Bixler started unzipping his spacesuit.
“Umm…” Ann said as Bixler stripped down to his undershirt and shorts, “what do you want me to do?”
“Do you know how our commlinks work?” Bixler said.
“You press a button and talk?” Ann answered.
“They use neutrino waves rather than radio waves,” Bixler explained, ripping his spacesuit apart, yanking out the internal circuitry. “Nothing can disrupt neutrino waves. Nothing. That’s why NASA uses them. But do you know what Othneil’s Object is, aside from an alien spaceship? It’s the largest source of neutrino emissions within a hundred light-years! That’s the reason astronomers first took note of it. So you see what that means, right?”
“No,” Ann said.
Bixler looked up at her with a big, toothy smile. There was something about him whenever he got excited about sciency stuff that was kind of cute.
“If I tap into those neutrino emissions,” he said, “I can turn Othniel’s Object into a huge transmitter. We’ll send the loudest S.O.S. in history!”
Ann smiled, but she didn’t share Bixler’s enthusiasm. This wouldn’t work. If it was going to work, Talie and Cognis would be here filming it, but they were nowhere in sight.
“Where did Talie go?” Ann asked.
“Hopefully the dinosaurs dragged the bitch off and ate her,” Kurtz answered.
“Amen,” Suarez said.
Kurtz and Suarez tried to cover every possible angle of attack, but too many large, bulky contraptions blocked their view. To the dinosaurs, the astronauts must look like prey trapped among some weird, shiny boulders. As Ann glanced from one path to another, she imagined the carnivores sneaking ever closer.
“Okay,” Bixler said, grabbing Ann by the shoulders and spinner her around. “Alien technology or not, I know a neutrino flow regulator when I see one, but I don’t know which of these controls lets me adjust the neutrino flux density.”
Ann stared at all the little, alien words printed on all the little, grey buttons in front of her.
“Bixler,” she said, “I don’t even know what a neutrino flux thingie is much less how to spell it in alienese.”
“An educated guess is better than a stab in the dark,” Bixler said. “Besides, I can’t believe you cheated the whole way through college and grad school. You must have learned something.”
“Not much,” Ann said, looking away from Bixler’s wide, innocent eyes.
“Ann,” he said, reaching for her hand then awkwardly pulling away. “If we’re going to get home, I need your help.”
Ann sighed. She didn’t have the heart to tell him they’d never get home. Instead, she clipped her earring on and reached for one of the controls.
Bixler stopped her.
“I already scanned that one,” he said. “It will vent radiation into this room.”
“Okay,” Ann said, noting the three square symbols and the geometric patterns inside them. “That one means radiation. What does this one do?”
Ann experimented with several buttons. Sometimes a voice recording would say, “Error,” or, “Access denied.” When one switch told her, “Tau neutrino levels at 89%,” she almost squealed with joy until Bixler told her tau neutrinos wouldn’t work for their purposes.
The noise of metal scraping against metal echoed through the chamber, followed by a loud crash. In the corner of her eye, Ann thought she saw the flick of a tail, but as soon as she looked it was gone. The walkway vibrated under speedy feet.
“Three, two, one…” Talie said. She and Cognis had returned, standing on an elevated platform marked with more unintelligible alien writing.
“These dinosaurs,” Talie said, speaking directly to the camera, “are a previously undiscovered species related to Dromaeosaurus, Troodon, and Velociraptor. In the future, this species will be called Sapiosaurus, a name reminiscent of Earth’s current dominant species, Homo sapiens.
“Like Homo sapiens, Sapiosaurus has an enlarged cranium, allowing for a bigger brain. Unlike their raptor cousins, Sapiosaurs have longer, more muscular forearms and–perhaps their most surprising feature–opposable thumbs.”
Cognis tilted his head back, panning up. Ann followed his gaze and saw a dinosaur climbing hand over hand up a dangling cable. At least a half dozen were already perched on the towering alien machinery, one atop the very neutrino flow regulator Ann and Bixler were working on. Its greedy eyes stared down at them.
“Oh my God,” Roth muttered.
With a piercing cry, the Sapiosaurs leapt from above. Two tackled Kurtz. Her weapon clattered across the floor. One dinosaur took her by the arm, the other by the leg, and together they tore her in half.
Suarez opened fire, killing a dinosaur in midair. The dead creature fell on him, flattening him under its weight. With all his might, Suarez struggled to push the carcass off himself.
The dinosaur above Ann and Bixler hopped lightly down, landing between them.
More dinosaurs rushed from cover, cutting off every possible escape. With quick bursts of fire, Roth forced some of the monsters back.
“Get behind me!” he yelled.
Roth cleared a path toward the door where they’d come in. Suarez pulled himself free and limped after him, but Ann hesitated. Several dinosaurs had encircled Talie and Cognis.
“Talie!” Ann shouted.
“Leave them!” Roth said.
“Talie!” Ann shouted again.
Talie glanced at Ann, a devilish smirk on her face.
“Seal the door,” Roth said.
“We can’t leave Ann,” Bixler answered.
“I gave you an order,” Roth said.
Ann turned around to find her way blocked by three dinosaurs. Roth shoved Bixler aside and slapped the door control himself. It slid shut.
Ann dove for Kurtz’s rifle, but a sickle-clawed foot kicked it away. The gun plummeted off the walkway and into the dark abyss below.
Ann looked up and saw the scar-faced dinosaur glaring at her. It snarled, and in her ear Ann heard a clear translation: “Food.”
The largest dinosaur, the one who killed Captain Sterling, approached Talie, sniffing her.
“No smell food,” it said. “Smell magic. Smell evil.”
Talie snickered at that.
“Not food,” the dinosaur concluded, its gaze shifting to Ann.
“My food!” the scar-faced dinosaur said.
“Who is alpha male?” the larger dinosaur asked, his feathers bristling. “You challenge me, Scar?”
Scar snarled something untranslatable but backed down.
As the Alpha approached Ann, his mouth drooling, Talie followed.
“Ann Murphy,” she said, “this is the defining moment of your life. You’ve heard the Sapiosaurs speak. This is one of the biggest discoveries in history! How do you feel?”
“Oh God, somebody help me!” Ann screamed. “Help me!!!”
“Alert!” the computer announced. “Unauthorized transmission detected.”
The dinosaurs stopped, all looking up at the ceiling.
“Voice of the Sky Demons!” the Alpha said.
Over at the control panel where Ann and Bixler had been working, Bixler’s rewired commlink beeped. “This is the USS William Clark. Your mayday is received. We’re on our way.”
“Hear voices, smell nothing,” Scar said.
“It is the Sky Demons!” the Alpha screeched. “They come for us again! Run! Run!”
As Ann lay trembling on the floor and Talie shook with laughter, the Sapiosaurs fled, tripping over each other as they went.
* * *
Little remained of Combat Specialist Kurtz. A hand. Half a leg. Some torso. Shreds of her spacesuit and a pool of blood with bloody footprints running away from it. Ann didn’t want to look, but she couldn’t stop staring.
“You never answered my question,” Talie said impatiently. “How do you feel?”
“How am I supposed to feel?” Ann answered.
“65 million years ago,” Talie said, “two space fleets fought a battle in Earth orbit. Some stray missiles hit the planet, causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. The people of Ushakaron, one of the races that fought in that battle, decided to save some of the wildlife–especially the Sapiosaurs, who showed early sparks of intelligence–and transplant them to a new home.
“But the war hadn’t ended. This ship was attacked, the crew killed. It’s drifted through space ever since. Without you, the last dinosaurs would have stayed extinct.”
“I wish they had,” Ann said.
“Interesting,” Talie said. “What a scandal that statement would cause coming from the Murphy.”
“What does that mean?”
“That’s what the Sapiosaurs will call you: ‘the Murphy.’ Would you believe back on Earth people are cheering for you?”
“We don’t have many viewers on Earth,” Talie said. “Not in this century. A few wacky people tinkering in their attics, a few students who got kicked out of MIT, a few secret agents with stolen alien technology. None of them can figure out how we do it, but they watch the news one day before it happens.
“Do you know what happened yesterday when they watched my story? They gathered their families together, the little boys and girls sitting as close to the screen as they dared, and they watched what you’re about to do. And they cheered for you. All across the world, people cheered for you.”
Ann shook her head. “Why?” she said.
Talie smirked. In an eerie flash, she and Cognis disappeared.
* * *
Ann tried to picture all those people back on Earth. She tried to imagine them cheering for her like she was a gladiator in the Roman Colosseum. What were gladiators supposed to say? “Ave, Caesar, something something…” Ann couldn’t remember. She’d cheated her way through Latin too.
Commander Roth made a more fitting hero. He’d stand there, his spacesuit covered in dinosaur blood, holding the severed head of a Sapiosaur in one hand and a huge machine gun in the other.
Or Suarez, mad for revenge for the death of Kurtz. Aboard the Meriwether Lewis, rumor had it the two of them were lovers. Ann could picture crowds cheering for him.
Even Bixler the physics nerd made a better hero than Ann. He’d win not by brute strength but by cunning. The audience would cheer for him.
But Ann, the rich girl from Arizona who’d lied and cheated and didn’t deserve to be an astronaut? Why would anyone cheer for her? She couldn’t even cheer for herself.