Down in the bowels of the ship, Pin struggled to haul forty feet of canvass water hose to the fire team who had taken over his engine room.
It was draped over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes and weighed him down so much he was forced to lean against the wall of the hallway to stay upright.
But it wasn’t the pain in his legs that was bothering him, nor was it the way his lungs felt like they would collapse at any moment. There was something else weighing on him besides the bulky hose. He knew the Tian was lost, and it was his fault.
He was responsible for maintaining the ancient engine and for ensuring the safety switch would shut it down if the core became unstable. Not to mention, he was responsible for the alarm that should have sounded if that safety ever failed.
Pin stopped to catch his breath, dropping the hose in a pile at his feet. He wiped beads of sweat from his forehead as he tried to comprehend what could have happened. He inspected that engine daily, cared for it like a father would a child. He gave it everything it needed, so why had it rebelled? He supposed he’d never know the answer and pounded the wall with the side of his fist in frustration.
Manic shouts of desperate fire fighters rang out through the Tian’s underworld and Pin stood up a little straighter.
He listened as the ship shuddered and groaned under the heat and pressure of the fire, like a monstrous whale slowly dying, sinking to the depths of some great ocean.
The fire was winning. The Tian was dying.
Pin wondered how long it would take for Captain LaFarge to call for an evacuation of the ship. Not long, he supposed. And when he did, Pin knew the outcome would not be good.
Since the exodus from Earth, the Tian had taken on more workers and passengers than the ship’s escape pods could hold. When the ship went down, most of its crew would be forced to go down with it.
An explosion rocked the ship then and Mr. Pin lost his balance. He fell face-first into the pile of hose and became tangled up in it. As he struggled to free himself, anger seeped into his soul.
Why should I be forced to die?, he thought. I’m no captain, no decorated general. Nobody gave me respected, so why should I live by their code?
His thoughts were interrupted by the strangest sound of squealing, like rubber not-quite stretched across an open air valve. In a moment he knew what it meant. A bulkhead had failed and the hull was breached.
“Oh my god,” he said softly and pushed himself onto his feet. “We’ll rip apart.”
Standing next to the length of hose in the middle of that long hallway, Pin knew he had a choice: He could pick it back up and run towards the fire team and aid them in their futile task of saving the ship, or he could steal away on a pod and take his chances in the black. One was honorable, the other self-serving. Each option would likely end in his death, but Pin hadn’t made it this far in life by doing the honorable thing. In his experience, the honorable thing and the right thing were often at odds.
The ship rocked again and Pin made up his mind. Bolting in the opposite direction of the engine room, he looked back down the hallway as he ran and saw a ball of smoke barreling towards him. It quickly masked the length of hose he’d left on the floor of the hallway and he picked up the pace.
There was only two pods for maintenance teams below deck, but he needed to get to his workshop first. It wasn’t far. And he needed his space suits.
When he reached his workshop, the air was already thick with smoke. Pin coughed and wheezed as he grabbed his canvass duffel bag and filled it with rations enough for his escape into space.
He didn’t have much: twelve liters of water, forty-two leathery protein bars and a bottle of vitamin supplements he’d been given by the ship’s doctor. He also threw in a thick roll of tape and a bundle of cloth-bound tools.
He looked at the supplies and sighed. It wasn’t much, but he’d been lucky before. His pod could float into a shipping lane. It was unlikely, sure, but not outside the bounds of probability.
Pin clasped the bag closed and slid it across the floor until it hit the wall next to his clunky maintenance space suit which hung alongside a row of others by the door. Some were newer, but Pin only trusted his own.
He coughed again and grabbed at his chest. The smoke was getting thicker. He didn’t have long. The smoke would move to choke the upper decks by moving up through the vents soon, so Pin knew the call to evacuate would come shortly. Once it did, his chance of getting to the pod would be all but gone.
He grabbed his suit off the wall and flung it over his shoulder. Then he picked his duffel bag up by the handle and opened the door to leave.
For some reason, he stopped then and turned, scanning his smoke filled workshop one last time. It had been his home for so many years, and just like that, he was leaving. He let his mind burn an image of the scene and then turned back towards the exit.
He was about to leave when he heard a familiar noise behind him. Someone inside the wall was working at the panels at the far end of his workshop.
Without turning, Pin dropped his bag and hung his head in despair. Oh God, please no, he thought then heard a panel hit the floor with a reverberating clang.
He heard the patter of tiny feet, the wheezing of tiny lungs, and then finally felt the thin fingers of little hands pull at the back of his uniform.
He looked down at Emma and Adam, their faces streaked with tears. They said nothing. They didn’t have to.
Pin pulled two more space suits off their hooks and flung them across his shoulder. All of a sudden he felt weighed down again. He picked up his bag and kicked the door fully open with his right foot.
“Follow me, children!” he called as the three of them left the work bay and made for an escape pod.
Emma found it hard to keep up with Mr. Pin and Adam as they ran down one smoky corridor after another. For one thing, the hallway kept rocking and throwing her off her feet. And by the time she rose again, Pin and Adam seemed almost too far gone to catch up to.
But each time she fell behind, Adam would turn back and cry out for Pin to wait and then Emma would run to them again.
“Keep on your feet, girl!” Pin yelled at her once as she rejoined them.
“I can’t!” she replied, “grabbing his arm for support. The floor keeps moving!”
“The stabilizers are out! The ship’s heeling. Move your body the opposite way of the floor and you’ll stay on your feet.”
As he said this, Emma sensed the ground moving again and suddenly it felt like they were climbing upwards. She waved her arms and felt like she was about to fall back when Pin grabbed her around the waist and forced her upper body forwards.
“Lean into it, like this!” he yelled over the alarms.
Adam tried too, bending at the waist and holding his arms out in front of him.
“Now keep walking. We’re almost there,” Pin said, and the three of them trudged up the hallway towards a steel door labelled EMERGENCY ACCESS.
When they reached the door, Pin began typing something on a keypad on the wall. Emma watched as he tried to remember what number came next, muttering between each press of his crooked finger.
Before he could finish, a voice boomed from speakers hidden somewhere in the ceiling. The words came quickly and deliberately.
“Attention all passengers and crew of the Tian. This is your Captain speaking.”
“Here comes havoc,” Pin muttered, turning back to the keypad.
“Daddy!” Emma cried out, recognizing her father’s voice.
Pin ignored her and punched two more numbers into the keypad as Captain LaFarge continued.
“With this broadcast, I am giving the order to abandon ship. All passengers, go to your designated evacuation bays in an orderly fashion. Crew will meet and assist you there.”
The keypad emitted a harsh buzz and Mr. Pin punched it. “Don’t tell me you forgot the code, you old fool!” he scolded himself. Then he took a calming breath and started punching the keypad’s buttons again.
Adam looked up and pulled at Pin’s shirt, but the man waved the boy away.
“Someone else might know,” Adam said, ignoring Pin’s disinterest. “Maybe we should wait—”
Two more explosions popped like fireworks in the distance and the ship rocked again. They all repositioned themselves as the floor levelled off and Pin looked around wildly.
“She’s tearing apart!” he said, returning his gaze to the keypad and pressing buttons quickly. “We can’t wait for anyone else.”
“Why?” asked Emma.
“Don’t you start that now!” Pin yelled as he punched in the code’s last number.
The keypad beeped twice and Pin stepped back. The door came alive with a whir of gears followed by a loud ka-chunk as the lock mechanism gave way.
He grabbed the thick metal handle and heaved it from right to left and the door cracked open, releasing a gust of smelly ozone into the hallway. Without a word, he ushered the two children into the cramped evacuation bay.
It was darker inside than the hallway and Emma began to feel nervous that they would be worse off than if they waited for others to arrive.
When they were all inside, Pin pulled the doors closed and locked them from the inside. Then he turned and elbowed an emergency box that hung on the wall. Glass scattered across the floor as he reached in and punched a big red button inside.
Yellow emergency lights flared and the round door to the old maintenance pod rolled open.
Pin threw his duffel bag into the pod first and then stacked the three space suits on one of two small benches. He turned to Adam and lifted him up and over the lip of the door.
Emma watched the boy sit on one of the benches dutifully and was suddenly struck by a strong desire to run away.
“My dad!” she said as Pin lifted her towards the pod. She struggled against him. “We have to get my dad!”
Pin’s brow furrowed with determination as he pushed her into the pod and blocked the door with his wide body.
“Do as I say, girl!” he yelled over the alarms. Then he bent over and ducked into the escape pod.
Emma tried to sneak past him, but Pin held her back with his arm and forced her onto the bench next to Adam. She tried not to cry, but tears poured from her eyes freely and she began to sob.
Adam slid his hand across the bench and their fingers intertwined. He didn’t like seeing her cry, but it was all he could think to do.
Pin hardly noticed their tenderness as he groped along the wall of the dark pod. Finally he found a long latch and pulled it down hard.
The pod doors rolled closed and sealed shut with a hiss. Then lines of tiny lights flickered on along the floor and ceiling. Able to see now, Pin moved to a panel of levers, studying each until he found the button to launch.
He looked back at the children and for the first time noticed Emma was crying. Moving away from the panel, he knelt down and pulled her chin up with the knobby knuckle of his index finger. She looked up reluctantly, anger and confusion in her eyes.
“I know you want your father, Emma, but it’s his job to stay on board the ship,” Pin said.
“Why?” she asked.
“It’s just what captains do,” he answered.
“I don’t understand,” she said in a deep sob. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” Pin replied. “But I know he would want you and Adam kept safe.”
Another explosion—this one much closer—rang out and the pod began to shake violently.
“So, we have to go,” Pin said to the girl. “Do you understand? For your father’s sake.”
She nodded her head and cried harder.
Pin told Adam to hold onto her tightly and Adam hugged Emma around the waist. They were both crying now, eyes shut tight with fear.
Pin looked at them and wondered if he was doing the right thing. Once they left the ship, they would be at the mercy of space. Rescue was improbable. Starvation was likely. Perhaps fire was a better end. Then he saw the ceiling of the evacuation bay tear apart through the pod’s little window and the room filled with fire.
Pin punched the launch button.
Moments later Emma opened her eyes. The escape pod was far enough away from the Tian that she could see the massive ship spinning wildly and breaking apart through its little round window.
A thousand fires across the ship spewed liquid flame into space and she thought it looked like blood flowing from a million tiny paper cuts.
She stood up and pressed her nose to the glass, in awe of the Tian’s beautiful and silent destruction. From far away, it hardly seemed scary at all.
Adam moved beside her and the two of them watched as fiery pieces of the ship tore away like flaming scraps of paper that extinguished as though hitting a pool of water. Then a flash so bright they had to shield their eyes flared across the stars and Pin grabbed them and turned them away from the window.
“That’s the reactor core gone,” he said quietly. “It’ll all be over soon.”
When Pin let them up again, Emma and Adam returned to the window to see the Tian tearing down the middle. Passengers and crew poured into space and flailed like one of Emma’s rag dolls, smashing into debris, their tiny bodies popping open in puffs of red, like a splash of food coloring hitting water. It was a sight that both terrified and exhilarated the two children who had seen so little in life.
They watched until the Tian became so lost to space that it seemed like another flickering star among millions.
Adam turned away from the window and sat back down on the bench next to the space suits. He ran his finger along the helmet of one, leaving a greasy little smear on the glass faceplate. Then he looked over at Pin with the oddest expression that Pin could only read as boredom.
“I’m hungry,” Adam said. “How long do we need to stay in here?”
Pin ran his fingers through his greying hair and let out a long and thoughtful breath. “Well, the truth is, I don’t rightly know. Until we’re picked up by another ship, I suppose.”
Emma turned away from the window and sat on the bench next to Adam. She reached into her pocket and pulled out her little wooden box, inspecting it for damage.
“How far away is it?” Adam asked. “The other ship, I don’t see it.”
“We can’t see it,” answered Pin.
Emma leaned forward. “How do you know it’s out there at all then?” she asked, feeling as though she was getting hungry as well. “How do you know we’ll be saved?”
Adam and Emma looked on expectantly as Pin sat against the back wall of the pod and placed his duffel bag on his lap.
“I don’t, children.” he replied. “I’m sorry.”