Excelsior, Part 5

We came out of hyper well away from the target system. Sure enough, the next Pulse arrived shortly thereafter. Only one thing in the Pulse got my attention right away. It was under a ‘CO Only’ seal. I printed it, read it, and carried it out off the bridge.

I browbeat Masaryk for some alcohol. He’d been operating a still between the thrusters. I ignored it, as usual, as long as no harm ensued. I had still been trying to decide if naked software engineers trying to seduce me qualified as harm. Now I didn’t care. I sat in the lounge and proceeded to construct a very nasty chemically enhanced sulk.

Absolutely no one appeared in the lounge for the six hours I was there. I took it as evidence that the gist of the message was understood by the crew. It didn’t improve my mood. Not much could have. After the ‘shine was gone I simply sat there, staring at the crumpled flimsy.

I felt the ship get underway with in-system engines. We were continuing with the survey, then. HQ must have different plans to follow up the First Semi-Contact.

I was sure that the log would read that I’d opened the orders from HQ and issued the necessary commands. Too bad ‘using his station as XO to cover his CO’s self-indulging ass’ wasn’t a standard block on the evals. Maybe I’d make one. When I cared.

Eventually I was going to have to officially inform the crew of part of the contents. The rest just burned my butt. I was carefully forming a reply for the Admiralty when the lounge wall moved. It swung up and out and a pair of eyes gazed at me from the central shaft.

“Reins! Welcome to the lounge! You should come up here more often. Pull up a seat.”

“Actually, sir, I’m standing precariously on two supports, over a drop of three of my own personal body lengths to the hull. Remember that fear of heights, sir?”

“Oh. Yeah. Whaddaya want?”

“You, sir. Would you please come down to my office?” I stared at her for a long time. I watched her eyes dart around the room and up the shaft, but never, ever down. She was more than a little scared, but she wasn’t backing off.

“Why you?” She wasn’t surprised by my question.

“I drew the short straw, sir.” She poked a finger into the lounge. I didn’t see anything on it. “Well, the XO tells me I drew the short straw. Can’t see it, myself.” The finger kept getting closer. I still couldn’t see the damned straw, and then I realized she was picking up my seat. The whole modular construction of table and the benches around it popped off the floor in her grip. I held tight to the table as she drew it, and me, into the shaft and tucked the whole thing into a jumper pocket.

Scrambling around the benches, I got a head out from under her pocket flap in time to see her finish replacing the lounge wall and start climbing down. I don’t know how long climbing up took her, but down had to be slower. She wouldn’t look and had to wave her feet around in empty air to find a foothold. I couldn’t help navigate; I couldn’t see anything below us around her bosom. I ended up slinking back down in the pocket and regretting that I’d finished the rotgut.

After a few…interesting drops, she set the table and me down on her desk. I lay back on the bench and looked back at her.

“You missed the department meeting, sir.”

“I have every confidence in the skills of my crew. Especially the radiomen.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I doubt I’m the only one who knows what’s on my latest communik…commnooni… cummohni… letter from the Admiralty.” She reached over to a cabinet and pulled out a small box. Well, small like the size of a boxcar.

“I have a confession, Captain.” The box contained a flask, from which she poured an amber fluid into a drinking cup. She dipped a tiny vessel into it and served it to me as a pitcher. “I got two bottles for my commissioning. The whisky is from our king’s private stock. He said I’d find a use for it.” She held her cup over my head and waited. I poured some of the pitcher into my drinking mug and hoisted it in her direction in a silent toast. She nodded and we both drank.

Oh, that was smooth stuff. It had a kick like a Brobdingragian jackrabbit, but it snuck up on you like a Lilliputian ninja. She had me nicely paralyzed before I knew what was happening.

“So, sir, what’s on the flimsy?”

“Don’t you know?”

“There are rumors,” she admitted, “but nothing confirmed. I’d rather hear from you.”

“Okay. Three days before they sent this Pulse, another metal-heavy asteroid was being moved into lunar orbit for industry. Tugs everywhere. Online, backup, emergency backup, man overboard chasers, and crumb catchers. One of them turned out to be full of Valley of Elah Homesteaders. They used the confusion to get close to The Sundering of the Silent Spaces by Science and Spirit. Then they turned on a collision course.

“There’s a giant welder. Arghafurdler. Crew knows him. He worked on this ship. You shook hands with him on the station. Kind of a weird guy. Spends the end of each shift drifting in space for a bit. Sold his soul for a chance to get into orbit, he always said. Anyway, he was just finished working on The Sundering when the tug passed close. Didn’t look right or something. They picked up transmissions of him asking the crew their intention, and a rather obscene response.

“He used his suit jets to close with the tug, grabbed hold. He couldn’t stop it, but he did kick the rockets until they were jammed out of alignment. It started to spin and eventually impacted with a satellite. No one is sure why the shit-ton of explosives never went off. Seven dead fanatics. Arghafurler’s suit lost containment.” I paused to take another drink. The pause stretched. She seemed to be comfortable with it, not hurrying me.

She even reached over and stroked me gently across the back. I was torn between wanting to thank her and needing to vomit on her cuff. Finally I finished the story.

“The ship was named ‘Paul’s Pride.’ My father was….was among the dead crew.” Another long silence stretched between us.

Finally she asked: “So, who do you mourn?”

“Well, of course I mourn the bravery exhibited by a fellow member of the Space Corps. And it would be against the interests of the service to feel anything but scorn for someone who was trying to commit…” I faded into silence.

“No one would begrudge you the grieving of your father.”

“He was a terrorist, conspiring to murder untold numbers of technicians working on the ship.”

“He was also the man that taught you to stand by what you believe, to evaluate things as right or wrong, and to be prepared to give your life when you feel it’s necessary.” She lowered her chin to the table surface near me. “We are what we are either because of or in spite of our parents. We hope because of their strengths, and despite their weaknesses, but that’s beyond our control.” She kept trying to turn her head to face me directly, but the angle was wrong. So she slid the entire booth over to where she wanted it.

“Everyone that died made a choice. Arghafurdler may have been the only one that made a choice you agree with, but they all chose to be there. You can respect your father for making a stand for his beliefs, even if you completely reject those beliefs. And you can miss the man that made you, raised you to be the officer you are, even if you couldn’t stand to be in the room with him.”

I don’t think she could see the tears in my eyes. I also don’t think it mattered a damn. She just sat and eye-droppered my glass until I was over my rage, guilt, self-pity and whatever else. Well, not over as much as on top of. Eventually I remembered my responsibilities.

“Okay, we’ll have a memorial service for Arghafurdler. The crew’ll want to pay their respects, they all knew him. I’d like to have it down here, again. So everyone can be in the same space.” She nodded agreeably.

“And your father?” she asked.

“Dad’s my problem. I won’t ask anyone in the Corps to pray for his afterlife disposition.” I started to get up to leave, but couldn’t move too well. She wasn’t about to help me leave, either. “What? You think I should say we’re sorry for the dead giant, then ask them to be sorry for the guy that killed him?”

“Funerals are for the living. If you grieve, the crew will grieve with you.” I snorted disbelief at that, in this particular case. The Homesteaders’ opinion of giant and elf were well known to the Corps, and offensive to officers of all three races. “If you don’t mind my asking, the Corps doesn’t always send death notifications so baldly, do they?”

“Ah. That. Well, they figured it would be important to me to find out before the rest of the crew did. And they closed the message with a warning that crewmen might react poorly to the news. They say I should take precautions against crew unrest.”

“Oh.” She sat up straight. ‘They think that?”

“It’s the Admiralty. Or at least one human admiral of it. ‘Think’ isn’t exactly the word I’d use. I was busy forming my reply when you yanked me out of the lounge.”

“How do you reply to something like that?”

“Oh, something would come to me. I figured to start with their ancestry, work through sexual proclivities, a taste for human waste as an unguent, an emollient, suppository, pessary, eye shadow… I was caught by surprise on Whazzat. Now I have time to prepare properly. Then again, I’m kinda hamstrung, here. I’m the son of a prominent martyr for the Homesteaders. The Admiralty may have a point.”

“WHAT? The hell they do. How could you buy that crap?! Look.” She tapped the bench forcefully to underscore her point. The entire module bounced. “Do you know that there’s a waiting list to be on your crew?”

“Yes, every new ship has one.”

“No.” Another tap. “Not the ship’s waiting list. Yours. You know there are three kinds of captains in the service?”

“Oh? The elves say there are two kinds. Captains who treat the elves like toys and those who treat them like pets that can do interesting tricks. Who says there’re three kinds?”

“The elves. They’re pets, toys… or people. You’re the only CO that treats them like people. You lead your crew to do the same thing. You’re human crew will follow you to hell. The rest of us will storm hell for you.

“Your refusal to leave Chuffump behind is a bigger headline in Lilliput than the discovery of intelligent alien life. Your selection of an elf as XO was already the stuff of legend among them.

“You recall that Lt Cdr on Launch day? Lissisi told me how entranced he was by the fact she was on your shoulder.” I nodded at the memory. “After all the years of interlacing our societies, most people still expect to see Lilliputians behind glass, and Brobdingragians across moats. You treat us all not better or worse than you treat Cheryl or Katya, Doc or Foster.

“They will never see you as an extension of your father’s bigotry. You will remain a shining example for integration, trust, and truly inspired profanity for generations to come, at all scales.

“Trust me, sir, you have nothing to fear about crew unrest. Until we get back to Earth and within punching distance of a few admirals, maybe.” A weight I’d barely acknowledged was lifted off my shoulders. I’d hoped I could count on my crew. Maybe not to the point of being idolized by them, but I could live with that better than expecting a mutiny. I let the mug drop to the floor as I finally relaxed. I slid down the bench to the floor of the module.

“Sir?” I looked up to find Reins’ face replacing the sky above me. “Are you finally drunk enough to tell me the real name of Whazzat?”

“Yep.” I closed my eyes to pretend that I’d passed out before telling her. Thought it’d be a great joke. When I opened them again, it was a day later and three decks up.

“Welcome to sickbay!” Doc shouted, just to see me wince as my head throbbed. “I warned you about getting hurt.”

“You warned me about physical acts, not alchohol.” He was less than sympathetic as he checked my reflexes, pupils, pain response.

“Years ago, people took drugs, for recreation, that were designed to knock an elephant on its ass. Many of them were surprised when they died. You partook of chemicals designed to knock someone who can juggle elephants on HIS ass. You’d think it was intuitively obvious that you don’t drink giant whiskey.”

“I had already dead-faced most of my logic circuits by the time she made the offer.” The hand light hurt my eyes even more than I’d expected, even through my shut eyelids before he pried them open with a thumb.

“Right. Masaryk’s still, and the old ‘I did something stupid because I was already a moron’ defense. Wonderful thing for a commanding officer to have in his record.” He turned to one of his nurses. “Jane, screen the rest of the crew and tell them that we still have a commanding officer. And tell Captain Raspahar he has to move back to his old stateroom.”

“Very funny,” I rasped. If this was a phenomenally loyal crew, god help those with unrest.

“Hey, you seem to have solved one problem,” he continued, smiling like a loon. He ran a scanner over my torso, making ‘tch-tch’ noises every third reading. “Herself seems to no longer be infatuated with you. She tossed you into the stretcher like something she needed to wash off her hands. How’d you do that?”

“Oh. She asked a question and I haven’t answered it. Twice.”

“Ah.” he answered, as if he completely understood. “So you pissed off someone that can step on you and say it was an accident. Brilliant.” Plans to firebomb Sickbay as a form of disciplinary review faded as a distinct double beep sounded on the all-call. We’d located a planet with life.


Doc had gone briskly professional at the beep and administered a restorative without my even asking. I was bright, alert, and awake as I got to the conference room. I felt kinda fragile for a while, but I was able to grasp details of Oooslili’s quick recap of the survey so far. I hadn’t missed much. Two planets found, one with a hint of chlorophyll, or something very similar to it. That meant life.

We were screaming around the sun to close with the planet. Every sensor suite was trying to tickle details out of it. We were paying so much attention to the planet it was almost an accident that Sensors picked up the object in orbit.

Another alien vessel, a twin to the last one, but this one was moving into a controlled orbit around the planet. It wasn’t empty.

Excelsior was about 6 hours away from the planet. I gave orders to continue on with our acceleration and our scanning for two hours. Then begin decelerating and shift all scans to the alien vessel, as if we’d just noticed her. Full disclosure of our equipment capabilities could wait until diplomatic relations were agreed to.

Four hours later, the aliens started speaking to us. A tightly focused beam sent a stream of digital information to us. Even if we couldn’t translate the data just yet, a certain amount of information was conveyed by the medium. They knew where we were and were tracking our approach.

We returned their transmission, just to show that we were receiving it. We also transmitted our canned ‘First Contact’ database that Space Corps had come up with. Comms went into high gear to translate their broadcast, but there were no immediate breakthroughs in conversation like the vids always show.

There was some excitement when the aliens inserted a change to our broadcast. Instead of straight repeating our message, they inserted a 4-second break. Chuff was the first to figure it out.

“They break at the exact point where our message ends, sir, and they stop reflecting it for 4 seconds before sending it back. I don’t know if they’re translating it, but they have figured out the point where our message repeats itself.”

“Good. Have we?” Now that they thought to look for it, the elves were able to talk the computers into finding the discrete point where a single message stopped. We stopped our rebroadcast right at the point of repeat, and both ships went silent.

I slowed us down and stopped a respectful distance out from what could be seen as ‘their’ planet. The elves continued work on the message while rest of the crew started brainstorming to try to guess what the broadcast might mean.

The computers were amazingly powerful compared to anything electronic of even two years’ ago. But they still needed a framework to try to fit the data into to make any sense of it. We went about trying to imagine such a frame.

Reins’ suggestion, made a week ago, that the aliens might have dolphin-like characteristic sparked the big idea. One of her enginemen worked with two computing elves on the idea that the transmission was based on sonar images rather than straight picture or sound messages.

Their work started to produce results, so more computing power was given to the task. Soon we were able to see a holographic interpretation of the sonar image they were sending us.

It was Reins.

Specifically, it was a recording of everything our Engineer did from boarding the alien vessel we’d found, to her exit. Nothing seemed to indicate they were even aware of human exploration of the ship, much less the elves. If that were so, I’m sure they were very curious about what she was doing with the pipe and why she suddenly lost interest in it.

It was the work of another hour for our more holo-oriented software people to figure out how to transmit our own messages in alien sonar.

We sent a quick pic of Reins’, in her spacesuit, giving a friendly wave from her workstation.

Shortly thereafter, they sent a message, showing our ship and theirs descending to the planet below us and coming down together in a very large harbor on a northern continent. Then, in the image, Reins got out and walked/ran to near the other ship where an alien got out.

Our first view of the Rissak, or the image of the Rissak pilot, have been the most transmitted images in the media in known history, of course. Right then, on the bridge screen, it looked to me like a cross between a giant squid and christmas tree: conical, many-fluked, cillia here and there, with three tentacles. The image showed it to be about 2/3rds the size of the Duchess, moving much more naturally through the waters of the harbor than her image.

That made sense, of course, the aliens knew what they looked like moving through water.

“Okay.” I started issuing orders. “Send the Pulse. Pack everything in it, including the brainstorming sessions. Report our intention to meet with the aliens, on their terms as much as possible. We’ll pulse on our safe landing, and whenever appropriate thereafter.

“Frame a reply. Show the Excelsior landing on the beach of the harbor they selected. XO, pick a good landing spot, submit very precise coordinates for them.

“Weps, ready the combat shuttle. Load it for bear, have it ready for launch, but don’t open the outer doors. Preparation without provocation, today.

“Comms, work out some sonar images for some standard communications, like ‘don’t land there’ and ‘back off’ and ‘give us back our engineer or we’ll blast you to smithereens.

“Eng. Got any problems shaking hands with a squid?”

“No, sir. Looking forward to it, sir.”

“Good. Anyone wanna guess why they don’t seem to see the rest of us?”

“Doesn’t make sense, sir,” Sooseff piped up. “Dolphins have very sensitive sonar capabilities and they can detect a Lilliputian in water from a great distance. You’d expect the aliens’ onboard monitoring and communications to be up to the same sensitivity they themselves have.”

“Not necessarily,” Doc disagreed. “Your eyesight isn’t equal to a hawk’s, or a cat’s, or an octopus’. Various animals have better sensory capabilities than people, some think that weakness cause us to evolve as generalists. Or, our evolution as generalists promoted our tool use vice evolving better seeing, hearing, smell, etc.

“Maybe their sonar isn’t as good as a dolphins because they’re tool users. Or, they’re tool users because their sonar isn’t so good.”

“Could be,” I acknowledged. “So, do we convey our small scale presence right away, or keep it a secret?”

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