Writing Prompt: Corpses
The hissing of an air pump. The beeping of a low oxygen warning. It was these sounds, and no others, that woke Adrian Martinez from his pleasant dream. He was watching the ocean with Mia and Scott.
There was no ocean in deep space. Deep space was where Adrian was now, and he realized that with the lazy certainty of an oxygen-starved brain. Above him, his scout ship’s canopy looked out onto the stars, a canopy with three tiny holes in it. Bullet holes.
The system sun crested the horizon on his cockpit’s left edge, and Adrian realized his silent ship was slowly spinning. He squinted through crystals of water and blood. How the hell was he still alive?
Hands that moved slowly in zero-gravity thumped his flight suit. Gloved fingers slid across his faceplate, the one that had automatically snapped shut when the enemy bullets zipped through the canopy. There were no holes in his suit, or if there were, his suit had sealed them.
The sun set on the right edge of his cockpit, and the world went dark again.
Their ship had vented to vacuum long ago. His suit’s internal oxygen had kept him alive while he slept, but he had obviously slept too long, because now it was angry at him. He needed to get them home.
Adrian sorted through blurred memories. Flight command had given him constellations to use as guides if the waypoint system malfunctioned. Those constellations would help him orient the ship. Maybe his navigator…
Shit! She hadn’t said a word since he woke up. What if she was hurt, or dying?
Adrian twisted in his chair, but the straps fought him, so he popped the straps and floated off his seat. He pushed up and started a slow twist, careful not to overdo it, and stared at the shadow in the seat behind him. Airman Shelly Hart didn’t speak, and no lights glowed on her suit.
The sun rose, illuminating Hart’s suit, and her shattered faceplate, and the staring blue eyes inside her helmet. The pale face covered in little flecks of ice. No oxygen warning was beeping inside her helmet.
Adrian watched her until the sun set.
His oxygen-starved brain refused to focus on anything but the woman who should be alive right now, but wasn’t. His partner. He tried to remember who Hart had waiting for her back on Earth. He vaguely recalled a sister, and a father. Hart’s mother died on Titan, in one of the first enemy attacks.
Adrian pushed against the canopy and back into his seat. He fumbled with his straps as the sun rose and set, squinting through droplets of Hart’s blood. Once he was strapped in again, he focused on the stars that would guide them both home. They, like his memories, were blurry now.
He couldn’t die out here, not yet, because he needed to get Hart’s body home. He knew what it felt like when someone you loved didn’t come home, because that’s where his brother was now, not home. Not dead, not prisoner, just missing, and forever. He wouldn’t do that to Hart’s family or his own.
Adrian flipped the emergency start. Nothing happened. He flipped off all the auxiliaries, counted to 10, and flipped them on again. He waited as the sun rose and set.
A single yellow button glowed inside his cockpit. That glow was joined by others, banks of tiny green lights that rapidly turned yellow or red. As glowing guidelines floated before him and a 360 threat sphere materialized above his flight stick, hope struggled to the surface of his drowning mind.
Yet as Adrian’s gloved hands wrapped around the flight stick, as his booted feet hovered above the thrust pedals, he didn’t know where to go. Navigation was one of the red lights – the destroyed systems – and while he knew the fleet had set a rendezvous point for survivors, he had no idea where it was.
Hart would have known. She could read the stars of this system better than any map. She would tell him how to spin the ship and go home, but she was now a corpse in his back seat.
Adrian focused on the briefing he barely remembered and tried not to scream. There were no constellations beyond his canopy. Just thousands of tiny blinking lights, all waiting to watch him die.
The sun rose and set again.
The sun. He would aim their ship for the sun, because the engagement map had them heading rimward from the carrier, toward the enemy. Heading coreward would take them home.
Adrian only had one thruster left, but it wasn’t like he actually had to stop. He cancelled the spin and pushed toward the sun. He had always hated how the stars didn’t move, how it felt like nothing was moving at all. With no navigation screen to track their velocity, the stillness was maddening.
He wanted to tell Hart they’d make it home. He wanted to sleep because he was very, very tired, but falling asleep was also falling dead. He couldn’t do either just yet.
“Martinez?” Hart’s voice echoed through the speakers in his helmet, barely audible.
Was he hearing things? “Hart?” He was too tired to look behind him.
“The fuck are you doing?” Her voice was weak, quiet, but it was her.
“You’re alive!” Had he imagined the cracks in her faceplate?
“No shit.” Her familiar snark cut through the blanket of disorientation infesting his brain. “Is that why you’re trying to kill us?”
“I’m not trying to kill us.”
“On this vector you are. The Slingshot’s 40 degrees off port.”
The Slingshot! Adrian saw it then, the constellation, just where Hart said it would be. “Hot damn.”
“Turn the ship, you idiot.”
Adrian oriented their nose toward the constellation. “Done. What’s next?”
“Straight up from the Slingshot, 20 degrees.”
Right. That’s what Captain Fallon said in the briefing, up 20 degrees. Thank God for Hart’s clear head.
“Now right 15,” she whispered. “Right 15.”
Adrian turned the ship. He fired the thruster, burned the last of their fuel, and grinned wide. “Hey, think we’ll get a medal for this?”
“Just get us home, pilot,” Hart whispered inside his helmet.
That ended the small talk, because they both needed air to live. Yet they were headed in the right direction now. Rescuers would find them, alive or not, so no matter what, their families wouldn’t wonder.
Adrian eventually lost his fight with sleep, but a loud pop shattered that peaceful black. He blinked bloodshot eyes as a plastic mask crushed his face, as oxygen fought its way back into his lungs. Even though the blur, he recognized the blocky lines of the carrier’s launch bay. Medals for everyone.
He struggled as medics in red jumpsuits pulled him from a ship filled with holes. As they settled him on a stretcher, holding the mask over his face, he tried to ask them about Hart. He couldn’t, but that was okay. They’d find her and save her, too, and they’d have one hell of a story to tell.
He slept again.
Adrian woke once more in a soft bed. Captain Fallon sat beside him. The sight of his commanding officer caused one arm to stiffen instinctively, but Fallon said “at ease” before he could try, and fail, to salute her. He nodded instead, and then he asked her the first question to enter his head.
“Did Hart make it?”
“No, and I’m sorry.” Fallon squeezed Adrian’s shoulder, but her comfort felt cold in the face of her words. “There was nothing we could do for her.”
Adrian felt a heavy weight settle in his chest.
“Even so,” Fallon said, “you got her home. You got the both of you home, and that’s something.”
Adrian sat back. “It was Hart who got us home, sir.”
Fallon narrowed her eyes. “How’s that?”
“I blacked out after we took three rounds to the canopy. After I woke up, Hart told me how to orient the ship. She remembered the constellations, sir.”
Fallon was quiet for a moment. “Hart told you how to get home?”
“Yes sir. It should be on the tapes, sir.”
“The only voice on those tapes is you, Martinez, and your vitals are clear. Hart died the moment those bullets penetrated. It wasn’t your fault.”
Nausea blossomed as Adrian remembered Hart’s pale face and staring eyes. “She was alive, sir.”
“The tapes say otherwise.”
“Then the tapes are wrong, sir.”
Fallon watched him for a moment. “Airman Hart guided you home, correct?”
“Then that’s what I’ll report.” Fallon stood. “That’s what I’ll tell her family.”
Adrian relaxed. “Thank you, sir.”
“Get some rest.”
Adrian tried to make sense of things after Fallon left. He knew he’d heard Hart’s voice in his helmet, her whispers directing their ship. The tapes were wrong. The tapes had to be wrong.
But even if they weren’t, his navigator had guided them both home.
About the Story:
I actually struggled with this theme and it took me a good while to come up with anything. While our theme was corpses, the corpse had to be entirely mundane (no zombies or other supernatural elements) which immediately blocked off 90% of my ideas (though this was good, as it forced me to be creative).
Anyway, it was down to the wire, maybe five days left, and I watched an episode of Robotech (it is now on Netflix!) where Lisa Hayes was flying in a two-person fighter with her pilot. They get in a dogfight and her pilot gets killed, so now she’s (briefly) in a Veritech with a corpse in a seat behind her. I thought that was incredibly creepy, being trapped in a damaged fighter with a dead guy, unable to fly (Lisa isn’t a pilot, so I flipped the idea to be a pilot who doesn’t know here to go).
That was part one of coming up with the story.
Part two was old ghost stories, particularly involving downed flights. I remembered a ghost story from decades ago regarding the crew of a doomed flight that went down in the Florida Everglades. The pilots crashed because there was a malfunctioning height warning or something, and they (and everyone on board) were killed.
There were ghost stories (supposedly confirmed by flight crew, if you believe the Internet) of the ghosts of the pilots of that flight returning to warn future flights and crews of problems. For instance, supposedly the captain of the flight’s ghost appeared to flight crew on another flight and said “There’s going to be a fire” before vanishing. It turned out the airplane’s stove had a short or something, and would have caught fire in case they hadn’t checked it. So, I loved the idea of the ghost of a pilot reappearing on other flights to try to warn other flight crews of danger.
Finally, I remembered the scene in Gravity where George Clooney helps Sandra Bullock’s character (or does he?) and decided to add that as the final element. So the question in this story is the same. People who believe in ghosts can assume that Shelly Hart’s ghost manifested to help her co-pilot navigate home. People who don’t believe in ghosts can assume that Martinez’s oxygen-starved mind caused him to hallucinate something he subconsciously remembered (he did see the star charts, he just didn’t remember them).
I never say either way, and leave the conclusion up to the reader.
photo credit: X-Nergal-X <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/135887904@N06/30903320800″>Yela</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a>