booksandstories.com

February 2002 Review

Web Page Progress

Well I'm still here and that's all I can say. My website is predominantly static, although I'd like to think of it as being dynamic. But since I'm in the field of transmitting text, books and stories to be read on-line, that's hardly surprising. I don't think it would make reading any easier if the text did cartwheels across your screen, would it? I suppose that makes the site boring. There are no games to play, no bright and clever graphics to see, and very little interaction. You visit, you read, you go away. But that's okay isn't it? If you want to read on-line, this is one of many places to visit. I like to think the site is straight forward, that it's easy to navigate through and you can find and read something quickly. Far too many sites I've seen take you ages before you can find something to read. With my site it's just two pages in: Home Page, List Page, and there you are. And it's all simple text links. Easy.

As an improvement, I've been thinking about putting links to each chapter at the beginning of each book. Or having another frame so that the links are always accessable. It would be extra work, and I'm not sure if I like the idea, but you never know. You could always email me if you have a view. Ha, another likely story!

Writing Progress

I'm taking a break from "The Friendly Ambassador" at the moment. I know where its going and I have some big events to describe, but its the basics that are holding me back. What happens to some of the characters and where they end up during the big events has got me pondering. I'm still not sure of some things while I am about others. Its like standing at the edge of a river, I can see the road on the other side but I'm not sure how to cross the river to get there. Its a little problem, one that's usually solved by just writing and seeing where it all goes. I'll do that again soon, but in the meantime I've distracted myself with a Short Story.

I've had this Short Story in mind for a while with out seriously thinking about 'putting pen to paper', so I decided to have a go at it this month. I had a feeling it might be a 'long' Short Story, and I was right. So this month you get Part I, with Part II in next months Review. Sorry about that, but there you are. Like all stories, all you can do is write the thing and see where you are at the end. Hopefully, its a pleasent journey.

See you next time.

February's Short Story

"A freigther spotted it coming back from the new colony on Titan. Their course and fuel restrictions meant that they couldn't divert or loiter long enough to investigate. From the pictures they took, it's definately artificial, and it's definately old."

In the confined space of the common room, Scott's dead pan description of the most momentous discovery ever made by mankind seemed a let down to Angela. The pictures on the monitor were also an anti-climax. They had all seen them before of course. All six crew members aboard the shuttle Intrepid had scrutinized every detail, studied every description, and poured over the masses of pictures taken by the Hubble. But at the end of it all, it was just a dot, a hulk of irregular metal travelling across the Solar System.

That was what made it so special to Angela.

Angela Wilson had spent years studying Human and animal behaviour. She had travelled the world over studying and learning from the vastly different societies that made up the human race. She was an accomplished Psycologist, but she had started out as an anthropologist way back when she was a student. Gradually, through hard work and gruelling field trips, she had worked her way into being the foremost expert in her field. She was well respected by her peers, and every one acknoledged that there would be no one better than her in a first contact situation.

But was this a first contact situation?

The crew of the Intrepid had been picked for every eventuallity. Scott Martin was the Captain, he was also an ex-pilot in the USAF, who's father and grandfather had also been pilots. His father was now at the Pentagon, and Scott was loyal to the military first and his country second. Not so much a 'by the book' man, as a 'by the tradition' man. He had a tendancy to be officious and he was sometimes downright arrogant. But he knew he was in charge and he liked to let everyone know that.

Angela got on reasonably well with Scott, mainly because he couldn't really understand why she was an expert or what she was actually an expert in. He knew what she did and why she was aboard, but he couldn't put any other name to it other than 'first contact situation specialist'. His problem was that he couldn't judge her performance until it mattered. Everybody else could practise, she couldn't. It meant that he was never quite convinced of her expertise. He could have resented her inclusion, but his lack of understanding meant that he was unsure of writing her off so easily. Angela could read him like a book. He was keeping on the right side of her just in case he actually came across a situation when he needed her. Angela liked that. It showed that he didn't let his own pettiness or lack of understanding get in the way, that he was open-minded enough to know that just because he couldn't understand what she did, didn't mean that it might not be important. After all, if she wasn't important, why would they have sent her along? Yes, Angela liked Scott. And the fact that he was tall, fit, quite handsome, with fair hair and cool blue eyes had nothing at all to do with it. Nothing at all. Honest.

Lucy Crow-Bennett was a Metallurgist and Physics major. What she didn't know about alloys, stresses and complex molecules could be written on a Quark. She was also tall, blonde, blue-eyed, extremely well endowed in the physical department and equally easy to get to know. She also got on very well with Scott. Maybe that was why Angela didn't like her? No, that was exactly why Angela didn't like her. If Lucy had been short, dark haired with a stick as a body -and what was wrong with having a stick as a body?- then Angela would have been happy to stand, or float, beside her. But the reality was that as soon as Lucy floated into the room, all eyes, including those of Scott, instantly latched on to her. Angela could do a weightless rhumba in the nude and no one would notice. That was the real problem of having a stick as a body. In all other capacities a stick body was a winner; everything neat and tidy, firm and fixed, clothes never a problem. But as a sexual lure, it came off second best to someone like Lucy, even in a weightless naked rhumba. No, no-one would notice her. Unless she accidently poked one of them in the ribs in the process, which is probably what she would do anyway.

Luigi Milano was a Linguist. He could pick up languages like a cat could pick up fleas. He was the polyglot de tutti polyglots. He could also translate any scribble or scratches into a beautiful speech. He was tall and wiry, with dark hair and equally dark and piercing eyes. A couple of hundred years ago he would have been considered to be demonic. Angela still considered the stake as a solution to his attentions. Luigi was full of himself and always annoying her and Lucy. With Lucy, it was obviously physical. He never let a moment pass without refering to some part of her anatomy. He was often downright rude. Lucy had been de-stablised by his remarks at first, but she quickly got used to it and had developed a standard reply for all ocasions. To the contrary with Angela, Luigi was never offensive, attacking her instead on a more cerebral level. Every doodle she made on her notepad Luigi would attempt to translate, and he never gave up the chance to bait her on some topic or other. Angela was sure that he enjoyed annoying her even more than he did Lucy. It was more of a challenge, he could see that it didn't bother her. Until he became wise to Angela's attraction to Scott. From then on Luigi never ceased to poke fun at Scott when he was alone with her, or in challenging his authority when they were all together. Actually, he spent a lot of time with Angela, talking about semantics and behaviour, or about the reasons why one person was attracted to another. Thinking about it now, did that mean he- no, oh God, no, don't even go there....

Carl Price was Scott's second in command. Young and agile, with short cropped black hair and sharp features. Everything he did was rushed but expertly executed. He was also USAF, a Lieutenant with more experience in computing and engineering than anyone else in the military. He also happened to be an expert in weaponry. Of course he was only along to study the possible remains of the alien ship's engines and power systems, and didn't they all believe that.

Jonathan Parks was a Pathologist. Although he had studied Biology and Medicine he was actually with the New York Police Department when NASA acquired him for this mission. He was the only one among them who's inclusion they could all agree that they didn't understand. Even Jonathan himself felt that way. He was a quiet and almost shy man. He spoke little and didn't mix well. He was probably the oldest among them, he had fared the worst in training for the trip and he had only just managed to qualify. He was still a little overweight, although he had lost quite a few pounds during the time Angela had known him. His brown hair was thin and he had a round face with sad eyes. Angela got on with him alright. He smiled at her and he was always polite. But she couldn't help resenting him. Luigi resented him, too. It wasn't Jonathan's fault, it was just that he represented both their worst fears.

The alien ship travelled on a set course, photographed over and over again by the Hubble and tracked by every optical and radio telescope that could find it. It was simple, as simple as a straight line. It never varied, never wavered. The ship's course had been tracked back, plotted and computed. The answer was unshakable. It had obviously come from outside the Solar System. It was travelling right across it, and in a few months time it would pass beyond reach and eventually beyond sight, finally disappearing back into the depths of space from where it had emerged. That meant only one thing.

The ship was old, very old. It was probably a derelict, and the likelihood of this being a first contact situation was extremely small. What Angela and Luigi Milano both feared was that Jonathan would find more work to do than them. Somehow, Jonathan didn't seem to like that idea either.

Luigi spoke up as Scott was about to continue his lecture.

"Is this necessary, Capitan? We have all read the notes, studied the tapes, and seen all the figures. Why not look out the window?"

Scott turned to him with a tired but knowing look. "You may think going over all this again is tiresome, but I want to make sure that we all get this right." He began to tap on the table to stress his points. "We get one chance to do this. One chance to get on board, one chance to gather the information we need, one chance to see and understand, one chance and one chance only. There'll be no going back for a second look and no time for dithering. With the speed its going and our fuel and oxygen reserves we get two hours, no more. If any of you are still on that ship after that, you're on it for life. And that probably won't be for very long. Understand?"

"Always the melodramatic," Luigi replied.

"Oh, shut up, Luigi!" Lucy suddenly remarked in irritation. "This isn't a trip to Florida, you know! It's dangerous! Scott's just being careful!"

Luigi leered at her. "Maybe he fears he may lose his heavenly body, no?"

"Get stuffed!"

Scott tapped on the table again. "Alright, enough! Yes, we've gone over this many times before. You all know what you have to do. Each of us has a role to play. And when we get on board I want everything to run smoothly. I don't want any petty squabbles or any one getting in anyone elses way. You each do your job quickly and efficiently."

Lucy instantly added, "And that means no staring at my arse when I'm bending over, Luigi!"

Luigi put on a look of offended amazement. "You think I will be distracted by a woman's body when I have an alien library at my finger-tips? Never! When such a time comes, on that day, my coffin will be ready!"

Carl suddenly laughed. "Lets hope that there isn't an alien librarian on guard, or that day might come sooner than you think!"

Angela quickly turned to him. "Oh, I do hope so!"

Luigi wasn't worried. "They would have answered our call. We've been broadcasting for days."

Angela was suddenly enthusiastic. "They might not be able to. They might have degenerated into a more primative society, trapped aboard their ship for thousands of years. Just think of it-"

Scott tapped the table again. "Can we get back to this?" he said dryly. "Carl! What's your first objective?"

"Penetration and structural integrity," was the quick reply.

"Then what?"

"Power systems. I tap into the wiring, see if there's any juice left. Follow the conduits back to the source. If I can work it out, I try to get the power back on. See if the engines work. If not, I see if there's anything I can unbolt and take out."

"Good! If you can get that ship back under it's own power, I can fly it."

Luigi chuckled. "Only if I tell you where the start button is."

"Fine, Luigi! Your next. First objective?"

Luigi sighed and glanced briefly at Angela before he answered. "I follow you to the flight deck. I decipher any symbols on the controls we find."

"What next?"

"After I help you, I go to help Carl. Then I search for any books or written material that will help identify the nature of the crew and the world from which they came. I bring back anything I can find on history, geography, diaries, literature, prose and science. I quickly find I have far too few arms for the task. I decide I need a large chest to carry it all-"

Lucy suddenly said, "Get stuffed!"

Scott pointed at her.

"Since you volunteered?"

Lucy folded her arms. "I cut open the door with Carl. Then its structural integrity. After that I get as many samples as I can for the spectural analyser. Like Carl, anything I can unbolt I take back."

Luigi raised his eyebrows. "The words have such meaning."

"Get stuffed."

Scott ignored them. "Angela?"

"If everybody else is doing what they say they're doing, then I won't be doing anything."

Scott looked annoyed. "Forget them! What's your first objective?"

Angela answered without conviction. "Attempt to begin a dialog with any of the surving crew."

"Then?"

"Try and get their cooperation and support. Try and get their trust. Try and understand them, try and explain how important it is to us that we have met them. Try and learn as much about them and their society as I can in the short time I'll have-"

Scott smacked the table. "You've forgotten something!"

Angela looked miserable. "Try and explain who we are and what we're doing here."

Luigi chuckled again. "We come in peace. Excuse me while I unbolt your engine."

Scott turned to him and his voice rose in irritation. "This is important, Luigi! One slip is all it takes to cock everything up! Yes, we all know that the likelihood of finding any aliens in occupation is all but nil! But if we should come face to face with an alien the last thing we want to do is scream and run in the opposite direction! We have to act instantly! Angela has to act instantly! Every movement, every gesture and sign has to be read and understood!"

Luigi answered conceitedly. "There is nothing Angela can do that I cannot! I am an expert linguist! There is not a language I cannot master! A text I cannot read!"

"You might become the absolute expert in their language in time, Luigi. But by then they'll be gone! We've got two hours! And Angela is the only one among this crew who can get us through those two hours if aliens are on board! You might be a great linguist, but can you get cannibals to carry your tent and your back pack when they've never seen a white man let alone a white woman before? When you don't have any idea what they're saying, or whether they're angry or happy?"

Luigi didn't get a chance to reply as Scott rushed on.

"No, I don't think so! You have no experience of first contact situations whatsoever! The first words you could translate would be your own name on their menu! And that's why Angela's here, to get us past those vital seconds, minutes and hours it takes to begin to understand the first simple words of any language! Angela is the most important and least important member of our crew! If the aliens are dead, she does nothing. If they're alive, one slip, and we could be dead!"

He suddenly turned to Angela. "Get it right! Okay?"

She nodded quickly, surprised by his knowledge of her past exploits. Surprised and inwardly pleased.

Scott looked around at them all. "Now loosen up, all of you! We'll be making rendezvous with that ship in less than three hours! I want the approach perfect, the communications clear, the docking to be precise and the embarkation to be exact! Carl, Luigi, make sure that signal we're broadcasting is unambiguious and on as many frequencies as we can transmit! I don't care if there's been no response. We keep sending it until we're sure that no one is listening! Everyone else, check your gear! We suit up for the full manoeuvre in thirty minutes! Dismiss!"

Every one filed out of the common room, grabbing at the handrails and drifting and darting in the free-fall. Only Jonathan Parks remained behind. He ran his fingers over the table top. And now that he was alone, he spoke softly to himself.

"First objective: Find out why they're dead. Second objective: Make sure it's not contageous. Third Objective: Prevention."

-o-

Angela found climbing into a space suit to be both uncomfortable and isolating. She was used to travelling about in shorts and tee-shirt, although she did wear much more padded clothing when she was in Greenland. But it was always the most suitable clothes for the terrain, and in space, a space suit was suitable. She just didn't like it. Even in -40Degrees in Greenland, with her breath freezing as it left her lips, she had still felt close to the people around her. With a space suit and a glass wall in front of her she felt cut off. How could she associate with anyone when she was totally enclosed in this shell?

"You hate it, don't you?"

Angela turned as she struggled to settle comfortably in her suit. Lucy was looking across at her. She had already climbed into her suit and was fastening it up. Both women were hanging from the wall by the supports that were still attached to their suits.

Angela kicked her legs in her suit. "Is it that obvious?"

Lucy looked down at herself and smiled. "They're so bulky, aren't they? But at least we all look the same from the outside."

Sharing the cramped living quarters with Lucy had been interesting and annoying. The cargo bay of the shuttle had been filled with a module that had been fitted out with three cabins, a kitchen and toilet/shower area. The description was more grand than the reality. The cabins were nothing more than boxes with sleeping bags attached to one wall and space suits attached to another. There were storage cupboards for some clothes and other possessions, but space was at a premium. Angela shared one cabin with Lucy while Scott and Carl shared another and Luigi and Jonathan took the last one. The kitchen was just an open area with access to the fridges and food storage compartments. There was a microwave and that was it. As for the toilet/shower, well, it was private, but anything that looked like a vacuum cleaner which could suck and blow wasn't Angela's idea of either. When ever she was in there, she was constantly worried that she would get the tubes mixed up.

Space flight wasn't all that it was cracked up to be.

Lucy was an alright flatmate, but in the cramped space it was difficult not to be aware of one another. And that was what constantly upset Angela. Everything about Lucy annoyed her. When they got changed, her body was in her face in the tiny space, it was impossible not to notice her every curve and asset. But it wasn't just that. Even the few clothes she brought with her were pretty and delicate, while everything Angela had brought was functional and comfortable. Angela tried to convince herself that she was the practical one, but the sight of Lucy's tiny underware packed carefully in her cupboard told a different story. Practical or not, Lucy was the flower, and she was a blade of grass. That was the way it was and there was nothing she could do about it -unless there was an accident in the airlock. Whoosh! Problem solved.

Angela wriggled and finally found a comfortable position. She threaded her arms into the arms of the suit and began to fasten it up. "I wouldn't have thought that you would like to be lost in uniformity," she remarked almost thoughtlessly.

Lucy looked up again. "You mean because no one can see my tits in this suit?"

Angela looked up in surprise. She was taken aback by Lucy's frank and rather blunt reply. "I didn't actually mean that-"

"You don't really like me, do you? I mean, you're polite and everything, but you don't like me."

Angela felt suddenly sorry. About what she had just been thinking, and about what she was always thinking. "It's not that I don't like you-"

"You resent me." It was a clear statement. Lucy looked very sad. She let her arms just float by her side and looked away. "It's always the same. Women never like me, and men never take me seriously. I published all my papers under the name Dr. L. Crow-Bennett. I never had anything published before that. The Professor at CalTech told me to drop my first name. He told me that they wouldn't pay any attention to a woman, especially one that looked like me. 'Let them think you're a man,' he said. He was right, and I've never forgotten his advice. I never go to any conventions or anything like that, I sign everything Dr. L. Crow-Bennett, even my bank accounts and my driving licence are under the same name. When the guys from NASA turned up they didn't believe me when I said that I was Dr. L. Crow-Bennett. They kept thinking that I was just his secretary or his assistant. When it finally sank in, I could see that look in their eyes. They stared at each other and it was obvious what they were thinking. 'It's a woman. What should we do?' I didn't give them any more time to think about it. I just grabbed my coat and said 'Let's go.' I didn't even think about what I was getting into. If I had, I might not have been so impetuous."

Lucy turned to look at Angela again.

"It's not fair that you resent me."

Angela's reply was instant. "It's not fair that all the men look at you and I'm invisible."

"That's not my fault!" Lucy lost her sadness and was now more forceful. Her words came out quickly. "There's nothing wrong with the way I look or the way you look! It's what's in peoples minds that turn it all around! You look like that, so you must be like this! It's not fair, I tell you!"

Angela became equally forceful. She didn't want to give up her view, she wanted to hang on to the resentment she had for Lucy even though she felt the first hints of sympathy. She also spoke quickly.

"No, it's not fair that all women resent you, that men don't take you seriously, that no one belives an intelligent woman can have the three B's: Blonde hair, blue eyes and big tits! I understand that, sure! But it's not fair that your body puts mine in the shade! That men don't give me the same attention as they do you! That everyone I fancy doesn't even know that I exist!"

"That's them, not me! What am I supposed to do? Dress down? Cut my hair? Put false glasses on? Have bits chopped off?"

"It would help!"

They were almost shouting at each other now, the suits they were hanging in rocking about against the wall. They must have been audible throughout the shuttle, because Luigi drifted into the doorway, a big smile on his face. It caused them both to stop and look round.

Luigi folded his arms. "Ah! Two babes in a sock! It must be Christmas!"

Lucy said, "Get stuffed!"

Luigi just laughed. "A man could have some fun with both of you trussed up like this!"

"Only if you had a tin-opener," Angela remarked.

Lucy was still angered by his presence. "Get lost, Luigi!"

He grew even more smug. "Try and shoo me out!"

Angela tried a different approach. "Give us some privacy, Luigi. This is woman's talk."

"But I like woman's talk. It excites me!"

"Luigi?"

He lost his smile and nodded. "Alright. But keep your voices up. I don't want to miss anything!"

He drifted out of view.

Angela and Lucy were left alone again. They looked at each other. Lucy shrugged.

"Life's a bitch," she said in a quieter voice. "Do you want to swop?"

"Of course I do!" Angela whispered intensely. "That's part of the resentment. We want what you've got. I want what you've got." She looked down at herself, pulling the neck ring of her suit forward so that she could see her chest inside. "I dream about having breasts that get in the way. I want a cleavage that men go loopy over when you lean forward. I want curves and long shining hair and admiring glances. I want it all."

"I want respect."

Angela let the neck ring go and sighed. "It's the same thing."

Lucy nodded. "The same, but different. You have the respect you deserve as an Anthropologist, but not as the woman you trully are. I have the respect I deserve as a beautiful woman, but the attention and the resentment that goes with it."

"But you have it both ways," Angela pointed out. "You're respected as a Physicist."

Lucy shook her head. "Dr. L. Crow-Bennet was a respected Physicist, Lucy Crow-Bennet isn't. And after all the publicity we had when we were chosen, during our training, and before the final countdown, no one will have any doubt as to which one I am. Even before we left, most of the pictures were of me, and most of them were pictures taken when I wasn't looking. They all took pictures of me when I was bending down, when my clothes were pulled out of place, or when I was dirty and sweaty on the assault course."

Angela remembered those pictures. She remembered being annoyed by them and thinking that Lucy would be just a waste of weight on the trip. There were hardly any pictures of her. Luigi was photographed more than her.

Lucy sighed. "When I get back, my carreer will be over."

They were both silent for a while. There was an air of sadness about them.

Angela suddenly said, "You could always be a model. You'd make a fortune."

Lucy nodded. "I probably would. But then I'd hate myself for it, because everyone will have been right about me. A no brainer, all tits and arse."

Luigi's voice called out, "I like it. You could pose together. Babes in space! I can see the pictures now!"

Lucy drew her breath, but Angela made the required response.

"Get stuffed, Luigi!"

-o-

After four days, sixteen hours and twenty-four minutes, the shuttle Intrepid approached a strange and dark object. Silhouetted against the colourful bands of Jupiter's atmosphere was a large and irregular shape. At one time it might have been disc shaped, but now it was ragged, it's edges apparently chewed away. The interior of the ship was visible through the gaps. Decks could be seen, open doorways, structural girders, and even stairways that dropped through buckled floors to nothingness. There were more holes in the top of the ship, the view inside finally obscured by shadow. Covering the surface of the ship were strange protrusions that looked like rock. The whole of the ship was encrusted with them, even the torn metalwork at the edges and inside the ship were covered in them. Some of the rock seemed to fill the gaps so tightly that the metalwork bulged out above and below.

If there had ever been a front and a back, it was lost now. Even up and down were impossible to guess. As for engines, nothing on the surface gave away any hint. Everything was irregular and lumpy.

Carl put their thoughts into words as they all stared through the window of the shuttle flight deck.

"We've come all this way for a beat up lid from a trash can."

Luigi put on an air of seriousness. "No, I disagree. It is a half-eaten bagel dipped in breadcrumbs."

Scott looked round in anoyance. "Shut it, the pair of you! Carl, give me the numbers as I make the approach!"

Being in a space suit was a strange experience that Angela was never going to get used to. As usual, she felt cut-off, isolated and cramped all at the same time. It was just like it was when they had taken off. She had felt so isolated and disorientated in her suit that she had missed the whole thing. Now, sitting behind Luigi with Jonathan next to her, she felt exactly the same feelings. She felt like she was somewhere else, not on the ship at all. She could hear her own breathing, it seemed to echo around in the suit. She looked up at the inside of her helmet. She felt like a goldfish. She hated this. She hated being in a space suit, being in a goalfish bowl. The only comfort were the voices over the radio. It was the only time she was pleased to hear Luigi make a facetious remark. But it didn't have to be like this.

The six of them were strapped into their chairs in three rows of two. At first they had all been sitting with their space suits on and their helmets in their laps. Angela had felt uncomfortable, but in touch. Then Scott had insisted that they put on their helmets and pressurise. He didn't want to take any chances during the docking manoeuvre or when they penetrated the hull. Angela hadn't argued. She never did.

She was a mouse, not a goldfish.

She had wanted to scream out and say, 'Stuff your space suit! I want to feel relaxed and free, not like a goldfish!' But she was a mouse and had obeyed like a mouse. Or was it because it was Scott who had told her?

Why did people grit and bear it when they really wanted to run away screaming? Why wait in the queue at the dentists when you really didn't want to go in? Why go up in a space ship when all you really wanted to do was talk to little friendly people in a rainforest?

The shuttle rocked.

"Excellent!" Scott exclaimed. "Carl! Lock everything down! Lucy, get the cutter!"

Damn! Angela thought to herself. That's what being in a goldfish bowl did for you. Missed it all. Again.

Everyone unfastened their seat belts and pushed themselves free. Angela found herself at the back as her crewmates glided towards the airlock with ease and haste. They all wanted to get inside, and suddenly, Angela wanted to get inside too.

It was play time at last. They had a new tin world to explore and they all wanted to get started straight away.

Lucy was the first to enjoy the moment. She and Carl went into the airlock with the EPD. It stood for Everyone's Pet Dog, and it was basically a large metal sledge that was crammed full of cutters, tools, computers and testing equipment. Everything they thought they might need or intended to use was on the EPD, which meant that there was nothing on it that Angela needed. Lucy and Carl manoeuvred the EPD into position between them as the airlock cycled, and when the outer door slid silently upwards, there it was. A grey uneven surface with rocky protrusions.

Lucy stretched out her gloved hand and brushed over the surface. "The torch, I think."

Carl felt around the edges of the airlock where the seal pressed against the uneven surface. "Diamond cutter might be better. We must be losing pressure with this crap on the outside. The torch might not burn."

Lucy shook her head, which Carl didn't see at all. "No, the cutter will take too long. The rock on the surface is crystalised. It'll take too long to cut through it, and the cutter isn't easy to turn. With the torch we can cut round the rock, go in where it's easy." She traced a path with her hand. "Here, and here."

"It'll be a funny shaped door."

"You want to get in, don't you?"

On the other side of the airlock, Scott was at the front of a cramped and bulky audience. He peered through the viewing port. Like everyone else, he could hear Lucy and Carl over the radio.

"Hurry it up, you two! Our two hours have already dropped to one hour and fifty-eight!"

Carl raised his arm and there was a bright light.

Angela couldn't see anything at the back, but she could hear the torch over the radio. And she could hear Lucy's voice.

"It's cutting clear and easy. It's just your common grade steel. Nothing fancy. I guess geology is the same everywhere. A bit of iron mining, some smelting, a bit of intelligence, and there you are. Aliens or not, that's a lot we've got in common already."

"Cut the chat, Lucy!" Scott told her.

"I like to talk while I work."

Luigi said, "Do you talk doing other things?"

"Get stuffed."

Angela felt a vibration. It was ever so slight, but she felt it. It seemed to come through the suits as they were all pressed together against the airlock. Then she heard Carl's voice.

"We're through."

Voices all spoke at the same time.

Luigi asked, "What's it like in there?"

Scott said, "Check the pressure."

And Lucy said, "The door we cut fell on the floor."

There was a brief silence and Scott repeated, "The door fell on the floor?"

"Ah-ha."

Angela said, "I thought I felt something. What's wrong with that?"

Luigi explained. "We're in zero gravity, dimwit."

"Oh, yes. But then how can....oh!"

"Exactly!"

Scott moved closer to the viewing port, his helmet clinking against the glass. "Give me an overview, Carl!"

"There's definately gravity in here. The door's a bit rough, so watch your suits, but it's big inside, and it looks like we're the right way up."

Lucy's voice came on next. "It's dark in here. No lights, but there must be power because this gravity has to be artificial. As soon as you step inside you feel heavy again."

Carl added, "We've got pressure in here. I've got oxygen and a lot of CO2. That's the good news. There's a lot of other stuff mixed in with it. We could breath this at a push, but not for long."

"Where are you?"

Carl and Lucy put on their helmet lamps and the beams flashed out. They turned and looked around.

Carl said, "It looks like some sort of cabin."

"Yes," Lucy went on. "There's furniture and fittings of some sort. And the walls have the remains of a decor. But it's all greenish and a bit slimy."

A soft voice said, "Like mould?"

It was the first time Jonathan had spoken.

"Yes," Lucy replied.

"Don't touch it. Let me in. I need to take some samples."

-o-

It seemed to take ages for them to all get inside. With the EPD in the airlock they could only go through two at a time. Scott had insisted that he go next with Jonathan, and that left Angela and Luigi to go last. As they stood in the airlock waiting for it to cycle, Luigi leaned towards her.

"How about we have a cuddle now that we're alone?"

Angela laughed. The idea of doing anything in their bulky suits was an impossibility. "If there's gravity in there, I'm going to have enough trouble just standing up."

The door slid up and an irregular hole was revealed. Inside, lights flashed and a space-suited figure stood against one wall, scraping fragments from the surface into a little plastic box.

Luigi gestured to the doorway. "After you."

"If you say 'age before beauty' when I go in, I swear I'll pull the plug on your suit."

"I was merely being polite."

Angela hated it when she couldn't see his face like this. The glass on his helmet seemed misty. Or was it on hers? Was he smiling at her?

Angela wormed her way through the door and she was inside. As she crossed the threshold, her body became heavy. It was a sudden and familiar feeling that she had seemed to have forgotten. Her leg felt it first, her foot in freefall one second, only for it to drop to the floor with a sudden clunk the next. As soon as she was inside she became acutely aware that the bulk of the space suit was more than just a cumbersome shroud. It was heavy. It weighed her down, forcing her to move around with smaller and more positive steps.

"Oh, bloody hell!" she muttered.

"Yes," Scott replied to her unseen blushes. "This gravity is an eventuallity we hadn't foreseen. It's going to make moving around a lot harder."

Lucy added, "And you can kiss goodbye to any idea of taking back any large samples. We might be able to cut things free, but there's no way we can carry them."

She was standing by an open and extremely wide doorway on the far side of the room. Carl was already outside, shining his helmet lamp up and down the corridor. "That's right, Captain," he agreed. "Any large engine parts, power source, they're all out of the question. Even moving the EPD with our gear on it is going to be a problem."

Scott didn't argue the point. When they had designed and packed the EPD, they had never considered that weight would be a problem. But the problem might also be their answer.

"Okay, then. That just makes it even more important that we try and fly this thing home. Carl, find that power source. Take Lucy with you and check the hull's integrity. Luigi, come with me. Let's see if we can find something that resembles a flight deck. Angela, stay here with Jonathan. Remember, we never go anywhere in here in less than twos."

Everyone started to move, their lamp beams darting about. Lucy and Carl both disappeared out the doorway, but Jonathan soon brought them back.

"Nobody leaves this room until I'm finished."

Everyone froze. And Carl and Lucy reappeared in the doorway they had just left.

Scott didn't like the blunt challenge to his authority, and it showed in his voice. "We haven't got the time to waste on your chemistry results. We've only got one hour forty-eight."

Jonathan was unmoved. "If I find something nasty in this mould, I'm leaving straight away and sealing the airlock behind me."

There was an unpleasent silence. Angela could hear her own breathing. She could hear everyone elses breathing, too. Finally, Scott gave in.

"Carl, help me bring in the EPD."

It took all of them to drag the EPD into the middle of the room. At first, Angela thought it would crash down as the front end dipped when it crossed the threshold, but it seemed to just glide to the floor. Jonathan then dropped his sample into a metal hatch on top of one of the test modules. He closed the lid and pressed some buttons. The computer put the sample through a set of pre-determined tests that had been the subject of great debate at NASA. The results didn't surprise any of them, although it was something every scientist on earth had dreamed about.

Jonathan held up the print out, wiping the front of his helmet to read it more clearly. "It's alive. A complex form of algae very similar to the type you might find in a stagnant pool. It seems to be harmless."

They were all relieved. All except Luigi. He hadn't even been listening. While Jonathan had held centre stage, Luigi had gone to one of the walls and cleaned something with his sleeve. Now he brought it forward.

"May I introduce you all to your first alien?"

They all turned in surprise. It was a picture. Angela stared at it like everyone else. It was difficult to be sure what she was looking at through her helmet, and the algae and slime smeered all over the picture didn't help. The picture itself had also decayed. It was almost grey and white, any colours all gone. But was it a photograph or a painting? Was it a man? It looked like a bipedal form, with arms that were jointed in different places to that of a human. But it definately had two arms and two legs. The body and head were different though. It just seemed to be one big walnut shaped form. It looked like an alien Humpty-Dumpty wearing a childish barrel shaped outfit.

Lucy was very dubious. "You've just pulled that out of your sleeve, haven't you?"

"Look more closely," Luigi replied. "Not at the alien, but at the scene behind it."

They looked. It was suddenly so obvious, as obvious as the false pose of the alien himself.

Carl grabbed at the picture and held it up close to his helmet. "It's our trash can lid! Complete with engines, undercarriage and insignia! It's on the tarmac of some airfield somewhere." He smiled inwardly at the scene. "It's an alien crewman posing in front of his ship before it took off."

Luigi ruined the moment with his usual wit. "Yes. And somewhere there is an alien mother with this very same photo on her mantlepiece."

Everyone laughed and groaned.

Carl didn't think it was so funny. "This is exactly what we need!" He held the picture up against Scott's helmet. "See it? Twin engines! And those windows at the front!"

Scott took the picture from him. He would have looked excited, but the suit hid everything. "Yes! Follow the perimeter of the ship and we'll find the flight deck and the engines!" He was suddenly in command again. "Carl, you and Lucy go one way! I'll go the other way with Luigi! Get moving!"

Lucy and Carl hurried away again, almost getting jammed in the wide doorway, the reason for it's size now obvious. As Scott hurried after them, Luigi gave Angela an unexpected surprise.

"I'm staying here for a while, Scott. Take Angela with you instead."

Scott paused in the doorway. "I need you!"

"No you do not. You know what the controls look like. By the time you need me, Jonathan and I will be finished here."

And what's so special here?"

"It is an alien crewman's quarters. Here there will be books, letters, a diary maybe. Even music, videos. I need to search. I need to take anything and everything back to the Intrepid. Jonathan can help me. The distance is short, the chance invaluable."

Scott gave in. "Okay. But when I holler, you come running."

Luigi saluted in his space suit, his gloved hand almost reaching the top of his helmet. "As fast as my tired legs can run!"

Scott was sure Luigi was laughing at him. Angela knew he was. But when Scott called, Angela answered with her feet.

"Come on, Angela. Let's get going!"

With Angela and Scott gone, Luigi leaned his helmet close to Jonathan's. "I take it you know how to search a room?"

"You start at that end, I'll start over here."

-o-

It was really weird walking down the corridor with Scott. It was a simple corridor that curved away in the distance both in front of them and behind them, but it was still weird. Maybe it was because they were both wearing these damned space suits. Angela hated the restrictions, she hated the weight, she hated the fact that she couldn't see anything that wasn't directly in front of her. She hated the dark and foreboding look of each open doorway they passed, hated the fact that she couldn't resist the impulse to look inside them to be sure that they were empty. Fortunately, Scott was also interested in each doorway. It meant that they paused often, gathered around each door, their lamp beams shining inside. Shadows flickered in the darkness. Every room was the same. Furniture, bits and pieces of things lying on the floor and surfaces, and mould. This was Luigi's perfect heaven. But for Angela, there was nothing.

Hearing everybody elses's conversations was also beginning to get annoying. Lucy sounded so excited about everything she saw, Carl was just as bad, and Luigi and Jonathan seemed to have bursts of ecstasy with every piece of paper or other written material they found. The latest was obviously a book. Luigi kept going on about it.

"It's perfect!" he announced. "The alien script clear and neat! A modern alphabet, the words written vertically like Chinese. Yes, perfect!"

Angela couldn't help herself. "Oh, goody!"

Scott leaned towards her as they trudged along. "Getting bored, Angela?"

"There's nothing for me to do, like I knew there wouldn't be."

"But doesn't the idea of where you are give you any excitement?"

She shrugged to no effect. "I suppose so. But I'm more worried about how we're going to find our way back to the Intrepid than I am about what we might find up ahead."

"That's simple," Scott replied. "We just retrace our steps."

She raised her arm and pointed at the doorway they had just left. "But don't you think they all look very much alike?"

Scott had a think about that. He stopped and turned around. Angela turned with him. The corridor curved away into the darkness, the beams of their lamps not strong enough to light it all the way. All the doorways did look very much the same. They were all open, silent, dark. Despite the fact that they had looked inside everyone of them, Angela still felt that anything could have been hiding inside. She shivered at the thought.

Scott suddenly said, "Luigi, Jonathan. Drag the EPD to the doorway. Poke it out a ways."

Jonathan said, "Already....doing it." The strain in his voice was clear.

Luigi added, "We should have brought a ball of string."

Scott tapped Angela's helmet. "Good thought. Come on!"

Angela glowed inside. She was suddenly happy. Stupid girl!

They continued walking. The corridor curved away in front of them, disappearing into the darkness. They had looked into two more dark and silent rooms when they heard Lucy and Carl make their first discovery.

"I don't believe it!" Lucy exclaimed.

"It can't be!" Carl breathed.

"It is!"

Scott and Angela paused in the middle of the corridor.

"What have you found?" Scott asked them.

"It looks like a cryogenic chamber of some sort," Carl explained. "There must be six, no, seven containers. They're all open-"

"No!" Lucy quickly added. "This one's sealed! And here!"

Angela listened to their excitement. Only Jonathan was more cautious.

"Don't touch anything until I get there."

Lucy sounded indignant. "Of course we won't touch anything! We're not stupid!"

Scott placated her, but he had other goals on his mind.

"Of course you're not stupid, but it's the engine room we need and not a cryogenic chamber. Leave it to Jonathan."

Lucy sounded heartbroken. "But it could be occupied-

"Move on. We've only got one hour twenty-nine."

Angela stared down the corridor as she listened to the debate. The find meant nothing to her. She couldn't associate with a mummy. The lamp beam from her helmet shone along the wall and over another doorway. It was different somehow.

"That's funny," Angela said. "That door's closed."

Scott turned and shone his lamp down the corridor. "Yes. So is the next one."

They both hurried forward to the closed door. Angela looked more closely at it. It must have been in two halves because there was a seam down the middle. Scott reached out and touched it. As his glove moved over the metal, it left a wet trail. Scott held up his gloved hand.

"There's condensation on this door." He looked around. "And on the wall."

Angela ran her hand over the wall. He was right. There was no green algae here, just clean metal. And it was definately wet.

"Yes, you're right. It's all wet."

Carl's voice came over the radio. It sounded urgent. "Which wall's wet?"

They heard Luigi laugh. "Brilliant! Now try rhyming pentameter!"

Scott ignored him. "It's the outside wall. Both the door and the wall here are covered in condensation." He moved away from the door and cast his beam further down the corridor. "Damn!"

Angela looked round. There was a bright disc of light floating in the middle of the corridor. It was a moment before she realised that it was a wall. A wall right across the corridor.

Scott sounded depressed. "A bulkhead door is closed right ahead of us."

Carl said, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Yeah," Scott admitted sadly. "We must be near some of those exposed rooms we saw on our approach, some of the rooms that are open to space. All the doors must be powered. I guess it's an automatic failsafe. Some sensors somewhere must have detected the decompression and sealed both the rooms here and the corridor. If the flight deck was on the rim, then it's probably gone, or sealed off." Scott paused before making up his mind. "We're coming back. I hope there's some controls in the engine room-"

Lucy cut him off with a frightened voice. "Oh, glory...."

"Shit!" Carl exclaimed quickly after her.

Scott turned away from the wall. "Carl? What's going on?"

"Shit! Shit! Shit!" Carl repeated. "I've stood in it!"

"Stood in what? What's the matter?"

Lucy almost screamed. "Careful! There's another one!"

Scott grew angry. "Will somebody tell me what's going on?" he demanded.

There was silence on the radio. Angela could hear her own heart beating, she could also hear Lucy's rapid breathing. Something must have scared her. Carl explained. He was breathing hard too.

"We've found some aliens, Scott. Two of them. They're in the room next door to the one with the cryogenic chamber. They're both dead."

End of Part I. Part II next month.

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