Back in Sol Again: Part 4

4.

And So The Story Goes

Still recovering from the epic symphony of failure to which she’d just witnessed, Lina hung from Simon’s shoulder, gasping for breath. She felt much less happy than she seemed, but there was such cruel irony in the occurrence she couldn’t help but laugh. Simon took it in stride, mostly through utter shock.

Before he could recover, the ships intercom boomed, Doctors Beaumont and Corben; report to the Bridge A-SAP.”

Simon was still in shock, but Lina dragged out the door, promising to help him clean up in time. It wasn’t until he reached one of the ship’s countless elevators that he found his feet again. He stared in shock at his newly formed memory, shattering the silence somewhere between floors.

“It was a perfect storm. Just… total destruction of everything.”

Lina snickered uncontrollably, “Simon, it was sweet. I appreciate the effort. But you’re in shock. You need to be careful. You might have trauma. Try to breathe.”

Simon managed only half a glare through his confusion. It faltered; even busting his chops she was cute. Even doubled over, face contorted in hysterics, she was beautiful. He wanted her– even though she was a smart ass– because she was a smart-ass, he wanted her. Even though he was certain he’d ruined any chances with her, he grabbed her hand, held it.

And even though she needed almost unfathomable control to do so, she managed to composed herself enough to kiss him. Again. And Again. And again.

Soon their tongues were tied. Her hands clawed his arms. Her lips led his. Part of him decided he was dreaming. The rest of him dissolved into her, feeling only her warmth and tasting only English- sweetness. Somewhere in the distance, Simon felt the elevator stop. He didn’t care. He was where he wanted to be, never wanted to leave. They were two become one, an entity joined at the mouth, incapable of surviving anything but the next few moments but not caring for anything more anyhow.

The grinding stone of someone’s cleared throat parted them. A small crowd stood before the open elevator. At one side, Rearden’s optical sensor glinted as if it were an eye bulging at his stupidity. Niala fought with all of her might to keep a straight face. Donnelly frowned. Ingstrom’s slit-like eyes narrowed more than usual. A few others glared with embarrassment or outright hostility.

In that moment of frozen mortification, the assembled animals themselves must have remembered the Humans had seen them do the same and worse for countless eons, because almost immediately Ingstrom’s glare turned away. He led the group from the elevator; Lina and Simon hesitated, hid their eyes, then followed after them.

Homer’s Bridge was divided into three levels like descending risers. The lowest level, at the forefront, met a forward wall with flatscreen, ultra-high res monitors center on it. The digital viewports were connected to external cameras to give the appearance of windows. In reality, the monitors were sold the illusion of space to fight claustrophobia without compromising hull integrity.

While the F-Drive never actually required moving beyond sub-light speeds, sub-light speeds themselves might destroy the entire ship if a micro-asteroid punctured a window in the moments before the ship’s EM-shields rose. At that, Homer was far from a warship but hardly defenseless. Contact had taught that, of the possibly infinite species in the universe, at least some were hostile.

Leaving Sol was difficult enough, for the crew especially. If Homer were bombarded, they deserved some assurance against vain death. As a result, Homer had a weapons officer, a fleet of pilots and fighters, a series of thirty-foot railguns, a hundred batteries of plasma launchers, and a minor contingent of EMP and Particle missiles.

For the most part, the weapons were never meant to be used, but seeing the Canine, fighter-fleet Commander at the briefing table meant Simon knew something deeply serious was happening.

Approached the briefing table from the upper-most level of Bridge-risers. The comm-section there, for inter-ship communications, was linked through to external transmitters as well while the actual comm-room remained a few floors below. It alone was as large as the Bridge itself, and filled with countless maintenance bots, techs, and servers, which ran everything from ship-side internet and intercoms, to external quantum-communications.

Presently, the group gathered around the large table. Its center, an oblong piece of glass, engaged a relay from Comms at the command of Ingstrom’s claw. The relay covered half the large, touchscreen panel, stealing Simon’s breath. He gathered through his peripheral vision he wasn’t alone. Only Ingstrom seemed unaffected– possibly Rearden as well, but it was hard to know.

Given the nature of what lay before it wasn’t surprising. They stared dully, Simon with them. He felt more dull than they looked, but also felt less alone in it this time. Everyone was glassy-eyed. The entire Bridge had gone silent in a moment no-one present would forget their entire lives.

Before them was Gliese 876-d, an exoplanet intended for scan mid-route to the deployed, orbital outpost nearer the system’s sun (Gliese 876.) Like Earth, these exoplanets were assumed most capable of harboring life within the targeted systems. PCb had been one. G876-d had been one. Most of the crew, both planning and executing the expedition, had no real belief nor hope that either planet, nor the myriad of others to be studied, would contain life.

G-876-d was merely scheduled for a fly-by to capture information regarding the planet’s supposed volcanic activity. Given minor geological similarities to Earth, there were questions about what might happen to the latter if overwhelmed by in such a way. Homer’s intention to activate an outpost in the empty space between orbits of 876b and 876c, meant jumping to the system’s outskirts nearest 876d. Though two days still remained to rendezvous with the planetary orbit, Homer’s long-range sensors had been scanning the system, its planets, and its mother stars for information to ensure a safe journey.

On the touchscreen glass, across the table’s center, were the fruits of this thus far day-long scan. G-876-d was a small planet in a procession of stars on one area of the screen. Comprising the rest of it were a series of block-boxes of varying sizes. The first in line captivated the group most.

Ingstrom began, the old Gecko’s voice like an elderly freight-train rumbling cross-country on freshly-oiled bearings, “Thirty minutes ago, communications located this on our long-range scans.”

It was clearly artificial, dense enough to be stone, and arranged in too logical a way to be naturally occurring. It appeared like a series of blocks stacked in an orderly assortment. The stone was merely a 3-D wire-frame render, but the crew sensed its artificiality. Even as minor doubts arose for posterity’s sake, Ingstrom erased them.

“It is artificial,” the freight-train confirmed. “And it was created by this–”

A grainy image appeared, taken from one of the ship’s telescopic cameras meant for distant observation; Homer had many such instruments, being foremost a scientific vessel. Simon knew this but didn’t forget the Canine across from him. He studied the Fleet Commander, whom studied the image, no doubt evaluating the difficulty of killing the creature there– the creature that had stacked the blocks, that was now the third confirmed life outside Sol and the Zelphod.

Simon didn’t entirely blame him for worrying; the creature was shorter than the average Human, but stocky, thick skinned, intimidating. Simon had seen similar epidermal plating on some of Sol’s evolved animals, but his mind was drawn to the now-extinct Rhinoceros. Then again, he’d never seen a Rhino with bone-plating.

There was no doubt of its origins or purpose. More than likely, the bone-plated armor was resistant to enormous blunt trauma, possibly even conventionally bullet-proof. The reason they’d been called there was obvious; Ingstrom begrudgingly recognized the importance of the event, needed Simon, Lina, and Niala’s expert opinions.

Before Simon could think further, Niala’s intelligence was already earning its keep. “Given 876-d’s volcanic activity, and the atmospheric readings, we can assume the species is O2 tolerant, likely has excellent low-light vision, and most probably lacks any conventional sense of smell.”

Simon noticed, a distinct lack of any sort of usual, olfactory senses. It also occurred to him how utterly alien the creature was, would be. He could think of nothing to compare it to, really. Only things to compared parts of it to. It was as utterly alien as the Zelphod had once been.

Thoughts of First Contact hung heavy above the room, though no-one wished to admit it. Everyone knew they were as likely to be greeted with a hand-shake as a knife. Even if experience said only the latter, hope wished for the former.

“Let’s assume they aren’t hostile, for a moment,” Simon said, eyeing the Canine, whom stifled a snarl. “First contact protocol dictates we attempt cautious interaction. If it is not received with hostility and-or hysteria, we then attempt mathematical, followed by non-verbal, communication.”

An aging female Raven named Iris, and distantly related to Dr. Edgar Frost, former head of the ISC, fluffed out her chest and shuddered with a fearful chitter. “If you can guarantee my safety, I will attempt any non-verbal communication necessary. But I refuse to risk my life until we know more.”

“There will be no risking of anyone on my watch,” the Canine said, snarling more than ever.

No-one does anything without my direct authorization,” Ingstrom rumbled, eyeing Niala.

“Captain, if I may?” Lina said, more shyly than Simon had seen her. All eyes turned to her. “Perhaps we should send a shuttle to scout the planet before communicating.”

“Too risky,” one Human said. “If these scans are anything to go by, they’ve at least managed some sort of radio-system, however agrarian their society.”

Niala said, “The average temperature on this planet ranges somewhere near 650 degrees celsius. No Solsian can withstand that temperature.”

“To say nothing of the shuttles themselves,” another Human added.

“Which is precisely why we need to continue scanning ‘til we reach orbit. Then we can decide on a proper course of action,” Simon suggested.

Lina considered it, and against her better sense of public decorum, agreed. “Simon’s correct. We need more information. We should study as much as we can until making orbit, then report to the ISC.”

Surprisingly, Niala agreed too. “If we aren’t careful, we could cause bigger problems than the Zelphod. We could be worse than them. None of us want that.”

Even the seemingly blood-thirsty Canine winced with shame. Ingstrom noted it. “It is no-one’s decision but mine.” Niala’s eyes hardened. Ingstrom surprised her too, “But I will take it under consideration. Matriarch, you and Rearden are to return to comms to relay this information to Sol and consult them on a temporary orbital outpost. We have components enough for two, ensure it counts.”

Niala nodded, immediately headed for the elevator. Ingstrom focused on the Canine next, “Commander Jarl, I want your squads in the simulators running maneuvers. I will do the same with my Bridge gunners.” Simon looked ready to protest, but Ingstrom cut in. “We must be prepared for any eventuality. That includes you, Dr. Corben. I expect you and Dr. Beaumont to divide your time between communications and engineering. I want our scanners augmented in any way possible, and our engines prepared for maneuvers, F-drive included.”

Simon sighed deeply, but headed off for the elevator as Niala had. He entered it beside Lina and launched downward. The awkward silence between them was broken only by with swish of passing floors. If Simon hadn’t known better, he’d have thought the woman beside him detested him through the silence.

On the contrary, Lina was captivated by her own thoughts. They’d just found the first alien life outside the Zelphod. This stocky, bone-plated species from a planet as akin to hell as anything outside a star could be the next Solsians or Zelphod, given how things went. Certainly no-one wanted another interstellar war, but some people were foolish enough to forget the true tolls of it.

Simon sensed her silence wasn’t about him and relaxed. The information relayed was overwhelming, to say the least, but it was relieving in a way. He couldn’t help feeling as if the expedition finally had a purpose. Before, they’d been wandering, scanning, exploring for the sake of it. Now, they were to be ambassadors to a world and people so radically different from theirs he couldn’t begin imagine it.

Most of all, he was no longer angry about being torn away from his date. Nor indeed, at the madness that had taken place directly before hand. It was enough of a good day for him without ever remembering the elevator make-out session– it got even better when he did.

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