Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hard Port

Now, as promised, the reason behind my post yesterday about black holes...beside it being informative and timely.
What follows is an excerpt of a short story I just finished.  It's the first draft, so there's still a ways to go revision-wise.  It will be part of a collection of science fiction stories that I am tentatively calling Esoteric Synaptic Events.  This story is called "Hard Port."

    Rogers was dead.  I didn’t know for how long, but no color remained on his face.
    “Hard port!”  Captain Zambrano’s voice called through the ship’s intercraft speakers.
    The ship lurched to port.  My upper left arm met a fixture of chromium steel.  I heard the engines strain and the smelled the faint odor of electrical fire.  The purpose of my visit to the engine room was to offer Rogers a sandwich.  Quite measly fare for dinner, but it was tuna on wheat, light mayonnaise with a touch of garlic.  Just the way he liked it.  Lucky for him, it was the one meal I could prepare despite the pitch and wobble of the ship. 
    Should I cut him down?  I wondered as I watched the dead man dangle from an electrical cable tied to the catwalk.  Did it really matter at this point?  Nauseated by the corpse’s sway, I decided there must still be such a thing as dignity, even in the final hours.  No.  More like minutes. 
    The X, crown jewel of the Quest shipping line, carried a cargo of thirty thousand tons of silicon in its hold on this, its fifth day out of Altair 6.  A slow freight vessel, it slogged its way through the quadrant on a heading for Earth and the conclusion of terms between Quest Shipping and the Viably Experienced Galactic Mineral Company.  It was my 23rd flight through space with the crew.  It was my first mission serving under Ricardo Zambrano as Captain.  Zambrano came up through the ranks with me, just as the rest of the crew did and he was possessed of a well-seasoned record.  We kept implicit faith that Zambrano could steer the ship through any challenge. 
    Hell of a way to test a theory.
    “Hard port!” Zambrano called out once more.
    I stumbled as the ship again lurched to the left again.  The action seemed to dislodge an old story from my mind, one told by my great-grandfather, droning on in an Alzheimer’s trance about his Humvee hitting a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.  It meant little to me at the time, thinking it the prattle of an aged man nearing death. 
    A hand pressed fingers into my shoulder…ebon, Tanzanian fingers drained of color by pressure at the tips.  A face came with the hand, one with wide eyes and an open mouth.
    “Quon, do we have alcohol?” Mbutu asked.
    I jerked.
    “Don’t usually see you outside the cargo hold,” I replied.  “And you know we’re not allowed to keep that on ship.”
    “You never use it for cooking or anything like that?” Mbutu asked.
    I fell quiet and considered the question.
    “Mbutu, how often did I ever make cherries flambĂ©?” I asked.
    The jittery hand left my personage.  Mbutu ran said hand over the scrub at the top of his head. 
    “If we had booze, I’d be drinking by now,” I said.  “Rogers hung himself in the engine room.”
    Mbutu thrust his hand forward in a fist.
    “Selfish son of bitch!  How could he do that to his family?” he asked.
    “Uhhhh Mbutu?  Have you noticed what’s happening here?”
    “Because ships have gotten out of this, right, Quon?” he asked.  It came off not so much as a question but a plea.  “We just need to blast the engines, right?  I mean it’s not like we’re too far in yet, right?”
    Silent, I walked down the corridor.
    “Where are you going?” Mbutu asked behind me.
    “To see if they want anything to eat,” I answered, giving a point to the ceiling.
    The slender Tanzanian pursued. His shaky form came into my peripheral vision.
     “I have to speak to my daughter,” he said to no one in particular.
    We entered the lift and I selected the top floor.  Along the way, Zambrano called out “hard port!” once again.  The ship heaved left.  The sharp veer turned into a gentle drift back to an upright position.  I could sense a tugging at the ship, almost as if a tether hung from the hull, constantly returning us to original attitude.  Mbutu had fallen onto me during the turn, both of us crashing into the wall of the elevator.  His skin was cold to the touch and his face as pale as a Tanzanian’s could be.  Fear.  Panic.  The raw honesty of it in Mbutu shook me.
    When the elevator doors slid back, they revealed the expanse of the X’s wheelhouse.  Zambrano stood over the conning station. His massive form, his brown skin glistening with sweat as his nostrils flared with rage…he resembled a bull preparing to charge.
    “Where’s your head?” Zambrano barked over his shoulder.
    I stumbled.  At first I thought myself the target of the verbal dart.  Turning to my left I saw Corey at the navigator’s station, poring over the scanners.  The invectives and the expletives continued to pelt him like hale.
    “We ain’t dying here,” Zambrano said.  “Not losing my ship on my first run…and I’m living long enough to kill you, Country!’
    Everyone called Martin Corey “Big Country” due to his Kentucky origins. If the threat invoked fear or pain in Corey, he didn’t show it.  He continued to stare at the streams of data on his console.
    “Yeah, that’s right, puta!  Kill you dead!” Zambrano continued his tirade.  “Hard port!”
    I fell to the deck with Mbutu as the ship tilted and then drifted back to a level angle.  The tugging sensation remained.  I picked myself back up and informed Zambrano of Rogers.  With no small amount of profanity, the Captain informed me that he didn’t care, citing a mixture of greater problems and Rogers’ lack of testicular fortitude in facing the situation.  Zambrano continued to stare straight out the window.  I followed the man’s gaze.
    Windows on spaceships are most often tiny things.  The precarious balance of pressures does not afford for expansive glass enclosures.  Advances in polymers have allowed for increased size since the pioneering days of space travel, but the portholes still remain thick, modest things.  Despite that, the ones on the bridge of the X granted us all a disquieting view of what we faced.
    A spiral.  The outward arms of the shape as gentle curves sweeping like the spray from a lawn sprinkler.  Like watching the drain in a sink or tub as the water evacuates, swirling round and round towards a destination unknown.  Like a pinwheel in slow rotation, but churning with raw power. 
    A mouth.  Sucking eternity through a straw.  Consuming what matter it can without any indication of sating itself.  You could almost hear the vacuous, whooshing sound of suction, even though there was no air involved in the process.
    A pinhole.  The scar of a pinprick jabbed into the black hide of an air or spacecraft.  The contents of the vessel vacuumed to the outside from the resultant depressurization.
    A black hole.

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