Fathom by J.S. Rogers

22 min read

“Here we go,” Dr.Hirsh murmured as her submersible, the Trident, slipped below Panthalassa’s waves. The dropship that delivered them from the Hermes, the great research vessel in Panthalassa’s orbit, retreated immediately up through the planet’s thin atmosphere. The Hermes, too large to conduct close research on its own, lingered above Panthalassa, waiting for the Trident’screw to complete their research on the watery planet.

View-screens came to life around the Trident’s forward compartment. Flickering, they displayed feed directly from dozens of tiny cameras around the Trident’s outer hull. “We were right about the colors,” Hirsh noted. The liquid around them contained countless hues, stirred by unseen currents, all shifting and moving around one another without blending together.

Hirsh tore her gaze away from the rainbow-filled displays and back to the inside of thesubmersible. Lieutenant Smith—tall and trim, with dark skin and hair dyedmetallic gold—sat in the Trident’s pilot seat, his hands steady on the controls as he leveled them out. “Pressureis as expected,” Smith said, after flipping two switches and openingcommunication with the Hermes. “Dropis completed. Ventilators are functioning within acceptable parameters. EnginesOne, Two and Three are….” He glanced over; Hirsh flashed him a thumbs up. “Upand running. We’re recording properly. No sign of lag. Radar’s active. Lookslike we’re good down here, Hermes.”

“Copy that, Trident,” Captain Sing’s voice echoed in the transmitter tucked against Hirsh’s auditory nerves, deep in her ear canal. “Tell Dr. Hirsh to get this planet sorted out for us, would you?”

Smith grinned sideways across at Hirsh, his teeth gleaming against his dark skin. “I don’t think I could stop her, Captain. Expect a transmission in an hour.” He cut the comm and leaned back. “Well, Doc,” he said, “you heard the Captain. Let’s not waste any time.”

***

Among all the planets Hirsh had seen, Panthalassa stood out as unique: a giant world covered in oceans with a strange, tiny core. It orbited so far from its old, dying red giant star, that, by all rights, it should have frozen over completely. Panthalassa’s thick atmosphere, full of unusually high amounts of methane, water vapor, and carbon dioxide, held a lot of heat in close to the planet, but not enough to sustain the world’s massive free oceans. And, even stranger, nothing larger than a microorganism seemed to live in the brilliantly colored oceans.

Hirsh had observed the planet for a week aboard the Hermes, while the crew of the ship completed their exploration of Panthalassa’s solar system, before finally convincing Sing that exploring the strangeness of the farthest planet from the sun required boots on the ground. Or, more accurately, a sub in the ocean.

The Trident carried a crew of five,including Hirsh and Smith. Doctors Lopez and Sokolova, experts in marine planets, and Sergeant Jei Howard, an expert on the Trident’s mechanical systems, rounded out the crew. The submersiblewas roughly twenty-five feet long, with a large back compartment and a smallerfront compartment that could be sealed in the event of a catastrophic hullbreach. Computers and lab equipment took up most of the available space,leaving barely enough room for the storage of packaged food and water.Squeezing past another person was possible, but space remained at a premium.Claustrophobics avoided missions on the Trident;Hirsh benefitted from her short, slight stature.

Hirsh stood in the area between the compartments to address the other scientists. They’d all worked together a long time on the Hermes, making the briefing more of a formality than anything else. “Alright,” she said, “you’ve all got your assignments. We don’t have unlimited time planetside, so I expect everyone to work quickly and accurately. Make no mistakes. Our findings are going to shape the understanding of this planet for decades until another ship comes all the wayout here to follow us up. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” excited Doctor Lopez said. The strangest things thrilled marine biologists. The crew immediately turned to their computers, and Hirsh left them to it. She took the time to pull her messy red curls up into a ponytail before returning to herstation in the front compartment. The endless sea, colors changing for a reasonshe hadn’t yet divined, waited outside the hull, over a hundred miles deep andfull of possibilities. Hirsh cracked her knuckles and grinned.

***

“What’ve you found?” Lieutenant Smith asked, startling Hirsh. Their pilot was light on his feet, quiet for a man of his height and size. He laughed, patted her shoulder,and found a bare section of wall to lean against. “I’m about to make my report,but all I can tell them is that the colors sure are nice. Some specifics would be appreciated.”

“The samples are strange,” Hirsh said, leaning away from her holo-screen and gesturing at the molecular compounds displayed in three perfect dimensions. She’d never seen the carbon formations before and she’d explored over a hundred planets. Some previously undiscovered molecule had bonded to the carbon and resulted in a molecular shape she’d never seen. “And that’s not even addressing the lifeforms that Doctor Lopez found.”

“Lifeforms?” Lieutenant Smith tensed up. “Why wasn’t I informed that you’d found life here? There are procedures—”

“Relax, Lieutenant,” Hirsh said, waving a hand. “They’re microscopic. More like plankton than anything else. Just….”

Smith frowned. “Just what?”

“I don’t know, it’s just strange,” Hirsh said. “We’re not sure what they eat. Panthalassa is so far from the sun they shouldn’t be getting enough fuel for photosynthesis based on their structures. And the concentration of them around the ship seems to be increasing.”

“Maybe we taste good,” Lieutenant Smith suggested. “Or maybe we’re just passing through an area where they’re heavily concentrated.”

“Mm. In any case, they’re not dangerous. I think we’re ready to move deeper, if you could take us down after you’ve sent the communication?” As she spoke, the Trident rocked. Doctor Sokolova, their chemical oceanographer, cried out in surprise. Lieutenant Smith jumped towards the forward controls, with Hirsh following on his heels, her chair spinning behind her. For a second, she swore she saw something move on one of the lower view screens, something huge. But it had to be nothing more than a shift in the colors around the ship.

“What happened?” Smith demanded of Sergeant Howard. The mechanical engineer looked up from the pilot’s seat, all the color drained from his completely hairless face.

“I don’t know,” Howard said. He cut a look towards the screens and licked his lips. “I know it’s crazy, but I could have sworn something hitus. But that’s not… I mean, there’s nothing out there. Look.” He gestured at the screens. “We must have hit a thermocline, or an underwater river.”

“Move,” Hirsh said, directing Howard out of the way and scowling at the recorded scans. They revealed nothing.

“Well?” Lieutenant Smith asked, leaning over Hirsh’s shoulder. Behind him, the other three members of the crew clumped together. Howard tittered again, scratching at his smooth head.

“Nothing,” Hirsh said, tapping a finger on the controls. She frowned at the view-screens. “There was nothing there.” She sighed. “Take us deeper.”

***

The water settled into purples and silvers as they dove deeper throughout the day, the crushing pressure of all the leagues above them blotting out ever more light. Contact with the Hermes grew difficult. “I think it’s the organisms,” Doctor Lopez explained, when Howard failed to resolve the communication issue. “We’re still attracting large numbers of them. They might be impacting the transmitters.”

“Are they going to affect any other systems?” Lieutenant Smith asked, twisting around in his chair.

Lopez shrugged. “They don’t seem to be.”

Smith sighed and looked over at Hirsh. “Let’s just go a little deeper,” she said. “We’ve almost reached our depth limit, anyway.” The liquid outside shifted colors, giving the impression of ghost-like movement. Hirsh rubbed her eyes, and the movement resolved into nothing but shadows.

***

Hirsh looked up from a sample of Panthalassa’s oceans when the Trident shook. She grabbed for the sample with gloved hands and missed. The sample fell sideways into its intended case, but luckily stayed intact. The liquid separated out into individual colors, the tiny droplets trembling as the Trident lurched. “Smith!” Hirsh yelled over the shouts of the others. Her shoulder slammed into one of Doctor Lopez’s stations. The Trident rolled.

“Not now!” Smith called back, as the rest of the crew hit walls, then the ceiling. Samples clattered around in their cases. Finally, the Trident settled, leaning only slightly to one side. Hirsh lay panting against a computer. The others moved around her, groaning and holding injured body parts.

Hirsh dragged the back of her hand across her nose, wet smearing over her skin, and asked, “What was that?”

Lieutenant Smith sat at the forward controls, buckled into his seat, scowling. Hirsh could have sworn something impossible moved across the screen behind his head. She checked the sensors to confirm what she’d seen and found them dark. Damaged. “I don’t know,” Smith said, hitting a switch. The Trident leveled out for a moment, before listing just slightly to the other side. “Something hit us.”

Hirsh shivered. “Nothing hit us,” she said. “There’s nothing out here to hit.”

“Alright, Doc,” Smith said. “Sure. Well, whatever didn’t hit us did some damage, too. Engines are down.”

“What? Allof them?” Hirsh leaned over Smith’s shoulder, frowning at the controls for the Trident’s propulsion systems. “But we’re not sinking.”

“We were,” Smith said. “We reached an equalization point. The water below us is too dense to let us sink any farther. The hull’s barely holding from the pressure, but we’re not going to drop anymore, as long as the Trident maintains pressure.”

“We’re adrift?” Doctor Lopez implored, crowded in the space between compartments. A smear of blood ran down from his temple. He spoke too loudly in the enclosed space. “We have to call for help.”

Smith’s frown deepened. “I’ve been trying,” he said. “Communications are down.”

“Well, launch the emergency buoy,” Doctor Sokolova demanded, her face red and blotchy. “We can’t stay down here. Not with that thing out there.”

“There’s nothing out there,” Hirsh said.

Lieutenant Smith cleared his throat. “The buoy won’t launch,” he said. “The mechanism jammed.”

“Shit,” Hirsh hissed. Something moved on the screen, right at the corner of her vision, she could have sworn… Hirsh rubbed her head, frowning. She must have hit it when the Trident spun. “Alright. Fine. Howard, you work on getting us engines. Lopez, Sokolova, see if you can find out what really happened to us. Smith, see what you can do about communication. I’ll work on freeing the buoy.”

***

Half the Trident’s systems failed to respond to any commands. Hirsh ended up pulling panels off the walls to access the circuitry below, attempting to reroute power around failing systems. The Trident slowly turned more onto its side. She found a damaged connection and reached for her tools when Sergeant Howard screamed, high and splitting. Something shattered. Hirsh dropped her work, ran towards the noise, and found Howard slamming a drill down onto one of the view-screens, over and over again. He managed to crack the screen, the image on it fracturing into a thousand pieces. Half of the shards fritzed out to blackness. Lieutenant Smith grabbed Howard from behind, swearing and lifting him away. Howard thrashed, still screaming and struck Hirsh a ringing blow against the jaw as she tried to take the drill from his hand.

“That’s enough!” Lieutenant Smith yelled, slamming Howard against the hull. The scientist gibbered as Smith dragged his hands back, one at a time, pinning them at the small of Howard’s back and tying them with a zip-string. “Hirsh? You okay, Doc?”

“I’m alright,” Hirsh said; her jaw throbbed, and her mouth tasted of copper. She knelt by the damaged view-screen and shivered. Purple and silver filled all the other screens. Nothing moved. “You want to tell me what happened, Howard?”

“I saw it,” Howard babbled. He’d gone limp and slid down the wall. “I saw it, I saw it.”

“What did you see?” asked Doctor Sokolova.

“I saw it,” Howard repeated. He rolled his eyes up to look at Hirsh. His pupils were huge. “I saw it. We’re all going to die. It’s going to kill us all.”

Doctor Sokolova cried out.

“Stop it,” Hirsh snapped. “There’s nothing out there.”

“He said—”

“There’s nothing out there,” Hirsh shouted. Sokolova and Lopez shrunk back from her. “You’ve all seen the scans. There’s nothing here but us. Not on this entire planet. Everyone take a deep breath and let’s get back to work. Lieutenant, could you…?”

Lieutenant Smith knelt by Howard, the medical kit in his hand. “Already on it,” he said, flicking the point of a needle to remove the gas bubbles. “Shh, buddy. You’re gonna be fine now.”  A moment later, Howard went blessedly quiet and limp as the sedative took effect. Hirsh stepped on a piece of the shattered view-screen when she returned to her work. It scrapped across the floor.

***

“Hey,” Lieutenant Smith said, leaning close to Hirsh with a quick look to ensure the others weren’t paying attention. Hirsh grunted a response. “So, communications are shot. Whatever the problem is, it’s on the outside of the Trident.”

“Of course,” Hirsh grumbled. She’d arrived at roughly the same conclusion about the buoy but refused to give up. Smith shifted his weight from foot to foot, his arms crossed tightly. “What? Is there something else?”

Smith grimaced and bent a little closer. “Just,” he said, “look, I know it can’t be right, but I keep thinking I see something out there. Can you tell me…?”

Hirsh grabbed his collar, shaking just a little to make her point. “There’s nothing there. I’ve done the scans a dozen times. We’re alone. It’s just the… I don’t know, the pressure down here, or something. It’s probably affecting the fluid in our eyes or pressing against our occipital lobes. Making us see things. That’s all.”

Smith nodded, closing his dark eyes for a moment. “Right,” he said. “Right, thank you.”

The Trident rocked again. “And that’s just the current,” Hirsh said, without looking away from Smith. “It’s going to push us around more, now that we lost engines. That’s all it is.”

***

“Howard’s waking up!” Doctor Sokolova shouted, tripping over her feet and interrupting Hirsh’s work.

“He can’t be,” Lieutenant Smith said, as Hirsh pulled her arm out of the Trident’s wiring, where she’d been trying to manually form a connection to allow for the release of the emergency buoy. “I gave him a full dose of Halo. He’ll be out for at least twelve hours.”

Sergeant Howard burst into crazed laughter, far too loud in the enclosed space of the Trident. Hirsh swore, wiped her hands on her pants and stepped into the back compartment. Howard remained strapped into his drop-chair, his arms and ankles tied down. Doctor Lopez stood frozen on his far side. Howard swiveled his head around to look at Hirsh, and his laughter cut off abruptly. A wide, crooked smile remained. “You’re all going to die,” he said.

“No one is going to die,” Hirsh said.

“I’ll dose him again,” Lieutenant Smith offered.

“It won’t help,” Sergeant Howard said, still staring at Hirsh, unblinking. “Nothing you do will help. You can’t save them. It’s going to take them all.” He began humming, off key, and rocked back and forth.

“You can’t give him more,” Doctor Lopez interrupted, tiptoeing past Howard. “He could go into respiratory arrest. Look at him. He’s already… not well.” Sweat poured down Howard’s brow, despite the chill in the Trident. A bright red flush crept up from below his uniform, and his eyes glazed over.

“Shit,” Hirsh murmured, tugging at her hair. “He’s right. And Howard can’t… hurt anyone. Sojust try to ignore him, alright?”

Howard’s renewed laughter, cracking and loud, followed Hirsh back to the front compartment.

***

Exhaustion settled over the crew as the hours dragged by. “I can take watch while you three sleep,” Lieutenant Smith offered, after catching Hirsh yawning for the fifth time. Howard had quieted, only murmuring senselessly, making the Trident almost peaceful.

 “Thank you,” Doctor Sokolova said, “we’d appreciate that.”

“Watch for what?” Hirsh asked.

Smith shrugged and tossed Hirsh a sleeping pad. She unrolled it in the cramped space within the front compartment, where she could listen to the faint hum of the computer processors. She turned, again and again, putting both of her arms under her head, before finally sitting up. The noise of the ocean echoed through the hull, strange and gurgling.

Impossible.

The Trident’s hull was two feet thick. She pushed her back against the hull and focused on the sound of her heart. “Doc?” Lieutenant Smith asked.

“I hate these,” Hirsh complained about the pads. “I’d rather sleep in the chairs.” She climbed into her chair, pulled her legs in and curled up. For a second, before her eyes shut, she swore she saw something huge and dark pass across one of the screens, but exhaustion overtook her before she could identify it.

***

Doctor Sokolova’s screams woke Hirsh from a dream about cold water, and the smell of salt. Sokolova stood in the rear compartment of the Trident, pointing forward at the view-screens, tremors wracking her body. Nothing but purple filled the screens. “I saw it,” she yelled, her voice breaking, as Doctor Lopez moved to grab her. She dug her fingers into his arms. “I saw it, I saw it, I saw it.”

“You were dreaming,” Hirsh told her.

“What did you see?” Doctor Lopez asked. “Shh, shh, what did you see?”

“The eyes,” Sokolova said, sagging as her knees gave. “I saw the eyes.” She looked at Hirsh, dreamy, her face slack, and her pupils so wide the green of her eyes had disappeared. She exhaled a shuddery laugh. “And it saw me.” And she reached up, lightning quick, her fingers hooked like claws. She didn’t even blink as her nails reached her eyes.

“No!” Lieutenant Smith yelled. Lopez tackled Sokolova sideways, grabbing for her wrists. Her hair fell forward. Dark blood slid down her fingers and across the angles of her face. Hirsh’s gorge rose. She reached out and held onto the wall.

Beside them, Sergeant Howard burst into crazed laughter.

***

“Lopez says we might be able to save one of her eyes,” Lieutenant Smith said, after restraining Sokolova. He collapsed into the pilot’s seat. “If we get out of here soon.”

Hirsh tossed aside the tiny soldering iron in her hand, and thumped her back against the computers, avoiding so much as glancing at the screens. The purple no longer appealed. “She—” Hirsh started, then bit her tongue.

“I know,” Smith said.

“I have to find a way to activate the buoy,” Hirsh grunted, turning back to the computers. She felt the view-screens. Watching her. “Turn off the screens,” she ordered, shuddering. Bad enough they had to listen to Howard’s crazed gibbering and Sokolova’s sobs. They didn’t need to look out into the endless colors as well.

“You got it, Doc.” A moment passed. Purple light continued to bathe the ship. “Hirsh,” Smith said, quietly. “They won’t turn off.”

“What?” Hirsh leaned across Smith, activating controls while keeping her head ducked away from the screens. “All you have to do is….” She trailed off, the controls dead and useless under her hands. “I don’t understand,” she said, going through the procedure again and again. “I don’t —? Why won’t —?”

Smith grabbed her wrists, his callused fingers soft against her skin. His expression looked grim. She focused on his eyes, not the screen behind his head, not the movement she knew she saw. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Just get that buoy working. Okay?”

“Right,” Hirsh said, nodding. “Right. I don’t have time to worry about a stupid glitch.” Smith stood. “Where are you going?”

“For blankets,” he said and when he returned he covered the screens as best he could. The purple bled through the fabric, along with strange, impossible shadows.

***

Weariness scratched at the back of Hirsh’s eyes and fogged her thoughts. It took a sudden strange quiet from the rear compartment to rouse her.

“Wake up,” she said, shoving Lieutenant Smith’s knee as she stood. The dimmed lights, weakened by the drain on the Trident’s power, illuminated Doctor Lopez as he bent over Sokolova. He sliced through the bonds around her wrists. “What are you doing?” Hirsh demanded, charging forward. Smith caught her back, his hand on his sidearm and his gaze on Lopez’s blade.

“What I have to do,” Lopez said, moving to Sergeant Howard, who stared up at the ceiling, clicking his tongue against his teeth. Sokolova slid down to the floor, fell sideways, and reached for her face. She began to laugh.

“No!” Hirsh jerked forward, and Lopez pivoted towards her, brandishing his blade.

“Ah,” Lopez said. Smith held Hirsh in place. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I saw it, too. I understand now.” Lopez giggled.

“What?” Hirsh demanded.

“I had to look,” Lopez said. “I had to see it. I could hear it. Calling me to. I had to see.” Sergeant Howard stood up beside him and rolled his head towards Hirsh and Smith. “It’s going to be alright now,” Lopez said. He smiled, wider and wider. “We know what to do. We’re going to get out of here. We’re going to get us all out of here.” Lopez took a step in Smith and Hirsh’s direction while Howard moved towards the back of the Trident.

“Stop right there,” Smith ordered, drawing his weapon. “Both of you. Don’t make me—” Lopez lunged at him. The sound of the gun going off in the enclosed space deafened Hirsh. She cried out and jerked back. Lopez glanced down at the wound in his shoulder and began laughing, high and cracking. Beside him, Sokolova staggered to her feet. Her face was a wet ruin. Hirsh slapped a hand over her mouth and screamed into her palm.

Howard reached the emergency hatch. “No!” Smith ordered. “Don’t touch it!”

“He can’t open it,” Hirsh said, grasping onto that piece of logic. “The pressure is too—”

The hatch creaked.

Hirsh stopped breathing. The Trident rocked, hard. She lost her footing. Smith swore and grabbed her, dragging her body back into the front compartment as Sokolova and Lopez advanced towards them. “Close it!” Smith yelled. “Close it now!” He fired again. And again.

Hirsh scrambled at the door controls, sure that they would fail her as well, but they responded. She sobbed in relief as the doors hissed, sliding together and locking, just as Lopez lunged to grab her. She heard the crunch of his bones when the doors shut. A moment later the Trident jerked hard, thrown into a spiraling tumble as the emergency hatch blew, and the ocean had its wicked way with the rear compartment.

The spin threw Hirsh and Smith around, introducing them to every hard corner of the compartment, before slowing as the resistance in the water stopped their movement. They landed tangled together, blankets twisted around them.

“Don’t look,” Hirsh hissed, swallowing the gorge in her throat. “Don’t open your eyes. The screens—”

“Shh,” Smith said. “I won’t.”

“They opened the hatch,” Hirsh whispered, after another moment. The slowed roll of the ship forced her up to her knees. She kept her eyes squeezed shut. “They… I don’t understand. I don’t understand.” She heard the ocean, moving against the blast doors.

“It’s okay,” Smith said. He found her hand and squeezed.

“No.” Hirsh shook her head and tasted bile. “No, it’s, what if we—what if we see it? We’re going to go crazy, the same way they did. How long until one of us opens the cabin?”

“I have more ties,” Smith said, his voice trembling. “I bet we could find our way to the chairs.”

Hirsh took a breath, shaking from the speed of her heartbeat. “You want to tie ourselves down?”

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

Hirsh pressed her hand across her eyes. She saw the others behind her eyelids, laughing on their way to death. “Let’s do it.”

***

“Do you think we’re still sinking?” Lieutenant Smith asked, later. Bonds held Hirsh’s arms and legs tight to her chair. She twisted against them automatically. Her wrists felt sticky and wet. “I swear my ears popped. How much pressure can the hull take?”

“We’re not sinking,” Hirsh said, daring the words to sound believable. They’d lost so much of their oxygen along with the rear compartment. But if the Trident’s hull hadn’t given yet, it seemed unlikely it would. “The hull will be fine.”

“It might not be so bad,” Smith continued, quietly. “It would probably be quick. We might not even feel—”

Tears left hot tracks down her cheeks. “Shut up,” Hirsh rasped.

“I’m sorry,” Smith murmured after a moment. Something hit the Trident, spinning them again, leaving them hanging suspended upside down. The purple light in the room seemed to grow brighter, pressing against Hirsh’s eyelids. It sounded like someone knocked on the hull, a cheery little sound. “Do you hear that?” Smith asked.

“No,” Hirsh lied. She added, “Don’t listen.”

“I can’t help it,” Smith said, like an apology. “I can hear it. I think it wants me to look.”

“No!”

“I can’t keep my eyes shut,” Smith said, fear soaking through each syllable. “Hirsh, Doc, please, I need you to help—”

“Look at me,” Hirsh ordered, snapping her eyes open. She knew where Smith sat, better than anything. She stared at him with everything she had left and his eyes met hers. “Just look at me,” she begged, “just keep looking in my eyes.” She strove to follow the advice, trying to identify the spot where his dark pupils met his irises. She ignored the shapes moving behind him, the horrible, impossible things in the view-screens. Smith held her gaze. “Don’t look away.”

“I won’t,” Smith promised. And he didn’t. They stared, and the Trident rocked again, hard.

The shapes in the view-screens disappeared all at once, leaving behind nothing but light. The Trident continued to shake, twisting them back right-side up.  The view-screens failed, all at once, showing nothing but blackness as the feeds cut.

Hirsh screamed.

The shaking turned to banging. Her heart hammered against her ribs, intent on escape. The others had come for them, to drag them into the deep. Hirsh curled her fingers up against her palms until blood flowed. “I’m really sorry, Doc,” Smith said.

And Hirsh’s radio crackled to life, buzzing inside her ear. “—said this is Captain Sing. Can anyone aboard the Trident hear me?” Hirsh’s breath escaped as wheezing laughter. She couldn’t move her hand to respond and ended up listening to Sing’s voice over the radio as the Hermes drew them out of the depths.

***

The servos controlling the doors whirred to life after a small eternity spent in the dark. Light flooded in and Hirsh hissed, turning her face away from it. Exclamations of horror washed over her.

Gentle hands brushed back her hair while someone else sliced through her bonds. A nurseknelt in front of her and someone threw a blanket across her shoulders. Hirshmet Smith’s eyes across the sudden crowd. He gave her a small nod; she sagged down.

***

“We came as soon as you released the emergency buoy,” Captain Sing said, later that day, standing in the sterile sick bay, between the beds assigned to Hirsh and Smith. She’d conferred with the doctors before coming to them and then listened to their explanation of what had happened with minimal interruptions. “You say it wouldn’t deploy?”

Hirsh frowned. “That’s right. I don’t know. It must have come loose when the rear compartment opened.”

Captain Sing nodded, tapping her fingers on the foot of the bed. A doctor strolled over and cleared his throat. “Alright,” Captain Sing said, tugging her uniform straight. “I think that means enough for now. We can discuss the rest once you’ve recovered.”

“Captain,” Hirsh called, before Sing could exit the room. Sing turned back. Hirsh licked her lips and cursed her dry tongue. “What was it?” she managed to ask. “Down there with us?”

Sing’s expression tightened, just a little. “It’s not important right now.”

“Ma’am, please,”Smith put in from the other bed. Sing stared for a moment.“Nothing,” she said. “We found no evidence of anything but you.”

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