Nel woke up groaning to the sound of incessant beeps coming from his earpiece. Each beep stabbed him in his sleep-fogged cranium and he reached out with one hand and tore the earpiece out, tossing it lightly on to the dashboard. His vision was still blurry and there was a pounding in his head that didn’t stop with the beeping and he reached out and fumbled for the bottle he knew he must have dropped on the floor. He let out an audible sigh of relief as his fingers felt the cold glass curves of the bottleneck. He clumsily twisted the cap open and brought the bottle up to his lips, but just before it touched his lips, Nel realized--eyes still closed and head still pounding--that there was nothing left in the bottle.
“Fuck this,” he exclaimed in a hoarse voice and then began to cough. Nel got up from his seat all shaky, then stumbled on one knee as his legs buckled under him. He dropped the empty bottle and caught himself with his hand, and the bottle bounced hard off the floor and hit him just above the eye. The pain registered dull and throbbing. Nel collapsed on to the cold metal floor and began to laugh.
“Nel, I’m detecting an imbalance of fluids in your gastrointestinal system. Are you alright?” The steady, female voice came seemingly from everywhere and nowhere at all, a strange side effect of the way that the OAIP was built to project its vocalization. The concern in the voice was real enough to stop Nel’s hollow laughter in its tracks. Great. An AI was telling him he looked like shit.
“Fuck off, Mel.” Nel wasn’t in any mood to be lectured by an AI, not right now. He didn’t want to feel cared about, either. Not that an AI could really care. She was programmed to care and that was that. It shouldn’t count for shit. But Mel sounded real enough like a human being that Nel felt a pang of guilt and that made him angry. Whatever. He wasn’t about to enter a philosophical debate about this right now, not with the worst hangover he’s ever head drilling tiny holes deep into the center of his brain mass. He took a deep breath and drew himself up as straight as he could. Then he was doubled over, throwing up, although truth be told there wasn’t much to throw up. It tasted bitter and sour, and tears squeezed out of the corner of his eyes. Maybe he’d puke his guts out and then he’d be put out of his pathetic misery.
Nel grunted himself up and kept heading toward the supply room. It was mostly empty now, he’d been slowly burning through his supplies for the last few weeks. The liquor though, that went quickly. He pushed aside boxes of dried foods and food supplements, his movements getting more and more erratic as he displaced empty box after empty box from where the bottles would have been. When he gave up and slunk down to the floor, the supply room was a mess, littered with boxes of foodstuffs. Then he spotted it, on the floor underneath the lowest shelf to his left. It was the unmistakable shape of a liquor bottle. It must have fallen off the higher shelf where he usually kept the drinks. Nel threw himself forward, flat on his belly, and grabbed the bottle. He opened it up right then and there and took a nice long swig. It burned and the burning was sweet as it shot down his throat into his empty stomach. He felt a bit of his headache subside as he rolled over on his back and stared at the cold metal ceiling. Then he felt his stomach turn and he forced himself up from the ground.
He took a few uncertain steps, drinking from the bottle when he could no longer keep his balance. Down the hall he walked, stumbling into the walls on either side of him. Thank fucking god for the railing running down the length of the hall. He gripped the rail with one hand to steady himself for the next sip, and by the time he got back to the cockpit he had gone through a third of the bottle. He started to settle into a nice, comfortable daze, as the heat spread through his insides and the numbness chilled his skin. He slumped heavily in his chair, eyes half closed. Through the viewing screen of the cockpit, Nel could see the countless stars of the galaxy shimmer by the millions and off to the side and far away, Jupiter. He’d been floating aimlessly in his ship just outside the asteroid belt for several months now, breaking his isolation only sporadically to restock supplies. He wasn’t sure exactly how long, it was all a big blur of booze and the same rooms and corridors of his ship and sometimes Mel would say something and he’d tell her to fuck off.
He was just about to hit the bottle one more time when something caught his eyes on the corner of the viewing screen. Off in the distance, to the left of the screen, just at the edge of where the debris field of asteroids began, a blinking red light glinted into view from behind a large space rock. He slowly lowered the bottle from the edge of his lips and squinted his blurry eyes toward the light. The blinking followed a pattern that was familiar to anyone who spent time in the cockpit of a spaceship and Nel had spent as much time there as anybody. Then his booze-addled brain began to remember the beeping from his earpiece that roused him from his slumber not long ago. It was a distress beacon from an escape pod. “Mel.”
“Mel, give me an analysis of the distress beacon signal.” There was a brief pause as Mel processed the data, then a small square window popped up near the red light on the viewing screen. It displayed all the information Mel was able to extract from the beacon’s signal. Nel tried to focus long enough to read the text and nearly threw up on his dashboard. “Mel, give me the run down.”
“The distress beacon belongs to a Mk.III Lifepod. Data indicates it was launched approximately 53 hours ago.” There was a moment of silence as Nel processed the information. Or rather, lack thereof. Usually, the distress beacon metadata should contain information about the ship it was launched from; what type it was, who it was registered to. Mel wouldn’t withhold such basic data from him. Interesting. And a Mk. III Lifepod, no less. The latest model of the already expensive Lifepod series from Sirius Corp., equipped with advanced life-support systems and a full suite of thrusters controlled by an independent on-board automatic navigation system, it was almost a fully-fledged ship in its own right. Someone wanted to hide where this escape pod came from, but spent a significant sum of money to make sure that its contents would be kept safe in case of... whatever it is that happened to the ship that the pod belonged to. Of course in the case of a highly advanced escape pod designed to sustain life in the cold of space, its content was likely a person.
He glanced at the bottle on his dashboard and felt the pain and the numbness mingle in his bloodstream, briefly considered ignoring the distress beacon, then felt his throat choke up and get tight and he cursed himself for thinking of leaving a person to die of thirst and starvation while floating in the endless void of space. There was a code amongst space faring captains never to leave a distress beacon unanswered without reason, an unbreakable oath from the earliest days of space travel to all those who would call themselves captain. Breaking this code now to remain in his fucked up self-loathing binge would be a new low, even for the butcher of Kannigan.
Nel pushed the fog and the drills in his head out as best he could and began to work on his dashboard. He disengaged the automated stand-by and then quickly programmed in a safe route around the asteroid from behind which the escape pod was blinking its red light. Despite months in a liquor-fueled stupor, the motions came naturally to him and there were only a few missteps. There was that familiar mid-pitch hum as the primary photonic propulsion systems came online. It was a sound he hadn’t heard much lately as he let his ship drift aimlessly in this relatively untraveled sector of space, and somehow he felt a bit of the pain in his head and body subside.
He kept the approach slow and steady, making sure he wasn’t going to fuck this up somehow. The past few months had taken their toll on him and he felt far away from the cocksure pilot he used to be. Slow and steady, slow and steady; he watched the viewing screen as the blinking red light slowly materialized into the trapezoidal shape of the escape pod.
“Mel, prepare the drones for retrieval of the escape pod.”
“Yes, Captain. The drones will be ready to launch at your command in 40 seconds.” He was close enough to the escape pod now to get a full and clear view. The pod seemed to be perfectly intact to his eyes. Mel would have told him earlier if there were any critical damage done to the pod. Still, Nel couldn’t help but let out a small sigh of relief. The pod’s automated navigation systems was keeping it level with the relative speed of the asteroids and Nel did the same with his ship. The Mk.III Lifepod should have systems advanced enough to avoid collision from rogue objects, but it wasn’t perfect and the asteroid belt could be a chaotic place. It was a minor miracle that the pod lasted 53 hours without so much as a dent. “Drones are ready to launch, Captain.”
“Let’s save us a life, Mel.” Nel’s voice was still hoarse, all gravel from the daily acid wash he’d been putting his throat through, but filled with a certainty it hadn’t possessed in quite a while. There was a slight shift in the pitch of the ship’s humming as two drones launched toward the escape pod. They traveled in the silence of the void toward the gently spinning pod as Nel watched. Escape pod retrieval was a standard protocol programmed into the drones and Nel had only to observe and make sure that the operation was going smoothly. He watched, fingers ready on the controls, as the drones successfully interfaced with the pod and began to nudge the pod toward his ship. The pod was half-way to the docking point of the ship when a loud, urgent alarm crashed into his head through his earpiece. Nel winced at the sudden intrusion of blaring sound, but his body reacted instantly, instinct honed through years spent on the pilot seat taking over. He quickly switched off the automated docking sequence and took manual control. His eyes darted rapidly between the imminent collision indicator on the top left corner of his viewing screen and the pod approaching his ship. He pulled on the controls to shift the position of his ship in a barrel roll, narrowly avoiding a small, fast moving debris from the asteroid field, then made a complete rotation, re-positioning the ship to rendezvous with the projected trajectory of the escape pod. He was rewarded with a slight shudder that spread through his ship as the drones successfully stowed the escape pod into his cargo bay.
“Captain, the escape pod has been secured.” Nel let out a small sigh of relief. His reaction had been good, it felt good to pilot like that again. The cold rush of adrenaline having passed through his body, Nel felt shaky again but this time, it felt good.
“Let’s just hope whoever’s inside is still alive.” He whispered under his breath as he pushed himself out of his seat.