ROBERT ROTH

Friday Flash Fiction: It’s Good To Look On The Bright Side

by Mar 19, 2021Blog, Flash Fiction

“Eject, eject, eject–”

The toneless machine voice kept repeating its one-word mantra, barely audible above the squawk of the blaring alarm, as Bradger frantically searched for the manual eject lever under his crash couch. The cockpit integrity had been compromised, its captured atmosphere already vented out into the cold and black. At least the smoke was gone, too. And his spacesuit protected him from the lack of breathable air just fine. But the cracked reactor housing was another matter altogether. The only thing that would protect him from that was distance–a lot of distance.

He finally wrapped a gloved hand around the eject lever. Why was the damn thing so hard to reach? Had there been some design committee meeting where the engineers debated the balance between ease of access versus accidental ejections when deciding where to place it? As if a pilot in the heat of furious combat could somehow let go of the control sticks and reach all the way under their seat and find a damn lever by accident. But he was stalling. If he stayed in the ship, he would die. If he ejected, there was a slim chance he might survive. Better to have a slight chance of success than guaranteed failure.

So he pulled the lever.

A series of small explosive charges blew in sequence, first blasting the designated hull section away from the rest of the ship, then launching his crash couch out into the cold and black with enough velocity that he could feel it. After a few seconds, tiny maneuvering thrusters lit, laboring to put him at a safe distance from his damaged craft. Bradger had to take that on faith. He was facing away from the dying remnants of his HSF-114B Wildcat, the workhorse of the Union Space Forces Fighter Corps, as he rocketed out into the endless void. Bradger doubted he’d make it in time. But he’d never know if he didn’t. If he was still inside the blast radius when it blew, he’d be vaporized before–

Illustration of an astronaut floating in deep space

“Message repeats: Unknown USF pilot, this is Lieutenant Makenna Kasra of the Union Space Forces Rescue Corps. Please respond.”

Was he hearing things? Bradger blinked a few times, taking quick stock of his situation as he regained consciousness. He was warm. He could breathe. He could only see blackness and the pinpricks of far-off starlight. Based on that light’s movement, he was in a slow tumble. Then the memories suddenly returned–the dogfight, the wailing alarms, the damn eject button. He’d somehow survived the explosion.

“Message repeats: Unknown USF pilot, this is Lieutenant Makenna Kasra of the Union Space Forces Rescue Corps. Please respond.”

There was the voice again. Did it sound familiar? It was hard to tell since it was almost too quiet to be audible. He caught a flashing red light in his helmet’s HUD and realized that his emergency comms were active. He looked down to see that he was still strapped into the crash couch, so he keyed his comm button on the right-side armrest. “I’m here,” he croaked, his throat painfully dry. “I’m here.”

There was an agonizingly silent moment before he heard a response. “Well, I guess I won that bet, then. Your transponder must be damaged, though. We’re not picking up your Ident Code. Who are you?”

“Commander Bradger Myles, USF Darilan Blayse, Squadron Fourteen. My Ident Code is One-seven-nine, Four-five-seven-nine, Six-eight-five three.”

“Commander Myles? One moment while I look you up. Ah, there you are. Off the Blayse? Well, you’re awfully far from home. I’m Lieutenant Makenna Kasra of the USF Rescue Corps, although you may have heard that part already.”

Whoever they were, they sounded like his sister. And their comms discipline was sorely lacking. But he’d never dealt with Rescue before. Maybe they were all that casual.

“Where are you, Lieutenant Kasra?”

“Oh, that would be helpful, wouldn’t it? I’m on the USF Jexa, inbound to your location from Akyra Four, ETA fifteen minutes or so.”

Myles scanned his HUD for his remaining atmosphere reading. Eighteen minutes. He was already into his emergency reserves. They’d be cutting it close, but he should be fine as long as he didn’t start breathing too heavily. He resisted the immediate urge to take a deep breath. “I’ve got eighteen minutes of atmo left, Lieutenant Kasra.”

“Oh, then I guess I shouldn’t stop for coffee on the way. And it’s Makenna.”

“Lieutenant?”

“I mean, you can just call me Makenna. We can do ranks and stuff once we’ve got you safely on board.”

He had to bite back on the urge to call out their informality. You don’t want to alienate your rescuer with a reprimand, he reminded himself. He was probably just using his annoyance to cover up his slow, creeping panic about his imminent demise, anyhow. “Alright, Makenna. Then I’m Bradger.”

“Looks like you’ve had a helluva day, haven’t you, Bradger?”

That was putting it mildly. A routine patrol with the other two members of his squadron had turned into a surprise fight for their lives against the half-dozen Dependency fighters that had shown up out of nowhere. At least he’d managed to stay alive long enough to take out the last one, even if it meant sacrificing his Wildcat. “Oh, I don’t know. It’s kind of relaxing just sitting here, strapped to this chair in the middle of deep space.”

Makenna laughed. “That’s the spirit, Bradger! It’s good to look on the bright side. Although it’s surprising to hear that from someone as by the book as Commander Bradger Myles, USF Darilan Blayse, Squadron Fourteen.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d been accused of being a staunch stickler for protocol. Although it was a little surprising that an unknown Rescue pilot would know that about him. “Is that in my file?”

Makenna laughed again. “No, Bradger. Your file doesn’t say anything about you being a humorless drudge who’d be lost without the rigid structure of the Union military.”

He knew he should be furious to be addressed like that by a subordinate, Rescue Corps or not. But he didn’t have it in him and chuckled instead. “I guess my reputation precedes me.”

“Maybe. Although you can’t swing a ten-foot pole around a Union carrier’s flight deck without knocking over a dozen humorless drudges.” That earned Makenna a genuine laugh from him. “And it’s not like the Rescue Corps is all that different. But if we can’t let our hair down while you’re aimlessly tumbling through deep space moments away from death, when can we?”

Bradger laughed again. “Now, who’s looking on the bright side?”

“Touché. You’ll have to be sure to include that in your incident report.”

He felt a sudden urge to check his atmo readings but ignored it. Knowing how much longer he could keep breathing wouldn’t make Rescue arrive any sooner. “Now, there’s a reason to live.”

“You and I are both looking at a mountain of reports from this, Bradger. It’s the Union way. But that’s why you signed up in the first place, right? To fulfill your lifelong dreams of being a gunslinging bureaucrat?”

He suddenly flashed back to the memory of walking into the Union recruiter’s office. Bradger hadn’t thought about that in years. “Not exactly.”

“Oh? So why did you sign up, then?”

And just like that, the humor was gone. Bradger recalled that tearful argument with his sister, trying and failing to make her understand that joining the Union military was the only way for him–and, by extension, her–to make it out of that bombed-out slum of a city they lived in. If you could even call barely scraping by during their daily searches for food, water, and shelter living, that is. “I’m from Tavis Three.”

“Oh, shit. Well, yeah, that makes sense, then.” Everyone had heard about the opening stages of the Union-Dependency war that had laid waste to an otherwise bucolic Union colony planet. “Good for you to make it outta there.”

It was good. Except only he made it out. Once he’d gone through Basic and received his first posting, he tried to send for Briya, but he was too late. The money he’d been sending her had gone uncollected. The Union appropriated it to pay for her disposal. “Yeah, good for me.” He never found out what happened beyond the two-word status in the official communique he’d received—accidental death.

“It’s not your fault, Bradger.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about Briya. What happened to her isn’t your fault?”

How did Rescue know about her? What the hell was in his file? “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Makenna. And I’d appreciate it if you–”

“But you need to understand that, Bradger. The guilt you’ve been carrying around with you since then? The fire that’s been fueling your one-warrior crusade against the Dependency? It’s only holding you back, now.”

Holding him back? What did that even mean? “I don’t know who you think–”

“Briya’s death was a simple accident. There was nothing you could’ve done to stop it, and staying behind wouldn’t have made things any better for her. Or you. You need to let it go so you can move on.”

Bradger felt his hackles rise and fought to keep his breathing calm. “Move on? You want me to forgive myself for leaving my sister behind? So I can, what? Be a better soldier?”

“She fell, Bradger. Briya was scouting a ruined building, and the floor collapsed beneath her. She died quickly and painlessly. You being there wouldn’t have stopped it from happening.”

“How the fuck do you know that?”

Makenna sighed. “It doesn’t matter. I just do. And I need you to forgive yourself and let it go, so you can move on.”

Bradger echoed Makenna’s sigh. Maybe it was time to let it go. He knew better than most that life and death were always just a moment apart. What if he’d been there? If it happened like Makenna said, then he couldn’t have saved her anyway. Or if it had been him, falling instead of Briya, she would’ve been just as left behind. At least she hadn’t suffered much. Not like he had, torturing himself for the past five years. “I wish we could’ve said a proper goodbye.”

“I know,” Makenna replied gently. “So did she. But you both were too proud, too stubborn, to admit it to each other. But she didn’t blame you for leaving, Bradger. And her last thought was of how proud she was of you.”

“Really? She was proud of me?”

“She was.”

He inhaled deeply, all thoughts of his limited atmo momentarily forgotten. He’d done the best he could with a shitty situation. Hell, he was still a kid himself when he signed up. And if things had gone differently, he could’ve taken her away from Tavis like he promised. But it wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t. He let the breath out, and he felt his burden disappear as if a literal weight had been lifted from his shoulders. “Thank you, Makenna. I needed that.”

“I know, silly. Now you can move on.”

Then the blackness surrounding him started to brighten into a blinding white light, and he realized that he hadn’t survived the explosion after all. He was moving on.

Story Prompt
The rescue never came.

Cover for Steal the Demon, a science-fiction novella by Robert Roth

Steal the Demon

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