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The Last Bachelor In Space

The Last Bachelor in Space

The following is the first chapter of a short story I wrote for the Louisville Paper. You can download the entire book for free on iTunes and for a dollar on your Kindle.

I had heard the phrase, “Not if you were the last man on Earth” at least a dozen times in my 27 years. I thought maybe if I went into space, I’d never have to hear it again. But I guess I was wrong. Shit luck, if there ever was such a thing, that’s what I’ve got. Dan Drake, at your service. I was supposed to fly the Vanguard Mark II solo, but the Elan Corps saw fit to send Suzette Connors along for the ride. Believe you me, I’m not too happy with the decision. Especially since she just modified the phrase to “Not if you were the last man in SPACE, Dan Drake.”

Even with “Fly Me to the Moon” blasting in my helmet, I can still hear Suzette’s shrill voice over the comm. Sorry Frank, we’ll go to the moon later. I switch it off and stare at my reflection in Suzette’s helmet. Her words are buzzing but I’m lost in the static. I don’t know that I can suffer through eight months of this routine. Constant second guessing and backseat flying seems to be her life’s work. She’s good at it, too. Suzette is the kind of gal I left Earth just to avoid. It’s not that she’s hard on the eyes, but she reminds me of those lab rats you see on TV specials, always running through a maze. Sweet, annoying Suzette and I, traversing the cold, empty star fields together. Maybe I’ll get lucky and we’ll crash into a black hole. My luck, even that wouldn’t shut her up.

The Expansion Initiative of ’77 launched three manned ships, each for different trajectories into uncharted space. I was chosen over several other candidates, mostly likely for my lack of attachments or family. I had just the temperament needed to be locked into deep space solitude for the long stretch. What they didn’t tell me was that each person would be assigned a partner. This mission feels more like a social experiment than an exploration of new frontiers. But we’re here now, barreling toward the unknown, that shrill voice of hers continually buzzing.

Tomorrow we land on an as-of-yet unnamed planet. Suzette will have no less than three designations for it before our boots hit the surface. Alright, Frankie, sing my mind out of here.

As we enter the unknown planet’s atmosphere, Suzette pipes down for a second, taking in the sight of her for the first time. I log all the necessary data to the computer and turn to Suzette, signaling her to extend the landing gear. As predicted, she has the planet named before we even touch down.

“The atmosphere casts a cerulean hue over the southern hemisphere. It reminds me of the oceans charted on Batrox. They probably share similar compositions. I’ll list it as Matrox, since it’s likely a distant cousin of the original. Sound good, Dan?”

“…”

“They may as well have sent me into space by myself, for all the help you are.”

“I should be so lucky. But then who would you talk to?”

Suzette flashes me a smile that’s full of clenched teeth. She’s beginning to realize I’m not the dashing mystery man she was pining for. My ability to fake simple human interaction is waning. If I’m extremely lucky, we’ll settle into an understanding of comfortable silences. Otherwise, we’ll both get nasty. She continues her needling as I nod along indifferently. I hush her complaints, trying to remember that when this hatch opens, I’ll be the first man to step foot on this planet. It’s a pretty crazy idea to wrap your head around.

The first phase of our mission consists of planting sensors along a perimeter around the ship, which takes about an hour. Once the grid is operational, we expand outward, collecting rock samples and charting geographical data. This type of work is extremely dull, so I pass the time by looking for a satellite that supposedly crashed here over twenty years ago. I seriously doubt that we’d ever find it, but it keeps my mind off of particle dust.

Suzette points toward a ridge to the northwest, the perfect spot for a wider view of the landscape. Blue dust clouds spark around my boots as I trudge along. Gravity here is nearly double what it is on Earth, but our fancy space suits are rigged to compensate for it. Despite the expensive technology, each step feels heavier and slower than the last. A haze envelops my brain, followed by shaky hands and a sweaty brow. My stomach twists into knots.

Suzette must be feeling it too, having fallen behind a few paces. We keep pushing forward to the ship. I get that “we’re being watched” feeling, but by what? It’s reasonable to assume there could be life here, even if we found nothing on the scanners. Before settling on an answer, the ground makes a sudden, violent shift, leaving me breathless on the flat of my back. I’m momentarily distracted by green clouds floating in the sky above. That sight is quickly obscured by a foul bastard of a creature, who now holds Suzette’s neck in a death grip. If Suzette is alarmed, she’s hiding it well. She reaches out to me as the creature points a crude looking  weapon at her head. I shake off the cobwebs, slowly rising to my feet. My 2028 pistol is unholstered and level with what I’d assume is the creature’s eyes. I hone my sights on a kill shot, finger on the trigger. Before I can pull, I’m assaulted by a voice screaming in my skull. The creature is pushing his way into my brain, and somehow I can make sense of his language. From what I can make of the one-way conversation, the alien is demanding that I drop the gun and come along quietly. Suzette and I are to be studied, if he has his way. I think for a moment about what cards I have to play.

There’s only one clear choice: I pull the trigger, blasting Suzette right in the midsection. Her eyes flare with horror as her body goes limp in the alien’s arms. His gun lowers for just a moment, but mine stays steady. I stare at the creature, waiting for him to make a move.

That alien just stands there, stunned. I don’t need telepathy to know that he wasn’t expecting me to shoot my own partner. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I shoot him, too.

The 2028 burns a hole right through what I would assume is his shoulder. It’s enough to drop the ugly bastard, and then I’m on him, pressing the warm barrel against his head.

More telepathic screams erupt in my skull, but I’m not easing off. His eyes widen, taking in the cold glare behind my visor.

“You drew on your own kind? I don’t understand…”

“What are you going on about?”

“Your satellite! It contained a wealth of information on your race. Music, historical records, films – many examples of your culture were contained within.”

“So you watched a few home movies and thought you could roll over on us?”

“The data was a bore to sift through. Your music was unlistenable, your minds small. We didn’t want your primitive race on our planet.”

If there’s one thing I don’t tolerate, it’s condescension. The 2028’s barrel collides with his skull. When the alien comes to, he’ll know just who the true predator of the galaxy is.

There’s a bit of information we conveniently leave out of those satellites. Mankind treads wherever it wants, smashing whatever gets in our way. If there is solid ground, we’ll plant our flags in it.

I scoop up a limp Suzette and make our way back to the Vanguard. We have all the data we need and I have no interest in finding a satellite. No sense in pressing our luck with the locals.

Twenty-three minutes later the planet Matron is shrinking into the rearview, while Suzette finally wakes up in the sickbay bed.

“You shot me…”

“Obviously.”

“I knew you were socially bankrupt, but I didn’t think you’d also be cruel.”

“Would you have rather been stunned by me, or shot dead by that alien? Or I could’ve left you to be their science experiment, poked and prodded at for as long as you could hold out.”

“I’ll settle for neither!”

“Do you know why they picked me for this job, Suzette?”

“Because you’re a cold-blooded asshole?”

“Yes. Exactly. If I was even the slightest bit emotional in that situation, I would’ve hesitated. Then what kind of mess would we be in?”

“If you’re expecting a thank you, don’t hold your breath.”

Suzette sat fuming, for a long while. I enjoyed the quiet time. She was hard headed and stubborn, but she knew that I did the right thing. After the anger had faded, she leaned her head on my shoulder, drawing her arm around mine.

Maybe I won’t be the last bachelor in space after all.

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Stepping Over Graves

Stepping Over Graves

It actually was one of those dark and stormy nights – the rain beat against the windshield with a methodical rhythm. The sound subdued Harrison’s overwhelmed brain, lulling him into a deeply relaxed state. Just as his mind had begun to wade through a catalog of daydreams, a crash of thunder returned him to the here-and-now. Harrison opened the briefcase with unsteady hands, retrieving a manilla folder from inside. He parted the file to find a case synopsis for one Selina Rubanov, aged 72, recently widowed. After confirming the address from the file, Harrison reached into his left pocket, feeling for the device. With his hand coiled around the cool metal surface, he found his center. After a moment of calm, he opened the car door to an onslaught of heavy rain.

After ringing the bell and knocking loudly for what seem liked eons, Harrison combed desperately against the wet hair that covered his eyes as Rubanov opened the door. “Hello Selina, might I come in?” he asked, as patiently as he could manage.

“Of course, get out of that rain before you catch cold!” Rubanov demanded, in that sweet, but firm tone universally preferred by grandmothers. “What you young folks have against umbrellas, I’ll never understand,” she continued.

Harrison responded with a shrug, then followed Rubanov to the living room where they had met two weeks prior. As Harrison settled on the plastic-covered couch, the old woman asked if he’d like a cup of hot tea. Considering his damp attire, he nodded yes. Her absence allowed him one last review of the case file.

Rubanov’s case specifics met all of Harrison’s usual requirements. The subject of inquiry – Joseph Rubanov, was Selina’s husband of 48 years before passing away four months ago. In recent weeks, Selina bore witness to flashing images of her dead husband, appearing about the house at random. Fearful that Joseph’s spirit may not be at peace, Selina became distraught, unable to sleep, unable to grieve, let alone move forward with her life. With the gracious help of a few church friends, Selina came into possession of Harrison’s business card. The tagline atop the card read: Paranormal Counseling & Removal.

Harrison recalled the first meeting with Rubanov – three hours of explaining he was not so much a “ghost-buster” as he was a psychiatrist. The cornerstone of Harrison’s service was a form of grief counseling. With a masters in clinical psychology and a basic understanding of most religions, Harrison possessed an invaluable set of skills. He used this knowledge to ease the pain of those who, like Rubanov, were haunted by the people they’d loved and lost.

Mrs. Rubanov reappeared with two cups of tea in hand, interrupting Harrison’s recollection. He reached for the cup, noting his client’s shaking hands. His heart sank slightly as he curled his fingers around the mug, worried she wouldn’t have the courage for what came next.

Harrison could feel the blood returning to his icy fingers. “What type of tea is this? It packs quite a kick,” he inquired between long sips.

“Oh, I bet it does. I poured two shots of Pappy Van Winkle in there,” She laughed deviously. “I suppose you’re not much of a bourbon drinker, eh?”

“Not so much, but maybe I should rethink that.” Harrison sat his cup on the table, then leaned forward, reaching for Mrs. Rubanov’s hand. He waited for her eyes to meet his before asking, “Selina, are you absolutely certain you’re ready to let go?”

With her free hand she drained the remainder of her cup, then glanced over at the photo of her husband on the end table. She released his hand to remove her glasses, wiping away the quickly forming tears. Harrison neither moved nor looked away. He had to be sure.

Her eyes leveled with his. She took his hand and said steadily, “I’m ready. Do what you have to do, Harrison.”

“The procedure won’t take long. Are you sure you want to be here for this?”

“I’m too old to go out in that damned rain, so just be quick about it,” she replied, once more in that abrasive tone Harrison had come to appreciate.

Harrison made his way up the creaking staircase toward the bedroom, stopping just short of the door. He retrieved the device from his pocket, studying it in his hands. The thing had never been properly named, as Harrison felt that honor should’ve been his father’s. At the press of a button the machine hummed to life. He inhaled sharply, extended the antenna and opened the bedroom door.

The room was pitch black, save for the faint green glow of the device. Harrison kneeled down in the center of the room and made himself comfortable, not knowing how long it may take for Joseph to appear. Just as he began to feel at ease, a sudden wave of nausea crashed over him. The room started spinning out of control as Harrison imagined a meaty hand tightening around his neck. Before he could regain balance, Joseph appeared, radiating a cold blue light against the empty walls. Harrison tried silencing the alarms in his head – tried to focus on the ghost and what needed to be done.

He began counting down from 100 to slow his breathing and compose himself. Joseph’s ghost walked about the room, pacing the floor in staggered frames. It was an unnerving sight for the uninitiated, but Harrison was far more familiar with this scene than most. This was not the spirit of a dead man. Ghosts, as defined by pop culture and campfire stories, were fabricated fiction, loosely based on scientific fact. This Rubanov ghost was not a ghastly specter doomed to terrorize the living. Instead, the flickering images were merely the remainder of Joseph’s electrons, stuck in a time-loop, replaying themselves until the batteries ran out. Harrison’s father had uncovered those secrets decades earlier.

Finally, Harrison felt able to stand. He moved toward the flashing image of the deceased Rubanov and raised the device to chest level, slowly inching closer, just as he had done on exactly fifty-six other occasions. In this instance, however, something unexpected occurred. As Harrison approached, Rubanov’s image turned to face him, looking directly into his eyes. The young man froze in his tracks long enough to hear a low rumble of crackling static – it was as if Rubanov was speaking directly to him. Although it sounded backwards somehow, Harrison thought he heard the words, “Join us.”

The phrase kept repeating, each “Join us” ringing louder than the one before. Harrison frantically sliced the antenna through Rubanov’s image, throwing sparks with each strike. Unfortunately, this did nothing to slow the advancing phantom. For the first time since starting this business, Harrison’s device had failed him. Had his father’s theories been wrong, or was this something altogether different? As Harrison realized he didn’t have an answer, the ghost of Rubanov closed around him, and then there was nothing.

—-

JOIN US! The words had echoed through Harrison’s dormant brain until he shuddered back to life. He awoke under the fluorescent lights of a hospital room, unaware how long he’d been there. His body seemed weightless, empty even. There was no fear, worry or concern weighing on his mind – nothing whatsoever. A nurse hovering within his personal space appeared startled when Harrison’s eyes began to blink. When she regained her composure, she mumbled something about a doctor being on his way. Unable to wait, Harrison drifted away again.

When the fog finally cleared, he noticed a slender blonde in the far corner of the room. She approached his bedside, but Harrison didn’t recognize her in the slightest.

“Where did your long sleep take you, Harrison?” she abruptly questioned.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand. Do I know you?” he replied evenly.

“No, you don’t. You were asleep for nearly a year. Do you remember anything after the incident? Do you remember the incident itself?”

Harrison tried rising from the bed, but his muscles protested. The stranger laid her hand against his chest. “Easy,” she said, “it’ll be a while before you are mobile again.”

“A year?” he weakly repeated. She nodded in confirmation. Harrison had no emotional response to losing a year of his life, though he knew he should. It was as if this was happening to someone else. Perhaps he was someone – or something – else now. And although he wasn’t necessarily curious, he asked, “Mrs. Rubanov, do you know who she is?”

“I do. She was my grandmother.” She paused for a moment, removing her hand from his chest. “Grandma passed away shortly after your experiment went awry. No one had much hope you would ever wake up.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother, she was a good woman.” Harrison tried once more to rise, successfully this time. He regarded the granddaughter, her face suddenly filled with wonder.

“Now I see,” she whispered. “Not all of you came back, did it?”

Harrison was having trouble forming a response. Waiting on a punchline that would never appear, he just sat there with his mouth half open, hoping she would elaborate.

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