1) Homeport Issues
The gods, too, are fond of a joke.
Gary entered the common room and threw his data packet on the table. “I’m telling you, for as exciting as I expected space travel to be, it’s boring as hell! All I do, every day, is study. I mean, I take frequent breaks to work out, trying to break the monotony, but the food is tasteless, there’s no damn entertainment, and the workload is a killer!”
“I know what you mean,” Delilah said. “The gym is nice, but the equipment clearly wasn’t designed for humans.”
“Speak for yourself,” Eli replied, smiling. “The educational opportunities are amazing. I’m learning things undreamt of back on Earth. I’m already miles ahead of the best minds back home, and yet, there’s always more to learn. We’re talking almost a thousand years of education just waiting for us to get to it all.”
“Yeah,” Gary groused. “Your brain was modified to learn new skills and analyze data easily, but for those like Delilah and I, used to frequent physical exertion, it’s frustrating. Hours of studying: languages, physics, chemistry, biology, history. I need regular exercise to keep my head on straight. Without working out, my mind gets overwhelmed and I can’t retain the information. I’m unable to absorb anything unless I clear my mind with exercise again. Months spent doing nothing but studying is wearing.”
“You should try a spacewalk,” Lamar teased. “Not only is it astonishingly beautiful, but you feel your place among the universe. With no nearby sunlight obscuring everything, the cosmos opens up like never before. To quote the movie 2001, ‘there are stars everywhere’.”
“It’s remarkable,” Be observed, “just a short time ago, you had a terrible lisp, making you hard to understand, and now it’s completely gone.”
“It’s not so remarkable,” Xi said, grinning. “We worked together to correct it.”
“But aren’t lisps more psychological than physical?” Theo asked.
“They are, but still, handling both at the same time speeds things up. Once I got his aids working on it, his confidence shot up and his lisp disappeared.”
“At least you could before we entered the Tandori system,” Mui replied. “While the views are still spectacular, we’re witnessing things unimaginable on Earth. This is the first foreign solar system, complete with inhabited planets, any human has ever witnessed.”
“Just be glad it isn’t more exciting,” Al quipped, entering the common room midway into the discussion, as he often did. “Unlike the rest of you, for me this trip was harrowing, faced with the potential for cataclysmic disaster on an hourly basis. If I made a single mistake, none of you would even realize it. Since the ship travels at near the speed of light, it’s impossible to travel and remain aware of what’s ahead of us. With our increased mass, hitting even a miniscule object would obliterate us! We’re traveling so fast, I barely have enough warning to determine whether we were plunging into disaster, with only minutes to change our forward momentum. I’m relieved to be out of open space.
“I’ll tell you, despite my assigned role in this, I’m not cut out for it. I was in college, studying a few hours each day and relaxing the rest of the time with few responsibilities. Now, I’m facing life or death decisions every moment. What’s more, while you’ve been preparing for the transition, I’ve barely had time to learn basic Tandori. Once we reach Tandor, I’m out of it. Since you won’t require me to anticipate anything, I’m crashing. The rest of you can deal with the bureaucracy on your own, but I’m only doing what’s absolutely required. Hopefully, they’ll understand what being an Intuit is like and not ask too much of me as we get settled in.”
The crew—what there was of it on the huge Tandorian ship—was composed of a ragtag group with little in common besides their non-human origin. Because of the tampering by the original crew, each felt a kinship with each other, but felt separated from the rest of humanity. Their foreheads and wrists were tagged with their Tandorian rank, but they knew nothing of their history until finally discovering the ship now taking them to an unimaginable land. Aside from knowing they were somehow different, they first realized their potential background when they developed new abilities, which only further isolated them from everyone else. Those talents derived from advanced nanotechnology injected into their blood as infants. It also promoted devotion to their partners—their ‘pair-bonded’ mates—and fealty to their captain, Al. Though, as everyone knew, he was worthy of the devotion through his actions, leadership and devotion.
He’d led them through their search for their own kind, aided by his sister Betty, or ‘Be’, who was able to detect and trace the others. But Al was the one who consistently anticipated dangerous situations, often narrowly escaping physical injury himself. When a rouge CIA agent, fixated on their apparent otherworldly abilities, took notice of them, the dangers they faced increased significantly. Al had risked his life, giving everyone else the chance to escape, only to be shot multiple times for his efforts.
“Why don’t you grab something to eat, baby,” Xi, one of his two partners suggested. “You look famished. You’ve lost so much weight, there’s hardly anything to hold on to anymore.”
Xi, the last addition to their crew, a physician able to detect distant objects, was the one who’d saved him after his shooting, using a strange Tandorian orb with amazing healing qualities. She’d joined Al and Betty when they realized she was the only one of them not pair-bonded. Sensing the loneliness it implied, given how close Al and Betty had come to breaking up, they’d invited her to join their relationship. She’d clung to them ever since, gaining the acceptance she’d never experienced before.
“Yeah,” he answered, rubbing his eyes, “that’s a sensible idea. What’d I ever do without the two of you watching out for me?”
The others remained silent as he stumbled out and into the dining area, but as soon as he was gone, Betty and Xi turned on them, pitching their voices low so he wouldn’t overhear.
“You don’t realize how easy you have it!” Betty confronted them with her hands on her hips and her eyes staring daggers. “Endless time to study, read, relax, exercise and make love. You don’t comprehend the strain he’s been under this entire trip!”
“She’s right,” Xi said, doing as they often did, alternating thoughts between each other, which would have been confusing if they didn’t all do it. “Al can’t spend more than a few hours sleeping. The only way he can is if we cut our speed to a fraction of light speed, which adds decades of additional flight time. As it is, all he can afford are brief cat naps, and each time we approach something, he leaps out of a deep sleep, panic written across his face.”
“Have you seen how thin he is?” Betty demanded. “I’ve never seen him this emaciated. While you whine about the inability to exercise, he can’t venture far from his post for fear he can’t respond in time to save us all.”
“As he said, you’re not aware of the time we’re traveling faster than light—multiple times faster, I might add,” Xi stressed. “But for Al, those times are harrowing. He’s terrified if he eases up and relaxes, we’ll either all die, or will never reach our destination.”
“Sorry,” Gary said, glancing glumly at Delilah. “We’re supposed to be watching out for him, but there’s really no way to protect him from himself.”
Delilah dropped her voice. “He’s like a man possessed. It wouldn’t kill him to get a decent night’s sleep once in a while.”
“You handle this,” Xi said, walking out. “I’m going to check on our man.”
Betty watched her leave, her thoughts returning to Al’s condition, before turning back on the others. “You may think so, but every hour he sleeps is dozens of light years. Why do you think no Tandorian ship has ever reached Earth before? Because it’s too damn far to make it in a single lifetime! Yet Al’s determined to get us there before you all lose your focus!”
“We’re really sorry,” Zita, one of their engineers, said. “We’re only … venting out of frustration. While Al’s continuously busy, the rest of us have little to do but gripe. We really didn’t mean anything by it.”
“When he finally makes it to bed,” Betty continued, “he can barely hug us before he nods off, and he never sleeps for more than an hour or two before he bolts out of bed again. When we do talk, he complains about his exhaustion. We rarely get more attention than a mere hug, because he doesn’t have the strength for anything more. Al’s put in his time getting us this far. Now that we’re almost home, the rest of you need to step up your game. As he suggested, you need to take the lead and let him coast as he recovers—whatever we may face once we arrive. As it is, he’s been sleeping almost constantly since we reached the outskirts of the Tandori solar system and could drop out of faster-than-light speed.”
“He’s sound asleep,” Xi told everyone, reentering the room. “I left him unconscious at a table, afraid to nudge him and accidentally wake him again.”
“What do you think everyone back on Earth is up to?” Mui asked, trying to change the subject back to something innocuous.
“It’s not worth considering,” Theo, their resident physicist, answered. “Since we expand space ahead of us while contracting it behind, allowing us to travel multiple times the speed of light, our months in space translate to decades at normal speeds. Even if we turned around midway, everyone we ever knew would’ve been dead for hundreds of years by the time we reached Earth again. For all practical purposes, Earth is history. We’re approaching our new home, and we need to learn everything we can in the little remaining time it takes to reach Tandor so we won’t be completely lost.”
“I can’t wait to meet our first Tandorians,” Etta, the resident biologist, exclaimed. “There’s so much more to absorb, and there’s only so much I can acquire studying dry textbooks, no matter how amazing the technology.”
“That’s just it,” Delilah said, echoing her spouse’s complaints. “We spend so much time unlearning everything, we hardly have time to acquire all the new details. I mean, learning to think in an alien language is one thing, but needing to pick up every associated language is overwhelming.”
“Do you need me to treat your stress again?” Xi offered, waving her ever-present red ball. It allowed her to activate and direct the various nanobots inside each, treating specific ailments.
“No thanks. It helps, but our problems are more fundamental than stress. While everyone else’s abilities were boosted to handle these new skills, we aren’t as well equipped. Our enhancements are our physical skills, which are more constrained within a confined intergalactic spaceship.”
“You’re not alone,” Betty complained. “I’m as lost as you are. If it weren’t for Xi, who has more time to study than the rest of us, I’d never cope. At least you have your spouses, but Al’s been so preoccupied, he’s been no help adjusting.”
“Thanks a lot,” Xi complained. “Don’t forget, I’m still a co-spouse.”
“Believe me, if it weren’t for you, I’d have jumped ship a long time ago,” Betty assured her.
“Ha! Good luck with that,” Kaci said, stretching her arms. “Traveling at nearly the speed of light through empty space, you wouldn’t last long. Your oxygen wouldn’t last, and there aren’t many habitable planets to refill along the way!”
“What do you think Tandor is like?” Zita asked before the bitching session degraded further.
“The ship reports scores of active star ships,” Theo said, his eyes sparkling at the wonders before them. As academics, Etta and his training and enhanced skills made learning everything easier than the others. “Considering everything we’re seeing, we’re dealing with amazing phenomena. Once we land, everything we experience will be brand new. You won’t have time to be bored again for years. Enjoy it while it lasts. Once we reach Tandor, everything changes forever!”
An alarm blared, causing everyone to jump and spin around.
“Incoming message,” the One, the ship’s Artificial Intelligence, announced.
“How can that be if we’re traveling near the speed of light?” Delilah asked.
“We’re not,” Al answered, stumbling into the room, glancing around. “We had to slow substantially to navigate the stellar debris.”
“The Tandorians employ multiple faster-than-light communication relays,” the One explained, speaking in standard Tandori. “That’s what the authorities are using.”
“Transmit the broadcast,” Al commanded, used to issuing instructions for the group over the past months.
“Foreign vessel Chi-lee-34785-9478, halt your approach. Remain where you are until you can be escorted in.”
The command, as harsh as it sounded, was striking. The accent was nothing like the training guides, and several of the Tandori words were almost unrecognizable.
“Is there an issue?” Al asked. “Our ship should be recognized and our IDs are valid.”
“Your IDs were valid, but haven’t been used in the last six-hundred and fifty-seven years. Who are we speaking with?”
“This is Al Collins, born on a foreign planet. Our ship was lost and adapted a new crew from the local population, which is why it took so long to return.”
“This is highly irregular. Many things have changed over the centuries since your ship departed,” the voice said. “We’re at war with an extremely vicious alien empire and can no longer trust outdated access codes. If you continue approaching, you’ll be destroyed. Halt now and await a military intercept!”
Al issued the necessary orders, which the One applied, while everyone else stared at each other.
“Not quite the welcome we were hoping for,” Betty surmised.
“I guess we should have expected things might change over so much time,” Eli suggested.
“Except, no ONE bothered to point out how long it had been,” Al said, invoking the name of their host.
“You never asked,” he responded, having adjusted to the odd human speaking traits and phrases. “I assumed you could handle the basic math.”
“We were negligent to overlook it,” Etta reminded him.
“I know, I’m just upset it never occurred to me. You’re right, it should have been the first thing we checked when we learned what we were facing. Instead, I assumed we’d been gone for over a hundred years, never taking into account the relativity-factored time difference.”
“So what do we do now?” Betty asked.
“We sit and wait and comply with whatever they demand. Our fate rests entirely in their hands. It’s not like we can return home, hoping no one will notice our disappearance. We’d be as unwelcome on Earth as we are here. At least we still have a claim to Tandorian citizenship. However, as we all know from our own history, these things tend to change during times of war. Previous lenient attitudes harden towards new immigrants. It might be some time before they accept us.”
“So what happens if they don’t?” Xi asked. “We’ve already been rejected by every home we’ve ever known. This is our last chance at acceptance. After this, our only option is wandering the stars, waiting for our reserves to run dry.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions. This is a much older, more experienced culture than Earth. They have a long and rich history of working with other species from foreign star systems. Surely this isn’t the first time this happened. If they were as likely to fall under the xenophobic pandering as our human counterparts, they’d never have advanced as far as they have.”
“Still, it reoccurs on Earth virtually every time a new war erupts, the economy sours, or people start losing jobs to changing technologies,” Eli said. “We’ve no reason to believe we’re dealing with saints here. After all, even they have their limits.”
“You don’t need to remind me,” Al said. “I’m trying to help morale, not depress everyone.” He turned, returning to the dining room. “I’ll let the rest of you worry about what we’re facing. I’m hoping to get as much rest as I can before we’re confronted. Since we’re at a complete stop, it’ll take some time for them to reach us. Hopefully I’ll be able to form coherent sentences by them.”
“Should we rehearse our stories?” Xi asked, glancing at the others after watching to ensure he made it to the other room safely. “This is my first time before an alien military tribunal.”
“No, we’ve broken no laws,” Gary advised, “at least knowingly. They simply want to ensure we’re not a physical threat. Surely, once they’ve examined our logs, they’ll realize the truth of our stories. We’ve no history of contact with any other alien races.”
“Should we erase anything from our logs?” Xi continued. “Say anything which may embarrass or make us appear less desirable?”
“Not knowing much of Tandorian culture, especially as it currently stands, we wouldn’t know what to change,” Delilah said. “I agree with Gary. What’s more, if we start erasing data, it’ll be viewed as a clear sign of guilt. Our best bet is to act innocently.”
“The famous last words of everyone ever railroaded,” Ivan pointed out.
“Incoming message,” the One announced. Everyone in the common room jerked to attention. They’d been waiting a long time, with nothing to do but worry about their future.
“Oh shit, they’re here!” Betty gasped.
“Calm down,” Al suggested, looking a little better although he was still emaciated. “It won’t help if we’re all panicked. Everyone take a deep, calming breath.” He employed the technique himself.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Gary asked. “We’re prepared to step in and cover for you. After all, you’ve been carrying us for too long already.”
“No,” Al sighed, running his hand through his hair, looking as weary as ever. “This is important. They’ll expect me to speak for the entire ship. If I don’t, it won’t look good for any of us. I’ve had time to recover. The mantle of leadership doesn’t come easy, and I never asked for it, but it’s not something one can simply shrug off, either.” Standing erect, taking another deep breath, he faced forward. “Open communications.”
A floating 3D-image of an alien appeared before them. He was dressed in a uniform, oddly shaped buttons over his chest, similar marks on his forehead to those their crew bore. However, his looks were so shocking everyone in the ship recoiled before catching themselves. This Tandorian was bald; or rather possessed no hair, feathers or coloration of any kind. Its skin was more similar to ancient dinosaurs or modern rhinos, with thick protective shells marking their most distinctive features. Its series of protruding gray ridges made for a fierce expression. Its ears extended from the sides of its head like conical shells, complete with cartilage spikes. They didn’t look anything like the crew imagined Tandorians would. He didn’t appear pleased.
“This is the Tandorian Authorities. Drop your shields, lay down any available arms and open your locks.”
“We’ve already done all three. We’re awaiting your arrival.” The image of the Tandorian official disappeared without another word.
“Outer lock number twenty-three accessed,” the One said. “Air evacuation ordered.”
“Outer door opened, five Tandorians entering airlock,” it stated a few moments later.
“Are they armed?” Betty asked.
“Of course,” the One answered. “It’s a boarding party.”
“You know, I prefer Earth’s artificial intelligence. Siri was much more pleasant,” she reflected. “I’m not sure I like the improvements that several thousand years brought. Let’s hope it’s improved over the intervening six hundred.”
“I’m guessing it’ll be a while before anyone’s terribly polite to us again,” Theo guessed.
“I suggest we make our way to the lock and wait,” Al suggested.
The group seemed dispirited as they stood, but they advanced, surrounding the main airlock and imitating Al’s stance: legs spread with hands held by his sides, about an inch from his thighs, clear they weren’t concealing anything.
As the door opened, five frightening alien creatures, waving unimaginable weapons, entered. The crew stood stock still, barely daring to breathe.
“Everyone is unarmed?” the lead figure they’d spoken to before demanded.
“We are,” Al answered. “This is the entire crew. You’re free to search the ship. We have nothing to hide.”
“Don’t worry, we will,” he assured him, motioning his men, who moved in different directions, apparently familiar with the layout of the vessel. The commander and one other remained, evaluating Al’s people.
The entire alien boarding party looked similar, with hard shell-like skin, four arms and long pointed fingers. As if their advanced weapons weren’t threatening enough, Al was sure they could easily pierce the humans’ thin skin with their fingers alone. They appeared sharper than daggers.
“Where are you from?”
“A small planet you’ve never heard of by the name of Earth,” Al said.
“It’s located 237 light-years distance,” the One answered without prompting, apparently more familiar with Tandorian protocol than the crew. “I’m transmitting the location now.”
“How did you end up in such a remote destination?” the commander asked. Al and his team had learned enough to recognize their uniforms. The marks on his forehead and wrists, like theirs, designated social structures which didn’t change over time. These were the first warriors they’d met. Al wasn’t sure whether the commander’s appearance was specific to his role, much as their own repair officers were, designed for the tasks they performed. Mui and Lamar’s physiques were customized to aid their work maintaining the ship outside its airlocks.
“We struck a space anomaly,” the One reported, a tale no one in Al’s crew ever thought to ask. They were also struck by how it didn’t wait for Al’s authorization before volunteering information. It occurred to them it was as nervous as they were. “We were unexpectedly thrown one eighty-seven light years off course, the ship heavily damaged. We located the nearest stable solar system, coincidentally containing both a habitable planet and a sufficiently advanced life form. Unfortunately, we lost too many of our crew to continue. It took decades to repair the ship, and longer to bio-engineer suitable replacements, at least ones who could keep from getting killed before they matured.”
“What was the rating of the lifeform?”
“The humans are K37a,” the One informed him. None of Al’s people had heard of the designation before, the letters being purely Tandori, rather than the English translation they heard.
“Enter the airlock,” they were ordered.
“Excuse me, but do you mind introducing yourself? We come asking for safe harbor, we present no threat. My name is Al Collins.”
“I don’t care, but my name is Commander XiTrechzl.”
“Can we take a few possessions?” Betty asked.
“Absolutely not! You are to leave everything behind. We’ll evaluate everything and return any we feel you may be entitled to keep.” He waved everyone forward with the muzzle of his weapon. They all turned to Al, uncertain how to respond.
“Come on, it’s not like we have a choice.”
“I’m sorry,” Xi declared, stepping forward and clutching her red ball. “But I’m not leaving my sphere behind. We have a long history together, and I’d feel lost without it.”
XiTrechzl sneered, especially frightening given the constraints of his hard outer shell, unconstrained by feathers, fur, scales or even skin. “It’s horribly outdated. Our newer models are smaller, meaning you could easily store substantial explosives in the available space.”
“I don’t care,” Xi insisted, unintimidated by the security team’s greater size and weapons. The rest of the Earth crew glanced at Al, but he and Betty moved forward, backing Xi’s demands, so the others did too, though they didn’t advance far. “It’s a personal relationship. I had it when I had nothing, and it kept us going all these years. Without it, we’d never have made it this far.”
The fearsome commander considered it, plucking it from Xi’s unresisting grasp to study it.
“We’ll need to examine it for contraband,” he warned. “The usual approach is to detonate it, destroying it. As I said, there’s little value in such antiquated technology.”
“When I get a replacement, I’ll consider it. Until then, I insist you at least keep it intact. I can understand your need to inspect it, but I won’t allow it to be destroyed.”
“I support her in this,” Al insisted.
XiTrechzl opened a satchel, dropping the sphere into it. “As irregular as this is, I’ll allow it. However, the ultimate decision isn’t mine. If my superiors insist, it’s beyond my control.”
“I understand,” Xi said, demurring and lowering her head slightly, still maintaining eye contact. “If it’s unavoidable, I can understand. Yet, I’d never forgive myself if it was destroyed unnecessarily.”
“With that taken care of, into the airlock. If you’re holding anything else, your lives are forfeit,” he instructed.
Nearing the airlock, Al turned to XiTrechzl. “What about space suits or IDs? Is there anything we’ll need when we arrive?”
“Your airlock is sealed. Security awaits your arrival. You have no authorization to be here, so you have no valid identification to present. Now move, before we forcibly remove you ourselves.”
“So much for our hearty welcome,” Betty whispered, trailing Al into the airlock and beyond. “I’m guessing they aren’t any more welcoming than our own parents were.”
“No talking! Keep your hands where we can see them and move slowly,” another Tandorian soldier ordered from the far side.