Harlan had followed a lot of weird orders aboard the Kingfisher, these were strange times; but “Convert the mess hall into a secure conference room for potentially hostile giant centipedes” had to rank right up at the top of his “WTF?” scale.
An irksome task was made all the more frustrating for having Davis buzzing around him, offering hints and suggestions which ranged from the obvious to the impossible to the utterly ludicrous.
“We might impress our R’Dokken visitors if we laid out some sea-food, like a finger buffet, perhaps,” Davis said, his voice becoming more pompous the more effort Harlan put into tuning him out. The XCO grinned wolfishly. “Or should that be-”
“If you say “Should that be a tentacle buffet?” I’m going to rip out your eyeballs, dust them in sugar, and use them as our hors d’ouvres; clear?”
Davis lapsed into a sulky silence, which suited Harlan just fine. Sod food, he thought; they’ll just have to bring a packed lunch.
Having dragged another of the functional metal tables into place, he stood back to admire his handiwork.
The only thing Harlan really knew for sure about a conference room was that it would have a big table. Clutching to this one flake of knowledge like a drowning man to driftwood, he had constructed the largest such furnishing his materials and common sense would allow. Six tables, each large enough to fit a dozen people around them, had been pushed together in the middle of the room. He had set three chairs on one side, one each for himself, Captain Merriman, and Davis. After some thought he had left the opposite side clear. It wasn’t as if the R’Dokken would be able to use chairs, and although in theory he could give each one a long snake of cushions to lounge upon, Davis had claimed it might “offend their warrior honour.” Harlan hadn’t argued, since it saved him some work. Why the hell couldn’t Jaime do this? Harlan could run the bridge, and Jaime could worry about offending aliens with putting a soup spoon where the fish knife should go.
Sighing at his misfortune, he activated his communicator.
“Summers to Captain Merriman. We’re ready here, sir.”
“Nick of time, Lieutenant-Commander. We’ll be there in a moment.”
Severing the link, Harlan turned to find Davis slumped sulkily in his chair, head in his hands. Harlan sat down, and began drumming his fingers on the table.
“Could you not do that, please,” said Davis through his fingers.
“Where would the fun be in that?” Harlan replied.
It was then that the door slid open. Harlan and Davis leapt to attention.
Captain Merriman was the first through, saluting the security guard Harlan had assigned outside the door as he did so. Immediately, he stood to one side, allowing the first “ambassador” to enter.
Harlan had met R’Dokken before, of course, probably more than most humans, but it still made him catch his breath and sweat a little each time he repeated the experience.
The oddly graceful sea creature was gone, and in its place stood an armoured monstrosity. Endless pairs of thick black segmented legs supported a dark-red body, divided into dozens of sections studded irregularly with lethal-looking spines. The helmet looked almost insectoid; its centre was taken up by a huge compound eye (actually a complex grouping of pressure and sonic sensors, according to XI), around which three thin strips of pale yellow had been painted. The massive feeder tentacles were currently coiled like a butterfly’s tongue.
Once the first alien finally cleared the door frame, it scuttled to the table, and coiled itself up like a snake; holding to the table with its feeder tentacles. A few moments later its companion entered the room and followed suit, taking up position a few feet from the first. It was smaller than its partner, and it lacked the yellow stripes on its helmet. Perhaps they were an expression of rank
The last to enter was another security guard, his face studiously neutral, who stopped beside and then closed the door.
“At ease, gentlemen,” Gabe said, as he strode to his seat. “Let’s get down to business, shall we?”
The humans settled down, and faced their alien guests. Translating their body language was almost impossible, but Harlan sensed something odd about the creatures’ mood, something he hadn’t seen before. They seemed to be gripping the table more tightly than was necessary, and their tentacles kept twitching where they met the helmet.
What the Hell was going on?
“I hope you don’t mind if we skip the pleasantries,” Gabe said levelly; “I’m no diplomat, and I’d rather we just get to the point.”
“Of course, Captain,” came a flat voice from a small grille beneath the first alien’s helmet. “You must understand, however, that this is not an easy process for us. Neither one of us have ever met a human outside the waters of battle.”
The Captain’s mouth twitched in distaste. “I appreciate your position, Mr Ambassador, and your… candour. I’ll make this quick and easy. Where is the prospecting team you kidnapped in the Edelweiss system?”
A wave of motion ran down the ambassador’s legs.
““Abducted”, Captain? Your prospectors were attempting to mine an asteroid within R’Dokken territory; we were well within our rights to detain them.”
“Edelweiss is disputed territory,” Harlan pointed out, “So let’s not start flinging our “rights” about, Mr Ambassador”.
Both aliens let go of the table, and reared up on their coils. Harlan could translate that, at least.
“We will not be accused in our own territory,” the ambassador said, the lifeless tones of the translator betraying no sign of its obvious anger. “This meeting is an obvious mistake.”
“Honoured guests, please,” Davis said calmly. “Our fellow has no intention of accusation. Through accuracy is truth obtained, is this not so?”A pause.
“It is so,” the ambassador agreed at last.
“None at this table wish to contest your claims to the Edelweiss system, but I am sure you agree that our treaty stipulates the return of any interlopers to human space for trial.”
The xenocs settled themselves again.
“It is so.”
Harlan raised an eyebrow. Loathe as he was to admit it, he was more than a little impressed. Obviously Davis’ infuriating personality didn’t translate across the species divide.
“So?” asked the captain. “How are we going to do this? A rendezvous here, or are you wanting us to head on down to the port?”
Another pause. The tremors in the alien’s tentacles seemed to grow slightly.
“Your fellows are dead.”
The captain frowned.
“Careful, Ambassador. Callum and I have been friends a long time. If this is some kind of R’Dokken joke, then-”
“This is not our humour, Captain. Through accuracy is truth obtained.”
There was a long moment while Gabe stared hard at the alien.
“Well, if it isn’t a joke, then it’s an act of war,” he said at last, each word slow and precise, ensuring there could be no misunderstanding. “In accordance with our treaty, I shall declare you under a flag of truce, and allow you to leave, after which-”
The aliens raised themselves up once more.
“You accuse us again?”
“What?” Gabe spat.
“You didn’t kill them?” asked Harlan, just as confused.
For a moment, the aliens begin to twist their bodies, like cobras in a basket. It was as impossible to read as their earlier gestures; but Davis’ face had completely drained of blood.
Then, abruptly, the aliens seemed to calm down.
“We found your fellows dead upon the asteroid they had infested,” the ambassador told them.
“Then why tell drag us all the way out here?” asked the captain, clearly confused. “Just what the Hell are you up to?”
Rather than reply, the ambassador made a chopping motion with the end of one feeder tentacle.
In response, its companion reared up, and brought itself down on the table.
Automatically the three men jumped to their feet. The Security Guard by the door drew his pistol.
“Stand down!” Gabe shouted.
The R’Dokken on the table began to spasm violently, once; twice. On the third twist, its suit disgorged a device quite unlike anything Harlan had ever seen before. In shape it bore some resemblance to a sea-urchin, a foot in diameter. Rather than spines, however, it was studded with twisted hexagonal prisms, predominantly black but fading to creamy white at the tips. Every few seconds, the prisms would twist themselves into a new configuration. The effect was more than a little unsettling.
For a moment, no-one spoke, as their brains tried to comprehend what they were seeing.
Then:”I’m sorry to be the one asking the obvious question,” Harlan said at last, “But what in the name of God is that?”
“Your fellows unearthed this artifact on the asteroid,” was the response. “It is for this reason that your presence here was desired. Have you seen such a device before?”
The captain shook his head. Then, perhaps realising the aliens would have no idea what the gesture meant, he said:”No. And I’m in absolutely no mood for a R’Dokken puzzle box. For aliens who find prolonged human contact so difficult, you seem to be having a great deal of trouble getting to the point.”
“We believe that the entity or entities responsible for your fellows’ deaths was or were attempting to acquire or perhaps reacquire this object. We do not know what makes this artifact so important, nor in fact what it is. We have never encountered such a device before. We had hoped that perhaps you had.”
“You seem awfully interested in how a few dozen humans died,” Harlan pointed out acidly. “I find that surprising, when you consider how many people your kind has murdered over the last decade.”
The R’Dokken rippled its legs, but in a very different manner to its expression earlier. It was hard to keep up with all these strange physical signals.
“Your speech betrays limited vision, human. Had our labourers been the one to find this object on the asteroid, it would have been they who lost their lives.”
Davis wrenched a notebook from his pocket, and began scribbling furiously.
The captain nodded, finally understanding.
“And for all you know, this could happen again.”
The R’Dokken stopped moving its appendages.
Davis finished writing, and thrust the pad under the captain’s nose. Harlan craned his neck to read what was on it.
HOW BAD MUST IT HAVE BEEN OUT THERE IF THE KELLAREALM XENOCS ARE WORRIED ABOUT IT?
The captain nodded. Harlan wasn’t sure whether the gesture was aimed at the R’Dokken, or at Davis.
“Right; I’m convinced. Mr Summers, go grab a portable terminal, and we’ll see if we can’t find something in the ‘base about our little friend here.”
“Yes sir,” Harlan said, making a great show of eyeing the aliens with suspicion before leaving the room.
The nearest terminal couldn’t be more than two minutes away; he’d be back in five.
What could happen in five minutes?
Klaxons sounded the length of the ship, screaming at Jessa to respond.
She felt sweat running down her face, fatigue worming through her legs. She had only been running for a few minutes, but her ponderous, claustrophobic bio-hazard suit choked her with its heat and exhausted with its heaviness. It would be better to slow down, she knew, risk arriving at the trauma scene a few moments later, rather than too worn out to perform her job.
Except that it was her husband down there.
Reaching the blast door that separated her from Harlan, she swore loudly. There was no way she could get inside until she sealed off this section of corridor, and she couldn’t do that until the rest of the medical team arrived.
It only took a few moments for them to rejoin her, but each second that dragged by increased the pressure inside her chest.
Eventually Doctor Mtenga and the nurse whose name Jessa could never remember ambled into view.
The moment both had were close enough, Jessa sent the blast doors crashing down, cutting them off from the rest of the ship.
“Hey!” shouted the nurse; the door had clashed against the deck less than three feet from her foot.
Jessa shrugged dispassionately, an expression more or less lost through the suit. She took a deep breath of stale, recycled air.
“Let’s go to work.”
She turned to the door in front of her, and punched her override code into its keypad. The door swung upward, finally revealing the canteen corridor.
Even after what happened later, Jessa was never able to clear the image of what she saw from her mind, or from her nightmares
Desperate though she was to get to her husband, it was the body of the R’Dokken that caught her eye first. It lay sprawled across the metal floor, part of its length still inside the canteen through a jagged hole in the door. Thick yellow blood surrounded the creature, and Jessa could make out several vicious holes in its flank. The creature twitched periodically, but it was clearly dead.
Harlan lay a few metres further down the corridor. Jessa gasped inside her helmet when she saw him. Clearly unconscious, her husband lay against the corridor’s wall. His right leg bore a crude bandage and tourniquet, fashioned from someone’s uniform and a large sliver of metal from the ruin of the canteen’s door, but even so his wound was horribly obvious. The limb was awash with dark red blood; Jessa could almost see the stain on his bandage growing.
Fixed to his face was an emergency breather. A security guard crouched over him, her left jumpsuit arm torn away, her face similarly enclosed. She was watching Harlan’s face intently through the breather’s window.
Jessa sprinted over to her patient as quickly as her suit would allow, Mtenga and the nurse following.
“What happened here?” she asked breathlessly through the speaker on her suit, kneeling beside Harlan. He hadn’t been sick in his breather, thank God he appeared to be breathing normally. With that checked, she began to inspect his leg.
“Fucking ‘pede smashed right through the door,” the guard growled through her own speaker. The name on her breast read Kittrich. “Knocked me against the wall with one of those huge fuck-off tentacles. Took me a few moments to come round. Saw Summers chuck a terminal at the ‘pede; hit the fucker, too. Damn thing just reared up and landed on right top of him. Summers got stabbed by one of its legs. I heard the sound as it pulled out of him; it was fucking horrible. So I pulled out my Gorgon and started shooting. Kept going ‘til it fell over.”
“This work yours?” Jessa asked, nodding at the tourniquet. It was inexpertly applied, but still, it had likely saved Harlan’s life, or at least his leg. “Nurse; slapseal please.”
The guard nodded at her missing sleeve.
“First aid 101 to the rescue. I heard the bio-hazard alarm, so I grabbed some breathers for me and him. After that, I sorted out his leg, best I could anyway.”
Jessa carefully removed the impromptu dressing, prompting a fresh bout of bleeding which she staunched with the slapseal handed her by the nurse.
“What about the captain and Davis?” she asked.
“They’re still in the canteen. Another guard, too; Svensson. But I can’t shift that fucking ‘pede to get in there.”
“Then that’s our next job. Doctor, nurse? Let’s move that thing and get to the captain.”
None of the medical personnel was particularly strong, but Kittrich took most of the strain, and they managed to pull the R’Dokken through the door with reasonable speed.
The clock on her suit display told Jessa that by the time they finally entered the canteen, six minutes and forty seconds had elapsed since the beginning of the crisis.
In the intervening time, the canteen had transformed into a scene from a nightmare.
Just beside the now ruined door laid the remains of the guard Svensson. He had been torn almost in half from groin to chin; he lay in the centre of a nauseating spray pattern of blood and viscera. Various internal organs dotted the deck in front of his body.
The second dead body in the room was that of the smaller R’Dokken. At least, Jessa assumed it was dead. Aside from its motionlessness, the evil-looking environment suit gave no clue as to the condition of its wearer.
All of this Jessa took within the first second of entering the room. After that, her full attention was fixated on the survivors.
The captain and Davis were on the floor beyond a half dozen pushed-together tables. Each was convulsing violently, slamming their limbs so hard against the floor and tables that Jessa was terrified they would seriously injure themselves. The deck around them was already slick with bile.
“Over here!” Jessa shouted, and they rushed over to the stricken crewmen.
It didn’t take a doctor to see they were in dire straights. The captain’s face was almost white; his nostrils flecked with blood. When she pulled open his eyes to gauge the response of his pupils she noticed webs of broken capillaries across his eyes, turning them a disturbing red-pink colour.
She was trying to simultaneously keep the captain still and check his pulse (a process that had to be done by machine when in a suit) when he vomited spectacularly all over her; chunks of food and stomach and gobbets of blood. Suddenly she was very glad for her protective clothing.
Mtenga was busy examining Davis. The nurse was busy helping him hold his patient down. It was not a simple task; too gentle and Mtenga would never succeed in his diagnosis; too hard and Davis would dislocate something trying to wrench himself free.
“How’s he doing?” Jessa asked.
“Pulse-rate’s shallow; and his pupil’s won’t respond,” he replied in his thick Zimbabwe accent.
“Same here. We’re going to have to move them.”
Davis suddenly broke free of the nurse’s grip; his flailing arm knocked the scanner from Mtenga’s hand, sending it clattering across the floor.
“You’re sure that’s wise?” the doctor asked.
“We haven’t a sodding clue what’s happening to them,” Jessa said, her voice harsh from pressure and fear, “We need to –Christ, stop struggling-, we need to scan them in the med bay.”
Years of medical training took over her turbulent thoughts.
“Nurse, get these two breathers; it’s probably too late, but we I don’t want anything else getting to them. Lambert to med bay; three stretchers to the canteen. Full quarantine.” She shut off the link before there was time for med bay to respond.
“You there,” this was directed at Kittrich, who was hovering by the door, weapon trained on the apparently lifeless alien a few feet away, “I want you to stay by the blast doors. The instant we’re all clear, I want the atmosphere in here flushed; Security Code Med-258 Alpha.” She could always change her codes after this crisis.
The guard nodded and left the room.
“Mtenga, let Davis go, and we’ll move the tables away; try to minimise the damage they do themselves.”
All three of them stood upright. For the moment, there was nothing more they could do.
Once again Jessa felt time creeping away, felt a jolt at each red-etched second as it arrived and departed from her suit’s clock.
Just how far was this going to go?