This story is by Sharri Hough and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My Cold, Dead Carcass
The debris enveloped them. The collisions of the small asteroids rang on the shields.
“Shield failure,” stated Mavis, as their only defense mechanism went offline.
The next cluster of fist-sized rocks came and, unlike the dust, packed a punch. It was impossible to evade them all.
Derrik felt and heard the impact of the final blow. The vessel shuddered and the sound of tearing metal filled the air. The controls jerked in his hands.
Immediately, warning sirens blared. They clanged incessantly and one by one lights winked on until the control panel looked like a garish Christmas tree. He frantically worked to get the ship under control.
“Mavis, we’re out! Stop the claxons, I can’t hear myself think,” he commanded, still struggling with the controls.
Instantly, the sirens ceased, leaving only blinking lights and data scrolling endlessly across the screens.
“Mavis, the hibernation module…?” he managed to choke out.
“Cosmetic damage, Commander,” stated the flat, female voice of Mavis, the ship’s computer, “The occupants are undisturbed. Recalibrating major systems,” A swath of lights winked out. Refocusing, Derrik used all of his strength and attention to get the sluggish ship to respond. Finally, yielding to his strongarm tactics, he relaxed his hold on the controls.
“Damage is isolated to the airlock and support structure for the command module,” she reported.
“Show me, Mavis” he brought his attention to the screens, frantically searching the data.
The visual image came up. Derrik’s stomach clenched. There were two huge holes where the small asteroid had punched through the tube connecting the H-mod and Nav-mod. He switched to view the outside. Two support arms were a mangled mess. One was severed in half.
“Can it be repaired?” he asked, his face going numb, “Can I> repair it?” Mavis was silent.
“Damn it, Mavis! Respond!”
“Assessing,” she replied at last. After a few moments, Mavis’ voice returned, “Commander, Colonel Pile himself could not repair it. Not during transit. The damage is too great,” her computerized voice actually sounded empathetic.
Colonel Pile was the head engineer for the colony. He had designed these ships.
An ingenious design; the Nav-Mod, a fully functional ship on its own, capable of both short and long-term missions, housed engines and a command deck for the pilot. The beauty was its ability to dock with engineless cargo or passenger modules. The small ship carried everything needed for transport. It merely coupled to the other modules, pushing them through space to their destination. One pilot, no crew. Super cost effective.
This trip was an H-mod; passengers. Twenty, plus him, the pilot. Researchers, scientists, and children–even his own son, Kevin–all tucked into the hibernation chamber, asleep for the two-year journey to Delta III. Since his wife’s death just a month before this trip, Kevin was all he had left. They had planned to make the trip to Delta III together. Start fresh.
Derrik had also been hibernating, until Mavis had unceremoniously drug him from his slumber. The asteroid storm wasn’t on any of the charts. It spread across their path, changing course erratically, forcing Mavis to break protocol and wake him prematurely to handle the crisis.
Derrik felt like he was suffocating in the airlessness of space. He took in long, deep, calming breaths, reassuring himself that he still could.
“Does the airlock work at all? What about my EV suit?” he asked, knowing the answer was no.
“Any attempt to cycle the airlock in its current condition would be–”
“Catastrophic,” he finished for her. The empathy had left her voice. He’d probably imagined it anyway. Dark realization washed over him.
“Okay, Mavis, give me options. I can’t survive the duration of this voyage in the Nav-Mod without supplies. Even if I ration the emergency rations, there isn’t enough to get to the slingshot, let alone the colony,” another thought occurred to him, “Can we get to the colony? Will the structural damage hold up to the gravitational forces of the transition?”
Derrik’s voice was rising in volume and pitch as panic clenched him. He stopped, took another calming breath, scrubbing his face with his hands. Mavis’ silence caused his knees to buckle. He moved to the Nav-couch closing his eyes.
“Calculating,” she finally said.
Derrik waited, staring into the blackness of space.
When Mavis completed her calculations, Derrik responded, “So, there are two options.”
“Yes, Commander,” replied Mavis.
Taking a deep breath, Derrik began his recitation, “One: detach from the H-Mod before the slingshot hoping it’ll be recovered,” Leaving Kevin behind, he thought to himself. “After the transition, again hopefully, travel to Delta III with the H-Mod coordinates and my cold, dead carcass.”
He plunged forward, fighting back the hysterical laughter that threatened to overtake him, “Or two: Don’t detach. Hope that the slingshot doesn’t tear us apart, effectively killing Kevin and everyone else and get the whole ship, and my cold, dead carcass, to the colony. Does that about cover my choices, Mavis?”
“Good. As long as my cold, dead carcass is included. Neither option succeeds without it. I hate crap shoots,” he said his tone bitter. “Have we heard anything from Delta III?”
“No response to the continuous level-one distress call.”
They’d never reach us in time anyway, he thought.
“I’ve done some calculating myself, Mavis. There is good news. I don’t have an H-pod in here, but there’s a water purifier in the hygiene unit. So, at least I’ll be hydrated while I starve. If I only eat one ounce of rations per day, I can reach the transition.”
Derrik’s fingers glided through his wife’s silken hair, Kevin was laughing in the background.
“Commander,” Mavis waited patiently.
He ignored her.
“Commander?” she tried again.
Her voice broke through his drifting dreams. He groaned as a stabbing pain entered his head. “Mavis?”
“Commander, I apologize for disturbing you,” her voice was solemn.
Derrik moaned, waiting for the dizziness to stop, “Disturbing me? Mavis, what the hell?” he growled, smashing his fists into his eyes to ease the discomfort and perhaps keep them inside his head, “Just give me a minute, please,” he begged feebly.
“We’ve arrived,” Mavis’ calm voice penetrated the pain and weakness.
Derrik tried focusing on Mavis’ voice, “How far–?” he began.
“An hour,” she said, “Still no word from Delta III,” she answered before he could ask.
He shifted position. It had been nearly three months since the asteroid storm had changed everything.
He had rationed and re-rationed his supplies, trying to make them last–to make himself last. His beard had grown out of control, his hair was greasy and unkempt. The flight suit hung loosely on his emaciated form.
He ate two portions now, hoping for the strength for the task ahead. It tasted like dust in his mouth. Asteroid dust, he thought bitterly.
It was time. The decision had been made.
He hesitated, “Three, two, one…disengage,” he choked out, watching as Kevin floated away into space, blissfully sleeping and unaware.
The module should be safe here. They were far from anything that may damage or pull it off course.
Still a week to the slingshot.
Derrik could no longer shed any tears.
One week later, he mindlessly ate the last of the rations feeling the nutrients flood his starved body.
“Here we go, Mavis,” he stated needlessly.
“Prepare for main engine ignition. Continue the distress call on every available frequency,” he said, taking several calming breaths as the large planet loomed ahead. Here goes nothing.
“Okay, Mavis, on my mark. Three…two…one… ignition,” he counted down, hands clutching the controls.
The small ship lurched, hurtling toward the planet. Carefully maneuvering until he felt the sweet spot in the gravity well, he increased speed even further. The tiny ship groaned and suddenly, it was on the other side.
The indicator flashed red, then winked out when the fuel was gone, drained like the last of his strength.
“It’s over,” he said weakly, defeated. Releasing the controls, Derrik prepared for his final sleep. The darkness was coming, enveloping him, “Thanks Mavis, you’ve been–,” he gulped.
“Commander,” she interrupted softly, “It’s Delta III. They’ve dispatched a ship. They’ll meet us and retrieve the H-mod.”
“Kevin…” Derrik sighed, feeling his life fade away. They had finally heard the distress call. Kevin would be okay.
He relaxed into the couch as tears slid down his face.
Mavis had been monitoring the Commanders vital signs closely. She knew the end was near and somewhere deep in her circuitry she understood human sadness. His sadness of never seeing his son again had…touched her.
Hope. It was a concept she did not comprehend, but he had often spoken of it these last weeks. She knew that’s what he needed. There was only one way. Mavis had lied.
As his vital signs faded, she watched as his drawn features relaxed and his last breath left him. He would not live, but he would die with hope.