At Journey’s End – A Short Fiction
Adrift in the cold empty of space, white dots twinkling amidst the black, a ship floated as a carcass would down river. Its single passenger inside shivered in the growing chill, a blanket wrapped about her person. She gazed through the front shield as her teeth chattered. Pain soaked in her veins, and even the smallest twitch sent her gasping. Her stomach grumbled in protest, followed swiftly by a feeling of knives digging into her intestines. Sweat formed along her brow and dripped down her face. Despite the frigid climate, she radiated an inordinate amount of heat.
That was when she deduced that she was running a fever, and that her week without food left her immune system vulnerable. Dead bodies littered the bridge in which she sat, stinking as they rotted and passed their final gases. It might be that one of them carried a contagion. No matter how she looked at it, she would die here. Life support was low and would not last much longer.
The nose of the ship dipped, tumbling through stardust and bits of rock.
She coughed. She covered her mouth with a hand, and it came away flecked with blood. Wiping it off on her pant leg, tiny coughs racked her body before she regained control and pressed a button on the main panel. A holographic recording emanated from one of the projectors hidden within. The recording sputtered and skipped. It presented her with an image of a man, bearded face smiling and brown eyes twinkling.
“Hey, Lyla. It’s Kam, your brother.” The audio clipped, and it repeated: “Hey, Lyla. It’s Kam, your brother. Just out here enjoying the beach. Or I would have been if it hadn’t stormed.” The image shook then focused on what appeared to be a grey sky.
“Do you see this, Lyla? Do you? It’s mother nature taking a crap on my day. But that’s whatever.” Kam’s face reappeared. “How’s the space trip? Mission? Whatever you call it. Can’t believe you’re one of the first to see if we can get the hell off Earth before we all drown. Badly.”
Lyla smiled. She wanted to laugh, but the pain kept such notions at bay and she winced instead. Her breath formed short-lived clouds. The recording shut down, the last of the audio devolving into unintelligible speech. She glanced around. Any light she had went out aside from the burning of stars cloistered in the black outside. Pitch darkness encroached.
“This is a damn pickle you’ve got yourself in, Lieutenant,” said a voice behind her, somewhere in the night. She turned about and squinted. Suddenly, a flame flickered to life and set its edge to something before being snuffed. A steady orange glow took its place. Some bright light shined behind the figure and detailed their features: it was an older man, white beard unkempt and blue eyes faded to a silvery hue. He was dressed in an officer’s uniform that had been splattered with blood. His demeanor reflected his posture, laid back and legs outstretched, crossed at the ankle.
“Whole crew gone to the crows, and you’re left crawling in the mud. Well, I’ll be…” He puffed his cigar. Rings of grey smoke plumed. “I don’t mean to state the obvious, but have you tried sending out an SOS?”
“Tried that,” replied Lyla, her voice rasped. “Didn’t work.”
He shrugged, cigar hanging at the corner of his mouth. “Any signs of life within a hundred-mile radius?”
“Last I checked, Captain, no.”
He pursed his lips in a mocking fashion and continued to puff his cigar. Silence kept them company as an invisible third. Only the groans of the ship distilled the quiet. The captain shifted in his seat then sighed as if exasperated and spoke, “Get your ass out of that chair and do something about the situation.”
“What…” She stopped mid-sentence as she coughed. “What the hell am I supposed to do?”
“Think. What is your last option? Everything is offline but what in an emergency?”
She perked. “Lifeboats… Lifeboats with beacons…”
He smiled, smashing his cigar on the arm of the seat. “Good luck, Lieutenant.” At that, he faded and with him the light.
She struggled to stand. Many of her muscles likely atrophied during her stint in the chair. On her first attempt to her feet, she fell sideways. She cried as a new kind of pain laced through her rib cage like the bones were being spread apart. In her second attempt, she stood completely vertical, albeit winded from the effort.
It took time, but she walked her initial steps out of the bridge maybe an hour later. The chill was bracing, like ice crystallizing in her veins, but her blanket lay gathered behind her. She did not trust herself to retrieve it.
Light from the stars faded and darkness enveloped. Forced to navigate by touch, utter blindness slowed her pace considerably. The sensory deprivation crippled her almost as much as the fatigue and malnutrition. Yet, she knew when her feet met with that of a corpse, and she heard the snap of live wire somewhere further away, saw its faint glow. It lit a corridor briefly just ahead. A copper smell crowded her nose. She tasted fecal matter on the tip of her tongue and gagged.
So many of them burnt to a crisp in the brunt of a flash fire. Down the corridor, her path seemed to end. Her hands slid along the metal wall and then in front of her, feeling a large cold metal object obstructing her way. She dropped to her knees and sobbed, emotion wreaking havoc on her body. Her shoulders shook, and she hugged her waist. Tears burned down her cheeks. Her nose plugged with phlegm. Hope dwindled, and she sunk into a deep sleep, the waking world too much to handle.
She next woke gasping for air and found herself afloat.
“Make your next move,” said a voice, muffled and distant. “C’mon, Lyla, I don’t have all damn day.”
Kam? she thought, turning her head slow in zero gravity. A scene unfolded before her, stark and detailed: Kam sat at the kitchen table, hand on his cheek. A chess board lay out in front of him, black and white pieces scattered along its surface. To one side of the board were the pieces taken, three from white and two from black. Lyla played black per usual. He sighed.
“Any time, old grandma river,” he jibed, now crossing his arms over his chest. “The Patriots game is on in a few. They haven’t won a conference championship in years, so I expect disappointment. Disappointment that will be less painful than watching you plot your next move.”
She smiled, vision blurred like the scene dunked underwater.
“That’s it. I’m watching the game.” Kam rose from his seat and left, and the darkness returned.
Memory sprang loose from the depths of her mind, erasing her reality and consuming her universe. Her father played a grand piano in the living room on her tenth birthday, the Christmas tree next to him bright with festive colors despite it being the month of January. Singing the lullabies that he had invented especially for her.
The memories sped through.
A teenager, smoking a cigarette on the fence of their ranch. It was a cold night then, but the skies were clear and the stars shined brilliant as ever. And the feeling in the pit of her stomach when she knew that she loved it—the enigma of space travel. To be among the cosmos, pushing the limits of human imagination.
Another tumbled out, her virginity given in the throes of drunken passion that instilled in her a bad taste for alcohol. Marriage to who she thought was the love of her life, yet turned out to be less than true, their vows broken not ten minutes after the knot tied. Late nights studying. Astronaut training.
But the worst of all pried itself free. Her crewmates’ ill-fated endings. An asteroid belt that proved too difficult to circumvent. Catastrophic consequences as fires burned people alive or house-sized holes in the ship that sucked them out into the nothing. The memories stopped coming then like a dam to a flood. Light flashed to her right, rolling from side to side in an exaggerated motion. Coming from the bridge. She slammed a palm to the metal wall and pushed off, flying through the corridor and back to her chair.
Beyond the front shield, a spacecraft hung motionless several yards distant. Lights searched, no doubt after having scanned to see if there were any heat signatures. Minutes later she could hear emphatic thumping above then a low hiss. They were cutting, cutting through Dawning Spire, and she had no means to communicate, to tell them to stop or she’d die.
She floated to the front shield and pounded on the glass, a furious flurry that fed on her desperation. Screams left her throat raw. After a while, her fire simmered, and she dangled in the air, too weak to do anything but crawl to her deathbed. No pleas to her gods, no asking for forgiveness. Just an acceptance of the inevitable claiming her will to live. Part of the ceiling above broke free, cast out into the depths of space. Figures dressed in aeronautics’ gear floated inside.
And then she sunk low, very low, into a sleep of which she did not know she would wake.
Three years earlier…
The porch light went out for the night. She inhaled her cigarette and then flicked it into the snow, watching the orange glow fade into the cold. She shivered. A high-pitched squeal pierced her ears. She looked toward the sky and saw several shooting stars trail in an overarching curve. These were not shooting stars, she knew, but transport ships taking their leave from a nearby port.
“Mom?” called a tiny voice. The voice of her son, just four years old.
Lyla turned to face him. “Frankie, go back to bed, sweetheart.”
“But I can’t,” he mumbled, rubbing his eyes and yawning. She let out a heaving sigh. He stared up at her, his blue eyes especially deep hiding in the shadows. The mirror image of his father. A piece of her broke every time she saw him, and every time, she wanted to cry, but the pain in her chest had lessened the past two years. Only a dull throb ached as a constant reminder. His silver hair was frazzled, stuck out like an electric current coursed through him.
“Get back inside. It’s too cold on the porch,” she said, gentle.
“What’re you doing out here, Mommy?”
She waved at him. “Back inside, please. Don’t make me ask a third time.”
He did as he was told. She, too, retreated when the winter pressed upon her bones. Neither paid any mind to the moon, far larger and closer than it ever had been at that point in history, bright as the sun at midday. A large ocean wave barreled over the sands of the beach that stretched out half a mile away from their home. It grew in size and strength, overtaking massive trees and extinguishing local wildlife in the instant it took to suck in a breath.
It crashed against the house and pulled it from the foundation like pulling a plant from its roots. Water quickly submerged everything. She tried to keep afloat, gasping for air in her panic.
“Frankie!” she shouted. “Frankie, baby!”
She floundered in her attempts to swim. Twice her foot snagged, and twice she dipped under, afraid that she would drown, and that Frankie would drown because of it. The water level kept rising, gradual and unstoppable.
“Frankie,” she cried out again. Cold sunk beneath her skin. Her veins seemed to freeze with every beat of her heart. “Frankie,” but the name did not carry, not like it did before.