The Lucky Cigarette

 

The burning escape pod glowed violently as it hurtled through the air of the planet, orange flames trailing behind it. Inside, a lone man was rocked to and fro as he held on tightly for dear life. Up above, the smoldering hulk of a wrecked ship was breaking apart, the pieces plunging down into the atmosphere after him. After narrowly escaping certain death above, the man now faced the prospect of death down below; a fate that wasn’t much more appealing.

But in spite of the damage to the battered capsule, its chutes deployed, and the pod slowed just before impact. Falling more gently now over the red, barren sands below, illuminated by a setting sun, the man lessened his death-grip on the pod’s handles. His escape pod hit the ground with a forceful thud, but he was alright.

He quickly grabbed a nearby pack, popped open the hatch, and leaped from the escape pod, still scalding from the heat of reentry. Stumbling in the soft sand, he ran from the debris of the crash, away from any sign that would tell them he was still alive. Away from any means they could use to find him.

Jones made it thirty feet from the steaming wreck of his downed pod before he gave up. Running was pointless; there was no where to go. In the wide, open landscape of Beta Seuden 3′s northern desert he could see for miles, and what he saw confirmed that there was nothing around.

There was air, at least. Air to breathe. Air to light his final cigarette, and a nice comfy rock to rest his bruised and sore butt.

A bit calmer now, he drew the cigarette from his pack with reverence and care, as though it were a sacred relic – a cultural artefact from a world now so distant and unattainable. It was the last in the pack and probably the last he’d ever see. He’d turned it upside-down when the pack was new – a strange custom he’d adopted. Somebody had once told him that doing so was lucky. So much for that.

He stared at it for a moment before taking a lighter from one of his pockets. He flicked it on and lit the cigarette. Putting it up to his lips, he sucked in a long, drawn-out breath, enjoying every bit of his last connection to the civilized world. Then he let it all out in an exasperated sigh as he realized how hopeless his situation was. Lost on a barren planet, with little food and water, and no way to contact his people.

He rummaged through the survival pack that had been included in the escape pod. In it he saw several ration bars, a couple hundred feet of parachord, a blanket, and a small .44 handgun. Putting the cigarette between his lips, he reached in and grabbed the gun, weighing it in his hands. He popped open the cylinder and saw it was already loaded with six rounds. He wasn’t sure it would do him any good, but he tucked it into his waistband anyway.

Jones looked out over the horizon, past his wrecked escape pod, and starred at the setting star before him. An alien star, not the one he had grown up under. Not the one he had taken for granted, and only just realized how much he now missed. How much he would give to be back home in the Tau Ceti system. Not that he had much. Only one last cigarette, and even that wouldn’t last forever.

Instead, Jones had signed up for an exploratory mission intended to settle new planets in the name of humanity. Everyone had expected it to be a fun-filled adventure, and it was for the first leg of the journey. Jones had been on board the USF Cognitum, a cargo ship which had been modified for colonization. Prior to departure, the whole expedition had spent a few weeks living together on board to test out the fleet’s self-sufficiency. In that time, they had all become close friends. Jones had gotten along well with Kara and Lucas, two other colonists who happened to be rooming nearby.

Kara had been a nuclear physicist, which is why she had been selected for the colonization program. Lucas, in contrast, had been a farmer in a past life and would have played a critical role in setting up the new colony’s agriculture. Jones couldn’t think of any two people more different than them, but they had immediately hit it off after he had introduced them.

Jones smiled and took another drag from his cigarette as he recalled all the good times they had had together. The ships themselves were run entirely by the naval crew. The colonists were only along for the ride until they reached their final destination, so the three of them had a lot of free time onboard the Cognitum. He remembered one particular incident where Kara had put together a party for a friend’s birthday. The three had had fun setting it up, and even more fun actually partaking in it.

By now the alien sun had set, and several, unfamiliar stars were beginning to appear in the darkening sky. A particularly bright one caught Jones’ eye, and he watched it as he took another puff of smoke. Astronomy had never really been his thing, but he figured without much else to do, he might as well try to map out what was what. He wasn’t sure what Tau Ceti would look like from so far away, but the bright light seemed like it was in the right direction. But now that it had his attention, he noticed that it was slowly etching its way across the sky.

Jones tracked the curious light with his eyes and took another drag. When the colonization fleet had arrived at Beta Seuden, they had spent a couple days in orbit analyzing the only habitable planet. That’s when the mysterious ship had jumped in at the outer edge of the system. It was unlike any design they had ever seen before, and it refused to respond to any attempts at communication. It just got closer and closer. Admiral Ristovski had considered leaving, but too much money had been invested in the project. If it wasn’t a success, the Federation’s whole colonization program might be suspended for years. And it wasn’t like the fleet was defenseless. The USF Quebec was one of the Federation’s newest frigates, and it had a 2m caliber MAC if it was needed.

Kara had been ecstatic at the ships arrival. She whole-heartedly believed that they would have made first contact with an alien species and opened up a new age for humanity. Lucas, on the other hand, had been down-right terrified. There was no way of knowing if the ship was friendly. He wanted to get the hell out of there. He had even petitioned for the Cognitum’s captain to leave the rest of the fleet behind and make for Tau Ceti, but being a military man, the captain wouldn’t even consider it. His lieutenant simply shook his head and sent poor Lucas away.

If only the captain had listened to him. Once the ship had closed to within a few thousand kilometers, it opened fire. Jones wasn’t sure what happened in the ensuing battle. Being a colonist and all, he wasn’t exactly getting situational updates from the bridge. He only remembered rocking explosions and the flashing red lights as everyone cowered in fear. He figured the Quebec must have been hit first, as he did remember seeing what was left of the wrecked hulk out the escape pod’s viewports.

The bright dot in the sky was growing much larger now. It clearly wasn’t a star. Jones put the cigarette up to his mouth and took in a puff of smoke. He reached for the handgun in his waistband and looked down at it for a moment. He popped out the cylinder and spun it, his eyes glazing over as he watched the bullets whirl around.

They had all gathered in a room when the attack had begun, companionship being the only form of comfort in the confines of the helpless cargo ship. Huddling in the room together, with no clue as to what was happening and no way to do anything about it, the colonists had been terrified. Jones remembered the tears streaming down Kara’s face, all hopes of a peaceful contact dashed. But the real horror hadn’t come until the aliens had boarded the Cognitum. Tall, brown, scaly creatures had roamed the ship’s corridors, tails dragging behind them as they chased down fleeing colonists. The smell of burnt flesh and the flash of firing plasma rifles still lingered in Jones’ memory.

Jones snapped the cylinder back into the revolver and stood up from the rock he had claimed as his own. He began walking in the direction of the mysterious light, which had grown much larger now, but was also beginning to dim. As he walked, he recalled the most painful memory of the entire ordeal. The three of them had run, run as fast as they could. But it hadn’t been enough. Lucas had been the first to go. Sprinting ahead of them, leading them to the escape pods, he had rounded the corner and ran right into one. It had turned and glowered at him with reptilian eyes, then blasted a smoldering hole in his stomach. Jones hadn’t stayed to watch. He had grabbed a hysterical Kara and ran the other way.

The light in the sky was finally starting to resolve into the nebulous form of a ship. His legs shaked in anticipation, his nerves getting the best of him as his suspicions were finally confirmed. Another puff of smoke from that last cigarette helped to calm him.

Jones had tried his best to get Kara to the escape pods, but she had already given up. Devastated by witnessing the loss of her friend, she was nearly being dragged by a desperate Jones. With his arms around her as they stumbled through the hallway, Jones had thought he had heard a sound ahead of them. He had whirled around to put himself between the threat and Kara, but then he saw that the alien was behind them instead.

It fired.

Kara had gasped as she looked him in the eye. Her body went limp and fell to the ground, her weight taking him with her as the shock of what he had done hit him. Jones could only assume that seeing both of them fall, the alien had moved along thinking they were dead. Regardless, it had left him alone with Kara’s body. He couldn’t help but vividly remember every detail as he had held her lifeless form in the embrace that had been meant to protect her, eyes staring blankly back at him.

The recollection filled him with rage, fear, grief, and desperation as he walked through the night of the barren desert. His mind was a mix of emotion. He suddenly recalled how alone he was. The sole survivor of a ravaged colony ship, stranded on a world no one knew anything about. The Quebec had tried to fight and had lost. Lucas had wanted to run but failed. Kara had hoped for peace but was greeted with death. Jones felt there was no point to anything anymore.

Accepting that fact, Jones now walked with an air of confidence that could only belong to a man who was already dead. The ship was now close enough for a landing. It hovered for a moment before it began a slow decent. Jones approached, revolver in hand and cigarette alit in his mouth. He stopped before it as its landing gear touched down. He raised the gun with a single hand, arm steady and unwavering. The boarding ramp hissed and lowered, and Jones glared down the sight, ready to accept his fate.

When he saw what stepped down from the ramp, Jones dropped the weapon and collapsed to his knees, tears suddenly streaming down his face. His cigarette, now smoldering its way down to a small stub, fell from his lips.

“H-how?” he uttered in sheer disbelief.

Two naval crewmen, actual humans, rushed down to help him up as a captain appeared on the ramp. “How?” he repeated himself, staring blankly at the figure silhouetted by the ship’s interior lights.

Seeing how distraught Jones was, the man decided to indulge him as the crewmen helped him to his feet. “I’m Captain Madison of the USF DeWitt, a stalker class,” the officer explained. Jones had heard of stalkers before. They were small ships with supposed cloaking devices that could render them invisible to just about anything.

“We were with the fleet as part of our mission with orders to continue on exploring after you had settled down,” Madison continued. The two crewmen were now guiding Jones up the ramp as the captain trailed behind them, bringing him to an infirmary.  “Obviously that changed once the ship jumped in. We observed the entire battle.” He paused to allow a moment of silence.

“Under normal circumstances we would have been required to depart immediately and report the events to high command, but one of my officers noted your escape pod.” The doctor who had been in the room when they entered was now scanning Jones with various equipment as the captain continued to talk. “It was risky coming to get you, but I couldn’t leave knowing we might have left someone behind.”

Jones was unsure what to say. Only moments ago he had been prepared to die, to go down fighting with as many of the alien creatures as he could. “Th-thank you,” he managed to stutter, his voice shaky from the wave of relief that was washing over him.

“I only did what I felt was right,” the captain replied with a curt nod. “Doctor, how is he?”

The doctor now spoke up. “Physically, he’s surprisingly unharmed. A few bumps and bruises, but nothing major. I’m sure the trauma’s been quite an ordeal for him though. He clearly needs some rest.”

“Right,” said the captain. “I’ll leave him to you then.” And with that, the captain turned about and left the room.

Jones laid back on the hospital bed he had been helped onto, his thoughts running wild. In the most tragic day of his life, his friends had been killed right in front of him. Hundreds of his fellow colonists had lost their lives. The entire colony, and with it the rest of the colonization program, had been wiped out. But he had lived. Of all the people in the colonization fleet, he had been the only survivor. He reached into his pocket and felt around, but his shaking hands grasped at nothing. Despite his somber mood, he couldn’t help but smile at the realization. Perhaps there really was some credence to the old myth.

 

“Hey doc,” he said. The naval doctor turned from his paperwork to look at the man, surprised at his sudden change in demeanor. “Got any cigarettes?”

 

 

* This story was based on a starting point written by Mark Ball of scifiideas, an awesome site dedicated to science fiction writing. You can view the original starting point here.