Five points of light glittered in the eternal night of interplanetary space, bound to each other and to their planetbound companions by the invisible tethers of laser communications. The ships were decelerating at two gravities, still barely visible to the telescopes around their destination.
"How are your men doing?" Jacob asked the radio amiably.
"Fine. Enjoying themselves, actually; this is as much rest as they've seen in six months." The Marine Sergeant's voice was a deep growl. "How long before we get to stretch out a little?"
"We'll be at Saturn in thirty minutes," McBride answered. "Make burn for orbit in fifteen. Banneker is transmitting recalcs now."
"Roger that. See you in a bit. Over and out."
Leonard reached a hand up to turn off the main thrusters, and noticed Jacob's brooding gaze. "Worried?"
"A little." He shrugged it away. "I wish we could see the planet."
"Such is life," Leonard agreed. In order to minimize their flight time, they had been accelerating all the way from City of Light, turning their ships shortly after the halfway point. Earlier interplanetary spacecraft had toyed with dual-thrusting designs, which did not require the ship to turn around for deceleration, but the need for reversible cabins made these impractical. Nature and physics enforce simplicity. Every spaceship now built was, in essence, no more than a self-guided projectile.
"`One thing every spacecraft oughta have is a huge window,'" Jacob quoted. Leonard heard and understood the envy in the voice. NASA's Apollo astronauts, the first humans to reach the Moon, had had the luxury of being explorers, but in this century, space was just another place to work. Quinn was old enough to remember the transition, and clearly preferred the former state.
"Are you ready for a fight, Len?"
"Are we expecting one?"
The Old Man smiled reflexively. "Expect the unexpected."
Leonard recognized the phrase, and remembered when he and Kyle had been recruited by the United Nations for a Top Secret research project. It was also when they had first met Jacob-Martin Quinn in person, and understood why his claim to the Quintex empire was more than hereditary. Leonard pushed the memory aside, burying it with the other secrets, concentrating on the orbit calculations and other current events.
Whoever now hid on Saturn's dark side was very good. They had to be; otherwise the radar stations around the ringed planet would have picked them up already. They knew where the radars were located, and they knew how to avoid detection. There was no telling what they had sitting in the rings, or what they had been doing for the three days since they got there.
He could still hear Carolyn's voice, whispering in his ear: Don't go if you're not going to come back. They both knew it was a promise he might not be able to keep, but if he didn't return, she couldn't really get angry at him anyway. And if he did return...
A soft smile crept over Leonard's face, and Jacob correctly guessed what the thought was. He knew the security officer better than most people suspected.
In the next twenty minutes, everything went wrong.
The Tsao Chung Sh'in's port navigation system subprocessor suffered a momentary breakdown, due to an undetectable manufacturing fault on the circuit board. As it had been engineered to, the unit automatically requested confirmation by telemetry of the loneboat's approach vector. The radio pulse had flashed through Saturn before either Jemison or Warlow noticed it, breaking the chase group's radio silence and setting off alarms on the three stolen Ariane shuttles and another vessel of decidedly inhuman design.
Three minutes later, six separate Saturnian tracking stations recorded four objects moving out of a sensory blind spot in the inner rings. The information, including live images, was transmitted to the chase group immediately, and five ship computers frantically recalculated thrust patterns. On board Alfa 5499, five Marines checked their gear once more as acceleration shoved them back into their seats.
After another minute, the scheduled report from Japetus came in, with full spectro- and radio-graphic analyses of the objects which were now moving toward the outer solar system. Three of them were definitely the stolen Ariane transports, identifiable by their radar reflections and hull albedo, but the fourth matched nothing on record.
Roughly egg-shaped, it measured sixty meters by forty meters by twenty meters, more than twice the volume of a Quintex loneboat. Six smaller pods curved up from the hull, four near the larger end and two around the midsection. Two fins extended outward from the nose of the ship, running parallel to the long axis of the ship. The entire ship was a flat, dark grey color, reflecting barely any light, and there were no markings anywhere on the hull. McBride was struck by its uncanny resemblance to a certain fictional Monolith.
There was no longer any doubt. Quinn, McBride, and Jemison silently prepared themselves for Situation One: direct contact with an alien culture, as defined in the Project Theory Monograph, which all three of them knew by heart. They had written most of it.
The chase group began cycling their engines to nearly three gravities, trying to keep up with the target vessels. Pursuit was complicated by the latter's tactics: the four ships were running their engines at inconstant, erratic thrust, causing unpredictable acceleration and course changes. Tabowitz ordered the chase ships to spread out, in case the enemy tried to scatter and escape that way.
All of the thirty-three human pursuers were accustomed to high gravities, but the shifting acceleration caused a few to become slightly nauseous. Six minutes after Tabowitz's last order, Jacob Quinn radioed Jemison and told him to start a number series on the target vessels. Warlow watched curiously as Jemison worked in silence, calling up a program whose latest version had been written five years ago in South America.
1 2 3 5 7 11 13 17 19 23 ...
The first twenty prime numbers were broadcast over and over from Tsao Chung Sh'in's main transmitter, as amplitude- modulated pulses easily detectable by any standard radio receiver. If not the fourth, unidentified vessel, at least the three Ariane transports would receive it, and maybe whoever or whatever was piloting the ships would understand that their pursuers were intelligent, reasoning creatures who wanted to talk.
Of course, many intelligent, reasoning creatures could be expected not to want to talk after having one of their convoys attacked and robbed. And other intelligent, reasoning creatures might have no interest in conversation under any circumstances. Jemison had examined all of these risks while he was part of Project Theory, but his main focus had been establishing communications of some sort-- any sort-- with a hypothetical alien culture. Now, it was no longer hypothetical, and he could feel his own pulse racing with excitement and fear.
This is it, he thought, breathing deeply. This is first contact.
Correction: Gramble and Millen made first contact. He shook off the thought as memories of the Project flooded into his consciousness. Never assume anything. Ethnocentricity gets people killed. Start with the basics-- numbers, symbols, navigational charts...
"What is going on?" Warlow demanded. She'd recognized the sequence of primes after it repeated once. "Kyle!"
"We'll find out soon enough," came the muted reply. "Give them some time."
"Time?" repeated Warlow incredulously. "These are pirates, we're going to--"
Then Kyle turned to look at her, and she saw everything in his pallid eyes.
"Devil be damned." The words fluttered through unmoving, half-parted lips. "This is not happening." She slammed her palms down on the armrest keypads and called up the Japetus report again. "This is not jicking happening. My God, my God..."
There was no longer any need to keep anything hidden. "Shao Chung!" The computer beeped, recognizing even Kyle's accented Chinese. "Pipe all monitoring of target vessels to main screen, configuration Mike Three. Stop-stop."
"You're not kidding." Nina had correctly deduced what was going on. It all seemed so obvious now, she didn't bother to ask Kyle if she was right. "Jesus, Kyle, are you actually going to try to talk to them? They've killed five men!"
"We don't know anything, and if it were us out there, we'd want the benefit of a doubt."
She half-glared, half-gaped at him. "I'm sparking the lasers. They misfire one thruster, and Ariane collects from Lloyds again."
Kyle nodded slowly, watching his console. "Caution is always recommended."
"Jesus," repeated Nina, her fingers colliding audibly with the keypads.
"He's doing what?" Galza nearly shrieked into the radio.
"Trying to establish communications. Look, Tony--"
"I take it back, Jac; I'm glad the Marines are here. In fact, I vote that we get out of the way and let them fry all four targets immediately."
"Shut up and listen. None of us has ever seen anything like that fourth ship before. It's sure as hell not from Earth." The hull albedo indicated compounds that humans hadn't developed yet, or some sort of incredibly radar- absorbent coating. "We are dealing with extraterrestrial life forms here, aliens, non-human intelligences; do you understand me?"
"Why the hell didn't you bring this up before?" Now, Galza was definitely shrieking. Tabowitz tried to focus on possible strategies for chasing down the targets. The-- alien?-- pilots were as good as any he'd seen in the UNSF.
"I didn't want to cause a panic."
"And you want me to just back off and let you handle it? Those were my men they killed, in case you've forgotten!"
"See? You're panicking." Quinn's eyes glittered like diamonds. "Now are you going to do this voluntarily, or do I have to order you?"
Galza coughed out a laugh. "`Order'? Who the hell do you think you are?" His face tightened. "Both of our names are on that JAG release form. I am not letting those bastards get away with this, I don't care who or what--"
"All right, we do it the hard way." Numbers and letters suddenly began appearing on the Bartholomew Enninger's communications screen. A paging tone sounded in each of the five ships' cabins. "This is Jacob-Martin Quinn. By the authority granted to me by the Planet Earth in United Nations Directive Two Five Zero One Stroke One One Zero Stroke Two Zero Five Two, I hereby request and require the Bartholomew Enninger to immediately surrender command to the Abigail Maitland..."
"What the hell is this?" barked Galza when he realized what was happening.
"...And assist in the interception and apprehension," Quinn continued, "of the three Ariane shuttles identified at--" he rattled off coordinates-- "and the single unidentified vessel at three-five-zero mark zero-zero-six. You are now receiving encryption keys to verify this order and to slave your ship to the Maitland. Please signal that you have understood and will cooperate with this directive."
For a moment, Anthony Galza was the only person not speaking. All the ships in the chase group had received the transmission. "You little weasel," he finally directed at Quinn. The UN Directive was authentic and very specific. Any ship not agreeing to cooperate with the lead vessel could be impounded, and its owner fined or imprisoned; in more extreme cases, the lead vessel was authorized to disable or destroy unaligned spacecraft.
Checkmate. The left half of Jacob's face twitched almost unnoticeably. "Bartholomew Enninger, do you copy my last transmission?"
"We don't want to fight him," Tabowitz stated matter-of- factly.
Reluctantly, Galza had to agree. "Wilco, Jac. It's on your head." Goddamned UN.
"Project Theory." Nina Warlow shook her head the few millimeters she could under two gravities. She had heard rumors about the secret UN council on extraterrestrial contact, but never taken them seriously until now. "You guys had a lot of jicking nerve, pulling this stunt."
"We were hoping we wouldn't have to," replied Jemison. The decision to classify the Project as Top Secret was a difficult one, he had been told at the first briefing. But the UN would never have been able to justify the expenditures, and asking the scientific community at large to agree on something as theoretical as first contact was even more unlikely. The UNSF wanted to get it done quickly and efficiently, to have official procedures ready if and when the aliens showed up.
"Yeah," Warlow murmured. Kyle's reverie had lasted less than a second, and he turned his head to see Nina's eyes widen slightly. "Whoa, whoa! They're moving."
"Targets are changing delta-vee!" came the shout from the cockpit. Alfa 5499 spun around, engines burning, trying to maintain its distance.
Marines were mumbling all around the Sergeant. "What the hell was that all about?"
"Sounds like Tories gettin' cold feet--"
"Cut the chatter," snapped the commanding officer. He knew exactly what the Abigail Maitland had just ordered Bartholomew Enninger to do, and he knew if he was the captain, he would be mad as hell. Galza was not going to offer his left hand to Quinn the next time they met.
Jacob Quinn had other things to fear. He moaned as the new acceleration pressed down on his chest, flattening his arteries. The targets had turned ninety degrees from the plane of the ecliptic, only shutting down thrusters after they had completed rotation, and were now moving at a constant velocity out of the Solar System.
"That was weird." Leonard scanned his eyes over the radar scope. "Why didn't they shut off their engines first? They're moving upward now."
"Aliens," Jacob said. "Who knows what they're thinking?"
Tabowitz could think of a dozen different reasons for the way the turn had been executed. Perhaps the aliens were used to constant thrust in a combat situation. That is a hostile posture; what can we infer from that? Maybe they had been doing something else, and had forgotten. What would they be doing that is more important than proper navigation? Or maybe they wanted to be moving out of the plane of the Solar System. Why would they want to do that? We are in open space already, several hundred kilometers from the nearest planetoid...
One of the ships began glowing again. "We have delta- vee on Target One." The closest Ariane shuttle had turned completely around, and was now applying reverse thrust to slow itself down. As if in a gesture of friendliness.
But the other three are not stopping. What is going on?
1 2 3 5 7 11 13 ...
The sounds came in a series of pure tones. Warlow, who had played the violin for fifteen years, quickly identified it as an eight hundred eighty hertz signal. Her eyes automatically went to Jemison, wondering what he would decide to do.
"Why aren't the other three slowing?" Nina wondered, loudly.
"Gesture of trust. We've got five ships; they send one. Shao Chung, plot an intercept course for Target One. Stop-stop."
"Are you sure about that?"
Tsao's acceleration changed again, and Jemison had to wait for his inertia to adjust before answering. "There are five loneboat fusion drives aimed at that ship. I doubt they came this far to let us kill them."
Warlow turned that over in her mind while studying the main screen. They had been receiving telemetry from one of the many robot telescopes orbiting Saturn, and now each ship was close enough to use its own cameras to track the target vessels. Something yellow began blinking on the side of Target One.
"What the hell..." She instinctively leaned forward to increase the magnification. "The airlock."
Leonard McBride's heart was beating rapidly. The Maitland was almost directly above Target One now, and had a perfect view of the lock beginning to cycle.
"Abby, move us four meters to starboard. Stop-stop."
The loneboat glided over, and Quinn adjusted the cameras. Their new angle gave them a better view of whoever or whatever might emerged from the airlock. He looked over to see Leonard targeting the main lasers.
A seemingly interminable silence followed, with the airlock door open to space. Jacob looked out the viewport at Tsao Chung Sh'in, which was closing to less than one hundred meters from the Ariane shuttle, its neon colors standing out against the velvety blackness. Maitland, shrouded in green flame, was still nearly a kilometer away.
Leonard wondered what Kyle Jemison was thinking. For all his worrying about his family, at this moment he had probably forgotten about them, focused on the historical event before them. Anyone would have forgiven him this, especially Delia; she had known when she married him that he was a man of strong convictions and concrete dreams. After the heat of the moment had passed, he would always know for whom he explored and fought.
The waiting ended as a white, gloved, five-fingered hand emerged and curled itself around an exterior handhold. Ten pairs of eyes watched, mesmerized, as a figure in a standard-issue Ariane Odyssey pressure suit pulled itself out, swinging through the open airlock in a slow arc, locking magnetic boots onto the hull, and finally standing upright, all in the dreamy slowness which zero-gravity imparts to human motions.
The suited figure began waving its left arm, hand wide open, fingers spread. First it faced Tsao, apparently conveying non-belligerence. Then it turned toward Abigail Maitland, and sunlight momentarily streaked through the helmet's faceplate and illuminated the features of the man inside.
All five ships had trained their telescopes on Target One and increased the magnification, and every vessel was looking for something different. Tony Galza had been inspecting the suit, to see if it was authentic Ariane. Price had been looking for any equipment which might be used as a weapon if anybody got too close. Jemison was trying to decide whether the waving of the arm could be interpreted as other than a friendly gesture.
Jacob Quinn had focused Maitland's primary camera on the upper torso of the suited figure, and the brief glimpse he got of the face froze his mind.
"BACK OFF!" He screamed into the radio after a breathless half-second. "Kyle, get the hell out of there! Everybody back off! Abby, full burn, get us away from Target One!"
"What-- stop-stop! What the hell is going on?" Leonard asked as a wave of artificial gravity pushed him back into his chair.
Jacob had difficulty answering. "That's Gramble."
"The man standing on the hull has been dead for two weeks."
"Jesus jicking Christ!" Tony Galza cursed. His head had been slammed into the seat by the sudden acceleration. Being slaved to the Maitland gave him no warning of sudden maneuvers. "What the jick is he doing now?"
Tabowitz suddenly realized the situation, and was relieved to see that they were thrusting at well over three gravities.
"You heard him. We're getting the hell out of here." Warlow pulled the safety harness around herself. "Shao Chung! Da y'o xran, q'ai!"
Jemison frowned, speechless, as Nina continued giving orders in Mandarin. He couldn't understand what had caused the Old Man to panic; Quinn had always been very level- headed. But there must have been a reason.
A sigh escaped his lips as he watched Target One dwindling on the screen. The suited figure lifted its head to look at the departing spacecraft, and Jemison looked straight into the man's eyes for a split second. The strangely hollow gaze caused Kyle to shudder.
"Can't be," he breathed as he recognized the face from the autopsy pictures.
The explosion prevented Warlow from asking him about it.
Fusion power is the cheapest, cleanest, most efficient source of energy known to Twenty-First Century Man. Simple hydrogen atoms, stored in the form of either deuterium or dihydrogen monoxide-- more commonly known as water-- are fused together into helium, with the reaction releasing high- speed neutrons and massive amounts of energy. This is the mechanism which has caused the Sun to burn for countless billions of years, and is the same fire which forms the heart of every interplanetary space vehicle.
Even after the theory had been perfected in the twentieth century, it took several decades of engineering to make a compact fusion power plant feasible. Mikhail Kaminsky spent half his life and several fortunes developing an efficient laser ignition process. A reliable magnetic bottle which could contain and channel the violent nuclear reactions had become reality only forty years ago. These and countless other advances in fuel storage, energy conversion, and miniaturization had combined to make fusion a household word in every corner of the populated Solar System. Interplanetary voyages now took days instead of years, and every loneboat could provide its own electricity and air for several years, if necessary.
Of course, every new technology brings with it new dangers, even as it eliminates old dangers and inconveniences. The smallest loneboat fusion drive is potentially a bomb capable of destroying a good-sized office building, and is otherwise still the spacecraft's second most dangerous weapon, the first being the ship itself.
The Ariane transport which had been designated Target One by the chase group had deactivated its fusion bottle without first closing down the engine. Free of its magnetic imprisonment, the thermonuclear blaze was free to expand in every direction. And it did.
It was like looking directly into the Sun, at least for the Saturnian telescopes. The four loneboats and one patroller were protected by their self-polarizing viewports, which darkened when exposed to bright light, saving the occupants from blindness. But the chase group very definitely felt the blast slam into their vessels, tossing them away with the force of an angry god.
Alfa 5499's passengers were the best equipped to handle violent maneuvers. Ironically, it was the farthest ship from the explosion, and all they had to deal with was an acceleration which threw them back into their seats and sent their vessel sailing into the inner solar system again. The pilot recovered from their spin in less than ten seconds.
Benjamin Banneker had been holding position five hundred meters from Alfa 5499, and had just begun turning, as ordered by Quinn, when Target One incinerated itself. Golino and Price suffered a few bruises, and their ship was a hundred kilometers away before they managed to slow themselves down. Bartholomew Enninger had been thrown only eighty kilometers, but Galza and Tabowitz were just as shaken.
Tsao Chung Sh'in was barely two hundred meters away when it happened. Without an atmosphere to carry a shock wave, Jemison and Warlow had no warning before the expanding fireball burned into their vessel. They were both thrown sideways and back, and Warlow blacked out as her head smashed into the cabin wall. Jemison managed to find a handhold, and gripped it madly as the safety harness tightened around his body.
Fortunately, the fusion power plant performed as well as Rolls-Royce had advertised. When the first layer of circuits lining the hull was interrupted, the fuel injectors were immediately choked, and a controlled shutdown of the drive proceeded. The explosion ripped into the drive chamber before all of the reaction mass could be flushed, but the second blast that resulted was several magnitudes less than it would have been otherwise.
It also saved Jemison's life, as he would later realize. Thunder cracked behind his head, and he turned instinctively to see flames bursting through the cabin door. The starboard plasma vent had ruptured, blowing away half the ship and setting the other half ablaze. Alarms blared, the cabin lighting changed from soft pink to blood red, and a complicated series of mechanical and chemical sealing agents tried to simultaneously douse the fires and keep the ship's precious atmosphere from leaking into space.
The safety systems were partially successful. A dozen smaller explosions rocked the interior of Tsao Chung Sh'in, and Kyle felt the ship buckling around him. Suddenly, the cabin grew smaller, and he felt his face crushed up against the interior of the viewport. A sharp discomfort traveled up his spine as colored bits of hull rushed past, and the hiss of escaping air deafened him. He could see stars swirling around him as the loneboat hurtled wildly into deep space.
I can't die, he thought, strangely unworried. Len owes me money.
After an endless span of seconds, the emergency seals took hold, and oxygen poured into his lungs again. It also fueled several electrical flashes in the half-crushed cabin, now all that was left of the loneboat. Jemison was unable to move his head, pinned by gravity and pain, as the fire consumed both halves of his co-pilot's corpse. It was five minutes before the few automatic extinguishers still functioning managed to put it out. His eyes were watering then.
Jacob Quinn rubbed his head and felt blood. He wiped his hand on his shirt, without looking, and turned to McBride. "Damage?"
"We lost one engine. The drive's still intact, but we'll have to repair the thrust ports." Leonard's left arm was stained crimson, and it hung limply over his armrest.
"What about the others?"
Leonard flipped on the radio, and a dozen voices filled the room. Jacob listened intently for a while, then added his voice to the fracas. Enninger and Banneker had suffered minor damage. The Marine patroller was fine. Tsao was not responding.
Jacob's head was throbbing. He wondered how much of it was from that bump he had taken. They had contacted an alien intelligence-- either that, or he had been hallucinating. But cameras don't hallucinate, and they had plenty of photographic evidence now.
Is this the kind of universe we live in? We try to establish peaceful communications, and they explode an H- bomb in our faces? His headache got worse.
More radio signals flooded in. Several Saturn stations reported the incident as an atomic detonation. UNSF vessels were already proceeding to the scene, but it would take the closest one four hours to get there. Somebody finally found what was left of the Tsao and beamed the picture and coordinates to the chase group. Alfa 5499 moved to intercept as the Marine medics suited up.
Suddenly, Jacob asked, "Where are the other three?"
It took Leonard fifteen seconds to answer. "I can't find them."
"What do you mean, you can't find them? How fast could they have moved?"
"I'm calling Saturn."
The initial scans lasted half a hour, while Alfa 5499 recovered a comatose Kyle-Bartelt Jemison and the barely recognizable body of Nina-Wollheim Warlow. By the time the search was called off, nearly two days later, every single telescope owned by Ariane and Quintex had been commandeered, to no avail. The aliens were gone.
Copyright © 1996 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.