Last Rites

Written for Taedis’ Small Print anthology.

I have no idea if I made the deadline for this, as I’ve realized that I don’t actually know when the deadline is, but it was an intensely fun challenge to write a 3000-word story and it got me flexing some seriously underutilized creative muscles! Didn’t “make it to the D” as I was joking about on discord, but I like how it turned out anyways and I’ll probably write an “director’s cut” lol because… well, gotta make with the horny.

(Yes, it is exactly 2999 words.)

The lone captain of a badly damaged spacecraft accidently discovers the derelict ship of an ancient extraterrestrial race that visited Earth long ago.


The ship had been adrift for some time, it seemed.

It was a looming black shape against a blacker backdrop of stars, and I hadn’t even noticed it until my own drifting vessel, punctured through with rogue ice crystals and hemorrhaging air, was captured in a tractor beam and drawn into a lightless, empty cargo bay. There was no personnel as far as I could tell, no communication signals – it was a ghost ship. I must’ve tripped some old emergency protocol by drifting too close.

Even threatened with asphyxiation, I was terrified to leave my much smaller JCS Ratham. The strange ship was unrecognizable: it didn’t belong to any colony in the system. It didn’t even look human. But I had to leave. Rescue was days away.

The vessel, everywhere a glossy black, looked like it washewnrather than built. My magnetic boots didn’t work, at any rate, and I was left to float through the cavernous space towards what looked like a massive door. They were all massive – maybe this was a freighter? I hit a panel beside it, not expecting much.

But to my surprise, it worked, though just barely, and the right half of the airlock managed to shudder open a few feet in the dead silence of the vacuum. The ship had power, and even if it was just a trickle that was better than nothing. There was a chance that there was still some air inside, and maybe a way to get out another SOS since the Ratham was fried.

I steeled myself and slipped through the narrow opening, with nothing but my own shallow breathing to fill my ears as I got to work by flashlight.

Finally being able to pull my helmet off was a special kind of relief reserved for spacewalkers. No gravity, but the stale oxygen was more than enough, and I took a few deep lungfuls to try and calm my nerves.

“Alright, skipper. One hatch down, one to go…”

I was prepared to try and jury-rig the other airlock open, but before I could touch it, it rumbled apart enough for me to float through, which I trepidly did. Then behind me it closed again.

I cursed, and didn’t like the way my voice echoed down the cavernous corridor, nearly twenty or thirty feet high. My heart had skipped several beats as I frantically scanned the hatch for a means to open it again.

“No, no, no, c’mon, c’mon…”

The one mealy light in the corridor cast thick shadows everywhere, and the passage curved away in both directions, disappearing into blackness.

“I need my tools!” Like an idiot, I pounded my fists against the door in desperation, which just sent me careening backwards until I hit the far wall.

Just then, something moved out of the corner of my eye, and I choked down a scream.

The beam of my flashlight illuminated a… roll of implements that appeared to be tools. It floated along in the 0G slowly, benignly. I listened, and there was only silence. I carefully launched myself away from the bulkead and grabbed the roll, examining it as I came to a more skilled stop against the airlock door.

It, too, was massive, and so were the implements inside, like baseball bats. I didn’t recognize any of them.

Tols,” someone whispered. “I gnowan this word…”

I let go of the roll and froze.

“Who’s there?” I hissed, wide eyes fixed on the blackness.. “Who the fuck is there!”

If I am put to siht, thu will fere not?”

Blood pumping, I tried to focus on the quality of that voice. It was at once deep and strong, but also distant and melancholy. The accent was hard to place, like something you’d hear in Cornwall or Halifax. And the words were strange, but I still understood them.

“Sh-show yourself,” was all I said.

It is well, then.

Out of the darkness stepped what appeared to be a man. But the resemblance was uncanny only: standing at two stories tall, his skin was chalk-white and there was not a trace of hair on him. He blinked, though his equally white eyes and white spacesuit gave me the impression that he was actually carved from marble. I gaped, astounded. It dawned on me that this was a first contact. But the longer I looked, the more that possibility diminished; his booted feet stood firmly on the floor, but from the waist down he was hazy and indistinct. I gasped.

“You’re a… a…”

Com,” he beckoned quietly, turning.

I couldn’t explain it, but I didn’t feel like I was in any danger, so I rappelled away from the wall and drifted down the passage with him.

We carried on in silence for a while, and the further we went the more I saw the extent of the damage to his ship. I had to push debris out of my way, dusty from the ages, while he simply walked through it.

Long ago, your folc name us Ettins. We haf metan before.

“Ettins…”

Your ham, it is Gerda, no?”

He pronounced the ‘d’ in a soft way, similar to ‘th’, and the ‘g’ was halfway to being a ‘y’. I rolled the sounds over my tongue a few times until it clicked.

“You mean Earth?”

“Erth… yea, I reccen your tunge haf growan through time.” He chuckled gently.

I frowned. “Time is right. It’s been since the iron age,” I murmured, guessing. “What happened here?”

My mynd is thin, and I can no longer recall. But I was, miht you say, theygn of this scip. Oathes I swor that if it fallan, I fallan with it.”

“So you were the captain! And a brave one, too.” He looked to me with those white eyes, far from blank. “You have, um… courage.” He didn’t understand. “Honor? Ah, fuck…” I wracked my brain for terms I read in Beowulf. “Weregeld?

His face softened into a smile at that and he laughed again.

“What do you call—name—your people?”

I am one of the Hroth.”

“And you?”

I am named—called—Thonon. What do I call my lytel gest?

“I’m Captain Erin Harvey of the JCS Ratham. Call me Erin.”

“Ah, a theygn ealso! Then com, Erin. I will taec thu to what thu need.”

He touched me, then, something I thought he couldn’t do. But he supported me against his enormous, ghostly palm, and helped me along through the 0G to wherever our destination was.

The storeroom was very large, and a few of the lights worked a little when Thonon coaxed them on.

There is water here, and fode to thu liking. Haf thu fill as thu cwemdest.”

Some relief washed over me as I began to look over the ancient cargo, and I couldn’t help but grin at his accidental command of modern English. The rest I could piece together well enough, and his voice was pleasant to hear besides.

Thu gyft me with thu smearcan,” he said.

“Smirking?” I laughed. “You mean smiling?”

Thonon nodded. “Thu smile warms me. I beon wanderan the halls of this darc scip for much a time. It is good to be warm agan.”

I blushed, feeling something: a longing, a sadness, a connection. Looking around, I imagined what it would have been like to die on the Ratham and be stuck adrift for a thousand years. The ghost of this foreigner was trying to help me avoid a similar fate. “Tell me what I can do, Thonan. I want to help you.”

The giant alien looked wistful, but sad again, and his image grew hazier.

Another time, Erin captan. Another time.” A pause. “Thu may be faran about as thu wisc, though keep from the high stedes. Taec heed, they are… a grim siht. I laef thu to thu own works, now.”

I was about to say something, but he was already gone.

I don’t know how long I spent exploring. Exhausted, I even slept for a while, and lost all track of time. My immediate survival was assured: I was a little fed, a little watered, and oxygenated. All there was left to do was find out more about this ancient race, and find a communications terminal so that I could get home before something worse happened to me.

Presently, I was in a lift shaft strewn with broken bits of alien architecture and mysterious circuitry. I’d already passed by doors to several decks which were closed and wouldn’t budge, but another, partly covered by the stopped lift car above me, was open enough for my comparatively small body to slip through.

Immediately, I knew this deck was different than the others. For one, there was some gravity, and I took the time to ease myself onto the weighted floor panels. I steadied myself against the smooth bulkhead and waited out the discomfort.

Being on the ground, I felt very small again, and without the ability to simply kick off from a surface to drift along, I would be traveling very slowly.

“Thonan?” I called, voice echoing.

Nothing.

I walked for what must’ve been a quarter-mile at least, climbing over rubble and collapsed stanchions. Then I came to it: my first body.

Or, it was a body at one time. Now, I guess, it was just “remains”. Slumped on the floor was another immense alien, now dust and bones in the white carapace of a Hroth spacesuit, spattered with black blood. A “shard” of the ship was still lodged into its belly. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. Whether I liked it or not, this was first contact. I felt that strange human obligation to investigate.

I laid my hand on the plating of the forearm, then, with hesitation, I knelt and gently touched the bones of its hand. Just one of its metacarpals was the length of my whole hand from heel to fingertip, and I shivered when I realized just how lucky we were that the Hroth’s visit to Earth had been peaceful.

Manadh he was called.”

I whipped around. Behind me towered Thonan, and he looked… majestic, somehow. Like a knight from an old fairy tale.

I jumped up, heat rising to my face.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”

He raised his hand. “No harm, lytel maeden. Thu wisc to see the rest, I gnowan. I will taec thu.”

“How far is it?”

Thonan knelt, and held out his open palm. “Only this far.”

I looked from the invitation of his hand to his pale face, caught off-guard at his subtle humor. “You’ll… carry me?”

I will.”

I sat in the ghostly appendage and he raised me up, holding me to his chest as we went. His steps were as light as I guessed they’d be, but the phantom strides still covered tremendous ground. Before long we passed another body, and another. Then we came to another lift shaft, and pressed upward for three more decks in 0G. When I looked out of the final doorway, I knew we were on the bridge. Again we stepped into gravity and I looked about, soundly humbled by what I saw.

Several bodies had long ago been thrown from their stations, and long ago decomposed.

“We was a folc what leorned and gaetherd tunges from far and wide. I leorned much of Man’s ways of speccan words.”

I was floored. And this explained so much: here was a race of giants with unspeakable technological power… yet all they wanted from Earth was to learn—to ​gather​—​her languages. “Can I… see you?”

Thonan bowed his head.

We went over to one, the remains piled about the seat. The front of the spacesuit was badly scorched, and the looming ghost looked on it with something like regret. “I woud that my mynd was not so thin, Erin,” he sighed. “So I coud gemundanI cud gnowan what befallan here. Alas.”

He placed his free hand on the console and ran his spectral fingers along its strange controls, knowing them by heart.

But I do gnowan that I long for lyf agan.”

I sensed his eyes on me, and looked up. It hit me, then, that I was being held by the ghost of this very large alien, and that he was holding me to his very large chest, and that his other hand was cupped to my back, and that I liked looking at him.

“May I touch you?” I held up my hands in case my words were too new.

He lifted me to his great countenance—it was much more than a face—and I reached out. Thonan felt real, but so cold. I lightly touched his cheeks, his jaw. There were fine lines, like seams, that ran from his narrow nostrils to his eyes and further. I traced along similar features that elegantly fell away from his bottom lip and swirled along his chin. It was mesmerizing.

May I touch thu?” He was quiet, his heavy-lidded eyes not leaving me. Though he was cold, there was an aura of comfort about him. Safety.

I nodded. His fingers delicately touched my spacesuit, feeling the bones through the stiff material. I closed my eyes as he drifted up, grazing the clamps for my helmet, then to my hair, my ear, to my own face. Thonan’s finger was huge, but it eventually came to rest under my chin. Feather-light. He tilted me up.

Our faces drew together slowly, haltingly. I didn’t mind when my lips felt his chill.

Afterward, I asked: “Your people do… this?”

Thonan gave a wry smile. “I gnowan still the ways of Erth.”

He gazed down at me like I was a precious thing, and I knew then that I had to free him. Somehow.

“So faer…” His chest rose greatly and fell again, if only in just the memory of breath, then his smile faded and he dropped his free hand. “But thu…thu nede settan to rihts.”

“I need to go home, you mean.”

Thu need to go home.”

We ventured elsewhere in Thonan’s scip, and little was said. I don’t know how far we traveled through those cavernous passageways, but I knew my time with him was short and I wanted to savor every minute of it as he held me close.

Eventually we came to a compartment that felt different from the rest, on a deck without gravity. It was dark, but with a pass of his hand a light fluttered on, and something told me these were his quarters. It was spared from damage, and I marveled at the Hroth’s organic sense of design. Against this blackness, he stood out like a silver mist.

Thonan let me go, and I hung in the 0G, watching as he worked his ghostly influence on a small computer bank near the corner. It came to life.

Words will fael me with this,” he said in apology, surveying the terminal. Thousand-year-old Anglisc would have a hard time explaining his intentions here to be sure. “But what thu speccan will be haerd in the steors.”

I spoke my translation aloud. “That’s a communications unit, and… I can use it to send a signal?”

Yea, lytel maeden.”

I watched in fascination as his hand held over the console, invisibly working a sequence of controls. When he was finished, he beckoned me closer.

Spec, and they will hear.”

“Wait,” I blurted. He looked confused. “What about you?”

Me?”

“Yes. I can’t just leave you here.”

His gaze fell. “Yae, Erin. Alas, thu will not laef me here. A nede I haf ere thu go on your way: thu will taec blastans that I gif to you, and thu will be sendan this scip to the aer of that graet ball—“

I knew what he was asking. I knew what he was asking and I wouldn’t do it.

“No! I’m not letting you just… disintegrate in Jupiter’s atmosphere.”

…were efry mote of dust here will burn, leafan all spor of us gon to the graef unseen.”

“Fuck, Thonan, you deserve better than that! You are a ship’s captain, you deserve to be remembered!”

The great alien paused, considering the console. He began manipulating it again, and soon a long, pale, pill-shape emerged from an aperture. He took it and held it out to me. As I took it in turn, tears stung my eyes.

Not as thu wisc, Erin captain; Man cunna see us agan yet. Taec this, it is som gnowan of your folc from ages ago what I leorned among you. May thu findan som new thing, som new leornan of olde Erth in this.”

I held it in my hands, the data storage device. I couldn’t believe my ears.

“This is really your last wish?”

Thonan stepped back to me, cupping me in the air with both great hands. He planted a whisper-light kiss on my hair.

Speac your communications signal, then com.”

I sent my SOS.

Afterward, he showed me the explosive charges and a usable hatch to access the outside of the ship, which I did, affixing them in careful silence. Then he took me to what looked to be a last usable escape pod and prepared it for me.

“Thank you,” I told him.

I was alyf for a stund, Erin, and it was swete.” Thonan touched my cheek one last time. “But I may ascan wun mora thing, if I miht, lytel captain.”

“Yes?”

Thu miht be tellan me a… faer word in your tunge?”

I blinked and thought for a while, trying to ignore the sadness. It wasn’t English, but what did it matter? It was from Earth.

Nepenthe,” I offered. “A balm for grief.”

Nepenthe,” Thonan repeated. He smiled, eyes closing. “Yea, it is a faer word. Nepenthe and honor I name thu, Erin Harvey. Many, many thancs.”

He looked peaceful as he disappeared.

“…Thonan?”

I was truly alone this time, and quickly, I boarded the pod.

“Sleep tight, my friend.”


(As a note, I can’t take credit for the linguistic idea, that goes to Paul Kingsnorth. Oh, and it’s not Old English, or even Middle English. But it sure sounds like it, huh?)