The previous was pretty horrible. I trashed it and started over. This works better – more stuff happening now and less info dump.
Lee was strapped in watching the big plot screen above the physical view ports. There wasn’t much to see through the ports unless they were near a planet or station. Just a few dots of the brighter stars even though the bridge had subdued lighting. Nevertheless they had yet to find a starfaring race who chose to be sealed up inside their hull with only a view screen or radar to look out. As good as electronic had gotten, and better every year, screens failed. Power failed. Cable shorted and cameras got destroyed. Nobody wanted to picture themselves in a hull turned blind coffin. They had just met a new race with kilometer long ships of unimaginable capability and on the front of their vessel they still had plain old viewports, despite their superior technology.
They were on run to first jump to go back home after a long voyage of discover that was very successful. They started out from Derfhome seven months back finding a water world and two major sources of metal along the way. Nobody was going home poor even on the smallest shares. They’d found one race barely past the point of lofting satellites and still confined to their star system. They hadn’t been agreeable to trade and were so disagreeable there was no point in landing. It could only be trouble so they’d left quickly.
Their next find of sentient species had gone much better. They found the frontier world of a whole group of races in cooperation and trading with each other. The world, Far Away, at which they stopped was dominated by the race they called Badgers. There was also a large number of a race they dubbed Bills and a few examples of other races, some of which didn’t have their own ships.
The only fly in the ointment was that this group of cooperative races was in crisis. They’d just come in contact with an aggressive race that disrupted their exploration and commerce. They called them Biters, and all their ships were armed because they preyed on each other as easily as strangers. None if the other local races had ever armed their ships.
Looking at the plot screen there were nine ships other than the High Hopes Lee was riding in. They came out from Derfhome with only five ships. In fact they had gotten named The Little Fleet before they left. If they added many more ships it wouldn’t be very little. The four new ships were Bill and Badger Deep Space Explorers a Badger fast courier and a merchant freighter coming along as a supply tender. None of them armed. Buying arms to defend against the Biters was a big reason they were coming back to the Human sphere of exploration.
Lee was sitting in a second tier couch. She’s grown up on the ship, but this wasn’t her old seat. The bridge had been reworked and extra consoles fitted in with bigger seats. She’s grown up with her parents and her Uncle Gordon the only others aboard. They’d explored for years together until they finally found a class A habitable world. The Holy Grail of every explorer’s dreams.
She was now two thirds owner of the High Hopes with Gordon because in surveying the planet her parents had been killed by an unexpected native life form. Gordon was now Dad. He adapted Lee as the Andersons had arranged. This wasn’t as simple as it might sound since he was Derf. An entirely different species with different culture, custom and law.
He certainly looked different. He was about the same mass as a mature Grizzly bear. With a bigger skull, blunted face, a wider mouth, and most noticeable, heavy middle arms with massive claws and lighter arms above with true hands. He looked just like he should to Lee. She’d been assured by a Derf doctor examining her that he was one good looking hunk of Derf. Said doctor being a smaller Cinnamon female.
The counter in the plot screen showed twenty seconds to jump. Lee couldn’t imagine not having a thrill at seeing one set of stars change to a different pattern. The technology was mature. There was very, very little chance they would jump and disappear like some of the early explorers. Lee never thought of it when they jumped. Gordon always did.
They were spread out because of the new ships. There was a tidal disturbance around a ship leaving local space. Gordon trusted his ships to jump within a couple kilometers of each other. These four new ones not so much. They appeared to have their vectors and velocity down pat. Now they would test their timing. They weren’t members of the Little Fleet, but Gordon made clear they would follow his orders if they wanted to travel with him under his protection.
The counter reached zero and the stars blinked into a new pattern and a star straight ahead shone bright displaying a small disc. The ports immediately darkened until it was comfortable to look unless you stared straight at it. The other ships showed the same distances and relationship on the plot, so they were in sync. Lee let out a little hum of delight and Gordon breathed a deep sigh of relief.
“Clear sky, no artificial emissions, optics show a clear path ahead. Checking it wider with radar by your leave,” the navigator Brownie asked Gordon. Brownie was too busy to dwell on the fact they made it again.
“Check our path. Have the Retribution ping the whole system at full normal power.” The Heavy Cruiser Retribution carried military grade radar. It had a much bigger hull to mount many more elements in its array. If they cared to temporarily shut down most other power usage they could fry another ships electronics light minutes away.
“Take us on a lateral sufficient to see what’s behind the star, and you can pick a target star on pretty much the same heading for us to continue. I doubt we’ll be stopping here. Do you see our escort?” Gordon asked Brownie.
“No drive emissions ahead. Nothing on the radar frequencies he was using.” Gordon was speaking of a new species who came into contact with the Biters just before their departure. They built kilometer long spaceship of performance none of them could match. Of course the Biters fired on them at first contact. That was just what Biters do. The huge vessels came through the Far Away system, snatched a Biter ship there and one stayed behind to observe the Little Fleet. It took a Human ship away briefly and brought it back. It didn’t leave then however. They hung around and when the Little Fleet and four new vessels left it passed and jumped ahead of them. Now it wasn’t to be seen.
“We have radar return on a very thin asteroid belt ahead. I see enough of an arc I think it extends all the way around the star. Optic survey only sees one rocky planet close to the star and a rather small gas giant so far the other side of the star we can barely see a disc,” Brownie reported.
“Your buddy bugged out,” Thor the XO remarked to Lee. She’d predicted the huge ship would escort them all the way back home. It would be awkward if they did. They’d done some trading but made no progress at sharing language at all. The aliens spoke, but a wailing gibberish nobody saw any pattern to yet. They didn’t transmit images of themselves so that severely limited sharing words by pantomime. They showed themselves trading but not on video.
“You’re just hoping I’ll panic and start negotiating to buy my bet back,” Lee accused him. They’d each bet a tenth of a percent of their worth over the matter. Lee stood to lose a lot more than Thor.
“You can buy it back anytime you want,” he agreed. “But it will be sweeter the longer you hold out.”
“What discount are you offering to settle right now?” she demanded.
“Discount? Why should I discount it? I can just take your money now so it doesn’t eat at you all the way back and embarrass you. Do you think a Fargoer would discount a sure thing?” Some of the people in the fleet from Fargone were a little crazy about gambling. They had been betting with credit slips against each other to be paid out of their shares when they got back. At least Lee was betting money she already had.
“I’ll stand pat then,” Lee informed him. Nobody ever died of embarrassment.”
“Wise little one,” Ho-bob-bob-brie said. He wasn’t being sarcastic.
Ho-bob-bob-brie was one of her successes. She’d encouraged Gordon to advance him to the bridge crew. She didn’t often suggest anything touching on command. She tried to make sure she didn’t push anything that would get turned down, because she worried Gordon would keep a mental list and consider it all in the future when she wanted to advance to command.
Lee owned two thirds of the High Hopes. She also owned the Deep Space Explorer The Champion William and the Heavy Space Cruiser Retribution of their fleet outright. The Mothers of Gordon’s clan, Red Tree had sold them for cash and rights to establish a second clan-hold on the planet Gordon and she discovered. The clan retained a couple merchant ships and the much smaller destroyer Sharp Claws which accompanied them, but sold the other ships as inappropriate for a merchant clan. They were all war captures from the USNA by Gordon.
Since she was Gordon’s adapted daughter she was by their culture in an intermediate position between being a child, as if she was under Earth law, and being a full adult. She could make contracts and speak to what would be done with her property, but certain adult things such as being a clan Mother were still closed to her. Nobody in their right mind would suggest she could command a fleet of star ships. Gordon was commander. Lee might speak to what sort of business and trade she hoped the fleet could do, but not order it to turn or stop.
“I’ve been thinking… ” Lee said into the silence.
“Should I sound General Quarters?” Brownie asked, mock concern in his voice. Gordon didn’t reprove him for idle chatter on the bridge. Instead he stifled laughter, one snort of amusement betraying him, true hand covering his nose and mouth. It did seem like every time Lee committed thought something happened.
Lee glared at him and ignored it. “The Caterpillars sent video and still frame to us of all our races, when they included the Biters in the composite it was a clear accusation, they even repeated it. But they have never shown us a picture of themselves. But when they came out and traded with the crew of The Champion William they weren’t shy to let themselves be seen. They didn’t even have anything to cover up. They obviously can’t wear pants, but they could wear some sort of robe. It would be easy to wear a mask like the Hinth too. They wouldn’t even need a strap. They could just hold it from the back with a couple face tentacles.”
“Perhaps they have a cultural aversion to depicting images of themselves,” Thor the XO surmised. “The Hinth have a strong physical reaction to close proximity. Being bare faced to others all day exhausts them. They could never have had cities or cooperated on any scale without muting the fight or flight reaction.”
“Or a religious prohibition,” Lee tossed back at him.
“The Human Muslim religion prohibits artistic depiction of living things that might be taken as idols,” Alex Hillerman said on the command circuit. He was the Head back in Engineering and only one there on this circuit. “Not that pictures of people and animals are specifically prohibited in the Qur’an, but it has become a very rigid custom because they might be seen and used as idols. Especially any representation of their prophet.”
“What do they do for art then?” Lee asked.
“Oh they have plenty, but it is abstract, geometric and calligraphy mostly,” he replied.
“I wonder, now that we have video of them how they would react to us sending them images of themselves?” Lee wondered. “Or perhaps just a simplified cartoon sort of image like our stick figures?”
“I’m making this a standing fleet order,” Gordon said. “No images of the Caterpillars will be sent back to them. For that matter no images of real caterpillars. I refuse to experiment when the people in question obviously have much more advanced technology than us. They have better ships and Captain Fenton reports the missiles the Caterpillars fired were clearly nuclear when they self-destructed. They weren’t terribly big, and we have no idea if they can pump an X-head laser, but they could easily be variable yield and they just used the low setting to self-destruct. I’d rather not find out what they can do by pissing them off and getting a thorough demonstration.”
“Aye,” Lee agreed quickly, wishing she had added that it didn’t seem a good idea to actually do before Gordon.
“Was that humor?” the Captain Slick of the Bill ship Green asked the Badger, who the Humans called Talker, on the Badger Deep Space explorer Wonder. He used a private circuit, afraid his question might seem ignorant. Talker, or more accurately ‘His Excellency the Voice of Far Away’, was reputed to understand these aliens better than anyone else.
“The navigator asking if he should sound General Quarters was humor,” Talker explained. General Quarters is a ship-wide alert by means of a distinctively jolting, loud sound which warns there may be sudden maneuvers, imminent battle or even collision.”
“That is funny?”
“Indeed, I can assure you they found it a fine jest. I could hear somebody on their bridge stifling laughter.”
“And?” the Bill asked.
“And what?” Talker encouraged him to elaborate.
“And what else was humor in their conversation?” Captain Slick asked.
“Not a gods be blessed thing.”
The Bill was silence, staring out of the screen at a complete loss to understand it.
“I do understand it,” Talker said. “I can explain it, but have you ever heard a joke that became funny by deconstructing it for someone? I usually understand Bill humor too. I mean, I understand the mechanisms. I may not find Human or Bill humor personally funny to laugh out loud at it. I can predict with some certainty that I could not make Bill humor funny to Humans either.”
“Do analyze it for me then Badger. I agree it is lost to me for enjoyment, but perhaps I too can learn the nature of their humor to understand them better. I must add though… The navigator, Brownie, is a Derf and Lee is a Human but apparently his humor still works between them?”
“The races seem to think disturbingly alike. I can’t explain that. They have been in contact less than a generation. So there has been no time for the cultures to – he slid his spread fingers together to mesh them – blend. Yet it is for all I have no explanation. It just is. I know it makes you unhappy, the way you called me Badger! in the Human style. Like it was an accusation. But do not judge. Be happy they have any sense of humor.”
“Why should I care? It just seems to make them stranger and harder to understand to me.”
“They were poking light hearted fun at the girl for saying she had been thinking, because it would seem every time she starts thinking out loud it complicates their lives far more than the utterances of a little girl should. It was like – “Oh no, not again!”
“That is a complicated humor, depending on knowing their history,” Slick said. “Were she a Bill of influence she still might take offence at it.”
“Humans don’t think much of those who take their own dignity and importance too seriously.”
“A Bill might imply she had passed intestinal gas to label her remark as offensive. Such as, “There is that odor again!”
“Yes, Lee told me Humans, at least the males, pass through a phase of such humor,” Talker said.
“Are we all of arrested development then in their eyes?
“See, you value your dignity. They would mock you for that. But their humor can be surprisingly dark. Consider when the Biters attacked them at Far Away as soon as they saw them. The Biters were intent on killing them.”
“Well, yes. That’s sort of the nature of Biters,” Slick said.
“Have you ever heard a Biter crack a joke?” Talker asked him.
“That’ll be the day!”
“Indeed. Do you know what Gordon told me when I worried about the Biter’s reaction and the possible trouble it might precipitate?”
“Seeing how inferior the Biters’ weapons are I imagine he found them contemptible.”
“Yes, well I will reveal to you that we examined the Biter ship and the rear section was vaporized. Whatever beam took it off left an edge so sharp I had to be warned not to cut myself on it. However examining it closely there was an arc to the cut. From that we determined the beam was large enough to have vaporized the entire ship if it had been directed exactly at the middle.”
“Still accurate enough to stop them.” Slick said
“No, much more accurate than that. The shot was off to the rear, but exactly on the centerline of the ship,” Talker said. He watched the Bill’s face. There was a pause while he digested the information, a scornful look while he rejected the implication, and a look of stunned horror when he figured the odds of that happening by chance.
“The Human expression is that they were toying with them.”
“Dear sweet… ”
“There is a reason I went off on this tangent in discussing their humor. Again, do you know what Gordon said when I worried about how the Biters would take this?”
“I have no idea at all now.”
“He said, “To hell with them if they can’t take a joke.”
“Oh, the depth of the their disdain! They are but errant fools for whom you grease the path to watch them fall and wonder what happened!”
“See? You do understand it.”