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  12:00:00 am, by Nic Wilson   , 3340 words  
Categories: Nexus


I was practically skipping, chasing after SecDiv?s dot on my HUD map. I didn?t want to just call her- I wanted to deliver the news in person. And she was either aware and avoiding me, or uncannily maneuvering to stay just out of reach. Until I cut through one of the mess rooms and she nearly bowled over me. She didn?t stop, but I matched her walkspeed, and then she noticed me, did a double-take, and tried to ignore me.


?You?re giddy. The last time you were giddy, there was a bar fight going on in the crew compartments. And I got my nose broken. I?m still not 100% convinced you didn?t throw that punch, either.?


?Wow. You whine a lot more now that you?re getting gray hair.?


?I have, like, three.?


?And from how much that stresses you out, I imagine it won?t be just three for long.?


?You?ve been salt-and-peppery since you were twenty-two.?


?Earlier, actually, that?s just the first time you saw it.?


?But don?t think I?m done talking about my punched nose- or that I?ve given up having that footage reconstructed, to prove it. I remember what a punch from you in the face feels like.?


?Not my fault that, even in a clean spar, you drop your guard too much. But I was there to help. And because I miss closing out a bar with SecDiv.? I realized, since on ship we used the name for both the division and its head officer, she might have took it to mean I missed her, not my old posting. And maybe that?s what I had meant. 


?So, jumping to the assumption that you?re not giddy over the possibility of my nose being broken again, what are you so happy about??


?Well, we got the sensor pods back, and we?re stopping at the next planet.?




?Think about it. We?ll finally get to go on world. No more of these same hallways.?


?Fresh air?


?Only if you don?t like your skin. Highly acidic atmosphere.?


?The natives??


?Fairly primitive species. Data so far indicates rudimentary language functions, low-grade tech, about industrial-revolution era. Fairly peaceful species- single-cellular.?




?Yep. Big weird blob creatures. Well, big as compared to Earth protozoa, anyway. Largest ones seem to top out at 2 meters. I guess, mostly not like a blob. Analogous to a plant-sized algal-cell- I made a note on my eyescreen, to be sure I remembered it right. And from that species SciDiv derived a name for the planet: Caulerpa.?


?But if they?ve got a name for it, how are you still this excited about it??


?I just found out. The SciDiv einsteins have been working on it since an hour or so after bed- earthnight, anyway. Despite instructions I had to be notified as soon as we had the pod. It seems SciDiv thought I could use my beauty rest. I?ve instructed the ship?s computer to start brewing his coffee with my urine- without filtering it, this time.?


?You know, at some point you might overwhelm the ship?s sarcasm buffers and she might actually do it.?


?I think I could live with that.?


She knit her brow; it was only just starting to get frown lines. ?How long do I have to assemble a security escort??


?Days, maybe weeks. So plenty of time to figure out who?s least likely to hork in their suits when watching a man-sized blob?s lunch float around inside them. And hopefully enough time for SciDiv to perfect a microglass coating that?ll keep the atmosphere from eating through our suits.?




?Well, yeah, because at least some of the acids in the atmosphere are oxidizing, which react violently with organic matter. So not only would we die, but we?d kaboom.?


?It?s a little insulting getting a chemistry lesson in baby-talk- but I guess that is how your mind operates.?


?Among other parts of my anatomy.?


?I won?t even ask.?


?Probably better that way.? I spent the next several days buzzing like a bee. But I knew it couldn?t last, and that it shouldn?t. I needed to get myself prepared. Not that I had much more than a bit part in the kabuki theater of our negotiations. But still, I needed to be prepared for that.


And I made sure everyone else?s parts were ready, too.


That?s why I was in SciDiv?s lab, watching him Braille his lips across the rim of his coffee cup, mouth-humping the porcelain like an amorous snail. Then he tilted it back and drank, and I wondered if perhaps the ship had taken my demands earlier seriously and made his coffee with my leavings- though I knew, in truth, all of the fluids we drank on ship were recycled urine. Still, I like to pretend.


?Did the commbox touch down??


?Yep. And we?ve been getting some squealing off it. We think the natives are figuring it out. Thought we heard a couple of actual words translate through- though it seems to have been an accident. We?re hoping they?ll replicate shortly.?


?And do we think they?ll have their end up and running by the time we arrive??


?It?s a little difficult to know. Argos only met up with a few dozen species in its travels, and that?s really the only data we?ve got on commbox interactions. I mean, it?s simplified down into the most rudimentary language system we have- math. It uses binary, and a repeating series of prime numbers, since math should be universal. But so far, where they are in deciphering the sequence, which is before they?ve both learned how to make the box talk to them and teach the box how to interpret them? they?re moving a little slower than similarly-advanced species. But, if they continue apace, they should be speaking our language within a day of our arrival. And since these things tend to snowball, there?s a good chance we?ll be receiving intelligible bursts before we get there.?




?Well, the sensor probes are programmed to drop the box down in the largest and most advanced city on the planet. Odds are pretty good it?ll be a decently knowledgeable city, but any civilization is going to have its experts spread around. Just like the Manhattan Project people weren?t all from New Mexico- it took time to round them all up. So the longer they have the box, the more of their culture?s resources will be brought to bear on making it work.?


?It?s been explained to me, but not well, why rejection tends to be low.?


?Well, even if the species assumes that the box is a part of some hostility, the thinking goes that at worst it could be a ticking time bomb that they have to defuse. Reason would dictate that any significantly advanced species to have developed interplanetary travel, if dangerous, wouldn?t need to give the home team a chance to fight back. And the odds that there will be some beneficial element to a new species, trade being a strong likelihood. Most species pretty readily take up the commbox. A few have even made improvements.?


?And how are your mengeles coming on the microglass??


?Mengeles? Really? A Nazi/Holocaust reference??


?What? Too soon??


 ?I?m Jewish.?


?Yes, but you?re also a corporate ?scientist,? and I?m pretty sure you?d cut up an orphan if I told you there were minerals inside it.?


?You?re going to throw the mineral piņata in my face again? One time that happened- and in our defense we?d accidentally grown a strain of incredibly infectious hallucinogenic virus. And it wasn?t an actual orphan, despite what you told us. It was a faux-leather recliner.?


?I know. And I loved that recliner.?


?You love screwing with people who do not have their wits about them.?


?And yet, no one has learned the dangers of wandering my halls ungirded with their wits.?


?I was high.?


?I don?t know why you still seem to think that?s a viable defense.? The door shut behind me. I wasn?t being fair. But I had caught him and half of SciDiv running through the halls naked looking for an orphan to vivisect- that part had been their idea. Their ?sacramental quest? they called it, I believe. Thankfully, the hallucinogen also made them fairly susceptible to suggestion, so they accepted my recliner as a sacrifice, and by the time they were done prospecting in its innards, SecDiv had arrived in enough numbers to subdue them.


The microglass did end up ready in time. The reason SciDiv deflected was that in testing the day before, one of the SciOffs got it in her eye- and it was shredded by a thousand cuts. MedDiv theorized they could save it, but her clone back-up was fresh and full-grown, so it made sense to transplant an eye instead.


The Caulerpa figured out the commbox by the time we made a stable orbit. We think it was an accident, because it sounded like the guy assigned to watch the box was having sex with it, and got interrupted by one of their techies who realized it was functioning and told him, ?Don?t stop.? I never imagined my first experience of alien culture would be one of them molesting our communication equipment, though in retrospect that was rather naīve of me.


They ended up with more time to figure it out since stupidly enough, we had to do almost a full second rotation, because we just missed the window for their capital city. We took down three shuttles, a twenty-four person team. The first shuttle was the diplomatic mission, me and HR, lawyers, translators, body language types. The second was the science mission, including some med staff and PsychDiv; the thinking was that she might be able to analyze the Caulerpa, give us some insight into their species? behavior. And the third shuttle was our security escort. They touched down first, secured a landing zone, kept the natives at arm?s length.


My shuttle was beginning its final approach. HR was studying the monitors like our lives depended on it. Suddenly he looked up at me: ?You?re a cockass.? That must have meant that we had moved enough out of range of the ship that I was no longer technically in charge.


?I don?t understand, anatomically, how that works.?


?I have no idea. I?m just thrilled to be out from under your authority, however temporarily that might end up being.?


?Okay. But I still don?t get why we have to give up most of our momentum, get in one of these feet-smelling landers, and drop down on the surface. I?m happy for the change of pace, just less excited about the hit our itinerary is going to take. Presumably we aren?t sitting down with them just because you get your jollies palm-fondling the flagella of alien boogers??


?We?re here because the UG court system, likely to soon be the United Planetary court system, if it isn?t already, doesn?t recognize interplanetary agreements made digitally. They think there?s too much room for abuse in that kind of system. So we can?t just hover over their planet shouting ?negotiations? at them through a commbox.?


He seemed uncharacteristically tense; he was always stuffy, but this was different. ?Why so fussy? Butterflies? Or is it because it says in the charter that if the alien species asks you to swallow you have to respond, ?how much???


?You really are a man-child.?


?True. And we should try and wrap this up quickly; I need to make boom-boom.?


Suddenly the shuttle stopped moving forward, and hovered as it began its final descent.


SecDiv had insisted on accompanying our shuttle personally, and tried to shoulder past me; it was probably somewhere in the rules that if we were going to be shot at that she, as head bullet-stopper, should be first in the line of fire, but I didn?t budge until the door opened.


I jumped out into what I mistook at first for gray fog. But it was thicker, and the gravity was lighter than I expected. It was like listing through very thin pea soup diarrhea. ?I?m going to suggest everyone takes their administration of anti-nausea meds now, since it?ll be a while before we can get you out of the suit- and you?ll be stuck in there with anything you vomit up. That sound reasonable, medical??


There was a pause while I waited for the transmission to bounce from the shuttle to the Nexus, then for the response to come back down to us. ?Should be good. Take the first dose as soon as you feel the need. Second won?t release for a couple of hours, unless you get a med waiver- but the dose should last twice that time.? 


I was still waiting for gravity to grab hold of me and put me down on the ground. One of the SciOffs grabbed my arm, pulled my feet down onto the planet?s surface. ?Be careful. Lower gravity means you can reach escape velocity easier, or get ?stuck? in mid air. So take it easy. Baby-steps, as it were.? Thankfully, the SciOff broadcast through all the comm. channels, and made it sound like a general warning to all of us. ?But if you need them, everyone has attitude adjusters built into their excursion suits. They?re not meant for flying- so don?t be a jack-ass.? And that time she did look right at me. ?You only have enough fuel for a quick burst, changing direction and altering trajectory.? 


I flicked my HUD momentarily over to infrafred, and I could see the architecture of their capital city. They had a name for it, but it wasn?t something you could pronounce with a human throat. It meant something like ?connectedness.? One of the botany geeks got the bright idea to call it ?Stolon,? a rough plant equivalent to their word.


Stolon wasn?t composed of solid buildings. Instead, the rough outlines of structures were demarcated by floating pillars, daisy-chained together with ropes. It was like a three-dimensional version of a roped off swimming area. Some of the buildings were incredibly elaborate, looking more like intricate jewelry than structures, and for a moment I imagined the tallest spire draped down Elle?s neck.


HR put his arms out to keep anyone from going forward before he?d said his piece; he wanted to be sure we didn?t step on any toes- or any nieces. ?All right. Everybody. Be very fucking careful where you step. Full-grown, mature, possibly regal adults are a couple meters in diameter. But children could be all but microscopic. If possible, just don?t step at all.?


We saw several of the Caulerpa float/rolling around us. It reminded me of school, looking through a microscope at a stained cell, seeing all of the various cellular structures. They were semi-opaque, but their organs could be seen floating inside them. And like the algae they?d been named for, the Caulerpa contained fluid-filled vacuoles that kept the open space inside their single cell small, allowing it to be structurally stronger than it would otherwise be.


A noble, with precious stones inserted into his cell wall, approached down the city?s main street. He was flanked by frondy blobs that had a glowing red core inside them. I assumed, and SciDiv later concurred, that they had developed a kind of bomb that could be detonated from inside their single cell. The force of the blast could be partially directed by their bodies. A suicide honor guard, basically.


The noble stopped before us. His body trembled slightly, then, for an instant, formed itself into the rough silhouette of a man, and one of his attendants brought their commbox in front of him. Then he began to communicate, which consisted of flailing his flagella, slight changes of shape, and the release of chemicals into the thick ?air.? At least, I hope that was part of his speech; otherwise he peed on me. ?Hello. I am the ruler of Caulerpa. My name is Palustris. And I believe you have an offer to make me. Please. Come into my palace.?    


?Said the spider to the fly,? one of the SecOffs muttered through an open mic. The commbox sputtered out a translation in Caulerpan.


The ruler replied: ?I am unfamiliar with this phrase; ?flying scavengers? I assume is a reference to yourselves, but I am at a loss as to the many-legged predator. Presuming that by ?leg? you mean our flagella and are regarding our species, I assume no offense. And I assure you my species is not predatory. We subsist mainly on a diet of microorganic algae and starlight. And we intend you no harm.? Then he led his procession down the street, and we followed.


The palace used a lot of exotically formed minerals, arranged in dazzling patterns that altered as the walls flowed in the wind. Negotiations had been set up in the king?s hall. He sat in a crude throne that looked more like a ruby-encrusted bathroom stall, while his negotiators pounded out the details.


It was my job to stand with a pistol on my hip, arms crossed, looking at once smug and cocksure. There wasn?t a strong likelihood Dalaxia or any of my other notorious exploits had made it this far, but our psych-op strategists thought parading a ?hero? captain around at negotiations couldn?t hurt. I felt silly, for the fact I knew the SecOffs in the escort had been chosen because they trained daily to be up for this kind of duty; maybe some of it was like falling off a hoverbike and I?d retain it, but I wasn?t what I?d call combat-ready anymore, certainly not in the way they were.


Negotiations didn?t take long. Apparently he was king in the feudal sense of the word. He controlled the algae farms on-world. Like the old oil sheikhs who claimed the resources for themselves, and had the clout to back it up. He didn?t need a lot, because he wasn?t negotiating for the needs of his planet, only his own, so he only needed more. And since his species was still hundreds of years from giving a crap about the mining rights to surrounding planets, and since he wasn?t planning to live that long, anyway, any was better than none.


HR seemed chastened by the negotiations. So I chided him once we got back on our shuttle. ?You strutted into that place like the cock of the walk, but coming out you?re walking like you?ve been cocked too much.?


?Yeah. I got nervous. Kind of fudged a little bit. We?re not supposed to bring up the idea of mineral sharing- just to react amenably if they do. And of course their negotiators leapt at the idea. I doubt any of it will trickle down to the people, but the agreement?s done, at least.?


?So you accidentally did something kind of humane? That does sound unlike you.?


?You really are a gigantic horse clitoris.?


?Actually, whore?s clitorises, or their labia, for that matter, aren?t really any bigger than most. It?s not like a book, where the more it gets used the more dog-eared it gets.?


SecDiv butted in. ?I can?t quite tell if you?re defending women?s collective honor or just being a filthy bastard.?


?That?s the sweet spot, for me, where I?m at my most charming.?


?So you?re saying you?re not charming at all, then.?


?Basically. And yet you?re still completely into me.?


?Be still my beating heart,? she said, with sarcasm thicker than the fart-fog of Caulerpa our ship was rising out of. But then she smiled, just a little.

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