By Gray Winsler
Art by Nick Flook
Published Issue 092, August 2021
Bex’s hands were sweating. She blamed it on the skintight gloves of her suit, but she knew she was nervous.
“Comms are going dark in five, Bex. How are you feeling?”
“Never better,” she shouted over the rattling of the ship.
Bex gripped the edges of her chair as the ship shook violently, plowing through Earth’s atmosphere.
“Remember Bex — we don’t know what’s down there. Keep your suit sealed, get the data, and get out.”
The last bit was garbled as she was cut off from her family, from the last remnants of humanity who floated in space millions of miles away. Bex closed her eyes and steadied her breath as the ship’s shaking began to ease. She was alone now.
Imagining Earth’s vast oceans beneath her, she remembered her grandma’s photos of sand and waves and sun. It was all her grandma could talk about in her later years, when her memories began to fade. She would tell Bex of her childhood home in Bayville, of the waves lapping at the shores, of weeks spent on the beach, without a care in the world. Bex envisioned herself on a beach now — what it was like to feel the warm sand between her toes, to taste the saltwater on her lips.
The ship jolted as it touched down onto the earth, and she was pulled from her daydream. Opening her eyes, she saw a green light flicker on beneath the button that read Open. Bex hesitated. This was it. She lifted the helmet from its case and put it on, locking the neck rings into place. There was a rush of air as the suit stabilized, filtering all the oxygen that circled within it.
She reached out her hand and hovered it over the button. She thought one last time of that ocean. She wished so badly she could see it, just once. But today she had one mission, and one mission alone — get the data from Epsilon 241, and get out. She pushed the button. A sheet of metal behind her rattled open. Beams of bright sunlight struck into the cabin of the ship. The metal descended down until it rested on the earth below.
Bex walked to the edge of the platform. 111 years, she thought. That was last time man set foot on Earth. And here she was was, inches away from returning to humanity’s home. She stepped out onto the ground, feeling its softness through the thick rubber soles of her boots. Walking forward, toward the tree line, she turned to look back at her ship seeing it nestled in a meadow of yellow flowers. Tears met her eyes.
Bex walked amidst the thick forest. She was in awe of the trees, thin trunks reaching high into the sky above, blanketing her in a canopy of yellow leaves. She couldn’t believe how strong they were. Here she was, trapped inside of a thick suit, terrified what may be outside, and these trees were thriving. She had half a mind to take off her helmet, but she thought better of it. Sunlight poured through the forest, casting long shadows that stretched behind her. Large dust particles filled the air.
She raised her arm and eyed the compass embedded on her wrist. She was still traveling west. Follow the sun, she thought, remembering her directives, repeating them in her head. The ship will land east of the research station, Epsilon 241, in the nearest clearing. The forest is thick there, so you’ll have quite a hike ahead of you. Just keep on due west and you’ll find it.
Bex walked on for a time. It was impossible to tell how far she’d gone. Everything looked the same. Every direction she turned she saw the same trees, the same leaves. But she kept her eye on the compass, checking it obsessively.
Her suit began to feel heavier and heavier. It weighed her down as she trudged through the thick brush. Brambles snagged and tore at pants. She pushed through the fatigue until she saw a striking tree that stopped her in her tracks. There was something about it that stood out from all the rest, something about how its roots stretched out in a magnificent tangle.
It was surrounded by a soft bed of freshly fallen leaves. Bex decided to rest for a moment, laying back against its trunk, its roots and the soft bed of leaves supporting her comfortably. She looked out to the view before her, to the beauty of the forest bathed in golden light, and smiled at how lucky she was.
Before she knew it, she fell asleep.
Bex woke when something blocked the sun above her. She opened her eyes and saw the silhouette of a person standing over her. She jumped to her feet as fast as the suit would allow.
“Easy,” the figure said, opening its gloved palms.
Bex stepped away. They seemed to be wearing the same suit as hers.
“Are you lost?”
Bex stepped back again, shaking her head.
The figure tilted their helmet, seemingly amused. “You seem afraid.”
Bex’s pulse raced. “Who are you?”
“I live here.”
The figure’s helmet had a golden, mirrored visor just like Bex. She couldn’t make out their expression at all, only herself reflected back at her. It was unnerving.
“You live here?” She asked.
The figure nodded.
“No one’s lived here for decades …”
The figure shrugged. “Some of us never left.”
“You mean … You’ve been here all this time …”
“You’re losing light.”
Bex saw the sun had sunk lower into the horizon, the shadows even longer than before.
“Why did you come?” The figure asked, its voice muffled by the venting in the suit.
“Epsilon Station 241. The last reporting research station.”
The figure seemed to nod in understanding. “This way.”
They turned and walked away from her, into the sunlight. Bex did not move. None of this made any sense. No one could have survived all this time …
“Are you coming?” The figure asked.
Bex eyed her compass again, but it swirled around in all directions. What the hell? She looked up at the figure, who looked back at her stoically. Though she couldn’t trust this person, she saw no other choice. Bex nodded and followed.
“How could you have stayed here all this time?” She asked.
“This is our home, Bex. We couldn’t leave it behind.”
The words came neutrally, but Bex felt them as an insult. Her grandparents generation had no choice but to leave. They did what they had to.
“But the air, the soil … How— ” Bex interrupted herself when she realized the figure was still wearing a suit. A pit opened in her stomach. “You’re still wearing a suit …” She trailed off, soaking in the gravity of her realization. “It’s still not safe …”
The figure said nothing.
Bex couldn’t tell one tree from the next. Her fear and doubt grew as she followed the figure deeper into the woods. She wondered why she even continued on. She already had her answer — there’d been people here all this time, and they still couldn’t survive without their suits. But she had to see this through. She had to be certain.
It wasn’t long before they came upon what was left of Epsilon 241. All that remained was rubble, piles of cracked cement with rusted iron rods poking out from the debris. Bex was devastated.
“No … No, no, no …” she said to herself. Running to the remains, she began turning over chunks of concrete, tossing them a side, looking for something, looking for anything.
“This is what happens when you leave things behind, Bex. It all falls apart.”
Bex looked up at the figure who spoke, but there wasn’t just one figure anymore. There were dozens. All suited just like her, encircling her in a ring. She spiraled around, their golden visors reflecting nothing but Bex herself and the forest that surrounded her.
“Who are you?” She yelled.
The circle tightened.
“Who are you?!” She screamed again.
They each moved forward in unison.
“We’re the ones you left behind, Bex.” They spoke as one voice.
“It wasn’t me …” She said meekly.
“We’re the ones you left to die.”
Their voices were in her head. She couldn’t hear her own thoughts, only their tormented whispers as the circle closed in on her. She looked for an escape but everywhere she turned they were there, trapping her.
“Get away from me!” She shouted.
But the circle constricted around her at the same steady pace.
“Don’t be afraid Bex. We’ll keep you safe, here, with us.”
The figures seemed to merge into each other the tighter they got, until Bex, overwhelmed with fear and confusion, fell to the ground, shielding herself from them, waiting to feel their arms rip her apart.
But nothing came. And soon all she heard was her own ragged breath straining the filters on her suit. When she looked up, they were gone. Bex was alone amidst the rubble of Epsilon 241.
She saw the sun was setting, the light already beginning to fade. She dashed away from the rubble, back toward her ship. Her compass was useless, spiraling madly in all directions. Her only hope was to make it back before nightfall. Her heart pumped wildly, pushing her forward, bumping off of trees in the twilight of the forest.
Something snagged at her toes and she lunged forward, falling with a crash into the forest floor. She pushed herself up as fast as she could, but when she rose she saw the same tree she’d napped at before, its magnificent roots bathed in the purple twilight. At the base of her tree was an astronaut, wearing a suit just as hers, a suit just as all the others. But the visor was smashed in, shards of golden glass framing the withered skull inside. And from the skull erupted a swollen and contorted fungal growth, pushing out past the helmet into the cool night air.
Bex staggered back in horror. And then she remembered when she first came into the forest, when she first saw those thick particles of dust. But they weren’t dust at all. They were spores.
She looked down, studying her suit in the dark of the forest, padding and prodding it with her trembling hands, until she found it. Along her left leg there was a hole, barely big enough for her to slip her finger inside, but big enough for hundreds of spores to find their way into her suit.
“Oh god, oh no …”
Bex stumbled back in the pitch black of the forest, her breath heavy with fear and anxiety, realizing this was it, this was her end.
“Bex,” a gentle voice called to her.
She felt something press softly into her back, and a warmth in that very spot. She turned to see her grandmother standing there, radiant in the trickle of moonlight.
“Grandma?” She asked, tears in her eyes.
“It’s okay darling, come here.”
Her grandmother pulled her in close, Bex feeling the warmth and strength of her arms wrapped around her.
“It’s okay darling,” her grandmother whispered again into her ear.
Bex felt her breath and heart begin to calm.
“But Grandma, my suit, and Epsilon 241— ”
“Shhh,” her grandmother whispered. “No need to worry about all that anymore, my dear. It’s all over now.”
Bex leaned into the comfort of her grandma’s arms and drifted into sleep.
Bex woke with a start. The sky was a bright blue above her, not a cloud in sight. She pushed herself up, feeling warm sand beneath her hands. She could hear the rush of waves rolling against the shore.
“Are you alright, my dear?” Her grandmother asked.
“Yeah … Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Alright sweetie. Why don’t we head back? I promised your parents I’d have you back for dinner.”
Bex nodded and rose to her feet. Her mind was adrift in her dream.
“You sure you’re alright?” Her grandmother asked again.
Bex looked at her, instantly put at ease by her glowing smile, by the gentle wrinkles that framed her face.
“I’m sure Grandma. It was just a dream. Let’s go home.” Bex said with a smile.
As she walked along the shore with her grandma, she felt her fingers fidgeting unconsciously with something. She looked down and saw a frayed hole along the side of her skirt.
Gray Winsler loves living in Denver despite his allergy to the sun. He spends his mornings with his dog Indy by his side, writing as much as possible before his 9-to-5. If you’re curious about Normal, IL or why TacoBell is bomb, you can find more on his site.
See Gray’s last short story Howl in Birdy July issue here.
Nick Flook aka Flooko is “the O.G astronaut painter” and takes his fans on adventures through original acrylic paintings and animations. This Toronto-based artist specializes in surrealism, space-themed work and impressionistic city and landscapes. See more of his work on his site and follow him on Instagram for more work.
Check out Nick’s last Birdy published piece, A Good Day, here.