Escape Pod by Christopher Kell
Drogue has a twisted body. So twisted she skitters sideways through the cargo hold like a crab in the oceans of Earth. But in reduced gravity she can move as fast as any woman or man.
Her head is large and misshapen and looks like it has been fixed to her body at the wrong angle. But her brain is sharper than any of the dolts who normally crew these trawlers out in the asteroid belt. She tries to keep her intelligence to herself. Drogue doesn’t want attention. Alone on the ship, she communicates with mission control, and the other trawlers, using a different face: the low-IQ nobody who’s placed as far away as possible from the bright, perfect beings of Earth.
They call her Drogue because they think it’s funny that she is dragged behind the main convoy, catching the shattered, spinning boulders full of precious minerals. They don’t know her real name, nor do they care. She prefers it that way.
She remembers her years on Earth with despair and revulsion. The people she met worship perfect teeth, perfect bodies, pure and correct minds: a uniformity that renders them all alike, and never did she befriend or bond with others. Like anyone who was different, she was shunned or browbeaten or intimidated. Their god had no time for anyone who didn’t fit the norm. Eventually, sub-standards would disappear from mainstream life. They choose to work deep in the asteroid belt, or the mines of distant planets.
She told the trawler company she was born to parents who’d spent most of their lives working in space, and had been exposed to too much radiation. It was a lie, but they didn’t question her disfigurements. The job served Drogue well.
The grinding and the crashing of the crushers reverberating through the hull, and the groaning of the steel bulwarks, are constant companions. Drogue’s body has grown accustomed to it and she suddenly feels odd when it all stops, momentarily leaving the silence of space to shout its own warning before an alarm splits the air.
She scans the console as a voice burst from the comms.
“Hey, Drogue, what you doin’ back there?”
She groans inwardly. Why don’t these guys get off her back?
“Something’s stopped the crushers.”
“I can see that from the telemetry, you dickhead.” This accompanied by guffawing from others. Chet, the smart-arse overseer, likes to play to an audience.
“I better take a look,” she drawls, like it’s just occurred to her.
“You bet your ass. That’s what you paid for, girl.” More chortling of Chet’s acolytes.
She sticks up a finger to Chet’s face on the comms screen and the unseen others fall around with raucous laughter at her empty gesture.
Even as she talks to Chet, she is tapping a key-sequence on the key-pad. To Chet, it looks like she’s checking systems. The comms link starts to crackle and distort Chet’s face and voice.
“…Hey.(crackle)..breaking up…(crackle)..stabilize off-line.(crackle)..you reading me?”
Then blessed silence as the screen goes blank.
Drogue’s input code has initiated a disruption of comms and telemetry, simulating the frequent bursts of interference that occur naturally. She had programmed it into the trawler’s systems soon after her arrival. To Chet and the rest of the control team, it looked like a natural phenomenon, well known technically.
She now has complete control, alone on the eerily silent trawler, deep in the debris of the asteroid belt. And no one can remotely monitor what she is about to do.
She suits up and makes her way to the hold. Her twisted gait is perfect for making her way over boulders waiting to be pulverized. The stoppage could be caused by any number of mishaps: a large misshapen boulder jamming the tracks or a drive-belt wearing loose. She hopes it is something else.
She approaches the crusher and her heart leaps as she spots the metallic pod, skewed sideways among the rocks. It is no bigger than a coffin.
She straps a lifting rig around it, guides it into an air-lock, and into the inspection bay. A wall-mounted camera whirrs as it watches. She will later remove all electronic evidence of handling the pod. In the system’s memory, the images will show her examining an unusual rock – or junk discarded by a previous trawling operations.
Already, moisture is condensing on the pod’s cold surface. She wipes her gloved hand over it to reveal lettering never seen on Earth. Translated it says ‘Escape Pod…’ followed by hieroglyphics that are part of an alien numbering system.
She knows where to find a transparent inspection port, wipes it clear, and gazes into it in awe. The sleeping face revealed inside is large, with hooded eyes and ears like gills. The head is tilted like it has been fixed on at an odd angle. Drogue has never seen such a beautiful face, and tears course down her own cheeks.
She knows that the rest of the occupant’s body will be twisted, but that the arms will enable it to skitter over rough terrain quicker than any upright bipedal being.
How Drogue has yearned for a companion like the one in front of her. All she has to do is to trigger revival procedures and let fate take its course. How long this being has searched for a new home and now the pod’s systems are reporting ‘life is here’. Does Drogue have the right to make that decision for someone else? Could she send this person into society on Earth? Subject her to the despair she herself had felt, and the danger to their home that the feckless Earth people are creating with their poisoned air and rivers, and oceans filling with deadly waste? A race that started by killing each other is now killing itself.
Despite her heart telling her otherwise, she knows what she has to do.
Drogue works quickly.
She places her hand on a plate mounted on the pod and extracts essential data through the tips of her fingers. The occupant is in deep stasis, unaware but fully alive. This is the pod’s first attempt to locate a planetary system that supports life and is ready to find a planet in the Goldilocks Zone to land the occupant there safely.
Drogue injects a data update into the pod’s control system: an electronic marker to show where the pod has been, intercepted by a beacon that she had set up from the trawler’s comms system on a frequency unused by the trawlers. She then sets a status flag which roughly translated says ‘Don’t bother here. Not sustainable for intelligent lifeforms.’
She guides the pod to the ejection shoot, bids a silent farewell, and blasts it back into space. The on-board pod systems will plot a new course, engage the ion drive, and search for the next planetary system that could support life.
“There must be a better place out there,” She whispers to herself.
Within minutes, she has amended the electronic images and cleaned up all traces of the pod, and what she did.
Back on the flight deck the comms crackles to life.
“Hey Drogue, pleased to see your ugly face.”
“You too, Chet.”
“What was the problem?”
“Space junk. All systems back up and running.”
After finishing the conversation, Drogue is pensive. Soon the pod will pass Jupiter, harnessing its massive gravitational force to sling it back into deep space.
Three pods intercepted in the last solar cycle. Some day, she will strike lucky and find a pod where the occupant would be dead for any number of reasons. No journey in the recolonization program could be one hundred percent guaranteed safe. Then she will jettison the unfortunate body into the stream of boulders and climb into the pod herself, seal it and blast herself out to follow the pods she’s sent before. To finally escape from the planetary system in which she has become stranded.
After a while, Chet and his crew would find the trawler eerily abandoned like the Marie Celeste. No sign of Drogue. No clue on the electronic surveillance. They would assume that dim, disfigured Drogue had thrown herself into the vacuum. They’d scratch their heads in disbelief. No one would ever know what went on in her head.