Past Light

A shadow scurried across the floor at the edge of his vision. By the time he turned his head it had vanished, but he knew the culprit. It had moved down the short passageway toward the rear of the living quarters. He hurried back the dozen or so paces as best he could in the low gravity, stepping over the tension harness and making a quick stop in the work alcove across from his bunk. From a locker he snatched a screwdriver and a welding wand to zap with and snapped them to his utility belt. Who ever heard of a ship infested by gerbils? Mice or rats, yes. But gerbils? Nobody would believe him; it was a ridiculous problem to have.

The loading bay was tiny, but there were lots of places for the pests to hide. The surveyor examined the all too familiar details: a secondary control pane, the airlock, electrical conduits, electronic units, the return air vents. That would be the most obvious place. He dropped to his knees with the screwdriver already whirring in his palm and began to remove the vent grill.

Rodent infestations usually plagued bigger ships with larger crews where sanitation became more of an issue. The surveyor certainly didn’t think he was that much of a slob. His ship wasn’t the most organized in the universe, but it wasn’t filthy. He couldn’t imagine what they were living on, but he did know they would chew most anything. Out here, that could be deadly. He must have removed half the wall panels by now trying to find them.

The vent cover clanged over, and he shoved it aside. The front dust filter still looked intact but he pulled it out anyway to see behind. Nothing. Again nothing. For as long as he’d been looking, he never found a nest, never even gotten a very good look at a single one of the little beasts, but they existed. As he lay in his bunk, he could hear them behind the panels ripping the paper throughout the night. He listens from his bed, curled around his teddy bear. In the morning he’ll see the mound it creates during these dark hours. He’d recognize that sound anywhere. What were they doing that made so much noise yet remained undetectable?

The surveyor switched off the screwdriver, sat up on his knees and cocked his head so he could track the little noises in the walls. They seemed to move in impossible ways, from the bulkhead across to the interior partition and then to the utility covers. He pinpointed the sound. They were behind the relay panel. He rose to his feet and began unscrewing the fascia. It fell to the ground, but there was nothing unusual in there—only the wires and relays one would expect.

He sat on the floor against the access portal in the bulkhead, the knobs of the kitchen cabinet digging into his back. An ache paralyzes his stomach, and he bends forward trying to ease the pain. He has never looked at the kitchen floor this closely before. Dirt has filled in the crevices of the fake floor tile and has outlined the pressed patterns. As soon as he forces air back into his lungs, the pain spreads. He looks up at his father standing directly over him. He raises his arms to cover his head. After a moment, he peered cautiously up the length of the corridor and lowered his arms.

“Must’ve fallen asleep again,” he muttered to himself. “I need something to eat.”

Despite the lightness of space, the surveyor rose heavily and walked forward. On his way by, he tossed the screwdriver and the welding wand onto the workbench next to the lockers.

At the automat, he closed his eyes and selected a meal to rehydrate. Then he tried carrying the scalding hot tray back to his SynCom without burning himself. He remembered he had been viewing the old mail.

The message from Maria was actually a disguise for a legal document informing him of the divorce. Sneaky bastards. Once opened, the proceedings could begin; he had been legally notified. The action did not really surprise him. It seemed to fit the set of experiences he was familiar with.

As he stepped toward the cockpit, the beep drew his attention away again. The ship came out of the wormhole and decelerated, making him wobble slightly as the field drive readjusted. The surveyor looked over to see what the sensors registered and then promptly dropped the food tray from his stunned fingers. Confusion stifled his thoughts and forced him to reexamine the readings. This was exactly what he’d hoped to find, and now he didn’t know what to do. He had been searching every chance he got for the past year and had experienced so many false alarms that success no longer seemed reasonably possible, but here it was: oxygen thirty percent, nitrogen sixty-nine percent, trace amounts of methane—another Earth.

Every deep-space surveyor harbored the secret hope of finding the third habitable planet, the first outside of the home system. It tortured their minds like the Holy Grail. The discovery would be historical and could make him a king.