Short Fiction– Fifteen Minutes

Another of Chuck Wendig’s short fiction challenges— 1000 words on the theme “We’re all human, even when we’re not.”

I took a first stab at this, and it came out wrong. Bad wrong. There are times when I finish a piece and just know it’s a turkey. So I slept on it, changed some things around, made it first person, and tried again. This is somewhat better– at least, I don’t think anybody’s going to come after me with pitchforks and torches.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel

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Fifteen minutes.

We had just that long before the station reactor detonated. The terrorists had done their work well, even as they died for it. The nanites they’d inserted into the station’s structure had done irreparable damage. Systems were failing all through the station.

But the reactor had been their chief target. It was running wild. That was news I had to take back topside.

The lift doors opened on the command deck. Controlled pandemonium— the command team appeared to be doing a dozen things at once, and every being doing it at the top of their lungs, or whatever gas exchange organ they possessed. The wall monitors, the ones working, showed scenes from different parts of the station– all showing masses of beings, dozens of species, all scrambling to get to evacuation stations. I felt sick– we had mere minutes to evacuate thousands of sentient beings, none of whom had done the Kulanians any harm—but the Pure had always hated other species, and the tolerance the station represented.

T’kalas stood by the station infrastructure consoles. The Sinuran caught sight of me coming out of the lift and came down the tiered platform toward me at once. “What’s going on in the core?” he demanded. “We haven’t been able to raise any of you.”

“The comms are down,” I told him. “They sent me up instead. The reactor’s going critical. We can’t shut it down or damp it out. The rest of the team has evacuated the core. We’ve got fifteen minutes– fourteen now.”

“Formada and Signa!” T’kalas said. “We’ve got ships lined up, but it’s going to be close.” He turned. “Clear Control! Everyone out, get to your evacuation stations.”

The watchstanders didn’t need to be told twice. “Help me,” T’kalas said as everyone fled to the lifts.

For five minutes I helped T’kalas set what systems we could to automatic. Sometimes the Sinuran was a fidgety sort of being, but in moments like this he steadied down. I tried to imitate him.

Systems were going down even as we tried to work on them. I got glimpses from external vids, saw Sinuran cruisers hard-docking in haste to take people off, but the monitors were going black one-by-one even as I switched views.

“Come,” T’kalas said at last, standing. It was long after I would have run away, if I had been alone. “We’ve done what we can.”

We took the lift down to Corridor 3-Alpha. Its doors opened on confusion. People of every different species streamed past, toward the ship locks and the escape pods. Shouts and orders came in different tongues. The evacuation klaxon was still sounding.

“Nine minutes now,” I told him.

T’kalas blinked. “Maybe it will be enough– we’ve already cleared levels One, Two, and Four– just this one left.”

Another alarm– a rising and falling wail. To our left, a gas-tight door began to slide closed across the passageway. There were people still on the other side. They screamed, tried to rush forward and cram through the narrowing opening.

A huge being shoved through the crowd, right past me and T’kalas, toward the closing door, coming from the direction of the escape pods. It was of no species I recognized. I had an impression of a bull trying to be a gorilla, with a reptilian heritage showing through.

The door was nearly closed. The being flung itself down in the gap. The door crushed it against the seal.

The being screamed– but the door stopped, jammed on its body. A gap, less than meter wide, remained. The door mechanism whined, but it was not going anywhere.

“Help it!” I shouted. I got to the door, stood by the alien. Blood poured from where the door-edges had sliced into it.

“It wasn’t supposed to close!” T’kalas said. “We locked out the automatic function.”

“Nothing is working right, remember?” I said. I stood for a second, at a loss. I had no idea how to free the big being and keep the door from closing at the same time. A mass of people thronged together on the other side of the door.

Teisine hila,” the being gasped. “Eke passah brintine.” Even dying, its voice was like a sonic-drill on full power. I didn’t recognize the tongue.

“He says, tell them to crawl out over him,” T’kalas said.

I stared for a moment. There was nothing else to be done. I stood in the gap at the being’s feet, gestured to the people on the other side. “Come on!”

They climbed out across the being, stepping on him. I helped them– human, Sinuran, Prest– how many more? A Yed mother handed me her hatchling, then clambered out after it, her claws piercing the big being’s skin. He didn’t complain, but lay panting, silent now.

They kept coming– more Prest, a San, a family of Halchina. And then the corridor beyond the door was empty.

“Five minutes,” T’kalas said.

“We have to get him out,” I said. I had no idea how.

Shuma,” it said, gasping. “Shuma!”

“What?” I said.

Eke las krine.

“He says to go and leave him,” T’kalas said.

“No….”

Ljas pere brintine. Uk…uk bere males theru. Helua kimi gar kesu. Das mana.

“He says,” T’kalas translated, “it is over for him, but it is well. We must make the victory complete, and go.” T’kalas wrung his hands. “Peter, there’s nothing to be done.”

I still hesitated. I put a hand on the being’s shoulder. I met his eyes– pained, but clear and resolved.

Das mana,” he said again, gently.

The shockwave of the station’s detonation buffeted our escape pod, but we were well clear. The pod went down-orbit along with the cruisers, merchant ships and other pods. More cruisers were already matching orbits to recover the pods and help the smaller ships.

Watching the expanding cloud of glowing gas that had been the station, I asked T’kalas, “Who was he?”

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