by A. L. Sirois
"I'm going to miss that tinker toy," said Dr. Lori Weyler, watching the image of the Orbital Development Company's facility dwindle in her monitor. She wore a blue ODCO jumpsuit that complemented her red hair. "Even if the coffee maker did spray the lab with Mountain Blend every week or so."
Commander Carole Praeger's stomach lurched. "Sounds tasty," she said. She tapped course corrections into the Argus's computer and smiled wanly at the materials scientist.
Lori grunted. "I wish I knew what was so damn important for Synertech to want me back on Earth five weeks early."
"Sorry -- I just drive the cab," Carole said. A call light blinked on the microshuttle's radio.
"Calling _Argus_." It was the voice of Barye Davidoff, from ground control in New Mexico.
"_Argus_ aye. Hello, Bear, come back?"
"Everything okay up there, Carrie?"
Carole blinked. He wasn't picking up on their usual CB banter, and his voice was tense, strained. Why -- ?
_Oh, God, this is it!_ she thought. The knot twisting in her stomach for the last two weeks tightened. _They've found out. Damn medical telemetry._ TranSolar's space medic, Robert Lasher, was obviously having Bear call her on it.
Carole closed her eyes. "Bear, tell Lasher I'll get back to him."
"Huh? What's the doc got to do with anything?"
She opened her eyes. "Doesn't he want to talk to me?"
"No -- why? Are you having a problem?"
"No." Relief flooded her. Out of the corner of her eye, Carole noticed Lori watching. _Whoa, almost put my foot right in it._ She sat up a little straighter. "What can we do you for, Bear?"
"How would you like to take a little excursion?"
Lori and Carole exchanged puzzled looks. Carole said, "I don't get you."
"Okay -- three months ago TranSolar put up a satellite to inventory orbital debris, with me in charge of the console jockeys."
"I know that," said Carole. "So what?"
"Dr. Weyler doesn't know it," said Davidoff. "Let me explain. Anyway, some weird data started coming in, detailing an object with an odd magnetic signature. Dr. Weyler, would you have a look? I've uploaded it into your computer."
Carole called up the files as Lori watched. Figures and diagrams began filling the screen.
"You sure this isn't just some old booster or somebody's satellite fairing that came loose?" Carole asked.
"Look at the orbital projections," Bear said.
"Yeah, well -- pretty stable for flotsam."
"Right. We checked NORAD, and they had no record of it."
"These magnetic flux readings," said Lori. "Peculiar . . . like a ceramic, almost."
"I'm thinking it's Chinese," said Bear. "They didn't get that station of theirs, the _Laoying,_ up without a dry run."
"Well, maybe," Lori murmured.
"Shouldn't someone take a look?" Carole said before the import of her words hit her. "Oh -- I get you."
"Here's the deal." Davidoff's voice became confidential. "Dr. Weyler, Synertech would really like you to look at that thing. But the only way you will is with TranSolar's help. Carrie, before you say anything, I know you have the fuel margin -- I've gotten a status update of _Argus_ from ODCO's computer."
"My boss is eating five weeks of muy expensivo lab time," said Lori thoughtfully. "What's the big goddamn hurry?"
"Wait," Carole said. She pointed at the screen. "Look here -- that orbit isn't so stable that it doesn't decay a little, every go-round. We're entering a period of increased solar activity. The first big flare that spurts up will excite the atmosphere. It'll expand and our bogey'll start dragging air."
"Exactly," said Bear. "We think a month, max."
"How come no one told me about this before?" Carole asked.
"Yeah, Carrie, I'm sorry about that," said Bear. Carole heard the frustration in his voice and knew what he was going to say. "I had to wait for authorization from Swigert. You know how it is."
_Who?_ Lori mouthed.
"Our CEO," Carole muttered. To Davidoff, she said "I copy you, Bear. We better get going. Got some course change figures for me?"
+ + +
After the math was uploaded from Earth, Bear signed off.
"So," said Lori, settling into the co-pilot's seat, "what's it been, two years since we've seen each other? You're looking good, Blondie."
Carole smiled at the old nickname. "Are you still running those marathons?"
Lori wrinkled her nose. "Popped a tendon eight months back. Nowadays I bike. Hey, how's that hippie sister of yours?"
"Rowan? She's fine. You still look more like her than I do. When'd you start growing your hair?"
Lori seemed to settle into herself. "After Harry -- after _Atlantis,_" she said quietly.
"Oh," said Carole. Like Lori, she'd been working for NASA in the early 2000's.
NASA had been exciting then, with the agency struggling with competition from commercial launch providers. After cost overruns and politics killed _Freedom,_ a consortium of aggressive young companies leased the _MIR_ station from the Russian Commonwealth, intending to refit it. NASA had won the contract to transport the first crew there.
Carole had been slated to copilot the orbiter, but was grounded by flu. Cursing her luck and blowing her nose, she watched the mission on commercial TV. As the two vehicles connected, a faulty seal in MIR's umbilical tunnel gave way. Backup systems failed -- _Atlantis_ decompressed. Along with more than 2.5 billion other people, Carole watched her crewmates, including Lori Weyler's fiance, Commander Harold Goldes, strangling until the networks cut the satellite feed.
NASA promptly canceled all further STS missions. The shuttle program had been under fire on Capitol Hill -- now it was finished. Many astronauts, including Carole and Lori, quit the agency for positions in the private sector.
"So what's this hoo-ha about a doctor?" Lori asked. "Not to change the subject."
"Aah, you know," Carole said, with a wry smile. "I've been a little . . .." She twiddled her fingers.
"Oh, motion sickness," said Lori, solicitous. "Bummer."
Carole spread her palms and shrugged. "Curse of the spaceways," she said.
"No shitski. You'll let me know if I can do anything."
"Uh-huh. Listen, have you been working for Synertech the whole time since you left NASA?"
"A-yup," said Lori. "The pushy little Jew beat out half a dozen men for the position." She grinned.
They chatted a bit longer, then Lori excused herself and went aft for a nap in the crew closet. Carole selected a Charles Mingus CD, slid it into the slot, and sat back in her acceleration couch. Amazingly, she now had an hour to herself. She couldn't remember the last time that had happened. There was time to think, but really only one thing to think about. She thought about it so deeply that before she knew it, she heard Lori cursing while struggling to don her clothes.
"Nothing like a little catnap," said Lori, floating into the command section. "We've got what, three hours till rendezvous? I'll watch the lights if you want to snooze."
"Thanks," said Carole, eyeing the clock. "Wake me in two, okay?"
Back in the crew compartment, she webbed herself in and closed her eyes. She fell asleep almost at once. Dreaming:
_It was a place of dust and dirt and clinging webs. Her hands disturbed sowbugs as she scrabbled through the litter. Thin strips of light squeezed through slats to her left, making hot little diamonds on the dirt under the porch._ I won't go, _she thought as she crawled._ I won't! They can't make me do it. I won't go!
"_Carrie?" It was Rowan calling, her elder sister, in a voice thick from crying. "Carrie? We gotta go now." _
No! _Carrie shouted._
Her eyes snapped open. Rowan's face hung over her like a ghost.
"Hey -- you okay?"
Carole blinked. Not Rowan -- Lori. Lori looked a little like Rowan, with that curly red hair and wide mouth, but her robust voice was nothing like Rowan's soft contralto.
"Yeah, yeah." Carole took a shaky breath. "Just a nightmare." Her stomach lurched. She was going to be sick. "Excuse me!" She grabbed for a vomit bag and retched up her supper of concentrates.
Lori drifted back, trying to hide her disgust.
Carole looked up. Wiping her mouth, she sealed the bag and disposed of it. "Space sick," she said weakly to Lori.
"Right," said Lori. Her eyes glittered. "Space sick. Like, every morning?"
Carole refused to meet Lori's stare. _This is why I had that dream,_ she thought. _Because I want to be rid of this damn -- problem. It's guilt._
Lori touched her shoulder. "Look, I'm sorry. I'll get some breakfast."
"Thanks," Carole said.
Lori paused at the door. "If you want to talk about anything, you'll let me know," she said, then vanished into the galley.
Carole dressed and went to the command deck. There she watched Lori on the galley monitor. Lori swam about with rapid ease, using her bare feet to keep herself in position and even hold utensils. Her long, virtually prehensile toes made Carole wonder if Lori might represent the first step on the evolutionary ladder to _Homo outerspaciens._
The beginning of new life. Something bubbled inside her. New life, indeed.
It had to have happened in Bermuda with Glenn, nine weeks ago at the Pompano Beach Club. She smiled at the thought of it: watching the sun set over that fabulous turquoise ocean while drinking dark-and-stormies in the jacuzzi. Colonel Glenn Delaney, Navy fighter pilot, had a Boston Brahmin's social and athletic ease on the dance floor, the tennis court -- and in bed.
If she told him she was pregnant, he'd say, "We're a class act, Carrie. Let's do marriage."
Minus the baby angle, she might have agreed. They were genuinely fond of each other, and their careers brought in plenty of money. They'd work hard and vacation well.
The truth was she didn't want a child.
_Then why didn't you have your tubes tied instead of relying on a contraceptive that failed?_ Guilt stabbed through her. She knew what her mother would say: her mother, who had given up a career for her babies. Her mother, whose health had been ruined by her last pregnancy.
She pushed the guilt away. _NASA's doing this Mars mission with the Japanese,_ she thought. _My resume's good; I've got as much chance as anyone. There is no room in my life for a baby._
Lori floated into the command section just ahead of an appetizing odor.
Carole sniffed. "What's that?"
"Quiche Lori. Powdered eggs, water, cheese _food_ . . .. I carry a supply of herbs. Oregano, basil. I pride myself on taking these damn cookers beyond their specs. Want a bite?"
Before the meal was complete the Argus's instruments had picked up their target.
"This thing's bigger than we thought," Carole said, swallowing the last morsel of egg. "We're ten klicks out, and I have a visual -- but the radar trace thinks it's smaller."
Lori stared at the object taking definition on her screen.
"Irregularly shaped," she said. "Maybe from an explosion. Sure, it fits. China lofts the thing, there's a problem, they cover it up. Did a good job, because it certainly never made the news."
"Uh-huh. Rotating around the long axis at, what, about half an rpm?"
"Yeah," said Lori tightly. "No sunflashes . . . matte finish?"
"Strap in. I'm going to use the verniers."
Carole brought the microshuttle around for a broadside view of the object. She looked out the window to port -- and felt the hairs begin rising on her arms.
"Holy Mama Moses," she said softly.
"Say what?" asked Lori. Then she saw the other craft. "What the hell?"
Carole fumbled with the radio control clipped to her belt, switching it to voice-activated mode.
"Bear," she began, and swallowed. "_Barye!_"
"_Argus_ aye," came the familiar voice from New Mexico. "What's up, Carrie?"
"This is a very odd-looking Chinese industrial experiment!"
"Copy," said Davidoff. "Can you get your minicam rolling?"
"Roger that," Carole said, baring her teeth at Lori. She noticed her breathing: shallow, rapid. She reached for the small TV camera near the window.
"Oh-kaaaay," she said. "Let me get it angled in the bracket . . .. Right. See it?"
"No, we -- yes, Commander, we see it now. God!" The background babble increased as the other console operators on the ground began getting the video signal. "Hold it down!" Davidoff said off-mike. The voices faded slightly. Then, to Carole: "Can you detail it?"
"Uhm -- it's big as a house . . . twisted, like DNA coiled on itself. Long blobby spines sticking out every which way . . . sensor arrays, maybe."
"Definitely a ceramic," said Lori, "composited with some polymers, otherwise it would have been picked up by Earth-based radar. Sure don't look Chinese to moi!"
Too many people were talking on the comm link. Carole twisted up her volume. "Bear? I need instructions."
"Agh! Turn down the gain and sit tight, Commander, while I make some calls."
"And you'll get Synertech's CEO on the line while you're at it," Lori said meaningfully.
"She's already on-site," said Bear.
"That's his 'serious and constructive' voice," Carole murmured to Lori. "Must be TranSolar brass lurking about."
"What a surprise _that_ would be," said Lori.
"Here she comes, with Mr. Swigert," Davidoff said.
Lori leaned close to Carole. "Tell me about this guy," she whispered.
"Bottom-line bureaucrat," Carole whispered back. "Clever, but too image conscious for me."
"Argus, stand by," said Davidoff. The audio cut out.
"That probably means your boss and mine are debating what we should do," Lori said. "Remote management. God, that's exasperating. We've _got_ to be in a better decision-making position than they are."
The radio came to life again. "Carole," Davidoff said, "we've just called the US and Commonwealth defense authorities, and ESA. No one admits to lofting anything clandestine."
Carole scratched her head. "And Japan publicizes everything, even their failures," she said. "Who's that leave?"
"Right," said Davidoff. "Best guess: as I said, a Chinese experiment. Anything on your radio?"
"Nothing, it's a deadster," Carole said.
"_Argus,_ sorry -- please stand by again." The signal from Earth died away. It came back a minute or so later. "We just got an interesting call," Davidoff said slowly. "From the Chinese. They've noticed your deviation from your filed flight plan. I didn't think they monitored us that closely -- well, never mind. They're sending the _Fou lin,_ one of their supply shuttles, over from the _Laoying_ with some, ah, advisors."
"The _'ying_ isn't manned yet, I thought," said Carole.
"Advisors, my ass," said Lori. "Those are construction team goons." She tapped her fingers on the console. "Did you ask 'em if this is one of their discards?"
"Yes," said Davidoff, in a different tone. "They wouldn't say yea or nay. As far as I'm concerned, that just means they don't want to admit they screwed up." He cleared his throat. "You can expect them by 0500."
Less than six hours. Carole felt a pit open in her belly. "Well, we've got salvage rights, don't we?"
"Commander Praeger?" A new voice boomed from the speakers. She recognized it as TranSolar's president, Ted Swigert. "You're to do nothing, repeat, _nothing_ to jeopardize the safety of either yourself or Dr. Weyler. Is that understood?"
"Yes sir, I copy," she said, glancing at Lori.
After Bear signed off, Carole put _Argus_ into a matching tumble, making the two craft motionless relative to one another. The maneuver imparted about a twelfth of a G to the "polar" regions of the microshuttle. Carole watched an unsecured pen settle to the floor beside her. Amidships, the sleeping quarters would still be a micrograv environment.
"We should try to sleep," Carole said thoughtfully. "It's ship's midnight. We'll need our wits when the Chinese get here."
"You sleep if you want," said Lori.
"And what are you going to be doing?" Carole asked, rubbing her fingers together.
"Trying to figure how to get in before our guests arrive."
Carole shook her head. "You heard Swigert. No risks. We're staying put."
"Like I said before, we're in a better decision-making posture than our bosses."
"Lori, the damn thing belongs to the Chinese."
"Yeah? They haven't claimed it."
"There isn't anyone else's it could be."
"Well, I -- "
There was nothing subtle about what happened next.
Everything around Carole -- the ship, the chair in which she sat, Lori -- disappeared, and she was hurtling through space. A pocked moon, filling a third of the sky, loomed vertiginously ahead. Before Carole could even gasp, it flashed by. Beyond, a bigger object -- a planet, a maroon globe unfamiliar to her -- similarly expanded and vanished, then another, like a movie running at high speed.
_Jesus Highrolling Christ!_ Carole thought, terrified.
From behind her, the organic shape of the Chinese vehicle flew by into
the emptiness -- the movie speeded up to follow, keeping the object in sight as it fled into the dark.
In the all but featureless void, she had a few moments to let her pilot's training take over. _Evaluate the situation,_ she told herself. _I can feel the couch and my clothes, but I can't see them, can't smell anything, can't hear anything!_
_It's a souped-up virtual reality,_ she thought, recalling training sessions in simulators. _With no headset, nothing! This is being broadcast from that thing outside. It's communication!_ Her flesh crawled. She gripped the couch so tightly her hands ached. The scene flickered, then steadied. She was approaching a spherical object, something translucent. Within, movement. A vehicle of some kind? No -- somehow she knew it was alive. Her mind gibbered about the scale -- in space there was no reference. She watched helplessly while structures contracted and quivered throughout the jellylike volume of the thing.
The scene melted away, replaced by another. Her disembodied viewpoint skimmed the blasted surface of what had apparently been a fruitful world. Cities lay in ruins, agricultural regions were stripped raw, lakes and oceans simmered with pollution. Enormous industrial complexes clutched at the land. Carole approached one. Pools of simmering effluvia surrounded ovoid structures. Carole passed through the wall of one ovoid and found herself in an enormous ribbed chamber lit by glowing ribbons strung along the walls. Below, insectile forms labored unceasingly at incomprehensible apparatus. Occasionally one of the beings collapsed. Other workers instantly set upon it and tore it to pieces. After devouring it, they continued working.
From deep within herself, Carole felt a growing sense of dumb, urgent
greed. With a shock she realized the sensation wasn't hers -- somehow she was receiving it from the communication. _The damn thing's telepathic,_ she thought. _There's something alive in there!_ Her stomach churned.
Abruptly she was back in the shuttle. The chronometer still read a few moments shy of midnight. Lori goggled at her.
"You too?" Carole whispered, gripping the handrests of her acceleration chair.
Lori, mouth agape, nodded slowly.
Carole took a deep shuddering breath. "It's not Chinese."
"Y-yeah," said Lori. "We ought to try to get inside it."
"What?" Carole stared at her. "Those weren't benign images! If anything's alive in there, it's _foul!_"
"That won't stop our Chinese advisors," said Lori.
"Wait," said Carole. "Let's reconstruct. I saw -- we saw, right? -- what might be a mission log recording. Maybe. What do you suppose that big round thing was?"
"A star-faring jellyfish, how the hell would I know? Maybe the answer's inside our buddy out there."
"Maybe it isn't," said Carole. "Just the way things are, Lori, this is the discovery of the century. It's proof there's intelligent life out there!"
"Some proof!" Lori was, Carole noticed, breathing heavily.
_So am I._ "I'm calling this in," Carole said, controlling herself. "We need help."
But static blanketed every channel on the radio. "Dammit, nothing's getting through either way!" Carole slumped back in her seat. "I didn't expect a solar flare so soon."
"It's not a flare." Lori was looking out the window.
Carole scowled. "What do you mean?"
"Our friend is jamming us."
"Oh, come on, you -- "
"You know it is," Lori said, turning to look at her.
"That's nuts -- it's really crazy." Carole knew she didn't sound very convincing.
"You know what?" asked Lori, unstrapping herself from her couch. "You're afraid. Well, I am, too, but I'm not going to let it stop me."
"Nothing's stopping me!" Carole felt her anger rise.
"Nothing?" Lori paused. "Not even your baby?"
Again Carole's world cracked open, but this time the shock came from within. A consuming rage clawed at her last shreds of control.
"Oh, don't give me that idiotic slack-jaw stuff," said Lori. "I'm not stupid. You ralph every morning -- I saw it in your eyes when we talked about it. You're pregnant."
"If I am or not, what difference does it make? I'm going to do an EVA. I'll go see what I can do about maybe rigging an antenna -- "
"If you go out there, you're endangering your baby."
"A clump of cells isn't -- hey, it's none of your damn business!" Carole stared at Lori, fighting an impulse to seize her by the throat.
"It is if it impairs your performance," said Lori coldly. "My fine white butt is up here right next to yours, and I don't have any hormones clouding my judgment."
"Clouding my -- wait, I get it; you're out to carve a slice of glory for yourself," Carole said. A sort of joyous lunacy loomed over her. She ached to give in to it.
Lori pulled a ballpoint pen from a pocket of her overalls and held it before her like a knife. Her eyes narrowed in hatred.
_This isn't right,_ Carole thought, quivering on the brink of violence. "That thing, whatever's out there," she croaked. "Lori -- it's getting into our minds. You can't talk about endangering a baby one second and want to kill me the next!"
Lori paused. A look of confusion crossed her face, but she retained her grip on the pen.
"It's fine-tuning on us," Carole said, unable to take her eyes off Lori's white-knuckled hand. "Listen: all it could do at first was send images. Then, right at the end of the log, we got that horrible, greedy hunger. By that time maybe it had our emotions figured out. Now it's working with them."
"Are you saying it's controlling us?" Lori asked, incredulous.
"Trying to, maybe," said Carole, staring at Lori's hand gripping the pen. "If it is, what'll happen when the Chinese get here? Will it make us try to kill them? Or will it decide the odds are better using them to kill us?"
Lori, white-faced, slowly slid the pen back into her pocket. "Maybe you're right," she said thickly. "I wanted to stab you, hurt you. That -- that isn't me."
Carole nodded quickly, biting her lips, struggling to get her own rage under control. She forced herself to think. "Anyway, it's stopped, for now," she said.
"What do we do?" Lori's voice was high and tense.
_"I don't know!"_ Carole took a deep breath. "Sorry -- I don't mean to yell. I think we do have to get in before the Chinese do. But I'm the one to go. This is TranSolar's show."
"Look, uh, Carrie . . ." Lori said softly, "I'm sorry for what I said. You know -- about the baby. I know you won't let it affect you. But suppose something happens?"
Carole stared at her. "Then it might be a good idea to get away before our pals from the _Laoying_ show up. The Bear can talk you through re-entry. It's not hard."
"Yeah? Well, how about being real careful so I don't have to try it?" "Okay, your suit camera's looking good. Now let's hear your numbers," said Lori from the flight deck. The short-range suit frequencies weren't being jammed, which made both women even more uneasy.
"Time EVA is zero four," said Carole, floating out of the airlock into the vacuum. "O2 is ninety-eight percent. Four-point-three suit pressure . . .." And on through the rest of the readings she had made so many times before.
The alien, motionless against the careen of Earth and sun, looked odder the closer she got to it. Even its color was bizarre: yellowish gray with pale-orange highlights.
She came to a halt less than two meters off the stranger's hull. "Looks like, ahh, matzoh with a sugar glaze." Without warning, her bowels constricted. The cramp nearly doubled her over inside the suit. A groan wormed out of her.
"Your breathing stepped up," Lori said. "You okay?"
"Y-yeah," she said. She made her tone conversational. "Just a little agida." _Just scared spitless,_ she said to herself.
She fastened an adhesive patch to the vehicle and snapped a line to the patch's eyebolt. Carefully, she laid both gloves against the surface of the alien, then leaned forward and touched her helmet to it.
"No internal vibrations," she said. She spidered along the hull and paused to take a shaving of material. "Here's something," she said. She traced a panel, about one and a half meters square, set flush with the hull. At one rounded corner of the panel was a slight depression, like an ant-lion pit, four or five centimeters deep. A raised bead sat in its center.
"Knock, knock," Carole muttered.
"You's there," said Lori.
Using a small gripper attached to her gauntlet, Carole gingerly touched the bead. "It gives a bit," she said. "I'm pushing it in." The hatch cover opened outward on a concealed hinge. "Any energy spikes, Lori?" she asked.
"Nothing reads here. Possibly hydraulic, or mechanical."
She peered into the opening. Inside, blackness. She looked at the inner surface of the hatch. It, too, had a beaded indentation, with the bead raised. She pushed it in; the hatch closed, with the outer bead returning to its original position.
She worked the mechanism several times. "It's consistent," she said. Uneasiness built within her, and she felt perspiration gathering under her arms.
Her helmet lamp illuminated a waxy-looking bulkhead two meters in. Carefully, she stuck her head into the hole. The faint carrier-signal noise in her earphones faded slightly.
"We may lose contact inside," she said, and took a deep breath to settle her stomach. "Try to keep a lock on my signal."
"The Chinese'll be here in about four hours," Lori said.
"I copy," said Carole, starting to pull herself in.
Halfway through the hatch she froze, gripping the rim in unexpected terror. Her heart thumped.
"Carole?" Lori's voice cracked. "Are you all right?"
"Wait!" Carole managed to gasp. "Wait."
Scenes of past terrors whipped through her memory: an out-of-control skid on an icy Vermont road; the time she'd ditched in the Atlantic, scrambling out of her floundering T-38.
She had kept her head then; she would keep it now. _If you panic, you die,_ one of her flight instructors had said.
She fought the fear back, aiming it at the fetus. _You're making me feel this,_ she told it. _Just to save your little ass._ She realized that never before had she thought of the baby as a person.
_Well, it isn't, and this isn't the time to think about it anyway,_ she thought, forcing her fingers to crawl onto the inner surface of the hull. "I'm all right now," she said. "I'm going in." Shaking, struggling to hold down her gorge, she pulled herself into the alien vessel.
"Your transmission is breaking up a little. Do you copy?"
"Yes," Carole said. She swallowed, tasting bile. "I'm in an airlock." She took two deep breaths and felt better. "There's a hatch ahead of me, same bead set-up as the outer one."
She closed the outer hatch. The inner one opened easily, revealing a narrow passageway of grayish waxy material coated with frost. Leaning closer, she cautiously touched it with her glove.
Vapor curled away from the spot, swirling in the cone of light from her helmet lamp.
"What's that, smoke?" asked Lori, alarmed.
"No; air," said Carole, licking her lips. "Frozen atmosphere. My suit's warm enough to vaporize it."
She moved slowly into the corridor. It dead-ended to her right. To her left gaped the ice-coated mouth of another passage. She stared at it. After a few seconds the frozen air began evaporating in the light, fogging the chamber.
The passage led to a three-way intersection. With a marking crayon, she made an "x" on the side of the corridor and started down the left-hand passage. Ahead of her, it zig-zagged off into blackness.
Her feeling of dread lessened. She halted.
"What's the matter?" asked Lori. There was more static layered on the signal now.
"This isn't the right way," Carole said. She returned to the intersection.
"Right way to _what?_" Lori asked.
"I, I don't know!" Carole stared at the three dark openings. Her left eyelid ticced with stress. She approached each entry in turn and closed her eyes, freeing her fear, inviting it in. It felt strongest at the opening on the right. "This one," she said reluctantly, entering after marking it. _It's taunting me with my own fright._
The alien craft seemed to contain nothing but a bewildering maze of featureless passages. Every time Carole faced a choice of direction, she paused while her fear chose one for her.
" . . .ear me . . . abe?" from Lori. Carole heard the frustration in her voice between static bursts. "Too much . . .erference from the structure, . . . think."
"Do your best to enhance," Carole said. "I'll keep talking."
"..hy don't you . . .ut of there?"
"Lori, I've got forty-five minutes of air left," said Carole. "If you don't hear from me by then, run like hell."
"No ..itski," Lori said. " . . .ood luck."
Carole sighed shakily, and began moving deeper into the ship, toward the point around which it rotated.
Several minutes later the corridor ended in another beaded hatchway.
"No frozen air along here," Carole said. She wondered if Lori could hear her. "Outside temp just below zero Centigrade. I wouldn't think that was possible -- unless something's warming the air."
She stared at the hatchway, trembling.
_Don't open it,_ her nerves screamed. She had an all but overpowering instant of longing to be back in Bermuda. Suppressing it, she opened the hatch.
Beyond lay another airlock. She entered, her breathing hollow in her helmet. Slowly, she reached out for the mechanism. She closed her eyes and pushed the beads. As the inner hatch opened, she thought of hibiscus blossoms, parrot fish, and the little lizards that scooted along the wall of the Pompano apartment she had shared with Glenn.
Suddenly, with an almost physical sensation of something being snatched away, the fear was gone -- and with it the foreboding. She opened her eyes in astonishment.
At first she saw only blobby patches of color. Then her sense of scale and proportion took hold. She remembered that she was supposed to be talking. "Lori, I'm in an irregular chamber about the size of a handball court. It's lined with the same matzoh stuff, but here it's giving off silver light. Can't see how."
She paused, groping for words. "There're clouds in here, thick pink ones the size of a bookcase, maybe. Weird. And -- " Her mouth went dry. Something egg-shaped and white floated amid the clouds, something about her size.
One of the pink clouds drifted toward her, obscuring her view of the white thing. She automatically waved her left arm to dissipate it. Droplets condensed on her suit, evaporating instantly, leaving a residue of tiny concentric rhomboids.
Adrenaline kicked her nerves. "I'll try to get some shots," she said, lifting her Hasselblad to photograph the white egg. She became conscious of an irritating itch along her left arm but put it out of her thoughts.
She peered through her faceplate, trying to line up a shot. "What the f -- " She looked up and gasped. The thing had begun putting forth delicate, jointed limbs. That terrible fear she had felt in the _Argus_ again twisted within her.
Then, gently as a falling leaf, something touched her mind.
She tried to move, to turn and leap for the exit, but her muscles refused to obey. She couldn't drop the camera or even speak. She could breathe, but that was all. Paralyzed, she waited for whatever was going to happen next.
Seconds passed, maybe a minute -- nothing happened. She stared at what she now knew must be the pilot of this vessel. It made no move to attack her, simply bent and flexed its limbs as it floated. Yet the soft pressure on her thoughts remained.
_I get it -- it's waiting for me to let it in! It doesn't want to force its way in and maybe damage me. Well, no way!_ She strained, but couldn't so much as twitch.
_You bastard,_ she thought. _I get it. Unless I let you in, I don't get out._ Her anger flared.
_This whole set-up is a trap. You couldn't get us to kill each other, so you're separating us. One at a time. Clever little bug. But you still can't get into my head unless I let you. Well, I've got less than thirty minutes of air left, and guess what? I'll suffocate before I let you take me over._
As if in response, the creature moved, unfolding further from of its curled-up ovoid posture. Fascinated despite her fear, Carole suddenly frowned. There was something familiar about the being.
The insect forms she had seen slaving at machines -- the pilot was of the same race.
For a moment she was stunned. The vision reminded her of the underground Nazi factories of World War II, where prisoners labored to construct V-1 rockets.
Was the pilot an escaped prisoner?
She swallowed. More likely he was one of the rulers, fleeing a violent revolution.
These creatures clearly had powerful mental abilities. What did this one want? Why had it come to Earth?
It didn't matter. If she didn't come out, Lori would never venture in, and the beast would be trapped in its ship, headed for a blazing death in the Earth's atmosphere.
Except -- the Chinese are on their way!
Were she not paralyzed, Carole would have twisted in an agony of frustration. If the monster could get the Chinese astronauts in thrall, it would -- what? Try to enslave the entire planet?
_Suppose this -- this_ thing _is as desperate as I am,_ she thought. _It couldn't control us_: _once I figured what was happening we fought it off. Suppose it isn't strong enough to control me even if I let it in!_ She tried to keep the realization secluded in a corner of her mind. _Suppose_ I _can control_ it!
_It's not like I have anything to lose_ . . ..
Carole gathered herself. All right, she thought, as "loudly" as she could. Here!
She let her barriers down.
Instantly it tore her mind away. She saw
_the immense cell from her previous vision, or one like it, drifting in space. No, not drifting_: _it felt the solar wind and sent out fields of weak energy like vast sails. Pulsating, it approached an inviting blue world. As it hit air, the cell encysted in response to atmospheric friction. It fell safely to the ground and exploded into cancerous growth, interpolating its own aggressive genetic material into any and all life forms it touched, beginning with the fast_-_growing microorganisms._
Carole tried to ignore the vision, concentrating instead on forcing the invading probe out of her mind. She made a supreme effort -- and the scene blinked off, leaving her gasping in reaction. Something squirmed in her head. She fought against it, and it retreated.
Her fingers twitched. She flexed them, then moved her legs. Savage glee suffused her. The creature had lost control of her.
"You couldn't do it," she whispered. "I really am too strong!"
Yet the contact had sensitized her. She felt an odd sort of mental irritation. Amputees, she knew, experienced itching and pain in their missing limbs -- this feeling was like that: as if a second brain had been removed, leaving phantom impressions of its thoughts.
_You're going to let me out of here,_ she thought at the creature. _You're going to die. Die!_
There was a peculiar sensation of a barrier falling, shattering into disintegrating fragments. She felt the alien's mind retreating before her onslaught, and fiercely smashed her way on.
Without warning, it attacked again, with an image so shocking she couldn't muster her defenses:
_She was in a place of dirt and clinging webs. Sowbugs scattered as she scrabbled through the litter under the porch. Dusty rays of light squeezing through the slats left little diamonds on the rubble._
I won't go, _Carrie thought as she crawled._ I won't! It doesn't make sense -- you can't name a baby when it hasn't been born. I won't go to Kevin's funeral, no matter what!
"_Carrie?_" _Rowan, her elder sister, called in a voice thick from crying. "Carrie? We gotta go. Everybody's waitin'._"
No! _Carrie shouted._
She was back in the alien ship. The pilot floated nearby, fully unfolded. It had no eyes, but it seemed to Carole that it watched her. She felt no fear, only a deep, aching sadness.
"When I was eight," Carole said softly, "my mom got pregnant. She was forty-two and really wanted the baby. It went wrong, and she had to have an abortion at eight months. And, and she never recovered."
The alien remained motionless, attempting no telepathic contact.
She licked her lips. "I used to think my mom was weak because she caved in after that. But it was my own fear, distorting my view. I've been afraid . . . of getting pregnant, of having a baby. I couldn't admit it, even to myself. I told myself I didn't want this baby because it would hurt my career." She managed a twisted smile. "You made me face it."
The alien slowly put forth a jointed leg and touched the side of her helmet.
She drew a deep breath. "Okay," she said. "Let's do it." And she opened her mind fully to the creature . . ..
_It thought of itself as the Rider. It called the spacefaring virus_ haclahñ: _life eater._
_The Rider's people had been on the point of developing interstellar travel when the_ haclahñ _invaded their star system. Though the Rider's people ultimately found a way to combat the invader, the discovery came too late to save their world. Assailed by ravenous, deformed monsters that had been their own people, the uninfected Riders labored to build seven slower-than-light space vehicles, with the intention of warning other civilizations of the_ haclahñ. _Starving, they ate their own fallen workers and slaved on. Their citadel was attacked, but before it was destroyed they managed to launch three vessels._
_You were trying to tell us what you had endured to reach us,_ Carole thought.
Affirmation from the Rider.
In suspended animation, the Rider passed long years tended by the pink clouds, which were assemblages of microscopic machines. The nano-robots also maintained the ship.
Sixty-five years earlier, the Rider's ship had caught the fringes of an expanding sphere of radio signals. At the center of that sphere was Earth.
Arriving in orbit, the ship scanned the planet. It found a mad, conflicting patchwork of violence and lightning change, similar to its programmed memories of symptoms of _haclahñ_ infection. It roused the Rider for help.
Without actually encountering a member of the dominant species, the Rider himself couldn't tell if the chaotic planet was diseased. He needed an individual to examine.
He altered his vessel's orbit, hoping to attract the attention of one or another of the groups that occasionally lofted a ship.
"And TranSolar happened to notice before anyone else," Carole said aloud.
Agreement emanated from the alien.
"You tried to get to us from the bottom up, through the most primitive emotions: fear, rage, jealousy. So now we know," said Carole. "We know you're here, and you know we aren't infected. Now what?"
The alien's soft, pulsating face gave no clue of its emotions, if any. Glistening flaps opened and closed. Blinking? Or attempts at speech?
The Rider raised a delicate arm. Fascinated, she stared at it. Long, rubbery tendons criss-crossed the appendage, trembling. The arm's narrow tip grew rigid, as though a coating of horn was being swiftly secreted over it.
Within moments it became a talon.
Terror exploded in her. The Rider drew back its claw, paused, then, as she tried to twist away, plunged it into its own thorax and began to cut.
As its fluids gushed, the pink clouds closed in, frothing. Within seconds, they consumed the alien, leaving only a thinning haze settling over her suit in spreading fractal patterns.
The clouds retreated to the center of the chamber and compacted into a sphere. It began pulsating. Pink light flooded out in waves from its center. The walls of the chamber also began to glow. To Carole's horror, the glow intensified and began eating away at the material.
Her breath caught in her throat. She glanced at the air gauge on her wrist. _I've got to get out of here!_
She jetted to the airlock and crammed in, risking a glance over her shoulder as the door slid shut. The Rider's chamber was breaking apart.
She squeezed through the outer door and flew off down the left-hand corridor branch.
Her blazes were gone. She paused, panting, and tried to think. Had she simply missed one? Or had she marked frozen air which vaporized, destroying the mark?
She looked around in desperation. Behind her, spreading veins of pink fire laced the corridor walls.
She fled, blindly. Minutes passed as she skimmed through featureless, twisting tunnels. She was breathing the air in her suit now. Her lungs burned. Red shapes swam across her vision. Something seemed to be slowly pushing a blunt needle into her brain.
She slammed into a wall. Stunned, she fell back, drifting a little to one side. Her vision flickered.
Frost vanished from the wall in front of her. A blizzard of air-snow blew around her suit.
Pink sparks twinkled amid the snowflakes, eating away the wall as though it were flashpaper.
_Hull compromised?_ she thought dimly. Atlantis _decompressed -- blew air out._ Gasping, Carole fumbled at her thruster controls. _Try to crash through the bulkhead._
A soundless explosion of light blinded her.
Moments later she found herself floating in a thin miasma, all that was left of the ship. The mist settled on her suit, etching frost-like patterns there before sinking in. Again her skin tingled briefly.
_What have you done to me?_ she wondered, staring wildly at the dissipating cloud.
The _Argus_ appeared through dimming radiance, gliding toward her. Black curtains hemmed in her sight. Vaguely, she saw an Asian face in the front port.
_What happened to Lori?_ Thoughts whirled away.
+ + +
She came to in a crowded space she didn't recognize, having her suit peeled off her by Lori. Two Asian men gripped handholds behind the scientist.
Lori chuckled, following Carole's line of sight over her shoulder. "We're on board the _Laoying,_" she said. "The Chinese were coming, remember? They got here early, just in time to watch the alien disintegrate -- and incidentally to save your bee-hind. Whoa -- don't talk, breathe." Lori pressed an oxygen mask over Carole's mouth and nose. "They're understandably curious, and sort of insisted I come over here to talk."
"Disintegrated . . . gone?"
"Oh, man . . .." Carole settled back, drawing the oxygen deep into her lungs. It made her light-headed.
"And, let's see, who else called? Well, NORAD's been on the line, and the Japanese, the Israelis, my boss, _your_ boss . . .. Shall I go on?"
"No." Carole closed her eyes. It didn't make any sense. Why send a suicide mission to the stars?
The Rider couldn't simply have killed himself as an expression of grief from one who preferred to die with his civilization. She knew, with a certainty that clarified her thoughts like a face-full of cold water, that the alien's death and the destruction of his all-but-living ship furthered his mission in some way.
"We are wishing to talk to you," said one of the Chinese astronauts. He didn't look threatening, just curious: avidly curious.
"Back off," said Lori, helping Carole into her hammock.
"No, it's okay," said Carole. She motioned to the Hasselblad hooked to her suit. "It's all there."
"And on video," said Weyler. "I'll take our hosts up to the command deck and play the tape for 'em. Come on, guys. Be back in a sec, babe, okay?"
"I'll be fine," Carole said. "It's all there," she repeated. _But it isn't; only what you can see. _
What one couldn't see, she knew, was the sensitization she had experienced through mental contact with the Rider. Of all Earth's billions, she alone had knowledge of the _haclahñ._
Knowledge of how to fight it.
_Knowledge,_ she thought. Coded information. She remembered the nanotech clouds and how they had condensed on her suit and soaked into it, through it --
In an instant of total clarity, a thrill of horror and revulsion rippled through her. _The way it worked itself into my mind_; _it found its way into my body too! Into my cells, all my cells -- into the replicating cells inside my womb!_
She knew it with a cold, new certainty.
Eyes closed, she listened to Lori: "Look, the Commander needs a little catnap before she'll answer any questions. Give her some space, if you'll excuse my idiom."
By the time the _haclahñ_ arrived, Earth might be able to fight it off. Even as it decimated the Rider's people they learned a thing or two about how it worked its genetic manipulations across numberless alien species. Via coded pulses of radiation and the nanotech clouds, the Rider's ship had delivered instructions to her DNA, instructions designed to provide it with the ability to act as a platform for a _haclahñ_-resistant strain of plasm. That _homo sapiens_ would no longer be strictly human meant nothing to the Rider, given its long-range perspective on what it saw as a "humanitarian" act.
_Fine for you,_ Carole thought. _Maybe you've saved us. But I don't know what I am, any more. Or what this baby is._
There would be no abortion. Nor would she dare pass the baby along for adoption.
She opened her eyes and saw, outside the _Laoying,_ the voluptuous curve of Earth. Beyond it, she knew, were the planets and the stars.
_I'll never see them._
She touched her belly.
_Except in the flesh._
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