All she can taste is copper. The dull metallic tang of it coating her lips and tongue on every inhale. It swells up from the metal of the corridors, the walls and floors, from her sweating palm grasped around the length of pipe she carries. Sometimes, she thinks she hears the ship groaning. Metal warping and bending in the endless heat, twisting. She wonders if the Tranquility looks the same as the first time she saw it, the colossal bulk of it, an unrepentant wedge, a blunt instrument set to crack the universe open – or if it’s been contorted, bent and gnarled into some abhorrent shape, rotten and tortured from the inside out.
She times her steps with the sound of it, holds still in the silence between. Quiet. She has to stay quiet. There’s a tapping in the walls, a clock ticking, and the beast still hunts her, follows her by scent and sound. She marks the walls where she can, scrapes numerals into the metal. Between sixteen and seventeen it caught her ankles, ran claws over her face, five searing lines of pain. At thirty-four it almost had her throat. She scratches LXX into the wall on her right, the broken end of the pipe worn blunt by repeated use. Sweat prickles down her spine and she looks back over her shoulder at the corridor behind her. Holds her breath, staring into the heavy darkness. One heartbeat. Two.
Her brother still leaves her messages. She doesn’t share his excitement over the upcoming activation of the jump drive, but he continues to try and impress its importance on her. This is a piece of history, Lotte. We’re not just witnessing it, we’re experiencing it. She doesn’t question his enthusiasm, though the words bubble on her tongue: Is it history if it’s hidden, so far away from anything they’d ever called home? Will it be history, Tomas, if we’ve all died out here? The tapping in the walls follows the rhythm of their aunt’s favourite lullaby, the one they’d insist was sung to them, slurred from a little too much wine. She can’t recall all the words anymore, but she hums along in time, counting numerals LIV, LIII, LI.
There was a kitchen here, a week ago. She’d found a space in it, tucked under a counter, hidden there until the screaming started. Hunger tightens and twists like a fist in her stomach, thirst parching her tongue to paper, lips cracked. She drags her fingertips along the scorching metal of the wall, searching for the door, measuring distance in each step, when the tapping in the wall stutters and stops. The tapping stops, and there’s a sound behind her: a low scraping, scratching, and then silence.
She freezes in place. There in the corridor, her fingers against the wall, pipe held low in her other hand. The fist in her stomach turns to ice, cold creeping through her skin, prickling under the sweat-damp fabric of her shirt. The ship sighs around her and she turns, slowly, in place, every muscle locked still bar the weight of her feet and the tremble of her heart.
The beast stands at the end of the corridor. Backed in fire, its claws shifting against the floor as it lowers its muzzle, scents. Drool dark with blood drips from teeth too large for a narrow jaw, lips torn back, entire face the wet slick of raw flesh. She watches, and it lifts its head again, gaunt frame roped strong with muscle, steady as it searches the air, head swaying one way, another. It turns away and her heart, traitorous, drums staccato in hope.
There will be no history here, she will tell her brother. There will be no one to tell it.
The beast turns back with a snarl, and she is no longer frozen. She throws the pipe, clammy grip sliding, setting it to a lopsided arch through the air. She doesn’t wait to see if it hits its mark. She turns, feet skidding before finding purchase, thighs screaming in protest at the sudden strength she’s demanding from them. She runs, nothing but the pulse of terror in her ears, adrenaline turned to copper in her mouth, numerals lost. The darkness of the ship swallows her up, and the beast is still on her heels, chasing, always chasing.