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The Earth Looks Different from Here

Jeanna Mason Stay does most of her writing in fantasy and fairy tales, making up new ways to look at old stories. Occasionally, though, she hears a siren call from some other genre, including the occasional song from outer space. Jeanna's most recent stories include "Breadcrumbs," about a post-traumatic Gretel searching for healing (published in Unspun: A Collection of Tattered Tales), and "The Nanny Job," a contemporary Snow White romcom (published in Timeless Tales magazine).

Jeanna loves fireflies, serial commas, and her husband and children. Not necessarily in that order. She dreams of one day owning a herd of Chia sheep. You can find her at calloohcallaycallay.blogspot.com and on Facebook @JeannaMasonStay.

I hummed classic David Bowie lyrics and looked out the cupola. It always struck me how different Earth looked from the space station--magnificent, of course but somehow fragile and strange, too.
I drifted alone down the corridor in zero g. The sun set every ninety minutes, but our bodies still craved the rhythms of Earth's night and day, so most of the crew slept. I wandered, wide awake.
Could I really do it? I'd asked myself this question so many times in the past few days, but I was out of options. And there was no time left for doubt.
I drifted down the corridor to my destination.
The service module was supposed to be empty, but Jackson was there. I floated toward him, and he looked up.
"Kate?" he whispered.
I didn't answer. He wouldn't listen if I did.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
I turned away to block the sight of him and summoned all the fear I'd bottled up these past weeks. All the horror at what I had to do. My love for this crew. I pulled it all in, focusing it, expanding it until it filled me.
"I'm sorry," I whispered.
Jackson's eyes widened, but he had no time to respond as I slammed into the computers that communicated with ground control.
Alarms rang and warning signals lit up.
Jackson suddenly had no time to worry about me.
We were the Mars Preparation Mission, a test of long-term space living. It had been fourteen months since we left Earth. We were due to return at eighteen.
We'd known the dangers of this mission. Any time in space came with the usual risks--bone and muscle deterioration, space debris, radiation. But lengthy missions added psychological strain, the potential for cabin fever and no way out.
We were prepared for all of it. That's what we'd thought. We'd practiced every emergency scenario, studied obsessively. Our mission had been a brilliant success, beyond anyone's expectations.
Until the death.
It was part of our training, of course--how to handle a body in space, where to store it, how to grieve. But no manual taught what to do when alarm switches flipped without warning, computer screens began to display words of their own accord, whole systems suddenly started fritzing without any apparent cause.
No one knew what to do when the station was haunted.
So everyone ignored it. Afia still zoomed grumpily around the station, yanking himself by handholds toward the lab module and his experiments. I still drifted out of his way. Commander Ruzzio and Henrick still checked flight data, made notes. Jackson contacted ground control with daily updates on the crew. The haunting didn't show up in any reports, not even in personal logs. I knew. I'd looked. We were scientists, after all. If a phenomenon didn't have an explanation, we found one, and we were very good at it. If it couldn't be explained, it shouldn't exist.
And yet it did exist, the word no one would say, would hardly even think.
A ghost.
The ghost of flight medic McConnell, who had died doing her job. Who was still trying to do it.
"Look," I said during one of the meetings, "Something is wrong with the water system--and I dunno, but I guess with the failsafes too! You need to--"
"Jackson," Commander Ruzzio interrupted, "You check the electrical again. Run all the standard tests. Run all the nonstandard ones too. There must be something we're missing." Ruzzio was still trying to prove there wasn't a ghost. "Afia, the usual. We need your lab work no matter what. Everyone, let Rosenthal run the radiation labs again. Report--"
"No!" I screamed, punching the wall with a resounding thump.
Everyone started and looked my direction.
I burst into impotent, rage-filled tears.
After a twitchy moment of silence among the crew, they looked at one another. With an unspoken sort of agreement, they began discussing again, ignoring me.
Because I was the word no one wanted to say.
Kate McConnell, flight medic. Ghost.
They obviously thought I was just up to the stereotypical ghostly hijinks, like in those stupid horror movies with their flickering lights and moving furniture.
They had no idea there was something wrong with the station, but I knew. It was one of those one-in-a-billion sort of catastrophes. Something had broken in the system that sucked the water from the air, from our wastes, from our whole world, and made it safe to drink again. So it wasn't safe anymore. Every swallow took them closer to death.
I didn't know why I'd died first--some genetic trick or undetected physical weakness, perhaps, that made me the canary in the coalmine? If only I weren't dead, I would be running tests on my own body to solve the mystery. But I didn't know, and neither did they, and I was the only medical expert in the crew. The only one who would know what to do.
They all showed signs--headaches, dizziness, lethargy--but they thought it was the effects of radiation. We were testing out a new shielding material, after all, and though all its previous tests had been successful, there was a big difference between short trips and our mission. That's why they kept running all those radiation blood labs, even though they kept coming back with perfectly healthy results.
The other option--the one they didn't discuss but that I could see eating at the edges of their control--was that they felt off-kilter because of me. Sorrow at my death, fear at my haunting, maybe a little bit of going crazy. The irony was that every effort I'd made to warn them had scared them more. The alarms, the systems going out, the computer displays were all attempted warnings. I was trying to tell them to retest the failsafes, to finally notice that they were getting sick from the water.
Who knew it was so hard to communicate clearly as a ghost?
If I didn't get them home soon, I wouldn't have to worry about communication anymore. We'd all be ghosts.
With one sorrowful glance in my general direction, Jackson turned to stare at the remains of the computer I'd just destroyed. I didn't know how he'd sensed my presence, but I hated knowing how close we were, and still so out of communication range.
"Commander," he said, channeling system comms to Ruzzio's sleep module.
Her voice came a moment later, groggy with sleep. "What, Jackson? I was getting the alarm bell, but I thought it was maybe another... fritz." Even half asleep she carefully wouldn't talk about ghosts.
"I... I don't know how," Jackson choked out, "but comms with ground control are down. The computer is broken. I'm evaluating now."
Ruzzio sounded suddenly very awake. "I'll be right there."
Jackson looked again at the empty air near me, almost but not quite seeing me. "Kate," he whispered. "Maybe I'm imagining it, but I think you're here." He scanned the room. "I don't know why you're angry. I don't know what we did. Why couldn't you have just let us finish the mission and go home?" He shook his head and looked back at the crushed remains of the command post computers. The computers I'd carefully selected--from among all of the space station's modules--to destroy.
I wished so much to reach out and touch him, to explain.
Commander Ruzzio arrived, and Jackson began to point out the damage. I watched, hoping they would reach the right conclusion.
It took longer than I would have expected. Ruzzio summoned Henrick, and they sifted through the backup supplies for a solution. I'd made a thorough job of my destruction, though. After weeks of getting it wrong, this had been my last gambit. Time was running out for them.
After a few hours, Ruzzio finally sighed and rubbed her temple. "You're right," she said. "This can't be fixed. We're on forced evac." Any permanent break in comms with ground control was an absolute mission abort. "Jackson, go ready the Soyuz capsules for flight."
I sighed, a breeze that blew past them without notice. My job was done.
Someday they might know what I'd protected them from. But regardless, none of this would end up in a report; no one in mission control would believe it. So, to protect the research, my team would keep silent. My death would be a tragic footnote in the log of the mission. My afterlife would disappear.
Far above Earth, with its brilliant blues and greens and whites, I look out the cupola of an abandoned space station. My shipmates are gone, safe, while I remain.
I sing to myself now--the only person left to sing to--off-key, forgetting the lyrics, my ghostly voice lost in the lonely corridors.
And I smile.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 14th, 2018

Author Comments

I was looking for ways to push myself into trying genres and topics outside my usual realm when I ran across the NYC Midnight flash fiction challenge. It was exactly what I wanted--forced deadlines (48 hours!), assigned topics, and fun. In the third round, I was assigned to write a ghost story set "above the clouds." After rejecting mountains and airplanes, I tried a humorous piece about a ghost haunting St. Peter. It was... not heavenly. Finally I settled on a space station, and that's when the writing took off. For me, the eeriness of a haunting pairs perfectly with the mystery that is our universe. I absolutely love that I got the opportunity to write a space station ghost story.

- Jeanna Mason Stay
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