by Michael Bard
© Michael Bard -- all rights reserved
The virus provided the valve by giving adults a direction to Change in with all those homeotic genes, else we would have changed into several different species at once and explosively. It somewhat constricted the possibilities of what we could have become so out of perhaps twenty species, one was somehow chosen.
Dr. Maya Naguma to David Smith, from Winds of Change Part 8 'Back to Normal' by Jon Sleeper
"So do we transition into the jump safely?" Brighteye asked, as he shuffled his tail feathers nervously. Both turned and looked at coyote morph.
"Well?" asked Sylvia.
"But I don't--" the coyote-morph finally started.
"Andrew, NASA selected you after probabilistic analysis of gambling results and failed attempts to talk to you. In 23 seconds are we still alive?"
The coyote-morph lowered his ears and sighed. "Yes."
"Well then," Sylvia rubbed her raccoon paws together, "let's go." Saying that she took a last quick glimpse at the blue sphere of Neptune and then pressed the master key to allow the Argo to make its first leap out of normal space. The ship shuddered, the lights flickered, and they transitioned...
...and then the lights flickered again, and the ship transformed back into normal space near Alpha Centauri.
"We did it!" screeched Brighteye. "I've got contact with Silverfur on the mother ship back home -- she's faint, but we can communicate. Sending telemetry now."
Andrew turned and looked at Sylvia. His voice was so quiet that Sylvia almost couldn't make it out. "Scan sunward, 15 degrees clockwise of our heading and 41 degrees downward."
Nervously she did what he suggested. Sylvia was one of the most powerful combinations of paranormal abilities so far recorded in the 95 years since the Change and that was why she'd been selected to command this first test of a manned jump ship derived from studies of teleporters. Three unmanned probes had been sent, none had ever returned. The Argo was next, and it was armed and defended with the best NASA, and the US, could come up with after a century of study of the paranormal abilities created by the Change. Even as Sylvia adjusted the viewplate to the direction Andrew had indicated, she'd already activated every defense the ship had available, and surrounded the life systems that contained the three of them, along with the jump engine, with the most powerful defensive shield she could create. Once the viewplate was pointing in the direction Andrew had indicated, all she could do was gasp as he remained silent and Brighteye let his low vocalization of his telepathy fall into silence as he, too, saw what was coming in sight.
In orbit around one of the planets of this system was an artificial construct. It appeared as a sphere, covered in spikes of various kinds, and given the distance it was at it was huge. "Holy--" Sylvia began.
"Arm weapon systems, hostile bogey 18 degrees down 12 degrees!" Andrew burst in.
Immediately all three went into action. Originally Argo hadn't been armed, but when the probes had failed, she'd been upgraded. With typed commands the fusion drive flared, and the Argo accelerated at 2G as the weapon systems armed. The ship began shuddering as Andrew fired the weapons manually, and each hit the alien device, causing the defensive screens it possessed to flare. Brighteye again whispered to himself as he sent what was happening back to his sister Silverfur telepathically, and Sylvia was left to examine the probe. Escape was not an option -- even with the fusion drive off it would still take five minutes to recharge the jump engine.
A large flare filled the screen as the probe was destroyed.
As Sylvia turned to Andrew, he suddenly slumped at his seat, and she watched as, by force of will, he pulled himself slightly up and typed a command. A signal was beamed from the Argo towards the alien station, and then Andrew fell unconscious. Brighteye stopped, and Sylvia killed the drive. She knew that Andrew had tried hundreds of futures, recycling after each, and finally came back here and transmitted something that saved them. At least for the next 23 seconds. He'd be asleep for a while. "Brighteye, tell Silverfur that the probes were probably destroyed by local defenses and relay the override that Andrew transmitted. We'll hold until Andrew recovers so that he can tell us what happened."
"Understood captain. Transmitting now," and Brighteye began whispering to himself.
Sylvia reached over and pulled a nipple from the arm of her couch and began sucking at the cool water. Argo did not have a big life system, it was mostly drive, fuel, and welded on systems which cocooned a small room with three crash couches which contained its fragile sentient cargo. Even though she itched to proceed, Sylvia would wait until Andrew woke up and reported. She reduced her screen to its standard orientation and began studying the data the ship was gathering on the system. There wasn't much -- the planet with the station was a jovian, none of its moons were habitable. But still, the station was there... Sylvia leaned back and wondered -- they'd fired first because if they hadn't, the alien device would have fired first. But was a threat in a potential future an actual threat? There was no easy answer, just like there was no ready answer here.
Yet she was afraid she knew what the answer would be.
With the ship set to alert her if anything changed in the system, Sylvia had let herself nod off, after Brighteye tucked her head under the left wing on her back and napped. Andrew had remained unconscious and Sylvia hadn't wanted to awaken him until he was needed -- if something happened she needed him as rested as possible, and the same applied to the rest of them. Eventually Andrew's motion awakened her -- her powers made her sensitive, and in seconds she was free of her crash couch and hovering beside him in freefall. Brighteye was still out. "Are you all right?"
"I've been better," Andrew replied. "I don't think I've ever done that many jumps."
"So you confirm you time jump then?"
For a second Andrew glared, and then he relaxed and let his tongue hang out. "I'm not saying anything. I didn't say anything then, and I'm not saying anything now."
"You watch too much 20th century television. What happened?"
"I was eventually able to figure out a code to tell the system here that we're friends. A kind of IFF I think. The computer tried series as fast as it could, and I kept jumping back with a new starting point. We got lucky, damn lucky."
"Did you get anything else?"
"There are at least five alien devices near to us -- as far as I could tell we're superior to any one of them, but in numbers they've got us cold. They can accelerate at a minimum of 10G, but their armament and defenses are about half the strength of ours, and they seem to use the same technologies, though they may have other tricks. Captain, I first tried hails to the station -- statements of friendship, number codes, surrender codes. None of those worked. Isn't there anybody there?"
By now Brighteye was awake, but the captain felt only a cold chill down her spine. There had been high level discussions of what might have happened, and it seemed that some of the more nightmarish ones were proving true. She kept her thoughts shielded from Brighteye -- no sense in panicking them yet. She couldn't transmit, but she could keep others out of her mind. "Brighteye, is your sister awake?"
Brighteye concentrated, and whispered to herself as her mind strained across the lightyears. "She is now."
"Keep the link open. Tell her that we're going to proceed in, cautiously. In futures we've tried communicating, but never got an answer. Tell them that it seems Case 12 is in effect."
"Case 12?" she asked.
"Just relay that." Then Sylvia pushed off from beside Andrew and made her way back to her seat, pulling her tail into her lap and stroking it nervously. Brighteye glared at her for a moment, and then turned away and started whispering. Andrew just looked at the viewplate. Then Sylvia restarted the main drive at 1G and slowly the Argo accelerated towards the station.
It took the Argo 18 hours to reach turn around point, and another 19 hours to decelerate to match velocity with the station. Just before turn around they'd detected some objects near the station, but had been unable to identify them before flare of the drive shielded the station after turn around. Obeying Sylvia's instructions, the computers shut off the drive, and the sudden silence just made them all more nervous. Sylvia started spinning the ship around with auxiliary jets.
"Holy crap is that thing huge," Andrew whispered.
It was. Given the distance they'd been at arrival, it had to be at least five miles across, and now that was confirmed. The station, if that's what it was, was slowly moving, and they watched, awed, as a burned and blackened section rotated into their line of sight. One of the smaller objects moved out of the planet's shadow and they all realized that it was a ship, an immense ship, maybe a mile long.
"Andrew, any luck identifying an access port?" Sylvia asked.
"Let me see captain -- it's hard to tell, the place is shielded. Hold it, I think I've found one!" The view screen focused on a circle surrounded by a pattern of regular flashing lights. "There's at least 100 of these. Sensors register a thinner metal with an atmosphere beyond. It's very low in oxygen, with a high sulphur content, so we'll at least need masks."
"Get out the gear then. We're staying suited, but bring the masks in case I decide otherwise. I'll bring us to within a mile of the dock. Brighteye, you'll stay here -- I'll radio you, you send back to your sister. If I tell you, jump out -- the course is set to take you back."
"No. If I tell you, then you go. You won't be able to save us. Is that understood?"
Brighteye glared at her with his eagle eye, but she glared back. He looked away first. "Understood."
They had to evacuate the atmosphere from the life systems before she and Andrew could leave. Sylvia told Brighteye to remain suited after their departure just in case. As the pair of them used the backpack jets to move towards the suspected airlock, Andrew clicked off his radio and touched his helmet to hers. "What's a Case 12?"
Sylvia thought about shutting off her radio to keep Brighteye from becoming more worried, but ultimately she left it on. They had all been selected for this mission. "I'll tell you if it proves out true. You might want to pray before then."
Andrew rotated his body away and turned his radio back on. From then the pair remained silent until their suit computers decelerated them with a puff of gas and they halted opposite the suspected airlock. "Captain, I'll go first, see if I can find a way to activate this."
"Understood. Just be careful."
She waited as Andrew drifted towards the suspected airlock. A clunk was heard through the radio as he landed, and then he pulled himself across the surface using the various bumps and extrusions as handholds. All that could be heard was his breathing.
"I think I've found... yes, this is it."
"Andrew, don't make too many temporal jumps. Save them for emergencies."
At that point Brighteye called telepathically: "Captain, I'm registering a drop in pressure beyond the hull at your point. Just thought you'd like to know."
"Thanks. Andrew, it seems--"
"I heard. It's working -- trust me."
Then there was again silence, except for Andrew's breathing, and a faint thumping from the alien station. Then a hiss, and the door slid open, sliding into what had to be a cavity inside the outermost hull. "Shall we go in captain?"
"I trust Brighteye got the opening code from your mind?"
"Well then, let's go." And with that she maneuvered herself forward with the suit jets, when she was suddenly yanked down to the floor. "What the--"
"I think they have artificial gravity."
"Great. We've never been able to figure that one out. Brighteye -- relay this."
"Aye," he replied in their minds.
Andrew followed her in, landing gently on the floor, and then he walked forward and pressed some controls that caused the outer door to slam shut.
"Brighteye, suit instruments record the simulated gravity as .83G. Relay." The door slammed shut and dim lights clicked on as a burst of static came from the radio.
"You all right?" Brighteye's mental voice asked.
"All fine here -- you still receiving us?" She could feel her suit relaxing as pressure built up around it.
"Staticky but readable."
Andrew burst in. "Captain, we're pressurized. I read it as 9.8 PSI. I'm opening the inner door."
"Andrew, wait..." but it was too late as the inner door hissed open. Inside the light was dim, about the same as a cloudy day, and all was silent. She looked around, expecting Andrew to walk in, but he didn't and in a second she knew why.
On the floor was what appeared to be reddish-orange cloth of some kind, doused in a kind of brown-green goo. It looked like it was reaching out and towards what appeared to be a row of space suits hanging on the wall. None of them were humanoid, or even close to humanoid. Most appeared to be for six limbed creatures, possibly with four legs but it was hard to tell from the deflated suits, and other appeared even more alien.
"Crap," Andrew whispered. "That shit looks rotten -- glad I'm not breathing the air."
Sylvia walked over and crouched down, shining her helmet light onto the goo which glistened. Then she stuck a suited finger in and felt around until she found a fragment of bone. "Probably trying to reach a suit," she muttered to herself. "Must have thought there was an atmospheric contamination or something."
"What was that captain?"
"Nothing yet Andrew." She shook her head slowly back and forth. "Nothing yet, and probably nothing to find. Scan for energy readings -- let's see if we can find a control room or reactor or something."
"Yea. Maybe somebody's holed up somewhere still alive. I hope so -- it'd be horrible if they were all dead."
"Brighteye, we're proceeding inward -- I'll perform a com check every five minutes. If we lose contact Andrew and I'll make our best speed towards the airlock. If we've missed two contacts, you jump out. Got that?"
"Understood," she replied mentally.
"Good. Well, come on Andrew, let's see if anybody's home."
The pair wandered for hours, the only sound the rasping of their breaths, the only sight more and more of the remnants of the aliens. All were in the same form, some with larger bone fragments, some with smaller. Deeper and deeper into the station they went, finding more and more dead. Examination of the clothes showed that there were at least three different bodily forms. Finally, they made their way through a hatch and into a large control room.
"This is it sir," Andrew began, pointing. "Readings indicate a fusion generator behind that bulkhead. What now?"
"See if you can find any stations. If we're lucky there'll be a relay to the bridge, maybe a map or direct--"
"What the hell was that?!" Andrew shouted.
"THIS IS ANGALITH MONITORING STATION 27. YOUR LIFE FORMS ARE UNKNOWN. YOUR LANGUAGE HAS BEEN IDENTIFIED AND MATCHES THAT OF MONITORED SYSTEM BALDAN CLASS 12. IDENTIFY YOURSELVES IMMEDIATELY OR BE DESTROYED."
"Station, we're from the nearest solar system, we're visitors, we come in peace," Sylvia burst out.
"YOUR BODY FORM DOES NOT MATCH RECORDED FORM FOR MONITORED SYSTEM. CONCLUDE THAT YOU ARE HOSTILES."
"WAIT! If you've been monitoring, then you must know what happened! We changed -- everybody changed, transformed--"
"YOUR BODY FORM DOES NOT MATCH RECORDED FORM. NO UPDATED INSTRUCTIONS HAVE BEEN RECEIVED FOR 87 YEARS. EXPLAIN YOURSELVES."
"Captain!" Brighteye's voice burst in telephathically. "The ship's been grabbed. Something's draining the charge from the jump drive."
"Brighteye, JUMP NOW!" she screamed, but her radio screeched and then the phones went silent in her ears.
"CONSULTATIONS WITH OTHER ANGALITH INSTALLATIONS REVEALS ALL ANGALITH MEMBER SENTIENTS DEAD FROM UNKNOWN CAUSES. ALL OTHER MONITORED SYSTEMS SIMILARLY AFFECTED. CONCLUSION: YOUR RACE CAUSED DESTRUCTION."
As the computer spoke, Sylvia heard Brighteye's voice in her mind. "I can't jump, tell me what to do -- think it. Fifteen devices similar to the one that attacked us are moving in."
Sylvia kept her mind calm as she snapped her defenses up full strength. All around a greenish vapour was being pumped into the room, curling and grasping. "Brighteye," she thought. "Relay, Case 12 is confirmed. Prepare ship for destruct."
"Do it now. This place can't capture you."
"Understood. It's been good... the alien devices are accelerating, estimate they'll be in range in 25 minutes. Reading energy buildup from station, it's--"
"Brighteye? BRIGHTEYE?!" There was no telepathic access.
"Captain, what is Case 12?" Andrew asked, his voice calm. "I'd like to know before we die."
Sylvia walked close to him, warping her shield to let him through. Already automated devices had lowered from the ceiling and she could feel massive energy splashing against her shield. She knew that she couldn't hold for long. "Case 12 Andrew is a worse case scenario. You remember the Change?"
"Not directly, but I've seen footage in school."
"One of the theories as to why we survived was a symbiote created as a result of the Plague War. It was theorized that it directed the forces at work and merged us with a single animal, rather than 20 different ones."
"I've heard that one."
Sylvia began to pant, her screen was flickering into the deep red, and starting to contract. "It seems that that one was right. These Angalith didn't have that symbiote -- when the Change occurred their bodies mutated, there was no control--"
"They all died."
"Every one of them. And it seems that their devices have remained. It also seems that the Angalith had some enemies, and hence armed their systems." Her screen flared into a dark green, and contracted more. The energy being fired at them was growing stronger, it wouldn't be long. "You ever read any 20th century fiction Andrew?"
Her screen flared into deep blue and she thumbed the control that would detonate a hidden explosive in her life support pack and kill them both. "There were probes theorized that would seek out and destroy intelligent life, remove any threat to the launching race."
"Shit," was all Andrew said.
And then Sylvia pressed the control.
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