“I’m sorry” he sobbed, voice jerking as it worked it’s way out around the tears. It wasn’t true, at least he wasn’t sorry that it had happened, although he may have been sorry to have upset me, if I was being generous. Or sorry that I might be angry, to be honest.
The gash in his suit was too big to repair, six inches at least. Not that it would have mattered if it was five inches less or a dozen more, I had no idea how to do anything about it either way, none of us did. I reminded myself that it was an accident, I was fairly sure that it was. There was no value in anger now and I couldn’t muster up much by way of sorrow, not underneath the leaden weight of his saliva flecked gasps for breath anyway, the sobs gradually slowing to a sedate and unconvincing pace.
She was standing a few feet away from us, eyes blankly staring down through the grill of the gantry and down towards the distant grey concrete ground. Another one who wasn’t sorry, not that she’d done anything to apologise for beyond be there and not care as much as I did and how could I blame her for that?
“Come on” I spoke through a clenched jaw “we need to get out of here, back down to the ground.
I hauled him to his feet and cast a mournful look towards the shuttle, the cockpit almost at eye level as it quietly thrummed with the early growl of engines warming up. Inside they’d be going through the last checks, probably. In my ignorance I could imagine them tapping dials and reading off impenetrable numbers and reports. One more flight of stairs and I could have waved the world goodbye. At least we hadn’t made it that far.
He was on his feet now and fiddling pointlessly with the hole in his suit, flicking at the freyed edge with heavy gloves, a finger coming away tipped with red from the cut beneath. The part of me that still cared reminded me, louder than I’d expected, that he should get some anti-septic cream on the wound, maybe get a tetanus shot. I ignored it and pulled at his arm, reaching out my other hand to gesture for her to follow me as we began the slow plod to the solid ground.
“You could still go, your suit’s ok”
“It’s ok, let’s just head down”
I tried to keep my voice level and to my surprise it worked, belying the panic that was chewing me up. Hers, as always, was as flat as an iced over lake, not out of cruelty, I reckoned, but because she’d given up on being here a long time ago and wherever she was now there wasn’t much room for caring about things. He just stayed sullenly silent, either joining her out there or just wary of my reaction if he spoke.
“I could put tape around it, he might make it if I put tape around it”
I nodded. He wouldn’t, not where the shuttle was going. Not that we had any tape anyway. Looking at her as we took metallic steps back down the first set of downwards stairs I could see that she’d forgotten the thought as soon as she’d mentioned it anyway. Like a death rattle it was a last, hollow act as her mind drifted even further away.
I could see figures moving below, scurrying their way up the first steps to the launch tower. My legs started to protest as my eyes watched their progress. There was no chance they were friendly, although I reckoned we might have the same fear in common. They would be armed though and full of the same desperate desire to survive that I’d felt as I dragged the others up with me, leaping up four steps at a time to try and make it onboard intact. Driven by a hope which had evaporated in an instant as he’d fallen.
If I were them I’d shoot me for not leaving him behind out of simple disgust and if they did I’d find it hard to blame them. The last seconds before destruction were ticking away around us and here I was walking away from the one way out because… because of what? Loyalty? Pity? I didn’t like to ask myself as we moved further towards the surface.
“Don’t you want to live?” I asked, wondering who might answer. No one did, although he grunted and she whistled to herself, an eery echo from whatever distant place she’d arrived at.
A gunshot rang out from below, a bullet clanking off of the metal rail somewhere close enough to send small vibrations rattling around me. They were shouting down there, at us or at the shuttle, I couldn’t tell which. More bullets followed, missing if they were meant to hit anything I could see. I recoiled with every crack of gunfire, my instincts for self-preservation almost folding me in on myself even as I struggled to keep my feet moving forwards.
The thrum of the engines was growing louder as they came closer to launching. We might not even make the surface before the thrusters forced out a pillar of flame and smoke around us. The strangers below might not make it up in time to take their anger out on whoever they thought deserved it.
I reached out a hand to each of them, grabbing one of theirs and squeezing it. Neither one squeezed back but I took comfort in the gesture. Holding them harder and tighter I could forget the fear, if only for a split second and after all, that’s all we had left.
For more from me you can check out my novel Crashed America – available in paperback and digital formats. Or you can try any of my other work here – variously available as ebooks or paperbacks. All ideal escapes from 2016 and, if you time the reading right, you can dodge a chunk of 2017 too just in case…