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FLUENCY(4)

By´╝ÜJennifer Foehner Wells



“Compton, activate the hatch’s video feed.”

“Video feed transmitting, Commander.”

Walsh grabbed a handhold and pivoted to look at the camera behind them. “We’ll do our best to make humanity proud,” he said firmly, then swung back around and smoothly unlocked the outer door. He braced himself against the footholds and handholds placed strategically for this purpose, and, with Bergen’s help, swung open the hatch. Then, he and Bergen pushed back, assuming positions behind her with Ajaya and Gibbs. Compton alone remained in the cockpit.

The Target was mere inches away, its metallic surface pockmarked, each dimple dulled by the smoky sheen of space dust. Was it textured by design, as a result of its journey, or by battle?

Blood rushed in Jane’s ears. She noticed a humming or buzzing in her head, barely perceptible at first. The pitch started as a soft, low clamor, climbed slowly, then crescendoed in a high-pitched, frenzied crash that would have knocked her down if she’d been holding herself upright against gravity. As it was, she just floated there, bewildered.

Was that panic, fear, or…what? She darted a glance back. Bergen wasn’t smiling anymore. Walsh stared straight ahead and didn’t meet her gaze.

Minutes went by. Nothing happened. Had they come all this way for nothing? Were they snubbed at the door? Still, they waited. No one spoke.

She felt drowsy. Thoughts burbled slowly through her brain, not quite reaching their logical conclusions. How long had they waited? Jane’s eyes drifted shut and she jerked, sending herself spinning. She scrambled to make it look like it was intentional.

Bergen extended an arm toward her, his brow furrowed. “Steady, Doc.”

She wrapped her fingers around his arm and squeezed. She knew he couldn’t actually feel it, but that didn’t seem to matter.

She heard a rumbling, metallic creak and righted herself quickly. What had appeared to be a solid wall, parted into seven or eight subdivided, swirling pieces, retracting before she could count them. Inky blackness extended before her, with no hint of anything visible, no sound.

“They have a flair for the dramatic, I’ll give them that,” Bergen muttered.

She should have shushed him, reminded him of his training, but she was held captive, breathlessly waiting for something to happen.

One tiny light flickered to life above her head, just inside, casting a pale, greenish glow. She watched, transfixed, as another one came on just beyond it, then another and another, slowly illuminating, one by one, beckoning down a long, wide corridor.

She gasped involuntarily. Space. She wanted to run through that space like she’d run over beaches and fields and forest floors as a child. That was her first thought. Fast upon it, came her second.

There was no one there.





2

Bergen arrived just as the class was breaking up, uncomfortably pulling on the tie he knew was too messy and shrugging in the jacket that didn’t fit quite right. They’d sent him to Stanford to meet with a linguist named Jane Holloway, to talk her into coming to Texas for an interview.

He told them to send someone else, but they were vetting eight other linguists at the same time and the pencil-pushers were busy. He’d done his undergrad at Stanford, they reasoned. They had something in common. Based on her profile, they insisted she was the most promising candidate and would be the easiest one to sell on the mission. Well, they were wrong.

Two women stood behind the podium in the small lecture hall, engaged in a hushed but heated conversation. One, a well-upholstered blonde, was perfectly coifed and primly decked out like a librarian in a long, narrow navy skirt and matching tailored jacket. She had pearls at her throat and pumps on her feet. She broadcasted uptight law-student vibes. She was in the process of laying out an argument, though he couldn’t tell what they were discussing. He imagined it was a dispute over grades. She was probably terrified to take home a B to daddy. It really was too bad she wasn’t showing more leg.

The other woman appeared to be standing her ground, but seemed taken aback, uncertain. She was more of a granola type. She must have grit in there somewhere, though, based on her file. She was trim, athletic, looked good in tight jeans and hiking boots, that was for sure.

This could be an interesting afternoon.

It was an old-school name, Jane. It brought to mind all kinds of interesting word associations. He’d been wondering, the whole drive up from Pasadena, what kind of Jane she would turn out to be. Jane of the Jungle—that was for sure. He wouldn’t mind playing Tarzan to that Jane, but that would be pretty unprofessional and could screw up his chance of going on the mission. Not worth it.

He cleared his throat to get her attention.

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