The Haunted Space Suit | Arthur C. Clarke (1958)

The space suits we use on the station are completely different from the flexible affairs men wear when they want to walk around on the moon. Ours are really baby space ships, just big enough to hold one man. They are stubby cylinders, about seven feet long, fitted with low-powered propulsion jets, and have a pair of accordion-like sleeves at the upper end for the operator’s arms.

As soon as I’d settled down inside my very exclusive space craft, I switched on power and checked the gauges on the tiny instrument panel. All my needles were well in the safety zone, so I lowered the transparent hemisphere over my head and sealed myself in. For a short trip like this, I did not bother to check the suit’s internal lockers, which were used to carry food
and special equipment for extended missions.

It was at that moment, as I launched myself out into the abyss, that I knew that something was horribly wrong.

It is never completely silent inside a space suit; you can always hear the gentle hiss of oxygen, the faint whir of fans and motors, the susurration of your own breathing — even, if you listen carefully enough, the rhythmic thump that is the pounding of your heart. These sounds reverberate through the suit, unable to escape into the surrounding void; they are the unnoticed background of life in space, for you are aware of them only when they change.

They had changed now; to them had been added a sound which I could not identify. It was an intermittent, muffled thudding, sometimes accompanied by a scraping noise, as of metal upon metal.

I froze instantly, holding my breath and trying to locate the alien sound with my ears. The meters on the control board gave no clues; all the needles were rock-steady on their scales, and there were none of the flickering red lights that would warn of impending disaster. That was some comfort, but not much. I had long ago learned to trust my instincts in such matters; it was their alarm signals that were flashing now, telling me to return to the station before it was too late…

It was no longer possible to pretend that the noise disturbing me was that of some faulty mechanism. Though I was in utter isolation, far from any other human being or indeed any material object, I was not alone. The soundless void was bringing to my ears the faint, but unmistakable, stirrings of life.

In that first, heart-freezing moment it seemed that something was trying to get into my suit—something invisible, seeking shelter from the cruel and pitiless vacuum of space. I whirled madly in my harness, scanning the entire sphere of vision around me. There was nothing there, of course. There could not be — yet that purposeful scrabbling was clearer than ever.

Despite the nonsense that has been written about us, it is not true that spacemen are superstitious. But can you blame me if, as I came to the end of logic’s resources, I suddenly remembered how Bernie Summers had died, no further from the station than I was at this very moment?

It was one of those “impossible” accidents; it always is. Three things had gone wrong at once. Bernie’s oxygen regulator had run wild and sent the pressure soaring, the safety valve had failed to blow — and a faulty joint had given way. In a fraction of a second, his suit was open to space.

I had never known Bernie, but suddenly his fate became of overwhelming importance to me, for a horrible idea had come into my mind. One does not talk about these things, but a damaged space suit is too valuable to be thrown away, even if it has killed its wearer. It is repaired, renumbered — and issued to someone else….

What happens to the soul of a man who dies between the stars, far from his native world? Are you still here, Bernie, clinging to the last object that linked you to your lost and distant home?

As I fought the nightmares that were swirling around me—for now it seemed that the scratchings and soft fumblings were coming from all directions—there was one last hope to which I clung. For the sake of sanity, I had to prove that this wasn’t Bernie’s suit—that the metal walls so closely wrapped around me had never been another man’s coffin.

It took me several tries before I could press the right button and switch my transmitter to the emergency wave length.

“Station!” I gasped, “I’m in trouble! Get records to check my suit history and —”

I never finished; they say my yell wrecked the microphone. But what man, alone in the absolute isolation of space, would not have yelled when something patted him softly on the back of the neck?

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) was considered one of the “Big Three” writers of twentieth century science fiction, alongside Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. His short story, “The Haunted Space Suit”, was first published in the November 1958 issue of New Worlds Science Fiction under the title “Who’s There?” It was then republished in 1971 under the more familiar title of “The Haunted Space Suit” as part of the edited collection, “Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales”.

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