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Coffee-Stained Maps

Stefan Slater is a freelance writer from Los Angeles. His fiction has appeared in Betwixt Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @StefanASlater or visit his website stefanslater.com and drop him a line.

It started with a deal.
She didn't look my way, but kept her eyes on the chart, making fuel calculations. Pen dancing. The ship, our home, hummed away, vibrations traveling through my feet as I listened.
There was an abandoned short-hauler--a short-range freighter. If I helped Supo strip it--pull the wiring, break down the engine--I could do what I wanted.
"Just like that?"
This felt too easy.
"And you won't... write to the training board? Not even once?"
Muted emerald light from a hundred displays washed over us, and her grey hair swept across the chart.
I tried to laugh. "I... really, Mom? I feel like I should get this in writing."
The pen froze. "Supo needs help, Ava. If you don't think you can handle--"
I backpedaled. "No, no, of course, I'll help."
The scribbling resumed.
There was balance once. I don't remember how old I was, but I remember waiting for Dad--sleeping with my head on Mom's lap, her fingers running through my hair. Waiting. Hollow moon and muted stars, smoldering coffee, eyes fixed on a wall clock.
And then he was there, picking me up, tucking me into bed. And he'd show me his new maps, fingers tracing worlds, pointing out everything he'd seen--everything he'd discovered while plotting new routes between stars and chalky moons.
Wonderful things: moons of green crystals; ocean-worlds like sunsets, mile-long shadows swimming beneath the waves; gas giants and brilliant-blue suns; broken worlds of jagged rock, petrified trees crumbling slowly.
I asked him once if he ever gets scared--scared of flying alone.
He shrugged, and said he missed us. But scared? No.
"I do a good thing. And people who do good things don't have to be scared."
He smiled. "Your Mom said once, years ago, that I wake worlds. I like that--they're all sleeping, waiting for me to find them. One moment they're wrapped up in the dark; the next, I map them, and they're part of the waking day. I make them ready--ready to become homes for people like us. It's... good. And that's why I'm never scared. And you should never be scared for me, ok?"
"Remember, when I find a world, when I name it, it's tied to me, to us, for... well, forever."
He eyed Mom standing in the doorway, grinning.
"Us. Of course."
I dreamed of golden, sleeping moons, and waking them gently, giving them names for a new day. And everyone would know my planets. Everyone would remember my name.
In the morning, there'd be a new map on my wall. Or on the kitchen counter, stained with coffee. Then he'd leave. And Mom and I would wait. She'd fly. Haul cargo. Build a home.
And we'd wait.
We stood in the airlock.
Air hissed; the computer counted down. Mom was silent, staring at the hatch. She never loses focus. Never stops. Blue eyes never stray.
I remember how she didn't look away, not once, when she talked about... Dad's accident. How it happened.
Though she kept some things from me--certain details I wasn't ready for, she said.
But the truth was plain--we were alone. And his maps, the ones on my walls, disappeared. That's something that still hurts.
But the sleeping worlds never left my mind. My dreams. During work. And one day, after a long day of packing away spare engine parts, I told her as much in a sudden burst.
I wanted to fly like Dad--train to be like him, map stars. Do something so people would remember my name.
She'd only sighed, and said there were certain details I didn't understand.
The computer chirped: docking finished.
Mom, hefting a toolkit, opened the hatch to the short-hauler. Cold, sour air crawled over me.
"Come on," Mom said.
Our lights danced across midnight-black hallways. Torn-open suitcases and clothes scattered on the floor. Mom said nothing, stepping over broken boxes and tattered shirts.
We walked into the short-hauler's galley.
My heart stopped.
There were bodies, stretched out on tables, on the floor. The frozen and terrified.
Others--Supo, maybe--had covered some dead with emergency blankets, silver glittering in the dark.
Golden halos glanced across ice-covered shoes, greasy hair and bony, sallow hands peeking out from blankets and reaching for the floor.
I saw a single hand. A child's. Tan skin. Delicate fingers curled like hooks, swinging as the ship slowly spun. A small lump alone on a bench.
I couldn't breathe.
"God... what happened?"
"Life support shorted. They drifted... for a while."
She didn't need to spell it out--I tried to sit, but only crashed to the floor. Life support--it was the same way Dad went. Light-years from help.
I opened my mouth to speak, but she knelt down in front of me, blue eyes focused hard.
"Ava..." she said, squeezing my hand. "Your father... he lived for a good dream. A dream I loved. But he never shared the truth of it with you. Never shared the fear that sat with him. And you were too young. So there were details... he couldn't share.
"But I want something better for you. I don't want you... to worry about an end like this."
She stood up, wiping tears. "If you still want to wake worlds like your Daddy, then I understand. I... I didn't want to keep the truth from you. I didn't want you to think... that he wasn't scared. That it's all dreams out there."
And she walked off, looking for Supo, saying something about reporting the dead.
I sat. Trying to breathe. Watching frozen hands.
I saw Dad's fingers, tracing worlds.
It hurt to talk, to think--it hurt to see those tiny fingers.
I looked to my left, through a viewport, and saw a thumb-sized world, wrapped up in shadow. Sleeping.
I closed my eyes.
And saw Dad's smile; I saw his maps.
And I stood up.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 14th, 2016

Author Comments

Stefan Slater is a freelance writer from Los Angeles. His fiction has appeared in Betwixt Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @StefanASlater or visit his website stefanaslater.com and drop him a line. I came across a news article about modern ghost ships, and it stuck with me. Kinda scared me, to be frank. And I wanted to understand why the idea of a ghost ship unsettled me so much. I think that's where this story came from.

- Stefan Slater
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