Welcome to Hell.
Degenerate louse reporting for duty. Need a fire put out? I’ll be smoking in the back. Need rescued from a burning building? I--are weighted blankets fireproof? Did anyone check that recently? Because honestly I’d love to know. I’d be fighting fires one blanket at a time. If I was still fighting fires...
Are weighted blankets fireproof?
Okay, it’s written down. Answer coming to you shortly. That is, if I can get my hands on the internet. I haven’t been there in three years now. Maybe I’ll just ask the Commander.
On second thought, maybe not. I wasn’t really supposed to be here. But when the world is bathed in fire, they can’t in good conscience release me through the airlock. I mean, not to say they haven’t tried. There’s been a few debates over my fate, but they all end in a tipped result. It starts as a tie, and then one bridge keeps me alive, every single time. I’ll admit I’m lucky.
“Lou,” didn’t I mention I’m the official louse on board? They just refrain from speaking the word aloud.
“Here,” I call out, standing from my desk. My roommate, Ace, and I have shared these quarters since we left Earth. He had to become my best friend, I decreed it so. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to share my sentiment. Rock or otherwise.
“You didn’t show up for your session,” he growls, stepping into our small room. I give my best smile, sheepish as it is.
“I got distracted?” I try. He glances at my desk, where my journal is open. Sighing, his gaze returns to mine, floating from my uncombed hair down to my untied boots. I never claimed not to be a mess. I just want to make that clear.
“Tie your boots and meet me in the training room,” he rolls his eyes. As subtle as he is about that motion, I’m tuned to it. He makes a show of watching the doors shut between us, because he can’t slam the door in my face. If that’s not a plus to automatic doors, I don’t know what is.
I slump back on my seat and pull one boot up. I’m not a soldier. No matter how many times he takes me into the training room, I’m going to be a dramatic failure. Not once have I been able to best him. Honestly, no one on the ship can, so why should I be able to? Our Commander doesn’t understand that.
With my boots tied, I trudge to the training room. It takes a moment for the doors to open, but when they do, my heart sinks. I’m not the only one who didn’t show. Wrench is here too, in all her filth. I may be useless, but at least I have basic hygiene down to a T. When it comes to having a partner in combat training, it’s preferred they aren’t covered in grease. She’s a slippery thing as it is.
“Good of you to show,” Ace directs the statement to both of us, glancing from Wrench to me. He then crosses the room, tugging his uniform over his head. Wrench’s gaze is lured to his back, before she notices me staring at her. One furious finger lifts from inside her sleeve. Apologies grease slick, it’s the only entertainment I get out of a day. “Dress down, now. You’re wasting my time. Again.”
“Well I-” Wrench blushes, her rude finger curling around a strand of blackened hair. “-if I dress down, I’ll barely be in anything.” She’s not wrong. The mechanic jumpers are their basic clothing. I’ve seen the men disrobe. It’s nothing but underclothes under the clothes. Huh.
“Take this then,” Ace is growing impatient. He practically pitches the tunic at her. Then his furious eyes meet mine. I undress immediately, tossing my uniform to the corner. It’s embarrassing to stand half-nude in front of Ace. I’m a rail. Actually, not true, I’m probably too thin to even pass for a rail anymore.
Wrench huddles in the corner changing. I’m expecting to continue standing in wait, but then Ace rushes me. My ankles practically snap as I scramble to avoid him. But he doesn’t stop. He strikes me in the chest with a spinning blow. Tears immediately sting my vision.
“I still wonder why you came here,” he hisses, fists clenching. He’s in a really bad mood today. And it’s too late for me to notice that. I’m in for a torture session, training be damned. Stepping around me, he bounces. He was once a professional martial artist. Rumor has it, he ran his own dojo before the world erupted.
His fist flies forward. I dodge. But his knee catches my ribs. And then he slams into me, driving me to the ground. “My sister died. But you, you feckless waste of space, are still alive. They wouldn’t let her on the ship.” His fist meets my cheek. Then again. I gag as blood surfaces on my lip. Every year, like clockwork. It must be the anniversary of his sister’s death.
“A-ace,” I wouldn’t intervene if I were you Wrench. I gaze over at her, trying to warn her off. But does anyone listen to the louse? Of course not. “Ace, stop it.” He strikes me again. I’m convinced my teeth rattled on that one. I’d lost one the last time he got in this mood. Honestly, what’s one more? “Ace please.”
“You want to trade places?” He roars, turning on her.
“No, I-” her hands lift in defense. The love of her life is such a cruel man. Poor thing. The love of my life was a four-legged beauty. I lost her to this man. I learned one very painful thing about heartache. It doesn’t leave, no matter how much you convince yourself you don’t love them anymore.
“Hey,” I roll to stand, but can’t. Damn, he really rang my bell. I sway, dizzy. This louse demands the knowledge to put Ace on his ass. Anyone? Oh right, Hell already burned through Earth. There’s no one listening. But on the off-chance...one last bid. Anyone at all?
Ace angles back to me, seething. He’s one punch away from ruining my mind for good, when Commander bursts into the room.
“Get clothed,” Commander demands. He analyzes the situation, fights the smile that forms on his face, and then clears his throat. “There’s a blip on the radar.” With his announcement made, he retreats down the hallway. I made a good choice not bringing up my question to him. But weighted blankets be damned, we may have found alien life.
“We’ll finish this later,” Ace snarls, wiping saliva from his chin. I’m not sure what Wrench sees in him. Or what I do. In all my life, I’ve never made a worse decision than trying to force this man to be my friend. He snatches his uniform from the floor, but doesn’t bother donning it. In fact, he exits into the hallway still shirtless. Tough guy.
“I hope it’s a malfunction,” Wrench whispers. She glances over at me, probably considering helping me. But she doesn’t. “I better get down there. If it is a malfunction, they’ll need another pair of hands.” She hurries to the corner to grab her jumper, gives me one last glance over her shoulder, and then joins the others in the hallway. They’re gathering in a horde. Is it excitement or worry? It might be both.
Pushing myself up from the floor, I groan. This one’ll bruise. At least I survived with the rest of my teeth. I’m not in a rush the way the others are. Sure, I have curiosity. Everyone has curiosity. I’m fairly convinced it’s bad news though. Stooping forward, I grab my uniform.
“Lou?” Why’s she back? I turn to meet gaze with Wrench.
“What?” I tug my uniform back over my head, even though I’d rather stay naked. When evening strikes, undressing will be a pipe-dream.
“I brought you some water,” she announces, stepping forward with the packet in her hand. It’s about the nicest gesture she’s ever made at me, not that I mind her other crude motions. They usually make me laugh.
“Thanks,” I give her a smile, accepting the pouch.
“Come on. This might be the event of the year.” She turns to the door again.
“If it’s nothing, crew’s gonna be real embarrassed,” I joke, following her. Maybe there’s one friend for this louse yet. We stalk down the hallway, shoving our way through to the bridge. Ace is already there, at the right hand of our Commander. And surprise, he’s still shirtless.
The room is silent. The Commander’s gaze is laser focused on the beeping screen, but everyone else is watching him. They’re waiting for him to make a move, a command, something.
“Do you think it’s our sister?” Ace suddenly wonders aloud. The Commander is quick to shake his head.
“Let’s not get our hopes up,” he mutters. “How close are we?”
“100,000 kilos and closing, sir,” one of the men seated on the deck announces.
“Do we have visuals?” The Commander continues. Even from here, I can see his fists clench. Everyone here is a lot more anxious over this than I am. Sure, we were meant to meet our sister ship a year ago. But we long since passed our specified location after they didn’t show. That’s when I accepted their death. I guess I’m better at expunging my hopes than the others. Perks of a louse. How far down the list should that perk be though? Second? Fifth? Fifth sounds good. There are a few other perks that sit higher. For instance-
“-We have visuals!” A voice shouts. The crowd floods forward, trying to catch a glimpse of the screen. Even Wrench pushes her way to the front, peeking at the pixelated image forming. To me, it looks like nothing more than a wreckage.
“Close-in,” the Commander orders our pilots. They maneuver, directing our path more succinctly onto the wreckage. “I want all frequencies scanned. We pull back if we catch anything. Anything.”
“Sir,” resounding consent. I don’t feel their anticipation. This whole venture is almost...boring.
I used to be a firefighter, back on Earth. That one really is a surprise, I know. I may have saved a few lives, but I won’t claim to be one of the good ones. I lived to stand in the fire's angry breath. My need for adrenaline was...something I avoid now. It’s left me almost immune to excitement. That's something I regret.
My therapist used to tell me my journal would keep me sane. But it doesn’t seem to be working, does it? How could it?
The day Hell overcame us, I wasn't a hero. The temperatures spiked. Experts were amazed. But not one of those idiots thought anything of it. Every year the summers had gotten hotter. And every year we’d survived it.
But then the earthquakes began. And with the earthquakes came fires. Then the smoke brought dry storms. And the lightning road the tails. We couldn’t keep up.
I didn’t even try.
As the Earth was engulfed, the sisterships rose. All the conspirators were justified. Me included. But I didn't stay to help them. No, I snuck aboard the first sister. Hell if I was going to perish on the fire and brimstone we’d caused ourselves. That’s my theory anyway: that we caused it ourselves.
“Lou, if that’s really our sister out there. I-if she’s dead, what will come of us?” Wrench murmurs, turning to face me. Her features are overdrawn with fear. This isn’t our last journey, I promise. I rest my hand on her shoulder and return my gaze to the screen. Even if it is our last journey, it wasn’t half bad. We’d survived three years out here.
Crackle. The whole room goes still at the sudden sound. Are we picking up static, or something more? I can’t help my interest now. I wouldn’t mind if they’re alive out there.
Kssssh...sustained a great amount of damage. If anyone’s out there...ksssssh...Help! Oh god...kssssh.
I like to take my SOS calls with a grain of salt. Whatever’s on the other end of that call, it could just be dramatics. In my hometown, the calls were often just dramatics. They’d panic you for nothing.
A scream passes over. Then growling. It’s followed by another scream. And then the transmission seems to repeat. The hissed message gets to the scream again, but our Commander shuts it down before the scream can end. Okay, I’ll admit that’s got my heart pounding. We might die after all.
“How shall we proceed, sir?” Ace’s voice is powerful in the silence. Our Commander leans back, takes a step down to the main floor, and then laughs. It’s humorless. It reminds me more of a cough. At least the man’s relatable. That’s the reaction I’d have as well, if I was him. Right now, I’m very glad I’m not.
“We have no way of knowing when that message was sent, do we?” Ace continues to lead, as though he’s suddenly in command. He is second in command, but that’s hardly relevant. He always needs to be in control. Though the crew seems uncomfortable answering questions from a shirtless man.
“She’s our sister,” the Commander finally meets our anxious eyes. “And we’re going in.”
“I can’t recommend that,” Ace immediately dismisses the Commander’s words. Bad idea. The Commander grabs Ace by the throat, tightening his fingers into his flesh.
“Did I ask your opinion?” He spits into Ace’s stern face. “This is my ship. And I will send a team to investigate. In fact, you seem awfully eager. A generous sacrifice, Team Lead.” The Commander keeps his hold on Ace’s throat as he spins to inspect the rest of us. To my horror, Wrench raises her hand.
“If he goes, so do I,” she stammers. Brave and stupid. Poor thing.
“Good girl,” our Commander beckons her towards him, finally releasing Ace. He stumbles back a few steps and then glares at Wrench. He may not always treat her well, but she has a certain charm even he can’t resist, grease slick and all. “Where’s our last two? The team is almost balanced. A leader, an engineer...a pilot?” I doubt anyone will raise their hands. Hell, I know I won’t.
But someone forces her way past me. At my resistance to move, she turns a rigid glare on me. If I’m honest, I’ve never bothered to learn the name of every person on this ship. There’s nearly ten thousand of us, and learning ten names is hard for me. But she seems to know me. Her fist clamps around my wrist and she raises it along with hers.
I struggle against her grip, praying the Commander hasn’t seen us yet. But it seems my luck has finally sputtered out. His eyes dart towards us, as she opens her wide mouth.
“We’re all you need, sir,” she announces.
“A perfect balance indeed. A leader, an engineer, a pilot, and a louse.” Our Commander points us to join the others.
“He’ll be great bait.” She retorts, snorting. This is not how I saw my death playing out. I was planning to go out with a bang. Maybe I’d hijack a bomb in the middle of an alien shootout and sacrifice myself to take out their ship. Instead, I might run screaming from an alien monster, and die as bait.
Hooked. Lined. Sunk. Is that how fishing metaphors work? I wouldn’t know, fishing wasn’t my sport. I glance at Wrench, who’s staring up at Ace, and then I realize his eyes are on mine. His brow is furrowed, low enough to darken his gaze. Guess I won’t die running from a monster, I guess he’ll kill me first.
“Don’t die on me,” he mutters, “I’m not done with you yet.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I retort, twisting towards the pixelated screen again. If there really is anyone left on our sistership…
I hope they’re fairing better than those we left on Earth.