Mataan had been socially castrated before her security escort, Captain Melchondo, and Niala at Snow’s hands. That she’d been willing to show herself at all after was a tribute to her character. There was no denying the undercurrent of resentment present, but some part of Mataan had become less rigid. She elected to use the personal exposure to better facilitate communication rather than stonewall those around her. At that, everyone currently on-site was present, prisoners excepted.
“I have reached a decision regarding how and when to make contact,” she began almost ceremoniously. It was discarded. “As Snow so graciously pointed out, it is best we not shit where we eat.” No one dared laugh. “In that spirit, and as Ambassador from Sol, I believe it in everyone’s best interests to make contact and admit the truth of our position.”
Niala was concerned, “Madame Ambassador, are you certain that’s wise?”
Niala stiffened. “I take it you mean you wish to inform them of our… precarious position.”
“Indeed,” she said with a slight regality. The question as to her wisdom was unanimous. Mataan rebutted, “Would you rather Anti-Humanists soil our first contact by moving against them? Or have the knowledge later arise that we knew of the threat and did not warn them?”
Whoever she was, personally, it was clear Mataan was Ambassador for a reason. She had a clarity even Snow marveled at. Spitefully of course, but marveled nonetheless. More than that, Mataan had foresight. For any politician, that was worth preservation.
Indeed, for yet another universal truth is the corruptive and lobotomizing affection for power; or simply, corrupt, lobotomized politicians. Mataan was one of few, precious diamonds in that rough.
Or as Snow later put it, headed for the storage room; “Got two sets of balls, for sure. Had anyway. Seems I took the smaller ones.”
Simon sighed dully, tongue half-out in exhausted dismay.
“If Madame Ambassador’s instincts are half as good as she believes, we may come away from this with an ally.”
Simon was less hopeful, however dulled, “And if we start another interstellar war?”
He shrugged with an odd candor. “Frying pan. Fire. Sol knew this risk and sent us anyhow.”
Simon raised a brow at the tacit admission of collusion but sighed, “Let’s get it over with.”
He still wasn’t sure how he’d been picked for meal-detail. Snow made a certain kind of sense: he was strong, quick, and the captives already knew he was here. Mataan’s security or Melchondo’s crew might’ve been regardless of Mataan’s presence, but the prisoners still better off unaware of their true numbers.
Personally, Simon couldn’t remember his job description anymore. It’d been too many years. One too many knocks on the head. ‘course, the minor, subtle changes of his job itself made it impossible to know it word for word. It wasn’t really important anyhow.
However, he was certain nowhere in it was the phrase “Feed Alliance Prisoners.”
He might’ve been irritated could he feel much, but since the Ambassador’s arrival, he’d been incapable of sleeping. Amongst others, one security officer currently residing in the bunks with he and the others was Emile Cantu. He was an otherwise respectable hound, job clearly an extension of his typically-loyalist, Canid personality. Simon was pretty sure he loved him– platonically, of course, the rest otherwise reserved for Lina.
The problem was:
It was awful.
Evidently no-one else minded. Simon wasn’t sure how. Only during the deepest of sleep did it arise, but Simon couldn’t stand it. It jarred him awake, shredded his dreams to jagged reality with an angle-grinder that cut rebar beside his head. In fact, he was sure he’d have slept better with that than with Cantu’s long, deep fractures to the fabrics of space and time. Simon was convinced nothing short was occurring, nor could occur, to cause such violent disruption.
He was left exhausted. Slow. He’d have been outright pissy but between maintaining the station, trying to repair Rearden, and trying not to collapse, he had nothing left. He ate during repairs or maintenance, spoke to Lina over them, but was otherwise watching, reading, calibrating.
Or trying to sleep.
In the four days since Mataan’s arrival, he’d gotten somewhere on the order of sixty-eight minutes of sleep. It was unnerving. Dangerous. He’d done all-nighters in grad school, rushed off to exams afterward still awake, but this was crazy. He needed sleep. For everyone’s sake. If he didn’t get it, he was likely to kill someone. Indirectly, or through a somnambulistic rampage. Only time might tell which, even if he hoped for neither.
He managed to escort each prisoner out with Snow, one-by-one, let them eat before heading back to monitor power. Before he could even sit down, Mataan was in the room, requesting he aid her in control. The next hour was spent troubleshooting an interface malfunction. For over an hour he sifted system logs, checked hardware statuses, and ran or re-ran diagnostics. In the end, the cuprit was a toggled setting on a hidden section of the UI.
The dreaded Techie Plight had caught him without his knowledge.
Part of him hated Mataan for that.
The rest took solace in the fact that he’d likely caused the problem himself, when flying over the console to tackle Rhein days earlier. No-one had used it since, but now was the time it was needed… and failed.
He slank back toward the power room, eyes half-closed. His brain discerned only vague shapes; blobs of various, metallic neutrals smudging into one another toward the power room. He flopped into his chair, hands working mechanically to grasp Rearden’s encased figure. Before he knew what happened, he was asleep.
Under the console. Clutching Rearden’s incapacitated figure as a child with a plush-toy might.
There, Lina eventually found him. Six glorious hours later.
She’d been preoccupied meeting with Mataan and Niala, and helping Melchondo and his limited crew examine and maintain their ship’s systems. It was trivial for someone as well-versed in tech, and as such, she’d readily volunteered for anything outside the monotonous rhythm.
She stepped into the power room, “Simon, I was–“
She rubbernecked the room, catching the faintest whistle. Her ears strained for it.
She followed its rhythmic emissions beneath the console, found Simon. He had all the hallmarks of a child sleeping: drool along a corner of the mouth; a hugged robot in one hand, labcoat-blanket in the other, and completely dead to the world. The only thing that might’ve cemented the image further was a sucked thumb and a onesie.
His obvious exhaustion had claimed him so thoroughly she thought not to wake him, but her presence was more or less detected. He rolled toward her, head on Rearden, suckling back drool and wiping his mouth. His eyes fluttered against harsh-light, snapped shut again.
She knelt beside him, “Tired?” He grunted an affirmation. “I see that.” He grunted again, depressed. “No choice, huh?” He grunted a negative. “You’ve no idea where you are, do you?”
“Hmm?” He finally opened an eye to look.
Utter confusion reigned first. Then, his mind clawed into recognition. He knew of the power room, but it was different somehow now. Curiously tilted. Askew. His eyes fought for purchase. He knew then that gravity, however artificial, had made a fool of him again.
The second thing he recognized was the small, flexible optical sensor curled toward him from Rearden below. The incapacitated bot gazed dully at him from the curled sensor with no more life than a plush toy.
The final thing he came to recogonize– almost instantly with the first two, was an agonizing pain in his back and legs. It spawned from his neck, shot down through wrenched, knurled muscles, matched only by the stink he then fourthly recognized as his own.
He couldn’t help but cringe at himself. Then at pain. Then his surroundings. Then, finally, at the reality that encompassed them.
He was suddenly awake. He sat up. Banged his head on the console’s underside. Howled pain. He rubbed his forehead, slid from beneath the console. Lina fought back snickers.
“Funny, huh?” He asked sarcastically.
She smiled behind a hand. He stuck out his tongue in response.
“Careful,” she prodded. “Might get it stuck in an airlock.” He pushed himself up as she finally continued where she’d first began, “I was told to bring you to control.”
His shoulders slumped automatically, “Fine. Might as well get it over with.”
“They’ve made contact.”
He was suddenly pale. His spine turned first to jell-o then to steel rebar. “They made contact without us!?”“
“No,” she calmed. “Not– Just c’mon.”
She drug him toward control. He wouldn’t have needed to be drug but his body had suddenly lost proper connections to its brain. Until now, he’d half-expected the expedition thus far to be some sort of fever dream. He couldn’t explain why, but he did.
In that moment, all he knew for certain was the Solsian history of First Contact… and the war that followed. And that he was suddenly being asked to be part of a First Contact delegation. And that He shouldn’t be. And that he knew that.
And above all, he knew that given his penchant for foot-in-mouth disease, and his unyielding lack of social and physical grace, there was no-one worse suited for the job.
Then again, he wasn’t sure anyone aboard was suited for it. Snow was an asshole. Niala was too unpredictable. Lina was almost as bad as he. Even Mataan, though proven graceful, could be easily inflamed given proper fuel. All that, to say nothing of the Anti-Humanists, Mataan’s security detail, or Captain Melchondo and his crew– all of whom were technically even less qualified than Simon.
Yet, he still found himself standing behind the main control-console, the rest of the unqualified present. The largest vid screen stared at them, blank, but waiting. The eerieness common to Humans at the cusp of profound moments came about Simon and Lina.
As noted, the Human species has a fickle reaction to profundity. This fickleness no doubt contributed to the madness of Zelphod First Contact. Those present then were equally as unqualified and prone to foot-in-mouthness as Simon, possibly even less so. No wonder it turned into interstellar war.
Not the greatest combination to foster peace and hope in the Galaxy.
Mataan stole his attention before he could think further, “We received this ten minutes ago.”
She lifted her hand to key a console. Simon cut in, “We!? They made contact with us!?“
Mataan glared. “Watch.”
A vague image of what they’d seen before appeared on-screen; Stocky, muscled, and the color of tanned leather. The humanoid-creature was clearly armor-plated beneath its sparse, dark-metallic clothing, it spoke with the sort of guttural quality of a creature without olfactory openings, or of one with clogged sinuses.
“People of Sol, I am Ramla; First Matriarch of Vursara and Starborne Ambassador of the Vuur. Our Sages have foreseen your arrival. Now that our peaceful intentions are declared, and that we are certain of yours, it is my honor to welcome you to the Orbit of Vursara.”
“They speak English!?” Simon blurted.
The room shushed him at once. The creature continued on-screen, unabated. “–of importance. It is known to the Vuur you have found us as incidentally as is possible for the space-fairers you are. I am certain we have much to teach one another. Indeed, much to learn from one another.
“Under the Sages’ direction, several of us were prepared for First Contact. We know much of you, but not all, via the shakey, psychic power the Sages possess. Though some of it is likely misrepresented, we are fortunate enough to have learned a good deal of your language. Thus, we need not burden each other with the confusion common to new species.
“In the hopes of timely replies, we have sent a communication frequency. Our transmitter and receiver, though crude, appears to functional nominally. Please forgive any difficulties in the matter. We eagerly await your reply. May peace reign!”
Ramla’s bulky arms rose skyward as if praising the sun. Then, her hands met and her head bowed, as if a bird in full dive with its wings pinned together behind its back. The image cut out, returned to the idle, black screen.
The room was silent. No one breathed. No one moved. The moment was historical, profound. All Evolved life present sensed the Humans’-discomfort. It wasn’t their fault; they’d adapted too well to the retrospective disappointment they formed upon greeting new peoples– mostly, by just being disappointed in themselves to begin with.
But something more had frozen them all now. Whether or not anyone else knew what, Simon knew it exactly: the Vuur knew of them, had taken great pains to communicate an offer of peace and friendship as their first act.
And now the Solsians would be forced to reply with Anti-Humanism.