“Why are the magnets running?” Bill asked, shifting his weight nervously. David shook his head. “So this wasn't you?”
“You've been with me the whole time. What would I have done to kick the magnets back on?”
“There weren't two different supply runs from Alpha, were there?” Melissa asked.
“Nope,” David said, pulling up the schedule on the screen. “Besides which, as you can see, all the cars are accounted for- except our ballistic one.”
“So it is still moving?” Bill asked.
“Hard to tell; the system seems to think it is. But the car itself isn't communicating with the terminal anymore. Which is largely irrelevant- aside from double-checking data on speed and acceleration and the like, the cars are pretty stupid- they aren't handling any of the controlling, anyway.”
Bill swallowed. “What are the chances somebody could have gotten inside it?”
“Slim to none,” David said. “It was traveling at hundreds of miles per hour. It would have broken every bone in that... thing's body. Probably would have liquefied its organs.”
“Probably?” Bill asked.
“I hit an animal with the rough kinetic equivalent to a tank shell.”
“Which it might be riding here to murder us,” Bill said, his voice rising an octave.
“Whoa, man. If that thing could survive that, what possible hope did we have?” David asked.
“I'm- sorry. I don't do good with dogs. I got chewed up pretty bad by the neighbor's mutt as a kid- they sure as fuck aren't my best friend. So seeing a giant one, bounding our way- I'm feeling a little edgy.”
“Me, too,” David said, putting his hand on Bill's shoulder. “Not the mauled by a dog, part, but- this is definitely cause for a little freaking out.”
“You two suck,” Melissa said. “I fucking told you. But because I'm a woman-”
“No,” Bill said.
“Because I'm not part of the boy's club-”
“Closer,” David said. He sighed. “Melissa, you seem like a perfectly nice person, and you're definitely capable at your job. But your job is also to be the corporate shill amongst a band of scientists and space cowboys- and even most of the space cowboys up here still work on the science.”
“I went through astronaut training the same as any of you,” she said.
“Really?” Bill asked. “Because there've been times I had my doubts.”
“Like how long it took you to acclimate to the moon's microgravity, for one.”
“Well I went through the astronaut candidate program, same as everybody else. No favors, no special treatment.”
“And how were your scores?”
“Fuck you. If I were a man you wouldn't ask me that.”
“Bill's a goddamned terrible astronaut,” David said, “but a hell of an engineer. I'd be damned reluctant to let him pilot a shuttle anyplace, but I respect him for the job he does up here- crap-ass astronaut though he is.”
“And not to gang up,” Bill said, “because again, you seem like a fine person, but it's... it's harder to appreciate the shillery in the same way I appreciate him keeping the trains running, or people appreciate me keeping the lights on.”
“I keep the elevator going.”
Bill winced. “Not really. Dante takes care of that- and even he sometimes has to borrow a better-trained hand when things rise above the level of grease-monkey.”
“I've been up here long enough I served with some of the lifers,” David said. “Most of the first few crews on the Station did time on the ISS. They were hardened fucking spacemen- and women. And even some of them lost their shit, from time to time. Usually it meant somebody got yelled at, or heaven forbid had a spanner winged at their head, and then the next day there was a subdued apology and all was right with the world. I kind of figured your beef was along those kinds of lines. But I think the lack of respect you're taking issue with comes down to the fact that astronauting isn't supposed to have middle management. And to some, just by being here you’re… emblematic of us whoring out the space program. And that’s shitty, because that isn’t your fault- and it sure as hell isn’t something we should hang on you.”
“And you were right. That was one big goddamned wolf. I'm sorry I doubted you- and if it seems like I'm taking my anxiety out on you right now, because that's the furthest from what I'd want.”
“That apology sucked,” she said. “But it was honest. And... I don't know if I'd disagree with you. There are certainly days when I feel like... like my slot would have been better utilized by a scientist or an engineer or even some fucking cargo. But when I got offered the job- I would have come up here to be your damn fry cook to be one the moon.”
“That makes me like you a hell of a lot more,” Bill said.
The electromagnets started to hum, and they all lost interest in the conversation. “Care to put money on whether or not there's really a train, or if your system's just being retarded?” Bill asked.
“No I would not,” David said. He closed his eyes. He didn't want there to be a train. He could configure the maintenance drones to clean up whatever damage the collision might have caused- and worst-case scenario maybe he'd have to do some of the heavy lifting himself after they'd cleared the car and the carcass. But he had a bad feeling about what was coming towards them- so he hoped there was nothing at all.
Melissa grabbed his shoulder, because it was handy, and sunk her fingernails into his skin. It jolted his eyes open. A battered maglev car pulled into the station with a hiss. It slowed up right where it was supposed to.
The damage to the train was extensive. The front was caved in, blunting its usual bullet to resemble a recently erupted stratovolcano.
Bill was the first running towards it, with Melissa running behind him. David stood up reluctantly from his work chair. The others stopped fifteen feet from the car. “You're sure nothing could have gotten inside?” Bill asked. He was looking at a hole about the size of a man in the front of the car.
“I doubt it. I mean, what we're likely to find is some wolf shrapnel. Maybe a skull, or something.”
Bill sighed. “Only one way this is getting any less mysterious,” he said. He walked purposefully towards the car doors. The doors remained closed. He touched the manual button. “Open,” he said. He tried to get his fingers between the doors to pry it open, see if he could get it to start that way.
“Mechanism's jammed,” David said. “Happens sometimes- usually when there's damage to the car.”
“Damage being an understatement in this case,” Bill said.
David led them around to the front of the car. He leaned into the hole, and touched a button on his collar to activate an LED. “Jesus,” he said, and pulled his head out.
“What is it?” asked Bill.
“Just look,” he said. Bill turned on his collar LED, and he and Melissa peered through the breach together.
Lying in the middle of the car, in a pool of mucus and blood, was Skot. “He looks like a newborn,” Melissa said. “I was with my sister in the delivery room... seriously, if there were a little more white goo, and it weren't so insane a thought, I'd say that he just popped out of somebody's womb.”
“That'd have to be some womb,” Bill said.
“My god,” David said. “We killed him. We hit the poor bastard with a train...”
“I swore I saw a wolf,” Bill said, “but...”
“Maybe that thing had swallowed Skot,” David said. “And when the train hit, the wolf absorbed most of the impact, smashing a hole for Skot into the car.”
“I don't think ballistically...”
“Yeah, well I don't see any more reasonable answer,” David said.
“Actually...” Melissa interrupted. “I wasn't... brass at the Station was trying to keep things quiet, but I thought they said something about the wolf being Maria. I- it didn't make any sense at the time. But- what if that thing was Skot?”
Skot's eyes opened wide- too wide, in fact, and she jumped back from the hole. Bill and David crowded back in to see what was going. Skot blinked them, as if for the first time. Then he started to stand.
“Skot?” Bill asked. “You okay, buddy? You look an afterbirth.”
“He's not Skot,” Melissa said, and dropped her mug. Cocoa splashed across the tracks. Bill and David still didn't understand what she meant, and exchanged a glance. When they looked back at her, she was thirty feet away and still running, though Alpha was a small enough station that there wasn't really anywhere to go.
They heard movement inside the car. “Skot?” Bill called. He pivoted, but Skot was no longer in the parts of the car his LED reached. “We're having trouble getting in to you. It might take us a few minutes to get the doors open. But sit tight. David's here, and he's the best expert you could want to have here working on the car for you. And you might be hurt, so just-” Bill heard the grinding of metal on the other side of the car, the side with the door. “Take it easy?” he finished, but it came out a question.
They ran around the side with the doors. They could see a pair of hands pushing their way between the doors. “Or you could shove your way out, too,” Bill said, ”that could also work.”
Bill rolled his eyes at David, but jumped at how quickly the doors slid open. He could see a figure standing in the doorway of the open car, but he couldn't make him out. Bill turned his body so that his collar LED lit up the doorway. “Good lord,” David.
What stood in the doorway wasn't Skot.