by Chesney Parker
Jeff Hains, bristling with anger, strode into the control room of the starship Endeavour. Lionel Lafftoon, bearing a frown of deep indignation, followed a few steps behind, having difficulty keeping pace with the big man’s stride.
Hains blurted out his grievance as soon as he saw the Captain at the computer. “What’s this about delaying the survey team?”
The Captain ignored him for several seconds while she finished reading the output from the computer, then she stood up and confronted Hains, eye to eye. “Discipline on this ship is becoming very sloppy. Have you no respect for rank?”
“Oh. I’m terribly sorry, sir,” said Hains, with heavy sarcasm, then he reverted to his normal, antagonistic self, “What’s this about delaying the survey team, sir?”
“Dr. Lafftoon believes he can establish communication with the aliens and needs time to implement his plan before anything is disturbed. That includes sending out the survey teams to map the area and search for technological specimens. If you’d been at the briefing this morning, you would have heard that proposal and you would have heard my approval of it.” She held his gaze with even tempered confidence.
“But I couldn’t attend the briefing this morning, I had to supervise the preparation of the survey equipment. I told you that last night!”
“And I told you, last night, you were not excused from the briefing,” said the Captain. Then she looked away casually at the computer, brushing a strand of long black hair away from her forehead.
“Anyway,” said Hains, “Those little critters out there don’t look all that bright to me. I doubt we’ll ever be able to talk to them.”
Lafftoon, who had been fidgeting in the background all this time, mopped the sweat from his eye brows and said, “Dear me. I really must protest at this. We’re supposed to be a research team and this is the most significant discovery since space flight was invented. It’s the first alien race we have ever encountered. We have to try and establish communication with them. Surely you must see that, Jeffrey. And as for their intelligence, I think you should leave that to me. I mean to say, I have the qualifications in that field, not you.”
“Bloody hell,” said Hains, under his breath. “Alright, how long is this going to delay my work?”
“Well,” said Lafftoon. “It’s a bit difficult to say, really. We’ve never done this before.” His chubby face creased up in concentration for a moment, then he looked up at Hains and continued, “No more than a month or two, I shouldn’t think.”
“A month or two?!” said Hains, advancing on the smaller man as if he was about to threaten physical violence. “You mean my team’s going to be locked away for two whole months? What do you think…”
“Now that’s enough!” cried the Captain, cutting him off. “The decision is made and you will abide by it. There are plenty of other things for the survey team to do while the Doctor here carries out his plan. I think we should try everything possible to establish friendly relations with our hosts. Aliens have rights too, you know.” She stood between the two men, hands casually resting on her hips. “Now, what do you plan to do, Hains?”
Hains knew she was challenging him to defy a direct order, but he knew better than to try something as stupid as that. She had not become Captain of one of the elite starships by accident. He knew she was fully capable of carrying out any and all forms of discipline, if she chose to. His shoulders sagged slightly as he replied, “I guess I’ll have to pack the survey equipment away and reassign the men to other duties for a while.”
“Good,” said the Captain. “Now, get about your duties; both of you.” She returned to the computer console and sat down, calmly ignoring their departure.
When he left the control room, Hains headed outside and gave instructions to his men to load the survey equipment back into the hold of the ship. While they worked, he looked out across the incredible scene in the valley below their landing site. The city was quite amazing, with tall spires and complex structures spreading down the slope for about three kilometres. And everywhere there was movement, as the tiny aliens scampered about their daily activities. They were funny little creatures with furry bodies, and bulbous eyes that seemed to operate independently of one another, often giving them a cross eyed appearance. They had six legs, the forward pair of which had appendages that could be used to pick things up and operate machinery.
But the thing that made Hains suspicious of their intelligence level, was their lack of curiosity. When the kilometre long starship came down through the clouds and landed on the plateau above their city, none of them came up to see what it was. And when the first contact team ventured to the outskirts of their settlement to get a closer look, the critters who saw them just frolicked around like children. And when the team left, none of the aliens followed.
But Lionel Lafftoon insisted they must be intelligent, because of the technology that was evident all around them, and Hains had to admit there was some logic in that. But, somehow, he still had his doubts.
It was six weeks later that he had his next major confrontation on the matter. He was still not permitted to send out any ground parties, so he had been concentrating on long distance aerial surveillance. He had been out in space, circling the planet in one of the small orbiters that the starship carried and had spotted a much larger city several thousand kilometres from their main landing site. He had also seen hundreds of the smaller settlements, scattered all over the planet, but none that equalled the size of the one he had seen that morning.
The senior staff and the Captain were now in the viewing room, watching the recordings Hains had made from space. “See that?” said Hains, pointing at the three dimensional image and freezing the motion. Then he walked right up to the holographic display that filled the centre of the room and cupped his hands around the object he had indicated. “That’s definitely an aircraft of some sort. We haven’t seen anything like that around here. And it’s huge — much larger than the Endeavour.”
The object he was pointing at was roughly cylindrical in shape, but very squat, with small round projections surrounding the rim at each end.
The Captain stood up and walked over to examine the image more closely. “Yes, I think you’re right Jeff,” she said, then she stepped back to look at the whole picture again. “How large would you say the city was?”
“Oh, it would have to be at least a hundred kilometres across, so there could be billions of inhabitants. But I’d really like to get a closer look at one of their aircraft. We could learn a lot from that. Let me take a party into the city here and I’ll see if I can find one.”
Dr. Lafftoon, who had been somewhat aloof up until now, suddenly stood up. “Absolutely out of the question! I haven’t finished my work yet.”
Hains slapped his hand against the side of his leg with a loud snap. “But we have to find out if their craft are capable of space flight. I mean, what if they followed us back to Earth? Besides, you’re making no progress at all with your communication efforts. You haven’t even managed to determine if they actually have a spoken language or not.”
“That’s not true! I made a breakthrough on that just yesterday. They’re telepathic; I’m sure of it.”
“Oh, great!” said Hains, waving his arms in frustration. “Do we have any telepaths on board? Do you have any idea at all how to approach such a problem?”
Lafftoon looked down at the floor. “Well, no, not exactly, but I’m sure we can work it out in time.”
“How much time? Another two months?!” Hains was shouting. He swung round to face the Captain. “Well? What’s it to be? Do I cool my heels while my little colleague here tries to learn how to think like an alien? Or are you going to let me get on with some real work?” His face was flushed and he looked like he was ready to hit someone.
The Captain looked at him for a long ten seconds, then said, “I’ll let you know at tomorrow morning’s briefing. I need to consider this new information carefully.” And with that, she walked calmly out of the viewing room, her tall slim figure cutting a confident swathe through the dimness.
But there was no briefing the next morning. Just before it was due to begin, the ship’s detectors picked up an approaching aircraft and the alarm bells began to sound general stations. The few people who were outside at the time, just made it back inside the airlocks as the visitor arrived. ‘Arrived’ was hardly the word for it, actually. The enormous craft came over the hills at the far end of the valley and swooped down at enormous speed, stopping almost instantly, directly above the city, which it dwarfed many times over.
Hains, now in the control room with the Captain and other senior staff, watched in awe as the gigantic cylinder settled slowly down to hover in a position level with the starship on the plateau.
The Captain, without taking her eyes off the overwhelming presence, said to her Battle Officer, “All screens to maximum power. Stand by at all weapons. No one is to fire without my express command.”
Hains leaned forward over the viewscreen, marvelling at the unknown technology that was keeping such a huge lump of matter suspended in mid air so effortlessly. There were no signs of any jet propulsion emissions or even atomic impulse reaction. “What a magnificent looking craft,” he said quietly. Then the screen went blank and the lights in the cabin dimmed as they went onto battery back up.
The Captain gasped, for all instruments on the control panel were now dead. Hains was about to speak, when suddenly an overpowering series of thoughts came crashing in upon his mind, causing him to hold his head, as if in pain. He looked at the others and could see that the same thing was happening to them too. The aliens in the other ship were communicating amongst themselves and the telepathic interchange was impinging upon the humans with devastating force. But the thoughts translated themselves into words in Hains’ mind with astonishing ease.
“What is the nature of the intruder?” said the words in Hains’ mind.
“It is alien, my lord'” said a second mind voice. “There are living beings inside it, and a primitive level of technology seems to exist. I have disabled their power source. It is no longer a threat to us and it is no longer protected.”
The Captain of the Endeavour turned to the Battle Officer, “The shields?”
“Deactivated sir,” he replied, having just spoken with his men via his personal communicator. “They’ve hit the main power supply, but the portable equipment still works.”
The first mind voice then shattered their attention once more, saying, “Do you suppose they are intelligent?”
“Oh yes,” replied the second mind voice. “Although they are certainly primitive, they have still mastered space flight and from what I can make out, they appear to have been trying to communicate with our pets in the city below.”
“That does not seem to be very intelligent, trying to talk to pet animals, I mean.”
Hains looked across at Lafftoon and a large grin began to spread across his face. “Lafftoon, you old idiot. You’ve been trying to establish communication with animals; with the alien’s pets!” Then he bust out laughing and his laughter was so intense that tears came to his eyes and he slumped into a chair, unable to speak further. Lafftoon, on the other hand, was not amused.
Then the second mind voice cut across all their thoughts, “Shall I destroy them, my lord?” Everyone in the starship froze in sudden terror.
“No,” said the second mind voice. “They cannot be too harmful if all they have done so far is to talk to our pets. And, besides, aliens have rights too, you know.”