This story is by Laura Cookson and was a runner-up in our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Is there anyone out there? I repeat, is there anyone out there?”
The words had become automatic and no longer held any meaning for Karl. He sprawled on his back in the middle of the darkened control room, radio receiver clutched to his mouth. He stared up at the stars through the huge window above him as he mindlessly repeated the distress message.
He had been an astronaut for many years and had long since become accustomed to the sight of the stars, but now when he had little to do but look up at them and wait for death, he was reminded how beautiful they were. Their feeble light and that of the shuttle’s emergency power was the only thing that separated him from the true darkness that the inky black sky threatened.
“I repeat, is there anyone out there? Shuttle in distress, potential loss of human life.”
He hated how loud his voice sounded in the endless silence, and so with a sigh, he let the receiver slip from his grasp. The tiny room pressed in on him like a prison cell, but the stars were endless, so he just stared up at them and waited.
After so long he couldn’t find it in himself to fear death. From the marks he had been scratching into the wall, he knew it had been three weeks now. Three weeks since a piece of asteroid debris had been sucked into the engine of the shuttle, stranding it in deep space. Two weeks since Johann has suited up and ventured outside to try to fix it, and died in the process. Five days since Karl had sealed himself into the control room to preserve what little remained of the oxygen.
Three hours until it finally ran out. But Karl was ready to meet his maker.
And now he was having auditory hallucinations, he reflected, unperturbed.
“Hello? This is the crew of the Stargazer, replying to a distress call.”
Karl slowly sat up, staring at the radio receiver on the floor beside him. It was another human voice . . . a real human voice.
“I repeat, this is a response to a call for aid. Please state your difficulty.”
The voice was clipped and efficient, but it was definitely a voice. Karl hungrily snatched up the receiver.
“Hello. This is Lucy from the Stargazer. Are you the person who called for aid?”
“Yes . . . yes, I am.”
“Can you state your difficulty, sir?”
“I . . . yes . . .” Karl spluttered. Talking to another person after so long felt like finally getting a hit of a drug. He took a deep breath of his precious remaining air and tried to assemble his thoughts.
“My shuttle became stranded three weeks ago — it was an entire engine failure. It still has emergency power, but no functionality and the oxygen is running out.”
“OK, and are you the only person on board?”
“I . . . yes. There was someone else . . . but there isn’t now. My friend died, trying to fix the ship.”
“Oh . . . I’m sorry to hear that.”
Karl shook his head, trying to block the memory from his mind of the terrible explosion that had rocked the ship as Johann had prised the debris from the engine. His friend’s burnt body had floated around the ship for several hours before it finally drifted away, and the memory haunted Karl every time he closed his eyes.
“Is your navigation system still online?” the voice said after a moment.
“Yes . . .” Karl said, jerking back to the present.
“Ok, then can you tell me your coordinates?”
Karl scrambled up off the floor, hurrying to get his coordinates up on the screen. He repeated them back to Lucy.
“We’re not far off, sir. We can be with you in a few hours.”
“A few hours?” Karl said, glancing at the oxygen gauge, which had slipped even lower. “I’ve probably only got two and a half hours left at best.”
There was a long pause.
“We’ll be with you as soon as we can, sir.”
Karl dropped heavily into the control seat.
“Thank you. And it’s Karl, by the way. My name.”
“Nice to meet you, Karl,” came the reply.
“Nice to meet you, Lucy.”
Another silence stretched over them.
“Well, sit tight, Karl, and we’ll be with you shortly,” Lucy said.
“No! Wait!” Karl cried. “I . . . just . . . stay on the line, can’t you?”
I don’t want to die alone, he mentally added. Just minutes ago he had been resigned to a lonely death, but another voice in the dark had somehow revived him.
“OK . . . of course.”
Karl slumped back in relief. He didn’t even know what he wanted to talk about; he just wanted to let her voice wash over him.
“So . . . where are you from, Lucy?” he asked.
“The Mars colony,” she said. “Although my parents were from England back on Earth.”
“I thought that sounded like an English accent,” he said. “So what brings you all the way out here to the edge of the universe?”
“I’m part of a research team. We’re on our way to a newly discovered planet to test if it can be made habitable.”
“A colony all the way out here, huh?”
“Yes, we’re hoping a settlement this far out could be the base for further exploration . . .”
The past few weeks had passed at a crawl, but those two hours talking to Lucy flew by. Soon he knew all about her career as a researcher, that she was the youngest of four children, had only been back to her family’s original home on Earth once, and had a cat called Ben. In return, she knew that he was an Earther born and bred, raised in Virginia, USA, by his aunt and uncle after his parents died when he was only young. And she knew that he had a dog waiting for him back home.
She was laughing as he told her the story of how as a puppy Lottie had got herself wedged beneath his aunt’s couch when a shrill beeping rang around the control room.
Karl stared at the flashing red button on the oxygen gauge.
“Karl? What was that?” Lucy’s voice echoed around the room.
Karl opened his mouth, but couldn’t find it in himself to speak.
“We’re nearly there, Karl! We should come into sight soon. Hold on.”
“OK,” Karl said, staring desperately out into the star-speckled darkness.
He had twenty minutes left, and they almost certainly wouldn’t make it in time to save his life. But somehow it felt important to at least glimpse the ship that carried Lucy, his voice in the dark, before that darkness claimed him.
“Karl? Karl? Talk to me!” her voice urged.
“I should probably save oxygen. But please talk to me. Tell me anything,” he said a tear sliding down his cheek.
Lucy’s voice was shaky as she began to talk about her childhood on Mars and what had made her want to set out and see more of space. He closed his eyes and let her voice envelop him, even as he felt the surrounding air grow thinner. It occurred to him that he would have got along very well with Lucy if he’d had the time. Her reasons for setting out into space were almost exactly the same as his own, he reflected, as his breathing grew laboured. He had wanted to see more of the universe and what was out there, and go places other people had never been.
A second shrill beeping sounded.
“Karl?” Lucy’s voice sounded tearful now, a world away from the clipped voice that had first answered his distress call.
“I’m still here,” he said. But even to him, his voice sounded faint.
“We can see you . . . hold on!”
Karl slowly opened his eyes. Sure enough, he could see a bright light in the distance, a light more brilliant than any of the stars. As it grew closer he could make out the sleek silver of a space shuttle . . . the Stargazer.
He smiled, even as he struggled to draw breath. Here it was at last . . . proof that there was someone else out there with him, in the darkness of space.
“Lucy . . .” he murmured, as darkness tugged at the edge of his vision. “Thank you.”