The Ship

Image of Set Stories Free - 2018
Image of Short Story
Alarms shrieking. God, how alarms annoyed Gerald. As if it wasn’t stressful enough as it was. As if the ship really needed to yell at him about the dire situation. He had a general idea something was wrong when the lights had cut out with a sickening crunch, leaving his only illumination to be the crimson flashes of warning lights and the flickering stars surrounding the tin can Mission Control had sent him in to get to this godforsaken system 10 light years away.

“Why does it always have to be me...” Gerald groaned, running a hand over his face as he staggered to the engineer wing of the ship. Sure, with his broad smile, bright blue eyes, and impressively built figure, he looked every inch a captain. But, as he was discovering day by day, and more threateningly now, decisions were never quite his strong suit. Hopefully the engineer (Clark? Kane?) would have it solved by the time Gerald arrived, leaving the captain to claim responsibility for the success and go on with life.

No such luck, he realized with a sigh, partially caused by exasperation and partially due to the smoke that grew denser with every step nearer to engineering. Gerald felt like he was in one of those war movies he’d watched as a kid, prowling through red-flashed smoke, a tiger on the hunt. For what? An easily solvable solution? Whatever schmuck was responsible for this?

Just as Gerald was comfortably fantasizing about attaining yet another gold star for Best Captain, he grunted as another figure, much more slight than his, slammed into him.

“Kane? That you?” Gerald said, determinedly refusing to allow the smoke to ruin his perfect impersonation of a rugged hero.

A weak, higher-strung voice emerged from the darkness closest to his chest. Definitely Kane. “Oh! Captain, thank God. There’s a sit-”

“Funny enough, Kane, I figured the lack of breathable air and the obnoxious sirens would have clued me into that fact.” Gerald said, disappointed that he’d coughed at the end of his statement.

“Right! Sorry Captain. Well, here’s the issue. Somebody lit a cigarette earlier today and decided the best place to dispose of it would be by the O2 tank.” Kane reported. God, did Gerald hate that sniveling tone, so condescending.

“Yeah? So?” Gerald shrugged, shifting a bit as he realized who’d set the fire and suddenly feeling a tightening of the chest and a drip of guilty sweat tracing down his face..

“Well, this bright guy somehow didn’t realize this would set engineering on fire.” Kane finished. “Who’d be stupid enough to light-”

“Look, it’s not like they go over this in training.” Gerald said quickly. Actually, it had been the first thing Mission Control had told him, and a reason he was almost disqualified for captainship. It didn’t seem like such a big deal then, a tiny paper roll of tobacco and a manageable flame and a tiny piece of home. Then again, when he was training on Earth, smoking a cigarette had a significantly smaller risk of setting all breathable air on fire.

“We can get into the rules later.” Kane said shortly, after a moment. Gerald could practically feel the condescension radiating. “Point is, captain, it’s an emergency situation. The fire keeps growing, the O2 will be gone soon, and the fire control systems are offline. What do we do?”

Gerald blinked a few times, wiping sweat off his forehead that he’d like to think was from confidence, not anxiety. “So, it all comes down to this.” This had to be a cruel prank, right? Certainly one couldn’t expect the commander of the ship to make a choice! This was supposed to be a figurehead position that made him look good for promotions when he got back to Earth, not a chief of the fire department opening! He’d kill the person in charge of hiring him. If he survived the problem.

He took a deep sigh, cut off by harsh spluttering from the thickening fog around him. “Right. Ah, do we have manual extinguishers?”

“Negatory. All controlled by the mainframe.”

“Sprinklers? Water reserves?”

“In the room with the fire.”

Gerald took a long, deep sigh of consideration. From somewhere in the fog he saw a glint of Kane’s glasses. It suddenly struck him that, for all his desires, the engineer’s life was in his hands, regardless of whether or not Gerald wanted that. He started to march forward, hands shaking more than he’d care to admit, towards the room with the fire.

“S-sir, you can’t be ser-ser-” Kane stammered, choking on the last word as the threatening cloud grew thicker.

“Captain’s a captain. Gotta do my job. Like I said, all comes down to this.” Somewhere within the fearful mess Gerald’s organs had devolved into he felt a small pang of success, true success, not just the shiny stuff that looked nice on paper. Of course, risking his life and marching into the fiery bowels of hell wasn’t quite on his agenda for the day. Or any day, really. Just, something about the way Kane’s glasses flickered in the hellish strobe lighting, the way his voice wavered, the way he needed protecting...

“You’d better hope this is worth it.” Gerald said, saluting though there was no possibility the man could see him, before rushing through the doorframe, slowly enveloped in smoke that seemed to take on a bolder red, full of strength.