By A. A. Jankiewicz
Subtly it floated, suspended in a ghost-like drift through the air. The once well-loved stuffed brown bear moved past the window of the Space cargo ship. The ship, a hulking leviathan of silver metal, capable of moving 300,000 lbs, belonged to a fruit harvesting company on Earth known as C-tron. While the ship could usually be seen going over 87,000 kilometres per hour, a blur to the human eye, it now rested at a standstill. In one of the windows, a pale light shone.
Inside, a three-dimensional projection of a woman played itself out. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, with light auburn hair and forget-me-not blue eyes which were alive with the smile spread across her diamond-shaped face. She wore a black and white summer dress and was chasing a young boy in a pair of swim shorts down a strip of white sandy beach. He had hair colour the same as hers. Catching up to the babe, the woman scooped the boy into her arms, blowing a raspberry into his tummy.
“You see Daddy there, Owen?” the woman asked the boy and pointed ahead of herself, to which the boy seemed to freeze and then get excited at the prospect of seeing his other parent.
“Hey, Squirt!” A male voice came out of nowhere, causing the boy to laugh, bringing his hands up to his face to hide his redness. “You having a good time?”
Owen took a moment looking at his father, before he answered with a very cheerful nod, causing the man to laugh.
“See? I told you,” he chuckled, “and you were so scared of the jellyfish. Didn’t I tell you there weren’t any in the water?”
The boy grimaced, causing both the man and woman to giggle some more.
Sighing, the voice of the man continued. “Oh, isn’t this great Shannon? Tell me this isn’t great?”
“It’s great, Hun’, and you were absolutely right for bringing us here,” she replied as she moved closer to the camera.
She stayed that way for a few seconds, the water which surrounded them nothing more than a glimmering reflection in her eyes.
“I love you, Rob,” she smiled.
“I love you too, Shan.”
The projection froze and ended there, leaving Robert Addison the only living soul in the room. The lights went up, bringing him back to the reality of the white-walled and sterile environment of the ship. It was a setting he knew well from his many years of Space driving, a term coined due to cargo ships transporting items much like trucks once did before the age of colonies.
Knowing nothing else would come on – Robert sighed, turned around and headed back for the cockpit. On his way out, he glanced at the communication device on the wall opposite the door, and seeing no flickering light, he left.
* * *
He wound along the narrow corridor and down a ladder from the upper levels, before sliding back into the black synthetic leather seat. He checked all the vitals of the ship, and paused to catch a reflection of himself on one of the touch screen surfaces. From beneath his bushy ape-like brows he could make out the faint tint of his hazel eyes. His triangular jaw now held a fortnight of facial hair on it and his russet-coloured wavy hair was disheveled, having not been combed. There was no need for it, he felt, being the only one on board. Who would actually care?
It had been the mentality he’d been in for a long while now, and staring out into the depths of Space, he was reminded why. He remembered the life that had once been out there, before him. All that remained now was rock, static and memories. It all seemed another lifetime ago.
“Nothing to see, I haven’t seen,” he muttered to himself in a gruff voice, the sounds of the words making no sense to him in the aftermath of speaking them.
Noting how cool the ship was, he pulled on his black polyester-cotton mix work jacket. A yellow C-tron logo was sewn over the left side of the chest with his surname printed neatly below it in a smaller font. Robert frowned as he pulled on the jacket.
Seeing that everything was in order, he got up to resume his other duties. He climbed back up the ladder of the ship and moved down another set of corridors, accompanied only by his breathing, and the metallic sound of his gravity-enforcing boots.
He paused before an airtight sealed door. Looking to his right where a black glass panel could be seen, he pressed his hand against the panel. Red and blue light-emitting plasma lights danced to life, scanning the hand and displaying the name of the owner.
Sliding aside, the door revealed a white room the length of a football field filled with lemon trees. While many companies simply froze their off-world cargo, C-tron prided itself in delivering fresh products of the highest quality. What better way than to have fruit picked right off the tree when it arrived, prior to being shipped off to homes? That was their way. The fruit that was to be used in juices on the other hand, still came frozen to allow for bigger shipments.
Robert walked past the rows of lush green-leaved trees which were loaded with yellow fruit. Running a hand over the coarse skin of a fruit, he could feel the heat of the artificial sunlight on them. Taking a deep breath, he could smell both the lemons and the earthy tones of the soil which lay spread all over the floor. He walked around the room twice before leaving, to make sure all of the trees were unharmed.
* * *
The descent into the cockpit the second time around seemed longer. His boots seemed to weigh him down more than they should have. His whole frame, in fact, standing at five foot ten, felt more burdened than ever as it sank one last time into the chair. Robert lay his arms out over the worn faux leather armrests, took a deep breath, and looked out into the depths of Space before him. He opened the camera app on his screen, and pressed record. As Robert’s image appeared, a little red dot appeared in the corner of the screen.
“This is Space cargo driver Robert Addison signing on,” he began, “though I don’t know who is listening at this point. The time…well…it doesn’t matter either, I suppose. What I am here to say is that this will be my final recording, and it has been an honour to work for C-tron all of these years. To my family… wherever you may be… Owen and Shannon… I love and miss you both.”
He paused, searching inside himself for anything else he wanted to add. It seemed each time he had thought of this recording, he’d had monologue upon monologue stored away in his head. Now, when the time came, there was nothing – nothing but static, and the accompanying numbness.
Robert’s brow furrowed as he tried to focus, but it was in vain. Giving up, he finally glanced back at the screen, “Goodbye.”
He shut off the camera, and looked into the corner of the cabin. Robert reached over and lifted a small, black briefcase, which he opened to produce a pistol. It was a crude weapon, but one that had been passed down to him from his great grandfather, who had served as an officer. He marvelled at the workmanship of it. It was a strange thing to know so small a device could prove to bring about one’s end. Perhaps that was the irony in it.
While he loaded the handgun, making sure the safety was off – he noted something in his peripheral vision. Robert glanced over at the many displays which showed video footage from the various rooms. He saw something moving in one of the rooms, and let out a growl of frustration. His sense of duty overriding all other emotions, Robert got up, applied the safety on the weapon once again and climbed the ladder.
* * *
Trudging down the corridors again, he moved past the room where he’d inspected the trees and made his way further back. He stopped at another door, scanned his hand, and then kept both hands on the weapon as he entered to find the entire room stacked with crates.
The lighting was kept low to prevent any more heat than necessary from entering the facility from the ship’s heating system. This ensured a constant temperature for the frozen fruit. The scent of lemons filled Robert’s nostrils as he slowly paced through the room, his eyes focused as he scanned for anything out of place. Nothing.
He lowered the weapon to allow the muscles in his shoulders to relax, and he frowned. Perhaps his mind was starting to play tricks on him. He would not be the first driver to whom it had happened.
Content that there was nothing amiss, he began to turn and make his way back. The sound of a crate crashing to the floor, however, set off his inner alarm. In reflex, Robert raised the weapon to eye level and pointed in the direction of the noise.
“Freeze!” he roared.
At first glance, Robert could still see nothing amiss. His gaze however, caught a shadow on the metal floor at the far end of the room. The shadow changed shape, elongating. The unmistakable sound of shuffling feet was next, followed by the appearance of a young girl.
She was unlike any Earth child that Robert had ever seen. She was small of stature with a thin frame, made more prominent in the oversized grey worker jacket she wore. She had a round face, complete with a pair of sapphire-coloured eyes. A piercing hung from the left side of her lower lip and her flaxen hair was arranged into thick dreads which cascaded well past her shoulders.
What struck Robert most was the orange tint of her skin. It was not a normal coloration where he came from; Earth. In fact, it was a trademark of the farmers on Colony-537 who were exposed to excessive amounts of carotenoids in their food. This peculiarity was due to the colony primarily harvesting fruits with a high carotene concentration. Sensing the girl was no threat with her arms raised in the air, Robert lowered his guard a little.
“Who are you?” he demanded of her, aiming the gun at a point midway to the girl.
“My name’s Talitha,” the girl said, timidly, “but everyone calls me Tali.”
Upset at having his plans put on hold, Robert checked the safety on the gun and stashed it in his coat pocket. He then turned his attention back to the girl, whom he realized, was no older than sixteen. He curled the fingers of one hand to motion for her to come forward.
“You know stowing away on an inter-colonial cargo ship is punishable by death, right?” he said. His voice was devoid of emotion.
While wrapping the jacket firmly around her, the girl looked down at her oversized boots, which were covered in dirt. She looked back up at Robert.
He could see an unyielding resolve in her eyes.
“There was a war going on…” Tali began, trailing off mid sentence.
Robert ran his hand through his beard as he analyzed the child. Colony-537 was perpetually in a state of war, mostly due to farmers being in constant conflict with the ruling classes there. The demand for fruit was constantly going up with ever-growing populations and with it, a demand for production the farmers could not meet.
“There’s always a war going on somewhere,” Robert said with a frown.
“I need to get to Earth,” Tali replied without hesitation. “I can’t go back to the colony.”
“Listen kid, you can’t just go hopping on board cargo ships to do so,” Robert retorted. “You need a passport, a ticket, and a full medical examination. If you plan on staying anywhere for an extended period of time you also need a visa, as well as a background check. You don’t just up and go. There are regulations for that sort of thing.”
“Please? I’ll do whatever you ask,” she begged. “I won’t cause any trouble, just please don’t send me back there.”
Anger began to grow inside Robert. Who was this girl to think she could just barge in on him? He’d had it all planned out, how the entire day would go, and then she showed up.
“You can’t go to Earth,” he retorted once more. “Look, kid, it’s not happening. I’m dropping you off at the nearest station and that’s that.”
“What difference would it make if you dropped me off on Earth?” she inquired. “I mean, really?”
“I’d be breaking protocol, would lose my license, and my job as well,” he stated, turning on his heel. “Come with me to the cockpit, so I can keep an eye on you.”
“Who would find out, though? Just drop me off anywhere, I’ll disappear and no one will find me,” Tali continued.
Robert stood to one side, allowing Tali to exit, and then he locked the door and they left. He said nothing, not feeling the need to reply to the last set of comments. In fact, all of the talking just seemed like more of the static he’d heard before. What did it matter?
* * *
Having come down the corridor, Tali stopped short of the final door separating them from the cockpit.
“If you send me back there, I will have nothing,” she spoke in a tone that was barely audible. “My whole family is dead.”
The last part of the sentence seemed to pierce the very core of Robert Addison. Like a piece of ice lain against fever-stricken skin. He scanned his hand on the wall, opened the last set of doors to the cockpit and went down the ladder. Robert nodded towards the windows indicating the field of debris before them.
“So is mine,” he said, the words tumbling out of him.
Tali cocked her head sideways, raised an eyebrow, and looked out through the windows, trying to make sense of what it was she was seeing.
Her thoughts were confirmed as she gazed at the remnants of a world.
Robert said, “The Earth was destroyed by an asteroid called 5,070, but more commonly known as Arai.” He paused and gazed through the window. “What you see in front of you is all that remains.”
Tali’s orange face paled upon seeing the floating rocks outside. She walked up to the window, placing a hand on the thick, transparent surface.
“So, as I said before,” Robert repeated. “You can’t go to Earth and neither can I.”
He paused, as the words trickled out of his mouth for the first time since he had realized the fate of Earth. Until that point, it had all seemed to be a bad dream, a figment of a nightmare he had yet to awaken from. Confronting the girl with the news forced Robert to face the sobering facts. The Earth was gone, and there was no going back.
Tali said, “I don’t believe it. How did no one detect it? How did the colonies not hear anything about it?” She shook her head. “They have evacuation carriers for that reason, communication networks set up to contact people. I know there’s one on this ship. People would have been patching through to say something.”
“Too busy blowing each other up, I suppose.” Robert said, and crossed his arms as he looked out. “They were too busy with their guns and their politics.”
A chill crept through Tali as she pulled the jacket tighter around her. She glanced at Robert, who was staring out into Space with glassy eyes, completely gone. Tali’s mind raced back to what he had said earlier. Piecing it together with a video recording she’d heard him play over and over again while she hid, she now understood.
“They were there, weren’t they?” she blurted out.
Robert did not answer and proceeded to move forward, lowering himself into his seat. He flicked on all of the switches needed, and prepared for flight. A realization had dawned on him, seeing the reaction of the girl – he had no right turning her in. He also realized as he glanced at her that he could indeed drop her off anywhere but Colony-537. He was, after all, a Space driver.
Tali sat down in the passenger seat and fastened her seatbelt. She felt awkward, knowing the man’s situation, and even worse for the circumstances in which they had met.
“What’s all of this going to mean for the colonies?” she asked, suddenly feeling even smaller than she was.
Robert looked over at his companion. He was having a hard time processing the news as an adult, so he could barely fathom what it was like to hear it as a child. Earth had always seemed indestructible. Part of him could not help but laugh at the irony of it all, even if the rest of him was mourning.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I guess one of the larger colonies will assume control over the others. Or maybe they will all just drift apart now. I don’t know, and I’m not deciding it. I’m just a driver.”
Reversing out of where he had been stationed, Robert turned the ship around carefully and proceeded forward. “How does Colony-542 sound?”
Tali’s eyes lit up, “You mean? I mean…yeah… sounds great.”
The girl sank back into the chair, as the realisation of having dodged a bullet washed over her. She stared into the blur of darkness and stars as they passed, the ship’s velocity increasing with each second.
From the corner of his eye Robert saw the girl relax, and for the first time in a while – he smiled just a bit. He had been in that same spot for close to three weeks, never having moved and never having heard a single message to the ship. Despite this, he still went up each day to watch the recording he had. It had become part of his routine, the thing that kept him sane.
“Where will you go after?” Tali asked, trying to engage in other conversation to forget the sad one which had occurred earlier.
“I don’t know,” Robert said. “I hadn’t thought about it until now.”
The girl nodded, and before speaking again, continued to watch the streaks of light pass all around them, like a psychedelic show.
“When I was getting on the ship in the loading dock, I noticed there was some writing on the side. I couldn’t make it out, because the paint was very faded. What does it say?”
“It’s the name of my ship. It was my wife’s idea, because she thought every ship needs to have a name, even a cargo ship,” Robert answered. He kept his eyes on the area of Space before them.
“What did she call it?”
While the two conversed down below in the cockpit, attempting to soothe each other’s wounds, somewhere up above, the light on the communication panel flickered.
Selected from The Welcome: and other Sci-Fi stories