“Well, should we go inside?” Gillian asked Pol.
“Yes, I think we should.”
Yet they both remained still. The reggae song ended, the remains of the final notes carried by the wind until there was no longer any sound at all, except for the quivering red plants.
Only then did Gillian and Pol began to walk towards the station, slowly and with caution. The grass and dead leaves crunched under foot. The sun moved behind a cloud, and the station became easy to see. Weeds sprouted up around the perimeter, and Gillian could make out a tear in the silver siding of one of the compartments, which appeared to be caused by a great, crimson tree that had fallen on it. The section to sagged under its weight. Gillian drew her tablet out of her pack and took a picture, then flipped to the next page and scrawled a note on the location and condition with her finger.
It was not a basic station; that was clear. The astronauts who built it had brought a much larger kit, one that appeared to be twelve sections total instead of the usual four. Each compartment was connected to the other, octagonal in shape with a domed ceiling made out of the tough, silver siding that could hold both heat and cool air.
“They must have meant to stay a very long time,” Gillian said as they began to circle the station, slowly, inspecting it for further damage.
“They all died, so I guess they did stay.”
“We don’t know that they died. They just stopped sending log entries.”
“Why would they stop communicating if they weren’t dead?” Pol touched another tear in the siding, examining it to see if it could be patched together with sealant.
“I don’t know. Maybe they … decided to strike out on their own.” Gillian noted the tear in her tablet before moving on.
“I doubt it. There were thirty crew. That’s a huge mission, and a NISS invested a lot of money. I don’t think they’d all agree to leave. No way. This is Jamestown. I can smell it.”
“I think it was called Jonestown. The one where everyone drank poison?”
“No. The one where everyone just disappeared from the colony in Virginia.” Pol frowned. “Or what that called Roanoke?”
Gillian couldn’t recall. Regardless, it had been nearly forty years since the last contact with the crew of Star Taker. Reports seemed to suggest that the ship and its crew had vanished two years after landing on Latmos. The station’s computer had gone into auto mode and had been maintaining — or trying to maintain — its basic systems since then.
Suddenly, she heard a pressure seal release from one of the station’s air locks. Pol tensed. Gillian froze. Her ears searched for a subsequent sound, but the forest was silent. From their position, she couldn’t make out where the noise came; the honeycomb shape of the station with its octagonal walls made it difficult to tell. And yet the noise had definitely been an airlock. She had no doubt. The only question was, which one? There was one airlock per compartment.
Gillian gestured to Pol that she was going around the side of the structure. He nodded and indicated he’d take the opposite direction. She turned and treaded silently, tracing the wall of the station with her back and hands, craning her neck to see around the next turn.
As she crept to the front near the main airlock, she saw a man with a pack walking away, his pace hurried. She blinked. Her breath caught in her chest. She could hardly believe it.
“Wait!” she cried. “Stop! Who are you? NISS Search here! Captain Gillian Penn.”
The man turned at her words and looked at her as she hurried to catch him. As she approached, she slowed. His eyes shimmered like stars on a shifting sea, but his face of one who was starving; shrunken lips, jutting cheekbones, sunken sockets and hungry white teeth that seemed to chatter involuntarily.
“Don’t come too close,” the man said, taking a step back as he rubbed his shaved head with his hand. He wore faded gray pants issued by NISS with tapered ankles and snaps along the side. But the blue and red NISS patch and had been torn off, and a piece of day glow tarp had been stitched in its place.
“Who are you?” Gillian repeated, stopping some paces away. She could hear Pol approach.
“I should ask the same of you,” the man said.
“Captain Gillian Penn and Flight Lieutenant Pol Wladkowski of NISS – the National Institute of Space Science. We came on the ship Search.”
“A fitting name — Search. Welcome to Latmos. There’s nothing here except hunger and death.”
“You must identify yourself,” Pol said. Gillian saw out of the corner of her eye that Pol’s hand was on his holster.
“I don’t have to do anything anymore. You’re the ones who are intruding. This is my home.” The man looked at Pol’s gun, his expression unreadable.
“You live in the station?” Gillian said.
“I used to.”
“Are you one of the crew of Star Taker?” Pol asked, his hand gripping the gun.
The stranger glanced between them. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Pol stepped closer, his face tight, the gun at his side. “Yes, you do. You’re the flight lieutenant, aren’t you? Sharp. Desmond Sharp.”
Gillian frowned. That wasn’t possible.
“I have no such recollection,” the man said.
“You’re lying.” Pol’s fingers worked the safety on the gun.
“This man can’t be from the Star Taker,” Gillian said. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s been forty years. He’d be an old man.”
“Listen to your Captain,” the man said.
“Oh, I know who he is. Gillian, don’t you remember? From the photo aboard the Search before we crashed. It’s him. He’s the Star Taker’s flight lieutenant.”
The man’s face remained still, unblinking. His eyes brilliant, listening, studying them. Despite having the look of a man who was starving, his face was unlined, ageless, without worry. “I have no memory of being a flight lieutenant,” he said slowly, with care. “You are the flight lieutenant. I’m just Sharp. I don’t have a title or a rank.”
“See? I told you,” Pol said. “I don’t know how or why, but it’s him.”
“There’s no way.” Gillian’s mind was working. It couldn’t be the same flight lieutenant. It didn’t make sense. She hoped she was in a dream, a strange and bizarre nightmare in which she would wake up and find herself knocked out cold from the crash. The alternative — trying to explain in her NISS report that a Lieutenant Desmond Sharp was alive and hadn’t aged a day seemed more terrible than anything. They’d no doubt think she was crazy and strip her of her post, unless she could force him to explain this to NISS on his own accord. And then the implications were mind boggling.
The man — Sharp — nodded towards the station. “Sometimes I go there just to listen to music. I miss music. But there’s hardly anything left worth taking. We used all of the supplies ages ago.”
“We were going to set up camp inside,” Pol said.
Sharp looked thoughtful. “It’s a good place to sleep for a night or two. Just to get out of the cold. The temperature drops at night when the wind starts blowing. But I wouldn’t stay there if I were you.”
“Why wouldn’t you stay?” Gillian asked.
“The crew became … deranged.” Sharp’s eyes drifted to the station. “Five of them slit their own throats in the barracks. The others got hungry and started to eat each other. One by one. Until I was the only one left.”
Gillian and Pol exchanged glances.
“So, did you … eat them too?” For the first time, Pol sounded frightened. His arm was still holding the gun, but he hadn’t pointed it at Sharp. Not yet.
“I did what I could to stay alive. You would have done the same.” Sharp paused. “You can put the gun away. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Pol didn’t move, but Gillian knew him well enough to know that unless Sharp became a threat, he wouldn’t shoot. Pol was wondering how it was that Desmond Sharp was standing before them, and what had happened exactly.
“Are there more of you?” Sharp asked. “Usually with a ship is a crew.”
“The crew is dead. We crashed,” Gillian said.
“Are you sure? Are they really all dead? Did you see their bodies?”
Pol cleared his throat. “Well, mostly yes. Two were thrown from the ship upon impact. There’s no way they could have survived.”
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that Latmos is an extremely unusual place. I wouldn’t consider them dead until you’ve seen it with your own eyes.”
Silence passed between them. Sharp adjusted his pack and looked back towards the red forest where he’d been headed. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back. It’ll be dark soon, and I don’t want to be caught in the cold.”
He turned and walked away.
“When will we see you again?” Pol called after him.
“Don’t worry,” Sharp said. “I know where to find you.”
They stood side-by-side and watched him go, too dumbstruck to think of anything else to say. If Gillian was to draw any conclusion, it was that Sharp had gone crazy.