Our congratulations to Christopher J. Burke, winner in eSpec Books’ November Flash Fiction Contest. His prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.
Anton Kukal – The Broken Boy
For those interested in submitting to this month’s contest details can be found at:
Surveying the Void
Christopher J. Burke
Martinez sat in the pilot’s seat, like she did for sixteen hours every day, staring into the inky black void between the stars. The rest of the time she spent lying in her bunk a few feet away in the back of the small cabin or in the cylindrical shower stall across from it. Next to the stall was a mini-galley, containing the dwindling supply of rations and an increasing number of plastic bags, filled of the refuse of many meals gone by, and sealed with duct tape.
The instruments hummed quietly, powered mainly by sunlight eight hours old. Sensors were always on the lookout for stray comets and odd plutinos. However, most of the time, they just dutifully recorded what scarce invisible particles could be found in that vast nothingness of space. Not that there was anything wrong with that—or the equipment, for that matter. Nothing is a data point, too. A boring one, but still data. Everyone knew there would be more zeroes than ones out here. And all those bits were being strung together to form a digital environmental map of the region just beyond the outer Kuiper Belt.
Some days, the dull, tedious monotony had her wishing for, say, aliens to appear from a hyperspatial wormhole and demand an audience with her Queen. But she would settle for a stray asteroid crossing her path like a black cat on Friday the 13th.
Not that the occasional icy, space rock hadn’t crossed her path. The bigger ones were identified, observed, photographed, scanned, and catalogued. Smaller ones, as large as bowling balls but much more massive, could be collected. That required a combination of skill, luck, and actual piloting. Any excuse to deviate from the programmed flight plan was put into action. As a result, at least a dozen of them had been secured in the hold.
Those were the days she lived for. Something positive to do. A chance to take the wheel, fire the thrusters and enter a course correction afterward. Those calculations alone broke up the boredom.
And then when it was done and logged, back to watching the viewscreen and checking the equipment. If nothing else, after five months and four trips in an ever-widening arc, Capt. Lisbeth Martinez knew the equipment inside and out. She could probably be certified in operations and maintenance.
Midday by the ship’s clock, she ripped open a ration bar and grabbed her journal. She’d taken to writing daily reflections on the trip and how her life had brought out here on the edge of humanity. The decisions she’d made. Her choices, both good and poor. The things she had accomplished, and the void she felt inside. And what had led her to a six-month stint inside a single-manned survey ship.
She’d filled hundreds of pages with doodles and musings and along the way had discovered quite a bit about herself. She’d realized that even with others flying similar routes—explorers, traders, miners, and scientists—there were days where she estimated that if she turned the viewer toward that bright, but tiny star in the distance, every human in existence would fall somewhere on the port side of her ship. No one to starboard. On a map of all humanity, she could draw an arrow to the very last dot on the far right edge and label it, “Lisbeth Martinez was here.”
Looking up at the Sun, she wondered. Where was Earth in its orbit? Were her parents on this side or the other? What about her sister, Flora, with her lakeside house on Mars?
She was so lost in thought that she didn’t hear the sensors until the fourth chirp. Something was out there in the distance up ahead, twenty degrees starboard. She glanced at the fuel gauge and then turned on the radio.
“Kuiper Base, this is Capt. Lisbeth Martinez on Papa Sierra 1-7-8. Deviating from plan to intercept unknown object.”
A moment later, the speaker squawked back at her. “Papa Sierra 1-7-8, this is Kuiper Base. Negative, you are too low on fuel.”
“Nate! Glad it’s you on duty. You know I have this. I’ve done it lots of times.”
“Martinez, you’re almost home and you’re already overdue from venturing too far astray. I don’t want you getting stranded out there.”
She smiled. “Nate, you worry too much. I won’t use any more than I need. Besides, Colonel, you know I’ve already done the calculations.” She hadn’t, of course, but that wasn’t a cause for concern. Still, she shut the radio in case he called her on the bluff.
Martinez rolled to the right, adjusted the pitch, and applied just enough thrust to get her close to the pinging object like she’d done a dozen times before. Time to make it a baker’s dozen.
Smooth sailing. A moment later, she had visual confirmation of another dirty snowball about the size of a grapefruit. After a couple more quick maneuvers, she brought it aboard.
Then she took her pencil and opened the journal to a fresh page and started working out the calculations to get back. She could’ve called Col. Nathaniel “Nate” Oldacre for an assist, but who wanted the “I told you so” that would accompany it.
It was a week later when PS187 limped into Kuiper Base and docked. The crew chief met the ship immediately with a maintenance team. Col. Oldacre personally came down to speak to Martinez, so she could see him as he spoke to her through the comm on a private channel.
“Colonel, I’m ready to go out again as soon as the ship is supplied.”
“Lis, you have less than three weeks left on your sentence. You can spend it confined below decks. I can get you a link to the video library, so you won’t be bored. No one has to know you’re there. No one will bother you.”
“Thank you, sir. I’d rather go out again.”
He sighed. “You know that’s another month, minimum. And with your curiosity and your seeming determination to want to break through the heliopause to find Voyager 1, it’ll be much longer.”
“This room has been my home for five months and eight days. I’d rather be locked in here seeing the cosmos than be stuck down there watching them on a vidscreen.”
The colonel had figured her choice already. While they talked, the crew had already begun resupplying Prison Ship 187, and it was already scheduled to depart at 0800, Base time.