With a shriek, one of the dinosaurs–the largest in the pack–pounced on Captain Sterling, digging its claws into her back, pushing her facedown on the floor. Her helmet shattered. She screamed in pain, but the dinosaur’s teeth closed around her head, and with a twist and a loud crack, the screaming stopped.
“Run!” Commander Roth shouted, pulling a gun from his utility belt. “RUN!”
Ann bolted for the gaping hole in the wall, hearing nothing but gunfire and animal shrieks behind her.
“Long thought extinct,” Talie said over the noise, “these dinosaurs have returned to life thanks to the people of Ushakaron, who sent this ship to rescue them 65 million years ago. Sadly, this ship never reached its destination, never delivered the dinosaurs to their new home.”
* * *
“Intruder alert!” the alien computer announced. “Intruders have sabotaged cryogenic containment in section 13. Automatic security protocol initiated.”
According to her pressure gage, Ann had already used over half her oxygen. She came to a stop, panting for more air.
“Keep going!” Roth yelled, and Ann heard more gunfire.
“Alert!” the computer said, “Internal security system has malfunctioned. Automatic systems unable to neutralize intruders. Security personnel, report to section 13.”
Roth passed Ann, dragging Bixler behind him. Bixler was shivering, and ice crystals covered his face and hands. The blue fluid that blasted from the panel must have been cryogenic coolant.
Ann ran after them. Though her spacesuit was designed for comfort, it was not designed for strenuous exercise. The boots were too heavy even with their magnetic fields switched off, and the flexible fabric wasn’t flexible enough.
Frail light sputtered from the corridor walls accompanied by the sizzling sound of burning circuitry. Deep cracks ran through every surface, and metal fragments lay scattered on the floor.
“EVA team to command module,” Roth said, “do you read?”
“We read you, Commander. We’re seeing some strange activity out here. Othneil’s Object just lit up like a Christmas tree. What’s going on inside?”
“We’ve run into some trouble,” Roth said.
“Unauthorized transmission detected,” the computer announced. “Traced to unidentified spacecraft. Automatic defense protocol initiated.”
“Othneil’s Object is changing color,” the command module reported. “It’s turning red. The light seems to be expanding around us, and…”
The commlink shut off.
“Command module?” Roth said, pressing a free hand to his commlink. “Command module, report!”
The mechanical voice spoke again: “Enemy spacecraft destroyed.”
“No!” Ann shouted, stumbling to a halt. She tried to cover her eyes, but the stupid helmet got in the way. She banged her fists against the glass in frustration, tears streaming down her face.
The combat specialists ran down the corridor a moment later. They were both bleeding, their spacesuits ripped and torn.
“Hostiles have backed off,” Kurtz said. “Seems they don’t like tungsten bullets.”
“We’ve lost contact with the Meriwether Lewis,” Roth said.
“They’re dead,” Ann said, sinking to the floor, still pounding her helmet. “They’re all dead!”
The other combat specialist, a man named Suarez, cursed in Spanish. The computer repeated its intruder alert. Somewhere nearby, the astronauts heard the pitter-patter of scaly feet. Suarez fired a few rounds back the way they’d come, and they heard the dinosaurs flee.
“Commander,” Kurtz said, “I recommend finding a more secure position.”
“Agreed,” Roth said, hoisting Bixler up in his arms.
Ann didn’t get up. Her eyes were red, her erratic sobbing had depleted her oxygen even further, and her suit smelled of fear and sweat. She unlocked her helmet and took it off, taking her first breath of the alien ship’s air. It smelled musty and tasted dry.
Ann sensed someone standing over her, but she didn’t have the strength to look up.
“I like your earring,” Talie said.
Ann shut her eyes, praying for Talie to go away.
“Why don’t you tell us about it?” Talie said.
“It’s a… family heirloom,” Ann said. “It’s a good luck charm. Nothing more.”
“You aren’t fooling any of our viewers,” Talie said. “You’ve tried to disguise it, you’ve decorated it with that emerald, but anyone can see that’s a Hykonian translator clip.”
Ann covered her earring, concealing it as best she could. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It must be useful in your line of work,” Talie said. “It’s programmed to interpret billions of languages.”
“Specialist Murphy,” Roth said, “on your feet!”
Ann looked up and saw everyone staring at her. Roth, Kurtz, Suarez… and Bixler, partially thawed. Talie smiled, her face aglow with excitement.
“Is this true?” Roth said as Ann stood up.
Ann’s mouth opened, but she couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Let me see it,” Roth said.
Ann removed her gloves so she could work the clasp on her earring. Her hands shook, but she got it loose and placed it in Roth’s waiting palm.
“How does it work?” he said, examining its delicate, curving shape.
“I don’t know, sir,” Ann answered. “You attach it to your ear, and somehow you understand whatever you’re hearing.
“According to the family legend, my great, great grandfather got it when the UFO crashed at Roswell. There was a survivor, a Hykonian, and my great, great grandfather used that translator clip to understand what the Hykonian was saying.”
Ann glanced at Talie. “I never believed that whole story, but the translator clip was real. I used it to ace Spanish, Japanese, and Russian in high school then I took it to college and aced all my courses in extraterrestrial languages.
“Now I find out you’re real too. You were there at Roswell, weren’t you?”
“What about the rest?” Ann said. “About the Hykonians and their war with the Vorpons, about the men in black, about the 99 white balloons? Is it all true?”
“Yes,” Talie said. “It’s all true.”
“And did my great, great grandfather really kill a Vorpon with his bare hands?”
Talie laughed. “Okay, maybe it’s not all true.”
Roth gave Ann her earring back.
“Specialist,” he said, “you mean to tell me you got your Ph.D. in xeno-linguistics by cheating?”
“Yes, sir,” Ann said, choking on the words.
“I’ll have to report this when we get back to Earth.”
“Yes, sir,” Ann answered.
Ann turned away from everyone, from Talie, the reporter who’d exposed her fraud, from Roth, Kurtz, and Suarez, who all glared at her in disgust, and from Bixler, whose big, brown eyes were full of disappointment. He’d once commented on Ann’s earring, on how pretty it looked, on how the emerald matched her eyes.
“I wouldn’t worry,” Talie whispered. “None of you will make it back to Earth anyway.”
* * *
The dinosaurs struck again and again. Each time, Kurtz and Suarez killed a few and drove the rest away, but everywhere the astronauts went they heard scurrying feet and hungry growls.
Bixler had a plan. Using the alien ship’s technology, he believed he could boost the signal from his commlink. The USS William Clark was close enough to come to the rescue.
Talie and Cognis followed the astronauts, but Talie didn’t ask any more questions. She seemed bored. Even when the dinosaurs attacked, she stood there playing with her hair, fixing her makeup, or straightening the little, purple ribbon tied around her neck. She spoke only to Cognis, telling him what shots to get and asking if he had any ideas to make the story “sexier.”
Guided by Bixler’s palm scanner, the astronauts found a massive chamber in the underbelly of the alien ship. Pillars supported a series of zigzagging walkways and other structures. Above, the metal ceiling glowed white. Below, another level of walkways and another below that descended into a dark abyss. At the bottom, the astronauts heard the thrumming of heavy machinery. Based on his scans, Bixler guessed they’d found the aliens’ real propulsion system.
As soon as Bixler got the door open, Ann noticed more alien writing overhead. In big, boxy letters it said… something.
Ann had always thought it was funny how she’d fooled everyone. On her first day of xeno-linguistics, the professor played audio recordings from the Hykonian first contact incident. Ann had understood every word. Once she learned the Hykonian alphabet, she merely had to read her assignments out loud phonetically, and her translator clip provided all the answers. The same for every other known alien language.
She impressed everyone: her teachers, her classmates, the NASA recruitment officers. They all praised her, and she always chuckled at how easy it was.
It didn’t seem funny now.
“I bet it says, ‘Don’t feed the animals,’” Suarez joked.
“Or, ‘Beware of guard dinosaurs,’” Kurtz added.
“Guys, cut it out,” Bixler said.
Ann opened her hand and examined her translator clip. She’d left her gloves behind, along with her helmet and oxygen tank. None of that junk would save her. She’d wanted to leave the translator behind too, as if she could toss it aside and all her guilt with it; but after so many years depending on her “lucky earring,” Ann couldn’t just throw it away.
Somewhere close, a dinosaur screeched, and the walkway shuddered under heavy footsteps. From another direction, a second dinosaur answered the first, then total silence.
Kurtz and Suarez aimed down their sights, searching for targets. Roth readied his pistol.
“Bixler,” Roth said, “do whatever you’re going to do and do it fast.”
“A-Ann,” Bixler said. “I mean, Specialist Murphy, could you help me?”
Ann nodded, closing her fingers around her translator clip, squeezing tight.