“One small step, eh?” Drew Lockwood took two larger steps down the ramp while staring at the nearby structures. The first connected with the edge of the ramp and the second missed it completely. He tumbled off and belly-flopped onto the rocky ground. ”Huhhfff!”
“And that would be why spacesuits are armored nowadays.” Kim Ramirez laughed as Cora hopped off the ramp and helped Drew back to his feet.
“You girls are lucky you’re robots.” Drew dusted his spacesuit off and was probably thankful that no one could see his face through his helmet visor. He’d just become the first human to set foot on Proxima Centauri b, but he’d done so via pratfall. “You don’t have to stuff yourself into suits like these. They make me clumsy.”
“A human brain in a robot body still needs oxygen.” Kim grinned and pointed a thumb at the breather pack strapped on over her long black duster. “Gotta admit I’m a little envious of Cora, though. Full AI. None of our weaknesses.”
“I’m sure you’ll find a weakness or two if you look hard enough. Besides, spacesuits used to be three times as bulky as they are now, so it could be worse.” Cora scanned the area with her sensor suite and detected no movement.
Not surprising, really, with the planet tidally locked to the nearby star and possessing a weak magnetic field. The atmosphere had eroded away long ago, assuming there ever was one to begin with. Too hot on one side and freezing on the other, only a narrow strip between the day and night sides could’ve supported life in the past, and maybe not even then
She scanned for energy sources next and found a faint trace about forty meters ahead and to the left. She set a waypoint and sent it to Kim and the navigation systems in everyone else’s suits. Her team had been sent to investigate the structures the Sagan had found on the surface, but those could wait.
“Good one, ‘Drewfus.’” Boner nudged Drew’s shoulder. Brenda Nguyen, Vicki McWhirter, Consuela Nelson, and Timmy McBride laughed along with her. Drew gave her the finger.
“At least I’m not a woman named Boner.”
“Hah. You try being in the Air Force when your last name is Bonner. I was stuck with it pretty quickly.”
“Oh, it’s a sticky boner?” Cora deadpanned. “That’s even worse than I thought.”
Kim snort-laughed and shook her head. “Everybody else, watch your step. We don’t want your first visit to an alien planet to turn into ‘one giant plop.’”
Cora opened a channel on her internal comms. ”Sagan, this is Cora. We’ve detected a faint energy signature and are investigating.”
“Copy that,” Colonel Likhachyova replied. “Makes me wish I could be down there with you. An active power source suggests an alien presence, assuming it’s not naturally occurring.”
“I haven’t detected anything that looks like a natural radiation source around it. It’s basically a pinpoint.”
“Maybe you can see it for yourself once we’re sure there aren’t any booby traps or viruses or whatever,” Kim added.
“I’d love that. It’d be nice not to be stuck on the ship while visiting our first exoplanet.” Likhachyova laughed softly. “Check it out and keep me updated.”
“Will do, Ludmila.” Cora glanced over her shoulder at the rest of the team, grinned, and struck a dramatic pose. “Onward!”
“That is so cool!” Cora stared at the hatch set into what appeared to be the mouth of a cave. She’d only heard of something alien being discovered once before -- the archives that had led to the development of the hyperspace drive found in an underground outpost on Mars -- and had glimpsed what may have been an alien ship near Io.
Now, here was evidence of an alien presence right in front of her. Within arm’s reach. Even if the civilization was now extinct, this was pretty mind-blowing.
Cora inspected the panel in the center of the circular hatch, hoping to find a manual release. There didn’t seem to be any power coming to the panel, so they might need to cut through. She scanned for a mechanism underneath and found something resembling a lock.
“Hmm.” Drew glanced around. “Maybe they left the key under a rock?”
A quick chuckle rippled through the rest of the team. Brenda stepped forward.
“Lemme try something.” She placed her palm on the panel and pushed. “I used to have some cupboard doors that opened this way.”
The panel gave, moving inward a few millimeters, and sprang open when she took her hand off it. She stared at it, shook her head quickly, and stepped aside.
“Huh. Didn’t think that’d actually work.”
Cora reached in and grasped a bar about the length of her forearm set into a circular contraption. She tugged gingerly and it didn’t budge. She gave it a gentle twist and it turned in place. A short vibration came from the hatch, through her hands and into her arms. If the planet had an atmosphere, she assumed it would’ve made a clunk sound.
She pushed on the hatch and it swung inward, revealing a cylindrical tunnel leading into the mountain ahead.
Her sensors picked up more power sources -- faint but growing stronger as if something had turned on.
“You notice that?” Kim stared into the tunnel. “Machinery’s powering up.”
“Opening the hatch triggered something.”
“Preferably something that doesn’t include an automated defense system.”
“Yeah, definitely. Everyone, keep your eyes open and proceed cautiously, in case it’s not just lights and whatnot turning on.” Cora led the team through the hatch, waited for them to pass by, then closed it. She felt the same vibration as before, probably a lock engaging now that power was flowing.
“The tunnel’s getting brighter,” Drew said.
Cora turned back around and noticed indirect lights from panels in the walls and ceiling fading on gradually. A few seconds later, everyone turned their helmet spotlights off. Cora headed for the far end, keeping her pace slow and cautious. A gentle breeze brushed the nano-sensors all over her surface and she scanned their surroundings again.
“The tunnel is pressurizing. It’s breathable, but a wee bit thicker than what you’re used to.”
“Must be an airlock.” Brenda stopped at the inner hatch and turned to watch the others catch up.
“Let’s scan the air for biologicals.” Vicki took an instrument from her toolbelt and held it up for a moment.
Cora scanned the air herself to see if she got the same results. “Nothing at all. It’s as sterile as the air aboard the Sagan.”
“I’m getting the same readings.” Vicki kept an eye on the scanner for a moment before putting it away. She opened her helmet, took a tiny breath, and wrinkled her nose. “There’s an odor in the air like dust burning off a heater that hasn’t been used in a long time. Other than that, it’s not bad. I’m breathing normally.”
Consuela opened her helmet and sniffed. “Yeah, reminds me of the beginning of winter in Portland. It’s just as cold, too.”
Kim nodded and took her breather mask off. “If I still had a flesh-and-blood body, my nipples would look like pencil erasers right now.”
Drew snickered and fumbled with the seal on his helmet. “I’m keeping that image in mind for later. Y’know, when I get back to my quarters.”
“Happy to be of service.” Kim bowed theatrically and most of the others shook their heads. Cora rolled her optics but couldn’t help chuckling at the same time.
“Let’s move on to the next hatch.” She found a mechanism similar to the one on the outer hatch, turned it, and it unlocked with the clunk she’d been expecting. She stepped into the next chamber and took it in.
The room was conical -- circular floor, smooth walls tapering to a point about a meter above everyone’s heads -- and the only object was a narrow metal pyramid with its peak at roughly chest height.
“Coooool,” Brenda muttered. “Is anybody recording this?”
“Yep.” McBride pointed at his helmet cameras. “Started recording when we boarded the shuttle.”
Cora walked slowly around the pyramid, scanning it and recording every detail with her optics. Each surface was covered with glyphs or runes that appeared to be etched into the brushed copper surfaces. Interspersed among the symbols were softly glowing ovoids that pulsated slowly and a circular indentation in the center of each of the four surfaces that looked like they might be ports.
The temperature reading caught her attention.
“It’s getting warmer in here.”
McBride backed up to the wall and kept his cameras pointed straight at the pyramid. “I’ll just, uh, get a wide shot of the whole chamber from here.”
Drew walked right up to the pyramid. Boner, Consuela, and Brenda joined him.
Cora turned to scan and record the walls. Now that she took a closer look at it, she found more symbols etched into the surface. She moved her optics from the top to the bottom as she slid along the curving wall, getting a shot of every symbol.
Sets of them looked like different alphabets. One near the floor was a variation on English.
“Guys,” she almost whispered. “Check this out. It looks like it might be an old form of English. Possibly from the Middle Ages.”
“Seriously?” Kim hurried over and crouched beside her. “Whoa. You think someone from medieval times was here?”
“More likely, someone visited Earth way back then and left this as a message for future travelers. Then the language evolved over the centuries.”
“Oh, I like that idea better.”
“This one looks like it might be Arabic.” Vickie pointed at several rows of symbols to Cora’s left. “And that set looks Cyrillic.”
“Uh-oh,” Drew mumbled.
Multicolored lights washed over the chamber and a hissing sound came from behind Cora. She spun around and found Drew, Boner, Consuela, and Brenda stumbling back from a cloud of green mist.
″Eww!” Brenda backed up against the wall and shook her head quickly. “I inhaled some of it!”
“Ugh.” Drew waved a hand in front of his face. “Wow, who farted?”
“Seriously?” Boner scowled at him. ”That’s your reaction?”
Cora pointed at the hatch. “Get back to the shuttle! We need to go through decontamination and into quarantine.”
Boner sealed her helmet and turned to Cora. “Looks like you, Kim, Vickie, and Timmy were out of this thing’s range. Cora, you should pilot the shuttle in case I’m compromised.”
“I’m already a little dizzy,” Drew mumbled as he sealed his helmet.
“Me, too.” Brenda closed her helmet and sealed it.
Cora motioned at Consuela and waited for her to lock her helmet. She checked everyone’s helmets to be sure they were locked correctly, opened the hatch, and led everyone back to the surface.
“Cora, how are they?”
Cora turned to find Col. Likhachyova floating up behind her. She nodded over her shoulder at Drew, Consuela, Brenda, and Boner in the quarantine chamber. Beside Cora, Kim kept an eye on the four people in the chamber, both of them secured to the floor by the electromagnets in their feet. McBride floated nearby, staring at the tablet in his hands while his camera hovered near the window.
Cora wouldn’t have wanted an audience if she were going to be stuck in there for forty-eight hours, but Timmy’s job was to cover the Sagan’s maiden voyage for the masses back home, and that included crew members suddenly being bathed in disco lights and mystery gas.
“Dr. Flanagan said there’s no sign of any viruses, bacteria, pathogens, and so on.”
“That she’s been able to identify,” Kim added.
“Well, there have been no adverse effects on their biology at all. No apparent illnesses. She did find their brain chemistry was altered slightly, so they were injected with medical nanobots to monitor the changes.” Cora held a hand up when Likhachyova’s eyes opened wider and her jaw dropped. “The alterations don’t appear harmful at the moment. So far, the readings indicate …”
Kim smirked and pointed at something. Cora turned and found the four cuddling. Boner had her arm around Drew and the other two women held hands while Brenda clasped Drew’s hand and intertwined her fingers with his.
“Well, that.” Cora motioned at them and turned back to Likhachyova. “They trained together, but had no affection for each other beyond everyday camaraderie when we launched.”
Kim tossed a grin over her shoulder. “Then half an hour after we arrive, they’re head-over-heels in love.”
“Seriously?” Likhachyova gaped at her and then Cora. “They got the hots for each other after being hosed down by that device?”
“It emitted a combination of light and gasses that began altering their brain chemistry seconds after contact.” Cora turned back to watch them for a moment. “Now, their brain scans match the average human experiencing romantic love. Whether any further changes occur, and whether it interferes with their ability to carry out their duties, and whether the effects are permanent, remain to be seen.”
“If it stays this way, I don’t see any problems cropping up unless they’re suddenly overcome with lust and start humping it out right in front of us.” Kim held her right arm up. “I wouldn’t have any objection to that, either. It’s why I had a ‘vibrate’ function added to my hand during an upgrade years ago.”
“Aw, here I was, thinking you did it for me.” Cora pretended to pout.
“Well, my motivations are complex.” Kim laughed. “A while ago, Vicki said she was disappointed that she was out of range and won’t be able to get in on the action.”
“Huh.” Likhachyova shook her head quickly as if trying to dislodge some cobwebs. “I suppose it makes sense. I looked at the recordings you made of the symbols on the wall. Some of the Russian text said the device is called ‘the Peacemaker’ and it was used by warring factions to end their conflicts without any more bloodshed. I didn’t know how a single gadget could do that until you filled me in on how these four were affected.”
“That matches what I saw of the text from other Earth languages,” Cora said. “Aside from those, the rest of the symbols are probably alien, but I’d be surprised if they don’t all say the same thing.”
“Isn’t it weird that they’d have any human languages at all?” Timmy tapped something on the tablet’s screen and the camera rotated to aim at Likhachyova. “Unless any of us have been to this planet before?”
Likhachyova shook her head. “It’s more likely that someone else visited Earth centuries ago and added the same descriptions in several human languages to the chamber just in case we’d end up needing the device someday.”
“We’ve probably needed it throughout our history,” Kim muttered.
“Sadly, that’s very true.” Likhachyova let out a long sigh. “Ending wars by artificially causing opposing sides to fall in love with each other. I like it as long as those involved are volunteers. I have a serious problem with it being forced on anyone -- which is exactly what happened here.”
“Well, desperate times call for desperate measures, so I’d be okay with it regardless. It’s a far better solution than both sides wiping each other out.”
“Fair enough. But it was done to members of my crew without their consent.” Likhachyova pushed off from the wall and drifted closer to the quarantine chamber. “Do they know?”
“Yep.” Boner glanced over at her. “Dr. Flanagan kept us informed each time she found something new. And if she hadn’t, this would’ve confused the hell out of me.” She motioned at Brenda and Consuela. “I don’t even swing that way and I don’t know them very well -- Drew, either -- but I can’t bear the thought of going through life without them.”
The other three nodded.
“Well, at least that thing didn’t make you all hate each other.” Likhachyova chuckled. “We’ll wait and see how things are at the end of the quarantine period. Maybe it’ll wear off or we might find a way to reverse it.”
Drew stared at her. “Why would we want that?”
“Well, it didn’t happen naturally. It was forced on you.”
“Sure, but I think we’re all happy with it.”
“I am, definitely,” Brenda said, and the others nodded again. “I know we were ‘programmed’ to feel this way about each other, but it is what it is. Separating from these guys would break my heart.”
“Huh. Well … we’ll see how things go. Meanwhile, Cora, Kim, I’d like you to take another look at the device. I don’t see how it could have any effect on synthetics, but bring a few other AI crew members along and have them stay out of the device’s range just in case it can affect you.”
“Sure thing. They can continue exploring the area while we examine the Peacemaker.”
“And no humans on your team. We don’t need the entire ship turning into a big orgy, as fun as that sounds. We’d never get any work done.”
“Hold on.” Timmy tapped a button on his tablet and the camera floated back to him. “I should be there to cover the investigation. I’ll keep my distance, I promise. This mission is incredibly important and even though it’ll be a while before any of this is declassified, it should be documented for posterity.”
Likhachyova thought it over and finally nodded. “Alright. Cora, give your team orders not to let our intrepid reporter get anywhere near that device or any other you may find down there.”
“Understood.” Cora waved Kim and Timmy toward the shuttle bay. “Come on, let’s get back to work.”
“Just don’t make Drew’s mistake,” Kim said as the shuttle approached the planet.
“Which was?” Cora glanced at her. “He did something when I had my back turned, didn’t he?”
“I heard him mumbling about it when they were going into quarantine and you were on the intercom with Ludmila.” Kim snickered. “He pushed one of the buttons on the doohickey.”
″What?” Cora programmed the shuttle’s descent and turned to stare at her. “He just started pushing buttons?”
“Yep. He said something that looked like a blue laser swept over all four of them, a bunch of lights flashed on the pyramid’s surface, and then the fun started.”
“Sounds like it scanned them. Maybe it needed to adjust the lights and gasses to make them work on humans.”
“Sounds right.” Kim shook her head. “Seriously, who the hell pushes a button without knowing what it does?”
Cora tossed a sheepish grin at her. “I … probably would’ve, now that I think about it.”
Kim burst into laughter. “I should’ve figured that.”
Cora took a moment to be thankful for her features not including the human ability to blush. She tapped one of the screens in front of her, brought up a menu, and selected the recordings made by the probes investigating the structures near the underground chamber. Kim leaned over for a look at the screen.
“Hey, y’know what those remind me of? There was a set of domes built in Casa Grande about a hundred years ago. If I remember correctly, they were built by an electronics manufacturer, but the company went bankrupt and construction was never finished. Decades later, the domes were falling apart and hardly anyone knew what they were for. I saw some photos and vids of them. Pretty creepy, especially at night.”
“Nice. I’ll have to find some of those videos.” Cora smiled. “I’ve developed a fascination with ruins and abandoned buildings. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to join the Sagan’s crew. Aside from just wanting to see what’s out there, I like the idea of exploring places where no one has walked in thousands of years.”
“Yeah. It’s like you’re getting a glimpse at something that’ll remain unknown forever. Really gets the ol’ imagination going.”
“It certainly does.” Cora watched the recordings for a moment. “Hmm. Notice the interior of that one, the way the pedestals are laid out? It reminds me of an audience facing a panel of judges.”
“Yeah, now that you mention it. Makes me wonder if there was more to this Peacemaker thing than the inscriptions told us. Maybe the ‘volunteers’ were selected in a sort of trial.”
“Like criminals being sentenced?” Cora shrugged. “Could be, I suppose. Maybe they selected those who’d committed the worst war crimes on each side and sent them in to fall in love with each other.”
“Hah! That’s kinda messed up, but it makes sense.”
“Or maybe the leaders of each military force had to go into the chamber.”
“Yeah. It might’ve been considered a general’s duty to go through the process as a way of taking responsibility for the bloodshed the war caused.”
Cora nodded, closed the recording, and set down in the same spot Boner had landed the shuttle a few hours ago. “Here we are.”
Kim released her seat restraints and headed for the equipment lockers. “Try not to push any buttons while we’re in there.”
“I wonder if this thing can be removed?” Cora hadn’t been able to find a seam where the device joined the floor. “The power source appears to be underground, but if they could be separated safely and relocated …”
“It could be brought to Earth and used to end wars?” Kim shrugged and continued inspecting the walls for seams that would indicate a doorway leading to another chamber.
“Wars, smaller conflicts, even long-lasting disagreements and grudges. As long as everyone involved is told exactly what’ll happen and is given a choice, it could do a tremendous amount of good back home.”
“Maybe. Something like this has the potential for abuse, though.” When Cora glanced at her with a raised brow, she continued, “If someone who just wants his or her own personal harem gets hold of it, well, you can see how far off the rails this could go.”
“That’s a good point. It would have to be placed in the hands of people with the highest ethical standards.”
“Exactly. It’d be worth a try, though. I’d prefer something like this be used as a deterrent than the ol’ Mutually Assured Destruction thing from a century ago.”
“Me, too.” Cora got back to her feet. “Well, the metal seems to blend into the floor. It’s possible the device was inserted from beneath.”
“We should do a more thorough pass over the whole planet’s surface to see if there’s another way in. If there are other tunnels and chambers scattered around, we could find all kinds of cool stuff.”
“I’d love that.” Cora took one more look around the room and prepared to rejoin the rest of the all-AI team on the surface.
“Speaking of ‘love,’ wanna try this thing out?” Kim aimed an impish smile at her. “See if it affects robots and prosthetic bodies?”
“Well, it affected the others’ brain chemistry, so it’s probably not set up for machine life. If the gases work their way through your air intakes and into your brain, though, it could affect you.”
“Worried that we might fall in love?”
“Heh. I like our ‘friends with benefits’ relationship as it is. If we take it any farther, it might ruin what we have with a dozen people around the solar system.”
One of the other AI sent a message to Cora’sand Kim’s internal comlinks. “Cora, Zed here.”
“We found something interesting while we were taking a look around the perimeter of the structures.”
“Yes!” Kim thrust a fist into the air.
Cora turned back to the tunnel, where Timmy waited, recording everything with his cameras. “We’re on our way.”
“Oh, hell.” Cora stepped aside to let the rest of the team enter the chamber. Zed and the others had found a hatch and tunnel similar to the one leading to the Peacemaker, but this room was cavernous. The walls were lined with monitors and panels and consoles filled the center.
And the floor was littered with bodies. Some wore spacesuits of an unfamiliar design and were organic, from what she could see through the helmet visors, and others appeared to be robots. The organic aliens had holes burned through their torsos, apparently from directed-energy weapons, and the robots had been blasted into pieces.
Kim sighed. “Robot uprising?”
“Maybe. They could’ve also been the good guys defending this place from hostile aliens. Or a police team taking down a criminal operation.”
“I hope it was something like that.”
“Me, too.” Cora kneeled beside one of the organic bodies while the rest of the team fanned out across the chamber. “We can’t rule out the possibility that these aliens weren’t as lucky with their development of AI as humans were. If these guys insisted on treating their AI as servants instead of nurturing them and treating them as people like humans did, it may have led to the scenarios we’ve seen repeated in fiction so many times.”
“Hey, Timmy.” Kim motioned at him. “Be sure you get a shot of everything in here. Just don’t push any buttons like Drew did.”
“Heh. Yeah, I’m not gonna touch anything.”
“Boss,” Zed called from across the room, and Cora looked up to find him pointing at a bank of long, narrow rectangular windows and staring at her with his glowing green optics open wide. “Check this out.”
She hurried over, amplified the available light, and found each window covered a space just big enough for one of the aliens to fit into. Each one had a panel on it that had probably displayed information at one time, but now all were dark -- except the second from the top over on the left.
“Some of these are open,” Zed noted. “Others are occupied but are powered off and the occupants are dead. Looks like some were hit by whatever type of weapons these people were using, and others don’t have any apparent damage but failed anyway.”
“They could’ve simply broken down over time.” Kim shrugged. “We have no idea how long these guys have been here.”
“Or their systems shorted out from the energy discharges. Same result, either way.” Cora moved over to the single active window, leaned closer, and scanned it with her sensor suite.
The alien wore an armored spacesuit like the others, minus the helmet. It had two digitigrade legs and two pairs of arms. The head had a mouth that wasn’t too different from a human’s and four eyes, two side-by-side on each half of the face. It didn’t have a nose, just four slits between the eyes and mouth that could’ve been used for breathing. The top of the head was hairless and formed a crest. Each hand had two large fingers and a thumb.
“Huh. The skin texture and some of its features suggest it evolved from something similar to an arachnid.”
Kim peered through the window. “The facial structure looks feminine. Whether that means the same thing for this species as it does for humans, I couldn’t begin to guess. Probably shouldn’t make any assumptions.”
“Wonderful,” Timmy grumbled. “I was hoping we were gonna find hot alien women somewhere out here, and when we actually find a female, she’s a spider.” He shivered. “Spiders make my skin crawl. I can’t stand ’em.”
“I won’t tell her you said that.” Kim grinned and then cocked her head. “Hey, I’m detecting power fluctuations.”
“So am I. It’s like the power is fading and coming back rapidly.” Cora winced. “I hope we didn’t find her just in time to see her stasis pod malfunction and kill her like the others.” The readings changed and Cora held a hand up. “Hold on, it’s stabilizing. Pulse and respiration are increasing.”
“Whoa, is it waking up?” Timmy approached and pointed his cameras at the window. “Let’s just hope it’s one of the good guys.”
“Fade back a bit, everyone.” Kim rested her hand on her holstered pistol. “C’mon, Timmy, keep back. I shouldn’t have to remind you that the team’s safety is my responsibility.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s just, well, we’re making history.”
“Only if we survive. Be ready to haul ass if she starts shooting.”
Everyone stared at the alien as the minutes passed. Finally, its eyes opened and blinked several times. They had a red-orange bioluminescent glow and double pupils. They flicked around, taking everything in, confusion evident despite the nonhuman features. Finally, the alien’s eyes settled on Cora and opened wide, as did its mouth. This expression was just as clear as the previous one.
“Uh, Cora?” Kim motioned for her to back off a little more. “If her people were fighting these robots, she might think you’re one of them. A newer model, maybe.”
The alien’s eyes shifted again, aiming at the destroyed robots and the other dead aliens. The fear in her eyes gave way to rage and she snarled, displaying two-centimeter fangs. Her helmet unfolded from the back of her armor and closed around her head. She braced both left hands against the window and pushed.
Cora took another step back and held her hands up.
“Fall back to the shuttle!”
″Shiiiiit!” Timmy leaped off the edge of a shallow crater and dropped to the ground before turning to aim his helmet cameras back toward the retreating team and the pissed-off alien chasing them.
Cora sent a message to the rest of her team, ordering them to continue on, before turning to face the alien and holding her hands up again.
Come on, I’m clearly unarmed and trying to surrender!
Kim stood beside her with her rifle held ready. “You, too, Cora. Get back to the shuttle. I’ll cover you.”
“We can’t let our first contact with an alien species end with us killing one of them.” Cora motioned for Kim to lower the gun as their pursuer charged into sight, holding two of the weapons she’d scooped up from the chamber floor, one in her upper hands and the other in her lower. “For all we know, she could be the last survivor.”
The alien aimed and fired. Cora detected a flash that looked almost like a lightning bolt searing past the corner of her optics. She turned and found Zed tumbling to the crater floor, his right arm spinning away from him and scraping across the ground. He picked himself up and continued running.
“Let me try something.” Kim gripped her rifle by the barrel in her left hand, held it out to the side, and lowered it slowly to the ground. She held her hands up and backed away from the rifle. “Well, I don’t know how to make it any clearer than that.”
The alien sprinted toward them and continued firing. Cora grabbed Kim, pushed her ahead, and ran, thankful that shooting while in motion had thrown off the alien’s aim.
“I have an idea. Kim, let’s see if we can lead her into the Peacemaker chamber while the rest of the team gets to the shuttle and takes off.” Cora flinched from a near miss and changed course.
“You thinking of using it?”
“It’s worth a try. Whatever it takes to get my team to safety. Sooner or later, she’ll get a lucky shot or she’ll take the time to stop and aim properly.”
“We don’t know if it’ll work on you. My brain is human, so …”
“I’ll do it,” Timmy blurted. “I can’t believe I just said that!”
Cora spotted him a few meters ahead, almost at the shuttle, then darting to the left and bolting toward the first hatch they’d found.
“Get on the shuttle, Timmy.”
“Maybe we can pressurize the chamber and show the alien that I’m organic. And if that doesn’t work … well, at least we know that gadget will work on me.”
“That’s not your job,” Kim snapped. “We can bring someone down from the Sagan if it comes to that.”
“There’s no time!”
Kim grumbled under her breath. “I hate to say it, Cora, but I don’t see many options. We can’t get her to stand still long enough for Ludmila to pick someone and send him down here, and we can’t let her kill our team.”
“Believe me, the last thing I want is to end up married to an alien who’s evolved from a spider, but I’m not gonna just stand by while the rest of you are killed.” Timmy reached the hatch and pulled it open. “I’m the only one you’ve got handy who we know this thing will affect.”
Damn it! “Fine. Kim, find someplace to hide and wait for us to lure her in. Close the hatch behind us.” She turned and found the alien heading for the shuttle, glanced around and picked up a fist-sized rock, and chucked it at their pursuer. The rock bounced off the alien’s upper shoulder and made her stagger. She whipped back around to glare at Cora and pointed both weapons at her.
Cora charged through the hatch and joined Timmy at the far end of the tunnel. She faced the outer hatch just as the alien stormed through and marched toward them. Behind her, Kim darted through and closed it. The alien whipped around, glanced back and forth from her to Cora and Timmy, then back again.
She pointed one weapon at Kim and the other at Cora. Both of them raised their hands again and sank to their knees for good measure. Cora detected air flowing across her surfaces and turned to Timmy when it finished.
“We’ve got air.”
He pulled his helmet off and stepped in front of Cora. The alien froze and just stared at him for several seconds.
Come on, figure it out so we won’t have to screw your minds over with that device.
The alien moved as if taking deep, angry breaths.
“Shake my hand.” Cora moved her arm slowly toward him. “Let’s try whatever we can to show her we’re not enemies.”
He clasped her hand and smiled at the alien, making a point of not showing any teeth. The alien just stared at them. Behind her, Kim remained on her knees and kept her hands behind her head.
“Put your arm around my shoulders like we’re buddies.” Cora stood slowly and slipped her arm around him. He did the same and nodded at the alien.
“See? Friends. We want to be friends. We sure as hell don’t want you to murder us over something we had nothing to do with.”
The alien glared back at them and her arms trembled.
“Looks like it’s not working,” Kim sent over their internal comms.
“Yeah. I guess it’s last-resort time.” Cora turned around and opened the inner hatch, keeping her movements slow. She pointed at the pyramid. “Let’s hope she knows what that thing is.”
The alien stared at the device and all four shoulders sagged. She turned as if to glance behind her, hesitated, and lowered her gaze to the floor.
“I hope that’s a good sign,” Timmy whispered.
“She might be thinking about the people she lost. She looked in the other chamber’s general direction, at least. If nothing else, she might go through with this just so she won’t feel alone anymore.”
“And on that joyful note …” Timmy stepped into the chamber and waited in front of the Peacemaker. “I was watching when Drew activated it, so I know which button to push.”
Cora walked over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “You sure you want to do this?”
“We’ve already gone over it. I know I was only supposed to observe and record, but this is better than letting her kill us all. Besides, I guess this is as good a way as any to overcome my arachnophobia.”
Kim laughed softly. “That’s the spirit.”
The alien and Kim entered the chamber. Kim stood in the doorway and motioned for Cora to back away from the Peacemaker. She moved over to the wall, keeping the same distance as before, and contacted Zed.
“Are you okay?”
“I’ll live. One of the up sides of being a robot is that our limbs are easy to replace.”
“I’m relieved you’re okay. How about everyone else?”
“Intact. We’re on the shuttle and waiting for you guys.”
“We’re keeping the alien occupied. Tell Ludmila what happened and reassure her that we’re handling it.”
“Will do. See you soon.”
The alien’s helmet retracted and she trudged over to the device. She faced one of its sides, all four eyes brimming with tears, and placed her weapons on the floor. She flicked a distrustful look at Cora as she wiped her palms over her eyes. She let out a slow breath, removed her armor, and piled it beside the weapons. When finished, she sat on the floor in a meditative pose.
Timmy glanced between the alien’s legs. “Yep, looks female, alright. Though that’s probably where the eggs come out.”
“We don’t know that. We shouldn’t assume everything about her biology correlates to terrestrial organisms.”
“Fair enough.” Timmy shrugged and removed his spacesuit, then sat and mimicked the alien’s pose. “Well, here goes nothing.”
He pushed the button.
“She has a lovely smile.” Kim leaned against the wall and watched McBride and the alien embrace each other.
“She sure does.” He moved back just enough to reach up and stroke her cheek. “Never would’ve said this an hour ago, but she’s beautiful.”
“I take it you’re over your arachnophobia, then?” Cora grinned at him.
“How do you feel?”
“Weird. Very weird. I know I didn’t love her before I pushed that button, but I do now. I feel like we’ve been in love our entire lives.”
“I wonder if the effects are permanent or temporary.”
“I hope this is permanent. I want it to be.”
“Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be very effective if it was only temporary. The warring factions would be right back at it as soon as the effects wore off.”
“That gives me hope for the future, then.” Timmy leaned closer to the alien and pressed his lips gently against hers. She hesitated and a bewildered look crossed her face, then she closed her eyes and went along with it. When they parted, she smiled again.
“She’s cute.” Kim glanced at Cora. “Especially now that she’s not trying to kill us anymore.”
“Don’t get any ideas.” Timmy put his arms back around the alien and they held each other for a long moment before he stepped back and waved a hand at Cora and Kim. “I know you can’t understand me yet, but these two are friends. They don’t mean you any harm. We work together.”
She fixed another nervous stare at them, stepped forward, and held both left arms in front of Timmy.
“When we get back to the ship,” Cora said, “maybe you can show her some of the stuff you’ve recorded. Show her how friendly we are with each other.”
Kim nodded. “I’m hoping you got a shot of Drewfus falling off the ramp and Cora helping him up.”
“I did, actually. That’s a good idea.” Timmy rested his hand on Cora’s shoulder, glanced at his new girlfriend, and nodded. “It’s going to be okay.”
“We should head back to the Sagan. I’ve requested another shuttle with an all-human crew so she won’t be surrounded by synths on the way back. Once she learns our language and we learn hers, I’m hoping we can find out what happened to her people and who they were.”
Timmy put his spacesuit back on. The alien watched him uncertainly, then put her own gear on. Kim nudged Cora’s shoulder as they sealed their helmets and Timmy held the alien’s lower-left hand.
“It’s been a hell of a day. How about we check on the other four lovebirds and call it a night? Give our new friend a little time to get used to us.”
“Sounds good. We shouldn’t try to pressure her into communicating before she’s comfortable around everyone.”
“Yeah.” Kim fired a huge grin at her before entering the tunnel. “In the meantime, you get to fill the Colonel in on how our reporter got involved in this.”
Oh, whee. “It’s good to know there are more adventures to look forward to.”