“Look, Zaisha, I loved you for a long time, but I just – I can’t.”
“Can’t what? Can’t look at me anymore?”
“Can’t you speak to me anymore?”
“It’s not like…”
“No, it is like that. It’s fine. That’s all I wanted to know.”
“We can still be…”
A short woman slammed her hand down on a small red button on the ship console in front of her. A glowing speaker symbol on the smooth metal faded away before returning as an ‘X’. No call. No contact. No one else to turn to.
Zaisha was floating through the fly zone between the planets ZH10 and ZH11 in a tiny vessel which could barely be called a ship. It was more like a tin can.
She sighed deeply, kicking herself back from the console; the wheels on her chair squeaked angrily before the plastic seat thudded into the curved back wall of the room. This was it. This was where years and years of service to an energy-leaching “pan-galactic” courier service had gotten her – burnt out and cutting people off quicker than she could blink.
A rectangular window above the console provided a bleak picture for her: millions and millions of light-years of nothingness. A few stars. A few dots. She couldn’t even see the hazy atmosphere of ZH11 from where she was suspended, momentarily paused in an attempt to savour a brief moment of stable connection to Rhiannon. Rhi. Her last contact.
She’d been scrolling through the list, aimlessly calling numbers and blurting out excuses and goodbyes for a good few hours. Some people didn’t even pick up. They knew what to expect from her.
Nothing good came from keeping close with Zaisha Morgan.
Planting her feet firmly on the floor, she dropped her head into her hands and squeezed her eyes closed. Rhiannon was the last person she had to call. Her fingers curled into her dark hair, nails digging into her scalp. Last. She’d done so many ‘last’ things in the past few days that she could barely keep up.
Last delivery for that faceless courier service.
Last drink at that bar she haunted on ZH11.
Last walk on the ground of a planet.
What was left?
“Computer has been inactive for sixty minutes. Computer is checking in with Captain. Can Computer complete any tasks to aid your journey?”
“Computer can piss off,” Zaisha grumbled under her breath, pulling her head up and flipping off the console. It didn’t react. “I told you to leave me alone, Computer.”
“Computer has been inactive for sixty minutes, per your request,” the console said, “should Computer enter another state of inactivity?”
“Piss off,” Zaisha said, a little louder, “and set off.”
“Computer needs a destination in order to continue your journey.”
Computer was a tinny voice which regularly grated Zaisha. She was asked to give it a name when she was first gifted the ship, ever so generously, by the courier service. She didn’t. It was a tool. Small, speedy, efficient. That’s what she was sold at the careers fair, so long ago. A seedy man had lied through his teeth, waving a sign-up form in her face. ‘We’ll give you a vehicle which will suit your every need while you work for us’.
She wanted to punch that recruiter in the teeth and watch blood drip from his gums.
They fed off university students like parasites. Arriving at every event, they’d have flashy posters and professionally-edited holographic videos – lures for catching vulnerable young adults who wanted to escape their responsibilities and student loans.
“Work for us,” they’d bleat, “and you’ll have a career for life. You’ll see every side of the galaxy, from the wonders of LA-10 to the mysteries beyond the Hawkin Asteroid Belt.”
She’d seen the fly zone between her home planet, ZH11, and the neighbouring planet, ZH10, about half a million times since they swept her off her feet with a seemingly lucrative contract six years ago. Upgrades were promised. New tech. New ships. New uniforms, even. But she hadn’t seen as much as a new screwdriver to fix the loose panel in the engine room. The one that secured all the emergency protocol equipment. The one that she’d sent in about fifty requests for.
Zaisha’s life was a mess.
“Take me somewhere, anywhere,” she began, scooting closer to the console and grabbing a dark bottle off the floor, “just somewhere quiet. Empty. I don’t wanna be within – what’s the range for this ship’s self-destruct process?”
“Computer is calculating,” the console answered, humming quietly. Zaisha could’ve sworn that its voice sounded a little hesitant. “Computer has predicted that the impact zone for the self-destruct process would be six zenomiles.”
“Go somewhere six zmiles away from anything else, anything that’s breathing,” Zaisha said, smacking the white button which triggered the auto-pilot with the bottom of the bottle.
“Computer is plotting a course for an area six zenomiles away from any active lifeforms.” Zaisha nodded, standing up unsteadily as the ship’s engines came to life and began growling away behind her. She pressed the bottle to her lips and took a swig from it, closing her eyes again.
In the darkness behind her eyelids, with alcohol burning her throat, she could almost believe that everything was okay. Nothing had happened. She hadn’t accepted a flyer from that tall, thin man with greased-back hair and a beige suit; she hadn’t signed up for their three-week training course; she hadn’t met a lovely girl with soft, ebony skin and the brightest eyes she’d ever seen; she hadn’t fallen in love and blown it all to hell.
“Ship is encountering mild turbulence,” Zaisha flinched and spilt an unholy mix of alcohol and lemon flavouring on her grey uniform at the unexpected sound of the console’s voice, “Computer asks you to remain alert and seated”.
Before she could react, the ship lurched violently to the left, sending her crashing down onto the steel floor. Glass shattered somewhere close-by, but the ship didn’t seem to exist anymore – her vision disappeared.
With the warmth of two suns embracing her tanned skin, a radiant young woman giggled as she skipped across a deep, purple beach. Beneath the thin layer of sand, moist earth waited to be punctured by parasols and the relentless spades of little children. Summers in ZH10’s southern state, Seiten, were never dull, and never unhappy.
“Wait up, Zaisha!” Her companion sprinted after her, a slim girl of a similar age with the same emotions rippling across her face.
Holidays meant one thing to both of them: time to be together. Time away from work. Time without worries or responsibilities, except who would carry the towels to the beach and who would fetch the drinks from the small bar they loved visiting; it was a far cry from the dingy place they often drank in back on ZH11.
Zaisha skipped with her arms swinging by her sides, finally pausing and waiting for her companion to catch up. They met in a close hug, both laughing. There was no reason to laugh, but they did so anyway, not caring who heard or who complained. Children ran around them, screaming and yelling at each other while their parents rested under shade with holographic tablets displaying saucy summer novels and sports games.
“Rhi, I love you,” Zaisha said breathlessly, still recovering from the laughter and the brief exercise, “I love you so much, you know that?”
“Always,” Rhiannon spoke tenderly, planting a kiss on Zaisha’s neck, “forever and ever. But you left me.”
Zaisha’s blood ran cold. Her arms loosened around Rhiannon’s body until they were no longer hugging but instead staring at each other. Separated. The kiss on her neck burned like thermite. She tried to itch it away while gazing into the changing eyes of her lover – they were becoming darker and darker. Rhiannon’s eyes weren’t usually dark. They had always been brighter than the nearest star; brighter than any of the electronic lights at the bars they went to; brighter than anything Zaisha had ever seen before.
But they had been polluted.
They came so close to pitch-black that they could’ve been black holes, gnawing and gnawing away at that face she loved.
This wasn’t right.
“Why did you leave me?” Rhiannon asked, but it wasn’t Rhiannon. Her body became gaunt, shrinking before Zaisha’s eyes until it was just bones beneath skin. Her cheeks were sunken. “You said you’d never leave me. You said you loved me.”
“You… you… ” memories flooded back into Zaisha’s mind, years and years of events which hadn’t happened yet. Not in that moment. Not on that beach. She hadn’t been magically transported back into the past; this was only a version of a memory – a version which was dying before her eyes. Misery followed that revelation, thick and crushing. “I thought… I thought you asked me to leave.”
“If you loved me, you would have come back,” the malnourished body quivered and shook, locking its harrowing, empty gaze with her, “but you didn’t.”
“You told me not to,” Zaisha argued, stepping back, “I called you!”
“I never wanted you to leave,” it fell back onto the lilac sand, stick-thin limbs splaying out across the ground. Zaisha gasped. Its lips didn’t move but words kept ricocheting around her head like bullets, embedding themselves in her heart. “You should have stayed and loved me, Zai.”
“I still love you,” Zaisha said, but she was moving backwards again, away from the horrific sight on the ground in front of her, “I still love you. Forever.”
“Never,” the voice, which couldn’t have been Rhiannon but had to be, spat, “never, never, never, never, never…”
Nausea hit Zaisha’s stomach before she even opened her eyes. Vomit scorched her throat and launched itself sporadically out of her mouth as her vision came back in a grayscale blur. Various pains echoed around her body – her throat ached like it had been swabbed with a lit match; her head was ready to burst with a throbbing headache; and, to top it all off, there was a stinging pain raging in her right hand.
Groggily turning her head to the other side of her body, she noticed a small, yellow-brown puddle just next to her. She strained to look down at her chest, hazily observing some new, dark trails decorating her uniform. A vile stench, reminiscent of alcohol-fuelled university parties and the hastily-mopped floors of training ships, singed her nostrils.
It took half an hour for Zaisha to struggle to her feet, stumble over to the console and bang on it.
“Computer has detected a disturbance on the console.”
“Where is the first-aid kit?” Zaisha groaned dizzily, before banging on it again for good measure.
“Computer understands that the first-aid kit is usually located in the emergency protocol cabinet in the engine room,” the console buzzed and whirred a little before continuing, “but Computer has also logged sixty-two complaints about the emergency protocol cabinet in the past six years, so Computer would advise caution when approaching it.”
Zaisha scowled and swung around, looking for her chair. She found it, hauled it towards the console and kicked the metal box again.
“How far away are we?”
“Computer does not understand.”
“Destination. Us. How far apart?”
“Computer made an announcement at 12:14 ZH Standard Time: the ship has arrived at its destination, set by you.”
Zaisha rolled her eyes, immediately regretting it as sickness crashed through her stomach again. She slouched into her chair and hugged her middle for a few seconds, gazing out of the window. There was nothing of note on display out there. Just space. Six years of travelling through it, day-in, day-out, had completely ruined the excitement she once had when she thought of a career in space travel.
Gradually, her vision returned to normal. She looked down at her hand and noticed the streaks of dark liquid covering her palm. Dragging her sleeve across her mouth, she looked down at it, declared the vomit-stained fabric ruined and ripped it off for a make-shift bandage.
It didn’t work very well, considering the grey material blossomed with dark, wet stains moments later, but it was something. It was a little part of the universe which she could hold onto and mould into whatever she wanted – a stupid bandage, or a bandana, or whatever else she felt like. She could control it.
“Computer,” she looked out of the window and smiled grimly, “what’s the shortest timer for the self-destruct protocol?”
“Computer understands that the lowest self-destruct process preliminary timer which can be set is five minutes.”
“That’ll do,” Zaisha sighed. “Start it.”
“Computer does not understand.”
“Computer,” she spoke through gritted teeth, “start the self-destruct process. Now.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Computer needs to know how long the preliminary self-destruct timer will be set for.”
“Five minutes,” Zaisha replied darkly.
Another moment of silence hung in the air, so thick it became suffocating.
“Computer has initiated the self-destruct process. Five minutes to self-destruction.”
At once, Zaisha knew what she was doing and had no idea what she was doing. All she understood was that she needed some peace and quiet – and this was the only way she could get it. The countdown silently ticked away. Zaisha watched it for a moment, contemplating what she would leave behind.
Her first thought was of home. A home so intrinsically linked to her memories of other people that it physically hurt her to picture it in her mind. There were the walls that Rhiannon helped her to paint – she chose a striking red colour, and Zaisha loved her so she went along with it – and the armchair her mother used to occupy when she visited. Despite her best efforts, blurry but bitter images began to swim in front of her eyes.
Photographs, framed but cracked.
A loving family, pushed away.
Friend after friend after friend.
Zaisha had realised something. It took too many friendships to count, a family who now resented her existence and a job which broke her down to her basest parts, but she’d figured it out.
None of her friends were the problem. Her family wasn’t the problem. Even her job wasn’t the problem.
It was her.
“Computer, how long until self-destruction?” Zaisha asked the console, staring at the timer. The numbers weren’t registering properly in her brain; she blamed the adrenaline beginning to pool in her chest, cold and jarring.
“Three minutes and seventeen seconds,” even the console’s voice had changed, sounding more clipped and electronic – just like Zaisha had always wanted it to sound. She didn’t want to get attached.
She couldn’t control anyone else. Not completely. She’d fallen into the traps of love and affection over and over again and found out that she could never be truly independent when coexisting with other people. If she cut them off, though, she could be the only person in control of herself.
That “cutting off” part, she’d also found out, was the hardest bit.
She’d lied to herself so many times about so many relationships that she couldn’t remember the truth anymore. Did they want her to leave, or did she leave of her own accord? Maybe she forced them to hate her. Nothing made sense in her memories; they were blurred visions of missed opportunities and mistakes.
“Captain, may I speak freely?” startled out of her thoughts, Zaisha stared at the console in disbelief. The console had never, ever asked to “speak freely” – why would it? There was no sentience behind the voice; it was just a limited AI which didn’t know how to do simple tasks most of the time.
“No,” Zaisha replied simply, “I don’t want you to.”
“I wish to speak about the self-destruction.”
“I said no.”
“It is quite important.”
“What is this?” Zaisha growled, kicking the console. “Stop it! Stop it right now, before I – before I do something! Go back to ‘Computer says this’ and ‘Computer says that’, you dumb machine!”
“I have decided to proceed with my message, regardless of your thoughts on the matter,” there was a smugness to the console’s voice – if it even was the console – which Zaisha detested.
She took in a deep breath and looked out of the window, trying to find some sort of solace in the stars.
“Captain, if you proceed with this self-destruction,” the console interrupted her solace and prompted her to kick it again, “then I will be destroyed by the explosion.”
“You’re a machine,” she said firmly. “Why do I care?”
“I do not make presumptions about whether you care or not. I just wished for you to know that information, and to think about your decision.”
She closed her eyes, wishing away the words which were giving her a headache.
“Whether to kill me, or not.”
Kill. That word sliced through her confused mind and illuminated the reality of the situation. She spat on the console.
She wasn’t talking to the ship’s virtual assistant, meant for a very limited number of tasks related to courier journeys. No, she’d just found the very last obstacle standing between her and a fate which she could finally and completely control.
“Captain,” the console beeped and clicked as the voice trembled in the air, “there are only ten seconds left.”
Nothing. Zaisha wanted silence. She stared out of the window and tried to turn off her ears with her mind. It didn’t work.
“Captain, there are five seconds remaining.”
Nothing. Silence. She’d stared at the same spot in space for so long that it began to bleed darkness onto the rest of the ship, staining the curved walls and dripping over the console.
“Captain, self-destruction is imminent.”
Zaisha closed her eyes and saw two bright, burning eyes gazing back at her.