“What do you mean, we’re being attacked?”
“Oh my god, did they shoot us?”
My declaration is like the drop of water that breaks the dam. Everyone is talking at once, speaking over each other to make themselves heard. Just outside, more people race past in the hall, trying to reach the other SIP rooms on this floor. Alarm bells blare throughout the ship.
Sometimes I really hate how much bioengineering has increased my senses; I feel like I’m on the brink of stimulus overload.
“Shut up!” I bark. My voice is louder than I meant it to be, and it ricochets through the room like a bullet. Everyone stops talking. I take a deep breath and regulate my tone. “Look, we don’t know who or what it is. We were on the bridge, a ship detached itself from the asteroid we were trying to avoid, and that’s when we got the hell out of there.”
“Is it the Chinese?” someone asks in a small voice. I think it’s the mousy girl.
“No,” David answers. “Their stealth tech isn’t as advanced as ours.”
The redhead snorts. “That you know of.”
I fight back a wave of annoyance. “It’s not the Chinese. This is an international ship, remember? We have seven Chinese engineers in the crew, and they wouldn’t attack us knowing we have their citizens on board.”
“Is it an EU ship then?” someone else asks.
I’m starting to get a headache. “We don’t know, and we won’t know until this is over. Everyone not already strapped in needs to get to –”
Get to a seat, I was going to say. But the words die on my tongue as the ship jerks again. I catch myself on the wall right before the lights wink out and we’re plunged into darkness. Everything goes quiet. I mean really silent. It’s that split second before peoples’ brains process what happened and they start panicking or screaming, so there are no human voices to distract me from how utterly wrong this silence is. My advanced hearing means I’m constantly aware of sound – engines humming in the distance, machinery whirring, even water moving through pipes. Right now, there’s nothing. At all. Which means the ship has been completely disabled.
The next room over, someone screams. Our generator kicks on, and we’re flooded with soft, yellow light. The faces around me range from fear to panic to anger. The few people who were still standing race to seats and start strapping themselves in.
David sits closest to me, his eyes boring into mine. “They’ve disabled the ship?” He knows about my hearing. He knows all about my physiology since he’s a biologist.
This is bad. This is really, really bad. We’re three-quarters of the way to our destination, Io, over 300 million miles from earth, in the exact stretch of space where ships have gone missing since before I was born. An EU tanker was the first to disappear over thirty years ago. It was just starting its trip back to earth when comms cut out, and it was never heard from again. Ten more ships have gone poof since then. Are we about to be next?
The ship lurches, harder this time, hard enough that I feel my ankles complain when my body goes one way and my feet stay glued to the floor. I drop to my butt and activate the grav boosters on my hands, pressing them down, anchoring myself in place. This way I won’t snap a ligament if we keep jerking around, and I’m close enough to the door that if someone tries to break in, I can turn my grav boosters off and be ready to face them.
Dr. Stevens looks more freaked out than anyone else. I’ve been watching her out of the corner of my eye because she hasn’t uttered a peep since we left the bridge. She’s just sat quietly in her seat, hands wrapped around her knees, knuckles white. This isn’t like her. She’s usually stone cold, the quintessential, unflappable scientist.
“Hannah?” I say, hoping her first name will pull her out of it.
It does the trick. She jerks like I slapped her. Like she was somewhere far, far away, and my voice yanked her back to reality.
David is beside her, and he leans in with a look of concern. “Are you okay?”
She shakes her head. “I think… I think it’s an alien ship. I caught a glimpse of the enlarged image as Corporal Booker led us away. Between the engine flares and the design… we have nothing like it.” She shakes her head. “No one does.”
Panicked voices fill my ears. I close my eyes for a second and allow myself to acknowledge how utterly fucked we might be. I was assigned to this ship with nine other shock troops because Space Force thought it might be humans attacking ships out here. The Russians or the Venezuelans, maybe. That they’d secretly advanced their stealth and weapons tech and were capturing other ships to increase their fleet. But Dr. Stevens thinks the ship is alien, and she’s probably the smartest person I’ve ever met, so there’s that.
Up until this point, we only had the vaguest confirmation that aliens were even real and active in our solar system, and only thanks to a few blurry videos of ships moving lightyears faster than the fastest known human vessels. Well, that and first-hand accounts from soldiers and crew all over the Space Force fleet, but those have been largely disregarded by the masses. People back on earth assume booze or boredom can explain away most of those stories. That left just video feeds because none of our other technology is advanced enough to detect them.
Oh, shit. That ensign in the command room, what was his name? Farley? He said the ship didn’t show up on his scopes. Looks like Dr. Stevens is right. All early signs point to aliens.
I give myself several heartbeats to process this, letting the sound of raised voices wash over me. Not for the first time, I’m thankful for my long years of training. It makes it easy for me to accept a crappy situation and think through the worst of it. Survival needs to become my priority. It needs to become everyone’s priority.
I open my eyes and sit a little straighter. “Listen up.” My voice is calm, even, half as loud as several other peoples’, but everyone goes quiet anyway. “There might still be a chance that it’s humans, but this is going to be bad either way. We have to assume that anyone attacking our ship is hostile to us. Get cozy and settle in. We’ll probably be here for a while. None of the ship’s systems have kicked back on yet.”
“How do you know that?” the Latino man asks.
Might as well rip the bandage off. “Because I can hear that they haven’t. I’m a shock troop.”
Several people suck in harsh breaths. The young, mousy woman whimpers.
Jesus, I didn’t realize people were still this afraid of us. I mean, I’ve seen enough men and women flinch away from me when they learn what I am to know that they’re wary of us, but I’ve never been locked in a room with someone just finding out. The reek of fear rolling off them is strong enough that I can taste it on my tongue. What the hell do they think I’m going to do? Go postal? It’s been years since the bioengineering that created me was perfected, and I’m young enough that they should know I was born from a relatively safe clutch. No one from my year has gone off the rails and killed anyone like the earlier generations were known to do with, okay, admittedly alarming frequency.
“Relax,” I say. “I have enough meds on me to last a month.”
“Meds?” Jackson asks.
I nod. “They keep me nice and calm.” Control my hormones, dampen some of my, uh, less evolved instinctual responses.
“What happens when they run out?” the redhead asks. She’s leaned way back in her seat like I might be about to pounce.
I shoot her a hard look. “I’ll probably start punching people who ask me stupid questions.”
I drag in a deep breath. Snapping at people won’t reassure them that I’m not a threat. “Look, I’m not the problem here.” Not yet, at least. “Whoever attacked us is. If you’re going to freak out about that, I suggest you do it now.”
The redhead frowns. “Like we have a choice about when we freak out?”
“What’s your name?” I ask her.
“Okay, Cora. You’re onboard the USS Kennedy.”
The look she sends me is withering. “I know that.”
“This ship might be small, but it’s advanced. We have the best weapons available, the best detection systems, and a highly trained crew.” I break eye contact with her and look at the others spread out around me. “That ship out there just completely disabled us within five minutes of showing up. That is a very, very bad thing. We’re probably going to be boarded. And then we will all be killed or captured. That is the reality. There is no way of escaping that reality.”
“But you’re a shock troop,” Jackson says.
I somehow manage to repress a sigh. People might fear my kind, but it doesn’t seem to stop them from all but hero-worshipping us, from thinking that we’re some sort of immortal breed of warrior capable of taking out enemy armies single-handedly.
“Yes, I’m a shock troop,” I say. “But I’m only one person. I can’t fight off an entire ship full of hostiles by myself, and I have no idea where the rest of my unit is, so I don’t even plan on fighting if someone gets to our door.”
“What the fuck,” Cora says, her brows scrunched together in anger. “Why not?”
It’s David who answers. “Because she isn’t suicidal, and her mission is to protect us. She can’t do that if she’s dead.”
I nod, grateful, for once, for that big brain of his. “Exactly. Right now, we need to focus on surviving. If we’re separated, and a chance to escape presents itself to one of you, take it. Otherwise, try to stay as calm as you can.”
The mousy woman next to Cora lets out a watery laugh. “Stay calm?” Her voice has a hysterical edge I don’t like. “Stay calm? We’re about to be boarded by aliens!”
Cora reaches out and puts an arm around her. “It’s okay.”
I shake my head. “No. It’s not okay. Let her freak out if she wants to freak out.”
Cora shoots me a glare.
I ignore it and turn my attention to everyone else. “We’re about to be boarded, captured, or killed.” I’m repeating myself a little, but I need to drive a few points home for these people, and reminding them, again, that we’re fucked is a great way to do that. “If it’s aliens, anything is possible. We might be experimented on, sold into slavery, or made into the pet plaything of a creature out of our worst nightmares. There will likely be no escaping that. Take this time to think about it. Really think about it. And after you think about it, make a decision. Try to survive what’s to come, or speak up now if you would rather a quick, relatively painless end.”
Cora leans back in her seat again. “You’re going to kill us?” She looks around at the others as if for allies. “Snap our necks or something?”
I frown. “What? No.”
“I’d do it,” the other male scientist says. Dr. Charles Acharya. He’s a middle-aged Indian American man with salt and pepper hair. David is the biologist, Hannah the rocket scientist, and Charles the medical doctor. “There’s a euthanasia kit in the room,” he says. “We’d put you to sleep and then stop your heart. You wouldn’t feel a thing.”
Unsurprisingly, no one takes him up on that. That means some of them are still harboring hope that this won’t end badly.
I share a look with Dr. Acharya. His face is grim. He knows what I know. This is going to be really bad for everyone on board.
Copyright © 2021 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.