Fiction For Diversion: “Hope’s Journey”

A Sci-fi Novella

BY JERRY A. BOGGS

Suitable for readers age 14 and above

March 2010

After fleeing an imminent Earth killer and arriving on a planet 21 light-years away, they are stunned to find themselves facing another crisis. Then they stumble onto something even more shocking.

An alien world adventure

I

The thundering, brutal vibration whipped his weakened arms against something hard, again and again. Where the hell was he? Was he in a box speeding down the world’s worst road in the world’s loudest truck?

Thirty seconds passed before he gained the strength to keep his arms pinned to his sides. Had it not been for the restraints over his head, chest, and ankles, he would have been juddered senseless.

“Captain Jason Pearce.”

The metallic female voice jarred him. He heard it even above the fierce booming. It seemed to come from above and reverberated in all directions.

“Are you fully awake and comprehending, Captain?”

He realized he hadn’t opened – couldn’t open – his eyes. He worked his jaw, struggled to clear his throat.

“I… Y-yes ….I think…so.” His voice, sounding muffled, shook uncontrollably in the vibration. “I’m…Jason–?”

The memories crashed in. A shock wave of fear ripped through him. His body bucked against the restraints.

“Air is reestablished,” continued the voice. “Nutrients are supplied. Lighting up. Your preservation gel has been siphoned away. Your brain and heart are functioning normally. The Restoration Handbook states that everyone must remain on board for three hours to allow the ship’s oxygen to fully purge your body of the gel residue.”

He fought the angry vibration to bring a hand up to clear his eyelids of the film that smelled faintly of charcoal and which still thinly enveloped him from head to toe. He opened his eyes. In the dim red light, he saw his preservation cylinder’s translucent canopy less than ten inches from his nose and under which he lay naked.

He realized that the rattling, sounding now like a series of rapid explosions, had awakened the ship’s computer, which in turn had processed him from his preserved state — had “restored” him, as the scientists would’ve said — and begun speaking to him. So far, he thought, every-thing miraculously appeared to be operating as designed.

Most important, the preservation gel had kept him alive.

He’d been briefed on how the gel functioned but he had little more than a broad-brush memory of it. The gel contained a protectorant that, once the gel was driven deep into his body’s cells by his cylinder’s moderate pressurization, was supposed to suspend growth of all cells and preserve them intact until the gel was purged.

What he more vividly recalled was that the gel was experimental and had been rushed to a completion after being tested only a short time in monkeys and lemurs. Yet it had succeeded, preserving him for what his senses were telling him was a very long time. A mind-warping accomplishment, given that in those last weeks most of the scientists connected to Project Survival had fled to be with their loved ones, and those seeing the project through had been over-taxed and desperately hurried.

The final instruction concerning the gel had been given to Captain Pearce by the hefty, balding project manager, Victor Powell, as the man sat behind his computer-screen-littered desk:

“The Restoration Handbook will be provided, but you’ll have little need for it. Just direct your questions — about the gel and everything else — to the AI. It will handle the whole shebang. Your role is minimal, a backup if the AI fails.”

The AI, speaking to him now, was called DORIS, the acronym for Destiny Organization’s Restoration and Invigoration System. DORIS’ data and computational/ analysis capability had been rated by Destiny’s engineers as 99 percent reliable and error free.

“To mitigate restoration and invigoration,” said DORIS, “I am taking Hope into orbit above the atmosphere.”

Moments later, the roar and bone-buffeting vibration subsided. Only the distant drone of the ship’s engine could be heard. The Captain became aware of a rising nausea, triggered less by the violent shaking than by a mix of excitement and dread.

“I have restored and invigorated Dr. Angela Diaz. Proceeding now with Commander Faye Sullivan, Lieutenant Tom Ross, Ensign Lia Appleton, then the civilians.”

A heavy click, though anticipated, made him flinch.The canopy yawned open with an annoying whir and receded underneath Pearce’s cylinder.

Not without a bit of agony, he undid his mesh restraints and, in the weightlessness, righted himself to a sitting position on the edge of the cylinder’s pad. In a small chest at the foot of the cylinder, he found a watch, a behind-the-ear comm, underclothes, jumpsuit, weapon, mag-boots, and a towel. Holding on to the cylinder, he wiped off with the towel, slipped on his dark-blue jumpsuit, then his boots.

He gazed down the length of Hope’s primary compartment, which sprawled long and wide under a low arched ceiling.

It was a sight he prayed he hadn’t seen for an astonishingly long time.

The other 100 preservation cylinders, resembling giant larvae that gleamed in the dusky red glow of the wall lights, were arranged in five columns that stretched to the far bulkhead wall.

Beyond that wall was another compartment containing a box-car-sized computer-systems niche and seats for Dr. Diaz and the 100 civilians. Past this were smaller compartments stocked with a seed vault and other provisions and tools, one of which, Pearce recalled, was an exoskeleton that had enough stored energy to last a month of continuous use.

Soon the civilians — each of whom except for the children was skilled in such professions as carpentry, architecture, medical care, farming, and community organization — would be stirring.

Pearce’s thoughts returned to his last, dreaded briefing with Project Survival’s increasingly moody manager….

…The unshaven, drained-looking Victor Powell removed his glasses and massaged his eyes with thumb and fingertips.

“You know the reconfiguring of the ship was completed without the usual certifications,” he said from behind his desk. “Not enough time; just my own tests, four days ago during a walk-through in those god-awful mag-boots.”

After the Captain gave a nod, Powell blurted, “The secondary ship, it’ll just go to waste, damn it!” His face red, he slammed a flat meaty hand down on a scattering of papers.

“Mars will never be son-of-a-bitching colonized! I — we were so close! All we needed was six stinking more months, and everything would’ve been in place for launch! If only the grav tug rocket hadn’t malfunctioned. And curse those dumb-ass nations that left everything to us!”

He gave a smirk, then sniffed. “Well, okay, you’ve picked your crew, so now you can pack up your allowed items. And stay alert on the premises. I worry about some of the angry scientists around here who weren’t picked. In any case, the shuttles have to get everybody and the supplies up to Hope — that’s the boring new name our unimaginative Prez gave it in the next three days so it can launch a month before…before the — so we’ll have time to address any glitches—” His voice broke off.

After composing himself with slow, deep breathing that swelled his sizable girth, he continued, “A couple reminders: As you know, weight restrictions have severely limited what you can take with you. Hardly any luxuries. Few of the high-tech gadgets you’re accustomed to. One old-fashioned, relatively light exo-skeleton to do your heavy lifting – not a four-hundred-pound, fuel-draining bot. I don’t have to tell you you’ll have to rejigger your lifestyle big time. Sumptuous living is out. If you think the Pilgrims had it bad….”

He slumped back in his chair, stared vacantly at a spot to Pearce’s left. After a long moment, his gaze returned to the Captain. “Tell me, Jason,” he said, his eyes cold, reproachful, “do you think the human race deserves to live on? I think we’ve failed, and now I wonder if it’s our just desserts we’re about to get.” He gripped the arms of his chair as if to rise. “Well, that’s it. My last words to you?” He flipped a hand. “Just get out.

Pearce exited the office but paused inches from the closed door. He briskly rubbed at his jaw. “Bastard,” he mumbled, but in the next second chalked Powell’s bitterness up to one simple, brutal truth: the project manager knew all was lost and soon he would be dead.

…The other cylinders in Pearce’s row clicked and whirred. Moments later, he heard Commander Faye Sullivan, his 35-year-old First Officer whom he’d admired for several years and called Sull, gasp in a hoarse whisper: “I can’t believe it worked.”

She’d donned a jumpsuit identical to his except for her commander’s insignia. Her shoulder-length black hair, in Hope’s weightlessness, drifted about her head and face like sea grasses in gentle currents. She bore the gaunt, blanched appearance of an athlete who had just completed a grueling decathlon.

She caught Pearce’s alarmed stare and smiled faintly. “Jason, I’m pretty sure you look every bit as bad as I do. Wouldn’t worry, though. You’ll get your rugged handsomeness back in no time.”

“Yeah?” He was relieved that she sounded okay and looked as good as could be expected. “So will you — I mean, get your, uh, prettiness…back.”

She chuckled, her pleasant gaze lingering on him. Then the pleasantness withered. “If this worked, it’s…just one more shock—”

“Guess we’ll know as soon as we get to the cockpit,” he said, forcing a bit of cheeriness into his voice. They’d see for themselves first, he thought, then have DORIS confirm whether they were where they were supposed to be. “At least we’re not DOA, wherever we are.”

Despite his pre-flight psych counseling, grief sucker-punched him when he realized how much he already missed his parents, his friends, and his neighbors. He even missed his daily routine of rising early in his coastal bungalow, padding into the kitchen, checking the sky through the window, collecting his cereal and coffee, then settling down with his iPad to pore over his latest writing project, “What ET Really Looks Like: Not So Different,” an elaboration on the convergent-evolution theory stating that species from different taxonomic groups evolve toward a similar form.

But his eyes began to sting when his thoughts turned to those heart-breaking days he had spent taking care of his ill wife Diane, who died of cancer six months before Hope left.

All this was gone. Maybe unthinkably long gone.

A figure approached. It was Lt. Commander Angela Diaz. The 50-ish, ruthlessly efficient flight surgeon wore her round glasses half-way down her nose. She had been degreed in medicine and psychology at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and herself had once held a command position. Preferring “Dr. Diaz” or plain “Doc” to Lieutenant Commander, she was also Hope’s psychologist. In the weeks before departure she had helped counsel Pearce and his team of officers, as well as the passengers, to enable them to better handle what lay ahead.

Ashen like everyone else, she apparently had already come to terms with their staggering achievement. She smoothed out her white smock with one hand and scowled at a med scanner held in the other. Both the smock and the scanner had been retrieved from one of the wall storage units containing smaller items of immediate need.

“Ahhh! Who can expect me to do much with this piece of retro crap?” She sighed richly, then looked at Pearce. “This is rough on all of us, both physically and mentally. How are you coming along, Jason?” Concern was evident in her raised eyebrows.

He nodded toward her scanner. “Weight considerations, natch. Must have beat out the latest version by at least a milligram.”

He waved off her gesture to do a scan of his vitals. “Don’t waste time on me, Doc. DORIS tells me my essentials show up just about brand new. Damn near feel okay, especially now that I’ve stopped marinating in my misery. Speaking of which, you may have to put on your psych hat for some of the civilians…the shock of what’s happened. I realize everyone received counseling, but as you know, it was rushed like everything else. Also, asap I need everyone except my crew secured in the rear seats to wait for my instructions from the cockpit.”

Her eyes gauged him; she presumably was assuring herself he was up to par. She then nodded a “got it,” the motion enough to bounce her grey-streaked, banded hair, and left, moving as purposefully as her mag-boots allowed. “Just remember,” she said without looking back, “with my limited equipment, I’ll be strapped if we have a big enough emergency. I don’t even have a disease sniffer.”

Pearce took that for what it was worth. He levered himself off the pad and allowed his mag-boots to engage. He watched Diaz’ less-than-graceful retreat — heel-toe, heel-toe. Now that the lights had finally brightened, his gaze drifted past her to the stirring civilians. Most were talking, examining themselves and each other, and flexing their limbs. Some were laughing, but a number of others stood bent and sobbing uncontrollably. Diaz would have her hands full.

Evidently doing fine was 28-year-old Lieutenant Tom Ross, standing nearby at his cylinder on the other side of Commander Sullivan’s. Ross, with dark-brown hair atop a rangy, six-foot-three frame, had been serving at Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital when selected for Project Survival. Flexing his joints, he fixed his eyes on Ensign Lia Appleton. The ensign, who’d been transferred to Camp Pendleton two months prior to launch, stood at her cylinder next to his checking the jumpsuit she’d pulled on. She seemed to be carefully avoiding his scrutiny.

Ross spoke: “This is totally mind-blowing — if it worked. By the way, Ensign, you still working that same attack-doggy persona of oh-so-long ago?”

Appleton was 25 and had bright blond hair that in gravity hung in a short Pharaoh style. Her cerulean eyes bored into him. “You’re way out in the weeds on that one, loo-tenant. I attack only hewho deserves it.” She turned away, yanking her jumpsuit to a better fit and mumbling, “Is it just me, or is it stupid in here? Doesn’t the man understand I’m a no-go zone?”

Ross looked exasperated. “You got some deep scar tissue, you know that?”

Pearce was stunned. Despite all they’d been through — and all that still awaited them — the two of them were picking up right where they’d left off before Hope launched.

He’d heard the backstory on the couple. Late in their training for the journey, they’d become involved romantically, intending to marry before departure. Early one morning Appleton had wanted to surprise Ross with a breakfast carry-out from a restaurant on the military base where they and the rest of Hope‘s passengers, volunteers selected by lottery, had been sequestered and were being secretly prepared. Approaching his small condo in her car, Appleton spotted him outside standing at the driver’s side of a white SUV in which sat a woman with long dark hair. To Appleton’s astonishment, Ross bent and kissed the woman, then stood waving as she pulled away. Ross explained to Appleton that the woman was a close cousin he’d grown up with and who lived near the base; she’d obtained permission to stop by and congratulate him on his engagement and see him one last time before leaving to be with her family in Arizona. When Appleton sneered, he’d pleaded, “Just call her. She’ll tell you.” “Sure,” she’d spat, “I’d hear a story you two concocted just in case!” In despair over one bad relationship after another, and convinced she’d mindlessly dived into this latest one as a kind of solace for the horrors awaiting her, she’d given back — thrown back — the ring Ross allegedly still carried in a zipped pocket.

When Pearce heard the story, he’d worried the two might be a problem, but it was too late to find and prepare replacements.

He gestured for the two, who were grumbling and frowning at each other, and Commander Faye Sullivan to follow him to the low-lighted cockpit.

Entering, Ross and Appleton instantly stop bickering. All four gasped, almost in unison, their eyes riveted to the scene occupying most of a side viewing window: the huge, bright, fuzzy arc of the planet’s night side against the black oblivion of space. In the weightlessness, Pearce and Sullivan took the two forward seats at the curved instrument panel.

“Still having a hard time with this….” Sullivan said, Pearce only half-listening. As he pulled the Captain’s Log from a small compartment and nervously began writing in hand, she added, “Sorry, but I can’t wait.” She keyed her access code into the chronometer.

“June 3, 2048,” Appleton reminded them unnecessarily, her voice low and taut, “was our departure date.”

Sullivan toggled a switch. “Brace yourself.”

Ross snorted. “Cruel joke’s all I’m bracing for.”

Red lights sputtered behind a read-out panel. Numbers that were being calculated from a shielded radioactive-decay-based “clock” raced incomprehensibly fast. A full, agonizing 30 seconds later they stopped. The cockpit’s occupants sat dumb-founded.

“DORIS,” Pearce said, laying aside his log without taking his eyes off the numbers, “cockpit only. From your own internal system, can you independently confirm the date we see?” He held his breath as he waited for what seemed an eternity.

“The current Earth time and date,” DORIS replied without the reverberation normally heard throughout the ship, “are as follows: 3:19 p.m., Wednesday, December 9, 139,034.”

Pearce felt his cheek twitch. He looked at the commander. She looked at him. Neither spoke.

“DORIS,” Captain Pearce ordered firmly, knowing the AI wasn’t 100 percent error free, “scrub your date and time data, recalculate, and give us just the Earth year.”

Three seconds later: “The Earth year, Captain Pearce, is 139,034.”

Ross let out a soft whistle. “That is one hell of a long time to be mothballed.”

“DORIS, state the distance traveled,” Pearce pressed, “and ID this planet.”

“Distance traveled: 20.51 light years. Planet: Gliese 581g.”

“DORIS, I assume your ID is based on the atmospheric signature and the planet’s location in the GNS.”

“That is correct, Captain. To be brief, Hope’s fractional angular shifts relative to the locations of The Twenty Pulsars in the Galactic Navigation System’s Sub-Region Two correspond to the exact distance and direction from Earth to this star.”

“Not so brief,” muttered Appleton.

Pearce fought the rising shock he hadn’t expected considering all the counseling he’d received.

Sullivan shook her head once as if to shake loose something.

The Captain said quietly, “If anyone feels like crying – or throwing up – go ahead. We can forget we’re suck-it-up military for a moment at least.”

We did it!” whispered Appleton tightly.

DOR— DORIS,” said Commander Sullivan, pulling herself together, “commence scanning for a landing site on the planet’s day side. Also, what is the atmospheric composition relative to Earth’s?” She breathed to herself, “Never mind that it’s too late to fret about such things.”

DORIS replied with her almost singsong placidity, “The atmosphere contains three percent less oxygen and one percent less nitrogen than Earth’s. You will be able to adapt to it with modest side effects that will cease in a short time.”

A pause, then: “Suitable landing site located.”

Lieutenant Tom Ross said, “This is happening too fraggin’ fast.”

Pearce hit the all-personnel speaker switch. “Dr. Diaz, what’s up back there?”

Her voice cracked on. “Everyone’s settled down now. They all seem to be coming to grips. Health-wise, some upset stomachs, headaches — things I’d expect from the preservation and restoration, not to mention the stress of—”

Good,” said Pearce. He looked at Sullivan, who nodded. “Attention, everyone. Commander Sullivan and I have just verified that our journey…” — he hesitated for effect — “…is a success! We have reached Gliese 581g!”

The cockpit speaker exploded with loud cheering and applauding.

Buckle up tight and prepare to descend to a field on a hilly terrain near an ocean and an ingress river! DORIS, I believe you said we must remain on board three hours before disembarking?”

Correct, Captain. Only 35 minutes of that time remain.”

Pearce twisted toward his three officers. “Ready?” He then said for all to hear: “DORIS, take us down!”

The last thing Pearce heard before Hope again slid into Gliese 581g’s atmosphere with a deafening roar and a violent shaking was more applause and shouts.

II

AfterHope delivered its 105 passengers to the planet’s surface, rolling its huge bulk to a stop on a level field next to a hill, Pearce quickly updated the Captain’s Log. Then with his team of three officers, he went aft to the next compartment where the still-buckled-up civilians were seated. Speaking loudly to the huge group, he informed them that the three hours needed to purge themselves of the preservation gel had elapsed, but before he could authorize anyone to disembark, he and his team would go out and explore the ocean coast, search for drinking water, and determine the area’s security level, weapons at the ready.

DORIS spoke, her powerful, metallic voice plangent throughout the ship: “Captain Pearce, you need not worry about security. The planet is at a stage roughly com-parable to Earths’ Cambrian Period in the Paleozoic Era of 570 million to 500 million years ago. Only marine invertebrates likely exist.”

Pearce couldn’t hide his annoyance. A machine was telling him what not to worry about! “May be, DORIS, but your operative words are ‘roughly’ and ‘likely.’ This is an alien world. Unlike Earth’s Cambrian, it has soil and plants, so it might also have a velociraptor or two.”

Could be DORIS is operating from her unreliable one-percent error zone,” Ross whispered, Pearce catching the sarcasm.

The Captain continued to the group: “While my team and I are away — no more than 24 hours — Dr. Angela Diaz will mind the helm.” He paused, swept his eyes over the sea of anxious faces. “There’ll be plenty of time for all of your questions later — but I will take one right now. Just one.”

A hand shot up. It belonged to 15-year-old, bright-eyed Ted Mitchell, Dr. Diaz’s nephew and one of the eleven teens. “Sir, could anyone on Earth have survived the impact?”

Pearce gazed uncomfortably at the boy. The children had been left out of most of the briefings on the pending disaster, so he thought just the broad strokes would be the best approach. Then Dr. Diaz spoke: “I think they can handle it at this point. Yes, they should hear the whole unedited story so we can get it out of the way.”

He took a deep breath. “Lots of people could have initially survived. But consider: millions of fires were sparked when the white-hot impact ejecta that was launched high into the atmosphere rained down all over the world, dramatically raising Earth’s temperature — global warming on steroids — and poisoning all the oceans. In the following weeks and months, a winter holocaust developed, created by the shroud of ash and toxic chemicals that spread globally, blocking sunlight, ending photosynthesis, and putting Earth into deep-freeze. Remember, this asteroid was three times larger than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 65-million years ago. And, not to get overly technical, in addition to high velocity it had a rapid spin that contributed a lot of angular momentum and rotational energy. The consensus was that the asteroid had too much speed and mass for our nukes or laser cannons to have an effect. So, no — no one could’ve survived for long, no matter how deep underground.”

He looked down at the floor, pushing the edge of a thumbnail back and forth across his forehead. “Here’s the thing, though. Everything I just said is child’s play com-pared to the real damage. Nearly all the leading scientists considered the asteroid so massive it might not only alter Earth’s rotation, but also nudge Earth out of orbit into a spiral toward the sun. I’ll say out loud what probably most of you have already accepted: Earth is gone.”

III

Captain Jason Pearce and his team of three, each carrying a backpack, lumbered cautiously down the ramp of the black 500-foot-long Hope. The planet’s red dwarf sun peeked over the horizon between distant silhouetted mountains forming vertical claws and sharks’ teeth. The sun’s early-morning peach-orange light cast long fingers of shadows across the field in front of them. The field, Pearce noticed, was carpeted with short weed-looking flora of several colors but predominantly lime green. Here and there were head-high, stocky trees — if they could be called trees — brandishing bluish, fist-sized blossoms that jutted from spindly, thorn-riddled limbs. Other plants resembled small renditions of the baobab trees he’d seen on Madagascar years ago. Overhead, shards of mauve and pink clouds stretched across the blue-green sky. Low over the horizon opposite the sun, he spotted a tiny pair of faint, milky-silver disks that were the planet’s moons.

He felt as though he were floating. Was he dreaming? Hallucinating? Had they really set foot on an alien world?

He was dispossessed of his trance when a breeze lapped against his cheek, and he thought he could smell ocean water.

Sweat dampened his forehead despite the coolness. When he swiped at it, he realized his hand was trembling. Little wonder he was already becoming a basket case: This world, tantalizingly beautiful though it was, could be more dangerous than their eons-long journey across trillions of miles of unforgiving space. Would Pearce, his crew, and Hope’s passengers be able to endure past the next few weeks? Or even the next few days? He took in a sharp, involuntary breath. He believed Project Manager Victor Powell had understated it when he said they would face as many risks as did the Pilgrims in 17th-century America.

Raking his gaze warily from side to side, the heel of his hand resting on his weapon, he led his team 75 yards out to the foot of the hill. He stopped, inhaled deeply. “Everyone breathing okay?”

The other three, glancing at each other, shrugged and nodded.

Lia, your Geiger’s acting civil,” Pearce observed, squinting at the sunrise beyond Hope’s bow.

One hazard down, how many to go?” said Appleton. She withdrew her weapon. Twice a red-hot line hissed and chipped out a smoking, six-inch hole high on the hill.

A double-tap of this’ll give our velociraptors something to ponder,” she said.

The others followed suit.

The test firings completed, Pearce hailed Dr. Diaz on his comm. “Doc, so far the air’s good to go.”

That’s a big relief,” came the crackling reply.

We’re heading out. Give me 100 percent antenna. Put together a rescue team, just in case. And start unstrapping and moving essential equipment to the off-loading deck.”

Copy that, Captain. Good hunting. Buzz me if you find something interesting — as if nothing on the planet were!”

Pearce extracted a sheet computer from the side of his backpack, studied an aerial photo downloaded by DORIS.

The ocean,” he announced, pointing toward the top of the hill, “is that way, about three klicks. Half a klick up the coast is a feeder river. Hopefully with decent water. One problem when we get to the other side of this hill: a rather dense forest is in our way — containing who knows what.”

The three seemed to reflect on that with minimal angst.

Ross jostled his backpack higher on his shoulders, then, nodding toward the hill, he spoke to Appleton, who despite a calm, sometimes icy exterior had not stopped scrutinizing their surroundings. “Need me to carry you, Apple Of My Eye?”

Her snicker erupted in a way that made Pearce figure she was more nervous than she was letting on. “I’m surprised,” she said, her voice thick with indifference, “that you think I need you for anything. Why don’t you be nice and quit while you’re way behind?”

Commander Sullivan alternately gave Ross and Appleton a sour look. “Can you two not just…not? Try keeping your eyeballs on the surroundings, not on each other.”

The three officers fell in line up the hill behind Pearce. Feeling the warmth of the rising orange sun on his neck, the Captain wound through waist-high thickets of brush as he ascended. When they reached the hill’s spine, a silver curve of ocean water sparkled just beyond the rolling forest that loomed darkly at the bottom of the hill. Appleton and Ross, after drinking in the uplifting view and their accomplishment thus far, traded “Booyahs!” and high-fives with Commander Sullivan.

Pearce jammed the small field glasses he’d been peering through into a side pocket, satisfied that he had detected no movement within a wide range between their position and the forest edge. He snapped, “Let’s not spend any more time on this hill’s skyline announcing our arrival.”

Appleton’s head bobbed up and down. “Yeah. Not good to ring the dino dinner bell.”

They continued down to the line of towering broad-leaf flora. Pearce said, “We need to leave a trail, troops. In case we need a rescue. Machetes out. Weapons in the other hand.” He stepped warily into the dark forest.

For the next hour, they made slow progress. They hacked quietly as possible through multi-colored under-brush, chopped lower limbs off the tall flora, and on occasion paused to inspect and smell various odd-looking vegetation — all the while mindful of their environment.

Although the sun had climbed higher, the light reaching the forest floor was still less than desirable.

Ninety minutes later and tiring, they entered a tennis-court-sized opening next to a treed slope that, as far as Pearce could determine, rose perhaps 200 feet before leveling off.

Pearce wiped sweat from his brow. “Let’s break.”

After weapons were holstered and backpacks lowered, Commander Sullivan, hands on her hips, surveyed the forest up the slope and around the opening. “Have you noticed? Haven’t seen a single little critter scurrying around anywhere. Maybe 99-percent-accurate DORIS is right.”

Appleton snorted. “It’s her other one percent that concerns me. My money says the little critters are hunted by the big critters, so they dig in for the day.”

Pearce faced the direction of the ship. He assumed the antenna was high enough for a decent direct line of sight. He hit his comm. “Doc, no threats to report — yet. Why don’t you go ahead and start off-loading, after you harden up around the ship: establish a perimeter, erect a sensor fence.”

Wonderful!” Diaz replied, though the signal was weak. “Best news in a hundred millennia!”

“Remember to always close the airlock behind you, coming and going. Out.”

Appleton looked at the Commander, then spoke to the others. “There, see?” She took her weapon back in hand. “The Captain feels the same way. Doesn’t want a six-ton meat-eating thingy wandering on board when everybody’s guard’s down.” She arched her brows at them. “Make sense? Duh.”

Ross apparently couldn’t stop himself: “Meat-eating thingy? Tell me, when you were a kid — not terribly long ago, factoring out our little trip across the void — were you a bed-wetter?”

He evaded her disgusted look by turning and striding up the slope. “Reminds me. Going to the potty.”

A loo-tenant’s gotta do what a loo-tenant’s gotta do,” murmured Appleton.

“Keep leeward!” said Sullivan.

“Not too far!” Pearce called to the retreating figure. “Stay mindful of meat-eating…thingies.”

Ross’s fist pumped. “Not to worry. There aren’t any fraggin’ ‘thingies’ here.”

Should the Captain go with you,” Appleton yelled, “to hold your hand and talk encouragement?”

As Ross continued to climb, his fist reappeared and sprouted a middle finger. His voice boomed: “I’ll tell you what you can hold.” Six seconds later, he’d vanished up into the forest.

Well, if the thingies didn’t know about us before, they do now,” groused Pearce.

Commander Sullivan frowned at Appleton. “You know, Lia, I worry about dangerous creatures, too. But honestly, if a T-Rex came crashing through here, I don’t think either you or Tom would even notice.”

Captain Pearce eyed one, then the other. He said only, “Chow time.”

They plopped down and pulled water and food parcels from their backpacks.

What delicious, synthesized garbage do we have for our first meal in more than a thousand centuries?” asked Appleton. She wriggled around into an alert face-out guard position and leaned against her backpack, food parcel in her lap and weapon on the ground by her hip.

Chicken and roast beef,” said Sullivan, more upbeat. “But word is they taste the same.”

Appleton clucked her tongue. “So one could say we have…chicken and chicken?”

Sullivan put up a finger. “No, I’m pretty sure it’s roast beef and roast beef. No, wait — chicken entrails and—”

Pearce sighed loudly. “Any chance you two can just eat?”

Appleton’s smile was small as she half-turned his way. “Are you going to write us up in your Captain’s Log?” She glanced skyward. Her smile collapsed. Slate clouds had suddenly moved in, darkening the clearing. She did a little shudder and refocused on the surrounding forest.

Sullivan looked from Appleton to Pearce. “I guess acting silly is our way of dealing with all the wear and tear on our nerves.” Her glance at the forest seemed uneasy. “With a lot more wear and tear to come, no doubt.”

“Possible,” said Pearce. He tore off a piece of the “chicken/beef” and eyed it suspiciously.

Hey,” said Appleton. “I just realized, the smell of this crappy food could attract—“

Rapid crunching sounds quieted her. Her hand arced to her weapon.

Relax,” said Pearce. “Tom’s finished his business.”

Appleton gave Pearce a wicked grin. “Knew that. Was just going to graze his ear for practice. Gotta be sharp if a velociraptor shows up for a meet and eat.”

Moving fast, Ross came into view on the slope. “Tell ‘em, Apple. You missed me. You always miss me. Always will, right?”

She patted her weapon. “Yup, I’ll always miss you because I don’t want to go to jail.”

You know, your gene pool could’ve used some chlor— Whoa!” His foot whipped out from under him. He collapsed on his side with a heavy thud, making Pearce wince, and rolled into the clearing.

Awww…you’re still alive. Bummer, dude” was the dry offering from Appleton after she gave Ross a quick once-over and lifted her head again toward the cloud cover.

Sorry to disappoint you, Ensign.”

Sullivan shook her head. “Tom, this isn’t like you. You’re too cautious and careful. If you and Lia weren’t always at each other’s throat, you would’ve had a better eye on where you were walking. You could have seriously hurt yourself and jeopardized our mission.”

Ross got to his feet, his eyes retracing his steps. “Duly noted, Commander. Now what the fraggin’ hell did I—? Ah!” He hurried a short way back up the incline and dropped to his knees. He cleared forest-floor debris away from a small mound. “Hey, look at this.”

What?” asked Pearce as he and Sullivan approached.

Looks like a chunk of metal sticking out of the ground.”

Meteor maybe?” asked Sullivan.

FYI, meteorite is what you mean,” said Appleton, joining them.

Ross looked at Sullivan with a scowl. “She does that. Corrects people. FYI.”

Nuh-uh,” Appleton said under her breath for all to hear. “And another unforced error.”

Unclench, you two,” ordered Sullivan. A second later, a tiny smile formed. “Sidebar comment: I do believe you two are still in love and are trying like the devil to hide it.”

While both Ross and Appleton were sounding off a “Like hell I am!” she glanced at Pearce. Their eyes locked. Pearce noticed that the color had returned to her cheeks, and she looked beautiful — still a bit frazzled but beautiful. He suddenly wondered: Was he hiding something? Was he making a transfer from a love no longer possible, his wife, to one that was? Guilt – and an uncomfortable warmth – stopped him from thinking about it.

Sullivan slowly took her eyes off him, and he said, “Mates, let’s focus, shall we?” His index finger pecked the air toward the object.

It was shaped like a slightly flattened horizontal cone, its rounded, 12-inch-thick tip protruding about a foot down-slope at an angle parallel to level ground.

What about fossil bone?” Sullivan asked.

Too smooth to be that or a meteorite,” Appleton said. She had knelt on the side opposite Ross and wiped away the remaining soil from the dark-grey surface. “It’s not radioactive, if you’re about to ask. My Geiger’s quiet, like I wish Tom would be.”

The Captain glanced around for a lever of some sort. Having seen none, he bobbed his chin at Ross. “See if you can jog it loose.”

Ross grasped the object firmly with both hands and pulled with increasing exertion, until his face was blotchy red and his neck veins stood out like cords. No movement.

Let’s dig it out,” said Appleton. She peeled away to the clearing and returned in less than two minutes with an arm-load of collapsible shovels taken from their packs.

Dirt was heaved in all directions. The pungent smell of damp soil and semi-rotted leaves hung in the air. Twenty minutes later, four times as much of the metal was ex-posed.

Shaping up to be right-triangular,” said Pearce.

Ross scowled, “Where does this thing end?” He gave the object a couple of hard yanks. “Frag it! Stubborn as a brachiosaur tooth!”

Impressive,” said Appleton coolly. “Didn’t know you were a dentist back then.”

Ross appeared disconsolate. “Lia the Ankle Biter.”

The more they dug, the deeper they had to excavate up into the slope. Progress became increasingly slow.

When six feet of the object lay exposed, Pearce took a hard look. It was indeed shaped like a right triangle. And smooth, polished. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled.

Commander Sullivan, on her knees digging across from Pearce, stopped. She pushed the back of her wrist across her forehead, studied the Captain’s face. “What’s the matter? Your heart stop—?” She looked back at the object. She intoned, “I think I’m thinking…what you’re thinking.”

Pearce felt a queasiness in his stomach. “Try one more time to move it,” he said. “Let’s exert as if our lives de-pended on it.”

Ross said, “Let me try this first.” He sprawled out on his back and began furiously kicking the thing with both feet. “It won’t…give…one fraggin’ millimeter! No vibration, nothing!” He sat up, grimacing. “’Cept I may have flattened my arches.”

Pearce lightly palm-slapped the side of his head. “There’s a reason it won’t give, and I feel like a fool for not thinking of it sooner.” He pushed to his feet. Inhaling with care, he regarded the other three steadily, trying to keep his composure. “People, this thing – it’s pretty obvious…it’s an artifact. I believe it was made by civilized beings here.” He let his shovel drop, then half-stumbled backwards down the slope a few feet. “Or…it was made by extraterrestrials who came here thousands of years ago, from the looks of it. In fact, if I’m right, this thing is how they got here. My money says that’s because” — he threw an arm in a sweeping gesture — it’spart of an ancient alien spacecraft!”

Appleton’s brows furrowed. Her lips parted but no sounds came out.

Ross blinked. “Wha…? You mean we got ourselves a real Area 51? Only 21 light-years east of the phony one? But wait, maybe it’s part of a buried building, a home — or who knows, maybe an entire city!”

Sull,” said Pearce, “you cut your teeth in cockpits. Tell me this thing doesn’t look like the tip of a wing or tail fin.”

She froze. She turned her head to the object, then back to the Captain. “Yes, yes…. Was afraid…to say….”

Ross was obviously humbled. “A first encounter….” he said quietly, amazement in his eyes.

Pearce keyed his communicator.

Go ahead, Jason,” Dr. Diaz crackled after a few long seconds.

He kept his voice and breathing steady. “How about a progress report first.”

Sensor fence up. Off-loaded some priority items: dome homes, food, water. Charles Duncan is doing the heavy lifting in his exo-skel—”

Good. You said buzz you if we found something interesting. Sit down.” After describing the object, he heard silence. “Doc?”

Here!”

I know, I know. Incredible. But I need you to keep a lid on this for now, Doc. It would create an uproar. They need to stay focused on their tasks.”

Agree.”

Doc, I want to get inside this…craft, assuming there’s more to it than what we see.” If what he was looking at were a stabilizer fin, it had better be a horizontal, he thought; otherwise, the craft would be on its side and likely in pieces, hindering or blocking interior movement. “I’m hoping we can extract useful material and technology — if everything isn’t too degraded and we can work around the alien language. I need you to dispatch a crew of six. Equip them with all the excavating tools available. And explosives, C4, whatever. We need four head lamps, oxygen tanks, masks. Include Duncan in your crew. His exo will remove trees. They’ll see our path on the other side of the hill.”

IV

When Dr. Diaz’ crew of six entered the clearing, 15 feet of the object was visible within the three-sided, ever-widening cavity that now rose six feet at its highest up-slope point.

The crew members looked on in disbelief. Pearce overheard excited chatter about alien life forms as he approached the exoskeleton, worn by the helmeted Charles Duncan, a 36-year-old, 6-foot-five, brown-bearded Scot and former cyber-security cop. The exo-skeleton was a tall, intimidating robot-looking apparatus of bulky metal arms and legs moved by cables which, powered by a fuel cell on its back, made Duncan, a muscular weight-lifter, 75 times stronger.

Pearce said hello to Duncan, who gave a curt smile and nod, then again fixated disbelievingly on the sight before him. “You’ve worked hard.”

Charles, I’d like you to first try to dislodge it. Maybe a wing or fin’s all there is. At least in this area.”

Will give it one helluva try!” came Duncan’s baritone reply.

Hey, Charles!” Lieutenant Tom Ross bellowed. “For warm-up, why don’t you hurl Lia back to the ship? No, wait, into the ocean.” His crooked grin said he savored his little joke.

Lia Appleton, standing fifteen feet away, twirled her finger in the air. “Whoooee. That’s sofunny I almost remembered to laugh. Bzzzt.”

Duncan chuckled lustily and eyed Pearce. “Bring these two along for comic relief, did you? Not a bad idea, considering. A real tension breaker.”

Pearce thought about that. He had to admit the couple’s quibbling sometimes amused as much as annoyed, and thus on occasion did provide him a bit of relief from the stress. Maybe it did the same for them. Maybe escape from their nightmarish reality was the unconscious reason they acted like kids. How ironic, he thought; the two people he’d pegged to get on everyone’s nerves might actually be helping, in some small way, to prevent every-one’s nerves from unraveling on this frightening new world. And the big burly Charles Duncan had recognized this before he had.

He dispatched another member of Diaz’ crew to check out the other side of the slope. Maybe another wing or fin was protruding there.

Duncan strode away to the huge slab of grey metal with surprising fluidity, his exoskeleton’s cables and pulleys whirring as the titanium-carbon Frankenstein thudded across the forest floor. He stopped at the tip where Ross had tripped hours earlier. After extending his left mechanical hand well underneath and flattening it against the metal, he tapped a recessed button on his chest once to activate for 60 seconds the powerful magnet in the palm of that hand to prevent slipping. Next he reached under with his right hand and placed it over his left. He strained upward. The exoskeleton’s “muscles” protested with louder whirring and jerky fits and starts. After several attempts, Duncan erected himself and announced: “No way. Makes me think it’s attached!”

Excited, Pearce asked Duncan to clear away some of the trees higher up the slope. Forty minutes later, only the thickest trees remained there in a large, roughly semi-circle patch. An immediate benefit was more light filtering through.

When the crewmember returned from the other side of the slope with nothing to report, Pearce instructed an explosives duo to insert low-power C4 packs with blasting caps into the soil several feet above the metal. He then scurried off, shooing everyone away.

Ten seconds passed, then three loud bangs. Dirt, stones, and root pieces flew high into the air, rained down and clattered noisily on the metal surface.

Jason!” Pearce did a little jump, then realized it was Diaz barking over his comm.

Talk to me, Doc,” he practically yelled. “What’s going on?”

We have an ill civilian. Nothing serious apparently. Mild nausea. Low-grade temperature. Weakness.”

One of those that got sick after restoration?”

No. Ted, my nephew.”

Pearce paused. “Psychological after-effects? Post-traumatic stress?”

Haven’t ruled it out. At the moment, I’m not overly concerned. Will continue to monitor his vitals. I’ll try immunity enhancers and antibiotics, though I’ll have to go sparingly. Just thought I’d inform you right away.”

You did right. ‘Preciate it.”

He hurried back up the slope, telling the regathered shovelers, including Ross and Appleton, that he wanted the debris pile-up on the metal removed and more explosives set.

Commander Sullivan appeared at his side plucking debris from her hair and jumpsuit. Pearce told her about Ted, then asked her to dispatch a pair from Diaz’ group to the coast to find the ingress river and test the water. “Meanwhile, we’ll keep trying to get to the hull of this thing — if one exists.”

Three hours later, 50 feet of the metal lay exposed in the massively dug-out slope.

Charles Duncan, holding a large shovel, stood on the structure facing the dirt wall that rose two feet above his head and oozed tendrils of smoke from the explosions. With one hand, he rammed the shovel blade into the soil at waist level. A loud clank rang out, the cavity in the slope amplifying the sound in Pearce’s direction.

Everyone froze in their tracks, eyes on Duncan. He had struck something solid. Rock? Or metal? He repeated the thrusting at different points along a level line. Each time came the same solid clank.

A grin cut across Duncan’s bearded face. “Found something!”

Good work!” replied Pearce.

The explosives duo inserted a series of low-power C4 packs into the soil six feet above the expanse of metal. But Pearce signaled them to hold on. Ted’s illness re-turned to mind, and a thought chilled him: What if any alien remains inside harbored pathogens that he and the others had no immunity against? Was he about to open a Pandora’s box?

Commander Sullivan came up. Her brown eyes measured him. “You’re afraid you’ll murder the cat with your curiosity.”

The whole damn species. Sull, I don’t think I should be rolling the dice with the few human lives we have left, after what we’ve been through and after being given a second chance.”

Her hand touched his arm, and he recalled it had been there often, helping to assuage his misery in the months before and after his wife’s death. Remembering how comforting the gesture was, he was grateful for Sullivan’s kindness.

I feel the same way,” she said softly. “But you know as well as I do we can’t ignore this. Sooner or later, we will go inside to extract any needed matériel. So it might as well be now while everything’s in place and we have a minimum of people exposed. We’ll take precaution, and if something goes wrong, there are still nearly 100 others back at the—”

A sizzle on his communicator interrupted. “Go, Doc. What’s the good news?”

Sorry, Captain,” said Diaz’ tinny voice at his ear. “You’ll have to get that from someone else. Ted has worsened. And fivemore have become ill. Same symptoms. I moved them from a quarantined dome home to a compartment inside the ship where I can tend to them better and keep them more isolated, in case we have a contagion. As you know, I don’t have a lot of arrows in my quiver. I can’t do a proper diagnosis, not even comparative blood tests or a chem panel for toxicology. Can’t study organ tissue at the molecular level to detect minute changes. And not a single simple oximeter on this ship to measure blood oxygen. I feel like an 18th-century quack. I knew we’d be traveling light but not this light! I fed all the known facts to DORIS, knowing full well she wasn’t programmed for this kind of work. As expected, she was as helpful as my magboots.”

Pearce felt cold sweat on his forehead. Weren’t the Pilgrims decimated early on by diseases unknown to them? Was this the fate awaiting Hope’s people? After all they’d been through? He said quickly, “Could we’ve brought a flu bug with us?”

No, though I admit most of the sick have symptoms that mimic influenza — fever, weakness, fainting. Remember, before we left, Hope was scrubbed and all of us were found to be free of anything more than a cold. As for harmful agents on the planet, airborne or otherwise, which may cause septicemia, my chem detector — glad I have that — hasn’t been able to find any. To be on the safe side, I may give one or two more of them antibiotics to see if I get a difference in—”

What about radioactivity in the soil, despite none being found by me and my crew on our way here?”

No,” she said. “The symptoms would be very different. But we checked anyway, 200 yards out in every direction. About 150 samples with the soil tester we thankfully have. The sick didn’t go anywhere the others didn’t go. Didn’t do anything out of the ordinary.”

This does not inspire confidence.”

It’s a strong headwind, all right.”

Want us to come back?” Pearce asked, half hoping she’d say yes.

And do what, exactly? Get sick so I can quarantine you, too? No. If you have an alien craft on your hands, please get inside it. Maybe you’ll find medical equipment that can help me — assuming we’d figure out how to operate it. Remember to keep your distance for at least half an hour before you enter. No telling what’s inside. Gotta go. Out.”

Pearce felt Sullivan’s eyes on him. Before he could speak, she said, “I heard it. What the hell’s going on, Jason?”

Don’t know, Sull.” He gave her a serious look. “But I think we should worry. At least you and Diaz helped me decide that I should continue on here.” He called Ross and Appleton over and briefed them on Diaz’ reports on the mysterious disease. After they had recovered somewhat from the blow, he waved a go-ahead at the explosives team.

A minute later, light dirt and debris shot toward them, cascaded like the briefest rain shower. Pearce, who’d crouched behind a tree, rose and took a step forward. His jaw dropped. Clearly exposed was a sizable curved wall of dark-grey metal that dispelled all doubt about whether here on this planet was a long-buried alien craft.

In the fading light, something caught his eye. He could make out the indistinct outline of an airlock door, likely for maintenance and/or escape. His heart pounded in his ears. Access to the interior!

His next words were jubilant: “I’d say we got ourselves a tail fin, a horizontal stabilizer. Not a wing!”

While everyone else gawked in silence, Pearce quickly bridged the fin to the hull and wiped dirt away along the door’s edges. He called out to the explosives team, “How about a dabble of C4 all the way around?”

Pearce warned everyone that the escaping air might not be exactly healthy, and told them to stay 100 feet away until he gave the okay.

After the C4 blew, the door was crumpled but still attached. Around its edges were gaps big enough for Duncan to get a handle and wrench it off.

Twenty-five minutes later, Pearce could wait no longer. He nodded at Lia Appleton, who donned her mask and O2 tank and moved to within five yards of the hull with her Geiger. “Harmless,” she said loudly, her voice muffled. “Only 0.2 millirems. You get ten with a chest X-ray. Source is probably a nuclear engine.”

Pearce flipped a hand at Duncan. “Grip and rip!” The moment of truth.

The exoskeleton clanked along the fin. Duncan inserted the rivet-jointed fingers into a gap on each side of the warped, 40-inch-wide door. He pulled. Metal groaned and screeched, the sounds rippling through the forest like the keening cries of strange beasts. The door snapped free of its internal hinges and anti-blast moorings. Duncan carried it, parts dangling, out of the way to the far side of the fin, where he carefully laid it down.

All aboard, Captain!” He gave a salute. “What else you need? Got a dinosaur you want me to knock out cold?”

In the dimness of dusk, the opening was a vertical rectangle of ominous black. Pearce felt a tingling in his spine. This is it, he thought, human beings’ first encounter with extraterrestrials, dead though they may be. At the very least, it was a first encounter with alien technology. A good second best.

Lieutenant Tom Ross, sporting an expansive grin, edged closer to Pearce. “Captain, if you think it’s too dangerous, send Lia in first.”

Appleton, who had rejoined Pearce, flipped Ross the finger. “You’re so brilliant, you shine like a black hole.”

Just thinking out loud’s all.”

Loud, yes. Thinking, no. I’m truly convinced you’re a sign of the apocalypse.”

Haven’t you noticed? We’ve already had the apoca-lypse.”

Pearce eyed the two with pseudo-sternness. “You’re both coming in with Sull and me. Lia, I obviously need you, to continue monitoring for radioactivity. And I need Tom’s medic background if somebody gets hurt. Anyway, four sets of eyes beat two. All right, gear up. Tom, grab your med-case. Everybody, masks, tanks, head lamps. Weapons we have but shouldn’t need.”

Diaz’ voice sputtered: “Captain.”

Doc!” he replied, “‘Fraid to talk to you!”

You wanted good news. Got some, but it’s qualified. Although eight more have acquired the symptoms, three of the first ones appear to have stabilized.”

The ones that received antibiotics?”

No. The ones I gave antibiotics to were the last ones brought in. They’ve deteriorated somewhat.”

Hmm. Part good news, part bad. Is that what you meant by ‘qualified’?

No. Over the years, I’ve seen far too many patients stabilize like this and even improve — only to relapse and die.”

Pearce chewed his lip. “Right, shouldn’t get too optimistic. All we can do is play wait and see, I guess.” He took a breath. “We do have good news here. It’s a tail fin and it’s attached to a hull. And a door’s already open!”

“Good grief, it’ll be hard to keep this to myself.”

Sorry. Mum’s still the word, Doc. We’ll be going in pronto and we’ll be out of contact until we come back out.”

Is it a crashed ship?”

No way to tell yet,” he said. “If it is, that could mean aliens aboard, though they’re probably just clumps of dust. And they may be hard to get to, depending on how mangled the interior might be. If it’s not a crash, we may have something even more interesting to figure out. Wish us luck on humanity’s first close encounter. Speaking of, Doc, if things go sideways in there, humanity is all in your hands. Out.”

He said to Ensign Appleton, “Tom’s right. You have to take point on this. The second that ticker registers trouble, you back us out of there.”

Understood,” she said churlishly. “But this ought to be above my pay grade.” She seemed careful to avoid eye contact with Ross, no doubt to deny him the pleasure of any gloating.

Ross twisted the knife: “Now there’s a T-shirt idea: ‘Sacrifice Ensigns First’.”

Pearce told Charles Duncan to return to Hope if they weren’t back in sixty minutes and to talk about this only privately to Dr. Diaz. Facing his three officers, he said, “Check your time. We have one hour of O2.”

V

At the door’s blackness and two feet ahead of Captain Jason Pearce, Ensign Lia Appleton tweaked her green back-lit Geiger counter to a higher sensitivity. She re-secured her oxygen mask over her nose and mouth, flicked on her head lamp, then stepped through onto a narrow catwalk that ran 30 feet to a ladder descending into darkness. “Still harmless grays,” she said over her shoulder.

Good. Soldier on, Ensign.” Pearce’s nerves were already jangled.

Behind Pearce, Ross called out over the Captain’s shoulder, “I got your six, Apple.”

A real howler, Tom,” came the mask-dampened reply from Appleton’s silhouette. “Somehow that worries me more than not having my 12 covered.”

After negotiating the catwalk and arriving at the bottom of the ladder, the four found themselves standing between two bulkhead walls in a ten-foot-wide passageway that apparently ran the craft’s full width.

Lieutenant Tom Ross glanced back and up. “Catwalk and ladder similar in size to ours.” His breathing was ragged in the mask.

Not surprised,” Pearce said looking around, his nervousness increasing. “The aliens — assuming they aren’t robots and the ship itself isn’t one — probably aren’t a lot different from us. I believe the evolution of intelligent beings favors a physicality like ours. Size-wise, the vast majority of ETs probably range between primordial dwarfs and basketball players. If we find a preserved alien — or at least some clothing — I think it’ll support that.”

Want to spec on where they came from?” asked Commander Sullivan.

Been wondering about that. A possibility would be 118 Libra c, a planet in the goldilocks zone of 118 Libra, a dwarf star discovered just two years ago. Electromagnetic analysis showed that Libra c’s atmosphere is as conducive to organic life as Gliese 581g. Maybe more so. But it’s another 15 light years away from Earth. Too distant for Hope, I imagine.

Pearce found a partially opened sliding door that he was certain would take them forward. Another door was on the other side of the ladder in the opposite bulkhead wall; he presumed that door provided access to the engine room. Adjacent to the first door, he found a recessed box and threw the lever inside with unexpected ease. The sharp clunk of the lever startled him in the alien craft’s tomb-like quiet. Under his effort, the door receded into the wall with surprising smoothness. Colder, eons-old air from the ship’s deeper interior washed over them.

Sure could use that robocam we couldn’t bring,” said Commander Sullivan. “Among other things.”

Brrr,” said Appleton. “Nice freezer-locker effect.”

Ross snorted. “All that and not very high techy to boot. Look. No exit or entrance signs. Not one alien scribble or symbol anywhere.”

I imagine all the circuitry, lighting and so forth, is embedded,” said Pearce. “Nothing shows up till she’s powered.

He peered through the door, slowly directing his light from side to side. Sprawling out before him was an empty compartment, maybe four times the size of the basement of his house. On the floor were intertwining scrape marks and what appeared in the poor light to be rows of evenly spaced bull-ring retractable tie-downs.

A supply compartment,” he said. He lit up the side bulkhead wall and was not surprised to see a huge door that interrupted a line of carabiners. “Probably opens out and down into a ramp. No indication so far that the ship crashed.”

Then what the hell happened?” demanded Ross.

Patience, please. Lia, your Geiger talking to you?”

Ross asked, “How you holding up, Apple?”

She answered neither. As she stepped past Pearce and through the door, he caught a flicker of fear in her eyes.

We’re going to be just fine,” the Captain said, briefly palming her shoulder and not totally believing his own words.

Into the belly of the alien beast,” said Ross.

Appleton pointed. “A regular door.”

Once they’d crossed the compartment, Appleton wasted no time sliding the door open. They entered a narrow corridor that ran about 40 feet before ending at an opening. Pearce’s nerves were ready to fly out of his skin. What would they find there?

Appleton spoke: “Here goes, if you want me to be point….” She started moving down the corridor slowly, her free hand sliding along the wall as if it were protection. Close to the end, she stopped. “If my hunch is right, their computer system’s in here.” Her breathing sounded irregular and hard, and she’d struggled to get the words out. She advanced a few more steps, hesitated for a moment, then proceeded quickly into the opening. She made a turn and was out of sight.

Lia, wait!” shouted Pearce. His heart pounded. They were about to lay eyes on an alien technology they could possibly reverse engineer, or at least scavenge for parts.

Lia abruptly reappeared, almost bumping into Pearce, her light momentarily blinding him. The expression on her face made his heart stop. Above her mask, her eyes darted wildly. She struggled to speak. “No! I…. I can’t believe this!

What?” Sullivan shouted.

In two seconds the other three turned into the opening, with Appleton trailing. Their shaky lamps lit up the banks of a large computer main-frame. Pearce’s mouth opened but emitted no sounds. He staggered back, reaching for a wall. “What in…?

This is not poss—” Commander Sullivan’s voice choked off.

They gaped in silence at the dull-silver inscription across the top of the mainframe:

DestinyOrganization’sRestoration andInvigoration System

DORIS….” Appleton rasped.

Pearce ripped his mask off and flung it over his shoulder, letting it hang from the tank by the hose. A cough burst from his lungs into the pungent, dead air that he knew was slowly being replaced by outside air. His legs were jelly. Bending and clasping his knees to brace him-self, he retched twice, making his throat burn and his eyes sting and water.

He raked the back of his hand across his mouth and straightened. Breathing hard, he said out of a dry throat, “I… believe…this is the smaller ship assembled in orbit alongside Hope. It was intended to be a rescue ship if Hope had gone to Mars and had trouble.” He took a moment to further calm himself. “But to know anything for sure, to answer all the baffling questions flying around in our skulls, we have to find the Captain’s Log. Let’s pray it was safeguarded and preserved.”

The other three removed their masks, letting them dangle from the tanks. Commander Sullivan, leaning against a wall, nodded, her lamplight bouncing wildly off the ceiling and walls. “It obviously left earth after we did. But since it had to be reconfigured, it could not have left sooner than at least several months after. And it must have an advanced engine that brought it here…thousands of years earlier? That has to be the answer.”

Yes. But same engine,” said Pearce, looking around, his light sweeping. “The craft’s smaller mass meant faster speed.” He trained his light on a door opposite the main frame. “There’s our way to the cockpit.”

My head’s spinning,” said Ross.

Mine, too,” Appleton said, with a surprising note of sympathy. She quickly added, “Don’t take that the wrong way.”

In her light, he smiled dryly. “I won’t. Thanks anyway. Oh, and don’t take that thewrong way.”

Ice it, you two,” said Pearce. “I want to do this clean and quick.”

They removed their masks and tanks and laid them on the floor to be recovered later. Moving rapidly toward the door, Pearce heard Commander Sullivan shout to his back: “Jason, wait. You realize the asteroid must have missed!”

He paused at the door and looked at her. “Yes. Or did far less damage than projected.”

So if civilization survived, why is this ship here?”

That’s one reason we need the log, which I hope isn’t digital.”

And the ship’s passengers. Did they soon die off? Otherwise, wouldn’t they have reproduced exponentially, built whole cities, states, even nations, in all that time?”

I’m hoping the log will explain.”

But what if the cockpit door is locked?”

He allowed himself a smile. “Did I mention I brought along my personal stash of C4 and detonators for just such an occasion?”

Ross and Appleton caught up. Her light beam wavered. “Captain,” she said weakly, “I’m feeling funny. Think I’m running a fever.” She dropped her Geiger, which hit the metal floor with a brutal thud that made them jump. Sullivan scooped it up and secured it to her belt.

Appleton’s knees started buckling.

Lia!” yelled Ross, catching her. He slowly lowered her to the floor, one hand under her neck. “Look at me!”

Her glistening forehead knitted as her eyes struggled to focus on his face.

Talk to me!” Ross demanded, panic rising in his voice.

Tom—? My wingman… You always had my six. My … bad. Go on … without me. I’ll wait….”

Lia, no way am I leaving you. You’re not thinking clearly.”

Is she…really your cousin?”

Wha–? Lia, was! Damn it, yes, she was my cousin. And she’s been dead for thousands of years!” He paused as if absorbing that for the first time. He twisted, fixed his headlamp on Pearce and Sullivan. “She’s running a temp. You two go on. I’ll take her to the ladder. Charles’ll help me haul her up and back to the ship.”

Looks like she’s got what Doc says the others have,” said Pearce. He cursed under his breath. To Tom, he said, “Don’t speak to anyone but Diaz about this ship. And remind Charles and his crew to keep quiet. If any of you is asked about Sull and me, the answer is we’re still exploring and will return shortly. I don’t want rumors flying around. And panic. I’ll explain everything to them when we get back, hopefully with some clues about this mysterious ‘disease.’ And about what happened to Earth.”

Ross nodded, rising and hoisting Appleton to her feet. Almost effortlessly, he wrangled her small frame onto his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. “Hasta la vista.”

Pearce turned to Sullivan. “Full throttle up.”

VI

Captain Pearce and Commander Sullivan dashed into a long, wide compartment, then stopped in their tracks. Their lights bathed row after row of preservation cylin-ders, all open and empty.

They must have died outside,” said Sullivan, her fore-head furrowed in bewilderment when Pearce turned her way.

He tapped her arm. “We have to go.” They raced past the cylinders toward the cockpit, the pounding of their boots echoing off the bulkhead walls.

Pearce held his light steady ahead. “The cockpit door! It’s open!”

Nearly out of breath, Sullivan said, “I think they were hoping we’d find their ship.”

Inside the cockpit they quickly took seats. “The safe,” said Pearce. “Where? Here! Damn! It’s locked. After all this—!”

Sealed to protect the contents,” Sullivan suggested.

Pearce blew out air. “You’re right. If they banked on us getting inside — assuming we ever found their ship — and made it easy for us to move about, that means they wanted us to have access to everything, including the safe.”

He looked around, then returned his light to the safe. He leaned closer and scraped his hand back and forth along the front edge of the safe’s top. “Looks like…a crude etching. Numbers. Eight, nine, ten numbers. The combination! They made sure we could open it without blowing off the door and damaging the contents.”

After punching in the combination and wrenching the safe door open, he directed his light inside. “There. A log just like mine. Good old ink-pen technology.”

He opened the log on a retractable table. “The date! 7 November 124,583!”

That’s…more than fourteen thousand years ago!” cried Commander Sullivan. “Incredible, now that we actually confirm it.” Her tone softened. “In space…how close did they pass by us, I wonder.”

Pearce shook his head once in disbelief, began scanning the log.

The essential personnel data,” he mumbled impatiently, his finger tracing down the lines of the first page. “Crew names, ranks. Passenger list. Fifty total. Ship’s captain is…Norma Binson.” He paused. “The ship was renamed Hope II. Decent of them.” He went on. “Here. Departure date 24 May 2050. Two years after we left!”

So what the hell happened?”

The asteroid obviously wasn’t a planet killer,” he said rapidly, “which is hard to believe. But maybe in time it was going to be, by destroying all life as a result of long-term effects: global fires, toxic ash encircling Earth, blocking sunlight and creating a winter holocaust that caused vegetation to die, then herbivores, then carni—”

He felt her hand on his arm. He resumed skimming pages. “Binson must have made notes about the asteroid to keep us out of the dark…. Wait — Bingo!” He read aloud from a section dated 15 April 2050, which Binson had dubbed simply “Pre-stasis”:

Immediately after the grav tug rocket veered off and missed the asteroid, people everywhere in the Global Media began demanding that nukes and the orbital laser cannons be used to deflect it, despite scientists’ warning that both used together would be useless to deter an object of this mass and momentum. Several countries — Russia, China, and France, as well as the U.S. and others — coordinated a simultaneous launch of hundreds of missiles programmed to detonate together as laser cannons fired. This effort did alter the asteroid’s path, causing a near-miss of Earth, but the blasts splintered off a 700-meter chunk which, unfortunately, slammed into the caldera at Yellowstone National Park. The impact and the crust’s subsequent bounce created such a disturbation that volcanologists predicted an extinction-class eruption in the caldera to occur sometime in early June 2050.”

When Sullivan softly gasped, Pearce realized he was holding his own breath. He exhaled. Extinction-class! He knew about the huge caldera. The 70-kilometer-wide volcano beneath it erupted roughly every 600,000 years, the last eruption occurring about 640,000 years ago. An eruption could end life as efficiently as the asteroid.

In the oppressive darkness and silence of the buried Hope II, he said numbly, “If you shake a can of pop, then snap off the tab — boom.It blows. That’s what the asteroid chunk set up to happen with the magma and poisonous gases trapped below the caldera.”

He looked at Commander Sullivan. Her eyes glistened.

Jason, we are the last members of the human race.”

Did she just now realize that? Or had she until now clung to the hope that life on Earth somehow hadn’t perished and would go on? Who, he had to admit, would not cling to that hope?

She angrily arced her hand. “Why did Hope II make a 122,000-year journey to a planet that might turn out to be uninhabitable? Why not just orbit earth in a preserved state for a few thousand years to give Earth time to heal?”

Sull, I think you know the answer as well as I do. In that time span, how often would the ship have collided with space junk and the countless satellites, to say nothing of meteors? The collisions over the years might’ve caused a decay orbit, which would’ve brought the ship back down into the atmosphere while Earth, too,was still uninhabitable. Their DORIS would’ve been activated to begin restoring everyone. Then Captain Binson, on learning of the premature entry, would’ve had to re-implement preservation — assuming they had extra preserving gel to do that — while oxygen and other valuable resources were being wasted. I suppose DORIS could’ve been programmed to first verify the elapsed time after she was activated, detect that it was too early, then take the ship out of the atmosphere and into orbit again. But this process could have repeated dozens if not hundreds of times over just a few thousand years, putting the ship at risk of running out of fuel and DORIS’ power supply being exhausted. Not to mention that considering DORIS’s one-percent error capacity, a miscalculation with serious consequences could have been made somewhere along the way.”

Commander Sullivan did a little apologetic toss of her hand. “I know, I know. And anyway, I’m convinced they had a secondary reason for coming here: to colonize this planet so their descendants could surprise us with a new civilization. It would’ve been glorious!”

Yes…,” he said, staring at her and reflecting on the possibilities. His attention then returned to the log. “Oh, here’s a sad note:

‘The day before Hope II launched, Project Manager Victor Powell committed suicide.’”

“Any reason given?” asked Sullivan.

Nope. Just that statement. Maybe he wasn’t picked for the Hope II journey, either. If so, he of course knew he was doomed, had nothing to live for. No doubt thousands, maybe millions of people chose that ‘easy’ route. Powell’s bitterness, though, struck me as particularly acute; I remember those eyes.” He sighed. “Back to Hope II’s people and what happened to them.” He went to the last pages of the log in Captain Binson’s “Post-Arrival” section. “Her handwriting has deteriorated.” His finger zig-zagged hurriedly over the next two pages, then stopped. “Listen — believe I have something:

Date 7 Nov. 124,583, 13:46: Johnson and Tarasov became ill this a.m., and later Dr. Sato. Sato described her symptoms as flu-like but ruled out a virus. She will do more tests with the minimal equipment she has. But her energy is fading.

Date 8 Nov., 09:15: Four more are ill. Sato has quarantined herself and the others in a dome home on the fringe of the camp. She is communicating via radio, though her voice is weakening. She said her air and soil tests revealed no toxins.”

Captain Pearce marked his place with a fingertip, looked at Sullivan. “This sounds like—!”

The same thing affecting our people!”

A tightness building in his throat, he resumed:

Date 10 Nov., 21:36: Five more sick. Dr. Sato is barely able to work. Moments ago she said she initially had wondered if DORIS had erred in her analysis of the atmosphere. So she deleted DORIS’s analysis result and had her do another from scratch. The exact same analysis was reached. The doctor then reviewed the data on the effects of 581g’s atmosphere. A table in a pamphlet displayed a range of extremes of atmospheric compositions and where in that range humans could endure. She confirmed that 581g’s air fell within that endurance range. She admitted to being perplexed. She said she will continue thinking about it, but her physical state is deteriorating quickly.

Date 11 Nov., 10:19: Dr. Sato is dead. So are Johnson and Tarasov. Another six have become ill. We have converted two more dome homes into quarantines, even though I think this is of little value, since I do not believe we have a contagion.

Date 15 Nov., 18:27: It is looking bleak for us. Forty-four have died as of last night. We have filled a total of six dome homes. I, too, have become ill, and it is difficult to write. A disease ‘that cannot be a disease’ has spread throughout this tiny fledgling group of humans, and has made it certain that we will not achieve our mission of building a civilization to await the passengers of Hope.”

There, that confirms what you said, Sull.”

Date 17 Nov., 07:33: Only three of us are left. This is my final log entry. I have instructed Rachel and Phillipe, who still have strength, to turn on the transponder (though it will last only a few years). They will store the Captain’s Log in the cockpit safe, open or unlock all interior doors, then exit Hope II for the last time, sealing it up as they leave.”

Listen to this — though her handwriting’s a terrible scrawl:

To: Captain Jason Pearce of the Hope: If by some miracle you found this, it saddens my heart knowing what awaits you. I pray that”

That’s it. Her last sentence. Too weak to finish.” Pearce slammed the log shut and tucked it under his arm. “Sull, we have to get back to the ship pronto and figure this out. Otherwise, game over.”

VII

Dr. Diaz stood inside the closed cockpit with Captain Pearce, Commander Sullivan, and Lieutenant Ross. They hardly noticed through the window the activity outside: supplies being carried into dome homes, a rectangle of land being cultivated and readied for seeding….

Diaz had finished reading the highlights of Captain Binson’s log and, like Ross, had mostly recovered from the horrible story about what happened to Earth and to Hope II’s crew. Now she appeared exasperated. “Captain, we’ve got ten more sick! No disease, no radioactivity, no toxins to be found. What, then?”

Captain Pearce dragged the palm of his hand exhaustedly down over his face, then regarded the perplexed doctor thoughtfully.

You said Appleton, too, has stabilized since you put her in quarantine with the others. All of our sick have stabilized; Binson didn’t mention that any of hers had — though ‘stabilized’ doesn’t mean our sick are out of the woods, as you pointed out. All of Binson’s people died. They had virtually the same symptoms. The only difference between our sick and their sickis that ours were quarantined inside and theirs outside, according to Binson. The Earth-level O2 is richer inside the ship because we’ve kept it on and kept the airlock closed behind us for safety. But that shouldn’t matter since 581g’s lower O2, which hasn’t changed since Binson’s time, isn’t harmful.”

Something else….” said Commander Sullivan, her voice tense.

Pearce nodded absently. He looked at Diaz again. “We have to comb through everything. Grab up all your re-cords: atmospheric data printouts, test results acquired on Earth, anything and everything. I don’t know what to look for, but maybe something will stand out.”

As Diaz briskly left the cockpit, he spread his hands and confessed to Sullivan and Ross, “I don’t know where to start.”

They say the beginning’s good, if we’re going to look at everything,” said Ross.

Yeah….” Pearce gave him an acknowledging glance, then gazed upward at no particular spot as he come to doing when addressing DORIS. “DORIS, play back every-thing you said after Hope arrived at the planet and made its first entry into the atmosphere.”

Yes, Captain:

Captain Jason Pearce. Are you fully awake and comprehending, Captain? Air is reestablished. Nutrients are supplied. Lighting up. Your preservation gel has been siphoned away. Your brain and heart are functioning normally. The Restoration Handbook states that everyone must remain on board for three hours to allow the ship’s oxygen to fully purge your body of the gel residue.”

DORIS, stop.”

Diaz had returned loaded with binders and stapled documents. She lowered them onto a shelf Pearce had pulled down out of a bulkhead niche.

Bear with me,” Pearce said to her. “You did verify our air quality, O2 level?”

Of course,” she replied, not without a bit of defensive tightness across the bridge of her nose.

Excluding me, what about everyone’s heart and brain function?”

Took a few hours but I checked everyone to the extent I could with my limited equipment. I found nothing and DORIS confirmed my findings, to the extent she could.”

Okay, a ‘maybe’ area we can revisit later if necessary. And the gel residue? Fully purged from everyone after three hours?”

A hint of irritation flashed in her eyes. “You know I don’t have nano probes or even a decent microscope. Couldn’t examine them on a cellular level. Anyway, DORIS said—”

Pearce wiped sweat from his upper lip. “I know. Three hours and the gel’s gone. But somebody once said, ‘Trust but verify.’ That certainly applies when it comes to a machine without 100 percent reliability. You’ve personally verified everything — to the extent you could — except the gel purge. So that’s an unknown, as for as I’m concerned. It’s probably a pointless trail, but we should look at it anyway. Pull out the Restoration Handbook — which Victor Powell told me I’d never need! — and find the section on the gel.”

Moments later she rotated the handbook toward him. Her finger tapped. “Here.”

Have you read it yourself yet?”

No,” Dr. Diaz replied. “I’ve had my hands full.”

He nodded. He skimmed, then read aloud from a mid-page paragraph: “In a variety of atmospheric compositions, the gel, which permeates and preserves … so forth and so on … was found to be completely purged after three hours … Well, I guess there’s nothing here — Wait —!” Pearce’s voice choked off. He thought his head would explode. “I—I can’t believe this!It says ‘completely purged after three hours in Rhesus monkeys and lemurs!’ In goddamn animals! In humans, it saysthe minimum time for complete purging is three days’!”

Commander Sullivan gasped. “DORIS…she made a critical error. Substituted —”

Hours for days!” exclaimed Pearce. A dark thought hit him. Was this Victor Powell’s prophecy being fulfilled, proof humans didn’t deserve to survive?

Tom Ross sputtered furiously, “Well, that craters my morale to hell. Those fraggin’ engineers. Couldn’t make DORIS 100 percent error-free, and humanity will pay the price. Never put your total faith in a machine!”

Diaz had her head down, the back of her fist pressed against her lips. Her eyes showed she was frantically trying to gather her thoughts. Finally, understanding seemed to work across her face. She looked at Pearce. “If the gel residue’s still in us when we’re outside, the lower oxygen can’t fully purge it. The gel’s likely trapped at the microtubule level long enough to interfere with normal cell function, blocking adenosine triphosphate from supplying the energy for powering cells…which could lead to a lethal breakdown of organs….”

Tremendous relief exploded through Pearce. He gave Diaz a thankful gaze. “You did a wonderful thing. You put our sick into the compartment where they breathed the ship’s oxygen—”

Which,” she said, her own relief evident, “was sufficient to break down the gel and flush it out of their bodies. As was designed to happen.” She shook her head and smiled grimly. “And to think that just before you and Commander Sullivan returned, I was preparing to put all of the sick back outside, figuring the fresh air might help!” Her smile brightened and she alternately looked at Sullivan and Pearce. “Thank our lucky galaxies, we have a five-day supply of O2 left!”

Pearce turned to Ross. “Get everybody inside and lock down!”

VIII

Captain Jason Pearce, along with Commander Faye Sullivan and Lieutenant Tom Ross, had gathered in the computer-systems niche near the quarantine compartment. They stood slightly behind and to the side of Charles Duncan, who, still a hulking presence without his exo, had lit up DORIS’ monitors. They watched the former cyber cop intently. One of his big hands scampered back and forth across a keyboard. The fingers of the other gesticulated in the air, alternately spreading, pinching, and twirling, engaging a large holographic display. These motions magnified, paused, then backgrounded one layer after another of a complex, hierarchical computer-code schematic.

Applied stochastic processes…. Scanned her neural networks, generative and learning algorithms, associative memories, all twelve billion or so of her main and sub-routines, ARA — that’s abstractions, problem reformulations, and approximations that give her with a decent version of human common sense — etc., etc. No glitches, no viruses— “

“So what’s the subtext to your argot here?” mumbled Ross. Was he rankled by the technobabble, as was Pearce somewhat?

“Keep your blouse on, Lieu-y,” Duncan said, giving Ross glancing attention. “Don’t want fall through a trap door. I know you’re all buzzed up about that three-hours thing…. Rounding third to home. Now checking updates, most recent programming activity… Hold on… Okay, have something. Yeah…about that, the three hours. It’s not an error we can pin on DORIS’s infamous one-percent unreliability. ‘Tweren’t an error at all; DORIS didn’t retrieve the wrong word by way of, say, a referencing failure due to her aged circuitry. Nope, ‘hours’ showed up in place of ‘days’ solely as the result of human intervention. So what are we talking about? Not glad you asked.” His finger tapped twice at a line of green code in a narrow data column near the edge of the hologram. “Right here; it’s time-stamped. The system recorded the deletion and substitution at 22:36, May 27, 2048, a week before we left. This, sorry to say, appears to be plain old sabotage.”

Sullivan and Ross, stunned and speechless, stared at Duncan. Pearce felt the stirrings of nausea.

A fraggin’ saboteur?” Ross spat. “What bastard would do something like that?”

On both ships!” cried Sullivan.

Duncan eyed the Captain. “Any ideas?”

Pearce caught Sullivan’s anguish fading as she faced him squarely, reading him. “Jason…? What? …Yes. I can see it in your eyes — you know who it is, don’t you?”

Ross spoke. “One of the passengers?” He then raked his eyes across the three: “One of us?

Pearce put up his hands. “No! No no no. No one on this ship. It was …. Victor Powell.”

The three exchanged glances. “You sure?” asked Sullivan.

A lot of the people working on the project,” continued Pearce, “were angry over not being picked for the journey. But only Powell had everything that was needed to pull off something like this. Only he was authorized to access DORIS’s database. He had knowledge not only about DORIS but also about the preservation gel. He was the only project worker who didn’t have supervision constantly peering over his shoulder; he was supervision. He must have had the opportunity to make the change during his walk-through of the ship four nights before his final meeting with me, when he went up with a crew of inspectors.”

The Captain shook his head. Powell, reaching out across the millennia and trillions of miles, had tried to fulfill his prophecy that the human race should die!

Sullivan spoke: “But why not do any one of many other things more efficient at killing us? Why not program DORIS to stay in sleep mode when we entered the atmosphere? We would’ve crashed and all been killed instantly.”

That kind of reprogramming,” Duncan asserted, “is more complex and would’ve taken far too long. Powell probably wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible without attracting curious eyes.”

Pearce nodded. “Which would also explain why he didn’t steal the gel handbook.”

A quick and easy word substitution was the ticket.”

My hunch is,” Pearce continued, glancing at each of them, “it wasn’t premeditated. His bitterness and anger may have peaked and driven him mad, and the word-switching idea came to him while he was putting DORIS through a final series of tests.”

Sullivan looked at the Captain. “He committed suicide probably because he came to his senses and was over-whelmed with guilt.”

Ross quietly cleared his throat. “I hope so. But I guess it really doesn’t matter anymore.”

Well, I suppose that’s that,” Duncan said. His index finger descended on the ENTER key with dramatic flair. “I declare DORIS to be ninety-nine point nine percent error free!” He added with a grin: “Best I can do.”

Dr. Angela Diaz approached from the quarantine compartment wearing the vestige of a smile despite appearing frazzled. The smile evaporated as Pearce began telling her about Powell.

Finally, with no small tinge of bitterness in her voice, she said, “Single-handedly he almost terminated what’s left of the human species. He was apparently not just angry but insane. Probably driven that way, like many others, by all the horrors coming down on us.”

Yes,” agreed Pearce. “And he no doubt felt greatly cheated knowing that his life-long love — the Mars mission — was snatched away from him at the very last moment.”

Diaz continued: “At least now I understand why he okayed a useful but not totally necessary 200-pound exoskeleton — but not an extra 200 pounds of badly needed medical tools that would have cracked our mysterious ‘disease.’ The man wanted us to die.”

And I understand,” said Pearce, “why he seemed so insistent that I rely not on the handbook but solely on DORIS for any questions about the gel.”

Diaz shook her head in disgust, then took a deep breath. “Okay, some good news. All of my patients are recovering. And I don’t anticipate relapses.”

The other three expressed their relief. Sullivan lightly applauded.

How’s this for recovery, Doc?” Everyone turned to see Ensign Lia Appleton. She’d walked out of the quarantine compartment without assistance. Though pale and weak-looking, she seemed grateful to be on her feet. “Most of us are up and milling around. They’ll be walking out soon.” She looked quizzically at Diaz. “Tell me, why were we affected at different times, to different degrees?”

A simple matter of our different physiological makeups, different matabolisms,” Diaz replied pleasantly. “Same reason people are affected differently by ordinary meds.” She looked from Appleton to Pearce. “She seems strong enough. We can bring her up to speed on everything.”

A few moments later and composed, Appleton shook her head. “I feel so terrible for Captain Binson and her people.”

They didn’t die in vain,” said Sullivan. “If it hadn’t been for them….”

True, but let’s be honest,” Pearce said, “a lot of credit has to go to the Doc here. If she hadn’t kept the sick on board, a lot of lives would have been—”

Diaz waved him off. “Thank you, but I was only making it convenient for myself. As I told you, I was planning to move the sick back outside into the ‘fresh’ air!” She did a “Whew!” and swiped at her forehead.

You’re all forgetting Tom,” said Appleton. She directed a rueful smile at the Lieutenant.

Ross stiffened a bit and returned a questioning, semi-hard stare. “Say again?”

Though Ross had clearly been happy to see Appleton up and about, Pearce figured the man had to be asking himself: Now that she’s back to normal, is she back to normal?

Her smile broadened. “Just think,” she said to the others, keeping her eyes on Ross. “If Tom hadn’t had a bladder issue at that moment, and hadn’t been such a clumsy oaf….” She moved tentatively over to Ross, reading his face, and put her arms around his waist. “People are too important, life is too precious, for you and me to be so petty and mean to each other. We need to reboot.”

Well, knock me over with a hummingbird feather. Finally, a fraggin’ hug out of you!”

You still have my ring?”

He patted his side. “Right here, Apple Of My Eye.”

Resting her head against his chest, she said to Pearce, “I know it’s not above your pay grade to hitch up couples.”

Pearce laughed. “True enough.”

Sullivan was gazing vacantly at the floor.

S-u-l-l…,” he teased, “what’s going on?”

She glanced up, then off to the side. “Oh, nothing. Was just…you know….wondering.” Her gaze shifted to the other side of Pearce. “Jason, do you think you…and I… we could ever—?”

Commander!” barked Pearce. “I—”

Sullivan had put her palms up. “No no no no. I was just, you know, thinking hypothetically—” Her hands dropped, fidgeted with each other for a second, then stopped. “Okay, cards on the table, and I don’t give a crap who hears.” After she gave the others a quick glance, her face took on an apologetic, almost painful look. “Jason, remember when I told you I divorced my ex-husband because he changed his mind about wanting kids? Well, that was only part of it. I divorced him mainly because I fell in love with you. I have loved you practically from the day we met.” Flashing an uncomfortable-looking smile, she interlaced her fingertips and gave him a relaxed — relieved? — gaze. “There.”

Pearce felt himself blush. “Hey … back atcha. Sull, I was—“

Get a grip on those emotions, Captain,” laughed Ross.

By the way, sir,” said Appleton, “I did catch you and the Commander taking your eye off the ball a time or two and putting it a bit too long on each other.”

At ease, everybody. As I was saying…. Sull, I was about to float an idea before you interrupted me. Glad you did now, because I didn’t know how you were going to react. I was going to put my cards on the table and ask what would you think about a double wedding. I’ll authorize Diaz to perform the ceremony.”

Her small, nervous smile burst into a grin. “Well, we are going to need lots of babies around here!”

The first one’s on the way.” Appleton drew all eyes again. She beamed sheepishly up at Ross. “Dr. Diaz tells me I’m two months along. That means she’s another one who’s only 99 percent error free. Obviously I’ve been pregnant for almost 137,000 years! I want to be the first entry in the next Guinness Book of Records.”

As they laughed, Pearce placed his hand on the small of Sullivan’s back and guided her away.

Sull, we have to go on at least one date before getting married, you know.”

Cracking jokes about cheap dates and where to honey-moon, they ambled their way fore, dodging fast-moving children playing hide-and-seek among the cylinders and passenger seats, and waving hello to knots of adults inspecting and fussing over equipment removed from containers. Once inside the cockpit, they stood admiring the colorful landscape of the human race’s new Earth.

It really is beautiful,” she said softly. “Good water, fertile ground. We’re going to make it.” She took his hand and looked at him with misty eyes. “I don’t know how to thank you for urging me to sign on with you, though you know now you didn’t have to try too hard.”

Victor Powell, Hope’s Captain Jason Pearce thought, had been wrong. “We do deserve to live,” he said to her quizzical look.

Never mind.” He quickly added without the slightest attempt to smile: “There is a way we can thank each other. DORIS — and you’d better be 100-percent reliable on this — close the cockpit door.”

See my much shorter story “Swirling Away.What could shock you more than knowing you’re going to die in just a few seconds?

Want to contact Jerry? jabbog48152@yahoo.com

Dear Reader,

Getting to the end of this story means you possess far more patience than the average Web reader, who apparently skims and then jumps to another site after about ten seconds. My congratulations on your persevernce!

TECH NOTES AND ATTRIBUTION:

Gliese 581g, a real planet, was discovered on September 29, 2010. See info at Universetoday.com.

118 Libra is not a real star; hence 118 Libra c is not a real planet.

Artist’s impression of Gliese 581 & planets. Credit: Lynette Cook; NASA

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