The new system was quiet, like only an uninhabited system can be. There were some low frequency rumblings of a gas giant, quietly having minor indigestion in the depths of its atmosphere. One star held a tiny rocky planet so unbelievable close it was uninfluenced by the other star. Then there was a larger gap and the next planet wobbled around its suns in the grip of both. The orbit insured it had radical changes in climate at short intervals, and was inclined far enough it never lost sight of one star behind the other. Neither star was particularly noisy, one not very different than the other.
The first planet showed from afar as having a carbon dioxide atmosphere, dense enough to hide surface features from optical examination. They weren’t done doing a passive examination and hadn’t used their radars yet. The second planet out was larger than Earth, very dense, a high argon atmosphere, and had a surface gravity of about one point four-five G. High enough it would not likely be colonized, because the long term health effects would be horrible. The temperature ran to the high side too, nothing below 45°C more than twenty degrees from the poles. It had considerable volcanic activity, and surface water, although not near as much as Earth or Derfhome. Even Hin had more surface waters, though dispersed better.
The world was likely a source of ore of some sort, having so much activity and water in its crust. However, a quick conference decided they would make a note of it but press on without doing a formal surface survey or leaving a claim marker, because although having free surface water the extreme range of climate and high surface gravity made it unlikely it could be Terraformed to a condition it could be colonized. It would require an exceptionally rich ore body to induce someone to mine it by remote control from orbit. Before leaving a high powered sweep of the system with radar showed nothing unusual. They picked another system on a line straight away from their home worlds and jumped. This time the two DSEs and the Sharp Claws, the rest bringing up the rear.
* * *
Eight more jumps while running two shift days left everybody tired, and they all orbited a giant among gas giants in different orbits, taking time from the usual duty stations, scooping fuel to top everybody off, and declaring a day you could break out personal intoxicants and do what you wished for recreation. The few stuck working were promised the same freedom in two days, with a recovery day in between.
Their next target system was barely over two light years away, so the Sharp Claws withdrew from near any of the gas giants and deployed a huge antenna, listening to hear if their close neighbor had any signs of a radio using civilization. If they did they must be on the hand held walkie talkie level. After six days refueled and refreshed they jumped to the near system.
There was a rarity, a water world worth at least a quick survey, a world with most of the surface commonly in a temperature range humans could live without special suiting. The surface gravity ninety seven percent of normal was sweet too. They landed two shuttles, ascertained it was sterile for sure, and left a marker in orbit claiming it. The five year limit on reporting it might work against them on this voyage. Nobody planned on an expedition being out so long that might be a problem. The chances somebody else would follow their route and file a claim when the five year period expired seemed slight though, more likely they’d be the claimant even if they were late.
If they didn’t find more valuable worlds in the next year or so they might consider sending the Sharp Claws back to register this world. It was worth at least several million each to their crews. They also didn’t carry any inoculating materials to start the world on the path of Terraforming it, and making an oxygen atmosphere. An entire ship load of such materials, algae, grasses and lichens, would take years to put measurable free oxygen in the air.
The soil samples and salts in the sea water indicated there would be common ores for colonists when it came time to go look for them. The crustal plates were still active and it had an iron core and magnetism. The axial tilt and orbital measurements indicated it would have a stable climate, steadier even than Earth.
* * *
The next system had an unusually large star, somewhat noisy, and in a phase where it was showing quite a few sunspots. Several people predicted it was at least somewhat a variable, based on a few similar systems surveyed. There were a couple rocky inner planets with no real atmosphere, a couple small gas giants, but two extensive asteroid belts and a great deal of loose debris all over the whole system. Nothing stood out as useful or worth studying for scientific reasons.
They did a high powered radar scan of the system fairly early, while they’d still have time to read the echoes. The returns from the asteroid belts would be complex. Gordon and Thor were video conferencing with the other ship commanders, picking a target system for their next jump.
“Anomalous return on radar in the asteroid belt,” Navigation broke into their conference with that message. Almost immediately he added. “Make that two extremely bright reflections, well separated.”
“Not a powered source, like a transponder?” Gordon asked right away.
“No, but it is unlikely to be a natural return. It would take a very unlikely corner shape in the face of a metallic asteroid to bounce such a signal back.”
“Can you steer a high powered bean on the points of interest and find out more about them?”
“I can map their size better, but they are both over four light-hours out system from us. I’d suggest moving one of our ships to investigate rather than wait over eight hours for what little clarification a second sweep will give us.”
“Sharp Claws, are you prepared to do quick burn and head out there to see what they found?”
“We can boost in fifteen minutes if we can take time to close up the galley for hot meals and secure duty stations for a two G boost. Is that acceptable?”
“Yes, do it, and don’t break any legs or damage equipment pressing an arbitrary dead line.”
“All hands, secure for acceleration in fifteen minutes,” they heard the Derf Captain announce on ship com. His customary human name was Frost, as in Robert Frost. “We shall ramp up to one G as soon as the horn is sounded. Secure all personal possessions and configure your duty station for acceleration. At five minutes a second horn will sound and you will be prepared for two G acceleration. Only special duty stations will be permitted tethered vertical personnel outside an acceleration couch. Off duty crew must be in their bunks. You are expected to have bottled water and urinals. Acceleration will not be eased for anything but the direst emergency. Heavier acceleration or an abrupt cessation of drive are both possible unannounced. All department heads acknowledge when prepared and report any failure to conform and why.”
“Thank you, Sharp Claws, you are our eyes there now,” Gordon sent to them.
“Do you think we should disperse further or take any defensive measures?” Thor asked.
“I think whatever bounced our signal back was there from the moment we entered the system, and hasn’t given us any trouble. I expect some sort of artifact, but honestly no alien presence.”
“Alright, let’s just stand our normal watches and wait to see what they report,” Thor agreed. “I’m glad you didn’t rush us all out there though, I like having one ship poke it’s nose in for us.”
* * *
“Commander Gordon, we have images of the first object. It appears to be entirely passive. It’s just an old fashioned corner reflector. It’s only about a meter across, and it doesn’t have any sophisticated geometry to boost the signal when it is oriented unfavorably. It is anchored to a fairly large asteroid with a stout mast. I’m assuming something about the asteroid makes it worth finding again. We don’t have the testing equipment of one of the DSEs, but I can test a few points with the laser and see what sort of emissions we get. If anything looks interesting we’ll cut off a sample.”
The image they sent was well lit with a flood lamp. The reflector was crude, thick sheet metal just tacked at a couple points with a rude unpolished weld. The surface was aged, the metal smoother deep in the corner and frosted by micrometeorite abrasion nearer the edges. There were even a few visible pock marks where larger grains struck it, and one actual hole four or five millimeters across drilled right through the metal.
“Before we go check out the other site I intend to cut off a piece of this reflector. I’m not a hundred percent sure that’s what you’d want, but I’m going to chance it on my own initiative rather than wait for orders at the speed of light lag both ways at this distance. I hate to waste a full shift waiting for instructions. Several people have said this has to be old, as in thousands of years old. I’m going to put a sample locker for this on our outer hull. I don’t want to take the piece we cut off in atmosphere and ruin it by contamination for some sort of testing.”
“This just in from my crew out there. The rock shows it has very high cobalt content. I’d say it was marked as an ore source, but nobody every came back and worked it. If it is fairly homogenous we’re looking at a several million kilograms of cobalt. I’ll get a sample and move on to the next location. I expect to find another marker just like this one.”
“You’re doing just fine,” Gordon transmitted to them. “Your sampling procedure is exactly what I’d have done. If you find an identical reflector on the other asteroid no need to cut into it. Just sample the rock. I’m sending The Champion William and Murphy’s Law around the star to do a radar survey of the opposite side of the system. I’d like to know if there are more reflectors outside our viewing angle here. Since we’ll be several days doing that there is no rush to get to the other reflector at high acceleration. Take your time to avoid stressing your crew needlessly. I’d add that my personal guess is the erosion on the reflectors indicates a time frame of hundreds of thousands of years, not just thousands, so we have a mystery here why the miners never came back.”
“The fellows who cut a chunk off the reflector say it’s pretty pure titanium,” the Sharp Claws transmitted. “I’ll leave the other alone until I hear from you. We’re looking forward to hearing your take on it and instructions. We’ll plan to leave for the other soon after getting your transmission. Until latter, Sharp Claws out,” he ended.
“That reflector is crude, it isn’t designed to fold up and be carried aboard a ship,” Thor suggested. “I’d say it was made on site, as a field expedient. So, yeah, they marked them to find again easily, and never came back. Why? Did they find an easier source to work, or closer to home? Or was the ship lost and never reported their find, or did something bigger happen to their entire civilization?”
“Maybe we’ll find out as we go deeper,” Gordon hoped.
In the end they found five reflectors. One was on another cobalt rich rock. One they weren’t very sure about, but it might have been the vanadium content. Two were thick with native silver, and they mounted their own claim beacons on those rocks. The entire body of asteroids warranted a closer examination given the richness of the alien finds. They did a close fly-by of both rocky inner planets and a couple sizable moons around the gas giants. If there was a alien base or machinery anywhere it didn’t show up on radar down to a half meter resolution. It was a mystery.
* * *
They did their first five ship jump into the next system. Everything went smoothly with all of them in a circle less than a kilometer across. There was nothing of interest. No alien reflectors. No rich asteroid belts or worlds worth claiming. This continued for five jumps until they took another break. Gordon wondered if they might have found something by jumping to one of the other systems accessible from the one with the alien artifacts. But it went against their established doctrine to stop and investigate a globe around one star. They still intended to continue along the same general heading, going as deep away from Human and Derf space as possible.
The next system along their approximate line of flight was a bit over seven light years away, that was on the fringe of their detection ability, but Gordon had the Sharp Claws standoff, far enough from any natural emitters in the system and wide enough from their view of the star to examine the next system. There was a lot of unnatural noise, some suggesting audio and several frequencies suggesting video, but not clearly, and not on any scan rate or pixel count used by man.
In conference they decided to avoid giving away their present location as it gave too obvious a vector back to their home planets. Several wondered why there was no evidence of an alien presence in this system, one jump away from an occupied system. Several suggested they might not have star flight, others pointed out that Survey System 418 was not much further from Earth then this next jump, but manned ships never attempted it. They always jumped in from one of two other nearby systems with greater stellar masses and a higher jump probability. Nobody wanted to risk a jump with even a one in a hundred thousand chance of not emerging. No one had any idea what happened to a ship that failed to display a quantum emergence, and nobody especially wanted to find out the hard way.
They all did two jumps to a system off at about ninety degrees from their establish line of flight. They looked carefully and with caution, but neither system showed any signs of having been visited.
The Roadrunner was temporarily equipped with extra sensors and cameras, radios and recording systems. Mostly from the DSEs. She’d jump in, coast through on a long slow look at the system, and then take an exit line that went on to a different system on the far side of their entry, and minimized their drive signature as seen from the planet. It might take three or more jumps into virgin systems and a week to get back to them, but it seemed worth it to them to stay somewhat unexposed. They would do a minimal survey of each system they transited to rejoin their fleet, but stop in none. They expanded their crew to four pilots, all qualified to bring her back, so they never had to drop boost and rest.
* * *
Waiting was the hard part. Eight days later there was a familiar burst of uncommon particles, decaying and making a electromagnetic chirp as Roadrunner rejoined their universe from its indeterminate state. They were very happy to see her, and happier yet to hear her quickly sent signal instead of an alien ship.
“We have no indication we were detected,” Sharp Claws reported. They were wrong, but they had no idea. “There were radars active in the system, but none of them changed mode or steered a beam to examine the Roadrunner closer.” The system was dirty, full of lots of small objects and the planetary surface subject to a constant rain of small meteors. The radar was to give warning for the bigger more dangerous pieces.
The recordings were interesting. The video took awhile to figure out. It was analog. There were additional signals that had to be audio. The scan rate told them something about the native’s vision. It wasn’t hard to estimate the frequency of the sound track. The real bonus came with the understanding that the other channel was a universal text captioning service, on a separate display. They appeared to have one language.
The natives were bipedal, bilaterally symmetrical and had binocular vision. The eyes seemed big compared to Humans or Deft, on a par with the Hinth. Their hands were three fingered with double thumbs, as were their feet, much more dexterous than Humans or Derf, but having nothing on the ability of Hinth to use their feet, even though the Hinth appeared to have less delicate and suitable feet. Watching them shuffle and deal cards dispelled any idea Hinth feet were not very capable of subtle manipulation.
They were close coated with a fine fur down their backs, ranging from tan to black, but semi nude from the chin to crotch, with very fine hair. There was much variation among individuals. They wore clothing but didn’t appear to have as strong a taboo against nudity. Part of that might be because their genitals were carried tucked away in folds neatly, and it was hard to tell at a glance if one was male or female for sure
The hair on their heads was just as short and fine as on their backs, but they had tufts of hair on the face, more prominent in the males, which looked somewhat like a set of mutton chop whiskers on a human, running from upright triangular ear to chin. Those tended to be a lighter white or yellowish color than the body hair. The nose was broad, cleft, and active. The females carried mammary glands, but the nipple tucked in a fold by the hip, not by the arm pit. They looked sleek, and carried a thin long tail.
There was a lot of display of what they took for status symbols. There was a profusion of hats, some simple knit affairs, some with ear holes, to elaborate hats with molded shapes and decorations. The clothing ranged from full jumpsuits that appeared to be serious protection for professions doing manual labor to frilly decoration. The one item everybody wore was some sort of collar, even if otherwise naked. Some fancy with studs and jewels, some simple chains or elaborate jewelry.
“The videos are odd. I don’t know what to make of it. There isn’t anything that looks like advertising. There are short local stories, but they aren’t man in the street type videos with normal stuff happening in the background,” Thor said.
“How do you know what’s normal?” Gordon asked.
“Good point, but I’ve seen broadcast news from Humans, Derf and Hinth. These folks never have traffic behind them or crowds in the city. They all look stiff and uncomfortable in front of the camera. And I’ve noticed already anytime one says “Teen” they give a little jerk of the head almost like bow.”
“OK, we need to figure that word out. I’m going to make this available to everybody in the whole fleet, and see what people get from it. I want everybody to give me ideas, and assign a numerical probability. For example, this video looks to be in front of a field, and the one fellow points off camera and says something. Is he pointing out the way to town or showing which way his livestock took off or what? Ten percent probability or ninety? Don’t be afraid to reach a bit.”
* * *
Three days later they had their first conference. “Give me two items first,” Gordon requested. “I’d like any item on which a large number of people had consensus, and I’d like anything an individual assigned a higher probability than ninety percent.”
“We have forty-eight people who concluded that anyone wearing that dark orange color is some sort of official, with some mentioning government and some identifying it as a religious order. Thirty two people noted that in three scenes the wearers of orange are the only natives we see carrying weapons. In two videos they carry swords, and in the third they have both swords and two of them have spears.”
“OK, the color is some sort of emblem of authority. Are the weapons authority emblems or are they functional? These people have radar and geostationary satellites. Am I to believe they don’t have guns? Or at least bows and arrows? Something that acts at a distance?”
The com gave a ping. Jeremiah Ellis from engineering on the Retribution wanted to speak and was connected. “There are very few frames that show mechanized vehicles, but this one video shows orange wearing natives arriving in a motor vehicle. I’d guess from the smokestack at the rear it is a steam powered vehicle, but note the exhaust is quite clean as it arrives. It may be turbine powered. The thing appears to be damn near as big as a city bus, and it has pneumatic tires. Notice the artwork near the front door,” he manipulated the image to expand it.
“The shield shape suggests military origins for the symbol, and note the two figures on each side. One has a spear held straight armed tilted away from him, which may be a parade pose. The other figure has a weapon held the same way, but it is shorter and has a distinct butt stock on the ground. He also has a pouch hung, which could be for ammunition, and lacks the sword the spear carrier has. That’s a musket or rifle or I’ll admit Mrs. Ellis raised one very slow son,” he challenged.
“What do you think the objects above the figures are?” Gordon asked.
“I’ve run it past my engineering section, and we get some sort of fruit for the cluster of ovals, think something like grapes, the lines behind it being some sort of trellis or carrier, and everybody agrees the arch of rectangular shapes between the solid irregular masses is a dam between rock masses. There are no openings or castellations to suggest it is a castle or fortification. We have consensus it’s a dam.”
“Thank you, has anybody else analyzed this art?” Gordon prompted.
“I would have never figured out the dam, because I’ve never seen on in real life,” Thor allowed. “But I figured the words on the top edge are important. Three words would suggest a motto or unit identification, the first and last words I can’t identify yet, but the center word is the ‘teen’ we see everybody bob their head when they say it. It matches up to the captioning.”
Gordon got a request to speak, and connected to Propitious Harrington on the Murphy’s Law.
“Every video scene in which we see a street or road it is laid with brick. That sort of road is very enduring, cobbled roads on Old Earth are still in use that were built in the Roman Empire era. But they are very labor intensive, some of them having bases laid down six or seven meters deep. There appear to be no utility poles even in town, so they either bury them for aesthetic reasons, or their technology is deliberately restricted in how it is distributed. There are cultivated fields in quite a few videos, so they are an agricultural civilization, but we don’t see anyone carrying anything you could take for a computer or phone. Also, the population level in a long static society suggests tight control of reproduction.”
“Obviously they have video screens, or there would be no point in these broadcasts, but there is no scene in any of it showing a viewing screen. Either they are rare and communal, in a sort of theatre, or there is some dislike of showing a screen on a screen. There is no scene of a street busy with vehicles either, I’m starting to suspect they have a lot of the same technologies we have, but for some reason they aren’t commercialized and widely distributed the way we do,” he finished.
“Gordon, please note we have one statement, from one person, with a hundred percent handle. I think we should examine that. Nobody else had such certainty about anything,” Thor explained. “I’d either like to know why or find out what duty this person is charged with. Such absolute certainty honestly frightens me. I’m rarely ever that certain about anything.”
“Ming Lee?” Gordon read off the screen. “Would you like to explain your assessment?”
“Yes, I’m the second cook on the Sharp Claws. Despite what Mr. Thor seems to think, I am not a crank or disturbed person. I simply have experience, strongly reinforced in my family, as to what these broadcasts are. My great-grandfather and grandfather lived in an area of China on Earth which was populated by an ethnic minority. The government kept very tight control, suppressing even the slightest expression of dissidence. I have searched and highlighted a number of files of similar human video productions I will attach right now as references. I suggest you watch them silently, with no translation or captioning. The resemblance is uncanny. What you are seeing in these broadcasts is revolutionary theatre, or propaganda. Even the dark orange color of authority is a coincidental match to the red of my homeland. I predict they will be authoritarian, and very difficult to deal with,” he finished.
“Thank you Ming, Mr. Jefferson?” Gordon allowed next.
“Even before Mr. Ming’s assessment of the honesty of what they portray in their broadcasts, we only have a view through their camera lens, and never got close enough to see for ourselves what is on the surface of the planet from orbit. I’d suggest we need some direct observation, perhaps even some closer looks from atmospheric drones, and try to establish some communications from orbit before risking physical contact.”
“This seems the course of caution to me too,” Gordon agreed. “If anyone disagrees and feels it is too stand-offish write out your thinking and submit it to these suggestions. I should warn you that if you are in favor of an immediate face to face meeting, we’ll take it as volunteering for such duty.”
Nobody seemed eager to be such a volunteer, and they closed out the session.
“We need to decide how we are going to approach this world, and compose a greeting and initial contact video formatted for their receivers. I’d like to do a few orbits and map the surface before we decide where we are going to direct our contact message. I find myself leery of transmitting it to the entire surface as we orbit. We’ll discuss this fleet wide against first shift tomorrow, and consider any further analysis of their transmissions that wasn’t considered today. That ends ship’s assembly,” he announced. “Let’s get some supper and let the B team carry the ball a bit,” he told the bridge crew.