“Until it Fits” by Steven Saus

Sharon had thought that joining the resistance would let her make sense of the world again. That doing something to avenge their deaths would change things. That her life would start to feel right, to feel real again, instead of being an empty booming shell. That fighting the invaders would stop the nightmare screams of her daughter.

As the hum of the alien’s airlock motor vibrated through the ship’s floor into her feet, Sharon realized how wrong she’d been. She just felt scared. Clammy fear-sweat trickled between her breasts. She brushed a wisp of blond hair out of her eyes and glanced at her watch. 0815. Bugout time was still fifteen minutes in the future. Mike and his getaway car were nowhere near the pickup point.

Damn, she thought. Six weeks of predictable morning routines, and today had to be the day they came back early from patrol.

Sharon slid her body against the corridor wall. She tucked the satchel of samples and gear under her arm. Quick sideways steps moved her toward the rear of the ship. Her gaze flicked back down the hall, watching for a flash of brown fur. She stopped when the vibrations of the motor ceased. The inner airlock’s opening swoosh echoed down the craft’s gleaming metal corridors. A puff of equalizing air played gently with her bangs. The breeze carried the smell of rotting leaves from the ship’s mess into the corridor, reminding Sharon how small the craft really was.

She slid her feet like Saunders had taught her, keeping her body close to the smooth wall. She wished for a blueprint of the ship, even a scrawled map. Sharon only knew one way out of the Bears’ landing craft, and furry alien death had just shut that door behind them. She cursed again, and kept slide-stepping her way towards the back of the lander.

She almost jumped when the pinger chimed from inside the satchel. She silenced it, hoping the aliens hadn’t heard. The aliens ignored radio communications, but their hearing was better than that of a human. She was supposed to be outside right now, where the chime wouldn’t have mattered. Mike was early, was close enough that the pinger’s signal had connected even through the ship’s hull.

She stopped, pressing her hand against the outer wall of the corridor. The signal wasn’t strong enough to carry data. Yet. Sharon kept glancing at the wavering signal strength as she moved farther back in the craft.

Maybe, she thought, just maybe…

Maroon alien symbols marked an intersection. With my luck, Sharon thought, one of them says “Emergency Exit This Way”. Nobody could read the Bears’ language, though. Nobody close enough to see the blood-colored symbols had survived long enough to try translating. She only had a few reference points to use navigating around the ship. The airlock. The control room. The galley, where she’d gathered the samples.

The warm satchel bounced when she did jump, startled as the air in the ship vibrated from the Bears’ angry bellows. The intense echoing sound hurt her ears. They must have found the galley, Sharon thought.

She was supposed to have covered her tracks on the way back out, but their early return pooched that plan. The roar separated from one incomprehensible sound into three: two large bass rumbles from the leading pair and a lone higher growl from the subordinate. Sharon knew that roar pattern. Stealth wasn’t going to work any longer. They knew she was there. Now they were hunting.

The alien roars shivered down her spine, dredging up memories of the beginning. It was only two months ago, when Bill and Anna had laughed at her fears. Her husband and daughter had huddled together under blankets in the chilly March night. They’d watched through Bill’s small telescopes as the Bear’s huge, silent mother ships passed the Moon. Sharon had stayed inside, away from the deep night sky. She had waited for Anna to come back in, waited with Anna’s favorite book of fairy tales. Then her husband had walked in, carrying their sleeping child.

“Sorry,” Bill had said. “I guess she wanted to see the aliens instead.”

Sharon shook her head. She knew she couldn’t stop for those memories now; the Bear’s hunting roar was almost over. She scurried a few more feet and glanced at the pinger. Dammit, she thought, and moved more quickly down the corridor. The Bear’s roar stopped. Sharon’s boots made a soft “rap rap rap” against the metal floor, but she was sure they were loud enough that even Mike could hear them outside the ship. Fear rose acidly in her chest, the memories threatening on the edge of her vision.

Remember the mission, she thought. Focus on the mission. Focus on getting this information to Mike. Get them the information so some egghead can analyze it, figure out how to kill these bastards. Find out how to kill them so we can finally stop running and hiding.

She had wanted to hide when the Bears – furry half-ton snouted bipeds, though they didn’t know that then – came down in their landers. Bill had finally convinced her to watch the landing on television. His arm circled her shoulders while he tried to comfort her. Anna had paper and crayons, drawing a big-eyed alien shaking hands with her and Bill.

“I think the odds are against there being any problems,” Bill had said. “And they’re definitely not going to eat us.” His smile was patronizing, but she had been too scared to be mad. “They evolved somewhere else, Sharon. Hell, people have a hard time eating all the plants and animals on this planet. These things came from a planet around Dubhe. It’s a completely different star, baby.”

Anna’s head had popped up. “It’s a star in the Big Dipper, Mommy.”

Bill had smiled at her. “That’s right, Anna. Don’t worry, Sharon. It’ll be fine.”

Then the Bears landed. Then the Bears killed. Then the Bears ate, live on television. Against the odds, everything – our planet, our proteins, our world – was just right for them. Sharon only watched the first few moments of carnage on television before running, Bill and Anna at her side.

Her family ran while the Bears’ ships floated above city streets. The shining invulnerable skipping-stone craft landed when humans fought back. They landed when the Bears wanted meat. Her family hid while roaring strike teams of aliens, shimmering behind personal force fields, wandered the wrecked streets, looking for survivors. Looking for dinner.

The three of them survived for eleven days before they got Anna.

Sharon bit her lip, hard enough to taste blood on her tongue. She hadn’t moved in seconds. Captain Saunders had warned her times like this could happen. The Bears roared again, closer. Sharon closed her eyes and invoked the calming mantra he’d taught her. She’d spent three weeks in the sewers with the resistance. Saunders had taught her how to scavenge, to fight, to survive. Three hard but peaceful weeks before the Bears found that base. The explosion had brought down the roof, before the Bears came down, three by three. The falling debris had given her a concussion. Mike had drug her to safety while they heard Saunders’ screaming and the Bears’ roars.

Sharon pushed the memory and panic down with the words of the mantra. Her hands held the warm satchel tight against her chest. She took a few more breaths and spared a quick glance to check the sample tubes, and then went back to moving down the corridor. The pinger signal was stronger, but not quite strong enough. She kept the satchel in front of her, imagining the portable analyzer sampling and analyzing the thick tan liquid the aliens used for food. Up close, she thought it smelled less like rotting leaves and more like the stink of garbage cans in July. Still, Saunders had been sure this was key.

“They always eat this stuff,” he’d said. “Even when they forage for meat.”

Oh God, she thought, the meat.

She could feel the warmth of the analyzer through the satchel’s canvas. C’mon, find something, Sharon begged it. Find something we can use against them.

The distinctive shuffle-boom of alien feet pulsed close through the air. Sharon tried to move her own feet in rhythm with the smaller Bear’s lighter tread. She paused at another Y intersection, then went left. The smaller Bear shrieked again, loud but not as close as she would have thought.

They didn’t track me, she thought. They’re at the control room instead.

Sharon smiled at that thought. Maybe they had wanted to use the security system. Instead they found out why their equipment wasn’t responding to them. They found more of her handiwork. She patted the satchel again. Long ago, Bill had laughed at the Hollywood idea of infecting alien software with a computer virus. He was right, but getting a raw core dump was much, much easier. That might have clues to the Bears’ technology, so different than their own.

Sharon had never thought about how the resistance managed to get information about the Bears’ interface, but it’d been sketchy at best. She had never been good with electronics, but after the last raid, the one where Saunders died, she was the only one even remotely qualified.

The pinger signal was almost strong enough. Almost. Sharon tried to ignore the angry roars of the three aliens. She wasn’t sure if the wreckage in the control room was due to her lack of skills, or if the intelligence had been flawed. The results were the same. She’d blown the first two consoles instantly, filling the air with ozone and vaporized solder. The interface had worked on the third try, the console lasting several full minutes before shooting sulfurous sparks across the room.

The pinger got a good connection just as the ship’s lighting shifted to red and blast doors started lowering.

I guess I didn’t wreck the control room as much as I hoped, Sharon thought. She quashed the impulse to hide in a corner. A small extrusion – she guessed it was a support strut – projected out from the wall. It would serve as a crude hiding place for the equipment. She placed the satchel behind it and had the pinger complete the connection.

“Sharon?” Mike’s voice was a squeaked whisper. “Where the hell are you?”

“Inside,” she whispered. “Change of plans. I’m going to upload the information to you.”

Her fingers tapped on the keypad, configuring the pinger to transmit its information to Mike’s system. The small screen flickered, then showed a bar crawling slowly, so slowly, to the right. Five minutes to upload everything. Five minutes to get information to the resistance that might finally let them do something besides die. Sharon looked at her watch. 0825.

She looked up when the Bears roared again. If the Bears found the satchel, they’d move it or destroy it and break the connection. She knew that if she stayed by the satchel, it would just lead the Bears right to it. They were hunting meat, not a hunk of plastic and metal.

Sharon went a few feet back up the hallway. Two doors faced each other. She pressed the pads beside them, opening both. The hiss reminded her of late nights watching Star Trek, cuddling with Bill. She slipped in the door to the left just before both doors slid shut behind her.

Three oversized boxes, striped black and yellow, dominated the far side of the room. They stood like windowed monoliths, soft glowing symbols on readouts beside them. She couldn’t read the symbols beside the boxes, but they reminded her of the cryosleep chambers she’d seen in so many of Bill’s favorite movies. Sharon walked toward them, but stopped halfway across the room.

There was no growling coming through the door, no sound of footsteps. It was almost enough to make her think she was safe. She would have thought that, if Anna had not made the same mistake. If she hadn’t seen her daughter eaten while she and Bill had silently hidden. Maternal and survival instincts had churned her stomach.

A flash of Captain Saunders attempting amateur psychology while they drank lukewarm instant coffee scavenged from a ruined store. “You can’t blame yourself or Anna, Sharon. You didn’t know.” He’d drunk his coffee in big gulping swallows. “They’re like lions. They roar to flush us out. Then when we’re cornered, they get quiet. We get complacent, think we’re safe, and that’s when they strike.”

So they know I’m here, she thought, quietly sliding her feet as she moved deeper into the room. They know I’m trapped. She glanced at her watch. 0826. Four minutes.

A door opened, and the Bears roared… somewhere else. They were in the room across the hall. Sharon offered up a silent whispered prayer, thankful that she must have done some damage in the control room. If the security systems had been fully active, she would’ve been dead. She still had a chance to hide, to survive. She turned toward the cryochambers and the massive, complex latches holding them shut.

Her thumbnail snapped off as she heaved against the first lock. She bit hard on her cheek to keep the scream in, teeth ripping through the soft inner flesh of her mouth. She pushed against the latch again, but it did not move. The second lock was worse, her sweaty hands slipping across the smooth metal.

Sharon heard a click from outside the door, the sound of an extended claw on the hard floor. She scurried to the third, smaller chamber. It was slightly open, and she blessed lazy subordinates everywhere. The heavy wet-fur smell of the Bears was thick inside the chamber, but she slipped inside and shut the lid.

The Bears entered the room.

The chamber’s window was not totally clear. She could not see the snout markings that distinguished individual Bears. She could see the bulk of their solid bodies, the waving soft fur that covered them, the shape that gave them their name. The subordinate was obvious from its smaller size.

The largest of the three adjusted its silver vest, inspecting its chamber first while the other two covered the room with their weapons. Sharon glanced at her wrist as the largest Bear snuffled the lock of its chamber and examined the scrap of her thumbnail on the ground. 0827. Three minutes. What data was transmitted first? The core dump? The food analysis?

When it finished, its partner moved forward to check the second chamber. Sharon stared at the subordinate, just able to make out furred fingers wrapped around the matte handle of its gun. Her hand held her own weapon, the safety thumbed off. She slowly drew the weapon up along her body. She couldn’t tell through the window if the Bears’ fur shimmered with force fields. She hoped they didn’t wear them inside the ship.

The walls of the chamber were close, suffocating, like the closet she had hid in when the Bears got Bill. They had eaten him slowly. Once the military had been crushed, the Bears took the time to savor the taste of fresh meat. Bill’s gurgles and screams had gone on for a long time. Sharon felt a tear, shockingly cool, run across her cheek.

The subordinate, the last of them, shuffled forward with a quiet, higher-pitched growl. Sharon held her gun with both hands and blew a strand of blond hair out of her face again. She felt Bill stroke her cheek, felt Anna hug her legs, and tried not to imagine what that might mean.

Everything after the invasion had felt wrong. Life had not felt right, had not fit for months.

But not anymore. No more running. No more hiding.

There was a growl, and the subordinate turned away.

The largest, the one with the vest, stood in the doorway. It gestured back down the hallway, back towards the satchel. Sharon glanced at her watch. 0828. Two minutes left. If the Bears interrupted the transmission, what would happen? She didn’t know. It could ruin the whole mission. It might change nothing.

Sharon remembered Anna’s favorite fairy tale, remembered her daughter looking at her hair while she told it. Laughing, Sharon kicked the door of the cyrochamber open. It caught the smallest alien in the back, knocking it to the ground. The other two bears turned back into the room, the hallway forgotten.

“And they’re still here!” she shouted, her weapon singing a fiery song of death.

It felt just right.

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About the Author

Steven Saus injects people with radioactivity as his day job, but only to serve the forces of good. His work has appeared in multiple anthologies and magazines both online and off. He also publishes and provides publishing services as Alliteration Ink. You can find him at stevensaus.com and alliterationink.com.

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