By Christian Martin
"Keffer wake up. Keffer wake up. Your assistance is needed."
"Keffer wake up. Keffer wake up. Your assistance is needed."
Crewman Jacob Keffer's mind swam in thick darkness.
"Keffer wake up." The monotone female voice tugged at him. It was familiar, yet clinical and impartial. "Your assistance is needed. Keffer wake up."
His eyes flitted open. Red emergency lighting flashed through the infirmary module. It cast unsettling shadows off of the electrical wiring and ventilation ducts on the walls.
"Keffer you are awake." It was Elise.
Keffer blinked and, realizing that something must have happened, became immediately alert. He looked down at himself. He was strapped onto a medical table and wearing a smock, not his standard jumpsuit.
"Your assistance is needed," Elise repeated.
Hinged robotic arms were arched over him, each one with its own surgical instrument at the end. It was like he was in the embrace of a giant metal spider.
"Why am I-" Keffer started to say, then, in an instant, remembered what had happened. He had gone out to repair one of the solar panels. A micrometeoroid hit the panel he was working on. Shards of crystalline silicone had punctured his suit in five different places.
"Your assistance is needed."
"For what?" Keffer asked. "Elise, why are the emergency lights on?"
"Because there is an emergency. Your assistance is needed."
"What is the emergency?"
"A fire. It is located in the hydroponics module."
Panic squeezed his chest. No, no, no, no, no.
The plants in the hydroponics module were the only things providing the station with food and breathable air since the last of the rations ran out and the CO2 scrubbers failed. Keffer and his crewmates were on their own, for now. War had broken out on the surface half way into their assignment on the station. They didn't know the full story, but saw the flashes of the first nukes from orbit. Control said that they wouldn't be able to get a shuttle up with more supplies until hostilities died down.
Losing those plants was one of the worst things that could happen, but Keffer was trained to stay cool in case of emergencies. The prospect of losing the plants worried him, but wasn't what made him panic.
Fire. The image of Sam's young face flashed into his mind.
"A fire?" Keffer's voice wavered. "How did it start? Why haven't Weston and Jaime put it out? Where are they?"
"Yes, a fire. The source of ignition is unknown. The likelihood of a random spark or malfunction starting the fire is less than point-zero-zero-three percent. Sabotage is the most likely explanation. Weston and Jaime are unavailable."
"What the hell do you mean 'unavailable'? Call them now!"
"Station crewmembers Rodriguez and Marsh are either unable or unwilling to reply to my attempts at communication."
"That can't be good. Wait, did you say sabotage? What on Earth is going on?"
"Yes, I did say sabotage. I'm sorry, but there is no time to relay news from the surface. Your assistance is needed."
Keffer attempted to undo the harnesses holding him to the table but he couldn't reach the buckles. They were not designed for self-release.
"Shit!" he yelled as he struggled against his restraints.
"Do you need assistance?" Elise asked.
"Yes, damn it! Get me free! I need to find Jaime and Weston."
"Finding your fellow crewmembers is a secondary concern. You must first stop the fire before it causes irreparable damage to the station."
"Right," Keffer said, after a pause. Going near that fire was the last thing he wanted. He remembered the crowd around the house, the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles, flames coming from windows, thick churning smoke. He remembered looking around, not seeing Sam.
He pushed the past aside and tried to calm himself. "Yes, Elise, you're right. Get me free so I can stop the fire." Maybe he would run into Jaime or Weston on the way, and they could put the fire out so he wouldn't have to.
One of the robotic arms over him came to life. Its circular blade began to spin. It levered toward his chest.
Keffer's eyes went wide. "Elise!"
"Do not move. The blade is very sharp."
The speed and ease with which the robotic arm cut the straps at his torso and legs unnerved Keffer. But in a moment he was free. The metal arms pulled away from him and spread out from the table. Without the straps holding him in place, his body drifted slightly up in zero g.
Keffer reached back and grabbed the edge of the table to steady him. He tucked his legs and kicked off toward the infirmary module exit. When he reached the open exit, he grabbed a handle at its edge to arrest his momentum. Through the exit was connecting shaft C. Keffer began propelling himself down the shaft using the row of hand-holds along one wall, with his legs floating free behind him.
He pictured a schematic of the station in his mind. To get to the hydroponics module he would have to travel down the length of shaft C, take a right at shaft D, then, after half a dozen yards, take a left into shaft A. It wasn't a short distance. He needed to hurry.
"You think that the fire is sabotage?" Keffer said as he traveled.
"I cannot think, only extrapolate probability from known data."
"It's impossible. There's only us three. No one else could have come onto the station while I was under, could they?"
"No. The fire had to have been started by either crewmember Rodriguez or crewmember Marsh. You could not have done it while incapacitated."
Keffer shook his head. "You're wrong! One of them didn't do this. There has to be another explanation."
He remembered fire. He remembered smoke. Running into the burning house, screaming Sam's name.
Keffer put his breathing under control.
"You must accept that one of your fellow crewmembers cannot be trusted," Elise said.
"No. No. No," He repeated, each time with less conviction.
"Keffer I have a question."
"Weren't your fellow crewmembers tasked with observing local space for incoming objects while you repaired the solar panel?"
Keffer thought about that.
He reached shaft D and moved down it.
Neither Jaime or Weston would have started that fire. There was absolutely no way. He had lived on this station with them for thirteen months. He knew them.
Jaime was married and had three kids; two boys and a girl. He would always stay up after Weston and Keffer had gone to sleep. On a few occasions, when Keffer needed to use the restroom, he came across Jaime awake but quiet, looking down at the wide blue and white Earth slowly spinning.
Weston was funny. He loved playing cards and even figured out a way for them to do it in weightlessness. Sometimes he would joke as if they were on the surface, and not so incredibly far away from home.
If one of them had sabotaged the station, they would have had to been a foreign plant from the beginning. Was that possible? Wouldn't Keffer and the other crewman have noticed something by now? Maybe it wasn't one of them that was a plant, but both, and that's why he hadn't figured it out. Jaime and Weston could have been playing him the whole time. They waited until they had a chance to get him out of the way to make their move.
Keffer's hand slipped over one hand-hold and jammed painfully into the next.
"Damn!" He grabbed his injured hand and tumbled through the air. Something sharp jabbed into his back as he hit the opposite wall and stopped moving.
"Are you all right?" Elise asked.
"No!" Keffer yelled as his frustration peaked.
After a moment, floating there against the wall, he calmed a bit. He returned to pulling himself across the hand-holds, this time not as hopeful to run into his crewmates.
Keffer made it to shaft A, where the hydroponics module was connected, but the hatch into the shaft was closed and wouldn't open.
"Elise, why is this hatch locked?"
"I was forced to seal off section A to prevent the smoke from spreading throughout the rest of the station," Elise said.
Keffer looked through the small window in the hatch and saw only black smoke, shifting and churning like it was alive. The sight thrust a lance of fear through his chest and pushed him again into the past. The memory of the burning house surrounded him, but before he was totally consumed he slammed his hand against the hatch in front of him and, through sheer force of will, shoved the memory and the panic away.
He noticed his hand was shaking, but he was alright.
"Wh- Why didn't you just seal off the hydroponics module itself?" Keffer asked Elise.
"I no longer have the ability to access any of the interior systems of section A. It seems that whoever started the fire must have sabotaged me as well."
"Shit! I can't believe this. Ok ok ok, I'll just have to seal the module off manually."
"You must also then vent the module into vacuum. Starving the fire of oxygen is the only way to stop it."
"No. Those are our plants. We need them to survive."
"There is no alternative. If you do not stop the fire now it will compromise the station's hull."
The computer was right. Keffer ran a hand through his shaggy hair and released a sigh.
"The code to vent the module is five seven seven one six nine," Elise said. "Enter it into the keypad beside the hydroponics module entrance."
"Alright," Keffer replied. He took a few moments to prepare his mind. "I'm ready."
"I will open the hatch in three seconds."
Keffer took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
"Three. Two. One."
He heard the heavy hatch slide open and felt the smoke envelop him. He reached for a handhold and pulled himself into shaft A. Even wrenched closed, his eyes burned from the poisonous fumes.
The hydroponics module would be five meters in and to the right relative to his orientation. Keffer could hear the fire as he moved closer. It was a roaring, thrashing monster. He stayed in the moment, focused on moving, and just barely kept the panic at bay.
His hand found something to grab and he stopped himself. He knew he had reached it. The heat radiating out from the hydroponics module was almost too much to take. He resisted the urge to gasp for air. Just one deep breath and the smoke would kill him.
Then, before Keffer could react, the past took him. Fear crashed through his mind and he was no longer on the station, he was in his home as it burned, stumbling through the fiery hell looking for his son.
"Sam! Sam!" He couldn't help screaming, though it was pointless. Sam had been deaf since birth, and plagued with sickness his whole life. It was a miracle he had made it to nine years old. After so many doctor visits, and difficult new procedures, Sam had finally started showing improvements. Keffer couldn't bear to lose his only child to this, a random, vicious tragedy.
But he hadn't. Since Sam had been doing better, Keffer and Monica had talked about letting him out more. Earlier that day, while Keffer was at work, Sam's mother had brought him to a friend's house to spend the night.
Keffer remembered succumbing to the smoke and heat, collapsing, thinking his son was still trapped. He remembered coming to on a stretcher after the firefighters had dragged him out. He remembered the amazing feeling when his wife told him that Sam was safe.
Then, a year and a half later, Keffer left them both to come up onto this station. He never should have gone away. Sam was down there waiting for him. Keffer decided he would stop this fire, get off the station, and make it back home. He wouldn't leave Sam again.
The present returned to him in a sudden rush. He was back in shaft A, his eyes tightly shut and a single breath held in his chest. Keffer felt along the edge of the hydroponics module entrance for the manual locking lever. His lungs burned from lack of oxygen. He couldn't find the lever. It was there, it had to be. His hands slid more frantically along the wall. The intense heat from the fire burned against his face. He couldn't die here, without seeing Sam again. He felt like screaming. Just then, he found it. He wrapped his hand around the lever, braced himself against the wall to keep from moving, and began pumping it as quickly as he could. He heard the latch slide down slightly with each pump. His arm burned from the effort but he couldn't let himself stop. His chest felt like it would burst.
Then the latch closed and he could hear the locking mechanism click into place. The sound and heat from the fire was gone. Relief washed over him but he knew his job wasn't yet done. He felt along the wall again. This time he found what he was searching for with little problem. The raised keys of the keypad were distinct against his fingertips.
What was the code? Elise had just told him but his mind couldn't find it. His thoughts were sluggish. He needed air or he would pass out.
He committed his full concentration to remembering those numbers. Nothing, nothing, then his mind finally found something and grabbed onto it like a lever in the dark. Five seven seven one six nine. He made sure his fingers were on the home keys, then punched in the numbers and pressed ENTER.
Keffer couldn't hold his breath any longer. He took a deep breath, but just as he did, something grabbed him and slammed him against the opposite wall.
"What are you doing?" It was Weston.
"What the hell did you just enter into that keypad? And why are your eyes closed? Look at me God damn it!"
"I can't. Smoke everywhere."
"Smoke? Then how are you breathing? Don't be stupid."
Weston was right. Keffer was breathing fine. He opened his eyes slowly. As the blurriness resolved he saw that the interior of shaft A was perfectly normal. There was no smoke. Weston was holding him against the wall. Jaime floated behind Weston, looking at Keffer, obviously concerned.
"He's confused," Jaime said. "Elise, what medications did you give Keffer after his surgery?"
The computer gave a list but Keffer wasn't paying attention. He was looking around them. The shaft was bright and clear. The smoke couldn't have dissipated so quickly.
Weston leaned in closer and whispered. "We think something happened to Elise. We got a data packet from the surface and thought it was a message from Command. It seemed to be nothing, then Jaime found a virus stored deep inside of it. The only explanation is that Command was lost. Whoever holds it now sent that virus to sabotage us. Elise could have been compromised. What did she tell you to do?"
No. Keffer couldn't speak.
Jaime came closer and whispered as well. "The medications she gave him were all wrong. In that combination they can cause nervousness and hallucinations. She's programmed with that information and should be blocked from administering them together. Someone is controlling her. They did it on purpose."
Weston turned back to Keffer. "What did she tell you to do?"
Keffer pushed them off and went to the hydroponics module hatch. He looked inside and was shaken by what he saw. The module was filled with green healthy plants. There was no smoke. No fire.
"There was a fire," Keffer said. "I saw the smoke, felt the heat. It was real. I couldn't breathe. I had to vent the module to stop it."
"What?" Weston asked.
Both Jaime and Weston moved next to Keffer and looked into the module.
"Venting hydroponics module to vacuum in three," Elise said.
"No!" Keffer screamed.
The module's vents were opened to empty space and there was a roar as all the air inside was sucked out. Keffer watched as the violent wind shredded the beautiful life-giving plants apart. Then everything was quiet, and the sparkling frozen bits of green tumbled in zero gravity.