The Painted Owl

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“Don’t tell me you launch on the twenty-sixth as well,” her father said.

The 3-D printer hummed before him, spinning out wooden filament from a dense spool. Pia knew the code for the Burdwan owl being produced by heart. As a child, she’d inspected every line under her father’s approving eye.

These commands tell a story, her father had told her as he traced the filament’s path along the printer’s hidden inner workings and to the jet. She’d been mesmerized by how the owl materialized with each looping pass. From this thread, we borrow just enough of creation’s endless weave to tell our tale. This is the way of the Sutradhars. It will be yours, too.

He’d taken great pride in her interest then. But he’d never used his gift with code to do more than pursue his own father’s trade. Pia had much more ambitious plans. She would be the first to complete the ill-fated manned mission to Mars. Finish the work of her idol, Corbin Li, an unparalleled programmer and visionary.

“No, father, my mission does not launch on the twenty-sixth.” She brushed aside the argument over his superstitions. “I leave in two weeks. On the seventh.”

“All the same,” he muttered, peering at the owl slowly compiling on the print bed. Half complete, the inside lattice showed a structured anatomy she wished her father’s reasoning followed.

“Don’t worry about lucky or unlucky numbers. I’ll be fine. I know why the other missions failed. This has to be a coding issue, but they keep sending engineers and hot shot pilots.”

“Five attempts.” He considered her over the rim of his glasses, thick eyebrows streaked with gray. “And none of them come back.”

Twenty-five others had died en route to Mars, once the greatest aspiration of mankind now a hopeless enterprise. Four perished on the first mission. The remaining losses spanned two decades of increasingly desperate attempts with fewer and fewer volunteers.

Pia had signed up to be the twenty-sixth, an unlucky number in his eyes. The omen had soured her father’s mood.

She wanted to reassure him she’d return. Even if she was successful, her journey would take months. Once there, infrastructure would need to be assembled to await the arrival of the colonists with a return ship.

She watched her father hunched over, squinting at the printer’s progress, absently massaging arthritic knuckles. Survive or not, she may never see him again.

He stayed silent until the printer’s hum faded. Picking up the oblong figurine, he gently turned the owl over in his hands. With a sigh, he offered it to her.

“I’ve made this one for you,” he said.

“I’ll get my paints and have it done before I go.”

She’d just started to turn toward her end of the crafting table when he snatched the figure away.

“I need no blessings of wealth from this token, only an assurance that you will return.” He placed the Burdwan owl on a shelf, the high one, the one she couldn’t reach as a child. “You’ll paint it when you come back to me.”

Pia smiled. “I promise.”


On launch day, Pia reclined in her seat inside the spaceship’s sleek command module. She glanced nervously at the four empty seats surrounding her. From the start, she knew she’d be making the trip alone.

Travel to Luna Station had become commonplace. The short hop to the moonbase presented less of a safety hazard. Even with a life support failure, you could survive long enough on backup systems to rendezvous with a rescue craft. Still, government agencies didn’t sanction launches beyond Luna anymore. Mars expeditions required a private backer and, as Pia found out, dizzying amounts of legal paperwork.

“Let me be clear,” the current CEO of Li Enterprises had told her, “you will likely die. But if you succeed, I will make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams.”

Like her father, she didn’t care about wealth. She wanted to unravel the mystery in the code. Let this stalled story continue. She believed it would be what Mr. Li would want.

Corbin Li, founder of Li Enterprises, had been the one to reignite humanity’s passion for space travel. Not only did she share his passion for the stars, but for programming too. His code managed the intricate systems on every flight. To him, Luna Station was always meant to be a stepping stone. Mars, a certainty.

Then came disaster.

His wife had been the mission commander for the first disastrous mission to Mars. He took the loss hard. With each subsequent failure, he withdrew further from the limelight until he quietly passed away.

Clues about each failed attempt had dribbled back from the blackness of space. From these, scientists determined a life support failure had occurred somewhere beyond the halfway point. Four more attempts were made. All failures.

Pia thought she knew the answer. She’d then bet her life on it.

Out of an unquestioning faith in Corbin’s code, most blamed the equipment, but whatever the cause of the accidents had affected communications as well. For her, this indicated a software problem. She’d been unable to find a team willing to test her theory. No amount of money could override the danger of the trip or the awe for Corbin Li’s handiwork. His supporters bordered on disciples. Yes, she idolized his genius too. It didn’t mean he was perfect.

Her first instinct had been to create her own code. But over the years, the labyrinthine network of systems had become so entangled a rewrite wasn’t possible. Her last option had led her here. To witness the glitch firsthand.

“Ten seconds to launch,” the control tower squawked.

She closed her eyes and tuned out the countdown. Engines roared to life. She couldn’t even hear herself screaming inside the helmet. Blood evacuated her brain and the world dimmed. She kept on screaming until the indigo sky dissolved into a hazy band bordering the ebony expanse.

“You can stop screaming now,” somebody at mission control said.

She did. Then she was in awe.


On the twenty-sixth of July, an alarm sounded.

Pia could practically hear the heated argument with her superstitious father, but pushed his scolding words from her mind. She wriggled out of the straps on her bunk and with a practiced launch, soared down the central corridor and into the cockpit. Screens blared a virulent red. Warnings flashed. Life support. Communications. Offline.

She floated to the maintenance terminal where she’d been running a script to capture data from this precise moment. Hands trembling, her first ideas already finding their way to her fingertips to be unleashed on the waiting touchscreen, a message there chilled her blood.

Your last day in space, Jenna. At least you won’t die without him.

She stared as if deciphering an alien transmission. She’d expected to see an error log. Comments she’d laced throughout the code like tripwires. Ways to isolate the problem. What was this?

Had her luck truly turned? Would she die here like the rest?

No. No! Think. Analyze. This wasn’t even a fault in the tangled code, this was a deliberate message.

As her mind cleared, she recognized the name. Jenna. Corbin Li’s wife. In the words lurked the specter of jealousy. A burning rage Corbin’s public image never exposed. But “won’t die without him”? Him who?

Another astronaut was the only thing that made sense.

His wife must’ve had an affair with one of the crew. Could it be to get even, he’d doomed the entire mission?

How could anyone do that? Her heart ached for the lost souls. She struggled to comprehend the madness required to not only kill so many for revenge, but to destroy humanity’s hopes and dreams in the process. Worse, Corbin had lived to see more failed attempts and never uttered a word. Never patched the poison pill in his code. He’d silently allowed it to become the basis for every single subsequent flight.

Her childhood hero was no visionary. He was a monster.

Tears swelled at the corners of her eyes. She scrubbed them away, sending tiny globes drifting about the cabin. Sorrow choked her and became a fire in her chest. A sudden resolve to see this problem through. Bring this story to a joyful end and not one driven by blind revenge.

Every doomed astronaut since must’ve seen this same message. They’d likely searched the code for the string of damning text to try to locate the calling function and trace backwards from there, but she did it again anyway.

As she worked, the air became stale, her breathing shallowed. No results. She needed a new approach.

She had to admit, Corbin’s genius shined even in the execution of his revenge. The murder weapon, the evidence, all tossed into an endless void.

The ship’s interior felt stuffy, suffocating. She thought about swimming to the airlock and suiting up. Too little time.

“Tell me your story,” she said. “What comes next?”

She brushed her forehead. Sweat came off in crystalline beads. The unforgiving cold of space would be next. Or was she already cold? She couldn’t tell, her mind absorbed in the task of unraveling this mystery.

A hardware reset wouldn’t work. Another logical step likely taken by the former crews. She dug deeper, searching, testing.

Masks dropped from above the control panel. She put one to her face. No flow. Even the backup systems had been compromised. She didn’t have much longer.

The chill of an empty void set in. A sensation of a skin of ice shrouded her. Still, no answers. Her breath formed feeble clouds as she struggled to stay calm. Her vision blurred. The lines of code merged. For a moment, blackness descended.

Her father took her hand. He traced the same, invisible path along the printer’s case. From this continuous thread, we borrow from the endless weave of creation

Pia’s eyes snapped open.

She sucked in a breath and her chest heaved, a horrible gasp escaping her lips. Her back collided with the far wall of the cockpit. She’d been adrift, the terminal where she’d been working far out of reach.

But she had her answer. One Corbin could never admit and only her father could foresee. For this story she needn’t rewrite or recode, she would simply refuse to let it end.

A subtle push off the wall, a tiny flex of her ankle, and she swam toward the terminal. Time seemed to slow as she held her last breath. The cramped cockpit felt impossible to cross, a leap across a chasm. If she could only get her hands on the touchscreen, she could find her way home!

When her fingertips contacted the smooth surface, she imagined a trickle of warmth and heard her father’s words again. With a final surge of strength, she reset the ship’s chronometer to the day before the failure then forced it into a recursive loop.

The fatal day would never dawn. The cycle, broken.


When she woke, Pia found herself listing inside the central passage. She could feel the trickle of the recirculating vents on her damp skin and she drank greedily of the oxygenated air. The chill wasn’t the deathly embrace of space, but the lukewarm persistence of environmental controls intent on keeping her alive. She grabbed a nearby railing and closed her eyes, savoring the taste of the air and listening to the innocuous hum of the spacecraft’s systems.

It reminded her of the workshop back home.

She made her way toward the aft compartments. The engine room was there along with the necessities to lay the foundation for a more permanent settlement on Mars. The printer was of an industrial size, the print bed large enough to stand on. She’d only need a fraction of it.

Pia loaded a spool and input a code she knew by heart. She watched the tiny owl form, lattice by lattice.

There was paint in the hold too. Not an artisan’s supply, but she thought the cautionary yellows and reds would work nicely. She had one final task, one message to send to Earth, and then a lifetime of stories left to tell.

My story begins on Mars, father. And all the while, you were with me.

Categories: Free Fiction

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