Returned

Author : David Blatcher

The withered astronaut had forgotten how to walk. The one fifth gravity on the station was too much for him, so an orderly in a hazard suit dragged him to the chair in the middle of the tiny interview room. The astronaut faced the camera through the Plexiglas window. His right eye was swimming in burst blood vessels and surrounded by scorched and blackened flesh. It could neither close nor see. The murky-white shapeless pupil floated without focus.

After a crackle and a short hiss of static, the intercom spoke. “Name?”

The orderly shook the astronaut’s shoulder. The bearded head lolled forward then jerked upright. The good eye focused on the camera.

“Name?” the intercom asked again.

“Rorksenn. K. Crewman, second class” It was more like a rasping reflex of the throat than conscious answer.

Karl Rorksenn was the fifth and final name on the mining ship’s crew manifest. Missing for nearly a year, the ship had drifted into range and been recovered with this man floating alone in the dark.

The intercom spoke again. “What happened to the ship, Crewman Rorksenn?”

His hands were perched on his knees. The right hand closed into a fist and began to pulse with restless movement of the fingers.

After a long pause, he answered. “Impact.” The word, dredged up from the back of a mind long silent, was spoken without horror or feeling.

“The ship’s log was destroyed, all the records are gone. What happened inside the cabin, crewman?”

“Parts. Parts needed. Stay alive.”

The technical survey corroborated: instruments stripped out, heating and oxygen systems repaired with various components. Somewhere in the twelve months of nothing between the asteroid belt and the station, a flying piece of something had pierced the silence and let in the dark. The crew had nailed together what was left and put the ship back on course for the station. This talking skeleton plastered with clinging skin was all that was left of them.

“What happened to the rest of the crew?”

The seeing eye shut tight, the broken eye glared dead ahead. “Parts. Parts needed. Stay alive.”

A red globule of blood swelled from the corner of his fist. He was bleeding. The small red sphere fell and drifted to the floor. The orderly hurried round the chair and grabbed his wrist. The fingers curled open, revealing a frayed, copper colored mess. The jagged, broken nails had been scratching and digging in the palm until the skin had broken.

“No, crewman: the other people, not the ship. What happened to them?”

“Parts.”

Email from the medical section: initial analysis of the vomit floating in the ship found large quantities of raw meat.

The report was posted back to Earth. AstralCorp mining ship 43 recovered with full cargo. No log recorded. Survey suggests the ship was hit by an unidentified object and badly damaged. Repaired in-flight and put back on return course at below standard velocity. All crew lost. Confirm full pay to be credited to next of kin. Standard commendation.

It took twenty minutes to pump the carbon monoxide level up to ten thousand parts per million. The breathing remains of the cannibal finally slumped off the chair, ready to be sanitized along with his story then returned to earth for burial. The right eye stayed open, a broken, bloodied thing, sightless and silent.

Pressure Vessels

Author : Sarah Rankin Gordon

Fighting his arthritis, Professor Fitzsimmons carefully rolled his stool to the corner of his laboratory. In front of him sat three large sealed coolers. After slicing the duct tape, he pulled out and inspected the first pressure vessel, a specialized piece of oceanographic equipment used to transport living samples taken from high-pressure environments. They allowed microorganisms to survive the trip to the ocean’s surface from extreme depths. After unpacking the first cooler, he discovered that all five vessels in the second cooler had acquired a black, powdery residue. He used the wrinkled handkerchief in his back pocket to wipe them off.

When the building’s toxic gas alarm sounded and blue emergency strobes started flashing, he concluded it was a malfunction…one of many building repairs that the university had deferred. Alarms didn’t impress him; he had survived more than one laboratory fire in his storied career. Agitated by the rhythmic shriek, he took his hearing aids off and tossed them onto the lab bench.

Film crews had filmed man-powered submersibles erupting through the waves as they returned from their mission to collect samples from the deepest point in Earth’s oceans, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, almost 11,000 meters below the surface of the Pacific. Although unable to make such trips anymore, Professor Fitzsimmons’ clout in the field of marine microbiology had afforded him an invitation to study some of the many priceless samples that had taken years of preparation and millions of dollars to obtain.

The professor didn’t hear the team of safety personnel approach his lab, their faces hidden behind full-face respirators, and was angrily startled when they tapped his shoulder and insisted he evacuate the building. Rolling his eyes, he mumbled an international selection of curse words under his breath, but allowed the team to escort him out of the building. Knowing his age, the safety responders didn’t think his sallow complexion peculiar.

Professor Fitzsimmons was the first to enter the building the next morning at half past five. Gone was the yellow caution tape the safety department had strung around the perimeter the night before. Upon entering his lab, he was instantly transported to childhood hunting trips with his father. He hadn’t thought of them in years, but now had a metallic taste in his mouth as if witnessing his father gutting a carcass, the blood forming a dusty puddle on the ground. He spent a considerable amount of time scratching into his lab notebook, capturing several ideas that had come to him in the night, and then strode across the hall to his office.

Although he didn’t remember where he had left his hearing aids the night before, he now enjoyed the sound of distant waves crashing near the coastal campus and seagulls laughing at early morning beach walkers. As he finished sending emails to professional colleagues in Ushuaia, Tokyo, Stockholm and Moscow, Miss Nguyen, the perky administrative assistant for the Marine Biology Department, peeked her head into his office. The professor leapt from his chair and rushed towards her with unexpected speed, popping the dentures out of his mouth as he clashed his teeth together. Embarrassed, she squealed with laughter at his awkward and comical greeting. Her embarrassment turned to panic as he clawed at her eyeballs, blood pouring from her face. The river of blood gurgling into her throat quickly muffled her horrified screams. The screaming ceased when he pried open her scull and savored the taste of her brain.

After a time, Professor Fitzsimmons scrambled out of his office to look for his next meal.

A New World

Author : Andrew Evans

Dane was in a panic. He breathed in a short rhythmic tempo. Cold blue desert surrounded him, as vast as the Sahara and just as deadly. The mercenary’s breath shown in the slight dawn light. The only hope, a small outpost, lay visibly in the distance, painted a warm glow by the suns fiery radiance.

‘It would be a shame to die here, so close, so far from home.’ He thought in dismal desperation.

Somewhere nearby, footsteps in the dunes heightened his sense of panic. Their thud could only come from an animal large enough to be audible as its feet sank in the cushioning sands of Gliese 580 now known by its inhabitants as Adelphus.

‘Keep running.’ Dane’s feet grew heavier as sand filled his boots. ‘This was supposed to be routine.’

He was only alive out of some horrible fluke. His companions had all been taken by these creatures. Perhaps they made camp next to its burrow in the dangerous desert. Surely, nothing this large could live here. Dane’s heartbeats grew louder, his breath even more labored as his muscles screamed in agony. He felt the sting of sweat in his eyes. Only the fear of death kept him going in its dull, aching longing for life.

Dane’s means of protection turned to a chew toy in the clutches of these aberrations. The screams of his fellow mercenaries had woken him in the night. One of the beasts must have spotted him as he escaped. Now he was surely dead.

As he tired, his resolve grew as wide as his pupils and as bright as the sun which now bathed the desert a diluted bloody red. He was on a mission with laser focus.

The colony wall was a few hundred yards away.

He started yelling for help.

His slogging started to slow even as the ground grew more stable.

At last the heat from a large wall mounted laser cut through his pursuer.

He became instantly aware of his weary state through the shear terror of being the prey.

‘Those damn cretons have us surrounded.’

‘What?’ Dane managed.

‘They’re a pack of damn wolves. Migrated from the mountains behind the colony.’

‘Why?’ Dane asked impulsively.

‘Because the road has more prey.’

Dane could take no more. He collapsed into a pillow of sand and dust. Pitch black.

It was dusk before the fluttering sounds of an exhaust fan gradually woke the weary mercenary. A slow swoosh turned to a cantankerous thud.

‘Wolves,’ a dull voice cackled. ‘Right off the new ship and the poor sapling thinks of wolves.’

Winged Splendid

Author : David Henson

Hurry, Trixie, I say to our Yorkie. As she squats behind me, I notice a bright light above the horizon. I figure it must be a freighter coming back from the mines, but something doesn’t look right.

Lilly, I say to my wife, let’s go out back. I want to show you something.

I don’t have time, Tom, Lilly says. I need to go in early today.

Tom?

Hi, I’m Tom. I couldn’t help but notice that book you’re reading.

Nice to meet you, Thomas. I’m Lilly.

Thomas. Lilly’s called me Thomas from the day we met.

Besides, Lilly says, if you want to show me a winged splendid, it’s probably hopped away already. Hopped? Before I can say anything, she gives me a quick kiss and heads for the door. Don’t forget we’re having dinner with Garlund and Judy tonight, she says. Judy’s with Ralph not Garland, I want to say, but I’ve got to get to work.

Tom, Sanders says, float that tote of nails to aisle 12 and shelf them. The hardware store? I haven’t worked there since high school summers. We didn’t even have levitrons then. Backbreaking work on delivery days.

It’s backbreaking, the tough-looking guy tells Jelly Jean. People think mining on another planet is sexy, but it’s hard work. I coulda’ been a reporter like Jelly Jean. Coulda’ been a contender. Even on a planet with lower gravity, the boxer says, an uppercut is still gonna rock your world. Bobbing and weaving. The Washoe were great basket weavers. Can you weave in weightlessness? Jelly Jean asks.

Do you Thomas take Lilly, Thomas take Lilly. “Thomas? Thomas, do you hear me? You’re trapped in our SimReal. It has a virus. Thomas, do you hear me? Focus on my voice, Honey. Thomas? Thomas?” Of course. Virus. Fever. Venus fever. No, Venus blues. No, Mercury blues. Crazy ’bout a Mercury.

Come on Trixie. Time to go out. The light’s closer. The fiery Draco swoops down and lands with a thud. Its breath burns the grass. Trixie dances in a circle behind me. How can I see behind me? No time for that. I pick up the sword and edge toward the beast. I feel wings. Gonna fly now. Watch this, Jelly Jean. “Thomas? Thomas?”

CTFysh Blues

Author : Mark Thomas

The blues singer hung his head, sad and mystified. “But the oscillator confirms perfect pitch.” He looked directly into his band leader’s eyes, and noted a slight dilation in Bob’s pupils, but no sympathy. “Perhaps,” the singer suggested meekly, “if I adjusted the raspiness factor.”

Bob sighed. “Raspiness isn’t the problem, Fysh. You’ve already set it to three unfiltered packs. There’s nowhere else to go.” They both knew what the fundamental problem was. In an age where raw emotion in live musical performance was valued far above technical perfection, highly-skilled entertainment robots were being steadily replaced by human musicians. It was both unfair and inevitable.

“But we’re scheduled to play The Dungeon this Thursday…” Fysh said weakly.

“I’ve already found a replacement.” Bob waved a hand dismissively and the robot picked up his guitar case and shuffled out of the hotel lobby.

Fysh was worried that his girlfriend, Heathen, would be unreasonably disappointed. Her self-esteem was knitted into her association with the successful band. But the robot received a surprisingly sympathetic reaction. “You poor dear,” she said, throwing her white arms around his neck cables. “It’s been coming a long time, though. I’ve seen the little gears turning in Bob’s skull.” She pulled away and hung onto Fysh’s elongated metal fingers. “Everything will work out. You take a shower, and I’ll run out for some coffee, then we’ll have a long talk.” She kissed Fysh on the zygomatic arch.

The robot walked into the bathroom and adjusted nozzles for a wash and light lubrication. He raised his arms and felt jets of hot air penetrate the folds of his carapace. As a silicon mist coated his outer plates and wires, Fysh heard the doorbell.

The robot quickly dressed as he walked towards the apartment entrance. When he pulled the door open, he was surprised to see his landlord standing there with two surly uniformed men. “Come in,” Fysh said.

“Get out,” the landlord said. “You’re being evicted.” He passed a sheaf of papers to the robot who quickly scanned them. A series of dated notices and final warnings were all signed by his girlfriend.

“This is the first I’ve heard of this. I’ve been sending all my money to Heathen while we were on our last tour.”

The three men in the hall laughed loudly. “You sap. That tramp hasn’t paid a nickel since you went on the road. You should have seen what she was up to while you were gone.” The landlord leered unpleasantly.

Fysh glanced around the almost-empty apartment. He hadn’t noticed that most of their personal belongings had been removed. And his guitar was no longer by the door. Heathen must have taken it as she left.

“Ah,” Fysh sighed, accepting the inevitable. “But I have no place to go.”

The landlord shrugged. “You’re a CT model. You can survive outside until you find another place.

“Alright,” Fysh said. He shuffled out of the apartment.

The robot walked aimlessly for hours, and found himself underneath the Coulter street bridge. Homeless men and machines tended to congregate there, near the giant exhaust vent from the obsidian polishing plant. Fysh picked his way through living and synthetic detritus and sat on a blackened fragment of concrete right in front of the massive industrial grill.

As night descended, the sad menagerie powered down. Fysh’s head slumped between his knees as a super-heated current of air was expelled from the tunnel and penetrated the layered sheets and looped cables of the robot’s dorsal quadrant.

A soulful harmonic resonance was created, although no one was awake to hear it.