Pas de Deux (Variations)

The flipside of Entrée.

***

“We’ve got a tachyon surge from out past Kapumate,” Eliza said, spinning her chair.

“Wait, Kapumate?  Kapumate’s far side of the system from any of our jump vectors right now.”

“On screen.”  Eliza’s left hand splayed over controls, her implants setting the panel to flickering faster than an unaugumented Human could key in commands.  The holographic display surged to life, swept across the system fast enough that several heads turned away so as not to be dizzied, and refocused.

The gas giant occupied the front right corner of the display, greenish-blue and swirled with storms, its thin ring system clipping out of the edge.  A dull orange dotted line with an arrow on it marked the course of its orbit.  Past it, not far past, a cluster of dots, blurring and refining as Eliza worked her magic on the sensors to try to clarify the information.

“Any distress signal?”

“Nothing on the foldcom, we’re a bit more than two hours off any radio,” Eliza said, her hands still coaxing glows out of the controls.  “Trinh?”

“Sifting the news, got nothing,” Trinh replied, immediately.  “Are we talking pirates here?  Kuklos?”

Eliza twitched her fingers twice, pulling up information.  “They’re all little ships.  No carrier.  Probably not pirates.”

Domingo grunted, and reached out to touch a panel.  The strips of red warning lights flared to life, on the first level of alert.  “Ships have just come out of jump at Kapumate,” he announced into the speaker.  “Identity unknown.”

“Trying to get some sort of ID,” Eliza said.  “Having a hard time getting a match.”

The door slid open, people coming in, hitting chairs, taking up their tasks.  Nobody commented on the likely firepower of what was looking to be about two dozen ships, which were spreading out into an orderly pattern now as they glided deeper into the system.

There was no communication from the strangers.  A timer started counting down for lightspeed contact, whirring milliseconds slowly dragging down the other digits.

Again, the door opened.  “Captain on the bridge,” announced Domingo.

“Situation.”  Nobody would dare to be on a first-name basis with Captain Talasi, who was not only a Navy veteran but who demanded a certain level of protocol.

“Twenty-three bogies, inbound slow in formation,” said Eliza.  “No communication, timer for lightspeed is running.  Came in right near Kapumate.”

“Kapumate?  Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not anywhere near any standard jump endpoints, is it?”

“Not at this point in her orbit.”  Eliza refined her calculations, and the display fuzzed and then sharpened a little more.  “I haven’t found a match for their fly pattern on anything we know.  Haven’t ruled out anything.”

“Where could they have jumped in from?”

“Changing the display,” said Eliza, and the holographic display flickered and changed again, pulling up charts and lanes.  The blue-shaded expanse of friendly space came up to the edge of their green-tinted system, and beyond there was nothing claimed.   “From the gravity well angle where they came out near the planet I would guess they came from one of these systems.”  Three suns turned from white dots to red.

“Are they mapped?”

“Nothing habitable.  Gas giants and space rocks.”

“Could house pirates.”

“Or route something else through.”

The captain glared at the display.  “What’s the colony said?”

“They’re moving into bunkers, making sure everything’s as locked down as can be.  They’re scared, captain, there’s no escaping that.  They know a bunch of little ships probably isn’t pirates, too.”

Talasi scowled and nodded.  “What’s the central office say?”

“They passed the report on to the Navy.”

“Great.”  Talasi shook her head.  “Well, we’re here to protect the colony, and we’ll do our best.  Right?  Bring us around, we’ll break orbit and see what we can see.”

There was a ragged chorus of unenthusiastic assent, and the ship angled away from the planet, towards the fleet.  They moved slowly, cautiously, the lightspeed contact timer skipping seconds as they approached.

“Two minutes,” announced Domingo, in case anyone was unaware that the new datawave was imminent.

“Got my analysis systems waiting for the visual,” said Eliza in response.

“Cut acceleration, let’s coast while Eliza works her magic.”

“Three, two, one,” muttered Domingo into the silence on the bridge.  As the countdown hit zero, Eliza’s workstation flared in color, her hands playing over the control panels, making her look like a keyboardist at a concert.

“Fuck,” said Eliza.  “They don’t match anything.  They don’t match anything at all.  Captain, we may have a first contact here.”  The lights flickered.  “I’m not getting any radio, I don’t know how they’re communicating, that formation is precise and they’re reacting to space rocks and I don’t know how they’re doing it.  Ships like no design we’ve got in our records.”

She would have gone on, but Talasi said, “Full stop, give me a timer on how long it’ll be before they see that.  Trinh, put through an emergency message, we’ve got a potential first contact situation, make central escalate that to the Navy and get us a specialist team dispatched now.  Eliza, prep a quick datapacket with the evidence.”

“They’re not talking, how are they—”

“Eliza!”

That snapped her out of it.  “Ma’am.”  Her fingers flicked, sorting data, selecting it, all in an intricate dance of computer and enhancements.

“Tightbeam?” offered Trinh.

“Have to be very tight, but it’s possible.  But I’ve gotten nothing, no hint…”  She flicked the datafile over to Trinh, and leaned in, working to glean more from the information she had.  A ship image popped up on the display, thin and lithe.  “Each of those tiny things has a spinal-mount energy cannon, ma’am.”

“Defenses?”

“I’m reading minimal.”

“Who would build glass cannons like that?” The captain shook her head.  “Let’s wait. Get as much information as you can for the first contact team.”

They watched the counter slowly spin down to zero.  When it did, another counter automatically started, visual on the alien response.

“Tachyons!” said Eliza, about a minute later.  “We have another jump, we have… one more ship.  Larger.  Not a lot larger, if I’m reading this right.”  Another timer joined the first, and they were now designated ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’.

“They saw us stop and they called in their commander,” said Talasi.

“If that’s a command ship it’s still tiny.  It’s smaller than we are, captain, unless my sensors are entirely failing me.”

“How likely is that?”

“Alpha is consistent with tachyon pulse readings, captain.  If they’ve deceit tech they didn’t use it on the swarm.”

“Wire an update to central, what’s the news on the first contact team?”

“Nothing yet, captain.”

Talasi muttered something under her breath and approached the display.  “Who are you?”

Timelapse revealed that the alien ships decelerated, in eerie unison, approximately twenty seconds after they’d seen the Human ship stop.  After about ten minutes, a single alien broke formation and started accelerating towards them at speed, while the others waited to rendezvous with the slowly approaching command ship.

“Up the alert.”

Domingo started the alarm klaxon.  The alien ship – now marked with a gamma – gained its own counter: Time To Range.

“What’s the risk to us?”

“We can take out one of them just fine, but that can opener will hurt if it comes to that, captain,” he said.  “And they have twenty-two more, plus whatever the command ship’s got.”

“Anyone here got enough xenopsychology to guess what’s going on out there?  Suicide run?  Provocation?”

“They all know gamma’s coming, and they didn’t do anything to stop it,” Domingo said, levelly.  “Maybe their first contact protocol is to send out one of their little ships to see what happens to it.”

“Reckless with their people’s lives,” said the captain, rocking back and forth on her feet with impatience.

“Little ships with big guns suggest the grunts are disposable, captain,” said Domingo, with only the smallest quaver in his voice.

“Understood,” she replied.  “Keep the guns hot, but let them take the first shot, if they’re going to.”

They waited.  The alien ship game into firing range, and started to slow, bringing itself to a relative halt in front of them.

“Now what do we do?” asked Trinh.

“I’m still getting no sign of communication transmissions, captain,” said Eliza.

“What have you got?”

“Not sure what they’re looking for, but they must be watching the EM spectrum in general.  Probably tach sensing, so I assume they’ll pick up when we get foldcom transmissions.  They’re all engine and gun in there.”

“What do they breathe, any idea?”

“Can’t get spectrum off atmosphere unless they leak, and we don’t want to do that, captain.”

“It would be unfriendly,” she agreed.  “Give them a number sequence, running light flashes, center of our visible spectrum.”

Trinh said, “Fibonacci progression is loaded, now.”

Gamma was still for several long minutes.

“Her guns are powering up, captain.  But she’s… turning away?”

“We’ve got a shot fired!  Out of the ecliptic plane, no threat to us or the colonists on Laima.”

“Hold your fire,” snapped the captain.

“She’s still going.  Now we’ve… three shots.”  A pause.  “And another six.”

Trinh said, “Pulsing ten flashes now, captain,” her hands moving without waiting for orders.

“Explain yourself!”

“Triangular number sequence.  Ten is the next.  Told them we understood them.”

“They’re powering down, captain.”

“Well done, Trinh.”  Talasi huffed out a breath.  “Now what do we do?”

“Gamma’s approaching, captain.  I think they want to dock.”

“I… give them guidelights to an airlock, I guess.”  She was rather at a loss.  “We’ve got that much communication sorted.”

“I still don’t know how they’re talking with their command,” grumbled Eliza.

“Get me everyone who has a guess about xenopsych down to that airlock,” snapped Talasi.  “Let’s see what’s coming in.  Keep sending packets to central, Trinh.”  She opened the door and stepped off the bridge as Domingo’s voice rang out over the internal comms, saying, “Anyone with xenopsychology knowledge please report to the loading bay behind airlock four, airlock four.”

A few people were gathered in the loading bay by the time the captain reached it.  Eliza’s voice echoed over the comms there with, “Oxy-nit atmosphere, different traces than ours.  Probably compatible.  They’re suited up for vacuum. They’re short.”

The airlock cycled.  Someone was holding their breath.

Six suited figures, roughly humanoid, had wedged themselves inside, and stumbled out into the loading bay.  They looked around, and then the first one reached up and opened its helmet, revealing a broadmouthed and oddly froglike scaly face.  It breathed in deeply, and stared at them, its expression incomprehensible.

The other five, as if they had received a silent command, opened their helms as well, peering at the Humans with sparkling compound eyes.

“I guess this is first contact,” said Trinh over the speakers.

The lizard frog things stared at them unblinking, humming steady buzzing tones that seemed, perhaps, uncertain.  Then, the first one took a step forward, raised its arms, and began to dance, arms adopting precise movements, gloves straining to achieve positions, the hip-shakes at least clear enough.  The others stepped into formation, their movements awkward in the bulk of their spacesuits, supporting the lead alien like a chorus line.

Talasi blinked, several times.  “… It’s going to be an awfully long day, isn’t it.”

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