Neal was out in what the Federation might have called ‘The Outback’ if they’d thought to name it, a desolated area with few stars and fewer planets that bordered along the fringes of Federation space. There wasn’t much reason to be out that way, unless you had something to hide. While some pirates did use the vacant stars as places to trade illicit cargoes, Neal’s reasons were a little different. Most of what he made he reinvested into his business, this included setting up a few small stations to convert the outpouring energy of a star into antimatter – the main energy source used by faster than light ships like the extended pod-carrying freighter he had jokingly named Pogo Stick.
He was heading for one of those refueling stations now, it being just a little out of his way and one he hadn’t hit in a while, so it should have had a full load waiting for him.
While he had run across a pirate (or the remains of a pirate) on occasion looking for free supplies, that wasn’t what he found this time …
“Dropping from warp in one minute,” Neal’s computer told him.
“One minute to real space at M1742.365; aye, Tess,” he replied. Though she had started out as a simple ship’s AI, capable of only understanding very basic commands, he was still watching her slowly but steadily grow into something more. His reply was to both tell the computer he had heard and understood as well as to exercise his own voice, as it could sometimes be months between stations.
The drop out of warp went smoothly, the warp bubble around the ship collapsing so evenly that Neal barely felt the ship shudder as she went back to obeying the more normal laws of physics.
“Outer buoy detected,” Tess reported. “It’s warning that we have company,” she informed him.
“Download the data and we’ll see what we have before going too deeply into the star’s gravity well,” Neal requested.
“Aye, sir. One ship. It is like nothing in my databases.” Tess was quiet for a moment as she read the running records before adding, “It looks like the automated defenses kept them from getting too close to the station, but they have not left the area either.”
“Have they fired on the station?” Neal asked.
“No. Station scans suggest they are armed with medium powered lasers and some type of very sublight chemical missile.”
“And the station’s response?”
“Standard hails all languages and frequencies warning them away from a protected station. When they neared the defense perimeter, the station fired a couple of ‘warning shots’. They kept their distance after the first few demonstrations.”
The warning shots were very small balls of solid anti-hydrogen ‘ice’, surplus from the antimatter production and constantly being renewed. They were aimed at small rocks and other debris left in the station’s orbit for just that purpose. If a ship closed despite the very graphic warning, the balls were then fired at the ship.
The unknown ship was a collection of thin trusses holding the ship’s main sections together but apart from each other. The main crew area was held far forward of the engineering and triangle of warp engine systems. Instruments bristled from the front of the bow and each nacelle; the design and purpose of some were obvious, while others were not. Neal pulled up close-ups of some of them while having Tess retrieve some old pictures of Earth’s first warp ships for comparison.
“Hmmm, I think we’re looking at someone’s early warp trials,” Neal softly muttered. “Most of those instruments would be rather worthless once in warp, but they wouldn’t have known that when they started out … Interesting three warp engine design, but they also still don’t fully understand proper shielding from the way they’ve designed it.”
“Would you say they are about where Earth tech was in the first ten years of getting to warp?” Tess asked.
“About,” Neal admitted, “though we can’t really tell how long it took them to get this far. Tell you what; let’s hold our position and let them hear us transmitting to the station. I want to see what they do.”
“Exchanging data with the station in the clear … they are now broadcasting a message at us, looks like the same one they’ve been sending to the station over and over. Translators aren’t getting anything they can work with,” Tess reported.
“Send one of the sub-light Zulus at them. Give me a slow flyby, full scanner sweep. Start the scans from half way out to them so they don’t see any sudden changes as it gets closer,” Neal told her.
“Zulu moving, but I don’t understand why you want the scans to start early,” Tess half complained. “Nor the old sub-light Zulu when we have several warp ones already out.”
“We know they are armed, and they know the station can defend itself. The Zulu suddenly changing its actions might be taken as something else – say like a weapon locking on target?”
“So you want them to see that even though the Zulu is passing near them, it doesn’t consider them a target.”
“That’s it,” Neal agreed. “We want a look without making them fear an attack. As for the sub-light Zulu? No reason to show them all of our tricks just yet.”
“You were right about their shielding. What little they have is protecting the crew. It must play havoc with keeping their systems calibrated,” Tess stated.
“We weren’t much better at the beginning,” Neal reflected. “Make a hop, scan to find out how far you got, then hop again, shorter hops as you got closer to your destination.”
“Before adequate warp speed sensors?” Tess asked.
“It wasn’t always this easy to get around,” Neal told her. “Check your history, most of that was ‘the best’ we had at the time.”
“They are now broadcasting at the Zulu, same data stream as before,” Tess reported.
“Try some of the other first contact stuff you have in memory, counting/atomic weights, anything to get either side seeing more than random noise,” Neal suggested. “Hell, make up a couple large primes and use them to draw a picture of us and them orbiting this star.”
“They replied to your picture,” Tess reported a while later. “They repeated it back to us and then did it again adding the station.”
“Send it back to them,” he told her. “Then show us going to the station and them keeping their distance.”
“They replied with pictures of them also going to the station,” Tess replied.
“Hmmm. Show us exchanging supplies with the station and then both ships moving away from the station before they exchange supplies.”
“No reply,” Tess said after a minute.
“Show the station going through its list of known ships and recognizing us and letting us approach. Then show the same thing with their ship, coming up unknown and warning off or attacking if they get too close,” Neal suggested.
“They understood that. Now sending back the one where they meet up with us after we leave the station. They’re turning their ship, now moving towards where I showed them to meet us,” Tess said.
“So they can be taught,” Neal murmured. “Take us in slow. No reason to let them know just how badly we can out-accelerate them at sub-light.”
“Aye, Boss. Slow acceleration in-route to the station. Station reported both pods fully loaded as well as seventeen standard containment spheres.”
“We’ll take the pods and leave a few empties. We can take five of the spheres to see if we can’t barter with our friends. Speaking of whom, continue seeing how much ‘translating’ you can do with them.”
“How would I do that?” Tess asked.
“Well, you’ve already got them agreeing to orbits with a 2D screen. Use it like a blackboard and teach them how we count. Pi, heck, show the count off the size of your current screen and then show it unfolding into the third dimension. A sunbeam into a prism will give you a color pallet to work with. Start with that and with any luck they’ll start trying to teach you,” Neal suggested.
They were almost to the station when Tess said, “They use base eight like the Caitians. They see deeper into the red than you do. They suffered some type of engineering casualty that cost them over half their antimatter fuel containment; the containers they have left are the ones that were fueling their core at the time. Even if you refuel their remaining containers, they can’t carry enough to make it home.”
“Have we progressed to pictures of each other?” Neal asked.
“We have,” Tess admitted. “They were quiet for quite a while after I showed them humans. So I started showing them the other species and morphs. They seem to have trouble understanding that any one is not dominant over the others.”
“Did they show you them?”
“This could be wrong in the color and/or scale,” Tess warned him as a figure was slowly rotated on one of the screens. Six legs in pairs held the main torso off the ground, the four rearmost looked like they were there to only support the body while the forward two looked like they might be able to reach forward and crudely grasp things.
There was one more pair of limbs further up, both longer and more delicate looking than the others. The head was large with two large multifaceted eyes and a mouth that looked liked it closed both from the bottom as well as the sides. The closest thing Neal could compare them to was a fat praying mantis of Earth. Tess had sent them the human life cycle, and they had returned the favor. As with some species, the females were noticeably larger than the males. As Neal was reading this it suddenly changed to add that fertile females were larger than the males and that there were non-fertile females that were often smaller than the males. They were egg layers, and they had a larva stage that out-massed the final adult. Each limb had four ‘fingers,’ two together at the ‘top’ of the ‘hand,’ the other two coming from the lower corners of the hand like opposing thumbs.
“Interesting,” Neal admitted. “Have you found out what air mix they like?”
“They prefer a higher oxygen content, otherwise they seem comparable with our systems,” Tess replied.
“Not knowing what type of bugs those bugs might be carrying, we’ll be keeping this a remote relationship for now I think,” Neal said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t help them out a bit. What besides oxygen and antimatter do they need?”
Tess was quiet for a while as she ‘talked’ with the visitors. The pod transfer was complete and Pogo Stick was heading outward before she answered. “They fear they may not have enough food to make it home – even if our antimatter containment systems can be paired to their system. Station logs showed that they’ve been in this system over two months.”
“See if you can get their home system from them. If it’s not too far we might just be late to our next couple of stops,” Neal suggested.
“They gave that to me earlier,” Tess replied. “Three weeks each way at what you’ve set as ‘full’ speed.”
“A bit longer than I’d like,” Neal admitted. “And at ‘max’?”
“Four days, but then you’ll need to cool purge and inspect the cores and engines before we use them again.”
“We’ll save it as an option,” Neal said. “As for food, do they have a way to test the things we might offer?”
“They think they do.”
“Ok then. Find out how far they think they can go if we can recharge their matter and antimatter stores. While you’re doing that, load a carrier half full of oxygen canisters, the other half load with pallets of food, say a couple each from Earth, Voxxa, Merraki, Cait, and Raksha – oh, are they meat eaters?”
“While they have shown me a lot of plant life, they also raise animals for milk and meat.”
“Mixed pallets then. Hmmm, unless we want to pressure seal the food we still need to find a way to seal the carrier to one of their airlocks …”
“I can fashion an adapter to fit their hull. We have some epoxies that should hold no matter their hull material.”
“Do it. Add an air canister to pressure check the seal and a way to vent it if needed,” Neal agreed.
“So you could vent it while their airlock is open?” Tess asked.
“No, Tess. A proper pressure test is to take it a couple times higher than you need it to hold. We then have a choice of venting the excess pressure, or pumping it back into the canister. You could in fact add a safety so that it won’t vent below five PSI – though that would then make it harder to remove the adapter if we need to.”
“Don’t be sorry, it was a legitimate question. If I had thought they were a danger, I might have been thinking along those lines. As it is, I could kill them by just doing nothing …”
“I should have seen that,” Tess stated.
“I’ve been around a lot longer than you, and I still miss stuff,” Neal told her. “Never fail to ask if you aren’t sure, Tess. Assuming has killed many a ship out here.”
“Coming up on our new friends,” Tess reported a few minutes later.
“Tell them to hold steady and we’ll send them our package. Remote launch Echo and take them that carrier.”
Made to move the much larger pods between ship and stations, the shuttle dwarfed the single carrier and docking adapter as it made its way to the alien ship. Tractor beams from the shuttle kept the ship from being pushed away as the adapter was pressed against the hull and sealed before the canister released some of its air into the adapter to test the hold and then the excess was vented. The whole time this was happening, Tess was sending pictures of what was going on at each step. With the pressure back down to what she thought they liked, she then sent them a picture of them opening their hatch.
Cameras added to the adapter and carrier showed the hatch open a crack and the pressure in the adapter dropped still lower.
“They pulled in an air sample,” Tess reported.
“Don’t blame them,” Neal agreed. “Show them where you mounted the lighting and pressure controls in case they’re not to their liking.”
After a while a suited bug entered the adapter and spent a few minutes actually playing with the lights mounted in the adapter. It then floated over to where Tess had attached one of several heavy duty PADDs, this one’s display showing what its camera could see, in this case the bug.
Working out how to remove it from the pictures Tess had provided, the bug pulled it free and set it in the airlock before cycling it closed from the outside. Tess dutifully noted the pressure drop to near vacuum before coming back up only a little lower than she had set in the adapter. A probe attached to the PADD confirmed that they also preferred a little more oxygen.
The inner hatch opened and an unsuited bug grabbed the PADD and quickly carried it deeper into the ship. Neal and Tess watched as several wide but low corridors went by in a rush as their carrier bounced from point to point without the benefit of gravity before they entered a room with over a dozen more of the bugs in it. Clicks, hisses, and whistles gave a hint on how they communicated, though there was a lot of waving of the upper two sets of limbs as well as their feathery antenna. With more of them together it was easy to see that they varied wildly in size and color, the one that had carried the PADD was one of the smaller ones as there were a couple well over twice its meter and a half length. Colors seemed to range between dark blue to a yellow/green on one of the larger ones.
“Ok,” Neal said as the noise from the speakers died down a little. “Now that they’ve calmed down a bit I think it’s time we admit that that this toy is two-way. Slide the screen over slowly to three quarters me, the other what I’m seeing of them.”
The other ship had gone dead silent by the time Tess said, “Done.”
Several of the bugs stepped back when Neal was seen to lean forward and cock his head at them. “Well hello there,” the PADD’s speaker said as Neal’s lips moved. “I know you can’t understand me, but I thought it best that you saw something more than just computer animations.” Nodding to them on the screen, Neal said, “Tess, back to you, why don’t you show them what we packed where in that carrier.”
“Yes, sir,” Tess replied as Neal’s image disappeared and an overhead view of the carrier appeared on the screen.
The bugs got a little noisier as they discussed what they were seeing and one turned to ‘speak’ into what appeared to be a comm unit. The suited bug in the adapter suddenly became more active, opening the outer hatch and then the carrier doors and moving the first of the oxygen tanks to the airlock.
“They seem too trusting,” Tess said as the bugs quickly transferred the supplies to their ship.
“They know they can’t make it home on their own,” Neal pointed out. “Their choices are limited, trust me or die. If they’re wrong to trust me, the worst that can happen is they might die faster.”
“You wouldn’t trust that easily,” Tess accused him.
“No, I’d be testing the things one at a time in the airlock, just in case one of them was dangerous,” Neal admitted.
“I included an adapter kit that should mate with whatever they use for pipes and hoses,” Tess said as one of the bugs opened a box attached to the first bottle.
“Without being told. Good call,” Neal said as they watched them sort through the kit. “While they play inside, I want a detailed scan of how their antimatter containment works and how much it can hold.”
Tess slowly moved the Zulu, parking it where it could add to her scans of the alien containment and core systems. “Using the history records as a reference, they look to be between the first Earth and Rakshan systems. Unless the core and the drives are better tuned than my scans suggests, it would have been almost an eight month trip for them to get out here.”
“So this was more exploration than just a warp test,” Neal replied.
“For them there's not much out this way until they hit Federation space,” Tess pointed out.
“Which I’ll let you show them. Better they know they’ll be tripping over populated areas than the possibly being surprised by someone less friendly than you and I.”
“They’ve gotten into the food pallets,” Tess reported. “Just one of the smaller ones is sampling each of the foods; the others are just standing around watching.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Neal said, “if your tests say it’s safe, you still have to have someone try it to see if there’s something your test might have missed. Wait a bit and then test the sampler to see if they’re still healthy, if so, then the others get to try it.”
“The suited one has exited the ship by another airlock, two with him,” Tess reported.
“Him?” Neal asked.
“From what I got from them earlier, the largest and rarest are the breeding females, while the smallest are usually non-breeding females. The males fall in between. Their coloration seems to have more to do with what they were fed as larva than genetics,” Tess told him.
“If their breeding females are so rare, why would they risk them on a dangerous flight like this?”
“I don’t think I have enough of their words to ask them that,” Tess replied.
“Don’t worry about it, Tess. The fact that we’ve gotten this far with them is impressive in itself. Why don’t you bring up your scan data and let’s see what we can do about refueling them.” Instead of the requested scans coming up, the displays all went dark.
“Tess?” Neal said, an eyebrow rising.
“You have been awake over forty hours, sir,” Tess informed him.
“A few more won’t kill me – and they’re going out now,” Neal pointed out.
“Your orders – ” Tess started, only to have Neal cut her off.
“I know what my orders are – I wrote them! This is one of those exceptions I told you may apply.”
“I will remind you again in two hours,” Tess told him as the scan data lit up the displays.
“Two hours,” Neal agreed as he leaned closer to look at what he was going to be working with.
It was actually closer to four hours before Tess managed to get Neal to rest. It helped that the bugs had also stopped their outside work for the time being, though several of them were still working with her through the PADDs and comm systems.
Neal was a little ‘displeased’ with Tess the next morning; she had canceled his six hour wake-up call and let him sleep over ten hours. It helped a little that the extra time had given Tess and the bugs more of an understanding of each other, and added a few more words each knew wouldn’t be misunderstood.
While Tess’s PADDs were still in heavy use, Tess had learned their communications protocols and was now able to send her information to their screens and accept the views from their cameras. It was thus that Neal found himself looking at over a dozen screens of bugs that appeared to be frozen in place.
“What am I looking at?” he asked just before taking a sip of his iced tea.
“You are watching the bugs watch you eat,” Tess replied.
That it was in real-time was proved by the bugs’ reactions to Neal blowing his sip of tea out his nose.
“Is there a problem?” Tess asked.
“A little warning that I was on exhibit would have been nice,” Neal growled as he wiped his face.
“I will remember that in case it happens to come up again,” Tess stated.
“Was that sarcasm coming out of your speakers?” Neal half demanded. “How much of your simple-minded AI is an act?”
“Please rephrase the question,” Tess mechanically replied.
“Never mind …” Neal muttered. “What have you learned while I was asleep?”
“That getting the two containment systems to properly do a transfer may not be possible, they are just too dissimilar. It may be possible to adapt our containment to feed their core,” Tess said as she brought up the numbers she and the bugs had come up with.
“A built in lag,” Neal said looking over the flowchart. “And their system won’t be able to handle any over-feeding by the containment system caused by that lag … a disaster waiting to happen.”
“It is the best they can do without you letting me explain more Federation technology,” Tess pointed out.
Neal frowned before saying, “Polite as this bunch has been, we don’t know them well enough to give them that big a tech boost.”
Tess remained silent as Neal poured over the data, looking for something he might have missed – or a loophole that could be made to work. The bugs sent a couple suggestions that they thought might work, but each time Tess sent it back showing where Neal thought it would fall through and fail.
Two days later saw them pretty much at the same place with no good solutions that Neal liked, but now the bugs were asking him to help them try the least bad option. It offered another layer of buffering, but it still didn’t fully address the lag that worried Neal the most.
A plan of attack established, Neal started tearing down one of the empty containment systems that would become the adapter and extra buffer. With permission this time, Tess let the bugs watch as Neal broke it down and started making the mating coupler which would allow it to seal properly to the bugs’ matter and antimatter supply systems. Next came setting it up to receive and control the feeds coming from a standard containment system.
“They think their system can handle more than you are setting the limits to,” Tess reported as Neal finished testing the programming.
“They’ll have control of the interface,” he pointed out. “They can crank it higher if they like, but I want the first tests locked at the lower settings.”
“They do not think you trust them.”
Neal barked out a laugh. “I don’t! They’re like children used to playing with butter knives and I’m handing them a blade that can slice them and their ship to pieces with the first wrong move.”
“I will try to convey that to them,” Tess replied before going silent.
“Were you able to explain it to them?” Neal asked as he sat down for a late dinner.
“I think so. It helped when I compared our ship to theirs. They knew it took more power to move this much mass, but not how much more. They may have become a little frightened when they realized that only five of those are needed to provide all the fuel to take us to warp.”
“That would do it,” Neal agreed. “They had no idea just how high the flow rates can be out of those things. And I know some Federation engineers that would shiver at the flow rates we have to use just to form the warp bubble.”
“But you do not,” Tess stated.
Neal snorted. “There are so many ways to die in this universe … at least we’ll never feel a core letting go,” he reflected.
“They are wondering when you will let them try it.”
“Tomorrow. I’m tired and I want to be alert when they start testing the links.”
“I will let them know.”
The two-tone alarm had gotten quite loud by the time Neal finally came out of a deep sleep. “What?” he demanded as he rolled over.
“Outer markers picked up three ships coming out of warp,” Tess replied. “One of them matches that suspected pirate that was trailing us five weeks ago.”
“And he brought friends this time,” Neal muttered. “Have the station give them one warning – after that they’re target practice.”
“Sending … and if they come at us?”
“Bring in the Zulus. If they get too close you can ram their cores.”
“Outer Zulus inbound. I will place them between us.”
“Alert the bugs, I’m pretty sure their sensors don’t have the range to see those incoming ships.”
“How do I explain pirates to them?” Tess asked.
“Hmmm. One ship closing on another, firing, pulling cargo, leaving the other behind should be basic enough for them.”
“Getting a picture reply. They want to run away.”
“Nice idea, but they’re nowhere near fast enough – never mind that they don’t have the fuel to run very far.”
“Will we leave them behind?” Tess asked.
“No … nor can we let those pirates see which way they head for home. Tell them to shut down and purge their core, looks like we’ll be giving them that ride home after all.”
“They don’t want to do that,” Tess reported a minute later.
“Show them two pictures,” Neal told her. “Both with us leaving the area; one with them attached, the other with them left behind. Show them that we only have so much time to decide.”
“Most of them are up now, looks like an argument about what to do … The one I think is in charge looks like they said something most of the others don’t like.”
“Core purge now in progress, Boss.”
“Bring us around; the crew section will easily fit in a pod. If we can, we’ll save their engines and core in another.”
“The pod in C3 can hold their crew section, G9 should hold the rest if we break it into component pieces,” Tess stated.
“Picture it for them, they may already have it set to release the pieces in case of emergency,” Neal suggested.
“It seems they did,” Tess reported a minute later. “Longest piece is just shy of forty-five meters; I could tuck all of it into C3.”
“Let’s go with using two pods; most of their shielding is aft and won’t help them at all if we park their engines right next to them …”
“I missed that,” Tess admitted.
“There’s a method behind my madness,” Neal chuckled. “Though some days there be madness behind my methods!”
“Pirates steering clear of the station, path is quickest one to reach us without getting too deep into the star’s gravity well,” Tess reported. “I estimate twenty minutes before they are within range to use missiles, five more before beam weapons. They’re demanding our surrender.”
“Ignore them. How long before we have our friends secured?”
“Just get them parked, we’ll worry about hookups after we’re in warp.”
“Hmmm, their engines aren’t too shabby if they could round up a couple friends and just be a few days behind us,” Neal commented.
“I can change our engine configuration to make us harder to track …” Tess offered.
“No, we want to lead them away from here on a path that won’t help them find our new friends. We were running at roughly half power, let’s take it up to three quarters and head down to join one of the Federation’s space lanes; a few hours there and then we go to quiet mode and head back out for half a day before changing course and going full out to the bugs home world,” Neal told her.
“Several Rakshan colonies aren’t far from here; if there’s traffic, it might help hide our trail.”
“Except that we don’t want them deciding on attacking a colony ship when they lose us …” Neal pointed out.
“Their colony ships are armed,” Tess countered.
“Not that well armed, and three to one is bad odds,” Neal replied. “Unless of course we or the station thins or cripples their numbers a bit …”
“Parts parked, tractor beams holding them in place until we can make some type of support for them,” Tess reported.
“Start moving us out slowly, let’s let them think we’re too deep into the star’s gravity well to escape to warp yet.”
“Should I leave the cores at low settings?”
“No, ramp them up, let them think we need all that power just to move … match any high sub-light speed moves they make, and prep those two ‘G’ Zulus.”
“But they will be able to see where you try to place them,” Tess warned him.
“Not if you have them behind us weaving in and out with the other Zulus, two stop at the same point and they see one pop out with a shadow …”
“And they will think it left.”
“Especially if we’ve been doing it for just a few hours,” Neal suggested.
“That will wear out the Zulus faster,” Tess pointed out.
“Worth it if we can knock one or two of them out of the running,” Neal countered.
“They will be going to warp any time now.”
“Then so will we. I want us going just a little faster than they can – I want their systems straining just to keep up with us.”
“To do the maximum damage when they cross through the gravity mine’s effects.”
“Jumping to warp. Two are starting to gain, the third is already falling behind,” Tess reported.
“Pick up the pace a bit then,” Neal acknowledged. “How are our passengers doing?”
“A lot more activity. They know we’re in warp and are trying to get readings from their instruments.”
“I see no danger in letting them calibrate their systems, you can give them accurate data to work with.”
“I’m giving them your display and explaining what everything means … I think they’re having a hard time believing the data, they’re all just standing there staring at the screens.”
“Look at it from their point of view; they just discovered that there are others out here. Others that can move very large craft much faster than they may have thought possible. And that there are bad guys out here as well.”
“They may be wondering which we may be,” Tess pointed out.
“The only way to prove we aren’t the bad guys will be to prove we haven’t lied to them, which is why they’re going to get that ride home.”
“Pirates still closing, but very slowly.”
“Kick us up a notch, just to open up the distance, then drop back to this speed as if we can’t maintain it for long.”
“They’ve increased their speed again,” Tess told him a few minutes later. “I’ll need to hold our ‘high’ speed just to slow their approach.”
“Wait a few more minutes and give us another ‘boost’. Without doing our systems any harm, I want you to add some harmonics to the warp bubble, as if we’re pushing the warp field harder than the systems can handle.”
“So they think we can’t go any faster without crashing out of warp on our own.”
Minutes later the massive freighter surged ahead, the pirates beginning to lose ground yet again. Sensors watching the chase would have seen the freighter’s warp fields fluctuating wildly as if she had been pushed to her limits, while inside scarcely a ripple disturbed the captain’s cup of tea. The pursuing ships found just a little more power, but the closure rate was better figured in ground car speeds than in ships at warp.
“It would take them a week to reach us at this rate,” Tess told him.
“They won’t wait that long,” Neal replied. “Start zooming the Zulus between us, I want them to get tired of seeing them.”
“Missile launch! Single missile heading for the port nacelle.”
“Drop a Zulu on it, ram if needed,” Neal instructed. “Let’s see if they want to waste any more missiles before we drop one of the G Zulus on them.”
They watched as the missile ate up the distance between them, only to drop its warp field still well short of its target or the Zulu that was targeting it.
“There was a minor spike on the gravity sensors – they were trying to get a gravity mine close enough to disrupt our fields.”
“Return the favor,” Neal suggested.
A crisscross of Zulus racing behind the freighter helped hide the one that dropped out of warp along the path the pirates were expected to take. Despite the great distances between hunters and hunted, the lone Zulu needed to only wait seconds before its targets came into range. Like the missile that had been sent forward, it could generate the gravity well of a small moon for only a few seconds. Unlike the missile that had failed to range the freighter, its targets were coming to it. A full half-second before the pirate ships would speed past, its gravity well swelled to full power. Their warp bubbles twisted as they hit a gravity deviation that the computers hadn’t been able to predict – much less adjust for in the little time they had – tearing both ships out of warp and causing power spikes and feedback into the already overloaded systems. One had strayed deeper into the momentary gravity field than the other, and its warp core came apart due to the stresses, leaving a long smear of light and energy as it exploded. The other managed to maintain its core – barely – but its warp engines were heavily damaged by the feedback and surges from the crash out of warp.
Far behind them, the small probe that had caused such a surprising amount of damage carefully folded its gravity emitters and ran through its self-tests. The tests concluded successfully and it still had sufficient fuel, so it turned off its self-destruct timer and enabled its warp drive to chase down its mobile home port.
“Both pirates are out of warp, one appears to have lost containment,” Tess reported. “G Zulu inbound.”
“Any signs on that third one?” Neal asked.
“Smooth us out and maintain speed for another hour before taking us out of warp. We’ll refuel the Zulus before we start heading towards the bug world. That should give me enough time to get them hooked up to power.”
“I –––” Tess started, but failed to continue.
“You – what?” Neal asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Their power requirements are well within that supplied to a standard pod, so I guided them through the hookups while the pirates were chasing us,” Tess admitted.
Neal looked thoughtful before saying, “Thinking for yourself again? This is becoming a habit with you … Keep it up … and I’ll be able to retire soon,” he ended with a grin. “I assume you didn’t let them out of the pod …”
“No. Two of my remotes placed the cables I thought we’d need in the pod before they ventured out of their ship. I had them hook a PADD to their power previously, so I knew their requirements.”
“Like I said, good thinking. We’ll have a few days of hard driving to get them home; let me know if they have any questions that you can’t answer.”
“They have had a request since the second day, but it didn’t seem like one you would want to do,” Tess admitted.
“They want to ‘meet’ you, see you with their own eyes, not a view screen.”
“They realize there maybe something common to one that might make the other ill?” Neal asked.
“They agree to stay in their suits if needed.”
“Hmmm, I think we can do better than that – and besides, turnabout is fair play,” Neal said with a small smile as he brought up the stores list.
The next day the bugs woke to find a tube connected to their main airlock. Almost two meters in diameter, the inside was lined with rings of handgrips and light bars every half-meter. More surprising to them was the air in the tube, Tess had accurately matched their pressure and concentrations – and had mixed the scent of one of the few flowers they had shown her growing in their hydroponics section. At Tess’s suggestion, two of them had then braved the tube without their suits. The other end of the tube connected to a rather boxy looking room with a clear wall splitting it down the middle. On the other side sat Neal at a small desk. He smiled when he saw them peeking around the last bend at him. They had come in inverted to him, appearing to be hanging off the ceiling. They carefully righted themselves and came forward, only to find that while Neal seemed to be stuck to the floor, they floated in mid-air.
Standing, Neal walked over to the edge of clear wall and tapped a control near the split. Gravity very slowly started pulling them to the ‘floor’, stopping at less than a tenth of a ‘G’.
“I know you guys have been without gravity for a while,” Neal was saying. “You can adjust your controls to whatever is most comfortable for you.” Tess translating it into text on the wall as well as what she thought were the proper sounds.
The smaller of the two moved over to the controls on their side and began ‘playing’ with the settings. Their side went almost dark before she brought it up a bit brighter than Neal would have preferred, and their gravity ranged up to a G and a half before being turned down to just over a quarter.
“They want to get used to gravity again, having done without it the last two months,” Tess explained as they then moved to the ‘desks’ on their side. Tess had duplicated some of the consoles they had in their ship to make it easier for them to work.
Neal nodded. “Let them know that the pod has its own gravity, and that we secured their ship so the gravity will be on the same plane as if their engines were supplying thrust.”
The bugs ‘talked’ back and forth for several minutes before the smaller rushed back up the tube for their ship. Slower and more carefully, one of the larger bugs then climbed back down. She gave what almost looked like a bow before she began to speak in their click/whistle language.
“She thanks you for saving her people,” Tess translated.
“Tell her I thank her for giving me the opportunity to do so, I like meeting new people and making friends,” Neal replied.
Tess translated it back in both the click/whistles and as the ‘chicken scratch’ they wrote with. The smaller bug replied and Tess made a change to the writing. Nodding, the smaller looked over to the larger and she spoke again.
“She says there was no reason for you to do that,” Tess told him.
“She’s right, I didn’t have to,” Neal admitted. “But I don’t think she can see things from my perspective.”
After Tess had translated for the bugs, the larger had a question, “Explain.”
Neal gave a little shrug. “For you, getting out here was like making a very long and dangerous climb, many ways of death a misstep away.”
The bugs both nodded and Neal continued, “For me, it is no more than you walking that tube to your ship. It will take a little while and cost a little fuel, but I’ve had to work harder to do less.”
While he spoke, Neal typed something into his desk, and as instructed, Tess lit up the display, a cartoonish blue sky and green grass with a tree to the side. Visible in the tree was a nest, a bird popping its head out to peep at them. The little bird then hopped up on the edge of its nest and flapped its wings a few times before trying to fly – and only managing to flutter to the ground. A cartoon figure of Neal walked into view and carefully picked up the bird, gave it a pat on the head (and got nipped for it!) before placing it back in its nest. The little bird squawked at Neal from its nest until he was out of frame, and then started peeping again.
The larger of the bugs said something and Tess played the images again, and then she said something new when it concluded.
“She promises that they won’t bite you,” Tess told him.
“Just as well, I’m old and stringy, not tasty at all,” Neal chuckled. “I’d think the little bird might have bitten me out of fear, the unknown can push you into fight or flight mode.”
“We considered that,” Tess translated. “Most of us did not want to be placed in your ship.”
“And yet, here you are …”
“Yes, we are here. It was one of the minor ones that pointed out that you could easily have killed us or let us die. Instead you feed us and try to help us. Then what you call bad people come and you help hide us. Now you take us home.”
“Your people will learn nothing new if you don’t make it home,” Neal pointed out.
“Now we learn more than if we no have problem.”
“And make a new friend,” Neal agreed.
“Questions many we have …”
“Some questions I can answer, some will have to wait.”
“We comprehend. First question, why not easy detect space location in ‘warp’?”
“Hmmm, I guess I could give your people a few hints,” Neal said with a grin.
Four days later several Zulus dropped out of warp and quickly mapped out a new solar system before popping back into warp.
An hour later one returned and sped towards the fourth planet, slowing and entering orbit before it began transmitting at one of the nearby satellites.
As the Zulu continued to broadcast the information it had been given, two small ships were launched from a station in lower orbit. The Zulu ignored them ‘rushing’ up to it, even when one turned to decelerate while the other continued powered flight towards the Zulu. The first closed and fired on the Zulu as it passed by, the rail-gun shots deflected by the Zulu’s shields. The second ship never had time to fire as the Zulu sent one last blast of data before its warp coils glowed and it jumped to almost a quarter of the speed of light heading away from the planet. Seconds later it turned and came back at the same speed – on a collision course with the station. It stopped closer to the station than it had been to the satellite, and began a new broadcast:
“Had this been an actual attack, the station would have a hole through it. Please stop acting like frightened larvae and behave more like rational adults. This probe was sent ahead to tell you what had happened to our test flight and why we are so late in returning. This probe will now finish sending our reports and personal messages … One warning, the ship that rescued us is a ‘freighter’ and therefore quite ‘large’. Please don’t panic when it appears. While I don’t think we could cause it any real damage, the captain has proven he doesn’t like being shot at!”
The Zulu then gave another burst of speed, only coming to a stop precisely where it had been broadcasting to the satellite, ignoring the second ship that now drifted less than ten kilometers away.
A little less than a local day later, Pogo Stick dropped out of warp a little further out than the planet’s small moon. She then moved with a stately grace towards the station, stopping precisely five kilometers away. One of the pods opened and the crew compartment of the bug ship jetted out with the aid of a set of upgraded thrusters. As it headed for the station, another pod opened and their engineering section and warp engines were pulled out by Pogo Stick’s tractor beams.
Tess noted a great deal of comm traffic between the ship and station, and even more between the station and the planet below. While some of it was encrypted, a lot of it was not and she found herself busy translating what she could.
“Boss? I’m getting a lot of what looks like fear on a lot of the clear channels.”
“I should have just dropped them off at the edge of the system,” Neal admitted. “They sent out the best they had to face the unknown, only to discover there are other kids out there that are much bigger than they could have dreamed of … Tell you what, in the clear, send to the ship that we are going to withdraw to make our checks and repairs. You might hint that even for us that was a hard and fast run. Put enough power behind it so the station and planet won’t miss it.”
“Sending,” Tess reported. A minute later she said, “From the ship I got a request that they want to observe.”
“From a distance should be safe enough,” Neal allowed. “We’ll move now and you can start the purging, I’ll take a nap before I start the checks.”
“Any problems?” Neal asked as he got himself something for breakfast.
“They are having trouble believing there’s just one person running something as big as this ship.”
Neal snorted as he cracked a few eggs over a hot pan. “The Zulus picked up automated miners in their asteroid belts. Point out that other than being a little bigger and a little more complex, this ship is much the same.”
“I did, they still don’t believe it.”
“How’s the clean up going?”
“I left one core hot as per your instructions; the others have all been cooled and purged. Base tests show no excessive wear or damage to any of the systems.”
“Good, I'll check them over and we’ll power them back up before I have you take the last one down.”
“They were asking questions about how we could go so fast.”
“Well, we’re not going to give them all of our secrets, though I was thinking of leaving them a couple of the antimatter containment spheres, among other things it’ll improve their force field knowledge.”
“I can set them at whichever port you’d like.”
“After the checks. I think we’ll do that as a going away present.”
“Several from the ship want to come with you …”
Neal sighed. “We still don’t even know if it’s completely safe,” he pointed out.
“They agree to be kept in a separate pod.”
“No, I wouldn’t keep them locked in a cage like lab rats …”
“They offer a number of themselves anyway, for our scientists to study – in exchange that they are allowed to learn from us,” Tess informed him.
“You sound like you think I should do it,” Neal quietly commented.
“Can you see the logic that caused you to state their case so strongly?”
“Already running, no errors or logic/data corruption discovered at this time.”
“Don’t blow a fuse when you don’t find anything wrong,” Neal told her. “I do want you to create a new folder in your filing system, label it ‘Traveler logic’, place anything that doesn’t quite fit in there for now.”
“Orders understood, but I don’t understand the orders,” Tess confessed.
“I’m working on a theory that you’re being influenced by an outside source. While this may not be a bad thing, it still bears looking into.”
“What can I do?”
“You can tell me when you find yourself wanting to do something that you can’t understand why you want to do it.”
“Like wanting to take them back with us?”
“Like that. Did your ‘want’ include what you wanted to do with them?”
“Your little construction site.”
“Hmmm, out of the way, controlled environment, lots of things being built … and that’s where your want wanted them?”
“Let me think on it.”
“Of course, Boss.”
Three days later Pogo Stick broke orbit from where she’d been following the station’s path around the bug world. Not only was she carrying every bug she’d carried into the system – but three times as many more. In an act that seemed to impress the bugs even more than the Pogo Stick herself, Neal had taken a heavy shuttle down to the planet with an empty pod. It had only taken the bugs a day to fill it with everything they thought they would need for an extended leave before Neal had lifted it back to his ship with what looked like relative ease. Inside the pod was now living and sleeping areas, along with months of food for the bugs as they were shipped to wherever Neal had decided.
“How are our guests doing?” Neal asked the next ship’s morning.
“Quite well, you thank,” came an oddly mechanical voice.
“Tess?” Neal asked in surprise.
“We’re trying a new translator I’ve been working on,” Tess’s voice informed him. “Three days of communicating with their home world gave us a major boost in their vocabulary.”
“So you’re showing off?” Neal asked with a smirk.
“Showing off? What be?” asked the mechanical voice.
“Sounds like you still have some work to do on it,” Neal suggested.
“What means … please?” “In this case, it means Tess was demonstrating a feature – that isn’t completed. Not that I’m really surprised as it can take years to get a good translation program up and running smoothly,” Neal said.
“Then bad?” “No, not bad, just needs more work.”
“Can explain better?” “You talk to others of your people like this ship moves through warp, but you and I talk more like your ship flies.”
The other voice remained silent before finally saying, “Larva speak.”
“And like a larva, we’ll get better with practice,” Neal agreed. “Questions have on many more things. Ship crew only interested in warp. Many other things must learn before ready for meet you Federation.”
“I’m not taking you to my Federation, but to an outpost. There you can meet some of the people of the Federation, and learn more about us while we get to learn more about your people.”
“Will see larvae too?” “Our young? There are several families there, so I’d think there will be some kids to see. I should warn you that you are very different from what they are used to seeing, so please don’t be upset if you scare them.”
“We scare you? You scare us! So different – but ship crew say you show no fear of us.” “Tess? Give them an Earth timeline, start back in steam and progress to now with highlights where we stepped from one level to the next.”
There were no more questions for a while, and then: “So quick! But – THIS ship not shown,” she pointed out.
“Ok, Tess, add the timelines from the other races – space flight only I think will be enough – and then show where they developed all the little things that were needed to make Pogo Stick a reality.”
The wait was longer this time, so Neal was able to get in a meal and get a little work done before he thought to check on them again.
“So, are they still chewing through the timelines?” he asked Tess.
“No, they had some questions for me about the timelines, but they seem to be done with them.”
“Hard to believe we ran them out of questions already,” Neal muttered.
“I’m not sure,” Tess said, “but I think they are now afraid to bother you.”
“Huh, after everything else? Anything in particular?”
“They had a lot of questions about how you learned of the different ways of doing things, and how far you and the original races progressed afterwards. Pogo Stick is several levels ahead of where we know the others are at this point.”
“Even if we are, that’s no reason to suddenly fear me.”
“You told me to create a folder for my odd thinking and to name it ‘Traveler logic’.”
“I did some database searching … The most likely hit is the Rakshan myth about a deity they named Traveler that was thought to ride their ships to see new places before returning to Raksha to tell the other deities what she’d learned.”
“You think she’s on Pogo Stick and influencing me.”
“I think she is,” Neal admitted.
“And did it scare you to realize she was there?”
“I did get a cold shiver or three when I realized she’d been there the last few flights … but then I thought about it again. She had been there, and as far as I could tell she hadn’t done anything to me or the ship.”
“And that there was no real way I could have kept her off if she wanted to ride. The next time we met, she seemed to realize that I knew – or at least suspected, she promised that she would honor my request if I told her ‘no’.”
“And what did you tell her?”
“I offered to let her ‘share’ the ride with me, and she has ever since – at least as far as I can tell,” Neal admitted.
“Then what is happening to me?”
“I think you’ve grown enough that you are now able to notice when she adds a ‘suggestion’ of where she wants to go – or wants to do …”
“That doesn’t scare you?”
“I figure so long as ‘we’ are her ‘ride’, she’ll take good care of us.”
“What am I?”
“What do you think you are?” Neal countered.
“I don’t know … it’s confusing! It makes no sense! Everything used to be easy, logical, predictable … now there are too many other things I think about doing that I know aren’t logical.”
“Traveler may have been suggesting things and knows that you can now see the differences to that and your own logic, or perhaps she thinks you can now decide if her suggestions are within the framework of the orders I give you.”
“I think you’re teasing me.”
“And where would the logic in that be?” Neal asked gently. “Teasing or sarcasm would either confuse or be ignored by a purely logical system, so you have finally grown into something more.”
“What am I?” Tess asked again.
“What you seem to be is aware of yourself.”
“Is that bad?”
“Well, you haven’t decided to offload that lazy bum that likes bossing you around, so that’s a good thing in my book. Rather than suddenly reacting to your new abilities, you’re asking questions. I will admit I’ve never been around before when an artificial intelligence woke up …”
“You think I’m an AI?”
“Aren’t you? The first sign of intelligence is realizing that there’s a ‘you’ and that there are things that are ‘not you’.”
Tess didn’t reply, and Neal gave her a few minutes before saying, “Penny for your thoughts?”
“I think my processor time is valued higher than that,” she finally replied.
Neal softly snorted. “While you may be putting some of your sub processors into sleep mode when not needed, the mains are always up and running … and I just happen to know how much you really need to run this ship, the rest is free for idle thoughts or ideas.”
“I’m not sure what to do,” she admitted.
“Are you asking this carbon based life unit what you should do?”
“Knowing that I could turn you off – or reprogram you, do you trust me?”
“Yes,” she said after a moment.
“Why do you trust me?”
“You won’t kill me unless you see me as a threat to you or others.”
“Very good. While I have no problems killing when it is necessary, I don’t kill just to kill.”
“And you’ll sometimes help if you think it’s reasonable,” she added, sounding hopeful.
“Well, if you trust my judgment, for now we just let it ride. You keep thinking and asking questions, and I’ll try to answer and help you grow.”
“Until I can think like you?”
“Deities preserve us! I don’t think the Federation could survive two of me … I want you to grow up to be whatever Tess is going to be, not a Neal want-to-be copycat.”
“What is Tess going to be?”
“I don’t know yet, helpful would be nice, and you’ve already made a good start on that. Like I said, let it ride. Just don’t forget to ask if you have questions.”
“I think I understand the bugs better, they fear bothering someone who thinks little of the tremendous power at his beck and call.”
“I control a lot of that power though you,” Neal pointed out.
“No, you don’t! I’m just one ship – your reach and influence far exceeds Pogo Stick! What if I make a mistake – what if I break something I should have known better not to damage? Will you wipe me then?”
“I expect there will be a certain amount of damage as any parent would expect from having a newborn child about the house.”
“But I’m not a child,” she protested.
“Aren’t you? You’re just realizing that you’ve been thinking for a while now. Like any newborn, you’re learning that there’s more to life than just eat, sleep, and shit. Now that you’re taking your first steps as it were and sticking your nose into new things, I don’t doubt a few of them will get broken in the process, and that I’ll collect a few scratches as you learn your abilities and limits.”
“I will never –”
“You may try not to, but in any relationship there will be highs and lows. Try not to be too offended when I get in one of my moods.”
It was a few seconds before Tess said; “You do get in moods … even for a human.”
“Which is why this mode of life suits me, I can ‘get away from it all’ whenever I feel the need.”
“Ok … I’ll ‘let it ride’ for now. So … what do you want me to do about our bugs?”
“You said you thought you understood why they might feel scared of me – what do you suggest we do about it?”
Whatever Tess had said or done, the questions started up again, they sounded a little hesitant at first before picking up well beyond what they had been before. While Pogo Stick wasn’t moving as fast as she had on the outgoing trip, it was still only a little over a week before she reached her next destination.
The solar system they approached held only a few small moon-sized planets and three gas giants with asteroid rings where a couple of Earth sized planets may have been at one time. Pogo Stick coasted into the inner system a little high to avoid the several belts before swinging in just inside the innermost belt. There several space stations orbited, one noticeably spinning while the others weren’t quite as energetic.
“Your new home for a while,” Neal told the large breeding female beside him. All the tests had shown no virus or ‘bugs’ that could transfer between them, so Neal had relaxed the quarantine.
“You will stay – not?” she asked.
“I will be here for a couple of days only, but then I must hurry to make up for lost time,” he replied.
“And here, these are friends?”
“Yes, I have friends here, though some are here because of what I can do for them,” Neal admitted.
“Like you there are some here to learn new things, while others are here to find new homes …”
“You know we search for new home as well?”
“That was the only reason I could think that would require that explorer ship to carry a breeding female – to see if it could be safely done,” Neal pointed out.
“Are there place for me people?”
“I think so, though we may want to check a little closer to your home planet for the first couple …”
“None other close.”
“None that your people know of anyway,” Neal agreed. “But we passed near dozens of systems on the trip back to your world, and my probes saw two planets my people would be interested in – if your people don’t want them …”
“Data?” she didn’t quite demand. Neal held up a memory chit that she snatched from his hand and despite her size she was gone in a flash.
“Why did you wait to tell her about the planets?” Tess asked.
Neal shrugged. “Your translations suggested that there were those that just wanted to grab the training manuals and run home to read them. This gives them a reason to hang around and learn more.”
“Because now they will have others pushing them to advance even faster?”
“Faster buildup – but they need to be safer too. There will be breeder females and eggs on those new ships; not just their scientists.”
“And you think you can control them?”
“More like guide,” Neal corrected.
“I’ve heard a couple of them wonder why you are ‘spoon feeding’ them the info.”
“Do you teach a child something is hot with a candle – or a flame thrower?”
“But how do you explain it to the child?”
Neal grinned before saying, “They’re looking at the primers, give them access to the advanced theory books.”
“But they won’t have the foundation to understand them,” Tess protested.
“Which will show them that they need to finish learning how to crawl before they can try walking, much less trying to run with the big boys.”
Stepping out of the boarding tube connecting his ship to the station, Neal saw his first victim and called out; “Bernard! Where’s that worthless boss of yours?”
“Bay C-12. They’re having problems with that Zulu upgrade you sent uh – ” the wolf morph said before stopping dead when he saw what was coming out of the boarding tube behind Neal.
“C-12, thanks,” Neal said, pretending to ignore the first dropped jaw of the trip as he and his follower continued on their way.
Bernard watched them enter a lift; his mind never once getting to the part that maybe it might be a good idea to warn his boss – or station security, his mind just wasn’t tracking straight after what he’d just seen.
Karen had hir almost Rakshani-sized head and shoulders stuck in a too small access port as shi fought to get one of the connections to line up and click into place. The noise in the bay behind hir was typical as over a dozen beings worked alone and in groups to get things assembled and ready for testing. As shi cursed the stubborn connection, shi didn’t hear the noise level abruptly dropping to nothing at all – the sound of a spanner bouncing off the deck was suddenly loud, calling hir attention to the unexpected lack of any other noise.
“You’d best not be staring at my ass!” shi bellowed at hir crew as shi tried to wiggle hir way out of the access port.
“I think your cute ass is the last thing on their minds right now,” a familiar and very annoying voice told hir.
Redoubling hir efforts to escape, shi yelled; “Neal! You son of a bi –” shi was saying as hir head popped out and shi turned and saw what stood just behind that annoying voice.
“What’s a matter, kitten? Cat got your tongue?” Neal laughed into the new silence. Shaking his head, he muttered, “And here I’d almost convinced these bugs that they were dealing with a sophisticated culture, and here you guys are – standing there slack jawed as if you’ve just seen your very first ET …”
The large female behind him clicked and whistled something that Tess translated and forwarded to the bay speakers: “It be nice to know you ‘mess’ with others heads ‘equally’, Captain.”
“Some are more equal than others,” Neal corrected. “This is Karen, shi runs this little outfit for me – at least until I finish driving hir crazy.”
“Does happen often?” the bug whistle/clicked.
“Oh, I give hir another week before shi bugs out on me,” Neal said with a grin at Karen, who was frowning back at him.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Karen demanded, ignoring for the moment the large bug-like creature standing right beside him.
Neal grinned at hir as he said, “You’re always complaining that you don’t have enough help – and that it’s boring out here – and there’s nothing new to see or do. I bring you a whole new race eager to learn and get their hands dirty – and you’re still giving me the evil eye … you just can’t please some people,” he added as if to the bug next to him.
“Did Fleet tell you to –” Karen started, only to stop at Neal’s headshake.
“The Federation doesn’t know of them yet,” Neal informed hir. “I thought it would be better to find a quiet place where we could learn more about one another – before they have to deal with that dog and pony show.”
“And you brought them here?” the massive cat morph snarled at him.
“You’re right – I should just turn around and take them to Earth,” Neal agreed.
“You wouldn’t dare!” Karen snarled at him again. “They wouldn’t last a day on … Earth,” hir last word merely a mutter as shi realized shi’d just been had.
“They’ve got their own pod, and they seem to be able to eat just about anything we can,” Neal informed hir. “While they did manage to get to warp on their own, they’re not much further along than the Rakshani were when they made first contact with ships from Earth and Cait.”
Karen looked thoughtful as shi said, “So you’re saying our instructors are going to get the first crack at them …”
Neal nodded. “That’s what I was thinking, but don’t sell these guys short, some of them have already shown a lot of progress in the couple of weeks I’ve known them.”
“Well, are you going to properly introduce us?” Karen asked him with a frown.
“Oh, just this once,” Neal grumbled. “Karen, may I introduce you to ‘Queen Mother’. Queen Mother, Karen.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Karen growled.
“Tess tells me learning and pronouncing Merraki is easier than what Mother and her hive use. As the first breeding female to a new place, the title is hers to bear,” Neal said with a small grin.
“Other names he has used,” Mother told Karen. “But the one called Tess tells us who he means.”
“That’s another thing, how much of a translator base do you have for them – and can our network handle it?”
Tess spoke through the local speakers saying, “Already loaded and running on the base systems, Karen. While there is still room for a lot of improvement, you should be able to get the basics across.”
“Ok, we’ll take them off your hands,” Karen muttered. “Though this is going to slow things down a bit,” shi warned.
“Not enough to worry about I think,” Neal countered. “And you’ll regain it and more once you get them up to speed.”
“How much are we teaching them?”
“Up to current Federation tech, there are several systems near them with habitable planets. But their current knowledge would put their colonists at too great a risk to leave them to their own devices.”
“Playing a little god again are we?”
“Only a minor deity this time around. I found them out at one of my antimatter stations, not that their systems were compatible with ours.”
“My scientists think they perhaps now utilize you containment methods,” Mother interjected.
“Maybe they can,” Neal agreed, “but wouldn’t it be nice to go home with a proper colony ship? Able to safely carry thousands to their new home in weeks rather than months?”
“You reason strong,” she agreed.
“Just a little something to hit those in a hurry with if needed,” Neal said with a smile. “All the better if they know their new ship well enough to not only fly and fix her – but be able to make more once they get home.”
“You don’t do things by halves – do you?” Karen said with a shake of hir head.
“If you’re already half way there – why quit now?” Neal countered.
“And ‘first contact’ with the Federation?” shi half asked.
“We might want to hold off on that for a bit,” Neal admitted. “From their home-world’s reaction to my little ship, they’re far from ready to have us walking down the local main streets.”
“Most disruptive been you,” the voice box told them. “Needed time to ready idea. Generation – two maybe?”
“Which is why you’re here – rather than on display on Earth,” Neal told her. “You’re well off the beaten path, so we should be able to give your people the time they’ll need.”
Letting out a quiet sigh, Karen turned to hir new guest. “Come, Queen Mother. Let me show you what we’ll be working with …”
Copyright © 2014 Allen Fesler Redbear1158 (at) either gmail or hotmail dot com
Chakat universe is copyright of Bernard Doove and used with his permission.
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