Passing In The Night – Part Three

Passing In The Night is the prelude to my new novel, The Pericles Conspiracy.  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 Three

Standard procedure in the event of a general emergency was to muster the crew in the command center.  By the time Carlton, Alison, and the Captain arrived, everyone else had gathered, the night shift looking mussed and bleary-eyed.

The Captain strode to the front of the small crowd with a brisk, business-like pace.  Turning to face them, she placed her hands on her hips and spoke in a commanding tone.

“All right, people.  We’ve got a situation.  Carl, the video please.”

Carlton stepped up to the main display screen’s control workstation and tapped in a command.

The recording began playing on the screen, to a collective gasp from the crew.  Their expressions ranged from awe to excitement to curiosity to fear as the Captain related the events leading up to Carlton sounding the General Alarm.

Malcolm, the Shift Engineer, spoke up in the silence that marked the conclusion of her briefing.

“How do we know it’s a lifepod, and not a weapon of some kind?”

The Captain answered, “We don’t.  But it wouldn’t make any sense to attack us, would it?”

“Fair enough.  How long until it gets here?”

The Captain looked at Carlton, and he answered.

“It stopped accelerating and is running at .98c.  It’s 3.5 AU astern, so we have about fifteen and a half hours.”

The Captain spoke again.

“We are obligated to render assistance, now that it is possible to do so without stranding ourselves.  In the next fifteen hours, we need to figure out how we’re going to do that, and then get it done.”

There were protests, of course.  Several of the crew wanted nothing to do with rescuing unknown aliens who may or may not have as their intention the slaughter of every human aboard so they could claim Pericles as their own.  Only the inevitability of being overtaken whether they liked it or not got everyone onboard with the notion.

They set to work.

It was an easy decision to not bring the aliens aboard in section four, if only to keep them as far from the children as possible.

Section 2 contained hydroponics and consumables storage.  There, it would be relatively easy, if time-consuming, for Malcolm and his techs to redirect some of the ventilation to raise the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in a few compartments near the section 2 airlock, so the aliens would have a better chance at adjusting to the atmosphere.  It would mean less carbon dioxide going to feed the crops, but in general they received more than they really needed, so it was a relatively safe move.

What to do with the aliens for the duration of the flight was another matter.  Alison was hard-pressed to give an opinion as to whether the cryo-suspension units would be usable.  They were designed to sustain humans, after all.  With no idea as to the aliens’ metabolism, there was no telling what the units would do to them.  All the same, she was able to modify a few unused units to supply gasses in closer proximity to the concentrations observed from the alien vessel.

That just left figuring out how to ask them to be guinea pigs.  With all due respect to his wife and the Captain, Carlton wasn’t about to place odds on their chances of accomplishing that.

The final question was how to get the aliens aboard.  Carlton and Sven, his night-shift colleague, had that task.  They brainstormed several ideas, but were unable to come up with a viable solution until Rachel, the teacher, reminded them of the mooring lights.

Pericles, like every starliner, had a number of moveable, high-powered spotlights mounted in various places on the hull.  Their purpose was to aid in mooring, but the crews also put them to good use for other tasks.  They were ready made to point the aliens where to go.

Early in the planning process, the Captain ruled out the airlocks in the crew’s acceleration quarters or in the shuttle bay – Pericles had one short-range shuttle for commuting back and forth to space stations without full mooring facilities, stored in the same bay where the replacement nav beacons were housed.  Getting the aliens from there to a suitable living area would be complex, and the crew would be in a less than optimal defensive posture, should things turn hostile.

That left the rings.  Both were equipped with four airlocks, one in each section.  Ring A’s faced forward, Ring B’s faced aft.  The logical choice was the airlock to section 2, Ring A.

Preparations took most of the time available, but the key players managed to swap a few hours of sleep before the rendezvous.  With a half hour to go, the welcoming committee met in the command center.

The Captain, of course, would take the lead.  Sven had relieved Carlton as pilot on duty, so Carlton had the job as the Captain’s second.  Alison would provide medical assistance, if needed.  Malcolm insisted on coming along, with Bryce, Stephanie, and James, one of the horticulturists, in case things got ugly.

Carlton was surprised when the Captain agreed to that, and even more surprised when she ordered the small arms locker opened.

All starliners had a small cache of weapons onboard.  Nothing special: a dozen slugthrowers and a few plasma rifles.  Just enough for basic defense.  The odds of ever needing to use them were very small, but there were a number of circumstances that might require it.

Carlton always viewed the weapons the same as a condom: better to have one and not need it, than to need one and not have it.  All the same, except to conduct periodic inventories, he had never seen the small arms locker opened.

Carlton gave the Captain a wry grin as he strapped on a slugthrower.  “Don’t do anything provocative, right Cap’n?”

She sniffed.  “Nothing in the procedure about committing suicide.”  Pulling the straps on her own holster tight, she straightened and looked over the other members of the team.  “Everybody ready?”

They all nodded, doing their best to look calm.  Bryce wasn’t doing so well at acting, Carlton noticed.  He licked his lips and adjusted his grip on his plasma rifle every few seconds, and his eyes darted around.  He bore watching.

It took a few minutes to get to section 2.  Fortunately, each ring had an intra-ring transit system: a small railcar that allowed swift transport between the various sections.  Without the rail, it would have been a long walk.  Nevertheless, by the time they arrived at the airlock, there were only about ten minutes until the lifepod caught up with Pericles.

The airlock was a standard inner and outer door design.  To the right of the inner door was a walk-in storage area containing spacesuits and emergency breathing equipment.  On the other side, a display screen and control workstation was installed in the wall.  Malcolm and Stephanie retrieved breathing equipment from the storage area while the Captain activated the workstation’s intercom.

“All set at the airlock.  How are our visitors?”

Sven answered promptly, from the command center.

“Five million kilometers astern and closing, Captain.  Ready to secure ring rotation at your command.”

“Is Janet ready?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Right.  Standby.”

The Captain turned away from the console.  She took a moment to don a breathing mask and tank, but didn’t seal the mask, instead letting it hang loose around her neck.

Her poise impressed Carlton.  He was about ready to jump out of his skin, anxious as he felt.  But the Captain was in total control.  He guessed that’s why she got the big bucks.

“I’ll order Janet to adjust atmospheres in this section after we’re sure there’s not going to be trouble.  Be at the ready, but don’t do anything to provoke them.”

With that, she turned back to the workstation and keyed the ship-wide intercom.

“This is the Captain.  We’re about ten minutes from contact.  Prepare for zero-G.”

Her voice still echoed down the corridor as she switched back to the command center.

“Sven, secure ring rotation.”

“Aye, Captain.”

A pause followed while he keyed the command.

“Stopping sequence initiated.  Band Brakes applied, thrusters firing.  Rings will be secured in eight minutes.”

“Very well.”

The Captain tapped a few commands on the workstation, and the display screen came to life in two-pane format.  The approaching lifepod appeared in one pane, and a high-level ship’s status display appeared in the other.  Already, the rings were beginning to slow perceptibly on the display.  Carlton could feel a small force pushing him toward the far bulkhead as the ring slowed.

The Band Brakes were huge.  Carlton had seen one of them removed from the ship’s hub during the last maintenance upkeep.  Even though he knew intellectually how large it had to be to slow the millions of kilograms of mass contained in each ring, he was nonetheless stunned when he saw it for himself.  But large and powerful as they were, the Band Brakes were nowhere near enough to stop the rings all by themselves in any reasonable period of time, just as the Spinning Motors were not powerful enough to get the rings moving by themselves.  So the starliners used thrusters, aligned to impart force in-line with or opposed to the rings’ direction of rotation, to assist.

Over the next several minutes, the deceleration force remained small, but detectable.  It wasn’t enough to move an adult standing still, but if you were walking, you might find yourself turned without realizing it.  Low mass loose objects and children tended to get pushed though, so procedure required checking all inhabited compartments for stowage and strapping the children in before starting or stopping the rings.  More noticeable, the centripetal acceleration from the rings’ movement lowered, making everything feel lighter.

Then there was no weight at all.  The most minuscule movement pushed Carlton off the floor, and once more he found himself floating in zero-G.  His favorite.

Sven’s voice piped up over the intercom.

“Ring rotation secured, Captain.  Zero-G in all compartments.”

“Very well, Sven.  Proceed as briefed.  Let me know if anything unexpected occurs.”

“Aye.”

There was nothing to do but wait.

On the display screen, the range to the lifepod ticked down quickly, and its bearing rate began to increase.  It looked like the aliens would pass down Pericles’ port side.  As the range lowered to ten thousand kilometers, the lifepod’s forward velocity began lowering rapidly.

Interestingly, the blue-purple glow still appeared from that one location, near the far side of the craft.  Carlton had presumed that glow was a thruster of some sort before.  But if that were the case, it wouldn’t be slowing them now, would it?  It was puzzling.

The Captain shifted the other pane from ship’s status to one of the hull monitoring cameras.  Mounted astern the bridge, facing aft and upward, it provided a good view of the now-motionless rings and the section 2 airlock, stopped at the 2:30 position.

When the lifepod closed within a hundred kilometers, as briefed earlier, Sven shut off Pericles’ hull illumination lights.  Only the collision avoidance strobes, set at intervals around the rings, and the running lights at the bow and stern remained lit.  In the hull monitoring camera, Pericles became a dim object, barely discernible from the interstellar darkness beyond.  Then when the lifepod closed to 20 kilometers, Sven turned on four of the powerful spotlights.  Two illuminated the lifepod itself, and two illuminated the section 2 airlock outer door.

On the display, the lifepod image completely filled the aft upper camera’s field of view, so the Captain shifted to a hull monitoring camera and tracked it in.  Much harder to see without the large magnification, it took a couple minutes to find the lifepod as it stopped its relative motion amidships, about five kilometers to port.  There it stayed for what seemed an eternity.

In reality, that eternity was just a few minutes.  Carlton could imagine the conversation going on aboard the lifepod.  “What do they intend?”  “Should we go aboard or take our chances in the void?”  “Foolish earthlings, don’t they know we mean to kill them all and take their women?”

Well, on second thought the alien creatures would probably have no interest whatsoever in human women.  But he couldn’t rule out hostile intent in his mind, however dire the aliens’ circumstances.  He found himself reflexively fingering his slugthrower, and thinking maybe Bryce wasn’t so far out of line in his jumpiness.

The lifepod turned and began to close Pericles.  It quickly closed the kilometers from its holding position and took up position in front of the airlock.

The Captain shifted the camera view to one located not far from the airlock.  From that angle, they could see the lifepod rotate in space until one of those circular markings Carlton saw earlier faced the airlock door.  The lifepod began moving, ever so slowly, toward the airlock outer door, and everyone took a reflexive step backward.

Except the Captain.  She remained at the workstation.  As the lifepod drew near, she entered a command, and Carlton could see, through the windows on the inner door, the airlock outer door slide open.  He swallowed, trying to loosen the lump in his throat.  Glancing around, it looked as though his fellows were doing the same.

A tube extended from the lifepod.

A docking device, no doubt.  But it was like no device Carlton had seen, because the end of the tube, where the sealing surface was, morphed in shape as it approached the airlock, until it exactly matched the mating surface on the outer airlock doorframe.

Carlton’s jaw dropped as the lifepod made contact and the contact lights on the airlock status display illuminated.  How did they do that?

He glanced at Malcolm, and saw he wasn’t the only one surprised by this.  It wasn’t often that Malcolm was impressed, but he wore an awed expression on his face.

The Captain pressed a button on the workstation, and the display shifted to a camera inside the airlock.  Carlton heard the hissing sound of rushing air, and the airlock interior pressure indication rose until it reached normal atmospheric, then held steady.  One minute later, the pressure hadn’t dropped.  It was a good seal.

“Sven, positive seal on the airlock.  Commence ring rotation.”

Sven sounded more than a little on-edge when he responded.

“Aye, Captain.  Spin sequence activated.  Thrusters firing, Spinning Motors online.”

Sven’s voice came over the ship-wide intercom, announcing the imminent return of Gs.  Then a moment later, ever so slowly, the ring started to move.  The mating tunnel flexed a bit, but the seal held, and the lifepod began moving with the ring.  The welcoming committee spread out as the closest bulkhead moved toward them.  One by one, the team members struck it and pushed themselves down to the deck.

Carlton always found this part amusing.  Every so often, a newbie wouldn’t watch himself when rotation started, and would end up getting tangled up with other people.  This group was all seasoned, though, so the transition from zero-G to steadily building centripetal acceleration was smooth.

They re-arranged themselves in a semicircle around the airlock inner door, with the Captain a pace ahead of the others.  For a few minutes, nothing happened.  The gravity slowly built, until they were at about two-thirds earth normal.

Then, on the display, Carlton saw the outer door on the lifepod slide open.  This was it.

Four figures emerged from the lifepod.  Dressed in loose-fitting grey garments that were not dissimilar to those the humans wore, the aliens were bipedal, as Alison predicted, but they had short tails.  They walked barefoot, with a hunch, in quick, fluid steps.

Their gait changed abruptly as they passed from the mating tunnel into the airlock.  A step that in the tunnel had barely made their heads bob caused their entire bodies to lift a centimeter or two off the deck.

“Artificial gravity,” Malcolm said, echoing Carlton’s thoughts.  “How do they manage that without spinning, I wonder?”

The quartet paused in the airlock, and the humans got a better look at them on the display.

They were smaller than an average human, but appeared powerfully built.  They wore breathing masks, but their facial features were clearly visible.  They looked almost feline, with peaked ears atop their heads and elongated snouts.  But they were hairless.  Their skin was a yellow-orange color, with streaks of green, and it shimmered somewhat as they moved.  It took Carlton a minute to figure out the reason: their skin was scaled.  Their hands were three-fingered, with opposable thumbs – another point in Alison’s favor.  Their fingers ended in small points, rather than in pads.

The alien in front removed an instrument of some kind from a pouch on its belt.  After studying the instrument for a moment, the alien made a gesture and said something.  As it spoke, it revealed razor-sharp teeth and a green, flicking tongue.

All that was fine and dandy, but Carlton zeroed in on one last detail more than the others: they all had what looked like the hilt of a sword sticking up over their right shoulders, and what could only be holsters on their hips.

“Be ready,” said the Captain, and she unsnapped the holster on her slugthrower.  She noticed the weapons too.

From the corner of his eye, Carlton saw Bryce and Stephanie raise their plasma rifles to their shoulders.  They all looked tense.  Bryce was sweating up a storm.

The lead alien knocked on the inner door with the instrument it had just used.  The sound traveled easily to Carlton’s ears.  For some reason, it seemed ominous.

“Alison, are you filming?”

Alison had refused the thought of carrying a weapon.  She was a doctor, not an undertaker.  Instead, she brought along a video recording device.  Sven was making recordings of every external and internal camera feed, but few of them had audio, and they didn’t cover every area that might be needed, so her recording was going to be the most vital.

“Yes.”

“Alright.  Malcolm, open the door.”

Malcolm stood closest to the control station.  He nodded and hit the inner door control switch.

The door opened.  There was a slight hiss, and a small breeze, as the pressures between the two spaces equalized.  The aliens stepped, one by one, into the room.  They looked over the group of humans slowly, then the leader took a step toward the Captain.

“Oh Jesus,” Bryce murmured, drawing Carlton’s gaze.  The guy was shaking badly.  Malcolm, the closest to him, looked at Bryce with concern.

Either the Captain didn’t hear or it didn’t register.  She managed a smile and said, “Welcome aboard.”

The lead alien cocked it’s head to the side.  It studied the Captain for a moment after she spoke, then said something that sounded a mix between a hiss and a bark.  The leftmost alien reached for its holster.

Bryce shouted, “OH JESUS!” and fired his plasma rifle.

Everything seemed to happen at once.

This is the end of Part Three.  Part Four 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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