An animal that looked rather like a large, orange beetle leisurely crawled across an outcropping of deep blue and violet vegetation as Dr. Michael Rivers bent down to pick it up. Had any natives been around to observe, they would have said Rivers was the unusual sight in this scene, but he paid the thought no mind. As the creature flailed its eight sturdy legs in the air and snapped its short, wide jaws, he illuminated it with a flashlight to correct for the distorted colors coming from the planet’s two dim, red suns. The creature was really off-white rather than orange, with a pearly sheen. To his surprise, Mike’s scanner told him its exoskeleton was made of calcium phosphate, the main component of human bones and teeth, and indeed, it did look a little like teeth. He pulled a jar from his backpack and placed the animal inside along with a few of the violet leaves it had been eating.He looked up to the blue-green horizon. As always, it was bare save for the sparse plant-life. There was little movement on the plain except for himself and the two other dark-clad scientists collecting samples of the local plant and animal life.
Without warning, the head of the team, Bill Hawkins, sprinted headlong past Mike. “We have to get out of here!” he screamed as he rushed by.
“What happened?” Mike shouted back. He turned back to see his other colleague, Eliza Yoshida, dash by as well.
“Just run!” she told him.
Turning back, Mike noticed a thin black line undulating toward the team from the horizon. It was a line of vehicles, and a long one by the look of it. They had been discovered. The local military must have picked up their trail sooner than they had anticipated. He didn’t know what they wanted, but he didn’t want to wait to find out. He immediately turned and ran after his two colleagues.
The spaceplane they had flown down to the surface was a couple hundred meters away, but the convoy had come upon them from over the nearby ridge so suddenly that it would be on top of the team before they could take off. The spaceplane was light and fragile, designed for a quick single-stage-to-orbit dash rather than any sort of defense. It took a lot of doing back home just to develop one that would actually land on land without a runway, instead of the usual water. If the natives wanted to ground it, they could do so fast, and easily.
Being a science team, the three of them were armed with only small laser pistols, designed to fend off wild animals, not military personnel, especially not in those numbers, and it would do no good to provoke the aliens, anyway. Bill pulled out his radio and called up to the ship. “Hawkins to Captain Garcia,” he said. “We’ve been spotted. The army’s after us. We’re trying to come back to the Balboa now, but they might try to stop us. Can you do anything?”
“From here?” responded Captain Alonso Garcia. “We might be able to do something with the drilling laser, but it’ll be risky for you. We’ll bring the ship around to get a good angle. Do you want us to prep the second spaceplane for launch?” The second spaceplane—they only had a spare because of its experimental design, and this would mean risking both of them.
“No time!” Bill’s voice came over the radio. “Just get as close as you can with that laser.”
Captain Garcia immediately realized Bill was right. The spaceplanes were long glide-landers, which meant they were intended to take least half an orbit, or forty-five minutes, to land safely. Pulling a quick dive through the aliens’ airspace, as the team had done to avoid radar detection, would not be much better. The only way to help them fast would be to get as close as they could to aim with their asteroid-drilling laser. “Vitoria,” he ordered, “take us to altitude two hundred kilometers, and hold over their position.”
“I told you we should have called them back earlier,” said Major Rajiv Santhanam. Rajiv was the chief military liaison for the mission and a veteran of exploration missions all the way back to the famed Robert Peary three decades ago. Given the mess of negotiations that had happened at Mu Arae on that first mission, he probably had a point about not exposing themselves too closely to the natives’ attention. But still, his attitude was not helpful, especially right now.
“Bill said he wanted to stay,” the captain replied, only half looking at him.
“You should have overruled him. We knew they were at risk.”
“They were a hundred klicks from anything that looked anything like a military base, Rajiv.”
“It doesn’t matter. When our scans showed the natives are more advanced than we first thought…” He stood and approached the captain. “I told you we learned that lesson at Mu Arae.”
“We discussed it and agreed it was still worth the risk to collect some samples,” the captain said. “Including you,” he added.
Rajiv was indignant. “I was very clear about my concerns,” he snapped at the taller man. “I will not have you pin this on me, Garcia.” His fists clenched at his sides, but he checked himself and virtually whispered, “You should not have sent them at all, or you should have at least armed them better.”
“You forget this is not a military ship, Major,” Garcia answered sternly. “Bill’s the first mate, and the landing party was Bill’s idea. He presented a good case that addressed those concerns, and the rest of the team signed off on it. They knew what they were getting into—and we both know there’s no way we could have armed them against a unit of that size.”
The tension on the ship had risen significantly of late. Partly, it was the extended period of confinement in deep space, which always came with a significant dose of stress. It wasn’t easy being well over a hundred light-years from home, with no contact anyone except by an Achirdian courier drone every few months (although in Rajiv’s day, they hadn’t even had that). Partly, it was the delay last month when a junior crew member had nearly been killed when a plasma conduit ruptured, forcing them to seal off a good part of the ship and shut down the space-warping Alcubierre drive for two weeks to make repairs. They were lucky to get the ship working again. It would take two years to send a rescue vehicle. Now, the lead science team was in trouble with locals, and that would be equally disastrous if anything went wrong. It was no surprised that the mounting incidents were aggravating already frayed nerves for both men.
Both were silent for a minute until Vitoria announced, “Altitude—two hundred kilometers.”
“You leave us vulnerable by taking us this close,” Rajiv said absently. “If they fire missiles at us—medium-range, even, we will be in a very exposed position.”
“Then perhaps you should make yourself useful, man the drilling laser and try your hand at shooting them down,” the captain replied without looking at him.
The Balboa was a scientific survey ship, custom-built for this mission by the large European-centered power bloc on Earth and designed for speed and making observations and not much else. It had no dedicated weapons. There was as yet no real need for them outside the Solar System, but there was one laser turret normally used for drilling into asteroids. It would not hold up against the few interplanetary patrol ships back home, but it could easily cut through an old-style rocket casing—if Rajiv could manage to hit it. He accepted the charge and sat at the control panel, setting up the laser system.
“Do you think they’ll be okay?” Vitoria asked as she watched.
Garcia sighed and wondered not for the first time if he had been right to encourage his daughter to join him on this mission. “I hope so, Vitoria,” he said. “I mean…the aliens certainly shouldn’t have any reason to hurt them.”
Vitoria only nodded. It was generally assumed that any intelligent civilization would realize that alien lifeforms would be more valuable to them alive, if it came to blows. But that was only on average, and even then only a guess. Both of them silently hoped these aliens would not be an outlier.
The three scientists sprinted across the scrubland, carrying only what they had already had on them. Nearby, perhaps thirty seconds away, a small, light spaceplane stood on all-terrain landing gear. About fifteen meters long with a rounded nose and swept delta-wings, it was designed to make a fall to the ground from orbit, and then make a single run back to the ship, all with very little margin for error, since that was the limit of its fuel reserve/
“Mike, hurry up! They’re gaining!” Eliza called out.
Mike was still in the rear of the line. Running was not easy on this terrain. Though the vegetation was sparse, the dry, shifting sandy soil slowed them down. There was no cover to speak of; most of the area was a gently rolling plain, which made their getaway that much harder.
Mike glanced back briefly to get a look at their pursuers. He still hadn’t quite gotten used to the colors on this planet. To his human eyes, the distorted sunlight made the soil look a uniform orange and the plant life look much darker than it really was, until some of it seemed like pits in the ground—another challenge to running on this terrain. The convoy, however, was all too easy to make out. The military must look the same on every planet, he decided. Artificial structures tended to follow predictable patterns, and in the military even more so. Boxes, wheels, treads, machine guns, armor—a lot of armor—and many angry looking soldiers filled the space behind him. Or at least he presumed they were angry-looking: he couldn’t see their faces and probably would not be able to recognize their facial expressions anyway since, unlike most of the species humans had encountered so far, they weren’t actually humanoid—another sign that they were getting farther than home, he thought to himself in the back of his mind.
But mostly, Mike was thinking that he had never liked the military.
“Bill,” Mike called up, “can you remote start it?”
Bill glanced over his shoulder to get a fix on the convoy, but kept running. He pulled out his pocket computer and tapped a few buttons. The spaceplane’s engines roared to life to warm up, and the door opened automatically.
“We’ll need time to warm up the engines,” the first mate shouted, his breath panting. It didn’t help being ten years older than the other two, he mused.
Mike was wearing out fast in the heat, though. He wasn’t cut out for this kind of thing any more than Bill was. His peripheral vision was starting to gray out, and he knew from experience that was a bad sign. With an effort, he focused on following Eliza and kept her in view. He saw her glance back and then drop to her knees. Instinctively, Mike dropped to his knees as well, even as she called out “Get down!” Not knowing what was happening, Bill dropped flat on his face.
There was a sound of a rocket behind them. The team only saw a blur as a long, shiny object whizzed over their heads and struck the spaceplane. The spaceplane was light and fragile in some ways, but it had to survive launch and atmospheric reentry multiple times with minimal servicing. It ought to be proof against bullets and even small bombs, although whatever that they had been, it didn’t sound like one of those.
Mike looked up, and his heart sank.
It was a harpoon.
Penetration depth was proportional to the length and density of the projectile, Mike reminded himself. The aliens had been thinking. The heavy, rocket-powered harpoon had punched through the hull of the spaceplane where even a large-caliber bullet would not, grounding it without blowing it to bits so that they could bring it back with them. Technically, the spaceplane could still fly in that condition, but without an intact hull, it could not reach orbit, or even risk flying fast enough to outrun the aircraft that would surely arrive in a matter of minutes.
Still, they sprang to their feet and made for the spaceplane again. It was their only cover. An unintelligible voice boomed from a loudspeaker on one of the vehicles in the convoy. Unfortunately, the team’s translation program was incomplete and in any case, no one had time to consult it. When they did not respond, the unmistakable sound of machine gun fire rang out from the lead vehicles, and puffs of dust were kicked where bullets impacts the ground around their feet. Apparently, the aliens were willing to take their chances with injuring or killing one or more of them.
In panic, Mike grabbed the laser pistol from his belt and dialed it to maximum power. The power cell would not last long at that setting, but hopefully, it would not need to. As he frantically climbed the ledge into the spaceplane, he swung his arm toward the vehicles and held down the trigger, firing half-blind at about eye level.
A thin, bright ray of red light lanced out from barrel to target, blinking on and off several times per second. It was shimmering, dazzling, as a fraction of its power reflected off the dust and sand in the air. Wherever the beam struck its target, it burned, searing armor and cutting through anything that was not metal, including flesh and bone.
The machine gun fire intensified. Mike managed to pull himself inside the spaceplane without getting hit. Bill, however, wasn’t so lucky. As Eliza helped him up and behind the cover of the hull, he was hit twice in the legs.
“Garcia to Hawkins…” the captain said. “Bill…Bill, pick up!”
“This is Dr. Yoshida,” a voice came back over the radio. “We’re under fire, they damaged the spaceplane, and Dr. Hawkins is badly injured.”
“Dr. Yoshida, where are you?” Garcia asked.
“In the spaceplane, but we can’t move anywhere.”
“How long can you hold out there?”
The captain heard a hail of bullets and the loud, grinding sound of something punching through the hull.
“Not long!” Mike called. Garcia thought he heard the characteristic buzz of a laser pistol in the background. Whether the aliens were trying to kill them or just smoke them out, he could not guess.
“Vitoria, take us to one hundred kilometers. Eliza, if we flip off all the safeties and drop it nose down, we can maybe set the other spaceplane in fifteen minutes.”
“I don’t know if we have that long, captain,” Eliza replied. There was a sound of more gunfire. “And it’s no good until we can be sure it’ll be able to take off again.”
“And we’re making ourselves vulnerable by moving so close,” Rajiv added. “We’ll have to risk the laser. Drs. Rivers and Yoshida, this is Major Santhanam. How large is the enemy force?”
“Uh…at least a dozen trucks. Probably more…can you hit them?” Mike said between shots.
“Not yet. There’s a lot of distortion. I’m trying to improve the picture.” The Balboa’s largest telescope, a one-meter reflector, would have a theoretical resolution of five centimeters from their hovering altitude, but it was hard to cut through the turbulent air to get a clear view of the scene. “Dr. Rivers, against a unit like that, you need to take out the high-caliber guns and artillery. Can you hit any of them from there?”
“What do you think I’m trying to do?” Mike shouted.
“Captain,” Eliza said, “we’re surrounded, we can’t move, and we have limited laser power. We need backup from your—”
There was a crack, and the radio was filled with static and confused shouting.
“Dr. Yoshida…! Dr. Rivers…!” Garcia yelled. There was no response.
“What if we take the ship down?” Vitoria suggested desperately.
“Worse than the spaceplanes,” her father said. “It’s risky to land it at all, and we can’t do a dead drop in the atmosphere. We’d have to circle down for half an hour. Rajiv, how’s that laser coming?”
“I’m trying, Captain. It wasn’t designed for use in air. No adaptive optics.” The laser was subject to the same optical limitations as the telescope and had none of the high-speed corrective equipment. In poor conditions, the beam would spread to two meters by the time it hit the ground. “I recommend they surrender, and we pull back and resolve this diplomatically.”
“I can’t accept that. You of all people should refuse to leave anyone behind.” It was a low blow, and they both knew it, but Garcia didn’t much care right now. “Do we have any other options?”
“The aliens have reinforcements on the move. We can’t hope to defend them from here,” Rajiv insisted.
“I do not want to hear it, Major. Do we have any other options?”
Everyone on the bridge racked their brains and checked the database for something that would help.
“Can the ship handle a dive instead of a drop?” one of the officers suggested.
“No, we could never land it that way.” the captain said.
“What if we buzz them just to intimidate them—and we could get a clear shot with the laser.”
“We’re not built for fancy atmospheric maneuvers.”
Captain Garcia was trying to resist the creeping realization that Rajiv was right—there was very little they could do at this point. Still, now that things had come to shooting on the ground, he refused to give up.
Like the captain, Vitoria was wracking her brain, trying to think through every system on the ship and figure out if there was a way it could help them. She may have been young, but she knew her way around the ship. He father had made sure of that. There had to be something on board they could use. Suddenly, she had it. The laser wasn’t the only thing they had that could operate over large distances. “Hey…” she said. “Uh…what about the gravity beam?”
“Wha…what?” the captain said.
“What about it?” Rajiv said.
“It can lift the spaceplane, can’t it?” The space-warping power of the Alcubierre drive could just as easily be targeted into a narrow beam of gravitational energy, though it was a new innovation that had never remotely been tried like that before.
“That will never work,” Rajiv dismissed her.
“No, I think it can. The beam’s wide enough to pick up the whole spaceplane, and it maxes out at ten gees. That’s a hundred klicks in…well it’s got to be under a minute.”
“No. It’s not possible. I can think of at least half a dozen ways that would kill the team,” Rajiv replied.
Garcia cut in: “Now wait a minute, she might be on to something. Is it really that dangerous?” He started typing numbers on a tablet. “The gravity beam would pick up a whole column of air with them. They should have enough air to make it up here, and the emitter can pull them into the cargo bay with no trouble. And there’s no internal g-forces in the beam—”
“But when they get up this high, they’ll be moving at…what, four kilometers per second? We can’t pull a maneuver like that with rockets.”
“We’d have to match their speed with the Alcubierre drive, of course,” Vitoria said. “I think it can work, though.”
“Vitoria, think this through,” the Major replied. “If we use the Alcubierre drive, we would have to pull them though the field of distorted space.”
The Balboa’s Alcubierre drive propelled the ship by compressing space at one end of the hull and expanding it at the other end without having to worry about moment, at least in the usual sense. Its best-publicized use was to go faster than the speed of light, but they had to use it just to hover here. The ship didn’t have the fuel to do a maneuver like that with rockets.
They could match the speed of a target moving at four kilometers per second without much trouble, the problem was that passing it through the region of warped space would subject it to massive tidal forces, pulling it apart. But Vitoria was frantically typing on a tablet, trying to work out the
“Don’t patronize me, Major,” Vitoria said. “How else do you think we could get them on board if we didn’t? I think it can work, though. I saw an article in the last courier about people experimenting with something similar to divert small asteroids—”
“Asteroids!” Rajiv practically shouted in frustration. “You cannot be serious. You would risk the team for an unproven experiment? One performed only on rocks?”
“Rajiv, that’s enough,” Garcia interjected. “Just keep on that laser. Vitoria, can you make it work.”
“Just a sec—double checking—yes. The tidal forces will be seven gees per meter, stretching force. It’s a lot, but it’s survivable.”
“This is a fool’s plan, Captain,” Rajiv said. “They would be better off to let us negotiate their release.”
“I said enough!” Garcia cut him off. In the momentary silence, Bill’s voice finally came back clearly, though painfully, over the radio.
“Bill! What’s your status?” the captain asked quickly.
Mike was pressed against the now-battered wall of the spaceplane. The hull had stopped ordinary rounds, but they’d been lucky not to be impaled on the harpoons, and the aliens had also targeted several explosive rounds on certain safe areas, like the door, blasting holes in the side. His heart was pounding, and he was out of breath. Still, he reached around the jagged edge of what was left of the door and pulled the trigger on the laser pistol. Instead of a soft buzz and a brilliant red beam stabbing out, there was only a click.
“Damn. That was the last one,” he called, throwing it down. “We’re out of batteries.”
After a few moments, the aliens seemed to realize that Mike’s frantic, semi-regular shooting had stopped. There was some confused shouting, and their guns fell silent as well. At least half the initial convoy was undamaged, and reinforcements must be on the way. They kept their distance, likely suspecting that the humans were still alive and unsure what they would do. The seemed to want the spaceplane with as little damage as possible, but that concern wouldn’t keep them out for long.
More alien speech came from the loudspeaker. The team still could not understand it, but they could tell the words had changed slightly.
“Any luck on that translation program?” Eliza asked in annoyance. She was on the floor, still trying to stop Bill’s bleeding.
“Um, I can try it,” answered Mike. He felt around his pockets, and found his pocket computer again. He also noticed the radio, which had been lying in the corner for some time, though he didn’t quite remember how it had gotten there. He tossed it to Eliza, but Bill insisted on taking it.
The alien voice repeated its order, and the translation program went to work. Mike read the words aloud as they appeared: “Um…‘Come out with your appendages up…’ or something like that.”
“Well that’s just great,” said Eliza bitterly.
“Bill! What’s your status?” the captain asked from the radio, responding to his first mate’s call. That was a little comfort in itself. Evidently, the aliens either could not jam the signal or were not trying.
“Ah…not good. The aliens…want us to come out,” Bill said, gasping for breath.
“Bill, are you okay?”
“I’ll live…The others are fine.”
“I’m not sure Dr. Hawkins can walk, though,” Eliza cut in.
“What are the aliens doing?” Rajiv demanded.
Mike found a mirror from the supplies and peaked around the hole in the hull. “They’re holding position,” he said. “They’re still calling us to come out.”
“You should probably do what they say,” Rajiv instructed.
“We could still hole up here a little while…if you’ve got something…” Bill said. “They might be worried we’ll…blow up the spaceplane.”
“Not that long,” Mike said. “If they are, they’ll probably call our bluff before long.”
“Bill, we have a possible backup plan, but it’s risky,” the Captain said.
“I would say borderline-suicidal,” Rajiv said.
“It’s risky,” Garcia repeated firmly. “It should work in theory, but it’s never been tried before. It’s your call how much of a chance you want to take.”
None of their options were good. For two days, they had hidden in the remote corners of this alien world, treading lightly and observing only from a long distance. Even when they saw twentieth century-level technology on the planet, they hardly considered the possibility of getting caught. It wasn’t like the aliens had the total surveillance coverage that developed early in the twenty-first century on Earth. Now, it was clearly a mistake not to plan for it better.
“I agree with the Major,” Eliza said. “Surrender now, and contact them from the Balboa. We can’t fight our way out down here, and it’s less of a long shot than something untested.
“They might be mad at us for shooting at them,” Mike said. Of course, he was the one who did most of the shooting.
“They shot first,” Bill said. “They weren’t so friendly to start with.”
Mike considered this and their desperate situation and was forced to agree. His position, or his colleagues’, wasn’t about to get much better. “Alright, I don’t see what else we can do,” he said.
“Alright, Alonso, we’re…leaving the spaceplace,” Bill said. “Eliza, help me up.”
Eliza lifted Bill up and supported him with one arm across her shoulder. Mike set the translation program to voice-command-activated audio mode and clipped his pocket computer to his shirt—to the sleeve and not the collar, in case the aliens were trigger-happy. Then, he reached for the door handle of the spaceplane, stood behind the wall, and forced it open.
There was some shouting in the aliens’ camp that the translation program didn’t pick up because there were too many voices at once, but when no one was standing in the doorway, they went quiet again. Mike stuck a hand into the open doorway and, when it didn’t get shot off, stepped fully into the opening with hands raised. Eliza and Bill shuffled into view behind him. Mike stepped down to the dirt as slowly as he could, and the others limped down after him, hopefully looking non-threatening.
Ten or twelve of something like trucks had formed a perimeter around the spaceplane. As the three humans stepped away from the door, dozens of hard-faced aliens jumped from the trucks and lined the perimeter. All were wearing combat helmets, and most had things that looked like automatic weapons trained on them.
Michael Rivers and his colleagues had seen a number of alien species in their travels, some nearly human in appearance, thanks to some prehistoric civilization’s genetic experiments, and others not so similar, all the way to the point of having a different biochemistry. These particular aliens, as it happened, could be described as semi-humanoid. They had the basic human body plan: head and sensory organs on top, upright posture, and two arms and two legs, but they were too different for anyone to convince themselves that they were some exotic breed of humans. They looked more like kangaroos than humans, in fact, though even that was a loose description, given their long, spindly arms with an extra elbow joint and large heads with what were probably carnivorous jaws filled with sharp teeth. They did have a hopping sort of gait, but it was less of a long bound, and their twinned tails were unlike anything on Earth. From what they could see, the aliens looked to have yellow-to-rust-colored fur, seemingly evolved to blend in with the sandy soil.
The humans didn’t have to be able to read the aliens’ facial expressions to guess that they were angry, although the bared teeth were a good hint. They had just been in a firefight, after all. Mike noted that they wore uniforms that looked like typical military garb: yellow-orange fatigues with flecks of blue mixed in, also designed to blend in with the local terrain.
“They’ve gotten out of the trucks,” Bill said to the radio he still held the radio in his hand. He was the ship’s only link to the situation down here. They didn’t have any robots in a good position to get video.
One of the aliens who looked like some sort of commander called out an order, apparently to the humans.
“Step away from the…aircraft,” Mike’s computer played back, the pause coming as an indication that the program wasn’t sure what word to use. That wasn’t encouraging. But the perimeter was wide enough to give them quite a bit of room to move away from the spaceplane. They took a few steps forward, then the commander made a hand gesture, and several soldiers formed a line between them and the spaceplane.
The alien commander gave another order, and the computer translated: “We know you are not from…Place Name. State your intentions here.”
The three humans glanced at each other from the corners of their eyes. “Say something,” Eliza whispered.
“I don’t know how well it’ll translate,” Mike warned. “And what do I say? ‘We come in peace, take us to your leader?’”
“Just think of something.”
“Okay, okay. Um…Translate: we are scientists…we mean no harm.’”
The computer accepted the voice command and played back a disjointed, halting version of the aliens’ speech consisting of single-word recordings gleaned from media broadcasts. Immediately, there was shouting from the soldiers in the circle. They tensed their hands on their guns.
“What happened?” Eliza called over the din.
“How should I know? Maybe it didn’t translate ‘scientists’ right,” Mike responded fearfully.
The aliens’ commander barked an order that the translation program didn’t catch. The soldiers fell silent. He spoke again, and the computer played it back: “Vivisection is a capital crime. We will deal with these monsters appropriately.”
“What?” Mike gasped. “Translate! We’re not vivisectionists! Our translator made a mistake!” He cursed whatever linguistic or historical quirk had made “scientist” come out as almost the same word as “vivisectionist”, presumably both variations on “experimenter”.
The aliens didn’t seem to be listening. “Take them in!” their commander said.
“Alonso, I think we want that backup plan now!” Bill said. The aliens were advancing.
“Agreed!” Mike said.
“Agreed!” Eliza repeated.
“Vitoria, do it!” the captain’s voice came through.
His daughter was the next to speak, shouting: “All of you flat on the ground now!”
It took about half a second for this to register, and then all three scientists dropped to the ground. This probably saved both the three of them and several of the aliens, who had nearly reached them, but jumped back at the sight, fearing a possible explosion. A few shots were fired, but they went wide.
There was no explosion, though. Instead, there was a strange rumble and a sudden rush of wind, and almost faster than the eye could follow, Bill, Mike, and Eliza shot rapidly upward, along with the entire column of air around them and a large chunk of the soil underneath them, which was quickly stripped all the way down to bedrock.
It was only because they had jumped back at the last moment that several of the alien soldiers avoided being caught up in the gravity beam from the Balboa, but even the most brazen of them turned and ran when the partial vacuum caused by ripping up the air and soil caused a powerful inflowing vortex of air, and they would count it a miracle that they didn’t lose any of their number.
The raft of soil flew upward and nearly out of sight incredibly fast, being pulled with ten gees of force towards the Balboa, a hundred kilometers above. Inside the beam, the team was effectively in freefall, all “falling” up together with the air and soil around them. They lay on the disintegrating mass, trying the best they could to hold on in the weightless environment. It was a terrifying situation. The air pressure was dropping rapidly, and the wind was howling louder and louder at the edges of the beam, passing the sound barrier in a matter of seconds and tearing off chunks of soil from their “raft”.
As they passed through the upper atmosphere, the rushing wind began to glow red hot from the friction, like a meteor moving the wrong direction. It must have been a dazzling sight on the ground, bright enough to be seen across half the continent, even in daylight. Still the gravity beam held the column together, and they continued to race upward. Forty seconds after they left the surface, they could clearly see the Vasco de Balboa rushing toward them when they looked up, now just twenty kilometers away. It was a windswept triangular shape, showing a clear resemblance to their spaceplane, except for the long space-warping coils stretched along its length and the huge fusion reactor embedded in its center. It had been facing backwards to bend space against its orbital motion and hold its position, but now, it tilted up to match their speed. A shimmering of distorted space was visible all around it.
Forty-eight seconds after “liftoff”, the team passed through the field of distorted space. The entire column of material—sand, dirt, rock, and air—was torn apart by tidal forces of seven gees per meter of length. Fortunately, Mike, Bill, and Eliza were lying flat, present very little vertical depth to the field. The tearing force was merely uncomfortable, and brief. Being plunged into hard vacuum was by far the worse part of it. The air was ripped from their lungs, and the roaring win changed to an ominous silence in an instant.
After a harrowing five or ten seconds in vacuum, they came alongside the Balboa’s open cargo bay, moving in perfect sync with it. Another, smaller gravity beam pulled them inside, and the operator closed the door. They felt the universe spin, both from lack of oxygen and from the artificial gravity reactivating (which, naturally, worked on the same principle). They dropped to the deck, the cargo bay repressurized, and they were in calm air again. The whole “flight” from the surface had barely taken over a minute.
The ship’s doctor rushed in along with everyone on the crew who had medical training. They took one look at Bill and loaded him onto a stretcher. One of the others checked Mike and Eliza for injuries.
“Ow,” Mike groaned, “I think I landed on something.” He reached behind his back and pulled out the same jar containing the beetle-like creature he had collected. The jar was slightly cracked, but still in one piece, and the animal was still munching happily on its violet leaves, seemingly indifferent to the insanity around it.
With an exhausted laugh, Mike lay back on the deck. He reflected on the last—how long had it been? A mere half an hour, maybe less. He laughed louder, almost hysterically, at the thought, but he soon ran out of breath again.
Moments later, Captain Garcia and Vitoria entered the cargo bay to welcome the team back. Before they could speak, however, Mike pulled himself up and approached them angrily. The effect was lessened somewhat by the fact that he couldn’t walk straight yet.
“You two!” he exclaimed. “That was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever been through! That was your backup plan?”
Sheepishly, Vitoria answered, “Um, it was mine, actually…We did say it was untested, at least on people.”
“When you untested I thought you meant…well, just in development. We didn’t think we’d be lab rats.”
“Well, a back of the envelope estimate said it would be safe,” she defended herself.
“Chuck Bradford didn’t build a working Alcubierre drive on the back of an envelope,” Mike replied.
Her father quickly stepped in: “The point is that it worked. And it’s good to have all of you back on board.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Mike replied with sarcastically. “Although I’m afraid you won’t be getting your spacplane back anytime soon.”
“Well, it’s a good thing we got a spare, then. Don’t worry about it, any of you. Get some rest; we’ll sort this out later.”
“And by ‘sort this out’, he meant he wants to talk to the aliens?” Bill asked incredulously. He lay on a bed in the small medical bay hooked up to an IV and with bandages wrapped around his legs. He also had a few scraped from the harrowing flight back to the ship, but he was generally in good spirits.
“Unfortunately,” Eliza answered. “There was a lot of disagreement. Rajiv thinks we should cut out losses. Of course, he’s furious about the whole thing. But even Vitoria thinks it’ll be more trouble than its worth. Our spaceplane isn’t going anywhere soon no matter what we do, but the technology is a hundred years old, so we aren’t giving away that many secrets. But the captain says we should own up to our mistake and talk to them now.”
Mike leaned against the wall and added, “For what it’s worth I agree with him—as long as we get the translator working right this time. I think we made them pretty made, and if we pull a hit-and-run job on them, it’ll make things worse.”
“So where are we sitting now?” Bill asked.
“In a mid-level orbit—too high to shoot normal missiles. We’re receiving radio hails from the surface.”
“Are we answering?”
Mike shook his head. “The computer is still working on the translator, and half the crew is double-checking things manually. We really want to make sure we don’t screw up again. We sent a reply saying ‘Please wait. Cannot fully translate yet.’ At least we hope that’s what it said.”
“No hostile response,” Eliza added, “but they already carted the spaceplane off to some underground base.”
“Great…” Bill groaned. “You know they’re going to have our heads for this when we get home, right? I mean, the surface expedition itself was pushing the limits of the Quito Protocol to start with, and this is stomping all over it.”
“Rajiv argued as much—very forcefully. He was at Mu Arae, remember? And he says we got lucky there.”
“He’s not entirely wrong there,” Mike said. “Still, I can’t imagine what would happen if we just disappeared and then showed up again in ten years—or fifty.”
Bill thought about that for a time. “Yeah, you’re probably right,” he admitted. “So, do these aliens have a name?”
Eliza replied with a slight smile, “They have one, but it’s not pronounceable unless you can bark like a prairie dog.”
“We’ll, that’s no help. What about the name of the stars? Isn’t that the usual convention?”
“Only closer to home. No one bothered to name these. They’re listed as GSC 03987-00265 in the catalog, and we’re all a little leery of calling an inhabited system Balboa’s Star.”
“Hmm…what about the constellation, then?” Mike asked. “Are we still in Cepheus? I’ve lost track.”
“No, I’m pretty sure I remember us crossing into Lacerta a couple of months ago,” Bill answered.
“That could work. I’ll recommend to the captain that we call them the Lacertans.”
“Lacerta means ‘lizard’,” Eliza observed.
“So, Zavijava means ‘the dog kennel’ if I’m remembering right, and the Zavijavans don’t care.”
“Mike, if you think you can sell Alonso on it, go ahead,” Bill suggested.
“Well, it’s better than anything else I can think of. And I certainly can’t bark like a prairie dog, so why not?”
All eyes turned to Captain Garcia, who must have been listening in for some time.
“Captain!” Bill called with a mock salute, suddenly becoming more animated. “Taking a break from making history, are we?”
“Just wanted to see how my first mate was doing.”
“Ah, don’t worry about me, Alonso. I can take it. Just don’t ever try to pull that gravity trick on me again unless I have a gun pointed at my head.”
“You did have a gun pointed at your head.”
“Well, yes, but still…”
“We appreciate it, Captain,” Eliza said.
“I’m sure. It’s certainly good to have you back—all of you. And I think we have some work to do.”