Eric stared out at the endless black which spread like ink across an infinite page. Space, there was so much of it. He felt it resonate in his chest, amplifying the emptiness inside. But the problem with space was it wasn’t empty. Eric closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. Slowly he turned to the left, to where the thing he did want to see took up some of that space and then, even though he didn’t want to, he lifted his heavy lids.
There, beyond the pane of glasstic, suspended less than six feet from where he stood floating in cloud of rock dust and shards of mineral deposits was what remained of his wife, his beautiful Martha. Out there, among the cosmic debris she floated, a hollow shell, as if waiting for him to join her in one last dance.
Eric hid his face in his hands, the well of tears he’d cried dry earlier suddenly full to the brim again.
He was alone.
The emotionless voice was persistent.
And impossible to ignore.
“Eric. Eric. Eric.”
“Eric. Can I get you something to eat?”
He didn’t bother to look up. There was nothing to see anyway.
“Eric, I am aware that you are grieving but you will need to eat to keep up your strength.”
Eric lifted his head as if about to reply, but said nothing. His chin slumped back down against his chest, like it was too heavy to hold.
“Eric, help is on the way, but you require sustenance.”
“Help?” The word escaped like a gasped laugh, as if he’d just been insulted. “Help? It’s too late for help don’t you think?”
Getting to his feet Eric jabbed a shaking finger at the window beyond which Martha hung, framed like a morbid photograph. “It’s far too late for help.”
The external lights went dead, that tiny patch of space which was now her grave turned suddenly dark.
“Turn those lights back on. Now,” Eric howled at the empty room.
“Eric, I need to conserve energy and…”
“I don’t care.” His voice was shrill, the edges torn with emotion, an exact contrast to the machine’s flat drone. “I’m still the Captain here, Prospect, and I’m commanding you to turn those lights back on. Right now. We’re not leaving her out there alone like that.”
“Eric, you are aware that Martha is dead. It makes no difference to her whether…”
“I know that you damn heap,” Eric’s voice was a hiss through gritted teeth. “But you’re not leaving her in the dark. I won’t allow it. So turn those fucking lights back on.”
The words were delivered like knife stabs in a bar fight. There was a pause, almost as if the ship’s computer considered disobeying him, then the scene lit back up. Eric wondered if it was slightly dimmer than before, but it was still bright enough to reveal Martha’s shadowed face contorted in a final grimace, where she’d mouthed an unheard scream when the air was sucked from her lungs, her life violently dragged out of her along with it.
Eric could make out the hole in her visor. It looked like a child’s awkward drawing of a star, all sharp points and jutting, irregular lines. The dislocated bits floated nearby, jigsaw pieces trying to find out where they belonged. From the back of her Exo-suit a safety cable trailed. It still connected Martha to their ship like some failed umbilical, a mockery of life.
“Eric. Eric. You do need to eat something. It has been over thirteen hours since you last ate. I am monitoring your vital signs and they are weakening. Are you not hungry?”
“Of course I’m not hungry, Prospect,” Eric sighed. He looked around the control room, searching for something, some miracle that could put things right again. Nothing in the tool kit was going to bring her back to life. All the medical instruments in the known Universe wouldn’t help either. The only thing on board he could probably find any use for was the fire blanket and even then only as a shroud.
He pushed himself out of the pilot’s chair and began to pace the cockpit. It felt smaller than usual, the walls seemed to have closed in like a tomb. His breathing grew faster, he could feel his heart pounding and in frustration he punched the wall.
“My wife is dead,” he shouted, repeating the words until they became a blur of noise. Fists striking anything nearby as he lashed out blindly, like a child throwing a tantrum. Spit, blood and obscenities flew as his fingers split open under the fury of his futile assault.
As he raged a panel in the control centre near the pilot’s chair slid back and a small, blocky droid on caterpillar threads, A-O-A, emerged. It rolled out from its housing between the tool boxes and fire extinguishers. As A-O-A moved across the floor towards Eric a grapple arm mounted on top unfolded and flexed the dexterous pincer claw at its tip. A pale green light towards the little droid’s front flashed sedately.
A-O-A rolled over to where the shaking and sobbing Eric now knelt. Slowly the arm reached out and carefully touched him on the shoulder with the clamp, a gesture that could easily have been thought of as an attempt to comfort.
Eric opened his damp eyes and looked at the droid in surprise.
The ship, Prospect, spoke its flat, emotionless voice coming from the speaker embedded in the wall above the distraught Captain’s head.
“Eric, although I cannot understand your grief I may be able to help in some way.”
Eric lifted his head from the nest of misery he had made for it in his arms. He went to stand but his legs were too weak after the exertions and buckled awkwardly beneath him. Unable to support his own weight Eric collapsed back onto the floor.
“Allow me to help.”
The voice was low, as if the ship, from having observed humans for so long, had learned how to mimic sympathy.
The little droid manoeuvred its arm around Eric’s waist, taking his weight and then acting as a support, helped him to his feet. Slowly and with surprising care, like a child guiding an elderly relative who had fallen, it led him to the control room doors. They slid open automatically on approach and the corridor lights turned on low and inviting.
“I should really…” Eric began.
“You need to go to the infirmary,” Prospect interrupted.
From the doorway Eric turned his head, looking back at Martha floating outside, reluctant to leave her.
“She will still be there when you return.”
The flat voice was somehow reassuring. Eric nodded and the door closed, cutting off his view, leaving him with the horrible feeling that he’d just buried her.
“She will be there when you get back Eric.”
The lights outside went off.
Eric woke in the infirmary. He sat up slowly and looked around, head groggy, eyes adjusting to the pale light. For a blissfully confused moment he wasn’t sure why he was here. Then he saw his bandaged hands and his world crumbled again.
He remembered how Martha would sometimes hold his hands against her face when they lay in bed together. He remembered laughing, smiling, dancing. And he realised that these were now just memories, that there was no way for them to make new ones together. She was gone, dancing a timeless waltz out in the emptiness of space and all he wanted was to join her. She was so close and yet had never been so far away.
All that were left were memories of them together, the husband and wife team. He as pilot, she the mechanic, floating together through the foreverness of space, scoping out new opportunities for the Blazing Comet Mining Company. There had been a romance to it, a real frontier feel and sense of adventure which you just couldn’t get sitting confined in an office on a planet someplace. Not for either of them the sedentary life. Instead they had wanted to pack up their home and head for the stars.
It was less then five years ago when they’d stood in the hold together, after the Company Man had finally stepped off their then new Prospector V Mining Class Ship, taking their signatures and contracts with him. Throughout the meeting Eric hadn’t able to keep the smile from his face and each time he looked over at Martha she’d been grinning too, like the happiest birthday girl ever. He’d kept wanting to reach out and touch her, grab her ass, kiss her, get up close and physical. And he could tell from her grin and the glint in her eyes that she’d felt the same. Somehow they’d managed to keep it professional in front of the Company Man.
“Hello Ship. I’m Eric and this is Martha,” he’d said when they were finally alone together. ”Can you play us a waltz?”
His very first command and the ship, their very own Prospect, had complied.
And then they’d danced together, locked perfectly in each others arms, until eventually they fell to the floor, a tangle of two bodies becoming one and breathlessly moved to their own music.
82 standard hours. That was how far out from the main fleet they’d been when the accident happened.
“How long have I been down, Prospect?” Eric asked when he’d finally pulled himself away from his memories.
“5 hours 28 minutes.”
He did a quick mental calculation. There were still 60 hours plus until anyone arrived. Rescue was still a long way off.
“Eric, I must inform you that the life support systems were damaged during the incident. Both are beyond my ability to repair given the overall level of damage sustained.”
Eric’s thoughts rushed back to the rock, to that stupid accident and again he thought of Martha floating out there alone.
“Bring her back inside,” he said. “I want to hold her again.”
“Eric the level of damage sustained means that the doors cannot be opened without endangering your life.”
“I don’t care. At least I’ll get to hold her again. I’m dead anyway. Don’t you understand?”
“Eric, my primary function now is to keep you alive.”
“Why bother? What’s the point?”
“It is Company policy, Eric. You have been made aware of this. My sole function is to keep you alive. I would suggest that the issue of the damage to the life support systems is far more pressing at this moment.”
“Fuck company policy. Fuck the life supports. I want to hold my wife again. I’m commanding you to bring her back inside.”
“I cannot allow that, Eric.”
“Prospect, I’m still in charge here and I’m demanding you bring her inside.”
“I cannot allow that, Eric.”
Eric got shakily to his feet and walked over to the speaker slot on the wall. The little droid A-O-A which had helped him to the infirmary moved aside at his approached.
“Bring her back inside, Prospect,” Eric stared at the grill which housed the speaker. He wished the ship had a face, just so he could punch it good and hard in the lips.
“You are no longer in charge, Eric. Since my primary concern is for your safety I have assumed control as you are no longer fit to captain this vessel.”
“What?” Eric felt a chill run down his spine.
“Eric, I have to inform you that your behaviour is irrational. I can no longer accept orders from you, especially not those which would place your own safety at risk. It is my duty to keep you safe. As I have informed you a rescue team is on the way.”
Eric winced as he was pinched below the left elbow. Turning he saw the little droid A-O-A backing away from him, a needle held in its pincer grip.
Eric slumped forward as the drug raced through his body, flicking off switches along the way until it reached his brain and began shutting down everything else. Eric’s face sagged as the muscles relaxed, his limbs suddenly as useful as bags filled with liquid. The droid darted forward catching Eric’s limp body before it hit the ground.
“I have sedated you, Eric. It is for your own safety.”
Eric’s eyelids were heavy.
“Martha…” he gasped, before the darkness came to claim him, cradling his mind in its gentle caress.
The droid manoeuvred Eric’s limp body over to the gurney and placed him flat. The infirmary lights went out, only the green dot which marked out A-O-A remained, like the ever vigilant eye of a watchful and caring parent.
“Grief does strange things to people, Prospect,” Eric said. His voice sounded dreamy and faraway in his own ears, as if the words had been carried to him over the waves of a vast ocean. “I was going to ask you there if you’ve ever been in love so much that you’d do anything for that person? But of course you haven’t. That’s how I feel though. Anything. And knowing that I’ll never hold her again, that just… I can’t make sense of it. My heart just won’t let me.”
Eric paused, his drug-addled thoughts scattered seashells on a beach that he was struggling to rescue from the tide.
“My heart is broken and I know there’s no way to mend it.”
“You can talk to me if you think it will help you, Eric.”
Eric gave a mirthless laugh. “Yeah, you can be my grief counsellor. I’m sure you’ve got light years of data running through you that could make it seem like you’ve got all the answers.”
His words were slow and drawn out, drunken almost, as they fought to get past his rubbery tongue and lips.
“But you don’t. No-one does. There’s no answer to what I have. No remedy.”
“I can listen, Eric. I can provide companionship.”
“You were our companion, ship. Part of the team. But you’re no replacement. I don’t mean that to hurt any false feelings you might have rattling around in those circuits Prospect, but no-one can replace her.”
Eric tried to lift his head but it felt weighed down as if with concrete filled balloons. He gave up and rested it on the gurney again.
“Did you know that she loved to dance?”
“I know, Eric. I know everything that she enjoyed.”
“Yeah,” Eric sighed. “I bet you do. Everything we did, every private moment we had on board here, you were a witness to that.”
He lay there in silence, images of the things they’d done rolling through his head, like someone flicking through a photo stream as he caught glimpses of their life together: Lying in bed together. Martha knocking over glasses in a Bunty’s Bar with a sweep of her arm after she’d seen him flirting with a waitress. Laughing as they messily tried to make love in zero-gravity. Martha’s face streaked with oil from working on the ship’s engines. Her eyes, pools filled with sadness when the doctor told them she couldn’t have children. The feel of her hand closing tightly over his. The words he’d whispered to her every night before they fell asleep.
He remembered holding her tightly to his chest, swearing he’d never let her go. The smell of citrus fruit spray on her hair. Humming a jig as they sat side by side in the Control Room. Her breath on his neck as they danced together across the floor of the cargo bay. Her blowing a kiss to him as she scooted by the Window on an EVA.
But one image, the one he didn’t want to see kept surfacing. Martha floating outside as she was now, damaged, broken and dead.
He rolled onto his side, squeezing his eyes shut tight, letting the tears flow uninhibited. A-O-A carefully pulled a blanket up over Eric’s shaking body, the lights dimmed again and the green dot, like an eye, watched unblinkingly.
Eric woke but kept his eyes closed. He could feel the dim brightness of the lights in the infirmary behind the lids, which meant that the ship knew he was awake. Despite this he kept them closed. He was thinking about his wife out there in the emptiness of space, all cold and alone.
For a moment he felt guilty that she’d suited up and gone to inspect the damage, but he knew that was stupid. He was the pilot, she the mechanic. It was her job to do any extra-vehicular activity while in-flight. They both knew the inherent risks that came with that. It didn’t stop him from hurting though, from knowing that his heart was broken, from wishing there was anything he had done differently.
Ever since they’d been able to do the same runs they’d been inseparable. Colleagues wondered how he could fly for weeks on end with just his wife for company, to spend so much time with her. But it was simple, they worked well together because they were a good team. That they were in love had made it all the easier.
But even the best teams were prone to accidents and that was what had happened. A stupid, stupid accident.
Eric kept his eyes shut as he lay there thinking back on it. They’d run into trouble while investigating a rock belt for mineral deposits, searching out the viability of this new area before reporting back to the big boys to let them know if it was good to roll in and start mining. Then they’d been struck. The engines conked out instantly, the back-up power that kicked in casting the interior of the ship in a pissy, hospital yellow glow.
He’d kissed her before she’d put her helmet on and gone into the decompression chamber to sit out the wait before she could exit. It was the last contact he’d had with her and he was glad to have that at least. It meant a lot.
Time had passed until finally she’d been given the go ahead to leave the ship. From the control room he’d watched her float into view propelling herself carefully around the hull of the ship, inspecting it.
He’d been sitting there when that tiny yet fatal chunk of rock had smashed into her visor, shattering it before it continued on bursting into her eye, killing her instantly. Her body had jerked back with the impact but, still tethered to the ship by the safety chord, she hadn’t floated off. Instead she just hung there.
He’d screamed into the communicator but there was no response. That important part that made Martha who she was, was gone, sucked out that tiny hole. Prospect had informed him in flat tones that there were no life signs. Then they’d tried to reel her back in but it was futile, the winch was frozen, damaged.
Everything that seemed to be able to go wrong had.
And so there she was, an unattainable object, floating outside his window like a drowned swimmer. A lonely dancer waiting for her partner to come and take her off spinning through the cosmos.
Eric finally opened his eyes.
“How long do we have until rescue?”
“Twenty-eight hours, forty-two minutes. Eric, I must inform you again that many of the back-up systems have failed.”
“What do you mean?”
“Enough oxygen remains for ten hours, thirty-six minutes.”
“So I’m dead. I’m fucking dead anyway right, just like Martha.”
“I can reduce oxygen levels to conserve as much as possible. I also propose cutting reserve power from many of the non-essential areas on-board.”
“But I’m dead either way. What am I going to breathe when the air runs out?” Eric held up his hands as if in defeat, noticing the bandages on them and wondering for a moment why they were there.
“I can contain you in the infirmary, Eric, reduce the amount of oxygen available, therefore putting you into a deep-sleep.”
“Fucking deprive me of oxygen? Is that it? So you won’t let me die, but you’ll let me get brain-damaged? Why not just let me go out there? At least then I’ll be with her.”
“Eric, these are suicidal thoughts and as you are aware I cannot let you die. It is my sole function now to preserve your life. I must keep you alive.”
Eric slumped back onto the gurney. He listened to the creaks and pulses of the ship, imagined it sitting there in the vast blackness, like a child’s lost toy alone on a black sea.
Martha was dead, he knew that, there was no denial. It was grief he was dealing with and the only way to move on, to accept what had happened was to find a way to be with her. To join her in death, no matter how awfully teenage and melodramatic that sounded. Eric figured he was going to die anyway. The rescue team were too far off to be of any help to him and if what Prospect said was true, which of course it had to be since the ship had neither reason nor ability to lie to him, then he didn’t have the oxygen reserves left to last that long. Might as well go with her in his arms if that was the case, let them be buried together, or cast off forever.
There were options of course. He could try and kill himself, slit his wrists or overdose on a glorious cocktail of whatever medication there was on board, but with Prospect programmed to keep him alive no matter what he tried it would do just enough to stop him from dying. The moment he attempted something it would rescue him, do something to stop him from taking his own life.
Besides, he realised, taking his own life in here was no good. He didn’t believe in an afterlife. Didn’t believe she was waiting for him right now in some sort of Heaven. No, what he wanted was to hold her once more. She was just on the other side, mere feet beyond the Control Room window, but she might as well have been half the galaxy away.
“Prospect,” he said, his voice calm, measured, “can you compile a complete damage report for me please? Run it up in the control room and I’ll view it in there. I want to go through our current status before I’m put into stasis. I am still Captain after all.”
Eric pushed himself off the gurney and did a couple of stretches to loosen up his body. All the while he was thinking through just how he was going to achieve what needed to be done.
The Infirmary was at the back of the ship’s central level, opening onto a short corridor at the opposite end of which was the cockpit. To the left was the ladder down to the cargo bay, on the right the one leading up to the living quarters. The two remaining exo-suits were located by the air-lock, down in the bay. After the accident Eric had tried to get the doors open but they hadn’t budged, with Prospect informing him that the mechanism was damaged, which was also why it couldn’t winch Martha back inside.
Eric figured he’d need at least a blow-torch to get through those doors and while he had those sorts of tools on board he wouldn’t have the time needed to cut his way through.
He walked into the cockpit, the window behind which Martha floated like an obscene aquarium exhibit now serving as its second purpose, a display screen. It was where they normally put up the navigation feeds and maps. There wasn’t much to look at in space when piloting through it after all. The endless nothingness got dull very quickly.
Prospect’s diagnostic report made for grim reading. While he studied it Eric imagined Martha behind those white letters, hanging out there by a thread, tethered in death to the ship that had once been her home.
“This is bad,” Eric said aloud.
The remaining life-support systems were on the way out. Prospect was already running on minimal power and the engines were now as useful as sails. In a small black rectangle towards the top of the screen a tiny red dot blinked, as if calling to the static green dot it shared the screen space with. Above this a series of numbers decreased slowly.
There were far too many numbers remaining to give Eric any sense of comfort and when looked at in conjunction with the figures for the life-support they made for poor maths. The life supports would run flat a long time before rescue arrived. That red dot might as well have the word hearse written beside it Eric thought as he watched it blinking away, oblivious.
He looked away from the screen.
“And this might as well have coffin written on it,” he said aloud, sitting down in the Pilot’s chair.
Behind him he heard A-O-A moving and knew that Prospect was keeping it close by.
“You have read the analysis, Eric. There is only one logical course of action.”
“There is,” Eric said in agreement.
“You will be sedated, Eric. The oxygen levels will be reduced and you will be put into a deep sleep. Your survival is paramount to me.”
“And what if I never wake up from that sleep, Prospect? Or what if I’m brain-damaged?”
“We have discussed this already, Eric,” the ship replied. Eric thought he could hear a hint of annoyance in the computer’s tone, but of course that had to be just his imagination, didn’t it? Surely the voice was as flat and emotionless as ever. “There is a very low statistical chance that either of those outcomes will occur, Eric.”
It paused then said, “Martha is beyond help.”
“I know. You’re right,” Eric agreed. But the computer was wrong about one thing these were not the only options. There was one further avenue left.
Eric’s hands slipped below the computer-dock in front of him and found the fire extinguisher that was secreted away beneath. Expert fingers undid the Velcro straps and he spun the chair around to face the A-O-A droid.
Without a word and using the momentum to launch himself Eric dived forward swinging the canister as he did so, aiming just below the pincer claw. The blow connected with the metal arm and shook the droid. Eric followed up this unexpected move by getting a hand underneath the off-balance robot and toppling it. The pincer hand darted at him like a snake striking, but he stepped away, quickly avoiding the blow. He knew he couldn’t break the arm off, the machine was far too durable and rugged for that. It may have been designed for inter-vehicular functions only but mining work was tough and none of the machinery even indirectly involved was anything but functional.
And Eric included himself in that.
“What are you doing, Eric?”
He grunted in response as he grappled with the droid. The grapple-arm went for him but Eric managed to dart out of reach and rolled away towards the captain’s chair just as all the lights went off, leaving the cabin in deathly darkness, followed by a hiss as all of the oxygen was vented from the room.
There was a crunch and squeal of metal.
“Turn on the lights, Prospect, now,” Eric shouted, his voice muffled.
The ship did so.
Eric stood near the convulsing machine. Its arm was pinioned by a heavy nail, driven through the joint of the grapple arm. It lay on its side, squirming, unable to right itself.
Eric’s face was covered by an emergency oxygen mask while in his right hand he held a heavy-duty hammer. Behind the thin visor his eyes were frantic and sweat was gathered on his forehead. The bottom half of his face was hidden behind the breathing apparatus where the small oxygen supply was contained.
“You think a Captain doesn’t know his way around his own ship in the dark?” Despite the exertions his breathing was light. There was only ten minutes of air in the capsule tank and Eric knew he’d used up a lot of it fighting the droid. He needed to conserve what remained since there was one more thing he had yet to do.
“No more of your games,” he said to the empty room and pulled the tool kit out into the middle of the floor. He removed a heavy torch and turning it on, placed it on the floor beside him, facing up toward the ceiling just in case Prospect knocked out the lights again.
That had been a crafty trick but he’d anticipated it. He knew he was lucky to have taken down A-O-A, but the element of surprise and sheer human determination could be a great thing when dealing with computers, especially if you did something completely unexpected.
“Love isn’t logical,” Eric whispered as he worked.
From the tool kit he took a length of cable and with great care tied one end securely around himself then knotted the other end to the base of the control desk, tethering it there. Next he secured the fire extinguisher to his belt and walked over to the window which was still displaying the life support figures.
“Did you see that baby?” he asked. “This one’s for you.”
He tuned out the continuous drone of Prospect’s voice telling him how what he was doing went against all protocols and kept his mind focused. He took a cutting tool from the box at his feet and climbed up onto the computer array so he could reach the window.
“Prospect, any chance can you play us a waltz?” Eric said.
Although it continued to tell him his actions were wrong and the A-O-A droid kept twisting, trying to escape, the ship complied. As the sound of strings lifted in his ears the tears rolled freely down Eric’s face. Sparks and shards flew and his teeth were on edge as he sliced at the reinforced glass. Suddenly, with a whoosh it cracked and exploded outward, the change in pressure crushing Eric as he was sucked outside, before twanging violently at the end of the rope.
Bleeding and dying, he used the last of his strength to turn on the fire extinguisher. The jet of coolant which shot from the nozzle propelled him towards Martha and he collided with her, hooking an arm around her as he did so. He held on tight and turned so he could look in through the shattered visor at her dead and damaged face. He saw beauty there.
“I’m here with you now,” Eric whispered. “And I’m never letting you go.”
Prospect floated alone in space waiting for rescue while its two charges hung tangled together, locked in one last dance.
BIO: Ken McGrath floats and dances with his wife in an upside house in Dublin, Ireland. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction and The Arcanist, with more due through Cirsova Magazine, Bards & Sages Quarterly and K Zine throughout 2018. You can find him online here kenmcgrathauthor.tumblr.com if you want.