It is quiet when Elena Marín opens her eyes. Her head feels swimmy, untethered from her body, and her vision flashes blue and red in soft focus.
She blinks a few times and concentrates not on the warning lights around her or the deep blue out the window but instead on the message scrolling across her left eye screen. […SpaceCraft Doña Paz 01 update: System malfunction, o2 levels low, ILSA overload, pressure overload…]
Marín curses, but she doesn’t hear the words as she does so. She is certain there are sirens blaring, but they don’t sound either. She reaches her hands up to her ears, making sure they are still attached. They are, but her fingers come away slick with blood.
“Patch audio,” she says, although the words feel cottony in her mouth without the accompanying sounds.
The alarms hit her like a brick as the tinny audio captured by the microphone in her eye connects with her mech-brain interface.
“Calibrate levels,” she half-shouts, and the sirens fade to a quiet buzz as other sounds come to the fore—breathing, light cursing in a language she doesn’t speak.
She reaches down to unclasp her harness and takes a step away from the wall. It’s starting to come back to her. They strapped in once they realized they had steered too close to the wormhole to avoid it, and then they prayed to whatever they each believed in that they would come through fine on the other side.
It didn’t appear they had.
The cruiser is small, designed for two days travel, max. The controls are visible from the sleeper pods and the tiny reclamation bathroom is the only private space onboard. Next to where Marín has just emerged, Ndibe and Rhodes are still strapped in. Ndibe’s chest is falling and rising with regular rhythm, but Rhodes is quite limp and had a nasty gash above his forehead. A’nishi’a and the captive are nowhere to be seen.
Marín sticks her fingers to Rhodes’s neck, feeling for his pulse. His heartbeat is faint but definitely present. He is bleeding profusely—where the blood hits the stubble on his chin it has started to gel, but at the brow it is still flowing, liquid and hot. She unbuckles his harness and lifts him out of it. He is heavy and her muscles are weak from the force of their unexpected wormhole travel and the low oxygen levels, but she manages to lug him to an empty sleeper pod, which doubles as an infirmary bay for ILSA, the ship’s Intelligent Life Support Apparatus.
Once she shuts the pod door, it begins to scan. The swearing gets louder, and Marín finally turns her attention to the controls.
A’nishi’a has all four of her hands on the controls, pressing wildly and releasing a steady stream of filthy words in Olipse, which Marín gathers more from the tone of voice than from any real understanding of the extralunar language.
Outside the window something flashes past, a shark or a three-tailed eel. Marín doesn’t catch a good glimpse.
“Status, soldier,” Marín says as she approaches.
“Comms are down, and so is nav. I don’t know where we are but I do know we’re underwater and losing air fast.”
“To cope with the pressure. ILSA is a little overdrawn right now. I’m doing everything I can to stop the release of air and start with the ascent.”
“What’s the atmo like?”
“Unclear, but it’s a safer bet than trying to breathe water, ma’am.”
Marín laughs. The Olipse always sound like they’re being snarky, but once you get to know them you realize they’re just overly earnest. Or maybe it’s only A’nishi’a that’s earnest and the rest really are assholes.
“Do you think it’s doable?”
“It might be. But ILSA took a serious hit through the wormhole and even more when we crashed through the atmosphere.”
“Did you get a good look at the planet while we were descending?”
The Olipse don’t lose consciousness as easily as humans do, which is part of why nearly every ship in the Keppler Alliance keeps one on crew.
“No, General. Just blue.”
That could be anywhere. There are a million trillion water planets, and even more that have liquid oceans of different chemical makeups. Through the wormhole and without nav, they could be anywhere.
“Where’s the traitor?”
“Hiding under one of the sleeper pods. Praying, I think.”
It wouldn’t help her. Whether she died here or onstage as scheduled, Suki Watanabe was going to no one’s heaven. She had betrayed the Kepler Alliance and sold out to the Andromeda Republic. Her own family had been slaughtered on information she’d given, not to mention the plot that killed Marín’s mentor, General Padgett. Dishonored and distraught, she hadn’t even defended herself when Marín had captured her. Just before she delivered the killing blow, the Supreme Cariell of the Republic had surrendered. Watanabe had been taken alive, for later trial and execution.
That was the purpose of this trip in the first place, to deliver her to her public grave. That, and for Marín to be granted the title of General, inherited from and honoring Padgett. The council had sent Ndibe to inform her she had been chosen to succeed her mentor, and that she would have the honor of killing Watanabe publicly after her inevitable guilty conviction.
Marín creeps towards the sleeper pods anyway. It doesn’t seem right to allow Watanabe to take solace in faith. That has to be earned.
“Get out of there,” she barks. It sounds strange to feel her voice reverberating through her skull and hear it through a mic in her eye.
“I’m busy,” Watanabe says back, not turning her head. She lies beneath the lowest pod, her face staring directly up at it and her hands scrunched to her chest, fiddling with something on its underside.
“Sabotaging my ship? If we die you’ll only die quicker.”
“I’m trying to save your ship. Your tech-hands doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of it, and you’re the one trying to get us all killed.”
Marín feels the blood rising to her cheeks. Her abuela always used to tell her that her temper would abate with age, but even at forty-nine she still flushes like a child whenever she’s caught off-guard. It takes every inch of her military training to keep from yelling her response. “Me?”
“You plugged the goner into the system when it was already overtaxed.”
Marín blinks, then looked up at Rhodes’s prone form in the sleeper pod, wires and tubes already extending from his arms.
“What? Was I supposed to let him die?”
“Either he dies now and the rest of us get a fifty-fifty shot of surviving our ascent to the surface, or he dies later when we split the hull on the sea floor and get crushed beneath pressure and salt. Your choice.”
When Marín says nothing, Watanabe continues. “Come on, it’s basic cost-benefit analysis. I know they taught you that at mili school.”
She would know. Before she’d turned on them she had been a rising star at the Kepler Military Academy. Top human in her class.
“Commander! I mean, General! You have to see this,” A’nishi’a calls, with a rare tinge of panic in her voice.
“You’d better decide, and quick,” Watanabe says. Marín looks down and shakes her head. Then she makes her way to A’nishi’a’s place by the ship’s key window.
The ship’s outer lights have caught something. Another structure glints in front of them. It is larger than the cruiser, long and pointed, smooth metal with blooms of rust along the sides. As the cruiser continues to sink they pass more holes eaten into the metal, some irregular where the craft has worn through, some perfectly round as though punctured by cannon fire. Fish swim through it. A pair of eyes watch from one of the holes, she thinks, but they are sinking too quickly for her to tell.
As they near the bottom of the ship they pass the words USS Calvin Coolidge.
Text flashes across the bottom of Marín’s eye. […Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States of America from 1923-1929 Earth Common Era. The USS Calvin Coolidge was commissioned in 2107 ECE at the dawn of the War of Five Powers and was sunk in 2109 ECE in the Pacific Wastes…]
Earth. They are on Earth. No one will be able to rescue them.
There is a dimmed thud as the spacecraft lodges in the ocean floor. It does not seem to have burst. For the time being they are safe as they slowly suffocate to death.
“Do you know what colony this is?” A’nishi’a asks. The Olipse curriculum doesn’t go into distant human history, not to the point of explaining nautical naming conventions. She does not know yet.
Marín does not want to tell her.
This has always been the hardest part of having a position of authority. Marín has a level head in battle, can strategize and lead attacks. She is more than willing to put herself in the line of fire. But the parts of her duties that require her to deliver news of tragedies? She has never been comfortable telling painful truths.
Still, she steels herself. It will only be worse if they don’t know.
As she is about to speak, Ndibe approaches from behind, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. He gapes out the window at the ship, understanding what it means even without a fully functional cyberlink with thousands of terabytes of information downloaded onto it.
“Earth,” he breathes. “We’re on Earth.”
There is silence for a moment. Then A’nishi’a begins to hum a low string of words that might in equal likelihood be curses or prayers.
“We’re dead,” Ndibe says, his voice stony. He turns to Marín and looks her in the eyes, then repeats himself. “We’re dead.”
“Not yet we aren’t,” Watanabe calls from the back of the ship. “Ball’s in your court, Marín. You know what you have to do.”
“What is she talking about?” Ndibe asks.
“Rhodes. I put him in the sleeper pod for ILSA to fix. It’s diverting most of the ship’s power. We might be able to ascend if… if we unplug him.”
“And then what?” A’nishi’a asks. Her skin is flushing green with anger. “It isn’t as though we can breathe up there either.”
“We can,” Marín says. “For a few days. Long enough to fix the comms, to hope a stronger ship can pass through that wormhole and rescue us. It’s a chance.”
“It’s murder,” Ndibe says. “Murder for the tiniest chance that we live instead.”
“So you would have us all suffocate down here?” Watanabe asks.
“We’ll suffocate one way or another.”
Marín pinches the bridge of her nose. There is still blood on her fingers from her ears, from Rhodes’s gash. It’s impossible to think.
“I estimate we have twenty minutes to make the call,” Watanabe says. “Thirty, tops. And we don’t even know if we’re near land. If I were you I’d make up my mind, General.”
“Audio off,” Marín says, and the strange closeness of silence returns. She can see the others yelling at her and one another, but her cyberlink doesn’t read lips. She has a moment to think.
She turns her gaze out the window again, and the text in her eye pops up as the camera registers the ship’s name again. […Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States of America from 1923-1929 Earth Common Era. The USS Calvin Coolidge was commissioned in 2107 ECE at the dawn of the War of Five Powers and was sunk in 2109 ECE in the Pacific Wastes, two miles off the coast of the Japanese-Hawaiian Islands…]
They are near land, if her link is right. Her link is always right.
The only question now is Rhodes. She has known him for a long time, but never very well. He was a few years behind her at the academy, not particularly exceptional at anything, but steady. He’d risen through the ranks fairly quickly as the war wound on, and by the time the Andromeda Republic surrendered he and Marín were both lieutenant generals, one step down from Padgett.
She hadn’t particularly liked or disliked him.
Even considering pulling the plug seems wrong. That could well have been her in that sleeper pod. But ILSA is overtaxed and they’d all suffocate if the life support ran out. She has some good carbon filter masks but even she can’t turn seawater to oxygen at an efficient enough rate to keep them all alive.
This is what it is to be a general. To make the hard choices.
Marín walks over to the sleeper. In the blue and red light, Rhodes looks even paler.
“ILSA,” she says, deaf to her own words. “Disconnect sleeper pods.”
The light in the pod goes dim, and the tubes and needles in Rhodes’s arms begin to recede. Marín turns around. A’nishi’a is hammering away at the controls with all four hands. Watanabe stands by, watching, making suggestions. When she feels Marín’s gaze on her she turns and gives a sad little smile. Ndibe is looking at Marín hard. She forces herself to look him in the eyes and nod, then turns back to Rhodes.
She feels it as they began to ascend, the thrusters pushing underneath, hot enough to set the water around them to boil. Rhodes’s breathing slows, becomes more labored. She still cannot hear, but she can see the shake to his chest. She would bet anything he is rasping. She takes his hand in her own, his skin so fair against her star-bronzed tan.
The waves churn as the USS Calvin Coolidge disappears beneath them, as the ship rises and rises. She turns her audio back on when Rhodes’s chest stills, when his hand goes limp in her own, then turns around.
At the window, A’nishi’a is frozen. Watanabe clutches the dash. Ndibe is still fixed on Marín, but when he sees her jaw go slack he turns around as well.
A creature, human in shape but piscine in appearance, has its webbed fingers pressed to the window. Marín shivers. She does not know what this creature is. She thinks rapidly at her mech-brain interface, but all it can come up with is […A Mermaid is a creature from many Earth cultural folktales, with the top half of a Human woman and the bottom half of a Fish…]
The creature presses its face to the window next, mashing its nose against the glass. Its eyes are wide like a human’s, but blank like those of a fish.
It slams its fingers forwards. The glass cracks, and water is gushing in. Marín thinks she sees the creature smile as the cruiser floods before water shorts out her visuals.
Her dying breath tastes like salt.