Somewhere Else Entirely - Epilogue 1

An interstellar survey craft arrives in a previously unexplored star system to begin to evaluate the resources which may be available. At first, everything proceeds smoothly but then the unexpected happens, and even the most outlandish theories struggle to explain the bizarre circumstances facing the explorers.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

Epilogue 1 - The Impossible World

Author's Note: This chapter is set 206 years after the events in Chapter 138.

Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2010-2016 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.



To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Sent At: 1380-05-20 01:13:21.046

Subject: *** Transient Gravitational Anomaly Detected ***

*** Automated Alert Class 1 ***

Transient Detected at 143.06.28, -20.51.42, Distance 4,605,810,200 ~2,500 marks



To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Sent At: 1380-05-20 01:17:36.653

Subject: *** Transient Gravitational Anomaly Detected ***

*** Automated Alert Class 1 ***

Transient Detected at 144.06.28, -19.41.23, Distance 4,606,324,850 ~8,150 marks



To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Sent At: 1380-05-20 03:24:12.701

Subject: *** Transient Gravitational Anomaly Detected ***

*** Automated Alert Class 1 ***

Transient Detected at 265.58.03, +55.11.67, Distance 4,719,341,550 ~4,600 marks



To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Sent At: 1380-05-20 05:51:56.844

Subject: *** Transient Gravitational Anomaly Detected ***

*** Automated Alert Class 1 ***

Transient Detected at 017.15.38, -3.58.22, Distance 4,585,273,750 ~3,100 marks



To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Sent At: 1380-05-20 06:02:09.397

Subject: *** Defense Control Center Analysis ***

1. First interstellar craft arrives, previous medium unknown, method of transition unknown.

2. Second interstellar craft arrives by same method four minutes later.

2a. If the two craft communicate, it is by a means we cannot detect with available sensors.

2b. We have found no evidence of any communication method that involves Interspace.

3. First craft disappears and reappears above ecliptic and approx. 120 deg. from previous location.

4. First craft disappears and reappears a further 120 deg from previous location.

Analysis:

* Two craft arrive on exploratory mission.

* Second craft stays in outer reaches of system to flee with warning in case anything should go wrong.

* First craft makes some kind of 'micro-jump' ~120 deg around system, presumably a standard protocol to map locations of major bodies and search for signs of life.

* A second 'micro-jump' takes this craft a further ~120 deg around the system which more or less confirms the mapping theory.

* This vessel is now inbound under some kind of in-system drive towards Anmar and will arrive in orbit at approx 11:45 today.

* It is noticeable that the vessel did not micro-jump to a location near Anmar. This could indicate one of two things, or perhaps a combination: first, that such a jump is not possible due to some constraint we do not yet understand and/or second, that they desire to give us advance notice of their arrival.

Recommend immediate status change to Defcon 4.



To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Sent At: 1380-05-20 06:02:56.219

Subject: *** Readiness Status Change ***

*** Automated Alert Class 5 ***

Worldwide change of status to Defcon 4. First Contact imminent.



The insistent bleeping of the alarm wakened the sleeping monarch. He was used to the sound, but night-time interruptions had been infrequent of late. He groaned and turned over to view the display on the small desk in his bed-chamber and came abruptly awake, a frisson of anticipation running through him as he saw the large red '4' at the top right of the display.

Now fully awake, he turned back to discover that the other half of the bed was unoccupied, the sheets and blankets rumpled where the occupant had made a hurried departure.

Of course. She has gone to get the children up and ready.

His Imperial Majesty King Keren XI, Honorary Guardian of Anmar, King of the United States of Alaesia, Honorable Emperor of the Kittrin Isles, Over-Guide of the Eleven Cities, Warlord of Battran, Director of the Terian Confederacy, et cetera, et cetera, sighed and sat upright, swiveling for his feet to find the slippers at the side of the sumptuous bed. He pulled on a fluffy robe and sat down on the stool in front of the terminal. Rapidly he scrolled through the automated alerts which had been copied to him and then scrutinized the attached analysis. His stomach tightened.

It has come. Today is the day when we find out if it has all been true.

I trust my Ancestor but I have always wondered about the others.

I wonder what they will be like? The explorers, who might imagine they are coming to some primitive world. What will they think when they learn the truth?

King Keren grinned then. The welcome he would extend to the spacefarers was not one they would expect at all!

He pulled up a communication program and dialed.

"Ops Center, good morning. Oh, good morning, Your Majesty!"

"Marshal Dithereen, good morning."

The woman whose face was displayed wore the gray uniform of Space Defense. Her skin was so dark he could not have made out any creases or wrinkles, even if any had existed. Her eyes showed the distinct epicanthic folds associated with the Kittrins. There was an easy familiarity between them, they were old friends.

"So," he continued, "they are on their way in, then. It looks like we have a busy day ahead of us."

"Aye, Your Majesty."

"How are the preparations going?"

"Mostly as expected, Sire. The only serious problem is air traffic, as expected. Most of those craft making trans-ocean flights will land in time but we estimate between four and five hundred which will still be airborne when the visitors establish orbit."

Keren's eyebrows rose. "That many?"

Dithereen shrugged. "That is the price we pay for a prosperous world, Sire. There are many thousands of craft in the air as we speak. Most will be able to divert and land in time."

"Ocean craft?"

"We have sent out warnings, as planned, but most know they are on their own if anything should happen. Of course we hope it will not come to that."

"As you say. And our defense preparations?"

Dithereen gave Keren a wolfish grin. "Locked and loaded, Sire. We don't think we can hit that vessel while it is moving, but once in orbit it will be a dead ganifil. The other one, the watcher, we think we might be able to take that one as well, but," she shrugged, "it is a long way out and space is big that far out. And of course we have no idea what their defenses are."

Keren considered. "Okay. Let me get dressed and have some breakfast and I'll join you in Ops Center in an hour or so."

"Aye, Sire."

As Dithereen closed the connection, Keren found two arms come round his shoulders to join hands on his chest. He enjoyed a warm, perfumed breath that came past his right ear.

"Morning, love. You heard?"

Her Imperial Majesty Queen Lanilla, consort to the acknowledged leader of Anmar, kissed him on the cheek, her hair tumbling over their faces.

"I did, Keren. It's real, isn't it?"

"It certainly seems to be, if these alerts are correct. What about you? You were quick to scoot out of bed."

"Ah, Robbie had a nightmare. I was already up and about to come and snuggle back down again." She straightened up, her face showing some slight disappointment. "Looks like I'm not going to get my lie-in this morning."

"Ha! As if that were ever possible with a four-year-old."

"True." She looked at her husband, serious now. "You want me to get dressed and follow the evacuation plan, don't you?"

"I do, my love. This time we have to do everything by the book. We have no idea who or what is about to visit our world. You know the Beings' rules about this."

"Very well." She looked worried. "Will you be alright? I heard you say an hour."

"I will, I'll shave and dress and then get a bite of breakfast in one of the Defense Center canteens. I've done it before during drills, you know that."

She looked sad. "I know we have everything planned out but I can't help thinking..." She shook her head. "Be safe, Keren." She leaned in and kissed him, then strode rapidly to her dressing room as he headed for his own.

Keren washed and dressed, choosing a civilian suit for this occasion. The defense of Anmar was properly the business of his military staff and he did not wish to seem to be interfering in the chain of command. Outside the door of the Royal Suite he found a small group of people waiting. All bowed.

"What are you all doing here? We're now at Defcon Four, you should be evacuating the palace." He nodded to a Quadrant. "Not you, of course, Hamblin. You're with me. Come on, we're going to the subway to get a car to the PDC. I'll have a bite of breakfast when we get there." He raised an eyebrow at the rest of the palace functionaries. "I told you, go! There may not be a palace here by noon, I want you all safe and away from here."

Instead of eating in the family room, which was in any event deserted, the two headed for the elevators and descended twelve hundred strides beneath the palace, where a sealed railcar awaited at a small private platform. Once seated inside, they were whisked to the Planetary Defense Center, where they headed for the nearest canteen. Inside, people stopped whatever they had been doing when he appeared, but he waved them away.

"Not today, people! Carry on, if you would. I'm just getting breakfast, that's all."

The original murmur returned, but there was a noticeable bubble of silence surrounding the King and his aide as they filled trays and found an empty table. Keren took a sip of his mug of pel.

"Ah, that's better! Any fresh news, Hamblin?"

The Quadrant lifted his message pad and looked at the scroll of text on it. He shook his head.

"Nothing important, Sire."

"Good. Now, let's get this food down and head for Ops Center. I want to find out if they have learned anything more."

Twenty minutes later the two had negotiated the security ring around Ops Center and made their way into the large chamber from where the defense of the planet would be conducted, should that ever become necessary. Several people noticed Keren's entry and headed towards him. The nearest, in uniform, came to attention.

"Dithereen. I'm here as promised."

She smiled as she saluted. "Sire, you always keep your promises. Two minutes early."

Keren turned. "Kandal."

The Prime Minister grinned at the King as he put out his hand. "About time, Your Majesty. We have been wondering when our guests would show up."

"Ah, well, I couldn't predict that as you well know. Still, all those drills mean that you are all ready for action?"

Kandal swung an arm around to encompass the room. "Right in front of you, Sire. We only get one chance and we do not intend to fail."

Keren gestured. "Shall we go to the briefing room, get out of everybody's way?"

"As you wish, Sire."

The briefing room overlooked the floor area where uniformed personnel sat at terminals co-ordinating defense preparations. Through a plate-glass window the occupants could see the large displays which showed the status of everything that might become important in the next few hours. All those who had followed Keren, Kandal, Dithereen and Hamblin found seats facing the window.

"Sire," Dithereen began, "we have some more information recently obtained. The incoming vessel passed near a sensor buoy and we were able to get a close look at it. It is roughly a cigar shape and over a mark long, possibly as much as a mark and a quarter."

Keren whistled. "That's big. Thoughts?"

Dithereen shrugged. "I'll leave that to people with bigger imaginations than mine, Sire. Perhaps Baylen has some suggestions."

A small man in civilian dress spoke up. "Sire, it might be that such a size is required for whatever kind of interstellar drive they use, or possibly there is a minimum mass requirement. Until we can examine the vessel, we won't know."

"What about the crew?"

Baylen shrugged, echoing Dithereen. "Again, Sire, until we know who or what the crew is, we don't know what environmental requirements they might have or how they satisfy those needs. In terms of how many crew they actually need to get here, well..." he paused, "... I wouldn't think it will be too large, despite the vessel's size. Any crew that goes off and explores unknown planets must know they run a risk of not coming back, so they ought to just pick a minimum crew in case."

Another civilian objected. "Sire, they might need a large crew, since they do not know what they are going to find." He shrugged. "There could have been a civilization here, just animals, just plants or even just plain rocks. They would need different specialists for each of those scenarios."

A uniformed man beyond Baylen spoke up. "Unless that is a big-assed warship with the power to flatten any opposition, Sire."

Keren spread his hands. "One of you might be right. We have plans in place should any of those possibilities be correct, and we have plans in place if something else happens. You all know that."

"Aye, Sire."

The room fell silent as each was left to their own thoughts. The big displays were continually updated as events progressed. Presently, somebody appeared with pel and cookies. The onlookers watched as the vessel threaded its way through the mess of moons, satellites and sundry rocks and asteroids orbiting Anmar and placed itself into a careful polar orbit. Dithereen excused herself and descended to the floor to watch operations more closely.

"That makes sense," Baylen said. "That means that they can map the planet in a reasonably short length of time."

"Maybe," one of the other officers said. "What emissions do you think they can detect?"

"Not many, I'm guessing," Baylen replied. "Defcon Four involves shutting down most emissions anyway. Of course, on a planet this size there's always going to be something to show a civilization is here, but in theory we're not showing them anything we can avoid showing them."

"Aircraft. Ships. Power plants," Keren said with a shrug. "By now they should be able to see a lot of leakage from transportation. Most of the rest should be," he grinned at the speaker, "invisible to them."

"Aye, Sire," the speaker agreed, "but only if they don't know about Interspace."

"Granted."

The door to the room opened and a small delegation entered. Keren and the others rose and turned to meet them. They bowed to him and then their leader, an older man in civilian clothes, got down on one knee.

"Your Majesty, on behalf of the members of the Progressive Party and those others who did not believe your warnings, I come to offer my most abject apologies. Though it is difficult for any politician to say such a thing, I must admit that you were right and we were wrong. You would be within your rights to require us to offer our resignations."

"Rise, Stannard. I have no intention of asking you to resign. The Loyal Opposition performs an important function in our government and you were right to question the expenditure the government has undertaken to prepare us for this meeting." Keren paused, considering his next words. "In fact, I, and some select members of my closest circle, have deceived you all. I cannot explain now since we have an operation at hand, but later, perhaps, should we survive this meeting with travelers from another star, then you shall be told all. You have my word on that."

Not only those who had accompanied Stannard but several of those already in the room stared at their King. Hamblin already knew and suppressed a grin.

Keren waved a hand. "Come, join us, all of you. You may observe, just as we do, but I must ask you not to interfere. There is more at stake here than any of you know."

Stunned by the King's admission, the newcomers found seats behind those already there and leaned forward to discover what was happening.

Stannard asked, in a low voice, "What did you mean, Sire? Did you know these people were coming?"

Keren replied, "Not exactly. We knew somebody was going to turn up but we had no idea who or when. It could have been in a hundred years' time for all we knew. We don't know yet if they are going to turn out hostile... or even human. We just knew that we had to be prepared for them when they did arrive."

He made a motion with his hand. "I can't say any more now, Stannard. Let's just watch it all play out in front of us."

"Of course, Sire."

After perhaps half an hour Dithereen looked up at the watchers, and then decided to come up and join them.

"Sire, we might have had a big break. The moment they hit orbit they began transmitting a standard first contact pattern of a type we recognize. It's the usual geometric patterns trying to show they understand two plus two equals four." She shook her head. "Even a complete idiot can tell we already know that! As per standing instructions, we have ignored that so far, but there is that break I mentioned. It looks like they have launched two tenders, one of which seems to be surveying the hull of the vessel for damage, the other is just keeping a watching brief. We have detected tracking radars both from the tenders and from the main vessel so they are obviously wary of anything that might approach."

"I'm not surprised," Keren responded. "We already know how cluttered our skies are!"

"Indeed, Sire. Now, here's the thing: we managed to tap into their inter-craft communications. They are using some kind of cyclic encoding the experts recognize and..." She paused dramatically. "...Their communications are in English!"

"English?"

"Aye, Sire. Oh, their accent is terrible from our point of view but we can understand everything they say. For a start, we have the name of their vessel and that of the two tenders. The vessel is the Vasco da Gama and the tenders are improbably named Sleepy and Grumpy."

"That's a reference to Snow White, I think."

"Ops Analysis concurs, Sire. If these people speak something we can understand, do you think we should short-circuit some of the first-contact protocol?"

"Hmm. Would you say the probability is that these people are human?"

Dithereen nodded. "There is a small chance they could be an allied species, but in that case they should still be friendly towards us."

"Then do it. Let's give our visitors their first surprise."

* * *

The shuttle settled in the center of a vast network of concrete strips, readily identifiable as an airport. Around the perimeter were arrival and departure buildings, the boarding tubes still known as jetways, hangars, and a number of sleek shapes designed for moving rapidly through the air. There was a complete absence of any humans or other life. Those within sat silently for some time, studying their surroundings. Already this mission had thrown up some unexpected surprises and they wondered if there were any more awaiting them.

"What's the air like?"

"Better than in here, Captain. Real clean. Shall I crack the hatch?"

"Do so. We can't stay stuck in here all day, after all." The Captain turned. "Keep the defenses at action stations but don't do anything provocative. After those com exchanges, we have no idea what we're getting into. This place looks just like a mature Earth colony but it can't possibly be."

The big rear loading hatch was lowered and six of the crew ventured out to stand on the concrete. They looked around, bemused. Ahead of them was a recognizable airport terminal, with a name in two languages, one of which was English:

GARIA INTERNATIONAL

Many of the signs they could read were in two languages and the most prominent was always English. Across the field was a large hangar which hadn't bothered with the second language. Across the top of the doors it said in huge letters:

TANON ASSOCIATES
Intercontinental
Freight Forwarding

Shaking his head, one of the men pointed.

"Lookit those craft, Captain! Ain't never seen one designed that way afore."

It was true. Now the newcomers inspected the aircraft, they could see subtle differences from designs they were familiar with. The pods which appeared to provide thrust were... strange. The Captain shook his head. If this were a case of convergent evolution, why... but it couldn't be! No two planets could come up with the same language! There was a mystery here.

"Look! A car approaches. If that is what it is."

The car had no wheels but floated just above the ground. It was large and roofless, and contained six people apart from the driver. Three were in some kind of uniform and it was plain that these people were as human as the visitors.

The car came silently to a halt and some steps unfolded so that the occupants could dismount. All six climbed out and straightened their attire before a civilian stepped forward.

"Welcome to Anmar, gentlemen. My name is Keren and I am Guardian of the Commonwealth of Anmar, although I have a representative government to run the various parts for me." The man smiled. "You will doubtless be surprised that we speak and write English but all I will say now is that it will make our task that much easier today. Forgive us if we don't shake hands but I am told we may give each other diseases if we touch. May I present my Prime Minister, Kandaletomon Baritath'hun Andor D'Foon an K'Jaltor, although most people just call him Kandal in self defense. Next is my Defense Minister, Anjiro Dithereen. This is my personal aide, Hamblin Teldorian. To his right, our anthropology expert Colonel Rosilda Mantz and finally our Chief Medical Officer Ellika Archer."

The Captain wilted under the introductions.

"But, how? You cannot possibly be an Earth colony, since we are the first to come so far out in this direction! How is all this possible?"

Keren smiled. "Let's get ourselves comfortable first... I assume you are the Captain?"

"I am." The man reddened. "Please excuse my manners, this situation is so far outside what we expected... I am Captain Maurice Suarez of the survey ship Vasco da Gama, as you have already discovered. This is my First Officer, Commander Ivan Baranov. Our cultural expert, Commander Marianne Vargas, Second Engineer Judith McDaid, Lieutenant Tomas DeFreitas, Communications, and our Special Diplomatic Envoy Alison Hammond."

"I would like to say that we are delighted to see you," Keren responded, "but honesty compels me to reserve judgement for the while. You probably understand why that might be. Captain, I must needs ask you two questions, the first being the simplest to answer."

Suarez stared at the man. "As you wish... pardon, how should we address you?"

Keren gave a wry smile. "I get called many things, Captain, according to circumstances. For now, 'Sire' will do."

"Then Sire, ask your questions."

"First, you obviously understand English, since we are both using it." The Captain and two of his officers nodded. "I just need to confirm that you can understand the written language. It is possible that your written form has changed over the years."

"It looks fine to me, Sire," Suarez replied. "We can all read the signs scattered around this airport - this is an airport, I take it?"

"It is, it is the major international airport for the capital."

"So, is this place called Garia, then?"

Keren smiled. "Indeed not, Captain, the naming is much more complicated than that. We are standing in Kendeven, which is the state next to our capital Palarand." His smile vanished suddenly. "My next question has to be, why are you here?"

"Why, we are on a simple exploratory expedition, Sire. Humans are expanding through this region of space and somebody has to do the survey work, find out what what we might be faced with. We certainly never expected to find a whole Earth colony way out here."

"I must disabuse you, Ladies and Gentlemen, we are not an Earth colony, not in the way you mean it. I must also note that the expression on your First Officer's face indicates that maybe your explanation isn't the whole truth."

Suarez turned but by then Baranov had covered his surprise and was staring at Keren. The decision Suarez had to make wasn't difficult.

"Sire, you are right, we are more than just surveyors. The small group of Earth colonies which presently exists faces a war against some kind of alien presence and we were searching for an out-of-the way system to turn into an arsenal."

He was surprised when all of the locals burst into smiles.

"Well, you've come to the right place, then!" Keren told them. "Assuming we can come to some suitable agreement, I think Anmar could be just what you're looking for. A further question, who sent you out? Is this a private venture?"

Suarez shook his head. "No, Sire, certainly not. Only a government could finance an expedition such as ours."

Keren's eyes narrowed. "Which government? Earth's?"

"We were commissioned by the second oldest colony, Nirvana, which is in the Tau Ceti system, and with full Earth approval."

Keren studied them all thoughtfully before continuing.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I trust that you will not take offense at my next words. And it is trust that is our problem. Your ships have literally popped out of nowhere and you could have come here with any intent. I have no idea if any of the statements Captain Suarez has just made are true and we have as yet no means of verifying them. You'll forgive us if I tell you that we have to treat your presence here with a certain amount of skepticism.

"If you have come here as you have said, as innocent explorers, then we will give you the welcome you are entitled to, but if you have come here with some hidden motive then be warned, this is our home planet and we will defend ourselves vigorously. I would caution you all that on Anmar, nothing is as it seems. We have access to resources literally beyond your imagination. Consider yourselves on probation but do not let that prevent you from fulfilling your necessary functions."

The visitors were silent and then the envoy spoke, troubled.

"Your ships? You said, 'Your ships', Sire. You know about the other one, then?"

Keren smiled. "Of course. We knew about your arrival shortly after you entered our space. I'm assuming that the Tristan da Cunha is keeping a watching brief should anything... untoward, shall we say, happen to you?"

That statement shocked the visitors.

DeFreitas blurted, "You even know the name of it? How is that possible?"

Keren gave a non-committal shrug. "Like I said, resources. Did you really think a civilization like ours would just sit here fat and happy? We have an obligation to look after our own home, Ladies and Gentlemen. Does not your own planet have defenses?"

The visitors were stunned into silence.

Keren said, "Look, perhaps we ought to get you people off the airport and somewhere more sensible. Over that way about four kilometers you'll find five spaceport landing pads. The northern one... the leftmost one from here," he pointed, "has been reserved for your use. I think you'll find it big enough to hold all your small craft if you so desire and you can use the attached buildings as your base of operations. If you elect to do that then we'll need to get you comfortable with our Traffic Control protocols."

Everybody turned to look in the indicated direction.

"But, if you already have landing pads, Sire," Baranov asked, "why did you ask us to land out here?"

Keren shrugged. "We weren't sure if you intended to land your whole ship or just a tender. Your ship wouldn't fit on a landing pad."

"Oh!" Suarez chuckled. "Sire, our ship was built in space and is designed to remain in space. It would not survive a landing. You want us to take our shuttle over there now?"

"If you wouldn't mind. This airport is usually somewhat busy and it would help if we can get it back into operation sometime soon." He gestured. "You fly your shuttle over there and we'll follow a safe distance behind in our car."

* * *

As the turbines whined down to silence the crew of the shuttle gathered in the spacious cabin.

"What the Heck have we gotten ourselves into?" growled the Captain. "Alison, you get first stab."

"I'm still trying to get over the shock," she said. "When we dropped out of hyperspace into this system I never expected this." There was a murmur of agreement from the others. "How on Earth did they manage to find out Tristan's name?" She held up a hand, shaking it. "Never mind, that's a technical question and I'll let others answer it." She took a deep breath. "People, the level of civilization on this planet, from the very little we have managed to see so far, is at least as high as our own and I wouldn't be surprised if it were higher. Apparently the only thing we have that they haven't is interstellar craft..." She paused. "We are assuming they haven't got starships, aren't we?"

Suarez shrugged. "Who knows? We're sitting on a landing pad which means they certainly have space travel and they are comfortable enough with it to integrate it into their air traffic."

"A point to think about, Captain," said Baranov, his exec. "The space around this planet is filled with the usual ground survey and weather satellites but so far we haven't seen a single spacecraft. As we arrived over here I noticed all five pads were empty. We have no idea what their capabilities are, what their level of access to other resources in their system might be."

"Ouch!" Suarez pursed his lips. "They are certainly playing their cards close to their chest, aren't they?"

"Do you blame them?" Alison said. "If I lived in a star system and I didn't have the ability to go anywhere else then I would be wary of anyone who came to call, wouldn't you?"

"They want to make a trade," DeFreitas added thoughtfully. "Perhaps technology they have for starship technology we have. They aren't going to just give us everything they have."

"Flying cars," McDaid said. "Flying cars does it for me. That looks like pretty cool tech to me and it solves so many problems. Another thing, did you hear anything when that car arrived?"

"What do you mean?" DeFreitas asked. "Oh - no motor sounds. No whine, like our cars. Damn! I guess there are two fortunes right there, Captain."

Suarez nodded. "You're both right. Alison, what should we do?"

"We do exactly what we came here for, Captain. If that Guardian is right, then this could be the perfect spot to start building starships and weapons and they appear to have just the right workforce to do it for us." She held up a finger. "One, we treat them with respect. If they are above our level, it wouldn't do to piss them off. Two, we treat them as equals. We have knowledge to trade and so do they. There will be no selling out for a bag of beads on either side, is that clear?"

Everybody in the cabin nodded.

She held up a third finger. "Finally, three, we keep our noses clean and abide by every rule they ask us to."

"Within reason," Suarez put in.

Hammond inclined her head. "Within reason," she agreed. "That is because it has now become essential that we complete our mission and get back to tell the others that a place like this exists... and that there may be others like it. We don't want to become stuck here because we offended them - or worse."

"Agreed?" Suarez looked round the cabin, receiving nods from every crew member. "Very well, open the hatch."

The open car was just pulling to a halt as the ramp went down. Both parties disembarked again. Suarez noted an extra person getting out of the car, this one wearing a different uniform.

"Captain Suarez," Keren said, gesturing to the newcomer. "This is Milsy Campbell, who is going to be your liaison with Traffic Control. She'll explain the protocols, which I'm sure you'll find both simple and familiar."

The young woman nodded to Suarez then fell in behind the King as he led everyone towards the buildings at the side of the pad.

"Up top is where the launches are usually controlled from," Keren explained. "Underneath there are two levels of offices you can make any use of that you want. Behind is a small warehouse where freight is sometimes prepared when necessary. If you'll follow me."

Inside the lowest level of the block was a long room with a row of tables and chairs down each side. A number of cardboard boxes had been placed on some of the tables.

"Ah, good, they have arrived." Keren gestured. "In these boxes you'll find a kind of welcome pack," he explained. "I must apologize, we have had to make it up at short notice as you might imagine. It should give you enough information to familiarize yourselves with Anmar before you begin any advanced surveys. Use this material as you see fit, we don't mind if you decide to take it back to your ship to study. We can supply extra copies or further information on request. You should know that we use hours, minutes and seconds on Anmar but our day is seventy-one minutes longer than Earth's so don't get caught out. Our year is three hundred ninety-one and a fraction days, we have a week of seven days like Earth but our months are all thirty-one days long and may overlap the year's end."

He walked over to a small box and opened it. Inside it had been divided into twelve and he pulled out one of the objects it contained.

"Um, we don't really use radio here, so it won't be easy for you to talk to Traffic Control. That's why we are giving you these communicators. Use them hand-held or you can connect to the jacks on the bottom if you want to integrate them into your systems. I thought maybe you'd keep one here, put one on each of your small craft and have the rest either on the ship or with your away parties, when we get round to allowing those."

He tossed the small object to Campbell, who clipped it to her belt.

"You'll notice that they are all numbered and that I just gave Milsy number one. There are two thumbwheels on the side and you just dial up whoever you want to talk to. Zero zero is Traffic Control. You'll also notice that I am not touching anything else in this room, since we've about reached the point where our medical officers have to take over. I don't wish to have half our population wiped out by another planet's version of the Common Cold and I'm sure you'll appreciate it if we don't decimate your crew." He grinned. "That means that this is about the point where, if you will excuse the phrase, we exchange bodily fluids."

~o~O~o~

Commander Asif Bergen thumbed the inter-ship com. "Captain? If you could join me in the plot room right away."

"What's up, Asif? We come to the wrong planet?"

"I can't answer that one for you, Captain, this comes more under the heading of 'Danger to navigation'."

"Be right there, Asif."

In the plot room a hologram over the plot table showed the planet as a wire frame with Vasco da Gama's orbit looping over the pole as a yellow trace.

"What have we got?" Suarez said as he came to the table.

"Captain, we have identified eleven other satellites in polar or near polar orbits which of course will all intersect near the poles," Bergen explained. "Those are the blue lines you can see, I've filtered the rest of the traffic out. We're somewhat close to two of them and I would recommend raising our orbit by sixty kilometers or so."

"Hmm. Wouldn't it be better if we went higher?"

"It would but there are other satellites higher up as well. Sixty would be comfortable both ways."

"What's that?" Suarez pointed to a red trace traveling round the planet.

"That, Captain, is the smallest moon of this planet. I'm just a little nervous when I find moons orbiting underneath me, so to speak."

"What's it doing down there?"

"It orbits three times a day. The situation is not unknown, Captain. Mars in the old system has Phobos which does much the same thing."

Suarez studied the plot thoughtfully before nodding. "Very well, Asif, we'll do it. Go and talk to DeFreitas, he's handling ground comms for us."

Bergen gave a brief nod. "Aye, Captain." As Suarez turned to leave he added, "Oh, there is one other odd thing we've noticed."

Suarez turned with a raised eyebrow. "Only one other odd thing?"

Bergen grinned but the grin faded quickly. "We're coming close enough to some of these birds that we've been able to eyeball them, Captain. It took a while before we realized what was odd... none of them has any kind of solar collector array."

"None? That's possible, I suppose. Maybe they power them another way. Perhaps they use Radioisotope Thermal Generators?"

Bergen spread his hands. "With all that free sunlight out there? Why bother?"

In the Communications Center DeFreitas dialed 01 and held down the push-to-talk button.

"Anmar Liaison, this is Vasco da Gama," he said.

There was a pause before a female voice replied, "Vasco da Gama, this is Anmar Liaison, go."

DeFreitas looked up at Bergen as he said, "Liaison, we have analyzed our orbit and we think we're too close to some of your ground survey and weather satellites. Request permission to raise orbit by sixty kilometers."

"Vasco da Gama, wait five."

"Five what?" Bergen asked DeFreitas with a frown as the unit went dead.

"Minutes, sir. Theirs are slightly longer than ours but near enough over short intervals. When we agreed protocol for this link we decided to use standard Earth units to avoid confusion. Apparently they have Earth timepieces down there, don't ask me how."

It was less than five minutes before the reply came. "Vasco da Gama, this is Anmar Liaison, your request is agreed. Begin at your convenience after your next polar crossing."

Bergen nodded. "Good. I'll go and plot out the course change. Thanks, Tom."

As Bergen left the cabin DeFreitas decided to keep the line open. The voice on the other end of the link had begun to stir a personal curiosity inside of him. He thumbed the talk button now and asked, "I think your name is interesting, Miss Campbell."

He was sure that her response came with a smile. "Oh, a chat-up line, is it? Well, for starters, I'm not sure that I know what a 'Miss' is. Technically my social status is Mistress but I have a rank of Quadrant Officer so you could use either."

"What's a Quadrant Officer? I've never heard of that one before."

"Oh, it's the lowest proper Officer rank, much like your Tenant."

"Tenant? Do you mean Lieutenant, Mistress Milsy?"

"Oh, yes, of course. We have a lot of weird and wonderful ranks from all over Anmar, as you might expect, but I don't think I've heard of a Loo-Tenant before."

"It comes from Earth and is rather old. I thought..? Never mind, I was asking about your name."

"My name? I'm named Milsy after a very brilliant ancestor from about two hundred years ago."

"That is interesting, but I was talking about your surname, actually. How did you get the name Campbell?"

"Oh, that's a local custom, Master DeFreitas. Descendents of one of our great Queens who are no longer part of the Royal family take the surname Campbell for reasons of honor."

That wasn't what he wanted to know but he saw that she would keep evading the question so he changed the subject.

"Ah, I'm no Master, Quadrant Officer. My rank aboard ship is Lieutenant Commander. That's a sort of junior Commander."

"We have Commanders here, as well," she replied. "It looks as if we'll have to swap organization charts, doesn't it? And Quadrant Officer is a little formal when we're speaking off the record, don't you think? Just call me Milsy."

"If I do, you must call me Tom. Everyone else does."

"Done."

~o~O~o~

Anders Valborg turned over yet another sheet of paper, shaking his head.

"If these people are supposed to be so advanced, why are they still using hardcopy like this?"

George Haruchi looked up from his own pile.

"Makes sense to me, Anders. If they have multi-use pads like ours then they'd have to hand us a heap of them to use, wouldn't they? That would mean decontaminating them, explaining how to use them and how to recharge them as well, not to mention someone in Engineering would try to pull one apart. Good old-fashioned paper is easy enough to produce and technology free." He leaned back, scratching his head. "Besides, I'm finding it easier to use. I can just pull out the pages I want to cross-reference and spread them over the table. You can't do that with a data file."

Valborg looked at the mess in front of Haruchi and then down at his own neat piles.

"If you say so. You going to reassemble that lot when you've finished?"

"Sure. They are all numbered so it won't be difficult. How's your search going? Find anything interesting?"

"Interesting? Believable would be a better word! You aren't going to believe some of the weird animals I've seen described in here, and there are 2D vid stills as well. This whole planet is a crazy mess and I can't think of any suitable explanation. You?"

"I don't claim to have found anything impossible in here," Haruchi waved a hand over his pile, "but I'm beginning to get a feel for that ball of rock down there and I like it. That rift valley where we landed is impressive and it appears to go for thousands of kilometers inland, just like the one in Africa. There's plate tectonics, volcanoes, deserts, mighty rivers, huge mountain ranges and an ice cap. In many respects it is exactly like Earth."

"Huh! The planet may look like Earth, but not all the wildlife came from there. Look at this, and this."

Valborg held up two sheets of paper and Haruchi gasped. "Jesus Christ!"

~o~O~o~

There was a knock on the office door and Suarez poked his head into the room.

"Captain," Surgeon Commander Howell Broft said, looking up from his display. "I was just thinking of calling you. Can you spare five minutes?"

"Of course, Howell. I wanted the status of the medical investigation."

Broft leaned back in his chair and laughed nervously. "I've been hearing stories of what the others have found, Captain. I'm not sure whether my own investigations will turn up anything so fantastic."

Suarez waved a hand. "It couldn't get any worse, that's for sure. Enlighten me, Howell."

Broft said, "As agreed, we swopped blood samples down at that landing pad, ten each. I can reliably inform you, Captain, that we could interbreed with the population of that planet down there, no problem. They are as human as you and I."

"Which makes the puzzle even stranger," Suarez grumped. "How did they get here?"

"I can't answer that, but I can tell you we've had a look at some of the genetic markers from the ground samples. That King of theirs has female antecedents that come from southern Germany, Captain, and not all that long ago. On the other hand, that black Marshal of theirs is, bizarrely enough, of almost pure Japanese stock despite her color. Of course," he added, "we're supposed to be exploring unknown space so we don't have a copy of the full human genome database on board. I've been extrapolating based on crew samples and I'm no expert, but we have mitochondria markers from all over Earth."

Suarez grunted. "Well, we know they almost have to be Earth stock however they got here. Question is, are we in any danger from each other's pathogens?"

"No idea, Captain. They have antibodies we don't carry and vice versa. Strangely, we don't share a single one that I've discovered so far. Without some kind of medical history of this world I can't tell you what would just give you a runny nose and what would rot your arms and legs off." He shrugged. "I also can't tell you what we carry that might be fatal to them."

Suarez nodded, rising from his chair. "That's about what I expected, Howell. Do the best you can."

"Aye, Captain."

~o~O~o~

The Captain's day cabin on the Vasco da Gama was crowded. On the table in front of many of the occupants were stacks of paper hard-copy, taken from the boxes down below, along with three of the communicators.

"Okay, settle down," Suarez said, and the room quietened. "What have we learned? Alison, you first."

"Astonishing," she said, tapping the pile in front of her. "To have come so far and so fast! At the end of our twentieth century these people were still using swords, Captain. Then, somehow, bang! we have a whole Industrial Revolution that seems to have somehow skipped several natural steps. Of course mankind doesn't have another civilization to compare it with so I may be doing them down, but some of the breakthroughs are unexpected for so short a period of time. I'll leave it there for now, if I may."

"Fair enough. George, talk about the planet."

"Captain, the information we have been given is better quality than we could have measured on our own and it has the advantage of being gathered over many years. There are seven continents of which Alaesia appears to be the largest. As you might expect there are also many island groups both large and small. There's slightly more water than Earth but that is offset by a slightly lesser axial tilt. Despite that, parts of the planet receive... interesting weather. Mountains," he shrugged, "about what one would expect. They have an ice cap at the north pole and a number of the mountain ranges around the planet would offer good skiing. For more detail than that I'd have to go down with a hammer and break bits off."

"Heh. You just want to get your skis out of store, don't you? Okay. You may get your wish, if we prove successful. Jasmine, what about astrographics?"

"The information we've been given corresponds exactly to the measurements we made on the way in, Captain. In many ways this system resembles Earth's Solar System." She frowned. "Some of this information seems to indicate colonies on several of their moons and planets but if there are, we never noticed them at all on the way in. Their co-ordinate system is about the same as ours, Captain, but they use a different measuring system called the mark which is some meters short of a kilometer. Other than that it is degrees, minutes, seconds just as we are familiar with. Oh, their capital, Palarand, lies on the zero meridian."

"Is anybody else getting spooked out by this planet?" DeFreitas groused. "They claim not to be an Earth colony but I don't see how they could be anything else."

"That's what we're here to determine," Suarez said frostily. "Let's have your own report, Tom."

DeFreitas reddened. "Sorry, Captain. Uh, I think my report is going to be the shortest of all. There are no local communications. None."

"What?"

"Just that, sir. I used both the wideband scanners and the only things they turned up were our own small-craft comms, the usual noise from the star and natural emissions from a couple of the gas giants. Nothing at all that would indicate an advanced civilization exists on this planet."

McDaid picked up one of the comms units. "But that's impossible! How do these work, then?"

DeFreitas shook his head. "We tested them thoroughly, Judith. Not a peep at any frequency."

"I had a look at them too, Captain," said Demis Andrades, the Chief Engineer. "Not only don't they emit, I can't see how they are powered, either. The only two jacks are for microphone and speaker, not for power." He hesitated. "Because we can't get into them, I rigged up a quick round-trip test. I fed a sound wave into one unit, down to a paired unit at the landing pad, out into another unit standing next to it and out to another one up here in a different room. Captain, I don't want to worry you, but the signal delay definitely breaks the laws of physics."

Suarez frowned. "Could they somehow be using hyperspace?"

Andrades shook his head. "We'd know if that were true, Captain, and it isn't. You know how big our hyperspace generators are. There's nothing we can detect with any equipment we have on this ship."

Alison Hammond reached for and picked up one of the communicators. "They gave these to us deliberately," she mused, turning it over. "To show us what they have to offer."

"I think you can safely say that they have our attention," Suarez said dryly. "Life Sciences? Anders, what have you found?"

"A weird jumble, Captain. As you might expect, the plant life is all new to us but the locals seem to be able to digest it okay so I'm guessing we can eat it as well. Animal life... there are several problems I've noticed. Some of the wildlife is vaguely familiar to us and some, like the people, could just have been shipped off Earth last week. There's also a distinct strand of six-legged life varying from rat analogs to cow analogs to something I definitely want to see, but only from a safe distance... some of the six-legged life has its middle limbs modified into bat-like wings, Captain. They call these avians and they are the Anmar analogs of birdlife. One of those grows to about twelve or so meters in length. Captain, it is a dead-spit of a dragon and about as vicious."

"A dragon? Are you sure?"

Valborg leafed through the papers in from of him, pulled one out and flicked it towards the Captain. "If that isn't a perfect representation of a dragon from Earth's myths, Captain, I don't know what is."

Jasmine Wu asked, "Do those things breathe fire, by any chance?"

Valborg shook his head. "I don't think so, Jasmine. At least, the literature doesn't mention such a thing."

Suarez studied the picture thoughtfully. It appeared to be a 2D vid still of one of the beasts in the act of landing so every detail of the body stood out clearly.

"An actual animal, here, that exists only as a myth on Earth. There has to be some kind of transfer between the two worlds! And nothing we possess could possibly have done something like that."

Alison Hammond nodded. "It's an explanation, Captain, but one I'm not sure I want to explore. The implications are terrifying."

"Agreed. Anders, anything more?"

Valborg gave a twisted smile. "After the dragon? Captain, that isn't even the best part. They have actual dinosaurs here."

"Dinosaurs? Explain."

"There are flying creatures called grakh which appear to be pterosaurs, Captain. Some of those have wingspans in the five-meter range and can kill a grown human. I have also identified plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs in the oceans and there are what appear to be dinosaur period herbivores on some of the other continents. I haven't had a chance to check them all out yet. All appear to closely resemble those that were wiped out on Earth sixty-six million years ago."

Suarez growled, "Anders?"

"Yes, Captain?"

"The next time I ask you to give me a report, tell me to mind my own business! This is becoming ridiculous! Who's next? Demis? I suppose you got Judith to do your surveys."

Andrades replied, "Aye, Captain, because I was busy making sure the ship would be ready if we needed to leave in a hurry. Jude?"

Judith McDaid, their redheaded Second Engineer spoke up. "Yes, sir. Scanning the planet shows a number of neutrino sources so I'm assuming that they use fusion as a primary energy source. There are also neutrino sources on all three moons and several near some of the other planets. I'm not sure any of those were active when we came in, Captain." She glanced at her memo pad. "Apart from that, the spectrum shows surprisingly little emissions of any kind. Captain, it's not my job but I'm guessing they have the whole system on lockdown until they decide they can trust us."

Suarez leaned back, letting out a long breath of frustration.

"I can't help wondering if this whole planet isn't some kind of practical joke," he growled.

"If it is," Hammond responded, "I'm not sure I want to meet the beings that set it all up... but I have a horrible suspicion we might do, fairly soon."

Suarez turned to Broft. "Howell, I know you've been speaking with their medical people. Any progress?"

Broft replied, "I have, Captain, but you might not like it. They have something they call Targeted Preventative Therapy which could protect us from their pathogens and clear our bodies of anything we are carrying."

Suarez' eyebrows rose. "Really? How do they propose to do that miracle?"

"That's what the Targeted part of TPT is, Captain. They use a sample of our own DNA to construct... I don't know that I'd call it nanotechnology, but something organic that does much the same thing. It's a kind of artificial white blood cell that each recipient won't reject. That stays around and actively removes anything in our bodies that doesn't match the host's DNA. Oh, and it self-reproduces, as well. Once it's in, it stays in."

The Captain's tone was skeptical. "Interesting. And they just happened to have this available?"

"I understand there was a bad plague-type outbreak about eighty years ago, Captain. This was one of their self-defense measures to prevent anything like that happening again. They didn't do it for our benefit at all."

Baranov cleared his throat. "Captain, I should warn you that this would mean they would require access to the DNA of every crew member. This story of a plague could be just that, a story. And what's to say they didn't plant a kill switch in this magic molecule of theirs? I must advise caution."

"He has a point," Broft admitted. "Kill us all off and then they have free access to all our technology. However, I personally don't find that scenario too plausible. If they wanted to kill us all off there are easier ways than by engineering a specific pathogen for every single member of the crew. That would take time and effort and they could just release a native pathogen much easier. I don't buy it, Captain."

Suarez nodded, then looked around the table. "Very well, people. Until we can agree medical clearance we'll just have to keep going over the materials they have given us. Carry on."

The room slowly cleared until only Suarez and Hammond were left.

"What do you think, Alison?"

"I think we're playing well above our league, Captain. If we can get onside with people who can pull stunts like this, then I, and all those at home, will be absolutely delighted."

"And if we can't?"

Hammond's expression was grave. "Captain, in that case I doubt we would even be permitted to break orbit. Our voyage would end here and nobody would ever find out about it."

"What about Tristan? Wouldn't they be able to get away?"

She gave a hollow laugh. "These people can read the ship's name off the paint on the hull, Captain. Tristan has about as much chance as we do."



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