Earon had little time to react before the solar flare exploded beyond the horizon of the heat shield. Doctors called the result “ghosting”. The glare of stellar material is bright enough to cause instant, permanent blindness. The optic nerves die so quickly that the victim feels no pain. Survivors claim that the last thing they see is burned into their retinas… sometimes for days… before their world goes completely black.If not for Sarai's warning, Earon would have been among them. Her voice blasted suddenly across the comm. Earon slapped his visor down at the last possible moment. Everything went dark, but only for a heartbeat. Then the flare arched around the heat shield dome. Despite the visor filtering more than 99 percent of the visible spectrum, the inside of his helmet exploded in a cascade of white. He screamed, eyes clinched shut in agony. Pain was good. Pain meant the nerves were still alive. The phenomenon passed quickly. The solar flare was carried by the prevailing stellar winds. It soared past the USF-11 Clark's orbit at more than 800 kilometers a second. The ejected plasma would be as hot at 20 million degrees Kelvin. Had it hit the heat shield, the Clark would have instantly vaporized. “How close?” Earon asked. Green blotches floated before his eyes. “Less than a hundred thousand klicks,” Sarai replied, still trying to catch her breath. Her voice sounded shaken and vulnerable, traits Earon never gave her. “It hid in the sun's infrared. I never saw it coming.” “Jesus...” “Keep your visor down,” Sarai warned. “Some contrails are coming around the dome.” Earon took her advice as he looked back towards the heat shield. Everything in the shadow of the mile-radius dome was black because of the visor's filter. But seeping around the edges were brilliant streams of stellar plasma, “cooler” remnants of the flare. Thin rivers of superheated material glowed white-hot across his vision, dispersing slowly through the vacuum of space. “Consumables TTL, forty minutes,” came another warning. “We should be clear shortly. Get that node online and get back in here.” He turned around, raising his visor. The Dyson-class satellite node suspended beneath him reappeared from blackness. Rechecking his steps, he located his toolkit floating nearby on a work tether. A service tote carrying a copy of every chip and circuit in the satellite node floated an arm’s length above him. He went back to work, prying the final latch from the pockmarked service panel before it came free. “Service door breached,” Earon said mechanically. “Isolating component failure now.” “Copy,” was Sarai's terse reply. A lightheaded feeling fluttered through Earon's skull as he plugged in his system pad. His eyes lost focus. He forced himself to concentrate on keeping the tiny LED screen from blurring. Taking slow, deep breaths, his eyes darted to the suit's built-in HUD. His breathing mixture was within the norm. Beneath that readout, his CO/2 level read only 3 percent... well within tolerance. Earon squeezed his eyes shut for a long moment. He knew what was coming now. He could already hear the familiar whispers. This was not the first time. The satellite was bathed in darkness when he opened his eyes again. The only illumination came from the feeble headlamp attached to his suit's helmet and the floodlight mounted beneath the service tote. The directional spotlights from the Clark had gone out. The two remaining lamps were tiny pinpoints in a vast ocean of black. “Power surge,” came Sarai's voice. “Odd. Probably from the flare. I'm going off-comm to find the problem.” “Okay,” Earon replied. A faint beep sounded in his ear. Sarai had signed off. The rotten feeling in his gut spread throughout his body. He could feel a presence growing around him. Despite his efforts to focus on the Dyson node's repairs, he could sense something closing in. Dark, smoky tendrils wrapped around his consciousness. Shadows played at the corners of his vision before his eyes started to fog and blur. “Go away,” Earon whispered, but he knew she would not listen. Movement from above caught his eye. Earon’s gaze drew towards the utility tote. A dark form wrangled below the platform, caught in the slithering black tethers. The shadow was distinct, familiar. He felt his blood turn to ice as he recognized the figure. The light from his headlamp spilled across the darkness beneath the tote. There, strangled by the tethers, was the pale-skinned visage of the white woman. She glared at him with accusing green eyes. Long, black hair flowed around her head in a snake-like crown. Her mouth hung open in a scream silenced by space. Her tongue and lips were as black as oil. She wrestled with the tether wrapped tight around her neck. The tattered gray robes hanging from her emaciated body fluttered wildly in the vacuum. Bubbles moved beneath her white skin, rolling inside her veins as her blood boiled. A hand flew out. Nails sharpened to talons slashed across his faceplate and clawed at the glass. Earon screamed and flinched away, his arms instinctively protecting his faceplate. A dull ache grew in his lungs as he gasped uncontrollably. The pounding of his heart against his ribs echoed in his ears. “Not real!” he screamed between breaths. “You’re not real!” He forced himself to calm down. It took some time. When he lowered his arms, she was gone. The tote was still, unmolested. The tethers were secured at the bottom of the platform, fastened tight against the base. The only trace of the white woman was a faint scratch on the outside of his helmet’s faceplate. No. Not the only trace. He could still feel her. She was not gone. The Clark's spotlights blasted back on. The gray Dyson node glowed brightly beneath him again. His eyes took in every inch of the satellite. Frantically he searched, expecting a hand to reach out from the shadows. That was where her demons lived. She always came in the darkness. His headset beeped. “My god, Earon!” came Sarai's voice. “What the hell are you doing?! Your pulse is skyrocketing. You've burned through most of your oxygen!” Earon pressed gloved hands against his faceplate. He squeezed his forehead against the glass from the inside. The reinforced surface was bitterly cold, even with the regulated atmosphere inside the suit. His head throbbed. He could still feel his heart. A bead of moisture dribbled down the side of his neck. Had he not worn a skull cap, the inside of the glass would be smeared with sweat. “Earon!” Sarai repeated. “Answer me, dammit! Respond!” “I'm here.” “Geez. Earon. Get back here. Leave the work tote there and get back ship-side. That's an order!” He lowered his hands and looked back to the Clark. His skin still prickled. Goosebumps crawled across his flesh. She was close, waiting for him in the darkness of space. Earon knew what she wanted. She would always be after him, reaching out from the night. She had never forgiven him. He swam in the darkness with her now. The shadow cast by the Clark was her domain. Shaking, Earon pushed away from the satellite, fired his attitude jets, and slowly drifted back to the Clark. Sarai was not waiting for him in the airlock. He was left on his own to tend to removing and stowing his suit. It was not a simple task. Unlike the habitat ring, the airlock was in the central spire of the Clark. Here there was no simulated gravity. His own gloves smacked his forehead several times as Earon tried to secure the suit. Frustrated, he gave up, shoved the components into a storage bin, and slammed the case shut. A cold sweat still clung to his skin, as did the damp flight suit. He glanced out the airlock’s exterior viewport. The satellite node floated a few hundred feet away, still bathed in the Clark's floodlights. From the safety of the airlock, it seemed so small. Harmless. But then his gaze widened and he saw the unending span of space. Infinite darkness surrounded him. Endless shadow. “Why won't you leave me alone?” he asked, whispering. The Clark shuddered. Earon fell away from the viewport, drifting aft until his back hit the wall. The whole ship vibrated. A loud rumble echoed through the skeleton of the vessel, accompanied by the low whine of the Clark's supercharged electrical. The shipboard main engines were firing. Earon reached for the handholds embedded into the airlock walls. He dragged himself back to the window, fighting inertia. Peering out the viewport, he saw the Dyson node shrinking from view. The satellite’s shield was still stowed. It would burn up as soon as it cleared the Clark’s dome. A shimmer of material was visible, bouncing off the satellite’s hull. Though he could not see the vessel’s SME's from the airlock, he knew what the shimmering was. Tiny bits of spent crystallized propellant peppered the node as the Clark pulled away. “Sarai!” Earon screamed her name. He clung to the handgrip for a long time as the Clark continued to accelerate. The muscles in his arms burned. His skull rattled as the hull shook. The roar of the engines was deafening. Then, mercifully, it all stopped. The Dyson node was gone. Propellant flakes from the SME's drifted through the Clark spotlights like snow. Crystals glimmered brightly as in the artificial light that was now aimed out into space at nothing. Earon exited the airlock and followed the ship's segmented spine all the way to the bridge. The lights were out when he arrived. Everything was dark except the simulated viewport at the front of the bridge. A filtered view of the surface of the sun filled the entire screen, deep furrows of molten yellow, orange, black. The star looked so close yet so alien. Even it seemed to be cast in shadow. Something moved. Earon tore his eyes away and looked to the backside of the captain’s chair. A crown of long, black hair flowed from around the headrest. Labored breathing hissed loudly. A pale arm floated from around the chair, hanging in mid-air. “No,” Earon moaned. “No no no!” The bridge lights snapped on with a crack and a hum. Earon squinted, the sudden brightness painful. His head spun, worsened by zero gravity. Then just as suddenly the mounted lamps died. Darkness claimed the bridge again. When his lids opened, two emerald eyes were staring back at him. The white woman wailed a shrilling song and flung herself at him. Long fingers wrapped around Earon's neck, squeezing. The twisted visage wrapped her legs around him. She thrashed and bucked wildly. Black hair slithered in every direction, blotting out her face. Yet those eyes seemed to glow from the shadows, twin green flames in the blackness. She had always watched from the darkness, ever waiting. Earon's vision started to fade. His lungs felt like they would burst. He tried to twist away, to squirm from her grasp, but his feet found no purchase. Her arms were steel, cold and strong. Earon felt himself slipping away. As his world darkened the white woman fell quiet. She leaned her face closer to his. Her hair drifted gently away and revealed the black mouth, pale skin, swollen veins. She moaned softly, yearning for him. Legs squeezed harder around his waist. Her fingers tightened around his throat. He was brought back when he felt cold, wet lips press against his. Her eyes held him paralyzed. The two smoldering embers refused to let him go. Not yet. “You left me,” the white woman hissed into his ear. She released him. Long fingernails slashed across his face. Blood wept into the air in crimson pearls. Earon barely felt the attack. Cold air exploded into his lungs. He gasped, wheezing, as blood oozed from his cheeks in tiny red droplets. When the ache in his chest faded, the stinging in his face took over. He screamed, squeezing a hand against the wound. An ear-splitting roar overpowered him. A hard shock went through his body as he collided with the back wall. His body was pressed against the aft bridge bulkhead, vibration again rattling every bone. Loose tools and equipment fell sideways, clattering against the wall around him. The engines were firing again. Earon crammed his head and looked towards the viewport. The white woman hovered in mid-air above the command chair, floating like a specter. Behind her, the screen displayed the Clark's trajectory. Blue overlaying brackets and two-dimensional models displayed the vessel's declining orbit. The SME's were engaged in a retro-burn, firing opposite the ship's orbit. The vessel's relative speed and altitude in reference to the sun were displayed in the top corner, both rapidly falling. The white woman was taking the Clark into the sun. “You left me,” she accused again, but Earon did not hear her. His mind was elsewhere. He remembered a day before the Earth’s skies grew dark and cold. That day was before humanity fled and colonized the system, years before the Dyson Cloud was created… before he started the job of endlessly circling the sun, repairing the countless satellite nodes. That was the day his daughter died. Earon remembered sadness so fierce that no tears could come. The smell of rain in the air was suffocating, but worse was the smell of tears on his wife's face. The cold press of her skin on his as she cried into his shoulder stung like ice. The numbness spread to every inch of his body. He felt like he was in the tomb with his daughter. All he could think about was her. After his wife tried to hang herself, Earon let her be taken away. “I needed you,” the white woman said, her hair thrashing wildly around her ghostly face. The Clark's SME's fell silent, overheated from the continuous burn. Crimson floodlights snapped on. A klaxon blared. Inertia no longer pressed Earon into the wall. He could move. A tear trickled down the white woman's cold cheek as Earon grabbed a screwdriver from mid-air, pushed away from the back wall, and drove it into her neck. Black blood snaked through the air. The white woman's hair grew into a tangled halo. She gripped the handle, twisting in midair like a falling angel. Drops sprayed from between her lips. He shoved the white woman away. She spun through the air, arms and legs curled into a fetal ball. Dark droplets of blood pelted Earon’s face, cold and sticky. He drifted onward, aiming towards the console chairs, ignoring the writhing form at the corner of his eye. It took him thirty seconds to secure himself into the command chair. It took two minutes to re-orient the Clark. It took five minutes and a coolant flush for the SME's to cool. It took a twelve minute burn for the Clark to re-establish a stable stellar orbit. By the time the engines died and the red warning lights finally turned off, bubbles of blood covered the entire bridge. Earon switched on the floodlights. His eyes burned again, but he ignored the pain. He unfastened his restraining straps and floated out of the captain’s chair, drifting through more blood. Nausea gripping the pit of his stomach, he turned towards the white woman. But she was gone. Blond hair fluttered gently in the swirling air. The bright locks were caked in sticky red. Pale pink lips arched wide, frozen in a final scream. Bright blue eyes stared at him, accusing even in death. Sarai's body drifted lazily, bouncing softly off wall and console as it did. Earon felt his body go numb again. He watched the shell of his captain float for a long time. Spheres of blood bounced off the fabric of her flight suit, but her skin and hair soaked up every drop. Her hands still clung to the tool embedded in her slender throat, the muscles clenched tight in a final grip. No matter which way she drifted, the two blue globes always seemed to stare at him. It took some time for Earon to realize what he was doing. It seemed so natural. He was already strapped back into the command chair and re-positioning the Clark before he figured out what he meant to do. His heart stuttered, and for a moment he thought his chest would cave in. His hands started shaking. Yet, they still floated across the control panels as he worked. He still did what had to be done. Earon did not stop moving until the engines were ready to fire again. His finger hovered over the red safety switch, frozen in mid-air. Cold flesh moved across his arm. A white hand wrapped tight around his, squeezing softly. Locks of black hair floated from behind him, quivering in his peripheral. A cold sigh chilled his neck as the white fingers helped him flip the safety cap and press the switch. Dull thumps echoed throughout the Clark. The viewport shifted cameras, snapping away from the sun to the bottom of the heat shield. Earon felt the SME's fire briefly. As he watched, the heat shield started drifting to the right. The USF-11 Clark was free. The reverse burn bled away enough momentum that the shield would just float away. “Don't leave,” the white woman breathed as she kissed the back of his neck. Earon stared at the inside of the heat shield as it inched away. He felt the white woman descend over him, embracing him. Her hands moved across his body with a frozen touch. Her face drifted into view. She leaned closer to him, claiming him. Earon was vaguely aware of a blinding flash of light. Then every shadow disappeared and the white woman was no more.
x x x
The scariest of the tales I received this year—reserved for this month of All Hallows eve. Thanks to Robert D. Marion for a colossus of a story (mercy!). Likey? Tell us on the BBS. - GM