Author: Bill Cox

“And so, we commit their earthly remains to the vastness of space and we ask and pray that their brave souls be granted the peace and tranquillity that they so richly deserve. Amen.”

The two astronauts, standing in the open airlock, pushed the sealed body-bags out into space. Captain Jennings and the rest of the crew, standing on the bridge in solemn silence, watched events on one of the ship’s monitors.

Jennings turned to face the small video camera held by Patterson.

“And now, myself and the crew need some time alone to mourn the loss of our colleagues, our friends,” he said. “This is Neriene One, signing off.”

Jennings continued to stare at the camera, a dignified look etched on his face, until Patterson confirmed “That’s the live-stream cut. We’re clear!”

Letting out a deep breath, Jennings crumpled into a nearby seat. For a moment he looked so old and tired, but then he sat up straight and recovered his air of authority.

“Jim, make sure Imran and Cheryl get in safely,” he ordered, “We can’t afford any more losses at this point.”

“Roger that!” mumbled Jim Patterson. He headed off down the corridor towards the aft airlock.

Jennings turned to Danielle Brooks, the ship’s doctor.

“Danny, do you know what you have to do?”

“Yes,” she sighed, “Mission Control’s briefing was quite comprehensive. I should have no physical problem doing what’s needed. I’ve done autopsies before. This won’t be much different.”

“And emotionally?” Jennings asked, “I know you and Stephen were close.”

Danny grimaced.

“Nothing that ten years of therapy won’t sort out once we get home!”

“Okay. Are you sure you don’t need any help?”

Danny shook her head, slowly, deliberately.

“If I do it myself, then that’s less trauma for everyone else to deal with. Anyway, in space, no-one can hear you retch!”

Jennings gave a tight smile in response.

Danny moved off and Jennings took a moment out to centre himself. Three months ago he’d made history as the first human to set foot on Mars. The mission had gone flawlessly and they were now two months into their return voyage. It seemed that all they had to do was coast home and pick up their medals.

The meteor shower had other ideas. Little pieces of rock, small enough to sit in the palm of your hand. Twenty-four hours ago they’d cut through the ship like a hail of bullets. Four dead crew. A tragedy, but survivable. The damage to the greenhouse and their food stores though – that was a catastrophe.

Their return journey would take five months. Even with a reduced crew on starvation rations, they now only had food for three months. The ship would return to Earth orbit as their mausoleum.

Then some ghoul at Mission Control came up with an idea. From a movie, of all places. It would still be tight, but the extra protein should ensure their survival. Jennings watched the monitor, still tracking the fading body-bags. The body-bags filled with the ship’s trash. Mission Control was clear. No one would ever know. The whole thing would be classified Top Secret.

They would start with their next meal. Just a little, to get them ‘psychologically acclimatised’ to the idea as quickly as possible. Jennings hated the whole situation, but their very survival was at stake. He shook his head in disgust. What sort of idiot comes up with an idea like this? What kind of sick individual would watch a movie called “Attack of the Martian Cannibals” anyway?