It was two minutes to midnight.
Sanaa delicately slid her freshly-shaven head into the grey astronaut helmet with her initials etched into it, her eyes darting around fearfully as she marched in formation onto the blistering tarmac. Sanaa and the thousands of others in her fleet were boarding mammoth-sized rocket ships forty stories tall in bands of five hundred, as maintenance jeeps pulled away from the area.
“When did you get the call?” a voice whispered.
Sanaa turned sharply, first to her left and then her right, expecting the voice to have come from beside her, but the men on either side of her were paying her no mind. Even though she had the face shield retracted, it was difficult to hear from inside the helmet. Finally, she realized that the voice had come from across the aisle.
“Two days before training,” Sanaa whispered back. “You?”
They hadn’t been given specific orders not to speak, but a corridor full of strangers on a fully-fueled rocket counting down toward liftoff wasn’t exactly an ideal place to start a conversation. Companionship was the last thing on anyone’s mind. All that could be heard were nervous ticks; people biting their nails, tapping their feet, the subtle background sound of cloth rubbing against cloth, and Sanaa and her new friend whispering to each other.
“They kidnapped me three days before,” the woman responded. “I’m Nyota.”
“Sanaa,” greeted Sanaa.
“Got anyone back home?” Nyota asked. “Just my husband. Ade.”
Sanaa thought about asking Nyota the same question out of politeness but stopped herself. She didn’t care about Nyota’s family and, more importantly, she didn’t know if she’d have a chance to speak about her husband again, so why yield the floor?
“We run a mech shop together, fixing transports – RSVs, spaceships, low- earth orbit rockets. Any vehicle that once moved, we can make move again,” explained Sanaa with pride. Nyota nodded somberly.
And there it was. A sudden dull but powerful pang in Sanaa’s chest. The realization that she was sharing this information with Nyota because she knew she might never see Ade again. The pain grew and settled, thudding against her beating heart, distracting her enough that she didn’t realize that the Captain was speaking over the loudspeakers. As the ship began to rumble beneath them, she lowered her face shield, checked the link on the five-point harness strapping her into her seat, and grabbed hold of the yellow safety cord on her left, looking up to a focal point on the ceiling.
Blinking rapidly, she fought back the tears that threatened to sneak down her cheeks and reveal just how terrifying this all was for her.
It took a second for her to remember her training. In through your nose, out through your mouth, she recited to herself. She breathed deeply, trying desperately not to think about what was about to happen, as the rocket left the tarmac and violently propelled the group straight up through the atmosphere into outer space.
* * *
You are hereby directed to present yourself in service of your nation and planet.
There was more to the letter – a lot more – but Sanaa had stopped reading. It didn’t surprise her that this was happening, though. Ade had
been following the developments in the news ever since long-range satellites had detected intelligent structures entering the solar system. Over the past few weeks, politicians had banded together, the United Nations had gone into a frenzy, and military leaders with public and private corporations had begun negotiations to tactically put forth their strategy for “protecting humanity.”
Sanaa remembered Ade chuckling when the media began to make it look as if these efforts were for the greater good. He had spent a decade in politics, rising quickly through the ranks to the House of Representatives just a few years earlier, but gave it all up when he hit the wall of corruption. To rise any higher, he would have had to compromise his ethics and scratch the backs of the special interest entities that really controlled the planet.
Corporations. Ade knew a business opportunity when he saw one. He knew people in power would never let this impending-doom-of-a-crisis slip through their fingers. Ade knew they’d bend heaven and earth to capitalize on every aspect of it, in every way they could make legal. So he gave up that career to spend his life loving Sanaa. Now the same entities from which he had walked away had come for what he held most dear, ordering Sanaa to sacrifice her life to help save them all.
“I have to go,” was all she could muster. She held her breath, waiting for his reaction.
“The only way we stand a chance is if we send our best,” he said. “You’re the best.”
In the next second, she was enveloped in his arms, trying to literally occupy the same physical space that he did. He didn’t care that she was covered in grease from working all afternoon under the broken-down, Vista- class spacecraft in their driveway. He crushed her into his body, knowing that soon he would have to let her go.
She hadn’t realized she was crying until her cheek felt wet, and she pulled away to see a damp patch on his shoulder. He looked deep into her eyes without releasing her from his grip. “You’re going to be fine,” he said reassuringly, trying to remain calm and confident. Sanaa, however, knew him better than she knew herself. She could hear the hurt and worry in his voice. But what could they do, if not lie to each other in a moment like this? So, she nodded, steadied her breathing, and rubbed her cheeks, leaving streaks of grime so her tears wouldn’t show.
“I’m going to be fine,” she nodded.
* * *
Sanaa’s legs lifted off the floor on their own.
Thankfully, as the ship entered into microgravity, the ride smoothed out.
The first-stage booster rockets had already soundlessly disengaged from the core, and now the remainder of the ship, with its five hundred passengers aboard, continued toward their destination, an approaching machine cluster of unknown origin. Sanaa released her white-knuckle grip on the safety cord and peered out the port window at the tiny blue ball she called home as it shrunk into insignificance.
Suddenly there was a thunderous blast. Something crashed into the ship, knocking her nearly unconscious and sending those not strapped in crashing against the interior walls.
“BRACE FOR IMPACT!” someone shouted.
Sanaa didn’t think twice. She tucked into the fetal position just before there was another devastating impact. As they flipped topside, she hung onto a support rod and frantically looked towards the front of the vessel. It had been blasted clean off. They twirled out of control, as hundreds of soldiers were jettisoned into the void, where several of their other ships had already been attacked. Clusters of crumpled aluminum and steel floated past her. They were being completely ripped apart.
“EMERGENCY PODS!” the same voice yelled. It took her a moment to register what was actually happening.
She scrambled to undo her five-point harness, cursing when the last connection was a little troublesome. As she stood, she offered a hand to Nyota, who grabbed Sanaa’s forearm and pulled herself up, nodding a quick thanks. The line of remaining soldiers, still unsure of their footing, pushed forward, aligning with the emergency pod stations. One by one, they loaded into the pods and vanished. By the time it was Sanaa’s turn, there was little left of the ship. She caught Nyota’s eye, whose emergency pod came up at the same time as her own.
“See you on the surface!” Sanaa shouted nervously over the blaring sirens, but Nyota’s horrified gaze stretched past her into the distance.
As Sanaa slammed the EJECT button in her cramped emergency pod, she felt the mix of gravitational force and pod thrusters combine to send her hurtling out of the starboard side of the ship into the darkness of space.
A handful of additional pods shot out as she fell away from the ship. The sheer magnitude of the destruction was indescribable. Nearly all the ships in their fleet had been annihilated in the attack and were now floating about in pieces. Then she realized those pieces were the lifeless bodies of her fellow crewmen.
Just then, a mangled section of the rocket struck her pod, sending Sanaa barreling out of control toward a distant planetary body. The grisly gash across the hull wasn’t the worst part. It had also knocked the pod’s navigation offline. As she hurtled towards the planet, the pod around her started to heat up. Sanaa was spinning. Everything was spinning. She would have surely thrown up if she’d had any food in her stomach. Luckily, space- sickness was very real, so all soldiers had been given nutrition cubes instead. But that didn’t stop her insides from churning.
She squeezed her eyes shut to the flickering violet warning lights. The centrifugal force kept her pushed apart, but she finally managed to tuck into the fetal position, locking her arms around her legs to brace for impact.
Deep inside that ball of fury, her mind wandered to Ade. What was he doing at that very instant? Watching the live coverage on TV? Out in the shop distracting himself? Talking to his family back home? Could he feel her? She thought of how his eyes lit up at her silly puns, and how tender his lips appeared just before she kissed him. On their last night together, as they lay in bed talking, Sanaa had slowly run her fingers over his face, thumbing his cheek, memorizing every detail, every imperfection. He explained why time was the most valuable currency and how nothing costs more than a moment. It was one of a number of his deeply held philosophies. Principles he lived by. The reason he gave up everything to be with her, and now all she could think about was that if she didn’t make it home, his sacrifice for her will have been for naught.
And then the world went black.