Short Story: The Reaper of Styx Valley

“Stand by for orbital insertion burn.”

The greasy-haired young man nodded without taking his eyes off the console. “Yeah, all set.”

Dara Moser frowned. Can you for once answer the way you’re supposed to? There’s a protocol.

She let it go and tightened the restraints on her couch. After all these months, trying to teach Rigsby, Jr. the proper way to fly a space mission would be like trying to teach a pigeon not to shit on the sidewalk. “One minute, on my mark…. Mark.”

The perils of nepotism, she thought, philosophically. Once we’re back at Forseti Base, Junior gets his promotion to VP and I get a competent pilot for a change. And maybe a better boat than this slagbucket.

Even in the subdued light of the cockpit, it was clear that age had not been kind to the old ship. On the port side of the large dashboard that spanned the forward bulkhead, a plasteel label with the legend “PREIGNITION” was partly masked by electrical tape, and the bank of switches beneath had been gutted. Soggy-looking crash bolsters were slowly pulling away from the overhead, and the institutional green bulkheads had long ago turned brown from decades of human exhalation.

Dara rolled her head around on her neck and massaged a shoulder with one hand. Months of transit in a small ship, without the benefit of cryosleep pods, was beating the hell out of her body. Everything in her entertainment stash had been viewed or read through once, twice, thrice. At least Junior had shown no sign of amorous intent, thank gods – that’s what the pills were for, after all. But much more of this, and even he might start to look good, she thought with a wry grimace. Grubby little Titan was going to feel like a vacation when it was all over.

The Reaper of Styx Valley

(A Short Story)

Lately she’d been thinking it might be time to try renewing her Guild ticket. Once this trip was over, it would be six years since the incident. Memories were short in the outer planets, and even the elite carriers had a hard time finding talent. It wouldn’t mean just better, safer hardware to fly, and far better pay. In a few short years, she could be second officer, maybe even an exec again. When she walked into a shipping office, or a TOQ, or a bar, she would command respect.

I should get a good recommendation from Rigsby Senior, as long as I can manage not to murder his offspring on the way home. Gods know I’ve put in the work.

Kepler 22b was growing big in her plotting monitor, and even bigger out the window, as Adele Coolidge hurtled toward it ass-first. On the raggedy edge of the frontier, over six hundred light years from Sol, the colony was so raw they hadn’t even given it a real name yet. It was a hard place – the kind of place where they could sell every scrap out of the rice hauler’s hold within an hour of landing. After that, top up critical supplies and be back on the jump; Dara didn’t plan to waste even enough time for a drink at Kepler’s pathetic roadhouse.

She verified the board was all green, and Junior’s thumb was on the Big Red Button. “All systems nominal. Trajectory confirmed,” she murmured.

“Roger that. I’ve got handshake with Kepler’s autobeacon.”

“Commencing burn in ten…. Five, four, three, two, one. Fire.”

Set against the arc of the universe, the rise and fall of an entire species is just the merest pause between heartbeats. Whole star systems are born in dust, wax for billions of revolutions in obscurity, and die in holocaust, all unmarked by an indifferent cosmos.

But on the scale of a human life, even a solitary instant can occasion an enormity of consequence, as it did at that moment for Moser and Rigsby. Because when Junior pushed the button, nothing happened.

“Reset!” shouted Moser. “Hit it again!”

“I did, I did!” Rigsby flipped the reset toggle, and his thumb pounded with increasing futility on the fuel gate actuator. “The gate must be flopped! Nothing’s happening!”

Instead of slowing to be captured in a stable orbit around Kepler 22b, Adele Coolidge hurtled forward with her velocity undiminished. She skipped off the rim of the planet’s gravity well like a flat rock off a pond, headed out of the system. And there wasn’t a damned thing either of them could do about it.

Two hours after the failed burn, Moser was pulling off her e-suit after re-entering the airlock. Rigsby hovered in the hatch nearby, shifting nervously from one mag-booted foot to another like a lizard on a hotplate.

“The console lamp was right about the fuel gate – there’s nothing wrong with it,” she reported.

“So –”

“That’s the good news.” Dara kept her expression neutral and tried to mask the tremor in her voice. “The bad news is, it’s the tank gauge that’s reading wrong – because we’re all out of working mass. It’s dead empty.”

Junior blanched. “That’s not possible. We had plenty of fuel when —“

“We must have taken a meteorite strike some time after we did the transition burn out of the wormhole. The tank has a hole big enough for me to climb through, and the whole circuit package is gone – that’s probably why it still shows green on the dashboard.”

She let that sink in for a long minute as she kicked off the legs of the egress suit.

After a while Rigsby nodded. “That must be that clunk we heard last week – but didn’t get any red lights,” he said in a subdued voice. “So how do we get back –”

“We don’t.” She spat out the bitter words.

“But we can still make a wormhole….”

“To where?” Dara gave him a hard look. “We’ll just leave inhabited space faster. We can’t slow down, Junior. We can’t change course.” She sucked in a gulp of air and the breath caught in her chest. “There’s nothing between us and the Jesus end of the universe.”

Rigsby’s face crumpled, but he wasn’t ready to give up yet.

“There’s got to be something we can do. Wait – the automated traffic system at Kepler Station has to know about the failed burn after our computer didn’t check in! Won’t it call Deep Space Rescue?”

Dara looked away from him for a moment to hide the relief that surged into her face. I forgot about DSR! The Inner Planets Alliance had only recently extended the safety patrol out to its most distant possessions. This far out it was still dicey, but…. “Maybe. We’re past the frontier already, but we’re not going that fast since we back-burned out of the wormhole.”  She was careful to school the excitement from her voice. “Maybe. Let’s see if we’ve got anything on comms.”

Back in the cockpit, a message was already waiting for them.

From: Station K22b Autobeacon Rescue

To: Wabash Intersystems Adele Coolidge

Msg: Deep Space Rescue alerted wrt your failed burn 14:11:07 Local. Your course calculated 26.474 – 303.70 from insertion point, velocity .0319. DSR proposes rendezvous 19.12.2055 OOA 16:30. Advise.

Rigsby tore off the celloprint and sagged with relief. “They can get to us! Thank gods. See, what did I say?” He signaled immediately to accept the rendezvous, then closed his eyes and sank back into the acceleration couch. “We’ll have to eat rice for a few weeks,” he murmured. “But I can live with that.”

Dara grabbed the message and read it through several times; then, her fingers flew across the console keyboard. Junior cracked an eye to see her opening, expanding, and pushing aside a succession of holographic charts. Then she, too, sank back in her seat. Still hovering around her, the holographs cast gay color shadows on her face.

“The rescue tug will meet us in 52 days,” she said. “We have oxygen for 34.”

For the rest of the day and into the night, the two of them gnawed on the problem. Without the propellant, they had nothing to catalyze for oxygen. There was no way to speed the rendezvous. And no matter how they squinted at it, there were no other parameters that mattered.

At last Moser retired to her quarters, but sleep would not come. After several hours of agonized reasoning she came to a decision and emerged again, exhausted, to find Junior still in the cockpit.

He glanced up to see her enter, and immediately recoiled. “What the hell have you got?”

Dara held out the derringer for him to see, but not so closely that he could snatch it away. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m not going to … do anything with this right now, it’s just show-and-tell. For now. It’s something I carry when we’re dirtside. It’s only got a single bullet.”

He wasn’t reassured. “Then what are you doing with it?” Unconsciously he lifted up his hands, and there was an edge of fear in his voice.

“Just… put your hands down. We need to talk.” She stuffed the pistol into a cargo pocket, and Junior relaxed a little. “Look, we’ve thought this thing through all the way, it’s not rocket science.” She smiled without mirth. “Well it is, obviously. Anyway, there’s no way we both make it to the rendezvous with DSR alive.” Moser waited a long moment before going on, but Rigsby didn’t respond. “On the other hand – and I know you’ve been thinking this, too – there’s enough O2 for one of us to make it. It’s simple math.”

“So you’re just gonna fucking shoot me?” He glanced involuntarily toward the exit and started to rise.

“No, wait, goddammit! Just wait.” Moser opened the lid of the cabinet inset between them, and rummaged out a familiar box. He watched her warily as she set up the chessboard and arranged the pieces.

“No way,” he said as she put the last pawns in place. “No no no no no! We’re not playing to see who gets the bullet. Fuck no, that’s fucking crazy!”

She looked him hard in the eye. “It’s the only way. It’s fair. We’re evenly matched –”

“Bullshit! You’re a better player – “

“You won three out of the last seven.”

“I said no, we’re not doing this!” Rigsby slashed an arm across the board, scattering pieces to ricochet around the cabin in null g. He pushed off from the couch and paused in the cockpit hatch, looking back at Dara. “I’m going to the galley to make some coffee, and then we’re gonna figure out a real solution that doesn’t use a fucking bullet.” He stalked off, mag boots thumping across the deck.

When he returned to the cockpit, the chessboard was set up once again, with all the pieces in place. Moser sat on her couch, and Rigsby could see the derringer shoved partly into the cushion beside her. Sensing a change in her demeanor, he held out a mug of coffee.

“Just leave it there,” she said. “It’s probably not a good idea for you to come any closer.”

Junior released the mug, letting it hang in the air near her seat, and carefully moved to his couch. The magnets in his filthy cabin suit drew him down gently to rest on the cushions.

“We’re not going to do it this way,” he said reasonably. “We’re going to figure out –”

“I gave you white,” she said. “You get the first move.”

“I told you, there’s no way –”

Moser pulled the pistol from the cushion and held it in her lap. “We can take the game as slow as you like. We’ve got eighteen days before one of us has to go. You can think hard about each move.”

Rigsby’s eyes found the derringer and he took in the implied threat. “No, Dara.” Leaning toward her, he held out his hand with the palm up. “Let me put that away before one of us gets hurt.” The moment stretched out between them, as taut as a bowstring. Abruptly, he slapped his palm down on the console, shaking the chessboard, then sat back on his cushion with a wounded look.

Moser was implacable. “Move.” He glared at her but did not stir from where he sat. “Move,” she repeated, “or I’ll move for you.” After several minutes, she reached out and shoved a magnetized pawn two spaces out from before his queen. It’s the opening move she would have made, if the positions were reversed. Then she pushed out the corresponding black pawn from her own side.

And the test of wills began.

After an hour, Rigsby had taken no further action – simply glared at her from his couch, always alert for her to brandish the pistol.

Dara got up from her seat and went to the galley to heat up a protein patty, taking the derringer with her. After the meal, she walked the ship scouting for maintenance issues, checking the cargo integrity, and performing the other routine duties that fell to her as mission commander.

When she returned to the cockpit that evening, the chessboard was precisely as she had left it. Dara glanced at Rigsby and shrugged. There were plenty of days left. Feeling exhausted, she went to her quarters without a word and fell asleep immediately, not even bothering to secure the hatch.

On the third day after the failed burn, the impasse was broken. When Moser ducked her head into the cockpit for the morning watch, the chessboard was changed, but arranged in a familiar way.

Junior looked at her with resentment. “Since you moved my piece, I moved yours. We usually end up playing from Ruy Lopez anyway, so … it’s black’s move.” Dara sat and bent toward the board. “I’ll play because you’re not giving me a choice,” the pilot continued. “I know you’ll fucking shoot me if I don’t. But I’m gonna play at my own speed and pray for a miracle.”

She shrugged. “As long as the game’s over before the days are up.”

Over the following week, play proceeded at a snail’s pace. Rigsby agonized over every move, sometimes taking most of a watch to decide. Moser, on the other hand, played with her usual confident, aggressive style. It soon became clear that she was controlling the game, forcing him to defend and anticipating his defenses.

He took to sleeping beside the board; Dara checked the cockpit recorder video daily to make sure he wasn’t rearranging anything while she slept, or during her forays into the ship. As white pieces began to disappear from the board, and Junior saw himself falling behind, his bitterness grew.

“If either of us ought to live, it’s me,” he announced in aggrieved tones out of the blue on the ninth day. Dara had just entered the cockpit to check the dashboard for the air handling system. The CO2 scrubbers had begun to smell, an early warning sign of the impending oxygen collapse.

She kept her voice neutral. “Oh? Why is that?”

“You know why,” he whined. “I have a wife. A four-year-old – no, five-year-old now. I’m their only support.”

“You have insurance,” she replied coolly. “Also, your father has a lot of money. He’s not going to let his grandkid starve.” She could have added, And you could still win. But she knew both of them would find it disingenuous.

“Nobody cares if you live or die.” He said it to hurt her.

Dara turned to the console, making a show of ignoring him, and began pulling up schematics of the airflow system.

As she worked, an image presented itself to her memory unbidden: a dark, blue-tinted room and a thin face rising from a pillow. This can’t be the last time, the young man had said. By then, his eyes were sunk deep beneath his brows; and as the sheet fell away, it revealed the flesh of his chest, sagging across the bars of his ribcage. Please don’t let this be the last time. She could still hear the reedy voice, feel the brush of a hand cupping her cheek as lightly as a dry leaf, then releasing her. How many years ago had that been? Ten. A dozen.

She continued to stare now at the schematics until she saw them, then closed the dashboard and left the cockpit without another word. Rigsby followed her with his eyes.

Over the next few days, Moser played less aggressively – still to win, but perhaps buying time for Junior to come to terms with the outcome. By the fourteenth day, though – four days before the oxygen deadline – the inevitability of his defeat was becoming clear.

Check,” she murmured, removing her fingertip from the black bishop that now simultaneously threatened his king and queen. As Moser drew in a breath, the stink of the oversaturated air scrubbers reminded her, if any reminder was needed, that it was time to move the game along.

“Goddammit!” Rigsby cried, his voice heavy with despair, as Dara pulled his queen from the board. There was anger and fear in his eyes as he looked into hers. “I’m going to lose my life to the goddam Reaper. Another one of your fucking victims.”

Coming out of nowhere, the accusation rattled her. “I don’t even know what the hell that’s supposed to mean,” she protested. “The game has been fair –”

“What it’s supposed to mean is that I know who you are. I know about the Styx Valley.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Everybody knows about the Styx Valley. And the so-called Reaper. Surely you’re not gullible enough to believe I was on that ship –”

“People talk. I know that you were the one who bailed out that night. The officer of the watch when the reactor went critical. You didn’t even wake up the captain.” Rigsby sneered. “Those migration ships never sail with enough lifeboats to go around, am I right?”

Dara rolled her eyes. “Bullshit. Don’t try to make this something it’s not. It’s your move. I’m going to get some coffee.” She turned toward the hatch.

“I was in the office the day you started,” he called after her. “I know why you came to work for my father’s shitty little hauler when you’d had a Guild Class I ticket.”

She stopped, still facing the hatch.

“I know why all your records are new,” he continued, “and were all created on the same date. I know that Moser isn’t your birth name. You’re not the only one who got off that ship. I even heard it might not have been an accident.”

Dara turned back to him and shook her head wordlessly.

“Why do you think I’ve been sleeping out here by the board every night?” he spat. “To make sure you don’t cheat death again.”

She looked at the chessboard, where a dwindling few white pieces contended with twice the number of blacks, and smirked. “Could’ve saved yourself the trouble. It’s still your move.”

She stalked off to the galley.

In null g, a muddy stream of coffee flowed in spurts through the celloplast tube into her covered mug as Dara plied the pump. Somehow the closed system still vouchsafed the glorious scent of roasted beans; it fought against the piercing odor of the saturated scrubbers as she breathed it in with her eyes closed.

Everyone knew the rumors about the Styx Valley. But none knew the story the way she did.

In her mind’s eye she could see yet again the great ship dropping away astern through the lifeboat’s portlight. Strapped into the couch opposite hers in the empty boat was the engineer. He gaped at her across the years, breathing in gasps, clutching the safety bars in his knobby old hands.

They’re dead anyway, he’d kept repeating. Dead anyway. There’s no time for a full evacuation. They’re all dead.

The red light threw a bloody shadow beneath his brow where the vacant eye socket yawned.

When the ship was nearly out of sight, a flare had erupted from the aft end; and then a moment later, an incandescent burst that rippled outward as fast as thought. It slammed the lifeboat and rolled it like flotsam in a hurricane. The engineer was nearly dead by the time they made it back together to the shipping lanes.

Moser returned to find that Rigsby had made his move. He looked up at her defiantly when she entered the cockpit, and mouthed the word: reaper. Feeling an upswell of anger, she responded swiftly, slashing across the board with her rook to threaten his advancing pawn. Then she left without a word to attend to the ship.

That night, for the first time in a week, sleep would not come. The mounting tension with Rigsby, along with the deteriorating air and the looming oxygen deadline, kept her restless throughout the watch. Finally she rose to walk the ship, rechecking the status of systems, envelope, and cargo. As she paced the companionways, the face of the old engineer, his one eye bulging in terror like an accusation, returned to her again and again. It’s almost over, she kept repeating to herself. The game’s almost over.

When she stepped through the hatch into the cockpit at 0600 on the dot, Dara was surprised to find her pilot looking composed and well-rested. She watched him from the corner of her eye as she settled into the command chair. “How’s the ship?” she asked casually.

“You’re the commander,” he answered in a neutral tone. “But she seems nominal from this chair.”

When she turned to face him, Rigsby seemed wan and a bit melancholy, but calm. He gestured at the chessboard, and she noticed for the first time the white king lying on its side.

“You win,” he said. “Sometimes I can beat you, but you had me from the beginning this time. I lost, I get the bullet. Like you said, one of us has to go.”

She nodded.

“I’m sorry about how I accused you yesterday,” he continued. “It was stupid. I know you didn’t do those things. I know you’re a good person, Dara – a better person than I am. Stronger.”

She realized it was the first time he’d said her name since before the game started. “Look,” she began, “it’s not over yet –”

Rigsby held up a hand to cut her off. “Please. Just let me finish. You’re the better person.” Now she heard the note of something else in his voice. “You’re the strong one, the brave one. So I’m appealing to you now – for mercy. I have people back home who are waiting for me. You don’t.”

His expression was full of heartache.

Dara felt a flash of anger. “So you want me to take the bullet.”

He blushed as if he were ashamed, then held up his hands like a supplicant. “It’s what the better person would do,” he whispered.

Fuck that.” Reaching across to his side of the chessboard, she set the white king upright again. “This game isn’t finished yet. You could still win. It’s your move.” She hurried from the cabin to begin her morning duties.

A leak in the waste-handling system kept her busy for several hours. It was a job that Rigsby should have tended to, but he’d been too emotionally fragile since the malfunction to do anything useful for the ship. The universe isn’t going to miss that parasite, she thought savagely. His old man is hardly better. She had met the wife, once – Cady? Cori? something like that – and she’d seemed a decent enough sort. Gods knew what she ever saw Junior.

He was right, Moser thought. She was the better person. Maybe Rigsby was just saying it because he was trying to get his ass out of a crack, but that didn’t make it any less true. I’ve made my mistakes, she thought. But I’m worth ten of him.

The thought occupied her for the rest of the long afternoon.

It was nearly evening watch when she returned to the game. Huddled back against his couch, the pilot didn’t look at her when she entered; but at least he had made a move.

Pawn to bishop six, she observed. I can make that work.

For the first time in days, she studied the board carefully, and took nearly a full hour to make her move. Rigsby sat up with dread to observe it. After several minutes of study, his anxiety gave way to incredulity.

Dara chose to walk out the airlock rather than take the bullet. As long as she depressurized the chamber before walking out, the amount of oxygen wasted would be minimal – not enough to rob Junior of anything he would need. She didn’t even choose to wear a suit; she would face the stars boldly, look them in their billions of eyes as she drank the vacuum like poison.

Rigsby did not accompany her to the airlock. He stayed in the pilot’s couch, to deal with any issues that might arise from a mid-flight airlock depress. Moser would have to cycle the chamber herself from the inside.

She held her breath and grasped the large handle, then pulled it down hard. Her uniform rustled and she trembled from the chill as the air was sucked back into the ship. Then, releasing her breath in a long whoosh, she triggered the airlock doors and pushed out hard against the deep.

§ § §

Several weeks later, Ensign Lydia Ng of Deep Space Rescue was shaking her head and making bemused noises as she reviewed the video log from Adele Coolidge.

The captain, an old freighter boss on his last, quiet hitch before retirement, stuck his head into the tiny comms shack of the DSR ketch Red Rover. “Are you making anything out of this cock-up, Mister Ng?”

“It’s weird, skipper. May I show you?” She pointed at the screen.

“Show me.”

“Okay. I’ll pick up late in the night watch after the failed burn. The commander – Dara Moser, NMI – walks into the cockpit with a small projectile weapon. The pilot – Rigsby, Luther E – starts to panic, but Moser sets up a chessboard?” She glanced at the captain and both shrugged. “They argue, he walks out…” she scrubbed forward – “… then he returns, and they argue again. He tries to grab the gun away from her and boom! she shoots him right in the x-ring. He bleeds out while she harangues him.”

“I guess she pulled the gun figuring that only one of them would make it with the limited O2,” the captain replied thoughtfully, tugging his beard. “Pretty cold, but not too surprising.”

“Yes sir, but here’s the weird part.” They watched together until Moser made the first move with Rigsby’s pawn.

“Now she’s going to play chess with a corpse for the next two weeks, making all the moves for both white and black.”

Over the following hour, the two officers scrolled through the recording, stopping from time to time to review the audio whenever Moser spoke to the dead pilot. At the end, they regarded the monitor in silence for a while.

“What I don’t get,” said the captain at last, “is why she left the ship. After shooting her pilot she had weeks of air left when she bailed out.”

“Maybe she was afraid of a murder charge?”

“She could easily have ditched the corpse; and being the commander, she could have disabled the recorder and made up any story she wanted.” He winked at Ng. “That’s what I’d have done.”

“Maybe she couldn’t stand the death smell anymore.” The ensign grimaced. “I almost heaved when we first breached the airlock.”

“Mm, it was pretty ripe. Almost seems like I can still smell it.” He wrinkled his nose. “So, what do we know about this killer commander?”

Ng consulted her work tablet. “It looks like this isn’t the first time she found trouble. The Maritime Registry says she lost her Class I ticket in ‘49, after she failed a reactor certification exam and then punched out the examiner. Her name was Gunderson then; she changed it to her husband’s name, Moser, when he died around that time. She doesn’t show up much after that.”

“Not surprising. Small time haulers running out here on the ass end of civilization don’t bother much with records.”

“Sir, do you know what that business was about the Styx Valley? I checked the registry and I can’t find any reference to that ship name.”

He chuckled. “Good initiative on your part, Lydia, but I could’ve saved you the trouble. The Reaper of Styx Valley is an old B-movie about a couple of merchant sailors who scuttle a migration ship to cover up a crime. I noticed when we checked Adele Coolidge, it was one of the vids in Moser’s entertainment library.”

“Wait,” said Ng, “is that the one with that one-eyed actor? Monk something?”

“Monk Madison, right. Last movie he ever made.”

He looked back at the log recording. Frozen on the screen now was an image from the airlock door camera. In the last moment of depressurization, Moser’s slack face was framed by a wild tangle of hair. Her eyes, looking haunted above pallid cheeks, appeared fixed on the void outside – or on nothing at all.

The captain shrugged. “Who knows what it meant to her?”

Published by Ronald Crittenden

American SciFi writer in France. Amateur historian of art and war. Tea not coffee, s'il vous plait, and don't forget to say hi to your dog for me.

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