by Floyd Looney
Wrapped in blankets, huddled in the chair of the communications station on the bridge Claire thought about the events that left her stranded aboard this derelict ship. The small light from above the terminal the only illumination was a small comfort as she felt the cold creep ever deeper.
She wipes condensation from the only working screen at the work station with her gloved hand. The liquid quickly froze into ice crystals and fell to the floor.
“Is there really no one out there at all?” Claire wondered to herself. Her mayday signal had been repeating for days and there had been no response. It made sense that another ship wouldn't hear her plea for salvation, this was the frontier after all.
She could see the dim blue light of a world called Sepia 7 coming through one of the portholes. Claire knew that her last, desperate chance was using one of the escape pods and trying to reach the research station there. Not that it would be any better than dying on the ship, but it was a human thing to try something, anything even if it was reaching for phantom straws.
“My name is Claire Austin. I am the Junior Communications Officer aboard the frigate Independence. The ship is a wreck, the rest of the crew are dead. I am officially invoking the First Law and declaring an emergency, I request assistance...”
They are all dead. Some of them died trying to escape, because even the pods are hardly capable of miracles. Claire had lost compatriots, friends and Harley. Her feelings for that man were complicated but he had died like a hero. That had been a week ago, but it felt like a year. Harley had pushed a Junior Engineer into an escape pod, when he could have taken it for himself.
Instead he had fought off the nightmare long enough for the younger man to escape. The creatures outer shell disintegrated into a million tiny fragments, and these fragments had moved from the alien and onto Harley as they fought. These fragments had eaten Harley alive but they left the rest of his body alone when the end finally came.
Claire had to dispose of the body later. It had been the hardest thing she had done since saying goodbye to her father at his funeral service. Harley had been so big and strong, it was hard to imagine that anyone or anything could have done that. This alien thing had come aboard and ransacked the place, killed the crew and left again.
Claire saw no rhyme or reason as to what had happened. Harley had locked her into a maintenance shaft when it looked bad. It was cramped and the vents in front of her brought her air but also enough of a view of the corridor to see what happened.
Later, Claire pieced together what happened from the security footage and sensors. About ten people, a quarter of the crew, had escaped in pods. The sensors showed what had happened to most of them, Claire could not fathom it but the aliens had destroyed the escape pods. The rest were butchered in the corridors while fighting, some were killed as they slept in their bunks.
Most of the crew had been issued arms to fight the intruder, but this proved futile. The aliens swept through the frigate like ghostly invasion force. The weapons had been useless, but the aliens did not respect mercy, they loathed it.
“Sepia Seven.” The Captain had informed them. “It is cold and pretty inhospitable but there is a more or less breathable atmosphere and water ice. Neither of these are exactly pure, of course.”
The research station had been abandoned years ago, but some of the automated systems were still operating. There is an occasional vessel to download the research and logs, but also to check up on the conditions of the research station in case it was needed in an emergency.
Now, Claire was alone. The ships internal batteries were nearly drained, the last escape pod was waiting for her. It was so cold she wondered if the atmosphere inside the ship could freeze solid before she realized she'd be dead long before that question could be answered.
Even if she managed to reach Sepia Seven alive with an intact escape pod, there was little chance she could survive there. It was a lifeless frozen world normally covered by a blanket of blizzard. Claire had spent less than 10-minutes looking at and listening to a short lecture on the escape pods when she joined the crew of the Independence, three years ago.
It would be three miracles if she managed to crash land anywhere near the research station. She barely knew how to pilot the escape pod. Putting a space suit on before entering the pod would be pointless, there weren't any suits. There hadn't been enough for anywhere near a majority of the crew. The ISTAR had been pinching pennies when they supplied their ships, apparently.
Claire unbuckled the seat harness that kept her from floating around the cabin. She kicked off from the seat and floated through the bridge where the open hatch beckoned her to the escape pod. Looking back at the communications station, she felt home sick already. Saying goodbye was hard, but this ship was already dead. She pushed herself through the short tunnel and found herself inside of the escape capsule.
It was tiny. There was barely enough room for her to push herself into the seat and strap in. Claire couldn't imagine trying to get into the seat wearing a uniform. She flipped the three buttons that were supposed to use battery power to warm up the control panel.
Less than twelve percent remained in the batteries. Claire did not know if she could survive a trip to Sepia Seven. She could not determine if the life support system was working at all. It had just enough fuel to launch itself toward the nearby world, but there wouldn't be any course corrections.
It was no time to do an inspection, Claire decided, whatever else was in the capsule-shaped escape pod could wait. It was time to leave.
The computer panel was warmed up and seemed to be operating normally. Step One, release the docking magnetic clamps.
*Shnak* The immediate sensation is relief. Claire noticed the lack of vibration, everything was deathly silent. The pod drifted away from Independence as she watched through the porthole. She was seeing first hand that there was a real cloud of debris surrounding the frigate.
The frigate looked like a cylinder in space. The Independence was once a proud vessel but now it looked like a tin can without its tuna.
Claire reached out and wiped the condensation from the porthole in front of her as every breath blasted out a white cloud. She should be breathing through her nose, but it was something that she never spent much time thinking about before.
The computer was working after she rubbed off the crusting ice from the its screen. There was also ice forming on the porthole in front of her. Sepia Seven was the nearest planet so it was already listed as a possible destination. She tapped that option before trying to find out about the capsules life support. It's power levels were too drained to turn on whatever heaters it might have, though.
She felt the kick of acceleration after the pod had reoriented itself. In a matter of hours she would be on the surface of a frozen planet. As if that would really be much of an improvement in the grand scheme of things. Still, Claire wanted to live. No matter how far-fetched it sounded, she would do whatever she could.
Claire wrapped up tighter in the blankets. She had time to review everything she knew about the blue orb. It was too far from the parent star to receive much heat or light, even at noon it was like early daybreak back on Earth. It was bitterly cold, always. The air was breathable and the snow was made of water ice and this meant it had some small potential for human settlement.
The aliens may have their own base there, though. It was right in the border area, which was a wide swath on the star maps. Alien territory had never been truly defined, it's not like they talk to us. For all we know the aliens were just xenocidal killers.
“Find the beacon.” Claire said to herself as the computer continued to search for the site of the abandoned research station. There was no telling how much power this was using from the near-dead batteries, but at least it was a passive scan.
The condensation was freezing on the surfaces even faster than it had aboard the Independence, already there was ice covering the portholes. Since the engines had cut out a while ago, Claire found herself drifting off to sleep. It was cold, quiet and dark and being wrapped in blankets brought back memories of her childhood winters when the whole family slept in late.
Humans hadn't expected to find another space-faring civilization. After colonizing and exploring two hundred solar system, most people decided that we must be alone in the galaxy. The first human vessels to be attacked hadn't known what hit them, they had been totally unprepared.
Even after the slaughters became known there were politicians fighting against arming our ships and building a military space fleet. They wanted to reach out to the aliens with love and kindness and they had a majority in the Inter-Star Assembly. So a mission was devised in which a vessel with only a few occupants, broadcasting messages of peace and kindness was sent toward the area where attacks had taken place.
The twisted hulk of the vessel was found months later drifting in the outskirts of what would be seen as a “gray zone”, or a border area. The insides of the ship had been ripped apart but they missed a deeply embedded back-up hard drive where security footage and logs were saved.
It had been a total slaughter. The aliens didn't even bother treating the humans as enemies or even animals. They were much more brutal than that.
The footage was kept secret for months by the High Commissioner until the massacre of a small colony shocked the human species to its core. There was nothing the authorities could do to cover it up or explain it away. These aliens were treating humans as if we were ants. You couldn't reason or even communicate with these monsters.
Claire awoke with a start. The interior of the escape pod was covered with ice now but a faint blue glow permeated. Sepia Seven was close. She scraped ice off of the computer monitor and found that she was in orbit but that the computer had chosen a landing site and would fire engines in a braking maneuver within a few minutes.
Perhaps the computer had located the stations' beacon below. The thought was barely enough to make her feel a little better. When the braking maneuver took place Claire had the dreaded feeling that this was all going a little too smoothly under the circumstances. The escape pod could land in the middle of a frozen desert, perhaps once an ocean. Or the mountains, which would be a disaster.
No. She had to believe in something, waste no time worrying about what-ifs. She steeled herself for the worst while hoping for the best. Just trying to tell herself to push away all the negative thoughts.
Suddenly the escape pod buffeted and shook. The light blue glow from outside had hints of orange and the sheet of ice on the surfaces started melting. Claire imagined that she had a miles-long streak of fire following her entry. If there were aliens down there... She shook her head. Just stop.
Strangely, Claire did not feel any heat or warmth even though the ice was melting. She felt the escape pod falling now. The sensation on her stomach was very uncomfortable, as if her stomach was trying to flee. As suddenly as it started it ended, she heard the para-wing chute open and felt relief. She breathed the cold air in deeply, having held her breath before.
The monitor said that the estimated landing site was less than 3 miles from the research station, but the location look wrong on a topographical map that it displayed. As she tried to figure out what was wrong with the display, it went blank. The last of the power in the battery must be dead. The altitude reading had said that she was 1,000 meters up when it had went blank.
Claire closed her eyes and then looked at the porthole, a part of it was ice free and she could see a large black eye looking in at her. Scared, she closed her eyes, holding in a scream. When she opened her eyes it was gone. Now she was seeing things. A few minutes from being on the surface and she was already losing it. Great.
“From here on out the readings will be useless.” Grantor complained. “We'll have to start the simulation all over again.”
His associate looked disapproving. “This one has already been through the analyzer more than fifteen times, I am afraid it has outlived its usefulness to our purposes.”
“It's probably already been corrupted enough. It's memories are not intact and reactions to stimuli are no longer valid. Some of the other specimens have proved much more valuable.”
The associate grimaced and sighed, “Dispose of this one, we have others.”
Claire opened her eyes again. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
The crew had not been slaughtered when the aliens invaded. They had been fitted with mental control collars. The aliens rushed them and placed the devices on their heads, her memory now showed. As soon as this happened the crew members were out of it and were dragged off by the aliens.
The escape pods had not been destroyed as they fled. They had been captured.
Claire realized her own memories had been compromised. All of the strange thoughts and feelings, how many had come from others? No. They were all hers. As if she had been through the same ordeal many times.
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