Ben Loory is a world-class writer whose first collection, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, is available from Penguin Books. Check out another story from the book, and order yourself a copy, here.
by Ben Loory
The astronaut has been marooned on the planet for he doesn’t know how long. He lies in the shelter of the destroyed capsule, gazing out at the sand. He is running low on food and water; he can hardly move with his broken leg. The ship’s beacon broadcasts a constant S.O.S., but the astronaut knows he’ll never be saved.
One night the astronaut is awakened from his sleep by a dull pain in his arm. He looks over to see a strange bat-like creature gnawing fiercely into him. He strikes at the creature and it flies away– shrieking– into the night. But the pain in his arm grows worse and worse.
The skin is disintegrating by daylight.
The astronaut speaks to the ship’s computer. It tells him he has been poisoned.
We can synthesize an antidote, the computer says, if a live sample creature can be found.
The astronaut turns and stares into the distance. All around lie only desert and rock. Except for one spot in the very far west, where dark cliffs rise into the sky.
They must be up there, the astronaut thinks.
He finds the sample cage and sets out.
The astronaut’s leg is carefully bound, and he is a very strong man. But still, the going is extremely slow– and painful, even with the medication. The bat’s venom is coursing through his system. He knows it’s just a matter of time.
When he finally reaches the cliff, he stands and stares up.
I’ll never make it, he thinks.
He starts to climb.
The astronaut climbs all afternoon. He pauses to breathe, to rest. Sometimes the sky seems to swirl around. The astronaut closes his eyes and prays.
When he reaches the plateau, he sees a tree in the distance– an ancient tree, gnarled and tall. And hanging from the branches, like their cousins would on earth, are dozens of the bat-like creatures.
The astronaut slowly approaches the tree. The capture itself is simple. He zaps one of the bats with a burst from the stun, then shovels the fallen body into the cage.
The other bats rustle, but do not awake.
The astronaut turns and heads back toward the ship.
Night falls while the astronaut is halfway down the cliff face. He strains to see by the stars. Inside his chest, the poison has found his heart. He feels it jump, stop, and start.
By dawn, the bat has awakened from its slumber and is gnawing at the bars of the cage. It screams as the astronaut approaches the capsule, whimpers as he carries it inside.
The computer is ready. The astronaut prepares. He wrestles the bat from the cage. He pins it face-up, wings-out on the dissecting tray.
Then he raises the scalpel.
The computer tells the astronaut where to cut, the fluids and samples he must gather. The astronaut presses the blade to the creature’s chest.
Just then he hears the sound.
It is a strange sound– piercing. High and clear. A whistle, almost a song.
The astronaut turns and moves to the door. He looks up into the sky above.
There– wheeling– in the great empty blue, are hundreds– thousands– of bats. Revolving slowly in an unending stream. Calling down as if in a choir to him.
For a moment, the astronaut’s vision seems to change as he stands staring up at the bats. For a moment, the circle they make in the sky is not them, but the Earth, his home.
The astronaut turns and looks back inside. He stares at the creature on the tray.
He notices he still holds the scalpel in his hand.
After a moment, he tosses it aside.
Slowly, he drags the tray from the capsule. It is hard work; all his strength is gone.
He unpins the bat’s wings and feels the wind as it flies.
An empty spacesuit crumples to the ground.