"This is peculiar," Commander Tava Dupree said, biting her
lower lip in perplexity. She peered out the viewport and gazed
upon the alien village in the distance. Thirty-five maroon-colored
boxes, all approximately five feet high, dotted the rocky valley
before her. "Where is everybody?"
"No one's home," Floyd Terrel declared, removing his helmet.
Terrel was studying to be an astrobiologist and was the youngest
member of the crew. Despite his acknowledged intelligence,
he often displayed resentment to authority. He took a deep
breath of air, held it in satisfaction, and then released it.
"It's good to be back on IZZY again (He referred to their space
ship, the ISS-3). Damn space suit's the stuffiest damn thing
I ever been in. How ya supposed to breathe in these damn things?"
turned her attention to Terrel and Lia Thynmu, who were removing
their space suits. "You were out there for nearly four hours.
Didn't you pick up ANY signs of life?"
happened here," Lia added, "we missed it."
just the question I've been asking myself," Tava replied, as she
headed back to the conference area on the ship. "What happened
here? When you're done changing come back to the conference
table. We're having a meeting."
and her damn meetings," Terrel muttered after she had departed.
"We've been on this planet for a day now and we've done nothing
but have meetings."
organized," Lia countered. "You gotta give her that."
was all he replied.
Gordon was sitting at the conference table, reviewing the latest
transmission from Earth.
news from home, Gordy?" Tava asked him. She stood behind him,
looking over his shoulder at the computer screen.
reviewing the transmissions they've been getting from this planet
the last three-and-a-half years. No conclusions, yet.
It seems the last transmission was received six months ago.
Since then, nothing but silence."
concurs with what we've found here," Tava said as she seated herself.
and Terrel entered the room and promptly seated themselves at the
conference table. Tava cleared her throat to signal the beginning
of the meeting, but Gordon continued to stare at his computer.
right," Tava began. "I think we should review all the facts
concerning this mission before we proceed any further. Gordy,
what've you found out?"
Gordon was the oldest member of the crew at age fifty-two and was
already completely gray. He was still in excellent shape and
possessed a sharp mind. Commander Dupree felt more comfortable
with him aboard. They were old acquaintances and she confided
in him frequently.
Communications Engineer cleared his throat and began. "We
all know we were sent on this mission when radio telescopes on Earth
picked up unusual transmissions coming from this system. The
transmissions could not be deciphered at that time. I've been
in contact with Earth all morning . . . Well, at least I'm
reviewing that latest stuff they sent us, which is about three months
old, thanks to the distance that separates us. But I have
learned the following: The transmissions that the Earth received
from this planet lasted for three-and-a-half years, and are still
undecipherable. And the transmissions ceased nearly six months
ago - that's six months REAL time."
while we were in hibernation making the interstellar voyage," Terrel
interrupted, "the signals coming from this planet were discontinued?"
We are now on a world that, for over three years, was emitting either
a distress signal or a greeting signal to whoever could hear them.
Considering the absence of intelligent life on this planet, we can
assume that the signal was a distress signal."
a warning to stay away," Terrel added. He ran his fingers
through his curly blonde hair. His thoughts strayed for a
moment and he wondered if Lia had noticed his sharp deductive mind.
Tava agreed. "Either way, we're here. All right, I know
our original mission was mapping asteroids. And I know you
all expected to be home after the completion of that two month mission.
But in our business, we do as we're told and we accept the assignments
we receive. I didn't want to lose seven years of Earth time
any more than you did." She gazed at Terrel before continuing.
"But frankly, I'm excited by this mission. We have a chance
to encounter alien life forms and make first contact with them.
If that isn't enough to stimulate your blood, then think of this
as a mystery. What the hell happened here? Why did they
emit those radio waves? And for what purpose?
our designated mission, before we were put into hibernation, was
to make contact with the intelligent forms of life on this planet
and assist them in any way possible. Since that life form
is no longer here - or in hiding - we are now going to learn what
happened to them. Terrel, you're the expert on alien cultures
(God forgive me for diminishing the title 'expert', she thought
to herself). Besides the tablets, what did you and Lia find
paused before answering. He recognized that the preceding
pep talk was directed at him and he resented Commander Dupree's
insinuation that he was someone not performing up to the cheerful
standards set down by the Space Agency. He sighed before replying.
"Life. Some life, anyway. The birds here are so damn
incredible. I already told you of the tablets we found inside
those square structures. I think those structures are their
homes, but there's no way of knowing for sure. When we entered
them, and by the way, their doors slide up and over, not in and
out . . . Anyway, we found some artifacts inside them.
A purple, round ball that sort of looks like a crystal. Several
small objects that are unidentified. And those tablets."
are being scanned for alien viruses or bacteria and is being decontaminated,"
The tablets are square, transparent, solid, an inch thick, and have
markings contained inside them. Light as hell, too."
Gordon asked incredulously. "If they're writings, how did
they get on the inside?"
I don't know. Anyway, they'll be ready for translation in
be waiting," Gordon eagerly replied. Translating Earth documents
was a simple feat for the Translating Scanner he had personally
designed. But to attempt to interpret an alien language was
an opportunity that even he had never anticipated.
else?" Tava asked Terrel.
Oh, on the top and in the center of every one of those square houses
is a pink-spinning disk, about the size of my fist. I have
no idea how the damn thing is still spinning, but my guess is that
it's some type of communication device that links all the homes
together. It might even connect them to other villages or
Dupree said, her eyebrows raised in curiosity. "It may be
that the entire planet is linked. Perhaps by some satellite
or a large network of computers."
be my guess."
are some peculiarities of the planet," Lia entered the conversation.
"Nearly everywhere we looked was the color red or some shade of
it. The pink thorny plants, the square houses, the red dirt,
the crimson sky . . . Everything. You name it and it's
a shade of red or deep red. I don't know if it's significant
but I think it's bizarre."
replied, "We already ran tests on the dirt. A lot of rust,
essentially. Probably some copper out there, too. At
least it sure looks like the hills are lined with it. That's
why they're red. The rest probably isn't significant.
Remember, most plant life on Earth is green - here's it's red.
Maybe it's no big deal. The temperature's great, about 18
degrees out there now at mid-day. Last night it hit a low
of 2 degrees. Unfortunately, the air is very heavy and toxic.
A ton of heavy, inert gases. We couldn't live here."
until you see the birds," Lia noted.
Terrel snickered. "Simply bizarre."
you're going out . . ."
you better take a laser like we did."
was already planning it. Gordy, you ready?"
had been studying the computer screen and appeared startled to hear
his name. "Commander, I've got to translate those tablets.
This is the chance of a lifetime."
can do that later."
His voice was growing in panic. "You've got to let me do it
now. Send out Terrel again or Lia. Hell, I'll go out
later. Double shift if you want. But not now.
Right now is too important. I've been waiting my entire life
for an opportunity like this . . ."
right, all right, Gordy," Tava said with a smile, as she tried to
appease him. She glanced up at Terrel, let out a sigh, and
then turned to Lia. "Can you go?"
don't you relax for thirty minutes. Then we'll head out."
slighted once again, Terrel stomped his foot down and exclaimed,
"Damn her!" He headed for his cabin.
are those tablets ready?" Gordon asked Lia.
smiled as she stood to leave. "Don't worry, you'll be notified."
Tava Dupree stared out the viewport once again at the rocky, red
landscape before her. What happened here? The monumental
implications of a barren world on a planet once populated by a species
that had achieved interstellar communication did not escape her.
What she and the rest of the crew of the ISS-3 did or did not do
could shape the fate of Earth.
ironically, she suddenly found herself turning her thoughts inward
and contemplating her own life. She felt the pressure growing
on her as the mission continued into its second day and its first
twenty-four hours. There were other African-American women
who had commanded ships before in the Space Agency. She was
not alone in that respect. But even she had not anticipated
the mission that had been assigned to her. This was now the
most-watched, most-discussed mission on Earth. It would be
her chance to shine. To become a hero. To make history.
Or to fail.
was her first command - a routine asteroid mapping in a remote sector
of space. And she had not even been given the best crew to
serve under her. The Space Agency had assigned her castoffs
that the more senior officers had rejected. It was, after
all, supposed to be a simple mission. So the crew that she
had been assigned was a ragtag lot at best.
Gordon was ten years her senior and although he was the easiest
to get along with, he seemed more interested in his computers than
developing any close personal relationship with her. They
had been acquaintances since her first days in the Space Agency.
But they had never become close personal friends.
Terrel was her personal thorn. He obeyed her orders, but seemed
to question everything she said and did. This was only his
second mission and the youngster had still not learned his place
in the command structure of the Space Agency. Perhaps it was
up to her to teach him.
young Asian girl, Lia Thynmu, was entirely too silent to suit her.
She could understand Gordon and Terrel, but Lia was an enigma.
This was her first mission as ship's pilot. And although she
seemed confident of her abilities, she seldom spoke of anything
but the mission at hand.
weren't the best group the Space Agency had ever placed together,
but they were in the right sector of space at the right time and
that was why they were assigned the mission. The nearest Interstellar
Space Ship would not reach this destination for at least seven months.
Thus, Tava's historical mission was somewhat of a fluke. And
perhaps more than anything else, that frustrated her the most.
She had earned the right to command this mission without having
an asterisk attached beside her name in some history book.
Would she be remembered as a woman who had been the beneficiary
of fate? Or would any achievements she attained here, be listed
as just one more accomplishment in her long resume. She could
only hope and pray that it was her ability and personal achievements
that would be best remembered. Let the historians judge her
for that and only that.
stood at the decontamination airlock where the eight alien tablets
were being scanned for microscopic life forms. He anxiously
counted the seconds until the tests were complete. "No sign
of infection, yet," he called to Tava.
much more time?" she asked.
was behind Gordon, looking over his shoulder at the tablets.
Appearing still disgruntled, he turned to Tava. "Commander,
there's no evidence of intelligent life out there. What do
ya say, we fly on out of here and head to the next town? There
might be a welcoming committee forming in some village just over
climbed into her space suit as she replied. "These were the
first structures we came upon as we descended through the atmosphere.
We'll stay here and gather more artifacts and search for life forms.
We'll fly out of here after that's done and not before."
I decide. Don't worry, you'll be informed when the time comes.
But you can rest assured, Floyd Terrel, that it'll be MY decision.
Is that clear? Now why don't you get to work. There's
plenty to occupy your time while we're gone. A ton of tests
have to be run yet. Gordy will show you what needs to be done."
fumed out of the room and stormed back to his compartment.
He passed Lia on the way, who was downing a green liquid stimulant
to fight off fatigue. She was already suited and ready to
Commander," she announced.
won't stay out too long. You were already out once and I don't
want to wear you out."
ready!" Gordon announced excitedly. "And no sign of alien
microbes. The decontamination worked."
Tava replied. "Start the translation. But I want you
to keep in contact with us at all times. So keep the waves
open back at the Translator."
do. Are you going armed?"
grabbed two laser pistols from the weapon cabinet. "What do
you think?" she said with a wink.
Hey, see if you can find any more tablets. The Translator
can use all the input possible to get a more precise interpretation
of the language."
luck out there."
nodded and the two women entered the air lock. "Can you hear
me?" Commander Dupree asked Lia. They were communicating by
radio through their space helmets.
departed the spacecraft and stepped onto the rocky, red terrain.
The crimson sky had remained cloudless since their landing but the
light emitted from the planet's small sun was feeble. Consequently,
it was no lighter than a dark, cloudy day back on Earth. Wilted,
thorny bushes dotted the landscape. Mountain ranges stretched
endlessly around them from their point in the valley. There
were no roads or bridges. No evidence that this was anything
but a barren isolated region lying far from civilization on an alien
world. No evidence, that is, but the thirty-five maroon boxes
stretched out in no discernible pattern before them. And even
each of them appeared isolated, as a good hundred feet or more separated
them from one another.
they approached the first box, Lia suddenly pointed to the sky.
An alien bird was passing overhead at a height of about twenty feet.
Tava thought to herself that the word 'bird' was an erroneous term
to apply to what moved in the sky above her. It was truly
the most peculiar flying creature she had ever seen.
pink creature was shaped like a foot-long screw, with a broad posterior
narrowing to a sharp point in the front, laced with grooved indentations
spiraling up its body. There were no eyes or wings - no appendages
at all. The bird's skin appeared to have a texture of rubber
and it didn't truly fly as much as it floated. It propelled
itself forward by a turn of its body, much like a screw being screwed
into wood. With each spin it advanced several feet before
slowing to a halt. It floated motionlessly for several seconds
before another turn moved it forward yet again. Tava and Lia
studied it for several minutes until the bird's painstaking slow
movement pushed it beyond them.
finally turned to Lia who had seen one before during her first excursion.
"If that's a bird then I'm a reptile."
Isn't it?" Lia replied.
guess is that it uses the heaviness of the atmosphere much as a
fish uses water. Did you notice? It appeared to be floating
through the air."
you've seen no other creatures?"
it. Not even insects."
makes you wonder what the birds eat. Or how the plants pollinate."
Tava surveyed the lone plant life within fifty feet of her.
The sparsely branched, thorny, pale-red bush stood about two feet
high but possessed no flowers. Perhaps pollination wasn't
required on this world. But how then did plants reproduce?
women moved ahead and came to the first box.
were in this one already," Lia noted. "Not much inside except
some unknown artifacts."
about some of the others up ahead?"
only entered ten of them. And we marked each one we entered."
Lia Thynmu pointed to the dirt ground at the base of the entrance.
An 'X' was marked there.
move. Let's go on."
passed by several more boxes. Tava studied their exterior
and discovered them all to be identical. The boxes were about
five feet high, constructed of metal, and appeared airtight.
Except for the doors, which were barely discernible to her, they
possessed no windows or markings of any kind. The doorway
stretched the entire length of the side and with difficulty Lia
showed Tava how they flipped up and over the top. No grooves
existed on the door for fingers to grip. Tava also observed
the round, spinning disks on top of the boxes and was satisfied
with their theory that they were probably communication devices.
She estimated the size of each box to be about eight feet long and
wide. It was too small of a dwelling for a human being and
she immediately conjured up images of elf-like creatures as the
seems so strange that there's no road or sidewalks," Tava said to
downtown or country store, either," Lia added. "The dwelling
up ahead wasn't explored before. That'll be our first stop."
was a good two-hundred feet to the next dwelling and for the first
time since leaving the ship, Tava's thoughts turned inward.
The bright, orange space suit she wore was very comfortable and
allowed easy movement of her arms and legs. The recycled air
was cool and refreshing, and although they had traveled some distance
from the ship, she was not perspiring. Fortunately, the gravity
of the alien world was slightly less than that of Earth. That
made her movements easier. She took a deep breath in satisfaction
and moved onward.
next dwelling appeared no different from the rest. And as
they stopped at the front door, Tava ironically found herself wondering
if they should knock first before entering. Lia searched for
a rock to mark the doorway. But the rock she grabbed was larger
than she expected and most of it was still lodged in the ground.
Lia stepped backwards in surprise.
is it?" Tava asked in apprehension. She quickly grabbed for
her laser pistol and pointed it at the rock.
something under there," Lia replied. There was panic in her
reply. "Something green."
cautiously approached the rock and then slowly lifted it out of
the ground. But what she uncovered hardly appeared threatening.
A small puddle of green liquid with a thick consistency was buried
beneath the rock. Pistachio pudding immediately came to her
is it?" Lia questioned her. She still maintained a comfortable
distance from the rock.
don't know. I hope it's not what they drink around here."
mean their water?"
guess. What else could it be? You have your equipment
with you. Get a sample of it. We'll analyze it back
at the ship."
opened her kit and was about to take a sample when Tava suddenly
yelled. "Look out!"
grabbed Lia's arm and pulled her away from the dwelling. All
Lia had seen was a shadow approaching her but Tava might have saved
stood speechless about thirty-feet from the dwelling, laser pistols
ready, observing the alien creature that had seemingly appeared
creature had moved swiftly and now rested over the green liquid,
no doubt devouring it for a meal. The women had never seen
an animal without a body before. But this one appeared to
consist of nothing but thousands of black, wiry flagella, which
looked like long hairs, reaching out in a thousand different directions.
The flagella almost appeared to be electrically charged, wildly
whipping about all around it and above it. Although the absence
of a trunk made it difficult to ascertain its true size, Tava estimated
the creature would probably reach a good twelve feet in length if
it were stretched from end to end.
Gordon's voice suddenly entered the airwaves. "Commander Dupree,
is everything all right?"
fine, Gordy. We've just had our first encounter with terrestrial
there any danger?"
don't believe so. We're prepared. Stay vigilant, though.
And keep this line open. Over."
what do you think it is?" Lia asked.
our standards? It looks something like a spider but I'd say
that's a local scavenger."
doesn't look like the dominant life form of a planet."
probably not. I doubt if it even has a brain. But did
you notice how it suddenly appeared when we exposed the green liquid?"
of like an animal smelling blood," Lia thoughtfully remarked.
the feeling I got."
you think the green liquid may be blood?"
gestured to the dwellings in their vicinity. "Something happened
here. Where the hell is everyone? Think of it.
If you were back on Earth and you came upon a deserted village,
in a country that showed no signs of life, what would you think?"
shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. It's hard to
even consider the possibility."
have. I think there may have been a war here. A world
war devastating enough to leave towns barren, all planetary communication
destroyed, and all intelligent life seeking food and water elsewhere."
mean a nuclear war?"
not sure about nuclear. The radiation level here is well below
normal . . . "
quickly as it had appeared the creature suddenly swept back along
the trail Tava and Lia had followed and disappeared into the ground.
It appeared to propel itself forward by rolling or tumbling in a
by the creature's abrupt actions, Lia cautiously followed it and
studied the area where it had disappeared. She uncovered a
small hole in the ground, no more than an inch wide. She stood
over it, nervously searching for any sign of the creature.
But there was no movement.
at the dwelling, Tava knelt over the ground where the green liquid
had been. It was now bone dry. She began to gather the
equipment Lia had dropped, hoping to at least get a sample of the
Lia suddenly called out to her.
sprung from the ground again. She pulled her laser pistol
from its holster and surveyed the area where Lia was pointing.
Ascending from the nadir of the valley was another spider creature.
Fearing the worst, they quickly scanned the entire horizon.
In the opposite direction, two more creatures moved swiftly over
the rocky terrain toward them.
feeding time," Tava commented.
we head back to the ship?"
let's move on. The other creature didn't bother us.
They're only interested in that green liquid. But they'll
be here in less than a minute, so let's move."
and Lia departed the dwelling, walking as fast as their suits would
allow them. When they had reached an area they deemed safe,
they turned to watch the creatures. One of them arrived before
the others and was instantly attacked by the original spider creature,
which sprung from its hole in the ground the moment its territory
had been infringed. A savage battled ensued. Together
they formed a seemingly thicker creature, as the two intertwined
scavengers rolled like a tumbleweed in the wind. Flagella
whipped wildly about and they twirled and spun in every direction,
battling for territory. The vicious battle lasted less than
of the creatures moved away from the battle-site and it approached
the area where the green liquid had been. The two other creatures,
noticeably smaller, suddenly backed away from the victorious spider.
They circled the area cautiously but then resigned themselves to
devouring the defeated creature which was sprawled out on the rocky,
red ground like a dead jellyfish washed onto a sandy seashore.
wonder who won?" Lia wondered aloud.
don't know but we have a job to do. Let's check out this dwelling."
of what might be inside, they cautiously entered the next structure
with their laser pistols in their hands. But there was no
life inside and the two women breathed easier. Tava Dupree
was surprised by the emptiness of the dwelling, as it contained
only two more tablets, a purple crystal ball, and five small artifacts
that easily fit into her gloved hand. The artifacts consisted
of flat, simple, geometric shapes, all possessing varying shades
of that distinct planetary redness. The floor consisted of
the dirt ground and the dwelling was void of any furniture.
people don't believe in comfort," Tava observed in surprise.
one we've been in is the same. The same purple ball, maybe
a tablet or two, and artifacts."
didn't you collect any of the small artifacts?" Tava questioned
. . . I don't know . . ." She possessed a look of embarrassment
as she now realized that it had been foolish of her and Floyd Terrel
to overlook them.
Dupree shook her head in disbelief. How could two members
of her crew possibly overlook something that was self-evident to
her? If only she had been given a more experienced crew, she
thought. "All right. Let's take everything here and
move onto the next dwelling. I'll fill my bag first."
opened a heavy, metallic-fiber bag she had been carrying at her
side and they began to fill it. And they performed a similar
ritual at the next eight dwellings, with the contents of each dwelling
being the same. Although there was room for several more stops,
Tava observed the sinking sun and decided to return.
were no more signs of the spider creatures but another bird did
pass above them as they headed back to the ship. If any other
life existed on the planet, or in their area, it did not make itself
visible during the daylight hours. Perhaps the nightlife out
here would be more active, Tava thought. It would be interesting
to see what creatures would appear in the dark, although the preceding
evening (their first hours on the planet) had been silent.
But at that moment, she found herself yearning for the safety of
her space ship, instead.
getting worried," Smil Gordon greeted them with a smile. Tava
and Lia entered the spaceship after ten minutes in the decontamination
airlock. Their suits would spend another ten minutes in there
with the artifacts. Then Gordon would have his opportunity
to translate them. "How did it go out there?"
got some more tablets for you. Where's Terrel?"
suggested he get some sleep. He took a sleeping pill and headed
in for a nap."
if we're going to be here for any length of time, then I suggest
we start rotating shifts. We'll need someone for watch tonight."
had not considered that. They had all been awake the previous
night, running tests of the planet. Adrenaline had probably
pushed them through yesterday evening and today but it was now clear
that fatigue was setting in. And they couldn't all sleep at
once. She had overlooked something basic and that troubled
her. It was her first command and she wanted to prove she
was capable of running everything perfectly.
call, Gordy. Lia, you get some sleep next. You've been
through more than anyone."
do you figure?"
state-of-the-art space suits may be more comfortable but they still
wear you down. Get something to eat if you wish and then get
some sleep. I'm going to work out a schedule."
about the food . . ." Gordon began uneasily. "We may have
a slight problem there."
Tava asked abruptly. She was in no mood for bad news.
busted the synthesizing unit. He was . . ."
cringed and continued in a subdued voice. "He overloaded the
circuits back in the first storage room when he was running tests
of the soil from the lab."
the hell did THAT happen?" Tava folded her arms and angrily
stared down Smil Gordon. "Those circuits don't cross!
Weren't you with him? Weren't you watching him?"
kind of got caught up in the translation. Sorry. But
really," he added quickly, "it's not that big a deal. I can
reroute the system in a matter of hours and we've got food to last
us all for two weeks, minimum."
drew her head back, leaned up against the wall, and let out a deep
sigh. Once again, she found herself shaking her head in disbelief
at her crew's ineptitude. But she was a Commander now and
could not afford to display her disappointment or anger. She
composed herself. "You sure it can be fixed?" she questioned
No problem, really. And I apologize for not minding Terrel's
work. But I assumed he knew what he was doing."
Terrel has minimal background in the biological analysis features
of an Interstellar Space Ship. His expertise lies in the Volmor
systems, which are generally found in the Explorer class ships.
If he tries to use the equipment again, I am asking you to monitor
Sorry, I didn't know his background. You didn't mention it
before you left."
was true, Tava thought. Why Floyd Terrel was assigned to this
mission was still a mystery to her. But still, as her senior
crewmember, Smil Gordon should have been more aware of the crew's
abilities and technical expertise. "Well, I'm mentioning it
now," she replied. "Get the unit back up as soon as possible."
led them back to the conference area where the Translating Scanner
was hard at work. "Any luck?"
forgetting the food-synthesizing problem, his face suddenly radiated
with enthusiasm. "This language is simply bizarre! It's
unlike anything I've ever seen before!"
IS alien," she replied. "Will that thing work?"
kidding? It's simply a matter of time. And now we have
some more input. I bet I get it within the hour."
I hold you to that?"
smile disappeared. "You serious?"
patted him on the shoulder and forced a smile. "Give it your
best, Gordy." She and Lia departed the conference area and
headed for storage. It was time for dinner.
Lia turned in, Tava joined Gordon at the conference table.
The food synthesizer problem had been minor and he had completed
the task in less than thirty minutes. So now, he could do
little but watch his Translator continue to decipher the tablets.
The sun had set and a purple twilight covered the valley.
Tava reviewed the events of the day through her mind but was unable
to determine the answers she sought.
are you thinking?" Gordon interrupted her. Restless from sitting
before the translator the entire day, he stood over Tava, waiting
don't know. I can't make any sense of what happened here?"
She stared at him, examining his eyes. They were bloodshot
and he appeared exhausted. Although she was scheduled for
the next shift of sleep when Terrel awakened, she would make Gordon
pulling out tomorrow?"
But where will we go? All the radio transmissions have stopped.
There's no sign of intelligent life, and . . ." She stopped
her line of thought as something else came to her mind. "You
made your transmission to Earth today, didn't you?"
course. It's part of the routine."
we received anything from them?"
wondering. Maybe they could give us a clue about what's happened
nothing happened here. Maybe it's like Terrel said.
Maybe there's an entire civilization waiting for us right over the
be. We'll find out tomorrow. Is the food-synthesizer
a charm. It just required a simple rerouting."
When do you think that thing will be done translating?"
wish I knew. It should've finished by now. We have plenty
of data. It's an alien language, so it'll take longer.
I still want the last shift of sleep, though."
she replied with conviction.
Tava this is everything I've ever dreamed of. This is what
my whole life has been lived for. For this one moment.
The opportunity of a lifetime! This will be done before the
morning. Promise! I want to be the first one to see
it. Give me that."
. . ."
not taking no for an answer," he insisted with a smile. "This
is too important to me. I've never asked for a command or
a promotion to officer. This is all I've ever wanted.
You've got your first command assignment and I've got the first
opportunity to decipher an alien language. Surely, you can
see what this means to me. This is as important to me as this
mission is to you under your command. Would you want someone
to take that away from you?"
right," she replied, laughing. "You convinced me. You
got the last shift."
knew I'd get my way. I always do with you."
course. Ever since that first mission together - on Talmen
my God!" she said with a large grin. "I've almost forgotten
that. We were under . . . Was that Rimlan's command?"
no, no. That was before Rimlan."
right. That's right. It was . . ."
Pyne!" they exclaimed simultaneously and began to laugh together.
was his last mission," Gordon reminded her.
right, his last one. That guy was older than the Pyramids,
I swear. And his hearing!"
you remember how we all answered his commands? With those
bullhorns we got on Talmen IV!"
he NEVER realized how we were making a fool of him. There
he was, so proud and serious, his final command of his 500-year
old life - I swear to God he was that old! And there we were,
the entire crew returning every one of his commands through bullhorns
so he could hear us!"
that was a riot! And he never caught on."
then Admiral Zellar made that surprise farewell visit. Remember?"
my God! I thought we would spend the rest of our lives in
almost did . . ."
There was a knock at her cabin door. "Commander." It
was Smil Gordon's voice.
what is it?" she replied in the darkness.
to wake you but the translation's done."
coming." She sat up in bed and turned on the dim reading light
just above her. She glanced at the time. It had only
been two hours since she had started her shift of sleep. It
was just enough sleep to leave her groggy but not enough to alleviate
quickly dressed and joined Floyd Terrel and Smil Gordon at the conference
table. It was in the middle of the night and blackness still
enveloped the entire valley. She rubbed her eyes and bluntly
think we better wait for Lia," Gordon recommended.
was a tone of alarm in his voice and Tava recognized that something
was wrong. "You woke up Lia for this?"
thought it was important."
would be MY decision."
he continued in a soft voice, "we're all in danger here."
quickly glanced out the viewport but saw only darkness. "What's
worry, it's not out there. In fact, there's no one out there."
do you mean?"
gone. The entire planet. The intelligent creatures that
ran this planet. They're gone and they won't be back.
And now we're in trouble, too."
Thynmu joined them. "This better be good," she said irately.
She rubbed her eyes and joined them at the table, seating herself
next to Terrel who was unusually quiet. Apprehension
and confusion covered the men's faces. Tava remained standing,
think you ought to know that the tablets were completely deciphered
just after you retired. I've been spending the last two hours
reading them, making notes, running some computations - essentially
learning. Their language and the way it's stored in the tablets
is nothing short of bizarre. The symbols may represent something
as small as a word or something as large as an entire paragraph.
And they don't read right to left, left to right, or up and down.
Although it's difficult for us to detect, each symbol is layered
within the tablet, linking it to the next symbol by . . ."
to the point, Gordy!" Tava interrupted. "You said we're in
just thought you'd want to understand their language structure,
right," he replied angrily. "First, I have no idea what the
beings here looked like. There are no pictures in the tablets.
Secondly, these tablets range from personal diaries to planetary
newspapers. And we were right. Those pink, spinning
disks on the dwellings are linked to a worldwide communication network.
In fact, this entire planet is linked to one large super computer.
And that was a major factor in their sudden demise . . ."
Terrel suddenly asked. He had been awake for just over thirty
minutes and was the only crewmember who displayed energy.
all beings that develop global communication, they turned to the
stars in search of intelligent life. They had the same major
question that we did: Is there anyone out there? And - as
amazing as this may seem - like us, they were intrigued by the use
of radio waves to contact distant stars. A worldwide network
of radio transmitters and receivers was developed, and they began
recording the transmissions of space, searching for signs of extraterrestrial
must've been that beacon we were getting," Terrel noted.
it wasn't," Gordon bluntly corrected him. "Anyway, these beings
were committed to making contact with someone. Anyone.
And they did. Who or what their contacts were isn't clear.
But it is clear is that the entire world then knew for certain that
they were not alone in the universe. The radio transmitters
were beamed directly at the source of their contact. Their
receivers were aimed at the same source. They received a multitude
of signals and they knew that their alien counterparts were attempting
to communicate with them. The scientists studied the transmissions.
The computers analyzed them. But it was undecipherable . .
the aliens were not sending messages. They had other plans.
Shortly after the first contact, everything on this planet collapsed."
Could you expand on that?"
I know is that nothing - and I mean NOTHING worked any longer.
Every computer, every piece of complicated machinery, all means
of defense suddenly and mysteriously failed them. And within
hours the invasion began."
an invasion from their alien contacts. You see, the aliens
were not sending messages to them. They were not interested
in making contact with other star systems. They were much
more advanced than that. What they were sending in those radio
transmissions was the most sophisticated, complicated, brilliant
computer virus ever designed."
damn computer virus?" Terrel interrupted with a scowl. "You've
got to be kidding. How the hell could they send a computer
virus over radio?"
not? Isn't radio a means of communication? Aren't radio
receivers linked to computers?"
how could they know the design of our . . . I mean this world's
computers?" Tava questioned him. "It doesn't seem possible
to create a generic virus that could take out a computer system
on an alien world."
right, it does seem impossible. But I think this information
proves something. You see, the computers back on Earth, at
their basic machine level, are nothing more than a series of ON
and OFF switches. For this alien civilization to develop a
virus that could infect other alien computer systems may mean that
the principal of ON and OFF switches is standard throughout the
universe. And if something is universal like that, then this
virus could theoretically work on any computer system anywhere.
What they would have to do is develop a virus that searched at that
machine level - at the level where the only options for computations
are ON and OFF. From that point of view, it would be possible.
Absolutely brilliant, mind you, but possible.
think of it. It's the perfect vehicle for an invasion.
If a world is advanced enough to send and receive radio transmissions
to the stars, then obviously they have reached the stage of development
where they have become dependant on those very same computers.
The virus is transmitted by the alien world, downloaded into the
receiver's computers, and is spread around the worldwide network
of computers that links the entire world. And this isn't an
active virus. This thing is so brilliantly conceived that
it measures the level of sophistication of the receiver, learns
the degree of interconnection with other computer systems in the
world, and remains latent until it is spread across the entire globe,
undetected by the civilization. Now this is beyond our comprehension,
I admit, but somehow at some point the virus recognizes that it
has traversed the world and it is then activated. At that
point, panic ensues. Think of what would happen. There
would be no way to transmit credits, no way of generating heat,
electricity, or cold. The homes, the schools, the businesses,
transportation, EVERYTHING is dependent on computers. And
most significantly, the world's defenses would be rendered useless.
You can't even get an X-Squad off the ground, let alone fight a
war, without the guidance of a computer.
then somehow, possibly by the activation of the virus, the aliens
know it is time to invade. They then arrive on a defenseless
world and take what they want. In the case of this planet,
one of the writers of a diary suggests, it might be for slaves.
The entire population of this planet was taken. To where?
For what purpose? No one knew. But they were overwhelmed
by the strength of the enemy, and resistance proved futile.
That's what happened here."
Gordon ceased his report and Tava began to pace the room.
What had happened was even more incredible than she had anticipated.
An entire world was conquered because of a computer virus.
And all because they searched the stars for extraterrestrial life.
Whoever the invaders were, sooner or later they were bound to come
across . . .
she suddenly cried out.
what about Earth?" Lia asked Gordon.
quickly added, "And what about us? We were following those
damn transmissions here. Are we infected?"
nodded. "But we weren't receiving the SAME transmissions that
this world did. Now I'll have to speculate, since there are
obviously no records of what happened after the beings were taken
from this planet. My guess is that once this planet was conquered,
the invading aliens then sent out the beacon from this world in
hopes of getting someone's attention. This planet may be on
the fringe of some great interstellar empire. And this would
be one way of expanding their empire. My guess is that an
entire fleet may be standing by near Earth waiting for that virus
a minute," Tava interrupted. "That means that the invasion
here took place about four years ago. This world's been silent
for the last six months - after three and a half years of radio
transmissions. And that's another thing. Why did the
radio signals from here discontinue? How does that make any
shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. That is a mystery.
At this point it's pure speculation. Maybe something happened
to that empire. Maybe they felt this sector of the galaxy
wasn't worth taking. All I know for sure is what I've told
you. This planet was invaded and conquered because of a computer
virus it received from interstellar radio transmissions."
sighed as she leaned up against the wall. "And Earth is infected.
That thing could activate at any time - meaning an alien invasion
would commence. And that would mean war."
war we couldn't win with our defenses crippled," Lia despondently
added. "We've got to warn them."
Tava agreed. "Gordy, get on that radio and start transmitting
everything we've learned. I want continuous transmission until
we return to Earth. Lia, it's time we take off. I suggest
we circle the planet at least once, scanning for any intelligent
life forms and then hightailing it back to Earth. They'll
need all the defense they can get."
attempted to rise but Gordon grabbed her by the shoulder and brought
her back down to her chair. "Wait a minute . . . Just
we're infected, too. If we touch that transmitter or start
the ship moving again, that virus will spread through our entire
computer system. This is a small ship. In no time, it'll
complete the cycle and activate. It's a wonder it hasn't completed
the cycle already. But once it does activate, everything shuts
down - including life support. We'd be dead in no time."
right," Terrel agreed. "We can't go anywhere. We'd be
signing our own death warrant."
is in danger unless we contact them," Tava insisted.
and if we assist them we're as good as dead," Terrel argued.
"Besides, anything we transmit will be infected. We'd only
be making matters worse."
turned to Gordon. "You're the communication expert.
How do we contact Earth without killing them and us?"
no way. We can't stay here forever and we have to contact
them. But I did learn in the translation that the transmission
of radio waves advances the virus throughout the host system."
if we don't take off, just by signaling Earth, the virus will complete
the cycle. Sooner or later we will be overtaken by this thing."
it's us or the Earth?" Lia asked in confusion.
Either way, in both cases the virus will activate sooner or later."
might. But not Earth," Tava said with conviction. "We're
not taking off. But we're going to make those transmissions
to warn Earth . . ."
you'll be spreading the virus," Terrel argued in a raised voice.
already has the virus, Terrel," Gordon countered. "But if
we can warn them, they may be able to take the necessary precautions
to slow the advance of the virus and perhaps inoculate themselves
angrily responded, "And what about us? What's going to happen
to us?" The crew grew silent as they contemplated their inevitable
fate. Smil Gordon ran his fingers through his hair in resignation.
Lia Thynmu closed her eyes as if to pray. Commander Tava Dupree
bit her lower lip in dismay. Terrel observed their reactions
and continued, "Then there's no way out of this. We're going
already put together a recorded transmission for Earth," Gordon
announced. He suddenly addressed Tava, ignoring Floyd Terrel's
remarks. "It warns them about the virus, tells them what we've
found here, relays the deciphered tablets, and finishes with our
- I mean YOUR - recommendations. You can go over it if you
right. Let's prepare for transmissions to Earth."
we're not taking off?" Terrel asked, visibly fighting back anger.
we're not," Tava replied. "We're staying here and making those
transmissions to Earth. Whether we live or die isn't important.
We're astronauts. Every time we step into a space ship, we
know that our lives weigh in the balance. That's the risk
each of us are willing to take. But back on Earth there are
billions of people - hundreds of millions of innocent children -
who never accepted such a risk. This is our job. We
will make those transmissions to Earth in an attempt to save her.
We are expendable."
fought back his rage, his nostrils flaring, his teeth gritting together,
his chin quivering in indignation. He abruptly turned away
from them and stared out the viewport at the dark and silent valley
below. Gordon and Lia watched him, hoping his rage did not
manifest into physical violence. Lia was much to small to
challenge his strength and Gordon was much to old to defeat him.
Tava stood motionless holding her ground, chin raised, eyes never
right," he declared as he turned to them. He appeared determined
but somewhat subdued. "Let's save Earth. But in the
meantime, I suggest Lia and I try and find this damn virus and destroy
it. There's no use in us sitting around here waiting to die.
I'm not the type that goes down without a fight. I say, we
begin by running tests on the damn radio receiving equipment.
It's sure to be in there somewhere." Floyd Terrel's passive
response brought a silent sigh of relief from the other three.
"And also, the least we could do is go on damn 'Minimum Energy Consumption'.
That'll buy us some extra time."
ship's rookie pilot and an asteroid counter had no hope of ever
finding, let alone destroying, the brilliantly conceived virus.
Gordon read in the tablets how the best minds of the alien world
could not isolate it. Consequently, Lia and Terrel's efforts
would be futile.
be worth a shot," he lied. "We might lick this thing yet."
nodded in agreement. "All right, you two get on it."
and Terrel headed to the back of the ship. Tava gave Gordon
a long hard look before motioning with her head to the front of
won't find the virus, will they?" Tava asked him as they entered
always the possibility . . ." He paused for a moment.
But she read his eyes and saw the truth in them.
transmission to Earth," she ordered.
begun and put on AUTO. We'll be transmitting from now until
. . . until we're 'silenced.'"
nodded in acknowledgement.
blackness covered the alien world before her. It was only
their second night on the planet. But this one proved much
more eventful than the first. Four years ago, this planet
was conquered by an empire that was capable of producing computer
programs more sophisticated than perhaps any in the entire galaxy.
She gazed up at the dim starlit evening. The stars did not
shine as brilliantly here as they did on Earth. But it didn't
matter. Out there somewhere, perhaps on one of the stars she
observed, were the invaders. She shuddered to think of what
they were doing to the inhabitants of this world.
were a ragtag crew at best. And here she was, Tava Dupree,
on her first command assignment. She was aided by Lia Thynmu,
a pilot on her first mission, Smil Gordon, the Communications Engineer
no other commander wanted, and Floyd Terrel, the asteroid counter
and future astrobiologist, that no one could command. Sent
here by chance, by being at the right sector of the galaxy at the
right time, they now held the fate of Earth in their hands.
nervously smiled when she thought of this, her first and last command
mission. It was true that it had been far less than the perfect
performance demanded by the Space Agency. They had spent less
than two days on this alien world and each member of the crew had
committed some major mistake in that short time. But they
had been sent out here to determine the nature of the mysterious
radio transmissions, and that had been accomplished. Her Senior
Officer, Smil Gordon, had proven to be an asset to her; his Translating
Scanner had performed brilliantly. Lia had done everything
asked of her and even Terrel had resigned himself to obeying her
commands in the end.
the inevitable consequences that awaited them, her crew was spending
the final, fleeting hours of their lives admirably and assiduously
fighting to save the lives of billions of people. Her apprehension
for Earth was the overwhelming feeling at the moment, but she also
could not help but derive some degree of personal satisfaction from
the successes of the mission. And for reasons no other commander
could ever understand, she felt the fate of Earth could not be in