T-plus twenty-eight days—August 19, 1980
Deep in space, a ship tumbled out of control. The three men inside it, already unconscious or worse, were explorers sent from a small blue-green world to investigate a planet circling their nearest celestial neighbor. The two stars of the Alpha Centauri system, one slightly larger and brighter than Earth's Sun, the other slightly smaller and about half the luminosity, danced around each other in a wide spiral.
Around the larger star slowly orbited one rocky planet just slightly larger than Earth. Although Earth-bound telescopes had discovered the existence of the terrestrial planet, only closer investigation would reveal if the conditions on it were compatible with life. That was the mission of the Hyperion, to survey the planet, propelled to their destination by a new engine that broke the barrier of light speed.
But something had gone wrong. Man in his hubris believed that he could somehow tame the wilderness of space. Even after accidents that had killed entire crews, missions that were lost in the darkness, they continued to press on, thinking they understood the dangers. But the infinity of the universe held anomalies that they couldn't begin to imagine. Places where space itself folded and twisted, where time was so distorted that a lifetime could pass in the blink of an eye or so slowly as to seem to stop. Places where the reality of this universe thinned, allowing other alternate realities to bleed through. Such was the stuff of nightmares.
Yet, they continued to throw themselves into the Void in the name of exploration.
Inside the ship, the three men were oblivious to the blaring sirens and screeching of stressed metal as the command module, designed to be a life pod in the event of a catastrophic failure, separated from the rest of the ship. They also didn't see the small, unobtrusive chronometer where the numbers flickered and changed faster than a human eye could follow.
The old man slept beneath a tree in the afternoon sun. Beside him, a basket held several pieces of fruit and some root vegetables. His long, white hair was tied in a loose ponytail, and a slight breeze ruffled his tattered, homespun shirt.
The quiet of the idyllic scene was broken by the distant sound of a barking dog. The old man's eyelids fluttered, then popping open suddenly as the barking grew louder. A look of terror crossed his face as he sat up, his head whipping back and forth trying to discern the direction of the sound. A child's voice rose over the barking.
"Get him, dog! Go get him!" the child cried out, excited. "Go get him!"
The old man scrambled to his feet and hurried to the base of the tree, his bounty from the morning forgotten. He started to climb the thick trunk just as a large dog came running down the path. When he reached a large fork high in the branches, he hunched in the V, his breath coming in harsh pants. The dog reached the tree and clawed at the trunk, barking and growling.
"Get him dog! Get him!" Down the path in the dog's wake ran a child, maybe eleven or twelve years old. But instead of human, the child was an ape—a male chimpanzee. His pale face was dominated by a large muzzle and prominent eyebrow ridge. A ruff of dark brown fur surrounding his face also covered the rest of his head and disappeared into the high collar of his green tunic. He wore brown pants and brown shoes that had a split between the first and second toes. His gait as he ran was almost like a wide-stanced hop, but it ate up the ground quickly.
"What'd you find, huh? What? Did you get him?" the child asked his pet as he arrived where the dog continued to bark up the tree. He stepped back and peered at the quarry they had cornered. When he saw the old man, his face fell. "All right, dog, that's enough. That's enough, I said!"
With a last couple of barks, the dog returned obediently to his master. "It's only a human," the boy said as he patted and rubbed the dog affectionately.
The old man tilted his head, not daring to hope that the young ape was going to leave without bothering him any further. Even an ape child could cause a lot of trouble for a human who was somewhere he wasn't supposed to be. If the boy decided to order him to climb down, he wasn't sure what he would do. The punishment for disobeying an ape would be more severe than the beating he would get for being outside the village without permission.
The boy opened his mouth to say something to the old man, but whatever it was remained unspoken. A wind started to blow, accompanied by a loud whining noise that quickly grew to a deafening sound. The leaves and debris on the forest floor flew into their faces as the wind turned into a gale-force tempest. Clutching at his whimpering dog, but ape child was blown off his feet. The old man wrapped his arms around the tree trunk and held on as the blast threatened to toss him from his perch. The screeching ended with a crashing boom, and even from a distance, they felt the earth shake with the impact.
The ape boy recovered first and took off with his dog in the direction of the noise. Once they were gone, the old man climbed down from the shelter of the tree. He followed the boy from a safe distance as he scampered across the litter of the forest floor. He scrambled up a small rise to break through the wall of foliage at the top; he crouched as he looked out into a wide clearing.
"Come on, dog," he heard from a few feet to his left, and then the snap and crackle of the boy and dog retreating back into the forest.
He crept cautiously into the clearing, his eyes wide at the sight before him. A blackened furrow gouged through the earth trailed away into the distance. At the near end of the trail rested a triangular craft, smoking and clicking as the metal skin cooled. The front point of the ship was half-buried in the dirt; wings flared out on either side toward the rear of the craft. A large window was inset across the front, but it was darkened to opacity.
The old man circled the craft, his mouth still hanging open in wonder. The back of the ship was a smooth oval, made of a mysterious material that was neither metal or rock. Stepping over the ridges of earth, he continued around until he reached the wing on the other side.
He stretched a hand tentatively toward the wing. The surface was warm, but not uncomfortably so. Although it looked like metal, the skin of the ship was made of something else, smooth like some of the stones he'd found in his secret cave. Running both hands over the wing, he marveled at the feel. He heard a beeping sound and startled as he looked for the source of the new noise. It seemed to be coming from a small panel on the back of the wing; sliding back the hatch exposed a small glowing button. He brushed it with his fingers.
He jumped back as the beeping sound intensified. On the top of the ship, a rectangular section slowly lifted into the air. The old man scurried backward, looking anxiously around as he considered whether to flee. When he saw that nothing was coming out of the ship, he took a few tentative steps toward it. He peered around again, then curiosity overcame wariness. Climbing up onto the wing, he stuck his head through the opening and stared in wonder at what he saw.
Panels of lights and buttons covered the walls and even the ceiling of the interior compartment. Three men were strapped into large padded chairs, their bodies sagging against the restraints. The cacophony of whirring, chirping, and beeping filled his ears. He crept down the three steps into the ship, ready to bolt. When he push one of the glowing red buttons, the noise level dropped considerable, causing him to startle again. He turned toward the three men.
They wore strange clothes—white pants and jackets so finely woven that the material was smooth and slick under his fingers. Even their boots seemed to be made of the same stuff. The first man slumped in the chair, his eyes open and head lolling at an unnatural angle. The old man grabbed a handful of the short, dark hair and lifted the other's head. The sightless stare of his unblinking blue eyes was familiar; the old man had seen enough lifeless bodies to recognize death. But still, to be sure, he pushed a hand under the strap over the man's chest and felt for signs of life. No heartbeat. No slight rise and fall that would signal breathing. With a sad shake of his head, he gently released the stranger's hair.
The next man was blond, with his chin resting on his chest. Blood trickled down the side of his face from a cut above one closed eye. As he lifted the man's head, the other's mouth fell open with a gusty exhalation. He wedged a hand under the straps then smiled at the strong, regular rhythm against his palm.
He moved onto the final passenger, another dark-haired man. A quick examination revealed that he was alive as well. But if the two strange humans were going to stay alive, the old man was going to have to get them out of the ship and somewhere safe immediately. The ape child was no doubt on his way to alert others of his kind. And once the apes arrived, he knew their first action would be to kill the strangers.
He would take them to his secret cave. But first, he had to figure out how to get them out of the strange bindings that held them in place. He drew the knife from it's sheath strapped hidden against his calf. Another thing that if the apes knew about would be cause for swift and severe punishment. He sawed through the straps that looked like fabric, but were tougher than thick leather.
There, the dark-haired survivor was free. He maneuvered the limp body out of the chair, wincing as the man's head smacked lightly on the floor and left a red smear that matched the one on the headrest.
He had to hurry; the apes could return at any moment.
The ape boy Arno ran until he felt as if his lungs would burst. His dog trotted beside him, easily keeping pace, jumping and barking as he sensed his owner's agitation and excitement. Arno's father was Prefect of the nearby village where they lived, a human work camp that raised grain and other crops to send into the cities.
Arno missed the city. When his father had been reassigned to this remote farming village only a few months ago, Arno had been forced to leave his friends, his school, everything he had known his whole life to move here. The only other children around were humans—stupid ones at that. There was no school, just the tutor that his father had brought with them. And old Xander was no fun. Which left Dog as his only companion and playmate.
But finally something interesting had happened! He was the first one to find the thing that had fallen from the sky, so as far as he was concerned, he had the right to explore it.
The first corrals surrounding the village came into view. The cows moved about restlessly in their pens, lowing loudly for attention. Two saddled horses tied to a hitching post stamped and whickered nervously. And outside the Prefect's complex, the humans gathered and talked among themselves in urgent whispers, occasionally casting a fearful glance skyward. Animals always reacted badly to loud noises, Arno thought.
He pushed through the crowd of milling humans, with Dog barking at several of them to get out of the way. As he hurried up to the barred gate, he nodded at the armed guard, who immediately pushed the barrier open to admit him. Dressed in the leather uniform of a soldier, the gorilla wrinkled his muzzle as Dog scurried in behind the boy; dogs were rare enough in this world that they were still objects of suspicion to many apes.
"Father! Father!" Arno ran into his father's office, oblivious to the two gorillas who conversed with the older chimpanzee. t
"Not now, Arno!" Veska waved his son away.
But Arno was determined to be heard. "But, Father!" He elbowed his way up to the desk and slapped his hand on it. "I saw a metal machine fall from the sky!"
The three older apes immediately fell silent. Arno looked around smugly, pleased that the adults were listening to him for a change.
Veska turned his head slightly so he could see his son clearly with his good eye; the left one was covered with a large patch, hiding a ruined orb from a childhood accident. He tugged at the hem of his green tunic. "What are you talking about, Arno?"
Arno rolled his eyes. Adults could be so dense sometimes! "The roar—surely you must have heard it here in the village. It was made be a giant machine that fell from the sky. It left a blackened trench behind it, like a plow making a furrow. And smoke was coming off it." The boy pointed over his shoulder. "In the clearing east of here, the one between the road and the forest. "
The gorillas shifted nervously, but Veska glowered at the boy. "You didn't go near it, did you?"
"No, Father. I came right back here to tell you about it."
Veska turned to Turvo, the soldier with a white stripe on his uniform that designated him a lieutenant. "Prepare the horses. Arno will show us where this machine is."
The old man tugged the blond-haired stranger up the stairs inside the ship, struggling in the confined space to maneuver the limp body toward the opening. Two chairs now stood empty; the dark-haired survivor was already moved to safety. If he had time before the apes arrived, the old man would come back for the body of the dead man and bury him in the forest.
Or maybe he wouldn't. The strangers were heavy, and he had already carried one of them deep into the forest. He could feel his muscles quiver with fatigue as he pulled the blond man out onto the wing of the craft. He jumped down onto the blackened ground and cocked his head to listen. The distance sound of hoofbeats quickened his pulse. Horses were coming. And only apes road horses.
He shouldered the man's bulky form and scurried as fast as he could toward the treeline, trying to keep the ship between him and the road where the horse sounds were growing steadily louder. Sweat dripped into his eyes, stinging and blurring his sight.
He slipped and slid down the grassy berm, trying desperately to balance his burden. When he reached flat ground, he leaned the body up against a tree and returned to crouch in the cover of the undergrowth. Four horses arrived in a cloud of dust.
Three of the apes were gorilla soldiers, each with a rifle stowed in a long holster next to his saddle. The fourth horse carried a pair of chimpanzees; he recognized the older male with a patch across one eye as the Prefect and the boy who had chased him earlier. He watched them dismount and enter the ship before withdrawing.
He hunkered down in front of the white-clad stranger for a few moments to catch his breath. Then he slung the man onto his shoulders again and continued into the forest.
T-plus seventeen days—August 8, 1980
Major Peter Burke swiveled his chair toward Major Stephen Jones, as the latter worked at a computer. Colonel Alan Virdon, mission commander, was sleeping in another part of the ship. "So what happens if we send the probe down there, and it lands in the middle of a city full of happy, smiling aliens?"
"Probe's not going to land, Jif. It's just going to take readings and do a flyover." Jones looked up from the monitor with a suspicious glare. "You know that."
Burke shrugged. Jones was the mission specialist in charge of the equipment that would investigate the planet around Alpha Centauri A, dubbed Centauri Prime by the scientist who discovered it. "I know it's not supposed to land. But what happens if the aliens put a tractor beam on it and pull it down?" He eyes widened with mock fear. "What if they throw a tractor beam on us and drag us down? I don't want to have a close encounter of the third kind!"
Jones shook his head and returned his attention to his task. "How many times have you seen that movie exactly?"
"I don't know, a couple or three…dozen." He grinned mischievously. "Seriously though, do we have some sort of protocol if we are contacted? Talking to aliens is way above my pay grade. Unless they are green-skinned, scantily-clad, dancing aliens. Then, I'm definitely the man for a 'first contact' situation." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
Jones chuckled. "I don't know, man. Those Orion slave girls might be a little too much for even you to handle."
"Look, just because you and Virdon are on short leashes doesn't mean I've can't run in the park."
"Talking about the things you can't have is only going to make you miss them more," Jones said wistfully. He missed his wife and daughter already, and they still had four and half months until they returned home. By the time he arrived back on Earth, he would be only two months away from being a father again. And Michelle was going to be pissed at him for missing most of the pregnancy.
"Nah," Burke drawled, sitting back and lacing his hands together behind his head, "I'm glad to get away for a while. The last year has been strenuous, y'know? It's my duty to the program to generate positive press, to get people excited about NASA again. But there's only so much Pete Burke to go around. I need a rest."
"And by getting 'people' excited, you mean 'pretty young things between, say, twenty-five and thirty', right?"
Burke clasped a hand to his chest with a wounded expression. "Ouch. You insult me, Jonesy. I'm not anywhere near that shallow." He broke into a sudden grin. "I'd be willing to go as high as thirty-five."
Jones barked a short bray of laughter and shook his head. "Someday, Jif, you are going to find the woman who can tame that wild streak right out of you."
"And on that day, I will set a new land speed record in the opposite direction." Burke rubbed his chin with one hand, a nervous gesture Jones recognized.
"Nah. You won't know what hit you. Like a deer in the headlights." He reached over his head and adjusted some controls on a panel. "Trust me on this. I speak from experience."
Burke mulled that over for a moment, then his face lit up as he changed the subject abruptly. "Hey, wanna pull something on Virdon when he wakes up? I found the subroutine for the zero-grav toilet, and I had this great idea..."
Veska could see the path scorched into the earth long before they reached the alien machine. And a strange scent hung heavy in the air, like burnt bread. At his back, Arno clung to him, the boy's arms tightening as they reined the horses to a stop.
The horses danced and snorted, reacting as much to the tension of their riders as to the foreign sights and smells. Two of the gorilla soldiers grunted, their heads swinging from side to side. Turvo, the gorilla with the white stripes on his uniform, leaned toward Veska.
"What is it, Prefect?" Turvo asked haltingly.
"I don't know."
Turvo twisted in his saddle toward the other two soldiers. "Keep your guns ready."
With a small push from his father, Arno hopped off the back of the horse, landing lightly in the dirt. Veska and Turvo dismounted, leaving their rifles strapped to their horses. The other two gorillas remained mounted, guns drawn and ready as they'd been ordered.
Veska, Turvo and Arno approached the ship cautiously. With a nervous huff, Veska unenthusiastically declared, "I suppose we should go in." He peered at the opening in the side of the craft, as if it were an entrance into a different world. Which in many ways, it was.
"Can I go too, Father?" Arno chirped immediately.
Arno was not going to be left behind. "But I found it, didn't I?" he pressed.
His father leaned down until their noses were almost touching. "I said no!"
Turning his attention back to Turvo, Veska pushed the gorilla towards the ship. "All right, let's go. Go!"
Spurred by another small shove by Veska, the gorilla climbed onto the wing. He reached out to tentatively touch the hatch around the opening and paused a moment while he squinted into the darkened space. Veska pressed in behind him, and Turvo's anger flared at the other's impatience. Caution was called for in this bizarre situation. He scoffed that Veska's notion of facing danger head-on was to hide behind someone else.
As his eyes adjusted to the change in lighting, Turvo gingerly descended the stairs. The interior had its own sources of illumination—button, panels and indicator lights all shown brightly in a myriad of colors. He walked to the far side of the small space, where a bank of glowing numbers caught his eye. Absently, he heard Veska enter behind him.
"He's dead," Veska said. Turvo turned as the chimpanzee stood over a male human whose fixed stare and flopping head told Turvo the same thing.
"It's a human!" Arno's voice exclaimed from behind them.
Both the older apes turned toward the sound and saw the boy sitting on the stairs. "I thought I told you to stay outside!" Veska growled harshly. But Arno was not daunted.
He pushed himself off the stairs and padded over between the two empty chairs. "And look, there are two more of them. I wonder where they are?"
"We'll find them," Turvo told the boy.
Veska advanced a half-step on his son, his tone urgent. "You're not to say a word about this, you understand, Arno?"
Arno looked perplexed. "Why not, Father? It's so exciting!" He looked around at the advanced technology covering the walls and even the ceiling. The gears were already turning in his head thinking about how much fun he could have playing in this wondrous place.
"It's dangerous! Human's know their places. That musn't change." He had to make the boy understand the gravity of the situation. "If they were to found out that other humans could build and fly a machine like this, they'd begin to think they're as good as we are!"
Arno shook his head, his confusion only deepening at his father's words. This machine, the complexity of it, was like nothing he'd ever seen before. And if it had carried humans and not apes... "But, Father, look. These humans must be better than we are."
Veska's darted forward and grabbed his son. He pulled him closer and locked a bruising grip around both the boy's upper arms "You're not to say such a thing again!" He shook him in counterpoint to his, ignoring the boys frightened whimpers. "You're not even to think it!" He pushed Arno away with a shove. The boy cowered, holding both arms in front of him to protect himself from another onslaught.
But Veska turned back to Turvo, who watched the exchange intently. "I want this body buried at once." Then he slapped the back of his hand at Arno to shoo him toward the exit.
With a startled gasp, the boy bolted up the stairs and out of the incredible flying machine.
When he got close to the entrance to his secret cave, Farrow had to rest again. He lowered the blond man to the ground and practically collapsed against a large rock. His hands shook as the adrenalin from his near encounter with the apes leeched out of his system, leaving him feeling spent. He wiped the back of his hand across his brow and flicked away the sweat that threatened to run into his eyes. For the hundredth time, he looked at the unconscious stranger and wondered what mysteries he would reveal when he awoke.
Pushing himself off the rock with a grunt, Farrow noted the short distance to the break in the underbrush that covered his destination. He pressed both hands into the small of the back and stretched to relieve some of the ache that was settling into his old bones and muscles. With a nod, he reached down to grip the man's wrists and began to pull him through the dry dirt the rest of the way to the cave.
The outer entrance was hewn from the rock, little more than a dug out notch into a cliff. Inside the depression, a metal door, pitted and worn but free from rust, stood propped open a few inches. Farrow hooked his foot in the gap and leaned his hip into the door to widen the opening until he could drag the man inside. He pulled him over onto a straw mat and pillow he had prepared. His dark-haired companion rested a few feet away on a matching pad. Farrow gently dropped the blond's arms and rushed over to close the heavy steel door with a muted thud.
Farrow's secret cave had walls built from large blocks of smooth stone, cut into regular rectangular shapes, all the same size. In places, holes marred the stone—in one section, the stone was crumbled in a pile in front of a fissure the size of a man, revealing native rock and the edges of the arm's length thick wall. Farrow sometimes hid items in that crevice.
Scattered around the large space were remnants of its old contents. Rusted metal shelves that leaned drunkenly. A few rusted metal containers that Farrow couldn't figure out a use for. Everything else had been scavenged. Cobwebs hung in huge clumps from every surface, even the rubble.
He fetched a pitcher of water he'd filled that morning and found a cloth, took both over to kneel next to the blond man. Blood caked the side of the stranger's face, turning black around the edges as it dried, while the wound above his eye still oozed sluggishly. Farrow shoved the cloth down into the cool water then used it to wipe at the blood. The man didn't move or rouse at all during his ministrations, even when Farrow grasped his chin and tilted his head to look for other injuries. He frowned and shook his head. That wasn't a good sign. Usually cold water on the face was enough to rouse a man if he was simply asleep or even passed out. But since the stranger had taken a blow to the head, there was no way to tell when, or if, he would wake. Farrow had seen humans struck on the head with the butt of a gorilla's rifle who never rose again.
He glanced at the other man with a sad look, willing them both to wake up. If nothing else, he wanted to hear the story of how they came to be in such an amazing flying machine.
He settled down to wait.
"If you ride fast, you should be in Central City by tomorrow morning." Veska finished scribbling his signature on the piece of parchment, folded it, and pressed it into the hands of the gorilla. "Give this message to Chief Councillor Zaius. Hurry!" He slapped the rump of the gorilla's horse to spur it into a gallop.
He spun toward Turvo. "I want a through search for the other two humans!" Turvo and the other gorilla wheeled their horses away.
Thinking that his father was preoccupied, Arno surreptitiously began to climb back onto the wing of the ship. "Arno, get off that thing!" his father shrieked at him before he even got both feet onto the metal surface. He hopped down with a sheepish look and chased the horse who'd been spooked by Veska's harsh tone.