Commander Shira Hilge, as the ship captain, must address a “Proximity Alert” by herself. But apparently it’s nothing of consequence.
Engineer Kenn Talbok likewise has his own small problem to deal with. And so do security officer J’Kobe Maniib, life scientist Dr. Bashon Braxst, and medic Ger Kaal.
These are all just small problems; but together they add up to something much larger.
Proximity alert, the synthetic voice sounded in a smooth but insistent tone.
Commander Hilge could hear before she could see. She drew a slow, long breath into her aching chest. Her muscles began to report their fatigue.
Proximity alert, the flight operations computer repeated.
Hilge knew the voice well. It was the one she had selected for the mission. It reminded her of her deceased husband: firm, authoritative, caring. She could see his face now in the absence of real vision, his icy gray eyes, his bland expression hiding his passion.
At once, the present reality rushed in on her. She inhaled sharply and commanded, “Flight Op, cabin lights on!”
Cabin illumination is already at fifty percent. Should I raise the level?
She cursed, and commanded herself, Shira Hilge, eyes open! She could feel her heart pounding, pulsing through her skull. Finally she located control of her eyelids and willed them open. The cabin lights burned the back of her eyes, forcing them shut.
“Flight Op, cabin lights at fifty percent!” she barked.
Cabin illumination is already at fifty percent. Should I lower the level?
She forced herself to take another glance at the cabin, ceiling tiles still burned into her vision from the prior attempt. Again, the light forced her eyes shut. I’m wasting time! “Cabin lights dim!”
Cabin lights now at twenty-five percent. Proximity alert.
She tried again, this time easily able to keep her eyes open. She tensed her muscles and sat up. At first she was surprised how strong she was, as her body snapped sharply upright. Then she remembered, Right, zero gravity. She unstrapped her legs and floated off the bed, nearly forgetting to remove her biomonitor cables. As she reached the ceiling she caught a handhold and launched herself toward the nearest op station.
She grabbed the handholds at the station and oriented herself upright in front of it. “Flight Op, cancel alert message, show alert data here.” The trajectory of a single contact was displayed in front of her. It was just close enough to trigger the alert, but not showing an intercept trajectory. Soon it would be close enough to get qualitative readings.
Wait, something’s wrong. These aren’t ... “Flight Op, show me the current data. This is four minutes old.”
This is the most current trajectory data. The contact is no longer within range.
“What do you mean? It was well within range at the last reading.”
That is correct.
Sensor malfunction? “Run diagnostics on active sensors.”
Beginning diagnostics on active sensors.
She studied the trajectory again. Straight line, constant speed.
“Flight Op, use the distance of the initial contact, assume a composition of iron, assume a spheroid shape. Calculate the mass.”
Mass 12.1 million metric tons.
“Assume a composition of ice. Calculate mass.”
Mass 116 thousand metric tons.
“Did passive gravimetric sensors record any readings from the contact?”
Let’s see if it could be an iron asteroid. “Assume a mass of 12.1 million metric tons. Was contact’s final proximity close enough to register on gravimetric sensors?”
“Assume a mass of 116 thousand metric tons. Was contact’s final proximity close enough to register on gravimetric sensors?”
So it can’t be an iron asteroid, but maybe a comet. Or somewhere in between.
“How heavy could it be and still not be detected on gravimetric?”
Unable to parse your command.
Good grief! I told them we needed the better natural language interface. “Assume the contact as at its last known proximity. Assume readings are at the minimum gravimetric sensitivity of our sensors. What would be the mass of the contact?”
Mass 303 thousand metric tons.
So that’s the maximum mass it could be. That’s not very big at all. Just an oversized space rock. “Assume the contact has a mass of 303 thousand metric tons. Assume the contact continues on last known trajectory. Will the contact pass close enough to alter our flight plan?”
Diagnostics on active sensors are complete. All sensors are functioning within blue parameters.
“Why would the contact disappear?”
Unable to parse your command.
She sighed. “Consult historical flight database. Find incidents that report a disappearing contact.”
436 matching incidents.
“In those incidents, find the ones that were explained by natural phenomena.”
47 matching incidents.
“In those, find the ones that were in deep space.”
3 matching incidents.
“Show those reports here.”
The incident reports flashed onto the display. In all three cases the disappearing contact turned out to be a tumbling oblong asteroid. As the asteroid turned its narrower profile to the sensors it became too small to register.
Commander Hilge relaxed.
I guess I can wait a while to see if it reappears. Reading further in the reports she was reminded that depending on the period of revolution, the asteroid may be undetectable for hours or days at a time. Great. I may be up for a while. I certainly can’t alter course for something like this.
She tied herself off near the op station and began the playback of her favorite opera. She closed her eyes and floated into the opera hall as she recalled the sights from the performance she attended.
As the final aria concluded, the applause burst and faded. Hilge turned back to the op station and verified the extrapolated trajectory of the contact. It will be out of range now. Oh well ... back to peaceful oblivion. “Flight Op, create an incident report. Cite the three incidents I matched earlier, and include trajectory data for our contact. Mark the incident as explained.”
She climbed along the ceiling, back to her bed and eased down into it. As she strapped her legs back in she looked at the beds of the other crewmembers. All biomonitors showed normal metabolic sleep. As she reattached her own biomonitor, a twinge of doubt struck her. “Switch to heightened alert protocol for the next 20 hours. And wake me for any alert condition.”
She leaned back into the form-fitting bed and pressed the “sleep” button. The chest restraint eased into position, as the headpiece came into position on her forehead. She felt a slight tingle as the apparatus put her brain to sleep. Her last waking thought was, Did the computer acknowledge my last command?
Maintenance alert, the voice nagged Kenn awake.
He called out, “Trouble already!?” It seemed like the sleeper unit had just put him under, but he knew from experience he would have no idea how long it had really been.
He sat upright and stretched, cautiously blinking his eyes open. “Somebody already dimmed the lights. That was thoughtful.”
He looked around the cabin. “Who’s up? Anybody?”
The supine figures in the other beds explained the lack of response. “So, just me to deal with this thing all by my lonesome.”
As he removed his leg straps he called out, “Computer, tell me what’s on your mind.”
Unable to parse your command.
“Oh! I forgot. You’re the idiot NLI. Computer, describe the maintenance alert.”
A hull —
“Wait! First, tell me how long I’ve been asleep.”
You have been in metabolic stasis for 342 days, 9 hours, —
“Stop! Close enough. Now tell me about the alert.”
A seal compromise was detected in the aft hatchway.
“Whoa! Are we leaking?”
The seal is now intact. The seal compromise was detected beginning 3 minutes, 33 seconds ago, for a duration of 2.3 seconds.
“Well I better look at it then, shouldn’t I?”
Inspection is recommended.
“I wasn’t really asking you. I ... oh, never mind, you soulless piece of software.”
Unable to parse your command.
Kenn lunged straight out of his bed, toward the maintenance locker. Pausing just long enough to open the door and grab the right toolbox, he turned and dove toward the aft airlock. “Computer, old buddy, begin the airlock cycle test.”
Beginning airlock cycle test.
Just as he finished donning his EVA suit, the computer announced the results.
Airlock cycle test is complete. Airlock is functioning within blue parameters.
“Good to hear it. Computer, begin airlock high-pressure test.”
Beginning airlock high-pressure test.
Kenn floated over to the nearby op station and began looking over mission log entries, most of them standard upkeep entries made by the computer. He was not quite to the end when the announcement pulled his attention away.
Airlock high-pressure test is complete. Airlock is functioning within blue parameters.
He pushed back over to the airlock, opened the door, and floated in. Inside, he double-checked his suit seals and began the airlock cycle. He cleared his ears repeatedly as the pressure gauge wound down to zero, then disengaged the outer door latch. The door popped open as it released the last small amount of trapped air. Kenn connected his safety line inside the doorway and began his inspection of the door seal.
“There you are,” he announced to no one. He had found a small defect in the seal along the top edge of the doorway. “Looks like a micro meteor hit us in exactly the wrong place. But why did it stop leaking?”
Closer examination showed that the seal had been heated and fused back into place. “Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Computer,” Kenn spoke into his helmet microphone, “did you wake anyone else up since this thing started leaking?”
“Is there record of any repair on the seal in this door?”
“Hmmm. Maybe it’s just the fine quality materials we get buying from the lowest bid.”
Unable to parse your command.
“Well, I don’t trust this seal. I’m going to replace it.”
Kenn cycled back into the cabin, found a replacement seal, and cycled back out. An hour later he had completed the repair. As he moved past the op station where he had been viewing the mission log, he caught a glimpse of the last entry. “Asteroid. That’s nice. Ten hours ago.” There was a log entry by Commander Hilge detailing a sensor contact that was identified as an asteroid. “Glad to see they wake me up for the important stuff. Looks like the big guy’s little buddy paid us a visit.”
He logged his repair of the micro meteor damage and returned to his stasis bed.
J’Kobe was walking his girlfriend, Viv, through the airport, escorting her to the intercontinental shuttle. She said she was looking forward to the trip. It would offer her an excellent opportunity for a promotion to Interregional Operations Manager. He hated to see her go, because he knew she would be away for a long time.
But something was amiss in the airport. A security officer rushed ahead of them. Distant distressed voices came from that direction. Then a synthesized message echoed through the terminal. Security alert, it announced.
J’Kobe put his arm out to stop his companion. Ahead a woman was hurrying in their direction. She wore a long overcoat. Through the open zipper, J’Kobe thought he got a glimpse of a distinctive shape, the breach of a form-fitted handgun, probably polymer composite.
As she strode, she looked around casually but quickly, her dark glasses hiding the focus of her gaze. Her right hand kept time with the swing of her coat, ready to snatch the firearm from its place of hiding.
J’Kobe pushed Viv to the side of the room and down to the floor, then positioned his hand at his own holster. In addition to the suspicious woman, something else was out of place.
That was it! The announcement. The voice. That voice should be somewhere else.
“The ship!” J’Kobe said aloud as he opened his eyes.
He gasped a lungful of air and sat bolt upright. It was quiet. The others were still in their stasis beds, showing normal stasis readings. A text message on the op station caught his attention. It flashed, “unauthorized access.” Slowly, he leaned and slipped his hand around the side of the bed, underneath, to where his firearm was secured. His fingers found it just where they expected, flipped the release, and pulled it free.
Security alert. The voice announcement jolted him, but he maintained composure. He released his legs and pushed himself gently into the center of the cabin. Floating slowly, with utter patience, he pushed gently, quietly, down the length of the cabin, examining every inch. The alert announcement continued to repeat, insistently, urgently. But his procedure was paramount to him; he could tolerate no deviation or haste.
As he reached the aft end of the ship, he could see that someone had been operating instruments in the vicinity of the airlock. The EVA suit had been used and not returned properly to storage. Through the window of the airlock, he could see a plastic bag floating, with small metal parts inside.
He drifted to the op station and silenced the alert message.
Then he called up the security log on the display. Most of the entries were innocuous, but the last three called for investigation.
He called up the details for the first: A proximity alert had been triggered, but then explained as a passing asteroid.
He called up the second: A maintenance alert had been triggered, but the damage was found and repaired.
He called up the third, but details were not to be found. Odd. The log shows a computer access alert, but there are no details.
He returned to the log list. Oh! It says “entry alert” There it was, plain to see, “entry alert.” The details were available now, showing unaccounted motion in the airlock. That damn fool mechanic left his spare parts to trip the sensors.
But an unsettled feeling grew within him. What the hell did that op station say? It said “access alert”? No, it was “unauthorized” something. “Unauthorized entry”? “Access”?
He moved back through the cabin, checking the other op stations, but they had all returned to the flight plan display.
Just to be certain, he also inspected the storage areas and the cockpit.
I’m just paranoid from my dream, He scolded himself.
He moved back to the airlock, and stowed the loose equipment properly. Then he logged the incident, casting unsubtle aspersions about their careless mechanic.
As he lay back down in his stasis bed, he looked over at the side of the cabin, half-expecting to see Viv crouching there as he had directed her.
Ah, Viv, if only I could dream in stasis, I would dream of you.
The mixed quintet began the movement quietly. The strings carried the melody at first, rising slowly, accelerating gradually. Then the horn and piano joined, with a lyrical strain that danced in Bashon’s ears, and eased a smile onto his face. He remembered this was the music he had instructed the Flight Op Computer to use to awaken him.
He did not bother to open his eyes. He knew the claustrophobic quarters that awaited him on the other side of his eyelids. Instead he continued to lie in the bed, strolling through the wide-open field that lay before his mind’s eye. As the last chord died, so did his reverie.
Good morning, Doctor Braxst.
Bashon eased a long, deep breath and attempted to roll over in bed. But something was holding his legs. He tilted his head to see. “Oh yes, the restraints.”
He bent sorely at the waist, and fumbled with the straps. With no small struggle, he freed himself, and felt the full effects of weightlessness. Pushing himself sharply off the bed, he began to drift and tumble at an odd angle. A gentle panic sprouted in his consciousness, growing quickly to a violent terror as he envisioned tumbling against the wrong control panel and destroying the ship in one of his freak accidents. In desperation he began to claw the air, flailing like a one-person catfight toward the opposite wall. Miraculously, his foot reached the wall first. A new confidence reinflated his ego. He sighted the handhold that would be his next target, and confidently calculated the force he thought necessary to achieve his objective. But that brief sense of satisfaction quickly fled as his subsequent push-off caused him to spin quickly and dash the back of his head against the side of the stasis bed from which he had recently escaped, only to be returned to a point near the geometric center of the cabin.
He clutched one hand to the back of his now-throbbing head, and sent the other hand out in search of the handhold he had sighted earlier. This task turned out to be monumental in light of the fact that he was now experiencing rotation along three axes. The search was coming up empty. Or if not empty, at least devoid of any reward for which he could think of a use. His groping hand did manage to locate his own shirt, a free-floating pen, and a globule of some substance he could only pray was his own spittle.
Doctor Braxst, a reminder: Today is day 346 of the mission. We are passing close enough to Inagen Two that we can begin biometric readings.
He finally determined that the only way he would be able to regain any semblance of control would be to uncurl from his current defensive fetal position. He did this, and was startled to see that his high school physics lessons were proved valid, as his rate of rotation reduced significantly. His fingers finally grasped a handhold, so that his body was skewed at an only slightly comic angle.
His body finally came to a halt, yet his head continued to spin. Or was it the cabin?
Yes, that was it; the ship was quite definitely spinning, spiraling like a bullet.
“Flopsy, are you there?” Bashon used the moniker that the programming staff had given the Flight Operations computer, intended to inspire a sense of familiarity.
Flight Operations Computer online.
“Flopsy, why is the ship spinning?”
Navigation indicates a straight course, with no rotation.
“Show me the view out of the ... the forward view.”
Where would you like the view to be displayed?
He looked over to his left, where there was an op station. In response, the ship immediately seemed to tumble, end-over-end, with his flailing legs exacerbating the problem. There was an elastic cord fastened neatly around his stomach, wrapping another turn with every revolution of the ship. It wrenched down on the emptiness there, so that he felt and heard the gases squeezing about inside.
Where would you like the view to be displayed?
His diaphragm tightened and bent him over double. He pulled himself firmly against the bulkhead and paused to locate a vacuum port. Then he labored his way toward it, feeling like an inchworm as he crawled along the wall, stretching and contracting, creeping toward the disposal tube, two long meters away. He could already taste the bile in his mouth as he smashed his hand onto the “vacuum” button and snatched the tube nozzle up to his mouth.
Thank God I’m the only one awake! He convulsed repeatedly until his stomachs had no more nothing to give. As he clung there at the handhold with his tearing eyes clenched shut, he imagined he must be a sight, like some freakish giant bat hanging on the wall of a cave. The cool air of the cabin whistled by his face as the vacuum tube hissed, just inches from his nose. The wind pulled every unclean molecule along with it, expelling them all to the void beyond the wall.
At last all was at rest. He switched off the vacuum. His ears were still ringing from the loud hiss of the air.
He straightened out his body and checked his surroundings. The ship was back on a straight course. Finally with cold reason he recalled his zero gravity training, brief as it was. The instructor had mentioned something about the lack of gravity wreaking havoc on the inner ear, causing vertigo and nausea.
The simulator did not do it justice.
He worked his way back to the op station and strapped himself in, to give himself a stronger feeling of up-down orientation.
“Flopsy, call up records for biometrics.”
“Open bay two. Expose bio sensor array.”
A series of vibrations rang through the hull.
Bay two is open. Sensor array cover is retracted.
“Adjust ship roll 42 degrees left. Slowly, please.”
He forced himself to relax, closed his eyes, and imagined the scene as his instructor had coached him to do. I’m lying on a float, out on a small pond; the waves rock me gently. A distant rumble tugged his head backward. The roll thrusters had fired. He chuckled to himself, A thunderstorm approaches the pond.
The rumble repeated, and his head was tugged forward.
Roll is complete.
“Move sensor array down 3.36 degrees, forward 23.82 degrees.”
Sensor vector is achieved. Object acquired.
Sensor auto-train engaged.
The data began to pour in. Overlapping graphs flowed across the display, dancing, rippling, jumping, diving. Bashon’s eyes sparkled with every hopeful twitch of every line. His gaze darted around the screen searching for recurring patterns, anything out of the ordinary. He imagined himself as one of the hunter caste just coming upon a game field, his expert olfactory senses tasting the air for anything of interest.
The initial spectrographic readings confirmed what long-range readings had indicated: complex carbon compounds, oxygen, and adequate ammonia in the atmosphere to support life. But that was no surprise.
After a time he grew weary. His stomachs spoke to him and reminded him that he had not eaten in just over a year. He knew that the duration of his experiments would provide him with adequate time to drink a small amount of nutrients, and still have time to fast before returning to metabolic sleep. So he eagerly pulled his way down the length of the ship to the galley.
The nutrient drink was certainly not a recipe anyone would present with pride at a dinner party, but to his anxious stomachs it was a beverage suitable for a connoisseur. He carried the squeeze bottle back to the op station.
Settling back in, he replayed the readings from the beginning, looking for anything he may have missed the first time through. That’s odd. The electromagnetic graphs showed some strong regular readings near the very beginning. He had at first passed them off as start-up noise, but the pattern was suspicious in timing and intensity. Judging from the position, it appeared the readings occurred at a time when the sensors were not yet in position, still being moved toward the object planet.
“Flopsy, calculate the direction of the sensors at the time of this reading.”
The coordinates appeared on the display.
“What object was in line at that coordinate vector?”
No object is catalogued at those coordinates.
“Show all data for this timeframe, and perform analysis.”
Spectrographic analysis shows high concentrations of purified metals. Electromagnetic analysis shows artificial patterns in emanations.
“Do the emanations match any known sources?”
“Locate unique and recurring patterns in the emanations.”
“What do you, mean, ‘error’?”
A data error has occurred. Retrieved data does not verify against original check values.
“Show graphs for this timeframe.”
Graphs appeared on his display, but were not at all like the graphs he remembered seeing earlier.
“This is not the right timeframe. Show ... yes it is. Enlarge timeframe by 10 seconds before and after.”
The graph showed the wider sample, but all information was the same uninteresting background radiation.
“What happened to the data?”
Unable to parse your command.
“Why is the data different from what you displayed before?”
Hardware error is not indicated. Database malfunction is probable.
Working in cutting edge sciences, using highly customized tools, Bashon was familiar with malfunctions. He sighed, “Wonderful.”
“Flopsy, move sensor array back to these coordinates.”
Unable to comply. Sensor array is not capable of movement to that vector. The ship must execute a 21 degree roll to permit this observation.
“Fine. Do that.”
Not thinking to prepare himself for the movement, Bashon lurched forward and bumped his head against the display as the thrusters pushed the ship into position.
Sensor vector is achieved.
Bashon watched the data stream. “Nothing ... Where did it go?”
Unable to parse your command.
Bashon re-vectored the sensors to search the vicinity of the mysterious readings, but detected nothing except the random gibberish of background radiation. Catching a glance of the clock, he jolted as he realized he had spent too much time on this ghost chase.
“Flopsy, re-vector sensor array to object planet. Roll ship as necessary to achieve vector.” Remembering the bruise on his forehead he grabbed the handholds on both sides of the display.
Sensor vector is achieved.
As the data rolled in, Bashon recorded a mission log entry about the sensor event. Reading back over what he had just recorded, he laughed. “They’re going to think I was hallucinating.”
He shrugged. “So be it.”
He saved two copies as a precaution.
As the restraints moved into position over his bed, Bashon ordered the playback of another work by the same quintet. Inside his eyelids, the sky above the field was a beautiful clear teal color. The headpiece swung into position, and the soft tingle of metabolic sleep began to massage his muscles into rest. It was in the last moment of wakefulness that he blinked his eyes open for an instant, and an unwelcome element joined his dream. A silver-gray cylinder hovered above his head, out of place in this pastoral landscape. Was it in his thoughts, or in reality? It is blurred, out of focus, so it must be in my real vision. He opened his eyes, but could only see the sky above, and realized with his last thought that it was too late, that his body was no longer responding to his will.
Ger had specified a more effective stimulant for her own resuscitation. As mission medic she had that prerogative. So she was fully awake before her body had come up to normal temperature. Her arms responded spastically, as she knew they would, but she did manage to remove her leg restraints quickly.
A quick look around at the other sleep pod monitors revealed the situation that had called for her attention. One of the pod monitors was showing a green condition warning.
Her eyes were not yet focusing well, so she knew she would need the computer to describe the situation. She normally made an attempt to call a computer by its name, but she winced at the recollection of the inane moniker that had been given to the flight op computer. She refused to use it.
“Computer, describe the medical alert.”
For Doctor Braxst, metabolic stasis condition is outside of blue parameters.
“Well, aren’t you helpful. I can see that myself being fuzzy-eyed from across the cabin.”
She burst an exhale as her body convulsed in shivers. She tested her hands, flexing her digits awkwardly. Still not warm enough to move very well.
Ger raised the temperature of the cabin, then pushed herself up into the room, and fumbled numbly to grasp a handhold.
“Computer, for Doctor Braxst, which parameters are outside of blue condition?”
Immune response level indicates an active infection.
Viral infection. Unusual at this stage of a flight, but not unprecedented.
“Computer, begin metabolic restoration for Braxst.”
Metabolic restoration beginning.
She remembered Bashon in an earlier stage of the expedition, fumbling about the cabin and complaining about everything from weightlessness to food. She didn’t understand why he had been chosen for the mission.
“Computer, continue metabolic restoration for Braxst, but do not restore consciousness.” You won’t be happy if you’re awake. And I won’t be happy if you’re awake. She knew in the log she could justify keeping him unconscious to aid his recovery and to minimize the impact of his heightened metabolism on the life support schedule.
While waiting for Braxst’s metabolism to be restored, Ger drew a blood sample from him, placed a small part of it under the microscope, and placed the rest into the analyzer.
Always preferring to check the work of the automatic analysis, she viewed the slide under the microscope. The computer-assisted cataloging took several minutes. The blood count looked about right. The only bacteria and viruses she could find were documented strains, well below levels that would trigger symptoms. But there were some undocumented antibodies present.
Metabolic restoration complete.
Ger checked Braxst’s vital signs. All were normal.
Blood analysis complete.
The automatic analysis was consistent with the one she had done herself.
Ger stayed awake for several hours, watching Braxst’s vital signs. A subsequent blood test showed results identical to the first.
She spoke aloud, as if Braxst could hear her, “Well, whatever form of space cooties you have, your body seems to be dealing with it.”
She wrote up the incident in the mission log, then returned to her own bed. As she buckled herself in, she gave instructions to the flight op computer. “Computer, continue monitoring vital signs for Braxst. Restore Ger Kaal if Braxst’s vital signs change category. Restore Ger Kaal unconditionally in nine hours.”
New protocol accepted.
Ger settled in and pressed the “sleep” button. The tingle of the sleep inducer felt like a twinge of doubt.
Medical alert. Condition red.
Ger wondered how long she had been out. She couldn’t get her eyes to respond to her request for them to open.
Medical alert. Condition red.
The warning tone that accompanied the alert sent a jolt of panic through her. She tried to move her arms. They felt like they might be moving, but she couldn’t tell where they might be; her tactile senses were still paralyzed. Wake up!!!
Ger was thoroughly confused. Who cancelled the medical alert? That’s supposed to be me!
The tingle of the sleep inducer washed away her protests like a riot hose against an angry mob.
Braxst was vaguely aware of voices ... no, not voices ... rather, vocal sounds resembling a language. The language was formed from sounds that were guttural and punctuated, rather than breathy and breezy like those of his own people. He did not open his eyes, afraid that he would betray his consciousness.
Then he suddenly realized he was no longer in zero gravity. The pull on his body was not as intense as back on his beloved Shurea, but there was definite gravity.
The furniture on which he lay was certainly not his stasis bed on the ship. As he made the slightest of movements to test his bonds he could feel that the material of this furniture caught on his scales instead of sliding smoothly as a bed should.
After a few minutes of listening to the gibberish, he decided that he was gaining nothing, so he permitted himself to open one outer lid, just a crack. What he beheld was far more bizarre than he had pictured.
Several beings were moving around the room, separated from him by some sort of transparent material. They were bipedal, but had no tail. They seemed to prefer to walk erect even in this gravity. They wore coverings on their bodies as if they were working in a harsh environment; and it was no wonder, as the parts of their bodies he could see were scaleless, exposed skin. They had fur atop their small round heads, with flat faces and no significant nasal protrusion.
He had to stop and think. Is this a dream? Can’t be. Too real.
Well, that settles that. Extrashurean life exists ... intelligent life. It’s a shame I’ll never return home to tell my people.
Braxst cracked his mouth slightly and inhaled to explore the air for scents. He could taste these creatures. They tasted like mammals. It made him hungry.
He didn’t have the first clue how he might escape. And even if he did, he was guessing that they had taken him back to their planet ... maybe the very planet he had just been analyzing ... but probably not, as that planet had showed no sign of technical development.
A sound, like that of a braying burdenbeast resonated through the room. The beings that were there turned their attention to a video display.
They’ve discovered I’m awake! His heart rate accelerated.
Then several more sounds emanated from another display, and the beings all turned to look at him.
Damn! They know now!
Braxst jerked against his wrist restraints. They held him securely.
They will at least find out that my people do not enjoy captivity. He clenched his arm muscles and pulled hard against the left restraint. With a loud pop, his hand detached, releasing his arm to attempt to free himself. Maybe they’ll keep me alive long enough for me to grow another hand. He reached across to the right restraint and tried to manipulate the closure with his bloodied left forearm. He bashed at the restraint, pushed at it this way and that, and attempted to rotate it, but it did not respond.
He looked up at the beings. They stood just on the other side of the transparent barrier and watched him struggling.
A sudden sinking feeling washed over him as he realized the room was getting cold, very cold, very quickly. He began to panic, knowing he had very little time left to accomplish his escape. He shrieked his curses at the beings. They just stood there with their cruel hot-blooded hearts wasting heat into the air around them, like scavengers waiting for their prey to die.
Braxst felt sleep coming over him. His crude attempts at manipulating his bonds turned into feeble fumblings. In exasperation, he sagged, then fell back from his effort. He could hear the guttural voices again. Probably discussing what kind of sauce goes best on broiled Shurean.
Ger felt the stirring of consciousness in herself. She opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. All was quiet.
Why am I waking up now? ... Oh, right, I told the computer to wake me in nine hours. I have to check on Doctor Braxst.
Then another thought crept into her awareness. There was another alert. Condition red.
“Computer,” she slurred across her lazy tongue, “what was the alert earlier?”
Unable to parse command.
She glanced at the bio monitors. All were showing blue conditions. Hers was flashing the message “metabolic restoration complete.”
“Computer, earlier you woke me ... started to wake me up because of a medical alert, condition red. What had occurred?”
There is no record of any condition red alert.
Ger was befuddled. Did I dream that?
“What is the last alert on file?”
The last alert on file occurred twelve hours forty-two minutes ago. It was a medical alert, condition green, involving Doctor Bashon Braxst. That alert was addressed by you.
“Well, yes, I remember that one. Wasn’t there one after that?”
There are no subsequent alerts on file.
Ger wagged her tongue in surrender to the conspiracy of circumstances. “Well never mind then, I’m just going crazy.” She called out the next response exactly in time with the flight op computer. “Unable to parse command!” “I know, just never mind.”
She sat up and stretched. She could feel the tightness of her skin, and the itching of the new layer coming in underneath. I’ll be shedding soon.
She eased out of her bed and checked on Braxst. Apart from a pained expression on his face, he seemed in perfect health. A blood test confirmed that his immune system had fought off whatever infection had gotten hold of him. So she instructed the computer to return him to stasis, and closed the incident in her report.
She laid back in her bed and rubbed down her scales with softener. She knew it would help when she was ready to shed, probably during her next long waking period. Nothing so dull as deep space travel. She pushed the “sleep” button.
Seth plopped down in front of the console. It displayed the status of the incoming call from SETI-Con Base Commander Washandra Unkhali. He sighed. He just knew she was going to drag him across razors. “I’m ready” he informed the computer.
The computer quipped back, “You don’t sound ready.”
Seth chuckled. Occasionally the AI folks came up with some good ones.
Unkhali’s face appeared larger than life on the panel in front of Seth. He remembered that she preferred her visual to be framed this way, probably for intimidation value. It reminded him of that ancient video which had been remade countless times, but never as well as the original, called The Wizard of Oz. He immediately reduced the video size to a square decimeter, so as to reverse her intended psychological effect. Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain, he thought, doing his best not to crack a smile.
He remembered that she preferred to start all conversations, so he did not attempt the outdated “Hello” greeting.
True to form, she began, “Captain Porter, we need a report. If you don’t wrap this up soon, the military is just itching to get in on the action. Now, what have you ascertained?”
Seth smiled pleasantly, “I’m sorry, Commander Unkhali, I know I have been slow with this contact. We had to undo a little contamination.”
Unkhali bellowed, “What kind of contamination?!”
Seth sat on his frustration. “It’s all in the report I’m about to send, but I’m sure you want to know now, so I’ll tell you.” He took a deep breath. “We detected the contact two days ago, as you know. We took long-range passive readings, as you know, and determined the contact was an uncatalogued vessel.
“We estimated the sensitivity of the vessel’s detection hardware, and moved closer, to a position outside of the estimated range. After approximately four minutes at that range, we detected active sensors locking onto our position. We adjusted our stealth layer for the sensor frequencies they were using, then changed relative position. At that point we successfully shadowed the vessel, for several hours, continuing to gather data.
“But of course we wanted to find out if they had recorded any readings that might indicate the presence of our technology. So, acting quickly ... and as it turned out, too quickly ...” He wanted to add, “... thanks to a brain-dead technician ...” but he knew that as captain, he must assume responsibility for all that transpired aboard his ship. Instead he cleared his throat. “Acting quickly, we launched a micro-remote.” He picked up the small silver-gray cylinder between his fingers and held it in front of the close-up camera. “As it turned out, the remote had not been completely sterilized of microbes.” He waited for this to sink in.
Unkhali sighed and continued to stare at him like a mother deciding what punishment to deal to her miscreant child.
She’s taking this better than I thought. He was expecting her to be yelling again by now. On the other hand, she might be so mad she doesn’t know what to say yet.
“But not realizing our mistake, we took the remote into the vessel. After establishing an interface with their computer ... and let me take this opportunity to commend my computer tech, because the interface was some kind of god-awful trinary system, and he had to rewrite the remote circuits on-the-fly ... after the interface, we determined that the data they gathered on us was totally ambiguous, so we left it alone.”
Unkhali seemed to relax slightly, but continued to stare condescendingly.
Seth cleared his throat nervously, “Then I gave the order to leave the remote aboard the vessel, tapped into their computer. We managed to retrieve a huge amount of data. We found the coordinates of their home world, and have already learned a great deal of their language and physiology ... more on that later,” he smiled sheepishly. “They are a cold-blooded reptoid species. They have not located any wormholes yet. ...”
Unkhali interrupted him, “You have more to tell me about contamination, don’t you? The microbes?” She did not hide the irritation in her voice.
“Right ... sorry ...” Seth paused over his next statement, because he knew she wouldn’t buy it, regardless that it was true. “So ... we continued the shadowing and the data gathering.” He cleared his throat. “Due to unfortunate coincidence, a crewmember aboard their vessel powered up a high sensitivity sensor array to gather data on a nearby planet, and happened to direct it toward us briefly while training it toward the planet.”
He saw her eyes turn to slits. He knew she was warming up for a yell, so he interjected, “So ... we knew we had potentially been detected ... a– again ... so we changed our relative position.”
Seth swallowed. His throat was getting dry. “At that point I was glad I had left the remote on board. We edited their data set and deleted their readings of us, and replaced them with cosmic background noise.”
He took a sip from his squeeze bottle. “That’s when I made an unfortunate decision. I ordered the remote pilot to maneuver into an open stasis chamber to collect genetic material. The reptoid crewmember reentered the chamber at that time, and unknowingly trapped the remote inside with himself.”
Seth was having trouble reading Unkhali’s reaction. He was expecting her to blow her top by now.
As if she knew his thoughts, she said, “You’re expecting me to yell at you, now, aren’t you?” And she smiled.
Seth was baffled. Unkhali was calm, jovial. “Y– Yes,” he finally uttered.
“Truth is,” she confided, “there was a time when I took those kinds of risks. If I had been in your situation when I was a captain, I would have surely taken the same risk you did, to obtain genetic material ... that’s quite a pay off.
“And now ...” she reflected, “today ... I might even have done the same thing.”
Seth was amazed. He had never made this connection before with her. She had always treated him like a loose cannon that she was duty-bound to lash to the deck.
He decided to present the next problem quickly, while she was still in a good mood. “So ... now for the part about the microbes. Apparently, while the remote was trapped inside the stasis chamber with that crewmember ... we did manage to make it work its way out ... but meanwhile, a viral pathogen transferred from the remote to him. Their species has enough aminos in common with us that the virus transmutated and propagated. Its affect was not at first obvious, but it did ultimately caused numerous ... what did the medic say ... ‘thromboses’ ... clots ... and pulmonary ... something ... anyway, the reptoid was dying.
“That’s when I made my next bold command. We faked some data for their sensor logs, and disabled their security system so that we could board the vessel and retrieve the dying liz— ...” Seth caught himself. “... reptoid back to our medical lab.”
Commander Unkhali had dropped her forehead into her hands. It did not look good.
Seth hastened to the next good news to control the damage. “And we were able to heal him ... good as new.”
He grinned innocently as she raised her eyes back up.
She was staring through slits again.
Seth took another sip of his drink. He wished there was alcohol in it.
“There’s more, right?” she said, apparently reading his nervousness from his face.
He cleared his throat again. “Yes. Well, we thought we knew more about their physiology than we really did. We were able to counteract the virus, and we cleared up the clots, and as it happens they have terrific regenerative ability, so the damaged tissue will probably heal before they could possibly find out what happened. Except ...” Seth wasn’t sure how to present the next item.
“Except ... ?” Unkhali prompted him.
“He metabolized the sedative faster than our medic realized.”
Unkahli’s slits grew to big round orbs. “He woke up in the lab?!”
“He woke up in the lab,” Seth confirmed.
“Damn,” Seth confirmed. “But we did resedate him before he injured himself too badly.”
“Let me see the video.”
Seth’s finger’s trembled as he punched up the camera data from the med lab. He played the incident for the commander.
Unkhali’s anger was plain as she watched the reptoid awaken in the lab. She gasped in horror when it ripped its own hand off.
Seth paused the playback and scrambled into damage control mode. “But, commander, we were able to reattach the hand very neatly. He’s back on board his ship, still asleep. His doctor examined him and found nothing suspicious. Their mission itinerary will not take them anywhere near a developed planet. And he’s not due to come out of stasis for several more months. So you see, contamination is negligible.”
Unkhali shot back, “’Negligible’?! What about his memories? You can’t edit those.”
Seth considered this for a moment. “No need to change his memories. We know that from our own history, don’t we?”
Commander Unkhali sat fuming. “I hope you’re right. The species is clearly not ready for contact.”
Dr. Bashon Braxst stared at the screen. The last pass of the survey was the same as the first. Shalondon Three was just another lifeless planet. It had all the ingredients present to support life, except for the conspicuous absence of life itself.
Before the mission, Braxst had had visions of returning home to throngs of people lining the streets at a parade in their honor, and of a new museum opening to accommodate the specimens they would retrieve from Shalondon Three. He had had visions of a whole program of deep space missions expanding on the gains of this mission. He had imagined himself becoming a prominent global figure for his role in this pivotal undertaking.
But now, everywhere he looked, the strange round-headed beings taunted him from his mind’s eye. It had happened several months ago, but the memory of it was still vivid. He still woke up with nightmares about the grotesque creatures, though none of his dreams was as horrifying as the original event. He yearned to tell someone, yet he also had a clear memory of his fellow crewmembers shrieking with laughter when he related his experience to them.
Now he could foresee the near future as it would actually transpire. Back on Shurea their mission would be counted as a failure in the public eye. The Department of Space Exploration would argue that much valuable data was gathered from the mission, but the public would not see the value of it, and certainly not enough value to justify the enormous cost of it. Those who had argued that this would be a colossal waste of money would dance their vindication in the streets. There would be no more deep space expeditions in the foreseeable future.
The Shureans — all but one — would remain certain they were alone in the universe.