We’re in the room for three days. Three days of eight people having to share one toilet and one shower. It’s not ideal, to say the least.
I’m used to cramped quarters. I’ve been sharing space with other humans since I was born, whether that was my early days in a lab or my later years in a barracks. I don’t get embarrassed easily. Bodily fluids don’t freak me out. I can tell that’s not the case with many of the others. Some of them come out of the toilet room with beet-red faces, knowing we can smell what they just did in there. I’d tell them to get over it, but there’s no point. If other people smelling their shit is the worst of what happens to them from this point on, they’ll be the luckiest bastards on board.
I smother a yawn. Nicholas Jackson and I sit on the floor together. Turns out Nick’s an ex-gunnery sergeant, which means he knows how to handle the ray gun slung across his back. He and I are the biggest people in here, with the most combat training, so we’ve parked our asses right in front of the door and have only moved to shower or go to the bathroom. We sleep in shifts. People bring our food to us, but otherwise, they leave us be. I’m glad for that. Several of our new roommates have had full-blown meltdowns over the past few days as reality finally set in, highlighting just how small this space is.
The ship has stayed offline for the most part. Every time one of its backup generators hummed to life, it was quickly disabled. I told the others because I don’t want any of them to drum up false hope. If a miracle does happen and we don’t end up as lab rats, then they can celebrate, but hoping for that outcome is futile.
“Rummy in the pile,” Nick says, leaning forward to scoop up the ace I just discarded.
Damn it. That’s twice now. I need to pay better attention.
“You’re distracted,” he says, voice low.
Ever since I told everyone about my advanced hearing, he and I have been having conversations like this, where he whispers just loud enough for only me to hear him and I answer with nods or shakes of my head. Nick’s a good sort. He’s resigned to his fate and plans to face it bravely. He hasn’t freaked out, and I’ll be shocked if he ever does.
I nod at him. He’s right; I am distracted. But I don’t want to tell him why. I don’t think there’s a reason to. Yet.
I tilt my head toward the door, listening as another set of footsteps passes in the hallway. Is it a crew member? A passenger who didn’t get to safety in time or doesn’t realize the danger of being out and about? Or someone else? Something else? I don’t know. I might be able to hear through the door, but the seal is airtight, so smells can’t penetrate our SIP room.
The footsteps move along, and I turn my attention back to the card game. I’m getting my ass kicked, and I don’t like it.
More footsteps approach our door a few minutes later. Then someone speaks.
I drop my cards and raise a hand, indicating silence. Everyone in the room shuts up. I hear someone’s mouth pop open like they’re going to ask a question, and I shake my head, hard.
The voice sounds again from the hallway. Fuck, that is not a human voice. Our vocal cords don’t make those noises – rasps and clicks with susurrating crescendos.
Like Nick, I’ve been wearing my gun slung across my back. I get to my feet, reach down, and pull it to my front. Nick rises beside me and does the same, surprisingly quiet for such a big man.
Another voice joins the first, different, lower in pitch. Male? I lean forward, tilting my head, trying to determine how many sets of feet are passing. It sounds like four, but I could be wrong. The hallway outside has a slight echo, so there could be two or as many as ten. And what the hell is that slithering sound? I suppress a growl and strain my ears. The footsteps and voices pass, but I stay where I am until I’m sure they’re not in our hallway anymore.
Nick and I share a look as I turn back to the room. My expression must be as dark as my mood because he visibly stiffens, bracing himself.
“Footsteps have been passing by our room all day,” I say.
Cora lets out an irritated noise. “And you’re just now telling us?”
David leans forward in his seat to look at her. “Keep your voice down. They could have sound-enhancing equipment, and we don’t want to give ourselves away.”
For once, Cora looks abashed. Good. She’s been mouthing off this whole time, putting up a brave front, but beneath it, I can smell her fear. She’s terrified and doesn’t want anyone to know. Maybe she thinks her false bravado will help her in the days to come. For her sake, I hope it does.
I shoot David a grateful look, glad it wasn’t me to put her in her place this time. “I didn’t say anything because there wasn’t much to tell.” Like David, I keep my voice low, just loud enough to carry through the room. “I didn’t know if it was a lost crewmember or someone else.”
The Latino man, Paul Garcia, tilts his head, contemplating me. He’s on the ship because he planned to visit his eldest daughter and son-in-law, who are both stationed on Io. “But now you know who’s out there?”
I nod. “Several sets of footsteps just passed. Someone said something, and someone else answered. I don’t believe their voices were human.”
Aaand cue more meltdowns. Two people instantly burst into tears. I’m shocked to see that one of them is Hannah. The small woman, Melissa, is the other one. She hugs her arms around herself and starts rocking, her face blanking like she’s trying to retreat from reality. I shake my head and turn back to the door, letting others soothe them.
“Don’t be angry,” Nick says, stepping up to my side.
I look over and meet his dark eyes. “I’m not angry.” My meds pretty much guarantee I never progress past mild annoyance. “But I told them this would happen. I told them to get their freakouts over with early.”
He smiles, dimples appearing in his cheeks. He’s an attractive man. I can recognize that in his features, in his large, broad-shouldered, muscular build. He has a strong jaw, made to look even stronger by the stubble that’s appeared along it since we’ve been locked in here. His teeth are even and bright white. His full lips look pillowy soft, and his eyes crinkle at the corners when he smiles. The other women have been ogling him over the past few days, sneaking sly glances his way when they don’t think anyone else is looking. And yet I feel… nothing. And I won’t ever feel anything, not while I’m on my meds, at least.
Nick butts his shoulder against mine. “As much as I hate to say it, Cora was right. You can’t choose when to freak out, Gabi.”
I snort and turn back toward the door, my ears straining. Everyone else in here calls me Corporal Booker or just Booker, but he asked what my first name was, I told him, and he’s insisted on using it ever since, shortening it from Gabrielle to Gabi within all of five minutes. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a nickname, and I kind of… like it?
I see motion out of the corner of my eye and look down. Nick is thumbing his wedding ring, rubbing the inside of the band, idly twirling it around his ring finger. He does this a lot, most likely thinking about his wife and kids back home, who will probably never know what happened to him. For once, I’m thankful that my meds have dulled my emotions. This is bad enough as it is; I can only imagine how much worse it would be if someone I cared about was waiting for me back on earth.
A whirring noise comes from outside, and I jerk my gaze back to the door. It sounds like a drill just kicked on, far enough away that it must be at the end of the hall. The drilling stops shortly after it starts, and a scream rips through the air. I glance behind me. No one else reacts to the noise, and for what feels like the thousandth time, I wonder how the hell the rest of humanity gets through life. That scream was loud in my ears, but everyone else in here was deaf to it.
I suppress the urge to sigh. As a corporal, I’m not used to being the bearer of bad news. That job usually falls to my lieutenant. Ever since I was promoted to de facto leader of our SIP room, I feel like I’ve been dealing one blow after another to these people, and I’m beginning to realize I should apologize to my lieutenant for bitching so much about orders the next time I see her.
Outside, the drill fires up again, closer this time.
“Get to your stations,” I say.
The sound of movement echoes throughout the room as people rise from their seats. We’ve practiced this so many times over the past few days that we can do it in our sleep. We can do it even when the others are terrified and freaking out. My roommates pull on their spacesuits and oxygen tanks, masks at the ready. Since we’re self-contained, we don’t know what waits for us beyond these doors. The hull of the Kennedy could have been breached, and all the oxygen ripped from the ship. This door might open onto the vacuum of space.
Once people finish clambering into their gear, Melissa, Hannah, and David hide in the shower stall and toilet room. They don’t want anything to do with a possible fight, and that’s okay. Not everyone is cut out for violence. Not everyone has been bred for it since before they were born.
The rest are spread out behind Nick and me, holding the ray and plasma guns I spent a solid afternoon teaching them to use. I glance over my shoulder at them, wary. One afternoon of training isn’t enough to set my mind at ease that they’ll use their weapons properly if the time comes, especially since they couldn’t actually fire them in here.
I see Paul’s fingers shaking, and I sigh and turn forward again. I’ll be lucky if one of them doesn’t twitch and accidentally shoot me in the back. Hopefully no one will have to use their weapons. We don’t plan to resist. We plan to surrender. But if someone or something comes in here, guns blazing, we’re not going to let them slaughter us without one hell of a fight.
Just the thought spikes my adrenaline and sends a delicious rush of endorphins sluicing through my veins. I’ve been holed up in here for days, sitting on the floor or standing in a tiny space. I want to move. I want to run. I want to kick the ever-loving shit out of something. It’s what I’ve been trained to do, what I was bioengineered to do, what I’ve been doing ever since I got cleared for active duty four years ago. Sitting in this cramped room for three days straight has been the worst sort of torture. As fucked up as it is, I’m almost looking forward to someone breaking down our door.
Another whirring sound comes from outside. More screams follow, and then, just loud enough for me to hear it, a low hissing and several soft thuds.
What the hell?
Time passes slowly while I strain my ears. Eventually, the noises move closer. Now I can hear what happens when the screams die down. People are still speaking, but slurring.
“Cover your mouths!” someone yells. More thuds follow this command.
Shit, I think I know what’s happening. Someone is drilling through the SIP doors and either letting the oxygen race out or pumping the rooms full of gas. I relay all of this to the people around me and pray they keep their shit together through what’s to come.
The SIP to the left of ours is the next one to be breached.
“Masks on,” I say, just loud enough for my voice to carry. These aliens are going to be in for a surprise when they find us on our feet and ready for them.
I wait until the last second to pull mine on because I want to hear and learn as much as I can about what’s coming. The first thing I realize is that there isn’t a shock troop in the next room over. No one there has my hearing, no one is able to warn the others, so everyone is caught off guard by the drilling and the gas, and they drop like flies. A beep sounds, and I hear their door whoosh open. There are more footsteps. I catch the squeak of what might be a wheel. Someone grunts, then I hear a dragging sound. The unconscious or dead people are being pulled from the room.
I tug my mask on as they work and ready myself for whatever is about to happen. My gun feels heavy in my hands even though it’s feather light, the plasma rounds singing to me like a siren song. Sometimes even with my meds, it’s hard to overcome my instincts, and right now, they’re screaming for a fight.
I can’t hear much with the oxygen pumping into my mask, just enough to know that the room beside ours has been cleared, and now the footsteps are right outside where I stand, ready and waiting.
The whirring sound starts up, and the door in front of me vibrates when the drill touches it. There, by the floor, a small circle drops forward. Since air doesn’t immediately go rushing out through the hole, I assume they’ve been gassing people. A hose head pops through a heartbeat later, confirming my suspicion. I reach down, pinch it to stop the gas from escaping, then yank it toward me, hard. Whoever was feeding it through gets jerked forward and slams into the other side of the door. A pained growl echoes into the room, and I grin. Gotcha, bastard. Now they’ll know we’re alive and ready for them. It’s better than catching them off guard. Humans react badly to surprises like that, and I can only assume aliens would too. As much as I want to fire this weapon, I have to protect the people behind me.
Those clicking, slurring, grating voices sound from outside the door. Then they quiet. I hear someone walking quickly away from us, down the hallway. Several minutes pass. More footsteps approach. They stop outside our door, and I brace myself.
A human voice calls out, “I order you to stand down! Whatever you do, do not resist them!”
Nick and I share a shocked look, both of us recognizing the voice.
They have the captain.
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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.
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