The final installment of my Scifi tribute to Louis Zamperelli
|We'd been adrift for fourteen hours according to the lifepod’s chronometer when a cluster of floats appeared off of our port-side.
I’d only ever seen the creatures on two and three-dimensional displays, never up close and personal. Of course, I still was only seeing the creatures on a video-display, but the knowledge that they were just outside our pod made that fact seem irrelevant--as though I was seeing the magnificent entities with my own eyes.
Hallock gasped. I spared a glance at the kid, saw he was in bad shape. “Hold it together. They won’t attack us, not if we don’t provoke them.”
Reynolds turned to me. It looked as though he was about to ask a question, but he didn't. “They’re incredible…” He said instead.
He was right. The creatures, which resembled nothing so much as oversized lengths of swimming-pool hose, are the first and, as of this writing, the only extra-atmospheric life form known to humankind. Extremely little is known about them, and what little is remains largely unsubstantiated by research. To date, frustrated scientists have yet to obtain even a single float, dead or alive, for their purposes. Floats, apparently, travel in higher dimensions as well as in the three spatial dimensions accessible to humankind. The perfect escape route for the cornered, wounded, or dying…
“We’re going to die. We’re all going to die…”
I turned from the display and saw that Hallock was hugging himself, each hand on the opposite shoulder.
“Stow that shit.” This from Reynolds, who was still riveted to the display. “There’s no reason to think that.”
Hallock’s eyes widened. “Oh, no? Haven’t you heard the stories? The crew of the Examiner?”
“Those are just stories, kid…”
“The Examiner was a hunting ship,” I said. “And, as Reynold’s said, it’s likely only a story anyway.”
“I don’t know, I don’t know…” Hallock was rocking now, his arms around his knees. He refused to look anywhere near the display. “Those things have eaten through hulls! The Mariner, that was no hunting ship!”
The floats on the display I was watching looked suddenly less benign. Hallock was right, about the Mariner. That ship, by all counts, had just been in the proverbial wrong place and time. “It’s a matter of statistics, Hallock. Tens of thousands of human craft fly through territory populated by floats every standard-galactic-time-part.”
“We’re all going to die.”
For the first time since the floats appeared on our visual displays, Reynolds peeled his eyes from the beautiful, dangerous spectacle just outside our pod. “If you don’t shut up, you’re going to have more immediate problems then the floats…”
“Lieutenant…” I was careful to keep my tone even. “Please.”
Reynolds favored me with a less than friendly look. “Sir,” He said.
“Corporal, listen to me carefully. Give me your eyes.” I waited until Hallock had done so. “We’re going to get through this if we keep our wits. Get your head together, and check the navigational computer. See if it’s locked onto a gravitational mass yet.”
Hallock nodded and turned to the small computer bank built into the wall. Reynolds turned from the display, his previous anger gone. “Sorry, Captain.”
I waved his apology off as unnecessary and motioned for him to go easy.
Time, for all purposes, had ceased to exist within our pod. Day and night had become meaningless, as the hours had before them, and the minutes before them. For one thing, there was no sunlight to distinguish the one from the other. Also, there were no meals with which to punctuate the day. It was all one perpetually-long twilight in the freezing lifepod. The only change that ever occurred was when one or the other of us would moan, or, on occasion, cry out.
What was worse, the line between consciousness and sleep had blurred as well. Starved and exhausted, I would, at times, challenge myself to figure out if I was awake or not. Usually, this would involve rousing Reynolds in some way, until I could get an answering groan from the man. The fact that my feeble grip on sanity relied so heavily on the presence of another person wasn't lost on me. Without another consciousness to use as a compass one could easily become lost under such conditions.
The pod lurched, suddenly. In my semi-conscious state, I took notice of this, but in an out-of-body sort of way--in the manner of a dream. I waited. If there was something I needed to do, I had to hope my subconscious mind would locate some hidden store of strength.
Again, the pod (my mind?) lurched. I heard Reynolds cry out.
Reynolds was still alive, then. Good for him.
I tried to answer. “Hnnnnnnn,” was all I could manage.
Reynolds did a bit better. “Cap’n.” The man’s voice was unrecognizable, but at least he was able to make coherent sounds. “Cap’n, look…”
I tried to move and pain was my reward. My eyes wouldn’t open, I suppose they had frozen shut. “Hnn?”
“A ship,” the other man said.
Now I knew I must be dreaming. Were we being rescued? After all of this now-meaningless time? After this seeming eternity of suffering?
It dawned on me, then, that Reynolds hadn’t mentioned whether or not it was a friendly spacecraft that had found us. Again I tried to sit up, and again muscles I never knew I had screamed at me. I fought through the agony. Still, my eyes wouldn’t open. I lifted my left hand, it weighed fifty pounds-pounds, at least. I dropped it back onto my thigh.
A thought occurred to me then: I didn’t care. It didn’t matter to me, whether the warship that was even now pulling our moribund lifepod toward its starboard flight-deck, was a friendly or not. Either way, the crew would be human. As prisoners of war, we would be fed, at least enough to keep us alive.
The pod lurched. A terrible metallic clank sent powerful vibrations throughout the frame of the lifepod. We’d cleared the warship’s shielding and come to rest on her flight deck.
Finally, I was able to force my eyes open. The interior of the pod, which had seemed so terribly dark before, now appeared bright enough to cause pain. The difference, I knew, was not in the pod, but in my light-deprived eyes.
Circular blotches of red and blue swam in increasingly smaller orbits around their actual sources. After a moment, I was able to distinguish the instrument panel from the rest of the interior. From there, I located the hatch.
Holding my head up proved too much of a strain on my starved body. I let my head drop back to the deck. It hit harder than I’d intended; my vision swam.
When I was able to focus, I looked at Reynolds. It was a shock. I have no idea how many days had passed since I’d last laid eyes on my pod-mate, but it must have been a while. The man was, for all purposes, unrecognizable. The broad-shouldered hulk of a man who’d escaped the Meridian was gone. In his place, an emaciated husk. To say he looked dead would be to understate the situation.
I’m sure I looked no better.
The sound of our lifepod’s hatch being cut open drew my attention back to the rectangular seal beside the control panel. It's perimeter brightened under the heat of a plasma torch; I closed my eyes against the optical assault.
There was a heavy, metallic thud as the hatch fell outward. The sound reverberated through the pod, turning the small craft into a subharmonic tuning-fork. In spite of the discomfort the noise and vibration caused, I felt relief course through every cell of my body. The sensation was cathartic, orgasmic. All thought dissipated before it.
It was warmth.
Heat from the warship that had rescued (captured?) us flooded the pod the instant the hatch opened. It was more than beautiful, that heat, it was life-giving...it was life itself. I let it take me, body and mind. I wept, though I was too dehydrated to produce tears.
Footsteps echoed through the pod’s hull and then there was a man’s voice. So intoxicated with relief was I that it took me a few seconds to realize they weren’t speaking Universal Standard. They were speaking Halstile, the language of the enemy.
I reminded myself that I didn’t care. I concentrated on the warmth, and on the fact that we were alive. Mostly, I concentrated on the warmth.