By Lavender Ellington
Commander Tri’eek’s ship was self-destructing.
Bianca muttered Earth English curses under her breath as she ran through the Argo’s gigantic ventilation shafts, holding a gargantuan stolen ring of shiny, black electrical tape around her waist like a life ring. She had spent three precious hours tracing the problem to the engine maintenance room. She couldn’t afford to be wrong.
Blood roared in her ears as she made turn after turn through the white-hot metal tunnels she called home. The colonists’ screams pierced through the air while the tape slowly melted into her hands and the soles of her shoes melted into the super-heated floor.
Save the ship and stay alive; save the ship and stay alive. Her steady mantra chased itself in circles around her head as she navigated the vent labyrinth.
Bianca skidded to a halt, veered right, and kicked open the access duct to the engine maintenance room. A wave of cooler air flooded over her as she slid inside. Her half-melted shoes slowly re-solidified as they squeaked and oozed rubber trails on the shiny black floor. She scanned the wall-panel number plates and wiped the smoke from her eyes, ignoring electrical burns, blisters, and singed hair. Access panel 47.
Static, screams, and the distant sound of a collapsing hallway echoing like a doomsday clock nearly drowned out the Virtual Intelligence’s cheerful reminder, “Estimated thirteen keps until core overload.”
Thirteen keps. Eight minutes.
Exactly eight minutes to save 700 colonists—and one stowaway.
Bianca pried open the access panel. Inside, the guilty wire hissed and snapped like a caged animal. She bared her teeth and wrapped her hands in cooling electrical tape. Human ingenuity at its finest. She snatched the wire’s ends and, with a deep breath, connected them.
The alien energy threw Bianca across the room, slamming her into a wall and filling her blood with fire. She coughed around the salty-metallic taste in her mouth, forcing herself to sit up as she wiped her face with the back of her hand, staining it red.
Blinking away tears of pain, she dragged herself back to the panel.
Save the ship and stay alive. She coughed again and wrapped more tape around her hands. Save the ship… She gripped the wires once more, heart in her throat and teeth clenched to keep it there. And stay alive. Her fingers wove through the white-hot mess as she cross-connected the reddish, glowing wires and taped the ends together.
The Argo let out a shuddering screech, shaking the floor.
The ship went dark.
Bianca couldn’t breathe.
The low hum of life support systems restarting vibrated the floor. One by one, the pale orange caution lights flickered on and the coolant systems rumbled to life.
Bianca’s legs gave out beneath her. Blood trickled down her chin as an exhausted chuckle bubbled from the depths of her chest.
She flopped onto her back, arms splayed, breathing heavily.
Faint footsteps clicked down the hall.
Muttering more English curses, she half-limped, half-crawled to the vent and slid inside.
The door opened with a hiss, and the unusually short Private J’lak—a mere fifteen-feet tall—stepped into the doorway. He gaped at the ship’s wiring for a moment before he turned tail and bolted down the hall, his footsteps thundering like applause.
“Commander Tri’eek!” His panicked voice echoed through the creaking metal halls. “Commander, the—the wiring! Something’s happened to the wiring!”
Commander Tri’eek’s arm felt heavier than a Tarstianian whale as he swiped his subdermal wrist chip over the scanner. His door slid open with a hiss and he dragged himself into his quarters. Slumping into his chair, he let his head follow suit with a muffled thunk on the desk.
His mission update was due in two selpins, and after a day filled with panic, stimpacks, more panic, more stims, approximately three dozen interviews, and even more stims, he had precisely six functional brain cells left.
With a labored sigh, Tri’eek forced himself to sit up, rubbing the gills around his neck with his topmost right arm and shooting his computer an exhausted, squinty-eyed scowl. This would go well.
His eyes blurring from exhaustion, he swiped up on the chiming holo-display to see a document he didn’t remember creating beaming back at him in friendly black letters.
>To: Commander Tri’eek
>From: A friend
Tri’eek blinked idiotically at the document, squinting at its neat, formal—
Wait a tix…
Commander Tri’eek’s half-functioning brain took a solid sixteen tix to catch up to the situation. He jolted out of his seat, somehow ending up on the floor in a tangle of limbs. Struggling to regain his composure, he slammed all four of his hands onto the desk and hauled himself to his feet, eyes bulging.
This was his report.
This was what he should have to spend at least two selpins writing, and yet here it was. Done.
Every detail was clearly and concisely written, the incident itself described as if someone had seen the entirety of the day’s events unfold. But most surprising of all was the small footnote at the bottom of the last scroll.
>Good hunting, Commander.
Tri’eek’s inner eyelids blinked several times before he deleted the ending note, sent in the report, powered off the holo-display, and went to bed.
Whatever this was could be dealt with next shift.
Bianca peeked out of the vent as the commander dragged himself to the attached bedroom. She waited for a second or two more, climbed up the side of his chair, and gently laid her roll of electrical tape on the seat. With a final once-over of the room, she snatched another packet of healing gel from his desk, dropped off the chair, crept back into the vent on the wall and, smiling to no one but herself, closed the cover behind her with a soft click.