I've just made it through to the second round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Writing Challenge. My assignment in the first heat was as follows. seven days to write 2500 words or fewer. Genre: Sci Fi Subject: Animal Rescue Character Requirement: A billionaire. Below, in its entirety, the story that made it through the first round for me. Now I will be given a new assignment on Thursday for the second round that must be 2000 words or fewer and written in, I think, three days.
Carl Tumeric was not known for his warmth. He was not known for his kindness or his sense of responsibility or his laughter. Carl Tumeric was not liked by many, not well liked by any. Those who worked directly with him feared him a little bit, knowing always that their professional lives hung on his whim and his favor. Those who worked indirectly for him, the tens of thousands of men and women who worked in his companies and the subsidiaries of those companies, the tens of thousands more who worked in companies that serviced his companies in one way or another or as independent contractors whom his companies or their subsidiaries hired all took some secret solace in the thought that someday Carl Tumeric would die alone. The new anchors would read of his death on the screens of the world and nobody would really mourn much at all.
Deliah sighed audibly when her phone made the sound specific to messages from her boss. She slid the device closer to her on the table and said, “play it.” The phone complied at once. The screen illuminated with Mr. Tumeric’s face and he said with most uncharacteristic emotion, “Deliah. I don’t know if you’ve been watching the news but . . . we have to – I have to do something. We can’t just let this stand.” Deliah wondered what, of all the horrible events transpiring in the world every day, had so affected Mr. Tumeric that his voice actually wavered and cracked with urgency as he spoke. Then, after a moment’s pause, he finished, “When you get in to the office this morning I want you to set me up with Franklin Thusbrough as soon as possible. We’ll take care of that poor, poor dog. I can promise you that.”
Delia spooned unsweetened breakfast cereal into her mouth and heard the sound of her own chewing as from a great distance. The dog? He could only mean one: Tank, the Labrador that had been the unfortunate victim of circumstance. Trained from birth to be the first dog to live in space, Tank had been taken as a pup to World Sat to live there as a mascot and a team member, to raise public interest in the ongoing satellite colony and to give a sense of normalcy to those who lived aboard the great, orbiting vessel. Then, when recurring problems with the recycling oxygenators proved absurdly expensive and public sentiment turned against the whole project in the face of earth-side economic disparities, when the idea of sinking more effort and energy into keeping a dependent experimental colony running when so much earthly effort and energy was needed just to fight the North American Water Wars and to keep the peace in the remaining urban centers, funding was cut off, the project declared non-viable and the World Sat evacuated. In the mad rush to load up the fall pods, the panicked populace grabbed prized possessions, held one another’s hands, zipped up their reentry suits and nobody thought about who was to be responsible for the communal pet. Tank was left behind.
Every now and then in the days since the last evacuee left the colony, Tank had wandered into one of the areas still monitored by active cameras. The news heads would show the heartbreaking footage of the abandoned dog bounding alone through the soft gravity of the rotating satellite. Eating his automatically dispensed food, using the waste expulsion unit as he had been trained, the dog could survive alone on the satellite, the scientists said, for its full lifetime. One dog did not use enough oxygen to deplete the system the way the full, active colony would have. Thus, the producers of the nightly news programs found themselves provided with a frequent subject of heartbreakingly sad reportage, an ongoing saga of abandonment and adorability with the added attraction that there was nothing anyone could do to change the situation for the sweet beast. It had all the elements a ratings-hungry news organization could ask for -- Imagery that was both sad and appealing, heartstring tuggery, reinforcement of the impotence of the general public, outrage toward the returned colonists who had wasted a great deal of public funds for three years and then left the most beloved member of their group behind. This story had it all and it promised to keep delivering for years to come.
Delia tracked down the contact info on Franklin Thusbrough while her car navigated to work without her help. She got him on the line while she rode the elevator up to the office. Fifteen minutes later she stepped into Carl Tumeric’s office and told him that Dr. Thusbrough was ready to appear on his wall.
Carl clicked the huge wall screen to life, greeted Dr. Thusbrough and kept Delia in the room in case he needed any note taking done during the conversation. As it turned out, he did not. The conversation was very brief. Carl asked what it would take to get someone up to the World Sat to grab the dog and bring it home. Dr. Thusbrough said that it would be very easy to do if anyone had the money to do it. A one-seater could launch any time, but the expense of such a launch was prohibitive. Carl laughed at the idea that any cost could be prohibitive and told Dr. Thusbrough to have the jumper ready to go as soon as possible. That was all it took. It was only as she returned to her desk that she realized that Carl had every intention of making the jump to the World Sat and back himself. To save the dog. She found, for the first time since she had started working for him, that she liked the man.
Wednesday morning found Carl Tumeric strapped in for lift. He exchanged permissions with the launch tower, drifted his fingers over the command panel, tapped the icons in the correct order to pre-light the engine and called for departure. An elephant sat on his chest and the world turned into a narrow tunnel as he hurtled upward toward escape velocity.
Hovering at the verge of unconsciousness he studied the distant spot of colored light that was all he had left to hold onto of the waking world. It comes to this, he thought abstractedly. A life of lonely darkness and then a single, bright point of light. It seemed as though he was flying toward the beckoning decency from which he had turned away so often. He was apprehensive, frightened not of the dangerous journey or the potential hazards of the task at hand, but of the change this might make in him. If he had lost the ability to compartmentalize, to set aside empathy in the face of profit-loss, it would mean no end of trouble to his business ventures. Still, with the enormity of force pressing against him, with all of the universe tunneled down to a single bright spec of light that contained that wonderful, sad, lonely Labrador waiting for somebody, anybody to come to its rescue, he had no doubt that he was doing the right thing, right now, for the first time in his own sad, lonely, profiteering life.
As the worst of the gravity bubble slipped behind him and the auto-nav dropped him into blessed weightlessness of controlled orbit, Carl Tumeric’s thoughts cleared. The forward monitor showed him the rotating satellite from an angle he had never before seen and he realized how fast his own craft hurtled toward it as it grew at an alarming rate. In a near panic he hit the communications button, realizing that he had put his safety in the hands of people who might not like him, who might see an opportunity to free themselves of his financial control. “Ground, this is Resue One,” He said using the proper identifier codes. “I seem to be coming in awfully fast”
The voice that came back to him was fighting the urge to chuckle. “Just relax, Rescue,” It said. “You’re steady on approach. Retros will fire to slow you for docking in eighty-two seconds.”
Carl did his best to slow his panicked breathing. For more than a minute he fought the urge to call out again for reassurance. Then he felt the press of the seat straps against his chest and thighs as the retro-blasts slowed his approach just as he has been told they would. The computers took care of the docking with unaided precision and the voice of the computer told him that it was safe to remove his harness.
As he passed through the airlock into the World Sat, a soft hissing came from the vents behind him. A gentle breeze seemed to pass through the walkway as he moved into the interior of the deserted colonial construct. He took long strides, amazed at the sensation of lightness afforded by the low gravity the place’s spin generated. He felt light. He felt young. He wondered if that was partly caused by the knowledge that he was doing some good, something decent for the first time in a long, long while.
He opened the inner hatch and slipped into the entry bay. He closed the hatch behind him and heard it lock. A small L.E.D. light flickered from green to steady red. Carl turned toward the communications panel and was slammed by a huge furry mass. Tank and Carl summersaulted together in the entry bay. The dog, alone for more than a week, now, covered Carl’s laughing face with slobbery, happy dog kisses. Carl scratched the dog’s ears and assured him that everything was going to be okay.
He sat with the dog, laughing and snuggling. Tears gathered at the lower lids of his eyes as he pressed his face into the great beast’s shiny black fur. The dog seemed content to just stay here in the entry bay exchanging affection for ever, but Carl knew there was a return trip to get on with. He slipped out from under his new friend and moved back to the hatch. He pressed the code instructing it to open. The red light flashed yellow for a moment and then went back to red, now blinking rather than steady. He tried the code again and again was rewarded only with a moment of yellow light, followed by blinking red.
He tried once more and then went to the communications panel. He pressed for the attention of his distant advisors. “Ground,” He said, “This is rescue one. You read?”
“We read you, Rescue One.” Came the voice after a moment’s pause.
“I’m aboard the World Sat now,” He said.
“We have you on camera,” said the voice from the ground.
Carl said, “The exit hatch isn’t opening. I press the code and it goes yellow and then blinks red.”
A long pause held his attention. Tank nuzzled his hand and he patted the dog’s head as he waited.
“Rescue One, did you say that it blinks red?”
“That means the hatch is detecting a deficient seal, Rescue One. That hatch will refuse to open unless the seal is repaired.”
“Um. Okay, Ground. How do I go about doing that?”
A long pause followed. And then, “Rescue One, I don’t think you understand the nature of the problem. As a safety measure, the hatch will not open until a proper seal has been established and without access through the hatch, you cannot repair that seal.”
It was Carl’s turn to pause. Then, “That seems like a pretty serious design flaw, Ground.”
“The station was never designed to have one person alone aboard it, Sir,” The voice said. “There used to be whole crews of Extravehicular maintenance workers. Delivery teams would’ve left someone in the docked vehicle that might’ve been able to handle the issue. You understand?”
“Not really. How long is it going to take to get this sorted out, Ground?”
The voice from the ground was silent for a long moment and Carl had the distinct impression that the transmission had been stopped while someone far away cleared his throat and found his words.
“We don’t have a solution for you at the moment, Rescue One.”
Carl’s persona as an angry boss emerged unbidden. He made the threat that leapt to mind. “Ground, do you think people are going to want to watch stories on the news about a man they’ve all heard of slowly dying alone in space?”
“I don’t think they’ll show that, Sir. I suspect . . . you will be remembered for your heroic rescue attempt of a beloved dog.”
“My . . . attempt?”
“The video feed has been shut down now, Sir. And I’m getting orders from the folks here at Port Control.”
“What does that mean, Ground? What kind of orders?”
“This constituted mission fail, Sir. I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Tumeric. Ground out.” The speaker went silent.
He pushed for attention again. “Ground? Ground? Do you read me?”
The speaker gave no response.
Tank, the dog he had come so far to rescue, put his big, rough paws on the frightened man’s shoulders and licked his face.
Carl Tumeric, a man who had never been well loved, rarely been loved at all, wrapped his arms around the great dog’s neck. He held it against him in their shared bubble of air in far-off space. Quietly, so quietly that had anyone else been in the room they would not have heard, he muttered into the dog’s ear, “Don’t worry, Tank. I’m here. And you’re here. Nobody’s going to die alone.”
The world below, its cameras turned to less troubling images, spun, uncaring.