Jane strained against the harness as the capsule shuddered around her, craning her neck for a better view of the ship they were hurtling toward. The Target.
“It’s massive,” Tom Compton, the pilot, whispered.
Jane could hear the commander and the pilot flicking oversized switches, tapping consoles, communicating in terse bursts of NASA jargon. Every crew member’s eyes converged on the screen that displayed their destination, enlarging rapidly before their eyes. She was stuck in the tier of seats below the cockpit, though, her view fragmented by the footrests of the four people on the level above. At this stage in the journey, she was the least important person aboard.
“I’ll be damned…they just turned on the porch light for us, boys!” Walsh crowed. “Open up a channel to Houston,” he ordered.
“What?” Bergen demanded from beside Jane. Then he muttered, “Son of a bitch.”
Jane twisted, heedless of the straps digging into her flesh. She knew what the Target looked like. How could she not? It was the backdrop for every lecture in Houston. The blown-up pictures that Hubble and various Mars mission probes had taken of the city-sized ship over the last sixty-plus years papered the walls of many of the non-public rooms at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Seeing it now, though…well, no photograph could have prepared her for it. It was massive.
From a distance, it resembled a hammerhead shark—a blunt head with a large tapering torso ending in a subtle ‘T’ shape, hanging in space. Its muted-bronze hull was intricate with extruded shapes, casting shadows upon itself, some areas gleaming more brightly than others. It was a beautifully moving study in texture, darkness and light.
A single asteroid hung in her field of view, some great distance away. Small motes of space dust caught the light between them as they drew closer, as the bulk of the ship filled the screen and the thrusters burned, pushing them toward the portal on the underbelly of the beast.
And there were lights, ostensibly for them to take aim at. If they’d seen those before, they’d have mentioned that at Johnson, she was certain.
A welcoming beacon? Jane tried to swallow, but her mouth had gone dry. She’d been told all the evidence pointed toward the Target being derelict.
She adjusted mentally to this development. She’d play the role of translator, then, presumably learning an audible language, rather than deciphering symbols and text left behind. It was the scenario she’d hoped for. A cold thrill coursed through her in a wave.
“You’re saying those just came on? Just now?” Bergen demanded. His brow was knit and he glared at the screen.
“Indeed, they did,” Compton replied.
Bergen turned to her. “Looks like they’re ready to meet you, Doc.”
She forced a tight, tolerant smile. It was the best she could do. It didn’t make sense that he called her “Doc,” because they were all PhD’s or MD’s. But, she guessed it was better than “Indiana Jane,” which is what he’d called her at first.
“Go ahead, Commander. Channel is open,” Compton said.
Walsh’s voice was even and cool. “Houston, this is Providence. We have eyes on the Target and they have lit up our proposed docking site to receive us. Docking procedure will initiate in T minus four minutes. Providence out.”
Mission Control would get the transmission in 26 minutes. It was comforting to know that even at this kind of distance Houston was still listening, though it took almost an hour to hear back from them.
The capsule reverberated with the thunderous sounds of small bursts of booster firings as Walsh maneuvered it into position to dock with the other ship. Earth’s greatest intellects engineered the capsule painstakingly around the alien dock. Somehow they’d extrapolated exact dimensions from photographs of the thing. It was mind-boggling and filled her with doubt. How could they possibly have gotten it right? What if it isn’t even a dock at all? What if they were about to connect to a waste-disposal chute?
Her heart galloped in her chest. In minutes she’d be stepping up to do her thing with no idea whatsoever of precisely what or whom she’d be facing. Dr. Jane Holloway would be Earth’s ambassador. Why her? Because some accident of birth, some odd mutant gene, some quirk of brain chemistry, gave her the ability to learn new languages as easily as she breathed. Did that mean anything once she’d left the safe embrace of planet Earth? She was about to find out.
She noticed the fingers of one hand trembling and gripped the armrests with determined ferocity. She’d maintained her dignity this long—she wasn’t about to let go of it now.
The unending, stifling journey was over. The nightmare of sameness, of maddening confinement, of desperate loneliness and unrelenting, forced togetherness, done. They’d finally climb out of this fragile, aluminum/lithium-alloy sardine-can that had kept them safe from the vacuum of space for ten months. They’d actually made it there alive.