it from
there." I rose, and nodded at the Cap. "Good day, sir," I said. He straightened up comically and
gave me an exaggerated salute. This brought a fresh howl of laughter, and he doubled over,
nearly choking on his own mirth. I looked back at Grovnik. He was staring at The Cap again, a
look of wonder in his eyes. I left to find a computer terminal, thinking about how good it made
me feel to pretend I had something to do.
He wasn't lying, at least about the bomb. It had exploded in the Culture Walk, killing six.
Station police had apprehended a Sergei Abramov. No mention of Grovnik. I dug into the MP
database--my old login still works, surprisingly enough--and found him. Dmitri Grovnik,
former Staff Sergeant, Eastern Alliance Federal Protection Force. So, he'd been a cop like I had.
There was a photo on file from personnel records. Younger, of course, but it looked like our guy.
The file noted "suspected ties to the SSSL."
I took him his dinner that night. It was T-bone steak. Not freeze dried, mind you. I'm
talking about the real thing. Fresh frozen. It had come up on the pod, packed in dry ice, courtesy
of some loved one of the Cap's back in the world. A note that came with it said Cyrus's birthday
was coming up. The boys were holding a party in the mess, but I wasn't in the mood. Watching
the Cap eat wasn't exactly appetizing.
"I hope you don't think we eat like this every night," I told Grovnik when I came in. I
explained where the meat had come from, but I don't think he listened. His eyes were on the
food. I realized then that no one had thought of feeding the poor guy.
He ate like a starving man, which he likely was. Me, I savored the meal. Couldn't tell you
when I last had a steak that good.
I didn't want to ask him anything just then about what he was up to. We talked about the
war in that generic way former enemies do. Generals, troop movements, famous battles. What it
was like on both sides for grunts like us.
Maybe it really was like he said, I thought as I took his dirty plate and headed back to the
mess hall. Maybe he was a criminal on the run and his karma was so bad that he ran right into a
But I couldn't shake the feeling that he was here on purpose. Could he be on the Second
Chance to further his cause? I couldn't make sense of that. If one was looking for hostages, a
bunch of doomed men made a poor target. Did he have a score to settle? Would anyone throw his
own life away for such a watered-down imitation of vengeance? And who was the target?
Doomed or not, I wasn't about to let one of the crew get iced over anything that happened back
in the world. I locked his quarters up when I left. But by the next morning, when they found
Nord's body, it looked like I'd been too late.
Nord was in the airlock, and the air was gone. Someone had rigged the outer door to jam
open just a centimeter or so. Enough to suck the air out of the chamber and the life out of Nord,
not enough to pull his body out to space.
He floated in there now, next to the outer door. He would have lived a few minutes,
pinned to the opening by the sucking vacuum, suffocating as the air hissed out past him. Sending
him out to space would have been quicker. Whoever had done it must have wanted to watch him
We'd have to seal a bulkhead and vent the corridor to get at him. Holder, Mellman and I
went to put on enviro suits and gravity shoes. The suits were all there, but one pair of gravity
shoes was gone. Whoever killed Nord probably took them, but on the Second Chance, who could
say for sure? I made a note to look for them. In the meantime, I let Holder and Mellman take the
suits and shoes. They knew better how to deal with the doors. I'd have to wait for them to bring
the evidence to me.
It took them a while to get the inner door moving again. The whole airlock was
mechanical--the Second Chance was built for troop insertion during the war, designed with a
minimum of electronics that could fail under enemy jamming. When they managed to open it we
had to brace ourselves while the rest of the air in the corridor rushed past us. When that was over,
I checked the door while they went to pull poor Nord in. He was a mess. His right hand was no
longer attached to his wrist. Looking back to where he had been, I saw that it was stuck in the
door. His forehead was bloody. His other wrist was broken, the hand forced backwards
impossibly. He'd probably gone flying face first at the outer door when the vacuum took him.
His own hand had prevented the door from closing. Imagining going out that way made my knees
feel weak. I had to look away as the other two men maneuvered him out, their magnetic shoes
thumping against the steel of the airlock. I busied myself with an inspection of the inner door.
There was damage at its lower edge, where the gasket was torn and the steel was bent in a small
half circle. Maybe Nord had managed to get a foot in the door, trying to keep it from closing. But
his killer must have overpowered him. That or the vacuum had sucked him away and let the door
Lost in unwanted images of Nord's death, I didn't notice that Holder and Mellman had
come back and set to work on the outer door. Holder scraped the bits of Nord's hand off the
gears and stuck them in a bag. When he was done, he brought the bag to me.
"Evidence?" he asked.
I took the bag, nodding. I wasn't sure what it would prove, except that Nord had died
Once they got the outer door sealed again and refilled with air, I could enter the airlock
without gravity shoes. I went in to look for more clues. I didn't find anything I hadn't already
noticed. I looked around some more, but my heart wasn't in it. Being on the crew of the Second
Chance was bad enough. Watching the Captain turn into an overgrown infant, all the while
knowing that it would happen to rest of us too. But it seemed like heaven compared to having the
air sucked out of your lungs. Who in the hell would want to kill Nord? His post in the military
had been conductor of the Combined Forces Concert Band. He'd never seen a day of combat in
his life. He was an operatic tenor to boot, and his singing had brightened many a dull evening
since I'd come to live on the Second Chance. The idea that he could have an enemy was
preposterous to me.
My mind was gnawing on that question as I headed out of the airlock, which probably
explains the mistake I made. That or the flux was starting to make me stupid and this was the
first sign. Either way, I hit the wrong button. Instead of the opening the inner door, I opened the
outer one. The vacuum yanked me against the sliding outer door, the same way it had done to
Nord. My shoulder hit it hard and I felt pain like I'd never felt before, not even when I got shot
during the war. I blacked out, and didn't come to until I was lying in the corridor and Holder was
looking down at me. Mellman was on the comm calling for the Doc. Later, I found out Holder
had seen the whole thing and managed to stop the lock from opening or I would have been
floating in space by then. My shoulder felt like it was on fire. That was all I could focus on while
I waited for the doc to show.
"It hurts bad!" I screamed when Doc Obel arrived. "Morphine!"
"Soon," he said. "Have to immobilize you first"
I screamed some more while he got me into an inflatable cast. I waited for a shot of
anesthetic. But instead of a needle, Obel handed me some pills and a jar of liquid.
"Take these," he said. "It's all I've got. Last supply run shorted me on morphine."
"What are they?"
Tylenol? I wanted to protest but it was too hard to make the words. I felt like I could feel
shards of bone moving around in my shoulder, each one sharp as a brand new razor. I screamed
"It's not as bad as it feels, Reems," the doc said. "The pain will subside in a while. Here,"
he shoved the liquid at me. "Drink some of this."
I took a whiff. Moonshine. I gulped down between screams. After a while, it took the
edge off some.
"Is it broken?" I asked. The doc nodded.
"Simple fracture. You'll be in that cast a while. Like I said, the pain should decrease
I took another swig of the moonshine. "It has already."
"Take it easy on that stuff," the doc said. Too much alcohol on top of the acetaminophen
will mess up your liver."
I tried to laugh but is came out as a grunt. "Wasn't planning on living that long, anyway."
It was a little later, when the pain faded a little and I was able to think, that I saw how bad
Doc Obel looked. It was an open secret that he and Nord were lovers. From the ship's gossip,
they'd recently had a fight and a falling out, but just the same the doc had to be devastated.
"Look, Doc, I'm sorry about Nord," I said. I . . . I know how much he meant to you."
"Thanks, Reems." He said, his voice flat. "I've got to go make my rounds."
The doc was right. The pain in my shoulder subsided into a persistent dull ache. A couple
of days later, when I'd sobered up and could walk around without wincing constantly, I started
asking questions. Nord hadn't come to the party, which was a disappointment to many because
they'd hoped he would sing for the Captain. Old Barney had been absent as well, but I didn't
figure him for muscling a man into the airlock. Aside from having a more advanced case of the
flux, he had congestive heart failure. His legs were so swollen they looked like they belonged to
someone else. Then, of course, there was Grovnik. I had been in his quarters with him during
dinner, and locked him in when I left, but that didn't mean he hadn't iced Nord before I showed
I stopped in at sick bay. The doc didn't look any better. "How you holding up?" I said.
"Holding it together," he said. We'd known each other a long time, all the way back to
the war. He'd always been hard to read. "What can I do for you?"
"Um . . . Can I take a look at the body?" I asked.
A look of sorrow flashed across his face, but it passed. "Sorry, Reems. It's gone."
Obel nodded. "Out to space. We don't have a morgue here. I got no way to safely store a
body. In a closed environment like this, the risk of pathogens is too high."
"How am I supposed to investigate his death without a body?"
"I'm sorry, Reems. The safety of the crew is more important. But I kept some tissue
samples. Kept his clothes as well." He opened a cubby on the wall, took out a CDC-issued
coverall and a pair of shoes. The right shoe sole was split in half down the middle, like it had
been crushed in a vise. Or the door of an airlock. I took the clothes with me. I'd come back for
the samples later. I also had the remains of Nord's hand. I supposed if I mentioned that to the doc
he'd make me get rid of them before the crew got exposed to some pathogen. We couldn't have a
bunch of condemned men getting sick, now could we? But I didn't want to run DNA analysis on
the tissues. That would mean involving the boys on the station. If I did that, they'd find out about
Grovnik, and I didn't want them to, not just then. When you're powerless, keeping a secret from
The Man is kind of like being in control of the universe.
I examined the clothes and found no clues. From the condition of the right shoe, it was
pretty obvious Nord had shoved it into the airlock door to try and keep it from closing. That jived
with the damage I'd found on the door itself. With a shudder, I imagined Nord's foot being
crushed by that door before the vacuum sucked him backwards.
I went to see Grovnik in his quarters. The Captain was there, sitting on the floor again,
looking around the room, but giving no sense that he realized he wasn't alone.
"I get the feeling he likes you," I said.
"I guess he does," he said. He had that strange look on his face again.
We went through it all once more. His story, his accidental arrival on the Second Chance,
blah blah blah. No, he didn't throw Nord into the airlock before or during the party. "I ate my
meal in here," he said. "You were here with me."
"All right, but here's what it looks like from my end. You arrive here with a crazy story
about it being a mistake, and a man dies. There wasn't any killing on this orbiting loony bin until
you came along. Can you give me some other explanation?"
He shook his head. He gave me the impression that he was listening to me out of
politeness, but that he hardly cared what I said. That pissed me off in a hurry.
"I don't think you understand the situation you're in," I said, raising my voice now. "I
won't have a killer on board this ship. We're all here to go crazy in peace. If you did it, you're
going out the airlock, and I figure you did it. Want to give me something that'll make me think
Grovnik looked at the Captain, who was pushing himself up from the floor. When he was
standing, he pulled the Velcro that fastened his coverall and let the garment sag around him.
Then he started pissing himself. Urine ran down his legs and soaked the rumpled coverall around
"Aw, Jeez, Captain," I said. I stopped myself from saying more. The old boy couldn't
help it. I looked at Grovnik, trying to figure out if I could finish questioning him. He was still
looking at the Captain with the most incredible expression on his face. I swear he watched the
poor bastard pissing his pants like a proud father might look at his child taking its first steps. The
moment seemed to hang there, silent but for drip of urine to the floor.
Grovnik turned to me, smiling. "I can't," he said.
"In answer to your question, I can't."
"Give you any proof that I didn't kill Nord."
I was a little taken aback by that. "You don't even want to try and bullshit me?"
He smiled. "I understand your situation, Reems," he said. "I didn't do it, but I don't
expect you to believe me." He looked away. "If you tell your contacts on the surface about me,
I'm sure they'll want me dead no matter who killed your pal."
"You ever seen somebody die in space?" I asked. "It's not nice."
His smile faded, but he still didn't look afraid. He was looking at the Cap again.
"No," he said distantly. "It's not nice at all."
It was the Captain who spilled the beans. He was briefing the boys downstairs as usual,
and the rest of us were listening in, when he let it slip that we had a new guy on board. I held my
breath, hoping they'd assume he was hallucinating. But a couple of the other guys chimed in
about it. Guess they'd figured him for killing Nord as well. After that, the head warden
demanded to talk to me.
Long story short, it was too late to try and hide anything. I repeated the story Grovnik fed
me about the SSSL and the bomb. I also told him about Nord. I didn't accuse Grovnik of the
crime, but they found him guilty just the same. I don't suppose it mattered. They all seemed
pretty bothered with the bombing. His fate was probably sealed before anybody mentioned Nord.
It made sense to figure it was him. He was an admitted terrorist. What was one more dead guy?
But who was Nord to him?
"Do you have any last requests," I asked when I visited Grovnik's quarters. It was 0500
hours. He was going out the airlock at 0730.
"Just one," he said. He pointed to the Captain, who was visiting as usual. His coverall
was down. He was sucking on his right index finger. I tried not to wonder where that finger had
been before it went in his mouth. "I would like Hawkins as a witness."
"Hawkins," I said. It took me a moment to recall that it was the Captain's last name.
Hawkins. Cyrus Jefferson Hawkins. "You sure you want to put him through that? I mean, it
seems like you all have become friends. What do you think it's going to do to him if he, you
know . . ."
"If he watches me die?" He shook his head. "I don't think it'll do much to him. But it'll
do wonders for me."
"You going to tell me why?"
He smiled again.
"No," he said.
We executed him at 0730. I executed him, I mean. I'm not proud of it. It's a terrible way
to go. But I'm not ashamed of it either. It's the law. I hadn't proved he killed Nord, but he freely
admitted a role in the Culture Walk bombing. Every soldier knows the penalty for an atrocity like
that. Any soldier who deliberately takes out civilians deserves a little walk in space, in my
The Captain was there, per Grovnik's request. Thankfully he kept his clothes on this time,
though he picked his nose through the whole thing.
"You ready, Hawkins?" I asked. He ignored me. His eyes were scanned the ceiling.
"You ready, Captain?" This time he looked at me.
"Ready, soldier. "Fire at will." He saluted me. I returned the gesture.
Grovnick was already in the airlock. He sat cross-legged on the floor, his head lolling
forward. I asked him if he had any final words. He shook his head. I wasn't supposed to say
another word to him. But I couldn't resist.
"You knew him before, didn't you? You knew the Captain. And he knew you."
He looked up, an expression of mild surprise on his face. "What makes you say that?" he
"No one told you his last name, and he doesn't even know it himself anymore."
He gave me a shrug but said nothing.
"So," I said, "did you get what you came here for?"
Grovnik said nothing for a moment. Then he smiled "Yes," he said. "Yes I did."
When it was over, I went to check on the Captain. At first, you'd think he had no idea
what had gone on, but then I saw it. A little wet trail on his cheek, running down from his right
eye, an eye that was unfocused, seemingly oblivious.
But that eye had shed a tear.
After that, I had a lot of time to think. The cast on my arm got me out of KP and various
other grunt work, and the second thoughts started right up. There was something that just didn't
sit right about the case. Why in the hell would Grovnik want to kill Nord? I got on the Web and
poked around. Nord's history was as clean as I'd heard it was. As non-violent a military career as
a man could possibly have. No connections to the ISS or any political group. No deranged
piccolo player harboring a grudge.
I tried Grovnik next. Same thing. No connection. No possible motive. The only thing I
could figure was Grovnik was a sociopath, and killed Nord just to pass the time. But that just
didn't feel true.
I widened the search, checking for connections between the dead Russian and other
inmates of the Second Chance. I got a hit that surprised me, though in hindsight I can see I
should have looked there in the first place.
I also sent the remains of Nord's hand over to the ISS for DNA analysis. Now that we
weren't hiding Grovnik, it didn't matter. The case was officially closed, but I still had friends
over there. If Nord had struggled with his attacker and I could find any trace evidence of it, I
might be able settle my mind about what had happened.
An old colleague named Bardlow called me with the results.
"You trying to pull a joke on me, Reemsy?" he said. In the vid screen he had Nord's
bones arranged on a table in front of him. "One of these things is not like the other."
"I don't follow," I said.
He looked at me, maybe trying to figure out if I was having him on. I gave him my best
cop scowl. He shrugged.
"See this one?" he pointed to the biggest chunk in the bunch. "It's not from a man's
"Yeah, I noticed it was bigger," I said. Figured it was part of his wrist or something."
"Not his wrist," Bardlow said. Not from any part of your victim's body. It's a cow's
Before I could react his face disappeared from the screen, replaced by an extreme close-up of the same fragment.
"Look at the saw marks, Reemsy. That's what I noticed first. Even if the airlock cut your
victim's arm off at the wrist, it would never cut as clean as this. You're looking at a piece of
bone from a T-bone steak."
And that was when things started to fall into place. It was like it always was when you
finally figured something out that had been driving you nuts. Once you had the answer, it seemed
like it had been right there all along, only you were too stupid to see it. When I'd processed the
information I found, and finished berating myself for being so blind, I went to see the doc.
I found him working up reports on his screen. He looked up when he saw me.
"What can I do for you, Reems? Shoulder bothering you? They can itch like hell under
those casts." He still looked bad. The circles under his eyes were deeper then they'd been before.
I swore his hair was whiter than it had been. But he sounded cheerful enough.
"No," I said. "I just came to talk."
He looked at me. Waiting. I stood there, not sure how to say what I'd come to say. But the
doc got things rolling for the both of us.
"Grovnik didn't come by accident, did he?" Obel asked me.
I shook my head. "Nope."
"So, did you figure out why he came?"
I could have let the Captain's secrets die with Grovnik. But I felt like I owed the Russian
something. He'd given me a case to work. That and he'd offered himself up as a scapegoat.
"Cyrus Jefferson Hawkins," I said. "He ever tell you much about his past?"
"I know he was a Lieutenant Commander Low Orbital," Obel said. "Not much else."
"Ever hear of the Volskagrad Massacre?"
His eyes went wide. "That was the Captain?"
I nodded. "He captured the Volskagrad leading a convoy of refugees en route to the
Eastern Alliance outpost on the moon. Rounded up the women, children, grandparents, babies.
Put them out to space, every one, while forcing all the captive men to watch."
"Grovnik was there," Obel said, more to himself than me.
"He was a soldier. His family was with the refugees. He had a wife, three kids. Two girls
and a boy. The youngest was only four years old." I shivered just thinking about it. I saw plenty
of hell in those days, but I never saw anything like the Volskagrad. I thought back to what I'd
said to Grovnik when I questioned him about Nord. You ever seen somebody die in space? It's
not nice. Out of everything that happened, I wish I could have taken that comment back. I
remembered the way he'd looked at the Captain when he answered me. No. It's not nice at all.
"So Grovnik came here to kill the Captain," Obel said in a musing tone, pulling me back
into the moment. "Only he didn't."
"He didn't," I said. "And he had plenty of chances. They spent hours together in
Obel got up and walked to a cabinet. He opened it, took out his bottle of moonshine and
two of those little plastic medicine cups. He poured a shot of the liquid into each.
"For medicinal purposes only," he said without irony.
"Yeah, I guess my shoulder is acting up again," I said. "Thanks."
He took a sip from his cup and grimaced. "So how do you figure it?"
"I figure he got more of a kick out of watching the Captain piss on himself than he would
have from killing him," I said.
The doc nodded, looking thoughtful. We each took a couple more sips.
"So, why did Grovnik kill Nord?" Obel asked.
"What? Then who did?"
"You tell me," I said.
His face went white and he didn't answer for a while. I didn't rush him.
"What was it," I finally asked. "Lover's quarrel? Jealousy? Nord get eyes for someone
"Reems? What are you saying? You think I . . .?"
He stopped. I let the silence hang there. Old cop trick.
"You and I have known each other a long time," he said.
"Yup, which is why I didn't look too hard at you despite your relationship with Nord.
Stupid of me. Maybe I'm starting to lose my mind."
I waited a beat for him to protest, but he stared at me, a stricken look in his eyes.
"You put the body out to space before I could examine it," I said. "There's a pair of
gravity shoes missing too. Those probably went out with him. You wore them to haul him into
the airlock. With them on, you would have been able to make it out while the air got sucked out
of the crack you jammed open in the outer door. The one thing I can't figure is how you rigged
that up. I can see you suiting up, going out there and jamming the door with that piece of T-bone,
but how did you lure Nord in once you'd done that? Did you drug him or something?" Then the
idea hit me. "Wait, that's what happened to all the local anesthetic. You drugged him up and
pulled him out there."
"It wasn't like that," he said slowly. His eyes had a distant look, like he was wandering
through a memory.
"I never figured you for a killer, doc. What about your Hippocratic oath? And to put a guy
out the airlock, no less. I hope you drugged him up enough so he didn't know what hit him.
Though from the look on his face when we found him, I'd say he suffered plenty."
The unpleasant memory of my own brush with the airlock flashed across my mind. It had
pulled me straight back, so hard that if I'd hit it from front or back with instead of my shoulder,
I'm pretty sure my head would have been split open.
Obel looked at me with an expression that didn't seem right. I expected remorse, maybe a
little guilt mixed with sorrow. But all I saw was sadness.
Then it hit me. Something else I'd missed. Another damn thing that had been right there
all along. I replayed my accident again. The vacuum pulled me straight back. I hit the door facing
the same way I'd been standing. My visualization of Nord's death involved him jamming his
right shoe into the inner door. That meant he was facing in. But he'd hit the outer door face first.
His hand was outstretched and caught in the crack. In order for that to happen, he would have
spin a hundred and eighty degrees between one door and the other.
"Wait," I said. "I've got this all wrong, haven't I? He never stuck his foot in the door. He
was facing outward when the vacuum took him." I looked at the doc. He looked down. I could
see the tears sprouting from his eyes.
"The damage to the door. Nord wasn't the one trying to stop the door from closing. You
were." I thought about the strange way he'd been walking. "You were wearing the gravity shoes
then. If you'd jammed in your foot in that door in regular shoes, it would be crushed like that
shoe you showed me. Even in the gravity shoes, your foot probably got broken. You've been
taking anesthetic to hide it. And that crushed shoe. You did that after the fact to support my own
theory about what happened."
He was shaking now. I helped him to a chair. He started to sob.
"It was Nord who jammed that bone in the door so it wouldn't close," I said, to myself as
much as to him. "You didn't kill him. You were trying to save him."
Obel broke down then. I put my hand on his shoulder, feeling like a heel. It was a while
before he could talk again.
"He wanted to die before he the influx got him," he said. "He couldn't stand the thought
of ending up like the Captain. He asked me to help him. Told me how we could use the airlock to
do it. I refused. I told him we're all going to end up that way. It's nothing to be ashamed of. But
that wasn't good enough for him.
"They came looking for him in my quarters when he didn't show for the party. I feared
the worst. I ran for the gravity shoes and went to the airlock.
"By the time I got there, I could hear the doors moving. I couldn't abort the sequence. He
had locked the controls. The inner door was closing. I tried to stop it with my foot, but the door
broke it, just like you said. I pulled it out reflexively, before I even knew what I was doing. My
body refused to take the pain. If I could have kept my foot there, maybe he'd be alive now."
"More likely you'd both be dead," I said.
He didn't answer. Maybe he was wishing it had worked out that way.
I was quiet for a while. Obel sobbed, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
"Why didn't you tell it like it was, instead of letting me think Grovnik did it?" I finally
His chin dropped to his chest. After a minute he answered.
"I knew what it looked like. I was afraid you wouldn't believe I was trying to save him.
Everybody knows we had a spat. When Grovnik came along, I figured I could pin it on him. They
would have executed him anyway, for the bombing, as soon as they found out he was here." He
looked at me. "I was afraid, Reems. I admit it. I didn't want to be put out to space. Especially
after watching what . . ."
He stopped. There was no need to finish that sentence.
"So, what happens now?" he asked after a while. "You going to report me?"
I shook my head. "You didn't kill him. The wardens think it was Grovnik. Let's leave it
He looked at me for a while, like maybe he wasn't sure I believed him. But I did.
"Thanks, Reems," he finally said.
There was no window in sick bay. I couldn't look out just then, search for Grovnik in the
endless blackness of space. So I pictured him in my mind, smiling the way he had just before he
died. I thought back to what he'd told me when I asked him if he'd gotten what he came for.
Yes, he'd said. Yes I did.
"Na zdorovie," I said. Then I raised my glass and drank.