Lightning flashed through the ion charged atmosphere, arcs of energy dancing across the metal hull of the ship.
“How’s she holding?” Captain Roberts asked.
I could hear the pain in her voice. Dozens of indicator lights glowed from the control panel, most of them flashing yellow or red, many of them flashing. Sparks flew from the copilot’s console singeing the ensign’s uniform, his dead body still strapped in his chair.
“Ok I guess. Ma’am,” I added, not used to the formalities of the bridge.
“Any word from Lieutenant Cho?”
I pinged the Lieutenant’s communicator again. No response. “No ma’am.”
“We’ll give him a five more minutes.”
“Yes ma’am.” She’d said the same thing twenty minutes ago.
I chanced a glance back at Captain Roberts. Slumped in her chair, her right arm hung limp over the armrest, blood dripping from her fingers. The dull orange glow of the bridge’s instruments cast an unearthly pallor over her burned face, her hair singed and matted to the side of her head. The bandage covering her eyes was saturated with blood.
The blare of a new alarm jerked my attention back to the control panel.
“What is it?” the Captain asked.
My eyes flew over the unfamiliar control panel. “Uh…” A whole bank of lights had gone from yellow to red. “Something’s wrong with the port thrusters.”
The ship pitched suddenly to the left, the bank of red lights now flashing in unison. “I think we’ve lost the port engine!”
“Boost aft stabilizers to 120 percent,” Roberts ordered.
I searched the control panel, finally finding a row of dials labeled “Stabilizers”. I turned a dial. The last of the remaining green lights on the panel turned yellow.
The alarm stopped.
“We’ll have to take her in.” Roberts sounded alarmingly calm.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, I can’t do this. Can’t we wait for Cho?” I pinged the Lieutenant’s communicator again.
“We’re out of time. The starboard engine’s already at half power. If it goes we’re done. A distress beacon’s been deployed. We’ll take her down to the surface and wait for help.”
“But ma’am, I’m a cook!”
“Your father was a pilot during the Trastis campaign. You dusted crops in your family’s T-24 until you left for the academy. You were top of your class until your crash. A family friend got you into culinary school. You specialize in soufflés.”
I didn’t know what to say. “How did you-”
“I handpicked every member of this crew, you included. Not everyone can handle space flight. You’re here because I trust you can. And because I love a good soufflé.”
I turned to face her, unable to read her expression behind the burns and bandages. She coughed again, the sound raspy in her throat.
I took a deep breath and turned back to the panel. “Ok, talk me through it.”
“Disengage the auto pilot. It’s above your head to the right. Flip the switches from right to left.”
I flipped the switches as ordered and the ship dropped suddenly away, my harness the only thing keeping me in my seat.
“Engage atmospheric propulsion. Pull the large red knob by your left knee.”
I pulled the knob and slammed back into my seat. The ship shook violently.
“What’s our altitude?”
I scanned the dials. “Fourty-five thousand feet and holding!” I shouted. Lightning crackled across sky again, the swirling gas that surrounded the planet glowing an angry red.
“Take the controls-” she coughed violently. “Take the controls and ease her down.”
I grasped the joysticks at my sides, the ship’s vibration blurring my vision. Slowly I eased the controls forward, the ship sluggish to respond. Almost immediately another alarm sounded.
“Coolant pressures at critical!” I reported.
“Doesn’t matter. Take her into a fifteen-degree down angle. Keep your speed up over one-sixty.”
I pressed the controls forward, watching the dials in front of me. “Fifteen-degree down angle. Speed at one-seven-three,” I repeated.
“Hold this course until we break through the cloud cover, then we’ll figure out where to-”
The metal hull of the ship shrieked as half of the starboard wing tore away.
“She’s coming apart!” I screamed.
“Engage all flaps!” Somehow she was beside me, leaning heavily against my chair.
I searched the controls but saw nothing labeled flaps. Roberts must have known. “The covered switches on the far left!”
I threw the switches and the ship lurched backward throwing Roberts on top of me. Large pieces of seared skin sloughed off in my hands as I helped her off.
“What’s your altitude?” she wheezed.
“Twenty-thousand feet. Are you ok?”
Before she could answer the ship quaked with a series of deafening cracks as first one, then another, and another of the ship’s flaps tore from the hull.
“We’re dropping fast!” I was floating in my chair again, bile rising in my throat.
Roberts’ voice gurgled in my ear. “When you hit fifteen-thousand feet pull the handle by your left foot.”
I didn’t have to wait long. I leaned down and pulled the handle.
“You leaned the wrong way. You’re other left. The red handle”
I pulled the red handle and three huge parachutes launched from the roof of the ship. I slammed down into my seat as they caught air, momentarily halting the descent of the ship. Almost immediately one of the chutes tore away.
“Altitude?” Roberts’ voice was barely a whisper in my ear.
“Nine-thousand feet and dropping!” We were below cloud cover and I could see the desolate landscape of the alien planet. Giant red pillars loomed in the distance and red sand whipped across the scoured rock surface.
The ship shuddered again as another of the parachutes tore away.
“Five thousand feet!”
I willed the last parachute to hold. “Come on girl. Hold together. Hold together.”
The ship shuddered violently as the last parachute tore away.
I felt the Captain’s firm hand on my shoulder. Red columns zoomed by on either side as the ground rushed up to meet us.
The impact threw me into the control panel, tearing my seat from its base. Alarms sounded and sparks flew from every direction. There was no way to tell which way was up. The ship tumbled forever.
And then it was still.
I lay, dazed and bleeding, the occasional shower of sparks raining from the control panel above me. The ship was upside-down.
“Captain Roberts?” I managed to right myself enough to crawl around the ceiling of the poorly lit bridge, feeling more than seeing my way. It wasn’t long before I found her, face down against a support beam, her arms pinned awkwardly behind her. I touched her back but she remained perfectly still.
The alarms had stopped, like the ship was too injured to call out. Wind howled outside the broken hull of the ship, pelting it with sand. Besides that the world was quiet.
I lay down next to Roberts, my captain, and thought about the lonely distress beacon floating somewhere above us.
And I waited.
Adam Gaylord lives with his wife and daughter in Loveland, CO where he’s rarely more than ten feet from either cake or craft beer. His gladiatorial fantasy novel, Sol of the Coliseum, comes out fall 2015. Check out all his stuff at http://adamsapple2day.blogspot.com/.
This story was first published in Dark Futures Annual 1.