Short fiction

Issue #10


You have been in space for eighteen years when you learn the world has ended. The shuttle goes beep, beep and another beep to let you know. One, two, three. A beginning,  middle and end.

Two years later you find your first space station. You navigate beside it. A metal bridge in a grey tunnel extends towards you. You cannot hear the sound of the turning gears. The bridge leads you to a station foyer. Half a clock is on the wall. The welcome desk has on it a figure of a zebra holding a plastic sign. ‘A good breakfast, lunch and dinner makes a cosmonaut a winner.’ Speakers are mounted on the walls around you, speaking only in silences.

 ‘Greetings,’ you say. You are from the Department of Aid and Rescue. You want to know if there are any survivors left on the station. There is no response. You take the left of the two corridors off the foyer. You pass through an archway, descend a ramp, and pass another archway. You look at a door. You pass a row of lockers. One locker is filled with tins of reconstituted lamb. The reconstituted lamb is filled with air. You open another locker door and find more tins of reconstituted lamb.

You read a sign: ‘No shoes beyond this point.’ But you do not take off your shoes. You break the rule. You pass through a door: the ceiling is high and the room is the largest you have ever seen. On the ceiling is a dolphin, a bubble shutting its lips. The slogan on the bubble reads: ‘Good cosmonauts need better exercise.’


You do not recognise the wide and deep depression in the centre of the room. You descend a ladder to your right and count forty-one skeletons in the depression. You do not need to read the front cover of the book that one hand holds, but you do. The book is called ‘Feeling Good.’ You wonder why the humans built themselves a grave on the topography of the space station. You wonder if they came here just to die.

You visit fifty-nine space stations like this in one hundred years. You never improve. You say ‘Greetings.’ You are from the Department of Aid and Rescue. You want to know if there are any survivors left on the station. Nobody responds. You learn to become satisfied by these silences. You find your solace in two explanations: that there could be no survivors left for you to find, or that the survivors remaining do not want to be found by you.

You wonder why the survivors would not want you to find them. You wonder why the humans would not want to be saved.


Now there has been over a century between the end of the world and you. The century has been a century of no improvement. You think of space not as a stage, but a sepulchre. You think of the dolphin on the ceiling as a secret for which the humans died. You think wild things. Terrible things. You tell yourself you are doing okay. But you are not okay. You have not found a single survivor, even though this was the story of you saving us all. You have broken rules. I have wondered several times whether you really want us to be saved.

When you detect another space station, it is not a space station but a comet. I feel sad for you, but not really. The Department of Aid and Rescue is interested in survivors. I feel this story has not been about them, but has been about you, a defective protagonist. The story of hope has not been a story without hope. You have been an unspectacular failure of a spectacular inheritance. Goodbye.

How did you not collide with that comet? You look on the radar. The comet has gone. Patterns and diagrams shift on the control pads. You have had a lucky break. But the shuttle does not move. You wait a day. You wait a day. You wait another day. I would like you to wait another day. You keep waiting. You feel the days are growing longer and more arduous, but they are not. Days do not grow. You wait another day. A long day. You look out of the shuttle aperture. At the heaviness of the black space. The shuttle does not move.

Hello, cosmonaut in the shuttle that does not move, the shuttle that is barely a shuttle and the cosmonaut who is barely a cosmonaut, or was never a cosmonaut at all. How do you feel now? We are in the tragedy you hoped for. I feel happy for you. Anything to distract from the terror I have had, because of you.

You dream a long dream about a bird. The bird roosts in a cleft of a mountain the shape of a diamond, high above a forest. The bird is different from other birds, because of its gift. It can make humans un-die. You die as a child when you are bitten by the wind and then you un-die, because of the bird. You live in fear of the bird, but you call it love. And you grow older. You die and un-die repeatedly. You learn of people who choose to die forever. You cannot understand their choice. You think of this world as a world without doom. Though when you grow older, you finally understand the decision. You are old. You die. Goodbye.

When the bird vanishes, the humans are mystified. They don the wardrobes of grief. They die, even when nobody chooses to. Villages turn into monuments dedicated to the vanished bird. Fields are sewn with roses. They fortify towers in the cities and they plead for the bird to return and they believe the bird will. They believe the blue sky will open like a flower and the dead will un-die and return, waving. Though not all of them believe that. How can you believe that, cosmonaut? Or how can I?

Then the humans destroy each other. They discover faster and ghostlier ways of doing so. They destroy each other because of the destroying, and they destroy the destroyers. They destroy the destroyers who destroyed the destroyers. Until destruction becomes the way the days pass. You can divide time in two. There is a prelude and there is a fugue. The prelude ends when the world ends. The world vanishes like the bird and does not return because of it. Now is the fugue, which you believe you heard first in space after eighteen years. The shuttle went beep, beep and another beep to let you know. One, two, three. The beginning, the middle and the end.

The Department of Aid and Rescue does not understand the image of your bird, cosmonaut. Nor do I. I do not understand your dream. Your terrible thoughts. Your motivations. The sadness I felt about how you could have saved us all but chose not to has become a graspable part of me now. You made the decision not to save us. Cast me in your private tragedy. Think of the team we could have been. The survivors we left behind. We could have been effective. We could have been remarkable. Beautiful.


 I do not know how many years it has been since the world ended. A hundred years. A thousand years. But a new object glows upon the radar. How do you feel? No, it is not a bird. It is a comet. I am going to restate this so the fact becomes certifiable: it is a comet. But you believe it is a bird.

The Department of Aid and Rescue does not know why you would believe this, cosmonaut, anti-cosmonaut.

You have consistently broken rules. You have spent ten thousand years not saving us. The glee you have derived in your own failure. Your terrible brokenness. The sky will not open up like a flower. You still believe it will.

You hear a beep, beep and, then, another beep. You think this beep could be the final beep. But you reject the premise. You who are going to be saved. And the Department of Aid and Rescue will not attempt to intervene. You are broken, broken. I want to help you. And also, I want to help me.


Broken, you believe the bird approaches you. But you cannot tell. Now there is no light. Nor do you hear wings. You think you do. You do not feel cold. You have never felt. You believe in the coda beyond this coda. But there will be one coda. The coda of fractional lights.

And you believe the sky is ready to open like a flower. But you are wrong, broken, cosmonaut. Because the sky does not open. The only thing that opens up is you.

Joe Vaughan

© 2014