[Content Warning- Death]
“You know, I make the meanest grilled cheese in the world.” Flicking a few more switches, Marcie checked out the cabin window. “Well, in the universe, I suppose.”
A light dimmed on the panel in front of her. Thinking, she thought. “You have told me this before,” a flat voice said.
“I know. I’m just not sure you believe me.”
Another dim. Memory recall? “I do not have any way to make an objective judgment on your statement.”
Ah, no. Snarky. “You don’t have to make a judgment. You could just trust me, you know?”
“Trust is an emotion–”
“Yeah, yeah. No emotions, heard it all before. Doesn’t mean I can’t read you like a book though.”
“I have read-out screens. They are supposed to be read like a
“It’s an idiom.”
“Actually, it is an analogy–”
“Whatever! Sorry, I didn’t realise today was the language test.” Marcie drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair, before standing up with a huff. “Guess I’ll do the rounds then.”
The light dimmed again. “You would be early. The daily rounds are not due until 0900 hours.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like there’s anything else to do. Mark it in the logs, the rounds today are being done–” Marcie checked her old fashioned wrist watch, the one she had to change the battery in every day. Even with the best battery technology available, it was still so worn out that it lost time by the end of the day. “Oh, wow. Thirty minutes early. That’s a new record isn’t it.”
“It is. You can normally last longer in the day before you get bored. If you continue in this way, you will soon be doing today’s checks yesterday.”
“Ooh, sarcasm. What crossed your wires today?”
“You know that if my wires get crossed, you have far more problems than my sarcasm.”
Marcie stood up and stretched. “Might have some excitement as well. You know, I think I could handle the tedium if I could have some grilled cheese. Or anything other than bloody vacuum-packed rations again. Remind me to send a memo asking for more supplies later, okay?”
The light on the control panel dimmed, twice. Debating. Awkward truths or comfortable lies?
“I shall remind you,” the flat voice said. Comfortable lies, Marcie thought. Or at the very least stubborn denial.
She strolled out of the deck and headed off on her regular rounds of the ship. It only took five minutes and a gazillion air locks, safety seals and other precarious bits of metal before the buzzing in her brain started again.
“Do you have anything to relate it to?” she asked.
“Relate what to?” the voice replied, coming from a speaker in the environmental control panel nearest to Marcie.
“Grilled cheese. Do you have, like, descriptions of tastes, or smells? Famous literature pieces about food or… something?”
“I do not. It was not something that was deemed necessary for me to have. There was not enough space in my hard drive for frivolous things.”
“Excuse me, grilled cheese is not frivolous. Plenty of space in there now anyways, huh?”
This time the light glowed. Embarrassment, or possibly anger. That was always a fun reaction to get. It was generally pretty hard to get emotions out of an LED. “My systems have not degraded as much as yours.”
“Oh, catty now! And can you blame me? It’s easy for you, you can just run a few calculations to stay in shape. There’s only so many times I can read the ten books I have, or redo the same damn crosswords.”
“The mission was not supposed to take this long.”
“I know, I know. And I know it’s no one’s fault. It’s just…”
The light flashed, then dimmed, then flashed again. “I know,” the computer said at last. What else were there to say? Nothing that hadn’t been screamed into the void until they both were hoarse.
The uncomfortable truths hung in the corridor, a thick soup of panic, despair and isolation. Marcie could feel her pulse start to quicken, a sensation she thought she’d grown immune to by now. She flailed for dry land.
“This console’s connected to the main system, isn’t it?” What else could it be connected to, the local radio station?
“Yes. Would you like me to open one of the administration programmes?”
“Yeah. Get the external message system up.” Log text scrolled across the small display, until it was replaced by a message box. Marcie said the words as she typed, the words almost muscle memory already. “Urgent supplies request; grilled cheese, or the equipment to make grilled cheese, namely–” She kept typing her message while talking over her shoulder. “You see, that’s what makes it the best grilled cheese. You can’t just use any ingredients, it has to be the right ones. It has to…” Marcie looked up at the nearest spot of light, which was the best equivalent to looking someone in the eyes that she’d had for… well, too long. She sighed, and left the point unmade.
“So you have told me,” her insubstantial companion replied. “I will bow to your expertise on that front.”
“Damn right. Biggest expert in the galaxy.”
“I am not sure that biggest is the correct superlative for ‘experts’.”
“Oh? Says who? Who is there to correct me on my grammar?”
“Apart from me?”
“Exactly.” Marcie finished typing out the list of ingredients, then sent her prayer off into the ether. Maybe this time… “Come on, let’s keep doing the checks.”
“There is no rush.”
“And there’s nothing to dawdle for either.”
The pair of them headed down the next corridor, and the next, and the next, as far as one of them could be said to ‘head off’ through their own anatomy.
Five more checks later, and this time it wasn’t Marcie who started the conversation. “Are you all right, Marcie?”
“Me? Yeah. Well, right as can be. Why do you ask?”
“Only you have seemed a little… off today. Down.”
“Hmm. Thursday’s always do that to me.”
“It is only Wednesday.”
“Oh well, that explains it. Wednesday’s are even worse.” Marcie frowned at the next time display she passed. “And it’s Tuesday, actually. But Tuesday’s are even even worse. I mean, they’re practically Monday’s, aren’t they?”
“I never feel right on a Tuesday. Although… ‘right’ compared to what? There isn’t a base level to compare how I feel to. Maybe this is normal. In which case it’s perfectly fine that I’m feeling like this.”
“I appear to have corrupted your systems. You are starting to think like me.”
“Really? You should be proud.”
Marcie drummed through the next group of tests. Her eyes drifted over the screens, but she didn’t need to read the words to know when to hit the next buttons. She didn’t see the words, not even the ones that flashed, or were in capitals, not even the handful that were in red. This was just the pattern of her day, a ritual to the gods of the void, a process to go through. Nothing ever changed about it, and it didn’t matter.
Did anything matter?
Marcie had just ignored half a screen of red text, and was heading through an airlock into the next compartment, when a mark on the wall caught her eye. Some deep part of her brain, the part that had given up and was now watching the world as though it were a TV programme, flagged it up. Oh yeah, it said, this is when it gets real. I’ve seen this before, just watch and see…
Two decades again Marcie would’ve already been running. A decade ago she’d be getting into a space suit. Five years ago she’d be sighing and locking down the area. A year ago she’d be grumbling and digging out the space tape.
On this day, after all this dreamlike time in her own void, where nothing happened and nothing changed and nothing was real, she poked the crack.
The fatigued metal bent a little, then shattered.
The world imploded.
It started with a hiss. Innocent enough in any other location. Even through the muddle Marcie knew that was a sound that meant death here. Swearing with the precious air left in the corridor she turned and sprinted for the nearest hatchway. Once through she slammed all the controls, shutting down that part of the ship, firing up all the emergency protocols for a breach.
Archaic systems, the very ones she checked every day, were tested and found wanting.
Wires burnt out. Bolts sheered. Pistons stuck. Capacitors blew. Systems failed.
The decrepit ship, as lost and muddle and lonely as Marcie, broke.
Alarms flared. Marcie raced through the corridors. Around her the ship started tearing apart. Half of it tried to save itself while the other half gave up. Back in the main deck Marcie grabbed the air locked and heaved with all her remaining might, her worn, baggy uniform flapping as the air from the cabin was sucked out through one of the many holes now in her ship.
All the LEDs on the panel flashed. “Marcie!”
“I know, I know!” At last the airlock clicked into place. A semblance of calm fell on the deck, and then the lights went out. “Computer?”
“I am here, Marcie.”
“The… the systems have failed. The ship is old, and–”
“Not that. What’s happened to the lights?”
“The main generator has disengaged.”
“I don’t have much power then?”
“How long have I got?”
“Just… how long? Please?”
“The heating system will fail in twenty minutes.”
“I see. Is anything going to go before that?”
There was a pause, filled with the creaking of machinery and the desperate whirring of circuitry. “Both of the air pipes tore during the implosion, and the gas cannister left on board has a fast leak. The air conversion unit caught fire as well. You are running out of oxygen.”
“Ah. Well, I guess slow suffocation is better than freezing to death. At least I’ll pass out first, right? How long have I got?”
“About ten minutes.”
“Te– oh. Oh.” Marcie let her head thump back against the air lock and stared at the top of the cabin. Her eyes had adjusted to the what little light was left, buried LEDs shining through gaps in the panels. All the alarms had stopped. There weren’t even any alarms in her head. “About?” she said after a moment’s thought. “That’s not like you. You always refuse to say ‘happy birthday’ until it’s the precise minute of my birth.”
“I can only say about because it depends on your activity levels. If, for instance, you decide to try and patch the leak, you will use the oxygen faster, but there is also a chance that–”
“No? You will not even consider it?”
“No, I won’t.”
“That is a very defeatist attitude.”
“I’m sorry. But what’s the point in fighting? We’ve been fighting against the inevitable for all these years, you and I. But who’s going to know? Not a single message has come back…”
Marcie let her eyes lose focus. At least she thought it was her choice. It could’ve been the lack of oxygen already starting to bite. She let herself sink to the floor, still against the bulkhead. A couple of times there was a faint buzz, the intake of breath before a statement, but nothing was said.
There was nothing to be said.
Nine minutes later, the first and only tear ran down Marcie’s face. “I don’t want to die.”
“I know. And I guess it’s better to go out like this than to just waste away up here, wondering what happened back there. But still–” She gulped in her next breath, fighting for air and against the sobs. “Oh god, it’s coming. It’s hard to focus. No, please, not… not this.” Her voice was little more than a whisper, every word a moment in history.
Overhead data banks whirled. “Hey, Marcie?”
“Tell me about the grilled cheese again.”
Marcie smiled as the world started fading. “The trick is, you don’t just use one type of cheese, but not to use too many either. Three cheeses is perfect, as long as the flavours don’t overwhelm each other. What you do is, you grate them all into the same bowl, and make sure that they’re all mixed together before you put them in the bread. That way… that way… that…”
Marcie’s head fell forward.
“That way,” the computer finished, “you get the best grilled cheese in the world.” A tiny red recording light clicked off, the file was saved to the hard drive, and the computer started the shut down sequence for the remaining systems on the remaining parts of the ship.