I staggered out of the whistling, vicious wind into the outpost's antechamber. Leaning heavily against the wall, I used my good arm to punch the button to cycle the lock. With a hydraulic hiss, the outer door closed behind me.
The intercom monitor by the door flickered to life. "Jackson?"
"Sure, it's me. Meet me in the infirmary, I'm injured." I gestured towards my bleeding arm. The monitor flicked off, and the inner door opened with a slight sigh of warm air. Nursing my arm, I made my way through to the unit's modest sickbay.
The doctor and the commander were already there. The commander, drawn and tense, leapt to his feet as soon as I arrived. "What happened, Jackson? Did you damage it? What does it look like?" The doctor gently pushed him aside to get a look at my injury. "Give him a second, Commander Burns, the man is hurt." He rolled back the sleeve to get a good look. "You've really sliced yourself up here, I'm surprised there isn't more blood." I smiled weakly back at him. "There was, Doc. Want me to go back out and fetch some of it?"
"Enough chit-chat," interrupted Commander Burns. "We've lost two men already. Jackson, what happened out there? I need to know what we're dealing with. Did you kill it?"
I sat down heavily in the only chair, and winced as the uncomfortable metal seat reminded me how bruised and battered I was. "I hurt it, Commander," I said. "I don't know that I killed it. I didn't stick around to take its pulse." He frowned. "What did it look like?" I paused to think. "I don't know, really. It was…humanoid, I suppose. But not human. The proportions were all wrong. It came at me from behind. I heard it, I turned and fired, it fell, and I ran. It was really just a shape in the snow, Commander, I'm sorry. You know what it's like out there on this wretched ball of ice."
The doctor caught the commander's expression, glared at him, and gave me an almost paternal pat on the shoulder. "We're just glad you're alright, Jackson, aren't we Commander?" Burns had drifted over to the computer console and was staring at it, deep in thought. "What's that? Oh, yes, of course. Listen, I've had an idea. The thermal imager – we use it to track the lava bursts all over the asteroid, right?"
"That's right," I agreed.
"Well," he replied, "If I change the parameters, I can set it to detect weaker heat sources." He jabbed at the keyboard inexpertly but carefully. "Weaker heat sources like us. And our friend out there, whatever it is."
The doctor frowned. "Not whatever it is. Jackson said it was humanoid, but that doesn't make it human. You've no idea what kind of body temperature it has, or if it has one at all."
Burns didn't really seem to be listening. "Human, humanoid, humanlike, whatever." His alterations finished, he punched the program onto the display. A map of the outpost appeared on the screen. The commander flashed a nervous grin. "You see?" He pointed at where the map showed the infirmary. "Three heat sources. Us. Now, let's see what's out there." He tapped a few more keys and the map flicked away, to be replaced with a larger area map, with the outpost in the centre. He sat and stared at the screen for several seconds in silence.
The doctor peered over his shoulder. "Nothing. You see? This is pointless, Commander, we know too little about what we're looking for. We're safe in here, anyway. All the attacks took place outdoors."
Burns was still staring at the screen. Again, I sensed that he'd hardly heard the doctor. Suddenly, without warning, the commander bolted for the door. We heard him race off through the compound. The doctor and I exchanged a surprised look, and set off after him. We arrived at the outpost's exit just in time to see him sealing the antechamber's inner door.
I hit the intercom button. The commander's image appeared on the screen next to the door and I could see him hastily putting on an environment suit. He looked panicked, crazed even. "What are you doing, Commander?" I demanded.
He looked up at the camera. "Don't you see? If it's not out there, it's in here. Must be some kind of... shapeshifter, I don't know. It's one of you. It's sure as hell not me, anyway, and I'm not sticking around to find out which one of you is going to tear my guts out. Don't try to follow me, I'm using the command override." He typed a passcode into the door panel and the red 'locked' indicator came on over our side of the door.
The doctor stepped up to the panel. "Commander... Jim... this is crazy. Shapeshifting monsters? You can't go out there, Jim, you can see the sun's gone down. You'll freeze in minutes, with or without your suit. Come back inside and we can talk about this."
Burns didn't even answer. There was a slight clunk as the outer door opened, and he vanished into the snow.
I pushed the door release, but nothing happened. "It's useless, you know," the doctor said. "We can't override his command codes. He'll die out there, there's nothing we can do."
We headed back to the infirmary to check the thermo-imaging program. The commander's heat spot was clearly visible. He was heading away from the compound, but the red smudge of his heat signature was already fading in the freezing asteroid night. Silently, we watched as the red turned to orange, the orange to yellow. Eventually he faded out altogether.
"Shapeshifting demons," muttered the doctor. "Silly old fool."
I looked at him. "When does the relief ship arrive, Doctor?" He was still lost in thought as he replied. "Two days from now, you know that." He sighed and turned away. "We can survive in here until then."
I didn't answer, because I was concentrating. With a sigh, I abandoned my disguise of the dead human Jackson, and reverted to my natural form. I lunged, and the doctor never saw what hit him.
I can wait two days.
A homage to the short stories I loved as a kid. More about this here.