Once, long before she’d gone to space, before the first Alien communications had been decoded and responded to, and even before she had taken her braces off, Theresa Belushi had read a book about a war in space. It was popular at the time, and her parents had recommended it. And even though Theresa was not a reader and could not have cared less about the story, the aliens had stuck in her head. More specifically, the way the aliens thought and the way the humans had understood them too late. It was a radical empathy. A bit like religion, which she had never really gotten into.
And then it had turned out the author was a raging homophobe who didn’t have an ounce of empathy in his body. What a piece of irony.
The idea of that empathy had gotten Theresa off of the planet. It had gotten her through the first contact with the Lorak: their strange appearance and stranger habits. Every time she walked by one of them and smelled their decaying orange soda smell, she thought, “empathy for the alien.” It was almost a pavlovian response.
So as she was preparing to launch their modified escape pod from the Quick Sliver with Marcus, Alex, Wendel, Alex, Carrie, and Tyler all piled in with her, and Isa slipped in to hand them the rest of their supplies, she inhaled her sickly-sweet citrus smell and thought, “empathy for the alien,” as she watched Marcus kiss Isa’s head between her antennae.
Theresa checked her emotional state and found that she didn’t feel any kind of empathy for the Canteron. Not at all. And she smiled a bloodthirsty smile because, even though she knew it was messed up, she was glad because it made it easier to do what she was about to do.
“How do you all feel?” Carlos said over their radio transceivers, “anyone think this is a bad idea?”
The squad exchanged looks. They were all strapped in like paratroopers waiting to drop out of a plane. It was reminiscent of how they had all met each other, early in the first days of the school years, waiting in the cold morning air to run five miles before attending classes. Just seven kids on the brink of something incomprehensible to them and chomping at the bit to get into it.
“No second thoughts,” She said into the radio, “let’s show these planet-stealing assholes that humans won’t stand for this.”
The rest of them agreed; nodded and took deep breaths.
“Confirmed,” Carlos said, “stand by for eject in ten.”
Theresa counted down in her head, trying to ignore her pounding heartbeat. There was a lurch, the thrum of an engine, and the tiny escape pod separated from the body of the Quick Sliver and accelerated hard towards the a large Canteron Warship.
“We have ignition,” Carlos said in her ear, “Command going dark. Good luck, all of you. We’ll be ready for extraction on your signal.”
“Copy, over and out.” Wendel eyed the instrument panel. “T-minus five minutes to impact. Carrie you’re up.”
Carrie was by far the most fluent in Galactic Common. She slid over to the onboard transmitter and began speaking into it. Theresa only understood some of it, but she had read the whole script, and she knew it by heart. They all did. “This is the Human Carrie requesting permission to board. We’ve been forced to eject an escape pod from our ship. Again, this is the Human Carrie of the Quick Silver cargo vessel requesting permission for emergency boarding.”
The response came quickly, garbled by an alien voice box but comprehensible. Carrie looked at them, “they’re calling their fleet command. Two minutes.” She leaned back into the microphone, “Copy, over.”
“They’re looking up what humans are,” Theresa said.
“What are they going to find?”
“The databases just say, ‘no information,’” Wendel said.
Tyler and Theresa both pulled out gas grenades and held them at the ready. “Please,” she thought, “just be greedy. Want the rights to the ship’s salvage. Want to take us prisoner. And if you can’t be greedy, make the mistake of being nice to us.”
After another breathless minute, the radio crackled again. “Negative on docking. Seek shelter elsewhere.”
Carrie rolled her eyes, “Plan C,” she said, and leaned into the microphone. “Copy that, ground control, we’re coming in to dock.”
“What? No! I said you can’t dock with us—”
Carrie cut off the connection. “Here we go, folks.”
“Masks on,” Theresa said, slipping hers on over her face. “How long until impact?”
“Sixty seconds,” Wendel said.
“Alright, everybody up.” They all got to their feet and then onto their seat and anchored themselves by holding onto the straps. Wendel, at the back of the pod, was the only one who stayed in the line of fire down the main isle, but he had a bullet-proof shield on his back to protect him.
“Ten seconds,” he said, and then, “five…three,”
“One,” Wendel said. The whole transport rocked and shuddered. “We have contact,” He said, “I’m into their computer system.”
The radio speakers inside the escape pod crackled on, and a Canteron voice said. “You do not have permission to open the airlock. I repeat: you cannot open the airlock. Remove yourself from the ship immediately.”
“I’m working on the doors,” Wendel said.
Carrie leaned into the mic again. “Copy that, opening the airlock. Thank you for reaching us. Sorry for my bad speaking.”
“Do not begin the docking procedure,” the voice said, and then, “No Dock! No airlock! Do you understand?”
“We’re losing oxygen fast,” Carrie told the alien, “can we hurry?”
Wendel misunderstood and thought the comment was directed at him. “There’s a decontamination protocol on the airlock,” he said, “I’m turning it off now.”
Theresa’s hand ached from gripping her seat strap.
“You are being ejected from the docking station,” the Canteron said.
“No we aren’t,” Wendel muttered. “Opening her up now.”
The escape pod’s lights went red and there was the hiss of pressurization. Theresa’s ears popped. She breathed in, breathed out, waited.
The escape pod door slid open. The interior of the Canteron warship beyond was lit with a harsh blue light.
Right next to the door, Marcus held up a closed fist. They didn’t move for a long second. Then a single eye on a gray-brown eyestalk. Extended around the doorway. It stared, unblinking, into the shadows.
Imperceptibly, Marcus’s hand uncurled. He flicked his wrist.
Theresa pulled the pin on the grenade and lobbed, underhanded, out of the door. A second later, Tyler’s followed. Smoke hissed into the air, and two voices made concerned noises, then began to choke.
Theresa pulled out her weapon: it was a short baton, about the length of her forearm. Ideally, they would be using guns, but they were too dangerous to use inside of a spaceship. They would need to fight hand-to-hand.
“Go!” Marcus said, and as one they leapt off the seats and swarmed into the hallway.
There were two huge things in the hallway. Theresa saw too many legs and arms through the smoke. A mouth at the end of a long neck without eyes or a skull. An eyestalk again. Marcus and Carrie were already in the fray, using a pair of combat knives to deal with the aliens quickly.
Theresa slid along the wall, away from the muffled cries of pain, to the corner. She looked around it – one way, then the other. The coast was clear.
The sounds of struggle stopped. The two Canteron guards were slumped on the ground. Blood seeped from knife wounds in. Marcus and Carrie put their knives away and joined Theresa at the corner, this time in the back of the group instead of the front.
“Which way to the bridge?” Alex asked.
Theresa pointed down the left-hand hallway as Wendel said, “either way.”
“How many soldiers are on this ship?”
“Twenty or so,” Wendel said. They were outnumbered three to one, then. A little less now that the two guards had been dealt with. Theresa looked back at them. One of the bodies was twitching like a dog in its sleep.
“Stick together,” Theresa said, “everyone to the left. Eyes up and batons out. If one of them pulls a gun, all bets are off.”
Together, they slunk down the corridor towards the bridge of the warship. With luck, they would be able to take control of the ship and just lock all the Canteron out of the bridge. But they hadn’t gone more than a dozen steps when there was the sound of footsteps in a strange rolling rhythm, and three more Canteron appeared around the corner. They talked in a low buzzing drone that must be their native language. Even their language sounded lazy and warm and sunny.
The Canteron looked up at them, but they rolled on for a moment before stopping. All three of them just stared, as if completely incapable of processing what they were seeing. Theresa stepped towards them, raising the baton and the other hand going for her combat knife.
They did not scream or pull out their weapons or run, and Theresa stopped. She looked around, sure that she was about to step into a trap. Alex, just behind her, was thinking the same thing. They crouched down and tossed a chunk of metal into the air underhand. But it didn’t stop mid-air or get shot by a hidden security measure. The metal hit one of the Canteron in its midsection and broke the spell.
The Canteron fumbled for their weapons, but Theresa already had hers out. She ran forward and swung the baton like a baseball bat. The Canteron squealed and stumbled backwards. Theresa aimed again and jabbed the baton into their body, trying to aim for the unprotected brain that she knew was somewhere in that soft body. The Canteron’s bodies grew around their brains, which was roughly in the center of their mass, protected by layers of fatty tissue and a delicate bones. They cracked under the force of her swing.
The second hit ruptured something, and the Canteron went down flailing, silent. No screaming. What kind of defense mechanisms would a species with no natural predators develop, Theresa wondered. On Earth, even apex predators could be hunted and killed. On the Canteron’s home planet, well, she didn’t know. The Canteron might be the only complex animal life on the whole planet.
Alex dispatched the other Canteron with similar efficiency. The last one, a little behind the others, dropped their weapon and raised all of their strange limbs in the air.
“Don’t hurt me,” They said, still strangely flat, like fear wasn’t in their repertoire of emotion.
“First prisoner,” Tyler gestured to Marcus, “bindings.”
Marcus handed over a long, sturdy piece of rope, and Tyler, who had gone all the way to an eagle scout in Michigan and knew just about every knot ever conceived of, approached the Canteron. He and Carrie pushed them into a storage room, and then he bound their legs together in a long, looping, interconnected knott, and then their hands and grabbers were similarly restrained and tied to an exposed pipe.
Through all of it, the Canteron did not squirm or try to talk their way out of it or even make any noise at all.
Finally, Marcus couldn’t take it any more. “What’s wrong? Don’t you want us to leave you alone?”
The Canteron looked at them, showing their first emotion: confusion. It was clear to read in the sway of their eyestalks and mouthstalk. They looked around at the humans in bafflement.
“I don’t think they even know what fear is,” Theresa said in galactic common.
“We don’t understand that word,” The Canteron confirmed, though they seemed lost in the conversation.
“That’s just fucking weird,” Marcus said.
“Let’s think about it later.” Alex pushed them back into the corridor and then down the hallway to the bridge.
That was where most of the Canteron were at. There were ten in low chairs in front of consoles. The windows had been replaced with smart glass that displayed names of warships, their commanders, and their roles in the army over their positions.
Theresa expected them to be in chaos, but they were calm. Only one of them was facing the door to the bridge, but they were holding three guns leveled at the doorway. Theresa popped her head around the doorframe, saw all this in a split second, and then yanked her head back before a beam of light so bright it left an imprint on her retinas seared the wall behind her, leaving a black smudge behind.
“There’re those fucking laser weapons we were talking about,” Theresa thought, even as her hand went to her belt again.
“Are we gonna gas the whole room?” Carrie asked. “We should at least give them the chance to surrender.”
“Alright, but don’t get your eyes zapped out,” Theresa gestured her forward.
“This is the human Carrie,” She identified herself, “we’re here to take over your ship. Surrender now, or you and all your crew will be killed.”
There was a long pause, the buzzing babble of Canteron speech, and then, “Who are you, human Carrie? Who will we surrender to?”
“We’ll talk after you put down your weapons and slide them across the floor to us.”
There was another long pause. Carrie nodded to Marcus.
“Give us your weapons now,” He bellowed at the top of his lungs, so loud that Theresa flinched. “You have thirty seconds.”
Theresa waved her hand in front of the door. Another singe appeared on the wall behind her.
“Fuck this,” She said, and pulled the pin on a gas grenade. The first was followed quickly by another, and at last, the Canteron began to scream. It was almost a relief to hear noise after their insistent silence: like life was pushing through to the surface.
“What the fuck, Theresa,” Marcus said, but made no move to intervene.
The humans all safe behind the masks, but the gas canisters were doing their work on the Canteron. They choked and gasped, flailed. After a minute, it was all over.
Theresa led the way into the room and pushed the largest Canteron out of their chair. They weren’t cold yet, but they were going slightly blue all over. She pushed their hands off the controls before noticing that the radio link was open and broadcasting.
She switched it off, then said, “Shit. The command ship heard all that.”
“Well if they were paying as much attention as these guys were to their camera feeds, we’ll be fine.” Alex was standing before a bank of monitors, the only unmanned station in the room.
Just then, there was that sound of rolling footsteps at the door, and then an alien voice coughing as the gas reached them.
“They went to the bathroom, you dolt,” Carrie hissed as she drew her baton. “Hands up,” She said, stepping out into the hallway, “drop your weapons and put your hands up!”
There was a thump as something was dropped.
Theresa sat at the controls while their second prisoner was bound and contained. She tuned the radio to the Quick Sliver’s frequency and spoke into it. “Carlos, come in. This is Theresa. We’ve taken control of the target ship.”
“Copy that, Theresa,” came the crackly reply, “be advised we have allies incoming. Three vessels with human crews have reached out to us since you left. We aren’t the only ones who want a piece of these thieves. We’ve got a group of Russians, another team of American astronauts like us, and a whole gang from South America. I’m looping them in.”
“How many humans do we have on board?”
“About fifty, give or take. Also we have a few other species who aren’t as timid as our friends the Lorak who are pitching in. But it’s mostly humans.”
Fifty humans was a lot less than anyone would call an army, but for their purposes it was more than enough. “Sounds great, Carlos. Thanks for being the command on this.”
“I’m having a blast sharing recipes for spaceship safe weapons of mass destruction.” Carlos got serious again. “How’s it going?”
“Alright,” she said. “We’ve killed 14 Canteron. 10 with gas, 4 with hand-to-hand. They’re not trained for it. Also, we have two prisoners. Marcus Alex are rounding up the rest of them into the brig now.”
“Message received. Theresa, are we moving to phase two?”
“Yes.” Though privately she was considering going right to phase three considering how little resistance they’d seen.
“Understood. Over and out.”
“Over and out,” Theresa looked at the split-up face of the dead Canteron beside her. She set the radio to receive broadcasts from the ships around them before heaving the body out of the chair. They piled the corpses up in the corner away from the control panels and took control of the ship. The prisoners were secured in the brig, and Tyler was put on camera duty to make sure none of them escaped. They talked, cleaned their weapons, reloaded the homemade gas grenades from the supplies on the ship.
Theresa opened the communication to Carlos again and said, “We’re ready to move to phase three. We’re bypassing phase two entirely.”
“Why?” He asked, simply, sounding very like the professor he’d been until three years ago.
“Carlos,” Theresa said, “I don’t think these guys have ever actually had to fight hand-to-hand in their lives. They have absolutely no idea how to handle it. We can walk right onto the mothership and kill every Canteron on it.”
There was a long silence.
“I’ll pass it on to the others,” Carlos said, “and I’ll make sure that they all have gas masks.”
“Thank you,” Theresa said, “we’re going in now. Over and out.”
The tiny Canteron war vessel turned, slowly, rocket jets firing to generate thrust in space, and sipped towards the mothership. It loomed large over the humans’ heads as they manipulated the controls designed for beings with more than two hands.
“Ball, meet cue,” Theresa said.
“What?” Marcus said.
“Nothing.” She looked up at the ship. “Let’s take them all down if we can. No mercy.”
“After what we just did, maybe we can talk to them? Maybe they’ll surrender.” Carrie said.
“I don’t think they know how,” Theresa murmured.
“We can at least ask,” Marcus said, “or announce ourselves and say we’re open to talking.”
They voted on it, and most of them thought it was worth a try. Carrie made the call, but she didn’t hear a reply.
“Well,” she said, “we tried. Maybe they’ll meet us at the dock with a tray of cookies.”
And even though the Canteron mothership was more prepared than the smaller vessels, and even though they knew the incursion was coming, when the rag-tag team of fifty humans boarded their mothership, they didn’t stand a chance.
Even Theresa was feeling ill by the end of it. All the Canteron were armed, and all tried to fight, but their reflexes were just too slow to compete. That combined with the gas grenades and handguns decimated their numbers. It was a slaughter.
They took control of the bridge and charted a course back to the Canteron homeworld before abandoning the vessel by another set of escape pods.
“It doesn’t feel good,” Marcus said to Theresa as they waited for the Quick Sliver to pick them up.
“It’s not supposed to,” she said. “If it felt good, we’d all be screwed.”
“Yeah. Still feels bad.” He looked at her. “There are going to be consequences for this, you know. We didn’t kill all of their leadership. Not even close.”
“I know,” Theresa said, “I was hoping there would be.”