This is a 1000 word flash fiction competition piece I just wrote and submitted given the following parameters:
Six inches of layered fused silica glass separated Atlas from the dark nothingness of interplanetary space. She ran her palm along the window’s smoothness, waiting.
A bell chimed, a green light illuminating above a wooden door that did not open as she approached. Atlas grasped the steel handle, pushed it open into a piercing squeal. Metal hinges grinding. She left the door ajar.
A lone woman draped in a salmon-coloured tracksuit lounged in memory foam behind a paper-thin sheet of carbon monofilament, spun into the shape of a desk. Augmented glassware dangled loose off the tip of her nose. She looked up for a moment, acknowledging Atlas’ presence, her eyes then returning to the repetitive jitter of data ingestion.
“Atlas, is it?”
“My name’s Stacey. Take a seat honey.”
A foam chaise self-assembled at her feet, unfurling with an identifiable insectoid motion.
Atlas sat, reclined.
“Here for the mining position?”
The woman flicked a metal switch on the side of a glass box loosely bolted atop four spindly
metal legs, fresh popcorn emblazoned across its face in fiery red print. It erupted into life, visibly shaking.
“We have other positions you know. Most of them less...work, if you catch my meaning.”
The first kernels popped with a startling urgency. Like the snaps and pops of printed bullets
dropping into the printer’s “completed” tray. Fireable projectiles that she had carried easily across international borders as simple precursors, resin and molecularly unassembled propellant.
“You after maximum pay, hun?”
“That’s the idea.”
The popping accelerated, steam rose, wafts of exploded corn.
Her final assignment. A Mogadishu hotel room. A pulsing ceiling fan downdraft thick with the smell of old. And every few minutes, the plink of a new, 108mm cartridge dropping into the slowly filling tray.
The entire contraption shifted sideways, bumping into Stacey’s foam recliner.
“You want some popcorn honey? It’s almost ready. I got hot butter too.”
Atlas hated popcorn. The inescapable smell, like the hotel in Mogadishu, repulsed her.
“Sure. I’d love some thank you.”
She’d hit the target. Took her three days. Pissed herself twice stalking, waiting. The waiting was what she loved. The calm brutality of patience required to hunt and kill prey.
“What’s maximum pay?”
“Well honey you want to go out, like way out, I mean like Oort Cloud out, they gonna pay you shedloads. Everything planetary is obviously going to be a lot less pay.”
She’d lain prone after the kill shot, unmoving, unseen, but for far too long. She became the hunted. Dogs found her hiding in a stream, breathing through a straw. Got roughed up pretty good in a Somali jail. No rules those boys seemed to live by.
Kade’s team got her out. A bloodshed firefight rescue. So many had died so that she could live. If this is what qualified as living. Stuck on a deep space employment barge waiting for a drop off at a decades-long jobsite.
“How long til we get there?”
“On this crate?” The woman looked up from scrolling text beaming onto her retinas. “We got a three year standard orbit between Earth and Neptune. One year left until the next available transit.” She looked back to the data, the fingers of one hand maneuvering in a language only they knew, interfacing with the dataflow.
“Shuttle can pick you up in exactly two-hundred and forty days. Transit out to the target rock is roughly three hundred days, but you’d be asleep for that.”
“What’s it pay?”
“It’s not about the pay, honey, it’s the commitment that gets ya.”
She lifted the glassware off her head, a ring of flexible carbon fibre interfacing with her brain
through temple-mounted electrodes. The popping slowed. The tray filled.
“Be a decade, maybe more. Depends what they find, how good you are. Usual stuff.”
“How many crew?”
“Well that’s what makes this deployment so very unique.” She flicked a hand at the alabaster
wall behind her where a display of the solar system lit up in brilliant prime coloured holographic vectors.
“This here triangle is us, the Matador.”
“How many crew?”
“Looks like...” Her hand continued making delicate gestures. “Starts out as three, but then
once you’ve secured an anchor by yourself, they piss off and get the next team up and running.”
“So it’s a solo mission?”
“Mmhm.” She nodded.
Their eyes met. A decade. She’d lose Kade. Either to the drugs or the distance. And wasn’t
that why she was here? Wasn’t she doing all she could to get them both right? “I’ll take it.”
“Perfect. Let’s get you all signed up for Coradyne.”
Stacey leaned into Atlas, across the desk, faint whispers of raspberry, a riff of bourbon.
“It’s always Coradyne. They’re running every corner of the system.”
The woman beamed, the headset returned.
“You will of course be required to have trodes surgically implanted. It’s not painless but the
job requires the interface.”
“How do you mean, not painless?”
“I mean, it’s gonna fucking hurt. Like nails in your brain. But they give you good meds,
eventually it dulls.”
“Ever go away?”
“Not really, no.”
“Fucksakes.” She wanted Kade. For him to be here. Just to ride the orbital ferry even. But he’d never make it. Too hooked on dope. Too messed to even board.
* * *
Stacey had said a decade. Two and change had passed. Too distant to send comms home. Too distant to receive.
Atlas secured the final anchor and followed the carbon cabling to the SlingShip. Ignited the reactor, established Earthlink, and recorded a message to Kade, a farewell unplanned, from a place of hope, for something better for them both. With the push of a button the sling maneuver she had been orchestrating for decades began.
“Kade, I have lived because of your sacrifice. I had hoped to return to you but so many years have passed. I have found my new home among the stars, and I finally feel able to breathe.”
– Lucien Telford 2022