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Inadequate Options in Adequate Space
Kevin Robson’s existential hero finds that you can’t escape having to choose.
James Emerson 5 sits at the controls of his one-man craft. It’s an unglamorous cargo carrier, with just enough fuel for this interstellar hop. His cargo, as far as has been explained to him, is 17.55kg of archive: paper documents, bound for the nearest destination, the planet M223a.
The vessel is automatic, so there’s little for James to do. His duties are just to sign the cargo on board and gain a signature for its transfer at the other end. The ship has no distraction or entertainment: in keeping with the austere rationing, it’s been streamlined for maximum fuel economy. One of the reasons James himself has been able to gain employment on board is his small, skinny frame. Were it not for the signatures, they wouldn’t need him at all. The thought gives him no comfort.
James morose and bored; the chair, a synthetic lightweight raffia; the lights green for OK on screens showing distance and fuel remaining, speed, and bearing. Green. Green. Green. Orange. This is the first inkling that anything’s wrong.
James taps the errant screen. It remains orange. It’s the screen monitoring the ship’s course. If the message is true, he’s off course, with no means to correct it.
He taps it again. No change. Obviously a malfunction, he reassures himself.
Then the speedo joins in with the bearing screen, both displays flashing orange. Tapping the glass helps not. And the circuit boards are cased and inaccessible.
Perhaps there is a problem.
Moments later the fuel screen also shows orange. The fuel is running out early.
Only one conclusion: a stowaway. And there is only one possible place that anyone can hide.
When James removes the panel, there she is, no more than sixteen Earth years, and very frightened. Large eyes, curled on her side in the foetal position. He motions her out and up, but she’s paralysed with fear. “I won’t hurt you.” His own voice, rarely used, rarely needed, sounds strange to his ears.
After a while she emerges. She’s taller than him, just. Perhaps a little heavier. She stands, out of reach, by the airlock hatch. James shifts round to face her.
“Do you know what you’ve done?”
She nods slowly. James waits for her to speak. A small voice: “I’m sorry, I know this’ll get you into trouble. You can tell them it’s my fault.”
“And that’s it, is it…?” James is angry, but his voice is still level: “You thought this would be a telling off?”
“Yes, I’ve an aunt on M223c, she’ll pay my bond.”
“I’m afraid it’s more serious than that. We’re not going to M223c. In fact, very soon we’re not gonna be going anywhere.” He points at the orange lights: “We’re off course, we’re running out of fuel, we’re losing speed, and we’re too far away from anywhere for anyone to help us.”
“I’m… sorry,” she ventures.
“You said that…” James replies. “Not that it matters – why did you do this? What were you hoping to gain?”
By way of answer, she rolls up her sleeve. At first, James thinks that she’s showing him a soiled and bloody undershirt; he then realises with a start that the skin is missing from a patch of her arm. “This is how my uncle treats me,” she says. “Never my face, or anywhere it might show.” All James can say is “Oh my dear God!”
“Everyone thinks he’s a saint for giving me a home when my parents died. He knows what he’s doing to me. I wasn’t going to hang around and find out how far he would take it. That’s why I’ve done this.”
“I do understand,” responds James. He searches his brain for the right words. The right words don’t come.
She speaks again, “I’m Sandra. What’s your name?” She says it brightly, as if this is a tourist trip. No reply from James, so she adds, “This isn’t much like I thought it would look. I thought it would be huge and luxurious, like in the movies. When do we eat? I’m starved!”
“Sandra, there’s no food here. There’s not much of anything.”
“So what do we do? How do you pass the time?”
“It passes.” James is starting to become irritable. “Sandra, I’d like you to listen to me. Listen very carefully.”
“This vessel is built for one, and there’s no way of correcting what you’ve done just by being here. We can’t both survive with the fuel we have.”
“But you can radio for help, yes?”
“No. There is no long-range comms equipment onboard. It would add unnecessary mass to the ship.”
Sandra tries again “An escape pod? That’d be exciting.”
James shakes his head dolefully: “Not even a pressure suit.”
The situation suddenly becomes clear to Sandra: “You mean…?”
“Yes.” James nods, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.” He takes one last look at her face, then enters the airlock. As he ejects himself into the inky blackness, his final thought is that she just might, somehow or other, make it alone.
© Kevin Robson 2016
Kevin Robson’s book of short stories and skits, Funder, Chunder, Reign Asunder, is available as an ebook for 99p.