Chuck Wendig set out another intriguing flash fiction challenge based on an article in io9; 10 Writing “Rules” We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break. Here’s my version.
Out of Air
“Set her down there,” the engineer says, almost pushing Muir out of her chair in his excitement.
“Step away right now, or by the Void I will pull your testicles out through your mouth,” Muir says through gritted teeth.
She struggles with the steering, trying to physically force the huge craft to change course. “Come on, baby, move your ass for momma.”
“She’s a heavy bird all right.” The engineer says.
“George. Shut up.” Muir can’t believe that she has managed the turn. She lets the vessel fall faster than she should and she knows it. But the Arragai aren’t far behind and she has to get the engines offline and give them time to cool down.
They hit the surface of the asteroid with a crash that Muir is sure damages something. But there’s no time to worry about that now.
“Everything off. Right now.” She snaps her fingers at George while grasping for the mic of the ship’s communication system. “Folks, sit tight, huddle up and breathe easy. Life support’s going offline in 20 seconds and we’ll all live longer if everyone stays calm. Talk as little as you can, absolutely no exertion and NO fires, no matter how cold you get.”
She puts the mic down and slides her thumb over her throat, giving George the signal to kill everything. Within seconds the ship stops humming and Muir feels the creeping tendrils of panic rushing forward, filling her with a clammy coldness. She can’t even remember the last time she didn’t hear the constant, reassuring rumble of engines around her.
“Do you think it will work?” George asks, barely above a whisper.
Muir shakes her head, trying to dislodge her own morbid thoughts. “I don’t know. Their instruments won’t pick us up if we don’t even have life-support on, but the heat signature might still give us away. I just don’t know.”
They listen to the silence and look out through the translucent cockpit walls at the emptiness they are tumbling through.
“What do you think will happen if they find us?” George asks.
Muir rubs her eyes, stifling a sigh. She had forgotten just how much she hates breaking in new engineers fresh out of the Academy. “You’ve heard the stories.”
“Yeah, but they’re just stories, right?”
In the darkness, Muir holds her breath as the Arragai assault cruiser slides into partial view from behind the asteroid. Its painted metal surfaces seem to glint even in the low light of the dying red dwarf in the distance. Her heart beats a little faster still and her breath catches in her throat.
“Come on. Come on,” she pleads quietly, hoping George won’t hear her.
George’s voice takes on an edge of panic. “They’re just stories, right?”
“No, they’re not just stories. The Arragai never take prisoners, they never leave anyone alive. If they catch us, they’ll board and hold a tournament on who can find the most creative and entertaining way of killing us, while snacking on those of us who don’t end up in the tournament.”
“But if they never leave anyone alive, where do the stories come from?”
“Evidence. Now shut up, and get ready to move.”
Muir can hear George shuddering but she doesn’t dare take her eyes off the cruiser. She almost feels sorry for the kid. It’s his first tour on the outer rim and they come across an Arragai cruiser trawling for entertainment. That shouldn’t happen on a passenger vessel and it usually doesn’t. She certainly hasn’t seen one since her last tour in the military. Someone in HR is going to get an extra orifice when she gets back. If she gets back.
There are no scouts visible yet and the asteroid masks almost all of the cruiser from view, it’s slow tumbling taking them away from its sight. Muir breathes a sigh of relief as the cruiser disappears in the folds of hyperspace to make the jump forward to find some other ship. She counts slowly to 1000 before moving her eyes from the spot the ship disappeared in.
“Ok. I think that’s done it. Looks like we live to see another day.”
George laughs out in relief and Muir suspects that he’s crying a little too, but doesn’t draw attention to it. She’s seen people lose bladder control on their first meeting with the Arragai, so George is doing pretty good, considering. She can’t help laughing a little herself.
“Let’s bring everything online, see what kind of damage we got while landing.”
George’s hand’s are shaking from the release of tension, but slowly he brings all systems online one by one. Engine start, power management, lights, life support. Life support. LIFE SUPPORT.