To quote Loren Eaton from a couple years ago, “Advent Ghosts seeks to recreate the classic British tradition of swapping spooky stories at Yuletide. However, instead of penning longer pieces, we post bite-sized pieces of flash fiction for everyone to enjoy.”
Loren has been hosting Advent Ghosts for I dunno how long, but I’ve been participating for a handful of years. It’s one of my favourite holiday traditions. Officially, we’re suppose to write and share drabbles–stories that are exactly 100 words long–to date I have never done this. My stories have varied in length over the years but this one is probably the longest yet at about 1,700 words long. It’s also the first story I’ve ever written that was set in space, or on a spaceship. That was pretty intimidating, I won’t lie–I really like it though, so I hope you will too 🙂 This story does contain sexual violence however, so consider yourself forewarned before reading…
As Christmas feasts went, it wasn’t much —an MRE, dried fruit and instant coffee—but it was the best she could do given the circumstances. She wasn’t supposed to be in orbit—she and her crew were supposed to have returned to Earth weeks ago so she was lucky there was any food left at all. What was that saying? No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy? Well, no space mission ever survives leaving orbit.
They’d been on their way back to Earth when NASA spotted the debris field. If nothing was done the edge of it would come in contact with Earth and the results planetside would be catastrophic. The ISS was useless in situations like this—they only kept it operational as a floating museum of space exploration so Bethlehem would have to delay their return home, at least for long enough to set up a laser grid.
It wasn’t a difficult job—or it shouldn’t have been—but the whole thing turned into a farce of unbelievable proportions. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. First the shielding on the communications system had failed leaving it exposed to any cosmic rays that happened to come along. And apparently they did because it began to malfunction almost immediately, garbling their messages so much that the data they were getting back from Earth became completely unreliable.
Unable to get the information they needed to deploy the laser grid necessitated a EVA. It was Helen’s turn in the rotation but her preparations turned up a leaky air hose in her suit. They didn’t have time to repair it and since suits were custom fit she couldn’t just use another…
Helen glanced up at the digital clock on the wall—20:16. She had four more minutes before the ship’s rotation would swing back around and let her see the star—her star. The star shouldn’t exist, wouldn’t exist if Captain Monsef hadn’t done the walk in her place, but he had. And he’d died.
With communications down they hadn’t even seen it coming.
Helen had been on the bridge with D.J. when it happened. She saw the whole thing, saw it over and over again whenever she closed her eyes. A scout, a bit of debris that was ahead of the rest, had come out of the black, spinning and twirling like a dreidel. Helen watched it sideswipe the captain, snapping his umbilical to the ship and saw his face as he zoomed by—stiff-jawed and stoic. He knew he was doomed. Maybe he knew, even then, that they all were, but he wasn’t going to die kicking and screaming. That wasn’t his way.
She didn’t see the captain and the boulder tear through Shuttle One. Not with her eyes, anyway. She did see the control panel light up like a Christmas tree as every klaxon on the ship began to scream.
D.J. elbowed her out of the way and began pushing buttons seemingly at random.
“What are you doing?” She’d tried to stay calm—men tended not to listen if she raised her voice. “D.J. what are you—”
D.J. wasn’t even qualified to be on Bethlehem—he’d won some sort of social media contest or something and his inclusion in the ship was his prize—a PR stunt for the space program. Certainly no one had expected him to do anything.
He launched Shuttle One before she could stop him. In his defense, launching Shuttle One was the ship’s suggested protocol to deal with the hole the captain and the asteroid had punched through its hull opening them up to space. An experienced astronaut, however, would have just closed off that section and tried to find a way to save the shuttle and the captain.
She’d shoved D.J. out of the way just as Ramirez entered the bridge. In retrospect, that was probably when D.J. started hating her—the moment another man saw her overpower him and watched her try to correct his mistakes.
By the time the other four crew members had joined them on the bridge she’d stabilized things to the point the sirens had stopped wailing and she’d deployed the laser grid based on the last good coordinates they’d received from Earth before everything went to shit.
Unfortunately it was too late.
The grid did its job. Mostly.
Bethlehem hid beneath its cover and watched it obliterate the debris that passed through it, reducing it to sizes that would burn up in the atmosphere. The grid wasn’t perfect though and a few pieces slipped by on the edges. Helen and the crew could do nothing but watch and hope the Earth-based defenses could take them out.
Helen took another bite of leathery apple and looked at the clock again. Two minutes. Two minutes until she’d see her star once more. She and the star were orbiting around each other so she only got to see it every fourteen hours and then only for a few minutes.
Difficult decisions had needed to be made. They couldn’t land Bethlehem without comms—they needed to be in touch with ground control. Bethlehem had a nuclear reactor and any failed landing that resulted in a crash could cause a chain reaction that would endanger innumerable people planetside.
The remaining shuttle was operation and small enough that if it crashed it would only kill its passengers but there were seven people on Bethlehem and the shuttle was only designed to fit four. It was possible they could cram five in, but not seven. And they couldn’t just leave Bethlehem unattended in orbit, either.
And so they’d drawn straws. Well, everyone but Helen had. She’d volunteered to stay aboard—she’d been Monsef’s second-in-command so his death meant she was captain now and the captain goes down with their ship. But someone had to stay behind with her.
D.J. was chosen.
Helen suspected the process was rigged, that the rest of the crew was punishing him. Or her. Her cool competence had not earned her any friends on board, and more than once she’d heard them refer to her as a bitch. So maybe D.J. had been left behind as a punishment, maybe it was a message to her, or maybe it was just dumb luck. Whatever the reason it had signed his death certificate.
The shuttle launched without ceremony and then there was nothing Helen and D.J. could do but wait and hope it landed safely. Hope the crew sent up help. Hope rescue came before the food ran out…
Actually, that wasn’t all there was to do. D.J. found another thing—another two things, actually. The first was drinking.
He’d tracked down every liquid with any alcohol content whatsoever, including Smith’s potato homebrew, and spent more time than not totally hammered.
His hair stuck up in all directions, his face was flushed an odd orange colour and he pushed his mouth into a shape that resembled nothing more than an asshole. It might have been comical if not for what came next.
She’d been passing him in the hall on one of her many trips between her quarters and the bridge when he’d slurred something incoherent and groped her, obscenely cupping her crotch.
Shocked, she hadn’t reacted for several full seconds and then, when she did, it was in an explosion of energy. She slapped him hard across the face and pushed away. In the low gravity of the passageway that was enough to send him careening into the doorway of Ramirez’s quarters. The door irised open, D.J. floated through it, and it closed behind him while Helen propelled herself to the bridge.
There, gravity still reigned allowing her to stomp around with much more satisfaction than was possible in the living quarters. How dare he? If she ever saw him again it would be too soon.
Sadly, only a couple hours later he joined her on the bridge. He was leaning against a wall and blathering. He wasn’t making any sense, just rambling randomly about everything and nothing at all. When Helen started to turn her back on him he snatched a femur-sized wrench from where it was Velcroed to the wall and smacked her across the back of the head with it.
Helen reached behind her, felt the fist-sized lump that was still there and winced. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only place he’d injured her. She’d woken up striped to the waist with him grunting over her, his hand pawing at her breast, his putrid breath washing over her.
She tried to push him off but this time she couldn’t overpower him. He had gravity on his side, superior size, and wasn’t struggling just to remain conscious. Then, her searching hand landed on the wrench he’d struck her with, now forgotten on the floor. She closed her fingers around it and cracked him across the side of the head as hard as she could.
Then it was his turn to be unconscious. And when he woke it wasn’t in the bridge like she had. Oh, hell no. Even the brig was too good for him.
“A tragic accident,” she’d said into the intercom when the cameras showed her he was awake and aware of his predicament. “Just horrible. He must have had too much to drink and stumbled into the airlock…”
No one would believe that story, of course. Too many security protocols had to be overridden for that to be plausible, but Helen didn’t care. Help wasn’t coming from Earth. It had been two weeks now, if someone was coming they would have arrived already. Or signaled. Or something.
Maybe the shuttle had crashed on its way down. Maybe the debris that had slipped past the net had taken out the fleet. Maybe it had taken out the world. If it hadn’t, history would someday show that she, Helen Rosemary Carver, had gone down with her ship… after ridding it of a rat.
For now though, she glanced at the clock, in five, four, three, two—there he was.
He’d only been out there for a couple cycles but space was already working its magic on him—freeze-drying his corpse, turning him into a space mummy. He would never rot, but stay up here—a desiccated lump, arms and legs splayed like a starfish with a scream frozen on his face.
She watched him, the star she’d created. Even now when all hope for her, maybe even all hope for mankind, was lost, watching him sit and spin could still make her smile.
You can read all the other Advent Ghost stories on Loren’s blog — 2016 Advent Ghosts.