This story is by Sarah Martin and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Clad beneath a blanket of stars and festering garbage from a hundred crumbling starships is a vessel. Its door slides open with a hiss and a groan, parts protesting from years of disuse. I step inside and am greeted by a soft hum as the ship’s lowlights rise around my ankles. Tingles race up and down my spine, competing with the butterflies flapping hurricanes in my stomach. My gloved fingers squeeze the piece of metal I clutch against my chest, unable to shake the feeling it will vanish if I take my attention off its twisted edges.
Suddenly, a small, black orb, roughly the size of my palm, swishes into view. The tiny bot zips back and forth in the air, nearly crashing into the walls, like some kind of hopped-up fairy. I open my hand and reveal my treasure.
“I thought it would be…bzzz…shinier,” a little voice chirps from the dancing bot. I cock my head to the side, giving the part a critical inspection. It is only a bit smaller than my hand, and a tangle of wires protrudes from every surface of its cylindrical body. It had been a nightmare to salvage, but I know locked beneath that metal casing lies the answer to a puzzle a hundred years in the making.
“Me too, Red,” I admit.
I sigh, tired from a long day out in the sun, but I have no time to rest. Instead, I turn my attention to the final task: integrating the damn thing in the Engine.
The ship has two compartments: the cockpit and the Engine room. I make my way into the latter. A complete disarray of cables and bits of machinery are strung back and forth across the room like a spider’s web. And I am the spider. I spent nearly my entire life learning its intricacies.
I crawl through the mess and settle myself beneath the chassis. Red already has the main panel removed by the time I arrive. His hidden toolkit often makes him look more like a torturer than a mechanic. My fingers tremble as I dig into the guts, exposing the delicate set of connections where I will slot my newly-won puzzle piece.
Red and I work in perfect rhythm, soldering my treasure in with the old, creating new pathways when one doesn’t work. Sometimes I swear the little bot can read my mind. Sweat drips from my forehead and, after what feels like hours, Red closes the panel.
As I stare at the bottom of the metallic beast I just fit with a heart, I see the faces of my dad and grandfather.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
Feeling their ghosts in every cranny of the ship, I allow my tears to swell; I made a promise to fulfill their dream, and today I will.
I scramble out from beneath the Engine and strap myself into the pilot’s seat. Red slots himself into the dashboard, and little lights, like fireflies, blink to life. The ship jolts sharply but settles into a gentle vibration. I do one final system check and see nothing but green across the board.
“This is it, Red,” I murmur.
Excitement tinged with fear rockets through me. My hand moves over an ominous red button.
“No going back after this; we get one shot.” I state the obvious, but it makes me feel better. Red has run scenarios about this day for longer than I’ve been alive. I smile fondly at the little bot. A piece of dad and grandfather still lives on in him.
“No better day to die,” Red replies; I chuckle. My father’s infamous catchphrase stills my nerves. I take a deep breath.
“This is it, dad.”
I slap the button on the console, and the world outside the ship erupts into flames. I am tossed side to side in my seat as controlled explosions echo around the cockpit and bring down the rubble grandfather built over the ship. For the first time in three lifetimes, the Legion is exposed.
The Legion jerks and sputters, rocking back and forth, as the propulsion pushes us up and away from the ground.
“Readings are still in the green,” Red informs me at three thousand meters. “Patching into the Earth Security channel.” Static roars over the intercom, and as we climb into the atmosphere, I hear chatter.
“Got another one,” a voice laughs.
“Poor son of a bitch,” says someone else.
I grind my teeth; anger hits me like a bolt of lightning.
“How’s the Engine looking, Red?”
“Good to go,” he chirps happily.
“Laugh it up, boys,” I warn. “Today, someone is getting fired.”
I ignite the secondary thrusters to push us toward escape velocity, and Red maneuvers the ship into the correct trajectory. On my radar, the tiny dot representing the Legion climbs higher and higher. And through my viewport, I finally see it: a shimmering, blue forcefield. Like a thin layer of moisture surrounding the planet, the field is difficult to detect with the naked eye and designed to keep any undesirables from leaving Earth.
Sometimes, as a kid, I would sit atop the rubble shielding Legion from scavengers and the Feds and watch the sky. Every once in a while, an explosion would catch my eye. In my short lifetime, I had counted fifty-seven such events. And each time, I knew a desperate crew of men, women, and maybe even children met their fiery end against that planetary shield.
If I fail, will another child on the surface witness my own brilliant blaze? Will they too swear to beat the odds one day?
Alarms blare as we approach, and warning lights flash from every inch of the console.
“Fifteen seconds,” Red informs me. I turn a dial on the dashboard until the panel above reads 317. My hands and feet tingle; I lick my parched lips. When Red’s count drops below ten, I flip open the protective casing around a blue button. My mouth dries out completely; my pulse roars in my ears like a raging river.
Four….three….two….I wish you were here, dad….one….
“Now!” Red screeches.
I slap my hand down with all of my might. In a flash, the counter on the console winds backwards from 317. My eyes flicker to the clear viewport beneath my feet. Trust me, my dad once said, it’ll be a view you won’t want to miss.
Oh, how I wish I could tell him he was right.
In the space of a heartbeat, the sullen and smog-engulfed planet below me changes. The haze disperses like fog on a sunny morning; the landmasses shift, and the landscape mottles. Unending gray gives way to vibrant pockets of green and blue.
“R-red?” I query, my whole body trembling.
“Confirming Terra formations circa 2387 A.D. One year before the planetary shield was installed.”
Relief and pride wash over me in equal measure. The heady sensation makes me dizzy.
“Holy shit. We fucking did it; we actually jumped!”
I didn’t have long to marvel at our accomplishment however.
“The Engine’s power levels are dropping rapidly,” Red says. I knew this would happen, of course, but if we make it out of this, Red and I are going to have a serious talk about timing.
“Have we escaped the shield?” I ask, knowing if we hadn’t, I didn’t have long to worry.
“In three,” Red counts, “two….one. Temporal Engine shutting down. The helm is yours, Captain.”
Before my eyes, the healing planet below morphs back to the putrid, rotting landscape of the present.
“….confirmation of deflection?” I catch the tail end of a security transmission. The comm is silent for several heartbeats. I glance at the coordinates written on the wall next to my head, ones I’ve had memorized since I was six, and input them into my navigation computer as Red spins up our FTL drive.
“Holy fuck,” I hear the security operator curse.
“ATTENTION: all units. A small vessel of unknown origin has escaped the atmosphere. Orders are to…. Orders are: shoot to kill. I repeat. Shoot to fucking kill!”
I grin when a fleet of tiny dots appear like a swarm of bees on my radar.
A little too late, I think triumphantly.
I glance over at my companion, snug in his socket.
“Ready to explore the galaxy, Red?”
He chirps an affirmative; I initiate our jump. The stars fade around us, and I lean back in my chair as we enter the safety of the hyperspace corridor.
My chest tightens, and my throat burns; tears well up in my eyes.
“I wish dad was here,” I whisper softly to Red. He coos, and plays a muffled recording of dad singing his favorite song. I am comforted by the sound of his voice as I stare into the nebulous abyss of faded starlines out my viewport. A smile skims my lips, and for the first time in my life, I don’t know what tomorrow will hold.