Landing team consists of Alex Larsen (doctor), John Chen (anthropologist) and Phuong Nguyen (engineer). Although the structures on the surface are in various states of advanced disrepair, the subterranean levels appear to be largely undamaged. Nguyen judged the structure safe to enter. The artefact (dubbed “alien chair”) was discovered within. Initially dormant, it activated as we approached and appears to be the cause of Chen's current condition.
– Report: Dr Alex Larsen, landing team.
“The question is, why is there a single chair built into the wall of this room?” asked Chen.
A momentary silence followed, broken by Nguyen. “So, what now? Looks like this is a dead end.”
“You want to leave?” asked Chen.
Silence. Chen stared at the chair. Then without another word he stepped forward and sat down. Suddenly he slumped motionless, his eyes open but not seeing. Then he began to convulse.
On his third day in the Intrepid's hospital, Chen seemed to make a partial recovery.
“How do you feel?” asked Larsen.
Chen's eyes seemed vacant and he made no response. Larsen consulted the displays. Neural activity seemed heightened, but with no outside sign.
“Can you hear me, John?”
A sort of low choking, growling noise was Chen's only response. As Larsen leaned down to hear better, Chen began muttering. The words were no language Larsen knew.
“How is he?” asked Nguyen.
Larsen sighed. “I really can't say. He just keeps muttering but the linguists can't understand it. We can't even be sure what caused this.”
“You think it's a coincidence?”
“No, I don't think that. I'm just saying. And no-one's been able to get the chair to do anything since.”
“I don't know why they're still messing with that thing.”
“This is evidence of advanced, intelligent aliens. We all knew the risks and I still think it's worth it.”
Nguyen looked sceptical. “Even if it kills us?”
Larsen paused, looking at the view of the planet displayed on a nearby screen. “This is the biggest discovery in the history of humanity, Phuong.”
Dr Petrova looked up as Chen moved; He seemed more mobile now. She got up to stop him rolling off the bed, only to have him suddenly reach out and grab her shoulders. She recoiled instinctively, but his grip was like a vice. Before she could react he reared up and brought his forehead into violent contact with her face. As others came running to drag him away he lapsed once again into passive immobility.
Petrova had begun exhibiting symptoms similar to Chen's and both had been placed in quarantine, but some kind of undetectable sickness seemed to be moving through the ship; Nearly half the crew were plagued by disturbing dreams – impossible to remember clearly on waking – and suffering flash headaches.
“Do you still think this was worth it?” asked Nguyen.
“Of course.” said Larsen.
Nguyen grimaced. “Oh, it's easy for you. You're not infected.”
Larsen sighed. “We don't know what this is. We may all be fine.”
“Even Chen and Petrova?”
Nguyen rolled her eyes.
“OK, I admit, it doesn't look good for them. I'm trying to maintain some optimism here! It's not like we can back out now.”
Nguyen turned to look at the view of the planet.
“Look,” said Larsen, “you've got some minor symptoms, but even if it is the same thing Chen's got, you clearly don't have it anywhere near as bad.”
Nguyen's gaze stayed on the screen. “I'm starting to hear that alien language in my head. Maybe it's just me, but I think we're all getting worse. Maybe just not as fast.”
Larsen paced the length of the observation room. Over three-quarters of the crew were now in quarantine, all now hearing the alien language. In their isolation room, John Chen and Anna Petrova stared unblinkingly, mouths constantly moving. Their skin was now grey, their eyes heavily bloodshot. At last Nguyen arrived on the other side of the partition.
Larsen pressed the intercom button. “How are you holding up?”
Nguyen glared silently for a moment before responding. “How kip you think? Barrre medu going to die here!”
Larsen blinked. “Say that again?”
“I said we're going to die.”
“No you didn't. What's 'bar ruh med yu'?”
“You said 'barruh-medyu'.”
Nguyen stared for a moment. “Barrre medu. It means 'we are'. I don't know how I know that.”
Larsen stared at the image, then tapped a control to switch to a different view. To the trained eye, the brains of Chen and Petrova no longer looked human. Lobes had grown, shrunk, changed shape and position. Chen's was the most advanced, but even the others showed signs.
Larsen glanced down at the message – the doctor on duty at the quarantine zone.
“What is it Reyes?”
“I think whatever's happening is done. He seems fully aware.”
Reyes motioned to the observation window. Chen sat cross-legged, silent, smiling faintly. He looked up as the doctors approached.
“Hello. It is good to see you.” There was something wrong. It sounded like Chen, but with an unfamiliar accent.
Larsen approached warily. “John.”
“We have commandeered this vessel.” Higher-pitched too.
“You're in quarantine. You're not really in a position to commandeer anything.”
Chen made an odd noise in his throat and said a few words in the alien language before reverting to English. “A translation error. Not vessel, body. This jonchen. It is unusual. Many millennia must have passed. May be wrong species. Some hardware incompatibilities have occurred. With ahnapetroiver also. Mistakes were made. Others will be better. Those who remain untouched at this time will benefit from this process. Incorporation will proceed without error.”
“Did he tell you all this?” asked Larsen.
“Well, I think it's pretty clear that we can't let any of the quarantined get back to Earth.”
Reyes looked away, not speaking.
Reyes took a deep breath. “None of us can go back to Earth. We were all exposed.”
Chen tilted his head like a confused puppy. “Yes. Earth. We must go to Earth.”
Larsen ignored him. “What are you talking about? You heard him. It. We're untouched.”
“So he says.”
We cannot return to Earth. Risk level impossible to assess. Do not send further personnel to planet RN478P. Do not attempt physical contact with Intrepid. We will continue to study the alien phenomenon/virus/parasite. More information as it becomes available.
– Report: Dr Alex Larsen, Starship Intrepid.