real lj idol | week 38 | 1404 words (Home Game entry)
They said they were coming back for us. Left to drift in the starred expanse of the Andromeda Galaxy, all we had were four extra power cells, a hydrogenerator, and that thin promise of salvation.
We marked the hours, days, months since then, and still couldn't quite be sure: was it twenty-two weeks ago that we saw them, or closer to six months? Some of the passengers and crew even questioned whether it had happened, and their doubt spread like sickness. Too many of us wondered whether we were pinning our hopes on something born of mass hysteria.
I knew their visit was real because I saw them arrive. I was on night shift in the hydroponics bay then, tending the meager supply of plants that had kept us from starving since the aft engine died and left us stranded all those months ago. Their ship had hailed us hours before, when we were probably still just a dot on their proximity detector. They'd received a signal from our distress beacon, and come to offer assistance.
Later, we would ask ourselves why they didn't just take us with them.
Soon their ship was visible off the starboard bow, a huge hulking thing the size of a diplomatic-class vessel. They remained at a safe distance, far enough away that any residual traces of the beryllium dust that had destroyed our engines wouldn't affect theirs. That was what came out in translation, anyway. It was possible they'd decided we were infected, and were worried about an interspecies virus-jump instead. We never met them face-to-face.
They had some of our technology—who knew how. The hydrogenerator was an ancestor of the models we used now, and the small shuttle they sent out in the pod-to-cargo-arm exchange looked like something I'd seen in a training film years ago. The power cells were strange, different enough that we couldn't tell what was producing the energy. But we needed them, and we took them. We'd shut down four fifths of our ship to conserve our remaining power, and the three hundred of us were huddled two to a unit for maximum efficiency. We wandered around the clock, traveling through half-lit corridors in the small part of the ship that was still habitable. We'd done all we could to ensure our survival for as long as possible, and the helplessness and frustration made us restless.
Some of the men fought and a couple of the women got pregnant. That was the last thing we needed on both counts, but it was human nature to find ways to make a bad situation worse. The threat of lawlessness loomed, always a few frayed nerves or alcohol-fueled rages away from happening.
The waiting would kill you, people said, but the truth was that the waiting made people want to kill each other. Whether we were lab rats thinning an overfull population or simply aggression packed into too small a space, you could feel the edginess growing as the weeks went by. It made you see things, hear things, and I could swear the rooms were colder than they'd ever been before.
Cold was a reminder of the end that awaited us all, if we didn’t get help soon.
We watched the view through the ship's windows, someone always on duty though we could do no more than send out a few signal bursts should anything happen into our lonely area of space. There were false reports here and there—wavering stars, seen by crew members too weak to stand for even an hour at a time.
But then suddenly we all saw it, a slowly moving light too small for a star and too mobile to be anything natural. Everyone crowded the windows, anxious to see if a miracle had transpired and a ship was finally coming to rescue us.
It came closer and closer, as we waited there pressed so close together it was hard to breathe. The heavy crush of people leaning against me carried the sharp smell of unwashed bodies, yet none of us wanted to move. To look away might make it unhappen, and we had all waited so long…
Soon, we could see the ship—a monstrous thing, much larger than the one we'd encountered before. It moved slowly, or so it seemed to us, until it finally pulled to starboard and came to rest. Someone on the auxiliary bridge—one of the few parts of the ship we could selectively power up—would be communicating with the alien vessel. Was this finally our chance?
Arrangements were made surprisingly fast. We would all be transported to the alien ship in groups, leaving our own useless vessel behind. I was in the last group, as eager to leave our floating prison as anyone but conscious of needing to make sure all of us made it off the ship. The wait seemed to take forever.
I checked the few remaining live corridors, and made sure the auxiliary bridge was clear. It was hard to believe we were finally leaving. The ship had been our home for nearly five years. Realizing that the ship had almost became our tomb made leaving easier. There was nothing to keep us there any longer.
Transporting to the other ship was strange—not just the feel of it, but the way the weird smells and colors started to hit before we were even fully there. It was dark over there, dark with bright levers and seams scattered across the walls. A species that sees along a different color wavelength? I wondered. The air breathed like a living thing, and there was a persistent hum that drowned out any attempt at conversation.
The aliens guided us through elevators and murky corridors. I couldn't see our saviors very well, nothing more than an impression of angular bodies with some sort of thick, shiny covering. They chittered at us rather than spoke, and all we could do was move in the direction they indicated.
We all had questions, of course. Who were these creatures? Where were they from (Hell, where were they going)? And why on earth had it taken them so long to come back again?
We didn't ask, though, and they wouldn't have understood us anyway. We just kept moving, slowed by our weakness and the winding, unfamiliar route.
The smell grew stronger, copper and acid and other odors I couldn't identify, and suddenly I felt uneasy. Something about this was wrong, but what? I tried to see the faces of the other people from our ship. Did they feel it too?
We turned another corner, and then stopped. There was a large door in front of us, and an alien standing guard. A dim overhead light allowed us a glimpse of his features—the ridged skull, the proboscis, the faceted eyes. I shuddered.
The door opened onto a small room with another door at the back. The room was empty, but something about it was really getting to me, and I had no idea what it was. My feet refused to move, and one of the aliens finally shoved me into the room along with everyone else.
Everyone except the aliens themselves.
The door closed, and we were locked in together. We shifted nervously against one another, already realizing how little air that room could hold.
Then the door on the opposite side opened, and we burst out into the larger room beyond, grateful to have more space again. Everyone else was already there, waiting. We moved around among our families and friends, reassuring ourselves that we'd all made it safely off our ship.
"What is this place?" someone asked. We knew they meant this room, this ship, this whole set of circumstances that had somehow found us.
Crewman Reynolds had kept a mini-lantern with him all these months, one he'd rarely used and had carefully guarded in the hope of making the power cells last. He turned it on then, and held it up so that we might get a look at our surroundings.
My heart stuttered. There, hanging from the ceiling, was a huge mechanical claw. Its sides were splashed and encrusted with something that looked like—
Reynolds nearly dropped the lantern, fumbling with it as he caught it, and it cast its light upon the floor.
Amid the dried splotches of orange and green was the horrible, unmistakable color of blood…