The Illusive Passenger by Newton Webb

Updated: Oct 19

Light leaked into the dark void. Hundreds of glittering jewels twinkled as a swarm of construction drones surrounded the Raven’s Folly. They were the only visible signs of life as The Merry Mole detached from the cursed colony. Henry was glad to see the back of it. His gloves ran over his suit seals with an action born of years of habit, lights flashing a solid green. Henry checked the post-launch diagnostics one by one on the flight console as a practised motion. The harsh white glow of the cramped cockpit illuminated its two occupants, their bulky ship suits strapped into their seats.

Then he leaned over to check Flynn’s flight harness and seals. You never could be too sure with passengers. Especially the young ones.

′Why do we need suits? The ship is safe, isn’t it?′ Flynn asked, demonstrating his utter naivety. Henry shook his head with disdain as the lad holstered his sketch pad and pen.

′It’s safe until it isn’t. Look at that.′ He pointed at Raven’s Folly. ‘It’s taken eleven years for people to return to it, all because of an accident. A careless spacer is a dead spacer.’

′I thought it would be different.′ Flynn sniffed. ‘I just want to go home.’

A chirp sounded from the communicator. ‘Registered vessel, The Merry Mole, SS-39188, you are clear for acceleration.’

Henry settled back in his seat. ‘Prepare for acceleration.’ Flynn quietly adjusted his position. The green numerals slowly counted to zero, as a sudden whine erupted from the main drive. Everything in Henry’s body felt three times its weight as he was pressed to the back of his seat.

It took a few moments for the inertial dampeners to compensate. They never could keep up. Then, once again, Henry could breathe easily.

‘There we go, kid, all sorted. You can relax now.’ Henry leaned forward to check the flight console. One of the fuel line lights was amber. He watched it cautiously until it changed to green. Good. ‘You don’t seem like a rock grubber. What led you to Raven’s Folly?’

Flynn’s voice was subdued. ‘I’m an artist. I wanted to see the birth of a new colony and capture it in ink.’

‘Well, it’s not exactly new.’ Henry snorted. ‘The mining colony was refitted after the disaster eleven years ago. It’s only just being repopulated.’

Flynn sat quietly. After a few moments, he pulled out his sketch pad. ‘Do you mind if I sketch you?’

′Me? I’m in a ship suit. What’s interesting about that?′ Henry laughed.

Flynn had already started to draw. ‘It’s a grizzled spacer in his cockpit. Plying the lanes and risking all to supply the colonies.’

Nodding, Henry liked the sound of that. ‘I suppose I am. Alright then.’

Peering over, Henry watched as the image took shape. ‘You aren’t wearing standard gloves. Are they safe?’ He looked at his own gauntlets. ‘They might be uncomfortable, but you’d never get me to wear anything non-standard when I’m off-world. Tried and tested saves lives.’

′Mother bought them for me. They let me draw even when I’m in a ship suit.′

′If you say so.′ Henry’s eyes flickered back to the control board; a sea of green lights greeted him. ‘What changed your mind?’


′Why are you leaving so soon? You can’t have been on the colony long. It was only repopulated yesterday.′ Henry said.

′I just want to go home.′ Flynn said. His pen continued to flick across the paper, sketching out the scene before building in detail.

′I can understand that. It’s a grim place. They barely have the core systems operational. Go back in a month and it’ll be completely different. They’ll have the bar operational for a start.′ Henry reached into a locker and pulled out a protein bar. ‘Are you hungry?’

Flynn shook his head. ‘I just want to go home.’

‘You mentioned that. Your loss.’ Henry checked the life support suspiciously, then tapped his helmet to lift the visor. His clumsy gauntlets took a moment to unwrap the bar and for a moment, he envied the young artists’ gloves. Long hours of experience won through in the end and he was soon munching on… he checked the wrapper, blueberry and chocolate. They all taste the same, both gritty and greasy, but they never expired. Three bars a day contained all the nutrients a spacer would need to survive.

It was eight hours from Raven’s Folly to Garris Sigma, the primary settlement in the system. Henry spent the time watching videos on the viewscreen. Flynn had finished his sketch of Henry and was looking over it with a critical eye. Henry glanced at it. He looked like a blob with a helmet, but it was well drawn. Smiling, he nodded approvingly. ‘It looks good. I almost look heroic.’

′Almost.′ Flynn confirmed, a cheeky grin flashing through his visor.

‘Well, brace yourself, deceleration in thirty seconds.’ Henry checked the control panel. Everything was green. They shifted in their seats in preparation before zero hit and the bruising deceleration started. The inertial dampeners struggled to keep up as the ship vibrated roughly. The viewscreen had switched from an optical to a simulated view as The Merry Mule entered the planet’s atmosphere. ‘If you think this feels rough, you should see the maintenance bills. I try and avoid going planetside whenever possible.’

Flynn sat pressed against his seat. ‘I just want to go home,’ he mumbled.

′Not long now, mate, you just hold on. It’s just a bit of turbulence.′ To underline his point, the ship rocked, jerking them hard. Henry’s stomach lurched as the ship’s gravity generators tried to align with the planetside gravity.

A bored sounding operator from control spoke as the turbulence receded.

′Incoming vessel, The Merry Mole, SS-39188, prepare to relinquish control to autopilot.′

Henry flicked a couple of switches. ‘This is The Merry Mole, control relinquished. Be gentle with us.’

The operator ignored his feeble attempt at a quip as the ship glided down to a landing pad and settled down with a final bruising crump.

′So much for gent—′ What the fuck?

Flynn was gone. His sketchpad and gloves were the only sign of him having been on board.

‘You idiot,’ Henry cursed. He must have gotten up during the descent and headed over to the airlock. Henry flicked on the airlock camera, nothing in the logs. Buggy piece of crap. There wasn’t much ship to check over, especially as he had an empty cargo hold. Flynn was nowhere on board.

Picking up Flynn’s sketch pad, he found an address on the inside page. It was close to the starport. ‘Well then, mate, you owe me a hundred and twenty credits.’ He changed into his civilian clothes and took the gloves and pad. The lights were dimmer in the starport, an attempt to simulate daylight for the colonists. Running his ID through the airlock, he hummed a small ditty while the customs computer verified his details. A long list of regulations appeared on his wrist computer. Without looking at them, he swiped to accept.

The starport was busy. The renovation of Raven’s Folly had led to a massive uptick in traffic. Finding a drone car, he keyed in the address from Flynn’s sketch pad and watched as the streets blurred past. He hated being planetside. He was far more at home in the solitude of outer space.

His journey led him to a comfortable middle-class neighbourhood. The houses had a faux stone façade and small, neat front gardens with bright replica flowers. The vehicle waited for payment before unlocking the door. I need a procedure like that for my airlock.

Henry had to ring the bell twice before an old lady answered. He didn’t have time to speak—she saw the gloves and gasped. Tears pricked at her eyes.

Unprepared for her reaction, Henry managed a confused ‘Hello?’

′Flynn’s gloves! Did you find them on Raven’s Folly?′ she asked, reaching out for them. He handed them to her without question.

′No, Flynn left them behind on my ship. Is he here?′ Henry asked.

Sniffling, she looked up at him sadly. ‘No, he died eleven years ago in the disaster. He was so excited when he left for his gap year. He wanted to see more of the galaxy.’

Henry blinked. ‘No, I saw him. He drew this of me.’ He opened the dog-eared sketch pad, flicking through it until he found the picture of himself. It was signed by Flynn Reynolds, 2348. 2348… That was eleven years ago. Is this a scam? The page was old, the ink faded.

Henry felt cold as he stared at the picture. The empty airlock camera. His sudden disappearance. Did I imagine it all?

′His sketch pad—Bless you.′ The lady took the sketch pad from him, eyes gleaming with suppressed tears. ‘Thank you for bringing them home. They are all we have left of him.’

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