The ISS floated in the inky blackness of space like a metal cocoon, housing its crew of six scientists from around the globe.
Inside, Dr. Sophia Delgado floated through the lab module, running her fingers along the cold metal walls. After six months in zero-G, she still hadn’t gotten used to the surreal sensation of weightlessness.
“Just completed it,” Sophia said. “But we seem to be missing a few of the rarer specimens. I’ve searched the entire lab module twice and can’t find them anywhere.”
Emeka sighed, a burst of static in her ear. “Another theft. This is the third one this month.” His usually calm demeanor had sharpened into frustration. “We need those samples to study how long-term space exposure impacts their composition. They’re irreplaceable.”
Sophia bit her lip, her stomach churning. She hadn’t wanted to believe the implications of the thefts, but there seemed to be only one explanation: they had a saboteur aboard the ISS.
But who among them would steal priceless research specimens and risk the mission’s success? After six months isolated in close quarters, tensions had emerged in the crew, but nothing to suggest outright sabotage.
She peered out the cupola at the vastness of space, searching for answers in the stars. Somewhere out there lurked a threat they hadn’t anticipated, one that had slipped through the cracks of their diversity and now threatened to fracture the unity they had built. They would have to work together to overcome this new challenge, like they had so many others. But Sophia feared this might be the one that broke them.
Sophia shook off her doubts and steadied her breathing. No, she wouldn’t accept defeat so easily. There had to be an explanation, and she was determined to find it.
Sophia floated into the lab module, where the rest of the crew had already gathered to examine the evidence. Her eyes landed on the vault, its thick door left slightly ajar.
“The thief used the access panel to disable the vault’s locks before prying it open,” Wei said, scrutinizing the door. His brow furrowed as he traced the scratches left by a tool wedged into the narrow seam. “They were careful not to damage the contents, but not careful enough to avoid leaving behind clues.”
“Like what?” Sophia asked, drifting closer to get a better look.
Wei pointed to a few strands of frayed wiring and metal filings scattered on the floor. “They were in a hurry and got sloppy. I found traces of metal and coolant residue that could indicate the tool was designed for precision work.”
“So we’re likely dealing with someone highly skilled with mechanical systems,” Viktor said, arms crossed as he floated in thoughtful consideration. “That rules out some of us.” His gaze flickered to Sophia for a brief second before moving on.
She gritted her teeth against the subtle accusation but said nothing. Now was not the time to get defensive.
“There’s more,” Wei continued. “I detected faint impressions in the vault’s interior from the thief’s gloves. They were wearing insulated gloves, not the standard gloves we all use. And here—” He pulled a strand of hair from where it had snagged on the vault door. “—blonde hair. None of us have blonde hair.”
A chill ran down Sophia’s spine. There was only one logical conclusion, as implausible as it seemed: they were not alone.
“It’s impossible,” Emeka said, voicing Sophia’s own thoughts. “No one could have stowed away without our knowledge. We have systems to detect unauthorized personnel.”
“And yet all evidence points to that conclusion,” Viktor replied. His eyes met Sophia’s, unspoken understanding passing between them. They had a stowaway—or something else. Something not quite human.