BY SIMON MURPHY
BASED ON THE ALIEN FRANCHISE
ESS Elsbrig drifted slowly through the inky blackness, her faster than light drive was cold and the impulse drives shut down. The onboard computer detected a problem with the flow rates-diagnostics, had checked and re-checked, and had decided, for safety’s sake, to shut down the trans-drive unit. The glowing bubble of faster than light energy that engulfed the ship disappeared in a blink of an eye, or it would have if anybody was around to witness the event. Once out of hyper-space, onboard computers tackled the errant drive problem, backup systems and redundant circuits hummed into life as digital bits of information darted through dormant pathways. But with all this technology, the computer came up with one thing, over and over again:
COMPUTER DIAGNOSTIC #1200002
ESS ELSBRIG-SERIAL # 985565-D
TRANS-DRIVE UNIT FAULT
BLOCKAGE IN STARBOARD VENT PORT
The computer had chewed this over and arrived at the only conclusion it could, it dropped out of hyper-space and activated the sleep chambers. Technology was great, but in this circumstance it needed a hands-on approach, something that the computer was sorely lacking.
John Harrow sighed, the sound heavy in his ears. He wrinkled his nose, wishing that he could scratch it. Luckily the thermo-sensors had kept up a steady cooling temperature, meaning that sweat wasn’t an issue - only his damned nose itching.
Squirming his way out of the airlock, he hated suit time, bulky and awkward. He turned his head inside the large dome of the Kleer-Steel helmet, lights bathing his features with a green hue that indicated that the suit’s cooling, pressure and, more importantly, life support were all working as they should. With a large gloved hand, he clipped a oversized clip onto a ‘u’ point on the lip of the lock and, satisfied that the auto-reel tether was secure, he pushed off from the side of the ship.
“John, you read me buddy?” Harrow cocked his head as the headset earpiece sprang to life.
“Yeah, I read you, Morgan,” he replied to the unseen owner of the voice. “Where are you, I can’t see you?” Straining his head back and forth, he tried to catch a visual of his friend.
“Just by the aft high-gain. Hang on and I’ll drift out,” came a nasally reply.
Morgan Brig depressed a small button on his left lower arm, suit jets fired and he was propelled forward. He hit another button and jets on his suit’s front panel fired to halt the momentum.
Morgan was a thickset man, in his late sixties and had been brought up on the freighter since he was a kid. In fact he had no choice: his father had owned the Elsbrig (a name derived from his mother’s first name and his surname) and she was used in the evacuation of Earth.
Those times were burned into his mind: the frightened mass of people, clambering to get a space, to get them away from the hellish creatures that roamed their home world. The faces of those left behind as the Colonial Marines closed ranks and aimed their guns at the people. He watched as the ramp slowly closed - men, women and children weeping, begging, then silence. He turned then and wept. That was such a long time ago.
The Alien hordes that had infested Earth had nearly been wiped out by a network of nuclear weapons. He could never remember the name of this network. It had been on the news. It had destroyed vast numbers of the beasts, along with the Queen Mother Alien, brought from another world in some daring escapade. It had taken time, three or four months, for the Mother to call her offspring to her from far and wide. Then the bombs detonated.
Clean-up crews scoured the Earth for nests and wiped them out. People had returned to the ravaged planet and started to rebuild. Ships like the Elsbrig had begun to be used for what she was intended again: freight - vast quantities of raw materials shipped from other colonies, safe colonies. And this problem with a blocked vent was something that Captain Morgan Brig didn’t like. Time was an issue, deadlines had to be made and money was at stake.
Morgan drifted from the side of the high-gain array and spied his colleague waving at him. He waved back and smiled. John Harrow was forty-three years old, thin and spindly. They had both met on Luna base just after the Earth evacuation and he had taken John under his wing. Both of John’s parents had been killed and his father had taken John and treated him as if he was another son. He had graduated with honours in engineering while at Luna and had taken up the position of chief engineer on the Elsbrig. Like Morgan, John loved the old tin can and was probably more vexed as to the cause of the problem.
“You know, Morg. I just don’t get it. How the hell can we get a blocked vent, out here?” Harrow’s brow wrinkled as he mused.
“Yeah, I hear you. Makes no sense,” his companion replied.
Both men ignited their suit jets and gracefully joined one another, the auto-reel tethers silently unwound, snaking behind the two suited figures.
In the silence of space, they moved as one towards the offending vent. Small puffs of propellant formed tiny crystals as the jets pushed them along the length of the ship. Heard only in the helmets of the two men, the thrusters once again fired to bring them to a stop by the wide black cavern that housed the starboard vent. One of the men aimed a powerful torch at the surrounding area.
“I don’t see any scouring or damaged plates. Doesn’t look like dust or particular matter. I don’t get it... the trans-warp field is supposed to deflect any small amounts of debris away. Can’t be external - computer’s got it wrong, must be a glitch or internal.”
The powerful beam played across the surface, casting dark shadows in the depth of the housing.
“All I can think of is that a small chunk of rock managed to get through and made a direct hit on the vent screen,” Morgan replied.
“Hmmm, a billion to one on that call, Morg,” Harrow chided. He wasn’t convinced and it carried in his voice.
“Well, yeah, but I like bad odds,” his partner said humorously.
Harrow smiled as he moved closer to the vent opening, his gloved hand slowly extending until he touched the outer lip.
“Well, only one way to be sure... Wish me luck.”
Morgan played his own light on
the opening as Harrow slid
into the depths.
The vent opening was enormous and acted as a thermal regulator for the giant WY-525 TD engines. This was old technology for an old ship. The new star-ships could go a lot faster, but the old 525s served their purpose. Morgan had contracts with both civilian agencies and the military. They paid well and he had enough money saved to update the engines. Problem was, while his ship was out of commission, those contracts may go to other contractors. Maybe one day he would retire and sell her on. One day… yeah right. So, for now, the Elsbrig and her engines were patched up and lovingly tended by Harrow.
“You okay in there?” Morgan asked as his companion diminished into the gloom.
Harrow’s torch played off the smooth alloy sides as he moved deeper into the abyss. Morgan’s own beam highlighted the boots and backpack as the figure slowly moved into the bowels of the vent.
“Yeah, fine. Can’t see anything. No sign of damage. I ‘m at the first screen. Looks intact.” Gloved hands caressed the tough metal of the vent screen. “Give me a few minutes to check the whole thing.” Harrow said as he started in one corner, his light slowly moving as he examined the mesh.
“Righto,” came the reply.
Both men fell silent as one searched the vent while the other gazed towards the stars. Morgan loved to stare at these pinpricks of light in the vastness of black. To him it was peaceful, relaxing. Although around some of those light points worlds had been found, worlds with creatures that devoured men or worse. He shuddered in his suit. He had never seen it himself, but had heard the stories of people cocooned in slime and impregnated - living hosts, nurturing the devils’ offspring, unable to help themselves, only to feel the creature moving inside until...
A muffled sound in Morgan’s earpiece grabbed him back from stargazing. The auto-reel tether that emerged from the opening danced before him, in slow up and down strokes.
“John, you okay pal?” Concern crept into his voice.
“Something...” Harrow was breathing hard. “Something... in... here...” Gasping sounds pounded into Morgan’s ear.
“Oh, my God! Pull me out! Pull me out!”
The urgency in John’s voice startled Morgan. He made a grab for the tether line and missed.
“What is it, John? What have you found?” he urged, his voice rising slightly.
“Arghhhhhhh... It’s got me... Get...”
The scream and panic in the voice galvanised Morgan into action.
“Use your tether line and suit thrusters...”
He tried again to grab the tether and, this time, his gloved hand caught hold. He started to reel in his friend. The screaming had stopped, yet a hissing sound continued in his ear. Air. Harrow must have a busted suit, caught it on the mesh somehow, thought Morgan as he pulled the line hand over hand.
The Alien had been picked up from their last port of call. Although the Elsbrig was built for atmospheric landings, most of her business was conducted using spaceports. This time, her primary destination from Sol was the orbiting station around a planet called GM-989 or more locally known as ‘Stinker’. Stinker was an immense gas giant orbiting a slightly reddish star. It was one of six planets in the system, but only this one was of any value. The orbiting station housed more than four thousand personnel - engineers, maintenance, dredger pilots, hospital staff, bar keeps, families.
They toiled away, day and night. Dredger pilots scoured the boiling surface for the rich gases, these gases, in turn, were processed by the station’s plants into all manner of gases that ended in ‘ane’ and ‘gen’.
One gas was rinane, a very important gas in the development of new star-drives. This gas allowed drive systems to operate at super-cool temperatures, meaning, in short, that they are more reliable and far more cost-effective.
This was one reason that this expensive refinery orbiting around the planet was commissioned. The other was that a by-product of all this gas distillation were compounds of gold, silver and platinum. The company spared no expense in making sure that the people who lived and worked here had everything they could need. Supply ships ran non-stop. Freighters ran non-stop. Personnel were contracted for a five year tour of duty and paid handsomely for their efforts. Winners all round.
Research vessels had surveyed the other worlds and found nothing of real interest: mineral deposits and more gas, but nothing to justify spending more money on these worlds. The ‘skimmers’, as the dredger pilots liked to be known, thought different and some hired ships to go scouting. Not only would they have a large pay packet waiting for them at the end of their duty, but the thoughts of getting hold of some minerals, maybe precious, was just too much of a temptation.
One such ship for hire was the Cheeky Bird (named after the parrot of a former captain), a tug, privately owned and contracted by the company to help shift the containers of gas and by-products to the waiting freighters.
On down-time, the captain made a few extra credits by hiring it and himself out to treasure hunters. The Cheeky Bird now lay opposite the Elsbrig, silent. She had returned on ‘auto’ after a trip to one of the outer planets. Not that unusual, as the captain often did this, normally due to the fact that he and his customers got plastered on cheap booze. The company and security turned a blind eye as long as it didn’t happen on work time. Nobody bothered the tug and they would leave them to sober up. The captain would then disembark his clients. Maybe they got lucky this time? They didn’t.
You would have thought that with all the other tugs and dredgers darting about, somebody would have noticed the airlock had been opened. On closer inspection, the door was not intact - an immense force had pushed from the inside and then wrenched it open.
The Alien had found the men from the Cheeky Bird. It had stowed away on their vessel, attacking when they had lifted off. Some instinct, some survival technique, made the creature understand what the thing that landed was. It knew it could use it to escape the confines of the world upon which it had lived and spread its own kind to further far-off places. Survival of the species was all that mattered.
When the vessel had slowed and finally come to rest, the Alien waited. Nobody came, so it looked for ways out. It remembered the airlock through which it had entered, knew it was a gateway. It explored the alloy and the lights that twinkled in a panel. It had no sense of ‘button pushing’, it understood nothing of technology. It used what it had, strength. It hammered on the door again and again.
It didn’t notice the hiss of escaping air rushing past it as the outer door seal gave way. With inhuman strength, its clawed hands gripped the edge and pushed. The toughened alloy protested in the runners as it was shoved in a way its designers had never envisioned. The Alien made a gap just wide enough for its form to slip through. No point in expended energy on wasteful efforts.
The creature balanced on the edge of the airlock frame, one arm outstretched, the other still holding onto the door. Its banana-shaped head moved slowly from side to side, studying the strange surroundings with inhuman senses. It opened its mouth and spittle instantly froze on metallic, silver teeth. Like a coiled spring, it launched itself away from the tug and out into the vacuum of space. With both arms outstretched, it glided towards the waiting Elsbrig. With the grace of a ballet dancer, it twisted itself as it bounced against the hull. Skittering slightly, it shot out an arm and grabbed at some external machinery. It moved that obscene head and found the vent opening.
Morgan pulled on the tether line, his breathing coming in great gasps as he sucked hard on the bottled air. He watched as Harrow’s torch swung in lazy circles, its light flashing like a beacon as the beam disappeared behind the body of the now quiet spaceman.
“Jeez... John... what... the... hell... have... you... done?” He cursed the other man between clenched teeth. “Help... me... buddy... cut... in... your... auto... tether,” he gasped as he struggled to pull Harrow’s comatose body towards the entrance.
It never dawned on Morgan that the reason why Harrow’s body seemed so heavy to pull is that something was attached, something black, something big, something with teeth that didn’t want to let go of its prize.
The Alien had been curled up in a state of suspended animation. The harsh coldness of space and the lack of atmosphere didn’t bother it. Scientists had reports that stated that the Xenos could exist in a hard vacuum for lengths of time and that one had actually been observed to curl into a ball and drift away into the depths of space.
This Alien was lucky. Although they could hibernate for a long time in the vastness of space, they would eventually die, but the heat that escaped from the vent had kept the Alien warm enough to stop even its amazing acidic blood from freezing. So, it had had crawled into the vent, using its talons to open the mesh, and slipped inside to sleep and wait. Even the throb of the trans-warp drive hadn’t bothered it. But the presence of prey did.
John Harrow was dead, his suit ripped by the creatures clutching claws, his helmet visor, tougher than two inches of hull plate, had cracked like a chicken’s egg as the inner set of teeth shot out at lightning speed to smash and impale. Blood and brains flowed freely until the suit’s heating system could no longer cope and the harsh environment found its way into the helmet. They froze into dark globs that floated around and out of the broken faceplate.
Morgan sweated in his helmet. He could feel it running down the side of his head. The snoopy cap he wore was soaked on his forehead. The suit’s coolers struggled to keep him comfortable. It wasn’t just the exertion, but the panic, the not knowing what had happened to his friend. Add to that the fear that the drive engines where unfixable and that he could be on his own for a long time and the terror slowly started to take hold.
Harrow’s booted feet appeared, then slowly his legs and backpack. Morgan carried on pulling on the tether so that more of his comrade came out of the vent opening. As the body cleared the opening, Morgan saw the suit material on the shoulders was torn, but they didn’t look like rents from catching on broken mesh. They looked evenly spaced like knife blades gouging and scratching. Finally, the helmet hove into view and Morgan stared, wide-eyed, at what was left of John Harrow’s head.
“Oh, my God...”
Morgan instinctively pushed away slightly from the opening and its macabre scene. This action saved his life, for following the deceased spaceman came a toothy vision of hell.
The Alien had sensed the presence of more prey and had hung onto the corpse as it slid slowly along the vent. Now it sensed that fresh meat was close and it lunged from the darkness. The backward movement of the man meant that the slashing claws and gnashing teeth missed him by inches. Morgan’s reflex action was to jump further away. This he did, jumping right off the hull of the Elsbrig.
The Alien turned as it floated past, its inner jaws snaking out and small sets of teeth snapping silently. With inhuman reflexes, it twisted and caught hold of a series of pipework that protruded from the hull. It squatted there and appeared to glower at the figure that was slowly drifting away from the ship.
Morgan stared at the abhorrence before him, an Alien on his ship. It couldn’t be. Nothing made sense. His head hurt from the many scenarios that pounded through his cortex. He couldn’t think. His breathing increased and he started to hyperventilate. At two hundred yards away from the ship, his auto-reel tether snapped firm, the slight pull yanked not only his body but also his mind.
He had to do something.
He forced himself to slow his breathing. He focused his eyes on the creature. It hadn’t moved. What to do? He couldn’t stay outside for ever. His suit tanks had three hours of air, maximum.
He had to get inside, somehow. His mind had cleared and thoughts fixed themselves together to form a plan. A plan he hoped would work.
His hand moved slowly towards the auto-reel tether unit on his belt. He rummaged around for the button and pressed it. The tether became taut as it slowly reeled in the excess cord. He was slowly making his way back towards the ship. The Alien also spotted this and leaped from the pipework towards the anchor point to which the tether was fastened.
“Come on you sonofabitch, take the line. Come and get me.”
Morgan snarled as the creature clutched at the hull plating, its strong arms and claws somehow making purchase on the alloy. It moved down towards the tether and, with what appeared to Morgan a perception of glee, the Alien cocked its head to one side and opened that mouth into an evil smile.
It sprang on to the tether.
The momentum made the tether bow in the middle, Alien going one way, Morgan rising above it. All the time, the auto-reel tether was silently dragging the demon towards him.
He watched as the Alien eyelessly looked at him, snarled and then started to move, hand over hand, across the tether. It moved with remarkable speed.
He let it get to within fifty feet before hitting the suit jets. He was propelled past the Alien and towards the hull. The Alien spun around in a loop as the man shot by, the tether arching, and, at that exact moment, he released the tether from his belt.
He had to get to the tether anchor point quick, but he was going too fast. Too fast. Morgan hit the front thrusters and he clattered into the hull in a cloud of frozen propellant. His gloved hands sought purchase on the hull, his left hand extending towards the anchor point. He willed himself to reach it. The track on the tether had started to snake back towards the ship. The Alien opened its mouth in an angry snarl and, once again, it started to pull itself down the length of the tether.
Morgan turned and watched as the Alien tried to scramble back towards him. It was hard going, despite the speed and agility of the animal. The tether snaked and shifted beneath those powerful hands. Sooner or later, those hands would be reaching out for Morgan.
He strained, holding his breath, and he tried to shift himself so that he could grab hold of the tether. With a super-human effort, he managed to unlock it. He turned and threw the tether out towards the Alien. The creature was still a hundred yards away, snarling and twisting. Yet he noticed that it was slowly making its way back towards the ship.
Tilting his helmet, his eyes fell upon the frozen body of Harrow. Using all his strength he righted himself. Reaching down, he depressed the thrusters’ control button and shot upwards. A few bursts of opposite thrust and he glided next to the remains of his friend.
Morgan kept his eyes away from the shattered helmet as he manhandled the bulky suit into position. A quick glance showed him that the Alien was only fifty yards from the Elsbrig. He unhooked the tether line from Harrow’s belt and aimed the body towards to the creature. Now only thirty yards away, he checked the trajectory and hit the button on Harrow’s sleeve. The backpack sprang to life and John’s body spiralled away from Morgan and the ship.
The Alien sensed what was happening and tried to twist away.
John hit the creature full on, knocking the monster from the ship’s hull. Both man and beast span in opposite directions for several rotations before separating and drifting apart in space. The Alien clawed and thrashed futilely, its deadly form slowly receding into infinity.
Morgan waited until they had disappeared from view before bidding his friend a final, silent farewell and made his way back to the airlock. As he entered, he turned and took one last look at the stars. Peaceful and relaxing he had always thought. Not any more.
© Simon Murphy 2012
Updated 11th March 2012