Chapter 14: Aliens
"The only fact we've determined, so far, is that they communicate at much lower frequencies than we do," the Science Officer mused aloud.
If a human had been in the room, the human would not have heard the words. The alien's analogy to a human's voice box produced a sound so high that even Earth dogs would have to strain to hear it. The human wouldn't hear anything, but the human would see the face on the bulbous, leathery head contort as it spoke.
The alien's thin body was leaning back in his chair, and he was slowly pushing a slide with four long slender fingers. He was watching a screen intently, and sighed softly when a single light flashed on.
"The parameters of the signals have been identified, Captain," the Science Officer said to the other occupant in the room. "Unless the signals are very complex, we should have translations within a cycle."
A cycle would roughly compare to a human's day and night. The aliens measured time in galactic units, based on the oscillations of the local galactic black hole. By applying a common unit of measurement, all exploration in a galaxy could be more easily managed. A galactic unit in their current galaxy was roughly analogous to six hundred and twenty-nine earth days, or approximately twenty-two earth months. Despite their time measurement, remnants of the aliens' evolutionary roots required periods of quiescence, much like earthly plants, every thirty hours, or one cycle.
"Very well," the Captain said crisply, still angry over his latest argument with his Companion. "We still have plenty of time, since we just dropped from FTL. Let me know as soon as you have anything of note."
The aliens had been in FTL (Faster Than Light) for two point three galactic units. The nature of the FTL drive required them to avoid all gravity wells. That was easy to do when traveling between star systems, but extra caution was required when approaching a target star system. Gravity wells could be deceptive, and often extended farther beyond the system's birth cloud than expected. It would take more than a galactic unit to reach the interior of the system, if they traveled at their fastest impulse speed. High speed within a star system was not wise, and only used in an emergency. This was not an emergency. There was still much that could be learned during the journey to the heart of the star system.
"Yes, Sir," the Science Officer replied, but the Captain was already leaving the compartment.
"The Captain's Companion is still insistent about wiping this system clean of life," the Science Officer's Companion said in his mind. "The Medical Officer's Companion, and I, have tried to persuade him differently. We have not been successful. It is getting so bad that the Captain's Companion is considering demanding another host."
"I understand his reasoning," the Science Officer replied silently, in his mind. "Another star-faring race must have claimed this system and destroyed our ship. The star is too young to have spawned an intelligent species of its own. We don't know their strength or capabilities. Causing the death of Companions is just cause to wipe the system clean of life."
"The Captain is taking the correct path," his Companion insisted. "We don't know what life exists in the system. We must investigate, before we do something that is irreversible."
"Maybe," the Science Officer reluctantly agreed.
Only three crew members were hosts to Companions. To be accepted as a host was the highest of honors. Companions were the rarest of ethereal beings, intelligence without body or form. They couldn't live without a host, so they must move to a new host when their old host died. The only way a Companion could die was if the host died without a new host being available.
Shortly after the birth of the universe, the Big Bang, Companions had numbered in the billions. Companions don't reproduce, so their numbers had gradually diminished in the thirteen-plus billion years since the birth of the universe. Now there were bare millions, scattered across the universe, and Companions as a species were facing extinction. Their extinction could be in another billion years, or even two, but their end was inevitable. The deliberate murder of a host, without providing a new host for the Companion, was cause for rage among Companions and hosts alike. The preservation of Companions was a deep-seated imperative in their society.
The Science Officer's Companion was no less enraged than the Captain's Companion. However, he was not so blinded by his anger that he didn't acknowledge that all the facts had not yet been discovered. The Science Officer was not as coldly logical as his Companion.
The Medical Officer and his Companion were the only pair in agreement about what action they should take. They believed their responsibility was to know all the facts before resetting the evolutionary clock for a star system.
The Science Officer had been wrong about how long it would take to provide meaningful translations and evaluations of the electromagnetic broadcasts from the star system. He studied the translations for two full cycles, searching for different answers than what his evaluation was telling him. The Captain asked for an update of his progress after the second cycle, so he had to report his findings.
"The third planet from the sun appears to be the only inhabited planet in this system," the Science Officer reported. "The dominant species appears to be indigenous to the planet."
"That's impossible," the Captain retorted flatly. "The star is too young to have spawned an intelligent species."
"They must be hostile, if they're hiding their origins from us," the Captain's Companion asserted. "They must know how we would react to the destruction of our ship and the Companions aboard. Attack before we are surprised, too."
"Maybe not impossible, but certainly extremely rare," the Science Officer replied to the Captain's statement slowly, and ignoring the Captain's Companion's exhortations. "There are a few other possibilities," he continued reluctantly, swayed by his Companion's urging.
"Such as?" the Captain prompted impatiently.
"Another space-faring species may have found a way to accelerate their evolution," the Science Officer replied. "Just because we don't know how to do something, doesn't mean that it isn't possible. Another possibility is that a ship crashed on the planet, long ago, and the survivors intermingled with native creatures. After hundreds, or even thousands of galactic units, they would be indistinguishable from native species. Their DNA could have blended with compatible, planetary DNA during the evolutionary process. The introduction of more complex DNA into the environment may accelerate developments. Based on what I have learned, they may be unaware of their actual origins."
"Have you learned anything else about the system?" the Captain asked.
"The third planet from the sun has a very rich ecology," the Science Officer replied reluctantly. "Based on what we can gather from the broadcasts, there may be multiple species on the planet nearing sentience."
"So it is a good thing we didn't initiate a total reset of life in this system," the Captain mused, as much for his Companion's benefit as for the Science Officer.
"Yes, Sir," the Science Officer replied, chagrined that he had been a proponent of the drastic action.
"Do you still think reducing all life in the system to enzymes is advisable?" the Captain asked his Companion, privately.
"The murder of three Companions cannot go unpunished," the Companion insisted stubbornly.
"It won't go unpunished," the Captain silently assured his Companion. "However, we would be wrong to punish all species inhabiting the system because of the actions of one," the Captain insisted just as stubbornly.
"We will proceed to the third planet of the system slowly, and carefully, with full stealth engaged," the Captain continued, not wishing to embarrass his Science Officer further. "It will take longer to reach the planet, but we'll be better able to evaluate the situation without having to deal with hostilities. Navigation, plot a course that allows us to examine each planet as we proceed. I don't want to be trapped in a gravity well, and discover there are enemies behind us. Science, continue studying the signal. I want to know everything there is to know about the dominant species, before we arrive at the third planet."
"Yes, Sir," the Science Officer and the Navigator said simultaneously.
"Captain," the Navigator said hesitantly. "A stealth approach to the system will significantly extend the time of our approach."
"I understand," the Captain mused thoughtfully. "Proceed through the system's birth cloud with all stealth engaged. We will review our course and speed at each planetary orbit. Caution is required, but being overly cautious carries its own dangers."
"Aye, aye, Sir," the Navigator acknowledged.
"Ryan, I'm not an aeronautical engineer," Bran pointed out, settling in his chair after seating his guests in his teaching lab. "I'll help any way that I can, but I don't know what I can do to help! To me, what you guys do is just short of miraculous."
Ryan Flannigan snorted in wry frustration before saying, "Bran, at this point, I'm not sure any of us are aeronautical engineers. I'm not even sure that aeronautical engineers are what we need to solve the problems. Right now, I just need a fresh pair of eyes on the problem."
"I'll look at what you have and offer my opinion, for what it's worth," Bran replied with a shrug.
Ryan pulled his laptop from his case, and began plugging it in for power and projector connections. Bran turned to the other two people at the table, both sitting on booster seats, and winked.
"How did you get stuck with the curtain climbers, today?" Bran playfully asked Ryan while grinning at the children.
"I'm not a curtain climber," Noah protested between bites of the snack he was demolishing. "I grad-u-ated," he said slowly, enunciating the big word to get it right. "I'm five, so now I'm just a kid."
"I'm still a curtain climber!" Mike announced proudly.
"Kim had to fly to Albuquerque, today," Ryan explained, as he changed some computer settings, and a test screen appeared on the wall. He hit another button, and his laptop display appeared on the screen, before saying, "She'll be running between facilities today, so I brought Mike and Noah with me."
"You always have good stuff to eat," Mike volunteered around a mouth full of cookie.
"Don't talk with your mouth full," Ryan absently instructed Mike, while considering the files available. He clicked on one, and a string diagram appeared, while saying, "What it boils down to is that we need three different vehicles. Launching and landing requires a platform that is functional in atmosphere, assuming we launch using a piggyback method. We need ramjet capabilities at the outer limits of the atmosphere, and a more compact form outside the atmosphere. Using a solid-rocket launch has a different set of problems. We don't have the time or the budget to develop all the platforms we need. We only have a few years left before Al's earliest estimate of when the Aliens can arrive."
Ryan inserted a DVD into the laptop. After a moment and some rapid keystrokes, an overlay appeared on the string diagram. A powerful engine with a fuel tank on one side and exhaust nozzles on the other were overlaid on the diagram.
"We have the propulsion worked out using a fusion power plant," Ryan continued. "That will also work for propulsion and steering jets without causing inertia issues for the passengers. Al said he can help us with inertia-less drives, later. We don't have the base technologies yet to make them practical. The power plant will also provide enough juice to drive the weapons systems and environmental controls."
"The weapons systems will be lasers, rail guns and possibly missiles," Ryan explained, projecting a different overlay diagram that showed electrical power runs through the string diagram. The power runs ended at two laser symbols, and a third symbol that Bran assumed identified the rail gun, which Ryan highlighted with a laser pointer.