Pick by Jonny Rodgers

Captain Drake's spaceship is about to implode after several asteroid collisions, and not all of the crew is going to get out alive.

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Smoke. Glass. Sirens.

The impact - whatever it was - had sent Captain Drake tumbling across the command room like a ragdoll. He rolled off the cracked terminal and thudded onto the glass-strewn floor. Shock and pain gave way to instinct and adrenaline. He got smartly to his feet and spoke into the wrist of his suit:

"Vitals?"

"Negative critical damage detected, sir," the suit bleeped back. "Two minor fractures in lower right ribs."

"I can live with that."

Under his feet, Drake felt the ship shudder, as if with pain. The air fizzed red and orange with alerts. Something must have hit the Valiant. Something huge.

"Captain!" the ship's lead researcher, Professor Désolé, leaned in the doorway. His light blue suit was caked with smoke, one lens of his spectacles cracked, and the single word the elderly scientist had cried was not filled with concern or distress, but rage. Then he was upon him.

"Goddamn you Drake. I warned you not to try it!" the scientist's flailing attack had surprised the captain, but his efforts to wrestle him to the floor were feeble. Even with his two split ribs, Drake easily eluded him.

"Stand down!" Drake barked as he pushed the scientist aside. "I am your captain, remember, and we are currently navigating an emergency. Or do I have to remind you?" Drake unclipped the holster on his sidearm. Désolé eyed him with venom but did not move.

"Good. Now give me your damage report."

"Goddamn you." Désolé muttered again.

"Damage report."

"BOLT. Viens ici!" called the scientist.

"Oh, I see. You left him outside? Didn't want your little robot-butler-boy to see his daddy get violent? Pathetic."

Désolé stayed tight-lipped as the ship's technical maintenance android entered the room.

"Good afternoon, Captain Drake. How may I serve you today?" his voice was pleasant but noticeably inhuman. His soundwave had a flicker of the classic robotic tremor, a vocoder wobble, something Drake had asked Désolé to patch in, as his original voice sounded "too bloody human".

"Bright and cheery as ever, Tinman," sneered Drake. Wouldn't guess the ship's on fire would you? What's the damage?"

Both of BOLT's eyes flashed a stunning white for a few seconds.

"63% of the Valiant irrevocably damaged. Fuel cells 2, 3 and 5 destroyed. Airlocks and pressure currently stable."

"Jesus," grunted Drake.

"And what caused the damage? How did this occur, eh?" Désolé asked BOLT while keeping his eyes locked on Drake.

"Multiple impacts from asteroids and debris sustained during the most recent change of course -"

"That's not important right now," Drake interrupted. "BOLT, what's the mortality rate?"

"Four souls -"

"My god. We lost four crew members?"

"Negative."

"What?" Drake's face twisted in confusion.

"Four souls remaining alive onboard," BOLT expanded.

"You see where your macho madness, this mad dash for speed, has got us?" said Désolé.

Now Drake remained frozen. Four souls remaining. Just as it seemed the scientist might fly into a fresh attempt on his captain, the ship's doctor stumbled into the room like a sleepwalker.

"Med-bay is gone. Totally wiped out. Burnt-out. Toasted." he said.

"Dr Wellsby, get a hold of yourself." Drake commanded.

"It's gone. I was getting coffee from B-deck and then..." The doctor put a hand to his temple and trailed off. A thin seam of red was running from his ear and down his shoulder. Drake opened his mouth but reasoned they had bigger priorities. With a thick arm the captain heaved up one of the fallen chairs and righted it.

"Take a seat," Drake said, with an attempt at kindness.

"BOLT," Désolé began, speaking as a teacher would to a student, "can we fix the ship?"

"Negative. The Valiant's current pressure is unsustainable."

Drake grunted, unimpressed.

"Implosion and total ship destruction guaranteed."

"We don't know that for sure."

"And how long until the pressure is compromised? How long do we have?" Désolé continued.

The eyes went white again.

"Approximately thirteen minutes."

"Oh god," groaned Dr. Wellsby.

Suddenly, the room began to quake around them - an intensity that throbbed through the joins in their skulls. Then everything jerked several degrees anti-clockwise, the three humans were sent crashing to the floor. Unmoved from his upright position, BOLT added "Approximately nine minutes now."

"We're coming apart," said Désolé slumped against a control panel. "Can feel it in my guts."

Wellsby wailed from his chair.

"Professor, remain quiet!" Drake shouted. "Doctor get a hold of yourself and pick up your chair. You are Valiant space personnel and we still have a mission. BOLT, cut those goddamn sirens now - I'm well aware we're in an emergency." The din of alarms disappeared instantly.

"Now BOLT, what about the escape pods. How long to ready them?"

"It will not be possible to ready them, sir."

"What? Why not?"

"The asteroid impacts destroyed all but one."

For a fraction of a moment, Drake was more angered by the robot's semantics than the looming inevitability of the decision they would now have to make.

"As to the readying," BOLT continued, his voice wavering through the new silence of the room, "they can be primed and launched in less than forty seconds. Ideal for an emergency scenario, such as this."

Drake surveyed the robot's expressionless face and felt the sudden urge to smash the butt of his sidearm again and again into it, not stopping until the shining head was a cracked shell of sparks, plastic and circuitry. Désolé seemed to sense the captain's rage, the danger to his android and silently slipped a thin shard of glass from the floor into his pocket. Wellsby raised his head from his hands.

"So," the doctor piped up, a note of hope in his voice. "One of us could leave!"

"Seems so," said Captain Drake, evenly. "But only one pod and three of us."

At that moment, the doorway slid open, revealing the dishevelled form of Aliyah Shah, the ship's dietician and wellbeing officer.

"Four of you, captain," chimed BOLT.



- SOME MINUTES LATER -

The blast from Drake's sidearm punched a hole the size of a beach-ball in the ceiling of the command room.

"That's enough!" he called to the now quietened room. "Stop your bickering, this instant."

"Crétin," spat Désolé. "You want the ship to implode right away? Can you not wait five minutes to die?"

"Four minutes, forty-one seconds left," said BOLT.

"Why do you not just shoot us all and go already? Allez!"

"You think I'd trust you and your pet robot not to sabotage the pod the moment I'm clear of the ship out of pure spite?"

"Mon dieu! You think he can disobey his captain?"

"It's not him I'm concerned about. You're a smart man, Professor. I'm sure you could tinker around in that head of his. Probably already have and the moment I'm away he'll flush all my oxygen out the pod."

BOLT stared on blandly.

"Anyway, we agreed to make our cases and decide, before you all started squabbling like children."

"And what's yours again?" probed Shah. "Why is it you should get to leave?"

Drake drew himself up slightly. "As the captain of this ship, I am the most experienced and most qualified to make this decision. I don't take it lightly but as captain I am the most valuable asset onboard the Valiant and as captain -"

"As captain," Wellsby interrupted in a slightly slurred tone, "you should bloody go down with the ship, shouldn't you, eh? Like in history and films. The Titanic and..." Wellsby flailed his hands in front him "...and all that."

"Captains don't actually go down with their ships. That's just a cliché from those old holovids." Drake replied, though less sure of his ground. "And, if it comes to that, why should you get to go? You're a doctor, aren't you?"

"And?" asked Wellsby, the line of blood had snaked down to his waist by now.

"Three minutes," chimed BOLT.

"Your job is to save lives, not steal people's last chance for yourself. You took an oath."

"Didn't you take a solemn oath to protect your crew?" asked Shah. Her voice was poison to him. "You should be the very last one to leave."

Drake bridled.

"Yeah," sneered Wellsby. "You tell him, Aliyah. It should be me. I could save hundreds of lives back home in... er... back home."

"Oh, I wasn't suggesting that you go, doctor. Look at yourself, even you should be able to see your injuries have compromised your value to anyone. You're done."

"You mean you should go? The ship's bloody... cook?"

"I am invaluable. Up to now," she glared at both Drake and Wellsby, "I have successfully kept this entire ship in a state of nutritional and psychological equilibrium. Without my expertise, the personnel on this mission, and future ones, would regress to physical and mental sludge. And, what's more, I am the company's lead dietician and wellbeing officer."

"Lead cook and lead shrink more like. Try being a real doctor!" laughed Wellsby.

"Two minutes," chimed BOLT.

"Oh god!" moaned Wellsby, his spite evaporating in the beating red lights of the alert system.

"Look," started Désolé, his voice only just managing to hold together in one piece, "let's just leave whoever gets the remaining escape pod to pure chance. BOLT, please run a random name selection for the remaining four souls on board. T-minus, 5, 4, 3 - "

"Wait!" thundered Drake. "Nice try, Professor."

"Are you mad, man? There's barely seconds left to choose or we all perish."

"I can handle random; hell, it's brutal but fair. But I'm not trusting that walking calculator with the job. You're his creator; he'll obviously pick you. I trust what I can see, what's real, what I can feel in my hand damn it."

"Is that why you disengaged the autopilot and attempted to drive us through that asteroid belt yourself?"

"Goddamn it Désolé, not now."

"What?" said Shah, rage flooding her face, "so you're the reason we're all going to be blown apart and sucked out into space?"

She gritted her teeth, eyes furiously boring into Drake as Désolé tightened his grip on the silvery shard in his pocket. All the professor had to do was wait until she sprang at him...

"Might I suggest a more low-tech solution?" said BOLT. They all turned. Even Wellsby dragged his bloody head up from the table where a pool of crimson was forming.

"Captain, may I ask that you pass me your pot of toothpicks from the command console, I believe they have survived the impact."

Drake did so. Their time was nearly up. What choice was left? BOLT delicately removed a number of the miniature sticks that the captain so dearly loved to chew while piloting the Valiant freehand. There was tiny click as BOLT cleanly snapped a quarter from one of the picks and gestured to Shah. His cold but gracious fingers placed the picks into Shah's hand.

"Now, if Miss Shah is happy to arrange them at random, you may use the remaining minute to resolve your fates."

"I can live with that. We all agreed?" said Drake.

"Oui! Let's just pick."

"One at a time," complained Shah as they encircled her.

"Long. I knew it," cursed Désolé, hurling the tiny piece of wood from him. "I should never have dared to hope."

"Better odds for me," smiled Drake. The smile vanished he pulled a second of the long picks from Shah's hand.

"Justice enfin," muttered Désolé as the captain stared into the distance, truly lost for the very first time.

Wellsby's eyes were rolling around in their sockets but he stumbled up to make his selection.

He paused. Shah held her breath

"Damn." He said quietly and collapsed backwards on the floor.

"Yes!" shrieked Shah. "Now you all agreed on the picks remember and there's hardly any time. So, stay back and just let me go." She pointed the pick at them like a tiny sword, protection in case they decided to turn back on their promise.

In an instant, Drake's iron grip clamped around her forearm. Shah shrieked again, her tone now catlike.

"Just let her go! Let at least one of us live!" cried Désolé.

"Look," said Drake. He held up his pick and drew it over to where Shah's trembled.

"The same? They were all long?" said Désolé, in disbelief. Then he felt the room was somehow wider, emptier than before. "BOLT? Where are you? BOLT? BOLT!"

"There!" cried Shah, pointing wildly at the cabin window while her other arm remained locked in Drake's fingers. The captain released her and they ran to the window, boots catching on the slumped body of Wellsby as they went.

Out in the twinkling starfield beyond their reach, sailed the Valiant's last remaining escape pod. Through the tiny portal of the pod, they could just make out the bland, unblinking face of the robot and the tiny pick he held up in his fingers.

5 comments:

  1. This was a fast-paced story which read even faster because it was almost entirely dialogue. The choice of characters was interesting. From the very first, I envisioned Dr. Desole as sort of a latter day McCoy, from Star Trek, uttering exasperated, declarative sentences a la Bones. I was happy to see that, in the future, male chauvinism had paled, as Aliyah didn’t try to coerce the male crew members into letting her take the escape pod on the basis of her being a female. There was a fine irony when only the non-human – the robot, Bolt – managed, by hook or by crook, to escape intact (I would say “alive but you know…). Apparently, in the future, AI reaches new levels, and becomes self-aware. A lot of fun, Jonny, thank you!

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  2. I agree with everything Bill Tope said. It’s an interesting mixture on futuristic and current day. There are toothpicks on the console; an unhappy crew member picks up glass as a weapon instead on having something like a phaser (in Star Trek). The conundrum…who gets to go in the life boat is freshly told here, especially due to the surprising ending. Engaging! Thank you!

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  3. There are lots of things I like about this story. Let me mention just one.

    The android's voice was purposely made to sound less human.

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  4. I enjoy how the story used both confined space (the ship) and confined time (impending implosion) to increase the narrative tension.
    Cute ending… ha ha… I guess the robot needs the escape pod too?

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  5. I'll admit that this isn't the kind of genre I'd usually go for, but the fast paced, well written, and savvy dialogue made this piece really work and I enjoyed the read very much.

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