Courtesy Hunt for Alien Earths
Courtesy Hunt for Alien Earths

For the Terribleminds challenge, Five Random Sentences.

“Tell us everything that happened,” General Hancock said.

“Just… start from the beginning,” Professor Ashby added. “And take your time.”

Clutching his tea, the pilot gave a short nod. “I’m still not entirely sure how it began. We set down on Epsilon Eridani B2 right on schedule. We got some photos from the moon’s surface, but nothing to indicate large fauna. Atmosphere, flora, water – everything else matched our deep-space telescopes’ images and preductions. Commander Laramie set out with the science team and Lieutenant Carlyle.”

“While Carlyle’s security team remained on the Zheng He with you, is that correct?”

“Yes, General. There were only two of them, Stiles and Tully. We were talking about what they might find out there. If the moon was already inhabited, and if so by what – you know, space mermaids, old gods, Giger horrors, that kind of thing.”

“When did you first realize that something was wrong?” The psychiatrist was taking notes tirelessly, adding her own observations to the pilot’s account.

“It was when Carlyle missed her second check-in. She never missed a check-in. She was the biggest stickler for protocol you’d ever want to meet.” The pilot paused, looking down at his hands, slowly closing them. “I…”

“Major.” The general’s voice was softer, but still had the weight of authority. “We need you to continue.”

“Stiles and Tully were talking about going out after them. Zeroing in on their locators and tracking them down. I was preparing a message packet for home. I knew it’d take months to get back to base, but I figured if I didn’t make it home…”

“You did the right thing, Major.” Ashby didn’t look up from her notes. “Your message arrived not long before you did. But we don’t know what happened after you sent it.”

The pilot took a deep breath. “I thought Stiles and Tully left. I didn’t hear a thing for about half an hour. And then…” He swallowed. And then… there it was. It walked inside the spaceship and then it sat down.”

“Describe it, Major. The ship’s internal cameras were not able to get a clear shot of it.”

“General, it… it was big. Like an oversized… ant. It sat at Laramie’s station and just… looked at me. I don’t know if it spoke English, but I tried to talk to it. I asked it what it had done to the others.”

“How did it respond?”

“It just kept looking at me, with these two big compound eyes, and then its… antannae started twitching. That’s when I saw… I saw…” The pilot bowed his head and brought his hands to his face. He ground his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to remember what it had showed him…

Ashby laid her hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, Major. You’re safe now. You’re home.”

General Hancock stood and began to pace. “The Zheng He‘s flight computer indicates you lifted off from the surface just three hours after setting down. How long was the alien in there?”

“Most of that, I think. Carlyle was supposed to check in every half hour, and it… it came in after she didn’t check in a second time.”

“The folks over in the labs are fascinated with the idea of telepathic communication.” The psychiatrist smiled. “Can you tell us more about how it spoke to you? Did it know our language?”

“No. It only used images. Sounds. It was like… it was like seeing the world through a different pair of eyes, hearing it through someone else’s ears.”

“Did it indicate if there are more of its kind there? How many? Are they armed?”

“They’re strong. From what I saw happened to Commander Laramie…” The pilot shook from head to toe, leaning back from the table to wrap his arms around himself. “… It was horrible.”

The psychiatrist put down her pen. “I think we can stop for now. You should get some rest, Major.”

The general said nothing, but glared at the psychiatrist. They both left the room, closing the door behind them. After a moment, the recording equipment picked up the pilot’s quiet sobs.

“What do you think?” The general watched the psychiatrist review her notes.

“I think we’re lucky we got as much as we did out of him. He’s been through an unspeakable trauma. This crew trained and lived together for 18 months before their 4 month near-lightspeed trip to that moon, and he had to spend the last 4 months alone on that ship that was his home.”

“We still don’t know much about the alien threat.”

“With all due respect, General, considering we landed on that moon without communication of intent and with fully armed security detail, we might seem like the alien threat to them.”

The general raised an eyebrow. “And what do you suggest we do about it?”

“Give him time to grieve. To heal. Then approach the situation for the sake of gathering intelligence, rather than interrogating him.”

“Hmmmm.” General Hancock turned to one of his subordinates, who was sitting by the recording equipment. “Get Professor Stevens from Science Division on the comm. We’ll need him and his boys to have a look at Major Armstrong’s brain.”

Professor Ashby blinked. “General?”

“I can’t sit around waiting for him to feel better if his alien friends decide to follow him out here. We have to take precautions, professor. We have to be ready.”

General Hancock turned and walked away without another word. Professor Ashby watched him disappear through the doors, then turned back to the observation window, looking at Major Armstrong. The pilot was wiping tears from his face, trying valiantly to regain his composure. She looked down at her notes, and the question she kept asking herself all throughout the debriefing.

What if the alien Armstrong describes never existed?

She turned to General Hancock’s subordinate. “Where is the Zheng He berthed?”

“Over in Drydock Beta, ma’am.”

“Get me a forensics team. Hancock wants Armstrong’s brain? I want a look in that ship.”