Like the First Moon Landing
Matthew J. Metzger © 2020
All Rights Reserved
It was the first thing Maggie knew. A dull throbbing, starting in the fat weight of her brain at the base of her skull and rippling outwards like stones into still water. There was a stabbing sensation in her shoulder, and when she opened up her lungs to breathe, they spasmed and choked.
But pain was good, as Ma used to say. Pain was proof of life.
“You and me, we’re like the first moon landing.”
Maggie ran through the rest of Ma’s wisdom. She flexed her toes in her boots. Fingers in her gloves. Gingerly tensed her neck, and roll—
She stopped dead at the wave of intense nausea and took a moment to just breathe through her nose. Don’t be sick. Don’t be sick. When her stomach eased from a violent jerking to a sluggish, sinister churn, she carefully eased her hips and chest over, perfectly in line with one another, and eased into a recovery position on the metal grating.
Urgh, no wonder she hurt. She’d been in the pilot’s seat when the asteroid—or whatever it was—had hit. And belted in too.
“You’ll touch down to feel a little rough ground…”
Her lungs still didn’t want to breathe. The band around her diaphragm was only getting tighter. There was nothing else for it—she needed the drugs. And her medical kit was in the top drawer under the console, so she’d have to get up. Sooner rather than later.
Maggie reached up with her left arm. It was like moving through water or sludge, and her body felt almost drunk on the chaos of clamouring nerves all bidding for her attention first. She didn’t dare open her eyes just yet, so groped blindly above her head. She found the bunk frame. Hell. She’d been thrown from the pilot’s chair to the gap under the bunk, and she was still alive to know it. Suddenly, the pain didn’t seem so bad. Better than a broken neck.
“Pain is proof of life.”
She grunted and turned her boots towards the wall. Braced her feet there and swallowed against the vomit rising up through her chest and neck.
The sound of her body sliding out from under the bunk was like a landslide off Mount Olympus. The nausea won out, and Maggie shoved herself up on shaking hands just in time to throw up a gutful of stringy, pink-tinged bile onto the grating. Her stomach punched into her diaphragm like a living thing, furious and intent on revenge, and her head burst like a firework.
The next thing she knew, the smell of sick was in her hair and nose, and there was a damp patch on her cheek.
“Fuck,” Maggie hissed and pushed away from the pool.
The blackout must have been a little while. The pain was worse, but the puddle of sick cold. The fog in her head had eased a little. She could think better. And breathe better too—mostly.
“Get it together,” she muttered and cracked open her eyes.
It was dark. Blissfully, soothingly dark. The emergency lighting was a low blur of soft blue, almost comfortable, like a hot-water bottle on cold winter nights. Maggie fought to control her quivering limbs and sat down on the bunk with a thump. It jarred, a shock of pain bouncing up her spine, and she leaned forward, opening her mouth, and spat another mouthful of pink vomit into the gap between her boots.
“And you’re out looking for worlds unseen.”
First things first.
She was injured. That much was obvious. But no broken limbs or ribs. There might be an internal bleed in her stomach, but if there was, there wasn’t anything Maggie could do about it. Her head felt like a mess though. Gingerly, she reached up and patted her hair. She had shaved her head when she’d gotten her first shutter job, and never grown it out to more than an inch or two of tight, springy curls since. Which made it easy to find the savage cut, the knotted wad of wet hair keeping a lid on it, and the near-dry fountain of blood that had gushed down the back of her neck and shoulders.
“Great,” she muttered, but at least it explained the pain. Her skull felt intact. Lucky, if she’d met the bulkhead head first.
Her neck was stiffening rapidly. Whiplash. A starburst of pain kept reappearing in her shoulder joint—she’d probably briefly dislocated it when the belt had snapped and flung her across the cockpit—and she could feel, even if she couldn’t see, the violent bruising all across her right side. But just bruises. A bit of bleeding. Nothing that wouldn’t fix itself, given enough time.
All in all, she’d live. Probably.
“You and me, we’re like the first moon landing.”
So, on to the second point. Would her ship live?
Maggie was a shutter. The space equivalent to long-haul truck drivers. She piloted single-crewed transport and haulage ships between stations and colonies, on the move for weeks at a time—but at least the antisocial lifestyle attracted good pay, especially for someone without the proper papers like Maggie. She only had a B license, so she wasn’t qualified to land on moons and planets yet, but she’d done her theory and was booked in for her tests on Barrane when she got back from this run. It was a lonely but very well-paid job—and lonely and well-paid was just what Maggie had wanted when she’d applied in the first place.
But lonely in space could be fatal.
Especially lonely in space on a shortcut.
If the ship was damaged beyond her ability to repair it, or she couldn’t get back to the proper trade route, then she would die out here. The delivery wasn’t due for another two months. And she’d been taking a shortcut through uncharted territory to make it in time after having to replace two of the solar batteries at Barrane. One more late delivery and Maggie would be fired. And she was a good pilot. She’d been flying for years on her own without any incidents at all. She could handle a measly shortcut, right?
Right now, going on the credit seemed like a much better idea than this stupid shortcut. Maggie had been regretting it from that first crackling comms call.
“You’ll touch down to feel a little rough ground…”
She squinted across the cockpit at her pilot’s chair. The top half of the belt was still attached, the bottom half missing. The chair was crooked, but upright. All the lights on the console were flashing in random patterns, and the viewscreen was out. The comms system was blinking, waiting for her reply.
Most insultingly, the fluffy dice Sam had bought her as a joke when she’d gotten her license were gone.
“Fix it. Fix it, then find the dice.”
She lurched up from the bed.
The grating spun underneath her. The cockpit was barely ten feet of space between bunk and chair, but she fell most of it. She caught at the chair with both hands, and her knees collapsed as the whiplash reminded her that falling in any way was an intolerably bad idea.
When she managed to open her eyes again, a red mist clouded her vision, and the sharp taste of iron lingered on her tongue. Her chest tightened, and the black spots of panic and oxygen deprivation clustered around the edges of her eyes.
The drawer was right there.
“…but I’m right here where I’ve always been…”
She dropped into the chair just as her fingers closed around the plastic tube on top of her medical kit, and that first spray in her mouth and throat tasted like foul ambrosia. At the second, she aspirated it properly and felt her chest beginning to open up again.
“…and you’re out looking for—”
With a smirk, Maggie cancelled the stereo. Silence swept in, as soothing as the low light. Trust the damn stereo to keep playing even through—whatever that had been.
She took another hit off the inhaler, then set it on top of the console. The burst blood vessel in her eye blurred and pinked the lights. Maggie had paid extra to do the disaster simulations when she’d gotten her license, and now she was grateful for it. The transport companies didn’t give a shit if the pilots died—if the cargo was damaged or lost, then who cared about the pilot too stupid to do their damn job? But Maggie had wanted to give herself a shot at living, back then. She’d had a plan, back then.
The plan had fallen by the wayside some time ago, but at least that part was about to pay off.
Maggie wasn’t a navigator or an engineer. Transport ships were fitted with the most basic of navigational computers, amounting to little more than the devices in a personal car, and the trade routes were long series of beacons. The computers just kept the ships following the right beacons. That was all they were designed to do.
Follow the lights, Sam had always said. Follow the lights, and they’ll take you home.
But Maggie had been running late. And the lights had taken her in a great curve around this section of space. Why not go through it, she’d thought. Calculate the line between the two ends of the curve that cupped this territory, and keep the ship flying straight. Any idiot could do it, and it would shave five weeks off the trip
“Should have just followed the fucking lights,” Maggie growled.
She couldn’t tell exactly what had happened. Out of the endless silence, her comms channel had come to life. A tinny voice had said something, maybe several somethings, then gone quiet. Then it had happened again, and then again.
It felt like an asteroid had hit her, but that would have completely destroyed the ship. Even a sideswipe from a passing object would have ripped the cargo from its holdings and breached the hull. But if Maggie was breathing, the hull wasn’t breached.
Had something fired on her? She’d never been in a war, but she’d done plenty of military simulations in her time. It had felt a little like those. A heavy punch to the ship, and system-wide destruction, but no loss of hull integrity.
But what was out here to attack her?
Nothing, that was what. A big fat nothing. No moons, no planets, no passing military vessels. It was just…deep space. Nobody’s territory. She’d crossed nobody’s border. There was nothing here to attack her—and yet it was the only thing Maggie could think of.
“Right. Right. Okay. Whatever.”
Whatever. Whatever had happened didn’t matter. She needed to find her bearings and get back to the trade route. She could figure out what had hit her, attacked her, exploded, whatever, once she was safe.
The navigation sensors were fried and telling her nothing. The black box tried to respond, but the readers were bust. The atmospheric sensors in the hold promised a quick and painless death if she left the cockpit without a mask. The engines were out, with only two thrusters running on batteries, and the fuel pressure was abnormally low. She’d sprung a leak.
Holding her head in her hands, Maggie realised the awful truth.
The only thing still working was the hull. There had been no hull breach, and that was the only reason she was alive.
And everything she needed to stay alive? The oxygen recyclers, the engines, sufficient fuel to get back to the trade route, the navigation computers to avoid another hit that would finish her off? All gone. The only electrical systems left running were off the emergency batteries and not designed to last long, and if she’d been attacked, maybe that was why she hadn’t been destroyed. From the outside looking in, the ship was gone. Maggie was floating in a husk, in deep space and alone.
For a brief moment, despair eclipsed her. Why not just open the cockpit airlock and walk out into the toxic air fouling her cargo hold? Hell, why not open the external airlocks and let the vacuum of space crumple her and her ship up like snotty tissues in a fevered fist? There was no way out. She didn’t have the skills, the knowledge, or the equipment, to make any of these lights stop flashing. She was dead. Maggie drew her boot back—and savagely kicked the console.
A crackle of new pain, hot and indignant, flashed up her foot.
“Get it together,” she snapped and turned the stereo back on. She skipped past “Moon Landing” and the rest of the Roche Limit album, and eventually settled on Rixi’s less popular, but far better song, “Get A Move On.” Maggie wasn’t some damsel in distress. Nobody was going to ride in on a white horse to save her. She needed to save herself, or die trying.
She emptied the medical kit and made quick work of the painkillers. She tucked her inhaler and the refills into the pockets of her combats and switched off all the lights but the most urgent. There was no way she could repair the engines. Maggie had passed the bare basics of engine maintenance—oil, coolant, fuse changes, and jumpstarts. Actual damage? No chance.
But the solar batteries were an option. She just had to get near enough to a star to charge them, hang in a distant orbit for a couple of days to do it, then try to jumpstart the engines from them. And if that didn’t work, vent the atmosphere out of the hold and use that to push back towards home.
If she was very, very lucky, the trajectory wouldn’t be interrupted, and she’d be able to drift back into range of a trade route.
Into range of some help.
Maggie had always worked well with a plan. No matter what happened, it was plans and lists that had gotten her through it. The day she’d refused to sign the identity paperwork? She’d made a plan of how to reshape her life if her decision cost her what she thought it would. The day Hélène had left? She’d made a list of how to win her back.
And now? She’d make a list of what to do.
Step one had to be the solar batteries and the oxygen recyclers. She could use the functioning thrusters to steer closer to a star, and then work on the recyclers. The batteries were fitted under clear plastic to the outside of the ship and would charge themselves just fine without Maggie’s interference.
Gradually, the hum of the thrusters turning the great mass of a ship under Maggie’s boots began to permeate her drug-induced haze, and she fumbled for the switches for the radiation shields, silently praying their motors hadn’t been damaged. The telltale whine of disconnected levers pierced the cockpit like a pneumatic drill—but one of them grunted, and the port shield began to lift.
Maggie rested her head on the console for a moment, reciting a prayer in her head. She’d been a lax believer at best and hadn’t been to a prayer service since Hélène had wrinkled her nose and asked if there was any point, but the memories had never left her. She could remember the rush and roll like it was yesterday, as if her mother’s voice had been imprisoned in her head for all these years, teaching her the words until she learned them properly, over and over again.
Bitterly, Maggie supposed she was probably praying for something she didn’t want to pray for, but to hell with it. There were no gods in deep space.
A shimmer of light began to show between the bottom of the great portside viewing window and the sluggishly rising shield. Maggie could have cried. Light. Bright, unyielding, intense starlight. More than enough to charge the batteries. Hope.
And then, she squinted against the brilliance.
There was something out there.
A shape, puncturing the bright disc of reddish light and haloed against the softly dying star. For a moment, fear seized her—and then the silhouette became clear, and she breathed out again in a long, relieved rush. A solid blackness in the shape of a shotgun cartridge, as familiar to Maggie as if it had been her own. The same outline as all the others, for longer than Maggie had been alive.
A cargo ship.
Her heart soared in her aching chest, even as she fumbled for the camera controls with shaking fingers. A ship. There was another ship out here. Help, rescue, supplies, something.
The zoom clicked over, and she scrolled along its hull, searching, scouring, seeking—
The designation swam into blurry view, and Maggie’s heart—in her throat, solid with hope and anticipation—froze into a lump of ice.
But to everyone else—to the press, to the search and rescue parties, to the families of the lost, to Maggie—she had a different name. A name from ancient mystery, from near-myth, from another ship in another time, centuries ago, with sails and sea instead of shields and space.
A ship that had disappeared, just as she had.
“The Mary Celeste,” Maggie whispered.
She lifted a hand and pressed it to the glass.