The Call of Chiron
The air was thick with smoke and screams; the deafening howl of warning klaxons resounded around the corridors. People ran in both directions, their faces contorted into masks of fear and panic. Occasionally, an armed soldier would march through the crowd, and as if by magic, the waves of humanity would part before him, and flow together again in his wake.
Alexandria Mason was aware that something was seriously wrong. She wandered the corridors, being pushed aside by unseeing people. Every so often she rubbed her eyes to clear them of the smoke that clogged the warren-like corridors, and heard herself cry out "Mummy! Mummy!" But part of her felt like she wasn't really there, like it was somebody else experiencing this.
Could it be that she was still in cold-sleep? Could this be part of a dream? But why would her dreams be so unpleasant? Why was everybody scared, and ignoring her? And where were her parents? They had promised that they would be there when she was woken, that they would be waiting for her when the ship deactivated her chamber and brought her out of cold-sleep. Why weren't they there?
"Have you seen my mummy?" she asked, grabbing hold of a woman's sleeve as she passed. But the woman ignored her, pulling free her arm and continuing her own frantic search for a loved-one missing. Again and again, Alexandria asked the question, and again and again, she was ignored.
What was that noise? Why was the ship screaming so loudly? Why were the lights so dim, and why were the corridors filled with smoke? This wasn't right. The noise made it hard to think; the smoke made it hard to breathe. Emotionally drained, she sat down inside a small alcove, wrapped her arms around her knees, and rocked herself back and forth as she watched adult feet rush by.
"Alexandria! Alexandria!" Her mother's terrified cries brought her out of her trance, brought her back to the reality that she desperately wanted to escape. Further down the corridor, her mother was fighting against the flow of bodies, fighting for every step that brought her closer and closer towards the alcove.
"Mummy!" Alexandria screamed. Her mother's head swivelled in her direction, even as the people pushed her back. Summoning her last reserves of strength, Alexandria stood, and stepped out into the stream of people. They carried her onwards, and into her mother's waiting arms.
"Oh, my baby, you're safe, you're safe!" said her mother, pulling her into a tight embrace.
"Mummy, what's happening? Where's Daddy?"
"I don't know, Alex. I don't know." Her mother released her, and took her hand firmly. "Whatever you do, don't let go," she said, before pulling her once again into the stream of people flowing through the corridor.
"Where are we going, Mummy?" she asked, shouting to made herself heard above the klaxons.
"To an escape pod. The ship is on fire, we have to get off it."
"Jennifer!" called a familiar voice. Father!
"Paul!" her mother screamed. A tall, armour-clad man carrying a large gun waded against the flow to embrace her mother, then he crouched down and hugged her too.
"Come with me," said her father, taking her mother's hand and dragging them both along the corridor with him.
With her father finally present, Alexandria relaxed. Her father was so strong, so brave. He always knew what to do. He would make things right, make them safe. He was the third highest-ranking officer aboard the ship, right behind Captain Garland and Colonol Santiago. People called on him to solve problems. Everybody knew that.
The tide of people hurried inside the door of the escape pod, and her father pushed both her and her mother inside too. The visor on his helm was raised, and Alexandria thought that he looked both frightened and determined. The fright on his face was what scared her; her father was never scared of anything.
"Tell him that it wasn't an accident. It was sabotage," her father said to her mother.
"We're not leaving without you, Paul," said her mother, tears trickling down her cheeks.
"I'll be right behind you. I need to get to Captain Garland. I can't leave him behind."
"No, Paul!" her mother cried. But her father ignored her. He hit the outer door button which sealed the airlock, and caused him to disappear from her view.
"Daddy!" Alexandria screamed
A second armoured figure was leading her mother towards the main compartment of the escape pod. A third appeared, and picked her up, but she fought against his grip, trying desperately to free herself, to reach the airlock controls. Her scream of "Daddy" echoed through the air again and again, but her captor proved more determined than she, and she was carried away from the airlock.
o - o - o - o - o
"Sir! We can't wait much longer, Sir!"
Academician Prokhor Zakharov, chief science officer of the Unity, looked at the impatient face of the young pilot at the escape pod's navigation controls. Though he knew that great urgency was required, he felt himself oddly reluctant to give the order to leave. The Unity had been his design. He had overseen its construction, had helped to install the computers, the chambers, the engines. It was his single greatest achievement so far, his greatest gift to mankind; the gift of freedom.
"Sir, the Unity's core is going critical! Six other pods have already left. If we don't go now, we won't get another chance!"
"Then go, damn it!" he swore, fastening his safety belt and turning his attention to the pilot's controls. He needn't have bothered. The young man knew exactly what he was doing. With the efficiency borne of countless hours of simulation and practise, he input the code to release the berthing clamps and bring the pod's directional thrusters online. There was an audible bang as the clamps released, and a hiss that indicated the airlock had depressurised and given the pod a much-needed inertial push to move it away from the Unity. Only when it was safely away could the pod's thrusters be brought into use. To do otherwise would be to risk igniting the Unity's main reactor with the heat of the pod's feeble engines.
In the background, Zakharov could hear the muted sobs and cries of the people who had dashed into the escape pod when the Unity's warning sirens had activated. Something had happened. Something had brought the entire crew out of cold-sleep, awakened them before their journey had ended. Only two things could do that; a command from Captain Garland, or an automated reaction to a critical malfunction in one of the Unity's systems. If the life support systems had sustained damage, or if the power was low, or the engines or reactors were damaged, the computer was rigged to automatically wake the inhabitants of the ship, to give them a chance to escape.
Through the front, reinforced window, he saw before him a binary star system. Three small planets orbited around the first, largest star, and two small planets and two gas giants orbited around the second star. So. They had reached their destination. They had reached Alpha Centauri. Their forty-year long journey was complete. But what had gone wrong? The Unity was supposed to land on the planet officially named "Alpha Centauri A One" -- the first planet orbiting the main star -- before waking the crew and the families. Judging from their location, the ship had only just entered the system before waking everyone. It should have taken weeks to reach the first planet on their ship's sub-light engines.
"Main directional thrusters engaged, Sir," the pilot reported.
"How long until we reach the first planet, Lieutenant... ah..."
"West, Sir. Lieutenant West. At our current velocity, about sixteen weeks, Sir."
"What is our speed?"
"Currently one hundred and sixty five meters per second, Sir. Approximately half the speed of sound."
"I know what the speed of sound is," he snapped.
A burst of bright light suddenly lit up the dark sky, and something struck the pod, causing it to rock violently. Zakharov grasped the arms of his chair as screams and cries of fear came from the compartment behind him. There were bangs, as if somebody or something was being thrown around, and the pilot tried desperately to stabilise the pod with the thrusters.
"What was that?" he demanded. Lieutenant West stared open-mouthed at his screen.
"It was the Unity, Sir. It just exploded."
Zakharov swivelled in his chair, turning his gaze out of the back window. In the rapidly-dwindling distance of space was the fading light of an explosion. Another small object was flying out from the Unity, but it too was caught in the shockwave. Closer than his own pod, it exploded, taking with it possibly hundreds of lives. He shuddered. If he had delayed leaving even a minute longer, that would have been their fate, too.
When he turned his attention back to the front window, he realised that the system's third planet was getting bigger and bigger, a lot faster than it was supposed to.
"Why are we travelling so fast?" he asked the Lieutenant.
"It was the shockwave, Sir. It knocked us off our course and sent us hurtling out of control. That, and... this planet has a moon, and the gravitational force is drawing us in."
"Use the thrusters. Stabilise our course."
"I can't, Sir. The thrusters were damaged in the blast. Only half of them are still working."
"Then divert all available power to the starboard and rear thrusters. Take us on a heading towards the moon."
"But Sir!" West's face was a mask of horror. "At this speed, we'll crash into the moon's surface!"
"No. If you time it right, we can use our velocity to sling-shot around the moon."
A slow smile crept over West's face, and his hands began moving again as he made the necessary adjustments to the navigational controls. Several of the internal lights dimmed as he diverted vital power to the pod's thrusters. Not normally a superstitious man, Zakharov crossed his fingers as the moon loomed into view.
Moons usually lacked atmosphere, which made most lunar manoeuvres much safer than planetary manoeuvres. Whether by West's good piloting or the grace of some omnipotent, unseen entity, the pod went careening past the moon, its direction changed as the gravitational pull of the celestial body brought it around in a steep arc. Not being inclined towards religion, Zakharov preferred to accredit their safety to Lieutenant West's skills than some invisible 'god'.
"Sir, the moon is cleared, but we have another problem. That shock-wave has damaged our pod too greatly. I can't change our course... there's no way we'll be able to make it to the first planet. Even if I could change the course, it would take us twice as long on half-thrusters. We don't have provisions to last that long. But that doesn't matter. Right now we're on a collision course for the third planet."
"Fire reverse-thrusters at the highest power level possible without burning them out. We need to slow our descent, or we'll burn up on entry into the atmosphere."
"I don't know how much that will help, Sir. We're sitting at just under ten-thousand metres per second. Pods of this design weren't designed to withstand re-entry at speeds faster than three thousand metres per second. The structural integrity just can't handle it!"
"Those figures were calculated for Earth's atmosphere, Lieutenant. With any luck, this planet's atmosphere may have a more favourable composition."
"And just as much chance as having an unfavourable composition," West grumbled quietly. But he made the changes to the thrusters as requested. His fingers still crossed, Zakharov leaned back in his chair, and prepared for a rough entry sequence.
o - o - o - o - o
When the airlock doors closed, Alexandria's world collapsed. Sobbing, she was carried into the main compartment and strapped into a seat beside her mother. All around, frightened people were crying and whispering. Some prayed aloud, while others called out for missing loved-ones. The compartment was hot and stuffy, and Alexandria gasped deeply for breath, unsure if she was hyperventilating, or whether there really wasn't enough air to go around.
There was a bang and a hiss from behind her, and she screamed again for her father. Her hands flew to the buckle of her belt, her fingers working desperately to open the clasp which defied her. Her efforts ceased when her mother wrapped her arms around her and held her as close to her chest as the seats would possibly allow. And then they were moving.
The cries of the people grew louder as the pod began to move, and Alexandria felt drops of wetness splashing on her from above. Tears fell from her mother's cheeks, joining her own as they cried together.
When the pod lurched, Alexandria almost vomited. It felt like she was spinning and spinning, and then she noticed the brilliant white light out of the window. For a moment, it was even brighter than the nearby star. At any other time, it might have been beautiful. But now, she screamed for her father, unaware that her cries could not be heard over the cries of the other people.
For some time she sat there, being held by her mother and listening to the fervent prayers of those around her. They came from all voices, from men and women, from adults and children, uttered in English and in languages she did not recognise. They came from faces of all colours, from people of all nationalities. Her own prayer was not so much a request for salvation as a wish for something she could not have. A single word, uttered over and over again; "Daddy".
The escape pod began to shake, slowly at first, and then more violently. The prayers became louder, the scent of fear all the more tangible as the air began to heat up. The pod began to creak and groan, screaming in agony as some unforeseen stress forced its hull to conform into shapes it had never been designed to take. Luggage stored overhead in compartments fell from above, landing on people who were lashed into their seats and could not avoid it. And all throughout was the shaking, the terrible, terrible shaking that reminded her of an earthquake she had experienced back home several years ago.
And just when she thought the pod could not bear it any longer, the shaking stopped. For a few seconds, she thought that the worst was over. Then the escape pod hit the ground, and amidst the screams and cries and wails of death, Alexandria's world went black.