The Prehistoric Sky
Ancient orbs cascade
across horizons I once knew
I've watched them cross the twilight
where the sky is no longer blue
But the sky, I'm told, is eons old
and we're without a clue
regarding what's now really there
as time erodes our view
Above us seem to stretch bright vistas
beautiful and vast
But all we see are nonexistent
days of heaven's past
We do not even know which stars
no longer join the cast
Contrasted with the speed of light
our years fly by so fast
The further out the object is
the more pronounced will be
the parallax effect of time
between that light and me
We look into the void of space
but time is all we see
And caught between the fossil sky
and fossil rocks are we
Our telescopes are useless
where the wings of time do fly
Today a star explodes
but our descendants will watch it die
Relic interstellar light
unfolds before my eye
What does it mean that I have seen
the prehistoric sky?
There should be a dictionary that defines insanity as the distance between the stars. It is a distance we believe ourselves to have overcome through one of the most extreme applications of medical technology. But I’ve come to question that conclusion. I’ve found it disconcerting enough to board a jet aircraft and find myself only a couple of hours later in a place that was over a thousand kilometers from my departure point. But to simply go to sleep and awaken in orbit around another world is absolutely surreal. I am convinced that it is not something to which anybody can truly become accustomed, no matter what assurances science extends. But to suddenly find myself here, circling the very cradle of catastrophe, passes far beyond the realm of drug-induced dreams and decidedly enters the nadir of nightmares.
This is where my great-grandmother’s death really started. You could argue that she lived for more than half a century after initially escaping this place, but I’d insist it actually took over half a century for it to finally kill her. She just didn’t know it. I didn’t expect such an appalling opportunity to arise within my lifetime. I guess she must have passed along her proclivity for misplaced optimism. I admittedly owe my choice of career specialization to my ancestry, having lost someone to something so altogether alien and hoping to one day perhaps prevent some further misfortune. I was however thinking strictly in terms of microbiology. I honestly never thought I’d be called upon to dance with this specific devil. I not only question the wisdom of returning here, but even the sanity of such a decision.
In our quest to understand the alien, is it possible that we’re actually becoming alien ourselves? Having basically abandoned our original biosphere, can we be so certain that our development as a species is not compromised? Can we really trust our assumptions when fashioned in the unfamiliar reaches of space? How can we quantify our convictions when almost all forms of measurement are based on planetary dimensions, yet we now seem to consider ourselves cosmic?
I have spent a couple of decades examining extraterrestrial organisms. But the most extreme form of exobiology may actually be represented by encapsulated human beings in hypersleep, enforcing an entirely unnatural state of unconsciousness and enduring the delusion-drenched dreams which it inexplicably entails. The process artificially lengthens our lives, sometimes very substantially, and it certainly conserves our supplies. But does it preserve our souls?
Emilio Esperanza, the Director of the Bio-Weapons Division for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, turned from the elongated viewing portal and faced the room of assembled scientists. A wide range of scarcely suppressed emotions greeted his gaze. Some were openly anxious to hear what he would say, having waited many years for the opportunity that now suddenly, and somewhat surprisingly, had presented itself. Some had just been brought aboard and had no foreknowledge of the industry in which the others considered themselves as already engaged. Emilio patiently waited until everybody was seated.
“In case this courtesy has yet to be extended,” he genially began, “let me be the first to welcome you to the Centaur.”
He noticed a slight movement to his right. Even though she was painfully well aware of her location in terms of stellar cartography, Eleanor Ripley winced as she realized that the ship within which they were assembled was named after something only half human. Although he was quite acquainted with her ancestry, Emilio was not certain why she had reacted in such a way. He knew Ellen Ripley, Eleanor’s great-grandmother, had become the sole survivor of the Nostromo. He also knew that, because of being in hypersleep for decades, Ellen had outlived her only child, a daughter. The daughter died without having ever married. But contrary to what was reported to Ellen Ripley, her daughter had a child that had been conceived in vitro. That child had also been a girl. Because of spending so much of her young adulthood in hypersleep, the unavoidable result of an occupation that required extensive space travel, her daughter, Eleanor, was still in the prime of her life. It was a wicked twist of fate that had restored her last name.
Perhaps because her travels didn’t allow for much intimacy, Eleanor’s mother made a terrible mistake in the matter of marriage. Eleanor’s father was a deceitful criminal. He was eventually caught, convicted, and then executed for acts of space piracy. Eleanor’s mother retook her maiden name. To protect Eleanor from possibly being associated with her father’s infamy, she successfully petitioned the courts to allow the change of her last name as well. Emilio knew this assignment would probably be difficult for Eleanor. It was her own fault however that she was the most qualified consultant in the company.
“We are now in orbit around LV-426, a planetoid that is itself in orbit around Livinum, a gas giant in the Zeta 2 Reticuli system. About a hundred and fifty years ago, one of our commercial towing vehicles, the Nostromo, set down here after detecting a transmission that indicated a possibly intelligent origin. Homing in on its beacon, they found a derelict spaceship – altogether alien. The freighter’s captain and two other members of the crew entered the derelict. They had accomplished only the briefest reconnaissance of the ship when an alien organism attached itself to one of their team. They immediately evacuated back to their craft. Because the alien organism was somehow able to block their medical scanners, they didn’t initially realize that the comatose crewman was actually being used as a host. The creature, which finally tore its way out of his chest, succeeded in killing all but one member of the crew. That flight officer set the ship for self-destruct and escaped in a shuttle,” Emilio recounted as emotionlessly as he could.
Someone coughed. He could not be certain whether it was from anxiety at the sheer terror of his story, or if it represented impatience because so many of those aboard were already aware of the planetoid’s history.
He continued, “Back then, Zeta 2 Reticuli was still beyond the outer rim of occupied space. Over time, as programmed, the shuttle’s CPU automatically began shutting down non-essential systems, so it could continue to support its only occupant in hypersleep. It thereby escaped the attention of anybody’s scanners until it was finally chanced upon by a deep space salvage team on the other side of the core systems. During the more than half-century that had elapsed, a terraforming colony, Hadley’s Hope, was established on LV-426. In fact, it had been there for something like twenty years by the time the shuttle was recovered.”
“Were they warned?” Eleanor interrupted as Emilio paused for breath.
“We must take into consideration that the sole survivor told the examining panel an unacceptable story about an alien creature that gestated inside a living human host and had concentrated acid for blood,” Emilio carefully countered, reassured by the effect this explanation had on most of the recipients. “Please remember that at that time there had already been a colony on LV-426 for a couple of decades. Initially, though unfortunately, the report was not taken seriously.”
“But were the colonists ever warned?” Eleanor asked again, enunciating each word.
“A transmission was sent,” Emilio shrewdly replied, trying to be evasive concerning the specifics. When he saw that Eleanor was obviously not going to be satisfied with his answer, he continued, “Its exact nature has never been determined, though it obviously didn’t go through the proper channels. While it’s possible that it didn’t really constitute a warning, let us not be too quick to judge the people of the past. One thing that probably has not changed in over a century, and might never, is the fact that terraformers tend to be roughnecks, opportunistic in the extreme. The most stringent possible warning would probably not have kept them from trying to find something of value on that derelict ship.”
“Point taken,” Eleanor answered, suggesting submission.
“When contact with Hadley’s Hope was suddenly lost, the survivor of the Nostromo was contracted as a consultant, and a military ship was sent to determine the disposition of the colony on LV-426,” Emilio continued. “We actually have their consultant’s account that was dictated to help them prepare for what they might face. Unfortunately, it was not enough. Only one colonist was actually rescued, a child at that, and she did not even live long enough to make it back to Earth. Whether the result of a firefight that erupted inside it, or due to their original drop-ship crashing into it, the atmosphere processing plant was damaged and its core eventually went supercritical. Only three persons and one Artificial ultimately escaped before it blew up. Their ship, the Sulaco, later crashed on Fiorina 161 and even the consultant finally died. She had however transmitted the entire account of what transpired on LV-426 before leaving orbit. Since that transmission was sent directly to the military, this planetoid has been under their jurisdiction ever since – up until now.”
Knowing this was going to surprise most of the scientists in the room, Emilio paused and allowed them their startled response before continuing, “Fallout from the destruction of the atmosphere processor left the better part of this planetoid radioactive for almost a century. We tried to get the military to let us send in a survey team of Artificials. But even Artificials have rights, and they would’ve been so contaminated that they would’ve been unable to have any interactions with anyone or anything else for decades. While it’s true there are suits that would’ve protected human explorers, they’re so bulky that movement in them is nearly impossible. Certainly, they would’ve complicated the reconnaissance of anything as constrictive as a spaceship. So, we’ve waited.”
“And now?” asked Eleanor, speaking for the group.
“The news I have for you is a bit of a mixed bag,” Emilio admitted. “This isn’t the first time a thermonuclear explosion has happened on a habitable world, as I am sure you all know. The military now has the technology for speeding up the reclamation process, but it involves evacuating most of the contamination into outer space. Essentially, everything that our atmosphere processor achieved has basically been undone. Since you will need spacesuits anyway, to protect you from the residual radiation, this may not be so serious a concern. The derelict now exists in several segments, courtesy of the shockwave from the annihilation of the atmosphere processor. Military probes have certified the absence of any cellular activity whatsoever in the alien remains, all of which are in various stages of decomposition. We may still be able to learn much from their structure, and of course we will attempt to understand their genetics, but the real prize is the ship itself.”
When several of the scientists aimed questioning expressions in his direction, Emilio explained, “The things we really hoped to learn from the alien organisms require them to be alive. The infected member of the Nostromo described a layer of seemingly luminous mist that covered the eggs and reacted when broken. And the perfect predator that later leaped out of his chest apparently was able to project an electromagnetic image of itself that fooled a scanner and kept its intended prey from understanding where it really was. I can only assume that this layer of reactive mist was still functioning when the colonists came aboard. Since the power source for the beacon, which the Nostromo had followed, had apparently been exhausted by that time, it is almost unthinkable that something still had enough organic energy to generate such a field. The ship could’ve easily been there for hundreds, or even thousands, of years. What we’re really hoping to understand is the technology of the craft itself. Its propulsion system in particular could be many light years ahead of ours. Excuse the pun.”
“As much as I don’t want to question such an obviously unprecedented opportunity,” Eleanor carefully began, “it seems to me that many of the people in this room are quite surprised by how suddenly this situation has developed. We didn’t know that the military was so close to giving us the go-ahead?”
“Understandably, there are others who are interested in what can be learned here,” Emilio easily answered, visibly undisturbed by her question. “But the Colonial Marines understand just how invested we are here. We’ve been fiscally taken to the cleaners by this planetoid. The release date we were initially given, along with everyone else, is still decades away. They’ve undoubtedly known for years that they were ahead of schedule. But they waited until they were ready to release it; and then, they told us first. Consider how many military contracts we have. They know on which side their bread is buttered.”
“I see,” Eleanor softly responded, while wondering just how much butter had actually been spread in order to edge out the competition. But then, she added, “Fiscally taken to the cleaners?”
“The Nostromo was an M-class star freighter worth forty-two million adjusted dollars, minus payload of course. The atmosphere processor was actually even more expensive than that,” Emilio explained. And then, noticing the wary way she was regarding him, he quickly added, “And of course that’s not even mentioning the crew of the Nostromo, the colonists or the soldiers and the incalculable loss of life.”
Seated immediately across from Eleanor, Colin Endicott, Departmental Head of the Space Engineering Section, suggested, “The power requirements of that ship’s systems may very well be exotic in the extreme. We might have to extract entire control consoles and set them up in a laboratory situation where we can determine those requirements.”
“That’s why we’re on the Centaur,” Emilio proudly replied. “This is nearly our newest ship and it has extremely spacious bays that should easily accommodate the enterprise.”
Taking advantage of the lapse in Emilio’s presentation, Eleanor asked, “Do we enjoy access to the scans made by the military probes?”
“Yes, but we’ve rather moved beyond that now. What we really need now is a direct examination,” answered Emilio, seeming somewhat confused by the question. “The main thing they give us is the certainty of our safety.”
“As the leading exobiologist onboard, I need to agree with their findings. It’s a simple matter of empirical science,” Eleanor softly explained, correctly predicting the approval of every other researcher in the room. “I’d really appreciate the opportunity to inspect those scans before anybody gets deployed on that planetoid.”
“Do you have a cause to question the accuracy of their assessment,” Emilio asked, demonstrating the intuition that had facilitated his rise through the ranks of the company.
“Perhaps,” Eleanor reluctantly admitted. “There’s one aspect about this site that has always caused me concern. Since I never expected anybody to gain access to it in my lifetime, I had planned to simply file my recommendation to the company with regards to it when I retired.”
Emilio actually took the time to seat himself in the chair at the head of the long table before receptively saying, “Talk to me.”
“Kane, the crewmember from the Nostromo who was first infected, described seeing thousands of eggs in the belly of that ship. As you mentioned, he and his shipmates had accomplished only the briefest possible reconnaissance before his infection. During that, they had already found the fossilized remains of one member of the derelict’s crew, and it had obviously served as host to the thing that killed it – although at the time this wasn’t understood. It was the Colonial Marines from the Sulaco who discovered that these eggs are all laid by an Alien Queen,” she patiently explained. And then, meeting his gaze with surprising steel, she insistently said, “We need to account for the following possibilities.”
“Go ahead,” he agreed.
“Possibility one: the fossilized crewmember they found was the ship’s only occupant and we are able to at least identify the remains of the Alien Queen that gestated inside it and then laid all those eggs. Possibility two: we find other infected crewmembers but are able to account for each of the alien organisms that erupted from them. Possibility three: we find a discrepancy in either of those numbers,” she summarized.
“What would that mean?” Emilio asked with barely suppressed excitement.
“That we need to determine if there’re natural caves anywhere on LV-426 and, if so, whether they’re deep enough to have possibly protected anything from a thermonuclear shockwave and its residual radiation,” Eleanor evenly answered. “I’m afraid it’s possible that the infestation was never actually restricted to the ship.”
“Whoa,” Colin involuntarily uttered. “You think there might really be something alive down there, even after a holocaust and an ensuing century.”
“We just need to make certain that there isn’t,” Eleanor defensively answered. “Had it not been for that shock wave, the eggs on that derelict might even be viable. The Alien Queen may have laid them and then crawled off to die. Such behavior is not unknown in the animal kingdom. But these things are exotic in the extreme. It is just as possible that, after filling the belly of a ship that might have initially been full of foodstuffs, she went out looking for another lair. And if there was a second Alien Queen; that guarantees at least the probability of an additional brood.”
“The site itself is secure, and we can easily erect a boundary around it that would be impossible to breach,” Emilio confidently declared. “Our presence on the surface is what will really confirm the company’s claim to this location. You’re insisting that we postpone such a vital deployment because of a purely theoretical underground alien presence?”
“What if the suspected cave system is situated directly below the derelict?” Eleanor pointedly inquired. “If you want to go in with a team of Artificials and make sure that isn’t the case, you’ll get no argument from me. But make sure you have your affairs in order.”
“I’ll see that you get immediate access to those scans,” Emilio bitterly replied, clearly crestfallen. However, seizing the moment like a true company man, he then added, “I will in fact see that everybody gets access to those scans in addition to both the reports from the Nostromo’s flight officer, regarding which I had already made such arrangements. I’d advise each of you to take advantage of the opportunity to familiarize yourselves with the information. I will need your recommendations concerning the equipment that you’ll need at the site. Meanwhile, I’ll work on the drop-ship assignments and the rotation schedule.”
Colin, ever the consummate observer, did not fail to notice how Emilio had turned a possible setback into an opportunity. He was also very aware of Eleanor’s inclination for repeating a person’s words back to them. She had in fact done this to the director more than once. While in those instances she seemed to merely be qualifying her comments, the approach was apparently punitive when applied to him. Being the head engineer, he was exceedingly excited about examining the artifacts of an advanced alien technology. Disappointment at any delay had caused him to question her concerns, an outburst that had earned her ire. As senior exobiologist, she bore ultimate responsibility for the safety of the researchers. Knowing that a series of failures in the past had claimed the lives of over two-hundred people, she could tolerate no rebuttal.
He earnestly regretted the turn of events. She was extremely intelligent and had the slender shape of somebody whose metabolism had been regulated by hypersleep more than once. Her piercing eyes set in such a beautiful face and surrounded by raven-black hair completed a very pleasing picture. Deciding to take a chance on attempting to make amends, as everyone got up from the table, he sidled around the obstacle and moved to within easy earshot.
“I was wondering if you’d mind if we examined those scans together,” he graciously suggested. ”With your background in exobiology and my knowledge of engineering, we might be able to take an almost ergonomic approach to the endeavor.”
Flashing a conspiratorial smile at him and giving no indication whatsoever that she actually understood the duplicity of his purpose, she replied, “That’s an interesting idea. Your place or mine?”
“Didn’t you just come aboard? Have they already assigned your quarters?” he asked in reply, obviously befuddled.
“I know where my workspace is,” she slyly answered. “I guess I probably should’ve asked whether you meant your lab or mine.”
“Oh,” he stammered, momentarily taken aback.
“Whatever did you think I meant?” she playfully pressed.
“I must admit that I was somewhat confused,” he shamefacedly answered, pausing to bite his lip. “I apologize.”
“Not necessary,” she laughed. “It takes some people awhile to get used to my sense of humor.”
Glancing out the viewing portal beyond the head of the table, at the rim of the barren orb around which they were in orbit, he acutely answered, “Your sense of humor may be our only saving grace in this situation.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” she teasingly suggested. “But I think we could at least find a room with a better view.”
Exiting the conference room, Colin turned and led the way to his lab. It seemed less than fair to force her to try to familiarize herself with the interface in her workspace while he waited. He had been onboard the Centaur long enough to know where to look for the scans to which they were all now being given access, and it took mere moments for him to find them.
From orbit, the Sulaco had verified the position of the derelict. The photos had been included in her great-grandmother’s transmission to the military. They were now the only ones that showed the ship in about the same condition it had been when encountered by the Nostromo’s crew. Being on an urgent errand to an endangered outpost, the Colonial Marines had headed directly for Hadley’s Hope. Having defeated the Alien Queen, Ellen Ripley discovered that the derelict had not been beyond the shockwave of the explosion. Had she been familiar with the targeting systems of the Sulaco, she might have elected to add some additional incineration to the site. But she was not, and there had been no possible assistance from the other survivors.
As the recordings from the probes began playback, they were on initial approach to their target. The ship was severely segmented. It had been basically strewn into a series of splintered sections by the shockwave. The uppermost half of the enormous U-shaped center section had been sheered off by the atomic storm. It scarcely resembled the ship in the orbital photos. The probes separated from each other as their controllers chose to expedite their inspection. The debris was now scattered across an immense area. Colin quickly assigned the scans to separate screens and then paused the playback on all but one. Eleanor watched with interest as her associate’s fingers danced quickly across the keyboard. Not surprisingly, he selected the probe that was headed towards the center of the wreckage.
“We could each follow a probe and use our own monitor,” he suggested, “but I think we’d be far less likely to miss something if we double up.”
“Agreed,” she said. “We can certainly take the time to review each one individually.”
The remnants of egg sacks were everywhere, with their ejected contents littering the landscape for what seemed like kilometers. The spider-like cadavers and been first fried and then frozen by the abrupt absence of atmosphere. She wondered if they could have possibly been more gruesome if they were alive. She hoped to never find out. The probe moved toward the remnants of some of the sheered-off upper section. Colin and Eleanor could see color changes as the probe’s operator brought various imaging filters into play.
Initially, Colin believed that the otherworldly appearance of the wreckage was purely the byproduct of the functioning of the filters; but as the probe closed in on the closest of the colossal shards, he quickly realized he was wrong.
“What in the world?” he involuntarily whispered. He then incredulously exclaimed, “It looks like the ripped open remains of a desiccated cadaver, not at all like a spaceship!”
“Perhaps I should have prepared you,” Eleanor apologetically offered. As he paused the playback and turned to her, she explained, “Being an exobiologist, I am already quite acquainted with the testimony of the Nostromo’s sole survivor and the orbital shots taken by the Sulaco. The team from the Nostromo that went into the derelict actually described its interior as having an almost organic appearance. They even went so far as to say that the fossilized crewmember they found looked like it had been grown right out of the chair in which it was reclining.”
Breathlessly glancing back in understandable disbelief at the impossible image that was now frozen on the monitor, Colin reluctantly replied, “It seems my participation in the project may be pointless.”
“What do you mean?” Eleanor anxiously inquired.
“I’ll have no chance of understanding that ship’s propulsion system if it was actually grown instead of constructed,” he patiently replied. “I think we may be in over our heads here.”
“If only you knew how many years I’ve been saying exactly the same thing,” Eleanor agreed, smiling dryly.
“And to think that Emilio is going to be expecting answers from us,” Colin concluded.
“Shall we continue then?” she asked, ceremoniously indicating the frozen image.
“I guess we really have no choice,” he answered with distinct consternation. “If we’re going to keep spreading out into space, unless these parasitical predators succeeded in eliminating them altogether, we will eventually run into whatever it was that designed this astonishing ship. And if these spider-like monstrosities did drive so superior a civilization into extinction, it makes the needfulness of our understanding even more compelling.”
“That about sums it up,” she quietly agreed as he toggled a control on his keyboard and caused the playback to resume.
With his eyes still fastidiously fastened to the screen, Colin suggested, “Considering how obviously advanced they were in terms of genetic engineering, is it possible that the creatures who overcame the crew were actually some kind of weapon? I mean: maybe it was supposed to be used against an enemy but it somehow got loose on their ship?”
“If it’s really some sort of bio-weapon, it has to be of the doomsday variety,” Eleanor emotionally answered. “I doubt if their involvement in such an industry is truly consistent with our original assumption about their civilization being advanced. I’d prefer to believe that the one is the opposite of the other.”
“While I’d prefer not to contradict that conjecture,” he amiably answered, “I still have to question how something so insidious managed to stowaway on their ship. Since it has the ability to block a medical scanner, it’s almost like it was designed to defeat detection. What if it was a weapon, but not theirs? If it was engineered to be used against them, I’d have to say that it certainly succeeded.”
“That still puts us up against something that’s equally as advanced,” she caustically complained.
“Not if your idea about a doomsday weapon is right,” he carefully countered. “In that case, the weapon might be all that still remains. We just need to find all the places where it was deployed and place them under irrevocable quarantine.”
“The fault is in the finding,” she softly insisted, quietly correcting him. “Their ability to avoid detection is what makes them so dangerous. Keep in mind that an entire colony of over fifty families shared a puny planetoid with thousands of them for some twenty years before anybody was the wiser. If this had happened on a habitable planet, the loss of life could’ve been in the millions, or more. And I suppose our highly advanced society would simply sacrifice all of them to ensure that the contamination was contained. There has to be a better answer.”
“Navigation,” he muttered, only half aloud.
“What?” she sympathetically pressed. She could see that he appeared to have just experienced an epiphany.
“Emilio was thinking just in terms of possible profit,” he began, trying to work his way back to his insight, “which is why he mentioned the propulsion system. However, he was putting the priority in the wrong place. The opportunity we have here isn’t about income; it’s about survival. The ability to go faster will only hasten our inevitable rendezvous with danger. But if we can possibly salvage their navigational system, then we may be able to tell where they’ve been. We’d be able to anticipate the places where the predator may’ve been released. And we could use that information to avoid them.”
“Okay,” she replied, impressed, “now that we know everything for which we need to be looking, let’s try our best to find them.”
Only a few minutes later, they found the fossilized remains of a crewmember with a ruptured chest cavity. The corpse’s posture clearly did not indicate that it had ever been attached to a seat.
“We now know that at least two embryos succeeded in gestating,” she summarized. “And at least one of them was an Alien Queen. We need to the body count to match up.”
“So far the only dead predators I’ve seen are the hatchlings,” he replied, not trying to hide his revulsion. “And there certainly are too many of them.”
Over the next several hours they succeeded in finding a total of fifteen cadavers that all seemed to have been members of the original crew. Each had a ruptured chest cavity and appeared to be approximately part of the same species. There were odd differences in their body structures that suggested the possibility of genetic modifications. It seemed to Eleanor that the alterations may have related to the onboard duties of each individual, but she considered it too incredible to make the observation out loud.
“I had really started considering the possibility of the alien representing some kind of biological weapon some time ago,” she grudgingly admitted. “I’d even hope the fossilized crewmember was actually the mad scientist that created it and that it got loose and killed its creator before it could be used for its intended purpose, causing the crash of the ship. That would have made LV-426 the only place in the galaxy where the thing ever existed. However, unless there were over a dozen coconspirators in the plot, the presence of the other corpses makes such a premise appear progressively more hopeless. This looks to me like the scene of a terrible tragedy, not an instance of unspeakable poetic justice.”
“If any of the shards of this spaceship are supposed to represent its technology,” he replied, avoiding her observation, “I’m unable to recognize anything. However the largest single remaining section of the ship is directly ahead. Perhaps we’ll find something more promising in there.”
In the playback, the military probe maneuvered its meticulous way into the uncanny confines of the bizarre behemoth. Although the curious compartment around it was now only partially encapsulated, they encountered the fossilized remains of the crewmember that had first been found by the unfortunate trio from the Nostromo. As the probe circled around the alien artifact, Colin paused the playback and made careful notes concerning the control panel before which the corpse was positioned. Eleanor could tell by the way her companion pensively pursed his lips that he was challenged in the extreme by what he was seeing. She carefully elected not to ask any questions about his observations.
The next compartment, perhaps because it was even more centrally located and not quite as spacious, was actually intact. It had the telltale characteristics of a control room. As the probe carried out its circuit of the enclosure, Colin paused the playback numerous times to take notes. He also attached a digital marker to those clips of the recording so it would be a simple matter to return to them.
Before the probe had completed its reconnaissance of that largest remaining section of the ship, they found the fossilized remains of two final crewmembers, bringing the tally to eighteen. They also finally started finding the remnants of the monsters for which all of those unlucky crewmembers had unwittingly acted as incubators. To Eleanor, this part of their activity was the single most important. She and Colin now needed to account for all eighteen alien eruptions. At that point, they had only discovered half the needed number.
Fighting fatigue and slowing the search to compensate, they completed their review of the recordings. Though they did finally find the shriveled remains of one Alien Queen, sickeningly horrendous even in death, they were unable to account for all eighteen of the aliens. The count was one short.
“Not good,” Eleanor concluded, leaning tiredly back in her seat and placing her arms across her forehead. “Could we have missed something?”
“We didn’t,” Colin concluded. He then hesitantly suggested, “But perhaps the probes did. All we can see is what they recorded. We need to dispatch probes of our own to the surface and look at the outlying areas. Maybe the one we’re missing was merely thrown completely clear of the wreckage by the shockwave. Why don’t you get some rest while I go present our findings and our request to Emilio? I’ll take care of getting us eyes on the ground. It’s going to take a little while to get them launched and on site.”
“Thank you,” she gratefully replied, gently touching his arm as he arose to depart.
After he left she retreated to the crash couch at the back of the lab in which they had been working where, after stretching out and finally falling asleep, she then had the most disturbing dreams of her adult life. She was literally relieved when Colin came back, only about an hour later, and awakened her.
Handing her a steaming cup of coffee and gesturing back over his shoulder towards the colleague who had followed him into the lab, he said, “This is Stanford Preston. He’s a telemetry specialist. He’s going to be controlling the probe for us.”
“I’ve already dropped it on the planetoid and stationed it next to the site,” he politely added. “We can start whenever you’re ready.”
Rolling from the crash couch, and making use of a colloquialism that had somehow survived for centuries, she offhandedly answered, “I was born ready.”
With her attention focused on the cup of coffee, she missed the amused expression that was exchanged between the two men. They then shadowed her back to the console where, with only a few quick keystrokes, Stanford transferred control of the probe to their station.
“I took some orbital shots of the site,” he volunteered, “and I think I understand what you want me to do. You want to look further downrange of the explosion, right?”
“Yes,” Eleanor readily agreed, pausing between sips of her coffee. “We’re somehow missing the remains of an alien organism. We’re hoping it was simply thrown outside the search radius by the shockwave.”
“Okay. If it’s out there, I’m sure I can find it for you,” Stanford reassuringly answered.
Nearly an hour later, when the search had failed to find the intended target, he said, “Let me pull up the shots taken by the Sulaco and put them beside the scans I just took.”
The discrepancy between the sets of pictures was immediately apparent to all three observers. The Sulaco had photographed the derelict in exactly the same location where the team from the Nostromo had first found it, sitting on top of a wide rocky ridge. But the shockwave had apparently pushed it over the edge, while shredding it. The debris began on the down slope and spewed into the valley below.
“We still haven’t examined the site where the shockwave first struck the ship!” Colin exclaimed. “Maybe something dislodged during the initial impact. We need to search the top of that plateau.”
When another half hour of exploration still failed to produce the expected discovery, Stanford surprised his colleagues by concluding, “When all other possibilities have been eliminated then whatever is left, however unlikely, must be the answer.”
Without further explanation, he then directed the probe further back in the direction from which the shockwave had come, sending it across the other side of the ridge. This obviously seemed altogether outrageous to his associates who, seated on either side of him, questioned his decision in stereo. But they quickly recanted their criticism when the unexpected landscape rolled into range and revealed the very type of frightening feature that Eleanor had initially suggested.
“Are those caves?” she anxiously asked, unconsciously recoiling from the screen.
“Yes, and quite a concentration of them it seems,” Stanford answered with scientific detachment as he scrutinized the screen. Abruptly understanding that the discovery had produced an emotional response, he then asked, “Why does that worry you?”
She slipped a sidelong glance at Colin, who took it upon himself to answer, “We will need to carefully catalog every entrance; and then, we’ll need to explore each enclosure. It is possible that our worst expectations were just realized. The infestation here may not have been entirely neutralized.”
“What?” Stanford demanded. “I thought we were just searching for remains! Are you saying one of those things might actually still be alive down there somewhere?”
“Let’s hope not,” Colin countered. And then, turning back to Eleanor, he added, “You were right; except they weren’t exactly under the ship, unless the caves extend back that far, they were just on the other side of it.”
“I hate being right all the time,” she sighed with honest exasperation.
“If we’re going to be at this a lot longer than previously projected, I’ll need to contact Director Esperanza,” Stanford unexpectedly objected. “We thought you only needed me to help you find some missing remains. After that, I was supposed to locate the very best specimens of each kind of creature and use the probe to bring them aboard. Which type of alien is it that you’re looking for in these caves?”
“That’s the hell of it,” Eleanor emotionally answered. “We don’t really know for sure.”
Seeing the disbelieving expression on Stanford’s face and anticipating the possibility of a very unprofessional confrontation, Colin quickly interjected, “Although we accounted for one Alien Queen, probably the one that laid all those eggs in the ship, we really have no idea concerning the percentage of hatchlings that come out as Queens. If it’s one out of a hundred, we might be okay. If it’s one out of a couple of dozen, we’re probably not.”
Carefully composing herself before offering an observation that was almost certainly going to startle both her associates, Eleanor quietly stated, “There are some organisms with ovipositors that are capable of choosing the kind of egg they lay. And if the survival of their colony is in question, they’ll instinctively create queens. The odds of the escapee being anything else simply don’t merit mentioning. In all honesty, I just didn’t want to own up to the obvious.”
There were several seconds of stunned silence, before Stanford finally thumbed the switch on the intercom and shakily said, “Director Esperanza, would you please report to the engineering lab at once?”
It took several minutes for them to explain the situation to Emilio after he arrived. His excitement was easy to see. He offered to send out a second probe, but Eleanor insisted that one was as much as she could effectively keep track of at a time. She was happy to have her associates assisting her, but she didn’t want to dump the burden of observation on anyone else. Emilio seemed disappointed, but said he understood. He then instructed Stanford to continue assisting with the search for as long as such help was needed. The last thing Emilio did before he left was have the telemetry specialist arrange for the feed from the probe to also display on the screen in his office.
Returning to their initial effort, they resumed their reconnaissance of the perforated and exceptionally alien landscape. The hillside was almost a honeycomb. None of them had ever before beheld a region so profusely riddled with pits. Using the orbital pictures, they established a grid overlay and proceeded to map the multitudinous apertures. The process was as tiring as it was time-consuming. It took three hours just to identify all the locations into which they would then need to look. They tried to assign some priorities to these places, basing them on the length of the respective rocky conduits as revealed by the radar returns. At long last, they concluded their cataloging.
“Now its time for some serious spelunking,” Stanford announced, not quite capturing the adventurous spirit he was struggling to suggest.
“Thank God it’s really just a probe that’s at risk,” Eleanor tiredly countered.
“Amen to that,” Colin concurred.
After eliminating all the openings that seemed to extend the furthest, some of which dove deep beneath the rocky ridge, the team then turned their attention to the ones that suggested the most distinct curvature. However, after what seemed like unending hours of exhaustive exploration, their extremely systematic search had still yielded no positive results. And they were now only left with what seemed like the least likely of locations.
“Could they have blown one out of an airlock before they were finally forced to land here?” Colin angrily asked. “How could we have been so wrong? What are we missing?”
“I truly appreciate your probe’s impressive imaging systems, so don’t get me wrong,” Eleanor said, speaking to Stanford. “But is it equipped with anything as old-fashioned as flares? Do we have any way to illuminate the entire area?”
“Yes, I can do that,” Stanford answered. “Just let me put it in hover over the base of the hillside and I’ll fire one above each quadrant of our search grid.”
“Look sharp, boys,” she encouragingly instructed. “We’re exhausted. And if we don’t figure this out in the next few minutes, we’ll have to get some sleep. I’m certain neither of you need me to tell you how unspeakably pleased Director Esperanza is going to be with all of us if that’s the case.”
The probe could not only fire flares, but it could even synchronize their ignition. Light was soon spilling all across the desolate hillside. Eleanor overlaid the search grid on her screen and looked for anything that might represent and oversight. As something caught her attention; she nudged Stanford, indicated her screen, and asked, “What’s that?”
“It’s just a shallow depression, a sinkhole of some type,” he offhandedly answered.
Unconvinced, she asked in reply, “Would you please take the probe in closer and let me get a good look at it?”
“Whatever, no problem,” he said shrugging, slightly slurring his words in his fatigue.
As the probe began to move closer to the selected location, Eleanor noticed that the diameter of the depression was equal to that of any of the actual caves they had already examined. More proximate inspection suggested a strange geometry to the arrangement of the boulders comprising the bowl. At close range, it appeared to have been built.
“Do we have any way of determining whether the ground is solid on the other side?” she asked, uncharacteristically squinting at the screen.
“I could put the probe right on it and hit it with a pulse of ground-penetrating radar,” Stanford sleepily answered.
“Do it,” she quietly requested.
Moments later, the probe touched down in the base of the bowl and transmitted the penetrating signal. Stanford had been sitting with his head tilted back, looking across his cheeks at the screen. He suddenly straightened and leaned forwards as the radar return resulted in construction of an unexpected image.
“Oh my giggly God, there’s a deep tunnel below the blockage,” he rasped. Colin had been nodding but quickly came to complete alertness as the telemetry specialist, leaning even further forward, asked, “What’s the stuff between the boulders? What is that?”
“Resin,” Eleanor simply said.
“Resin?” Colin echoed, unable to follow the inference. “Where did resin come from?”
“From the Alien Queen hiding on the other side of the obstruction,” Emilio answered as he strode into the room at that moment. “Good work team. You’ve hit the mother load, if you’ll excuse the pun. Now we just need to go in there and get her.”
“We?” asked Eleanor, demonstrably startled by the suggestion.
“Well, not all of us,” Emilio laughed. “After all, that’s your field of expertise. I suppose you’ll want to get some rest first, which I perfectly understand. But you might not have to be satisfied with dissecting fossilized cadavers. We could soon have a live specimen for you to study.”
“First, it’s very doubtful that we’re going to discover anything alive in there. Exposure to radiation has probably already been fatal to whatever we may find,” Eleanor resolutely replied. “And secondly, capturing dangerous organisms alive is not in my job description. I’m an exobiologist.”
“Right, you’re an exobiologist,” Emilio agreed. “So how isn’t it in your job description to capture alien organisms?”
“What you’re after probably won’t fit on a microscope slide,” she said. “Exobiologists tend to be strictly researchers. A live capture of this kind requires an exo-zoologist.”
“What’s the difference,” Emilio insistently asked.
“Exo-zoologists are in it mostly for the thrill of the hunt. They tend to be roughnecks, opportunistic in the extreme. They probably marry terraformers,” she impishly answered.
Emilio could not help but laugh out loud at her parody of his earlier description. Colin and Stanford had both been in attendance at the director’s presentation and immediately recognized the way in which she was repeating his earlier description back to him. Being exhausted and completely appreciating her attempt to introduce humor into the situation, they added their amused outbursts to his.
“I don’t suppose you’d happen to know of any that you might even recommend,” the director queried, after allowing the hilarity to die down.
“I know that some of the core systems have extensive zoological exhibits which they employ such people to maintain, but it would take some time to get someone all the way out here,” she answered.
“I am certain it would, and I know how much you would hate to delay our operations here,” Emilio said with the slightest suggestion of sarcasm. “After all; the longer we wait, the greater the chances of someone else jumping our claim. So I guess the question that I really must ask you is this: would you actually be satisfied with trusting the safety of this operation to anyone else?”
Colin found himself hoping that Eleanor would never regard him with the disdain that she aimed at the director in the next moment. The tension between the two was painfully perceptible even to her exhausted associates. The stalemate lasted only a few seconds, but it felt like an extended nightmare in hypersleep.
“Damn you,” Eleanor eventually answered, to which Director Esperanza surprisingly failed to flinch. “Do you absolutely swear to implement my recommendations, even in the event that we recover a live creature and I ultimately recommend its termination?”
“I do so solemnly swear,” Emilio evenly replied, adding, “and I do so in front of these assembled witnesses.”
“Then I accept the assignment,” she condescendingly concluded.
Neither of her associates understood the inference as Emilio then rhetorically asked, “All things considered, Eleanor, how in the world did you ever doubt it would come down to this?”
Without a further word the director arose and headed for the exit as Eleanor turned to Colin and Stanford and said, “We’d better go and get some rest. We’re going to need it. In the interest of preserving our species, we absolutely cannot allow any mistakes this time.”