They’d spent several hours investigating the ship. In the end, they found no exterior response to their presence –nothing that would indicate the vessel was operating in any capacity. They approached slowly, with the intention of bringing themselves alongside the enormous vessel. As they drew nearer, the picture had become clearer and they could see cracks in the hull of the ship over its entire length. They started to get the sense that something calamitous had happened and what they might be viewing now is only the empty remains of a derelict spaceship, long abandoned.
“Surely you can’t mean to board that vessel?”
“I mean to investigate this vessel, but I don’t even know if it would be possible to board it yet. In any case, we won’t learn anything without getting a closer look.”
“What about the danger?”
“We’re in a prototype ship that until a couple of years ago we didn’t think theoretically possible. I think our definition of danger has to be modified somewhat.”
His crew looked a little uneasy at the prospect. None of them had truly been prepared for this, but that wasn’t the real issue. The real issue is that they’ve had a hundred years of television, movies and books warning against the dangers of contacting alien species. It was difficult to let go of the images of body snatching aliens or ending up as breeding stock for worms that plunge out of your chest.
“We’re going to take what precautions that we can, but we are going to that ship. Look at it, people. This is part of the very reason this mission came to be. We’re seeing what’s out there, and it just so happens that this is part of what’s out there.“ Cole was not going to be dissuaded, but he wanted everyone to have their say.
“I’m with Cole. We should see if we can get to that ship. You’ve all seen it for yourselves. Look at the ruptures of the hull. There could be people trapped there, in need of help. We just don’t know. But if there’s a chance we can help, then we should.” Brightman was surprising in her support. Cole hadn’t thought of her as the boldly go type.
“Why do we look at the stars?” She continued. “We look at the stars and we all feel that longing… That longing to know if we’re alone in the universe or not. Every step we have taken, every advance this program has made has brought us closer to the answer. Sure, the people in the UED want to see concrete applications for our technology, but that’s not why we signed up. We all signed up because we wanted to know what’s out there. Now we know, and there’s no way I’m going back with just a picture and an excuse why we didn’t at least try to see this through.”
“But what if something happens? Something bad?”
Cole stared impassively across their faces. He wanted to maintain a sense of impartiality in the face of the debate.
“We have a contingency for this. We’ll lay out the Exeter probe. “
The Exeter probe they carried was actually the first unmanned version of Exeter engine, fitted with telemetry data and a sophisticated computer system that would allow it to return safely to Earth under its own power.
“We rig the probe with a dead man’s switch, and set data streams from the Exeter into its core memory. It will rest outside the ship collecting every erg of information we collect. If for some reason it stops receiving a signature from the Exeter, it will go to Tach on a return path to Earth carrying everything we have collected. If anything happens, they will know what we know.”
There were grumbles, but with the course of action he proposed, most everyone was in agreement that every prudent measure had been considered. He supposed the notion of potentially helping someone from another world had won the day. He looked at Angela Brightman with renewed respect. He’d thought of her as being surly and perhaps more than a little difficult to get along with. Now he realized her gruff exterior was a defense. She was in a male dominated field and even now there was a tendency to think of women scientists as a stereotype. Of all of them who took part, she displayed the most passion and enthusiasm.
“I don’t want anyone going who isn’t prepared to go. If you doubt what we’re about to do, then speak up now. No one’s going to look down on you for your choice. Right now I need people who can focus.” He looked over at Angela… “Suit up, Brightman. You and I are going to be the first two to EVA. We’re doing a cursory eval of the situation and if things look safe, then we’ll calculate our next step.”
The meeting adjourned in a flurry of activity. As everyone turned towards their respective tasks, Angela Brightman pulled him aside. Apparently she was more than a little surprised at his choice.
“You’re qualified, aren’t you? You’ve gone EVA before, right?”
“Yes, Sir. We’ve all gone EVA before as part of the training. But I’m a little perplexed. I’d have thought you’d wanted someone more…”
“Male?” He replied.
She blushed slightly at his perception. “Yes. Male….”
“Listen, I don’t want someone out there who’s got to screw on their courage to hit the airlock. You’re professional and observant. That’s of use to me out there. We take it slow. We write the book as we go. Follow my instructions and don’t do anything rash. We’re going to be fine…”
She looked at him with a grudging respect. He was a consummate professional, and now she could more than see why He was chosen to lead this mission. Here they were on the cusp of Mankind’s greatest discovery since the invention of the airplane, and to him it seemed like no more than another day. That was something that she definitely liked. Among all of the crew, he was the one who seemed least like a scientist, though his mind was sharper in her opinion. She realized that the reason she didn’t think of him a scientist was that he didn’t have the same kind of ego. Cole didn’t seem the type.
They made their way back towards the Airlock. Fellow crewmembers looked on, some with more than a little jealousy in their eyes, some with awe, some with relief at not having to go. She didn’t care. She was going to touch it –an alien vessel. That made her somewhat giddy with excitement. She hoped that he hadn’t noticed. She smiled inwardly. Here she was, on one of the most historic missions of human kind and she was more concerned by what the Captain thought of her. Most of them avoided calling him by rank, because most of them had never been in the service or they wanted to avoid any clichéd Sci-fi references. If it bothered, Cole, he didn’t show it.
They entered the antechamber where the space suits were kept. They had to strip down to their underwear in order to don the form fitting EVA gear. Special nanite constructed fabric made these suits far more durable and flexible than twentieth century space suits had been. The outer layer of their suits was composed of a specialized carbon fiber weave that had to be formed by microscopic nanites in lieu of conventional fabrics. There were no exterior seems, and the suit actually sealed itself once donned. The interior layer contained more of these nanites, suspended in an inert gelatin. In the event of any rupture, the nanites would work together to seal any rupture to the external suit layer before the wearer could be exposed to open space. The thermal layer underneath also contained a sensor weave that monitored their bodies in over a dozen different ways.
She stripped to her sports bra and shorts in relative silence. After seventeen months together, they’d all given up on the idea of relative privacy, but she worked hard to adjust her schedule so that she avoided undressing in front of anyone. In fact, she worked very hard to conceal as much of her femininity as possible. She’d actually made it to through college on a track scholarship, and she’d learned early on her figure could be a distraction.
Cole didn’t seem to be the type to obsess over such things. He undressed quietly, not looking in her direction other then when he had to turn around. As he removed his tunic and undershirt, she couldn’t help but notice his development. If he was a scientist of any kind, he certainly didn’t have the body for it. He was more than well defined, without being bulky. His seemed more like a sprinter’s body, built for explosive power, than a bodybuilder. She turned her eyes to the floor when she felt her eyes lingering a little too long. Along with his physique, she noticed there were several faded scars. They weren’t overpowering --most of them looked faded to the point of not being noticeable from a distance.
She figured that he might actually have been in the military, at some point. Those weren’t the type of scars that you get playing football. As she brought the suit up over her shoulders, sliding her arms into it, she could feel it begin to seal itself. She felt a little uncomfortable because wearing it made her curves more conspicuous than she was comfortable with. Cole’s expression was a comfort –he didn’t seem to notice in any overt way. He was dressed and ready, and she felt a little disconcerted when he grabbed her by the shoulders, and spun her around to check the seal. Their suits were designed to change color to light blue when the seals were in place, and any break in the suit would register as a dark splotch, making it easy to gage the integrity of a suit just by visual inspection. She let out a thin gasp.
“Sorry.” He said. He ran his hand along the seam as it faded, taking great care to make sure that there were no visible blotches.
“No need.” She replied. “I’m a little nervous…”
“Just like training.” He replied. “Remember to breathe. Benson will get us close and we’ll step out for a look see.”
“I know.” She replied. She turned her hair up into a severe bun, pinning it in place several times, and then wrapping it.
Cole was aware for just an instant just how much he’d tuned out. Brightman had very dark, olive features, like a gypsy from the old country. It didn’t fit her name at all. He was assuming that her father’s side hadn’t really had the dominant genes. He helped her on with her EVA pack. The nanite controlled suit, mated to the pack forming the openings around the various sensor ports and recirculation systems. The helmet was actually smaller than on old style motorcycle helmet. With the face shield closer to the face. It took a little getting used to if you were claustrophobic, but the air circulation within the helmet and the rest of the suit did a good job of decreasing the anxiety after you put it on.
He turned around and allowed her to do the same. He seemed more comfortable with being inspected, like a soldier might before battle. Rather than try to carry any equipment and try to maneuver using just their suits, they were going to ride the skiffs, an EVA propulsion vehicle designed for serious maneuvering around their own ship, in case repairs or inspections were needed. The skiff was vaguely reminiscent of a motorcycle. The skiff was about five feet long and was meant to be straddled. Skiffs could maneuver easily in three dimensions and through the handlebar and foot controls could be utilized effectively to traverse small distances, allowing them to easily cover the two kilometer distance between the Exeter and their destination. The skiffs were modular allowing them to configure it for each mission. They’d loaded out the sensor/diagnostics package, intent on using their instrumentation more than anything else this trip.
They eased the skiffs out of the airlock, moving away from the relative safety of the Exeter. Cole took the lead, being easily the more adept of the two pilots. Brightman followed at a discrete distance in a mirroring his course and speed. They were headed towards the spherical center of the talon ship. Cole intended to work an outward pattern, seeing if they could find any visible opening, or a hangar deck of some kind. They piloted the skiffs in relative silence, breaking occasionally to give reports back to Benson on the Bridge.
“We’re closing in.” Cole said. “As near as I can tell, there are signs of breaks in the skin of the ship. They become more visible as we draw closer. It’s almost like some kind of massive impact or vibration shook the joins of the hull loose.”
“Whatever happened to this ship must have been catastrophic.” Brightman had gotten over her nervousness quickly once they approached. “We’re getting some encouraging signs. There are signs of power emanations coming from within, but they’re very faint. No one would have noticed if they were too far away. We’re only starting to pick it up now…”
“Acknowledged.” Benson replied. “How’re the hackles on the back of your neck?”
“Fine.” Brightman replied. “You remember what Cole said about getting out of there if anything happens, right?”
“Forget every word. If anything happens you’d better not take off…”
They both heard Benson chuckle over the com link. They needed to lighten the mood with something. Angela knew that if she paused to think about it too much, she’d freeze. This was too big for them; she knew that. But there was no one else, and so they pressed on. In the undamaged sections of the hull, she noticed that the seams were virtually non-existent. Oddly enough, however the composition of the plates looked more like some kind of steel. It was amazing to note that the construction of this vessel might have mirrored something created on Earth with sufficient advances of science and time. She wondered if the similarities ended at construction methodologies, or whether or not those inside might be more like them in physical ways as well.
Cole keyed a private communication to her. “Watch your physicals, Angela…”
He’d been monitoring her bio readings as well as piloting the skiff. She looked at his readings on her own display. His pulse was steady and barely above sixty. By his readings, he might have been sleeping for all you could tell. His breathing was steady, heart rate was controlled and steady.
“I don’t see how you do it.” She responded.
“Training, Angela.” He replied. “I’ve been doing this a long time.”
She’d noticed that he’d slipped in calling her by her first name. He’d never done that before. She didn’t understand what might be different. At first she thought he might be taking a more personal tone in order to keep her steady, but then she realized that in sharing this walk with him –a soldier, that he might be thinking of her as a fellow adventurer instead of a subordinate. It was difficult for her to fathom. She’d never done anything like this before. They were less than twenty feet away from the hull of the ship when he brought his skiff to a slow halt. She did the same, stopping within a meter of Cole’s skiff.
“Let’s start reading. Full spectrum analysis. Perhaps we can determine where those signals are coming from.” He commanded.
Even in this tense situation, his style of command kept everyone at ease. She noticed that her physicals were reading lower, as though his words held some type of hypnotic sway. She looked at her display on the skiff. Cole was running infrared and other light wave readings, while she was searching for electrical readings or magnetic fields. She watched her sensor display recycle a set of readings at regular intervals. The pattern was simple alternating of magnetic fields, in strength, pause, then to strength in the opposite polarity. It would repeat in five second intervals, the entire cycle lasting five seconds. She informed Cole of her finding.
“If I didn’t know any better, it sounds like an S. O. S.” He responded.
“It’s coming from the aft section, closer to the engines.” She watched the readings carefully looking for any deviation.
“Benson, have your people start monitoring microwave frequencies in the same fashion. It may be that we’re missing the message. As broad a spectrum as we can. We’re not looking for words, but we’re looking for a repeating signal pattern. We’re going to move aft towards the source.”
“Will do, Cole.” He responded.
They moved aft at a slow clip, both of them keeping their eyes on their sensors. They weren’t worried about running into anything –the surface of the ship was smooth for the most part. They would look up every few hundred meters to make sure they weren’t missing anything. The signal was growing in strength.
“We keep going until the signal strength peaks, and then starts to decline again.”
“I understand. Sort of like using Doppler effect to pinpoint a rough location.” She said. Doppler was an older term to describe the change in pitch that a sound or a signal might have as it approaches then passes an object at a stationary point. Only in this case, the signal source was considered stationary, and they were the ones moving.
Cole was more clever than she’d thought. Doppler radar hadn’t been in use for years. Not something she would expect a soldier to know. But then again, she was assuming that he was a soldier. Cole had never made any mention of his past. He maintained an air of mystique among the crew --her included. The only one he seemed to share any sort of familiarity with was the Medical Doctor, Nigel Soames. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that none of them knew very much at all about the enigmatic Harlan Cole.
She only had an instant to measure the peak in signals strength and momentary decrease before space blinked out around them both.