The Instant

Author : Andrew Bale

How is it that death is an instant? A few seconds ago, the gasping, struggling, savaged body of Ensign Harper had been a living person, and then, in an instant, he was gone. She held his body, felt it settling, relaxing from its former struggles, dynamic still in its own way but unquestionably now just a thing and no longer a person. A person one instant, meat the next. How was that possible?

Thirty years in space told her that the same process was about to happen for the Exeter. Outnumbered, outmatched, from the moment the first shots were fired every action she had taken had just been an attempt to delay this inevitable moment. Now the destroyer was in its own struggle to stay alive, but she knew the damage was far too severe, that soon it too would go still, transform in an instant from a vessel that crossed the stars to a mere chunk of metal and plastic.

She felt it the second it happened.

“Captain!”

The XO’s face was hard to see through the faceplate of his helmet, streaked with sweat and twisted with barely repressed terror.

“Captain, the last furnace just failed. We’re dead in space. What are your orders?”

The ship was dead, the enemy was doubtless preparing to board. There was only one order to give.

“Emergency channel, full broadcast. This is Captain Tutuola, scuttle the ship, repeat, scuttle the ship…” She hesitated slightly, “… it has been an honor.”

The signal went out through the ship, displayed in her helmet as if projected into the empty center of the wrecked bridge. Thousands of little lights appeared, neurons in the virtual brain that was the ship’s control system, each light representing a computer, a piece of sensitive technology, some other vital system that used to make the Exeter a ship. One by one, the lights went out as dedicated thermal charges transformed them into lumps of innocuous slag. In under a minute the vast majority were extinguished, with the rest following more slowly as the remaining crew took plasma cutters to systems spared by defective charges. They were efficient, it took only a minute more.

“Captain, the ship has been scuttled.”

Wallace was a good man. He had never been afraid of the battle, hadn’t feared dying. He had feared surviving to see this. Understandable.

She sighed, unaware as she did it, a physical release to match the decision that had to be made.

“Emergency channel, full broadcast. This is Captain Tutuola, initiate wipe, all crew, repeat, initiate wipe, all crew.”

The order was processed by the battlesuits, a short pulse to the back of the head followed by a thermal charge to melt the suit’s own computer. It went by rank from junior to senior, in order, so it was Yeoman Assari who was the first, lurching out of his seat and screaming silently in his helmet before going still, floating in the middle of the room. The rest went in turn quickly, most taking it stoically, some having to be restrained by their seniors from tearing off their helmets in irrational, terrified suicide. Wallace spasmed, terror turned to peace in an instant as he stared at her with blank eyes. She saw Assari reach for a handhold, looking around the room with the confusion of a newborn in an adult body, asking silent questions with a furrowed brow. She saw the glow of a cutting torch appear in the center of the ceiling, and an echoing glow from behind her head.

And then… the instant passed.

12 Comments

  1. philaberry

    Felt like reading Iain M Banks – that’s a compliment!

  2. Jae

    Whilst you may sign up for it, the imminence of death requires a certain… Adjustment.

    Excellent piece.

  3. cosmicfish

    Thank you all for the feedback!

  4. cmh8133

    Lame alt ending?

    She opened her eyes and sighed.
    “Restart Simulation”

  5. kohlersc

    I loved it. And the last three lines still have me contemplating exactly what happened to the crew. Did they die? Did it malfunction on Assari? Did you make a mistake? Or as I think I now believe…they were robots being wiped?

    • cosmicfish

      Thank you, and to answer your questions:
      No.
      No.
      No.
      No.

    • atomicbob

      I think they were humans being wiped.

  6. xdhz8

    Creepy and science fictiony with a little philosophy thrown in. Nice.

  7. Irene

    The final moments​ poignantly portrayed. Nicely done.

  8. SimonJM

    Interesting use of ‘archaic’ terminology, but the overall effect is the quiet terror of the unknown inexorably settling on them.

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