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FLUENCY(10)

By´╝ÜJennifer Foehner Wells



“Run like rats through a maze?” Bergen put in with an arched brow.

Jane swiveled to face him, scowling. “Don’t judge them, Dr. Bergen. We don’t know anything about them. You jeopardize the mission with comments like that. They could be monitoring us, even now.”

“You think they speak English, Doc?” Bergen said dryly.

Had they forgotten all the training? Jane put some snap in her voice, “We’ve been through this. It’s a mistake to assume anything. We have to remember their culture is completely foreign. They don’t think like we do. Perhaps they fear their appearance will frighten us. They may be shy—eager to observe our behavior before they show themselves. There could be hundreds of reasons that I’m not equipped to imagine.”

Walsh turned toward the base of the capsule. “I don’t think there’s any ‘they’ to be worried about, Holloway. It’ll be our job to figure out why that is.”

Jane grit her teeth.

Walsh pushed off for the cockpit. “We’ll give this some time.”

Bergen fiddled with an instrument. “It’s pressurized. We’re at about 12 psi now. I should go in there and take some air samples, at least.”

Walsh said, “No. Stay put for now.”

“But—” Jane started to argue, though she knew she was pushing it.

Walsh turned, an eloquent pirouette. “Under the protocol of this scenario, you’re working for me, Dr. Holloway. We’ll do this my way.” He proceeded to send another transmission to Houston, detailing what had occurred so far.

An elaborate “If this, then that” chart had been hammered out in Houston. Depending upon the circumstances they met at the Target, either she or Walsh were in command at any given time. Walsh wasn’t going to hand over the baton without proof that there was someone in there, which was fine. Jane had never wanted the command, but she did care about getting this right. First contact was a delicate thing, even back home, among humans. And this was far more precarious.

Walsh was following the protocols they’d hammered out in Houston. At some point, though, she’d developed doubts that human logic would mean anything out here.

Jane lingered with Bergen at the apex of the capsule. Bergen was peering into the ship, getting as close as he dared without incurring Walsh’s irritation. He was getting twitchy, checking his instruments and reorienting them on his suit. Through her helmet, she could hear the muffled scritch of the velcro peeling apart repeatedly.

“Which way is up?” she asked Bergen.

He thwacked her helmet with his gloved knuckles. “Turn on your comm, Doc.”

Damn. She’d hoped he could hear her speaking quietly. Must every word, every movement, be public? At least her thoughts were still her own. She turned the comm back on. “Which way is up?”

“Hm.” He gazed at her thoughtfully. “I was just wondering the same thing. In microgravity, it doesn’t matter. Yet, we still like to think of an up and a down orientation. They may as well.”

She nodded, as much as the stiff suit would allow. “Well, you’re the engineer. What do you think? Did they put the lights in the floor or the ceiling? There aren’t any other cues, are there?”

“Hard to say, since the lights are flush with the surface. It could really go either way.”

“Gibbs’ comment about the red carpet, though—and the way they turned on—made me think floor. You?”

“Mm. I’d like to get in there and take some measurements, but….” He glanced back toward Walsh with frustration.

Walsh studiously ignored their conversation.

“Does it resemble the craft at Area 51 in any way?”

“That’s minuscule by comparison. So far I don’t have anything to compare.”

Jane inspected the smooth material that lined the alien craft. It was a gloomy color, not quite beige, not quite green, and darker than she would expect for a vessel in deep space from a purely psychological point of view—it didn’t reflect light. But the passageway itself was spacious.

“It seems to be roughly human in dimension, doesn’t it? If we were to construct a vessel of this size, wouldn’t our hallways resemble this in size and shape?”

Bergen’s eyebrows shot up as he considered. “Not really. You’re comparing it to structures on Earth with gravity—where people are standing upright. I’d expect something a bit smaller for us, to conserve space and air. That looks to be about two and a half to three meters from floor to ceiling. I’d design something closer to two, or even less for a hallway.”

Jane stayed alert, hoping someone might still come forward. If the vessel were manned by a skeleton crew and the controls to open the hatch were far away, they could arrive any minute.

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