There is a recurring setting in short SF fiction – frequent enough to be noticeable, but rare enough that I can’t find a subgenre or trope name for it – of the minimal one-person spacecraft. Often the ship is on an automatic course, so there is nothing for the protagonist to do as it sails through the void, as the air and water is continually scrubbed and recycled again and again; claustrophobia twinned with agoraphobia. There’s the end of Larry Niven’s Madness Has Its Place, Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations, and I’ve talked about Kij Johnson’s Spar before. And today’s story is an excellent entrant to this highly specific club.
The opening: The dead man sits in the corner of the chamber enclosed by spaceship on all sides. He takes up a lot of space. He has been there for three days.
And with no airlock or way to hide the thing, it’s going to be riding with Maureen for the entire many-month journey. Instant claustrophobia: just add a dead body. Wonderfully simple and effective.
Yes, there is an explanation for the dead man. But it only comes at the end, and it’s not a burning question in the story. To be honest, it could easily have not been answered at all and remained satisfying, although its answer plays into the themes. Maureen isn’t terribly interested in where he came from, nor is she scared or disgusted. She just views it as an encumbrance, an unscratchable irritant, as she passes the time making sculptures for the alien art show at her destination.
And the story’s pretty much an account of her journey as the dead man slowly decomposes in a corner. An example follows. It may be too graphic to some readers (it’s probably the most tactilely extreme part of the whole piece), but for me these little details only heighten the uncomfortable atmosphere the story conjures.
As he decays, as the air scrubbers throb to keep up, the atmosphere becomes congenial. Even festive. When the dead man’s slouchy body loses all its cohesion and makes squashy noises as air currents and inertia press on the outside of the coveralls, she spends time bouncing ideas off him. She likes the sound the pieces of the sculpture make when they impact the cheap fabric of his clothing. The walls have turned from white to a greasy brown-grey, darker where the dead man’s coveralls rub against them. Everything sports that layer of slickness, the dead man’s body escaping and coating everything, everything, including Maureen.
A Word Shaped Like Bones by Kris Millering
Availability: free online, audio
Word count: 4,100
First published: Lightspeed magazine #49, 2014 (available here with an audio recording by Gabrielle de Cuir at the top of the page)