Matthew J. Metzger © 2020
All Rights Reserved
“You’re a work of art, supernova slow.”
The airlock hissed and jettisoned its load with a dull thump. Through the tiny viewing window, the foil blanket that had served for a funeral shroud faded away into the abyss and winked out of view.
Nobody said a word.
“Between the devil and the sea, you’re colouring for show.”
There had been eight of them in the beginning. Now, three stood by the door, warped shadows in the emergency lighting bidding a silent farewell to the fourth. In the dark, they were all the same shape. Tall ghosts, two with glittering eyes.
The third turned away.
“Maybe you’re bursting open, maybe you’re falling shut.”
It took four steps towards the cockpit door before a noise cut across the vigil. The whisper-soft voice crackled up the walls like fire and singed the air. The crisp consonants bracketed soft vowels, refusing any temptation to blur into a softer tone. Quiet did not mean gentle. Not here, and not now.
“Where are you going?”
“Maybe you’re the knife, and maybe you’re the cut.”
For a moment, it worked. A stillness returned, and for a split second, it seemed as though the semicircle of sentries at the airlock door could be rebuilt. But then the footsteps continued, creaking along the gantry towards the cockpit door.
“Nobody’s gonna know, supernova soul.”
As though it were a scene from a play, the shadows balanced the edges of the stage that had become their prison. The detractor at the cockpit door. The speaker in the centre. And the sentry, sinking to his knees in front of the airlock and murmuring the funeral prayer, a soft music bubbling up to join the pop song bidding farewell to the brainless corpse of Maintenance Technician Edward Sanders.
“They’re staring at the glitter and not the centre of the hole.”
Brainless because said brains were still splattered up the wall of the toilet where he’d shot himself. A single deafening boom and the being known as Edward Sanders was gone. All his hopes and dreams, all his history and possible futures, everything. Gone. The sparks of life buried in his neurons had been plastered up the shower tiles, and that had been that.
But Hélène LeFebvre was not gone, and she let herself back into the cockpit without a trace of sorrow. Eddie had died. His husk had been flushed into space so its decomposition wouldn’t harm the rest of them. Now she had a job to get on with.
She had to find them a way out of this mess.
“I know your little secret, supernova slow.”
Hélène LeFebvre, the best navigation officer in the company, had also been the best in the military before she was enticed away by a higher salary. So they were in deep space. So they were weeks from any mapped trade routes. So what? She’d been trained for this. She’d successfully tracked their ship ever since the evacuation, even through a ship-wide power cut and a compromised communications array. And now—
“And you’d give all the world so I would never know.”
Hélène swallowed as she sank into her seat and glanced at the navigation console. The sensor screens stared back at her in the dark, empty and mocking. Every time she blinked, she could see the neon green of the mass they’d been tracking for weeks—but it existed now only on the backs of her eyelids. The mass—the ship—was gone.
“You’ve got all your secrets, wrapped up in the dark.”
They evacuated weeks ago after a fire in the engine room had taken out the entire power supply, including the emergency generators and the solar batteries. It should have been a simple affair. They were in the middle of a drill, so the evacuation itself had been orderly. The duty engineering team would remain behind to repair the damage. It should have been over in a matter of hours.
Eight weeks later, and they were still locked into the escape pods with dwindling supplies and draining batteries. Eight weeks they’d been following the ship, waiting for someone to light her up again and welcome them back on board. Eight weeks.
“And I know every one, and I’ve never missed the mark.”
Following the ship had been child’s play for a navigator like Hélène. She’d even fixed their comms array and been broadcasting instructions to the other pods. Nobody ever replied, but they’d followed her. They couldn’t speak back, but they could plainly hear. If there had been a higher-ranking officer out there, they’d fallen into the chain of command dictated by the only working array in the fleet. And until the early hours of the morning, Hélène had been in control.
“You’re a little stupid, supernova soul.”
Until the ship had lit up like a Christmas tree across all sensors, not just mass. Until it had turned instead of drifted. Until a vapour trail had bled out behind it as if they chased a harpooned whale in a vast sea.
And then it was gone.
The flash of hope as EU-404 had powered up and corrected course had been snuffed out mere hours later. When she’d turned again, her engines burned like the surface of a star, and she had vanished into the dark.
Five minutes later, Edward Sanders had blown his brains up the wall.
“You’ve bought into your lying until you called it true.”
The cockpit door hissed back, and the pilot marched in. Zoë Baumgartner. A short, slim woman with an eerily symmetrical face, a rigidly pretty appearance coupled with a haphazardly cobbled-together personality. In short, the exact opposite of Hélène. Hélène was tall and Black, with neatly braided hair in a regulation bun, a single beaded string carefully selected to match her uniform the only decoration permitted. Zoë, on the other hand, was so white she looked bleached, and only reached five feet in height if she wore her socks. Her features were so perfectly laid out, they erred towards creepy instead of charming, and the fact that she’d shaved her head only on one side didn’t help matters much. Her ice-blue eyes were permanently angry, and—as if to purposefully annoy Hélène—she’d cut her hair within a week of the evacuation into a jagged asymmetrical design that was definitely against regulations.
“You’re a real piece of work, Hélène.”
“But here’s your little secret, for the likes of me and you.”
For all her stomping and smashing about, Zoë rarely raised her voice. In another world—and maybe with another personality, one which respected the rules—she would have made a wonderful senior officer. Her voice crackled with cold fury, yet its volume never rose above a whisper. She could spit her consonants or slur her vowels. She spoke to Hélène and Tariq in the exact same volume, even the exact same pitch. Yet to him, she acted friendly, and to Hélène—
Well, to Hélène, she acted like a pain in the backside.
“You will call me ma’am, or Officer LeFebvre,” Hélène returned coldly. “And I suggest we focus on the job at hand.”
“He had a kid. Hélène. Back home in America. One last long haul to pay off his wife’s medical bills, and then Eddie was going to stay home and raise his little boy. He wouldn’t stop talking about him. Micky this and Micky that, and did I tell you about the time Micky went to Disneyland. Micky’s not gonna see his dad again. Micky’s dad put a gun in his mouth and—”
“If we don’t find a way out of here, nobody will have the first clue how, when, or even if Sanders died at all,” Hélène snapped. “I have a job to do. I suggest you do the same.”
“And what’s my job, Hélène? Stare at the walls? I’m a pilot. And we’re not going anywhere.”
“Wrong,” said Hélène. “The ship will have left a visible vapour trail. If we raise the radiation shields, we’ll be able to follow it manually.”
She tapped out the commands as they argued. They had to keep the shields closed most of the time, or getting out of deep space wouldn’t matter. Hélène would rather not die of radiation sickness. So they had agreed to raise them once a week to get a visual bearing and rely on her calculations and the sensors for the rest.
In truth, radiation shields weren’t her purview, and Hélène wasn’t sure if once a week was already too often. But with Sanders making up the fifth suicide in this tin can since the evacuation, they had long since run out of the traditional division of labour. And options. So once a week it remained, and on Hélène’s station it sat.
The shields whirred deafeningly on the other side of the hull, and the cockpit door hissed as Tariq joined them, scrubbing the blood and brain matter out from under his fingers with a brush. Hélène ignored it. He was a nurse—blood and brain matter were part of his life just as much as trajectory calculations were part of Hélène’s. He sank down onto the bunk without a word, and as the light from the nearest sun flooded the cockpit, Hélène looked over her shoulder at the rusty stains on his uniform. He must have been scrubbing out the shower unit.
“Oh, my fucking God.”
“Under the glamour and the glitter, where it gets a little bitter.”
Hélène snapped back around at Zoë’s low curse. Her jaw sagged.
Splattered across space spun an asteroid field of debris. Engine parts. Hull beams. Shards of tempered glass glittering in the light of the background star. A glob of something pink drifted by the viewing port, only inches away. It matched the stains on Tariq’s shirt.
The gutted remains of escape pods. A whole fleet, broken down—quite literally—into a handful of survivors. There had to be twenty or thirty shuttles smashed into pieces out there.
“The ship,” Zoë whispered. “Oh God. The ship rammed them. It just rammed them.”
Hélène’s stomach twisted as if someone had reached into her gut and clamped a fist around her insides. She stared blankly at the death in front of her and struggled to process what it meant. Dead. Hundreds dead.
“You’re supernova slow with a supernova soul.”
“That’s it,” Zoë said. “We’re not a fleet anymore. We’re not leading a charge to follow a blind ship.”
Hélène blinked. She looked away from the blob of human flesh crawling across their viewing window, and the cramps eased. The cool coat of command settled around her shoulders. It was entirely possible now that she wasn’t the senior officer by virtue of a malfunctioning communications system, but the senior officer by virtue of being the highest rank still alive.
“We need to regroup,” she said. “Get everyone together, run a skills analysis, find out what equipment we can salvage, and figure out a plan.”
“Right,” said Zoë and unlocked the manual controls.
“What are you—”
“You want to spacewalk out there? No. We’re touching down. Find us somewhere to land, and I’ll get us down.”
Hélène opened her mouth to argue, then watched as the once-living flesh brushed up against the outside of the glass and left a long, wet smear of pink blood and yellow pus in its wake.
She clamped her jaw shut and nodded.
“You aren’t anything but dust ’round the edges of a hole.”
“Tariq?” Zoë called.
“Turn off that fucking music.”