By Jason Tudor
Slumped in the plastic cafeteria seating of the Deep Space Communications Station Maupassant, Yeoman Bierce slurped in the last minutes of oxygen swirling around him. Each gulp of air ground against the walls of his throat rasping like sandpaper against pine, the sawdust collecting in his lungs. The final moments of the dying station’s generator power provided lighting from the few LED bulbs that weren’t shattered or smeared dark.
Maupassant’s compliment of 213 communications technicians and naval officers fell when a virus sudden and quick invaded and buzz-sawed through them. Outside making repairs to a long-range radio antenna, Bierce watched for hours through one of the station’s windows as germs exploded and swarmed crew members like a fierce hornets from their nest. They ran around, screaming in terror though Bierce heard nothing … and could do nothing. To stay alive, he huddled outside the station. Eventually, as the oxygen supply in his suit weaned off, he knew he would have to go inside where he would have to take off his helmet.
In a cruel twist, he was not infected. Instead, he waited alone amongst ravaged bodies strewn like rag dolls. Hours turned to days. The stench of rotted flesh pushed through every air duct. Silence. Moreover, there was the unfortunate notion that there would be no resupply shuttle. Still incoming message traffic told Bierce that Naval Command knew of the Maupassant’s fate. Assuming all had been lost, Navy decided to let the station die, a process done remotely and taking less than 48 hours. Days turned to weeks. Air thin, food eaten and only minutes of life left for the once vibrant military post, Bierce whimpered.
Then, something quiet; a shimmering light in his peripheral vision cast against the frost -covered station windows; something pleasant above the gore. Moaning through the pain, he turned his head to see its full resplendence, and sat awed.
Crewman Poe. Bierce managed a smile. He always held a fondness for Poe. Stunning blue eyes. Curling, shiny red hair. Thin fingers and wrists. Soft, unintended touches across communications consoles and repair stations. Seven light years from Earth, the compliment split 70-30 favoring the men. Space stations, despite their technological marvels, were cramped, logistical tea kettles. Intimacy and kindness came in short quantity, often sneaked in uncomfortable places at awkward moments. He now wished that he had acted more boldly, recalling his timidity on so many accounts.
No matter. All of that corporeal … gone. What remained of Poe – what the disease decided it would leave behind -- lie two meters from the heels his blood-stained boots, mouth agape, her last look a frightened, sad one, piled amongst the bacteria-riddled corpses of his comrades. So, seeing her blurred, sad smile glimmering in this spectral light before him gave him both peace -- and worry.
Eventually, the spirit circled and settled before him. He squinted, trying to better make out her face.
“You died unhappily,” he croaked, air becoming harder and harder to find.
“I’m happy now.” Her voice soothed him, like hot chocolate solving chills.
“Where are you?”
“Here. With you.”
“I mean … are you … in heaven?”
“I came back to help you.”
“I wish you’d come sooner. We could have …” he strained to raise his arm and wave it around, “… fixed the station.” He laughed. He didn’t mean that. A tear dribbled down his cheek. “I don’t want to die.”
“I brought you something.” The apparition shifted its form. A small picture frame fell into Bierce’s lap. He turned it over. A beautiful color photograph Bierce and Poe at one of the station’s off-duty functions. Bierce shot the photo himself by sticking out his arm and turning the camera to face them both. Both smiled wildly, looking like freshmen at a Friday night frat party.
“I don’t remember ever shooting … did we … ?”
“This was my favorite,” she interrupted. “It reminds me of how happy we were.”
Bierce’s slid his index finger across the smooth glass over Poe’s face. “We were? You’re so pretty. I wish I had … had …”
“Had what?” The form stirred and moved closer.
Bierce strained extending a hand. Ethereal glimmering tendrils spiraled toward and wrapped around it. He shivered as it entered him, something visceral and codifying. His mouth opened, his back arched and every memory from his birth to now charged into his consciousness. In his mind, the cacophony of recalled sensations played in a colorful, confusing diorama reaching zenith on something near sexual and then careening into the sad as the sensations wound back to the reality of his demise, his weakened shell slouching back in the cafeteria chair.
He drew his hand away from the spirit. Bierce sat for a moment collecting his thoughts again. As he did, the last of the LEDs burned out and the Maupassant went dark. Poe’s fluid visage remained the only light in the room, staring at him as he faded in and out. He wasn’t sure what to say. He spat out the first thing that came to mind.
“What’s heaven like?”
She weighed her response. “Remember that moment we shared. Your hands were warm. Your lips, succulent. My heart almost beat out of my chest. Do you remember?”
“I don’t … warm …?”
“Heaven,” she purred, “is that.”
“When … ?”
“I’ve done what I came to do. I’m being called back now. I’ll miss you.”
With a sad smile, the specter dissipated. Bierce drew a breath, clutched the picture frame and chased after her.
Jason Tudor is a writer and illustrator. He is also the creator and co-host of the Science Fiction Show, a weekly podcast delving into all things Science Fiction in entertainment, books and other media. It’s fun and funny, and you can subscribe to it on iTunes or through the web site at www.myscifishow.com. He can also be found at www.jasontudor.com
Image courtesy Narrenkoenig of DeviantArt