Jonny threw himself down the corridor. He was grinning wildly – someone was trying to access the airlocks, and he was going to stop them with violence. He hadn’t done a violence to someone since the Mechanisms set out for Valhöll and it was making him uncomfortable.
Launching himself across an intersection, he rebounded off the opposite wall and rocketed away towards the outer hull. Ahead of him he could see the solid steel circle of the airlock door being hauled shut by a shadowy figure in a large, heavy coat. Jonny shouted with glee. He shot off a couple of rounds; despite the wild inaccuracy of his in-the-air shooting, one of them ricocheted off the airlock door and connected with the thief’s arm. A muttered Sprussian curse and a spray of silver blood splashed against the wall.
This caught Jonny by surprise. He didn’t quite manage to slow himself in time and collided heavily with the airlock. As he bounced backwards, wheeling his arms to regain his balance, he said: ‘Nastya?’
The engineer looked at him sulkily. She was cradling her arm, from which a miniature solar system of wobbling mercury droplets was oozing. ‘Hello, Jonny,’ she said. Her voice was arch.
The mate holstered his pistol. Examining her more closely now, he saw that Nastya was dressed for travel: the heavy Cyberian coat she had been cradled in when he first saw her centuries ago complemented with a re-breather and gun belt. She had also dropped something when she had been hit. Jonny bent down and heard her hiss as he picked up the rusted square of sheet metal – he recognised it as a small section of the outer hull plating.
‘Give that back!’
Jonny looked from the chunk of metal to Nastya with the most uncomprehending of expressions. He held the plate up and out of reach when, with a slight gasp of pain, Nastya tried to snatch it back from him. He fended her off easily. ‘What the hell are you up to?’ he asked. ‘Going somewhere?’
‘Out.’ Nastya made another pass at the plating.
‘Uh-uh. That’s not a good enough answer. It’s not really an answer at all, and I’m going to need a whole explanation before I give you this…hunk of junk back. Come on. Where are you going?’
The engineer looked up at the sheet metal that Jonny was holding well out of her reach with something like anguish before finally shrugging. ‘I told you. Out. I don’t know where. Somewhere else.’
‘But we’re in the middle of fucking nowhere!’ The Aurora was, indeed, still a fair few years from making landfall, but Nastya shrugged again as if she didn’t care. ‘OK then. You can be a mysterious fucking cable-fucker if you want. When are you coming back?’
Jonny froze. He just stared at her. The Mechanisms didn’t not come back. They wandered off by themselves often enough, sure: sometimes someone left to go and do something that only they’d find important, and sometimes someone got left behind, and sometimes that was even deliberate. But they always found their way back to the Aurora in the end. It was as if there was something drawing them all back there, and the Mechanisms knew it. Because it was impossible, none of them ever seriously considered the possibility of their leaving for good.
Least of all Nastya. Nastya, who had fallen in love with the Aurora the moment she had woken up aboard it with mercury flowing through her veins. Nastya, who had only left the Aurora for any extended period of time once in Jonny’s memory – and then to lay to rest some ghosts so she’d never have to leave again. Nastya, who cared for the Aurora better than she cared for herself or anything else in this god-forsaken universe.
Jonny gawped, and the engineer took advantage of his momentary distraction to finally snatch the metal sheet out of his hands. She held it to her chest and turned to go.
Jonny reached out to grab her shoulder. She spun round unwillingly and confronted him, eyebrow raised. The mate was lost for words as he cast about for some rhyme or reason to this sudden development. ‘What’s so important about that fucking metal, then?’ was all he could think of to say. ‘Taking a little memento so you don’t forget your precious fucking spaceship?’ Thinking that was pretty clever, he laughed.
Nastya did not laugh. She left an uncomfortably long pause until Jonny’s laughter had died away, and then just said: ‘No. I’m taking her with me.’
‘All of her that’s left.’
Jonny stared, utterly nonplussed.
‘Think how long she’s been flying you around. Think how many bullet holes you’ve punched through her and how many atmospheres you’ve dropped her through. Think how many alterations and improvements we’ve made, Tim to her guns and Ashes to her storage and Brian to her engines and the Toy Soldier to who knows what. How much do you think is left of her after all she’s brought you through?’ Nastya held up the ancient, battered piece of hull plating. Just visible under the grime and scars of particles of space junk was a fragment of the Aurora’s original logo and serial number. Jonny honestly couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a version that hadn’t been painted by the Mechanisms themselves.
‘So she’s free, now.’ Nastya gestured around at the spaceship they were standing in. ‘This Aurora can take you where you want to go. I’m going to take my Aurora somewhere else.’
‘And you’re not coming back?’ Nastya shook her head. Why should she? She reached out to push the airlock shut. This time Jonny only half-heartedly put out a hand to stop her, but she pushed him away determinedly. A little more quicksilver spilled over his hand and he gave up and pulled away. The airlock shut with a click and a thud.
Somewhere in the depths of space. In the far distance, hardly distinct from any of the other stars she could see, the sun of Valhöll glimmered coldly. Its light was only partly occluded by a solar sail as it unfurled and began to decelerate the Mechanisms into their next tragedy. Nastya sized up the vectors with the help of a portable computer. Then she gave the dead lump of metal in front of her the gentlest of pushes. It drifted away from her and began its slow spiral downwards into the heart of the nearby system and eventual cremation in the heart of the star.
Already the freezing temperature of the void was beginning to seep into her body, no matter how hard her blood fought to keep it at bay. She anxiously checked the calculations on the computer once more. All was well. The Aurora’s last journey was laid perfectly out in front of her. Nastya floated in the darkness, feeling her limbs grow heavy. She jack-knifed until she was facing away from her erstwhile companions – romantic and otherwise. She wondered when she would end up where. And with her last flicker of consciousness before her brain ground to a halt, she hoped she would not mind it when she eventually woke up.
Nastya Rasputina was a founding member of the Mechanisms. She played strings and synths with them from 2010-2015 and had a hand in the writing of both Once Upon a Time (in Space) and High Noon Over Camelot. Upon the death of the Aurora she finally abandoned the Mechanisms to their own devices; her current whereabouts are unknown.