Black Line - A Short Story
It was ticking. Countless miles of endless space surrounded the dusty shell of my chrome sling ship and the damned box was ticking. For a moment I sat there, dumbfounded, as the toasted console restarted.
I ‘d over clocked the engine to shave a few hours off the delivery time but in my hubris, I hadn’t notice that the radiator had popped.
The package was in some kind of icebox and the only instructions that came with it were to keep it under zero degrees Celsius. I took a quick glance at the embedded thermometer. One degree Celsius and rising.
I’d run the Black Line for a couple of years now, a runner’s term for the illegal warp routes through cosmic gateways abandoned due to bureaucratic red tape and infrastructural decay. The unregulated slipshod relay system came with an endless laundry list of dangers, but there was no comparison to the speed when piloted by elite couriers.
Most corporations stuck to the sanctioned lines, well-trodden mass transit routes like the Blue and Gold. The mainstream lines were congested, overrun by commercial freighters and holiday tourists. That traffic overhead was unacceptable to my clients. They needed their shit on the move yesterday. That’s where my kind came in.
I’d heard my share of runner horror stories; a wrong sling warp into the side of an asteroid, a miscalculation that sent a ship barreling into parts unknown, and a sudden bout of cyanotic death from a blown out oxygen tank.
Psychology makes willing fools out of us all. That shit happens to others. Those couriers were careless and unprofessional. I’m cool as a freeze-dried cucumber. Sure as the binary suns rising over Osiris, that would never happen to me.
Two degrees Celsius. The maintenance console was redder than a Communist flag. Tick. Tick. Tick. The client said it was a late Christmas present to an old friend. I should’ve seen the air quotes around the words.
The clicks grew louder. Stars glimmered outside the small cockpit windows. The next rally point towered in front of me; a monolith husk of modern engineering. I could see the crackle of the Bohr-Riemann irregularity field. If I could just reach it I could make the jump.
Coolant. I smashed the glass beside me. The carbon dioxide regulator ripped from the wall. The open hose sprayed a cold blast of exhaust particles. I redirected it to the icebox. One degree Celsius. I exhaled. My vision swam. That stunt gave me about ten minutes of breathable air, tops. Tick. Tick. Tick.
The control diodes began to turn green. I tripped the ignition. The warp drive sputtered. Come on. Turn over. Cold flakes of pressurized carbon rested on my tongue. It was getting hard to breathe.
Come on. Another twist of the ignition kicked the power supply to life. Lights flickered across the dashboard. I pumped the thruster pedal. Tick. Tick. The side thrusters angled the ship towards the giant ring relay. I hovered over the accelerator switch. One wrong move would send the ship careening into null space.
My mind went blank. Outside the stars of the Milky Way glistened, indifferent to the collective rush of life within it. For thirteen and a half billion years, the stars had been alone amongst the cosmos. They’d be here long after we were gone. Still, they lived and died just like us. Everything became raw materials in the end; recollected and reformatted across the universe. I was made from the same raw stuff of the universe. Even if I didn’t make it through the warp, a part of me would live on; drifting through the endless black, waiting to be repurposed.
Gas. The engines roared to ignition as the faint tick echoed behind me. One degree Celsius. A white hot burst of white flooded the cockpit as the engines kicked into one last overdrive. The band of space-time stretched under the gravitational pull of the slingshot relay. Brilliant light filled the whole of my being as existence tunneled to a single indivisible point. I closed my eyes and surrendered to the cosmic black.
A lot of runners met their end on the Black Line. Hundreds bet their lives every day on a series of astrogational calculations. One false move would send a man straight into the pits of a dying sun or stranded across black eternity. A lot of people had gambled and lost on the Black Line, but today I wasn’t one of them.
I’d burned out every sensor on the dashboard but the fact remained that I’d ended up in dock with little more than a bad case of whiplash. I checked the icebox. The lights inside flashed a cold blood red. My eyes gravitated towards the emergency cargo release as the damn thing started to beep again. A lot of people had died on the Black Line but we all had our choice to walk away. We had something the corporate masses slaving away in mega-towers over five course dinners didn’t have; something far more precious than anything riches could buy.
I set the sling ship down the worn down back-end docking bay and crossed over to the vending machine opposite the hanger. From the port holes I watched the icebox tumble its way into infinity as I waited for the cold aluminum can to crash against the meat of my palm. The metal box separated from its container and spiraled into dark obscurity. The raw pop of the cola tab was as proper a send-off as any. I pressed my lips to the cold metal. The sweet cola sugar ran down the back of my throat. It was rich enough for me.
- 2022 XubtheMad