Strange Pulp 13: Pocket Full of Stars (Part 6)
In which everything (literally) falls apart
Hello readers and welcome to the sixth installment of Pocket Full of Stars. This issue absolutely rips—it contains three of my favorite chapters in the book—and if you like it, please show your support by buying Galaxy Greg merch or simply buying—
Reading Time: 41 Minutes
“Why didn’t he die?” said Lennox. “Why didn’t that man die?”
Thanks for reading Strange Times! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
She’d been asking some version of that question over and over for the last five minutes. I’d said nothing because there was no sensible answer I could give.
We were in the hallway on the 909, just outside the cockpit. I pulled down the jump seat and strapped her in. Even with the harness taut, it was dangerously loose.
“Hold on,” I said. “Your daddy’s getting us out of here.”
For the first time since we’d escaped Laabs, she almost smiled.
“I know,” she said.
I gave the straps one last futile tug and threw myself into the cockpit. I slammed into the nav chair and buckled myself in. By the way my insides were sloshing around, I figured we were going faster than is sane.
Through the porthole, I saw Lauriston Station splitting, burning, and twisting away, its rusted hulks falling towards the gas giant whose gravity they could no longer deny. Hundreds of freighters, liners, private ships and pleasure craft sped away. Some made for neighboring planets, others for the ice giant’s moons. The ones with sense headed for the E-Gate. A glance at the nav screen confirmed that we were on another course entirely.
“Where are we going?” I said.
Falk answered by twisting violently on the stick in his right hand. Up turned into down. The AlwazeHot I’d choked down a few hours’ prior turned into vomit. It splattered, still steaming, onto what was normally the ceiling. When Falk brought the ship more or less back to level, it splattered right back down.
“That’s disgusting,” Falk muttered.
Gnarled black debris filled the viewscreen. Falk threw us into another corkscrew turn. Attempting to forestall further barfing, I kept my eyes locked on the black and orange dots flashing across the sensor grid. I wished I hadn’t. They showed nothing in the way of good news.
“There’s a police cruiser chasing us,” I said.
“They’re firing high explosive rounds.”
The cruiser loosed another burst. Yellow tracer rounds spewed past the main viewport and Falk put us into a manic dive. As we plunged through the nothingness, I shouted:
“Where are we going?”
“As soon as we’ve lost these assholes, the E-Gate.”
“But once we get there—if we get there—where are we jumping to?”
“You’re in the nav seat. You tell me.”
I was, wasn’t I? Same seat I’d had on the Miranda. There, the nav station had been right by the cockpit door. On HF909 I was practically in the pilot’s lap. I did not mind.
I spun a dial on the navbank and found jump routes for Bass Prime, Batallia, Bathsheba, Batran and Baumann, but naturally no Batavia.
I tore off my harness and darted into the hallway.
“Where the fuck are you going?” shouted Falk. “I need you here!”
I staggered towards my cabin, floor rocking under my feet. I ducked through the hatch just as Falk executed another nifty turn. My feet went out from under me. I crashed into my bed, sending a shock wave of pain through both shins and a mouthful of blanket into my mouth. I tore a slip of paper off my ceiling.
32984 56987 21457 63217
Lennox noticed the paper as I squeezed back into the cabin, but she said nothing.
“Welcome back,” said Falk.
I clipped the coordinates to the nav station. There was no pre-plotted route available for that particular patch of space, so I sharpened a pencil and tore off a sheet of graph paper. I’d have to work this shit out by hand.
I’d barely scraped past remedial calc, but I’d known enough navigators to pick up the fundamentals of interstellar astrogation. (There was great truth to the old joke about nav boys knowing their way around the bedroom.) I had the basic equations memorized—I hoped—but this wasn’t going to be quick. When it comes to plotting a jump course, accuracy is more important than speed, lest one end up smack in the middle of a black hole.
While my fingers scratched out the equations, I turned to small talk to pass the time.
“You’re in love with me,” I whispered.
The ship shook. Perhaps we’d taken a hit, or maybe my suggestion had left Falk rattled. Either way, it took him a long time to answer.
“I seem to remember saying precisely the opposite. What’s unclear about, ‘I don’t love you’?”
“You came back.”
“I didn’t come back. I saw the guy with the rifle and I made a snap decision.”
“Because you love me.”
“I didn’t want you to die. That’s hardly the same thing.”
“Caring whether or not someone lives or dies is the only definition of love that’s ever made sense to me.”
“Well you’re an idiot.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”
I glanced at my paper. On the last line, I’d solved the equation for the distribution of the ship’s weight across the E-Stream with “YOSHI FALK LOVES ME YOSHI FALK LOVES ME.” I smudged it out and was starting again when another burst of HE skidded across our hull. Falk jerked both sticks to the left. My stomach did impossible things.
“You don’t think that maybe the reason you’re so fixated on how I feel about you—” He jerked us to the right. My stomach did the same impossible things, but in reverse. “Is because you’ve still got feelings for me?”
Now there’s the question. The question that had been chasing me just as doggedly as Jude.
Did I love this asshole?
I wanted the answer to be simple. I wanted to choose between telling him to fuck off and asking to stay by his side forever. But when I looked at him I saw Lauriston Station—the time he ditched me, the time he saved my life. Which part meant more?
I honestly didn’t know.
Thankfully, before I could launch into an explanation of that tortured nonsense, another round exploded just outside the cockpit. The instrument panels erupted in sparks. Falk threw us into an even tighter turn and it might have gotten us out of it, but the cruiser’s gunners placed the next spatter of HE right where Falk tried to dodge. The starboard radiator bank exploded, knocking us into a dizzying tailspin. It was getting harder and harder to do math.
Falk got us out of the spin, but the alarms didn’t stop. I could feel the ship growing sluggish.
“I can’t outfly them,” said Falk.
“You can outfly anything.”
“No. I. Can’t!”
“Has anybody tried talking to them?” shouted Lennox.
“They don’t seem to be in a talking mood,” I answered.
Metal clacked as she unhooked herself from the jump seat. She slipped into the cockpit and clambered into the comms chair and, with the same exquisite precision that she brought to everything, got herself buckled in.
“You shouldn’t be up here,” said Falk, flipping switches and twisting dials and trying to coax the freighter to act a little more like it was built to go fast. “It isn’t safe.”
“It isn’t safe anywhere,” said Lennox. “I want to make a call.”
“I’ve told you before, the comms panel isn’t a toy.”
She swept her hand across the comms panel. The alarms quieted. With an ear-splitting hiss, a channel opened to the pursuing ship. Their comms officer was screaming at us. I had the feeling she’d been screaming for a while.
“—as crazy as a drunk raccoon! Slow down, would you, and lay off the evasive maneuvers and let us bring you in!”
Lennox leaned over the silver mic grate and spoke, slowly and carefully:
“Why do you want my daddy to die?”
There was an awkward pause during which no one tried to kill us. Falk took advantage of the calm to right the ship and get us pointed at the E-Gate. It was still awfully far. I checked my calculations. My handwriting had gone to utter shit, and it was discomfitingly difficult to distinguish my 4s from 9s.
When the comms officer answered, her voice was almost calm.
“Who is this?”
“Lennox Falk. I am six. My daddy is Yoshi Falk and we’re hauling cargo for the New Horizons Initiative.” She sounded out every syllable of the last words. Uh-nish-ee-uh-tive. It was devastatingly adorable. “Why do you want us to die?”
“Could I speak to your daddy, hon?”
Lennox jabbed a button. The red light above Falk’s mic grate flared on.
“Can the kid hear?” said the comms officer.
“Yes,” said Falk.
“Then I’ll be polite. I’ve got two kids of my own and I sympathize, Captain, but you were involved in a pretty serious incident back at the station and you need to kill your engines and let us take you into custody or we will have no choice but to resume fire.”
“Let me talk to the NHI.”
“This ship is carrying a full load of NHI property—the extremely expensive kind. They had people on the station. Patch me through to their escape craft and they’ll explain that we should be allowed to go on our way.”
I stared at my fingernails. They were in horrible shape. I waited for the comms officer to refuse Falk’s request. To explain that, no, the little girl and her daddy had to die.
She surprised me.
“Oh, fine,” she said. “Patching you through now. It’ll give us a chance to reload.”
A new voice crackled in, speaking in the elegantly slurred accent native to the oldest Lunar colonies. It made me quiver.
“NHI local. Our staff is rather busy fleeing for our lives. Is this urgent?”
“State your concern, HF909.”
“Being blown up, sir. We have a hold stocked with Whorn—product and marketing materials—and the police would see it destroyed.”
“If you’re so concerned with the survival of your cargo, Captain, surrender.”
“I would love to, sir. More than anything. But we are due back on Batavia. I’d hate to keep corporate waiting.”
Hesitation crept into the NHI officer’s voice.
“Who told you about Batavia?”
“It’s the last stop on our itinerary.”
“You have the coordinates?”
“You’re bluffing, 909.”
Falk snapped his fingers. I slapped my note paper into his hand. He read into the mic:
“32984. 56987. 21457. 63217.”
“Quite. Hold six minutes, HF909. I’ll see what I can do.”
A particularly antiseptic imitation of music tinkled forth from the speaker. Falk slumped back in the chair, eyes squeezed shut.
“I’m sorry, baby,” he said.
“It’s okay, Daddy.”
“Nope. It’s not.”
For a little while, there was no sound but mawkish piano and the clatter of the few remaining alarms. Falk had the freighter running astonishingly fast, but the police cruiser drew closer with every breath.
“I was gonna pay off the loan,” said Falk. “Own the 909 outright.”
“You still could.”
“Don’t be a fool. Even if the NHI convinces them not to kill us, I’ll never get paid. I’ll be in debt forever.” He sighed. “It would have been a nice life.”
The heroic pose Falk had struck at Lauriston was gone. He looked like the man I’d found at Katzen—graying, shrunken, like an uncle waiting for everyone to stop looking so he could fall asleep on the couch. Lennox was crying, fat tears coursing down her cheeks, hand clamped over her mouth so daddy couldn’t hear.
I leaned on my fist and stared at the nav screen. A new signal had popped up, not far behind the cruiser. Callsign AY4473. It was a small craft, not much bigger than a shuttle, and it was headed our way. I was about to mention it to Falk when the hold music died.
“NHI local calling, this is NHI local calling. Your request has been considered, Captain.”
“The actuaries agreed that a heavy freighter and a shipment of Whorn are valuable enough to merit interfering with the state police.”
Falk mouthed a silent thanks. I was about to treat myself to a fist pump when the NHI drone spoiled the fun.
“But there is a slight problem,” he said.
“We have no record of your mission. According to our files—and they are extensive—we have never loaded an ounce of our cargo onto HF909 and we have never had dealings with a captain Yoshi Falk.”
“That’s not possible. NHI corporate reached out to me directly. NHI staffers supervised the cargo. There’s an NHI logo on every container in my hold.”
“Then that logo is counterfeit. Whatever you may be hauling, it is not our Whorn.”
“You have to check again.”
“I do not. Captain Falk, you are either the perpetrator or victim of fraud. In either case, happily, it is not our problem.”
Falk’s mouth was a flat line.
“What about my daughter?” he said. “If you cut us loose, do you know what’s going to happen to my daughter?”
“Funny thing. We have complete paperwork on Yoshi Falk—born in Japan, a few years in the merchant marine, respectable service during the war. But the name Lennox Falk turned up no record of birth, adoption, immunization, schooling. Officially, she does not exist.”
“You heard her voice!”
“So what? It is the formal stance of the New Horizons Initiative that the police are entitled to blow you out of the sky.”
The cruiser opened fire.
Several dozen rounds exploded across the freighter’s spine. The hull groaned like an old man enduring an orgasm. Across the ship, systems failed.
Lennox slumped like a toy with the batteries ripped out. She pressed a fist against one side of her face, then the other, wiping away the tears. Falk jabbed at the controls, his attention split between the failing engines, Lennox, and trying to avoid the next round of fire.
“We’re not going to die,” I said.
“That’s a stupid thing to say,” said Falk.
“But it’s the truth. We’re getting out of this.”
I unstrapped myself and knelt beside him, so close I could have nestled my face in his hair.
“The fuck should I know?” I said. “I’m not a pilot. You are. Figure it out.”
“I hate pep talks.”
“Good. This isn’t a pep talk. It’s a wake the fuck up and remember how good you are talk. During the war, you dodged the blockade every day—”
“I never dodged any blockade.”
“But you could have. You can do this, too.”
He smirked—amused, at least, if not inspired.
“I’m very flattered that you believe in me,” he said, “but look at the numbers. We’re an hour from the E-Gate. It’ll take their guns three minutes to spin back up. Our engines are fucked. We’re done.”
“You still have to try.”
He looked at his daughter. His cheeks went red.
“You bastard,” he said. “I guess I do.”
He slapped a lever and twisted a dial and sent a jolt through the ship that knocked me back into the nav chair. The entire cockpit shuddered so violently that I nearly missed the latest alert from the nav screen—five new signals emanating from the mystery ship. This time, my reference materials were able to identify them.
They were little things, almost adorable unless they were pointed at you. They were fast as shit and carried a five megaton charge.
“Hey Lennox,” I said. “Want something to do?”
“Can you page AY4473?”
She put in the call. I had a clammy feeling that I’d recognize the voice that answered and, to my irritation, I was right.
“Hey asshole,” said Elwood Laabs. His voice was raspy.
“I thought I cut off your head.”
“You should know by now that I don’t die so easily.”
“Why not? Just what are you, man?”
“You’ll be dead in five minutes. What’s the point?”
“There’s a kid on board.”
“Fuck off, Greg. My sole regret is I only get to kill you the one time.”
The line went dead. There was a dry-mouthed silence. And then Falk smacked his hands and shouted, “That! That is the fucking idea!”
He snapped the 909 into a brutal 180° turn and engaged whatever was left of our engines.
“Falk,” I said. “Uh, Falk. Falk?”
He grinned like a cheerful devil. Our speed kept dropping until, for a horrifying moment, we were perfectly still. And then we shifted back the way we came.
Towards the flechettes.
Towards the police.
Towards their guns.
“Daddy?” said Lennox.
“Hold on, baby. It’s okay.”
It did not seem okay. The cruiser filled our vision, an ugly mass of steel painted in red and yellow stripes. Every flat surface held a gun emplacement. Showers of blue sparks burst from them as, one by one, they fired.
Falk cut the engines.
More HE rounds than I cared to count smashed into the forward sections of our ship, shredding the comms array, the forward nav thrusters, the oxygen regulators and a whole bunch of other really important shit. Lights failed and pipes burst and things that were usually silent made horrible noise. But none of it slowed us down. Thanks to the stubbornness of Newton’s first law, we were plunging at the cruiser’s bridge with sickening speed.
“Five seconds to impact,” I said. “And the flechettes will be here in about five seconds too.”
Falk twisted both sticks. Suddenly we were facing the other way. This provided little comfort. If I must go to my death, I thought, I hate to go backwards.
“Daddy!” shouted Lennox.
“I’ve got it.”
“Daddy, do something, please!”
He engaged the engines. By the way the ship rattled, it seemed like he’d gone full bore. Waste of fuel. It was far too late to stop, too late to even slow down.
But he wasn’t trying to slow us down.
Falk’s last-ditch burn bent our trajectory just enough that we flew over the cruiser’s bridge instead of through it. For a moment I saw the cops in their viewports, upside down and awfully confused. We came close enough to scrape the paint, but we got past.
The flechettes were not so nimble.
They slammed into the cruiser, erupting into an ice blue orb that burned so brightly I could see it through my eyelids. When it dimmed, all that remained was the cruiser, snapped in half, leaking fuel and oxygen and bodies into cold space. A half dozen escape pods streaked off the hull and then the wreck was still.
“Lord,” I said.
The concussion smashed into our port side hard enough to loosen my teeth. The last of the overhead lights cut out. There was nothing to see but the orange flashes of the warning strobes.
“We’re clear,” said Falk. “We’re clear. Hoo boy. Baby?”
“Yeah?” said Lennox.
“Are you okay?”
He tore off his safety harness and pulled her out of the comms chair and sank to the floor with her pressed against his chest. He was sobbing. Her eyes were dry.
He stood up, still holding her tight, and handed me the course I’d plotted for Batavia. I took it by the corner, unwilling to risk our fingers touching. Quite a lot had happened in the last hour, but the question he’d asked me still hung heavy in the air.
“You trust these numbers?” he said.
“Punch em in. Holler if anything else goes wrong.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Put this little girl to bed.”
He carried her out. I entered the coordinates and surveyed the status board, trying to work out which failing system would kill us first.
Falk’s hand settled on my shoulder. I hadn’t heard him come back in. His hair was smeared across his head. There was a light in his eyes that was equal parts terrifying and hot as hell.
“How’s our O2 conversion?” he said.
“Down to 30 percent. Heat’s out, too. We’ll freeze to death in thirty minutes but we’ll suffocate in fifteen. Comms are shot, the engines are overheated, and we’ve lost a whole host of safety features—fire suppression and the med pod and—”
“They said she doesn’t exist.”
He slumped against the hatch. He looked drained, but not broken—far more like the daring boy I’d fallen in love with than the beaten man I’d discovered on Katzen Station.
“What that NHI fucker said about Lennox—it didn’t mean anything.”
“But it rattled her. That kid’s not scared of anything, y’know? Even the missiles didn’t spook her. But what that sonofabitch said—that made her feel small.”
“How is she?”
“Passed right out.”
He stripped off his shirt and his pants. Dropped them on the floor in an artful little heap. Before I could get any lewd ideas, he pulled open the emergency cupboard and stepped into an insulated jumpsuit and breathing mask.
“I’m gonna go fuck around with the life support systems, see if I can keep us alive a little longer,” he said. “Autopilot’s got us on course for the E-Gate. If it breaks, give me a call.”
And then I was alone. I lowered myself into Falk’s chair, smelling his hair the head rest, feeling the warmth of his body in the leather. I clicked shut the safety harness and brushed my hands against the sticks. On the Miranda, I had often spelled him in the pilot’s seat, but I had not flown nearly enough hours to lose my childish awe at the thought of being able to control a spaceship with my hands. Up ahead was a great shimmering gash in space—the Lauriston E-Gate, which would take us wherever we wanted to go.
It sounded promising. It sounded, at any rate, better than here.
I dozed off. I’m not ashamed to say it—nearly getting blown to pieces will wear anyone out. When I woke, we had slipped through the gate and the cosmos was swirling like a pot of briskly stirred soup. Inside the ship, things were rippling in that pleasant way they do when the E-Drive is in gear.
The hatch opened. Falk closed it behind him. Odd, I thought. He never closes that hatch.
“How’s Lennox?” I said.
“You fix the ship?”
“Well enough. We won’t suffocate and we won’t freeze. The engines are unstable, though, and we’ve lost a shitload of fuel. I’ll have enough to get us into orbit around Batavia, but beyond that...”
He peeled off the jumpsuit and pelted it into the locker. His chest was slick with sweat. Bioluminescent grease was smeared across his shoulders and neck. He leaned on the instrument panel and ran his fingers across my cheek. They smelled of ozone.
“What happened back at Lauriston…” he said.
“Getting shot at?”
“Running away from station security?”
“Ah. You mean the fucking.”
“I suppose you’re here to say that it was a mistake.”
“I was going to say that it needs to happen again. As soon as possible. Like...right now.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well okay.”
I pulled him to the deck. It wasn’t a very big cockpit, but it would do.
This time, there was no hesitation. This time, our bodies and the universe moved in time and the whole of creation threatened to break apart and reform into something good and beautiful and pure.
It was good is what I’m saying. The fucking was very good.
When we were done, we lay on the rubber deck paneling, holding each other tight. My cheeks hurt from smiling. I was thirsty and needed a snack, but I had no intention of letting him go.
“You were exceptional back there,” I said. “The way you flew—”
“I didn’t know I could do that.”
“How did it feel?”
“Like I was the person I’d always wanted to be.”
“That sounds pretty cool.”
He pulled away from me. I was afraid he was going to go back to the Big Unanswered Question, but instead he whipped his shirt back on. When his head emerged from the neck hole, his jaw was set. The captain was back. The moment, whatever it had been, was through.
He stuck out a hand. I grabbed it and he pulled me up—pulled me so close that our chests touched. The heat of him, my god—I could almost smell his shirt scorching. I was on the verge of tearing it back off him when he spoke.
“So you’re taking us to Batavia.”
I nodded. Tried to look grave and impressive, but I landed closer to a lovestruck teen.
“Where’d you get the coordinates?” he said. “Break into my safe—tear open my secret orders?”
“Of course I did—it was basically my first idea. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t care. I mean, I guess on some level I do? But that level is very, very far away. File under F for Fuck It.”
“But the safe—that’s not where I got the coordinates.”
“Then what did the orders say?”
“Sweet fucking stars.”
He opened the hatch and stepped into the hall.
“If you don’t believe me—”
“Oh, I believe you. But I still want to see for myself.”
I followed. The going was rough. I’d known the 909 was in bad shape, but I wasn’t prepared for the scorching, the buckled steel, the acrid steam, the sparking cables. I couldn’t believe she was still flying but, well, Falk was good.
The office was as much of a mess as every other part of the ship. The safe had torn away from the wall but it was intact. Falk crouched in front of it. The flickering light shone off his back like a white sun setting over a cold sea.
“How long did it take you to crack the safe?” he said.
“You’ve gotten faster.”
“The older you get, the less time you have to fuck around.”
The safe opened. He flipped through the blank papers, staring intently at each one of them, like there was something there that only he could see. Finally he folded them and put them back where they’d been.
“So who the fuck hired me?” he said.
“You never spoke to them?”
“Only by message. NHI letterhead, an NHI handle. NHI seals on the cargo. It was all so boring—it had to be real. I just can’t imagine what would be worth all that trouble.”
“So let’s go down to the hold and see.”
He bounded through the hatch. As we climbed down through the ship, the damage eased. The lights worked more consistently; the air was clean. The cruiser’s gunners had aimed for the living quarters and the engines. The hold they’d left alone. Inside we found the lights on and the cobalt shipping containers mostly where we’d left them. I glanced at Falk. He looked uneasy. I probably did too.
“Which one should we open?” I said.
“Does it matter?”
“I guess not.”
I placed my hands on the nearest container. It felt as cold as a metal crate stored in a spaceship’s hold. I flipped open the combination lock.
“You know the code?” I said.
I twisted the dials to 4439. The lid glided open. Inside was a sea of spongy orange packing peanuts. I dug through them. More peanuts. I buried my hands in the stuff, pushing so deep that I nearly fell into the container.
“What’s there?” said Falk.
I invited him to take a look. He scattered the orange peanuts across the floor. By the time the crate was empty, he was sweating and cursing and far from done. We opened five more. They were all the same—carefully packed nothing. When we finished the last crate, Falk kicked it onto its side.
“Motherfucker!” he said.
“I’ve been busting my ass to make these deliveries. Juiced the engines to make every stop ahead of schedule. Bribed shipping agents in every port for priority access. Recalibrated stevedore units to make sure this shit was handled with absolute care. Dragged Lennox halfway across the galaxy and almost got both of us killed for literal fucking peanuts.”
He stomped on the pile of peanuts. They poofed up into the air and drifted pointlessly back to the deck.
“I was supposed to be helping people,” he said. “Hungry farmers and their kids. I needed that. I needed Lennox to have a dad who...”
He didn’t bother finishing the thought.
I wondered what it would feel like if your life’s work was completely pointless.
Oh wait, I thought. I know exactly how that feels.
We sat there for a while, beaten and baffled, until the silence was interrupted by my rumbling stomach.
“If the kitchen didn’t get blown off in the fracas,” I said, “I can fix us some food.”
Falk cracked up.
“You’ve always been like that.”
“No matter how fucked things get, you never forget to eat.”
“As I always say, there’s no problem that can’t be solved with casserole.”
“You never say that.”
“Well I’m going to start. Come on.”
He left the hold first. I followed, shutting the hatch behind me. We were halfway up the ladder when the ship lurched. There’s no other word for it—it was like it had tripped on a crack in the sidewalk and was staggering forward, trying not to fall.
“Did you feel that?” I said.
“Lennox,” answered Falk, and he whipped up the ladder and was gone.
I climbed three more rungs. The ship lurched in the other direction, harder this time, slamming me against the wall so hard that I nearly bit through my tongue. I tried to keep climbing but I was dizzy. My hands wouldn’t go where I asked them and my feet weren’t much better.
The wall buckled. The ladder slipped out of my grasp. I tumbled down, bouncing back and forth across the bulkhead along the way.
I slumped to the floor as the lights flickered out, blood sluicing across my cheeks and into my mouth.
What an inconvenient time to lose consciousness, I thought, and then I went away.
I came to where I’d hit the ground. My tongue was wedged between my teeth and for a moment that throbbing pain distracted me from everything else that hurt. I tried to sit up—rookie mistake—but the pain changed my mind. I rolled onto my back to consider the lines on the ceiling, the dim yellow of the emergency light, and the curious fact that I was still alive.
Even more curious: it was quiet. No alarms, no screaming. I pressed my hand against the deck. The gentle hum of the ship’s engines was gone.
HF909 was a derelict.
So what about Lennox?
What about Falk?
I’d like to say I leapt to my feet and flew up the ladder, but in my current state that wasn’t possible. I eased myself onto my knees, grabbed the nearest piece of reasonably-secure looking metal, and straightened my spine. Pain bounced around my back like a pinball. I tugged on the ladder. It didn’t collapse. And so I climbed.
The ship was tilted. Climbing on a diagonal made me dizzy. I had to pause several times to let my head stop spinning. In between breaths, I called Falk’s name.
He never answered.
I was halfway up when the emergency lights failed. After what seemed like an hour of climbing in pitch dark, I lurched into the living quarters. I flicked on my datacard’s torch and had a look around. Every door was open. The floor was littered with clothes and books and personal debris. I went into the lounge. Lennox’s geography books had spilled everywhere, papering the floor with yellow waterfalls and black suns, worlds of ice and jungle and desert and terrain too strange to comfortably name. The data unit had come loose from the wall and smashed itself to bits. I tried to activate Andromeda, just to hear a familiar voice, but her batteries were dead.
I parted the curtains on the viewport.
I saw the sky.
No buildings. No landscape. Just a sky bruised green by the setting sun.
Batavia, at last.
I felt no triumph. Only steadily growing panic at the ship’s stillness. I went back into the hallway, fingernails digging deep into sweaty palms.
“Lennox!” I shouted. “Where are you?”
If she doesn’t answer, I thought, it’s because she’s dead.
And if she’s dead, Falk is dead too.
And if they’re both gone, well—what’s the point of me?
“Falk, god damn it—”
It came from the cockpit. I moved as quick as I could, a tortured stagger that bore no relation to running at all.
This time it was a scream.
I flung myself into the cockpit. Every screen was dark. Even the alarms had stopped. The porthole let in just enough light for me to see Falk slamming his shoulder against a control panel that had fallen from the ceiling to block most of that little room.
“Back there,” he answered, voice flattened by terror. “Fucking help me push.”
He was surrounded by a field of broken glass. I kicked some of it aside and dropped to my knees, ignoring the shards that sliced through my pants as I threw my weight against the control panel’s jagged metal edge. He counted to three and we shoved in unison.
The thing did not move.
“What happened?” I said.
“The E-Gate was mined. We took one right on the nose. Push harder!”
I braced my feet against the deck and called upon muscles that had not been used in years. The panel shifted slightly. I saw Lennox’s foot. It looked incredibly small. We shoved harder, but the panel settled right down where it had been before. I expected Falk to curse, to scream, but he just slumped against the panel, hand petting the ground like he could feel Lennox’s leg.
“I was so good,” he said. “Never flew like that before. Cut the hold loose. Burned out every last drop of fuel to get us on course for Batavia. Entry was rough but I got us through it. I think I’d have landed us, too, except that’s when Lennox woke up. We were at 8000 meters and falling fast when she came in and said she was scared. I told her to strap into the jump seat and she started crying, and I told her to get the fuck out and we were at 3000 meters. She cried louder and we were at 800 meters and I unhooked myself and grabbed her and I was trying to wrestle her into the safety harness when we crashed.”
“I tried to hang on. But she’s so little, you know? Squirmy? I smacked my head on the nav chair and she slipped out of my arms. I was reaching for her when the whole fucking control panel fell. I don’t know if she’s alive back there. I don’t know what else to do.”
“Where are we?”
“A lake. Floating. For now.”
“Any chance of rescue?”
“Comms died with everything else.”
The ship shuddered. Perhaps I did too. Everything tilted a little farther to starboard. The control panel didn’t budge. From behind it came a little moan.
“Baby,” said Falk, speaking as loud as he could without letting his panic show.
She moaned again.
We pushed together—once, twice, three times, four. We got nothing but scraped palms. I tore the arm off the nav chair and braced it against the console. I shoved until the arm bent. The console didn’t move. I spun around the cockpit, looking for a stronger lever, as Falk pulled on the thing with his hands.
“Can you hear me, baby? Are you hurt?” There was no answer. “You gotta say something, you gotta answer me, just say something Lennox baby, just one thing—”
“Are you bleeding? Did it fall on you?”
“I can’t tell.”
“We are going to move this thing. We are going to get you—”
The entire ship shook. I pressed my face against the cracked porthole. The water was half a meter closer than it had been before.
“We’re sinking,” I said. Pitched it as low as I could manage, but Lennox must have heard. From behind the console there came the softest little sob. I knew the way that Lennox cried when she wanted attention. This wasn’t it.
That girl was crying for herself.
Falk yanked a grease-stained toolkit from underneath the comms table. He pulled out a rusted red wrench that was probably older than everyone on the ship put together.
“Think you can take it apart?” I said.
“I’m just gonna smash it.”
He whipped the wrench against the face of the console. Glass cracked. Sparks flew. I pulled a claw hammer from the kit and attacked the other side. We got into a rhythm—Falk, then Greg, then Falk, then Greg. Sweat poured and muscles screamed. The noise was ear-splitting.
The ship sank deeper. The bulkheads moaned. The porthole was now completely underwater. Its cracks grew.
I slammed my hammer into the console’s corner so hard, it rattled all the way up my arms. The console’s face came loose. Falk hooked his wrench around it and pulled until the steel clattered to the floor.
The console was packed with wires and circuit boards. Falk tore into it with both hands, slicing deep cuts into his palms. His blood splashed across the deck as he ripped the console’s innards out by the root. I wanted to help, but the console cabinet was too tight for two.
“Daddy,” said Lennox.
“We’re close now, baby,” he said.
It was a lie. We’d gotten hardly anywhere.
Something spritzed the back of my neck. Not blood. Water. Coming in through tiny holes in the hull. The porthole was a spiderweb of fine cracks, dripping water and ready to burst. I tore through the toolkit, looking for something to seal it.
“I’m still scared,” said Lennox.
“I know, baby,” said Falk. “I need your help with something.”
“I keep forgetting—what planets orbit Ultimo Hydrelle?”
“Is that really important right now?”
“Do you want them in order of population or size?”
And she sang. The same tuneless meandering sing-song, flat and confident and perfectly beautiful. It almost drowned out the hiss of water rushing through the holes.
“Ultimo Hydrelle is a very funny system, it’s got seven bodies and if you’d like it I can list ‘em. Number seven is the smallest—it is rocky and the coldest—and then Ultimo I, which we think may be the oldest...”
My hand wrapped around a rusted can of Con-Bond, an all purpose bonding spray that promised to fix everything “From Tile to Teeth.” I shook the can and squeezed.
The nozzle was jammed.
The porthole wept.
Falk tore loose the last of the wiring and started hammering at the rear of the console. The sound was hideous. Between blows, Lennox’s song went on.
“Ultimo III is the capitol, the only lived-on planet. Its people all are miners—they dig marble, coal and granite...”
I grabbed needle-nose pliers from the toolkit and stabbed their tip into the Con-Bond’s nozzle. Water sloshed around my ankles.
I aimed the nozzle at the porthole and squeezed. The bonding agent trickled out. Most of it splashed across the floor, but some got on the porthole. Where it landed, it spread thin and turned harder than concrete. I got it closer to the porthole and squeezed again. This time, most of the goo bonded with the glass.
“This is working,” I said. Falk didn’t answer. I went on, tilting and squeezing and tilting and squeezing and trying like hell not to get any of the gunk on my hands.
I’d sealed about a third of the porthole when the glass gave way.
It was like taking a fire hose to the face. Freezing water knocked me across the Nav Chair and before I even knew what had happened, it was almost at my knees.
“Why are my feet wet?” asked Lennox.
The hammer blows grew faster. I could see past Falk’s shoulder. He’d barely made a dent.
“Just keep going over the planets, baby,” said Falk.
“Where is that water coming from?”
Her voice was deeper than I’d ever heard it. It rumbled forth from every surface. It shook the water. Her fear was gone. Fury had taken its place.
The water was at our waists. Falk hammered even faster, his blows bouncing uselessly off the metal. Pops sounded up and down the hallway as the portholes in the other cabins gave way. I glanced down that wet dark corridor and took a deep breath. No matter how bad this got, I thought, I had no interest in leaving them behind.
“The water is too high,” said Lennox. “It’s too high!”
“Quit hammering, Daddy.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
“Just step back!”
He didn’t step back. Which meant that when the console exploded, he took it to the chest. He flew backwards out of the cabinet, crashed into the water, and floated, dazed. He looked at me, wanting confirmation that yes, I’d seen the same thing he had.
Lennox was visible through the hole in the console. Her little fists hung at her sides.
She’d just punched straight through solid steel.
Her eyes shut. Her neck rolled. She slumped across the gash in the metal. I pulled her through the hole—she weighed simply nothing, it was incredible—and pressed her into Falk’s arms.
“Baby,” he said. “Baby?”
She didn’t answer.
“Is she breathing?” I said.
So I said the obvious:
“Let’s fucking go.”
We splashed into the hallway, straining against the water that was surging over our chests. The ship twisted, the walls becoming more floorish with every step. By the time we reached the door to the nose hatch, the 909 was fully sideways and the water was at Falk’s neck.
Falk jabbed the door release with his elbow. They stayed closed.
“Fuck me,” he said.
He handed me Lennox. She felt even colder than you’d expect and her breath came in short, violent shudders.
“How the fuck did she do that?” asked Falk.
“Focus on the door.”
He pried open the control panel and tore out a fistful of wires. He thumbed through them like a building super checking their keys, selected a fat red one and a skinny black-and-white number, and stripped off their casings with his teeth. A spark leapt from one to the other, bright pink and three inches long. There was a clap of thunder. The door groaned open and revealed the long ladder that led to the nose. Falk wrapped Lennox’s arms around his neck and held them tight with one hand while he climbed with the other.
I’d just started climbing when I heard the voice.
It came from behind me, from the living quarters. From my cabin.
“Help, you bastard!” she cried. “Help!”
It was Jude.
Sweet fucking god damn.
Let her die.
Yeah, I probably should.
So do it.
I dropped into the water. This fucking woman, I thought. As persistent as heartburn. I should have killed her on Lauriston, or on Katzen, or in grade school. But I kept letting her off the hook, no matter how often she pointed that damned shotgun in my face. I couldn’t decide if that made me a nice guy or the world’s biggest sucker. It wasn’t particularly important. In that moment, I just didn’t want anybody to drown.
The water was nearly at the ceiling, so high that it no longer made a noise as it rushed into the ship. So I swam down the absolute dark of the corridor, trusting my hands to find the way.
There are entertainers who specialize in holding their breath. I’ve known escape artists and trick divers who could make a lungful of air last three, four, even five minutes. It’s a skill that lends itself to magic.
It’s not a skill I ever learned.
By the time I found my cabin, my lungs were on fire. I slipped through the hatch, shoved my feet against the wall, and launched myself towards the dwindling pocket of air. I breathed deep, flicked on my datacard torch and scanned the murk.
I couldn’t see her, which meant she was either under the bed or inside the armoire.
If she was under the bed, she was dead already. I bit the datacard between my teeth and used both hands to wrench open the armoire.
She spilled into my arms, shotgun over her shoulder, face and shoulder a slick red blister, body limp. Her weight knocked the datacard out of my mouth. It fell through the water, glowing like a deep water fish, and was gone.
Jude writhed. I’m not sure if she was trying to fight or swim. Either way, she accomplished little. I kept my arm tight around her chest as I thrashed back towards the nose. There was no way to see where I was going, so I just swam against the current. It was an absolute fucking nightmare, but I pressed on, resolve strengthened by the certainty that Jude was hardly worth dying for.
When our heads broke through the water, we were halfway up the tunnel to the nose. There was no way I could carry Jude, so I smacked my head against hers until her eyes rolled open.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Climb,” I answered, and let her go. “Or die. I don’t care.”
She climbed. The ship kept rolling and the water kept rising. We were on our bellies, crawling on the ladder, and the water was at our knees, then our hips, then our necks. We were spluttering for air when we reached the switchback that led to the airlock, to freedom, to Falk. I was struggling through this final obstacle when Falk’s hands seized my shoulders and dragged me clear. They were steel clamps—cold and strong—and if it were an option, I’d have let them hold me forever.
I flopped onto the hull and breathed so deep that I thought I might throw up. I needed an hour or two to recharge, but our little patch of hull was already slipping beneath the waves. A minute, maybe two, and the ship would be gone.
I sat up. There was no way I could keep swimming, but it seemed I didn’t have a choice. We’d come down in a soft green sea whose water tasted equal parts salty and sweet. Far ahead I saw a shoreline, a complex of waterfront buildings that I supposed were the home of NHI corporate. The sky was close to black and the towers glowed with the lights of a few thousand ceiling-mounted tubes. To my left and right the water stretched to the horizon. But behind me, close enough to dream on, an island floated beneath a bank of orange sherbet clouds. A long white beach rose to a whitewashed boardwalk whose pier stretched out far enough that I could have spit at it if my mouth were still capable of producing spit. Beyond it were twisting metal shapes whose purpose I couldn’t divine.
We could swim it.
“How’s Lennox?” I said.
“Not good,” answered Falk. I bit my cheek until the fear drifted back down. “We need to get her off this planet, find a doctor, a hospital, something.”
“Let’s make for the island.”
“What about your friend? Can she swim?”
I gave Jude a look. Her dress was in tatters; her face and chest were a mess of seared flesh. Her lips moved quickly, mouthing a phrase that, after a moment, I recognized.
“Kill Greg. Kill Greg. Kill Greg.”
I rolled her onto her back. I was going to rouse her with a gentle nudge, but then I remembered what she’d done to MEL and I smacked her hard, right on her burn. Her eyes snapped open.
“What the fuck?” she said.
“What are you doing here?”
“You fucked up my face.” Her voice sounded like it had been put through a cheese grater. “I wasn’t gonna let that slide. While you made a fool of yourself in the atrium, I snuck onto your ship. Hid in your cabin. I was gonna surprise you. Finish this. But then you did the same thing you always do. You fucked it up.”
“Still want to kill me?”
Agony spasmed across her.
“You really meant what you said? The trick coin, the people here—you really think they can fix me?”
It was an absolute lie, but she had a shotgun and I had nothing and it seemed a bad idea to dash her hope.
“Can you swim?” I said.
“I’m a damn wreck, Greg.”
“I can see that.”
“I had a calling. I had the work. It’s gone. You get what that means, right?”
Of course I did. Our little shortcut, our shield against misery and loneliness and all the rest of life’s bullshit that mortals aren’t supposed to be able to escape. I knew what it meant and I knew how it felt to watch it go, so I gave a little nod.
“Then I can swim.”
I helped her up. Below our feet, something exploded. The ship rocked violently. A rush of air bubbles surged up from the depths. Falk threw Lennox over his shoulder and shoved off into the water. I followed. After a few agonizing strokes, I heard Jude splash in behind me. I wanted to forget about her, but every few seconds I found myself glancing over my shoulder to confirm she was still there.
The pier was not far but the sinking 909 was creating a hell of a rip tide, and anyway, I was tired. I kept jabbing down with my feet, checking for bottom. It didn’t come. So I kept throwing my arms out in front of me, shoulders burning and eyes stinging from whatever this planet had that passed for water. I swam and I swam but the pier never seemed to get any closer and soon my muscles were burning too much for me to go on.
I rolled onto my back—just to catch my breath, you understand—and watched purple clouds corkscrew towards horizon. Water drifted in and out of my mouth. I tried to steady my breathing but I was too tired to float and my heart kept beating faster and soon, I knew, I would drown.
And then I understood the meaning of the island’s metal towers.
The long, slender supports. The ribbon of steel that wove between them.
It was a roller coaster.
The roller coaster where K learned to fly.
That gave me the necessary jolt. I kicked and thrashed and huffed until I had the cold steel of the pier’s ladder in my hands. I flopped onto the deck, enjoying the touch of splintered wood on my pruned skin. I heard Falk beside me, whispering meaningless assurance into Lennox’s ears. Jude dragged herself up between us. She wrestled her shotgun off her shoulder, disassembled it, and began blowing each part dry.
I was on the verge of dozing off when Falk prodded me in the rib. He had Lennox pressed against his chest. She was shivering. Her eyes were closed.
“Let’s find a radio,” he said.
And so we trudged toward the setting sun. My eyes were on Falk but my ears were straining to see if they could hear that roller coaster calling my name.
As we neared the shore I glanced over my shoulder for a last look at the corporate complex on the far side of the water. What had been a shining, modern office park was now a desiccated wreck—the skeletons of its abandoned towers standing like corpses that had been nailed to a post and left to rot in the sun.
I blinked and the towers were whole.
We stepped onto the island and I led the way, trying to pretend I knew where we were going, to stay cheerful, to ignore the screaming suspicion that this was the planet where I would die.
Thanks for reading Strange Times! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.