“Static” by David Austin
Read our interview with David Austin
The man on the table looked dead. Only the beeping of the machines stuck to him like leeches said otherwise.
“His system is rejecting the nano,” the doctor said.
“Upping immunosuppressant,” the too-perfect voice of the computer responded.
More beeping. The doctor checked different readouts, without urgency. That was the true sign of death. The beeping meant nothing to the young woman keeping watch. It was the absence of interest on the doctor’s face that meant Captain Gordon Stallemos was dying.
Dignitaries would visit his bedside in the morning. The Secretary of Colonization, assorted admirals from the EN, politicians looking to get a photo paying their respects. But he was supposed to be fine for another week, at the least. No one died this quickly.
So only Sarah, the doctor, and the AI watched the old captain fade.
“Miss, do you want to see his Last?” the doctor asked.
Sarah looked around the room before she caught herself. There was no one else for him to be asking. But she couldn’t be the one. She’d been working at the EN for two weeks, fixing coffee and stimkits for the people that ran things. She was put here in case he woke up, so it wouldn’t look like the EN didn’t care.
“I uh…” Sarah murmured.
The doctor shrugged. “Up to you. We’ll record it as best we can, but you know how the signal degrades. So if you want to see it cleanly, you’ll need to do it now.”
Captain Stallemos’ last memories. People used to think life flashed before the dying’s eyes, but it didn’t. Just whatever they were thinking of when the lights went out. The strongest memory, sometimes, or the most important. Whatever stuck around the longest.
There were rumors that the President would witness the Captain’s Last. Either her or the Captain’s daughter.
“My boss is coming, and some of the higher ups and if you can just hold off on that for–”
“Miss, he’s going to be dead in the next ten minutes,” the doctor said. He sounded bored.
“Surely you can do something to–”
“Nope. Anything further goes against his living will. And I’m not sure it would help anyways. He wants to go, Miss, and my nano aren’t stopping him,” the doctor said.
“But this is Captain Gordon Stallemos, the world needs to–”
“Miss,” he snapped, “this man, no matter who he is, is not making it to my next break, which is in exactly forty-seven minutes. He has surrendered. You can watch his Last or not.”
Initial Contact. Lyra Two-Two-Six. The Battle of Second Trafalgar. Exodus. Stallemos’ Last could be any of the greatest hits of her history classes. She’d taken a full year at University to study the landing and first year on Lyra Two-Two-Six. Her boss had a bit of shrapnel that he claimed was from the driver heatsink of Stallemos’ Sparrow at Second Trafalgar. To see it how Stallemos had seen it…
“Okay,” she said.
“Here,” the doctor stuck the Ghosting patch to her temple. “I’ll pull you out when the signal fades. Yawn.”
“And pay attention.” He stuck another patch to her wrist.
Sarah felt the sedatives warming her as they ran through her veins. Like a warm cup of tea flushing through her arm, across her chest, up by her throat. She tasted cinnamon.
And then there was darkness. The blue lights of the monitors disappeared, and the beeping faded. It was quiet.
“Whose woods these are, I think I know…” a man’s voice. Light came back, but it was wrong. Too soft, too weak. Sarah looked up. The moon. A slender crescent of pure white hung above the crisscrossing, bent lines of … trees.
Trees without harvesters or feeding tubes, trees clumped together and untrimmed, trees from long ago. Trees coated in white powder. Some sort of disease? It covered the ground as well. As she watched, she saw little specks of it falling from the sky.
“His house is in the village though,” the voice came from just below Sarah’s ears. Stallemos, then, speaking.
Perhaps she was witnessing the aftermath of a battle. Ashes covering the land, trees growing wild. So long ago. How many years since trees grew wild on Earth? Less than one hundred, more than fifty. Long before the Exodus, long before Sarah had been born.
“He will not see me stopping here, to watch his woods fill up with snow – Hold on,” the voice said, stopping its recitation. A girl giggled.
Sarah’s eyes turned to her face. She was beautiful, pale as the moonlight reflecting off the powder.
“I’ve forgotten a little bit,” Stallemos’ voice said again.
“That’s okay,” the girl said. “Just kiss me.”
Sarah felt Stallemos’ arms wrap around the girl and pull her close. The powder on them both was cold, but her lips were warm.
It was snow. Sarah remembered. Snow was landing in the girl’s dark hair, touching the tree branches, mimicking the stars as she watched the sky. Water used to freeze as it fell and become snow. Her grandmother had told her. Sarah had laughed. Who cared what water used to do? Water could still freeze, if the life support was failing, or if she had wanted ice cream.
But this was more than frozen water. Sarah – Stallemos’ – eyes turned upwards again. The trees entwined with each other, reaching upwards to the moon as it peeked out from behind a cloud.
“Guys, come on!” Another voice came from behind her. Stallemos turned and saw another girl, bundled up against the cold. “We need to go sledding, make a snowman, and take pictures before the sun comes up! Who knows when this’ll happen again!”
“Okay, okay, we’re coming!” The first girl said.
“I know how it ends,” Stallemos said. Sarah could see the moonlight sparkling in her eyes.
“Oh?” the girl asked.
Stallemos looked up again. The snow was coming heavier, and the moon was almost gone. A soft wind brushed Sarah’s cheeks, and there was a hushed sound as the snow shifted. Everything was quiet, everything was soft. The trees slept under their newfallen blanket.
“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep,” he kissed her. The girl smiled. “And miles to go before I sleep.”
“It’s over,” the doctor said. “I couldn’t get anything but a black and white blur. Just static left, I guess.”
Sarah opened her eyes. The blue electronic glow was back, but the beeping was gone. Nothing left to monitor.
“Patient deceased at oh-one-five-two, ship time,” the AI chirped.
“Did you see anything more?” the doctor asked.
Her bosses would be there soon. She’d probably be in trouble for letting him die before they arrived. But she didn’t care.
Sarah looked out the window. It wasn’t a real window, of course, just a holographic representation of what she would have seen, could she look through the hull of the ship. Stars shone softly from their lightyears away. Light older than Stallemos, older than the girl, older than the Earth had ever made it. A light that felt the same as the moonlight had on the snow; soft, cold, beautiful.
“No,” Sarah said. “Nothing important. Just static.”
About the Author
David Austin is a graduate student at the University of Montevallo who works at a pharmacy to pay for it. This is his third published short story and the first at the professional level. In his free time, David likes to yell at soccer games (he swears they can hear him) and plays a wide assortment of video games, hoping to find one that he always wins. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, with his fiance and their twenty-five pound cat, who is exactly as big as she sounds. Both are incredibly influential on his writing, the fiance for her support and editing prowess, the cat for sitting on his keyboard right when things start to get good.
Read our interview with David Austin