Daniel skimmed his layer of space junk, mining out metals and the components too small for the chopper’s grappling pincher to harvest. He cleaned up the pinging fragments into net bags that floated in a line behind his module. Wasn’t bad work. Clear O2, no physical labor, a nice pod at the station. He’d used all his family’s money to stake claims on the layer he worked. There were only so many miners like him.
“Dory, reimagine our flight path to follow the chopper more closely. Our yields are down from last week.”
Without a high yield, he’d not be at the station for long, and then owning the claim layer wouldn’t matter. He’d be forced back to Earth.
“Shifting to the new path, Danny Boy,” the boxed-up voice sassed from its tin-plated speaker in the dash. “Estimated yield is 12% over yesterday based on the latest scans of the chopper.”
“Gotta make the quotas,” Daniel intoned for the thousandth time since he’d hit the layers as a miner. Being the youngest miner in the quadrant, maybe the whole debris field, made him nervous. He’d risked it all, but what else could he do? His folks died of the city poison when he was a kid. His sibs never made it past primary. Earth’s poisons made for a short, brutal life.
Thank the stars Mom and Pop put the idea in his head early.
“There’s nothing out there that can kill you, Daniel. Nothing poisoned or polluted. No storms. No bad water. Just clean living with created air,” Pop told him as he wheezed in the hammock after working in the city streets, patching together rotted and cracked metal pipes with plastic polymers. Nothing that could last.
They’d bought him the layer to mine. It was his job to stay topside by paying rent.
It took all his time just to keep the rent paid.
“How’s the field looking for the chopper’s next pass?” Daniel asked Dory as she corrected to follow the chopper’s path. It would move down a level by the end of the shift, and his patch wouldn’t be worked for another week. In that time, he’d plot a new course for the chopper, preferably one that would take him to a metal horde––an ejected fuel cylinder from the shuttle program, or a rocket stage from the Apollo missions. That would set him ahead for a year or two. Long enough to get some higher-level training, maybe earn his place in the station without rent. Citizenship with no strings. Maybe he could even go to Mars and get a dome of his own. He just needed a break.
“Chopper is powering down, boss,” she said, not answering his query. Even a low fund per-com like Dory knew what mattered.
“What? Why? I paid good money for…”
“Market closed up. Someone out priced you.”
Daniel slammed his fist down on the dash.
“Hey Danny Boy, I don’t think this slip of a ship can take that abuse. The owner might…”
“Rot the owner! I paid for that time.”
“It will be back in three passes. No fighting it.”
Danny tapped the buttons that opened the feelers and began to map in long sweeps of pinging sound and light bursts. Dory recorded the field’s sonorous echoes. He watched the numbers, desperate for some big hit. Any hunk of metal or plastic, anything that would pay for his week––food and supplies and pod to sleep in. They’d let him sleep in the halls before, but only for a week. After that, they’d eject him back to Earth and all the hell that waited there. He’d only come close once, then he’d hit a lovely bit of lens off of a piece of shattered satellite that sent him back into his pod and back into the debris field harvesting his layer.
“I feel it in my bones, Dory. We’re going to find something big today. Just watch.”
Eight hours later, they’d scanned more than they’d ever scanned in one sweep. The ship’s power source had been upgraded to harness solar wind, so he had as many hours as he could breathe. His O2 was thin. Dory harvested some of his urine and split the O2 out, giving him a few extra hours. He needed a plan. Something to track for the chopper. Something big to get him through.
The per-com buzzed and whirred but didn’t answer. Something had it stumped.
Nothing. He pulled down the display to check her capacities and workflow. The screen should have been a stream of data moving almost too fast to comprehend. Measurements and corrections, weights and analysis, but it was blank. A flashing of blue and white, nothing comprehensible.
“Dory?” He asked again, but this time his voice quavered. He couldn’t afford to lose her! A per-com cost so much, he’d be back on Earth in days.
Then a word flashed on the screen.
It lingered there, an unnatural yellow floating above the blue sea behind it.
Daniel didn’t do what he’d normally do. Yell at Dory. Reboot her system. Curse.
He stilled himself and watched the words as they faded. Not the normal flashing out of existence that happened on Dory’s screen. No, they dissipated into the blue mist.
Again, “Houston? Are you there?”
This time, his ears buzzed with pressure, something he shouldn’t feel. Not in a controlled cabin. It felt like the long elevators he’d ridden in the city with his mother, back when she’d had to take him to the state care center so she could get to work on time. When they’d ridden in the box straight down into the subfloors where the children were kept, his ears had popped painfully.
“Crunch your teeth together,” she told him.
Just like then, the crunching did nothing to alleviate the pain inside his middle ear.
“Shit,” he said, thumping his palm against the side of his skin helmet. The knock bubbled the pressure out of his ear, which was a relief, but he gasped when the four-letter word showed up, floating in the eerie yellow letters above the blue screen’s glow.
The screen flashed yellow for a bit then faded. He’d said it and there it was.
“Hello?” he said to the screen, and it showed up just as it had before.
A second or two passed, then a response.
“Who is this? Is this a joke, Houston? Jon is that you?”
Houston. Used to be a city before most of the south succumbed to rising seas and kudzu. That was before everything went crazy wrong. Before the Earth died.
“No, this isn’t Jon. I’m Daniel. Who is this?”
“Are you a Brit? Or a Canadian? I don’t hear an accent.”
It could hear him. It had to be Dory gone wonky or something.
“Run diagnostic,” Daniel said. The ship stuttered and clicked, carrying out the command as he asked.
“I mean you speak English, but the only others up here are… Daniel, huh? I don’t feel so good, Daniel. Something’s wrong. I can’t––”
It wasn’t his job to worry about freighters or other miners off course unless they interfered with his claim, but Daniel had never been the cut-throat type. Sure, they were only words on a screen, but something in the tone, maybe the color, made him feel an urgency. Not his own worries, no. Something like you feel watching old vids where a ship is hanging off the lip of some wave in the ocean about to plunge down deep into the trough. About to be crushed beneath the water without anything to save it. That kind of “Oh-my-god-I’m-trapped” beat.
“Why don’t you tell me your name and coordinates? I’ll get you some help.”
The screen lit with Daniel’s words. They hung there and then disappeared, making way for the jittering response.
“I don’t know where I am.”
The words flashed there, persisting longer than any of the words they’d exchanged, clinging to the screen.
How could he not know where he was?
“Check your per-com!” Daniel shouted, wondering if Houston had de-compression sickness. Maybe he’d rebreathed his air too many times. Every spacer knew where he or she was. That was life or death. All ships were linked with the station and pinged it for coordinates. Even energy dead ships could ping the station for help. It was a basic emergency setting on all ships.
“I think I’m lost, Daniel.”
“Check your per-com, Houston! Check it!”
Nothing. Not for a few long minutes that felt like forever.
“My name isn’t Houston. It’s… I…”
Again, a gap that lasted long enough to hurt.
“I can’t remember, Daniel. My name… I’m lost.”
The letters, yellowed and swimming, stung Daniels’ eyes. The fear in them. The desperation crawled across the blue field of light. He had to find Houston. Save him.
“Where are you? Tell me what you see?”
Daniel’s fingers flew across the dash, typing in triangulations.
“I see stars. Always stars. The Earth winking in my window as I spin. Spinning, Daniel. That’s what I remember.”
Dory wasn’t online, not with her normal control, but something on the dash responded to him. The readouts said he only had so long. Maybe another two hours of O2 if he really conserved his breaths. His skin contracted as he turned down the life-support to the lowest levels. He’d stretch his hours as far as he could.
The blue screen washed bright for a moment, then the yellow letters lit his face in the dark.
“Not Houston. Hermes. That’s the name. That’s what’s true.”
Hermes… a god from mythology? Whatever.
“Fine, Hermes, I need you to roll your ship. It will ping me and then I can come get you. Tow you back to the station.”
“Station ISS? Didn’t it fail?”
Hermes wasn’t making any sense. O2 deprivation probably. He’d die if Daniel didn’t find him. He didn’t need the distraction from searching for metal, but damn it, he couldn’t let Hermes die out there. What a cold, lonely death it would be to die in space.
“Can you execute the roll, Hermes?”
The blue field seemed to shudder, then, “Attempting roll. Aft thrusters, 5-second burn.”
Burn? What did he mean?
“Say again, Hermes?”
No reply on the blue screen. No ping. Nothing.
“Hermes?” Daniel’s voice broke with worry. If Hermes passed out, Daniel would have to visually find him in the near infinite field of space. He was a needle in a stack of needles looking for a needle. Not good. “No passing out, my friend.”
“No… I’m fine. I just zoned out for a minute. I attempted the roll. Nothing. There’s no reserve to burn.”
So many things didn’t make sense. Who talked like that? Zoned? What zone did he mean? And then burn? No ship used burn tech anymore. Who could afford the fuel for those dinosaurs?
“Hermes, you have to find a way to move your ship, or I’ll never find you.”
Silence. No movement.
“Dory, reboot! I need you to ping out for Hermes.”
The buzz returned, but this time he heard a pattern in it. Slow words drawn out into vibrating tones too long and low to mean anything, but for a second the cadence of the sounds were familiar.
“I think the batteries might have some juice. I could flash my lights.”
Lights flash in space all the time. Reflections, bursts from the sun, glittering debris, distant ships––too many variables and distractions, but it was at least something.
Daniel turned on his wide view projection, murmuring amplifiers and coordinates, changing the angles, looking for repetitive flashes that seemed out of the ordinary. If only Dory would reset and help, things would be so much easier. He slammed his fist down on the console, gritting his teeth as another block of space slid by without a blip. At any point, the light flash might happen and he’d miss it. Turned away, too far, a blink. Light travels fast. Too fast to be a reliable signal.
“Did you see it?”
Daniel shook his head, and the word appeared on the screen without him saying it. “Nothing.”
“I don’t know how much more juice I have. If you don’t find me, can you let Houston know…”
“What do you mean when you keep saying Houston? There is no Houston.”
Silence. Solid blue nothing stretched into minutes, and Daniel worried again that Hermes had passed out.
“Daniel, I don’t know what you mean. How can there be no Houston? I was just there.”
He shook his head and watched the screen, muttering, “Just wink at me, Hermes. Wink so I can find you, and we’ll sort the rest of this out later, huh?”
The dark field of space in front of him molded around his capsule like padding, muffling his perception. Made him feel upside down. That’s why he usually didn’t watch the screen when he flew. It was too much like falling without end. He let Dory take care of the watching while he made trim decisions. Fine-tuned things.
“Come on, damn it. Show me where you are, Hermes.”
Something made Daniel tack to port. Something drew him into the darkest spot, a place in his claim he’d never been. A quadrant far enough to be new. His stomach tightened like a fist, a lump banging against his ribs. He passed into the pocket of lightless space. The temp dropped so fast he wanted to ask Dory what the malfunction was, but of course, Dory wasn’t working.
“Talk to me, Hermes.”
The blue screen’s solid stare unnerved him, but on the scanner a single weak blip of white light winked from directly in front of the ship’s nose.
“I think I see you.”
“Good because––no strength––fading.” The words got smaller and dimmer as they flashed to life on the screen.
Daniel turned on a spot attached to the top of the hatch and swept it in the field in front of him. There. The light glinted off of a capsule. It shone silver in the light, glittering like enough metal to build five domes on Mars. What the hell game was Hermes playing?
“I see you. Just hang on.” Daniel cast the tow beam, catching the capsule by its round, flat back. “Gonna have to drag you home backward, but I’ll get you there. Just conserve your O2, friend. Rest.”
“Thank God, Daniel. Thank God for you.”
The fist in his stomach loosened as he worked on saving the ship, but that word, anachronistic to the point that spacers joked about it in their nightly fishing tales. God. The concept once meant something to Earthers. But when the planet fell apart and humanity lost its food chain to a rising ocean, a heating planet, and the grinding need of a growing population, they sort of lost their taste for the mysticism of the past. God died. Churches became bunk houses. No one thanked God. That concept wasn’t even taught in State school anymore.
“You sure have a funny way of talking, Hermes. Just hang on, I’ll get you home.”
The line dragged the capsule along at a slow pace. Daniel knew he’d have enough O2 for the trip at the speed and heading they were going along, but he wondered about Hermes. The ship, a configuration he’d never seen before, seemed intact, but the strange things coming out of Hermes’ mouth made him wonder.
“Can you check your per-com for the O2 levels, Hermes? I want to make sure you’ve got enough for the hour tow. If not, I need to ping the station and get a rescue. You know what I mean?”
He’d only been in the dark quadrant for minutes when he’d found Hermes’ ship. But after ten minutes on a return heading, the instruments said he was moving, but his eyes said there was nothing out there.
“What is a per-com? My O2 is––well, I guess it’s fine enough.”
Cold scuttled across his back under his suit’s warm padding.
“Maybe you should conserve the O2, you know, stay quiet and take meditative breaths.”
The blue screen brightened in the dark of the ship’s dash. “I’ve been quiet long enough. Talk to me, Daniel. Tell me about your life. What it’s like for you back home on Earth.”
Daniel settled in. This was more normal, even if Hermes oddly assumed he still had contact with the planet.
“I was an Earther for my first fifteen years. From Chi-town. The State walled it off back when my parents were kids, but when the oceans rose, the walls kept out the migrants. We were hungry. Wasn’t too bad until the poison settled in the walls. Lost my folks and worked as a roof farmer for a year before the State informed me that my folks bought this debris claim and a ticket to the station to live.”
The silence on the blue screen, the lack of answering yellow questions made him nervous, so he plunged ahead.
“Came to the Gen IV way station two years ago. I’m making it better than I was on Earth. A whole lot better. I don’t cough blood anymore.”
“You live in space?”
“Yeah, Hermes. A lot of us do.”
“All the time? That’s incredible.”
Once again, the cold climbed up Daniel’s back. Who was this guy, really? He glanced again at the ship he towed. Nothing there but metal and glint. Even when he increased mag, there was nothing to see. He’d have to wait until they docked to find out what kind of weirdo he’d hooked on to. He changed the subject.
“What about you? Tell me about yourself. That ship’s something.”
The blue vibrated and filled with the yellow misty letters in streams.
“It’s top of the line. I’m proud they chose me to fly it. I just… I don’t remember much about the launch. I remember Natalie waving. I think that’s her name. Brown hair spilling down her back, wind blowing it across her face in waves. And her trying to keep it out of her eyes as she waved. Smile so big and proud. Scared too. How can I remember her so well and not… The next thing I remember is my orbit. I remember feeling confident. Like everything I’d ever wanted or worked for was in my grasp. Then a flash. A bright light. That’s all I remember. Really. I woke up and there you were. There was this… dark. Dark so deep…”
Watching the words on the screen swirl in the whirlpool mist sank Daniel down into the memory like it was him remembering Natalie’s velvety brown eyes and the triumph of his flight to the moon.
“Maybe when we get back, we can find her. I’m sure she’s waiting for you.” Daniel’s fluttering feelings faded. This was not normal. Not at all. The crawling of his skin made him think that he should have left poor Hermes back where he found him. Just floating there. But then he’d be a murderer, right? He swallowed the fear and took a deep breath. Something wasn’t right. Something rang in the back of his mind like a bell at dinner, calling him to some bigger idea.
Hermes is the name. That’s what’s true, he’d said.
“Tell me about when you were a kid,” Daniel said. They were only a few minutes from the station. Ten, maybe fifteen. He liked Hermes. Wanted to help him. But something inside felt crooked. Like a piece of grit grinding against the sensors.
“Dandelions… So many of them in my mom’s yard. Flashes of yellow in fields of green against skies so blue and bright. I rolled in the grass until it scratched me up with little cuts and itches. At night, the sky clouded with the milky way, and the beauty of the stars wrapping around the clouds, and the heat of summer. I felt as tall as a giant under that sky. That’s what made me want to go to space. In my mind, I flew every night, past the little town square, past my elementary, past the little feed store and the five and dime. Past the internet cafe and the police station. During the day, sun shining and all the colors flashing, I’d connect the dandelions into constellations. It was every breath. I needed to fly. I needed to see the dark turned to light.”
The lights of the space station flashed larger on the view screen. Daniel wished there was more time, even as he pushed the jets to their full open, to get there faster. What he wanted and what he needed were two different things.
“When I grew up, the night sky meant more to me than any other thing. Understanding it. Mapping it. I had Mom, and I had Natalie. I could have done so many things. Could have been part of the rocket team at NASA. Could have worked engineering. I didn’t have to be the man strapped to a rocket and shot into the stars. But there was a hole in me. A depth that needed filling.”
Hermes’ capsule glittered in the light of the space station, edges in sharp relief. The shape didn’t relate to any ship Daniel knew. None of the miners. None of the shippers or the colonists. None of the transports. The metal in it must have weighed three tons. A fortune!
“I remember now. The launch pad was bright white, and the people screamed when I got on board. The audience cheered and I waved. I strapped myself in and launched. To the moon to Mars and back. I’d be a legend. The first man to fly solo so far. When I came back, I’d deal with Earth’s gravity. I’d deal with what I would have to be for Mom and for Natalie. But the flight to Mars, that was all me.”
Daniel’s glided into the open dock on the space station, settling into a slip big enough for it and the capsule it towed. The blue shield door closed as Hermes’ ship crossed the boundary and settled in with a thunk. The hissing decon gasses sprayed the surfaces of the ships, a precaution against space born contagion. They’d be stuck in place until the spray dried and they got the all clear.
“Daniel, I believed I could change everything then. Everything. If I could make it to Mars and back, then the future had to be better. We’d be able to fix it all. The wars and the pollution. All of it.”
He wasn’t making any sense. How terrible would it be if he died of asphyxia in the station, with fresh O2 right behind the bay doors waiting to rush in?
“Control, my tow needs O2,” Daniel hissed into his com. “Dory, damn it, make them hear me.”
Buzzing, slurred words. Finally, the buzzing resolved.
“DAAAAANNNNIEELLLLLL… NNNNNOOOOO LLLLLIIIIIIIFFFFFFFEEEEEEE PPPPPIIIIIINNNNNNNNNNGGGGGGGGG.”
Daniel’s own head spun with the strangeness of it all. “Hermes, you aren’t making sense. We’ve been on Mars for a hundred years now.”
Silence… no letters, no hissing breath of the O2 unit, no nothing.
“I don’t know what happened. I just saw you there, searching in your ship. I knew you’d rescue me, Daniel. From the cold.”
The buzzing in his ears eased, and the lights flickered on, indicating that the de-con gases had dissipated and they could safely disembark. Daniel pulled the straps off that held him in his seat.
“Boss, you can hear me? You’ve been offline…”
“Just power down, Dory. I’ll get him out.”
He threw the hatch open and stepped out, leaving Dory to her work. Jogging, Daniel made his way over the metal capsule. Its round back still faced him, though the pits and streaks of tiny impacts from its time in the debris field, an etched message across the mirrored surface. He swept a hand across as he hurried, to steady himself mostly, but he couldn’t help touching the metal. So much metal. A fortune. He shook his head and followed the craft’s conic, lined shape toward a rounded tip. No port, no door interrupted the ridges that encircled the nose of Hermes’ craft. Daniel started running his hands across the edges, looking for a handhold or a crevasse. Nothing.
He wiped his fingers across the scratched surface, tracing the letters there.
He remembered now. State school taught about early astronauts who had no one to save them if their ships failed. In particular, they focused on one ship, the Hermes VII, whose pilot was lost in the dark between Earth and Mars. Suddenly, he knew a name. An impossible name.
“James,” Daniel said, voice barely a whisper. “Your name is James.”
There was a pop and a sucking hiss as a hidden panel fell open. Daniel’s hands shook as he raised himself up into the dark ship’s void. Light followed him, spilling across the consoles’ dust-covered dashboard.
“Boss,” Dory whispered into the receiver built into his ear. “A message is coming for you.”
“Patch it through,” he whispered back, switching on a light on his belt and shifting around the blocky metal controls so he could see the back of a seat facing a greyed, cracked porthole. Cracked meant no O2 and no pressure. “James?”
The message hummed into his ear as he crept forward, hand on the edge of the pilot chair.
“That’s right. James. I’m James Galwick. I never went home to Natalie. I lost her. I lost everything. Even myself.”
Daniel felt those words in his gut. To have the world at your fingertips, a future, a family, someone to love, then lose it––Daniel didn’t have those things, but he felt their loss acutely. A fire in his chest. He pushed around the seat and came eye to eye with James. What was left of him? The suit, once the white uniform of a modern knight, was gray in the light thrown off his belt, and the filtered glow of the portholes. The insignias and patches, all museum pieces, proudly clung to the faded material. Badges of honor.
“James,” Daniel murmured, standing over his bones. Skull showing in bits, skin clinging inside the space suit. They called this the “eaten from within” scenario. Just enough heat in the capsule and the suit to sustain the organisms that crawl in and out upon death, but not long enough lasting for total skeletonization. Poor James looked like a mummy unwrapped, skin dried out in patches, gone in others, a rictus grin that felt more like a death scream in its wide gape.
Daniel kneeled next to James’ body. “James.”
The buzzing in his head amped up, climbing behind his ears and into his eye sockets. Didn’t matter though. Daniel’s eyes filled with water to offset the strange pain.
“Daniel… Daniel… I’m found. You found me. Gave me back my name. And now I remember everything.”
Daniel let his head nod, turning his eyes away from the bones and the lonely death James had.
“James, I wish…”
But what do you wish, he wondered, when death ignores all wishes and prayers? It just is. And James’ death was history long past.
“Daniel, you’ve freed me from my floating without end. From my loss. From the dark. You are the hero, Daniel. Young as you are. Fighter that you are.”
“Boss, the Hermes VII just used the last of its power to send the final wishes of a Captain James Galswick to me. It’s a five-hundred-year-old file, but your name is all over it. The Hermes VII is yours.”
Daniel put his hand on the dingy glove of James’ suit, squeezing until he felt the bones beneath. “Thank you, James. Thank you for the chance to have a life.”
The buzzing in Daniel’s head lessened and James’ voice seemed distant. “Use it well, my friend. And remember me sometimes.”
Daniel told the story before he left the station for all and good, headed for Mars’ domes and a future few Earthlings could afford. James became another story to be told over toilet wine and scraps. Just a ghost in the dark. But Daniel would never forget his name.
And that’s all James had wanted.
Donna J. W. Munro has spent the last nineteen years teaching high school social studies. Her students inspire her every day. An alumni of the Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction program, she published pieces in Dark Moon Digest # 34, Syntax and Salt, Sirens Ezine, the Haunted Traveler, Flash Fiction Magazine, Astounding Outpost, Door=Jar, Spectators and Spooks Magazine, Nothing’s Sacred Magazine IV and V, Hazard Yet Forward (2012), Enter the Apocalypse (2017), Killing It Softly 2 (2017), Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths II (2018), Terror Politico (2019), and several Thirteen O’Clock Press anthologies. Contact her at Donna J. W. Munro
Donna J.W. Munro
Author of “Hermes VII”
1) What inspired you to write this story/poem?
I’ve read so much about space junk around the earth and wondered what we will do with it someday when our resources run out and we need metal. The world grew up around that central idea. The poor, lost astronaut comes from a mash of my childhood memories of the space program losses–especially the shuttles. The most direct inspiration was an image one of my friends on Obsidian Flash Challenge posted. It’s a weekly flash group that writes from images we share. The one that inspired this can be found at Voyager by GranDosicua on DeviantArt.
2) What do you hope readers take from this story/poem?
For me, this is a story about hitting it big for doing the right thing. I’m a believer in karma and that good follows good, but not always in ways you can predict. If nothing else, I hope they get a little shiver.
3) To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story/poem has been through?
This story has been edited three times and rejected five times, which in the grand scheme is much quicker than so many of my other publishing credits.
4) Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
I’m really excited to be working with Scary Dairy Press in two different anthologies. One, Terror Politico, is available on Amazon and a percentage of the profits go to helping victims of the Puerto Rican Hurricane. Another anthology, Dangerous Feminine, is in the works. Finally, I’m always excited to invite people to come join us at our weekly flash fiction writing contest at www.obsidianflash.com.