DEEP BREATH — A SHORT STORY


Welcome back, sci-fi fans. I hope each of you enjoyed the interview last week with Nicholas Sansbury Smith.

I am enjoying reading the 2nd Edition of Orbs and will be diving into Orbs II: Stranded within the next few days.


Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

You’ve met the Antagonist, Johann Schaak.

You’ve met the Protagonist, Dr. Melody Grayson.

Now, in this short story you’ll get your first glimpse of the aliens.



**MATURE LANGUAGE WARNING**

“Cal Henley to Home Base. Do you read?”

“Yeah, Henley. What’s up?” replied John Deavers’ disembodied voice through the coms unit.

“Boss, I’m done with my excavating. I’m heading over to that cave I told you about the other day. I wanna see if we can use it as an emergency entrance.”

“OK. I’ve got ya on the sensors. You’ve got clear skies as far as I can see. No asteroids headed your way. Keep in contact every five.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Cal responded.

Cal Henley carefully skipped over to the cave, yet again happy for the weights in his boots. His white state-of-the-art spacesuit whirring in his inner coms as the heating system kicked back on.

The moon they were on passed behind a cloud of asteroids, blocking it from the light of Epsilon Eridani. The lights on his helmet sent bright circles ahead of him, bouncing like white balls as he trudged to the entrance. 

The little planetoid, on the outskirts of the inner asteroid belt, while in the Goldilocks zone, was without an atmosphere. As such, all the construction workers wore the newer space suits which, were bulkier than they were used to. The extra layers were added protection from the open space above them. Many of the others complained bitterly about the size of the suits. Cal, however, wasn’t complaining. He was grateful for the protection from the radiation. He still wanted to have kids someday.

As he closed in on the cave, Cal felt a slight tremor in the ground. He knew that meant that one of the smaller asteroids had hit the moon. It happened occasionally, as some of the rocks didn’t have enough gravity of their own to stay away from the moon.

Cal walked into the cavern and stopped. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the four lights on his helmet. All of them focused in the cave caused the dark space to light up like a hot summer day back on Tau Ceti Earth.

“Henley to Home Base. I’ve reached the entrance. I’m heading in now,”

“Gotcha, Henley. Let me know if you find any gold or other good stuff in there. I want half of the finder’s fee,” Deavers responded.

“Half? Dude, you ain’t my ex-wife. How do you rate half?”

“‘Cause I let you go over there. And I’m your boss. So go find something interesting to make this little side trip worth it. You know how much extra time I’m paying you for?”

“None. For one, I’m still on normal time and for two, the money doesn’t come from your pocket.”

“You know what I mean. Get to looking.”

“Aye-aye Captain Grouchy Pants,” Cal said.

Stepping further into the cave, Cal noticed that it narrowed into a tunnel and sloped down into the moon’s surface. Cal looked around the small enclave and noticed that there were scratches in the ground.

“Hmm, must’ve had an asteroid slide in here,” he thought to himself.

Walking further in, he angled his head so that the lights could illuminate the tunnel. Not seeing anything dangerous, Cal headed down the slope. At a bend, he noticed that the slope turned back in the direction of the construction site. He fingered his coms unit and called Deavers again.

“Home Base, this is Cal. Looks promising. There’s a tunnel here and it slopes back toward the Hab. I’m gonna keep going forward and see where it leads. I might lose you for a bit. But if it goes too far underground, I’ll leave a mark and come back up.”

“Copy that. You got five minutes, then head back up. If I don’t hear from you in ten I’m sending out the Calvary,” Deavers replied.

“Copy that Home Base.

Cal clicked off his coms and headed further in. As he moved further down, the tunnel widened. The ceiling was at least a meter above his head. The walls widened the further he went. This pleased him as it would be easier to build the tunnel here.

At the bottom, the tunnel swung to the right. Still facing toward the construction site, Cal checked the hypsometer and noticed that all they’d need to do was tunnel another twenty meters. The tunnel would be long enough that they could put in a decontamination chamber and changing room after the airlock. So far he liked the prospects of this cave as an emergency hatch.

Cal started to turn and head back up to the top of the tunnel when he heard a strange sound. Other than his breathing and the heating unit in his suit, he hadn’t heard anything since turning off his coms unit. Cal strained to hear the sound. It came again, a click-clack sort of scratching.

“Your heartbeat has increased,” the suits computer stated.

“No shit,” Cal replied.

Thumbing his coms unit he tried to contact Deavers. He was too far under the rock and metals of the moon to reach the construction Hab. All he could hear was static. Above the sound of static, the mysterious sound called to him again.

Cal turned slowly toward the sound. He tried to calm his breathing, but his asthma was starting to act up.

“This…is…not…the time…for this…crap,” he wheezed. “Is…someone…there?” He called out before the coughing started. Cal wasn’t one of the lucky humans born to a wealthy family. He hadn’t been genetically altered. He’d developed adult onset asthma working as a miner before coming to the construction company. Though, he was making more money now, he hadn’t the chance to go for the treatment. He was too busy building new habitats.

Silence, peppered with the scratching and his tortured coughing was all that answered.

“OK. Come on. This isn’t funny,” he tried to yell. His voice, anemic to his ears. He could feel his lungs closing like a giant’s fist squeezing him.

“You’re breathing is erratic. I am increasing oxygen. This will limit the remaining time you have in this suit,” the computer stated.

“Fine, do what you have to.”

Taking a tentative step forward, Cal debated internally about the merits of moving forward or hightailing it back to base. His curiosity won out. The oxygen in his suit was starting to help. He could feel his breathing coming a bit easier. Luckily for him, his suit was one equipped with medical technology. He knew that not only had the computer increased the oxygen, it had dosed him with his anti-asthma cocktail.

Heading to the right, after the sound, Cal hefted the hypsometer in his hand as a weapon. It might not do much damage, but it would be enough of a distraction so he could run.

As he headed down the corridor, the scratching ceased. Cal stopped moving. He strained to hear over the oxygen and heating unit. His breathing finally calmed. His heartbeat didn’t.

The noise came again. This time it was louder.

Cal heard a low whimper and realized it was coming from his throat. It was time to make a decision, leave or investigate.

Stepping forward again, Cal could hear the terrifying sound getting louder, almost as if it were in stereo. Sweat rolled down his forehead, dropped into his eye and stung. Trying to wipe the sweat away, Cal raised his left hand and slammed it into his visor. Blinded by sweat, Cal stumbled forward one hand on his helmet, the other out in front of him.

The clicking got louder. Something was close.

Cal’s right foot hit a rock and he tumbled to the ground falling awkwardly on his right arm.

“Oww,” he screamed. Rolling over onto his back he tucked his right arm to his chest.

The clacking was nearer. Something was coming.

Tears flowed from his eyes as he tried to roll to his left side and sit up. His rotation was blocked by a hard object next to him.

Cal stopped moving and waited. Terrified to open his eyes, he squeezed them tighter. If he was going to die, he didn’t want to see what was coming.

Cal felt what could have been sharp blades sliding up his leg. He silently prayed, between sobs, that his suit wasn’t ripping. The sharp thing continued up to his stomach. It stopped at his chest.

Then a slow tearing sound wafted to his ears.

Cal screamed as the fear and panic erupted in his mind.

“Please,” he begged, “I don’t want to die. Please don’t kill me. Please,” he wailed.

The tapping intensified. The thing was touching his shoulder now. Its sharp fingers, which was all Cal could coherently think to call them, were trailing to his injured right arm.

The sound of something drip-dripping on the suit made him imagine a monster with its mouth open, slobbering over him, ready to make him into a meal. The dripping continued, Cal screamed again.

The computer was trying to tell him something. The alarms in the suit were blaring at him. Cal couldn’t focus. Terror swam around him, drowning him in a profusion of panic. His breath hissed in and out of his closing lungs. He was dying.

His last thought before oblivion claimed him was that this was no longer a good place to have an emergency hatch.

************

Consciousness blew into Cal’s mind like a gentle breeze on a spring day. As he came to, recycled, sterilized air greeted him.

Deciding, this time, to err on the side of caution, Cal kept his eyes closed and listened. Silence punctuated by a melody of mechanical beeping met his ears. Confusion was coiling in his mind. Where was he?

Opening his eyes, Cal saw he was in a dim room. Looking around, he noticed a diagnostic machine on a steel stand next to his bed. On the machine, he saw numbers, white lines on a black background moving up and down and what looked like an actual heart beating. Blinking rapidly, Cal realized he wasn’t dead. He was in the med bay of home base.

Relief washed over him like waves on a beach. He was alive. Laughter bubbled up in him and burst forth. Tears rolled down the side of his face and dropped into his ears. He was alive. Whatever had been in the cavern hadn’t killed him.

Sudden realization struck him. Sitting up, he stared around and wondered, if he wasn’t dead, then what had happened to him? And what was in that cave?

“Ahh, you’re awake,” Doctor Fitz said as he walked into the room. “And sittin’ up. That’s a good sign.”

“What the hell happened to me? How long was I out?”

“I kept you knocked out for four days. And that’s a good question, son. Why don’t you tell me the last thing you remember,” the doctor asked in his familiar twang.

“I was in a lower cave. I was trying to find out if it would make a good emergency entrance to the Science Hab. I’d found that it would and was heading back up and heard some weird noises. I went to check them out, had an asthma attack, stumbled and fell.”

“According to your suit, it administered your meds. You remember that?”

“Yes. But…Doc, this is going to sound strange, but when they rescued me, did they…see anything down there?”

“Nope, just you.”

“That can’t be,” Cal said. “There was something else down there.”

“Well, they went back down there lookin’. Your suit was ripped clean open. I think because you were in the tunnel, you didn’t get hit with radiation, so that’s good. But I can’t explain how you’re still alive. All the oxygen leaked out of your suit.”

“I thought I heard it rip, but I was praying I was wrong. Where’d it tear?”

“Over your chest and right wrist,”

Doctor Fitz turned around and reached for something on the adjacent bed. It was Cal’s suit.

“See here,” Fritz said as he maneuvered the suit around to show the chest, “See this hole? And here on the right arm?”

Cal felt his mouth drop open. Sound wouldn’t come out. His brain couldn’t connect to speak a coherent sentence. He lifted his right arm and looked at the wrist. He vaguely remembered falling on it. It should have been in a cast.

“Somethin’ ripped on you, boy. Deavers sent a team back down there to find out what. If there’s somethin’ livin’ on this rock we needed to know. We hadn’t come across it before, but we don’t need to have visitors causin’ havoc for the geologists when they get here. And before you ask, yes, they did find…well, somethin’.”

“They what? So there was something down there?”

“Yep. You wanna see it?”

“Hell yes,” Cal said.

Fitz helped him out of the bed and led him to the secure labs in another section of the construction Hab. There were interim geologists on the moon making sure it was stable enough for a colony. Their lab was transformed. A decontamination shower was set up at the entrance. Both Cal and Dr. Fitz went through, the sonic shower removing all enemy microbes.

Next, they walked down a narrow plastic corridor to an opaque plastic wall. Dr. Fitz put his hand on the wall and a bio reader appeared. After cycling through the security protocol, a window slid open.

Inside the room was a two meter squared containment box on a large steel table.

Inside of the box was a horror.

Cal’s mind fought to wrap around what he was seeing. The thing, which was all he could think to call it, looked like a cross between a white, plucked, chicken and pictures he’d seen of an old earth dinosaur called a velociraptor, just without the tail. It was about half a meter tall but at the moment was lying down, at least Cal thought it was. Instead of a beaked mouth, though, it had a broad snout with little breathing flaps on either side.

“Far as we can tell, it’s not indigenous to this moon. We don’t know how it got here, or where it’s from. But the boys are down there lookin’ for more.”

Cal couldn’t speak. The thing seemed to be looking directly at him, as if it were trying to will him to speak to it. It rapidly blinked its black bulbous eyes. Silver slobber dribbled out of its fanged mouth.

“That’s what attacked me?”

“We think so. And here’s the weird part.” Doctor Fritz turned to Cal and lay a hand upon the younger man’s shoulders. “I don’t think it attacked you. I think it was tryin’ to heal you.”

Cal blinked just like the little monstrosity. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Your asthma is gone. We think this thing healed you. When we found you, you didn’t have oxygen, but you were breathin’ just fine. There was a scratch on your chest, but it’s gone now. Healed up before you woke. And even though you broke your wrist. I took another x-ray while you were unconscious and it’s healed now, too.

That thing healed you. And there are folks who are gonna want to know how.”


Join me next week when I introduce you to the new home of humanity, Tau Ceti Earth.

Until then,

“Never own more than you can carry in both hands at a dead run.”
― Robert A. Heinlein

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