The endless expanse of stars stretched in front of Liam beyond the transparent window, prickling the cold black like moth holes in an old sweater. He placed his hand on the glass, shivering, imagining what it would be like to float out into the unforgiving vacuum. Pulling away, he held his arms behind his back, regaining his composure.
You worked hard to be here, especially at only sixteen, he thought to himself. Act professional.
“Space,” a deep voice boomed behind him dramatically. “The final frontier.”
Liam rolled his eyes and turned to face his father, a large, stout, bearded man. When Liam was younger, he’d often suspected the jolly man to be one of Santa’s helpers, or even Santa himself, in disguise. As he’d grown, though, he came to realize that his father was a far greater man than that.
“This isn’t the Enterprise, dad,” he chastised. “This is the ISS. This is real. Can you believe it?”
His father chuckled, joining him at the window. “I know what you mean. It feels like a dream, or an out-of-body experience. Reminds me of my college party years, if you know what I mean.”
“You know I don’t,” Liam giggled. “What’s on the agenda today?”
“Well, Captain Kennedy mentioned that your mice were looking a little sleepier than normal,” his father commented. “Whatever that means.”
Liam raised an eyebrow. “Sleepier? What was he the captain of, again?”
His father stifled another laugh, tussling Liam’s hair. “Be respectful. We can’t walk back home, can we?”
About thirty minutes later, Liam sat before his biology project, examining his trio of mice. After arriving at the space station, each animal had been infected with a different non-lethal, species-appropriate version of a common disease: Influenza, conjunctivitis, and mononucleosis. Liam meant to study the evolution of the diseases in such a foreign environment, with the hope of applying his findings back on Earth against more modern, deadly illnesses.
“Well?” Captain Kennedy asked, his voice firm. “Is your mission a failure?”
Liam sighed, exasperated. “Not necessarily. It looks like the mono has spread from Mortimer to also infect Mickey and Minnie. It’s possible that the station’s new artificial gravity system is affecting how the virus spreads in some way. I just need to update my parameters to properly account for such a change.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the man. “Is micro-managing me the best use of your time, though?”
Kennedy’s face began to redden, but Commander Kozlov walked up behind him, placing her hand on his shoulder.
“Leave our little friend alone with his mice, okay?” the tall, muscular blonde said to her comrade. “He’s kind of right. Let his father manage the logistics.”
“Okay,” Kennedy agreed, turning to Liam. “But don’t mess around with them too much, okay? I don’t want to catch the flu or pink eye up here.”
Liam nodded. “You got it.”
Bao and Fen, the twin astronauts and last two current inhabitants of the International Space Station, approached the captain, muttering to him about some irregular data on their solar panel readings. He shook his head, excusing himself from the conversation. As he walked away, Kozlov smiled at Liam.
“He seems big now, but that’s just the outer shell of his matryoshka. Inside is a much smaller man, who just wants to be important.”
Liam blushed, forcing aside his childish crush on the woman to focus on her words. “Thanks for standing up for me, anyway.”
She leaned over, winking quickly. “Any time. Just keep your little hospital in check, okay?”
Liam nodded again, more fervently this time, and she turned away, leaving the room.
“Everything okay?” Liam’s father asked from behind, causing Liam to jump. He turned around, clutching his chest.
“You nearly scared me to death,” he scolded his father. “Yes, just a little hiccup in the experiment. Nothing crazy.”
“Well, I know you got . . . this . . .” his father’s speech began to weaken, and he took a step back, clutching his arm. He began to breathe rapidly, and within seconds, his eyes rolled into the back of his head. Falling to the floor, he became still.
“Dad? Dad!” Liam cried, rushing to his father’s side.
Captain Kennedy and the twin astronauts turned toward the commotion, the former running to join Liam. “Mr. Casper? Are you okay?”
Bao and Fen approached, and Fen turned the prone man onto his back.
“He’s having a heart attack,” she announced. “Grab the med kit!”
“Dad,” Liam whispered, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Please be okay, dad.”
In the corner of his eye, he saw Captain Kennedy’s face grow ashen white, and the man backed away from the scene, visibly trembling. Commander Kozlov finally returned to the room, and upon realization of what had happened, she pulled Liam away while Bao and Fen worked on his father. Liam buried his face in her arms, a knowing dread growing in his chest.
After several minutes, Liam felt his sorrow and his tears slowly fade, and by the time Fen approached him with the news of his father’s death, he’d already reached a cold acceptance. They expressed their condolences and discussed the logistics of what to do with his body until returning to Earth, but he felt detached from the moment, a wandering spirit haunting the vacuum of space. When they finally excused him, he numbly drifted through the halls of the space station until he found his room, collapsing into his bed. His consciousness soon faded, and before he knew it, he was asleep.
A soft knock at his door pulled him from a deep slumber, and he looked around, his eyes settling on his bedside clock.
I’ve been asleep for five hours? he thought in surprise.
Shuffling off his covers, he climbed out of bed, staggering to the door. He opened it to see Commander Kozlov standing on the other side, her face gentle and empathetic.
“Hey,” she said. “We haven’t heard from you in a while. We’re about to cryo-freeze Mr. Casper until we’re able to get you a shuttle home.”
Liam sniffled, shaking his head. “No. I want to stay. Take his body home, but he would want me to see the mission through.”
Kozlov nodded, turning to leave, then hesitated, returning her attention to the boy. “Hey, come with me.”
Sighing, Liam followed her out of his room, traveling down the halls of the ISS and stopping in front of the viewing window where he’d began his morning. He looked out at the stars, his wonder replaced by hollow emptiness.
“I don’t know if these words will be of any comfort to you,” Commander Kozlov began, “but it’s always comforted me.”
Liam looked up at the woman, waiting for her to continue.
“If there was ever a place to pass away, this was it,” she explained. “The perfect vision of our endless march towards the future. Your father, he was a man of the past. A great man of the past, but a man of the past nonetheless. His passing may be painful now, but he’s given you an incredible freedom: The uninhibited pursuit of your future.”
Liam’s head fell forward gently, clunking against the glass window, and he began to sob, wrapping his arms around his chest. Kozlov patted him on the back, waiting for him to relax. Eventually, he straightened up, wiping his face.
“You’re right, Commander,” he responded. “I have a long future of great things ahead of me. I can’t . . .”
His words faded as movement amongst the stars caught his eye. “Did you see that?”
Kozlov turned her attention from the boy to the window, tilting her head. “I don’t see any– wait. What is that?”
Approaching the station drifted about a dozen large, black objects, their exteriors slick and glistening, as if covered in oil. Because of the darkness of space, their exact shapes and movements were difficult for Liam to identify, but it was undeniable.
Something was approaching the International Space Station.
The door to their hallway slid open, and Bao ran up to them, panting. “Our scanners are going haywire. There must be some kind of glitch. I just came to see if . . .”
His head turned toward the viewing window, and his jaw dropped. “So, it’s true. There is something coming to us.”
“Bao, what are they?” Liam asked. “What do you know, based on your scans?”
“Nothing,” he whispered, staring at the approaching objects. “Absolutely nothing.”
Kozlov retrieved a communicator from her belt, speaking into it. “Captain Kennedy, we have a situation. Several objects approaching us from outer space; origin and makeup unclear. Please advise.”
No response, for a moment. Then, Kennedy’s voice crackled through faintly. “Prepare for imminent attack.”
Bao, Kozlov, and Liam all traded confused glances, and Kozlov responded to Kennedy’s command. “You want us to treat this as hostile? Why?”
“Just do it, Commander!” barked Kennedy. “This is life or death.”
Liam looked up at Kozlov. “Do we even have any weapons here?”
“My country required it,” Kozlov admitted, sighing. “For self-defense, in the event that our re-entry is compromised and we land in the wilderness. Our Soyuz capsule has two types of handguns, along with a survival kit, including a machete and a folding knife. Not exactly an armory.”
“Better than nothing,” Bao commented. “Is it still docked?”
Kozlov nodded, suspicion in her voice. “Let’s get going before these things arrive. Kennedy sounded pretty spooked.”
The trio trekked across the station, heading for the airlock that connected to the Soyuz space capsule. With each window they passed, the objects drew closer, and by the time they’d almost reached their destination, Bao paused, staring at them.
“Are those animals?” he asked.
Liam and Commander Kozlov stopped, joining him at the window.
Sure enough, the things that approached were now close enough to ascertain their dimensions: Long, clawed arms and legs, with large wings webbed between each side, almost like large bats. The heads, however, were long, pointed, and angular, reminding Liam more of a pterodactyl than a bat.
An oil-black, car-sized pterodactyl, drifting through space. With a dozen of its friends heading straight for the station.
Bao pulled out a notepad and his Fisher Space Pen to jot down the moment, glancing back up occasionally to monitor their approach. Kozlov tried to pull him away, but he shook his head.
“No. This may be the first real evidence of intelligent life ever. I want to study them. You two go get the supplies and meet me back here.”
Kozlov gritted her teeth, about to reprimand the astronaut, but Liam tugged at her arm, shaking his head.
“The sooner we get to the Soyuz capsule, the sooner we can come back to Bao,” he calmly explained.
She relaxed, nodding, and pointed down the hall. “It’s docked right over there.”
They turned the corner, reaching the door separating them from the capsule. Kozlov entered her key code, and the door hissed as it opened, exposing them to the Soyuz’s cramped interior. As they climbed inside, the door sealed behind them, and they fumbled around for a moment before the lights flickered on. Liam almost tripped and fell into a pair of hanging space suits, but Kozlov caught him.
“The survival kit should be under that seat there,” she said. “Grab the machete and the knife.”
As he retrieved a long, flat case from beneath the nearby seat, she opened a metal lockbox on the wall, producing a small, compact pistol as well as a longer, two-barreled handgun. He watched her load bullets into a pair of magazines for the former pistol, but the other gun drew more of his attention, and his eyes met hers inquisitively.
“Cosmonaut survival pistol,” she explained. “More versatile than this Makarov here. Chambered for rifle, shotgun, and flare rounds. We’ll grab all the bullets we can carry, but for now, I’m loading the shotgun shells.”
She broke open the breech, sliding a shell into each barrel. Snapping it shut, she offered it to a wide-eyed Liam. When he failed to take it from her, she chuckled.
“Just for safekeeping. Keep the business end away from my pretty face, please.”
He took the weapon by its grip, hefting it as she finished loading the Makarov’s magazines and stuffed the Cosmonaut pistol cartridges into her pockets. Movement in a nearby porthole caught his attention, and he moved to the window, peering out. Once his eyes adjusted to the commotion outside, he gasped.
“Commander. Take a look.”
She joined him at the porthole, and her lips parted in surprise. Snatching her communicator from her hip, she screamed into it. “Bao, what are you doing? Get away from the window!”
Outside, perpendicular to the Soyuz capsule, Liam could see the window where they’d left Bao. The exterior now swarmed with the pterodactyl-beasts, who crawled around quickly, as if agitated. Liam barely made out Bao behind the reinforced glass, still taking notes, his face glowing in fascination. As Liam watched, one of the creatures reared back, striking its beaklike face against the window. At first, nothing happened, but as it struck again, Liam saw hairline cracks forming on the glass like spiderwebs.
“Bao, do you copy?” Kozlov cried. “God damn it!”
The creature pecking at the glass attempted a third time . . . with horrific results.
Its mouth broke through the transparent barrier, clamping around Bao’s head and jerking him out into space. The other creatures swarmed on the astronaut, pulling at his appendages until nothing remained but floating bits of blood and viscera.
“Zaebis,” Kozlov swore in Russian.
Immediately, Liam felt the Soyuz capsule rumble, and he looked back at the window, horrified. The glass exploded outward as the breached hallway rapidly depressurized, the force of the event warping the metal. The hallway twisted, crumpling like an old balloon, and Liam heard the door separating the damaged zone from their capsule screech. After a few seconds, the hallway finished releasing its atmosphere, destroyed beyond repair.
“Oh, no,” Kozlov whispered, turning to the door as the artificial gravity in their sector failed and they floated up into the air. “No, no.”
She pulled at the lever to open it, but it resisted, and she slammed her fist against the metal, growling. Turning to Liam, she took a deep breath.
“The damage done outside has likely clamped the seal around the Soyuz door. We’re stuck in here.”
Liam glanced back outside, where the pterodactyl-creatures drifted through space, gulping down Bao’s remains. Pivoting in a tight circle, he stopped when he saw the two space suits in the corner.
“Maybe not,” he responded, pointing to the suits. “Do you think we could still eject the capsule to force the door open?”
“Yes,” Kozlov responded, “but that will propel us away from the station. How are we going to get back . . .”
Her words drifted off as she saw Liam looking at the Makarov still in her hand, and she smiled.
“You absolute genius. I see they’re still teaching Newton’s third law of motion in high school.”
Liam nodded. “What we came here for to defend ourselves can also be our way back to safety. Two birds, one stone.”
Kozlov looked out the porthole at the creatures floating nearby. “I wish there were only two birds.”
They quickly donned their space suits, strapping their gear to the exterior. Kozlov gave Liam the machete and the various cartridges for the Cosmonaut pistol, while she inserted the first Makarov magazine into her own gun, slipping the second magazine into her pocket along with the folding knife. Lastly, she retrieved a long prybar from the case, slipping it onto her back. As Liam sealed his helmet shut, she racked the Makarov’s slide, chambering a round.
“This will be fun,” she said, seemingly attempting to reassure herself more than Liam. “Like Buzz Lightyear riding that bottle rocket.”
“Wasn’t he tied to that rocket against his will?” Liam asked.
She shot him a stern look. “Shut up, kid.”
Raising the Cosmonaut pistol, he gestured to the damaged door. “You ready?”
“Nope,” she replied, slamming her fist down on the EJECT button.
A horrific cry of tearing metal filled Liam’s ears as the Soyuz capsule forced itself away from the space station, the door ripping apart in the process. They jettisoned forward, immediately exposed to the vacuum of space, the little atmosphere left in the capsule rushing past them to dissipate into nothingness. By the time even a second passed, Liam could barely see the broken windows of the ISS from the distance he’d traveled.
“Jump!” Commander Kozlov screamed, her voice blaring through his helmet’s speakers.
He leapt through the torn hole of the capsule, and she followed. As they floated into the blackness, everything beyond the sound of his own breathing fell deathly silent. Ahead, the blue marble of a planet he once called home loomed in his vision.
“Okay, Liam, I’m not going to pretend like we’ve tried this before,” Kozlov admitted. “But we can make some educated guesses. Keep your gun close to your chest, and only fire when you’re aiming exactly away from the direction you want to go. If these . . . these . . . Zvezdnyye Padal’shchiki come after you, don’t let your panic pressure you into making a decision that leaves you stranded in space. Just leave those to me.”
Liam took a deep breath. “Got it.”
Glancing over his shoulder, he lined up his shot, aiming the barrel of his gun toward Earth. He pulled the trigger, and the Cosmonaut pistol bucked, a spray of lethal pellets blasting forward, making no sound in this alien environment. The force of the shot, though, sent him rocketing backward, his body careening towards the International Space Station.
As he sailed through the twilight nothingness, his rapid heartbeat echoing in his ears, he saw Kozlov follow suit with her Makarov handgun, clutching it close to her body and firing. The muzzle flashed, and she began to travel in the same direction as Liam. Her nervous chuckle crackled over the speaker in his helmet, and she looked back at him.
“We’ll make it. We’ll make it. We have to.”
He felt the presence of the enormous station looming behind him, and he dared to take another peek. At this point, he only had a few meters between himself and the makeshift entrances the creatures had made.
Creatures which he was about to meet face-to-face.
The oil-black beasts twitched, turning his way as he floated into their makeshift den. He felt bits of Bao’s bones patter against his suit, and the pterodactyl-creatures spread their wings, drifting his way. His breathing shuddered, and he steeled himself for their sharp, unforgiving beaks.
“Don’t forget!” Kozlov called out sharply. “You have another round. Make it count.”
Liam exhaled, keeping his gun pointed away from himself. The closest creature circled him menacingly, preparing to strike, and his finger tightened on the trigger. When it changed course, soaring directly for his face, he fired again, the second barrel flashing. More pellets emerged in a tight cluster, shredding a hole in the approaching creature’s left wing. It opened its mouth to silently screech as thick, green fluid emerged from the wound.
The force of the second gunshot was more than enough to jettison Liam the rest of the way through the broken windows and into the depressurized hallway of the ISS. He turned at the last second, using his legs to break his collision into the far side of the metal hallway wall. Returning his attention back outside, he saw Commander Kozlov close behind, though the creatures were already converging on her. She opened fire on them with the Makarov, seemingly forgetting in her panic that each randomly-aimed gunshot was sending her further and further off-course.
“Commander!” Liam yelled into his transmitter. “Stop fighting! Just get back inside with me!”
The creatures fluttered around Kozlov as her bullets tore holes in their bodies, and one particularly brave beast managed to close in enough to receive the business end of her folding knife into its skull. She grabbed the flailing thing, kicking off of it to redirect herself back toward the station. Lining up her Makarov once more, she fired repeatedly, straight ahead into the swarm, until the magazine emptied. Then, much to Liam’s relief, she breached the station’s windows, landing next to him.
“Sorry, kid,” she apologized, gathering her composure. “I lost it a little out there.”
They turned toward the neared hallway door, and she lowered the Makarov, retrieving her prybar with her free hand.
“Captain Kennedy,” she called out calmly. “I’m sure you can still see us.”
“I can, Commander,” Liam heard the man respond. “That was quite the show.”
“I’m going to pry open this door,” she announced, aiming her prybar at the incoming barrier. “I need you to depressurize and repressurize the hallway segments until we’ve put some distance between ourselves and the Zvezdnyye Padal’shchiki.”
“You got it,” Kennedy said. “I’ve got your back.”
Liam saw Kozlov roll her eyes, and she disconnected her communicator, gesturing for him to do the same.
“You called them that again,” Liam commented. “Zuh-vez-nee . . .”
“Zvezdnyye Padal’shchiki,” repeated Kozlov as she ejected the empty Makarov magazine. “Just a nickname I’m giving them. It means ‘Star Scavengers.’”
“Star Scavengers.” Liam turned to look at the wounded creatures, who already seemed to be regrouping for another attack. “He knew, Commander. The Captain already knew these things were dangerous.”
“Let’s rendezvous with Kennedy and Fen,” Kozlov snarled, loading her Makarov’s second magazine. “I think our fearless leader owes us some answers.”
Commander Kozlov slammed Captain Kennedy into the wall, shoving the Makarov in his face.
“You aren’t telling us everything,” she quietly growled. “What do you know about those things outside?”
Kennedy shifted his gaze. “I don’t know what you’re . . .”
His words trailed off as his eyes met hers again, and he sighed. “Okay, okay. Let me go and I’ll explain.”
Kozlov backed off, keeping the gun trained on the man. Liam did the same with his Cosmonaut pistol, looking around the room. In the corner, Fen watched the Star Scavengers on the scanners, her eyes red and wet from mourning the death of her twin brother. Kennedy brushed himself off, sitting in a nearby chair.
“In 1958,” he began, “the United States launched a monkey named Gordo from the NASA site in Cape Canaveral. Five minutes into his ascension, Gordo broke through the Earth’s atmosphere, entering outer space. Over the next two minutes, the vital monitors indicated fading signs of life, until he passed away at the seven-minute mark. The scientists believe that the air supply was improperly applied, and that Gordo suffocated in space.”
He paused, but Kozlov impatiently gestured with her Makarov for him to continue.
“More interestingly, though, was the immediate result. Before Gordo’s capsule could re-enter the atmosphere, something redirected it out into space. Something from space took Gordo’s body. It took him.”
Liam and Kozlov exchanged glances.
“After covering up Gordo’s death and disappearance as an equipment malfunction, the U.S. government worked with other countries to learn more about the phenomenon,” Kennedy explained. “They discovered that, just one year prior, the Soviet Union’s prize dog, Laika, experienced a similar fate. Died in space, quickly taken by an unknown entity afterwards.”
“Let me guess,” Kozlov interrupted. “You started sending more innocent animals into space as sacrifices in the name of discovery.”
“Not us, actually,” Kennedy replied, looking at Fen. “We let China do the heavy lifting. After about a decade of experimentation, their final test using the dog subjects known as Little Leopard and Shan Shan gave us conclusive evidence that there were, in fact, lifeforms capable of surviving and thriving in the vacuum of space. Lifeforms such as the ones outside the station right now.”
“Zvezdnyye Padal’shchiki,” Kozlov muttered.
“Star Scavengers,” added Liam.
Fen finally turned to face Kennedy. “What are they? Why are they here? They’re currently circling the cryo bay. Why?”
Kennedy hung his head. “They’re after Mr. Casper’s body.”
“My father?” Liam asked. “What do they want from him?”
“They’re scavengers, just like you said,” Kennedy responded. “Like vultures, but bigger and meaner. That’s what drew them to our attention in the first place: Death. Laika, Gordo, Little Leopard, Shan Shan . . . each of their deaths attracted the attention of a Star Scavenger. But once they’re there, they don’t discriminate. They’ll consume the dead and the living alike.”
“What else do you know about them, biologically?” Kozlov demanded. “What are their weaknesses?”
“Weaknesses?” scoffed Kennedy. “These things are old. They’re survivors, like alligators. If they have weaknesses, they won’t be easy to exploit.”
“Why do they even have wings?” Liam commented. “That’s not how space flight works at all.”
Fen chimed in softly. “Maybe they’re so old, so foreign, that they’ve evolved past the limitations of conventional physics.”
A loud screech, followed by a shuddering bang, sounded nearby, just beyond the room. Liam saw his test mice, Micky and Minnie, panic as they squeaked, bouncing around their cages. Mortimer, however, lay still, and Liam frowned.
“What was that?” Kozlov asked, turning to Fen.
Fen returned to the monitors. “Another breach. The hallway just beyond our doors. It’s depressurizing.”
“Close the blast shields,” barked Kennedy. “Don’t let them flock into the station.”
Fen looked to Kozlov for approval, who nodded. As she turned to the control panel, something heavy slapped against the outer door with a resounding whack. The reverberations echoed throughout the room, and the four astronauts looked at each other, frightened. Another whack, and this time, the door began to cave inwards.
Liam’s trembling hands returned his attention to the Cosmonaut pistol he still carried, and an idea began to form.
“There’s no sound in space,” he muttered.
Kozlov looked at him. “Come again?”
“There’s no sound in space,” he repeated. “Nothing to hear.”
Fen caught on first. “And there’s no air currents to transmit scents.”
Kozlov slapped her forehead. “And it’s too dark to properly see.”
“What’s something still measurable in space that we know animals can sense?” asked Liam.
“Thermal changes,” Kozlov answered, snatching the Cosmonaut pistol from his hands. Reaching down, she rummaged around the pockets of his discarded astronaut suit, retrieving two flare cartridges. “They sense death by viewing thermal changes. They literally come for the body as it’s growing cold. And we froze your father. That’s why there’s so many.”
She turned to Fen. “Is the hallway sealed on the other side?”
“How many are there?” pressed Kozlov.
Fen glanced at the sensors. “Just one stray. The others are still going after Mr. Casper.”
“Good,” Kozlov said, loading the flare cartridges. “Open the door.”
“Are you sure–” Fen began, but Kozlov shot her a glare. Nodding, she reached down, unlocking the barrier separating the predator from the prey.
The door exploded open, and the Star Scavenger that Liam had shot earlier burst into the room, the hole in its wing still leaking green fluid. It opened its mouth and screeched, the cry hoarse and painful, as if its throat wasn’t meant to make the noise. Leaping into the air, it soared around the room in a circle, its wings straight out at its sides without generating any noticeable air current. Turning its attention to Liam’s mouse cage, it hurtled toward the spot, mouth agape.
Mortimer, Liam thought. It’s going after Mortimer. He died . . . somehow.
Kozlov intervened, stepping in front of the rampaging creature and firing a flare from the Cosmonaut pistol into its face. It screamed again, its head vibrating rapidly as it tried to process the sudden temperature spike from the self-oxidating incendiary device. Removing the Makarov from her pocket, Kozlov tried to fire at the Star Scavenger close-range, but it thrashed around, one of its wings smacking her and sending her flying across the room. She struck the far wall and crumpled to the ground, both guns ejecting from her grip and sliding in opposite directions across the floor.
“Commander Kozlov!” Liam cried, but the woman didn’t respond.
Frowning, he turned to the blinded beast, unsheathing his machete. The flare began to fade, and the creature twitched, noticing Liam. Rushing forward, Liam cried out, swinging his blade, but his disorientation from the recent switch back to artificial gravity caused him to trip, and he fell on his face, the weapon clattering out of his hand. The Star Scavenger stalked toward him, screeching its hoarse, pained cry, and reared back, ready to disembowel Liam.
Gunfire exploded from behind the boy, and the Star Scavenger hissed, retreating as tiny holes exploded out of it flesh. Liam rolled onto his stomach to see Kennedy confidently striding forward, Makarov in hand, squeezing rounds out with expert precision. As he reached Liam, he crouched, swiping up the machete without losing sight of the Star Scavenger. The creature turned to flee, but he sprinted into it, burying the blade into its skull. Green fluid sprayed from the wound as the winged beast twitched and collapsed, and Kennedy jerked the machete out of its head, sighing.
“Are you okay?” he asked, turning to Liam.
Liam nodded, then looked at Kozlov. “The Commander.”
Kennedy offered Liam the blood-covered machete, and the boy took it gingerly by the handle. Pocketing the Makarov, the Captain rushed to Kozlov, helping her to her feet. Together, the pair returned to the center of the room with Liam and Fen, staring at the butchered corpse in the center.
“We can’t fight them all,” Kozlov said. “Not with half a magazine of bullets and an old machete.”
“Maybe we don’t have to,” Fen replied. The others turned to her, and she pointed at the screens behind her. “The others are still trying to get to Mr. Casper in the cryo bay. If we can get to the bay before they breach it, we could eject the module from the rest of the station. Jettison the problem area into space. Wouldn’t they follow it, and leave us alone?”
Liam and Kozlov looked at Kennedy, who nodded. “That could work, yes. But we’d have to hurry. I suspect it won’t take them long to get into the bay.”
The squad rushed into a neighboring room, donning new space suits in the event of more hull breaches. Liam gave the machete to Kozlov, but upon a cursory search, he could not find the Cosmonaut pistol that she’d dropped during her face-off. Pressed for time, he shrugged, following the others out of the command room and into the hallways of the International Space Station.
They navigated the tight corridors, heads on a swivel, but no more Star Scavengers appeared to ambush them. Within minutes, they reached the airlock to the cryo bay, and Kennedy opened the door, gesturing them inside. Kozlov and Liam went forward, hurrying to the chamber in which Liam’s father resided. While Kozlov fiddled with the controls, lowering the temperature even further, Liam placed his hand on the glass chamber, a tear running down his cheek.
“Good-bye, dad. You finally get to be a part of space . . . the final frontier.”
He began to step back, but a gunshot rang out, and Kozlov clutched her chest, dropping to her knees. She tried to speak, but coughed instead, a small spray of blood splattering against the glass of the cryogenic chamber. Liam turned to see Kennedy holding the Makarov, barrel still smoking.
“Oh, wow,” Kennedy commented. “Got a lung, huh?”
Kozlov stumbled back, slamming against the far wall and sliding down it, the machete falling from her grip and into her lap. “Mudak.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Kennedy replied apathetically. “Look, I can’t have this shit reported back to Earth, okay? Space Force will literally kill me for such an abysmal job.”
Job? Liam thought. Wait. Mortimer.
“The mono didn’t spread to the other mice,” Liam said. “You were poisoning them.”
“Look at you,” mocked Kennedy. “So young and still so smart. Yes, my job was to lure one – one – Star Scavenger to the station. There, we could capture and study it, and I assume apply the findings toward some kind of joint military project. The slow, suffering death of a small animal was the best way to attract them, but not so much that a whole swarm showed.”
“Then Mr. Casper had his heart attack,” coughed Kozlov, holding her hand over the wound in her chest. “You’d already called out to the Star Scavengers, but now that you had their attention, they wanted the bigger prize.”
“Yeah,” Kennedy sighed. “You’re right. I figured, fuck it – let’s let the whole damn family pop in for a bite to eat. The scanners would pick up useful data as they tore through the station, and I’d escape back to earth in a pod with the station’s hard drives to hand over to Space Force.”
He turned the Makarov to Liam. “But that’s fucked up too, now. I’m surrounded by incompetents.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Liam said. “We can work this out. We can escape together.”
“Sorry.” Kennedy shook his head. “You know, I’ve never killed a kid before. Well, except for Afghanistan, but those don’t really count.”
Liam cringed, waiting for the bullet to enter his brain.
“Kennedy!” Fen called out from behind.
Captain Kennedy turned to the side, and Liam saw Fen holding the missing Cosmonaut pistol.
“I knew it, you son of a bitch,” she snarled. “I wondered what happened to the drives.”
“What are you going to do?” Kennedy laughed at her. “Kozlov already fired her flares trying to fight the Star Scavenger.”
“No,” Kozlov weakly replied. “I only fired one.”
Fen pulled the trigger, and the second barrel ignited, launching the survival flare into Kennedy’s chest. He flew backwards into the cryo bay, and the flare ricocheted away, landing near a series of metal tanks labeled “DMSO.” As Kennedy tumbled to the floor, Kozlov lurched forward, grabbing his wrist swinging her machete. Kennedy cried out in pain as she severed his hand, scooping up the Makarov and leveling it in his direction.
“Hurry!” Fen cried, tossing the Cosmonaut pistol aside. “That dimethyl sulfoxide is combustible, especially in these pressurized tanks.”
Liam leapt to his feet, helping Kozlov to hers, and they backed out of the cryo bay, sealing the airlock door closed. Through the porthole window, they saw Kennedy crawl to the door, pounding on it as blood gushed from his wrist stump.
“You bitch!” he yelled. “You will never be safe on Earth.”
“And you’ll never see Earth,” Kozlov retorted.
“This is for Bao,” Fen added, pressing the EJECT button.
The station hissed as it propelled the cryo bay away, leaving the trio with a clear view of space . . . and the swarm of Star Scavengers silently soaring through it. Sensing the dying flare paired with the lowering temperature of the cryogenic chamber, they swooped down, tearing into the unit. As the bay became a speck, it exploded, sending out a mixture of cryogenic fluids into the vacuum that covered the Star Scavengers. They shuddered as they froze solid, drifting lifelessly into the distance with the wreckage of the cryo bay.
As the threat faded from sight, Liam turned to Kozlov, who’d grown pale. “Are you okay?”
“Yes. I’m . . . fine.” The Commander smiled, blood in her teeth. “If you could patch me up here on the station, we’ll go ahead and return to Earth.”
“What about what Kennedy said?” Fen asked. “Are we going to be in danger when we get back?”
“Maybe from Space Force,” Kozlov admitted. “But I have friends in Russia that can help us. I’ll take you there.”
Liam and Fen nodded, the former bending down to pick up the Cosmonaut pistol.
“Then we’ll go to the med bay,” Liam added, gesturing down the hall. “Our journey isn’t over yet.”
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