The story of Lou and his crew will be coming to you in Novella form shortly! It will be available on Amazon. It will include the three parts below and all new unpublished, unread story! (Edited, re-edited, changed, and polished. Hopefully, anyway.)
Listen to Part 1: here
Welcome to Hell.
Degenerate louse reporting for duty. Need a fire put out? I’ll be smoking in the back. Need rescued from a burning building? I—are weighted blankets fireproof? Did anyone check that recently? Because honestly, I’d love to know. I’d be fighting fires one blanket at a time. If I was still fighting fires…
Are weighted blankets fireproof?
Okay, it’s written down. Answer coming to you shortly. That is, if I can get my hands on the internet. I haven’t been there in three years now. Maybe I’ll just ask the Commander.
On second thought, maybe not. I wasn’t really supposed to be here. But when the world is bathed in fire, they can’t in good conscience release me through the airlock. I mean, not to say they haven’t tried. There’s been a few debates over my fate, but they all end in a tipped result. It starts as a tie, and then one bridge keeps me alive, every single time. I’ll admit I’m lucky.
“Lou!” Didn’t I mention I’m the official ‘lou’se on board? They just refrain from speaking the word aloud.
“Here,” I call out, standing from my desk. My roommate—Ace—and I have shared these quarters since we left Earth. He had to become my best friend; I decreed it so. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to share my sentiment. Rock or otherwise.
“You didn’t show up for your session,” he growls, stepping into our small room. I give my best smile, sheepish as it is.
“I got distracted?” My voice rises several pitches.
He glances at the desk where my journal lies open. Sighing, his gaze returns to mine, floating from my uncombed hair down to my untied boots. I never claimed not to be a mess. I just want to make that clear.
“Tie your boots and meet me in the training room.” He rolls his eyes. As subtle as he is about that motion, I’m tuned to it. He makes a show of watching the doors shut between us, because he can’t slam the door in my face. If that’s not a plus to automatic doors, I don’t know what is.
I slump back on my seat and pull one boot up. I’m not a soldier. No matter how many times he takes me into the training room, I’m going to be a dramatic failure. Not once have I been able to best him. Honestly, no one on the ship can. So why should I be able to? Our Commander doesn’t understand that.
With my boots tied, I trudge to the training room. It takes a moment for the doors to open, but when they do, my heart sinks. I’m not the only one who didn’t show. Wrench is here too, in all her filth. I may be useless but at least I have basic hygiene down to a T. When it comes to having a partner in combat training, it’s preferred they aren’t covered in grease. She’s a slippery thing as it is.
“Good of you to show,” Ace directs the statement to both of us, glancing from Wrench to me. He then crosses the room, tugging his uniform over his head. Wrench’s gaze is lured to his back before she notices me staring at her. One furious finger lifts from inside her sleeve. Apologies grease slick, it’s the only entertainment I get out of a day. “Dress down, now. You’re wasting my time. Again.”
“Well”—Wrench blushes, her rude finger curling around a strand of blackened hair—“If I dress down, I’ll barely be in anything.” She’s not wrong. The mechanic jumpers are their basic clothing. I’ve seen the men disrobe. It’s nothing but underclothes under… the… clothes. Huh.
“Take this, then.” Ace is growing impatient. He practically pitches the tunic at her. Then his furious eyes meet mine. I undress immediately, tossing my uniform to the corner. It’s embarrassing to stand half-nude in front of Ace. I’m a rail. Actually, not true, I’m probably too thin to even pass for a rail anymore.
Wrench huddles in the corner changing. I’m expecting to continue standing in wait, but then Ace rushes me. My ankles practically snap as I scramble to avoid him. But he doesn’t stop. He strikes me in the chest with a spinning blow. Tears sting my vision.
“I still wonder why you came here,” he hisses, fists clenching. He’s in a really bad mood today, and it’s too late for me to notice that. I’m in for a torture session, training be damned. Stepping around me, he bounces. He was once a professional martial artist. Rumor has it, he ran his own dojo before the world erupted.
His fist flies forward. I dodge. But his knee catches my ribs. And then he slams into me, driving me to the ground. “My sister died. But you, you feckless waste of space, are still alive. They wouldn’t let her on the ship.” His fist meets my cheek. Then again. I gag as blood surfaces over my lip. Every year, like clockwork. It must be the anniversary of his sister’s death.
“A-ace.” I wouldn’t intervene if I were you, Wrench. I gaze over at her, trying to warn her off. But does anyone listen to the louse? Of course not. “Ace, stop it.” He strikes me again. I’m convinced my teeth rattled on that one. I’d lost one the last time he got in this mood. Honestly, what’s one more? “Ace please.”
“You want to trade places?” He roars, turning on her.
“No, I—” Her hands lift in defense. The love of her life is such a cruel man. Poor thing. The love of my life was a four-legged beauty. I lost her to this man. I learned one very painful thing about heartache: it doesn’t leave, even if you convince yourself it doesn’t matter anymore.
“Hey.” I roll to stand but can’t. Damn, he really rang my bell. I sway, dizzy. This louse demands the knowledge to put Ace on his ass. Anyone? Oh right, Hell already burned through Earth. There’s no one listening. But on the off-chance… One last bid. Anyone at all?
Ace angles back to me, seething. He’s one punch away from ruining my mind for good, when Commander bursts into the room.
“Get clothed,” Commander demands. He analyzes the situation, fights the smile that forms, and then clears his throat. “There’s a blip on the radar.” With his announcement made, he retreats down the hallway. I made a good choice not bringing up my question to him. But weighted blankets be damned, we may have found alien life.
“We’ll finish this later,” Ace snarls, wiping saliva from his chin. I’m not sure what Wrench sees in him. Or what I do. In all my life, I’ve never made a worse decision than trying to force this man to be my friend. He snatches his uniform from the floor but doesn’t bother donning it. In fact, he exits into the hallway still shirtless. Tough guy.
“I hope it’s a malfunction,” Wrench whispers. She glances over at me, probably considering helping me, but she doesn’t. “I better get down there. If it is a malfunction, they’ll need another pair of hands.” She hurries to the corner to grab her jumper, gives me one last glance over her shoulder, and then joins the others in the hallway. They’re gathering in a horde. Is it excitement or worry? It might be both.
Pushing myself up from the floor, I groan. This one’ll bruise. At least I survived with the rest of my teeth. I’m not in a rush the way the others are. Sure, I have curiosity. Everyone has curiosity. I’m fairly convinced it’s bad news though. Stooping forward, I grab my uniform.
“Lou?” Why’s she back? I turn to meet gaze with Wrench.
“What?” I tug my uniform back over my head, even though I’d rather stay naked. When evening strikes, undressing will be a pipedream.
“I brought you some water,” she announces, stepping forward with the packet in her hand. It’s about the nicest gesture she’s ever made at me, not that I mind her other crude motions. They usually make me laugh.
“Thanks.” I give her a smile, accepting the pouch.
“Come on”—she turns to the door again—“This might be the event of the year.”
“If it’s nothing, crew’s gonna be real embarrassed,” I joke, following her. Maybe there’s one friend for this louse yet. We stalk down the hallway, shoving our way through to the bridge. Ace is already there, at the right hand of our Commander. And surprise, he’s still shirtless.
The room is silent. The Commander’s gaze is laser focused on the beeping screen, but everyone else’s gaze is focused on him. They’re waiting for him to make a move, a command, something.
“Do you think it’s our sister?” Ace suddenly wonders aloud. The Commander is quick to shake his head.
“Let’s not get our hopes up,” he mutters. “How close are we?”
“100k and closing, sir,” one of the men seated on the deck announces.
“Do we have visuals?” the Commander continues. Even from here, I can see his fists clench. Everyone here is a lot more anxious over this than I am. Sure, we were meant to meet our sister ship a year ago. But we long since passed our specified location after they didn’t show. That’s when I accepted their death. I guess I’m better at expunging my hopes than the others. Perks of a louse. How far down the list should that perk be though? Second? Fifth? Fifth sounds good. There are a few other perks that sit higher. For instance—
“We have visuals!” a voice shouts. The crowd floods forward, trying to catch a glimpse of the screen. Even Wrench pushes her way to the front, peeking at the pixelated image forming. To me, it looks like nothing more than a wreckage.
“Close-in,” the Commander orders our pilots. They maneuver, directing our path more succinctly onto the wreckage. “I want all frequencies scanned. We pull back if we catch anything. Anything.”
“Sir,” resounding consent. I don’t feel their anticipation. This whole venture is almost…boring.
Back on Earth, I was actually a firefighter. That one really is a surprise, I know. But I won’t claim to be the best or even one of the good ones. Sure, I saved lives a couple times. And I had the body for it. I certainly used to have some muscle. That’s something I regret losing. That, and my thrill.
As a firefighter I lived to run through a house fire, sprint up the hill to surround a forest fire, stand in the breath of its anger. My need for adrenaline was…something I avoid now. But it’s left me almost immune to excitement. I get my thrills from random, mundane questions. My therapist used to tell me my journal would keep me sane. But it doesn’t seem to be working, does it?
The day Hell overcame us, I was the worst firefighter of them all. Early on that summer morning, the temperatures spiked. Experts were amazed, certainly, but not one of those idiots thought anything of it. Every year the summers had gotten hotter, and every year we’d survived it. But then the earthquakes began. And with the earthquakes came fires. They started small at first, beginning in the city. But the smoke brought dry storms. And the lightning rode the tails. We couldn’t keep up. I didn’t even try.
As the Earth was engulfed, two sister ships were revealed. All the conspiracists were justified—me included. But instead of staying to help the other crazy survivors, I snuck aboard the first ship. I was not going to perish on the fire and brimstone we’d caused ourselves. That’s my theory anyway: that we caused it ourselves.
“Lou, if that’s really our sister out there. I-if she’s dead, what will come of us?” Wrench murmurs, turning to face me. Her features are overdrawn with fear. This isn’t our last journey, I promise. I rest my hand on her shoulder and return my gaze to the screen. Even if it is our last journey, it wasn’t half bad. We’d survived three years out here.
Crackle. The whole room goes still at the sudden sound. Are we picking up static or something more? I can’t help my interest now. I wouldn’t mind if they’re alive out there.
Kssssh…sustained a great amount of damage. If anyone’s out there…ksssssh…Help! Oh god…kssssh.
I like to take my SOS calls with a grain of salt. Whatever’s on the other end of that call, it could just be dramatics. In my hometown, the calls were often just dramatics. They’d panic you for nothing.
A scream passes over. Then growling. It’s followed by another scream. And then the transmission seems to repeat. The hissed message gets to the scream again, but our Commander shuts it down before the scream can end. Okay, I’ll admit that’s got my heart pounding. We might die after all.
“How shall we proceed, sir?” Ace’s voice is powerful in the silence. Our Commander leans back, takes a step down to the main floor, and then laughs. It’s humorless. It reminds me more of a cough. At least the man’s relatable. That’s the reaction I’d have as well, if I was him. Right now, I’m very glad I’m not.
“We have no way of knowing when that message was sent, do we?” Ace continues to lead, as though he’s suddenly in command. He is second in command, but that’s hardly relevant. He always needs to be in control. Though the crew seems uncomfortable answering questions from a shirtless man.
“She’s our sister.” The Commander finally meets our anxious eyes. “We’re going in.”
“I can’t recommend that,” Ace immediately dismisses the Commander’s words. Bad idea. The Commander grabs Ace by the throat, tightening his fingers into his flesh.
“Did I ask your opinion?” He spits into Ace’s stern face. “This is my ship, and I will send a team to investigate. In fact, you seem awfully eager. A generous sacrifice, Team Lead.” The Commander keeps his hold on Ace’s throat as he spins to inspect the rest of us. To my horror, Wrench raises her hand.
“If he goes, so do I,” she stammers. Brave and stupid. Poor thing.
“Good girl.” Our Commander beckons her towards him, finally releasing Ace. He stumbles back a few steps only to glare at Wrench. He may not always treat her well, but she has a certain charm he can’t even resist—grease slick and all. “Where’s our last two? The team is almost balanced. A leader, an engineer…a pilot?” I doubt anyone will raise their hands. Hell, I know I won’t.
But someone forces her way past me. At my resistance to move, she turns a rigid glare on me. If I’m honest, I’ve never bothered to learn the name of every person on this ship. There’s nearly ten thousand of us and learning ten names is hard for me. But she seems to know me. Her fist clamps around my wrist, and she raises it along with hers.
I struggle against her grip, praying the Commander hasn’t seen us yet. But it seems my luck has finally sputtered out. His eyes dart towards us as she opens her wide mouth.
“We’re all you need, sir,” she announces.
“A perfect balance indeed. A leader, an engineer, a pilot, and a louse.” Our Commander points us to join the others.
“He’ll be great bait,” she retorts, snorting. This is not how I saw my death playing out. I was planning to go out with a bang. Maybe I’d hijack a bomb in the middle of an alien shootout and sacrifice myself to take out their ship. Instead, I might run screaming from an alien monster, and die as bait.
Hooked. Lined. Sunk. Is that how fishing metaphors work? I wouldn’t know, fishing wasn’t my sport. I glance at Wrench, who’s staring up at Ace, and then realize his eyes are on mine. His brow is furrowed, low enough to darken his gaze. I guess I won’t die running from a monster; I guess he’ll kill me first.
“Don’t die on me,” he mutters. “I’m not done with you yet.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I retort, twisting towards the pixelated screen again. If there really is anyone left on our sistership…
I hope they’re fairing better than those we left on Earth.
Listen to Part 2: here
Nothing could be worse than marching to your own death.
I clutch my helmet under my arm as we enter the loading bay. Wrench is already seated inside the transport ship, looking blue. That’s a preferable color when it comes to feeling ill. Although, it could also mean she’s experiencing frostbite. I reach my hand into the air of the ship. Nope, we’re in luck. We won’t freeze to death. Well…
“Go on,” Ace coaxes me. “The faster we start our mission, the faster it ends.”
“Oh yeah, I’m really looking forward to running to my death,” I mutter. Even so, I step onto the ship and fit myself beside Wrench. Neither of us wanted to take the helm beside our pilot. Who, by the way, refers to herself as ‘Pilot.’ No, it’s not a joke.
“Everyone here?” Pilot’s voice booms through the small craft. She’s already seated up front. I hadn’t even noticed her, which is actually odd. She’s a walking whirlwind of noise. Between that and her overconfidence, she’ll probably get us killed. But hey, we’re on a suicide mission anyway. I think I’d prefer she kill me with a stray bullet, instead of being torn apart by a space monster.
“We’re in position,” Ace confirms, taking his seat beside her. “Just need the Commander’s go ahead.”
“Sir.” Pilot nods. She’s still taking the chain of command to heart. I, however, could care less. She volunteered me for a suicide mission. Whether or not she’s a higher rank than me, I will not respect her. Or maybe I will. No, I won’t. Ugh. Ace has been messing with my head for too many years.
“Commander?” Pilot’s radio crackles.
“You are green,” our Commander responds. “Take off when ready.” Pilot rolls over the engine, causing us to hover. I hear the room outside depressurize. The sound sends a rolling chill down my spine.
“Buckle in,” Pilot advises us. Wrench scrambles to clip her X-belt over her chest. I already have mine fastened. If being a firefighter taught me anything, there’s a truth in ‘safety first’—archaic as it now sounds.
“Brace,” Ace warns us as the alert sirens sound overhead. The bulkhead doors part before us, beckoning us to the black depths ahead. I close my eyes, gripping the X-belt with both hands. I wasn’t trained for G-force. This better not be where I die. I will not die to air. Do you hear me?!
The craft lurches forward, bursting through the doors. My body resists the motion, even as I try to relax. And then Pilot shouts, “Whoo! Damn, it feels good to be flying again. I cannot take being cooped up in there. How about you, Lou?” She really does know me. How? From when?
“I preferred my bunk,” I grunt through clenched teeth. Then it stops. Our acceleration slows, and Pilot laughs.
“Sorry, I forgot you three probably aren’t used to this.” She jerks us slightly to the side, and then accelerates us to a steady speed. Maybe she’s rusty but naming herself ‘Pilot’ seems pre-emptive.
“Where are you planning to land?” Ace asks her, squinting at the quick approaching ship. My first assumption had been right, it’s nothing but wreckage. Broken pieces of the ship are floating around it.
“Their landing bay still seems intact but orders are to try to make contact first,” Pilot replies.
“We couldn’t have tried to make contact while we were still on our ship?” Wrench whispers. Her blue color has transitioned to a shade of purple. Is her suit too tight? At this rate, she might die of poor circulation.
“Commander wasn’t really thinking straight,” Pilot retorts, shrugging. “He rarely is anymore.”
“Most of us aren’t,” Ace mumbles, peeking at me over his shoulder. Is that a pointed insult or a regretful comment? It’s hard to tell with him.
“So we make contact first.” Pilot maneuvers us over some debris before angling towards the landing bay. She’s not wrong, it’s still fairly intact, but there’s a gaping hole in the bulkhead doors. At least that gives us access. Who am I kidding? I’m as relieved by that as I am by being sacrificed. If there wasn’t a hole in the door, we’d have to find another way in, and that may have led to us not being able to find one at all. Then we could have just gone back.
“Can you change my frequency?” Pilot asks Ace.
“Right.” He messes with some of the dials. How should I know what they are? I’m a firefighter, not a space explorer. As soon as he finds the right frequency, the SOS message hisses over the radio. It’s playing right through the screaming again. It’s not fraying my nerves at all. Not one bit.
“Sister—” Pilot begins, then glances at Ace for help.
“—If there’s anyone aboard, please respond,” Ace finishes for her. Her finger slips from the transmitter with a click, and then we fall silent. The SOS message continues to play. We wait through a full two cycles of the message before Pilot raises her radio to her mouth again.
“Sister, please respond,” she practically begs. As she clicks the transmitter off again, our hearts seize. But then the SOS message returns. Ace exchanges a look with Pilot for only a moment. His gaze returns to our ship.
“Onward and inward,” Pilot announces as Ace flips the frequency back.
“Commander, we couldn’t get through to her. We’re heading in.” Ace holds the radio in his hand as he awaits the answer.
“Proceed,” our Commander replies. Ace is about to return the mouthpiece to the dashboard—is that what it is? Whatever—when the radio crackles to life again. “With caution. Proceed with caution. We await your news.”
“Sir,” Ace mutters, placing it back. He immediately reaches for his gloves. I follow suit. He may be a cruel wreck, but his military background is nothing to sniffle at. I’d trust this man to keep me alive through, well, anything. I’d only die if he decided I wasn’t worth it anymore and killed me himself. That wouldn’t be so bad. When he’s not looking to torture me, he’s merciful.
“Wrench, gloves and helmet on,” Ace orders her. He then glances at me. “You too, Lou.” My gloves are already secured, but my helmet is another story. I’m certain it’s backwards. As I move to fix it, the ship screams to a halt.
“Sorry!” Pilot exclaims. “I uh… underestimated our width.”
“Don’t tell me we’re stuck,” Ace growls, his head whipping to Pilot.
“Not stuck, per se.” She won’t meet his glare. “Just slightly damaged.” Yup, pre-emptive.
“Can you get us through without ripping off a hull-plate?” Ace wonders.
“Of course!” Pilot guns it. We scrape through the hole, the lights above us flickering. We jerk, then shift, only to jerk again. But we make it through.
“Hell,” Ace grits his teeth, probably to keep the slur of expletives from escaping his throat. I have a few I’m holding back myself. I retract my statement before. No, not the pre-emptive one. We might die of frostbite. “Get us down on the ground.”
“Sir,” Pilot lands us near the inside doors. Her landing is smoother than expected, considering her prior showing. I see what she’s been practicing. As we settle, I have the chance to lock my helmet in place. I got it right the first time. It didn’t require a couple spins. I swear.
“Lou.” Ace is out of his seat before she even releases the engine. “We’re going to lose gravity as soon as we exit. I want us to be tethered together, but I…” He gestures towards the wall behind me. Oh yeah, give the firefighter the tethering job. I definitely tied us together a lot when I was a trainee. How did he know?
I’m not a boy scout.
“Arm me with an axe then,” I announce.
“Sorry, what?” Ace is taken aback.
“An axe,” I repeat. He furrows his brow. “You wanna treat me like a firefighter? Fine. Give me an axe.” His brow furrows. He looks to Wrench as though asking for assistance in communicating with me. She shakes her head. She’s finally learned to stay out of it. “If one of you dies, I’m not going with you.” Alright, so I’m not the nicest person out there. I’ve never claimed that, have I? I mean… I call myself a degenerate louse.
“We don’t have an axe,” Ace finally regains his words. “Will a laser cutter do?”
“That’s like handing me a nail file,” I grumble, ripping the tether down from the wall. I hook the clip into the back of my suit, and then turn to Wrench. She’s fumbling with her X-belt. Leaning to help her, I rip it free, and clip her on next. “You really think I can cut through this with a nail file?”
“Will this do?” Ace digs an arm into his backpack. When he stands back up, he lowers a knife into my hand.
“Just fine.” I nod. Before I can accept the knife from him, he’s tightening the sheath around my waist.
“Just don’t lose it,” he warns me, clipping himself onto the tether while he’s at it. “I’ll take the lead. Keep close to me.” He drags his backpack onto his back, hovering his hand over the door press. I’m prepared for him to release it, but he pauses. “Pilot, slowing us down here.”
She fumbles with her bag, clipping it around her waist. But she doesn’t even have her helmet on yet. Ace jabs a finger at his own helmet, eyes wide with annoyance. I’m starting to relate. Wrench helps her to lock it into place, and then Pilot gives us a thumbs up. “Finally,” with his growl, Ace smashes the button. We depressurize. I feel my body rising. Zero gravity, my favorite. I love being ill for hours after.
Ace kicks off the ship, using a grappler to drag himself towards the inner door. It’s at an upward angle from where we landed. In fact, it’s up on the far wall. The ramp that used to lead to it is practically gone, but there’s just enough left for Ace to climb up. The tether tugs us with him as he pulls himself to the doors. He pauses for a breath, then hooks himself to the wall.
Crackle. He’s adjusting our helmet communication.
“Can everyone hear me?” He wonders aloud over the line.
“Loud and clear,” Pilot practically shouts back. The radios screech with feedback and static.
“Ow.” Even Wrench’s soft whimper comes over the line. Great. I can’t wait to hear their every noise as we move. Ace takes hold of our tether, dragging me towards him. I ready myself to land. When I’m about to, I clap his outstretched hand, tightening my fingers around his. He’s panting right into my ear. Ugh.
“Start on the door,” he orders me. I roll my eyes, but he’s too busy helping Wrench to notice. I imagine the power reserves on the ship have depleted, which means opening the door by hand. I clamp my gloved fingers down on the teeth and lean into it. I don’t think I have the strength. Firefighter? I’m nothing but the timber that burned. Damnit. I’m frustrated. No, I’m furious. This is infuriating. How pathetic am I? I glance around us. There’s a ramp just a few feet away from us, broken and melted. But more importantly, it leads to a control panel.
Wrench grabs the back of me, steadying herself. And then she’s reaching her fingers in the teeth below me. “Pull together,” she mutters. Fine. One more go. We time our efforts, but it’s not enough. The only one with any real strength is Ace, and he’s busy fussing with Pilot. Even when he finishes, I don’t think his strength will suffice.
I unclip my tether. Am I insane? Maybe. I’ve thought about it several times now, and I’ve always concluded the same. I’m not not insane.
“Lou?!” Wrench yelps at me, latching her small hands around my arm. “You clip that back on. Right now!” But her demands are falling on deaf ears. We’re going to die on this mission at some point anyway.
“Lou, do not do what you’re doing,” Ace barks at me. Man has a way with words. I peek at him over Wrench’s shoulder and wink. Pressing Wrench away, I lunge for the ramp. The only way this door is opening is if we reroute just enough power. The ship is currently using its reserves for the SOS signal. We might have enough left to spark the door.
“Wrench,” I call out to her. “I’m going to need you to walk me through this.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” she states. “Come back over here, and maybe I’ll consider it.”
“Little late for that,” I announce as I land. Perfect landing. I could have been a gymnast, missed my calling. I scale my way from the broken ramp to the panel on the wall. It’s flickering, though the light is dim. Yes. “Come on, Wrench.”
She relents, walking me through the painstaking process.
Buzz. The door groans open.
And that’s what I call a valiant effort rewarded with success. I whip around to face them and still. I’d managed to get myself over here, but that’s because I’d leapt down. I glance at the upward angle between us. Who was I to have called Wrench brave and stupid? What a wake up call. The neon lights are surrounding me: brave and stupid! I can almost feel their judgment.
“Lou.” Ace’s voice vibrates through my helmet. “Ever play baseball?”
“Nope,” I reply.
“Football?” He tries.
“Played wide receiver,” I mumble, confused. “Why?”
“Catch.” I glance up as soon as the words leave his mouth. And then I see his grappler. It falls down to me with grace, as if he’d just handed it to me himself. I knew I chased his friendship for a reason. “One click to release, two clicks to recoil. Hope your grip is better than your brain.”
“Laugh all you want. I got us inside.” I raise my arms forward. This may be my one strong suit, grapplers that is. He’s right about the hair-brained ideas I scheme. I really don’t think them through.
Snap. The grappler releases, tightening itself into the wall just above the door. As long as the grappler holds, I may not die. That’s a welcome thought. I tug on the rope, checking if it’s secure, and then I click the trigger twice. It rips me upward. My body whips like a ragdoll until I slam into the bottom of the platform. Well, turns out I found something worse than marching to my death.
There’s nothing worse than floating to your death.
Remind me never to speculate the ‘worst thing’ again.
What I speculate gets topped more often than I’d like, because there’s always something worse than what I think is the worst. Still, I really am the luckiest degenerate alive. That’s something that only ripples once in a while.
“You’re not getting out of my sight again,” Ace hisses at me. I nod. That’s a promise I plan to keep. He yanks me over the edge of the platform, hooking the tether back on my waist. We lock gazes. His eyes are burning with fury. I suppose I deserve it. But it doesn’t make it any less terrifying. We’re glued, staring daggers at one another before I notice his hand slap to his hip. Without hesitation, he draws his ZaP-48H. Yeah, I didn’t get to name it. If I had, I’d have called it a Zapifier or something. I regret that. That’s about the lamest name that could have come to mind. Ignore that. It’s an energy gun. That’s really what’s important. Well that, and him aiming it straight at me.
He shoves the point of it into my chest with force. I can feel my heart eating my ribs alive, voraciously trying to escape. It was ‘live with him or die by him.’ I’ve always known that. He grits his teeth, lowers the gun, and spins on his heel. He takes the helm, leading the three of us into the dark hallway. As he floats through, he lowers himself to the floor. After a moment of fidgeting, his boots clamp down. Magnets are a brilliant thing.
The lights on our shoulders flicker on as soon as we enter. But it’s so narrow, it’s still difficult to see. We each follow Ace’s lead, magnetizing to the floor.
I bring the ladies between me and Ace. There’s still a bit of decency left in me. I’ll be the first to die if the space monster comes for us. At the rear, will anyone even hear me scream? That thought brings my hand to my waist. Ace’s knife is still there.
I whip around to the noise as we turn the corner.
The doors latch. We’re officially trapped in here. That’s what I like. No, really. I love that. Being trapped is my idea of paradise.
“Lou?” Ace addresses me, looking for answers.
“Door’s shut,” I reply, my hand gripping the handle of his knife. I didn’t necessarily feel safe aboard this ship before, but now I’m paranoid. And the sounds of everyone else’s heavy breathing aren’t helping. Wrench sounds like she’s having a panic attack, Pilot holds her breath every once in a while, only to choke it out, and Ace is still panting from the great exertion of rescuing me.
“Guess that means we keep moving,” Ace mutters, raising his gun a bit higher.
“I’d say so,” I agree. There’s actually a sound that’s more nerve-wracking than the rest, and that’s the heavy clack of our boots on the metal flooring beneath us. They echo down every hallway we pass, disorienting me.
“Control room should be up ahead,” Wrench mutters. “If she’s anything like ours.”
“You mean, in the basement?” I confirm.
“That’s exactly what she means,” Ace grumbles. “But it’s called a lower deck.”
“I’m pretty sure that was for actual ships,” Pilot corrects him. The fear is making us cranky, even snarky.
“Spaceships are actual ships,” Ace bites back, and then he stops. “This should be it, right, Wrench?” There’s a manual door to our right. It’s open, leading into a small room with one hatch at the far side. It’s almost too open. The open door, the open hatch, the open mouth to death.
“Just down the ladder,” she whispers. “I really don’t want to go down there alone.” You and me both. I don’t want to go down there, period.
“Is there a reason we must?” I ask. There’s a prickle at the base of my neck. I can’t escape the feeling of bugs—or hot breath. But when I look, there’s nothing there. If I’m going to die here, I’d prefer it happen sooner rather than later. I can’t take this anticipation.
“If I can get even an ounce of the power routed through, I might be able to turn on the lights.” Wrench glances at me over her shoulder. “Was there any indication of how much power remains?”
“Not much.” I shrug.
“I’m going first,” Ace interrupts us, slinging his ZaP over his shoulder. We’re all brave and stupid. I guess it runs in our crew’s blood. It certainly runs in mine. He approaches the hatch. There’s a soft glow below, welcoming us. Yeah, right, welcoming us to the bowels.
“I have a light.” Wrench scrambles forward, prepared to play hero for her heartthrob. She produces an ancient flashlight—practically the size of her arm—and shines it down over him. “Okay. You can go. Be careful!” Ace doesn’t answer her. He descends into the hole with steady steps until his feet clatter to the floor.
“What happened?!” Wrench cries out, already fitting herself into the opening.
“Accident,” Ace retorts, sounding embarrassed. I didn’t think the man had it in him. He spends his free time prancing the halls of the ship shirtless, what could be more shameful?
“So I’m safe to come down?” Wrench confirms.
“Yup.” Ace moves a couple steps, his boots loud on the metal. Before Wrench’s boots even meet the floor, Pilot is forcing me out of the way.
“You bring up the rear for good reason,” she hisses. She’s a hard one for me to read. Behind the abundance of confidence, she’s a failure and a bitc—of a pain. And since I’m her honorary target—the same as I’m Ace’s—it’s slowly whittling away at me. One of these days, I’ll snap. I’m known for it. Not not insane, remember?
“Go on.” I gesture for her to climb down. Her eyes meet mine, follow the curve of my body to my waist, and then she unclasps me from the tether. Being a free man isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I like being attached to Ace. Do I? That’s a revelation.
“You can stay here,” she retorts, lowering through the entrance. “Keep us safe.”
“What are you talking about?” Ace’s rough voice crackles over hers. “Where’s Lou?”
“I told him to stay up there,” Pilot announces. “Don’t bother asking him to come down.” The door on the entrance snaps shut. If she knows me, I must have done something to her. I’m at a loss, though. I’ve done a lot of things to a lot of people. Ace and Wrench included. I’m surprised Wrench still talks to me. “He’s our bait if that thing is up there.”
“Or you just trapped us down here with it,” Ace shouts. I hear shuffling below, and then a banging fist. “Lou!”
“I’m here.” I am, but I’d rather not be. I drop to a squat.
“Unlock it,” he demands. I reach forward, resting my hands on the door. It’s a round capsule style door, something that’s strangely abundant on our ship. And it’s definitely stuck in place.
“Can’t,” I announce. It groans with my effort, startling me. My eyes snap around the room behind me, then beside me. It really was just the door. Sighing, I give it another tug, trying to twist the handle. Not even one budge. “I really can’t.”
“I’m going to kill you!” Ace drops back down. I can almost imagine him raising his gun to Pilot.
“Hey. Wait!” Wrench is back at it, pitting herself between Ace and his next victim. “As long as we get to the control room, there’s a chance I can get it open again.”
“For her sake,” Ace hisses. “You better be able to. Lou?”
“Still here,” I retort, rubbing one of my bent knees. And I still wish I wasn’t.
“Stay put,” he barks. “I don’t want to find you gone when we return, do you hear?” Is that a twinge of concern I hear? That’s a pleasant surprise.
“Love you too.” I stand. How brave am I feeling? I inch towards the hallway we arrived from. Like the other, to the right, it’s pitch black. I want to lock myself in, but I’m worried if I do, it’ll trap me like the other doors have. Maybe if I just pull it closed a little.
“Guys?” I call out, but they don’t answer. They’re already on the move, already out of range. With my door arranged, I return to the room. If it opens, then I’ll know I’m not alone. Perfect, except a space monster probably won’t bother with opening the door. Yeah. This is the kind of thought process I want to have right now. I have a talent for scaring myself.
I huddle myself into the far corner, fighting thoughts of death. Even though I’m terrified, I still can’t feel the adrenaline coursing through me the way it used to. I really have gone cold. I’m not even truly afraid anymore. Sure, I don’t want to be devoured, but of the list of ways to die up here, it’s not last. At least I’d seem a bit heroic.
My gaze whips upward. That definitely came from the hallway. Did one of the doors shut? It wouldn’t be the first time. I unsheathe Ace’s knife from my belt, clutching it in trembling fingers.
That was closer. I bite my lip, debating between calling out to the team again or staying silent. Would whatever is out there hear me? Likely. I choose silence.
The adrenaline finally surges. At least it still visits when I’m terrified to death. Otherwise, it hasn’t been a very decent friend lately.
It’s right in front of me. And blessed be to the engineers who built this sister: there’s no window in the door. I can’t see it, but it also can’t see me. My hands fumble with the light on my shoulder. It steps forward, dragging a clanking foot across the floor. My light clicks off.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
I can’t tell if that’s my heart pounding in my ears, or if it’s the monster outside. Slowly, I bring myself to my knees, and then my feet. If it finds me, I’m not fighting it from the floor. I’d be an easy target. One lunge and I’d flatten out.
“Still with us Lou?” The thumping stops. I think you’ve sealed my fate, Ace. The door whips open before I can move. I scream. In the darkness, I can’t tell where it is until it strikes me. Two clawed hands clamp around my throat.
“Lou?!” Ace’s voice rises several pitches. All I can reply with is gurgled choking. I tighten my fist on Ace’s knife and jam it into the monster’s back. It reels, but its grip remains strong. Damnit, damnit, damnit! I blindly reach forward with my free hand. As soon as my fingers brush flesh, I shove. I’m not one to multitask. But now seems like the time to learn.
My hand draws the knife back, hacking a bit higher, while my other hand continues pushing. The two claws at my throat release. In my gasp for breath, it fights back. One claw rips through the right sleeve of my suit. The other swipes my chest. It stings, reminding me of a certain slap my ex-wife once rendered. Compare her to a space monster, she’ll like that. I hope she’s buried under the weight of a volcano.
Not the time, Lou!
Air screams out of my suit, ripping from my lungs. But it doesn’t compare to the sobbing coming from my throat. It’s surreal to listen to your own sobbing, especially when it doesn’t seem human.
“Lou!” Ace’s voice is desperate. Bang! Bang! He’s slamming himself against the hatch. That catches the monster’s attention, if just for a moment. But that’s all I need. I raise my mangled arm and hack. The knife sinks into flesh, again and again. It writhes at my onslaught, flailing and biting. But I won’t stop. Hell, I’m not dying here.
And then it stops.
My uninjured arm clamps down on my shoulder light. Even with my frantic breathing, which I can’t seem to calm, the light is steady enough to see. The creature that attacked me is wearing a jumper, a jumper I’m all too familiar with. It’s not a space monster at all. Well, it is. But it’s not a beast. It’s a zombie.
A laugh escapes through my lips, but when I try to suck in another breath, I wheeze. My chest is killing me. The injury has dissolved from stinging to agony. Bang! Bang! It takes me a minute to remember what that noise is. Right, Ace.
“Ace,” I gasp out, dropping to my knees. I have enough air trapped in my helmet to breath, the back-up mechanism worked well. Really, I’m just losing too much blood. I’m tired of having my meals with death today. He’s a coffee addict, and I’m more of an alcoholic. We really don’t mesh well. I crawl my way to the door, heaving.
“Lou? Please tell me you’re alive.” The banging stops as Ace sighs out.
“Right now,” I agree. At the door, I slam myself forward. It clasps and then locks. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” He stammers.
“Not keeping my promise,” I slump to the floor.
“What promise?” He’s really not that bad. I close my eyes.
“And for trapping us in.”