Linda helped Adam to his feet, steadying him as they walked arm in arm toward the van.
"What about the driver?"
Linda nodded in the direction of the ditch alongside the road. "Out cold."Adam caught sight of a pair of legs splayed out near the road edge.
"It wasn't me."
Adam took a good look at the man in black as they drew nearer. The eyes—big, round and yellow stared at him without blinking. Hints of epicanthic folds gave the stranger an oriental air. A sullen, swarthy skin tone added to the inscrutable flavor. When they were a few paces away Adam whispered to Linda. "Strange looking character."
Linda agreed with a nod.
They stopped a pace away and Adam was first to speak. "I understand we have you to thank for getting us out of this mess."
Thin lips widened into a smile. He held out the medallion in his gloved hand and said, "I think this belongs to you."
Adam gratefully accepted it and stowed it in his trousers pocket. "How did you get this?"
"From the … farmhouse."
Impatient for more details, Adam continued, "Now, don't get me wrong, but who are you and how did you come to be here?"
"We came here because of that disk."
"That really doesn't help. We? Because of this 'disk'?" asked Adam.
The man straightened up, nudging himself off the van, and winced. A red streak stained the leg of his jogging suit.
"You're hurt," Linda said. "Yes. It appears that I have been … wounded."
Adam bent down to take a closer look. He pulled up the tattered black cloth. "Looks like you ran into some BBs. I'd say from a shotgun?"
"It is a minor lesion. Of no consequence."
"It might be minor, but it must hurt like hell. How about we get out of here before Herman sends more of his people out after us? I'm sure that Otto was supposed to call in or return by now." Adam asked the stranger, "You have transportation?"
"Then how did you …" Adam caught himself as he noticed a dark red smear along the corner of the van.
Linda ran over to Otto and went through his pockets. "Got the keys!" She dug farther and came up with a cell phone. Repeating the search on the driver, she tossed both cell phones into the woods. She then gathered up the two handguns. The three clambered into the Pathfinder and took off the way they had come. Dawn had arrived and the ominous outline of the Knox Coal Mine breaker followed them through breaks in the tree-lined road. They were travelling along a rise that followed the winding contours of the Susquehanna river. The colliery sat on the opposite side a few miles away. Linda turned to the man in black seated in the rear. "So what's your name, if you don't mind us asking you? We appreciate what you did for us back there. You saved our lives."
"The name is not important, but if you prefer, you can call me Alpha."
"Alf?" asked Adam.
"Alpha. Like the first letter of your Greek alphabet."
My Greek alphabet?
"You just made that up, didn't you?" asked Adam. The stranger grunted, but it was hard to tell if it was an answer or merely a reaction to his injury. Adam thought a moment about asking about his last name, but decided that could wait. "Well, Alpha, you showed up just at the right moment. We've got a lot of questions which I'm dying to ask, but first we're going to make a stop to make sure you don't bleed to death. We need to patch you up."
Linda asked, "Where exactly are we going? To the police?"
"That would be the right thing to do, but maybe later. Right now we need a place to clean up, to talk … and to eat. I hope Hedda is an early riser. Breakfast would sure hit the spot."
"We won't stay here long, Hedda," Linda managed to burble between mouthfuls of pancakes and eggs. They sat around a wooden table in the kitchen above the mining museum. Adam sauntered in.
"You sure look better after washing up," said Linda.
"Herman will search for us, and it's likely he'll come by here, so we'll need to hurry," said Adam. As an afterthought Adam asked Hedda, "Have you see Ben since yesterday?"
Hedda scowled and shook her head. "Ain't seen 'im. Maybe he went back to New Jersey."
Somehow I don't think so.
"Now ya no never mind 'bout him or Herman. Eat up. How 'bout some more coffee?"
Both Adam and Linda nodded enthusiastically. While the two dived into the pancake stacks as quickly as they came off Hedda's gas stove, Alpha sat quietly at the end of the breakfast table studying them.
Hedda said, "Your friend there doesn't have much of an appetite."
Adam slugged down his cup of coffee and turned to Alpha. "How's that leg feel?" Adam had managed to extract several BBs from Alpha's calf. Peroxide, gauze and an Ace bandage finished the patch up.
"Much better. Thank you."
"Maybe now would be a good time to clear up some things."
"Perhaps I should begin," Alpha suggested.
Hedda planted the last of the pancake stacks on the kitchen table and slipped into a chair. The sounds of munching and dinnerware died down as the three watched Alpha straighten up in his seat, yellow eyes staring intently at them. "I have surmised that you know something of the disk … that is, the contents of the disk?"
Adam said, "Well, we know it contains genetic information."
"Correct. It contains all the design information necessary to build … humans."
Linda paused sipping her coffee. "To build us? That's quite a claim. How would you know this?"
"I know this because your disk is not unique. It was found in many other places … in other parts of this galaxy." Her coffee spilled. Linda hurriedly placed the cup down and wiped at the wet tablecloth with a napkin. Adam's eyes widened. Hedda shook her head slowly from side to side.
Adam was the first to respond. "Perhaps you can begin at the beginning?"
Alpha leaned back into his chair. "Please do not be alarmed, but I must tell you that I am not from this planet."
Utter silence followed the statement, with the minor exception of Hedda's exaggerated exhale. Adam said, "You don't look like an alien…"
"You mean that I am not 'a little green man', nor do I have the requisite bug eyes and antennae? No slim gray body with a bulbous head?"
A sarcastic alien.
Adam said, "Well, your eyes are a bit unusual."
Ignoring the comment, Alpha continued. "I, along with a number of others … we are on an expedition. Your discovery of the disk was reported to us a number of years ago."
Adam asked, "Exactly how was it 'reported'?"
"A neutrino emission. About twenty of your years ago, our ship detected the emission and diverted our course here. There have been several more recent neutrino emissions … at your university and at the Brookhaven facility. These emissions have a distinct oscillating pattern, a kind of signature unique to the disk."
Twenty years ago. Old Flora in Ben Wuicjak's office.
"How is it you're speaking English? And why do you look so much like us?" Adam asked.
"Like I said, the same design disk was also discovered on our home world. We have all been manufactured using identical blueprints. As to English, after the neutrino detection, our systems enact procedures for revival and training. The trip here was a long one … about ten years of your time. As we neared your planet, we were able to calculate the geographical origin of the first neutrino emission … and we listened to your broadcasts.
Aliens visitors in the movies always claim the same thing.
"Detecting neutrinos twenty years ago would mean …"
"Our ship technology provides constant acceleration, with terminal velocities significantly approaching that of light."
Adam said, "Ten years for the neutrinos to reach you and ten years to get here. Wow … so you had the chance to observe and learn. What do you mean by revival?"
"Most of the crew is in stasis to minimize the aging effect and slow down the demands of metabolism during the long voyage. When we detect the presence of a disk from a system near our flight path, necessary course changes are automatically made and the ship's systems revive a select few of the crew to investigate and possibly undertake contact."
Adam was not sure if it was the pancakes or this conversation that was causing his indigestion. Feeling a bit disoriented, he probed further. "Let's say that you really are an alien. And, let's say that there really are these disks out there. I assume as parts of machines that are designing … no, constructing … did construct humans or humanoids. What's the deal? Who put these machines on all those worlds? And for what reason?"
Alpha bent forward and placed both elbows on the kitchen table.
"That is the question, Adam. I can tell you this much—the coding, what you call DNA, is not limited to building blocks or structural information. We have found that the majority of the coding represents a complicated set of instructions, which directs human behavior … our behavior."
Adam looked across at Linda, who said, "The non-coding DNA. That's about ninety-eight percent of our genome."
"A big set of instructions," Adam added.
Linda continued, "We had the chance to examine those sequences using statistical tools that Adam developed. Adam, didn't you find that it looked like a programming language?"
"That's true. Many sections were self-referential, almost like subroutines set up to run when certain conditions are met."
"Alpha, you … your people, do they have the same non-coding percentages in your DNA, in your genetic code?" Adam asked."
Very similar. As is also true of all the members of our crew."
Hedda had quite enough. She stood up from the table and said, "My God. What nonsense."
Alpha looked up at Hedda and turned to the seated two. "Have you ever wondered why humans have a need to procreate? Why they have an overwhelming urge to have children and raise them, and teach them? And why they constantly seek to discover?"
Linda said, "But that's a characteristic of most conscious organisms on the planet. It's not unique to humans, and in any case, species survival is at the heart of it all."
Hedda coughed to clear her throat. "Still sounds like nonsense to me. I'm going lie down for a bit. Let me know if ya need anything else. I'll be in my bedroom."
Adam said, "Hedda, thanks very much for the breakfast. We'll clean up and be out of here very soon." Adam continued the interview. "So, these disk-machines created life?"
"We are not sure about creation, but certainly they played a role. As far as we can surmise, they have been found on planets with chemistry favorable to life. As you know, carbon-based chemistry is naturally predisposed to evolve into more complex systems. In time, self-replicating organelles form that may lead to even more complex systems given the right circumstances. A primitive form of life may have already been present when the machines arrived. They seem to have been sent out many millions of years ago, but late enough in the evolution of planetary systems to focus on solar systems containing planets with the best chance of supporting the development of humans."
Linda asked, "How can you be sure?"
"We are not sure. We can only speculate. But we do know that each planet where a disk has been found has about the same size and has similar chemistry, and is dominated by a human population."
Adam asked, "So, what is it we are programmed to do? I mean, besides procreate and making sure our species survives?"
Alpha wrinkled his brow and answered, "Humans have one other characteristic that sets them apart from other intelligent species, here and elsewhere. They have a burning desire to learn and build on technology. They, that is, we, are compelled to understand our surroundings and …"
"…and explore," Linda thought aloud.
Adam added, "Jeez … you're saying we were made to insure our survival over the millennia and at the same time, explore? To what end?"
Alpha smiled and raised an arm, pointing upward.
"To go into space? That's nothing new. We enjoy finding out what's what, so space is a natural. Is there something more?" Adam asked.
Alpha's thin lips straightened into a line as he responded. "Our purpose does appear to be directed at space, but not just to explore. We believe the real reason may be to report back."
Adam and Linda were taken aback by Alpha's comment, and for that matter, the entire conversation. They had almost forgotten that a scant few hours ago they were nearly murdered, and that those same people were certainly after them and the disk. Adam looked at the wall clock and rose from his chair. "It's nearly nine. We need to move. Herman and his fanatics have already killed for this disk, and we are the only ones left, the only sane ones anyway, who know about him and what this disk contains."
Alpha interrupted, "That is not exactly true. You are forgetting about Dr. Wild."
Taken aback, Linda asked, "You know of Dr. Wild … back at the Brookhaven Labs?"
Alpha nodded and Linda continued, "Dr. Wild was killed in a lab fire … at least that's what we were told."
Alpha said, "Fortunately for him I was there. I arrived shortly after the neutrino burst. I saw you two leave and a man enter the laboratory of Dr. Wild. When he left, I found Dr. Wild bound and unconscious, and an electronic device attached to a cabinet, a cabinet containing flammable solvents. It was an explosive mechanism, so I destroyed its electronic circuitry. After I released Dr. Wild, I chased after you. At the outer perimeter of the complex I found the unconscious guard, and arrived at the parking area just in time to climb onto the back of your van."
Linda said, "Whew. That was rather heroic. Do you make a habit of saving people in distress?"
Alpha rolled his oversized eyes up, as if trying to recollect a similar situation, and then said, "No. But the disk is important, and I wanted to make sure that my mission was successful."
Adam asked, "And what mission is that?"
"The expedition mandates that we contact the discoverer of the disk as well as retrieve it. In addition to the genetic code the disks contain other information … what we believe may be time stamps … points of space-time origin. This knowledge will allow us to more accurately plot a course backward to their origins. It would appear that the Makers await us."
That last comment threw Adam. "Makers?"
"That is what we call them. It is the Makers that we seek."
Adam asked, "So why didn't you just take the disk and fly off?"
"That is not our way. You need to decide if I take the disk."
Linda asked, "Were you at the mine by any chance?"
Alpha shrugged and said, "We just arrived a few days ago. A neutrino signal led me to the university, but not before the explosion. However, afterwards, I was able to follow you to the mine."
"I thought I saw someone near the mine entrance, near the willow trees," Linda said.
"Willow trees? Yes, I was there."
"And I bet you were behind the door when we made our escape through the rear?"
Alpha's thin eyebrows rose. "Most perceptive."
Adam asked, "So, why didn't you just save us then?"
"I could not risk detection by the person you called Dr. Wuicjak."Adam legs weakened and he sat back down. "This Dr. Wuicjak is actually from our ship. He is of a human species very capable of mimicking, of appearing like someone else." After letting the news sink in, Alpha added, "He belongs to a group of subversives that have infiltrated our expedition. Their number on our ship is uncertain but we think it is no more than a few. This is the first instance of one leaving our ship."
"That seems like a crazy thing to do. He's opened himself to discovery."
"Fanaticism. These individuals believe that the purpose of the expedition is flawed, that it is against Nature … against God's will. And that our expedition represents an unholy blasphemy."
Adam nodded. "I visited Dr. Wuicjak's office before coming back up here. I found him dead. But then his body disappeared, along with clippings and notes describing a variety of strange discoveries through the years. When he showed up at the mine I was shocked, but he seemed like the real Dr. Wuicjak. And more recently I found out that he may have killed one of the pursuers at the mine … and then there're the missing policemen, But, if you know about him and the other subversives, why don't you just remove them from the ship, or at least lock them up?"
"We have many individuals on board. Of these, a small number are either of his species or one similarly capable of disguise, so in this case we have a list of suspects. However, our centralized instrumentation shows that everyone is presently accounted for. We have only two crewmembers awake right now, and I am one of them, thus making the search for the missing crewmember problematic. I have no doubt our monitoring devices were altered to indicate that no one was missing. But he will need to return, at which point we should be able to identify and secure him."
"Assuming he does return," Adam said.
"True. That he went to see Dr. Wuicjak would be logical since the original signal could be traced to that location. To these fanatics, how do you put it, the end justifies the means, and this false Dr. Wuicjak will do anything he can to destroy the disk, including killing you or me."
"Or himself, no doubt."
Hedda was not lying down. She sat at her bedroom window and stared out at the street below through laced curtains. Adam and Linda were in deep trouble. Now they've tangled themselves up with this stranger, Alpha.
Alpha the alien.
Whatever he is, he's in danger too. The police were likely to be in Herman's pockets, so that meant just about anything was about to happen. As she mulled over the situation, a black limo pulled up outside the museum. She undid the safety of the 45-automatic in her lap.