“That’s the place, all right.” Aubrey lowered the binoculars and shoved them back into Sean’s backpack. “Definitely the UFO in there.”
“Told you,” Sean muttered around a handful of peanuts. “What else could have made that hole in the wall?”
“I don’t know!” She hissed, crouching down behind the low, overgrown hedge row that ringed the old apartment complex. “But don’t you think looking before we go in makes a little sense? What if it was just an electrical fire and we got trapped when it spread?”
“Fuck.” Sean chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “Guess we’d be dead.”
Aubrey rubbed the bridge of her nose with both hands. “Then maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t do that.”
“Yep.” He dusted his hands off. “Let’s go look at it now.”
Audrey sighed and trailed after Sean as he headed quickly down the sidewalk and towards the house. It had taken them nearly forty minutes to narrow down exactly where in the large complex the smoke was coming from, then pick their way through the convoluted building and road layout to their current location. The vegetation, well out of the neat boundaries set for it by the landscapers who had planted it, had kept them from venturing off the preplanned pathways. Now that they had an end in sight, though, Sean was carefully picking his way over fences and pushing through boundary hedges in an effort to shave a few seconds off the time it took to reach the UFO.
Not that Aubrey felt there was a real rush. UNIGOV insisted that it didn’t monitor Earth orbitals for aliens, as peaceful first contact would be best established in the welcoming environment of a human city, and that sounded like a sensible enough policy to her. But as she gamely squirmed through a hedge row behind Sean she had to admit that, once again, his enthusiasm was catching. She wouldn’t have gone salvaging with him if he didn’t make picking old motor parts out of abandoned vehicles so interesting. She probably wouldn’t have though much of a UFO if he didn’t go to look at it either.
And it was a UFO. They’d seen it coming down through Sean’s binoculars in the early morning dusk and Sean had been sure right away that it wasn’t a UNIGOV copter or plane. Something about design aesthetics – although she wasn’t sure why the folks at UNIGOV would build a ship for space the same way they did a plane for atmosphere. But the angle and speed it had come in at? They were both sure it had to have come down from orbit. And two hours later they were close enough to lay eyes on it. “Do you think there’s some kind of procedure for this, Sean?”
“UNIGOV’s got procedure’s for everything, Bri. But they always talk about aliens landing somewhere populated – y’know, looking around the planet first then picking out a place with lots of people. These guys either didn’t do that or crashed because they were in trouble.” He stopped long enough to shoot her a curious glance. “What if they’re hurt and need help? Or just pack up and leave because they think the whole planet’s empty? Someone’s gotta talk to ’em before that happens.”
They pressed on. Three minutes later they were at the back of the townhouse look in through windows shattered by the UFO’s impact. Sean unslung his backpack and pulled out a length of cloth normally reserved for padding parts they’d collected. He used it to dust most of the broken glass and wood out of the window frame and then laid it across and climbed through. Aubery followed as he hurried through the empty room, kicking rubble aside, to approach the UFO. A large hatch was open on one side.
“Look at this, Bri.” He pointed at a small puddle of viscus, shining liquid pooled in a corner of the hatch. “Maybe they’re some kind of aquatic species?”
Aubrey edged around to one side of the vehicle and frowned. “Sean. I don’t think this is a UFO. Look at this.”
She pointed at the nose of the pod. Sean stepped away from the hatch and moved so he could see as well. “FRG 154 – C.” Confusion tinged his voice. “Aubrey. Those are roman letters.”
“And arabic numerals.” She sighed. “I guess it’s not a UFO after all.”
“Well it still shouldn’t have crashed like that.” Sean hurried back to the hatch, concerned again. “Hey, anyone in there? You okay?”
Inside the unlit building most of the insides of the pod were dark and Aubrey followed while fishing her flashlight out of her backpack’s tool strap. “Sean, I’m not sure this is a good idea. This might be a UNIGOV thing.”
“Just give a light and we’ll make sure no one’s hurt.” He was already resting one foot on the edge of the hatch. “Hello?”
In the middle of his last call there was a sudden scraping, banging noise and then hands landed in Aubrey’s back and she was shoved headfirst into the hatch. Sean landed on the floor within at about the same time. A split second later the hatch banged shut behind them.
“Okay,” Priss said, stepping back from the drop pod. “Now that we have two civilians locked in our pod, what are we going to do with them?”
“Are we sure they’re civilians?” Lang asked. “We have no idea what the local uniforms look like but their gear looked pretty standardized. Backpack, flashlight, tool belt.”
Priss shook her head. “The hair was wrong. Even without the necessity of maintaining vacuum seals on a helmet, any military worth its salt regulates hair short. Anything longer than this,” she pulled her short brown hair out to its maximum regulation four inch length, “is a liability in close quarters. They both went way over that mark.”
“Well I wasn’t paying attention to that but I’ll take your word for it.” He eyed the pod from where the three of them stood on the far side of the pod’s room. “They didn’t really show much discipline in approaching the building, either. So civilian is a safe bet. Did we lock anything we really need in there with them?”
“Just the last rack of power cells,” Dex said. “And the demolition charges. But if they’re civilians we’re going to have to drag them out of there before we destroy it anyway, so that can probably sit for now. Fusion burners aren’t something you can use to breach a hatch, so even if they did decide to try and get out that way…” He shrugged and mimed an explosion.
“Lovely.” Lang sighed. “I can’t imagine there’s any tech in there Earth couldn’t have discovered for itself in the last two hundred years, especially with the larger supply of scientific minds and infrastructure. But we shouldn’t leave the data core behind, even if we do wipe it. They’ll have to come out sooner or later. Maybe we’ll get some intel on what the hell’s going on around this planet. We’ll decide what to do with them after we hear what they have to say. Priss, what’s the deal with the satellite uplinks we saw on the buildings? Anything we can use?”
She pulled out her AI assistant and pulled up some notes. “Short answer is, I don’t think so. It’s all old civilian stuff and comes with a couple of problems…
Sean was pacing again, not that there was very far to go in the pod. He could basically take three full steps in any one direction before he’d have to crouch down or sit in a seat, so he spent a lot of time turning around. After the initial shock of being tossed into the container Aubery had opted to close one of the footlocker style compartments in the side of the ship and sit on that. There was too much of the weird goo in the seats for her to be comfortable sitting there.
Most of the stuff was pooled down by the nose of the pod, understandable given the angle it rested at, and she’d spent a good five minutes poking it with the toe of her shoe to see what would happen. It reminded her of the cornstarch water she’d made in science class when she was seven. She pulled her water bottle out of her backpack, thinking she should take some with her, but stopped when she realized they didn’t know how long they’d be stuck in there. Feeling oddly deflated she shoved the water bottle back into her pack and leaned back against the wall, staring at the puddle of goo despondently.
Suddenly Sean was perched on the edge of the locker, taking her by the shoulders and gently turning her so he could look her in the face. “Hey, hey, it’s going to be all right. Just relax.”
She took in a sharp breath that, halfway through, somehow turned into a sob, and she realized she’d started crying. Embarrassed, she rubbed at the tears and shook her self slightly. “Sorry. Sorry, I’m being such a femme.”
“No, no, it’s okay.” He gave her a weak smile. “I wasn’t helping much, being super male and pacing all over the place like that. You know we’re gonna get out of here fine, right?”
The pallor in his face wasn’t the most reassuring thing but she still did her best to match his smile with one of her own. “Yeah. I mean, they turned the lights on for us when they closed the hatch so how bad can they really be?”
“I think that was automatic.” Seeing that that wasn’t the right thing to say Sean hurried to add, “But hey, we’ve got air and a couple of days of food so I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
A new surge of panic rose for a second before she could suppress it. “You’re sure we have air?”
“Yeah.” He jerked a thumb towards the back. “I felt it coming through some vents over there by the lights in back. If we could pry them off we might be able to at some kind of outside access and…” He trailed off as Aubrey’s expression wasn’t exactly encouraging. “I’m sure the UNIGOV folks will let us out soon.”
Aubrey’s stomach did a little flip flop. She wasn’t entirely sure of that. To hide her doubts she asked, “What if they’re not UNIGOV?”
“Who else is going to be flying around near Earth orbitals?” He asked.
As if on cue, the hatch popped and swung open again. Silhouetted against the outside were three people, all dressed in identical clothes. The garment looked like a slate gray coveralls but hard, glistening black segments covered the torso, shoulders and upper arms and legs. She couldn’t tell, at a glance, how the black and gray materials were joined with each other or what they were made of. There were two men and one woman, the woman’s sex clear from the added segmentation in her torso necessitated by a generous bust. The man in the center was tallest, well over six feet, and his black hair cropped almost all they way down to his scalp, while the other man was almost a foot shorter and his sandy hair was cut in a longish flat top. The woman was almost as tall as the first man and her black hair curled down around her ears in a conservative but attractive bob. All three were carrying compact, short barrelled weapons held across their torsos, barrels down.
Her mind jumped to the obvious conclusion but Sean said it first. “Holy shit. Martians.”