Excelsior, Part 3

Finally I put the mallet away and waited to find out what she wanted to talk about. She finished laughing and got serious.

“I got a Pulse from the Royal Publicist about today’s coverage. He was quite pleased that about 60% of the coverage was about me, or included me in a shot, or mentioned me.”

“I would guess he’d be pleased. Everything went well. No gaffes, no outbreaks of socialism, no nudity.” She blushed. I had a feeling I’d be able to make her blush for the next 50 years. But at least it came with a rueful grin.

“The thing is, Captain….should I be? Pleased, that is? I mean, I didn’t develop the Drive so I could be famous. I didn’t seek this job, or press coverage. Would I be getting as much attention if I were an old hag doing the same work? Or a man?” I understood her concern. And I was really glad that she WAS concerned.

“After I participated in the rescue of the crew of the Vanguard, we were all media darlings for a while. Everyone cheered the sixteen heroes of Starshine. The Corps awarded medals and everyone congratulated us on our bravery.” She was watching me closely, her eyes never leaving mine. I reflected that just like dealing with the elves, it was easier to be intimate with her through the screen than in person.

“And I’ll tell you one thing, Reins. For me, getting an atta boy from someone who knows what you really do for a living… That’s a lot better than anything a politician will pin to your jacket.” I saw her nod. If she understood that, she was more than halfway to being the sort of officer I expected. The last wisps of the doom clouds faded in my imagination.

“Then, after Whazzat, I was still presented to the media as a hero. ‘Another planet with life found…’ and so on. The true details would have reflected poorly on the Corps, so they hushed it up. Meanwhile, everyone in the fleet knew those details. I got frosted out of a few places.

“So at the same time, for the same mission, I was a hero and a moron, in the eyes of people who weren’t there at the time. Finally I decided it didn’t matter what they thought of me.

“My crew were still loyal. And those CO’s that’d made planetary landings still bought me drinks. If you have to pick a yardstick to measure your self worth, you can do a lot worse than the opinion of your peers. And in your case, Duchess, your peers are not the nobility in Brobdingrag. Or at least not right now.

“Antonov has stated that you’re not a complete waste of her time. It took me two patrols to earn that level of confidence from her.” She seemed surprised at that. Katya was a rough customer until she felt you met a minimum level of competence. And she wasn’t the type to care about a mere 50-foot height advantage from someone she considered a junior officer. I reached up to break the connection when she raised her hand to stop me.

“Captain, what was the name you’d picked out for the planet?”

“I… Albalureindis, in all the years I’ve told that story, no one’s ever, ever asked me that. Thank you. I’m deeply touched.” A smile shone on her face for a second, fading in shock as I reached up and keyed out. Maybe a little too touched.


After our maneuvering, speed and handling tests were done, the final part of our shakedown cruise was to survey a new star system.

We had found seven planets, and were orbiting the second planet from the sun. It was our best bet for life. But it was a cloudy hell. Much like Venus, the hot gasses obscured the skies.

The central screen of the conference room display showed Planet Two. Nothing in the view provided a sense of scale, but it still felt big. Side screens highlighted the profile, estimating size and identifying various readings.

I turned around to face my crew. Human officers circled the conference table, other scales attended by screen. Smaller screens connected us to the personnel on watch, or personnel hanging out at a watchstation. Right now, that was everyone with a pulse.

“What do we know?” I looked around the faces. “Sensors?”

“Temperatures tend to indicated that it’s outside the range for any life form we know about,” Chuffump replied quickly, “or the inhabitants like boiling metals.”, He passed the buck to his partner, Oooslili.

“Radar images of the surface,” she reported, “are blurry but it seems to be mostly desert. Big empty spaces. No chemical traces to indicate life or even complicated self-replicating chemical chains.”

“So,” I asked, “Everyone agree that there’s no reason to land on it?”

Ruspahar looked around the screens for dissent. “Looks like it, Captain.”

“Okay.” I found the screen for the Conn. “Officer of the Deck, prepare to depart orbit, and depart the system. Give ‘er a four-hour acceleration to Threshold.” Turned to Chuffump, “Which means be ready to transmit a Pulse with all recordings, observations and analysis in three hours.” I spun back to the data screens. I assigned planets to the departments to name, and gave them two hours to submit for my approval.

Doc hit his own name on the dartboard, his name for planet One was ‘Bolero.’ Weapons cast lots and Corporal Yost named the second planet “Bullseye.” Everyone in Communication submitted names and they voted for Lt. Assakarr’s. She had suggested the Lilliputian National Bird, and Three became ‘Chuckukkawhal.’

Computers used a complicated system of nomination, discussion and voting on department members, advancing the top ranked to another round of voting, and so on. It took one hour and fifty eight minutes to come up with Ensign Quikkahump. Then, as the kid does so poorly under pressure, he ended up wanting to call the planet ‘Alpha.’ Because it was the first planet he’d ever named. I suggested changing it to the name of his father.

Reins, I found out later, asked her assistant what the tradition was in Engineering for such things. Katya informed her commander that the tradition is that the CO names every planet. I was unique in the fleet for offering my crew the privilege for planet we didn’t land on, and had done so every since Whazzat. Then she had to caution Albalureindis not to try naming it after me. It’d look like bootlicking (or, knowing Katya, something more graphic). So Reins suggested ‘Esprit de Corps.’ and the department approved.

I signed approval to the list and transmitted it at the top of the Pulse index.


“So, one day, our king decided to end religious persecution. Opened the doors of government to big-endians, allowed their books to be published, and so. That day, my dad told me: ‘Son. Time that the truth you were learning. We a little-end family are not. We a big-endian in secret have been raising you.’

“’Well, father, a secret well kept that is. You certainly from me it secret kept!’” Shiggurtah was giving the lead in our Firstmonth Talent Show. Religious freedom was a new thing for the people of Lilliput and conquered states thereof. Religious humor was a bold step that Shiggurtah wanted to take. I’d directed him to George Carlin and a few other classics, to hone his act.

He was also capitalizing on a stand-up standard: Yiddish, Cockney or Fuscan accents always draw a laugh.

My whole crew sat on or around a table on Albalureindis’ worktable. While I could conduct briefings through the screens, I demanded physical proximity for Firstmonth celebrations. We’d dropped out of hyperspace between stellar systems, set the sensors on Way Paranoid, and assembled in Engineering.

Everyone enjoyed Shig’s descriptions of the efforts to complete his inter-faith marriage. The climax, a friend killing the lights with perfect timing so Shig broke the egg for the wedding omelet in the dark, had us all paralyzed. Elves of all faiths found something amusing in the antics, and the rest of us enjoyed the farce even if it wasn’t so personal.

Doc and his medics followed with a wonderful rendition of the ‘liberal little Lilliputians’ sketch. They telegraphed the punch line so the whole crew could shout along with ‘Oh, hell, Dell, let’s call ‘em all Ellllllllllllllllllllllllllllves.’

Reins lead a group from engineering in acting out a trivia game show. Every single question was about Whazzat. The joke, though, was that instead of the official name of the planet, they referred to it with the entire 33 second rant. Then after that build up the answers were one or two words.

“Question three: how many life forms are there on planet AAAAAAAAAAAAH! what the frelling crap is OW! Son of a OOF Goddammed...” and so on.

“Uh, one.”

Then at the lightning round, by the time they ask the first question, the round is over and done, no points scored. Some of the junior personnel watched me out of the corner of their eye, to see if it was okay to laugh. Everyone I’d made more than two patrols with just guffawed naturally.

Lissisi and Foster were setting up to sing a duet when the proximity alarms went off on the RealBridge.

Everyone turned to their pocket screens to investigate. Albalureindis hesitated to put her hand out on the table. I grabbed or gestured to department heads and climbed aboard. She took us over to her console and called up bridge screens.

We had detected a ship.


Déjà vu all over again, except it was different. All the times I’d been in conference rooms like this one, coordinating an exploration, it was the first time I’d ever had a ship on the screen.

The ship was about 4 times as long as the Excelsior. The proportions were sleeker, though. In fact, the profile reminded me of a shark more than anything else.

Oooslili and Chuffump couldn’t find any evidence of life or power. “No radiation, sir. No heat, nothing like an engine or power source we’d recognize. Either it’s dead in space or they’re very, very good at insulation.”

“No transmissions we can identify, either. If they’re hearing us, they’re ignoring us.” I nodded. Speeds were really hard to estimate this far from a reference point, but it appeared dead in space.

We’d matched speeds half an hour ago and we were exactly as far away from it as we’d been then. Either it wasn’t moving a whole lot, or we’d made pretty close to miraculously perfect matching velocities on the first try.


“Big empty spaces,” Ruspahar reported. “I mean, Brobdingragian big. Radar indicates continuous tubes running up and down the length.” I looked to my sensor staff.

“If radar is coming back out, then their shielding isn’t that perfect, is it?” They shook their heads ruefully. “Okay, then. Are we all feeling that the big scale of room indicates a big scale crew? That whoever they are, they’re built on the same scale as the rest of the galaxy seems to be?”

“Not necessarily,” Lissisi answered. “Maybe they’re human sized avian, and just like to have lots of room to fly around in.”

“Or…” Reins interjected, “They’re dolphin sized, and the spaces are full of water.”

“Good points. We can’t jump to conclusions.” I turned back to the shot of the alien vessel. “We have to go over there.” I could feel the excitement behind me. No one joins the Corps hoping they’ll never find aliens. But I couldn’t just take volunteers. I turned to my officers.

“Weps, six of your most paranoid officers will be going.” Cheryl nodded, and started ticking off her fingers as she mentally selected personnel. I turned to Reins, who had Antonov on her shoulder. “Eng, Pick one systems tech. Whoever’s the best at thinking outside the box.” I addressed the rest of the group more generally. “I don’t want too many people on the first trip that aren’t security. If there’s danger, that’s fewer people to look out for, if there isn’t any then we can send more people later.

“But we’ll take an elf each. They ride in the big peoples’ suits, so security won’t have to shoot around them.” Back to my XO: “Prepare to send a pulse. Everything we’ve got so far, and mention our intent to board and explore.

“Send a pulse very half hour. If anything changes, send a pulse. If I order you to depart, leave immediately. If we stop transmitting, wait an hour, run home. If we say ‘Oh, SHIT!’ and stop transmitting, run home immediately.

“We leave in half an hour. Launch some remote probes and search for an entry.”

I spent about ten of the next thirty minutes prepping my suit for the exploration. The other twenty was devoted to denying urgent and logical arguments for why certain individuals needed to be on the team. I turned them all down in favor of my original list.

I didn’t want Doc or medics because they’d hesitate to move injured personnel when the situation demanded evacuation.

I turned down most of prospective xenotechnologists because reverse engineering could wait to the second trip.

I turned down Albalureindis because she’d never even explored another planet. Her arguments about our needing someone her size for a ship that scale didn’t overcome her inexperience.

I ordered everyone without a formal invitation from me to remain on the ship and ready for immediate departure.

Cheryl picked herself, Foster, Lupos, M’ota, Sung and Faith. It was a nice balance between seasoned vets and selfless psychopaths. I always enjoy facing the unknown with backup that could make Patton cry for mommy.

Chuffump himself would ride in my suit. I plugged his module into my chest armor and cross checked his support. The others would carry elves with a wide selection of specialties, each supported by direct screen to the Excelsior.

Reins provided a diagnostic technician named Ramirez. She wasn’t much for social concepts like conversation, friendship, or eye contact, but her ability to grasp big picture operations of multiple systems might come in handy.


The entry port was big enough for the entire shuttle. We parked outside, though. In the background conversations I heard discussion about whether the hatch was an indication of size or just efficient for cargo. I ignored it, watching Ramirez and her elf rider suss out the controls.

There didn’t turn out to be an airlock beyond the door, so we didn’t have a maximum size estimate for the crew. It also argued for it being an in-port-only cargo port.

The inside was like the outside. Dark, cold and already airless. Somehow, some when, the interior had been open to vacuum. There was a gravity field about half Earth normal. We kept together and started to explore.

All we found was space. One continuous space wound around inside the hull. A matte black rubbery surface covered everything without any relief or details. We found no furniture, no controls, no displays. Not even anything we recognized as a bed or nest. But there was a hazy sense of familiarity to it. I noticed it and after a while others remarked on it.

Foster’s ride-along, a Lilliputian of noble heritage named Sooseff, was the first to actually figure out what the space reminded us of.

“Anyone ever go diving?” he asked.

“Sure!” M’ota agreed. “That’s it! The spaces between coral reefs, that’s what this reminds me of. Like we’re walking along a shallow sea floor.” Everyone with dive time suddenly looked enlightened. The backchatter filled with speculation on Reins’ dolphin speculation.

Suddenly, Foster turned a curving corner and signaled for a halt. Security personnel spread out to cover front and back while the rest of us slaved our wrist screens to Foster’s view.

A small hump in the middle of the floor was covered with little holes. Small and little being rather relative terms in the Corps, of course. The hump was about the size of our bridge or my first apartment. The holes were about my arm’s length apart. The openings were as big as my space-suited fist.

“Anyone bring a probe that size?” Chuffump popped out of his riding module waving his hand camera around.

“Right away, sir!” Lacking any better leads, I handed him over to my Weps. She clipped a lanyard to his back and let him down at one opening. Other elves surrounded him and set up scanners and monitors. Ramirez started examining the hump exterior. Security spread out to cover the group.

I set my screen to Chuff’s point of view and glanced at it from time to time. The tube had the same finish as the walls for about a foot, then shifted to something silvery. There was a pattern of oddly discolored patches.

“Sir, there are wear spots on the patches. In fact some are significantly more worn than others. They look like some sort of control surfaces, like a keyboard.”

“So, who buries a keyboard deep in…”

“Sir!” Cheryl drew my attention to her lanyard. The tunnel sides were swelling to constrict around it. It was already too small for her to yank Chuffump out and it closed solid as we looked.

“Chuff, you okay in there?”

“Huh? What happened? HEY! Where’s the exit?”

“Sit tight. Okay, people, let’s figure out how to get him out. He’s got four hours of air left, so no panic.”

“SIR!” Sung disagreed with me. She was looking to our rear. The curve we rounded to enter this space was swelling shut like the tunnel had.

Lupos poised to start grabbing elves and running. “Captain, if we run now-“

“You mean if we abandon Chuff. Not just yet. Ramirez?”

“I make better time if I don’t have to explain.”

“Fine. Just gimme a go or no-go.”

“Uh…No-go, for now. I’ll let you know if I, um, go.”

“Captain?” Foster waved for my attention. He had two elves on his shoulders gesturing with their screens. “Request permission to inflict fairly permanent damage on alien technology of possibly great value to the Alliance?”

“Unless Ramirez is a go?”

“No go.”

“Very well. Everyone get clear.” Foster placed charges at elvish direction. Everyone else started moving clear except Weps.

We arranged ourselves near the door, or at least the spot the walls had shut closed, and waited. Four spaced blasts did indeed deflate the tunnel seal. Chuff was yanked free and we turned out attention to the exit.

“Okay, Foster, do it again.”

“Uh…actually, I think I’d have to be on the outside to do that, sir.”

“Oh. Okay. XO, send someone-“

“CAPTAIN!” the XO interrupted me. “We’re detecting movement. I think the alien ship’s starting to get underway.” Wonderful. And I hadn’t packed a spare set of undies. Could this get any worse?

“SIR!” someone supplied, pointing to the door. At the center, something started to poke out towards us.

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