I don’t know how long we’d spent combing the ship, but it became pretty clear pretty quickly that the entire crew, besides Reg and myself, had simply disappeared.
“Our proximity to the hyperdrive must have shielded us from whatever caused this,” mused Reg, sounding troublingly lucid.
It was a huge assumption, but for want of any better ideas I conceded that he was probably right. Of course, he totally ignored me when I pointed out that his plan to break the hyperdrive in order to be seen to fix it probably caused all this.
Alone and adrift, we needed a plan. We raided the databases and archives and came up and decided that our best bet involved flying backwards – fast – around a nearby star and through a conveniently-placed rip in space-time. That way we could simply erase the previous 12 hours or so from existence.
Yes, it was all bollocks. Yes, Reg suggested it (he insisted he’d done the maths). No, it shouldn’t have worked. But by this point, I’d well and truly given up. I was more than happy for the consequences of this insane plan to be on his head.
We carried on like an old married couple when there’s been a spat. Basically, every suggestion Reg came up with I greeted with a shrug, a huff, and words to the effect of “Well, you’ve never listened to me before, why start now? Do what you damn well like.”
I carried on poring over the data anyway in a vague attempt to come up with a slightly less mental plan. It wasn’t to be.
A couple of hours later, Reg called me up to the Bridge. As the door slid open with a whistling hiss, he was there to greet me with a grin. “I suddenly thought – how are we going to fly this thing with just two of us?”
“Manual controls from the Captain’s chair,” I deadpanned. His face fell.
“Ah. Yeah, I forgot to check for them.”
We rounded the entrance into the Bridge proper. You know in films when they stumble on a psycho’s lair, and they’ve clearly felt the need to plaster the place with newspaper cuttings, mad scrawls and bits of string? That sort of lazy, cheap way of screaming ‘psycho’ that always seems to involve string.
Anyway, the Bridge looked like that.
Now, granted, there was no newspaper cuttings or anything like that; pictures of women’s faces with the eyes cut out or Biblical verses on the walls or whatever. No – but there was a hell of a lot of string. Bloody great big blobs of chewing gum fixed string to buttons and levers all around the Bridge. A complicated series of pulleys and winches (again, fixed to the nearest available surface with chewing gum) fed all the bits of string to the Captain’s chair. A wooden board had a series of holes cut into it, each with a little hand-scrawled label saying things like “enjInes – more (^), less (v)” or “Weapons – DO NOT USE?!” Perhaps my personal favourite out of a particularly bad bunch was one hole that simply said “Left – Right – other”.
I just stood there, taking the place in with some kind of macabre awe. I was going to die here. It was oddly impressive, in its own ramshackle way. Reg picked the board up from the chair, a piece of string falling through a hole. He shoved it back through with a quiet “oops”. I didn’t bother asking to see if he’d actually checked each piece of string would do what he hoped.
He shot me a grin. “From this control panel, I can control every station on the Bridge.” He pointed around the room, as if I needed a visual aid. “It’s the future of automation!”
“Where did you get all the chewing gum from?”
“So, basically, all I have to do is tug on this piece of string here-” he pointed to one of them, “-and…” He gently pulled on it. On the other side of the room, the throttle lever for the engines eased into its first position. Dials started rising, and the ship began to inch forward. Reg gave me another toothy grin. “See? Good, innit?”
“Mmmm. How do we slow down?”
“Your… system… only lets the lever go one way.”
Reg looked from me to the lever he was controlling, following his string and chewing gum. It was almost as if he was hoping the answer would just jump out at him part way along the line.
“Well…” he said, buying himself a few moments’ thinking time. I crossed my arms, ready for something truly, breathtakingly stupid. “If we end up erasing the last 12 hours, what does it matter? There’ll be someone at the controls.”
I took a deep breath, ready to retort. And had nothing. That, genuinely, was a good point.
I didn’t know if I should hug him or thump him.
Instead, I grunted a swear word and asked where he needed me for his great space manoeuvre.
He smiled at me. A genuinely pleased smile, rather than the snake oil merchant grin he’d been giving me up to that point; the grin of someone who knows they’re improvising and aren’t entirely sure they’d won you over. This smile was a warm one of quiet victory.
I hate to admit it, but he’d earned it.
“You’re alright where you are, thanks.” He sighed and turned back to the viewing screen and the multitude of stars drifting by outside. “I’ve got this.”
He started tugging on strings. The artificial gravity hurled me forwards as the ship slammed into reverse. The view on the screen changed to show what was behind us. I never liked how it did that. You were still approaching everything; you could be flying forwards or backwards and you’d never know.
Buzzers started up. Red alarm lights came on. Panels started fizzing and buzzing and all the while the nearest star began to loom large. We whipped around it and straight towards a giant purple-pink tear in space.
I’d never seen anything like it. It reminded me of the sort of crappy effects you’d get on old science fiction TV shows.
Reg was yelling all kinds of panel readouts and technical pilot gibberish I’d never heard before. I clung to the nearest rail until my fingers went numb. Everything shook.
A thought occurred to me. “Reg,” I bellowed over the din of our rapidly-approaching demise, “How did we know this tear was here? How did you know this would work?”
Too little, too late, I swiftly realised. He couldn’t hear me over the noise and chaos of the ship tearing itself apart, and of his own yelling. He was just screaming now.
We plunged into the tear. Everything went black and quiet.
I flexed my grip on the bar, just to check I was still conscious. I couldn’t see anything.
Then, in an instant, all the lights came on and the Captain’s face loomed large on the view screen.
He started laughing as a various crew members emerged from hiding places in and around the room. Reg pointed and laughed at me, and said something about the look on my face.
“It’s November,” I said.
Reg didn’t care. “Well, it’s April somewhere in the universe isn’t it?”
“I don’t know if it quite works like that…” I pointed to the ship’s calendar (which said November), but he wasn’t about to stop and discuss it; there was too much gloating to be done.
Apparently, he didn’t think the chewing gum thing would fool me. Or the crazy backwards space manoeuvre. But no, I was totally suckered. The Captain had arranged for everyone to hide while we ‘fixed’ the hyperdrive. He ordered various exploding bits and bobs to be rigged around the bridge using stuff from the Armoury, and told engineering to make the ship shudder by nearly stalling the engines. What we saw on the viewing screen was just a video, complete with crap special effects.
Apparently, they’d hatched their plan during the Science Officer’s birthday party, after I’d slunk off early.
There were lots of laughs, back slapping and pointing. Reg kept yelling with his new officer mates about how he’d “got me good” and how it was a “good get, wasn’t it?”
I stood at the centre of it all, ashen-faced. I’d never live this down.
I looked about at the gloating crowd, not singling anyone out in particular. I still had one move to make.
“If that tear in space was just a video on the viewing screen, how can we be sure anything we’d seen on it before is real?”
Everyone shut up. Their fragile sense of reality was shaken to the core by a simple question that was too big to contemplate; especially when it carried with it implications too scary to face in the context of our long journey through the bleak vastness of space.
And, in that glorious silence, I punched Reg in the face.