ORIGINAL FICTION: "Curse the Darkness" (Part 4)

Kevin Long
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(This is part 4 of the story. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here. The Conclusion will run next Monday.)

 

Lanata, lanata, lanata, lanata, Pari cursed to herself, First time I get a little garabara in a year, so of course the girl’s a homicidal maniac. All the doors to the central shaft were now locked from the cockpit, so there was no easy way to get up there.

 

Jal came out of his sleeping closet rubbing his eyes. “Isn’t that Priyanka’s voice?” he asked.

 

“Get in your emergency suit,” she barked without looking at him, and lit up a blowtorch. The flame looked weird to him, and evidently to Pari too, as she squinted at it confused for a moment, then adjusted some valves. He pulled the emergency suit from a sealed envelope taped to the wall of his closet, and began to unfold it. It was a loose-fitting human-shaped thing, seemingly about as substantial as a sandwich bag, but actually strong enough to stop a bullet, should the need arise. He pulled the it on over his clothes. There was a small oxygen tank and a small oxygen purifier in the envelope, too. He stuck them through the neck of the suit, then pulled the hood up over his head. Once he did that, the entire thing sealed itself up without so much as an apparent seam.

 

“Is this safe?” he asked.

 

“Kinda’ busy,” she said, and started cutting away at the central shaft. Priyanka was going through her announcement a fourth time as Omkar floated up alongside Pari.

 

“Everyone is suited up and accounted for, excepting Aishwarya,” he said, referring to the other flight attendant.

 

“Assume she’s dead,” Pari said.

 

“Is that…”

 

“If you can’t find her, then she’s either in the cockpit dead with the rest of the crew, or she’s with Priyanka, and she’s a terrorist. Either way…” her concentration drifted to the torch flame. “What the Naraka is going on with this thing?” She busied herself cutting again. Arav floated up.

 

“This is Arav Tamil Nadu, Ma’am“ Omkar said. “He was helping me with the passing – “

 

“I know who he is,” Pari said.

 

“Everyone’s tethered in, excepting us. If there’s a breach, no one’s going to go flying out the hole.”

 

“That only happens in the movies,” Omkar said.

 

Arav ignored him. “She sealed up the central shaft? You want me to cut that for you while you talk her down?”

 

“I can do both at the same time. We need a weapon. Can you access any of the RCT lines from in here?”

 

“I don’t know. Maybe from the bottom deck.”

 

“Go find out. If you can, I need a bottle of Nitrogen Tetroxide and another bottle of…”

 

“Let me guess: UDMH? I see where you’re going with this, but it’s not at all safe.”

 

“You know what else isn’t safe? Getting killed by a sapita crazy girl in the cockpit. Now get me the stuff! Go! Both bottles need to be breakable.”

 

“Right. How much do you need?”

 

“How the naraka should I know? As much as you can put in a coke bottle, I guess.” Arav nodded and kicked himself away. Priyanka, meanwhile, was reading off a lengthy ideological diatribe very loudly over the PA system. Presumably it was also being transmitted back to earth. Pari’s suit wasn’t a mere emergency life support device like the passengers were wearing. It was an actual working space suit, with built in communications and other functions. She pulled her helmet on, and tapped one of the buttons on the wrist.

 

“Priyanka, honey,” she said, “It’s me, Pari.”

 

“Don’t try to stop me, Pari,” the terrorist said over the PA, not over the suit radio. She probably didn’t know how to work it.

 

“Ok, I won’t. But could you turn the PA down? It’s so loud out here it’s distorting your words. We can’t make out what you’re saying, and if it’s important enough for us to die over, you probably want us to understand, right?”

 

“Oh…” Priyanka said. She was silent for a moment, then her diatribe started again, but at a less deafening level. Pari adjusted the torch a third time – what is wrong with the flame? – and kept cutting.

 

As there didn’t seem to be anything else to do, and as Omkar was just standing around, Jal said, “Excuse me, is this suit safe?” He felt naked with it there clinging tightly to his body and clothing.

 

“Oh, certainly, sir,” the steward said, though he was wearing the same kind of emergency suit, and his face betrayed no real confidence in it. ”They were made to maintain air pressure and breathability for a full day. Nothing to worry about.”

 

“What about heat? Cold? Radiation? Sunlight?”

 

“Certainly, sir,” Omkar lied, and handed Jal a “Frequently Asked Safety Questions” card.

 

Arav reappeared. “That was surprisingly easy,” he had two actual coke bottles with him, each full of a sloshing liquid that clearly wasn’t coke.

 

“Tether them to me,” Pari said. He and Omkar did while she continued to cut her way into the central shaft. The flame spluttered erratically. “Isa Lanata,” she exclaimed, “What the khuni naraka is the matter with this torch?”

 

At exactly that moment, Jal said, “I think there’s something wrong with my suit. According to this card, it’s supposed to balloon out some, right? But mine’s stuck to my body all tight. That’s not right, right?”

 

Omkar and Arav looked at their own suits simultaneously and realized their emergency suits were way too snug as well. At the same instant, it suddenly clicked in Pari’s mind what the problem with the torch was. She looked at the cabin pressure gauge for confirmation, but she knew the truth before her eyes even made it there.

 

“Oh, bakavasa,” she said.

 

***

 

The passenger hull popped like a water balloon.

 

Priyanka, following a written set of instructions her cell leader had given her, had cranked up the cabin pressure way beyond the safe levels. Had they not been wearing pressure suits, everyone below would have succumbed to this, but as Pari and Onkar had wasted no time in getting everyone dressed for the emergency, they simply hadn’t noticed. The over-abundance of air built up and built up, messing with the torch flame, and pressing their suits uncharacteristically against their bodies, but as none of them had ever been in this situation before, no one really noticed how unusual it was.

 

The inner and outer Kevlar bubbles tore themselves into a million fragments. The ten thousand or so gallons of water that had been between them exploded to vapor before it even had time to freeze, and spread slowly outwards, a ghostly shroud of momentary fog. What was left of the ferry was in the center of a small, but rapidly expanding nebula.

 

Omkar was swept away instantly, drifting off with the rest of the debris. His suit would, indeed, provide him with air for a full day, but the direct sunlight had cooked him to death long before then. Pari and Jal and the rest of the passengers were all yanked out eight feet or so, but as Onkar and Arav had made sure everyone was tethered to the decks, no one else got thrown clear of the ship. The explosion had been strong and startling, but it had also been very brief, and its force was expended almost before they realized what was happening.

 

Catching on to what was going on just an instant before it actually happened, Arav quickly jammed his arm through the dispenser slot in one of the snack machines lining the outside of the central shaft, and managed to hold on.

 

His vision blurred. His sandwich-bag suit had withstood the pressure change, and was now bulbous and fully inflated. He started to feel a burning in his knees gasped for air, realizing the pressure change was going to bring about the bends in fairly short order.

 

The emergency pressure suits had no radios in them. He saw – but did not hear – Pari, dazed and presumably screaming profanity, through the faceplate of her helmet. He saw Jal’s panick-stricken face, and realized the disaster was just beginning if he didn’t do something about it. He spied a tablet floating by in the general clutter of junk that hadn’t quite been blown free, and grabbed it. He poked away at the keys and showed it to Jal, who didn’t seem to quite comprehend what was going on.

 

Arav slapped Jal. It didn’t hurt him at all, since both of them were effectively inside balloons, but the violence of it startled the priest to the point where he could concentrate again. Arav pointed at the tablet. “Turn up the pressure in your suit to avoid the bends” it read. Jal nodded, and started poking ineffectively at the oxygen tank. He got nowhere, and was about to panic when he realized the suit was now so loose he could simply pull one arm out of the sleeve entirely. He did, and adjusted the tank. The pain in his knees and ears and eyes and chest eased some.

 

Pari, meanwhile, continued cutting her way through the central shaft. Now that it was operating in a vacuum, the torch worked great, and she was making rapid progress. She realized eventually that her radio was still on.

 

“Priyanka,” she said, “You can hear me?” She waited for the reply, then realized the girl probably didn’t know how to work the radio. “Third control panel to the Colonel’s left. Hit the button marked ‘Suit Intercom’ and we’ll be able to talk.”

 

She made her way through the shaft hull, and started clambering up the ladder inside, towards the cockpit.

 

“Everyone’s dead but me,” she lied, “It’s cold and lonely out here. Talk to me, please?” She willed herself to sound vulnerable, willed the seething hatred out of her voice. “Just please hit the intercom button? Please?”

 

Arav scrambled around the several decks, showing the passengers the message on the tablet screen, and helping them adjust their air. This took a while. Some of them were already bleeding out the ears, eyes, nose, and mouth by the time he got to them. Some were fetal with pain. He did what he could, then he noticed the Tin Man, the sacred fire containment vessel.

 

It hadn’t been tied down. It was drifting away from the ship.

 

“Oh no,” he said, though no one could hear it but God.

 

He sized up the situation. The thing had been in the hallway, on the deck when the hull blew, so it hadn’t picked up anywhere near the velocity of things in the sleeping closets had. It was drifting slowly, but it might be retrievable. He could cinch some tethers together, make a rope, kick off, drift out, tie the rope to the thing and…no, there was obviously not time for that. It was moving slowly, but not that slowly. Pari’s torch had some recoil to it. Maybe he could use that as a rocket? No, nowhere near enough force for that to work. He ran through several other options, ran some math in his head, and realized there was only one that could possibly work. He grabbed several small pieces of junk floating about, guessing as to their mass, and shoved them into a bag from the duty free market at the space station. He tapped two of the other survivors. He showed them a message on the tablet screen:

 

“I am going to go out there and get that thing. When it comes back in here, grab it and hold it down. OK?”

 

They nodded.

 

He calculated, then re-calculated his trajectory, and leapt towards the tin man, saying a prayer as he flew. He was now moving away from the ship slightly faster than the device was. He’d intercept it in a couple minutes. He’d miscalculated his course slightly, so he pulled a coffee mug out of the bag, figured the angular momentum he’d need, and threw it as hard as he could. This worked, and his course changed slightly.

 

As he got closer, he threw another coffee mug and a snowglobe to fine tune his course. Finally as he came within reaching distance, he threw what appeared to be a lunchbox ahead of him, outward from the wrecked ferry with all his might, though hampered by the ill-fitting suit. This slowed him some. He hurled a briefcase, which slowed him some more. Finally he hurled the tablet itself, which brought him almost, but not quite, to a stop relative to the tin man. He was still drifting outwards, and so was it, but he was slightly farther out now, and moving only barely faster.

 

There was only one object left with any mass he could use to adjust the tin man’s course, and that was his own body. He lined up his shot as best he could by eyeballing it, debated giving up, then realized he was dead anyway, regardless of what he did from here on out. There was no getting back to the ship. “Lord, please guide my aim,” he prayed, and then he kicked the thing as hard and as square as he could with both his feet at once. “With any luck…” he said to no one in particular.

 

He and the tin man were now moving away from each other at roughly equal speeds. He was tumbling slightly, but he tried to keep his eye on both the ferry and the sacred fire vessel when he could. Eventually he got bored and started to sing hymns. He had a very nice voice, though nobody heard it.

 

***

 

Jal eventually realized he wasn’t in any particular danger of drifting away from the ship, as long as he was careful, and kept a death grip on the deck grating. He untethered himself and began pulling his way around by his hands, trying to find a way to be useful. Presently, through the grating, on the lowest deck, he saw some people manhandling the tin man around. ‘Oh, thank Ahura Mazda,’ he thought. He’d been afraid it might have drifted away, but hadn’t wanted to voice his fears even to himself.

 

He clambered his way over the spidery remains of the passenger compartment, down to the men with his sacred fire, and tried to indicate by hand gestures that it was his. They didn’t understand him, but pointed past him, out into space. Finally he realized they wanted him to turn and look. He saw a man tumbling slowly out there, about a mile off. Instinctively he knew who it was.

 

He panicked. He shouted. He cried, but the tears just built up in his eyes and lashes making it hard to see. He pulled his arm out of the sleeve and wiped his eyes and his running nose.

 

An idea struck him. He scrambled back over the wreckage to where he’d seen what appeared to be a shaving kit, grabbed it, then clawed his way back to the tin man and the two strangers. He rifled through the bag until he found a shaving mirror. He used the shadows to figure out where the sun was – never look at the sun in space, even he knew that – and angled the mirror to reflect light at Arav.

 

He flashed a message in the New International Signaling Code. It was a fairly long message. He had plenty of time, and was too overcome by guilt to even think about doing anything else. The message read, “I have the Tin Man. You have saved sacred flame. Thank you. May Ahura Mazda bless you and speed you to The Best Existence.” This was the Zoroastrian name for heaven.

 

He flashed the message three times, unsure whether or not Arav could see it, or even read it. On the third repetition, the man clearly waved.

 

Unsure what to do, Jal repeated the message one more time, and added, “I will meet you again in The Best Existence, my friend.” After a pause, he flashed the lyrics of a funeral hymn. Then, feeling a bit awkward, he stopped signaling, and simply prayed for the man until he was finally lost from sight in the distance.

 

***

 

Arav laughed when he realized what Jal was doing with the mirror. ‘That’s a pretty clever trick,’ he thought, ‘I wish I’d had time to think that up.’ Content that he’d done the right thing, even if the cost was terrible, he spent the short remainder of his life alternately singing and praying, and, as he was fortunate enough to have his air run out before the sun cooked him, the songs and the prayers more-or-less became the same thing by the end.

 

It was a good death. He was content.

 

***

 

To Be Concluded Next Week...

 

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