Excerpt – Xenogeneic: First Contact

by Lance Erlick

TWO

 

“Beware what you ask for,” Elena’s father had once warned.

Those words rattled about her head while she squeezed out of the lunar shuttle’s sleep tube. As the drug-induced fog faded, she sat facing a narrow sky-blue corridor. The bizarre encounter with Jorgensen kept looping through her brain, making no sense.

Despite her pledge to the senator, Elena would soon be on the Moon base, away from all the politics. She hoped her lunar crew had checked out and provisioned Devereaux’s long-range spacecraft, though when she reached the Moon, she would perform her own checks. Then they would launch toward Jupiter. She smiled. This is finally happening, Dad.

Stretching, Elena closed her eyes, pictured her father before he vanished, and wished she could share this moment with him. She snapped on antiquated magnetic boots and struggled to put one foot in front of the other to reach the main cabin. Her seamless blue and red transport bodysuit was too tight, the stretchy material clinging.

Predictably, Marc Carlisle managed to finagle his way onto her lunar shuttle. At the last moment, he’d shown up with official documents showing that he was replacing one of the passengers transferring to the Moon base. That was when she’d decided on induced sleep for the two-day journey. I’m not going to let him pester me into taking him to Europa.

The ship lurched, tossing her against one wall and then the other. Wretched clumsy boots.

At least on the longer journey she’d have artificial gravity and other conveniences. She peeled one boot off the metallic floor, pushed it forward, and let it magnetically reconnect. Fighting the boots in zero gravity took all her concentration. That and the lingering haze of induced sleep delayed her recognizing the obvious. It was rare for a spacecraft to shift direction abruptly unless something hit it. The only things that came to mind were meteorites and space junk, neither of which would be good.

The boots resisted her attempts to move faster. By the time she reached the main compartment, the nineteen other blue-and-red-clothed passengers, many dazed from sleep, were already strapped in or struggling to reach assigned seats in one of five rows. These lunar miners, construction workers, a cook, and a few agrarians were all heading for the lunar base or a nearby settlement.

The view-screen before them showed a starry sky, mostly blackness. The pilot’s seat was empty and Captain Zak Pavlin was nowhere in sight. Elena thought there should have been a partition separating the crew from passengers, so the latter wouldn’t notice such details. To conserve weight and space, NASA had built the shuttles without dividers.

Nearby sat navigator Reese Paswitch. Her highlighted brown hair and eyeliner seemed overdone for a transit to the Moon; she was looking forward to a lunar wedding. Her fiancée sat in one of the passenger seats, gripping the armrests. Two crewmembers on either side of the controls, young recruits on a routine lunar transit, were both sweating. They looked as if they hadn’t slept in days.

In the co-pilot’s seat sat Marc Carlisle, looking as if he’d pulled all-nighters for a week. Elena sighed. She didn’t need their personal drama replayed in public. She hated shutting him down on their last night together, but she was tired of his insistence that she let him accompany her to Europa. Now he’d moved a step closer.

After they reached the lunar base, she would let him stew while she prepared her team. Then she would bid him farewell—again. Maybe this time they could leave on better terms.

The transport jolted to the left, forcing Elena to steady herself against the cabin wall. Her attention fell on the forward view-screen, which no longer showed a starry sky.

“What the … Jupiter?” She felt dazed, still recovering from the sleep drugs. Am I dreaming?

No, she was awake, all right. The magnetic boots were like having her feet encased in concrete. She grabbed hold of an empty seat and dragged her boots toward the pilot’s chair. Have I been asleep for six months? She checked her wrist-com. Two days had elapsed and she was still on the shuttle. “Where’s the Moon?” she asked Marc.

“Good, you’re up.” He reached for her hand.

Elena pulled away. Weariness and frustration swept across Marc’s face.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Somehow we diverted to Jupiter, months early.” Marc’s attempt to act calm was betrayed by his face, wrinkled with unsettling terror.

“How is this possible?” Elena scanned the jumble of controls and lights for evidence of what went wrong. The whole setup looked like something from the Smithsonian. The shuttle was a generation out of date, since the government refused to invest in space exploration. NASA had assured her that the weathered craft was sturdy enough to get them to the Earth’s moon. Not to Jupiter.

“We don’t know.” Marc’s face sagged. “Maybe you can help puzzle this out.” His pleading look reminded her of the night they’d parted.

Approaching Jupiter should have excited her, but Elena struggled to absorb what was happening. She was near her destination without her team, no gear, in a shuttle that couldn’t survive out here. Preparation was everything. She shook her head. “The shuttle can’t travel this fast.”

Marc returned his attention to the controls and pulled up status charts. “Agreed, but we’ve been approaching Jupiter for hours. I’m open to explanations.”

Elena didn’t have any. She stared at the image of Jupiter, with the sinking feeling that she’d survived Jorgensen only to vanish in space like her father. Only one thing made sense, yet it didn’t. “Were you that desperate to be on my mission that you veered off course?”

“Whoa.” Marc threw up his hands and let out a heavy sigh. “We didn’t do this. The crew and I have been through forty-eight hours of hell. The controls don’t work. The pilot and co-pilot are checking panels for malfunctions. Tara L’Enfant is helping them.”

Elena had bumped Tara, an electronics expert, off her mission in favor of someone she deemed a better fit. Tara had taken the consolation prize, one rotation of work on the lunar base and ended up on this shuttle.

“Why are you at the controls?” Elena asked in a harsh whisper.

“I have pilot training.”

“Not for a shuttle.” Elena took a deep breath. She didn’t want another fight. “I want to speak to the pilot. Where is he?”

“He’s working on our thruster electronics. You’ll have to wait until he’s done. In the meantime, why don’t you sit?”

“Tell me what you know.” She stopped herself from adding that shouldn’t take long.

“Not a single switch, circuit or gear problem.”

Reese Paswitch sat nearby; her bloodshot eyes and knotted brow betrayed shell shock. Even her cheeks sagged, hardly the image she would want at her wedding. Passengers stared at the screen. Several got up and approached.

Elena tried to focus on the science, but her mind remained foggy. She couldn’t account for traveling so far so fast. Although her sponsors had exhausted every resource to find the fastest way to the outer solar system, even their long-distance spaceship couldn’t achieve these speeds.

“What do you make of this?” Elena asked, lowering her voice.

“We lost controls an hour into the flight,” Marc whispered.

The bulky control panel had no flashing lights. No displays hinted at anything wrong except for that Jovian mass ahead of them. “Why didn’t you wake me?” Elena asked.

“I tried,” Marc said. “You must have taken extra sedatives.”

To avoid you. A sharp pain stabbed behind her right eye. She dropped into the pilot’s seat and immediately her eyes felt leaden, ready for sleep. She took a deep breath and clenched her fists. “Not much, though my head’s ready to explode.”

Marc handed her a mug of coffee. “This might help. It’s a richer blend.”

Clutching the mug, Elena sucked in lukewarm coffee through a tube and hoped it would do the trick.

A half-dozen puzzled and scared passengers closed in around Elena as they pushed for a closer look. Worry spreading across their faces. She stood to get air. These passengers hadn’t signed on for the challenges and risks of flying to Jupiter. She didn’t want to add to their terror.

She handed Marc the coffee, placed her hand on his shoulder to steady herself, and leaned in to whisper into his ear. “I want a complete assessment.”

“Gladly,” Marc said, “but you’re not in charge until we land.”

“Neither are you. You should have stayed home.” Elena pulled away and stared at the growing image of the gas giant, Jupiter. Four-hundred-fifty million miles in two days. “Any chance that image and the instruments are wrong?” After all, this is a relic.

“The crew checked everything a dozen times. I’m sorry; I really did try to wake you.”

Elena’s knees trembled as she fought deceleration. “Any thoughts on how we got out here?” Out here?

Marc stood. He towered over her by five inches. “I’ve read theoretical treatises on space-time continuum and wormholes. I don’t know. Something bypassed all of our controls and pulled us toward Jupiter.”

“You’re saying we have no control,” said Wil Benning, the biggest of the passengers and a construction recruit hired for the lunar base. He pushed his way forward. “What the eff is going on?” He glared down at Elena.

“Are we crashing?” another man asked.

Passengers pushed closer, all shouting at once.

Marc faced the burly construction recruit. “Everyone take a deep breath. We’re doing everything we can.”

“Where’s the pilot when we need him?” Wil Benning asked.

“He’s checking the equipment. Unless one of you has electronics or aeronautics skills, sit down and let the crew do its job.”

Elena couldn’t make sense of their velocity: two percent the speed of light. When her sponsors had brainstormed faster means of space travel, they’d brought in a Stanford physicist who discussed the Alcubierre Drive, a specially designed engine that creates a field around a spacecraft using exotic matter and negative energy that might allow it to bend the space-time continuum and move as fast as the speed of light. It had too many technical problems and no evidence it would work, so her sponsors dropped that option. Nothing else explained this speed.

Most passengers returned to their seats, except Reese’s fiancée who hovered over her. Elena sat in the pilot’s seat. She scanned the usual status reports on a small screen in front of her and turned to Marc. “Get me access to the view-screen’s history.”

He clicked a file on the small console before her, and up came the video. “What are you thinking?”

She played the video from an hour after takeoff and sped it forward. The shuttle veered away from the Moon, which zipped by. Then it lifted above the plane of the planets. Not believing the trajectory, she slowed viewing to real time and was stunned by how quickly they passed Mars.

She checked her wrist-com. It registered a two-day lapse, yet at the shuttle’s implied speed, the trip couldn’t have taken more than a day. She wondered why Marc hadn’t said anything. In fact, he’d mentioned two days.

To verify, she counted off a minute. The console’s clock registered two. Even Einstein’s relativity couldn’t account for that. She counted again to be sure.

The craft lurched right.

As others fell against metallic walls, Elena grabbed her seat belt. “What was that?”

“We’ve been getting bursts of movement,” Reese said, “as if someone else is navigating.”

Elena tried to bridge the gap between Marc’s feigned coolness, Reese’s panic, and the possibility that someone was tampering with time and the shuttle’s speed. The lights on the panel before her were either green or white. “How much fuel do we have?”

“That’s just it,” Marc said. “We aren’t using much—only enough for electrical and life support.”

“That’s crazy.” She decided not to share her suspicions until she knew more.

Reese tugged Elena’s arm. “You guys need to see this.”

Standing, Elena stared at an approaching moon, which looked pink, thanks to the screen’s enhanced color contrasting. It took a moment to register that this was her Europa, the ocean moon, as she’d imagined it. Her jaw dropped. Of course, Europa was a moon of Jupiter. Amazing.

The image quality was unlike anything she’d seen before—the lines and angles of angry ice pushed and shoved by Jupiter’s tidal pressure. Clarity was so sharp she could imagine reaching out to touch it.

Marc tinkered with the controls. “Zak!” he yelled into the communicator. “What do you have? We’re on a collision course.” He turned off his mike and turned to the passengers. “Everyone in their seats and buckle up,” he yelled. “Prepare to crash.”

“I’m on my way,” Zak said.

“What’s going on?” someone yelled.

“Sit and try to be quiet,” Marc said. “Elena, that includes you.”

Unable to take her eyes off the screen, she groped for the pilot’s seat. The stark image of crisscrossed pink lines grew, demarking broken ice sheets, until the cracked and haunting image of Europa filled the view-screen. They plunged through the negligible atmosphere. Giant blocks of ice rushed toward them.

A chorus of confusion welled up behind her. Passengers screamed. A construction recruit fell against the forward screen with a crunch. Keeping her eyes fixed on an approaching brown ridge, Elena grabbed for the seatbelts. “Do you have thrusters?”

“Inoperable.”

“Missiles?”

Marc glanced over. “It’s a transport, not a fighter. Now get your seatbelt on and brace for impact.”

Elena tugged at the seatbelt a moment too late. The shuttle slammed into the icy surface, throwing Elena into Marc’s arms. Air squeezed out of her lungs. She couldn’t move. Her insides heaved. She pressed her eyes shut and begged for relief. Marc held on too tight.

“Leeeet goooo!” Elena’s voice trailed distant and hollow in her ears. She struggled to break free. She smelled sweat; Marc was as petrified as she was.

Lights blinked out. Elena fell against the view-screen and winced from pain in her left shoulder. Odd screams scratched at her ears, punctuated by elongated blasts and the thunderous crackling of ice … or the shuttle. Time slowed, though she knew that was an illusion.

Darkness engulfed them except for sparks from the control panel. The smell of toasted electronics filled her sinuses and left a metallic taste in her mouth. Despite the loss of power, the screen glowed reddish.

A cacophony of terror jumbled signals to her brain. Emergency lights flashed on. Red splattered. Blood choked her throat. She was pinned by deceleration as the shuttle slowly broke through the ice.

Distorted screams tore at her ears. The screen presented a yellowish glow that illuminated sheets of ice flowing past. If the impact hadn’t destroyed the ship, ice pressure should have, yet they continued descending. Three bodies lay crumpled nearby. Elena couldn’t see faces.

Another body slammed against the view-screen: Captain Zak Pavlin, the pilot. Unable to lift her body, Elena slid closer to check his pulse. Nothing. Other bodies hit the screen. Acrid odors of blood, vomit, and electronics attacked her sinuses. Elena was amazed that she was still conscious, still experiencing all this.

Onscreen, the wall of ice turned into a brackish-brown slurry: a liquid ocean, as predicted.

Astonished by her own calmness, Elena strained to see. If only they had lights to penetrate the murkiness. I’m here, on Europa, Dad.

She sensed the sides of the shuttle bulging inward.

The shuttle continued its descent. The cabin filled with smoky haze. Her eyes misted and burned. She no longer saw Marc or Reese in the flickering lights. She drew her knees to her chin. Guilt tightened her chest, the nightmare of finding her brother Leo hanging by a rope after their father vanished. She hadn’t been there to protect him.

The ship stopped. Metal creaked. Everything fell forward. Voices echoed around her.

“Help!” someone yelled.

“No!”

Elena covered her ears and cried out. She couldn’t hear her own voice. Icy water swept into the compartment. A thousand needles stabbed her flesh. She couldn’t see through the fog. Her entire body was on fire with frigid stabs.

Lights went out. Sparks flickered from the controls. Then even they vanished.

Darkness enveloped them.

>===>

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