Lots of twists and turns in store this time out. Grab some tea, hang on and enjoy the ride.
[P.O.D. \\ Alive]
Out of the night and out of the dark…
USNSF Hyperion 10 September 2115
Captain Brennan looked at Ripley – then at Ripley’s reactivated Gordon – pure distrust manifest in her eyes, and in her heart. And she had a very bad feeling about this stunt; Admiral Adams would haul her up before a review board for letting Ripley do this without even mentioning it beforehand, let alone approving such a dangerous and unauthorized side-trip. But the truth be told…she understood Ripley’s motives. Walter was the one big unanswered question, and by going after Covenant and the Company ship that question had been shoved aside, pushed from further consideration – and Ripley just wasn’t having any of it…
The cooperative Walter from Engineering was sitting at the helm, while Gordon sat at the ECM panel looking for any sign of Covenant’s Walter on his displays, leaving Ripley free to keep an eye on both synthetics.
“Don’t look so down, Louise…” he said to the concern he saw in her soul.
“You shouldn’t be doing this, Admiral. We should send one of the Marines.”
But Ripley simply shook his head. “Creativity flourishes when tradition gives way to need…”
“And just what the Hell is that supposed to mean, Denton?”
He chuckled. “I think, back in the day when they still played football, they called this a Hail Mary Pass…”
But Brennan just shrugged. “I still don’t get it. Why you…?”
“It was my idea, Captain. I can’t ask anyone to fade the heat for this one.”
“Alright,” Brennan said, nodding her tacit approval. “If you follow the plotted re-entry you’ll have fifteen minutes of loiter time before you have to make your return burn. Sixteen minutes and you’ll spend the rest of your life in orbit. Got it, Skipper?”
“Got it. Uh, if that ends up being the case I’ve left a video file on my public drive for you. It’ll be worth your while to read it in case we screw the pooch down there.”
“Understood.” He thought he saw a tear in her eye so he turned away.
Ripley looked at the countdown timer on the cockpit panel, then he nodded at Walter and the shuttle’s doors began closing – so Captain Brennan stepped off the loading ramp and fired off a salute before she turned and left the hanger deck.
“All systems nominal, Admiral,” Walter said as he continued scanning his panel. “Hanger deck depressurizing normally.”
“Okay,” Ripley sighed, turning and looking at his Gordon unit, and he saw it was wearing headphones and scanning the three possible frequencies that might reveal Covenant’s Walter. “The citadel is still in darkness, right?”
“Yes, Admiral. Local sunrise begins in eleven minutes. We should arrive over that general location in forty three minutes. Hanger deck depressurized, hanger door one now opening.”
“Hyperion to Shuttle One, how do you read?”
Ripley put on his headset and replied. “Hyperion, One, five by five.”
“One, Field dropping in ten seconds. You are clear to launch on my mark.” The controller began counting down from fifteen and suddenly the view ahead changed from solid black to verdant green as the Field generator cut out. “Five-four-three-two-one-MARK, and Shuttle One – you are go for launch!”
The shuttle left the bay at 25 meters per second and once she was a hundred meters off the port beam Hyperion’s Langston Field reactivated – leaving nothing but a black hole in space.
“Ticonderoga to Hyperion,” Ripley heard Admiral Adams say over the COMMs net, “did you just launch a shuttle?”
Ripley switched his mic over to the ship-to-ship frequency. “Hyperion Actual to Ticonderoga Actual. We’re going to swing around the planet for a quick recon of the city down there.”
“Denton! Are you on that shuttle?”
“Affirmative. We’ll be back up after one orbit.”
“Roger. Good luck.”
“Gracias, Chica. Hasta luego.”
He got no reply from her with that one, so he switched back to Hyperion’s TRACON and checked-in. “Hyperion, One, starting roll program and we have the re-entry window.”
“Roger,” TRAffic CONtrol replied.
“Walter, start the clock.”
He looked through the shuttle’s curved blast-shield and he could see the terrestrial terminator clearly now… ‘So the citadel has to be somewhere near that line…’ he muttered.
But just then the derelict alien ship came into view.
Yet…something didn’t look right.
“Hyperion, One, get a camera on the remaining alien ship and transmit the feed to me.”
It took a minute but a live feed soon popped up on one of the cockpits displays and he studied the image for a moment. “Hyperion, One – am I looking at battle damage on the near side of that ship?”
The image flickered and the magnification increased tenfold. ‘Men’ in hard spacesuits were firing lasers into the ship – and then Ripley gasped when he saw smaller white creatures pushing off the ship, flinging themselves towards the space-suited ‘men’…
Ripley studied the situation for a nanosecond – then he switched to the primary fleet channel. “Hyperion Actual to all captains. We’re committed to re-entry now, but we’ve got to try and effect a rescue of that ship’s crew going EVA now. Ticonderoga, detach one of your DEs and a tanker to rendezvous with us after we come back up from the surface; Hyperion, launch Shuttle Two with Marines and a medical detachment to attempt a rescue. I count twenty-three, repeat two-three ‘men’ in spacesuits exiting the ship now, and their suits apparently have maneuvering capability. They seem to be moving away from that ship at high velocity. Brennan? You still on the net?” he said.
“What would you do if your ship was overrun, or being overrun by some kind of hostile organism?”
“Probably exactly what you’re thinking, Admiral?”
“A scuttling charge. Detonating some kind of self-destruct charge.”
“Admiral…it could be a nuclear device. Should anyone close on that ship when…?”
“Understood. Brennan, I need you to work out an intercept for the men, not the ship, okay? Plot the trajectories of the escaping MMUs and work out plots that take Shuttle Two to the largest group.”
“Transferring incoming data to your helm now, Admiral,” Brennan said.
“Walter? Stabilize our re-entry and keep us under 1G as long as you can.”
“Admiral?” his Gordon said excitedly, so Ripley turned to face him. “I have Covenant’s Walter unit on channel seven at this time. Would you like to speak to him?”
“Channel seven, Admiral.” Gordon said, smiling.
Ripley stared at Gordon then reached for the panel and hit the touchscreen, but then he also hit the share and the record buttons, sending the conversation over the net to both Hyperion and Ticonderoga.
“Hyperion Actual to unit on planet surface, identify.”
“Staff officer Walter Weyland from the colonization ship Covenant.”
“Transmit your identicode – now.”
Gordon looked at the screen and nodded. “Identity confirmed, Admiral.”
“Walter, what’s your status?”
“I am located in a locked room in the city center, on top of a small building with a scanning radio left by Covenant’s landing party. There are usually several hostile organisms nearby, but they only come out at night.”
“Your location will be in daylight in less than a half hour.”
“In order to land in this area you will need full sunlight or an extremely bright artificial light source.”
“Standby, Walter. We are attempting a rescue operation at this time.”
“Of who, may I ask?”
“Well, Walter, they aren’t human.”
“Sir, I can understand and speak their language.”
“Understood and standby. We are entering our re-entry corridor at this time.”
Ripley switched channels. “Hyperion, One, how long before Shuttle Two launches?”
“We just finished repressurizing the hanger deck, Admiral. As soon as the Marines are onboard she’ll launch. We now have the aliens on radar and our ETA is fourteen minutes, fifteen seconds, given a two minute 1.5G burn to enter their geosynchronous orbit. And Admiral, we have reason to believe that Midshipman Standing Bull is onboard your shuttle.”
“Oh fuck,” Ripley sighed. “Well, ain’t that just peachy, and thanks for all the good news.”
“One, Ticonderoga” Admiral Adams said. “Escort and tanker moving to establish orbit at this time. The rest of the Fleet is maintaining course for our pre-established transfer burn.”
“Hyperion concurs,” Captain Brennan said. “Twenty minutes to burn.”
“Okay, Brennan. We’ll try to catch up to you after we get the situation here under control. And Ticonderoga, thanks for the assist.”
There was no reply – which caused Ripley to whistle and grin. “Man, is she pissed, or what?”
“Yes, Admiral,” his Gordon replied, “I’d say she is royally pissed.”
Ripley turned to the cargo bay and walked down the long corridor to the ramp that led into the cavernous hold. “Oh Thomas?” he called out in sing-song, using his best imitation of an eight-year old prankster’s voice. “You can come out now!”
One of the weapons lockers creaked open and Midshipman Thomas Standing Bull crept out into the open – his gaze cast down, his hands behind his back.
Ripley was mad as Hell – but throwing a shit-fit wasn’t going to help anyone just now, so he took a deep breath and nodded. “Get up front and work the COMMs panel, and while you’re at it, try to make yourself useful,” the Admiral snarled, giving way to the young warrior as he galloped past.
When he got back to the cockpit he looked at the retreating image of the alien ship and he thought he could see smoke, actual smoke, pouring out of a – new – and very large hole near the other blast-damaged areas, but now parts of the ship’s hull near her stern were glowing reddish-orange, so he assumed the fight for control of the ship was still ongoing in other parts of the ship.
Then he looked forward…
Hot gases were streaking over the transparent blast shield – which meant it was time to get strapped-in – as the shuttle began to enter the planet’s atmosphere. “Thomas? Keep the antenna focused on Hyperion as long as you can.”
“Gordon, where’s the terminator now?”
“The citadel is now in nautical twilight, Admiral, however Walter has advised that his location is almost completely surrounded by steep-walled mountains. We have lost communications with him as his unit is transmitting on very low power.”
“Understood,” Ripley said, involuntarily clutching the armrests as the shuttle began bouncing through the heavy atmosphere. “Look at the size of those storms!” he sighed as he looked ahead…
Walter looked at his display, then called up another page of data: “Storm-tops are approaching one hundred thousand feet MSL, Admiral, and the atmospheric pressure is unusually high for our current altitude. The lightning observed so far is more powerful than Terran lightning, as well.”
“Within design tolerances?”
Ripley looked at the main panel and noted they were now 80,000 feet MSL, or above sea level, and yet they were now inside a canyon defined by thunderstorms towering overhead – and the turbulence was growing vicious. “Is that a storm dead ahead?” he asked, pointing at the weather radar display in the middle of the instrument panel.
“Yes, Admiral. The red central portion is the area of highest precipitation.”
“Yes, I seem to remember that much. What’s the range scale?”
“This number right here, sir,” Walter said, pointing at the number 1-2-5-0.
“The center of that storm is, what, almost 700 miles wide?”
“What’s that hook formation?”
“Tornado,” Walter said – as he compensated for a violent series of sudden drops by adding power.
“Let’s say we avoid that area,” Ripley sighed, “…okay?”
“Gordon? You receiving anything?”
“Only the homing beacon, Admiral. Still no COMMs at this time.”
“Walter? ETA to the citadel?”
Walter switched screens and engaged the autopilot while he worked through the math. “Straight course twenty-five minutes. Deviating around the storm will add approximately five minutes given this deceleration curve, sir,” he added, pointing at diverging velocity vectors on an overhead display.
“Any rocks in these clouds?”
“Mountains. Any mountains we need to avoid?”
“None above fifteen thousand feet along either projected course, sir.”
“Thomas? You got COMMs with the escort?”
“Yessir, Halsey is on 243 megahertz. Getting some interference from lightning now, sir.”
Ripley nodded. “Gordon? Has Shuttle Two launched?”
“Yessir, they are currently closing on a group of fifteen survivors.”
“Advise the Marines to not shoot unless fired upon first.”
“I will repeat Captain Brennan’s instructions to them, Admiral.”
Ripley studied the radar display – especially the large hook return – nervously. “Can you overlay the mountains on this screen, Walter?”
Walter made the adjustment and Ripley could instantly see the synthetic ground mapping radar’s underlay, and the mountaintops even had numeric elevations where appropriate and he nodded his approval. “Got it,” he added unnecessarily, then he zoomed out and saw clear skies beyond the massive storm ahead – so he relaxed – just a little.
As the shuttle skirted the storm the ride eased a little, too. “Thomas, keep talking to Halsey, and keep the updates coming.”
“Yessir. Shuttle Two is now taking on survivors.”
“Jesus,” Ripley muttered under his breath. “First contact. And it had to be like this.”
“Admiral,” Gordon interrupted, “Captain Brennan is EVA with the Marines.”
And he smiled at that. “Good for her! That’ll be one for the history books!”
Then Gordon spoke again: “I have Walter on COMMs, Admiral. He is reporting sunlight in the valley and also that the remaining organisms in the open are retreating into the surrounding forest.”
“There’s two lucky breaks,” he muttered again, looking at the weather radar and seeing that a large window in the weather was opening up ahead, “but how many more can we count on?”
Coming in through a fjord-like valley after following an ocean inlet, Ripley was the first to spot the charred wreckage of Covenant’s shuttle… “Walter, slow a bit more and extend the camera pod, Let’s record as much of this as possible.”
As their shuttle turned onto the final approach to the citadel he noted stands of recently toppled conifers – until the remains of the crashed horseshoe-shaped vessel came into view. “Extend the EM pod, Walter. Let’s see if there’s any residual radiation from a reactor plant.”
“Am I mistaken, or is this ship smaller than the ships we saw in orbit?” he asked.
“Yessir, it appears to be about two-thirds the size of those craft. Shall I attempt a more precise measurement?”
“How far to the citadel?”
“Less than two kilometers, Admiral.”
“No, I want to get in and out of here as fast as we possibly can.”
“Citadel in sight, Admiral,” Walter said, nodding with his head in the general direction. “Shall I extend the aft cargo ramp now?”
“Negative. I’m going to use the port-side entry and an emergency ladder. Thomas, come with me now. Walter, you and Gordon get imagery and all the air samples you can think of.”
The Admiral and the Midshipman ran back to the main passenger door and disarmed the lock before activating the opening mechanism, and as the door retracted inside the hull Ripley pulled a thirty meter long ladder made of blue nylon webbing from its case. Once Thomas made sure the attachment points were secure the Admiral tossed it out the door – just as the shuttled yawed into a banking turn to bleed off all their remaining speed – and there he was. An auburn haired Walter standing atop his makeshift COMMs shack, waving up at them with a smile on his face.
“He’s lost a hand,” Standing Bull cried. “Shall I go down and assist him, Admiral?”
“Let’s see how he manages first.”
The ladder swung into place and Walter reached for it, grabbing hold on the first try, and Ripley went to the intercom and called the cockpit. “Get us away from here, Walter, but slowly.” When Ripley turned to go back to the door he saw that Thomas had found a rope and tied a bowline with a large loop in it, and he was lowering it down.
“Slip it under your arms if you can!” Thomas called out, his voice barely audible inside the roar of the huge geared turbofan engines the shuttle used when in oxygen rich environments. And it only took a few moments before Covenant’s Walter clambered aboard, his clothing fairly ragged but looking otherwise in decent shape. ‘Besides the missing hand, of course…’ Ripley thought.
“Thomas, you and Walter get the ladder and ropes stowed,” Ripley said as he triggered the door and watched it close tight, then he re-engaged the safeties and went to the intercom. “All aboard and secure back here, Walter. We’re going to decontamination and will come forward when we finish with that.”
“Understood, Admiral. We are 1500 meters AGL and climbing. Bio-scans were negative, sir. The unit appears unaffected and clean.”
Ripley turned to Walter. “Anything I need to know before we get out of here?”
“Yes, but first you are being referred to by military rank. Why?”
“Admiral Denton Ripley, US Naval Space Force. And you are Walter Weyland, correct?”
“Yessir. So, this is a military ship? But…I’m confused.”
“Oh, don’t be. Covenant’s computer was dropping message buoys along your track, so we’ve been keeping up with events that way.”
“I see. Admiral, the shipboard computer misidentified the source of our initial mechanical damage. Mother advised we had been hit by the shockwave from a nearby stellar ignition, but I have been making observations from nearby observatories on the surface.”
“Yes, Admiral. The city below was a small colony of astronomers posted here centuries ago. The star Capella was once a binary system, and Capella was the smaller, secondary star in that system. The original primary star was an ancient supernova, and most remnants of the star’s collapse and explosion have dissipated since, however the remaining core eventually collapsed into a neutron star. The shockwave Covenant experienced was produced by a further collapse of this remaining neutron star…”
Ripley eyes went wide. “Are you telling me the remnant is undergoing further collapse?”
“Yes, Admiral, and that was the colony’s purpose…to study this collapse from a relatively safe distance.”
“So, what you’re saying is a magnetar is undergoing development? Near Capella?”
“Yes, Admiral. Also, the records that I’ve been able to translate so far lead me to believe the colonist’s cosmologists think that a magnetar will form and then collapse rapidly, leading to the formation of a relatively small black hole.”
Ripley eyes were blinking fast now as he tried to process the implications. “Will this impact earth?”
“Unknown, Admiral. I’d say doubtful, at least not in the next two to three hundred years, but without further study…”
“Do you know anything about Langston’s discoveries?”
“The stellar tramline hypothesis? Very little, sir.”
Ripley nodded. “I’ll need you to download the relevant files and give me a rundown on the situation after you have processed that data. Thomas, take Mr. Weyland to the data port and get him hooked up. I’ll get the transfer protocols set up.” Ripley turned and led them from the decontamination room up through the long, narrow corridor to the cockpit and he went to the pilot’s seat on the left side of the panel and started authorizing the transfer of the highly classified information to a just registered Walter unit, then he slipped on his headset and flipped the comms frequency over to the fleet channel…
“Hyperion Actual to Ticonderoga Actual, come in.”
“Go for Actual.”
“Admiral, we’re developing new information down here that there’s a collapsing neutron star near Capella, and that magnetar formation may already be well along in this process. Begin monitoring for shockwaves and magnetic displacements, and would someone start monitoring our Langston Jump Point? If this magnetar forms behind Capella relative to our position, we need to know how magnetic tidal interactions within the star are going to impact the location of our Jump point.”
“Denton?” Admiral Adams replied. “What’s going on down there?”
“We’ve recovered Covenant’s Walter. He advises that the citadel was just a minor colony of astronomers that had been sent to monitor the neutron star’s collapse. And Admiral, I’d recommend we abandon pursuit of Covenant at this point, at least until we know more about this situation.”
“Based on what this Company robot just told you? Denton? Have you lost your mind?”
“Admiral? What are you implying?”
“That’s a company robot, Denton. And he’s just been in contact with a Company ship. A Company ship in pursuit of Covenant, if I’m not mistaken…”
“So, you think…”
“Of course I think that, Admiral. And so should you. Of course they’d like us to stop our pursuit. Of course they’d like a free hand in developing whatever they think they’ve gotten their greasy little hands on. Weyland got his start in the weapons business, in case you’ve forgotten…!”
“Received,” Ripley said noncommittally as he changed frequencies. “Shuttle One to Shuttle Two, I need a sit-rep!”
Captain Brennan came on, sounding more than a little pleased with herself. “We got ‘em all, Admiral, and we’re almost back at the Halsey.”
“Did you leave Chen in command?”
“Okay. Don’t dock until we do. I want Covenant’s Walter on hand to translate during the de-brief.”
“Understood and concur, Admiral.”
Ripley could feel the heavy Gs of the shuttle’s orbital burn and after scanning the panel he realized they had almost reached orbit. “Walter…that was the smoothest transition I’ve ever experienced! Well done!”
“Thank you, sir. Admiral Adams doesn’t trust us, does she?”
“She struggles with it, Walter. She had a bad experience once, with a David.”
“Understood, Admiral. Our ETA with Halsey is now one-five minutes.”
“Admiral,” Gordon said casually, “there has been a large magnetic event on the far side of Capella. I am mapping force-lines of the anomaly now, as well as the incoming shockwave.”
“ETA leading edge of the shockwave?”
“Two hours ten minutes.”
“Start a countdown timer.”
Ripley switched back to the fleet comms frequency. “Hyperion Actual to Ticonderoga, please have your astronomers begin recording the shockwaves from the collapsing neutron star behind Capella. We now read one-three-zero minutes until arrival of a possible impact event.”
“Understood,” Admiral Adams replied, “and Denton, preliminary assessment by astronavigation concludes that the Langston point is being pulled inwards towards Capella’s core. It’s already too deep for us to escape the system.”
“Yes, I was afraid of that.”
“And Denton…sorry about my outburst.”
“Hey, facts always Trump our preconceived notions. No biggie. Let’s get all our minds on the problem at hand. We’ll figure a way out of this mess, one way or another.”
“Roger that, and thanks.”
Ripley double-clicked the transmit button and changed over to the Halsey’s TRACON frequency and called-in: “Hyperion One, Halsey, confirm your ILS frequencies please.”
“Hyperion One, say again?”
“Halsey, this is Hyperion Actual. I’m going to do a hands-on manual approach. Advise your spin rate and ILS frequency, please.”
“We’re at 1G and 118.75, spin rate at the outer door to hanger one is 2.3 meters per second, Admiral.”
“Admiral,” the Walter sitting beside him said, “is this advisable?”
“Probably not, but what the Hell.”
“Hyperion Actual, this is Ticonderoga Actual. Shockwave arrives one-two-two minutes, estimated intensity in excess of 10 Gs, repeat 10 Gs. Possible we can maintain hull integrity with our Fields up, and we should survive in G-couches, but Covenant has no such protection.”
“Any ion traces left by that Company ship? They had to enter the system using a star other than Capella.”
“Will start scanning. How long ’til you dock?”
“Matching spin-rate now. We should be onboard in five minutes.”
“Understood. Check in with me as soon as you can; I’m trying to work out how we turn all our ships now.”
“Hyperion Actual, this is Patton Actual,” Judy Caruthers said to Denton. “Our long range scans have that Company ship reaching Covenant in one-ten minutes.”
Ripley sighed. “So, we finally ran out of luck,” he sighed. “Well…goddam…we almost pulled it off…”
“Admiral?” Gordon replied. “What’s wrong?”
“If that ship docks with Covenant it’s likely her crew will be overrun by the same creatures we saw coming out of the alien ship. And that Company ship has both the Drive and the Field…and they know the back door out of this system.”
Ah yes, I think I see the problem,” Gordon said, smiling gently.
[Robyn \\ Dream On]
© 2022 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | all rights reserved. This is a work of fiction, all characters and events are fictitious in nature though key story elements and character references/circumstances derive from the work of others. First among these is Sir Ridley Scott’s film Alien (1979); his Prometheus and Covenant films serve as prequels to this short story. All references to an Alderson (zero time) Drive, as well as the Langston Field needed to utilize the drive, derive from The Mote in God’s Eye (1974) and The Gripping Hand (1993), by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.