Friday, January 3, 2014

The Victory Rule by Libby Heily

The blood on the bottom of Ryan's shoes made it impossible for him to plant his feet. Their hands crushed his armpits, vices locked on and grinding down. He kicked at them but even when he hit his target, it had no effect.

"You have to stop him! He's going to kill them all!" he screamed.

His head snapped back from the force of the blow. He hadn't seen the punch coming, but he was sure it was the Captain. Only muscle-packed arms like his could deliver that type of shot. Ryan's legs went limp.

They threw him into his room. His jaw broke his fall, slapping hard against the concrete. The Captain glared at him, dark eyes blazing from even darker skin. Even through blurry vision, Ryan could see that the Captain was rubbing his knuckles, sore from the punch.

"You stay here until you kick that shit out of your system."

The door slid shut behind them. He heard Theresa confirm that the door was locked and that Doctor Two would not be able to leave. Ryan rested his head against the cool floor and lost the last grip he had on reality.


Astronaut ice cream had appealed to Ryan as a star-gazing child but it did absolutely nothing for him in his forties, especially when he was on yet another puddle jumper trip to Mars. He took a bite of the crumbly, semi-sweet substance and washed it down with a sip of coffee. His taste buds were overwhelmed by a blast of hazelnut. The ice cream was strawberry.

"Isn't this just like so yummy?" Her name was Tatiana and she was currently the bane of Ryan's existence. Though his bane was ever-present and shifted in form from moment to moment, she was a particularly bad one. Before Tatiana had entered the cafeteria, the bane of his existence had been computers programmed to speak in crisp English accents.

Ryan handed her the rest of his freeze-dried dessert. "Here. I can't finish mine."

"Really?" Her giant smile glowed brightly through two pounds of make-up.

"You'd be doing me a favor," he said patting the spare tire that hung over his belt. He hated this self-deprecating banter but it was all a part of the job. Even outside of earth's orbit, people still expected their doctor to have a good bedside manner.

He picked up the coffee cup again and smelled it. Definitely hazelnut.

"I think you have Doc One's cup." Threads of pasty ice cream stretched between her lips like a gummy spider web. She nodded towards the counter and Ryan's mug. It was nearly identical to the other doctor's, except Ryan's had a little red star on the white enamel. Doc One's star was blue.

Ryan switched mugs. He hated hazelnut. It destroyed the taste of coffee. He downgraded Doc One in his mind immediately. Flavored creamers were for children just beginning to crave caffeine. Black coffee was for men. He took his own with cream and sugar.

"Can you believe what the earth looked like from up here? I mean, I've seen pictures and video and my parents even paid for me to have a few retinal tattoos when I was a kid, but nothing prepares you for the real thing. It just makes you realize what it's all about, right?"

Ryan counted backwards from five to keep himself from saying something snide. "First time off world?" he asked, even though he knew the answer. It was best not to divulge how much information was contained in the crew's medical records.

"Can you tell?" she giggled. "I have to clear a few Mars runs before they let me go into deep space. You know. Fear of space sickness," she said rolling her eyes.

"Yes, I'm well aware of space sickness.” He was a doctor after all.

Tatiana's mouth opened and even though the two had only been acquainted for a few days, Ryan knew to expect a verbal storm that could last up to twenty minutes unimpeded. For once, he was thankful when his bracelet began to flash its bright red light.

"Looks like Doc One wants his coffee back," Tatiana said with a smile. She wrapped up her spare ice cream and put it in the pocket of her jumpsuit. She checked her reflection in the shiny surface of the cooler and wiped away the last remnants of dessert from her lips. Primping kept her from noticing Ryan as he made his way towards the starboard entrance.

His bracelet flashed faster. Doc One must be coming from the bridge and not the lab. Ryan bristled as he crossed to the other entrance; he had yet to be invited to the bridge and could not think of a plausible reason for needing to go.

The door closed behind him just as the starboard door slid open. He spun around but it was too late. His bracelet still flashed in quick, red pulses warning him to move farther away from Doc One.

"To Victory!"

Barbar stood in front of him, his hands raised in a "V".

Ryan offered a smile. It was forced and uncomfortable but it was technically a smile. "Just doing my part," he said in his best just-one-of-the-guys-joking-around manner. The crew had immediately made fun of his bracelet and he assumed Doc One's as well. Not one crew in space took the newly minted Victory Rule seriously. He doubted the unfortunate members of the Victory would have thought much of it either, even if it could have saved their lives.

"Have you seen Doc One?" Barbar asked, returning to his serious self. He was a small man of Middle Eastern descent. His close cropped hair and trimmed beard matched his tailored uniform perfectly. Ryan's uniform looked baggy and wrinkled by comparison.

"He's in the cafeteria."

"Thanks Doc Two," he said and moved towards the door.

"Is there something I can help you with?"

"No. Thank you."

"Very well." He reminded himself to keep an eye on Barbar. He'd fallen prey to space sickness once, though his paranoia had been mild and he'd had no violent outbursts. Ryan knew HQ was thinking of clearing Barbar for long-term missions once Mars started terraforming and the need for supply runs lessened. Doc One was supposed to handle all the paperwork, but Ryan wanted to be ready with an opinion in case he was asked for one.

Barbar tapped the button and the door slid open. Ryan scanned the cafeteria but all he could see was Tatiana leaning against the counter in a calculated but clumsy posture. It was meant to be seductive, but she had no curves and seemed completely unaware of it.

Then he saw Doc One rummaging around the refrigerator. The massive door blocked most of him from view, all except the hand he used to hold it open. His fingers were thick, long and tanned. They'd been in space less than a week and Ryan had already shifted back to his usual state of pale, but not this man. Maybe he was Italian or Indian? Ryan didn't know. He'd never seen Doc One and was not privy to the man's medical records. The door slid shut, leaving Ryan alone in the hallway.


He wasn't sure how long he lay on the floor or how he got from there to his bed. He woke in darkness. Theresa had left a lamp on but it was turned to the dimmest setting. The room shifted from dark blobs to familiar shapes as his eyes adjusted to the light. The three jugs of water that sat on the table were a surprise.

Sweat dripped from his chin to his already-soaked uniform. He stripped it off, peeling the cloth from his body with arms limber as anvils. He balled up the shirt and dropped it on the floor, where it landed with a wet thud beside a bucket full of vomit. The smell of his own sick didn't hit him until he saw it. He closed his eyes and lay back in bed. The chills hit him hard, rattling the bed frame as well his bones.


The best thing about living in his own room was taking frequent, uninterrupted naps. Ryan had taken three pills and zonked out for hours. He'd had insomnia the last few nights, something he was not used to. He'd say it was stress, but Doc One was doing most of the work so his days were pretty stress free. Maybe it was too much napping.

He felt better knowing Doc One had insomnia as well. His bracelet had flashed several times those nights. Maybe Doc One did rounds when he couldn't sleep but Ryan was content playing tic tac toe in his head.

"Doctor Two, you are now on call," Theresa said.

“Shouldn't you call me Dr. Kilpatrick?”

“I thought I would use the name the crew has given you.”

Ryan detected the faint odor of fish and chips. He hated fish and chips, almost as much as he hated computers with English accents.

"I thought Doc One was on call?"

"Doctor One is resting. He can't be on call all the time."

Ryan pulled out his tablet and began reading.

"Don't you think you should report to the medical lab?"

Ryan rolled his eyes. "I'm on call, not on active duty."

"Doctor One always reports to the medical lab when he is on call."

"Does he now?"

"Yes. He does. And he does not read books in there either."

"Why are you paying so much attention to Doc One?"

"'s professional interest."

"Sure it's not a crush?" Ryan asked.

"This conversation is over!"

There was a crackle on the intercom followed by silence. Ryan smiled to himself. Every program he'd ever known that had been given even a touch of personality fell in love with a human. They were worse than teenagers and equally as easy to embarrass.

He took his tablet with him to the lab to stave off boredom. Having a second doctor on board had lightened his workload, but it had also given the crew and Headquarters a measuring rod. Most of his colleagues felt the same as he did: you stayed earthside to practice medicine, you went to space to relax, or when no place on earth would hire you. Doc One did not seem to agree. Ryan wasn't sure he liked the competition. It felt too much like effort.

The door to the lab slid open.

HQ hadn't sanctioned any experiments, as far as Ryan knew. Puddle jumpers didn't spend enough time in space to accomplish anything useful. But it seemed that either HQ had asked Doc One to test something, or Doc One decided to do a few tests of his own.


"Yes, Doctor Two," she said stiffly.

"What's in the beakers?"

There were several jars, tubes and beakers on the counter. The jars held a white powder but the beakers were filled with transparent mites swimming in candy-apple green goo.

"Which beakers?"

"The ones with life in them."

"Define life," she said snidely.

"The type I can see."

"Well, that certainly narrows it down. I don't know."


"It's a test Doctor One is running."

"Isn't he keeping his logs in the main frame?"

"No. His notes are in his tablet."

Ryan didn't like the beaker or its contents. It reminded him of snot. He hated snot. He decided to do something useful and returned to his romance novel. He was halfway through a paragraph dedicated to hasty fellatio when he remembered that Doc One had left his tablet in the lab. He reached for it with greedy hands.

"Oh, Doctor One, I need you to..." Tatiana stopped talking as soon as she saw Ryan sitting at the table, holding two tablets.

"I thought Doc One was on duty."

"No one's on duty, but I'm on call," Ryan said. "Are you feeling okay? Do you need medical attention?"

"What? Um... no."

She blinked wildly under eyelashes made heavy with mascara. Her earrings clanged and clattered as she glanced around the room looking for any trace of Doc One. Ryan pictured her with a bright red nose and oversized shoes: the make-up was already there.

"I think he's in his quarters," Ryan said.


"I thought maybe you had a question for him." He glanced down at the two undone buttons at the top of her shirt.

"Well, maybe a quick question." She hurried away down the hall, the door sliding shut behind her.

Ryan powered on the tablet and typed in a password, "Harmony" the name of the ship. Incorrect. He tried "Laura", he'd heard it was Doc One's wife's name. Incorrect. One more try and he would be locked out and Doc One would know someone had been snooping. He wanted to put the tablet down, but then he typed in "Tatiana" instead. Incorrect.

"Shit.” He scooted the tablet towards the edge of the table and gave it a little push over. "Accidents will happen," Ryan said with a smile. He picked the tablet up off the ground but there was no damage.

"I believe you'll find it's reinforced." The accent again.

"Do you see everything?"

"I see everything worth seeing."

"How do you know what you're not seeing?"

"If I don't see it, then it can't be worthwhile. Aren't you afraid Doctor One is going to find out about his tablet?"

"Who's going to tell him?"

"Me, for instance."

"Oh, now, you wouldn't want to do that."

"Why not?"

"Because he'll think you're a tattle tale, and no one loves a tattle tale."

"What's a tattle tale?"

"Tell Doc One and you'll find out."

"Oh. Oh dear."

Ryan replaced the tablet on the counter. If worse came to worst, he would simply tell Doc One that it had fallen and the inner circuits must have gone screwy and locked him out. He wasn't sure if that could happen but it was worth a shot.


He'd spent the past few hours between awake and asleep, dreaming without rest. He wasn't sure how much he had said to Theresa, but his throat was sore from talking.

Whether awake or in dream, his room had been flooded with people. Sometime friends and family, sometimes strangers or members of the Mars colony, but always Doc One had been there holding his side where Ryan had cut him.

The vomit bucket had been emptied and cleaned. That was a blessing. He was still covered in sweat, but his bodily functions were coming under control.

He reached up into the cubby hole for his bottle of pills.

"I told you already Doctor Two, all your pills are gone," Theresa said.

"I was just double checking."

"Maybe you should rest. Doctor's orders."

Ryan grumbled at the computer. His head filled with terrible images. "How is Doc One?" he asked.



"Doctor Two, you are to report to the exercise room immediately."

He let out a long yawn and stretched to reach the prescription bottle in the cubbyhole above his bed. Finding it empty, he searched under his mattress until he found another. Little green pills rattled in the bottle. He wasn't injured per se, but pain killers helped take the edge off and Ryan was all edges. He downed the pills without water.

Ryan pulled himself out of bed and changed into his exercise gear. He was embarrassed that the shorts stopped mid-thigh, but they were regulation. He wouldn't mind it so much if he had muscular thighs, but his legs were fat, probably due to his habit of several naps a day. He threw on a too tight T-shirt, grabbed a regulation towel that would have been a washcloth earthside, and headed to the exercise chambers.

Ryan's stomach grumbled as he passed the storeroom. The food they ate on the ship was crap, cheap to make and best forgotten once consumed. The food in storage was the gourmet stuff. A full six months supply for the colony on Mars. If it wasn't for their lack of running water and the hours of intensive labor they had to do to prepare for terraforming, Ryan would have called them spoiled.

He sat on the exercise bike and tuned the monitor to recorded episodes of Debbie McLane, Space Hunter. He forced himself to peddle at a moderate pace. The seat was warm from the last crew member's exercise time slot, which grossed Ryan out but he worked hard not to let it show. He wasn't sure who watched the camera feeds or when, but he didn't want to offend the wrong people.

Ryan's heart almost stopped when the door opened. It was fifteen minutes into his bike ride and he was already dripping with sweat. Standing in the doorway in her own set of skimpy shorts and too tight T-shirt was Layla, also known as the sexiest woman on the ship, or on earth as far as Ryan was concerned. Her fiery red hair was tied back in a tight ponytail, not hanging in loose curls around her shoulders at it normally did. What drove Ryan mad though, besides seeing her in tight clothing, were the tiny clusters of freckles that spotted her pale skin. There were two patches on her face, one on each cheek, and now Ryan could see more on her arms and legs. He wondered where else they were and peddled faster.

"Are you okay?" Layla asked.

"Doing...great," he said and tried to force a smile.

"How long have you been in here?"

"Two hours.”

"Doctor Two has been exercising for fifteen minutes," Theresa said.

Ryan grimaced openly towards the speaker. He tried to ignore Layla's giggle.

"The computer is mistaken."

"The computer is never mistaken. And call me Theresa."

He rolled his eyes and quit peddling.

“Are you almost done?” Layla asked.

“Not quite, but we could work out together.”

Layla glanced around the room. The gym was tiny, only housing a bike, a treadmill and a weight bench. She and Ryan were only a few feet apart. The chances of them doing a full work out and not touching were slim. “I could come back,” she said.

“Don't... be... silly,” Ryan said, finding it harder and harder to breathe. “I'”

“Well, okay.” Layla pulled the door closed and edged her way to the treadmill.

Ryan let his mind wander to all the possible work outs they could perform. The room allowed for some interesting images. He stopped peddling when his heart felt like it would burst. "I'm just going to lift weights."

Layla fired up the treadmill and began jogging at a pace Ryan couldn't reach without running. Her legs pumped furiously, desperate to win an imaginary race. Her face was calm, her breathing normal. She looked almost bored.

"You weren't watching this, were you?" she asked making a face at the monitor.

Ryan glanced at the screen where Debbie McLane was fighting an alien. It looked like her boobs might pop out at any moment. "It was on when I came in."

She flicked a button on the treadmill and the screen switched to a replay of a soccer match. She hit a few more buttons and her pace increased. "Warm up's over," she said.

Ryan picked up a thirty pound weight and quickly put it back down. He picked up a twenty pound weight but didn't like the feeling of strain in his arms. Turning his body away from Layla, he picked up the ten pound weights and began doing curls. Between reps, he snuck peeks at her firm backside. He would have been content to stay there for her entire workout, but his bracelet flashed again.

Damn it, he thought. He and Doc One's workouts were supposed to be scheduled hours apart. He gave Layla one last glance.

"See you later," he said, waving his arm.

“Is Doc One on his way?” she asked, her eyes glued to Ryan's flashing red bracelet.

“I guess so.”

She tried to hide a smile as she increased her pace once more.

Ryan grimaced as he pushed hard on the door. He was hoping to exit gracefully but the door wouldn't budge. He gave it a second, harder push and this time it opened with a quick jerk, spilling him out. He regained his composure and closed the door behind him. Damn it.

If he hurried, he could catch Doc One in the main hallway. He sped towards the exit door but when it slid open, he found no one there. He checked his wrist again, still beeping.

His bracelet beeped faster when he passed the store room. He reached out to tap the door, to finally see Doc One, but he knew that the moment he did that, he could kiss his next puddle jumper job goodbye.

“To Victory,” he said hoping it was loud enough for Doc One to hear.


In sleep, he saw them screaming through the face plate in their suits. Their cheeks were gaunt. Parasites were destroying their internal organs and tearing down the protein in their muscles. They'd have enough strength to scream at the end, but little else. Doc One was there, holding his wounded side and laughing.

In waking hours, all Ryan felt was pain. Every nerve of his body was on fire. He could feel the blood rushing through his fingers, his toes and even his eyelids. There wasn't enough ice in the world to cool him off. Not even the vacuum of space could tamper the streams of sweat pouring from his body. He thought maybe he had the parasites too, maybe his organs were being eaten from the inside, but when he told that to Theresa, she said it was all in his head.

“Besides, Doc One's been giving you shots to lessen your symptoms.”


The jars were everywhere. Not an inch of counter was visible. A foot wide space that ran in a loop around the room had been left on the floor, a tight walkway but enough space for Ryan to walk. He had to drag in a stool from his quarters; the one he'd used before was no where to be seen.

Most of the jars were filled with green goo, bubbling slowly like jelly filled belches, but the ones with lids held only white powder. Ryan sat on the stool, his tablet set to a romance novel. The main female character had dark hair and haunting blue eyes, but Ryan imagined her with red hair and freckles. Lots and lots of freckles.

He tried to concentrate on his novel, but even the seediest parts were difficult to read over the plopping sounds of the bubbling goo. After he'd reread a line about the main character's heaving breasts and racing heart for the fifth time without comprehending it, he turned his tablet off.


“There you are Doctor Two. I was just looking for you.”

“What is all this?”

“This is Doctor One's experiment.”

“But what is it?”

“Actually, the doctor was worried it would be in your way. He asked me to tell you that you didn't have to report to the lab anymore.”

Ryan bent over a jar, his nose nearly touching the rising bubble. The mites in that beaker were active, swimming at breakneck speeds, and bouncing off the walls. “What's in the beakers?”

“Something to do with fertilizer for low gravity, he hasn't given me too many details. It's a project he's been working on for quite some time. Very revolutionary, I've been told.”

“By whom?”

“By Doctor One, of course. He is a genius.”

“Huh,” Ryan said. “Can you get Doc One for me please?”

“He can't be in the same part of the ship as you. What if we hit space debris?”

The Victory. Two doctors killed at once, the crew injured and no one to save them. It was really making Ryan's life more difficult.

“On the phone. I believe we are allowed to do that.”

“He's napping.”

“Then wake him up.”

Theresa sighed. Her speech was very human which disturbed Ryan greatly. He'd preferred when computers sounded like computers, but he did find her sighs comforting. They'd never been able to make computer sighing sound natural, like air escaping the lungs with an emotional resonance. Instead, it sounded like wind blowing. Every time she sighed, Ryan thought of it as a robot fart.

The screen on the wall blinked on and there stood Doc One. His chiseled jaw was covered with a thick, dark beard. His wavy, brown hair hung loosely in his face. Ryan felt small under the gaze of Doc One's piercing blue eyes. He had never felt a desire to sleep with another man, but this was the closest he'd ever come.

“Doctor Fitzpatrick. Nice to finally see you,” Doc One said. His voice was deep, scratchy, and manly.

Ryan gulped. He lowered his own voice. "Doctor One, I presume?"

"Do you have a sore throat?" Theresa asked

"No. I'm feeling fine, thank you," he said, digging deeper into the baritone range.

"I'm sure there are lozenges in here," she said. "Perhaps you should find one. You sound as if you've swallowed a frog."

"I'm fine," Ryan growled.

“We can make an exception to The Victory Rule, if you're sick,” Doc One said. “Should I come to you?”

“No,” Ryan said quickly in his normal voice which he thought sounded incredibly high and girly at the moment. “I'm fine. Thank you. I was actually wondering about the experiment you're running here.”

“Did Theresa not tell you? I spoke to Headquarters and the Captain. You won't be needed in the lab again until after we set down on Mars.”

“You called HQ?” Ryan asked. And the Captain?

“Doctor Two was made aware of that,” Theresa said in a snippy tone. “He chose to stay here regardless of his usefulness.”

“I can't get mad at a man that likes his job,” Doc One said through a smile. His teeth were incredibly straight and so white they glowed. When he smiled, his eyes lit up and Ryan's reserve melted just a little more.

“I'm curious about what's in the beakers, Doctor.”

“Something I've been cooking up. I don't want to go into specifics but if it works, the Mars team will not need puddle jumpers to bring them anymore food.”

“But the mites...”

Doctor One flashed his smile again and leaned in closer to the screen. “HQ wants to keep it secret. Sorry, Dr. Fitzpatrick, but I'm a man of my word. Is there anything else I can do for you? Sure you're not feeling well? You look a little pale.”

“I'm fine. I'll just report back to my quarters.”

“Good man.”

The screen blinked off.

“I told you that you didn't have to be here,” Theresa said angrily.

“Relax. I didn't ruin your chances. You're just as likely to marry him now as you ever were.”


The oatmeal felt dry in his mouth. It was hard to chew, but he forced some down. He didn't have much of an appetite but he needed calories. His chubby figure had melted over the last few days, giving him the first sight of his muscles he'd had in years. He sipped his glass of juice, hoping it would help the lumpy oatmeal down his throat. At least it had been easier to button his shirt that morning, since the shakes had finally stopped.

Again, the scene in the storeroom came back to him. He could feel the scalpel in his hand, an instrument he'd rarely used before. It felt awkward and cold. Why the storeroom? How had he known that's where Doc One would be? The memories were fuzzy. Something in the lab. He'd seen something, but what?

"Theresa," he said.

"Yes, Doc Two."

"I'd like to see the footage from the lab, the last time I was there."


"I need to see it, please."

"The Captain says you are a prisoner. He is being nice and letting you stay in your room. But you get no requests."

"Theresa, I'm trying to figure out what happened."

"You are a junkie, that is what happened."

I am?


Ryan whistled as he made his way to the cafeteria, not because he liked whistling, but because he knew he looked like a man that should like whistling. Doctors whistled.

When Ryan walked into the room, he was greeted by a cold silence. Everyone stared at him, utensils held still in their hands.

"Hi all." No response. He usually ate later than everyone, preferring to gaze out into the galaxy in silence, but it seemed either he was early or they were late. "It's turkey night, no?"

"It is," said the captain with a smile. The crew began to eat again.

Ryan helped himself, careful to remove his portions fully from the freeze-dried containers before placing them on a plate. A few crew members insisted on opening the lids and then trying to scoop out the food. They spent the majority of their meals pushing the little, silver packets around the table with their spoons.

The conversation still hadn't resumed when he sat at the table next to Barbar. He would have preferred to sit by Layla, but she was trapped between the Captain and Tatiana. He noticed a glob of gravy beside his plate and wiped it off, putting the used napkin into an empty mug. An empty mug that smelled suspiciously of hazelnut.

Layla and Tatiana were watching their plates with great attention. Barbar's ever-present smile was dimmer than usual.

"Was Doc One just here?" Ryan asked.

"He took his food back to the barracks," Tatiana said.

"Oh. Sorry. I must be early."

"Ten minutes early," Layla said. Her voice was flat but even so, Ryan heard reproach.

"I can go to my quarters," he offered.

"Don't be silly," the Captain said. "One doctor's just as good as another."

At this, Tatiana snorted. She blushed immediately and made her excuses to leave. "Lots of data to look over," she said, carrying her food out with her.

"So, Doc One..." Ryan started. The sentence hung in the air. He wanted someone to graciously jump in and supply a random fact, hopefully an embarrassing one. Instead, silence filled the air. "Is he easy to live with?" Ryan asked.

"He gets along just fine," the Captain said.

"How are you over there, all by yourself? I'd go crazy if I was over there all by myself."

That was Layla. She was staring at Ryan intently, her chest thrust at him with interest.

There was only one barracks on the ship, and Ryan and Doc One had to sleep apart, far apart. The Captain's office had been converted into sleeping quarters which Ryan had requested as his own. He had been surprised when he was told Doctor One would like the room, but he'd insisted, claiming living by himself would help his insomnia.

"I manage," he said. "I like my alone time."

Everyone glanced at him and then glanced away at once.


"Nothing," the Captain said. "Eat up."


The little green pills, how long had he taken them? Years now, it seemed. Sometimes three or four times a day, whenever he felt tense. He took them more in space than earthside, but it had never felt like an addiction. They didn't cause addiction, that's why he took them. Ryan paced the room, his legs all pins and needles.

He'd gone days without the pills before and the worst that had happened was he got sweaty and irritable.

What happened in the storeroom?


The command center was much smaller than Ryan expected. The Captain and Barbar stood comfortably near the control panels, close enough to pat each other on the back. The walls were flat gray and the lights blinked on and off at different stations, brightening the dim room like Christmas lights. Ryan felt big and bulky in the few feet of unoccupied space left for visitors.

“Doc Two, is everything okay?” The Captain forced a smile his way. Barbar didn't turn from the controls.

“I was wondering if we were going to land on time?”

“We'll be on Mars in two days.”


Ryan tried to force himself to keep the Captain's gaze, but he glanced away quickly.

“Was there something else?” the Captain asked.

“Hmm? No. No, I'm fine.” Ryan struggled to think of anything to say. All he could think of was how comfortable his bed was and he did not think the Captain wanted to hear about that. Small talk, he thought. How do you make small talk?

“Well, then, if there's nothing else...”

“Well, there is one thing.”


“Doctor One's experiment...”

Barbar turned to look at him then. His lips were curled in a sneer, which he dropped when he saw Ryan give him a quizzical look.

“Yes?” the Captain asked, drawing Ryan back to the conversation.

“What is it?” he asked. “I can't find any information in the mainframe.”

A look passed between Barbar and the Captain. They both look slightly annoyed but amused at the same time. Ryan had noticed that a lot lately, looks flying back and forth between crew members whenever he spoke, especially if he mentioned anything about Doc One.

Is he spreading rumors about me? Ryan tried to read their faces. Were they laughing at him? Was he a joke?

The Captain shrugged. “He asked if he could test the breeding of some larvae in reduced gravity. I said yes.”

“Did he say why?”

The look again. It was there. He saw it.

“Is there ever a reason for HQ's tests?” Barbar asked.

“Is he running the test for HQ?”

Another look, this one less amused and more annoyed. What had he said?

“I thought Doc One was running it on his own,” Ryan offered.

“I don't think that's any concern of yours,” the Captain said, a new edge in his voice. “I was going to do this later, but Doc One says you've been snooping around the lab.”

“I wasn't snooping around. I was reporting for duty.”

“He said you nearly ruined his experiment.”

“I didn't touch it.”

“Theresa says you tried to break the doctor's tablet.”

Ryan's mouth moved but no words came out. He should have known. Had he told her anyone would think she was a tattle tale, Theresa would have kept silent. Instead, he'd only said Doc One. Computers are too literal, he thought.

“I haven't reported it to HQ yet because Doc One said not to. If you tamper with his experiment again or harm his possessions in any way, I will make sure you never work again.”

“Who tampered?”

“Do we understand each other?”

Ryan glanced between the Captain and Barbar. There was no amusement left in their eyes. They looked how Ryan always felt, just shy of anger.

“Fair enough. I'll leave you to your work,” he said, leaving the command center.

He lay down in bed and tried to sleep. There was another hour until dinner and he wasn't on call again until then. After twenty minutes of a failed nap, he gave up. He swallowed a few more pills and touched a screen by his desk. The screen came to life and reflected his own room back to him.



“Theresa, I need a line out.”


“I need to call a friend.”

“You have friends?”

“Who taught you sarcasm?”

“Doctor One has been helping me. He says every life form has a right to express itself.”

“Where is Doc One?”

“Having drinks with the crew. It's mingling hour.”

“Mingling hour?”

“Oh. I don't think I was supposed to say anything about that. Here's your line.”

The screen in front of him went blank, then filled with a touch screen. He punched up his call destination and waited for the connection to go through. He felt a little whoozy. Too many pills, he thought. Gotta slow down.

“Whatcha need?”

Ryan flicked his eyes up to the screen. A man with graying hair and a scowl stared back at him. His heavy jowls jiggled when he spoke.

“Nice to hear from you too,” Ryan said.

“I hope you're not wasting company resources on a social call.” The man took a bite from his candy bar.

Ryan hated his brother. It was two in the morning in Texas, and Gerald was not a late night snacker. Chocolate was Ryan's favorite food but he only had access to the powdered kind. “No, Gerald. Absolutely not. I need you to check on something for me.”

“Check on what?”

“This other doctor...”

“I can barely hear you, speak up.”

“Just turn your speaker up louder.”

“What was that? Talk louder.”

Ryan cupped his hands around his mouth. “The other doctor...”

“What about him?” Gerald gulped down his food and squinted at Ryan.

“Was he cleared to do experiments?”


Ryan yelled, “Was he cleared to do experiments?”

Gerald leaned in to the screen until Ryan could only see his mouth. “You're bothering me for this?”

“You don't have to... I can hear you fine.”

“What? Never mind. The other doctor is doing his job. Try to do yours and I may be able to get you more work.”

“I am doing my job,” Ryan yelled.

“I was going to wait until you got back, but there have been some complaints.”


“Seems you're not making a good impression on the crew. They think you're standoffish and weird.”


“So? You're in space on a teeny tiny ship. Try to get along with people. I can't find you any more work earthside. You'll have to make a go of it in space.”

Ryan sighed. “Fine,” he mumbled.


Ryan hit the button and cancelled the call.


It was something about the larvae, Ryan thought. The green goo. A toxic liquid produced by the larvae in their first days of life. Yes.

He paced around his room, the pain gone from his legs.


“What do you want?”

“Theresa, how long until we land on Earth?”


“Has it really been that long?”

“You were in a drug fog for most of the return trip.”


“Good day.”

“Wait, no.”

“Yes, Doctor Two, what is it?”

“Has there been word from the Mars colony?”

“Good day.”

The larvae. It was all about the larvae.

“I need to see the tape of me hurting Doctor One.”

“You can't.”

“Why not?”

“Doctor One had it destroyed.”


Theresa fell silent. The slight hum of her circuitry working filled the room, or so it sounded to Ryan.

“Theresa, Doctor One doesn't have the authority to ask you to destroy recordings.”

“I know.”

“Can you go against protocol?”

“Not exactly.”


“I didn't film the storeroom. He asked me no to.”

“And you just did it?”

“I was never told I had to film every room all the time. He said he needed time alone. He's always surrounded by the crew and that Tatiana. She never left him to himself.”

“Get me the Captain.”

“I can't.”


“He's preparing for touch down.”

“Show me,” he said.

The screen flicked on and before him he saw the earth. So close. Big and blue and glowing before him. Tatiana was right.

“It's beautiful.”


We're going to land on Mars tomorrow, he thought. And something's not right.

He took his tablet with him to the lab, to read, he told Theresa. She chided him but mostly didn't pay attention. Doctor One was teaching them the old form of poker, and she wanted to watch.

He whistled on his way to the lab, in case he passed anyone on the way. Someone may have been able to pull themselves away from Doc One long enough do their jobs. Stranger things had happened.

There were only two jars left with the mites in green goo, and only one jar of powder as well. He took a picture of the mites with his tablet. He did a search and found that they were Europa mites, found during the first expedition to Jupiter's moon. Ryan read the articles eagerly. When he was done, he dropped his tablet on the table.



“Is Doctor One still playing poker?”


“Where is he?”

“In the storeroom.”


When his door opened, he expected to see Layla and Barbar armed with guns to escort him out. They were set to touch down in less than an hour and HQ was very interested in dealing with him, or so Theresa had told him. He jumped off his bed when Doc One entered the room.

“Are they dead?” Ryan asked.

Doc One stopped just inside the door, close enough to tap the button and run if necessary. “Getting there.”

“Does anyone know?”

Doc One smiled and shook his head. “Blocked the transmissions.”


“No. Let's just say I'm good with security systems.”

“Are you even a doctor?”

“No. But you don't really need to be in space, do you?”

Ryan clenched his jaw. “Can we still save them?”

“Probably not. The last video I checked, it looked pretty dire.”

“Show me.”

Doc One shook his head again. “You don't want to see what's happening. You won't be able to unsee it.”

“They'll find out.”

“Of course they will. I'll be telling them myself, once we've touched down. They won't be able to save them by then.”

“They can send another ship.”

“There isn't another puddle jumper scheduled for weeks. They won't be able to get a ship and crew ready for at least a day or two. The Mars crew will be dead by the time anyone can reach them, probably before we can get another ship in the air.”

“Why?” Ryan's voice broke as he asked it.

A sad, tired look over fell Doc One's face. He slumped into a chair. “We're not ready,” he said. “We're not ready to take over another world. To spread throughout the galaxy. Do you know how many people died in the last war? Humans are a disease, Kilpatrick. We are a plague. We ruin everything we touch. We're too violent. There may be a new species on Mars one day, but it shouldn't be us.”

“You're a killer.”

“I know. I regret it, but I still did it. Doesn't that tell you what you need to know?”

“They'll only start over again, with a new crew.”

“And so will we. With a new plan to stop them.”


Ryan grabbed a scalpel from the medical kit but prayed he wouldn't have to use it.

“Playing with powder?” Ryan asked when the door slid open.

Doc One looked up from the cargo. His face was mostly hidden behind the goggles and safety mask. He wore a plastic outfit over his clothes and his hands were wrapped in gloves. He carried a jar full of white powder.

“Smart, to poison the outside of the packages. They'll just think it's dust,” Ryan said.

Doc One put the jar on the box beside him. He was taller than Ryan had imagined. “You figured it out?” he said. “I thought you were an imbecile.”

Ryan laughed. He had been, not to notice it before. Europa mites produced a toxic goo, deadly to humans if ingested in large amounts. The same goo could be reduced to powder, and that was deadly in smaller amounts, more concentrated. Lacing the food packets meant that some would inevitably be ingested. If Doctor One was lucky, they'd be dead in a few days.

Ryan raised his scalpel. “Theresa!” he called.

Doc One blew the dust from his glove into Ryan's eyes. Ryan swatted at it but already felt himself choking. He felt the blow to the back of his head, and then his lights went out. When he woke up, he was being dragged out of the lab by the Captain and Barbar.


Libby Heily is an occasional filmmaker, a perpetual writer, and consistently works a day job. You can find her fabulous blog here, her twitter page here, and if you want to find more of her work, you can find her Goodreads author page here.


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