Saturday, 12 October 2013

Ditched (part 2)

  “C'mon, Chief, you can't keep on drifting out on me like that, I know there's a lot of shit going on in your head, but right now I want you to pay attention to what's happening out here. Can you do that for me? Can you nod your head to let me know you're in there and not panicking?”

  The idea to rebel crosses my mind, but I have no other ally, crazy hallucination or not. My neck seems seized solid, but I put on a display of will, I move my head a few millimetres and then relax it. I am rewarded by a coughing fit that shakes my body, refilling it with the sea of pain and threatening to send me back into unconsciousness.

  I choke on the smoke, now filling the cabin and starting to obscure the canopy and instruments. Systems are failing but the craft clears the border fencing and hits the hardtop, the landing gear holding up despite the warning messages and weapons damage. The logos of an allied company stream past as the 'chute deploys and I decelerate to a rapid and uncomfortable stop. I hit the manual release on seatbelts and canopy, hurl myself out of the seat, slide down the craft's side and fall to the tarmac, flopping on the hard surface, coughing and retching. Sirens and fire-retardant foam start to fill the air.

  “Easy there, relax, using two lungs takes a little getting used to. Was that nod for me?” I nod again, carefully. “That's good, it means I'm probably not going to have to start from day one and get you toilet trained. Try to keep still, we're getting there, but we're still not quite ready for moving about. Try your right arm, slowly now.”

  I ponder for a moment on which is my right arm, make a decision and find that it seems to be pinned under a heavy weight. Suddenly it spasms and jerks, I realise it was not trapped after all. With careful concentration I lift the aching limb until the hand comes into my eye-line. The flesh is red and a little puffy. I wiggle my fingers experimentally and am pleased to watch them respond.

  “Fantastic.” Says my spirit guide. “You'll be playing the piano before you know it.”

  We sit side by side on the stool, one arm around the other and one hand on the keys. She laughs as my inexpert touch messes up another chord and improvises around it. The tune becomes a parody of itself, a music joke at my expense. My attempts to get the song back on track make it worse, her laughter is infectious.

  I rub some life into my left arm and soon have the use of two limbs. My physical world appears to be pulling itself together, I feel stiff and raw, but there is no longer any great pain. My mental world is still a forest of clashing images, snatches of memory that I cannot put into order, familiar times that seem to have happened to other people.

  With a grinding noise the floor moves again, something shifts and crashes down to my left. I turn my head and try to bring my working eye to bear on the source of the sound, but all I can see is a damaged and dark visual display, some sort of liquid has adhered to its cracked surface and congealed.

  “Yes, we'll have to make a move before too long, but we'll cross that bridge in a while, stay patient and try not to panic. I need to know how well you're doing in there, can you remember your name? Or my name? Or even her name? C'mon, think deep, it must be in there somewhere, get your hand on the stick, push that throttle forwards.”

  “Are you really going to go through with this?” He brushes imagined dust from my dress uniform's collar, and looks straight at me with those eyes that could have won any girl he fancied, if he wanted to. His hand lingers on my shoulder. “Is this what you really want?”

  Through the small window I can see that the bridal party has decanted from the beribboned vehicles. There are murmurs from the chapel, I should already be stood at the altar. Our families are small, but the place is packed with her orchestra and my squadron. A break in hostilities coinciding with a gap in their schedule and we jumped at the chance without really thinking it through.

  “Yes.” I finally reply. I lift his arm away from my shoulder.

  “Then get your hand on the stick, push that throttle forwards.” He says. We clasp hands, reseat our caps and then Jimmy leads me out in front of the congregation.

  “Jimmy,” I force out of a throat only now coming under my control, little more than a croak, but Jimmy's face opens up with a warm smile of relief.

  “Hey, you're actually in there, how much do you remember?”

  “Bits...don't plane...” I realise that somewhere all these fragments must connect into a coherent narrative, but they flow too fast for me to put them in place. I am a crippled man trying to run.

  I fall again onto the gravel, a victim of the uneven and shifting surface. She starts forwards to help me but stops dead at my angry bark. Unwarranted, I pour my frustration into her and watch her recoil in horror. Tears are in her eyes and suddenly they are in mine. We cry for a while, then I let her help me up and readjust the prosthetic. She supports my weight all the way to the memorial and I tell her how little I am without her.

  “My leg!” I struggle to sit upright, but my lower body doesn't work properly. Jimmy stretches out his hand to hold me down, so I sink back onto the floor.

  “Easy, now, remember what I said about not panicking?” I recall Jimmy's penchant for relaying bad news in the calmest manner. “The leg is old news. You were in an old military surplus orbital-to-ground lander when the computers failed. You were drunk and you'd just had your licence revoked, but the inquest covered that up. Computer simulations say you should have hit the ground hard enough to leave a crater, but we all learned a few things about those birds during the war and you managed to bring it in horizontally. You still smeared it over a couple of kilometres, but the survivors forgot how you basically hijacked the craft and declared you a hero.”

  “Any landing you can walk away from...”

  “That's just the point, you didn't, remember?” Jimmy's attempt to distract me fails, I have myself up on my elbows, head raised, before he can react. I am having trouble recalling my own name, but no-one can prevent me exerting my will. It is a mistake.

  My clothing is gashed and striped in gore, with no real clue as to what style or colour it was originally, I can see a large patch of my raw looking chest through a tear. Worse lies further down, my vision moves steadily to greater devastation. My clothing and my body both end abruptly where my pelvis should be, only tatters of flesh and cloth lie any further. My vision swims, but I force focus and look beyond.

  Running from my truncated torso is a length of what I take to be intestine, it spans the arm's length to the corpse of a man, where it plunges into his abdomen. It pulses slowly, some obscene, adult umbilicus ferrying sustenance from the dead to the impossibly alive. The cadaver's skin is sunken, pillaged by whatever unholy process is keeping me alive. The name on the breast pocket of his coverall is Peterson.

  Peterson struggles against my grip. I outweigh him and while my years of judo practice in low gravity should give me the edge, he has the strength and determination of a madman. His arm breaks free and flails out, striking Liefman and then dislodging his gag. He starts screaming again, his wails drowning out Liefman's complaint and threatening to expose our furtive endeavour.

  “Sanders, for fucks sake, help me!” The look on Sander's face tells me that his courage is wavering and if we don't finish this soon then the game will be up, but he repositions the gag while I catch the wayward arm.

  “Hurry it up,” I bark at Liefman, unnecessarily. The airlock door beeps and then slides slowly back, she looks up from her pad to give me an accusatory glance.

  We manhandle Peterson through the opening, throwing him against the far door so he has no chance to come back at us before he is sealed inside. Liefman works to keep the alarms from going off while I run through the manual sequence, Sanders stands there looking sick. The vocal alarm refuses to be silent and a calm synthesised woman's voice announces our crime.

  “Unauthorised airlock discharge, unauthorised airlock discharge,” She accuses as the expulsion of air takes Peterson's struggling form outside the limits of the space station. The automated drone senses the garbage tag we planted on him, grabs his body and flings it towards the Earth's atmosphere for cremation.

  She is still chiding us when security apprehends us, stood staring at the airlock.

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