Aphelion Issue 294, Volume 28
May 2024
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Best When Served Cold

By N.J. Kailhofer

Based on art by William R. Warren, Jr. as well as characters and situations created by Bill Wolfe, Casey Callaghan, and N.J. Kailhofer

Some of the individual versions of the stories in this series were written for forum flash challenge contests to help create this "world." As such, stories may not match the characters or settings of the continuous version of the story, which blended all the entries together.

She pulled down the visor on her helmet. Earth would see her face less that way.

"Dunsirn," Jericho called over the radio, "How aboot we wrap this thing up, eh? Your elapsed EVA time is nearly six hours, now."

Canadians, she thought. How can Heidi stand Pete's accent?

Dunsirn replied, "The housing is stuck. I'm working on it."

"I think you just like showing off for the cameras, but I'm pretty tired of wearing this suit all day as your backup, you know. It's hard as hell to push buttons with these damn gloves on."

She peered over her shoulder toward the CCD camera on the dish. She had little doubt that a lot of Earth was indeed watching her struggle to fix the next mechanical hiccup of the mission.

No, she reminded herself. They're watching the ugly astronaut try again, not Lieutenant Commander Amanda Dunsirn doing her job. After Aphelion One touches down a day ahead of us, they'll forget Two even exists. If the main electrical junction hadn't fried, I wouldn't even be getting airtime.

The nut finally budged. "I figured it out. We should change the manual that the top two bolts are reversed so you have to turn them the opposite direction from the bottom two."

Jericho laughed. "I'll add it to today's glitch list right after the beef jerky that was mislabeled as freeze-dried broccoli."

"Oh, great," she said with a mocking tone. "Can't wait to see what your wife cooked up."

Jericho didn't answer for a minute. "Heidi says Francesco and Yosuke kept it down, so whatever it is, it will fill you up. All righty. You're in the way of the camera, but I see the housing is open. How much longer on that bypass, Commander? Let's get it done out there, eh?"

'Commander?' Oh, I dared to criticize the wife. Heidi's just a mission specialist without much to do until we land... added at the last minute. She had less time in space than anyone, and she's the worst cook I've ever met.

Men. Anything for a set of big boobs.

"Almost there, sir. You should see some subsystems start to flip green."

"Roger that."

The last connection. "Wait. Something's wrong. That shouldn't--"


"Amanda? C'mon, wake up, sailor." Jericho sounded worried.

Dunsirn's eyes struggled to open. Dr. Jandrain's face floated in front of her, with Jericho's behind.

"Do you have to shine that light in my eyes, Chandra?"

Jandrain looked relieved. "How are you feeling?"

"Why won't my arms move? What's wrong with the right side of my face? It feels numb."

The doctor frowned. "With luck, your arms will regain movement when some more of the swelling near your spinal cord goes down. I'm sure the hundred doctors Mission Control has working on your results will know more."


Jericho leaned in. "One of the units in that panel exploded. Shot right through your helmet into your face and neck. By the time I could get you back in, you were pretty damn close to dead."

"How bad is it?"

Jandrain glanced at Jericho, but then put on a calm expression. "We'll know better about after we've run tests, but I have no doubt there will be significant scarring. This was beyond my skills. If One hadn't slowed so both Doctor Adams and I could work on you, I believe you would not have survived."

Dunsirn swallowed hard. "I want to see it."

Jericho shook his head. "I don't think you want to do that just yet."

"Pete, I deserve to know."

The two looked at each other, then Jericho sighed. "All right, but look, Amanda. Just remember you're lucky to be alive. It was a miracle it didn't hit your jugular."

Jandrain lifted the bandages and Jericho held a mirror. A wide, jagged gash, held together by a swath of stitches started high on her right cheek and ran down to the nape of her neck.

"My God." I'll be known as the hideous, ugly cripple that went to Mars.

Her whole career passed in front of her eyes, from basic to flight school to the competition to be the Navy's representative on the mission. In the end Dunsirn always believed she was chosen over the others because her face made for a better photo op.

"Do they know what caused the explosion?"

Jericho sighed. "Human error."


"You need to eat." Heidi brought the fork to Dunsirn's mouth. "C'mon, let the choo-choo in."

"Drop dead."

"Squid wimp."

Dunsirn's eyes narrowed to slits. "Yeah, not tough like you, jarhead. But at least I'm smart enough not to switch on the electric heaters while a shipmate is working on the lines."

"You know about that?"

"Pete told me."

Heidi broke the long, uncomfortable silence. "Ironic, isn't it? You always thought you were better than me, and now you're laying here like a lump, dependent on me to keep you fed and alive. Who's the important one now?"

Dunsirn spit in her face. "I don't know what Pete saw in you."

Heidi smirked. "Everything he didn't see in you."

"When I can move again, I'm going to strangle you with my bare hands."

Heidi laughed. "Ooo. Scary. Here, eat your mush."

She shoved in a fork full.

Dunsirn gagged. "What is this crap?"

"Humble pie, as far as you know."

Dunsirn's fist leapt up from the bed, connecting with Heidi's chin. Amanda stared, moving her hand in front of her face. Her other hand joined it.

Heidi smiled at her. "Chandra was right. I just needed to make you mad enough to get the connections working again."

Amanda smiled, too.


The airlock cycled. Dunsirn thought about her recovery during the months since: tests, exercise, and improvised physical therapy. Hardly anyone on Earth remembered her name, but they all knew her wounded face.

"Aboot time you got in. Longest EVA of the mission--" Jericho froze in the doorway.

Just inside the airlock, Heidi's body floated at her feet.


2008 N.J. Kailhofer

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