Part of The Expanding Universe Volume 6--New Release September 2020
“Lost and Found”
We don’t leave family behind.
Out of an original crew of two hundred and forty-seven people, eight of us remained in a metallic prison cell with no visible exits.
Personally, I could have done without the automated apology messages.
“We did not understand before, and we regret what happened.” A robotic voice repeated this overhead in English, Mandarin, Spanish, and Russian about once an hour. “Our defenses misidentified your ship as a threat, and there was no response when we attempted to communicate. Your leadership attacked us first, and we were forced to respond. Can you understand this? Can you forgive it for the sake of negotiating your own survivals?”
Everyone fell silent.
The last person to break had been my best friend since we were eight years old. Elise was also Captain McMinn’s daughter, and she believed her father had been killed trying to protect us. We’d heard so many broken variations of the aliens admitting it that I’d lost track. Based on the message’s evolving complexity and how we responded to it, they were learning faster about us than we were about them.
Midway through one of the translations, Elise had screamed and began futilely pounding on the walls. I couldn’t calm her down, and she’d shoved me away with an uncharacteristic degree of fury and cursing. Her boyfriend Chase and my fiancé Anjir both tried, too, but she no longer recognized any of us. Seconds later, the cell had filled with a cloud of white smoke. By the time the rest of us regained consciousness, she’d vanished.
We all panicked, Chase especially, but our anger and terror began to dissipate without our control. An hour later, we were calm again. This wasn’t training. It wasn’t shock. It wasn’t exhaustion or some side-effect of being ripped out of cryo improperly. Other people we cared about had been captured and removed in a similar fashion since I’d been there. I should have at least known their names and something about them, too.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t even recall their faces anymore.
I had a dried scab on the side of my forehead where I’d fallen, and my right elbow and wrist were swollen and throbbed in pain. My arm wasn’t broken—yet—but I remained seated in case they decided to knock us out again.
“We did not understand before…” The entire message repeated without any noticeable changes, even though maybe two minutes had passed since the last round. My guess was the aliens wanted to manipulate our sense of time, too—maintaining a constant I’d almost trusted before they pulled the rug out beneath us.
After it finally cycled again, Anjir got my attention and handed me what I thought was a raw potato. “You were still out when they dropped these. The inside is edible, and nobody has gotten sick from them.” I shook my head, but he frowned and insisted until I took it. “If they wanted to poison us, Kass, they would have already done it by now.”
“Don’t give them any ideas,” I replied. He forced a smile and slid closer to me. “I might need some help.” His smile faded when he noticed my arm. “I’m okay—relatively speaking. We have bigger problems.”
Despite the alien vegetable’s bland appearance, it tasted sugary…almost like oranges and crème. It was bizarre, like being given candy in the middle of a torture session. Maybe the aliens had no idea how the things tasted to us, or maybe it was a part of some larger strategy.
Based on the creatures that had captured me, I wondered if they even had mouths—much less taste buds.
Water came in the form of ice, but they never dispensed it in a predictable interval or location. That left us scrambling to scoop up marble-sized pellets with our hands—hand, in my case—before they melted through the floor. Anjir and Chase tried to help me there, too, though Chase seemed distracted and kept looking around as if he was missing something. He was probably worried sick about—oh, I’d known his girlfriend for about as long as I’d known him, but I struggled to think of her name. I felt drained mentally, and the pain in my arm kept stealing my focus whenever I forgot and tried to move it.
Elise. Elise McMinn. Eleven years of friendship, practically like a sister growing up, and it had all almost slipped away as if she’d meant nothing to me. She’d been right there with us, and now she was gone. We’d lost her, and we weren’t doing anything about it.
What the hell was wrong with us?
The other remaining prisoners were the Pérez family, and they were staying huddled together in a corner about four feet from us. Maria and Jake were atmospheric researchers who worked with my parents on occasion, and they had three young children—two boys and a girl. They were trying to keep the kids quiet, but they were terrified.
We all were, when we remembered to be.
The cell’s temperature and humidity kept shifting, too, as if a child was playing with the environmental controls. I felt as if I was sweating more than the ice replaced, and I resented how increasingly desperate and relieved I felt each time we heard more about to drop.
I also had to fight not to scream whenever that damn message repeated again.
Chase said something to the Pérezes in Spanish and then made his way over to Anjir and me. “Anything from your mind games classes useful for shit like this?”
Anjir shook his head. “I’m still trying to figure out their rules. They’re using conditioning patterns on us and then breaking them at almost every angle they can—keeping us distracted and irritated. Even being aware of it, I don’t know a good way around it. Starving ourselves or refusing to stay hydrated will just break us down faster psychologically. I think they have us cornered, but they want our forgiveness for it? I don’t get that at all…”
I glanced up at the ceiling and shuddered, wondering if they now understood every word we said. “We’re giving them more intel the longer we’re alive—whether we mean to or not. Maybe they’re just as clueless on what to do about us as we would be if they showed up on our doorstep by accident.”
“Tables-turned, I doubt we’d be much better—especially if they attacked us first like they’re claiming we did,” Chase said. “I saw what happened when they got you, Kass—had my own share of land shark problems, or I’d have backed you up. You okay?”
I’d woken up from cryo with one of the aliens carrying me over its shoulder. Groggy and believing I was in some weird nightmare, I’d jabbed it in a set of flapped vents running along its spine. It had worked—sort of. My hand got pinned as it collapsed to the floor, and everything in my arm twisted wrong as it rolled. I’d screamed. It had blasted a series of rapid calls using its back, sounding like someone slamming an out-of-tune pipe organ over and over again. That brought an army of its friends to us within seconds.
Even though our cell’s entrance was sealed where we couldn’t see the seams, I remembered it was in the ceiling. That fall had knocked the wind out of me worse than the earlier one.
“I’ve been worse, I guess,” I replied. Chase gave an amused nod, but his eyes were sad. “What about you?”
“Just before they let me join the party, a couple of their bouncers injected me with this.” He pushed up his cryo uniform sleeve to reveal a small bullseye-shaped wound on his forearm. “I don’t know if this is causing it or not, but I feel off—like pushing simulator time for too long and then trying to walk normal before you readjust. If I turn full space zombie, I’d rather not take the rest of you out with me. Jake Pérez said he’ll help if it comes down to…you know. I forgive you both in advance. It technically wouldn’t even be me anymore, so don’t feel too horrible about it.”
Anjir’s shoulders slumped. “I’m in the same boat—other than I won’t be able to catch anybody if you move fast enough.” He showed us a similar quarter-sized wound on his leg. Just above it, his fibula bone was broken and nearly protruding from his calf. “This hurts like hell, but I still think it’s dulled down compared to what it should be. I thought maybe the implant was some sort of time-released painkiller or sedative to make us docile, or I’d have said something earlier. I keep forgetting that it’s there, too…” He reached out for my good hand and squeezed it. I squeezed his back. “If we both lose it around the same time, I don’t know if Kass, Jake, and Maria will be enough to hold—”
“Guys…” I slowly rotated my injured wrist. The swelling had made the bullseye’s ring fainter and closer to the diameter of a drink coaster, and the area surrounding the center implant appeared more bruised and infected than either of theirs. “Do the Pérezes have them, too?”
“No, but they didn’t exactly present themselves as threats when they were captured.” Chase looked behind him and then back at us. “Jake and Maria against all three of us? Their little kids having to see that before we…there’s no way I’m going out like that. Either we’re getting out of here somehow, or I’ll take my chances with whatever comes next. Elise is gone, and I should have done more to stop her. I just didn’t want to hurt her, and I didn’t know those things would take her away like that…” He shook his head at the floor. “I loved her, but she’s still fading on me. I don’t want to wait around until the rest of you do, too.”
“From all the damage I saw, the main ship is done.” Anjir tried to keep his voice down, but the cell had an echo to it. “If we can get out of here and back to it, one of the survey hoppers might be enough to get the Pérezes clear. Then we’ll have some options on what we do next. We might be the only survivors they took, or they’re keeping us divided into manageable-sized groups. I don’t know what I’d rather believe right now.”
Both my parents had been on board The Vestigo with us—Anjir’s dad and his younger sister, too—but they had been in another cryo section farther away from the bridge. Given they should have been in stasis for the entire trip and not part of the active crew rotation, I still had a small hope that they had survived.
Chase had been orphaned at seven years old and placed with our colony training program by the state about a year later. Whenever we weren’t living at the academy campus, he’d stayed with Anjir and his family. Given their personalities were almost polar opposites, they alternated between irritating the hell out of each other and having each other’s backs—like brothers. When Anjir and I had started dating, it brought Chase and Elise into seeing each other more, too. They hit it off so well I almost thought they’d get married before Anjir and I did. It was just Captain McMinn didn’t want Elise to rush into any relationship before—
The message repeated overhead again, making me cringe. One of the kids started bawling, and Jake and Maria couldn’t get her to settle.
I stood, willing to become a bigger distraction to prevent her from being taken, but a wave of pain shot through my arm and cause me to buckle to the floor. It was originating from my implant, almost like a burning sensation. I exchanged glances with Anjir and Chase. They felt it in theirs, too.
Chase’s expression hardened, and he addressed the ceiling. “All right, you shovel-headed assholes! I’ve already had to piss for like the past five hours!” His voice was shaking, but it came out taunting as he backed away from Anjir and me. “If I use this empty corner, can you make it magically disappear, too? Everybody, look away. These bastards might vaporize me out of sheer jealousy.”
The pain in my arm subsided—and not just from the wound. All my physical pain had stopped, or at least the mental signals of it. Chase had at least gotten their attention.
“He’s going to get himself killed, Kass—or worse, if this is all about experimenting on us,” Anjir mumbled and then pinched the bridge of his nose. “We needed a plan, Chase, not this.”
“I don’t see you two geniuses coming up with anything better!” He gave a crazed laugh and addressed the ceiling again. “You want to negotiate, you overgrown cockroaches? How about my life in exchange for releasing Mr. and Mrs. Valedictorian and the little family here? They’re good people, and I’ll be much more fun to continue torturing in your fancy metal box. You’re getting the bargain as far as I’m concerned.” The message resumed where it had left off, and Chase shrugged when nothing else happened. His tone was calm again. “Worth a shot—and now we know how their liquid waste disposal works. That’s progress, right? You’re testing out number two, Psych Boy. I’m not risking getting trapped waist-deep in the floor.”
“You’re insane—and I don’t think it’s from anything they’ve done to you,” Anjir replied to him in disbelief. Chase took it as a compliment, which just made Anjir more pissed off. “Offering to give yourself up to whatever the hell they’re doing doesn’t mean they’d actually honor anything with the rest of us! Even if they did, you think Kass and I want to lose you, too? Elise—”
“You’d all go on to lead boring lives on the colony without me—like you almost did, anyway,” Chase interrupted. “You like having me around, or you’d never have risked your perfect reputation to help me. I’d be stuck back on Earth right now—still missing Elise and sulking that I wasn’t in the worst damn wedding rehearsal venue ever!” He shouted at the ceiling again and then patted Anjir on the shoulder. “Look, man, they probably don’t understand what we’re saying or give a shit if they do. I just wanted you both to know that if I could save you right now—or even buy you some more time together—I would. Thanks for what you did for me, even though it didn’t work out. I mean that.”
The room began to fill with smoke again. I scrambled to my feet, pain shooting through my arm as I pushed myself up.
“No! Please, don’t take him! He didn’t mean—”
“Kass, don’t!” Anjir panicked and tried to grab me, but we were both too late.
The full story plus nineteen more are now available in The Expanding Universe Volume 6. Totaling over 600 pages, it's available as part of Kindle Unlimited or for $3.99 to buy. Paperbacks are $19.99.