Cooling metal pinged as consciousness slowly returned. Struggling to sit up, Latimer felt his body bump against something in the blackness. Spinning, he struck a bulkhead. Weightless? Groggily, his mind fought with the idea. Why was he weightless? What happened to ship's gravity? Lifeboat? He reached out to steady himself, wincing from the sudden pain in his left shoulder.
Instrument lights from the control panel in the distance glowed blue-green-red, as he realized that he could only see with his right eye. Wiping at his face with his left hand, he felt wetness. Blood? His heart pounded. What had happened to his sight? Adrenalin shocked his body, bringing full consciousness to his befuddled mind, and with it, nausea and... memory.
Panic surged like an enraged beast tearing at its cage. Fighting to still his nerves, he forced himself to reason. He had to get to the controls, find out what had happened. He pushed from the bulkhead, correcting off the doorway into the pilot's cabin, using his good right arm to stop himself against the acceleration couch.
As he strapped in, his stomach rebelled, forcing him to snatch a puke bag and bring it to his mouth — nothing but dry heaves. That was the vile smell his dazed mind had refused to place; he must have vomited while he was out, and already emptied his stomach. Trying to dismiss the smell, he activated the scan and searched space around him; stars swam across the screen, one close by — no beacon. A chill went down his spine as he called up the boat's log, punched playback, and watched the scene. The chill changed to despair, gnawing at his soul. The pilot's cabin swam around him as his forehead throbbed, demanding attention.
He groped with shaking hand for the toggle that controlled cabin lights, and snapped it on, staring at his reflection formed by the blackness of deep space behind the wide front viewport. A haggard, blood-covered likeness stared back. While he had been unconscious in zero-gee, an eyebrow-level cut had disgorged an abundance of blood. Most had been sucked into the ventilator intakes, but some still floated in the air. The blood on his face had coagulated, but the gaping cut across his forehead still oozed.
As he watched, droplets broke away from the side of the wound to float about the cabin in small round balls. Pain seared across his forehead as he gently lifted the mass of mangled tissue that had once been an eyebrow, to inspect his left eye. He closed his right eye — blurred vision in the left, but vision, nevertheless. A sigh escaped his lips; the eye was intact, though swollen almost shut.
Touching his hand to the red first aid symbol on the cabin wall to his right caused a section of panel to fold out and the kit to open. He glanced again at his image in the glassite. The cut was bone-deep from just above his left eye to the center of his forehead, five or six centimeters in length, he guessed, causing the eyebrow to shift downward, leaving a gaping wound.
Some (sane?) part of his mind kept telling him that he couldn't have blood floating everywhere. He popped a can of antiseptic spray out of its recess, closed his eye and sprayed the wound. A sting followed by a blessed numbness touched his face; the pain eased off.
After choosing a bandage from the kit, he gently pushed the edges of the torn tissue back into place and sealed the dressing across the injury. That would have to do; he wasn't up to anything more involved just now. His left arm, bruised, throbbed from the exertion. Besides... he had to know for sure.
It was odd to think such a small instrument could hold one's future tucked, somehow, inside it. The blue symbol of an atom with circling electrons mocked him as he grasped the device, hesitated, turned it toward himself and activated its sensor.
Shouldn't the manufacturers have programmed in some type of delay, some double-check, before instantly announcing someone's doom with a blaring buzz and flashing blue read-out? Obviously, they hadn't thought so. He stared at the buzzing instrument before he reset it and turned it toward himself again. Same thing!
I'm dead. My body just hasn't realized it yet, he thought.
He shut the alarm off and stared at the reading again. Twenty percent beyond fatal dose. Possibly, no probably, he told himself, he would live — live, that is, if he could get to a full medical facility within a few hours. But with no medical facility within some hundred-plus light-years, and with only the anti-rad pills, twenty percent beyond fatal dose was just that — fatal. Period!
He grasped the vial, his hand trembling. Was there any use in prolonging the inevitable? These would only put off death a little longer. Through blurred vision, he read: Take two immediately after radiation exposure, then one every 12 hours. He didn't bother reading the rest. There wasn't any rest for him, anyway.
The anti-rad pills, however, with an anti-nausea capsule, went down dry a few minutes later. Maybe he just didn't have the guts to throw the things into the converter, but he had fought for life time after time, and had always felt contempt for people who committed suicide; not taking the pills when they would, at least, prolong his life, felt like a form of self-destruction.
How long had he been in the boat, anyway? A glance at the elapse time clock produced the answer: three hours and sixteen minutes. He shouldn't be nauseated from the radiation sickness this soon; the dose he received wasn't that massive. The nausea must be shock from blood loss and the beating his body had taken, he decided. The boat, keyed to his ship's computer, had launched when he was (safely?) aboard, nearly killing him in the process. If it had waited until he had been strapped down, he would be dead, though — at least it would have been a clean death; now he would die a bit at a time, and in agony.
"Better get your mind off that. Whining won't do any good," he subvocalized.
He didn't know whether any of the other scouts — not that there were that many — talked to themselves, but he figured he was the best conversationalist within light-years, so why shouldn't he talk to himself. Of course, he was the only conversationalist within light-years... He almost giggled aloud.
Snap out of it.
Was it the drugs he had taken, or was he losing it completely? No, he decided, he wasn't crazy, just scared spitless.
Well... , not any crazier than usual. All scouts were a little crazy — had to be. There were dozens of jokes about scout-crazy pilots, and he guessed, there was some basis for the stigma. He had seen more than most though, lived life on the edge, traveled farther than any person alive.
What the crap had happened? Why did the pile suddenly have to blow? He hadn't been lax with safety, at least, not about his ship. A scout's idea of a reasonable risk would leave the average person appalled at the recklessness. But a scout had to poke his nose into things, had to explore. That's what he got paid for, though he would have done it for free, if need be, but he wouldn't have let anyone know that. Scouts generally griped about needing newer equipment, bitched about assignments, raised hell in port, then lifted, mission after mission, until, eventually, they quit or didn't come back from an assignment.
You knew this would happen. The odds had to catch up with you sooner or later.
A cacophony of wailing alarms, the strobe of warning lights, then momentary stillness until the computer announced, blaringly, throughout the slender scout-ship: ABANDON SHIP. THE REACTOR WILL SELF DESTRUCT. PILE DETONATION IN THIRTY SECONDS. ABANDON SHIP. ABANDON SHIP. Latimer hesitated and stood motionless, stunned. TWENTY-FIVE SECONDS. TWENTY-FOUR. TWENTY-THREE.
He snapped awake, heart pounding, body trembling. In the dream, he had again been walking down the short passage from the rec-room to the bridge when the computer let loose with its declaration. A couple of seconds had crept by before realization struck and training had taken over.
If he had been anywhere else, he wouldn't have made it to the lifeboat. He practically dived through the hatch, hit weightlessness, braced his foot against the bulkhead, and swung the heavy port with all his strength. He frantically spun the lock, heard the seal squeak closed, then turned and clawed his way through the inner hatch. As he was swinging it closed, the boat launched. Acceleration beyond the capabilities of the dampers smashed him against the hatch and pinned him while consciousness was snuffed out in a blinding flash of pain as the craft, trying to save its master, launched at emergency max.
A sun-bright ball of primal energy blossomed behind the escaping lifeboat as his ship reduced itself to atoms. Hard gamma radiation sleeted through the light shielding of the desperately fleeing craft — through his body. He had almost been far enough away for dispersal to have reduced the radiation to an acceptable level — almost.
What had happened? His last full-maintenance check, two days ago, had verified that the drive was in perfect condition, fine-tuned to four decimal places, and the fusion unit had every safety device that the Service could think of to keep it working safely, and at top efficiency, for years. It couldn't just blow — but it had.
The lifeboat had bolted like the hounds of hell were after it, but the tiny ship had to wait for him to close the outer lock — seconds that would ultimately cost him his life. After the explosion and the resulting radiation bombardment, the command computer had shut down all nonessential systems and awaited his instructions.
.... There is more of this story ...
Science Fiction /