My name is Connor Reid, and I have thirteen seconds to live. I stare at the clock, willing time to speed up, to end it. I am ready. I am ready to die.
There’s blood smeared on the screen, making the numbers fuzzy. My blood. Izzy’s blood is mostly on the floor. I hope she makes it. Last I heard from her she had made it to maintenance. Two floors from the emergency shuttle. She’ll be cutting it tight though. Hard to run with a bullet in your leg.
My bullet. I hope she makes it.
God the stench is killing me! Heh. No, it isn’t. The bomb will kill me before the stench does me in. Two hundred k’s of low grade TNT, bundled together and welded in a massive steel barrel for added effect. Cut off from all electronic hampering and so crudely made that no high tech gizmo can touch it. Oh, and I welded it to the floor. A bomb powerful enough to rip my ship to pieces.
The stench belongs to the corpse on the other side of the chair. If I had the energy I’d spit on it. There’s still time. Time for a final act of defiance. I strain and turn my head as far as the chains will allow me and spit. Right in the bastard’s eye! Bullseye! Heh.
Some kind of movement behind me. Maybe they came back to finish me off after all. Good. They’ll feel the fire before they are ripped to shreds. Serves them right, the fuckers. Taking my money, taking my ship, taking my life. I smile as the clock ticks down to four seconds, and then the smell of apricot hits me.
The smile dies on my lips and I scream and I scream and I scream! She came back! She came back for me and she’s not on the shuttle and the clock hits two seconds!
Her arms reach around me and ever so gently she holds me and rests her chin on the top of my head. A single drop of blood drips from her fingers and hits the screen in front of us, obscuring the final number.
“I like to juggle gerbils in my spare time.”
The young, blonde woman looked at me in horror and slowly retracted the pamphlet she had just offered me. Her friends were still at it in the background, approaching strangers, trying to force their nature loving ways on innocent pedestrians.
“I can do five simultaneously, but I’m hoping for six by the end of the month.”
Her mouth slowly opened in an ‘o’ and revealed perfect white teeth. Teeth that were either a result of cosmetic intervention or a lifelong absence of coffee, cigarettes and other essentials in life. I took a long, hard drag on the coffin nail I had just lit and blew the smoke in her face.
“The real problem is the fur though, it creates lag and tends to stick to your fingers. That’s why I like to shave them first. The juggling is smoother when they have no hair. If only the little buggers would quit biting the hand that juggles them.”
She clamped her mouth shut and glared daggers at me, having caught on to the ribbing I was giving her. She turned from the small café table, releasing the sun to shine on my coffee once more.
“I’m hoping to expand though, a man has to set his sights on ever loftier goals lest he turn stagnant in his endeavors. I’m going to try beavers next. Shaved beavers, now there’s a challenge. Do you happen to have one? Since your pamphlet tells me you’re against fur I mean.”
Her eyes widened and she leaned towards me, her dignity finally overriding her desire to ignore me and join her friends.
It was a beautiful day by the sea, except for the intrusion of real life spammers. The sun shone bright and hard on the Italian shore, and for a moment I had been at peace. The café I had chosen sported a magnificent view of the marina, and several sailboats juggled for position at the small molo a hundred feet below. The patrons were a mix of social classes; a businessman tapping on a tablet, a young couple sharing a glass of wine, a mother scolding her five-year old son after he spilled his drink.
The girl planted her palms on my table, filled her lungs, and inadvertently gave me a much better view than I had bargained for. I sighed and braced for a verbal lashing.
The explosion tore through her from behind. One moment her head shielded me from the sun, the next it disintegrated. Time slowed to a crawl and a halo of red mist hung suspended in the air. The wave of concussion threw her forward like a ragdoll, accompanied by an all too familiar sound. The body tore through the flimsy table, crashing into me and throwing us both to the ground.
I hit the ground hard, knocking the back of my head against the cobblestones. I could feel the taste of copper and iron in my mouth. Tears welled to deal with the dirt and the blood in my eyes. I held the poor girl in my arms, what little was left of her. The world was a gray place, dust and broken dreams creating a mist of obscurity. Shapes were moving in the dimly lit cloud. A woman, emerging from the mist, crawling on her hands and knees, looking for something. Finding it. On her knees, rocking back and forth with a bundle of rags clutched to her chest. No. Not rags. I turned my head, refusing to acknowledge the reality of my eyes. The man from the table next to mine lay on his back beside me, his impeccable suit untouched by the violence. His hands folded on his chest, a light dusting of ash gently settling on his face. Blood spreading in a Rorschach pattern under his fingers. Peaceful in his death.
Sound was a dull thumping in the background. I had cotton in my ears, blood in my eyes, lead in my bones. And a dead girl in my arms. She saved my life. I was a jerk and she saved me, taking the blunt of the explosion in my stead. A wracking cough emerged from somewhere deep in my chest, almost a sob, almost choking me. Another. I held the remains of a sweet girl who wanted nothing more than to improve life for those more unfortunate than her, and I cried and I coughed and I choked. After an eternity in purgatory I emerged, uncleansed. Her death was on me. My fault. If not for me, she would have moved on further down the street, in search of a smile or a nod as she handed out her homemade pamphlets. Instead she ran into an old bastard who wanted to embarrass her in front of her friends. Who wanted to knock her off her holier-than-thou pedestal. Who wanted to be good but had long since lost the patience for it. Me.
I found myself on my knees with no memory of how I got there, rocking back and forth in unison with the woman beside me, a lament for the dead. I forced my cramped fingers to let go of the broken body in my arms, and I laid her gently on the ground.
The thumping in the air grew louder, and the mist twirled and dispersed. The sun stabbed through the cloud and hit me almost as hard as the explosion. I reeled back from the chaos revealed by the light and fell back to the ground. Gone. Everything, gone. There was a crater in the street, cobblestones ripped up and out as far as I could see. Cars were toppled. Gaping holes where windows should have been, ripped curtains gently swaying in the sudden breeze. And people. People stumbling about, blood on their faces, their hands. Some sitting on the ground, looking about with dazed expressions. Some laying still, body parts missing or twisted. Others rushing in to help.
I staggered to my feet, waved my arms and tried to make my voice work. I doubled over as the coughing again held my body in a vice. The thumping grew louder, and a helicopter blew away the last of the smoke and the dust as it descended. It came to a halt directly above me, proudly displaying the news station it belonged to along its side. A camera stuck out the open door, the photographer leaning out as far as he dared, trying to get the perfect picture of human misery. I ceased my waving. There would be no help coming from the world of click-bait news stations, their margins were far too low to do anything but observe and report.
I took a few tentative steps towards the wailing woman at my side, but I had no idea what to do. I turned in a slow circle, searching the gathering crowd for any kind of medical assistance. The good Samaritans of the crowd were working their way inwards, helping people as they went. Too slow. I turned back to the woman, and I half fell half staggered to a crouch beside her.
“Let me see.” I tried to lower her arms, so I could survey the damage. She clutched the tattered body to her chest even harder and moaned incoherently.
“I’m here to help, let me see!” This time I took hold of two of her fingers and pried them back. The sudden pain surprised her. She yelped and almost let go of what I now saw was the boy from my neighbor table. Five years old, not a day older. Dark hair, matted with blood. Clothes ripped by the explosion, blood dripping from his hanging fingers. Not moving.
“Here, put him down, we need to help him.” I finally managed to make eye contact with her, and she numbly nodded her assent. She let me steer her arms down, and we gently put the boy on the ground. Still not moving. I put a hand flat on his chest, leaned down to his face and concentrated. There. A breath. Another. Still alive.
I took hold of his bloody t-shirt and ripped it open, running my fingers along his torso. Searching for the breach. As in space, a tiny breach in the wrong place could be the end of everything. The blood made it difficult, turning his skin slippery and dark. There. Something sharp protruding high on his chest on the right side. The tip of the object barely sticking out of his skin, blood flowing around it.
I straightened, ripped off my own blood-soaked shirt and wrapped it once around him. I grabbed the leg of a broken chair, placed it directly above the wound, tied my shirt around the piece of wood and twisted. And twisted again, tighter and tighter. I might be killing him, I might be saving him. The mother looked at me with wide eyes, shock still holding her senses captive.
I was dimly aware of the thumping of the helicopter as I worked. I held the makeshift bandage tight, carefully checking for other wounds. I found none. The world faded until all that remained was a mosaic of broken sound and frozen images, none of them making sense by themselves. I could feel my lips moving, could feel the air forcefully exiting my chest as I cried for help, again and again and again.
The boy stopped breathing.
A moment, an eternity, later, I found myself on my knees beside him, blowing air into his lungs, watching a pink bubble of blood expand and burst high on his chest for every breath he borrowed. A leak in the hull. A leak I had not patched on the first maintenance check. Too late now. One hand on the bandage, one hand under his neck. My lips to his. Breathe in, blow out. Watch the bubble rise and burst. Repeat.
A lone siren shattered my carefully constructed mosaic of order amidst the chaos, and I sacrificed a precious moment to glance around me. The mother was on her feet, waving frantically at a pair of running men clad in white and red, carrying a gurney.
Sound returned with a vengeance. The helicopter thudding, the mother screaming, sirens wailing, somebody yelling at me to get out of the way.
I rose and staggered back as professionals did what professionals does best. Swift and efficient. My bandage was removed in a second flat, a mask was strapped around his head, one of the new plasma inducers was clamped around his abdomen and I could see the tiny wires pierce his skin and work their way into his arteries like little worms burrowing in fertile soil.
I turned away, leaned over a broken stone wall and vomited. I heaved until blackness danced on the edges of my world and nothing came up except acid and self-loathing. I straightened, turned back to the mayhem and gathered myself. The boy was gone. The mother as well. All that was left was a smear of blood on the ground in the shape of a small child. Professionals were pouring into the ruins, shifting rubble, helping the injured, gathering the dead. The helicopter from the news station had gained a companion since last I checked, and the thunder in the air thankfully drowned the lament of the crowd.
It also drowned the sirens of the police who were in the process of putting up a cordon at both ends of the street, locking off the area. Locking us in.
I turned. I ran.
A sob escapes me as Izzy lazily reaches out and puts her palm flat on the screen.
I’m shocked into silence. The goddamn countdown shows a big, fat zero. She should not have been able to do that. She stopped the bomb with maybe a tenth of a second remaining. One fucking second later and all of my problems would have been solved. No more pain, no more death. Well, one more death. Mine. She stole it from me. As she stole everything else.
“Walter, initiate program ‘Boom’.” My voice is rusty. It’s been days since last I used it, chained to this chair of mine.
“Master access has been revoked, guest access only for user ‘Connor the Man’.” The ship’s reply over the speakers is mechanic, as always. It’s also a dismissal, and that’s a first.
She changed the codes. The bitch changed the fucking codes and locked me out. Guest access is useless if you want to alter anything more advanced than the temperature.
Izzy strokes the top of my head from behind, smearing my stubbly skull with blood. Adding to what is already there. I never was a looker, but after today even the vilest of whores will turn away in disgust. Heh. After today they will pay me to stay away from them. Heh. Hehe.
A chuckle escapes my broken lips, and Izzy stops caressing me. She pulls away, almost as if my mirth offends her. It probably does. The chuckle turns into laughter, and before I know it I am almost choking with laughter, with sobs. Tears run down my cheeks, creating streams in the blood. The laughter turns into heaving bellows, and that turns into screams. Screams of frustration, of rage. I throw my body forward, as hard as I can. The chains holding me back tighten on my wrists, on my neck. I am choking, bleeding. Blood flows from the wounds around my wrists. I am beyond caring at this point, throwing myself forward again and again.
The button is right in front of me. IT’S RIGHT THERE! One tenth of a fucking second! Let me try, let me at least try and push the fucking thing. Nothing will happen, but let me try. Dear God let me die. Let me die so that others may live.
Suddenly my forward motion is checked. The chains are tightened. I can no longer move, barely breathe.
I sob as Izzy walks in front of me and bends down.
“There, there now, big guy. Take it easy. You’ll only hurt yourself. We’ll be on Mars before you know it.” She leans forward, cups my face in her hands and gently kisses me on the forehead. I can see the blood on her lips as she pulls away. The red smear almost looks like lipstick. Her smile dies as her hands harden their grip. She bends my head sideways. I struggle, but all I accomplish is a new bout of pain. Probably from a torn ligament or something. I always have the worst of luck. Heh.
The fucker who started it all comes into view. Still stinking. Still dead. I wish I had killed him the second I laid eyes on him. Hell, I wish he had been stillborn, that his father had pulled out early, that his mother turned down the first date, anything, anything to prevent this fucker from stinking up my beautiful spaceship.
The snap as Izzy pulls off her belt echoes through the silent room. With one hand she holds my head in place, with the other she awkwardly straps the belt around my head, locking it against the headrest.
The world lurks and adrenalin surges as my chair is tipped back. A grunt of pain from behind me as Izzy takes the combined weight of myself and the captain’s chair and starts dragging us backwards. Being shot hurts. I should know, I’ve been known to take a bullet or two in my time. Still, a small, guilty part of me is happy that she’s in pain. The larger part of me is hurting on her behalf. As if I didn’t hurt enough on my own. Heh.
Out through the door, leaving the bridge. The chair snags on the frame, and Izzy is forced to wiggle the chair to get the legs across. A sharp breath betrays her injuries. Before our showdown she could’ve picked up both myself and the chair without breaking a sweat. Glad I at least managed to inconvenience her before forcing her to drag my fat ass halfway through the ship. Buys me time. Time to do something besides being hauled to the slaughter like a prize hog. Time enough to blow up the ship, maybe.
She’s straining now, dragging me through the narrow corridors of my ship, occasionally stopping to catch her breath. Suddenly, I’m the one breathing easier. The chains looped around my neck have loosened. Carefully, ever so carefully, I wiggle my neck back and forth. The chains loosen some more and fall a few inches to the base of my neck. I stop breathing. If Izzy sees me working the chains she’ll just knock me out. I can’t afford that. There’s no time.
Another grunt of pain, another lurch and we’re moving again. I exhale. The chains were tight when I was stationary, but I can feel them rattling loose now. Cargo chains. They were never meant for holding people, and even though they were tight as a vice when applied, I can wiggle a bit now. Not that I dare move much, I don’t want to get knocked out. I want to blow shit up.
The walls of my ship pass us by, layers of graffiti covering the walls. At least one mural for every trip I’ve ever made, and usually one or more from every crew member and every passenger. Over the years it has become a veritable art gallery. A gallery of profanity, since haulers usually have a very single-minded approach. An erect penis, pointing at the dark side of the moon, the moon being the backside of a voluptuous woman grabbing her ankles. Courtesy of Greg, my ex-mechanic, before he lost his hand moonlighting as an unlicensed forklift driver. He was drunk out of his skull at the time and should by all rights be out on the streets, just another broken soul with a broken body. But he came out of it with an insurance settlement that was worth more than he could’ve made running with me for fifty years. Lucky bastard. I still get the occasional email from him, mostly dick-picks. But hey, it’s the thought that counts.
I flex my thighs and feel the chains shift.
The next drawing dragged into view is one of my own. One of my favorites. Janus, the presider over the beginning and the end of conflicts. The god of journeys, of travelling and shipping. Of peace, and of war. I had tried for a sunny day, Janus standing at the threshold of his temple, proud and tall, the doors wide open as they would be in times of war. Passing before my eyes at present moment, it more resembles a chicken coop with the farmer taking a dump on his own shoes, a second face growing out of the back of his skull. I almost laugh again, I was so proud of my creation. Still is, I guess. It is something I made with my own hands. Sacrificed my own time, my own life.
Janus drifts by, and I carefully exhale completely. The chains around my chest slip, and my arms loosen in their constraints. My target is coming up.
The next drawing is Izzy’s. First the head of a snake slithers past my eyes as she continues her laborious haul. Then the body. Then the head. The Medusa slithers into view, luminescent green and blue, eyes piercing your soul, snakes crawling from her scalp, nibbling her skull and reaching for the observer. It chills me to see it, even if it’s only half-finished. I never saw it before, but it’s glaringly obvious now. The Medusa is Izzy. High cheekbones. Flat and broken nose. Yellow eyes squinting at you, measuring your worth. Unbidden, lyrics from one of my favorite songs pop into my head, and I murmur them aloud.
“My eyes ain’t green and my hair ain’t yellow, it’s more like the other way around..”
Izzy stops, panting heavily, having caught only parts of what I said. And she tips the chair forward to relieve her aching leg. The perfect moment. My moment.
“Walter! E- nograv!”
We slam into the wall, denting the Medusa. Izzy is caught off guard, and she screams in pain as her bad leg is caught against the low handrail running the length of the corridor. My face takes the brunt of my own impact, and even though I was prepared it still hurts like a motherfucker. I tug and rip at the chains, and I can feel them slipping further even as I drift towards the ceiling. Or the floor, depending on your choice of perspective.
Guest access. You can’t change anything important. Only the temperature, some doors, what to eat, where to shit. And emergency shutdown of the gravity. Just in case you get stuck underneath something heavy, get beaten up and chained to a chair or some other ridiculous situation passengers might find themselves in. Or captains.
My beautiful ship has for the first time in years stopped spinning, taking away our borrowed gravity. And it was no gentle easing down of the barrel either. The ‘E-nograv’ command engages deadlocks at all critical junctions. We went from a comfortable 1,2 g’s to a full stop in a second flat. And since our fake gravity was, in reality, centripetal force, the ship stopped spinning and me and Izzy didn’t. I never did bother to explain the guest access system to Izzy since she already had overriding access as the ship mechanic.
Seconds now, only seconds before Izzy is back in action. She’s confused now, blinded by pain. But it won’t last. I try and I try, but the chains are looped through random openings in the chair, and they won’t come free.
“Walter! Engage the spin!” Izzy’s voice cuts through me like a knife. I strain to kill the chains.
“Deadlocks engaged, user Kitty. Spin currently disabled.”
Kitty. More like saber-tooth. My left leg is free. I’m slowly drifting upwards / downwards.
“Walter! Disengage the deadlocks. Disable guest access for user ‘Connor the Man’! Engage spin!”
“Acknowledged, user Kitty.”
She’s furious. I see her in the corner of my eye now and then as I spin lazily about. She’s drifting in the middle of the corridor, trying to reach the wall. She’s armed as well. I catch a glimpse of her semi in the holster on her thigh. If I can’t free myself immediately I might end up with a bullet between my eyes. Can’t have that. Not before I get to blow myself up.
My head bumps the ceiling, the floor, and I can feel the thuds reverberating through the ship as the deadlocks are retracted. I sink back towards what used to be the floor and is now my ceiling. But not for long. I drift towards the wall as the ship resumes spinning. The handrail. One up top and one down below, for easy movement in zero gravity when the spin is turned off. My left leg is free, and the rail is right there! I hook my ankle underneath it and tighten my muscles.
The spin increases.
I’m upside down now, not floating towards my chosen perception of the floor. There’s no doubt where the floor is right now. That’s where Izzy is standing. She throws me a look of pure fury, then sits down to check her wounds. She knows I’m not going anywhere. Not until I have to.
1.2 g’s. My brilliant idea more than twenty years earlier is working against me. Most haulers keep the gravity at about 0.8. It makes for comfortable living, and you won’t be so out of shape that you can’t return to Earth. My idea was to keep the gravity higher during transit, actually increasing my strength as I struggled through the added resistance.
The strain on my ankle is increasing. I’m cramping and in pain. I hold on.
Directly beneath my head is the very first picture I made in these long corridors. The very reason why it turned into a tradition. A lone gunman in a trench coat, arm extended, holding a revolver, aiming down the corridor. The desert stretches into the distance, and a low sun has forced him to lower the brim on his Stetson. A black shadow is outlined against the setting sun, and the gunman has his adversary in his sights. Another tribute to my taste in literature.
I need to time this to perfection. Izzy grimaces as she probes her bleeding thigh.
“Why can’t you just come along like a good, little captain? I am trying to save your life after all.”
“Maybe I don’t want to be saved, maybe I just want to die.” My voice is strained, leg muscles burning. Soon now. Just got to keep her occupied for a few more seconds, I just need a little more gravity. “’Die a hero, live a villain.’ Wasn’t that what you told me?”
“Yeah, right before you shot me.” She finishes redressing her wound and leans back on her elbows, enjoying the view of me dangling upside down.
“I only shot you a little.” Approaching full ship gravity now. It’s almost time.
“’A little’? You can’t shoot someone ‘a little’! You either shoot them or you don’t, there are no fucking nuances to it.” With a grimace, she puts her good leg underneath her, preparing to stand.
I say a quick prayer to Janus, because why not. I let my ankle slip, and I fall to the floor, nine feet below. The gunman rushes past my eyes, and the chair does a half-summersault, legs hitting the floor first. It bursts apart, legs folding and snapping. The back bends and dislodges from the frame, remnants of the torn metal scraping a deep furrow in my flesh.
I wiggle free from the remains of the captain’s chair, shedding my chains as I go. Izzy is behind me. Seconds now, only seconds. I stagger to my feet and face her, holding a length of steel in my hand. She’s already on her feet, playfully smiling at me.
“Not bad for an old man. But what now? Beat me to death with that chair leg?” Her hand creeps towards the holster on her thigh. Low velocity gas gun. Just in case you need to fire inside a spaceship.
“No.” I swing the leg at the wall, right at the gunman’s revolver. Glass shatters, glass concealed by my painting. I reach in, grab the hidden revolver and point it at Izzy, right at the same moment she points her gun at me.
Standoff. Again. Izzy smirks.
“Been here before, have we not?” Her hand is rock steady.
“And you would do well to remember how that turned out.” I glance at her bleeding thigh.
Her eyes narrow. She pulls the trigger.