The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is
Glenn R. Frank
I started the story below. See how Glenn starts after the red line and takes us to a surprise ending and reveals a dark plot.
By Glenn R. Frank and Matthew Cross
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! Halcyon 5 Space Control, this is United Polity Ship 999Q2-292-383-858-112, courier class. I have multiple air and fuel leaks following a collision with unknown debris—just dust probably—checking scanners now, mmmm, the immediate danger appears to have cleared, but I’ve cut engines to conserve fuel and prevent an explosion. Here are my coordinates. [Series of beeps, clicks and static sound.]
I’m listening to the Mayday from the cockpit of the Scrappy Doo, a merchant scrapper. Don’t ask about the name. It was Mom’s idea, and after she passed, it seemed disrespectful to change the name.
The shipboard comp is automatically recording this message and storing away the coordinates. I recognize the coordinate prefixes. The Polity courier is in my quadrant of the Belt, the vast ring of asteroids that forms the outer limits of the Halcyon system. But that covers a lot of space. After all, the Belt’s diameter is wider than the rest of the solar system inside of it.
I’m the only one on board, but even so my air’s gonna run out in less than 8 hours. Even if I blew all the fuel—if I wanted to risk an explosion—I’d be at least 200 hours out from Halcyon 5. I need a priority pickup under authority of the Polity Navy.
Eight hours of air. It’s every spacer’s nightmare. Without a rescue, you know the hour and the method of your death. And suffocation is a bad way to go.
I’m watching my own scanners as I listen. When you’re in the Belt, you have to be on constant watch. Courier-112’s case proves the point. A small shower of pebbles or even just a patch of dust can perforate a hull and turn it into a sieve. Doesn’t matter whether you fly into it or it flies into you.
The population of the Belt is sizable–mostly miners and scrappers like me. But we’re spread out over so much space you can go years without seeing anyone unless you intend to. So I’m certain someone else will answer the Mayday call. But that’s because I forgot about the family’s luck.
I open my eyes and check my scanners again. That’s when I see the blinking red comm light. My stomach drops.
Reluctantly, I lean forward and reach slowly for the comm switch. Click.
“Scrappy Doo. This is Halcyon 8 Perimeter and Belt Space Control. This is a priority comm.”
It’s not that I don’t want to help. But I have my own problems. I just loaded up the Doo five days ago with supplies on credit and I need to gather some scrap to pay back Fram. He’s an old friend of Mom’s and the only outfitter who will give me credit. Since Mom died almost a year ago I’ve been living hand to mouth.
And I’ve got a lead on a good haul that could square me with Fram for good. Maybe even give me a small cushion. So I don’t need distractions.
“This is Scrappy Doo,” I mumble.
“Did you receive Mayday UPS Courier-112?”
They know I did. You would have to bore into the middle of a planet not to receive a Mayday. Even the wilds of the Belt are filled with boosts to carry emergency messages.
In my head, I’m repeating a mantra. Not me, not me, not me . . .
“You are the closest ship to Courier-112. Your ship reports you have adequate fuel to reach the Courier and reach orbit at Halcyon 8.”
My head thumps on the control panel. I bought all that fuel on credit. And now they want me to burn it all in a rescue mission for a lousy UPS courier with one passenger?
But what can I do? Space Control and my ship already made the automated electronic handshake. They know my position, my vector, my fuel levels. Control has all the data shown on my control panel and faster comps to spin it up into any simulation they want.
That’s why I’m sitting cross-legged in the pilot’s seat with my crossed fingers tucked under my thighs, hoping I won’t be close enough to help.
I’m also biting my lip, but that’s just because everybody gets nervous when you hear a Mayday. It makes your heart jump into your throat.
If I don’t render aid, then I’ll lose the Scrappy Doo the first time I make port. They’ll impound the Doo and throw me in the brig.
“This is Scrappy Doo.” I hear some chuckles in the background from Control. I grit my teeth but then smile. With Fram as my only friend, I can’t afford enemies. I smile because you can hear the difference over comms. “I’m changing course to render aid.”
“Affirmative Scrappy Doo. We’ve fed your ship the coordinates for the optimum intercept. We’re also sending a priority UPS Medical Transport to rendezvous with you near the rim of the Belt. Thank you for your service and we’ll try to get you back on your course as soon as possible.”
Even without checking my comp, I know this trip is going to use up half my fuel. If speed is not a factor, you burn the most fuel just changing course. One turn to meet the courier and one to head to the rendezvous point with the med transport . . . I just shake my head.
I paste on a fake smile.
“Control, have you confirmed the identity of Courier, umm . . .” I’ve already forgotten the courier ship’s designation. I check a monitor. “UPS Courier-112? I’m solo crew and I have minimal weapons capability.”
I can’t keep all the quaver out of my voice. It’s actually worse than it sounds. My shields are only rated for space debris and minor port collisions. And the ‘defensive lasers’ that came standard with this scrapper model are really just part of the array of cutting tools for scrapping. Sure, they’re strong, but the aiming and target-tracking programs are a joke, and the combat display features on my monitors are clearly an afterthought.
So, I’m not completely defenseless. But any well-armed pirate . . . Let’s just say the thought makes me damp under the arms.
“No worries, Scrappy Doo, we’ve confirmed the identity of the UPS courier. It’s the real deal.” There’s some chatter in the background. “That courier has some special Navy designations, too. They’re classified, but let’s just say the passenger is somebody important.”
A VIP, huh? Maybe there’s an upside here, as long as he and I both survive this.
They can’t save me from pirates, just hunt them down if I’m killed. I’m so relieved.
“We’ll live monitor your progress until rendezvous. I’m also sending your ship a boost code. Your ship’s automated beacon will warn all other ships that you are under Mayday orders and protected by Control and Polity Navy authority.”
Oh, goody, I think. Control is millions of kloms away. They can’t save me from pirates, just hunt them down if I’m killed. I’m so relieved.
“Thank you, Control. Changing course to respond to Mayday UPS Courier-112.”
The comp says six hours to intercept, including deceleration to match speed and direction of the courier. That’s good. The courier reported he had less than 8 hours of air, which is not a precise number. But air consumption is not a precise measurement, no matter what the engineers say, and add a tiny, undetected leak or two and it’s anyone’s guess.
If the courier is conscious when I arrive and the ship’s hatch is not damaged, then bringing him aboard will take no time at all. If he’s trapped in a can leaking fuel, that will get tricky.
I spend the first hour checking Control’s intercept calculations. Of course, they’re right, but it’s a good math exercise to run. How often do you get a chance to run real space math and check it against a Control calculation? If you want to pilot a ship, you gotta know your math. Calculations also calm and center the mind.
That task done, I try and take a nap. It’s hopeless, of course. I’m nervous for the courier. I’m terrified for me.
So I do some more math. I plug myself back into the comp and run air, water and food calculations for two people aboard the Doo. AOK.
I run rescue simulations, practicing some extractions with each of my cutting tools. The first run throughs are pretty smooth. Control didn’t send me much for specs on the courier, so I send a message to request those. I get back a set of generic specs on Polity courier ships. I send again, asking for Courier-112’s specs from its own computer. The terse message back says those are classified.
Classified? They want me to run a rescue and not give me the specs? That sounds like the old joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron.
“A bunch of morons,” I say to myself.
I spend the rest of the trip checking equipment again and again. And then I check it again.
Before I’m in visual sight of Courier-112, I hail it. The ships already made their electronic handshake. Something in the codes from Control must have authorized the courier ship to do that much. But the courier ship won’t tell me anything about passengers or bio signs. It’s classified, I’m sure.
After three explosions, my hands are shaking.
The courier’s pilot is not responding to my hails, either.
I add fuel leaks to the rescue simulations. Big mistake. After three explosions, my hands are shaking. I unstrap and float to the back to the equipment storage.
Until I was close, I didn’t want him to use up any air talking. I could have just texted, of course. But to tell the truth, I put it off until now because I didn’t want any bad news.
When I reach visual range, it doesn’t look so bad. Courier-112 looks to be in a single piece. It’s riding straight, not spinning out of control, gliding smoothly on course. I let go of the breath I’d been holding in.
The Doo and I go through the docking sequence together. The Doo aligns with Courier-112 and I make the final small adjustments visually. I feel the slight vibration as the ships connect. Textbook docking!
I slump back in my seat, relieved. Ships only make this kind of docking maneuver in cases of rescue or combat. I’d only done it once before with Mom at my side.
The relief doesn’t last long. I still can’t raise a response from the courier’s pilot. I try everything, including the comms built into the Doo’s docking arms connected to the courier.
I’m going to have to go outside. Vac, vac, vac!
I hear Mom’s voice in my head. “Never hurry. Think it through. Make a plan. It’s only the spacers that lose their heads and rush around that get hurt.”
Instead of unlatching, I check my monitors. First, assess the situation. I had set a countdown clock based on 8 hours of air. If the courier’s estimate was good, he should have plenty of air left. But he could still be injured. Unconscious.
I went through my options. Legally, I could report this to Control and stay in my seat. The duty to render aid on a Mayday does not extend to space walks. Legally, all I had to do was wait here until the courier’s pilot climbed aboard or death was confirmed. I could even earn a small commission just giving the ship a push in the right direction for a Halcyon recovery crew.
I run through all my options twice, but the truth is, I’m a spacer. And in space, a spacer renders aid. Because this could happen to anyone. Mom would agree.
I send Control a quick update, half hoping they’ll tell me to sit tight. I get no response. That happens in the Belt. Dead patches run throughout. With shaking hands, I unlatch and climb into my suit. I move slowly and deliberately. I think through every action.
Before I know it, I’m opening the hatch of Courier-112. So far, Control and the ship’s own comp have been so secretive, I half expect red lights and sirens when I pull the inset lever to reveal the wheel. Instead, the wheel begins to turn itself. The pilot told the ship to let me in. That doesn’t mean he’s conscious, I remind myself. He could have set the sequence before passing out.
The hatch opens, revealing the clear film of a gel seal. A courier ship is too small for a separate decompression chamber. Only the seal separates the cabin’s oxygen and open space. Through the film, I see the top of the pilot’s head. He’s wearing a suit and helmet as well. He does not move.
I push my helmet through the film and connect to his helmet.
Both our reflective faceshields open automatically at the connection, leaving clear panes for us to see through. Our suits have synched their own comms.
His eyes are closed. A shock runs through me. I’m too late, I think.
Then he opens his eyes. He has dull blue eyes, almost gray. He smiles slightly as his eyes focus in on mine. Then his pupils open wider as he examines my face.
“You’re just a kid!”
“Yeah, well, I’m the kid that’s saving your hide.”
“Negative, it’s too late for that,” he says. He looks down.
I see a detail I missed before. Small threads of red extend from the chest of his suit, wiggling in the thin air. Blood. The suit sealed itself, of course. Just two small holes, but they’re high on the chest.
And then I see the bubbles of red in the corners of his mouth.
“Are you alone?” he asks.
What a creepy question. That’s my first thought. But it’s an important one. A fair question, I guess.
“Yes, I’m the solo captain-pilot of the Scrappy Doo.”
I see confusion in his eyes.
“I’m a scrapper.”
“Negative,” he says. “Now you’re UPS Courier-112. Get this to Halcyon 5.”
He raises his hand to me, holding a black slip of plastic. A data chip, no doubt.
“Halcyon 8?” I say weakly.
“Negative,” he mumbles, “Halcyon 5. It’s . . . “ He gasps and I hear burbling sounds. “. . . urgent.”
I push my arms through the gel seal and grasp his shoulders, but he’s gone. The data chip floats from his hand and I swipe for it, but my clumsy glove swats it away instead.
Just my luck, or clumsiness.
I follow the floating chip into the snug cockpit where it pings off the forward canopy. This time I corner it with my gloves and gently slip it into my suit pouch.
Small holes in the canopy glass are patched with emergency gel. Blood is splashed across the console. A sealant canister floats nearby. Twin holes are in the back of the seat, ringed by blood droplets which cling to the chair only by surface tension.
What was this Naval courier doing out here in the Belt? Why would he be desperately trying to get back to Halcyon 5 when 8 is closer?
I place my hand on my suit pouch and look at the data-reader in the console.
No, I can’t.
I take a long, deep breath. But he told me I am UPS Courier-112 now. Belt Control’s team will take this back to Halcyon 8 instead of the Navy on 5. The dead pilot didn’t seem to want that to happen.
I carefully retrieve the chip from my pouch and slide it into the data-reader slot. Video of a ship’s hull, illuminated by spot lights, scrolls past on the display screen. The ship’s name comes into view: UPS Ceyx. Belt coordinates and tracking information follow the video of the dark and silent warship.
I pull the chip and put it back in my pouch. I need to get back to the Doo.
The stale atmosphere of the Doo is strangely comforting as I remove my helmet and slip into my pilot’s seat. The comm light is blinking again. I hesitate, then click the switch.
“Scrappy Doo, have you made contact with the pilot?”
“Control, the pilot is dead.”
“Stay on station, a team should be there soon.”
I cut the comms without confirming. “A team” sounded ominous to my ears. Something’s not right. I run my hand through my hair and sit back. I could make a run for 5 with telemetry off, but they already know who I am.
A clank of the docking hatch behind me breaks my thoughts. I turn. A combat suit stands before me, weapon held in my face. An electronically distorted voice crackles:
“Sorry it had to be you, kiddo.”
Kiddo? — “Fram?”
“This wasn’t how you were supposed to repay me,” the faceless soldier says. “Your mom wouldn’t have wanted it this way either, but . . . ”
“I said I would pay you back!”
“Belt Control has me under their thumb. They need the ship to stay hidden for the coming rebellion against the Polity. You’re the scapegoat for the missing courier.”
I can’t believe my bad luck.
“Those shots didn’t come through the canopy did they? They came from behind.”
“You’re smart, kid.”
I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Glenn R. Frank and I wrote together. He’s a great collaboration writer!
If you enjoyed Glenn R. Frank’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.
Be stellar! 🚀✨