The needle slid out with a quick pull and press but blood bubbled over Riggan’s thumb anyway. He wasn’t the doctor. The younger boy on the cot gurgled at the spike of pain, doubling over, but his eyes remained closed tight so Riggan shook him, hard.
“Up! Won’t tell ya’gin.”
There was a steel in his voice that hadn’t been there before, overlaying the shakiness of his first two attempts. The boy’s shoulders stiffened under Riggan’s dyed-black fingers, and a pair of flint grey irises squinted up for the first time at the growling silhouette, an initial query from numb lips snuffed short by a foreign arm under the shoulders and the sticky tug of sensors ripped from the base of a shorn scalp and freckled chest.
Daryl flailed with guttural protestation, aware of neither the klaxon blaring overhead nor the stampede of feet beyond the door. Just the tipping motion of the coffin-like table he was being wrenched from, the tangle of clear cables that came free in the process and the cold squeeze of his scaly, wrinkled toes on the metal floor. The jelly in his knees was also a surprise, until the figure manhandling him thrust him onto a bench and the side of his head cracked against the white wall. Stars popped into his peripherals. Then the klaxon was all he could hear.
The whites of Riggan’s eyes were a new sight for the cadet, terrifying in their opaque intensity, but shockingly familiar enough to jolt the younger boy into recalling everything else. His arrival. The mine. The accident. The first name to come sluiced thick and slow through the gates of remembrance, over a tongue that felt like inflatable sandpaper.
“Ahead. Safe.” Riggan’s wide tanned face was a foot away, bright with sweat and twitching with urgency. Daryl could neither shy away from his superior’s raking gaze nor respond like he knew he was meant to. His body just wouldn’t—
“Right, long enough. Arm up here.”
The oily fingers came for him again, as well as the torn sleeve of Riggan’s grey flight suit, hoisting him back onto balloon legs and cardboard feet as the other hand yanked his own pale, stiff arm across a pair of thick shoulders.
“Wait…” Daryl’s own eyes widened as they wobbled across his bare chest and legs, searching for a shred of modesty. Unfazed, Riggan began dragging him into the now-empty corridor.
“No time. Pants in the Roost.”
The naked cadet had neither the will nor logic to argue with his saviour if the Roost was their intended destination. He stumbled on, eyes trained to the floor, hoping the pair wouldn’t run into anyone else. Even if it meant they were the last to arrive at the emergency exodus vessel.
It was then that he realised Riggan was stumbling too. No, not stumbling. Skipping steps. Their feet weren’t falling where they placed them, lingering instead, drifting further. Daryl rifled through his memories for something to hold onto besides the Petty Officer’s lumbering frame, now that the gravity generators were failing too. How far to the Roost? Where were the nearest EVAC suits stashed? Why weren’t his legs functioning properly?
Rounding a sharp corner off-kilter — although Daryl couldn’t tell if it was the two of them or the walls which were tilting — he clipped the knuckles of his left foot on an unexpected edge and bit back a howl. They felt pain just fine.
“Got you. Just survive.” Riggan was there for him, staggering in the other direction.
“The docs,” he muttered, stapling slips of memory to the growing ream of operational knowledge falling back into place. “Why didn’t they get me out?”
Riggan’s fingers fell slack for a second before tightening about Daryl’s ribcage as he swung the pair around the next corner with a pull on the nearest handrail. The younger boy waited several drawn-out seconds for the answer and was about to repeat the question when the Petty Officer cleared his throat and chanced a look in Daryl’s direction for the first time since leaving the medical room.
“Lot’s happened since you played hero. Two days.” Riggan seemed to swallow his next words, taking a moment to reframe his explanation. The sound of the klaxon dimmed as Daryl leaned closer, adrenaline propping him upright. The hand on his ribcage relaxed, perhaps noticing the shift in weight. “The mine, it— Look, now’s not the time. Here.”
Ahead, their escape route widened into a dead end — a curved hammerhead punctuated by two heavy EVAC doors, their emergency lockers all but emptied and only the faintest flickering of orange visible behind the right door’s small square porthole. Riggan fell upon the nearest seal controls, half-thumbing, half-mashing the button sequence that would cycle the locks to enter the squat, cylindrical decontamination chamber connecting the hammerhead to the Roost. Daryl hit the door shoulder first and felt the wind leave his lungs, but the pincer grip on his other arm shocked him more. Riggan’s controlled demeanour had vanished like smoke.
“Rig—” he tried.
Daryl tumbled through the gap in the hissing bulkhead door before it had fully opened. He sprawled into the room, aware of a vague buzzing overhead and then a distant boom. Riggan had a foot and the last EVAC suit over the threshold when the shockwave caught up. The bulkhead bucked, breaking contact with the rotary airlock and causing the inner door to snap shut with a deafening gasp and a spray of crimson. Daryl was pulled hard into it, cheek smacking wet glass, ears popping.
The whites of Riggan’s eyes stared back, inches away, bulging unnaturally, and momentarily lit a ghastly purple from below before his body was consumed by the Roost’s engines blowing a pocket in the rising tsunami of grey dust and collapsing architecture. Burning hard for home and taking Daryl with it.
Escaping the silent demise of the moon as it shuddered, splintered, then broke in half.
Word Count: 995