Culture / October 13, 2010
By Jared Vaillancourt [creative writing bureau chief]
Kevin jumped at the voice, looking around the cramped compartment. It was difficult to move in his EV suit, especially with the bodies of his fellow crew brushing up against him.
He shoved the bodies away, finding that he no longer winced at the way they lifelessly bobbed against the walls in zero gee. In the small radiation safe room, it wasn’t long before he had to shove them away again.
“Who’s there?” Kevin clicked his microphone as he switched on his helmet lights and peered into the mess of broken debris and frozen blood. “Who else is alive?”
“You know the answer to that, Kevin.”
He closed his eyes. The Prometheus was drifting into the sun, its five-mile hull spinning like water caught in a drain. Four hundred and sixty-seven crew personnel and over three thousand civilians had all perished on what was supposed to be a standard solar slingshot on their way to Mars.
“I… the radiation,” Kevin realized. “I’m hearing things.” He chuckled and checked his heads-up display. Sure enough, the safe room was leaking; this close to the sun, it didn’t matter what kind of shielding the Prometheus possessed. The outer hull was surely melting by now.
He exhaled. The ship had collided with a comet on approach to the sun. The little ball of ice hadn’t been visible until just a few seconds before it struck the hull, the long flare of its tail forming as both ship and comet hit the sun’s corona at the same time. Like a bullet through tissue, the comet had torn straight through the ship’s habitation ring, immediately killing half the crew and exposing the civilian population to the vacuum of space.
“Oh, dear God!” Kevin shouted as his eyes opened wide, sweat beading on his forehead as he fought to keep images of the dying people out of his head. “No,” he grunted as he closed his eyes. “Don’t scream, please don’t scream!” he shouted at no one. “The air… there’s no air for you to scream,” he said calmly as he opened his eyes. Everything around him was blurry. “Please, stop screaming…”
“I hear you, Kevin.”
He tensed and groped for his hip, searching frantically for his scanner. Logic ran like coolant through the engine of his mind; there had to be another survivor. The voice was so clear and crisp, and the radiation wasn’t nearly lethal levels yet. He somehow managed to miss the point that if the radiation getting into the safe room were on the rise, there soon wouldn’t be a safe room to be in.
“Who else is there?” he demanded. “Answer me!” he screamed as he tossed his broken scanner, not noticing it shatter against the nearest corpse as the motion sent him spinning. “Show yourself!” he shouted as he grabbed blindly into the blur, finally wedging himself against the body of a midshipman and a pressure valve. He cried out and curled up, allowing the body to drift.
“Kevin. Do not be afraid.”
He did not look up. Something brushed up against his EV suit, gently suggesting him against the bulkhead. He sobbed as his radiation monitor began to beep in warning. The heat sensor had already begun screaming at him. He allowed both alarms to fade to a dim trilling in the back of his head.
“I did nothing,” Kevin confessed to the force holding him against the wall. “I could have saved some of them. I could have saved… uh…” he opened his eyes and stared through his fogged visor at the bloodstains on his knees. “Her,” he decided, the name of the woman he witnessed suffocating as she scrambled for an EV suit escaping him.
“I could have saved her. She was so close.” He closed his eyes as the unbearable image of her expiring welled up. “I could have helped, but I did nothing.”
“She forgives you, Kevin.”
“I’d like to believe that,” Kevin replied, scoffing as he realized he was talking to a voice that was very probably in his head. “I never wanted this assignment. I wanted to serve on a warship. I wanted to be an officer.” He smiled as an image of the Intrepid, Earth’s first interplanetary warship, gently replaced the horror of that woman’s death in his mind. The Intrepid had been such a beautiful sight, glowing in the night sky like an angel, with vibrant platinum wings as gentle as they were deadly. He frowned.
“How did I get here? Why the hell did I transfer to a colony ship?” Something gently brushed up against his other shoulder, pressing with reassuring warmth.
“You are where you need to be, Kevin.”
He smiled and closed his eyes, allowing stray tears to gently lift from his face to splatter against his fogged visor. The bulkheads had begun to sizzle as the ship melted around the safe room. His radiation alarm was a solid red, bathing everything in a lethal glow. Exposed flesh boiled around him.
“Who’s out there?” he asked again. He saw one of the bodies drifting before him, the helmet a broken and bloody mess missing its visor. Underneath, the dead face of some woman stared blankly at him, her flesh beginning to bubble and char. She smiled at him.
“You know who I am.” She said. Kevin watched as her face melted away. He blinked.
“I…” he said softly, ignoring his EV suit as it began to sizzle and crackle. He alarms melted away as specks of light began to bleed through the safe room bulkheads. He smiled. “I know you.” The empty EV suit before him reached out its arm, offering its glove. He took it into his hand.
“Come home, Kevin.” He smiled at his death, reaching out to hug the EV suit.
A moment later, the Prometheus plunged into the sun.