A short Scifi serial based loosely, but respectfully on the ordeal of Louis Zamperini.
“We’re going to need a bigger boat…” JAWS
I thought about killing him when we discovered he’d eaten the last of the chocolate. I thought about it more seriously than I’d like to admit.
We’d been adrift for two days; there’d been enough chocolate to last the three of us for another day, maybe two if we stretched it. Reynolds had awakened to find the third member of our party devouring our meager stores; I can’t help but wonder if the wretch wouldn’t have finished off our water as well, had he not been caught.
The wan emergency-lighting of the lifepod threw sickly shadows at everyone and everything within the cramped space. It was all too easy to see a monster in Hallock, the man who’d stolen our food. The lighting didn't help any. It accentuated the young man’s deep-set eyes, filled them with darkness. I watched the thief...studied him. It looked as though he was about to speak; I silenced him with a look. Don’t.
I looked at Reynolds and he looked back, the unspoken question written all over his person. I was the ranking officer. Reynolds was looking to me for the okay, for my permission to kill the third member of our trio of survivors.
Given the circumstances, we would have been justified. The man had sabotaged our already wafer-thin chance at survival, and there was no guarantee that, given the opportunity, he wouldn’t do so again.
For reasons I’ll likely never fully understand, I shook my head. Maybe Hallock did deserve to die, and perhaps the smart thing would have been to eliminate the potential threat to our survival. I’d like to say that I let him live in order to set an example as an officer and as a human being. The truth goes deeper than that, though. I was afraid. Not afraid of killing Hallock, but of the white-hot anger that urged me to take retribution on the man. What might it do to me, once it had dispatched the thief?
There was always the possibility, too, that sparing the man’s life might earn our party karmic-credit enough to warrant being rescued.
Disgusted and dispirited, I held my hands out to Reynolds, who handed over the small supply-cooler he’d confiscated from Hallock. A look inside the near-empty container further darkened my mood. I selected one of the canisters of water and cracked the seal. “I think it’s your turn.”
Reynolds watched me for a moment in silence, both men did. Finally, Reynolds seemed to come to terms with my decision. “I could use two." He said. "What do you think?”
“Agreed.” I braced myself before I next spoke. “Hallock?”
Reynolds glared at me, wide-eyed, but said nothing. Hallock, on the other hand, looked shocked. There were actually tears in his eyes. Not daring to speak, he nodded his approval.
I drank my two swallows, savoring each as though they might be my last. I handed the canister to Reynolds, held his glare with my own. He took his share of water and thrust the container at Hallock. “You’re lucky,” he said to the thief, “The Lieutenant here is a better man than I am.”
Of course, we know that isn’t necessarily true.
I’m not a soldier, not professionally. None of the three of us are.
I run. Actually, I’m one of the fastest men in the known universe at the one-hundred-meter sprint. I took the gold at the 3013 games, in fact, and was training for the Earth Championships when the war broke out. My popularity, such as it was--people follow runners the way they do shuffleboard players, though a gold medal does earn the former a certain degree of recognition--is no doubt the reason I’d been placed in charge of my unit.
We’d been on a recon mission, just over the enemy line, when our ship was hit with a ten-kiloton nuclear device. The Meridian had been employing every means of stealth known to man and a few that had been engineered specifically for our mission. How we were spotted I can’t say, but I’ll never forget the equal parts terror and disbelief I felt on hearing the ship’s XO cry out over the intercom, “Incoming, nuclear device--brace for impact!”
It wasn’t my speed that saved my life, it was chance. The Meridian was large for a stealth-recon ship. Nearly the size of a destroyer-class warship, our stealth-recon vessel necessitated a bare-bones crew of fifty. The idea had been that the stealth measures employed--cutting edge, to be sure--made the actual size of the spy-ship irrelevant. As such, the craft could be used to drop entire platoons of soldiers behind enemy lines undetected.
That had been the idea, at any rate. Standing in the corridor adjacent to the port-side communications relay, replaying the Executive Officer’s message in my head (and trying to recall the location of the nearest lifepod) I decided it had been a bad one.
I wondered, as I seemed to recall that the nearest life-pods were located on the starboard side of the ship, what the impact would feel like? Would I feel anything? And if I felt nothing, would that mean the Meridian had absorbed more than her share of the impending blast, or that I’d been vaporized and therefore rendered incapable of feeling anything?
With an effort of will, I pushed such thoughts aside. I needed to get as close to the lifepods as possible before the warhead impacted on the surface of our ship…
We thought we were rescued. It took some effort on our part, but we managed to hail a spacecraft that showed up at the very periphery of the lifepod’s meager scanners. When it disappeared off our scopes, the weight of our collective spirits falling was palpable. Then, just as we were about to write the close-encounter off as a means of rescue, it reappeared.
It’s hard to put into words just how exhausting it is, both mentally and physically, to endure such an emotional roller coaster ride. We were six days adrift, and malnutrition and lack of proper sleep were taking its toll on us. Going from cautious-optimism to complete and utter relief, and then back down to crushing disappointment, all in the span of a minute is an experience I won’t soon forget--should I live to remember it. For the moment, though, the stress and strain had all been worth it--the spacecraft had spotted us and was doubling back.
And then it fired on us, and there wasn’t time to feel anything but alarm.
“Oh, fuck!” This from Reynolds, who scrambled to check the pod’s sparse shielding. The first blast sizzled past us, close enough that we could feel the residual heat from inside the heavily insulated and vacuum-proof pod. Hallock cried out, and I think I may have too.
I looked around the small space, desperate to find some way of improving our situation. Finding none, I turned my attention to Reynolds and the shields. “Did they hold?”
Reynolds turned to me, a look in his eyes that seemed out of place there. It took me a second to recognize it as fear. I felt a cold, invisible hand grip my stomach. Galin Reynolds had been a vice-detective in the neon-district of Gala-Minor-- which means I suppose I misspoke earlier. In a way, Reynolds had been a soldier, operating deep in enemy territory. Nothing this war had thrown at him thus far- that I’d seen, at least- had shaken the man. “Fifty-percent,” He said.
I felt the blood drain from my face. The next shot would do it.
“Detective Reynolds,” I extended my hand, “It's been an honor.” To my horror, I thought I might cry. I bit down on the inside of my lip, hard.
He reached out and grasped my hand, shook. “The honor was mine, sir.”
As one, we turned to Hallock. The man looked as though he’d like to squeeze himself through the bulkhead and out into the vast emptiness of space. I offered him my hand.
The young man shook, tears streaming from his eyes. He was unable to speak, but he nodded in salute as he did.
Reynolds didn’t offer the man his hand, but he did offer a nod. Then, as though the detective in him couldn’t die without knowing, he blurted, “Why? Why did you do it?”
Hallock’s face contorted into a mask of pain and shame. He was crying openly. “The floats…”
This was all he could manage before the second blast hit.
The nuclear blast shook the warship Meridian to her core. The air was suddenly dense with sirens, alarms, and frantic loudspeaker announcements that screamed blared, and spoke over one another. Soldiers in small clusters ran by me in both directions, shouting repeated orders over the cacophony. I made my way starboard as quickly as I dare, lest I run headlong into a fire, or worse, a breach somewhere.
I was nearly to the starboard lifepod hangers when I heard the screams. Had the Meridian been boarded? That didn’t make sense, though. Why nuke a warship and then board her?
I rounded the corner and saw immediately what the commotion was about. My stomach convulsed, and for a second I thought I might lose my breakfast. A trio of soldiers had panicked, apparently and failed to wait until the airlock on their pod had fully cycled. Their scattered and decompressed remains floated in the transparent area between the Meridian proper, and starboard-lifepod number-six.
The Meridian shuddered. It let loose a cry that may well have been a death-rattle, as her alloy bones compensated for the sudden, and likely catastrophic, redistribution of mass and force resulting from the blast. New and even more shrill alarms joined the horrific chorus in the dying ship.
And then, an even worse noise. The unmistakable sound of air escaping a small breach at velocity. A section of the starboard lifepod hanger had been exposed to the vacuum of space.
Panicked crew fled for the hatches in either direction, abandoning the life-pods for the promise of breathable atmosphere.
They were right, I realized. Depending on how quickly the air was escaping the hanger, there may not be time to properly cycle the airlocks on the pods.
So I ran. That’s what I do.
To be continued...