by Danielle L. Parker
A giant orb floated before Pig’s Eye’s transparent view-port like a jewel displayed on infinite velvet. Britney’s Butt was the largest planet Blunt had ever seen. Equatorial hurricanes whirled in distinct belts of red and blue and smoke white; countless gravity-tormented moons scuttled across its monstrous face like ticks. Far below the steel plates under his boots, poisonous methane clouds roiled and sulfur fumed. With invisible arms the giant tugged at its tiny visitor. The Pig’s Eye groaned and creaked, reacting to the deadly gravitational allure.
“Hang in there,” the captain muttered, surveying his boards. “Where’s that damn courier?” A ping and a yellow warning light interrupted. Blunt’s big hand caressed Pig’s Eye’s joystick; he angled the ship downward. “Well, what have we here?”
The courier ship was scarcely larger than a lifeboat. It rested like a grain of rice on the stony south pole of the largest moon. Blunt, scanning the tiny vessel, found no signs of life aboard. Support systems and drives were, as far as he could tell, operational.
Blunt, considering the matter, rubbed his forearm. He felt a persistent cold spot there, a killer under the flesh, quiescent for now, waiting only for that one carefully spoken phrase to spring into violence.
He forced away his fingers. Perhaps the icy sensation was only his imagination. But it lingered all the same: that dreadful, silent presence, the watchful sense of something alien, implanted in his shrinking flesh like a larval egg waiting to hatch into pulverizing teeth of fire.
“It’s worth it,” he whispered. “It’s got to be worth it.” Silence was the only answer.
Blunt grasped the joystick, and edged the Pig’s Eye downward in a slow, careful spiral. He made two passes, looking for a smooth site and, at last, hiccupping the ship over a stray boulder, settled into a gentle landing. He took no more than minutes to power down ship’s systems to standby.
Blunt stood, stretched, and donned a vacuum suit, checking seals and valves with obsessive care. Soon there was nothing left to do but grab his small kit bag, open the hatch, and step out upon a sterile surface that had perhaps never known human footprint.
He turned to look at his ship one last time. Against the white, steady pinpricks of distant stars, the bloodshot eye painted on the Pig’s Eye’s silvery bow reproached him. All he called home in this uncertain universe rested there, perhaps never to be seen again by his fleshly eyes. What happened to a man’s soul, expiring in the endless vastness of the void, an unheeded, fugitive shadow in the glaring eternity of the stars? Would the man named James Sherman Blunt be snuffed out, simply gone? Or a lone, weeping, bodiless exile, forever?
Not alone. The man shuddered. He wouldn’t be going out alone.
Blunt turned resolutely away. The face of the rogue planet hung above him, so close in the moon’s airless sky, so massive, and so baleful, a crushing spiritual weight pressed upon him. He shuffled forward in the low gravity, his back bowed, stirring dust in great clouds beneath his boots.
He fumbled with the hatch of the little courier. The airlock was barely large enough to accommodate his suited form. Blunt, squeezing through with difficulty, latched the door behind. There was no room to turn. He was forced to wait with his arms imprisoned at his sides, half-crouched, his head tucked against his chest, while air cycled with frustrating slowness.
The cramped cockpit, when he gained it, was equally unpromising. Blunt unsealed his suit, sniffing the stale canned air. He saw neither boards nor view ports, only a jury-rigged autopilot with an on-off switch. He would have no control over this two-bit steel trap; he would not have even a hint where it was going or what it was up to.
He found only a few reassuring concessions to comfort: a single closet in the back offered a toilet, a water dispenser, a waste-water recycler and an oxygen regenerator, a standard emergency kit and a stock of unappetizing vacuum-sealed rations that might last a week.
Blunt strapped in and flipped the simple switch. The little ship shuddered beneath his feet.
Blunt, tapping his fingers restlessly, stared at the blank metal facing him. It might well be a long, boring trip, with at least plenty of time for rest. Which reminded him: had he ever talked in his sleep? Could he possibly ever speak that activating phrase in his nightmares? He surely hoped not.
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker