Natasha absently stared out into the crushing black. Her gaze shifted to her hand as it steadily traced the porthole. Her breath used to stutter every time she thought of the glory and accolades that would come with exploring the great expanse of space. It used to excite her out here.
Now, it just felt cold.
Her eyes glazed over the bright number on her command display: Day-655. She pressed the holographic ‘receive’ button that flashed at the lower left corner of her screen’s transmission overlay. The ship’s AI came through the speakers with a motorized quality:
Natasha took several deep breaths and winced the budding tears from her eyes.
“Hey honey!” a man’s voice crackled through the speaker system. Natasha pursed her lips behind a shivering fist and glanced at the pile of medals on her desk; the ones she had torn from her uniform an eternity ago.
“Is this where I ask if the kids are asleep?” she croaked dryly.
“Yea, they have been for a few hours, but I’ll go wake them up.”
“I can’t believe I treated you the way I did,” a static hiss overtook the conversation for a moment.
Signal integrity degrading.
“Sorry about that Nat,” the man’s voice cleared up again. “Is something else troubling you?” Natasha’s chest swelled with tension as she began to weep.
“Yes-the disturbing number of apologies you felt were necessary to placate my anger.”
Atmospheric disturbance detected.
“I understand,” his words began to distort beyond its ambient crackle. “Nat, I think my signals getting tossed up by some bad weather. In case I lose y-”
Natasha whimpered into her palm, which exploded into shouts as she began hammering the top of her keyboard. The monitor flicked and pinged through various diagnostic reports as the frustrated officer bashed away for several seconds, before giving into exhaustion. She leaned back in her chair and kicked away from the desk, the resulting spin squeaking to a stop several feet from the bay doors. Her eyes tiringly scoped the intercom panel above the hatch’s keypad, sighing and lurching forward to press one of the dials; might as well finish the dance.
“This is Marko.”
“Marko,” Natasha smeared her dripping nose along her forearm, “have you prepared the sample for transport yet?” The speaker fell silent for several seconds.
“Yes, Colonel. We are finishing our initial analysis now,” Marko’s voice possessed a hollow and distant effect. “We’ll be sending it along via remote-skiff shortly.”
“Copy that-good work,” she dropped her shaky hand to the pistol on her belt, unable to stifle her dreadful sobs.
Shifting metal plates groaned and rumbled through the station’s frame, straightening Natasha’s aching spine. She slid off her chair and onto the floor, curling into a weeping ball under the command module just as the compound depressurization alarm sounded. A wash of orange strobes from several emergency lights coated the room, dancing on her slick skin like prismatic fire. She tucked her head into her arms even tighter and yelped as the first resounding boom came from a distance: each following bang increasing in interval, proximity, and intensity. Her lips fumbled, “Please Lord, I can’t do this anymore,” just as an ungodly grip seized the top of her scalp and yanked her screaming from beneath the desk, and into a tempest of pain and darkness.
Natasha lurched awake with a gasp, mocked by abyss lurking beyond the transparent porthole wall of her domicile. The blood that coated her hands had vanished, and she rubbed the skin that had been burned from her face only moments ago. Her eyes shifted to the command display: Day-656.
She giggled hysterically and squinted at the flashing transmission prompt on her overlay, hesitating for only a moment before flicking the button. The ships AI had deepened several octaves:
Natasha’s throat and eyes remained dry.
“Hey honey!” a man’s voice crackled through the speaker system.
“How long must we do this?” she rasped, “cause I’m getting tired.”
“Yea, they have been for a few hours, but I’ll go wake them up.”
“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU BASTARDS WANT FROM ME!?” Natasha screamed into the microphone.
Amercement integrity degrading.
“Sorry about that Nat. Is something else troubling you?” Natasha’s chest heaved angrily.
“I swear on the Almighty himself, I will kill every last one of you!”
Atonement disturbance detected.
“I understand,” his words began to distort beyond its ambient fizz. “Nat, I think my signals getting tossed up by some bad weather. In case I lose y-” *click*
Natasha bolted from her chair, knocking it over and nearly careening headfirst into the bay doors.
*Beep*…*Beep* “Hurry and pick up, goddam-“
“This is Marko.”
“Marko, I need you to stop what your team is doing and RTB immediately!” Natasha shouted while loading her sidearm with infinitely practiced precision, “I repeat: do not touch that specimen!”
Her ears strained through the static and picked up what resembled distant, high-pitched cackling.
“Yes, Colonel. We are finishing our initial analysis now,” Marko’s tone degraded into a throaty and menacing timbre. “We’ll be sending it along via remote-skiff shortly.”
“GODDAMN ALL OF YOU!” Natasha stepped back and shot the keypad above the door. The frantic Commander kicked her desk over to face the hatchway, kneeling behind the only wooded piece of furniture aboard-she immediately regretted bringing such a frail memento from home. The orange strobes burst to life with the buzzing of the depressurization alarm. “Come and get it,” she trained her weapon on the door just as the tremoring whine of rending metal began thundering toward her. A horrifying roar blew the door inward before she could fire a shot, whipping her across the room and into the muted black.
Natasha’s sleep addled vision cleared with her conscious. She didn’t even bother to look at that insulting day-counter on her command display. Her finger lingered over the transmission key for an eternal moment. She eventually wiped a single tear from her cheek and pressed the ‘delete all’ button.
“I’m sorry for every time I didn’t tell you and the children how much I loved you,” her tiny voice and resolve were broken. She flicked off the power to her monitor and sat down on the floor of her office-legs crossed, eyes shut, calm. “I never appreciated or deserved any of you.” The ship’s AI interrupted her admissions.
Course correction received, Commander.
A cavernous thrum echoed through the station as her module doors screeched open, the heavy approaching steps of finality shaking her universe for one final time. She fought the urge to shrink away from the searing digits that slithered through her hair and down her cheek. Her clenched eyelids burned as a phosphorus breath lapped over her face. “Wh-what do you want from me?”
To stay out of our way… Commander
“Mission objective confirmed,” she mumbled before opening her eyes.
Natasha awoke strapped into the Commander’s launch seat. She gagged on a scream and looked around frantically. Marko nodded to her from across the troop compartment, followed by a swift salute from several others among her crew. The shuttle’s PA system blared to life with the vessel AI:
Ignition engaged. Have a safe trip!
The following turbulence crushed nearly two years of slow agony into several unforgiving seconds, hammering into Natasha’s mind and spirit with maddening vigor. She laughed, cried, screamed, and prayed all at once-none of which could be heard over the bellow of the engines.
The UE-Deliverance reached its destination, stabilizing its trajectory just outside of the meteor that had been circling the Earth for several months. One of Natasha’s lieutenants conducted an initial scan of the object that kept an eerily steady distance from our atmosphere.
“Colonel,” another officer’s voice rang through Natasha’s headset, “there is a strange signal emitting from the center of the object. Given its relatively diminutive size, investigative drilling shouldn’t take more than a few hours.”
“I can have the landing team ready to launch in five,” Marko chimed in. “We could isolate the anomaly for analysis before priming the seismic charges.”
“Negative,” Natasha sat at the bridge, her eyes never leaving her command display. “I’m changing our mission objective to observe and report-nothing more. We are to hold course where we are.”
“But, Colonel,” Marko rebuked, “there’s no telling when this object could relinquish its gravitational anchor and begin its decent.”
“Day-1,” Natasha’s voice trailed as she stood up and approached the viewing glass.
“Commander?” Marko asked.
“Stop calling me that!” her voice cracked. “I’m not in charge of anything.” She traced her finger along the glass, outlining the meteor’s shape through a puddle of fogged breath. “The role of mankind is to accept destiny-not interfere with it. I’m no Commander. I’m just a messenger.” The PA system raucously interjected:
Mission accomplished, Commander. Beginning transmission!
The floating body of rock and ice burst into an ochre inferno, plummeting towards earth at an impossible speed. The crew watched in silent horror as the asteroid closed the distance to their home world in several collective heartbeats.
“We have to do something, Colonel!” Marko screamed into his own helpless reflection. His glossy eyes blazed as bright as the conflagration they could do nothing to stop. One by one the crew members of the UE-Deliverance collapsed on the bridge. Some sobbed uncontrollably, but most just stared in horrifying shock. Natasha was huddled around her desk, face aglow with the azure tinge of her monitor.
“Is something troubling you?” the man’s voice was beginning to garble.
“I just needed to tell you and the kids how much I have always loved you,” her words hiccupped.
Atmospheric disturbance detected.
“We love you too, Nat. I think my signals getting tossed up by some bad weather. In case I lose y-” *click*
The asteroid impacted with a force that betrayed reason, shattering the earth like a shoddy celestial ornament. Natasha drowned out the cries from her crew, kissing her index and middle fingers and pressing them against the vacant screen. She freed her sidearm from its holster and pressed it against her temple. “I’ll see you soon, love,” she exhaled deeply and pulled the trigger.
Marko awoke on the surface of the anomalous meteorite. He groaned as a flurry of white flashes bombarded his peripheral vision. A storm of disjointed images bore themselves into the strange place between his memories and nightmares. The gloved hand of a teammate reached out to steady the probing rod trembling in Marco’s shaky grip. “You ok, Lieutenant?”
“Marko,” Commander Bascom toned through his helmet. “Have you prepared the sample for transport yet?” Marko didn’t answer. He stared down at the intricate carving at his feet; it hummed with a fiendish green hue. He doubted that the markings on its surface could be deciphered while lodged so deeply into the rock. Marko glanced at the rest of the landing party, their wary eyes shifting between him and the object. “Marko!” Nat’s voice chirped again.
“There’s nothing here, Commander,” Marko pushed a boot-full of dirt over the glowing trinket while shooting a chastising stare at his comrades. “We’re planting the seismic charges and returning to base.”
“Lieutenant,” the man who had eased Marco’s trembling arm had switched over to their headset’s local channel, while the other team members continued burrowing their demolition payloads. “What if that funny looking rock had an important message on it? Bringing it back could be your ticket up in the world.”
“We’re in space-how much more ‘up in the world’ do we need to get? I’m just here to do my job. Not get a damn medal, and sure as hell not to relay some damn message,” he turned back towards the landing skiff. “Now, let’s blow this heap so I can get home to my wife.”