By Sharon Mikeworth

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

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

Alexandra “Alex” Jane Harrington ran down the passageway, her boots slamming on the grating. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye and ducked 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 with both hands, she shot in feet first, slid the panel shut, and quickly secured it.
     She was standing on a small platform in the maintenance conduit that ran through all the levels of the ship. She looked up, trying to control her breathing, then leaned the other way and peered beneath her. The metal ladder, barely visible in the dim light, disappeared into darkness a few feet down. She turned back, grasped the rung above her, and started up.
     She ascended a few levels and climbed out as quietly as she could. She'd emerged where she'd hoped to, on the deck leading to the medical bay and hibernation chambers beyond.
     She could see faint glow 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 hanger when one had gotten him too. Racing across the cavernous space, they had started around the side 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 door leading to the stasis tubes had been left open. She inched her way over and peeked in. The light from behind her barely penetrated the room inside. She decided to try the onboard computer, which some obscure programmer had named Hally in a nod to HAL from the old sci-fi movie.
     The lights flickered and then came on, startling bright.
     “Run preliminary routines and cycle up first sleep module.”

     The unit's sensors blinked on and off for endless moments before staying solid.
      She eased on into the room, alert for any noise or movement.
     “The hibernation chamber is fully functional and standing by,” Hally confirmed in her faintly mechanical voice.
     She dropped the weapon within easy reach of the capsule, stripped out of her jumpsuit, then climbed inside and lay down. The transparent coffinlike lid lowered down and sealed around her. She accessed the small inset screen and tapped 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 an interstellar drive or hypersleep chambers. The distress signal they had sent out would take a long time to reach Earth even at subluminal speed, and then it would be even longer before a rescue ship would come. She closed her eyes tight for a moment. But 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, falling deep into cold sleep.

Alex, wake up. It is time to wake up now," the computer's modulated feminine voice repeated incessantly until Alex finally made sense of the words. "Wake up. It is time to wake up now. Alex, wake up …
     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 capsule creaked open, tendrils of vapor escaping into the cool air. She sat up and swung her legs over the side. Nothing appeared to have changed. She eased down to the floor. 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 grabbed her jumpsuit, pulled it on, then shuffled over and retrieved the weapon. She flicked it on and felt marginally reassured as the indicators lit up.
     “Have there been any transmissions from Earth?”
     She was starting to have a bad feeling. “Hally, why was I awakened?”
     “Your sleep cycle terminated within established parameters.”
     Alex flinched at the computer’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 stasis again. Evidently the creatures could hibernate for unimaginable lengths of time she found out after she surprised one sleeping under the primary communications console.
     She managed to record a partial message 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 there 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 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 screen, fingers stumbling over the length parameters in her terror, frantically trying to cycle back down without 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.

Alex 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 she awoke. She blinked in near pitch-black darkness and tried to remember who and where she was.
     A second later everything came back, and she stiffened in panic, then cried out in pain and surprise. Her body ached all over and she could barely move. She was horribly thirsty; her throat was dry as sand and her tongue felt like a dried-up slug in her mouth. And her head was killing her. Something was wrong. There had been no stimulant shot, no voice of the computer. The emergency reanimation cycle, a failsafe mechanism whenever there was a system-wide failure to prevent anyone from becoming trapped, must have been triggered. She felt along the screen and pressed to no avail.
     Arms trembling, she pushed the lid up and slowly raised herself to a sitting position. The blinding pain in her temples reached a crescendo and then lessened somewhat. She tried to think. The room was ice cold. Something had caused the stasis unit to fail but there was obviously atmosphere or she would already be dead. She climbed out gingerly, muscles protesting, and reached down and felt for her jumpsuit. Her hand closed around the slightly stiff material, and she carefully stepped into it.
     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 door and 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 display 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, leaving footprints trailing behind her, and bent down to read the screen:

      Voice Recognition and Activation off-line

     Please use touchscreen to type your request

     She quickly typed access computer 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 computer 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 orangish, and her hair that spilled over her shoulder appeared lighter than her usual sandy brown. She gazed up at the dim lights and blinked in confusion. Whirling around she searched for something reflective. Finding nothing, she hurried toward the relief facilities in the back, where she knew there would be a mirror.
     Even in the smeared, murky reflection staring back at her through the trail of slime across it, 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 to 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 deep 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 medical bay and moved through the shadows. It was freezing cold, and she needed water desperately. She hurried along the dim hallway, huddled over, breath fogging out, arms crossed against the frigid temperature. When she came upon the 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 trail led across the floor 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 dining area wasn’t much better. The corpse of Dr. Reese, the ship's lead physician, 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 slightly faded.  Alex edged around him and entered the back service area past the tables. She tried both the taps but got nothing.
     She turned away, staggered past Dr. Reese again, and stumbled back out into the corridor. If the water recovery system had failed, she was doomed. But maybe it was only this one section.
     The computer’s voice suddenly echoed, startling her.
     Primary routines online … converting power … life support and back … systems … 40 percent probability … 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 klaxon went off for level shutdown. She stepped in and held her breath, leaning heavily against the wall, until the doors closed and it 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 hurriedly tried one of the taps, and water came gushing out. Sagging in relief, she filled a palm and took a small sip. It tasted a little funny but hopefully wouldn’t kill her. Using both hands, she gulped at the tepid liquid until her stomach began to protest, and forced herself to stop.
     She wiped her mouth with her hand and then froze as her ears picked up a noise. Spinning around, she listened hard and heard the humming sound again. And it was moving closer.
     A moment later, she stared in astonishment as a tall servo bot pivoted smartly around the doorway and moved without pausing into the storage room beyond.
     She had completely forgotten about Captain Danvers' robot. Ignoring it for the moment, she left the dining area and headed for 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.
     She 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 Interplanetary Starship
Öpik-Oort Cloud
2343-10-23 06:00

Former General Adam Blakely was standing on the bridge staring out at the rocky outer region of cloud that marked the boundary of Earth’s solar system.
     Captain William Rayburne mounted the deck stairs and joined him in front of the viewscreen. He regarded his first officer 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."
     “If we make it back,” Blakely replied.
     Rayburne turned his head and stared hard at him. "Do you know something I don’t?”
     The old battle-scarred general, who had been brought out of retirement, dusted off, and blasted into space along with several other crew members, ones he'd never worked with before, made no reply.
     “But I'm sure it's nothing you can’t handle—Bedlam,” Rayburne finally said in the silence, using the old nickname deliberately, and was rewarded with Blakely throwing his head back and laughing.
     The former 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, 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 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 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 schoolteacher aboard the ill-fated Challenger shuttle; the doomed Atlantis re-entry; the Mars mission; the moon base of 2055 … He stopped 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 faster-than-light propulsion, artificial gravity, and suspended animation techniques. It had been the first and last voyage of such magnitude for so great a distance. It was considered a complete failure. The vessel 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 now, sitting there thinking about everything, he was starting to wonder.

Alex haunted the ship, a ghost of her former self. The vessel 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 her shoulder and looked up blearily. The servo bot was standing over her, holding out a cup. Except for the shininess of it and the lack of facial expression, the thing looked more or less humanoid. Currently, the faintly iridescent irises of its eyes, which tended to change, were yellowish. 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 the cup. She took another drink, watching the robot warily. The droid's eyes had now changed from yellow to lilac.
     She stared at it curiously, wondering just how much it understood. It was rumored that after Captain Danvers' particular model of robot had been recalled because of deviations from conventional thinking due to its ingenuity processing core, the captain had not only kept his but had had it enhanced even further.
     “It’s just you and me, kid,” she murmured with a low humorless laugh, and threw 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 away as she blinked back tears.
     The robot’s eyes turned purple and then blood red as it moved silently away. At the doorway, it stopped and turned back.
     “Will I die?” it asked.
     Alex hesitated. “I don’t know.”
     The bot'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.

The incident with the robot had disconcerted Alex and she began watching it 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. Some of the eggs 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 microwave, and another inside a drinking carafe. She had the bot open a small storage panel located in its abdomen and carefully place the delicate eggs inside to eject out into space.
     The silverish, human-shaped robot 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 faint thud of the bot following behind her.
     Later that evening as she sat drinking more of Captain Danvers' 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 bot.
     The music stopped abruptly as she entered the room and approached the silvery robot, still enthralled by what she had heard—what it had created.
     She stared into the now brilliant aqua of its eyes. "That was beautiful ..." She realized she had no idea how to address it. 
"What should I call you?” she finally asked.
     Its orbs flashed—blue, green, orange, and then a steady, fiery red.
     “You may call me Rene.”

Rene rarely left her side, and Alex began to find its presence comforting. Especially since the ship's computer 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 stasis 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 Danvers' 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 Rene prepared dinner for her from whatever meager staples it could salvage.
     One evening she awakened to feel Rene 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.

Rayburne made his way to the canteen for some much-needed coffee, still trying to throw off the effects of the deep sleep they'd all had to endure. He passed by the crew exercise module, then paused and backed up.
     Cherie, the blond, petite communications officer, was standing defiantly in front of one of the weight machines.  Andre, the navigator he was starting to regret, stood facing her, a patronizing smile on his handsome face.
     “Come on honey, what do you need muscles for?” he asked, laughing.
      “I’m not your damn honey,” Cherie snapped back.
     Rayburne started to go in, then stopped. If she couldn’t handle this, then she didn’t need to be on this ship.
     “Just move, all right? You look great.”
     “You just wait your turn,” Cherie spat, her arms crossed and legs braced apart.
     Rayburne tensed as the other crew member in the room let go of the bar he'd been using to work his biceps and walked over to where Andre and Cherie stood squaring off. Morgan was the one he worried about the most. The tactical officer and 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, most of it 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 watched, 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 gave him a hard shove, causing him to lose his balance and topple over with no more effort than pushing open a door.
     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. After a pregnant pause when no one moved, her smile grew wider and she suddenly she leaned in and wrapped her arms around the big 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 shoulder, looking dazed, while Andre got to his feet with a bemused expression.

     Rayburne was still smiling as he walked into the dining area. He had the canteen to himself except for Taylor, their graying science officer, 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 Blakely walked in. Rayburne motioned for him to join him.
     He waited until Blakely had sat down with his coffee and Taylor had deposited her plate and left before speaking.
     “We need to talk.”
     “About why we’re out here in this godforsaken place?” the former general growled.
     “What's going on, Adam? Why are we really here?"

     "It has to do with the Centaurus.”

     “The Centaurus?" Rayburne hadn't expected that. "It’s been gone for nearly a hundred and seventy-five years," he joked, "you thinking of trying to find it?”
     Rayburne’s eyebrows rose in disbelief.
     “There are—” Blakely broke off as Cherie entered the canteen with Morgan trailing behind her.

     Morgan sat down, and Cherie walked across to grab a tray with a large salad. She brought it back and placed it before Morgan with a light touch on his arm before going back for her own.
     Blakely turned back to Rayburne, who was also gazing in fascination at Morgan and Cherie. “There was a transmission. From the Centaurus.”
     “What? I never heard anything about that.”
     Blakely 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 the helmsman's voice, causing them to jump slightly. Rayburne twisted around. Nano sat at the table behind them, smiling amiably. As usual they had not seen the wiry crewmember come in.
     “Something you need, General? Cap'n?”
     Rayburne wondered how much he had heard. “You got something we can add to this coffee?” he asked, motioning toward his cup. “Maybe some whiskey?”
     “I got something better than that.”
     Rayburne leaned forward after Nano had left the room. “Okay, spill, what the hell were you talking about?”
     Blakely placed his elbows on the table and stared at him 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?”
     “An alien.”

     "You can't be serious."

      "I'm deadly serious. For years ships have been sent out, each one farther and farther into the heart of this cloud that lies beyond our solar system where the Centaurus disappeared. You see, there were actually two transmissions received from the Centaurus, a key piece of evidence the military and government prudently kept from the general public. The last message recovered, shown to me by Admiral Cane, was grainy and slightly distorted, but I could see the terrifying alienness of the thing clearly enough. And there was something else in the image. A person."


     "Alex Harrington."

     "My God."

     "Unfortunately, the transmissions were fragmented and the Centaurus’ exact coordinates were lost."

     Rayburne shuddered as he thought of her fate. “I think I’ll join you in that drink.”

     “Nano should be back …” Blakely began, looking around, and there was Nano, already at his elbow holding out a bottle. Blakely took it and looked it over in appreciation. “Cognac. Where did you get this?” He held up his hand. “No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
     He poured a generous shot into Captain Rayburne's coffee.

Rayburne stared into the viewscreen at the vessels attached to the large asteroid. All were dark and unresponsive. On closer magnification, the largest one 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. “Look!” Cherie exclaimed. “I can’t believe it!”
     The name Centaurus was clearly legible in their lights drifting across its hull. It showed no obvious signs of conflict, but Rayburn knew the battle that must had gone on inside all those years ago. The crew stared in speechless awe as they moved above it. One of the upper lookout turrets slid into view.
     “Ohhh, I forgot about those,” breathed Taylor, hanging over Cherie’s shoulder. "All we have are viewscreens now.”
     “Coming up on main deck airlock—looks secure,” Andre said, zooming in.
     “We’re going aboard, right?” Nano asked excitedly, and 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 device. “Admiral Cane showed this to First Officer Blakely before we left. He was ordered to brief us only on a need-to-know basis.”  He tossed it over to Cherie.
     She loaded it, and after a second the staticky black-and-white shapes suddenly sharpened and formed themselves into the grainy image 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, heart slamming. She edged over and peered out at the vessel 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 it 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, lifting his visor. His breath fogged out in front of him. “Just cold.”
     They split up after ascending the small ramp leading off the dock. “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 thought about 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 pale 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 experimental hibernation 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, picked 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 and almost knocked it over in the process. He stared at it as he pulled off his glove. 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 First Officer Blakely,” he said. “Is there anyone else on board?”
     “No, I’m the only one left. It’s just me and Rene … 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 stasis capsule. 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 reaching 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 just an artifact. It was a viable 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.
     “Now 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!” 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!" she shouted. "You don’t understand!”
     “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," Blakely said. "Cherie says they split up right after getting to level two. Looks like I'm going after him.”
     “Have everyone meet at the airlock where we came in, and hurry,” Rayburne said, eyeing Alex’s flushed face and labored breathing.
     “Wait!” Alex cried, remembering Rene. “We can’t leave without Rene!”
     Blakely stopped and turned around. “Who? The robot?” he asked, incredulous.
     An image rose up in Alex's mind: Rene, 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," grumbled Blakely. "We’ll go together and get the damn robot then meet everyone back at the airlock.”

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!”
     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.

lex found Rene down in deep storage rummaging and sorting through the frozen 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, Alex?” the bot 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 Rene, and finally he began to move.

They stepped out of the lift. Morgan, ahead of her, suddenly exclaimed, "What is that?" and before Cherie could stop him, trotted around the corner. She came around in time to see him pick up what looked like an egg-shaped jeweled object sitting inexplicably in the middle of the corridor. "Wait! Don't—" she began, and then the thing exploded, sending out shards in every direction and splattering a blackish substance all over Morgan.
     “Aagghh! It burns!” he yelled, holding his bleeding hands up and then furiously rubbing at his face. “Owww, OWWW, it BURNS!” He began to scream hoarsely, still frantically trying to get it off, then suddenly sat down hard, still keening in agony. Cherie, cowering against the wall, watched in horror as abruptly he fell silent and then went unconscious. She took a step toward him, looking ahead of her fearfully for the black matter. He was still breathing she saw with relief after she had gotten as close as she could. But the substance on his face had burned into his skin and appeared to be festering deeper, blood and puss seeping out.
      She moved back, eyes wide, and then retreated down the corridor. She needed to reach the captain.

Alex and Rene 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 the captain'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 deck the airlock was located on. Alex darted a look over her shoulder, making sure Rene 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 seconds before and wrapped around Rayburne in front of her.
     The breath whooshed out of him as he was jerked violently backwards. Alex slid to a stop, and Blakely ran past her, firing straight at the gray head of the alien as Rayburne struggled and twisted around, desperately trying to shoot behind him. Dodging its groping legs, the retired general 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, Rene right on their heels.
     They could hear Cherie before they saw her as they shot down a different corridor. She was backing away from Morgan, screaming a long agonized wail at the alien that was emerging. “NOOOOOO!” she screamed, and then 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 managed to catch up with them 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, with Alex and Rene bringing up the rear again, and Cherie desperately began stabbing 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 Rene's 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.
     After a long, horrible moment while she tried not to listen, the thing dropped Cherie's body and started toward them.
     As Rayburne and Blakely turned their attention back the other way to the larger alien that was about to leap, Rene suddenly shot forward, threw his arm up, and caught it in midair as it pounced. Pivoting with the momentum, the bot slammed it hard into the other advancing alien, knocking it into the airlock, and he and the alien still wrapped around his arm fell in behind it.
     The hatch sealed shut, and Alex ran forward. The glow from Rene's 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 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 central viewer. The familiar form of the Centaurus was centered on the screen. He gave her a reassuring squeeze and then stepped up beside his first officer.
     “Weapons ready,” said Blakely with a nod.
     "Open fire," commanded Rayburne.
     Morgan began to fire relentlessly on the vessels, 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. They 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 Rene—out there, somewhere. “Will I die?” he had asked.
     She still didn’t have the answer.


July 2009