Mary stepped slightly forward of Jacob’s chair and turned about to face him, resting her buttocks against the edge of the main navigational panel as he looked up at her and reciprocated her smile, then pushed back into the confines of his chair with a faint frown formed on his brow.
“What?” he asked with resignation, in full expectation of the latest batch of friendly advice which she so often lavished upon him.
“All work and no play, Jacob. You know what they say about that don’t you?”
He chuckled briefly as his gaze returned to the panel before him.
“Yes I do and you’ve made sure to remind me of it repeatedly over the past few days.”
“Then maybe you should try listening so I don’t have to repeat myself so often.”
He smiled as his gaze lingered on the radar scope for a moment before he glanced back up to her face to witness her wry smile.
“The Sunderland’s an old ship and her systems…”
“Are absolutely fine!” she quickly remarked to interrupt his attempt at an excuse. “She’d completed well over a hundred round trips from Venus to Earth before they were forced to decommission her due to some bureaucratic nonsense.”
She quickly leant closer as he made a move to speak and placed her thin, delicate forefinger upon his lips to stall his protest.
“…and the only reason we’re on board her right now is to make sure no one hops on board while she takes her last trip to the salvage yard and then goes on a joyride across the inner worlds. Hell, of all the salvage jobs we’ve ever taken on, this has to be the sweetest of all. All her systems are running under computer control and we’re just the caretakers along for the ride.”
“I know that,” he replied with slight hesitation as she withdrew her finger from his lips, then shook his head slightly in mild disapproval of her suggestion that they were no more than passengers on the final journey of the inter-colony freighter. “Doesn’t hurt to have a hand on the tiller anyway, just in case.”
She sighed and pushed against the control panel with the palm of her left hand to stand up straight and regarded him with a look of disdain.
“You know full well that Toran has rigged numerous monitors to the critical systems and piped them belowdecks so we would be alerted at the first sign of anything vaguely untoward.”
Jacob made a move to answer but seemed to think much better of it, resigning his reply to a dismissive shrug.
He knew that she was right and that everything he could monitor from the control deck could easily be watched in the company of his four crewmates belowdecks.
“This isn’t the Fenchurch,” her voice whispered softly as she leant slightly closer to him.
He snapped back from her in an instant as if she’d physically stung him, his glare hard and fierce as it fixed upon her finely sculpted, delicate features.
“I know why you’re doing this,” she quickly added in an attempt to soothe the anguish she saw upon his face at her words. “You told me about your old ship, remember?”
“I was drunk,” he muttered angrily, sore at himself for allowing his guard to drop and to reveal the most devastating moment of his entire life to date.
Not that she couldn’t have scoured SOLnet for the gory details and put together quite a damning picture of her own, but his own rather slurred and emotional recollection had been rather vivid and most certainly surpassed any of the cold, stark, unfeeling words that would recount the fate of the Fenchurch in the official reports.
“Maybe so, but you still blame yourself for what happened on your old ship and you mustn’t. You said you were trapped below decks and, by all accounts, even if you had made it up to the control deck there would’ve been precious little you could’ve done to prevent the disaster anyway. You would’ve died along with your Captain and the senior crew on duty that day.”
“Maybe I should’ve,” he muttered darkly in reply, “and then at least I’d not have to live the rest of my life with the knowledge that I let them all down. Yes, I was below decks when the Fenchurch died, but I should have been up there on the bridge at my station doing my duty and making sure the ship never hit the damned mine, let alone wandered that close to the bloody thing. No, I was down below because everything was boringly routine and I’d made some cockeyed excuse to leave a kid in charge of the helm while I goofed off. Hell, the poor sod probably didn’t even see the relic until it hit the damned hull!”
Jacob let his head droop so that his chin rested on his chest.
“Stray mines are a constant hazard out here. You know that as well as I do. Old decrepit relics that go uncharted until some unlucky ship happens across one. Those things were designed to be hard to see with ship’s sensor systems until it was too late and the device locked on and impacted to cause the most damage it could.”
Jacob raised his head slightly and gazed up at her.
“You know I’m right,” she insisted and delivered a coy smile which he found almost impossible to ignore.
He shrugged and turned his attention back to the controls before him.
“Maybe. I just feel much better being up here instead of down there so if something unexpected does rear its ugly head, I’m on hand to take over from the automated systems and try to bring us to safety.”
He frowned slightly and made a few adjustments to the control panel, his words trailing off as his attention became locked upon the sensor scope.
“Okay, I understand what you’re saying so maybe we should bring everyone up here and… hey, are you even listening to me anymore?” Mary asked and playfully pushed his right shoulder to regain his attention, but his frown only deepened at her effort as he shrugged her away and sat forward in his seat and made more refinements to the controls to try and focus the scans more acutely.
“We’ve got a bogey in our path,” he muttered grimly.
“What? Another ship?” she replied and spun about to look at the display he was so intent upon.
“Not sure yet,” he replied tensely, “but the initial bounce back suggests there’s an object of reasonable size and mass drifting on a heading that will intersect our present course. By the time we’re close enough to see it out of the window it’ll have passed across and be off our port side a few hundred clicks. No determinable power readings at the moment, but we are at full stretch on the resolution.”
“I’d better call the others up here,” she muttered as her gaze remained upon the small grey blob at the furthest edge of the scope.
“This is exactly why I stay up here,” Jacob remarked off-handedly as she made her way over to the Captain’s chair to open the shipwide broadcast channel.
He knew it was a cheap shot, but she’d brought up the whole Fenchurch incident in the first place.
She had no idea. She’d not been there.
She hadn’t suffered the accusations of those who publicly claimed to do everything in their power to help the survivors in the aftermath, yet strived behind the scenes to discredit and humiliate each and every one so that promising careers were extinguished. It was all about money and power at the end of the day and the whole Fenchurch incident had damaged reputations high up in the chain, cost many credits in compensation to the company after many more had been spent levelling blame against the governing bodies of Mars and Earth for the war relic being allowed to float about with no apparent attempt to clear it and other mines like it from the vast blackness of space, and generally left a dirty taste in everyone’s mouths once the affair was over but the memory and stench of blame remained.
Jacob stared intently at the sensor display, only vaguely aware that Mary was speaking over the shipwide intercom to bring the rest of the crew in to join them on the bridge.
Maybe this was as it had been on his old ship, with an unknown object floating in their path and drifting innocently closer until it was much too late for them to evade as the mine awoke, locked on and propelled itself directly into them.
Slowly the unidentified blob moved closer to them as they ploughed onward through the vast expanse of space.
“Ghost Ship” © 2019 Paul J. Fleming