Chapter 1: The Beginning (Part 1)
"Elise, I've never appreciated you more than I do right now."
Head cradled in his hands, Eiji Kurashiki spoke in a strained voice to the blond-haired, blue-eyed woman standing close behind him.
"How so, captain? After all, it has just become clear that I cannot be of any use to you."
"Come on, just talk to me."
"That task is currently in progress."
"You sure managed to find a lifeless way to say that."
"My apologies. I judged this to be a situation requiring humor."
"Thanks for the consideration."
"If conversation is what you desire, I can assist as much as necessary. Captain, I myself have never been happier to be a humanoid than right now, as opposed to a robot designed only for something like calculations or performing some specific task."
Eiji smiled weakly, then glanced again at the 3D display; in the back of his mind, he hoped that all of this would turn out to be a dream.
Of course, that wasn't going to happen. Critical error messages littered the display: primary and secondary magsail boosters lost, ASL system down, life support system running on reduced functionality...But what was the point of listing each and every one when a single message would suffice: "This spaceship will momentarily become space debris."
"I think it was around 30 years ago when it happened. There was an accident in a neighboring country where a cruise ship overturned. Of the 476 crew and passengers, 295 didn't make it. A majority of the passengers were highschool kids on a school trip. At the time, I was in highschool myself so I remember it vividly. The captain of that ship, abandoning his duty, tried to save himself ahead of everyone else."
Elise did not perform a search for information regarding said accident. Any machine with her level of sophistication could easily conjecture that at this moment, offering a listening ear to the captain was more important, and there was no need for such detailed information. Nonetheless, as communications were currently cut off from Earth, such a search–even if needed–was impossible.
"Society condemned that captain. Even I was livid with anger. I vowed that if my dreams came true and someday I became an astronaut, I would never desert my passengers, no matter what."
Eiji looked out his window at the Earth, which seemed close enough to touch. But with a complete loss of propulsion, it would be impossible for the spaceship Matchlock to return to its home planet–at least while the humans on board were still alive.
"Now I truly understand how that captain felt. I want to escape. I want to get out of here immediately. Nothing is more precious than my own life."
Even family? No, it was meaningless to think about that now. Eiji's family was not here.
"Elise, had no one been here to listen to me babble on like this, I might have acted on the terrible thoughts I'm having now."
"What thoughts would those be?"
"Like I said, I'd run away. Alone. You'd despise me for that, am I wrong?"
"I certainly would...assuming you did it alone. Because I wouldn't consider that a best-effort attempt."
"Best-effort? In this situation what exactly would that entail?"
"Saving two lives. I wouldn't despise you if two lives were saved, even if your own was one of them."
At present, the only method of transportation remaining for those on the ship Matchlock was a single two-person escape pod.
There were five passengers–travellers with the good fortune (or rather, the awful misfortune) to win Gondwana Corporation's generous sweepstakes.
The crew was comprised of a single human, Eiji Kurashiki, along with three humanoids. Elise was the only humanoid still operational.
In other words, there were six living beings on board. From those six, two had to be chosen to return to Earth alive.
"Who would have thought that a pleasure trip would end up like this...Elise, I feel bad for you too."
"This incident is not your responsibility. Furthermore, I can always be revived as long as someone brings my holographic memory home."
"Didn't you say there was some experiment you wanted to perform on this flight?"
"Yes, but for the time being we should focus on choosing who goes in the escape pod."
"...Yeah, that's true."
Eiji reclined back into his chair and gazed up at the ceiling.
"Well, to begin with, I shouldn't be one of them."
"Why is that?"
"As captain, it is my duty to protect the passengers' lives until the end."
"The situation has already reached what can be described as 'the end'. Captain, I would like to suggest that you view your own life as equivalent to those of the passengers."
"But if I did survive, what would I do then? How would I go on living? For the rest of my life I would be unable to escape from the public eye, or from the knowledge of the sin I committed."
"Would that not be the same for the passengers?"
"Perhaps. But I'm still the captain. I must put the passengers first."
"That's very honorable of you, captain."
"No, there's nothing honorable about it. I'm just saying that because it sounds like the right thing to say. Inside, I'm wanting like crazy to get out of here."
"But you are making an attempt to follow what you consider to be the 'right thing', correct?"
"I'm not sure. To be honest, Elise, I think I'm on the verge of giving in. That's why I'm talking to you, to try and maintain control of myself. If I escape, I'm going to regret it; nothing could be more obvious, and yet part of me still wants to."
If I don't escape, all that remains is death. Certain death. There's roughly a half-day until the oxygen runs out, and I can feel the terrible weight of desperation pressing in on my chest.
Copyright © J. D. Wisgo 2018
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