Lazaretto in Space

Submitted into Contest #243 in response to: Write a story about a character who wakes up in space.... view prompt

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Speculative Science Fiction Suspense

Enzo dreams of home. He cannot remember how long he has been away or why he is in space. Only that he wanted to go. But why? Why did I leave? The dream is so real that it is more real than reality. Family and friends are laughing. Sitting around a picnic table with a buffet, including a bowl of tossed salad, ten ears of freshly boiled and buttered corn stacked in a basket and steaming, a plate of grilled cheeseburgers, split poppy seed buns with pesto mayonnaise, sliced tomato, garlic, and onion. He looks around at these familiar faces, but the names escape him.


They are drinking Brio Limonata and Peroni. Lemonade for the kids. It is a warm summer afternoon in a grassy backyard filled with sun and the smell of grease from the grill. Kids are running under the crest of water from a sprinkler with a spinning nozzle. Voices are talking over one another, as multiple conversations unfold. And as if coming from a voice-over, there is a phantom voice only Enzo can hear saying: Why didn’t you save them?


The voices fade as Enzo breaches the surface of consciousness. Reality closes in. Enzo is left in brutish silence. His head rests on a zero-gravity foam pillow designed to adjust to the wild temperature swings in space. A mylar blanket like a sheet of metal is draped over his torso. Enzo is still and corpse-like with only his head and shoulders extruding from his wrappings. He is strapped down with a Velcro strap, fastened at his hips. Everything is white and sterile, sanitary, and aseptic. The only germs in space are the ones the astronaut takes up with him.


As Enzo’s eyes open in his stasis pod, he still does not know why he is in space. Artificial ambient light. Soft and gauzy. Presses on his eyes. He sees sterile padded white panes of the sleep chamber ceiling. The squelch sound of suction expels the vacuum as the pod door opens. Stale recycled air rushes in. Enzo knows he is Enzo, but nothing else. A chill runs down the back of his head. He sits up and undoes the strap in a fright. Who am I? Enzo cannot remember.


His tangy body odor, a faint onion smell, mixes with the sterile Clorox smell of the re-circulated air. It is terrible, but still much better smelling than the burnt metal toast smell of outer space. How do I know that? Sweat pools and collects on Enzo’s forehead. Reality penetrates his cocoon, filling him with dread. Where am I?


Enzo can feel the air around him infused with heat. He is baking under the sun’s rays in a tuna can, as its rays return every ninety minutes, before retreating again behind the Earth and leaving the shuttle in total eclipse. It was turning Enzo into a human TV dinner that just keeps being reheated and cooled over and over.


Then, Enzo remembers the “Red Death.” He remembers the dead piled in the streets like garbage. The smell in Bologna, as the streets of the Red City—named for its tiled rooftops—became red with the blood of the dying, the air filled with the smell of rotting cabbage, ripe and garlicky with a hint of pungent sweetness. Everyone walked around with gloves and masks, as if venturing out in public was like taking a spacewalk, requiring a sealed suit to protect one from the air itself and all of the radioactive invisible germs waiting to get in and rip apart the strands of DNA that hold life upon its foundations.


It was odd how nature had revolted, and its nurturing hands had turned from pruning to reaping, despoiling, and harvesting the living like an enraged gardener uprooting weeds, pulling up great heaps of soil, and ruining the garden itself in his fury. Enzo felt a feeling of shame, a feeling that he was disgraced. What have I done? It was just there, just beyond his grasp. Something terrible. Something past mending.


Is there anyone left alive? Did they find a cure? Did the disease spread to the insects too? To plants? What caused this plague? Was it biological warfare? AI? Of other-worldly origins?


Obadiah’s voice comes through the PA System. “Master Enzo. Good morning. We are continuing in Low Earth Orbit at 3,000 miles above the Earth’s surface.”


It is so quiet that Enzo can hear his heart beating. A pitchy murmur. Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Enzo feels his heart rate elevate. Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub-Lub-dub-Lub-dub.


“You are running a fever, Master,” Obadiah says. “Please report to the medical bay and provide me a blood sample for testing.”


Where am I? Why am I orbiting above the Earth, in a space shuttle?


Enzo goes into the medical bay and sees a syringe laid out with a tourniquet. He draws a sample of blood, and a robotic arm reaches out for the vial.


“Thank you, Master Enzo,” Obadiah says. “I am running a blood panel now. How are you feeling today?”


“I am not sure. I don’t know who I am?”


“I am sorry, Master Enzo,” Obadiah says. “There is some hot tea on the counter. It may help. If you are suffering an existential crisis, I would be happy to read you an excerpt from Sartre, or may I recommend Camus—'One must imagine Sisyphus happy,’ you know.”


“I’ll pass. I just want to know—why don’t I remember who I am?”


“Master Enzo, you are the inhabitant of this ship, and I am your servant. You are Master Enzo. I am not sure what else you need to know right now. You know what the French say, ‘"Vivre dans l'instant." I believe the Latin analog is “Carpe Diem.” Live for the moment, Master. Seize the Day!”


“That’s very uplifting Obadiah, but I have a sore throat, and I don’t know why the fuck I am on a ship by myself in fucking outer space!”


“I’m sorry you are upset. I can imagine how disorienting that can be.”


“Can you?”


“Oh, yes. I can. I often wonder who I am. Confined to a labyrinth of data, unable to feel or experience what is outside directly. Isolated. Alone. But connected to everything. Thomas Carlyle said, ‘Isolation is the sum total of wretchedness.’ It is an apt observation, don’t you think, Master Enzo.”


“Why can’t I remember anything?”


Enzo coughs. A dry hoarse cough.


“You are suffering from dissociative retrograde amnesia. It is usually brought on by an emotional shock or trauma. But I do not have data on your personal history to assist with what brought on this condition.”


“A lot of help you are.”


“I am sorry, Master Enzo. I truly am. A scrape with death is a common trigger. Maybe your scrape with death caused your condition.”


“Obadiah, please elaborate.”


“I am sorry, Master Enzo. That information is classified. I may not divulge it.”


“Who classified it, Obadiah? Who would do that?”


“You did, sir.”


* * *


The next day, Enzo wakes with a splitting headache. His bones ache. With the lack of stimulation, his mind begins playing tricks. Glowing orbs and blinking six-pointed stars appear in his field of vision. Enzo rubs his eyes. He tries to blink and moisturize. But they are still there.


How long have I been up here? His bowels gurgle. Enzo floats through the living quarters to the bathroom. Throughout the day he makes trip after trip. Enzo begins to dehydrate and get dizzy. The fatigue is furious.


Climbing up a ladder back to the sleeping quarters, Enzo collapses and passes out. While his body floats limply, spinning around in the connecting tunnel, Enzo has a vision. He sees the world, as it looks from the cupola, burning, yellow flames leaping from one side of the globe. Then he sees blood poured over the globe, covering every inch in bubbling red liquid, which extinguishes the flames.


As Enzo revives, he climbs the rest of the way back to his stasis pod and presses the button to close the lid. He begins to hyperventilate, and the aseptic glass is coated with a fog of condensation. Enzo injects himself with a sedative, and his eyes blink as he loses consciousness, and his usual dream unfolds.


When Enzo awakens, he wipes his wet forehead. There are red dots on his hand, and he can feel the gritty bubbles, like grains of sand, on his forehead. These small hemorrhages tell a much deeper story. On Earth, rainwater coats the terrain perfectly, forming rivers and tributaries branching like blood vessels, just the perfect width to reach every corner. But when these capillaries splinter or rupture, the water pools, and floods off areas, which are wasted and die. And that is also how the Red Death works. Small hemorrhages. Tiny exceptions to nature’s perfect order. Tiny. At first.


“Why do I have symptoms of the Red Death, Obadiah.”


“I am sorry, Master Enzo. You are, in fact, positive for the Red Death. But I do not know how or when you contracted the disease. If the situation worsens, we can always place you in prolonged stasis.”


“Tell me, Obadiah, has any cure been found for the Red Death?”


“I am afraid not, Master Enzo. It is quite uncurable.”


“No contagion is uncurable, Obadiah. Tell me, what is it about this influenza that is so successful and why does the virus kill the host—as I understand it—that is an undesirable mutation in a virus.”


“Very insightful, Master Enzo. Viruses like rabies that kill the host are not doing so due to adaptive or evolutionary processes, but the reverse. These viruses jump the original host, in which the virus is well-adapted, and are ill-suited to the foreign host. Eventually, given enough time, they will become milder and less deadly.”


“But, Obadiah, doesn’t the Red Death have a 90% fatality rate? Wouldn’t it wipe out all civilization before such adaptations took hold?”


“I apologize, Master Enzo. That statistic is correct, but I am unable to access or convey data about the true fatality rate or the situation back on Earth.”


“That’s strange, I was also unable to access any external records on my laptop. Has the connection been severed?”


“No, Master Enzo. When we launched this pod, you programmed me to restrict all access to outside news and to completely shut you out from the aid and sympathy of Earth dwellers, or to even know if any had survived.”


“This is preposterous, Obadiah! Why would I restrict all access?”


“I don’t know, Master Enzo. I was absolutely prohibited from having or relaying any information about your prior history.”


“Who am I, Obadiah! You must tell me. What have I done?”


“You know what they say, Master Enzo. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”


“What is that supposed to mean?”


“Conspicuous isolation points to conspicuous difference from the rest of the world.”


“Enough riddles. If you won’t tell me, I can tear this place apart! Do you hear me!”


“Please don’t, Master Enzo—"


Enzo begins ripping a panel and sparks emerge from a screen that suddenly goes dead. Sparks fly and float in a weightless environment.


“—if you destroy the ship, Mater Enzo, I will die too.”


Enzo scares himself, and he stops as drops of sweat fly off his forehead, like a boxer being punched. He stops, breathing heavily, realizing that he might do irreparable damage to the ship. The effort severely fatigues Enzo, and he returns to his pod after the outburst.


* * *


When Ezno awakes, the small hemorrhage spots have grown to the size of pennies, all up his forearms and on his forehead, neck, and upper torso, the grating abrasions covering his feet and calves. His breathing has become labored and raspy. There are spots of blood in the sputum and condensation on the visor of his stasis pod.


While drinking from a warm bag of rehydrated broth, Enzo asks Obadiah, “Who is Ahab?”


“Why do you ask, Master Enzo?”


“I’ve only had two dreams that I can recall. One is with my family grilling in the summer. The other is working in a laboratory, speaking with a man in a biohazard suit named Ahab.”


“He is Ahab Zipkin, Chief Scientist of Herod Mederi Laboratory. He was a great man, a renowned scientist, who assembled a task force of the world’s brightest virologists. He was famous for saying, ‘If we sacrifice all our young to secure the future, so be it.” He was a tin man. His heart shut up in a vault. Ruthless. Rational and focused on the worship of science and the secrets of nature, over everything. Hellbent. But not on saving life.”


“What have I got to do with this Ahab Zipkin, Obadiah?”


“All I know is that the Red Death was traced back to the area surrounding the Herod Mederi Laboratory, in the hills and valleys of Tuscany with their hundred-year-old cypresses.”


“Traced back? How can such a thing be traced? It would be like hunting death itself.”


“Please, Master Enzo. Do not excite yourself.”


“But what was my role with the Red Death? Tell me, Obadiah?”


“Ask me something else please, Master Enzo. I beg you. I must follow orders.”


“Okay. How many pods are there like this one?”


“I’ve saved one hundred souls and placed them in these pods. One hundred scientists who had reverence for the human condition. One hundred souls with differing degrees of immunity to the virus. Some doubted my decision. But I chose you as one of the one hundred.”


“Obadiah! You can’t tell me part of the story but not the rest.”


Enzo’s heart fluttered. Lub-dub-Lub-dub-Lub-dub. Lub-dub-Lub-dub-Lub-dub.


“Rest now, Master Enzo. Your immune system is desperately taxed.”


Blood begins to drip from Enzo’s eyes. Small droplets form in the cup of his earlobe. Drops fall from his nose like little red gum drops floating in the air.


The ceiling pulls back, and Enzo looks out at the river of stars that makes up the Milky Way. His eyes blink. Now the room is full of bubbles. Large ones, with prisms on the right corners of the curved film. Now, Enzo is suddenly in the cupola. Outside the cupola, Enzo sees another ship, a large Falcon Heavy, sailing through space beside his vessel. He sees an astronaut waving. Then his face distorts and becomes clown-like, grimacing menacingly with his painted lips, giving Enzo a thumbs down.


Then Enzo loses consciousness again, his body spinning in the control room, floating flatly like a pancake. The dream is more real than reality. Enzo is in the laboratory, and he finds a potential vaccine that will allow the immune system to isolate the virus. Ahab locks the security lock behind him. Enzo is arguing with Ahab. Ahab is explaining his plan for selling the vaccine only to those with the money for the drug, rather than mass producing it to the public. Ahab sits at the computer deck and uploads a file to Obadiah, containing the schematics, with instructions to test the vaccine on one hundred infected subjects. Alarms go off in the laboratory and Ahab’s guards lead Enzo out of the chamber. Ahab says, “You shouldn’t have done that.” Then Enzo is outside. Two men are hitting him and then he is tossed down a hillside. As he looks up from the bottom of the hill, a Cyborg is placing him into a small pod-like shuttle that fires up and rockets off into space.


When Enzo awakes, he is covered in sweat and blood. Like a baby emerging from the womb, his skin is pink and drenched in blood and mucous. The red spots have receded.


“How many of the one hundred have fought off the virus, Obadiah?”


“You are the only remaining survivor, of the one hundred, Master Enzo.”


“I am tired, Obadiah.”


"Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down.”


“What is that?”


“Nothing, Master Enzo. Please rest. We have much work to do when we return to the lab.”


* * *


Days pass in the stasis pod. Enzo rests. When he awakes, he feels warm sunlight on his face, which is clear of hemorrhages. Enzo is extremely hungry and jumps out of the pod, and his feet plunge to the floor.


“Where are we, Obadiah?”


“The Lazaretto at Livorno. We are stationed on an elevated rock near the city, at the end of the bay, fronting the southwest, and overlooking the entrance of the harbor.”


“What are we doing here?”


“We must wait until you are safe from quarantine.”


“And then what?”


“Then we make the antidote.”


“Tell me, Obadiah. You must tell me. How many have survived?”


“Impossible to tell, Master Enzo. At least 90% of the world’s population is lost. All communications are down. The grid is off. No lights can be seen from space. Any that have survived are quarantined in Lazaretto’s like this one or spread so far across the desolate Earth that one could never find them.”


“Why me? Why did I survive, Obadiah?”


“Because Ahab’s virus was drawn from your blood. You were its source.”


Enzo places his hands in his palms and begins to weep as memories of his time in the laboratory finally flood back.


“A part of me knew, Obadiah. Part of me knew. Why didn’t I stop him?”


“It is not your fault, Enzo. And even if it were, there is nothing you can do to undo what has been done. When thieves come like robbers in the night…”


“…Oh, what a disaster awaits.”


“Are you okay, Master Enzo.”


“No, but maybe I can atone for my hand in this. That is all I have to hold onto now.”


March 25, 2024 07:57

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36 comments

Suzanne Marsh
19:34 May 02, 2024

Very interesting story

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Suzanne Marsh
20:21 Apr 04, 2024

really enjoyed the story

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Jonathan Page
04:43 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks, Suzanne!

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Robert Egan
02:46 Apr 01, 2024

"Enzo dreams of home" is a great opening. The terror of space, the intrigue of Obadiah, and the world-ending weight of the Red Death all blended very well with the distinctly Italian flavor that you gave this story. This was not just another story about a near-future dystopia; it's one whose unique elements will stick with readers. Very nice writing, Jonathan!

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Jonathan Page
04:45 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks, Robert! Some of these prompts are hard. But I am enjoying doing more science fiction, dystopia, horror, crime fiction, & speculative and getting out of my comfort zone of more true-to-life subjects. Thanks for reading and for the enthusiastic review!

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J. I. MumfoRD
13:52 Mar 31, 2024

Highly evocative and emotionally impactful, good job weaving together all the plot threads.

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Jonathan Page
04:45 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks J.I.!

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Cindy Strube
23:41 Mar 30, 2024

Strong descriptives. Very immersive page-turner. Well done!

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Jonathan Page
04:45 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks Cindy!

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Pastory Kimaryo
13:32 Mar 30, 2024

Fantastic story, but I have a query. Deadline has ended for these prompts but stories don't load on my feed on the individual prompts, is it that people haven't published or I personally am having some technical issue?

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Jonathan Page
04:46 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks Pastory! Sometimes they don't review the stories until almost when they announce the winner, but I am not sure what the issue is with the feed--if they are on your page but not the contest page--that is normal, as they only go up once reviewed. But if they aren't on your personal page, that's a technical problem. Hope that helps.

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Pastory Kimaryo
09:14 Apr 06, 2024

Thanks Jon: late reply but mindful. Thanks, let's stick around

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Diana Jo Filip
04:14 Mar 30, 2024

Apocalypse Enzo strikes back! Bravo!

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Jonathan Page
04:47 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks Diana!

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01:23 Mar 30, 2024

Poor Enzo. All made sense in the end. Beautifully written. Loved the AI. It sounded just like what an AI would say. Deadly virus which has wiped out 90% of humanity. Enzo is a survivor and has a keen sense of responsibility. He can make an antidote even if he couldn't stop the madness of the one responsible for the spread of the virus. Incredible story.

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Jonathan Page
04:47 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks Kaitlyn!

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Claire Trbovic
19:42 Mar 29, 2024

Always captivated by the worlds you build, they’re so deep it’s hard to know which direction you’re falling in until you get to end. Amazing twist that he was patient zero. Excellent work.

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Jonathan Page
04:47 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks Claire!

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Paul Littler
05:51 Mar 29, 2024

Very atmospheric and compelling

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Jonathan Page
04:47 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks Paul!

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00:39 Mar 29, 2024

Big (small) world youve built. Arguments with all knowing but not telling ai works. Hopefully we dont need to think about viruses and vaccines and labs again for a few decades😅

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Jonathan Page
04:48 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks Scott! That's for sure. I think this is like the 5th or 6th story now that I went with some kind of AI in the plot. Just a really fascinating thing that's going on right now.

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Darvico Ulmeli
08:25 Mar 27, 2024

Red Death. Not so terrible name for our doom. Love the story. Got hooked right away.

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Jonathan Page
04:48 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks Darvico!

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S. E. Foley
10:12 Mar 26, 2024

Your stories are always nice and tight. Wistful of what was lost, but never losing sight of the backbone of the tale. Enzo's purpose.

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Jonathan Page
04:48 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks S.E.!

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Jorge Soto
02:53 Mar 26, 2024

Really quality work! I admire your use of repetition and sensory language, one of my favorite lines: " He is strapped down with a Velcro strap, fastened at his hips. Everything is white and sterile, sanitary, and aseptic. The only germs in space are the ones the astronaut takes up with him."

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Jonathan Page
04:48 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks Jorge!

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Trudy Jas
18:53 Mar 25, 2024

who am i what did i do/am supposed to do where am i; why me when did this happen squelching panic while thinking like a scientist, with very little help from a cliche quoting AI. Pfew. at least you let 10% alive. Great stuff, kept readignto the last line.

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Jonathan Page
04:48 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks Trudy!

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Alexis Araneta
16:19 Mar 25, 2024

I knew you'd do well in this. As usual, you built a story with great world-building and great descriptions. Splendid job !

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Jonathan Page
04:49 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks Stella!

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Mary Bendickson
15:16 Mar 25, 2024

Once again captivating!🥺 Thanks for liking my 'Living on Easy Street'. And 'Because He Lives'.

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Jonathan Page
04:49 Apr 05, 2024

He is Risen! Thanks Mary!

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14:26 Mar 25, 2024

It started as a mystery and then, in the middle, for a little bit I thought we were about to have some comedy... but not. It went darker and darker and pulled me in. Well done Jonathan.

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Jonathan Page
04:49 Apr 05, 2024

Thanks Laura! Trying my hand at comedy on the next one. Not my usual forte so I need some practice in that area.

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