I got meta two months in a row with the SFF World flash fiction contest, first with fantasy, next with sci-fi. The theme was impending doom, and the run-up to Prometheus had me thinking about Alien, and the calmly insistent Mother casually repeating that it might be a good time to get as far away from the ship as possible popped into my head. And so this story was born. Also, I’d like to add that this story was written before I’d even read one word of John Scalzi’s Redshirts, but I’m pleased to see that he and I are sort of on the same wavelength.
“The automated destruct sequence has been activated. You have ten minutes to reach minimum safe distance.”
“Well she doesn’t have to be so damn cheerful about it,” Holt grumbled as the ship’s message echoed through her corridors. He hazarded a look over his shoulder as he ran, but saw no sign of the grontling horde. He hoped the weld on the hatchway would hold just a little while longer.
“Classic reverse psychology in a high stress situation,” Dexter said between exhausted breaths. “They figured if you’re blowing the ship up, you’ve got enough problems without the ship yelling at you to get off of it.”
“You now have eight minutes to reach minimum safe distance,” the computer soothed.
“Wait, she just skipped nine!” Holt shouted as a geyser of steam that seemed to have very little to do with the self-destruct process blasted out of a near-by bulkhead.
Dexter furrowed his brow. “That does seem a little off. Computer!” he shouted overhead as they ran. “Request updated time to reach minimum safe distance!”
“You now have six minutes to reach minimum safe distance,” the computer purred.
“There’s no damn way we just lost two minutes just then!”
“Computer,” Dexter said, trying to keep his voice calm even as he and Holt raced towards the shuttle bay, “that estimate seems inaccurate. Please recalibrate!”
“The estimate is dramatically appropriate. You now have four minutes to reach minimum safe distance.” The computer’s voice oozed with a sincerity that could have sold fire on Mercury.
“Dramatically appropriate?” Holt gasped, both from exhaustion and incredulity.
“Just our luck,” Dexter said, narrowly dodging a stray grontling before Holt dispatched it with a quick blast from his particle beam. “In addition to life support paradigms and navigational routines, she’s been programmed with narrative protocols.”
“What?” Holt yelled as the not-quite-dead grontling made one last desperate leap at him. “We’re not supposed to have that! Only the front line ships! You know, the ones with the heroes!” He kicked the grontling and cored its head with a well-placed beam.
“It would seem our current predicament has upgraded us to main character status!” Dexter replied as the two of them slid beneath a rapidly closing air-tight hatchway.
“I didn’t sign up for main character status!” Holt complained.
“It’s in the contract,” Dexter said, frantically working the keypad that controlled entry to the shuttle bay. “At any time we can be upgraded to main character status in the absence of a compelling protagonist.”
Holt shook his head. All their compelling protagonists had been sucked through the hull breach created by the grontling attack and were currently compelling specks falling toward the surface of Calperon below. Then he started. “She’s gotten quiet.”
Dexter cocked his head. “You’re right.” He finished the code sequence and the door whooshed open. “Maybe she’s recalibrating. How long should it take to complete the shuttle’s pre-flight prep?” he added as they sprinted towards the waiting craft.
“Only a minute or two,” Holt said as they ran up the ramp. All around them, pieces of the cruiser that seemed to have been designed solely to break away and fall at this very moment crashed down to the deck.
“You now have forty-five seconds to reach minimum safe distance.”
“Oh she was doing that on purpose!” Holt raged, his hands flying over the control interfaces as he hurried to fire up the engines. The shuttle wobbled and lifted off, accelerating towards the entrance to the docking bay. The blast doors that protected the bay in the event of an attack were irising closed as they approach.
“You have got to be kidding me!” Holt screamed as he rammed the throttle up to full power.
“You do kind of have to admire the build-up of dramatic –”
“Would you shut up!”
“You now have five seconds to reach minimum safe distance.”
“This is so not fair.”
“Supporting character! SUPPORTING!”
“The doors are closing!”
“I can see that!”
The shuttle barely slipped through the gap in the doors, jarring Holt and Dexter as the upper air foil clipped the edge of the door. They both closed their eyes, bracing themselves for the reactor overload taking place behind them to go critical, tearing the cruiser apart, along with the grontling horde and, very likely, themselves.
They turned around and saw the cruiser growing smaller behind them, but not quickly enough to suit either of them.
Dexter smiled. “Clever girl.”
The cruiser lurched, then slightly collapsed in on itself. With a soundless burst of energy, it then flew apart, scattering bits of irradiated hull and confused grontling all over the quadrant. The shuttle craft was buffeted by the debris, both organic and inorganic, but the blast only teased the rear of the craft before subsiding. Holt slumped back in his seat, then looked at Dexter suspiciously. “What did you mean, ‘clever girl’?”
“Heroic time dilation!” Dexter beamed like a proud parent. “She knew to stretch out the final seconds to make our escape all the more dramatic! What a piece of machinery!” His face fell. “It’s a shame a work of art like her was destroyed in that explosion.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Holt said, plotting a course for the nearest star base. “I’ve had enough drama for one day.”
“Warning,” came a familiar soothing voice, “oxygen supply at critical levels, seventy-five percent and falling…”