Sphinx of Centaurus (Chapter One)

Prologue 

Pitch black darkness surrounded her. She was floating. Drifting. Through the dark.

Something sparked. Flickers of evanescence fluttered around her. She felt tickles. Smelled ozone. Awareness seeped through her, cell by cell.

Cold...

She felt...not numb but cold... It pierced her, deep enough that her core ached. The darkness that enfolded her was a sea of ice.

It is time, said a voice sliding out of the dark, resonating along the wires that connected her to the cryo-tank.

Cognizance flowed back. Her eyes blinked open to the dim interior of the Centaurus, the ship that carried her and the rest of this crew of seven. It carried the child host, too. All of them slept in frozen stasis while instruments guided their ship from Earth to Proxima Centauri.

Halfway out, it was time for a routine awakening, so that a human could make decisions to approve or reject the course corrections the ship had made while they slept.
Not quite human.

The parasite stirred within her.

Awake... Soon, she would be ready to follow its bidding and do what had to be done. She would use the Titinha to find the nexus, and then... She would destroy her.
   

Chapter One

Light seared into Landon Walker. Sterile, white light pulsed with blinking, red dots of charts and graphs. It had been less than two hours since his awakening in the cryo-tank, and his eyes still watered from the glare here aboard the Centaurus.

He massaged the stiffness from his back and bent closer to his daughter's tank. Its window showed him swirling clouds of frost and chemicals that suspended Molly, his baby girl. She looked so tiny in there. But then, at two years old she only filled about a third of its coffin-like interior. She was the only one still in suspension after the crew of seven had been awakened. The ship had reached its destination and inserted itself into orbit around Proxima's previously unknown, other planet.

He shivered. Doc kept the cryogenics bay of the Centaurus uncomfortably cold as long as it held any occupants. But it wasn't just the ship that felt cold. Doc had told him it was normal to continue feeling chilled long after cryo-sleep. Maybe several more hours, or even days. He'd scarcely awakened in his own tank when he'd started calling out for his daughter. Finally, he'd recovered enough strength to wobble over here and personally check on her.

"There, you see?" Doc said at his side. She was a bald woman with a sharp face and a pinched nose, and she insisted that everyone call her "Doc" instead of her real name, Renee Montague. She clasped his arm, keeping him from falling as he leaned over Molly's tank. "Everything is normal, just as I told you." Besides a nasal twang, she spoke with an accent that swallowed her words. "She is fine, as fine as a sleeping toddler can be. You believe me now, yes?"

He'd never doubted Doc. She was the best medical specialist that the field of cryogenic suspension had to offer. No, it wasn't Doc whom he questioned. Nor his own normal chills.

It was Molly.

He had to be sure the alien hadn't hurt her.

Because Doc wouldn't know about that. No one on this ship knew about the duality, except for him. And Greer, his sister. But they'd left her behind on Earth.
"All right, you've seen her," Doc said, tugging on his sleeve. "Now we take care of you. You still need a little more time coming out."

Resisting her effort to pull him away, he squinted at the window. Through the fog that wrapped around the delicate features of his daughter's face, he could make out glimpses of her closed eyes. She slept, peacefully.
He remembered the way the alien had ridden her back on Earth. Another face had tumbled into view under his daughter's flesh, glowing through her skin like the message inside an antique eight ball. Each time the alien had surfaced from within her, it changed the color of Molly's eyes from golden brown to emerald green. The face had looked like an adult, human woman's.

It wasn't.

Doc kept tugging. "You always get your way, yes? What I don't understand is how you managed to convince the bosses to allow you to bring her along with us."

"It's a long story," he said. He'd vowed never to leave his daughter's side again, and Sam and the other bosses had wanted him badly enough to agree to his terms.
At least Molly looked the same as when he himself had gently laid her here all those years ago back at the space launch platform orbiting Earth. They'd barely escaped Patagonia with their lives intact. Molly's mother hadn't. They'd had to leave Summer there, buried under the ice of a glacier, but had he and Molly really escaped anything? His daughter lay encased in frozen sleep, while her mother also lay frozen, although not in sleep, more than four light years away. And the alien...

It was contained for now, as long as his daughter slept.
He blinked away the fuzz of teary vision. Molly looked the same, but... There was something odd about the fog of chemicals swirling around her. A ribbon of empty space, no wider than the blade of a knife, parted the fog above her face.

His legs gave out, but Doc caught him before he fell. "Be careful. You think my post-cryonic drugs work your system like a miracle? I will help you to the washroom. But no shaving yet, yes? Not until after you regain your steadiness."

She steered him across the laboratory, outfitted around a ring of eight cryo-tanks-seven of them empty-and deposited him on a bench inside the small cubicle of facilities. One new uniform hung from a hook. She pointed it out as his, and then closed the door as she left.

Steadiness may never come again, he thought while washing up. Not with the weight of what he alone knew. What he couldn't share. Because of Molly. It was all for her.
Even the signal.

They'd skimmed across galactic space, a bullet across a gulf of time, chasing down an energy emission coming from the Centauri system, aimed at Earth. Landon had captured it with his tachyonic equipment, designed to collect faster-than-light particles, and then converted it to a recording, which he'd handed over to his bosses at the International Space Agency headquartered in the Brazilian state of Goiás. The directors in turn had passed along the recording to their Amazonian linguists who deciphered a message that warned of death, as in the end of time. Consequently, ISA had mounted this mission to gather information about what to expect, so they could take appropriate measures to counter the threat.

But the directors were wrong. It wasn't a message about death for Earth. It was the Centaurians who were dying. They were an ancient civilization who called themselves Tititri, and they needed Earth's help. Their leader, the Titinha, had told all this to Landon through Molly. The aliens intended to hold his baby daughter hostage through their crisis. Landon would make them release her if it was the last thing he ever did.

Sometime later he emerged from the washroom, fully dressed in his new jumpsuit uniform. The designers had put more effort into the new ISA logo for his sleeve, showing a bridge from Earth to the stars, than the more practical matters of comfort. The rough, gray-blue fabric itched his skin. Never mind that. They'd made it across the bridge of space to Earth's nearest star, Proxima Centauri. They were the first humans ever to cross the gulf of interstellar space.

And now he was clean-shaven.

Doc did a double take, and he winked. She lifted one finger and opened her mouth, but before she could scold him, a bell chimed.

"Damnation," she said. "I warned them not to sound the summons down here."

Her grumbling protests faded behind him as he hurried out.