Challenge Three

It was dark.

Vanessa Scot-Finn sat on a chair in the center of the room, staring at the blank patch of light cast by the projector behind her. The remote trembled in her hand and her finger hovered over the play button. But she didn't press it.

"This is your last chance," Captain Deval had said. "Once you watch the recording, there's no turning back." Vanessa could feel the captain's eyes on the back of her head now, applying silent, invisible pressure for her to decide.

Vanessa let out a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. She was being stupid. She hadn't gone through four years of school and training just to back out now. What could possibly be in that recording that would make her want to change her mind? Mentally chiding herself for her indecision, Vanessa set her teeth and hit the button.

The square of light on the wall flickered, vanished, then was replaced by large white letters which spread themselves across the cracked concrete backdrop.

The following is a video diary entry of Dr. Charles Bailey, recorded in the Earth year 2224 CE aboard the spaceship, Hope. Its contents are confidential and restricted to Enforcement viewing only.

"Hello? Is this on?"

A middle-aged man in a gray suit, who Vanessa could only assume was Dr. Bailey, was now projected on the wall before her. He was dark-skinned and bald with a short, graying beard and fuzzy eyebrows. Behind him Vanessa could see a dull metal wall that was pockmarked with rivets and tiny, multicolored lights. There was a small window set into the wall, through which a brilliant scatter of stars was visible, sprinkled across the pure blackness of deep space. The entire scene jittered as the man reached forward and adjusted the camera, and for a moment all that could be seen was the man's face as he peered closely into it. Then, apparently satisfied, he sat back in his chair and looked straight at Vanessa.

"Well, today is —" the man consulted a handheld computer resting on his lap "— day nine thousand, five hundred and twelve of our journey, meaning we're roughly a third of the way there. A few weeks ago we celebrated twenty-six years since leaving Earth — not that that's really much to celebrate. A spaceship's no fit place to spend one's life. . . . I suppose we did all sign up for this . . . but how could we have known what living in space for the rest of our lives would be like? We were just kids, really. I was twenty-one, but most of us were younger than that. How could we have been expected to make that decision?"

He shook his head. "I still dream about Earth sometimes. I still remember what it was like. And you know, it's the stupid things you never thought about that you miss: like weather, or gravity. When you're on a planet, you take them for granted. You take everything for granted. But God, I miss gravity . . . centrifugal force just doesn't quite cut it. I doubt I'll ever get used to this damn Coriolis effect.

"Enough of that, though, I'm rambling," he said abruptly. His eyes, which had lost focus during his remembrances, snapped back to the camera. "After all, there's finally some real news to talk about," he continued. "The probe's just landed on Amber! Well, not just. It happened more than two years ago, seeing as we're still more than two light-years away from Amber, but the message just came in three days ago.

"We've had scans and photographs for decades now, but it's somewhat comforting to know that humankind has at last — if not set foot on — then at least set something on the surface of an extrasolar object. And it's better than we'd hoped; the atmosphere is thick and tolerable near the surface. Radiation's off the charts, of course, but the probe has already picked up some caves we might be able to settle in.

"The real surprise, though, is how much life there is. I mean, we knew there was life, but we never imagined how much. It shatters all the assumptions we've ever had about life and where it can or can't exist."

He suddenly stopped and glanced around as though to make sure no one was listening. Apparently, he found no eavesdroppers, but when he began again his voice was just low enough to hint at secrecy.

"The probe also picked up something else that we weren't immediately able to identify. Some apparently mobile anomalies that exist on the night side of Amber. They reacted most peculiarly to the probe — differently than anything else did. While more tests certainly need to be run, we believe they may be other higher life forms — and, well, we can't be sure yet, but we suspect they may even border on intelligent. We think they tried to communicate with us.

"Only a handful of us know about them; for the moment we've decided to keep this discovery quiet. If all the colonists were to learn that there may be an extraterrestrial civilization out there . . . well, we'll need to do simulations on the societal repercussions it could have on all of us. The last thing we want is for an intelligent race to be exploited. In the meantime, we have labeled the anomalies 'subject X' and we plan to monitor them closely over the next few years before we consider whether revealing them would be safe."

There was a click from the back of the room and suddenly, the man and the ship winked out like a flashlight, leaving Vanessa staring at the blank wall once more. She blinked as the lights in the room came on and turned in her seat to see Captain Deval striding toward her from the doorway, his tunnel boots thudding loudly on the floor.

"So that's it?" said Vanessa softly. "That's the secret? There are aliens on Amber?"

Captain Deval gave his trademark, lopsided smile. Vanessa had heard it was so crooked because some of the muscles in the left side of his face had been paralyzed in a tunnel accident.

"Not aliens, honey — we're the aliens," he growled. "People think Enforcement's job to keep order — but that's only part of it. Enforcement's biggest job is to keep a secret."

Vanessa struggled with herself for a moment. She didn't know why this was difficult for her to accept. Perhaps it was simply because she resented having been lied to for so long and because she hadn't joined Enforcement with the notion that she would be defending a lie. Was it really so necessary to keep these creatures secret? Was it because the founders believed the Tellurians would enslave them as had happened with so many cultures on Earth? Or did they think the opposite might happen? Suddenly, she recalled the Dark Shadows her brother Rodney had constantly been going on about. Perhaps he hadn't been crazy after all.

"And did they find out?" Vanessa asked after a moment. "Are the creatures intelligent?"

"Bordering on intelligent," replied the captain.

"What's the difference?"

"All the difference in the world."

The End

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