He’d called it a bunker, but it was really just a series of empty square chambers carved out of the Tritonian ice, pressurized, and separated by heavy hatchways. Whatever you called it, he wasn’t here. Leah could sense Captain West’s impatience. “Give him a little time,” she said.
West snorted. “You’d think he’d be punctual if nothing else.” Leah let the comment hang there, not taking the bait. “You know I hate to repeat myself,” he went on, “but are you sure? And I mean really-fucking-sure.”
She locked her eyes on his and shot mental daggers. “I’m not crazy.”
“I didn’t say—”
“I’m not crazy,” she interrupted. Mild insubordination, but given the circumstances she knew he’d let it slide. “The bunker’s here, right where he told me we’d find it.”
West waved his arms in a sweeping gesture at the bare walls. “This? Hardly proof of—”
Leah’s ears popped and every fixture in the bunker fluttered like a locomotive had just rumbled by. A man’s pained howl could be heard from behind the nearest hatchway. They’d just checked in there not two minutes ago and it had been completely empty: four featureless walls of ice and stone with nothing between them.
It was him.
West was closer, and he shouldered through the hatch while his hand slid to his holster. Leah was right on his heels and barreled into him when he came to a sudden halt. There was a lot to take in.
A man was muttering to himself in a traumatized sort of way. He was built: muscular, with a big frame. Naked, and looking a little worse for the wear. Bruised all over like a roughly handled peach. Leah recognized his cold gray eyes immediately and an unpleasant chill slithered up her spine. The room was filled now with heavy-looking metal storage trunks. There were tool boxes and drawer sets and industrial drums full of who-knows-what—they were covered in symbols she didn’t understand. The man was kneeling over something, examining it. It looked like a long stick of cotton candy lying in a pool of rusty water.
She realized it was a body. He was speaking to it in a low voice.
“I told you to stay right behind me. Didn’t I say that? You got too close to it; too close, too close. Now look. Shh. Shhh. Relax. Just relax. You did it. Look, you did it. You did such a good job. You did so good.”
West was tense; frozen. “This him?” he asked quietly—as if it could be anyone else—and seemed to break the man’s trance.
The naked man looked past West and into Leah’s eyes. “You’re here,” he said, his voice cracking. “I tried. You know I tried, right?”
When she first encountered him he came off as a little paranoid. Now he seemed completely psychotic. “You told me to be here, so I’m here. This is August West; he’s the captain of the Pelagornis, the ship I told you about.” The man’s eyes flicked to West only briefly before locking back on Leah. “Who, uh…” She nodded to the body on the ground.
The man just bowed his head and shook it. “I thought the insulation might help. Wrapped…” He turned his head and cleared his throat. “Wrapped him up before we hit the slip. Didn’t matter. It’s Wing’s Syndrome.”
“Can we do anything to help him?”
“What’s Ring Syndrome?” asked West. “Is it contagious?”
The man slowly got to his feet. He seemed to be in pain. “Wing’s Syndrome. Too close to the sun.”
“It’s just a metaphor. If you’ve never been in a time slip you wouldn’t understand. His body’s atomically unbinding.” Now he finally aimed his icy stare at West. “Gonna melt like a candle on a hot plate. Just like all this shit.” He motioned to a stack of metal crates stamped with red stripes. The stripes had been parallel a minute ago but now they were bowing, and the edges of the crates seemed to sag. A black puddle was forming beneath them.
“What’s in those?” asked Leah.
“You’d think they were guns. Close enough. Doesn’t matter now; we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got.”
“Will they send anyone after you?”
“No. I don’t even have a goddamned name. If they thought I was a threat I never would have been born—they’d have made sure of it. They only care about their fuel. That’s why they’re building out by Neptune: for later. You’ll see.” He paused. “You have any clothes on that ship of yours?”
“Of course,” Leah answered. “Cap, you mind? I’ll stand guard here.”
The man stared her down with a tense, deadly-serious look, but didn’t say anything.
“Fine,” said West, “but stay in front of me.” His hand was still on his holster. “Let’s go.” He backed out of the room and waited for the man to exit.
The naked man stopped as he passed Leah. He shook his head and said, “Don’t.”
Leah waited until they were both gone, and then took little halting steps toward the insulation-wrapped body on the ground with the growing puddle of rust-colored water around it. Her heart was pounding. She got to her knees and peeled the insulation away from the face. It was gooey. Skin stuck to the insulation like flypaper. There were no eyelids, and the jaw worked slowly in silence.
Leah screamed as she looked down into her own dying eyes.