Edition 3: The Spacesuit With No Spaceman… by Sergio Palumbo
An astronaut from the People’s Advanced Republic of China goes missing while in orbit and it is Xing Yi, a secret government agent, who must travel in the same footsteps. Will he be liberated by unknown sympathetic forces or is there a darker fate awaiting him on the edge of space? SY
The investigation Xing Yi had been assigned this time by the exacting Chinese Space Program staff wouldn’t be an easy one, to be sure.
Jian Juhi, was a young taikonaut—that is, he was an astronaut from China, the word ‘taikonaut’ coming from a mixture of the terms “taikong”, meaning space, and the Greek “naut”, meaning sailor. He had disappeared while aboard his spacecraft which was in Earth’s orbit, with the main hatch surprisingly still locked from the inside.
The People’s Advanced Republic of China could tolerate the deaths of plenty of expendable taikonauts when they were caused by accidents that occurred over the course of its new, exhausting space program, which had as its goal to quickly build a Chinese base on the Moon. But its tyrants could not accept the unexpected disappearance of one of them while still on board the precious Shenzhou 15 orbiting craft, leaving only an empty spacesuit inside the cockpit, no matter the reasons or the problems involved.
The appointed technicians at the Control Station back home immediately began pouring over the recordings and all the instruments about what had really happened up there in space, while the spacecraft was still orbiting our planet. Some politicians even suggested that such an event could have only occurred with help from some international organizations or a few countries which had helped the missing taikonaut defect from the government’s grip over its citizens—even though, regretfully, they couldn’t explain by what means exactly.
Beyond that, all taikonauts were heroes in China and most of the people knew them by name and were able to recognize their pictures when they were shown on TV or on some internet sites, so the disappearance was worse than you could imagine. Actually, Jian Juhi wasn’t that famous yet amongst the general viewers, but the press and the fans worldwide had already heard his name on the list of the future Chinese space travelers. The mission he had been assigned to, and his unpredictable disappearance, hadn’t been announced yet to anyone —as this was meant to be a secret training operation—but now the weird event would undoubtedly show up soon in the news.
Too many years had passed since the good old days when the government kept a sure, undisputed hold over all the population living in China and the media. Some agents from the governmental Security Service had even openly complained before the worried Chinese Space Program staff members, showing off their knowledge.
After a very long examination of the Shenzhou 15 module, which was seized in space and brought back to Earth, the high level representatives had stated that there was nothing else they could do. As a matter of fact, if their technicians weren’t able to recreate exactly all the unknown conditions that had made their spaceman disappear while inside the craft (whether it was due to some hateful intervention from some countries abroad or some strange accident…) they had no other way: a deeper investigation had to be made directly on-site, and that meant being out there in space. So somebody else was to go up there, inside the same space vehicle, at the same altitude in the atmosphere, and lead an accurate experiment while orbiting Earth.
It was Yi who was chosen as the man to depart on this dangerous and unpredictable solo mission. After all, he was the perfect individual for such a task, even though he wasn’t himself a real taikonaut. Over the course of ten years, as a young secret agent in the Chinese Air Force headquarters, he had trained well, easily passing all his tests. It was also an advantage that his face was unknown to the general viewers, because his usual assignments and activities required that he be deployed only in secrecy within his homeland. So no one would have ever noticed his absence or his disappearance, if anything were to go wrong this time as well. In a few words, Yi was completely expendable. He was well aware of all that and, even though he was iron-willed and resolute, knowing how expendable he was didn’t help him stay calm at all. But he knew mission control needed one person capable of being an experienced man of action and a good investigator at the same time. And he was both, undoubtedly.
“Xing Yi, citizen, you have been chosen for this task. Simply, do your best!” These were the abrupt words of his superior officer just before dismissing him from his former base. He didn’t reply or object in any way; it would have proven valueless.
During his earliest assignments he had proven to be a very good pilot and had flown many flights while being a part of the Research Center for Unidentified Objects and Alien Intelligence’s orders. During those years he had seen and encountered several unusual things in the air and on the ground, but there had been nothing conclusive so far. He had also been on some test space flights, but nothing special or difficult—it was all part of his training as a secret agent, obviously. At the end of his training, however, he had been rejected as a taikonaut—not that this was a disappointing result for him, as Yi had been highly respected because of his qualities and abilities which had brought him, finally, into the field of delicate secret operations.
He was a slightly built forty-one year old pleasant-looking man with a pointed dark beard, a short haircut, who dressed in a simple brown Chinese-style suit. His posture and carriage exhibited—to a qualified observer—his calmness, competence, coldness and heart. As soon as he entered the Space Program for the advanced training course, he put aside his showy clothing and started practicing wearing the new spacesuits—which looked much better than the ones he remembered wearing during his first months of enlistment in the Security Service. After some embarrassment, everything progressed easily. After everything was taken into account, it was good that his previous years of training to become a taikonaut long ago had not been in vain.
After a few brief tests, he was allowed to enter the cockpit of a Shenzhou 15-like prototype which was grounded inside the main Command Center buildings. He began getting used to the many buttons and applications available on the instrument panels all around him. This proved to be more difficult than he had imagined, but he made it, finally. After only two weeks, he was considered ready for the mission, which made him equally proud and fearful. Yi was impatient to go, even though there was no way of knowing what was really ahead of him.
The question was how had the missing spaceman escaped from the spacecraft he was in? And why?
Where had he gone after he disappeared?
Was Yi going to be taken by international agents as well, maybe from an approaching space vessel, and brought to some place to be interrogated or even worse? Or was what had happened up there was still incommunicable, horrible and far away from any human comprehension, likely involving some strange experiments gone awry, which might happen to him as well?
Mysteries still unanswered. And it was he who had to try to solve those. At the moment he felt a bit out of place, inadequate and uncomfortable, but he didn’t doubt he would try his best when out there. In the end, he was fighting for his own life, not just to find the truth.
The day of the launch was set for a week from that day, so he took the opportunity to be at his best and kept on training, making his routines even harder in order to be ready for everything he might meet in space. There was nothing else he could do, surely, other than continuous activity that helped to keep him toned up for the time being.
At the arranged day, at the arranged time, he woke up early in the morning, put his spacesuit on and entered the cockpit of the craft already placed in a vertical position, ready to go. The first stage rocket booster fired and Yi felt the oppressive spin of liftoff.
To achieve orbit, the Shenzhou 15 had to accelerate from zero to a speed of almost 18,000 miles per hour, nine times as fast as the average rifle shot. To travel that fast, the spacecraft had to reach an altitude above most of Earth’s atmosphere so that friction with the air couldn’t slow it down or overheat it. The overall process took only six seconds for the engines and the booster to accelerate the ship to 100 mph but, by the time the first minute had passed, the Shenzhou 15 was traveling faster than that speed and it had already consumed more than one and a half million pounds of fuel.
After 1.48 minutes, when the spacecraft was about 28 miles high and traveling more than 3,000 mph, the propellant in the booster was exhausted and its casing was ejected. It was left to fall into the Pacific Ocean, off the Southern Chinese coast, to be recovered by special Chinese Naval Force ships and eventually refilled with fuel to be launched again.
Now Yi was able to sense the famous condition called weightlessness. He had been trainedfor that, but he felt the whole strangeness of the real thing. He didn’t suffer any space sickness, at least at present, even though he was aware it could appear in the short term or much later.
‘Zero-G is really a weird thing to experience,’ Yi thought, considering that there were no forces, such as mechanical pushes from the floor or other surfaces that caused acceleration, which could create a sensation of weight. Artificial gravity aboard a spacecraft was something still to be invented so far…‘Maybe next time’ the man mused and smiled.
While the Shenzhou 15 was orbiting Earth, Yi knew that standing on the floor or sitting in a chair wouldn’t be an easy thing for him, so he had to take it into account when he had to move or activate some devices before being thrown too far or with too much violence between the two ends of the cockpit. Such a situation didn’t help much his investigation, but he had to comply with it, definitely.
After a few checks and some routine operations, the man decided to have a break, so he started exercising to keep his muscle tone. The day went by without any particular noteworthy events, apart a sort of giddiness that began affecting him afterwards, but he resolved that by means of some medications available on board just for such occurrences.
Then, as soon as Yi had ended the communication with the Command Center of the mission back on Earth—after reporting his results and getting ready to sleep—something unusual happened. Suddenly, the cockpit wobbled and a brilliant light appeared just outside the window. The man approached the bulkhead just in time to have a look before the powerful glint disappeared and entered the cockpit itself, exactly where he had been standing a few seconds before, keeping him completely parted from the control and communication panel at the opposite end.
But it was not a light, rather it seemed to be something alive, a sort of incredible being…
“What the hell?” he said.
As the strong luminosity decreased little by little, Yi was able to see it better. Now the weird creature looked like a fearful, hybrid winged thing. It was as if it had been made by uniting several different parts of various animals together in some way. There were pieces of buzzards, dead insects, even some decomposed human arms, and something else he couldn’t recognize at all.
Notwithstanding the complete surprise to him, he showed enough coldness and composure not to cry out or despair, thanks to his experience and training, even though the situation was really unexpected and horrifying. Yi was proud to possess a good memory and he remembered having seen a similar creature years before (maybe four years ago?), on a drawing made on paper from an old citizen living on a remote country farm.
He and his colleague were investigating testimony about an unidentified object, likely alien in nature, and a boy whose disappearance had been reported in the area. The peasant they had found at the site was an old man and they questioned him about the missing child who had been playing in the field. He told them that the boy had disappeared from his sight all at once, with no reason aside from an unexpected flash of lighting, and then he drew exactly such a picture—one of the many unbelievable things, artifacts and weird evidence they had collected over the course of their missions on the ground during those past years.
The being was a Byakhee. The human investigator wasn’t able to know its real nature or its name, of course, but such creatures were interplanetary predators travelling the emptiness of space by unknown means, greatly surpassing the speed of light. And they were one of the greatest threats for any spacemen around. When descending to the surface of any given planet, they were usually hungry and would pause to feed…so it was best to avoid crossing their path at any cost!
Yi couldn’t stop the creature that just appeared before him; he was well aware of that. Most likely, his expendable body would now become the fuel, the living energy it required to consume in order to continue its travel across space. The same that had occurred to Jian Juhi, the unfortunate taikonaut who had been there just before he was.
Unfortunately, the appointed route of the Shenzhou 15 was right on the descending path of these terrible alien beings, entering the atmosphere before going down to Earth’s surface for their evil purposes.
While the horror began taking over his mind, and the incredible stench coming from such an aberration was filling the whole cockpit, injuring his nostrils and making him feel already lost, he knew full the end was unfortunately near at hand. The panicked, trembling man was able to hold his breath, briefly, for the last time.
A sound of hungry jowls and an unearthly whistling resonated around, then everything was over. A lonely spacesuit without a spaceman inside was all that remained in the spacecraft.
If only Xing Yi had been a reader of scary stories, if he had liked some famous books of the genre, maybe he would have easily reminded himself of that sentence from an old horror novel, giving a description of such a monstrous creature, which went this way:
“There flapped rhythmically a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things… not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor decomposed human beings, but something I cannot and must not recall.”
by H.P. Lovecraft, The Festival
Sergio Palumbo is an Italian public servant, a law school graduate working in public real estate. He has been published in many international science fiction and fantasy magazines. He has stories in anthologies Now I Lay Me Down To Reap by Sirens Call Publications, and Chamberton Publishing’s Fantasy and American Historical Fantasy anthologies. He has also published a fantasy role-playing illustrated manual, WarBlades. Sergio is also a scale modeler who has had some dioramas shown in scale model magazines.
Michele Dutcher of Old Louisville, Kentucky, aka Bottomdweller, kindly edited the story. She has a BS degree in Elementary Education with minors in theology & sociology and has been writing science fiction stories for a decade.