In April 2018, I posted my thousandth post on this blog. To celebrate, I started sharing here all my short stories. Every couple of weeks, I’ll be posting one story from my celebrated Exciting Destinies series for you to enjoy. With over 30 stories so far, I hope you’ll have lots of fun in the coming months!
This week, it’s “What’s in a Name?,” a story from Infinite Waters. Click here to read some more free stories.
What’s in a Name?
“That’s an unusual name for a ship.”
The man facing me across the table pulled the fat cigar from his lips, leaving it to simmer inside a round ashtray. Smoking is strictly prohibited on a spaceship, but if you are the ship’s owner I guess normal rules do not apply. His thick brows met in the middle, as if pondering my words. Why, I could not fathom —surely, this was the single most usual comment he heard? His jowls quivered as he pushed his chair away to stand up. Hoisting his trousers up, he adjusted his lifejacket and grimaced, as if in pain.
“It was a bet.” With a dismissive wave of his hand, he motioned me to follow him. “A stupid bet.” He sighed as he ran his fingers through thinning hair. “I lost.”
That much is obvious. “Are we going somewhere?” I asked politely and stood up. My recorder floated from the table to hover above us.
“I just want to show you around. I assume your viewers will want to know about the ship?”
I nodded my thanks. We weaved our way out of the smoke room and into the promenade deck. Reserved for the first-class passengers, this was not my usual kind of accommodations. My initial enthusiasm at finding out I had been sent on an assignment that allowed me to spend a week on a cruise around the moon had waned as soon as I heard the details. The lush accommodations, however, made me rethink my initial apprehension.
The ship owner led me into the wide corridor crossing the deck. I snuck a look into a gym room, filled with ripped people in sweatpants admiring their visage in full-wall mirrors. Strangely enough, the lifejackets did not seem to bother them. A smiling blonde at the reception was handing a towel and a lifejacket to a man dressed from top to bottom in grey flannel. Splashing was heard from a wide, steel-framed door behind her. I guessed the sounds came from an indoor swimming pool. Judging by the steam on the glass, the doors next to it led to a spa or sauna. My muscles ached for a massage, but that would have to wait. I was here for a job.
“Do they wear lifejackets in the pool?” I wondered aloud. I guessed that an inflatable nanosuit that could keep you alive for an hour in space would probably be waterproof, but it still seemed strange.
“Everyone has to wear their lifejacket twenty-four-seven. It’s part of the insurance policy.” For the first time since we met, the foreboding cloud lifted from his eyes and the man grinned. “It gives them something to tell their friends after the cruise.”
“Is the name also why you only do moon cruises, instead of Mars ones? To avoid any stray comets?”
“Can’t be too careful,” the man agreed.
I stepped aside as a slender girl rushed out a door and almost crashed on us. She was balancing half a dozen e-books and tablets, taken from what I guessed was the lending library. With a shy smile, she dashed down the corridor and into the reading room. Her lifejacket bounced against the doorframe, almost making her drop the devices, but she managed to hold on to them at the last moment.
“Are you coming?”
Despite his short stature and rotund figure, the ship owner could move fast. I hurried up after him, my eye catching on the Renaissance-style trimmings. The decoration was worthy of a floating five-star hotel. All first-class common rooms were adorned with ornate wood paneling and expensive furniture instead of the practical simplicity usually found on spaceships.
We passed an open door leading to the outside deck. In a few hours, this would be filled with a throng of passengers socializing, promenading or relaxing in hired deck chairs and sculpted wooden benches. An artificial sun would be shining on the dome covering the ship. Now, however, the deck lay empty, much like the space surrounding us. I stole a look outside. The vast emptiness of space caught my breath. Countless stars sparkled brighter than anything I had ever seen back on Earth. Our movement was so smooth, that it felt like sailing on a quiet pond. I half-expected a flock of wild geese to land on the deck at any moment.
Someone closed the door and passed me by, snapping me back to the present. I followed the ship owner down the Grand Staircase, one of the most distinctive features of the ship. It descended through seven decks. A dome of wrought iron and glass capping it admitted the artificial sunlight in the morning, although it now lay dark, like a black, polished diamond. A large, carved wooden panel above us contained a clock, with figures of “Honor and Glory crowning Time” flanking the clock face. I could not help but gape at the beauty of it all.
Upon reaching the landing, we entered an ornate hall lit by gold-plated light fixtures. Well-laid tables filled the room. White linen covered the tops. Silver cutlery clanked against porcelain dishes. Waiters meandered skillfully to serve dinner to hungry first-class passengers.
Music came from the far end, obscuring the diners’ soft murmur. I recognized O mio Babbino Caro and half-expected to hear a soprano —maybe even Callas herself, brought back from the dead —singing the aria. “The Café Parisien offers the best French haute cuisine for first-class passengers,” the man said with a well-practiced flourish.
“And the music?”
“Our very own small ensemble. Eight musicians, the very best.”
“They’d have to be, to play with their lifejackets on,” I could not help but joke.
He did not seem to share my mirth, and muttered something under his breath. He spun around to continue the tour, when a jolt reverberated through the hull. It was so strong that it knocked me off my feet, sending me to land on my lifejacket. A mannequin crashed through a glass display and dropped next to me. I survived a cruise on… , the t-shirt it wore read. The rest of the inscription was obscured by the doll’s broken arm.
I heard shouts all around me. Angry claxons blared in alarm. People clamored. Lights dimmed, and shone again. Then, it all stopped. An eerie silence fell. Dazed people struggled to get their bearings. Expensive leather shoes and elegant high heels stepped on salmon and pheasant as stunned diners rose to their feet. Fear and silent pleas for help filled the passengers’ eyes. I turned to the ship owner, but he had disappeared. From afar, I heard one long continuous wailing hiss, like locusts on a midsummer night in the woods. Are we decompressing? I decided to follow the noise. The flickering lights allowed me to reach the nearest exit, pushing through the nervous throng.
I had just reached the door handle when the floor tilted. The vessel reared up, followed by a rumbling roar and a muffled explosion. I pushed through the door and grabbed the railing. Above me, the dome cracked. A small chunk flew away, blown out by the pressure. My eyes gaped at the ugly sight. A second piece followed. The ship let out a terrible groan and quivered, like a mongrel trying to throw the fleas off its back. Crack! The dome split open with a deafening blast. Deck chairs and sculpted wooden benches flew around me to burst through the fracture. The clamor drowned out my scream.
The gushing atmosphere sucked me upwards. The shock took the breath out of my lungs. I flew towards the dome at an increasing speed, gasping for air. The lifejacket sprang to life. Nanocarbon blades clasped and banded together to form an impenetrable barrier that covered me from head to toe. Air hissed in my ears. After a heart-stopping moment of weightlessness, I crashed against the dome and yelled in pain. My hands grabbed the dome’s torn edge. I held on for a moment, my feet already dangling in space. I started sliding, carried away by the rushing air. My eyes searched in vain for anything to hold on to. Then, I let go.
I popped through the gap in the dome, like a cork. I drifted away from the safety of the spaceship and into the endless void of space. I flailed my arms and legs to stop the dizzying motion. My heart beat so fast, I thought it would pop out of my chest. Finally, it occurred to me to let my lifejacket guide me to safety. Valves hissed and the mad rotation stopped, just as I was about to hurl my stomach’s contents against my mask.
Something banged against me. I spun around, startled, and came up against a lifeboat. An airlock opened up silently before me. Too exhausted to haul myself, I let the men already inside pull me inside.
The door behind me closed in silence. Air hissed into the airlock. My ears popped as sound returned. I punched the clasp deactivating the lifejacket. With a soft clicking sound, it retracted back into my belt, ready to spring back to life at a moment’s notice. I landed on the metal floor, still nauseated. It smelled of engine oil, petrol and ozone. The sweetest smell to ever hit my nostrils. Someone helped me to my feet and sat me down. I nodded my thanks and coughed to clear my lungs. Tears burned my eyes and my throat.
“Are you all right?”
Recognizing the voice, I looked up and saw the ship owner. “I will be, thanks,” I rasped after a moment. I drew a deep breath, grateful to be alive. “What the hell happened?”
“A ship collided with us,” the man said. “Those idiots must have been drunk or something.”
I shook my head. I had heard stories of crews drinking on the job, but this was one for the books. The huge cruise ship was not exactly hard to miss.
I glanced outside. The dome had now disappeared. Silent explosions dotted the ship’s hull. Numerous lifeboats shot out of gaping holes in the decks. A second spaceship tilted drunkenly next to it. In the darkness of space, it was hard to make out, but it looked like a freighter.
My eye caught on something like countless heads bobbing around is. “My God,” I whispered. “Are those people?”
The man leaned next to me and craned his head to look. “No, that’s not heads.” He looked forlorn. “It’s lettuce. Frozen lettuce. That damn ship was filled with it. Probably for the moon colonies.” His eyes glinted with something akin to madness. “We were struck by a freighter carrying iceberg lettuce.”
“Iceberg lett—” I coughed to swallow the mad cackle that rose to my throat, shaking my head. “Buddy, that’s why you don’t call your ship the Titanic II.”