Hello, lovely readers! This week’s post is fighting me, and I’m not quite well enough to beat it into shape just yet. Instead, here’s the next short in the series, about our beloved captain. It follows on from the last short a little.
Sit back and enjoy the ride as I crank up the way-back machine again.
The first time they met, they shook hands over the pilot’s chair and Danika completely failed to salute her captain. Later, John would come to realise that both of those facts should have tipped him off.
The company had promised him that the job would be a quiet one. Take the scientists out to the testing area, let them run their tests, try to keep the ship in one piece, and come back. Simple. Easy.
Of course it wasn’t any of those things. Danika was trouble from the moment she stepped aboard.
And now, a month after she first grinned at him over the pilot’s chair, she was sprawled face-down on his bed, with her short hair sprayed across his pillow and one naked leg tangled over his.
John looked at her, at the curve of her waist and the planes of her shoulder blades, and the falcon tattoo that he hadn’t seen until tonight splayed in tandem sleep across her back. He brushed a lock of hair off her cheekbone and thought how peaceful her face was now. It was so unlike her and he couldn’t look away.
A couple of hours ago, the corners of her mouth were quirking with repressed humour, and he had trouble looking away from it then, too. But Dr Maletz had been standing in the middle of the captain’s cabin, nearly purple with outrage as he struggled to articulate his problem, and John had had to maintain a serious demeanour as befits the captain of a ship.
“Let me get this straight: your interactive entertainment library has been tampered with?” John’s tone was patient in the face of Maletz’s bluster.
“Yes! Not just tampered with. Replaced!” The doctor shot a sideways glare at Danika, who was leaning a shoulder against the wall casually. “With gardening tutorials!”
Danika lifted her eyebrows and continued to restrain the smile that plucked at her mouth. John kept his attention firmly on the doctor.
“And you don’t have any interest in gardening.” John almost made it a question, but everyone on the ship knew how the doctor amused himself: he jacked into one of the entertainment couches for interactive porn. It wasn’t like there was much else for a doctor to do when the ship was quiet and everyone was healthy.
“No!” Maletz threw his hands up and glared at the captain this time.
John turned his head slightly to speak to the air above his desk. “Ship, can you please reinstate Dr Maletz’s entertainment access?”
“Searching for the appropriate library, captain,” the cool, female voice of this ship’s AI said. “Please stand by.”
Danika’s eyebrow twitched at the word ‘appropriate’. John ignored her.
“If it was that easy, I–” Maletz started, but the ship cut him off.
“Library located. Authorisation required.”
“Use my authorisation,” John said.
“Authorisation for Captain John Warwick accepted. Access restored. Would you like to retain the gardening library, doctor?”
“No, I would not!”
“Gardening library returned to the central store. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“No, thank you, ship,” John said, before the doctor could say anything snarky.
It only took half a second for Maletz to snap onto the next topic. “And what about her?” He jabbed a thumb at Danika.
“You think she was involved?”
“Who else do you think did it?”
John restrained a sigh; it wasn’t the first time Danika had been suspected of a prank like this. And while he was sure she was the culprit, he couldn’t come out and say it. There was no proof and he had to maintain peace on the ship. Keeping order meant not allowing the crew to have a scapegoat they could blame for every little thing. Even if she deserved it.
“No idea who might have done it, captain.” She shrugged without disrupting her pose against the wall. “I’m just here because the doc was babbling and wanted me to come along.” That damned smile was lurking; John looked away.
“Can you prove Danika was responsible?” he asked Maletz.
“…No. But you have to do something,” the doctor insisted.
“I’ll look into it. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”
“I’ll make sure it’s dealt with, doctor. You’re dismissed. Danika, stay a moment, please.”
The suggestion of a reprimand and the blatant dismissal was enough to make Maletz huff and stomp out of the cabin. As the door whispered closed behind him, the pilot grinned at her toes.
John stood up and came around his desk. “You have to stop doing things like this.”
Danika pushed away from the wall, shrugging cheerfully. “Doing what?” There wasn’t anything innocent about her; she wasn’t even trying to deny it in anything except words.
John gave her a long look. There was no point, was there? She wasn’t sorry. “Gardening tutorials?” he asked instead.
Her grin blossomed. “It’s all about sticking things in holes and planting seeds, isn’t it?”
He couldn’t help it: he felt a smile tug at his lips. It wasn’t captainly and it wasn’t like him, but he couldn’t deny that the ridiculous tickled him. He tried to swallow it back. “I’m serious, Danika. You have to stop. You might need the doctor to take care of you sometime.”
Her head tilted as she looked up at him. “He’ll be fine. And it was totally worth it.”
“How was it worth it?”
“I had a bet on that you were actually capable of smiling.”
It took John a moment to process her words: her fingers were toying with the fastening of his uniform jacket and they were distracting. He gave her a puzzled look.
He couldn’t stop gazing at her mouth, at the expressiveness of the corners of her lips, as if they were about to betray secrets. He caught her hand to stop its motions, feeling himself about to lean towards her. He frowned to clamp his feelings down. “Danika, you have to stop.” Firmly, he separated her hand from his jacket. She didn’t fight him.
“Are you sure?” She had been laughing silently when Maletz was in the room but she wasn’t doing that now. There was a challenge in her, daring him, and a thread of seriousness that lured him almost as much as her levity. Why had she gone to such lengths just to see him smile? What did it matter?
John released her and stepped back. “I’m sure.”
Danika gave him a long look, then lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Okay. Good night, captain.” She didn’t seem upset or disappointed: her mouth still smiled as if this was far from over. As if she was content to bide her time and try again.
When she turned and walked away, John realised that he had lied: he wasn’t sure. He didn’t want her to leave. Before he could stop himself, he had closed the gap between them, spun her around and kissed her. He slid a hand into her hair and pulled her against him, and he could feel her smile against his mouth.
He lifted his head enough to look at her. “Do you have a bet about this, too?”
“No,” she said. “But I’m getting some ideas.”
John drew the sheet up over Danika as she slept. She sighed and shifted without waking, settling her head on his arm. She was a warm weight he wasn’t used to any more.
He was torn: on one hand, she was an annoying woman who pressed all his buttons and made him want to shake her or pin her against a wall, or both; on the other, asleep, she was a delicate creature that he wanted to fold in against him and hold until she woke.
He hadn’t felt this way in a long time, not since… even thinking about it hurt, bringing back that dull, empty ache that Danika had chased away for a short time. Suddenly, he was back there, the day he lost everything that mattered to him.
Mariska was in their cabin when the attack happened, working on her latest painting. John noticed the smudge of paint on her chin over the comms when he checked on them.
“We’re fine, John. Rebecca and I will stay here,” she said, looking calm if a little tense under the alert lighting.
“Go get ‘em, daddy!” Rebecca’s voice piped up from the background and he saw a little hand waving. She had her mother’s pale skin and blonde hair, and a bounce that resembled neither of them but amused them just the same.
“Will do. See you later.”
Mariska blew him a kiss and terminated the comms link. That was the last time he would see her face.
The attack had come out of the blind side of a moon as they were entering the system. John was captain of the Autumn Leaf, a scout ship that had been contracted to deliver a company executive to the colony at Panispila Mundi. Normally a courier would take this kind of job, but there was a lot of upset in the corporate hierarchy, whispers of a potential coup, and they had decided that a scout was the safest choice. It was slower but better equipped to get out of trouble, and anyone looking for them would be expecting a courier.
The company had assessed the threat as ‘low’. They were wrong.
While his crew fought the yaw of the ship and to get the weapons locked onto the attacker, another missile shook the Leaf’s bulkheads. Must have punched right through the countermeasures. Lights flickered on the Bridge.
“Bring us around,” John snapped at the pilot, who was linked into the ship in couch behind him. “Chief, return fire.”
His Chief of Security nodded and barked orders at his SecOffs. The display on the forward screens lit up with laserfire and two missiles arrowing back towards the source of the attack.
“Captain, that’s a full battle-cruiser!”
Readings sprang up as their attacker was identified. The Oyster Shadow, cruiser-class, armed to the teeth and powering towards them.
John blinked. “Nicholson, get us out of here. Chief, covering fire.” There was no way a small scout-class could take on something that size; running was their only viable tactic. “Use the moon for cover if you can.”
“Engines at half power, sir,” the pilot, Nicholson, said, a small voice piping up from the immersion couch. “Can’t get full speed.”
The forward display showed the ship dodging back and forth, but the lack of speed was obvious. John gestured sharply to open a comms line. “Engineering, report!”
“Engineer Corallan has been incapacitated, captain,” the ship’s cool voice answered. “He is unable to report.”
“Hull breach in aft sections imminent.”
“They’re targetting our engines, sir,” the navigator said. “Looking to cripple us.”
“Engines at half capacity and dropping,” the ship added.
There was no way they’d make it to safety; the nearest help was light months away. “Chief, cease fire. Signal our surre–”
Another missile exploded against the Leaf, tearing open its aft sections. The little ship was tossed end over end as gases vented and spurts of flames gushed into the void. Inside the hull, the inertial dampeners struggled to compensate and the crew were thrown into the bulkheads. Lights flashed and went out, leaving only the emergency alerts to illuminate the situation. John heard the sickening crunch of bone and had no idea if it was his or someone else’s. He scrabbled to pick himself up off the wall and an explosion of sparks from an overloaded terminal ruined his vision.
“Leaf, signal surrender!”
An awful sound ripped through the Bridge, forcing every crewmember to cover their ears. Metal screamed, twisted, buckled. Another terminal overloaded and fizzed. Warnings painted the walls, the projections flickering.
They had no intention of accepting a surrender, John realised.
“Abandon ship! Everyone to lifeboats!” The Leaf had been his home for five years but there was no saving it now. The mission couldn’t be salvaged, either. The lives of his people were all that mattered.
The directive pushed everyone into motion around him. The crew helped each other to the hatches that opened on the sides of the Bridge, leading directly into the lifeboats. John oversaw the process, made sure that there was no-one left behind. The navigator was dead, so they left him at his station. The port-side lifeboat was full and punched away. Nicholson held open the hatch for the starboard pod but John shook his head.
“Go. I’ll get another.”
The pilot nodded, knowing the captain was going for his family. The hatch snicked closed and the lifeboat ejected from the dying body of the ship.
John sprinted off the Bridge. His leg hurt but he didn’t have time for it right now.
“Mariska! Are you on the lifeboat yet?” he shouted, hoping that the internal comms were still working.
A fire forced him to turn aside and drop down to the lower deck, trying to find a way through. The comms line crackled and his wife’s voice struggled through to him.
“We’re on the lifeboat, John.” She didn’t sound good, like the smile had been punched out of her.
“Don’t come back for us. You have to get another one.”
The distant voice of his daughter came over the line, shaky with fear. “Momma, the ship is broken.”
John came up against a door between bulkhead sections that wouldn’t budge. When he tried to override it, he got the ‘caution, opens to vacuum’ warning message. Furious, he punched up a schematic of the ship to try to locate a way around the breach.
There was no way. The schematic hovering over his forearm interface showed clearly that the ship had been cut in two, its head cleaved off by a weapons-grade laser. The rear section was drifting away from the Bridge, taking his precious cargo with it.
“Don’t worry, John, we’ll be fine,” his wife said. He could hear that she was forcing a smile. “And we’ve got Dire–
“–ctor Richards with us.”
She didn’t hear him in time. John went cold all over; if the comms were crossing the open space between the segments of the ship, the Oyster Shadow could hear her. They’d know where their target was.
“Mariska, punch out. Do it now.” He was breathless, running down dark corridors to a lifeboat hatch.
“We’re waiting for the doctor–”
“Now!” He jumped in through the hatch and his right leg buckled on landing. Pain speared right through him but he shoved it aside. He had to get the telemetry up. He had to see what was going on.
“All right, we’re going.”
“Momma, where’s Daddy?”
“He’s joining us later, honey. Now hold on. Like we practised.”
John’s lifeboat telemetry came up, showing a holographic representation of the Autumn Leaf and the tiny, glowing dots of her lifeboats as they arrowed away from the bisected ship. A dot pulsed next to the living quarters, showing that a lifeboat was active there. It was close to the damage; one side of it was exposed to the vacuum, though the pod itself was intact.
It wasn’t moving. John couldn’t wait for the damage reports to collate.
“There’s a problem. I’m trying to fix it.”
Stuck. They were stuck and he couldn’t do a damned thing about it. He couldn’t get to them. John started to hammer at the lifeboat’s controls and ejected from the ship’s nose. The lifeboats were built to link up, so he might be able to do something if he could get over there.
He thumped the external comms. “Oyster Shadow, cease fire, cease fire. There are civillians aboard the ship. Cease fire, you have our surrender.”
There was no answer, so he switched back to the internal line. “Can you get to another lifeboat?”
“We’re partway through ejecting,” his wife said, blessedly calm, the way she always was when he started to get frantic. “Seal won’t re-engage.” She’d had that exact same tone when she had been in labour with Rebecca and he had been losing his mind with worry.
He hadn’t been able to help then, either. John looked at the read-outs and knew there was too much damage. He could see it now: a twisted bulkhead had choked off the lifebobat’s exit vector.
“Mariska, you need to get the lifeboat re-coupled,” he said as calmly as he could manage. He pulled his own little raft around, its manoeuvring thrusters painfully slow. “You need to get to another pod.”
“Rebecca, time to put your suit on. Good girl.”
Even as he spoke, he saw the Oyster Shadow coming around, high above the broken Leaf. He saw the flare of firing missiles. With dread, he counted them: three, four, five. A whole barrage. No.
“Mariska,” he said, his voice breaking.
“It’s all right, John.” She knew. She had seen it, too. But it wasn’t all right.
“Mariska, you need to get out of there.” There wasn’t anything he could do. He had no weapons and no way to shield them. The lifeboat was too slow to intercept those missiles.
“Rebecca and I, we’re together, and we love you.”
“I’m here. I love you too. I’d do anything for you.” But there was nothing he could do.
“Stay strong, my love,” his wife said.
Nothing. Not a damned thing. John stared at the telemetry display, tears running down his cheeks. He shouldn’t have flown so close to that moon, should have been more careful, should have surrendered sooner, or kept them closer, or found a way to keep them safe. He should have put his helmet on and jumped out of the airlock to free them. His hand splayed against the lifeboat’s skin, as if he could touch them through it.
“Mariska, you are my life, my–”
The Leaf exploded, hammered by missile after missile. The telemetry hologram shattered as the ship broke into pieces, each one flipping and spinning into the void. He couldn’t even tell which piece they had been in.
Mariska, you are my life, my heart. The spirit who guides me, the home I return to. You are the reason I breathe. Rebecca, you are my hope, my future, my precious charge. My arms will forever be open to you.
John howled so loudly that even the stars could hear him.
He thought his heart was a wound that would never heal. He still heard them when he slept: Mariska’s grim acceptance of a fate she couldn’t escape; Rebecca’s plaintive question as she grasped onto the hope that her daddy would save her. For a long time, they had been all he could hear, and the sight of a child-sized suit was enough to break his heart all over again.
He had never imagined that another woman might lie by his side, that the empty ache where his love had been might be quieted. He drifted a fingertip down the line of Danika’s cheek, her jaw. She didn’t eclipse his memory of the family he lost. He didn’t like her because she reminded him of Mariska; he liked her because she didn’t remind him.
He thought he’d feel guilty, like he was betraying them. But he didn’t. Mariska wouldn’t have wanted that and four years was a long time to be alone. He felt like he could breathe again.
He slid closer to Danika, his skin craving the touch of hers, as if her warmth might thaw something deep inside him. She stirred sleepily, murmuring in her throat, and stretched. Her muscles flexed under the drift of his hand. She looked up at him and the corners of her mouth twitched, but there was no smile this time.
His expression was giving him away. John felt raw, naked. “No, everything’s fine,” he lied, running his hand through her hair, and she let him.
“Just can’t resist me, hmm?” There it was: the curve of her mouth flashed at him and everything was easier. She kissed him and the knot inside him loosened, giving way to a different kind of tension; the kind that promised sweet release. He gripped her tight but she pushed him over onto his back, grinning against his lips. As if she was aware of his fascination with her mouth, she started to put it all over him. He closed his eyes and revelled in it.
It wasn’t love, not yet, but as they made love, joined their bodies and shared that deep pleasure, he could feel the connection between them. They had time to find out what it meant; to discover each other. And he wanted to discover every part of her.
For the first time in four years, John found he had something to look forward to.