War of the Second Iteration, Book Three

“It will be a while before long scan builds a map of our current location.”

“It would be good to know where we are, to be sure,” John said. “In the meantime, what do we know about the drive pod?”

“Still no direct readings,” she said. “But I think we have – visual… oh!” and her voice trailed off into a tiny sound of despair.

The ship suddenly seemed very cold again to John. “God save us,” he whispered, and knew as he did that only a miracle would save them. The external camera was aimed down the long axis of the ship, the hull pale and ghostly in the starlight. The drive pod was all too easy to see. The multi-faceted globe of the matrix drive had imploded, and there were gaps in the containment structure. So great had been the force of the collapse that the standard drive engines were now canted at a sharp angle, fully in view, and clearly useless. The readout below the image showed wildly fluctuating EM fields punctuated by spikes of lethal gamma radiation. The ship’s inner shields were intact, or they would never have awakened into the cold and dark the day before. This was damage beyond anything they could hope to repair, in deep space on their own. Wirolen stared open-mouthed as tears began to float away from her face. Then a tone sounded, announcing that enough data had been gathered to display a system schematic. Rather than dwell on the apparent hopelessness of their situation, John reached out and tapped the necessary key, replacing the grim image of ruined engines with a three-dimensional display of the star system into which they had fallen.

There was a warm, yellow star, and a set of planets ranging from gas giants to balls of rock and ice. And there was ship sign sprinkled liberally through it.

“God be praised!” John shouted. Civilized space, not some uncharted system or a dark mass, in which they might have been marooned until their supplies ran out, and slow death came upon them. He reached over again and tapped a key that started their distress signal.

“What are you doing?” Wirolen demanded, aghast. “John, look at the readouts! The onboard has no record of such ships. And we are picking up signal with unknown content.”

John blinked and did a quick scan of the information being displayed, finally seeing the Leyra’an version of a question mark scattered around with the ship sign. One ship was very close to them.

Not Human.

Not Leyra’an.

He reached for the key again, to end the transmission, and then drew his hand back. “We take our chances with whoever that is, or we float out here until we starve to death. Making contact is our only hope.” Making contact! The phrase struck home with a jolt. God help us. Guide us!

Shutting off the beacon was already a moot point. The proximity alert began to buzz, alerting them to a dangerously large object within their safe zone. The nearby ship, marked so cryptically in the display, was moving slowly toward them. Wirolen changed feeds and the display was replaced by the half-lit image of a ship, one of a design John did not recognize. It was significantly larger than their own, and closing on their position.

“They must have been waiting there all along,” John said.

“Waiting for what?” Wirolen asked.

“I don’t know,” John replied. In the stress of the moment he caught himself switching languages, and forced himself to stick with Leyra’an. “A sign of life, perhaps? They are approaching the primary hatch.”

Wirolen ran her hand across the board and the scene changed. The strange ship, all blocks and angles, with no sign of a drive pod at either end, moved gently toward them. It would pause, then close the gap a few more meters, as if cautious – or, it occurred to John, as if they sought to allay fears of a collision.

“We are getting a signal,” Wirolen said. “The onboard makes no sense of it. Audio, but…” And she tapped something on the board. The sound was recognizable as speech, but the deep, rolling, almost guttural sounds that came over the com were like nothing John had ever heard. His heart was hammering in his chest and he felt sweat bead up on his brow.

“Good God,” he said. “Where are we?”

“Should we answer?” Wirolen said in a frightened whisper.

“What would we say?” John replied.

“It might help if they know someone is alive in here,” she pointed out.

“It just might.” He touched the com switch and thought frantically of something to say. “My name is John Knowles. My companion and I are adrift. Can you assist?”

“They won’t understand,” she said.

“But now they know we are here.”

From the speakers came more of the low, deep words, but nothing they could comprehend.

From amidships came a dull thump and the ship trembled ever so slightly. The image showed a tube extended from the strange ship, and the end touching their craft was slowly changing shape as if it sought to conform to their hull and air lock. Then it stopped moving.

The fearful paralysis that had frozen John in place was suddenly replaced by a need to take action. The only weapons on board were stunners. He snatched one from a locker as he launched himself down the center of the ship, and took a position facing the hatch. In a moment Wirolen was beside him, similarly armed, eyes wide with fright. “John!” She pointed the stunner at the air lock controls.

The outer hatch was open, but the atmospheric indicator was still sapphire blue.

There came a tapping from the other side of the inner hatch, taps that formed a pattern, repeated and then repeated again. It took a long moment before John recognized it as the ancient SOS signal sequence that announced a ship in distress. Their own distress call.

John moved to the inner hatch and, with the butt of the stunner, tapped out the same pattern in response. The lights on the control panel blinked, and John pushed himself back from the air lock in a hurry.

The inner hatch cycled, and began slowly to slide open.

Posted May 11, 2017 by underdesertstars

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