Book: First Encounter
by Jasper T. Scott
Copyright © 2019
THE AUTHOR RETAINS ALL RIGHTS
FOR THIS BOOK
Cover Art by Tom Edwards
Author's Content Rating: PG-13
Sex: Mild references
Author's Guarantee: If you find anything you consider inappropriate for this rating, please e-mail me at [email protected] and I will either remove the content or change the rating accordingly.
This book comes to you in its polished state in large part thanks to the hard work of my editing team. A big thanks goes to my editor Aaron Sikes, my proofreader Ian Jedlica, and to each and every one of my advance readers, in particular: B. Allen Thobois, Bob Sirrine, Dara McLain, Dave Topan, Davis Shellabarger, Francis Hinnegan, Gary Matthews, Gaylon Overton, George Goedecke, George P. Dixon, Gordon Sears, Harry Huyler, Howard Cohen, Ian Seccombe, Jackie Gartside, Jim Meinen, John Nash, John Parker, Lara Gray, Lisa Garber, Mary Kastle, Mary Whitehead, Paul Burch, Raymond Burt, Richard T. Conkey, Wade Whitaker, William Dellaway, and William Schmidt. You guys are amazing! You make it so much easier to do what I do.
And as ever, thanks to the Muse.
To those who dare,
And to those who dream.
To everyone who’s stronger than they seem.
“Believe in me / I know you’ve waited for so long / Believe in me / Sometimes the weak become the strong.”
—One Week Before Arrival—
Captain Clayton Cross stood on the bridge of Forerunner One in front of the viewscreens. Three hundred and sixty degrees of them. The majority of the ship’s control stations and officers were arrayed around the ‘front’ half of that circle, sitting right behind where he stood.
“Beautiful, isn’t it, sir?” Commander Taylor said.
“Quite,” Clayton replied, glancing at her. She stood straight as a board beside him with hands clasped behind her back. Commander Taylor was short and trim, dark-skinned, but with light honey-brown eyes. She was his second-in-command and the executive officer of the ship.
Dropping his voice to a hushed whisper, he added, “Any sign of those blips we were tracking?”
Taylor shook her head. Starlight from the viewscreens glanced off her black hair tucked into a bun. “No, sir.”
“I see,” he replied, looking back to the fore.
“Maybe they were comets. Or asteroids,” Taylor added.
“Then why did they disappear when we got close?” Clayton challenged.
“I don’t know, sir.”
He nodded into the gleaming darkness of space. “That’s a calculated move, Lieutenant. A conscious decision to hide.”
“But how? And if they could do that, why not hide all along?”
“Maybe they had to maneuver first,” Clayton suggested.
“Then we’re calling this first contact?” Taylor breathed. “Should we inform the Ambassador?”
Clayton regarded her steadily. The United Nations of Earth had been clear when they founded the Space Force that space exploration was not a military enterprise, nor should it become one. As such, Ambassador Morgan was the civilian leader in charge of the overall mission. Clayton looked away from his XO. “Not yet, Commander. He’ll just run around like a chicken with no head, spraying doom and gloom everywhere.”
“Colorful, sir,” Taylor replied, her lips curling under a wrinkled nose.
“We need more info before we tell anyone about this. Keep scanning and let me know what you find.”
—Two Days Before Arrival—
Clayton sat behind his brushed aluminum desk aboard the UNES Forerunner One, staring at the watch in his hands. It was an older model smart watch. The wallpaper image behind the ticking black hands on the crisp display was Samara’s smiling face. Her blue eyes were an even richer and deeper hue than the sky in the background, her blond hair aglow with sunlight.
That was back when they were the young, newly-wedded power couple that everyone else secretly wanted to be: high on life and destined to conquer the world together.
That is, until a car on autopilot cruised through a red light at sixty miles per hour. The car’s cameras had been malfunctioning. It hit Samara and three others, killing her and an elderly man instantly. The other two victims had survived, but barely.
Samara had been a practicing resident at the Ronald Reagan Medical Center. She’d had her whole career and life ahead of her. And maybe she still did. It was too soon to say.
He studied the watch again, running his fingertips over the gold-plated bezel around Samara’s face. Before she’d died, he and Samara had their neural pathways mapped. He’d made several copies since, one of which was sitting in his hands, saved to the quantum crystal matrix of the watch. He’d bought it for himself and saved Samara’s neural map to it before he’d left Earth. Just in case something happened to civilization while he was gone. With Samara’s life at stake, he couldn’t be too careful.
When Samara had told him about the experimental program at her hospital, he’d thought she was joking. But then he’d seen the results for himself: a browsable, searchable network of all the memories and structures that made a person who they were. Some couples might have balked at that kind of openness, but he and Samara had never kept any secrets from each other. Not big ones, anyway. A week later, they both joined the program and had their neural networks mapped in the name of science. He’d never imagined that they might actually need to use them. But now Samara’s mind map was the only hope he had for them to be together again.
Clayton turned the watch over and read the inscription underneath.
I’m waiting for you.
It was a reminder to himself. A promise he’d made to Sam, even though she’d already passed on by the time he’d made it. In theory, he had a snapshot of everything that had made Samara who she was. Now he just had to wait for the technology to be developed that could breathe life into that digital effigy.
That was the reason he’d transferred from mission planning to an active duty role on Forerunner One. Moving at relativistic speed on their way to Trappist-1 was like hopping in a time machine. At half the speed of light, time was moving 15% slower for him on board Forerunner One than it was for everyone else back on Earth. But add to that the fact that he’d spent the past seventy-eight years in cryo, waiting to arrive, and it gave him the best possible chance of living to see the technology that would someday bring Samara back. Seventy-eight years plus 15%. That meant almost ninety years had already passed on Earth. And over one hundred and seventy-nine years would pass before he could possibly return. After all that time, they had to have found a way to bring her back.
They had to.
Clayton pushed those thoughts away and spun his chair around to the viewport behind him to distract himself with the view. It wasn’t a real window. Since there were so many internal rooms, and since radiation shielding wasn’t cheap, most of the viewports were actually digital displays tied to real-time holofeeds from the Forerunner’s external cameras. But that had the added advantage of making the windows all configurable, and they doubled as control interfaces for the ship’s systems.
Clayton had set his viewport to show their destination. Dead center of the display was a pale blue-white dot of Trappist-1. Stars littered the void around it. All of them blue-shifted by the sheer velocity of Forerunner One’s approach. The stars didn’t look any bluer to him, but his civilian first contact specialist, Dr. Reed, had explained to him that stars emit light across the entire spectrum, so the doppler effect simply shifted visible light into the ultraviolet and x-ray range, and infrared light into the visible spectrum. Go fast enough and you’d actually be able to see radar and microwaves with the naked eye. Now that they’d flipped around and were decelerating in advance of their arrival, all that starlight was gradually shifting back to its usual wavelengths.
Clayton spent a moment mentally tracing imaginary constellations around Trappist-1 using his augmented reality contacts (ARCs). Glowing green lines appeared like magic, guided by the power of his thoughts being channeled through his Neuralink implant. He drew a diamond. A lop-sided star. Then an elephant, and then—
He stopped. In the process of removing lines and painting new ones, he accidentally drew a constellation that looked like a human skull. Suppressing a shiver, he wiped the image away and spun away from the viewport. Strapping his watch back on, he swiped over to the mission timer he’d set up.
2d 3h 5m
In just over two days Forerunner One would arrive and make history. By now Forerunners Two and Three had already reached their destinations. They’d been bound for Gliese 667 and Wolf 1061 respectively, both of which were a lot closer than Trappist, but that was balanced out by the fact that the other ships had all left after Forerunner One.
A musical chime dragged Clayton’s eyes up to the door. Mentally connecting to the ship’s intercom system, he answered and simultaneously saw an image of the person standing outside: a familiar woman, tall and trim with her brown hair tucked into a bun.
“Doctor Reed. Did you need something?” he asked.
She looked up at the camera mounted above his door, brown eyes wide and bright with excitement. Her head bobbed quickly. “We just had a breakthrough with the communicators. We—Dr. Grouse and I—thought you might like to see it for yourself, sir.”
A smile tugged at the corners of Clayton’s mouth. “You mean you finally got them working?”
“They were always working, sir.”
“For us,” Clayton corrected.
Reed dismissed the caveat with a shrug and a burgeoning smile of her own. “Well, now they’re working for Charlie, too.”
Clayton felt his brow furrowing with genuine surprise. “You got one of them to read a dog’s mind?”
“Not just his mind. His dreams.”
That knocked Clayton back in his chair. He sat blinking in shock, staring at Dr. Reed’s grinning face. She was slowly nodding, observing his reaction on her end via the camera mounted on the ceiling inside his quarters.
“So what do dogs dream about?” Clayton asked.
“Uh-uh. No spoilers. You’ll have to come down to the lab and see for yourself.”
Clayton smiled crookedly and jumped out of his chair. It flew back on a sliding rail, hitting rubber stoppers just before reaching the wall with the viewport. “I’ll be right there.”
Clayton left his quarters at a brisk pace, forcing Dr. Reed to run to keep up. After just a few seconds they were both breathing hard. The ship was currently experiencing one point four Gs as it decelerated, making even light exercise a chore.
Doors to the other crew quarters flashed by on either side. They reached a bank of four elevators at the end of the corridor and stopped. Clayton activated the call button with a thought, and Dr. Reed slumped against the wall, breathing hard, her brow beaded with sweat.
Clayton nodded to her. “You need to schedule more exercise in your downtime.”
Reed flashed a wry smile. “What downtime, sir?”
He snorted at that. “Good point.”
The elevator on the far right opened, and they strode in. A woman was already standing there. She came to attention and said, “Captain.”
Clayton nodded back. He recognized the woman from her gray eyes, jutting chin, and bristly blond hair at the same time as he read the rank and last name over her right breast. His AR contacts made the name tape glow bright blue.
“At ease, Petty Officer,” he said.
She nodded back as he turned to face the doors with Dr. Reed. He used his ARCs to select the Science Lab on level nine. He noted that Salazar was headed down to Engineering on level six.
The elevator slowed to a stop, momentarily adding to the 1.4 Gs already weighing on Clayton’s knees. The doors parted quickly, and he led the way around the circular corridor that surrounded the elevators. Other corridors branched off at right angles like the spokes of a wheel, each of them lined with doors to various laboratories. Clayton took the right-hand corridor and walked quickly by the doors and windows to various labs, pausing only once to check on the leafy green rows of vegetables and fruit growing under glowing blue UV lamps.
Then came the labs with biologists and geneticists working in form-hugging white body suits. They were testing and splicing blood samples from the crew, trying to make the human genome more adaptable and resilient to alien environments. Those experiments were still in their infancy, but the hope was that some day colonists would be able to breathe alien atmospheres without the aid of filter masks or oxygen tanks.
Dr. Reed stopped with him to look in on one of those labs. She rapped on the window and shook her head, pointing to a case of blood samples that was in danger of getting elbowed off the counter to shatter on the floor.
She sighed and they continued down the corridor. “Sorry, sir. Those samples represent six months of work.”
“Have they had any luck?”
“Plenty,” Dr. Reed replied. “At this rate, we’ll be ready to breathe the air on Trappist-1E before we even make landfall.”
Clayton snorted. “We don’t even know what the atmospheric composition is yet.”
“No, but we have some idea. And so as long as there’s a reasonable amount of oxygen present, we can adapt the same principles to almost any atmosphere.”
“What about pathogens?”
“We can prevent allergic reactions, but if you mean hostile alien microbes, we’ll need to work on vaccines and countermeasures for each strain that we encounter.”
They reached the door to the comms lab, and Clayton turned to Dr. Reed with eyebrows raised. “What happens when we head back to Earth?”
Reed’s brow furrowed, and she shook her head. “I’m not sure what you mean, sir.”
“We’ll be engineered to breathe alien air. That means we’ll need filter masks and O2 tanks for Earth.”
Reed snorted a laugh. “I guess that’s true.”
Clayton went on, “If we’re not careful, soon we’ll be making first contact with ourselves.”
Dr. Reed looked amused by that thought, but she gave no comment. She waved the door to the comms lab open and led the way inside. Dr. Grouse was the only other person in the room. He was short and round, chosen for this mission because of his brains and in spite of his physical condition. Dr. Grouse looked up as they approached, his plump face stretching into a grin. He hefted a malleable electrode helmet with a big glossy black visor. A goofy grin sprang to his lips that was complemented nicely by his bouncing, curly brown hair and vivid blue eyes. “Captain! You’re just in time!”
Clayton’s eyes scanned the room. There was a chimp strapped down to a stretcher with a matching helmet on its head and wires trailing to a nearby computer console. The visor on the chimp’s helmet was down, and by some miracle, it wasn’t fighting its bonds. Must be sedated, Clayton decided.
A second stretcher bore a Golden Retriever—Charlie—with another electrode helmet on its head, but no visor. The dog’s eyes were closed, its legs kicking spasmodically in its sleep. Clayton noticed drool leaking from the corner of its snout.
Clayton frowned and crossed his arms over his chest, his eyes back on the chimp. What was his name again? He jerked his chin to the chimp.
“In time for what?”
Dr. Grouse held out the electrode helmet to him. “Put it on and you’ll see.”
Clayton hesitated and glanced at Dr. Reed for confirmation. She nodded. “It’s safe, sir, don’t worry. We’ve both tried it plenty of times. I was using it to look inside of Charlie’s head just a few minutes before I came to see you.”
Clayton uncrossed his arms with a sigh, and took the helmet from Dr. Grouse. The other man helped him put it on and shaped it to his head. Electrodes pressed firmly to Clayton’s scalp through his razor-short black hair.
“Dr. Reed said you learned how to read a dog’s thoughts, so what’s the chimp doing here?”
“Archimedes is here to join the conversation.”
“You’ll see, Captain. You’ll see! Are you ready?”
Dr. Grouse’s enthusiasm wasn’t as infectious as he probably thought it was. If anything, Clayton found it unsettling. He was about to have his brain wired to a dog’s and a chimp’s via a device that was somehow capable of reading and transmitting mental images directly between all three of them.
“I’m ready...” Clayton said slowly.
Bright images flickered over Dr. Grouse’s eyes as he used his ARCs to configure the communicator, and then a prompt appeared on Clayton’s own contacts, asking him to authorize a connection between his Neuralink and the communicator. Clayton approved the request, grateful that the technology wasn’t so invasive as to somehow project images into his brain without his permission. A glowing green countdown appeared on Clayton’s ARCs:
Ten, nine, eight...
Dr. Grouse folded the visor down in front of his eyes, blocking out the lab. Clayton frowned, disoriented. He heard a chair rolling on mag wheels. “Here you are, sir,” Reed said. “You should be sitting down for this.”
He felt around blindly for the chair and then flopped into it with a whuff of escaping air from the cushion. The countdown hit zero, and suddenly he was flying through a grassy green field with a bright yellow disk hovering in the air before him. A golden snout with a wet black nose protruded from the lower portion of the screen. Suddenly, his view jumped up, and the disc was protruding from that snout.
“Come here, boy!” That was Dr. Grouse’s voice, followed by the sound of him whistling.
The scene panned around, and Clayton noticed paws galloping in and out of his view as Charlie ran toward his master. Dr. Grouse was stooped down and grinning, clapping for Charlie. “Good boy!” The view shook as he wrestled the Frisbee away and patted Charlie enthusiastically on the head.
Clayton heard Charlie barking for the doctor to throw the Frisbee again. Those sounds came to Clayton’s ears through miniature speakers built into the frame of the helmet, rather than the comm piece in his ear. Again, Clayton appreciated the less invasive approach.
“What is this?” he asked, shaking his head. Even his own dreams weren’t this vivid.
“Amazing, right?” Dr. Reed asked, sounding breathless.
“This isn’t a dream,” Clayton insisted.
“Not exactly, no,” Dr. Grouse admitted. “It’s a memory that we’re triggering during an induced REM cycle.”
“So where does the chimp fit in?” Clayton asked.
“Archimedes is a receiver like you. He’s watching the same thing,” Dr. Grouse explained. “Now look what happens when we make him the transmitter and you and Charlie the receivers.”
Clayton’s visor went blank for a second. Then it was replaced by a black grid overlaid on a dark room full of gleaming equipment. Clayton recognized the grid squares as the bars of a cage. Then he saw tiny furry hands wrap around those bars and rattle the cage. The chimp was screaming and jumping up and down, shaking Clayton’s view.
“This is another memory?”
“Yes,” Dr. Grouse confirmed.
Clayton lifted the visor and squinted at him. “How does this help us talk to aliens? You’re telling me we’ll have to sedate them and tie them down before we can communicate with them?”
Dr. Grouse shook his head quickly. “No. This is just proof that the technology works on non-human subjects. For willing participants the process is much simpler and more dynamic.”
“I’d like to see that.”
“Hang on,” Dr. Grouse said, and spun away, reaching for something in a nearby wall of lockers and cabinets. He opened one of the cabinets to reveal a fourth communicator helmet. Removing it, he connected it to a snaking bundle of wires and cables on the deck, and then spent a moment configuring the helmet. Clayton watched bright screens flashing over the other man’s ARCs. A moment later, Dr. Grouse put the helmet on and pulled the visor down.
“You need to put your visor down,” Reed said, nodding to Clayton.
He did as he was told, and saw another access prompt, asking for permission to connect to Visualizer #1. He granted access and an image of a soccer ball appeared on his visor, surrounded by blank, black emptiness. Clayton frowned. If this was all that went on in Dr. Grouse’s head, he was going to have to assign someone else to this project.
The ball began to roll, and then a potholed road appeared under it, sloping sharply down. Trees, brown grass, bushes, and shrubs appeared on both sides. The ball went skipping down the road, bouncing through potholes on its way to a pebbly beach below. The beach was shaded by tall pine trees creaking in a warm breeze that Clayton was startled to realize he could actually feel. So much for non-invasive. The Visualizer was interacting with his neural implant to produce actual sensations. Good luck getting an alien to feel that breeze, he thought. They’d need reciprocal implants in their brains for that.
As the ball disappeared into the trees below, the scene began bouncing after it with lanky arms and legs swinging into view. Clayton heard indistinct voices. A child’s pre-pubescent voice shouted back: “Alison kicked it! She should be the one to get it!”
And with that, the scene faded to black.
“Now you try,” Dr. Grouse said.
“Try what?” Clayton muttered, shaking his head.
“Picture something,” Reed answered. “It can be a memory or just use your imagination.”
Frowning, Clayton searched his head for a random image or memory of something. His watch with his wife’s smiling face jumped to mind.
“I see a smart watch,” Dr. Grouse said. “Your wife’s face is the wallpaper.”
Startled, Clayton forced the image away, blanking his mind.
“Now it’s gone,” Dr. Grouse said.
Clayton pushed his thoughts in another direction, and pictured something else. The Earth, orbiting above the dark side of the planet, the glowing orange lines and splotches of city lights clearly visible through scattered wisps of cloud.
“Earth from orbit at night,” Dr. Grouse said.
Clayton pushed that thought away, too, and tried something more complex. Pure imagination. He imagined flying like a bird, low over the rippled blue surface of an alien ocean, a pale green sky soaring up from the horizon.
And Dr. Grouse described all of that, too.
“This is incredible,” Clayton whispered.
“I thought you might like it,” Dr. Reed added.
Clayton reached up and gently pulled the helmet off his head. “But how do we know it will work on an alien species?”
Dr. Grouse tore off his own helmet and cocked his head in question. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, this is a visual communicator, so what if they don’t have eyes?”
“We call them Visualizers,” Dr. Grouse said.
Clayton waved impatiently at him and turned to Reed. “What if their brains work in a way that’s completely foreign to us?”
Reed shrugged. “Then we can re-calibrate the device. Monkeys and dogs don’t encode memories exactly the same way that we do, and yet we managed to calibrate it for them.”
“Hmmm,” Clayton replied. “Well then I suppose the only other issue is getting any aliens we meet to cooperate.”
“If they’re animals, they won’t have a choice,” Dr. Grouse said. “We’ll just sedate them like we did with Charlie and Archimedes.”
Clayton frowned at that. Standing up from his chair, he thrust the Visualizer into Dr. Grouse’s chest and spent a moment glowering at the other man.
“What?” Dr. Grouse asked.
“What if you accidentally sedate a sentient species?”
“That depends,” Dr. Grouse replied. “Are they more advanced than us?”
“Do they need to be?”
“They do if your hypothetical scenario is supposed to be worrisome. Let’s put it another way: what if European explorers had this technology back in the day to communicate with the Native Americans? Imagine they captured and chained up one of the natives in order to subject that person to a Visualizer. Would the outcome have been any worse than what actually happened?”
“Maybe it would have,” Clayton replied.
“Who’s to know, but maybe it would have swayed a few people to consider the Natives Americans as equals rather than inferior.”
Clayton snorted. “That’s optimistic considering humanity’s history. Have you shown this to Ambassador Morgan yet?”
“More than an hour ago, sir,” Dr. Reed replied. “He’s already coming up with a protocol to follow before we can use the devices.”
“So he thinks it’s a good idea to use them?” Clayton asked.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t he? If we run into intelligent life, we’re going to need some way to communicate.”
Clayton glanced between Reed and Dr. Grouse with an unhappy frown. “Can they be used against us?”
“I can’t imagine how,” Dr. Grouse said.
“Maybe by reading thoughts and memories that we don’t want them to.” Clayton turned and nodded to the chimp and the Golden Retriever. Both were still knocked out on their respective stretchers. “We were reading their memories without permission. What if some aliens were to do that to us?”
“That would only work if they knew how to stimulate a particular memory, and that still requires a degree of participation. We were only able to induce the memories you saw from Charlie and Archimedes because we recorded them passively days or weeks ago during one of their dreams. After that, we knew exactly what pathways to stimulate so that we could fire up those memories at will.”
“That doesn’t rule out coercion,” Clayton pointed out. “You could be forced to think about something.”
Dr. Grouse smiled patiently at him. “Sir, with all due respect, those are unlikely scenarios. How would aliens that don’t know how to communicate with us in the first place be able to coerce us into using a technology that they don’t even understand? Besides, all of the data exchanges are designed to be logged and monitored by one or more spectators. If we don’t like what we see, we can shut the Visualizers down at a moment’s notice.”
Clayton saw Dr. Reed bobbing her head along with that. “That’s why the ambassador is working out a protocol. Don’t worry, Captain. We won’t use the Visualizers lightly.”
Clayton acknowledged that with a grunt. “Can you make them more portable?”
Dr. Grouse drew himself up. “Of course. That’s the next step. I should have a portable version ready in a matter of hours. I’m planning to work through the night on it.”
“Dedicated,” Clayton muttered.
“You know me,” Dr. Grouse replied.
Clayton jerked his chin to Charlie and Archimedes. “Wake them up.”
“Of course,” Dr. Grouse replied, and then he turned away and went about removing the helmets from each animal and then unstrapping them from the stretchers. Rather than wake the chimp, Dr. Grouse simply carried him to a cage on the other end of the lab.
Dr. Reed busied herself with Charlie while he did that, loosening and removing the straps around the dog’s chest and hips. Dr. Grouse returned and the two of them administered an injection in the back of the dog’s neck.
Charlie woke up with a start and a drawling bark. He struggled to rise, his tongue lolling from his snout, brown eyes wild and darting.
“What’s wrong with him?” Clayton asked.
“I just woke him up with an epi shot,” Dr. Grouse replied, struggling to lift the retriever off the stretcher and onto the deck. Paws skittered for a moment before Dr. Grouse let him go. The Retriever ran around the room, barking and jumping up against them.
Clayton spared a few pats on the head before Charlie ran in another circle. The dog’s wagging tail bumped a silver tray full of spare electrodes and other components onto the deck, and scattered them with his paws as he came back around for another pass at Clayton and Dr. Reed.
But Charlie came to a skidding stop just before he reached them. His tongue vanished into his mouth and white teeth flashed out in a snarl. He was looking past Clayton to the door. Then he began barking and snarling.
“Whoa, hey there boy,” Dr. Grouse said, going down on his haunches beside the dog. “What’s the matter, huh?” he asked while stroking Charlie’s back.
Charlie barked and growled some more.
Clayton turned to follow the dog’s gaze, but he didn’t see whatever had the creature so spooked. “What’s wrong with him?” he asked, turning back to Dr. Grouse.
“I don’t know. He’s usually so calm.”
Clayton glanced back at the door. He noticed the gleaming window beside it. Maybe Charlie had seen someone out in the corridor watching them. Or maybe he was barking at his own reflection in the window. Hard to tell with a dog.
“He’s acting like he saw a ghost,” Reed said.
“A ghost that only he can see?” Clayton countered.
“Maybe it’s a ghost that only he can smell,” Dr. Grouse replied, his eyes twinkling with amusement.
Reed laughed, and Clayton frowned. Charlie still hadn’t looked away from the door, and his teeth were still bared, but at least he wasn’t barking anymore.
Clayton stifled a sigh. “Well, doctors, this has been interesting. Let me know if you have any further breakthroughs.”
“Aye, sir,” Reed replied.
“Sure,” Dr. Grouse added.
Clayton turned and waved the door open before breezing out into the corridor. He considered heading back to his quarters. Technically he was off-duty, but he decided to head up to the bridge and check in with the officer of the watch instead.
Maybe Commander Taylor had an update to share about those blips they’d been tracking.
Dr. Laurisa Reed was still in the comms lab at midnight, trading mental images back and forth with Dr. Grouse. It was a game of associations, a silent conversation. This was the hope for human-alien communication, should it ever occur—that they could at least trade images of their experiences and views in order to hopefully understand one another.
And even if the Visualizers couldn’t be configured to read alien brains, their output could still be sent to a holo projector or a screen so that a given alien species would get to see what humanity had to say.
Dr. Grouse sent her an image of a sunflower. She sent a whole field of them back. He sent a little girl skipping through that field. Her mind added the sound of the little girl laughing.
But that laughter died as her thoughts took a sharp right turn into a place filled with fear and despair. A snapshot of her at the hospital lying on a stretcher after her third miscarriage. The look on her then-fiance, Paul’s face as they listened to the doctor telling them that they could keep trying, but that their chances were slim. Surrogacy was an option. Paul had stood by her while they looked into options. He’d gone through the motions. Her mind wandered to the last time she’d seen him, their fight, her chasing him out into the rain as he ran to his car. The taillights blazing crimson as his wheels spun on the rain-slicked streets to get away.
Her inability to have children had been the beginning of the end for them, and then the engagement ended just like all of the failed pregnancies.
“Ah... Lori, are you okay?”
She shook herself out of the memories, embarrassed and worried about how much Dr. Grouse had seen through the Visualizers. None of it was news to him, but it was certainly off topic.
“I’m fine. Sorry.”
This was the main problem with the technology. Visualizers gave a glimpse into another person’s head, but people have filters for a reason. Mental imagery is a shit show of random associations with very little sense to it. A river of consciousness roaring by. With a deliberate and sustained effort people can control the flow for a while and keep their thoughts on relevant topics, but the random associations were still there, a powerful current roaring underneath, ready to derail any meaningful conversation.
“Let’s try something else,” Dr. Grouse said.
An image of a rock and a feather falling in vacuum tubes popped into her head. They were both falling at the same rate, an extension of Galileo’s contention that objects fall to Earth at the same rate regardless of their mass.
That was a good visual illustration of a higher level concept that any advanced species with a proper understanding of mass and gravity should recognize.
Lori replied with a mental image of her holding out both hands, giving two thumbs up. “We should add that one to the list of conversation starters.”
“Definitely,” Dr. Grouse replied.
Their conversation went on for a while, firing back and forth with images of scientific breakthroughs and concepts. Another good conversation starter was a 2D illustration of the universe, starting from a singularity and expanding to a larger and larger size. That one image conveyed the Big Bang Theory and the expansion of the universe at the same time. Hopefully any aliens looking at it would understand what they were seeing from the glittering stars and the over-sized spiral galaxies depicted in each progressively larger bubble of the universe. If not, it might turn out to be a head-scratcher.
Lori pulled her helmet off with a sigh and rubbed tired, scratchy eyes. Her vision was blurry from staring at the inside of her visor for so long, and it took a few seconds to clear it.
Dr. Grouse pulled off his helmet and spent a moment vigorously scratching his scalp, itchy from long hours of electrodes pressing the hair against his skin.
Lori checked the clock in the top left of her ARCs. It was after midnight. The ship’s clock was set to the same time as Cape Canaveral, where they’d launched from, though by now those clocks were wildly out of sync.
“We should get some sleep,” Lori said.
“You go ahead, I’m going to stay a while and see if I can log some dreams from Charlie and Archimedes.”
Lori nodded to him as she rose from her chair, and breezed out of the gleaming comms lab. She followed the corridor outside past several bio and agro labs to the ring running around the central column of elevators. She hit the call button with her ARCs and pre-selected the crew deck.
One of the elevators opened with a two-tone chime, and she stepped in, riding it up. On the crew deck, the corridors were all still and empty. She spotted a lone officer walking by. He glanced her way and she inclined her head to him. His glowing blue name tape read: Lt. Paulson.
Her ex-fiance, Paul flashed into her mind again, and she looked away with a grimace. Not that she was still hung up on him, but Paul was an unwelcome reminder of why she’d come on this mission in the first place. She didn’t have any attachments back home for a reason.
Reaching her room, Lori stood in front of the blinking red light of the door scanner. She mentally opened the door as soon as the light burned green, having recognized her identity.
She stepped in to find the lights already on and turned down to dim, night-cycle yellows. A familiar person was lounging on the small two-seater gray couch opposite her bunk and kitty corner to the room’s viewscreen.
“Ambassador Morgan,” she began, her brain was too tired to remember that she could call him by his first name when no one else was around. Her stride faltered as she came within a few feet of him. The door slid automatically shut behind her.
Richard Morgan rose with an easy smile, the images of whatever he’d been looking at on his ARCs fading from his eyes as he gave her his full attention.
“Ambassador, is it?” he asked in a deep voice. Blond eyebrows drifted up, his blue eyes widening underneath. She took a moment to admire his chiseled frame, visible even through his bulky black UNSF uniform. Her eyes tracked back up to his face, taking in the gleam of short blond stubble on his jaw, matching hair cut short and combed to the side, and a face so handsome that it could have been starring in movies back home. Or running for president. Lori felt the first stirrings of interest. It was late, but she could use the distraction after all those reminders of her ex-fiance.
Crossing the rest of the way to the couch, she grabbed his hands and pulled him down for a kiss. His lips lingered on hers, and she responded hungrily. Soon they were reaching for each other’s magnetic clasps and zippers.
Half an hour later, they lay naked and entwined on her bunk, staring at the stars through the viewscreen at the foot of the bed.
“I waited over an hour for you,” Richard said.
“Did you?” she managed to say through the dreamy haze that cloaked her thoughts. Before she could wonder where he was going with that, he told her.
“It wasn’t easy sneaking in.”
Not again, she sighed. “Richard, this is—”
“Don’t say nice,” he replied.
“Okay, it’s horrible. The complete opposite of nice.”
“Ha ha,” Richard replied dryly. “Just hear me out. Space force regulations don’t forbid relationships between crew members.”
“Maybe not, but who says we’re in a relationship?” Lori countered. She withdrew a few inches, her naked back pressing against the cold surface of the bulkhead beside her bunk. That cleared her head even more, and she withdrew her arm from his chest to cross it over hers. Stealing the blankets with her other hand as an extra barrier between them, she sat up and pointed to the door.
“You should go. We need to get some sleep.”
Richard propped himself up on one elbow, glanced at the door, then back at her. His eyes were hard, a frown exposing the dimples in his cheeks. “Lori, don’t do this.”
“Do what?” she asked. “We’ll be arriving in just two days. I have a lot of work to get through tomorrow, and I need to get my sleep. So do you.”
Richard gave in with a sigh and swung his legs over the side of the bunk. Standing up, he gave her a nice view as he went through the room picking up the discarded pieces of his uniform and putting them back on one at a time.
“Good night,” she said, and rolled over to face the bulkhead.
“Night,” he replied.
She heard the door swish open, then shut, and settled in for sleep. She could sympathize with Richard, but relationships weren’t her thing. Not anymore. And he’d known that from the start, so he couldn’t complain about it now.
Clayton saw the planet below, a splash of alien colors and misshapen continents. Fluffy white clouds, and an alien sun. He was free-falling toward it. His helmet on, suit pressurized. The sound of his breathing rasping through the suit, came faster and faster to his ears. Short, shallow breaths.
As he fell, friction heated his suit and his skin underneath, at first itching, then burning. His skin began to burn through the suit, and he screamed. He watched in horror as orange flames raced over his body, gobbling up the reflective white fabric like a piece of paper thrown into a fire. His rasping breaths grew shallower and more frantic. Then he screamed as his skin caught ablaze and the flames began to eat him too.
Clayton’s eyes shot open, and he stared hard at the ceiling blinking to clear away the image of his own immolation. It was just a dream. He worked to calm his rapid, rasping breaths. But then he noticed something. He wasn’t the one making those sounds. His eyes tracked over to a shadow hunched in front of his desk and the room’s viewscreens.
Someone was in his room.
His heart instantly pounding, Clayton tried to sit up, to activate the lights with a verbal command.
But he couldn’t. He was paralyzed. He couldn’t even scream.
The shadow inched closer to him. It was short, with legs bent at the knee, back arched, and claws reaching. He couldn’t see more than a solid black cutout of the creature, it had no features, other than gleaming red pinpricks for eyes. The demon that had haunted him since childhood was back.
It’s just sleep paralysis, he told himself, working desperately to calm his racing heart. It’s not real.
The shadowy creature sprang off the deck and landed on top of him, constricting his chest with its weight and making it hard to breathe.
Clayton tried to struggle, but his body was still paralyzed from his REM cycle. That’s all this is, Clayton insisted. The lingering effects of sleep. He just had to wait for it to pass.
The shadowy demon bent low over him, its rasping breaths loud in his ears.
His heart hammered out a painful staccato that echoed in his ears with each beat.
Then he remembered something. His Neuralink implant. His thoughts were still free.
Lights on! he screamed inside his head.
The overhead lights blazed on, momentarily blinding him. The shadow on his chest whirled toward the light and reacted with a shrill cry. Clayton saw its silhouette briefly, still a featureless black shadow that no amount of light could illuminate. But then it began to glow and shimmer, going from matte black to crystal clear in a matter of seconds before vanishing entirely.
A fading shriek sputtered into a low hiss, and the weight vanished from Clayton’s chest.
He sat up and dragged in a deep breath, casting about wildly for the monster that had been there a moment ago. But it was gone.
Sleep paralysis and the accompanying hypnagogic hallucinations had plagued him for decades. It was always the same shadowy creature that haunted him, always that crouching shadow with the rasping breaths.
When he was little, before he’d gone to sleep specialists and learned what sleep paralysis was, he used to think that the shadow was an alien visitor come to abduct him in the night. Eventually he’d learned that all of his symptoms could be explained by a delayed release from REM sleep. Everyone is paralyzed during REM cycle—the body’s way of protecting itself from harm that could result from acting out its dreams. But not everyone is immediately released from paralysis upon waking, and not everyone stops dreaming, either. Waking hallucinations and paralysis are the result.
Clayton lay back down with a sigh. Lights to 25%, he thought, and they dropped to a soothing golden glow. He lay staring at the ceiling, wondering about the timing. He hadn’t experienced an episode of sleep paralysis for years. The last one had been after his wife’s funeral. The episodes were triggered by stress.
So what was he stressed about?
Arrival. The mysterious blips on sensors. The possibility of real alien contact.
Half of the reason he’d joined the Space Force was because of episodes like this one that he’d suffered as a kid. Despite the doctors’ reassurances and explanations, he’d still suspected for a long time that his hallucinations were alien visitations.
Now he knew better.
Or did he?
Raising his voice, he said, “Call the Bridge.”
Hidden speakers began trilling, then a click as someone answered—
“Captain, is something wrong?” He recognized the voice of Lieutenant Ashley Devon, OOD of the ship’s night watch. Devon was a red-haired, freckle-faced beauty with a reputation for being a ball-buster, which was exactly why he trusted her with the bridge when both he and Commander Taylor were off-duty.
“You tell me, Devon. Anything on sensors?” he asked.
“Not a blip, sir.”
He let out a shaky sigh. “Carry on, then.”
“Cross out.” The call ended with another click, and he rolled over to stare at the spot beside his desk where he’d seen the demon after waking.
Nothing there now.
He put it down to nerves. He’d visit Doctor Stevens in the morning and get his stress levels checked. Clayton was the captain of an interstellar colony ship. He couldn’t afford to be jumping at shadows—literally—the day before arrival.
—One Day Before Arrival—
Clayton stared at the dim red star dead center of the forward viewscreens. Scarcely larger than the tip of his pinkie finger at this range, that sun was an ultra-cool red dwarf with no less than seven rocky planets in a tight orbit.
“Trappist-1,” Clayton breathed.
“The ice cube of stars,” Commander Taylor commented from where she stood beside him.
“And the holy grail of habitable star systems, with three rocky planets in its Goldilocks zone,” Clayton replied.
He turned from the viewscreens to address the rest of the crew.
Lieutenant Celia Asher looked up from her station. “Sir?” Her short white-blond hair glowed silver in the light of her screens. Ice-blue eyes gleamed like sapphires.
“Launch probes to all seven planets, but concentrate our primary efforts on planets C, D, and E.”
“Aye, sir,” Celia replied.
“Nav, set course for Trappist E.”
Clayton looked to Lieutenant Craig “Delta” Sanders, the gray-haired former Marine at the nav station. He was also the ship’s chief of security. The man nodded without looking up, his blue eyes level on his screens. “Setting course, sir.”
“Placing your bet already?” Commander Taylor asked quietly.
Clayton turned to see her regarding him with eyebrows raised, her amber eyes sparkling with excitement.
He inclined his head. “It’s approximately Earth-sized and receives only slightly less solar radiation than Earth. Without any additional data, it’s the most likely candidate. We can adjust course if the probes reveal otherwise. We still have a day before we reach orbit.”
Clayton turned to see Delta studying him from the Nav.
“Yes?” he replied.
“That estimate was how long it would take us to reach a safe orbit around the system’s sun. Trappist E is currently between us and the system’s star. We’re looking at an ETA of twelve hours and seven minutes.
Clayton checked the clock in the top left of his ARCs. 10:15. “So we’ll be arriving at twenty-two hundred?”
“Even better.” Clayton clapped his hands for attention. “All right people, start running through your checklists. Looks like we’ll be making history ahead of schedule!”
A cheer from the crew answered that news, and he traded grins with Commander Taylor.
* * *
Twelve Hours Later...
Video data from probe flyovers had revealed plenty of flora and fauna. Towering trees with fan-like leaves. Buzzing swarms of insects that schooled like fish. Giant, winged creatures skimming the treetops and scooping them up like whales...
The day side of Trappist-1E lay directly in front of them. Clayton admired the cloud streaked, gleaming jewel pocked with blue lakes and striated with rivers. Scans hadn’t picked up any oceans, but there were plenty of lakes. Ragged black mountain ranges capped with snow ringed those bodies of water. Clayton suspected those mountains were the rims of old impact craters.
Mottled blue and green jungles colored the dry land in the valleys between the mountains and the lakes, but those vibrant colors faded gradually to windswept yellows, whites, and browns that filled bone-dry craters around the dark side of the planet.
“It’s tidally locked,” Commander Taylor said from where she stood beside him. “That means strong winds and a volatile climate around the day-night terminator. We should land as close to the middle of the day side as possible to avoid those concerns. Sunlight will be the strongest there, and the climate should be relatively stable.”
“Agreed. Hopefully the mountains around the craters will buffer any winds that reach us in the valleys,” Clayton replied.
“Aye,” Taylor said.
The probe data had borne out Clayton’s bet. Trappist-1E was the only planet in the entire star system with liquid surface water and an oxygen-rich atmosphere. It was also very close to the size of Earth, with a comfortable 0.7 Gs of gravity. The air was breathable, but not long-term—it was too thin. Unassisted breathing on the surface would be like trying to breathe at the top of Mount Everest. Even if they cleared it as safe to breathe, they would need to supplement with O2 tanks. Atmospheric pressure was a comfortable 0.8 atm at the bottoms of the craters, so pressure suits weren’t strictly necessary, but they’d use them anyway to protect against alien micro organisms and allergens.
Clayton tore his eyes away from the viewscreens to address the crew. “Lieutenant Davies—”
The man looked up from the comms station, his green eyes wide and blinking, his shaved head gleaming in the dim light.
“Alert the ground team, and summon Lieutenant Devon and her section to the bridge for the handover of the watch. We’re going down to the surface.”
“Aye, sir,” Davies replied.
“We, sir?” Commander Taylor asked.
He turned to her. “Yes. You and I are both going down with team Alpha.”
Taylor’s brow furrowed. “I must have missed you on the team roster.”
“You didn’t. I added myself at the last minute.”
“I see. Permission to speak frankly, Captain?”
“I think you should stay with the ship.”
He arched an eyebrow at her, waiting for her to explain.
A muscle jerked in Taylor’s cheek and one of her dimples appeared. “We don’t know what kind of threats we may encounter. It could be dangerous. We can’t afford to lose you.”
“We can’t afford to lose anyone, Commander, and I won’t ask my crew to take risks that I wouldn’t take myself. Besides, you can’t possibly believe that I’d be willing to take a backseat on this. That would be like asking Neil Armstrong to stay in the moon lander. And he didn’t have to travel for seventy-eight years to get there.”
Taylor cracked a wry smile at that. “Fair enough, sir. Did you clear it with the ambassador?”
Clayton smirked and placed a finger to his lips. “It’ll be our little secret. Why do you think I was a last-minute addition?”
Taylor’s eyes glittered with amusement. “Understood, sir.”
Clayton had disagreed from the start with the UNE’s decision to set up both civilian and military chains of command aboard the Forerunners. Now that he was almost a century away from Earth, he’d be damned if he was going to let some politician piss all over his command. Clayton would decide how best to safeguard his ship and its crew, and right now that meant getting his own boots on the ground to identify and analyze each and every potential threat and hazard for himself. If Ambassador Morgan didn’t like that, too bad. Clayton couldn’t disobey an order that he’d never technically been given.
Clayton placed a palm against the inner pane of the window beside him—
And withdrew it sharply as the glass scalded him. “Damn,” he muttered. The glass had been super-heated from atmospheric entry.
The shuttle bucked and shivered; cargo straps slapped the sides of the crates they held. Their handles rattled. Clouds swept past the viewports on both sides. Dead ahead, through the cockpit canopy, blue-green jungles peeked through the cottony haze below. Rain drops freckled the glass, streaking quickly away.
Commander Taylor sat in the pilot’s seat, shaking her head at Clayton.
He grinned back at her like a kid. “What?”
“Can’t take you anywhere, sir.”
A muffled boom shivered through the hull, stealing away his reply before he could utter it.
“What was that?” he asked to no one in particular.
“Thunderstorm, sir,” Taylor replied, pointing to a tower of black clouds to starboard.
A forking flash of lighting came through Clayton’s window, confirming her analysis. Black clouds towered over the rim of the crater that they’d chosen for their landing site.
“Looks like some bad weather coming,” Delta commented from the back. “We need to set this bucket down before crosswinds hit us.”
“I know how to fly, Lieutenant,” Taylor replied.
“Just saying, ma’am.”
Delta had been a Scimitar Pilot with the Space Marines until his knees got too old for high-G, so he was something of an expert on the topic.
“Hopefully we have some time to explore before the storm hits,” Ambassador Morgan added from the row of seats directly behind theirs.
Clayton frowned and tossed a glance over his shoulder at the other man. As it turned out, he’d read the situation all wrong. Ambassador Morgan didn’t care if he joined the ground team, but Morgan wanted to join them, too—along with both of the mission’s first contact specialists, Doctors Reed and Grouse.
After seeing all of the alien creatures revealed by the probes’ flyovers, Morgan had insisted he be allowed to accompany the away team. He had apparently decided that the chances of first contact with an intelligent alien species were high enough that he needed to be there.
Alpha Team had seven members now instead of six. Clayton and Commander Taylor up front. Ambassador Morgan and Dr. Reed in the second row. Delta and Dr. Grouse in the second to last row, and Doctor Stevens in the back. Stevens was the chief medical officer of Forerunner One. He was a first lieutenant, but everyone just called him Doctor Stevens or “Doc” for short.
The clouds sweeping across the cockpit canopy abruptly parted, and gasps went up from passengers. Even Clayton’s breath caught in his throat.
“It’s beautiful,” Doctor Stevens said in an awed whisper.
“Copy that...” Taylor added.
Towering trees rose to varying heights with massive blue and blue-green leaves interlocking to form several different flat surfaces high above the ground. Islands in the sky, Clayton thought. He wouldn’t be surprised if they could actually walk on them. The various levels of tree canopies sparkled with crimson freckles of light as they flew down past them—the system’s red dwarf sun reflecting off puddles from a recent rain. The sky was pale green where it wasn’t already black with that building thunderstorm, and dead ahead, the lake they were headed for was a dark teal, sunlight shimmering like a field of rubies on the surface.
Clayton sucked in a shaky breath and smiled. This was why he’d joined Forerunner One. He couldn’t even begin to imagine all the astounding things they’d discover once they set foot on the ground.
* * *
Lori Reed pressed a white-gloved hand to her helmet visor, shading her eyes. She stared up at the trunks of monolithic trees bordering the beach they’d landed on. Her breathing quickened as her eyes darted from the treetops to the multiple levels of tree canopies, to the ghostly fairyland of faintly glowing vegetation on the forest floor. Her breath echoed inside her helmet, loud against the backdrop of alien hoots and chirps conveyed by her suit’s external audio pickups and the helmet’s internal speakers. The forest itself was humming like high-voltage power lines, and howling eerily with the wind gusting across the lake behind them.
“How high are those trees?” Richard asked.
Lori turned to see the ambassador gazing up at the trees and backpedaling quickly to get some distance so he could glimpse the treetops. Spiky stalks of blue-green alien grass crunched underfoot and rasped past the fabric of his suit as he went.
The rest of the team stood close by, contemplating the forest. The military officers distinguished themselves by carrying rifles that dangled from shoulder straps, and stun pistols holstered at their hips. Lori and Dr. Grouse saved all of their energy to carry the Visualizers and holo projectors in their packs, as well as a variety of other scanners. Doctor Stevens had the sample jars and vials in his pack, while the soldiers carried survival gear and spare ammo in theirs.
If there were any intelligent aliens down here to meet, Lori hoped those soldiers would have the good sense to hold their fire.
“Let’s head in,” Captain Cross said, turning to regard them with one hand on the grip of his stocky, short-barreled white and gray rifle. Lori didn’t know much about firearms, but Richard had told her while the soldiers were all arming themselves in the hangar that those rifles were coil guns. They apparently shot hypervelocity rounds that could pierce armored targets and punch fist-sized holes through living ones.
The captain struck a commanding silhouette against the dark wall of trees—tall and broad-shouldered, his arms bulging through his suit. If she didn’t know he was the captain, Lori might easily have mistaken him for a Marine.
The others nodded their agreement, and the captain led the way into the forest. Commander Taylor and the former Marine, Delta, followed close behind.
They each had enough oxygen for two hours. A timer on the bright green heads-up-display projected on the inside of Lori’s helmet showed that she had an hour and fifty-one minutes left. Still plenty of time to explore before they headed back.
Shadows descended over them as they passed beneath the tree canopies. The deeper they went, the darker it got, but faintly glowing growths on the tree trunks and the forest floor emitted a ghostly white light. The light was roughly equivalent to a full moon on Earth. For Lori, it was enough to see by, but the officers quickly snapped on the ring lights built into the frames around their helmet visors to better illuminate the way. Lori and Richard belatedly followed suit with their own helmet lamps. Small creatures with too many legs skittered away from the beam shining out of her helmet. Other creatures took flight, absorbing and re-emitting the light cast by their helmets in a shimmering rainbow of colors.
“Look at that!” Dr. Grouse said, pointing to one of them. “What is it?”
“Rainbow bug,” Delta grunted.
“Good a name as any,” Captain Cross replied.
Lori slowed to watch one of them as it flew away, bobbing upward on four, perfectly circular wings at the ends of long straight black stalks. The creature’s translucent body pulsed blue, then violet, then green, then yellow, then red.... Those bugs flew in lazy spirals, somehow looking both graceful and clumsy at the same time.
The landing party walked on for another ten minutes, marveling at the sheer number of creeping and crawling creatures, most of which began glowing as soon as the party’s helmet lamps hit them. Each creature was stranger and more exotic than the last.
The group had to stop periodically for Doctor Stevens to take samples of the flora. He even captured one of the glowing rainbow bugs in a jar, which he spirited away into his pack before the captain could say anything about it. All of the sample containers were perfectly sealed to prevent contamination of the shuttle when they returned, which meant that poor bug would die in the name of science. Lori tried not to let that bother her, but it did.
“Everybody freeze!” Captain Cross’s voice stopped Lori cold before she even realized what he’d said.
She noticed something up ahead, frozen under the captain’s helmet lights and clinging to a tree trunk about twenty feet up. This was a much larger creature than any of the others they’d encountered so far. It had brown skin, the color of the tree, and ten long, lanky legs with what looked like two elbows each. Loose folds of skin hung under some of those legs, stretched taut in other places. It’s limbs are webbed like a flying squirrel, Lori thought. The creature looked to be hairless, but it had sharp quills running down its back, and a bony, triangular face with a sharp black beak and two dark eyes that seemed to blaze with curiosity. Or perhaps they were blazing with something deadlier than that.
Before any of them could react, the creature’s eyes flared to twice their size, and it’s beak parted in a feral cry. A glowing collar of skin fanned out from its neck. It gave a rattling hiss that reminded her of a rattle snake, and then everything was washed out by a blinding flash of light. They stumbled around, trying to clear their vision. Lori recovered in time to see a dark shadow leaping away from the tree, the webbed folds of skin under its legs pulling taut and catching the air like a parachute. The creature screamed as it swooped down on them, and the soldiers’ weapons snapped up, taking aim.
“No!” Lori cried.
“Hold your fire!” Clayton cried even as he reached for his sidearm and took aim.
He flicked off the safety and left his coil gun to swing free at the end of the strap as he tracked the blurry brown creature gliding down on them.
He aimed for center mass, just like he’d been taught all those years ago in basic. He’d had plenty of time to train in the ranges both virtual and real since then, and when Clayton squeezed the trigger, a long silver projectile exploded from the barrel heading straight for the flying monkey. The projectile broke apart and spread out like a net as proximity sensors detected that it was close to its target. Multiple sharp metal rods embedded themselves into the alien, all connected by hair-thin wires to the central rod. Forks of bright blue electricity coursed over the creature, lighting it up like a Christmas tree. It shrieked and shivered, limbs spasming and curling in around its body. As soon as it did that, it fell like a stone and hit hard in the ankle-deep cushion of vegetation on the forest floor.
Silence rang, and the creature didn’t stir.
“Good shot, sir!” Delta crowed as he strode toward the target with his coil gun raised. “Target neutralized,” he said a moment later. “Life signs are good. I think. Looks like I’m getting... two heart beats. Or... three? I’m not qualified for this. Doc!”
Doctor Stevens hurried over, shaking his head. “No animal could possibly have three hearts. They’d wind up pumping blood in opposite directions!”
Clayton and the others crowded around, and his own heads-up display revealed the same thing that Delta had just reported. Three distinct pulses, starting in the head, then the chest, and finally a third one in the stomach. They fired in a tandem rhythm, one after another, but the periodic pulses of electricity from the stun round were visibly interrupting that rhythm. With each shock, the creature tensed up and let out a whistling cry that sounded too weak and pitiful to be menacing.
Clayton frowned, wondering how to deal with the situation. If they removed the stun rods, the creature could recover and attack them, and then they might be forced to answer with more lethal force.
“Let it go! Now!” Dr. Reed cried, dropping to her haunches beside the creature. “You’re going to kill it!”
“She’s right, sir,” Commander Taylor said.
Clayton could see her expression pinched in sympathy behind her mask. Somehow that flying monkey had gone from hostile alien to three-legged puppy in a span of seconds, and he was the one who had crippled it.
“Sir?” Delta looked to him for confirmation.
Clayton gave in with a sigh and a nod. “Do it. Everyone else, back up and give the man some space.”
Delta waited a beat while they withdrew, then bent down and yanked the stun rods out in one smooth motion. He leapt back, his rifle snapping up to his shoulder to cover the creature as he backpedaled away from it.
The creature struggled to rise, almost collapsing twice in the process. Finally it regained its footing, but it held two of its ten legs up at crooked angles. Clayton winced, realizing that it had broken those limbs in the fall. The creature was still making that whistling sound. The sound of alien pain. It shook itself out like a dog, and then its eight good legs scuttled as it turned on the spot to face them with wide, angry black eyes.
Clayton waited, his breath rasping and loud inside his helmet. This thing was either going to bolt or charge. Fight or flight. It chose option three and threw its head back to release a deafening cry. Echoes of that sound bounced back from the trees at different pitches and volumes. Clayton searched the canopy for the source and found it. Dozens of glowing collars flared out, peppering the darkness with bright flashes of light and ominous rattling sounds.
Then, all at once, those glowing creatures began drifting down from the tree tops, angling in swiftly from all sides.
“Captain! What are your orders?” Delta asked, his voice rising in alarm as he swept his coil gun back and forth.
Clayton didn’t have to think about it for long. There had to be at least fifty of those monkeys descending on them, and he hadn’t landed on Trappist-1E to initiate a mass slaughter of the first complex lifeforms that they encountered. For all they knew these creatures could even be intelligent.
“Fall back!” Clayton cried.
“All right!” Delta cried. “You heard the Captain! Double time! Move, move, move! Back to the shuttle!”
Alpha Team hesitated for the briefest second, and then broke and ran, their collective boots hammering the forest floor in a stampede. The ring lamps from their helmets bobbed and weaved as they went, throwing dancing beams of light and shadow through the forest. Rainbow bugs spiraled around them, and crawling things reflected the light from their lamps back in ever-changing hues. Clayton brought up the rear with Commander Taylor and Lieutenant Delta. He glanced back periodically to check for signs of pursuit—of which there were plenty. All of them in the air. Dozens of those moneys were soaring down, overtaking them on both sides, their glowing neck rings making them easy targets in the gloomy forest.
“They’re trying to outflank us, sir!” Delta said. “We can’t allow that to happen. Permission to rattle their feathers with live ammo?”
Clayton shook his head and spared a breath to say, “Denied. Just keep running! We don’t know if they’re hostile yet.”
“With all due respect, sir, they’re acting pretty hostile,” Delta replied.
“He’s right,” Taylor added. “We need to scare them off. Or at least thin their numbers.”
“Fine, but no live rounds! Stun only. Let’s pick off as many as we can, and aim for the ones closest to the ground. We don’t want the fall to kill them.”
“Copy that,” Delta said, already drawing his stun pistol and taking aim. Taylor did the same, and Clayton reluctantly drew his sidearm again. Each of them was packed with a clip of ten stun rounds, or electrodarts, as they were sometimes called.
Glinting silver darts flashed out to all sides as they ran, but aiming and running were mutually exclusive affairs, and most of those shots missed. The ones that hit had much the same effect as the last time. Outstretched limbs curled inward and those creatures fell with a crash.
“You could still be killing them with those stun rounds!” Dr. Reed pointed out from the front of the group where she was running behind Ambassador Morgan. He was leading the charge back to the shuttle.
They reached the edge of the trees, and burst into the field of spiky blue-green grass where they’d landed. A sequence of alien cries followed them out of the trees, and thunder rolled overhead. The storm was directly above them now and fat drops of rain lanced down to splat noisily on their pressure suits.
The darkness swirled with rain, and flying ten-legged monsters chased them out on both sides, corralling them back to their shuttle.
Maybe they really were intelligent.
Still no signs of aggression, though. That was good.
They reached the shuttle without incident, and ran up the short landing ramp to the airlock. Clayton triggered it open remotely and they piled in just as they reached the top of the ramp. He shut the outer door on a cacophony of shrill cries. Commander Taylor used the control panel inside the door to activate the decontamination cycle.
Flashing red lights warned of the danger if they didn’t keep their helmets and gloves on. A computerized female voice added an extra warning: “Decontamination commencing...”
Doctor Stevens unslung his pack, zipped it open, and began removing the sample jars, placing them in a decon bin to one side of the airlock. Dr. Reed did the same with her sample containers.
A fine mist began hissing out to all sides, fogging the visors of their helmets, and blurring their view of one another.
That went on for several minutes before the flashing red lights stopped and began pulsing out blue light, as well as several other invisible and more dangerous wavelengths. Their suits would protect them from that brief exposure, but in theory any microbes would be annihilated by the combination of sprays and radiation pulses.
Finally, the lights stopped pulsing, and the mist cleared. A green light snapped on above the inner airlock door and a pleasant chime sounded as it slid open.
“Decontamination sequence complete,” the voice from before said.
Not even bothering to exit the airlock first, Clayton reached up and unsnapped the seals around his neck and then pulled his helmet off, sucking in a deep breath of uncanned air. The air was acrid with decon chemicals, but still fresher than gagging on the sour tang of his own sweat.
Several others took their helmets off, too. Delta pushed through the airlock and started down the rows of seats in the cabin. He leaned over to the nearest window and peered out.
“No sign of the bastards,” he muttered.
Clayton nodded and followed Dr. Reed, Morgan, and Taylor out. Doctor Stevens hung back to retrieve his sample jars from the decon bin.
They crowded the aisle of the shuttle, each picking a window to stare out. Rain streaked the windows, pelting the hull with tinny reports.
Morgan breathed a sigh. “I guess we’ll have to wait for the storm to pass before we go back out.”
“Go back out?” Clayton echoed. He shook his head. “We’re not going back out. We’re going up to the Forerunner.”
“What?” Morgan asked, his blue eyes hard and blond eyebrows dropping dark shadows over them. “We have to go back out! This is what we came here for. What are you suggesting, that we just run and hide in our ship, and then what? Live out the rest of our days in orbit? I’d never have pegged you for a coward, Captain.”
Clayton gritted his teeth and scowled. “If you’d let me finish, I was about to suggest that we go back up, analyze Doctor Stevens’ samples, and then send down the HEROs. In fact, we probably should have led with that as our first option. We wouldn’t have had to run out of that forest if we were remote-piloting HEROs instead of rocking these meat suits.” Clayton plucked at the fabric of his Space Force uniform.
“You can’t make first contact with a robot!” Morgan objected. “Where is your spirit of adventure?”
“I burned it off running from hostile aliens.”
Dr. Reed’s gaze skipped back and forth between them, as if she wasn’t sure whose side to take. Then she abruptly frowned and began looking around in alarm.
“Is there something wrong, Dr. Reed?” Clayton asked.
“Where is David?” she asked in a low voice. “Where is Dr. Grouse?” she asked again, her voice becoming shrill with fear.
Clayton blinked in shock and spun in a quick circle, taking a head count. Dr. Grouse was missing. He stared hard at the airlock along with Taylor and Delta.
“No one noticed that he was missing?” Clayton asked, reprimanding himself with that statement as much as anyone.
“I volunteer to go out and look for him, sir,” Delta said.
“Negative. We’re going out together—Commander, stay with the shuttle and update the Forerunner. Tell them to send down the HEROs. We’re going to grid search this entire area all night if we have to.”
“Copy that,” Taylor said, already striding for the cockpit.
“Delta, on me,” Clayton said, heading the other way back to the airlock. He dropped his helmet back on and snapped the seals back into place.
Just as he was about to slap the airlock controls to cycle it once more, he heard something.
A heavy thunk on the outer door. He slowly turned to face it. “Did you hear that, Lieutenant?”
“Affirmative,” Delta said and jammed the stock of his coil gun into his shoulder to aim it at the doors. But no more sounds followed. “Could just be the storm blowing something into the hull,” he said.
And then the sound came again. Thunk... Thunk thunk... Thunk...
Ambassador Morgan walked past them as if in a daze and placed his naked ear to the outer airlock door.
The sound came again. Thunk... Thunk thunk... Thunk...
“They’re knocking on the door!” Morgan cried.
Silence hung frozen in the air as they all considered what to do next. Clayton was torn. They had to look for Dr. Grouse, but they couldn’t leave with a horde of angry aliens outside waiting for them. Tactically, it was suicide.
“What if we misinterpreted their behavior?” Dr. Reed asked, the first to break the silence. “They’re not all banging on the sides of the shuttle like some angry mob. They’re knocking like a civilized species.”
“Could be a trick,” Delta pointed out.
“That level of cunning requires high intelligence,” Ambassador Morgan added, stepping into the airlock and drawing himself up. “That means this is officially first contact with an intelligent species.”
Clayton arched an eyebrow at him. “We don’t know that yet. Even a monkey can knock on a door. Besides, even if it is first contact, that doesn’t change the rules of engagement. They can be hostile and intelligent at the same time. Rising to the bait would simply initiate the hostilities. They might be calling us out to answer for what we did to their friends—or family—stunning them. As far as they’re concerned, we attacked first. Now it’s their turn.”
“I disagree,” Morgan replied. “As Lori—” He caught himself. “As Dr. Reed pointed out, they would be banging on the sides of the shuttle like actual monkeys if their intentions were purely hostile.”
Clayton shared a dubious look with Commander Taylor. She rolled her eyes. Clayton nodded to the ambassador. “They’re aliens. We can’t pretend to know how they would act in any given situation. As much as I want to get out and rescue Dr. Grouse, we can’t risk more personnel. We’ll have to wait for the HEROs to get here. It’s the only way to deescalate at this point.”
“Because landing an army here won’t be escalating conflict,” Dr. Reed muttered.
“They can attack the HEROs all they want. Without high-powered weapons, they won’t even make a dent in the armor.”
“I’m sorry, Clayton,” Ambassador Morgan said, shaking his head. “But I’m pulling rank here. We don’t have that kind of time to waste. They could kill Dr. Grouse while we’re waiting. This might be our only chance to save him.”
“And how do you propose we do that? We can’t exactly tell them it was an accident.”
“We can,” Dr. Reed replied. “We’ll use the Visualizers to explain ourselves. Then maybe we can get them to wear one and calibrate it so we can have a conversation.”
“Too risky,” Clayton said again.
“This whole venture is risky,” Dr. Reed replied. “We all knew what we were getting into when we signed up.”
Delta caught Clayton’s eye and gave his head a slight shake. Clayton frowned.
“Fine, but I’m going out, too.”
“No you’re not,” Morgan replied.
“Excuse me?” Clayton could feel his blood pressure rise, his face growing hot with it.
“You were the one who opened fire. In fact, all of you shot at them,” Morgan said, his eyes skipping from Clayton to Delta to Taylor and back again. “None of you can come out with us.”
Clayton blew out a stale breath. “This is a bad idea.”
“Your objections have been noted,” Morgan said. “Ready, Dr. Reed?”
She nodded. “Whenever you are.”
“Everyone else out of the airlock,” Clayton said.
“Sir, you can’t be serious!” Delta began. “This is—”
“The ambassador has left us no choice. The chain of command is clear. Civilians are in charge when it comes to first contact.”
Morgan smiled patiently as they withdrew from the airlock. “Thank you, Captain. We’ll be in touch soon.”
Clayton smiled coldly back. “Not if you’re dead.”
Morgan looked away, and Dr. Reed shouldered her pack with the Visualizer in it. Clayton keyed the inner doors shut from his side and watched through the small windows in the top of those doors as they went through decon once more. This time those sprays and radiation pulses were to protect the alien environment from their microorganisms. The last thing they needed was to come in peace and wind up killing all the aliens with the equivalent of small pox. The old world meets the new all over again. Clayton opened a sealed compartment in his suit and retrieved his ear piece. He at least needed to stay in comms contact with Dr. Reed and Ambassador Morgan while they were out there.
The flashing lights and misting sprays stopped. A light burned green above the outer airlock doors, and then they swept open to reveal a horde of those monkey creatures. One of them was standing right outside the doors, on four legs. Its other six limbs were folded in against its torso like arms. The alien cocked its brown head and blinked big black eyes at them. It backed up a few steps, making room for Morgan and Dr. Reed to get outside. Dr. Reed slowly unslung her pack, and the creature at the top of the ramp grew agitated. Its neck collar flared out, glowing brightly and rattling in warning. All six of its arms spread out from its body, and it reared up to an impressive height.
Morgan stepped between them, with his hands raised in surrender.
He probably thought that was a good idea, but he was unintentionally mimicking the creature’s aggressive stance. “Morgan! Put down your hands!” Clayton screamed over the comms.
Lori watched Richard step in front of her and raise his hands. The alien’s neck collar began rattling louder and more ominously. Lori almost screamed for him to put his hands back down, but screaming would be an equally bad idea right now.
Captain Cross did it for her, his voice booming to their ears over the tinny speakers of their in-helmet comms. “Morgan, you idiot! Put down your hands!”
Richard dropped his hands in a hurry, and the alien standing on the ramp with them slowly lowered its hands, too. All six of them.
Lori slowly removed the Visualizer from her pack. There was just one problem that none of them had properly considered. You can’t wear a suit helmet and a Visualizer helmet at the same time. Lori glanced at the readings on her HUD. The air out here was breathable. She’d get light headed from low oxygen in the thinner air, but she could take it for a while at least.
Lori unsnapped the seals at her neck. Captain Cross’s voice crackled to life almost instantly. “Don’t you dare, Lori!”
They hadn’t thought this through. She should have had an O2 mask with her at the very least. Lori pulled off her helmet with a hiss of escaping air from the higher pressure in her suit. Her ears popped and she sucked in an unfiltered breath of the alien air. It was cold and thin and smelled like cinnamon. A gentle breeze gusted in, and she caught a whiff of something else. The alien standing in front of her gave off a gamy scent. Lori’s head was already swimming from the lack of oxygen. She hurriedly put on the Visualizer helmet, and set the holo projector in front of her.
She raised the screen of her helmet so she could still see, then blanked her mind and focused on transmitting an image of Dr. Grouse.
Dr. Grouse’s face appeared, projected above the device in a translucent image. The alien reacted with a sudden hiss and took a quick step back.
Lori tried again. This time, she pictured him wandering around the dark forest, stumbling, searching for something.
The alien cocked its head at her, big eyes blinking, black beak opening and closing restlessly. At least it hadn’t tried to attack them yet.
So far so good, Lori thought. She tried another image. She showed them their planet from orbit. A cloud-swept blue and green marble striated with rivers and pocked with lakes. The mountain ridges that were the scars of old asteroid impacts formed bald black rings around the vegetation.
The creature in front of Lori reacted by retracting its glowing neck ring and sinking down to all ten of its limbs. It bowed its head and let out a low growl. The creatures behind it mimicked that posture and the growl—all fifty of them.
Lori frowned at that. They’d gone from hostile to obeisant. What had triggered that reaction? She stared at their planet hovering above the projector. If they had recognized that image, then that meant they’d been up into space before, but they weren’t even wearing clothes, or armor, or weapons. No accessories or technology of any kind. This species, however intelligent they might be, wasn’t space-faring. So who had taken them up to space? And why?
An uneasy chill coursed through her. Black spots danced before her eyes, and a foggy haze filled her head from the thin air. She blinked, and suddenly she was lying flat on the boarding ramp, staring up at Richard’s helmet, his expression pinched with worry behind his visor.
“Lori! Lori!” Richard said over the comms. He was slapping her gently.
“I’m here.” She rose to a sitting position and shook her head to clear it. The aliens were still bowing to them, as if waiting for a command from her.
“Why are they acting like that?” she asked aloud. “They were angry a moment ago.”
“Does it matter?” Richard replied. “Try to get one of them to wear a helmet. We need to see inside their heads and make this a two-way conversation.”
Lori nodded quickly and withdrew a malleable electrode helmet from her bag. She passed it to Richard, not trusting herself to get up and carry it to the creature in front of them. Besides, she’d compromised her suit’s integrity. The less contact she had the better. She didn’t want to make these aliens sick, or vice versa.
Richard took the helmet to the one on the landing ramp and said, “Greetings. I am Richard Morgan of the United Nations of Earth.”
The creature glanced up and saw him standing there, but quickly dropped its head again.
Richard stepped into reach and tried lowering the helmet over its head, expanding the malleable frame to fit.
“Ambassador, I hope you know what you’re doing,” Captain Cross said.
“So do I,” he whispered back.
The creature reacted with a growl, but did not resist as Richard lowered the helmet over its triangular head. He adjusted it to fit, but didn’t lower the screen over its eyes. It wouldn’t have fit over the creature’s beak anyway.
He hurried back to Lori’s side, and she busied herself by mentally issuing commands to the holo-projector, linking it to both helmets and dividing the projection into two sides, divided by a line in the middle. The left side was for the alien’s messages, right for hers.
The left was hazy with flickering, indistinct images. The helmet still had to be calibrated. Lori took a deep breath, feeling faint again. Under ideal circumstances she would have had hours to calibrate the device. Right now she had seconds. Using her side of the holo projector to pull up a calibration interface, she began hunting for visual signals in the mess of activity going on inside the alien’s head.
Every time she picked out a halfway discernible image on the alien’s side of the projector, she tagged those signals and prioritized those neural pathways over the rest, and each time she did that the images got clearer.
Gradually an image snapped into blurry focus. It was an image of Alpha Team walking through the forest, seen from above, the beams of their helmet lights sweeping back and forth.
The alien looked up, saw the imagery, and its eyes flared wide. A hiss escaped its beak and its collar flared out briefly before flattening once more.
Lori tried repeating her message from before, showing the image of their world from orbit. This time she added an image of the Forerunner, as seen from their shuttle as they left and began flying down to Trappist-1E.
A reciprocal image flickered to life on the alien’s side. It was peering down on its own world from orbit, standing in front of a broad window on a silvery surface. But something was different. The planet had all the right colors—blue-green with white streaks of cloud, but it lacked the black rings of mountains. The impact craters were missing.
Maybe this was another planet. Lori’s heart fluttered in her chest. She was right. They had been up to space. But were they space-faring? Had she been wrong about that? She tried picturing one of these ten-legged aliens in a spacesuit that looked vaguely like a Space Force uniform.
The alien’s side of the Visualizer blanked, then returned. It showed the same scene from orbit, but this time bright, glowing orange balls were flashing down and vanishing against the planet below. Moments later they bloomed into dazzling flashes of light and angry black mushroom clouds that rolled out across the surface of the world.
The craters. Was this the meteor storm that had scarred their world?
Then the scene shifted and small gray wedges flashed into view. Bright blue thrusters glowed behind them, and more glowing orange balls were raining down from them.
The scene clicked in Lori’s brain. Spaceships. Weapons. This was an orbital attack.
“Holy shit...” Commander Taylor muttered over the comms. Lori glanced back to see her and Captain Cross pressing their faces to the windows in the outer doors of the shuttle’s airlock. They had their helmets on, ready to come out guns blazing at a moment’s notice. Lori waved them away and tried summoning another mental image.
She showed the planet without the black rings of the mountain ranges, just as this alien had shown her. Then she showed the same scene that it had, with those fiery orange missiles raining down. Followed by the orbital view of the world as it was now: with the craggy black rings of mountains dividing up the jungles.
The alien replied by showing her the same before and after images of the planet. This time the imagery was accompanied by a soft whistling sound. Pain? Sadness?
It was confirmation enough for her.
“What does it mean?” Richard asked.
Lori was too light-headed to reply. The black spots dancing before her eyes converged into a solid sheet of black, and time dragged into an endless moment.
She woke up lying on her back inside the airlock with an oxygen mask on and Doctor Stevens crouching over her with an empty syringe. He was still wearing his helmet. She was now a potential source of contamination. Quarantine measures were in effect.
“What...” Lori rocked her head from side to side. “What happened?” she asked, her voice muffled by the oxygen mask. She pushed up onto elbows and twisted to look at the outer doors. Doctor Stevens was the only one in the airlock with her. The inner doors were also shut.
“Where is everyone?”
“They left,” Stevens replied. “To go look for Dr. Grouse.”
“I need to join them! They’ll need my help to communicate with—”
Stevens pushed her back down gently and shook his head. “You need to rest. Let the Captain handle it.”
“But what if they start shooting again?”
“The aliens surrendered. You seem to have earned their respect.”
Lori thought back over the exchange. They’d ‘talked’ about a cataclysmic attack on this planet, but it must have happened a long time ago, since the jungles had all re-grown now to fill in the blast craters, but...
That alien had told her about the last first contact event in their history. This was the second such event. And to them, both meetings were somehow linked. That realization struck her like a lightning bolt. “I didn’t earn their respect. They’re afraid of us! They think we are the ones who attacked them all those years ago.”
Doctor Stevens frowned behind his helmet, and the lines of his craggy face multiplied. “Even if that’s true, a healthy dose of fear will do to keep us safe. It might not be a bad thing.”
Lori rocked her head again. “You think that’s okay? Claiming responsibility for attempted genocide against their people?”
“Maybe you’re wrong,” Stevens said. “Maybe you misunderstood. Visualizers are hardly a precise form of communications.”
“Maybe,” Lori admitted. “Or maybe I’m right. Regardless, you realize what this means, don’t you?”
Doctor Stevens’ expression grew grave behind his helmet. “It means there may be two intelligent species on this planet besides ourselves.”
Lori nodded. “We’ve met the natives, but we have yet to meet the genocidal invaders.”
“Let’s hope that we never do,” Stevens said.
“Commander, activate Dr. Grouse’s emergency locator beacon and share the results with us please,” Clayton said as soon as they left the airlock. The aliens were still there, crouching in the blue-green grass with their heads bowed.
There weren’t as many of them as before, and they parted quickly to make way for Clayton and his crew as they descended the boarding ramp. Delta and Commander Taylor kept a wary aim on them with their coil guns. Clayton had a firm grip on his own weapon, just in case.
“I’ve got a signal. It’s weak... flickering. Roughly three klicks from here.”
“Three klicks,” Clayton muttered, staring at the red dot of Dr. Grouse’s locator beacon on the miniature map in the top left of his HUD. Three kilometers over rough terrain. Average walking speed was around five klicks an hour. He checked his air. One hour and five minutes. They’d have to move fast to get there and back.
“Air supply check,” Clayton ordered as he strode toward the forest.
Everyone reported in one after another saying they had just over an hour of air left. It was enough, but barely.
“He’s just sitting there,” Ambassador Morgan said. “Why isn’t he moving?”
“Could be wounded,” Delta said.
“Should we go back for Doc?” Commander Taylor asked.
“No,” Clayton replied. “He needs to watch Dr. Reed for any adverse reactions after breathing the air down here. Besides, we all have first aid training. We’ll stabilize him as best we can and get him back to the shuttle ASAP.”
“Copy that,” Delta said as they plunged into the trees. Darkness enveloped them once more, and they snapped their ring lights on. Delta and Commander Taylor began scanning the tree tops. Leaves from the first canopy formed a hazy ceiling about a hundred meters up. “Think the other monkeys got the memo?” Delta asked.
“The memo?” the ambassador asked.
“That we’re the good guys.”
“Are we?” Commander Taylor countered.
They left that question hanging. Time will tell, Clayton thought. Founding a human colony on this world was bound to lead to friction with the natives. The Native Americans had been friendly enough to European settlers until they’d begun colonizing in earnest.
The eerie glow of phosphorescent vegetation growing on the forest floor competed with the beams of their head lamps as they tracked toward the blinking red dot of Dr. Grouse’s locator. Massive trees swept by them, bigger than any redwood back home. These trees had to be ancient. So how long ago had that invasion taken place? And how did these alien monkeys still remember it?
“We need a name for them,” Ambassador Morgan said suddenly.
Silence answered him.
Clayton decided to bite. “I assume you have a suggestion.”
“What about Trappans? Or Trappans?”
“I like monkeys,” Delta said. “Call it what it is.”
“They have ten legs, and they evolved on another planet,” the ambassador said. “And they have beaks like birds, and quills like porcupines. They are hardly analogous to monkeys from Earth.”
“How about we call you a monkey?” Morgan replied.
Delta turned to glare at him, and Morgan subsided.
Commander Taylor and Clayton traded grim smiles.
Rainbow bugs began spiraling around them, making the forest seem more wondrous and beautiful than sinister or dangerous.
They walked on, the minutes passing slowly. Every now and then they caught a gleam of alien eyes watching them from the trees, but this time nothing leaped down on them, and no glowing neck collars flared out to blind them. A low rattling sound followed them through the forest, however. To Clayton that said it all. We’ll let you walk around in our forest, but we don’t have to like it.
As they drew near to the red dot blinking on Clayton’s HUD, he turned and nodded to the others. “Eyes and ears everyone. We’re coming up on Dr. Grouse’s location now.”
“He still hasn’t moved...” Commander Taylor pointed out. “It’s been almost thirty minutes. I hate to say it but...”
“Then don’t, Commander,” Clayton replied. “No one is dying today.”
“Unless they’re already dead,” Ambassador Morgan muttered.
Clayton chose not to repeat himself. They’d see soon enough.
A pair of massive trees were flanking Dr. Grouse’s location, but there was no sign of him lying in the rotting carpet of fallen leaves or the faintly glowing underbrush that grew in that alien compost.
“Where is he?” Commander Taylor asked.
“Doctor Grouse!” Clayton called out, trying him on an open comms channel as they covered the last few steps to his location.
Static was the only reply.
He activated his helmet’s external speakers and tried again. “Doctor Grouse! Say something if you can hear me!”
They reached the exact spot of the locator beacon, but they still couldn’t see him. Everyone cast about, searching the forest floor with their head lamps.
“He has to be here...” Taylor said. She got down on her haunches and began clearing away spongy masses of rotting vegetation at their feet. Clayton watched intently, expecting to see a hand, a foot... a broken helmet with dead, staring eyes.
But there was no sign of Dr. Grouse or his locator anywhere. Taylor straightened with an irritated sigh, shaking her hands and flinging away stringy gobs of muck and rotting leaves.
“I don’t get it,” Ambassador Morgan put in. “What are we tracking if he isn’t here?”
“He has to be around here somewhere,” Taylor insisted.
“Maybe it’s just the tracker,” Delta added in a low voice and shrugged his broad shoulders. “Something chewed him up and spat out his implant. I doubt the monkeys like the taste of metal.”
Clayton was just about to reply when he saw something. A nearby tree had a giant cleft in the trunk, a shadowy hollow where something—or someone—could have been hidden. Being more optimistic, Clayton Thought maybe Dr. Grouse had dragged himself in there to hide from his attackers.
Clayton walked wordlessly over to the tree and shone his light into the gap in the trunk. Shadows parted and...
Nothing. It was just an empty hole in a tree.
Delta and Commander Taylor came up behind him, shining their lights in.
Clayton stepped inside and began feeling around through the mess of leaves and roots on the floor of the arboreal cave. It was big enough in here to fit a small house. He moved around in circles, feeling through the ground cover for what they all knew they were really looking for. A body.
Clayton’s hand grazed something. A chill raced down his spine and he felt what he thought was a hand.
He pulled on it, expecting to uncover the body that the Trappans had buried here. Instead, his arm pulled taut against a handle. Something groaned, and the floor lifted up, leaves and all.
Taylor gasped, and Delta jumped back, his rifle snapping up to aim at the ground.
“What in the...”
Clayton heaved, putting his back into it. That section of the floor folded away completely revealing a long sloping path snaking away into darkness.
“Shit,” Delta muttered.
“I’m getting a stronger signal from Dr. Grouse,” Taylor said. “He’s definitely down there somewhere.”
“I thought we were right on top of the signal?” Ambassador Morgan asked.
“We were, but we were tracking in 2D,” Taylor explained. “We didn’t think to check vertical displacement. He’s sixty meters down.
Clayton grimaced. “That’s a small skyscraper. So much for the Trappans being peaceful.”
“Or primitive,” Delta said. “Digging a tunnel that deep takes equipment. Heavy machinery. They probably hit bedrock after the first ten meters or so.”
“Not likely,” Commander Taylor said. “The trees here are massive, so the soil must run very deep. Let’s not make too many assumptions yet.”
“We have exactly thirty minutes of air left,” Clayton said, turning to her. “How far do you think we’re talking to get to the locator beacon?”
“Hard to say. If the slope stays constant, we’re looking at about one meter down for every five meters forward. Say three hundred meters from here.”
“That won’t take more than a few minutes,” Clayton decided.
“If we run the whole way back, we’ll make it,” Taylor added.
“And if we don’t?” Morgan asked. “We’ll have to take off our helmets and breathe the air.”
“Then we’ll share the same fate as your girlfriend,” Clayton replied.
Morgan bristled at the outing of his supposed-to-be secret affair. What he and Dr. Reed didn’t know was that it had never been a secret. Spaceships are far too small for secrets to last long.
“The real problem isn’t possible contamination; it’s passing out from a lack of oxygen,” Taylor said. “Taking off our helmets will only buy us another ten minutes.”
“Then I guess we’d better hurry,” Clayton said. Gripping his coil gun in both hands, he started down into the tunnel. “Alphas, on me.”
“Copy...” Delta said.
Booted feet echoed down the trail behind Clayton, thumping with quasi-hollow reports in the root-filled ground. Those roots were everywhere, jutting like hairs from the walls of the tunnel, but the walls were otherwise smooth and hard, as if they’d been paved with concrete, or carved out of solid sandstone.
Darkness was thick and heavy at the end of the tunnel. Light from their headlamps vanished into empty space as the path snaked down endlessly before them. Watching the map on his HUD, Clayton realized they were winding down in lazy circles, a corkscrew spiral into the bowels of Trappist-1E.
Delta was close behind him, his breathing loud over the comms. “I don’t like this, sir. We have no idea what we’re walking into, and I’m pretty sure this is the only way in or out.”
“We can’t leave Dr. Grouse down here, Lieutenant,” Clayton replied, shaking his head.
“Yes, sir...” Delta sighed.
“What if he’s already dead?” Ambassador Morgan asked from the back of the group.
“His life signs are steady,” Commander Taylor replied. “That means he’s alive.”
The trail wound around another circle, still no end in sight. Clayton glanced at the map. The beacon was just nine meters away. They rounded another corner and he half expected to find Dr. Grouse lying on the trail, half-eaten, barely alive...
Instead, their headlamps flashed off a reflective surface. A metal door. Clayton stopped, his rifle’s stock pressed hard into his shoulder as he sighted down the barrel, waiting for that door to burst open.
“Still think they’re primitives?” Delta asked.
Clayton checked the range to the beacon: five meters. Then he checked his remaining air: twenty-five minutes. They needed to get in and out fast if they were going to make it back to the shuttle on that little air.
“No sign of a door handle,” Taylor said.
“Might not need one,” Delta replied. “Maybe it opens automatically. Keyed to a remote or biometrics.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Clayton said. “Let’s make a hole.”
“On it, sir,” Delta replied, stepping past Clayton and dropping to his haunches to examine the barrier.
“Back it up,” Clayton ordered as he matched action to words. The others shuffled away with him until they were almost around the corner from the door.
Delta laid a remote-detonating charge in front of the door and hurried to join them. “Fire in the hole!” he yelled.
A muffled boom rumbled through the tunnel and a blast of air whipped by them. “On me,” Clayton said before taking his coil gun in a two-handed grip and stalking back around the corner.
The tunnel was bathed in smoke, but Clayton could see that the chamber on the other side of the door was brightly-lit. His gut told him this was a mistake, but it was too late to back out now. He inched forward, hands sweating inside his gloves as he crept toward the ragged, glowing metal frame where the door had been a moment ago.
“Activate infrared overlays,” Clayton whispered.
Acknowledging clicks sounded back over the comms.
Clayton scanned for heat signatures through the smoke as he neared the broken door. Of course he didn’t know if the Trappans were cold-blooded, but it was the best he could do.
Stepping through the hole, Clayton emerged in a gleaming metal chamber with high, echoing ceilings that stretched into darkness above them. The floor was made of something like polished concrete, and they were surrounded by strangely-colored holograms and oddly crafted control consoles. Those displays and consoles crawled high up the curving brown walls. He wondered how anything could access the upper levels, but a metal rail running in front of the displays made him think of a tram. Equipment beeped steadily from the distant recesses of the chamber. Rows of what looked like cubicles lay at the far end. They had open ceilings, but were surrounded by four walls, and each of them had a glass door.
“What is this place?” Ambassador Morgan asked over the comms.
“Looks like a lab of some kind,” Commander Taylor replied.
Clayton nodded along with that. One look at the nearest chair told him that it wasn’t designed for the ten-legged Trappans. Those metal railings were running in front of the ground level consoles, too. Simple metal bars. What would sit on a bar?
It’s a perch, he realized, peering up into the shadowy recesses of the ceiling once more. The high ceilings were another clue.
“I think an avian species built this,” Clayton said, searching the shadows with his infrared overlay for signs of life.
Not a blip.
“Not the Trappans, then,” Ambassador Morgan replied.
“No,” Clayton confirmed, bringing his gaze back down. Dr. Grouse’s beacon was coming from the cubicles at the back. He swallowed hard, his skin crawling with terror. “Whoever they are, they’re not here now. Let’s get Dr. Grouse and RTB.” Clayton began stalking toward the tracking signal.
“RTB?” Ambassador Morgan asked.
“Return to base,” Commander Taylor supplied.
They reached the first of several cubicles and Clayton peered in through the glass door. A big metal stretcher with something strapped to it filled the room. The brown body with ten legs draped over the sides told Clayton they were looking at a Trappan. The creature’s head was encased in a gleaming helmet of some kind with wires trailing from it to a nearby console. Equipment beeped steadily around the creature, and a bundle of tubes trailed from its chest.
“Found him!” Commander Taylor crowed.
Clayton whirled around to find her standing at the last door on the right. Clayton counted doors to ten cubicles in all as he ran to join her. Half of them were filled with Trappans. The other half were empty.
“We need to get this door open,” Taylor said while struggling with a horizontal metal loop for a handle. It was located down near the floor, about two feet off the ground. Another clue that they were dealing with something very alien.
“Shit on a stick,” Delta said as he crowded in.
Dr. Grouse was lying on a metal stretcher that was ten sizes too big for him, strapped down, and apparently unconscious. His helmet was off, cast away carelessly to one side, but he had a breathing mask on. Whoever or whatever had put him in here must have understood his body’s needs for higher concentrations of oxygen than the local air could provide.
Just like the Trappan in the first room, Dr. Grouse had some kind of glossy black cap on his head with wires trailing to a nearby console. He also had three tubes snaking out of his chest. One was blood red, another black, and another clear.
“Just break it,” Clayton said, dragging his eyes away to see that Taylor was still trying to force the door open via the handle.
“Yes, sir.” She straightened and flipped her coil gun around, butt-first to the door, and hammered the glass hard enough to draw a thunderous boom from it.
Not a crack.
“Damn it, it’s strong!” Commander Taylor said.
“Delta, you give it a try—No offense, Commander.”
She stepped back. “None taken, sir.”
Delta could bench four hundred pounds in Earth gravity. Down here at point seven Gs, he could probably lift a small car. He stepped up and hammered the door just as Commander Taylor had done. Same result. He tried twice more without effect and then stepped back, breathing hard and rolling out his shoulders. “No can do, sir. We’ll have to blast it open.”
“We do that, we risk injuring Dr. Grouse.”
Clayton glanced up to the top of the wall. One of them could reach the rim of it with a boost. “We’ll climb over.” He bent to one knee and cupped his hands. “Commander, you’re up!”
She stepped into his hands and he launched her up to the wall. She grabbed it and pulled herself over. A moment later she hit the deck on the other side of the door and waved. She spent a moment examining that door from the other side, then bent down and said, “Hang on, Captain,” just as he was about to boost Delta over.
Something thunked and the door slid aside. Clayton hurried in.
“It was locked from the inside,” Commander Taylor said, pointing to a simple mechanical bolt on the inside.
No key or automatic mechanism would open that. It meant that whoever was running this place usually came in from the air. The doors were probably just there to drag the subjects in and out.
Clayton glanced up again into the deepening shadows of the ceiling, half-expecting to see eyes peering down.
He didn’t see any, but that didn’t mean they weren’t being watched. He nodded toward Dr. Grouse and crossed the cubicle to reach his side. “Commander, help me disconnect him.” The tubes snaking from Dr. Grouse’s chest could be dangerous to remove. Damn it if Taylor hadn’t been right about going back for Doctor Stevens. He went to try the helmet first, grabbing it in both hands and easing it off. It slid off easily, revealing trickles of dried blood around Dr. Grouse’s ears. He set the helmet down on the floor and breathed a shaky sigh.
Taylor was tearing Dr. Grouse’s suit away around the bundle of tubes protruding from his chest. A rubbery sucker was attached to the end of that bundle of tubes, and it was connected directly to Dr. Grouse’s sternum. Had they drilled holes through his chest?
“There’s no easy way to do this,” Commander Taylor concluded.
Clayton nodded quickly. Air was down to eighteen minutes. Even at a flat sprint they weren’t going to make it back in time. Hopefully by now the HEROs had landed and they could call for those drones to come to them with spare O2 packs. “Give me an action plan, Commander.”
“We cut the lines and tie them off. Let Doc deal with extracting the catheter.”
“Big ass catheter,” Delta said.
“Do it, Commander,” Clayton replied.
Taylor reached to her belt and drew her multi-tool. Folding out a serrated knife, she grabbed the bundle of tubes about a foot away from Dr. Grouse’s chest and then bent them to put a kink in the lines. Some piece of equipment began screaming somewhere in the room. An alarm of some kind.
“Better hurry!” Delta said.
Taylor sliced all three tubes with a quick flick of the wrist. Blood and unknown fluids spurted all over her suit. The lines still connected to the machines sprinkled all of them, twisting and snaking through the room under the pressure of the fluids pumping through them. Delta grabbed those tubes and tied them off just as Taylor did the same with the ends still attached to Dr. Grouse’s chest.
That alarm continued shrieking.
Clayton kept his eyes on the shadowy ceiling, tracking back and forth with his coil gun.
“He’s still unconscious,” the ambassador said.
Clayton almost didn’t hear what he said. He was too focused on watching their backs. He could have sworn he’d just seen something moving around up there.
“Get him up!” Clayton snapped.
“What about his air supply?” Taylor replied.
“He’ll have to last until we get back to the shuttle. Cut those straps and let’s move out!”
“Yes, sir,” she replied.
Another wraith-like shimmer disturbed the hazy darkness above. A flash of dim red light followed. Eyes? Clayton’s heart hammered hard in his chest, his breathing fast and ragged. His gaze snapped down for a split-second, just in time to see Delta slinging Dr. Grouse over his back like a sack of potatoes.
“Move out,” Clayton said, already stepping through the door. His eyes flicked between the ceiling and the jagged hole that they’d blown in the subterranean entrance to this place. Clayton was beginning to suspect there was a ground level access somewhere up there in the darkened hollows of the ceiling.
Just before they reached the exit, Clayton heard a loud whooshing and his eyes snapped up to see a gleaming black shape plummeting down. Translucent wings spread wide just before it landed quietly in front of them. It stood only waist-high, but its wingspan was at least twelve feet.
Guns snapped up with a clattering sound.
“Hold your fire!” Ambassador Morgan said, stepping forward with his hands raised. He really hadn’t learned about that.
The ambassador and alien stood facing off with each other for a silent, breathless moment.
Clayton studied the creature as it folded its wings away against its back. Two short legs with vicious talons were planted on the ground, and two slender arms were curled up against the creature’s chest. Sharp red eyes glared at them out of a bony head with streamlined features and hairless, translucent skin that revealed a fish scale pattern of black veins running through it. Four short tentacles rose from the back of its head that rotated independently in a new direction each time one of them spoke. Ears of some kind. The creature wore a black mask with a grille over what was probably its mouth and nose, and a matte black suit with a vague fish scale pattern covered its torso. The suit was cut away at the feet, arms, and wings.
“We left the Visualizer with Reed and the shuttle,” Taylor whispered over the comms.
Clayton risked glancing back down to the cubicles. Dr. Grouse had a pack with a Visualizer in it when he’d gone missing. Where was it now?
“Greetings in the name of the United Nations of Earth,” Ambassador Morgan tried, as if this thing would understand him.
The creature chattered something back in a sing-song voice. Silence followed.
Clayton glanced at his air supply. Fourteen minutes and twelve seconds. “We need to get out of here.” He stepped up next to the Ambassador and then turned and pointed emphatically at Dr. Grouse, who was draped over Delta’s back and shoulders.
The winged creature chattered something else and ghostly-white membranes nictated over those eyes, turning them a rheumy color.
Clayton took another step toward it, again pointing to Dr. Grouse. “We need to get him out of here. He’ll die if we don’t get him oxygen soon.” Clayton hoped the creature would at least understand his tone if not his words.
Another sing-song reply. Clayton took another step, and it stepped away from him.
Was it afraid of him?
“Captain, look out!” Commander Taylor cried. Hands seized his shoulders and pulled him roughly aside.
A bright green flash of light dazzled Clayton eyes, and a puff of red mist exploded from Commander Taylor’s back.
Clayton’s heart froze and his coil gun snapped up. The creature’s wings flared out and whooshed as it leapt off the floor.
Both Clayton and Delta tracked it and opened fire as Taylor sank to her knees.
The coil guns erupted with bright white muzzle flashes as hypervelocity rounds leapt out and punched hard into the alien soaring over their heads.
The creature cried out and black blood gushed over them as it careened back down to the deck. It landed with a thud and lay still. Clayton stared at it for a breathless second, and then Taylor flopped onto her face.
“Keera!” he cried, her last name no longer good enough to convey the depth of his concern.
Clayton landed on his knees beside Taylor and rolled her over. Her helmet was splashed with blood from the inside. Her chest was a blackened scorch mark where the alien had shot her.
Delta crowded in with a gasp and a muttered curse. “No life signs, sir.”
Morgan crouched into view as Clayton unsnapped the seals of Taylor’s helmet with shaking hands. “Is she...”
Clayton removed the helmet to reveal what they all already knew. Blank, staring eyes greeted them. Clayton stood up, casting about with his weapon for targets. His whole body shivered with adrenaline and rage.
“We need to go, sir,” Delta said as he crouched down to pick up Dr. Grouse’s unconscious form. “There could be more of them up there. Or on their way down.”
“I agree,” the ambassador put in.
Clayton warred with himself briefly about what to do with the body. He wanted to take her back with them, but he needed his hands free for his rifle. “Morgan! Pick her up.”
“Over your shoulders. Hurry up.”
The ambassador bent down low and slung Commander Taylor’s body over his shoulders. He straightened with a grunt of effort and shaking legs.
“Good.” Clayton grabbed his weapon in both hands and turned toward the exit. “Everyone on me.”
They pounded back up the winding trail, headlamps bobbing and flashing over the root-invaded walls. Before they’d even made it halfway up, Morgan collapsed and cried, “Wait! I can’t. I need a break...”
Clayton turned to glare at him. No one else could afford to carry Taylor, and stopping every half a klick for Morgan to recover was just going to get them all killed. “We’ll have to leave her,” he gritted out. “Keep moving!”
A few minutes later, they burst out into the gloomy forest, and Clayton got on the comms to Doctor Stevens as they ran.
“Sir?” he answered.
“Are the HEROs there yet?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve ordered them to fan out and protect the landing site.”
“I need you to send four of them to my location with fresh O2.”
“Copy that. Four, not five? You were unable to recover Dr. Grouse?”
Clayton’s breath caught in his throat. “We did, but Commander Taylor didn’t make it.”
Silence was loud on the other end of the comms. “Understood, sir,” Stevens said in a low voice. “HEROs on their way.”
“Good. Cross out,” Clayton said.
Trees flashed past in a blur, glimmering rainbow bugs danced through the air. They jumped over fallen branches and logs, not daring to slow down.
Ten minutes passed and Clayton’s remaining air became four zeros, flashing red at the bottom of his HUD.
“I’m out!” Delta cried, his breathing quick and shallow. “Have to get this bucket off!”
“One minute left,” the ambassador added.
Clayton stopped and turned to see Delta stumble and stagger before laying Dr. Grouse out on the forest floor and pulling off his helmet. He sucked in deep, desperate breaths of the alien air.
Clayton’s head swam, dark spots crowding in, a warning that he was just seconds away from being forced to do the same. He was just about to contact Stevens and ask where their air was when a wave of four green dots came racing in on Clayton’s HUD map. Cracking branches and thundering feet heralded their approach seconds before Clayton saw his headlamp flashing off their gleaming metal bodies.
Just in time. The HEROs arrived and handed over the spare O2 packs. They shouldered off their gear bags and then hit the releases for their air packs and let the HEROs replace them. Delta put his helmet back on and went back to breathing sterile air. One of the HEROs bent to one knee and fitted an emergency mask attached to the fourth pack over Dr. Grouse’s mouth and nose. His breath began fogging the mask.
A familiar human voice crackled out of that HERO unit as it shook its metal head. “How long has he been breathing this air?” Clayton blinked in recognition of the voice. It was Doctor Stevens. He was the nearest to the planet and the most qualified so it made sense he would take control of one of the units.
Clayton thought back. “Almost twenty minutes.”
Stevens’ unit nodded while the other three HEROs took up guard positions. “He’ll recover, but we need to get him to sickbay on the Forerunner.”
Clayton nodded. “Let’s move!” He left his empty pack on the forest floor and waited for Doctor Stevens to pick up Dr. Grouse. Delta aborted a half-hearted attempt to pick the man up himself, and then they were off again, flashing past the trees on their way out.
The clearing came, no longer lit with daylight but cloaked in the crowding shadows of night. A sliver of a golden moon beamed down, gilding the shadows around the hull of their shuttle, as well as one other, smaller craft with a mirror-smooth black hull. That was the HAT they’d sent down—the HERO Assault Transport.
The comms crackled with a new voice before they were even halfway from the tree line to the shuttle.
“Captain, Forerunner actual here—” Lieutenant Devon’s voice hitched as she spoke. He’d left her with the conn when he came down with the landing party.
“Forerunner, we’re on our way back to you. Get sickbay ready.” he said.
“Copy. Better make it quick, sir. We have multiple contacts inbound, hot. Range four hundred and sixty million klicks.”
Contacts. That word echoed raggedly through Clayton’s head as he ran for the airlock of the shuttle.
“What do you mean, Contacts?” Delta replied, asking before anyone else could.
“Sensors classify them as metallic, low density. They’ve been accelerating toward us ever since we first spotted them.”
“ETA?” Clayton asked as his boots touched the bottom of the shuttle’s landing ramp. The airlock hissed open to reveal Dr. Reed and Doctor Stevens both standing inside, waving them in. Reed was wearing her helmet again.
A garbled reply came back from Devon as they piled in with the HEROs. Doctor Stevens took Dr. Grouse’s air mask off and checked his vitals, his hands hesitating over the bundle of tubes protruding from his chest.
“What happened to him?” Stevens asked.
Clayton just shook his head, his attention on the conversation with Devon. Stevens went over to an emergency supply locker inside the airlock and withdrew a helmet to replace the one they’d left behind in that alien lab. Stevens slipped it over Dr. Grouse’s head.
“Say again, Forerunner, you’re breaking up,” Clayton said as Delta shut the outer doors and initiated decon.
Red lights flashed and a robotic female voice droned out: “Decontamination commencing...”
“Contacts are twenty-two hours out. Repeat, ETA less than one Earth day.”
Clayton blinked in shock. One day to cover four hundred and sixty million kilometers. “How fast are they going? And why am I only hearing about this now, Lieutenant?”
“Current velocity is just over ten kilometers per second. Acceleration is one hundred and five meters per second squared, and you’re only hearing about this now because sensors didn’t pick anything up until now. Captain, we’re talking about unknown spacecraft on an intercept course.”
Clayton mulled over those details in silence as decon sprays misted his faceplate and ran in glistening rivulets off his suit.
The timing was too much of a coincidence. Those ships had shown up within half an hour of them killing that bird-creature and rescuing Dr. Grouse. Now they’d appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and were accelerating toward the Forerunner at over ten Gs. No living creature that they knew of could survive that kind of acceleration for long.
“Captain, do you read me? I need to know your orders! Should we launch fighters?”
The decontamination sequence ended, and a green light snapped on above the inner doors and they slid open to reveal the interior cabin space and cockpit of the shuttle. “I read you, Forerunner. No launches yet. Set an outbound course—one G of acceleration, and wait for us to get there.”
“Copy. Outbound, where? Earth?”
“No, not Earth. Just get us away from this planet. We’ll set more precise coordinates after I arrive.”
* * *
Lori lay against the outer airlock door between Delta and Dr. Grouse, the outer hull thrumming and roaring around them, the vibrations rattling through Lori’s bones. All three of them were pinned in place by the shuttle’s acceleration as it burned hard for orbit.
They’d all been exposed to the air on Trappist-1E, so they were sharing a rudimentary quarantine away from the others inside the airlock. They were all also wearing their suits—just in case they needed to be isolated from each other, too. Dr. Grouse’s suit wasn’t pressurized, though—thanks to the alien catheter stuck in his chest. His helmet was just window dressing—a way to keep the decon sprays out of his lungs while the airlock had been cycling to let the others in.
Doc Stevens had left that bundle of tubes in Dr. Grouse’s chest despite everyone’s objections, but he claimed that he needed access to proper scanning equipment and a surgical room to be able to remove it without jeopardizing Dr. Grouse’s life. Lori didn’t like it, but she knew he was right. They’d reach the Forerunner soon enough. At that point they’d all have to go through rigorous tests to make sure they hadn’t been infected by alien microorganisms.
The news from Lieutenant Devon and the Forerunner was shocking, but it made perfect sense after Delta had explained to Lori where and how they’d found Dr. Grouse. He’d been the subject of God knows what kinds of tests and experiments, and all of that in such a short span of time. He’d only been missing for a little over an hour. Lori hoped that meant they’d rescued Dr. Grouse in time—but in time for what?
None of them knew what those aliens had been doing to him, and this alien species was clearly both advanced and intelligent, whereas the ten-legged Trappans appeared to be intelligent, but not advanced. It was staggering to think that they’d made contact with two different intelligent species in a matter of hours, and Lori couldn’t help but think that the second species they’d met had something to do with the visions she’d seen from the first species. That orbital bombardment had to have been conducted by a highly advanced species.
Maybe the same one that they’d encountered in that underground lab. Birdmen, Delta had called them. As good a name as any. What Lori wouldn’t have given to have met them first, to have had the chance to establish communications with a Visualizer. Of course, Dr. Grouse had already had that chance, and look where it had gotten him. Something told her that any communications between him and his captor had been wholly one-sided.
The deafening roar of the shuttle’s thrusters quieted and the acceleration eased. They must have reached orbit. The forces pinning them down felt only slightly stronger than regular Earth gravity. Lori let out a shuddering breath, feeling a sharp pain from creaking ribs.
Someone shoved Lori hard in her shoulder. It was Delta. He was pointing to Dr. Grouse. “Look! He’s coming to!”
Lori rolled her head to look. Delta was right. Dr. Grouse’s hand was twitching. Then his arm. Then his whole body began jumping and skipping against the airlock doors like a fish flopping on the ground. “He’s having a seizure!” Lori cried.
She pushed off the airlock, and straddled him, struggling to pull off his helmet. He was foaming at the mouth behind his faceplate. The direction of thrust made the airlock doors seem like the deck to her. She turned and glanced back up at the inner doors. From this new perspective the inner doors were like the ceiling. Unreachable except by climbing the ladder rungs in the actual deck and ceiling of the shuttle. Lori yanked off the helmet. Dr. Grouse was thrashing around under her, his blue eyes so wide they were practically leaping out of his head.
Lori heard Delta on the comms. “Doc, we need you in the airlock now!”
“I’m on my way. Hang on!”
Lori struggled to hold Dr. Grouse’s head still, to stop him from bashing his skull repeatedly on the outer doors. His eyes began rolling, his jaws alternately clamping and gaping as he foamed at the mouth. She could feel his breathing getting faster and shallower.
“He can’t breathe!” Lori cried.
And then he stopped thrashing and his chest heaved out one final sigh.
“No!” Lori screamed.
Reaching up blindly she unsnapped the seals of her helmet and threw it off.
“Doctor Reed what are you doing!” Delta said. “He’s contaminated!”
“We’re all contaminated!” she replied as she began administering chest compressions. She paused, hesitating only briefly before pinching his nose shut and giving Dr. Grouse the kiss of life. The inner airlock doors slid open, and Doctor Steven’s voice trickled in. “Almost there. Good job Lori. Keep his blood pumping and air in those lungs.”
She just nodded, sweat-matted brown hair falling in front of her eyes.
What felt like only seconds later, hands were pulling her away, and Doctor Stevens jammed a big needle into Dr. Grouse’s chest beside the trunk of severed tubes still protruding from him.
Dr. Grouse’s body jumped. He sucked in a ragged breath and sat up with a scream. He began pawing wide-eyed at the tubes sticking out of his chest.
“Dr. Grouse! No!” Stevens cried, trying to pull his hands away. “Lori, help me!”
She grabbed one arm and pulled it away while Stevens held the other. Dr. Grouse’s chest was heaving hard, his eyes wide and terrified, his lips blue and skin waxy and ashen. He looked like death, but he was alive.
“Dr. Grouse! Hey! It’s okay! You’re okay,” Lori soothed. He looked to her with those wide, staring eyes and some of the fight went out of him. “You just passed out,” she explained. A small twisting of the truth.
He didn’t seem to have heard her, and his eyes seemed to be staring right through her as if she wasn’t even there.
“They? What do they know?” She shook her head quickly.
He blinked and his eyes finally focused on her. He swallowed visibly and tried again, this time in a rasping voice, “They know where Earth is.”
Clayton left the shuttle airlock at a flat sprint, darting past Doctor Stevens and his three new patients on their way to sickbay. The ship was under one G of linear thrust, so moving around felt perfectly natural. Clayton briefly noted on his way out that they had wrangled Dr. Grouse into a new pressure suit, one without the hole around the catheter in his chest. That was to keep him from contaminating the air aboard the Forerunner while they moved him down to sickbay.
Clayton was also aware of Dr. Grouse’s revelation about his avian captors. Apparently, the aliens had used their version of a Visualizer on him, and they’d picked his brain until he had literally bled from his ears.
The ambassador hung back with Dr. Reed, leaving Clayton to run up to the bridge alone. He made contact with Lieutenant Devon before he even arrived, asking for an update.
The news wasn’t good.
She told him that the inbound alien ships had changed course to match the Forerunner’s outbound trajectory.
Clayton reached the bridge and used his ARCs to open the doors. Heavy metal slabs rumbled open, and he strode through.
A Marine standing guard inside the doors came to attention and called out, “Captain on deck!”
The rest of the crew rose to their feet.
“At ease! I have the conn!” He strode quickly down the aisle between control stations to reach the forward viewscreens. Lieutenant Devon was waiting for him, her red hair a frizzy mess leaking out of a tangled bun and glowing in the light of Trappist-1 blazing through those viewscreens.
“Sir,” she said, inclining her head to him as he came to stand beside her and they turned in unison to face the viewports.
“Show them to me,” he ordered.
The stars on the viewscreens panned swiftly away, scrolling sideways until they came to rest on a cluster of small red target boxes. “Computer, enhance targets to maximum acuity.”
Those boxes blew up, zooming in until actual ships and discernible shapes appeared. They were black soul-sucking shadows that barely stood out from the darkness of space, six of them, all long and streamlined, as if wind resistance were somehow a factor. The ships were all the same type, and all flying in a close formation, with one in the lead and the others fanning out and trailing behind with increasing distance. It took Clayton a moment to recognize that formation as a V. Of course it is, he thought. But then he checked that thought: these creatures weren’t from Earth, so the idea that they might naturally flock together in a V-formation was likely flawed.
“How big are they?” he asked.
“Six hundred and ten meters.”
“Six hundred!” Clayton echoed.
The Forerunner was only four hundred meters long, and it was the largest class of spaceship that the UNE had ever built.
Clayton blew out a breath. Odds were six against one, and each of those ships could probably wipe them out in a blink. He was starting to question the wisdom of evacuating to orbit. Maybe they should have all gone down to the surface and run into the forests to try and hide.
“We need to attempt to establish comms. They need to know we mean them no harm.”
“We already tried to hail them, sir,” Devon said, shaking her head.
“Then we try again!”
Clayton rounded on the comms officer. An ensign he barely recognized. Celia Kolter. She had a round face and bright green eyes. Short black hair. He was less familiar with the men and women from Devon’s team than he was with his own bridge crew, but there was no point in switching them out now. These people had handled everything thus far; they could handle the remainder of this incident.
“Ensign, hail them on every frequency you can think of. Don’t stop until you get some kind of response.”
“Yes, sir! What’s the message, sir?”
The message. There was no way to communicate. No common language. Not even common encryptions. For all he knew trying to hail them with modulated beams of electromagnetic radiation could be interpreted as some type of attack. He gritted his teeth and shook his head. “Never mind. No comms.”
He turned back to the viewports with Devon.
“What are we going to do, sir?”
“We’re going to pray that those aren’t warships, Lieutenant, and while we’re praying, we’re going to arm every missile, rail gun, and laser that we’ve got and aim them aft at those ships. We’re also going to have our fighter pilots standing by and ready to scramble to their birds—” He broke off, grimacing at the poor choice of words. “—to their Scimitars,” he amended. “And we’re going to hope to God that we don’t actually need to defend ourselves, because if we do, I don’t think it’s going to be even nearly enough.”
“Yes, sir,” Devon replied in a whisper of a voice. She turned and nodded to the officer at the flight ops station. “You heard the captain! Get our pilots suited up and ready to go!”
Clayton stared hard at those streamlined shadows, all somehow racing toward them at ten Gs. If they had live crews on board, how were they able to survive that? Birds on Earth had hollow bones. They were fragile. Of course, being lighter than the average animal they might also survive higher G-forces with ease.
Clayton shook his head, dispelling those thoughts with a mental shove and forcing himself to focus on a strategy. Some plan to dissuade their pursuers or at least a way to give them hell if they couldn’t be dissuaded.
The problem was, he had absolutely no idea what kind of threat those ships presented. Were they armed? And if so, with what?
His mind flashed back to laser weapon the creature from the lab had used to kill Commander Taylor. It was a bad sign that these aliens had developed such lethal handheld lasers. The ones they mounted on their spaceships would undoubtedly be a lot more powerful. For all he knew, the Forerunner might already be inside of their effective weapons envelope.
* * *
Lori lay strapped to a gurney in sickbay, peering over the tips of her boots at Dr. Grouse and Delta. They were strapped down, too, but the straps were for their safety—in case the ship needed to make any sudden maneuvers.
The idea of a firefight in space was absurd. Just a day ago even first contact with an intelligent alien race would have been a milestone. Now they were talking about a military engagement with one.
Lori couldn’t help thinking that it was some kind of misunderstanding. There had to be a way to communicate to these beings that they meant them no harm—that their intentions were peaceful.
Dr. Grouse cried out, and Doctor Stevens barked an order at his assistant. “Get me suction, damn it! Yes! Now more gauze! Pack it in! There...”
The erratic beeping of Dr. Grouse’s heart rate monitor set the tone for Lori’s own heartbeat. A gloved hand reached into hers and squeezed. It was Richard, smiling down on her through two separate layers of faceplates and pressure suits. She wished they could peel those layers away so that he could hold her for real. This was probably the end—death had come for them aboard six, six hundred-meter long starships. Add one more six to that, and it could have been the Devil himself who had come for them.
“There, he’s stable,” Doctor Stevens sighed. Tools clattered to a mag-locked cart, and the doctor came striding over. “You’re next,” he said, smiling tightly at Lori. “Ready?”
“Next for what?” she asked slowly, her eyes on Dr. Grouse’s boots.
“No, no, just routine testing. He was a more delicate case because of the device lodged in his chest.” Doctor Stevens tried smiling more broadly to put her at ease.
Lori nodded, but didn’t smile back.
The next two hours were filled with blood tests and scans of every type imaginable for both her and Delta. Stevens eventually left them alone and went to an adjacent lab to test those samples. He returned after what felt like an eternity to give them the results.
“You’re both clear to leave,” he said. “No sign of any alien organisms in your blood, saliva, feces, or urine.”
“Great,” Lori said. Her eyes strayed once more to her colleague on the gurney opposite hers. “And what about Dr. Grouse?”
Doctor Steven’s expression turned cagey behind his helmet. He glanced at Dr. Grouse, lying sedated on his gurney, his chest now stuffed with gauze and wrapped in bandages.
“I’d like to keep him here for further testing.”
“That wasn’t an answer,” Lori pointed out.
“It wasn’t meant to be,” Stevens replied. “We don’t know enough yet about what was done to him.”
“Are there alien organisms in his blood?”
Stevens’ shook his head, but said nothing.
“Come on,” Richard said, already unclipping the restraints that pinned her to the gurney. He helped her up, and she swung her legs over the side and dropped to the deck. Across from her, Delta did the same all on his own.
“Thanks, Doc,” he said, and breezed by them on his way out.
“Remember to wait for the decon cycle before you leave! Don’t take off your suit before you’ve done that,” Stevens called after him.
“I’m not an idiot, Doc!” Delta called back.
Stevens looked back to Lori. “There is one other thing...”
A sharp pain erupted as fear sent acid boiling up her throat. “Yes?”
Stevens looked to Richard, then back to her, and put on a grim smile. “This may or may not be good news, but...”
“But?” Lori prompted. “Just get to the point, Stevens.”
Lori’s world tipped on its end and slid off into absurdity. A giggle escaped her lips, and she shook her head. “You’re joking, right?”
“I’m afraid not.”
Richard looked to her with a furrowed brow, as if there might be something that she had failed to tell him about.
“But that’s impossible!” Lori said. “I have an implant!”
“Implants can malfunction just like any other contraceptive. No birth control is perfect, Dr. Reed.”
Richard grabbed Lori’s hand again. “This is good news,” he said.
“Is it?” Lori challenged. “We’re talking about bringing a new life into... into what? Vacuum?” Lori said, throwing up her hands. “We’re all going to be dead soon, so this is neither good nor bad news. It’s just another death to tally.”
“We don’t know that yet,” Stevens said quietly.
“He’s right,” Richard added.
Lori shook her head in frustration. Her throat had constricted with a painful knot and her eyes burned with the threat of tears. She turned to leave, stalking after Delta.
This was everything that she and Richard had talked about and dreamed about, but it was all wrong! They were supposed to be colonizing a new world together, and starting their family down there, not up here in space, with hostile forces chasing them. No joy could be derived from an accidental pregnancy soon to be aborted by forces beyond their control.
“They might not have hostile intentions!” Richard called after her. “They might just want to talk to us!”
Lori wasn’t listening. She couldn’t bear to hold onto empty hope.
Something very bad was about to happen. If anyone needed any proof of that, they need look no further than Dr. Grouse and Commander Taylor.
We’re all going to die, Lori thought as she entered the quarantine airlock and initiated the decontamination cycle. Crimson light pulsed all around her, making the decon sprays look like blood.
Twenty Hours Later...
The air on the bridge could have been cut with a knife, thick and sour with sweat and fear. Clayton considered himself cool under pressure, but this standoff was even beginning to wear on him. His scimitar pilots were all sitting in their cockpits, their legs no doubt cramping to the point of paralysis by now. The gunnery chief on the bridge could have been wrung out like a wet cloth.
“Lieutenant Devon, any change?” Clayton asked, his eyes fixed on the six black bullet-shaped vessels chasing them away from the pale blue star that was Trappist-1. He sat at his control station in the center of the bridge, leaning on the armrests with both elbows, his hands steepled under his chin.
“No change, sir,” Devon said from the XO’s chair beside him. “Range is holding steady.”
He nodded, but gave no reply. The alien ships had closed to just one million klicks without launching a single fighter or firing even so much as a warning shot. Clayton had given his crew strict orders not to launch or fire anything either.
He knew they were outgunned. They would be vaporized in seconds if they started a pissing contest. This was like an unarmed hiker running into a grizzly bear in the wild. No sudden moves. Back away slowly.
Clayton let out a breath and rolled his head and shoulders. His neck cracked loudly as he did so. Six hours. The alien ships had been in range of the Forerunner’s lasers for six hours. Surely that meant that the Forerunner had been within range of their adversary’s guns for a lot longer. The effective range of a laser was a simple function of its power level and the sophistication of its focusing tech. The Forerunner could shoot a dust mote at a billion klicks and vaporize it, but that wouldn’t do more than tickle an armored target.
“What do they want?” he asked of no one in particular. “They’re not closing on us anymore. Not firing their guns. Not trying to contact us in any way...”
Lieutenant Devon glanced at him, her green eyes gleaming in the low light of the bridge and its viewscreens.
“Something on your mind, Lieutenant?”
She nodded. “Yes, sir. What if they’re following us?”
He frowned. “Obviously that’s what they’re doing, but why are they following us?”
“To get to Earth.”
That idea clicked, resonating inside of him. He grimaced. It had occurred to him, too, but he hadn’t wanted to say it aloud. Saying it made it seem somehow more likely.
“Let’s say that’s true. Do you think that they’re going to keep it up for the next ninety years while we fly home?”
“Maybe. Maybe they have cryo pods like us. Or maybe they’re immortal and time means nothing to them.”
A muscle in Clayton’s jaw twitched. “Anything is possible.” This was why they hadn’t set course for Earth yet. They couldn’t afford to reveal anything else about its location. It was bad enough that Dr. Grouse claimed the aliens had somehow stolen its location from his brain.
“Captain, we are coming up on the heliopause,” the officer of the helm announced. “ETA four minutes and seven seconds.”
Clayton nodded. “Carry on, ensign. Alert me once we’ve crossed it.”
Trappist-1 was an ultra-cool red dwarf eleven times smaller than the Sun. All of its planets orbited within tiny fractions of the distance from Earth to its Sun, which meant that Trappist-1’s solar wind was pathetically weak. Even though they’d only traveled about forty million klicks from the star, they were already about to cross the outermost boundary of the solar system, marking their return to interstellar space.
The seconds ticked away, silence gathering like a storm inside of Clayton. His chest felt tight. His head hot. He pulled up a map from his control station, a colorful hologram that hovered in the air before his eyes. He watched a green-shaded 3D icon of the Forerunner inching steadily closer to a sky blue line that circled the system’s sun.
They flashed across that line, and a subtle vibration shivered through the ship as they left Trappist-1’s influence.
Then something else happened. An alarm squawked.
“Sir! The enemy ships are changing course!” the ensign at the sensors station reported.
“Ready all weapons!” Clayton barked. “Flight ops, tell our pilots to—”
“Sir, they’re not accelerating!” the sensors officer said. “They’re peeling away. Look—”
Clayton minimized his map to see a more detailed version of it appear on the forward viewscreens. Six black, bullet-shaped vessels were turning and burning toward Trappist-1, their aft ends glowing bright red.
“Their acceleration is increasing. Two Gs... four... five... holding steady at five. They’re beating a hasty retreat, sir.”
“Must be their cruising speed,” Lieutenant Devon muttered.
The pressure in Clayton’s chest released, and he slumped in his chair. The standoff was over. Even better yet, it looked like they weren’t planning to follow the Forerunner back to Earth. So why had they been so determined to learn its location from Dr. Grouse?
Maybe he was mistaken. Or maybe they were simply curious where humans came from.
Sighs and muttered curses filled the air. People stretched at their stations. Relief flowed out from the crew like a wave, but Clayton wasn’t ready to give into it. Not yet.
Coming to a decision, he released his safety harness and stood up on creaking knees. “Lieutenant Devon, set condition yellow throughout the ship.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied. A bright yellow light pulsed through the bridge and an automated voice declared the reduced alert level over the intercom. “Going somewhere?” Devon asked.
“Sick bay. You have the conn, Devon. Alert me the instant anything changes up here.”
“Understood, sir. Shall I assume you’re going to speak with Doctor Grouse?”
Clayton inclined his head at that. “We need answers.”
“With all due respect, sir, what if we already have those answers?”
She unbuckled and rose from her chair. “They escorted us out of their territory. No shots were fired. We killed one of theirs and they killed one of ours. Maybe that puts us even in their books. They’re not hostile per se, but they’re definitely territorial. The message seems pretty clear: Trappist-1 belongs to us. Stay away.”
Clayton smiled grimly at her assessment. “I agree, but then why all the interest in where we come from?”
He arched an eyebrow at her. “Intel for what? You don’t gather intel on your friends. Certainly not by strapping them down and squeezing it out of their brains. So if we’re not their friends, then what are we?”
“Just because they know where we come from doesn’t mean they want to go there, sir.”
“It doesn’t mean that they don’t, either.”
“So why did they break off pursuit?” Devon asked.
Clayton snorted. “They might be waiting for reinforcements. It’s been over ninety years since we last saw Earth. By now our orbital defense fleet has probably doubled or tripled in size.”
“What could they possibly want from us?” Devon asked, shaking her head.
“That’s what I’m going to ask Dr. Grouse.”
Dr. Grouse was awake and sitting up when Clayton walked in, but his skin was waxy and gray, his eyes half-lidded, and his hair was falling out in giant clumps. Even his arms and beard were bald in places.
Clayton stood off to one side, watching with Doctor Stevens as a fully-suited corpsman held a bucket for Dr. Grouse to puke his guts into.
“He’s been throwing up for the past six hours straight,” Doctor Stevens explained over a private comms channel. The doctor’s voice was loud inside Clayton helmet, but it wouldn’t carry to Dr. Grouse’s ears. “That’s why he looks so bad. Well, that, and the virus that’s causing it.”
“Virus?” Clayton asked. “You mean he’s infected with something?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve never seen anything like it. It spreads so fast you can literally watch it multiply, and it’s having a strange, morphological effect on Dr. Grouse’s DNA.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s making random genetic changes all over the place. Most of the cells it changes simply die, but others are thriving.”
“So Dr. Grouse was subjected to some kind of genetic experiment? How is that possible? We were only separated from him for an hour! You’re telling me those birds created a designer virus tailored to humans in less than sixty minutes?”
“I don’t think this virus was designed for us, sir. I believe it was adapted for us,” Stevens said.
“A smart virus?”
“Or at least a configurable one. Regardless, if it continues to progress at this rate, Dr. Grouse will be dead in a matter of hours.”
“There’s nothing you can do?”
Stevens shook his head. “We could freeze him—put him in cryo and wait to get home so the specialists on Earth can find a cure. Their tech will be far ahead of ours by the time we arrive. One hundred and eighty years ahead to be exact. That could be enough to save him.”
Clayton grimaced and absently rubbed his smart watch through the sleeve of his suit. Hopefully a hundred and eighty years would be enough to save his wife, too.
“Let’s do it, but first I need to speak with him.”
“Of course, sir.”
Clayton led the way to Dr. Grouse’s bedside. The man stopped dry-heaving into his bucket and lay back against the gurney with a groan.
“It’s good to see you awake, Dr. Grouse.”
“I’d rather be dead.”
Clayton noticed that Dr. Grouse’s eyes were pink and striated with broken blood vessels. There was a lump on either side of his head, bulging from matching bald spots, as if horns were growing there, but the lumps were at the back of his head. The scalp over them was flaking and red. Clayton pointed to one of the growths. “What is that?” he asked over the comms.
Doctor Stevens shook his head and leaned in closer to examine one of them. “A tumor, perhaps?”
“You haven’t done a biopsy?”
“They weren’t there fifteen minutes ago.”
Fifteen minutes. This virus, whatever it was, was moving very fast. Clayton switched back to external speakers. “Dr. Grouse, I need to ask you a few questions.”
“Sure,” he rasped, eyes closing in a wince. His Adam’s apple bobbed slowly up and down in his throat.
“What did they do to you?”
“I already told Lori.”
“You said to her that they wanted to know where Earth was. What made you think that?”
“You watch holovids, Captain?”
He frowned. “Of course...”
“Imagine watching one in your head. It’s playing on a loop, over and over again, flashing in front of your eyes at ten times speed. Everything you know about Earth flashes through your mind’s eye in an instant. And then it happens again, and again, and—” Dr. Grouse cut himself off, his stomach heaving visibly as his whole body spasmed, making him buck off the gurney. His cheeks bulged and his mouth parted, but nothing came out. He subsided with a whimper and a ragged cry: “Just kill me!”
Clayton shook his head. “We’re going to get you back to Earth and get you the help you need. You’re going into cryo before this gets any worse.”
Dr. Grouse’s head lolled from side to side on the cushioned gurney. “Then hurry up and freeze me...” he whispered. “I can’t...”
“Dr. Grouse, we will. I promise, but this is important: what did the creatures who took you want?”
“There was just one. A flying thing with a mask...”
“We killed him.”
“Good,” Dr. Grouse croaked.
“What did he want?”
“I told you. He wanted to know where Earth is.”
“And? That’s it? Did he tell you anything about them?”
Dr. Grouse rocked his head from side to side.
“Nothing, not even a vague impression?” Clayton insisted. “Anything that could help us to characterize their motives would be helpful.”
Dr. Grouse’s eyelids fluttered, and his heart monitor began beeping frantically. Thin lines of blood trickled from his eyes. Doctor Stevens leapt into action.
“Get the crash cart!” he barked at the corpsman who’d been holding the bucket for Dr. Grouse.
And then the monitor flat-lined, and Clayton backed away, watching as Doctor Stevens charged a pair of paddles and ripped Dr. Grouse’s suit open to expose his bare chest.
Clayton’s eyes bulged at the sight of Dr. Grouse’s hairless chest—not just because he was bald where before he’d been hairy enough to rival a gorilla, but because the skin and bones over his chest had become translucent. Dr. Grouse’s arteries and his heart were clearly visible inside of his chest.
“Clear!” Stevens yelled, and then shocked Dr. Grouse. His body skipped with that jolt. Stevens waited a beat then shouted, “Clear!” again. Stevens shocked him twice more after that to no effect.
A chill coursed down Clayton’s spine. A virus that could kill a person in twenty four hours. Whatever it was, they couldn’t let it escape quarantine.
He began turning away—
But then a soft, wretched beep escaped from the heart monitor, followed by another, and then a quick succession of them as Dr. Grouse’s pulse raced back up to speed. Clayton could actually see Dr. Grouse’s heart fluttering inside of his chest.
The man’s eyes flew wide, looking more bloodshot than ever, and a gut-wrenching scream tore from his lips. He grabbed Doctor Stevens and pulled him down close, wrapping both hands around Stevens’ throat and baring his teeth in a manic, blood-spattered snarl.
Clayton blinked in shock.
“Sedate him!” Doctor Stevens cried.
The corpsman fumbled for a nearby syringe and struggled with shaking hands to fill it from a vial of clear fluid. Clayton ran back over to the gurney and pried at Dr. Grouse’s hands—
He was wickedly strong for a dying man.
Stevens’ face was turning purple inside his helmet, and he was slapping Dr. Grouse’s thigh repeatedly, as if trying to tap out of a fight.
“Dr. Grouse, let him go!” Clayton screamed.
A watery hiccup escaped Dr. Grouse’s lips. Was that a laugh? He coughed up a giant clot of black blood that splattered Clayton’s faceplate.
And then suddenly Dr. Grouse’s arms went slack and fell away from Doctor Stevens’ throat. The doctor collapsed to the deck, choking and coughing, gasping for air.
“What the hell was that?” Clayton demanded, wiping the blood from his faceplate on his sleeve and staring through a smeary crimson haze at Dr. Grouse’s now-placid features.
“I don’t...” Stevens trailed off with another cough.
Clayton’s comms crackled. “Captain, Devon here. I have an urgent update for you. Are you secure?”
Clayton walked away from the gurney and mentally killed the comms channel with Doctor Stevens. “I am now,” he said. “What’s going on, Devon?”
“The ships that were chasing us, sir. They just vanished.”
“Vanished? What do you mean vanished? They passed out of scanning range already?”
“No, sir. They were well within range, only a few million klicks away. One minute they were there, burning away at five Gs, and the next minute they were gone.”
Clayton’s guts clenched and churned. A cold weight settled inside of him, and he felt the blood draining from his face. He remembered the blips that he and Commander Taylor had been secretly tracking on their approach to Trappist-1. The same thing had happened then, too: there one minute, gone the next.
“They jumped out,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.
“Jumped out, sir?” Lieutenant Devon replied.
“FTL, Lieutenant. They have faster-than-light propulsion systems. That, or cloaking tech. Or both.” He let that sink in for a second before stating the obvious. “They don’t need to follow us to Earth, Devon. They already know where it is thanks to Dr. Grouse, so why wait ninety years for us to lead the way when they can beat us there by decades? For all we know, they could reach Earth inside a month.”
Silence and static answered that pronouncement. A long minute passed, and Clayton stumbled over to the nearest bulkhead and leaned heavily against it. There was nothing either of them could say. All Clayton could think about was those images that the Trappans had shown them. The before and after pictures of their world—how it had looked before the fire and brimstone had rained down from orbit... and how it now looked after: pocked with craters from the attack.
What would the before and after pictures of Earth look like? Clayton sank to the deck, staring at his hands through the smeary crimson veil of Dr. Grouse’s blood.
“Let’s not assume the worst, sir,” Lieutenant Devon whispered. “We don’t know that it’s FTL. It could be cloaking as you say.”
“Then for all we know they could have turned back around to follow us again. That’s not any better, Lieutenant.”
We were fools to come here, he thought. Fools to aspire to meeting other civilizations. Humanity’s greatest hubris was to reach for the stars and now it would be their downfall. History had taught them better than this. But we never learn.
Lieutenant Devon’s voice came low and rasping to Clayton’s ears, interrupted by rapid, shallow breaths. It sounded like she was in the middle of a panic attack.
“What are your orders, sir?”
Clayton just shook his head. Orders? The word rattled around in his brain. His instincts took over, supplying the answer from the deepest, most animal recesses of his brain. They had just two options. Fight or flight. Go home and fight, or run away and hide on some other world. If the latter, they would just have to hope and pray to God that these bird-creatures never found them. And that was no way to live.
“We go home, Lieutenant. We go home and we warn Earth before it’s too late.”
“Yes, sir, plotting course for—”
“No. Plot a course for Proxima. We’ll go there first and send a message ahead. Just in case we are being followed.”
Clayton eased up onto wooden legs. “One more thing, Lieutenant.”
“Not a word of this gets out. We don’t want to incite a panic.”
As soon as Clayton entered the cryo chamber, Ambassador Morgan came striding over. He grabbed Clayton’s arm and pulled him aside.
“Captain, you and I both know what could be out there,” he whispered. “You need to add me to the crew rotations.”
Clayton glared at Ambassador Morgan’s hand where it held onto his arm. The ambassador seemed to realize that he’d gone too far and removed it.
“You’re still a civilian on this ship, Ambassador,” Clayton explained. “Only the crew will be rotating in and out of cryo.”
“I represent the UNE. I need to be the first to handle any additional interactions with the Avari.”
Clayton frowned at the name. The ambassador had taken it upon himself to name them. It was better than Birdmen, but not by much. At least it’s less sexist, he thought.
“We’ll wake you if we encounter anything,” Clayton replied.
“How do I know that’s true?” Morgan countered, his eyes cinching down to slits.
He was right to be suspicious. Clayton had no intention of waking him. They held each other’s gaze for a few seconds. Clayton was tempted to leave it at that, but he gave in with a sigh and a nod. He would have to answer to UNE command when he got home. Keeping Morgan out of the loop wasn’t worth it. Besides, what was the worst that Morgan could do if they woke him up a few times a year?
Clayton turned to look around for Lieutenant Devon, scanning the myriad heads and faces of colonists and crew crowding the cryo chamber. He spotted her fire-red hair clear across on the other side of the deck. Mentally activating his comms, he contacted her. “Devon. I have the Ambassador here saying he wants to be on the active duty roster. Slot him into the same rotations as me.” That meant they’d both be awake once every six months for one week at a time.
“Are you sure, sir?”
“Not much choice. He is in charge, after all,” Clayton added that with a dry twist of his lips. “I’m sure he and I will have great fun together.”
Morgan smiled thinly and said, “Add Dr. Reed to the rotation as well. She’s the first contact specialist.”
“Dr. Reed?” Clayton asked, feeling his brow scrunch up like an accordion. “She’s pregnant!”
“She’ll wind up giving birth before we get home. We can’t put babies in cryo.”
The ambassador nodded. “But you can put toddlers in. When she’s ready to give birth, we’ll stay awake for the next two years and then all three of us will go back into cryo.”
Clayton was getting ready to put his foot down when Morgan added, “I’m not asking, Captain. I wouldn’t want to have to put insubordination in my report to the UNE when we get home.”
“Devon... add Dr. Reed to the same rotation schedule,” Clayton said.
“Copy, sir,” Devon replied.
“Captain Cross out.” He ended the call. “Satisfied?”
“Yes.” Morgan smiled. “Your cooperation has been noted.”
Clayton watched as the ambassador turned and walked away, melting back into the crowds of colonists and crew busy lining up for cryo.
Two weeks per year for ninety years. Clayton did the math in his head. That meant he was going to have put up with Morgan for a combined total of over three years. At least it was only for a week at a time.
And Dr. Reed... she would reach full term after just eighteen years of rotations—assuming she carried the baby to term. They wouldn’t even be a quarter of the way back to Earth by the time she gave birth.
Clayton shook his head to clear it and quickly crossed the cryo chamber, pushing through the waiting crowds to reach Doctor Stevens. The doc was busy directing corpsmen as they guided the crew into their cryo pods. Blue lights illuminated the tubes from within. Covers swung shut and loud hissing sounds escaped as the occupants were placed in cryonic suspension.
Clayton bumped into Dr. Reed before he could reach Stevens.
“Captain,” she said. “Did Richard—I mean Ambassador Morgan have a chance to speak with you?”
“Yes.” Clayton flattened his mouth and shook his head.
She looked crestfallen. Her hands fell self-consciously to her abdomen. “Please. I have to have her before we get back.”
“Her?” Clayton asked. “Isn’t it too soon to tell what she is?”
Dr. Reed’s lips quirked into a tentative smile. “Well, I think it’s a her, but I guess we’ll see.”
“If you have her on board, you’ll be stuck on The Wheel with her for two whole years.”
Dr. Reed nodded. “I know.”
The Wheel was exactly what it sounded like. A giant, spinning wheel with spokes to connect it to the middle of the ship. It was usually empty, but for long voyages where the crew would be awake for extended periods, The Wheel could be spun up to simulate Earth’s gravity. It was the only way for Dr. Reed and Morgan to raise their child on the ship until it was old enough to rotate in and out of cryo.
“Are you sure about this?” Clayton asked.
“Then I guess we’ll see each other in six months.”
“I had Devon add you and Ambassador Morgan to my rotations. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of each other before that baby is born—and after, I suppose.”
Dr. Reed smiled and nodded, rubbing her flat stomach. “Thank you, sir. You have no idea how much this means to me—to us.”
Clayton smiled tightly and nodded back, his gaze already straying back to Doctor Stevens.
“It’s not for sure yet, because, well... you know, we don’t actually know the sex, but I was thinking about calling her Keera. In honor of Commander Taylor.”
A knot rose into Clayton’s throat with the reminder of his late XO. She was lying dead and rotting in that underground lab back on Trappist-1E. He fought back tears, and spoke in a gravelly whisper, “She would be honored.”
Dr. Reed smiled. “If it’s a boy, we’re thinking Keeran.”
“He or she, that kid is going to have some big boots to fill.”
“She’ll have time to grow into them,” Dr. Reed replied.
Clayton was struggling to hold it together. If he had to deal with this for even a second longer, he was going to lose it. He cleared his throat and said, “Excuse me.”
Walking on to the front of the nearest line of people waiting to enter cryo, he found Doctor Stevens and said, “How are we doing, Doc?”
Corpsmen walked around the circumference of the chamber, checking readout screens and their control tablets before triggering pods shut. The pods sealed with a steaming hiss of flash-freezing cryo fluids and condensing moisture that curled out along the deck like smoke.
Doctor Stevens turned away from supervising the process. “Everything is going very well. At this rate, we’ll have everyone in cryo within the hour.”
The corpsmen shut the last of the pods on the deck, and then Doctor Stevens said, “Next section, please!”
The cryo pods shifted from forty-five degrees to vertical with a collective groan of machinery, followed by a loud clunk of locking bolts. The pods sank down to the deck below and the ones from the level above came sliding down. The pods were built into rotating belts that circulated between the outer and inner hulls so that they could be filled or emptied one ring at a time. Glass covers popped open—all except for one, which remained shut and illuminated, indicating that it was already occupied.
Clayton pointed to it. “Is that Dr. Grouse’s pod?”
“Yes,” Doctor Stevens confirmed.
They’d placed him in cryo yesterday, before any more of him could mutate and die.
“Did you need something, Captain?” Doctor Stevens asked, his bushy gray eyebrows drifting up.
Clayton watched corpsmen waving to the next people in line. They injected sedatives and guided colonists and crew stumbling into their pods, their eyes already heavy with sleep.
Sleep sounded good right about now. Clayton hadn’t been getting much of it lately. There were too many ghosts inside his head, and his sleep paralysis was getting worse.
“Yes...” Clayton trailed off, dragging his eyes away from the pods. “I’d like to jump the queue.”
Stevens’ rugged features screwed up in confusion. “You want me to put you in next?”
“May I ask why?”
Clayton sucked in a shaky breath. He was the captain; he was supposed to set an example. How could he explain that all of this waiting around was just too much, that he couldn’t stand to be awake for another second because now he had two people haunting him: the wife he’d lost, and the work wife who’d stood by his side through Samara’s funeral, his subsequent depression, and everything in-between. Keera Taylor was dead, and he didn’t even have the delusional dream of someday bringing her back from a mind map. Clayton glanced at his smart watch and Samara’s smiling face—everything that she was and had been, condensed down to a single picture and a string of ones and zeros etched into a crystal matrix. The sheer absurdity of that fully struck him for the first time.
“Sir?” Stevens prompted.
He jerked his head up with a crumbling smile. “Yes, I’d like to go next.”
“Of course...” Stevens snapped his fingers to a nearby corpsman. The other man paused just before he could inject someone else with a sedative. “Over here, Sellis; Captain Cross is next.”
The corpsman nodded and walked over with a bemused frown. “This way, please, sir.”
Clayton let Sellis lead him to an empty pod. “Ready?”
“When you are, Corpsman. Need me to roll up my sleeve?”
“No, sir. It self-sterilizes.” Sellis said, and then stabbed him with the needle.
The pain was like a bee sting, but it lasted for only a second before a spreading warmth overtook it, cascading down to his knees and making them feel weak. A blissful sigh escaped Clayton’s lips as the corpsman led him into the nearest pod.
“See you next rotation, sir,” Stevens said, crowding in and tossing a quick salute.
Clayton tried to return it, but failed to raise his arm. His eyes sank shut and the sound of his pod groaning shut came distantly to his ears, followed by a loud hiss that snuffed out all the light and warmth left in his being.
The Long Journey Home
Ten Years Later...
35.42 Light Years from Earth
“You’ve been having contractions?” Dr. Stevens scratched the grizzled shadow of stubble growing along his jaw. He squinted at Lori in the bright lights of sickbay. She’d woken him up in the middle of his sleep cycle, and it showed.
“Yes—” Lori nodded quickly, and broke off in a wince and a gasp as another contraction hit. She braced herself on the edge of the examination table, gritting her teeth and gripping the table with whitening knuckles. The contraction ended just as quickly as it began, leaving her body so drained that she almost fell off the table. Richard steadied her.
“That’s not all, Doc. I think my water broke. When I woke up, the bed was wet.”
Stevens’ face paled, but he quickly covered his reaction. Lori knew what he was thinking. She was only twenty-four weeks. It was far too soon for her to have the baby. He gave a tight smile. “There are other possibilities, but let’s take a look, shall we?” he suggested. “Lie down, please.” Both he and Richard helped support her as she lay back against the table.
“What if it is labor?” Lori asked as Stevens left her side. Richard stayed close, smiling and holding her hand. She clutched her massive belly with her other hand—felt a swift kick, and rubbed her hand back and forth reassuringly.
At twenty-four weeks the fetus was already huge—approximately eight pounds according to the ultrasounds. So far there was no explanation for it, but fear was a constant companion in this pregnancy. If she actually carried to term, she’d probably explode. Stevens had already explained to her that they’d have to perform an emergency C-section if she got much bigger, so at this point, a premature birth wouldn’t be all bad—except that they didn’t know how far along the fetus really was. Were her lungs developed yet?
Stevens returned a few seconds later, dragging over a mag-wheeled supply cart and a stool. “Let’s take a look and see, shall we?”
Lori nodded, her eyes sliding shut as she took a deep breath to steady her nerves.
“Would you mind if I removed your underwear, or would you prefer to do it?”
Lori reached down and under her nightgown to begin sliding her underwear off. She only got it down a few inches before she had to stop as another contraction hit and stole her breath away.
“Let me do that,” Richard said quickly, and hurriedly pulled off her panties.
This time a guttural cry escaped Lori’s lips and prickles of sweat beaded her brow and back.
Dr. Stevens removed a speculum from the cart and lubricated it. “Try to relax,” he said.
“You relax,” Lori muttered. She winced as the instrument went in, and then Stevens flicked on his headlamp and leaned down for a look.
“What is it?” Lori asked, her voice soft and ragged as she peered over her pregnant belly at him.
Stevens looked up with a tight smile. “You’re already dilated nine centimeters. You’re about to give birth, Lori.”
That news hit her like a bucket of cold water. “What? But I’m only twenty-four weeks!”
“Maybe so, but your baby is ready now. When did your water break?”
“How do you know she’s ready?” Lori screamed as another contraction hit.
“It’ll be okay, Miss Reed. I promise. We have all the facilities here to care for your child whether she’s fully developed or not, and all of our ultrasounds suggest that she’s been developing more rapidly than expected. Regardless, right now all you need to focus on is getting her out. Are you ready to push?”
The contraction ended and Lori began sobbing. “I’m not ready. It’s too hard...” Her head lolled suddenly to one side, the pain making her feel faint.
“Hey, don’t do that.” Richard squeezed her hand hard, and nodded to her. “You can do this. I’m right here. Okay?”
Somehow Lori found the strength to nod back. She heard Dr. Stevens on his comms to one of his staff. She tried to listen to what he was saying, but another contraction came and stole all of her attention with sparking flashes of white-hot agony. An animal cry tore from her lips, and spittle flew from her lips as she propped herself up onto elbows and crushed Richard’s hand in hers. Her legs went reflexively up to her chest as the waves of pain washed over and through.
“I can see the head!” Stevens said. “Keep pushing!”
Lori let go with a gasp and slumped back against the table. “I can’t...”
“Yes, you can!” Richard insisted. Their eyes locked and a smile twitched one corner of his mouth up. “Keera is counting on you.”
The next contraction came and she pushed again with another scream. It felt like she was turning herself inside out. This time the pain went on and on. She couldn’t see, couldn’t think, couldn’t hear—
And then it was over. “You did it!”
Lori cracked a smile, her eyes sliding shut with exhaustion. All of her muscles turned to jelly on the table, and an intense feeling of relief and fulfillment spread through her.
“What... what is that?” Richard asked, his voice pitching high with alarm.
Lori’s eyes flew open and she propped herself up to see Stevens standing frozen with a ghostly white baby in his arms. Her scalp and body were whorled and striated with black veins, and her head was misshapen with four rounded lumps rising out of it.
Stevens just stood there staring at her baby. It wasn’t moving. Lori’s thoughts spun away with horror, and her whole body tensed right up again. Yet somehow, her baby’s appearance wasn’t what had struck fear into her. It was the fact that she wasn’t moving.
“Stevens!” she cried. “Do something!”
Dr. Stevens clamped and cut the umbilical cord, and then ran over to an infant-sized gurney with a bright heating lamp shining down. The light of the lamp made Keera look even paler, and the black veins snapped into sharper focus, forming strange patterns beneath her skin.
That appearance triggered a flash of deja vu for Lori. A thick knot of fear broke loose inside of her, making room for something else: revulsion.
“What...” Richard trailed off, backing away quickly and shaking his head. His expression was twisted up with disgust. “What is she?”
Doctor Stevens positioned Keera’s head to open her airways and began clearing her mouth and nose with a suction bulb while vigorously rubbing and drying her with a downy white blanket.
“Is she breathing?” Lori asked.
But Stevens gave no reply; he simply worked through the motions as if on autopilot.
The door to the examination room swished open and a corpsman with spiky blonde hair and bright blue eyes rushed in wearing scrubs.
Dr. Stevens looked up briefly. “Get over here, Sellis!”
The corpsman hurried over, and then jumped back a step at the sight of Keera.
“What the hell?” he cried. “What is that?”
“I said give me a hand, damn it!” Stevens snapped.
Sellis crept back in, and Lori watched as both of them hunched over her little girl, their hands and elbows flying as they worked with their backs turned to her, blocking sight of Keera.
Enough! Lori decided. She wasn’t going to just lie here and wait. Gathering her strength, she pushed off the examination table, ignoring the sharp stabs of pain that the movements provoked from her loose belly and shredded pelvic muscles.
Her gaze flicked to Richard. He was hugging his shoulders and slowly shaking his head as he cowered in the far corner of the room, right beside the exit.
A flash of loathing shot through Lori. Coward! I’m coming Keera, she thought. Mommy’s coming...
And then she heard it, the most beautiful sound in the world—
Keera began to cry. It was a pitiful, whistling and whooping sound that made her fear Keera’s lungs weren’t properly developed despite her healthy birth weight. Lori pitched off the examination table and her bare feet hit the cold deck with an agonizing jolt. Her knees buckled instantly, but her hand shot out and grabbed Stevens’ cart of instruments for support.
“Get the incubator!” Stevens said to his assistant as he wrapped Keera up in the blanket. Sellis darted for the exit while Stevens turned and carried Keera over.
Lori scrambled back up onto the examination table to receive her child. Dr. Stevens’ expression was grave, his eyes hard as he stared into Keera’s face. Even now that she was breathing, she was just as pale as before. Fish scale patterns of black veins struck a fierce contrast to her glossy white skin. Between Keera’s jutting cheek bones and chin, her sharply sloping forehead and deeply sunken eyes, her face looked frighteningly aquiline. Her nose was just as bony and sharp as everything else, and her mouth protruded slightly with thin black lips that were parted slightly to reveal an equally black tongue.
Suddenly Lori realized what she was looking at. She hadn’t seen them firsthand, but she’d heard Richard and Captain Cross describe them to her. Now she understood why Richard was cringing in the corner. He knew. He’d recognized Keera instantly.
“Open your robe,” Stevens instructed. “You need to hold her to your chest. Skin to skin.”
“H-how is this possible?” Lori stuttered as she fumbled with the buttons of her night gown. She hadn’t had any contact with the Avari. Not like Dr. Grouse, whom they’d infected with some kind of—
Her thoughts broke off there. Dr. Grouse had stopped breathing in the airlock, and she’d administered CPR and mouth-to-mouth to bring him back.
“I don’t know how,” Stevens replied.
“But you cleared me!” she cried. “I wasn’t infected!”
“I obviously missed something.” He nodded to her. “You should hold her.”
Stevens held Keera out and Lori accepted her from the doctor, placing the infant’s bony face against her bare chest.
She sucked in a sharp breath as Keera’s cheek touched her. “She’s hot!”
A muscle in Stevens’ jaw twitched and he nodded. “That might be normal for her spec—”
“You can say it. Her species,” Lori said.
Keera was nosing around, searching for something. Her whistling cries quieting now, her eyelids fluttered a few times, and then her eyes cracked open to slits and locked on Lori’s—Keera’s eyes were a piercing red. A tiny hand popped out of the blanket and found her breast; then Keera’s mouth seized on her nipple and she began sucking hard.
Lori gasped—then smiled as a feeling of warmth and contentment spread through her. Sheer bliss overcame any revulsion that she’d felt up till now. Whatever Keera was, she was her little girl, and that was all that mattered.
The door swished open and Corpsman Sellis appeared, dragging an incubator behind him. Richard let out a muffled cry and then darted out the door, fleeing the examination room.
“I don’t think we’ll be needing that,” Dr. Stevens said as he glanced back at Sellis. A tight smile touched his lips as he watched Keera feed. “It looks like twenty-four weeks is full term for an Avari baby.”
Clayton stood in sickbay, watching real-time security footage from the corpsman’s station. He stared hard at the holoscreen, a chill coursing down his spine as he watched Dr. Reed breastfeeding her baby. Dr. Stevens and Ambassador Morgan were crowded around the screen with him, and Corpsman Sellis was in the room with her, standing by the door and watching with wary eyes.
“Have you taken any DNA samples yet?” Clayton asked.
“Yes...” Dr. Stevens said.
“Her DNA is human, but it’s like nothing we’ve sequenced before.”
Doctor Stevens scratched his cheek and shook his head. “The child has forty-eight chromosomes. There’s an extra set.”
Clayton arched an eyebrow at that. “Alien down syndrome?”
“Perhaps,” Stevens replied.
“Am I the father?” Ambassador Morgan asked. Clayton glanced at him. Morgan’s eyes were fixed on the screen, his voice soft and trembling.
“Yes,” Doctor Stevens replied.
The ambassador rounded on him. “Then how did this happen?!”
Stevens just shook his head. “We don’t know. Dr. Reed believes she may have become contaminated when she resuscitated Dr. Grouse.”
Clayton’s gaze skipped from Stevens to Morgan and back again. “So this is the final evolution of the virus that was killing Dr. Grouse?”
Stevens nodded. “Maybe. Or maybe the virus doesn’t kill everyone that it infects. It might even paradoxically be less dangerous to a developing fetus than an adult.”
“So what you’re saying is that this child is some kind of human-alien hybrid,” Clayton concluded.
Ambassador Morgan looked like he was about to be sick. “But Lori isn’t infected,” he said.
“No, she’s not...” Dr. Stevens replied. “At least not the way that Dr. Grouse was.”
“Is the child contagious?” Clayton asked. “Should we be observing quarantine protocols again?”
Stevens sighed. “If it is contagious, then Lori should have been infected. Regardless, we’ve all been exposed by this point. Myself, Corpsman Sellis, the ambassador...” Stevens’ eyes found Clayton and he nodded. “And you, sir.”
Clayton glared at the ambassador. If he’d stopped to think before he’d fled sickbay to go running through the ship like a headless chicken, he would have realized that he could be contaminating everyone on board in the process.
But maybe not. Maybe whatever this was it could only be spread through fluids. Maybe they still had a chance to contain it.
“All the same, Doctor, we’d better observe quarantine from here on out. Put us in separate rooms and keep us under observation. I’ll have Lieutenant Devon seal us all in sickbay until we’re cleared.”
Ambassador Morgan’s eyes flew wide. “You can’t do that! What if we’re not infected yet!”
“That’s why we’re also being isolated from Dr. Reed and her child. Thanks to you, it’s the best that we can do to keep everyone else safe.”
Dr. Stevens nodded along with that.
“And if we’re not infected?” Morgan asked. His eyes snapped back to the holoscreen. “What will you do with the child?”
“The child?” Clayton asked. “Don’t you mean your daughter?”
Morgan slowly shook his head. “That thing isn’t my daughter.”
Clayton sighed. “One bridge at a time. First we need to understand what kind of threat the child represents, if any.”
“Agreed,” Doctor Stevens said.
“Excuse me, gentlemen.” Clayton turned away, activating his comms. “Call Lieutenant Devon,” he said.
The comms trilled briefly in his ear, and then Devon’s voice answered: “Sir?”
“Seal the sickbay, Lieutenant. Don’t let any of us out until we’ve been cleared for release.”
“Cleared by who, sir?”
“Wake up Doctor Torres. From here on, she’s in charge of quarantine.”
“Yes, sir... is everything all right down there?”
Clayton glanced back at the holoscreen. Both baby and mother were asleep, and Corpsman Sellis was cautiously arranging the blankets to cover them.
“I hope so, Lieutenant.”
Two Days Later...
“You’re clear, Captain.”
Clayton squinted into the light that Dr. Torres was shining into his eyes. “Are you sure?”
Torres put her penlight away with a frown. He stared through the transparent visor of her pressure suit, searching her hazel eyes.
“Positive, sir,” Torres replied. “All of your tests have come back clean.”
“What about the others?”
“And the infant?”
“She’s not contagious...”
Torres cracked a fading smile. “But she’s fiercely resistant to contact with anyone besides her mother. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, she’s just a few days old. Normally newborns are helpless and docile. Keera is aggressive and distrustful.”
“Maybe her species is more aggressive.”
“Maybe,” Torres agreed.
“And you’re sure she’s not contagious?”
“Not at all, sir.”
“Thank you, Doctor.” Clayton rose from the bed on creaking knees and headed for the locker with his uniform in it. He was wearing a hospital gown, open at the back.
The door chime sounded.
“Come in,” Clayton said, glancing back to see Ambassador Morgan and Dr. Stevens walking in, both already wearing their uniforms.
He nodded to them as they came in. “Ambassador. Doctor.”
“Captain,” Stevens replied.
Clayton turned back to the locker and shrugged out of his gown, heedless of their presence. Modesty has no place on a starship.
“You can’t release them,” Morgan said.
“No? And why not?” Clayton asked as he got dressed in the mirror on the locker door. He pulled on his form-hugging uniform—black with gold stripes and the four gold bars of a UNSF captain glittering above each shoulder. After zipping up and buttoning the collar, he clipped the UNSF emblem to the right side of his chest, a five-pointed silver star with a laurel wreath around it. The symbol of victory. Finally, he bent to put on his mag boots.
“Because it’s not human, Captain! We don’t know what it could do. It could kill us all in our sleep!”
Clayton turned from the mirror to regard Morgan with a frown. This xenophobe is who the Union chose to make first contact? “Ambassador, we don’t judge an organism by its genes, human or otherwise. We’ll take sensible precautions, but if everything works out the way I’m hoping, Keera will be given all of the same rights as any other citizen of the Union when we return to Earth.”
“You can’t possibly believe that,” Ambassador Morgan replied. “She’ll be whisked away to a Union black site the minute we reach Sol. She’ll spend her life in captivity, poked and prodded and studied until the day she dies!”
Clayton snorted. “As her father, you don’t sound very concerned about that, Ambassador.”
“I’m a realist, Captain. Even if she were allowed to live freely, she’d be persecuted relentlessly just because of the way she looks. And if people knew what she is...” Morgan trailed off shaking his head. “It wouldn’t be long before someone killed her.”
Clayton scowled. “Yes, we humans are lovely creatures aren’t we?”
“He’s right, Captain,” Torres put in softly, her voice rippling out of the speaker grille in her helmet.
“Maybe, but we’re not going to add to those attitudes of prejudice and persecution. You are to clear both Dr. Reed and her daughter to return to their quarters effective immediately.”
“Belay that!” Morgan snapped. “Do not release them, Torres.”
“This is my ship, Ambassador,” Clayton replied.
“And I could have you court-martialed when we return, Captain.”
Torres’ eyes darted uncertainly between the two of them.
Clayton nodded to her. “Release them.”
“Yes, sir,” Torres replied.
“You’re going to regret this,” Morgan intoned.
“That’s my prerogative, Ambassador. I suggest you let me worry about my regrets and save your energy to worry about your own.”
* * *
Clayton stood in the cargo transfer airlock outside the entrance of one of the elevators leading to The Wheel. Since the ship was still under active acceleration, that elevator would actually function more like a tram, moving horizontally away from the direction of thrust and gravity.
In front of him stood Dr. Reed and her daughter, Keera. Ambassador Morgan was here, too, to see them off, but he looked intensely uncomfortable. Clayton understood that she’d insisted he come say goodbye to them, but he’d been hesitant. Ever since they’d all been quarantined together in sickbay, Morgan had kept his distance from both Dr. Reed and Keera. He couldn’t accept that the hybrid was his daughter. Clayton wasn’t sure if he blamed the man, but as a rule, it was generally best to assume that whatever Richard Morgan did, one should do the opposite.
“I guess this is goodbye, Captain,” Dr. Reed said. She was gently bouncing Keera in her arms, and the infant’s piercing red eyes were sinking steadily closer to shut.
Delta stood beside him for added security, but so far there’d been no signs from Keera to warrant any kind of concern. She was just a baby—with alien DNA—but a baby nonetheless.
“We’ll see you in six months,” Clayton replied. The skeleton crews would take over from here on out: just two officers to watch the bridge for one week at a time between the more comprehensive bi-annual rotations in which routine maintenance, cleaning, and repairs were conducted. The thrusters would be offline for the two-man rotations, so there would be no gravity beyond The Wheel, which meant that Dr. Reed and Keera would have to stay there until six months from now when Clayton and the rest of his section came out of cryo.
Dr. Reed nodded and flashed a wan smile before walking down the line to stop in front of Morgan.
“Richard,” she said. Tension crowded the air between them and neither said anything for several seconds.
“Lori, look, I’m sorry. I really am. I just...” His eyes were on Keera. “I can’t.”
“Yes you can.” Dr. Reed reached out and grabbed his hand. She dragged it up and placed it on top of Keera’s head.
Morgan leaned back, looking like he might chew his own arm off just to get away.
Keera’s eyes cracked open and she regarded him with a flinty look. Then she stirred and wriggled around inside of the blanket that Dr. Reed had her bundled up in. Clayton watched with a bemused frown.
“Let me go, Lori,” Morgan said.
“Just wait. She’s doing something.”
Richard shook his head vigorously, but then two pale, fish-scale patterned hands and arms popped out of the blankets.
A whistling cry escaped Keera’s black lips, and then she reached for the ambassador with both arms.
Morgan hesitated, and the baby sucked in her bottom lip. Her eyes grew wide and teary, and she began sniffling. If she weren’t so damn ugly it would be cute, Clayton thought. But then he chided himself for thinking that way. He couldn’t allow himself to judge by appearances. That would make him no better than Morgan.
“She wants you to hold her!” Dr. Reed said, and pushed Keera out from her chest.
Morgan didn’t immediately recoil or respond. He seemed to be frozen with indecision.
Then he snapped out of it, and took Keera in his arms. She wrapped both of her arms around his neck and nuzzled her head into the hollow between his neck and shoulder. Keera’s cries instantly quieted, and her eyes began sliding shut once more.
“She knows that you’re her father,” Dr. Reed said quietly.
“I...” Morgan trailed off, looking and sounding confused. “She’s...”
He nodded slowly, his face and jaw slack.
“This is one hell of a freak show you invited me to...” Delta muttered.
Clayton glanced at him and back without comment, not wanting to ruin the moment by saying the wrong thing. He backed up a few steps, and then nodded sideways for Delta to follow. “Let’s give them some space,” he whispered.
“You still want to go into cryo and leave me to raise her on my own?” Reed asked, her eyes searching Morgan’s.
The ambassador said nothing to that. He just quietly stroked the infant’s back and leaned his head against hers. The suddenness of Morgan’s change of attitude did set off an alarm bell in Clayton’s head, but maybe it was just a natural biological response to holding one’s offspring for the first time. He’d heard second-hand accounts of parents speaking about transformational moments like these before. Usually they occurred right after a baby was born... But isn’t that also when babies typically have first contact with their parents?
First contact. Clayton smiled wryly at the choice of words. Maybe more appropriate than not.
“You can’t leave us,” Dr. Reed said, stepping in to wrap her arms around them both. “Don’t let appearances fool you. She’s ours, more human than anything else.”
Morgan sucked in a shaky breath and let it out in a sigh. “Okay.”
Dr. Reed withdrew to an arm’s length, her eyes bright and sparkling with joy. “You mean it?”
Morgan still didn’t look a hundred percent convinced, but he gave in with a nod. “I do.”
A grin sprang to Reed’s lips and she crushed Morgan and their daughter into another hug. “You won’t regret it. I promise.”
Morgan said nothing to that, but it was a miracle he’d come this far. Maybe he’d been on the fence to begin with. Days had passed since the quarantine, and the entire crew had been given a chance to see that Keera wasn’t dangerous. She was antisocial, however, and just as Doctor Torres had first pointed out, she’d fiercely rejected contact with anyone besides her mother.
Now she’d expanded that sphere to include her father. Was that progress, or would Keera’s world remain that small forever? It was too soon to tell, and isolating them on The Wheel probably wasn’t going to help matters.
“Are you three ready to go?” Clayton asked.
“Almost,” Morgan replied, half-turning to him with a tight smile. “I need to go pack up a few things from my quarters.”
“We’ll be waiting for you,” Dr. Reed said. Morgan passed Keera back to her slowly—almost reluctantly. The infant squirmed and whimpered as she traded bosoms, but Dr. Reed adjusted the blanket to cover her and block out the light, and then Keera nuzzled in close and fell back to sleep with a sigh.
Clayton watched Morgan and Reed pull apart like glue—contact stretching and thinning until at last their fingertips slipped through each other’s hands. “I’ll be there soon,” Morgan replied, and then he turned and hurried out of the cargo transfer airlock.
Clayton nodded to Dr. Reed’s luggage—three large crates on a mag-wheeled dolly. “We’ll help you with that.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
Delta grabbed the handle of the dolly before Clayton could, and began pushing it toward the elevator doors. Clayton mentally opened the elevator and selected The Wheel for a destination. There was only one other possible stop besides that, at the mid-point airlock along the spoke, but it was only ever used for external maintenance and repairs.
Once they had the dolly inside the elevator, Clayton nodded to Dr. Reed and said, “I wish you three all the best.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“If you need anything, and I mean anything, don’t hesitate to call the bridge. And if they need to, they can wake me at a moment’s notice. Understood?”
“Yes. And I appreciate it. I know you’ve been one of Keera’s strongest advocates since the day she was born.”
“I’ve always been a bigger believer in nurture than nature. Genes are just physical instructions. As far as I’m concerned, the difference between Keera and us is no bigger than the difference between two different breeds of dogs.”
Reed’s lips quirked into a wry smile. “Are you calling my daughter a bitch, Captain?”
He snorted and held up both hands in apology. “Sorry, bad analogy.”
“Yes, it was.” But Reed’s eyes were sparkling with amusement.
Clayton backed the rest of the way out of the elevator with Delta matching his every step. He tossed a crooked salute from his brow. “See you in six months, Doctor Reed.”
“Call me Lori. I think friends should call each other by their first names.”
“Lori it is,” Clayton replied. His gaze dropped a few degrees. “See you soon, Keera. I can’t wait to see you crawling around and driving your parents crazy.”
Lori laughed at that, and Clayton mentally triggered the door shut. A few seconds later he and Delta watched through the window in the top of the door as the elevator shot away, racing down the spoke like a train car in a tunnel.
Delta shook his head. “I don’t like this, sir. Something is seriously wrong with that kid.”
Clayton arched an eyebrow at him. “Something besides the way she looks? Something other than a hunch? If so, you’d better start talking.”
Delta pursed his lips into an unhappy scowl. “Nothing that specific.”
“Then I don’t want to hear it, Lieutenant. That kid is going to have enough problems with people judging her and discriminating against her without us adding to it. Let’s try to set the bar a little higher, shall we?”
Clayton turned and headed for the exit of the cargo transfer airlock. His mind was already switching gears, running through the remainder of his final checklist. In just eighteen hours he’d be handing over the bridge to the first in a long line of two-person crews whose job it would be to watch over the ship for the next six months. He still had a lot of reports to read and inspections to perform before that happened. Not to mention he had to get some sleep. At this point he probably wouldn’t get more than a few hours. Everything needed to be running perfectly before he went back into cryo.
The cargo doors rumbled open, and Clayton started down the circular corridor that ran around this particular deck: one of seven storage decks on the ship. Curving rectangular viewscreens ran around the outer circumference of the corridor, giving them a stunning view of the myriad stars shining in from the void. Those screens gave the illusion that space was just on the other side of a thin barrier, but in reality the cryo pod rings and a whole other layer of hull still separated them from the void.
As they walked, Clayton felt Delta’s eyes on him. “Something else on your mind, Lieutenant?”
“We should at least lock them in.”
Clayton looked to his chief of security with a frown. “Lock them in?”
“The Wheel is hardly a prison, sir. And they’re confined to it, anyway. What would be the difference?”
Clayton resisted the smile tugging at the corners of his lips, but he couldn’t hold it, and it quickly blossomed into a grin. “Are you afraid of a baby, Delta?”
The former Marine’s eyes narrowed slightly at that, but he said nothing.
“If she were contagious, then we’d all be infected by now,” Clayton added. “Dr. Grouse started showing symptoms almost immediately, so we know the incubation period is short.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Delta replied.
“So if she’s not contagious, what else is there to worry about? Keera can’t even crawl, let alone walk. She has no teeth, no claws...” Clayton broke off laughing.
“Not yet, sir, but in six months she’ll have some.”
“Barely. And we’ll have plenty of warning from her parents if she starts showing signs that she might be a threat. Even then, I’d liken it to a puppy who might bite or scratch you if you’re not careful. I’m pretty sure we can handle that.” Clayton laughed again and shook his head. “Let’s not let our imaginations run away with us, Lieutenant.”
* * *
Clayton woke up in darkness, feeling like he couldn’t breathe. There was a dark shadow at the foot of his bed, approaching steadily.
He tried to scream, but his mouth wouldn’t move. He tried to sit up, but his muscles were not responding.
Not again, he thought. Lights on! He thought.
A blaze of white light flooded the room, and the shadow shimmered and vanished with the light. Gradually, control of his muscles returned and he sat up, looking around his quarters for any lingering signs of the hallucination.
Clayton flopped back down with a sigh. “Lights to twenty percent,” he said, and the glaring white diminished to a soft golden hue.
His bouts of sleep paralysis were getting so frequent now that they’d become routine. Dragging his hand up from the covers, Clayton checked his watch. It glowed to life and Samara’s smiling face greeted him. Four AM. The perfect witching hour. Maybe that’s what this is; some kind of curse. Going back into cryo would be a relief. No more interrupted nights.
Clayton lay blinking up at the ceiling, his heart rate slowing as his eyes once again grew heavy with sleep. Not long now and he’d be enjoying six months of uninterrupted slumber. Not that cryo actually functioned like sleep, but it was a comforting thought to drift off with all the same.
Six Months Later...
Lori cooed in her daughter’s ear to no effect. “Shhhh, it’s okay. It’s okay.” Keera was wailing incessantly.
“What is it now?” Richard growled, rising from the bed and stomping over like an angry giant. Keera had been having these crying fits for weeks now, but this was by far the worst.
Lori shook her head, bouncing Keera in her arms as she paced the deck in front of the windows in their quarters. Unlike most of the other windows in the ship, these were real. Seeing the stars usually calmed Keera, but tonight she was inconsolable, and Lori had no clue what was wrong.
“Maybe she’s sick.” Lori grunted as she hefted Keera up to a better position, draping her over one shoulder rather than cradling her like a baby. Keera was only six months old, but she weighed forty-five pounds, and she measured one point two meters tall. She was already walking and talking in full sentences. Her development was completely off the charts for any normal human growth curve—more comparable to that of a five-year-old girl, not a six-month-old baby.
“Keera, what’s wrong, honey?” Lori tried for the umpteenth time.
“Bad. Bad. Very bad! Pain!”
“You’re in pain? Where does it hurt?”
“No! Not hurt me. Pain!”
“Talk to me, sweetie. What’s wrong.”
“Pain!” Keera cried again.
“Did she have a nightmare?” Richard asked as she paced back his way.
Lori shook her head. “No. She says she couldn’t sleep.”
“She’s been awake all night?”
Lori shrugged helplessly.
“Did you try feeding her?”
She stopped pacing to glare at him. “Of course I tried!” She’d tried, despite the fact that her breasts were swollen, shriveled lumps covered in scabs and bite marks. Keeping infection at bay was a daily struggle. Keera still didn’t want to accept formula as a substitute for breast milk, and at her size she needed a lot of breast milk. Fortunately she’d begun eating solid foods after just one month, and she got most of her calories that way. Breast milk was more of a comfort food. A way to put her to sleep, but it hadn’t worked.
Keera’s cries went on and on, shrill and keening.
“So what’s wrong!?” Richard screamed.
“Maybe she’s sick,” Lori said while rubbing Keera’s bony back. Her vertebrae stuck out sharply, forming an unusually prominent ridge running down her spine.
Richard walked around behind Lori to put his angry face in Keera’s. “What is wrong with you?!”
Keera cried all the louder with that rebuke, and Lori whirled away from him, her eyes flashing. “Why don’t you go sleep in one of the other officers’ quarters? I’ll stay up with her.” It was just the two of them up on The Wheel, so there were plenty of empty rooms.
Richard crossed his arms over his chest, revealing a collection of thin, long white scars of crisscrossing claw marks on his forearms. Lori had all of the same marks and more, but they went up and down her chest, too. When Keera’s claws had started coming in, it had taken a while for her to learn to be careful with them. If it weren’t for accelerated healing sprays and the cache of antibiotics that they had on board, they might have died from infection by now.
Lori turned Keera in circles, bouncing her, rubbing her back, and cooing softly in her ear. Nothing was working.
“Maybe it’s time we admitted that we can’t handle her anymore,” Richard said.
“What are you suggesting?” Lori asked, her eyes narrowing on his.
“We could go into Cryo with her. She’s not like any other six-month-old. She’s far more developed. I don’t think it would be dangerous anymore.”
“No.” Lori shook her head vigorously. If Keera went into cryo now, she wouldn’t be awoken until they reached Earth. None of them would. And then who knew what would happen next. Keera would probably be taken to a government facility, maybe separated from them forever.
Suddenly Keera’s cries quieted, replaced by a sniffling sound. A moment later it was followed by her small, husky voice: “Mommy, I wanna stay here with you.”
“It’s okay, honey, I’m not going to leave. Daddy is going to go to one of the other rooms so he can sleep. I’m going to stay with you, okay?”
“Promise?” Keera leaned away from Lori’s shoulder to look her in the eye. Keera’s sunken red eyes were brighter than usual from all the tears, and her pale face was flushed dark gray. The fish scale pattern of black veins was darker and more visible than usual beneath her skin. All four of Keera’s cranial stems turned toward Lori, the ear canals flaring into small funnel shapes, indicating that all of her attention was fixed on her mother. Unlike a human, Keera didn’t have ears in the sides of her head. She had them on top instead—four ears attached to short, flexible appendages that could be directed independently of each other to hear frequencies of sound far outside of the normal human range of hearing. Her vision was also sharper than a human’s. Two spongy bulges protruded from the sides of Keera’s head where her ears should have been. Lori had no idea what they were or what purpose they might serve. Much of Keera’s biology was still a mystery.
“I promise,” Lori said.
Keera nodded and subsided against her shoulder once more. Whatever had been wrong, at least now she’d stopped crying. Maybe now she could finally fall asleep.
Richard held her gaze with a heavy frown, his brow dropping a dark shadow over his eyes.
“What?” Lori hissed.
“We’re going to talk seriously about this when the captain wakes up.”
“We already talked about it,” Lori replied.
“Not with him.”
“You will not speak to him.”
“You can’t stop me. He needs to know what’s been going on. How she’s developing. When he sees her and hears about everything, it won’t be up to you or me anymore. He’s going to put her in cryo whether you like it or not.”
Lori caught Keera leaning away again, this time she was glaring at her father. A low, mewling hiss escaped her lips.
“Look at the way she’s looking at me! She looks like she wants to kill me! And I’m her father.”
“Then maybe you should start acting like it!”
Richard threw up his hands. “I give up. We’ll talk in the morning.”
Richard stalked toward the exit and waved the door open as he approached. It opened with a whisper and then slid shut behind him with a muffled thump.
“Is it true?” Keera asked.
“Is what true, sweetheart?”
“That they gonna put me in cwhyo.”
“Cryo, sweetie. I won’t let them. Not yet, anyway. It’s too soon. We still have time.”
“What is cwhyo?”
Lori carried her daughter over to the bed and set her down on the edge. She took a moment to arch her aching back and shake out her burning arms. Keera was getting harder and harder to hold. Luckily Lori spent a couple hours in the gym every day. There wasn’t much else to do.
“Cryo is where they freeze you...”
Keera gave an involuntary shiver. “They make you cold?” She turned and grabbed the blankets and drew them up around her shoulders.
Lori helped wrap her up. She shook her head, smiling broadly at her daughter. “Yes, sweetie, but you don’t feel it. They put you to sleep first.”
“For how long?” Keera’s bony brow lifted in question.
“Well... that depends. Sometimes just for a few months. Sometimes years.”
“But they wanna fweeze me for long time.”
Keera’s expression darkened and she shook her head as she absently flexed her hands in her lap, raking her claws over the blankets. A tearing sound reached her ears, and rips appeared in the fabric.
“Don’t do that, honey.”
“Sawy.” She stopped flexing her hands.
“You mean sorry.”
Lori smiled at Keera’s persistent lisp. She was still working on pronunciation. Sometimes she got it right, and other times she defaulted to her old bad habits. Somehow Richard missed all of this. He only saw what his eyes showed him: sharp claws and teeth, a frightening face and demonic eyes. He didn’t see the very human personality emerging underneath, or how sweet and vulnerable Keera could be. As far as Lori was concerned, she was just like any other human child, only her appearance and physiology set her apart.
“What if we make them sleep instead? Then I can stay awake with you.”
Lori hesitated. “What do you mean, honey? They’re already asleep.”
“We could make it so they don’t wake up.” Keera was staring sightlessly at the door by which her father had left.
Goosebumps appeared on Lori’s bare arms, and she rubbed them away. “They’re going to wake up automatically tomorrow whether we like it or not.”
“But you could stop them. Make them stay asleep.”
“No, I can’t. I’d have to go to the bridge to deactivate the auto-wake cycle, and even if I did that, there are two officers on the bridge right now who are taking turns watching it. One of them would stop me if I tried anything like that.”
“Then they are the problem,” Keera said.
“No, darling. No one is a problem.”
Keera finally tore her eyes away from the door. “But the captain will make me sleep if he wakes up.”
Lori offered a reassuring smile and slowly shook her head. “I’ll talk to him. He agreed to let us raise you here until you’re two years old. You still have another year and six months to go before you reach two.”
“Daddy doesn’t want to wait.” Another hiss escaped Keera’s lips, and she bared her long, pointed teeth, making it clear what she thought about that. Her hands flexed into talons again and the blankets bunched up in her lap.
Lori placed her hand over Keera’s. “He’s just scared.”
Lori hesitated. She’d painted herself into a corner. How to tell your child that her father is afraid of her? She couldn’t tell Keera that. “He’s afraid of things he doesn’t understand.”
“Things like me,” Keera said. Her hands relaxed and her gaze drifted out of focus, staring into her wrinkly white palms.
Keera was getting harder and harder to fool. She was incredibly perceptive—more so than most adults.
“It’s not your fault,” Lori tried again.
“I know you love me,” Keera replied, and leaned her head against Lori’s shoulder. The implication was that she didn’t think Richard loved her. Lori winced and swallowed past a painful knot in her throat. Damn you, Richard.
She wrapped an arm around Keera’s shoulders, and they sat there staring out the windows at the dizzying swirl of the stars as they rotated around and around Forerunner One’s central column. That jutting gray and silver spear seemed to be looping endlessly around them, but in reality, of course, they were the ones who were spinning.
“Lights off,” Lori said, and darkness enveloped them. They sat there quietly with the minutes trickling by, their faces agleam with starlight as they stared into the swirling void.
Growing dizzy, Lori looked away. There was a setting on the windows to activate them as viewscreens and show a rock-steady view from an external camera in the stationary center of the ship. But ever since Keera was a baby, she had preferred it this way. The movement soothed her.
As Lori’s body and mind grew heavy with sleep, she thought to ask Keera one more time—maybe now she had enough distance from her emotions to make sense out of them. “What were you crying about before, sweetheart?”
Several seconds passed before Keera replied. And when she did, her voice was a ragged whisper. “I saw blood everywhere and... they were screaming.”
Another chill prickled Lori’s skin with goosebumps. “Who was screaming?” she asked slowly.
Keera shook her head. “I don’t know. A man and a woman.”
Us? she almost blurted out, but that would be giving in to Richard’s paranoia. Keera had just said that she didn’t know who they were.
“How did you see them? Was it a dream?”
“No. I wasn’t asleep. I saw them up here.” Keera tapped the side of her head with one wickedly curling black claw.
“In your head... you mean you imagined it?”
Maybe she did need to ask. “Was it your father and I you saw?”
Keera shook her head quickly, her red eyes flashing with alarm.
“But it was a man and a woman. Did you recognize them?”
Lori frowned. Keera had never met anyone besides her parents. Not in the last six months, anyway, and she doubted that Keera had formed any lasting memories as a newborn.
But, they had watched enough holovids with her to feed her imagination.
“Were they people you saw in a movie?”
Keera shrugged. “Maybe.”
“You mentioned blood. Did something happen to them?”
Keera’s eyes filled with tears and her lower lip began to tremble. “Yes.”
Lori frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing!” Keera whirled away and scooted down to the end of the bed. She wiped her tears away furiously.
Lori got up and went to sit beside her again. “It’s okay. You can tell me anything. I’ll always love you. No matter what. Whatever it is, it’s not real. It’s just your imagination.”
“You can’t love me! I’m bad. I’m very bad.”
“No, you’re not, Keera! You haven’t done anything wrong.” Lori wrapped her in a hug, but Keera resisted, trying to wriggle free.
“Let me go!”
“I killed them!” she screamed.
Lori recoiled from the force of her words as much as from what Keera had said. Her reaction lasted only a second, but the damage was already done. Keera smiled bitterly, her cheeks streaked with tears. “You see? You don’t love me.”
“Honey, it wasn’t real. You haven’t even left this deck. There isn’t anyone here for you to have hurt, and even if there were, I don’t believe that you would hurt anyone.”
Keera’s expression blanked, becoming suddenly sober. She reached out with a trembling hand and ran her fingers lightly over the scars on Lori’s arm.
“That’s different. Those were accidents.”
“Not accidents. It is what I am—” Keera broke off, her expression twisting up in self-loathing. “—A killer.” She began sobbing in earnest now, staring at her hands, her bony, coat hangar shoulders rocking violently and air whistling in and out of her sharp, narrow nose.
Lori pulled her into a hug and kissed the top of her bony head. “You’re not a killer, Keera,” she whispered. “Killers don’t cry because they are killers. They don’t feel bad about what they do. You haven’t done anything, but you can’t even stand the thought that you might. That’s not how killers act.”
“You don’t understand,” Keera said in a muffled voice.
“What do you mean?” Lori whispered. “Talk to me.”
“Sometimes I want to hurt Daddy.”
It felt as though her blood had turned to ice. Rather than give in to it, Lori held fast to what she knew. If Keera had really wanted to hurt her father, she could have easily done so by now.
“That’s because sometimes he’s mean to you, even when you don’t deserve it, and that makes you mad. It’s normal to feel that way, Keera. What’s important isn’t how you feel but what you do with those feelings, and I’ve never seen you intentionally hurt anyone. Do you understand?”
Keera nodded quickly, her bony skull knocking against Lori’s chin.
“Good. Now come on. Let’s try to get some sleep. We have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow. You’re going to meet the crew for the first time.”
“You said they already met me.”
“Yes, but you don’t remember it, so for you it is the first time.”
“Do you think they’ll like me?”
Lori hesitated for just a second, before pasting a lie on her face. “They’re going to love you, sweetie.”
“That isn’t twoo.”
“True,” Lori correct. “And yes it is.”
“Well, let’s wait and see, shall we?”
Keera nodded and they both crawled up to the top of the bed and lay down. Keera’s bed was on the other side of the room, but Richard wasn’t here, so there was no point in making her sleep there tonight. Lori curled her body against Keera’s and wrapped her daughter in the blankets, making sure to keep them off herself. Keera’s body heat was like a roaring fire beside her, and more than enough to keep her warm. Her natural body temperature was forty-one degrees Celsius.
Gradually Keera’s breathing slowed with sleep, and Lori let herself drift off as well. She dreamed that Richard was sneaking up behind them with a gun to kill them in their sleep. She woke up with a muffled cry just as he shot their daughter in the head. Terrified, she checked Keera to make sure that she was okay. But she was fine: no bullet holes or scorch marks anywhere, and her breathing was steady, her body still hot.
It was just a dream, Lori thought, subsiding with a sigh.
Lori woke up in a fog, her body heavy and sore from carrying Keera around the night before. In addition to that, her head still felt thick and fuzzy with sleep. She’d had a rocky night even after Keera had finally calmed down and drifted off. Richard had haunted her dreams, always coming after them, trying to get at her and Keera.
Lori sat up with a grimace and kneaded her eyes with her fists in an attempt to push back the dull ache building behind them.
She couldn’t leave things between her and Richard like this. Especially not now. They needed to present a united front to Captain Cross and Lieutenant Devon when they woke up. They both needed to be singing the same tune. Keera wasn’t dangerous. She wasn’t a threat, and she didn’t need to go into cryo early.
Glancing over her shoulder, Lori noted that Keera was still fast asleep.
Good. She would rather talk to Richard when Keera wasn’t around. She didn’t want Keera to overhear anything that would do additional damage to her relationship with her father.
Sliding quietly off the bed, Lori padded over to the door and waved it open. The metal deck was cold as ice, so she stopped to put on a pair of UNSF slippers along the way. The laurel wreath was green around a golden star, just like it was on the Space Force’s flag—she wished they would have made it that way on the uniforms, too. It would have looked better than the monochromatic silver version that she and everyone else had to wear clipped to their uniforms.
Cinching her nightgown tight around her waist, Lori walked out and shut the door behind her with her ARCs.
The gleaming metal deck curved gently up. Glowing lines of recessed lighting curved along the tops and bottoms of the bulkheads. Every couple of feet or so a safety handrail jutted from the bulkheads and ceiling. Just like any other part of the ship, The Wheel was designed to be navigated just as easily in zero-G as while under simulated gravity. Staggered doors with glowing numbers and letters on them lined the length of the corridor on both sides. Each door led to a different set of quarters. They’d chosen the largest room for themselves, designated W1.
Soon Keera would need to pick a room for herself. She was already at a point where that would make sense, but these fits Keera had been having were going to make the transition harder than it needed to be. Still, they’d had a breakthrough last night. Keera had finally described what was bothering her. It was just her fears about herself and her own nature, partly instilled by Richard’s attitude toward her.
Which was the other reason Lori needed to speak with Richard. He needed to know how badly he was hurting Keera. And he needed to stop. Or else leave them and go into cryo by himself.
Lori spent a moment scanning the doors, trying to decide which one of them Richard might have picked last night. She tried the first door on the right on the same side as the quarters they shared as a family, thinking that Richard would probably want a forward-facing window.
It was strange to think of it that way, but since the deck settings of The Wheel were rotated with respect to the rest of the ship, down was actually the outer circumference of The Wheel, up was the inner circumference, and the windows faced either the stern or the nose of the ship.
As the door of W3 slid open, Lori saw a perfectly made bed and no sign of Richard. Frowning, she shut the door with a thought, and moved on to the door on the other side of the corridor—W2. It slid open, and this time she saw the bedsheets rumpled, but still no sign of Richard himself. She walked in, “Rick?” She was tempted to use the other short form of his name, but she didn’t want to antagonize him right now. “Are you here?”
No reply. She padded over to the bathroom and waved the door open. His uniform and underwear lay in a heap on top of his slippers.
Lori frowned. He’d obviously taken a shower and gotten dressed. But with what clothes? Maybe he’d found a spare uniform in one of the storage lockers. That, or he was walking around naked right now.
She caught a glimpse of an amused smirk on her face in the mirror as she left the bathroom. Heading out, she shut the door behind her and walked briskly down the corridor past the remaining rooms. Richard was probably in the mess hall eating breakfast and having a cup of coffee. Her mouth watered at the thought. Especially with the thought of coffee. She could really use a cup right now.
Coming to the end of the crew section, a sealed bulkhead appeared with the words Mess Hall stamped on it in thick white letters. She glanced up at the elevator doors recessed into the ceiling. That elevator led up one of four spokes to the central column of the ship.
A twinge of doubt trickled in. What if Richard had gone to speak with the crew? There were two officers down there, and at least one of them would be awake and on duty at any given hour, day or night.
If Richard had gone to share his concerns about Keera, he might have convinced them to wake the captain and the rest of the crew early. Or maybe he’d had them put him into cryo without so much as a word of goodbye to either Lori or Keera.
Those thoughts lit a fuse inside Lori’s brain, and she glowered darkly at the door. She wasn’t sure what would make her angrier. He’d better be in the mess hall, she thought as she dragged her eyes away from the elevator and waved the doors to the mess hall open.
The doors rumbled open and she passed through, her eyes scanning empty tables and chairs. The ration storage bins were all sealed shut, and the food prep areas in the kitchen were clean and sparkling, just the same as they’d left them after dinner last night.
Walking in behind the serving counter, Lori ran her hands along the sparkling surfaces and checked for signs of crumbs and milk spills.
There was nothing. No coffee in the dispenser, either. Everything was clean and dry and unused. If Richard had already been and gone and cleaned up behind himself, the kitchen wouldn’t have been this neat.
Regardless, there were only a few other places on The Wheel that he could be—the control center was restricted access, so he wouldn’t be there, and he wasn’t a fan of exercise, so the gym was out, too. He could be in the rec room, but she knew him: he would have come here first, made coffee, and fixed himself something to eat. The fact that he hadn’t done any of that could only mean one thing—
Lori turned back to face the open doors to the mess hall, her eyes drifting up and narrowing on the elevator doors in the ceiling.
He’d gone to speak with the crew hours ago already. Maybe even in the middle of the night while she was still consoling Keera.
You coward! she thought as she stormed out of the mess hall.
Lori ran back down the corridor to the nearest of the crew quarters. She waved the door to W15 open, and then hurried over to the lockers along the wall opposite the bed. There she found a spare UNSF uniform and mag boots. The uniforms were one-size fits all, and the mag boots were adjustable and padded sufficiently inside that she didn’t need additional footwear. As soon as she was dressed, Lori hurried out and back down to the elevator. Activating it with her ARCs, she stopped and waited as the doors opened up and the elevator platform dropped down from the ceiling on four pneumatic arms. Before it had even touched the deck, she jumped onto the platform and used her ARCs to select deck CS17 (Central Storage, Deck 17) from the available options.
She grabbed the nearest handrail for support as the elevator platform steadily rose up the spoke to the central column of the ship. Stars flashed past the windows in the sides of the elevator car and reciprocal windows in the sides of the spoke. Those windows gave a view to the rotating Wheel, but since the spoke was turning, too, it all looked stationary, and it seemed like the stars were moving instead.
Lori shook her head and looked away, glaring up at the doors on the far end of the elevator car. The sensation of gravity pulling her down toward The Wheel grew more and more faint as she approached the center of rotation. Then the car jolted and thunked to a stop. She reached for the first in a line of folding handrails embedded in one of the two windowless sides of the elevator. The other side also had rails, but they were permanently extended, not folding, and the folding ones were marked with black and yellow stripes and arrows with instructions that read: CLIMB TO CARGO TRANSFER.
As she climbed, Lori used her Neuralink to activate the cargo transfer airlock, and a loud whirring sound started up somewhere above her head. She reached the top of the ladder and waited for a few seconds, then the doors in the ceiling of the elevator rumbled open, revealing a boxy cargo transfer junction with more folding handrails on one side.
There were four identical junctions, one for each spoke, with adjoining corridors running between. Together they formed an independently rotating ring known as the cargo transfer airlock. Cycling that airlock meant spinning the ring up to the same exact RPM as The Wheel itself so that leaving one of the elevators and entering the rest of the ship could be done without first stopping The Wheel’s rotation.
As soon as both sets of doors were open, Lori climbed the rest of the way into the spacious cargo transfer junction, folding out the handrails as she went.
The sensation of gravity was lighter than ever now, maybe just a tenth of standard. As soon as she was inside the junction, she used her ARCs to cycle the airlock shut once more. The elevator and airlock doors sealed behind her with a boom, and then the whirring rotation of the airlock gradually slowed to a stop.
Weightlessness settled in, and Lori’s stomach fluttered queasily. With nothing to give her a sense of what was up or down, her perspective changed, and she saw the deck setting the way it was primarily intended to be seen and used: she was lying on the deck. Pushing gently away from it, she tucked her legs and mentally activated her mag boots.
The soles clamped to the deck with a ringing report, and then she set out, thunking along toward the set of inner doors that led to the rest of the ship. Worry crowded in as she went: what if Keera woke up to find them both missing? How would she react? Would she go looking for them, or wait patiently for their return? Keera was a later sleeper, though, and it was still early. Lori nodded to herself, pushing her concerns aside. Right now the most important thing was to find Richard and stop him from waking the Captain. Keera would stay asleep until she returned.
* * *
The entire ship was deserted, the lights turned down to a low, power-saving golden glow. Shadows curled in every doorway and every corner. Lori’s first thought was to check the bridge, but if Richard had come down here to speak to the crew in the middle of the night, he’d have been tired after that and looking for a place to lay his head. Like his old quarters.
Lori reached the nearest bank of elevators and took it up to OQ26 (Officer’s Quarters, Deck 26). Richard wasn’t technically an officer, but his status as ambassador gave him some of the same privileges.
The elevator accelerated quickly, easing the nauseating sensation of freefall from zero-G, but her relief was short-lived, and was accompanied by a gut-sucking inverse effect as the elevator decelerated. The contents of her stomach lurched into the back of her throat with a foul-tasting tang of acid.
Lori exited the elevator with a grimace and hurried down the corridor to Richard’s quarters, marked by the glowing number 18. She tried to wave the door open, but it resisted with an error beep, and the control panel beside the door glowed red, along with the number on the door. The word locked flashed on the control panel, and Lori’s eyes narrowed angrily. He was definitely here, then. No one on board bothered to lock their doors unless they were inside and needed privacy.
Using her ARCs to interact with the panel, Lori rang the buzzer and waited.
A few seconds later the door swished open to reveal a dark room, and she heard Richard call out in a sleepy voice: “Come in.”
The lights rose to a dim setting as she walked in, and she saw Richard just now unzipping from the bed covers. They doubled as a sleeping bag for sleep in zero-G. As soon as the bag was open, Richard drifted free.
“You found me,” he said through a sigh as he used the handrails on the bed frame to maneuver his feet down into a pair of waiting mag boots. He adjusted the straps, and then stood to face her.
Lori crossed her arms over her chest, ready for battle. “What are you doing down here?”
He shook his head, looking tired and unhappy. “I tried to sleep in the room next door, but I couldn’t. I kept having these nightmares of Keera coming to get me in my sleep.”
“Coming to get you?” Lori echoed incredulously. “She’s just a child! And she’s your daughter!”
“You and I both know she’s much more than that.”
“You mean less than that,” Lori quipped.
“I didn’t say that.”
“It’s how you act. Please tell me you haven’t said anything to the crew.”
“Not yet. I was going to, but I decided to wait to speak with the captain when he wakes up. Just a few more hours before then, anyway.”
“Did you know that your daughter is scared of you?”
Richard’s brow furrowed. “She said that?”
“Yes. She thinks you’re going to kill her.”
“So it’s mutual then.”
“Neither of you should be feeling that way!”
“And that’s my fault?” Richard challenged. “I think I’ve done pretty damn well under the circumstances.”
“Not well enough,” Lori replied, shaking her head. “Keera told me what she was crying about.”
Richard’s eyebrows lifted in question, but he said nothing.
“She was crying because she thinks she’s a killer, because you’ve made her feel that way!”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the way you treat her, always scared, always wary and paranoid. Running away to sleep down here is just another example of that.”
“Maybe she thinks she’s a killer because whatever instincts she has are getting stronger. Those claws and teeth she has didn’t evolve from a peaceful species. They evolved because her DNA was spliced together with some kind of alien apex predator. She could have all kinds of bloodthirsty urges that we know nothing about and won’t discover until she kills someone. She is a killer, Lori, whether you want to see that or not. And soon she’s going to start practicing, just like any other killer does.”
“No!” Richard thundered and his arm snapped out to stab a finger at her. “This has gone on long enough.” He rolled up his sleeves, one at a time, revealing the uneven ridges of crisscrossing scars. “Look at me, Lori! We’re living proof of what she is.”
Lori shook her head. “Humans are apex predators, too.”
“No, we were foragers. And we’re omnivores, not carnivores. You do realize that Keera only eats meat, right? You know what that makes her.”
“She drinks milk, too.”
“Breast milk. And your breasts have a few little chunks missing from them, don’t they? One of these days she’s going to take a real bite.”
Lori spun away from him, her eyes blurring with tears of frustration—both from this conversation and from the memories of incidents that Richard was referring to. Raising Keera hadn’t been easy.
She heard thunking footsteps as Richard approached, then felt his hands on her shoulders. “We need to put her in cryo,” Richard whispered gruffly. “The Union will know what to do with her when we get back.”
“We’ll never see her again,” Lori replied, and twisted out from under his hands. “I won’t let that happen.”
“You don’t know that they’ll take her away. They might just help us to raise her in a safer, more controlled environment.”
“All the while experimenting on her! Poking and prodding her like an animal!”
“There’s no way to prevent it,” Richard replied. “Waiting until she’s older before she goes into cryo won’t help. All that will do is give her more time and opportunity to give into one of her baser instincts and hurt one of us.”
A memory flashed through Lori’s head, something that Keera had said during their heart-to-heart last night: Sometimes I want to hurt Daddy.
She pushed the thought away, refusing to accept that as true. Keera was angry with her father because of his attitude toward her. She didn’t know how to process his rejection, that’s all.
“If we wait, and she gets older, at least she’ll be more mature—maybe even an adult. She’ll be more ready to deal with the way she’s going to be treated on Earth.”
“I’m not going to spend any more time with her and you shouldn’t either. It’s too dangerous. Speaking of which, where the hell is she?”
“I left her up on The Wheel. She was still sleeping, and I didn’t want to wake her. Besides, I think it’s better we have this conversation without her, don’t you?”
“That’s not the point—you didn’t tell her where you were going?”
“What if she came looking for you?”
Lori frowned. She didn’t have her own ARCs or a Neuralink yet, but they’d taught her how to use the physical control panels to work doors and even the elevators in the spokes, in case of an emergency. Still, it was unlikely she’d go to all the trouble of leaving The Wheel and following them to the central column of the ship. And if she did, so what?
“What does it matter if she follows us?”
“She could bump into one of the crew and surprise them. They haven’t seen how big she is yet. They won’t recognize her. The could shoot her!”
Lori’s eyes flared wide with sudden fear. He was right. Until now she’d been worried about how Keera would react. She hadn’t thought about what the crew might do if they saw her. She glanced urgently at the door to Richard’s quarters.
“We’d better go back to The Wheel.”
Richard shook his head. “Too slow. The bridge is closer. We’ll go there and warn them first.”
“Warn them about what?”
“Not to shoot if they see a waist-high alien walking around!”
“I’m going with you,” Lori said. She was pleasantly surprised to hear him taking a paternal role with Keera. For once he was more worried about protecting her than himself.
“Fine. Let’s go.” Richard turned and led the way, waving the door to his quarters open as they approached.
They hurried back down the corridor to the elevators. Lori activated the call button with her ARCs and pre-selected B27 from the available decks. It was directly above the officers’ quarters, making scrambling to control stations faster in an emergency.
Lori had never imagined she’d be scrambling there herself in order to protect her half-alien child from possible friendly fire.
The elevator doors slid open and Lori followed Richard out at a brisk pace. They walked down a short, curving corridor to reach the bridge. Stars sparkled on artificial viewports to their left. As they came around the bend to reach the entrance of the bridge, Richard’s footsteps slowed dramatically.
“Shit! Is that...”
Lori stepped out from behind him to see what he was staring at.
The doors were open. That shouldn’t have been the case. Standard procedure was to keep them shut and locked at all times.
Lori immediately saw why the doors were open. There was a woman lying crumpled in the entrance, her mag boots pinned to the deck, her back arched in a limbo position as she drifted there, surrounded by shining ruby ribbons and globules of her own blood.
Lori’s hand flew to her mouth. “What happened to her?”
Richard crossed the deck to reach her, his steps slow and plodding, reluctant.
He began shaking his head. Lori followed him there, and they saw what had killed the woman: long, bloody gashes crisscrossed her uniform from her navel to her chest. Five and five from two hands.
Lori activated name tapes on her AR contacts, and the woman’s name and rank glowed above her head in bright blue letters:
Lt. Celia Asher
Her blue eyes were wide and staring up at the ceiling as she hung there frozen.
Richard looked to Lori in alarm, his own eyes wide. “We have to wake the others now. When we confront Keera with this she might try to—”
That small, soft and husky voice of hers sliced straight through to Lori’s core. She winced, and tears sprang to her eyes. “Keera, honey? Are you in there?” She tried to lean around Richard and see past the snaking swirls of blood in the entryway.
“Mommy?” Keera’s voice was thick and cracking with emotion now. She came drifting into view. Not wearing any mag boots, she was floating around in zero-G.
“She’s covered in blood...” Richard whispered.
Lori only noticed that after he mentioned it. She grimaced and pushed through the entryway. Ribbons and globules of blood splashed against her uniform. The blood hadn’t congealed yet. It was fresh.
Keera began sailing by overhead, but Lori reached up and yanked her down to the deck. Holding her at eye level, Lori searched her daughter’s teary red eyes. “Keera. Did you do this?”
She shook her head quickly, and squeezed her eyes shut. “No! I found them like this.”
“She’s lying,” Richard replied. “She’s the only one who could have done—did you say them? Where’s the other one?”
Keera broke down, sobbing, and Lori glanced around quickly. Her eyes landed on another officer hunched in the captain’s station in the center of the bridge. More ribbons and globules of blood sparkled around him. Lori’s ARCs identified the man as Lt. Emon Ferris. He’d died while still strapped into the captain’s chair.
Shocked and horrified to her core, Lori let go of her daughter and hurried over to check on the man. She rounded the captain’s chair, checking his life signs with her ARCs. His body temperature was still cooling to ambient, and he had no pulse. It was easy to see why: his throat was missing.
Rounding on her daughter, she shook her head, flinging tears from her cheeks with the movement. “Keera, what have you done?”
She just sobbed harder. This was exactly like her waking nightmare from last night: a man and a woman, slashed to pieces. It hadn’t just been a harmless fantasy borne of fears instilled by her father. Keera had acted on those thoughts and made them come to pass.
“I didn’t do it!” Keera cried through a mess of tears and snot.
“It’s okay, honey. We’re going to figure this out,” Lori whispered, clutching Keera to her chest.
“What’s to figure out?” Richard cried. “She came down here looking for us, found them instead, and killed them both!”
“Think about what you’re saying, Rick. How could she do all of that? She’s never been down here. She doesn’t know where the bridge is. She couldn’t have known they’d be here.”
“I can’t believe you’re still defending her. There’s no one else on board, Lori!” Richard jabbed a finger at Keera, who was peeking at him with the eye that wasn’t buried in Lori’s chest. “She killed them. And if we don’t wake the others right now, she’s going to kill us, too.”
“She says she didn’t do it,” Lori said.
“So who did?”
Lori’s mind scrambled for an answer. She surprised herself by coming up with one almost instantly. “You.”
Richard blinked. “What?”
“You were down here all night. The blood is fresh, but not that fresh. The bodies are already cooling. This might have happened hours ago.”
“Except you found me in bed. Asleep. We found Keera here, covered in blood.”
“I’m covered in blood, too. So are you. It’s floating all over the place. And Keera wasn’t down here hours ago. She was up on The Wheel. Asleep.”
Richard sneered at that. “You can’t possibly determine a time of death just by looking at the bodies. This could have happened twenty minutes ago, right in the middle of our argument in my quarters.”
Keera’s sobs were growing quieter now. She sniffled, still watching her father with one eye.
“Let’s check the security feeds,” Lori said, and instantly regretted her own suggestion. If Keera really was guilty, then that would prove it.
Richard’s eyes lit up and a cold smile touched his lips. “Good idea.” He stalked over to the security station and summoned a holoscreen to life above the console. Lori walked over. Keera clung to her, arms wrapped around her neck.
“Impossible,” Richard spat.
Lori stared hard at the holoscreen, blinking past tears to see the search error.
No records found.
Lori felt her brow tense up. She checked the search parameters Richard had entered. He was searching all on-board surveillance on this level between 0600 and now—0902.
“That makes no sense,” Lori said.
Richard just shook his head, a muscle twitching in his jaw. “It might make sense.”
“If...” The screens changed, and Lori noticed bright images flashing over Richard’s eyes as he interacted with the control console via his ARCs. He glanced sideways at Keera, who was now within striking distance of him. He took a quick step away from her. Keera noticed his wary behavior, and a low hiss escaped her lips.
He snorted. “There it is. Look.”
Lori’s gaze drifted back to the glowing screen above the console. It was a systems log. The last two hours of surveillance data had been wiped clean twenty-six minutes ago. It was a complete data purge, authorized from...
Lori looked at the captain’s station where Lieutenant Emon Ferris had died. “Why would he erase the logs?”
“Because someone was threatening to kill him if he didn’t,” Richard replied while glaring at Keera.
“But he died, anyway. He had to know it wouldn’t matter.”
“Maybe. Or maybe he was just buying himself time to do something else.”
“Something like what?” Lori asked.
“It doesn’t fucking matter, Lori! Look at this!” Richard spread his hands to indicate the carnage on the bridge. “Two people are dead, and the killer is wrapped around your throat! I’m surprised she hasn’t ripped it out yet.”
Lori scowled. “It still could have been you. The logs were erased. Keera wouldn’t even know how to do that, but you would. And you have the clearance to do it yourself.”
“Wouldn’t she? She’s seen the cameras. We’ve told her what they’re for. She knows everything on board is recorded. And besides, it wasn’t just the logs that were erased. The entire security system was deactivated as well.”
That just made Lori more suspicious. “And again, how would she know to do that, Richard? She’s just a child. She wouldn’t be able to cover her tracks that carefully.”
“What are we even arguing about?! I’m waking the others up right now.” Richard stalked past her to the captain’s station. His footsteps echoed strangely as he went. A second later, Lori realized the sound was coming from extra sets of boots—approaching fast.
“Lieutenant Asher!” someone cried, and Lori turned to see Captain Cross standing in the entrance of the bridge with a group of four other officers. Several of them cursed, their eyes flying wide and hands reaching for sidearms that they weren’t carrying. The captain’s eyes locked with Lori’s.
“Dr Reed! What happened here?” the captain demanded. “And what the hell is that thing around your neck?”
Stray droplets of blood were busy crashing into all of them. A droplet snuck up Clayton’s nose and he tasted the ferrous tang of it on the back of his tongue.
“It’s Keera,” Lori explained, indicating the creature wrapped around her neck.
“That’s Keera?” Lieutenant Devon asked. Her bright red hair drifted around her head in glittering strands that shone copper in the overhead light strips.
“It’s too big,” Clayton said. “Keera’s only six months old. Unless we didn’t wake up when we were supposed to...” His gaze snapped to Ambassador Morgan.
“At the risk of stating the obvious, she’s not normal, Captain,” Morgan said. “She’s been developing at an accelerated rate. I’ve been trying to tell Lori that we needed to wake you and warn you, but it’s already too late.”
“We don’t know that she did this!” Lori snapped.
“Who else could have?” Morgan demanded.
“Maybe you did it so you could finally be rid of her!”
Clayton looked away from them with a frown and pushed through a glittering ribbon of Lieutenant Asher’s blood to join them on the bridge. “Delta, on me. And get us some weapons.”
“Yes, sir,” Delta replied, following him through the open doors and stopping at the weapons locker beside the entrance. Clayton waited there with him, never taking his eyes off Keera and her mother.
“What are you going to do?” Lori cried in a shrill voice, her eyes wide as Delta pulled a pair of energy rifles out of the weapons’ locker.
Delta handed one to Clayton.
“Set for stun,” he said as he flicked his rifle to that setting.
“Yes, sir,” Delta replied.
“We’re just making sure that she doesn’t hurt anyone else,” Clayton explained as he started toward the captain’s chair in the center of the bridge. He could already see that Lieutenant Ferris was also dead—a halo of blood was slowly spinning around his head, and he wasn’t moving. “Keep that thing covered,” he added, nodding to Delta.
The former Marine grunted and held his energy rifle at the ready.
Clayton rounded the captain’s chair with both Delta and Lieutenant Devon to check on Lieutenant Ferris. Lieutenant Davies and Doctor Stevens remained standing outside the bridge, their expressions blank and eyes wide.
“Does anyone need medical assistance?” Dr. Stevens asked, suddenly finding his voice.
No one replied. Clayton saw that Lieutenant Ferris was still strapped into the captain’s chair. His green eyes were staring blankly, and his black uniform was crusted with blood, the white piping stained red. There was a gaping black hole where his throat should have been. It had been ripped right out.
“Shit,” Delta muttered, sparing a glance from his rifle’s sights to check Ferris’s wounds.
“What happened?” Lieutenant Devon asked, her tone sharp and accusing as she stared at Keera and Lori.
Clayton glanced over to Lori and the creature that was wrapped around her neck. The human-alien hybrid buried its face in Lori’s hair and cried loudly, air whistling in and out of its thin nose.
Clayton noticed the four short appendages on top of the creature’s head and wondered what they were for. Two of them were turned toward him, the openings at the top cone-shaped.
“She says she didn’t do it, and I believe her,” Lori said.
“She’s covered in blood,” Delta said.
“They died recently,” Doctor Steven added from the entryway. “Maybe only an hour ago. The blood is still fresh.”
“Like I said,” Devon intoned. “What happened?”
“We didn’t see,” Lori explained.
“Did you check the security logs?” Delta asked.
“They were deleted, and the security system is deactivated,” Morgan replied.
“That’s convenient,” Clayton muttered. He used his ARCs to check the systems log. “The systems log shows that the security system was disabled thirty-five minutes ago and the last two hours of data were erased, all from this station. Also around the same time the command was issued to wake us from cryo, also from this station.”
“That’s what he was buying time for,” Lori said slowly. “To wake you up.”
“Reinforcements,” Delta grunted while glaring down the sights of his rifle at Keera.
Keera whimpered again. “It wasn’t me!” she cried in a deep and teary voice.
Clayton was taken aback by that. “She talks?”
“She’s been talking for months,” Lori said.
“Maybe it’s time we shut her up,” Delta said, hefting his rifle a little higher on his shoulder.
“Stop it!” Lori cried. “You’re scaring her!” She spun away from them, and faced the nearest wall.
Clayton looked back to the Captain’s station with a scowl. “We’ll have to conduct an autopsy. Doctor Stevens, do you think you can—”
“Keera!” Lori cried as the child jumped out of her arms. She moved to block Delta’s aim.
“Get out of the way, Dr. Reed!” he snapped.
But Lori spread her arms to make herself an even bigger target.
The child hit the nearby bulkhead, and a shriek of rending metal filled the air. Lori spun toward the sound, and they saw Keera vanishing into a maintenance tunnel.
Delta squeezed off a belated shot, and a bright silver stun round burst from his rifle. It plinked harmlessly off the inside of the tunnel. Keera was gone; the sound of her skittering claws faded away into silence.
“Shit!” Delta muttered and dropped the rifle from his shoulder.
Lori’s face crumpled and tears sprang to her eyes. They broke free and drifted glittering through the air.
Morgan scowled and shook his head. “If she’s so innocent, why’d she run?” he challenged.
But Lori gave no reply.
“Where does that tunnel lead?” Clayton asked, his gaze skipping from Delta to Lieutenant Devon and back again.
“It goes through the whole damn ship!” Delta said. “She could pop out anywhere.”
“One of us could follow her,” Devon said. “She can’t have gotten far.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Clayton replied. The access grate of the tunnel had been sheared open, metal torn to pieces by the child’s bare hands—just like the flesh of the two officers whose corpses were busy cooling on the bridge. Having someone crawl through those tunnels after her was a good way to get them killed.
“We’ll split up and search the ship. Delta, reactivate the damn surveillance system. We might be able to use it to track her.”
“Aye, sir,” Delta replied, already heading for the security station.
“And let’s get the thrusters firing and gravity back! It took us fifteen minutes just to get from the damn cryo tubes to the equipment lockers.”
“On it, sir,” Devon replied.
“We’re splitting into two groups!” Clayton said as Delta passed out more E14 energy rifles. “Devon, you’re with Lieutenant Davies.” Davies was the comms officer. He was huddled in the farthest corner of the bridge, hugging his shoulders, his shaven head gleaming in the dim light.
“Aye, sir,” Devon replied.
“Delta, you and Dr. Stevens are with me.”
Delta grunted again, shifting his feet impatiently.
“What about us?” Dr. Reed asked. “You’re not going to hunt her down like an animal and then tell me I can’t—”
“Relax, Lori. You’re welcome to join us. Why don’t you and the ambassador join Lieutenant Devon’s team.”
“Not a chance I’m going with her,” Morgan replied. “I don’t trust her.”
Clayton swallowed a sigh. “Fine. You’re with us, Morgan. But neither one of you is getting any weapons.”
“I wouldn’t use one anyway,” Lori replied.
“Yeah, you’d sooner let it kill you than shoot your precious baby.”
“She’s not an it. Her name is Keera, Dick.”
“Enough!” Clayton thundered. “We’re wasting time. We need to find her before anyone else gets hurt—Keera included. Everyone set your rifles to stun and let’s move out! Devon, your team is designated Team Two for comms.”
Walking quickly now that gravity had been restored throughout the ship, they brushed past Lt. Asher in the open doors of the bridge. She was now lying in a pool of her own blood, bent at the knees, her feet still pinned to the deck by her mag boots.
They stormed down the corridor from the bridge, heading for the bank of elevators at the end. Clayton hit the call button from a distance with his ARCs.
The elevator doors opened just a few seconds later. Devon started in, but he stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “Take the next one and head up. We’ll go down. Use the ship’s schematics to find all of the exits for that maintenance tunnel. Make sure you check them all. Set your comms to channel one.”
“Understood, sir,” Devon replied.
Clayton activated his comm piece and switched to channel one, then hurried into the elevator behind Delta, Richard, and Doctor Stevens.
They dropped down just one deck, and OQ26 appeared on the display above the doors. “First stop,” Delta said as he stepped out and swept the corridor with his rifle.
Clayton nodded to Doctor Stevens and Ambassador Morgan before following Delta out. Both of them looked scared, but Doctor Stevens made a visible effort to push past it. Morgan didn’t. He was the last one to leave the elevator.
Clayton frowned at that. Keera had obviously killed those two officers, but the circumstances were unknown. When they’d found her on the bridge, she’d been docile and passive, clinging to her mother’s neck and crying. That didn’t add up to a cold-blooded killer. Maybe she’d acted in self-defense.
And yet her own father was afraid of her, so maybe not. He ought to know by now what Keera was capable of.
“You think she killed those officers in cold blood,” Clayton whispered, glancing back at Morgan as they crept down the corridor past the doors to the ship’s sleeping quarters.
“Why?” Clayton asked.
“Because that’s just what she is. She’s a carnivore who likes her meat to be bloody and fresh. She’s a killer, Captain, and I have the scars to prove it.” Morgan rolled up one of his sleeves to reveal crisscrossing ridges of scar tissue running through the hairs on his arm.
“She did that?” Stevens whispered.
“And more. Lori’s breasts look like they’ve been through a cheese grater.”
Clayton and Delta traded worried glances. “We’re going to have to put her in cryo for the rest of the trip,” Clayton said.
“That’s what I’ve been saying to Lori for months!”
“Should we be checking these rooms?” Stevens asked, glancing at one of the doors as they walked by.
“The maintenance tunnels don’t come out in any of the officer’s quarters,” Delta replied.
A muffled thump sounded to Clayton’s right. He whirled toward the sound, his rifle aiming at room number 18.
“You sure about that, Delta?”
“Then she must have already left the tunnels,” Clayton replied.
“That’s my room,” Morgan whispered, his voice trembling. “I was just in there!”
“Quiet,” Delta hissed.
“What do you mean you were just in there?” Clayton asked.
“I thought you were up on The Wheel.”
“I couldn’t stay there with that creature any longer. I came down here last night,” Morgan said.
“Before those two officers were killed,” Clayton said. “That’s why Lori said it could have been you.”
“You saw their wounds. How could I have done that?”
Everyone was staring at Morgan now.
“It wasn’t me,” he insisted.
“The autopsy will tell us,” Clayton replied. “Delta, let’s get this over with.”
Clayton used his ARCs to open the door. The dim golden hues of night cycle lighting left plenty of shadows for a child Keera’s size to hide within. Delta led the way inside, and Clayton mentally turned the lights up. The shadows fled, but there was still no sign of her.
Clayton’s eyes found the door to the bathroom, and he triggered it from a distance as he stalked over.
But it was empty.
“She’s not here,” Stevens said, peering in over his shoulder.
“Check the lockers,” Clayton replied. Leaving his rifle to dangle by the shoulder strap, he went and grabbed both locker handles, sucked in a breath, and said, “Cover me, Delta.”
“I got your back, sir.”
Clayton pulled both lockers open and stepped back quickly, snatching his rifle and taking aim at—
But both of the lockers were empty, too.
“The room’s clear,” Delta said and lowered his rifle. “There’s no one in here.”
Clayton looked to him with a frown. “Then what the hell did we hear out in the corridor?”
Lori walked between Lieutenants Devon and Davies as they checked level 30. The whole deck was devoted to the Officers’ mess and rec areas. The maintenance tunnels came out here, in the kitchen. Lori began to walk off toward the game tables on the far side of the deck.
“Get back in line, Reed,” Devon ordered.
Lori did as she was told, but her eyes narrowed at that order. Devon insisted she stay between them because they had guns and she didn’t. But she wasn’t afraid of her own daughter. No matter how bad things looked, she knew there had to be some kind of mistake. Keera would never intentionally hurt anyone. She wouldn’t have attacked those two officers. Not without provocation at least.
And now Keera was on the run, but only because they’d threatened to put her in cryo for the rest of the trip.
The ship’s lights were gradually brightening, coming out of their night cycle setting. Gleaming stainless steel surfaces snapped into focus, tables and chairs, couches and games tables, a bar... the serving counter, and the ration storage bins.
Devon led the way behind the serving counter and waved the door to the kitchen open. Lori scanned the food prep areas, sinks, appliances, cupboards, and walk-in fridge and freezer.
Keera was small enough to hide inside the cupboards, not to mention the fridge and freezer. Lori’s heart leaped into her throat, and she angled toward the freezer door.
“Any sign of her on the surveillance system?” Lieutenant Davies asked from the back while scanning for targets.
“None yet,” Devon replied as she joined Lori by the freezer door. She stopped Lori from opening it with a shake of her head. “Let me open it.” Lori noticed that Devon was holding a holotab in one hand. There were three green dots on the screen projected above the base unit. Lori guessed that those dots represented each of them.
“There are cameras everywhere,” Davies objected. “If Keera had left the tunnels, the system should have detected her by now.”
“Not if she’s smart. The system has blindspots,” Lori said.
“Yeah, but how would she know where they are?”
Devon shrugged. “Maybe she’s still in the tunnels.” Turning to Lori, she passed the holotab to her. “Hold this.”
“What is it?” Lori asked, even though she had a pretty good guess.
“Experimental tech. A life signs scanner. We’re the green blips. Anyone without an identichip will show as red.”
“Does it scan through walls?” Lori asked.
“Supposed to, yeah, but some walls are better shielded than others—like this freezer door. Step back please, Dr. Reed.”
Lori flicked a scowl at her. “She’s my daughter. She’s not a threat. Least of all to me.”
“All the same, step back.”
Lori retreated grudgingly, and Lieutenant Devon opened the freezer. A blast of icy air hit them, and clouds of condensing moisture billowed out. The freezer was dark inside, but Devon activated the tactical light below the barrel of her rifle and swept the beam around, parting curtains of shadows. The billowing clouds of moisture condensing around them glittered in the light.
Lori glanced back at the scanner in her hand. “Still just three green dots.”
“Let’s try the fridge,” Devon said, and swung the freezer door shut with a muffled thump.
They sidestepped over to it and Devon grabbed the handle. Hesitating for a second, she pulled the fridge door open, and flashed her tac light around. The fridge was mostly empty, but a few containers of half-finished rations and meals were stacked on the shelves. The containers were labeled with the names of the deceased officers up on the bridge: Ferris and Asher.
“Nothing here, either,” Devon breathed.
“Did you hear that?” Davies asked.
Devon and Lori both spun to face him. He was staring deeper into the kitchen, down to the far end of the galley where the food printers were.
He activated the tac light on his rifle, revealing a shimmering rain of dust-bunnies dancing in the air.
“The air is moving,” Davies whispered.
“Yeah, because we’re in here, stirring it up,” Devon replied. She turned away, shaking her head. “Let’s go up to the next level.”
Lori began following her out, but Davies lingered. She glanced back at him; he was still standing there, staring at the far wall of the kitchen.
“Lieutenant Davies, are you coming?”
Before he could reply, the kitchen plunged into darkness.
“Shit!” Devon muttered.
“Who turned out the lights?!” Davies asked while sweeping his rifle and under-barrel light around in panicky arcs.
Lori couldn’t see anything except for what that cone of light illuminated. There were no viewscreens or windows in here.
“It wasn’t any of us,” Devon replied. “Maybe a systems malfunction? Looks like the lights are out on the whole deck.”
“But we still have gravity,” Lori replied.
“Which means it’s not a complete power failure,” Devon said. “We should be grateful for that. Let’s get back to the elevators and see if they’re working.”
Lori nodded and started after her, heading back to the mess hall. A pale silver light was emanating from there, indicating that the viewscreens were still online and relaying starlight from the ship’s external cameras.
Lori hurried out of the kitchen and joined Devon in the mess hall. “Davies!” she called. “Stop staring at the wall and let’s go!”
Lori glanced back the way they’d come and saw that Lieutenant Davies was standing just inside the kitchen with his back turned to them, apparently frozen in place and staring at the far wall.
“Davies?” Lori asked.
A gurgle was his only reply, and he pirouetted toward them, collapsing as he turned, like an ice skater who’d failed to stick the landing of a jump.
A dark river of blood gushed from a wide gash just below his Adam’s apple. Lori screamed.
“Shit!” Devon cried as Davies hit the deck with a sickening thud. Her rifle snapped up to her shoulder, and she peered down the sights into thin air.
Lori checked the life signs scanner. Two green dots now, but still no red.
“I don’t see it!” Devon said.
“You mean her!” Lori snapped, her eyes blurring with tears. “Keera! We’re not going to hurt you! You need to stop this! Please.”
One of Davies’ legs kicked spasmodically, and Devon cursed again.
“I’m going in,” she said. “He might still be alive. Stay here!”
But Lori followed close on her heels. They reached Davies’ side and Devon dropped to one knee to turn him over. The blood gushing from his throat was down to a trickle. His eyes were dull and staring, and his lips moving slowly, but no sound came out.
“Get me something to stop the bleeding!” Devon cried.
“Like what?” Lori asked.
Devon pressed a hand to his throat. The blood bubbled out feebly beneath her fingers, then stopped. “Fucking hell!” she screamed. Devon stepped back and straightened, sweeping her rifle around in a two-handed grip with Davies’ blood dripping from her left hand. Her tac light parted the shadows to reveal gleaming surfaces and appliances, but nothing else. “She has to be in here somewhere!”
Lori glanced back at the glowing screen of the scanner in her hands. Still no sign of any blips besides their own. “This thing isn’t working!”
A whoosh of air rushed between them, raising goosebumps on the back of Lori’s neck. She whirled toward it with Devon, but as Devon’s tac light flashed back over the entrance of the kitchen, it revealed nothing but more dust bunnies glittering in the dark.
“Damn it, she’s fast!” Devon cried, then: “Captain, we have contact on Level 30! And we just lost Davies. Repeat, Lieutenant Davies is KIA.”
Lori’s guts clenched up with those words. It was getting hard to tell herself that Keera was innocent. Davies had been killed right in front of her, and there was only one person on board who was both small enough and fast enough to have killed him so quietly and stealthily.
Lori’s eyes snapped back to the expanding pool of blood around Lieutenant Davies’ lifeless body. Keera, what have you done?
“She killed someone else?” Morgan asked. “I knew this was going to happen!”
Clayton ignored him, his brow tense as his mind raced in a thousand directions at once. This was getting out of hand. First Ferris and Asher, now Davies... three of his officers were dead.
“Captain,” Devon breathed over the comms. It sounded like she was running. “Are the lights out on your deck?”
Clayton frowned and shook his head. “No, Lieutenant. They’re out on yours?”
“They went out just before it killed Davies.”
“A calculated move,” Clayton decided. Keera was a lot smarter than any of them realized.
“Are you in pursuit?”
“No, sir,” Devon replied. “We didn’t actually make visual contact, and there are no hits on the surveillance system.”
Clayton shook his head. “That’s not possible.”
“Maybe the system wasn’t just deactivated, sir. It might have been sabotaged.”
Clayton grimaced. “We’ll need to run a full diagnostic to find out.”
“Want us to head up to the bridge?” Devon asked.
“No, it’s too dangerous. She obviously found her way there once already. She might anticipate you’d go there again, or even just follow you. We need to get more people in on the search. Meet us on the cryo deck. We’re going to wake the rest of the crew.”
“Aye-aye, sir. See you soon.”
“Watch your back, Lieutenant.”
“You too, sir.”
Clayton turned in a quick circle to address the rest of his team. Delta was scanning the corridor. He had his rifle’s tac light on and was shining it into the shadowy recesses of the entrances to the officers’ quarters.
“Everyone on me!” Clayton said. “Delta, watch our six.”
Clayton led the way down the corridor to the elevators. His comms crackled with another update from Devon just as they were entering the elevator.
“Sir! Devon here. She took the elevator, and she’s headed up. We’re in pursuit now.”
“Check the system logs,” Clayton said. “Find out where she’s headed.”
“I already did, sir. Cryo deck.”
“What?” Clayton blinked in shock and shook his head, peripherally noticing as Delta hit the physical button for the same level—CY44.
“She must have overheard us talking, sir,” Devon replied.
“Wait for us at the elevators.”
“You need backup, Lieutenant,” Clayton said. “Wait at the elevators. That’s an order.”
“We’ll be there soon. Cross out.”
Morgan caught his eye as he ended the connection. “I told you she’s no ordinary child. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s just been pretending all this time and she’s actually fully-grown already. She clearly has the mental acuity of an adult. And she’s already reached the same height as an adult Avari.”
Clayton acknowledged that with a shallow nod. Morgan was right, but an advanced, intelligent life form going from newborn to adult in just six months wasn’t just fast development: it was supernatural.
Don’t go losing your head, Clay, he chided himself. Those red eyes might make her look like a demon, but she isn’t invincible.
At least, he hoped she wasn’t. He was almost afraid to ask Morgan if they’d ever seen her bleed.
* * *
Clayton stepped out of the elevator into a wall of darkness. A flashlight swept his way, but pooled on the deck at his feet. Devon knew better than to aim her rifle at them. Delta’s tac light flashed out, and pooled at their feet, revealing her and Lori’s silhouettes.
“Captain,” Devon greeted. “The lights are out on this deck, too.”
Clayton tried re-activating the lights with his ARCs, but it didn’t work.
“She must have cut the power somehow,” Clayton said.
Devon nodded. “On our way out of the Officers’ Mess we saw that one of the primary power conduits had been slashed open. It looked like it had been clawed open, sir.”
Clayton’s mind flashed back to the grate that had covered the opening of the maintenance tunnels on the bridge. It shouldn’t have been possible for anything to tear through metal with its bare hands, but this was uncharted territory. They didn’t know what they were dealing with here.
Activating his rifle’s tac light, he traded a glance with Delta.
“Why turn out the lights?” Dr. Stevens asked.
“Because she’s hunting us like the animal she is,” Morgan said.
Lori glared at him. “It’s because she can see better than we can in the dark, and she’s trying to stay hidden. We’re the ones hunting her.”
“Tell that to Davies,” Morgan replied. “Oh, wait—you can’t, because he’s dead!”
“Stay sharp,” Clayton said, walking by Devon and starting down the corridor to the cryo chamber. Before they’d even taken a dozen steps they found the problem with the lights. All of the power conduits in the ceiling had been torn open.
“How the hell didn’t she electrocute herself?” Clayton wondered aloud.
“Maybe she found the control box and turned off the power there first?”
“Maybe,” Clayton agreed. “Stay close.” As he crept down the hall, dust bunnies danced through the cone of his tac light. He swept his rifle around, checking alcoves and the entrances to the various storage and control rooms.
They all froze. Just up ahead, the access door to the cryo belts was open, providing direct access to the space between the inner and outer hulls where the cryo pods were stored. The door slid shut after just a few seconds. Three tac lights converged, chasing the shadows away.
No sign of Keera.
“She must have just gone in,” Devon whispered.
“Stay alert,” Clayton added as he began inching toward the door.
One foot in front of the other, his breath hitching in his throat, pulse pounding in his ears...
Adrenaline sparked in Clayton’s fingertips as he flexed clammy hands around the energy rifle.
“Everyone is set to stun, right?” Lori whispered sharply.
“Can it,” Clayton snapped. They’d better be, he thought. SpaceComm would have his head if he didn’t bring Keera back alive.
They reached the access door and fanned out, their rifles and tac lights converging on the door.
Clayton took a second to steady himself before triggering the door. “Brace for contact,” he breathed.
But before he could do anything, all of their tac lights flickered and died. Even the glowing interface on Clayton’s ARCs vanished.
“What the—” Delta’s voice cut off in a guttural scream. Clayton whirled toward the sound, perfectly blinded. He snapped off a shot anyway. Guessing where their attacker might be.
A brief muzzle flash illuminated something short and crouching with jagged claws flashing. Clayton couldn’t see her face, but Keera was the only one on the entire ship who was that short. Delta stumbled away from her and then the light vanished, and Clayton’s stun round plinked off the side of the corridor. A hissing snarl faded into swiftly retreating footsteps. Clayton gave chase, blindly snapping off two more stun rounds. By some miracle, one of them hit the scrambling black silhouette running ahead of him, illuminating Keera briefly with an electric flash of light. It was her all right. But instead of those stun rods burying in her skin and shocking her into submission, they bounced off, and she raced on down the corridor. Then came the tortured scream of metal shearing. Clayton’s footsteps slowed, and the tac light under his rifle flickered back on.
He found himself staring at the ruined grating of the cover to the maintenance tunnels. She’d gone back in.
Heavy footsteps caught up to him, more tac lights appeared bobbing over the bulkheads and deck.
Clayton noticed that Delta was bleeding, the entire left side of his uniform torn open across his ribs with five parallel gashes.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Just a scratch, sir.”
Clayton looked to Dr. Stevens for confirmation. “He’s losing blood, but they’re superficial wounds. We should get him to sickbay.”
Clayton nodded absently, his eyes straying back to the shredded cover of the maintenance tunnels. “Do we have time to wake reinforcements first?”
“Not recommended, sir. He could pass out if we don’t stop the bleeding soon.”
Clayton swallowed a sigh. “Then let’s make it fast. On me.”
“What happened back there?” Devon asked as he led the way back to the elevators. “All of our lights died at the same time.”
“Not just our lights, Lieutenant. All of our equipment. Anything electrical, even our ARCs.”
“That might explain how she’s able to tear open electrical conduits without getting shocked,” Dr. Stevens said.
“But how can she do that?” Devon asked. She glanced back at Keera’s parents for the answer.
“I’ve never seen her do that before,” Lori said.
“Maybe she’s been hiding her abilities,” Morgan put in.
Clayton shook his head and turned to regard them as he entered the nearest elevator. “Her abilities? She’s not superhuman.”
But the silence that answered him was proof that everyone else thought otherwise.
As the elevator dropped down to sickbay, Clayton considered it. There were handheld EMPs on board that could cause a brief electrical failure. If Keera had somehow gotten her hands on one, it would explain what had just happened.
That has to be it, he decided. But there was something else he hadn’t mentioned to anyone: one of his stun rounds had hit Keera, and it had bounced right off.
Devon stood watching the entrance to sickbay while Dr. Stevens patched Delta up. Fortunately, there were no other entrances, and the maintenance tunnels didn’t come out inside of sickbay. Knowing that put Clayton at ease, but at this point, maybe it shouldn’t have. What would Keera do next? For all they knew she’d gone back up to the bridge. At least all of the control stations were restricted access.
“Stop squirming,” Dr. Stevens said.
Delta scowled as Stevens threaded his needle for the hundredth time. He’d anesthetized the area, but it was taking a long time to stitch him up. Five gashes, each over a foot long, and wide enough that Clayton could see glistening white bone peeking through underneath.
“Can’t you just spray them and be done with it?” Delta asked.
“No. The gashes are too wide.”
“It would seal them.”
“And you’d end up with scars as thick as snakes. Now stop moving or this it going to take all day.”
Clayton turned away. His eyes fell on Morgan and Lori, both standing on opposite sides of sickbay—Morgan with his arms crossed over his chest, Lori looking pale and distraught. They were at odds over Keera. A mother’s love was unconditional, but Morgan had always been wary where Keera was concerned.
At this point, they all had reason to be. Clayton walked up beside Devon. She glanced at him. “Sir.”
“Lieutenant,” he replied, acknowledging her back. Dropping his voice to a whisper, he said, “We might have a problem.”
“Beside the obvious?”
“What problem?” Morgan asked in a loud voice as he came over. Clayton scowled at him. Lori approached next, her eyes darting warily between them.
Clayton had been hoping to keep this between him and Devon, but now he had everyone’s attention. But maybe Keera’s parents deserved to know.
“I shot her.”
Lori’s eyes flew wide. “You what?”
“Just a stun round, but it was point blank. It hit her square between the shoulders.”
“And?” Devon asked, her coppery eyebrows raised.
“It bounced off.”
“What do you mean it bounced off?” Delta asked from the examination table.
Morgan snorted and shook his head. “Great.”
“Maybe it wasn’t a direct hit,” Devon suggested. “If the stun rods hit at an angle, they wouldn’t dig in.”
“They could have hit bone, too,” Lori pointed out. Her spine is thicker and more prominent than a human’s.”
Clayton nodded. “You’re right. Those are all possibilities.” And they made a lot more sense than the alternative. “Has she ever been hurt?” he asked, nodding to Lori.
“Yes... of course. She fell down lots of times when she was learning to walk.”
“She’s never bled,” Morgan said, shaking his head. “Her skin might be thicker and tougher than ours.”
“Then why does it look transparent?” Lori challenged.
“Because she’s a freak!”
“All right, settle down,” Clayton said. “Let’s all just be aware that it could take more than one round to bring her down.”
“If you shoot her with more than one, you could stop her heart,” Lori objected.
“It’s a risk, yes,” Clayton admitted.
He turned to Devon and saw her ARCs bright and flickering with imagery. “What is it, Lieutenant?”
“We finally got a hit from the surveillance system.”
“Level twenty-five. Walking down the corridor as we speak.”
“Lock it down.”
“Done. She’s trapped between two bulkheads, sir.”
“No maintenance tunnels in that section?” Clayton asked.
“Thank God,” he breathed, his shoulders rounding as the air left his lungs and the tension left his muscles.
“What’s on that level?” Lori asked.
“Escape pods,” Clayton replied.
“That’s it?” Morgan added.
“That’s also where the auxiliary armory is,” Delta added.
“Are there any other doors around her?”
“Aye, to the escape pods and the armory. I’ve locked them, too, but there are manual overrides on all of the doors, including the bulkheads.”
“We’d better get down there before she finds a way into the armory and blows the whole ship up,” Delta said.
“Lie down!” Dr. Stevens snapped. “You’re going to tear open your stitches!”
“It’s good enough, Doc.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
“He’s right,” Clayton said. “Stay here with Stevens. The rest of us will go.”
“Dr. Reed and the Ambassador should stay as well, sir,” Devon said. “Unarmed civilians are a distraction and a liability.”
Clayton considered it. “No, we need Lori. She might be able to help, but Morgan can stay.”
“Without a gun?” he asked, his voice pitching high with fear.
“Delta has one,” Clayton replied as he waved the door open and started out. “Keep the door locked and you’ll be fine. She can’t claw her way through an inch of reinforced alloy.”
Devon and Lori followed him out.
“But—” The door swished shut on Morgan’s objections, and Clayton took off at a run. “Double time! We need to make sure she doesn’t get away again.”
“Let me speak with her before you start shooting,” Lori said.
“You’re assuming she wants to talk,” Devon said.
“We’ll do everything we can to avoid a violent confrontation,” Clayton reassured her. What he didn’t mention was that if stun rounds didn’t work, they were going to have to set their rifles to kill. He wasn’t going to let any one else die on his watch.
“Where is she now?” Clayton whispered.
All three of them stood in front of the sealed bulkhead to the section where Keera was trapped.
“Surveillance lost her, sir. I don’t know. I have to check the records. Give me a few minutes.”
Clayton shook his head. “We don’t have a few minutes. She could be in the armory right now. Ready up.”
“Stay back, Lori,” he added, glancing over his shoulder at her.
She gave no reply, her eyes wide and staring at the door.
“Power’s still on.”
“Maybe she got tired of skulking around.”
“Or maybe she’s waiting for us to open the door before she drops the lights. Stay sharp.”
Clayton reached for the control panel beside the doors rather than using his ARCs to open them. That way Devon would have some warning.
As soon as he triggered the doors, he took a quick step back and snapped his rifle up.
The corridor was empty.
“Looks clear,” Devon whispered.
Clayton pointed to his eyes and then to one of the escape pod hatches. The control panel was glowing red, which meant that pod was occupied.
He led the way into the sealed corridor, walking slow to keep his mag boots from clanking on the deck.
They reached the hatch to pod 216, the number glowing red on the hatch. There was a tiny circular window in the inner hatch and a matching viewport in the rear hatch of the pod itself. Clayton caught a glimpse of a small bony white creature curled up on one of the acceleration chairs—just one bony white arm peeking out, and her snake-like ear canals poking above the headrest. Clayton’s hand flashed out to the control panel, and he locked the inner doors with his personal access code. Heavy locking bolts slid into place with a loud thunk and Keera jumped out of her chair. Bright red eyes met his, widening in horror.
“What are you doing!” Lori cried.
She probably thought he was launching the pod.
“Relax. I’m just containing the threat.” He got on the comms. “Delta, Cross here. Threat neutralized. We’ve contained her in one of the escape pods.”
“Aye, sir...” Delta said through a sigh.
“We should just launch her into space,” Morgan growled.
“Who gave him a comm piece?” Clayton demanded.
“He took one from an equipment locker,” Dr. Stevens replied.
“Great,” Clayton muttered.
“Should we come down?” Delta asked.
“I’m not done,” Stevens objected.
“Stay where you are,” Clayton said. “She’s not going to get away again.”
“Copy...” Delta sounded disappointed. Maybe he’d been hoping for his pound of flesh to replace the one Keera had sliced out of him.
“We’ll see you soon. Cross out.”
“Now what?” Lori demanded, her eyes hard and glaring, arms crossed over her chest. “You can’t leave her in there forever.”
A flicker of movement and a muffled thumping sound drew Clayton’s attention to the hatch. Keera was crying and smacking on her side of the windows with both palms, her voice muffled.
“We won’t. Once we’ve woken up some of the others, we’ll open it up and stun her, and then we’ll put her in cryo.”
“We should just do it now and get it over with,” Devon replied. “There’s two of us and just one of her.”
Clayton considered that. “I shot her once already and that didn’t work. And Lori’s right, if we shoot her with multiple stun bolts, we could kill her. We want to avoid that at all costs.”
“Let me talk to her,” Lori insisted. “Who’s to say that stun rounds will work on her at all? But I can get her to listen to me.”
“Lock me in this section with her if you’re that scared!”
“She could kill you,” Devon said.
“She wouldn’t intentionally hurt me.”
“That’s not what Ambassador Morgan said.”
“He’s an idiot. Trust me. I know Keera better than anyone.”
Clayton chewed his lip. “We need her restrained.”
“The armory is right here!” Lori said, turning to indicate the door. “Get me cuffs and I’ll put them on her.”
Clayton took a shaky breath. “Okay.”
“Sir—” Devon objected with a sharp look.
“She’s right, Lieutenant. This is a good plan, and it might just prevent further loss of life. Keera’s included.”
“Thank you,” Lori said, her eyes sparkling with tears.
He nodded stiffly to her and went to the armory. After a brief search of the lockers and weapons racks inside, he found two sets of stuncuffs with smart locks. He grabbed a stun collar for good measure and then returned to the escape pod’s hatch. Lori and Keera were communicating through the windows with their eyes, both pressing their palms and faces to the viewports.
“Here,” Clayton said, nudging Lori’s shoulder.
She turned with tear-streaked cheeks and stared at the items in his hand.
“Stuncuffs? A collar? She’s not an animal, Captain!”
“She’s dangerous, Lori. Even you have to admit that. I need you to cuff her hands behind her back, cuff her ankles, and put the collar on. That’s the only way this is going to work. They won’t shock her unless she tries to tamper with them.”
“She’s a child! Of course she’s going to try to take them off.”
“So tell her not to.”
Lori held his gaze for a long moment, glaring.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Reed. It’s the only way.”
She cracked a bitter smile. “Back to last names are we. I thought we were friends, Captain.”
“We are. Get it done, Lori. We’ll be waiting on the other side of the doors.”
Keera fell out of the escape pod, sobbing. Lori caught her.
“Shhh, it’s okay.”
“I didn’t do it, Mommy.”
Lori nodded and smiled, kissing the top of her daughter’s head. “I believe you.” But she didn’t.
“Are they going to make me sleep?”
Keera withdrew sharply, her eyes flashing with terror. She stumbled back a step, shaking her head. “Don’t let them.”
Fresh tears ran hotly down Lori’s cheeks as she held out the stuncuffs. “I need you to put these on, honey. Can you please turn around for Mommy?”
Keera’s eyes darted, looking for an escape.
“It’s the only way, sweetheart. I promise I won’t let them hurt you.”
Keera’s face fell and her eyes grew dull. “You don’t believe me.”
“Of course I do, honey.”
But Keera had always been strangely intuitive. As she slowly turned around, something inside of Lori broke, and her eyes ran like rivers.
Lori reached for Keera’s hands. They were stained red and crusted with blood, and the sleeves of her plain black jumpsuit were stiff with dried blood.
Lori cuffed Keera’s hands behind her back, then did the same with her ankles, and finally placed the collar around her neck.
“Now we can go.”
Keera began rolling her shoulders and straining against the stuncuffs. An electric pop and crackle sounded and a scream tore from her lips. “Don’t do that, honey,” Lori said. “Don’t struggle.”
“It hurts...” Keera gasped.
“Only if you struggle,” Lori replied, taking her daughter by the arm and leading her toward the sealed bulkhead where Captain Cross and Lieutenant Devon were waiting. “Come with me, sweetheart.”
Keera was sobbing again. “I don’t want to.”
Lori sent her a broken smile. “It will be okay, honey. I promise.”
“I’ll keep you safe,” Lori added.
But they both knew that was also a lie. At this point, Keera’s fate was out of her hands. They were going to freeze her until they reached Earth, and then SpaceComm and the UNE government would decide what happened to her.
A vision flashed into her head: Keera lying strapped to a table in a lab somewhere, being poked and prodded by Union doctors and scientists, screaming in pain as they tortured her in the name of science and progress.
Somehow Lori had to stop that from happening. She couldn’t let them take her.
Lori bit her lower lip as she triggered the doors open to see Clayton and Devon waiting with their rifles aimed. Clayton was the first to drop his weapon.
“Hello, Keera,” he said.
She just cried louder.
“Lead the way please, Dr. Reed.”
Lori nodded stiffly and walked by them to the elevators. They crowded in behind her and the elevator shot up, racing back to the cryo deck.
“Stop your sniveling,” Devon snapped at Keera. “It’s a little late for remorse.”
“Shut up,” Lori said.
“Can it. Both of you,” Clayton added, sending Lori a warning look, but he softened it with a grim smile.
The elevator stopped and opened into darkness. Lori led the way at a shuffling pace to the cryo chamber with the bobbing cones of light from Clayton’s and Devon’s tac lights chasing the shadows away to either side of her. Lori’s breathing was fast and shallow. Her heart hammering against her sternum. There has to be a way to stop this!
Time seemed to accelerate with every step. They walked through a congealing puddle of Delta’s blood. Then came the doors to the cryo chamber. They opened with a noisy rumble.
“Over there. Nine o’clock,” Clayton said, and flashed his tac light over an open pod just beside the doors.
Lori helped Keera inside. She struggled feebly and received another shock for her trouble. Gasping and sobbing, Keera buried her face into Lori’s chest. “Please don’t.”
“I’m going to sleep soon, too,” Lori said.
Keera withdrew, looking a snotty mess. “You are?”
Lori smiled as reassuringly as she could. “Yes.”
Keera knew when she was lying. And conversely she knew that this was the truth.
“You’re going to blink your eyes and you’ll wake up again and we’ll have arrived at Earth.”
Keera’s tears stopped falling. She sniffled. “What’s it like?”
“It’s amazing. The cities. The parks. And the food! You’ve never had a hamburger before.”
Keera’s eyes lit up and she shook her head. Lori smiled brightly at her. “You’re going to love it on Earth.”
Lori was afraid that Keera could tell she was lying again, but she didn’t object when Lori guided her into the open pod.
Devon came over with a syringe. She was about to inject the sedative herself, but then thought better of it. “Why don’t you do it?” she said, and handed her the syringe.
Lori stepped in and said, “This will sting just a bit, okay?”
“Okay,” Keera replied.
She didn’t even cry as the needle went in. Her eyelids grew heavy, and a wistful smile crossed her lips. “Good night, Mommy.”
Tears welled again in Lori’s eyes. “Goodnight, darling,” she said, stepping back as the pneumatics groaned to life and the pod cover swung shut. She waved and blew a kiss to Keera through the glass, but Keera’s eyes were already shut.
Then came a sharp hiss, and a billowing cloud of condensing moisture rippled out. Lori reached up with shaking hands to wipe her eyes.
A hand landed on her shoulder and squeezed. “I know that was hard for you.”
“Harder for the families of the officers she murdered,” Devon replied.
Clayton turned to her with a frown. “Yes, but I don’t think she can help it, Lieutenant.”
“It’s just what she is,” Clayton went on. “It’s instinct, like a lion or a shark.”
Those words sank in, taking root in Lori’s mind. Richard had said the same thing about Keera on more than one occasion. Maybe they were right. Maybe it was just her nature.
A killer’s nature.
After a grisly job cleaning up on the bridge, Clayton and the others retired to their quarters on level twenty-six. Delta stayed behind, having volunteered to take the first watch.
Clayton stopped at the door to his room, and nodded to Lieutenant Devon as she walked by.
“Sleep well, sir,” Devon said with a grim smile. Her red hair was down and bouncing lightly across her shoulders in the artificial gravity.
“Likewise, Lieutenant,” he replied. His eyes slipped away from her to see Ambassador Morgan and Doctor Reed walking to their rooms. Separate rooms. They still weren’t on the same page about their daughter. Morgan clearly thought she was a demon, but her mother remained defensive—even after everything that had happened. That’s a mother’s prerogative, he supposed. Looking away from them, he waved his door open and stepped into his quarters.
The door swished shut behind him on an automatic timer, and he turned to look at it. On an impulse, he used his ARCs to lock the door. Even with Keera safely locked away in cryo, he wasn’t comfortable sleeping with an open door after what had happened on the bridge.
Old, childish fears were making a steady comeback. The idea of sleeping alone in his room was fraught with ghoulish dread. He was almost tempted to look under his bunk. Clayton cracked a smile at the thought. Fear was natural after what they’d been through, but resorting to childish paranoia would be going too far.
Walking to the bathroom, Clayton removed his mag boots and socks, and then stripped out of his uniform and underwear. He took care to remove his rank insignias and Space Force emblem before tossing the uniform in the laundry chute with the rest of his clothes. The laundry room would automatically wash and press it all before sorting his clothes into a personal storage unit there. But with no crew on laundry duty, he’d have to fetch the uniform himself in the morning. Thankfully, he had plenty of spares in his locker.
He wondered if they should have woken up the rest of his watch, but the crisis was past, and they were all exhausted.
Clayton paused in front of the mirror above his compact vanity, naked and staring at himself with wide, blinking eyes, as if he didn’t recognize himself. He realized he was still in shock. Two more officers dead. Three along with his previous XO, Commander Keera Taylor. What was he going to tell their families?
Clayton grimaced and pushed the thought away. He’d have plenty of time to think about it on the journey home.
Turning from the mirror, he went to the shower and waved the door open. He shuffled wearily across the threshold, and his feet touched cool beads of moisture.
Clayton froze. The walls and floor of the shower stall were freckled with stray drops of moisture. He ran a hand across the cold metal surface between the shower jets in the walls. His fingers came away wet. Had someone been using his quarters while he’d been in cryo? Asher or Ferris, perhaps?
Too late to ask them now. Clayton triggered the shower door shut and used his ARCs to activate the shower on its default setting. The jets all activated at once, spraying him with hot water from all sides for ten long seconds. Then came the soap cycle, followed by more hot water. Tension bled from his muscles as the soapy rivulets ran down his body, taking with them what felt like months of accumulated filth. The jets turned off, and then vents opened up between them to blast him with hot air.
In just two minutes he was clean and dry.
Heading back through the bathroom, he stooped to pick up his mag boots, then grabbed his rank insignia and Space Force emblem from the vanity. Carrying it all over to his locker, he stowed the items inside and dressed in a plain black jumpsuit that served as his sleepwear. He shut the locker door and padded over to his bed. Time to get some sleep.
Clayton unzipped the covers and climbed into bed, not bothering to zip himself up. The engines were powered up at 1G of acceleration, perfectly simulating Earth gravity.
“Lights off,” Clayton said. The overhead light strips faded to black, and then he rolled over to stare at the viewscreen beside his bed. Stars glittered brightly, imagery relayed from the ship’s external cameras. He’d spent countless nights during his duty rotations on the way to Trappist-1 staring at that window, thinking about what they might discover when they arrived.
And now they knew. They’d discovered life... plants and animals, and an advanced alien species: the Avari.
And they were bringing a hybridizing alien virus and alien DNA back with them, including a healthy human-alien hybrid.
It all seemed like a dream, or a nightmare. The mission to colonize a planet around Trappist-1 had failed miserably, but they had succeeded in making first contact. They’d accomplished one of their primary objectives. And by the time they returned to Earth, almost a hundred and eighty years would have passed. By then their first contact might actually turn out to be second or even third contact—assuming the other Forerunners had encountered life as well. Whatever they had found, Clayton was willing to bet that his ship was the only one that had encountered intelligent life.
He remembered the Avari ships chasing them from Trappist-1 and buzzing them as they’d approached. And Dr. Grouse’s revelation of what they’d been hunting for in his head: Earth’s location.
Was it even possible to relay that kind of complex information without a common language? The Avari they’d met down in that lab hadn’t been able to speak with them. Besides, for all they knew, the Avari weren’t actually hostile. Their interest in Earth might be borne of sheer curiosity, and their actions around Trappist-1 might have been purely territorial. If they were looking to expand, why go to Earth? It was unlikely that they’d share the same definition of habitability.
But Keera was a perfect mix of the two species—part human, part Avari—and she would be perfectly adapted to Earth’s environment.
Clayton’s brow tensed up with fresh concern, but he let it go. He couldn’t do anything about any of it until they returned to Earth. Clayton allowed his milling fears to bleed away into a growing haze of sleep. His eyes shut and images swirled from the depths of his subconscious.
He dreamed of armies of children just like Keera descending on Earth in big, sloping black ships with no windows.
He saw himself standing on the front porch of the home he’d once shared with Samara. Houses and trees burned on both sides of the street, and human-alien child soldiers ran around, chasing his screaming neighbors. Bill, the old widower next door, jumped through his front window with a thunderous crash. An Avari hybrid was clinging to his back, clawing at his eyes. Bill fell down screaming, with blood gushing from his face before the monster on his back jumped off and took a bite out of his throat. It slowly turned to look at Clayton, still chewing on a grisly bit of trachea. Its mouth and lower jaw were covered in blood. A low hiss sounded, not coming from its mouth, which was still busy chewing, but from the four snake-like appendages on top of its head.
Clayton turned and ran back inside. He yanked open the screen door and it banged noisily behind him. He slammed the old wooden door shut and activated the deadbolt with his ARCs.
A loud thud sounded, and the door visibly shuddered as the creature collided with it; then came a familiar scream:
He ran for the stairs, but he was moving far too slow; his entire body felt numb and useless. He hit the bottom of the carpeted stairs to the second floor.
And then Samara came staggering out of the master bedroom with blood gushing from her mouth. Her lips were moving, but no sounds other than gurgles were coming out. She went limp and tumbled from the top step.
“No!” he cried as she rolled down the stairs to greet him. He caught her near the bottom. “Sam!”
He turned her over to face him, but her neck was clearly broken, her eyes dead and staring just as they had been that night when he’d had to go identify her body after she’d been hit by that self-driving car.
Then came a low growl and a shrill whoop of blood lust.
Clayton’s eyes skipped back up to the top of the stairs. An Avari Hybrid stood there, its arms spread wide from its body, and blood dripping from long, curving black claws to the carpet. Its mouth was parted in a devilish grin of sharp, blood-smeared teeth, and bright red eyes glittered like a demon’s.
By this point, Clayton knew he was dreaming, and that was all it took to wake up. He blinked through a bleary haze to see a shadow crouching over him. A gleaming bundle of wires trailed from the head of his bed to a device in that monster’s hand.
Clayton tried to sit up, but his muscles wouldn’t respond; he tried to scream, but his lips wouldn’t move.
With his heart hammering in his chest, he used his Neuralink to activate the lights. As soon as they came on, the shadow faded away into thin air just as it had all of the times before.
But the bundle of wires remained, and so did the device that they were connected to...
Something invisible was standing beside his bed. Clayton tried to spring free of the covers—
Only to find that he was still paralyzed.
Clayton’s eyes were the only thing he could move. They darted from the invisible thing beside his bed to the door and back. How had it gotten in here? He’d locked the door. And what was it?
It only took him a second to figure out the answer to his second question. The bundle of wires trailing to the head of his bed was the same as the ones they’d seen coming from a helmet on Dr. Dr. Grouse Grouse’s head in that Avari lab.
Somehow an Avari had snuck aboard their ship. He used his ARCs to send a text-based message to the bridge: Contact! Invisible Avari in my quarters. Need support ASAP.
Delta’s reply appeared on his ARCs a split second later: Copy. Backup on the way, sir.
He knew better than to waste time with questions.
Clayton watched as the Avari standing beside his bed removed the bundle of wires from the device it was holding. The device vanished, and the wires dropped to the deck with a loud slap. Now the Avari was completely invisible, ready to ambush Delta as soon as he came in.
The bridge was just one deck away. Delta would be here soon. He had to do something fast. Clayton tried to make a fist.
Nothing. This was the longest bout of sleep paralysis he’d ever had.
Clayton thought about sending a message to Devon. She was much closer, but Delta had more specific training to deal with this. He was the chief of security for a reason. If he called Devon, she’d arrive first and probably get herself killed.
Clayton held off and tried again to make a fist. This time his fingers twitched. He could barely move them, but feeling was rushing back.
He finally managed to sit up, but his head felt heavier than usual. His hands flew up and clawed off a helmet with the other end of that bundle of wires trailing to it. He tossed it viciously aside and it bounced and skidded across the room.
Just then the door to the room swished open. Clayton’s pulse soared, singing in his ears.
“Delta! Try infrared! It’s wearing some type of cloaking device!”
Softly padding footsteps answered between Clayton’s own ragged breaths, but no reply came from Delta, and no sign of him appeared in the open doorway. That was when Clayton realized that the invisible alien in his room was the one who had opened the door. Somehow it had the code for the door lock.
He flicked his eyes around, blinking furiously and squinting for any possible sign of the creature.
But the only sign he got was the door sliding shut.
Clayton eased slowly off his bed, wondering if he was really alone. Hearing no flurry of footsteps or scurrying of claws to answer his own movements, he hurried over to the emergency weapons locker and opened it with a thought. He pulled out an E14 energy rifle and flicked it to kill—then he set the sights to infrared and tested them on his foot. A mottled orange and red blur appeared. Sighting down the barrel, he swept the room, checking for hidden heat signatures.
Nothing but cold blue bulkheads, ceiling, and deck. He’d be out of luck if the Avari were cold-blooded, but if Keera was any indication, they’d actually be warmer-blooded than humans.
But there was a glaring flaw in his plan: if the Avari could cloak radiation in the visible spectrum, they could probably cloak the invisible wavelengths as well.
Clayton dropped the rifle to his hip.
And then the door slid open again. Delta appeared in full body armor with a matching energy rifle up and tracking. He lowered it quickly, and Clayton noticed that Devon was standing beside him, also armored up and watching his back with a rifle.
“Get in and shut the door. It already left,” Clayton said.
Delta stepped in warily, glancing around. Devon came backing in, watching his six the whole way. Clayton waved the door shut behind them.
“If it was invisible, how do you know it was here?” Devon asked, finally dropping her guard to look at him.
“Eyes on the door, Lieutenant!” Delta snapped, and Devon brought her rifle back up.
Clayton took a second to reply. He was busy changing the door code and locking it again. The bolt thunked loudly into place.
“We’re secure,” he said through a sigh; then he turned and pointed to the helmet he’d discarded. “I knew it was here because I was wearing that. And it wasn’t invisible until I turned on the lights.”
Both Delta and Devon stared at the helmet; then Devon walked over and picked it up. She turned it over in her hands, leaving her rifle to dangle by the shoulder strap.
“Is that...?” she trailed off.
“The same thing they put on Dr. Grouse,” Clayton confirmed. “I woke up with it on my head. It was connected to something in the Avari’s hands, some kind of portable storage device maybe.”
Delta’s brow furrowed above hard blue eyes. “So you think they... what—downloaded the contents of your brain?”
Clayton shook his head. “I don’t know.” His mind raced for answers. This wasn’t the first time he’d awoken in his quarters, paralyzed, and seen a shadow skulking around. How long had that Avari been on board? Since they’d left Trappist? Or had it come aboard from one of those unidentified blips that he and Commander Taylor had been tracking on approach?
“She didn’t kill them,” Devon said slowly, still staring at the helmet.
“Who?” Delta asked.
“Keera. She didn’t kill Ferris and Asher.”
“We don’t know that,” Delta said.
“No, we don’t,” Clayton added, “but now we do have another suspect.”
“An invisible one with an unknown agenda,” Delta said. “This is not good, sir.” He glanced back at the door. “We need to wake up the rest of the crew.”
Clayton was already on his way to retrieve the mag boots from his locker. He pulled them out and strapped them on, then added an ear-worn comms piece in case they got separated.
“Channel one, sir,” Delta said.
He set it with a thought, then straightened and nodded. “Move out, Delta.” With his Space Marine background, Delta was better trained to take the lead—not to mention he was wearing a full suit of body armor.
“Yes, sir,” Delta replied, turning to the door. He gripped his rifle with both hands across his chest, but hesitated in front of the door and glanced back over his shoulder with one eyebrow raised. “The code, sir?”
“One sec. I’ll unlock it,” Clayton replied. The bolt thunked aside as he did so. Delta waved the door open, and then they were on their way, fanning out from the room and checking both sides of the corridor.
“Left side clear,” Delta said.
“Right side clear,” Devon added.
Clayton checked both sides with his own sights, then shook his head. “We don’t know that. Infrared probably gets blocked by the cloak too. We need something else to find it.”
“We can lock down this deck,” Delta said while glancing around warily. His posture was rigid, tense.
“You’re assuming it’s still here,” Devon replied.
“Well, if it is, we should get out of the damn corridor. On me.” Delta led the way to Lori’s quarters and waved the door open. It slid aside, and they stormed in. She rose sleepily from her bunk while Clayton shut and locked the door behind them.
“Lights on,” Delta said.
“What...” Lori woke with a start and sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “What’s going on?”
“There’s an Avari on board,” Clayton said.
Lori’s eyes flew wide, then collapsed to slits. “I knew it wasn’t her!”
“Let’s try not to make any assumptions yet,” Clayton said.
But Lori flew out of bed and stumbled to her feet, standing with her fists clenched and shaking. “You made me put her in cryo!”
“And that was the right call at the time,” Clayton said.
“It probably still is,” Devon added, glancing between them. “At least she’s safe.”
Lori subsided and worry crawled into her eyes. “Did it k—is anyone else...” She trailed off, not wanting to say it.
Clayton shook his head. “Not yet.” He nodded to Delta, and added, “We need a way to track it.”
“We could use the surveillance system to look for elevators and bulkhead doors opening and closing for ghosts,” Devon said. “Then we just have to lock the ones around it and box it in.”
Clayton nodded. “Good idea. Start working that angle and let us know if the computer finds anything.”
“It’s probably using the maintenance tunnels,” Delta muttered.
“Or it’ll start using them now,” Clayton replied.
“Surveillance will see if cover panels are being removed or torn open,” Devon added.
Lori shook her head hard, blinking and squinting at them in the bright lights. “What are you talking about?” She looked to Devon. “Ghosts?”
“It’s invisible,” Clayton said. “Short of bumping into it, we’re not going to find it.”
“Invisible?” Lori echoed.
“Cloaked,” Clayton explained.
“What about laser sights?” Devon asked.
Clayton shook his head. “Won’t work.”
“We won’t see the dot reflect, but we should still see where it vanishes, right?” Devon insisted.
“An EM cloak doesn’t work that way,” Clayton replied.
“You’re talking like that’s a thing,” Devon objected. “It’s theoretical tech.”
“Well, in theory, electromagnetic radiation is passed seamlessly from one side of the cloak to the other. Ideally, it even does that with the wavelengths we can’t see, like infrared—and definitely the ones we can, like red laser sights.”
“Yeah, that’s bullshit,” Delta said. “Give me a high-powered laser and we’ll see how much radiation it can pass from one side to the other without burning a hole.” He patted his energy rifle. “In fact, this baby should probably do the trick.”
“You still have to know where it is to shoot it,” Clayton said.
“So what’s your idea?” Devon asked.
A slow smile spread on Clayton’s lips. “We have training guns in the armory.”
“Training guns?” Delta spluttered. “Paintballs aren’t going to...” He trailed off as the penny dropped. “Oh. I gotcha, Cap. Nice.”
Devon put on a sly smile. “Good thinking, sir.”
“Don’t congratulate me yet. We still have to get there.”
“I’m coming,” Lori said.
“No civilians,” Delta said. “You’re a liability.”
Lori’s eyes flashed. “I have weapons training.”
“But no combat experience.”
“Not all of you do, either!”
“He’s right,” Clayton said, and waved his hand to cut off the argument. “You should stay in here with the door locked.”
“For all you know, it’s already in here with us,” Lori added.
Delta grimaced and made a show of looking around. “Well, joke’s on us if it is, because we just told the little shit our plan.”
“It doesn’t understand English,” Devon said.
“We hope it doesn’t,” Delta replied.
“Let’s go,” Clayton said, turning back to the door.
“I’m not going to stay here!”
“You don’t have a choice,” Clayton replied.
“If you weren’t going to take me with you, then why did you come in here?”
“To regroup,” Clayton replied.
“At least now you know not to leave your room for a midnight snack,” Delta added.
“Keep the door locked, Lori—and change the door code,” Clayton said.
“Because it knew my code, so it probably knows yours, too.”
“How is that possible?”
“Probably pulled it from someone’s head,” Delta muttered.
Grabbing his rifle in a firm two-handed grip, Clayton opened Lori’s door and stepped out into the corridor. Seeing nothing, he whispered, “On me,” and set a brisk pace for the elevators. Lori’s door swished shut as they left, and the locking bolt thunked back into place.
Delta was right. The Avari had been fishing around in Dr. Grouse’s head, now Clayton’s, and probably Lieutenant Asher’s and Ferris’s, too.
If it had managed to find the security codes for doors, what else had the Avari found?
A trickle of icy dread slithered through Clayton as the answer came to him. Sick as he’d been at the time, Dr. Grouse was right: the Avari knew where Earth was.
“Shouldn’t we warn the ambassador and Doctor Stevens?” Devon asked as they reached the elevators.
Clayton nodded. “Get them on the comms. Tell them to stay in their rooms with the doors locked. We don’t have time to stop and chat.”
“Yes, sir... sending message,” Devon replied.
The doors of the nearest elevator parted, and Clayton stepped inside. He hesitated as Delta and Devon came in, trying to remember if the training weapons were kept in the main armory or the auxiliary one.
“Deck fifty, sir,” Delta supplied, and he reached out with an armored glove to stab EA50 on the panel. The main armory. The button was highlighted with a red outline to indicate that it was also one of the decks with escape pods on it.
“The ambassador is calling me,” Devon said as the elevator started upward.
“Better answer it,” Clayton replied.
Devon made a face, then sucked in a breath and said, “Ambassador, as I said in my message, we have a situation with—oh, Dr. Reed already told you. Good. We’re handling it. Just stay in your room and keep the door...” Devon trailed off, her eyes rolling as Ambassador Morgan cut her off.
“No, you can’t help... yes, I realize you’re supposed to handle diplomacy, but this isn’t—” Another sudden pause. Clayton couldn’t help smiling. “We’ll let you know if we require your help. First we have to catch it. Lieutenant Devon out.” She blew out a breath. “Damn, that man is an ass.”
“Yes, he is.” Clayton turned from her to watch the lights of passing decks flashing through the transparent windows in the top of the elevator doors. The lights strobed slower and slower as they drew near to deck fifty. “Ready up,” Clayton said, and grabbed his rifle with both hands again.
The doors slid open, revealing a curving corridor with hatches to escape pods lining the outer wall.
“Taking point,” Delta said. He stepped out of the elevator with his rifle up and tracking.
Clayton and Devon walked out after him, squinting through their infrared scopes to check for heat signatures.
“Clear,” Delta said.
“As far as we can tell,” Clayton added.
“Training gear is in WP06,” Delta replied, gesturing with his rifle to indicate the right-hand side of the corridor. He led the way, and Clayton followed with Devon bringing up the rear.
The glowing green rings and numbers of hatches to escape pods flashed by to their left—starting from EP101—and the full-sized doors to the armory flashed by to their right.
Clayton kept expecting something invisible to jump out and attack them as they went. For all they knew, that Avari had ridden up in the elevator with them.
Clayton cut a quick glance back the way they’d come. Devon was walking backward, keeping their six covered. She turned to look where she was going and caught his eye as she did so.
“No sign of anything yet, sir.”
He nodded back. His pulse was racing, his hands sweating on the grip and handguard of his rifle.
“Found it,” Delta said as he stopped by the door marked WP06. He waved the door open and the lights came on automatically for them as they crowded in. Devon shut the door behind them, and Clayton waited until the locking bolt thunked into place. The storage room was a long aisle lined with lockers, and only wide enough for them to stand single file, a fact which made Clayton feel better about the possibility that the Avari might have followed them. Delta walked down to the end and opened one of the lockers. Clayton and Devon followed.
Delta left his energy rifle to dangle from the strap and reached into the locker he’d opened to pass out a rifle that looked almost exactly like their E-14’s. Clayton took the weapon and passed it down to Devon. The main difference was that these weapons were marked T-14 rather than E-14, and they were much lighter and easier to carry—with the exception of a bulky under barrel hopper full of paintballs where the E-14’s handguard was.
“Here you are, sir,” Delta said as he passed out a second rifle.
Clayton slung it across his shoulders, leaving the training weapon to dangle by his left hip, while the real one stayed within easy reach on his right.
Removing a third weapon for himself, Delta began passing out ammo belts with spare hoppers clipped to them.
Clayton passed the first one down to Devon and then strapped on a second for himself.
“Any hits on the surveillance system?” Clayton asked, glancing back at Devon.
She shook her head. “None yet, sir.”
“It could still be hanging around the bunkrooms on twenty-six,” Delta pointed out as he clipped on an ammo belt for himself and shut the locker.
“Or maybe it rode up in the elevator with us,” Clayton pointed out.
Delta grimaced. “Or that.”
Devon’s eyes flared wide. That thought obviously hadn’t occurred to her. “So what do we do to find it? We can’t just go around spraying the ship with paint until we hit something.”
Clayton took a moment to consider that. She was right of course. He’d been counting on the ship’s internal cameras to detect some kind of activity by now, but wherever the Avari had gone, it was being careful to avoid opening any doors or elevators within sight of those cameras.
“We could lay a trap for it,” Delta suggested.
“Except we don’t know what the Avari was after,” Devon said. “So we don’t have any bait.”
“It was after me,” Clayton said. “It was in my quarters, and it put that helmet on my head for a reason.”
“So...” Delta trailed off. “You want to go back to sleep and see if it returns?”
“Maybe, but it might have already extracted whatever information it was looking for,” Devon pointed out.
“Assuming that it was looking for information,” Delta said. “Maybe it implanted something.”
“That’s a happy thought,” Clayton replied. Turning back to Devon, he said, “I have a better idea than waiting around for it to come to us.”
Devon’s eyebrows shot up.
“We wake the rest of the crew. And the dogs.”
Devon’s brow furrowed. “Why the dogs?”
“So they can sniff it out,” Delta replied.
Clayton nodded to him. “Exactly...” He trailed off, remembering how Charlie had been barking at something that only he could see during those initial tests of the Visualizers. Maybe he’d smelled a cloaked Avari skulking in the comms lab.
“Sir?” Delta prompted.
“Let’s get down to cryo,” Clayton said. “Delta, lead the way.”
“Yes, sir.” He squeezed by Clayton in the narrow aisle, their rifles clattering together, then did the same to get past Devon. “Opening door,” he added, raising both his rifles, one in each hand.
The door opened into darkness.
Delta reacted as if he’d just touched a live wire, his whole body flinching. Both rifles snapped up a little higher, the barrels sweeping.
Their tac lights were still on and parting the shadows as they stepped out together, scanning both sides of the curving corridor for targets. No sign of anything.
“Let’s spray some paint,” Clayton said.
“You got it, sir,” Delta replied.
They splattered the bulkheads with bright red paint as they swept their training rifles around for a second time. But none of those projectiles hit anything besides the sheer gunmetal grays of the corridor.
Clayton gave up with a sigh. “At least we know it’s not in the immediate vicinity.”
“But we know it was here,” Devon replied.
“You’re telling me the surveillance system didn’t spot anything?” Clayton demanded.
“Nothing,” Devon said. “It’s set to alert me anytime a door opens anywhere on the ship. So far the only alerts I’ve received are from the ones we’ve opened.”
“So it’s shadowing us,” Delta concluded.
“Check again,” Clayton said.
Delta popped off another shot. Another red splotch appeared, this time on the deck about a dozen feet away from him.
“Thought I saw something,” Delta explained.
“Devon?” Clayton prompted.
“Looks like there was something. Up on twenty-six.”
Clayton’s brow furrowed. They’d come from there less than fifteen minutes ago.
“What was it?”
“Dr. Reed’s door, sir. Three minutes ago. It opened, then shut.”
“And you missed that?”
“Looks like the system went offline. Some kind of malfunction. The report just came in now as I was checking.”
Clayton gritted his teeth. He’d told Lori to keep her door locked. “Get her on the comms.”
“Calling...” Devon shook her head. “Everything is out on that level... lights... cameras... I’ve got nothing. Surveillance is also down again.”
“The Avari,” Delta said. “It targeted her.”
* * *
Lori heard the knock on her door and pulled her knees up to her chest. She was sitting in the armchair by her window. She tried activating the holocomm, but the lights were out in the corridor, and she couldn’t see who it was.
“Hello?” she tried. Her voice would be relayed to whoever—or whatever—was out there.
“Lori! Open the door! It’s Captain Cross!”
She slowly rose from the chair, confusion swirling like smoke through her thoughts. He’d just been here.
“Captain? What happened to the lights?”
“That thing is out here! It’s hunting me! Open the door!”
Lori hesitated for just a second before triggering the door open with her ARCs. The locking bolt slid away and the door swished open. A wall of darkness lay on the other side—
And nothing else.
Lori’s brow furrowed. “Captain?”
No answer. A light breeze touched her face, the air stirring.
Lori waited a second longer. Maybe the Avari got him. Feeling suddenly stupid for opening the door, she shut and locked it once more.
She crawled deeper into her chair, her knees tucked up under her chin, eyes darting. What if it was in here with her?
“Hello?” she tried.
“I know you’re here! I have a gun!” she said. But that was a lie. As a civilian, she didn’t have clearance to access the emergency weapons locker in her room.
No answer. Lori’s skin prickled with goosebumps under her plain black jumpsuit. Long seconds passed and nothing happened. She tried activating the holocomm again to transmit her voice into the corridor. “Captain, are you out there?”
Why hadn’t he just opened the door for himself? She’d changed the lock code just as he’d suggested, but he was the captain. He had the clearance to override any door or lock on the entire ship.
That realization sent adrenaline sparking through Lori’s veins. Something wasn’t adding up. She slowly rose from her chair. “Hello,” she tried again, her voice cracking with fear.
Another breeze caressed her face, and then the lights went out inside her room.
Lori jumped with fright, and then she felt something cold and hard press against the side of her head. It felt like a gun.
“W-what do you want?” she asked in a shivery voice.
A low hiss sounded beside her ear, followed by a sing-song voice speaking in shrieks, more hisses, and growls. The language was completely unintelligible to her—it didn’t even sound like it was made up of words.
But then words came, spoken clearly in a language that she could understand, and in Captain Cross’s own voice.
Clayton and Devon followed Delta back to the elevators, popping off paintballs as they went to make sure they weren’t walking into an invisible Avari. It looked like the intruder was up on level twenty-six, but at this point they couldn’t be sure that there weren’t two of them.
Clayton and Delta swept their energy rifles and tac lights around as they went, firing paintballs into the bulkheads and deck with resounding splats.
Halfway back to the elevators they found several conduits in the ceiling torn open with severed wires spilling out.
“Look like it clawed them open,” Devon said.
“That’s a long way up,” Delta replied. “How did it reach that high?”
“And not get electrocuted in the process,” Devon added.
“Back when we were chasing Keera, she seemed to be able to interfere with electrical systems for brief periods. Like an EMP.”
“Let’s keep moving,” Clayton whispered, and they started down the hall again. Delta kept firing paintballs into thin air as they went.
“What about Lori’s emergency locator beacon?” Clayton thought to ask.
“Offline,” Devon replied.
“How is that possible?” Delta asked.
Clayton tried sending a text message to her Neuralink, but an error popped up on his ARCs: Contact offline. “Her Neuralink is down, too.” Turning to Devon, he said, “What about the elevators? Are they still working on twenty-six?”
“They’re powered from multiple decks, so they should be.”
Devon’s eyes flickered briefly with glowing screens as she used her ARCs to do so. “Still operational, sir.”
“Good. Lock all the doors leading to them. The access chutes, too. Do that for our level as well.”
“Done,” Devon replied.
“You think it’s still down there?” Devon asked.
“Yes, or at least one of them is.”
“One of them?”
“The lights were still working out here when we went into the armory. And they were on when we left level twenty-six. No way just one saboteur could take out conduits on both levels in such a short time. Especially not without tripping your security alerts.”
Delta popped off a few more strategic paintballs as they went, scanning blindly for targets. They reached the elevators, and Devon reactivated the doors to one of them manually so that they could leave. Delta stood physically blocking the entrance while they went in to make sure that no invisible Avari could creep in behind them. Clayton selected level twenty-six with his ARCs, and then Delta stepped back and the doors slid shut.
The elevator rocketed down for several seconds, then slowed to a stop. The inner doors opened, but the doors to the deck stayed shut, since Devon had locked them. Clayton stared at the glowing number 26 blazing on the doors. The windows at the top were dark.
“Lights are still out,” Delta whispered. “Probably the same slash job as we found on fifty.”
Clayton crowded in beside him and peered down the infrared sights of his E-14, checking the left window, then the right. “No sign of Lori’s heat signature in the corridor,” he said.
“Maybe she realized that we locked her in and went back to her room,” Devon said.
“Or maybe her door opened because the Avari went in and killed her,” Delta said.
“Let’s hope not. Devon, get these doors open.”
The doors slid open and Delta pumped half a dozen paintballs off into darkness. Six splats echoed back to their ears, one after another. The cones of Clayton’s and Delta’s tac lights flashed over the nearest crimson blotch as they swept the corridor for signs of movement.
“Push out,” Clayton whispered.
Delta took the lead again—then froze and held up a closed fist to mean just that: Freeze.
He pointed with his E-14 and tac light to something beside the elevator doors. Clayton stepped out beside him and saw immediately what had caught Delta’s eye. The door to the access chute beside the elevators had been torn open. The doors were mangled and blasted into the chute, charred with residues from some kind of explosives.
“Looks like our bird flew the coop,” Delta whispered.
Clayton took a careful step toward the broken doors and shined his tac light up and down the access chute, checking the ladder for signs of movement.
But there was nothing.
“Where the hell is Lori?” Clayton muttered.
“Could still be in her room,” Devon said.
“Dead or alive?” Devon countered.
“Dead, if she’s there,” Delta said. “We should take a look.”
Clayton grimaced and shook his head. “Negative. If she’s dead we can’t help her, and if the Avari took her as a hostage, then the best thing we can do for her is get up to cryo and wake more people to help with the search. Devon, I assume there’s no sign of her on surveillance?”
“None yet... no, wait. There is something. More malfunctions. Lights, cameras, and comms are out two levels up... and they’re out in one of the elevators, too.”
“Clever bastard,” Delta said.
“They’re on their way up,” Devon added.
“Check their destination,” Clayton said.
“Cryo,” Delta muttered. “Shit.”
“Let’s move!” Clayton said.
They hurried back into the elevator and Clayton mentally selected CY44 from the panel.
The inner and outer doors slid shut at the same time, and the elevator raced upward.
He hoped that Lori was still alive and with the Avari in that elevator—better to have a live hostage than another dead body.
* * *
Lori stood perfectly still in the darkness of the elevator car, with nothing but her own shallow, rasping breath to break the silence. She was completely cut off. Even the comforting glow of her ARCs was missing.
The light of passing decks strobed periodically through the elevator doors, blinding her with alternating flashes of light and darkness. Hairs stood straight up on the back of her neck, her arms covered in goosebumps beneath her jumpsuit.
The Avari was in here with her. She couldn’t see it or hear it. But she knew it was there, and it had given her clear instructions:
“Take me to the child.”
She was desperately trying to think of a way to thwart it that didn’t involve outright refusal to obey.
She would sacrifice herself if it came to that, but maybe there was another way. If only she could reach Captain Cross on the comms.
The elevator stopped and the doors opened onto the cryo deck. A sharp jab poked her in her lower back, pushing her forward. She stumbled slowly out into the darkened corridor. The lights were still out from when Keera had torn open the electrical conduits. If that had even been her.
“What do you want with her?” Lori asked.
No answer, just another jab in the small of her back. She would have selected a different deck just to buy herself some time, but the Avari had chosen it for her as soon as they’d left the access chute and entered the elevator. It seemed to already know that CY44 was the cryo deck and that Keera was there.
That implied that this creature had been quietly watching them the whole time. That, or it had pulled the information from the captain’s head.
They came to the sealed doors at the end of the short corridor to reach the cryo chamber.
A hissing growl slithered to Lori’s ears, followed by the translation in Captain Cross’s voice: “Open.”
Lori reached for the control panel beside the doors with a shaking hand. She deliberately missed the open button twice, then received another sharp jab in her back for her trouble.
More growling and hissing. A shriek. The sounds alternating low to high and back in a vaguely sing-song fashion.
Then came the translation: “On this setting it will not kill. But it will hurt you very much.”
Lori hit the right button and the doors rumbled open. Lights flickered on as they stepped inside. Keera’s pod was still sitting there on the cryo level, right beside the door, the glass frosted blue. Keera wasn’t visible through that fine patina of ice, but Lori’s eyes tracked over to that pod, giving it away before she caught herself and forced her gaze to rove on.
The invisible alien behind her jabbed her again and guttural sounds drifted to her ears.
The translation: “Wake her.”
“I can’t,” Lori lied, shaking her head.
More growls, followed by: “You will.”
Lori felt something sharp digging into her back. She winced but resisted.
And then it sliced her open, and a hot river of blood spilled out. Lori screamed belatedly as a blinding wave of pain lit her nerves on fire. A low series of growls and hisses ground out. “Wake her now. You are only alive for her sake, but this can change.”
Lori staggered slowly toward a pod two places down from Keera’s, but then she felt an iron hand close around her forearm and begin tugging her toward Keera’s pod.
A hiss. “This one.”
It knew where Keera was. She was running out of ways to stall. “What do you want with her?” she asked again.
No reply. She stopped in front of Keera’s pod, hesitating, then felt another prick as something sharp punctured her skin.
A growl. “Wake her.”
“What the hell?”
Lori whirled toward the sound and relief flooded her veins as she saw Captain Cross, and Lieutenants Delta and Devon standing in the open doors of the cryo chamber, holding two rifles each. The cavalry had arrived.
“It’s standing next to me!” she cried.
“Paint the target!” Captain Cross replied.
And then all three of them opened fire.
Crimson paint splattered Lori from head to toe—as well as something standing beside her. A loud hiss accompanied each crimson splash of paint, and soon a short outline appeared.
Delta was the first to risk live fire. He shot it with his energy rifle. A bright red laser beam flashed out and hit the invisible target, dead center of one of the paint spatters, drawing a piercing shriek from the creature.
And then it appeared: a glossy black helmet. A black suit with a faintly gleaming fish scale pattern. Two skinny arms protruding from its chest and legs bent at the knee. Wicked claws and small hands were wrapped around a long, slender black weapon. Small, booted feet with claws protruding from them leapt off the deck and translucent wings spread wide from its back.
Delta opened fire again, but this time a flash of light accompanied the shot, and nothing happened.
Clayton and Devon dropped their training rifles at the same time and tracked the target as it flew up to the high ceiling of the cryo chamber. Bright red lasers flickered out of their energy rifles, stabbing the Avari repeatedly with reciprocal flashes of light.
“It’s not doing anything!” Delta said.
And then the Avari fired back with a brilliant emerald laser.
Devon screamed, while both Clayton and Delta dived away to either side. He ducked and rolled, coming up and whirling around to see Devon lying on the deck with black smoke curling from her chest.
Clayton’s ARCs identified her life signs as fading. Somehow, that one laser bolt had burned straight through her armor. It was rated to withstand Union lasers, not whatever the hell the Avari had.
He tried to run over to her, snapping off two more shots at the Avari as he went. It was still hovering over them, buzzing its wings like a giant hummingbird.
The alien fired back and a wash of heat warmed Clayton’s cheek before sizzling into the deck beside his right foot. The laser left a fading, molten orange circle in the metal.
“Fall back!” Clayton cried.
But Delta already had Devon under the arms and was busy dragging her out into the corridor beyond the cryo chamber.
Clayton ducked out with Delta. The Avari swooped down into view, and another emerald laser flashed by, dazzling their eyes.
Clayton triggered the doors shut and locked them with his latest codes.
“She’s not doing well, Cap,” Delta said, crouching down beside Devon.
Her eyes were wincing shut. Her pulse was weak and skipping around wildly on Clayton’s ARCs.
“We need to get her to sickbay with Stevens,” Clayton said.
“Lori’s still in there with that thing,” Delta pointed out.
“We can’t help her right now. It has some kind of a shield. Our shots were all bouncing off.”
That triggered a memory: chasing Keera through the ship, and a stun bolt bouncing off her back. It was beginning to look like they really had been mistaken about her.
Devon’s eyes cracked open and she sucked in a shuddering breath. “Kill it. I’m not going to...”
Clayton shook his head. “Get her legs, Delta. I’ll take her shoulders.”
“I’m already dead,” Devon rasped.
“Not yet you’re not,” Clayton snapped. He began backing up with Devon, struggling to walk with her weight. For once zero-G would be a good thing. “I’m turning off the engines,” he said.
“Good idea,” Delta grunted.
But before he could do anything, Clayton felt a draft raising the hairs on the back of his neck—and then something sharp digging into his spine. He heard a hissing growl, then dropped Devon and whirled around. He grabbed his rifle and pumped a laser bolt into thin air.
An abbreviated shriek sounded, followed by another Avari de-cloaking in a fish scale-patterned suit. A wisp of black smoke trickled from the middle of its glossy black helmet.
Delta dropped Devon with a curse, and pumped three more crimson laser bolts into the creature’s chest before it crumpled to the deck and lay still.
“Is it...” Delta trailed off, looking pale with shock.
Clayton nodded and hurried back to grab Devon’s shoulders—
Only to find her eyes dead and staring blankly up at him. He checked her life signs with his ARCs.
“She’s dead,” Delta croaked. “Damn it!” he kicked the nearest bulkhead with his mag boot and rounded on the doors to cryo. “Let’s get in there and finish it off! We killed one; we’ll kill the other!”
“I shot it before it de-cloaked,” Clayton said slowly. “I don’t think their shields can operate at the same time as their cloaks do.”
“So we concentrate fire!”
Clayton shook his head. “It just needs to hit us once. We need more firepower to take it out.”
The cryo chamber doors thumped as if from a fist hammering on them.
“It just realized I locked it in,” Clayton said. “We’d better get to the armory before it finds a way out of there.” He spared a pained look at Devon and then turned and started for the elevators.
“On me, Delta!”
They sprinted down the corridor to the elevators. Before they even made it halfway there, a deafening boom shook the ship and a searing wall of heat slammed into them from behind, causing them to stumble. Clayton turned to see a fiery, molten ruin where the doors to the cryo room had been, and a short, crouching black figure picking its way through.
“Too late!” Delta cried, and two bright red lasers flicked out to greet the Avari.
Clayton brought his rifle up and snapped off a shot of his own before the Avari fired back.
This time it was with a rocket that deployed from a boxy contraption around the creature’s left wrist. A gleaming silver projectile flashed past them riding a bright blue tongue of flame and hit the elevators with a thunderous boom. The shockwave picked both Clayton and Delta up and threw them like dry leaves in a gale force wind.
Clayton landed hard with the back of his skull slamming into the deck. He blacked out for a second and came to with his ears ringing. A crouching figure in a black suit ushered Lori and Keera ahead of it. Delta was struggling to rise and bring his rifle to bear, looking just as dazed as Clayton felt. The Avari aimed his weapon at Delta. Clayton tried to scream out a warning, but his ears were ringing so hard that it was impossible to tell if any sound escaped his lips.
Then Keera darted in front of Delta and spread her arms wide. She growled and bared her teeth at the Avari.
Clayton blinked bleary eyes, not sure he could trust what he was seeing.
The Avari shoved her aside and kicked Delta in the side of the head. He subsided, unconscious, and then the Avari’s gaze swept toward Clayton.
He quickly shut his eyes, being careful not to move. He lay like that with his heart slamming in his chest, waiting for a clawed boot to connect with the side of his head, too—or worse, for a laser to burn through his chest and stop his racing heart.
He waited... and waited, but nothing happened. Counting out ten long seconds, he opened his eyes and caught a glimpse of the Avari sneaking through the mangled doors to the access chute beside the elevators. It hadn’t been aiming that rocket at the elevators. It had been aiming at the access chute. The Avari was leaving the cryo deck the same way that it had escaped Devon’s lockdown on level twenty-six.
Clayton fumbled for his rifle, hoping for a parting shot, but the Avari vanished before he could get a good grip.
His head spinning, eyes and airways burning with the acrid smoke rolling through the corridor from both ends, Clayton rolled onto his back and blinked hard at the ceiling.
Where are they going? he wondered.
The answer was clear even in his foggy, blast-rattled head. The Avari was taking Lori and Keera back to whatever ship it had used to board the Forerunner. If they had personal cloaking devices, their ships must have the larger version. For all they knew, Avari shuttles or fighters were clinging to the Forerunner’s airlocks like barnacles.
Clayton tried to rise again—
And caught a glimpse of the second Avari, the one he’d been lucky enough to kill, lying just a few feet from Lieutenant Ashley Devon’s body. The live Avari hadn’t spared it so much as a passing glance on its way out.
Clayton struggled up to a sitting position, and the ringing in his ears retreated just enough to hear a crackling roar of flames. The elevator they’d come up here on was torn open and the car inside was on fire.
“Delta!” Clayton croaked.
He dragged himself over to the former Marine and checked the man’s life signs with his ARCs. A strong, steady pulse registered.
Clayton shook him by the shoulder.
He tried again.
A groan. He stirred and rolled over, fumbling blindly for his rifle.
“We’re clear. It’s gone,” Clayton said.
“That little shit kicked me,” he groaned.
“They’re on their way out,” Clayton said. “We can’t let it take them. We’ll never see Keera again—or Lori...” He trailed off, shaking his head. He didn’t know what the Avari wanted with her, but he didn’t want her to have to find out.
Clayton pushed off the deck with a grunt. Both rifles were still slung around his neck. “Think you can get up?” he asked, reaching down with a hand.
“Yeah, why not,” Delta said, taking the hand and jumping up. He stood swaying on his feet for a minute. His weapons lay at the far end of the corridor. He stumbled over to collect them.
Clayton stayed where he was, using his ARCs to check the ship’s security system. Now that the Avari wasn’t trying to hide, he could see it clearly on the ship’s surveillance system. It was crawling down the access chute at a rapid rate behind Lori and Keera. Unlike the maintenance tunnels that Keera had vanished into, there were plenty of cameras inside the access chutes that ran beside the elevators.
“We can still catch them,” Clayton said. “They’re in the chute. Come on.” He began limping over to the ruined doors. As soon as he reached them he leaned through and aimed down with his E-14. The Avari’s heat signature burned brightly in the infrared scopes. It was taking up the rear, keeping Lori and Keera in sight. Delta crowded in beside him, taking aim as well.
“Ready?” Clayton whispered.
But before they could even pull their triggers, the Avari looked up—as if it had eyes in the back of its head. It produced that skinny black sidearm with the long barrel—
Clayton ducked back from the shaft, pulling Delta away with him just as a blazing green laser burned through the space that their heads had been occupying a second ago.
“Thanks,” Delta breathed, looking shaken.
Clayton watched them via security feeds on the right lens of his ARCs. They were descending the ladder past the wardroom on level 30, and still headed down.
“Now what?” Delta asked.
“The elevators are shot out on this level,” Clayton answered. “We have to wait for them to clear out of the access chute or risk getting shot as we climb down.” Clayton watched as the Avari and his two hostages continued down, passing level 20 and still descending.
“Where are they headed?” Delta asked, his eyes bright with imagery on his ARCs. He was obviously watching the same feeds.
Finally, they stopped climbing down. The camera closest to them showed Lori opening the door to level 17.
“They’re headed for The Wheel?” Delta asked.
Clayton slowly shook his head. Level 17 had three purposes: storage, the Cargo Transfer Airlock, and The Wheel. It also gave access to all four of the spokes which led to The Wheel, each of which had its own airlock midway along its length. Those airlocks were almost never used. “I think we just found out where they docked their ship,” Clayton said.
“We’ll never make it down there before they can reach it,” Delta replied.
“No, we won’t,” Clayton mused. “But we could scramble to a pair of Scimitars before they launch. We’ll light up the space around the airlocks.” He saw the Avari leaving the access chute, and nodded to Delta. “Let’s go.”
“We’ll be leaving the ship unattended, sir. Maybe you should stay on the bridge.”
“One fighter isn’t going to be enough to find them, Delta. We’ll get the ship to wake the rest of the crew.” Clayton leaned over, peering into the vertiginous depths of the access chute, double checking to make sure that it was clear.
No sign of the Avari.
“Better let me go first,” Delta said. “At least I’m wearing armor.”
Clayton shook his head and started down the ladder. He was about to explain the breach of protocol, but the words got stuck in his throat: body armor hadn’t helped Devon.
Using his ARCs to access the cryo belts as he climbed down, he set the ship to begin waking the crew; then he mentally composed an emergency welcome message to greet them as soon as they woke up. Found Avari on board, invisible to the naked eye and scanners. Giving chase with Delta in Scimitar fighters. Secure the bridge and all sensitive areas. Captain Cross out.
Lori shuffled through the cargo transfer airlock with Keera. Despair and panic clutched her like a boa constrictor, making it hard to breathe. A flashback burned bright in her mind’s eye: of that rocket exploding, sending Captain Cross and Delta flying; then of the Avari shoving Keera aside and kicking Delta in the side of the head when he tried to get up.
Captain Cross, Lieutenant Devon, and Delta were all either unconscious or dead. Help wasn’t coming this time. Besides Richard and Doctor Stevens, they were the only ones awake on the ship right now.
They reached the elevator doors. And Lori stopped, waiting for instructions to open it.
Instead, the Avari reached out with a small hand and used one of its three fingers to stab the call button. Lori noticed that those fingers ended in vicious black claws just like Keera’s.
The elevator doors sprang open. “Get in,” the Avari growled.
Lori shuffled in, pushing Keera ahead of her. She began reaching for the control panel on the other side—her ARCs and Neuralink were still offline thanks to whatever the Avari had done to them.
But the diminutive alien batted her hand away with a hiss. She couldn’t see a face or expression through its helmet, but she imagined the creature was baring its teeth at her.
Lori wondered absently why the Avari was taking them to The Wheel. At least it wasn’t spinning anymore, so artificial gravity would only be pulling them in one direction.
The Avari touched one of the three buttons on the screen inside the elevator. A01—the airlock.
Lori blinked in horror at that. In hindsight it should have been obvious. It had to have boarded them with a ship of some kind. Now it had what it had come for, and it was leaving.
The elevator jerked into motion, gliding forward and swiftly picking up speed. Stars flashed past windows in the sides of the elevator and the spoke.
“Where are we going?” Keera asked, her eyes big and full of terror as she stared at the alien. The Avari’s glossy black helmet stared back at her, inscrutable as ever.
Lori pulled Keera close and kissed the top of her bald, bony head. “It’s going to be okay,” she whispered.
The elevator slowed and jerked to a stop just a few seconds later, but the doors didn’t open. Lori turned to look at the circular hatch to the airlock. The Avari walked quietly over to it and opened it. A small vestibule appeared. The airlock.
A growl. “Inside.” The Avari gestured with its gun.
Lori shuffled forward with Keera.
The windows in the outer airlock doors showed nothing but stars and empty space. A new fear stabbed sharply in Lori’s chest. There was no ship docked on the other side. Would they have to put on pressure suits and crawl around in vacuum to reach the Avari vessel?
The alien shoved Keera through the hatch. She rounded on it and lashed out with her claws, raking them across the Avari’s torso. Lori expected to see black Avari blood spurting out.
But Keera’s claws slid right off, as if that fish-scale-patterned suit were made of glass.
“Inside,” the Avari growled again.
“Get in, Keera,” Lori urged.
Her daughter hissed again before climbing through. Lori followed and walked straight to the outer airlock door, pressing her face to the windows and trying to find the Avari’s ship. But she couldn’t see it.
“We’ll need pressure suits if you want us to go out there,” Lori said. Then a thought occurred to her to buy some time: maybe the Avari didn’t know that there were suits stored in the airlock. “We’ll have to go back to one of the storage levels to get them.”
The hatch slammed shut behind them, and the Avari stalked wordlessly over to stand beside Lori.
She frowned at it. “Did you hear me?”
It touched the Cycle Airlock button.
Lori’s eyes flew wide, and she lunged to abort the sequence, but she fell short.
“Hold on, Keera!” Lori said, grabbing the nearest handrail.
And then the outer doors sprang open with a blast of escaping air. An infinite sea of stars and empty space yawned on the other side, and the Avari pushed her into it. Lori lost her grip on the handrail and screamed as she fell flailing into the abyss.
Five Minutes Earlier...
Clayton and Delta hurried to put on flight suits and helmets in the ready room before entering the Scimitar hangar on level five. Chatter began bubbling over Clayton’s ear-worn comms—officers waking up and asking about the situation on board. He gave instructions to Dr. Stevens to leave his quarters and get everyone organized. Besides Clayton, he was the ranking officer now.
“You should stay on board, sir,” Stevens objected.
“No time to argue, Stevens,” he replied as he slipped his helmet on. “Secure the bridge and scramble the rest of the Scimitar pilots to reinforce us.”
Delta moved to open the doors to the hangar. A yawning chamber appeared with a dozen giant parallel cylinders protruding from the deck and massive conveyor belts leading to them. The Scimitar launch tubes.
Clayton and Delta ran for the tubes, racing past the conveyor belts that were used by the ship’s flight crews to ferry Scimitars in and out for maintenance and repairs.
But these fighters hadn’t seen any action yet, so they were all loaded up and waiting.
Clayton skidded to a stop in front of the hatch to Launch Tube 01 on level five, the Scimitar Hangar. Delta stopped at Tube 02 and they both triggered their hatches open in the same instant. The sides of the tubes facing away from the conveyor belts slid up, toward the ceiling, revealing sleek fighters with reflective glass cockpits and gleaming black hulls. It was like the chamber of a giant rifle sliding open to expose a bullet. An apt analogy if ever there was one, Clayton thought.
He waved a hand to open the mirror-plated cockpit canopy. It slid up, and then he climbed in. The orientation of the fighters and launch tubes with respect to the direction of gravity made that awkward—they were facing down in the tubes, ready to launch out the back of the Forerunner.
Clayton straightened his legs inside the cockpit, pressing his feet flat against the pedals for the Scimitar’s lateral thrusters. Pinning himself to the back of the pilot’s seat, he held himself up against gravity until he buckled the four point restraint system over his chest. That done, he used his ARCs to fire up the fighter’s ignition system and then shut the cockpit and launch tube.
A HUD swirled to life inside Clayton’s helmet, and buttons, screens, and sliders came to life on all sides of him, glowing brightly.
He grabbed the flight stick, and the fighter shivered as it came alive in his hand.
Pneumatics groaned as the cockpit and launch tube slid shut, sealing him in. Red lights flashed down the length of the inside of the launch tube, parting the darkness and revealing the wide, flaring opening at the end of it. The launch tubes doubled as sealed landing strips. That flaring exit point made for easier entry, but the degree of precision required to fly into an opening that was barely double the width of the scimitars themselves meant that the landing sequences were conducted on autopilot.
Clayton reached down and grabbed the air tubes trailing to either side of his seat and connected them to either side of his helmet, sealing the openings there. Cool, fresh air began flowing into his helmet around his mouth and nose, coming from the tanks behind his seat.
Delta’s voice came over the comms, his deep baritone loud and clear: “All green and ready to launch when you are, sir.”
Clayton did a quick pre-flight check on his main viewscreen. “All systems green. Activate launch sequence.
Clayton triggered his own launch sequence, and an automated countdown began: “Launching in five, four, three...”
A rising hum of energy thrummed through the Scimitar as magnetic rails inside the launch tube fired up. This entire system was like a giant cannon, and he was inside the projectile. Red warning lights began flashing.
The doors sprang open at the end of the launch tube. Locking bolts released with a clunk, and then came a violent roar that hammered Clayton into the back of his flight chair. Stars and space enveloped him. He saw Delta’s fighter streaking out to port.
“Yeah-ha!” Delta whooped. “Damn, I forgot how much I missed this!”
“On my wing. We’re looping back. Time to light up those airlocks.”
“Copy that, Cap.”
Clayton hit the left pedal, slewing the nose of his fighter around until he was facing the glowing blue engines of the Forerunner.
The Wheel was massive, four spokes connecting it to the central column of the ship.
Clayton mentally marked two target boxes around the airlocks.
“You take spokes one and two. I’ll take three and four.”
“Roger,” Delta said.
“Weapons free,” Clayton said as he armed his laser cannons. Wings folded out from the sides of his fighter as the hardpoints deployed; then he pulled the trigger and a pair of bright crimson beams snapped out with loud zapping sounds from the wingtips to either side of him. Both the visuals and sounds were simulated by the Scimitar’s combat computer. Clayton fired six pairs of lasers through the empty space beside the airlock of Spoke Three, but the beams vanished into infinity, converging on the empty target box and then diverging again on the other side.
Delta’s shots passed through empty space as well.
The Forerunner was drifting toward them as they cruised toward it at a rate faster than the larger ship’s steady 1G of acceleration.
“Next spoke!” Clayton ordered, and selected the empty red target box in front of the airlock of Spoke Four. Sucking in a quick breath, he held down the trigger again, expecting his shots to vanish into empty space once more.
The Avari had probably already left. Or maybe they were clinging to one of the airlocks on The Wheel...
Crimson laser beams flashed out repeatedly to either side. Then stopped abruptly. This time the beams didn’t diverge on the other side of the target box. They hit something invisible dead center of it.
“Contact! Spoke Four!”
“Copy, marking target...” Delta said. A split-second later his lasers converged on the invisible target as well.
Triumph swelled in Clayton’s chest. As they drifted near, he could actually see their lasers burning holes in the enemy’s hull from the fine white sprays of condensing air jetting out into space.
He just hoped that Lori and Keera weren’t in that part of the enemy ship. Shooting at it was a risk, but so was letting the Avari slip invisibly into the void, taking them away as hostages to parts unknown.
Lori landed face-first on something solid. The Avari hadn’t pushed her out the airlock into empty space. He’d pushed her out into his ship. The doors had opened for her at the same instant as he’d pushed her. Her brain had taken a second to catch up and realize that she was falling into something other than empty space.
Keera appeared crouching beside her. The girl’s chalk-white face was drawn with worry, black veins standing out sharply against her skin.
“It’s okay. I’m okay,” Lori said, grunting as she pushed off the deck and twisted around to see where she was.
The airlock was dark, the surfaces non-reflective, metallic. Tubes and conduits ran along the walls and ceiling, much like they did aboard Union ships.
The Avari stepped into the airlock, its boots ringing loudly on the grated deck panels. Below them looked like some kind of drainage system. That was also familiar. A place for air and decon sprays to drain away or get sucked out.
The Avari paused and tapped a space beside the inner doors. A glowing screen appeared, projected over the surface. It tapped a symbol on that screen, and then the inner doors banged shut, sealing them inside. The alien turned to face them, still not removing its helmet.
Lori realized that she could breathe the air inside the ship, but maybe it couldn’t. Had this Avari prepared the environment for his human passengers ahead of time, thereby making the air unsuitable for itself to breathe? Or was it wearing a helmet for other reasons?
Before she could wonder more about that, a bright flash of light blinded her, and a loud hissing sound began. She tracked the sound, her eyes landing on a molten orange hole in the ceiling of the airlock. The air inside began stirring violently around her. The Avari shrieked and ran to the other set of doors leading to the interior of its ship. Another bright flash slashed through the air, and a wave of heat washed over Lori. A second hole opened up, and the volume of that hissing noise doubled. That was when Lori got it: those bright flashes were lasers punching through the ship. The doors sprang open, revealing a long corridor with more dull gray metallic surfaces. “Come on!” Lori said, and yanked Keera up with her. They ran and scrambled through the opening just as another laser punched through the ceiling of the airlock. The doors slammed shut behind them. Warning sirens started up somewhere inside the ship. Thinking this was their chance, Lori ran after the Avari, hoping to take advantage of his distraction to overpower him or take his gun. Two more flashes of light slashed through the ceiling directly ahead of her, dazzling her eyes, and she skidded to a stop.
At the end of the corridor, a set of narrow doors parted and the Avari burst through into what looked like a small cockpit.
By this point the hiss of escaping air had turned to a roar. It was whipping around them furiously, tugging her hair. Lori began to see spots dancing before her eyes. The air was getting thin.
Another pair of lasers flashed through the hull, scalding Lori’s cheek—
She sprang back, her reflexes taking over, and then fell hard on the deck.
Another flash came, so close that it blinded her completely—
And her daughter screamed.
The roar of escaping air abruptly stopped. Lori whirled around, blinking her eyes furiously, searching for her daughter. Keera was standing a few steps back with a long, slender gun pressed to the side of her head.
A second Avari was holding that weapon, but this one was much taller than the first, and it wasn’t wearing a helmet. The alien’s features looked vaguely familiar as well. That familiarity registered in Lori’s brain a split second later.
“David?” She couldn’t believe her eyes. It was him all right, but Doctor Grouse didn’t look the least bit human anymore—or sick. He looked exactly like a bigger, taller version of Keera.
He tilted his head, and his cranial stems twitched, but he didn’t reply—as if he no longer recognized his own name. Or maybe he was no longer capable of human speech.
“Don’t do this,” Lori pleaded, hoping to appeal to whatever humanity he might have left. “We need to get back aboard the Forerunner before—”
“Sit down,” David growled in a flat, emotionless voice. So he could talk. He nodded to a long bench seat along one side of the corridor.
Lori pushed off the deck and started toward the bench on shaking legs. She heard footsteps trailing behind her as Dr. Grouse escorted Keera.
Wondering what had happened to all the holes in the hull, Lori glanced up and scanned the ceiling. But there was no sign of any damage. It had to be self-repairing. Or maybe shields were holding in the air.
Another growl sounded from David. “Sit down.”
Something thunked, and Lori felt a subtle tug of acceleration as they flew away from the Forerunner. Somehow that acceleration didn’t knock her off her feet, but even more curious was the fact that gravity continued to pull them down even though they were no longer attached to the Forerunner’s thrusters.
“Where are you taking us?” Lori asked as she sat down. David pushed Keera down beside her.
“Secure yourselves,” he said.
They fumbled with odd, springy restraints that were many sizes too small for Lori. She looped her arms through them, but Keera managed to buckle them over her chest.
Another thought occurred to Lori. “You were the one who killed Ferris and Asher, weren’t you?”
David bared sharp white teeth at her. “They had to die. They tried to stop us.”
Horror washed over her and her jaw dropped. “Stop you from doing what?” she demanded. “Can you hear yourself?”
David wordlessly turned and walked to the opposite bulkhead. He tapped the blank gray surface, and it changed, becoming bright with stars and space: a viewscreen. A holographic keypad with alien symbols appeared to one side, and David spent a moment tapping away, then gesturing at the screen with his hands.
How did he understand Avari control systems? They must have brain-washed or programmed him somehow. That Avari hiding on board had probably woken him from cryo days or weeks ago while everyone else was still asleep. Somehow Asher and Ferris had missed it, and they’d paid the ultimate price for their inattention.
David holstered his sidearm to free up his other hand.
Seeing what might be her only chance, Lori began creeping out of her restraints.
Two of David’s cranial stalks turned to face her, and she froze. A series of growls erupted from him, and he whirled to face her. “Do not get up!” he growled. Then he turned back to the screen and its holographic controls.
“He’s like me,” Keera said in a small voice.
“No, honey,” Lori replied. “He’s not.”
“Then how come I can hear him in my head?”
Lori gave her daughter a hard look. “What do you mean you can hear him in your head?”
“I can hear him, and if I close my eyes, I can see what he’s doing.”
Lori blinked and looked back to David. Were they somehow sharing a telepathic connection? By what mechanism? It didn’t make any sense. And yet, it would explain how Keera had predicted Ferris’s and Asher’s deaths the night that they’d died. She’d imagined herself killing them, but it had actually been David’s thoughts running through her head.
Lori watched what he was doing with fresh interest. Was there any remnant of him left? Or was the man and colleague she’d known completely gone now?
A pair of familiar, bullet-shaped black fighters with sharply curving wings appeared on the screen. Bright red lasers were flashing from their wingtips.
Scimitar fighters. Those were the lasers they’d seen flashing through the Avari ship. Lori wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or worried. She and Keera were trapped in here, too. If those fighters succeeded in stopping the Avari from escaping, what would that mean for them?
David tapped another sequence of symbols beside his screen, and then a group of silver projectiles leaped out toward the approaching Scimitars, riding on bright blue tongues of fire.
Lori’s eyes flew wide as the incoming fighters broke off their attack and scattered in opposite directions. “David, what are you doing?!”
Again, he gave no reply.
Lori had been worrying about the wrong side of this engagement. The Avari obviously had some type of shielding, but Union fighters were no better than eggshells with engines strapped to them. Whoever was piloting those fighters, they needed to shoot those missiles down, and fast.
Clayton saw the enemy ship de-cloak, and almost instantly the sprays of condensing air escaping it vanished. In the same instant, their lasers stopped eliciting visible effects from the target.
“Shields are up,” Clayton said. “Hit it with everything you’ve got. Target the engines.”
“Torpedoes, too? We don’t want to blow it up, Cap.”
“Copy. Rail guns arming.”
Clayton activated the pair of rail guns in the nose of his Scimitar, all the while firing a steady stream of lasers at the aft end of the target where a bright blue glow of engines had just appeared.
Range to target was down to just 0.9 klicks. The target was artificially magnified by his Scimitar’s combat computer, so he saw when it detached from the Forerunner and blasted away in an evasive spiral. He also saw the exact moment in which it fired off six bright silver projectiles riding blazing blue thruster tails. The missile lock alarm squawked three times in quick succession.
“Ordnance incoming!” Delta said in a strained voice.
“Break, break! Activate AMS!” Clayton cried as he activated his anti-missile system. Needle-thin lasers began snapping out in rapid-fire bursts, tracking the incoming missiles. At the same time Clayton slammed the stick left to roll his fighter, then hit the pedals for the lateral thrusters in alternating patterns to execute a barrel roll. The incoming missiles tracked him easily through that maneuver, and the AMS wasn’t working.
Gritting his teeth against the G-forces already in effect, he mentally pushed the throttle up to the max and jerked the stick up at the last minute. The missiles were moving too fast to correct and screamed past him to all sides.
“AMS isn’t working!” Delta said through a gasp for air. “Those missiles must be shielded.”
Clayton backed off the throttle and glanced at his sensor grid to see Delta’s fighter narrowly escape the three red blips chasing it. “Flip around and hit it with the main guns,” he said.
Clayton took his own advice and disengaged the main thrusters, flipping back the other way while still riding his own momentum. Now facing the missiles, he targeted the first one with his primary cannons and then let loose with both his lasers and rail guns.
It took three linked-fire salvos to take the first one out, and then he was out of time. Pushing the throttle all the way up again, he kicked his fighter through a last minute turn, and managed to lose them. Disengaging thrusters again, he flipped back and tracked them for a second time, but this time they were looping back faster. The missiles were learning, backing off the throttle to make faster turns.
Clayton only managed to snap off one shot before it was time to juke again.
“They’re adapting!” Clayton said.
Delta let out a noisy breath, blasting static through Clayton’s speakers. “I just took one down. Two to go.”
Clayton pushed the throttle up again, trying to buy some range, but the two blips chasing him on the grid looped around and accelerated even faster, screaming in and leaving no time to take advantage of any breathing room he’d bought for himself.
The missile lock alarm screamed in his ears, beeping faster and faster as the enemy ordnance drew near. He waited until the last possible second and then kicked his fighter into a diving spiral.
The missiles sailed by above his canopy. Rather than complete the maneuvers, he disengaged the primary thrusters again and flipped the nose up for a parting shot. The wing-mounted lasers had an extra thirty degrees of movement, so the targeting reticle tracked up faster than the nose of the fighter could. It blazed green and sang with a solid lock, and then he snapped off two fire-linked shots. Another missile exploded in a fiery burst of light.
“Got another one!” Delta crowed.
They were each down to one missile left. The one tracking Clayton’s fighter came screaming back around and he executed another emergency maneuver before disengaging thrusters and taking it out.
“Three for three,” Clayton said. He checked the grid and saw the final red blip wink off the screen as Delta took it out.
“Cap, you seeing what I’m seeing?”
He was. The grid was blank. Besides the two green wedges of their fighters and the giant green spear that was the Forerunner, there was nothing but empty blue grid squares on sensors.
“They cloaked again,” Clayton said.
“Yeah,” Delta replied. “Now what?”
His fighter appeared, cruising alongside Clayton’s own on a bright blue tail of thrusters. Silence fell as they both considered the question.
The steady hum of air cycling through Clayton’s helmet and thrusters roaring behind him filled the blank canvas in his mind. He hated to admit it, but it was over. The Avari had used that momentary distraction to perform another disappearing act, and now, short of firing lasers around randomly in the slim hope of hitting some invisible target, they were shit out of luck.
“Let’s pack it in, Lieutenant,” Clayton said.
“We can’t just let them go.”
“No choice. RTB.” Clayton banked back around, heading for the distant speck that was the Forerunner. It had been cruising on without them at a steady 1G of acceleration this whole time.
Delta’s fighter swept back into line with his, close enough that he could have seen the former Marine’s face if his cockpit canopy were transparent instead of mirror-plated.
Clayton watched the fighter, admiring its smooth, sloping lines. The fight now completely over, Delta retracted his fighter’s wings and hard points.
And then his Scimitar became limned in a fiery green light. Molten fissures appeared, and the whole thing cracked apart in a molten wave of debris. Delta’s body went tumbling free.
Anger and shock surged, leaving Clayton frozen. “Delta!” he screamed over the comms.
Clayton kicked his fighter into an evasive maneuver just before a second laser stabbed through the space he’d been flying through. He tracked that laser back to the empty space it had emerged from and brought his own guns to bear. Twin lasers flashed out repeatedly, and the rail guns in his Scimitar’s nose thumped hard with glinting metal projectiles. Each one packed enough kinetic force to detonate like a missile on impact. Before the first projectile could arrive, the enemy ship re-appeared and his shots elicited bright flashes of light from its shields.
Clayton kept up a steady rain of fire, all the while juking in random directions.
Green lasers lashed the space around him, missing repeatedly. But then one scored a hit and his starboard wing evaporated.
A screaming roar filled Clayton’s ears, and it took a second for him to realize that it was him. He’d be damned if this alien bastard would kill him before he could avenge Delta’s death.
The enemy ship took two solid hits to the engines, both of them rail gun projectiles. They exploded with brief flashes of light, and one of three engines at the back of the Avari ship went dark.
His next pair of lasers hit home as well, drawing jets of white mist as more air escaped from inside the ship.
He’d finally taken down the shields.
The Avari vessel went evasive, but Clayton didn’t let up. He kept firing steadily, making sure they couldn’t cloak again.
The comms crackled to life, and Clayton expected that it might be the Forerunner or maybe the remainder of its Scimitar squadron come to offer support.
But it wasn’t. The voice was flat and emotionless, and it was his.
“Cease fire immediately or the woman dies.”
Shock briefly beat out all of the other emotions crowding Clayton’s head. They know our language. And my voice. He squeezed off a final salvo before releasing the trigger.
Silence fell, and the enemy ship sailed on. Clayton kept dodging and weaving, chasing it and making himself as hard to hit as possible, but it wasn’t firing on him either.
He tried sending a reply to that message on the same channel. The fact that they could speak English and transmit messages in a way that their comms could understand was both shocking and hopeful. Now they could finally negotiate.
Clayton picked his words carefully, setting an equally hostile tone. He doubted the Avari would respond well to weakness. “Send the woman and the girl out in pressure suits or an escape pod and we’ll let you go.”
“There is only one of you, and we have the advantage.”
We? Clayton wondered. He shook his head. “If you have the advantage, then why did you threaten to kill someone if I didn’t stop firing on you? It won’t be long before my crew sees you and trains much bigger guns than mine on your ship.” Clayton spared eyes for a glance at the grid and saw green specks darting out the back of the Forerunner. More Scimitars. “And I have more fighters incoming.”
“We’ll vanish, and they’ll never find us. You’ll be dead long before they arrive.”
“Or maybe you’ll miss and I won’t. I’ll burn another dozen holes in your hull and this time maybe I’ll hit something vital—like your reactor core, or your head.”
A hissing roar of static came back over the comms. It sounded like the Avari was laughing.
“I only spared you because she begged me to. Don’t make me change my mind.”
And then an enemy contact alert began chiming rapidly, and tens of red blips began peppering the grid. Sleek teardrop-shaped black vessels appeared all around the bulkier ship that he was chasing. Multiple squadrons of enemy fighters, all facing him and approaching fast.
“You have lost. Go back to your ship.”
A larger vessel materialized behind those fighters, automatically magnified with everything else. It was massive. Clayton stopped maneuvering. It wasn’t his piloting skill or deft maneuvers that had kept him alive. There had to be hundreds of lasers trained on his ship right now, including ones on that larger ship that were probably big enough to take out the Forerunner with one shot. The Avari had deliberately stopped short of killing him.
“This isn’t over,” Clayton said through gritted teeth. “We’ll find you.”
Silence answered him.
And then static came crackling in, followed by: “Falcon Leader to Captain Cross! Please respond. I repeat, Falcon Leader to Captain Cross. Waggle your wings if you can hear us.” The message was from one of the Scimitars racing in from the Forerunner’s location.
“I’m here,” Clayton said in a rasping voice. He watched the Avari ships all fade invisibly into the black of space and simultaneously drop off the grid. Only green, friendly blips remained.
A relieved sigh sent a burst of static across the channel. “What the hell, Captain! We’ve been hailing you for the past ten minutes!”
That broke through Clayton’s shock. He hadn’t received any messages over the comms. Until now, he hadn’t thought to wonder about it.
Another voice chimed in: “Hey, where did they all go?” The comms panel identified the speaker as Falcon Two, Lt. Ike
Clayton just shook his head. “Your guess is as good as mine, Lieutenant.”
“Form up with us, Captain. Let’s get you back in one piece.”
“Copy that,” Clayton replied, rolling and hauling back on the stick to bring the Forerunner into line with his nose.
That flat, inflectionless version of his voice echoed back through his thoughts as he formed up with Falcon Squadron.
I only spared you because she begged me to.
She who? he wondered again. Keera? And if so, what was she to them?
Then his thoughts took a darker turn, and the dazzling emerald fire that had consumed Delta’s fighter blazed bright in his mind’s eye. He saw the former Marine’s tumbling body... Devon’s dead, staring eyes, Commander Taylor’s matching gaze... Lieutenants Ferris’s and Asher’s bloody remains.
Clayton’s eyes burned and blurred with tears. What did the Avari want?
Keera? Lori? Access to Clayton’s thoughts and memories?
Maybe all of the above. Whatever it was that they’d been after, they had it now.
Clayton lined up his fighter with the flaring, cone-shaped opening of Launch Tube 01. All twelve launch tubes sat nestled between the massive, fiery blue thrusters at the back of the Forerunner.
Range to the ship reached fifteen klicks, and he activated the auto-landing sequence. The autopilot did the rest from there, making micro-corrections, firing brief blasts from the maneuvering thrusters as he flew in.
Magnetic fields in the opening of the launch tube would help to line him up, guiding his fighter to the rails.
At just one klick out, a warning popped up on his nav panel. His damaged starboard wing hadn’t retracted fully. The Forerunner had detected a small anomaly in the shape of his fighter.
Range was scrolling down fast. Just six hundred meters now.
Rather than abort the landing, Clayton summoned a holographic screen to check the shape of the launch tube against the shape of his fighter. The two outlines lined up perfectly but for an offending bit of metal that was flashing red. Half a foot wide by one foot long, a bent and curling piece of the wing. The system was designed to accept small variations in shape due to combat damage, so he overrode the warning. The offending scrap would get sheared off by the launch rails.
The launch tube grew steadily larger. The other Scimitars in Falcon Squadron flew all around him in a vague star formation, the same as the pattern of the twelve launch tubes in the back of the Forerunner.
Then the tube swallowed his fighter. It hit the rails a split-second later, and a metallic shriek reached Clayton’s ears—the offending scrap of wing getting clipped off. The fighter shuddered briefly, then steadied and glided down the rails to a sudden, jerking stop at the end of the launch tube. Artificial gravity took hold, pinning him to the back of his seat.
Doors behind his fighter shut with a thud and air hissed in around it as the receiving end of the tube pressurized. Finally, the part of the tube under his fighter folded down, taking the Scimitar with it. He landed on the maintenance conveyor with a subtle thunk, and sat there, numb and staring sightlessly out of the cockpit canopy as the rest of Falcon Squadron folded out of their launch tubes. Pilots began climbing from their fighters, pulling helmets off to reveal short, sweat-matted hair.
Clayton’s breath rasped steadily through his helmet, loud and shallow in his ears.
He half expected to see Delta climb out of one of those fighters and flash a craggy grin.
Denial. That was one of the stages of grief. He knew it well. He absently brought his wrist up to his faceplate, thinking to see the comforting image of his wife’s smiling face on his smartwatch, but both his wrist and the watch were hidden by the sleeve of his flight suit.
Clayton shook his head to clear the ghosts. He still had more than a thousand crew and colonists on board, all of them alive and well, and he needed to keep it together if they were going to stay that way.
He disconnected his oxygen hoses, opened his cockpit, and climbed out. Standing beside his fighter, he removed his helmet and tucked it under one arm. The Commander of Falcon Squadron caught his eye and nodded to him before walking over.
Cmdr Craig Pullman—the holographic name tape glowed bright on Clayton’s ARCs.
“Captain,” Pullman said, stopping in front of him and coming to attention.
Clayton acknowledged him with a nod, and Pullman stood at ease. He had a quarter-inch of red-blond hair, bright green eyes, and a baby-face that made him look a decade younger than his forty years.
“Delta was a good man,” Pullman said, one corner of his mouth jerking downward.
“Yes, he was,” Clayton replied, his voice a ragged whisper. He cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Commander. I’m needed on the bridge.” He turned and strode for the exit of the hangar with a lump in his throat and eyes burning once more. Pullman’s reply came dimly to his ears, drowned out by the thunder of blood roaring in Clayton’s ears.
Then came a buzz and crackle of static, followed by his comm officer’s voice. “Captain, there’s been a development. The Avari have de-cloaked again. We’re reading one capital-class vessel.”
Clayton blinked and sucked in a deep breath. Grief retreated to the background as a fresh spurt of adrenaline went sparking through his veins. He broke into a sprint, running the rest of the way to the elevators. “Ready weapons, Lieutenant,” he said.
Flicking a glance back the way he’d come, Clayton bellowed, “Get back to your cockpits!”
Commander Pullman hesitated for just a second before turning and repeating the order to his pilots. “You heard the captain! Scramble!”
“Captain on deck!”
Everyone came to attention, rotating their chairs to face him.
Dr. Stevens rose from the captain’s chair and met Clayton halfway. His silver hair glowed blue in the dim lighting of the bridge. With so many other officers dead, Stevens was the most senior officer on board other than Clayton himself. “Sir, they’re not responding to our hails.”
That comment sounded out of place when talking about an alien starship, but the Avari had clearly proven that they’d learned enough about human comms and languages to communicate whenever they felt like it.
Clayton’s gaze strayed past Stevens to the viewscreens that ran the circumference of the bridge. The enemy ship lay dead ahead, magnified to fill nearly half of the screens. Their hull was dark and non-reflecting, a dark stain on the stars with no signs of life, not even a single viewport with lights radiating out.
“Any signs of activity? Fighters launching?” Clayton asked.
“None that we can see,” Stevens replied.
Clayton walked past him to the captain’s chair, sat down, and buckled his restraints. “Are they giving chase?”
“Negative. They’re not even facing us, sir,” Stevens replied as he took his seat in the XO’s station beside him.
“Try hailing them again. Open a line for me to speak.”
“Aye, sir.” Stevens spent a moment interacting with screens on his ARCs, his green eyes glowing blue as he interfaced with the comms.
Stevens nodded to him. “Ready to transmit, Captain.”
Clayton sucked in a deep breath, but before he could say anything, the tear-drop shaped black starship on the viewscreens vanished with a bright flash of light.
“What was that!” Clayton demanded.
“I don’t...” Stevens trailed off, screens flashing rapidly over his eyes.
The sensors operator replied before he could, “A sharp spike in radiation coincided with their disappearance.”
“Did they cloak again?” someone else asked.
Clayton slowly shook his head. “We didn’t see any radiation spikes or flashes of light to accompany them cloaking before. This was something else.”
“Aye,” Stevens said, turning to look at Clayton. His ARCs cleared, revealing green eyes once more. “Sensors detected gravitational waves to accompany that spike. They’re still washing over us.”
“Ripples in space-time,” Clayton mused.
Natural gravity waves are created by massive bodies moving very quickly. They could also theoretically be created by the sudden emergence of a wormhole, or the use of some theoretical faster-than-light drive tech, such as Alcubierre warp drives. Either way, the conclusion was the same.
“I think what we just witnessed was the Avari going to FTL,” Clayton said.
Silence answered him. If he was right, the implications were terrifying. The Avari were far more advanced than any of them had realized. And if they had any interest in Earth, they could be there in a fraction of the time it would take for Forerunner One to get home.
“What now, sir?” Stevens asked quietly.
The doors to the bridge rumbled open before Clayton could say anything, and a new voice interrupted them:
“Why was I not told that it was safe to leave my quarters?”
Clayton rotated his chair to see Ambassador Morgan striding in.
“It wasn’t an intentional oversight.”
Morgan stopped a few paces away with arms crossed over his chest to glare down on Clayton.
“Do you need something Ambassador?”
“Yes, an update! Where is Dr. Reed? She’s not in her quarters.”
Clayton hesitated. The Ambassador really did have a lot of catching up to do. He dragged in a weary breath and then explained everything that had happened in as few words as he could manage.
Morgan’s face had turned ashen by the time he was done. Maybe he had a heart after all.
“They took them both?”
“Keera was obviously some kind of genetic experiment. I’m guessing it was a success, because they went to great lengths to recover her. For all we know, they were on board before we even arrived at Trappist-1. They might have even been the ones to impregnate Lori.”
“But Stevens said I was the father!” Morgan roared.
“Maybe not the only father. There was obviously an alien gene donor as well.”
“How did they get on board without us noticing?” Morgan asked. His tone was accusatory, as if they should have been able to see a cloaked shuttle docking with the Forerunner.
“Somehow, we didn’t,” Clayton said flatly. “Right now, figuring out how all of this happened is much less important than why. Why create an Avari-human hybrid, why extract Earth’s location from Dr. Grouse’s mind, why infect him with a virus, and why learn our language and comms protocols?”
Morgan’s jaw dropped as those pieces clicked into place, but Stevens was the first to state the obvious: “They’re going to invade Earth.”
Clayton looked to him and gave a stiff nod. “Yes.”
Morgan visibly worked some moisture into his mouth, the wheels obviously turning in his head. “We’re a colony ship. It’s our responsibility to re-populate the species. We should find another planet to colonize.”
Clayton gave him a hard look. “Has running with your tail between your legs always been your go-to response?”
“We’re going to Earth, Ambassador. To warn them if we’re not to late, and to reinforce their position if we are.”
“You’re insane. I’m in command of this mission, Captain, and I’m ordering you to—”
“Corporal!” Clayton called to the Marine Corporal standing guard beside the doors. “Escort Mr. Morgan from the bridge.”
Morgan’s face turned bright red, and he glowered darkly at Clayton as the corporal approached. “Ambassador,” the Marine said. “This way please.”
“I’ll show myself out,” Morgan snapped, and then turned and strode away.
Clayton noticed that the rest of the bridge crew had rotated their chairs to face them. “Eyes on your stations,” he said, and they spun their chairs back around.
Stevens caught his eye and whispered, “With everything we know and suspect, going to Earth will be dangerous, sir.”
“We’ll head for Proxima Centauri and send a message from there, just as we were planning. Once we arrive, we’ll decide whether or not to push on for Earth. If we do go, the mission will be volunteer only. Anyone who wants to stay at Proxima b and keep heads down is welcome to do so. Fair enough?”
“Aye, sir,” Stevens said. “When do we go back into cryo?” he asked. He didn’t look or sound eager.
“In a few days,” Clayton replied. “After the memorial for our dead, and after we’ve swept the ship for more Avari.”
“What if they’re here, but we don’t find them?”
“We’ll be thorough,” Clayton replied.
“They’re invisible,” Stevens countered with one eyebrow arching up.
“If they’d wanted to kill us all, they could have easily done so by now.”
“That’s true... why didn’t they?”
“I don’t know,” Clayton admitted. “But I’m hoping it’s a sign that they’re not entirely hostile.”
“Aye.” Stevens blew out a breath. He obviously hadn’t thought of that.
“Maybe studying the one we killed will give us more insight about them. I assume you handled the body correctly?”
“Yes. I had one of my corpsmen put it in a cryo pod in sickbay. We haven’t had time for a proper analysis yet, but it’ll keep.”
Clayton turned his chair back to the fore and stared into the glittering wash of stars on the viewscreens. Silence fell on the bridge, and Clayton’s thoughts grew loud. One of them jumped to the fore, a question: If the Avari don’t want to kill us, then what do they want? Slaves? More subjects for their experiments?
No answers came to him. He slowly shook his head. There was only one way to find out. They’d have to go back to Earth and see for themselves.
Seventy-eight Years Later...
“Hailing Olympia Station,” Lieutenant Stevens announced.
Clayton nodded, steepling his hands beneath his chin as he leaned forward in the captain’s chair.
Ambassador Morgan stood hovering beside him, quietly watching and listening.
They’d all awoken from cryo for the last time barely half an hour ago—right after crossing the heliopause to officially enter the Proxima Centauri System.
Proxima b was magnified on the forward screens, a dark circle with a crescent of light dawning at the far right edge. Proxima b was otherwise known as Olympia, a reference to Zeus and Greek mythology that the planet had earned thanks to its violent thunderstorms. Tidally locked to its sun, Proxima b’s weather was so disastrous that landings and launches could only be safely conducted from one point on the surface: dead center of the perpetual night. There weren’t even any lights visible from the colony on the surface, but that wasn’t necessarily strange. Even after almost a hundred and eighty years of technological advances, it likely still made more sense to build underground. Hurricane-force winds were constantly blasting in from the scalding dessert on Olympia’s day side.
A solitary silver speck gleamed brightly above the day-night terminator, catching crimson rays from Proxima Centauri. Olympia Station was still there. That had to be a good sign.
“Message sent,” Stevens announced.
“I assume you included the mission report that I prepared,” Clayton said.
“Of course, sir.”
“How long before we can expect a reply?” Ambassador Morgan asked.
“At fifty-six point two AU...” Screens flickered brightly over Stevens’ eyes as he calculated on his ARCs. “Almost eight hours for our signal to arrive, so the soonest their reply could reach us is fifteen and a half hours.”
Morgan grunted unhappily at that.
“If we’re right about Earth, they might already know about the Avari,” Stevens pointed out.
“Time will tell, Lieutenant,” Clayton said. He unbuckled his safety harness and stood on creaking knees, stretching out his back and neck.
And then a series of bright flashes strobed through the viewscreens, flash-blinding him.
Morgan cursed viciously behind him.
“Report!” Clayton cried.
“Multiple contacts!” the sensor operator said.
“Incoming comms!” Stevens added. “Both audio and visual feeds!”
Clayton stood swaying beside his chair and blinking the spots from his eyes to see a massive dark gray starship directly in front of them. It was long and boxy, ridged and bristling with glittering lights and weapons platforms.
“Put them on,” Clayton ordered.
The bald head and shoulders of a man in a fish scale patterned uniform appeared front and center of the main viewscreen.
Chalk-white features, black veins whorled underneath, bright red eyes, sharp facial bones, and four stalky appendages rising from the back of the creature’s skull identified it clearly enough. But its arms didn’t extend from its chest, and they weren’t thin and bony like an Avari’s. There was no sign of translucent wings either.
“Hello, Captain,” the creature said, its voice deep and husky, but somehow familiar. “I’ve been waiting a long time for your arrival.”
He placed the voice a second later and his jaw dropped. “Keera?”
She smiled, revealing sharply pointed white teeth. “Admiral Keera Reed. Welcome to the Kyron Federation.”
Confusion swirled in Clayton’s head. He grabbed his chair for support and slowly shook his head. “I don’t understand. What Federation?”
“My people, the Kyra—the ones you call the Avari—annexed Earth. Humanity has joined a larger galactic community, Captain.” He caught a glimpse of another chalky humanoid walking by behind Keera. It was too tall and human-looking to be an Avari. Another hybrid.
“How are you still alive?” Clayton asked.
“I’ll explain everything once we come aboard. Power down your engines and stand down all weapons.”
“You can’t let them aboard this ship,” Ambassador Morgan whispered.
Keera’s head turned fractionally, and her smile faded. “Hello, Father.”
“Turn the ship around,” Morgan insisted.
Clayton looked to Lieutenant Stevens. He was gaping at the viewscreen, eyes wide and staring. “Power down engines, Lieutenant.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Keera said, inclining her head to him. “If it makes you feel better, I only asked as a courtesy. You have no other option.”
“Does that sound friendly to you?” Morgan gritted out.
“Shut up ambassador,” Clayton snapped. “Where should we expect you, Admiral?”
An image of the Forerunner replaced Keera’s head and shoulders. The amidships airlock was flashing in red. Her features returned a few seconds later. She was smiling again. “I have a few surprises waiting for you, Captain.”
“Good ones I hope.”
“The very best. See you soon.”
The transmission vanished, and Keera’s ship returned, front and center. Smaller wedge-shaped vessels began streaking out of it.
“What do we do, sir?” Stevens whispered.
“We go meet them at the airlock,” Clayton replied.
“I’ll inform the Marines.”
“No. No soldiers, and no weapons, Lieutenant. We’re going to greet them unarmed.”
“Are you insane?” Ambassador Morgan cried. “They’ll kill us!”
Clayton turned to regard him. “They wouldn’t need to board us for that, Ambassador. So that’s obviously not their goal.”
Morgan’s cheeks bulged with another objection, but he swallowed it.
Clayton knew what was really behind his concerns: he’d never been very nice to his half alien daughter, and now she was all grown up, maybe with a big chip on her shoulder.
“Admiral Keera Reed...” Stevens muttered.
“Maybe she’ll be the bigger person,” Clayton said.
Morgan’s face was ashen, his jaw slack. The ambassador’s eyes darted briefly to him, then back to the alien starship on the viewscreens.
“There must be a reason why she came here to greet us personally,” Clayton said.
“Revenge,” Morgan rasped.
“I doubt it’s anything as petty as that,” Clayton replied. He nodded to the bridge doors. “Let’s go.”
“I’m not going.”
“You’re the ambassador.”
“The Union is gone.”
Clayton’s eyes hardened. “She’s your daughter.”
Morgan just shook his head.
“Look at it this way. If you’re right, better to fix things now with a happy reunion. She won’t be any happier with you if you snub her.”
Morgan made an aggravated sound in the back of his throat. “This is a mistake, Captain.”
“Maybe, but as Keera pointed out, we don’t have much of a choice.”
“Stevens?” Clayton asked.
“You have the conn.”
“I’m coming with you, sir,” Stevens said, already unbuckling from his seat.
Clayton frowned, watching the man as he stood up. “Someone needs to man the bridge.”
“Ensign Reynolds can handle it.”
Clayton’s gaze strayed to the helm where Reynolds sat in Delta’s old chair, a painful reminder that he was dead and gone. An ensign in command of the bridge? He was about to object further, but what difference did it make who had the conn? They couldn’t run, they couldn’t fight, and they’d already surrendered.
“Very well, Lieutenant. Fall in. Reynolds—you have the conn.”
Clayton stood at the amidships airlock with Doctor Stevens, Ambassador Morgan, and an entire squad of thirteen unarmed Marines in full body armor—a show of force without any force. That was Morgan’s idea.
A clunk sounded from the airlock as the outer doors shut, followed by a loud hissing sound as the decon sprays started up. Hopefully that didn’t piss off the Avari—Kyra, Clayton corrected himself.
The inner doors swished open, and a group of humanoids wearing familiar fish-scale armor and glossy black helmets appeared. The one standing in the center of the group removed its helmet, and Keera’s face appeared. Four flexible stalks unfolded from the back of her head, their cone-shaped orifices turning to face him.
She and her entourage marched out of the airlock, coming to a stop just a few feet away. Clayton noticed that all of them were armed with sleek black rifles. Except for Keera. She wore a familiar long-barreled sidearm on her hip.
These soldiers all stood just as tall as the average human—yet more confirmation that they weren’t Avari. They were probably all hybrids like Keera, which meant that they would be able to co-exist in the same environments as humans.
Assuming that there were any humans left.
Clayton put on a grim smile. “Welcome aboard, Admiral Reed.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Her gaze swept to her father, then back, and then she matched Clayton’s smile with a predatory version of her own.
A chill coursed down Clayton’s spine as he stared into her bright red eyes. “You mentioned a Federation,” he prompted.
“The Kyron Federation,” Keera said.
“And humans are now members of it?”
“Yes and no. Perhaps we should go somewhere that we can speak more comfortably.”
“Why?” Morgan asked in a shaky voice. “If you’re just going to kill us, you may as well do it here.”
She looked to him with narrowed eyes. “You’ve always thought the worst of me, Father. But perhaps that says more about you than it does about me, or my kind.” Her gaze swept back to Clayton. “The Chimeras—others like me—” She spread her hands to indicate the soldiers surrounding her. “—are all citizens. We’re free to come and go as we please. Humans and other naturally evolved species like them are not. It is the Kyra’s way of unifying their empire, of giving us all a common thread to tie us together.”
“So there are others,” Clayton said. “Do you all look the same?”
“Of course not. But we all share common features.”
Clayton’s eyes skipped over the helmeted soldiers present. “None of them look different.”
“They’re not. They are Human Chimeras, like me. Each sub-species is different.”
“Are there any humans left on Earth? Or just Chimeras?”
“Not everyone is compatible with Kyra DNA,” Keera explained. “Some don’t qualify for ascendance. Others die during the transformation, and some fall short to become Dregs.”
“Ascendance,” Clayton said. “You make it sound as though you’re superior to us.”
“We are. Physically, at least. All Chimeras are equally at home in at least two different environments—that of their native species, and that of the Kyra themselves. This means that we can serve the Kyra on their worlds and starships just as easily as we can on our own.”
Clayton’s Marines shuffled their feet, their armor clattering. Taking umbrage no doubt. Tell a squad of Space Marines that they’re physically inferior and watch them bristle with indignation. A smile tugged at the corners of Clayton’s mouth, but the gravity of the situation quickly squelched it.
“So we’re not under arrest or slated for execution.”
“No. My mother told me about you. She said that you were the one who always insisted that I be treated fairly, without any prejudice or contempt.” Her eyes flicked to her father, then back. “I would like to return that favor to you now. You and your crew will not be held accountable for the two Kyra that you killed.”
A sudden burst of anger flashed through Clayton’s system, making it hard to think straight. What about the officers that they killed? Delta, Taylor, Devon, Davies, Asher, Ferris... He bit his tongue and smiled thinly at Keera. “That’s very generous of the Kyra.”
“In addition to this pardon, I have a surprise for you—” Her eyes slid to Morgan again. “And for you, Father.”
Morgan paled, and Keera nodded to one of the soldiers standing in the back of her entourage. “You can take off your helmets now.”
Two soldiers pressed through to the front of the group, and Clayton noticed that both of them were unarmed. They reached up to remove their helmets, and a pair of familiar faces appeared—
Clayton’s heart nearly stopped. He stood there for the longest second of his life, rooted to the spot, unable to believe his eyes.
“Hello, Clay,” she said in a trembling whisper of a voice. Her vibrant blue eyes darted around, as if all of this was somehow just as alien to her as it was to him.
“The Kyra are good to their subjects, Captain,” Keera said. “And their technology is beyond anything you can possibly imagine.”
“Lori?” Morgan asked in a shaking voice.
She whispered a cutting remark under her breath, but Clayton didn’t hear it over the roaring drumbeat of his pulse. He took a quick step forward, then stopped abruptly, worried that the Chimeran soldiers might shoot him if he ran to greet Samara.
Keera nodded. “It’s okay, Captain.” Then to her soldiers, she said, “Stand down.”
So Clayton ran, crashing into Samara, sweeping her up in his arms, and burying his face in her hair. It even smelled like her.
“How is this possible?” he sobbed. “You were dead!”
“It’s okay,” Samara whispered. “I’m here now.”
Clayton withdrew and kissed her repeatedly. She laughed against his lips.
Keera answered his question as he withdrew, “There were many records of the deceased in your archives by the time we arrived. Samara was one of many. My mother suggested that we bring her back as our way of saying thank you.”
Clayton looked his wife in the eyes—the same vibrant blue eyes that he remembered. Her cheeks were stained with tears, the same as his. She gave a shaky smile, and glanced about furtively once more.
“Is everything okay?” Clayton asked.
She nodded quickly. “I’m just overwhelmed, that’s all. I only woke up yesterday, and to me it’s still the 21st century.”
“That must be a shock...” He looked to Keera, and she nodded.
“She’s adapting very well.”
“Are there others who were resurrected?”
“No. The Kyra don’t believe in resurrecting the dead from their memories. Your wife is the only exception that I know of. It was not easy to get their approval.”
“Thank you,” Clayton said. His eyes went to Lori. “Both of you.”
She nodded back.
And then it hit him. Lori didn’t look a day older than when she’d left. “How old are you? When did the Kyra arrive?”
Lori laughed, then quickly sobered. “Almost eighty years ago. Just six months after they took Keera and me from the Forerunner. So to answer your question—a lot older than I like to admit.”
“But you look the same...” Doctor Stevens murmured.
“Biological organisms need not age,” Keera explained. “Membership in the Kyron Federation has many benefits.”
“Was it voluntary?” Morgan asked.
“Was what voluntary?” Keera asked.
“Us joining it,” Morgan said.
“Did dogs or horses voluntarily submit to domestication by their human masters?”
That reply gave Clayton pause. “So it’s like that.”
“Your people still have significant autonomy, and the Kyra care for their subjects far better than humans ever did for their pets—I can assure you of that.”
“Good,” was all Clayton could think to say. “Now what?”
“Now, we take you back to Earth. I’d let you take your ship, but it would take you years to return, and we can get you there much faster.”
“We’ll need some time to wake the colonists and ready the crew.”
“I’ll give you a quarter of a cycle.”
“Five hours. I assume that will be enough time?”
Clayton nodded. “It will. Thank you.”
“Good.” Keera nodded to him, and smiled.
Clayton returned that smile. He’d been right about her. His eyes drifted to Lori and she nodded to him. “It’s good to see you again, Captain.”
“Likewise,” he replied.
And then Keera and the Chimeras turned and marched back into the airlock.
“We’ll be waiting,” Keera said, catching his eye as the airlock doors slid shut.
Ambassador Morgan blew out a breath, looking thoroughly shaken. “She didn’t kill me.”
“It looks like the Avari—the Kyra, I mean—might not be all bad,” Clayton replied.
But no one seconded his opinion.
Eight hours Later...
The Kyra lander shivered and shook violently as it sliced down through Earth’s atmosphere. Samara sat beside Clayton, squeezing his hand. Several armed Chimeras were seated around them. Sweeping viewports framed the nose and sides of the cabin, making it feel bright and airy inside.
Clayton’s row of seats was twelve wide, and there were at least a hundred rows just like it spread across three separate decks. Over a thousand people. All of the crew and colonists from the Forerunner crammed into one giant transport. One of several inside the Kyra destroyer that served as Keera’s flagship.
A fluffy carpet of clouds swept up fast beneath them. The turbulence and G-forces of re-entry were somehow buffered by the ship’s technology. The Kyra were so advanced that they were like gods. Everywhere Clayton looked there was something new to astound him—not the least of which, FTL drives. They’d traveled the four light years from Proxima to Earth in just under two hours. Two light years per hour. Clayton kept wanting to ask questions, but he hadn’t seen either Lori or Keera again since being marched off to temporary quarters aboard her ship. And Samara didn’t seem to know much more than he did.
He glanced over at her, noting the tension in her face and rigid posture.
She looked at him with wide eyes.
“It’s going to be okay.”
She gave a shallow nod before looking away.
The transport ducked into the clouds. Gauzy curtains of moisture swept by to all sides. Dr. Stevens caught Clayton looking his way. He was sitting on the aisle seat of the same row. Stevens nodded, and Clayton smiled tightly back.
And then the clouds parted, and a futuristic city appeared beneath them. Tall, glittering towers caught the light of the afternoon sun, blinding him and everyone else. The ship sank below the glaring eye of the sun a moment later, and more details snapped into focus.
A collective gasp sounded from the passengers. A vast field of charred and crumbling ruins appeared below, stretching out to the horizon in all directions. The ruins were overgrown and shot through with rivers of green, but a tiny freckle of civilization shone like a pearl from the center of that devastation: tall skyscrapers guarded by thick gray walls.
“What the hell happened here? Where is this?” Clayton asked.
No ventured an answer. His eyes fell on the nearest Chimera, sitting two rows up from him. “Hey! You want to explain this? I thought the Kyra treat their subjects well.”
A low hiss sounded as the Chimera turned its head. Red eyes found him and quickly narrowed. “Your people did not surrender easily.” And with that, its head turned back around.
Samara had Clayton’s hand in a death grip now.
He studied her. “You haven’t seen this?”
“No,” she breathed. “They must have killed millions!”
“Billions,” a husky Chimera voice replied. This from a second Chimera sitting beside the first. It twisted around, revealing slightly more feminine features, like Keera’s. Cranial stalks swiveled to face them. “Your people are still recovering nearly a century later. The smart ones choose to ascend so that they don’t have to stay in this dumpster. That’s why I did it.”
“You used to be human?”
The chimera nodded.
“Where are we? What is this city called?” Clayton asked again, gesturing to it through the viewports.
Shock coursed through him. The Houston he remembered had been a sprawling metropolis with over three million people living in it.
“Why haven’t we rebuilt?” Samara asked.
“The ruins are populated by the Dregs,” the Chimera replied. “It is dangerous to reclaim territory outside the walls.”
“Dregs?” Clayton asked.
“People who failed to ascend. The virus doesn’t always work.”
Clayton wanted to ask more questions, but the Chimera turned around again. Samara’s nails dug into his arm, her horror radiating through that touch. They sat silently and watched as the transport hovered down to a large, flat rooftop in the middle of the high rises. The transport touched down with a gentle thump, followed by the sound of seat restraints clicking free and Chimeras rising to their feet.
“Everybody up!” one of them yelled. “Let’s go! Let’s go!”
One by one, people rose slowly and reluctantly to their feet. Some were slower than others. Clayton and Samara joined them in standing and began shuffling down their row toward the end.
Somewhere in the cabin someone was sobbing loudly.
“On your feet, Dakka!”
The sobbing grew louder, and Clayton turned to see a young woman sitting several rows back being dragged out of her seat and into the aisle.
“Hey!” The man sitting beside her lunged to intervene.
A bright green laser flashed out from the soldier’s rifle and dropped him to the deck with a thud.
The woman screamed piteously and scrambled over to him. “Peter!” She began shaking him by his shoulders, but he didn’t stir. “Peter!”
“He’s dead!” the Chimera who’d shot him said. “Get up!” And it dragged her up by her hair. She rose to her feet with another scream, and rounded on the alien with her fists, her eyes streaming with tears.
Clayton began pushing through the crowd to intervene.
And then a second flash of light silenced the woman, too, and her body landed beside the man who’d tried to help her.
Everyone in the cabin froze. The Chimeras looked around, red eyes hard and glaring. “The Kyra do not suffer defiance!” the one who’d shot those two said, its eyes and rifle tracking over the group. “Learn this lesson, and learn it well, or you will not last long in the Federation. These two died for it, but there are fates worse than death. Remember that.”
Clayton gritted his teeth and balled his fists, but Samara pulled him back into line.
No one else gave the Chimeras any trouble on the way out. The lines snaked smoothly through the ship, down the ramps to Level One, and then down the boarding ramp to a welcome party of at least twenty more Chimeran soldiers. They took over from the ones on board.
“It’s time for processing!” the leader said, his voice booming across the massive landing platform, amplified by unseen means. “You will do exactly as I say, and we will get through this without any casualties! Nod if you understand!”
“Good! Make a line and follow me! Single file!”
People trailed after the Chimera, and the others fanned out, keeping wary eyes on the group. A warm breeze whipped across the rooftop, but it did nothing to warm the ice in Clayton’s heart.
He looked up at the cloudy sky and saw a massive shadow cruising slowly through those clouds. The nose of it poked through a few seconds later. It was another Kyra destroyer, just like Keera’s flagship. Maybe the very same.
She’d lulled him into a false sense of security, blinded him with joy by bringing Samara back.
“Clay... we have to move,” she whispered.
He took a deep breath to steady himself and brought his eyes down to the Chimera who’d spoken. Demonic eyes glared back and its rifle tracked slowly up. Clayton pasted a smile on his face, and started after the long, trudging line of people busy walking across the landing platform.
“What’s a Dakka?” Clayton asked as he walked by the Chimera who was still aiming its rifle at him.
A flash of sharp teeth appeared, black lips curving into a smile. “It’s a small two-legged creature on Kyros. It lives in the sewers.”
“Sewer rat,” Clayton clarified. “Not so bad, then.”
The alien hybrid hissed, its rifle tracking him as he walked by, but it didn’t shoot.
“You need to be more careful,” Samara whispered sharply to him once they were out of earshot.
He nodded agreeably, but in the privacy of his head, he vowed that if there were any way to resist the Kyra, he would.
The war and the invasion might be over, but the rebellion had just begun.
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OTHER BOOKS BY JASPER SCOTT
Suggested reading order
(Coming February 2020)
No sequels, no cliffhangers
New Frontiers Series (Loosely-tied, Standalone Prequels to Dark Space)
Dark Space Series
Dark Space Universe Series (Standalone Follow-up Trilogy to Dark Space)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jasper Scott is a USA Today best-selling author of more than 20 sci-fi novels. With over a million books sold, Jasper's work has been translated into various languages and published around the world.
Jasper writes fast-paced stories with unexpected twists and flawed characters. He was born and raised in Canada by South African parents, with a British cultural heritage on his mother's side and German on his father's, to which he has added Latin culture with his wonderful wife. He now lives in an exotic locale with his wife, their two kids, and two Chihuahuas.