The Outpost (story)
The buzzer on his left arm started vibrating a few seconds before the alarm sounded, giving Ryan just enough time to open his eyes to see the flashing red display over the door initiating the countdown. Exactly 120 seconds before lockdown. Barely enough time to grab the jumpsuit draped over the chair, slide into it and run down the corridor to the command center before all doors would be locked.
Half a dozen terrifying possibilities were already clashing around his brain as he tried to figure out the cause of this unprecedented red alert. There was once a yellow alert when power came down in the storage area and then the orange scare when they thought they were losing oxygen only to discover a pipe was clogged. But red? Could be anything from a fire, to the main computer going down or cosmic debris piercing the hull of their ship.
Commander Ryan Thorn barged into the operation center as the display showed 29 seconds till lockdown, but instead of the frantic atmosphere one would expect in a crisis situations, he was surprised to discover his crew locked in shocked silence. Strong no-nonsense men like Frank Russo and Billy Pine looked stunned, their eyes fixed on the main monitor, not even acknowledging the commander’s arrival.
As Ryan drew near the monitor, he gave a cursory glance to the main parameters, which all looked normal. Except they were frozen, not a single digit changed on the screen. Nothing moved, least of all their ship, suspended in space in a technically impossible position, given the fierce gravitational pull of L-10. As if the whole universe had suddenly frozen trapping them like a fly encased in a piece of amber.
A sudden horrible realization sent him sweating ice, the droning hum of the twin engines which had been the background noise to their 11 months journey was gone, only the life-support generators seemed to be left functional, as evidenced by the secondary display on Frank’s console.
All the eyes slowly shifted from the frozen monitor to the commander, as if he was the one who could provide an answer and a solution. Ryan opened his mouth, but no words came to him. He couldn’t be expected to come up with an answer to a problem that could not exist. Ships don’t just stop poised on the edge of a galaxy, an engine failure should have seen them hurtling down towards the fiery embrace of L-10 and a slow inescapable death.
As the initial shocked dispelled, everybody started talking at once, bouncing the craziest theories off one another, in a cacophony of arguments and counterarguments. No matter how you looked at it, one thing was becoming obvious, if they were able to resist the sun’s deadly pull, their ship was being held in place by another force. The alarm was sounded off, no use having the rest of the ship’s already exhausted passengers panic over a danger that had no name. If life resumed its usual routine elsewhere on the ship, Ryan and his men barely touched their coffees, waiting to see if a reboot of the main computer would be enough to restart their engines. It wasn’t.
Chief navigator Allison Stark was pouring over her maps, trying to figure out what was holding them in place, her face growing ever more frustrated. Commander Thorn was doing his best to avoid staring at her and adding to her burden, but for the first time in many years he was feeling sick to his stomach. What if they’d stumbled into a cosmic trap their machines had been unable to detect? What if there was noting they could do? What if their desperate battle to escape the dying Earth had been all in vain and they were to slowly starve to death so close to the planet they’d chosen as their new home?
Not that he felt sorry for what they had to do to get there. Exodus 5 was the last ship to leave the Western coast, its two thousand passengers the last to be saved from starvation. Places aboard the Exodus were to be drawn at lottery supervised by the citizens’ committee, the last semblance of authority set up after the ferocious wars for food which erupted soon after the freezing cold settled over the whole planet. The wars ended when there was nothing left to fight over, there was no more food anywhere and the survivors where reduced to digging for whatever bulbs they could find and gathering every last vaguely edible straw to feed the starving goats and sheep hidden in the basements.
It was by pure accident that Ryan Thorn, back then a simple engineer, discovered food being loaded on the Exodus five days before the lottery was to take place. Only the army personnel at the base had decided otherwise, they were all leaving with their families and a few selected friends. Why take two thousand people who would only be a waste of valuable resources, food they’d been guarding fiercely against roaming militias and hunger-crazed men trying to shoot their way into the storerooms?
The only thing Ryan regretted of that night one year ago was the death of the four boys guarding the gates to the military compound. The boy he’d killed couldn’t have been more than 19, a kid born too late to have any future, and Ryan could still feel the scalpel in his hand tearing at the boy’s skin, slicing the artery in his neck, warm blood squirting on the dirty window of the guard house. It had to be done if they were to kill the traitors in their sleep, so every last one of the starving survivors had a fair chance of making it to the Exodus. His two boys included. His two boys who now risked dying anyway.
It was mid-morning when the alien ship suddenly appeared in front of them, so close they could see the strange markings on its right side, just above what looked like a door. Not that they could read the aliens’ angular alphabet. Not that they had any idea they would find another race so close to the edge of the galaxy. Or anywhere else around here. But then, all they had to go on were old scientific data, from before the cold came and the world as they knew it went to pieces. They only had one shot, the Aleksenya, an Earth-like planet the Russians had discovered decades ago. But Aleksenya was another three months way, the alien ship could not be theirs.
The main monitor suddenly came to life as a silver capsule detached from the alien ship heading towards the cargo bay of the Exodus. The aliens had complete control of the ship, so all that Ryan and his crew could do was watch petrified as the capsule maneuvered to board the Exodus, whose alarm was once again blaring, locking the passengers behind steel doors. Although, if the aliens were intent on killing them all, Ryan doubted those steel doors would stand in their way.
Taller and obviously stronger, the three alien visitors looked like big apes in shiny uniforms. Or maybe it was just the fine yellowish fur they were covered in that made them look like primates, for their eyes were beautiful and obviously intelligent. And kind. At least that was Ryan’s first impression. The visitors stopped by the door and looked at the terrified crew vaguely amused, but without any visible malice. If the long metal objects dangling from their belts were indeed weapons, they made no move as to touch them. The one in the middle raised his hands, palms outwards in the universal sign that says ‘We come in peace’.
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