You’ve never seen darkness like this. It isn’t ink, or a blanket, or any other metaphor you’ve ever heard of for night. There is no ink this pigmented, no blanket that could blot out worlds the way this darkness does. All I can think of to describe it is that feeling you get when looking down an unlit hallway. The sensation that danger waits in the shadows, and all you have to do is walk forward.
Fear coats the world outside my windows.
We lost power at 00:00 on the 28th, roughly 48 hours ago. That’s witching hour, for those of you who know the stories of the old religions. They think it was a fuse shortage in the main electrical room, but I’ve never known a fuse shortage to do something like this. The whole ship went dark. There isn’t one light on one machine in one room through the entire damn place. Thousands of people aboard, and not one drop of power.
I half expected us to fall. It seems like we should, floating out here so unprotected. But there’s nothing to fall through in space. There’s no gravity to pull us down.
The Captain’s message to “remain calm, people,” reassured no one. We all know what happens when a ship like ours loses power. First, the people in the medbay die when their life support clicks off. Then it’s all the poor saps trapped behind doors that only open electronically. Failsafes cost money. The builders didn’t bother with any.
It’s hot in here. I’m in the engine room– trapped with manual controls, an asshole named Cody, and several thousand pounds of rocket fuel. Cody keeps breathing through his teeth. He hisses like a hull breach.
The race, now, is between us and starvation. Command can’t control the ship’s direction without electricity, but we can. It’s a matter of blasting different rockets at different times to propel us in a certain direction. A crude method, I’ll admit, but planets are pretty big targets. All we need to do is steer to the nearest one and land before all those people trapped behind immovable doors starve to death.
I look to the heavy steel airlock that separates us from the rest of the ship. That thing isn’t opening any time soon.
“Left?” Cody asks. His breath smells like rotten seaweed.
“No, right. 11 degrees off the vertical.”
“Ok,” he says, and all I can think is moron.
He goes to crank the wheel for an engine on the left side of the ship. The turn of the crank will release fuel into a chamber, I’ll pull a lever to ignite a spark, and the whole thing will burn hot and fast enough to push the ship just a few degrees to the right. I watch the stars, burning bright in the dark fear that surrounds us. I follow them, measure them, like the ancient naval officers we learned about in flight school.
As soon as the ship is pointed where I want it, I call out to Cody. He turns the crank back to center as I run to the rear end of the engine room and start turning a new set of wheels. These are the back rockets, the ones with enough force to push us where we need to be. I like to think of the engine manipulation as a complex, high-stakes mathematical challenge.
Cody calls it “thrust and adjust.”
The fuel hits the engines and we shoot forward. It’s hard to tell how far without the use of our instruments, but it has to be several miles at least. Then we stop, and I measure again.
It goes on this way for another three days. There’s a restroom with a faucet down here, so we have plenty to drink. But three days without food has turned my arms to rubber. Turning the cranks takes effort where it didn’t before. Even Cody is flagging, with his no-contact, zero-grav football muscles. And he smells like piss.
He looks over at me, beads of sweat trembling on his upper lip. The sight of them makes me want to scream. I’m so focused on swallowing the sound trying to crawl out of me that I miss his entire sentence.
“Left this time?” he asks.
I don’t know any more. I think he’s right, but it’s been a while since I bothered to check our course against the stars.
“Sure Cody,” I say. “Left.”
He throws his whole body into turning the crank. Heaves to the side and lets the sweat roll unimpeded down his cheeks. My vision heaves as the bow of the ship lists to the left, blurring the stars in our path. I need to be at the back of the chamber, moving us forward, but I can’t muster the energy. It’s all so useless, isn’t it? Who knows who else is alive on this damn ship any more. Maybe we’re the fools, wasting what’s left of our lives trying to save a crew that’s dead anyway.
“C’mon.” Cody nudges my shoulder. “Rear thrusters.”
“You can. I’m just a big dumb lug, and I can do it. Here-“ He grabs my arm and lifts it to eye level, pointing my fingers out the window and into the blackness beyond. “You do the charting, I’ll work the cranks. Sound good?”
I don’t care how bad he smells. He takes those stupid muscles and turns the rear thrusters on, breathing loudly through his teeth all the while. I let it focus me. As long as that breath doesn’t stop, neither will I.
Near as I can tell, we’re a good quarter of a light year away from the nearest planet. Funny that we can’t see it out the window yet. I look out that window a lot. I’ve picked my favorite star from the millions I can see, a little blue one that comes into view when we shift right. I named him Todd.
“Where to?” Cody asks. He’s asked it so many times in the past few days that it almost sounds like a background hum. He breathes, I breathe, and he asks “where to?”
“We can’t keep this up,” I say. “You’re going to give out long before we find anyone around here.”
I stand up, heated. “Where are we going?”
“Why are we wasting time on navigating and adjusting?” I tear at my hair and shout, “I didn’t learn how to do any of this! It’s Command’s job, not mine.”
He stays silent. He looks out the window, and looks at me, and breathes out that seaweed smell that I’ve almost learned to appreciate. “Ok,” he says. “Then let’s just stop.”
He shrugs. “Let’s stop navigating. Pick a star to aim for, turn us that way, and blast it.” He holds a hand out and coasts it in a straight line in front of him, whistling. “All the way home.”
For the first time since the blackout, a smile lights my face. “All right, Cody. All the way home.”
I aim us for Todd. Cody steps to the rear and turns the cranks as far as they can go. The ship lurches beneath our feet. I could dance to the roar of the engines. It feels like we’re finally going somewhere.
With nothing more to do, the two of us play every childish game we can remember. I point out a stain on his shirt and flick his nose when he tilts his head down to see it. He hovers his hands above mine and slaps them before I can pull them away. Ten rounds later, I decide it’s a game I’m never going to win. Instead, I teach him the dirty version of patty cake that I learned on one drunken college night.
We check on Todd every so often. He shifts in the window view a little more each day, because no space ship can fly perfectly straight. I don’t mind. He’s there, at least. That’s all that matters.
“Hey,” Cody says. I mumble something useless and crack an eye open, doing my best to remember when I began to drift off. “It’s gone.”
I sit up. “What’s gone?”
I stumble to the window and hold onto the sill like a lifeline. He’s right, Todd is gone. But there’s something in his place.
You’ve never seen light like this. It isn’t the sun, or the dawn, or any other metaphor you’ve ever heard of for light. There is no sun this bright, no dawn that could lift a heart the way this shining does. All I can think of to describe it is the feeling you get when you wake from a nightmare and see the first slats of gold through your bedroom window. The sensation that salvation is holding out its arms, and all you have to do is walk forward.
A spaceship glows outside my window, and it brings us power.