"Hey...! Hey!!" screamed a very irritated voice.
Essar opened her eyes. Eliza was pressing into her face with a bare foot.
"Yeah... you're not dead..." Eliza said, but Essar couldn't tell if it was out of relief or annoyance. "Get up, we don't have much time."
Essar's head throbbed in a sharp vice-like grip. Had she fallen? That would explain why she was on the floor. Her face felt hot, and the area around her lips was burning like someone had ripped off a layer of skin and poured chili sauce on them. Her muscles ached with fatigue and bruising. She tried to get up, but her vision went to a dark red, and she fell back down right onto what looked like stained underwear. Somehow, in the depths of her survival, the act of repulsing herself away from Eliza's skidmarks overtook her desire to pass out.
"Eugh... GOD!" she said, pushing herself up.
"I can only hold them off for as long as they don't come too close. The nano-shields have simulated us exploding, and gave us enough cloaking for about ten more minutes. But ..." Eliza paused.
"But what?" Essar said, struggling to her feet.
"... but nothing. That's all I got. We're still sitting ducks because you and the Cayman decided to shut down our engines."
"I said I was sorry--"
"You NEVER said you were sorry! I know you're sorry! What I would have liked was an apology!!"
"Whu--" Essar said, still out of breath. How could Eliza be screaming?
Eliza produced a breathing mask from her chair. "Suck on this for a few seconds. It will help take the edge off."
Essar greedily took the mask and sucked on the cold, dry air hard. Her lips and tongue started to feel normal. She looked at the gauge and her heart sank when it registered 3 minutes left.
"Too bad I was lighting my own farts with some of the spares," Eliza said with only a hint of remorse. "Luckily, I didn't empty this one. I can't open up the main door, but the computer says that air pressure is rapidly returning to normal. Except in here. Because my life SUCKS and this ship HATES ME!" Eliza kicked something that gave a noisy clatter.
Essar gasped in relief as her aching lungs started to inflate normally. She tried to think. "How long... have I been... out?"
"Like only a minute. Luckily, I programmed all the hull doors to close again by overriding the self-test feature when the auto-destruct mechanism was halted. All the doors closed at the same time... thus preventing us from asphyxiating."
Essar frowned. "Hey, wait *I* was the one who did that to the doors!"
"You, me, Thrust... who cares. The point is I bought us some time..."
Essar looked at the main panel. "You mean you somehow made us extend our inevitable death a little longer."
"Man, even when I *want* you to be optimistic, you fail. FAIL, Essar!"
Essar gritted her teeth. If she was going to die, she wanted to have one last say about it. She spun around and took a deep breath from the oxygen mask. "Look, CAPTAIN Eliza! I have had enough of your bullshit. You are a ROTTEN captain, you know that?"
"Oh, am I? Really? You think YOU could do--"
"DAMN RIGHT I could do better!! You're... you're nothing more than a common thief. You're no worse than all those pirates that boarded us, and most likely will shoot us down. We could have done this run and got medicine to the people that deserved it. You could have had the secondary engine repaired a DOZEN stops before this one," Essar took another deep breath from her mask, swinging it out of reach of Eliza when she made a grab for it. "You have nothing but contempt for your own crew, because YOU... YOU have to do everything YOURSELF! Look at me, I am Miss Captain Busy pants! I am too serious and important to have anyone help me! OOOHHH!!!"
"Are you finished, officer Essar? can I have some air, or is your tantrum going to--"
"I am NOT finished!" Essar said, but then didn't have anything to say, so she held the angry pause in the air as long as she could.
"Give me the--"
"NO! You are going to LISTEN to me for once! When Thrust was bleeding on the floor, did you show concern? No. Pity? No. Contempt? We should be so lucky. No, you showed indifference!!! The worst kind of... offense!" Essar took another deep breath from the mask. It beeped a warning.
Eliza lunged for the mask again, but when she missed, she gave up. "I'll hold my breath, Essar. Have the damn oxygen, for all the good it does you," she gasped. Then she started typing at the main control panel.
Essar was about to hit Eliza on the head with the mask, but then she thought she saw a tear trickle down Eliza's face. She grimaced as her nurturing instinct fought with the instinct for revenge. "You're impossible, Eliza. Even when facing death, you're just... " she ended with a sigh. "What weapons do we have?" she asked, handing Eliza back the mask.
"Our normal weapons systems are actually doing fairly well. Too bad we don't have ammo packs. I have some tracers, a few screamers, and the usual laser cutting tools, but they are only good at close range. Our nano-shields are useless against their ship." She pointed on her screen the location of the pirate ship. "Right now, they are doing a sweep of some of the ejecta. Before long, it's going to show that in the middle of all the dust, there's one big empty spot."
A panel lit up.
Essar looked at the alert. "The pirate ship is signaling us."
"It's a bluff. They hope we pick up. Do no--"
"I won't answer! God, Eliza. I am not that stupid..."
Eliza laughed. "This from the girl who passed out because she still had tape over her mouth."
Essar couldn't have frowned harder if she had tried. All at once she felt stupid and angry at herself. Of course. She ripped the tape off her hands, but not over he mouth, which is why when she tried to shout, it wasn't coming out right. She touched her raw face.
"It was a pleasure ripping it off. I think it actually made you come to. You won't have a mustache for a while, though."
Essar's bruised ego almost responded with all claws bared, but she felt that it was hard enough to breathe, let alone argue. But she took the mask from Eliza's offer and sucked hard. The mask beeped another warning.
"We got about a minute left of that thing. Then we either got to open the doors or--"
The door banged, visibly bristling both Eliza and Essar. "Hey!" said a voice. "This door is locked or something!"
"What the hell happened?" asked a familiar voice. "It's freezing out here, yo."
Eliza ran to the door. "Thrust, listen to me! Is there a manual override on your side of the door?"
"Yeah, I think so. Hey, yeah! It's so easy to see it now!"
Eliza puzzled at that for a second. "Can you use it?"
"Yeah, I have used them before. Don't you have one on your side?"
Eliza shook her head. "Believe it or not, no. I have one outside my closet but not inside. Look, there's no air in here!"
"Where's Essar?" asked Thrust.
Eliza rolled her eyes. "USE THE MANUAL DOOR RELEASE!"
There was a pause. "Is Essar with you?"
"YES!" both Eliza and Essar screamed at once.
"Oh, good, because she's not out here."
"OPEN THE DAMN DOOR, CAYMAN!"
"Right, right. Okay, now... pull this..."
There was a sharp hiss and a floor of ice-cold air poured into the main control room. Essar's ears started to clog, and she got that ringing back, but now she felt much more refreshed like someone was doing breathing for her.
As Eliza pulled the door the rest of the way open and greedily took deep breaths. "SHIT! It's freezing!"
"The decompression to space must have cooled the hallways down--"
"WHERE..." Eliza interrupted. "IS MY... STUFF??"
Indeed, it would seem that the wide and brightly-lit hallway of a normal cargo ship had replaced the stacked clutter that had been present before. It was as if someone had pressure-washed the whole interior.
Essar dreaed the anger that was to follow. "In space, Eliza. It must have been sucked out when the hatches all opened at once."
"Yeah, I though you moved out of something when I got out of that suit closet. I didn't know how long I had been passed out, but there was this horrible noise that woke me. Then when i managed to break the door down, the entire aft bay was complete empty. I thought you took your stuff and left me! I was so worried--"
But Essar didn't hear him when she realized every personal belonging she owned was drifting somewhere out in space. Eliza probably lost half her cargo; any cargo bay with a hatch would be completely cleaned out. But the rest should have been okay. Essar's entire collection of things consisted of a cot, a large trunk, and an area she hung up clothes and stored her personal grooming kit. Several meters from the aft cargo bay door. Tears started to well up in her eyes.
"Glad to see you're awake, here's the situation. While you were out, we were boarded by pirates. They triggered the self destruct device. Then they rudely left, but not far away enough to see that we didn't actually blow up. Now they are coming back."
"There's a dead guy in the engine room."
Eliza shook her head. "What?"
"A dead guy. When that hatch opened, the access panel got stuck in the entrance, and I think that prevented him from getting sucked into space, but it might have been better if he had. What a mess. It sucked out like all these wires, tubes, and conduits from the main engine shaft. We're going to have to replace everything."
"How long will that take?"
"I'd say after we get towed back to a repair station, we'll--"
"How long to fix it right here, right now?"
"No, see, the engine is dead."
"Dead as in how?"
Essar left the two of them to argue as she wandered back into the main control room. She wanted to find a corner with no oxygen so she could suffocate and die. Memories of her home on Earth, as scant as they were, were her only ties to her childhood dreams to be a better person. Now they were a future pitmark on a space ship, or a tiny crater maker in a large piece of rock. But the oxygen had flooded back into the main control room through the open door, and the chilly air pooled on the floor, pushing various paper wrappers around lazily. Essar watched the mess on the floor, knowing death was probably only minutes away, and she hoped it would be swift.
"All right, I'll look at it!" Thrust said. He had a way of accepting commands so passively, Eliza was almost red in the face with anger even though he eventually did what she asked.
"Good! For God's sake... Essar? Essar??"
Essar didn't respond. Her depression covered her like a warm blanket against the chilly air. She knew that was it. She was spent. And she would sit here in this corner until she was killed.
"Command central to Essar! Wake the hell up!" Eliza said, crouching down in front of Essar's puffy face.
"Go to hell, Captain."
"Mutiny?" Eliza said in a mocking. motherly like tone.
Essar didn't reply.
"Is my wittle navigatioaw offiswer saaad?"
Essar dug deeper into her mood blanket.
"I see. The silent treatment. Look: I know you graduated top of your class and all. Escaped from the clutches of an arranged marriage, worked a depressing funeral barge, and had that gay captain for a while. I know you hate my guts, but my guts were never here for you to love. The thing is, if I were you... and thank GOD I am not... I'd take these last few minutes of my miserable life and tell the world to fuck off and fight to the very end. I know I am."
Essar didn't say anything, but part of her was surprised Eliza hadn't hit her yet.
"Do what you want. Die defeated, or die fighting. Your dad was probably right, you should have been the doting wife to some rich husband. I am not sure why you became a space pilot. Obviously you are good at the technical side of it. I have seen you get out of some tight scrapes before. I saw your records on how your former captain left you in charge more than half the time. Must have sucked you weren't promoted. You know I got promoted?"
Essar didn't answer. "More bullshit stories," she thought,but part of her was glad that Eliza actually did both to look up her record and remember it like she mattered.
"I killed my former captain. Thought I was his concubine. He died on the floor, near where you are sitting. I punched him so hard in the throat, his neck snapped. I leaned him over this railing, and faked a computer log that said our inertia generator went haywire and tossed everyone around. I even bruised myself, but I was glad to slam my eye socket on the edge of that door. Then I blackmailed some officers, and that's when I realized the true power in smuggling lies not with the cargo, but with information."
Normally, a story like that would have had Essar report her captain right to the corporate authorities, but it seemed almost funny now.
"I could have killed you like I did the last crew. I faked a crew after that and ran this stupid ship for nearly ten years, collecting their pay, falsifying reports. They never asked what happened to them, all they were upset about was I was getting paid a whole lot of money as three people instead of one. But by then, I had enough to bribe myself out of a court martial. But all the money in the world right now don't mean squat. We're dead in the water. I just sent the Cayman down to the engine room with some bullshit task just so he'd go away. He'll probably die looking for a size 15 screw or something."
"Maybe it's best if I die in silence," Essar said, and got up to leave.
"Before you go... I have to ask you... why did you succeed so well as a space pilot to escape your parent's plans for you, but now that you are faced with death, you are just giving up? When they report your death to your parents... IF they report it... do you want your dad to nod smugly that it was a just end to your childish rebellion?"
Essar paused. She hated that Eliza was manipulating her like that, but she did have a point. The thought of her father in his sitting room, nodding and smiling at her death report, made her blood boil.
"Look, I don't talk about my past. It makes me look girlish; vulnerable and weak. But despite all that, I will say one thing: I escaped a past that I was destined for, and my daily living, my dark spirit, defies those sons of bitches who said I'd never make it. I am a smuggler not because I seek validation from others, but because I don't need validation to know I am damn good at what I do, and I fucking don't need anyone's approval to shine my dark light. I am better than anyone ever dreamt of for me. I invented myself. I am not going to die here thinking I should have done better. I am going to die knowing I did better than anyone else who started like I did. Whats do you want on your plaque in some funeral barge?"
Essar thought of all the grave stones she passed in her former company. Most were bland and generic, but once in a while, you'd see some eccentric person who would have a giant statue that rose into the air, or some hologram that showed passers by that this was a person who enjoyed life to the point they extended it in death. People who came to see the graves of their own ancestors would always stop at these other graves. Essar herself sometimes had lunch, incognito in plain clothing, in front of some massive mausoleum. Her favorite was an animatronic representation of the deceased, sticking his tongue out at another relative's graveside next to him. She always felt that it's what she did to her father, that day she stole a rental space truck and left the Earth's atmosphere for the last time.