Passing In The Night – Part Two

Passing In The Night is the prelude to my new novel, The Pericles Conspiracy, which is set to release in ebook tomorrow, 24 August, and in paperback early next week.  As part of the celebration of Pericles’ launch, I am posting Passing In The Night here in its entirety over the next several blog posts.  You can find Passing In The Night on AmazonNookKoboAppleSony, and Smashwords.  I hope you enjoy it.

Passing In The Night Cover (Revised)

Passing In The Night

Part Two

For the next forty-five minutes, Carlton watched the strange ship draw nearer.

As it grew in the display, he made out more details.  Strange markings, letters of some kind he thought, but in no language he had ever seen, decorated the hull in a number of places.  The hull was breached.  Twin cuts, perfectly parallel and framed with dark scorch marks, tore across the vessel’s port side.  Gasses of some variety or other vented to space through the cuts, slowly increasing the ship’s rate of rotation.  Whatever happened to that ship, it had occurred recently.

True to her word, the Captain returned to the bridge.  As she floated up to the pilot’s console, Carlton noticed she had a spiral-bound stack of paper tucked under her arm.  Paper!  Carlton hadn’t seen a paper document since…well, come to think of it, he had never seen a paper document.  He had heard of people who kept paper books in libraries, collectors and the like.  But he did not have that kind of money.  Nor did anyone he knew.

“Any change, Carl?”

“Nope.  But take a look at this.”

Carlton tapped the screen, pausing the image as the twin cuts on the vessel’s hull rotated into view.

“Those look like plasma burns to me.”

The Captain pursed her lips, nodding in agreement.  She leaned forward a bit, peering intently at the image on the screen.  As she did, the papers under her arm shifted a bit, and Carlton saw “TOP SECRET: CAPTAIN’S EYES ONLY” written at the top of the title page.

“What’s so secret, Cap’n?”

She pulled back, covering the pages up with her free hand for a heartbeat.  Then, seeing the knowing look in Carlton’s eyes, she sighed and withdrew the papers from under her arm.

“These are procedures to follow in the event a starliner should encounter evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life.”

Carlton’s eyebrow twitched upward, but before he could say a word, the Captain wagged a finger at him.

“You never saw these papers, Carl.  Understand?  It’s both our asses, otherwise.”

“Come on, Cap’n.  What’re they gonna…”

She leaned forward, a fierce light in her eyes.

“I’m not screwing around, Carl.  We could both disappear if we mess this up.”

She tapped a finger on the bottom of the title page, drawing Carl’s eye.  His protests died on his lips when he saw the name there.  Though officially denied, it was common knowledge that the NSA did just that with inconvenient people.  He swallowed, despite the fact that his mouth had just gone dry.

“Alright, so what are we supposed to do?”

“Keep an accurate record of the entire event.  Take no provocative actions.  Send reports to the government.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Huh?”

“That’s all stuff we were going to do anyway.”

“Well…yeah.”

Carlton threw up his hands.

“What the hell’s so Top Secret about that?”

The Captain smirked.  “Clearly you’ve never seen classified documents before.  The fact that it deals with ETs is what makes it Top Secret.”  She leaned forward, eyes narrowing as she examined the tumbling ship.  “Can you zoom in any further, make this more clear?”  She pointed at a single blister-like bubble on the dorsal area of the ship.

Carlton nodded.  He tapped on the image, freezing it in place as the bubble rotated into view again.  Then with a two-fingered spreading gesture, he activated the display’s zoom feature.  The image took a few seconds to stabilize.  When it resolved, the bubble was more clearly visible.  A lone light shone from the bubble, dimly illuminating the forward area of the hull.

“Son of a bitch.  It still has power.”

“That changes things,” said the Captain as she turned toward the communication console.  She tapped the console, rousing it from standby, then flipped open her procedure to a page near the back.  She frowned, tapping at her lips with her index finger, as she read.

“What are you doing?”

She began tapping on the console, and a screen Carlton had never seen before opened up.

“There are generic communication protocols programmed in the comms system.  Peace, friendship, that sort of thing.  Procedure states we try to make contact, if possible.”

A loud snort was Carlton’s initial reply.

“You can’t be serious.  We don’t know what frequencies they use, and…”

The Captain interrupted.

“So we use every frequency we can transmit on.”

“Fine, but you can’t really think they’ll understand, even if they receive it.”

The Captain opened her mouth to reply, but he kept on talking.

“And even if they did, it’s pointless anyway.  We can’t exactly do anything to help them.”

That much was certain.  Pericles carried enough fuel for the initial acceleration, deceleration at the destination star system, and intra-system maneuvering.  They could stop to render assistance to the other craft, but doing so would strand them in the interstellar void, making the gesture worse than useless.  The Captain knew this as well as he did.

“Understood.  Regardless, we’re going to follow procedure.”

With that, she made one last tap on the communication console, and the antenna status indications lit up across all bands as Pericles began transmitting.

She and Carlton both turned their attention to the camera display.  They watched intently for any change in the other vessel.  Nothing was forthcoming.  The vessel continued tumbling, apparently out of control.

Carlton checked the time.  Ten minutes to CPA.  The vessel’s bearing rate had picked up considerably.  Tracking had shifted to the forward upper camera, but very soon it would be unable to maintain track.  The vessel was simply moving too fast, and was too close.  So he directed the aft upper camera toward the vessel’s expected departure bearing, in order to pick up visual tracking after it passed CPA.

Despite his misgivings about the transmission, Carlton felt disappointment at the lack of response.  Though mankind had been traveling the stars for centuries, and had discovered several dozen life-supporting worlds, the holy grail of meeting an intelligent, sentient alien race had eluded them.  There had never even been a hint that anyone else was out there.  After so long, most people gave up on the notion, accepting that humanity was alone, at least in this corner of Galaxy.  And now, suddenly, to be confronted with an apparent alien artifact…it was unbelievable.  Exciting.

And scary.

On the display screen, the strange vessel slipped off frame.

“Lost track due to CPA effect, Cap’n.”

“Very well.  How long to regain on the other side?”

Carlton tapped the display, and it shifted to a 3-D relative motion display with the vessel’s dead reckoning position plotted out in one minute increments.

“Estimated six minutes.”

The Captain moved herself closer to the port side viewing window and looked out and upward toward the other vessel’s position.  Of course it was too far away to see with the naked eye, but Carlton understood the need to look.

“Carl, how close will that thing pass to Gliese?”

That computation was more difficult, but it only took a minute or so.

“About half a parsec.  Hard to do a salvage at that distance, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“True, but it’s worth making the attempt.”

She turned away from the window and looked at Carlton, her expression one of wonder.

“Of all the ways to meet.  Do you have any idea what the odds are of just randomly bumping into them like this?”

He nodded.  To say the odds were astronomical would be an understatement.  And ironic.

“Guess we should buy lottery tickets when we get…”

An alert flashed on the screen.  He tapped the dialogue window and the display shifted to the aft upper camera.  Carlton was gratified to see the vessel centered in the frame.

“Ok, re-acquired visual track on the aft upper camera.  Gain bearing and time match predicted.”

The Captain moved back next to Carlton, the better to see the display.

“Is it just me, or did something change?”

Carlton frowned, shaking his head.

“Don’t think so.  We’re looking at a different angle…”

He stopped mid-sentence as suddenly something broke off from the vessel’s ventral section.  Apparently spherical, the object shot straight away from the vessel for a few seconds, then a purple-blue glow appeared on one side of the object, and it moved to the right until it disappeared off frame.

“What the hell was that?” exclaimed the Captain.

“No idea, Cap’n.  Tracking in the forward upper camera.”

Carlton split the camera display and directed the idle camera over.  It took several moments to gain the smaller object, but finally it appeared in frame.  Carlton zoomed in tight and pull out more details.

The object was indeed generally spherical.  From its angular size and the mother ship’s known range, the computer estimated the object’s size: 15 meters in diameter.  On the near side, he could see a number of protuberances that held what looked like antennas and other sensors.  The glow came from nozzles that were just barely visible on the far side of the object; obviously that was a propulsion system of some sort.  A few circular outlines, possibly hatches, graced the surface of the object, as did more of that strange script.

Carlton frowned.  “It almost looks like a lifepod.”

“Where’s it going?”  The Captain sounded worried.

For that matter, Carlton was beginning to get a case of nerves, too.  They were far away from anything and everything here.  There was no place for a lifepod to go…except to the Pericles.  But they were moving too fast for a lifepod to catch up.

Weren’t they?

Carlton punched up the tracking subroutine and made a few quick computations.  He blinked at the results.  That couldn’t be right.  But doing the computations again yielded the same answer.

He cleared his throat.  “Ah.  Cap’n, based on its change in bearing rate, that thing’s decelerating at over ten thousand Gs.  If it keeps on like this after it stops, it’ll match our forward velocity in just a few minutes.”

The Captain’s eyebrows climbed high on her forehead.

“How is that possible?  That much force would crush that craft and everyone on it!”

“No lie there, Cap’n, but I’ve run the numbers twice.”

“How long until it reaches us?”

Carlton spread his heads helplessly.  “Depends how fast it gets.  We’ve got a couple AUs head start.  A few hours, probably.”

“Son of a…”

A bright flash from the display screen drew their attention once more.  The feed from the aft upper camera was whited out for a second while the computer adjusted the camera’s gain.  When the frame cleared, all that could be seen of the mothership was a rapidly expanding cloud of fragments and heated gas.  The vessel had apparently exploded.

Carlton whistled appreciatively.

“Lucky for them they made it off when they did.”

“Unless they blew the ship up on purpose.”

“Right.  Why would they do that?”

The Captain rolled her eyes.  “Think about it, Carl.  They’re probably more advanced than we are.  That’s a big advantage.  They’re not going to want to just hand over their ship, with all its technology, for us, or someone else, to reverse engineer.”

It had been generations since mankind last warred with itself.  But still the memories of the intrigues between nation-states were vivid, kept alive in school as a lesson to the next generation about the foolishness of tribalism and the need to maintain ties between humanity’s colonies as close as possible, considering the distances to be traversed.  Some organizations, such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, kept the memories alive for entertainment purposes.  And of course, businesses still competed against one another, executing their intrigues, very real despite their non-violent nature, in an attempt to gain a competitive edge.  So Carl could understand the Captain’s logic.  It made perfect sense, when he stopped to think about it.

Carlton closed the aft upper camera display, and the lifepod, if that’s what it was, filled the entire screen.

“Won’t be able to keep this quiet when that thing comes knocking, Cap’n.”

“Don’t I know it.”  The Captain exhaled loudly.  “Ask Alison to come up, Carl.”

He blinked in surprise.

“Say again?”

“Your wife.  Have her come up here.  Now.”

She was back into her no-nonsense voice again.  Carlton keyed the intercom, and a moment later Alison answered.

“You’ve been up there a while.  Everything alright?”

“Yeah.  Can you come up?”

She didn’t answer for several seconds.  When she did, she sounded worried.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“Nothing.  Just come up please.”

The connection closed, and Carlton and the Captain floated in silence, watching the camera display.

Carlton used the time to compute the lifepod’s predicted course, and was not surprised to find it on an intercept trajectory.  By the time Alison arrived on the bridge, it had completely stopped its motion away from Pericles and was beginning to accelerate toward them.

“Alright, Carl, what’s going… What is THAT?”

Alison floated up next to him and the Captain, her jaw hanging open as she looked at the lifepod on the camera display.  The Captain answered in a matter-of-fact tone.

“ETs, coming to visit.”

Alison spluttered in shock.

“Carl, pull up the recording of the ship.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

Alison leaned closer to the display as the video from earlier came up on the screen.

“Holy shit,” she breathed.

“That’s what we thought,” replied the Captain.  “The main ship just detonated, and that lifepod is on intercept with us.  What can we expect from these creatures?”

“How would I know?”

The Captain rested her hands on her hips and gave Alison a stern look.

“You’re a doctor.  A scientist.  Make an educated guess.”

Alison frowned in thought for a moment, then shook her head.

“It’s hard to know where to start, with no data.  Most of the more highly intelligent creatures we’ve catalogued are bipedal.  They would almost certainly have opposable thumbs, if they are able to manufacture tools.  Aside from that, who knows?”

The venting gasses in the video recording clicked in Carlton’s mind.

“I may be able to help with that, hon.  Just a sec.”

He stilled the image again and selected the area around the gas cloud, then keyed the spectrographic analyzer.  Although the algorithm was optimized to analyze stellar composition and other natural phenomena, absorption and emission lines were the same everywhere.  Maybe it could tell them what the venting gasses were.

Sure enough, after the computer chewed on the data for a minute or so, the spectral analysis popped up in a dialogue window.

“Ok, let’s see.  Looks like Oxygen and Nitrogen, with a fair amount of Helium and Carbon Dioxide.”

“That could be engine fuel, or anything else, Carl.”

“True, Cap’n, but it’s better than nothing.  If this is right, looks like about 25% Oxygen, 60% Nitrogen, 5% CO2, 7% Helium, and the rest trace gasses.”

Alison looked at the numbers and pursed her lips.

“That CO2 concentration would be deadly for us to breathe.  No telling if they could adjust to our lower concentration or not.  Normal earth atmosphere would be like living at high altitude for them, but…”

“…we keep the O2 levels lower than normal to reduce the chance of fires,” Carlton finished for her.  “What effect would breathing 17.5% O2 have on them?”

“Probably the same as if we were to breathe 13%.  Hypoxia.”

“So Pericles is a deathtrap for them.”

“Yes, but they don’t know that,” interjected the Captain.  “Better to risk possible death than to accept it for certain.  Alright, Carl, I’m going to need all hands for this.  Sound Action Stations.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

He pressed the first of a quartet of buttons on the starboard side of the pilot’s station, and the pulsing tones of the ship’s General Alarm sounded.  Then the three of them made their way off the bridge.

This is the end of Part Two.  Part Three will follow within the next couple of days.  I hope you enjoyed part one.  You can find the rest of Passing In The Night on AmazonNookKoboAppleSony, and Smashwords.  The Pericles Conspiracy is now available in those same outlets as well.

Thanks for reading!

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