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Virgo 97

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VIRGO 97

A science-fiction thriller

by Italo Maragò

Virgo 97

Copyright © 2016 by Italo Maragò

All rights reserved.

This book, or any portion of it, may not be reproduced or used without the express written permission of the author. The use of brief quotations in a book review is a very welcome exception.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real characters, events or places is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Cover Design © 2016 by Ida Maragò

Digital Art © 2016 by Isa Minen

This book is dedicated to the one I share my life with. The pages that follow are as much mine as they are yours.

A special thank you goes to Francesco Bertuccio and Martina Marmai, who patiently proofread my work.

To ‘Le bogne’, who supported me in the process.

Last but not least to my family, who have always been there for me.

Table of contents

 

 

Prologue

I am panting.

A trickle of blood runs down my cheek, slow but relentless. My heart pounds so fast I am amazed it’s still within my chest. It wouldn’t be that surprising if it exploded, all of a sudden, crushing a rib or two on its way out.

An excruciating pain comes from my leg. It must be broken. As I look down, I see a bulge on the skin where the pain is worst. I’ve seen enough crime TV shows to guess it is my displaced tibia. Hell, I am lucky I am sitting on a chair…

I lost track of time soon after the beating began. Now I lost my memory as well.

Where am I?

What am I doing here?

Another powerful punch to my stomach. Once more I spit out blood.

“I’ll ask again because it’s your lucky day! Who knows you’re here?”

The Russian accent is strong and unmistakable. It comes from a man two-meters tall, stuffed in so much muscle that he seems just as large.

“Where are the files?” He goes on.

I would love to give him an answer and make him stop, but I don’t recall a thing. A blow to my head must be causing the amnesia – it would also explain the blood on my face.

I don’t bother anyway. I must focus on the present as my next move may either save me or kill me. And it turns out the options on what to do are rather limited. Option One, I find a way out. Option Two, I surrender to destiny and die a horrible death. Option Three, I can answer his questions – that is, if the amnesia concedes – and most likely end up dead anyway. Yes, Option One sounds like the most appealing.

I start searching the room with my eyes. I’m in some sort of bleak warehouse and the place is dark and empty – my beater excluded. The only object in the room is a ground spotlight to my left, like the ones they use in photographic studios. It may not be enough to illuminate the large room, but it sure is enough to dazzle me. Just past the infernal light source a figure sits in the shadows, his arms crossed. He’s staring at me with something on his face that remotely resembles a sneer, but doesn’t speak a word. His silence is infinitely more frightening than the punches I am taking and I look away in a split second or two.

The rest of the place is featureless; the stark floor is in cement and bears no pavement. No distinctive smell or noise neither inside nor outside the building. Nothing whatsoever, except for a large steel door on the far corner to my right. With no other windows or air vent openings, the door is the only path to salvation. It would be good news, were it not roughly twenty meters distant. Right now, twenty meters or a billion miles away are exactly the same, considering that I am secured to my chair by means of tight ropes.

The first step towards the exit is to set myself free of the nylon knots. At the moment, though, my major concern is once again the shouting gorilla and his unorthodox questioning.

“Who else is in this with you?” The man insists.

“I have no idea why I am here, I swear!” I try.

“You think I’m a fucking fool?” A hook to my flank asserts he isn’t.

“Where the fuck is the rest of it?”

Memories start coming back in disconnected flashes: the flying colors of Moscow Kremlin… Me, scribbling on my notepad in the freezing air of the Russian winter… The rush of blood to my head when I put the final pieces of the puzzle together…

Now I remember! I remember it all!

And, by all means, I’m not telling them shit!

“Listen… I don’t know who you think I am, but honest to God…” I start in pretended confusion.

My already injured foreleg is the target of a new right kick that would make any professional footballer green with envy. It makes me scream like a wounded animal – I fucking am a wounded animal.

But I won’t give up. All the pain in the world couldn’t make me speak. Not after all I’ve been through. This is huge and they know it. I must run away… I start untying my hands with little writhing movements.

“Ok, ok! I’ll tell you everything I know, but please stop it!” I beg him in a fake whining – well, say sixty percent fake.

I can work harder on the rope now that I have engaged the brute’s fullest attention.

“I got here two months ago and started my research. After weeks of hard work, I couldn’t find anything in the official accounts of what happened – I mean, nothing. But I didn’t give in. To me, that nothing meant something. So I decided to investigate unofficial sources – it’s amazing what a couple of rubles can buy in this country if you know how to spend them…”

Obviously, they already know all this and I’m only wearing their patience thin… but the knot is loosening.

“…as days went by, seemingly meaningless details started to come together, one at a time. They looked like coincidences at first, until a true pattern emerged before my eyes. You see, I couldn’t get the whole picture until the very end, but when I did…oooh aren’t you some slimy bastards!”

My capturer is trying hard not to kill me, but he doesn’t strike yet. He thinks I’m getting somewhere and as a matter of fact I am: my left hand is free.

One more to go.

“I have proof of what you did, and I am not afraid to share it with the world. You motherfuckers are all in the same boat, and I’m the one who’s gonna sink it!”

I show a grin that is as insolent as it could get, and it serves the purpose: One-hundred-forty kilograms of human flesh jolt towards me blinded by rage and contempt. An instant before the impact, though, I lean to my right and use my body weight to fall on the ground. The trick brings the chair sideways on the floor and the huge approaching Russian mass is now targeting nothing but its legs. The crash is inevitable and the man stumbles and falls meters behind me, followed by a trail of shattered wood: the very same wood that was holding the ropes.

I am finally free.

In the milliseconds that follow, I crawl four-legged towards the exit as fast as my wrecking body allows. The pain from my leg is overwhelming but I barely notice as the crawling becomes staggering, and then true sprinting. I must reach the door and lock it from the outside before the torturer gets back on his feet and the boss rises from the shadows.

The surge of adrenalin dampens the pain and the exit is ever closer. Delirious shouting comes from behind me and I look back to see the heavy man clumsily rising from the ground. One of the splinters pierced his right thigh quite deep in the muscle, judging from his wild groan and unstable standing. The other man stood up from his commanding post but unexpectedly never moved from there. He seems still in control as he orders his made-man to come after me. Unfortunately, the latter obeys in the blink of an eye.

Be it the startle of the approaching threat or the ache from my weight-bearing leg, I stumble myself and roll on the ground five meters from my finish line. The irregular footsteps of my zigzagging chaser are growing louder and louder. Desperate and helpless, I ignore them and push myself forward to reach the door. I can’t believe it’s actually working!

In a monstrous struggle against gravity, I lift the bulk of my body to come level with the knob and turn it clockwise. The door is finally open.

Before my eyes, the dark blue night sky lies cloudless and serene. The countless bright stars hover peacefully over the hilly landscape. A crispy breeze caresses my blood-clad cheek. It is a most relaxing sensation.

Freedom.

Then everything goes black…

***

“What are you doing?” the boss asks calmly.

“I’m dragging this bastard back inside so we can go on with the questioning.” The man replies.

“No need to. He already told us everything.”

“Huh?” A blank stare on the brute’s face.

“There’s no other file. Otherwise he would have published it already. Journalists can’t hold back information of this kind for more than a minute. And we also know that he was working alone…”

“How can you possibly know that?” He asks.

“Because he always spoke in first person: I got here two months ago… I didn’t give in…a pattern emerged under my eyes. The asshole was so busy trying to escape that he didn’t even notice he was giving us what we wanted.” A sinister smile mixed in satisfaction and self-appreciation appears on the boss’ mouth.

“Shit, you’re right! So, what do we do with him?”

“He is of no use anymore. Get rid of him.” The boss replies as he heads to the door.

His footsteps echo in the silence of the lonely warehouse. As he steps outside, he stares proudly at the same dark sky the captive mistook for freedom only a bunch of seconds before.

A loud gunshot reverberates merciless through the quiet valley.

Bernard Travers lies on the cold cement floor.

His gaze, lifeless.

Chapter 1

20th November 2024

One day since Departure

“Todd, we need you here!”

Satisfied with my work, I close the laptop shut and move to the main module. Light is shining outside the windows on one side of the craft. The view is breathtaking as wonders surround us in every direction. Five-hundred kilometers below, the oceans unravel in the mighty storms. To the right, the pale Moon lies still and quiet. To the left, the curvature of the Earth marks the horizon. But the most fascinating scenery is the glue that keeps them all together: the black of void.

At times, I find myself wondering if it was worth it. All the training on Earth… all those countless months away from my family… and yet, I can’t think of anything this appeasing back home.

“Todd, are you coming or not?!”

It’s Amelia Curtis, commander of the expedition. Only twenty-nine years old but smart as a fox. If we are to succeed in this mission she will be the reason, plain and simple.

Tall and fit, her blonde hair is strategically worn in a ponytail not to ‘wander around like it has a mind of its own’ in microgravity.

“Come on, we can’t go past orbiting Earth without a flight engineer!” Amelia insists.

“Are we there already?” I ask surprised.

“We’ll be there in fifteen minutes, but I want you to bring your ass to the cabin and check everything is set. I don’t want to miss the time window because you’re busy sitting here, staring at the window” She says, grinning.

Bitchy and sexy, as always. And she has a point.

I follow her into what we call ‘The Lab’. The lab is actually a small service module where we store scientific equipment we will only need in four months’ time. ‘The storage room’ would be more appropriate to define it, but we all agreed ‘The Lab’ sounds fancier. Logistically, it is a sort of a central hall connecting the two arms of the Latin-cross-shaped craft. The short arm consists of the four single rooms for the crew members, two rooms per side of The Lab. The long arm, instead, makes up the bulk of the ship with its five sequential modules. Starting from the bottom there is the docking port, the only way in or out of the craft, followed by the gym and the main module, where Amelia and I were before.

The main module is where the crew spends most of their spare time and it also serves as a kitchen. It is the only place in this massive metal monster that vaguely resembles a house. It opens into The Lab and finally into the command module. We are heading there right now.

This last module is the pulsatile heart of the ship, the place where theory is put into practice. The thousands of calculations made by our colleagues in San Francisco are highly reliable, but need to be executed in the proper sequence. This is when having a skilled pilot on board comes in handy. Luckily, we have two.

In addition to our beloved commander Curtis, Viktor Sokolov is behind the wheel. He is a last minute replacement after Jacques Lacroix was found feverish one week before the scheduled departure. Nothing serious, but health is no laughing matter in space travel. His body temperature of thirty-seven-point-two degrees Celsius was enough to give the green light to his substitution. So here is Viktor. I must admit I’m no great fan of the Russians, this one in particular. He is of the arrogant type, always self-absorbed, but at least he knows how to fly a twenty-five-thousand-kilos vehicle better than to make a joke. He sits next to Amelia in the cabin and is already pushing buttons on the panel in front of him as we join in.

“There you are! I was starting to think I had to do the job on my own.” He says in a slight Russian accent.

“Don’t you worry, Vik. We’re not so reckless as to leave a Russian in control of the craft!” Amelia replies and we laugh.

“By the way, where is Konrad?” I ask.

“Here I am, boys…” he says, popping out from behind me. “..And lady.” he adds, winking at Amelia.

Konrad König is a thirty-seven years old German man, average build, good-looking and an ultimate worshipper of his thick long beard. He graduated with honors in biology and three days later he was already working full-time at the Joint International Space Agency. He has never gone back to his home country since then, except for the occasional holidays. Konrad is not a simple biologist. He is an outstanding all-around researcher with expertise ranging from botany to chemistry to cosmology. This is why he is the one and only scientist here on Virgo 97.

“Have a seat, Mr. Bright boy.” Amelia says hastily. She never had a particular liking for Konrad since the day he flirted with her at the presentation party of our mission.

“Is it that time of the month?” Konrad chuckles.

Before I can answer Amelia looks at the both of us in a stare that leaves no space for replies. The time for chit-chat is up.

“Get to work you two.” She just says.

I sit just behind her and next to Konrad who, in turn, is behind Viktor. This two times two configuration minimizes unexploited space in the constrained environment of the cabin.

“Ok everybody, fasten your seatbelts. Todd, please initiate maneuvering protocol.” The commander says and I comply.

“Starting maneuvering protocol, Stage One initiated” I state. “Engaging radio communication system. Panel status, check. Engines, check”.

My fingers fly on the touch-screen in a well-known sequence. I did it four-hundred-fifty-two times already in the simulator.

“Power levels, 99.8%. Solar panels operational.” They all listen patiently. “Stage one completed. Advancing to Stage two. Initiating radio communication to mission control, San Francisco.”

The on-board computer blips for a while.

A couple of seconds later, a familiar metallic voice breaks through the speakers.

“Virgo, this is San Francisco. Happy to hear from you again.”

It’s Arnold Mitchell, mission director.

“Sensors indicate all subsystems are set and ready. Reed, please advance to final Stage in fifteen seconds.” Prof. Mitchell continues in his authoritative voice.

“Affirmative. Commander Curtis, please switch to manual control.” I suggest.

Ten seconds left.

“Switching autopilot off. Enabling Manual control.” Amelia confirms.

Five seconds.

“Prograde orientation confirmed.”

Three.

“Reaction control system stable.”

Two.

“Thrusters set to maximal power.”

One.

“Starting thrusters.”

The roaring is pervasive and accompanies a seven g-force thrust that is the opposite of pleasant. It goes on for an endless half a minute as we gain sufficient speed to leave Earth’s orbit. When it finally stops, my head is still pounding. No matter how much you train, there are some situations human bodies are just not supposed to endure. Space travel is definitely one of them.

“Mission control this is Virgo 97, please confirm new trajectory.” I say hopeful to the radio when the dizziness wears off.

“Virgo, we confirm that the new trajectory is achieved as planned. Stage three is complete. Great job everyone, get some rest, you deserve it. We’ll get back to you in a hour.” After some formal remarks, Mitchell cuts the communication.

“Well, that was fun!” Amelia exclaims.

“Speak for yourself!” Konrad, like me, hates spaceflight. Books are his cup of tea, he is a man of science after all.

“I’m grabbing a bite. Anyone?” Asks Viktor.

“Why not?” Amelia and Konrad answer simultaneously.

“I’ll pass, thanks.” I’ve been having this headache since I woke up this morning and the last ten minutes certainly did not help. Luckily, there will be no more jiggling of this kind for four months.

Not until our next stop, however.

Mars.

Chapter 2

“One more time.” I say.

“Again? Norton, it’s like the fiftieth time!”

“You must be kidding. Or stupid. Do you realize the risks we’re taking here?” I insist.

“I know that. It’s just… Sometimes I feel like you don’t trust me… We both know every step by heart!”

“Let’s see if we do, then.”

Alfred is a great kid. After our parents died, we grew up in an orphanage in Blackhawk California. Back then, most of the time we spent together was grounded. These days, most of that time is in robberies.

Alfred and I have been in this business for three years now, but we do it for different reasons. He enjoys the easy money and the cars, women, and gambling that come with it. Of course, I don’t despise the extra grands myself, but I rob banks because I love it. And I love it simply because we are good at it.

Very good, in fact.

After a heist, Alfred is the one that eagerly counts the money while I enjoy the taste of a well-deserved cigarette.

Yet, this time is different.

We have never done anything similar before. Tonight we are not working for ourselves. We’re on commission. And it’s not a bank we are robbing.

“Hmm… alright. So, I’ll be waiting here in the van while you go inside from the main door. Nobody will notice you at this hour” Alfred starts.

“Why?” I challenge him.

“Because you’ll be wearing a janitor suit. With cart, broom, and everything. It’s cleaning hours, so the security guard at the main gate won’t even look at you.”

“Good, go on.”

“Once you get past the main entrance you’re in the lobby.”

I’m in the lobby, the centre of the building. Looking thirty-one floors up, I spot a thick glass dome serves as a ceiling. Opposite the entrance is a reception desk, now empty as the rest of the room. On each side of it, an endless staircase brings the fittest to the top floor.

I walk to the elevator, instead.

“So you go up to the twenty-ninth, that’s where Peroxisome is. Here comes the tricky part. Peroxisome has a thing for security, so getting in won’t be easy…but you are lucky you have me.” He grins proud.

“To unlock the electric door at the front you’ll need this…” he hands me a magnetic stripe card. “…And this” a thin transparent plastic sheet. An invisible fingerprint coats its surface. It belongs to an employee of the research facility. Alfred sneaked in the cafeteria earlier today and easily got the clerk’s coffee mug during lunch break.

“These two items will give you access to every room. Always use the card first or the alarm goes off.”

That’s my boy. He did his homework.

Card… Fingerprint… The door opens with a soft click. I’m in.

Stretching from the door is a wide corridor, bordered by several offices. One of them is still occupied by a late stakhanovite, too busy yelling at the phone to bother about the janitor passing by. At the end of the hallway, I swiftly steer the cart to the left and again to the right, finally stopping at a heavy metal door. A polished sign reads ‘Storage Room’.

I look around.

Still no one.

“As usual, swipe card, press fingerprint and…voilà.” Alfred says, visibly pleased with himself. “The package is on shelf 317-92, row F. It shouldn’t be hard to find.”

And it isn’t. I walk to the shelf and grab the pack from its slot. I startle as I take a moment to stare at the big scary sign on it. Three green semicircles meet at the centre with their open ends outwards. A circle encompasses them all.

It’s the universal sign for ’Toxic’.

. The man did not say what we had to steal and I did not ask – the lesser I know, the better – but this thing is damn dangerous. What if this is a disease-causing bug and I am helping some psycho spread it? Or worse, what if it is a virus that will kill hundreds of innocents in a bioterrorist attack? After all, we are stealing a toxic compound from a high-security biology lab.

Nah… these are stories that belong to the movies, not to real life. It is probably just some kind of cutting-edge fertilizer that will earn my employer millions in apples and oranges.

I shiver, it’s freezing in here. These bio-things are all cryoconserved. If I linger around for another minute I may become a piece of ice myself. Holding the precious container, I exit the storage room: card first, fingerprint follows.

Click.

I walk the same way back to the corridor, where a voice breaks the silence.

“Hey, you!”

My blood freezes.

“I am talking to you!” the voice insists.

Animals have evolved down different paths so that they can survive in different habitats, but when it comes to responding to threats insects, reptiles and humans are all alike – it is either fight or flight. And I cannot afford the latter.

“Yes?” I say, reaching out for the nine-millimeters in my cart and clenching my fingers around the cold steel. The bullet is already in the magazine and I pull the safety off.

“…Could you please turn the central air down on your way out?”

I sigh in relief. It’s the employee from the office. He nearly got killed because of a few degrees of cold. I feel the urge to shoot him anyway for that stupid friendly smile on his face. Instead, I do what he asks and finally carry on to the exit door.

I am glad this is over.

Fingerprint first…

FUCK.

The alarm howls savagely and the door locks down. The alarm system is directly connected to the police station – in a blink of an eye the cops will be storming into this place. Anyone else would panic, but not me. I always have a plan B, and this time I literally have it. It’s inside the cart – between the revolver and the detergents, to be precise. My savior is a tiny C4 block, no larger than a smartphone, perfect for contained explosions. In a matter of thirty seconds it’s out of its protective envelope and glued to the lock. I walk some steps back to shield behind the nearest pillar and pull the trigger.

Boom.

The charge might have been small but it sure lived up to the expectations. What’s left of the once mighty entrance to Peroxisome is a shameful aggregate of bent metal. Behind the rising dancing cloud of dust, the office worker is shouting in terror and disbelief. Everything happened so fast that he barely realized something was wrong – and that the temperature was not it.

Anyway, I leave the man and Peroxisome behind me as I head out, but I beat the urge to flash down the staircase as of now. There is another person in the building and, unlike the worker, he is my concern. I hide behind a tall wide ornamental cactus next to the railing that is a perfect viewpoint for the main entrance downstairs. It doesn’t take long before the overweight security guard appears trotting in the lobby. After a quick look at the twenty-ninth floor he rushes to the elevator.

Perfect.

The moment the doors close behind him, I leave my hideout and finally fly down the stairs. The guard may be off my list, but the police is not. It may be here any second now. In an insane race against the clock I skip two steps at a time. Hope rises as fast as the levels go down, until I get to the seventh floor.

That’s when I hear the sirens.

“Come on, come on, COME ON!”

Alfred is outside the building, fidgeting in the van. The engine is running. His eyes dart back and forth from the entrance of the skyscraper to the rear mirror, where they eventually freeze. His eyeballs are fixed on the magnetic blue flashing lights that appear reflected on the glass. The police is at the end of the avenue, hand in hand with the howling sound of law enforcement.

“Shit man! I’m so, so sorry!”

Alfred shifts the gearbox to drive and hits the gas pedal hard. The tire screeches on the flat dry asphalt and the van jumps forward. It moves for less than ten meters, however, then stops short again. A shady silhouette is appearing from the lobby.

It’s Norton, racing for his freedom.

“Yes! This way!” Alfred shouts, forcing the passenger door apart.

From behind, the police cars are approaching fast. Their hoods grow bigger and bigger, the wailing of the sirens increasingly louder.

Norton gathers his remaining strength and engages in a final sprint to reach the vehicle.

“Go, go, go!” he shouts as he slams the door shut.

The van jerks forward once again, this time without stopping. The criminal duo gains speed on the tarmac and leaves the avenue at the first intersection to disappear in the traffic of San Jose.

Meanwhile, the police cars park in front of the building.

Thirty seconds too late.

Chapter 3

Business as usual at the Police department in Paris. On the first floor, two agents are discussing the case of a housewife who lost her wallet on her way to the Tuileries. Another officer sits behind his desk, studying the video on a computer screen. It is the footage of a forty-euro-worth theft in a minimarket three blocks away from the Champs-Élysées. Across the room, another deputy is rocking in his chair and staring thoughtfully at the ceiling. His mind spaces from the ticket he just charged a middle age man breaking the speed limit to the generous quantity of croissants awaiting in the kitchenette for coffee break.

Upstairs is the realm of the secret intelligence services. Compared to downstairs, the situation is not much different this morning, except for the fact that the personnel will not be indulging on saturated fats.

In the sergeant’s office the telephone rings. It is Cyril Voclain himself who picks it up.

“Secret Services” He introduces.

“Good morning sergeant, it’s officer Jerome Dèmare, Police Judiciaire. We have come across a case of a missing reporter two months ago… Something new came up and we think this case may fall under your jurisdiction now.”

“Please, explain yourself” Voclain replies. It is rare for the regular police to contact the intelligence and when it does it is never good news.

“Sir…” He hesitates, palpably searching for the right words.

“…we have reason to believe that a Frenchman has been abducted in Russian territory.”

Voclain turns pale. The last thing his department needs right now is trouble in Eastern Europe. He is well aware of how complicated a simple case can become beyond the Urals. But he also has no choice, international crime is his domain.

“Alright, send me everything you have, we’ll take it from here.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

Ten minutes later the fax machine spits out the last page of a bulky file. Much of it is filled in pictures and map locations.

The sergeant starts reading the front page.

Name: Bernard Travers

Date of Birth: 9/7/1989

Place of birth: Evréux, France

Occupation: Journalist

Marital Status: Single

Current Address: Paris, France

A color photograph of a young Caucasian adult male is attached. His black hair falls gentle and abundant down his temples and the long curls end only an inch above his two narrow shoulders. Two young glaring brown eyes lie on either side of a slender nose. The man’s lips beneath it stretch thin and pale in a wide genuine smile.

His last, but Voclain cannot know it.

Below the picture there is a summary written by officer Dèmare:

 

Mr. Bernard Travers, thirty-four years old, was first reported missing by his sister, Linda Travers, on February 14th 2025.

Travers, being a freelance journalist, flew to Moscow for a reportage on December 2nd 2024. According to Miss Travers, her brother never mentioned the nature of his project but only stated, on several occasions, that it would be “his way to the Pulitzer”. This information further emerged in separate interviews with colleagues and family members.

During his stay in Moscow, Travers initially kept regular contacts with his sister. However, starting from mid-January, phone calls and emails progressively decreased in frequency. Bernard Travers himself reassured his sister and attributed this behavior to the increasing amount of work. He also added that he was close to finishing his project. The last known communication dates back to February 3rd.

Our first hypothesis was that the subject disappeared voluntarily. This assumption stemmed from the evidence that Mr. Travers owes his bank a sum of 44.829 €. We believed he had planned to repay his debts with the money earned from the reportage he was working on. Sometime between January and February, however, Travers must have realized his piece was not turning out to be as lucrative as he expected. As a result, he decided to let it go and never return to France.

To confirm this hypothesis and close the case, we made contact with the hotel where the man was staying. They confirmed the unusual disappearance of their client on the morning of February 4th. He never returned to the hotel since, despite having the room booked for the whole month. The receptionist informed us that the subject was renting a car from an agency in proximity of the accommodation facility. We followed that lead and called the company. Similarly to the hotel staff, they too were unaware of the disappearance as their policy is not to check on their clients until they return the vehicle, also in this case scheduled for the end of the month.

Therefore, we obtained the GPS coordinates of the car which we promptly forwarded to the Russian police. They sent two officers to the location and found the wreck of the vehicle, burnt in the midst of a forest 250 kilometers from Moscow. Nobody was inside.

Forensic examination revealed that the fire had multiple points of origin and was therefore not accidental. The side window was found broken. The shattered glass fell inside the car, suggesting it was destroyed from the outside. The pattern of spread was compatible with a gunshot impact, but no bullets were found inside or around the vehicle. This may suggest that the window was broken prior to the start of the fire.

Furthermore, the driver’s seat area was devoid of glass pieces, consistent with the hypothesis that the driver was sitting inside at the time of the shot. No traces of blood were found on the scene.

In view of the forensic report, we discarded the initial hypothesis and support the possibility of an abduction. Considering the absence of blood on the crime scene, we have no reason to believe Bernard Travers was hit in the shooting or injured otherwise.

Because of the international entity of this case, we formally require the intelligence to conduct the investigation. We must recommend maximum priority, in the hope to find the man alive.

The file continues with the long version of what was written in the first pages, such as the transcriptions of the interview with Linda Travers and phone calls to the receptionist of the hotel and the clerk at the car rental agency. It also includes satellite photographs of the places mentioned in the text, especially detailing the one where the car was found. The document ends with a long list of open points that need addressing.

For sergeant Voclain the time has come to cancel his afternoon appointments.

Chapter 4

27th December 2024

47 Days since Departure

Almost two months have passed since we last left the gravitational influence of our Planet. This means we’re closer to our destination than we are from our departure. Yet, my excitement of actually getting to the Red Planet leaves its way to the concern for the crushing pain in my head. Ever since take off it has waxed and waned, but in the last few days it has become unbearable. I do my best to ignore it, anyway – this mission has the highest priority.

After all, the aim of Virgo 97 is anything but trivial. We are here with the ambitious purpose of guaranteeing the survival of our entire species. Our planet has put up with us for so long that it eventually became too long. Most scientists agree that Earth will cease to be inhabitable around 2040. The ones who disagree dare set the expiration date as early as 2035. In any case, nobody questions the fact that by the end of the first half of this century, no living creature will be honored of such an adjective anymore.

It seems insane that only a few years ago everything seemed so under control. But then things escalated so quickly… we did not even have time to realize what was happening, let alone why.

The mainstream theory is that the carbon dioxide we have been emitting for decades with our petrol cars and eco-unfriendly factories reached the point of no return. The levels of the noxious gas skyrocketed in the atmosphere in the fall of 2022 and this event unleashed an unstoppable cascade of events. Apart from the well-known environmental effects of the greenhouse-gas, CO2 turned out to be the ultimate killer for bees. These vital insects were found to be sensitive to the gas at much lower concentrations than previously thought. At first only a few bees were touched, but with time entire hives collapsed and eventually no colony was spared. Before we knew it, the last of these flying beasts died last summer.

Bees play such a crucial role in nature that life is impossible without them. They are known as ‘universal pollinators’ for their ability to spread pollens of basically every plant around. Pollens are vital to plants, which in turn are the forage of the animals we eat. You take the bees out of the equation and… well, plants die, animals die, humans die as well.

When we left home, forty percent of the world’s vegetation was already gone. In 2028, roughly five years from when it started, this death cascade will be complete – as Einstein had predicted.

But it doesn’t matter anymore, does it? Because here we are! The saviors of the human race! We brought our planet to its knees? Never mind, Mars is not that far. A very simple philosophy after all… The same one of a virus leaving its host cell after it has exploited its resources to become ready to infect a new one. Even if I love to be part of the operation that will shape history, I can’t help hating the fact that it is our own fault if we got this far. And what is worse is that we had the means and knowledge to prevent this disaster, but we kept looking the other way until the damage was beyond repair.

As the astronauts of Virgo 97, we are supposed to be the first to both set foot and colonize Mars. Terraforming is not difficult – we actually had all the tools to do it by the end of the twentieth century. It was 1997 when the Virgo Project was designed and it could have launched that very year, except it lacked the proper motivation and funding.

We have both of them now.

The Project today naturally has some major technological advances compared to its progenitor, but the skeleton of the mission is the same and that is why they kept the original name.

“Todd, is everything alright? You look pale, mate.” Konrad brings me back to the present. I haven’t told anybody about my headaches yet. I have absolutely no intention of going through the endless medical questioning by the mission control or, worse, the mocking of the crew.

“And I tell you again, you should eat something.” He goes on with a comforting smile. Konrad has this theory that food can cure what drugs can’t.

“Thank you Konrad, but I’m fine. I’m not hungry these days. I’m stressed, that’s all.”

Deep inside, I’m proud that he cares and that the rest of the crew does too. Even Viktor, to my surprise.

“Boys, it’s workout time!” Amelia shouts from the back of the ship.

I can’t understand where she finds all that energy. Konrad, Viktor and I all hate the training. We duly perform it of course – our muscles would atrophy in a matter of weeks if we didn’t – but the enthusiasm? That ended three days after launch. Amelia, on the other end, never looks tired or bored. Had I not known her for almost ten years, I would think she was faking to keep our morale up.

We follow her lead to the small gym next to the main module. It is equipped with two stationary bicycles and one treadmill. As a consequence of the odd number of training devices, we usually take turns so that no one exercises alone. Konrad and I go first, Amelia and Viktor afterwards. However today Amelia, Konrad and I will sweat together. Viktor got up earlier than usual this morning to perform minor corrections to our trajectory and trained before the rest of us woke up.

As soon as we reach the small room, Amelia hops on one of the bikes and I take the other one. Konrad is left with the treadmill, consensually considered way more uncomfortable. The reason for that has nothing to do with the athletic gesture itself, but with the role gravity has in it: in outer space the first step in a run would send you floating mid-air. To compensate, our treadmill is provided with two elastic straps attached to the hard plastic that scaffolds the moving mat. Thanks to them the runner is held in place. It may not be high-tech, but it sure is cost-effective – even if considerably annoying.

“So tell me guys, you enjoying the flight?” Amelia says amiably while starting to pedal with no effort.

“I’d say yes, had some of those big brains in San Francisco bothered to put some kind of artificial gravity in this grand hotel of ours.” Konrad complains.

“Rest assured they did bother to mic this place up. If I were you I wouldn’t bite the hand that feeds me!” She winks.

“Konrad, you can’t simulate gravitational forces in space.” I explain. “Or better you could, but they wouldn’t be large enough to be of any significance. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but artificial gravity belongs to sci-fi.”

“So, that’s why they train you at engineering school, huh? So you can use science to break the dreams of a poor soul?” He says.

I laugh as I use the towel to wipe the sweat off my forehead.

“No. Way!” Amelia utters.

“What?” I am puzzled.

“You’re sweating already! You weren’t such a pussy back in high school! Here you go.” She throws a water bottle towards me. Despite stretching my arm out to grab it, the bottle floats past me and hits the wall. There. I just gave the blonde bully new material to make fun of my passing age and she doesn’t miss it.

“Todd, you’re turning old! But hey, no worries! If you need help with the retirement form you can always count on me.” The room bursts in a new thick laugh, but it’s short-lived.

A pervasive low-pitched roaring forcingly invades the room. The unsettling sound is so loud that I cover my ears and recoil in fetal position. In an effort to understand what’s happening I look up for the others.

Something is wrong.

Terribly wrong.

Suddenly, it is not the noise that scares me anymore but the look in Amelia and Konrad’s eyes, and the sheer terror in it. Mostly, it is the fact that they seem to be afraid of… me.

“…Todd!…” Amelia shouts. Only a tiny fraction of her voice reaches my ears. Her cry cannot overcome the mighty noise.

“Todd, stay with me!”

But the world goes black…

***

“He passed out.” Amelia concludes five minutes later.

“What do we do?” Konrad asks worried.

“Get the first aid kit. It’s in the cabinet next to the refrigerator, top drawer. Bring it to me, then call Viktor and tell him to contact mission control. Apart from Todd, he is the only one that knows how to initiate radio transmission. Call me when it’s all set. GO!”

Konrad dashes to the kitchen and does as he was told. Meanwhile, Amelia stays behind to watch over Todd. She stares powerless at the pale skin of her unconscious friend, but cannot see his eyes behind the closed eyelids.

They are tinged with the crimson of his blood.

Chapter 5

After the theft at Peroxisome, Alfred and I made it safely to a motel in Pleasanton. We drove there without exceeding a single speed limit and pulled into the small parking lot opposite the main building. There was no camera neither outside nor inside the motel, a business strategy that encourages married guests to secretly spend the night with lovers and hookers alike. Van parked, we went straight to the reception and checked-in using fake IDs. The following morning we paid cash and left. Piece of cake.

After that, each of us went our separate ways back home. The man who recruited us had explicitly asked us to wait three months before the delivery. By then, the theft would have been forgotten – hopefully even by the police. He was obsessively clear on that point, but somehow failed to mention that the material we had to handle in the meantime was toxic. I bet the motherfucker had withheld this anything-but-trivial detail on purpose. I had not changed my mind – I still didn’t want to know what was inside the box – but I needed to know if it could kill me. As there was no way to contact the mysterious man before our next encounter, I searched the web for advice. It turned out that the greenish symbol printed on the package is specifically used for biological or chemical material – at least it was not radioactive. In other words, it meant it was harmless as long as it was contained in its case. But I dug a hole in the remotest angle of my backyard and buried it deep in the ground – just to be sure.

Other than that, there was nothing I could do in the meantime. My daily activities ranged from sitting patiently on my couch watching TV to driving to the old smelling hardware store where I work and crash back on the sofa in the evening. Essentially, I was waiting for the calendar to finally show the due date.

Yet, I could not shake that bad feeling off my mind. At first I had thought I was worrying about the police: the alarm at Peroxisome had almost turned me in and I still had to process that. Some weeks later, though, I realized the cops had no evidence to trace the robbery back to Alfred or me. Nevertheless, the anxiety kept me company for obscure reasons. Hoping to find some peace, I repeatedly logged in my email account and searched the inbox for the thread I had already read thousands of times:

Dear Mr. Norton Davis,

We have recently come across your curriculum. We are aware that you are currently employed at McKinney’s Hardware and, were you not interested in a job opportunity, please ignore this email.

On the contrary, if you are keen to know more, we can arrange a meeting with one of our agents at 112 Magnolia Street, Livermore California on 13th July, 12 PM.

We are looking forward to hearing from you.

In faith,

Smith Enterprises

I remember my thought when I read it for the first time: move it to the spam folder. But a closer look made a bell ring. Spam messages often have your name in it, but can they know the exact place where you work?

Then I remembered the conversation I had with Alfred weeks before.

“Norton, we should try this! It’s called the Dark Web,” He said.

“Sorry, what?”

“You know that the government has eyes and ears everywhere? And that’s especially true for the Internet. Every time you access the net, your PC uses an IP address, a sort of unique digital fingerprint. The government can use it to track your emails, your social media accounts, your online purchases, everything they want. Hell, they can even know the porn you watch!” He continued.

“So?” I asked.

“Well, this Dark Web is like the holy grail of the third millennium. It’s basically the Internet without the spying. When you access the Dark Web, the IP address of your computer is relayed to another one, say, in Mexico, then to Australia, Japan, Greece and so on, dozens of times. You end up with a signal that is simultaneously coming from multiple sources worldwide, meaning that the government cannot trace it back to where it started.” He explained.

“So what are you saying, that my computer needs a virtual travel? A vacation maybe?” I joked.

“No, I’m serious. Basically, it means that you can become invisible”.

“And why should I care?”

“Because the major use of the Dark Web is… you know… illegal. You can buy drugs, weapons, even hire snipers, killers or… us”. He grinned.

“Shit, are you out of your mind? Why would you even think of… of… advertising?” I exploded.

“Listen up. This is how you make the real money, man! We can become pros! We are good, right? This is an opportunity to raise the bar and test how high we can jump. We just have to write two lines on the right website and we’re done!”

I considered for a moment.

“I don’t know Alfie. It sounds risky. How can you be sure this is safe?”

“You kidding right? We burglarize banks for a hobby but you’re afraid of this? What exactly is your standard for safe, bro?”

I chuckled and told him I would think about it. The following morning I eventually gave in. He was so packed with enthusiasm that I couldn’t turn him down. To be honest, I also agreed because I never thought it would work for real. Not until I received that message.

But received it I did, and when I showed it to Alfred he convinced me to jump in with both feet. I only agreed at one condition, though, that was I would go to the meeting alone. Risking my brother’s life was not an option. Plus, I have always been the one who negotiates the terms – he knows his stuff but has no idea of how tough business is.

On 13th of July, twenty minutes to mid-day I was in Livermore, Magnolia Street – an ordinary diner. I went in and sat at a table, read the newspaper and sipped an espresso. The minute hand of the clock on the diner’s wall ticked exactly mid-day when a deep voice came from the seat behind me.

“Don’t turn around.” He said.

I stiffened and did not reply, so he went straight to the point.

“The job is simple. There’s something I need. It’s in a building in San Jose. You interested?”

“Go on.” I unexpectedly sounded professional.

“Write this down.” He added.

I picked up a pen in my pocket and the newspaper I was reading before.

“It’s a small pack. According to my sources, it is in a deposit room at Peroxisome, a research facility. Shelf 317-92, row F. You must collect it before the end of August. Once you have it you’ll keep it with you until we meet again. That will be on 11th November at 10 PM, ‘The Hot Bun’ in Kentfield. I will bring your twenty-thousand dollars in cash. Any question?”

I was impressed. Alfred was right – this was the major league.

“Crystal clear.” I replied, still scribbling the address down.

“Good. Now enjoy your coffee and exit ten minutes after I leave.” The voice said standing up. “One more thing.” He then added.

“Yes?” I ask.

“It’s needless to say it, but I’ll say it. If you get caught this conversation never happened, understood?”

It’s not a recommendation. It’s a threat.

“Understood.” I replied.

Time dragged, but November finally came. And here I am: ‘The Hot Bun’, Kentfield – a porn cinema.

As soon as I look at the creepy sign hanging crooked from the entrance, I can’t help but thinking that this guy is a pervert. But I know he is not. In fact he is damn dangerously clever and probably OCD as well. His choices are never random and this place makes no exception.

The Hot Bun is a small cinema in the suburbs of an even smaller town. There is only one show at this hour and this clearly means that he wants me to go inside. Also the choice of the day is not arbitrary. Today is a quiet Monday night; nobody will be here besides us. Who goes to porn cinemas in this century, anyway?

I go in and sit on one of the filthy chairs. As expected, I am the only customer so far. As I wait patiently in this miserable place, I understand yet another reason that adds to the list of why the man brought me here. The darkness in the room is necessary for the privacy of the audience, but conveniently also makes it impossible to see another person’s face. This jerk really cares for anonymity.

It does not take long before a shadow peers in through the door, eases down the aisle and sits two rows behind me.

The shadow speaks in a familiar voice.

“You have it?” His usually neutral tone is contaminated by what I recognize as trepidation.

“I do. You never mentioned I had to deal with toxic stuff.” I complain.

The voice becomes again the inscrutable one that I had first heard at the diner.

“Because you didn’t need to know. So, where is it?”.

Annoyed, I lean sideways and seize the wrapped container from the inner pocket of my coat on the seat next to mine. I lift it shoulder-high, making it visible to the man from where he is. Without saying a word, he stands up and leaves the cinema.

For the next five minutes the only sound I hear is the moans from the screen. Then the door creaks and the same shadow walks through, this time carrying a heavy bag in his right hand. When he is close enough, he throws it towards me and it lands on the floor with a soft thud.

“There you go, count it.” He says.

As I bend forward, I give a quick look to the man with the corner of my eyes. The glow from the screen is too feeble to clearly make out the features of his face, but I see enough to confirm he truly looks like an asshole.

Then I open the bag and see hundreds of solemn Benjamin Franklins smiling at me, bundled together in thick velvety blocks. My eyes must betray my satisfaction because the voice speaks again from the shadows.

“Take the bag with the money and go to the front row. Leave the box where you are and I will fetch it.”

He wants me to constantly give him my back. The man waits for me to sit down, then collects Peroxisome’s whatever-it-is.

Similarly to the last time, he exits the cinema first and I do the same ten minutes afterwards.

I am finally out in the dark alley in front of the crumbling facade. I stride fast on the sidewalk that separates me from the car, eager to start the engine and go back home. Excited to make Alfred proud.

That will not happen anytime soon, though.

A fucking bullet just pierced my shoulder.

Chapter 6

Officer Voclain goes through the file of Bernard Travers over and over. He knows each and every word in it, yet he goes on browsing. His eyes may be scanning the black on white, but his brain is not processing any of that information. Rather, Voclain’s neurons are firing furiously, examining the host of possibilities that could explain what happened to the French reporter. Some of them are unlikely, others impossible, one or two frankly ridiculous – but he only needs one to solve the case. The one that actually happened.

Every good investigation starts from posing the right questions and sergeant Voclain has many. What was this work that brought Travers to Russia? What did he discover there? And was his work connected to the fact that his car was found burnt in the middle of nowhere? But most importantly – where is Travers now? Is he still alive?

Some of these answers might be at Linda Travers’.

***

The doorbell chimes moments before the wooden door opens from the inside and a weary face appears in the hall. Her two little dark eyes are swollen and red, an unmistakable sign that she has been crying for days.

The officer introduces himself.

“Ms. Travers, I am sergeant Voclain from the intelligence. I’m investigating the disappearance of your brother.”

“Yes, they told me you were coming. Please come in.” The lady says as she ushers him in with an unemotional smile. Voclain follows her through a passageway and into the living room opposite the studio.

“Please, have a seat.” Miss Travers says, showing Voclain a red leather sofa. “Can I get you something to drink, officer?”

“No thanks.” The detective answers as he sits on the comfortable couch. He glances at a frame on the coffee table to his right, holding a photograph of the two siblings in a sunny park.

“I understand you and your brother are close?” He says, pointing a finger to the picture.

“We are, indeed. We have always been, but ever since the death of our parents five years ago we’ve come even closer, as you may imagine. Car crash, it was.”

“My condolences”

“Thank you. We have always lived in this house and we decided to continue to do so after the accident. Bernard and I support each other, no matter what. He’s the only family I have left… and I am his.” The last words come broken in sighs.

“Miss Travers, I know this is hard but I need to ask you a couple of questions to find out what happened to your brother. Please, feel free to stop me whenever you want, alright?”

“Yes, of course.” She says, wiping a tear away.

“Fine. If that’s okay with you, I would like to start from the very beginning. What does your brother do, exactly?”

“He’s a journalist. Sells his pieces to local newspapers, mostly. My brother prefers to work independently rather than with one newspaper. He says he does so because he does not want to be influenced, but I know better. The truth is that he wouldn’t last a day in a desk-job. He’s constantly on the move, you know? A man of action, my mother used to say. Every article he writes comes after weeks or months of thorough researching and last time was no exception.” Linda’s eyes glint with love and admiration.

“So it wasn’t strange that he travelled so far for his work?” Voclain asks.

“No, not at all. He’s flown to every continent for work – I mean, literally every single one. He’s been to Australia, Africa, America, even Antarctica last summer. His journeys were always very long, so I never really worried that this time he would…“ She stops to fight back tears.

“Miss Travers, we can go on later if you wish”. The sergeant suggests.

“No, I’m okay.” She says, pulling herself together. “As I was saying, it wasn’t unusual for him to go away for weeks or months, but it was odd that he didn’t tell me what he was working on. Usually he shares his hot topics with me, only this time he didn’t. Several times I asked him, but he just wouldn’t say. As I already told your colleagues, he simply replied that this was going to be the work of his life and, once he was done, it would be on the news all over the world. I guess he wanted to surprise me. You think this might be related to his disappearance?”

“It certainly could.” Voclain says vaguely as he meticulously notes this down. “And what about before? What were the usual topics he covered?”

“Oh, he could write about anything, he is very smart and knowledgeable. He made a living writing about local politics, sport events, concert reviews, but what Bernard was best at is definitely the scientific domain. He has a natural predisposition for that. He has loved science ever since he was a little boy.” Linda continues.

“Ms. Travers, when you say science what do you mean, exactly?”

“He often babbled about computers, nanotechnology, you know things of the kind. I apologize, but I must admit I am no expert in the field. To make an example, he was this close to be the first to publish the interview with the director at CERN when they discovered the Higgs boson.” The woman says.

“I see.” The agent takes a moment to consider, then decides to tackle another key point. “What can you tell me about his bank debt?”

Linda turns red and clenches her fists.

“I can tell you that those bankers are some ungrateful filthy parasites! My brother borrowed money he needed for his investigations, he never spent a cent for anything but that! He soon repaid some of the initial fifty-thousand Euros, but it wasn’t enough, was it? It’s not like he could extinguish the whole debt in a year, for God’s sake! A good job needs time. But they just wouldn’t listen. So the interest rate grew and here we are, back to square one. It’s their fault if he had to rush to Moscow!” Linda bursts.

“Please, calm down Ms. Travers. We are doing our best to find your brother. You mentioned you two lived together?” The officer asks.

“Yes, I imagine you want to see his studio. It was my father’s, but Bernard has used it since he died. Come with me, I’ll show you.”

Linda escorts Voclain across the corridor and lets him in an eighteenth-century furnished room. Sunlight is peering through the large double windows on the right. The sunrays cut straight through the still air and orderly fall on the luxurious oak wood desk in the middle of the room. On its left, a heavy-looking mahogany library stands majestic, holding books that range from Shakespeare to Tolkien.

“That’s his desktop computer” She indicates the only electricity-consuming item in the room, whirring on the ancient table.

“I never come in here so I’m afraid I can’t be of any help. If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen.” The studio evokes too many emotions in her. Her father, her brother… she simply cannot stand being here.

On the other hand, Voclain is exactly where he should be. He walks straight to the library, stepping on the fading-red Persian carpet. Apart from the fiction books, titles such as ‘Principles of mathematics’, ‘Geography Atlas’, ‘Foundations in engineering’ catch the sergeant’s attention.

After considering the role these books may have in a journalist’s life, the sergeant turns to the desk and presses the spacebar on the computer keyboard. The screen flickers to life from standby, no password required. Apparently, this man has nothing to hide. Two clicks on the browser and the investigator expertly navigates to the history. The last searches date back to December 1st, the day before Travers’ flight. Some entries are unrevealing – ratatouille recipe, shopping websites, an action movie streaming – but loads of searches have a common theme: the Joint International Space Agency.

The JISA had been founded only years before, when the Bee Repopulation Act failed and the Virgo Project was proposed. To realize this ambitious program, the major space agencies from across the five continents agreed to tie together and the Joint International Space Agency was born. The French reporter had been increasingly researching it in September and October, but in November it became a true obsession – a sound fifty searches per day. A handful too many to be a coincidence, Voclain concludes. Whatever Travers was working on, it had to be related to the agency.

Voclain’s ringtone goes off. It’s agent Gauthier, from the department.

“Boss, I have bad news.” He says.

“What is it?”

“The Russians found Bernard Travers… He is dead. Brutally murdered.” Gauthier says gravely.

Voclain feared this would happen. The golden rule in cases of missing persons is that the longer you wait the more likely the victim is dead.

“When did they find the body?”

“Sir, that is the worst part. They found the cadaver five hours ago, but we only discovered it now… well… how can I say…”

“In words, Gauthier.” Voclain prompts.

“…We saw it on the news channel, sergeant. Somehow they got informed… before us.”

An endless moment of silence follows. Gauthier can only hear the heavy breathing on the other end of the mobile phone. He knows this is not positive at all. It can only mean it is one of those rare moments when his superior loses his temper. He has seen it just once before in his eleven-year long career – three of his colleagues were fired that day. When Voclain finally speaks his sentence is brief and emotionless.

“I’ll be there in an hour.”

The sergeant hangs up; he has a bitter conversation awaiting. He leaves the dead man’s studio and duly heads to the kitchen where Linda Travers is cooking a meal she will never eat.

What little was left of her family is dead.

Chapter 7

27 December 2024

47 Days since Departure

Knock, knock, knock.

Viktor moans, waking up.

KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK.

“What?” he groans.

“Vik, come out quick! You must contact mission control. Something’s wrong with Todd!” Konrad shouts.

The pilot of Virgo 97 unlatches the belts that held him during sleep and pushes his fit body away from the vertical bunk. He hurries out of the cabin to find Konrad, his hands anchored against the door pillars. The scientist’s pupils are fully dilated, his muscles tense, his breathing accelerated. Both his words and body language reveal the anxiety and fright he is experiencing.

“He fainted.” The German explains. “Amelia is taking care of him with the medical kit. We must contact a doctor immediately!”

Viktor nods and darts in the direction of the command module, where the radio is. His crewmate follows. The duo is in The Lab when they hear Amelia in the gym.

“Todd… TODD! You okay, buddy?”

Above his blue JISA T-shirt, Todd’s facial expression is increasingly reassuring. When the engineer finally regains consciousness, the green of his eyes meets the blue in Amelia’s.

No other color is in between.

“What happened?” I ask. I’m confused, but Amelia’s smile is reassuring.

“You tell us, Todd. One minute you’re laughing, next thing we know you black out.” Amelia says.

I remember: the roar… the pain…

“Yes, I was ju—“

Konrad and Viktor interrupt me as they materialize from the kitchen.

“Todd, everything fine?” Konrad asks.

“I think so, yes. I feel okay now.”

“Good, very good. Viktor and I were about to radio San Francisco but then we heard Amelia talking to you so we came directly here.” He says.

“Thank you guys, I’d be lost without you.” I am truly grateful.

“I couldn’t agree more. Anyway, enough chit-chatting, let’s go talk to a doctor.” The commander says. “Vik can you initiate transmissions? I want Todd to rest for a while.”

“Wait.” I interrupt. “Are you sure this is the right thing to do? I mean… I feel fine now. It was just a fainting. I’ve been eating little for the past weeks and this morning I didn’t have breakfast before the workout. Konrad was right about me eating too little. I don’t think we need someone with a medical degree to understand what happened.”

“Shut up, Todd!” Amelia says, almost offended. “My number one priority is the safety of the crew. If a man is down we must find out why. What if something else caused this fainting, we overlook it and it happens again?”

“I couldn’t agree more, I was just sa-” I reply.

“Todd is right.” Viktor joins the conversation.

“Oh, come on! You too now, Vik?” Amelia snaps.

“What I’m saying is that in this particular case we know what happened – Todd fainted – and we know what caused it – he exercised without eating. It was a mistake but, like us, the amount of stress he is under is understandable considering that the future of humanity depends on us. I am sure Todd won’t let this happen again.

Then consider what happens if we call this in: best-case scenario, the MD will prescribe him drugs we don’t have up here; worst-case scenario, we end up searching the ship for some contaminant we might never find. You all know the protocol: if that happens, JISA must assume we’re all at risk and will abort this little trip of ours altogether. I think this mission is greater than ourselves, its success must be our priority. There is no need to slow it down, or worse abort it, because of red tape.”

“Viktor! Seriously?” Amelia’s eyes are wide with bewilderment. “Konrad, what’s your opinion?” She asks a second later.

“Amelia, you know how much I hate to disagree with my commander but… Vik has a point.”

“Unbelievable…” She bitterly shakes her head. “Todd, are you one-hundred percent sure you are fine now?”

“Never been better.” I smile.

“Well… if you all agree I can’t push it. Actually I could because I’m the commander, but unfortunately I believe in democracy.” She then turns to me. “But you go straight to your cabin. You need some rest. Konrad will bring you food and water and watch you swallow the last morsel. And that’s an order.”

“Yes, Sir.” I smile once more.

Chapter 8

31st March 2025

132 Days since Departure

Three months have passed since my drop attack. I have been extremely scrupulous during this time: rested more, ate more, drank more. And yet I am constantly exhausted. I am losing muscle despite the appropriate training. The headache is back and recently omnipresent. I cannot shake this sense of impending doom off. I wanted to keep all this to myself for the sake of the mission, but I am profoundly concerned about my health.

I am sick…

I must tell Amelia.

“Hey everybody! Come, come!” The agitated words come out of Konrad’s mouth from The Lab. We are all on edge, scared that something’s wrong again, so we rush to the module and find him by the window.

“Look!”

He points a finger to one of the small oval windows in the walls. Outside, a tiny red planet stands peacefully in this corner of the solar system. In less than ten days, the four members of Virgo 97 will set foot on its dusty surface and they will be the first of a long list of human beings.

“Oh my God guys. Isn’t that awesome?” Konrad is looking through the glass as a child would look at a roller coaster. To tell the truth, the rest of us feel the very same and quietly stand in admiration.

It is amazing.

“Alright men, let’s go make Prof. Mitchell envious!” Amelia says after a while, still admiring the view. “Vik, we’ll revise orbiting maneuver tonight after dinner, agreed?”

“Of course, boss.” Himself observing the Red Planet.

“Konrad, you’ll be reviewing the science tech in here, especially the terraforming equipment. I want the experiment to be operative as soon as we touch the ground.” She continues.

“Consider it done, commander.” The scientist squeezes his eyes to focus on the shades of red.

“Todd, I want you to give a look at the main engines by tonight.”

Silence.

“Todd, are you listening?”

Amelia turns to the inside of the chamber.

“TODD!”

The body of the flight engineer is jerking out of control. Every muscle is contracting and relaxing in a timely coordinated rhythm. His mouth is filled in the same bloody dribble that inexorably drools from the corners of his lips. His eyes are turned upwards and the dull white of the sclerae is invaded by a shining red tinge. The cadaveric pale skin gleams on his forehead as light reflects on its sweaty surface. Only one part of Dr. Reed doesn’t move: it is his chest, showing no signs of inspiration.

“Konrad, the medical kit!”

Amelia leans forward and holds Todd’s head as still as she can, but Konrad doesn’t answer.

“KONRAD!” She finally turns around.

The picture she sees brings her back in time to three months before. Like Todd at the time, the biologist is crouching on himself below the window. His hands are pressed hard against each ear to shield himself from a roaring sound only he can hear.

Amelia is paralyzed in terror.

Chapter 9

The doors of the elevator open to let Voclain in the febrile police department. Phones have been ringing in the room the whole morning and no agent has time to relax today. The news that a Frenchman died in foreign territory has drawn the attention of the media and the mystery halo around the circumstances of his death added fuel to the flames.

The chief of the secret services strides furiously towards Gauthier’s office. A thick purple vein splits his forehead in two. His teeth are grinded behind the serrated lips.

“WHY. HAS. NOBODY. INFORMED. ME?!”

Voclain scans the words at Gauthier, but the whole room is listening.

“Sir, I’m very sorry bu—“ Gauthier whispers.

“THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE THE FINEST POLICE DEPARTMENT IN THE COUNTRY! I WANT TO KNOW DEVELOPMENTS AS THEY HAPPEN, NOT AFTER THE FUCKING NEWSCAST!”

Everyone looks down. The room is so quiet that you can hear the traffic outdoors, ten floors below.

Voclain exhales slowly.

“A man died and we have no clue why. His sister is grieving her loss as we speak. It is our duty to find out who did this and bring him to justice. Now, everybody back to work.” The policemen resume their frenetic activities, still speechless, and Voclain turns to Gauthier. “I’m listening.” He says.

“Sir, you know the Russian police is investigating Travers’ case. We received their phone call ten minutes after I called you. They said their men were still working the crime scene and collecting the evidence. They would have given us the full details once they were done, but apparently the owner of the farm where the body was found leaked the discovery to the news before they could do so. The Russian police is as taken aback as we are.”

“Gauthier, I wouldn’t care less if the cadaver himself revived and told Channel One the details of his demise. I need to know what is happening in my investigation even before it happens, you understand? This situation is unacceptable. Send some of our men on the spot immediately, I want them to follow this case twenty-four-seven.”

“Will do, Sir.” Gauthier was ready to ask him if the department could afford the extra expenses but refrained. Today he miraculously kept his job, it is not the case to press his luck.

“Now… Tell me about the body.”

“They found the corpse of the victim in a farm, approximately fifty kilometers away from where his rental car was set on fire. The owner of the property found the body in the pigsty. Whoever killed Travers dropped him there on purpose so that the animals would… you know… make the corpse disappear”

“Good lord…”

“Yes. And unfortunately the pigs did what they were supposed to. The animals ate everything from the waist down, as well as the hands and a good part of the forearms. What remains is badly bitten too, but the face was relatively spared. We need Miss Travers to go there for final identification, but there is no doubt. It is our man.”

Officer Voclain is silent for a long minute. He’s disgusted, but also weighing what Gauthier just said.

“Anything else?” He eventually adds.

“Actually, yes. The Russians also say that this way of disposal is typical of the Russian mafia. It’s preferred to other methods because it’s effective, moderately quick and… well… cheap.” The agent explains.

“The mafia? They think that’s what Travers was working on?” Voclain asks surprised.

“To tell the truth, we have proof he was. The preliminary examination of the coroner revealed a piece of paper in the victim’s esophagus. It seems Travers swallowed it before he was killed. The paper was still readable and had some names on it, names that were immediately cross-checked with the criminal database. They were positive matches for known members of the Russian mafia. This data was never released to the public, so Travers must have found it out during his own research.”

“Of course…” Voclain mutters.

“I beg your pardon, Sir?” Gauthier asks.

“Nothing. Please continue.” The chief replies.

“Basically that closes the circle. Travers travelled to Russia to write an article on the Russian mafia. He got involved more than he should have and the mafia somehow discovered it.

So the manhunt begins. The reporter gets scared and starts looking for a way out – that would presumably be the period when he stops calling his sister. Some days or weeks later the criminals track him down and kill him. They bring his rental car far from Moscow and set it on fire to simulate an accident. After that, they get rid of the body by feeding it to the pigs.”

“And I suppose we can’t see the paper they found on the body, is that correct?” Voclain asks.

The officer is puzzled by such an unexpected question, but answers regardless. “The police said they must keep it as key evidence in the trial they are mounting against the people whose names are on it. Why?”

“Because, my dear officer, I want our experts to examine the handwriting and see if it matches Travers’. I bet my career it doesn’t. To be honest, I doubt this paper exists at all.”

Gauthier considers for a moment, but he still cannot understand what his boss just said for a good full minute.

“If I may, Sir, what are you implying? That the Russian police is sort of… misleading us?” He asks.

“My thoughts precisely, Gauthier. Let me explain.”

The sergeant clears his throat.

“I was surprised when you told me they had found the body. Impressed when you said they had a lead on the murderer. But solve the case in less than twelve hours? Either they are geniuses or this is a set-up.

So, let’s give them the benefit of doubt and assume the former is true and that Travers was indeed writing about the mafia; I spent the morning on Travers’s computer and found a number of things that may point to the nature of his work, but none of them was even remotely connected to any criminal organization. I don’t know what you would do, but if I were a reporter about to publish the article of my life, I would thoroughly research the subject online before buying a thousand-euro flight ticket.

Which brings us to the other two points in favor of the mafia hypothesis: the way the body was disposed and the note the police found on the cadaver. As for the disposal, it is indeed a very effective method and by no means exclusive to criminal organizations. Anyone could have chosen it, maybe even with the purpose of inducing us to blame the mafia for this kill.

This implies that the only evidence that links Travers to the mafia is that shred of note the police recovered from his throat. If we could verify its existence and that it was indeed written first hand by the victim, I would personally fly to Moscow to congratulate the head of the investigations for the excellent job. Except, you just told me we can’t. Therefore, my best guess is that the Russians are no smarter than we are, but certainly think we are dumb.”

Gauthier almost exploded in an applause. He is proud to be assisting the best detective in France.

“But Sir, why would the Russian police throw us off balance I don’t understand?” The agent says as a student that asks his teacher.

“I don’t know yet, but I know where to look.” Voclain replies.

“And where would that be?”

“Come with me, Gauthier.”

***

Officer Voclain walks back to the cold studio from the living room of Travers’ house. As he joins Gauthier, intently admiring the Persian carpet where he was standing, a heart-breaking cry of sorrow echoes loud from opposite the door.

“Did you tell her we have to leave at once?” Gauthier whispers, referring to an inconsolable Linda Travers sitting alone on the couch.

“Gauthier, only one hour ago I told her she will never see her brother anymore. Now we knocked on her door to tell her that she has to identify his mutilated remains. Give her some time. She will pack her luggage as soon as she feels ready.” Voclain replies.

“Sorry Sir, I was just asking.”

After a moment of respectful silence, agent Gauthier speaks again. “As it appears we have some spare minutes, may I ask you what you meant back at the department, Sir?” Gauthier asks.

Voclain was waiting for this question. He walks around the desk and sits in front of the computer, switching it on and accessing Travers’ history for the second time that day.

“Look here.” He says, highlighting several web pages. “These are all searches about governmental space agencies, the JISA in particular… What I find peculiar is this…” Voclain opens the tabs for September and October and compares the results with November.

“They’re practically ten times more in the last month!” Gauthier brightens.

“They are. But now is the best part…”

The sergeant swiftly points here and there with the arrow.

“I cross-checked the relevant webpages so that names or words recurring more often than others would stand out. I may have hit jackpot with this one…”

Gauthier reads aloud:

Virgo 97 will launch as scheduled

According to the latest rumors, the international mission that will bring human kind to our cousin planet, Mars, will not be suffering any delay. There had been fears that the most significant and looked-forward mission in the history of human space travel might not launch next week. This was due to the fact that the French astronaut Jacques Lacroix was reported unfit to fly due to as yet not-better-specified health concerns. Trusted sources confirm that the pilot will not, in fact, be part of the crew, but that the spacecraft will take off with a substitute anyway. JISA will be releasing an official statement in a press conference later today.

“I know about this mission! Well, I guess everybody knows… why on Earth would Travers be writing about Virgo 97?” Gauthier asks.

“Look at this name”

Voclain opens a new tab and types ‘Jacques Lacroix’. The contact information of the astronaut shows up.

“You notice something?” The sergeant prompts.

Gauthier stares at the screen, then finally sees what Voclain wanted him to.

“He’s from Evreux! The same town where Travers was born!”.

“You want to guess who was Travers’ classmate back in high school?”

“Lacroix and Travers were friends?” Gauthier asks surprised.

“Very close ones. I asked Travers’ sister and they kept in touch after school.” Voclain goes on.

“Alright, but that still does not explain why Travers went to Russia”

“On the contrary. Guess who took Lacroix’s place as the pilot of the craft…”

Voclain scrolls down the article still displayed on the computer screen and highlights a name.

“A certain Viktor Sokolov, born and raised in Moscow.”

Linda Travers abruptly interrupts the conversation. She is carrying her suitcase, ready for the unexpected travel at last. The two policemen drive her to the airport and wait for the lady to go through security. When she is gone, Gauthier heads for the car, but the chief anticipates him.

“Where are you going?” Voclain asks.

“To the car, Sir.”

“You’ll miss the flight. It’s leaving in half an hour.”

Gauthier is puzzled.

“Are we going to Russia too?” the agent asks.

“Don’t be silly, Gauthier. Why would we go to Russia when you already sent our best men there? The answers we need are in another continent altogether, my friend. United States of America! That’s where we are going.”

Chapter 10

31st March 2025

132 Days since Departure

“KONRAD!” Amelia shouts.

Her thin arms are holding the convulsing mass of Todd’s body. Her eyes look opposite the room, anchored on Konrad, who is bowed to the wall in agonizing pain. Her feelings cannot be described as anything but utter panic.

“VIK! WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?” She screams.

Viktor had fled the room without her even noticing. She is alone in deep space, with two colleagues in desperate need for medical assistance and none to offer.

At last, the Russian pilot of Virgo 97 appears from the opening of the storage module where so much happened in so little time. He’s carrying a white box with a red cross painted on it.

“I’ll take care of Konrad. There’s not much we can do for Todd, he’s having a generalized tonic-clonic seizure. We don’t have any anticonvulsant up here, the spell must resolve on its own. Just make sure he doesn’t swallow his tongue and he’ll be fine.” He says to his commander.

Viktor had spent three years in med-school before he became an astronaut and this background partly contributed to his successful career.

Amelia kneels impotent over her shaking friend and does as told. In the meantime, Viktor focuses on the biologist, whose screaming becomes softer and skin paler as he faints. On Earth, Viktor would raise the man’s legs to favor the return of venous blood to the brain, but this maneuver wouldn’t work with no gravity. To achieve the same result, he deeply massages the muscles in his calves and thighs with the so-called petrissage technique.

“Stay with me Konrad.” He says reassuring, even if Konrad can’t hear him. The pulsating pain of his imploding head is tighter than Viktor’s hands on his muscles.

Eventually, the Russian’s rough trick works: in a matter of five minutes the color is coming back to Konrad’s cheeks. The roaring sound diminishes, but the throbbing stabs remain.

Todd, on the other hand, shows no signs of improvement. Amelia turns to Viktor, standing by her side.

“What do we do?” Amelia asks.

“We wait.” He says matter-of-factly.

Sooner or later Todd’s convulsions become less regular, less rhythmic, until they disappear. The two pilots look down at the flight engineer, now motionless but finally breathing.

“Why isn’t he awake yet?” Amelia is worried.

“Typically seizures last one or two minutes. During this time there is no respiratory effort – in other words breathing is suspended. However, his spell lasted more than ten, Amelia. The prolonged apnea might have caused extensive brain damage. There is no way to know for sure, but we can’t exclude he will remain in a coma for the rest of his days.” Viktor explains.

Amelia is aghast. She can only stare at her old unresponsive friend, her eyes watering.

“Check on Konrad, then radio Mitchell. I’ll catch up.” She says when she finally speaks again. Viktor understands she wants to be alone.

As the pilot exits the room, Amelia’s gaze is frozen. Her hands tremble and her teeth clatter. To her, Todd Reed looks quietly asleep in her arms. The scary part is that she is fully aware this is just an impression.

***

White noise.

“This is Virgo, over.” Viktor is operating the radio.

“Virgo, this is Mission Control, do you copy?” Mitchell replies, sixty-million kilometers away.

“Loud and clear, Sir.” Sokolov replies.

There is something in his voice, something different. The flight director cannot identify exactly what that is, but he clearly hears it.

“Sokolov, why are you on the radio? There’s a reason why every crew member has a specific assignment…” The professor reproaches.

“I apologize Sir, but there have been… developments.” Viktor struggles to choose the right words.

“What sort of developments?” Mitchell asks.

“I’m afraid Todd Reed and Konrad König have both fallen sick, Sir. Reed is very severe.”

Time stands still as the only sound heard on both sides of the radio is once again white noise. Then Mitchell speaks uncertain.

“Explain yourself, Sokolov.”

“Sir, it is fair to assume that Reed and König are both suffering the same illness. We have no means to make a diagnosis on board without a doctor, though. I was not there last time, but according to commander Curtis, König is right now experiencing the same symptoms Reed did, three months ago.” Sokolov continues.

Eighty-one people at mission control center listen attentively to the conversation that is going to shape human history.

“Wait a second Sokolov, are you saying that half of your crew is out? How is that even possible? Our last communication was less than twenty-four hours ago and the four of you were all operative and… you said three months ago? What the hell are you referring to?” Mitchell’s blood is boiling. The professor’s usually formal flawless language is replaced by one that is obscenely inappropriate for an official communication.

“To be honest, Sir, there had been… warnings, so to speak. Todd had an episode at that time, he fainted after sport. We believed it was something trivial, as it self-resolved in minutes, so we voted against reporting it… With the benefit of hindsight we made a terrible mistake there, Sir, I apologize on behalf of the crew.”

Sokolov is truly sorry, as he feels responsible. He was the one who put that decision to the vote.

“You apologize, Sokolov? You damn right you made a mistake!” The whole room at mission control is hushed by the director’s harsh words. In fact, Mitchell’s mood seldom swings this far from its usual calmness.

After a never-ending minute of silent pacing the room and restless looking around, Mitchell speaks again.

“Where is commander Curtis?”

“I’m here” Amelia says, behind Viktor. She has been standing there, looking down at the floor for who knows how long.

“Amelia, needless to say you are responsible for the wealth of the crew.” Mitchell starts. “All the same, I know very well that Reed and König are not just colleagues to you, but friends. If this situation occurred with you on the lead… well, it means it would have happened with anyone else.” The director pauses for a long moment. “Curtis, I will give you some hours to get back on your feet while I contact a good doctor. You will talk to him this very evening and describe the symptoms Reed and König are having. Hopefully, he will figure out what’s happening. I’m sure he will help you take care of them. For what concerns the mission…”

Every man and woman in the largest room at JISA instinctively raise their head from their monitors and turn to the professor, holding their breath.

“…In ten days you and Sokolov will pilot Virgo into Mars’ orbit as scheduled, but you will not advance to the landing phase. I hope this situation will be over by then, but if it won’t… I don’t even want to think about it.” The mission director shakes his head.

***

But nothing changed in the coming ten days. Virgo 97 is now quietly circling around its destination, so close and yet so far from it. Despite huge efforts, the doctor Mitchell summoned could not make a diagnosis based on Amelia’s observations alone. Neither could the four who came after him. They jointly reviewed everything commander Curtis could remember about what happened to Reed and König on a multiple-times-daily basis, but their conclusion was always the same: symptoms are not specific.

On board, instead, Konrad recovered fully, except for an unrelenting headache that he keeps at bay with painkillers. The same cannot be said for Todd, whose condition is ominously stable. Despite the coma, he’s often caught in a painful-looking grimace. Only God knows what he is experiencing.

The engineer is kept well fed and hydrated by means of a thin plastic tube that Amelia detached from a piece of equipment in The Lab. Under the doctor’s guidance, the commander inserted the tube in Todd’s nose and pushed it down to his stomach. He had called it a ‘nasogastric tube’ and explained that it bypasses the need for chewing and swallowing. In other words, thanks to this tube Todd does neither starve nor choke on food.

“I’ll go feed Todd.”

Amelia says, as she leaves the main room where the others are playing cards. On her way to Todd’s cabin, she grabs a blended liquid mush of food in the kitchen and gets ready to pour it into the nasogastric tube. She is already engaging in the well-established bedside routine, when she suddenly stops dead. Todd is not breathing.

“VIKTOR! KONRAD!” She shouts as she leans over her friend’s body and performs CPR. Her two-handed pushes race deep and fast, desperately attempting an impossible resuscitation.

When Viktor and Konrad rush in the room they find Amelia savagely punching Todd’s thorax, as if that could be more effective than basic life support.

“Amelia” Viktor calls her, but she would not listen. Her fists stubbornly hit the lifeless body, hurting her feelings more than they could ever help her dead friend.

“Amelia, Stop! He is gone!” Viktor breaks.

His words finally breach and the blonde woman is brought back to the horror of reality. There is nothing more to do. The ever-present joyful glare in Todd’s eyes has left this universe forever.

His suffering is over.

In the minutes that follow, the spacecraft is packed with a wild mixtures of emotions.

Amelia is mourning an old friend, her best one. So many of her happy memories are directly or indirectly linked to Todd that she cannot recall them all. More than anything, she blames herself for this terrible loss. Had she followed the protocol as strictly as she was supposed to, her colleague would still be alive.

Viktor’s feelings are somewhat overlapping his fellow pilot’s, as he is both sad and sorry for Todd. However, the Russian is concerned about the future more than he is about the present. What will happen now? What will Mitchell do about the mission? Losing a man is horrifying, but is it enough to compromise the only hope of survival for billions of souls? Sokolov decides to find out and moves to the command module to inform mission control about Reed’s death.

Konrad’s thoughts are of a completely different nature. No matter how close he was to the American astronaut, he is not grieving. There is space for one thought only in his mind.

Whatever killed Todd, Konrad is next.

Chapter 11

I groan in pain.

The motherfucker who shot me must be hiding motionless in the dark alley that dead-ends in front of The Hot Bun cinema. I can’t see him anywhere, but I sure can feel the cold metal bullet the bastard put in my right shoulder.

And I was so stupid I thought it was over…

With my left hand compressing the blood oozing from the deep wound, I jump in the car and throw the bag with the money on the passenger’s seat, only an instant before another shot disintegrates the side mirror. The damage is extraordinary, way too extensive to be caused by a common revolver. Whatever weapon is firing these cartridges is much bigger and way more powerful than a rifle – probably even military grade.

I turn the key clockwise and the engine starts. The headlights come to life and improve the visibility, but there is still no sign of the shooter.

Yet, the rear windshield blows to pieces as well.

Lowering my head to get some cover, I look behind through the broken glass. It appears also this shot came out of nowhere.

Unless…

I squint my eyes and focus on the end of the road. The light of a lamppost gleams labile over the rooftop of an abandoned building, highlighting a shadow that lies flat on its edge.

I’m the target of a fucking sniper!

Without thinking twice, I start the compact car in an acceleration that would make a Formula 1 pilot blush. Shots still razor the flanks of my auto, but as meters go by it is increasingly difficult for the hit man to centre the target. At last, I steer left at the first intersection and exit his visual field.

“I’m safe.” I think, just before I am welcomed by a new volley of flying pellets.

This time the ammo is different, less powerful but more frequent. A masked man is firing it with the machine gun that peeks out from the side window of the brand-new sports car before me. I have no idea of how it got here, but I do know that I must lose it fast – economy cars are just not meant to withstand warfare level gunfire.

The easiest way out would be to drive to someplace crowded – the city center would be ideal – but there are several problems with this solution. For starters, it is ten kilometers from where I am. Even if I pushed to maximum speed it would take no less than three or four minutes to reach there – I doubt I can afford that much time. Secondly, the road to get there is a wide stretch of freshly renovated asphalt… I could never match their top speed on such a terrain with my car. Last but not least, it is a road without turns; there would be plenty of time for the driver to perfectly stabilize the car and give the shooter the possibility to confidently aim for my head.

By contrast, it stands to reason that what I need is a short route with plenty of steering required, so that car speed will be secondary to driver’s skills. I have seen just that on my way here to Kentsfield. It doesn’t bring to the city center, but there is a thick forest after a couple of kilometers that will do the job.

Without thinking twice, I pull the hand-brake and drift into an abrupt U-turn that brings me on the opposite lane. The unexpected maneuver takes the other car’s driver by surprise and it takes time for him to react. With the enemy speeding over one-hundred-fifty kilometers per hour, these few seconds translate to more than two-hundred meters before the motor vehicle can come to a full stop. I exploit this brief time window to speed up in the opposite direction towards the countryside and put as much distance as I can between me and the bad guys. It’s not much, but it is sufficient to reach the first tight bend before the chasers are back on my heels.

The only inconvenience is that every movement I make on the wheel comes with a stab to my bleeding shoulder. I could try to steer using only my healthy limb, but I can picture the likely outcome: the metal of my shattered car splashed on the bark of a tree; the smoke rising from the broken engine; my flesh and blood sprayed on the lower branches.

I guess I can stand some pain.

Regardless of the difficult road, the men behind me have no intention of letting go. In the next few kilometers, every time the tortuous hilly road breaks into a little stretch of unbroken linear path, they close the gap and nearly crash into my rear bumper once or twice.

Finally the last turn is coming!

It opens to the left in a narrow one-way gravel road dead-ending in the parking lot in front of the forest. During the day, tourists pull in there, walk to the large wooden information stand planted in the ground near the toilets and choose one of the trail paths for their half-day adventure in the woods. I plan on doing something similar tonight, except I will run off the beaten track for my freedom.

I am halfway there when the dreadful bang comes. It is the sound of my rear left tire being hit by a gunshot in the middle of a ninety-degree turn, while speeding at over eighty kilometers per hour. The laws of physics dictate a death sentence: the back of the car loses traction and spins out of control. The auto leaves the asphalt in the direction opposite the one it was heading for and skids into uneven grounds. The shear forces between the rubber and the rough soil spray dirt and grass under the chassis. The rally continues all the way to Corte Madera Creek, where the car comes to a stop as the radiator clunks on its cold surface. The rest of the vehicle soon follows, inexorably sinking deeper and deeper into the streaming water.

Before I know it, I am entrapped in a sinking wreck, surrounded in all directions by a threatening and rising mass of transparent liquid. In all this, the haunting sound of gunshots never ceased.

With water above my neck, I take one last breath and submerge. I push the driver’s door with all the strength I have left, but nothing happens: tons of fluid are keeping it shut from the outside. There is another exit, though, the broken rear windshield. The thing is that this is exactly where the armed men are waiting for me to come out. But it is either that or drowning.

With no hesitation, I dart back and swim outside through the hole, but instead of giving in to the need for air, I stay underwater and dive downstream with the fast current. Twenty or thirty meters later I can’t hold my breath anymore and I re-emerge. Turning back, I can see that the two AK-47 bearing men are still looking for me inside the wreck, unaware that I am safely looking at them instead.

With a few strokes I swim to the river bank and crawl on the dirt to disappear into the woods. If I am lucky and they believe I am dead they won’t come after me. But one can never be sure – it will be safer to spend the night under the stars and hide quietly in the darkness until morning. Anyway, I wouldn’t go far on foot at night. So I find some thick bushes to hide in and lie down, waiting for dawn.

This is the first time in what seems like forever that I have a moment to sit back and think. These men were hired to kill me, and it is clear by whom – the same one that hired me. But why does he want me dead? Is it to get the money back? I don’t think so. Was that the case, the two men would have dived to the car immediately to rescue it, but they seemed to only give a damn about me drowning.

The other explanation is that I am the only one who knows what was stolen at Peroxisome – better say where, when and how it was stolen. After all, this man has always been over-cautious and killing me would be in line with that – I am the only living being that knows the whereabouts of the robbery. There is also Alfred, obviously, but he could not know that: we used my account on the Dark Web and I was always alone to show up face-to-face. To him, I am the only thief.

The truth is that, after what happened, it doesn’t matter why he wants me dead.

What matters is that I want him dead.

Chapter 12

Mission control is an immense open-space room, constantly crowded with more computers than people. Desks are topped with prints of complex mathematic symbols that are unreadable to anybody but JISA employees. The papers are a negligible proportion of the data that is digitally stored in the hard disks, but every word and number in this chamber is essential for the success of the mission.

A placid Voclain observes the devilish clicking and typing that is permanently ongoing in the room, while waiting to be received by professor Mitchell. Agent Gauthier is by his side, fascinated to be in this place where reality merges with sci-fi. From the midst of the muttering, a young tall woman strides elegantly as she approaches the French pair.

“Good evening officers, and welcome to JISA. I’m Sarah Richardson, vice-flight director of Virgo 97. We were told you have some questions for us. What can I do for you?” She says showing a broad but nervous smile.

Voclain stiffens, but his reply is prompt and friendly.

“Very little, I am afraid. Ms. Richardson, let me introduce ourselves. I am sergeant Cyril Voclain and this is my colleague, officer Thibault Gauthier. “We work for the French secret services. We are here to speak with Professor Mitchell.”

“I am sorry, but professor Mitchell won’t be able to meet you. There has been some unexpected inconvenience and he is sorting it out as we speak…” She makes no effort to hide the vagueness in the sentence. “…But I’m here to answer all your questions.” She quickly adds.

“Ms. Richardson, it is not my custom to be rude, but my colleague and I just flew across the Atlantic to come here. I must insist that we talk with professor Mitchell in person.”

“I am sure you do, but as I just said, the profe-“

“We’ll wait here until he will finish his duties. Thanks for your time.” Voclain abruptly interrupts the woman as he reaches for a visitor chair. Gauthier is frankly embarrassed by the harsh exchange, but imitates his boss.

The vice-director, instead, simply stands speechless, with her eyes wide open. She is not used to be dispensed of in this way.

“Fair enough. I’ll have someone bring you coffee. You will be needing it for your long wait” She adds defiantly.

“I’ll have it dark with no sugar, thank you Ms. Richardson.” Voclain replies as if ordering to a waitress.

Sarah Richardson was not lying. Four tiring hours went by before she came back, this time accompanied by a man in his early seventies. His dark hair is shamelessly streaked in grey locks and deep wise wrinkles furrow his rough skin. Despite his age, Professor Mitchell is in outstanding great shape and walks effortlessly by the young woman’s side.

Richardson introduces her superior to the two policemen and Voclain notices the sparkles in her eyes as she does so. She profoundly respects the man, he concludes.

“Straight to the point, Mr. Voclain.” Professor Mitchell has no intention to go through unnecessary small talk. “I was told you wanted to speak directly to me?”

“We do, professor. And just like you I hate beating around the bush, so I will be concise.

A man died on Russian soil while researching information regarding one of your astronauts, Jacques Lacroix. He was supposed to be piloting Virgo 97 as far as I know.” Mitchell and Richardson instinctively turn to each other. While Voclain and Gauthier were waiting, Sokolov was informing the directors about Todd Reed’s death and now another victim appears to be related to that same flight.

When the professor goes back to Voclain, his attitude is completely changed. He is listening for real now.

“Please, go on.” He says.

“Right before departure, Lacroix caught some trivial health issue that had him replaced with this Viktor Sokolov, correct?” Voclain inquires.

Mitchell nods in agreement. He is both afraid and curious to discover where the sergeant is going.

“I believe this illness was not accidental. Rather, it is my opinion that the governmental Russian space agency is responsible for it. My guess is that the French astronaut was lightly poisoned some days before departure, so that his temporary impairment would make the Russian Sokolov fly to Mars instead of him.” The sharp statement shocks all the three that were listening, Gauthier included – Voclain had told him nothing about his theory.

Mitchell is pale. At that time he, like everybody, was surprised that a young man in such great physical health as Jacques Lacroix had fallen ill overnight. But nobody, including the astronaut himself, ever thought it was anything else than bad luck.

Until now.

“You sound like a crazy conspirationist. Do you have any proof of what you’re saying?” The director asks.

“Not yet. This is why we are here.” Voclain explains.

“Then how can you be so sure?” Gauthier asks out of the blue. His question is so emotional that everyone is surprised by his intervention.

“I simply put two and two together. We know that Travers, our dead man, went to Russia in the attempt to discover more about Lacroix’s replacement and this investigation cost him his life. We also strongly suspect that the Russian police is trying to cover the murder by hurriedly attributing it to the mafia. If this is true, this means that whoever ordered Travers’ killing also has a strong influence on the Russian forces, and who could have such a strong power? I suspect the government. This is clearly a political murder.” He concludes.

Were it not for the laborious office activity carrying on behind them, Gauthier would have sworn time stood still at that very instant. The reasoning was logical and flawless and yet the three of them are not fully convinced. Richardson is the first to make an objection.

“I don’t understand, why would they go that far to put their man on the spacecraft?”

“I can answer that.” Mitchell intervenes. “Virgo 97 was born with the noble purpose of transferring all humans to Mars, but we soon realized that this was not feasible. It was a question of pure mathematics. We were required to bring nine billion people on such a trip, but each vehicle could only hold twenty-five at maximum capacity – we simply did not have the time to build enough spacecrafts. It became clear that the first nation to launch the experimental mission would be having full control over who would leave and who would stay – in other words, to decide who lived and who died. A sort of gatekeeper to Noah’s ark. That immediately cut the Third World out of the competition and only the richest countries remained in the race. The US and Europe soon reached an agreement and founded the JISA, but the Russians preferred to work on their own. They were doing a great job, but we had more resources and in the end we beat them.

When Virgo was ready, the Russians had to admit their defeat and joined the JISA themselves. They needed our spacecrafts to fly their people and we agreed at the condition that they would have them only after we were done transporting our citizens. I realize it is a terrible business but… mors tua vita mea, as the Romans said.

A that time we also decided that none of their astronauts would be present on Virgo 97… except as replacements.”

Voclain enlightens. Every piece of the puzzle is finally coming together.

“There is one more thing you should know.” Mitchell adds, scanning his words. “People are dying on the spacecraft.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean Arnold?” Sarah Richardson explodes.

“I mean what I said Sarah. We must admit that something odd is going on up there. The circumstances of Reed’s death are suspicious, to put it lightly. The best doctors in the country have no idea of what is going on with Konrad. Now the sergeant tells us this…”

“So you jumped to the conclusion that Viktor is killing everybody?” She’s almost hurt by her own words. Viktor would never do such a terrible thing… would he?

“Do you have another explanation?” Mitchell says, but she doesn’t answer. “I hate to say it, but it does make sense. If Viktor gets rid of the crew and reaches Mars alone he is the only one who can colonize it on time.”

“On time?” Voclain is puzzled.

“Yes. The terraforming process needs two years to complete, but as you know Earth will be inhabitable in 2028. If the process does not start as soon as Virgo lands on Mars, the whole project will be blown up – the planet would not be ready by the time civilians get there. Sokolov and his country would have a goddamn leverage on us. They won’t agree to start terraforming until we give them our crafts.”

“Isn’t it possible to send another ship immediately?” Gauthier asks.

“It is possible, but also useless. Even if we launched another spacecraft tonight, it would still need five months to reach the Red Planet and terraforming must start now.”

“Unbelievable! They would be holding American and European citizens as hostages! Actually, the entire world population!” Sarah Richardson understands.

“But how come you didn’t launch two ships in the first place? I mean, given the importance of this mission…” The French agent insists.

“We focused our efforts on one vessel to make it ready as soon as possible. Besides, it’s like asking Leonardo Da Vinci to draw two Mona Lisas just in case one got lost. This situation was impossible to foresee.”

After some moments of silent disbelief, Mitchell speaks again. There is yet another issue that need urgent addressing.

“We must contact Amelia and Konrad.” He says.

“They are in danger.”

Chapter 13

10th April 2025

142 Days since Departure

Todd passed away more than four hours ago, but I have never left his room since. As commander, I should have stayed with Viktor after he reported the terrible news on the radio. As a person, I could not find the strength to abandon somebody I grew up with, who helped me when I was down and cheered with me when I was up. Someone who loved me as a brother.

But I must leave him now, even if I hate it. Mitchell has hang up on Viktor without commenting on the destiny of Virgo 97 – such a pronouncement needs no hurry – but he is calling back now. He must have made up his mind. Not that he had much choice, really, the protocol is straightforward: if a man dies during a mission, the mission is aborted.

No questions asked.

When you add that there is another astronaut on board that might die any moment of the same unknown cause… there is no way we can still go on as if there was no problem at all.

As I enter the command module, Viktor and Konrad are sitting in their spots already. Reaching for mine, my heart sinks at the glance of the fourth vacant seat.

It is Viktor who opens the radio conversation.

“San Francisco, this is Virgo 97. Ready for further commands.”

Professor Mitchell is on the other side.

“Sokolov, we have been discussing plenty down here.”

He hesitates for a moment.

“Considering the magnitude and importance of this mission, we concluded it is best that you proceed to the landing and colonization phases.”

“WHAT?” I cry out furiously.

“Amelia listen, I know that Todd’s death is harder on you than it is on anyone else, but we must be rational here. We must think of the greater good.” He says.

I can’t believe he actually said those words. If I were there I would strangle him with my bare hands. I am thinking of the fucking greater good! Let alone this decision is disrespectful to Todd, it is disgustingly hazardous for the rest of us. Without a flying engineer there is an extremely high risk to damage the engines irreversibly while landing. And if by any chance the motors keep running after we hit the land, any other of the thousands mechanical pieces in this billions-worth spacecraft could get damaged. Nobody but Todd was capable of repairing it. Hell, if we could fly without a flight engineer we wouldn’t have needed one on board to start with! Not to mention, Konrad desperately needs a doctor…

“Professor, the protocol explicitly says…“ I insist, but he severely interrupts me.

“I know exactly what it says, Curtis. The protocol works along standards, yet this situation is unique, absolutely out of the ordinary. Believe me, if there was another way I would have found it. There isn’t. Like it or not, you will land on Mars commander. That’s an order.”

The right corner of Viktor’s mouth moves microscopically upwards in something that grotesquely resembles a smirk. I fight back the urge to go to the kitchen, fetch a knife and slide it deep into the bastard’s neck. He only gives a shit about playing hero and saving humanity.

“I strongly object against this order, Sir.” I try again.

“Fairly well objection noted, but you will comply regardless. And you will do it fast, as the descent is starting in two hours. I need everybody to be ready by then, so you would better get to work straight away. König, you review the scientific equipment – I want it to be operative the next minute we land. Sokolov, you will be in charge of Reed’s job instead. There is a pamphlet about mechanics in his cabin and I want you to study it thoroughly. I don’t expect you to learn the details, just focus on the items we need most – engines, landing gear and so on. Curtis, you will stay where you are instead, we are forwarding the updated trajectory variables.”

The two men obey at once and I am reluctantly left alone in the dark command room. The only thing that keeps me company is the dim green light on the control panel in front of me. It is displaying some coded coordinates as they appear one digit at a time. When the loading is complete, the computer deciphers the message, but in place of a longitude and a latitude the screen show a plain English sentence:

Lower the volume

Astonished, I do as it says and whisper to the microphone. “Yes?”

“Amelia, listen carefully!”

Mitchell has changed. He sounds overwhelmingly anxious and concerned.

“You cannot trust Sokolov. I can’t explain the details, but he is planning to kill you and Konrad like he did with Todd.”

“WHAT?… Viktor?… Todd?… How?… Why?”

“As I told you, we have no time for details. You will have to trust me on this. Do NOT let Viktor anywhere near you or Konrad, you understand?”

I am confused, but he goes on.

“Here is the plan, you lock Sokolov in Todd’s cabin, I sent him there on purpose. We computed the route back to Earth, and you are already traveling back home right now. We need to have Konrad examined as soon as possible.”

I knew Mitchell would never let us land in such a situation. But what the hell just happened? Viktor a killer? And potentially a serial one? Why would he want to kill us?

“Professor, Are you sure about this? I know Viktor may be odd at times, but he would never hurt a fly…”

“Positive, Amelia. He is extremely dangerous and motivated. I will explain once you are safe. You must act now!”

I hope Mitchell is wrong. But if he is right and Konrad gets killed… I can’t let that happen.

Better safe than sorry.

“I’ll handle this. Over and out.”

I cut down the communication and flee the command module, but instead of heading to Todd’s room I quietly sneak into Viktor’s.

I would trust Mitchell with my life, but I also want to make sure Viktor’s guilty before doing anything rash.

In short, I need answers.

Softly closing the door behind me, I approach the desk looking for I-don’t-know-what kind of proof that he is indeed a cold-blooded murderer. The room is so neatly arranged that the order is almost maniacal. The small locker used as a wardrobe is my first stop. Among the standard working suits we were all provided with, there are a Russian football club t-shirt and a pair of sneakers – definitely not what I am here for.

A quiet thud comes from outside the door and my heart races as I freeze to listen. After a minute when nothing happens, I decide it is Konrad, tinkling in the Lab.

I move to the drawers next to the bunk. There is nothing other than two columns of socks and underwear inside, but in the freaking crazy tidiness that governs this room something stands out: the right tower is slightly higher than the left one, no more than three centimeters. I lift the clothing items one by one from the top down until I reach the bottom.

A book is hidden under there, ‘Human Toxicology’ is written in bold on its cover.

Why would Viktor have this book? True, it may be one of his med school ones, but why bring it up here? And why bury it in the drawer?

There is one last place I have to check and then I will do what Mitchell asked. Tightly secured to the desk in the middle of the room is Viktor’s personal laptop. I flip it open and power it up. Given the owner’s obsession with the latest technology, the four-point-six Gigahertz octa-core computer is fully operative in less than three seconds, but it is also password protected.

I type ‘password’ with no success.

‘1234’, nothing.

‘Vikt-’.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Viktor materializes on the door with a face that promises nothing good.

What can I do? He caught me off guard; there is no way I can come up with a decent excuse. It’s time to confront him.

“So it’s you, huh? You killed Todd and poisoned Konrad!”

“What? What the fuck are you talking about?”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about, Viktor. What is this?” I grab the heavy book about the science of poisons and hold it up.

“It’s none of your goddamn business, that’s what it is. Put it down and leave my cabin, NOW!”

“I’ll leave after you confess what you have done! What the fuck were you thinking, Vik? Why did you do it? You some sort of psycho? I always stood up for you and you fucking kill Todd in return?”

“I tell you one last time, give me the book.” Viktor insists.

“Answe-!”

In a fraction of a second the strong Russian astronaut throws himself towards me so quick that I cannot do anything to avoid the assault. His shoulder impacts my stomach as if I were a prop holding a rugby ball and he was tackling me to steal it. The hit is powerful and awfully painful. The book slips from my hand tearing apart several pages.

Instead of going away, the fury grows and the savagely enraged man aims for my neck and wraps his hands around my bare skin. I scream, but only a suffocated sigh comes out as the grip tightens and the clutching fingers compress my larynx. I punch, kick, but the excruciating tension is not relieved. The unbearable ache gradually leaves the way to the emerging need for air.

I struggle desperately, but my punches become slower, my kicks weaker. Everything around me is fading into a blur. In a last attempt, I recoil on the floor with both feet and summon all my energy to jump as high as I can. This makes us fly high-speed through the cabin and hit hard on the ceiling.

My halt is soft, shielded as I am by Viktor’s body, but his head bangs extraordinarily hard on one of the air filtering pipes and breaks it. The damaged cold metal tube pierces through his skull and into his brain. Throbbing arterial sprays disorderly spread around the room, intermingled with the shattered contents of a human head. I jolt towards Vik and put a hand on the penetrating wound to stop the bleeding, but it’s too late.

What remains of my former co-pilot is floating lifeless around the cabin. Thick red hovering spheres of his warm blood wander aimlessly in zero gravity.

I just want to flee the room and cry, but I’m not safe yet.

The CO2 levels are rising.

Chapter 14

The cold, dark night was hard to endure, but dawn eventually came. Once or twice I was tempted to walk back to the crash site in the hope to find the bag with the money, but I decided that the chances of finding bullets outweighed those of finding the banknotes. Rather, I peeked out all night from my safe hideout, looking for the hit-men that never showed up. I was expecting that, after all – as far as they know, I drowned in the car last night.

When the sun rose this morning, I left the bushes and dribbled the pines on my way to the main road. Hitching ride after ride, I finally got to Alfred’s house. It was easy to make up an excuse as to the why I needed a lift – A tourist in search of an adventure, a cheating husband kicked out of his house by his paranoid wife. One cliché led to the other. It was harder to explain the torn clothes and the crusting lesion on my shoulder, but when ‘long story’ did not work, ‘hunting accident’ did.

Alfred took tremendous care of me. He gave me a bathrobe after my long steamy shower, disinfected and dressed my wound, lent me some clean clothes, and, most importantly, he ordered pizza. I have been here less than an hour and last night’s nightmare is already becoming nothing more than a distant bad memory.

“Norton, I am sorry…” Alfred says as I finish off the last slice of my second large pepperoni with extra cheese.

“What for?” I say, absentmindedly chomping.

“This is all my fault. I should never have dragged you into this. You were right from the start – this job was too dangerous. My poor judgment nearly got you killed.”

“Don’t you dare take responsibility for what happened! I was into this job as much as you were.”

“True, but only because I pushed you” He says.

“Shut up! There is only one person to blame here, and he is the same one who hired a sniper and two soldiers to put me down. The same asshole who is gonna regret it very much next time I see him.”

“What the fuck are you saying, Norton?”

“I am saying the bastard is going to pay the ultimate price.”

“No way I am letting you even think of that! Listen to me, man.” Alfred grabs a chair and leans forward towards me. “Those soldiers think you are dead, and so does the freak who paid them. Let it go! Think about it… Is it worth it? Let’s suppose you find him – honestly I have no idea how you could – and you somehow manage to kill this man without him killing you first, then what? The money is still lost! And what if this guy has friends? What’s your plan, kill them one by one Rambo-style? I ask you as a friend. I beg you as a brother!”

Dropping the slice of pizza I was holding, I jump up and start walking the room aimlessly. As the orange light of the setting sun warmly tinges the walls, I realize I had only thought about my feelings up to now. Yet, Alfred’s words are touching and, for what probably is the first time in his life, also profoundly thoughtful.

“So what? I just forget that we risked twenty years in jail for a motherfucker who not only failed to pay us, but also tried to put a bullet in my head?” I ask, furious.

“Precisely that. And that you do it for me.” Alfred smiles. My brother is well aware to be the one person in this world whose opinion matters to me.

“You’re a little bastard you know that, right? Alright, I will…” I give in as I walk to a large window that looks at the breathtaking snowy mountains. “…But only if you give me that ice cream I saw in the freezer. I am starving.” Alfred chuckles as he goes to the kitchen.

The clouds that top the landscape outside are turning darker and the first drops of rain are coming down. The leaves on the trees dance in the growing wind, and the flowers join them on Alfred’s plants.

Except…

One of the green hedge-plants in the garden awkwardly stands out. It does not follow the symphony, but rather plays solo. Foxes densely populate this region so maybe one of them is searching for a shelter for the upcoming thunderstorm. I squint my eyes to get a closer look and… Shit!

I have my heart in my mouth.

It is not the cheerful orange of a velvety fur that I see, but the frightening black of a military suit and the threatening grey of an AK-47. Five meters apart, another soldier is crouched behind a pine.

“Alfred! Get the rifles! They followed me!” I urge.

“What?… Fuck! Where are they?” He asks.

“In your fucking yard! Hurry!”

Less than a minute later Alfred is back with a hunting rifle and an automatic pistol for each of us. Holding the weapons, we take position on either side of the window, our backs pushing against the wall.

“We must shoot them now that they are outside. If they get in, it would be a massacre.” I say, loading a cartridge into the muzzle.

“You read my mind, brother. Shall we?” Alfred suggests.

“After you.” I smile.

The patch of dirt in front of Alfred’s house is transformed into a rough battle field. The raging storm and the flying bullets make the place look like a muddy battlefront trench.

Alfred and I may have the element of surprise, but that does not last long and the two men in black vengefully return fire. The rapid shots of the AK-47s smash the window and drill the wall. The accuracy of the professional killers is near to perfection and a dramatic proportion of their shots penetrate inside the house. The table is dislodged from its feet and it crumbles loudly to the ground. The one-month old sixty-inches flat screen TV is next in line. The living room is disintegrating bit by bit under the highly coordinated action of the two shooters. And the best we can do to counter attack is skin the bark of the pine. It is a war between giants and ants, and we are about to be stepped on.

“Fuck! Cover me!” Alfred shouts.

“What are you doing?”

“Saving our asses!”

He crawls back to the garage under the rain of bullets. When he comes back he is not alone, he brought a friend. Alfred’s finger is holding the safe of a holy hand grenade, ready to pull it.

“Sorry, roses!” He shouts as he runs to the window and throws the bomb towards the flowerbed.

The blast that follows is powerful and majestic. A cloud of dust and dirt rises near the bushes where the first shooter was. When the fumes settle, the effectiveness of Alfred’s move is finally confirmed – lying motionless and grotesquely contorted on the ground, the black suit is surrounded by copious blood.

Only one to go.

“Throw another one, Alfred!” I say excited.

“That was the only one!”

“Shit.” I turn around and get the pistol. “Never mind. He is alone now. It will be easier to get rid of him.”

I put the pistol in full auto mode and start firing volleys in close sequence. Alfred does the same, but even two against one, our enemy’s skills make the match fair. It takes another five long minutes before Alfred hits his knee.

“Yes! Come out and play, now!” The adrenalin makes me feel alive.

The man staggers out of his hideout and I immediately aim for his wide chest. I drill his lungs multiple times until the staggering becomes a fall.

“We did it!” I shout as I triumphantly raise the pistol to the sky.

But the excitement dies as soon as I turn around – Alfred is kneeling besides me, his hands pressed against his wounded stomach.

“No, no, NO!” I shout as I bend over him.

“Don’t worry bro, it’s fine” Alfred says, leaning on his flank and rolling on his back.

“Fuck fine! I’m calling an ambulance! Stay with me!”

“…I love you big brother. I want you to know that.”

“Don’t you dare! Don’t you fucking dare! I am not letting you go!”

“I’m alright, brother. I’m al…”

But he is not.

Alfred’s eyelids shut close to never open again.

Chapter 15

10th April 2025

142 Days since Departure

“Konrad!” I call out as I take an unsatisfactory deep breath. “I need your help!”

The broken pipe continues to leak huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the cabin and, by extent, into the whole craft. At increasingly high concentrations, the gas can cause drowsiness, shortness of breath, unconsciousness – eventually leading to death.

Because of this lethality and because CO2 is unavoidably produced by the crewmembers with every breath, every manned space vehicle must have a system to avoid its accumulation. Virgo’s is a lithium hydroxide canister, a chemical that is able to eliminate the noxious molecule from the air and trap it into its solid state. However the canister is in the command module, and the “dirty” air must travel through an hydraulic system to reach the cleaning machinery. It is one of these transit tubes that’s spilling. Mitchell said Viktor wanted to kill Konrad and me; he may still be able to do that if I do not manage to seal the leak.

“Quick Konrad!” I shout again, forcefully juxtaposing the two blunt ends of the metallic break. The trick effectively slows the leak, but it does not stop it completely yet. I turn around, looking for inspiration on what to do next.

Think, think, think!

There is nothing close by that could help me, so I decide to take my T-shirt off and wrap it tightly around the fissure. The job will not win an award for esthetics, but at least it works. To give it a final touch of strength and durability, I carefully shun Viktor’s floating cadaver and reach for the duct tape on the desk behind him. Once applied, the homemade soldering joint is even tighter, and the CO2 is finally relegated where it belongs – separated from the rest of us.

Maybe it is only placebo effect, but I feel better already. One last look at my masterpiece and I eagerly flee the infernal room. As with all the four cabins, Viktor’s opens onto the Lab, where Konrad was supposed to be. The problem is that he is not, and he is still not answering…

Terrorized, I cut across the circular room to reach Konrad’s cabin on the other side. What I find there is a sound I have heard far too often in the last ten days – the deafening silence of death.

The third and last of my crewmates has joined the other two in a similarly gruesome destiny. Konrad, the brightest mind on board – and with high likelihood even on Earth – left this world in a most fitting way: he was leaning on the books when he died, studying and reviewing the plan to guarantee a future to humanity. Today it is not only the man and the friend that dies, but the bright future that person wanted to build. Konrad was to Virgo like fuel is to engine, the only person in this mission that knew how to colonize Mars. Everything we came up here to do just died with him.

As to what killed him only the doctors will tell with certainty, although it looks to be the same indefinite thing that killed Todd. The same bloody thing that Viktor somehow managed to sneak on board.

Konrad and I first met two years ago, the evening ‘Project Virgo 97’ and the people working on it were revealed to the public in a long-hyped press conference. The event included a formal buffet dinner after the extensive interviewing with the media. It was then, while I was pouring myself some non-alcoholic punch, that a vulgar and inappropriate Konrad under the influence of five mojitos had approached me.

“Hey babe!” he had called me. “How much does a night with you cost? Because damn, you look expensive!”.

Nobody had heard him, but I was so humiliated that I left the party. I hardly slept that night and I was ready to file a complaint for harassment that would kick him out of the mission the very first day. The following morning, though, I was on my way to human resources when I found the smart scientist standing ashamed in front of my room. He had waited there all night long and jumped up when I came out the door.

“Good morning, commander Curtis.” He had said before I could speak. “I am profoundly sorry for what happened yesterday. I drank too much and lost control, I did not even recognize you were the commander. I realize this is no excuse for my stupid and disgusting behavior, but I came here to apologize anyway. If you were going to report what happened, I ask you not to, please. I studied all my life to be here today and yesterday was nothing more than a terrible mistake. Please understand… It will never happen again…”

“So you are saying that you are not sexually attracted to me?” I had asked amused but serious-looking .

“…Uhm… No, absolutely! You are… Uhm… not my type.”

I couldn’t help but burst into a laugh.

“Then I won’t report what happened, but you are the worst liar I have ever met” I had said before warning him that I would not hesitate to make up my mind if the episode were to occur again with me or any other woman at JISA.

Konrad had learned the lesson. Since then he was always very professional and we eventually became quite close friends. Not as close as I was with Todd, though.

The night of the presentation Todd had left immediately after the conference and skipped the party. The dinner was mandatory for everybody to attend, but professor Mitchell had closed an eye for him. His wife had died only six months before and left an empty space in his heart that was never filled. Todd and Martha had been married for a year, but together since third grade. Their relationship was simply perfect, one the best part of the other’s life. They were husband and wife, friends, lovers and were about to become parents too. A new Reed was seven months away to join the happy family. I envied Martha for being so lucky.

But then fortune turned its back and cancer stroke Todd’s wife – Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The disease was diagnosed late, but even then the cure rate is extremely high, over ninety-five percent. The problem was Leighton & Associates, the insurance company that denied her the life-saving treatment. L&A claimed the cancer was not accidental but rather work-related. Martha was a radiology technician at San Francisco General Hospital and, according to the insurance company, she could have prevented the cancer by adopting the necessary precautions at the workplace to limit radioactivity exposure. In other words, they blamed Martha of being careless and this invalidated her policy. The Reeds sought legal consult everywhere they could, but it was their word against theirs. Todd eventually managed to raise some funds and pay the chemo on his own – but the illness was too advanced by then.

Todd never left his wife up to her last days, but the grim hour eventually came. He buried his thirty-four years old partner and his twenty-six weeks old fetus in the same grave. Understandably, Todd has never gone back to the old cheerful boy I had grown up with.

But Konrad and Todd are both gone now and I am the only living being in a two-hundred-fifty-thousand kilometers radius. I am scared of that thought, but what will happen next scares me even more. Virgo 97 never had a backup plan, it actually was the backup plan. But with it gone… I shiver at the thought.

First things first, I must tell Mitchell the news. I leave Konrad’s cabin to go to the command module and start the radio, but a growl paralyzes me in the Lab.

I cover my ears to protect me, but the roaring grows louder and louder. I clutch my knees tightly to my chest, as if that could shield me from the growing hell surrounding me. I shout in the pain of a world collapsing over my head.

Then nothing but pitch darkness.

Chapter 16

Ever since the communication with Amelia, Mitchell and Richardson have been standing-by at the radio, impotently listening to the dull sound of static. While waiting for the noise to be interrupted by commander Curtis’ voice, the two mission directors have to deal with the aftermath of their decision to terminate the mission. One thing was the thought of it, a completely different matter is the reality.

Virgo 97 was a safety raft for humanity, a last resort for survival, but it was not the first solution that had been tried. There had been several attempts to rescue the planet instead of leaving it before. The most important one was the so-called ‘Bee Repopulation Act’. This international treaty was the natural solution to the problem: if bee extinction is causing the trouble, we must help the bees thrive. So, several laboratories around the world rolled up their sleeves and clonally expanded massive numbers of these insects starting from DNA. The BRA was successful at first, but all the bee clones had the same genetic makeup: the lack of genetic diversity meant poor adaptability in the real world. When the first cold winter came the bees started to die again, one by one.

They tried once more the following year, this time artificially creating a sort of ‘super-bee’ carrying the finest heritable traits of different strains. The new animals were in fact much fitter – even when compared to their wild-type counterparts – but they still couldn’t withstand the CO2 levels in the air. It became clear that before the BRA could work, the atmosphere had to go back to a tolerable quality. After all, bee extinction was the effect of this catastrophe, not the cause.

Therefore, cleansing the air was the next, high-priority step. Conventional cars were wiped off the streets and only electric vehicles were allowed. Factories that could not abate their emissions were shut down altogether. Even fireplaces were banned from houses and central heating nearly turned off in buildings all over the world. This policy was harsh, but also very effective – emissions nearly zeroed in less than six months.

That was quite an achievement, but we had only stopped adding waste to a crammed junkyard. There was still a myriad of tons of gas in the air that needed to be removed.

Luckily, in this respect two technologies were already available. The first were the so-called ‘artificial trees’, sodium hydroxide machines that scrubbed the air as real leaves do, only a thousand times better. The second was to push the gas into basaltic rocks, basically transforming it into stone. Both these methods were highly effective, but also too slow – even when combined, it would still take no less than fifty years to reach the levels the BRA required. That is why Project Virgo was born as a workaround to survive this half a century. It was a key element in a carefully devised step-wise plan.

Now that it is gone, what will happen to us? Mitchell and Richardson are not talking to each other, but they are both thinking about this very same question. Both being logical and pragmatic individuals, the answer they reach is similarly grim and dauntingly real: the human race and every single living species on Earth are doomed.

Life will be extinct in two years.

Sergeant Voclain and officer Gauthier, instead, focus on more pressing issues. They never moved from the entrance of the control room where they both stand still, looking at their feet.

“What’s our next move, boss?” The slightly overweight French officer breaks the silence.

“This is a very delicate investigation, my friend. Travers may be the victim of something much greater than himself. His assassination needs to be handled with extremely great care.” The sergeant replies as he thoughtfully rubs his chin.

“At this point the investigation is at a stall. We have postulated many conjectures and built a plausible theory thanks to Professor Mitchell, but it will be useless without hard evidence. I believe the turning point in this investigation could be the note on Travers’ body. If this note was really written by the victim as they say, then this is only a huge misunderstanding and the mafia is the true responsible for Travers’ death. On the contrary, if this piece of paper was not written by him, or if it doesn’t exist at all, then it would be evident that the Russians are hiding something from us. What about our men in Russia, have you heard from them? Did they manage to get hold of such a paper?”

“Yes I did. And no, they didn’t. The Russians refused to produce that note. Obviously our men did not tell them why we wanted to see it.”

“As I feared.” Voclain starts walking back and forth. “There is no other way around then. We must confront them directly.”

“Sir, I believe this would be a rushed move! Even if they were guilty – and we are not sure they are – they would never admit they have killed a man! We risk losing our advantage in vain.”

“I disagree. We can put them in a corner.” Voclain stops and looks at Gauthier straight in the eyes.

“How?”

“If we are right, their whole plan was devised in order to let Sokolov land on Mars alone, right? But that is not going to happen now that their man is neutralized. If they want a chance to go there and survive, their only option is to borrow our spacecrafts. We have quite a leverage. They can either confess the crime and we will agree to keep the original deal, or they can carry on lying and lose it.”

“But Sir, the mission is already aborted. Virgo 97 is already traveling back home!” Gauthier cries out.

“True. But the Russians don’t know it.”

Voclain smirks, as he slides his mobile phone out of his pocket and taps repetitively on the touch screen to dial the number of the police station back in Paris.

“This is Voclain” he says a few seconds later to the operator. “I need you to forward this call to Moscow Police Department”.

Chapter 17

Alfred’s house has gone from being a residence to a battlefront and then to a graveyard in a blink of an eye. The remains of the two mutilated soldiers lie in the mud of the rainstorm-shattered courtyard. But there is only one body on the property that deserves mourning, and it rests under the roof of the two-story building. The warm body I am holding tight in my arms. If it wasn’t for him, I would be dead as well.

I had promised Alfred that I would abandon my need for vengeance – but that was when I could not afford to die and leave my little brother alone. Now, everything has changed. I can’t imagine a life without my little brother by my side. It is a life not worth living.

Alfred would not approve but, from now on, I will walk and breathe for one purpose only – kill the man who stole my money, my dignity, and now the most important thing in my life, my brother.

It is hard, but I must move on. I must do it for Alfred. As my arms let go of his still warm body, I am left with nothing but an intense cold inside me. I have always considered myself a lonely wolf but only now, for the first time in my life, I feel truly alone.

Shaking off the feeling, I focus on what’s next. Alfred’s house is an isolated building in the mountains. Even if the nearest village in the valley is ten minutes’ drive away, the shooting was very loud. Someone may have heard, which means I cannot stay here long.

I walk to the hall and grab a heavy wool coat from the hanger to shield from the furious rainstorm and wind. Struggling against the weather, I walk outside and arduously approach the two corpses on the muddy ground. Like a jackal in the desert, I unbutton their shirts, peek into their weapons, search into their shoes. Tucked in a pocket of one of the two jackets, I finally find a visiting card:

Alfred Davis

Professional Plumbing Service

456 South Gate Road

Blackhawk CA

Son of a… that’s how they got here! Alfred used to spread these things everywhere, the card must have been in the car in Kentfield! That means the soldiers went inside the wreck after all and if they found this card it means…

I dart to the gate and run frantically down the slippery road to the closest intersection. It is there, quietly parked a few meters ahead, that I find the sport car that chased me recklessly less than twenty-four hours ago. With no hesitation, I get closer and smash the driver’s window with my bare hands. The alarm goes off as the glass is demolished, but in the noisy storm nobody will hear it. Longing for answers like a dog for a steak, I eagerly break in the four-hundred-plus horsepower vehicle.

Jackpot.

Lying on the black leather of the back seat is the cursed bag I had lost in the crash – with the money inside. The same money Alfred and I had earned and that was so disrespectfully stolen from us. I pick it up and go back inside and kiss Alfred on the forehead one last time, before getting the keys to his car. Given that in thirty minutes this place will be swarming with policemen more than it is with thunders now, I am lucky Alfred’s is an old compact car with no GPS, satellite alarm or even a CD player. The police will notice the automobile is missing, but they will not be able to track it down.

When I get home, twenty minutes later, I am still shaking. Desperate, I throw the black sack on the rough rug of my living room and sit on the sofa in front of it. I spend the best part of the night staring at the nylon-treasure-chest, looking for answers I do not find. This bag is the only object that is directly connected to the man I am searching. The question is, how can I make use of it? How can it lead me to him? Alfred was the problem-solver, not me.

Frustrated, I walk to the kitchen and brew some coffee that I pour in the mug distractedly. Grabbing the steaming hot beverage, I sit at the table where the laptop is charging.

Wait a moment… That’s it!

The same thing that started this awful series of events may as well end it – the Dark Web. After all, this thing enables you to hire snipers and escape justice – instead of a cold blooded serial killer all I need is a forensic analyst. If there are fingerprints on the bag, I can ID the bastard and find him!

It takes one hour of clicking for me to find what my brother would have found in a minute, but eventually the right window pops up. The homepage is an easy-on-the-eye sort of menu to choose from – DNA analysis, fingerprint matching, ballistic studies and so on. Each of the items is matched to a corresponding price tag. Scrolling down the list, I find the option of an all-around examination that is exactly what I was looking for. I tick the box next to it and add maximum priority for one thousand bucks – my results will be processed in one working day. This thing is so damn similar to a ‘conventional’ shopping website that even I get the creeps.

I press enter and the request is sent. While waiting for a reply through the night, I make another coffee and yet another one after that. It is only by dawn that the long nervous lingering is rewarded.

Meet me at Golden Gate Park,

11 AM today.

The email is plain and straightforward.

***

At 11 AM, I am sitting on a wooden bench onto the main jogging path of the large park in San Francisco, the black heavy bag on the grassy ground to my right. It doesn’t take long before a man sits beside me. He is short but stocky and wears an old-fashioned pair of glasses that fit the lab-rat character.

It’s him.

“What can I do for you?” He says.

Compared to the last man from the Dark Web I talked to, this one is much friendlier and far less frightening.

“I need you to search for prints, dust, blood traces, whatever is in your power to find the man who gave me this…” I lift the bag from the grass and drop it on his lap.

He looks at me for a moment, then starts nodding to himself.

“Alright, I see. Your wife?” He asks.

“What about her?” I am puzzled.

“She cheated on you and you wanna find out who the asshole is, don’t you? You’re not my first client, you know?”

“…Something like that.” I cut short as I lean closer and unzip the bag open before his eyes.

The analyst whistles as he looks inside. He certainly did not expect to see so much money.

“The price for the job is ten-thousand, but here is twice as much.” I go on. “I want you to analyze the money as well as the inside and outside of the bag. Give me a name and you can keep the change.”

“Damn a good change, I would say!” The man chuckles, still avidly staring down.

“See you tomorrow then?” I ask.

“Same place, same time.” He nods in agreement.

Chapter 18

10th April 2025

142 Days since Departure

The first thing I see when my eyes reconnect to my brain is a spherical ten cubic centimeters of Viktor’s blood mid-air. What the hell just happened?

Unfortunately, it is a rhetorical question. I just had the same first symptoms Todd and Konrad experienced before… before they got where they are now.

Pervaded by a sense of impending doom, I rush to my pilot seat and punch crazily on the buttons.

“Mitchell?” I ask to the radio some seconds later.

“Amelia!” The professor sounds relieved. “Have you locked Sokolov? Are you safe?”

“Viktor is dead, Arnold! I killed him” I shout, my words broken by sobs of sorrow and guilt.

“I swear I did not want to, but I killed him!” Exhausted, I burst in tears. “…I was searching his things and I saw this book… then he came out of nowhere… he started screaming and then…”

“Calm down, Amelia!” Mitchell says. “What book are you talking about?”

“I don’t know Arnold… It was hidden in his room. Human Toxicology, it was called. I saw it and asked what it was, and instead of answering Viktor just wanted the book back. I refused, he became violent and attacked me and… I was just trying to defend myself!”

“Alright Amelia, easy now. It is not your fault. ” Mitchell insists. “Don’t beat yourself up. I know it is hard, but you should think of what happened as an achievement.”

“How so?” My eyes open wide in disapproval.

“The finding of this book is consistent with our hypothesis. And Sokolov’s reaction at your discovery is even more so. Why would anyone bring such a book in space? Or why hide it? Voclain was right! The Russian was killing you all!”.

Sarah Richardson rarely intervenes in radio communications, but she does now. “There may be another explanation.” She says gravely.

Mitchell turns to her visibly puzzled by such words. “Sokolov had a little sister when he was young. She died at just nine years of age. A terrible business, the school bus crashed on the way to the institute. Anyway, that book Amelia found? It was the last Christmas present of the child to his brother, only few days before she died. Sokolov kept it as a sweet memory of her, rather than as a book per se.”

Mitchell takes a second to consider.

“How would you know all that?” The professor then asks, shaking his head and frowning in bewilderment.

“I recruited Sokolov.” The woman explains. In fact, she is in charge of human resources at JISA.

“During his interview I asked him about his medical background and why he had left university. She was the reason.”

“That explains why he became so aggressive when I got it.” A new teardrop rolls down my cheek. “He identified that book with his sister. In a twisted way, by protecting it he was trying to protect her!”

“Let’s not get too sentimental here, shall we?” Mitchell exclaims. “I am sorry about the kid’s death, it certainly was an awful tragedy. I might even agree that Sokolov kept that book only as a memory of his sister. But I can’t forget that one of our best colleagues and friends is dead because of him! I am not saying he deserved to die, but he sure does not deserve undue compassion.”

Mitchell’s words are harsh, but so sadly true. I struggle to think of Viktor as a foe rather than a friend, but they say that the first step in the grieving process is denial. What I have known for years was nothing but a mask, smoke in the eyes to hide the monster behind.

“There is more.” I add reluctantly. “Konrad is dead too…”

“Jesus Ch-”

“…And as I was coming to tell you, I had the first symptoms of this sickness myself.” I spit the words out before the professor can interrupt.

“…Dear Lord. How is that even possible?” Mitchell only manages to say, after a dauntingly long pause. “I mean, how the hell did Viktor manage to infect you with whatever-it-is he is using after he was dead?”

I have been asking myself the same question.

“Sarah call the doctor.” The director immediately adds. “I want him here.”

The next thing I hear are the high heels of the woman leaving. When the sound reappears shortly after, the echo of an extra set of footsteps breaks in the room.

“Hello, Amelia.” The medical professional says. “Sarah brought me up to speed. I am sorry to hear what happened…”

The doctor and I have talked to each other so many hours already while unsuccessfully attempting to save Todd and Konrad. From this time on, the life at stake we’ll be talking about is my own.

“Let me ask you, Amelia, did Viktor do something during the fight about the book? Injected you with a syringe without you noticing? Made you smell a cloth, maybe? Anything at all?”

I think about it, but answer that nothing of the kind happened.

“Neither did he in the recent past? Say in the last one or two days?” He tries.

“Not that I know of, no.”

“Alright.” The expert pauses as he considers. “Then Sokolov must have found a more subtle way to harm the crew…”

“What exactly are we talking about, doctor?” Mitchell asks.

“I am afraid I can’t definitively answer that, as of now. It could be anything, but my guess is that a microbiological agent was used – bacteria, viruses, or even parasites. Such a microorganism would be easy to carry on board and even easier to spread in such a contained environment.”

“To spread how?” Richardson asks.

“It depends on the specific microorganism. Food could have been contaminated. Or water. Or it could spread in the air if it was in a vapor form. The list is potentially endless. Take Anthrax, for instance… In 2001, spores of Bacillus Anthracis were dusted on letters and sent to senators and media offices in the US. The receivers who touched those letters became victims – five people were killed in the attacks.”

“Can these bugs even survive in space?” I ask surprised.

“Many of them, yes. They can be cultured to ensure their survival in extreme environments.” The doctor answers.

“So, it is an infectious agent we are looking for?”

“Not necessarily. As I said, it could be anything at this point. Infectious agents would be my bet, but toxins such as cyanide or arsenic are entirely possible. They too could be easily transported and similarly diffused in the craft. Not to mention radioactive material, such as Polonium – it is actually a favorite among the Russians. But I would exclude this last diagnosis for a number of reasons.”

“Such as?”

“First of all, the symptoms are not suggestive of an Acute Radiation Syndrome. For example, neither Todd nor Konrad showed signs of the so-called ‘radiation burn’, a classical skin rash. Plus, bringing polonium or radioactive material on board could have affected Sokolov as well as the crew. It would have been dangerous for his scope.”

“But that would apply to microorganisms as well, wouldn’t it? I mean… say Sokolov brought Ebola on board and put the virus in the water or something. Wouldn’t he risk to become infected as well?” Mitchell inquires.

“Not necessarily, no. He could have been immunized prior to departure.”

“Immunized?”

“Yes, with a vaccine for instance. That is why infectious agents are likely.”

“But you made me administer Konrad broad-spectrum antibiotics and they didn’t work. Doesn’t it rule out an infection?” I ask.

“Antibiotics work against bacteria, and not even all of them. They are useless against viruses or parasites.”

“In other words, we are back to square one.” Richardson concludes disappointed.

“I am afraid we are.” The doctor says.

Chapter 19

Da?”

“Good morning, this is sergeant Voclain from Paris Police Department. I would like to speak to your superior.”

“Concerning what, Sir?” The police officer replies overseas, leaning on an elbow and unmindfully sketching geometrical shapes on his notepad.

“The Travers’ investigation. And its political implications, to be exact.”

The tip of the pencil breaks as the officer almost falls off his chair. He certainly was not expecting such a reply.

“Hold the line, please.” He says, standing up.

Even if the chief’s office is no more than ten steps away, the constable takes an eternity to walk there and knock on the door. When he finally does, the officer reports the news to the sturdy boss, but another incessant minute of silence is heard over the phone. Voclain suspects this pause is due to the chief thinking of what to say once he picks up. As is often the case, the French sergeant is right.

“Good morning sergeant, I am chief Matveev. How can I help you?” The polite voice of the highest in the chain of command finally reaches Voclain.

“Let’s skip the small talk, shall we?” It is the sergeant’s politeness whose set aside. His unexpected rudeness is partly a tactical move to move the Russian out of his comfort zone, but mostly he is tired of playing games.

“You have fed us nothing but lies ever since the case started. That ends now.”

“Sergeant, what are you talking about?”.

“Mr. Matveev, you told us that Travers was murdered by the hand of the mafia, is that correct?”

“That is our opinion, correct.” He replies.

“Wrong! The victim was an intimate friend of Jacques Lacroix and was investigating the whereabouts of the illness that prevented him to take off on Virgo 97. Whereabouts that, we believe, were artificially manipulated by your government to have him replaced with one of your own for a despicable political game.” Voclain is transported by the stream of his words.

“This is outrageous and insulting!” Matveev’s voice is decidedly offended, but his forehead is copiously sweating.

“Is it now, chief Matveev? Then you will not bother if I told you that we locked Viktor Sokolov in his cabin only minutes ago and he will stay imprisoned there for the rest of the mission. He has managed to kill one of the crewmembers, but he will hurt no one else. Your vile attempts of sabotaging the operation are over.”

Matveev jumps from his chair. His heartbeat could almost be heard from the frozen constable standing beside him.

“You heard me damn right!” Voclain continues. “But that is not why I called you. At a difference with you, our aim is to bring to Mars as many men, women and children as possible, regardless of the country they come from. And after all, we may still need the skills of Dr. Sokolov to do that. So here is the deal: confess the murder and we will stick to the original plan between our nations. Once JISA is done, you can borrow the ships.” Voclain can’t suppress a smile of pride as he looks at Gauthier’s revering eyes. As much as the French officer knew the truth, Voclain’s bluff was so convincing that he almost believed it himself.

“One crewmember is down?” Matveev only asks, sincerely surprised.

“We have to thank you for th-” Voclain starts saying, but stops mid-sentence as the phone starts beeping. The Russian chief has just hanged up.

Imbecile.” Voclain swears.

Gauthier opens his mouth to ask about what happened, but instead he turns his head to the approaching slender silhouette of Sarah Richardson. On her way to the policemen, the vice flight director is intercepted by a young man. The lad is a last-year student at the JISA physics department and he gives a hand with the public relationship office.

“Madame, we have a problem.” He says.

“Kid, I assure you it can’t be the worst of the day. Tell me.”

“There is a crowd of reporters gathering outside the entrance. They know something is wrong with Virgo, but don’t know what.”

“Oh, please! Not the media now! Who informed them?”

The student shrugs his shoulders.

“Keep them at bay. Tell them we are having minor issues with the radio or something. Add that we will arrange a press conference in the coming weeks.”

The young man nods and leaves the room as Richardson is finally free to join Voclain and Gauthier.

“Any progress with the case?” She asks nervously.

“Yes, negative progress. I just revealed what we know to our enemy for nothing.” Voclain sighs, staring at the home screen of the phone in his hands.

“I have something you could use.” The lady says cautiously, as if handing a bomb over. And in a sense, she is.

“Amelia informed us that König is dead. But most importantly for you, Sokolov is dead too.”

Before the news could be fully absorbed by the French duo, Voclain’s jubilant ringtone goes off. The sergeant raises an index to his lips to demand silence.

“Yes?” He says.

“I am sorry I hung up, but I had to make a phone call. The result of the call is that we have decided to come clean and accept your deal.” Matveev explains.

Eh bien, I am listening.” Voclain smiles in triumph.

“It is true, we are responsible for Travers death. As you have probably figured out, the political background of Virgo 97 was so critical that Russia could not afford to be let out of it. Our country needed to be represented one way or another. So, we infected Lacroix with an innocuous strain of Escherichia Coli. We meant no harm to the French astronaut, in fact he recovered quickly after launch, but in the meantime we assured our presence on board.”

“Why did you go this far, I don’t understand? The Joint International Space Agency had already agreed to lend you enough ships.”

Matveev chuckles at these words.

“Sergeant, I understand you are not into politics. If you were you would know that a promise counts nothing, but a representative on the spot does. Imagine some of the ships broke down or simply the JISA canceled its deal with us overnight, then what? Russia would be left begging for the leftovers of JISA’s operation. We could not risk that. We needed to be physically present on the spacecraft to protect that deal. To ensure our citizens the seat they deserve. Travers was collateral damage. He was prying into a dangerous territory.”

“And at what point did you realize that you could do more than that? That you could kill everybody on Virgo 97 as to be the sole gatekeepers to Mars?” Voclain asks sarcastically.

“That’s the point… we never did! Sokolov would give his soul for his country, but he is not a killer. We admit Travers was a necessary evil, but Sokolov is not responsible for the man who died on board. Russia could never do something so vile!”

Voclain instinctively meets Gauthier’s gaze. The officer did not hear the news, but he recognizes the bafflement in his boss’ wide-open eyes. The emotion lasts only a fraction of a second, though, as the French official resumes his analytical reasoning.

“This is not possible. He had the motive to kill them all. You are lying to me again in a desperate attempt not to aggravate your position!”

“Had? Them? What the hell is happening over there?” Matveev is scared.

“I was just informed that your man is dead, Matveev, and another astronaut with him. Only the commander survived your wicked plan. The mission has been aborted.”

Ty che blyad? Viktor is dead? Don’t fuck with us, Voclain! I am telling you we have no role in all this. You want to find a culprit for what is happening up there? Look no further than into your own people! The one who so miraculously survived, for example!” The Russian officer slams the cordless receiver on the floor and the call is over once more, this time for good.

“What happened there?” Sarah Richardson asks anxiously, as Voclain slowly puts his mobile phone away .

“It was the Russian police. They admitted Travers was assassinated as we thought, but also deny Sokolov was a killer. Then the chief suggested Amelia may be responsible.”

“What? That is bullshit! How dare he? I hope you don’t believe him, do you?”

“I don’t know who to believe anymore. It sure is strange though…”

“What is strange?” She asks.

“Why would they confess a murder, but not the others? Especially now that their man is dead? It makes no sense…”

“It sure makes more sense than blaming Amelia! These men are killers, liars and I sure don’t trust a word of what they say. Talk to anyone who has known Amelia for more than ten minutes and they will all tell you this is nothing more than disgusting bullshit!”

“I am just trying to do my job here.” Voclain raises his hands, apologetically.

Chapter 20

Golden Gate Park is beautiful this time of the year. The omnipresent vivid green lawn is streaked here and there with the gravel of the jogging paths. Countless cherry blossoms decorate the marvelous tall plums that the squirrels call home. A small pond belongs at the center of the park, where its serene chilly surface brings a sense of tranquility in a three-hundred meters radius.

I am within this radius this morning as I was yesterday. Neither now nor then, however, does this feeling permeate my vengeful flesh.

“No blood, hair or bodily fluids to test for DNA.” The forensic analyst says as he joins me on the bench.

“Fuck…”

“That holds true also for fingerprints, bullet fragments, gunpowder and fire accelerants.

I had more luck with the environmental agents, though. I found some pollen on the outside of the bag. Sometimes in forensic analysis the type of pollen may be specific enough as to point to a location, but this was not the case. The pollen I found is from maple, practically ubiquitous in the Northern hemisphere. But there is good news.

After the pollen I searched for algae. Both the bag and the money were positive for a kind of seaweed that only grows in Corte Madera Creek, Kentfield California!” The analyst says excited.

“Forget about that, you drew a blank. Long story.” I cut short. Corte Madera Creek is where I almost drowned. No news finding algae there.

“Is that it?” I ask, hopeful.

“Actually there is one more thing. These tests are the usual routine I offer my clients, but given the… incentive…” He eyes at the bag, “…I also screened for a long battery of uncommon substances. There were traces of titanium aluminide and aluminum-lithium!”

He makes it sound like a sensational discovery, but I stare blankly at him.

“…Which means?” I finally ask.

“They are extremely rare materials! I searched online and it turns out that they are only used in aero-construction!” His enthusiasm is contagious and my heart is racing.

“You mean this man works with airplanes?”

The man shakes his head vigorously.

“Not airplanes, man. Spaceplanes!”

Chapter 21

2nd August 2025

256 Days since Departure

Amelia and the doctor are living an ominous déjà vu. For a tedious, repetitive and frustrating four months every day, six times a day, they reviewed the symptoms of Amelia’s sickness, gaining no additional insight ninety-nine percent of times. When they are done with her medical history, they go through Konrad’s and Todd’s again and again – but the results are no different.

“How are you now?” The doctor asks.

“As always, doc. I’m tired. I’m depressed.”

“Are you eating?”

“Barely.” She admits.

In fact, only skin and bones are left of the former feminine and desirable body. Even the commander’s voice is nothing but a drained ghost of what it used to be.

The only comforting aspect is that Virgo 97 is finally home. The craft will land on Earth’s surface in just eighteen hours.

“What about the headaches?” The man goes on with the interview, writing down every answer on a notepad.

“Worse every day.”

“And you still have no fever whatsoever?”

“None at all.”

“Strange… very strange… That is the only missing piece of the puzzle…” The doctor muses. “…everything fits with an infectious disorder, except for the fever. You see, your disease shows a classical three-phase course that is consistent with a transmissible disorder.

The first phase consists of an acute attack that is invariably violent and evident. In our case, the sound you and the others heard? Medically, it is known as a tinnitus – the subjective hearing of a sound that is not present. Such an abnormal sound perception can be due to anomalies in the ear or in the pathways that bring information from the ear to the brain. It would be difficult to know which of these is the source of the problem, but we have an additional hint. When you, Konrad and Todd had the first symptom, you all crouched to fetal position. That is a sign that your inner balancing system went askew too. This indicates that the central nervous system, rather than the ear, is affected. The acute event terminates as quickly as it comes: as a reaction to the potent insult, the body’s way to reset such a system is by fainting.

The second phase is, instead, much longer and insidious. Judging by the data we have, this stage consists of roughly three months of slow, general decay. Nausea, diarrhea, lack of appetite, and extensive weight loss predominate, but they tend to go unnoticed because of their gradual progression. The advancement explodes again at the end of this phase with the onset of the seizures. This event marks the transition to…”

“…The third and last phase.” Amelia concludes, irritated. “An interminable tormenting coma that haunts you until your death.”. After all, this is the destiny she must face.

“We are not sure about that, Amelia. For example Konrad did not show a third phase and had a very short second phase.”

“Yes, only because he died of asphyxiation before! When the CO2 pipe broke after my fight with Viktor, the air became unbreathable. His debilitated body could not take it. I barely survived it myself and, physically, I was fine. Konrad’s early death was just a coincidence. He would have progressed to the third phase without the accident.”

“You can’t know that.” The doctor says. Deep inside, however, he realizes Amelia’s explanation is the most likely. “Anyway, the fever is not present. Neither was it for Konrad or Todd. That is very unnatural for an infectious disease.” He quickly adds.

“But not impossible, you said.”

“Not impossible, but unlikely. That is why toxins are still high in the differential diagnosis. The natural history of your illness is longer than one would expect with a typical poison, but we have no idea what we are dealing with. That is why you must make an effort to recall tiny details, Amelia, they could be invaluable. One more time, please. Let’s start again from Todd.”

“Alright.” Amelia starts annoyed. “As I already said, Todd was fine, then all of a sudden he crouched and started screaming. After that, he passed out.” The tired commander says. She feels like throwing up every time she thinks of it.

“What about before? What was he doing?”

“We were exercising with Konrad. Todd started sweating as I told you.”

The doctor nods in understanding. “Autonomic nervous system activation. It is another response of the body to the illness. And the attack happened then?”

“Not exactly. I threw a bottle of water to him since I noticed he was sweating. He missed it, we made fun of him, and only then did th-”

“Wait!” The doctor blurts. “You never said anything about the fact that he missed a bottle!”

Amelia is uncomfortably fidgeting in her seat. The headache is growing.

“I never thought it was important. Is it?” She says.

“It is! It is an additional sign! It is called ataxia, an inability to properly coordinate movement! The ataxia definitely points to a neurological involvement. Usually an ataxia is easily diagnosed on Earth because of gross abnormalities in walking, but in space it may be more difficult. Abnormalities in eye-hand coordination may be the only apparent manifestation up there. Have you noticed anything similar with Konrad or you?”

In the haze of the pain, Amelia needs some time to consider, but she eventually focuses.

“Yes! During the last weeks Konrad complained about not being able to fine tune his equipment in the Lab. It’s a precision job, as far as I know. And I have been feeling clumsy too lately…”

Her head is spinning around more than ever.

“Yes, that is exactly what I was looking for!”

“I don’t understand, why is this so important? We knew already that the nervous system was affected – the headaches, the seizures, the coma…”

“Those signs mean the nervous system is involved in the disease, but the ataxia is much more specific! It means that whatever we are dealing with, it is directly damaging the nervous system. That considerably narrows the possibilities and also sends toxins on top of the list again!”

Amelia strains to grasp the meaning of what she just heard, despite the lacerating agony she is in.

“How… is that… good? We still… don’t know what… toxin.”

“True, but we will as soon as you land. All we need is a blood sample and a simple tox screen. Once we have the results, treating an intoxication is much easier than treating an unknown virus! This is brilliant, Amelia!”

But Amelia’s second phase is over.

The frail physique of the mission commander twists wildly in the emptiness of the cabin.

“Amelia?” The doctor calls out.

“AMELIA!” He shouts.

She cannot answer, avidly captured by merciless spasms. Only rattling comes out of her mouth.

***

Arnold Mitchell, Sarah Richardson, and other eighty people in the large mission control room are standing aghast in front of the large television set. They are all looking at the same, methodical man on the screen. He is holding the microphone with one hand and pressing on his ear with the other. ‘We are doomed’ reads the daring headlines hovering before his torso. The reporter’s voice fills the room.

“Virgo 97 was one of the most ambitious projects man has ever designed. Pushed by the instinct to survive a broken World, the mission was known in the aerospace community as the ‘masterpiece of the third millennium’. Yet, JISA has been exceedingly vague in releasing information regarding such a vital mission to the public in the past four months. Tonight, we dismally discover why.

The trip was supposed to be one-way-only, but an amateur stargazer identified what seems to be the craft only hours ago. According to his observations, Virgo 97 will end its ambitious voyage in the Pacific tomorrow. JISA has not released an official statement yet, but it may be time for us to gather together and pray with our beloved. It may be too late for anything else.

This is all for now from San Francisco, California. The line goes to Ben Smith, who will speculate on what might have gone so terribly wrong, and explain what this failure means for our future…”

“Professor Mitchell!”

The doctor sprints to the center of the room. He is breathing heavily, but does not stop.

“Professor Mitchell!” He shouts again.

“Yes?” The Professor turns around.

“We are in trouble.” The doctor says as he finally stops, hands on his knees.

“Amelia is out!”

Chapter 22

“…Thank you Leonard, this is Ben Smith, San Francisco News. As we previously said, there is no official confirmation on JISA’s behalf that Virgo 97 has indeed been aborted, but it seems only too appropriate to hope for the best and prepare for the worst as of now. Before discussing the future, were this unanticipated failure confirmed, let us review the past. On 19th November 2024, these four courageous astronauts –“

The faces of the crewmembers of Virgo 97 appear on the TV.

“HOLY. FUCKING. SHIT!” I shout in his empty living room.

There he is!

The man I had seen at The Hot Bun cinema! The man I have been hunting for four months! The same man who killed my brother and almost killed me!

I have followed the lead of the forensic analyst for all this time, one frustrating dead-end after the other. Days and nights wasted checking interminable lists of employees in the aerospace sector, all to no advantage. It turns out that more than two million people worldwide work in the field – it was like finding a needle in a haystack.

But there he fucking is! The bastard is a fucking astronaut in fucking Virgo 97! I finally found him!

Hold on…

They are saying the mission failed for unknown reasons… this psycho is up there… Can this be a mere coincidence? Is he behind this? And if he is, am I responsible for giving him the weapon to hijack the flight? After all, I have stolen toxic material for the freak last August… and delivered it in Kentfield only a couple of days before Virgo’s take off…

Does this mean the World’s entire population will die… because of me?

What have I done?

Chapter 23

3rd August 2025

257 Days since Departure

“…Nothing?”

The doctor shakes his head pessimistically.

“We won’t be hearing from the commander anymore, she is either in a coma or… well, worse.”

The ordinarily unemotional professor strenuously fights back a tear.

“Is there a chance she can make it?” He then asks.

“Medically speaking, yes. Todd’s coma lasted ten days, while Amelia lost consciousness only yesterday…. The real question is, will she survive atmospheric re-entry? The acceleration forces that the spacecraft will be facing are extremely high, even for a perfectly fit person. In her condition… We can only pray and hope for a safe landing.”

The director looks away to conceal his feelings.

“Thank you, doc.” He says. “I’ll call you, should anything change. Sarah will escort you to the helicopter right away. It will bring you to the landing site, so that you will be the first on the spot – Amelia needs immediate care. On board we put everything you need – syringes, analyzers, antidotes for several poisons and an arsenal of other drugs. If you need anything else, just ask.”

“Thank you professor.”

The man bows before he departs with an invaluable Sarah Richardson while Mitchell is left alone, staring at the blinking yellow light of the idling radio. The odds may be against Amelia, but he knows the resilient woman behind the commander. If anyone can defeat fate, Arnold Mitchell bets she is the one.

Such a thought brings new strength to the flight director. He honorably raises his head from the uninformative radio and starts shouting at his employees behind the whirring supercomputers.

“Alright, everybody! It’s about time we bring that troublesome chunk of metal and plastic home. We must drive it smoother than a surgeon would move his scalpel! I don’t have to remind you that we don’t have an operative pilot on board, so every move we make from here will be definitive. We won’t be receiving any feedback of sorts, it’s us against the laws of physics!”

As the professor finishes his motivational speech, the fiery bulk of the remotely-controlled spaceship appears on the large screen in the room. The flames rage around Virgo 97 as it collides with the upper atmosphere, and the frantic dance of typing, checking, and re-typing begins at the desks.

For the next ten minutes Amelia’s life will be literally at these men’s fingertips.

In the midst of this hectic activity, Sarah Richardson rushes in from the main entrance.

“Sir!” She shouts, visibly shocked.

Mitchell responds without looking at the blonde woman, busy as he is monitoring altitude, ground speed, and angle of the re-entry trajectory.

“Jesus, don’t you see I’m busy? Whatever it is, it can wait.”

“Arnold, it is very important!” She insists, getting closer.

“WHAT?” He shouts, finally raising his eyes from the monitor and meeting hers.

“There is a man outside. He says he knows what’s happening on Virgo!”

“So what? We know it too. Sokolov is killing everybody! Including Amelia, if you don’t let me do my job!”

“It’s not that… He says he knows what, and I quote, ‘weapon’ Sokolov has used. This information may be crucial to the doctor, Arnold! It might save her!”

Mitchell freezes at these words. His eyes dart repeatedly back and forth from the spinning red-hot spaceship on the screen to the blonde lady beside him. The flight director understands the gravity of the decision he must make. On the one hand, the landing stage has to be perfectly executed to give Amelia a chance for survival. On the other, though, if she lands alive only to die of her illness some minutes later, every effort will be wasted.

Both tasks are equally important.

“Sarah, I want you in command.” Mitchell finally decides. “I trust you will bring that wreck here without a scratch. You’re the only one up to the task.”

The woman is profoundly touched and immensely proud to be assigned such an important job by the person she admires most in the world. By and large, this is the greatest responsibility she has ever been given in her entire career.

“I will not disappoint you, Sir.” She says with her eyes on the verge of watering.

“Where is the man?” Mitchell then asks, giving a hint of a smile.

“In the conference room with a security guard. He is waiting for you.”

Chapter 24

“What is it then?”

Mitchell shouts impatient as he walks through the conference room door with long, brisk strides.

“I am Norton Davis…”

“You could be the Lord himself, man, but I couldn’t care less at this moment! I want to know what you know!”

“Alright…” Norton is taken aback by the professor’s rudeness. He cannot know what the flight director is going through, but goes on regardless.

“… One year ago, I stole something for someone… I did not know who he was until yesterday… I recognized his face on TV. He is one of the astronauts of that flight everyone is talking about…”

“It’s called Virgo 97! And we know who he is already.” Mitchell cuts short. “What we don’t know is how! What is it that you stole?”

“I don’t know exactl-” Norton hesitates.

“YOU DON’T KNOW?”

“Sir, let me finish please… I don’t know what it is, but I know where and when it was stolen… that should be enough for JISA to find out.

21st August, Peroxisome laboratories in San Jose. It was a small pack from the refrigerated storage room…”

Mitchell looks at the thief straight in the eyes, unsure if to believe his words. It is the immense grief and remorse that he sees in there that help his decision. The director grabs his phone from his pocket and quickly dials an international number.

Bonjour, Professor Mitchell! Long time no see!” Voclain answers from the sunbed on his vacation boat in France.

“Sergeant, I have no time to explain… I need you to search something for me…” Mitchell tells the sergeant what Norton just told him. He is then put on hold as the sergeant makes some phone calls himself.

While restlessly waiting for an answer, the professor looks straight up at Norton in utter contempt. The thief can’t bear such a look and feels compelled to apologize.

“Believe me when I say I am sorry… I already paid a bitter price for what I have done…” Norton can’t shake the image of his dead brother’s face off his head. “…I didn’t know what I was doing…”

“It’s too late for repentance, son.” Mitchell replies harshly. “You killed us all…”.

***

“Dimethylmercury!”

Voclain finally shouts through the Smartphone.

“Dimethyl-what?”

Chapter 25

“You sure you said dimethylmercury?” The doctor asks in disbelief, looking down at an inert Amelia on the infirmary bed. Sarah Richardson did an outstanding job and Virgo 97 landed safely. But after the atmosphere, Amelia has one last enemy yet to defeat.

Mitchell nods. “That’s what Voclain told me. Are you surprised?”

“I am… It’s just… very unusual as a poison. You see, Dimethylmercury is arguably the strongest neurotoxin known to humans. It is grimly famous because of its unparalleled potency. Think that in 1997 an American chemist, Karen Wetterhahn, spilled a ridiculously tiny drop of liquid dimethylmercury on her gloves while working with the compound. The toxin was so strong that it pierced through the rubber of the glove and penetrated inside her skin. The chemist didn’t even notice the accident until, five months later, the neurological syndrome began. Ataxia, pins and needles, headaches, a background noise in both ears…”

“Basically the same symptoms of our astronauts!” Mitchell blurts.

“Exactly… Progressively the syndrome went on and the ability to perform complex tasks, such as walking or speaking, were lost as well. Dr. Wetterhahn was soon admitted to the hospital but, a few days later, she slipped into a coma. They tried to save her with aggressive therapy, but the mercury in her blood was too much… She was forty-eight when her husband and her two teenage children buried her remains…”

“…My God…”

“…Following her death, dimethylmercury use has been drastically restricted. Few laboratories around the World have access to it and Peroxisome is the only one in the US. This is why I am surprised Viktor has chosen such an inaccessible compound. The only explanation is that he needed its unique pharmacokinetic properties…”

“What?”

“…the timing of the drug effects. Dimethylmercury causes an exquisitely long intoxication, much longer than other poisons. Probably Sokolov wanted to kill only after a long delay…”

“…This way our men would die only after reaching Mars! He needed them to land!” Mitchell understands.

“Will the treatment work?” He then asks hopefully, looking at Amelia.

“It depends on the stage she’s in. Chelation therapy absolutely works in the early phases: the drug binds the poison and neutralizes it. But in such an advanced condition… Like Dr. Wetterhahn, too much of the poison may be already in her system.” He bitterly concludes.

The couple is silent as a nurse inserts a thick needle in Amelia’s median cubital vein.

“There is one thing that doesn’t fit, though.”

“Which is?” The doctor asks.

“You said that dimethylmercury is acquired when you touch it, right? How come Sokolov wasn’t poisoned too, given that it is so dangerous to handle?”

“Probably he wore special gloves…”

“No. Apart from the official JISA equipment nothing is allowed on board.”

“Neither was Dimethylmercury, I suppose?” It is Amelia who just spoke her first words after four days of deep coma.

“Amelia!” Both men shout in ecstatic disbelief as the worn lady stretches her lips in a smile. Professor Mitchell jumps forward to the commander’s bed and engages in a protracted, comforting hug.

For the first time in years, the director abandons himself to a stream of joyful tears. Months of stress and worries are finally rewarded by the hearty smile of the beloved friend.

Chapter 26

In the days that followed, JISA became the centre of the world. An outstanding assembly of reporters, policemen, and curious citizens gathered twenty-four-seven at the main gate, hunting for a glimpse of the wild activity going on inside. It was right there, inside the building, that hours flew like seconds for the people picking up the pieces of Sokolov’s disaster.

In fact, the initial elation of the employees at the pleasant news of Amelia’s well-being, soon left its way to the fear of an unknown future. ‘What will happen now?’ was the thought that hovered as a ghost on the vibrant endeavor. ‘Is it over for mankind?’ nobody had the bravery to ask aloud.

Rather, everyone was busy retrieving hard-disks from the craft, analyzing raw flight data, and moving the dead bodies to a more appropriate location. Even Voclain had flown back to San Francisco to offer his help, and a stoical Gauthier had insisted to go with him. The French policemen were given an office where to check and label the astronaut’s personal belongings. It is Gauthier himself who is calling his boss’ attention.

“Look at this!” He says, pointing at the computer before him. Voclain comes closer and reaches for a chair. Full screen, a known face is staring straight at the camera in one of the cabins of Virgo 97. The date at the bottom right corner reads 20/11/2024, one day after departure.

“Good morning. This is Todd Reed, and you are looking at my video-diary.” The flight engineer starts with a twisted grin on his face. “If you are watching this video, it means I am dead and my plan has panned out. I successfully killed Virgo 97.”

The two agents turn to each other, shocked.

“Stop it.” Voclain urges Gauthier. “Mitchell and Richardson need to see this.”

Gauthier instantly does as told as the sergeant hurries to summon JISA’s heads. When they return and the quartet is fully formed, Gauthier locks the door twice and then eagerly clicks on the play button again.

“Good morning. This is Todd Reed, and you are looking at my video-diary. If you are watching this video, it means I am dead and my plan has panned out. I successfully killed Virgo 97. By the end of this message, I hope you will fully understand why and how I did it. Let me start from the how…

In order to stop the mission, the easiest thing to do was to destroy the craft. Bringing a bomb on board was obviously out of question, though. Similarly, tampering with the mechanical parts of the craft was not an option – the risk of getting caught was too high. So, I abandoned that idea and decided that the only possible workaround was to kill the crew instead. The question was, how? A knife? A gun? These things were difficult to hide. Not to mention that once used on the first victim it would have been hard to catch the others off guard.

It was then that I remembered that book Viktor always carried around – Human Toxicology. I realized that a poison was indeed what I needed: safe, silent, efficient. I just needed to choose the right compound. I needed something odorless, colorless, and with a delayed action.

Dimethylmercury was it.

On 13th July 2024, I recruited an expert thief that stole a sample of the liquid metal from Peroxisome Biological Research Facility. Even if it was in the center of San Jose and boasted a state-of-the-art security system, Peroxisome is the only place in the United States where such a compound is stored. I admit I took a risk there, but it was a calculated one. The poison was soon in my hands and all that was left to do then was wait for launch date.

And 19th November 2024 eventually came. That day, I made sure to be the first astronaut to get in the changing room in order to have some time alone. Before putting my spacesuit on, I rubbed a generous amount of invisible dimethylmercury on my bare hands. A few minutes later Konrad joined me and I fatally shook his hand with mine. That gesture was his death sentence.”

Todd Reed smirks once more on the screen.

“Poisoning Amelia and Viktor was tougher, though, because they had a separate changing room…”

Todd stops dead as Konrad’s curses are heard distantly in the background of the footage. Reed abruptly turns to the noise but the cabin is still empty, the door still locked.

Relieved, he recomposes.

“…as I was saying, Amelia and Viktor had a separate changing room so I had to figure out how to get to them. The answer was easy to find, given that dimethylmercury is the king of poisons.

In fact, when absorbed in high amounts this toxin has the property to be excreted through respiration. In other words, once the poison breaches the skin, it flows through the veins and reaches the lungs. At that point, the only thing you need to do is breathe normally and the air will fill with the invisible, odorless lethal gas.”

Richardson gives a glance at Mitchell, in search of some kind of moral support. Mitchell too, however, can’t believe his ears.

“The only problem with this was the timing – the trip to the lungs takes about half an hour and, once there, dimethylmercury is exhaled for only one hour. I had to make sure to be in close contact with Amelia and Viktor during that sixty-minutes window for the trick to work.

That’s why using it in the changing room was perfect: it takes only twenty minutes there to complete the procedure. After that you can enter the craft – where the pilots would be waiting for us…”

“Son of a-”

“Shhh” Voclain hushes Richardson.

“…Then it was done! As the doors of the main module shut behind us for take-off, Amelia and Viktor started inhaling the pure dimethylmercury I exhaled.”

Gauthier stops the footage.

“But it doesn’t make sense!” He shouts. “If what he says is true, everybody on the craft should have been affected! We all know Sokolov did not show any symptom!”

“He died before he could, in the fight with Amelia.” Voclain reminds him.

“So also Konrad died before entering the coma because of the accident, as the doctor said?”

“Yes, I believe so.” The sergeant agrees.

Satisfied with the answer, Gauthier resumes the video.

Todd browses through his desk and picks up a notepad and starts looking at it.

“So… given that dimethylmercury poisoning is roughly dose-related, I made some calculations to guess what will happen from now on. These are just educated guesses, but my math is usually pretty good.

Since I had the heaviest exposure, I will be the first to show symptoms, roughly next month. Obviously, I will play it down in order not to raise undue suspicion.

In the following three months I will have a long, wasting syndrome along with recurring headaches. Somewhere during this time, Konrad will show the first symptoms of the intoxication as well. His dose of dimethylmercury was obviously lower than mine, but still higher than Amelia and Viktor’s.

In March, hopefully before we reach Mars, I will enter a coma and ten days later… it will be game over for me. Konrad will follow the same path, only some weeks afterwards.

At that point the mission will have to be aborted. And even if it weren’t, Amelia and Viktor will never colonize Mars without a scientist. But again, in the unlikely event they somehow could, the pilots too will eventually fall ill and see the end of it.” The flight engineer concludes, visibly satisfied with his prophecy.

“He is lucky he is dead!” Sarah Richardson clenches her teeth and fists. “I would kill him myself!”

“As to the why I did it…” Reed resumes his speech. The arrogance in his voice is strangely gone.

“…there are actually two reasons. Number One. Virgo 97 will not solve our problems, but create new ones. It is estimated that only one in ten men will reach Mars in time and who do you think will these people be? The rich banker from New York City or the poor farmer from Congo? The corrupted politician from Madrid or the humble home-wife from Peru? We will not save one person in ten, but kill the nine who cannot afford to pay the ticket.

And have you ever wondered what will happen once this unfairly selected society settles on the red dirt?”

Todd’s anger is palpably growing.

“Starting a new civilization requires resources – a lot of them. Who do you think will have access to these resources? Those who brought them to Mars in the first place! The ones who own the spaceships. By controlling such vital goods, they will have control on everybody! It is way too much power for a dozen of heartless businessmen. Despite what it looks like, I am too fond of humankind to let it fall into such a whole new level of slavery!”

The engineer’s anger has become outright wrath.

“The second reason why I have come so far is a direct consequence of the first, but is also more… personal. As I said, who owns the ships owns the world… And you want to guess who that will be?”

“No. Fucking. Way!” Mitchell rarely swears.

“What?” Voclain asks.

“Just listen…”

“Dear old Leighton & Associates!” Reed rages on. “The same multi-billionaire insurance company that can afford constructing a fleet of spacecrafts but wouldn’t cough up a few thousand dollars for my wife’s chemotherapy!” The flight engineer is beside himself with anger.

Only now does Mitchell understand that Todd has been planning his revenge for all these years.

“You may think my plan is a bit drastic, delusional, even insane… but it’s the only way! With Virgo out of the equation, men will finally concentrate on a way to save the planet we were born on, rather than abandon it!”

“Todd!” Amelia interrupts him from the main module. “We need you here!” She says.

“Now excuse me, but I have a spacecraft to lift from Earth’s orbit.” He concludes triumphant, as he leans forward to close the laptop shut.

Epilogue

19th November 2031

Seven years since departure

Norton Davis walks out of the prison where he was supposed to spend ten years. He savors each step away from the main gate, under the light of the warm sun. He takes a long, deep breath, euphoric to finally be a free man again. Were it not for his determining role in saving Amelia and his full cooperation with the police, his sentence would have been much harder.

“Only five years and ten months! Félicitations!” Voclain greets him.

“What can I say? I have always been an ace with girls. That parole officer must have fallen in love! Can you blame her?” Norton spent a rough time behind bars, but always behaved. His debt with society is paid.

“What will you do now that you are a free man?” Gauthier appears beside Voclain. Just like his sergeant, the French officer took Norton’s release as an opportunity to spend a few days in San Francisco, the city where they solved the case of a lifetime.

“I don’t know about that yet, but I can tell you what I want for dinner – a maxi double cheeseburger and a side of fries, along with one pint of the finest draught beer in town!”

***

Professor Mitchell strolls casually down Golden Gate Park, both hands tucked deep in his pockets. He’s heading towards a stunning lady sunbathing on the lawn, intently watching over her two kids. They are playing with Wendy, a beautiful and playful beagle. Her husband is by her side, Liam a.k.a the frisbee thrower.

“Look who’s there! The eminent professor Mitchell!” Amelia mocks him as she sees her former boss. “Michael! Maggie! Come say hi to the man who saved your mother!”

“Hi Arnold!” They scream as they run to hug the sturdy man, Wendy on their heels.

“Hello Arnold! It’s good to see you!” Liam joins in. “What brings you here?”

“Hi everybody! Actually, I came here to talk to Amelia about something…”

Mitchell never told her the truth about Todd. Considering how close they were and how badly she was hurt at the time, the professor thought it was better to keep things as they were. Also, what really happened on Virgo was never released to the press. Today, however, it’s the seventh anniversary of the mission’s take off. It seemed a fitting day to finally tell her the truth.

After all, she deserves it.

Liam understands the situation and brings the kids away to leave his wife alone with the professor.

“It’s crazy isn’t it?” Amelia smiles dreamy. “Only six years ago, when Virgo failed, we seemed doomed. And look at us now! Things are better than ever. That new AirTree 2.0 they came up with was amazing. I must admit I was very skeptical when it came out. I mean, a sixteen-year-old MIT student coming up with the Holy Grail? It was too good to be true. It cleansed the excess CO2 in the air in a year! ‘As clean as it can get’, as the ad says.

By the way, have you heard the news? It looks like the inventor won’t even win the Nobel! Can you believe it? He saved our asses and it’s not even sure he will win it! They say it’s because it’s not truly new – only an innovation of the dear old artificial leaves – but I bet it’s because of the awful name. AirTree 2.0? Come on, he could have been more creative there” The lady shakes her head. “You know we have a bee hive in our garden? It’s our way to help bring things back as they were.”

“I know… it is sure incredible…” the professor vaguely says, bitterly recollecting Todd’s prophecy. In the end he was right, men can do miracles if properly motivated. They say the ends justifies the means, but Mitchell disagrees. What Reed did can never be justified.

“You know… six years went by fast but it still hurts like the first day. I can’t sleep at night because of the nightmares. No matter how hard I try, I will never forget the blood… the corpses… Konrad and Todd’s blank stares… even Viktor’s! What happened in that craft will haunt me forever.”

“But you have a family now…” Mitchell offers.

“I do, and they helped me a lot. Along with the shrink, of course.” She takes the edge off.

“…I wish Todd was here to see the kids…” She then adds, as she looks at Maggie performing a somersault on the soft grass.

In this moment, Mitchell realizes the decision he has made six years ago was the right one. Amelia deserves the truth but she does not need it right now. Some things are better left alone.

“It’s good to see you are happy Amelia.” The professor concludes, kissing her on the forehead before turning around. “Kiss the kids for me.” He adds, walking away.

The wise man is almost at the main gate when Amelia shouts at him.

“Wait!” She says “What did you have to tell me?”

Mitchell considers for a moment.

“Sarah quit the job!” He finally shouts back. “She opened a beach resort in Honolulu, Hawaii. She asked me to invite you ‘for a tequila or two’ this summer. I already agreed.”

The professor winks and waves one last goodbye.


Virgo 97

A French reporter mysteriously disappears in Russia. Two brothers sneak into a cutting-edge research facility in San Jose to score the heist of their lives. It's 2024 and life on Earth is about to come to its end. Einstein had predicted it: bee extinction, plant infertility, and consequent human decimation. All this is now a reality. Only the astronauts on Virgo 97 stand between humanity and the Apocalypse. The four brave men are supposed to save the World, but things on the spacecraft are unexpectedly taking a turn for the worse. Sergeant Voclain will try his best to put the pieces of the puzzle together. But time is running out...

  • ISBN: 9781370545667
  • Author: Italo Maragò
  • Published: 2017-04-26 16:50:20
  • Words: 34795
Virgo 97 Virgo 97