VESSEL FROM BEYOND THE STARS
Brett P. S.
Copyright © 2016 Brett P. S.
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
CHAPTER 1 – LANDING PARTY
CHAPTER 2 – ODD COUPLE
CHAPTER 3 – CLOSE ENCOUNTER
CHAPTER 4 – CASE FOR LIFE
CHAPTER 5 – A BETTER CHANCE
Ned Ryder, age 32, cryptozoologist by trade, an ill-respected profession in the modern world of camcorders and digital photography, not to mention photo editing. His craft had been reduced to B movies and shoddy series on new age channels, but the worst of it was the label. Ned dabbled in pseudoscience, or so they called it. They’d call it something else entirely after this, no doubt.
Ned had flown via private jet from San Francisco to the frigid poles of Antarctica for the feature film of a lifetime. He brought his personal HD camera for snapping photos of anything he found, an agreement he managed with the help of his lawyer. Really, the US government was happy to oblige. Cryptozoology may be a pseudoscience and Ned may be disrespected garbage in the eyes of Universities, but he was at the top of said garbage heap, a precarious position that landed him the opportunity of a lifetime.
Ned climbed down from his seat on the helicopter. The blades whirled above him with deafening noise, blasting snow and ice. He gathered himself and jogged to a reasonable distance when he spotted a group of government officials in black suits heading toward him. Ned stopped and looked out toward the horizon, spotting the downed craft some hundreds of meters ahead, the vessel carved into blocks of ice.
He’d seen it from the air, but there was something to be said about a ground-level experience. He held up his hand. From this distance, Ned’s thumb eclipsed the craft. Some markings adorned the exterior. Could they be glyphs or words of some kind? Moreover, what material was it made from? Indeed, what kind of resilience prompted interstellar travel?
“Mr. Ryder,” an agent said. Ned turned and shook the man’s hand.
“Glad to be here, sir,” Ned exclaimed. “I’ve been briefed on the situation, but your fed people have been keeping me in the dark about a number of concerns.”
“I’m aware of your concerns, Ryder,” the man said, gesturing for them to walk down to base camp. “Unfortunately, my people don’t know much. We’re still waiting on the chemical analysis of the alien craft’s hull. So far, nobody’s been inside. We were waiting on our specialist for that.”
“You mean me?” Ned asked. “Look, sir …”
“Simmons,” the man said. “Agent Mark Simmons of the US secret service. I’m going to be accompanying you on the very first expedition into the alien craft.”
“Mark, I deal in extinct species and myths. I don’t exactly study aliens in any depth.”
“Your government is aware of your various ‘fields’ of research,” Mark said, hinting at air quotes. “If it were up to me, I’d go it alone or with somebody else.” He paused and turned to face Ned. “You’d be surprised at how quickly our superiors to jump to superstition in times of crisis just to cover their asses.”
“How blunt,” Ned replied. “I guess I’ll take what I can get.”
The two of them continued walking through the whipping winds and icy chill of the arctic. Ned covered his face with his scarf and followed closely behind the agent while little more than footsteps and the frigid breeze of the peak of the world blew between them.
Mark broke the silence. “When we get to base camp, my men will inspect your gear. I don’t want any of this ending up on social media in the next 24 hours.”
“You do what you have to,” Ned added. “As long as I get to keep the photos I take.”
Mark snorted. “Keep them, yes. Share them … we’ll talk later.”
Ned folded his arms and hobbled behind Mark as they inched closer to base camp. A morning sun had risen into the sky roughly an hour ago, and the winds lashed at his cheeks, chilling him to the core. Ned’s face felt frozen in his grim expression. He might have been on the top of the trash heap, but to Mark, he was still just that. Ned never knew respect, but he’d have it before the day was through.
Ned tightened his backpack until the straps drove into his chest with a firm grip on his supplies, camera in both hands and a sidearm strapped to his waist. Mark had been kind enough to offer him a holster and a bit of firing practice as well. Ned didn’t fancy firing a gun, despite how much the agent had lectured him on the necessity of self-defense in what might be the most unknown and hazardous situation he’d ever enter in his lifetime.
Ned exhaled, exhausted from the flights and the anxious anticipation. He stood at the rear of the craft’s hull where a crew of workers had pried open something akin to a bay hatch, his feet planted on a metal wholly alien in makeup. Ned shivered, striding into the belly of the beast with Mark following closely behind. Once the light beams from the arctic became an afterthought in the depths of the craft, he reached up and switched on his shoulder-mounted lights.
Mark did the same, additionally switching on his pistol’s tracking beams, casting a triangulation of illumination into the grim aftermath of an alien crash site. Ned walked further in, turning at a juncture. He snapped pictures of what looked like jars and electronics fixtures. He smiled as the flash captured another world of a people he’d dreamed about for a lifetime. Now, if he could just find one of them. Maybe a crewmember survived the crash.
“You’re a happy camper,” Mark said, pointing the barrel of his gun further down the hall. The beam eclipsed Ned’s flash. “I wouldn’t get flash happy quite yet.”
“I have plenty of space on this baby,” Ned said, raising up his camera. “Precision zoom and years of training.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Mark said. He seemed distant, somehow.
“Look at this,” Ned said, ignoring his less than chipper attitude. “Circuits and wires.” He pointed at the fixtures to his left. “The similarity is remarkable. I’d just like to know how they kept out radiation in deep space travel. It’s …”
“Ryder!” Mark snapped. “Focus for a damn minute.” Ned froze, his attention planted on the agent. Mark sighed. “You can take all the pictures you want, but remember what we’re here for.”
Ned rolled his eyes. “I doubt the aliens aboard are hostile.”
Mark snorted. “My suspicions and superiors beg to differ. Don’t you think it’s a striking coincidence that this ship crashed on earth of all places?”
“Maybe a little,” Ned said. “If you’re talking about resources, there are a hell of a lot better places to break for camp. Besides, this ship crash-landed. That alone suggest it wasn’t the aliens’ intention to invade us in particular.”
“Maybe they were out on a war path, but they ran out of fuel,” Mark argued. “Or worse, someone actually hostile shot them down.”
“First point,” Ned said, “For a civilization capable of interstellar travel, our world has nothing to offer them. There’s no reason for a war-mongering race to take interest in our backwater planet.” He paused, snapping a photo of some broken jars and cracked bulbs to his left. “Second, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for why our little vessel happened to crash. You just won’t like it.”
“Keep your smug persona to yourself, but I’ll bite, Ryder. What’s your reasoning?”
“Well,” Ned started, “It’s a common misconception that space is empty. There’s actually a lot of ‘stuff’ floating around at speeds that put fighter jets to shame. I venture our little friends took a hit to something vital and chose our planet as their next emergency stop.”
“So you think they’re still alive?”
“Probably,” Ned stated. “You’re men’s preliminary scans proved the air inside the craft is comparable to our own atmosphere. I’m with you. It’s too much of a coincidence that the beings chose Earth of all places to dive bomb.”
Mark nodded in reluctant approval. They were on the same side, even though it didn’t seem like it at times. Ned shrugged off his anxiousness and continued down what he recognized as a central corridor of the craft. The structure and layout was remarkably similar to a human built floor plan, though the hexagonal design of the walls took him back a bit from total immersion.
Much as he considered the opposite, there was a chance that these people weren’t like him or the rest of humanity for that matter. The aliens might operate on a wholly different set of morals and standards of interest. The truth was that he couldn’t reasonably predict what an extraterrestrial species might do upon encountering humanity because nothing in the same ballpark had ever happened.
Ned knew human history, from colonization to conflicts. He’d predicated his knowledge on the notion that intelligent beings would behave like other intelligent beings. He was probably right. He felt right. However, he could still be wrong.
Ned reached to snap another photo of a peculiar lighting fixture inlaid with buttons of various colors glinting from the glow of his shoulder-mounted lights. He paused however, as something scurried down the wall from the ceiling overhead. He barely caught wind of it, an alien creature with many legs that looked like pincers, gripping the grooves in the wall with surprising dexterity.
Ned jumped as the animal sped down to the floor. It glanced at him briefly with two black beady eyes situated on the sides of its head, cocking its face to stare at him directly. Ned smiled and raised his camera to snap a photo when gunfire sounded.
Gunfire blasted beside Ned, and he squealed, falling to the floor from the shock and flashing light. His ears rang and nearly bled from the resounding echo that reverberated off the vibrating metal of the ship’s darkened halls. He clutched his ears, averting his gaze from the creature as it sped off, looking up at Mark’s disgruntled face.
Mark wiped his forehead and maintained his aim, tracking the alien as it ran. He took a step forward, ready to dash after it, but Ned grabbed him by the pant leg. Mark kicked him back, but Ned kept his grip firm, refusing to release his hold. Mark struggled for a few seconds before the alien had scuttled away into the obscurity of darkness that bathed the interior of the craft. He let out a sigh and holstered his pistol.
“I hope you’re happy,” Mark said. “Damn bugger got away.”
Ned let go and calmly picked himself up from his duress. He dusted off his uniform and eyed the government agent with the kind of icy malice that would have bought him a ticket back to camp. Mark didn’t seem to care much. Ned figured he’d seen a lot worse in his line of work, but it was the principle of the thing.
“That,” Ned started, “that was an actual alien. You do realize that, right?”
“Probably,” Mark said, nodding. His vision remained fixated on the dim depths beyond the working range of his lights.
“What kind of monster are you?” Ned stammered. “We find what could quite possibly be the only alien life form humanity will ever encounter and your first instinct is to shoot the damn thing?”
Mark continued his bewildered glare toward the dark. He offered a momentary pause and glanced back at Ned before he resumed his stare. The man was fixated on something, as if he’d caught movement. Ned stopped his thinking, and he heard something too. He didn’t notice walking in, but it was definitely present now, some kind of clicking or metal grinding further down the hall. The sounds were distant, echoing from deeper inside the vessel.
“Let’s keep moving,” Mark said. “We need to radio base camp in twenty minutes, and I want something worth reporting.”
Ned paused, watching him stroll forward with a cautious pace. For the US government, a man like Mark sounded almost too typical for a special agent. Ned folded his arms and reluctantly followed. He’d need to keep the man in check next time. Ned kept both hands on his camera, but one eye on the agent for the time being.
Ned eased his stride as Mark slowed down. He flashed his shoulder-mounted spot lights across what appeared to be a holding chamber of some kind. The room covered about fifty square meters, its walls lined with pods, each piece caked with ice from the inside the glass. Ned surveyed tables fitted with tools that while alien, appeared much alike surgical equipment and other medical supplies.
He recognized gauze, knives of varying lengths and surgical syringes. He couldn’t rule out time travelers completely, however much he doubted the notion. However, these beings were appearing more and more like the current state of affairs in human technology. Ned walked over to one of the pods, examining it as best he could with his shoulder lights while Mark surveyed his surroundings elsewhere.
“You know,” Ned said, scraping off some of the icy gloss that had built up on the outside. “I find it interesting how much their technology mirrors our own. It would be heartwarming if it weren’t so surreal.”
“I don’t see us building interstellar ships any time soon,” Mark added. “Then again, who knows what we can reverse engineer from the wreckage after a few more teams comb through?”
“I’m serious, Mark. I mean the tech on this ship outshines our own but only a few things. The rest isn’t far removed from our own standards. They could be a lot like us.”
“All the more reason to shoot first,” Mark replied.
Ned glanced back to see him thumbing around some garbage equipment that had fallen to the ground during the crash. Most of the fixtures had sustained some damage. Equipment and tools outside their protected enclosures laid scattered on the floors, floors that had taken on some water. Ned eyed the liquid Mark had dipped his boots inside. He waded through some thick frigid sludge near the far end of the wrecked vessel’s chamber, eyeing the exit door at his end. The piece laid half opened, letting water seep through from deeper parts.
“I don’t think we can go much farther,” Mark said. “We’ll need to send a scuba team to check deeper inside the ship.”
“You’re not listening when I tell you things!” Ned shouted.
Mark backed away from the door and shrugged. “Not part of my job description.” He walked back toward Ned and shot him a dead stare before he headed back toward the way they came. He stopped briefly and cocked his head. “Take your pictures and whatever else you need to do. We’re done here.”
“So that’s it?” Ned asked. “You’re not even curious why a civilization no better than our own would try for deep space exploration?”
Mark let out a sigh and turned around. “All right. I’ll bite, Mr. Ryder. You explain to me this mystery, and I’ll see if I won’t empathize with my brothers from another world.”
Ned smiled and slacked his camera around his neck, striding toward one of the pods. The fixture was made of glass or some material like it. He pressed his hand against the icy surface and let his body heat do the work. The low temperatures inside burned his skin to remove so many layers of frost, and he eventually had to change hands.
Once he’d melted away enough ice, Ned finished by wiping away the excess with his coat sleeve. He motioned for the agent to take a gander. Ned watched too. Eyes black as beads and skin smooth as green flesh. He was right, and the look on Mark’s face showed it.
“This craft is large enough to hold thousands of these chambers,” Ned explained. “Stasis pods capable of housing hundreds of various alien species from a particular world. This is a preservation vessel, probably one amongst hundreds. It’s what you do when your world turns into something uninhabitable, when you don’t have any time left. You make the ultimate leap into the final frontier, whether you’re ready or not.”
Mark stepped back, scratching his chin. He folded his arms and nodded, as if he’d accepted the idea, begrudgingly. Ned could tell he hadn’t fully convinced the agent, but he had developed the seed of interest.
“You’re making a lot of unfounded leaps,” Mark said. “My people haven’t combed the ship yet, and this is the first supposed stasis chamber we’ve seen so far.”
“I’m right,” Ned stammered. “You know I’m right. Give me a chance to prove it.”
Mark glanced down at his watch and tapped the screen. He blew on it and wiped off the frost, eyeing the digital timekeeper for a moment before he glanced up with a smile.
“I still have ten minutes before our check in,” he said.
Good. All he needed was one chance, one chance to convince the brute not to shoot the next thing that moves.
Ned and Mark worked together, their hands firmly placed on the sliding door. With guttural grunts and strained muscles, they inched the heavy metal plate open enough to slide through. Ned ventured inside first, up to his ankles in frigid waters, and it only got worse as he continued down the short hall. The icy cool waters stung his skin as the ice dug into his pants and seeped into his boots. The waters grew deeper as Ned strode down the hall.
The leak was coming from somewhere, maybe the point of contact from above the Earth’s atmosphere. Then again, it could have happened during the crash or anywhere in between. More than likely, provided the craft operated under a terrestrial design, a piece of debris probably struck an engine or other vital area of the vessel. Given that he and Mark stood near the underbelly of the rear engines, it was possible that this leak, wherever it was, could have been part of the culprit.
A scorching descent through the atmosphere and a swift slam into hard ice would have added salt to the wound. Ned nodded quietly to himself as he made his way across the lengthy corridor between the former chamber and what looked like the entrance to another. The ship, thousands of meters across, could hold untold alien specimens, but whether or not they were still alive depended on a number of variables he couldn’t possibly calculate.
“It’s over here, I think,” Ned called, waving down Mark to help budge another half-opened door.
“I’m coming,” Mark said. “You’re pushing the limits of my patience.”
Ned smiled. “I’m more than glad you’re giving me a chance.”
“Don’t confuse my lenience for agreement,” Mark said. “I’m just debating my options. If I decide this ship is better off incinerated, it will be a surgical maneuver, and it will end quickly.”
“Fair point,” Ned said. “I shouldn’t forget who’s in charge.”
“I don’t appreciate sarcasm, Ryder.”
Mark heaved with a heavy grunt, and they budged the door open together. Metal grinded across slabs of metal below the waters, but Ned could still hear it as clearly above his head as by his feet. The difference was that the sound below was muddied, deeper, and less screechy.
He pushed through, and his eyes lit up. The chamber around him, though the floor appeared submerged under water, was a photographic replica of their earlier location. Glass pods carried monsters and animals frozen in time, their faces obscured in frost and condensation, but he could see some of them.
“I’ll be damned, Ryder,” Mark said as he strode past. “You might be right about this. So it’s some kind of space ark?”
“Probably,” Ned replied. “One thing bothers me about it though.”
“Yeah, and what’s that?”
Ned stepped toward one of the glass pods, the outer transparent material shattered. He reached in and scraped his fingers across the interior, wiping up some oozy sediment from the inside. He pulled out his fingers, raised the goo-covered tips to his nose, and sniffed. Ned drew back from the odor, a repulsive stench that was in no way alien. He knew that smell.
“Decomposition,” he said, flicking the bulk from his fingertips and wiping the rest on his coat. “I’m deep in speculator territory at this point, but I suspect life support aboard the ship had gone out for some time.” He turned, walking back to Mark. “We can’t know for sure until your men take some samples, but I’d go on a limb and guess that every alien aboard this ship is already dead.”
“Every alien except one,” Mark replied, with a sneer.
Ned rolled his eyes and gestured his disapproval with a wave of his hand. He figured he could get away with some dissent at this point, but Mark’s expression turned grim and he wasn’t laughing. Can’t he take a joke? Mark unholstered his sidearm and leveled it at Ned’s face.
“Don’t move,” Mark said, calmly aiming his pistol slightly to the side. “It’s right behind you.”
“Wait,” Ned exclaimed. “This is crazy. You don’t need to kill it. We have a duty to keep it alive.”
Mark shook his head. “Not my duty. My job is and always was to keep potential threats to the human ecosystem from exiting this ship.”
“This is first contact!” Ned shouted.
“Alien house cats don’t count.”
“Damned if it doesn’t. Besides, there’s only one. It’s going to die alone whether or not you shoot it.”’
“You don’t know that, Ryder,” Mark said. “Nothing in the space rulebook says it needs a mate to reproduce, and I’m not about to chance it. Step aside, son. You’re out of your jurisdiction.”
Ned didn’t budge. He put his hands up, but that was the end of it. He stared down the agent and the barrel of his loaded gun with a conviction he hadn’t shown for anyone or anything. Mark didn’t have the faintest idea about the societal implications of what he was about to do. All he knew was containing a problem.
“I will shoot you if you get in my way,” Mark said.
“You’re going to have to.”
Mark growled and rushed forward, shoving him aside. Ned hit the waters as the sounds of three separate gunshots rang in the air around him. He caught himself in the waters, his hands numb from the sting of the frozen ice. He pushed himself up and whirled around to catch Mark blasting off rounds until the creature had fled into a corner. Ned didn’t exactly have time to think about the ramifications of his own actions either. Accordingly, he failed to hesitate, grabbing his own pistol and leveling it at the man before shouting.
It wasn’t the sound of his voice that caused Mark to freeze in place, nor was it the newly professed authority in his voice. No, it was the quiet cock of his gun. Mark didn’t bother to turn around, and he kept his pistol leveled at the critter, who had since squirmed into a corner, its body convulsing from an inherent fear of death. From the mannerisms, it showed a modicum of intelligence at least.
“Ryder,” Mark said after a pause. “I didn’t expect you to go this far. Is this monster worth more than life in prison?”
Ned didn’t skip a beat. “It’s worth more lives than I have to give.”
Mark lowered his gun and calmed down for a moment. Ned had pegged the man for a number of faults, but suicidal hadn’t been one of them. Mark shrugged, keeping his eyes on the shivering alien. A brief moment of silence passed between them before their watches beeped with a gentle alarm. A radio broadcast hailed Mark through the communicator nestled on his jacket pocket.
“Come in, base camp,” Mark said.
“Agent Simmons,” a deep voice crackled through the static. “How goes the expedition?”
Mark glanced back at Ned and shrugged. “Nothing but death so far. All occupants appear deceased. Specialist Ryder and I are finished with our initial sweep. You can send in the second wave to collect samples once we exit the craft.”
“Understood, Simmons,” the voice replied. “Be safe.”
After a few seconds, the static ceased, Mark holstered his gun, and he frowned.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Mark said. “Look at the thing. It’s pathetic. Good chance the water is going to kill it.”
Ned drew back and holstered his sidearm. “That’s a better chance than it had.”
Ned Ryder studied lost monsters. The modern label, cryptozoology was a flimsy profession in world of camcorders and digital photography, but Ned soon found himself with a fairway pass to the icy arctic where a special sort of giant slept after its long trip across a vast ocean of starlight. He gazed upon the hulking heap of otherworldly metal, a damaged vessel, but the first proof that something more than our little rock buzzed about in the void.