Part 1- Drive
Another long day.
He steadied his trembling hands, resting them on the lip of the sink and tried to breathe evenly but the flash took him anyway; blood, screams, traitor! Ned scrunched his eyes shut. When he finally opened them, all he saw was his own washed out complexion, stone grey eyes edged with weariness, silently saying , Ned, O’ Ned, why are you here? Perhaps you would’ve been better off slumming it Mars-side with a bottle in one hand and a sidearm in the other, set to take a sip from either.
He dismissed the reflection, looking instead at the brushed metal sink where a droplet of water beaded, making its slow but fate-destined trip toward the black hole that was the Ship’s plumbing. He gripped the edge as if he himself were that droplet, about to plummet and lose itself to oblivion. Its molecules destined for the re-cycler and transformation, to become something shiny and new. Something useful.
Not even this starship could outrun his problems. They’re too big, fat and wide. Even all the way across the galaxy they bordered him like a problem neighbour with a shotgun.
Infinity had squashed her fat girth into fold-space, penetrating that black event horizon with the same bullish enthusiasm as an officer visiting a Consort House whilst on shore-leave. Difference being, this was a whole lot less titillating. To his point of view they were just trading one dead rock for half a dozen more. Woopie-do-da…yay! The best Ned could hope for was some down time, not enough to make him spin his wheels in a slick puddle of whisky, but just enough to sleep and forget.
Alas, sadly a temporary state of being, on those rare nights which he was able to get some sleep.
Ned was a late bloomer to the space game. He had grown up on Mars and spent fifteen years running security in the Eastern Rad-zone. After a relationship gone rotten, and a bad case of ‘I don’t want to get up from my bunk except to eat the end of a blaster’, (those were the easy parts) he had finally decided to leave it all behind for the ‘all that glitters being gold’, stars. What he got instead was cold, dark loneliness, with a shot of regret.
He left the restroom and started down the hall, when She sidled up to him in that way that she often does, her footfalls far too soft for sanity’s comfort.
He had signed up the same day as this pint sized bane of his existence, but to be completely honest most of the crew at one time or another have been worthy of that prestigious title.
Not just her.
“Not now, Mish,” he growled, implying the scheduled meeting with his pillow was unmissable. His resolve was harder than a titanium plated chastity belt, Damn it!
“Oh… shame. Raffety finally opened up the Rec centre. There’s a bar! You don’t need to hide in ya cave and drink alone anymore Ned.”
“I like drinking alone.”
She smirked. “You’ll like drinking with me more.” That self-assured smile of hers, rattling his previously intact resolve, which was fast becoming a box of spare parts in her mischievous hands.
She was capable of untold chaos, and he had stupidly covered for her… more than once. She had this way about her. She twisted his guts into a tangle with her oddball charm, holding a fistful of his entrails while he fell from the speeding bus that was life. It made him almost want to grab hold of something… something other than her, he told himself firmly. He was too old and bitter for crushes. This wasn’t a school yard, this was space: dark, dirty and dangerous.
Dirty, God help him.
Ned ran both hands down his face, the scratchy rasp of neglected stubble against his palms reminding him he had had too many rushed starts following late nights. He shouldn’t.
The last time he had joined her party of one, he’d been embroiled in the defacing an academy monument. No, not one of his finer moments.
Despite sharing Mish’s dislike of their employer, he should’ve known better than to get involved, he could’ve lost his place on this boat. Although days like today, made him wonder if that would’ve been such a tragedy. Coulda, woulda, shoulda, taunted those discordant little voices, playing shout-over-each-other, inside his tired, overwrought mind. The fact remained that there was no-one better to take his place, so fate played his hand for him, but he would’ve been slapped with deuces either way.
Truth be told, he was more than a little drawn by her method of mischief, which seemed to so effectively stave off the boredom. Idleness was a bad thing. It made him dwell, and dwelling while surrounded by the big black nothing of space was really bad. It was a fast way to lose sanity, hope, everything.
Come on, do it Ned.
“Oh what the hell, just one.”
“Ace.” She whispered, soft and drawn-out on the s note as if she had won some sort of prize.
Yea, he could spend this voyage feeling sorry for himself and griping at the unfairness of this sadomasochistic universe which got its jollies from deliberately shafting him whichever way he bent over, or he could drink, crack a grim smile, and god forbid …maybe even laugh, all the while hoping the consequences of such overwhelming fun was minimal.
Gawd, he was so weak, trailing after her (all puppy-like), as if she were made out of brightly coloured chew toys.
Dim lighting, good.
The amber liquid swished provocatively around the glass’s edge. Its soft lap, drawing him deeper.
He hunched down over that pretty glass of scotch and glared across the room furtively. Mish had abandoned him and was currently talking with Brindley. She leaned over the gawky engineer’s table in more of a conspiratorial than seductive fashion. Anxiety nibbled away at his nerve-jellied gut as he watched Brindley, who was relentlessly trapped in Mish’s gaze, hanging on her every word. Poor fool.
Her exotic southern drawl was enhanced by the slow twist and pout of her pink lips. Ned was captivated, even though the exact form of her words were indistinct over the murmur and flow of several dozen other conversations around him.
No, he didn’t want to know… and looked away until his brooding pulled him back. She was now looking over at him, smiling. He knew that smile, it meant, Put on ya seat belt boy let’s go for one helluva ride.
He drowned the prickles of anticipation that suddenly needled their way down the back of his neck with a flow of amber fire. His ulcer protested, kicking him in the guts vehemently as if to say- You punish me, I’m gonna punish you, dumbass.
She plonked down on the seat next to him and mirrored his lean-at-the-bar-to-forget, drinking position.
“You ain’t planning anything that'll force my hand are ya?” Ned growled across at her. “The brig is there for a reason you know.”
“Come on, Ned. It's just all harmless fun.”
“Harmless huh?” Harmless like the time she borrowed a Gravity Field Generator from the academy labs and set it up inside the men’s restroom. He’d been glad he wasn’t the one tasked with mopping up that ceiling, doubly thankful he hadn’t been caught up in the inverted polarity field with the dozen or so other recruits. Damn messy business.
“What’s up with Brindley then?”
She smirked and opened her hand, showing him what she had palmed. A pass key. “Looky what I have here, Neddy boy.”
He narrowed his eyes at her, “what do you need that for?”
She leaned forward, her voice dropping a notch past appropriate. “Cargo hold, 20 minutes.” He held her gaze for a tad beyond awkward, only managing to tear it away to refocus on that sweet liquid courage gripped tight in his calloused hand.
“That’s enough.” Her hand rested upon the glass, and her breath disturbed the brown hair curling around his ear, flooding him with a too-warm heat. “I’m relying on you to be the sober driver Ned…”
She left him, mind buzzing with all sorts of unlikely possibilities, he gulped, mouth suddenly sandy dry.
He plucked up the courage, eventually.
The massive Cargo area’s doors were already open, revealing the cavernous space beyond, a stretch that ran for half a mile. He strode into the main causeway, standing astride the crane tracks and raked a hand through bad-day-encrusted hair.
“Talk about keeping a girl waiting. Are you playing hard to get, Ned?”
He rounded on the sound of her voice. She was standing beside a large container, it was open and she wore a devious smile. He ambled over, determined to keep the well-worn expression of stern disapproval resident.
She planted hands on slim hips. “What do ya think? I heard they had these babies tucked away down here and Brindley owed me a favour. Got him to do some digging around in the cargo manifest last time he was down here, and voila! We have our ride.”
A nearby flood-lamp lit the small Terrain rover’s hard metal struts. The over-sized, fat, pimpled wheels still had that off-the-factory-floor shine.
“Isn’t it all dinky and cute-like… and she’s gagging to be taken out Ned,” She cooed huskily. With trademark Mish-like enthusiasm she pounced up the ramp and climbed in. She tilted her head toward the seat beside her. “Come on.” Eyes flashing, if you dare.
“This is unauthorized access of a military grade vehicle,” he muttered, more as a reminder to himself than anything else, but that didn’t stop his feet from betraying good sense and climbing that ramp. The other part of him rationalised, if you’re driving, she can’t possibly make trouble. You traitor Ned.
The fission batteries rang their merry start-up song, readying the rover's hybrid gas system. He gripped the wheel, so much power at his fingertips. He was instantly taken back to those long straight runs on the Mars wastes where he could just open up and go, drive away from the guilt, from the nightmares -- at speed. Glad to be free of them, if even just for a moment.
Once at full charge, the engine grunted into action with a throaty chug. With the choke still on, he applied the gas, testing her purr. She sang, longing to leap and tear up infinity’s long graceful stretch.
He reached across Mish and pulled at her safety harness, clicking it in place. His hand brushed her forearm accidentally. “Safety first,” he growled, all business like. Her skin, soft and warm, unlike this ship, which was so hard and cold.
He fastened his own and looked across at his co-pilot as she swept stray hair back with excited and jittery hands. She met his eyes, her own gleaming with unshed tears, “Thanks, Ned.” She mouthed, her thickened voice only just audible.
It was then that Ned realized. Something was bothering the little devil. Perhaps he had seen glimpses before but just chose to chalk it up to a predictably troubled childhood. He hadn’t pried. Didn’t really want to. It wasn’t that he didn’t care… She just shouldn’t trust someone like him… Hell! He couldn’t even carry with his own load, let alone load up on anyone else's.
He drowned out the excuses, gunning the gas. The engine roared as they lurched out of the container and down the ramp. He turned the wheel sharply and hand-braked the corner lining her up perfectly along the crane tracks. Floodlights spotted the stretch, which yawned before them longing to be filled with fast, loud fun.
“A long road,” she said, her tone unusually serious.
“Yea Mish, it is.” And he couldn’t help wondering what was going be at its end.