The dropship hurdled away through the poisonous atmosphere. The mesa beneath them lay shrouded in green fog, dwindling in size as the ship gained altitude. There was no more movement on the damned toxic planet.
The frigate Derecho was waiting for them in orbit. The dropship cleared the airlock and as it landed, its pressurized hatch hissed and sprung open. John did not wait for the door to fully extend to the hangar floor and leapt to the deck with a heavy thud—still clutching Casey in his mechanically-assisted arms. She was limp, but despite the vac-suits separating them, he swore he could sense her breathing. From the far end of the hangar, Chief Doctor Theo arrived in a vac-suit of her own, with a pair of similarly dressed security personnel at her heels. They hurried to keep up as John swiftly exited the bay towards the infirmary.
Theo ran ahead and motioned him to the sterilization chamber. “Decontamination, John! Decontamination!”
She dismissed the guards, who hesitantly departed, and the three of them entered as the chamber sealed. The room pulsed red and they were bathed in a mist of quick-acting decontaminants. Dr. Theo hovered above Casey with a pocket light, examining her. Casey muttered something unintelligible under her breath and John looked down at her contorted expression. As the pocket light passed over her face, her limp body began to shudder with convulsions. “This is insane,” Theo mused.
As soon as the decontamination procedure was complete, John rushed into the medical bay. Maneuvering his suit’s protruding exterior around the various instrument covered carts and startled medical personnel, he arrived at the containment cell in the back. He kicked the control panel, releasing the door to the cell with a spark. Gingerly, he placed Casey’s body within the tube located in the center of the room. Theo arrived with a sheet and draped it over her mangled vac-suit. She thumbed the console and the glass lid hissed shut as the apparatus whirred, pumping oxygen into the tube.
John stared down at Casey’s thin frame behind the glass and sheet. Even garbed in her bulky vac-suit, she was smaller than others. Her eyes were still shut, and her exposed hands were pinched tightly into fists, fighting off whatever pain she felt with every ragged breath. Behind him, the onboard medical staff swarmed, awaiting the Chief Doctor’s directions. Theo began directing them towards various parts of the wing. A medical officer entered the cell and attached a device to the side of the tube. A needle stabbed into Casey’s shoulder and withdrew a brown liquid. The officer withdrew.
“Dr. Theo,” John called, pulling her attention away from the group.
“I’m having them prepare for any potential invasive medical procedures. We will operate once the rudimentary tests have concluded, that is.” She glanced at John. His gaze had not moved away from Casey Sendak.
“When will we know?” John asked, as he kneeled down beside Casey.
“Her pulse is erratic,” Theo spoke, unfastening and removing her helmet as she analyzed the readout on the nearby monitor. John followed suit and removed his as well as Dr. Theo continued, “Her heart rate is well above what an average human heart is capable of. Her body is in shock. Magnification shows massive disorder within her skin cells. We’ll need that blood and skin sample…” She paused, squinting from behind her glasses. The medical officer returned, transferring data onto Theo’s handheld data pad. “Thank you. Her skin mass density is plummeting dramatically. There are mutated skin cells being absorbed into her circulatory system, and dead microbial matter is being ejected outwards into the air around her. It’s like she’s shedding.”
“Is she still human, doc?” John asked, his voice quiet. “The way she… attacked us. No human is capable of what she did.”
“It’s hard to tell. Her metabolism is fluctuating at a very high and abnormal rate—on par with what I’ve observed from our limited collection of samples.” Theo removed her glasses. “Her body has gone through a traumatic mutation because of that creature, that.. thing you tore off of her neck. She was on that planet, alone and exposed, for approximately 146 hours. Nobody has seen anything like this before.”
John stood, bracing himself against the bulkhead. He hovered above the stasis cell, teetering on the edge of weariness. Casey still lay shaking, with the occasional incoherent word escaping her lips. The surface of her skin still appeared rough and broken, with several dark blue tendril-like veins tracing up her neck and jaw towards her eyes and ears. Her pupils moved sporadically beneath her eyelids and her breathing was fragile and irregular.
Medical staff began to flurry around John in his large vac-suit, which was taking up most of the already cramped space in the cell. The movement and noise surrounding him seemed distant and muffled, as visions of what had transpired on the planet flashed in his memories…
And as fatigue settled in, he could hear her voice screaming and pleading for them to come back, to not abandon her down there—even as they fled from her as she killed another one of them.
John, come back, she had screamed. John!
He jolted out of his stupor and instinctively leaned towards Casey, half expecting her to be awake.
“John,” the voice said again, this time more recognizable. John’s wits slowly returned to him as he saw Isaac’s darkened reflection in the glass, standing behind him in the doorway. “We finally managed to get Chen patched in on the bridge. He wants to speak with you.”
John closed his eyes, his back still to Isaac. “Can it wait? I need to see this through.”
“Whatever happened down there on the planet… we’ve gotten reports from the others. Four dead, and one of them…” Isaac nervously looked around the room. The room was bustling, and the assisting medical staff seemed distracted, but he dropped his volume anyway. “He knows about Ethan, John,” he whispered, “I’ve managed to convince Chen to hear your explanation, but you need to speak to him at once, to explain to him this whole situation. They want to arrest you.”
In the tube, Casey muttered something again, and began to shake violently. At Dr. Theo’s command, the staff injected a strange liquid into another port on the side of the container. The atmosphere within the tube transformed into a hazy blue mist. Her seizures diminished, but her frail arms and legs still convulsed under the sheet, as if in unbearable pain. John turned away, unable to look any more, and noticed the same two security personnel from earlier standing just outside the containment cell. As he began to leave, Isaac caught John’s arm, stopping him.
“Wait. There’s one more thing you need to know.” Isaac cleared his throat to address the staff, and the room became quiet. “Per Chen’s orders, if she awakes and there is even the slightest perceivable chance of danger to our onboard personnel…” Isaac’s attention turned towards Dr. Theo, “kill her.”
“What!” John grabbed Isaac by the shoulders in rage, and slammed him into the wall with the assisted strength of his vac-suit. Isaac’s feet dangled inches off the ground. The guards raised their weapons as John shouted “After what we went through to get her back!”
“Release the Captain!” a guard commanded, his gun aimed at John’s head.
Isaac exhaled and raised his hand to quell the guards. Their stance dropped slightly. The room remained silent, except for the hum of machinery and the quiet rattle of Casey’s constricted breathing. Beads of sweat streaked down John’s forehead.
“How many times has she saved our lives, Isaac? And you’re just gonna let him kill her!? If you lay a hand on her, I’ll—”
“John!” Isaac yelled, and John paused. Isaac continued, “I know. Trust me, I do. We owe her our lives. But attacking me isn’t going to change anything. If you want to fix things, then you need to speak to Chen. I’m trying to help you, but… this is out of my control. He’s the one you need to convince.”
After a moment, John’s grip subsided. Once Isaac was free, the soldiers lowered their weapons.
Seeing the pain in John’s face, and his reluctance to leave, Isaac said softly, “Don’t worry about her John. I’ll watch after her.”
“Thank you,” John said, and walking through the door he added, “I’m sorry, Ike.”
“ I understand.” Isaac looked at the shivering pale form under the misted glass. “She’s fighting for you, John. You went to hell and back for her, and I think she knows it.”