Whitman had been prepared for the mission to fail, but was genuinely surprised to find it was a good old fashioned mechanical issue that did it. He had been watching his crewmate, Hughes, going slowly insane on the long flight to Mars - talking to himself, telling jokes that made no sense at all. Whitman had imagined this behavior becoming more and more pronounced until something happened that would compromise them, but when the drive failed and tore itself out of the ship Hughes had acted quickly, rationally, and skillfully. He had saved them both.
"I'm going to put you under," Hughes said with impressive calm, "while I bandage your leg. You've got a big chunk of our ride home in it. I'll get that done as fast as I can, then I'll figure out what kind of shape we're in, okay?"
Whitman nodded, and the darkness of space rushed in on him.
He drifted through a haze of painkillers and jumbled nightmares. He was aware only of short flashes and couldn't tell which - if any - were real. He saw Hughes rushing back and forth with equipment, heard strange howls like a wild animal, sat mesmerized by drops of his blood floating in the air before him. He lost all sense of time, though he could tell it had been several hours at least when he finally awoke.
Hughes was clinging to the main corridor hatch, a bandage across his face.
"What the hell happened to you?" Whitman asked, still trying to wake up fully. Hughes felt at the blood-soaked gauze as if surprised at its presence, and Whitman realized he had a sort of stunned look to him that hadn't been there right after the accident.
"Oh, this. I wasn't quite fast enough. It's just a scratch though. It could have been worse, it nearly bit my arm off."
A cold shiver ran up Whitman's spine. "What do you mean, it nearly bit your arm off? Did you... did you get caught in some machinery?"
Hughes shrugged. "I guess you were still asleep when it came in. It ate through our supplies, and then when it saw me it just attacked. Its teeth are huge. Just huge."
It was as he had feared; Hughes had lost his mind. Whitman was about to ask about the status of the ship in the hopes that he could get onto a safer subject when a howl echoed through the room from somewhere behind Hughes. He told himself it was just a mechanical sound but he knew better; nothing on the ship could make that kind of noise.
"What... what was that?"
Hughes cocked his head to the side. "I don't know what it is. An alien, I guess.
"The rest of the ship is sealed up now; I got that much done. The life support is damaged though; I can fix it if I can get to the access panel, but... well, you know. Monster." He says it calmly, like apologizing for bad weather. I'm still trying to think of another explanation when something starts banging on the hatch, scraping across the metal. I feel like a little kid again, I want to hide under my covers until it goes away. Hughes looks almost pleased.
"Good! It seems to be pacing back and forth, I timed it while you were still out. It should be over towards the engines in about a minute, so if I go right then I can make it to the rear hatch and seal it up so we can work on getting the life support online."
Whitman just stared at him.
"Don't worry, Whitman. I'll handle it. I don't want you messing up your leg again after I did such a nice job on it. If I don't make it, though... well, you'll have to choose whether you want to run out of oxygen or risk the monster."
Hughes slowly disengaged the lock on the hatch, and nodded to Whitman.
It happened too fast for Whitman to even really process; Hughes ducked out and slammed the hatch shut behind him and almost immediately there was another howl. The hatch started to open and Huges' arms reached in as he yelled incoherently. For just a moment his face was visible, eyes as big as dinner plates, before he vanished entirely and the hatch swung shut. Whitman could hear screaming for a second before the ship became silent once more - the only sound his rapid breathing.
He drifted to the hatch and waited what felt like forever, but there was no scratching, no howling. Nothing. Whitman looked around for a weapon but there was nothing he could use. He had no other options left, and he refused to die in fear. He burst through the door and was greeted with nothing but the empty access chute. Blood was smeared down its entire length, and a single glove from Huges' suit drifted in front of him, one finger torn off. Slowly, cautiously, he pulled himself towards the branch that leads to the life support controls. He neared the turn, and could feel his every muscle locking up in terror. Now or never, he told himself - and turned the corner.
Whitman stared, confused. Huges was unharmed, blood cleaned from his face. He was holding a candy bar out, and smiling like a madman. "Congratulations! You did it! You faced your fears and braved the unknown... and now you get a candy bar!"
"I don't... I don't understand."
"It was a prank! Oh, and you should have seen your face! Priceless! 'Oh, no, the alien is eating Hughes!' it was wonderful!"
Whitman felt lightheaded. "It was all a trick?"
"Crazy, right? I barely got all the snarling sounds and stuff recorded before you woke up. The blood was mostly yours, though I did cut myself when I was rigging up that motor to scrape on the door." Hughes let out a contented sigh. "Man... That was the coolest thing ever."
"So... but... the part about the ship's life support?"
"What?" Hughes asked. "Oh, that! No, no... that's shot to hell. We've got about three hours."