Ann hesitated, unsure how much to reveal.
“There’s a…” she began. “There’s an old, family legend. The… the Murphy family secret, we call it. Supposedly, my great, great grandfather once met a woman named Talie Tappler. She claimed to be a journalist from the future. The woman we just met… and the cyborg with her… they looked an awful lot like the description I heard as a kid.
“According to the legend, wherever Talie goes a lot of people die. It’s just the kind of story she covers: the kind with high body counts.”
Sterling pondered this, reexamining the alien architecture around her in light of what Ann had just said.
“Captain,” Roth said, “you can’t take this seriously. Time travel is impossible, and a news organization broadcasting the news backward through time–that’s plain stupid.”
“Nevertheless,” Sterling said, “sensors detected an anomalous energy reading, and the commlinks recorded a third voice in this room. Possibly a fourth. Maybe time travel is possible after all, or maybe Othniel’s Object is haunted.”
Sterling grinned at her first officer, but he didn’t seem to find this amusing.
After radioing back to the command module, the astronauts moved out to investigate the mysteries of Othneil’s Object. Sterling ordered everyone to stay close and be extra cautious, just in case the Murphy family secret had any truth to it.
Ann felt safer with the captain and the combat specialists there, but she still didn’t feel safe enough. When she was a child hearing the old story before going to bed, she’d felt a terrible sense of helplessness. Some people were destined to die; others were not. Only Talie Tappler knew the difference, but as a journalist she reported the news. She refused to change it, refused to interfere, refused to save even one life.
If Ann was destined to die here, 400 billion miles from home, no one would save her.
* * *
Though the walls, ceilings, and floors of every room glowed with inner light, they did not glow equally. Some flickered in dim yellows, their surfaces cracked or shattered like glass.
Ann stayed close to one of the combat specialists, a husky woman named Kat Kurtz. Kurtz carried her rifle braced against her shoulder. With her grim expression, she looked like she’d massacre even a tiny mouse if it showed itself. For the first time since they met, Ann liked Combat Specialist Kurtz.
They found the first bodies in a small, circular room. A dozen aliens sat strapped into safety harnesses, their emaciated skin pulled back to reveal square teeth and a trio of empty eye sockets. Ann didn’t see any obvious injuries. Perhaps they’d asphyxiated or died of some disease. Whatever killed the crew, Ann hoped it had been quick.
“I’ve found something!” Bixler called from up ahead.
Ann lagged behind, getting a closer look at one of the corpses. She’d never seen an alien in person before, not even a dead one. She’d read about them, studied their languages and cultures, but to see one up close… in a way, these hideous creatures were beautiful. Ann wondered what life had been like for them.
“Murphy!” Commander Roth shouted.
“Sorry, sir!” Ann said, hustling after the others.
Bixler had discovered a ruptured wall and beyond it a vast chamber crammed with equipment. A deep gash ran through the floor, but otherwise the room appeared undamaged. As the astronauts entered, the enveloping white light changed to pulsing red, and alien gibberish boomed around them. Ann paid closer attention this time and realized it sounded nothing like ancient Acelera.
“‘Please identify yourselves,’” Ann translated. “‘This is a restricted area. Security has been notified of your presence.’”
Ann’s spacesuit kept her at a pleasant 72 degrees Fahrenheit, but her scanners measured a sharp drop in external temperature when she entered the room. A layer of ice coated the machinery, and she could see Bixler’s breath freezing in the air.
Large, cylindrical devices lined each wall. Ann approached one, touched it, and felt its coldness through her glove. She rubbed some of the frost away, uncovering rows of small, blocky symbols.
“Can you read that?” Sterling asked, examining the writing over Ann’s shoulder.
“Of course,” Ann said, instantly regretting her hasty reply.
She wiped more ice away, trying to see if there was anything else. There wasn’t. She ran her fingers over the words, counting each letter. She scratched at one of the ice crystals which stubbornly refused to come free.
The automatic warning repeated, the words echoing in the vast chamber.
“It says,” Ann started, running her fingers over the words again, “‘Cylinders contain radioactive fuel. Do not open without supervision.’”
Ann’s hand trembled as she touched the next set of symbols. 72 degrees or not, the inside of her suit felt far too warm.
“‘Contact chief engineer if you have any questions.’ Umm… ‘The security department will be notified if you open these cylinders without permission.’”
Ann turned away from the alien text. “The rest is just instructions on what to do if there’s an emergency. The usual ‘run for your life’ kind of stuff.” Ann forced herself to laugh.
“So this is part of their propulsion system?” Bixler said.
“I… I guess so,” Ann said. She chewed her lip, glancing back at the multitude of pipes, wires, and circuitry behind her.
“Commander Roth,” Sterling said, “contact the command module. Tell them what we’ve found and have them send a preliminary report back to Earth. The folks at mission control will flip over this!”
The automated warning repeated. The lights continued to flash red.
“Specialist Murphy,” Bixler said, “could you read this panel for me?”
Ann stepped around some coiled cable. The pressurized hiss and pump of oxygen in her helmet sounded much louder than usual.
“It’s another radiation warning,” Ann said, barely looking at the lines of square symbols.
“How do I open it?” Bixler asked, feeling around the panel’s edges.
“I don’t think you should,” Ann answered. “It says there’s a lot of radiation. A whole lot.”
Bixler checked his palm scanner. “I don’t detect any radiation,” he said. “It should be safe.”
Ann stared at the symbols for a moment, pretending to concentrate really hard. “It doesn’t say how it opens,” she said.
Bixler grimaced. He pointed to a different group of markings. “What about this one?”
As Ann and Bixler worked, a sound echoed from the hallway: the click clack of high heels followed by the stamping of heavy, metal feet.
“Oh, you’re all here!” Talie said with delight.
Ann’s head whipped around. “What do you want?” she said.
“I’m not here for you,” Talie answered, smirking. “Not yet. I’m here for Captain Sterling.”
Sterling motioned for the combat specialists to lower their weapons. She approached Talie, wary of the blonde reporter.
“I take it you’re the infamous Talie Tappler,” Sterling said.
“That’s me,” Talie said.
“What are you doing here?” Sterling asked.
Talie seemed impatient, almost bouncing with enthusiasm to get on to the next thing. “No, no,” she said. “I’m the reporter; I ask the questions.”
Sterling frowned and folded her arms across her chest.
“I try not to say or do anything that might give the future away,” Talie said, “but I have to ask you this now because, for obvious reasons, you won’t be able to answer later. Captain Sterling, how do you feel being the first human ever eaten by a dinosaur?”
“What?” Sterling said.
“This is an auspicious occasion,” Talie said. “In fact, you’re the first thing any dinosaur has eaten in 65 million years! Don’t you feel privileged? Don’t you have anything to say?”
Sterling met Talie’s eager smile with a blank stare. “What dinosaurs?” she said.
“Got it!” Bixler said.
Ann turned to look. Somehow, Bixler had managed to open the panel on his own. It popped off, spewing thick, blue fluid at him. The mechanical voice spoke again, and in her ear Ann heard the translation: “Warning: cryogenic containment breach. Cryogenic containment is shutting down. Specimens are emerging from hibernation.”
Metal banged against metal. The pipes and tubes entangled throughout the room sputtered and rumbled. One by one, the cylinders burst open, and something stirred inside. Ann saw the twitching of arms and legs and tails.
“Mr. Cognis, get a shot of that one,” Talie said, pointing to one of the cylinders.
As everyone watched, a large animal fell out, flopping on the floor. Ann thought it was dead until she noticed it breathing, its chest rising and falling in a slow, laborious rhythm. It had an elongated, bird-like snout, black, leathery skin, and a few mangy feathers around its head and neck. Each foot had a cruel, sickle-shaped claw.
A second dinosaur stumbled from its cylinder. It paused, its eyes blinking at its strange surroundings.
Ann heard a low growl behind her. Feeling slightly lightheaded, she turned around to find a third dinosaur right behind her, one with thick scars cut through its face and down one side. The scar-faced dinosaur slumped against its cryo-tank and took a deep breath. White vapor issued from its nostrils.
“Captain Sterling,” Talie said, “this is your last chance. Do you want to say anything?”
Sterling just stood there, her jaw hanging open, as more dinosaurs emerged from cryogenic sleep. Some collapsed, not fully revived from eons of slumber. Others walked around in a stupor. One yawned, its tongue curling in its mouth.