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by E.S. Strout
"Look at this, Marty." Julie Prentiss gulped black coffee from a Styrofoam cup, made a face, then tapped a fingernail on the real-time CRT image of a Hubble Telescope transmission. "Pretty exciting stuff on The Net from the Astronomy Division folks."
Astrophysicist Martin Shapiro pulled a Marlboro from a crumpled pack and lit up. He squinted at the screen through an exhaled cloud of tobacco byproducts. "The Internet? What am I missing here, boss?"
Julie batted away remaining wisps of smoke. "Reticulum Rhomboidalis, Marty. A constellation. The Net. It translates from the Latin, I believe."
"A constellation? Really? Been spendin' too much time on the Upsilon Andromedae system, I guess. Sorry about that."
"You couldn't have known, Marty. I thought it was time to clue you in." She swallowed more coffee, then crunched an antacid tablet. "Let's see the Reticulum database."
Dr. Shapiro tapped computer keys. Scrolling pages of text replaced the Hubble image. "Okay, good. Here we are, boss. Reticulum Rhomboidalis, a minor Southern Hemisphere constellation, thirty stars."
Dr. Prentiss punched another key. An expanded star field appeared. "Pretty close, Marty. Thirty-four. And last week they discovered an Earth-sized planet in the Zeta-2 Reticuli system. Fourth from the star, designated Z2R-4." She tapped a pencil point. "And it has an atmosphere."
Shapiro's eyes widened as he chain-lit a second Marlboro. "I'm impressed. My Upsilon Andromedae system has three planets, but only Jupiter-type gas giants." He scrolled more data. "Your bioscans show diffuse life signs. Is this right? Has anyone from xenobiology seen this?"
"Bill Farris. PhD in botany. Major nerd. He's convinced it's plant growth. Insists we send a team to go EVA and collect surface samples."
"Insists? Typical safety-last response." Shapiro blew smoke at the ceiling. "So we should just jump through Farris's hoops and send a crew cold turkey? We don't have enough information yet, Julie. Sudden appearance of a new planet? Suspicious, I'd say."
She yawned, rubbed her eyes. "I think it's been there for eons, Marty. The Hubble Station guys just finished installing new long-range reflective mirrors with tachyon imagery boost. Brought us a bunch of light-years closer. Almost real-time."
"When did you sleep last, Boss?"
"Hmpf." She gave him another gaping yawn. "Thirty, maybe forty hours ago. Too much going on with this. Collecting data, analysing potential plans for exploration. Council meetings, critiques . . ."
"Coffee and antacid won't cut it, Julie."
She gave him a tired smile. "Since when did you go to medical school, Marty? Stick to astrophysics. I don't need a doctor."
"Has the Council decided anything on Z2R-4 yet?"
"I gave 'em the standard caveats, but they didn't want to hear me."
"It's a go, then? I think that whole bunch has their heads up their collective asses."
"I bitched like hell, but Farris knows people on the Senate Appropriations Committee."
"Damn ass-kissing bureaucrat. This sucks, major league."
Julie shrugged. "I agree. But I gotta give them something."
"Okay, fine. There's an unmanned probe, the TYCHO BRAHE. She's almost done with refit. Be ready some time next week."
She chewed more antacid tablets. "I hate this, Marty. I'm the junior department head. That means I get cut out of the decision-making loop. I'm with you, but I'm outranked. Council gets a manned ship for a possible first-contact situation."
"Understand, Julie." He tapped computer keys. "Right, then. We've got the ALAN W. SHEPARD in drydock up at Delta Echo station. First deep space probe with cold fusion-enhanced interstellar drive. It can be on line in forty-eight hours." Shapiro handed her a hardcopy. "Astropilot Commander LeClerc's next up. His team is Caitlin Carter and Jeremy Sloan. Both have PhDs in xenobiology and paleontology. But dammit to hell, we need unmanned flybys and remote surface samples before we commit them."
Dr. Prentiss exhaled a deep sigh. "Objection noted. The Council is being hard-assed on this one. They've threatened to cut Space Corps appropriations and sack yours truly if I don't comply. Giving me an ulcer, if you hadn't noticed."
"Who gets blamed if something goes wrong?"
She chewed more Mylanta. "Please, Marty?"
"Sorry, boss. I just get so pissed. Council abandons safety protocols for a first-contact scenario with a bunch of weeds?" Martin Shapiro grumbled. He lit a third cigarette, took a deep drag. "How about we stuff PhD Nerd Farris in one of those unmanned probes?"
"You're gonna die of lung cancer before you're thirty-five, Marty."
"Not before your ulcer perforates, boss."
1645 hours. February 2, 2087. Commander Marc LeClerc on line. Still a little shaky coming out of hyperspace. Elapsed mission time twenty hours. New FTL boost is A-OK. Orbit achieved without incident. Z2R-4 has no satellites. Atmosphere has Earth-type oxygen levels, 19.7 percent. Lotta nitrogen. Minimal CO2. High humidity. Surface temp 28 degrees Celsius. Gravity nominal. Couple of weird things. No magnetic poles, but there is an axis of rotation. Also picking up some seismic rumblings, but deep scan shows no tectonic plate activity. No rock formations at all. Surface features are bland. Flat terrain. Mottled grayish tan to green in color. No lakes, rivers or oceans, but uniform surface moisture. Bioscans diffuse. No discrete life forms. Matches your long-range scans. Surface radar reveals . . . wait one . . . I see possible constructions. Caitlin and Jeremy are prepping the lander for descent and EVA. No need for environmental suits.
Dr. Prentiss slurped coffee, then Mylanta. "The tachyon transmission from LeClerc is fuzzy. Some kind of hyperspace interference. Tell him to boost his gain, Marty."
Dr. Shapiro made a gagging sound. "Coffee and antacid cocktails, Julie? Yech!"
"Objection noted. Now, get to LeClerc, please."
"I'm on it."
0710 February 4. LeClerc on line. Sorry about the delay, guys. Got a little busy up here. I have to maintain geosynchronous orbit by star sightings. Usual parameters no go without magnetic fields. Only surface landmark is cluster of possible structures . . . haven't confirmed yet. Trying to boost the gain per your request. Can't pinpoint the interference, it's diffuse, intermittent. Wait one, losing tachyon beam again . . .
Dr. Prentiss gnawed a fingernail. "What do you make of this, Phil? It came from Commander LeClerc, but we can't decrypt it."
"Weird, Julie. It's not from SHEPARD's COMM system. Listen," Chief of Communications Philip Franklin said. He handed her a headset. She snugged it in place and tapped one of the earpieces. "Hmpf. Sounds like static."
He punched a key. "I'm slowing the playback. Now try it."
"Damn. A regular pulse. Organized transmission?"
"Can't be anything else. You sure this is from LeClerc? It's an odd pattern, almost like a radar pulse."
"Followed his last broadcast. Then it cut off."
"Gotta be another source. Better let him know."
"I don't like it," Dr. Shapiro said, an unlit Marlboro flapping as it dangled from his lower lip. "Something's not right."
Julie brushed dark strands of hair from her face and winced as she massaged her abdomen. "I know. But the Council . . ."
Shapiro lit up, blew a perfect smoke ring, stabbed a finger through it. "Bet you wish we'd sent PhD Nerd Farris."
0833 February 6. Commander LeClerc on line. COMM line clear now. Static ended abruptly. Roger your last on organized transmission. No explanation at this end. Bioscans remain fuzzy, diffuse. No individual life forms. Plant life, like Professor Farris predicted. Concur with Council decision. Lander A-OK for descent to Z2R-4 surface. I've approved sidearms and stun grenades. The structures are our first priority.
1106 Feb. 6. Mission Specialist Caitlin Clark on line. Soft landing accomplished. Soft indeed. Landing struts sank five feet deep. A bit unstable, but no prob, Marc dropping power excavator. Warm here. Subtropical. Surface sand-like, but looks organic. Some variety of lichen or moss mixed in. Sticky as heck. Clings to our boots. Collecting samples. Stand by. Have reached alien structure. Temporary. Metallic, with PlastiGlass-like windows. Circular door or hatchway. Had to scrape away a crapload of lichenous growth to gain access. VideoTrac running. We're going in. Place is deserted, has been for millennia by the thickness of dust and overgrowth of moss. Benches, advanced laboratory technology, perhaps an alien xenobiology team. Checking it out. They had computers. Power source dead but we've revived it with portable gamma unit. Jeremy trying to access. Requesting translator module with excavator drop.
1530 Feb. 6. Clark again. Deep sensors revealed additional artifacts. Power excavator uncovered new ruins . . . different culture than those on surface. Another alien exploratory team. Their computers were destroyed by heavy bryophitic overgrowth. No written records. Neither of these civilizations had tachyon COMM capability. Probably used a series of relay satellites. Primitive, considering their advanced electronics technology. Damn moss is getting inside our boots, equipment. Transmitting VideoTrac record now.
"There's that interference again. No VideoTrac signal received. Why not? Can't raise LeClerc. What have you got, Max?"
The electronics tech looked up from the tangle of wire, transistors and fiber-optic cable. "Beats me, Dr. Shapiro. It's not on this end."
Julie chewed antacid tablets. "Is the uplink okay?"
"I have an intact carrier wave, Dr. Prentiss. The interference is still systematized. It's deliberate. And I think Phil had it right."
"A radar pulse? Son of a bitch. What do you think it means, Marty?"
"I'd guess some kind of distortion. Distance factors, tachyon feedback, equipment malfunction maybe."
"Everything's A-OK here, Dr. Shapiro. Must be at Z2R-4."
1920 February 6. Jeremy Sloan on line. Translator module integrated with alien computer system. Working on their databases, log entries. Will download to SHEPARD's command computer and Exploration Division mainframe. Caitlin's found evidence of third, fourth, and fifth alien explorations. A bunch of odd skeletal remains, getting VideoTrac record. Wait one. Say again, Caitlin? Reports she's uncovered partial wreckage of alien spacecraft. Must have hard landed. What's that? The moss? Repeat, please . . . stun grenade! Planetquake! Caitlin . . . ?
"Dammit. Signal's gone." Dr. Shapiro turned to the COMM tech. "You gotta fix this, Max. They're in trouble." He fumbled for another smoke, knocking several to the floor before he could grasp one.
"I'll try, sir. Switching to backup channel. Boosting tachyon input now . . . okay, I've got 'em. Signal's real weak . . . think I can get past the static." He punched computer keys. "There. Try it now, Doc."
2005 Feb. 6. LeClerc here. Emergency situation. Can't raise Clark or Sloan. Massive planetquake on Z2R-4. The plant life. It's . . . Good Christ. The moss Caitlin described. This is impossible. It's in the ship! Trying to initiate interstellar drive. All systems have shut down. Backup systems off line. Losing orbit, entering atmosphere. Getting hot. Tell Laura I love her . . .
"Dammit, Marty. I just lost the downlink. What's happening?"
"Unknown. Trying to recapture signal. Nothing . . . wait one . . . single rapid burst on encrypted channel. Too quick for the interference to override Gotcha! It's from Jeremy. It's an alien transmission, partially translated. He pulled it off their outgoing message log."
They hunched over the screen with startled eyes. "Oh, holy shit, Marty," Dr. Prentiss gasped.
Warning! Repeat, warning . . . (undecipherable) . . . probe Alfa Echo 991 . . . (undecipherable) . . . atmosphere on site Kilo 551 . . . followed positive bioscans. Hard landing. Surface resilient, shifting. We set up field research facility. Bryophytic plant growth . . . source of bioscans. Evidence of alien exploratory attempts. Scientists reporting trouble . . . (garbled transmission) . . . unable to lift off, lichen incursion fouling FTL drive components, command console . . . (undecipherable) . . . first relay satellite . . . no response. The planet is . . . (undecipherable) . . .
Dr. Prentiss mopped sweat from her brow with a tissue. "The planet is what, Marty?"
"Unknown. There's only static. Oh, oh. Look at this."
They stared openmouthed at the real-time relay from Hubble. "Good God, Julie. Z2R-4. It's gone!"
"Cigarette, Marty, please?" Dr. Prentiss gasped. She lit up the proffered Marlboro, suppressed a cough. "Multiple alien civilizations, their exploratory teams lured by appearance of a compatible atmosphere, positive bioscans. Their personnel attacked and devoured by alien flora. But it was waiting for us. None of the other explorers had tachyon COMM capability. It's absorbed our COMM technology, adapted it for propulsion, now following it to its source. The radar transmission Phil picked up was pinpointing our location." She slumped her shoulders in resignation and dabbed a tear from a cheek.
"Not a planet, Marty. A very intelligent, technically evolved hostile life form. A goddamn big one. And it's coming here . . ."
Story copyright 2002 by firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration copyright 2002 by Rick Hudson email@example.com
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