Here’s a short story I once wrote. It will give you an impression of my own writing style.
A Short Story by Niels C. Kwakernaak
October 13, 2061, 5:35 pm CC (Continued Count)
“You’re one of the many, you know?” I said, dancing my cigarette between my fingers.
She stopped picking up pieces of scrub suit from the ground and looked at me. Her silky skin shaped the light that pierced through the Venetian blinds. Oh yes, she looked good—in fact, better than I’d ever seen. But marriage?
“Melissah, come on,” I said, “don’t tell me this is new to you—you’re not even the only one on this ship.”
She didn’t blink, she just eyed me with those big dark orbs. “So . . .” she said softly, “this is you and me forever?”
“Did I say that? I don’t believe I said that.”
“Yes you did, just now, before we—” a sudden gleam went through her gaze, and in awe, she covered her flesh. “You are such a selfish rat, you know that?”
Putting my bare feet on the control board I watched her leave. I couldn’t suppress a smile when I heard the panicky stilettos clicking anxiously in the corridor. Few things were as sexy as an angry brunette on high heels.
The door opened.
“What was that about?” Dr. Peters said, looking behind him into the corridor. His eyes turned to me. “And you shouldn’t be smoking in your OR, let alone sit in your underwear—what’s your problem, man?”
“My problem?” I said, scratching behind my ear. “Harold, I’ll tell you. Respectively: one, Melissah popped the question; two, the epidemic gains ground—and we still didn’t figure out how these bastards infected us—so I needed a good drag of nicotine to pit myself against stress . . . and three,” I tapped the white around my femur, “I fancy my legs.”
“You have no idea what you’re doing to these women, do you? You know, I have a sister back on earth who—”
“Ah, she’ll get over it, they always do.”
Harold sighed. “That’s what you think, David.”
“And by the way,” I said, smiled, “your sister’s probably dead for years already.”
“We won’t know that until the connection is reestablished.
“Don’t you get it?” I mumbled, scratching my shoulder blades. “It’s probably not 2061 on earth anymore. The connection is lost because our generation has passed on earth and our great-grandkids have forgotten us! That’s speed-of-light traveling, baby.”
He was about to lecture me when, suddenly, he frowned. “What are you doing?”
“Harold, I want you to stop drooling on about—”
I looked at my fingertips and saw blood under my nails. My stomach turned; in fact, the whole room turned.
“I’ll call for an immediate briefing,” Harold said.
In the corridor, our soles joined an echoing crescendo of footsteps speeding to the briefing. Soon the medical staff of the ReConceptor was gathered around the rectangle table under the starry window, where they loved to sit and look out into space. I was a bit late because I wouldn’t talk with my colleagues without the protection of a hazmat suit. As I came in, all eyes were on me.
“We have to know what causes it,” my assistant said.
“Oh Claire, honey,” I said, “I’ve always admired your clearness of mind.”
Claire glared at the carpet. “We can’t all be geniuses.”
“Indeed …” I brooded, observing the worried faces around the briefing table. “It is clear who caused it. Ever since we set foot on that God-forsaken planet, we’ve been seeing cases like this. The Zanjarans have been set in quarantine weeks ago, and still, we’re at a loss.”
Six weeks before, with three thousand souls on the ship, we’d landed on Zanjara—the only green planet in this planetary system. The settling possibilities, the natural resources—all looked promising until we discovered the planet was inhabited. The geniuses back on earth who had scrutinized the planet with their telezoomoscope ships had missed this unfortunate little detail.
The creatures—monsters would be a better word—soon broke into our ship to check us out. We caught some of them, and when they proofed peaceful, the ignorant among us had not been able to help themselves. One slimy embrace was the beginning of hell. Soon people with severe rashes flooded the hospice wing and we ordered everyone to wear their hazmat suits whenever leaving their cabins, but it was too late. Now all the beds were taken by red, skinless men, women, and children, blemished by rotting muscles, coughing, and vomiting. And despite the brilliant brains collected in the briefing room, there was no lead to an answer—great minds that shat in the same pot.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Harold said pensively.
“Whereto?” I said. “Back home? Forget it!”
Claire, hoping to redeem herself, said, “What do you suppose we’d find? As time moves slower here, both Mars and Earth will be overpopulated by super sapiens by the time we’d be ready to go. They’d turn us into lab rats like we would’ve done had we found a Homo erectus wandering in the woods.”
“Or worse,” Dr. Sarah Verreth of the oncology department (better known as “Dr. Sarah”) said. “Have you read Wells’s Time Machine?”
“Point is,” I said, “by the time we’ve gathered enough raw oil to head home, there will be no home to return to.”
Claire had her eyes fixed on the carpet again. “Exactly my point.”
“Damn it,” Harold said. “Couldn’t they spot any potential elsewhere—not neighboring a black hole?”
“Guess not,” Claire said.
“So, we’re stuck here,” I said. “And I’m facing my death. I want you guys to accelerate the research—cut the bastards open for all I care!—and figure out the pathogen, isolate it and find me the damned cure.”
* * *
October 15, 2061, 10:22 pm CC
I’ve always loved the long corridors of the hospice wing, where many seemed to admire me. Look, the professor of the surgery department, I heard them think, such an important man—and brilliant, too. But now, walking this hall of fame, deadness was eating me up inside. Every room was filled with people suffering to death, and within weeks I would be one of them.
A few days before, we’d decided to allow visitors under strict regulation. Peeking into one of the rooms, I saw a solicitous graybeard behind the screen of his hood talking to a young man in a bed. I thought of Dad. I wished I had written one paper, article, or book to please him—or made one discovery worthy of his attention. I made it through med school, no approval—promotion after promotion, no proud looks. And when I was selected to be the chief surgeon of the first human settlement on Zanjara, he’d done no more than nodding. If it were me in that bed, would he have cared?
I must have stood there for minutes, gazing at this bond of love, before I went in. I grabbed the file from the cabinet and leafed through it.
“Since when does he talk again?” I asked.
He mumbled through his beard, “Yesterday he couldn’t utter even one word, but he looks lots better now.”
A shiver crawled over my back.
I hastened to the next room and looked inside. A man was struggling for breath, his decomposing hands clawing the air. He was alone.
I ran to the next room. A scarred man sat upright in his bed, smiling. His wife was by his side, holding his hand in her oversized gloved hands as children were jumping about like little astronauts.
I ran to the next room, and the next—the same, again and again. Lonely people with swollen eyes and unable to utter a word were decaying to death. On other beds I saw patients with clear lights in their eyes surrounded by concerned relatives and spouses—some were even talking.
Oxytocin? Could that be the answer?
This had to be the answer.
* * *
October 19, 2061, 11:15 am CC
“How are things going?” Harold asked me when I entered the briefing room. It was the fourth day since my discovery.
“Not good,” I said, turning to the gathered doctors, whose faces were oozing with fear. I knew they expected me to die. “The oxytocin injections didn’t do shit. Further research didn’t lead to the isolation of one single molecule.”
“What do you propose we do now?” Claire said.
“We’re not giving up,” Harold said. “I think for now our best chance is to hand it over to the psychology department.”
I sniffed. “The ugly little brother of the real sciences.”
“You can’t just prescribe love to patients,” Dr. Sarah said. “For your information, they don’t sell potions anymore since the middle ages.”
Harold strolled around the briefing table. “No,” he crossed his arms, “but what we can do, is promote social activity in this wing. Allow visitors at all times.”
“No way that will work,” I said, inspecting the deep crevices in my hands. “Most of the settlers left behind families—they went on this venture because they wanted to get away—to be alone.”
Dr. Sarah had been staring out the window into space. “Amazing . . .” she said. “It’s like this planet assures its own spiritual equilibrium. The Zanjarans are peaceful, but we aren’t.”
“Just great.” Claire sighed. “So we are the pathogens plaguing Zanjara’s spotless body. The virus is like her immunoglobulin.”
“Exactly,” Dr. Sarah said. “It’s like her immune system attacks the loveless, so only the ones worthy to live on her will survive to settle Zanjara.”
Silence fell. All of us were thinking the same thing. This ingredient of life was more foreign to me than the planes of the planet below.
My wounds were getting worse, and the pruritus became unbearable. On my way to the OR, nausea churned my stomach. I made a run for the men’s room and filled the toilet with retched blood. I washed my face and looked into the mirror. My irises were blue, but what used to be white was stained with red. Soon all would be bloody and blistered, and after that——
Suddenly it dawned on me. I had no one; no mother, no father, no siblings—only women, and one of them wished to devote herself to me.
I needed Melissah.
I knew where to find her—she worked as a nurse at the pediatrics department. She was a loving and caring person—adored by many, and although she didn’t have the best papers, she had made it through the screening. This one I would have dared to introduce to Mom and Dad . . . well, to Mom.
I passed a small wardrobe containing one grownup suit and a dozen small suits. Thanks to the shower in the entrance to the games room, the kids and their nurses were exempt from the suit rule, provided they were not contagious.
I looked through the window, and there I saw her, bowing down to hand one of the children a set of crayons. Typical, I thought. No hologramized toys or robotic tickle arms from miss Melissa. I smiled. Her fascination for antiquities was one of the things I liked about her. She wore most of her hair in a bun, the rest of it waved to her shoulders like strings of brown silk. Graciously, it flowed over her tall and slender body. My body began to ache with desire.
What should I say to her? Would she still be pissed?
Our eyes met and, indeed, she didn’t look happy. Trapped in her vision, I was nailed to the ground.
“So, I guess you thought about it?” she said.
“Ah, well, indeed . . .”
“David, you’ve hurt me. More than you can imagine.”
“I know . . . I know.” My hands were sweating in my pockets. “I’m sorry I’ve been so mean to you. I guess I just don’t know how to deal with situations like this.” I involuntarily inspected the ceiling, awfully aware of myself. “I was afraid to bind myself, you know? I’m so sorry.”
She emptied her lungs and her shoulders hung low. “I don’t know . . .”
“You’ll be my everything—my princess, my queen. I will never hurt you again . . . I mean it . . . I just want you.” I made myself believe it, and tears began to burn in my eyes. “I’d do anything to make you happy.”
Her cheeks rounded like grenades below her eyes—oh, she was pretty. And she loved me.
“Does that mean you forgive me?” I said.
She threw her arms around my neck and kissed my lips. Her face turned back to sadness as she studied my countenance. “I was so angry with you . . . when I heard of your infection, I was delighted.” She caressed my cheek. “How are you doing now?”
“My skin hurts and itches, and my muscles ache. If my boys don’t find the cure . . .”
“Oh, honey . . .” she held me tighter than was comfortable.
In the succeeding weeks, I met Melissah daily, but we didn’t get physical; the slightest contact could set me clenching my fists and grunting in agony. The relationship grew wider and deeper, as did my wounds like cracks in an iceberg. The epidemic spread further among the travelers on the ReConceptor and the fate of the infected was determined by their loved ones.
It didn’t work for me.
* * *
November 8, 2061, 7:49 pm CC
My feet couldn’t carry my weight anymore. I was laid on the bed in my OR. Softly, Melissah sang to me.
The virus had eaten its way through everything. Shades of red and brown stained the sheets at my knees and toes, and the horrible smell of decaying flesh made me nauseous. Melissah must have suffered from it, too, but she didn’t show it.
As I reached for Melissah, I was reminded that I wasn’t myself anymore. Those hands weren’t mine—mine had been delicate and pretty enough for hand cream commercials. These reaching for her were purple, swollen, and—worst of all—the nails were black and pushed out of their bands, like tectonic plates underneath the sea. Looking at them disgusted even me.
“I’m here, sweetheart,” Melissah said. I saw a tear dangling under her upper lip. She licked it away, yet more were breaching her lashes. I wanted her to leave, or didn’t I? I wasn’t sure anymore. She looked stunning against the starry sky behind the window, but as much as I tried, I couldn’t squeeze one love particle out of my soul.
I felt my skin burst as she caressed my cheek, and the lid of my eye pulled loose. She pressed a painful kiss on my lips.
“I love you,” she said, while the salt of her sobbing fell on my wounds like flaming acid.
I began to feel something new—something I had never experienced before . . . this must be guilt. I raised my chest to draw some air.
“Melissah,” I said with much effort, “go away. You have to go away.”
“Honey, I won’t leave you,” she said, grabbing hold of my hand, “I’ll stay here and take care of you.”
“You don’t get it,” a burning tear rolled down to my ear, “love is the cure.”
“Then let me love you.”
“No! I found out that people who are loved heal, and people who are lonely don’t. I used you to get better. It didn’t work. I lied to you and I misused you. Now, go away!”
I knew that look, and I couldn’t take it—those big, dark eyes again. It was like I tumbled off a cliff and screamed, but there was nothing to be done, except to surrender and fall. Why did I allow myself to hurt her again? I deserved every bit of pain I felt in my rotting body.
“Go!” I whispered. And she was gone.
There I was, lonely on the bed, waiting for death.
* * *
November 10, 2061, 8:30 am CC
“This is amazing,” Harold said. “Claire, Sarah, come take a look at this.”
The three of them stared down at me, as though I was an outstanding lab result.
“Unbelievable,” Claire said. “I was sure he wasn’t gonna make it, but this scarring is miraculous. What happened?”
I succeeded in opening my eyes. “I think I’m in love,” I said, my voice croaking. “I couldn’t force it, but it happened nonetheless.”
They embraced me and, tears flowing, I embraced them back.
* * *
November 12, 2061, 12:45 pm CC
Again I stood peeking through the window of the children’s department, and I felt more nervous than ever. And Melissah looked more beautiful than ever. With small steps, I moved toward the door.
I knocked three times. Melissah opened the door and looked at me, her watery eyes reflecting the fluorescent lights on the ceiling.
“Melissah,” I said in a low, shaky voice, “this time I come to you with real, sincere regret, and . . . I beg you to forgive me.” I sank to my knees. “What you’ve shown me in the past weeks is something I’ve never experienced before. And I’ve never loved before, but I love you with everything I have—and with all that I am. Please, please forgive me.”
She covered her face, and her shoulders began to shake.
“Please marry me,” I said.
“But I don’t know who you are,” she said, sobbing. She turned her back to me.
I dropped to the ground, hid my face in my arms. All the tears that had been locked inside since childhood burst out of me.
I heard her voice wailing behind me. “My dad told me forgiveness heals many wounds . . . He might be right . . . but . . . I need to think.” She turned around and rushed away.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” I said, unsure if she could hear. “Even if it takes forever.”
I’m no longer the handsome man I was, my beauty decayed—I’m scarred for life. Yet in these blistered hands, I hold the greatest hope I have ever known.
© 2014, 2016, 2020 by Niels C. Quackernaeck
Author’s note: This story started off as a traditional horror story; decaying flesh and eyelids tearing off formed the core of the story. After sending the first draft to my editor at the Institute for Writers, I decided to give the story more of a personal character—a transformation for the better. The original story I wrote in the winter of 2014, I reedited the story for my blog in 2016. Then at the beginning of 2020, I added the sci-fi element to recast it for my favored audience.