Last week’s “Flash Fiction Challenge” from Chuck Wendig was to write the last line of a story. You can find my contribution here.
Chuck then picked his favorite five (by which he meant ten) submissions (sadly, mine was not one of them) and this week’s challenge is to pick one of the ten and write 1,000 words or so using that line as the first line of our story.
Here’s what I wrote (thanks to Ben Dodge):
The old man lying in the hold died three minutes later.
“What are we supposed to do now?” the Navigator asked the Captain, who was staring at the glowing flat green line on the monitor.
“How the hell am I supposed to know?” he asked. “They didn’t cover this sort of thing at the Academy. Doctor, any suggestions? Is there anything more that you can learn from his corpse that we don’t already know?”
“It’s possible, but not likely,” the Doctor replied. “We’ve been monitoring and scanning him ever since we picked him up. We took every kind of physical sample we could, but given the circumstances we obviously need to keep those in quarantine. We don’t have the setup to do an autopsy without taking him out of the hold and into sick bay. You saw how he died. I can’t recommend that we do anything that would expose all of us to whatever he had. I think we’ve done everything we can do.”
“Got it. Any idea yet what it was that ate him from the inside out?”
“No clue, beyond the obvious assumptions. It has to be some variation or mutation of something he brought with him. The proverbial cold virus gone horribly wrong after being mutated in some way, probably by exposure to a burst of cosmic background radiation. We’ve seen this before a few times. We haven’t found anything alive outside of the gas giants, big moons, and planets. What passes for DNA anyplace off Earth isn’t compatible with ours. No one’s going to get turned into a rotting horror by a terror from deep space.”
“Just to cover our asses, what’s our worst case scenario if we dump the body? Let’s assume that they might like to examine him back at MedHQ. Could we somehow get his body into a courier drone and send it back to them?”
The Doctor looked thoughtful for a second, then shook his head. “Possibly, but I would be concerned about making sure that they knew how dangerous and possibly contagious his remains are. If we were going to deliver his body personally to their quarantine facility and make damn sure that they knew what a potential ticking time bomb they were being handed, sure. But with a drone, who knows what one screw up could mean? I don’t think we should risk it. We have the samples that we’ll deliver personally the next time back, but there’s no scientific or medical reason to keep the whole body and we don’t have any safe place to put it. Do we know of any other reason to keep it?”
The Captain looked at the Navigator. “Any ID yet? Family to worry about? Is anyone going to demand to know why we didn’t bring a spacesuit full of goo back for a proper burial at some God forsaken outpost?”
“No, sir, the system’s got nothing on him. It’s the same old story with these out-system freelancers. They’re mostly hermits and whack jobs. The AI in the hut on that ice ball is barely bright enough to keep life support and navigation going. He had it headed in for a Jupiter orbit, but they don’t have any record of him letting them know he was on his way. That’s not unusual either.”
“Did you change the AI’s targeting trajectory as ordered?”
“Yes, sir, it’ll be heading outbound now. We put a pinger on the AI’s radio to warn everyone else away and it’s now on a max-V burn out of the system. If the drive holds up it should be gone completely in a couple of decades, but even if it craters it’ll be a long way out there. Why don’t we just have it haul his body along with it?”
“Are you volunteering to take it back over there? Do you have a red shirt that you’re dying to try on?”
“No, sir, but I have a suggestion. He’s still right inside of the outer doors where he collapsed. We could pull up a klick or so away from the comet with that door facing it. Probably best over by all of that loose ice & debris where the drive was dug in. If we pressurize the hold up to about ten atmospheres and then blow the door, it should kick him out pretty solidly and bury him way down into the loose ice.”
“Not a bad idea, it could almost work,” the Captain said. “Do it. When it’s done, set a course to get us back on our original heading and get us going. After he’s gone, run a full decon routine on that hold, then run another. I’ll be my cabin trying to forget watching his face melt away.”
An hour later the Navigator had maneuvered the patrol ship next to the unnamed ball of ice, hovering close to a large field of soft snow and ice tailings, the scout ship’s drive matching the low thrust from the ion drive embedded in the tail end of the comet. At the appointed moment the thrusters opposite the comet fired to drive the ship toward the ice, followed momentarily by the hold hatch door blowing open and ejecting the old man’s body like a bullet.
As expected, the body buried itself into the ice and snow, sending up a spray of ejecta. The force of the decompression mostly offset the ship’s velocity toward the comet, and not much of the debris cloud landed on the ship’s outer hull.
Not much – but enough.
As the scout ship slowly pivoted to her new heading and started thrusting gently away, a thin patina of icy debris clung to her skin in a couple dozen spots. Originally buried deep inside the comet until it was dug out during the installation of the ion drive, now sprayed across the scout ship’s hull, slowly the thin patches of ice, snow, and something else started to find and join with each other, seeking a way into their new home.