Story Time: “A Gift”

Started by a Flash Fiction Challenge over at Chuck Wendig’s site:

The world ended, time shattered and the universe unraveled itself. At the frayed edges of existence, only the memories lasted.

She wished that she had made just a few more.

The metal skin of the capsule squealed and shuddered as it skipped into a solid plain of reality.  Again the nausea came. She was prepared for it this time, pushing her face into the plastic bag.

It struck her as funny that she had never been prone to motion sickness, but apparently when you move the fabric of the universe around yourself, you better do it on an empty stomach. She finished retching, wiped her mouth, and sealed up the bag. This time there was blood. That was new.

The pings of cooling metal echoed through the small confines of the capsule as it reacted to atmosphere once more. Or maybe it was warming. She couldn’t remember. Frankly, she didn’t care. If you brutally murdered someone, shoplifting an item didn’t seem all that important anymore. And she had brutally murdered the laws of physics. Big time. So, what was a little overlooked thermal conduction?

Small beans, babycakes. Small beans.

She extricated herself from the harness, an overdesigned series of straps that nobody had ever imagined getting in and out of without a team of specialists and a gymnast’s abilities. Why had she even put it on again? It wasn’t like the capsule moved. It was just one of those things she did to feel safer, and that was okay by her. Very few things made her feel safe anymore.

The capsule was safe. It was her cocoon. She could reach out and touch almost every surface, every panel without leaving her seat. She could operate the consoles with her eyes closed. It felt like an extension of herself. An embrace of the familiar in all this chaos. Of course, it was also a prison at times. After spending however many hours in it, if hours were even an applicable measurement anymore, she was ready to break free of its smothering embrace.

Time to leave the ol’ nest. Stretch them wings.

She grabbed her helmet and pulled the EVA pack from its spot, turning to secure it onto her back. A quick glance at the meter showed the pack was empty. No more air. She had forgotten about that too. Oh well. If her calculations were right, it wouldn’t matter. If her calculations were wrong, well, then it wasn’t going to be a problem for very long.

Discarding the helmet and air pack, she moved to the hatch. The red handle she pulled down, the yellow she slid up and the wheel turned clockwise. No, counter-clockwise. She rubbed her face in frustration. Just keep it together.

Follow the directions. When all else fails, follow the damn directions.

She took her hands off the wheel and stared at the small red arrows on the hatch itself. Counter-clockwise. And so it turned.

There was a slight hiss of hair as the seal broke and she finally managed to push the hatch open. A warm breeze gently washed over her smelling of burned wood, like an old campfire left to smolder out. Like the campfire that first night, the one he had built. When there were still a sun and moon and stars and an earth to lie down on. And of course, when he still… was.

She gazed out of the hatch, but there was no deep forest this time. Pointing her torch out at the surroundings revealed a neighborhood of closely built houses lining the street the capsule had parked itself onto. There were no lights in any of the windows. Nothing moved, just a thick layer of grey ash that stirred gently in the breeze. This was a dead place. Except for her. She inhaled deeply to reassure herself.

Nobody here ‘cept us, babycakes. Ain’t nobody in the big wander.

Grabbing the one thing she would need, the bonafide real printed paper manual that must have weighed fifty pounds, she tossed it out of the hatch and clambered out after it. Thank the geeks for redundancies like that. She had gotten more use of that encyclopedia of technical jargon and schematics than a bible in summer camp.

It was only a slight drop to the ground and her feet landed with a muffled whump. It was almost like stepping into virgin snow. Except it didn’t crunch the way it should. And when she moved her feet, her boots left greasy dark smears on the ground. And instead of a crisp, clean feeling, she felt as though she was just walking through a mass graveyard. So… not like snow in the least.

She picked up her manual, wiping off the grey smudges with her sleeve, and started flipping through the pages. After comparing some schematics and glancing at the capsule a few times, she set to work.

The capsule had started its life with smooth composite shielding and a slick design that had immediately been shredded apart like tissue paper once the thing had been activated. Now, it was a mess of pipes and wires and inner workings jumbled together in a mess that shouldn’t really be working. There were brass cogs she had installed and pressure tanks strapped on haphazardly. For all the technical sophistication and achievement it represented, the thing was a mess. But it was her mess. And it had gotten her this far.

Almost time to call it quits. Almost. Just a small bit of work first.

She climbed onto the side of the capsule, which she noticed was covered in patches of ice that were actually on fire, and began to pry some of the components off. The work was hard, but she persisted. She was tired, hadn’t slept since… no use in counting now. She was sweaty, her suit was heavy and cumbersome, and she was pretty sure that she was the last person in the universe right now. Nobody would ever notice if she just stopped and took a break. Or just let it all go.

Nobody but you, babycakes.

She could live with the disappointment of failure. It’s not like she’d be alive for a whole lot longer.

That’s all fine and dandy, but that’s not who you are. You’re better than that.

The destroyer of the universe. That’s what she was.

Maybe true, but also the only one that can fix it.

She pried loose a large metal beam and reached shoulder deep into the capsule. Her fingers found it, the heart of the machine. It came free of the wires with a quick yank and she lowered herself to the ground with the small black orb in her hand. The warmth came through her glove, as she knew it would. It was the radiation she felt coming off of it.

The exact spot she had calculated was maybe a hundred meters away. She already knew which house it would be in. The hole in the universe that only she could plug. Or maybe it would just start a new universe where they could all make the same mistakes over again and this was some sort of cosmic loop. Who knows anymore? Who cares?

Like always, his voice crept into her mind. The voice of reason, he would say. The voice of annoyance, she thought.

You think you’ve given up on people. It’d be easier that way, sure as hell. But you need people. Maybe not a lot. Maybe only one close one. But alone ain’t no way to go about life.

And she had thought he was just some dumb hick. That he didn’t know what he was talking about. Of course, that didn’t stop him from talking.

Takes two to tango, babycakes.

Alright. They had spoken to each other for hours. Talked until the fire died and the sun came up. And as different as they were… they clicked. It was a conversation that changed her life. Made her reassess who she was and what she was capable of.

Sometimes, all you need is just for somebody to believe in you. And you got that now.

The orb in her hand grew hot as she approached the house. She tried the front door, but it was locked. Of course it was locked. Why couldn’t just one thing go easy?

You got this, babe.

She smiled. On the dying edge of a universe dissolving into oblivion, she smiled. Someone, somewhere, at some point in the past or future had absolute confidence in her. She could do anything. She could save the universe. She knew that no matter how much space and time separated them, she would always cherish the gift he’d given her that one exquisite night.

Yeah. I got this.

Per the challenge, this story was inspired by the sentence by Ashley Kidd

“She knew that no matter how much space and time separated them, she would always cherish the gift he’d given her that one exquisite night.”


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