A Delicate Dance
Nicole D. Sconiers
I awaken in flowers.
Not the white Matilija poppies that bloom on California’s Central Coast, where I’m from, crinkly plants that thrive in desert places. These flowers are black with purple rings at the center.
I notice them from the cockpit where I’m still strapped in. I glance over at my pilot, Nathan Patel. The movement hurts my head, but the pain is nothing compared to the sight of my crew member. The usually chatty brown-skinned man is slumped over in his seat. Still. Dried blood trails down his nose and onto the front of his spacesuit.
I groan, shifting in my seat. I don’t know how long I’ve been sitting like this. There’s a huge crack in the touchscreen a few feet from me. The normally blue-lit buttons on the panel are dark. It’s probably been hours since I last made contact with mission control.
I untether myself and float out of my seat. My joints always ache during missions the way some old folks’ joints ache when it’s about to rain. I glide through the vehicle to check on Rory McFadden and Jamison “Big J” Edelson, my flight engineers. The four of us have been on shuttle mission STS-5966 for nearly six months, spending Thanksgiving and Christmas 2026 together, laughing and reminiscing over our freeze-dried turkey and mashed potatoes. Although Rory always slips and calls me Noema instead of Captain Miller and Big J loves telling racy jokes that aren’t particularly funny, I’ve grown to think of them as family.
But the men are dead as well.
I stare at the broken bodies. Stunned. Rory’s head is bent at an odd angle. His eyes are wide open as if beholding some specter right behind my shoulder. Big J’s eyes are closed. The muscular man could be sleeping, if not for the crusty blood leaking from both eyes.
Some captain I am. My first expedition to the Outer Ring has ended in disaster. Lives lost. A successful mission would’ve meant recognition. Promotion perhaps, a word so foreign to me in my five years in the Space Force. Now I’m no longer fit to hold the title of Guardian.
I float across the cabin, gazing at the black flowers outside the portholes of my craft, the Chimera Blue. If all had gone according to plan, we’d be heading back to The Portal, our lunar outpost. Our mission was tracking space debris – non-functional satellites, abandoned rocket boosters – the junk of the cosmos. I like to joke that I’m part of the clean-up crew, a maid in outer space.
Even though I’m the highest-ranking member aboard this craft, I’ve always felt like an outsider. I guess it stems from growing up in a rural community near Bakersfield. We were one of the few black families in town. I never felt like I belonged, not in high school, where white kids teased me for having “muddy” skin and not as a Flight Warfare Officer, the only black woman in my class. Traveling in space was supposed to make me feel powerful and free of any boundaries, even self-imposed ones.
Something purple floats toward me. It’s Chimmy, a miniature inflatable ship. Our mascot. Chimmy rides along on all of our missions. We brought her with us on the inaugural flight of the 28th space control squadron back in October. She was a gift from the command module pilot. Our good luck charm. She’s been riding with us ever since. But I guess everyone’s luck runs out eventually.
I have to find help. I wiggle into my EMU suit mounted near the airlock. I put on my gloves then grab Chimmy, almost as an afterthought. The two-way radio in my backpack is dead. I have no way to communicate with the mission control team. With some effort, I manage to open the airlock and venture outside. The sky is sepia, as if something is slowly draining it of color. I am always mesmerized by the noise of the cosmos – the warped chorus of the solar system, the rush of wind whooshing across an arid plain. Distorted. Eerie. But now as I spring, almost in slow motion, across a bed of black flowers, I inhale at a familiar sound.
The mournful groaning of a trombone.
I shake my head to clear it but the sound seems to be coming from inside my helmet.
In the distance is a towering edifice, like a high-rise fashioned out of clay. The purple rings at the center of the flowers glow, seeming to light my way. I follow them, unsure of what I’m getting into. I don’t even know what planet my ship crashed landed on. I don’t have a weapon. Nothing to protect me. But this civilization doesn’t feel hostile. I rub Chimmy, feeling the soothing contours of our mascot. As I glide toward the building, the trombone sound grows louder.
I have happened upon some sort of festival. Translucent beings hover several inches above the black flowers. Shoeless. Swaying. Their hair is long and tangled like vines. I glance around for the source of the music. I half expect to see some old black guy in a fedora, gnarled fingers lovingly caressing his instrument. Instead, the beings have encircled a smaller member of their community. I think she’s a girl. She’s about chest high. Her tree vine hair hangs down to her waist. She rocks as they do. Her body vibrates, emitting the groaning sound.
My breath swells, fogging up my visor. I need to get back to Earth but I don’t know how. I have to communicate with the inhabitants of this strange world. As if sensing my dilemma, the music stops. The younger being drifts to the ground. The others turn toward me. The crowd parts as the girl glides in my direction. I hold my breath.
Suddenly, Chimmy is sucked from my hand. The purple mascot floats away from me, toward the girl. She seems enchanted by it. Her body vibrates, emitting the mournful trombone sound again. The other beings draw nearer. The air grows hot with their approach. They sway to the girl’s music, like older relatives at a block party trying to imitate the younger, more skilled dancer. I find myself swaying as well in my bulky EMU suit, the prized cloak of my tenure as captain. Now it’s just another high-tech shroud keeping me tethered to a lonely life.
This place feels like home, this sepia planet. Surrounded by beings rocking to an otherworldly melody. A delicate dance. The trombone sound thrums against my skin, like warm light. I look down. Dried blood covers the front of my suit. The girl is closer now. Her waist-length hair floats out toward me. Enclosing me. I stiffen, unsure of how her touch will feel. But her embrace is gentle. Loving. She releases me. I stare at my spacesuit. The blood is gone.
The girl takes me by the hand and we float above the flowers. Away from the crowd. We’re heading back to my craft. I half expect my young guide will fix the shattered spaceship and send me on my way.
She leads me past the bruised hull of the ship and over to the porthole. I glance in the window. Nathan is still slumped in his seat like a broken doll. I inhale. Next to him is a black woman. Head tilted forward. Brown locs covering her face.
Chimmy floats out of the girl’s grip. I follow her journey with my eyes. The purple ship soars toward the sepia sky. Free.
I rise to catch her.
Nicole D. Sconiers experiments with speculative fiction, sci-fi, and horror, centering stories of complex black heroines. Her story “How to Become an Ancestor” appeared in Lightspeed Magazine. Her story “Kim” was published in Sycorax’s Daughters, a black woman’s horror anthology. Her story “Epiphany” was published in the anthology December Tales.
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