Aeronaut 54, by Joseph Cosentino

2016 SFReader Short Story Contest
2nd Place

Joseph Cosentino is a young man from Georgia who currently works in payroll. He hasn’t been published before and can be found on Facebook and Twitter. His portfolio can be found here

Aeronaut 54
By Joseph Cosentino

I

The zeppelin flew through the clouds, coming to the rocky spires that peeked through the fog below. The aeronaut had patrolled this area many times before and no longer needed to slow his boat down as he navigated through the maze. The forest of stone pillars opened up, leaving the zeppelin enough room to float in the air, feet above the fog.

Aeronaut 54 stood up from the wheel and ran his hands through his thinning hair; dandruff flakes landed on his polyester jumpsuit. The circular window had fogged. He placed his hand on the glass; it was on the outside. The cabin was stained, polished redwood inlaid with gold and silver in classical designs. He moved from room to room, from the cabin to the upper decks. Goggles hung on a metal, polished hook. He grabbed them and the sounding line as he stepped onto the deck. Wind struck his face as he put the goggles on, then the mask. They were always tight on his face.

He walked to the railing with the sounding line, letting it drop into the fog. The goggles started to fog up. Aeronaut 54 watched the sounding line disappear into the gray, the coil of rope growing smaller and smaller as he gripped it tighter with his gloved hands. He stopped and leaned over the railing and looked down; the fog had lowered. He didn’t believe it at first but the readings didn’t lie. One thing he knew in life with certainty was that numbers were the absolute truth and the numbers in front of him said the fog had lowered. Two readings in a row had showed a decrease, a lowering. Good news to send to headquarters.

Aeronaut 54 pulled back up the sounding line–too excited to put it away neatly. So he just dropped it on the polished wooden floors of the zeppelin’s interior. The goggles and mask fell on top of them.

In one of the back rooms there were tables, boards, and charts. Notebooks full of readings over the past few years. He sat down and opened the journal to the newest page, dated it, and then wrote his reading down. The man looked over the past few readings—a clear decrease in the numbers.

The radio was nearby, an old handcranked radio with an antenna. So Aeronaut 54 had his findings placed down on the table in front of them; he smoothed out the paper and had each of the corners weighed down with tarnished coins. Then he grabbed the handset with sweating, shaking hands and dialed the frequency to headquarters.

“Sector B23-7 shows clear signs of improvement,” he muttered, his voice monotone, robot-like. “Two readings in a row show the fog has decreased by one meter over the course of several weeks.”

He held the radio up to his face, hoping for a response. But there was never any response. Usually he just heard clicking and static on the other end. This time there was nothing. Aeronaut 54 just sighed and hung the transceiver back on its little hook before rising to his feet.

The zeppelin shook with a strong gust of wind. He gripped on the table as to not lose his balance and remained there until the zeppelin ceased rocking in the turbulence.

He yawned and walked across the wooden floor. His footsteps echoed as he made his way to the bunks on the lower deck. There were five bunks. At one point, all of them were filled. But all of his colleagues were gone—dead or gone. Bloodstains still painted the wall above one of the bunks where a scientist had blown his brains out. Aeronaut 54 could do nothing but carry his body and drop it from the side. He didn’t know where it had ended up, if it had fallen all the way to the ground to sink in the swamp to inevitably be eaten by the monsters that lurked the poison mist or if the body landed up in the pointed branches of a dead tree.

He couldn’t sleep in anyone else’s bunk, even if his bunk had been the worst of all of them, the least amount of space. After all these years, it was his bunk and his alone. The last bunk.

II

 Occasionally, Aeronaut 54 stood outside on the deck to look down at the fog. Things other than rocks would peek through, things from before the war distorted and destroyed this land. Treetops and buildings of metal or stone. He stood with gloved hands around the railing and his heavy coat and goggles and tried to imagine how life looked like before.

He would return inside downtrodden after spending so long staring at the nothing and tried to find the book he had read the least amount of times, settling on one of the journals his colleagues had written.

There was a wooden chair he had situated next to a porthole. A lone sunflower took root in a cracked flowerpot on a round metal table, next to a black-and-white lithograph of Aeronaut 54 embracing another man, the man kissing Aeronaut 54 on the cheek. He couldn’t remember the man’s name, but he knew they were close. Aeronaut 54 knew the man was the reason Aeronaut 54 enlisted for this mission.

The journal he read brought tears to his eyes and it started to smear the ink. Aeronaut 37 had been his friend and had lasted the longest. But one morning, some time ago—54 could no longer remember how long ago, if it had been days or weeks or months or years—he had woken up and Aeronaut 37 had vanished. He had found his colleague’s jacket and gloves and goggles still inside. Aeronaut 54 had spent the day trying to find him but never did. He was gone now, leaving 54 alone.

One of the sensors started to beep and the internal lights in the zeppelin started to flash. 54 dropped the journal and rose to his feet, running through the interior to reach the deck. The anchor had come loose from its perch and the zeppelin started drifting to a rock face. The wall of spiky rocks came closer and closer. Aeronaut 54 just stared at the approaching structure. The five-hundred meter sensor started blaring. Four-hundred. 54 had his eyes closed but then grabbed the controls and veered the zeppelin upwards. The airship turned almost full vertical but made it clear of the wall. 54 released the controls and fell into the chair. He buried his head in his hands and started crying.

III

 “Sector B23-10 shows clear improvement,” 54 spoke into the radio. “Fog is half a meter down since last reading.”

Again, no response. He knew what to expect by now. There was never a response. They had responded at the beginning, before everyone else had gone. The voices on the radio had been warm and welcoming and 54 felt he knew them, even if he had never seen their faces or met them in person. They told him he and his colleagues were doing good work; to keep it up; that it would be over soon. But then, just like everything else, they disappeared too. Fewer and fewer voices on the radio. Less caring. Robotic. Then finally, gone. Silence. It was when the voices on the other end didn’t respond that his colleagues started to disappear, one by one.

54 sighed and leaned back in the chair. The books full of readings and charts were ahead of him, all the marking from this time doing his work. They went back several years. His eyes felt heavy.

There was thunder. It made him open his eyes, snap his head up. The zeppelin rocked back and forth, throwing him from the chair. 54 rolled around on the polished, wooden planks, hitting the back wall and grunting as his head snapped against the wall. More thunder, this time close. He saw flashing light through the porthole. A storm was how 25 had been lost. 54 remembered the horrific final scenes of his colleague, screaming, on fire as 25 fell from the zeppelin into the mist and fog below.

He didn’t know why he geared up. The uniform weighed him down. When he put on the goggles and mask, he could barely move and felt like he stood underwater. But the zeppelin would catch on fire if it hadn’t already and someone would have to put it out. So he stepped outside; the goggles fogged up and lowered his visibility. 54 couldn’t see his hands when he held them up in front. But he could still see the flames coming from the canvas. The lightning had struck up at the very top of the zeppelin, fire and smoke rising into the already gray, colorless skies.

54 moved and started to scale, gripping the metal in gloved hands to ascend the canvas. Smoke further reduced his visibility. A bolt of lightning struck one of the jagged peaks nearby. 54 reached for the spray, a special chemical concocted to fight the flames. The foam covered the canvas, smothered the fire. The aeronaut gripped his hand tighter on the metal as to not slip off. Rain blotted out the goggles but he saw no more flames. Then he slipped, feeling the rope tied to the deck tighten around his waist. The spray fell from his hands, vanishing down beneath the fog that nothing returned. 54 hit his head on the side of the zeppelin and went black as the storm continued around him.

IV

 The storm ended. 54 rocked back and forth, still with the rope around his waist. The zeppelin had crashed into rocks, lodged in between the jagged peaks. He had some pieces of canvas on him and looked up only to see the innards of the flying machine, the metal ribbing. 54 climbed back on the deck and then fell to his knees, crying. The mission was over, ruined. He couldn’t fly anywhere with the zeppelin pinched in between the rocks, the canvas destroyed.

Aeronaut 54 made it inside, closed the door and removed all the gear—goggles, coat, gloves. He just dropped them onto the floor. Then he grabbed the boltgun and sat down in the chair next to the radio.

“This is Aeronaut 54. Unable to complete the mission. Zeppelin ruined. Request extraction.”

But, like always, there was never any response. So he raised the boltgun and prepared to pull the trigger.

V

 “Hello?”

The voice came through the static. At first 54 thought he was hearing things, but then it came again.

“Hello is anyone there?”

A woman’s voice.

“Yes, hello,” responded 54. “Who is this? Is this Headquarters?”

“Hello Five-Four. This is One-Six. Not Headquarters. I never get a response from Headquarters.”

He lowered the boltgun, sat it down on the table pointed away from him.

“Me neither,” 54 responded. “How did you?”

“How did I, what? Know to call you? I’ve been calling different frequencies for months, trying to gather survivors. You answered.”

“Survivors?” 54 asked.

“Yeah. Survivors. There aren’t a lot of us left.”

“Are they with you?”

“Yeah. They’re here.”

“Can I talk to some of them?”

“N-no. You can’t. I’m sorry. But you’ll meet them all soon.”

A pause. A click. Static. “Hello?” 54 asked.

“I have to go. Keep in touch.”

VI

 There was quiet, silence. 54 wasn’t sure if that had happened. But he sat and he waited and stood on the deck dressed in his coat and goggles and gloves. With the zeppelin cradled in between two of them rock pillars, he could touch the stone with his hand. He had never felt them before. Orders upon first hiring said to never touch the rocks but they seemed so normal. At one point he thought he saw moss growing in a shaded edge of the formation. 54 sighed and then removed his glove. He didn’t know why, but he pulled the leather off and pressed his fingers to the rock. His hands didn’t burn, or melt away like he had been told. The rock just felt cold.

The zeppelin shook with a gust of wind and 54 gripped the railing. If it fell from its perch there would be nothing he could go except accept the end. The zeppelin couldn’t fly. He got lucky and the shaking stopped, an edge of the rock holding the zeppelin in place.

VII

 Time passed and still he had yet to hear from 16. He started to doubt she even existed. 54 sat in the chair, next to the radio, reading old journals to pass the time. Then he heard the click, the static.

“Five-Four?” came the voice on the other end.

“I’m here,” he said. “Where are you?”

“Close,” responded 16.

“How close?”

“Below you.”

He looked through a porthole, expecting to see another zeppelin.

“You probably looked out the window. We’re on the ground.”

“Under the fog?”

“Yeah, Five-Four. Under the fog. You’re gonna have to come down to us.”

Underneath the fog was death. It’s what he had learned, what everyone had told him, why he was measuring the area to see if it was dropping. He was silent for a long time.

“Five-Four?”

“I’m here.”

“Are you coming?”

He was already suiting up. He dropped the rope, down into the white. He looked at it, closed his eyes. He brought the radio with him.

“Are you coming?”

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