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Science Fiction & Fantasy
Flash Fiction & Poetry

The Watching Astronaut


When the spacesuit’s bearings jammed, refusing to lock the lower leg in place, the crewmembers of Koios IV left it behind.

As his crewmates boarded the ascent pod, the cheeky mission specialist propped the suit up in a window of the lunar habitat with a helmet balanced on its neck so that anyone taking a quick glance might think that it was some rather truncated astronaut watching over the moon from within. Wouldn’t he have a laugh, when they returned and saw it there, watching for them this whole time? Wouldn’t it be funny? Hah!

So they left it behind with their discarded tools, their used-up ascent stages, their bagged-up defecation, and a scattering of food-pack wrappings. No point in tidying; they’d be back before long to finish the work.

And without a glance back, the crew blasted off.

Within the habitat, the fans and pumps and systems switched off, and, for the first time in weeks, all was silent.

And having nothing better to do with all his endless nights, the Watching Astronaut… well, he watched.

He watched the eerily white Sun, bright amid the black, its cold rays absorbed by the lunar surface. He watched the vibrant Earth rising from the horizon, always reaching for something just beyond.

He watched for his crewmates’ return.

He did not decay. Decay requires microbes, which require oxygen and water, which his crewmates either used up or took with them. Instead, over time, his suit grew dry, and the fibers formed the frail wrappings of a mummy. The visor grew dim with dust.

And still, the Watching Astronaut watched.

He watched as tiny pinpricks of rockets burst from the Earth’s surface, but somewhere in the day night day night, they would always veer away in some other direction to some other, more exciting place.

With each falling meteoroid that jolted the moon’s surface, the Watching Astronaut was coated with such sharp, electrically charged dust that his visor soon was covered, until the Watching Astronaut could watch no more. The Watching Astronaut became the Waiting Astronaut, marking out time with the change of light to dark to light to dark. He became Wondering Astronaut, contemplating all the things that must have gone wrong to prevent his crewmates’ return.

He had been important once. Essential to the mission. But time passed in days and weeks and months and years and his suit fiber’s shriveling and his helmet visor’s dust. And with time came the understanding: He’d been forgotten.

And so the Wondering Astronaut became the Woeful Astronaut. The Wretched Astronaut. The Withdrawn Astronaut. And then, no astronaut at all.

The pile of forgotten equipment, playfully propped in place, became no more than the rest of the discarded tools and broken parts and packaged-food wrappers. It became nothing more than Waste.

And it might have remained that way, a bit of Waste from an unsuccessful project on an underappreciated satellite, had not that cheeky mission specialist’s granddaughter asked for a bedtime story.

He hadn’t thought of the Watching Astronaut in years, but the tale lit up the little girl’s eyes, and clung to her mind, layer after layer, like nettlesome lunar dust. She thought of him while doing her arithmetic homework. She thought of him while working fast food jobs and saving up money for university. She thought of him while receiving her diploma, when applying for her first “real” job. And when finally, she found herself as assistant curator at a space discovery museum, and her supervisor asked her to design an exhibit—to shoot for the stars; money’s not an object—she knew exactly what to do.

Waste wants not, nor does it watch, so it did not see the landing or notice the footfalls approaching. It didn’t know it was being photographed from all angles and packed away gently in airtight boxes so that, when its journey was done and time came for reassembly, they could do the whole scene justice.

After the unpacking came the washing, so that somewhere, amid all this unexpected attention, all this moving and handling and awe-hushed admiring, it began to feel like something other than Waste. It became a Wondering Astronaut again. Wondering what was happening. Where he was.

And when the lunar dust was carefully collected from his visor and the once-transparent surface wiped clean, he was placed in a lunar habitat, much like the one he had watched over, and the Wondering Astronaut became the Waiting Astronaut again. Waiting for clarity. To see what would happen.

The assistant curator led her grandfather in, and the Waiting Astronaut recognized the cheeky specialist, and the specialist—he could tell from the twinkle in the old man’s eye—recognized him as well.

“Go on, Granddad,” the assistant curator urged, and together the two of them lifted the restored spacesuit upright, propping it up against a window that looked out, not over a barren lunar landscape, but over a bustling museum lobby, where children pressed their faces against the glass and marveled at him, pointed at him, exclaimed at him… watched him.

And the Watching Astronaut watched them back.

Copyright © 2023 by Wendy Nikel

  • Wendy Nikel

    Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she's left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nature, and elsewhere. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit