“Jack Munroe grew up in the Asteroid Belt and learned to never take anything at face value. In space, you assume, you die. So when Aliens show up in the distant Kuiper Belt, out beyond Pluto, asking for a First Contact ‘chat’ with his crewmates on the comet hunting spaceship Uhuru, he warns his captain not to trust words but to get the heck away. His evolutionary biology studies have taught him that bright skin colors, shark-like teeth and talons mean these Aliens are star-traveling predators! But that violates the ‘feel good’ society promoted by Earth’s Unity government. A bloody fight ensues and Jack realizes these Aliens are keystone predators aiming to add Sol system to their home territory. Jack leads a battle to ensure Humans will never be slaves to Aliens. If someone has to die to make space safe for humanity, then those dying will be Aliens!”
Jack Munroe stared in confusion as the Alien ship appeared from behind the large comet and approached the Uhuru, outbound from Charon Base on a survey of the larger Kuiper Belt comets.
They’d expected to find lots of kilometer-sized comets out here, well beyond Pluto and a third of the way around the solar system’s edge from Earth’s position. The Kuiper Belt was the source of the short period comets, like Halley’s, that now and then visited the inner solar system. But no one expected First Contact with Alien beings. Least of all Captain Monique d’Auberge, too long in command of the European Union survey ship Uhuru, and five other humans.
Humans. They’d have to get used to thinking that way.
Jack tasted metallic sourness as, free-floating like the rest of the crew, he watched the front screen. As ship’s Technologist, he should have picked up some kind of warning that others were out here, hiding in the solar system’s backyard where the leftovers from its formation circled endlessly around the dim yellow star that was more a direction than an illuminator of deep space. Now they weren’t just a French aristocrat too full of herself, a Belgian priest, a Polish drive engineer, two British lesfems, and an Asteroid Belter whose grandpa had emigrated from the Tennessee hill country. They were people about to face something no one had expected.
After all, interstellar travel was impossible, according to the Rules of the EU bureaucracy in Brussels—and Captain d’Auberge’s need for certainty in space. No reason, therefore, to call on Jack Munroe’s dual training as an anthropologist and student of archaic cultural practices. No need, really, for anything beyond the ordinary science business of Pluto’s Charon Base as the EU searched for planet-killer comets before they could head inward and disturb Earth’s social tranquility.
Max Piakowski’s curse expressed Jack’s own feelings, but not those of Monique. She twisted in free-float and frowned at Max. “Engineer, cursing won’t remove this surprise.” Her nose lifted higher. “Can you, perhaps, tell us how that ship moves without a drive flare?”
“Whaat?” Max stuttered. His thick black eyebrows squeezed together as he peered at the screen. “Oh! No clue.”
The rest of the crew now noticed how the Alien globe-pierced-by-a-spearhead moved without visible plasma exhaust, unlike their own nuclear fusion pulse Main Drive.
The six of them had gathered in the Pilot’s cabin as they approached Kuiper object QB1, a 283 kilometer-sized ball of reddish water ice and methane. They’d expected to celebrate the half-way point of their trip by geo-surveying the first object discovered by Luu and Jewitt back in 1992, long before China colonized Mars, Brazil took over the Moon, and the European Union forced America into an economic armistice that led, eventually, to mining of the Asteroid Belt and outlying settlements on Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus, Titan and Charon. “Getting rich is glorious” had become more than the slogan of China’s long-dead Deng Xiaoping—it had become the watchword of a world society that pretended war was extinct, commerce was always positive, and new wealth could pacify highly-taxed citizens.
Jack pushed down into his Tech station seat, snapped his restraint strap locks, and caught d’Auberge’s attention.
“Captain, do we match orbits with them—or do we turn tail and head for Earth?”
“Turn tail?” said Monique, lifting blond eyebrows. “Hardly. This is a momentous event in human history. We can’t—”
“Miss the chance to get rich?” Jack interrupted, unable to resist the sarcasm. He should be more of a team player like Gail and Hortense, the two Brits who functioned as Pilot/Doctor and ComChief/Ecological Biologist for the ship. But they’d spent six months in each other’s company and Monique had turned more and more rigid as time went on.
At Jack’s mention of the EU’s socially impolite raison d’étre, the Captain turned cold as a glacier. Gail and Hortense seemed embarrassed. Max looked thoughtful. And their Jesuit priest Hercule Arcy de Mamét, the Belgian comet expert who’d devoted his life to Kuiper Belt comets, frowned delicately. “Mister Munroe,” Hercule said, emphasizing for the hundredth time Jack’s lack of a doctorate, “your cynicism is out of place here. Aliens are on our doorstep. Aren’t you excited?”
Jack looked back at the screen, where the globe-and-spearhead had settled into a close equatorial orbit about QB1, just a few thousand klicks lower than their own incoming parabolic orbit. Its hull showed red, yellow and black bands encircling its length. It resembled a giant coral snake. “Excited?” He shivered. “I’m afraid. Damned afraid. And the rest of you should be scared too!”
“Enough,” said Monique, her manner brittle as she twisted in mid-air to again face the screen. “Gail, can you put us into a transfer orbit that matches up with that ship?”
“Yes m’am, I can,” said the Uhuru’s Pilot. “Maneuvering thrusters will be enough to match orbits. Main Drive is still off-line, but it’s Hot and on standby if we need to leave quickly. Captain, do we—”
“Signal!” yelled Hortense from her duty post next to Jack. “We’re getting a damned fucking signal from that ship!”
Jack’s gut backflipped on itself. “Radio or visual?”
“Radio,” answered Max from his Engineer’s station at the rear of the small cabin. “Damn! This is moving too fast for me. Captain, I—”
“Shut up!” screamed Monique.
The Captain’s loss of her eternally cool manner shocked everyone into silence. All but Hortense, who seemed ready to float out of her seat. “But, but—”
“You!” Monique pointed at Hortense. “It’s a radio signal? What kind? AM or FM? What power? What wavelength? And do we have enough computer power to decode the signal so we can—”
“It’s in the clear,” Hortense said, her interruption of the Captain a rare defiance of Monique’s command rigidity. “English language, on Charon Standard Channel Four. No image. Yet.”
Stunned silence filled the cabin. To be found by an Alien ship was one thing. A wild card tossed into their lap. To have Aliens talk, immediately and in English, as if this were nothing more than a Hopper cruise in the Asteroid Belt, that was something else. These show-off Aliens had just played High Trump card, up front. Jack felt like getting out and physically pushing the Uhuru back to distant Sol. Get away! his instincts told him.
Monique swallowed hard, a thin film of sweat beading her pale forehead. “English? They’re talking to us in English?”
“Yes m’am,” said Hortense in a mousy voice.
The Captain blinked, then her face stiffened as she caught Jack’s look. “Fine. Put the signal on the speaker so we can all hear. Switch on data recorders. No immediate reply. I’ll do that later. Well?”
Hortense dipped her head submissively. “Signal is piped to the ship’s intercom system.”
“—Human ship, we ask you to respond to our inquiry. Are you ready and willing to meet our team, at the dome on the ice body below, to discuss the Rules of Engagement? Human ship—” The signal repeated its brief message, as if on a loop.
“Engagement? Rules? Dome?” muttered Monique, scowling as if she’d bitten into a sour lemon. She motioned for Hortense to cut off the repeating signal that spoke in the voice of a man from the British Midlands. The Captain scanned them all, her manner once more that of an unmarried daughter of a French ducal family that traced its lineage back to Catherine de Médici, a Captain who expected everyone to acknowledge her inherent superiority. With a light touch against the cabin wall D’Auberge free-floated over to the ship’s telescope station, pulled up the visor hood, and bent down to look at the CCD image picked up by the Schmidt refractor. “Gail, focus the telescope on QB1, then shift traverse control to my station. Now!”
“Yes, Captain.” Skinny, brown-haired Gail Winston did as she was ordered, then peered at him and Max with a look of sheer terror. Jack felt for her. Some Alien had listened to the vibechat of BBC-1 long enough to develop a Midlands accent. That was crazy and strange and . . . terrifying.
The Captain grasped the joystick control next to the visor, tilted it slightly, and the front screen filled with the vastly enlarged surface of comet QB1. In two minutes of traversing the lumpy surface of a comet too far from the Sun to develop a coma cloud, she covered a third of the comet’s reddish surface as the breathing in the small cabin grew louder, more labored and faster paced. Jack suspected more than just he and Gail were frightened by shocking events that moved too quickly for any of them to process, let alone understand fully.
“There!” whispered Monique in a triumphant tone. She pulled back from the scope hood, looked forward and frowned at an image of QB1’s north pole.
Jack looked too, like everyone else. He saw nitrogen and methane snows, scattered like dandruff atop the flatlands of water ice, all of it aged red-brown thanks to impacts from cosmic and ultraviolet rays, what Max called the Johnson-Lanzerotti Effect. The Alien dome where someone wanted to discuss the Rules of Engagement sparkled sugar-white against the shadowed landscape. The dome had a transparent roof and four small dots moved under the roof. Aliens? Jack cleared his throat, forcing Monique to acknowledge him with a backward glance.
“Captain, it’s time to leave,” he said, putting aside his fear and trying for cool logic. “I mean it. These Aliens, whoever they are, know too damned much about us. They know our commerce language, they know our comlink channel, they know—”
“Too damned much!” shouted Max, his space-darkened face sweaty as he gripped tightly his armrests. “We’ve got no weapons, no way to call home in less than five hours, no—”
“No sense of duty,” Monique said scathingly, looking from Max to Jack, then over to Gail, who sat strapped in to her Pilot’s seat, ready for thrust-gravity. “Pilot, fulfill my order. Put us into an orbit that parallels the Alien ship, but keeps us a hundred kilometers out. And tell the EVA computer to warm up the Lander. We’re going to meet our new neighbors.”
“Complying, Captain,” said Gail as she punched on the thrusters, moving them from freefall to thrust-gravity.
Jack wanted to hit Monique. He always wished that whenever she used her disdainful look and arrogant tone on him. He didn’t. Over the last six months, the woman’s behavior toward Jack had worsened, as if his Belter-style questioning of Brussels’ Rules upset her need for certainty, her need to believe the frozen unknown could be safe, routine and unsurprising. She’d even abandoned the official dogma of Cooperative Consensus of the Communitarian Unity and its long-dead founder, Amitai Etzioni. Around him, the others worked hurriedly at their stations or watched the front screen, acting as if the Captain’s decision wasn’t insane. He tried one more time.
She whirled his way, blue eyes flaring with anger and surprise at his use of her first name. “What!”
“Think. Please think before you do this.” He wiped sweat from his forehead, then shivered as the cabin air-cooling kicked on. “We don’t know who they are, what they look like, where they come from, how long they’ve monitored Earth space communications, nor why they didn’t just come to Charon and visit us at the base.” He paused to let the last item sink in. “Monique, why didn’t they come to Charon?”
D’Auberge took a deep breath and eyed Jack as if he were a petulant little boy caught sneaking out of the girls’ bathroom. “Mister Munroe, why don’t you feel Hercule’s excitement?” She motioned to the ship’s priest, a man who’d devoted his life to the Jesuits, comets and self-denial, in that order. “Why so suspicious? That dome may be an Alien trading station, filled with wonders. And Brussels has always said that if true Aliens ever crossed the stars to visit us, they would be peaceful. No civilization develops interstellar travel without world union and an end to violence. Surely you don’t question Abbé Breed’s Fourth Principle of the Communitarian Unity?”
Jack did question it, but he’d not gotten his berth on Uhuru by being heretical. “That’s not the issue. The issue is, they act like they expected us. Doesn’t commerce negotiation require a common set of rules among traders? Doesn’t good faith in business require advance consultation, rather than this bolt out of the blue?” Monique’s certainty wavered a bit. “Don’t you think we should contact Charon or Earth for guidance on this situation?”
Monique smiled sourly. “Ah, the last refuge of a bureaucrat is an appeal to procedures. Anything to avoid a decision. I am better than that. Are you, Technologist?”
She was really, really going to do it. “No, I’m not. I’m scared. This doesn’t feel right.”
The Captain ignored intense looks from the rest of the crew and focused on Jack. “Feel? That’s base emotion talking. Whatever happened to your wonderful Anthropology? Isn’t this First Contact the event that will set off a Kuhnian paradigm shift in human culture?” He did not respond to her challenge. She sighed. “There is an easy way to solve this concern of yours. We will signal back. And we’ll ask for them to send us a visual image. Then, I’m certain, your fears will melt away.”
Signal them back? Jack blinked rapidly. “I wouldn’t do that, Captain.”
“But I am doing that, as Captain of this ship, as the adult in command.” Monique smiled pleasantly at Hortense. “ComChief, we might as well vibechat with our new neighbors while Gail brings us into a matching orbit. Open a channel, please.”
“Yes, Captain,” murmured a nervous Hortense, her long fingers flying over her companel. “Open, captain. Recorders are still running.”
“—Human ship, we ask you to—” Monique braced herself against the maneuvering thrust-gee and faced the motion-eye above the screen. “Alien ship, we are responding. I am Captain Monique Catherine d’Auberge, of the European Union, a member state of the Communitarian Unity, outbound from our science base on Charon in the ship Uhuru, on a mission to chart large cometary bodies. Please explain the invitation to visit your dome on the surface below, and please transmit a visual image of yourself. We humans prefer to see those with whom we talk.”
Silence filled the radio channel as the loop recording cut off abruptly. A signal whine sounded briefly, then eased away as the com panel automatically matched the incoming radio signal. “Welcome, Captain,” said a male voice that reeked of Midlands landed gentry tones. “I am Destanu, Link of the Pod Victorius, of the people called Rizen, who came not long ago to these small frozen bodies. We request you visit our dome so we may settle on the Rules of Engagement.” The casual voice paused. “You ask for visual images? Agreed. We had withheld such images until you requested them. We transmit on your Charon Standard Channel Three.”
The front screen wavered, lost the image of QB1, then solidified into a color image. They all stared.
The six-legged Alien in the image resembled a cross between a lion and a hippopotamus, but one with red-and-black striped skin, sleek body muscles, and talon-toes. The platy hide looked tough as steel. The sextuped’s front leg pair showed manipulative fingers more flexible than a human’s, but stiffer than ropes. The front end supported a dome-skull, below which were two black eyes. The wide-set eyes peered at them without blinking. A tool belt of some kind hung from the Alien’s midbody, otherwise it wore no obvious clothes. To one side of Destanu stood another Rizen, though it stayed in the background. The room occupied by Destanu and the second Rizen resembled their own Pilot Cabin, a place filled with metallic devices, blinking lights, and touch panels, with the low arch of a exit door off to the right. The Rizen commander opened wide the slash of its mouth, displaying dozens of razor-sharp teeth, teeth like a shark. A pink tongue moved in sync with its speech.
“Are you reassured, Captain Monique Catherine d’Aubege?” said a smarmy Midlands English voice that seemed totally incongruous coming from the lean, tightly-muscled Alien.
Hortense squeaked her reaction. Gail’s mouth moved silently. Max cursed low, a guttering string of Polish that didn’t sound pleasant. Hercule the Jesuit crossed himself. And Captain d’Auberge straightened her posture, slim hands pulling at her dark blue jacket. She focused on the screen image.
“I’m reassured, Link Destanu of the Pod Victorius.” She paused, stood stiffly before the motion-eye that returned her image to the Alien ship, and bowed slightly. “Welcome to Sol system. Have you been here very long?”
“Long enough,” said Destanu, its body plates rippling in a sine wave that matched the movements of its shark-like mouth. “Our custom when meeting species new to the Great Dark is to learn your language of power, study your culture, then seek a meeting at a spot outside of the species’ home space.”
“So you’ve met other lifeforms!” exclaimed Monique.
“Many others. The Great Dark is filled with life, some of which travels star to star.” The Alien glanced aside at some kind of monitor, then fixed its black-eyed gaze on Monique. “I see your ship is about to match our orbital footprint. Good. Our team awaits your team on the surface below. Do you accept our invitation to discuss Rules of Engagement?”
Jack thought the last question meant more than the obvious. The Alien acted far too relaxed. But Monique seemed unfazed by the incongruity of Brit-speech issuing from the shark-mouth of a red-and-black skinned Alien who’d come to meet humans on a deep space mission out at the very edge of the solar system. Slick, too slick, he thought. The ship’s maneuvering thrusters shut off and freefall replaced thrust-gee—which clued him to the fact the Rizen aliens looked glued to their floor despite no ship movement. “Captain?” he said, floating up against his restraint straps.
“One moment,” Monique said to Destanu, then gestured to cut off the visual and sound feed to the Rizen ship. She grabbed a wall hand-hold, then glared at him. “What! Can’t you see this Alien is peaceful? Not violent like your Belter Rebellion ancestors?
A species that crosses from one star to another is not an automatic threat, just a puzzle to be understood.” “A species that has gravity control, while we still use spin-gee for our habitat torus?” Jack shook his head, feeling stubborn. “Captain, why assume the Communitarian creed applies to Aliens? Why do you assume that evolutionary biology and natural selection don’t apply to intelligent species?” Monique’s stubborn belief in the Unity creed baffled Jack. He pointed at Hortense, their Ecological Biologist. “Hortie, you tell her what we discussed on the way out here? Tell her what red-and-black skin colors mean!”
The Captain glanced at Hortense. “Hortie? What’s he talking about?”
Hortense blushed at the personal question, though it would be hard for most people to notice thanks to her soot-black skin. The woman, who had seemed to enjoy their chats about sociobiology and cultural determinism, dipped her head, collected herself, then looked directly at Monique. “Captain, it’s the aposematic coloration principle of evolutionary biology. In short, extreme color variations in a species are a danger signal. Like the brightly colored poison dart frog of the Amazon Basin, which advertises to predators it is not wise to eat frogs that don’t try to hide.”
“Aposematic what!” Monique’s pale face slowly turned pink. “So we’re down to judging Aliens by skin color! Hortie, I’m surprised at you.”
Jack realized he had one more shot, if that, and sadly Hortie was not as tough-willed as her partner, Gail. “Captain, this is real stuff!” The glare in Monique’s eyes only motivated him further. “Hortie, tell her what the Alien bodyshape means? The talon-toes, teeth and body form. Please!”
Monique glared again at Jack, breathed deep, then looked tiredly at Hortense Muggeridge-Mbasa. “Go on. Destanu will keep for another minute or two. What has Jack been doing to you girl?”
Hortie looked briefly incensed, glanced at a sympathetic Gail, then shrugged her slim shoulders. “It’s called Müllerian mimicry, Captain. A basic principle of predation and natural selection biology. In short, the Rizen’s shark-like teeth, lean-muscled body shape, and lion/hippo shape all reinforce the signal ‘don’t mess with me’. Like how the nomadidae bee resembles a yellow jacket, yet both species possess stingers. Or how the hunting cats resemble one another despite continental drift. Or—”
“Enough!” hissed Monique, angry disgust replacing the irritation of moments ago. She twisted in space and shook a finger at Jack. “You would have us judge Aliens on the basis of appearance? Racist! We Communitarians reject the outmoded sociobiology theorizing of that crazy professor E. O. Wilson! Genes do not control intelligent people! And out there is the first non-Earth culture and people we’ve ever encountered. I’m not going to insult them by refusing to play along with this Engagement ritual of theirs.”
Jack gave up. It would do no good to debate Gause’s Law, the role of keystone predators in a closed ecology, and sociobiology genetics with his Captain. She seemed to be automatically fighting him, and defending the wishful thinking of her social dogma, rather than questioning the motivations of dangerous-looking Aliens. But maybe he could convince her to be a little suspicious. “Captain, just what the hell are the Rules of Engagement?”
“Exactly!” Max said a bit too loudly “Monique my dear, you’re no diplomat, nor are any of us. Let’s go home, tell the topsucks about this, and let them take the chances.”
Monique stiffened at the challenge to her authority and at Max’s allusion to their romantic relationship. “No! The dome and the Rizen Aliens await us. There has been no assault on our ship, no threats, nothing to warrant an unfriendly response by us. We’re going.” She free-floated around to face the motion-eye, gestured and Hortense restored the AV comlink. “Link Destanu, please pardon the interruption. We accept your invitation to meet your team in the dome. But if you don’t mind explaining, what do you mean by Rules of Engagement?”
Destanu peered at them, its unblinking black stare fixing on each crew member one by one. The toothy mouth moved swiftly. “Why, just what I said. Rules of Engagement mean the rules for how we Rizen and you Humans behave toward each other. I think you call it etiquette, or diplomacy, or some such thing.”
Monique smiled triumphantly, but kept her attention on the Alien ship captain. “That’s what I thought. Since there are four of your people down below, four of us will also journey down. Is the dome atmosphere—”
“Oxygen-nitrogen?” interrupted Destanu. “Of course. We breath the same mix as you, at nearly the same pressures. And our home world and home star are near duplicates of yours. But come in your environment suits, if that reassures you and your team.”
Gail leaned over and whispered to Monique, who nodded distractedly, then faced the motion-eye camera. “Good. Our landing craft will leave shortly. We look forward to meeting your people. D’Auberge off.” The Rizen image blanked out. The Captain twisted in mid-air, faced them, and put hands on slim hips.
“No arguments! We’re going down, the only question is who goes and who stays. Any volunteers?”
Everyone stayed frozen in their seats, except for Hercule, who raised a pudgy hand. “Me. I’ll go with you.”
Monique nodded, then eyed Jack and Max at the back of the cabin. “The ship’s Technologist and ship’s Engineer are excused from this trip, in view of their racists and archaic reactions. Gail, Hortense, Hercule and myself will leave just as soon as our can put on our EVA suits. Move, people!”
Everyone undid belt locks and free-floated out of the cabin. Jack was the last to leave, unable to resist a glance back at the screen. On it hung a globe-and-spearhead spaceship, its red, yellow and black-banded hull a striking contrast to the reddish ices and snows of QB1. His gut still jumped. His heart still raced. And fear nearly froze his joints. Would have frozen them, except for the idea that had occurred the moment he saw the Alien’s teeth, saw its body build, and decided not to believe what he heard from either Destanu or Monique. Maybe he could help the landing party, which would land unarmed, unwary, and at the mercy of the unknown. Maybe.