Steve’s shorts: Nth Contact…

[In the sci-fi realm, we have subgenres like hard sci-fi, militaristic sci-fi, space opera, fantasy, and so forth. Star Trek episodes and movies can be considered everything except the first (reasonable scientific extrapolation is too often lacking). Star Wars movies are more akin to the last two. But the old stories that we now call space opera were a lot of fun. Consider this a bow to space opera with a wee bit of militaristic sci-fi and tongue-in-cheek. As they say, knowing the past can prevent us from committing errors in the present…]

Nth Contact

Copyright 2017, Steven M. Moore

                Captain Rick Hastings watched the screen. The Star Queen had just popped out of hyperspace and entered the unexplored solar system.

“AI, what am I seeing?” Something that sounded like a chaotic series of grunts, whistles, and sounds passing through several octaves filled the ship’s control room. “Standard, dimwit, not Draconian.”

“My apologies. I was conversing with Nigel. My sensors tell me there are several large starships in orbit around the fourth planet. More details will become available as we approach.”

“That’s not good,” said Nigel, his XO. Like many Draconians, the large humanoid had adopted a name that could be pronounced by Humans. The AI had no problem with his real name. “The last survey of this solar system showed it wasn’t inhabited. Should we write it off?”

“Because some ETs decided to steal our real estate?” He shook his mop of black hair, wiggled his eyebrows, and thought a few seconds. Compared to his XO, the captain wasn’t tall and had legs shorter than his torso. He looked stumpy in a uniform, a characteristic of many from his home planet where genetics had taken over adaption to a high-g environment. “Let’s at least take a look.”

“They’re coming to meet us,” said the AI, flashing up images of three ships speeding towards them.

“They don’t look friendly,” said the XO. “We should throttle back or take evasive maneuvers. Those look like missile-launching ports.”

“We can’t go FTL this close to the star,” said the Star Queen’s navigator.

“Take a course perpendicular to the planetary orbits,” Hastings told the AI.

“That’s an indeterminate command,” said the AI. “There are two possible—”

“Either way works! Just do it. Go FTL ASAP!”

“They launched missiles at us just before we went FTL,” the AI announced twenty seconds later.

“I’m getting my bearings,” said the navigator. Hastings waited. “Very clever, AI. We’ll pop up near base.”

“Forget about admiring a stupid machine. Just get us back to HQ. I’m going to my stateroom. I need some time to write up the report about this new contact.”

“Be sure and explain why you decided to confront the ETs who had taken possession of the solar system,” said the XO.

“Go to hell!” Hastings stomped out of the control room. He’d said it in Draconian, one of the few phrases he knew.

***

                “I’ve read your report.” Admiral Bonaventura studied his captain. “Did your XO forget to sign off on it?”

“My XO is a Draconian asshole. I’ll have his hide if he mentioned anything to you.”

Bonaventura frowned. “Am I a Draconian asshole too?”

Hastings retreated. “That remains to be proven. The Star Queen is a survey ship. I was doing a survey. Nothing says I can’t see who the trespassers are.”

“Your only weapons are found in your security detail’s small arms cabinets. What were you thinking? Whoever establishes the first colony claims the real estate.”

“Don’t you want to know what they were doing there? Colony ships aren’t battle cruisers.”
Bonaventura shrugged. “The damage is done. You’re lucky you didn’t lose your ship and crew. How would you proceed from here?”

Hastings eyebrows rose as his brow creased. “You really want my opinion?”

“Yes, I do, even though your attitude has always been confrontational since your Academy days.”

“Probably why I’m still just a captain.” Hastings smiled. “Not that I’d want your job. Sir.”

Bonaventura sighed. “Just give me your opinion, Hastings.”

“My knee-jerk reaction would be to send a fleet in and blow them to kingdom come. How dare they fire on a defenseless survey ship!”

“That’s not advisable until we know more about them. Come up with a plan but follow me.” A door in the wall of Bonaventura’s office hissed open. Hastings followed the admiral into a conference room. Seated around an immense table were several Survey Service VIPs. “Have a seat, Captain Hastings.”

He saw two chairs available at opposite ends of the table. He started for the nearest.

“Not that one,” said the admiral. “It’s mine. Take the one at the other end. We’ll both be on hot seats for this meeting.”

He waited until Hastings took his seat. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, you have read Captain Hastings’s report. What say you?”

“He’s lucky he and his crew are still alive,” said one VIP.

“I already told him that,” said the admiral. “We’re trying to come up with a plan. Yes, captain?”

Hastings stopped waving his hand. “I propose three steps. You can debate it, but one, we should go back with a small fleet as backup, but try to make peaceful contact. Two, while the Star Queen is approaching with a white flag, our battle cruisers can probe the planet with their super-sensors and find out what these ETs are protecting. Three, if they continue to be nasty, we then blow them to hell.”

“How do you propose to make a peaceful contact when they’ll probably recognize your ship as one they already consider bellicose?” said one of the Draconian VIPs. “And what does ‘white flag’ mean?”

“Same question,” said Hastings. “If our AI is worth his salt, he can squirt a stream of language lessons to the enemy ships that will teach them Standard fast and let them know we’ve come in peace.”

“How long will that take?” said another VIP.

“Maybe forever if their AIs are more stupid than ours.”

“I like one and two. Three is ill-advised. Our cruisers will only be there for self-protection. Understood? There will be no unilateral attack on ETs. We don’t even know what they look like.”

“Undoubtedly ugly SOBs who shoot first and ask questions later,” said Hastings.

“Wasn’t your approach speed fast enough to be considered threatening?” said the Draconian VIP.

“We didn’t know they were there. I always go in hot when it’s a routine revisit. Saves time. The orbital and onsite surveys take forever. There’s a lot of data to collect for future colonists.”

The Draconian VIP checked his tablet again. “This was a routine third visit. I don’t see the need for a speedy survey. No one has signed up to colonize yet.”

“Are you telling me how to do my job?” said Hastings.

“He has done your job, captain,” said the admiral. “Where are your manners?”

Hastings shrugged. “Shall I leave while you debate my proposal?”

“Or outline a new one,” said the Draconian VIP.

***

                The XO was sitting in the reception area outside the admiral’s office when Hastings left the conference room.

“Are you here to berate me or give moral support?” said Hastings.

“Neither. Some of us want to invite you to have drinks in the Officer’s Lounge. You can diminish some of your stress, sir.”

“I sent you the report. Why didn’t you initial it?”

“I was busy going over the data the AI collected. Amazing how they can multitask. Those unfriendly guys are protecting mining operations, according to the AI. Probably rare earths. There’s a small mountain range near the equator that might be loaded because they’re excavating in multiple spots.”

“Anything we can use?”

“I doubt it. We have several planets that provide rare earths. This one’s too far away to be practical even if it were one big ball of mineral deposits.”

“That observation probably means the fellows come from nearby. Less than fifty light-years, I’d say.”

Nigel nodded. “What did the admiral’s Council say?”

“They slapped me around a bit. We probably went in too hot, but who knew they were there? They’re debating a plan I came up with.”

“I’m surprised they even listened to you. In spite of your difficult attitude, I think the admiral values your skills.”

Hastings studied Nigel. “What about you?”

Nigel shrugged his large shoulders, a gesture he’d learned from Humans. “We’re a team. We did what we had to do, given the circumstances.”

“How easy do you think it will be for the AI to adapt the language program we use to teach Standard to Draconians?”

“Given that it’s basically a fast squirt of subliminal audio and visual data, there’ll be no problem, but you’re assuming a lot about the ETs’ physiology and associative memory processes. We know nothing about them.”

“I’m not going to assume anything, but I’ll be David in the lions’ den if they approve my plan, at least the first part.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means that I want the Star Queen to get close enough so I can jet over to one of their ships in a spacesuit.”

“That’s suicidal! Think of your crew.”

“The Queen will have battle cruisers backing it up. I’m counting on the ETs to be like us.”

“How so? They might be like that hive group we’ve put into quarantine. Nothing in common with bipeds.”

“I’m willing to bet the hive queen is curious too. That’s the common denominator for all intelligent beings.”

***

                “I’m intercepting some puzzling transmissions from one ship to the other two,” said the AI.

The Star Queen had repeated its entry into the solar system, this time at a crawl. That didn’t help Hasting’s impatience. He felt like the canary in the coal mine. He smiled at that thought. Earth history wasn’t well taught in schools because Earth had become a backward agrarian planet still trying to recover from the Human’s destruction of their home world’s environment. It was irrelevant to most people in other planetary systems near Earth. He knew most people just considered coal as a form of carbon that had no relation to power production. He wondered if the AI even had the historical references in its vast data banks.

“Don’t tell me they’re talking in Standard,” said Hastings.

“It’s old English.” Maybe he did know about coal? “That’s the audio, of course. The visual is in an old digital video format.”

“Put it on my screen.” He laughed as a fat Human had an accident. Why’s that funny? “Is this some kind of old, sadistic entertainment?”

“Checking data banks.” The AI had the answer in seconds. “The technical term is ‘slapstick.’ It is a movie from 1939 A.D. called A Chump at Oxford. We don’t have a copy. Sorry. Shall I record their transmission?”

“Where in the hell did they get that?”

“More importantly,” said Nigel, “do they understand it? Teaching them Standard starting from old English might be a lot easier than the current plan.”

“Maybe they just like the physical humor,” said the navigator. “The fat guy is funny.”

“Can we determine when this was transmitted on Earth?” said Hastings.

“From the digital video format, I calculate an approximate date of 2000 A.D.,” said the AI.

“Project that date forward and see if it’s consistent with any nearby star system’s distance from Earth,” said Hastings to the AI.

“This one and several nearby systems are consistent with the time it would take a radio transmission to arrive at receivers in the system if the Earth transmission occurred near that date.”

“No obvious dubbing or captions?” said Hastings.

“Please explain dubbing and captions.” Hastings did so. “No. Either they understand old English or our navigator’s hypothesis is correct.”

“Could be both,” said Nigel. “Why is this important?”

“We need to modify that language lesson ASAP. An introduction in old English followed with one in Standard, and then old English and Standard intermixed. We might be doing them a favor too, if they are fans of old Earth movies.”

Nigel was amused. “We’d be allowing them to enjoy their favorite entertainment. That’s clever.”

***

                The Star Queen had settled into almost the same orbit as the three ET ships. After squirting over the language lesson, Hastings had suited up. Waiting for the airlock to open, he wondered if they’d given the ETs enough time to react to the language lesson. So far their slow crawl into orbit hadn’t been greeted badly.

The suit seemed to be hot and the air bad, but he knew it was just nerves. There was a chance that in mid-approach he would be sliced in two by a laser beam or some other weapon. He calmed himself by thinking that it was a fast way to go, better than dying of old age somewhere. He wanted the full glass, though, not the half-full one.

The Queen’s airlock shuttered open. He checked his monitors.

“Here goes nothing, guys. Did you know I hate spacewalks?”

“Your suit environment is optimal,” said the AI.

It gave him the necessary parameters that would allow him to jet over and the elapsed time needed before he should start braking. He came to a halt a half meter from the ET ship’s skin.

“How the hell do I get into this bucket of bolts?” he said. As if to answer his question, a large airlock opened along the hull three meters away. “OK, I’m going in. We might lose contact. If I don’t buzz you in a half hour, or the AI senses missile lock-on, run like hell.”

He entered the silent interior of the strange ship.

***

After the outside airlock closed, the inner one opened. He entered a dim corridor with a high ceiling. There was a sign on the interior wall of the corridor. It read in old English, “This Way!” Underneath the words was an arrow. He was glad he had taken a crash refresher course in that ancient language. His history hobby had helped to make the crash softer.

He came to a dead end. Thinking this was a bit of ET humor, he had just about turned to go back when a recessed door panel opened. He looked into a large room filled with swirling fog.

“Ya kin quit da helmet,” said a giant pale green ET sitting in a huge chair. He was much taller than Hastings’s XO. The high ceiling had an explanation. Large, dark, and unexpressive eyes looked over him. Large jowls hung down over a mouth that had protruding fangs. “Humid fer ya but OK.”

How do I greet someone who tried to kill you with an atomic missile? Hastings bowed.

“I come in peace.”

“Known. Me dink yer name be Moe.” The guffaw reverberated in the large room.

Hastings thought a moment. Oliver and Hardy? Moe? He smiled. “No, I’m Shemp.”

***

Gaia and the Goliaths. An environmental activist is murdered on a street in Manhattan after a protest. NYPD homicide Detectives Chen and Castilblanco get the case. While pursuing the clues to find those responsible, they discover the activist’s boyfriend is in danger because he has key information that will expose an international conspiracy involving Europe, Russia, and the U.S. As the tangled web unravels, an old nemesis of the detectives makes his appearance. #7 in the detectives’ series. Available on Amazon in .mobi (Kindle) format and on Smashwords in all ebook formats, and all the latter’s affiliated retailers (Apple, B&N, Kobo, etc) and lenders (Overdrive, etc). #1, The Midas Bomb, is on sale on Smashwords until March 1: use coupon code PV57D. The whole series is now available on Amazon and Smashwords.

In libris libertas!

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