Final part of a four week story.
The world was an orange sea, pulsing toward the plug hole.
Fire, in zero-gravity, is an equivocal thing. It becomes a liquid, more alive, almost sentient as it sneaks its way through space. Akane awoke, head throbbing, surrounded by it.
She was no longer in the cockpit. She had been thrown from her seat, evidently, and drawn back into the long central corridor of the ship on a tide of molten air. Her head stung, distracting her from the more familiar pain still left in her arm. The throbbing of her temples was fierce, and her vision was clouded – by more than the burning ship.
She could hear, somewhere, Raoul yelling over the comms, his voice drowning in a wash of rushing air. She imagined him, in the distance, strapped into his station, enjoying the heat.
The artificial gravity of the ship had failed, at least in the forward section, and Akane was being pulled, along with the fire, towards the end of the corridor. As she swept closer to the end of the path, where the corridor met a crease in the ship’s erratic hull, she could see where the asteroid had hit the craft: a massive hole rendered in the metal framework of the Arctor, almost obscured by the flames that engulfed it. The flames hurried towards the wound and escaped outwards – only to be quickly extinguished by the unforgiving vacuum outside.
She rode the waves of orange towards her final escape. She would billow outward as well, just as she had dreamed when she had wrapped her arm in wire, and, like the fire, be quickly extinguished. In the cockpit, she had fought desperately against her fate. Now, helpless, she clung to the words of her father – borrowed from a dream – and vowed never to come back here. The futility was plain, now – illuminated by burning atmosphere.
As Akane flew forward, she bounced off the wall, got caught momentarily on a comms fitting, slowed down briefly. It was a long enough pause that the remaining fire from the cockpit overtook her, left her behind, continued its journey alone.
It was also long enough for Captain Howard’s inert form to spin past her, helplessly drifting toward the abyss.
Akane saw the man rolling forward, unconscious, and caught herself wishing that she could see his death before submitting to her own. She had piloted the Arctor under Howard’s fierce dictatorship for nearly six years. It had been a long road, walking on a tight-rope, suspended across a bottomless pit. Howard was a foolish, hateful old man, and his anger had left its own scars on Akane’s body, alongside the ones she crafted for herself. He deserved what he got, she thought to herself.
This was not a brave thought. It was selfish and cold, and in that moment Akane thought of her father wiping away smears on an otherwise perfect piece of glass. She thought of the stories he had told her, of a light, long lost. Of alien Settlers, come to Earth to teach peace but met only with fear and hardened retribution. For this retribution, Akane had sought penance every day of her life. She was met with scorn for her beliefs, but knew that seeking forgiveness was the only reason that any of them were still here, on this plane. And here she was, so unforgiving. In her last moments, so cruel.
So very, very cruel.
Akane reached out for a passing door frame, and used it as leverage to hurl herself after her dying captain.
The remaining atmosphere in this section of the ship was a relentless gale as it escaped through the hole in the hull. Howard was spinning fast, past cabins and power relays and stairwells, as he drifted down the length of the ship to the jagged outlet ahead.
There were blast doors, every ten metres, designed to be able to compartmentalise the sprawling, labyrinthine cargo ship in the event of a breach. Of course, like everything on the aging derelict, these failsafes were indeed starting to fail. The auto override hadn’t kicked in, and the remote control was back at Dolph’s station in the cockpit. Akane’s only hope was the manual releases, depressed into the wall by each blast door. If she could shut one of the doors, keep her and Howard on one side and the destroyed bulkhead on the other, the cabin pressure would equalise, and they would survive. For a while, at least. Out here, everyone died, eventually.
She reached out as she neared Howard’s lifeless form, edged closer towards his trailing fingertips. Brushed them with her own as she drifted past the second to last blast door. In another ten metres, she would miss her last chance, and the two of them would die together in the cold dark quiet of space.
Akane kicked helplessly in the air, willing herself forward. No use. She grabbed again at Howard’s tumbling hand. Snatched it, let it go again. The blast door rushed up on her. Five metres. Four. Three.
Akane reached forward again, and stuck her palm into Howard’s.
Akane reached out with her other hand, and grabbed onto the metal frame that lined the industrial corridor, the housing for the blast door. She screamed in pain as her arms locked – one gripping on to the doorframe for dear life, the other yanked forward as Howard careened towards the hole in the ship.
Atmosphere still billowed around her. It was getting tough to breath as it thinned out. Howard was inches from space, pulled hard by the escaping pressure. Both of them, still on the wrong side of the airlock.
Akane held on tight, her strength sapping from her. Skin started to tear of her fingers desperately gripping the coarse, old steel.
She looked down at Howard, and thought about letting him go. Thought about trying to save herself, to fight on for one more day. It would only be one more mistake to atone for, after all.
But as she looked down, as these ideas tumbled quickly through the front of her brain, Howard looked up. Opened his weary eyes as consciousness slowly enveloped him. Akane watched, as step by step, Howard silently pieced together the reality of the situation. Awareness broke over him like dawn.
Still, he said nothing. Instead, he looked up at Akane, acknowledged what had to be done. The only choice she could reasonably make. And closed his eyes.
And with that, Akane heaved him backward, fought against the weight of the tide of escaping air, and threw them both back through the blast door.
It was a brief moment of momentum, and they soon started to turn back for space. As they did, and as their speed started to better them, Akane’s free hand let go of the door frame, and swept towards the manual override lever nestled into the wall. A hail mary. A throw and hope.
And she caught it, and the weight of her momentum pulled it down sharply, and she thought of trees.
The blast door shot down with a thud, and so did the comparative silence as the atmosphere quickly, sharply equalised.
Akane allowed herself to breathe. Howard opened his eyes.
They tumbled slowly, over and over in the weightless corridor, watching each other. Hands still locked together. Speechless.
Raoul’s voice crackled over the comms, breaking the silence. “Breach contained. Restoring artificial gravity.”
And suddenly, Akane and Howard slammed upwards into what, in turns out, was the floor of the corridor.
They lay there for a while, backs pressed into the metal grill of the floor, chests desperately heaving in air. Akane imagined what it would be like to be unconscious again.
Howard peeled his hand from Akane’s, and the two of them sat up, side-by-side, leaning into the closed blast door.
Howard inspected his hand – covered in flakes of Akane’s dried blood. Remnants of her ritual penance, the one he had walked in on in her cabin. The moment in which she had almost been exposed seemed a lifetime ago – but was only really a matter of minutes into the inescapable past.
Akane thrust her bloody hand into her pocket as she stood, and slowly made her way back to her quarters. There was plenty to do – navigation to be restored, a ship to be repaired. But the immediate danger had passed, and all that futile shuffling of chaos toward order could wait – wait until after she had escaped into restless sleep.
Howard watched her go. Wiped the blood from his hand on the blast door by his head. Called after her.
“I know what you are, you know.”
Akane didn’t utter a word. Didn’t even turn back. Just disappeared into the night.
And the night was long, and quiet.
And mercifully still.
Words copyright Matt Vesely. Image copyright David Keen.