Chapter 1

Preliminaries. Circa 1350 BC

I sat pretending to be busy, engrossed, and fascinated. When in actual fact I was idle, disengaged, and bored, as if once again incubating in an egg cluster. In spite of all of my training, checklists, and psychological profiles, it is my belief that deep space survey work should be the task of thinking machines and not cognitively aware and creative life forms like me. There, I finally said it, and feel better for it.

Fortunately, my survey work will soon end, but nowhere near soon enough. After three hundred and twenty-one cycles of service I will be relieved, transferred out, and sent back home to a world that I will not recognize. The hard and fast rules of space, time, and relativity made sure of that. Frankly, I looked forward to the challenge, to start anew, and discover what my feathered-kind had come up with next.

The troubles began innocently enough. They started with an intermittent dashboard light, a slight wobble in the gravitation gage, and a minor quaver I felt throughout my survey craft. That was when I knew I was in for something special and out of the ordinary, perhaps even something downright dangerous. How exciting!

For the first time in a long time my scalp’s crest of colorful plumage ruffled with concern. My large eyes darted over my control console, alert to every detail. Yes, I was in full diagnostic mode and frankly, alarmed. My biometric-package inquired about my physiological condition several times, even suggested a sedative, to the point it too got on my nerves. So I shut it off. Now was definitely not the time for a nap.

Then, it happened. As I passed through the outer asteroid-belt of a minor star system, the gravimetric system failed—utterly. Hurtling onward, I was without a hint of guidance or inertial stabilization whatsoever. As my craft began to slowly yaw and tumble, I entered my coordinates and general course. Finished, I then reached for the shrouded button of the emergency beacon. My first clawed talon could not make contact as I became overcome with nausea and lost consciousness. My restraint system took over. My craft spun insanely out-of-control.

*          *          *

How can a global system failure be attributed to a heavily redundant system? Nevertheless, the failure of Survey Craft Number Four represented a classic example of such a cascading collapse. Fortunately for the pilot, this malfunction did not affect its sensor array. In extremis, the pilot thought the worst had come. Instead, the guidance array located the nearest rock and the emergency jets  vectored the crippled craft toward an appropriate landing site. Those sensors then recognized the total hopelessness of a survivable landing.

Put simply, the attitude jets were not up to the task without the assistance of the main engines. This fact initiated the ejection sequence of the pilot’s emergency escape pod. A flat area was selected. The pod separated as all twelve of its moorings were explosively sacrificed.

Minus its guidance pod, the survey craft’s attitude rapidly deteriorated. Upon atmospheric insertion, the craft’s still functional automatic systems took over as it continued to tumble. In a spasm of energy, the gravitron engines accelerated one last time, ensuring a spectacular impact—as designed by its makers. The strict canon of the survey’s charter did not allow for the unauthorized transfer of technology. Therefore, Survey Craft Number Four was not allowed to survive. Nonetheless, the ship’s sensors merrily recorded its building acceleration right up to impact. Never before in the history of the survey had a machine initiated such an all-consuming death wish … so emphatically executed.

As for the shaped escape pod, given the gravity and atmosphere of the planet, its glide ratio was not ideal. If the pilot had been conscious, then it would have heard the tremendous roaring and felt the atmospheric buffeting of the passage. In the end, the best the pod’s automatic controls could manage was a skipped landing followed by a prolonged slide across a silicate surface. This challenged the restraint system. Yet, somehow, it did not fail nor dissect the unconscious pilot into several pieces.

*          *          *

The goat herder lay exhausted from his day’s rounds, as the incessant care of some twenty-two very independent minds required today, and every day for that matter, his total attention. Penned in their desert corral for the night, the herder stretched out upon his meager bedding. He faced the starry night’s sky and felt the first cooling breezes that signaled the end of that day’s heat. Meanwhile, the herder listened for the stealthy approach of any threats to his personal fortune. For many trails coursed through this region, trails that foreign traders and desert raiders alike frequented.

But man was not his only threat. A hungry pack of desert jackals could strip him of his herd in moments. This night, however, hearing none of either, a satisfied sigh passed the herder’s lips. With his stomach swelled from his evening repast of coarse grain and fresh goat’s milk, all was right with the world. After all, what could possibly go wrong?

His long, dark eye-lashes fluttered towards sleep. The herder glanced once more across the heavens, reviewing in his mind and naming the many gods and goddesses who occupied that realm aloud, those that his father had taught him. It was his way to remember them all just before sleep overtook him. After all, there would be a time when he would teach his own children—or at least that was his dream.

But this night he caught sight of a new brightness that appeared in the sky, one which he could not name, one which intruded upon his solitude. Startled by the sight, the herder sat up mouth agape in awe as he witnessed one of the immortal gods descend. In what seemed a mere matter of moments, the brightness grew and grew as it neared. The herder, only a young man of sixteen inundations, was mesmerized by the ever-nearing spectacle, which seemed to be afire. A smoky trail traced its passage across the heavens, the very belly of the goddess Nut. His goats also took notice of this celestial manifestation and bleated in alarm.

Memories came and went during this display as the goat herder tried to remember anything from his father’s teachings about the heavens that could match what he was seeing. Just before the meteoroid’s impact, Sekemka’s last thoughts were, why was the fallen god making such a roaring noise?

*          *          *

The survey craft’s impact obliterated the immediate landscape of the goat pens. Weighing a shade over three tons, it had slammed into the desert at a hyper-velocity in excess of two miles per second, better than ten times the speed of sound.

What followed was a blinding flash of light as the gravitron engines and the ship’s fuselage compressed, reached plasma-like temperatures, and for a split second, ignited like a small star. The extraterrestrial visitor cruelly gouged the mostly silicate surface and formed a crater about one hundred and fifty feet across by fifty deep. Ejecta flew over thirty-two hundred feet in the air in a southeastern direction. Multiple seismic tremors transited through the West Saharan limestone plateau. The searing heat of the enormous energy vitrified the surrounding landscape into a molten lake of glass. The atmospheric concussion of the event caused multiple reports of cloudless thunder. Finally, the sheer displacement of sand and rock formed a high altitude mushroom-like debris cloud, which would stain the pristine blue sky for days. Sekemka, and his beloved goats, never had a chance.

*          *          *

When I returned to consciousness, I was greeted by an obnoxious droning background of static, flashing console lights, and general confusion. The more that I blinked in an effort to clear my eyes, the quicker my head ached. Then there were those exploding flashes of light that kept getting into the way of my vision. As for the rest of me, well, I was living a nightmare of pain. While I indeed survived the impact and somehow remained intact, I didn’t feel that way. I grudgingly had to admit that my escape pod had done its job. It had prevented me from smearing myself across this god-forsaken landscape like a broken egg.

Those were my first disjointed thoughts after that horrendous impact, and not necessarily in that order. I was concussed, delusional, and in considerable physical agony. Calling up my medical diagnostics with an eye-blink, I gradually came to the realization that my source of pain was from the restraint system itself, and not from any structural damage inflicted upon my delicate form.

A sigh followed by a deep breath. I guess I will live.

Only then did I trigger the emergency beacon. With that task done, I blinked at the onboard med-kit for a sedative, felt it take effect, and soon drifted off into what I sincerely hoped would be a restorative sleep.

*          *          *

Just how long I was under that self-induced rejuvenation coma, I calculated out, well, at this point it really doesn’t matter. For when I awoke, the exquisite agony had left me, being replaced by several dull and very manageable aches and pains.

Now alert, I felt the urgent need to understand my situation. Engaging my pod’s sensors, I found that only two survived. The other four had failed, as well as my emergency beacon. Well, I concluded, that is not very good news.

It meant I was on my own and with only the barest glimmer of hope for assistance. I supposed I could rely on the dumb luck of a chance scan by one of my kind. But by nature, I was a pragmatic realist. My situation was not good. The odds alone on anyone ever finding me were, well, infinitesimal. After all, imagine finding a near-light craft after who knows how many cycles had passed? My kind’s survey teams routinely swept through these outer galactic systems at a brisk pace. By the time my overdue updates were noted, well, that’s why I am a pragmatic realist.

What I could rely upon, however, could only be described as the stuff of pure fantasy. My pod’s sensors indicated I was surrounded on all sides by life forms. Each individual seemed positioned equidistant from the next and at some agreed upon distance from my pod’s hull. I idly mused on this spatial arrangement. Why were they so egalitarian?

Relatively short and triangular in structure, their large forward-facing eyes suggested intelligence. Twelve in all, an auspicious number, they seemed to be patiently waiting, perhaps for me to emerge, so that they might communicate with me, perhaps even greet me, maybe even be of some assistance. While those thoughts at first seemed a bit naïve, upon consideration, they also made sense. After all, I was here and they were there. How else am I to make a totally unauthorized first contact?

*          *          *

The pack of jackals did not know what to make of the large, egg-shaped object that had suddenly appeared in their territory. They could not approach close enough to stiff or taste it, as its outer skin was still far too hot from re-entry. So the pack did what all pack animals do.  waited, patiently, for something to happen. Precisely what, they didn’t know, just that they were hungry.