Asterisk Anthology: Volume IRound 3 Runner-up
Tombs in Space
© Alexandra Peel
The receiver system crackled and hissed, white noise filling the tiny capsule like a thousand waves.
“Command Control…” hiss, “Command Control to Major…” ssss…
The voice coming through was muffled. He stretched, touching the green button.
“Roger. Say again. This is Ariadne II. Major James Mitkov to Command Control, is that you Walt? Over.”
“Command Control here, Roger. Hey, buddy…request…turn up S-band volume for…Major, we are detecting…disturbances in the….”
Mitkov tried to make alteration for the static and intermittent contact. The straps and buckles, that prevented James Mitkov from floating, made regular movement difficult. He was sweating and uncomfortable; the comms so close to his mouth, he felt each breath as it left his nostrils and created little invisible eddies. The worse part was having an itch; no-one mentioned that in the training manuals; so he contented himself with wriggling in his bucket seat. He couldn’t wait to get back home; this mission had not turned out the way he’d expected.
“Roger. Control, I’ve got a little static in the background now. Over.”
Mitkov checked his control panel again. Hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells, full. Environment display, clear. Status indicators, Master Alarm; all checked out. Only audio seemed to be a problem.
“Hey. Control, can’t find the problem this end. Mission Command got your aerial pointing the wrong way?” Mitkov chuckled.
“Ariadne II. Our recommendation…. to… over the instrument panel. Over.” The CC voice was becoming less decipherable; more, distant.
“Control. Repeat. Over.”
Mitkov tipped his head; his view out the window reduced by his helmet. Damn, he thought. He loved space, but he sure hated the suits. Advanced Crew Escape System (ACES) suits; brilliant designs, but so damned uncomfortable. He saw no space debris that may be causing interference. The angle of his head brought a memory, unbidden, to mind. Through the window of his small office at the bottom of the garden, a spring meadow; he could see Katy running in circles amongst the buttercups. His mouth smiled. And the vision was gone.
From his investigations, Mitkov found no damage to the communication’s equipment, nor lack of power to any facility within. And there could be no ionospheric anomalies; it should be days before he re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. And he had not encountered a meteor shower.
“Hm.” Mitkov mused, “Come on trouble, where are you? Mitkov needs you to stop fucking around.” He sang.
Mitkov flicked switches, twisting awkwardly in his seat to access beneath the instrument panel. Everything designed to be within reach in the cockpit, but it didn’t mean access was simple. He pulled a cover plate loose. Crackle and hiss. Then there was a voice; very fuzzy and definitely not speaking English. The cockpit suddenly inflicted with a garbled rasping so loud, he instinctively put his hands up as though to cover his ears.
“Kontrol… ty menya slyshish?”
Mitkov strained to listen. What was he hearing? How could he be picking up a Russian space station?
Mitkov froze. He hit his comm button.
“Hello?! Er,” Shit, get it together Mitkov, he berated himself. “This is Major James Mitkov. Ariadne II, er. Over.”
Vostok! What the hell!? Mitkov decided he must have misheard the transmission. No way there was a Vostok space mission running now, that was, what, almost eighty years ago? He peered through his visor and out of the tiny slice of window above his head, then the left and right panes; stars, forever and ever. Mitkov swallowed, mentally slowing his heartbeat.
Vostok, nineteen-sixty-one. Yuri Gagarin, supposedly the first man in space. But hadn’t the Russians sent cosmonauts out there earlier? That’s what the conspiracy theorists believed. Cosmonauts that hadn’t returned? He flicked his comm switch.
“Roger. Vostok. This is European Space Agency craft, Ariadne II. Do you read? Over.”
A long silence, then the radio screeched, settled, then spoke.
“Ariadne II. This is Vostok 1. Commander Ivan Istochnikov speaking. Over.”
The voice sounded deep and heavily accented. The words came out stilted as from someone not speaking his mother-tongue. Mitkov scoured his memory for the name. Istochnikov. He was thinking that Control was having a joke at his expense.
“Paris. Ariadne II here. Ha, ha, ha. Over.”
“Ariadne II. Vostok 1, what is ‘ha, ha, ha’? Over.”
Mitkov frowned, “Vostok 1. Ariadne II. You can’t be Vostok. There is no Vostok anymore! Over!” he switched the comm off, vexed.
Maybe the Russians had started up a new space program; re-using the old names. He supposed it was not impossible. After all, wasn’t he, Jamie Mitkov one of those weird improbabilities? Russian father, English mother, American pilot; now working for the European Space Agency.
Mitkov’s childhood memories consisted, mostly, of walking the North Wessex Downs in England; and camping alongside the canals in Great Bedwyn with his father. Idyllic and, he later realized, very unusual for kids these days. He didn’t own a computer until he attended college to study Engineering, Physical Science, and Mathematics. He had gained A star’s in everything, so easily entered the University of California, Berkeley to take Aerospace Studies. Mitkov was easy going and he enjoyed company, so he was never short of friends there. He met Elouise in his second year. He claimed it was love at first sight. She, smiling, said she would take him under her wing; he needed looking after.
Elouise. Mitkov felt a little pang in his heart. Top of her class in flight training. Shot down over some God-forsaken war zone. She received first and second-degree burns on her legs; her beautiful, long legs. He sniffed; no whining in a space suit. Then Katy had come along after Elouise was told she would be unlikely to bear children. Mitkov had been elated, and barely come down since her birth. Katy and Elouise meant the world to him. When Katy first said the word, ‘dada’, Mitkov had cried. When she started school, he had cried. Love was more painful than he could ever have imagined.
Mitkov had continued on his ever soaring career progression; Lieutenant to Captain to Major, in two easy moves. He had only joined the Euclid mission five years ago; its aim was to ‘investigate the profound cosmic mysteries of dark matter and dark energy.’ The Euclid Orbiter had left Earth in late 2020, and some of the amazing images it sent back were what had enticed the young James Mitkov to join the program. Now here he was, floating in space with no real idea of his location, contact with Mission Control fragile. And this, this apparent Vostok craft. Mitkov flicked the switch,
“Vostok 1. Ariadne II. Repeat name. Commander, repeat name. Over.”
Mitkov repeated his transmission, then.
“Ariadne II. R5. Commander Andrei Mikoyan. Over.”
Mitkov stared at the comm panel. “Repeat?”
What was this? Someone, he decided, was having a joke at his expense. He remembered the name Mikoyan from his studies. Andrei Mikoyan had been killed attempting to reach the Moon, in 1969. Mitkov had read that it was a system malfunction, the R5 failed to get into lunar orbit and shot past the Moon.
“Command Control. Ariadne II. Interference. Possibly amateur ground based. Please confirm. Over.”
Silence. Mitkov repeated his message.
“Ariadne II. Com… Mikoyan. I have visual on you… Damage to….”
Mitkov continued to send transmissions to Earth, hoping CC would respond. Instead, he kept getting the voice of the Russian Commander. Mitkov’s initial irritation gave way to a nervous confusion. No matter what he tried, the Russian kept telling him he had external damage, would need to do a spacewalk for repairs. Something akin to alarms clanged at the back of his mind. Like the time he took Katy to a theme park and he had turned around to find his little girl no longer by his side. The flood of panic that filled his veins, his muscles, every fiber of his being had flared like the brightest pulsar. Scraping along his nerves, causing his heart to palpitate so much, he thought he would have a heart attack. She was fine; someone had simply stepped between them. The relief had been immense.
Now, it was happening again. Sweat popping out all over his face, trickling and tickling its way along his skin. He blinked, scanning through the three small windows; noticing a long smear across one pane, Mitkov squinted, frowned and the smear was gone. Strange, he thought.
“Hey buddy, you’re looking good.” the voice interrupted his musing. Mitkov stared and frowned at the comms, it sounded like an American accent this time.
“Er, Ariadne II here. Command Control, that you Walt? Over.”
“Man, did you see that flash?” the voice was male, young and definitely American.
“Flash?” Mitkov’s eyes scanned the exterior. “Command, who am I speaking to? Over.”
“It’s Willie, man. I think we lost some insulation off the external tank.”
Willie, who the hell was Willie?
“Something on the monitors; Laurel’s trying to fix it. Wow, you see that?”
“Willie, this is Ariadne II. I don’t see you. Are you with CC? Over.”
After a few pensive seconds, a weird humming and whistling attacked Mitkov’s ears.
“From our orbital vantage point, we observe an earth with borders, full of nutrition and magnificence, and we desire that humanity as a whole can imagine a world as we see it.”
Mitkov knew that quote, no not quote, it was a misquote. He racked his brains for its source, and then it came to him. Willie! William Cameron McCool was the pilot of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. He and the rest of the crew were killed when Columbia disintegrated during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
“You need to get your ass out here buddy.” The voice of William McCool coaxed.
Mitkov knew of a phenomenon known as resonance, which can amplify radio signals; perhaps he was picking up garbled communication from another craft. This was nonsense, all nonsense! Resonance would not send him the voices of the dead. He leaned forwards, as far as his restraints would allow, and peered out the quartz glass window.
“What the …” he murmured. He could have sworn something swam across his vision. Yes, swam; that was the only way he could think to describe the motion. There hadn’t been anything solid he could identify, more like a motion of the stars, as if something translucent had passed by them, something huge. Mitkov felt his skin crawl. There was a sensation as though something had stroked the exterior of his craft. Mitkov was breathing too fast.
“…Jamie…” the voice stunned him into holding his breath. Mitkov’s hand froze mid-action.
“Can you hear me, Jamie?”
“Dad?” Mitkov’s mouth went dry. Mikhail Mitkov had been dead four years.
“Step outside, Jamie.”
Clear and free of any static, his dead father’s voice came through. Impossible, Mitkov reasoned. He checked his instrument panel, oxygen levels were normal; everything was normal. Except it wasn’t.
“Who is this?!” Mitkov shouted; he looked at his gloved hands and saw them shaking. “Repeat. Who is this?” There must be something wrong with the oxygen levels, he reasoned, must be. The panel was showing the wrong readings, he was hallucinating, that was it. And then there was the smell.
“Luchik, it’s papa.”
Mitkov couldn’t hold back the sob. Luchik, his father’s pet name for him when he was a boy; Luchik, little ray of sunshine.
“Luchik, come and walk with me. Come outside.”
“Papa? Why are you here? I don’t understand.”
“I can explain better if you step outside, Jamie.”
“Who is this?!” Mitkov shouted.
A crawling sensation made its way from the base of his spine to his skull. Could his horrible, dawning suspicion be true? Four communications; from four dead men; ‘investigate the profound cosmic mysteries of dark matter and dark energy,’ had Euclid somehow brought him to the “dark side” of the universe?
“Jamie, come to papa.”
Mitkov squinted through blurry eyes, nothing out there. He hoped that another spaceship might have made itself known, or become visible; but, no, nothing. He flicked switches and began pressing buttons frantically, trying anything, anything, that would explain, or block out the transmissions. He thumped his fist against the dials; they remained resolutely stable as if mocking his own slow dive into a kind of instability. Mitkov briefly considered that he was having some kind of space madness, the psychosis that was so feared in the twentieth century but never came. Perhaps it was true after all, perhaps he; James Mitkov, would be the very first recorded incident of it; he pictured the reports that people might read after his death; ‘Major James M. Mitkov, 25, was the first and only ever recorded incident of the so-called ‘space-madness. In 2047, on a routine trip for the Euclid program, Mitkov became convinced that dead cosmonauts spoke to him.’ A manic giggle escaped his mouth. And what was that smell?
“If you’re my dad,” Mitkov suddenly said, “Then tell me what happened on my fifth birthday.” He sat back, breathing heavily. There were a few seconds of silence, consideration? Then,
“On your fifth birthday, we attended the funeral of your Aunt Elizabeth.”
Mitkov almost choked. He should have had a party. He should have had friends to tea, presents, games, cake and ice-cream. Instead, they had attended the funeral of his mother’s sister, Elizabeth. She had looked little like his mother, Mitkov recalled, she was nothing like his mother in character. Where his mother was happy to stay home, raise kids and cook, Aunt Elizabeth had been a bit wild. She had a boyfriend ten years younger than herself; they spent weekends charging around the Welsh hills and valleys in a 1968 MG convertible. Mitkov loved its bright color; he used to sit on the bonnet while Aunt Elizabeth slid him back and forth on its warm, shiny surface. Her lipstick was red too, red as the little MG. But there had been an accident. Boyce, her boyfriend, had taken a bend too quickly, the little MG had almost flown, witnesses recalled, off the rain sparkling road, hovering in the air before plummeting to the green below.
“Step outside, Jamie. We can talk there.”
“We’re talking now aren’t we?” Mitkov strained, peering into space, “I can hear you clearly.” He knew all about the fight-or-flight instinct, but, he grimaced, there was no running out here. He twisted to look out of the starboard window, then to the cockpit window; his eyes lingering on the ejection escape panel above his head. “If you really are my father; which I very much doubt!” He snapped, “Then talk. And explain yourself.”
Mitkov waited, tempering his breathing to cut sound inside his helmet. He realized his heart was racing and so closed his eyes, willing himself calm. He became fixated with the oddest, most uncomfortable sensation that he was being watched. No, not watched; stalked. The hairs on his neck prickled. The stars wavered briefly and blinked out. Mitkov scoured the blackness around him, eyes stretching in disbelief. If he didn’t know any better, he would have sworn that the windows had been painted black; there was nothing, a cosmic darkness so intense as to be beyond the reach of his mind. He had gone diving in his teen years in Bala Lake in Wales. It had been pitch black down there, or so he had thought; you couldn’t see your own hand in front of your face. Now he knew true blackness; emptiness.
A shape began to form outside the space shuttle; flowing like smoke; milky, fluidic. It rose in a column which divided at its apex to curl around back on itself; mushrooming like an atomic cloud. Continually dividing, revealing veil-like layers and forms that Mitkov had only ever seen in photographs of bizarre creatures deep in Earth’s oceans; transparent jellyfish and sea cucumbers whose internal organs were visible; but these forms were not earthly. As it peeled itself this way and that, Mitkov knew, understood with great certainty, that this thing was something diabolical. Mitkov hoped he might be hallucinating, but knew he wasn’t. Something like a goat’s horn spiraled into existence, a sensation of curved canary claws on the skin of his shoulder; the fiendish spirals tugging on his consciousness until he thought he would vomit, or loose his bowels. Now the thing appeared to be solidifying in parts, it appeared to be struggling to delineate itself; separating, coming together, attempting to unify itself into a great wholeness. Mitkov could not move a muscle, a rigid horror had taken hold of his limbs and so he was forced to watch, feel and inhale the impending doom.
A worm wriggled into his brain, chewing away at the fibers of memory, swallowing great gulps of James Mitkov greedily; getting fat on Mitkov’s dreams and hopes. In a panic, he clung to the one memory that would keep him sane. The two most important people in the world began to form within the milky cluster, he squeezed his eyes tight, bit his lip till it bled and curled his fingers into tight, bone-aching fists. Mitkov could hear himself sobbing; a reverse choking of tears and despair.
“Command Control. Major James Mitkov. Do you read?”
Mitkov’s eyes flashed open. He stabbed at the comms link, missing on his first attempt.
“Here! I mean. Roger Control, Ariadne II receiving. Damn, am I glad to hear from you guys.” He almost cried, “You won’t believe what just happened. Over.” His heart battered against his ribs in relief.
There was a long pause before the reply. “Command Control. Major James Mitkov, we have discovered external damage on your ship.”
“Roger Control. Are you sure? What’s my status? Over.”
“Major James Mitkov. External damage needs repairs. We need you to step outside for repairs.”
Mitkov paused; peering out into the starry blackness. All as it should be; he metaphorically wiped his brow.
A creeping sensation wound itself through his nerves. Mitkov had the strongest sensation he was not alone. His helmet was filled with the strange odor; someone, or something, was close. Without moving his head, he slowly turned his eyes. There was a figure beside him. There should be no room for another person, but, he reasoned, this was not another person. He could make out nothing definite, no features, not even if it was wearing a spacesuit. It was just there. And now he could hear the steady breathing of this other. He really did not want to look, did not want to see what, or who this intruder was.
“Command Control, Ariadne II, do you read me? I have an intruder! Over!” He shrieked.
Mitkov realized he sounded hysterical. If there was one thing an astronaut didn’t require in his list of abilities, it was to become hysterical. Pull yourself together Jamie, he advised himself.
“They cannot hear you James Mitkov.”
“Control! Do you read me?!”
“No-one can hear you.”
“Help me! Control, help me!”
“You are from the blue planet, aren’t you?”
Mitkov went very still. His wet cheeks were burning hot, his vision blurred.
“We’re hungry Jamie…”
Alexandra Peel is a visual artist turned author. She has a Degree in Fine Art, Sculpture and has been a freelance community artist, painter, graphics tutor and bookseller; she currently works as a Learning Support Practitioner in a F.E/H. E college.
She is the author of ‘Sticks & Stones’; a collection of nine short stories about witches, and ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’; a pirate adventure for children. She has several short stories published including, ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’, which appears in the horror anthology Game Over by Snowbooks. ‘Spinning Jenny’, in The Singularity magazine and ‘ZIP’, in Rambunctious Ramblings. She has also created a series of Steampunk/Penny Dreadful style stories under the heading, ‘The Life and Crimes of Lockhart & Doppler’, about a pair of miscreant treasure hunters.
Born and raised in Liverpool, Alexandra came to live on the Wirral after five years spent in Staffordshire, where she lives with her husband and teenage daughter. She is a member of Wirral Writers and can be found at the following assorted locations: