Prologue. The Autopsy.
“Bit of a thickhead,” muttered Emmeline as she leaned into the job of taking off the top of the xenomorph’s skull. A few of the others laughed nervously. It wasn’t a particularly funny joke, but they needed the release. She had already burned through one large blade on the heavy duty autopsy saw. This thing really did have a remarkably thick skull. Thick enough that she wondered how much room could be left inside for the brainpan, especially given how much of it’s cranium was taken up by an outsized mouth and hundreds of needle-like teeth. All of them clotted with human flesh.
The noise of the cutting implement came through the radio interface of her biohazard suit as an unpleasant whine, almost a hot scream.
Professor Emmeline Ashbury set her features in stone as the last of the resistance gave way and the heavy bowl of bone came loose. She grunted in relief. Her arms were growing tired and shaky. She was going to have to get one of the others to break open the chest cavity.
“Compton should be here,” said Metcalf.
“Professor Compton is not here because Professor Compton gets a little wobbly spooning dog food out of a can,” said Emmeline as she pried off the top of the creature’s skull. “Face planting into my post mortem examination is not the best use of his time.”
The heavy skull cap came away with a sticky pulling sound and revealed a bizarre cranial cluster that looked like it was all brain stem and cerebellum. Or perhaps cerebella, given the multiple nodules she could already see.
“Jesus, that looks like spaghetti and meatballs,” said Wally Hicks.
“No. You’re wrong, Wally,” Emmeline said. “More like tagliatelle con spinaci and meatballs. Or maybe cervelli agnelli.”
There was a pause while the junior staff waited for her to translate the obscure reference. Probably wetting themselves in fear of being called on to explain.
“Lambs brains,” Emmeline said. “See?” She snipped one of the structures free of the tubing that connected it to the other cerebella and popped the tiny lump of grey matter into a stainless steel tray.
“It’s not really grey matter,” she added, for the benefit of the video recorder. “More greenish and purple I’d say. At any rate, first biopsy, Master Hicks.”
The helmet of Wally’s biohazard suit dipped forward in acknowledgement and he carried the tray away to cold storage. They would take a small cut of the tissue to examine here on the Longreach with the equipment the military had flown out for them, but the real work would begin back on the mainland when the bodies of the xenomorphs arrived at Area 7.
The rest of the team leaned in over the corpse to get a better look at the cerebral mass as Emmeline extracted it from the skull. The eyes of the thing stared sightless and milky at the theatre lights. There were two large black orbs, but at least another eight smaller eyeballs between and around them, not unlike that of a spider. With so much visual data to process Emmeline had expected to see enlarged occipital lobes, but there no lobes of any kind. No single cerebrum at all.
“Jesus that’s grotesque,” said Metcalf. “It’s nothing like the Greys.”
“No reason why it should be,” Emmeline said patiently. “We have no idea yet where these creatures originated or how they got here. But their technologies aren’t Grey.”
“More like fucking Dark Ages,” came Metcalf’s reply inside her helmet. His breathing sounded harsh in the helmet speakers and she could see his features were shiny with sweat behind the faceplate. The DoD man was not new to this sort of operation. He was familiar with extremophile possibilities. But like all of them, he’d been shocked at what they’d found on the oil rig. And, like all of them, he knew there’d be no sweeping this one under the rug. This wasn’t a lone spaceship, it’s crew cold and dead for thousands of years, crashing into the desert hundreds of miles from the nearest speck of civilisation.
There were witnesses, over a hundred of whom had not been eaten by… by whatever this thing was. They would already be out there telling their stories. Selling their phone cam images and videos.
The Office would have to move quickly. Not to contain this, or even to control it, but rather to control the fear and confusion that would spread from it as a contagion. Emmeline knew all about containing fear and confusion.
“Abdomen next,” she announced.
That was Cadence Ramsay, the molecular biologist who’d joined the Office from the European Space Agency just three months ago.
“I don’t think so, Cady,” said Emmeline. “Not if its scalp is any guide. I think we might need a bayonet from one of those marines out by the door. A sharp one.”
“Way ahead of you, Professor,” Jack Metcalf said, turning around to the second stainless steel trolley and producing a long, evil looking knife. It was not a medical instrument.
“I see you were a boy scout before you became a licensed killer, Mr Metcalf. Think you’re up to doing the Y-incision?” she asked. “I’m afraid I need a few minutes to get my strength back after sawing through it’s thick skull.”
“Not a problem.”
Metcalf set to the task of cutting a deep Y into the upper torso, so that they might peel away the skin, but like Emmeline he found the going tough.
“It’s like leather,” he said, and the sound of his voice in her helmet speakers told Emmeline he was gritting his teeth. “Really. Shitty. Leather.”
The creature’s hide seemed to be inked with some form of display. Tattoos, she thought. It was also covered in weeping sores and pustules, which gave way easily before the blade erupting with a greenish yellow discharge. Other blemishes, which looked like giant warts, proved so tough that Metcalf was eventually forced to cut around them. It took him a few minutes to make the whole incision and when they peeled back the skin she could see why. The dermis was up to an inch thick in places and as tough as old boot leather, save for those areas weakened by lesions and suppurating ulcers. There were enough of these that the creature’s hide presented more as a patchwork than a whole intact derma.
Metcalf and Hicks pulled back the skin to reveal a bone cage.
It was not like a human rib cage, with individual ribs held together by muscle and fibre. Instead, the creature’s torso, and presumably its vital innards were protected by a solid fibrous mass of something like cartilage.
“I think we’re going to need a very large pair of bolt cutters,” Emmeline mused.
“Or a chainsaw,” said Metcalf. His voice was flat. She did not think he was joking, but she could never really trust her own judgement in such things.
Emmeline checked the large clock on the opposite wall. 19:43 hours.
“Lets just try the bolt cutters first. We do have them?”
They had two more corpses of this type to examine. And the enormous one on the gurney in the hallway outside. It was obviously a different species. Possibly even from another genus or family. She would come at it last, learning what she could from the smaller creatures first. This was going to be very long day. It had not turned out at all as she had expected.