While I was thinking about the prompt, one line (the opening line) crawled into my brain and stuck, so I built the story from there. I was originally wanted to try to make it impossible to tell if this was a 19th-Century sailing ship or a space ship, but in the end, I had to go with outer space. Chuck gave us 2000 words, and for once I used most of them. So here, in 1852 words, is:
“Look at them go. Like rats deserting a sinking ship.”
More like fleas deserting a dead rat, I thought, but had more sense than to say. Aloud, I asked, “Can you blame them? I only give us about a 25% chance of making it through. Most of them figure it’s a lot less than that. They just don’t want to die.”
Captain Cassandra d’Clerc turned and fixed me with a hard look. “Will you be leaving us, then, Lieutenant?”
I swallowed hard. Was she giving me an order, a way out, or a test? Knowing the captain, I guessed it was a test, and that I’d better pass it. “I’ll be right here, Captain. We’ll make it through. My mum always said I only lived to grow up because I was too stupid to know when I was killed.”
That startled a bark of laughter from her, and I relaxed.
“I don’t suppose you could share that attitude with the rest of the crew?”
“You ask that? You gave them the choice to go or stay,” I pointed out.
“I know. But I didn’t expect so many—we do need enough crew to run the ship. I'm worried that at this rate we won’t have it.”
“Hope—or stupidity—can only carry you through if you really have it.” I let her digest that.
Ours had been an extraordinarily long voyage, and when we returned to the fringes of known lands, we found that much had changed in our absence. Being in known territory was somewhat less frightening than the unknown through which we had voyaged for over a year, but most of the lands between this farthest outpost and home were now in the hands of the enemy.
Our current stop—the first in over a year, and the last before the blockade--was controlled by the Company, which always stays neutral, lest politics interfere with making money. They wouldn’t blast our ship to atoms, but they wouldn’t help us break the blockade, either. And they’d made an offer that too many of our people, looking at our chances of getting through to our home planet, couldn’t resist.
I watched as the majority of our crew, and all the passengers, filed down the ramp into the customs shed, carrying everything they owned. They’d been told that they could stay. They would work for the Company for three years in exchange for food and a bed in the bunkhouse. After that they could become legal residents. I wondered how many realized what they had committed to. They wouldn’t be returning to their home planets and resuming interrupted lives. I doubted if most of them would survive the probationary period.
“They’ve chosen slavery,” Captain d’Clerc said. She stepped up next to me at the viewport, and we watched the pathetic line of men and women disappear into the customs shed. She was right about their choice. They’d given up all hope in our plan, and were willing to settle for spiritual obliteration in order to avoid physical obliteration.
It was a natural impulse, and more common than not, to judge by the exodus from the ship. The captain and I both knew it was likely to end in both spiritual and physical death for them. I assumed that the other crew members who remained aboard had reached the same conclusion and chose to die our way.
The captain turned away from the view. “That’s the last of them. Sound the final call for going ashore—or coming back aboard. We launch in 15 minutes.”
We were left with a crew of 12, instead of our usual 50. Since the passengers—mostly minor government functionaries who’d been sent along to claim any new lands we might have found on our voyage beyond known space—were gone, a dozen of us could handle the running of the ship. We had the right people, too. We could cover all the essential functions, though we’d lost our chief communications officer and the navigator. I’d been Navs until my last voyage but one, so I’d handle that.
One passenger remained.
I didn’t discover her until I was making a final sweep of the ship. The ramps were up and the hatches closed when I found the astrophysicist sitting quietly in her stateroom reading a book.
“Dr. Kareem? The ship launches in five minutes. Did you miss the announcements?”
She her head, which was a great deal greyer even than the captains—and Captain d’Clerc had aged a great deal on this voyage—and looked at me.
“I heard. I have no intention of becoming a slave to the Company.”
“There is a good chance that we will die,” I commented.
“Young man, I’m plenty old enough not to fear that. And if we do not die, then I will carry our discoveries back to the scientific community. The Company has no use for my kind of science.”
I nodded. She didn’t need to say that, with no use for astrophysics, the Company would simply put her to manual labor until she died. At her age, it wouldn’t take long. Her choice made sense.
“I shan’t be a burden,” Dr. Kareem added with a gleam of a smile. “I may have my head in the stars, and a bad leg, but I can cook.”
“If we live long enough to need a meal,” I said, “we would be most grateful if you would take command in the galley. We’ve lost our chefs.”
My comments were unnecessarily pessimistic. We wouldn’t die that day, and we both knew it. It would take at least one day’s travel to reach enemy territory, and we’d be hungry well before then. I thought she might be able to do more than cook for us, too.
“You might as well come on up to the bridge with me. There’s plenty of room, and you might enjoy the view. We’ll welcome any suggestions you might have.”
“Indeed, I shall enjoy it. As for suggestions,” she put aside the book and tightened the leg brace that she’d loosened for comfort while on her bunk. “I am not a practical navigator, but I may have some ideas.” She followed me up the corridor, limping only a little, while I thought about how we might make use of the best astrophysicist in the galaxy.
“Strap in for launch,” was all the captain said when we entered the bridge, where all the remaining officers were beginning the countdown. Dr. Kareem took the empty seat next to me at the Nav station.
Over the course of the next two days, Dr. Kareen fulfilled her promise. She provided us with a steady supply of coffee as well as decent meals. It wasn’t luxurious, but we had been on tight rations as we neared the end of our voyage. With the population of the vessel reduced by three-quarters, even though the Company had parted with few supplies at our brief stop, we had more than enough to last us—for however long we’d need to eat.
All of us were surprisingly cheerful. Well, not the Chief Engineer. He’d never in his life been cheerful, and the imminent approach of near-certain death didn’t change that. But the rest of us chose to believe in my 25% chance, rather than the 2% chance that the Company had given. We’d not seen any enemy ships in that first day, and while we were poorly armed—our mission was exploration, not subjugation—we were plenty agile. We might yet dodge the blockade, we told each other.
We were deceiving ourselves about that. The appearance of a fleet on our third day proved that. Six well-armed warships moved on us in formation, and at least two of them looked fast as well as capable of vaporizing us.
We could have given up then. It might even have been a way to keep ourselves alive. But, having left behind those unwilling to hope, and fight, to the end was that the bunch of us who were left were unable to give up.
I’m not sure at what point in our dodging and evasive maneuvers Dr. Kareem joined me, but we’d taken one hit when she touched my arm.
“There might be a way.”
“What?” I’d been too focused on my work to notice her, and too long without sleep to respond quickly.
“We could try that.”
I looked where she was pointing on the chart-screen that represented nearby space, and time stopped.
Okay, time kept going, and we were rocked by another near-miss while I considered what the astrophysicist was saying.
“Captain?” I wasn’t going to call this one on my own.
“Continue evasive maneuvers,” Captain d’Clerc commanded Lieutenant Carmichael, who had the helm. She crossed to where Dr. Kareem and I were studying the chart-screen. “What?”
Dr. Kareem was as calm as if she were giving an unimportant lecture to a group of semi-interested students. “There is an anomaly there.” She pointed. “If we were to enter it, I think that we could stop worrying about the enemy ships.”
The captain laughed. “Or anything else. No one knows what will happen to a ship that enters one of those. No one even knows exactly what it is. Some kind of black hole, isn’t it?”
“No, not a black hole. Not even I would care to dive into one of those. I think it is more like what the early astrophysicists called a ‘wormhole.’ Of course, they didn’t know what they were talking about, but I have studied the phenomenon.”
I’ll bet you have, I thought. For some reason, my hopes were soaring, even while she proposed diving into something I’d been taught all my spacing life to avoid on pain of death.
Death. We’d all planned on that anyway. What better way to go than exploring a wormhole? I could see that was how Dr. Kareem’s mind was running. She had less to lose than most of us, unless you figured that we were all living on borrowed time anyway.
“We have about a 1 in 100 chance of it being a survivable experience, and dumping us out a long way from any enemy ships.”
“We have about a none in 100 chance of surviving this attack,” Lieutenant Carmichael called from the helm, as we shook from another hit. “Damage assessment?”
“No hull breech!” someone shouted from where he monitored an array of screens. “Key systems intact.”
“Any idea where we’ll end up?” the captain asked.
Dr. Kareem shook her head, her smile more than a hint now. “Not a clue. But wouldn’t it be grand to find out?”
When there’s no hope left at all, any hope will do. We weren’t ready to give up, and if we were going to die, every one of us aboard preferred to do it in our own way. I laid the course, Captain d’Clerc gave the orders, and Lieutenant Carmichael aimed us right at the wormhole.
We were coming out the other side, or going to the most glorious death we could imagine. It didn’t really matter which.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2017
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As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated!