There was a static hiss. Flickering teal light beyond his visor. His shoulder hurt—must have slept on it funny. Actually, he was oddly reclined.
Anton Tereschenko swam out of a foggy dreamless sleep and into a foggy dreamlike reality.
He was wearing a flight suit and strapped to a crash couch. He unlatched the harnesses and sat up gingerly, rotating his sore shoulder and sending jagged prickles down into his fingertips. Dead asleep. A bank of mostly dark monitors were arranged before him. They didn’t have any useful information. He craned his head, examining the gauges and dials and portholes covering the interior of the white three-meter sphere: a Novator space capsule. He didn’t know how he knew that. He just did.
The capsule’s hatch was absent, and Anton crawled out into soft mud that sank under his weight. Water pooled around him. He was in a marshy field. There were scraggly weeds and some rocks scattered around, but not much else. The fog was thick. He thought it was early morning, but that might only have been because he’d just regained consciousness. Where was he? And what the hell had happened?
He walked around a bit, circling his capsule. Something was off about it but he couldn’t place it. He balled his good fist behind the middle of his back and pressed his chest out. Pop-pop-pop! Ah, much better. He removed his helmet and tossed it back inside the capsule. The air was warm and smelled faintly of mildew and manure. He ran a gloved hand—the one with feeling—through his hair, and then froze. He knew what was off. It wasn’t the capsule: it was the ground around it.
There was no crater, and come to think of it no parachute. It hadn’t come down from the sky. And there was no trail of disturbed mud, either. Novator capsules weighed a metric ton or he wasn’t Anton Tereschenko. The thing was a sphere and certainly capable of rolling, but it would have left a hell of a furrow. There was nothing. How had he gotten here?
An old telephone pole stuck out above the fog, and Anton began to walk in that direction. Maybe there was a road. As he got closer, a boulder appeared in the fog. Wait, not a boulder… He sped up, doing his best to jog, but the mud sucked at his boots. Every step sent needles down his arm—he must have been laying on it for a hell of a long time.
Jesus, it wasn’t a boulder. It was another capsule.
He leaned on it with his good hand and stomped his way around to the hatch. It was missing, just like his own—not off to the side somewhere, just gone—and he dropped to his knees and peered inside. Empty.
He sighed and got back to his feet. “What the fff—”
He stopped mid-thought. The fog was dissipating. And the field was littered with Novator capsules. Dozens of them. Holy shit.
Anton dashed madly from one to the next. They were all the same. And all appeared to be empty. After checking every last one he stopped to catch his breath. He stood with his back to the field, his good hand on his hip and his bad hand—his dominant one—hanging limp at his side. Feeling was beginning to return in the form of fiery numbness. He turned back around and surveyed the field again. Where’d that one come from? He’d been thorough in his search, but he must have missed a capsule. He could have sworn it wasn’t there a minute ago.
Still winded, he walked to this last capsule. He got around it to where the hatch was located. Someone was inside. They wore a dark-visored flight suit like his own. “Hey! Are you okay?” Anton asked. “Who are you?”
The pilot turned to Anton slowly, probably still dazed, and then jumped with fright. He struggled and squirmed, still harnessed to his crash couch, but reaching at his hip for something…a gun!
Anton looked at his own hip and was surprised to find that he was armed too. “Woah,” he said, “don’t do anything crazy. I’m not going to hurt you.” But the pilot continued to fumble frantically for his gun. Shit, he got it out and was bringing it up. Anton found himself drawing his own weapon and firing. Instinctually he used his dominant hand and it flared with pain. He dropped the gun into the mud.
The pilot writhed now in his couch, having dropped his own weapon to clutch his hands over the hole in his chest. Dark red fluid gushed between his fingers and flowed down the front of his flight suit. He kicked once, twice, and went still. Anton watched the whole affair in disbelief. He felt like he was observing from the outside. Surely he hadn’t just killed a man—he could never. And not just a man, but one he probably knew.
Cautiously, he reached into the capsule. He waved in front of the pilot’s face, checking for he-didn’t-know-what, but checking. The pilot was dead. Anton lifted the visor. He screamed, but his throat choked off the sound. He fell back into the mud and crab-walked away, still screaming in silence, his face a portrait of terror.
The man in the capsule had had the same expression. Exactly the same, because he’d had Anton’s face. He saw the other capsules in the field and knew in his bones each and every one had contained another Anton. But where were they now?
Notes: I used an image as a writing prompt for this piece. You may be able to find the image on the artist’s ArtStation page. Image by François Leroy, used with permission.