Stillman was his usual dry self when he entered the observation chamber.
“Twelve weeks out from Earth and what a lovely time we are having!” he gestured dramatically to the view port. “Rocks!” he said with distaste. “Nothing but bloody great rocks in all directions!” He sat heavily in the seat next to Jane and drummed his fingers nervously on the arms of the chair. “So what’s going down Horowitz?” he asked presently.
“I was beginning to wonder if you’d noticed I was here,” said Jane, not looking up from the mass spectrometer. “You seemed to be having such a great time by yourself.”
Stillman grinned wickedly as he rebelliously rested his feet on the console. She hadn’t noticed this incursion yet; so busy was she at her work.
“I envy you Horowitz,” he said as he gazed at the asteroid field that stretched out into the darkness. “How do you manage to stay so solid, so bloody calm cooped up in this tin can for months at a time?”
Jane sat up and stretched, rubbing her eyes that were tired from hours of staring at computer screens. She brushed a strand of hair from eyes and shot Stillman’s heavy boots a dirty look.
“Get your feet off my console!” she snapped at him irritably as she rose from the spectrometer. He grinned as he placed his feet on the deck.
“Gotcha!” he crowed.
“Honestly you’re like an hyper-active toddler sometimes!” she admonished him as she continued monitoring her instruments. “It’s like I said all those months ago when we lifted off from Solenton Station, you’ve got to find a place inside yourself that is calm, rational and reflective. Otherwise you’ve no hope of enduring the boredom that space travel always brings.”
“But that’s okay for you,” he protested. “You’re quite happy scanning for micro-organisms and what-not.”
“Oh, I absolutely love it!” she enthused, without irony. “Did you know that since we’ve been out here I’ve catalogued at least fifty different forms of microbial life? Think of that, out here beyond even the faintest of warmth from a sun, in temperatures just a few degrees from absolute zero. Yet, here they are, surviving in vacuum on the energy they harvest from interstellar radiation!”
“That’s all very well and good Horowitz,” groaned Stillman. “But it’s not what rocks my world at all, I prefer aliens that I can see without the aid of an electron microscope!”
“Be careful what you wish for,” muttered Jane darkly.
The ‘tin can’ that Stillman referred to was their ship, the Andromeda a small scout ship with a crew of twelve plus ten scientists, deployed by the Deep Space Mining Corps to survey the Galactic Rim. Federal Law stipulated that all such surveys had to include at least one exobiologist on board so that a clear picture of the potential ecological impact of any future mining activities could be established. This is where Jane came in and Stillman, her bright new assistant. Freshly graduated from the University of Rochdale, this was Stillman’s first tour in the field. Being a Bursary Student he had not been able to fund any of the field trips to exotic off-world locations like many of his peers. To his utmost frustration he had been forced to work with terrestrial animals, sheep in this instance, as the major part of his Doctorate. His thesis was based on the effects of alien environments on terrestrially evolved livestock, with possible applications in terms of agriculture on several colony worlds. He had been proud of what he had achieved, yet wanted so much more than that now. His particular specialism was in macrobiotic life forms, and there were simply none around in an asteroid field, apart from people in space ships of course.
The observation deck was situated on the lower hull of the Andromeda, separate from the main body of the ship and the two scientists’ shipmates. Although they both wore the light grey uniforms that indicated their status and role on board, the way they wore them was radically different. Jane’s was well looked after, fitting snugly around her graceful frame. Stillman’s on the other hand was rumpled and ill fitting with an unsightly green stain on his shirt. He sported a few days dark stubble on his pointed chin, the opposite again of Jane’s satin smooth cheeks. She was proud of her skin, which she spent many hours looking after each day, even out here in the somewhat primitive communal washing facilities they shared on board ship. That’s where Stillman had found her, the first time.
“Horowitz,” he said huskily. He always called her by her last name even in the most intimate of clinches. “Have you written to Rupert lately?”
“Strange you should mention that,” she said, tensing slightly as he drew nearer. “What with one thing and another I haven’t had time lately…” She trailed off as he started teasing her hair through his fingertips, she forgot about the instruments for a while as he stroked the nape of her neck under her blond locks.
“Horowitz,” he breathed insistently. “Come on now, I’m sure you’ve done enough for science for one day. How about doing something for me now?” Jane had to admit she was tempted, so many light-years from Rupert and the girls. There were some needs one could not post-pone, no matter how iron willed one thought one was.
“Look at that!” she cried pushing Stillman’s wandering hands away. She stood up to examine the spectroscope more closely.
“What that spike?” muttered Stillman. “Probably just a pulsar or something.”
“The readings going crazy!” Jane said anxiously. “Look! It’s gone now, hang on it’s back again.”
“Oh it’s nothing I tell you,” grumbled Stillman. “We’re thousands of parsecs from the nearest civilization.”
“That’s what’s worrying me,” said Jane as the screen went blank again. “I think we better alert Captain Forrester, looks like you might get to see some big aliens after all!”
Alien eyes kept watch on the Andromeda as she picked a careful route between the mountain-sized boulders that lay scattered in vast conglomerations throughout the vast expanse of the Tran galactic reef. Cold mechanical eyes that swivelled around and locked onto the intruder in their realm. Eyes attached to malevolent brains, conditioned over thousands of years of war and destruction to hate and fear all other life forms. They would track this intruder as it navigated through the boulders; assess the aliens’ strengths and weaknesses. They would keep a careful watch until they were ready to strike.
Captain Forrester was a seasoned spacer with twenty-years experience in the DSMC; one needed a cool and dispassionate temperament to steer a ship safely through such treacherous patches of the cosmos. Nevertheless he was visibly alarmed when Jane made her report.
“Raise the alert status to amber!” he ordered his First Mate. “Have you checked for any further EM activity?” he asked Jane.
“No, not yet, I thought it best to come to you…”
“Okay, Stotz make a scan for electromagnetic commotion in the surrounding area,” he barked at his signals officer.
“A-Already on it sir!” stuttered Stotz nervously.
“And while your at it try and get a signal out to space-command headquarters on Cyrus 3, it’s never too early to get them in the loop.”
To Stillman these measures seemed somewhat unnecessary: “But aren’t you all getting excited over what may turn out to be just a natural phenomenon?” he asked innocently.
The Captain turned towards Stillman, towering over the young man in his dark green uniform. His patrician nose acted as the gun sights for cold blue eyes that bore into his opponent’s nervous face.
“Nine times out of ten I would say you were right, Mr Stillman,” he conceded. “But, this is my space-ship and my crew, thousands of light years from the nearest help in an unchartered part of the sky. What your friend here,” he gestured to Jane, “has detected may well be a marauder ship, or some anti-terran faction out to cause mischief or god-alone-knows what else. So unless you want to find yourself walking home all the way back to Rochdale University or wherever it was you sprang from I suggest you make yourself useful and try help us to ascertain whether the ship is about to come under attack or not!”
Having delivered his rebuke the Captain span on his heels and marched over to the other side of the bridge where he continued barking orders. Stillman looked shaken by his verbal roasting and Jane looked cross with him as well.
“I was only making a suggestion,” he whined.
“Don’t provoke him!” snapped Jane. “He’s got a difficult enough job as it is without your bloody quibbling!”
Stillman conceded the point and agreed he would go and make himself useful. Jane went to assist Stotz with locating where the EM pulse came from. Her assistant stood for a moment, studying the mass of activity around him on the bridge and wondering what exactly he could offer. Eventually Stillman assigned himself a seat at the navigation console under the vast holographic display of the asteroid field that dominated the small circular bridge. He scanned the surrounding space for signs of unusual activity, the sensitive instruments taking the miniscule amounts of light radiation available outside and converting them into readable images. It was no exaggeration to say that, this deep in space, without the ship’s sensors the crew would not be able to see anything of the asteroid field around them. Nothing except for when the great silhouettes of the space boulders occluded the stars.
All Stillman could see now was these same rocks in fine detail, thousands upon thousands of the blessed things stretching out into the inky blackness that enveloped them. “There’s nothing going on out here!” he grumbled resentfully. He turned away to refocus his eyes momentarily when it happened. “What was that!” he exclaimed.
“Did you get it as well?” asked Sellers, one of the navigation officers. “I swore I just saw something blip across the screen.” She leant over Stillman’s position to examine his readings.
“I-I thought I saw something glinting for a second,” he said anxiously.
“Yeah, you know, like metal or glass, not rock like anyway.”
“There’s a lot of ice out there, you sure it wasn’t that?” she postulated.
Stillman tried hard to recall the vague impression he had got out of the corner of his eye. “Something metallic, definitely- and moving a hell of a lot faster than all those other rocks.”
“What have you got?” demanded Forrester, barging his way into their workspace.
“Nothing on the sensor logs Captain,” sighed Sellers. “But both Stillman and I thought we clocked something out there.”
Forrester turned to Morrison, a bulky bearded man with a permanent sour expression on his face: “Do a laser-scope Jack, find out if anything is following the ship.”
Forrester turned to Stillman. “So, are you as confident as you were ten-minutes ago that we’ve nothing to worry about Mr. Stillman?”
Stillman coughed nervously: “I must admit it is quite unsettling,” he agreed.
“Yes, quite unsettling,” Forrester said darkly.
Morrison reported from his initial scans. “Sir, have five bogies on the screen!”
“Put them up Jack! Go to red alert- Lieutenant Stotz any luck with that message to Space Command?”
“N-negative sir,” stuttered Stotz. “Only getting static on the m-monitor.”
Forrester turned to his Steersman: “Forty-five degrees hard to starboard Mr. Roberts.”
The ship changed course and increased speed towards the edge of the asteroid field.
“They’re turning to follow us Captain,” said Morrison, monitoring the flickering lights on the laser-scope.
“How long to we clear the asteroid field and can go to translight speed?” demanded Forrester.
“At least twenty minutes Captain.”
“Increase speed to 0.1 c.”
Jane suddenly noticed a spike on the EM display.
“Captain, another pulse is building up- much stronger than the last, Christ it’s almost on top of us!”
Forrester was about to order his Steersman to take evasive action when it hit. The ship lurched with a leviathan shudder that blew out every light and instrument panel on the bridge. Darkness, noise, confusion, the crackle of flames. A frantic silhouette operating a fire extinguisher on a burning screen. The smell of ozone and damp wiring. Then deep, impenetrable darkness and silence.
After an immeasurable gap in time the emergency lights flickered on and bathed the bridge in a livid crimson glow. Stillman noticed the blacked out screens first, the electromagnetic pulse must have blown out every system on board the ship; they were floating blind and helpless in space.
A scream brought his attention round to where Jane was sitting, she had just discovered that Stotz was dead, a lump of Plexiglas screen hurled at high velocity into the centre of his skull. Stotz sat frozen at the moment of death, a look of astonishment on his face as the blood pitter-pattered onto the deck.
“Report!” bellowed Forrester.
“Nothing but emergency systems operating Captain,” said Morrison. “Even the hand-held energy weapons are down.”
Forrester checked his own neutralizer gun to confirm this last bit of news. “Damn!” he barked, hurling the useless lump of metal across the bridge. “We better break out those old carbines you collect Jack.”
“But Captain, they’re antique ordinance, we don’t know if they even work.”
“They’ve all we got man! Besides, if the enemy is of any kind of flesh and blood they should cause him some damage. Come on people, we’ve work to do!”
Just as he finished his sentence there was a hollow metallic knocking noise from above them and the ship vibrated slightly.
“Something has just landed on the roof!” exclaimed Stillman.
The remaining twenty-one crewmen and scientists divided themselves into teams of seven to cover the three airlocks into the ship. Stillman found himself with Sellers, Morrison and the Captain at the main airlock. He shivered in the cold darkness and wondered who it was that had reduced them to such poverty of circumstance. The twelve-hundred-year-old Colt 45 he held in his hand offered him no reassurance; he had never been fond of weapons of any sort. Morrison’s passion for guns from all eras of Earth history was a complete mystery to him. He looked over to where Sellers stood listening at the huge airlock door with a cup to her ear. Without their technology, thirty-second century humanity was forced to improvise.
“What are they doing in there Lieutenant?” asked Forrester.
“It sounds as if they’re repressurising the lock sir,” said Sellers.
“At least we know they breath air,” suggested Morrison.
Stillman was about to suggest that there could be an alternative explanation to this when he noticed that the paint on the airlock door was smoking. “Sellers look out!”
The warning came too late for Sellers who turned to run as the door began to glow red hot and groaned noisily. Subjected to enormous pressure the rivets that held the reinforced plating together began to shoot out at high velocity, popping around them like so many deadly champagne corks. When Stillman next looked up he saw Sellers sprawled out on the deck, blood trickling from her mouth.
“Fall back!” ordered Forrester. “Ready your weapons people!”
Stillman’s stomach was churning with terror and he found it hard to breath as noxious fumes escaped from the now rapidly melting door. The heat was unbearable now even from the five yards or so that they’d put between themselves and the airlock since Forrester had ordered the retreat. He tried his best to steady the heavy gun he held in his sweating hands. He was about to meet his first and possibly his last intelligent alien life form.
The door had now dissolved into a pool of liquid metal. As the heat rapidly dissipated a strange, lumpen shape began to emerge from the darkness of the airlock. Stillman rubbed his eyes in an effort to make sure they were seeing correctly. Something, hard, metallic and conical in shape was advancing towards them, pushing aside the twisted metal of the door with a mechanical forelimb. On its dome shaped head sat two angry red lights and dead centre between these was a glassy eye, swivelling on the end of a grotesque stalk. A grill like face, angular and cruel, was offset by the peculiar arrangement of black half-globes that studded its grey metal carapace in long rows down the conical midsection. The creature rolled along twitching its mechanical arms in anticipation of the kill. Stillman and all the others knew of these creatures, but only as half remembered stories. This nightmare was something from the depths of galactic history, thought to be long gone.
“My God!” said Stillman. “It’s a Dalek!”