Aliens

By: Alan Dean Foster

I

Two dreamers.



Not so very much difference between them despite the more obvious distinctions. One was of modest size, the other larger One was female, the other male. The mouth of the first contained a mixture of sharp and flat teeth, a clear indication that it was omnivorous, while the maxillary cutlery of the other was intended solely for slicing and penetrating. Both were the scions of a race of killers. This was a genetic tendency the first dreamer's kind had learned to moderate. The other dreamer remained wholly feral.



More differences were apparent in their dreams than in their appearance. The first dreamer slept uneasily, memories of unmentionable terrors recently experienced oozing up from the depths of her subconscious to disrupt the normally placid stasis of hypersleep. She would have tossed and turned dangerously if not for the capsule that contained and restrained her movements—that and the fact that in deep sleep, muscular activity is reduced to a minimum. So she tossed and turned mentally. She was not aware of this. During hypersleep one is aware of nothing.



Every so often, though, a dark and vile memory would rise to the fore, like sewage seeping up beneath a city street Temporarily it would overwhelm her rest. Then she would moan within the capsule. Her heartbeat would increase. The computer that watched over her like an electronic angel would note the accelerated activity and respond by lowering her body temperature another degree while increasing the flow of stabilizing drugs to her system. The moaning would stop. The dreamer would quiet and sink back into her cushions. It would take time for the nightmare to return.



Next to her the small killer would react to these isolated episodes by twitching as if in response to the larger sleeper's distress. Then it, too, would relax again, dreaming of small warm bodies and the flow of hot blood, of the comfort to be found in the company of its own kind, and the assurance that this would come again. Somehow it knew that both dreamers would awaken together or not at all.



The last possibility did not unsettle its rest. It was possessed of more patience than its companion in hypersleep, and a more realistic perception of its position in the cosmos. It was content to sleep and wait, knowing that if and when consciousness returned, it would be ready to stalk and kill again. Meanwhile it rested.



Time passes. Horror does not.





In the infinity that is space, suns are but grains of sand. A white dwarf is barely worthy of notice. A small spacecraft like the lifeboat of the vanished vessel Nostromo is almost too tiny to exist in such emptiness. It drifted through the great nothing like a freed electron broken loose from its atomic orbit.



Yet even a freed electron can attract attention, if others equipped with appropriate detection instruments happen to chance across it. So it was that the lifeboat's course took it close by a familiar star. Even so, it was a stroke of luck that it was not permanently overlooked. It passed very near another ship; in space, 'very near' being anything less than a light-year. It appeared on the fringe of a range spanner's screen.



Some who saw the blip argued for ignoring it. It was too small to be a ship, they insisted. It didn't belong where it was And ships talked back. This one was as quiet as the dead. More likely it was only an errant asteroid, a renegade chunk of nickel-iron off to see the universe. If it was a ship, at the very least it would have been blaring to anything within hearing range with an emergency beacon.



But the captain of the ranging vessel was a curious fellow. A minor deviation in their course would give them a chance to check out the silent wanderer, and a little clever bookkeeping would be sufficient to justify the detour's cost to the owners Orders were given, and computers worked to adjust trajectory The captain's judgment was confirmed when they drew alongside the stranger: it was a ship's lifeboat.



Still no sign of life, no response to polite inquiries. Even the running lights were out. But the ship was not completely dead Like a body in frigid weather, the craft had withdrawn power from its extremities to protect something vital deep within.



The captain selected three men to board the drifter. Gently as an eagle mating with a lost feather, the larger craft sidled close to the Narcissus. Metal kissed metal. Grapples were applied. The sounds of the locking procedure echoed through both vessels.

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