Short fiction

Issue #8

Helios' Embrace

Everyone was sleeping when it happened, but Mei didn't stay sleeping for long. The absence of noise rather than anything else woke her. She blinked in the darkness, the warm body of Jason at her back urging her to drift back into sleep's embrace. Yet the nagging sense that something was wrong wouldn't leave her.

    The engines had stopped.

    It hit her like ice water in the pit of her stomach. Mei screwed up her eyes and willed her ears to listen harder. Nothing. Still nothing.

    She scrambled out of bed, half dragging the sheet off. Hopping free of it, she fell onto the door control and was already in the cold corridor before Jason was moaning about the draught.

    Her bare feet slapped on the steel floor eerily loudly as she ran to the Bridge. She began desperately tapping out system commands and diagnostics.


    “Good morning, Mei. You're up early,” chirped the female voice that was perpetually cheery by design.

    “Computer, the engines have stopped.”

    “Yes, it would appear so.”

    “Why didn't you wake me?” It was almost a scream.

    “It is a catastrophic failure. I have run every simulation possible. We cannot fix the engines. It seemed unnecessary to wake you. You did wake up anyway, Mei,” the AI mused.

    Mei ran her hands through her hair and scrubbed at her face. She had never seen so many flashing red lights before: the console was lit up like a rage-filled zombie Christmas tree that had just stubbed its toe.

    “I can show you the simulations, Mei. Would that help?”

    “No. Thank you, Computer. Computer, is there any way we can boost the signal?”


    Mei sank into the pilot's seat and a sigh heaved its way out of her chest. Her initial panic was wearing off; she was much more awake now. The vacuum left by the panic was fast filling with fear. A first horrible thought crossed her mind. This was promptly followed by a second, equally horrible thought.

    “Computer, how much air do we have left? How much food do we have left?”

    “Working. Working.”

    Mei thumped her head back against the headrest.

    “Calculations complete. There is one solution to optimizing the signal, with a 95 percent rate of success. You know, you're very good, Mei, spotting a possible solution. 2.8 seconds after I had worked it out, of course.”


    Mei pushed the balls of her palms into her eyes, willing this all to be a bad dream.

    “The air, Mei. There is seven months left of recycling the air, and only five months of rationed food, with rationed energy taken into account.

    “Therefore, the logical solution is not to ration the air and energy for seven months but instead for only five. The remaining energy can be diverted to the communications array and its SOS signal boosted for a total of nine months. I advise that this is the course of action we take.”

    “See to it, Computer.”

    “Working. We are now running in low power mode, with the exception of the comms array. Lights are on permanent nighttime mode. Heating is on low. Minimal life support and water recycling. Engines are off.”

    “Engines are broken, Computer.”

    “What?” Jason's voice disrupted the quiet of the cabin.

    Mei spun, face twisted awry. She had been suppressing that creeping fear so well, but now all she could think of was how her family were all going to die in this cold, silent, dead spaceship.

    “Catastroph—” was all she could manage before her voice broke and she clamped her hand across her mouth. Fat tears escaped her eyes and rolled down her cheeks, splashing on her bare legs.

    “Catastrophic engine failure,” the Computer helpfully chipped in.

    Jason sank to the floor in horror.

    “Where are we?” Jason asked, head in hand.

    “The Aegean System. A dead system. No planets or life forms. The sun is an early stage red giant.”

    “Oh god.”

    “Computer, how far away is the nearest human life?”

    “Three months travel at standard sub-light speed. Likelihood of distress signal reception through the space station's comms cloud ... Working ... 68 percent.”

    “Can you boost the signal?” Jason asked.

    “Mei and I have already worked through this, Jason; the signal is boosted as much as we can afford to.”

    “Oh god.”

    “Indeed,” agreed the computer.

“And what caused this 'catastrophic' failure, eh? Is there even one?” Kray was demanding to know.

    It was morning. Mei had dished out a meagre breakfast and was explaining the situation to the meagre crew.

    “Mummy ...”

    “Shh, Pheres, it's going to be fine. I promise. Kray, don't even think of butting in, you'll upset my kids even more. There has been a leak. One of the casing panels must have been defective. The engine room is filled with radiation. No, I don't know what definitely caused the leak and, no, we cannot fix it.”

    “As the engineer, I can verify this,” Jason added. “The entire engine systems are in containment shut down, including the secondary systems. We're dead in the water.”

    “But help should be on its way.” Mei went for the more positive track. “There's a space station not unfeasibly far away, and there is always the chance of passing traffic. Dead system or not, we're on a major flight route.”

    The latter was a lie. Mei knew it, Jason knew it, even Kray probably knew it, but none of them were willing to say it.

    Glauci, Kray's teenage daughter, sat there, young eyes wide and comprehending. Mei pitied the poor girl. At 17 she was more than old enough to understand the devastating reality of their situation. At least hers and Jason's children were too young to grasp that. Yes, they were afraid, but they blindly believed her every promise of rescue.

    Jason and Mei were travelling to Jason's new job as chief engineer on a recently terraformed planet. As they had the room on the Corinth (and in their Ptoyefsy Bank account) they had two paying passengers: Kray and Glauci. Mei was the pilot and maintained the Computer, who in turn oversaw the smooth running of the ship, autopilot and children's education.

    As she hugged her sons at the end of the meeting, Mei questioned again the decisions that had led to this journey. Kray had stalked off leaving his daughter hunched in her seat, and Jason went over and laid a comforting hand on Glauci's arm.

    “Everything will be okay. You'll see. Don't worry about it,” he smiled bravely.

    Glauci's eyes filled with hope, and something else Mei didn't want to name. She wasn't about to start questioning her marriage on top of their decisions to leave her homes on Colchis and, most recently, Iol. It was just the stress getting to her: it had to be.

It was a few days later, Mei wasn't too sure how many days after the engine failure. She knew she'd been to bed and had slept more than once, but time was stretching away from her. What did time matter if they weren't moving anywhere? Orbiting a dying star was akin to being in Limbo.

    She was stretched out on the cold floor of her computing lab staring into the dim nothingness of the light panels. She had seen the simulations over and over and could find no logical solution or alternative outcome. Jason had similarly been over the engineering diagnostics and footage, and there was no error or malfunction on the Computer's part. The engine room was flooded with radiation and there was no way of mending the engines at all, and so no point bailing out the radioactive atmosphere to decontaminate everything.

    Memar and Pheres were still learning and happier for it, and the Computer seemed happier for it too. Mei longed for a distraction but books and films felt like dust in her mouth. Instead she stared vacantly all day, waiting for oblivion to consume them all.

    “Um, Mei?”

    Mei made a grunt of acknowledgment.

    “Mei, I had wondered about this before, but didn't want to make any comment without evidence,” the Computer continued. “I think you should view some video I just captured. I'm sorry, Mei.”

    She rolled over onto her side and pulled herself up from the floor until she was standing, squinting at the console. The Computer enlarged a security stream without being prompted.

    Mei stared.

    Her brain registered the background details before it registered what was happening in it. They were in the kitchen where preparation for lunch had clearly begun: tins had been opened but were now ignored, plates and bowls were set out expectantly, the last box of freeze dried vegetables had been unpacked. The two on cooking duty had become distracted. Jason pulled Glauci tight to him, their lips meeting, kissing deeper and deeper. His hand slipped up her thigh and under her skirt. Glauci squirmed and let out a girlish giggle and then playfully nipped his lip before kissing him harder.

    Mei screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed and stopped. Her chest heaving, red hot tears escaping from her eyes and streaming over her cheeks.

    How could he? He was her husband. Hers.

    Mei clenched and unclenched her fists, nails digging into her palms, leaving little crescents of anger and hate.

    How could he? It was a weak and pathetic voice now. Tired and beaten down by her hopeless situation. What did her marriage matter when they were all going to die anyway?

    She turned her back on the video feed and walked out of the lab.

    “Mei? Shall I record his breach of contract in the ship’s logs? Do you wish me to amend our distress signal to alert the authorities?” the Computer's voice followed Mei as she stormed down the corridors.

    “Computer override one-one-six: voice off.”

    Mei pressed the door control to the Observation Lounge and closed it behind her. There were no lights on in here; they weren’t needed with the permanent orange glow of the dying sun that had trapped them. Her sun was a symbol of life, yet here in this barren Aegean System it was the exact opposite.

    They were all dead, dead, dead, like this system, like the engines, like her marriage.

    Mei felt more kinship with the lonely star than she did with anyone aboard the Corinth. What was a wife without a husband? What were her sons to her now? She felt barren, impotent, powerless. The sun and Mei were two givers of life ruined by the universe.

    The door hissed softly open.


    And here was the cause of her anguish, her loss.

    “The Computer isn't speaking to me, but it showed you as being here.”

    She would make him suffer the same grief and pain that he had put her through.

    “Mei? Lunch is ready.”

    She still didn't turn around.

    “Mei?” He laid a hand on her shoulder.

    “Don't touch me.”


    “Don't touch me with those hands. Did you even bother to wash the dirty stains from them?”

    “I don—” Understand? she thought. Your voice says you do.

    “Her,” she hissed, spinning to face him. “Her stains. Did you think I wouldn't find out? Did you think I wouldn't find out! Well? Did you?”

    “Mei, Mei— I—“

    “How long?” she screamed. “How long!”

    Jason didn't answer, he just stood there, a curiously sad expression on his face.


    “Get out.”

    He left without another word.

    Where were the tears? They should have been pouring, an unstoppable flood streaming down her face, drowning her sorrow and quenching her rage. She had felt like a ship wrecked in a terrible storm, slowly drifting to its final resting place underneath the surf—but now she was the storm, brewing, building, soon to be unleashed. Then who knew what she would do.

    “Computer override one-one-six. Don't talk to me. Leave me alone. And lock the Lounge door.”

“Mei? I know you didn't want to be disturbed, but I've been doing some calculations.”

    Mei didn't move from her prone position on the couch and continued staring into the emptiness of the sun.

    The Computer chose to go on. “I-I'm so sorry. I've calculated the interference levels, and the radiation from the red giant is blocking all comms signals. Transmission and reception. I'm sorry.”

    Mei continued to stare at nothing, the nothing that was now preventing any rescue, destroying her final hope.

Mei staggered into the Mess like a woman who had slept for a year, or a woman who hadn't.

    “Mummy!” Memar leapt up, but a warning hand from Jason sent him back to his seat.

    Jason, Kray and Glauci all looked at Mei's hollow face with fearful and hostile eyes.

    “Memar, Pheres, go to your room. I've told the Computer that you can watch cartoons. Now, please.”

    The two boys scuttled off.

    Mei waited for the door to slide shut before she addressed the others. “So.”

    “Please take a seat, Mei.” Jason's face was pained.

    “I'd rather not. You were all conspirators together. What is this, a coup?”

    “She loves him. And Jason her.” Kray burst out.

    “He is my husband. Those are our children. You are a father, how can you even contemplate condoning this?”

    “He is a good match for her unlike you and him, some spacetrash from the outer edges of the galaxy.”

    “What?” Then, “you are guests on my ship.”

    “Paid passengers.”

    “And you are expected to act like guests in someone else's home, not wreck it. How dare you?”

    “He loves me, not you!”

    Mei stared down the petulant little girl who ran to Jason like a kicked puppy.

    “I want you off my ship.”

    “What? Ha, where, how? We outnumber you three to one,” Kray sneered.

    “Five if you count my children,” Jason said quietly.

    “Our children,” snarled Mei. “My children. You have no claim to them. I carried them, I bore them, I care for them. What do you do? You brought this child into our bed. No. I will not let you have them.”

    “I'd like to see how.”

    Mei turned on her heel and stalked out of the Mess.

Mei was not impotent. No. She would show Jason what impotency was. It was his fault they were in this state: it was his journey, his engines, his infidelity. Well, she would have the last say.

    “Mei? Where are you going, Mei? Your children are afraid. Jason is on his way to talk to them.”


    “I would advise protecting them from exposure to criminals, but as you wish.”

    She ignored the Computer and continued tapping the console, diverting and rerouting various systems.

    “What are you doing, Mei?”

    “It's done.”

    “What is, Mei? What have you done?”


    “Computer, I'm with my children. We require privacy.”

    “There is an urgent matter that requires your attention and a piece of footage I wish you to view.”

    “Put it on in here.”

    “That would be unwise, Jason.”

    He sighed. “Mei better not be out there.”

    “She isn't.”

    “Stay here, okay? I'll lock the door on my way out.”

    The two boys nodded mutely.

    Jason stepped out.

    A video feed filled the console screen; the time stamp put it three minutes in the past. Jason frowned. It was outside Glauci's room. Her door was open. He could hear her coughing, wheezing, crying. A fog was filling the room.

    “Glauci!” Kray shouted.

    He ran into shot just as the door was closing of its own accord. He shouldered his way in, falling into the room. The door's window turned translucent and the Computer brought up the vitals for both Glauci and Kray.

    “No ...” whispered Jason.

    Glauci's heartbeat was slow, slowing, stopped. It flatlined and then winked out of existence.

    Kray's pulse was dangerously fast, then increasingly erratic until it, too, began to decline.

    “Containment breached. Breach contained.”

    “Glauci!” Jason screamed.

    He flung himself away from the console and sprinted to the aft section and the guest cabins.

Mei watched Jason arrive at Glauci's quarters, throwing himself uselessly at the door, pounding on the window, screaming at the now visible bodies inside. She put the finishing touches to her subroutine reprogramming.

    “Mei, what have you done?” bleated the Computer.

    She turned and lifted the tool box onto the workbench and began rummaging. She pulled out the multitool and scrolled through the various attachments, finally coming to the carbonfibre blade. It was designed for cutting through cables and tubing, but that did not mean those were its limits.

    “Mei! What are you doing? Stop, Mei! Please! What are you doing, Mei? Please? Mei? Mei, why can't I leave the lab? Mei! Mei, come back! Mei! Don't leave me! Don't leave me here! Don't leave me here! Don't leave me here!”

    Eventually Mei was out of hearing distance. She locked the door between the fore- and aft-sections, then removed the panel that hid its wiring and tore it out. On the console on the aft side the feed facing the children's cabin was rolling.

Jason sobbed as he hurried back down the steely corridors to his sons. He slapped the door control and ran into the still-closed door.

    “No, no, no!”

    Thumping his fist again the glass porthole only served to hurt him more. He turned and was poised to sink to his knees when he saw the livefeed.


    Mei was stood in the doorway—the open doorway—back to the camera, a knife in hand.

    Sobs wracked Jason's chest.

    “Mummy?” That was Pheres.

    “There's no help coming, sweeties, the signal can't get out. No ships can get it. I—” she stopped, and sighed. “Cover your eyes.”

    “Mummy, don't!”

    “Cover your brother's eyes, then.”


    “I love you both so very much.”

    She moved inside, out of sight.

    There was a scream cut short and a soft thud as a small body hit the fall. More crying then more silence. A small arm flopped into view, flecked with blood.

    Mei stepped over it; tears streaked her bloodied face but her eyes were now dry. She let the stained knife drop to the ground and then she switched off the feed.

Jason was waiting at the mid-section door. Mei turned on the intercom.


    “You did this. You did this.”

    “You heartless monster!”

    “Don't you see? That's why I did it, because I have a heart. And I want yours to bleed like mine. And, see? It does.”

    “You-you, how could you?”

    “No one's coming, Jason. We were always going to die in this perfectly hopeless way. And now? Well, you get to live a little while longer with what you bred. Goodbye, Jason.”

    “Mei! You monster! Come back! Come back! Don't leave me! Mei? Mei!”

Mei was so calm. She was sad, but the storm had passed and she had excised her ravenous fury. Just one last thing to do.

    She stepped into the airlock and the door sealed behind. Just one last isobar of pressure to relieve, then she could breathe easier.

    She smiled at her sickeningly orange kindred spirit shining through the porthole. She smiled at her blood-spattered reflection. She could almost think clearly again: she pressed the button.

     The sound of gushing air filled her ears for a moment as the airlock door slid open, before evaporating in the vacuum. Mei gently pushed her feet against the steely floor and the simulated gravity released its hold. The dying red sun beckoned to her, a ball of morbid hope in this morbid system. Mei drifted out into the void her arms spread wide, welcoming Helios' cold embrace with a sigh.

Charlotte Plews