FIRST CONTACT
(PG-13)

By Sharon Mikeworth



“I think, therefore I am.”
~ René Descartes 1596 –1650


Centaurus Crew Exploration Vehicle
2174-07-18 18:00
Flight time: 1828.75 days

Alexandra “Alex” Jane Harrington ran down the narrow passageway, her boots slamming on the grating. One of them was behind her. She caught the barely perceptible movement out of the corner of her eye before ducking down a side corridor. She skidded to a stop at the end, and forgoing the main hatch, frantically wrenched open the panel on the wall beside it. Grabbing the lip of the panel with both hands, she shot in feet first, slammed the panel shut, and clamped it down.
     She was hanging on a ladder in a maintenance conduit tube that ran through all the levels of the ship. She held on and looked up, trying to control her breathing. Nothing seemed to be moving above her. All was quiet. She leaned over and looked down. The metal rungs beneath her led down into blackness. She tightened her grip and started up.
     She ascended to the correct level and climbed out as quietly as she could. She was on the main deck leading to the medical lab and cryogenic sleep units beyond.
     She could see faint light coming from the lab up ahead. She crept forward, quickening her pace. She slid through the doorway and stopped just inside. All the lights were out except for the emergency LEDs along the wall.
     She was the only one left now.
     She and Taze had almost made it to the small shuttle parked in the maintenance bay, when one had gotten him too. Racing across the cavernous hangar, they had started around the side of the shuttle, and Taze had been jerked off his feet and propelled straight up into the maw of one of the things crouching above them. Snatching up his pulse rifle as it clattered to the floor, she had been forced to flee back to the lab.
     The hatch leading to the cryo chambers had been left open. Alex inched her way over and peeked in. The light from behind her barely penetrated the room inside. She decided to try Hally, the onboard AI computer, again.
     “Lights.”
     The lights flickered and then came on, startling bright.
     “Run preliminary routines and cycle up first sleep module.”
     “Working,” Hally acknowledged as it processed the command.
     The sleep unit sensors blinked on and off for endless moments before staying solid. Alex eased into the room, alert for any noise or movement.
     “The cryostasis unit is fully functional and standing by.”
     She dropped the weapon within easy reach of the cryo chamber, stripped down out of her jumpsuit, then climbed inside and lay down. The transparent coffinlike lid lowered and sealed down around her. She accessed the small inset data screen and typed the slumber parameters. She hesitated before confirming. The shuttle had been a long shot anyway, and where would she have gone?  It wasn’t equipped with a hyperspace drive and cryo beds. The distress signal they had sent out would take a long time to reach Earth, even with the upper subspace frequency they'd used, and then it would be even longer before a rescue ship would come. She closed her eyes tight for a moment. There was no other way. She took a deep breath and confirmed the sleep-cycle length, allowing for more than adequate time for the rescue mission to get to her. She felt the small sting of the initial sedative, and then she was fading away, deep down into cold sleep.

Alex, wake up. It is time to wake up now. Wake up. It is time to wake up now. Alex wake up …” the AI’s modulated feminine voice repeated incessantly until Alex finally made sense of the words.
     She cleared her throat and tried to speak. “Fit as a fiddle,” she croaked, glad to find herself still alive.
     “Quiet as a mouse,” Hally responded smoothly. Alex felt the sting of the stimulant being injected and instantly felt more awake.
     The chamber creaked open, tendrils of vapor escaping into the cool air. She sat up and swung her legs over the side and then eased them down to the floor. Nothing appeared to have changed. There was no sign of any rescue team, so why had she been awakened? She reached for the pulse rifle. It was gone. A trial of slime led to where it now lay about four feet away. She retrieved the weapon, flicked it on, and felt marginally reassured as the red light indicating firing lock lit up readily.
     “Have there been any transmissions from Earth?”
     “Negative.”
     She was starting to have a bad feeling. “Hally, why was I awakened?”
     “Your sleep cycle terminated within established parameters.”
     Alex flinched at the AI’s words.
     The rescue ship had not come for her.
     It was too much, too soon. Taze and everyone else on board had been dead for years—her mind shied away from how many years it had actually been—but it felt like it had just happened hours before. She pushed the thoughts away; she had to get to the bridge and send another message.
     She made it for nearly fifteen precious minutes before having to be entombed back into cryostasis again. Apparently the creatures could hibernate for unimaginable lengths of time she found out after she surprised one sleeping up under the main bridge communications console.
     She managed to record a partial message to Earth repeating the earlier distress call, stressing that she was still alive and in dire need of assistance, before the alien dropped sluggishly on the floor beside her. It plopped on the floor like a cold wet spider, slime oozing around it, its black horrifically alien eyes fastened on her. It shot out a ropy appendage, still incredibly quick, and tried to wrap it around her. She screamed and jerked away in horror.
     She jabbed at the controls to send the transmission and ran for her life.

Alex slept, her dreams full of horrific nightmarish scenes. She raced toward salvation down infinite corridors, pursued endlessly, the sound of an alarm echoing all around her, blaring rhythmically.
     She jerked awake, the cryo unit alert sounding in her ear, and immediately had to slam down the emergency lock. The lid clamped shut and sealed. She was looking straight up into the black orbs of an alien staring down at her mere inches away, the only thing separating them the thin transparent barrier. Saliva dripped from its buzzing tick-like head. She stabbed at the keypad, fingers stumbling over the length parameters in her terror, frantically trying to cycle back down before attracting any more attention. There seemed to be no escape for Alex; awake or asleep they haunted her. She wondered if this was what hell was like as she fell back into oblivion.

She came awake slowly, from a great distance, sliding in and out of consciousness. Images flickered through her mind, dream and reality merging until something finally clicked, and Alex awoke. She blinked in near pitch-black darkness and tried to remember who and where she was.
     Everything came back and she stiffened in panic, then cried out in pain and surprise. Her body ached all over and she was so weak she could barely move. She was horribly thirsty; her throat was so dry she could hardly swallow and her tongue felt like a dried-up slug. And her head was killing her. Something was wrong. There had been no stimulant shot, no voice of the AI. The emergency reanimation cycle, a fail-safe mechanism whenever there was a system-wide failure, to prevent anyone from becoming trapped, must have been triggered. She felt along the keypad and pressed to no avail.
     Arms trembling, she slowly raised herself up, the blinding pain in her temples reaching a crescendo and then lessening somewhat, and tried to think. The room was ice cold. Something had caused the cryo unit to fail but there was obviously atmosphere or she would already be dead. She climbed out gingerly, her muscles protesting, and reached down and felt for her clothes. Her hand closed around the slightly damp material, and she carefully stepped into the loose jumpsuit.
     Trying to remember the layout, she felt her way along slowly, the journey across the room excruciating as she waited to lay her hand down or stumble onto one of them. She reached around the hatch and she pulled herself into the lab beyond. She looked around slowly, taking in everything. The emergency lights were all out, but there was a faint glow from a data screen that was still working. The room smelled slightly of decay, and a thin layer of dust was obvious even in the faint green wash of light. She drifted over to the screen, leaving footprints trailing behind her, and bent down to read it:

      Voice Recognition and Activation off-line

     Please use keypad to type your request

     Placing her fingers on the keypad, she quickly typed in access AI and tapped enter.
     Several long moments later, Identify appeared on the screen.
     She entered her name.
     Another long pause, then Confirm flashed across.
     She thought for a moment, and then remembering the simile game they used to play, typed in free as a bird.
     There was nothing for a long time, and just as she was about to give up and try something different, the display flickered and the words Silent as the grave scrolled across dimly.
      Power diversion necessary for AI interface immediately followed, the words glowing bright for a moment and then fading. A box prompted her and she confirmed.
     Nothing happened for a long time after that. She swayed, trying not to pass out. She needed water. She had no idea how long she had been in stasis. She went to start toward the nearest dining area, and the overhead lights began to flicker. Most stayed out but a few came on and burned steadily.
     She stared down in puzzlement at her arms and hands. Her skin looked dark and orangey, and her hair that spilled over her shoulder was much lighter than her usual sandy brown. She looked up at the dim lights and blinked in confusion. Whirling around she looked for something reflective. There were relief facilities in the back. She hurried in to look in the mirror there.
     Even in the smeared murky reflection, she could see the difference in her appearance. She was thin almost to the point of emaciation. Her brown eyes were now a strange greenish color that seemed to blaze out of the darkness of her face, and her hair was nearly devoid of color and hung in a white mass down to her waist.
     Oh dear God, how long have I been asleep?
     She went back into the chamber and found the pulse rifle, which was still lying where she had dropped it the last time she had panicked and thrown herself back into cryo sleep. She attempted to wipe the grime off of it, and flicked the switch. Nothing. She smacked it on the side, wincing at the pain, and tried it again. Still nothing. She gave up and flung it down.
     She left the lab and moved through the shadows. It was freezing cold, and she needed water desperately. She hurried along the darkened hallway, huddled over, breath fogging out, arms crossed against the frigid temperature. When she came upon the main hatch leading to the next level, she discovered the deck sealed and had to go another way. The ship was failing. About half the controls she encountered no longer worked or worked with errors forcing her to make her way through a maze of doorways and passages.  Some areas were lit up while others were in darkness. The musty smell of death and age permeated everything, thickening the air.

     She had just rounded a corner and started toward the crew’s kitchen facilities on level two when she found her first dead alien. It had nested down under the conference table in the adjacent room. The remnants of a mucus trial led across the floor a few feet away to where the thing had crawled in a last-ditch effort and then died. It had burst and flattened down into a dried membrane. She caught a whiff of a sweet rotten odor unlike anything she had ever encountered before and gagged.
     The main dining area wasn’t much better. The corpse of Dr. Reese, the medical officer and cryo specialist, lay where he had fallen. He had been one of the lucky ones. He hadn’t been killed by one of the aliens; he had been caught in the crossfire after one dropped from a ceiling panel and Turk had panicked and started firing. Reese had been hit in the chest and killed instantly. It hadn’t done Turk any good. A second alien had come down after the first one and pounced on him while he was still shooting.
     Dr. Reese had not decayed, but dried out like a mummy. He lay shriveled on the floor, a fraction of his former size, his reddish hair looking longer and slightly faded.  Alex edged around him and entered the back service area past the tables. She avoided the crusty taps out front and made her way through the kitchen to the storage room beyond.
     She found a container of water, but it had already been opened and she didn’t trust it. In frustration, she turned away, staggered past Dr. Reese again, and stumbled back out onto the main corridor.
     The AI’s voice suddenly echoed, startling her.
     Primary routines online … converting power … life support and back … systems … 40 percent prob … lity of structural failure. Closing off decks one … and three. Bringing online deck four … minimal operations.
     Alex tried to move faster and punched the lift button just as the alarm began to go off for level shutdown. She stepped in and held her breath, leaning heavily against the wall, until the lift closed and rose with a jerk.
     She emerged on deck four and headed straight for its dining facilities. It was warmer here and the lights were brighter. In the kitchen area, she found a large unopened container of water and hurriedly opened it. She turned it up and took a small sip. It tasted a little funny, but hopefully it wouldn’t kill her. She turned it up again and gulped the tepid water.
     Alex wiped her mouth with her hand and then froze. She whirled around, listening. A humming sound came again, louder this time. It sounded mechanical and it was coming closer.
     She stared in astonishment at the tall servo robot that pivoted smartly around the doorway and moved without pausing into the storage room beyond.
     She had completely forgotten about Captain Danver’s servo bot. Ignoring the robot for the moment, she left the dining area and headed to the bridge.
     She found another dead alien, in much the same condition as the first, wedged half under a chair. The hateful monsters seemed to have finally died. The bridge stood silent, and mostly dark, except for the ghostly reflections of one or two working displays.
     She walked on numb feet over to one of the functioning consoles, and accessed the ship’s log with shaking hands. She brought up the sketchy utility and searched through the onscreen information until she found what she was looking for.
     Alex stared in shock and disbelief at the number in front of her.
     According to the data, it had been one hundred and forty-nine years since she sent the last message.
     One hundred and forty-nine years. Alex blinked and tried to assimilate the number.
     One hundred and forty-nine years! Why, that's not possible. That would mean …
     She staggered in horror as it hit her. The room reeled around her, and then the floor seemed to rise up to meet her, and she crumpled into a dead faint.

 

Phoenix Reconnaissance Starship
Öpik-Oort Cloud
2343-10-23 06:00

Captain William Rayburne stood on the bridge staring out at the rocky outer region of cloud that marked the boundary of Earth’s solar system and wondered if he would ever see home again.
     Formerly retired General Adam Blakely mounted the deck stairs and joined him in front of the view screen. Rayburne regarded him for a moment and was pleased to see him looking sharp, his back straight.
     “We’ll be making history. First ones to make it all the way across and back,” the old general said in his gruff voice, looking out at the expanse.
     “If we make it back,” Rayburne replied. He debated enlightening him on some of the finer details of the mission.
     “You know something I don’t know?” Blakely asked, turning his head and staring hard at him.
     Adam Blakely was certainly no fool. Which was why Rayburne had chosen him to command this mission after his meeting with Admiral Cane. The old battle-scarred general had been brought out of retirement, dusted off, and blasted into space along with several other handpicked crew members that he had insisted upon after the Admiral’s shocking briefing.
     “Nothing you can’t handle—Bedlam.” Rayburne used the old nickname deliberately, and was rewarded with Blakely throwing his head back and laughing.
     The General had gained the nickname “Bedlam” Blakely from his exploits during the second, not-so-cold war between the U.S. and Russia. After a particularly memorable battle on the frigid wastelands of Siberia, a helicopter had been flown in with one brave or extremely stupid reporter who had somehow, fantastically, filmed General Blakely in action on the ground fighting among his men. After a heavy bombardment had nearly wiped out the front line, General Blakely had ridden straight out into the fray where he had joined his remaining troops in vicious hand-to-hand combat. Reinforcements soon arrived and quickly gained control of the situation, but General Blakely had to practically be dragged off the field as he stalked about and shouted, still giving orders while a medic tried to attend to him.
     During the subsequent press conference, the General was unwittingly questioned by a reporter as to his “taking unnecessary chances” and “grandiose behavior”, sparking off a shouting match that quickly escalated into a free-for-all between the feverish reporters whose emotions were running high who wanted to portray General Blakely as a hero, and the ones who thought he was an old fool who had merely been grandstanding.
     After the video feed of General Blakely in action and the pandemonium of the press conference were aired for the world to see, the General was promoted to instant fame and dubbed “Bedlam Blakely” forever after.
     Captain Rayburne couldn’t think of anyone else he would rather have to watch his back and face whatever might lie ahead in the days to come.
     Back in his quarters, he scrolled down through the myriad list of names and dates his search had accumulated: Christopher Columbus; Amelia Earhart; the first lunar landing; Voyager, carrying the gold record; Sally Ride, the school teacher aboard the ill-fated Challenger shuttle; the doomed Atlantis re-entry; the Mars mission; the moon base of 2055 … He stopped scrolling at the now familiar name: Alexandra Harrington.
     He called up one of the last pictures ever taken of her and studied the image. She was turned slightly away, smiling bravely as she waved to the crowd. She had only been thirty years old the day the Centaurus had lifted off in 2169. She had never been seen again, going down in history as the lost Amelia Earhart of her time.
     The Centaurus had been built at great, mind-boggling expense and had imbued all the latest technology of hyperspace propulsion, pioneered by Burkhard Heim in the 1950s, combined with a nuclear engine, linear acceleration gravity, and cryogenic stasis techniques. It had been the first and last voyage of such magnitude at so great a distance. It was considered a complete failure. The ship and all its crew, including Alexandra Harrington, the first woman to travel into deep space, had been lost.
     The rest of his team had been told this was just a routine mission, but he knew better. For years ships had been sent out, each one farther and farther into the heart of the cloud that lay beyond their solar system where the Centaurus had disappeared. For there had actually been two shocking and horrifying transmissions received from the Centaurus, a key piece of evidence the military and government had prudently kept from the general public.
     The last message recovered, shown to him by Admiral Cane, had been black-and-white, grainy, and slightly distorted, but he had seen the terrifying alienness of the thing clearly enough as it rose up beside the unmistakable figure of Alex Harrington. Unfortunately, the transmissions had been fragmented and the Centaurus’ exact jump coordinates had been lost. He shuddered as he thought of her fate and abruptly clicked off the picture and shut down the terminal.

Alex haunted the ship, a ghost of her former self. The ship seemed to hang frozen in perpetuity as she drifted through its corridors and passageways in a daze, barely knowing if she was awake, asleep, dead, or alive.
     She played back what messages she could still access and gazed at the faces of her family and friends. Heard their voices. Everyone she had ever known, everyone who had ever known her—gone. She thought she might die from the grief of it.
     Places and people ran through her mind as she stumbled onto the observation turret where she now slept. Tears streaming down her face, she stared out blindly, replaying scenes with long-dead loved ones, now only alive in her memory. Grief and loss engulfed her and left her adrift in an existence that felt as empty as the cold black space around her.


Alex jerked as something touched against her shoulder, and looked up blearily. The servo bot was standing over her, holding out a cup. The metallic pupils of its eyes were faintly yellow. It had offered her food and drink before, but she hadn’t been able to touch it. This time she accepted the cup, sitting up slowly, and wiped at her swollen face. She took a sip and then coughed. It tasted like rum. She took another deeper swallow, relishing the burn of the alcohol.
     It suddenly spoke in a low, modulated male voice. “Compliments of the captain.”
     “To the late captain,” she said, lifting her cup. She took another drink, watching the robot warily. The servo’s eyes had now changed from yellow to lilac.
     Alex stared at it curiously, wondering just how much it understood. It was rumored that after Captain Danver’s particular model of servo robot had been recalled because of deviations from conventional thinking due to its ingenuity processing core, Captain Danvers had not only kept his, but had had it enhanced even further.
     “It’s just you and me kid,” she said with a low humorless laugh, throwing back the last of the drink. “Everyone is dead, except yours truly. They’re all dead … all the crew … everyone I’ve ever known …” her voice trailed off, and tears welled up in her eyes once again.
     The android’s pupils turned purple and then blood red, as it moved silently away. At the doorway, it stopped and turned back.
     “Will I die?” the faintly rhythmic voice asked.
     Alex hesitated. “I don’t know.”
     The servo’s optics had turned to a lighter fuchsia again, as it seemed to regard her.
     “Will you die, Alex?”
     She stared at it in despair.
     “Yes."


The incident with the robot had disconcerted Alex and she began watching the droid more closely. It continued to stay near her, following her while she systematically searched each deck, assessing the damage and condition of the ship, trying unsuccessfully to send another message to Earth, always on the look out for any of the alien's glittering eggs. She found five on deck four alone. The aliens were particularly innovative in their choice of hiding places for their eggs. Some of them were in out-of-the-way spots like crates and lockers, and others were placed right out in the open among ordinary objects. She found one nestled in a micro-heating unit, and another one inside a drinking carafe. She had the servo bot open a small storage panel located in its abdomen and carefully place the delicate eggs inside to eject out into space.
     The servo also stood in attendance while she held the makeshift funeral for the remains of the crew. She stood and watched solemnly as the bodies were released out into the cold vacuum of space, the haunting melody she had chosen reverberating and resonating around them. She silently recited a small prayer and then turned and walked away, the whir of the servo following behind her.
     Later that evening as she sat drinking more of Captain Danver's rum stash, she heard the fluting sounds of the composition she had played earlier. She cocked her head, listening closely. It wasn’t the same piece at all. It was different. Terrible, beautiful, unlike anything she had ever heard before. She got up and followed the eerie notes, transfixed, her arms breaking out in goose bumps.
     The sounds were coming from the robot.
     The music stopped abruptly as she entered the room and approached the dull silver robot, still enthralled by what she had heard—what it had created.
     "That was beautiful," she said, staring into the now brilliant aqua of its eyes. 
"What should I call you?”
     Its eyes flashed—blue, green, orange, and then a steady, fiery red.
     “You may call me Descartes.”


Descartes rarely left her side and Alex began to find its presence comforting. Especially since the ship's AI had gone quiet. Something had finally degraded within Hally's circuits and Alex could no longer get a response from it. What was supposed to have been a 10-year mission had now taken over 174 years. Ten years was a long time too, but most of it would have been spent sleeping in a cryo capsule and everybody and everything would have still been mostly the same when she returned. Now nothing would ever be the same again.
     As the horror of the aliens passed and she became resigned to her situation, she found herself talking more and more to the robot. She found its gentle questions about her life back home and the family and friends she had lost cathartic, and it became a ritual of theirs to spend the evenings together while Descartes prepared dinner for her from whatever meager staples it could salvage from the deep freeze.
     One evening she awakened to feel Descartes sliding a blanket over her, covering her up where she had fallen asleep gazing out the observation window after too much of the captain’s quickly diminishing rum supply. It looked down at her with soft pink eyes, a color she had previously seen flicker only once or twice as she questioned it about its time with the captain. Alex felt a stirring of answering emotion, and the grip of the all-consuming grief she had been feeling loosened ever so slightly.


The Phoenix came out of hyperspace without incident. The captain made his way to the canteen for some much-needed coffee, still trying to throw off the effects of the jump they'd all had to endure. He passed by the crew exercise module, then paused and backed up.
     Cherie, the petite communications officer, was standing defiantly in front of the only open weight machine.  Andre, the pilot he was starting to regret, stood facing her, a patronizing smile on his handsome face.
     “Come on honey, what do you need weights for?” he asked, laughing.
      “I’m not your damn honey,” Cherie snapped.
     Rayburne started to go in, then stopped. If she couldn’t handle this, then she didn’t need to be on this mission.
     “Just move, all right? You look great.”
     “You just wait your turn,” Cherie spat, crossing her arms and bracing her legs on either side of the seat.
     Rayburne tensed as the other crew member in the room rose up from where he had been bench pressing and walked over to where Andre and Cherie stood squaring off. Morgan was the one he worried about the most. The black weapons specialist came from one of the worst inner-city neighborhoods and had once belonged to a particularly nasty gang. He stood six foot three and weighed in at over 250 pounds of pure muscle. His face and hands were scarred and he sported several intricate tattoos, including one that ran up his neck and curved around the side of his face.
     Cherie stood her ground, her face taut. Rayburne tensed, ready to intervene if they tried to hurt her. He needn’t have worried. Andre made as if to manhandle Cherie out of his way, when Morgan suddenly stuck out his hand and knocked Andre over with no more effort than pushing open a door, and Andre hit the floor with a muffled oath.
     Cherie stared up at Morgan in astonishment, her big eyes wide, lightly shimmering with unshed tears. She blinked, and then her mouth curved up into a soft, tremulous smile, and she leaned in and wrapped her arms around the  big black man. Rayburne had to pull back and bite his lip to keep from laughing at the comical look of surprise and distress on Morgan’s face. When he peered back around, Morgan was patting Cherie’s back, looking dazed, while Andre looked on with a bemused expression.
     Rayburne was still smiling as he walked into the dining area. He had the canteen to himself except for Dr. Taylor, who sat finishing up her breakfast. He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down.
     He had just started on his second cup, when General Blakely walked in. Rayburne motioned for him to join him.
     He waited until Blakely had sat down with his coffee and the doctor had deposited her plate and left before speaking.
     “We need to talk.”
     “About why we’re really here in this Godforsaken place?” the general growled.
     “Yes. It’s about the Centaurus.”
     “What about it? It’s been gone for nearly a hundred and seventy-five years. You thinking of trying to find it while we’re here?”
     “Yes.”
     Blakely’s eyebrows rose in disbelief.
     “There was—” Rayburne started saying as Cherie entered the canteen with Morgan trailing behind her. Morgan sat down, and Cherie went over and heated a meal and then placed it before him with a light touch on his arm before going back for her own.
     He turned back to Blakely, who was also staring in fascination at Morgan and Cherie. “There was a transmission. From the Centaurus.”
     Blakely’s head snapped around. “What?”
     Rayburne kept his voice low. “It was a distress call.” He sat back and took a deep breath. “I could use a drink." He looked across the dining room. “Where's Nano when you need him?”
     “I’m right here,” came Nano’s voice, causing him to jump slightly. He twisted around. Nano sat at the table behind them, smiling amiably. As usual he had not seen the wiry crew member come in.
     “Something you need, Cap’n?”
     Rayburne wondered how much he had heard. “You got something we can add to this?” he asked, motioning toward his coffee cup. “Maybe some whiskey?”
     “I got something better than that.”
     Blakely leaned forward after Nano had left the room. “Okay, spill, what the hell are you talking about?”
     Rayburne placed his elbows on the table and stared at Blakely intently. “You can’t say anything to the others. Not until there’s reason to.”
     “I won’t.”
     “In the transmission—there was an image.”
     “Of  what?” Blakely’s voice was barely audible now.
     “An alien.”
     Blakely stared back at him, eyes wide, and then swallowed. “I think I’ll join you in that drink.”
     “Nano should be back …” Rayburne began, looking around, and there he was, already at his elbow holding out a bottle. Rayburne took it and looked it over in appreciation. “Cognac. Where did you get this?” he asked, then held up his hand. “No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
     He poured a generous shot into General Blakely's coffee. He looked as if he needed it.


Rayburne stared into the view screen at the ships attached to the large asteroid. All were dark and unresponsive. On closer magnification, the largest ship was clearly of no earthly design, with obscure writings on the side where a large hole gaped, obviously blown out from the inside.
     They rounded the side of one of the smaller crafts and the letters written there came into view. “Oh my God, look!” Cherie exclaimed. “I can’t believe it!”
     The name Centaurus was clearly legible in their lights drifting across its hull. The ship showed no obvious signs of conflict, but Rayburn knew the battle that had gone on inside all those years ago. The crew stared in speechless awe as they moved above the ship. One of the upper lookout turrets slid into view.
     “Ohh, I forgot about those. All we have are view screens now,” breathed Dr. Taylor, hanging over Cherie’s shoulder.
     “Coming up on main deck air lock—looks secure,” Andre said, zooming in.
     “We’re going aboard, right?” Nano asked excitedly, and Dr. Taylor chimed in, “We'll need to be fully suited up, for all we know …”
     “Andre, hold position,” commanded Rayburne, sharing a look with Blakely.
    “Show it to 'em,” barked Blakely.
     No one spoke for a second, and then they all turned to look at Rayburne.
     “Show us what?” demanded Andre.
     Rayburne sighed and pulled out a small data unit. “Admiral Cane showed me this before we left. I was ordered to brief you only on a need-to-know basis.”  He tossed it over to Cherie.
     She loaded it, and after a second the staticy black-and-white shapes suddenly sharpened and formed themselves into the grainy picture of Alex Harrington and the hideous creature caught in the left corner. Cherie and Taylor both gave a little involuntary cry as the alien filled the screen beside the small form of Alex, her mouth open in a silent scream. The small gray head atop the fat insectoid body looked like a horrific parody of the little gray men of UFO legend.
     “Is that … was that … Alex Harrington? ” choked out Cherie, killing the image.
     Everyone now stared in collective horror at the Centaurus hanging in space before them on the screen.

Alex was standing on the upper platform looking out in the direction of Earth when the ship trundled silently into view, hull lights shining in the darkness. The beam passed through the observation window where she was standing, and she flinched and stumbled back in shocked surprise. She flattened herself to the wall, her heart slamming. She edged over and peered out at the ship maneuvering up and over the Centaurus. Her eyes widened in disbelief as she took in the gold and red plumage of the phoenix emblem emblazoned across the bottom of the ship as it rose above her and slowly slid out of view.

They went in through the main airlock: Rayburne, Blakely, Morgan, and Cherie, followed by Nano.  There were a few panicky moments after they had all squeezed in when Cherie couldn’t get the airlock to activate, but after ponderously working the inner manual switch, she finally got the hatch to shut, and air hissed around them.
     They stumbled out into the mostly dark corridor that led off from the dock. Rayburne, Blakely, and Morgan busied themselves with weapons checks and readings while Cherie and Nano kept watch.
     “Atmosphere seems to be okay,” Rayburne said, lifted his visor. His breath fogged out faintly. “Just cold.”
     They split up after ascending the ramp leading off the dock to the main deck. “Stay in groups. Stay in contact,” ordered Rayburne as he and Blakely started for the bridge and Morgan, Cherie, and Nano headed down to the next level.

Rayburne and Blakely moved down the last corridor, passing in and out of shadow. Rayburne tensed as he thought of the transmission sent by Alex Harrington on the very bridge they were about to step onto. The sound of running feet suddenly echoed behind them. He jerked around, his finger tightening involuntarily on the trigger, and almost squeezed off a shot at the strange dark figure with white hair and iridescent eyes flying down the hall toward them.  He and Blakely both drew back, alarmed at the skeletal appearance of the woman who stopped before them, arms outstretched, her mouth pulled into a rictus of a smile.
     Rayburne knew what he was seeing. He had seen photos of early cryostasis experimental victims with the same discoloration. It was a condition affecting the liver similar to jaundice that afflicted people who had been in stasis for too long without break and caused the leaching of color out of the hair and sometimes the eyes. Despite her condition, Rayburne knew who she was.
     He was looking at Alexandra Jane Harrington as she lived and breathed.

Nano slipped out of the canteen while the dried remains of a dead alien distracted Morgan and Cherie and made his way down one level to the crew's quarters.
     He shined his light around the cabin and looked at what he knew would be a treasure trove for collectors. He grabbed a coffee cup with NASA on the side and then moved over to the closet compartment and selected a hat bearing the Centaurus insignia from the top shelf.
     He slid a leather-bound journal into his pouch and opened a locker. There were several decanters and bottles inside. He ignored the decanters and went to pick up a sealed bottle in the back, and his eyes lit on the sparkly object behind it. He sat the bottle back down and tried to grab hold of the glittery thing with his gloved hand and almost knocked it over in the process. He stared at it as he pulled off his gloves. It looked like some kind of artwork, or artifact maybe, with glittering jewels studded along the outside that seemed to shimmer and change colors from different angles.
     He reached in and closed his hand around it and brought it carefully out.  It seemed to vibrate in his hand. “What the hell?” he just had time to say before a small fissure opened up on its jeweled side and the whole thing cracked open and exploded out. He screamed shrilly as the alien DNA splattered in all directions and sank into his exposed skin.
     Nano’s screaming stopped abruptly, and he collapsed, the metamorphosis inside his body already beginning.

Alex gazed at the two men who stood before her. She swayed slightly, afraid she was dreaming. She seemed to have lost the power of speech. The older one stayed back, a faintly repulsed look on his face, while the younger, taller one stepped forward hesitantly and grasped her upper arm to steady her.
     “Alexandra Harrington?” he asked, almost reverently it seemed.
     She nodded, still unable to speak at the enormity of their being there. He gently led her back to the canteen and sat her down at one of the tables. He pulled up a chair beside her, and the other one stayed by the door, standing guard.
     “I’m Captain Rayburne of the Phoenix and this is General Blakely,” he said. “Is there anyone else on board?”
     “No, I’m the only one left. It’s just me and Des … a servo bot. Everyone else is dead. We need to get out of here." She made as if to rise and Rayburne’s hand gently stayed her.
     “How did you survive for so long?”
     “I sealed myself into a cryo chamber. The aliens are attracted to heat and movement, so I hid in cold sleep and waited. On someone to come and get me.” She shut her eyes tight as fresh grief washed through her.
     “I know this is hard," Rayburne said, squeezing her shoulder. "We got your last transmission, Alex. We couldn’t find you, but we never forgot you."
     Silent tears leaked out of her eyes and slid down her cheeks.
     “Tell us what happened."
     “We heard the distress beacon shortly after jumping through the Oort cloud. We were so excited." She took a deep hitching breath and wiped her eyes. "First Contact,” she said, bitterly. “We found everyone dead, the alien species that piloted those ships out there and the … monsters that killed them. Then our science officer brought back this incredible artifact. Only it wasn’t an artifact. It was an egg.” She shivered and looked at the Captain in desperation. “We have to get out of here. If you accidentally touch even one of the eggs … I looked for them, but there is no way to get them all. We just need to get out of here and warn others away." She was up and out of her chair, trying to make him understand.
     “Just wait a minute, Alex, I need to get the rest of my crew and—"
     “Wait? I’ve been waiting for almost a hundred and seventy years, don’t you think that’s long enough!” she cried, and then she realized what he had said. “The rest of your crew?” Her voice rose again in panic. “Where are they?”
     Blakely stepped over and pulled Rayburne aside, murmuring something in his ear. Rayburne turned back to her. “I just need to inform everyone and then we’ll get you out of here.”
     “You have to tell them not to touch anything! You don’t understand!” she shouted.
     “I’m contacting them now, okay, then we’re out of here, ” Blakely growled, and keyed his mic.
     At first they could only pick up interference as the general paced back and forth trying to raise the others. Finally Cherie, and then Morgan reported back in. They heard nothing from Nano.
     “He’s not answering. Cherie says they split up right after getting to level two,” Blakely said. “Looks like I'm going after him.”
     “Have everyone meet at the main airlock where we came in, and hurry,” Rayburne said, eyeing Alex’s flushed face and labored breathing.
     “Wait!” Alex cried, remembering Descartes. “We can’t leave without Descartes!”
     Blakely stopped and turned around. “Who? The robot?” he asked, incredulous.
     An image rose up in Alex's mind: Descartes, his eyes glowing pale pink as he leaned over and covered her with the blanket. She knew she could never leave it—him—behind.
     “I won’t leave without him,” she said, brushing past Blakely.
     Rayburn and Blakely quickly scrambled after her. “All right, fine, we’ll go together and get the damn robot then meet everyone back at the airlock,” grumbled Blakely.

Cheri and Morgan systematically searched the deck they were on before moving down to the next level. There was no sign of Nano and he wasn't answering any of their calls. Cherie stayed close to Morgan as they moved through the sporadically lit passageways.
     They found him in the next to the last room. Cherie bumped into Morgan's back as he drew up sharply in front of her. She pushed her way around him and gasped. Blood and gore were splattered about the room around what was left of Nano. His face appeared melted in and was almost completely unrecognizable except for the thatch of hair still clinging to the top of his head.
     Cherie jerked away and stumbled back in horror. “Ohh noo,” she moaned.
     Morgan started backing up, sweeping his flashlight around the room, and then froze. He slowly shined the beam back across to the far corner and held it on the silent staring thing that crouched there. Its black obsidian eyes blinked at them, and then it drew back slightly, seemed to gather itself, and jumped, launching itself at them. It seemed to freeze in the air as the light fell off of it. Cherie screamed shrilly and instinctively threw herself to the side, trying to estimate where it was going to land, and rolled toward the door just as Morgan grabbed a hold of her and dove out into the hallway, partially dragging her before jerking her to her feet in his haste to get away. She stumbled after him and caught a last glimpse of the hideous creature scuttling through the doorway. She raced behind Morgan, terror giving her an extra burst of energy.
     They weren’t going to make it. He must have known the same thing because just as she braced herself for the feel of the thing leaping on her back, Morgan suddenly changed course and shot down a different corridor, running straight for the lift he had rejected as being too risky on their way down.
     He jabbed at the control panel, frantically pressing it repeatedly. “Come on, come on, COME ON!” he screamed.
     The alien bug rounded the corner and crawled toward them. The door finally slid open, and Morgan jerked Cherie inside. The door hissed closed just as the creature thumped against it on the other side.


A
lex found Descartes down in deep storage rummaging and sorting through the rations, looking for anything still edible. Alex was touched to see he had picked several things he knew she liked and had even found some chocolate she had mentioned she missed.
     He showed no reaction to the two men with her, but his eyes turned a pale yellow, which she had learned to interpret as worry or unease.
     “We have to go now,” Alex told him.
     “You are leaving now, Alex?” the robot asked. His eyes turned a mournful purplish color.
     “Not without you! You're going with us,” she said, taking the packages and laying them down. “We won’t be needing these. We’re going onto their ship with them. Back to Earth.”
     “You have got to be kidding me,” Blakely muttered under his breath. “We’re wasting time. We need to meet the others."
     “Let’s go!” she urged Descartes, and finally he began to move.


The lift had just started up, when a drop of something dripped off the top of Morgan’s visor and landed on his exposed cheek. He wiped at his face and looked up at the ceiling above them then back down at the gray gelatinous substance now clinging to his fingers. He wrinkled his nose and tried to wipe it on his suit.
     “Here, you’ve still got some on your cheek,” Cherie said, reaching up to help wipe it off. Morgan jerked back away from her, his eyes going wide. “It’s burning!” he cried, rubbing at his face. “Owww, OWWW, it BURNS!” he shouted, still frantically trying to get it off his hand and face. He began to yell hoarsely, covering the side of his face with one hand and holding out the other one that had touched the substance. He crashed into the lift wall and thrashed around, then suddenly sat down hard, still keening in agony.
     Abruptly he fell silent, and Cherie saw he had fallen unconscious. She took a step toward him, looking around fearfully for any more of the gray matter. He was still breathing, she saw with relief. The spot on his face had burned into his skin and appeared to be festering deeper, blood and puss seeping out.
     He revived a little as the lift door opened on deck three, and she managed to get him to his feet. She pushed him against a bulkhead and tried to reach the Captain.

Alex and Descartes followed Rayburne and Blakely up to the next level. Alex was just beginning to envision a whole new life away from this cold hell she had been in for so long, when Rayburne’s communicator crackled and hope died as Cherie, practically incoherent, began to describe what had happened to Nano and Morgan.
     “Hurry!” cried Alex. They raced up to the next level, coming out on the main deck the air lock was located on. Alex darted a look over her shoulder, making sure Descartes was still with them, and caught a shadow of movement in the dimness.
     “Behind us!” she shrieked. She felt the barest touch on the back of her neck and dove down. A tentacle-like leg whipped across where she had been moments before and wrapped around Rayburne in front of her. The breath whooshed out of him as he was jerked violently backwards. He struggled and twisted around, desperately trying to shoot behind him. Descartes slid to a stop, and General Blakely ran back past Alex, firing straight at the gray head of the alien. Dodging its groping legs, he dove past Rayburne and practically rode the creature like a bronco, firing his weapon straight into the tentacle wrapped around Rayburne. A high-pitched screeching came from the alien as the leg severed and fell away.
     The creature pulled back, and they all scrambled away and raced frantically for the airlock, Descartes right on their heels.
     They could hear Cherie before they saw her as they rounded the last corner. She was backing away from Morgan, screaming a long agonized wail at the alien that was emerging. “NOOOOOO!” she screamed, and became completely undone, shrieking and dancing away from the thing that crawled out.
     Cherie turned and ran, then slid to a stop in front of Alex, her eyes going even wider. Alex jerked a look back over her shoulder. The other larger spider-alien had shifted and was now crawling up the wall beside her, poised to strike. Alex jumped sideways just in time, slamming into Cherie in the process.
     Blakely and Rayburne opened fire. “GO!” screamed Rayburne, and turned and ran, firing behind him.
     They reached the airlock, and Cherie desperately began punching buttons on the panel while they tried to shield her, unloading their weapons on the advancing alien. As the door started to slide open, what had formally been Morgan came out of the darkness, shot across the floor, and wrapped a tentacle around Cherie’s ankle. It jerked her down and dragged her shrieking across the floor, her fingernails clawing for purchase. Alex screamed and turned away in horror. Her eyes met Descartes' as she backed into the wall. They weren’t going to make it. Her death had been inevitable all along; she had only managed to prolong it.
     The thing dropped Cherie's body and started toward them.
     Rayburne and Blakely turned their attention back the other way to the larger alien that was about to leap, and Descartes suddenly shot forward, threw his arm up, and caught it in midair as it pounced. Pivoting with the momentum, he slammed it hard into the other advancing alien, knocking it into the airlock. He and the alien still wrapped around his arm fell in behind it.
     The hatch sealed shut, and Alex ran forward. The glow from Descartes' eyes blazed crazily through the airlock window, swiftly alternating back and forth from fiery red to bright purple as he strained to move against the writhing aliens.
     “No!” she cried, realizing his intent.
     His eyes bored into hers, piercing her with a flash of dark purplish blue that she had never seen him use before and could only interpret as anguish. Then the outer airlock door cracked apart and burst open, and he and the two aliens were violently sucked out and vented into deep space. His eyes blazed blinding supernovas of white and yellow like twin spotlights as he tried to maintain eye contact with her even as he tumbled end over end away from the ship.
     Alex watched until he was out of sight, a final incredible display of cascading rainbow colors blinking at her across the dark void.

Rayburne found Alex coming out of the quarters she had been assigned. “Come with me. There’s something you might like to see." He reached out a hand. She looked surprised for a moment and then allowed him to take her hand and link it with his.
     Rayburne felt her tense and pull back slightly as they mounted the bridge and caught sight of the ships displayed on the main viewer. The familiar form of the Centaurus was centered on the screen. He gave her a reassuring squeeze and then released her hand and stepped up beside General Blakely.
     “Weapons ready,” said Blakely with a nod.
     "Open fire," commanded Rayburne.
     Andre began to fire relentlessly on the ships, discharging highly concentrated plasma bolts that exploding on impact while he fired up the pulsar cannon, a hybrid particle-beam fusion gun. Neutrons condensed together and accelerated at almost the speed of light within the magnetic chamber and collided, shooting the massive energy release blasting out into the Centaurus, annihilating it on impact. Andre continued to systematically aim and fire on each of the ships and the asteroid until all were obliterated and there was nothing left but a drifting cloud of debris and rock.
     Alex watched the swirling mass and thought of Descartes—out there, somewhere. “Will I die?” he had asked.
     She still didn’t have the answer.

 




July 2009