Just a few days ago, a fellow creative directed me to an interesting challenge on a website called Tongal. It is the 40th (!!) anniversary of the movie Alien, which, for my money, is still one of the scariest movies of all time (and indeed, the most recent installment in the series, Alien: Covenant, is as frightening and disturbing a movie as I’ve seen in a long, long time, but that’s a post for another day).
The challenge was to write a 9 minute (or so) brief piece that, if selected, might get made into a short by the crew behind the original Alien movies. (Learn more about how this was done on the Tongal site, here.)
I know we’re not supposed to set low expectations, but I never really figured my story would get picked. First of all, I only had a few days to write it (I found out about it late). Second, I have seen the Alien series, but I am not an avid follower, so I didn’t necessarily familiarize myself with the universe as well as others may have. And finally, I am not really a movie production guy, and that’s clearly what they were looking for.
Nonetheless, I really enjoyed writing this. It was a nice departure from what I usually do. Hope you enjoy.
Weyland Yutani Osprey 180247, transport Tug Crew: 5 Commanding officer: Dara Ketcher Warrant officer: Jim welle Navigator: Franklin, Hyperdyne Systems model 120-A/2 synthetic Engineer: Bobby Stayles Technician: Elliott Parris
[Space. Unusually dark space. Few stars can be seen in this part of the universe. At last, an enormous line of freight comes into view. White, angular, long boxes, one after the other, green and white lights blinking on either side of them. One takes a few seconds to roll by. Then another. Then another. Like a train, they keep coming. Slowly panning back, we begin to see the enormity of the cargo containers until finally the camera pauses on the small ship attached at the starboard side of the last container, the Osprey, a small transport intergalactic ‘tugboat’ connected to enormous booster rockets behind the cargo load, pushing the unknown freight through the quiet vacuum of space.
“Franklin, I want a faster way to LH-10. Keep working on it.” Commanding Officer Dara Ketcher sits in the cockpit punching in coordinates on her own, checking the power status of the boosters as well as other important readings. Nervous work, busy work. Green lines criss-cross different coordinates across a dark screen. She seems impatient.
Ketcher is younger than her crew, pulled from the academy early to fly for Weyland Yutani. She fought as a pilot at the Battle of Serenity Valley and was highly decorated, but after struggling with the nightmares of war, she could no longer hack it and was relegated to running long-haul freight near the Black Line — to desolate, cold, isolated planets on the outer rim of the known universe. She takes her work seriously. She also seems very lonely.
Franklin’s face beams roughly back over the monitor, radioactive static put out by the enormous engines interfering with the reception.
“I’m sorry, Commander. I am afraid it will be a nine-decaparsec shot, no matter what we do. Just as the Weyland engineers told us. We have too much weight to try anything shorter or faster.”
Impatient, annoyed, Dara replies: “Even if we shoot out of the Black Line then back in past the RU-684 star? Slingshot us around?”
“We could try. But it is risky. The Black Line marks the charted universe, adjacent to the edge. There are uncharted radiation fields. Uncharted asteroid belts. I don’t recommend we try.”
Jim Welle, handsome, older with a salt-and-pepper beard, seems slightly amused by the whole interaction.
“Dara, Weyland said dump this freight into the orbit of LH-10. It’s one of the most massive planets this side of the galaxy. We cryosleep, do the nine decaparsecs, dump the load, and it’ll burn up on impact before we get back in the sleep chamber. Matter of hours. Gone.”
“I don’t need a lecture on our mission, Jim.”
Jim, only mildly embarrassed, tries again.
“Dara, I know. But…”
“Jim, you have no idea what we’re hauling. It’s…” Dara snaps, then words fail her.
“Whatever it is,” Jim says. “It can’t be bad enough for you to want to get it through who knows what the hell past the Black Line.”
Bobby and Elliot, sitting behind them, shift uncomfortably.
Dara looks up from the monitors. The noise of the boosters pushing the fright and the beeps inside are all anyone can here for a long moment.
“Fine,” she sighs. “It’s just… I… don’t know that the LH-10 is good enough. I’ve seen…” She seems unsure what to say next. “I’ve seen what we’re hauling. It’s… resilient.”
“Alright, Dara,” Jim smiles a little and punches a button near the screen. “Whatever is in those containers is so bad, Weyland classified it need-to-know. You know, Franklin knows, and we’re just the hired help. We get it. Franklin…”
“Wait,” says Dara, clearly feeling bad. There is silence as Franklin, in a control room with computers and screens seeming to surround him.
A moment of quiet, just a moment.
“I’m sorry. Jim, I’m sorry. They showed me video. They showed me what they… become. What they are. They’re nightmare fuel, Jim. And… I don’t know. Dumping this freight on an uninhabited, faraway rock? It just seems… too easy.”
“You want to dump them into the RU-684.” Jim has his forefinger covering his mouth. This — this — is why she was desperate to pass the black line and find the RU-684, a massive star exuding incredible heat and light around it and to the edge of the universe.
“Boss, you’ve been jumpy since we picked up this freight from Weyland,” Elliot is a good ol’ boy, trucker hat, buttons down on the jumpsuit, chewing gum and laid back. “End of the day? It’s just freight. I say we cryosleep it off, dump this shit on the rock, then haul these goddam boosters back home.”
Ketcher rubs her face, her eyes with her hand and swivels her chair to face the men under her command.
“Yeah, Elliot. Thanks.” She seems exasperated.
“Our cargo is usually space junk we dump on a rock at the edge of the universe. I don’t ever like our cargo.” Bobby smiles and Dara offers a tight-lipped smile back.
“Yeah, Bobby. But this is… something different.”
“We’ve never gone as far as LH-10. Must be something the company really doesn’t want around anymore,” Jim crosses his arms and looks stern.
“No,” says Dara, quietly.
“Boss, let’s just dump this shit into that godforsaken planet and head home. Franklin, he’s stayin’ awake anyway. Franklin,” Bobby looks at the android’s face on the monitor. “You come up with a way to get us to a better space rock, you get us there. Cool?”
“Thanks, Bobby, but I’ll give the orders. Let’s get to the cryosleep chambers.”
Franklin’s voice comes over the monitor cold: “I’ll prep the chambers for hypersleep. Programming us now for the decaparsec jumps. Wake up before you know it at LH-10.”
[The crew gets up from the tight cockpit chamber and heads to the cryosleep chamber on the small vessel.]
[Jim Welle’s eyes open to complete chaos, though there is no noise in the cryosleep chamber. He sees a red light pulsating — never a good sight, and as the top hatch whooshes open, the sound of an alarm wailing over and over again. Alert… Alert… hull breach… Alert… Alert… Steam is escaping from somewhere close by, and though it usually takes a minute to recover from cryosleep, Jim is already in a panic.]
“Jim! Jim!” Suddenly a wide-eyed Dara Ketcher is on top of him, grabbing him by the lapels of his jumpsuit. “Move! MOVE!”
The cryosleep chamber opens achingly slow. Jim Welle sits up, disoriented at the loud noise and flashing light around him.
He vomits into the chamber.
“Jim!” Dara is halfway across the room towards the doorway that leads to the cockpit. “Jim, hurry! We’re out past the Black Line. It’s an asteroid field, uncharted! Hurry! HURRY!”
The Osprey shakes violently.
The quiet, unnervingly calm female voice comes over the PA system.
Alert… Alert… hull breach… structural integrity at… 60… percent…
Jim is up now, out of the chamber. He thinks to look back at the chamber that was to his left.
A giant pipe leaking steam has pierced it. Steam pours forth and red goo drips from the side. Jim Welle winces.
Bobby Stayles, the Osprey’s engineer. Dead. He never even woke up.
The chamber next to him, Elliott Parris, the ship’s tech, is open.
“Where’s Elliott?” Jim yells to Dara as they flee towards the cockpit.
“I don’t know,” Dara yells, not looking back. “Franklin? Franklin? You in the engine room?” She sounds a little more frantic than she wants to.
“Right here, Commander.” Franklin’s face pops up on the screen next to her.
“I need the status of everything.”
“Jesus Christ,” Jim Welle mutters as he looks out the front cockpit glass: gray-brown rocks everywhere. Small, big. Some moving fast, some slow. Some seem as big as a moon, some as small as a baseball. They’re everywhere.
“Commander, the hull has been breached, starboard side, near the engine connectors. Just behind me. We have lost some structural integrity.”
“Is it fixable, Franklin?”
“It will take time, Commander, but yes. I can do it,” Franklin pauses, not wanting them to linger on the good news. “Commander, there’s more.”
As Dara and Jim sigh at the idea of their ship not immediately ripping apart, Jim Welle says, “What’s that, Franklin?”
“The containers. I’ve run their status. All twenty-five have been breached in some capacity.”
“All twenty-five?” Dara asks, incredulous.
“All of them, Commander. Some have a small breach — no bigger than a basketball. But some have been shredded nearly their entire length.
“Is there any…” Dara is sitting, eyes closed in the pilot’s seat. She thinks better of the question. “Franklin, how close are we to RU-684?”
But before Franklin can answer, Jim Welle nearly jumps out of his seat next to her.
“RU-684? We’re out past the Black Line? God dammit, Dara! Oh, God…” and he looks away, runs a hand through his hair.
“Jim,” Dara says, tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I changed our coordinates after the rest of you went into hypersleep. I am sorry. This load we’re hauling, Jim it’s… it’s…”
“Fuck it,” Jim Welle says, waving a hand dismissively. “Tell it to Bobby Stayles.”
At this, Dara Ketcher chokes up.
Franklin, apparently ignoring the fight, says, “Commander, I’ve plugged in coordinates that get us out of the asteroid field with only a few more bumps. Then we are headed to the star RU-684.”
“Thank you, Franklin,” she whispers.
“Franklin,” she says, almost as an afterthought. “Where is Elliott?”
But Franklin does not have the chance to answer. His monitor cuts out for a moment, flicks to black.
“Goddam monitors,” Jim Welle hisses, tamping the palm of his hand against the screen.
The screen, which has been flickering on and off worse than ever, finally buzzes on to reveal that Franklin has been torn in half and partially decapitated by… something.
There is milky-white spray everywhere, half covering the camera lens. His legs and half his torso are on the other side of the room, shredded. His upper torso, and what’s left of his head lean up against the wall. His arms make a strange, mechanical motion, devoid of meaning.
“Franklin!” Dara screams and jumps up from her seat. Jim stares at the monitor in disbelief, but because he stares for a moment longer, he sees something — a black flash move across the room.
“What the fuck was that?”
“Jim, we have to go! To the escape pods. We have to go. Now!” There is frantic urgency in Dara Ketcher’s voice.
Jim moves behind her through the narrow ship, quick as he can.
They have to climb down the ladder through a narrow tube. Dara leads. The tube stops at a small area where the crew eat and socialize. There’s a small table in the middle, and shifty fluorescent light.
Something is wrong.
As Jim Welle drops down, he sees Dara Ketcher frozen in place, trembling.
The room is filled with a translucent goo, dripping from the ceiling, the console, the bench along the far wall, the table.
Dara tries to scream, can’t. The body of Elliott Parris is high against the wall, stuck in a cocoon. Only his head and one arm are exposed. He looks dead — his skin is a bluish green — but is barely breathing, eyelids fluttering.
“Oh, god…” she whispers.
Jim is beyond words. He is turning around and around the room, taking it in. An egg sack in the corner opens up.
“No…,” Dara Ketcher whispers, starting to move to the ladder to go back up.
A facehugger emerges from the sack and begins to skitter across the floor. Jim Welle screams as it approaches. He knocks into Dara, who falls against the ladder. She screams, too, and immediately struggles to climb.
As she looks down from the ladder a few steps up, the facehugger is already on top of Jim Welle. She knows he’s as good as dead.
Back in the cockpit, she all but jumps into the pilot seat and lifts a plastic console to the far left. There is a red button surrounded by yellow and black. Emergency Booster Disconnect.
She slams her fist down on the button, and there is a great mechanical roar as the small Osprey begins to separate from the enormous main booster and cargo containers. The blue of the boosters burns hotter and faster for a moment, the ship starts to move away from the cargo containers, all of which look ragged and torn in the darkness of space. Some are leaking fluid, some are leaking unidentified materials.
Her lip trembles and she is barely holding back tears as she looks down the length of the top of the cargo containers. They go as far as her eyes can see, and on the top, some on the side, are Xenomorphs. Hundreds. Maybe thousands.
Many are being pulled into the vacuum of space. Many more cling to the cargo containers, hissing and crawling towards the Osprey.
There is a loud clang, a metal-on-metal grinding noise.
Dara looks out the window to see the locking mechanism and is suddenly reminded of what Franklin told her: it was damaged in the asteroid field.
She gasps and realizes what she has to do. She quickly punches coordinates into the computer, aiming the ship and the cargo at the giant star, RU-684, which lights up the corner of the galaxy, and nothing else. There are less than half a dozen visible stars in the dark expanse.
She struggles out of the seat and down towards the ladder. She slides down, fast. The eggs in the room have mostly opened now. The facehugger is still on Jim Welle’s motionless body.
Dara turns and lifts a heavy sliding arm up and then punches in a code into a keypad on the wall.
“Hurry, HURRY!” She’s crying and screaming now. There is no time.
She knows — can feel — a facehugger, maybe more than one, skittering across the floor towards her.
The ship’s computer has never stopped the red light, has never stopped warning about the hull breach, the integrity of which is now at less than 40%.
The voice changes when she’s done with the code.
Escape pod mechanism… activated…
The escape pod is the size of a phone booth, small, angular and oval. There’s a small control panel on the inside, and a bed that looks a lot like the cryosleep chambers.
“…hurry…,” she is frantic. “…hurry… hurry…”
The door behind her closes with a whoosh, the lid clamps down and the screen in front of her lights up. She punches in a code to the desolate planet, LH-10, checks the distress beacon charge — full power, it says — then hits the green button to activate, hard.
The escape pod detaches with a quick, powerful burst and it would appear she is free. The pod makes a slight turn, and the light of the powerful star catches her now sort of hysterically laughing. She has gotten away. She can see the Osprey through her window, the enormous line of cargo holds stretched out beyond the tug.
Dara begins to relax, knowing they’ll burn up as they approach the giant star.
Initiating cryosleep countdown… one minute… and the computer screen shows a red sixty second countdown.
Then, something happens. Something… unexpected.
The small Osprey finally breaks free from the cargo containers. There is a flash of spark and light from the back of the ship, and it moves with unexpected speed towards the star. Even at a fair distance now, she can see that the Osprey is covered with Xenomorphs.
“No,” she says, taking in a breath. “No. Computer… give me the coordinates of the cargo containers.”
The sixty-second countdown pauses at twenty seconds.
Calculating… coordinates of Weyland-Yutani shipping containers on current trajectory and diminishing thrust…
There is a sudden display on the screen in front of Dara Ketcher.
“No, no, no…,” she is whispering and crying. “No…”
The coordinates show the cargo container headed around the giant star, and the gravitational pull sending it back to the other side of the Black Line…
The cargo containers, at calculated current and diminished rate of speed, will pass beyond the gravitational pull of RU-684…
She sobs and laughs at the same time.
…and through no less than… five inhabited galaxies.
“No!” Dara Ketcher screams as the countdown begins again. She begins to scramble to end the countdown, but at seven seconds, it is too late.
As she falls into cryosleep, her last thought is of sending thousands of aliens towards the densest populations of humans in the universe.
She sobs into the starless darkness at the far end of the universe.