"False Contact" has appeared for the first time in my
hardcover short story collection JUDGMENT DAY AND OTHER DREAMS
(Fantastic Books, 2009). It is one of 15 unpublished and previously
published short stories in the collection. See Home page for details.
This story is hard SF/First Contact.
Jack Munroe stared in confusion as the Alien ship appeared from behind the large comet and approached the Uhuru, outbound from Charon Base on a survey of the larger Kuiper Belt comets.
expected to find lots of kilometer-sized comets out here, well beyond
Pluto and a third of the way around the solar system’s edge from
Earth’s position. The Kuiper Belt was the source of the short period
comets, like Halley’s, that now and then visited the inner solar
system. But no one expected First Contact with Alien beings. Least of
all Captain Monique d’Auberge, too long in command of the European
Union survey ship Uhuru, and five other humans.
Humans. They’d have to get used to thinking that way.
tasted metallic sourness as, free-floating like the rest of the crew,
he watched the front screen. As ship’s Technologist, he should have
picked up some kind of warning that others were out here, hiding in the
solar system’s backyard where the leftovers from its formation circled
endlessly around the dim yellow star that was more a direction than an
illuminator of deep space. Now they weren’t just a French aristocrat
too full of herself, a Belgian priest, a Polish drive engineer, two
British lesfems, and an Asteroid Belter whose grandpa had emigrated
from the Tennessee hill country. They were people about to face
something no one had expected.
After all, interstellar travel
was impossible, according to the Rules of the EU bureaucracy in
Brussels—and Captain d’Auberge’s need for certainty in space. No
reason, therefore, to call on Jack Munroe’s dual training as an
anthropologist and student of archaic cultural practices. No need,
really, for anything beyond the ordinary science business of Pluto’s
Charon Base as the EU searched for planet-killer comets before they
could head inward and disturb Earth’s social tranquility.
Piakowski’s curse expressed Jack’s own feelings, but not those of
Monique. She twisted in free-float and frowned at Max. “Engineer,
cursing won’t remove this surprise.” Her nose lifted higher. “Can you,
perhaps, tell us how that ship moves without a drive flare?”
“Whaat?” Max stuttered. His thick black eyebrows squeezed together as he peered at the screen. “Oh!”
rest of the crew now noticed how the Alien globe-pierced-by-a-spearhead
moved without visible plasma exhaust, unlike their own nuclear fusion
The six of them had gathered in the Pilot’s cabin as
they approached Kuiper object QB1, a 280 kilometer-sized ball of
reddish water ice. They’d expected to celebrate the half-way point of
their trip by geo-surveying the first object discovered by Luu and
Jewitt back in 1992, long before China colonized Mars, Brazil took over
the Moon, and the European Union forced America into an economic
armistice that led, eventually, to mining of the Asteroid Belt and
outlying settlements on Europa, Titan and Charon. “Getting rich is
glorious” had become more than the slogan of China’s long-dead Deng
Xiao Peng—it had become the watchword of a world society that pretended
war was extinct, commerce was always positive, and new wealth could
pacify highly-taxed citizens.
Jack pushed down into his Tech station seat, snapped his restraint locks, and caught d’Auberge’s attention.
“Captain, do we match orbits with them—or do we turn tail and head for Earth?”
“Turn tail?” said Monique, lifting blond eyebrows.
“Hardly. This is a momentous event in human history. We can’t—”
the chance to get rich?” Jack interrupted, unable to resist the
sarcasm. He should be more of a team player like Gail and Hortense, the
two Brits who functioned as Pilot/Doctor and ComChief/Ecological
Biologist for the ship. But they’d spent six months in each other’s
company and Monique had turned more and more rigid as time went on.
Jack’s mention of the EU’s socially impolite raison d’étre, the Captain
turned cold as a glacier. Gail and Hortense seemed embarrassed. Max
looked thoughtful. And their Jesuit priest Hercule Arcy de Mamét, the
Belgian comet expert who’d devoted his life to Kuiper Belt comets,
frowned delicately. “Mister Munroe,” Hercule said, emphasizing for the
hundredth time Jack’s lack of a doctorate, “your cynicism is out of
place here. Aliens are on our doorstep. Aren’t you excited?”
looked back at the screen, where the globe-and-spearhead had settled
into a close equatorial orbit about QB1, just a few thousand klicks
lower than their own incoming parabolic orbit. “Excited?” He shivered.
“I’m afraid. Damned afraid. And the rest of you should be scared too!”
said Monique, her manner brittle as she twisted in mid-air to again
face the screen. “Gail, can you put us into a transfer orbit that
matches up with that ship?”
“Yes m’am, I can,” said the Uhuru’s
Pilot. “Maneuvering thrusters will be enough to match orbits. Main
Drive is still off-line, but it’s Hot and on standby if we need to
leave quickly. Captain, do we—”
“Signal!” yelled Hortense from her duty post. “We’re getting a damned fucking signal from that ship!”
Jack’s gut backflipped on itself. “Radio or visual?”
answered Max from his Engineer’s post at the rear of the small cabin.
“Damn! This is moving too fast for me. Captain, I—”
“Shut up!” screamed Monique.
Captain’s loss of her eternally cool manner shocked everyone into
silence. All but Hortense, who seemed ready to float out of her seat.
“You!” Monique pointed at Hortense. “It’s a radio
signal? What kind? AM or FM? What power? What wavelength? And do we
have enough computer power to decode the signal so we can—”
the clear,” Hortense said, her interruption of the Captain a rare
defiance of Monique’s command rigidity. “English language, on Charon’s
standard comlink channel. No image. Yet.”
Stunned silence filled the
cabin. To be found by an Alien ship was one thing. A wild card tossed
into their lap. To have Aliens talk, immediately and in English, as if
this were nothing more than a Hopper cruise in the Asteroid Belt, that
was something else. These show-off Aliens had just played High Trump
card, up front. Jack felt like getting out and physically pushing the
Uhuru back to distant Sol. Get away! his instincts told him.
Monique swallowed hard, a thin film of sweat beading her pale forehead. “English? They’re talking to us in English?”
“Yes m’am,” said Hortense in a mousy voice.
Captain blinked, then her face stiffened as she caught Jack’s look.
“Fine. Put the signal on the speaker so we can all hear. Switch on data
recorders. No immediate reply. I’ll do that later. Well?”
Hortense dipped her head submissively. “Signal is piped to the ship’s intercom system.”
ship, we ask you to respond to our inquiry. Are you ready and willing
to meet our team, at the dome on the ice body below, to discuss the
Rules of Engagement? Human ship—” The signal repeated its brief
message, as if on a loop.
“Engagement? Rules? Dome?” muttered
Monique, scowling as if she’d bitten into a sour lemon. She motioned
for Hortense to cut off the repeating signal that spoke in the voice of
a man from the British Midlands. The Captain scanned them all, her
manner once more that of an unmarried daughter of a French ducal family
that traced its lineage back to Catherine de Médicis, a Captain who
expected everyone to acknowledge her inherent superiority. With a light
touch against the cabin wall D’Auberge free-floated over to the ship’s
telescope station, pulled up the visor hood, and bent down to look at
the CCD image picked up by the Schmidt refractor. “Gail, focus the
telescope on QB1, then shift traverse control to my station. Now!”
Captain.” Skinny, brown-haired Gail Winston did as she was ordered,
then peered at him and Max with a look of sheer terror. Jack felt for
her. Some Alien had listened to the vibechat of BBC-1 long enough to
develop a Midlands accent. That was crazy and strange and . . .
The Captain grasped the joystick control next to the
visor, tilted it slightly, and the front screen filled with the vastly
enlarged surface of comet QB1. In two minutes of traversing the lumpy
surface of a comet too far from the Sun to develop a coma cloud, she
covered a third of the comet’s reddish surface as the breathing in the
small cabin grew louder, more labored and faster paced. Jack suspected
more than just he and Gail were frightened by shocking events that
moved too quickly for any of them to process, let alone understand
“There!” whispered Monique in a triumphant tone. She pulled
back from the scope hood, looked forward and frowned at an image of
QB1’s north pole.
Jack looked too, like everyone else. He saw
nitrogen and methane snows, scattered like dandruff atop the flatlands
of water ice, all of it aged red-brown thanks to impacts from cosmic
and ultraviolet rays, what Max called the Johnson-Lanzerotti Effect.
The Alien dome where someone wanted to discuss the Rules of Engagement
sparkled sugar-white against the shadowed landscape. The dome had a
transparent roof and four small dots moved under the roof. Aliens? Jack
cleared his throat, forcing Monique to acknowledge him with a backward
“Captain, it’s time to leave,” he said, putting aside his
fear and trying for cool logic. “I mean it. These Aliens, whoever they
are, know too damned much about us. They know our commerce language,
they know our comlink channel, they know—”
“Too damned much!”
shouted Max, his space-darkened face sweaty as he gripped tightly his
armrests. “We’ve got no weapons, no way to call home in less than five
“No sense of duty,” Monique said scathingly, looking
from Max to Jack, then over to Gail, who sat strapped in to her Pilot’s
seat, ready for thrust-gravity. “Pilot, fulfill my order. Put us into
an orbit that parallels the Alien ship, but keeps us a hundred
kilometers out. And tell the EVA computer to warm up the Lander. We’re
going to meet our new neighbors.”
“Complying, Captain,” said Gail as she punched on the thrusters, moving them from freefall to thrust-gravity.
wanted to hit Monique. He always wished that whenever she used her
disdainful look and arrogant tone on him. He didn’t. Over the last six
months, the woman’s behavior toward Jack had worsened, as if his
Belter-style questioning of Brussel’s Rules upset her need for
certainty, her need to believe the frozen unknown could be safe,
routine and unsurprising. She’d even abandoned the official dogma of
Cooperative Consensus of the Communitarian Unity and its long-dead
founder, Amitai Etzioni. Around him, the others worked hurriedly at
their stations or watched the front screen, acting as if the Captain’s
decision wasn’t insane. He tried one more time.
She whirled his way, blue eyes flaring with anger and surprise at his use of her first name. “What!”
Please think before you do this.” He wiped sweat from his forehead,
then shivered as the cabin air-cooling kicked on. “We don’t know who
they are, what they look like, where they come from, how long they’ve
monitored Earth space communications, nor why they didn’t just come to
Charon and visit us at the base.” He paused to let the last item sink
in. “Monique, why didn’t they come to Charon?”
D’Auberge took a deep
breath and eyed Jack as if he were a petulant little boy caught
sneaking out of the girls’ bathroom. “Mister Munroe, why don’t you feel
Hercule’s excitement?” She motioned to the ship’s priest, a man who’d
devoted his life to the Jesuits, comets and self-denial, in that order.
“Why so suspicious? That dome may be an Alien trading station, filled
with wonders. And Brussels has always said that if true Aliens ever
crossed the stars to visit us, they would be peaceful. No civilization
develops interstellar travel without world union and an end to
violence. Surely you don’t question Abbé Breed’s Fourth Principle of
the Communitarian Unity?”
Jack did question it, but he’d not gotten
his berth on Uhuru by being heretical. “That’s not the issue. The issue
is, they act like they expected us. Doesn’t commerce negotiation
require a common set of rules among traders? Doesn’t good faith in
business require advance consultation, rather than this bolt out of the
blue?” Monique’s certainty wavered a bit. “Don’t you think we should
contact Charon or Earth for guidance on this situation?”
smiled sourly. “Ah, the last refuge of a bureaucrat is an appeal to
procedures. Anything to avoid a decision. I am better than that. Are
She was really, really going to do it. “No, I’m not. I’m scared. This doesn’t feel right.”
Captain ignored intense looks from the rest of the crew and focused on
Jack. “Feel? That’s base emotion talking. Whatever happened to your
wonderful Anthropology? Isn’t this First Contact the event that will
set off a Kuhnian paradigm shift in human culture?” He did not respond
to her challenge. She sighed. “There is an easy way to solve this
concern of yours. We will signal back. And we’ll ask for them to send
us a visual image. Then, I’m certain, your fears will melt away.”
Signal them back? Jack blinked rapidly. “I wouldn’t do that, Captain.”
I am doing that, as Captain of this ship, as the adult in command.”
Monique smiled pleasantly at Hortense. “Com Chief, we might as well
vibechat with our new neighbors while Gail brings us into a matching
orbit. Open a channel, please.”
“Yes, Captain,” murmured a nervous
Hortense, her long fingers flying over her com panel. “Open, captain.
Recorders are still running.”
“—Human ship, we ask you to—”
braced herself against the maneuvering thrust-gee and faced the videye
above the screen. “Alien ship, we are responding. I am Captain Monique
Catherine d’Auberge, of the European Union, a member state of the
Communitarian Unity, outbound from our science base on Charon in the
ship Uhuru, on a mission to chart large cometary bodies. Please explain
the invitation to visit your dome on the surface below, and please
transmit a visual image of yourself. We humans prefer to see those with
whom we talk.”
Silence filled the radio channel as the loop
recording cut off abruptly. A signal whine sounded briefly, then eased
away as the com panel automatically matched the incoming radio signal.
“Welcome, Captain,” said a male voice that reeked of Midlands landed
gentry tones. “I am Destanu, Link of the Pod Victorius, of the people
called Rizen, who came not long ago to these small frozen bodies. We
request you visit our dome so we may settle on the Rules of
Engagement.” The casual voice paused. “You ask for visual images?
Agreed. We had withheld such images until you requested them. We
transmit on your Channel Three.”
The front screen wavered, lost the image of QB1, then solidified into a color image. They all stared.
six-legged Alien in the image resembled a cross between a lion and a
hippopotamus, but one with orange-and-black striped skin, sleek body
muscles, and talon-toes. The platy hide looked tough as steel. The
sextuped’s front leg pair showed manipulative fingers more flexible
than a human’s, but stiffer than ropes. The front end supported a
dome-skull, below which were two black eyes. The wide-set eyes peered
at them without blinking. A tool belt of some kind hung from the
Alien’s midbody, otherwise it wore no obvious clothes. To one side of
Destanu stood another Rizen, though it stayed in the background. The
room occupied by Destanu and the second Rizen resembled their own Pilot
cabin, a place filled with metallic devices, blinking lights, and touch
panels, with the low arch of a exit door off to the right. The Rizen
commander opened wide the slash of its mouth, displaying dozens of
razor-sharp teeth, teeth like a shark.
“Are you reassured, Captain
Monique Catherine d’Aubege?” said a swarmy Midlands English voice that
seemed totally incongruous coming from the lean, tightly-muscled alien.
squeaked her reaction. Gail’s mouth moved silently. Max cursed low, a
guttering string of Polish that didn’t sound pleasant. Hercule the
Jesuit crossed himself. And Captain d’Auberge straightened her posture,
slim hands pulling at her dark blue jacket. She focused on the screen
“I’m reassured, Link Destanu of the Pod Victorius.” She
paused, stood stiffly before the videye that returned her image to the
alien ship, and bowed slightly. “Welcome to Sol system. Have you been
here very long?”
“Long enough,” said Destanu, its body plates
rippling in a sine wave that matched the movements of its shark-like
mouth. “Our custom when meeting species new to the Great Dark is to
learn your language of power, study your culture, then seek a meeting
at a spot outside of the species’ home space.”
“So you’ve met other species!” exclaimed Monique.
others. The Great Dark is filled with life, some of which travel star
to star.” The alien glanced aside at some kind of monitor, then fixed
its black-eyed gaze on Monique. “I see your ship is about to match our
orbital footprint. Good. Our team awaits your team on the surface
below. Do you accept our invitation to discuss Rules of Engagement?”
thought the last question meant more than the obvious. The Alien acted
far too relaxed. But Monique seemed unfazed by the incongruity of
Brit-speech issuing from the shark-mouth of an orange-and-black skinned
Alien who’d come to meet humans on a deep space mission out at the very
edge of the solar system. Slick, too slick, he thought. The maneuvering
thrusters shut off and freefall replaced thrust-gee—which clued him to
the fact the Rizen aliens looked glued to their floor despite no ship
movement. “Captain?” he said, floating up against his restraint belts.
moment,” Monique said to Destanu, then gestured to cut off the visual
and sound feed to the Rizen ship. She grabbed a wall hand-hold, then
glared at him. “What! Can’t you see this Alien is peaceful? Not violent
like your Belter Rebellion ancestors? A species that crosses from one
star to another is not an automatic threat, just a puzzle to be
“A species that has gravity control, while we still use
spin-gee for our habitat torus?” Jack shook his head, feeling stubborn.
“Captain, why assume the Communitarian creed applies to Aliens? Why do
you assume that evolutionary biology and natural selection don’t apply
to intelligent species?” Monique’s stubborn belief in the Unity creed
baffled Jack. He pointed at Hortense, their Ecological Biologist.
“Hortie, you tell her what we discussed on the way out here? Tell her
what black-and-orange skin colors mean!”
The Captain glanced at Hortense. “Hortie? What’s he talking about?”
blushed at the personal question, though it would be hard for most
people to notice thanks to her soot-black skin. The woman, who had
seemed to enjoy their chats about biological and cultural determinism,
dipped her head, collected herself, then looked directly at Monique.
“Captain, it’s the aposematic coloration principle of evolutionary
biology. In short, extreme color variations in a species are a danger
signal. Like the brightly colored poison dart frog of the Amazon Basin,
which advertises to predators it is not wise to eat frogs that don’t
try to hide.”
“Aposematic what!” Monique’s pale face slowly turned
pink. “So we’re down to judging Aliens by skin color! Hortie, I’m
surprised at you.”
Jack realized he had one more shot, if that, and
sadly Hortie was not as tough-willed as her partner, Gail. “Captain,
this is real stuff!” The glare in Monique’s eyes only motivated him
further. “Hortie, tell her what the Alien shape means? The talon-toes,
teeth and body form. Please!”
Monique glared again at Jack, breathed
deep, then looked tiredly at Hortense Muggeridge-Mbasa. “Go on. Destanu
will keep for another minute or two. What has Jack been doing to you
Hortie looked briefly incensed, glanced at a sympathetic
Gail, then shrugged her slim shoulders. “It’s called Müllerian mimicry,
Captain. A basic principle of predation and natural selection biology.
In short, the Rizen’s shark-like teeth, lean-muscled body shape, and
lion/hippo shape all reinforce the signal ‘don’t mess with me’. Like
how the nomadidae bee resembles a yellowjacket, yet both species
possess stingers. Or how the hunting cats resemble one another despite
continental drift. Or—”
“Enough!” hissed Monique, angry disgust
replacing the blush of moments ago. She twisted in space and shook a
finger at Jack. “You would have us judge Aliens on the basis of
appearance? Racist! Out there is the first non-Earth culture and people
we’ve ever encountered. I’m not going to insult them by refusing to
play along with this Engagement ritual of theirs.”
Jack gave up. It
would do no good to debate ritual behavior, the role of tradition in
culture, and sociobiology with his Captain. She seemed to be
automatically fighting him, and defending the wishful thinking of her
social dogma, rather than questioning the motivations of Aliens. But
maybe he could convince her to be a little suspicious. “Captain, just
what the hell are the Rules of Engagement?”
“Exactly!” Max said a
bit too loudly “Monique my love, you’re no diplomat, nor are any of us.
Let’s go home, tell the topsucks about this, and let them take the
Monique stiffened at the challenge to her authority and at
Max’s allusion to their relationship. “No! The dome and the Rizen
Aliens await us. There has been no assault on our ship, no threats,
nothing to warrant an unfriendly response by us. We’re going.” She
free-floated around to face the videye, gestured and Hortense restored
the vid-com link. “Link Destanu, please pardon the interruption. We
accept your invitation to meet your team in the dome. But if you don’t
mind explaining, what do you mean by Rules of Engagement?”
peered at them, its unblinkling black stare fixing on each crew member
one by one. The toothy mouth moved swiftly. “Why, just what I said.
Rules of Engagement mean the rules for how we Rizen and you Humans
behave toward each other. I think you call it etiquette, or diplomacy,
or some such thing.”
Monique smiled triumphantly, but kept her
attention on the Alien ship captain. “That’s what I thought. Since
there are four of your people down below, four of us will also journey
down. Is the dome atmosphere—”
Destanu. “Of course. We breath the same mix as you, at nearly the same
pressures. And our home world and home star are near duplicates of
yours. But come in your environment suits, if that reassures you and
Gail leaned over and whispered to Monique, who nodded
distractedly, then faced the videye camera. “Good. Our landing craft
will leave shortly. We look forward to meeting your people. D’Auberge
off.” The Rizen image blanked out. The Captain twisted in mid-air,
faced them, and put hands on slim hips.
“No arguments! We’re going down, the only question is who goes and who stays. Any volunteers?”
Everyone stayed frozen in their seats, except for Hercule, who raised a pudgy hand. “Me. I’ll go with you.”
nodded, then eyed Jack and Max at the back of the cabin. “The ship’s
Technologist and ship’s Engineer are excused from this trip, in view of
their archaic reactions. Gail, Hortense, Hercule and myself will leave
just as soon as our EVA suits are ready. Move, people!”
undid belt locks and free-floated out of the cabin. Jack was the last
to leave, unable to resist a glance back at the screen. On it hung a
globe-and-spearhead spaceship, its golden bronze color a striking
contrast to the reddish ices and snows of QB1. His gut still jumped.
His heart still raced. And fear nearly froze his joints. Would have
frozen them, except for the idea that had occurred the moment he saw
the Alien’s teeth, saw its body build, and decided not to believe what
he heard from either Destanu or Monique. Maybe he could help the
landing party, which would land unarmed, unwary, and at the mercy of
the unknown. Maybe.
Jack watched as Max closed the hatch
leading to the Lander, locked it down, then depressurized the launch
bay. Their four crewmates waved at them through the thick glass
porthole of the hatch, then entered the Lander, a box surrounded by an
Eight-Pack of chemfuel rockets. The Lander had enough fuel to land five
times on the Moon and over 50 times on the low-gee comet worlds they’d
visited in the last six months. Their job had been to check on Kuiper
Belt comets not locked into a 3:2 orbital resonance, to look for signs
of outgassing, for any evidence they might deviate from their orbits
and plunge inward as deadly Centaur groups. It was boring, simple work.
But it kept them busy enough not to get on each other’s nerves. And it
meant peace of mind for the Unity and a purpose for Charon station.
“You coming?” Max asked as he headed for the Spine corridor that connected the midship EVA module with the Pilot cabin up front.
Jack floated away from his wall-hold, kicked gently, and floated after
the ship’s Engineer. “Max, why didn’t you just tell Monique to kiss
off, start the Main Drive, and vibejump us out of here?”
dark-haired man chuckled. “Defy Monique? What an earthquake that would
have precipitated!” The stocky Engineer twisted in air, grabbed the
corridor handholds, and pulled himself along the Spine, heading for the
Pilot cabin and its bank of instruments that would keep them in touch
with the Lander—and with the Alien ship, if need be. “Anyway, Jack,
maybe she’s right?”
“I hope so.”
Jack noticed the man’s cloth
boots were dirty, the grip-threads half-filled with food fragments,
plastic debris, carpet fiber balls, and the shiny gleam of body fluids
that adhere to everything after six months in space. They enjoyed
thrust-gee only when leaving one comet and vectoring toward a new one,
a choice mandated by the need to stretch out their deuterium-helium 3
fuel. The spin-gee of the ship’s habitat torus helped some, but not
enough. This last month they’d all let personal hygiene slip a bit. Had
their judgment also slipped as badly?
“Jack,” called down Max to
him. “What were you doing with the EVA suit backpacks? They’re totally
fail-safed, like the rest of this ship.”
Tell him? Not tell him?
Jack felt his neck muscles tense up. “Just something I thought of at
the last minute. I don’t like our people heading down there with no
backup and no way to defend themselves.”
Max halted his upward drift
and looked back over his shoulder. “Jack, this scene has us all vibed
out. But Monique is competent. She’ll do fine.” He smiled reassuringly,
then twisted around and resumed his weightless climb up the Spine
“Sure.” Jack was less sanguine about the team’s chances.
No one from Brussels had loaded any First Contact software into the
ship’s computer. No one had fitted the ship with gas lasers or kinetic
kill vehicles or any of the stuff that had been used in the Asteroid
Belt’s rebellion against the Unity, back in 2072. No personal weapons
had come on board. They had nothing, except for the scientific
instruments needed on a deep space mission. He prayed and hoped they
would not need to resort to violence. While skeptical of the Unity’s
“We’re All One Happy Family” social dogma, he had no desire to revisit
war, or violence, or dead bodies. But the voice of his old cultural
anthropology professor at Vanderbilt still spoke in his mind, still
said—“Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and expect a mess.”
“Here we are,” Max said as they reached the Pilot module.
watched Max take his seat at the Main Drive station in back while he
floated forward to Gail’s Pilot seat. He strapped in, touched on the
front screen, and observed the image of a golden
globe-pierced-by-a-spearhead, now a hundred kilometers away and ahead
of them in equatorial orbit, as it floated above the reddish disk of
QB1. Jack keyed the external maser tube into search mode for the
Lander’s beacon, waited for acquisition, then punched in the vidlink.
“Monique, how soon to touchdown?”
The screen flared white, then the
Captain’s space-suited figure filled it. Her clear glass helmet hadn’t
yet polarized—no bright Sun to make it do so. Her pale lips thinned at
his informality. “Technologist Munroe, please observe ship procedures.
This is not the time for informality.” She looked aside, then back to
face him. “Our polar orbital track is nominal. In fifteen minutes we
land a half kilometer away from the dome. Until then—”
“Will you leave on the Lander videye?” he interrupted before she could switch off. “So we can watch your landing?”
Captain d’Auberge nodded stiffly. “Of course. I’ll keep my suit vidcam active as we traverse to the dome. Satisfied?”
them now? But surely Destanu the Alien was monitoring their com
chatter. “Satisfied. But please, keep your suits on and pressurized
even after you enter the dome.”
“Why?” Monique said, her tone suspicious.
Behind him, Max shifted in his seat as the Engineer leaned forward. “EU
rules for EVA on airless bodies mandate it. A precaution, Captain.”
“Agreed.” On screen, Monique d’Auberge turned away from the videye, moved to her Lander seat, and strapped in.
Jack exhaled loudly. “Thank god!”
“What was that all about?” asked Max.
“Nothing.” That was a lie, but a needful one. “Max, I’ll tell you all about me and my stupid idea when they return. Fair?”
“Fair enough, I guess,“ Max grunted. “Look, they’ve gone into landing mode. The Navtrack radar’s got them in a nice glide.”
watched as the Lander repeated what it, and some of the crew, had done
23 times over the last six months. Set down on the water-ice surface of
a Kuiper Belt comet, autocycle to emergency departure mode, power down
to maintenance mode, then exhaust air from the EVA airlock preparatory
to the geological survey work they did each time they landed. The
routine had been ... put down sonophones, embed small explosive
charges, move two hundred meters away, put down a radioisotope powered
transmitter that would send back to Charon the dozen or so geophysical
readings their sensors looked for, take a sample of surface ices,
return to the Lander, lock up stuff, leave the comet before setting off
the charges, confirm transmission of the sonophone readings that built
a subsurface image of the comet, and hightail it down the line to the
next big iceball. This time, the routine stopped with the
depressurizing of the Lander airlock.
He and Max watched as their
four crewmates entered the lock, cycled through, climbed down the
ladder attached to one landing leg, then bounce-glided toward the clear
dome that gleamed in the silvery starlight. From this distance, they
could see the orange-and-black striped bodies of Destanu’s ‘team’
inside the dome. And also the airlock set into the side of the dome.
Minutes passed as their friends coped with the comet’s extremely low
gravity. Then they stopped before the dome, looked around, observed the
distant shape of an Alien lander, and stepped into the large airlock.
It was big enough to accommodate all four of them.
the dome,” Monique said a bit breathlessly over the channel that fed
through the Lander’s com panel. “Air pressure checks out. So does air
composition. I think—wait, the Rizen aliens are lining up against the
far wall. Must be some kind of greeting ceremony.”
“Hey!” Max yelled from behind Jack. “You be careful Monique! You too, Hercule, you smart-assed Jesuit!”
suited priest smiled good-naturedly at Monique’s vidcam, waved briefly,
and then focused on the four unsuited, orange-and-black skinned Aliens
who had risen up on their hind legs, leaving two feet-pair suspended in
the air. “Hey,” Hercule murmured, “no booze, no chairs, no table,
nothing for our vibechat. Captain?”
“I noticed,” said Monique, her tone tense. “Jack, set up a piggy-back comlink to Destanu. I’d like to speak with him.”
reached over to Hortense’s com panel, tapped in a preset function, then
watched as the screen image split into two, one showing the team via
Monique’s vidcam, one showing the Rizen ship in low orbit. “Done,
“Link Destanu?” Monique called. “Would you please reply? We are in the dome with your people.”
local stars around the Alien ship blurred, the ship changed orbit from
equatorial to a polar track, and Jack suddenly realized the Rizen
possessed a gravity-pull drive able to move at right angles to its
apparent inertia. Before he could comment, Destanu’s sleek bulk filled
the screen. The Alien looked the same as before, but the assistant was
not present. “Replying, Captain Monique Catherine d’Auberge. Please be
patient. The discussion of the Rules of Engagement will commence
shortly. Tell me, you are inside the dome? You are ready to begin?”
“We are,” said Monique, sounding impatient. “If you would just tell your people to—”
“Watch out!” screamed Gail.
and black bodies flashed in sudden movement on one the split-screen.
They raced toward Monique, Gail, Hortense and Hercule, shark-mouths
“No!” cried Max.
Jack froze. Unable to move, he
watched as a Rizen alien jumped on one of his crewmates, slashed
through the suit fabric, then sank white shark-teeth into human flesh.
it off!” screamed Hortense, whirling into the center of the dome as she
beat at the Alien that had locked its mouth onto her midbody.
whispered Monique, then she turned and reached for the airlock
controls—just as the final Rizen hit her from behind. Red blood
fountained into view as severed neck arteries gushed redly. Her
shoulder vidcam twisted with her dying convulsions.
On the screen,
the vidcam arced past the still, wine-red bodies of Gail, Hortense and
Hercule, each the victim of buzzsaw teeth and a blood-spattered Alien.
The side split-screen that carried Destanu’s image showed him unmoving,
unreactive. As if he—
“Bastard!” Jack screamed over the ship-to-ship link. “Why! Why attack us? Why kill—”
“Shut up,” Destanu said coldly, turning to face Jack and Max even though the Uhuru sent no Pilot cabin image.
“Jack?” moaned Max. “Is she, is she dead?”
all are.” His mouth soured and Jack felt like vomiting. But maybe,
maybe, his last minute fix would work. If the air pressure sensor
Destanu opened its toothy mouth. “The Engagement is—”
dome interior erupted in yellow flames and white gases. On the tilted
vidcam image, orange-and-black striped Aliens puffed up at the sudden
loss of pressure. Orange fluid erupted from eyes, mouth and
hindquarters. The blood-spattered Rizen tottered, looked up as the dome
roof crashed down in slow motion, then all disappeared as the vidcam
melted from the thermal heat put out by the suit fuel cells.
Max slapped his back. “You killed them! How?” The Engineer now floated immediately behind Jack’s seat.
Man Switch,” he muttered, sick at heart, sick to his stomach with the
after-image of dead human and Alien bodies. “Set the fuel cells to
spark and blow the hydrogen they usually use during
electrolysis—whenever the suit lost pressure. Being near the airlock,
the blasts from four suits were enough to crack the dome.”
front screen, the orange-and-black striped body of Destanu looked aside
at some device, trembled suddenly, then it faced them. “So. The
Engagement is not yet complete.”
“Engagement!” Jack yelled, wishing
he held a laser, a knife, a mortar launcher, anything with which to
strike back for the deaths of his crewmates, his . . . his friends.
“You said you were diplomats. You said—”
Max sputtered more Polish curses. Coldness flooded over Jack’s skin. “Lied? Then, but—”
Destanu waved a taloned foot-hand at them. “The Rules of Engagement
have been observed. The new species has had the chance to assert its
right of survival through personal combat. Your team failed, though I
honor your treachery. What kind of explosives did you use in the suits?
We detected no chemical charges.”
Jack’s coldness seeped down to his
feet. He barely felt Max’s hand on his shoulder. “So this was all a
setup? You intended to kill us?”
“Of course.” Destanu sighed. “You
are so naive,” he said, his tone that of a Midlands country baron
trying to explain the Hunt to red foxes. “The Rules of the Great Dark,
the rules adhered to by all space-going cultures, are that we leave
juvenile species alone, so long as they do not travel beyond their
outermost planet. To waste Engagement challenge on immature ones is to
stain the Rules. But you have now traveled beyond your outermost
planet. So we invited Engagement. Tell me, will your species now
surrender to Pod Victorius, of the Rizen? ”
“Surrender?” howled Max. “Not on your fucking life!”
nodded once. “Stupid. But expected. You need to understand the proper
role of predator to prey. After we Rizen cull out a few hundred
million, your species will be healthier—and your home planet less
“Why? Why!” Jack yelled. “Why treat new species this way?”
paused. On screen, its orange-and-black skin plates rippled like a
snake moving toward its prey. “Why? In our language, the Rule says—Shna
tok torn, shna opp sem!” Destanu looked aside as a second Rizen entered
the room. “In your terms, only wolves travel star to star, never the
sheep. Did you think the Rules of natural selection do not prevail in
the Great Dark? That predators do not roam the Dark, hunting prey? They
do. We do.” The image blanked.
“Son of a bitch!” growled Max.
“Think!” Jack shouted. “Think! Weapons? Anything we can use for weapons? Max!”
free-floating Engineer wiped tears from his eyes, glanced once at the
screen image of a golden spearhead-through-a-globe, then sighed. “No
weapons. No real ones. Too far to toss survey charges at them. Too far
to do anything—”
“The maser!” He leaned over to Hortense’s com
panel, touched in new parameters, overrode a software caution, then
slapped the transmit pad. “Belt in, Max! We’re gonna fry them with
Max floated back and belted in at his Engineer seat.
“Good idea, bad physics. Remember inverse square law? Even a coherent
beam of microwaves loses power as the inverse square of the distance
traveled. In short, you’re down to one fourth the beam power at double
the initial distance. Ship’s reactor can’t power a maser beam across a
hundred klicks and still cook ‘em.” He touched an armrest control.
“Plus they’re diverging from us on a polar orbital track.”
cursed their very, very limited options. “Then we reduce the distance
and change orbit. Engineer, I need full power on the Main Drive. How
“Three minutes,” Max muttered, reaching up for the nuclear
fusion Drive controls as they lowered from the ceiling. “You really
gonna flash-boil them with the maser?”
“Nope.” Jack recalled
something from the Belt Rebellion, a ploy used by his Grandpa Ephraim
against a Unity freighter. “Something better. Judging by the
gravitational lensing of the starfield that just happened when they
changed orbit, they have a gravity-pull drive, maybe even an FTL
stardrive. I want it!”
“That I am.” Jack paused
to mourn the memory of Monique, Gail, Hortense and Hercule, decent
crewmates even if blinded by wishful thinking and a social dogma out of
tune with reality. “But I’m not stupid. Destanu said other Aliens
traveled the Great Dark. The Rizen are just the first to knock on our
front door. If we don’t take them out, others will come. Either we
defeat this ship, take its drive, and then go on the offensive, or
humans will shortly be indentured slaves.”
“I don’t believe it,” Max
said, then the heavy rumble of the Main Drive vibed the ship. They
moved downward and into an elliptical curve, chasing after the golden
bronze ship as both headed for the north pole of QB1.
Jack said. “I don’t know what the trophic structure of intersteller
space is, as in who eats whom, but we’re facing a classic case of
Gause’s Competitive Exclusion Principle.”
“Gause’s what?” Max growled as he built thrust up to one gee.
Hortie told me about when I talked with her.” Now that they chased,
cold logic and the details of someone else’s discipline flooded into
Jack’s mind. “In 1934, G. F. Cause concluded that two species so
similar that they compete for the same limiting resources cannot
coexist in the same place.” He paused, remembering something else. “You
know, the Rizen may be what the ecologists call a keystone predator.”
that means what?” Max said distractedly as he monitored the feed rates
of gaseous deuterium and helium-3 into the Drive module.
A chill ran down Jack’s neck. “It means they think they’re top dog around here.”
“Do they have ship-to-ship weapons?” Max said worriedly.
soon find out.” Jack relaxed into the weight of thrust gravity. “If we
can get close enough, I’ve got one trick that may take them out.”
the half-darkness of the Pilot cabin, Max chuckled. “If your trick is
anything like the exploding fuel cells, I’m looking forward to it.”
“So am I,” Jack whispered. “So am I.”
Destanu, Link of the Pod Victorious, appeared on Jack’s screen at 70 kilometers out. “We outmaneuver you, human. See?”
the screen, the starfield around the Rizen ship blurred slightly. The
ship went vertical, then curved out thirty degrees, keeping the same
distance, but making Jack’s vector match an impossibility. Leastwise,
at one gee thrust it was impossible to match something that bounced
around like a bumble-bee. “You scared?” he said over the open channel.
“The Engagement is still active, so long as we live. Isn’t that the
Destanu’s hide plates rippled. “So you’re not stupid.
Just foolish. Yes, the Engagement is open until one side or the other
surrenders, or all its members are eaten.” The Rizen nodded once. “I
prefer to eat you and your dark-skinned ally.”
“But if we defeat you?” Jack said. “What do we win?”
shark teeth chattered like ivory cymbals.
“That will not happen. But if
it did, your win means you survive—until another Hunter of the Great
Dark visits you. We are predators. You are meat, or you are our
“Fuck you.” Jack switched off and looked back at
Max. “I need something to keep Destanu from blip-jumping away just when
we get close enough for my trick.” He recalled Hortie’s doctoral
research subject. “Hey, Max, think you can fiddle Hortie’s com station
broadcast so the visual part of the signal transmits far-red light at
Max looked at him as if he was crazy. “Yeah. I guess. Why far-red and why that wavelength?”
watched as the Rizen ship widened its arc separation. “To make Destanu
suddenly sleepy. By entraining, or resetting, his biological clock. The
bastard said they evolved on a planet and under a sun just like Earth
and Sol. The expert software on the recorder says their internal
ship-light is a close match for our spectrum and wavelengths. So maybe
his circadian clock is photoperiodically controlled—like the internal
clock of humans, animals and plants.”
“What!” Max snorted with
disbelief. “You’re really reaching, but I can overlay the far-red onto
the vid signal. Hey—doesn’t it take a lot of time to reset biological
“It varies. Some plants bloom after a single exposure to
the photoperiod required for flowering.” On screen, the Rizen ship kept
just out of reach. “Hell, I’m betting their metabolism has enough
phytochrome Pfr to respond to the far-red signal. And I’m betting that
light is the reset cue, or zeitgeiber, for this animal predator. It
usually is, on Earth.”
“And if it isn’t?” Max said as he got up,
walked heavily under thrust-gee over to Hortense’s com panel, and began
modifying the AV signal.
“Then we’re no worse off than now. It’s all
a matter of timing.” He nearly choked at the bad pun he’d just
committed. “Next time we vibechat with them, piggyback the far-red
light spectrum onto the carrier wave and leave me to do the talking.”
Jack looked back at his ally. “The fusion drive—can you narrow the
exhaust flare’s cross-section? Make it hotter and longer?”
nodded, sweat dripping from his forehead. “Yes. Using the exhaust
magfields, but the modulation software will need new parameters.” He
left the com station and headed back for his Drive seat. “It’ll take a
few minutes, but it will give us a higher ISP impulse. We’ll speed up.
Hey—maybe we can ram them?”
“Not likely.” Jack ran over his Grandpa
Ephraim’s trick in his mind, wondering if it would work against this
ship, at this place. Then he realized Destanu was playing with them,
like a matador with a bull. “Max, can you flip us tail to nose when I
“Yeah, but we’ll continue spinning like a pinwheel.”
by me.” Jack fed in new Navtrack numbers, forcing the Uhuru into a
three gee turn toward the Rizen ship. “We’re 50 klicks out now. The
drive flare—how rad-hot is it?”
Max looked startled. “Crisp them? With the drive exhaust?”
Engineer grinned. “Nice idea. But we’re low on neutrons and high on
plasma gas that cools down to 30 Kelvin at 70 klicks. If we can get
close enough, though . . . ”
Jack nodded. “I’m trying.” On the
screen, the local starfield blurred and the Rizen ship blip-jumped
again, increasing the arc separation once more.
“So am I,” called
Max, sounding breathless from the increased thrust. “I’m tightening the
exhaust magfields. Whoa! This is gonna be one hot afterburner!”
Jack reset the Navtrack again, then smiled to himself. The fusion drive
of the Uhuru mixed deuterium and helium-3 gas inside a torus where the
magfield created a ‘pinch’ with a narrow enough cross-section to fuse
at 900 million degrees Fahrenheit. Feed in some more gas and the whole
mess fused into lithium-5, which instantly degraded to lithium-4, one
proton, and a banshee flare that kicked out enough ISP for them to
reach 20 percent lightspeed. It was a flare hot enough to melt any
metal, with secondary rad-showers as the metal vaporized.
“Jack!” called Max anxiously. “We’ve got to swerve sideways at the same time we flip over. Otherwise—”
we miss them, since they’re to our side.” Jack smelled the sweat-stink
of his armpits. “Remember to cut fuel feed as soon as the flare hits
the Rizen ship, otherwise we’ll pinwheel into our own exhaust.”
“Damn! I’ll set that up now.”
Jack’s hair stood on end at that close call. “Looks like the Rizen have no ship-to-ship weapons.”
“Or they consider it beneath their Rules to beam us.” Max’s own sweat odor filled the cabin.
“You ready to overlay the far-red wavelength?” he called over his shoulder.
Watch for my thumbs-up.” Jack locked in the scope’s image of the Rizen
ship, then touched on the AV carrier signal. “Destanu, why don’t you
stand still so my microwaves can fry your brains? Assuming you have
The Rizen appeared split-screen, with the ship on one side and
Destanu on the other. “We have brains. Enough to avoid any effort to
ram us.” Destanu motioned for its assistant to move back. The other
Rizen did so, but its mouth hung open, flashing shark teeth at its
intended prey. “And your maser is too weak to harm us, even close up.
Last . . . chance. Feed us or . . . serve uuus.”
Jack gave Max the
hand signal for the nose-to-tail flip. “Feed you?” he said, noticing
how Destanu had slurred his words. “We might give you indigestion.”
the front screen, Destanu and his sharky aide stood stock still, black
eyes open, their hide plates rippling autonomically, but acting
disoriented. As if their minds were elsewhere.
Jack watched as the
golden spearhead-in-globe drew closer. The Navtrack showed they would
miss the Rizen ship by 40 kilometers, the earlier vector changes far
too sharp for the Uhuru to match. But spinning head for tail was
apparently not something done by the Rizen, or done recently. The ship
did not blip-jump even when Uhuru’s nose whirled sideways toward them,
then dipped as the flip gained thruster speed. Nor did Destanu and his
“Yeah!” yelled Max.
On screen, the yellow wash of the
Drive flare enveloped the ship’s nose, then the CCD scope sensors
reached overload and the screen went black. Uhuru’s Main Drive shut
off, putting them in freefall.
Had they hit the occupied part of the
ship? Had the plasma of the drive flare punched through alien metal?
Had the secondary shower of radiation that happened every time plasma
hit metal added enough neutrons to the flare to make a lethal rad
dosage for the Rizen crew-members on-board? Jack would know once the
tail-to-nose flip brought the Pilot cabin back into line of sight of
the Rizen ship . . . assuming the Alien hadn’t blimp-jumped, or
launched a torp, or fired a gas laser or—
“Slagged!” yelled Max in a hoarse voice. “They’re slagged! All the way back to the globe midbody! We did it!”
We did.” Jack’s heart beat wildly. “Now all we have to do is wait for
it to cool down.” The simplicity of his words did not match the
churning of his empty gut.
The front screen flared with a vid signal. A signal from the Rizen! What? Weren’t they dead?
appeared in the static-blurred image, its body already red-welted from
too much radiation. Behind it, the body of its aide lay half in and
half out of the archway. Three of Destanu’s eyes showed the white of
new cataracts. “The Rizen are meat. You, you—” The Alien collapsed from
view, the screen image blanked out, and all that floated against the
reddish disk of QB1 was a scorched ship whose front end had melted
under the drive flare of the Uhuru.
Max’s wild whooping peaked, then stopped suddenly. “Hey, you wanna go salvage that ship?”
bent over and dry-heaved. When he was done, he grasped the rough hand
of his friend, and fellow survivor. “Yeah, we salvage. After all, we
humans started out as scavengers, graduated to two-legged hyenas, and
then forgot there might be a reason for all the wars we ever fought.”
The Engineer stared at the ship on the screen, then nodded slowly. “I don’t think we’ll forget again.”
better not,” Jack said, then altered the Navtrack for a rendezvous with
the Rizen ship on the far side of QB1, where its orbit would intersect
with their own ellipsis. “Wishful thinking has killed too many people,
here and in the Belt.”
“Amen,” muttered Max, then returned to his Drive controls, working to stop their tailspin.
wasn’t religious, not like Hercule Arcy de Mamét the Jesuit, nor even
like gruff and honest Max, who kept his copy of the Black Madonna of
Czestochowa stuck on the wall above his bed. But he was a descendant of
the Belter Rebellion, the kind of man who did not forget when friends
and shipmates died on his behalf. They would recover the bodies of
Monique, Gail, Hortense and Hercule, then head home to Charon.
they would move back out into the Kuiper Belt, even into the distant
Oort Cloud, hunting the Hunters of the Great Dark. Today had been a
skirmish. Tomorrow would be War, human-style.
Jack shivered, his regret over the passing of innocence a true thing. Still, humans were predators, not servants, never meat.
So his Grandpa had told him. So the Rizen had taught him.
He grinned hungrily. “Max, you want a steak?”