The three people on the bridge all sat at their posts, still tense, even though the alarm klaxon was finally silent. Perhaps a kilometer away, the vast bulky remains of an alien warship drifted alongside theirs.
“Unknown vessel, this is Terran Federation Ship Cormorant requesting permission to board. Please identify yourself.” The communications officer repeated the phrases for a fifth time, and then paused a moment to lick his dry lips.
“Might as well give it up, Jackson, they aren’t going to answer. That ship is a floating corpse,” said the captain.
The younger man, Lt. Commander Neil Jackson, looked up from his console. “I know, sir, but it is just hard to believe that we finally find evidence of other life, only to discover they’re dead.”
The captain nodded. “Even worse to discover that they died by violence.” The image filling the viewscreen was too large at their current distance to see the entire thing. Magnification would have to be reduced. Right now huge, jagged holes were visible all over the other ship.
“Maybe there is life but it is just shielded from our sensors?”
The third person, Ensign Mary Powers, pointed to the strategic screen, just left of the main tactical display. “There’s still a chance, Jackson. The second planet has a habitable atmosphere, and there is some sort of shielded facility on the second continent.”
“And I’m picking up a transmission, sir!” said Jackson.
“A transmission, you say?” asked the captain.
“Powers, lay in a course to orbit the planet.”
“Course set, Captain. Power readings are picking up from the planet. A planetary shield either just lowered or failed. Still no signs of biological life. There is a breathable atmosphere with gravity to our standards.”
“What are the odds of that, eh?” The captain cocked his right elbow on the armrest of the chair, and rested his chin in his cupped palm. “Perhaps a robotic intelligence remains. We do appear to have an invitation to visit.”
“We are within shuttle range now, Captain.”
“Very well…” he said, then trailed off.
“Want me to put together a landing team, sir?” asked Jackson, looking at the older man.
“Don’t see why not. If they were going to destroy us, they would have already. I don’t believe there is any ‘they,’ because ‘they’ are dead. This whole system is dead. Can’t you feel it? It feels like we’re violating a tomb, but we must investigate. Go ahead, put together a team. Use bio-suits just in case, and take some Marines.”
“Yes, sir,” Jackson replied, already on his feet.
“Cormorant, are you getting the feed of this?” Jackson asked while settling the shuttle gently on a wide, tiled palazzo. They landed on the edge of a large ruined city complex bordered on three sides by what appeared to be impenetrable jungle and on the fourth, southern side by a large circular bay. “I’m sending Sergeant Marks, and Private Crane out first, then the rest of us will follow, over?”
“Reading you and seeing you loud and clear, Jackson,” said the voice of Ensign Powers. “Captain wants you to investigate source of transmission in large temple two clicks directly north of your position, first, over.”
“Affirmative, proceeding, out.”
Jackson watched from the pilot’s seat as the figures of Marks and Crane emerged from the shuttle’s airlock, and ran toward a low, crumbling stone wall that surrounded their landing zone.
Marks spoke, “All clear Commander. Nothing moving out here. But I’d swear we’re being watched.”
“Very good, Sergeant. Stay alert. The rest of us are coming.”
Jackson lifted himself up and out of the cockpit and onto the narrow slice of floor that separated the pilot seat from the co-pilot/navigator seat. It only took two steps to reach the ladder down into the passenger area, where Warrant Officer Leila Tran waited for him with the hood of her bio-suit pulled down. All the others were already outside.
“Here’s your machine pistol, sir,” she said with her faint French-accented English.
“Thanks,” he said, unable to meet the woman’s frank gaze. She only hid her feelings for him when others were around. He could never get used to someone loving him much as she did.
“You will be careful, Neil?”
“Yes, Leila, and you be ready to come get us, if something happens.”
He pulled her to his chest, inhaled the scent of her long, black hair and kissed her. Every bit of the pent up emotion he’d been holding back for the last day or so went into it. Then, a moment or two later, they parted.
“See you,” he murmured into her ear.