Book 1 - Alien? Cousins

Chapter 3 - Touchdown


“San Carlos, Survey ’21. We’re now over the marsh, headed directly for that empty lot. It’s not quite big enough for us; we’ll also occupy some of your empty tarmac for a few hours. We’re coming down faster than you’re used to, this is normal for us so please don’t be alarmed, we’re fully under control. Estimated touchdown is about one minute from now, we’ll confirm touchdown with you after landing. Thank you for your help, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Survey ’21. Have a safe landing, sir. San Carlos, standing by.”

Releasing his microphone switch and leaning back in his chair, the Captain said, “Master Pilot Sarah Hughes, it’s your show.”

“Thank you, Captain, I have manual control. Slowing – now hovering, landing lights and floods on, gear coming down – one leg’s gone, the others are now down and locked. Pad buffers inflating. Hello, there are some people coming out through a doorway along that wall to our left; as long as they don’t run under our pads they’ll be okay. Prepared to touch down.”

“Flight, turn off our ventral beacon. Master Pilot, rotate us to point the port companionway toward that group, please,” said the Captain. “As long as we’re going to have visitors, they might as well see what brought us here. Flight, when I signal you, please take propulsion off-line immediately to save power. Master Pilot, please set us down. If those people approach us before we’re fully safetied, please warn them off.”

“Aye, Captain,” said Sarah. “Rotating – rotating – descending – we clear the building easily, overhang it a bit – contact. We’re down, Captain. – Oh damn! Sorry, we just dropped some more parts; nobody hurt. Landing gear equalized and locked.” As she spoke, the First Officer entered the bridge, still in an emergency pressure suit but with his helmet open.

The Captain made a chopping gesture toward the flight engineer, who quietly said “Now!” and touched keys on his console. Immediately, several indicator lights there changed colors, others went out. On his ship’s status monitor screens, numbers and text changed rapidly. “Conn, flight. Propulsion is off-line and secured; landing gear is safetied; internal air pressure is equalizing with ambient. We stand taller than that building; I suspect we need marker lights, but haven’t shown any yet. Power storage is down to two-point-six percent; we can’t lift, but we still have ground structural reinforcement for about six hours and life support for about ten days. We are safe to secure from collision and vacuum protocols at your command, Sir.”

“Thank you, Flight, do that now. Show marker lights: top beacon and eight places around our rim. Match their color and intensity to the ones on those power transmission-line towers off to our west by the highway.” Activating his microphone, the Captain said, “San Carlos, Survey ’21. Touchdown nominal, engines off, please resume your normal operations.”

As the Captain spoke with the tower, the copilot Carole saw one of the people near the building start moving toward the ship, so she toggled a switch and spoke into her microphone: “Please remain clear of this ship for a few moments. We will advise you when it is safe to approach; that will be quite soon. Thank you.”

From the Captain’s speaker: “Survey ’21, welcome to San Carlos. Our night manager is on his way to meet you, please expect him in two or three minutes.”

“San Carlos, Survey ’21. Thank you, ma’am, we will be a few minutes securing our ship, he needn’t hurry. We’ll be turning off our radios now. Survey ’21, out.”

The Captain again activated the ship’s PA system: “Now hear this, now hear this, this is your Captain speaking – again. Secure from general quarters, I repeat, secure from general quarters. Please continue to observe power-conservation procedures until further notice. We have landed on Home, though not as we could have wished. Please observe Class Four groundside security: we’ll have visitors, please show them all due courtesy. Thank you.” He released his microphone button, looked at the First Officer, and said: “How bad?”

“Bad enough, Captain. Nobody on this Bridge lost family; not everyone else on board is so lucky. Both reactors are secured and using emergency cooling; the Chief’s crews are checking them over. Secondary pump room A is wrecked, it’ll need to be rebuilt. No one was in it. B must have caught a structural resonance node; it has minor damage we can repair here. Stores has new pumps, but we’ll need some other replacement parts dropped to us. Forward sick bay is gone, three crew members missing from there. Seven crew members known missing from cabins in the main damage zone on Decks C and D, two more known missing from Engineering for a total of twelve, plus fifteen still unaccounted for from the lab deck. Lots of noise-related ear injuries, we’ll have to cycle much of the crew for ear-damage reversal. We haven’t gone into the main damage zone yet, waiting until we touched down, so we don’t know what we’ll find in there. Flight, you have two technicians trapped in Electronics Compartment Two; they’re hurt but alive. That airlock’s jammed; rescue might have to set up a temporary ’lock and cut in. Captain, we have lots of bruises and minor injuries, eight crewmembers with major, two with critical injuries; those last two are on time dilation. Everything not well secured was thrown somewhere else; we’re not pretty. Reports are going to the Chief’s damage file, you’re getting the raw input now; it’ll be summarized as it’s sorted out. Third’s got a broken wrist and a concussion, said she’d ignore it until we touched down. I told her to report to aft sick bay. Morale is good considering the hit we took, we’re down and stable, and after all this is Home.”

“Thank you First, please hand off that report to Second; we’ve got more work for you.” He unbuckled his seat harness, stood up. “First, Sarah, Carole, you’re with me as shore party, let’s get cleaned up and go meet the locals. Flight, please ask the Chief to meet us at the port companionway with a damage assessment team, limit that team to five or fewer. No weapons; take com units, hand lights and note pads only. Make sure they stay under the ship and within our perimeter. Second, you have the conn, but I want you to get to sick bay when you can. Present priorities are to tend to the crew, any injuries or worse, then to the ship. We’ll be here for a while.”

“Aye, Captain, I have the conn, thank you Sir,” said the Second Officer.

* * *

“Myron, I see a shadow between those strobes, looks kind of elliptical, wider than high. Don’t hear anything from it, but then it’s coming in pretty fast. And I think we’re about to be overrun by our local emergency types.” As Al spoke, two fire trucks could be seen approaching across the field, and a siren was heard from the direction of the freeway.

“Mr. Cornelius, we’re going out to the ramp, this is far too important to miss.” Myron left the table, his computer and VCR still running. Picking up the camcorder, he walked past his sister, who was standing by the window talking into the cell phone.

“I’ll join you, Myron” said Ron. “We’ll leave this door unlocked for now, but please remember to shut it; there’s been a rat problem in the buildings on this side of the field lately.”

Ron Cornelius, 87 years old, was a retired Pan Am pilot, and while he considered himself now far too old to fly as a pilot, as a docent at the Hiller Aviation Museum across the airfield he enjoyed guiding visitors around the museum, and especially enjoyed introducing children to the mostly unknown early history of flight in the Bay Area. A B-17 bomber pilot over Europe during World War II, and later a military flight instructor before joining Pan Am, he had taught Myron and Alice’s father to fly before the Viet Nam war, and treated them like his own grandchildren. He had never lost the urge to go around limits, unable to sit idly by while bureaucrats wasted time and public monies. Now he went down the stairs to the main floor of the shop and unlocked the personnel door that opened directly to the airport tarmac adjacent to the empty lot where Survey ’21 had declared its intention to land.

“Dad’s on his way down, the police chief was visiting,” said Alice, starting down the stairs after Myron. “They should be here in another few minutes. The chief called the San Carlos chief; that’s probably him coming. It’s his town, they thought it would be a good idea to alert the medical and emergency response teams down here too, and one of their officers speaks Russian in case someone needs that. Still, that doesn’t sound like a Russian voice to me.”

“Me neither, Sis, but other than us and maybe China nobody else in the world has manned space flight capability, and none of us have anything ground maneuverable yet.” Stepping outside into the night, he looked up and blinked as a vast, silent shadow came to a gentle stop maybe 100 feet overhead, a single, intense red beacon pulsing at its center. Bringing up the camcorder and starting it, he said, “Uh – suddenly I don’t think that thing is from anywhere around here.”

White floodlights flared on all around the perimeter of the overhead shadow that was now slowly descending and seemed to cover more than half the sky, bathing the empty lot, the concrete tarmac, the fence separating them, and the rear of the building in warm, even light, and the red beacon shut off. A second, broken ring of lights had come on with the outer one; it was about two-thirds the diameter of the outer set of lights, and a third ring of lights was about one-quarter of that diameter. The middle ring of lights looked as if it should have had twelve groups of lights alternating with dark areas, except that one of the expected groups of lights was dark. From the spaces between the groups of lights in this ring were emerging eleven polished metal columns about eight feet in diameter, with flat, circular pads at their bottom, those pads about 16 feet in diameter. About where one would expect a twelfth column and pad, twisted wreckage dangled from an ugly, irregular hole in the visible surface.

In complete silence, the overhead apparition stopped its descent and hovered motionless with the pads about 40 feet in the air. After a few moments it slowly rotated clockwise by about 30 degrees, then resumed its descent. In the light reflected back up off the pavement and ground, the dead-black apparition revealed a precise, geometrically symmetrical form, obviously the product of careful manufacture. Near where a twelfth landing column should have been, a terrible, jagged exit wound extended upwards into darkness.

Myron felt the hair on the back of his neck rise as the landing pads of the steadily descending shape touched the ground and stopped with a muffled crunch of gravel; the rest of the apparition kept right on descending, compressing the landing columns by perhaps eight to ten feet while gradually slowing to a stop. There was no useful indication of how massive the ship might be, no hint of its power source, and most disconcerting of all there was absolutely no sound from it; just a wash of gentle warmth and a vague feeling of an odd, indefinable pressure. That sensation of pressure abruptly ceased, and Myron realized he was holding his breath.

So were the others. Shakily, they looked at one another, started breathing again, and looked back at the silent bulk before them. Suddenly there was a muffled, multiple clunk” deep within the ship, and a portion of the dangling wreckage broke free and fell perhaps thirty feet, landing on the pavement with a harsh metallic crash startlingly loud after the ship’s silent arrival. Softly, Ron Cornelius said, “I do believe that might constitute hard evidence of a UFO. We’re within 500 feet of it; this is now a close encounter of the second kind.” Then for several more seconds, no one moved, still overcome by and simply looking at what was now standing quietly before them.

All the white lights around the perimeter of the shape above them went out; a few red marker lamps came on in their place. Ron looked up, squinted. “Well, they’re doing the right thing by turning on those markers, since this is now a tall stationary object close to the airport. I wonder what kind of beings would build something like this, and where they came from.” After several more moments during which they all just stared at the ship, he started to walk toward it. Almost immediately a voice from overhead spoke: “Please remain clear of this ship for a few moments. We will advise you when it is safe to approach; that will be quite soon. Thank you.” The voice was a pleasant, feminine contralto, rich, deep, and without noticeable accent.

“Mr. Cornelius, that definitely sounded human to me,” said Alice. “Too bad she doesn’t live here, with that voice she belongs in the choir if she can sing.”

Myron gave his sister a quizzical look. “Sis, you’re assuming things. We don’t know if that was a human; maybe it was some alien linguist, or perhaps just a really good computer program set up to speak English and sound human.”

“Of course, Myron, but that voice has me jealous – I wish mine sounded half that good. Silly me – here I’m getting distracted by a voice that might not even be from a living being, and I should be thinking. Well, the so-called ‘advanced’ stuff we’re working with over at SLAC probably kind of pales by comparison to what must be in that thing. I can’t yet bring myself to think of it as a ship; it’s so big I still don’t have a good idea of what I’m looking at.”

The three stood talking for a few minutes, while more sirens arrived at the other side of the next building. A few moments later, two police officers came into view around the end of that building, peering through the fence at the far side of the empty lot. They climbed over the fence, then walked along the near side of the building. They appeared in no particular hurry to approach the unknown ship; they merely glanced at it with mild curiosity, seeming to be completely oblivious of what it was, then walked off toward the runway, appearing to be looking for something elsewhere at the airport.

At the sound of a pleasant chiming from the ship, a rectangular outline of white lights appeared on its lower surface, extending radially between the inner two circles of lights on the bottom of the ship. This outline was about fifteen feet wide and perhaps sixty feet long, pointed generally toward Myron’s group. The chiming sound was a recurrent, melodious “ping,” repeated once about every second. Following a muffled click, a wide, thick companionway became visible within the rectangle of lights as it swung slowly downward from the ship; after a few seconds its outboard end touched the concrete, making only a small sound; the chiming sound stopped and the inner ring of lights on the bottom of the ship went out. The opening in the ship made by the companionway’s being lowered was brilliantly lit with the same warm white glow as the ship was providing to those on the ground, and after a few more moments a door in the ship at the top of the companionway slid sideways to open. A group of people came out through that doorway and started walking briskly down the companionway toward the ground.

There was nothing particularly remarkable about these people. They appeared to be Caucasian, perhaps a bit larger than average. A man was in the lead – about 6 feet 4 inches tall, of medium build and with short, neatly combed graying hair, wearing what looked somewhat like a collarless airline captain’s dark blue uniform, polished black shoes and white shirt, but without hat or tie. Two women came next, wearing similar uniforms with slacks, not skirts; one was blonde and about 5 feet 11 inches tall, the other brunette and about 5 feet 9 inches tall. Both were of a somewhat muscular build; the blonde appeared to be in her late 20s while the brunette appeared to be about 21 or so, and both had short military-style haircuts. Behind them was another man, about 6 feet 3 inches tall, with dark brown hair, also in uniform but of an unusually broad and stocky build. On both shoulders of the uniform jackets were what appeared to be rank indicators, and some sort of circular insignia patch was on the left sleeve just below the shoulder. Next came a group of four men, three being of the stocky variety, all clad in slick yellow coveralls and carrying what appeared to be small flashlights and thick writing pads. Those coveralls also had what appeared to be rank indicators and patches at the shoulders. When they reached the bottom of the companionway, the group in coveralls immediately turned to their right and went to the area beneath the hole in the ship, while the first four walked toward the Watson’s group near the open shop door.

“Mr. Cornelius,” said Alice, “you’re our most experienced in dealing with people, I just drafted you – it looks as if they want to talk to us.” Ron looked around; saw the agreement on all faces.

“Thank you, Alice, all, but I’m hardly an ambassador. And it looks to me as if this is first contact with people from another world; I’m only surprised they look like us. We need a diplomat...”

“Ron,” said Al Beatty, “You’re senior here, the best dressed of us, and since nobody thought to bring along a diplomat tonight, you just got elected. None of us would be well served by a professional liar anyhow; those folks look like seriously honest people. So get a move on, we mustn’t keep ‘em waiting.”

A soft feminine chuckle from the approaching visitors startled Alice, who looked toward them. The blonde woman was trying to suppress a laugh, looking guilty and blushing slightly. The man in the lead looked down briefly, then back up, visibly making an effort to keep a neutral expression, but his eyes showed laughter lines, and it was obvious these visitors were just as nervous as the people who watched them.

Old habits reasserted themselves, and Ron turned fully toward the visitors, a pleasant expression on his face. “On behalf of our planet and all our people, I would like to welcome you. I hope you’ll excuse the informal nature of this greeting; we weren’t exactly prepared for visitors dropping in tonight, and will have to wait for airport officials to arrive. In the meantime, how may we help you? My name is Ronald Cornelius, this is Al Beatty, these two young people are Myron and Alice Watson; they’re brother and sister.”

“Good evening, Mr. Cornelius,” said the man who had led the group from the ship, stepping forward and extending his right hand for a conventional Western-style handshake. His voice was a pleasant baritone, again with no accent. “I am Captain of this vessel we call Survey ’21, my name is Thomas Cartwright. This is my first officer William Farmer; the two ladies are Master Pilot Sarah Hughes and Pilot Carole Williams. I do apologize for our arriving uninvited and mostly unannounced, and in advance for all the trouble we’re surely about to cause, but as you can see behind me we had a little – mishap this evening, and this seemed the best place to put down.”

At the hiss of air brakes off to his right, the Captain glanced sideways to see two fire trucks parking near the corner of the building some 200 feet away. Slowing to park behind them was a small yellow airport pickup truck. Four men got out of the fire trucks, to meet two more who emerged from the pickup. After a few moments five of them walked over to the yellow-clad group under the ship, the remaining man from the pickup truck walked along the wall of the building toward Myron and Alice’s group by the shop door.

Coming up to them, he made sure his identification badge was clearly visible. “’Evening, Ron, ladies, gentlemen. Excuse me, Ron, but who are all these folks?”

“’Evening, Norm, what a night, huh? I’m sorry; please let me introduce you to our guests. This is Captain Tom Cartwright of the vessel Survey ’21; here is his first officer Mr. Farmer; the ladies are their pilot and co-pilot. They landed here after experiencing a midair collision off to the southeast. These other folks here were having a meeting in the conference room of this shop; we saw the collision on a camera system young Myron here was demonstrating. I believe he has it on tape. As for those people under the ship, I would guess the yellow-clad ones are a damage control or inspection team; they came out behind the Captain’s party here. Captain, may I introduce Norman Rosen, he runs this airfield at night. I’m sure he can find ways of providing whatever he can for you.”

Norm looked at the Captain’s party, then up at the silent, warm bulk of Survey ’21 overhead, then back to Ron. He closed his eyes, shook his head and opened them again. Clearing his throat, he said, “Captain, welcome to San Carlos. Maybe I should say welcome to the United States, or maybe to Planet Earth – I have absolutely no idea what protocol to use in this case.”

The Captain smiled, approaching to shake hands with Norm. “Good evening, Mr. Rosen, and thank you for clearing us to land here. I said to your approach control that ours is a survey vehicle, though I did neglect to state our place of origin. Our people are all European by ancestry, so I suppose we’re aliens of a sort – though not the little green, bug-eyed variety of popular myth. I’m sorry if that disappoints anyone, but this group here pretty well represents my entire crew. Did your controller tell you why we have arrived this evening?”

“Captain, I was only told we had an aircraft coming in that’d had a midair, and that you may have casualties.” He looked up at the silent bulk of the ship curving above them, then back hard at the Captain’s party. “If you’re here out of the future, we mustn’t help you; surely you have to know that! We’d mess up the time line...” He stopped, for the Captain did a quick double take and then smiled ruefully, shaking his head.

“No, Mr. Rosen, no – No, we are most definitely not from your future, and regrettably yes, we do have casualties, but it’s a long story, and if you hadn’t noticed, it’s cold out here.”

“Captain, Norm – the conference room’s still set up,” said Ron. “I’m sure our guests would like to come inside – Captain, it’s just a plain, working room, but we have chairs and a table, and it’s warm – and that’s a lot better than just standing around out here freezing. We have coffee, and restrooms...”

“That would all be very welcome, Mr. Cornelius,” said the Captain. “We appreciate both your hospitality and your confusion, and would be honored to accept something warm after being out here. If we may?”

“Of course, Captain, this way please.” Ron walked back to the door of the shop, leading the entire group and passing close to a young police officer who had just come around the end of the building and was now staring up slackjawed at the bulk of Survey ’21. The Captain paused as he passed next to the officer, and said “That’s just a machine, son, and we’re just ordinary people. Come inside with the rest of us and relax, we all need to get acquainted.” The officer seemed dazed and unsure, so Carole smiled and said to him “We probably do need an escort, officer, if you will please come inside with us?” Her voice was the same as had come from the ship minutes before, but now was warm and reassuring.

“But, I, uh...” began the officer, and Sarah paused in front of him too, saying, “Someone probably needs to make sure we don’t stray off too far. Besides, our kind host Mr. Rosen probably needs to talk with you, and he’s already gone inside to get warm.” She shivered. “It really is cold out here, and these are only light summer uniforms we’re wearing – I’m going inside!” She hurried to catch up with the Captain and Carole, and as she left the First Officer also paused near the policeman. In a low voice he said, “I’m William Farmer, first officer on that thing; its security is mostly my business while we’re here. Let’s go inside and over something warm we can hash out how best to coordinate our efforts. First, though, I’m going to have those lights turned off, we don’t need them any more.” He looked toward the ship, touched his collar and spoke normally: “Flight, first. Please shut off our floods, we’re going inside this building. Leave the companionway lights on at half, thank you.” A moment later, the broken ring of white lights went out, leaving only the companionway softly illuminated, and a pool of white light became visible under the hole in the bottom of the ship where the yellow-clad people had set up work lights. Six people were now at the base of a heavy orange ladder extending up into the hole; one was in the yellow coveralls, another was the man who had arrived with Norm Rosen, the remaining four were from the two fire trucks parked by the end of the building. Two of these last were looking at a large scrap of mangled metal on the pavement; one toed it lightly. Light, noises and voices came from the hole in the ship; the police officer couldn’t quite catch any of the conversation, but it sounded as if English was being spoken. He decided to follow the first group of people into the shop; obviously there wasn’t anything interesting going on out here, besides which it was cold and maybe he could get a free cup of hot coffee in the shop. And perhaps a doughnut...

The police officer knew the crews of those two fire trucks and could recognize them at this distance by their movements. It was pretty obvious they were discussing something up inside that huge – thing – standing out here, sometimes one or another of them would shine their flashlights up into it. Whatever that thing is, he thought, it didn’t fly in from anywhere; must be a movie set. Funny I didn’t know about it earlier. Hell, in daylight it’ll be visible from the freeway; that’ll be a real mess, how come I didn’t see it? Oh – maybe the top part’s inflatable; just let the air out of it during the day and no one will notice. Must have taken some time to set it up, though.