“I don’t want to.” Rejali started to fold her arms, but realized that gesture might come across as bratty rather than just hesitation to negotiate.
The left corner of Cormac’s mouth curled up. “Since when has not wanting to ever stopped you?”
Blazes, they’d met each other only a few days ago, and he was already taking advantage of her sense of duty. They hadn’t agreed to accepting this marital arrangement – yet – but she suspected Cormac had already made up his mind. In all likelihood they were only waiting on her decision.
He flicked a finger toward a nearby maintenance pod, one of the various vessels scattered through the holding bay. “If you get a feel for what it’s like to navigate a spacecraft, you can better determine if you’ll ever want to do it again.”
He had a point, which counted both in his favor and against. His approach to problems relied primarily on logic, which was good. But it was possible he relied too heavily on his own judgment.
She glanced toward Father Garfin, a somewhat elderly gentleman about twenty paces behind them and visiting with some random stranger working in the bay. “What if he doesn’t want to go off-world on a lark?”
“There’s no ship called a lark.” Cormac shrugged as he began walking toward the priest and motioned for her to follow. “But we can ask him.”
Was that a joke? She did appreciate his sense of humor, but pondered just how dry it got sometimes as she fell into step beside him. The levity counted as a positive trait, especially for someone who for all the under two decades of his life had been hunted for something he’d never done.
And now, because of her training in a particular branch of defensive arts – and the other parameters she met – she’d been tossed into his trajectory. Since they were going about the business of getting to know each other, a chaperone always accompanied them. This time Father Garfin was stuck with that duty.
Cormac did wait for the priest to wrap up his chat with the stranger before asking, “How about we go for a celestial spin, Father? Rej agreed she ought to try piloting a spacecraft, considering it’s something she might need to know later.”
She could take umbrage with Cormac’s choice of words, but the light frown that crossed the priest’s face stirred hope he would decline. If he didn’t go, they couldn’t go.
Garfin’s voice was deep and smooth. “Fly a ship? You aren’t a registered pilot.”
“Ah … hah.” Cormac’s gaze darted to her and back to the priest. “I’ve been known to take off in the nearest vehicle that facilitated an escape.”
“I see.” Garfin studied him with a deadpan expression. “You might tell me more about that later. But if this knowledge plays a role in your survival, then perhaps Disciple Rejali should try it out.”
Although hearing her recently acquired title still seemed anomalous, that wasn’t what caused the tremor in the pit of her stomach. Until a little over a week ago she’d never traveled off the planet of Hin where she’d grown up. Hurtling through space was still … extremely disconcerting.
So Garfin dashed her hopes by making the arrangements to borrow a shuttle, a basic passenger and cargo ship used for commuting between the planet and larger spacecraft. The cylindrical, ivory vessel fit three in the operating cab, which might have been one of the reasons the priest chose it.
Rejali sat on the far left where most of the control panel was mounted. As Cormac took the seat beside her, she frowned at all the switches, buttons, and display screens before her.
“I don’t even know where the On button is,” she grumbled.
Cormac smirked again as Father Garfin settled on their right. “There’s not just one button to start it. And first of all, you have to put it through a systems check. You can’t even take off until you do.”
He talked her through that process, and all the readouts and lights confirmed the systems were ready for takeoff. And then he instructed her on the motions to actually start the shuttle.
The roar of the thrust engines beneath them caused her heartbeat to quicken, but as the vessel lifted from the ground, only the knowledge they were headed for space nagged at her apprehension. She was no stranger to flight itself, and always enjoyed gazing upon the expanse of creation.
Rejali tried to hold on to that satisfaction as they sailed through the air. This, she could take a liking to. It wasn’t heights that distressed her.
But as they rose ever higher, the sky ahead growing darker, she contemplated that perhaps she knew too much about space. If only she didn’t understand that exposure to its vacuum would force the water in skin and blood to vaporize and the body to expand like a balloon filling with air. Since there was no air, however, the lungs would collapse, not to mention the person would freeze within ten seconds.
There were few good ways to die, but that one seemed too unnatural.
Because they were on the side of the planet facing the sun, no stars emerged in the dark distance. Her stomach fluttered again as Rejali reminded herself that even in this vast desolation, they really weren’t totally alone.
Cormac’s tone was warm and approving. “You’re a natural.”
“Can we go back now?” There might have been some tension in her voice.
“Glide along the curve of the horizon for a few minutes. You’ll find—”
Their craft shuddered, and a red light started flashing on the panel.
Her heart pounded against her chest as she snapped, “What happened?”
Garfin leaned forward to study the panel. “Fuel cell?”
“No big deal.” Cormac still sounded completely calm. “It’s just a minor clog, probably some grit that managed to suck in.”
Rejali frowned at him. “Why didn’t the systems check find that before we took off?”
He shrugged. “Because it didn’t happen until after we took off. We’re not in any danger. A clogged fuel cell just makes the ride a little bumpier.”
He might also be a liar. She was pretty sure she’d heard of explosions brought about by fuel cell malfunctions.
“I’m taking us back.” Rejali tapped the instrument panel in the method she hoped she remembered to turn them around.
The craft shuddered again.
She glared at Cormac as Garfin asked, “Was that another fuel cell or the same one?”
“Looks like the same one.” Her companion’s tone was more pensive. “But yeah, I agree, we might as well head back.”
“So much for inspiring my confidence in space,” Rejali muttered.
A few seconds passed before Cormac responded, “Nothing like a crisis to build confidence. You’re still operating the controls correctly. Very commendable for a first outing.”
“Very likely my last outing.”
The vessel rattled several more times as it made its descent, each time renewing a quickening of her heart. The reentry into atmosphere shook them around more than when she first arrived at this planet, but Rejali wasn’t sure if that was because the first craft had been larger. She was in no mood to ask.
The engines shifted to a high whine as they approached the landing pad, and the shuttle bumped considerably as it touched down.
“Hit that row of switches to shut it off.” Cormac’s tone was calm again. “See, we made it back just fine.”
A realization struck her as she followed his instructions. The engines hummed into silence while she locked her gaze on him.
“Why didn’t you take over navigation when the fuel cell failed?”
He smiled as he placed his palm against the back of her hand. Its warmth and steadiness made her aware that she was cold and trembling.
“You were handling it perfectly. And the cell never failed. We were in no danger.” He glanced toward the priest who’d remained silent once they started entering atmosphere. “Right, Father?”
“Not now.” Garfin’s voice was lower than ever. “I’m in the middle of the Confiteor.”
“Aha, see?” As the words left her lips, Rejali’s conscience cringed with the fact their chaperone had reflexively prayed, but she had not. She’d been far too focused on operating the craft in order to return alive.
If only Cormac had taken over the controls, she wouldn’t have been so distracted. Her glare deepened as she continued speaking.
“He knows we were in danger. The last thing I need is a bunch of sweet talk when it’s time to confront the grittiness of reality. And as the experienced pilot, you should have taken over.”
Cormac watched her for a few seconds, his lips slightly clamped. He shrugged.
“You may be right. I just thought that if you did it all yourself, it would help you overcome your anxiety. But maybe I should’ve stepped in, helped you even more than I did. It’s just … you really did do an excellent job.”
“Don’t put too much faith in my abilities.”
He nodded, and a smile touched his lips again. “It wasn’t just your abilities I had faith in. I sorta figured that since I was sitting between a priest and a disciple, whatever happened could only be for the best.”
Rejali stared at him. For the first time since they’d met, he’d confessed belief in something beyond facts and data. He’d alluded to part of what had brought her into the Discipline. Maybe … maybe she was beginning to see there was more to him than she first noticed.
Perhaps she should continue to think about this arrangement for a while longer.
Here is this month’s submission to #BlogBattle, and the prompt word this time is Navigate. Give yourself a treat for the holidays and check out the other contributions. Merry Christmas!