Alien 3

By: Alan Dean Foster

Lights flashed, motors hummed. The voice spoke even though there were none to hear. ‘All EEV’s will be jettisoned in ten seconds. Nine . . .’

Interior locks slammed shut, externals opened wide. The voice continued its countdown.

At ‘zero’ two things happened with inimical simultaneity: ten EEV’s, nine of them empty, were ejected from the ship, and the proportion of escaping gases within the damaged cryogenic chamber interacted critically with the flames that were emerging from the acid-leached hole in the floor. For a brief eruptive instant the entire fore port side of the Sulaco blazed in fiery imitation of the distant stars.

Half the fleeing EEV’s were severely jolted by the explosion.

Two began tumbling, completely out of control. One embarked upon a short, curving path which brought it back in a wide, sweeping arc to the ship from which it had been ejected. It did not slow as it neared its storage pod. Instead it slammed at full acceleration into the side of the transport. A second, larger explosion rocked the great vessel. Wounded, it lurched onward through emptiness, periodically emitting irregular bursts of light and heat while littering the immaculate void with molten, shredded sections of its irrevocably damaged self.

On board the escape craft containing the four cryonic cylinders, telltales were flashing, circuits flickering and sparking. The EEV’s smaller, less sophisticated computers struggled to isolate, minimize, and contain the damage that had been caused by the last-second explosion. The vehicle had not been hulled, but the concussion had damaged sensitive instrumentation.

It sought status clarification from the mother ship and when none was forthcoming, instigated a scan of its immediate surroundings. Halfway through the hasty survey the requisite instrumentation failed but it was quickly rejuvenated via a backup system. The Sulaco had been journeying far off the beaten photonic path, its mission having carried it to the fringes of human exploration. It had not traveled long upon its homeward path when overcome by disaster. Mankind’s presence in this section of space was marked but intermittent, his installations far apart and few between.

The EEV’s guiding computer found something. Undesirable, not a primary choice. But under existing conditions it was the only choice. The ship could not estimate how long it could continue to function given the serious nature of the damage it had suffered. Its primary task was the preservation of the human life it bore. A course was chosen and set. Still sputtering, striving mightily to repair itself, the compact vessel’s drive throbbed to life.

Fiorina wasn’t an impressive world, and in appearance even less inviting, but it was the only one in the Neroid Sector with an active beacon. The EEV’s data banks locked in on the steady signal. Twice the damaged navigation system lost the beam, but continued on the prescribed course anyway. Twice the signal was recovered. Information on Fiorina was scarce and dated, as befitted its isolation and peculiar status.

‘Fiorina “Fury” 361,’ the readout stated. ‘Outer veil mineral ore refinery. Maximum security work-correctional facility.’

The words meant nothing to the ship’s computer. They would have meant much to its passengers, but they were not in position or condition to read anything. ‘Additional information requested?’ the computer flashed plaintively. When the proper button was not immediately pressed, the screen obediently blanked.

Days later the EEV plunged toward the grey, roiling atmosphere of its destination. There was nothing inviting about the dark clouds that obscured the planetary surface. No glimpse of blue or green showed through them, no indication of life. But the catalog indicated the presence of a human installation, and the communications beacon threw its unvarying pulse into emptiness with becoming steadiness.

On-board systems continued to fail with discouraging regularity. The EEV’s computer strained to keep the craft under control as one backup after another kicked in. Clouds the colour of coal dust raced past the unoccupied ports as atmospheric lightning flashed threateningly off the chilled, sealed coffins within.

The computer experienced no strain as it tried to bring the EEV down safely. There was no extra urgency in its efforts. It would have functioned identically had the sky been clear and the winds gentle, had its own internal systems been functioning optimally instead of flaring and failing with progressive regularity.

The craft’s landing gear had not responded to the drop command and there was neither time nor power to try a second approach. Given the jumbled, precipitous nature of the landscape immediately surrounding the beacon and formal landing site, the computer opted to try for a touchdown on the relatively smooth sand beach.

When additional power was requested, it developed that it did not exist. The computer tried. That was its job. But the EEV fell far short of the beach, slamming into the sea at too acute an angle.

Within the compartment, braces and bulkheads struggled to absorb the impact. Metal and carbon composites groaned, buffeted by forces they were never intended to withstand.

Support struts cracked or bent, walls twisted. The computer-concentrated all its efforts on trying to ensure that the four cylinders in its care remained intact. The crisis left little time for much else. About itself the computer cared nothing.

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