Star Taker

The leaves shook at the foot of the space station as reggae boomed over the loud speakers on the planet Latmos. The red forest seemed to dance in the wake of the music’s rhythm, the scarlet branches swaying, the crimson grass bending towards the singer’s voice, which echoed in the empty forest, like a ghost after a great, murderous battle.

“What is it?” Pol asked, slinging his pack over his shoulder, his helmet hanging by a carabiner.

“Music,” Gillian said, then realizing Pol probably already guess that, added, “It’s Jamaican, mid-twentieth century, I think. I haven’t heard it before.”

Pol nodded. Being an avid collector of music, he trusted her expertise.

“How is there music playing?” he said, lowering his voice. “The station is uninhabited.”

“I don’t know. Maybe a malfunction in the operating system?” A red leaf tickled the back of her neck. She recoiled and stepped sideways, closer to Pol, so that it couldn’t touch her.

“Maybe, but that’s sort of odd, don’t you think?” Pol’s face was a mask of fatigue and fright.

“Yes … although I guess anything can go wrong out here. A short circuit, I mean.”

Pol nodded in agreement. “It could just be going haywire. Still, it’s a bit eerie, wouldn’t you say?”

Gillian didn’t have the energy to answer. After killing the rabox, they’d hiked nearly ten miles north of the crash site to the station. Now, her back and legs felt tired.

She reached out her hand to steady herself on Pol’s shoulder, but changed her mind and braced herself against a tree instead. Her arm hurt where the rabox had clawed her. No. It burned. At the thought of the gash, the blood-colored bark seemed move under her hand like a nest of wriggling maggots. Her mouth became wet with saliva, and she fought back the urge to vomit. There were no maggots. The plants were just like those on Earth. This was her, not them. She was exhausted and in shock. That was all. And the reggae music made her feel disoriented. It was too ethereal, like a dream. Too much like home. Shut it off! she wanted to scream. Instead, she closed her eyes.

“What if the food and fresh water didn’t survive?” Pol said.

She opened her eyes. “We’ve got some more supplies at the shuttle. We can live off of those until …”

“Until what? We’re 30 light years from home.”

“We’ll figure it out. One step at a time.”

Her words didn’t seem to console Pol, whose brow became more wrinkled with worry as they listened. Like all astronauts, they were trained in how to assemble, activate and maintain the space station. Once a station was abandoned, the auto mode kicked in to monitor basic support systems — heating and cooling, ventilation systems, water supply, lights and reserve oxygen tanks. All of this was checked automatically. If there was a failure, the space station would first re-boot, then seal off the malfunctioning section by dropping a steel door that was built between every compartment of the complex, with the central control center always the last section to be deactivated.

The only question was, did the section that stored food and water remain? She hoped it hadn’t been deactivated. They wouldn’t survive long on Latmos without supplies.