Captain Ariella Claymore floated in the center of the cargo bay as Chief Bill Roberts manipulated the tractor beams to guide the lifeless spacecraft through the bay doors. “She’s an antique,” the captain’s voice crackled over the intercom. “There’s an American flag on the port nacelle. It’s got 54 stars. That puts her in the twenty third century. What’s a 500 year old ship doing way out here?”
The chief smiled at the needless complexity of the old design. “She must be an early experimental model. It definitely pre-dates the modern warp configuration. I guess it got out here using some form of hyper-light drive, but couldn’t get home. Was she manned?”
The captain maneuvered herself to look into the cockpit. “Yes. A crew of two. They’re not in too bad of shape, considering they’ve been dead for five centuries. I’m going in.”
“What we going to do with them, captain? Bring them back to Earth for burial?”
The captain passed through the ship’s escape hatch carrying a small case. “Can’t, Chief. Protocol is very specific. If a ship and her crew have been adrift for more than 100 years, it’s considered a reliquary. You know, like a shrine. We are permitted to download the logs for the historians, and to take tissue samples for the Med-Techs incase they carry antibodies we might find useful. Other than that, we are required to set them adrift again. Land is too valuable nowadays. Besides, they’ve been dead for 15 generations. Nobody on Earth knows these people.”
Clearly dissatisfied with that option, the chief said. “So their sacrifice was for nothing. They deserve to have their ashes dispersed on Earth. So their molecules can be used by other life. It’s like immortality. It’s my desire to die during a fiery reentry accident.”
As Captain Claymore exited the old ship she made a mental note to not use the same Earth-bound shuttlecraft as the Chief on her next visit to the homeworld. She shut the hatch and rested her hand on the hull for a few moments and said a silent prayer. “It’s not up for debate, Chief. I got what we need. Set her adrift.”
The captain moved toward the bulkhead and waited for the chief to nudge the old ship out the bay doors. The ship didn’t move. It was taking too long. Just when she was about to question the chief, she noticed the star field rotating through the open bay doors. Seconds after the stars stopped moving, the old ship was thrust out of the cargo bay at a velocity that captain Claymore thought was impossible. “Chief, what just happened?”
“Sorry, Captain. I guess I just accidentally launched the ancient ship toward a large red dwarf. It will collide with it in about 2,000 years. In about a million years, the star will go super nova. Their atoms will be spread throughout this quadrant. In a few billion years, some of them may be incorporated into alien life. I know it’s what I would have wanted if it were me that died on that craft.”
Ariella contemplated going after the ship, but decided to let it go. Maybe he was right. “Chief, you are the only engineer that I know who has a soul of a poet.”
“I’d appreciate it if you’d keep it to yourself, Captain. I have a reputation to maintain.”
Whoa, that was a long jump. What was that, a fifty foot drop? I don’t feel it right now, and that’s fine by me. This fucker running from me is going to taste my pain.
My boots hit the floor and ignorance runs thirty miles an hour. My heart is producing what was already injected but the long-term effects, I’m told, won’t be harmful like the natural juice. This asshole is fast but he picked the wrong officer to run from today. I’m on him like sweat on a desert whore, pounding my fist into the back of his head. They did say they wanted him dead, right?
Have to keep moving. I’m not sure there aren’t more like him and I’m not sticking around to get shanked by a wannabe juicer. I keep my life like I keep my heartbeatâ€¦ fast and undeniably untamable. There’s something under the surface and if I stop long enough it’ll come back for me.
My patch reads Rhabia Program. I know I was hand-picked to be an injectee but the fuck if I care why I signed up. The only thing I care about is hearing more footsteps from around the corner and wondering if the exposed bone of my knuckle is ever going to hurt. People don’t run like I do, they don’t roll cars onto people in fits of rage. I say people, but I mean criminals. These fuckheads deserve every piece of curb I make them kiss before God hands them a tissue to pick up their own entrails on the way past his golden gates.
No more footsteps. Should I hide? Sit here in this alleyway and wait. Just wait.
Breathing is getting better now. They don’t give me a gun because, from what I hear, injectors can’t use them properly when hyped. Anyways, I much prefer to punch the night away and use a perps’ face like a heavyweight’s meat-locker practice session. Heartbeat’s slowing. I wonder if I’ll ever see Marie again. What happened to her anyways?
Oh, shit. Sheâ€¦ cheated on me with that bastard O’Brien and Iâ€¦
No. I can’t be one of those guys.
Another injection; perfect timing. Before I know it, I’m maxing my speed at around forty miles an hour. What was I thinking about anyways? Stop thinking, Corporal, and find the meat bag that shot that old lady and Jacob’s ladder his ribcage. Yeah, that sounds like the best idea I’ve had all day. Another drop from another overpass and I can see the fucker from here. I’m angry about somethingâ€¦ and man, is he going to know it.
The Immortal danced.
The colony world smelled like new spring, and the night air was cool on the Immortals skin. He whirled around the bonfire the settlers had made to rejoice in the spring and celebrate the barn raising. The immortal flung his feet in a wild and practiced dance and thought about suicide. His parents were dead, his friends were dead, and a month ago, his last living child was killed. His daughter had been one of the few accidental deaths. Even with all the safeguards, spaceships still crashed. His daughter had been three hundred years old.
The Immortal whirled like a dervish. The colony honored him, he was the oldest among them and they treated him with distant reverence. The colonists brought him baskets of food. The young people built his wooden house. No one spoke to him unless he spoke first.
This was the start of a new world, and he thought that surrounded by young people he would feel their excitement. He hoped their wide-eyed joy would bleed over to him, but they just made him feel older. He was living like a runner in a marathon, looking forward to the next mark, promising himself that would be his stopping point.
He could easily have an accident, just like his daughter. He could fling himself off a cliff, or sink himself in the lake. He could die too. It could be over. They would not bring him back, they would respect his wishes.
He whirled and found a young woman spinning towards him, into his arms, her waist slim under his fingers, her eyes pale as a morning sky. She danced with him, and he thought he might live a while longer.
The cryocrate rested unobtrusively in the corner of Sanitation Engineer Edward Holmes’s broom closet. It was metal, like most cryocrates, and marked only by the blinking temperature meter and a yellow sticker declaring CAUTION: MAN-EATING SNAKES to those who cared to read it.
Most of the flight staff did not care to read it. Their cargo was often covered with such warnings: CYANIDE, EBOLA, KRYPTONITE. In reality, the boxes usually contained smuggled Terran cigarettes or other things best kept from prying eyes. Not in this case, however. This box actually contained man-eating snakes.
The first three months of the journey were uneventful. The navigator navigated, the communications manager communicated, and the captain capted. Edward cleaned, as he’d been hired to do, until he ran out of the blue-colored stuff that smelled like mothballs. Edward had never been terribly bright.
“What in space are you doing, Holmes?” the captain exclaimed as he poured a bucket of used bathwater down the stairs.
“Why aren’t you using that blue-colored stuff that smells like mothballs?” she demanded. The captain had never been terribly bright, either.
“We’re all out of it, sir!”
“Well, get some from the storage closet!”
The captain stormed back towards the command chamber, leaving Edward Holmes to stare at the small bubbles and gray soapy liquid that coated the stairway. He prodded the liquid with his mop, to no avail. “What a mess,” he said. He propped his mop against the wall and headed off to the broom closet.
“Blue-colored stuff,” Edward said to himself as he stared at the boxes before him. He tried several, most of which were filled with test tubes, though he did find what he assumed was a human heart. Although all of the boxes contained stuff, none of them contained stuff that was blue. “The captain’s gonna be mad,” he said as he opened the lid of the final box.
The last thing Sanitation Engineer Edward Holmes heard was the bony click of an unhinging jaw.
Meanwhile, back in the command chamber, the captain was doing what captains do with remarkable efficiency. She’d long since mastered the art of making thoughtful grunts and sipping powdered coffee, and she’d almost perfected simultaneously casting condescending glances towards the other members of her crew.
“Captain!” exclaimed the exclamations officer. “I’m receiving a danger report from level 13!”
The captain sighed. “What’s wrong now?” she asked.
“I’m not sure!” he said. “It seems that some of the cargo has escaped!”
“I advise we secure the command chamber! And set course to the nearest station!”
“What cargo do we have that could escape?” the captain wondered aloud. Ever since the sentient fetus incident in the Alaran system, she’d refused to transport live cargo.
“Maintain course, Chief Exclamations Officer Jones. I’ll look into it.”
“As you wish, sir!”
The captain stood up and strode to the door, which she opened with a tap against a glowing panel. No sooner had the metal panel opened, however, than a slithering scaly mass made its way into the chamber. “Snake!” she screamed as the large form wrapped itself around her leg. “Jones, do something!”
The Exclamations Officer, however, had problems of his own. The keyboard of his station exploded forward in a spray of plastic, immediately followed by a dozen ringed reptiles. He screamed as one creature’s fangs pierced his neck.
The security officer, who’d never had excellent aim and neglected to consider the logic of using a heat-seeking weapon on a reptile, managed only to stun three members of the crew while trying to target his legless adversaries. “Snake, I kill you filthy!” he screamed as a cobra slapped the gun from his hand with its tail.
The chamber was alive with serpents. The violent hissing was a battle cry unequaled by the sounds of any Terran revolution. Valiantly, the officers and engineers tried to defend their ship, but it was in vain. The snakes, those cruel, cold-blooded bringers of despair and death, had won in a matter of minutes.
“Nooo!” was the final human cry to penetrate the tumultuous sibilance. Then, the Exclamations Officer too was devoured.
I have a fine grandson named Lorenzo, and he and his mother and father came down to visit me. He brought his wonderful burnished helmet and beautiful, shiny aeroboard with him when they came. I felt very proud, and I thought at last I would be able to interest him in what I did professionally. We walked over to Daedalus Park, and I dare say he was suitably impressed and sputtered off, keeping clear of the couples on their hover-carpets and the small children in the Zero-G playspace.
As I was watching Lorenzo careen among the floating statuary and flora, a woman who can only be described as pinched approached me and told me I had to rein my grandson in.
Of all the planning Iâ€™ve done for this city, Daedalus Park is the one closest to my heart, having worked with the aeronetic engineers every step of the way, and pushed it through endless committees when everyone said I was mad. Now you see AeroSites all over, but I take no small amount of pride in stating that Daedalus Park was the first. And I do not remember any regulation such as this pinched woman mentioned, so I proceeded to ask her why I needed to bring the poor boy down to earth.
â€œBecause heâ€™s not allowed,â€ she told me, pointing. â€œHeâ€™s not allowed to do that.â€
At this, I threw myself up to my full height, and, as the author of this entire project, loudly and in no uncertain terms, said, â€œBy what right do you have to deny this young man the public air?â€
Some people wilt when confronted with my full not-quite-six feet, especially when backed by my formidable baritone. This woman, however, was far too strengthened by the imaginary authority in her veins, and proceeded to argue with meâ€”with increasing volumeâ€”exactly what could and could not be done in this park. So much so that Lorenzo came down from his whirligigs and whatever other complex maneuvers he does on that board of his, and said he didnâ€™t have to use the park in that fashion.
The woman tilted her head in satisfaction at this, which burned me more than I believe anything in the conversation had yet. I informed both the woman and my wonderful grandson that if he no longer wished to use this public air in the fashion it was designed for, then I would.
Naturally, the moment I set foot on the aeroboard, I fell off. But I did not let that daunt me. I continued my ham-footed attempts until the woman, disgusted at my flagrant mockery of her pseudo-rules, left in a huff.
I am told by his father that Lorenzo enjoys telling this story almost as much as I do. Though I believe he focuses on different aspects.