Thursday, August 22, 2013

ARIA: Left Luggage by Geoff Nelder

at 1:15 AM

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The previous day, Tuesday 14 April 2015:

The shuttle, Marimar, in orbit, is approaching the International Space Station docking port.

Peering over Vlad’s shoulder at the porthole, Jena could see the International Space Station rotating. Damn, it shouldn’t have been. Along with the other four crewmembers, she couldn’t speak, holding her breath as she thought through possibilities. She’d worked darned hard to get a seat on this mission, and it looked screwed already. Several long seconds later, she touched the Ukrainian’s arm.

“Vlad, let me see.”

“In a moment. Ah…”

She gave him the full force of a glare at the back of his head as if telepathy worked. She wouldn’t use feminine wiles in spite of unjust accusations to the contrary. She knew her success was based on skill and cunning, but in this charged atmosphere, nothing worked on Vlad. Tall, slim, and wearing his dark hair longer than the American male astronauts wanted to, he was selected for this mission because of his phlegmatic coolness, which could be annoying when Jena was in a hurry.

“Vlad, can you tell why it’s spinning?”

“I think so, but I need another angle. Ah, found something.”

Jena tried a push at his elbow to gain a better view. All she could see was her own reflection: jet-black hair and a scowling face—she smiled at herself.

Dan’s worry lines pulled his black eyebrows too high. “You know why the station is tumbling?”

“There, Commander,” Vlad said, “in the solar panel supports: a metal box. It must have given the station a nudge when it jammed there. Looks like a silvery suitcase.”

Jena prodded Vlad’s shoulder. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but I like to see things for myself, move the hell over.”

A hand warmed the  back of her neck, followed by Antonio’s breath. “Let me see too. It doesn’t look as if it belongs there, does it? Una bomba?”

“Come away now, Doc,” Dan said. “Of course it’s not a bomb. Everyone strap in for final manoeuvring.”

IT TOOK TWO HOURS for the five-man crew to match the spin, dock, and transfer to the ISS. Anxious to investigate the aberrant object, Jena rushed to the new control module. It smelt of plastic and fruit juice spilt by the installation crew. She focussed on a view screen, her nose twitching at the blackcurrant aroma. Her annoyance with sloppy work was mollified by the prospect of an intriguing problem to solve.

Surprised at seeing her breath condense, she realized how much cooler the station was compared to the shuttle. She made a mental note to check then cancelled it— health and environment was Antonio’s remit. Their occupation with the enigmatic led to the danger of procedure slippage. She glanced around, noting scuffmarks on the grey plastic and aluminium curved walls. Her frown deepened at the sight of scribbled numbers on a locker. Anyone would think the place was a building site. Then she smiled—that’s exactly what it was.

Dan disrupted her inspection. “Jena, snag that suitcase with the remote-control grabber.”

The metallic case was just big enough for a weekend away. An apparent seam existed where a holiday suitcase would have been squashed shut but no padlock. The aluminium struts on the space station were not magnetic, and yet…

Jena frowned. “Damn, it won’t shift. Someone might have to go EVA.”

Vlad headed for the suit locker. “I’ll go. I’ve nothing much else to do until my observations start.”

“Hang on,” Dan said. “Vlad, you set up the remote radiometer. Let’s see if the case is emitting nasties. If anyone is going out, Abdul has more experience.”

Jena knew Vlad would be disappointed not going for the EVA. “I know I said an EVA might be needed, but I can’t see how Abdul’s going to move it from out there if this robotic arm and its four tons of prodding power can’t.”

Vlad winked at Jena. “He might see what’s holding it down.”

Jena gave up on the remote grab. “Any ideas on what it is before you go for a walk, Abdul?”

Abdul twitched his thin moustache. “Could the case have come adrift from another part of the station? Part of the antenna housing, yes?”

“No.” Vlad looked at Jena for confirmation. “I worked on that last year. It looks nothing like the antenna components. The case out there has a raised mark on its side.”

Jena looked again at the camera image. “I agree there’s a mark. A chevron.”

She looked at Dan for the EVA go-ahead.

“We really ought to await compliance from Houston. Okay, I appreciate they might take so long that whatever it is out there becomes a danger if it shifts. So, Abdul…I don’t have to tell you…”

“Take no chances? Of course.”

Jena put her hand on her hip. “What’s the protocol for handling possible alien artefacts?”

“It’s never happened, so there is none. Or…” Dan’s eyes darted between them.

The after-thought that the case might be alien hit Jena. Dan’s high blink rate told her his mind and emotions must be in turmoil too. But Jena knew the crew must occupy a scientific detachment. What was she, a machine? Even so, she bottled up her growing exuberance.

“Protocols were possibly drawn up fifty years ago, penso di si,” Antonio said. Nothing ever fazed him.

Jena loved his Turin accent but there was something unsettling about him. She said, “We’ll make up a protocol as we go along. No, that wasn’t a joke. I mean we didn’t have any training on handling alien artefacts.” She thumbed up at Abdul as he headed towards the suit lockers.

Dan muttered as he sat at a console. Keyword searches on the procedure for handling alien artefacts came up blank. “I don’t know... Maybe I’m being over-cautious, but we should wait clearance from Houston, even if they have to convene meetings with the President—it could be that important—”

Jena interrupted Dan, noting his thinning hair as if he’d lost more with this worry. “I don’t think we should wait for Caroline Diazem to make up her presidential mind.”

Antonio smiled, his almond complexion a result of Italian breeding and Mediterranean sunshine. “Commander, this is an international mission. President Diazem is delusional. Thinks she rules the planet, si? If we wait for the United Nations to decide on what to do with the case, the end of Time might arrive first.”

“Commander,” Jena said. “Abdul’s suited up and already on his way out.” She paused, noting that Antonio was studying Dan with interest. Dan had been chosen to command two other shuttle and International Space Station missions, not just for his intelligence and resourcefulness, but for his unflappability. She’d observed that serenity didn’t always achieve respect from eager astronauts like Abdul and wondered how Dan would handle such blatant insubordination.

“I suppose I kinda gave him a go-ahead,” Dan said. “But we mustn’t let our excitement over this case get in the way of procedures. We must consider all the options.”

Jena concealed a smile and yet knew Dan had little choice.

After deploying the sensors, Vlad activated the cameras to record Abdul’s EVA. Jena knew that Vlad wanted to be the one out there. She put an arm round his shoulders.

“I love the beautiful silence,” Vlad said. “To the purist, it isn’t infinite, but it is to me.”

“Me too. You Ukrainians don’t possess a monopoly on the awesomeness out there, although you sure have a unique way of expressing it.”

Dan called over to Vlad, “Anything from the remote sensors?”

“Nothing detectable emanating from the case, sir.”

On screen, Abdul swam into view. After he clipped his boots into a strut, he opened the jaws of a light titanium grapple and touched the case. It moved.

Antonio said, “I see it’s been programmed to be helpful in the presence of humans.”

“Or in the presence of Arabs, praise be to Allah,” Abdul said, as he prepared to take the case to a small holding dock on the station.

Jena waved a hand at the screen. “Maybe Abdul’s disrupted some kind of field.”

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Genre – Science Fiction / Medical Mystery

Rating – PG

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Website http://authorsdb.com/authors-directory/2426-geoff-nelder

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