Part two of four.
Akane breathed relief. Let her muscles slow.
A merciful lie.
“Pilot Akane, take evasive action.”
Akane snapped out of her stupor, and bent forward into action.
The Arctor had drifted off course, strayed over a thousand miles from its intended trajectory back toward Earth. A tiny blip, really. A fraction of a degree lost to time, and now they were here, sitting in a graveyard.
Huge tumbling space rocks filled Akane’s vision, throbbed on her temples. An asteroid belt, still deep into space – still far from any kind of assistance. Akane fired up the ship’s engines, smashed switches, waited impatiently for the mechanical flight stick to ease out of its recess and slide under her hands.
It made no sense that the NavCom had shut down like it had. As Akane’s pilot station gradually fired up around her, it informed her that Navigation had been inactive for three hours and fourteen minutes. Enough time to send them all to hell, it would seem.
Only she and Howard had the override. Akane, Howard – and the ship’s mute, unthinking computer. The only ones capable of bypassing all the failsafes and checks and balances to wilfully switch off the ship’s navigation. One of them, ready to end it.
Akane wondered whether it had been her. She didn’t think so – but in all honesty, couldn’t be sure. Could never be sure. About anything.
Howard still sat with his eyes closed in the Captain’s chair, looming up and over Akane’s station at the front of the cockpit. She could hear him breathe, slow and smooth. She shuddered as she imagined the warm breath cooling on the back of her neck. She gripped the ship’s controls tight, snatched at them to escape the feeling of surveillance, and felt one of her hands slap wetly on the stick.
“You’re bleeding on my ship, Pilot.”
Warning bells started to sound through the ship’s systems. From somewhere, far away in his communications array, Raoul’s voice crackled over the intercom.
“Crew are advised of emergency situation. Hold on to a thing and pray for forgiveness.”
Akane shifted her arm against the flagellant wire on her bicep.
A huge, spiralling shard of mineral span towards the cabin.
Akane waited for the manual control to engage.
“Pull up, Akane.”
“Waiting for control.” The stick lay lifeless in her hand. These old ships, their computers clogged with dust and broken data strings collated over years of trudging, thankless service, were not designed to do anything quickly.
The rock span closer.
Dolph was whimpering at his station, furiously typing a security report.
Akane visualised the rock piercing the thick transparency in front of her, shattering the compound viewport, rupturing open the cabin and spiralling towards her heart. Then, she would be free.
Her breathing soared into her throat, got tangled there.
Howard was staring at the viewport now, finally watching, finally allowing himself to understand, his forehead about to burst.
Akane started to shake. Her thoughts bubbled inside her, eluded her, clouded her decisions. The pain was back; once dull, now sharp, like a vice.
She reached up her sleeve, and pulled off the coil of wire, tore it from her skin and threw it to the floor in a pool of blood. She held back a scream, and focused on the approaching weight.
Not like this. Not today. Not yet. She knew, somewhere, despite everything, that the answer was not yet. She realised, as death approached silently through the vacuum, that she still had a ways to go in this life in order to begin to make amends.
But the ship was a tugboat, dead in an estuary, slowly drifting toward its demise.
The rock was moving faster than it appeared. It was at least half the size of the ship, and it was metres from destroying them.
The joystick was still stuck firm in the mud. Akane shook it, flicked a few switches. Warning klaxons bellowed throughout the cockipit, filling Akane’s ears, stirring the blood on the floor.
And suddenly, the stick lit up. Lights streamed across Akane’s station. Her computer blinked, wistful:
Akane yanked at the controls, and the ship heaved against its own mass.
It spat upward, yawned back, careening over the oncoming asteroid, which scraped nervously along the ship’s underbelly but left her intact.
Akane focused on the vector lines sweeping over her computer monitor, a crude representation of the objects around her, glowing green against the black of the screen. She put her trust in the computer, and let her hands guide the ship through sweeping arcs and rolls as she narrowly avoided rectangle after pulsing rectangle.
Dolph was vomiting behind her. The ship’s artificial gravity was designed to compensate for the pull of tight manoeuvres – but this was a cargo frigate, and these kinds of turns wasn’t usually accounted for in its dying systems.
Akane watched the green lines roll over her eyes. Held her breath, and danced through death.
It was only a matter of time before she would lose her focus. Would feel the warm breath of a vengeful spirit bleeding down her neck, wrapping around her upper arm, squeezing life onto the floor, and she would blink, and the ship would slip, and they would all explode.
Rocks smacked into the viewport, bounced off into space. The Arctor twisted and span in silence.
Akane waited for the breath.
Imagined it, so real.
It never came.
The Arctor swept through the minefield, turned on a dime, and with a final, guttural push, broke through into open space – scratched from the debris, but largely unharmed. The lines on Akane’s screen slowed and faded into serene, peaceful vacuum.
The klaxons eased and eventually stopped. The sound of heavy, thankful breath clunked through the cockpit.
Akane looked out into the deep black void ahead of her – and finally, was thankful for all of the emptiness.
Howard stood from his station, and turned for the door.
“Get your shit together, Dolph, and prepare a fucking security report.”
Dolph wiped his mouth clean and nodded, sheepish. Akane kept her eyes forward, but could hear the Captain clumping towards the hatch, hear him smacking his hand against the release. The clunking swish of the door sliding back.
Akane breathed relief. Let her muscles slow.
A line blinked across her screen. So fast, she thought she imagined it.
And then there was a silence, and a shudder, and everything went violent black.
A merciful lie.
Words copyright Matt Vesely. Image copyright David Keen.