CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

"Trent, this is Jennifer. The hyper drive generators have drained again."

"Understood," replied Trent. "Wait fifteen minutes just like Doc said then restart the charging process again."

"Understood. Will start the recharging process again in fifteen minutes."

This was the third time Jennifer had charged the hyper drive generators. Doc had instructed her to wait fifteen minutes between each charging to give the life form time to adjust to the infuse of power it was getting. Trent was currently on his way to see Peter who was monitoring the life form from just outside the science lab.

"How's it going?" Trent asked.

"About as we expected," said Peter. "Every time the hyper drive generators are drained there is a corresponding increase in the energy output in the life form. The energy output isn't equal to the amount generated by the hyper drive generators but it's the same each time."

"Any sign of an overload like you were worried about?"

"No. If this thing were going to overload I would expect it to be showing some signs by now. But I'm not detecting any adverse affects by the power drain. It's looking more and more like Doc may be right."

"Just keep your eyes on the monitor. In case Doc is wrong. That thing could still be dangerous."

"Any idea how you're going to communicate with this thing if it does turn out to be a life form?"

"Doc and Raven are working on that now. So far they haven't been having much success. Truthfully I'm with Doc. I'm not sure we even know where to begin to communicate with a life form as vastly different as this one is."

"There's something else that's been on my mind," said Peter. "Hightower's body. It just disappeared from the storage bay, What do you think happened to it?"

"I don't know. Maybe it wasn't as badly as damaged as Alpha thought. I suppose it's possible it crawled off somewhere maybe to repair itself or get an upload of energy. It's probably lying in a compartment somewhere rusting."

"But I removed the power cell. It shouldn't have been running at all."

"Maybe this life form had something to do with it," Trent speculated. "If it is composed of matter and energy it might have the ability to power systems remotely."

"I think that's very possible. That's probably what happened when TJ was killed. It powered the hatch remotely which is why we didn't have any indication the hatch had any power to it."

"We may not get the answers to all of our questions. Like how Wiseman ended up outside the ship? Or what happened to the ships' engineer after he murdered the rest of the crew? I think the best we can do is come up with a logical explanation and give that to the authorities."

"Have you decided where we're returning to assuming we are able to get back?"

"Probably Europa. Like Jennifer said there's a Federal Marshal's outpost there. The sooner we contact the authorities the less likely we'll have to worry about Tiberian or the military interfering with us."

"I assume you're still planning on sending a message back to Europa once we're clear of the interference."

"Yes," said Trent. "I'm going to send a message detailing everything that's been going on here. That way they'll be ready when we return to Europa and they should be waiting for us when we get back."

"You aren't worried the military might intercept the message and send a ship to stop us before we get to Europa?" questioned Peter. "If anyone can get to us before anyone else it's the military."

"I've all ready talked to Raven. She had an idea that sounded pretty good. She's going to send the message to a hacker friend of hers. She knows how to encrypt it so that only her friend can identify and decrypt it. Then she's going to have him upload it to the Marshal's computer network. When they discover it in their system they'll have no way of knowing where it came from or who sent it but they will be aware of what's going on. That's probably the best way to prevent it from being intercepted."

"That's pretty slick. Raven's a very smart young lady. If she used her talent in a more constructive manner she could actually make a lot of money."

"Yeah, I've been thinking about that, too. When we get back I'm going to have a talk with Jack Miles. I'm pretty sure he can make a deal that will keep her out of prison and get her a start on a more respectable lifestyle. Assuming she's willing to go along with it."

"Well, like I said, she's a pretty smart young lady. If she's as smart as I think she is I'm sure she'll go along with it."

"I hope so. Well, I'm going to check on Doc and Raven. Then I'd better get back to the bridge. Let me know if anything comes up."

"Will do."

Trent left the corridor and headed back to the upper decks. He was hoping it wouldn't be long before the life form had enough energy to sustain itself. Since they had started "feeding" it with the hyper drive generators there hadn't been even a single strange or unexplainable occurrence. As Peter had said, it looked like Doc might be right about the comet fragment. It might, indeed, be a life form.

Trent walked into the infirmary. Doc and Raven were in there working on some way to communicate with the life form if it did turn out to be a life form. Raven had moved the computer with the L series hard drive in it to the infirmary so they could work more easily with it.

"Any progress?" Trent asked.

"Not a lot," said Doc. "I think it's a safe bet this life form doesn't have any kind of verbal language. It has no mouth. I toyed with the idea that it might be telepathic in nature but as far as I know there's no technology that can help with that."

"I did have an idea," said Raven. "I was thinking that maybe the life form uses light as a form of communication. It glows brighter when it gets more information. Maybe that's a way it communicates with others of its kind."

"That's not a bad idea," said Trent. "I do remember learning in school that some life forms on earth use some form of light as a form of communication. Anything else?"

"Maybe radiation," said Doc. "The type of energy the life form is emitting is some form of radiation I haven't been able to identify. It is conceivable that by varying the amount and intensity of the radiation could also be a form of communication. That's only speculation of course. But I think it's a possibility."

"Or it might use some type of communication we know nothing about," said Trent. "Insects on Earth can communicate over miles sometimes. Honestly, Doc, what do you think your chances are that you'll be able to communicate with it if it is a life form?"

"I'm convinced it is a life form," said Doc. "As for communicating with it, I wouldn't hold my breath. We just don't know enough about it. It might take months or even years of study before we even discover any form of communication. And it could be years after that before we're able to decipher that form of communication. Linguists spent decades trying to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics with no success until they discovered the Rosetta Stone in 1799. Even then it wasn't until 1822 until Jean-Fran├žois Champollion translated it. Until then much of the hieroglyphics were completely undecipherable."

"No one's expecting any miracles from you, Doc," said Trent. "Just do the best you can. That's all we can expect."

"I know," said Doc. "By the way, traditionally it's the privilege of the discoverer to name a newly discovered life form. I've never heard of anything even remotely like this ever being discovered anywhere. It seems to me that as the commanding officer the privilege of giving it a name falls to you."

"Well," said Trent, "as you said, traditionally that privilege normally falls to the person who discovers it. I don't think anyone could argue that you didn't discover it. We all thought it was just some strange form of comet. It seems to me that naming it should fall to you."

"I think that's a good idea," said Raven. "It could make you famous, Doc."

"I'll have to give it some thought," said Doc. "Naming a new life form is very important. I might even write a paper on it for the American Zoological Society or the International Astronomical Society. I'm sure either one would be very interested in learning as much as they can about a life form that seems to live its life among the stars."

"I was able to locate the coordinates where the Orion originally discovered the comet," said Trent. "There was also information about its heading and speed. With it I don't think Space Command will have any trouble locating where it is now. I imagine they'll be sending a science vessel to investigate it. Maybe try to learn where it came from and if there are any more like it."

"I'm pretty sure there are," said Doc. "As I said, I think the mineral they found on Miranda may be the remains of an ancient being like the one we have in the science lab. Whether it crashed on the planet or died in space and was drawn in by the planet's gravitational field I can't say. But the chemical composition of that mineral and that of the life form in the science lab are virtually identical."

"Well, that's certainly pretty strong evidence," said Trent. "I guess the authorities will want to check out that mineral as well. God only knows what kind of disposition they'll make on it. If it is the remains of a life form we may not be able to mine it."

"Eww, that's gross," said Raven. "It would be like digging up grandma to burn in the stove."

"I imagine more than a few people will feel that way," said Trent. "Well, let me know if you come up with any way to communicate with this thing."

"You'll be the first to know," said Doc.

Trent left the infirmary and headed for the bridge. There wasn't much else for them to do except wait until the life form; or whatever it was; had absorbed enough energy to sustain itself. Until that happened Trent would keep himself busy as best he could. That usually wasn't a problem when they were in deep space. There was always something he could check to make sure there were no unexpected malfunctions.

"Trent," said Jennifer from her position at the control console on the bridge, "the hyper drive generators haven't been drained this time. They've been charged for nearly ten minutes and there's no sign of it being drained."

"Thanks," said Trent. He had been doing a systems check on the hyper drive and the hyper sleep tubes to make sure they were ready for when the ship headed back to Europa. He activated the intercom. "Peter, this is Trent. Any change in the life form?"

"It's beginning to pulse slightly," replied Peter. "Haven't seen that before."

"Leave the hatch to the science lab open and get up to the bridge on the double," said Trent. "If Doc is right, this thing probably has enough energy to sustain itself. I'm betting it's probably going to be heading out to find the rest of the colony now."

"On my way," Peter said.

"As soon as he leaves deck 5," Trent told Jennifer, "restore all power to the cargo section. Open the hat to cargo bay one. With the bay disconnected from the ship, that hatch should be on the outside of the ship. It should also be the most direct route out of the ship. If that is a life form I'm willing to bet it will head for the first open hatch it can find."

"Roger," said Jennifer. "What about Doc and Raven? They've been working on a way to communicate with it."

"I don't think they're going to get the chance," said Trent. "Contact Doc and let them know what's going on. I'm sure he'll want to be here for this."

Several minutes ticked by as Trent watched the monitor that was set up on the life form. Peter and eventually Doc and Raven entered the bridge and everyone stood around watching what the life form would do net. For several long moments nothing happened.

Then suddenly the life form began to move. As if following a trail, it moved out of the science lab and followed the corridor toward the open hatch that originally led to cargo bay one. Without incident the life form passed through the open hatch to the empty space beyond. It changed course and began to move away from the ship at incredible speed.

"Well, there goes our first contact with an alien life form," said Trent.

"You really think it was a life form?" Jennifer asked.

"You saw it change course," said Trent. "If it had been just a comet fragment as we first thought it would have just continued on out the hatch away from the ship. But it made a course correction. And according to my calculations, that trajectory will take it on a direct heading for the comet the crew of the Orion first encountered. Inanimate objects don't make course corrections. Since it was obviously not some kind of craft the only explanation I can think of is that is must be alive."

"First contact with an extraterrestrial life form," said Doc. "I never thought I'd live to see it happen let alone be part of it."

"And it's all thanks to you, Doc," said Trent. "I was ready to blow that thing to hell. You were able to convince us this was a life form. Something that won't be left out of my report to Space Command."

"Thanks, Trent," said Doc. "I appreciate that. By the way, when you do file your report, list the life form as a Solwi."

"Solwi?" questioned Peter.

"It's for Solar Wind," said Raven. "We talked about it after Trent left the infirmary. Doc felt that everyone should be given credit for its discovery. I suggested Solwi. It kind of has a nice ring to it."

"Solwi it is," said Trent. "Jennifer, track the Solwi as long as you can. And run another systems check on the hyper drive engines. Peter, check communications. Now that the Solwi is no longer on the ship maybe the interference is gone."

"Checking now," said Peter.

"Well, everyone," said Trent, "if everything checks out, looks like we might be heading home soon. Alpha, how is the charge on your power system?"

"Fully charged, Captain Michaels," said Alpha. "I am ready to assume command of the ship as soon as you enter hyper sleep."

"Good," said Trent. "I think we'll have a meal before we go into hyper sleep. Everyone's favorite. I think we've earned it."

Smiling, Trent turned and headed for the galley to start preparing their last meal in space.