Spacesuits had improved since the days of Neil Armstrong. They were made from lighter, more flexible fabric. They fit like regular clothing, and the helmet allowed a full range of motion for the head and neck. Sensors monitored the astronaut’s vital signs to keep them not only alive but comfortable. Yet despite all these advances, they still made the same pressurized hissing sound when the astronaut breathed.
Waiting in the airlock, listening to the clicks and beeps of her life support system, Ann Murphy heard that same hissing sound in her ear.
“You ready for this?” Bixler said beside her, his voice crackling through the commlink.
“You bet,” Ann said. She had her lucky earring, the one with the emerald stud; she was ready for anything.
Ann would soon have an honor greater than Armstrong, greater than the first men on Mars or the first colonists in Alpha Centauri. She would be the first human to set foot on an alien spaceship. Ann stared impatiently at the warning labels on the airlock’s outer door.
“Lights are green,” a voice called from the command module.
“Roger,” Ann said. “We’re opening the hatch.”
Ann’s gloved hand touched the controls, and the door slid aside, revealing a pitch-black room. The darkness swallowed the light from Ann’s flashlight.
“I’m going in,” Ann reported, stepping forward with her magnetic boots. Shining her light at her feet, she saw a cold, metal floor with jagged cracks running through it.
“Looks like the unmanned probe was right,” she said. “The ship’s dead. No sign of the crew.”
Bixler followed, playing the role of Buzz Aldrin in this historic moment. “I’m detecting electromagnetic activity,” he said, checking his palm scanner. “Something’s happening…”
“Glot glomini ko Q’tixi,” a mechanical voice announced, and white light flooded the room, emanating from the walls, ceiling, and floor. The two astronauts shielded their eyes, cowering from the omnipresent glow.
“Did you understand that?” Bixler said.
Ann nodded. Her earring had provided a flawless translation. “It said, ‘Please identify yourselves.’”
“Murphy! Bixler! What’s happening?” the command module demanded.
“We’re fine,” Ann answered. “Just startled. We must have set off an automated system. Standby.”
“Hello,” Bixler said.
“Hi,” a cheerful, feminine voice answered.
Ann uncovered her eyes and squinted into the glaring light. She saw a woman standing before her, her golden hair shining, her clothes vibrant shades of blue. A man stood behind her, parts of his body gleaming silver.
It seemed the history books would have to mark Ann’s name with an asterisks because she was not the first human aboard this ship or even the second. Ann scowled at the strangers. “It can’t be them,” she mumbled.
“I’m Talie Tappler,” the blonde said. “This is my cameraman, Mr. Cognis. We work for the Tomorrow News Network. Would you mind answering a few questions?”
“The Tomorrow News Network is real?” Bixler said.
“Of course it is,” Talie said, flashing her media credentials. “Bringing you tomorrow’s news today since–this is the late 21st Century, right?–since 28,000 years from now, more or less.”
“So time travel is possible?” Bixler said.
“I couldn’t do my job without it,” Talie answered, smiling.
“You aren’t wearing magnetic boots?” Bixler said, staring at Talie’s high heels–or perhaps her long legs and short skirt.
“There’s artificial gravity,” she said stepping closer. Bixler was definitely looking at her legs.
“And breathable air?”
Talie sniffed the air. “Oxygen, nitrogen, a sprinkling of xenon, I think.”
“I detect 0.672% xenon gas,” Cognis said.
Bixler unsnapped his helmet and lifted it from his head. He took a deep breath and smiled.
“Go ahead, Ann,” he said. “Try it.”
Ann didn’t move. She watched Talie, watched her play with her curly hair, watched her lean to the side, accentuating her hips. Ann had learned to believe in many things, from aliens to magic translator earrings, but Talie Tappler, the legendary time traveling journalist? Ann couldn’t believe in that.
“We’ll start with the easiest question first,” Talie said while Cognis manipulated his oversized, camera-like eye. “What are your names?”
“Bob Bixler,” Bixler said, blushing despite his dark complexion. “That’s B-I-X-L-E-R.”
Talie’s attention shifted to Ann. Ann didn’t respond.
“Hmm…” Talie said after a moment. “I guess that’s okay. I already know who you are. You’re the Murphy.”
Talie laughed and returned to Bixler. Something about the way she regarded him–and the way he regarded her–made Ann very angry.
“So, Bob,” Talie said, her eyelashes fluttering. “May I call you Bob?”
“Of course!” Bixler said, giggling.
“Bob, tell me about your mission.”
“We’re explorers,” Bixler said. “We’re part of the crew of the USS Meriwether Lewis, one of America’s first light-speed starships.
“Twenty years ago, an astronomer named Gideon Othniel discovered a strange object floating just outside the Solar System. Based on further observations, scientists concluded Othniel’s Object was artificial, possibly an abandoned alien ship.
“The human race has had several noteworthy encounters with aliens since the 2040’s, but we’ve never gotten a close look at any of their technology. Othniel’s Object seemed like a good place to send us on our maiden voyage.”
“What are your job descriptions?” Talie asked.
“I’m a flight engineer,” Bixler said. “Ann–I mean Mission Specialist Murphy–is a xeno-linguist. She knows a dozen alien languages: Hykonian, Crolon, ancient Acelera…”
Talie smirked. “I bet she does,” she commented, her violet eyes flicking toward Ann.
“She even understood that automated message,” Bixler said. “Didn’t even have to think about it, did you?”
“No,” Ann said, her throat dry.
“What language was it?” Talie asked.
“Something based on ancient Acelera, I think,” Ann said. “A lot of languages are based on Acelera.”
Talie chuckled. Ann glowered back at her, but Ann’s freckled face could not match Talie’s sinister, bemused smile. After a moment, Ann looked away.
“Well, you’re here to explore,” Talie said, reaching into her breast pocket, “so go explore, and I’m sure I’ll see you both again soon.”
Talie pulled out an antique pocket watch. She turned the dial, and in an eerie flash she and her cameraman disappeared.
“Ann, did you see that?” Bixler said. “They just time traveled! She even used the pocket watch!”
With a toothy grin, Bixler activated his commlink. “You guys won’t believe this. There was a reporter here, a reporter and a cyborg cameraman. They just interviewed…”
“Murphy to command module,” Ann said, cutting into Bixler’s transmission, “we need a security team. I have reason to believe we’re in imminent danger.”
* * *
When the Coalition of East Asia built the first ever light-speed ship, the United States quickly outdid them and built two: the Meriwether Lewis and the William Clark. Each cost trillions of dollars. A Higgs displacement vortex reduced the ships’ mass to zero, making light-speed travel possible, and state of the art magnetic shields and inertia compensators made it safe. But that technology seemed pathetic compared to Othniel’s Object.
The alien spaceship was enormous. All the money in America–all the money on Earth–couldn’t build a ship so large, even if scientists figured out how the thing worked.
The airlock opened again, and four astronauts marched out, their magnetic boots clunking on the floor, the bright light reflecting off their helmets. Captain Sterling led the team herself, her hair tied in a tight bun, her lips pressed in a hard line. Her first officer, Commander Cliff Roth, followed, along with two combat specialists armed with kinetic rifles.
Sterling’s eyes roamed the room, taking in every detail, lingering on Bixler’s helmet tucked under his arm.
“Report,” Sterling said with a hint of her usual Southern drawl.
Bixler saluted. “Captain,” he said, “we found two members of the media here when we came aboard, a human and a human cyborg. They said they worked for the Tomorrow News Network.”
Sterling’s brow furrowed.
“I’ve heard about these people before,” Bixler explained. “When I was at MIT, some of the other grad students were studying chronomagnetic waves, energy waves that propagate backward through time. Someone thought the waves looked like television signals, so they hooked a chronomagnetic receiver up to a TV and voilà! They were watching a news program from the future.
“They said they saw both human and alien reporters, an android anchorman, and some creature called the Drenchling did weather. They even recorded some of the broadcast, but no one believed it was real.
“There hasn’t been any serious research on chronomagnetic waves since then. The whole thing became a big joke on campus.”
“Sounds like a big joke to me,” Commander Roth commented.
“Specialist Murphy,” Sterling said, “did you see the same thing as Flight Engineer Bixler?”
“I don’t know anything about TV signals or chronomagnetic waves,” Ann said, “but I saw the same people he saw.”
“You said you were in imminent danger,” Sterling said.