Castle Roland

Trillion Dollar Family

by Rilbur

On Hold

Chapter 13

Posted: N/A

"My God, first contact on my watch," Mathews shook his head. "Except, of course, for the minor detail that it is trying to contact you, specifically. Why is that?" he asked Jared.

"I have no idea," Jared shook his head in awe. "This is real? It's not a hoax?"

"The central computer network is offline, so we can't run a verification scan on the image, but I think it is," someone answered. "No real way to prove it, though."

"Can we signal a reply?" Mathews asked.

"Damage to the transceiver is too severe," the tech shook his head. "We can barely receive, and we just don't have the power to transmit over that large of a distance, and the rest of our com grid is completely offline. I'm sorry sir, we can't reply in any way."

Mathews sighed. "Are our running lights on?"

"Not the full grid, but enough to make us visible," someone else reported.

"Assuming they're real, they've obviously managed to pick up our language," Mathews hinted. "Which means they might have picked up on other things."

"Yes sir, but with no way to signal them, what use is that?" Jared suppressed a smile. The officer in question clearly knew he was missing something.

"We do have control over our running lights, don't we?" Mathews asked. "We can turn them off, and then back on, in a controlled manner?"

The officer groaned. "I'm an idiot. Sir, we can flash our running lights in a standard SOS pattern to indicate distress."

"Do it," Mathews ordered. "And great idea, Lieutenant Johnson, I'm glad you thought of it."

"Thank you sir," the lieutenant said without a trace of irony in his voice.

"And don't worry about it," Jared could hear the smile in Mathews voice. "It's a junior officer's job to learn, and you did make the connection, eventually."

"Standard distress program loaded and ready to run sir," the lieutenant said a moment later. "Permission to execute?"

"Punch it," Mathews ordered.

"Program appears to be running normally, sir," Lieutenant Johnson said after a moment. "Permission to order a work detail outside to check?"

"Permission granted," Mathews agreed. "Signal lag to rescue vessel?"

"At this distance, approximately three minutes, each way," the Lieutenant informed him.

"Signal lag?" Jared asked, confused.

Mathews sighed. "I assume you still remember that lesson on light and sound?"

Jared smiled. It had taken Mathews two days to drum that into Jared's head well enough to pass the test. "Light is the fastest thing in the universe. Just like sound from watching someone chop a log takes time to arrive, so does the light that lets me see it," Jared recited the familiar grade-school catechism. "Light just moves faster than anything else, so we see the impact before we hear it."

"Signal lag is the time it takes for light to travel between our ship and theirs. In this case, three minutes to get there, then three minutes to see their reaction," Mathews explained.

"So we won't see anything for another six minutes?" Jared asked.

"The earliest they could possibly respond is about another four and a half minutes from now," Mathews agreed. "But they might not recognize what they're seeing very quickly, so don't expect a reaction right away."

"And if they don't see the signal?" Jared asked.

"If they don't see it, or don't recognize it, it doesn't cost us anything," Mathews couldn't shrug inside a space suit, but his voice carried the intent plainly. "Maybe we'll get lucky."

Jared sighed. That wasn't exactly encouraging-

"Sir their signal has changed," someone reported.

"Show me," Mathews ordered.

"Nova Maria, this is the Enlightened Profit. Our visual scans assess severe damage to your vessel. Respond immediately if possible, or we will approach at maximum acceleration to offer humanitarian aid and assistance," the alien sounded completely calm, but the visual accompanying the sound broke the illusion. It wasn't complete pandemonium, but the flashing lights, rushing crew members, and graphics detailing the Nova Maria's damage didn't match anything Jared would have labeled 'calm'. The creature's body language was just confusing, and just plain alien, but Jared was reasonably certain that that strange, twitching motion of its head wasn't 'calm'.

"They should have received our distress code about a minute ago, the earliest response time is in about-" Alarms cut the officer off. "Proximity alert! Object moving at high velocity within three light seconds!"

Mathews calmly brought the sudden clamor under control. "Contact CIC and ask for an assessment as to the proximate objects identity, cut the alarm, and stand by to be boarded."

"Boarded?" someone asked.

"You heard me, Meyers! Prepare to be boarded!" Mathews snapped. "Unless you think they'll provide 'humanitarian assistance' without boarding us!" he added, voice thick with sarcasm.

"Aye-aye sir, piping repel-" Jared's hand flashed out and stopped the officer in question before he could touch his board, lightning quick reflexes surprising even him.

"I don't think the captain said repel boarders," he commented wryly. He couldn't hold the officer through the inflated balloons they'd stuck over his hands, but moving the man away from his console was still easy.

"Ensign Meyers," Mathews said coldly, "when you get a chance, I would deeply appreciate it if you would talk to Lieutenant Commander Becker about this incident."

"Yes sir," Jared couldn't see the ensign's face, but despite the survival suit covering him he wilted, visibly, collapsing in on himself as far as he physically could. Convinced the danger was past, Jared leaned back in his seat.

"CIC reports that a second alien vessel, identical in design, is what triggered the alarm. They have no clue why they didn't detect it earlier," an officer reported. Mathews laughed.

"Identical in design, hrm? Have we by any chance received a signal yet?" Mathews was clearly amused. "Ask CIC to evaluate possibility that alien vessel just engaged in an FTL micro-jump." He turned to look over at Jared. "To answer your question, when you travel faster-than-light, it's possible to appear to be in two places at once until the light of your journey catches up with you."

Jared was glad the survival suit kept anyone from seeing his blush. "So why haven't they signaled us yet?"

"If I was on board that ship, I'd probably be busy doing a close-range assessment of damage before I did anything else," Mathews said dismissively. "Why haven't you gotten into a survival slip yet?"

"Here are some tanks sir," a crew member floated forward across the bridge. "The locker was damaged, and we couldn't find any survival slips."

"At least you have some air tanks," Mathews said tersely. "Damnit, I want my ship fixed."

"Working on it, sir," someone commented.

"Thanks. Com, you said we couldn't broadcast to their location. Are they close enough now that we could contact them?" Mathews asked.

"I'm afraid we are already in contact, Captain Mathews," the mechanical voice the alien's used piped over the suit radio. "You were quite correct about us assessing the damage from up close, but we also took the opportunity to patch ourselves into your internal com network. I'm sorry about not asking permission, but analysis suggested that your transmission capacity was compromised."

"That would be an accurate analysis," Mathews said calmly. "I assume you can receive as well as transmit?"

"Indeed," the voice didn't sound amused, but something about the word choice made Jared swear it should have been. "Now that I can actually ask permission, may I send repair and assistance parties over? While we work out repair priorities, they can assist with sealing hull leaks and scrubbing radiation."

"I'd be glad to have them, and thank you," Mathews said gratefully. "My most urgent needs are environmental. My power grid is collapsing, my thermoelectric converters are offline, and my air scrubbers don't have enough power. If you can provide emergency power to run our environmental systems, that would solve some of our problems, though waste heat is going to become an issue soon."

"Waste heat?" Jared wanted to grit his teeth. The words were so precise they became mechanical, but something about the timing of their delivery made it sound like the speaker should be surprised. It was uncomfortable. "Can't you vent it to space?"

Mathews frowned. "This vessel is designed to minimize its infrared signature. We do not have any mechanism to vent heat to space other than the loss of volatiles, and our volatiles are already near critical."

"Understood. Stand by." Jared, intrigued by the byplay, didn't even notice that the person fiddling with his air supply was trying to get his attention.

While most of the suit was made out of a special, nearly skin-tight fabric, the helmet was still rigid, and strong enough to let someone knock on it. "What?"

"I need you to check your air gauges," the rating asked.

"Green, across the board," Jared answered, annoyed. "Six hours air again."

"Sooooo sorry to be of help," the rating drifted off, equally annoyed.

"Petty Officer Barstow," Mathew's voice cracked onto the com channel. "Is that any way to treat a guest?"

Barstow hesitated guiltily for a fraction of a second. "No sir, it is not." He turned to face Jared. "My sincere apologies for letting my temper get the best of me, sir."

"It's already forgotten," Jared waved it off.

"Jared Brent Warren," Mathews was even more pissed now. "I will have courtesy on board my ship."

Jared frowned. "Petty Officer Barstow, I beg your pardon," Jared blushed again. Mathews was right, Jared had been out of line. But to call him out like Mrs. Mathews used to? "I should not have behaved as I did, and I apologize."

"Apology accepted, sir," Barstow was calmer now, and actually sounded like he meant it.

"Now that that little byplay is completed, I have a report from my engineers," the aliens broke in with their strange, mechanical voice.

"Before we continue, perhaps a slightly better introduction is in order," Mathews suggested. "I am Captain Cody Mathews of the Federation Star Ship Nova Maria, from the planet Earth in the Sol system."

"I am Senior Captain Jelzana op Corata, commander of the Enlightened Profit," the alien captain replied. "Very pleased to make your acquaintance."

"As I'm sure you've noticed, my ship is disabled and in dire need of assistance," Mathews added wryly. "We would appreciate anything you can do for us."

There was a moment's pause. "Captain Mathews, I do believe it will be a pleasure doing business with you." As much as the dead, unnatural tone of the voice had bothered Jared, hearing that same voice attempt to laugh was worse. It sounded like laughter, but it sent a shiver up his spine.

"Just out of curiosity Captain Corata," Jared asked, "why does your translation system seem so... flat." Mathews turned to face Jared, and Jared could feel the heat of his glare through the barrier of their of survival suits.

"It's only intended for initial first contact situations," the alien captain replied. "Normally, secondary contact would be made by a species capable of naturally producing your speech, but circumstances made that impossible. Also, the correct form of address would be Captain Jelzana."

"Thank you, and my apologies for the mistake Captain Jelzana," Jared replied courteously. "Now, why don't you tell me why you were asking for me by name, if you would be so kind."

Mathews' glare vanished. Jared had asked the first question just to break the ice, but the second was of great curiosity for everyone. And the harsh, almost biting tone he'd used was a signal that Captain Mathews recognized instantly.

"That is not something I will discuss on an open channel," the mechanical voice was apparently capable of some emotional overtones, because that statement came through very firmly. It still sounded wrong, because the tone and enunciation was still mechanically precise, but it wasn't completely unemotional. It was even worse than before, because the artificial rigidness of the tone made the emotion sound wrong, unnatural.

"You, of course, have that option. But I don't think I'm happy over your exercising it," Jared let his town show a bit more bite. "Especially when my augmentation is complaining to me that you're attempting to hack into my security protocols."

The bridge grew silent. "The strange thing about that is that as far as I'm aware, it's not possible," Jared commented into the silence. "I'm not a smart man, but I listen. I remember. Unless you already knew about my augmentation, and had at least 'the basic encryption algorithms', you wouldn't be able to interface with it. Which means that not only do you know things you shouldn't, but you are directly, and personally interested in me, and not just by name."

"This shouldn't be discussed on an open channel," Captain Jelzana replied, and this time the mechanical voice sounded wary, cautious. Unnaturally precise in how it sounded that way, but still wary.

"There are other things I remember, Captain," Jared smiled. "Shall I start talking about them?"

"You have a deal?" Captain Jelzana asked. The mechanical voice was again flat and unnatural.

"There are other priorities that need to be addressed before we can meet in person. I want the truth. All of the truth. I'll wait for it, but I want your promise," Jared offered.

"No. That is outside of my authority, too much of the information is classified beyond my level," Captain Jelzana answered. "However, I will promise you as much of the truth as I am allowed to give you."

Jared glanced over at Mathews. "Sergeant, let me add that the information I am cleared to give you will hopefully reassure you on all fronts. The information I am restricted from sharing is not of current importance, nor does it focus on you. I will share everything that relates to your situation, personally, that isn't directly indicative of specific individuals who might be compromised."

"In short, he'll get the information, just not who gave it or how it was acquired -- nothing of the ways or means?" Mathews asked.

"That would be correct," Captain Jelzana said after a moment. "The translation is slightly uncertain, but over ninety-three percent probability of being substantially accurate."

"So your translator's aren't perfect?" Mathews almost laughed. "How truly good to know."

"When translating from one language to another, there is always some loss in meaning," Captain Jelzana explained. "It is impossible to achieve a direct one-to-one mapping of words, which can cause shifts accidental shifts in meaning impossible to avoid. My systems suggest that the words 'sprint' and 'run' would be applicable. My species has only one word covering that spectrum, while yours has two, along with related terms like 'jog' that do not occur in my native language. An attempt to translate in either direction either causes loss of meaning, or unintended augmentation."

"Which is one of the reasons why most of our experts call an accurate auto-translation system effectively impossible," Mathews drawled. "Clearly you've overcome at least a few of the hurdles involved."

"A few," Captain Jalzana agreed. "We'd probably solve more, but auto-translation systems like this one aren't used very often. Now, my systems indicate a potentially lethal heat buildup on your vessel, perhaps we should work on getting rid of some of that heat?"

Jared leaned back and let the professionals work out how to repair the ship.

Jared luxuriated in the appearance of one standard gravity as he waited in the lavishly appointed conference room of the newly rebuilt Nova Maria. And 'rebuilt' was exactly the word Jared wanted to use.

The aliens hadn't contented themselves with simply repairing existing systems. Their engineers had clucked -- well, Mezeraths produced a sound closer to a hum than a cluck, but it had more-or-less the same meaning -- over the 'primitive' and 'dangerous' nature of many design decisions that had gone into the original construction. Every step of the way they'd educated the human engineers on board in design techniques and theories that were, literally, light-years beyond anything humanity had thought of.

In one engineer's words, "Assuming we can get the technology and funding to back this up, we're going to rebuild the fleet a hundred times better than it was before." The technology in question wasn't the tech they actually put into the ships, either. That, the aliens provided. The question was how much of it humanity could reproduce on its own, and fortunately the answer was 'most of it'.

The aliens refused to give them any weapons technology, but their definition of 'military' technology was much more relaxed than anyone had expected. Particle shielding capable of shielding against micro-meteorite impacts at one half of light speed might have been designed as a navigational aid, but according to a few engineers Jared had overheard also protected the ship against anything short of a direct hit by a nuclear weapon. Improved power conduits allowed weapons to be charged even faster, and the new power grid was not only safer, but much more powerful than the original. Three fusion plants, each more powerful than the old, single fusion plant despite producing more power, and massive, 'super-dense superconducting capacitors' which could run the ship for days when fully charged. Their engines were an order of magnitude more powerful, and inertial compensators not only granted them the illusion of gravity but also protected the crew from the powerful, lethal G-forces created by those engines.

A mere cruiser was now more combat effective than half the Federation fleet, without a single weapons upgrade. Somehow, Jared suspected that was deliberate. There were too many places where the aliens had upgraded with something that 'did the job' a bit too well for a simple repair job. They'd also taken him and his sons aside and uploaded patches to their augmentation, fixing Davey's problem and avoiding problems Jared and Cody might have faced eventually.

"Hello Jared," Mathews nodded as he walked into the room. "They're warming up the new holo-imaging interface now."

Jared sighed. "He tricked me good."

"He's keeping his word, and it's not like we haven't filled in a lot of the blanks already," Mathews pointed out.

"True, but why the delay? He could have arranged this a week ago," Jared growled. At that moment, the false wood of the conference table started folding away at the center. The resulting hole wasn't large, just enough to fit an arm through, but it was enough to let the alien holo-imager extend a couple of metal rods a few inches past the surface of the table.

How those metal rods produced a completely lifelike, three-dimensional image in mid air was something no on on the ship even pretended to understand. Some of the technology the aliens had handed over could be reproduced by human hands with relative ease, but some of it was simply so far beyond them that any thought of reproducing it was absurd. "Hello Captain Mathews, Sergeant Warren," Captain Jalzana said courteously. "I'm glad you were available to meet me."

"I was under the impression you wanted to talk face-to face," Jared commented wryly. "We could have handled this without the holo-imager if we'd wanted to."

"Incorrect, I'm afraid," Captain Jalzana shook his head. "The encryption algorithms your systems possess for audio and video transmissions is insufficiently secure. Holo-image transmission is inherently more secure, even without the encryption and scrambling techniques being applied."

"I take it that means you want to discuss sensitive information?" Mathews asked.

"Extremely sensitive," Captain Jalzana agreed. "Your need-to-know, as you phrase it, is because you must relay it to your superiors, so they may disclose it as they feel appropriate. Sergeant Warren has a right to know under our laws because this information directly affects him, and his dependent minors."

"We're listening," Jared told him. "Start talking."

Captain Jalzana hesitated. "The galactic community is made up of countless sentient species, spread across innumerable stars," he began. "In this region of space, there are policies that have been in place practically since the beginning, rules handed down from the first species to achieve interstellar travel. One of the most important of those rules regards aborigine peoples -- natives to a given planet whose civilization and technology have not yet reached certain markers."

"In fact, those rights are just about absolute, protecting primitive species from any form of exploitation and requiring us to take certain steps to protect you," Captain Jalzana continued. "Until you reached the technological level where you posed a threat to your continued survival, we were allowed only to observe and study. As your technological prowess grew, and your civilizations developed, we were allowed to take certain steps to protect you from yourselves, and push your development in necessary directions."

"Necessary directions?" Jared asked.

"I am not fully briefed on the subject," Captain Jalzana temporized. "My species physical incompatibility with your environment prevented us from being deeply involved."

"If that's the case, then why were you searching for us?" Mathews asked.

"When your vessel disappeared, it left a distinctive FTL signature," Jalzana answered. "Observers in the system detected it, and recognized it as a mid-range jump signature, which should not have been possible. Later analysis suggested that damage to your jump drive could cause it to engage in an uncontrolled mid-range jump, and all ships in the area were called in to provide emergency search and rescue. Our ship 'got lucky', and found you. By good fortune, we're equipped to engage in construction efforts and had the spare supplies to rebuild your ship."

"Why?" Mathews shook his head. "I'm grateful for the S&R, but I can think of a dozen other cases off the top of my head where you didn't assist. Why us?"

"The nature of your distress was based on technology we had slipped into your research and development community," Jalzana's shrug was obviously a deliberate gesture, designed to communicate to the humans he was talking to. A week had been plenty of time for both sides to learn a little about the body language of the other, albeit crudely. "Our laws require us to take responsibility for our actions in situations like this. We slipped you technology, and it harmed you because you didn't fully understand it. If it had been a mistake of your own making, you would have had to live with it, but you had no way to predict or understand the consequences of your actions, and therefore we were required to act."

Mathews licked his lips. "In short, we get to make our own mistakes, and you won't interfere. We make our bed, and then we have to live in it. Even if it costs lives, it's a chance for us to learn. But when the problem is something we couldn't have predicted, something..." Mathes paused, looking for a word.

"When Murphy bites us in the ass because we don't even know where to look, and it's caused by something you did, you have to help us," Jared broke in. "You let us make our own mistakes, but when you give those mistakes a helping hand you had to help us."

"Precisely," Jalzana nodded. "Interesting concept, this 'Murphy' character. He certainly gets around, though I don't think any other species actually gave a name to the law of unfortunate consequences."

"Let me guess," Mathews laughed, "the idea that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong is a universal one."

"I know of no sentient species with a space-faring civilization that has not developed that concept," Jalzana agreed. "It is considered one of the prerequisites for high technology, as that law is the one that promotes a full and thorough review of all safeguards. For example, I shudder to think of what would happen if a species attempted to develop fusion reactors without understanding that concept."

Mathews winced. "There are a couple of space stations that would agree with that statement, if they still existed."

"While the galactic community intervenes to assist, humanity must learn its own lessons," Jalzana nodded. "Your own people even recognize it with the phrases like 'once bitten, twice shy' and 'the burned hand teaches best'. We could have arranged for data 'proving' the flaws in those reactors to show up using the internet, but humanity had to learn to check for those issues itself."

Mathews glared. "I understand the logic, but I detest the results. Thousands of people died when Brigade VI lost containment, and only random chance-" Mathews' mouth closed with a click. "It wasn't just random chance that the Altair VIII reactor underwent its breach during an abandon ship drill, was it?"

"A directed neutrino pulse generated a low-yield overload of a containment generator, causing a readily detected cascade failure," Captain Jalzana nodded. "My people actually had a hand in that one; long range directed neutrino pulse generators put out a level of radiation that most species cannot endure. Mine can."

"The systems registered the cascade failure," Mathews nodded. "Under normal circumstances, the station would have been lost with all hands. But because everyone was already undergoing evacuation procedures, they were able to bail out before the core detonated. A few people still died, but the design failure would have killed more if it had occurred at any other time. And the investigation clearly showed the cause. How, exactly, did they get to the cause, I wonder..." Mathews eyes narrowed. "You don't just cause events, do you?"

"In a few cases, we have helped investigations along. Not always," Jalzana warned. "Just those investigations that were as exhaustive as they could have been yet still could not reach the right conclusion."

Mathews leaned back. "I can see why you want this tightly controlled. By why do you think Jared needs to hear about this?"

Jared sighed. "My augmentation isn't human technology, is it?"

Captain Jalzana nodded. "Your records do not do you credit, Sergeant. You are far more intelligent than I would have expected."

Jared laughed. "I'm a stupid ground pounder sir, but even I can make connections sometimes."

Mathews shook his head. "Jared, I never did catch it when we were young, but that's not right. You aren't intelligent, not in the sense of being able to crunch numbers and memorize facts. But you can use whatever you've learned, and that's just as valuable. And, well, I never wanted to admit this but you're a bit wiser than the average joe. More than a bit, actually."

"Ah," Jalzana exclaimed. "That explains the sometimes contradictory reports on your intelligence level. Humanity still only recognizes a single scale of intelligence, rather than breaking it up into sections."

"That's mostly because no one has been able to devise a test that accurately judges 'wisdom'," Mathews pointed out. "Every attempt at doing so has failed, miserably."

"Why?" Jared asked. "Why did you do this to me? I can't really complain, I wouldn't be alive otherwise, but... Why?"

"It is necessary for humanity to develop nannite-based biological stabilization," Captain Jalzana explained. "Already, humanity is beginning to notice the need for it and has begun rotating people home to avoid 'long-term non-terrestrial environment syndrome'."

"Elness? You know something about it?" Captain Mathews asked eagerly. "It's been our biggest problem for years, and no one has a clue how to cure it."

"The cure resides in your paramour here," Captain Jalzana indicated Jared. "I'm not familiar with the details, but an organism is adapted to a single, specific environment, generally the one it was born in. While there are exceptions, species that transform from one environment to another, in general an organism will stay in its home environment."

"I've had the standard briefings," Mathews cut in. "Once removed from it's home environment, an individual attempts to adapt. The greater the shift, especially when it comes to things that are normally static such as gravity, atmosphere composition, and the like, the less chance an individual has to adapt. As time passes, a clock starts ticking. An organism either adapts, or it eventually folds, just gives up trying to live."

Captain Jalzana indicated Jared. "The Sergeant's nannites, amongst their many other tasks, help regulate his body's internal mechanisms. While the humans who programmed them had no such intention, we were able to modify their programming to include our own code base. They now help the body acclimatize to a wider variety of changes. While not a one hundred percent cure, they should prevent most cases of elness. The risk, while high, is now reasonable, and the time frame available after elness kicks in much longer. If returned to a native environment quickly enough, survival is possible." Jared's eyes narrowed as he remembered a conversation that took place what felt like years ago, about code 'changing on it's own' back in the hospital.

"How long?" Mathews asked, eager.

"We don't know," Captain Jalzana informed him. "There is no direct empirical evidence at this time, without which we cannot be precise to any meaningful degree. Standard models suggest that it will be decades before elness can kick in, and you will have years to return the individual to his native environment. Unfortunately, even accounting for base metabolic rates and adaptiveness, there is simply too much variance in existing data points to be any more precise. As a note, the nannites will recognize and alert their user to elness, even as they prevent the symptoms."

Mathews grinned. "No one really wanted to try and colonize other stars before FTL technology because of elness, now..." he trailed off. "Now we get to worry about whether or not any of the inhabitable planets we see are inhabited," he sighed.

"That won't be as hard as you might think," Captain Jalzana said. "There is a vast variety in species types and the environments they prefer. The Blezshrel would gleefully settle in your arctic regions, and the Orgtahkn would consider Death Valley little less than paradise. Similarly, there are many worlds out there partially colonized, with regions humans would find comfortable. Your species actually has an unfair advantage, as you have unusually wide comfort and survival zones. There are plenty of places to settle, assuming you are willing to get along with others without worrying about the color of their skin or the contents of their bed."

Captain Mathews winced at the close paraphrase of a famous civil rights speech. "Your translator, as usual, didn't bother to place a tone on that, but I'm guessing sarcasm was on your mind."

"Evidence has shown humanity loves that form of speech as much as my own people, if not more," Jalzana agreed. "You have come far as a species, and have much to be proud of. While your ethical range is much broader than with most species-" Captain Jalzana broke off. "Excuse me, my translator just informed me you won't be familiar with the concepts I'm attempting to use. Ethical range, as applied to a culture or species, refers to the range of ethical positions that are considered allowable. Not necessarily socially acceptable, but allowable. For example, there is still a small minority on your planet of individuals who believe that caucasians are 'superior'."

Jared's nose wrinkled with distaste. "Excuse me Sergeant, I didn't mean to single you out."

"Yeah, well, it'd be hard to avoid on this subject," Jared sighed. "My parents were grade-A white trash bigots."

"Indeed, which makes your own position much more remarkable," Captain Jalzana agreed. "At any rate, while such attitudes aren't liked on your planet, individuals are allowed to hold them so long as they don't act on them. That approach is exceedingly rare in the galactic community. My own species had similar irrational prejudices, and it was considered a sign of mental illness to be too far from the medium opinion on the subject. It made changing such attitudes much slower than is the case with your species, though we made more initial headway."

"Initial headway?" Jared asked, eyes narrowing. "As in we started slow, but are making up for it now?"

"Correct," Captain Jalzana inclined his head. "Most insightful."

"Thanks," Jared muttered, wishing he'd kept his mouth shut.

"Our conversation has wandered far from our original topic," Jalzana said suddenly. "And we are running short on time. There are a few other aspects of the situation that should be relayed, discreetly, to your superiors Captain Mathews. Inter-species morality is a delicate topic, and your people will need additional training to wrap their mindsets around the necessary concepts. What is wrong for one people is not wrong for all. Take the Teratus, for whom what you would call 'snuffing' is a biological necessity."

"What?" Jared asked angrily.

"Upon reaching sexual maturity, the female is impregnated by the simple expedient of directly injecting semen into her womb. Her larva develop rapidly, and consume her for food," Captain Jalzana shrugged. "It is unfortunately excruciating. Both the implantation, which is exceedingly violent as the female has no exterior access to her womb, and must therefore be 'cut' open, and the actual nurturing of the offspring."

"Ouch," Jared winced. "At least her mate doesn't eat her, but..."

"That would be the Bebkako," Jalzana shook his head. "Their genders are reversed, compared to humans. The female uses an ovipositer similar in design to a phallus to inject ova into a male's sperm pouch, but this must be triggered by the male killing her. Unfortunately, their females are sentient."

Mathews looked sick. "I think I get the idea. Morality is," he hesitated, a distasteful look on his face, "flexible, when you're discussing species other than your own. You can't judge by your own species metric."

"It is an often difficult concept," Jalzana agreed. "Your own people have, at the root of your morality, a 'do no harm' concept. That makes it more difficult for you than most, as there are species that must do harm to themselves to survive, as well as species that simply cannot prevent themselves from causing otherwise unnecessary harm."

"Can't stop themselves?" Jared asked.

"Leeabanay females go through a fertility cycle similar to human females, and during their version of the PMS stage become locked in a murderous, deadly rage. If they encounter another adult female Leeabanay during this time, they will find themselves forced to attack," Captain Jalzana looked at them. "From what I understand of human humor, I imagine many of your people will find the idea of 'super-PMS' amusing."

Jared and Mathews looked at each other for a moment, fighting a smile. "Given that human women certainly seem to have that attitude, I imagine there will be plenty of people who find it amusing," Mathews said after a moment.

"I would advise you to keep your humor to yourselves, then," Captain Jalzana ordered them. "The Leeabanay most definitely do not find it funny."

"I can't say I blame them," Jared shook his head.

"You want me to inform our political superiors of this so they can start prepping our culture, right?" Mathews asked.

"Indeed. You may not be able to produce large-scale cultural changes, but you can begin to formulate the necessary educational materials, and ensure that those of your species who have to interact with the galactic community understand these principles," Captain Jalzana nodded. "My ship must depart soon, so I will leave you with one additional piece of information. We did not outfit your ship with advanced weapons. Galactic law strictly forbids us handing weapons technology over. It does not prohibit handing general technology with military purposes, but it does strongly dis-recommend it. For us to hand over galactic technology that could be used in a military manner is extremely unusual, and generally happens either when we absolutely trust the species in question to use it responsibly in a non-military manner, or don't want to trust them to do so."

Jared blinked. "You trust us that much?" he asked, surprised, as Mathew started to grin.

"Your history indicates that we can most assuredly trust you not to, as you say, 'take a mile'," Captain Jalzana informed him. "I'm sorry, I must go. The necessary jump frequencies are aligning for a long-distance jump to my final destination. Good luck."

Captain Jalzana vanished, and Jared stared, confused, at where he'd been. "What the hell does that mean?" Jared complained as Mathews started laughing.

Jared could feel the tension in the air as the ship prepared for jump. The last jump had been extremely unpleasant, and no one was particularly comforted by the many reassurances the aliens had given them that a properly tuned drive wouldn't be nearly so distressing. They trusted those reassurances, but they didn't really believe them. Not compared to their own, personal experience that 'mid-range' jumps were excruciatingly unpleasant.

Captain Mathews pressed a button on his chair, and a chime sounded over the new, alien designed 1MC. Amongst its many fascinating qualities, it didn't produce the strange, confusing sound of a normal 1MC, or even the echoing feel of a civilian PA system. The speaker's voice rang crystal-clear throughout the ship, without any echo or distortion. Naturally, the crew loathed the change and missed the old system. "This is the captain speaking, may I have your attention please." Jared suppressed a laugh at the polite formality. When the captain got on the 1MC to make an announcement, you listened. 'Please' was just a formality.

"We are preparing to utilize the technology given to us by our alien benefactors to initiate a jump to home," Mathews continued. "I know a lot of you are disturbed by the idea, and the fact is I'm concerned too. Our last jump wasn't much fun. But our food situation is critical, and our air supplies limited. Mezerath physiology is simply too different for our own for our friends to have provided any food, and the amount of water they could transfer over was barely enough to make good the worst of our losses after we cracked it for oxygen."

Davey started fidgeting, and Jared put his hand on the boy's shoulder to still him. "Ladies and gentlemen, spacemen of the Earth Federation Starfleet, crew of the Earth Federation Starship Nova Maria, you are the holders of a long and proud tradition. Duty calls you once again, and I ask you to remain calm and do your jobs as we enter jump cycle."

"Assuming Lieutenant Commander Becker remembered to carry the two," Cody giggled at the expression on the man's face at the mere suggestion of getting his precious calculations wrong, "we will be entering the solar system near the Pluto outer-system command station. As one of the primary logistical centers for the fleet, it should have sufficient supplies to restock us as well as an officer senior enough to handle the can of worms we're about to drop on him."

"Unfortunately, we were at war when we jumped out. As such, we cannot assume that we won't be jumping into a firefight. It's unlikely, but possible. As such, we will make this jump at general quarters," Captain Mathews touched another control, and alarms blared. "General quarters, set condition Zulu throughout the ship. Point defense, missile control, energy batteries, stand by."

As the blast doors to the bridge slid smoothly shut, Jared checked the suits he and his kids were wearing one last time. The bridge was still the single most heavily defended compartment on the ship, so it had been decided to protect him and his kids by placing them on one of the observation benches there. Jared was rather glad for the ring-side seat, he had no desire to be locked in some compartment with no clue what was going on.

"Con, stand by for jump," Captain Mathews ordered.

"Stand by for jump aye," the lieutenant command answered, in the age old ritual to insure orders were heard and obeyed. Repeating every single order up and down the chain of command might not be efficient, but it guaranteed that the orders weren't mangled.

"Charge jump drive," Commander Becker ordered. "Initiate hyperspace scans."

"Charging drive, aye," one enlisted man replied, and then another chimed in with "Initiating hyperspace scans, sir."

"Entering pre-calculated course," Commander Becker announced. "Captain, the ship is standing by to jump."

"Understand standing by to jump," Captain Mathews nodded. "All hands, prepare for jump. Con, you may jump when ready."

"Hold on," Jared ordered his kids, pulling them close as he double checked that he knew where their helmets were, and that they were properly buckled in.

"Jump when ready aye-aye sir," Becker recited. "Initiate frequency match."

The frequency match was the critical aspect of the jump system humanity had lacked. Without the ability to scan across the hyperspace barrier, human scientists had no way to realize that the destination of a ship using jump drives was influenced by the conditions on the other side of the barrier. While 'frequency' might not have been the most accurate description of the ebb and flow of energy in the twisted conditions of hyperspace, it worked well enough and was as close as human science came. By tuning their drive frequency against the state of hyperspace in the local area, they could direct their jump with incredible precision.

Of course, that assumed that Lieutenant Command Becker hadn't dropped the two when he'd calculated their course. The slightest mistake in calculating current velocity, desired exit velocity, their current position, or their desired position could have disastrous consequences. Jared's mouth was dry as he considered the disaster an error could cause.

Frequency matching was also the reason Captain Jalzana had had to take off on such a strict schedule. For short range hops, you could overpower frequency entirely and go in any direction. For mid range hops like this one, you simply had to wait a few seconds for a frequency that was 'close enough'. For a long range hop, such as Captain Jalzana's destination, you had to wait for almost the exactly right moment to get where you were going. Thankfully for Captain Jalzana, it was possible to predict hyperspace frequency shifts literally years in advance if you had sufficient data on a given section of space, and the aliens had computers and scanners that could crack those calculations with ease.

Mid-range hops, with a distance of at most a light year, were FTL enough to get humanity into interstellar space. The longer ranged hops were used for scheduled transit, to allow merchant and military ships to travel greater distances than would otherwise be possible. Humanity didn't need those, yet, so the ship didn't have the capacity to make them.

For now, Jared listened as the ship counted down from fifteen. Technically speaking, the ship would never need more than five to ten seconds to find a frequency match, and for a hop as short as this one it would have been nearly instant, but Captain Mathews had decided that additional warning was appropriate.

"All hands, stand by for jump," Captain Mathews ordered one more time as the computer passed five.

"Jump," came the flat, unemotional announcement of the computer.

It was worse this time, expecting and dreading what was coming. Jared felt it as his body was twisted and warped in dimensions he normally couldn't sense. Before the sensation had taken him by surprise, and shock had kept him from really registering what was happening.

This time, he was ready, and he felt every last bit of that single, mind-numbing instant. But it was only an instant, come and gone almost before he could register it. An instant that was that much worse because he was looking for it, but it's duration was so brief it didn't produce the deadly, dangerous shock that had sent his elder son into convulsions.

"Status report," Mathews called. It wasn't exactly lazy, but he wasn't rushed or on edge. He wasn't expecting anything.

"Scanners are still sorting out the new data, sir," an officer replied. Suddenly an alarm blared. "Vampire, vampire, vampire! Sixty-eight and counting, many incoming missiles!"

"What?" Mathews bolted to his feet in surprise.

Previous ChapterNext Chapter