As the ship was traveling out of enemy territory, Captain Houston authorized transmission of a broadcast to all inhabited star systems announcing that their crew had been to the aliens' planet and had discovered vital information that would allow humanity to better ascertain and respond to the potential threat from the creatures. The message was general and used the wording headquarters had mandated upon successful completion of the mission.
That would enable the nearer star systems to take relief and comfort from the humans' in-tel victory years sooner than if they had to wait for official word from the regional commanders. Just as word of the original terror and the second attack had gradually spread among widely scattered worlds, the badly-needed word of hope would circulate just as quickly. After that transmission the ship beamed a coded, much more detailed message back to base.
As the vessel began to put millions of miles between it and the interstellar battlefield, Houston lay on his hover field, exhausted after the two most intense days of his life. All the recent events kept playing through his mind...the traps the aliens had set at various points in space, the trauma of finding the nearly destroyed A'laaman ship, the shock…and pleasure… of seeing Zama again, the lack of sleep, the tough battle on the hostile world. He was amazed to still be alive. He hurt over the loss of the fifty-four A'laamans who didn't survive the trashing of their ship and the six of his own crew members who had died on the pod during the battle on the hostile planet. But the scene that kept playing most vividly in his mind was Zama getting wounded in battle.
He had comm linked Montoya so many times the last several hours for updates on her condition that he had angered the physician, who had also not rested the past couple days. The captain finally gave up trying to unwind and rolled to a standing position.
He walked down a quiet hallway to the infirmary but found her snoring lightly. He sat in a chair and waited. Her face was drawn. He continued to sit by her side. Montoya came and checked the beeping electronic monitors. A med tech administered an IV. An occasional A'laaman or two entered and stayed for several minutes out of respect for the former chief exec and appreciation of her bravery. The patient continued sleeping. Finally, Erik got up and took a long walk down the hall. He circled back into Zama's room. She was still asleep. They were alone in the room. He stood by her side and held her cold hand. There was no reaction from the slumbering patient.
He let go of her hand. He went around the corner and checked on Luci in Recovery Bay 2. He left the infirmary and headed to Daj and Lisa's quarters. Along the way, several A'laamans stopped to congratulate him on the mission's success and to thank him for protecting their lady exec and their other makeshift troops. Erik commiserated with them on their losses. When he reached the Minj’s quarters, he spent some time talking with the couple.
When he left, the door closed behind him. He thought of Daj and Lisa's love for one another. The captain felt as if her had been dropped down a lift shaft. He suddenly felt like he was the only person in the universe.
Sometime later, Zama was alone in the Recovery Bay 1. She was partially awake and lying on her side, the only position that gave her some relief from those burning shoulders. She thought Erik had been there or maybe she had dreamed it. The starman doc walked in.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“A little better.”
“Let me take a look.” The blanket covering the woman hovered a few inches above her shoulders. He walked behind her and gently peeled back enough of the blanket to reveal her shoulders covered in large blisters. “You’re making some progress,” he said. “How is the pain?”
“I didn’t ask if you could endure it. Do you want some help?”
She stiffened, feeling he was being arrogant. She gritted her teeth. “I’m fine.”
“Well you haven’t been sleeping enough.” He reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a vial and opened the cap, shaking a pill into his hand. “Here, take this.”
She opened her mouth and accepted the pill, grasping a nearby cup and taking a gulp of water.
“You know, I thought you crazy fools would get us all killed,” he continued. “But…that was some strong fighting.”
Her eyelids grew heavy and she closed them. She felt at peace. But before the doctor left the room, she thought she heard him mutter something about her not being right for Erik.
After tending to some duties and meeting with his senior staff, Erik got back to sick bay and looked at Zama. Her eyes were mere slits. She seemed unaware of his presence. He softly spoke her name. She opened her eyes wider. Those orbs were a little glazed. She turned her head toward him. The corners of her mouth turned upward. “You're here. You...saved my life,” came her quiet voice.
He smiled back. “You saved mine, too. Mine and my crew's. How're you feeling?”
“Whatever Montoya gave me has taken the edge off.”
“Anything I can do for you?”
“A cup of water.”
He poured some water from a self-cooling pitcher that was covered with condensation. She eased up on one elbow and gulped down the beverage.
He continued: “I feel so bad for you. Your people put a lot of effort into building that ship....”
She sighed. “Minj and I put years of our lives into it. So did a number of other people. It's like losing a child. But...losing it gave me a chance to see you again.”
He smiled. “But what about the future? I don't have a way to get you back home. This ship belongs to our Association and they may have another urgent mission for me...”
She nodded. “I suspected as much. So...no way back.” Her voice broke.
He looked into those brown eyes. “I'm sorry. If these were normal times I'd be able to plead your case. That would likely move all of you up in line for a Second Contact and you could hitch a ride on that ship but it would still take several years until launch, best case scenario. But ever since the aliens wiped out two of our colonies, everything has changed. It’s all about increased defense spending and preparation for potential war so the contact missions have been put on hold.”
She swallowed hard. “Years have already passed on A'laama since we've been away. Life sure throws you curve balls. I was once leader of a planet. Now I don't even have a planet to call home.”
He stood up and clasped her hand. “You and your people will always have a home on our headquarters planet. Once we get back, I'll see to it that you're all well cared for.”
She rubbed her thumb over his knuckles. “You're a good man, Erik Houston.” she said.
The captain felt a hot rush in his face. He squeezed her hand.
Luci had been sitting on a bunk in sick bay, staring at the wall. She had ignored Montoya's orders to get some sleep. Even the meds hadn't gotten her to unwind. When her best friend, Marji entered the room, she did not react. Marji stood at the door for some time then finally took a seat. The patient continued to stare at the wall.
Finally, she said in a low voice: “Not all of them are evil.”
Marji cocked her head.
The other lady turned toward her visitor. Marji gasped at the condition of Luci's face.
“Not all the aliens are evil,' she repeated. “One of them interrogated me. He pushed his ugly bug face to within inches of mine. He could read my thoughts! And I felt like he could see right through me. I've never been so petrified...” Tears started to flow. Marji stepped over and held her friend.
Several minutes passed before Luci was able to continue. “But,” she finally said, almost a whisper, “while he was probing my mind, I got a peek inside his, too. I can get a mind scan when I get back to Headquarters and maybe they'll find something useful about the aliens.”
Marji nodded. “You've been through a lot. I would have been terrified. But...you say not all of them are bad?”
“That's right. One of them saved me from a snake before it could strike me. And later, I think it was the same alien who tried to hold back the ones who wanted to hurt me. I think he was...trying to help me, but they forced him to leave. Surely these aliens have a spiritual life, the chance for a relationship with God like we do. There must be...some other good ones.”
Marji pursed her lips. “Maybe so,” she said. “It would make sense. The answer might be on that disk we're taking back to headquarters.”
The women said nothing further for several minutes. Then the wounded lady spoke again. “I've asked two or three times for a mirror and they've never given me one.”
The other woman's brow furrowed. “I don't think...”
Luci almost snapped her reply. “I can take it. I want to see what I look like.”
Marji sighed. She put her hands together then pulled them apart several inches then made the same motion perpendicular to the first. A square mirror appeared in Luci's hands. She glanced at the glass and flinched. Then she took a long moment to study her reflection. A wide pink scar marred the right side of her face, similar to the scar on her right arm. Her right eye was dark and swollen almost shut. It hurt and throbbed due to an infection but the doc had said she wouldn't lose the eye. “Well, my left side still looks good,” she joked. “Should I wear a mask over half my face?”
Marji smiled a little. “Montoya's the best doc we've ever had,” she said. “Once those flesh regenerating cells have finished working, you'll be turning guys' heads again.”
Luci smiled, shooting an arrow of pain through her head. The smile faded. “Once we get planetside, you owe me a double date.”
“A double...I don't know...”
Luci knew she was still missing Jev.
“C'mon. It'll do you good. And it'll do me good.”
“All right. You're on, sister.”
A sharp pain shot through Luci's head and she seemed to see a flash of lightning.
“What's wrong?” cried Marji as she watched her friend's face crinkle in agony.
“They're still here,” she replied through gritted teeth as tears began to run down her face.
“”But they're all dead. They're in cryo bags and locked in storage.”
Luci shook her head. “You've got to get out of here. Get back to your post. Now.”
“Will you be all ri...”
“Just go! Hurry!”
Marji hustled out of sick bay and back toward Engineering. She got there just ahead of the captain, Montoya and Irv who each burst into the room, their side arms drawn. Two aliens, one with a hand-held device stood in front of the department computer. The starmen vaporized them.
“What does it take to kill them!” cried the captain. “We thought they were all dead. Montoya, see what you can find out about their biology. I’d just as soon jettison all their carcasses but headquarters wants to dissect them.”
“Faubner,” the skipper continued, “get your people to check out this system and make sure these creatures didn’t do any damage.”
“Irv, I don’t want any more surprises. From now on I want a 24 hour armed guard watching their frozen butts.”
Fred conducted autopsies on several of the aliens, analyzing as best he could given that he was the only human med professional who had ever studied members of this species. He gradually came to the conclusion that one of them still showed dormant signs of life. Hours later, he reported: “Captain, the aliens are a hardy species. When they’re under extreme duress, their metabolisms nearly shut down and they go into state that mimics death. Some of the bodies in cold storage may still be alive. We’ll have to examine each one.”
The captain verged on giving the order to jettison. “All right,” he sighed. “Luci’s still in recovery. Get whatever personnel you need, do the exams and report back to me.”
The doctor continued his work. One of the supposed corpses moved an appendage about six inches. An armed crewman quickly dispatched the creature. Two others of the species still showed signs of life so the crew ensured their demise as well. The doc and his assistants returned each specimen to its bag and returned them to the cryo tank. The armed guard was put in place.
Marji and the other engineers checked and re-checked the ship’s systems and everything seemed to be functioning normally. No evidence of viruses or sleeper problems.
The captain breathed a sign of relief as the threat from the aliens seemed to finally be over.
But three days after the humans left the planet, the Aliens’ Revenge hit. All humans who had been directly exposed to the creatures became violently ill with severe flu-like symptoms. Montoya was among the hardest hit so he was too ill to study the ailment clinically or work on an antidote. Erik and Zama were sick at the same time so they were unable to care for one another. As the first wave of humans was beginning to recover, the illness began to spread through the other inhabitants of the ship. Halfway through the second wave, the doc was able to develop a remedy. As the last patients began to recover, Erik wondered what else could possibly happen on the remainder of the trip back home.