Swirling Away (a short story)

By Jerry A. Boggs | September 2014

 Mars Choice

What could shock you more than knowing you were going to die in just a few seconds?

It was Megan’s birthday, and Navigator Kasey Abernathy was depressed more than usual about her daughter’s death two years earlier. Today Megan would have been nine.

Abernathy stood in her mag boots inside The Raven’s weightlessness and sucked on a tube of cold coffee that had all the flavor of liquefied cardboard. For maybe the tenth time since reaching the test-run zone, she fingered the wide purple head-band she’d slipped on post-launch to make sure her brown shoulder-length hair — a length that snubbed company rules — would not float around into her eyes.

She padded across the metal-plated deck in less-than-graceful steps, from the control room’s food-server niche back to her nav station. The Raven was a new Earth-Mars shuttle fresh off the Mars City assembly line. She and test pilot Toby Lewis were putting it through the paces for their employer Creighton Astroline.

Abernathy’s depression, heart-ripping at any time, stabbed her harder each time she realized Megan had died at her hand. Not literally, but nearly so. She had been killed in a car crash simply because Abernathy had been too impatient to reboot her vehicle’s unresponsive guidance system. Unaccustomed to doing her own driving, Abernathy had begun a turn just a split-second too late on a curve one mile from their North Carolina home. The vehicle bounce-rolled down a steep embankment until it smashed into a huge oak tree. Abernathy incurred severe strains and a broken left shoulder, but little Megan had been crushed by the car roof.

As a tribute and offering to her daughter, Abernathy had cajoled the The Raven’s programmers, an agreeable if harried bunch, into reconfiguring the shuttle’s computer system to respond to “Megan” and speak in Megan’s voice — a task they’d completed after compiling a database of words from the volumes of Abernathy’s audio and video recordings of Megan. A voice mimic/synthesizer filled in the words Megan had never spoken. When the computer spoke in seven-year-old Megan’s voice, Abernathy could close her eyes and easily picture her daughter alive and standing in front of her.

But she soon realized that the reconfiguration hadn’t been the wisest thing to do. Hearing Megan’s voice didn’t serve as a tribute and fill her with anticipated joy as much as worsen her guilt and depression.

A huge lump took up residence in her throat, and welling tears stung her eyes. Swiping at the wetness with her fingers, she wished to God this test-flight would hurry up and end.

Pilot Toby Lewis, a 50-ish prickly sort who predictably had scoffed at Abernathy’s computer reconfiguration, didn’t turn his cold blue eyes her way as she strapped herself in. Instead, he hunched forward a bit and froze, his attention lasering on a read-out.

“We’re slowing!”

“What? How? Megan! Why are we—”

“Did you hear that?” Lewis glanced sidelong at her. His face showed no emotion except for a twitch in the pallid flesh below his eyes.

“Hear wha—?”


Abernathy heard it. Faint at first, the noise quickly grew. A memory flashed before her eyes. When she was an 11-year-old, she often stood at the rusty cyclone fence surrounding a junkyard near her home and watched as the huge compacting press flattened old cars before they were hauled off to a recycling center for further processing. That sound, the hard, brutal crunching of metal, was what she now heard echoing throughout the control room.

The instrument panel in front of her seized her attention. A large rectangular button that registered the health of the starboard thruster had switched from its steady green to flashing bright red: WARNING! WARNING!

“Crap!” She toggled a lever below a screen, then recoiled at the view provided by an outside camera and light. “The nacelle! It’s collapsing! How’s that possible!”

“According to my skin sensors,” Megan said with an uncanny cheeriness, “the starboard thruster is malfunctioning. Will attempt to repair… Attempt failed.”

“You might also have noticed,” Lewis said, his face now blotchy red and his carotid artery visible on his neck, “that we just came to a dead stop. How’s that possible?

“Megan,” Abernathy said, “hail Ops with an SOS!”

“Sending SOS…SOS failed.”

Another warning flashed next to the first. Abernathy leaned and flipped another lever. “Now the port nacelle’s collapsing! We have no thrusters! Look — they’re…folding into the shuttle!

Megan droned happily: “Port thruster malfunctioning. Will attempt to repair…. Attempt failed.”

“Shut the hell up, Megan!” the pilot said.

“Don’t talk to my dau—” Abernathy checked herself, breathed in, let her anger drain. They hardly needed to be at each other’s throat.

“I would like to think,” Lewis said in a tight voice, “that this craft is so screwed up structurally that somehow Mars’ gravity—”

“No no no! Even if Mars’ gravity were strong as Jupiter’s, it wouldn’t do this—”

“Don’t patronize me, Abernathy. I’m well aware of the effects of gravity.”

Metal groaned and screeched, the din rising to a near-deafening pitch. The control room began to vibrate under their feet. Black smoke drifted in, first in tendrils, then in billows all around them. The smell of burnt wiring and hydraulic fluid assailed their nostrils. In the overhead panels, a series of electrical sparkings sent small globes of fire showering down over them, burning flesh where their flight suits gave no cover.

Abernathy unbuckled, scrambled out of her seat, then crouched, clinging to the arm rest. She glanced wildly about in the smoke-filling control room, desperately trying to make sense of it all. No clues to the insanity were to be seen. And no escape route.

“Megan! What is going on—!” Her voice choked off in the roiling smoke.

“Multiple systems malfunctioning,” Megan replied with a giggle that Abernathy barely heard. “Will Abernathyattempt to repair…. Attempt failed.” Megan set off the overhead red emergency flasher and the ear-splitting two-tone klaxon. “I’m afraid the shuttle must be abandoned.”

“Christ!” Lewis said, coughing, still in his seat. In the decreasing visibility, Abernathy could discern that his eyes were darting from one instrument to another. A diagnostic monitor, level with his head, began to flicker as green data-feeds rapidly rolled up. Then in a spasm of blinking and fluttering, the monitor went black as coal. “The whole shuttle— We gotta get out! It’s — imploding!”

“All systems failing across the board,” Megan said sweetly, “including Megan. Will attempt to….”

In one violent motion, the ceiling of the control room shuddered, then dropped 12 inches. The floor swept upward, slamming them against the lowered ceiling like rag dolls.

In agony, they struggled in the weightlessness to position their feet and re-anchor themselves somewhere, anywhere, and gain control.

Another violent spasm of the shuttle, and a huge, jagged, roughly triangular opening appeared in the hull near the control console. Abernathy glimpsed the blackness of space. Instantly, the air and every object not secured to walls and consoles — papers, laptops, remnants of recently eaten meals — were cannon-balled through the opening. Abernathy and Lewis, their arms flailing and grabbing, followed as if flung by a catapult. A sharp ragged edge of the bulkhead breach sliced open Abernathy’s upper arm. The snag set her slowly swirling, like a bizarre ballerina, as she plunged out into the void. The blood erupting from her arm encircled her and froze so quickly that had there been air, she would have heard the soft tinkling of delicate wineglasses shattering. She made a desperate, soundless attempt to scream. Instantly, the saliva on her tongue boiled off.

Not yet lifeless, she could see the receding Raven with each turn of her bloating body, as if viewing the ship in a series of photographs. The shuttle had folded onto itself several times and was now a black and silver, beach-ball-sized clump from which streams of smoke belched.

Abernathy’s joints, because she had in effect been heaved in one second from the bottom of an ocean to its surface, were jack-hammered by the bends. Without atmospheric pressure, the blood in her veins and arteries boiled as she began to quick-freeze on the outside.

In the seconds of living that remained, though her lungs screamed for air and her entire body throbbed in unbearable pain, Abernathy tried to focus on Mars, the sun, and the stars gently whirling around her, their light dim and blurred through her iced pupils. The near-absolute-zero cold dulled her pain. She felt an eerie relief, an almost euphoric calm.

“I’m free at last,” she thought. “I’ll never again have to grieve over my precious Megan.”

Swirling away toward Mars, she caught one last shocking sight when she again turned back toward the shuttle. Perhaps one kilometer on the other side of the smoldering ball — her experience in space helped her judge the distance — was the answer to The Raven’s self-destruction: the sun-lit underside of a motionless, city-sized alien craft equipped with what appeared to be row upon row of huge turrets girding a massive bow that was pointed straight toward Earth.


Photo Credits

Mars: Astronomy Now Magazine

Frightened Abernathy: defunct Imagination Sci-Fi Mag, June 1957, p. 6 



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