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Fiction

The Taste of Starlight

#

Advisory: The following story contains mature content, including violent
and graphic imagery that some readers may find disturbing.

#

Pelops wakes gasping and shivering inside the CryoPod. A thin layer of ice crystals coats his cheeks and hands, pricking at his exposed skin. Crackling and moaning, he raises hands to his eyes and pries their lids open, shedding ice shards like tears. The curving glass surface before him is cracked into a mass of spidery lines. Struggling to inhale the frozen air, he pushes against the glass. The door of the pod refuses to move. He is entombed.

He moans as he raises his right leg, shedding a cloud of crystals. Boot against the fractured glass, but without much strength. His muscles are still asleep, slightly atrophied by years of stasis. Again he kicks, and draws in a burning lungful of cryonic air. A third time his booted foot meets the glass and it shatters, toppling him forward in a shower of ice and fragments. Instinct pulls his hands up, and he lands on them instead of his face. Splinters cut into his palms and fingers, but he can breathe freely now.

Lying on the floor, he rolls onto his back and looks sideways along a flickering corridor of cryonic niches. Here stand the stasis pods of his thirteen fellow sleepers. Even the chill metal of the floor feels warm compared to the ultimate cold of the CryoPod.

Something has awakened him early. A mistake? An emergency? Staggering to his feet, he clings to the cables along the walls and checks the nearest pod. A calm face, eyes closed, just visible through the cloudy glass. Digital display reads “Thompson, J.” and the indicator light glows green. No fissures. Pod intact. He checks the next one, and the next one, until he finds another cracked pod lid with the display reading “Tanaka, Y.” No frost at all on this lid. A blue face stares at him from inside. Asian eyes open. Mouth slack.

Pelops tries the release lever. Nothing. He tears at the rim of the pod’s lid. Finally, he kicks in the glass like he did his own, this time from the opposite side. Tanaka falls out, stiff and dead. She was a good woman, and fine physicist. She would have been an asset to the Dantus colony. Must have suffocated when her stasis was interrupted. Like being buried alive. He might weep for her, but his eyes still feel frozen. He knows he’ll have to eject her body into space, but he’ll wait until he regains his strength.

He lays Tanaka gently on the floor and checks the last few pods. Twelve remain intact.

The frost coating his skin and flight suit melts into cold water. Droplets fly from his beard and hair, grown to primordial length while he slept. What could have happened?

He stumbles along the corridor beneath the pulsing florescent lamps, follows the plastic maps posted at each intersection, and finally reaches the sealed door of the bridge. A gleaming hand plate accepts his touch. The nerve center of the Goya opens before him, a spacious cockpit of flashing neon display grids and blinking digital interfaces. Above it all, a vista of interstellar wonder, a great oval viewport looking out into the universe. He stares into the bottomless void, captivated by the glimmering of ancient stars. A purple nebula clouds the starfields ahead, and the sheer beauty of the galactic deeps overwhelms his waking senses. Sinking into a vast gulf of infinity. Distant fires grinning and sparkling, the eyes of a demon legion.

You don’t belong here, the stars whisper. This is the Great Emptiness. The stronghold of Death. Soon it will consume you. Utterly.

Pelops tears himself away from the celestial vision and goes to the control panels. He is no pilot, no navigator, but he is a man of science. He has been on ships before. He scans the displays and finds that the ship’s thrusters have gone offline. He switches the relays to instigate backup power.

A lurching and shuddering tells him the ship has resumed its full-speed journey. He falls into the captain’s chair and punches his fingers at the keyboard, requesting a status report. A holographic display emerges, dancing before him like a ghost. It’s the Goya, a gleaming bottle-shaped vessel surrounded by pinpoints of rushing starlight. A scarlet line enters the left side of the display, trailing a cloud of sparks. A comet. It crosses the forward hull of the ship, bathing the vessel in a cloud of scintillating motes.

He reads the print display below the hologram.

Radiation cloud. Unidentified in nature…

A short-circuiting of the ship’s power grid, disabling the auto-drive.

Severe turbulence resulting in damage to two CryoPod units.

No shit.

Communications permanently disabled. No messages going out or coming in. Not until the com techs on Dantus install a new stack of relays. Absolute radio silence. The report ends and the curved panels blink silently. Course renewed. Power reserves engaged. Everything nearly back to normal. But now Pelops is awake. And completely alone.

He accesses the logs for time, date, and distance.

Time elapsed since launch: 6 years, 2 months, 3 days, 9 hours, 52 minutes, 39 seconds.

Time remaining to destination: 1 year, 4 months, 2 days, 7 hours, 18 minutes, 3 seconds.

Sixteen months. Alone on this ship.

He considers waking the rest of the crew. Walks back to the pod corridor and almost does exactly that, when it hits him: A terrible, gnawing hunger in his gut. And the realization…what is he going to eat? Nobody was supposed to wake until a few hours before touchdown. This ship isn’t equipped for manned flight.

He finds his way through the labyrinth of steel into the airy cargo hold. The massive bulk of the twenty-five UV converter domes loom like black hills beneath plastic tarps. In the far corner he finds what he is looking for. Emergency Supply Kit.

A man-sized chest (like a coffin). Inside, a collection of boxes, tins, and tubes of dry rations. A map on the lid reveals the location of emergency water tanks. He breathes a little easier. There’s enough water in those tanks to keep a man alive for three years. However, he’s not so sure how long the food will last. He’ll worry about that later.

Cracking open a plastic box, he tears through an aluminum pouch and devours the beef jerky inside. Famished and relishing every bit, the salty taste of it on his tongue, the familiar warmth as it fills his belly. In a few seconds the entire package is gone. He curses himself.

He’ll have to ration this out if he’s going to survive. He can’t indulge himself in such feasts. He closes the lid and makes his way along the bay to the water tanks, where he turns a valve and fills a bucket with drinking water. He drinks his fill of the cold liquid.

He surveys and logs the emergency foodstuffs, planning out subsistence portions. Drops his pen and slides to the floor. Someone was supposed to load more emergency supplies than this. Someone did not. There’s barely enough food here to keep him eating at a base survival level for 100 days.

Three months. If he does not wake anyone else.

If he does, that time will be cut in half.

Three months of food. Sixteen months until reaching Dantus.

Nothing else here.

Nothing to eat.

After three months he will begin to starve.

#

Pelops carries Tanaka’s rigid body into the airlock, says a quick prayer, and ejects her into space. He should be grateful. One less mouth to feed.

He races back to the two open CryoPods and tries to get them operational. Spends hours working on them, up to his elbows in grease and cryonic residue. But it doesn’t matter. They’re both totally out of commission, their transparent lids shattered. And even if they weren’t, the pods cannot be put back into service once they’ve been opened. The only way to do that would be to introduce more cryogen…which can only be done by CryoPod contractors.

No way to re-freeze himself. No way to avoid the twelve weeks of bare subsistence and the slow, lingering starvation that will surely follow. He envies Tanaka her quick death.

He lies on the floor of the pod corridor, weeping, remembering his look into the void. The whispering stars and their message of doom. And he knows it’s true. This is the realm of Death and he has entered it willingly.

He wails and gnashes his teeth and smashes the floor with his fists. Eventually he falls asleep and enjoys the mercy of a warm oblivion.

#

Pelops wakes sometime later, trembling on the cold metal floor. He gets up and returns to the bridge. His stomach growls, but he denies it. He sits in the captain’s chair and stares out at the numberless stars.

With Tanaka dead, he is the only one capable of getting the UV converters up and running on Dantus. And the future of the colony depends on those machines. Wolf 359 is a red dwarf star, and not enough crops grow in its infrared glow. The colony’s population has grown too fast for its agricultural systems to handle. Setting up the converter domes and transforming the star’s radiation to ultraviolet light is the only way to boost food production and end the famine. The only way to feed thousands of brave families who settled there. Eleven thousand men, women, and children already, with an exponentially expanding birth rate. They’re all depending on Dr. Andrew Pelops.

I have to survive, he thinks.All those lives depend on it. This mission has to succeed. Everything else is secondary.

Think about those people. Those children. Think about those hungry mouths, so many more than yours.

The mission must succeed.

#

For the first three months Pelops eats frugally and his body grows lean. The flight suit hangs loose on his frame. He cuts his beard and hair with a pair of infirmary scissors, but they always grow back into a hermit’s nest of tangles. The boredom is deadly. He spends most of his waking hours on the bridge, staring into the glittering void. He charts constellations…Scorpius, Serpens, Hydra. He sails through a gulf of myth and darkness. At times he fears the demon-eyes of the stars, and at other times he laughs at them. He carves images of ancient monsters into the deck floor with a screwdriver. He sleeps.

Sometimes he talks to the sleeping crew, sharing his knowledge of photonic chemistry, tales of his failed marriage, and his dreams for the future. They lie cold and still inside their coffins and listen to his every word. They are the perfect listeners.

Sometimes he imagines they reply to him.

Whispering like the distant stars.

#

Pelops eats the last bit of the dried jerky from the emergency chest. There is nothing else inside. Only the empty carcasses of plastic and tin where the faintest scent of edible things lingers. For days afterward he endures the grinding of his stomach, drinks himself to bloating at the water tanks, endures the hunger pangs that stab in his guts.

He babbles to the sleeping crew, telling them tales of hunger strikes.

“You see the body persists on glucose energy for the first three days of starvation,” he says, walking between the rows of frosty faces. “At that point the liver starts feeding on body fat as ketosis begins. Thanks to the natural reserves of the human body, you don’t really begin to starve until after three weeks. Now the body extracts nutrients and substance from the muscles and organs. Bone marrow too. Here’s where the real danger begins…”

He imagines himself gnawing the meat off a large bone, slavering like a hound.

“Most hunger strikers die after fifty days…but are incapacitated long before that. We can’t allow that to happen. The mission is all that matters. It must succeed…at all cost.”

He hopes they understand.

#

After ten solid days of starving, he dreams of his father. The stars are bright and blinking above the Colorado mountains. He’s twelve years old, and his father has killed a deer. Pelops helps skin and prepare the carcass. They roast the venison over an open flame and enjoy its wild, savory flavor. His father’s eyes glisten like the stars as he smiles through a frosty beard:

You know what you have to do, son.

Pelops wakes remembering the taste of greasy venison.

He staggers to the infirmary and finds a laser scalpel. In the cargo bay tool cabinet, a trio of gas-powered welding torches. He picks one up and presses the switch. A blue flame emerges, dancing before his eyes like a beacon of hope.

The flame is hot and perfect.

I have no other choice.

He punches the release lever on Thompson’s pod. A hiss of escaping vapor, a white fog rushing about his feet. He lifts the lid and looks at the man’s sleeping face, blue-white with a mask of rapidly melting frost. As the eyes begin to flutter against their icy hoods, Pelops raises the hypodermic needle. He’s found a powerful sedative in the infirmary cabinet. He injects the drug into Thompson’s jugular and pulls him from the pod, slinging him over his shoulder.

I could use the scalpel on myself, he thinks. Cut my own throat…quick and painless.

Is it wrong to kill a few people to save thousands?

He already knows the answer. It sits in his chest like an iron weight, far heavier than a single human body.

On the infirmary operating table he lays Thompson out, strips him of flight suit and undergarments. Bathes his body with fresh water from the tanks. Removes most of the body hair with scissors and razor.

He has never killed a man before. His nerves are electric. His hands tremble, and he begins babbling again. He knows the unconscious Thompson can’t hear him. He could wake him up and have a real conversation first…but that would only make it harder.

“During World War II this type of thing was fairly common,” he says. “Take the Siege of Leningrad. Eight hundred and seventy two days. The survivors trapped inside the city ate all the pets, birds, and rats before they were forced to…So it’s not as if this sort of thing is completely without precedent. The mission must succeed, Thompson. At any cost.”

I’m so sorry.

He switches on the laser scalpel and draws the blade of light across Thompson’s soft throat. A fountain of red flows across the table and drips onto the floor, where Pelops has spread a tarp and bucket to catch it.

He dons a surgeon’s mask to avoid the smell and proceeds to butcher the carcass. First he separates the limbs from the torso, then the head. The heat of the laser provides partial cauterization, but not enough to keep blood from leaking through tiny holes like puncture wounds in the raw, pink muscle tissue. A wave of nausea and weakness claims him, so he leaves the segmented body for later and takes Thompson’s lower leg into the cargo bay. With the scissors he lacerates and peels the skin from the hock of meat. Then he arranges the calf and foot on a metal spit, propped between two crates above the three activated welding torches. The blue-white flames cook the flesh nicely…the smell of it roasting both titillates and nauseates him. He wretches, but has nothing inside him to throw up.

It’s only venison, he tells himself.

After a few minutes he turns the spit, browning the other side.

He catches himself drooling and wipes his lips.

He cannot bear to wait for it to fully cook, so he settles for medium rare.

Picks it up like a massive chicken leg and takes his first bite, sinking teeth deep into the tender flesh. Tearing a mouthful from the bone. He chews, remembering that trip with his father…sitting around the camp fire. Eating what he’d killed.

Veal.

The exact consistency of fresh and tender veal.

He takes another bite. Expects to wretch it all up, but doesn’t. He swallows the second bite, and a third. A great contentment settles over him. For the first time in six years his belly is full. He falls asleep on the cargo bay floor, the hock of gnawed meat lying on his chest.

He dreams of brown gravy and hot, steaming biscuits.

#

Less than a week.

Less than a week, and the meat has all gone bad. Energized and renewed by a succession of hunger-free days, Pelops realizes his mistake. Once the pods are open they won’t freeze again. There is no freezer on the ship—it was never meant to sustain awake beings for more than a few hours at a time. He has no way to keep the meat from spoiling.

The next few days he makes himself sick by eating the rotten flesh. Half of his kill has been ruined. He smashes a naked shinbone against the wall in frustration.

He checks the time log on the bridge again. Just over eleven months to go. Eleven functioning CryoPods. Eleven bodies to sustain him. But only if he does things differently.

It all depends on me, he reminds himself. Eleven thousand men, women, and children.

If he keeps eating spoiled meat, he’ll die. So he shoves the rest of Thompson into the airlock and ejects it into space.

What a waste. Just like Tanaka.

He waits as long as he can for the hunger to catch up with him again. Stares at the cold stars beyond the bridge viewport. Gazing into an emptiness that mirrors the void in his belly. He abstains as long as he can possibly stand it…nine days this time.

He harvests the next pod.

Staggs, E. Male. Big, guy, good physique.

Pelops thaws him out, sedates him, and straps him to the operating table. He can’t kill this one like he did Thompson. He has to keep the meat fresh.

He dry heaves into a plastic waste bin…there is nothing inside him to throw up.

Think of Dantus. All those people…all those hungry people.

Wiping his wet eyes, he starts with the left leg, severing it at the knee.

Like last time, he roasts it and relieves his initial hunger. This time his guilt and nausea are drowned beneath a torrent of sheer gratitude. The meat (venison!) is savory, red and juicy on his tongue. His teeth tear through it with gusto. This man was an athlete…lots of tender muscle. Protein…nutrients…flavor.

Thompson was veal. Staggs is prime beef.

He waits as long as he can between each meal. Finally settles on eating once every 48 hours. In this way, he calculates his meat will last until Dantus. Eleven months. Sure, he’ll suffer from lack of carbohydrates and vitamin C…but men have survived on all-meat diets for longer than that and been just fine. After this ordeal, after the converters are installed on the colony farms, there will be vegetables and fruits aplenty. A bounty to replace what he has lost. And the crew of the Goya will be remembered as heroes.

He pumps Staggs full of fresh sedative on a daily basis. The man remains oblivious as his legs and arms disappear, replaced by careful tourniquets that prevent him from bleeding to death. Pelops cleans him, looks after his bodily functions, makes sure he stays alive. Preserves as much of the man’s dignity as he can.

Later, when only the head and torso are left, Pelops has to be more careful. Tricky to harvest a torso without killing the subject. He starts with a crude appendectomy. Next, he removes the liver. Then the spleen and stomach. Eventually, when Staggs is truly dead, he cracks open the chest cavity and removes the fist-sized heart.

Filet mignon, he tells himself. That’s all it is.

He cooks the heart a special way, cutting it open to butterfly the meat.

Eats it sitting before the viewport, gazing into the abyss of blinking stars.

It is the finest piece of meat he’s ever tasted. The heart, he decides, must be the choicest morsel in the human body. The prime muscle. The lights of the console blink across his face as his molars grind the meat and it slips down his gullet into his grateful stomach.

Staggs’ brain, sliced in two, provides a double meal.

Tastes like stringy roast chicken.

Gray matter. White meat.

#

Pelops harvests the next pod in the same way, but runs out of sedative after ten days. First Officer Bernard Hoffman wakes up on the table, restrained and entirely legless. His panicked screams draw Pelops into the infirmary.

“Shhhhhh…” Pelops comforts him. Gives him cool water to drink. “Take it easy, Hoffman.”

“What…what’s happening?” asks the terrified man, his brown eyes pleading.

“Shhhh…it’s all right. It’s just a bad dream. The mission is going to be a success. We’re only ten months from Dantus. Go back to sleep.”

Hoffman writhes against his restraints, tearing at the leather straps. The stumps of his legs begin to bleed. “What the fuck are you talking about? You look…look…where are my legs? What happened to my legs?” More screaming. He’s only just noticed his missing appendages.

Pelops breaks down. He apologizes and explains everything. Tells Hoffman about the comet, about the radiation, about the pods, the lack of food, how he must ensure the mission’s success. Reminds him of the thousands of people depending on his UV converters.

But Hoffman doesn’t get any of it. He just screams.

Screams and screams until he makes himself hoarse.

Pelops begs him to stop, but the screams go on and on. He knocks Hoffman unconscious. But the man only wakes up screaming again. Pelops stuffs a rag in his mouth and leaves him on the table. In a few days, he won’t have the strength to make any more noise.

Pelops uses a local anesthetic now instead of sedative. Hoffman may have to be awake during his amputations, but he won’t feel a thing. His eyes grow large as golf balls as he watches Pelops remove his left arm, then later his right. He finally stops trying to scream. Spends most of his time unconscious now. Sometimes he wakes and mutters nonsense, so Pelops sits in a chair next to him, his belly full, and listens.

He reminds Hoffman that this sacrifice makes him a hero. One of the Saviors of Dantus colony.

When he harvests the torso this time he learns to salvage the intestines, filling them with minced organ meat. He discovers how to make a week’s worth of sausages in this way before Hoffman’s heart finally gives out.

He decides to keep the white bones instead of flushing them into the void.

He’ll bury them on Dantus, beneath a growing field of wheat. With stone monuments.

He comes to this decision over dinner.

#

The next pod contains a gorgeous blonde woman. Mewes, C.

After he gets her onto the table, he wakes her and talks at length about their situation. Lets her know the heroic role she will be playing in the mission. She weeps, begs, pleads with him. He sobs with her, sharing in the tragedy of the situation. He unbuckles her restraints and embraces her tenderly.

“Don’t worry,” he whispers in her ear, arms wrapped around her. “Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.”

He chases her down when she slips away from him, but manages to corner her in the cargo bay and knocks her senseless with a crowbar.

I could let her join me, he thinks. It wouldn’t be so lonely then. Maybe there’s enough meat in the pods for both of us…

He smacks himself across the face. Stupid! He knows two people surviving the rest of this journey is impossible. There’s simply not enough food. Both would starve and Dantus would die.

So it’s back to the table where the harvesting begins. Still a good supply of sedative, so she won’t feel any pain.

Somehow, she wakes in the middle of things and starts wailing. The sound pierces his ears in a way that Hoffman’s guttural bellows never could. He has to gag her so he can finish.

Later, enjoying the last of her, he smacks his lips and remembers the lovely blue of her eyes. So delectable on his tongue, like tender Swedish meatballs.

#

The void persists, and so does his hunger. It returns like clockwork every 48 hours.

He doesn’t bother looking at the name of his next harvest. He cuts out the tongue first to avoid any more conversation.

A few days later he goes to the table-bound crewman, removes the gag and offers him a taste of his own thigh meat. The man eats ravenously, saving his questions until his own hunger is sated. Then he stares at Pelops and tries to form words. The stub of his tongue rattles around inside his mouth. His mute eyes plead desperately. They remind Pelops of the blonde’s blue eyes.

He eats them next.

The human body is indeed an amazing thing.

So many different flavors.

#

Five and a half months left, five CryoPods unopened.

With proper rationing, he will make it. However, the anesthetic is nearly gone.

This complicates things, but is in no way a barrier to success.

The mission is all that matters.

He has it down to a science now: Open the pod. Tie the sleeper’s hands and feet with copper wire before they come fully awake. Drag them to in the infirmary, strap them to the table. Remove the tongue, put the gag in place. Ignore the screams. Ignore the blood. Slice. Tourniquet. Ignore the squirming, the moans of pain. The tears, the squealing.

Forty-eight hours later. Slice. Tourniquet. It’s no longer a person, despite all the writhing and moaning and muffled screams. It’s only meat.

Forty-eight hours after that. Slice. Tourniquet. They’re usually too weak to scream much more after this.

Some are lucky enough to sleep through the whole process from this point on.

#

Three more crew members and thirteen weeks later. Only two months away from Dantus.

His next meal is the last female. But this fact barely registers; Pelops no longer sees them as women or men.

They’re only meat.

All of us…charting the course of history…only meat.

Yet this one is something special. When he slices into her abdomen he finds her secret. The command board would have grounded her had they known. Or maybe she didn’t know. Two months along before Cryo, he estimates. Her eyes are glazed by the time he discovers the prize inside her. Strapped, gagged, limbless, and unblinking, she stares at the antiseptic ceiling as he vivisects her. And there it is…

A tiny thing…only 18 centimeters. Barely recognizable as human. More like something amphibian…a vestige of our marine origins.

Miniscule arms more like fins, or flippers. The stubs of barely formed legs. Round head  no larger than an orange.

So we begin…the seed from which all of us grow.

Expanding and developing meat on a rack of expanding and hardening bone.

He carries it to the bridge, shows it to the stars. He imagines the universe itself as one big womb…an inescapable uterus containing planets, stars, and galaxies.

In the end, it’s little more than a snack.

Sweet, a bit crunchy. A fresh flavor.

Bit of a fishy aftertaste.

Its mother lasts another eight days.

#

In these months he’s decided to put all those bones to good use. At first he carves them into tiny figurines: goblins, serpents, scorpions, or wholly new creatures birthed in his imagination. Then he decides on a project. A sculpture. He drags all the bones and skulls onto the bridge and works nonstop in the pale starlight, baring his creative spirit to the naked universe.

Directly ahead, a red star shines. Wolf 359. His destination, the color of spilled blood gleaming brightly in a mantle of eternal night.

A new god observes and blesses the success of the mission. Its lofty head is a ring of ten bleached skulls gazing in every direction. Its body is a tangled conglomeration of leg bones, arm bones, and rib cages. It wears a necklace of finger and toe bones. With screws and caulk and ductile adhesive he has brought it to life.

He sits before it in the captain’s chair, discussing with it the secrets of the universe, watching the void outside and the red star that is their final destination.

His creation tells him things, terrible things that he has long suspected, now confirmed in the glaring honesty of cold starlight. He eats his meals before it, calling upon it to bless the meat.

He tears into his latest chop, red and quivering.

Fresh and raw, that is the only way to eat meat.

His new god approves.

#

With two months to go and two CryoPods left, Pelops gets careless.

The man inside (Harmon, Sgt. G.) revives while he’s being tied, his frosty eyelids flickering open. Some fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in and he knocks Pelops from the opened pod, spilling out on top of him.

“Wha…” he stammers. “Whaaaaa…”

Pelops tries to club him on the head with a wrench but Sgt. Harmon is already too fast. He rolls away and pulls his hands free of the wire. He kicks Pelops in the side of the head. Stars swim crazily in Pelops’ eyes.

Pelops regains his senses to find Harmon holding him against the wall, pressing the tip of a screwdriver against his neck. The sergeant is still cold and reeks of cryonic fluid. He breathes hotly in Pelops’ face, the crystals on his beard beginning to melt.

“Who are you?” he asks. “And what the hell are you doing?”

He shoves the screwdriver painfully into Pelops’ skin, drawing a trickle of blood.

“I’m Dr. Pelops,” he says. “I had to…awaken you prematurely.”

Harmon looks around the corridor. Sees the empty pods. All but one now missing its inhabitant.

“Where are they?” His teeth are gritted as his black eyes bore into Pelops’. “Tell me!

“Dead…” Pelops admits. “There was a comet, or a meteor…some kind of radiation cloud…took out the auto-drive and the pods. I was lucky.”

Harmon blinks, thinking. Considering. He knows I’m not telling him everything. His eyes fall upon the last functioning CryoPod.

“Why didn’t you wake Captain Tyler?”

“I…I was going to,” says Pelops.

Harmon grabs Pelops’ throat in an iron grip. “Then why tie me up? Huh?”

Pelops says nothing. Gasps for air.

“You look like hell,” says Harmon, examining him. Hair and beard a matted rat’s nest. Face sunken, skin sallow. Nails long as claws.

Can he smell the dead on my breath?

“How long?” asks Harmon. Rams his knee into Pelops’ groin. Pelops falls to the cold floor. Harmon bends and holds the screwdriver’s tip to his eye. “How long?” he shouts.

“F-f-fourteen months!” cries Pelops.

Shock spills across Harmon’s shaggy face. “Fourteen…” He looks again at the empty rows of CryoPods, stares down the corridor in either direction. Sniffs the air like a suspicious hound. “Fourteen months…how did you survive?”

Pelops clutches his throbbing groin and says nothing.

Harmon kicks him in the stomach.

“How? Tell me! Say it!”

Pelops tells him. Doesn’t look at his face. Hears him start to wretch.

“All that matters is the success of this mission…” Pelops growls. “And I’m the only one who can get those converters up and running.”

Harmon is strangely quiet.

“We’ve got two more months,” says Pelops.

Harmon’s boot comes down hard on his face.

Darkness.

#

“He’s a sick fuck!”

Pelops regains consciousness, wrapped in a web of pain. No, it’s the copper wire. He’s propped upright inside one of the defunct pods. In the corridor Harmon stands arguing with another man. The inhabitant of the last pod, the ship’s captain (Tyler, Capt. H.). A sinking feeling as he realizes that Harmon has revived Tyler far too early. He tries to move his arms and legs, but he’s securely bound. He listens to their conversation, watching them in the corner of his eye.

“I know how you feel, soldier,” says Captain Tyler, still wiping frost from his flight suit, rubbing a hand across the back of his neck. “But Pelops is the only one who knows how to set up those UV converter domes and get them operational. We can’t just execute him.”

“Execute? Who said anything about an execution? You don’t execute a mad dog, captain. You put it down. And that’s what we have here. He fuckin’ ate them! Didn’t you hear me?”

“I heard you, son.” A weary sigh.

“Come on,” says Harmon. “Let me show you the nice little present he built for us on the bridge. Once you see that I’m sure you’ll agree to shoving him out the airlock at the least.”

The sound of their boots tramping down the corridor.

Pelops waits.

Prays.

Mutters poems to his bone god.

Eventually the voices return, growing in volume, punctuated by the sounds of boots on metal.

“…even if we do this, we’re still going to starve. There’s no food left on board and we can’t enter Cryo again. This is the end of the line for us.”

“Then it doesn’t matter, does it? Let me kill him. One last good thing before we die. Then we’ll set the auto-destruct…go out in a blaze of glory. Better than starving to death.”

Captain Tyler has no response to that.

The two men stand before the open CryoPod now, looking at Pelops.

“Captain…” Pelops says, “you know as well as I do—”

“Shut up, freak!” Sgt. Harmon’s fist slams into his gut. The air rushes from his lungs, along with the words he failed to utter.

Harmon lifts a service pistol to Pelops’ chin, the barrel digging into his jawbone.

“All of us may have to die,” Harmon tells him, “but you’re going first you cannibal fu—”

Thud.

A flash of silver above his head, a meaty sound, and Harmon goes down. Captain Tyler stands over him with the wrench in his hand. Its round end drips dark blood like syrup, and a clot of hair and skin hangs there.

Tyler drops the wrench and peels the coils of wire away from Pelops’ wrists and ankles.

The captain is silent for awhile as Pelops rubs his limbs to get the circulation flowing again. Tyler stares at his fallen officer, leans against the wall. Tired. Ready to accept his fate.

“You did the right thing doctor,” says Tyler. His sunken eyes turn toward Pelops. They are as black and glittering as the void. “The famine on Dantus could kill tens of thousands. This mission has to succeed.”

Pelops nods. His stomach growls. He is ravenous.

“Can you still make it work?” asks Tyler.

Pelops stares down at the unconscious soldier. Makes a few mental calculations. Rubs his sore temple.

“Yes,” he says. “With your help, the mission will still succeed.”

Tyler helps Pelops carry Harmon into the infirmary.

#

Pelops carefully rations out pieces of Harmon over the next few weeks. Tyler holds out for sixteen days but eventually joins him for a slight meal. Pelops insists.

“It’s imperative to this mission that you stay alive captain,” he says. “Just a little while longer.”

Tyler won’t go near the infirmary. The blow to Harmon’s head inflicted some kind of brain damage, so he remains comatose as he’s carved to bits day after day. Just as well. No screams to deal with, but still Tyler takes it hard. He sits on the bridge in his chair most days…staring at the red star growing ever brighter directly ahead.

Pelops thought the captain would dismantle the bone god…but Tyler doesn’t seem to mind it. Or perhaps he’s frightened of it. Too frightened of its power to risk desecrating it. He must know that it, not him, now rules the Goya.

Harmon would have lasted longer if Pelops did not share him with Tyler. However, Tyler ate so very little…only enough to keep himself alive for another month. Finally, when the last of Harmon has been consumed and his bones have been added to the god’s intricate frame, Tyler comes to Pelops. A broken man, emaciated, begging to be put out of his misery.

“It’s all my fault,” Tyler tells him, weeping. Pelops listens. “It was my responsibility to make sure we had extra emergency kits. I didn’t do it.”

Pelops leads him into the infirmary.

Tyler babbles, weeping. “Trying to maximize profits…cut corners…it should have been a simple trip. I did it to save money, Pelops. I killed us all for money…”

“Not all of us, Captain,” says Pelops.

Tyler nods, wipes his swollen eyes. He must be thinking of those starving families on Dantus now.

“I am sorry there is no more anesthetic for this Captain.”

“Just do it,” says Tyler. He unholsters his pistol, lays it on a nearby counter. “Get it over with. Kill me. For Dantus…for all those children. Kill me now…”

“If you wouldn’t mind lying on the table first,” says Pelops. Tyler complies.

Pelops straps him down securely and prepares the laser scalpel.

“What are you doing?” asks Tyler. “One shot between the eyes will do it. Make it quick, Pelops.”

Pelops hesitates.

It seems the captain has misunderstood his role here.

“We’ve still got over a month of travel time, sir…” Pelops explains. “If I kill you now, I’m afraid you’ll spoil before we reach Dantus.”

Tyler’s shock registers as a moment of silence. “No,” he says, shaking his head. “No, you can eat for two or three weeks, and the last few days you can go without. You’ll be fine…as soon as you touch down you’ll have food on Dantus. You don’t need me to last that long, Pelops!”

“I’m sorry, Captain,” says Pelops. “But I don’t like to go hungry.”

He ignores the captain’s screaming and writhing as he puts the gag on him. Same old reaction. Pulling against the restraints, wearing the throat raw with grunts and smothered screams.

“It’s for the mission,” Pelops reminds him.

He starts with the legs, as usual.

Tyler, once a strong and vital man, lasts nearly three weeks on the table.

#

In the end, with the last few scraps of Tyler gone, Pelops still has six days left to starve.

The red star swells brighter than ever among the starfields in the viewport.

Pelops sits in the captain’s chair and stares into the shimmering void.

Everything from plants to mammals is fueled by the light of stars. Sunlight fuels photosynthesis, which feeds the plants that in turn feed the animals we eat on earth. Photons and atoms being constantly recycled and reinvented, a molecular dance of destruction and creation that never ends. Everything consumes and is consumed.

We are all made of starlight.

Brilliant starlight, pulsing bright as blood inside us.

It’s all energy…and energy is neither created nor destroyed.

His stomach growls.

#

In the glow of a red sun, the Goya touches down atop a broad plateau littered with wrecked vehicles and rusting machines. Pelops stumbles from the open hatch into the ruddy glow. He walks with a single crutch made of bones. His right leg is missing below the knee, a fresh tourniquet wrapped tight about the stump.

He held out for two difficult days before the hunger won its final victory.

Still, he has made it to this place. A nice prosthetic limb waits in his future.

He blinks in the harsh glow of infrared daylight and stares across the plateau at the colonial city.

He stumbles through the wreckage toward the dilapidated walls. The wind hurls black sand against him, raking like claws across his flight suit and his exposed cheeks, coating his beard with dirt.

Where is everyone?

There should be a welcoming party to greet him. They’ve waited seven years.

The famine won here, he realizes. I’m too late.

He walks through dried fields where crops have died in geometrical rows. Now only the fossilized stubs of cornstalks rear from the smothering sand.

He sees the distant towers more clearly now. Skeletal and stark they stand against the purple sky. He walks with his crutch among the hulks of dead machines, until the sun sinks below the flat horizon. The ruined city looms before him. No signs of life.

Hunger did this. Is there anyone left at all?

He calls out. His voice echoes between crumbling walls, along vacant streets.

The bleak stars emerge to glimmer in the night sky.

We are all made of starlight.

Finally a group of thin shadows emerges from a ramshackle hut near a fallen tower.

Survivors. They converge upon him like wary dogs trailing rags.

He sees their young faces, smudged with dirt and lean as wolves.

They smile, showing rotted teeth. He waves.

They carry sharp knives that gleam in the twilight.

“Wait!” he says. “My name is Pelops—from the earth ship Goya. I’ve brought what you need.”

“Yes, I see that,” says a raggedy woman, brandishing her knife. “We can always use fresh meat.”

It is impossible for him to run on a single leg.

Their knives sink deeply, a dozen whispers of metal.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

John R. Fultz

Fultz, JohnJohn R. Fultz lives in the Bay Area, California, but is originally from Kentucky. His fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Black Gate, and Space & Time, as well as the comic book anthologies Zombie Tales and Cthulhu Tales. His graphic novel of epic fantasy, Primordia, was published by Archaia Comics. John’s literary heroes include Tanith Lee, Thomas Ligotti, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, William Gibson, Robert Silverberg, and Darrell Schweitzer (not to mention Howard, Poe, and Shakespeare). When not writing stories, novels, or comics, John teaches English Literature at the middle/high school level and plays a mean guitar. In a previous life he made his living as a wandering storyteller on the lost continent of Atlantis.

12 Responses »

  1. Good horror story, although I think a little predictable. Reminded me of Pandorum; perhaps it tells the tale of how that ship became what it was.

  2. I agree that you could see the (bloody) handwriting on the wall, although I thought that the scene with the last three survivors was a bit surprising, althought it felt a bit condensed. The ending was classic.

    What really set this off from more standard fare is that it did not shirk from the details, but also got us into the rhythm and progression of Pelops’ thinking. This could have been taken a little deeper, and I thought that a few elements (like the bone god) detracted from what the author was building, but by the end I found myself pondering the story and considering its literary and fabulous merits. For me, that is one hallmark of a good story.

  3. I agree about how the story made me ponder long after finishing the last page, which is the hallmark of a well-written tale. I was impressed with this one — quite impressed. Fultz doesn’t shy away from the gross-out, which is an essential element of this story. But I would contend that this work goes far beyond the confines of a simple graphic horror tale. There’s philosophy being explored, and some uncomfortable questions about conventional morality. In this regard, “The Taste of Starlight” shares some aspects with THE LORD OF THE FLIES, HEART OF DARKNESS, various Vietnam War stories, and even LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.

    So I think complaints about “predictability” somewhat miss the point. From the title and the warning, and certainly by the first page or two, we know that cannibalism will take center stage. And we know that the situation can’t end well. The fascination is in following the progression of the main character’s thoughts, the decisions he makes; in other words, this story isn’t so much about “what happens” as it is about “how” and “why” and “what are the ramifications?”

    I think John Fultz has rendered a brilliant piece of work here. But I’ve made myself a note never to get aboard a spaceship with him.

  4. I listened to this story on a drive home from work and had to stop midpoint to avoid having trouble keeping down what I would eat for dinner, which probably speaks to the power of the piece.

    I would like to give props to the narrator who I think did a fantastic job of delivery. The experience would not have been as horrifying if it wasn’t for the way he voiced the thoughts inside of Pelops’ head. Kudos!

  5. my comments are perhaps a bit spoilery, so i’d recommend reading the story first, as it is quite good.

    this story is missing only one of the four pillars of the Church of Euthanasia, sodomy. and it is worse for it. while i enjoyed the dilemma and twisted resolution, it felt oddly forced into the short form, and sometimes a bit like a trivial zombies in space.

    it wants for more evidence of, or even the savoring of, if you will, the onset of psychosis, and contemplation of suicide is conspicuously absent, which makes its manifestation almost inscrutable, or at least not terribly convincing.

    Pelops, it seems, never considers somehow transferring his knowledge and shoving himself out of the airlock so that his crewmates might sleep comfortably until their arrival. this felt like a blunder.

    it also seems that a struggle with loneliness would factor into his psychosis more prominently, and perhaps too his possible relationship to/with his crewmates.

    and when he sedates crewman Mewes, the “gorgeous blonde” there is “still a good supply of sedative”, but this doesn’t add up, as he “runs out of sedative after ten days” with the previous victim, Hoffman. did i miss something? and really, if we’re going to indulge in gore, why not indulge in some sex while we’re at it?

    perhaps it is an outdated literary device, but i can’t help thinking that the story could have been much more compelling if the details of the “harvesting” were merely suggested – while retaining the delicately grotesque minutiae – but ultimately avoided, as if they were unspeakably horrible.

    i would like to have had these details served slowly and deliberately, and the story cut short, with the promise of continuation in a future installment. the final installment could have caused my mind to implode!

    in the end however, i’m so glad i had a chance to read this story, as it is. thanks so much John and John. Long live Lightspeed (LLL)!

  6. WOW!! What a story!!

    I have to admit, the reader’s voice was a lullaby to me after 5 minutes and I dozed in and out of the story. What woke me up was the screaming of the victim who woke up from sedation. After that, I was scared of sleeping again, in case Pelops came after me!! lol.

    As soon as the story ended, I listened to it again. Wide awake!! I couldnt eat that night!!

    I have to say the narrator’s voice captured the deep horror [and rationalism] of Pelops’ actions. I expected his death alrgight, but not by experiencing what he did to his crew members.

  7. I found this story thoroughly predictable- but less in a “ho hum” sort of way and more in a “tied to the train tracks” sort of way. The excellent narration propels the story inexorably toward the inevitable conclusion, and laying there, helpless to move, you just can’t peel your eyes away from onrushing doom. Good stuff, Lightspeed, keep ‘em coming!

  8. In response to siznax:
    “this story is missing only one of the four pillars of the Church of Euthanasia, sodomy. and it is worse for it.”

    Wait, what? This story was missing sodomy? This statement makes no sense to me at all.

    “it wants for more evidence of, or even the savoring of, if you will, the onset of psychosis, and contemplation of suicide is conspicuously absent, which makes its manifestation almost inscrutable, or at least not terribly convincing.”

    It was made pretty clear that Pelops felt he was the only hope for the colony’s salvation, so that took suicide off the table for him. To me, the fact that his psychosis never drove him completely over the edge was key to the horror.

    “Pelops, it seems, never considers somehow transferring his knowledge and shoving himself out of the airlock so that his crewmates might sleep comfortably until their arrival. this felt like a blunder.”

    I also thought of that, and it did seem like a tiny gap that should have been addressed. I imagined him covering every bulkhead and panel with screwdriver etchings and diagrams… but ultimately, it would have been nearly impossible to convey the sheer volume of incredibly detailed and nuanced technical knowledge involved. It would have been nice if he’d actually considered it, though.

    “it also seems that a struggle with loneliness would factor into his psychosis more prominently, and perhaps too his possible relationship to/with his crewmates.”

    He build a bone god to talk to. I felt like that addressed it pretty well.

    “and when he sedates crewman Mewes, the “gorgeous blonde” there is “still a good supply of sedative”, but this doesn’t add up, as he “runs out of sedative after ten days” with the previous victim, Hoffman. did i miss something? and really, if we’re going to indulge in gore, why not indulge in some sex while we’re at it?”

    I think there were two kinds of sedative- one that knocked them out, and then a local anaesthetic? It did occur to me that when he was sedating his initial victims, that possibly the sedative should have tainted the meat somehow, but I don’t know enough about how such things work to know if it would be a factor.

    He didn’t indulge in sex because he wasn’t a rapist. Rape was not going to contribute to the mission. And he would have had a harder time thinking of her as just meat afterward. Pelops’ mental breakdown was very specific and focused, not a total personality meltdown. He had a mission. Cannibalism was necessary to achieve it. Rape was not.

    “perhaps it is an outdated literary device, but i can’t help thinking that the story could have been much more compelling if the details of the “harvesting” were merely suggested — while retaining the delicately grotesque minutiae — but ultimately avoided, as if they were unspeakably horrible. ”

    I felt like the degree of detail was just about perfect, myself.

    Just my 2 cents worth. Seems like we both enjoyed the story, overall ^_^

  9. Overall, I enjoyed the story. I have read all the stories, but it sounds like I should listen once in awhile.

    I was totally caught up in it from the crash out of cryo-sleep to the descriptions of “harvesting”what was his only food source. Fultz’s leading the reader to WHY there was no food onboard made the stage he was setting all that more plausible. A little very recognizable trait.

    I would liked to have seen more description of Pelop’s slide into madness, for until the mention of the Bone God he could have just been a zealot, strongly committed to his mission. So was this a device for a slow back-of-the-mind cogurtate, or to fit into a short story? (Personally, I don’t see how he would not go completely bonkers, but then maybe he had excellent control of his mind.)

    Towards the end I figured our poor soldier/saviour was going to find a dead colony and I wasn’t surprised. A bit short perhaps. I was also thinking of an alternate ending where upon arrival he finds the colony had found a way to survive (without resorting to canabolism) and once again his efforts and actions were for naught.

  10. Just read this one. I’d heard it was nasty, so decided to read it for myself rather than listen to it narrated. After the comments above praising the narration, I might have to go back and listen to it now.

    It was indeed nasty, but made a good, if predictable, horror story. (And most horror stories are predictable, so that’s not such a bad thing.) It did raise a number of issues with regards to the plausibility of the scenario, but you’ve got to suspend your disbelief a little with something like this. Briefly, the points that made me go ‘hey, wait a second…’:

    - The absence of the emergency food supply. Fair enough, that was explained later on, I can buy that.
    - The fact that one of the crew was pregnant. Surely that would have been detected in the preflight medical?
    - Couldn’t Pelops have put himself back to sleep? If not in his broken pod, couldn’t he have woken someone else up and used theirs? I guess we just have to accept that ‘cryosleep does not work that way’, but that seems like a poorly designed system!
    - Couldn’t he have tried to pass on his knowledge somehow, by writing it into the ship’s computer, or even scratching it into the floor of the deck?
    - What kind of idiots would send an important mission where only two crew members know the crucial information, anyway?! Why weren’t the whole crew experts in the relevant field? Or shouldn’t it have just been in the ship’s computer to begin with?

    So… yeah. I don’t think it really works as a remotely plausible story, unless everyone in the future is incompetent at their jobs. But it works nicely as a gross horror story/psychological thriller. My one final point actually, and the only thing I would really change: I would have written it in the first person. That would have made it even more solitary, by removing the only other ‘presence’ in the story – that of the narrator.

    Anyway, thanks for writing it!

  11. He could have done something different.

    Write a manual.

    It might not have been complete but if he wrote down the essential basis…
    They could possibly find out the rest.

  12. I wanted to read this story since I have heard it mentioned in one of he GGG podcasts. I enjoyed it a lot, a bit reminiscent of pandorum like somebody mentioned before, but a great example of space splatterpunk nonetheless. The one character whose actions i found contradictory was the captain. On one hand. He is portrayed as a lousy selfish individual (think captain of Costa Concordia) with no backbone who cant bring himself to commi suicide and chooses to rely on the cannibal. On the other hand, he occasionally shines a stoic character ridden with guilt and dedicated to the mission’s success. Am i missing something?

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