"Starport Nightlife," a short science fiction piece that brings pulp style and high action a to down-and-dirty dystopian setting.
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A sudden burst of noise broke my concentration. The flight instruments and indicators were screaming. Sirens, shrieks, wounded animals howled behind the dials and gauges. The cockpit windows were smeared black with soot. The cockpit walls, thin layers of plastic film and silicon, were warping and threatening to collapse outwards into empty space. Behind me, in the aft compartments, the battery arrays were bursting with sharp cracks and treacherous hisses.
The core thruster spun in and out of life – a shot dog struggling to stand on its last good leg. The hull shook as the accelerators wound into motion, almost reaching the high pitch of full throttle before a shower of sparks and heat flooded the crew compartment. Each frantic cycle of spin and crash scorched my flesh through the tears and gaps in my bodysuit.
Debris punched through my ship's solar sail, each piercing punctuated with a pop! What was left of the sail was hanging in the vacuum by its remaining tethers. The loose bits of material caught a shine from the sputtering glow of the thruster, and they twinkled and sparkled in space behind me as my ship hurdled and turned. It was confetti, party decorations to mark my hard tumble into hell and nothing.
My senses swam – the black space beyond the cockpit bulged, warped and distorted, spreading like ink stains over my field of vision. Life support was failing, vital gases leaking out into the compromised rear cabinets and from there, mingling with the shredded thruster case. I groped for my oxygen mask, and tugged it from its casing. I had three things to do before I blacked out, before I joined my old girl in the cycle of wheezing spasms on our way to a grim end in the drift.
I jammed the mask against my face and clamped it there with my hand. The awful heat from the cockpit hatch was overwhelming. The sweat on my skin scalded by neck, face and hands. I slammed my fist against the escape controls again – no response. I peeled myself from my seat – the plastic upholstery was melting, sticking to my back in stringy fibers. Below the flight console, besides my left leg, the manual cockpit release was just beyond the reach of my fingers.
I strained forward, reaching and fighting the exhaustion and panic. My blood was pounding against the sides of my neck, adding to the growing pressure in my skull. A gruesome death was was moments away. My face was pressed against the cockpit glass - I could hear the strains and creaks of the hull through the hot glass.
I caught the lever with my fingers and pulled it towards me. I couldn't tell whether the popping sound that followed was my cockpit releasing from the shredded wreck of my ship, or the final collapse of the coffin-sized tube that I was trusting with my life.
Unburdened, the cockpit tumbled forward and over-ends through the starry void. The old girl's main thruster was gone with the ship's rear body. A dormant dorsal jet remained with the cockpit, suspended above and behind me on the end of the solar sail’s wire thin mast. Inside the cockpit, artificial gravity failed as the compartment detached from the batter arrays.
I drifted clear of the tangled, superheated wreck of my ship. The adrenaline began to recede, giving way to the terrible sting and ache of my wounds. The last few minutes had been so sudden and unexpected. I had been deep inside my own head, in satori, the flight trance. I tried to recall what had happened, what led to my ship behind sheared in half and my razor-thin escape from death.
I couldn’t remember a thing. I combed my memory for clues. There was nothing, no intuition or thought that could illuminate the situation. The cockpit instruments were dead, the cockpit’s minimal power sources fueling basic life support, providing heat and clean air.
I fastened the oxygen mask securely to my mouth and nose by its strap, and tried to settle back into my seat, bracing my feet against the cockpit window. My back and shoulders screamed in protest and pain, but I was too exhausted and disoriented to obey.
I had disengaged the cockpit and activated the emergency life support. Two things done, but there was one more. I turned a small red dial at the top right corner of my flight deck, activating the mayday emitter.
On the edge of my fading perception, I could hear the rhythmic chirp of a low-energy signal. The emitter broadcast two messages in numeric navigator’s code. First, it reported my coordinators. Second, it listed the sum of my bank accounts.
No one answered an anonymous mayday out of charity or good feelings. The emitter was meant to negotiate a reward payment, a ransom to save me from the clutches of the drift.
In gravity, you tumble towards the ground, gravity pulling your feet and your guts towards the floor. In space, you just tumble. End over end, every bit of you trying to float in a different direction. Only your bones and muscles, your clothes and your molecular bonds hold you together. Moments began to melt into hours. My body tumbled on in the detached cockpit, marking time by the flickering pulse of the flashing red mayday indicator.My body was intact, anchored by an oxygen feed and warmed by life support. My mind, though... my mind was free to roam. My brain stretched out a thousand miles in every direction. I could not see the stars, but I could feel their warmth, their radiant bath. The strength and shape of solar waves built a three-dimensional map of the sector in my head. My sense of the physical world faded, and I left my body behind. This was satori, the flight sense, the meditative state that let a throttle jockey move steel at near-light speeds without crashing into a planet or space station, or grinding your ship into dust by stumbling through the corrosive dust trails of the Ribbon Nebula.
Time and distance melted in my mind, splitting and pooling, rippling like a child playing in a puddle of water. I could chart a flight path over millions of miles and move three thousand tons of spaceborne metal so nimbly that it danced like specks of dust at end of your breath. I could feel the echoes of the ages, images of interstellar voyages in the ancient path and uncertain future.
It was idle practice, though. I could read the map but I could not pilot the course. My girl was shot lame, detached at the head. The throttle had no thruster, I was powerless to the drift. I could only wait - but while I waited, I could dream...
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