Often, he asked her about the view beyond the porthole, and she would describe for him the seamless black and the trillion pin-prick stars, or tell him about the sister moons Shile and Skarth—two pearls under the light of Cortico’s sun—and if he asked are we there yet she’d say not yet, and if he asked how much longer she’d say as long as it takes.
Lying was difficult. Her daily routine of reporting the view began after she’d caught him hunting for a chair to stand on, a venture she’d managed to deter by saying it was hardly befitting the captain of Adacra to be seen perched on a chair looking out the window, and wouldn’t it be best if she were to just tell him about it? They’d relocated to the ship’s ready room—which now served as bedroom, dining room, and exercise space—in an effort to save energy, but she found herself guarding the porthole most days, not trusting her jab at his ego to keep him at bay for long.
Even now as he slept she kept her post at the window. She could watch him like this, too, his features unguarded and hair mussed on the pillow, a naked foot jutting out from under the tangled sheets. She turned from him and black spots appeared at the edges of her vision. Ohh, round we go. Her recent bloodletting had been enough to keep the ship’s lights on, but the process was starting to get to her. When her sight cleared, she blinked out the porthole at their destination. Cortico, softball-sized and just out of reach. Taunting her. The dual moons were there and so was their shared sun. The dark was still dark and the stars were still a trillion. And the lie was here: Adacra, a breakthrough innovation for space travel, as much a living organism as it was technological marvel, had failed, and now they were stranded in the middle of space about two days outside Cortico, losing oxygen, power, and time by the minute. And she, a woman with a goddamn Master of Science in Biotechnology, had absolutely no idea why.
Initially, they’d assumed an error with the ship’s recycling system. Too many showers, not enough shitting, she had joked, which Walter hadn’t found very funny. They’d taken the compost bin to the ship’s Absorption Chamber with more frequency and limited water and light use. When the engine stalled a week later, that’s when Walter started giving blood. It worked for a time. Until it didn’t. She’d run out of jokes well before then.
She turned too quickly and the black spots reappeared. “Did I wake you?” Unsteady, she moved from the window and knelt at his cot.
Shaking his head, he shifted in his mess of blankets and rubbed his eyes. “Are you not sleepy?”
“Almost.” The curiosity he got from Walter. Some questions were trickier to field than others, but for the most part he was satisfied with her answers, however vague. Why were they leaving their old planet? Couldn’t live there anymore, it’s not as safe as Cortico, or, when he asked why his food scraps, bathwater, urine and nail clippings all ended up in Adacra’s Absorption Chamber, because everything’s fuel, bud.
“Is Dad back yet?”
Ah, that’s the one she struggled with most. Blood might be enough to keep the lights on, but powering the ship enough to get them to Cortico took something…more substantial. They’d argued about it for a while, she and Walt, after the only solution presented itself to them in all its horror. Never in her eleven years of marriage to the man had they fought quite like that. It should be me. When he didn’t come to bed after his nightly systems check in the cabin, she’d known he’d beaten her to it. When the boy asked about Walter the next morning, she’d said words like recon and scouting ahead. She didn’t tell him his father was now the fuel powering their journey, right under their feet in the Absorption Chamber and, no, he wasn’t coming back. “Not yet, hon.”
And here they were again. The amount of energy Walter’s sacrifice afforded them had been an educated guess, sure, but they’d been certain it would be enough to get Adacra the rest of the way. It only lasted a week. “Can we look at the map?”
She should’ve said no. Turning on the PlanDeck was energy they couldn’t afford to waste. But what did it matter? Come morning, he wouldn’t need to worry about conserving power. “Only if you tell me how to land Adacra.” She’d been quizzing him like this for about a month now. History and math were put aside to make room for questions about the ship’s processes and general Cortico trivia. He would name all 42 major planets in the system at lunch and walk her through landing protocols before bed.
While he listed the code sequence for disabling Adacra’s autopilot, she made her way to the PlanDeck table in the center of the room, black spots raging. Normally, the deck served as flight planner, map system, probability calculator, and crew log, but had since become a designated art station and toy deposit. She pushed aside miniature ships and figurines and punched in her password on the table’s surface. A three-dimensional map of Cortico appeared above her head.
“And who are we meeting on Cortico?”
“Aunt Penny.” Getting sleepy again. His face was warm and soft under her hand. He needed a haircut. She should’ve given him a haircut. There was a crease down the side of his cheek from his pillow.
In the morning he would find Adacra online and on track for Cortico. She’d left two videos, one for her sister Penelope and one for him. He was smart and he was strong and he would make it. Until then he would sleep and dream, moonlight from sister moons shining through the porthole upon his face.
WRITTEN FOR NYC MIDNIGHT’S 2022 FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE, 1ST ROUND.
GENRE – SCI-FI
LOCATION – A READY ROOM
OBJECT – A PORTHOLE