Chapter 27: First Contact
The alien Captain sat staring at the harsh landscape of the airless moon. He had seen thousands of similar landscapes on other worlds and their satellites. He never tired of seeing a new one. It was why he chose the hard life of space exploration over the softer life of a planetary-bound career.
New worlds, new experiences, and new revelations were like a drug to the Captain. His mindset was also why a Companion chose him as a host. The Captain and his Companion had made a good team for many years. He wondered if their time together was coming to an end.
The Captain disliked taking the life of any creature. He would kill when necessary, and had on numerous occasions when his crew or ship was threatened. Planning to attack a planet without obvious provocation felt wrong, and made him feel nauseous. Granted, their destroyed ship could be considered provocation, but that could have been an accident. A planet’s complete ecosystem shouldn’t be eradicated without absolute proof!
An ancient Evil, resurrected, was the Companions’ reason for killing a planet full of sapient beings. He didn’t doubt his Companion’s memories, even if they dated from the birth of the universe. Their memory was infallible. Granted, there were holes in their memories where unneeded information had been discarded, and the remaining memories compacted. However, no triad of Companions pruned the same memories. When a triad communed, or ‘melded’ as the Companions called it, memory holes were minimized. The Captain believed there had been an ancient Evil. He believed the scream they heard was similar to that of the ancient Evil. He just didn’t believe that a single death cry was proof of a hidden enclave of Evil that had survived for billions of galactic cycles.
“You still have doubts about our course of action,” the Captain’s Companion stated rather than asked.
“I don’t doubt the Companions’ memories, nor the danger the Evil you remember could represent.” the Captain replied slowly, framing his answer carefully. He knew the two of them were approaching a crossroads in their relationship, and he didn’t want to lose his Companion. He also understood that his ethics were his own, and subjugating his ethics to his Companion’s ethics was wrong. “I only doubt that the scream you heard was proof of a planet full of these Evil entities. You fear this Evil. I can feel it in your thoughts. Are we destroying a species, and possibly an entire ecosystem, based on fear, or on evidence?”
His Companion was also slow to answer. Despite their disagreement, his Companion liked and respected the Captain. He was unwavering in his duty and convictions. He also never lost his wonder at new discoveries. That alone was a high-quality trait, by Companion standards, in a host. The Captain had been a highly prized host, and several Companions had vied for his notice. He wouldn’t give up the Captain as a host lightly. He also wouldn’t risk the universe falling to Evil.
“The Evil is like a disease,” his Companion finally answered. “It spreads faster than the most insidious plague, and is just as deadly. The mere existence of the Evil on this planet means that it has been here since the beginning of time. There is no way the planet could not be overrun,” he stated with sad finality.
“There is no way that you know of, for the planet to not be overrun,” the Captain corrected carefully. “You said the Evil had been eradicated billions of cycles ago. Is the mere existence of the Evil even probable after all this time? One death scream that you think was from your ancient Evil isn’t proof. In a universe of infinite possibilities, is it possible that you’re wrong?”
“It isn’t just one scream as proof,” his Companion replied. “You’ve watched their broadcasts, while we’ve worked our way in system. You’ve seen the chaos, death and destruction these humans inflict on each other, and on every other species on the planet. If anything, that is more convincing proof than the scream. That death scream simply identified why the species is so violent.”
“We’ve encountered species that were just as violent, on other planets,” the Captain rebutted. “Left to their own devices, they invariably destroy themselves. The death scream you heard sounded like the Evil you remember,” he granted. “But you don’t know if something else, in the universe, could give the same type of scream. Is the complete eradication of a species justified, when the decision is based on fear?” The Captain steeled himself, knowing his next statement could sever their bonds. “I am honor-bound to follow the orders of a united triad. However, I need proof before I destroy a planet. Fear isn’t proof!”
The silence stretched between the two. Thoughts flashed between the triad. The Captain had presented a lucid and powerful argument, but it didn’t completely override the triad’s conviction, nor their fear.
“We believe that we are correct,” the Captain’s Companion replied. “You do present a valid argument, but if we are correct, the Evil must not be allowed to spread. What do you propose?”
The Captain warily considered his options before replying, “You have already agreed to capture one of the humans to determine if the Evil is limited to one species, or has spread throughout the ecosystem. You also need to know if the Evil has spread to other worlds. We have determined that humans lack the technology to spread beyond their biosphere. If the Evil has spread, then logically it came from elsewhere, spreading to this planet. I propose we do a thorough investigation. We should take multiple captives from different tribes of humans. Take captives from other near-sentient species for examination, also. You must know where the Evil spread from, and I must know the Evil exists, before I can ethically destroy a species. Prior to circling this moon, we should broadcast our current collected data and situation to other vessels and our bases. Include your fears, all current evidence, and our intended path to resolving our dilemma. The broadcast should continue, as we circle this moon, and engage the humans on the planet. In the worst case, if we are destroyed, our brethren will come more prepared.”
The Companions communed for long moments; much longer than their mental communications normally lasted. Before they could respond to the Captain, they were interrupted.
“Captain,” the Science Officer announced. “We’ve just received a transmission on our emergency frequency. It contained the correct codes of one of the Companions lost on the destroyed ship. Should I respond?”
“NO!” the triad ordered in unison. “If the Evil has captured a Companion, it could have broken his mind and extracted that information,” they hurriedly explained.
“If the scream was an anomaly, then a Companion may have survived the destruction of the ship,” the Captain pointed out.
There was silence as the Triad tried to contact one of their own, one they had known since time began. They couldn’t find him, but they vaguely sensed other entities disturbingly similar to Companions. They couldn’t be Companions, though. If they were, the Triad would recognize them. The only rational reason they could devise was the Evil had learned to mimic Companion mental signatures. If they had captured a Companion, that was a distinct possibility.
“Your hypotheses is unlikely, Captain,” the triad replied in that weirdly resonant way they sounded when communicating while in communion. “We can’t detect our brother, and we would be able to if he were in this planetary system. There are very few phenomena that can block our communications.”
“But there ARE phenomena that can block you,” the Captain answered, jumping on that sliver of hope. Aloud he asked, “What did the message say? Could it have been an automatic transponder still working?”
“It wasn’t an automatic transponder, Sir,” the Science Officer replied. “The message stated, ‘One survivor from our ship’s crash. I do not require rescue, but urgently need to establish communications with you. Do not initiate hostilities. I repeat, it is urgent that we establish communications.’ and all verification codes were included from the downed ship.”
“It seems pretty straight-forward,” the Captain opined. “Respond to the hail.”
“NO!” the triad’s counter command reverberated in their hosts’ minds. “We would sense our brother, if he were alive! We sense mental signatures, similar to Companions, but they have a strange resonance. We don’t recognize them, which is impossible, if they were Companions! Every Companion is known to every other Companion. This is a ploy to draw us in, and destroy us, or even worse, to capture us.”
“We can’t initiate an unwarranted attack without proof!” the Captain reiterated.
“We must, and as you said, you are honor bound to follow the orders of a triad,” the Companions insisted.
“What of your agreement to capture a human to investigate?” the Captain reminded the Companions.
“Very well,” the triad replied coldly, the resonance chilling all three hosts. “Your orders are to capture the first human we encounter by any means necessary. We will examine it to verify our position in this matter. We will then proceed to the planet to destroy whatever portion of the ecosphere is required to eliminate this infestation.”
“I will seek a new host, after this encounter is completed,” the Captain’s Companion informed him.
The Captain wasn’t sure if he heard anger or sorrow in his Companion’s thoughts. He knew his own thoughts were spiraling through sorrow, and reaching for despair.
“Prepare the ship for battle. Set course to orbit their moon. They obviously know we are here, so we might as well announce our presence!” the Captain ordered, his voice bitter, and reflecting his anguish.
“They aren’t responding to the hail, and they’re starting to move,” Kim noted to the room at large.
“Their ship is one of the newer designs,” Al pointed out to the group, studying the image of the alien ship. “This will be a problem!”
“Would you mind explaining that statement?” Scotty asked sarcastically, from the radio. “We already knew they were a problem!”
Despite objections from his security detail, Scotty was flying into the New Mexico base.
“More of a problem,” Al explained curtly to the command group he was linked to. “That ship is equipped with a laser-assisted ion beam, and improved armor. The beam is fixed, and can only fire straight ahead, and they only have two. That’s the good news. The bad news is they will cut through our ships like a hot knife through butter. It is also equipped with lasers on rapid reaction mounts for point defense. They can be used for offense, or defense against incoming missiles and fighters. Our advantages are agility, and coordinated firing patterns.”
“Will our rail-guns penetrate their armor,” Ryan asked, studying the image intently. Al had shown him images of alien spacecraft, but this ship was on his front door-step. The differences from, and similarities to, his own design concepts were startling.
“They will penetrate,” Al answered hesitantly, “but not easily. Ed’s merging drills to ensure teams hit the same point on a target might make the difference.”
The information was passed on to Ed, via the radio. Losing the advantage of instantaneous mental communications to the squadron was a serious blow to their plans.
“I don’t know if our people can stop them,” Al told Caleb privately. “I don’t even know if they can seriously slow them down,” he added worriedly. “What are we going to do?”
“You said the rail-guns are weak against their armor. Would lasers work better?”
“They would,” Al answered. “They can also be fired from farther away. The Star Hawk battery packs can’t support lasers, though.”
“I know where there is a fusion power pack that would,”
Caleb answered thoughtfully.
“And I know Ryan has lasers developed for the Star Hawk,” Al mused. “He didn’t continue perfecting them because of the lack of power, but they worked. It shouldn’t be difficult to adapt them to the new armor.”
“All it takes is time,” Caleb said bitterly. Aloud he asked, “How long until the aliens reach our Hawks?”
“Current estimated time until contact ... six hours, forty-seven minutes,” one of the operators replied.
“Meld!” Caleb ordered, sending the command to the core team.
Ryan, Kim, JJ, Bran, Scotty and their Companions immediately dropped into a meld. Caleb’s idea was foremost in his mind, and the others in the meld were instantaneously aware of it. They were also aware of the risks, and the hope that simply getting Al above the Van Allen belt would be sufficient to avoid a battle.
“We have been working on a solution to upgrading Caleb’s armor,” the Kim and JJ portions of the meld provided in unison. “It is still dangerous, but we calculate your survival odds at sixty percent. When we started, it was closer to thirty percent.”
“I have continued printing the new Star Hawks,” the Ryan portion contributed to the flow of consciousness. “Three are completed, and the fourth is near completion. Printing lasers would be quick, if the design is compatible with the new nanobots.”
“Give me thirty minutes and the laser design will be compatible,” Bran supplied, grim determination coloring his thoughts.
“My plan is to go alone!” the Caleb portion of the meld weakly protested.
“And if the aliens don’t respond to Al’s hail, Major, a flight of four upgraded Star Hawks will be more effective than one,” Scotty interjected from Air Force One.
“Very well,” Caleb conceded. “Time! Time! Time! How much time will it take to get our armor upgraded, and the new Star Hawks ready to go?”
Calculations were juggled in the meld, each entity supplying their own portion of the puzzle. The result wasn’t reassuring.
“Eight hours is too long!” the Caleb portion protested.
“It is what it is,” Ryan pointed out.
“How can Commander Murphy slow them down?” Scotty wondered.
“Confront them, and demand a parley? Do aliens recognize flags of truce?” Caleb asked.
“Not as a societal norm, but they do understand the concept,” Al supplied.
“Who will pilot the four Star Hawks?” Kim and her Companion demanded in unison. “Caleb will obviously be in one. Ryan would threaten violence if he were denied one of them. I will be going, if Ryan is going. Who will fly the fourth Star Hawk?”
“I’m going with Caleb!” JJ announced emphatically.
“No!” Caleb and Ryan stated simultaneously.
“Two reasons! We have children that we must consider. If we lose, they shouldn’t be deprived of both parents,” Caleb continued tenderly, but with steel in his thoughts. “Also, if it comes to a battle, fighting with our wives by our sides would reduce our effectiveness. Our focus would be divided between our mission and keeping our wives safe.”
“But...” JJ began to protest, but Scotty cut in with, “He is right. That reduces the candidates to Bran and I.”
“You can’t go!” Kim protested. “You’re the President!”
“Then I’ll resign,” Scotty rebutted. “I only took this job so we could get ready for the aliens. They’re here, so my job is done.”
“No it isn’t,” Caleb replied. “As soon as that ship clears the moon, every telescope in the world is going to light up. Every television and radio in America will be broadcasting, ‘The aliens are coming, ‘ and someone needs to keep America calm. Not all Americans like you, but most will listen when you speak. Is Singer or Flan with you?”
“Both of them are,”
Scotty replied, reluctantly conceding Caleb’s point.
“Bran and Singer would be the best choice for the other two,” Caleb suggested. “How long until you reach the base?”
“We will be landing in less than thirty minutes,” Scotty replied.
“Why not include Flan?” Ryan asked.
“Because having brothers in the same assault flight isn’t a good idea for the same reason as having a husband and wife together is bad,” the Scotty and Caleb portions of the meld replied together. “We have eight hours,” Caleb continued. “We need to reduce that, if possible, and if not, we must ensure that time limit doesn’t slip. Lives depend on it!”
“I agree we need a fighter cadre to meet the aliens,” Al interjected. “However, Caleb and I must launch as quickly as possible. I need to get above the Van Allen belt to contact them. We can wait in orbit for the rest of the flight, but me mentally reaching out to the aliens is the best chance I can think of to keep our pilots from getting killed. All of us have loved ones in the squadron at the moon, both human and Companions. I don’t want to spend their lives needlessly!”
“I have a question,” Singer asked, after being pulled into the meld. “I can fly a plane, and I can fight, but I’ve never flown a fighter! Aren’t we supposed to be trained to do something like this?”
“I’ve shaken every pilots hand, as they’ve returned from training,” Caleb answered. “You know how Companions pick up memories and experiences. Al has stored and organized the training from all the pilots, and Commander Murphy. Our first step will be to pass that composite training to each of you. It won’t give you muscle-memory, but it will give you the knowledge. Then you have eight hours to integrate it, before you need it.”
The meld dissolved on that grim note. They had a plan of action with some hope of success, and a myriad of ways it could fail. The first possible failure point was Caleb’s armor upgrade.
Blake sighed, as he looked around the refuge the Star Hawk pilots had kludged together. This short time was some of the happiest that he could remember. He would miss this safe haven for more than simply being a refuge from the harsh realities of space. The time he had spent here, with Karen Kelly, created some precious memories. All they did was talk, though one time they did fall to sleep together. His mind skittered away from what their closeness could mean, if they survived.
“If we survive this, I need to let Kelly know my intentions,” Blake announced to his Companion.
“Duh!” Aaron replied. “If you don’t think she knows your intentions, you’re nuts! How many times have the two of you melded, during flight training?”
“But, that was flight training!” Blake protested. “Sure we were melded, along with up to fifty other consenting adults! I don’t look at relationships while in the meld. That would be ... um ... intrusive!”
“Whose fault is that?” Aaron shot back. “Not once have you reached out to privately meld with her,” he scolded. “Linking, yeah, but you might as well just be talking audibly. You know, it wouldn’t hurt to be a little more forward.”
“Not until we’re done with the aliens,”
Blake explained, but neither of them understood if the explanation was for Aaron, or for himself.
He focused on their shelter, marveling at what the squadron had produced. It was far beyond what had been visualized.
Resupply modules had been joined together, end to end, and side to side, creating a space-raft. Star Hawks were each attached to an external resupply module. An image of the refuge, from outside, reminded Blake of a mother Possum carrying her litter on her back. The modules were designed to shelter up to two pilots. As it was, each pilot had their private module/quarters, and the large common area for briefings, or socializing. The private quarters could be used for sleeping, or even for more private socialization.
“I wonder if this method could be used by colonists going to other planets, or even to other stars,” Blake mused aloud, waving one hand at the structure they were in. He was hoping to break the silence that had been growing between him and Kelly.
“I think we already talked about this,” Kelly pointed out dryly. “If I remember correctly, our conclusion was, yes, as soon as we don’t have to worry about aliens killing us. We’ve come up with a lot of good ideas while we’ve been here, and all of them are good for ‘after we don’t have to worry about aliens, ‘“ she continued, a little more heatedly. “I have an idea of what we can talk about! Let’s talk about...”
“All flights ... prepare to launch in thirty minutes, equipment check in twenty. This is not a drill. Wrap it up, folks. It’s game time!” Commander Murphy mentally broadcast, unknowingly interrupting Kelly’s burgeoning tirade. Then he sent a complete update on the aliens’ status, and some minor changes to the Star Hawks’ deployment plans.
“Um ... Good luck,” Blake said awkwardly.
“You idiot!” Karen replied, before grabbing Blake and kissing him, thoroughly.
After Blake was allowed to surface for air, Karen scolded, “You being all proper is a testament to your upbringing, but enough is enough. I’ve been waiting for two days for a kiss and the best I’ve been able to get is a nap on your shoulder. We have time for one more kiss, and it had better be a good one! After this mission, we will talk about how proper I expect you to be! Do you understand me? Say, ‘Yes, Dear, ‘“
“Yes, Dear,” Blake replied, eyes still wide with shock.
“Well?” Karen demanded, tapping her foot.
“Oh! Yeah!” Blake blurted, before awkwardly trying to put his arms around Karen, trying to figure out where it was safe to place his hands.
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Karen groaned, before deliberately placing his hands where she wanted. It wasn’t one of the locations that Blake was considering.
Blake groaned, his hands seeming to be on fire, and then he kissed her. And he kept kissing her. For the first time his mind relaxed and their minds joined, both reveling in what they discovered in the other.
The intensity of their affirmation of life continued spiraling upward. Their Companions embraced as intensely as the humans, and that vast wall in their minds seemed to rush at them. When the wall opened, for the barest fraction of a second, a brilliant light shone through their souls.
The kiss ended, and Karen rested her head against Blake’s chest. She clung to him, breathless, and with weak knees.
“Was that kiss good enough?” Blake asked tenderly, but with some trepidation.
“Yes,” Karen replied mentally, not trusting her voice. “It was everything, and more! It was more than I ever hoped a kiss from you would be.”
“Ten minutes until equipment check,” Commander Murphy announced.
Blake and Karen weren’t the only couple trying to stretch their last moments before battle.
“Damn it!” Karen muttered, extricating herself from Blake’s arms. She looked into Blake’s eyes before fiercely saying, “We will continue this conversation later!”
“Yes, Dear,” Blake replied, proud of himself for learning the proper format so quickly.
“What was that?” the Science Officer’s Companion demanded. “Did you feel that?” he asked the other Companions.
“It was like a power surge, but not on the physical plane,” the Captain’s Companion replied. “I’ve never felt anything like it.”
“None of us have!” the Medical Officer’s Companion stated emphatically. “I can’t detect the source, either. It felt like this whole star system lit up for a moment. It felt ... it felt good!”
“It did,” the Captain’s Companion agreed dubiously. “Could it be a lure the Evil is using to trap us?”
“It’s hard to believe that something feeling that good could be a lure,”
the Science Officer’s Companion protested.
“By definition, a lure must feel good to be alluring,” the Captain’s Companion replied, the tone of his thoughts making a desert planet seem like a water world. “We must be on our guard! The Evil may have evolved, and we don’t know what new stratagems it may have. “
“Agreed,” the other Companions responded somberly.
Someone said that gods laugh at the plans of mice and men. The gods must be gasping for breath in hilarity, at the humans’ fight to survive. They started with roughly six hours until first contact with the aliens, and eight hours until Caleb could be launched. The estimated time for first contact didn’t change. The estimated time until launch did change.
Nearly six hours had elapsed before the armor upgrades could be started. Flan, Bran, and Ryan were in one room with a medical team. Their upgrade would be the normal, two stage process that had already been perfected. Caleb was in a separate room with Kim and JJ because his upgrade would be more problematic.
“You’re going to skip the interim armor and upgrade me directly to the optically controlled armor?” Caleb asked dubiously.
“You wanted fast? You get fast,” JJ replied angrily, tightening straps to hold his arms and legs down. He was on a rolling bed, known as a gurney in most hospitals. She was a little more energetic in tightening them than she would normally be.
JJ was still angry that she wouldn’t be going with her husband. She understood all the reasons why she shouldn’t, but understanding didn’t translate to satisfaction with the results. She was also afraid that her current actions would kill him. JJ had worked with Kim to minimize the risks of the upgrade, but not all of them could be eliminated. There were still risks. Her fear added fuel to the fire of her anger.
“The optical armor gives us more control of the upgrade process,” Kim interjected, partially to supply the information, but mostly to prevent her mom from saying something that she would regret later. “The quantum computer is an integral part of the upgrade process with the optically controlled armor. It will be monitoring your vital signs, and has some control of the speed of the upgrade. It’s the best chance we have of ensuring you survive the upgrade.”
“You had better survive,” JJ growled, tightening a leg strap a little more than necessary. She looked at her work, and then loosened it slightly to allow the blood to flow into his foot.
“Why do I need to be strapped down?” Caleb asked uncertainly, eyeing his wife’s actions. “None of the others needed to be strapped down.”
“Because you aren’t the others,” JJ snapped tightening the last strap, but tempering her anger enough to ensure blood could still flow into the extremity.
“Because we don’t know what will happen with your upgrade,” Kim clarified hurriedly, before her mom could say more. “You are starting with a problem, and you’re going from point A to point C. The others started without a problem, and are going from A to B to point C. We don’t know exactly how you’ll react. If you get delirious, or violent, we want to be able to control you for treatment.”
“Thanks for the encouragement,” Caleb replied wryly.
“Small stick,” JJ growled, just prior to inserting a needle in his arm.
“Ouch!” Caleb complained.
“Ah, come on,” JJ snorted. “The big, strong man, willing to go into danger to protect his woman, is bothered by a little needle prick?”
“A little needle the size of a fire hose,” Caleb muttered.
Kim attached an IV bag with the upgrade catalyst to the line from the needle.