Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

The Stowaway
    by Stephen L. Moss

The Stowaway
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

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 your name?"

"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 edge.

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 quarters.

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 licked them.

"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 deliberately?"

"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."

"Go on."

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 small bomb."

"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 access."

"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 death ship.

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 die.

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 close.

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 horribly.

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 some more.

"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 shortly.

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 up.

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 otherwise?"

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 his ankles.

"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."

"Can't what?"

"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 humble opinion.

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 asked.

"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 hand."

"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 bone."

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 Grovnik's quarters."

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.

"He didn't."

"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 else?"

"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 asked.

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 at that."

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.

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