– Part II –
Every person has a different reaction the first time they unexpectedly see a dead body. Many people go their entire lifetime without ever seeing one. But for those that have, everyone handles it a little differently. Some people feel intense fear, or even panic in the moment. Others go into shock.
But for Harvey, it was none of those reactions. He was simply numb.
Gwen was worried about him. He didn’t say more than a dozen words over the COM during the two-hour trek back to Tranquility. Before leaving the crevasse, he had marked the location of the body on the NAV system and reported the find to their shift supervisor, who passed the information up the chain.
Deaths on Luna were not entirely uncommon – and mostly due to accident or injury. But even somebody dying from exposure, outside of the base, was not completely unheard of. Not everyone is cut out for life in space. Every once in a while, someone would reach their limit and just crack. They would simply suit up and wander off, nobody the wiser. In all cases though, the bodies were always recovered. The environment suits have transponders that signal the suit’s location back to base. If the transponder is switched off, either intentionally or because of malfunction, then it always took a little longer, but they would be found eventually – dead, of course.
The furthest anyone would get was at most a few kilometers from the base. If the oxygen tanks didn’t run out first, they ultimately either froze or cooked to death. Temperature swings on Luna range from negative three hundred degrees in the shade to over two hundred in direct sunlight. The environment suits can only regulate the body temperature for a few hours if exposed to vacuum, before the suit gets overwhelmed and the body either freezes or overheats. The body in the crevasse was thirty-six kilometers from Tranquility base.
“Dr. Nafal sent me a message. He wants to see us both,” Gwen said to Harvey.
Harvey had been sitting by himself in the empty mess hall when Gwen approached. A bowl of cold soup sat on the table in front of him. He hadn’t touched it.
“The coroner?” Harvey asked. “What does he want?”
Gwen didn’t sit.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “His message said that he wanted to ask us a few questions, and that it was urgent.”
“And?” Harvey asked.
“And nothing,” Gwen replied. “That was it.”
It had been less than forty-eight hours since Harvey returned from their discovery out in the crevasse. Almost immediately after he arrived, a specialized unit was sent back out to retrieve the body and bring it back to base. Once returned, standard procedure dictated that the on-site coroner conduct a routine autopsy to determine cause of death. They would establish the identity of the deceased, and then Blackstone’s human resources department would contact any family members that were listed in their personnel records. In the event that they had no next of kin, or the family couldn’t afford to send the body back planet-side, the remains were cremated on site. No funeral. No priest. No flowers.
“Well, if it’s urgent –” Harvey began, sarcastically, as he rose from his seat.
Gwen looked down at the bowl of soup, and then back up at Harvey.
“Harvey,” she started. “Are you –”
Harvey met Gwen’s eyes.
“– okay?” she finished.
Harvey paused, continuing to match her gaze.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Just still processing all of this.”
Gwen gave him a tepid smile, the expression one makes when trying to be comforting.
“I understand,” she said. “If there’s anything at all –”
“I know,” he said, cutting her off. “Thanks.”
Harvey slid his chair back under the table.
“Ladies first,” he said, gesturing towards the doorway out of the mess hall.
The coroner was a Blackstone employee, just like everyone else at Tranquility. There was no official government on Luna. No civil services of any kind. It was the responsibility of the corporation to provide the essentials, protect its own people, or police them when necessary. That’s where the security team came in. Roger’s security team. Not only were they responsible for overseeing the safety of company personnel, they were also there to protect corporate interests – by force, if required.
“You go on ahead,” Harvey said to Gwen as he stopped mid-hallway, directly in front of the men’s restroom door. “I’ve got to hit the head. I’ll meet you there in a minute.”
“Oh, charming,” she replied, rolling her eyes.
Gwen continued down the hall and turned a corner.
Harvey pushed his way through the door and into the restroom. He approached one of the sinks, twisted the handle, and proceeded to splash some water onto his face. The coolness felt good – a much needed shock to his system. He remained bent over the sink, allowing the water to drip off his face. After a few moments, he shut off the faucet and was reaching for a paper towel when he realized he wasn’t alone in the room.
“Shhh,” a voice whispered tersely.
It was followed by a quick gasp, and then a muffled giggle. Both of which were coming from one of the two stalls behind him. The whisper sounded male, the other clearly a female.
Harvey craned his neck around to look in the direction of the stalls.
“What?” the female voice whispered back. “You afraid of getting caught?” Another giggle followed the question.
“Shhh,” from the male voice again, this time more forceful.
“Hey!” Harvey exclaimed with annoyance. “Can’t you two find someplace better to fool around?”
A brief pause.
“Mind your own damn business,” came the man’s voice, this time at full volume.
“Excuse me?” Harvey began, but stopped when he heard the latch click open on the stall door.
“No, wait –” the man’s voice said quickly as the stall door swung outward.
“Oh, for Christ sake Roger, what’s the big deal?” said a young blonde woman as she exited the stall.
The woman approached the sink next to Harvey, her gait altered by the magnetic shoes that lightly gripped the metal floor of the bathroom. She stood there, looking in the mirror, using her fingers to comb through her disheveled hair. She took a few more moments to re-button her blouse and correct her smeared lipstick. Harvey just stood there looking at her, a stupid look on his face. The woman looked over at Harvey, not the least bit ashamed. She gave him a quick wink, turned, and proceeded toward and then out the restroom door – Harvey’s eyes following the entire way.
After several seconds, Harvey turned back to face the stall door.
A tall man in dark grey fatigues and combat boots emerged from the stall. He stood there, squared up with his chest puffed out, looking back at Harvey. It was Roger. Gwen’s Roger.
Harvey stared at him for a moment, and then cocked his head slightly to one side.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Harvey asked, in a tone that was soft but forceful.
Harvey could see right through the tough-guy façade, recognizing the undertone of panic on Roger’s face.
Roger lifted his chin, narrowing his eyes.
“It’s Harvey – right?” Roger asked. “You’re Gwen’s little work-husband.”
Harvey chuffed under his breathe, continuing to stare up at the tall man.
“Operations partner,” Harvey replied. “If you want to get technical about it.”
Roger took two slow steps forward, now standing within arm’s length of Harvey. The man stood a full head taller than him.
“Listen here, Harvey,” Roger said, drawing his name out long, with clear derision. “If you mention a word of this to Gwen, it’ll be the last words you speak on Luna. I’ll ship your ass off this rock so fast your head will spin.”
The tall man leaned in, his face only inches from Harvey’s. “And that’s only after I do a number on you first.”
Harvey contemplated this for a moment, his expression unchanged, continuing to look directly into Roger’s eyes.
“You don’t deserve her,” Harvey said coldly. “If you cared at all about her, you’d tell her yourself.”
“But we both know you’re not going to do that,” Harvey ended.
Roger slowly returned to the upright position, shoulders back, glaring at Harvey.
“Just remember what I said,” Roger replied.
He gave Harvey one last penetrating look and then turned, brushing past him forcefully, following the same route as the young blonde woman. Harvey’s eyes followed until Roger was clear of the door and out of sight.
Harvey just stood there for several seconds, eyes fixed on the door.
Most definitely alone, Harvey turned back to the mirror, looking himself directly in the eyes. He took a long deep breath. He could feel the adrenaline coursing through his veins, a massive lump lodged in his throat. He wasn’t scared. He was enraged.
“In thirty-four years of practice, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Dr. Nafal said to Gwen, just as Harvey entered through the open doorway of the coroner’s office.
The doctor, a middle-eastern man in his mid-sixties, was seated behind a large desk. Gwen was in a chair across from him with her back to the doorway. The doctor looked up as soon as Harvey entered the room. Gwen saw this and turned in her chair. She looked up at Harvey. Harvey looked back, directly into her eyes. He felt the entire weight of Luna sitting on his chest, unable to breathe. He looked at her in a way that he had never looked at her before – with pity.
“Took you long enough,” Gwen said, as Harvey took a seat in the chair next to her.
“Sorry,” he said, trying not to stare too long. Harvey turned his attention to Dr. Nafal.
“What can we do for you, doc?” Harvey asked. He was trying his best to focus on the man in front of him, but his mind was still locked eye to eye with Roger.
“As I was just telling your colleague here, I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire professional career,” Nafal said.
“Like this?” Harvey inquired. “You mean, the body that we found in the crevasse.”
Nafal straightened up in his chair.
“Yes, Harvey,” he said. “That body.”
Harvey detected something odd about the doctor’s demeanor. As if he was uneasy about something.
“So why are you talking with us about it?” Harvey asked. “Shouldn’t you be reporting what you find to Blackstone management?”
“Yes,” Nafal said. “And I have. I filed my report earlier this morning.”
“So what’s the problem?” Harvey pressed.
“The problem is –” Nafal began, and then stopped. He inhaled deeply, looking back and forth between Harvey’s eyes and Gwen’s.
“The problem is that there are numerous things about this autopsy that were anything but routine,” Nafal said. “And I was hoping that the two of you might be able to provide some context about the conditions that you found it in.”
Harvey looked intently at Nafal for a moment, and then leaned back in his chair. He looked over at Gwen and she returned the look, both with puzzled faces.
“Well,” Harvey began, still looking at Gwen. “It was at the bottom of a shallow crevasse, maybe twenty meters down.”
He returned his gaze to Nafal. “It was buried in dust,” he continued.
Nafal was nodding his head, focused on Harvey. “Was there anything else down in that crevasse? Anything at all?”
“Just rocks and dust. Nothing else that I could see,” he replied.
“But if there was,” Harvey continued, “chances are I wouldn’t have seen it anyway. Like I said, everything down there was buried. We only noticed the body after blasting the floor with air to expose the bedrock. It was sticking up out of the dust.”
“I understand,” Nafal said. “So there was nothing down there that you’d find around the base? No oxygen canisters? No supplies? Nothing of that sort?”
“No, not that I saw,” Harvey replied, visibly intrigued. “What the hell is going on here, doc?”
Nafal stood up from his desk. He remained standing for several moments, looking down at the floor. His gaze returned to Gwen and he sat back down in his chair, leaning forward on his forearms with his hands clasped together.
“The body arrived in my lab immediately after it was recovered,” Nafal began. “It was frozen solid, so I had to thaw it out – not uncommon for bodies that had been exposed to vacuum for a considerable amount of time. The entire body was covered with a suit of some kind.”
“Like our environment suits?” Harvey asked.
Nafal rocked his head back and forth, unsure of how to respond.
“Well, yes –” he said. “But no, not really.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Gwen cut in.
The doctor switched his gaze from Harvey to Gwen. “It was a suit –” Nafal began, “– and it was skin.”
“What?” Gwen barked incredulously.
“There was a suit, and there was skin,” Nafal said. “But there was no clear separation between the two. I had to cut off a sample and use the EM microscope to get a better look.”
“And?” Harvey asked.
“The two layers were fused,” Nafal said. “But not just stuck together, like with an adhesive. They were fused on a molecular level. They were one. The suit was an extension of the skin.”
Harvey slowly straightened up in his chair, keeping his eyes on Nafal.
“And how the hell does that happen?” Harvey asked.
Harvey could swear he saw a slight smile manifest on the doctor’s face, hardly noticeable, but it was there.
“With medical technology far superior to our own,” he answered.
Harvey was locked on Nafal.
“Like what,” Harvey began, “superior to Blackstone?”
The slight smile was clearly evident now.
“No, Harvey,” Nafal said. “Superior to human medical technology.”
The doctor paused for a moment.
“That is,” Nafal continued, “superior to anything that the medical community is collectively aware of right now. A fusion like this would require an unprecedented degree of tissue manipulation, far more complex than anything that’s ever been done before.”
Gwen and Harvey looked at each other quizzically.
“So what are you saying?” Gwen asked. “Some competitor to Blackstone developed this technology and kept it secret? Could this person have been from another mining operation here on Luna?”
“It’s possible,” he replied. “But highly unlikely.”
“And why is that?” Harvey asked.
“The closest neighboring base is nearly two hundred kilometers away,” Nafal answered.
Gwen and Harvey exchanged another glance and then looked back at the doctor.
“The advanced suit-skin prevented the tissue from completely drying out. Bodies that have a prolonged exposure will ultimately lose all of its moisture to the vacuum. They essentially look like raisins by the time they are found. But that wasn’t the case here,” he explained. “The body was in remarkably good condition.”
“And?” Gwen pressed.
“Your John Doe is male, of Arab descent, and was roughly thirty years of age at his time of death,” Nafal stated. “His skin was completely riddled with scar tissue. Large lesions that probably resulted from some infection, and had later healed.”
Harvey scratched his scalp.
“So I ran a test,” Nafal continued. “Mycobacterium lepromatosis. An infectious bacteria that causes Leprosy,” Nafal said.
“Leprosy?” Gwen chimed in. “As in, the Biblical plague?”
“The very same,” Nafal said. “The test uncovered a particular strain that has only been confirmed in one other human body on record. I had to search the database to find it.”
Nafal looked at Harvey and then back at Gwen.
“In the mummified body of an Egyptian Pharaoh,” he answered.