|Respects are duly offered to Ridley Scott, whose influence on this story should be obvious.|
(USS Saratoga, January 23, 2065)
One of the things that had first drawn Glen Ross to music as a young boy was the contrast between the discipline necessary to master an instrument and the complete creative freedom that mastery allowed. From rigid scales and chord progressions to improvisation and back to finger exercises again, Rosalyn took him in any direction he felt like going -- always somewhere away from the responsibility of his position. Tonight it was somewhere black water kept its secrets as it flowed slowly beneath veils of Spanish moss in the quiet night.
He heard steps pause outside his hatch. There was a Marine on watch out there, but Ross had been taught too well in the school of hard knocks to ever completely trust his safety to someone else. He set the guitar down.
Finally there was a knock. "Who's at my hatch?"
"It's Pfieffer, sir!"
The young sailor stood at strict attention until Ross put him at ease. Ross asked, "Did you get something with the computer analysis?"
"Aye, sir! There's definitely a signal there. You told me to let you know, and I took you literally, sir -- I thought you might want to have a look at it before I told anyone else. I don't know what I've found, sir, but it isn't one of our transmissions ... and I don't think it's the chigs or the AIs, either!"
Ross reached for his uniform shirt. "Not a whole hell of a lot left, is there, son?"
"Let's see what you've got."
The young sailor was all business as soon as his fingers touched the keyboard. "Sir, here's the signal the way it was this afternoon. The first thing I did was delete everything that could be positively identified, I was able to get rid of a lot more background noise down here. Then it started to make sense, I realized where I'd seen this kind of a pattern before." He touched the keyboard, and the display sharpened. "I have an old recording of a song from the 1920's. It was first recorded on vinyl and the quality wasn't the best to begin with, then it had been re-recorded, first to magnetic tape then to a CD. I put it through this program and I could see where the quality had degraded over time. This signal looked like that. I had the computer do a best-guess reconstruction of the original signal, and here's what it came up with." He played it back. The result was certainly a voice speaking in some lyrical language that was almost song. Pfieffer had heard it before, but he listened with as great a sense of wonder as Ross until the signal played through.
Ross remembered his wet-navy days, when he'd been no older than this lad. "I'll be damned if that doesn't sound like a whale or a dolphin."
Pfieffer's eyes widened. "Aye, sir, it does!"
Ross said, "How sure are you of this?"
Pfieffer looked up. "There's a margin of error, but it wouldn't be within the range of our hearing, sir. Now theirs -- whoever they are -- maybe. The signal goes higher and lower than we can hear."
"This definitely isn't chig."
"No, sir, no way. Thanks to that British fellow, the computers can translate an uncoded chig transmission in a mike or so. I understand a few words here and there myself. On the outside chance it might be their idea of music, I tried the translation programs -- nothing." He swallowed. "My God, sir ... we're probably the first humans to hear this -- at least to recognize it for what it is."
Ross didn't take his eyes off the screen. "Once in a lifetime, son. Once in ten lifetimes." He straightened. "I don't want to start a three ring circus until we know what we've got. Consider this classified and compartmentalized until further notice."
"Aye, aye, sir!"
"Carry on. You'll have some help down here in a few mikes."
(USS Saratoga, January 23, 2065)
"Crazy Judy" Ellison ran through a system check, trying to keep the excitement out of her voice. This was the kind of exploration she'd hoped for when she'd joined the Navy in the first place. The launch controller gave her go for launch, she glanced over at the port where Ross and McQueen were standing side by side and snapped off a sharp salute instead of her usual saucy wave. The situation seemed to demand the formality. She felt a moment of triumph as Ross looked a little startled before he returned the salute.
"All support personnel, clear the flight deck. Commencing Stingray engagement sequence...."
She waited impatiently as her cockpit made the trip down the lift and along the overhead rails to her plane. She dropped into the slot, then the magnetics kicked in and she waited to hit the thrusters once she was clear of the Sara.
Roberta Carey's voice came over her headset. "Lookin' good, Crazy Lady, you are clear to engage ECM at will."
"Acknowledged, Home Base. Going to radio silence ... mark." Judy toggled a bank of switches, bringing the Stingray's sophisticated anti-detection gear on-line. Baffles and cooling systems in the engines dropped her off the Sara's LIDAR when a Hammerhead would still have been an easily visible blip on the screen. She was on her own until she accomplished her mission and returned to the carrier ... or, possibly, as many a recon pilot had before her, came up overdue and went missing without a trace.
Most of the Stingray's payload was sensor gear. Judy brought the passive systems on-line immediately, the best way to deal with trouble was to see it before it saw you and get out of its way. Stingrays were lightly armed and fragile, but they were very, very fast and maneuverable. Recon pilots usually ran from trouble and called in the Hammerheads -- still, the respectable number of kill marks on Judy's cockpit testified to the fact that it could be suicidal to corner one.
She put a chip in the media player, and sat back to listen to her music. It was going to be a long ride out to her destination, and some tricky flying when she got there. She wanted to be well rested when she arrived.
Ross saw the look that crossed McQueen's face for just a moment as they watched the hatch close behind Judy's 'pit. Aware of his gaze, McQueen looked up. "Sir, I'd give a year's pay--!"
McQueen had been grounded by an injury. While Ross was still technically checked out as a fighter pilot, he was effectively just as grounded by the star on his shoulder. He'd never fly another mission either. He shook his head and grinned. "So would I--!"
For a moment, the hint of a smile lit McQueen's eyes. Then the two of them headed for the lift, and their duties elsewhere. It would be some time before Lt. Commander Ellison reached the area where the radio signal was originating.
During a quiet moment on the bridge a little later, McQueen stepped aside to call down to sickbay and check on Heather. Mary assured him that the transplant had gone well, and informed him that Heather was still asleep. She suggested that he come by later that day. He hoped he would have time to do that, but he really didn't expect to, depending on what Crazy Judy found out there.
Ross asked, "What did Mary say?"
"Heather's doing fine," he replied.
"Good ... that's good, Ty," Ross said thoughtfully.
Something in his tone made McQueen give him a long, searching look, but Ross didn't say another word.
Judy switched off the music a few MSKs away from target and told the voice recorder her position. The signal was coming from a moon orbiting one of the system's gas giants, she had approached the moon by orbiting the gas giant and now kept the moon between herself and the source of the radio emissions. She had her eyes open for a sentry satellite, or anything else that might make life miserable for uninvited company. So far, she'd seen nothing of the sort. She dropped down to fly low around the moon, an airless planetoid not unlike Earth's moon.
Ellison threaded her way through a mountain range, came out over a wide dust plain. And there it was, a ship three times the length of the Saratoga. She was broken in half, she'd never been meant to land. Ellison realized her mouth was hanging open and shut it, then began to describe what she was seeing for the benefit of the voice recorder. Ellison's instruments were not picking up anything other than the radio transmission. Whatever the ship was, she appeared to be a derelict. Even on its most sensitive setting, the LIDAR wasn't picking up any heat traces that could not be explained as reflected energy from the gas giant or its distant sun.
Instead of the flat planes and angles of human or chig ships, she was all graceful curves. She'd been a beauty in her day.... No way of knowing from here when that had been. This airless rock could have preserved the wreck perfectly for centuries or just since last week.
Ellison wasn't picking up radiation levels much above the normal level for the system, she wondered if that meant the ship had a reactor that had survived intact or if they didn't use radioactives at all. The point was, they didn't have to add radiation exposure to the list of possible dangers here.
When she had found out everything she could at range, she approached cautiously, watching every readout, ready to take evasive action at the first sign of movement. There was none. She recorded what she could see of the bays that had been ripped open to space when the ship broke her back landing, she couldn't see any immediate signs of an explosion or fire though. What had happened here?
Ellison sent what she had back to the Saratoga as a compressed and encrypted file. It was unlikely a quick burst of data like that would be intercepted, and at least the Sara would know what was going on if anything happened. Then she did a complete photorecon of the wreck site, until her fuel indicator told her that it was time to head home.
About five mikes after she set her course for the Sara's last known position, the enormity of what she had just experienced broke over her and left her shaking. She was the first human being to ever lay eyes on that ship, the creation of a previously unknown race of people. She swallowed hard. If they were hostile ... Earth couldn't hope to fight a war on two fronts. But, on the other hand, at this point it was just as likely they were neutrals or even potential allies.... Whoever "they" were. People who built a beautiful graceful ship and spoke a language that sounded like whale song....
What if there had been someone at home, and what if it had fallen to *her* to say hello! Humility wasn't an emotion that Crazy Judy experienced very often. But right then, all she could think was to pray, Dear Lord, don't let me do anything to mess this up!
Ross hadn't let too many people in on the discovery yet. When Ellison got to the debriefing, besides Ross the only ones there were the XO, Captain Loretta Harris ... TC ... a few Intell people ... and the lowly young communications tech who'd first found the radio transmission!
Pfieffer looked like he'd walked into a museum ... or church ... or something. Well, he ought to. Glen and TC had already made their marks in the AI war before anyone had ever heard of chigs. Loretta had been all set to retire from a long distinguished career as captain of the Nevada when the war had broken out. Rather than deprive the Earth forces of her years of experience in a time of crisis, she'd put her retirement plans aside for the duration to serve as XO of the Saratoga. But Judy would definitely have to have a little talk with the kid for looking at *her* like that.
Ellison had her moment in the sun describing her discovery. Then the Intelligence people reported what they'd found out so far from the data she'd brought back. They agreed with her initial assessment that the wreck was probably an abandoned hulk, with apparently no power in use. There was no indication who had built it. But computer enhancement of a series of shots take along the underside of the craft showed a number of open bays. It looked like the crew had abandoned ship before the calamity. Ross' orders from the high command were to secure the wreck so that the science teams could move in.
(USS Saratoga, January 24, 2065)
Vansen checked her EVA gear carefully, you could get dead just as fast from a suit malfunction as from anything else out here. The rest of the squadron followed her lead. The Wild Cards had drawn this assignment because they had more experience than anyone else aboard the Sara with alien ships, but that didn't make her the least bit overconfident. What they knew about chig craft would be pretty much useless where the invention of some other race was involved.
She looked up as she heard McQueen's familiar step on the transport ramp. "We're good for go," she said.
His eyes scanned the banks of indicators above her head, a habit of many years that no experienced spacer ever got out of his system. You looked for caution lights, dials that were showing an off reading, anything that hinted of a situation that should be nipped in the bud. "I've got a bad feeling about this. There doesn't seem to be any reason from Judy's recon photos why they abandoned ship. But that reason has to be there."
Vansen searched his eyes. She knew that expression. He was going over the puzzle, and he'd discovered there were pieces missing. She assured him, "Until I know what I'm dealing with, I'm not assuming anything. Nobody's going out there to be a hero today."
McQueen nodded. Vansen knew what she was doing. In a quieter tone that wouldn't carry to the rest of the squadron, he asked her, "If you did meet these people out there, what would you say to them?"
Vansen looked up at him and thought about it for a long time. "I hope to God I'd know when the time came," she replied finally. "After the way I screwed up on Anvil--"
"Shane. You made the wrong call, militarily -- but on a lot of other levels it was the right thing to do. I can't stand here and say that, in your place, I definitely wouldn't have done the same thing you did. I just don't know. I wasn't there, I didn't make the call. But that's beside the point now. This is an entirely different situation. If you were to meet someone out there, the same instincts that led you to make the decision you did then would lead you to make all the right calls now. Whoever these people are, we're not at war with them, and we cannot afford to be."
She nodded, once, slowly. "I don't think we're going to meet them today...."
McQueen agreed. "They were running from something when they abandoned ship," he replied. "Whatever that something was...."
"Could still be a problem," she finished, thinking aloud. Then a quiet little smile pulled up the corners of her mouth as something totally unrelated to the mission occurred to her.
"What?" McQueen asked.
She finished her check of the suit's temperature controls. "It's just that I remember my parents doing that," she explained. "One of them would start to say something, and stop in the middle of the sentence, and the other would just pick it up and finish. Then they'd go right on like nothing happened."
He realized she was right ... it hadn't even occurred to him that there was anything out of the ordinary about what had just happened, until she pointed it out. "Watch your six out there."
Up close, the wreck towered as high as a twenty-story building and stretched nearly a mile along the starlit dust barrens. They got in through one of the lifeboat bays, walked up a long launch tube. Damphousse knelt to get a closer look. "Major, these are magnetic rails, just like on the Sara."
Vansen said, "Yeah. Look. Light bulbs. Could've come from Supply." She indicated a translucent panel that had shattered on impact, Damphousse moved in a little closer to see. Inside, the function of the transparent tubes was obvious. She was right, if you saw a box of those things on the shelf you wouldn't give them a second glance....
At the far end of the tunnel was a lift large enough to bring any of their fighters down into launch position, and a hatch with a transparent view port. Lucas indicated his light, Vansen nodded for everyone else to cover him and nodded. Inside was an empty air lock.
Damphousse and Avery went to work on the hatch. They were both startled, to say the least, when the lights came on in the air lock and the hatch flew open.
Damphousse lowered her rifle, feeling nervous and a little foolish. She commented, "I guess it wasn't locked after all."
Avery said, "I'm more curious about where that power's coming from. Recon should have detected some kind of emissions from a reactor, nothing's *that* clean!"
"Sewell fuel is," Damphousse replied. "You just get heat traces, and in a ship this size, that might not be detectable from outside."
Vansen snapped, "Keep your mind on your business, people, you can hang over the techies' shoulders later! I'm more interested in who flipped the light switch than where the juice is coming from, right this minute. The damn thing could be full of AIs for all we know!"
Damphousse put a sensor unit inside the airlock and cycled it through. Her readouts showed that there was atmosphere in there, but it wasn't breathable. It was heavy with carbon monoxide as well as several decomposition-related gasses. The air pressure was close to standard. Their life support would be able to extract plenty of oxygen from that.
She warned, "Watch out. There's a good level of methane in this ... I think the chigs could have come as close to breathing this as we could. Or at least they wouldn't choke any faster."
Vansen took the time for one deep breath before she stepped into the airlock. They took positions on either side of the inner hatch, no one wanted to be in a direct line of fire when it opened. Its viewport was covered with a thick layer of ice, she hoped the hatch was not frozen shut.
They waited in a tense silence while the lock cycled through. Avery hit a touch-plate by the hatch and it slid open. Lights flickered on up the corridor, revealing a scene of carnage that immediately brought eight rifles to the ready.
There were corpses scattered all along the corridor, most of them near enough the hatch that they would have to step over the dead to continue. All of them were frozen solid, Damphousse reported that the temperature in here was well below freezing.
The corpses were humanoid, to Vansen they looked human enough. They were hairless, wearing coveralls or flight suits of some sort under heavy battle armor -- that had been useless against whatever had killed them. They were armed, their weapons eerily similar to hers -- a rifle with a longer barrel than the M-590's they were carrying and a fighting knife.
All of the bodies bore puncture wounds of some sort, and what looked to Vansen like rope burns. But no one here had been standing still to be tied up. Most of them had died with their knives in their hands, and she doubted she would find a single round left in any of those rifles. It looked to Vansen like this squad had gone to the wall and made their last stand here, holding this hatch. She could almost see that -- some escape craft docked to the other side of that air lock, these people sacrificing their lives to assure the escape of the others.
West observed, "The other guys must have taken their casualties with them."
Vansen said, "Yeah...."
Moore said, "They didn't take everything...."
"What have you got?" Vansen joined her. Moore indicated some bloody footprints, they identified the body of the individual who had made them. In the same area were some other odd marks, as though something heavy had been dragged through the pool of blood and left a trail as wide as a man's body down the hallway for several meters.
Moore said, "It wasn't human ... unless someone was crawling on his stomach ... looks more like something a snake would have made?"
"One hell of a snake," Lucas commented.
"We had 'em that big on Halleston," she replied grimly. "They'd come down the shafts overnight, and God help you if one got behind you in the tunnel you were working the next morning. They were big enough to swallow a person."
Vansen felt a chill go all the way down her back at that thought. "Save that kind of stories till we've got a campfire and some goddamn marshmallows, Nita."
There was laughter at that crack, but a lot of it was nervous laughter.
West pointed out, "If there are any snakes in here, they're frozen stiff."
They photographed the corpses without disturbing them, then continued up the corridor. It continued straight into the ship, past areas they easily recognized as hangar decks and various support areas. Everywhere was evidence that the exodus from the ship had taken place in a hurry, people's work was lying around where they had left it as they fled. It appeared that the evacuation had been successful for the most part, though. They found no more bodies or evidence of violence, it looked like in this area at least the fighting had confined itself to the area of the air lock.
They came to a long section where there were hatches all along the bow side of the corridor, but just a blank bulkhead astern. On impulse, the next time they came to a gangway, Vansen ordered them up. This was a big place, and they had no idea of the layout. There was no sense confining their explorations to what was obviously a flight deck.
The level above that was housing, but instead of the large barracks they expected, they found row after row of tiny cabins. West picked up a framed picture that had fallen to the floor, it was obviously of a family with three small children. Cautiously, Vansen opened a locker and found corresponding sizes of clothing inside. "She was a passenger liner? Was that why we didn't see more of a resistance?"
West said, "Maybe she didn't have a large security force ... those guys downstairs may have been it."
"Maybe." Shane was looking at the clothes, they were faded and threadbare and they had been patched extensively. She took the picture from West. It had been taken outdoors, but it didn't look like a vacation photo. The parents had the serious look on their faces she'd seen in photographs of the pioneers ... and the children just looked haunted. She wasn't sure how she could tell that from the faces of aliens, until she looked into their eyes and shuddered. She'd seen that look in her sisters' eyes after their parents had been killed. "Nathan ... I don't think these folks were on any luxury cruise ... I think they were refugees."
He looked at the picture again, then back to her. "Could be. Refugees from what?"
"Maybe the techies will figure that out," Vansen replied.
There hadn't been room for everyone in the cramped cabin, the others had carefully spread out through the surrounding area. Yamauchi called, "Hey, everyone, come take a look at this! We found something new!"
They followed her voice down a short side corridor. A hatch stood open into a vast chamber. Once it had been filled with water, like the world's biggest swimming pool. Steps led down into the ice from a small landing inside the door.
Lisa asked, "What in the world ... "
Vansen said, "I don't know, Lisa."
Damphousse said, "This was home."
"I didn't get a 'home' feeling in the cabins. It's here. I'll bet they spent most of their time in here. That's why so much of the ship's resources were devoted to it."
Avery peered out into the distant recesses of the ice. "Maybe their language has a similar form to the sounds that dolphins make because it has a similar function -- to carry underwater. Maybe they live mostly in the water."
Moore said, "If the galley's full of fish, that'll confirm your guess."
Vansen laughed. "We're just like the first archaeologists, stumbling around the pyramids making all kinds of wild-ass guesses about what the ancient Egyptians were like."
Avery grinned, "Don't discount the WAG method, Major, it gets a lot done."
She checked her watch. "We got just about ten more mikes time over target. Let's record as much more as we can before we have to go back."
They finished their exploration and headed back to the transport. Vansen took the time for a last, long look at the bodies of the ship's defenders. Then she turned and joined the others on the long walk down the launch tube, back to the ISSAPC.
When they got back to the Saratoga they barely had time to shower and change uniforms before they were sequestered in a long debriefing session. On the strength of the data they had brought back, several units of heavily-armed Marines were sent to the derelict to secure it so that the scientists could begin to work.
(USS Saratoga, January 25, 2065)
After a quick lunch, McQueen went down to sickbay to check on Alison and Heather. As he approached the desk, he was aware of Mary looking up to meet his eyes -- she had been watching him walk across the floor, if she'd seen the slightest sign of a limp he suspected he'd be on his way back to one of the examination rooms right now. Instead, she smiled and nodded as he passed by on his way to Heather's cubicle.
When he opened the door, a little figure in blue flannel made a break between his feet. Alison had fallen asleep, but she wakened like a cat and made a grab for Heather's pajamas. McQueen was a little faster, he caught an arm around the toddler and picked her up. "Just where do you think you're going?"
Heather gave him back his own steel-blue glare. It took her only a few seconds to determine that she wasn't going anywhere. Accustomed to roaming the whole of her house and yard, most of the time, she wasn't taking happily to being locked in that tiny cell ... and in about two seconds she was going to let the whole sickbay know about it. "Don't you even think about screaming," he told her. "It doesn't impress anyone, and no one wants to listen to it."
She shut her mouth, but her eyes never left his. That was in no way a surrender ... the child simply acknowledged that, *this* time, he happened to be right. For that matter, so was a stopped clock, twice a day. Surrender wasn't in Heather's vocabulary, any more than in his ... they understood one another perfectly.
On Alison's suggestion, he took Heather over to the station for an ice cream. Gregory pulled three cups of ice cream from the little cold box under the counter, strawberry, chocolate and vanilla. After a moment, Heather picked the chocolate.
Alison set the girl on her lap while she ate the ice cream, to make sure most of it went into the kid instead of elsewhere.
McQueen said, "I'd ask how she is, but she seems to be doing just fine."
Alison held up crossed fingers. "So far, so good," she said cautiously.
(derelict ship, January 27, 2065)
A work detail sealed the last of the alien corpses into a body bag to carry them to the transport and back to the Saratoga for study. Mary O'Leary had already determined a few important things about them from a preliminary observation. They were air breathers who showed several physiological adaptations for living in water much of the time. And although they had apparently died of blood loss, there was no indication of that much blood around the corpses. She wouldn't know more until she had the chance to autopsy the bodies.
"All right, go ahead with them. Remember the anti-contamination protocols."
The detail started carrying the bodies out. Mary was the last one through the air lock.
In what was eventually determined to be an environmental control station, a technician looking for the ship's log accidentally and unknowingly activated a sequence and the ship's life support began to function again. Deep within the ship, the air filtration system began to filter out the poisons, and heaters came on line all through the wreck.
The instant the new systems came on-line, all non-essential personel were ordered out of the alien ship while the engineers who remained behind tried to determine what was happening. The damage from the wreck caused a number of short circuits, which was apparently the reason why the life support systems had been shut down in the first place. However, the effects were minor and within an hour it was deemed safe for the workers to return. Enough of the life support system remained on-line that within 18 hours the ship was barely within tolerable conditions for earth-native life forms. At the time, everyone involved thought this was a bit of serendipity, and went back to work.
(derelict, January 28, 2065)
Cold slowly receding from numbness to discomfort to real pain. Crouch back in the den, confused and for the moment relatively helpless. Eventually, the twin survival drives for warmth and food force movement, slow and stiff at first, then with increasing confidence and stealth.
Movement. Movement is prey? Wait wait wait wait -- prey carries something. Memory: prey holding something that made loud noises, and pain followed. Look for easier prey!
Warmth. Stay to cover. Move quiet quiet quiet. Warmth just beyond foodcreature. Wait wait wait wait .... NOW! Hide in warm place ... wait for food ... warm+safe=drowse for a little while.
Cpl. Hodges thought he heard a sound behind him in the airlock leading to the ISSAPC. Now that the air was good, and the scientists had determined it was safe, they had docked the transport and opened the airlock to make it easier to load samples aboard. He looked around carefully, but saw nothing.
The crash had dislodged things, occasionally their movements caused the fall of a ceiling tile or some such thing. Hodges figured one of the scientists working further down the corridor must have knocked something over. He knew there was no one on the transport, and he couldn't see anything from his post. One more noise, though, and he was going to report it ... even if the sergeant did think he was hearing things....
An hour later, the transport was full of samples and the scientists were ready to go back to the labs aboard the Saratoga to start work on them. Hodges helped an older gentleman to a seat. Some of these scientists were civilians with a capital "C", and you had to watch them every minute. Sometimes Hodges thought it was like trying to herd gerbils.
As the young corporal strapped into his seat for the trip back to the 'Sara, neither man was aware of the set of eyes watching them from little more than a meter away....
Noise and light fade to silence. Move out of the den. Look around. Move to the opening. A distant clang -- jump back quickly! Silence again. Large open area ... bad place. But not far, is a small hole ... just barely large enough ... and warmth in there. Maybe a good den? Find out....
Previous : Part One
Next : Part Three
© Becky Ratliff 1997