Eric’s body rocked as the transport landed in the Charon’s hanger bay. His hands robotically unlocked the safety harness once the troops around him began to shuffle out. Eric was in a daze; his head was heavy with the events at the artifact repeating continuously in his head. Emb being shot out of the air, Jensen’s last moment, and the brutal grip of the Curtani that had captured him. Everything else was a blur.
He felt a calm, forceful pull on his shoulder. Eric stood and headed out into the bright lights of the hangar bay. The back of his eyes winced with pressure at the sudden change. He was surrounded by troops, humans. They had risked much to travel into the belly of the Curtani vessel to retrieve him. Obviously, a threatening posture of two human cruisers and a calm, forceful commander, engineered his release. But what about the others? What about every soldier who died on that wretched artifact, so he could live?
That was the only thing the artifact articulated, in languages everyone could understand. Then it imploded? All that engineering to produce a massive floating installation just to have it collapse in a firefight it didn’t want. Was it looking for a more peaceful first meeting? Perhaps it should have said something earlier. Isn’t that what a more intelligent advanced species would have done?
Eric’s security detail rushed him from the hangar and into the cruiser’s narrow corridors. The lighting in the corridors was dimmer, the pain in his eyes eased. Only his body responded to those around as he kept pace with their march. Eric was still with the dead, with the artifact.
Of course, a more intelligent and advanced species could just as easily decide that Eric and the others were not worthy of their attention. The artifact may have scanned everyone on that bridge as they fought and died, analyzed DNA sequences, and find every species inferior. Not worthy of further communication.
And then, the programmed probe would remove all traces of its existence without regard for those dying inside.
Doors slid open before Eric. A tall, lean woman with brown hair firmly grabbed his arm. The rank of lieutenant was emblazoned on her shoulder. The other troops stood at attention behind him.
A large table spanned the room before Eric. The center of the table was a projecting console that spilled three dimensional images of Forlorn, the planet below them. A failed mining operation had given the planet its moniker, and now a failed first contact scenario had cemented it.
The room was filled with six highly decorated officers, two of them were corporate presidents, the other four were officers from the two vessels. A familiar, white-haired man at the head stood up as Eric was escorted into the room by the lieutenant at his side. His body did not resist. The older man wore the badge of a three-tiered step pyramid just above his row of medals, the insignia for XenoTech Expeditions, Eric’s employer.
“Eric,” the man said with an uncertain nod.
This was the first time Eric responded. “Jim.” Eric’s voiced cracked and struggled as if he hadn’t spoken in months. “Or is it, President Marsen here?”
President James Marsen managed a weak smile. “After what you have been through, Jim is fine.” Jim presented his hand toward an empty chair closest to Eric. “Please, have a seat.”
One of the younger men to Eric’s left, a captain, spoke once Eric was guided to his seat. “We need your contacts removed.”
“Pardon?” Eric stammered.
“Your contacts, Eric,” Jim repeated with less abruptness than the captain. “All the information they collected can help us come to the bottom of this situation.”
Eric nodded. “Yes, Jim.”
Eric carefully pulled the contacts from his eyes. Although unseen to the human eyes, each contact was a computer, which relayed and stored probably nearly as much information as the human brain. They were used on nearly every human endeavor. They had little intelligence installed on them, but they had a host of testing parameters and sensors for collecting data and linking communication with the people on the ground. Hell, there was enough bio-metric information to tell whether Eric suffered from gas due to disagreeable food.
The captain to his left collected the contacts in a rose quartz tube and capped them. He then turned to Jim. “This could take a few days to go through. Nothing on this vessel, screams research or intelligence vessel.”
“We have some time, until we figure out its next move,” Jim replied.
Its next move? Eric looked up. He was probably slack-jawed. “Pardon, Jim?”
The young captain continued. “This is not our first run-in with the artifact.”
Eric was suddenly awake. His stupor broken. Adrenaline poured down his legs like he was a faucet. “We were not told this!” His voice was still weak, an angry stammer.
The captain was undaunted by the outburst. “Stephens knew, he was the only who needed to know, but you are now our point man. Apparently. For the all good it will do us.”
“What?” Eric stood up.
The young captain stood in response. He was taller, Eric could only stare at the captain’s decorated chest.
Eric’s adrenaline failed him, tremors weakened his knees.
Eric collapsed into his chair.
The captain kneeled over Eric in his chair. “What did you see? Those men who died out there—” he pressed into Eric’s chest with an index finger—“for you, got you further into that construct then any squad before.” The captain twisted his head to meet Eric’s downturned eyes. To Eric, it almost looked like the captain had a serpent-like neck. “What did you see?”
Eric matched eyes with the captain. His voice was weak, but he said, “Death.”
“Captain Holland, that is enough.” Jim’s quiet, stern voice broke through the tension. “We have all the data we can collect. We will add it to our current library of knowledge.”
Captain Holland stood at attention with a hiss at the word “data”.
“Which isn’t much,” quipped the captain.
“You speak out of turn, captain,” Jim continued.
Captain Holland’s body went rigid at the realization. “Apologies, President Marsen.”
Jim took a breath and nodded to the captain. “At ease.” He gazed around the room. “It is too soon. Dr. Eric Lancer will need some time to recuperate from the experience before we can continue. Everyone is dismissed, except Eric.”
Eric watched as everyone left. The other corporate president eyed locked eyes with Marsen, an accusing glance. The officers stood abruptly and walked passed Eric, the heads held high above him, eyes full of cold disdain. Two gentle taps on his shoulder from the lieutenant behind him was his only connection with humanity in the room before even she left. Marsen remained, tapping his fingers on the back of his chair until the door slid closed. Then the room was silent for an unbearably, yet short, time. Marsen breathed and walked over to Eric and sat on the table. He looked at the repeating images in the center of the table and snapped his fingers. The images went dark.
Eric managed a chuckle. “No need for the snap, Jim. The neural connections of your contacts also connect with the computer systems of the ship and—”
Jim laid a hand on Eric. “I know. I still like a little spectacle. A little flair. Little too stuffy on these vessels.” Jim passed his eyes over the briefing room. “I still miss it sometimes, though.”
Eric chuckled again. “I never knew you then. Good thing, probably. So, this debriefing, your idea, a quick gauge of my fitness? Or was this someone else’s idea?”
Jim looked at his friend in sincere earnest. “No, this whole scenario has made them all anxious. And now with the Curtani involved . . .” Jim shrugged. “Eric, you know why I asked for you?”
“Not certain, because I’m so damn brilliant.”
“Yes, but minus the sarcasm.”
Eric managed a weak smile.
“You are an enthusiastic discoverer. That is the job you chose. You have traveled to dead worlds and found evidence of past life, past civilizations. The blowhards here are looking for a new threat, my fellow presidents—and even I—are looking for another paycheck.”
“You, chasing after money, never.”
Jim raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “I’m simple. Profit is my nature. But not you, your lust lies in discovery. I know how you work, what can you tell me that the data lenses that just left this room cannot?”
Eric casts his eyes at the carpeted floor. “Not much. The motivations behind that artifact are inscrutable. It could be an old device still following some directives given to it by an extinct race or it is some sort of first contact probe. That is all anyone knows. I don’t even know how the Curtani got it opened.”
“What has got you so somber?”
“Wasn’t expecting a firefight and to lose everyone that was out to help me.”
Jim stood and walked back across the room. “Risks of the trade.”
“Not my trade. Firefights have never been in my line of work.” Eric’s eyes narrowed. “What about the other times? The other times you’ve encountered this probe?”
Jim looked up and leaned his hands on the table.
“You still in this?”
Eric leaned back, his shock beginning to subside. “Depends? Do I get to know everything Lieutenant Stephens knew? I can’t move forward with only a piece of the story.”
Jim smiled. “Indeed.”
© 2018 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.