This computer-generated view depicts part of Mars at the boundary between darkness and daylight. Original from NASA. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Mission First

Shortlist - Flash Fiction Contest 2023

Blasting alarms tore Captain Cadence Morrison from her shallow sleep. Red lights flashed over her slate grey cabin walls. She jerked upright.

Depressurization in Storage Room #5. Warning. Depressurization in Storage Room #5. The mechanical voice echoed throughout the space transport vessel.

Cadence zipped up her Military Police flight suit and thrust her feet into black boots. She dashed out of her sleeping pod and raced down the passageway. Captain Ryan Sedgwick—the pilot and only other crew member on board—had slid open the hatch of his own pod and was slightly ahead of her.

Adrenaline coursed through Cadence’s veins as she ran. Crucial medical supplies were in that storage room, needed to save the lives of everyone on the Mars Outpost.

Humanity’s future depended on it.

She skidded to a stop beside the storage room. Ryan pulled up its parameters on the environmental control panel. “Oxygen 19%. Temperature 1°C. Atmospheric air pressure 12.2 psi. Everything’s in the green. Must be a small leak. We’re good to enter.”

Cadence pulled the lever that opened the hatch. A quiet hissing filled the air. She assessed its source, scanning past crates and pallets on the floor, boxes on metal shelves.

The far corner.

She strode across the room and knelt, banging her knees on the cold steel, and ran her hands over the inner hull. A faint pull puckered her skin. “Here,” she said.

“Can you see it?” He shone his flashlight over the area.

“Negative. Too small.” She pulled a grease pencil from her side pocket and circled the spot.

Ryan turned off the warning announcement and lights. “So, nuisance, not crisis.”

“A nuisance is only a heartbeat away from an emergency,” she said. Especially when you hurtled through space at 10,000 kilometers/hour.

“Never a dull moment.”

“That’s why I signed up.” Cadence got to her feet.

He laughed. “No, you signed up because you get to boss people around.”

She shoved his shoulder though it had no effect on his burly body. “Side benefit.” She unstrapped the repair kit and handed it to him. “Though these runs don’t give me much chance for that.” They usually ferried supplies, conducting the occasional personnel transfer between Earth, the space station, the moon, and Mars. Though this time, they’d been re-tasked, straight to Mars.

Most of the time, she acted as co-pilot. Only occasionally did she need to attend to a security matter. Her mere presence on board forestalled attempts at illegal activity or deviation from their mission.

“Have you patched a hull, other than training?” he asked.


“You can do the honours. It’s a bit different in real life.” He opened the kit, laid it on the deck, and crouched beside it. “Everything’s here and intact. I’ll show you how I do it.”

The hissing continued. Cadence rubbed her hands together to warm them. “Like I showed you how to lose at chess yesterday?” Such beauty in the pieces, constrained to certain tactics—bishops swept across the board diagonally, knights jumped two forward and one to the side, rooks slid laterally—but with opportunity for endless strategy. All with one aim. Get the king. That was the mission. 

“Once. You beat me once and now I’ll never hear the end of it.” He handed her a tube of adhesive.

“It’s nice to play against a worthy opponent.” Though he was becoming something more to Cadence. It’d taken months of working with and talking to Ryan to get from stranger to colleague to friend. She didn’t make friends easily, which made each one more important. Her parents were dead. She had no siblings. Her friends were her family.

 “Believe it or not,” Ryan said, “we could just use duct tape. A multi-million-dollar ship and a two-dollar fix.”

“That should be the force’s tagline.”

“Maybe I’ll tattoo it on my forehead. Canadian Air and Space Force: All you need is duct tape.”

“That’ll get you your next promotion.” Cadence smeared the adhesive over the hull.

Ryan scoffed. “Or thrown in the brig.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“Sure you would.”

“Fine. But I wouldn’t enjoy it.” She held up her thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “Maybe just a little.”

“Dinner with a view would be no fun without me,” Ryan said. Their living quarters had a massive window that lit up the interior with starlight.

“Would you like freeze-dried lasagna or freeze-dried pot pie tonight?” Cadence asked.

“I make a mean freeze-dried spaghetti,” Ryan said. “Not as good as my mother’s homemade, of course.”

“Spaghetti it is,” she said.

“I still don’t understand how they can give us artificial gravity but not real food.”

“Priorities,” Cadence said. “Besides, no dishes this way.” She placed her hand over the repair, counting to ten, testing the hold of the patch. At nine, her skin puckered and pinched with a stabbing pain. The hissing rose into a rumble. She grabbed at a stabilizing handle as the outer hull shook. Ryan flew across the room and crashed into a shelf loaded with heavy boxes.

The automated assessment clicked on and red lights flashed. Hull integrity compromise in Storage Room #5 in 20 seconds.

Cadence whipped her gaze from Ryan to the pallet of medicine, marked MARS—URGENT.

“Get up,” she yelled above the screeching alarms.


Ryan groaned.


“On your feet, flyboy,” she said, her breath visible in the cold. She grasped the pallet and pushed. “I need your help.”


She moved the pallet a few feet.

16. 15.

She slipped on the freezing deck, righted herself, and pushed again. The pallet scraped across the floor as her muscles screamed in protest.

14. 13.

She glanced over her shoulder at Ryan. Barely conscious. She’d get the medicine clear, then return for him.

12. 11.

Almost to the hatch. The deck lurched. She slipped again, bashing her chin on a crate. Throbbing pain reverberated through her skull.


“Cadence.” Ryan’s voice was weak, but he was awake.

“Thank fuck,” she said. “Crawl if you have to, just get out.” She shoved the pallet at the bottom ledge of the hatch, slicing her palms open on a metal shard. Blood seeped onto the deck. She whipped her head to check on Ryan. The pressure dropped, pulling his body towards the outer hull. Pulling at her. She grabbed at the hatch’s edge.




She clambered over the pallet, out the hatch and into the passageway. She yanked the pallet partway over the hatch’s ledge.

Ryan held out an arm towards her, the other wrapped around a metal beam. She snatched oxygen into her lungs, out of the air that would soon be lost to the vacuum of space. She stepped back into the storage room, eyes on Ryan.


Her stomach lurched. She shook her head.


“I’m sorry,” she whispered as she turned her back on her friend. She shoved at the pallet, crashing it and her into the passageway.


She scrambled up, slammed the hatch, and secured the lever, separating herself from Ryan, leaving a red palm print on the handle.


She dropped to her knees and retched.




Nancy Taber

Nancy Taber is a former military officer who served as a Sea King helicopter Tactical Coordinator and is now a university professor. Part of her job once included leaping out of a helicopter into the ocean. Now, most of her job includes sitting at a computer, drinking massive amounts of coffee, and dropping her characters into perilous, wild, and sometimes weird circumstances.