My stomach gurgles in the engine room and I have to set down my wrench to address the emptiness. I pat my vest pockets for some semblance of food and I feel flatness.
A bag of freeze-dried barracuda strips. Beautiful. Beggars can’t be choosers though. First one out the bag and down my throat launches my body into a uniformed squirm. It’s edible enough.
The engine is fixed at last. The hull has seen better days but I’m a room over from the gravity chamber according to the blood-muddled journal of the nameless, long-deceased engineer before me. I’m no forensics specialist. I’d be hard-pressed however to imagine the fatal wound in her chest isn’t self-inflicted.
I bounce through the corridors over to the gravity chamber and the journal I stumbled upon on the way there reads something about a “double helix reactor core” but with most of the notes in another language, I can’t be sure. I guess I’m winging this patch-up. I pray this isn’t a total disaster.
There’s a lever on the opposite side of the chamber that I catch from outside the glass. Time to investigate. I smack a button that opens shutters I can slip through while they’re halfway open. Being a slim cat from occasional starvation on earth has its advantages now.
“Now entering the gravity chamber. Unknown presence detected. Annihilation sequence initiated. T-minus 60 seconds until annihilation. Identify yourself.”
Cats don’t talk, cats don’t talk, cats don’t talk, cats don’t talk. I’m a calico who left home for the lone, chilling depths of intergalactic fantasy and my first frontier could be my final one all because I struggle embracing existing as a talking cat.
“T-minus 45 seconds until annihilation. Identify yourself.”
My palms grow to a milky consistency and heaviness. My heart is palpitating and the room pulls into a vortex swirling while the countdown is going.
“T-minus 30 seconds until annihilation. Identify yourself.”
The pressure is ramping up, accelerating; my body is rendered to the fetal position, dry heaving and weeping. I can’t bring myself to muster a solid meow at the least. The room is a tornado now and I’m deep in the eye of it.
“T-minus 15 seconds until annihilation. Identify yourself.”
To pretend death isn’t imminent (unless I speak, of course) is foolish. I wasn’t forced to venture here for annihilation. I don’t mind it on my own terms. This doesn’t qualify as “my own terms” though. I need to speak.
“AURORA! MY NAME IS AURORA!”
“Annihilation sequence deactivated. Welcome to the gravity chamber, Aurora. Gravity levels are unstable. Proceed with caution.”
The shutters slam down and my heart is nearly pounding out of my chest. I have a job to do though and it won't be done while I'm in a mix of relief and panic. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.
“Scan for damage in the gravity chamber.”
“Critical damage in the gravity chamber dealt to the double helix reactor core.”
“Where is the double helix reactor core located?”
“The double helix reactor core is located in the center of the gravity chamber. Proceed with caution.”
Of course it's in the center. Should have been the first place I checked. I stew in the zero gravity before swimming down to the core. The closest thing I have to freedom is this isolation. No leash, no neglect, no abuse. I'll take it.
The Earth is in my peripheral view while I wrap my legs around one of the core’s handles and pore over it in an attempt to pinpoint the actual problem. At this moment, I couldn't feel safer yet smaller on the outside looking down on that distant rock. Perhaps I have been getting what was advertised.
“Close solar shutters. I think I had enough sightseeing for one day.”
The shutters crawl shut and the lone feeling only heightens. Three wires in the core are loose and snapping, releasing jolts of electricity I can't afford to suffer.
“Why didn't you warn me of loose wires?”
“Programming deters me from revealing specific defects in the ship.”
“I am not permitted to say.”
“List everyone who set permission restrictions in the gravity chamber.”
I fish anti-shock gloves out of my pockets and fiddle with the wires while a digital list of everyone who set permissions materializes before me.
“Paris Amand, Sufia Shawarya…”
One of the names is obscured and once I settle the core’s wires back into place, I address the “omission”.
“The third name is blurred out. Who is this?”
“What is the omitted name?”
“Omitted name is of zero importance to the USS Eiko.”
“Level 3 clearance needed to override permission.”
I roll my eyes and wander out of the gravity chamber towards the Captain's quarters to check the database. Crap. It's password-protected. I flip through the journal to find the Captain’s password that follows something about a “Maelstrom” whatever that is.
“1469. Simple enough.”
I input the code and the doors slide open to the captain hung on the ceiling fan by her bedsheets and an operatic soundtrack that whines to life. The room is in disarray with everything from clothes to albums and pizza covering every corner. The most interesting thing though has to be her holo-journal complete with the captain herself in hologram form recalling the entries.
“March 5th, 2035: Captain Ruba Sapphire's journal entry #15. I'm sure that captain-subordinate romance is forbidden somewhere in the Eiko handbook but Sufia Shawarya really makes me feel like I can be free. I've never felt this way with Kevin or any of those other jerks. Mom wouldn't get it. Maybe dad would though. He always did. I guess that's why they split. Sufia's different. I don't know where this is gonna go but I don't care. I mean I do obviously because she likes me too. Wow I sound like such a giddy teenager.”
“August 29, 2035: Captain Ruba Sapphire’s journal entry #25. I step over some plimsolls and pizza boxes in my room to find my “darling” Sufia in bed with Paris Amand, the maintenance guy. I hate him. Unlike his name suggests, he isn't from France so I don't know what she sees in him.”
“January 1st, 2035: Captain Ruba Sapphire's journal entry #1. Chances are I'll miscount the entries over time but for now, this is my first day as head of the USS Eiko and I couldn't be more ecstatic! I can't wait to discover this galaxy end to end and return to Earth someday to tell the tale!”
“October 5th, 2035: Captain Ruba Sapphire's journal entry #50. I hated to believe that Dustin Rexburg was a psychopath but he murdered Paris in cold blood. Choked him to death in fact. Didn't flinch when I confronted him about it. Said he was “doing his due diligence for the sake of the crew.” I hope he doesn't murder anyone else for “the sake of the crew”. I didn't like Paris but I would never have wished death on him.”
“January 1st, 2036: Captain Ruba Sapphire's journal entry #129. The numbers of the entries haven't mattered for a while. What does matter is that Dustin had overridden the permission for the gravity chamber and put one of the butter knives into Sufia’s chest. I don't know where he’s hiding it or himself but I can't stick around to find out. Also caught him muttering about- wait that might be him.”
“February 5th, 2036: Captain Ruba Sapphire's journal entry #200. For sure this is my final entry. He's been on a rampage tearing up the double helix reactor core in the gravity chamber to thrashing around in the gym, whipping weights and scratching through speed bags and whatnot. Murmured about “the Maelstrom coming to bless us all” or some crap along those lines. He can see that if he wants to. Good luck and good riddance, sicko. As for me, I'm off to see Sufia in the afterlife and maybe Paris so I can beat his ass properly.”
I shut the holo-journal and ransack the dresser beneath her bed to find crude drawings of space, gardening magazines and a touchpad detailing everything she documented on this ship.
“Is the Maelstrom real? Dustin is psychotic. Sufia & Ruba forever. Gravity chamber override code: Parabola.”
I set the pad back in its place and float towards the gravity chamber. I hadn't thought of restoring gravity everywhere else in the way I haven't thought of searching other holo-journals. Maybe I could get the AI to feed me condensed versions of their time here, sparing me the agonizing detail in the process.
I re-enter the gravity chamber to get a storm warning.
“Detecting an oncoming storm. Time until impact T-minus 15 minutes.”
“Override code identified. Welcome, USS Eiko member Dustin “Boss Man” Rexburg. How may I assist you?”
Boss man. Right.
“Brief analysis on Paris Amand.”
“Paris Amand, 28, placed in charge of maintenance on the USS Eiko. Pursued relationship with Sufia Shawarya, former girlfriend of Captain Ruba Sapphire. Time of death: 11:30 pm, day of death: October 4th, 2035, cause of death: strangulation.”
“Brief analysis on Sufia Shawarya.”
“Sufia Shawarya, 26, worked in the medical bay on the USS Eiko. Pursued relationship with Paris Amand and was former girlfriend of Captain Ruba Sapphire. Time of death: 11:30 pm, day of death: January 1st, 2036, cause of death: fatal blow to the heart.”
“Brief analysis on Dustin Rexburg.”
“Dustin Rexburg, 22, personal trainer on the USS Eiko. Time of death: Unknown.”
“Day of death: Unknown.”
“No no no there has to be some sort of mistake.”
“Cause of death: Unknown.”
“You cannot be serious.”
“Arcanum. Permission override.”
“Permission override is successful. Dustin Rexburg’s consciousness has been programmed into the USS Eiko artificial intelligence. Shields disengaging, solar shutters opening, spacecraft will be on lockdown in T-minus 10 minutes.”
A disheveled platinum blonde man of medium height and build appears in a stubble, bloodshot eyes and dirt-caked coveralls, slinking into the gravity chamber.
“Never send a feline to accomplish a man's mission. Deactivate gravity and state time remaining until storm impact.”
“Gravity deactivated, time until impact T-minus 9 minutes.”
Thankfully there's been no one to declaw me and I attempt to cling to the core handles in the gravity chamber for dear life.
“Looks like Kitty needs a cut.”
He brandishes a knife and wraps his tongue around the dried blood, pushing from the entrance wall to reach me inside. My claws barely keep me grounded. The slightest interruption can send my petite frame flying to the ceiling, zero gravity notwithstanding. When he swings at me, I have to release though and I sail to the ceiling, pinned as expected.
“Aurora, was it? Consider yourself fortunate to witness the Maelstrom coming to bless us.”
He presses my face against the ceiling and licks his lips, scanning over my body with his knife only to jerk me towards the outside. An enormous vortex or some unnatural disaster like that patiently barrels towards us and my stomach can only be bothered to growl.
“Somebody’s hungry. Don’t worry. The Maelstrom will feed-”
I claw him across his face and swim out to the exit of the gravity chamber. I’ve had enough of his cultist vortex fantasy. I fumble two freeze-dried barracuda strips into my mouth and they slide down my throat at a glacial pace. They’re as slimy and gross as they were hours ago but they beat the taste of certain death I guess. I float to the docking bay and find an escape pod when Dustin’s coos and clicks echo around the ship.
“Here, kitty kitty. Time until impact.”
“T-minus 30 seconds until impact.”
“30 seconds until glorious impact. Come and join me in the beauty of ascension!”
The coos and clicks grow louder yet not before I smack the docking bay doors open.
“Docking bay doors opened.”
“Aurora, you’re angering the Maelstrom! It needs my light! It needs your light!”
The vacuum of space sucks the pod outside as Dustin snarls and tosses his knife at the void ahead of him.
“Good luck and good riddance, sicko.”
In my rearview, the Maelstrom enters and engulfs the USS Eiko while the escape pod bursts through Earth’s atmosphere and crash lands in the middle of nowhere. I yank the lever and the hatch pops open for me to tumble out and vomit.
A woman bathed in sunlight hovers above me and I lose consciousness before I can get a real glimpse of her.