Drumming.

There was naught more but the drumming beating like a hihat. Bits and pieces of debris rained on the hull of the ring, and the drumming sound filled the command centre. Solomon hadn’t shaved in days, what had looked like a desperate attempt to look dangerous and interesting, had turned into the look of a man who began turning grey ahead of his time. “Keep firing.” He heard himself say. More mutter than speak.

Most of his nights he spent on a bunk in an adjacent room, instead of home with his wife and son.

The tired moan of the hydraulic opening of the door behind him alerted him to Johannes entering the command centre. “You called?”

Without saying a word Solomon got up and led him to the room with the bunks. On a bed he and his first officer had hoisted up a bridge officer, a gunner as they were called now. “He passed out five minutes ago.”

Johannes lept to the man, checked vital signs, and the skin. “Dehydration, and exhaustion. I need to hookhim to an IV, and he needs rest. How long has he been at it?”

Pinching his eyes and uttering a noise that was a bastard mix of a sigh and a yawn Solomon shook his head. “He was on his post when I fell asleep, and when I returmed.”

As wordless as Solomon before, Johannes approached his old friend, pinching the skin on the back of his hand. “You need to drink man.” Looking in his eyes he added, “and to sleep.” Shaking his head, Solomon yawned again.

“The Harpies are out there and didn’t figure out how to mask their heat emissions, so they show up, we blast at their weapon systems, they retreat, but they come back with another ship, while repairing the other ones.”

Heaving the unconscious crewman onto his shoulder Johannes thought that the Harpys were merely testing the Horizon. If they really wanted to destroy them, they’d disappear and come back in force. In numbers too high for the Horizon to handle.

“Still you need rest, as chief medical officer I’m relieving you of duty, you are unfit for it. The others can do that job just as well without you there.” Solomon wanted to protest, but got a commanding gaze from Johannes instead.

 

Conceding he followed his lead, supporting the unconscious crewman from the other side. Their path took them through the reinforced hallways of the subalpha ring to the local infirmary. A small hospital was now present in all of the rings, so only absolute emergencies had to be transported to the main hospital in subgamma.

After learning about the severity of the situation the elected officials of the three main rings had given him absolute command, but remained in authority for non military decisions.

The scientists had prognosed a dramatic space problem for following geneations, most quarters, already crammed small rooms, had been converted to accommodate two people at once, while the outter sections of the rings had only been reinforced to withstand the Harpies fire.

 

“I cant wait for the shipments from Ericsson.”

“We’re still years out! We’ve been doing pretty good these last three months without supplies.” Admitting only to himself that he was only a doctor and not a tactician or that he knew much of the logistics of the Horizon, Johannes was glad to have reached the infirmary.

“How’s it you always do this exhaustion thing evey week?”

“Harpies don’t stop.”

“Well they should, unless they wanna die of exhaustion too.” It was his turn to smile a playful smirk they both knew from one another since they met.

Faintly replying with his own smirk Solomon leaned against a wall sitting on one of the chairs in the hallway of the infirmary, falling asleep before he had finished his smile.

For a moment Johannes looked at his old friend. He knew exactly why Solomon didn’t sleep much. The same reason he himself had trouble sleeping.

Dreams.

It was all said in his words. “Harpies don’t stop.” They didn’t, but it wasn’t the ones that showed up outside the ship that kept Solomon from sleep.

But the ones in his dreams.

Every night after they had caught one in the crawlspace at the cryogenic chambers he dreamt of them. Surely, Johannes figured, it was worse for Solomon, who almost joined the strike team that was completely wiped out by the Harpys. The lucky ones of that team had died instantly, the unlucky ones died within a week of horrific radiation effects.

Their screams and moans followed Johannes into his nightmares.

“Nurse? Both these men need rest, and fluids.” Command centre crews had started pulling longer and longer shifts immediately after the incident. Exhaustion and dehydration were commonplace amongst them.

 

“Get off. No, stop!” As if physically attacked, Solomon sat up in a moment’s notice. “Hush dear,” putting her slim hand on his forehead Sharon, his wife, stood up from her seat. “Johannes brought you, you’ve got such a great friend in him.” Confused, but seemingly glad he wasn’t in the weightless tube with the harpys he dreamt of, Solomon let himself sink back into the pillows. “How long have I slept?”

“Sixteen or seventeen hours. In addition to fluids he also gave you a mild sedative, to give you some much needed rest.” Fool.

Some odd sound echoed through the structure of the ship. Alerted he sat back up. “What is happening?” Unhappy of having to share her husband with his obligation as Admiral Sharon sighed. Not knowing what was going on she turned on the military channel on their screen. “…repeat: Intruder alert sections six and seven alpha ring. Dispatch of additional troops immediately! I repeat: Intruder alert…” as quick as he had sat up before, he turned off the screen, got up from bed. I knew it, without me this tub falls apart, or worse into enemy hands!

Hasting from the room he took only enough time to dress. Stumbling through the hallways of the subalpha ring he raised the command centre. A disabled harpy ship had crashed into the alpha ring, releasing its crew into the Horizon. Four additional ships had been attacking with it, inflicting minor damage to the beta and gamma rings, a similar entering attempt on subgamma was averted. To Solomon’s disliking that was achieved by destroying it.

So far all encounters had ended with disabled weapons for the harpys, that had been his policy. Keep them running against a wall, but don’t give them any more reason to attack.

That was obviously over now.

“Status?” He killed the line as he entered the command centre.

“We’re halting their advance, gladly we had been able to counteract their dampening field, or what ever that was when they first showed up.”

Maybe they just had latched on to the right lines in the spine? “Good, alert Doctor Falkner that soon he’ll have patients.” Maybe even from the enemy lines.

 

Impatiently pacing around the room Solomon listened to the transmissions from the marines as they were combing through the outter sections of the alpha ring. Adjacent sections of the infiltrated ones had been shut off as soon as the ship struck. Aiding in that endeavour was the decompression protocol that automatically shut them off.

Since the last ship had been fended off, the space around the Horizon had grown silent again.

After tense two hours of relentless pacing came the message he had been waiting for: “All clear.”

“Attention,” he barked intbarke communication line, “do not enter the Alien vessel, it might be booby trapped. Make way for the specialists.” A week after the first encounter with the Harpies, enough of their language and numerals had been deciphered from the obtained devices for scientists to uncover such dangers.

Hopefully.

“Aye! I’m already there, sir.” Solomon knew the owner of that voice all too well. A scientist who had enlisted in Horizons military. Sven Håkland. Hours and hours on end he had spent in meetings with that man. Unless his presence was required on the bridge. “Good to hear Sven, be cautious.”

“Always.” Even over the radio line Solomon could hear the smile in Sven’s voice. Underneath his three day beard the thin lips inside the spacesuit must have been pursed. “My computer is negotiating access with the vessel, large portions of it are however destroyed, or severely damaged by the impact. Might take some time.” His report was accompanied by a series of swearwords in a norse language that Solomon couldn’t understand. Sven must’ve told him a dozen times where he had come from originally, but it didn’t stick with Solomon. What came over the radio was, what Solomon described in his peraonal journal as techno babble. “According to the Harpy computer there is no foreseeable danger. Probably some not tied in traps if you ask me, their computer is damaged beyond repair and would probably have set any traps to kill its own crew.”

Staring at the view screen, that displayed just a 360° view around the ship, Solomon nodded. “Any clue what those might be?”

 

“No.” Sven stepped away from the hatch, his weapon raised, the flashlight mounted on top of it was turned on, although there was plenty of light in the alien vessel. “Unbelievable that these critters have been around for more than 65 million years.” Another man stepped to his side. “Indeed.” With a sigh Sven stepped closer to the narrow opening, the Harpys were only thigh high, so naturally they didn’t build rooms or hallways much taller. “Smith, were are you?”

“Almost there sir.” Came the thin voice of a woman over the radio. Only a few moments later she appeared carrying a device in her hands. It was at best knee high, so it would fit through the hallways with ease. Together they set it into the hallway and activated it.

After a short time of booting up, the device started maneuvering away.

Sven had figured that the Harpys would have interior structures too narrow for human exploration. “Navigate it to their computer core. We need every bit of information we can get.” Turning away Sven went back to a section that still had atmosphere, from where he took the tube to the sub alpha ring, to his office. Still in space suit, sans the helmet, he activated his console, which showed a life feed of the probe in the harpy ship.

“Taking over control, Smith, fall back. Same goes for the others, we don’t know what dangers that thing might hold in store for us.”

In the line he heard a slight feedback loop. Turning his head he noticed Solomon in the door. “Welcome to my lair Mr. Bond.” Sven chuckled, the Admiral too had to smile. “Well, Doctor, this is where all threads tie together.”

Turning his attention back to his console Sven shook his head. “For now sir, only for now.” The camera feed was the main screen, but there were thermal imaging feeds, scans of the atmosphere, as far as there was any, sounds and radiation, as well as various other telemetry readings. “Can I help you out of that suit? It’s quite uncomfortable.”

“I doubt Smith would like to see you helping me out of this.” Emphasising the “you” he winked over his shoulder.

Understanding the implications Solomon just nodded and looked at the screen as well. Mostly the probe guided itself, but here and there Sven made adjustments, scanning certain parts in more detail, prying open doors to see what lay behind.

“Where are we going with this thing?”

“Engineering. If scans of their engines are to be believed they utilise forms of energy we dare not touch again after the Ark1.”

Getting nervous after these words Solomon was thinking of ways to jettison the Harpy craft from the Horizon before the antimatter in their engines became unstable. “And I suspect them to use gravitons, and antigravitons as well. In addition I hope to find access to their computercore there.”

“If we can find the way.” Jana Smith entered the room, saluting the Admiral.

Instructing the first officer of the watch to keep a close sensor lock on the Harpy ship with all available devices Solomon kept watching Sven and Jana steer their probe.

 

The transmission of the probe was distorted when the doors in front of the camera opened, electromagnetic interference, as the other telemetric readings pointed out.

Seemingly happy Sven and Jana inched closer to the screen. Keeping an eye on it as well Solomon also kept reading the data from the whiskers.

He was just glad that the Harpys didn’t attack them in the meantime.

“Is that,” Jana backed away from the screen in surprise. “it looks like something biological.” She stammered.

Carefully driving the probe in closer, Sven extended an arm on the probe to collect a sample.

“It is organic matter, that much I can tell you now.” Both Sven and Jana had a hunch what that meant. Analysis of the sample would take some time, though.

“Where is their power source?” Impatient Solomon stepped closer, but got no reply, as Sven was too fascinated by the organic matter. “Doctor Håkland! Their power source?”

Steering the probe Sven grumbled, glued to the screen he did not even look over his shoulder. “I believe we’re in the right place,” he pointed at a wall in the rear of the room. “but that there looks like a containment measure in case of a problem.” He maneuvered the probe in closer, showed the floor that lead to the wall. From it they learned that his suspicion was correct. “Retrieve the probe asap, if impossible, we have to ditch it.” Solomon opened the com line to the command centre again. “Nikolai, what options do we have to get rid of this thing?”

“Pump the section with air, pop it like the kork in a champagne bottle.” Protesting behind his data goggles Sven had gotten up. “We don’t know what kind of safety measure that is, perhaps it is just to contain atmosphere?”

Ignoring him Solomon replied that the option seemed too risky, besides he didn’t want to risk losing atmosphere. “We can always jettison the pods it crashed into.”

“Preparation time?”

Before Nikolai could reply a sound on the Harpy ship drew the attention of Solomon and Sven, Jana had not turned around as she tried to retrieve the probe.

A figure in a space suit entered the field of vision the probe had. Quickly the Harpy hurried to the exposed organic matter. From its belt the Harpy took a small device, that closely resembled the one the other Harpies had used to scan the cryogenic chambers. Unimpressed, or ignorant of the contraption sitting in the room the Harpy proceeded to scan the organic matrer. Letting the device sink it turmed to the probe. Seemingly impressed, probably frightened it inched closer.

“Analysis complete!” Jana exclaimed. “It is,” she paused, “neurological?”

“A brain.” Sven concluded. Although computers were faster in calculations, biological processing units were more adaptive. And regenerative.

The harpy with the tool scanned the probe, pushed a few buttons on the scanner. After a few moments the presumed engineer turned back to the brain matter. “What is it trying to signal?”

Solomon’s face became dark. “My guess is, that it’s sinister.”

Neither Jana, nor Sven reacted to his pessimistic estimate. They kept watching.

Suddenly the harpy took out his gun, showed it to the probe, clearly aware of it transmitting a video feed. Demonstrative it placed the gun on a console next to the brain matter. Then it hurried off in the direction of the hatch the others had borded the Horizon.  “After it!” Solomon urged the scientists. Momentarily the probe followed the harpy in the space suit. As all three had guessed, it went to the hatch.

A security detail was waiting for it, with explicit orders not to shoot as it was unarmed.

 

Johannes paced through the room. Relentlessly he had done so for an hour and a half, eventually news had reached him that a Harpy had been taken prisoner. He wanted to study their physiology in a living specimen.

But still he had not been granted access. First Doctor Håkland had been granted to try and establish some sort of communication with it.

Silently the door slid open, Sven strode out, seemingly disappointed. “Alright, we’ll try again tomorrow.” Unsure whether he was addressing him or his faithful assistant, and girlfriend, Jana Smith, Johannes said “Okay with me.” before entering the room.

In a hastily erected cell sat the feathered creature, still wearing garments, but not as protective as the space suit. Half a dozen guards stood around the room, facing the cell. Disgracing. I wouldn’t treat human serial or mass murderers that way. He thought looking at the toilet that had been installed in plain view. Behind him a device was wheeled in, a mobile version of his scanning equipment. “We need it, or her probably, in this.” He turned to Solomon, who stood in a corner, bearing a grim expression.

Not saying a word he waved one of the guards over to assist Johannes in his undertaking. The other guards raised their weapons, pointing them at the door of the cell on the opposite side of the room.

Slowly they wheeled in the scanner into the cell, the guard stayed with Johannes,  closing the door to the cell behind them.

Although it was a totally different species than man, Johannes saw the fear in the Harpys eyes. “Calm down. It is harmless.” The device was sized for a human, as it had been intended for use in the field once Horizon had arrived on RV-p296. “I’ll show you.” Quickly he climbed into it and instructed the guard how to operate the device, after a few moments the results were showing on his tablet computer. Once he had climbed out of the machine he showed the data to the Harpy.

Uttering a guttural sound the Harpy seemed to understand, willingly it climbed into the scanner, making sounds. Presumably remarks about the technological level of the humans.

After he had taken the scans, Johannes was about to leave when the Harpy made another sound, almost as if calling him back. With its long fingers, only remotely reminding of claws, it pointed at Johannes’ tablet.

With an uncertain expression he looked over to Solomon.

Still looking rather grim he nodded, meanwhile Sven had returned, standing next to him. “You want my pad?” He extended his arm, still a bit frightened by the creature. They were technologically advanced, but still had teeth that could maim him, or in the worst case even kill him before the guards had subdued or killed it. Looking over the results of its own scan the Harpy grunted a few times before handing back the tablet.

About to leave Johannes gazed down on it and found data entries that had not been there before.

Her entire body chemistry had been added in the few moments she had had the pad. “Doctor Håkland?” Strolling over to the cell door Sven said that he should call him Sven, as he didn’t pronounce the name right, as most people. “Have you tried communication using chemistry yet?” Johannes handed the pad to Sven.

Going over the additions Svens eyes got bigger. “Brilliant!”

“Her idea.” Johannes pointed at the Harpy. “She’s a clever gal.”

Quickly Sven had gotten his own tablet from his pocket and drew up a table of elements. He kneeled down in front of the Harpy while Johannes left with his scan and equipment, Solomon at his heels.

“That was risky. We need to be prepared that she is a spy, or worse, carrying secret orders to destroy us.”

“Well,” waiting for the cab in the tube to arrive Johannes leaned against the scanner, “she ain’t got a bomb inside her. And if her chemistry is to be believed, not in her body chemistry either.”

In silence the two men stood side by side in the cab. Ever since they had rode the maintenance cab from the central tube in weightlessness Johannes felt a bit uneasy in one of these. Thankfully he seldom had to leave the subalpha ring, his office and his infirmary, the cell in which they kept the Harpy, his quarters, were all on the ring. “What is to happen to her now?”

“Nothing. We feed her and try to communicate with her.” Pinching his eyes Solomon sighed, allowing himself to lean against the wall. “I didn’t want any of this, you know? None of them, none of us, should be suffering, or dying.” Met with a calming and kind smile by Johannes, Solomon knew he had the best of possible friends in Johannes. “Whenever we shoot, we shoot to disarm their ships, not to destroy them. I had hoped they never would breach our defences, or our hull, so a bloodshed like this could be avoided.” He stood up right. “So rest assured, nothing will happen to her.” Hissing the doors opened, revealing the hallway in front of the infirmary was stuffed with small crates, without explanation Johannes knew what was inside them. “They however need to be examined.”

 

Tired, although he had slept a few hours, Johannes sat at the table in the briefing room. Sven and Solomon were present, as well as the elected leaders of the alpha, beta and gamma rings via video call. “They are, as we knew before, descendants of dinosaurs.” Supressing the urge to yawn Johannes loaded a depiction of their DNA on to the screen, and to the feeds going to the elected officials. “As you can see they share some DNA with terrestial birds we have on file.” More depictions of DNA. “They are omnivorous, but surely came from a carnivorous ancestor, as their teeth suggest, those need longer to change in the evolutionary process than other body parts.” And they surely kept a diet that suited them and their tastebuds. He showed the others close ups of the Harpy teeth.

His part of the briefing was followed by Sven telling them of his efforts to communicate with the Harpy, and how far their technology was ahead of their own. “We suspect that they had been searching for a suitable home for a lot longer, thus their technological development was stalled for countless generations. But now,” he wrinkled his forehead, “if we are lucky and make quantum leaps in our development, we might be able to catch up to their current stage of development in a few thousand years, but by my estimate, make that rather much more.”

The three men in the room, and the three men on the screen sat in silence after those words.

“Anyhow,” standing up from his seat Solomon displayed concern, the big screen then showed why. “The clamps holding the pods that the harpy ship had impacted into, are bent, buckled, in one case, due to frictional heat even welded. We can’t release them, to rid ourselves from their unstable ship.”

“What?” Alpha ring’s governor, Adrian Gilbert almost sprang from his seat at the camera. “How long does the alpha ring have to live with this thing tucked into our territory?” Jurisdictional pissing contest, round one, curious Johannes looked at Solomon.

“As long as it takes us to figure out a solution to it. Besides, as long as the crisis is current, remember, it is my jurisdiction. Not yours.” He ended the meeting with a push of a button.

Thrown back to silence the three men sat and stood in the room. “You know what I miss recently on this tub?” Johannes got up staring at the large screen, still displaying the twisted clamps. “Alcohol. I have the goddamn urge to get myself piss drunk.”

A short chuckle came from Sven. “Give me permission, and two weeks and I’ll make you the best moonshine you can get your hands on, not like the paint thinner they make in subgamma.” Surprised Solomon turned around. He had suspected that the people made their own alcohol, but confirmation was still shocking to him.

Amused Johannes turned to Solomon. “I think we should call these hot air balloons back to the meeting, they need to legislate a new law. Alcohol is back on the menu.”

“Are you mad? I can’t prohibit it, but won’t allow it either. Men and women armed with guns that can cut through steel like a hot knife through butter, and you want them to drink?”

Lowering his head while turning back to Sven, Johannes sighed. “It’d be a moral boost. Or at the very least a support pillar for crew moral. We are in a situation that gives us barely a moment to catch our breath, and don’t forget that people had been drinking since we started to settle down. A sober army is a fragile one.”

Dismissing Johannes’ speech as nonsense with a wave of his hand Solomon turned back to the screen. “Sven, what to do with the clamps?”

“Honestly? Blow them up with cutting charges, vibration should be minimal enough to not shake up the harpy ship to a point of destabilising their engines.”

Nodding in silence Solomon kept staring at the screen.

 

A mild tremor went through the entire alpha ring. Men and women immediately assumed it was nothing good.

Ever since the Harpys had crashed into the ring, large portions of the civilian population had been relocated to beta and gamma rings. Especially families with children.

Startled governor Gilbert rushed from his quarters.

Glad that his wife and daughters were as far from harm as possible he ran through the hallways. Calls rang for his attention, but he ignored them all, desperately trying to raise the Admiral.

“First officer Nikolai Assanov, how can I help you governor?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be in auxiliary?” Heading to the offices of the ring government the governor was struck with confusion. “Promotion after first officer Connor was found unfit for duty.” Assanov quickly explained.

Somewhere in the back of his mind Adrian recalled reading about that. The first officer had tried to commit suicide. Although his life could be saved, he was found unfit for duty, and discharged. “Something rocked the entire ring, are you already trying to cut lose the clamps?”

A moment of silence filled the ether.

“Negative, please hold the line, the Admiral will talk to you asap.”

Staying on the line Adrian entered the offices. “No news sir.” His secretary immediately informed him. Contrary to him, she was a bit calmer about the situation. Clearly seeing his confusion she explained that coming from Japan she was used to quakes. “Yeah,” he noted, “but although the aftermath of an earthquake can be devastating, the reason for this one might be even more devastating.”

Still his call to the Admiral was unanswered, while the number of missed and waiting calls to him was rising.

 

“Your ship trembled!” Sven cried out in front of the Harpy. Not understanding a single thing he said, the Harpy laid its head to the side looking him up and down. She clearly picked up his sweat.

 

Fear!

All the people in the room reeked of it.

That meant nothing good.

Her eyes fell upon the tablet on his side. Slowly, not to cause the mammals any cause for alarm she extended her arm and pounted at it. Seeming to understand her, Sven reached for it and drew up the sensor data they had gathered during the tremor.

Hastily she looked over the displayed data. Most of it made no sense to her, the mammalian writing and language was too alien to her.

For now at least.

But what she understood concerned her, she pointed at the tablet while handing it back to Sven.

He seemed confused. Rolling her eyes she pointed at it, and waved the other hand in front of her eyes. “Jana!” A moment later the female mammal came running with her equipment. She handed the portable computer originally taken from the Harpy to Sven who then gave it to the Harpy.

Indeed the readings were bad news, now she understood why they all stank of fear. From the computer in her hand she also gathered that they simply lacked the ability to contain the engine problem, or safely dispose of the ship on their own.

A few touches with her fingers and she returned the device to Sven.

Meanwhile a new tremor shook the alpha ring.

But the cause for it was a good one. Maneuvering thrusters on the Harpy ship fired, pushing it away from the Horizon.

Metal screamed against metal as bent and mangled hulls scratched against one another. Not heard in the airless void of hard vacuum, but the vibrations carried on through the hulls of the ships.

As the damaged and unstable ship pushed off, the Harpy was glad she had returned the device to Sven. No doubt the almost comatose intelligence asked why it was abandoned. As he handed the computer back to Jana, she saw signs flash on the right hand side of the screen, presumably asking why.

For years and years she had spent time with the ship and its mind. Every bulkhead, nut and bolt. Every mood and thought.

Forever etched into her mind.

In her training she had been warned not to get too attached to the ships intelligence,  for it was just a ship, and parting from it, one way or another, would be too hard.

 

“She saved us.” The screen in the conference room showed the harpy ship moving off from the Horizon, and immediately slowing out of range. Moments later an explosion lit up a large portion of the starry sky.

“She saved herself.” Grunting Governor Gilbert turned his face away from the video conference. “Where were you?” He addressed Solomon. “Not that it is any of your business, but I was busy.”

“She saved more than just herself.” Johannes interrupted before the conversation derailed completely. On the screen the images of her scan appeared. “Are those?” Immediately Sven had recognised the displayed image from within the harpy in the cell. “Eggs, yes. I can’t say whether they’re fertilised or not, I don’t know enough of their physiology yet.”

Stunned by the revelation the room, and the conference calls, grew silent.

“So,” Sven looked around. “do we build her a nest?”

 

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