The Colossal Risk

In Short Story by Susan Taylor

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Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

Starlight, Star Bright, First Star I See Tonight

She walks briskly through the vast hallways of the Colossal Risk.

Windows upon windows line the exterior of the ship—an enormous ship that cradles hundreds of delicate souls—but she pays no attention to the scenery. On the interior walls, unmarked doorways to unknown rooms—the greenish lights that remind her of sickness—line the seemingly endless miles of corridors. She doesn’t stop as the ship passes clusters of stars and clouds of gases; a vast penumbra lies beyond but she doesn’t have time to stop and gawk and wonder. She doesn’t notice the stars and nebulae that shoot past as they flare and streak and blossom into beautiful pompons of soundless colors.

It’s a misnomer stars in space are white.

A memory dully enters her mind, one that is already like a flower dying on the vine: a wheatfield full of stars as far as she could see. She doesn’t feel melancholy anymore; the feeling faded a few months ago.

Smells, both familiar and alien, drift through the air ducts. She catches a whiff of body odor, with middle notes of sweat and musk, and base notes of something she can’t quite identify. She feels nauseated as a gorge rises in her throat. Everything makes her queasy these days. At first she believes it’s the manufactured gravity and the eleventy billion miles per second at which they hurtle through space, but when she thinks on it some, she discovers some rather obvious clues and realizes it’s something else. She continues her walk and catches a faint trace of cologne: manly, sexual, and full of promise, as if she’s walked through the ghost of person. She wonders who it had been—was he handsome? muscular? strong?—but sex is the last thing on her mind.

Her thoughts unfold in her mind, like how lucky she is to have escaped from a dying planet and that she can walk unburdened onboard the ship. Gravity, which she always took for granted, keeps her feet planted firmly on the deck. Each step taken keeps her active and in shape and her muscles toned, but in turn, each step takes her closer to something she wants but can’t have. Her decision weighs heavy on her, and throughout sleepless nights aboard the Colossal Risk, she decides it’s for the best.

One of the passengers, she thinks her name is Daisy and is from a European colony, nods to her in passing, and she nods back and forces a smile that probably looks pathetic and green from queasiness. Maybe she will run into Daisy again, and maybe she’ll apologize at her poor attempt at friendliness. It probably wouldn’t hurt her to make an acquaintance on this lonely journey, but lately she hasn’t felt like small talk or lunches or anything else.

Here, we are all we have left.

Maybe next time she’ll simply say, “Hello” to Daisy, and like the Colossal Risk, set her own course for bright, new beginnings.

***

Like the Air She Breathes

She misses him.

She hasn’t seen him in months since their encounter in the quarantine ward. She hopes that she dreams of him during hibernation, which is scheduled to begin in eight days. She can’t help but want Adam again, to feel and engage in the sort of human contact a man and woman can share, to feel his warm skin next to hers, to feel alive when she knows her future holds nothingness and space and vastness. When she awakens from the chamber that will hold her body for almost an eternity, he will be dead and gone, and the vital, virile man she once knew will be nothing but a pile of dust in a lonely grave on a lifeless planet.

When she closes her eyes in the quietude of her room, she finds that she can still remember his face and his smiling blue eyes and the way they crinkled in the corners, and his thick dark hair, greying around the temples, in between her fingers. She remembers how his scratchy beard left raw marks on her skin. With that remembrance, she smells him all around her, a faint mixture of a clean-scented soap and their lovemaking, and the way his salty skin tasted when she kissed the hollow of his throat. She feels his warm skin from her head to her toes and senses the ghosts of his arms and legs as they wrap around her. She wants to stay—oh lord, how she wants to!—in this reverie.

She doesn’t dare.

She knows a person can get lost in themselves that way.

Her eyes jar open when she thinks of what awaits him, and the unknown future that looms for her. If she admits only one thing to herself about that night she spent with Adam, it would’ve been that she had fallen in love with a dream. A dream that stays amid the malevolence that has killed so many of her fellow humans. The organism wiped out so, so many, and sadly, aboard this starship, one more innocent victim is left to claim.

***

This Ship and Everything in It

The size of the Colossal Risk amazes her, even though she’s lived inside its walls for almost a fortnight; the sheer scope of it and the fortitude it took to build a steel behemoth like it stupefies her. It’s so enormous that passing Daisy in one of its passageways is a random event. If one wanted to, a person could completely avoid seeing anyone during the entire trip. She could completely disappear if the mood struck.

Unfortunately for her, she couldn’t—not today.

Thinking about Adam and the life she left behind takes her mind off things, yet it increases her sadness. She glances through the great window to her right, and the stars look impossibly bright through her tear-filled eyes; she feels like a tiny fish in a giant aquarium looking from the inside out.

The approaching appointment leaves her cold and shaky. She worries and frets over the outcome. Will my blood clot? Will I bleed out in front of strangers? Will I die in an isolated hospital bed and all of this would have been for nothing? Should I have stayed with Adam and taken my chances with a vicious and unrelenting creature? Visions of the dead and dying filter through her mind.

She can’t answer any of these questions that keep her up every night. Even though she dreads the deep sleep—the stasis from which she can’t willingly wake on her own—she also can’t wait to succumb to the feeling of nothingness and of darkness, and of it enveloping her in its cocoon of eternal blankness.

Her solitary footsteps echo on the dizzying array of black and white tiles, until she moves to the carpeted area. She stops a moment, the tiles making her lightheaded and woozy, and knows the medical division is close. She shuts her eyes and lays her forehead against the cool wall. Once she starts walking again, she realizes the waiting room is just beyond the arched doorway. She can see the placard clearly.

She walks over to the doorway and looks inside the massive waiting area. Passengers, ranging from a young man about her age to an older couple, sit apart from each other on sturdy yet uncomfortable-looking chairs. The young man doesn’t look up from his Space and Time magazine at her arrival, but the matronly woman does. Wheels spinning, the older woman studies her; her wizened features give away nothing, but her eyes search relentlessly.

For a moment, all the guilt she’s kept compartmentalized comes to the surface and almost doubles her over, but she forces each foot in front of her and takes courageous steps toward the kiosk next to the nurse’s desk. The nurse is pretty and fresh-looking and pert. The nurse’s blonde hair falls in perfect waves down her back, and for a moment, she’s jealous because she knows, compared to the nurse, she looks bedraggled and unkempt.

She reaches the kiosk and swipes her identification badge. Her photo and information come up on the screen and she answers a couple of security questions. Yes, my name is Janet Jamison. My personal ID number is... Yes, I understand the procedure. Her eyes well up with tears when it is asked of her if she has any next of kin on the ship.

No, she answers, no I don’t. There’s no one left.

The irony of her situation settles heavy in her gut as she makes her way to a set of chairs toward the back of the room.

I will not cry, I will not cry, I will not cry, she says to herself.

I will not cry.

***

In My Time of Desolate Sorrow

MPs took them in groups up to the Colossal Risk that hovered just above the troposphere inside the ozone layer. She remembers watching the progress on television when the military began to build it. The ship, at first, reminded her of a skeleton. They started with the bones, and then they began adding the muscles and flesh to it. After they finished it and deemed it safe for space travel, notices were sent out to the quarantined passengers about their travel to Planet Solomon, an Earth-like planet near Canopus, about three thousand light years from their Sun. She remembers the day vividly, while holding the letter in her hand, looking out into a meadow and trying to imprint Earth’s beauty in her mind.

Thoughts of Earth lead her back to Adam, an officer in the military. She doesn’t know what became of him. Those thoughts lead to more thoughts about her upcoming appointment, and past words from the doctor haunt her when her worst fear was confirmed. A viable pregnancy can’t last through stasis... We don’t know enough about it...We can’t afford to lose another life...

She plods over to the section of chairs that are as desolate as she’s beginning to feel. The coldness of the vinyl seeps through her thin cotton pants, and she blows into her cupped hands to help speed the warming. It’s chilly in here, and she can’t figure out if it’s her or that they keep the medical division slightly cooler than the rest of the ship. It’s probably both. She feels the older woman’s eyes on her again, but she doesn’t dare meet them. She doesn’t dare let the woman know the cards she’s holding.

“Janet Jamison?”

Pensively, she raises her head. She pushes herself out of the chair and stumbles toward the large metal door that has opened where a serious-looking male nurse stands waiting for her. She follows him through the doorway and winces when the door slams behind her.

“How are you today, Janet?” he asks in a deep, rumbly voice.

He looks at her steadily, but she doesn’t feel like small talk nor does she feel like being rude. “I’m okay. How are you today?”

He doesn’t bother answering her, and she follows him through another corridor and finally to a room that is either an examination room or a surgical one or both. There’s a small tray that she assumes to be instruments covered in a sterile white cloth. Next to the table is a machine that she doesn’t want to think about.

“Please undress behind the curtain and leave your clothing in the bag provided. There’s a gown on the seat. The doctor will be in shortly.”

She nods, and the male nurse nods curtly at her in return and leaves the quiet room.

Taking a deep breath, she moves behind the curtain and begins to strip off her clothes, one agonizing piece at a time.

***

I’m Sad You’ll Never Get to See My Face

Dr. Snyder wears a gruff look on his face, a no-nonsense expression that makes her cower slightly in his presence, but the doctor barely acknowledges her. She can’t help but think of Adam at a time like this and the hows and whys of it all, and if she is honest with herself, she will admit how helpless she feels while undertaking this enormous task alone.

Would Adam be infuriated with her?

What choice does she have?

Probably for being so careless, but she points it out to herself that he was careless, too.

Instead of focusing on things in the Never Can Be category, she picks tiny fuzz balls off her gown and flicks them to the floor while the doctor looks over her chart.

“I’m sorry, Janet,” the doctor says. “Like I said before, we can’t risk losing you.”

“I understand.” But she didn’t. Not really.

“Okay, if I could have you lie back on the table.”

She gently leans back on the cold, paper-covered surface as he adjusts the stirrups on either side of the table.

“I’m going to take a look first while the nurse runs an IV. It’ll make you a bit drowsy.”

The male nurse enters and carries a tray with him. He sits on a stool beside her and readies the vein for insertion.

She sucks in her breath at the sharp needle stick and knows this is just the first of many injustices and embarrassments while she’s inside the walls of the medical division. She wishes for the comfort Adam could provide her. While the doctor inserts the speculum and pokes and prods at her insides, she ignores the humiliation and imagines Adam’s warm fingers intertwining with hers. She imagines him moving her bangs to the side and kissing her forehead. She longs for his strength in such a solemn, lonely time.

After the nurse finishes with the IV, she begins to feel a sudden warmth trickle through her veins, and soon she doesn’t care if she’s alone or not. She can still feel Adam’s hand on hers as she drifts into a pseudo-sleep.

A few moments later, something sharp stabs her insides and her eyes pop open.

“I’m injecting a numbing medication into your cervix. If you can, try to relax.”

She doesn’t want to close her eyes. She sees, or thinks she sees, a shadow above her. As her eyes lose focus, she imagines a large onyx bird circling high above her. It lands on the top of a cabinet, and it watches her with soulless eyes. She feels like it’s waiting for something, but what? It caws and she hears its ghostly noise over and over and over. She tears her eyes away from it and wishes she was anywhere but in this room. She can’t block out the bird’s infernal noise. She feels pressure in her abdomen that goes on for an eternity. There is so much pressure she confuses it with pain but there really is no pain.

“I’m finished, Janet.” A warm hand touches her forearm.

She nods sleepily at the doctor, but inside she’s crying, Nonononononono!

“You’ll stay here for about an hour, and then we’ll make sure you get back to your room for the duration of your recovery—”

She can’t listen any further to the doctor.

The illusory bird’s cacophonous sounds obliterate everything else.

***

And the Band Played On

She flows in and out of consciousness once she’s back in her room. She is vaguely aware of a huge wad of something between her legs, and with a jerky motion, she reaches down and realizes it’s an absorbent pad of some kind. She feels mild cramping around her belly button and lower, and she tries to move into a sitting position. The cramping gets a bit worse and she can feel a trickle of blood flow out of her. The situation hits her suddenly: the knowledge of what she did and the repercussions that will surely follow.

Lying back on her pillow, with nothing but guilt and loneliness to keep her company, she cries like she never has before. She cries for the death of her unborn child. She cries because something else kept her attention. What kind of mother am I not to be aware of the death of my own child? She cries for the loss of Adam, of what could have been but will never be.

But here, we are all we have left. The phrase echoes over and over in her mind until the words lose meaning.

Finally, the tears dry up and she looks around the spacious area. No matter how nice the quarters are, the chamber where she will spend the next ten thousand lifetimes is just underneath the floor in the center of the room.

***

Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be!

The last thing she sees is the cover of her tomb closing her in with a metallic hiss. She shuts her eyes as the warm liquid fills the chamber and lets it cocoon her and embrace her like a lover. She doesn’t let herself remember the day—seven days, fourteen hours, and fifty-five minutes ago—when she did the unthinkable. She only remembers the name she gives her child along with a solemn promise they would meet again if the universe is willing.

Dozing for a moment or two, she finally falls into the sleep of a thousand millennia. She dreams on and off, and inside these dreams, she sees Adam.

In one dream, the one she likes most, she feels his warm skin next to hers while they lie together under a tree in a dazzling wheat field reminiscent of her home.

Her forehead creases as she tries to remember something—something about...what?—but the thoughts can’t form, and the wispy, untethered tendrils are carried to a place she can’t completely reach. Instead, she concentrates on the golden fronds whispering in a warm breeze that carries the scent of lilacs and lavender, of dirt and earth, and she smiles.

What is it? Adam says.

It’s nothing, she says to her beloved. She runs her hand over his smooth chest, so smooth it feels like a baby’s skin.

The colors sparkle around her as if everything is embedded with millions of tiny diamonds. Small, delicate birds fly above them, swoop in, and sit on the oak’s sturdy branches. They twitter nervously and ruffle their feathers, and she takes delight in watching them.

Her dark hair fans out on the soft blanket, and she feels the light wind caress her skin as soft as Adam’s touch. She has never felt so beautiful and alive. A pond sits next to them, and she compares Adam’s crinkling turquoise eyes to the ever so slightly rippling water.

I love you, Adam, she says and looks up at him.

His eyes meet hers. My heart belongs to you and only you, love. All the emotion and affection he feels toward her is written in beautiful lines across his face.

She smiles at his words and kisses him on his bearded cheek, and she laughs softly when the hairs rustle against her lips.

She wonders if this is a dream.

I can’t wait for Olivia to get here, she says as she lays one hand on his arm.

Nor can I.

Her belly, soft and round, holds their beloved child within it. He runs one hand along the rounded edges of her stomach, tracing its way around the curve of her breast, while the other hand brings her to him, his fingers warm and vital on the base of her spine. She feels the baby kick in response to her father’s touch.

She could stay right here in this moment forever.

Here, we are all we have left, she remembers as the words dance in her mind.

High above them, she sees a large ebony bird fly around and around in lazy circles, lowering ever so slightly with each pass. It reminds her again of something, something she can’t quite grasp, something she wants to but knows she shouldn’t. She instinctively covers her belly with her hand as the bird lands on a branch and watches her with its onyx eyes while it waits.

About the Author

Susan Taylor

Susan Taylor is a survivor of the Borderlands Short Story/Novel Boot Camp and has Bachelor degrees in both English and Psychology from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell as well as an MBA from Saint Leo University. She has been the editor and associate editor for several horror and humor webzines as well as a copyeditor for over ten years. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Horror Literature Quarterly, Fiction on the Web, Scarlet Leaf Review, and pacificREVIEW.