If I go first

by CHRISTINE MCDONOUGH


“If I go first, you have my permission to … ” Mitya’s voice trailed off as he turned to me with his dark, very tired eyes. He hadn’t shaved in days. His accent had softened in the past three years up here.

I nodded, understanding. The air between us changed. We tilted off an unseen axis as we floated in the control room of the Sierra, staring at Earth through the space station’s window. It looked peaceful.

“Same, if I … ” I trailed off, returning what felt was a Grand Gesture. If I hadn’t, it would be awkward and selfish. Anyway, it wouldn’t get that far. He nodded, satisfied.

We’d heard the whispers of war, subtle hints from Ground Control. Both of us had declined the offer to return early, certain the unrest wouldn’t last, and waited for our regular supply ship. But attacks escalated unexpectedly to nuclear weapons. A hurricane of destruction swept huge areas. Watching attack and counter-attack, we panicked in silence, tasting bile as we moved in the surreal ballet of space.

When we received notice of a ship to bring us home, it was a spotty transmission: have patience, it will take time. As research scientists in orbit thousands of miles above the surface, we were realists. Air and water we could recycle on the Sierra. Food … well, we hadn’t brought that technology with us.

Neither of us slept for weeks, watching dank clouds below blend with the usual white. From this vantage, one short week of destruction made the planet a noxious Van Gogh of sick greens and yellows swirling with browns.

Denial was a precious lifesaver. Everything was fine, just fine. We could make it back to our families, find our homes intact. Survive. It would simply be a matter of adjusting.

Then we ran out of food. That was nearly two months ago before we started starving.

A week ago, we got the last transmission. Our transport was prepped and waiting for a launch window. Ground Control hadn’t been hit yet, being so remote. I can still hear the last message echo: Getting you two home is a priority.

Silence since.

Now I float, near to starvation myself, sharing what has become Mitya’s coffin.

If I go first…

My best friend’s body he’d offered as food floats around, as if poking around his favorite parts of the ship. I’d held a funeral of sorts, spoke some incoherent words. We were isolated and helpless; as abhorrent as the thought of eating my friend’s flesh is, I will not go gently into this good night. I don’t oppose dying; giving up is the failure.

His eyes had already clouded.

I must make a decision before he … becomes inedible. Planning his thigh first. How do I do this?

Would Mitya have hesitated?

I just have to stay alive until the transport arrives.

Maybe it will come tomorrow.

Am I trading this coffin for another?

Exhausted. My hand strangles the knife.

I can last.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christine was published in Oxford’s Haunted, an anthology of short stories by the Oxford Writing Circle (UK 2017), and has won various awards for both poetry and photography. She earned her master’s in Information Design from University of Reading (UK) and works as a Senior Content Developer at the Center for Applied Learning Science at WGU Labs. She also volunteers her time as an ESL tutor at the Guadalupe School.

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