Contest #24 shortlist ⭐️


Science Fiction Funny Drama

I can’t put my finger on why I murdered Jerry, because I lost my fingers in an accident.

Accident. That is to say, Jerry hit the go button on the waste disposal unit while I was fixing it, and it munched my right hand off at the wrist. To be fair, the robotic prosthetic is about a thousand times better than my real hand was, but it hurt like hell at the time. He maintains I said, “Hit it,” but what I said was, “Quit it.” I was always telling Jerry to quit it. He was the most infuriating guy in the entire universe, I’m telling you. I should know; as a DSD I’ve seen more of the universe than most.

A DSD is a Deep Space Diviner. In short, we look for water out in the dark corners of the universe in the hope of finding evidence of alien life. I used to get work out on farms and such, walking around with a curled piece of wire waiting for the thing to snap down towards the ground. That’s when I’d tell the boys to get digging. I never missed. Went all over the country helping folks get water out of the ground. I’m telling you, I could find water in the middle of a goddamn desert. Now I follow my hunches into deep space.

When I heard they were asking for water diviners to head into space I thought it was some big joke. Checked the date to see if it was April 1st and everything. But it’s no joke. Turns out it’s cheaper to have guys like me out in space than sending probes from Earth.

So anyway, they’ve had us out in Sector 35 for two years. Me and Jerry Portman. I told them I could do it on my own, but company regulations state I gotta have a partner. Jerry goddamn Portman from Chicago. I couldn’t stand him.

How do I explain this to you? I mean, how do you come across a guy that can make you feel claustrophobic in the vastness of space? Even when I couldn’t see him, it was like he was right next to me with his stale open-mouth breathing. I’ve sent countless requests to be transferred, or have him transferred, or sought permission to blast him out the goddamn airlock, but no luck. I knew nothing was going to come of all the complaints, but it was the only way I could get the frustration off my chest.

It’s true that in space no one can hear you scream, but email works pretty good.

Anyway, that opening line about not being able to put my finger on why I killed him on account of not having any fingers? That’s the type of corny gag that Jerry loved. Drove me crazy. Is there anything more infuriating than a guy who laughs at his own jokes? I must have heard him use variations of “lend you a hand”, “right-hand man”, and “second hand” about a million times. He laughed every single time like it was the first time anyone ever said, “Get a grip” to a guy who just lost their hand and was rolling around on the floor spraying blood all over the goddamn ship.

You ever see a gushing wound in zero gravity? It’s really something. It looks like the wound is spurting little red balloons. Or, it’s like looking at cells under a microscope.

Space does that. Changes your perception of size. Entire planets appear tiny, then, the next second, a speck of space rock hitting the ship could end your entire existence. Big is small, small is enormous.

Anyway, the latest thing with Jerry was he wanted to head out on this new vector. I’m telling you right now, where he wanted to go is a bust. Oh, but he’s “got a feeling”. Feeling, my ass. This guy hadn’t found a goddamn drop of water in two years. Plus, we would have had to go through a goddamn asteroid belt.

It’s not that he was bad at his job—he was terrible—it’s that he was bad at everything. I mean, literally, everything. You ever meet a guy who couldn’t even use the goddamn toothpaste properly? I mean, who squeezes from the middle? Leaves the lid open so I’ve got a tube that’s flat through the centre, with all the good paste at the bottom, blocked by dried toothpaste at the top. He was such a goddamn imbecile.

The thing is, though, medically speaking—on paper—he was a goddamn genius. Like, off the charts smart. He’s just got no common sense. Know what I mean? As in, he could solve the most complex mathematical equation known to man, but he’d set fire to his helmet. He really did that. Tried to make some modifications and shorted the regulator. Nearly killed us. He was always nearly killing us.

I’ll say it: Jerry Portman was the stupidest guy ever to be classified as a genius.

I swear he has nearly killed me at least a dozen times. Obviously, losing my hand was pretty bad, but he’s also shut off my oxygen while I was outside repairing a cracked solar panel. I was under 50% oxygen saturation when I finally got back inside. That much carbon dioxide in your lungs? You can’t take that too long. When I hit the emergency retract button on my umbilical to get back inside, well, let me just say, if I’d had the strength to even stand up, I swear that would have been it. I would have murdered Jerry right then.

I think the worst one was when he opened the bay door—that’s where we keep the drones—before I was in my suit. I know it’s against the regulations to be in the drone bay without your suit because of the potential for that exact situation, but fucking Jerry, man. The guys who wrote the regulations must have been like, “What’s the most galactically stupid thing anyone could do in any given situation?” and then they’d write a rule just for kicks. They were probably laughing their asses off the entire time. “No one could be that much of a moron,” they’d say. But guess what, fellas. Jerry Portman is your guy. It’s just lucky there’s a ten-second warning before the doors open.

You know the worst thing about guys like Jerry? It’s never their fault. 

“It was an accident.”

He said it every goddamn time. It’s always an accident with these guys. Like that absolves them from any wrongdoing. As if just because you didn’t do it on purpose, all is forgiven. 

Imagine opening the bay door while there’s a guy in there working on the drones.

Speaking of the drones. Jerry lost another one yesterday. This should come as a great surprise to exactly no one, but even for him, this was stupid. That’s three of our six drones lost. Don’t worry, Jerry. They’re only worth about half a billion dollars each.

“But they’re fitted with a homing device to automatically self-dock if they lose the control signal” I hear you say. Yeah, well, you haven’t met Jerry. He’s the kind of guy a car salesman tells, “Pal, if you’re the kind of guy that accidentally locks his keys in the car, then this is the car for you. You can’t do it, see? It’s impossible.”

Then, a week later, Jerry’s back and tells the guy he’s locked the keys in the goddamn car.

Can you imagine being stuck in space with Jerry Portman? I’m telling you, it’s the pits.

The first drone Jerry lost was on account of him tinkering with it. He was trying to make the water sensor more sensitive after striking out on another of his feelings. He’s always making excuses that it’s the equipment’s fault when he strikes out. So, yeah. The first drone he tinkered with—well, we don’t know what he did exactly—but the first time we took it out after he fiddled with it, it took off like a bullet and it was gone.

I can still see Jerry watching the screen as we lost the signal. He was like a kid who’d taken his model plane out for its first flight and watched it disappear over the trees never to be seen again. Only this model plane cost half a billion dollars.

The second one, I’m not sure about. He swears he didn’t touch it. For all his million faults, one thing Jerry wasn’t, was a liar. Maybe we chalk that one up to bad luck. Maybe the drone was a dud.

But the latest one? Jesus Christ. I won’t bore you with a bunch of technical crap about how the drones work, let’s just say in the simplest terms, it confirms the presence of water in any form within a given target. Most commonly, this means we find a meteorite that we feel has potential, and the drone sends out a probe to take a sample. It’s basically a drill that bores into the target and removes a metre-long cylinder of material. If there’s a trace of water—it’s ice, of course—there’s a bunch of readings and measurements done by the computer and it sends the data back to Earth for further analysis. 

As you can imagine, a machine that performs this function is incredibly complex. So you don’t just open up a panel and start poking around with a goddamn Phillips-head. Well, you and I wouldn’t. But you know who would?

So, yesterday he’s telling me, “I know what I’m doing this time,” as if he’s read the manual since losing the first drone. I just shake my head and leave him to it. I used to argue with him all the time, but I learnt pretty quick what a waste of breath that was. He’s one of those guys that when they get something in their head, you can’t shake it no matter how much sense you’re making. They could be wearing a red tshirt and you say, “Nice red tshirt,” and they say, “What’re talking about? It’s blue,” and you just have to say, “Fine, you moron. It’s blue,” and walk away.

That’s what Jerry was like when he was tinkering. Maybe part of me thought he’d electrocute himself so I wouldn’t have to murder him.

When he finished playing around with this drone, he came back into the control room and placed these screws and some other little bits and pieces in a drawer. He did it as if he didn’t want me to see it, but I saw it clear as day. You know when someone gets home drunk and they’re trying to be quiet but they make way more noise than if they just stumbled around? People trying to be discrete just scream I’m up to something fishy.

So I say to Jerry, “What are those, from the drone?”

And he just says, “They’re spare. We don’t actually need them.”

Then I go off on one about how every single thing on this ship right down to the tiniest screw has been reduced in size and weight to make everything as light as possible—like, the angle of trajectory for our landing factors in the weight of the urine that will be in our bladders—but sure, Jerry. They’ve included a bunch of spare parts. “It’s not a goddamn IKEA chair, Jerry” I remember saying that to him like he was hiding some leftover dowel he forgot to put in.

Well, sure as eggs, Jerry sent the drone out yesterday and I’ll give you one guess what happened to it. You’re goddamn right it blew up. Nearly killed us.

He’s just lucky the drone was far enough from the ship that the explosion didn’t do any damage to the ship. Nothing that the self-diagnostics picked up, anyway. Naturally, I did my block at Jerry for nearly killing us again and I said someone’s going to have to go outside and have a closer inspection of the hull. Now, normally I’d be the guy that does that. I mean, you can’t leave something that important up to Jerry goddamn Portman.

Then I had a thought—maybe I would send Jerry out. It would be a real shame if his umbilical somehow untethered from the ship and he floated out into space…

Ashamed as I am to admit it, this was not the first time I’d thought about killing Jerry.

Did I tell you about the time Jerry destroyed one of my samples? You know how people who can’t cook, they say “Oh, so-and-so could burn water.” That’s what Jerry did. We got this sample back on the probe one time and it had all these microorganisms in it. The core sample was about 85% ice. Normally, we’re lucky if it’s even 5%. The core analysis told us it contained 37 different forms of bacteria plus a bunch of other unidentifiable crap all suspended in ice. It was the most exciting goddamn discovery since penicillin. So I placed the core in the freezer and looked forward to the fame and fortune awaiting those DSDs lucky enough to find something. I couldn’t sleep that cycle I was so excited.

Of course, back then I didn’t have a complete understanding of the magnitude of Jerry’s stupidity. Had I known better, I would have guarded that freezer with my goddamn life. 

Now, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least to discover Jerry had destroyed my sample by switching the freezer off by accident. These things happen to the best of us. But Jerry isn’t your average moron. No, Jerry decides he wants to take a look at the sample himself under the microscope. Only, the microscope doesn’t work with a chunk of ice, you gotta melt it down to go in a petri dish. So Jerry puts the core in the blast box—the blast box, I should explain, is this unit that works like an oven or freezer depending on what you need heating or chilling. Only, the blast box will roast or freeze something in three seconds. In hindsight, this is exactly the sort of thing you could see happening, but the designers of the blast box would have been counting on the operators being actual scientists, not Jerry goddamn Portman.

Now, someone like you or me, we’d take a small piece of the sample if we wanted to take a closer look. Not Jerry, though. Jerry Portman’s the kind of guy who takes your alien lifeforms precariously suspended in million-year-old ice and microwaves them to kingdom come. “Why the hell did he…? Oh, never mind,” I hear you saying. You’re getting the picture now. He cost me a lot that day. Maybe not money—who knows—but certainly renown. They probably would have named one of the bacteria after me. 

That was two years ago, but I remember it like yesterday. Time flies when you’re having fun.

Yesterday, when Jerry was out on the spacewalk, I considered trying to make it look like an accident. But there are so many instruments taking every goddamn reading on this ship that they’d know for sure I had something to do with it. I mean, no amount of tinkering could have got the drone to accidentally deploy its probe with such surgical precision right up Jerry Portman’s goddamn ass.

I’ll be leaving Sector 35 for Earth in a year next week. When I splashdown and I get arrested on live television, it’ll be because I murdered Jerry Portman. They’ll drag me out of the ocean next to those giant orange balloon floaties and put me straight in handcuffs but I’ll be laughing my ass off. You can’t spell manslaughter without laughter, right?

I’ll be thinking about the last thing Jerry saw as he was fatally probed: me in the cockpit with the drone remote, my smiling face looking out through the glass where I’d stuck a piece of paper saying IT WAS AN ACCIDENT.

Thousands of little red balloons.

I just want them to know I was provoked. I was standing my ground. I feared for my life, Your Honor. 

It wasn’t self-defence, really, more like self-preservation. I’m not sure if there’re any laws about killing in self-preservation but if I didn’t kill him, he was going to kill me. I’m absolutely goddamn sure of it.

January 13, 2020 22:52

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Lee Kull
19:00 Jan 24, 2020

In a very darkly morbid way, the story was funny. Some parts were priceless, like my favorite lines here: They could be wearing a red tshirt and you say, “Nice red tshirt,” and they say, “What’re talking about? It’s blue,” and you just have to say, “Fine, you moron. It’s blue,” and walk away. However, it was too morbid of a story for me to really get into it. Good writing, but man, a little dark, haha. Thank you for sharing it, though. It was good. Best wishes, Lee P.S. I haven't heard from you or seen your comments lately. How are y...


Matt Strempel
19:54 Jan 24, 2020

G’day Lee! Nice to hear from you. I’ve had a break from prompts to participate in NaNoWriMo then Christmas happened. I’ll be sure to head over and read your story this morning. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I was aware it would not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I really want to use the short story medium to explore different styles and effects. This genre-bending idea prompted me to try a Catcher In The Rye type narrator in a sci-fi setting. I’m surprised it was shortlisted to be honest!


Lee Kull
20:16 Jan 24, 2020

Good to hear from you, too. I know what you mean about trying new styles of writing; I like to do the same thing. If you take a look at my stories, you'll see everything from historical fiction to sci-fi to romance to action adventure, to even a YA dystopian horror time travel sci-fi murder mystery adventure, haha. For somebody who doesn't personally like sci-fi much, it's fun to write. How was NaNoWriMo? Did you make it? Congrats on making the shortlisting! How do you tell if a story is shortlisted? Do you get an email? Best wishes, Lee


Matt Strempel
22:33 Jan 24, 2020

I did make it, actually. Funnily enough I’m happier with the outcome than a book I spent over a year working on. Felt more natural. The shortlisting comes through as an email. No idea how short the shortlist is though! OK, off to read your story.


Lee Kull
23:06 Jan 24, 2020

Nice work on NaNoWriMo! I've been working on my novel for seven years, haha, so I can hardly imagine writing one in just a month. Cool about the shortlisting, too. The only emails I've gotten from Reedsy other than the weekly ones are that I have new comments, that my stories were accepted, or that my feedback is wanted on other stories. Thanks for looking at my stories. :-) - Lee


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