Passing In The Night – Part Four

This is the final chapter of Passing In The Night, the prelude to my new novel, The Pericles Conspiracy.  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 Four

The Captain screamed, “NO!”

The ball of superheated gas from Bryce’s rifle struck the alien in the shoulder, sending it smashing into the bulkhead.  It slumped to the ground, clutching at its wound.

The alien’s neighbor bounded over to it and crouched down, to render assistance, no doubt.

The leader and the remaining alien turned to see their stricken comrade, for a heartbeat apparently as stunned as Carlton was.

Then they roared, their lips drawing back to reveal their teeth.  Turning back to the humans, they seemed to coil as they dropped into low stances and advanced.

Malcolm tackled Bryce, bearing him to the floor and pinning him there.  Bryce’s rifle went skidding away out of his reach.

Stephanie stood there, a shocked expression on her face.

James fumbled at the snap on his holster.

Carlton found himself doing the same.  Why wouldn’t the cussed thing unsnap?

“NO!” shouted the Captain again.  She jumped in front of the advancing creatures, her hands, empty, raised with palms facing them.  “Stop!”

The lead alien grabbed the Captain by the throat and, with one hand, lifted her about twenty centimeters off the deck.  It pulled its free hand back as though to punch, but Carlton saw what looked like razor-sharp claws unfolding from the points at the tips of its fingertips.

He got his holster unsnapped and drew his slugthrower.  From the corner of his eye, he saw Stephanie sighting in on the leader.

“Don’t shoot,” the Captain managed to say, her voice sounding strangled.

She waved frantically at them with both hands, forceful downward gestures commanding them to lower their weapons.

Very reluctantly, Carlton complied, and he saw Stephanie do the same.  James hadn’t gotten his slugthrower out yet.

Malcolm pressed his forearm into the back of Bryce’s neck and his knee into Bryce’s kidney, drawing exclamations of pain from him.

The alien leader hissed, and its fellow stopped advancing.

The leader looked at the Captain for a long moment, then at Bryce and Malcolm, then at the others.  Then, ever so slowly, it lowered the Captain to the ground.

With a bark, it released her and stepped back.  The other alien stepped back as well, but its hand found the sword hilt, or whatever the thing was over its shoulder.  The alien looked very ready to use it.

The Captain slumped backward, her hand going to her throat.  She coughed heavily.  Carlton moved forward to support her, but she brushed him aside.

“Alison,” the Captain said, her voice still a bit strangled.  “Help them.”

Nodding, Alison passed the video recorder off to James, and, hefting her medical bag, moved toward the aliens.

She hadn’t gone more than two steps before the alien with the sword stepped forward again, growling with menace.  She swallowed and opened her bag.  Withdrawing a roll of gauze, she held it up for the aliens to see.

The leader made another hiss-bark, in a different tone than the first, and the creature that was tending to their wounded comrade responded in kind.

The medic stood and helped its fellow to its feet.  The wounded alien’s shoulder was bound with narrow black bands of some material Carlton didn’t recognize.  It looked like they had first aid under control.

Alison nodded in understanding and backed up, replacing the gauze into her bag.

The leader made another bark, this time with a long, drawn-out hiss at the end.  The alien medic led its wounded fellow through the airlock door.  The patient gave the humans a look that, had a human made it, promised extreme violence.  But it allowed itself to be led out without further incident.

When they left, the leader touched a button on the breast of its uniform.  A soft beep sounded, and the leader began speaking, a quick succession of hisses, barks, growls, and whistles.  A similar stream of alien words emanated from the button, clearly a communication device of some kind, in response.  The leader bobbed its head and waited.

On the camera display, Carlton saw the lifepod’s airlock door open again.  Two new aliens stepped into the mating tunnel, pushing a large machine of some sort ahead of them.

The machine hovered in the air.  Despite its obvious bulk, it appeared easy to maneuver down the tunnel and into Pericles’ airlock.  That hovering bit was a neat trick.

The leader moved aside as the new pair pushed the machine through the inner door and into the center of the room.  The machine hovered half a meter above the floor, and was about two and a half meters long, a meter wide, and a meter and a half tall.  Constructed of black metal, with a transparent hinged lid on top, it had a number of what looked like controls on one end.  The lid was frosted over, making it difficult to see inside.

After they finished positioning the machine, the two new aliens turned and went back to the lifepod.

The leader stepped up to the machine and ran a hand over the lid.  It was almost a caress.

The strangely tender moment ended quickly.  The leader straightened and turned to the Captain.  It made another sound, a cross between a hiss and a growl, and gestured for her to approach.

The Captain nodded and, swallowing, stepped forward.  Carlton noticed she was being very careful to keep her hands empty and plainly in view.  That didn’t seem such a bad policy, considering.

The leader moved over to the machine’s control panel and gestured again for the Captain to follow.  When she reached its side, it pointed to a button on the panel and looked back at her.  She nodded, and the leader touched the button.  A low-frequency tone sounded, and the machine slowly lowered to the floor.  The leader pressed the button again, and a higher frequency tone sounded.  The machine rose from the floor and after a moment was hovering once more.

The leader lowered the machine back to the floor then moved to the next button.  But before pushing it, the leader made a chopping motion with its free hand and issued another bark-hiss phrase.  From the way it sounded out the words, whatever they were, Carlton surmised whatever the leader said was very important.

The leader pressed the second button, and the lid cracked open.  Clouds of steam poured through the crack.  Carlton checked himself.  That wasn’t steam; it sank to the floor after it escaped the machine.  It reminded him of melting dry ice.

The leader pushed the lid fully open and reached inside the machine.  It withdrew an oval object, a bit larger than a baseball.  It was green, streaked with yellow.  It had a wrinkled, leathery texture, but appeared firm in the alien’s grasp.

The leader turned back to the Captain and looked at her.  Cradling the object in its arm, the leader gently pet it.  Then, looking the Captain in the eyes, the leader pressed its free hand to its belly, then to the object.

“An egg,” Alison said softly.

Stephanie gasped, and the Captain’s eyes widened as the truth of Alison’s analysis hit home.

The leader, apparently satisfied at their reactions, replaced the egg in the machine and pressed the second button.  The lid shut with a solid click, and almost immediately frosted over again.

Turning back to the Captain, the leader then withdrew a rectangular black object from behind its belt.  The object was about eight centimeters long, two and a half wide, and one centimeter deep.  There were three raised red areas on it.  The leader pointed to the first red area, and touched it.

In the space above the object, a three dimensional image appeared.  The image was clearly holographic, an impressive enough feat that for a moment it distracted Carlton from what he was actually looking at: a star chart.  In the lower portion of the image, a flashing green dot was visible, as well as a curved yellow line leading from the dot to a small star.  Carlton knew his star charts well enough to recognize the green dot as their current location, and the small star as Sol.  The aliens must have plotted out Pericles’ course to determine their destination.  It wouldn’t be that hard to do.

The leader moved its finger into the image of Sol, and a new line, this one blue, appeared, leading from Sol across the chart to another, larger, star system.  From what Carlton could tell of the scale, the second system was at least two hundred light years from Sol, well outside the area mankind had explored.  The leader pointed at the Captain, then laid its hand on the machine.  Finally, it pointed to the star system at the end of the blue line.

That couldn’t mean what Carlton thought it meant, could it?

The Captain seemed to be having similar thoughts.

“Sir, we can’t…”

The leader cut her off with a mixture growl and whistle.  Then, again, it pointed from her to the machine to the star.

The Captain sighed and nodded.

The leader growled quickly, then pressed the second red area on the object.

The star chart disappeared, replaced by an image of the leader.  It began speaking, more of the same grunts, growls, barks, and the rest.  The speech cut off as the leader pressed the first red area again, and the star chart re-appaeared.  It pointed at the second red area, then at the star at the end of the blue line.

The Captain nodded again, and the leader pressed the final red area.

One dot appeared, with a strange symbol next to it.  A second later, that was replaced by two dots, with a different symbol.  Then three, then four, all the way up to eight.  Then different combinations of the symbols appeared, along with others.  The image continued on like that for a minute or so, and then shifted to become a continuous sequence of symbols, probably a hundred fifty characters across and a hundred lines in length.  The leader whistled, and waved its hand above the red area.  The image shifted to another sequence, different from the first.  Then, with another wave, yet another sequence appeared.  What the hell was that supposed to be?

The Captain looked baffled also, but Malcolm’s eyebrows had risen high onto his forehead.  He wore an expression of awe.  Catching Carlton’s gaze, he spoke softly.

“It’s their mathematics.”

Carlton frowned.  Why was that so impressive?  Then it hit him.  With knowledge of the aliens’ mathematics, humans could translate scientific formulas, or technical specifications.  Carlton would bet good money that’s what those final pages of symbols were.

The leader pressed the third red area again, and the image disappeared.  It pointed at the red area, then pointed at the Captain and the rest of the team in turn, even Bryce.  Finally, with a low growl, followed by a bark, it held the rectangular object out toward the Captain.

Slowly, gingerly, she reached out and took it.

The leader made a hiss-bark similar to one it made earlier, and its companion backed away into the airlock.  When it had gone, the leader made a strangely intricate gesture with its hands, ending with an inclination of its head toward the Captain.  Then, it turned and strode out of the room, into the airlock.

“Where’s he going?” Carlton asked.

The entire welcoming committee moved to the inner airlock door, all save Bryce, who remained lying on the floor, despite Malcolm releasing him from the submission hold.

The alien leader didn’t look back, but walked straight into the lifepod’s airlock.  The door shut quickly behind it.

They all looked at each other in confusion, and no small amount of shock.  Then lights began flashing in the mating tunnel, and a oscillating siren sounded.  Malcolm’s eyes widened, and he quickly moved to the airlock control console.  He hit a button, and the outer airlock doors slid shut.

No sooner had they done so than the mating tunnel detached.  Through the small window in the outer airlock doors, they saw the tunnel begin to retract, then it and the lifepod disappeared, leaving nothing visible but the slowly rotating starfield.

The Captain rushed to the workstation and called up the external camera view.  Nothing.  She hit the intercom to the command center.

“Sven!  Where did it go?”

Sven, sounding nearly breathless, responded promptly.

“Just off the starboard side, Captain, moving away at about seventy meters per second.  Wait.  Velocity is increasing rapidly.  Gained visual on the number 6 hull monitoring camera.”

“Right.”  She called up that camera, and they all saw the lifepod moving quickly away.  Very soon it was too far away to make out without additional magnification, and she shifted to the forward upper camera, which Sven directed to track the lifepod.

Malcolm hit the control for the inner door, and it slid shut.  Then he spoke.

“It makes sense, Captain.  They would have continued on in the same direction as the velocity vector they had the instant before they detached.  On the first deck, the rings rotate at about seventy meters per second, so…”

The Captain interrupted him.

“I understand physics, Malcolm.  Why the hell did they leave?”

Bryce, still lying there with his face pressed to the floor, sobbed.

“I’m sorry, Captain.  I was so scared.  I thought it was pulling a gun.”

The Captain gave him a withering look.  Good thing for him he couldn’t see it, or he’d either turn to stone or burst into flame.  Then her expression softened.  Carlton was surprised by that, but not by her reply.

“It’s alright, Bryce.  We were all scared.  I shouldn’t have put you in that position.”

Bryce looked up, a grateful expression on his face.  Then, wiping his nose, he sat up.  Probably he didn’t get the deeper meaning to her statement.  Carlton was sure Bryce would never see high-stress tasking again.  He did not know it, but his career just came to a standstill, at least on this ship.

Carlton cleared his throat.

“Am I crazy, or did they just ask us to…”

He stopped speaking as a bright flash on the display drew his, and everyone else’s, attention.  His eyes went wide as he realized what he was seeing.  Where the lifepod used to be, there was only an expanding cloud of hot gasses and shrapnel.

The Captain hit the intercom again.

“Sven!  How far was it when it blew?”

“Five hundred kilometers, Captain.  I’m tracking the largest fragments.  They should pass well clear of us.”

The Captain let out a breath, her expression one of relief.

“Very well.”

She switched to the ship-wide intercom.

“Attention, this is the Captain.  Our visitors have departed.  Resume normal watch routine.  That is all.”

With that, she turned back to the group.  Nodding to Carlton, she spoke again.

“Yes, Carl, they did.  They want us to deliver their eggs to their homeworld.”

From her tone of voice, she was just as confused as he felt.  Malcolm spoke up.

“Probably that reading they took in the airlock is what did it, Captain.”  He held up a hand to forestall a retort.  “They got data on our atmosphere as soon as they entered the tunnel.  When they got to the airlock, they also got data on our gravitation.  They probably realized they couldn’t survive on our ship for long, and went with plan B.  The eggs are on ice.  Don’t need the same resources they do.  So at least they have a chance to preserve something of themselves.  Assuming we keep our end of the deal.”

“Why should we?” James asked.  “We’ve got enough to worry about.”

“They paid us, for one thing,” Malcolm retorted.

“And it’s the right thing to do,” the Captain added.  She looked at the alien machine, with its precious cargo, and sighed.  “Let’s get this thing stowed.  Malcolm, figure out what kind of power it needs and rig up something to provide it.”

Malcolm looked askance at her and opened his mouth to reply, but stopped after a second and nodded, saying nothing.

The Captain traced her fingers along the length of the artifact and pursed her lips.  “Carl, we’re going to have one hell of a message to send.  Get a draft ready for review by the end of this watch.  For the rest of you,”  she looked at each crewmember in turn, “as far as anyone off this ship knows, this never happened.  No talking about it except for what is necessary for shift turnover.”

“You’re not really thinking of changing course?”  James sounded incredulous, but also afraid.

The Captain shook her head, shooting him a withering look.  “Of course not.  We don’t have the fuel for that sort of adjustment.  And besides, we’ve got passengers and cargo who need to get to Earth.  When we get there, we’ll turn this thing over to the authorities, and they will see it sent home.”

“So much for the boring center passage,” Carlton said, trying to insert a bit of humor.

The Captain looked at him, but her expression was one of resignation.  She shook her head and sighed again. “Space travel sucks sometimes, doesn’t it?”

First Contact is complete, but the story is far from over.  The adventure continues in The Pericles Conspiracy, a science fiction thriller from Michael Kingswood and SSN Storytelling.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Josephine Ishikawa changed the course of history, but no one knows it.

She cannot talk about what happened during her last shift as Captain of the starliner Pericles, nor does she care to.  She passed the ball to the authorities, like procedure required, and now has her sights set on getting Pericles through a major maintenance overhaul and back out to the stars.

Until she learns of a betrayal so large it defies belief, leaving Jo to decide between the life she loves and her duty to the beings she brought back from outer space.  Her decision will affect not just her future, but possibly the futures of everyone on Earth and the other colonized worlds.

The Pericles Conspiracy is available in print and ebook formats at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords.

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