THE SHORTEST STRAW
Beck stared solemnly through the portal; countless stars winked back. They used to be his friends, his inspiration. Now they giggled as they twinkled, mocking the only dream he ever had.
In the window’s dirty reflection he watched his haggard crew file into the briefing room like prisoners being led to an execution. They looked just like he felt: hopeless, defeated, betrayed. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. He and his crew were supposed to be high-fiving and relishing their new roles as returning heroes, basking in the glory of a ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York as millions of people cheered their safe return from the first mission to the outer reaches of the solar system. A successful mission would have assured Captain Damien Beck carte blanche at NASA; the world would have been his.
Instead, because some dumbass at United Aerospace fucked up the math, the crew of the Megellan were now forced to play Russian Roulette. It was hard to be a hero with people like that in the world.
Megellan’s massive engines made the deck hum beneath his feet. He scarcely notice them most of the time, but today was different. Today those engines were carrying him to a place few people were ever forced to go.
His stomach rumbled.
With a heavy sigh, Beck turned away from the teasing stars and faced his crew. They’d all taken their usual spots at the table, leaving Blackmore’s chair empty. His heart panged with remorse, though not because he missed Blackmore, who died during a spacewalk a month ago. The man was actually quite a pain in the ass. But if Damien could have foreseen subsequent events, he’d have the stowed the man’s body rather than commit it to the stars.
Beck took his place at the head of the table and regarded his four remaining crew members; none of them looked like they wanted to be here any more than he did. Staring down, he feigned clearing his throat.
“Gentlemen,” he began, doing his best to avoid their sunken eyes. “I want to start by saying if there was any other way out of this situation, believe me, I would have chosen it. We’ve all gone well-above the call of duty in service of our country…our planet, and-”
“Why don’t you save the fucking speech for a camera that cares,” spat Ryan Claypool, the ship’s engineer. “This is all bullshit and you know it. Who gave you permission to play God? Your daddy, the senator? Well, gee, he’s back home in Oregon and we’re up here in-”
“What’s your alternative, Claypool?” Dr. Emerson shot back. “That we should all die? We’re still 48 days from Earth. This ain’t the commander’s fault. He’s just dealing with it.”
Claypool snorted. “Yeah? You gonna feel that way if you lose?”
Beck glared at Claypool with cold eyes, who uncomfortably crossed his arms and slumped in his chair. As usual, the engineer talked big, but was easily beaten down with a stern look. Claypool was always such a fucking little monkey.
“As I was saying,” Beck continued. “whatever happens today, you’ll all be regarded as heroes back home. And remember, we all agreed that whomever is selected today will have died in the line of duty, and given a burial in space. A hero’s burial, just like Blackmore.”
“Oh, sure,” Claypool uttered with a bitter smirk. “The Megellan’s dirty little secret. Don’t wanna tarnish your Roger Ramjet image, do we, Captain?”
The two other crew members, Steinman and Peart, shifted nervously in their chairs.
Beck resisted the urge to lunge across the table and grab Claypool by the throat. The little shitstain just didn’t get it. This wasn’t just about the crew of the Megellan; NASA couldn’t afford another screw-up. If word ever got out about this it would spell the end of the whole space program, as well as Beck’s career, and this whole mission would have been for nothing.
“Jesus Christ, Claypool,” Emerson retorted. “the captain could just as easily be the one. Grow some balls and stop making this harder than it already is.”
The table became silent, each man’s eye shifting warily, almost suspiciously, from one crewmate to another. Beck stuffed a hand into his pocket and pulled out the straws, one clipped considerably shorter than the others. He regarded them thoughtfully, then glanced over at Emerson. “I don’t see anyone objecting to you holding the straws, Doc. Of course, that means you’ll have to draw last.”
Emerson nonchalantly shrugged. “Don’t mean shit to me, Captain. Let’s just get this over with.”
Beck handed Emerson the straws, who took a few seconds to make certain they all appeared to be the same length when clenched in his fist. The doctor then held them before Peart; the navigator squeezed his eyes shut as he selected. He paused a few seconds, tightly clutching his catch before glancing down at it.
Wasting no time, Emerson leaned past the navigator to where Steinman nervously waited.
Beck eyeballed Claypool, noticing a single stream of sweat rolling down the engineer’s pasty cheek as the event unfolded. Damien smiled inside; watching the smarmy little crybaby provided a brief moment of guilty pleasure.
Steinman drew his straw, cupping it in both hands as though he’d caught a butterfly.
Emerson grunted as he reached across the table, pushing the fistful of remaining straws in Claypool’s direction. The engineer winced, then scowled at his captain. Beck could have sworn he saw tears welling up in the man’s eyes.
“You can’t do this, Captain,” Claypool pleaded. “You can’t decide the fate of another human being with a handful of plastic.” He crossed his arms and pouted. “You can’t make me draw.”
Damien was prepared for this. Without a word, he reached into a pocket and pulled out a pistol. Originally his great-grandfather’s, it had been handed down from father-to-son for generations, sort of a good-luck charm in the Beck family. Bringing a gun onto a spacecraft wasn’t exactly within NASA regulations, but he’d be damned if he was going to fly without it. He was aware of everyone’s shock at seeing the gun, but it wasn’t like none of them snuck their own contraband onto this flight.
Beck leveled it at the engineer’s head. What remaining color Claypool had in his face quickly washed away as he stared wide-eyed into the end of the barrel. “You’ll draw, Claypool, or we’ll end this little lottery right now.”
The last of Claypool’s resolve bled dry; with a trembling hand, he slowly reached up and humbly plucked a straw from Emerson’s hand.
Sorry excuse for a man, Beck thought with contempt as the two remaining straws were held up for his choosing. Without looking away from his fidgeting engineer, Damien lowered the pistol and drew a straw.
And he could tell, just by the way it felt in his hand, it was the short one.
Blood pounded behind his face as he watched Claypool leap from his chair. The engineer grabbed Peart’s wrist and held their straws together, letting out a triumphant squeal when they turned out to be the same length.
Beck looked out the portal once again; the stars, once his friends, giggled back even louder this time at the irony of the whole thing.
He’d played out this scenario a dozen times in his head since making the decision; not once did it turn out his way. He was supposed to return to Earth a hero, exactly the kind of symbol NASA needed right now for the public to rally around. Not some sniveling and selfish pussy like Ryan Claypool.
This wouldn’t do at all.
Without hesitation, Beck raised his gun and fired.
There was an ear-shattering crack.
A perfect black hole suddenly appeared in Claypool’s forehead, instantly silencing his victory cheers. The engineer’s eyes crossed before he dropped to the deck like a sack of meat.
Beck eyeballed his crew, one-by-one. They stared back in dumb shock. Several seconds passed while they watched smoke drift lazily from the gun barrel. His ears still ringing, he stared back at Emerson, who mouthed, Jesus Christ.
“What’s done is done,” Beck stated calmly. “Nothing can change that. Our food problem is solved…that’s the bottom line.” Absently pointing his pistol in Peart’s direction, he applied his best, most-practiced look of authority. “You and Steinman take the body to the galley and get it prepared. There’s a world-wide reception awaiting us when we finally reach home. A hero‘s welcome.”
Never taking their eyes off the gun in their captain’s fist, Peart and Steinmen obediently stood up and complied, struggling to get a good grip on Claypool’s corpse.
“And remember…” Beck added as they dragged the engineer away. “…medium rare.”
He was vaguely aware he was salivating.
Copyright 2011, D.M. Anderson
“The Shortest Straw” was inspired by my all-time favorite short story, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” While I cannot ever aspire to achieve the perfection of that tale, I think this particular story (first publish by Burning Sky magazine) offers a blackly humorous take on the same idea. This will also be included in my With the Wicked collection.