From the author: A science-fiction horror story originally published in Dimension6, issue 2 (ed. Keith Stevenson, 4th July 2014). When a strange vessel drifts into Earth orbit, one astronaut aboard the ISS gets to make history as the first human to make contact with it.
(c) Alan Baxter
It made orbit three days ago. We knew it was coming, of course, had tried to make contact, checked for any signs by which we could learn more. But it emitted no signature, no radio, nothing. Dead. Its course was set to enter a perfect low eccentric orbit and that’s exactly what it did, without apparent power, without fanfare.
Even after it settled into orbit, it resisted every kind of scan. Earth’s response was unanimous; someone would have to go to it.
So here I wait, on the International Space Station, praying for the call. No one has more EVA hours than me. It’s a perfect alignment of fortune that I’m here right now. My children will be so proud. I imagine them in their mother’s small house in Voskresensk, avidly watching every update. Irene will frown and shake her head — she divorced me for reasons I grudgingly accept — but inside she will be pleased, warm with love for me, despite her protestations, even if she can no longer be with me. Imagine if I had retired after my last mission, or the one before like she insisted. Being an astronaut these days is not enough to mark your place in history, she was right there, but this? This will put my name in the books forever. This will make my whole life mean something.
If they pick me to go.
‘Anatoly, quit staring out the port. It’s not like you’ll see it from here.’
I turn and give Sally Munday a rueful smile. ‘But it’s there. We know it’s out there.’
‘Give me a hand with these rotations.’ She indicates one of the numerous NASA zero-g projects. ‘Take your mind off the wait.’
I nod, push off to drift over to her. She grins at me. ‘You know they’ll pick you.’
‘Nothing is certain,’ I mutter, but return her smile.
‘Novikov, you might wanna get up here.’ Salieri’s voice is officious — he takes Mission Commander status seriously — but I hear amusement in it.
Heart racing, I unbuckle and push away from my bunk, thumb the comm. ‘Coming.’ I couldn’t sleep anyway.
Salieri turns to face me as I float towards him. Munday’s already there, a smile she can’t hide pulling at the corners of her mouth. And Tsung is turning gentle circles, refusing to look at me. I can’t help my own grin spreading at the sight of them.
I open my mouth to ask and Salieri holds up one finger, flicks the comm toggle. ‘He’s here, Control.’
The voice from Earth is as clear as if they were in the next room. ‘Wanna go greet our visitors, Anatoly? I hope you got some flowers or wine to take ’em.’
‘Yes, yes!’ I say, laughing, but Control’s response is lost in the whoops from the crew.
‘Please repeat, Control,’ Salieri says, waving everyone silent.
‘A shuttle is launching at 0600 EST tomorrow. It will rendezvous with ISS and you will join the crew on board. They are prepared to explore the vessel, but you will make the first approach, tethered. We’ll have to take next steps from there based on what we find.’
‘Received and understood, Control. Thank you!’
I try to ignore the blood rushing in my ears while they detail specifics and organise times for rendezvous. I’m going. I’m really going. I’ll be the first human to approach an alien vessel, even if it turns out to be long dead and dormant.
The wait for the shuttle seems interminably long, but it finally arrives. I board, nervous, excited, and we move towards the silent visitor that hangs massive, smooth and silver above our world, a glistening arrowhead of the unknown. We match orbit.
It is truly colossal, ten times the size of our shuttle, maybe more. It seems utterly featureless from around fifty metres away, glistening in the dark. The sun will clear Earth soon and we’ll get a proper look at it.
From the newly adjacent perspective, every possible reading is taken again. The shuttle crew jabber at each other and Control, talking in multiple languages to their representatives all gathered at Houston for the occasion. A truly international effort. But not surprisingly, it seems the Americans have the upper hand in managing us. No matter, let them do their tests and readings.
They finally finish. Still nothing. My turn.
I suit up and run through EVA checks with practised ease. As I move out into the loading bay, the huge gull-wing doors above me split silently and yawn open. My view is filled with smooth silver, I can see no blackness of space around it. When it comes time to connect the tether, I take a last chance.
‘Control, let me jet free. You know I can use this minipak like I’m flying.’
‘Negative, Anatoly. No one is questioning your expertise, but this first inspection will be connected. You’ve got a long tether, don’t worry.’
‘Received.’ I attach the cable, double check the locking mechanism and pass it through the toggle under my left arm to keep it behind me, away from interfering with my hands. ‘I’m ready.’
‘Captain Anatoly Novikov, this is Mission Control. You are go to clear shuttle bay. Repeat, you are go.’
‘Received, Control. EVAC in three. . . two. . . one. . .’
I push away from the shuttle, boosting a fraction of jet to push me along and slowly cover the distance between the shuttle and the alien craft. My breath is loud in my ears, my heart racing. I try to calm myself before Control panic over my signs and call me back. As I clear the doors, black space appears suddenly either side of me. Earth is a dark mass to my left, speckled with the electric nightlights of a thousand human cities. I can see dawn creeping around the globe, the sun will emerge any moment. My view ahead is only silver.
I reach out, my gloved hands meet alien technology and I’ve done it. I’ve made history. My name is eternal.
‘Contact made,’ I say, even though Control can see everything through my helmet-cam. The lights either side of my faceplate reflect on the surface. It’s clean and smooth up close, like brushed aluminium.
I run my hands over its gleaming surface, imagining the feel of it, as dozens of technicians on board the shuttle and below on the ground, scan for every possible emanation.
‘Bring up the meter, Novikov.’ Control’s voice makes me jump, but I quickly shake off the surprise. I’m here to do a job.
I lift the sensor from a waist hook, touch it to the vessel’s surface, trigger it to read. I see nothing, but information floods back to the shuttle for the crew there to analyse. I slowly walk hand over hand, scanning as I go. I see perfectly straight seams, tiny striations that could be doors, hatches, but they are little more than scratches in the perfect smoothness.
‘Control,’ I say, running a finger along one mark. ‘Is camera clarity enough for you to get this?’
‘Confirmed, Anatoly. Do you recognise any pattern to it?’
I push back from the surface a little to see if there’s any kind of recognisable shape to the markings, but see no particular order to them. They’re hard to spot from even a couple of metres away.
Another voice comes through. ‘Control, all sensors, every scan, every bandwidth of energy, sound and light, turning up empty.’ That’s Giroux on the shuttle. She sounds disappointed, and I can’t help feeling the same way. ‘This bird is dead in the water,’ she says.
I jet gently back to the vessel, to touch it again. Hands and toes against its shining skin, the Earth a lightening presence behind me as dawn moves across the surface. I slowly drift along.
And suddenly gape in wonder. My stomach tightens and I feel a moment’s nausea before the excitement rushes through me again. ‘Control, you getting this?’
Only as the angle of light changes with our rotation and the sun’s rays hit a certain vector does the translucency become apparent. I can see inside the ship, through one large rectangular panel about a third of the way up the huge sloping top of the vessel. I jet again to reach it, counter thrust to stabilise.
‘Novikov, we see it. Hold steady please.’
It’s dim in there, and still. Banks of consoles line the space, the architecture rounded, flowing, organic. It all looks uncanny, not quite right, too big. Which makes sense as the alien’s hands are long and thin, each of its three fingers the length of my forearm, its thumb central to the base of the palm. Its skin is dark and shrivelled tight over narrow bones. Desiccated like an Egyptian mummy, frozen by the empty nothing of deep space. It must be eight or nine feet tall.
Its face, withered tight to a conical skull, appears almost calm. It wears an iridescent one-piece suit of striking blue as it sits in what must be a pilot’s chair, in repose, hands resting palms-up in its lap atop a restraining harness. Before it on the console is a square of pale material; an alloy of some kind, or maybe a plastic, etched with a flowing written language.
A sign? A maker’s mark? A last message before life-support ran out?
It’s the only feature on the smooth surfaces. The area I can see bears all the hallmarks of a bridge, several other chairs before blank stations, but the consoles have no screens or controls, no switches or lights, even long dead and dark. This bridge takes up only a tiny percentage of the ship’s overall volume. A passage leads away into shadow behind the pilot, deep into the vessel. What might be back there?
Early reports tried to estimate where it might have originated, how long it may have travelled. Did it power down recently or many years ago? Judging by the state of the occupant, I’m guessing it either ran out of energy for some reason, or perhaps there was a breach. A malfunction. It could have drifted like this for thousands of years. Was it slowed somehow, out there? Was it aiming for us, or has it fallen into orbit completely by chance after losing power and life support aeons ago, drifting aimlessly until now?
They’ve washed up on our shore, either by design or chance. Who are they? Where are they from? We have to accept that we may never know. But we have work to do, to search this craft for clues, details, history. To try to understand.
We are not alone. This is a constructed thing, and it’s occupied. There has been other life, even if this is the last of it, long dead.
We’re not alone.
Shocked, awed, disappointed, excited, I force steadiness into my voice.
‘Orders, Control?’ I ask and my voice is thin, reedy even to my own ears in the confines of the helmet.
‘Keep your head steady please, we’re collating.’
Collating. Freaking out more like, as they watch the images sent back, try to decide what next.
‘Anatoly, move to your right please. Can you see further down the central aisle at the back?’
I do as they ask, shifting position hand over hand across the vessel’s strange viewport, tiny in the vast expanse of metal. My tether drifts snakelike back to the open shuttle bay. There’s not much slack left. My helmet lights and camera penetrate weakly into the interior. Our orbit brings us further into the direct light of the sun and more detail becomes apparent on the smooth surface. A line of pale luminescence below the strangely transparent screen seems to stand out as the light hits it directly. I run one gloved finger along it from one end and it gets brighter as my finger passes, pale blue. Mesmerised, I keep going. How far will this light extend?
‘Novikov, please stop what you’re doing.’
A panel some fifty centimetres square lights up at the corner of the transparent window beneath my suddenly trembling hand.
‘Don’t move!’ Control’s voice is tight. I can hear numerous overlapping conversations in the background as whoever is talking to me muffles his mic. I imagine everyone trying to get their opinion heard, their agenda addressed. This will be messy, internationally.
I comply, freezing in place, but my hand on the square of light begins to sink downwards. ‘Er, Control. . .’
‘We see it, remove your hand.’
‘Massive EM spike as he made that line light up,’ someone says near the mic.
I lift my palm away but the square continues to sink into the surface, almost liquid in its smooth passage. There’s a burst of tiny particles from the bottom edge of the rectangular screen and it pops up a fraction. I panic briefly. If there’s atmosphere inside it will blow out and push me away. But I’m tethered, I’ll be okay. The large section of translucent material continues to rise, hinging up along its top edge. There’s no blast of anything from inside, no atmosphere in there at all. I guess they never expected anyone to trigger this hatch from the outside in space. Is this a service mechanism? Can this vessel enter planetary atmosphere? Make a hard landing?
‘Don’t move, Anatoly. Hold for instructions.’
My hands rest on the edge of the now open portal, perched on the precipice between everything we’ve ever known as a species and everything that will now come. This is a single moment of history, a tipping point. There’s no return. I hope they let me in, please, let this be me. Anatoly Novikov, the man who made first contact. Not just with the vessel, but with the occupants! Even with a long dead alien, these events will be taught along with my name in schools forever more. I breathe patiently, keeping my signals calm as voices stutter and hiss and rage and cajole in my ear. I’m sure they won’t let me, they’ll argue about who gets to have the honour. It’ll be one of the people behind me on the shuttle, even though I’m right here.
Unless I make the decision for them. . .
‘Anatoly, what are you doing? Novikov, stand down immediately, cease all progress!’
Even in the graceful weightlessness of space, these suits make us clumsy, but I’m a master of spacewalking. That’s why they chose me, after all.
I make a clean entry through the portal and manoeuvre myself down next to the alien pilot. Standing beside the chair his size is overwhelming. He’s half again as tall as me, twice as wide. A giant. I have no idea why I’m assuming it’s a he, but as he has no obvious breasts it’s my best guess. The assumption he’s mammalian is equally arbitrary.
‘I’m inside,’ I say aloud, stating the obvious. ‘I may as well have a look around.’
More muffled arguments.
‘Anatoly, do no more than turn to face the corridor that leads away from the occupant. Let your helmet lights show us what lies that way. Do not, repeat do not, move from your current location.’
I tear myself away from leaning back to see the pilot and turn ninety degrees to shine a light on dead shadows that haven’t been illuminated in millennia. The corridor is more than tall enough for these beings, maybe four metres or so from floor to ceiling, the walls curved, smoothly sweeping around to make an elliptical passage. It slopes gently down, disappearing into shadow after only a couple of metres.
‘Can’t see much,’ I say. ‘I’ll be able to see more if I move towards. . .’
‘Negative, you are not authorised to advance. Hold for instruction.’
More frantic discussion ensues. My place in history is assured, but I can easily show them more. I bend my knees and press gently into the bridge floor with my feet, rising slowly a metre or so. As I lift, I angle myself to light along the corridor. It ends in a door about ten metres along, two more doors, facing each other, halfway down each wall. Protruding from the left are two long, thin legs, suspended a foot or so off the ground, narrow feet clad in black, thin-soled boots. I gasp at the sight, my heart rate increasing again.
‘Novikov, do not move.’
I put a hand to the bulkhead above me to hold my position. Two occupants. Two ancient beings. How many more behind that door at the end? How many more in those rooms to either side. A vessel this size could carry dozens, even fifty or more. A hundred?
‘There’s not much to see,’ I say. ‘Let me explore a little further while I’m here. I should gather all I can so the next expedition can be better prepared. Better equipped.’
I’m aching to go on, desperate to know. The first human to encounter alien life, to board the vessel of an extraterrestrial species. This is what drove me to become an astronaut, this possibility of more, out there. I knew I would likely never live to travel to alien worlds, but by the time I was old enough to understand that I was already hooked. Making it to the ISS became my life dream and I realised it. And now here’s my reward! The alien world has come to me.
A scuffle and static are harsh for a second in my ear, then a new voice comes through. ‘Novikov, proceed with caution along the corridor.’
Yes! This new voice has the weight of authority and experience behind it. The man is clearly used to taking charge, getting things done. He’s almost certainly military. Strong US accent, unsurprisingly. No matter, he’s telling me to explore.
I give a gentle push and drift to the mouth of the passage, careful to keep to one side so my tether doesn’t disturb the pilot. It’s nearly taut, maybe another fifteen metres or so at most. I could always unclip, jet free if they let me go further. I use the ceiling to palm-walk along until I get to the doors facing each other. The owner of the legs is another alien indistinguishable from the pilot to my untrained eye. He wears the same shimmering blue one-piece suit. The room beyond is banked with smooth, round-edged consoles. They’re featureless like the bridge, no lights, screens, keyboards. Perhaps these creatures see differently to us and those surfaces are covered with touchscreens. Perhaps they project holographic interfaces. Impossible to know but the speculation is intoxicating. What might we learn from this? What technology might we gain? It’s possible I could captain a mission to alien worlds yet. I will not be retiring any time soon.
I turn about slowly, project my lights into the opposite room and it’s identical to the first, but unoccupied.
‘Shall I progress to the door at the end?’ I move gently towards it even as I ask, pushing my luck along with my body.
There’s a sudden and heated exchange at control, the military big-mouth not muffling his mic as the previous man did.
‘We need to know what killed them!’ A woman’s voice, high with stress.
‘The vessel is spaced, open to vacuum and powerless. They died from lack of atmosphere and life support.’
‘How is it powerless? That fucking hatch opened! Did you not see the fucking thing light up?’
‘So it has residual power. . .’
Another voice. ‘We need to know more. The astronaut himself said he’s willing. . .’
The woman again. ‘Willing to what? Die?’
The military man I had been speaking to blusters through. ‘To die? He has plenty of air!’
‘What killed those aliens?’ the woman screams.
The voices disappear into muffled and incomprehensible noise again. Someone must have finally covered Mr Military’s mic. But I have a sudden and visceral fear. The deaths of these aliens didn’t bother me at all until now. I assumed the vessel had lost power and drifted, the occupants dying once life support gave out, subsequently preserved by the void of space. But the frantic owner of that last voice had clearly been trying to make herself heard for some time and she raises a very salient point. Something so obvious, yet I’d missed it in my excitement. The ship isn’t powerless, the hatch opened, the panel lit up. If it had power to do that, why not life support? Maybe it has reserve power, but no more air. Do they need air? Or they ran out of food or water.
Or something else killed them.
My heart is hammering as I bump up against the top of the door at the end of the corridor. I use my hands to walk myself down, plant my boots on the floor. It’s a pointless position in zero-g, but it’s a calming manoeuvre, something a little more familiar, to feel as though I’m standing on solid ground.
My comm bursts suddenly to life, Mr Military again. ‘Novikov, please return to the body in the doorway. Get close and see if you can slowly turn it so we can try to observe any cause of death beyond a total lack of atmosphere.’ His voice is heavy with sarcasm. I can imagine him giving the frantic woman a look of disdain as he speaks but it would appear a compromise of sorts has been reached.
I turn myself and push gently on the wall to drift back to the prone alien. My gut turns to water as something shifts beneath my hand as I move away. ‘Control, I just felt something.’ I reach for the side wall, drag a hand and turn myself back. A panel of light is sinking beside the end door.
‘Novikov, what the hell did you do?’
‘I just pushed off to get back where you wanted me.’
I’m drifting backwards towards the bridge as the small square of pale light stops moving and the door splits down the centre, each half retracting into its side of the wall. I feel a soft buffet of something, a last pocket of contained atmosphere, barely enough to shift me. My lights shine into a large room, striking highlights and shadows off a chaos of confusing items, stirred into balletic motion by the opening door. A maelstrom of destruction.
Things gently twist and float, all manner of unrecognisable detritus, but I’m sure I see something like a drinking glass, something else like part of a chair and then a long arm with a three-fingered hand at one end and a ragged stump at the other. A huge table is fixed to the floor through the centre of the room, more chairs, massive to my human eye, scattered and broken around. More body parts drift among the debris, dozens of them, and frozen globular lumps that can only be blood or other violently expelled bodily fluids. I bark a cry of shock as a huge alien head pops disembodied under the top of the door and drifts slowly towards me. It rotates grotesquely, large eyes and broad mouth stretched wide in a universal expression of agony and terror.
My breathing is loud, harsh and rapid, my pulse pounds in my ears and I realise there are voices shouting at me.
‘Novikov, calm down! Clearly something violent has occurred here, but it’s all aeons dead, remember? It’s been left to the void of space for centuries or more. Control yourself. Calm down, man, it’s all right.’ Mr Military has obviously talked people down from a panic before. His tone and clear authority as much as the words start to settle me.
‘Maybe. . .’ I swallow, try again. ‘Maybe those two up front managed to contain whatever was happening back there and they turned off life support deliberately. Sacrificed themselves, perhaps?’
‘Yes, possibly. Been drifting ever since. Good thinking, Anatoly, well done. Keep breathing, man. Calm down.’
The woman’s voice cuts through again, far calmer but edged with horror. ‘We need to get specialists up there.’
Mr Military barks a laugh. ‘Know any specialists on alien violence in outer space, do you?’
‘We’d better find some,’ she snaps. ‘But Anatoly Novikov is not one.’
There’s a moment’s pause, then, ‘Well, yes. You’re right there. Regroup at the shuttle and plan our next move. Novikov, you hearing me? You calm?’
I swallow again, my throat is so dry. ‘Yes, sir,’ I lie. I’m anything but calm.
‘Good man. Now get yourself to that door and press that lit panel again. See if it closes the door. Then back out and see if you can close the front hatch the same way. If not, try to physically press that hatch closed. We need everything in there contained, don’t want it all drifting out into orbit. Got all that.’
I use the wall to get back to the door at the end of the corridor, wincing as I manoeuvre clumsily past the alien head spiralling gently. As I reach for the lit panel, sunlight lances down through the bridge and illuminates the room full of carnage. Extra detail only makes it worse, adding colour and clarity to what can only have been a hectic, depraved frenzy of violence. My hand freezes as a shadow flickers at the back of the debris filled space. ‘Did you see that?’ I whisper.
‘Hold steady, Novikov. See what?’
‘Something moved in there.’
‘All kinds of stuff floating about, don’t worry about it. Try the door.’
Trembling wracks my body as sunlight passes over more darkened patches, like pools of oil across the floor and against bulkheads. Again that flicker and something peels up from the deck, another unravels from a wall. Then more, ballooning up from flatness as if filling with the sunlight itself, triggered somehow into sinuous movement by those bright rays. More and more shadows move. They shift left and right, first a few, then half a dozen, then more than I can count, pulsing across the large room like a colossal school of squid. All heading directly for me.
‘Close that door, man!’ Mr Military hollers.
The sun reveals three passages leading away from the other end of the room and more glistening black things pour out of each one. The shadows resolve in the light, shining, hard-looking creatures but moving with a supple fluidity like flexible black glass. They’re at least as big as I am, bulging in front, trailing dozens of long thin tentacles that writhe as they whip through the vacuum, jetting some dark, inky gas from among those flailing appendages. There’s no possibility of sound in a vacuum, but I hear them screaming in my head, not through my ears. My brain pulses with their ravenous hunger, their desire to follow the light, to be again. My hand is hammering the panel of light as the first of them near them door, their rounded front splitting open into toothless, gaping maws.
I realise I’m screaming and Mr Military is yelling about doors and nothing is happening and they slam into me. Everything is a tumult of motion and panic, the corridor whips around me as I spin hectically, bounce off bulkheads. I’m expecting one of those horrible mouths to close on me any second, but no pain comes and I bounce against the pilot and something else hits me and then again. And all the time, the desperate, frantic emotion of these things rips through my mind. I tumble out into space and dozens of frenziedly swimming creatures stream pass me, single-minded in purpose as they shoot straight for the shining blue-green surface below. So many! How can there possibly be so many? How did they survive? What the fuck are they?
They jet with tremendous speed and begin to hit the Earth’s atmosphere and flare with heat but don’t appear to burn up, streaking deep and beyond my sight. They can survive dormancy in the void of space for aeons, they can survive atmospheric re-entry. Can anything damage them? Do Earth’s defences have any chance at all? There’s panic and screaming and shouting and some of it is mine and some of it is coming from Control and my tether catches and pulls me up sharp, far from the shuttle and the alien ship. And still the creatures swarm out, pouring from the tiny aperture like blood spraying from a rent artery. They exude their ravenous hunger, a desperate need to get to the planet below, so desperate they can’t even pause to take me on their way by. Perhaps my suit hides my life from them.
Stilled at last by the taut tether, I watch wide-eyed and finally silent as flare after flare after flare punches through Earth’s atmosphere, a seemingly endless fiery rain. My name will definitely go down in history, but a tiny, terrified part of me wonders if this might be where human history ends.
This story originally appeared in Dimension6.