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All the World's a Stage

"We have scorched the snake, not killed it," pronounced Professor Dupree.
Captain Cullen gave him a sharp glance, but it seemed he was just being pretentious as usual, quoting something--probably Shakespeare, that was his favorite. Why a starship needed a dramatist-in-residence she had never understood. She looked around at the VIP passengers gathered for her briefing.
"I can assure you all that things are not quite as melodramatic as our thespian friend puts it," said the Captain, eliciting a laugh. "But I do want to apologize for any disturbances you may have felt and to prepare you for the fact that there may be a few more periods of turbulence before we can proceed smoothly."
A hand was raised.
"Will this delay our arrival at Gaia, Captain?"
"There's no reason for us to think so at present."
"Captain, we don't seem able to access the viewing ports."
"We are experiencing some minor technical difficulties but we hope to have the live camera feeds back on-line as soon as possible."
A lie of course, but it seemed to satisfy the guest.
Captain Cullen had lowered the alert to amber. The crew couldn't function at full vigilance for days on end. After all, they weren't a military company. It was fortunate that they had at least some armaments. All had been quiet for the last six hours and nothing was visible on any of the external cameras. She wondered if it might be safe to open the viewing ports to passengers again. Give it another few hours, she decided.
"Lou, I'm going to have a break," she said to her first officer.
She decided on coffee in the canteen--it was good for morale for her to be seen in public areas of the ship--and immediately regretted not heading for her own quarters.
"Ah, Captain, 'Find we a time for frighted peace to pant,'" said the Professor. "Henry IV part 1," he added, seeing her blank expression.
She was saved from answering by her bleeper. She silenced it while turning to hurry back to the bridge.
The Professor stood alone muttering, "It is a knell that summons thee to heaven or to hell."
The Captain stared at the camera feed. How could something so enormous have appeared without warning? The giant snake coiled and rippled alongside the starship, its body a huge muscle contracting and lengthening. It gave a lazy flick of one sinuous fold, smacking against the ship. There was a cry as the coms officer fell, cracking his head. The Captain strapped herself into her seat.
Outside, the head of the beast was leering towards them--great unblinking eyes and a flickering tongue. It was rearing up.
"Evasive maneuvers," commanded the Captain.
Her fingers clenched the arms of her chair. At all cost she had to prevent that monstrous body from encircling them. This creature was hundreds of times bigger than the snakes they'd confronted up to now. Those had appeared without warning two days ago, squirming and buffeting the ship. She'd tried to outrun them but they seemed to disappear and re-appear at will. Some sort of warp-drive on a miniature scale? The persistent battering had led to her ordering her crew to fire on them--and they'd gone. Until now.
"Captain, shall we fire?" asked Lou.
"It's too close," she replied.
She glanced towards the coms station. Tod was receiving medical treatment, while his second-in-command, Jo, sat white-faced in his place.
"Can we communicate with them?" asked the Captain.
"The universal translator is online Captain, but I don't know if it has samples from this creature's speech patterns to work with."
Or even if it is a sapient creature, thought the Captain. The head of the great snake loomed into view once more. The Captain keyed her microphone.
"This is the Captain of the luxury ship Stargazer. Please tell us what you want."
There was a pause and then the computer voiced the translation.
"Words, words, words."
"You were right," sighed the Captain. "The translator clearly can't cope."
The snake's body slid across the screen in powerful loops.
"But it could mean that the creature is trying to speak," said Jo.
"OK we'll keep trying." The Captain opened her microphone once more.
There was a sudden scuffle at the door. It was the Professor.
"Get him out of here!" shouted Captain Cullen.
"Please, Captain! I've seen it now. Let me stay. I won't do any harm."
"OK. Sit down, buckle up and shut up," the Captain said, deciding she didn't need him spreading terror among the passengers.
She focused once more on what to say to this menacing creature. Were there any words that could save their lives?
"Move away from us. Please. You can hurt us even if you don't mean to."
The decoding program spoke.
"The balm of hurt minds."
The Captain felt close to despair. This was nonsense.
"Sleep!" said the Professor. "The balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, chief nourisher in life's feast."
"Will you be quiet," ordered the Captain.
But on the screen the snake was moving. Its body curled away from the ship, while its head came in again with the great slanted eyes staring at them.
"There's more," said Jo.
"We are such stuff as dreams are made on," said the translator program.
"And our little life is rounded by a sleep," responded the Professor immediately.
"Professor, are you really certain about this? You can still change your mind," said Captain Cullen.
The Professor stood in an environmental suit, waiting to have his helmet put on.
"The lady doth protest too much methinks!" he laughed. "Yes, yes, we've been through all this. It's an amazing opportunity to meet a race of alien beings who are drawn to Shakespeare and can transport me instantly through other dimensions."
The Captain couldn't help laughing with him but then said seriously, "This is a courageous thing that you're doing."
"Ah well, one man in his time plays many parts."
The Captain nodded to the assistant and the Professor's helmet was attached.
She watched on the screen as he emerged from the airlock into the void. She held her breath as he was encircled and gripped by the creature--and then, in a moment, they were gone.
She shook her head.
"More things in heaven and earth..." she murmured.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 12th, 2017

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