The Small Fleet jumped into the alien system, all in a group, the Roadrunner carried by Murphy’s Law. It ungrappled and braked hard, staying in the fringe of the system at first. The Champion William and the Retribution took up orbit well beyond the world’s moon. High Hopes and Sharp Claws took up a circular orbit, inclined enough to let them map two thirds of the planet’s surface in detail, and a side look at the polar regions sufficient to their needs since the natives didn’t seem to use them extensively.
There were two large continents, one in each polar hemisphere, and one significant island between them in an equatorial sea. There was no land mass to interfere with cyclonic storms, and one raged right now in the equatorial sea opposite the one island. The island must see some tremendous storms with nothing to impede their growth.
Both poles had sea ice, but neither a polar continent such as Earth had. There was a iron core generating a fairly strong magnetic field, and the noisy star generated impressive aurora, but rarely down to the latitudes of the continents.
Both ships kept crews on defense stations, ready to intercept missiles or roll the ship for beam weapons. The natives had geostationary satellites, carrying quite a bit of traffic, but only a couple lower satellites, and nothing that looked big enough to be manned. They still had the tech to loft weapons to the level the two fleet ships orbited at if they wanted. They assumed nothing.
There were two large towns, of a size that would have a million inhabitants or more in any of their own cultures. One was fairly central to the bigger continent. The slightly smaller continent had a large city off center, but centered on the flat portion of the continent, the far east third of the land cut off by impressive mountains.
Both cities had large roads going east and west from them. They went straight, refusing to deviate around a hill or mountain. Indeed the smaller continent had an artificial pass cut through the mountain range. Two approach roads on each end showed that once the notch was dug to a new depth they laid a new road, and abandoned the old one and resumed digging there. If the original pass was similar to the others on each side it had started at six thousand meters or a bit more.
The current road had a high point of three thousand meters and a bit. The notch cut below it on the north side was currently about five hundred meters lower. They had no idea when they would switch over, and the artificial pass was widened generously as it was lowered. The engineers estimated they had been digging the channel for four or five thousand years. It might continue another ten or twelve thousand years before it was level with the plain. The crew was large, much of the labor done by hand, and the excavating equipment small for such an undertaking from a human viewpoint.
The gap in the mountains was already so large it had a fan of vegetation on the lee side where the rainfall was greater due to the air pushing through. The entire west side of the range was covered in dams, as the art work they’d studied had suggested was important to them. They appeared to be for water conservation and agriculture, there was no power distribution associated with them.
Apparently opening a level road was more important than the climate change they had to know cutting a full break in the range would create. The road continued on past the mountains, straight to the far sea and a port, but without the build up along it and secondary roads radiating off north and south that the west side road had.
The bigger continent had a similar road, but it was easy to see it didn’t have any barriers to compare to the other continent. Nevertheless it cut straight through any hill or valley. They were cut or filled in with a stubborn single mindedness. The surface was still brick, no large slabs or seamless surfaces.
Both large cities showed light at night, but nothing on the scale an Earth city would. There was electronic noise to indicate they used electric motors. The sole city on the equatorial island showed some lights at night too, but less than the grand cities. The rural areas were near as dark at night as wilderness. If they ventured forth at night it was without traffic signals or street lighting. Though they did spot a few vehicles using electric headlamps.
There didn’t appear to be any satellites emitting navigational signals, but there were radio beacons in the few active harbors, and the two cities had airfields that appeared to be lit up for a specific aircraft coming in, not all night. They counted the airfields and large aircraft parked at them and concluded there were only about two hundred airplanes on the world. If any were for passenger use and not freight they didn’t have the custom of windows. None appeared to be transonic. They used very efficient scimitar curved propellers that allowed them to push the Mach.
There were a few dozen very small aircraft that might carry six or eight passengers. All apparently of the exact same design. Most of them were parked near the two big cities, and they only saw two at distant fields. One however was in a very rural area, without even farmed fields, beside a large building they suspected was a palace. There were about three dozen such elaborate buildings, most again near the cities.
The two cities were most strongly characterized by storage. There were elaborate facilities for the shipment and storage of grain. They were on roads, but they apparently never invented the railroad. The few Human farmers assured them the row on row of curricular buildings could be nothing other than grain silos. There were regional storage facilities too, but nothing like the two big cities.
The city on the main continent was different in another way. There were apartments, large residential buildings, the main city had and a much smaller facility of two buildings in the smaller city and island. In the smaller city it was almost all small residences, and one palace, though many appeared to be for extended, multigenerational family groups. They had a commander of the small group of trained ground troops on the Murphy’s Law although they all held other daily duty posts. They could be assembled and deployed as a group if need be. He was a Fargoer Marine, Canny McDonald.
“Barracks,” he informed them, after barely glancing at the photo.
“Why so sure, so quickly?” Gordon wondered.
“Because you have a unique structure here that tells me who occupies those apartments,” he said, tapping the offending structure a kilometer away from the big buildings with his finger. There was a road directly from one to the other. “That’s a shooting range, and that small mound an ammo dump. Do a computer search and see how many identical structures you find on the settled parts of the planet.” The computer scanned their entire mapped area and came up with three. One by each big city and on the island.
“This tells me a great deal about them too,” McDonald said gruffly. “They have a line of target pits at about fifty, and hundred meters. There is a small group here, four pits, at two hundred meters. They either have crappy equipment, or can’t shoot for shit. My boys start training at two hundred meters, and the snipers are expected to qualify at a kilometer. The good ones, the artists, can shoot up or down hill, in a cross breeze and rain or shine, snow or heat at half again that distance. I’m really looking forward to seeing how these guys are kitted out.”
He stopped and thought a bit. “I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. That doesn’t mean we are invincible. We can put a squad of about twenty marksmen on the ground, maybe another thirty who know how to shoot competently, but not experts. Surround them with fifty thousand guys with bows and arrows, slings and spears, and they’d still overrun our asses and kill us if we have no line of retreat. Keep that in mind. We can’t fight a whole world for you. Not at the ground level you need to take it and hold it. Our very few heavier weapons wouldn’t matter. We just don’t have enough of them. Of course you can drop three nukes and this world is conquered,” he admitted. “But do that and I can assure you one of your own will stick a pistol in your ear and change the line of command. None of us would sanction genocide. Destroy that grain distribution system in the city and I’d guarantee much of the countryside would starve the in next year too,” he said cheerfully.
* * *
They decided to make a minimal video. With as little attempted speech as possible. There weren’t many words they were confident they knew. There, because of three instances it was used with pointing. A word that meant a group of some sort, but with no certainty it applied to any set number or gender or class. They were pretty sure they knew the numbers one through twelve, but not zero or more than twelve. They knew the name of a fruit that grew on a low bush, and the irksome word Teen, which might mean God, or be a title of nobility, or just an expression of allegiance, completely abstract and not attached to any person or group smaller than the nation. They were pretty sure it was one big worldwide nation and single political or philosophical party or church. The few who favored a religion were bothered there didn’t appear any building for assembly in any of the towns. What sort of church didn’t hold meetings? But there were no sports stadiums or playing fields either.
“Something is bothering me,” Thor announced the morning they intended to shoot their greeting video.
“The whole place is creeping me out,” Lee admitted. “What did you notice now?”
“There aren’t any cattle. They must be vegetarians, or only raise something small like rabbits or chickens. Our photos have good enough resolution I think we’d have seen anything as big as a pig. You certainly couldn’t hide cattle or horses. Have the computer scan, with particular attention to the wild area left like the far east side of the smaller continent. See if there are any wild animals left in the undeveloped areas.”
The scan showed deer sized animals, that kept to the wooded areas, never in the open plains, and on the far coast some sort of analog to a seal or walrus. In the civilized area there was nothing. Not even in what appeared to be managed wood lots. Every meter was groomed and managed and allotted down to the smallest area. There wasn’t any place left for what you’d class as wild. Gordon wondered if they even had weeds, or had managed to eradicate them too. He didn’t think he’d like that sort of world.
* * *
Lee was dressed as she usually liked. Sturdy pants, a soft loose top and a vest with pockets over it all. Full face spex, but at full transparency so her face wasn’t hidden. She had on a holster with hypersonic pistol and magazine carriers, as well as the fancy dagger Gordon gave her. She still liked the lighter six millimeter size, and she wore her favorite gold Byzantine necklace from Earth of gold and platinum. She of course wore her voyage rings and the prominent front earring with an emerald that declared she was a discoverer of a living world. Like most she wore a small pad computer on her belt without any thought to its being there. She wore the black band of the Little Fleet around her left wrist, tied in a fancy knot like gift wrapping.
Gordon wore his fur and a Sam Brown belt with proportionally large pistol holstered on the supported side. He wore a fancy engraved ax on the other side tucked in the belt without holster. His hand computer was clipped on his belt and he had a black silk ascot knotted around his neck. His voyage rigs were prominent, the front ring showing both a blue and a green stone, declaring he was a discoverer of both a water world and a living world. Not many wore any stones, much less two.
Ha-bob-bob-brie wore a wire necklace with his voyage rings slung on it. He adapted the traditional weapon of his race, a sword similar to a Japanese Katana, but about half again as long both in blade and handle. It was also straighter, having almost no curve. It was carried on the back, so the only thing seen from the front view was the handle sticking up over his shoulder. He also wore spex, clear and incongruous on his avian face, and a tiny purse slung cross-wise from one shoulder. He affected a black ribbon worn around his wrist with a small bow to mark his membership in the Little Fleet.
Thor joined them, wearing fur and nothing else but a wrist band, so there were two Derf. Just to make sure Lee wasn’t thought full sized, Alex Hillerman from their power plant and engineering crew joined them. He was dressed in a practical jump suit, with spex and no weapon. He had the usual computer and many visible pockets, and a black brassard on his arm. He was very dark black skinned and he kept his head shaved. Gordon wondered if he might not be mistaken for a different race than Lee, but didn’t want a mob in front of the camera. Humans varied so much even a third sample might not make it clear.
Their mapping complete, they abandoned the lower orbit and positioned themselves near the geostationary satellite the natives had directly over the big city. Gordon kept thinking in terms of capital, and firmly reminded himself that was an unfounded assumption. The Sharp Claws positioned themselves at the same level, some ten degrees behind in orbit.
They transmitted a picture of them all together on the flight bridge. The engineering department requested they shoot the video looking toward the back of the chamber, so that the details of all the boards were not revealed. Each of them pointed at themselves and stated their name. Then the each named themselves again, and Gordon and Thor identified themselves as Derf. Lee and Alex named themselves as Human, and Ha-bob-bob-brie identified himself as Hinth. They all inclusively identified themselves as people. They waited to see if the natives would respond. There was silence and no response for fifteen minutes.
There were two crewmembers with some talent with languages working full time on interpreting the transmissions of the planet. They let them take over the screen and attempt to get words they wondered about defined. They drew animated outlined figures and identified body parts, had them do simple actions hoping the natives would see what they were doing and respond. They ignored them.
“How about if we just move on and tell them in effect to kiss our hairy little butts?” Thor suggested the next morning when there had been no response overnight.
“Maybe they don’t believe the transmission?” Lee speculated. “Maybe they think it is an elaborate joke or a scam? Do they have sufficient image editing capacity to do a special effects short like a science fiction video with made up races and a fake background as complex as our flight deck?”
“We haven’t seen any ability to generate images,” Luke, a fellow studying their transmissions responded. “They don’t do avatars, not even simple stick figures, they don’t even do fades or titles with fancy text in 3D shapes. No arrows or highlighting or circling a choice with a line. My eight year old niece would be bored with the plain vanilla video they pump out.”
“I don’t think they have computers!” Lee blurted out. “At least not any decent ones…”
“They are probably wondering how we draw stuff directly on the screen. They’d have to draw it in front of the camera on a white board, or a paper pad,” Luke said. “We just take it for granted.”
“Whatever they can put in front of the camera lens, that’s it?” Lee asked horrified.
“Maybe put some of the words we see captioned on the screen and see if they offer any drawing to try to explain it? If they don’t want to go the other way, with us drawing, time to change something,” Luke suggested. “If it’s as authoritarian as Ming thinks they may still be waiting for permission to speak to us. We may get a big rush of replies all at once when they get a go-ahead.”
“As long as they’re not shooting at us, keep sending things, give them another day or two, let us know if you make any break through. If they don’t respond we’ll be thinking on what to do in a couple days. If they refuse to talk, well it’s their planet. They don’t have to answer the door,” Gordon said.
* * *
“They are answering, very tentatively and limited,” Luke said a few hours later.
“We’re making some progress,” Luke reported two days later on. He looked haggard.
“They started talking?” Gordon asked.
“One word at a time. But on three channels. It’s slow. You know ‘Teen’?
“Oh sure, that is a big one, so we have to get it right.”
“Tentative translation is king. We got a drawing of a pyramid of stick figures. The one on the very top, all alone, is circled and labeled ‘Teen’. We’re capitalizing it now.” Luke brought the picture up and showed Gordon. “Do you see what else there is, besides being on top?”
“Got it in one. They didn’t say anything about that, they just drew it that way. Figure the collars are slave collars, or might as well be. The Teen owns everyone. More to the point, the Teen owns everything. We drew exchanging objects, trying to explain trade. They can’t trade. None of them own anything. If they have anything it’s because the Teen gave it to them to use, but it was and is his, they just get the gift of its use from his kindness.”
“That makes trade kind of tough,” Gordon admitted. “Even if he gives us something, he can change his mind and take it back. We have no standing to form a contract.”
“Exactly. And the meteor bombardment they suffer constantly from all the system trash has a price on their society. They explained in pictures that about two thousand years ago they detected a rock coming in and evacuated as many as possible from the town where it was headed. It still killed about twenty thousand they couldn’t get out in time. They are pretty much obsessed with that, and that’s why they have radar. They developed it for identifying incoming rocks and asteroids. They know a world killing rock is a possibility, but their tech has been at this level for at least eight thousand years if we understand them correctly. They seem a bit fatalistic, and have no real idea of getting out there and controlling anything from hitting, instead of just trying to get some warning. That explains a lot of the oddities of their architecture. Most homes are build behind a wall and berm on the east side where meteors tend to come in against the planet’s rotation. Really important people are housed well underground where it is safer. Even roads have shelter walls and berms a vehicle can pull next to when there is a shower.”
“And yet they can put up geostationary satellites and have radar.”
“They do, and it is awkward expensive tech for them, and takes a great deal of their wealth. They do it with tech not much better than Humans had right after the first atomic war. That’s another thing. They not only don’t have any but the simplest computers, we see no indication at all they have any idea about atomic power. Certainly no detailed ideas about atomic structure, or any modern theories of particle physics. Figure no quantum theory at all. Just classical mechanics and chemistry.”
“Given what we are learning about their social structure, I’m not sure I want them having better tech. They make much better neighbors behind a tall fence.” Gordon decided.
“The crazy thing is, they see the Teen’s total ownership as the only way to have peace,” Luke said. “They informed us that in olden times, before there was one Teen, men all constantly fought over who owned what, and everybody suffered war after war. But notice, with almost complete control of their society, they choose to keep it mostly agricultural, instead of developing tech and pushing further into space.”
“Farmers are easier to control,” Thor suggested. “They may not be thrilled to find out we still war.”
“They don’t look that aggressive, do they?” Gordon asked.
“They have a nasty passive aggressive attitude. They wanted to know who Lee and Ha-bob-bob-brie belong to, because they were wearing something around their neck. They wanted to know when we were going to bring the ships down so the Servants of the Teen, that’s what the emblem on the bus said, can inspect his ships for the Teen.”
“When they serve peppermint ice cream in hell,” Thor suggested.
“They also want to know how we got here. We’re pretty sure they saw the Roadrunner go through the outer system and then disappear. That’s what they seemed to draw for us. They know nothing goes faster than light. They stated that to us a fact, not a question. So they are very uncomfortable seeing how fast our ships are compared to chemical rockets, and they don’t even know how to phrase the questions they need to ask about our transit time between stars.”
“There’s no way around it, we simply can’t let these ownership assumptions go unchallenged. They would be perfectly reasonable to say we didn’t object to them later, if we just ignore them now,” Gordon told them.
“I expect they are not going to want to hear it,” Luke warned them.
“Be as polite as it is possible to be, but make clear that while the Teen is on top of the pyramid at home, we are not under him, and if we wear a collar or necklace it isn’t because we are owned. We own ourselves. If they can’t treat us with respect as independent people, peers, we will go away, because we can’t do trade with them as slaves. The Teen’s power doesn’t reach to the stars,” Gordon said.
“That is stretching the limits of what we can say. I know we are going to have to back up and do some words again, one at a time. It may take more than a day to express those ideas.”
“We’re not in a rush, I’m sending the Retribution and The Champion William to look over the outer system in more detail. They really aren’t needed here. Advise us when you feel you’ve made some progress again,” Gordon requested. “We won’t juggle your elbow and hurry you. It’s rather important these things be translated accurately, rather than quickly.”
“Oh, I’m curious too,” Gordon asked. “Do you have a name for the natives? Do you know what they call themselves? Or have you coined an expression for their race?”
“They just call themselves their word for people. It’s probably more important that they have never referred to us as people. They don’t even call us other people or outside people. Near as we can figure they just call us other – in the singular form,” He looked embarrassed. “Because of the flat cleft nose and how it twitches all the time, we started calling them Bunnies. I know it doesn’t fit anything else about them, but when you sit and look at their faces all day it seemed obvious.”
“We won’t make that official just yet. Hear me?” Gordon asked him sternly. Luke just nodded.
* * *
“Gordon, I think you and Thor need to see our latest exchange,” Luke said six shifts later. They joined him in the end of the dining area that had become their make-shift translation and communication center. Luke and his partner had recruited another crew member, and they were both seated against the wall, looking distressed and leaving it to Luke to make the report to their commander.
“This is the last conversation with the Teen’s men charged with talking to us. In reality they were charged with issuing us orders. I’m afraid the fact we would not accept those orders put them in a no win situation. Their personal survival was probably in question. Watch.”
The English sub-titles were auto-translated from the transmission. There were three of the natives seated before the camera, and others came in and out, laying down documents and picking up notes the three made.
Luke speaking: “We will not land. Stop asking. We expect (see literally) you take our (literally, not Teen) ships if we land. Teen is your Teen. We have no Teen. We no want one.”
First native: “If Teen not own everything (unknown word) to far stars – Teen owns almost nothing. One star in all the (unknown word) heavens is nothing. Either he owns all or our law and (peace?) is (unknown word, may be curse) nothing (zero?).”
Second native: “We have no way (hand literally) (to? variation on word) make them land. What you suggest we do?” (Face of native is very contorted. This may indicate great stress.)
First native: “Tell it to Teen.” (His face assumes similar contortions. This statement may not have been a serious suggestion, but identifying sarcasm in a new alien language is chancy.)
Third native: “We are doomed (dead?).”
First native: “Tell Teen this!” (He rips off collar. Second native jumps up and snatches it from his hand, and grabs him in a head-lock from behind.)
Third native: (Looks at struggling pair. Then looks at camera lens.) Says: (three unknown words. Camera feed cuts off. Carrier signal follows quickly.)
“That was about a half hour ago,” Luke explained. “We haven’t been able to get a signal again. The volume of traffic to their satellites went way up for a few minutes, and then dropped off hard. I’m afraid we made a mess of it.”
“Do we have a current video feed for the big city?” Gordon asked. “That’s where their studio is right?”
“Yeah, just outside the city. Near one of those palaces. We have a telescope on them, recording. We figured we’d want to see later if they moved vehicles or changed defensive posture in response to anything we said. I’ll bring it up on the big screen for all of us.” Thor said.
Nobody wanted to say anything. There was a good wind blowing across the city. Plumes of smoke drifted in narrow lines from the area of the studio and the nearby palace, that seemed to be burning even more robustly than the studio. Vehicles were going down the road away from the city in a clump, they’d never seen so many before. A number of vehicles also seemed to be on the shoulders of the road nearer the city, burning.
One of the large barrack structures was burning, and there were a large number of vehicles around the burning palace. One of the bridges across a river that ran through the city seemed to be missing, just a stub left on each shore. The other bridge had a jumble of vehicles piled in the middle, one actually hanging over the rail. There were a half dozen big fires across the city, in buildings whose function they hadn’t identified.
“Boy, am I glad they don’t have nukes and stuff,” Luke observed. They sat and watched the smoke spread for awhile in silence.
“Doesn’t that seem a bit of over-reaction?” Thor finally asked in a strained voice.
“To you, or me,” Gordon agreed. “I mean, we carefully never said anything to indicate we would interfere with their system, or that we even wanted them to change. We just refused to submit to it.”
“Apparently they are so invested in the idea the Teen’s ownership must be universal, that to be shown it has limits destroys the authority of the whole system,” Luke theorized. “They never asked us how our system worked without a Teen.”
“You said you made a mess of it,” Gordon reminded him. “I can’t blame you for this. Even if we sat back and studied them for years, there is just no way we’d have known they were this close to the tipping point of their system collapsing. All on the basis of a few words we said to them. The only safe way would have been to sneak away and never try to talk to them, never even run a ship through like we did the Roadrunner. It’s ridiculous to assign yourself guilt over such a crazy reaction.”
“I hope the rest of our civilization agrees with you,” Luke said. “Otherwise it may become the law that we can’t speak with an alien civilization. Not even approach their system if we detect signals from outside.”
“On the other hand,” Thor said, looking grim, “imagine the Bunnies figuring out a jump drive and bursting forth upon the other populated worlds, announcing they own everything and demanding the peasants all line up and get slave collars. I don’t see that as any improvement. It’s not like contact with the Derf and Hinth were totally trouble free. But nothing so widely violent, so quickly, and the Elves and the Beavers never had a hiccup,” he said, naming the two known aboriginal races, who still were uninterested in any real close contact.
“Call The Champion William and the Retribution back from the outer system survey,” Gordon ordered. “Anything more we say, even if we could contact them, would just be digging ourselves in deeper at this point in my opinion. I’d like for us all to rendezvous outside the orbit of their moon. We’ll continue looking for other worlds. We’ll discuss whether we should stop on the way back home and see how things settled out, or leave well enough alone.”
“Aye, aye,” Thor agreed. “But I’ll continue to record, and leave a small satellite to continue surveillance after we leave. I doubt they can spare the resources to come up and interfere with it. Especially with things are in turmoil. When we pass back by it’ll be interesting to see how things progress, and how long they take to stabilize.”
By the time they broke orbit and left, the other city was burning. Then somebody pointed out that some of the dams on the second continent seemed to have burst. Nobody had much to say. At least nobody suggested destroying the records and hushing it up.