Casualties of War

by F. John Sharp © 2002

Milos is out of options; communications are dead. Around him, explosions rip the hull, exposing deck after deck to the vacuum of space. His deck will be soon.

He grabs his kitbag and helmet and a power bar from the commissary module, and scuttles through a seldom used hatch toward the rear of the ship. Down a couple of levels he finds the tubeway that leads to the escape pod. He has to crawl, dragging the kitbag and helmet behind, until he reaches the tiny vehicle.

Milos slides into the man-sized chamber and lays on his back, his hands working the controls above his head. Lights energize and numbers flash on tiny screens, and the low hum of the pod's power pack fills his head.

His course is pre-programmed -- it can't be left to human error. All Milos has to do is make sure the life system works. It does. He has never been 'minimized' before -- that's what the pilots call suspended animation. He recalls the look of his beard and hair in the mirror this morning and wonders how different they will be. He finds it hard to imagine that he will age only six months.

A nearby blast rocks the pod. Milos has to decide. The Pegasites know about the pods but don't know where they are. Their random shots are zeroing in.

The thought of the escape pods depresses him. He desperately wants to make a break for the hyper transporters, where he can get home in ten heartbeats. But they are on Level Three, on the other side of the Main Access, whose portholes turned lightless an hour ago.

He rolls to his side and puts his face into the tiny concave porthole to try for a glimpse of the ship. The giant vessel called Explorer 4 is only half it's previous size. Much of what is left is charred and dead, but there are patches of portholes with lights, including some on Level Three, near the hyper transporters.

He thinks about gambling, so he can go home now, while his children are still children and his wife is still young. If he win he will see them tonight; he will lift them in his arms and hold them as if forever. If he plays it safe, he will not see them for seventy-five years. But he will them.

The Pegasites are shredding the Explorer; shot after shot rocking the ship. Still, the lights on Level Three beckon. Milos' hand hover between the 'Hatch Open' and 'Launch' buttons while his mind races through possible routes to the hyper transporters. There are six: four funnel through the Main Access, two wind through service tubes, which are slow going.

In typical engineer tradition, he tries to calculate his odds, to place risk and reward onto their proper sides of the equation. How can he be expected to make a decision? He needs more data. He looks out the portal again. Main Access is still dark. Is it also uninhabitable? He hates uncertainty. He is trained to be sure, to collect data, to calculate, to decide. Without more information...

He thinks about the photo of his family he stuffed into the kitbag before he left his quarters, a photo filled with faces drenched in youth and vitality. Simona sitting on the park bench, Misja and Portia on her lap, their smiles so big that the warm light on their faces seemed to emanate from within. If he closes his eyes, he can still smell the flowers that were blooming that day.

His finger carress the 'Hatch Open' button, not pressing. He feels the the smoothness of the edges, he feels the play in it, he wonder how much pressure it takes to engage it, he imagines the sound it would make, then the sound the hatch would make. He wanted to hear those sounds. He listenes for the explosions, thinking they have lessened. He looks again at the lights of Deck Three, still calling. He sees again the faces, waiting for his return.

His stomach twists at the thought of uncertainty. Cursed uncertainty.

He pushes. With a shudder, the pod detaches from the ship and speeds silently for home, with Milos slipping into sleep, a tiny tear drying on his cheek.

x x x

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