The bridge was silent. The engines were running, but they’d upgraded them years ago as part of a government push for low-emission engines. The boss downstairs has decided it was a smart move– play along, play it safe– “Always under the radar. Don’t make waves”. So the engines had been silenced, and the boss had happily accepted a large kick-back for the upgrade.
A.V. hated the silence. As a kid, he’d been lulled to sleep by the hum of the engines on his father’s ship, but now, there was only silence. He looked at his watch. He’d been at the bridge for hours, covering yet another shift for the boss, but now, his eyes burned and his neck was stiff. He shifted in his chair, and the glare from the console below him appeared on the observation panel he was staring into, and he jumped, thinking, for a brief moment, that he’d spotted the lights of an oncoming ship.
“You can only stare into the darkness for so long before you start to see things”.
A.V. jumped again, this time spilling his coffee down the last clean bit of his pants, cursing at the sudden warmth.
His boss laughed, a loud, jovial, raspy laugh that ended in a hacking couch. He spit, and wiped the corners of his mouth on his sleeve and slapped A.V. on the back. A.V. jolted at the impact. His boss was a huge man, barely able to stand in the bridge, his greasy black hair grazing the recessed lighting of the steel ceiling. There were plenty of rusty spots overhead, and A.V. had a sneaking suspicion that they weren’t caused by moisture from the ship, but from the sweat of his boss’s endlessly receding hairline.
“What can I do for you?” A.V. instantly regretted the phrasing.
“What can you do for me? Save that for your granny, son. I don’t need your help, I just need you to keep this pile in the air long enough to make the drop!” He laughed again, this time coughing for even longer. A.V. went to the water panel on the wall and filled a small paper cup, but his boss waved it away.
“Don’t–don’t waste that on me, son. Don’t– don’t want you to think I’m getting s-soft”. His boss sat heavily in the seat next to him, gasping for breath.
A.V. shrugged. “If you insist”. He went to the coffee pot and refilled his mug, joining his boss at the main console. He tapped a few keys, checking their altitude, then their trajectory, then checked the radar. There was nothing. Only them and maybe a few rocks. His boss looked on approvingly.
“You’re a lucky find, you. Didn’t think you’d amount to much of anything when I picked you up. Weren’t but a speck of a kid. Now look at you. You’re what now, 26? 27? Getting old….” His boss laughed again, then spat.
A.V. looked over the arm of his chair at the puddle on the floor. Even in the dim lighting of the bridge, he could see that the spittle was tinged with blood and dark with infection.
“28 next month, and you really need to do something about that cough”.
“Don’t think I know that, boy? Nothing they can do. I’ve been to every doctor that’d have me this side of Bode’s, and they all told me the same thing. I’m dying”. The old man looked dramatically into the darkness and coughed pathetically.
A.V. rolled his eyes. “You aren’t dying. I’ve seen people come back from twice as bad. You need to get some meds, Bass”.
Bass roared with laughter. In between coughs, he manged to sputter out a few choice insults. “First name basis, now, eh? You got a mouth on you, son, I like that. Problem is, where’m I supposed to find meds around here? We’ve got a good three weeks before we hit anywhere close to civilization, and in the meantime, I’m not taking any damn traders aboard. Knew a guy from back in school, took on some traders to make a little extra cash, weren’t more than three minutes aboard before everyone had their throats slit, AND I heard they raped the bodies”.
The old man started. “What?”
A.V. grinned. “How’d you hear about it? If everyone had their throats slit, how’d word get out about the evil traders raping the bodies?”
Bass made a face. “How’s anyone hear about anything these days? I heard they recorded it, then posted it up on the video channels for other people to find– as– as a warning”.
—“And then they showed their severed heads hanging on pikes, with written messages about which government officials were next?” A.V. smugly folded his hands behind his head. “They ALWAYS say that, Bass. That’s…just…the story. I don’t even think there are that many traders capable of that much destruction in this whole damned galaxy”.
Bass looked at him seriously. “Don’t matter how many of them, boy, it matters what they do. Two men can conquer an entire planet if they’ve got the most guns. I’ve seen it happen. Little settlement, not expecting nothin’, then BOOM, next thing you know, women ‘n children bein’ sold into slavery, men gettin’ shot and killed, it’s a horrible business, I’ll tell you what”.
A.V. looked out into the darkness, thinking.
They sat in silence for awhile, lost in thought, when the faint light of the blue communication channel light lit up. A.V. and Bass glanced at each other.
Bass spoke first. “Now, who in the hell— all the way out here?”
A.V.’s finger hesitated over the button. “Do you want me to–“.
“Might as well, might be a distress call or somethin’. Never know. Just don’t say anything stupid”.
A.V. hesitated for a moment longer, then pressed the open channel button. He gave their call and registration numbers as per standard procedure, and then waited for the response. Nothing.
A.V. looked at Bass. Bass shrugged.
A.V. gave their registration numbers again, and waited. There was a long silence, and then a faint crackle of an open connection.
Bass rolled his eyes and stabbed the button. “Look, sweetheart, airtime ain’t cheap in these parts– either get off our line or spit it out”.
They both waited, listening to the static on the other end. The connection crackled again, then a small voice on the other end replied. “Hello? Is anybody there?”
The two men looked at each other. A communication this far out was unusual, but not unheard of. However, the voice on the other end of the channel was a kid, or at least, someone pretending to be a kid.
A.V. pressed the button “Hello? Who is this?”
“This…this is Elena. Elena Sigrun. I’m scared”.
“Elena, my name is A.V. Where are you?”
“…I’m in the room where they drive the ship”
“Okay, Elena, is anyone else there with you?”
“No. I’m all alone. Everyone else is sleeping and they won’t wake up”.
A.V. glanced at Bass. Bass mouthed “Traders”.
“Elena, how do you know everyone is sleeping?”
“Because they’re all sleeping in the hallway”.
“Everyone is in the hallway?”
“Yes. And there is a lot of blood everywhere. I was hiding from the bad men and when I came out everyone was sleeping”.
“The bad men?”
“Yes, the men in the funny hats. My daddy let them onto the ship and then they hurt him”.
“How did they hurt him, Elena?”
“They put a knife into his neck and now he’s sleeping”.
A.V. looked up at Bass. Bass was absentmindedly chewing at his thumb, staring out into the darkness. Bass motioned for A.V. to switch seats. As the older man took his seat, A.V. watched him hesitate for just a moment. Then, in a gentle voice that seemed almost alien coming from the huge man, Bass spoke.
“Elena, my name is Bassem. My friends call me Bass. Let’s be friends, okay, Elena? How old are you?”
“Seven”. There was a pitiful sniff.
“Elena, do you know where you are?”
“I told you, I’m in the driving room”.
Bass paused. He thought for a moment, then he spoke again.
“Elena, do you want to play a game with me? ”
“…No. I’m scared”.
“It’s okay, Elena, you don’t have to be scared. I’m here, and so is A.V.”.
“But I don’t know you. You could be bad men”.
“Elena, I’m not much of a man, not much of anything really, but I promise you, we are not bad men”.
“…What does A.V. stand for?”
Bass looked up at A.V. and grinned hugely, miming a gesture akin to “what are you gonna do?” A.V. sighed. He bent over the console. “Elena, A.V. stands for Adaeze Valerija”.
There was a giggle. “That’s a funny name”.
Bass tried valiantly to hide his amusement, and failed miserably. “You’re not the only one who thinks so, Elena. Now, how about that game?”
“….Okay. How do I play?”
“Elena, look out the window. What do you see?”
“…Nothing. It’s dark. ‘Sides, I’m too little to reach the window all by myself”.
“Okay, and what about around you?”
“I can see…..I can see the buttons that the driver pushes. and his chair. He’s sitting in his chair, but his head is off”.
Bass started. “His head—- his head is off?”
“Yeah, the bad men took his head off”.
A.V. swore under his breath.
Bass took a deep breath. “Okay, that’s really good, Elena, what else? What else do you see?”
“….My daddy”. Her voice warbled.
“Good, Elena, where is your daddy?”
“He’s in his chair. He’s sleeping”.
“And where are you, Elena?”
“I’m sitting on my daddy’s lap. He won’t wake up and I’m scared”.
A.V. couldn’t be sure, but as Bass turned suddenly to gaze out into the blackness, it seemed like Bass’s hands may have swiped at his eyes. Bass turned back to the panel.
“Elena, where is your mom?”
“…the bad men took her. They took all of the mommies. and the kids, but not me cuz I was hiding”.
“So…so you’re all alone, then, kiddo?”
“Okay, kiddo. Do you know how to use the transporter system?”
“The trans— the machine that your daddy used to bring the bad men onto the ship. do you know how to use it?”
“No. that’s for grownups”.
A.V. suddenly understood, and lept to their own transport system and began the lengthy boot-up process.
From across the bridge, Bass spoke.
“Elena, look over into the corner. Is there a big box where the men came out of?”
“No, that’s in the underneath”.
Nearly simultaneously, A.V. and Bass swore. With no way of knowing what class or style of ship these people were running, there was nothing they could do. If their transporter was on another deck, they’d run the risk of losing contact before they could get the girl over to to them.
Bass thought for a moment, his face contorted with the effort.
“Elena, when the bad men came, where did they come from?”
“That’s easy, they came from the storage room. That’s where I hide sometimes. It’s warm”.
“Can you see the storage room?”
“Yeah, it’s down the hall a little bit”.
“Okay, I want you to go down and look on the main access panel and tell me if it’s enabled to dispatch “.
Bass swore silently.
“The box with all the lights on it. Should be to the right. Go see if there is a big green light at the top”.
“Ok! I can do that, easy!”. Her confidence was heartbreaking.
The two men waited anxiously, listening to her footsteps fade into the empty crackle of the open line. Then, suddenly, she was back, and breathless with excitement.
“I did it! I found it! It’s on, it’s on!”
Bass smiled. “You did great, sweetheart. Now, here’s what I want you to do. I’m going to give you some numbers. I want you to go over to the big panel, and type in the numbers EXACTLY how I tell them to you. Do you know how to write down numbers, kiddo?”
The sweet voice on the other end was tinged with annoyance. “I know how to write, I’m almost 8”.
Bass smiled again. “Great. You’re right, I’m sorry. You’re almost a grown up. Do you have a pen?”
“Yes, there’s one here in my daddy’s pocket”.
The smile faded from his face. “Right. Okay, kiddo, I’m going to tell you some numbers now, and I want you to write them down, then go put them into the transporter exactly how I told you, okay?”
“Okay! I can do that!”.
A.V. listened intently as Bass rattled off their transport id system numbers from memory. There was a pause on the other end of the line, and the tiny voice tentatively and haltingly repeated them.
“Good, kiddo. Now here’s what you gotta do. Go down to the transporter and type those in just like I told you. Then, push the big button that says “activate”, okay?”
“Then jump in, and we’ll see you on the other side”.
There was a pause. “But…what about my mommy and daddy?”
Bass closed his eyes and looked down. “Once we’ve got you safe and sound, kiddo, we’ll come back for your mommy and daddy, okay?”
“I promise. Both me and A.V. promise that nothin’ bad will happen to you, okay, Elena?”
“Okay. I guess…hey, I guess I’ll see you soon!”
“We’ll see you soon”.
Bass sprung up, an impressive feat for a man his size and cross the bridge, banging his head on a low-hanging pipe and swearing. Both of the men started intently into the transporter, willing Elena to appear.
A.V. didn’t turn his head. “You realize that if she fucks up those numbers, she’s either going to get sent over gods know where or get torn apart, right?”
Bass didn’t either. “I know”.
Suddenly, the incoming light flashed once, twice, and then the familiar whir of the transporter activated. The doors slowly opened, and there was Elena. She smiled, stepped forward, and then, without warning, fell to the ground as the gash on her throat slowly wept blood onto her white dress and onto the steel floor of the bridge.
A.V slumped against the wall, hands over his mouth, suddenly lightheaded. Bass dropped to the floor, kneeling over Elena’s body, then scooped her up into his arms. His head flew up and he looked at A.V., eyes full of tears. “Man up, boy”, he roared, “we’ve got to get her to a medic, there might still be time–“.
Suddenly, two men stepped from the inside doors of the transport system. Silently, the two men slipped into the bridge. Without speaking a word, they broke off, methodically, one towards A.V., the other towards Bass.
A.V. was the first to scream, once, then twice, and then, as the reflection of the bridge lights on man’s silver knife cut silently through the darkness, Bass joined in.
A.V. fell, his blood mingling with Elena and Bass’s. It was cold.
Bass coughed, once, twice, but this time, the coughs were deep and gargling, wet. Blood dripped from the corners of his mouth and down the front of his shirt.
Then, there was nothing.
In the darkness, the bridge was silent.