Ossen surveyed his reflection in the mirror, brushing imaginary lint off his sleeve. He saw nothing overtly wrong with the trim gray jumpsuit or his light brown hair, brushed back neatly for once, but would Lee like it? Or would she just see the body beneath, the typically scrawny and nearly fleshless build of a born-and-bred spacer, someone who could never survive even an hour on a full-grav planet. . . Lords knew he couldn't compete against the visitors here, and she'd been planet born herself, even though she'd spent half her life on stations. The low gravity on a station did weird things to developing human bodies, with effects like stunted growth, underdeveloped muscles, and porous bones. But there were benefits, too, like complete immunity to space-sickness and claustrophobia. . . he could only hope Lee wasn't hung up on physical beauty.
"And if I keep standing here worrying, I'll never get to find out her reaction," he told himself, frowning at how thin and nervous his voice sounded.
Before he scared himself out of his plans, he turned decisively away from the mirror and gathered up his file folder and the all-important rose. He'd gone through a lot to find that flower. He'd wound up special ordering it from the hydroponics division, for quite a hefty price. But it was absolutely essential that he have it.
"There you go again, trying to put this off." He squared his shoulders and adjusted rose and folder to a more comfortable hold. Then he walked out the door.
He wondered for at least the hundredth time how Lee would take the discovery that he was the one behind the notes.
He could see her in front of his mind's eye as clearly as though she stood there, enigmatic and beautiful. Sh'lia Nagrossy, Lee to her friends, had created quite a stir when she arrived on Copernicus Station, newly assigned on a long-term contract. She'd been born on Bandor, a rather secretive planet. It was rare for a Bandoran to take up a life in space. No one on the station had ever seen anyone quite like her before, with skin the color of dark amber and short, wavy hair that shifted with the light from dark brown to nearly red. And she created even more of a stir when she smiled politely and turned down the offers of no less than five of the station's most eligible bachelors.
Ossen was so caught up in thoughts of Sh'lia and her exotic beauty that he didn't even see Dylan until he'd run right into the man. He dropped the rose and the folder, and papers scattered everywhere.
"Watch where you're going, micro," Dylan snarled, then gave Ossen an extra shove for good measure. "You spacers, always think you own the whole damn—what's that?"
Ossen ducked away, hunched protectively over the rose. "Nothing," he muttered, then scrabbled at the scattered notes, trying to collect them before Dylan saw anything. Great. Of all the people to run into, why'd he have to pick the one with the biggest attitude? And how'd he manage it, anyway? The corridor was deserted, even in a daze he should have been able to avoid a collision. Maybe the man had rammed him intentionally.
"Those look like love letters. Let me see." Dylan made a grab at the folder and Ossen backed away, clutching the folder, but unable to prevent the larger, planet-bred man from plucking a sheet of paper from the disorganized mess. "Aw, now isn't this precious," he sneered, "little space-runt has himself a girlfriend. Lee?"
Ossen made a futile grab at the paper. He'd gotten the rest of them secured, and the rose was still intact, now if he could just get that all-important piece of paper he'd be on his way. Dylan kept it away from him with contemptuous ease.
"This can't be the Lee I think it is," Dylan said, face darkening dangerously.
"Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't," Ossen managed to find his tongue. "Either way, I need that paper, and I'll be on my way."
"That's where you're wrong." Dylan took a step forward, note clenched in his hand. "Is this Lee of yours Sh'lia Nagrossy?"
"Maybe," Ossen replied, instincts screaming caution! "May I have my paper back? I really have to go."
"You're not going anywhere," Dylan growled. "It is her, isn't it. There's only one person goes by the name Lee on this entire station."
"Brilliant deductive reasoning," Ossen murmured.
"Knock it off, runt! How's a pathetic little worm like you get off thinking he can have someone like her?"
Lee had made a real ass out of Dylan, Ossen remembered. He'd come on to her quite strongly one night at the lounge and she'd refused him point blank, leaving him standing speechless and embarassed while she went off to join Ossen and some mutual friends. They's all had a good laugh about the incident.
"Say something, damn you!" Dylan, eyes wild, lunged forward and shoved Ossen back against the wall.
"Let me go!"
"Forget it. Is it my Sh'lia you're after?"
"She's not yours," Ossen snapped. "And as far as that goes, I've gotten a lot closer to her than you ever will."
"That's not what I wanted to hear. She's mine, I tell you, and if I can't have her no one can!"
Ossen pushed at Dylan's hands, with about the same effect as trying to push a hole in the space station wall. "I told you, she's not yours, she's not mine, she belongs to herself!"
Dylan let go with one hand long enough to smack Ossen, an open-handed blow that would have been an insult to a planet-bred man, but was nearly enough to knock Ossen's head from his shoulders. "So what's the plan, worm? Bet she doesn't even know it's you behind these stupid notes. And you're on your way to meet her, aren't you? Aren't you?"
Dylan was shaking him now. Ossen didn't say anything, just held to his folder and the rose for all he was worth.
"That's it, isn't it? And you think that bitch'll give it up for you, when she turned me down." Dylan laughed, a crazed sound. "It's not going to happen, oh no it's not. I'll go, that's what I'll do, and she'll think it was me all along."
Dylan ignored him, eyes darting about the featureless corridor and coming to rest on an access panel to the outer shell. He laughed again, sharp and chilling. "Perfect! In you go, runt," and he wrestled Ossen effortlessly over to the hatch, opening it with one hand. "You can just stay in here until I'm ready to fetch you out again. She's mine, I tell you, and you can't have her."
Ossen struggled and swore, with no effect. He lost his hold on the folder and the rose first, then he felt more than heard a small tearing sound, nearly lost in the struggle. A small jagged edge on the hatch caught at him, just enough to do some serious damage to his safety field—he had to stay out of that hole!
"In you go, runt!" Dylan gave a final heave and shoved Ossen the rest of the way into the dark compartment. The door slammed shut and Ossen heard the lock engage with horrible finality.
"Let me out of here, you bastard!" he yelled, pounding futilely at the door.
No response. Not that he'd expected one, of course, but he had to try. He felt the damaged spot in his protective field already, a patch of cold on his thigh. The fields provided safety, a precaution against potential hull breach or systems failure, generated by a small device every person on the station wore on his or her belt. The field kept off the intense cold of space and maintained a breathable atmosphere within its confines by molecular conversion. It could keep him alive even in vacuum for hours, if intact. But now. . .
Ossen decided not to worry. It would last. It had to last. For now he'd concentrate on getting out.
He groped around in the blackness, trying to find the hatch release. It had to be there somewhere. . . ah, there. He pressed it. Nothing happened. Defense feature, his mind whispered, a holdover from when pirates were a common threat to the space stations. Once the interior lock engaged, the service doors did not open from the outside. Great.
The cold spot grew more intense. Ossen pounded on the door again, aware it was hopeless, but still trying. He couldn't give up, couldn't let Dylan win that easily.
Bastard. Ossen shifted, then quit moving when he felt the tear widen and more cold rush in. How long would he make it, with his body warmth escaping through that little hole, and the cold of space seeping in. . . and in such a small space, too. He wasn't claustrophobic, true, but he was still susceptible to muscle cramps. The space he occupied was tiny. True enough, he could probably open up the outer access door and get out into space, work his way around to the dock area, but what good would that do? His field was damaged. Put it in true vacuum and his air would be sucked out that little hole in three seconds or less. At least in here there was still atmosphere, frigid though it was.
He could do nothing, nothing at all, except wait, and feel that cold spot expanding. It was numb now, around the tear itself, but the ring of cold was growing painfully. It sucked the warmth and life out of his leg as it spread. He imagined what his skin would look like when he got out, dead and blackened, the worst case of space-freeze anyone had seen since the protective fields were made mandatory.
He tried to get out again, but it didn't work, because he couldn't really move. The hatch was small, only intended to serve as an airlock for one man at a time to get out onto the station's skin. There was no room to move.
The tear got bigger. Now he could stick his fingers into it in the dark and feel the rent in his protection. He could fit his entire hand through, but trying to plug it up did no good because it only grew again.
Dylan would pay. Just as soon as he got out of this place, this tiny corner of frozen hell he'd been locked into, Dylan was going to pay for what he'd done. First he'd go to Lee, explain everything. She'd understand. She'd see right through that phony planet-born ape, she'd believe Ossen's story, and together they'd get him back somehow. He had to suffer, to make up for what he'd done. . .
Thoughts of revenge kept him warm for a while, but the cold was taking over. It hurt, the cold did, terribly badly as it crept through his leg and into the rest of his body. He tried to move, couldn't manage it. Too close, too confined, couldn't even stretch his arms all the way out.
Air was running short, or was that just his imagination? He was thirsty, too. He understood the reason behind that all too well. Moisture escaped from his body along with warmth, through the hole in his protective field. Pity understanding the process destroying him didn't help anything. He panted, panic taking him by surprise and making him thrash in his tiny space. No way out! And Dylan was with Lee. He could visualize it far too clearly in the blackness, how surprised she would be to see Dylan with the rose, and the smile on her face. She would be happy to see him, damn her, she'd be glad her secret admirer wasn't some scrawny spacer geek.
A small voice somewhere deep inside whispered that the scenario was illogical, that Lee had already shown her dislike of Dylan very obviously, but it wasn't heard against the growing tide of pain and rage.
Cold... so cold in here. He tried again to open the access panel, with no more luck than before. His hands fumbled at the controls with no feeling, awkward and frozen. The thought that formed within his mind was even colder than the leak in his field: I'm going to die in here. How long would it take?
Wedged in, can't breathe. No doubt about it now, the air was running out. Damn Dylan. Cold. Getting colder. Can't breathe, can't move, gotta move gotta get out. . . Then the pain again. Pain and airlessness. Cold and hot, needles, fiery needles stabbing relentlessly. Muscles clenching, would convulse if there was room. Never knew cold could be so fiery hot.
One thought: Dylan must pay.
Blankness flickered, became real, then vanished. He saw Lee. Sitting with Dylan. He'd gone and done it, the bastard, had convinced Lee he was the one, and now she would believe him and love him and. . .
Sh'lia woke, gasping, momentarily uncertain if she was awake or not. The dream had been so real, so vivid, for all that there wasn't much to it, just pain and fear and death. Freaky.
She struggled out of bed and found her uniform without much effort. She checked the clock and swore. Great, she was going to be late to the Core. Another day without breakfast.
She bolted into the Core and found her station. She got her computer fired up and logged on to the network only five minutes late. It was only then that the quiet sunk in to her conscious mind. She snuck a surreptitious look around the Core.
Only about ten of the thirty-three control personnel occupied their stations, and none of them looked particularly alert. Her partner, Brook, was just now coming onto the floor.
"You're late," she greeted Brook, who slid into her seat with a groan.
"Couldn't sleep worth a damn," Brook grumbled. "Kept having—"
"Nightmares?" Sh'lia finished, with a shiver.
Brook gave her an odd look, then logged onto her computer. "I'd say no, but that'd be a lie. What, you too?"
"Cold, dark, can't move," Sh'lia started.
"Can't breathe, must get out, then dying," Brook finished. She gave Sh'lia a long look, then turned to her computer. "Too weird, girlfriend. Ain't it bad enough we have to be attached at the hip for ten hours straight, without sharing our nightmares?"
"Yes. Yes, it is." Sh'lia returned her attention to her own computer thoughtfully. The functions of the station spread out before her on her screen, everything from life support down to emergency back-up lighting. She ran a diagnostic, relieved when all systems came back normal. She didn't think she could deal with a crisis right now, not even a minor annoyance.
"Lee, do you think it happened to anyone else?" Brook kept her voice casual, eyes on her own screen.
"I have no idea," Sh'lia replied.
The entry portal hissed open. Both women turned at the sound of the Commander's voice.
"I'm well aware of the hour," Commander Banks said, striding into the Core, followed closely by the security guard on duty. "And if you think you're going to keep me from my post at the Core with your ridiculous security checks when my prints have already cleared, you can think again. I made that fifteen-minute rule, and I can countermand it. Late or not, I'm on duty, now get back to your post."
The security guard shrugged and retreated from the Core. The Commander turned and surveyed his crew.
"There's been a rash of complaints already this shift," he began, striding to his station. "Apparently, people are finding themselves unable to report to their duty stations on time, due to nightmares." Several people twitched and looked around at each other, seeing confirmation in other startled glances. "This is most likely due to a malfunction in the food creators. I've got engineering on it already, all late arrivals will be overlooked this shift. Now get back to work."
"Yes sir, o captain my captain," Sh'lia muttered, turning back to her console. Actually, the Commander's statement surprised her. Usually he wasn't so lenient. Maybe his tolerance had something to so with the fact that he was late too.
Whatever the reason for the nightmares, the shift passed normally, once the last stragglers passed through the late arrival security check. The only sign of anything out of the ordinary came afterwards, when the infirmary experienced a run of people requesting mild sedatives.
Sh'lia sought out the lounge after she'd eaten. She paused in the doorway and scanned the faces within. She noticed one absence immediately, and smiled with grim pleasure. Dylan Arthman was nowhere to be found. Imagine that. She'd be surprised if he was in any condition to go anywhere at all after last night. More troubling was Ossen Guyl's absence. She couldn't find her friend anywhere, and that really disturbed her. If anyone would have an opinion about last night's weirdness, Ossen would. He'd told her before about his interest in supernatural myths and legends. There was no sign of him, though, so she settled at the bar alone. The infirmary was out of sedatives, but a bit of alcohol could do the same job.