Steve could barely stop smiling as the rover approached the crashed pod. He couldn’t have turned down his promotion. Too many obligations to too many people in a perfect moment of weakness. But exploring and cataloging was one of his favorite things in the universe -- the other being reverse-engineering gadgets brought to him from other worlds -- and he’d missed it terribly. The only exploring he’d done recently was charting new routes between offices and meeting rooms in the command spire of the city. Finally, that electric tingle of excitement was back.
As the rover stopped in front of the crashed pod, the crew quickly realized it was much larger than they thought. The groove it carved could easily be used as a major road according to the drones hovering above. The light was quickly fading, so they had to be very efficient with their time. It was never wise to investigate anything new and potentially dangerous in the dark Steve thought as he hurried Imo and Jonas along.
Without consciously meaning to, they maintained radio silence on approach, the only sound made by the sand and small pebbles crunching under their boots. Drawing closer, they felt an increasing sense of unease. Something was definitely observing them, they could feel it through their suits. Cold sweat dripped down their brows and their skin suddenly broke out in goosebumps.
“Do you hear that?” asked Imo.
“No, I’m hearing anything,” replied Jonas.
“Negative here as...” Steve suddenly stopped himself as a very quiet low pitched thumping started to irritate his ear.
“Ok, now I hear it,” winced Jonas.
“It’s getting worse,” Imo said gritting her teeth.
“Oh God, what the hell is that?”
The thumping suddenly exploded into a near-deafening shriek as an electromagnetic pulse hit them. Just as quickly as it started, the sound was gone. They could feel their heartbeats start to slow down and their breathing return to normal. The dreadful, ominous feeling vanished.
“Imo, Jonas, Steve,” Christine hailed over the intercom. “Are you all right? We detected a spike around you.”
“Yes, we’re fine,” replied Jonas. “Just felt a bit off for a minute there.”
“Was it trying to figure out if we’re a threat?” asked Imo.
“Probably,” nodded Steve. “But I also think it was playing an infrasonic sound just to rattle our nerves.”
“Should we keep going?”
“Well, it stopped right after it scanned us, so I think we’re ok for now.”
They approached the slightly tilted pod without incident, the drones overhead tracking their every move and two small rovers following close in tow. One after another, they flipped on their built-in helmet cameras, the tiny red lights indicating that they were successfully broadcasting their signal.
“Base, recovery crew moving in position,” announced Imo.
“Roger that recovery crew,” acknowledged a technician’s voice. “Moving the drones into backup position, emergency pilots for rovers are on standby.”
“Approaching pod,” said Steve.
“Feed is coming in nice and clear,” confirmed the technician.
Steve moved towards the pod, looking for any trace or sign of an entrance. He found nothing but some markings in the same red, sharp, angular glyphs seen on the destroyed ship from which it was ejected.
“Base, we’re not seeing any way in,” he harrumphed.
“Nothing on this side either,” affirmed Jonas. “The thing’s perfectly smooth. It looks like it was poured into a mold and popped out after it was solid.”
Steve, standing close to the pod, reached out towards the glyphs, tilting his head to the side and frowning a little.
“I swear, there’s something familiar about this writing,” said Steve. “It’s like... I’ve seen it before.”
“Steve, are you saying you were kidnapped by aliens once?” asked Christine’s voice.
Imo and Jonas guffawed as Steve rolled his eyes.
“No, I’m serious,” he said, “There’s just something about them. Like I should know how to read them. These could be directions on how to open them, and some just look like Arabic numerals.”
He reached out and touched some of the glyphs in question. The glyphs ignited and began to pulse.
“What happened?” asked Jonas. “Steve, did you touch anything?”
“Yeah, I touched the writing, but I think we’re ok. It’s just glowing and flashing, I don’t...”
The pod let out a soothing sequence of beeps and something very similar to a rectangular hatch suddenly flashed into existence. It unhurriedly parted open, revealing an airlock inside the pod and sliding out a ramp.
“Guess we’re invited?” Imo asked raising her brow.
“For now,” warned Steve. “Everyone stay alert.”
Inside, the pod was gloomy but clean and roomy. Dark ceramics lined all of the visible surfaces, which were accented by more glyphs, some of which appeared to be directional. The airlock behind them quickly shut itself, almost sending the crew into a soundless panic until Imo found a large button to open it again without resistance. Whatever was operating the pod, it seemed, had indeed welcomed them.
“The atmosphere inside seems perfectly safe, but just in case, let’s keep our helmets on, ok?” said Jonas after analyzing the air with a handheld device.
Steve and Imo nodded in agreement. The crew and their two small robotic assistants on six wheels turned to their right. Imo tapped on a complex symbol on the wall. It silently peeled open to reveal a mechanical lock.
“Everyone at base seeing this?” she asked.
“Yes, we see the lock,” confirmed Christine. “Do you think we should open it?”
“That’s why we’re here,” agreed Imo. “Let’s get the rovers in place.”
One of the rovers whirred as its arm reached out to grasp the lock. Slowly, it applied pressure and the lock softly clicked as the door began to silently slide open. As it completely retracted into a side wall, absolutely nothing happened. Still so far, so good. They continued down the corridor to another sealed door that led to what looked like a small, dark engine room with a complex, spherical structure and pipes connecting it to two cylinders.
“Well, I think we found the engines,” said Steve. “That sphere is probably the power source.”
“Any idea how this thing flies?” asked Jonas.
“None,” Steve shook his head while shining a portable light on the piping. “Never seen anything even remotely like it. Maybe I could figure something out if we pried this thing open, but I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Everything looks like it’s in good shape though,” noted Imo.
Steve studied the black glyphs on the pipework for just a few moments, grimacing in deep thought. Something about that weird writing kept bugging him, and given what he saw so far, these must have been instructions and directions. If only he could read the markings...
“Let’s see what else we can find,” he finally said.
They made their way back and proceeded towards what must have been an entrance to the pod’s bridge. It too opened without a problem, leading them to a dark chamber where the only beams of light came from their lanterns. After a few moments, shadows of chairs shaped like bucket seats became vaguely visible.
“So far, so good,” said Imo. “Everything looks more or less intact.”
She nearly dropped her light when she noticed the seats.
“Whoa! We have seats!” she exclaimed.
“Is there a crew?” asked Christine. “We’re having some issues with your signal right now.”
Steve slowly walked around the bridge, flanking the seats with Imo and keeping a fair distance between himself and whatever may have been in them while Jonas approached from the back.
“Steve, Imo, is there a crew?” Christine asked again, her voice coming in distorted.
As Steve continued his sweep, the outlines of humanoid figures in the seats became obvious. They were sunk and reclined, their heads were thrown back by the landing, almost as if they were trying to watch the main screen wrapping around the bridge, which was currently completely blank.
“Three crew,” finally replied Steve. “One male, one female... and...”
He took another step and saw his light hit the third figure.
“And one more female.”
“How do you know?” asked Christine’s still distorted voice.
“I think it’s a decent hunch,” said Jonas.
Meantime, on the outpost’s screen, the glitchy main video feed stabilized and switched to Steve’s camera, with the rest of the crew and the rovers in a side grid. The pod’s crew came into focus to the stunned gasps of all those assembled.
They wore what looked like uniforms of red, gray, and black honeycombed, flexible suits covered by black plating with gray and red accents. That in itself wasn’t shocking. What triggered the interjections were their faces, which looked like stylized, rough approximations of human features on a mask.
“Huh. That’s... uh... certainly something...” finally mustered Christine. “Are those spacesuits or military uniforms?”
“It looks military to me,” confirmed Steve’s voice broadcast throughout the control center. “I know armor plating and what they’re covered in is armor.”
“Are they alive?” asked Christine.
“We couldn’t tell you,” replied Jonas.
On the main screen, the camera carefully zoomed in to show what looked like jagged burgundy scabs on the dark gel of one of the bizarre humanoid’s faces.
“But they do look a little beat up,” added Jonas.
Inside the pod’s bridge, Steve looked at the humanoids closer. Their skin was jet black and their eyes were much larger and more squarish than they should be. All the small, quirky features of a human face were smoothed out in the dark gel. Their noses were small and well defined, their lips thin enough to almost be simple slits where their mouths should be.
Their heads were covered by crystalloid hair that formed what looked like a thick, sturdy helmet. Their faces had two notable markings stretching from their temples to their cheekbones and two smaller, similarly styled ones underneath them. Their armor plates on their chests bore the same insignia as on the top of the destroyed spaceship which brought them to this planet.
“Is it just me or do those marks on their faces look like simplified integrated circuit resistor symbols?” asked Jonas.
He approached the male humanoid and shined a bright light into his eyes. There’s no response, with the pupils remaining blank and the socket not reacting to the stimulus. Steve pointed the light down at Jake’s hand.
“It’s not just you,” he said. “Also, this one has huge claws instead of fingers.”
Jonas reflexively touched the humanoid’s hand before Steve had a chance to stop him in silent horror. With a metallic clink, the humanoid’s claws were fixed in position and effortlessly sunk into the metal of the chair’s armrest.
“Holy shit...” yelped Jonas.
“Ok, new rule, let’s not touch the uh... crew here,” exhaled Steve, his heart almost jumping out of his chest.
“Good rule. Good, good rule,” chanted Jonas, nodding his head while his eyes remained transfixed on the insanely sharp claws of the humanoid he touched.
“Christine, what should we do with them?” asked Imo. “They’re unresponsive and we don’t know if they’re still alive.”
There was an uncomfortably long pause, the kind long enough to make it obvious that inside the city an existential debate was taking place between Christine and Ingrid.
“We think we should bring them to base for analysis,” finally replied Christine’s voice. “Dispatching med transport.”
The three humanoids lay naked on medical exam tables as Naenia Hume, the outpost’s Chief Doctor walked between them with her tablet. Much larger versions of the jagged electrical symbol markings on their faces stretched from their shoulder blades, around and over their shoulders, and terminated about an inch past their collar bones, traveling towards their sternums. The humanoids also had individual designs like tattoos on their bodies, done in the same style as their markings.
In front of the scene was a thick glass behind which Christine, Steve, and several other crew members observed her and the strange creatures she was examining. Since the hazmat teams and astrobiologists judged them to be perfectly safe to be around, the doctor simply wore her scrubs and white coat instead of a hermetically sealed suit, to her great relief.
The humanoids appeared to have just two individual toes. Their big toes lacked cuticles and were slightly wider than normal, the rest of the foot fused into a single, smooth, flexible structure. Their bodies were covered in bleeding cuts, although the “blood” was burgundy and solidified into scabs over the many wounds of various sizes. Scanners attached to the ceiling whirred, bringing up image after image on holographic screens that surrounded the bodies.
“All right, so this is all very, very bizarre,” said Naenia checking her tablet. “Their ‘skin’ is made of gel. It behaves like human skin and has similar electrical properties. Under that, there are muscles, but since both are artificial, there’s no fat between them.”
She looked down at the male’s body and continued.
“They’re way too lean and defined way too symmetrically and uniformly for a human. Take an anatomical chart, adjust it for their body type, apply it with almost no deviation, and you have their outer shell.”
She pressed a few buttons on her pad to change the jumble of complex images around the humanoids. The screens exploded with arcane medical data and scans.
“Now, those IC schematic symbols on their faces?” Naenia said pointing to a scan. “They’re embedded with tiny patterns that appear to be unique to each individual. And look at this...”
She approached one of the female humanoids and took her hand, pressing several spots on the back of the specimen’s hand and knuckles at the same time. In a flash, her fingers transformed into shearing claws just as large, sharp, and intimidating as that of the male who Jonas disturbed.
“They all have these claw-like fingers, but the males have them permanently deployed as some form of sexual dimorphism. I can’t get the male’s claws to retract and the mechanism seems to be different. Otherwise, same body plan, same everything.”
Carefully, she walked over to the male humanoid and picked off a sample from one of his scabs with a pair of tweezers, putting the material in a Petri dish she set aside. In response, the male’s bleeding resumed but stopped just as soon as the wound was filled once again.
“Well, the good news is that they’re alive,” nodded Naenia with a contemplative frown.
“How do you know that?” asked Christine.
“Look at their scans!” she exclaimed, moving around some of the floating images with their anatomical data. “Doesn’t all of this look awfully familiar? There’s the brain, and the rest is shaped an awful lot like human organs. The brain sits in some sort of foam that’s obviously carrying oxygen and nutrients. The rest is mechanical but really simple. Just membranes and carbon fibers that respond to electrical stimuli. No motors to fail or get stuck.”
“But how do you know they’re alive?”
“Because I can see the damage to their brains healing and faint EEG readings. They’re exactly like the ones we see in comatose trauma victims.”
“Will they wake up?”
“I don’t know, but I can’t see why not. I’m actually a bit surprised they’re comatose because the damage isn’t that severe from what I can tell. It’s almost like their bodies just put them in suspended animation to repair the brain and prevent more trauma.”
“What are those webs around the brain?” asked Steve.
“Not 100% sure, but it looks like a neural link mesh, kind of like the ones we use for connecting to prosthetics,” replied the doctor. “But it’s going really deep into the brain and in some areas, it looks like it’s forming its own connections, like... alternative neural pathways...”
She froze and looked over the scans again.
“Holy shit people!” she gasped. “It’s a full-body prosthesis made into a spacesuit. They’re entirely self-contained and self-supporting. And it’s all simple enough not to need the same kind of constant maintenance life support systems would. There’s even a magnetic field to protect them from radiation and bacteria that produce oxygen for the stuff that acts as their blood, feeding on carbon dioxide. It’s... beautiful.”
She zoomed in on another scan for her increasingly bewildered audience on the other side of the thick glass.
“Amazing! They removed the heart and lungs but kept the liver, stomach, lymphatic system, and pretty much the whole endocrine system. This is not at all what I expected. I know, I know, I’m freaking out a little but this is... it’s just... a thousand years of research that literally fell from the sky.”
“So, what you’re telling us is that they’re... human? Like us?” asked Christine.
“Oh no, not like us,” laughed Naenia, zooming in on a scan of the humanoids’ brain cells. “No. The neurons look like ours at first glance, but they’re very different in both structure and behavior. They even regenerate like crazy. These specimens 100%, definitely started out as human, but now, they’re results of very, very extensive engineering.”
“Don’t human brain cells regenerate naturally?”
“Not at this rate. I couldn’t tell you just how extensive the gene edits were and how they were applied without a lot more data, but they were without a doubt, engineered to be this way. But they’re still much closer to a human than anything else, at least morphologically speaking. They’re the most advanced and elegant cyborgs I’ve ever seen, far, far beyond even the most ambitious theoretical literature we have on the subject.”
“What do you recommend we do now?”
The doctor paused, looking at the scans and the sample in the dish, rocking back and forth.
“The only thing we can do,” she said, rocking back and forth, fighting to respond while her mind was consumed with the details of the numerous experiments she couldn’t wait to start overseeing. “We wait. We take them to sick bay, and we wait for them to come to. That’s our only option.”