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Shepherd Moon, Chapter 12: Homeward Bound

 

It had been a few days since the battle engagement with the aliens and the rescue of the Arachnians. Human-Federation history will record that engagement as the “Battle of Pluto.” Very misleading, of course, since the battle was nowhere near the dwarf planet. But since it happened at a distance from the sun the same as Pluto (specifically, the exact distance as the nearest point of its orbit around the sun, and on the same orbital plane), it was a convenient name. But that was still far into the future. For now, it didn’t have a name yet.

At the moment, the remaining Tiros and Detterex Empire ships, composed of nine battle cruisers, four escort cruisers and a tanker, had disengaged and moved away at high sub-light, and had taken a curving, decelerating path that would take them to Earth, decelerating all the way. Fourteen out of an original twenty-two ships. And since they were now moving substantially less than light speed, they’d only be on Earth in a month - maybe more since they seemed to have designed their path to specifically take a long, slow way around.

That was still a lot better than the Federation ships - out of an original nine ships, there were only three Elyran and two Dixx cruisers left. A sixty percent survival ratio for the Empire ships, and fifty-five percent for the Federation. Such low survival ratios have never been recorded in any Elyran engagement in recent years, making the battle one of the worst military engagements.

Military strategists on the Earth were actually a little dumbfounded by these numbers. In the first place, they were hoping a military engagement could have been avoided altogether - they were only able to send a force of three cruisers after all, to meet thirty-one ships. If they couldn’t avoid a battle engagement, their pessimistic predictions showed a four-to-one win-loss projection, or in other words, nineteen surviving alien ships to zero survivors for Earth. It’s no wonder that the “Earthers” were dumbfounded.

-----

The Earthers could actually intercept the remaining Empire ships if they wanted to long before they reached Earth, if Seeker and her two companion ships didn’t have to escort the Federation aliens, or if they used some of their other ships outfitted with the PRC’s Type-One or Type-Two FTL engines and inertial converters. But they didn’t: Mia was under orders, and the Admiral of the Fleet declined to send more ships. Silverman was painfully aware that most of his fleet of fifty Type-One interstellar cruisers and fifty Type-Two interplanetary cruisers was still in various states of readiness. Only two of the new-generation ships were running - the Hermes and the Constellation - and they were Type-Twos (not counting Seeker and the other pre-FTL ships, of course) and already engaged. Five other Type-Twos had, however, just been launched a few weeks ago, and were already undergoing shakedown beyond the Oort Cloud boundary.

Silverman had decided that the Hermes and Constellation couldn’t be pulled out of their current mission, so he was hoping that the other new ships would be done with their try-outs soon. He had been lucky with Hermes and Constellation, launching them untested and only “almost finished” - it was a miracle that they didn’t break down right away or something. But he didn’t want to risk that again. In three weeks, another twelve new Type-Twos would be ready for their shakedown (making a grand total of nineteen), and maybe even a couple of the Type-Ones might be ready for commissioning soon. He’d at least have something flying that he could count on other than Hermes, Constellation, and the old, retrofitted and oversized Seeker.

The production of the new ships wasn't really problematic for Silverman. New Copernicus, the big ship assembly base located in Copernicus Crater on the moon, was already configured to manufacture hull sections and bulkheads for the so-called “Enterprise-Class” fusion ships, as well as to assemble them. That was why the Propulsion Research Commission’s design for Earth System’s first FTL ship was so heavily-influenced by that ten-year-old design: Marta Running-Stream intended for the new ships to be easily manufactured by using the foundries, molds and forms New Copernicus already had for creating, cutting, pressing and molding the hulls and bulkheads for Enterprise-Class ships. That’s why internal construction of the Type-Ones and Type-Twos was very similar to the fusion ships, and therefore easy.

Prior to their new slew of orders for Type-One and Type-Two FTLs, New Copernicus’ production was about one fusion cruiser a year, but at full capacity, the New Copernicus Shipyards could churn out three to five ships a month, which was now the norm. It had to be that way because their contract with the system government was to complete one hundred ships within two years. But they knew that this wouldn’t have been possible if the system’s government didn’t arrange for other manufacturers to be involved.

All the major systems and components of the ships were outsourced: the specialized electronics and other related components were mostly off-the-shelf and could be outsourced to the factories of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune. Actually, there was enough in stock with the various retailers on Earth, so they were geared more to replace Earth stocks. As for the specialized gases, chemical components and materials required, Venus would ship them in thousand-gallon cargo containers fired into lunar orbit via rail guns (the only delivery system that would allow them to hit the required 1,700 miles per second and higher without resorting to FTL). As for the electromagnetic containment systems, they came from the labs in Mercury – the system’s experts in tokamaks and plasma containment - while the FTL systems came from the PLC labs and factories on Earth.

As for the raw materials that they needed for the hulls, which were, by far, the biggest supply concern that New Copernicus had, the Ceres Consortium on Mars provided refined iron, steel, aluminum and other metals from their mining and refining operations on the dwarf planet, Ceres. They, of course, had to get sufficient supplies of carbon from Earth and Venus to produce the steel that New Copernicus needed, but Mars was managing that. Almost daily, the Consortium would fire large kiloton-sized billets of refined metals into Mars orbit via rail gun.

Their mining operation had also liberated large quantities of H2O and other minerals, which Mars was now stockpiling on the surface. In fact, soon, they might have enough H2O to begin terraforming, making Mars the third planet in the system to allow their citizens to live on the surface openly instead of under domes. As to the other surplus minerals, they plan to sell them to all the other planets, guaranteeing that they’d recoup their mining operation expenses, and perhaps fund their future terraforming plans.

The government was burning through money like it was firewood in the winter, as were all the companies and operations involved, but as fast as they spent it, the bulk of the money was circulated back to into the system’s economy – after all, most of the corporations and companies involved had their own bills to pay. It was a classic example of a closed economic system. In the short term, this situation of demand-feeding-supply-feeding-demand would be good, but eventually, most economic experts said that this would lead to eventual economic burnout.

Jennifer Priestly would actually say that this was one of the reasons that they needed to be part of the Galactic Federation. At the very least, Earth would find a new market to sell its products to, and new ways to spend its incredible, newfound wealth. Otherwise, the system’s economy would implode. Some of the older economists would say, for some people to be rich, there had to be people who were poor, but this view was very twenty-first century. Present-day academics would just say that there must be more than one economy. As a famous quote from seventeenth-century Earth poet John Donne goes, “No man is an island.” And this was apparently true for Silverman’s Island Earth as well. The Galactic Federation could actually be Earth’s economic savior.

-----

The ships were a big problem for Silverman, but a bigger problem was trying to ride herd on this coalition army of his. National pride and national interests were causing him headaches. In actuality, the original, individual national armed forces that were subsumed into the larger United Earth Defense Force (or EarthForce) need not change, and their missions need not be altered. Peacekeeping was peacekeeping, after all, and admin was admin. But the creation of the combined space force changed things.

The “discovery” of the Galactic Federation, the discovery of Phase-Wave and the development of real FTL travel had changed the race’s perspective. National concerns seemed smaller now and less urgent, especially when almost all humans were well-fed, well educated and doing well, and there was a whole galaxy out there now, plus the discovery of a new bogeyman in the form of the Tirosians and the Detterex.

Now, most nations wanted a piece of the interstellar pie, especially the smaller countries. Everyone was busting his doors down to get a chance at one of the new FTLs. His present strategy was to “assign” one FTL to a country. But there were about two hundred nations in the U.N., and Silverman only had one hundred FTLs planned altogether, so the virtual competition for the ships was fierce. In order to manage this, BuPers had updated their crew evaluation tests and protocols, and prospective crews were put through the wringer. Those few that passed BuPers and BuMed’s very comprehensive battery of tests were then matriculated into the new navy’s month-long Flight School Programme, and immediately assigned an FTL afterwards.

Priority was, however, given to people of the same nationality as of already-existing crews. The unmatched esprit de corps of such nationally homogenous crews was invaluable, especially those that had battle experience. The French-crewed Hermes and the African-crewed Constellation were examples of this. There was talk of dispersing these crews to the new ones, though, but the cohesiveness of these “single-nationality crews” was valuable to Silverman so he vetoed that.

The Seeker crew was an anomaly in that, though it had a largely North American complement, its crew was more international than the others, and had the most experience of all the “veteran” crews. Furthermore, the new replacement ensigns and yeomen they took on at their last port of call on Triton were handpicked by O’Connell, and were a mixed bag of nationalities. This made the Seeker crew even more diverse than any in the present navy.

None of the existing non-FTL ships were being upgraded since an upgrade would essentially mean gutting them. It would be too long and too complicated, so it was better to just assign the crews a new FTL. The large, flat basin near New Copernicus was designated as the navy’s bone yard, and more than a dozen of the older non-FTLs were already parked there. A motley collection of the old ships was still in operation, though, and would remain so until they could be replaced by new FTLs.

Seeker was yet another anomaly in that it was currently the only refitted pre-FTL ship. Dr. Running-Stream had determined that J-Class cruisers were one of a handful of existing ship designs that could be upgraded in a short amount of time so she had lobbied for the Seeker to be made part of Task Force 41/18. Pressured to beef up the task force at the time, Silverman agreed.

There were more ships in the pipeline, of course, and Earth planners could foresee the boom times for ship construction to continue on into the foreseeable future because of this. But, for now, they were at the limits of their production capacity.

In the meantime, in response to the current emergency, most of the “decrepit” Seeker-era cruisers that were assigned to Earth and the moon were mobilized, and were on their ponderous way to a rendezvous beyond lunar orbit.

That was a little bit too close to Earth for Mia’s taste - she and her friends from CETI and the new Alien Threat Assessment Command would have preferred that the rendezvous happen earlier and much farther away from Earth, so U.N. Secretary-General Alexandra Romarkin decided to talk with Silverman and find out if that was possible.

“Did Captain Steele ask you to speak with me?” the Admiral said when she approached him with Mia’s concerns.

“Do you think Mia would bypass your authority, Admiral? Of course not. I found out about this on my own.”

“Madam Secretary-General,” Silverman said, “I need not tell you that I have the highest opinion of Dr. Steele, and would trust him implicitly, but I have my own opinion of the situation.”

“You mean ‘her,’“ Romarkin said with a small smile.

“Blast it, I keep forgetting. Yes, you’re quite right - I meant ‘her.’“

“But you aren’t agreeing with her this time?”

“The criticality of the situation, Madam Secretary-General, is not enough that I would be willing to jeopardize fleet assets, and, more importantly, the lives of men and women under my command. However, as a compromise, I have asked the PRC engineers, and had the individual ship commanders currently conducting shakedown flights, to assess the performance of the new ships, and look into the possibility of early deployment. I am also going over evaluation and test scores of the ships, as well as their crews’ scores and readiness to ship out on a real mission, and I think I may be able to have five FTLs available to Captain Steele in, say, seven to eight days. In the meantime, a squadron of our Legacy ships will be ready to rendezvous with the aliens as soon as they get to the vicinity of the moon.”

“Legacy?”

“That’s what we’re starting to call all the old pre-FTL and pre-gravitic ships.”

“Well, that’s a lot better than calling them ‘blimps,’ at least,” she said, referring to the current navy slang for them - a derogatory one that referred to the old construction style of most of the old ships, a necessary design “style” because of the large tankages they needed to store their liquid-chemical fuels.

“Speaking of which,” she continued, “what about the Seeker - do you consider Seeker a Legacy Ship? Even after her refit?”

“Well... I suppose so, but it’s a J-class ship and it used high-compression chemical tanks. So it’s certainly not a ‘blimp.’”

“Hmmm,” Romarkin thought. That’s one piece of scuttlebutt she wouldn't be passing on to Mia and her crew.

She understood Silverman’s position about not sending any of the new ships yet, and she agreed with it. She therefore delayed issuing any official instructions. Officially, though, if asked, she planned to say she had no opinion about the situation since it was not her area - that it was the Admiral’s decision to make.

“Very well, Admiral,” Romarkin said. “Thank you. Please keep me posted on further developments.” She signed off and called Mia back.

Though she didn’t have any good news, that didn’t stop her from asking Mia for help in getting to know the new neighbors.

So Romarkin first asked to be briefed on the just-concluded engagement and, through Phase-Wave, Mia, Commander O’Connell, Captains Dupont, Okonkwo and their execs did a thorough job. Mia also talked about the “grilling” they had at the hands of the alien Prince and his staff onboard the Talon. At that point, Mia asked Nick, late of CETI, and Jerry Bhavnani’s former superstar code-breaker, to join the briefing.

“Well, Ma’am,” Nick began as he sat down, “I wouldn’t call it a grilling, per se.”

“Yeah?” O’Connell said. “Then what would you call it, Lieutenant?”

Nick shrugged.

“Well, whatever,” Romarkin said. “Tell me what happened during this ‘grilling.’“

During the “grilling”, it became apparent that the aliens were curious about Earth technology the most, but Mia and the others were careful not to give away anything that could be considered strategic or top secret. They agreed to the meeting because they were confident that they could cope, especially since they got expert coaching from the rest of the crew via their hidden Phase-Wave earpieces.

They gave some of the rudimentary concepts about the means of propulsion of the Seeker, Hermes and Constellation, and the aliens concluded that Earther technology was essentially the same as theirs (it was mostly true, after all, so Mia and the others did not disabuse them of this impression).

Asked about the light that the three ships emitted just before they became ship-maneuverable, Mia explained that the light was an effect of their engines’ field generators when they rapidly reduced their rate of output. Again, strictly speaking, that was true - when adjustments are made to the fields they generate, Elyran-style engines sometimes emit a Cherenkov-like light effect. (When charged particles move through an electrically polarizable medium faster than light normally would, a glow would be emitted. Humans called it Cherenkov Radiation, after the scientist who discovered it in the nineteen-fifties. Elyrans, of course, called it something else.) Elyrans and humans knew that in this situation, the effect happens in inefficient antigrav field generation in regions of space saturated with plasma or gas particles, such as on or near planetary surfaces or near nebulae and similar phenomena. The Elyrans exchanged amused, barely-hidden smirks at what they assumed to be inefficient, badly designed generators.

Once again, Mia didn’t disabuse them of that assumption. She didn’t tell them, of course, that a Cherenkov-lookalike effect was also generated by their newly-invented inertia converters, which was part of the light they saw when Seeker, Hermes and Constellation “braked.” And besides, there wasn’t enough gas around the ships for the Cherenkov light effect.

She didn’t lie. She was able to get away with it because she just didn’t really answer their question. The aliens apparently knew nothing of this kind of “braking” technology, although its principles could be extrapolated from the gravitation manipulation that made faster-than-light travel possible. She and Marta Running-Stream had a bet about that, and since Marta said she couldn’t believe the aliens wouldn’t know anything about it, Mia won.

Anyway, Mia kept the aliens ignorant of the humans’ inertia converters and preserved their tactical advantage by not giving them any more information, although the Earth-designed inertia converters would only work above a certain inertial mass. Below that, ship thrusters and engines would have to do the braking in the conventional manner, i.e. where Newtonian physics were applicable.

The Elyrans also asked the humans about their fighters, and Mia explained that the Vipers and her own ship’s Shrikes used miniature versions of their FTL. The aliens were shocked to hear this. They said Federation science could only miniaturize their stardrive systems only up to a certain point, which would, at best, make such systems fit ships half the size of Seeker, and they knew no way to make them smaller than that and fit something like Seeker’s Shrikes. Besides, FTL engines would not have any effect at velocities below light speed. Mia, Nick and O’Connell didn’t say anything more and let the aliens think whatever they wanted.

“I think you shouldn’t have given that information, Mia,” Romarkin said later.

“Actually, Madam Secretary-General,” Mia explained, “it was deliberate. Just from seeing our fighters, they would eventually conclude that we use a version of our stardrive generators on them. This way, we give them the impression we aren’t hiding things and are actually volunteering information, though in fact we ARE hiding things.”

Mia explained to the Secretary-General that what she didn’t tell the Elyrans was that Earth science had the same limitation in reducing the size of their stardrives as well, and that FTL engines do not work below light speed. The thing was, knowing this, Earth used its ability to miniaturize their technology to make the engines for ships like Mia’s fighters that generate field effects that, at best, would only be good for acceleration until they reach about a fiftieth the speed of light. Which was still mind-boggling - Shrikes could manage accelerations up to twelve miles an hour per second, to reach 13 million miles an hour. That was ridiculous, of course: the human body would not be able to cope at those rates of acceleration, so there was a limiter that prevented them from accelerating more than twelve G's – the maximum G’s that a human body could tolerate. Federation fighters and shuttles, on the other hand, could only manage a maximum of about 4,000 miles an hour using their hydrogen-oxygen-kerosene rocket engines.

At such lower-power dimensions, lasers and reflectors made of high-precision glass and crystalline mirrors were sufficient to control the engines’ smaller and weaker fields. There was therefore no need for the large electromagnetic shield generators required to contain more powerful fields. The extremely precise miniaturized control systems was what allowed them to replace the gigantically-massive field generators of FTL engines with precisely controlled mirrors and lasers. It was doubtful if the Federation could mass-produce such systems.

The complexity and gigantic size of FTL generators were the reason faster-than-light Federation, Empire and Earth starships couldn’t be made any smaller. And because of this Earther design innovation, a generator from one of Mia’s “Mark 2” Shrike fighters would only be the size of a small twentieth-century combustion motor in what they used to call a “subcompact car.” These engines were more akin to Seeker’s shipboard gravity plates than to starship engines. In fact the inspiration for Marta’s first prototype fighter engine was artificial gravity plates. As it was, the Shrikes didn’t “fold” normal space as FTL ships did, but rather traveled in normal space as all vehicles that traveled below the speed of light did. Earth’s ability in miniaturizing their technology had made all of this possible.

Another key difference in their ships’ technology that Mia didn’t share was that their FTL engines worked both above light speed and below. Dr. Marta Running-stream, the brilliant head of Earth’s PRC, would explain in her secret files that the Federation would only see several centuries later, that the problem of the Federation and the Empire was that their scientists didn’t make the counter-intuitive leap that Earth scientists did: Instead of trying to make the FTL “folding effect” or “relativity-isolating effect” work in both relativistic space and normal space, at sublight, the Earthers would switch the function of the engines from generating a gravity field bubble to the equivalent of massive gravity plates radiating plain-Jane, run-of-the-mill anti-gravity from the rear of the cruiser. The Federation scientists could have easily duplicated this except that their thinking was too conventional and the idea never even occurred to them. Using an Earther idiom, they didn’t know how to think “outside the box.”

There was one other thing about the Earther sublight propulsion: like the tiny Shrike engines, these massively large generators would create Cherenkov-like light. But at these massive levels, they were able to tweak the light that leaked out so that the they would imitate ion thrust, at least visually. And it was enough of a camouflage to hide the nature of their engines from the aliens.

Decades later, Marta would explain to the U.N. Security Council that the finesse of control that Earth’s electronics allowed them made all of this possible. It was like comparing someone who’s trying to blow up a balloon to someone who’s trying to whistle: Federation FTL engines could only blow up balloons with their less-precise controls while the Earthers could control theirs with such a level of finesse that they could actually whistle.

Though reluctant to do so, Marta recommended that the Security Council do everything it could to hide this fundamental difference of Earth systems from the aliens, and thereby maintain the tactical advantage that Earth had.

-----

Continuing on, Mia explained to Silverman and the Secretary-General that, by hiding these things, the impression they were able to give the aliens about Earth tech during the “grilling” was that it was mostly a mix of current, outdated and advanced technologies, and this would quell any feelings of doubt and suspicion the aliens had about the information they were being given. That’s because such anachronisms would make the information feel real. Romarkin didn’t completely agree with that logic but, as she tried the idea on for size, she realized Bill, or rather, Mia, was right again. She was glad that when Bill changed into Mia, the change didn’t dull his sharp mind. Or, rather her sharp mind... So confusing...

-----

Nick added that the impression they'd tried to create could be exploited in many ways, all to the humans’ advantage, and cause the aliens to underestimate Earth people.

Other things were discussed during the “grilling” - Mia took that opportunity to ask the Elyrans about the status of the remaining Federation ships, and what the “Earthers” could do to help. What they were told confirmed their telemetry. O’Connell, in turn, told them about the handful of surviving Arachnians they rescued. Ren asked about the First Ambassador, and when O’Connell told him he was among the survivors, Ren cried in relief. The Princess Tasha hugged him, turned and expressed to Mia their family’s gratitude.

Mia nodded, feeling a little proud of her crew. She explained, however, that she was unsure if they could help the Arachnians further medically, and she didn’t know if their equipment and spares could be of any use to them, but she would be ready to help nevertheless. The Princess offered to help as well.

That was, of course, a while ago, and since then, the Arachnian ship was abandoned and the humans had settled the Arachnians on the Seeker. Since then they seemed to be thriving in Earth atmosphere. Belatedly, one of the Arachnians had some sort of seizure. Mia was told that it was due to exposure to radiation onboard their old ship, but she still had the aliens quarantined in biologically-neutral isolation rooms, on the off-chance that the Arachnians’ exposure to Earth atmosphere might have caused it. True, it was probably a futile safeguard (they had already been “exposed” to airborne Earth biologicals via the ship’s atmosphere), but it might help.

The First Ambassador told Mia not to worry, and had shown her a little belt-like device that all the Arachnians wore.

She was assured that it was a passive technology, and she shouldn’t worry. He explained that it was their version of a lifesigns detector, and it would have warned them if the conditions onboard Seeker were inimical to them in any way, whether it be environmental or biological, like radiation, gravity, temperature, bacteria, viruses, spores, or something else altogether. The Ambassador was confident that they were in no danger, but acceded to Mia’s restrictions just to be polite and cooperative.

Mia asked if they could spare one of the belts. She was given sixteen, and she passed them on to her science team to analyze. Later on, the humans would be told that all the races in the Federation and in the Empire used such devices constantly. The belts had little tubes running around it. Each of the tubes in the belts carried a simple life form that looked like a chubby little white insect grub or larva, what the Elyrans and Detterex called a yochu, about the size of a small human thumb, and, depending on its reaction to the atmosphere and other environmental conditions it was exposed to, one would know if he or she was in danger. These artificially grown worms didn’t excrete anything, and were engineered to survive on their own for a period of about seven Earth months. Beyond that time, the worms would die naturally, and an Arachnian would need to get “fresh” replacement cartridges for her belt. The same life form was now used by all of the known races, but bred and “customized” to suit each individual species. The breeding of these life forms and the manufacture of the belt devices themselves were a thriving industry within the Federation and the Empire.

-----

After the briefing, the Secretary-General said that she wanted to talk to the aliens. And, since their ships were traveling at the same constant velocities well below the speed of light, and were in close proximity with each other, they could remain in radio contact.

Via radio, Elyran technicians were able to help Mia’s people understand the coding of virtually all Federation and Empire commercial transmissions (previous to that, the humans could only decipher Elyran government audio and video transmission frequencies since these used direct-analog coding), and after the Elyrans showed them how, humans could now properly decipher almost all the Federation transmissions they had patiently been intercepting and recording since, as well as many Empire transmissions, from the previous year. Mia sent the coding information back to CETI right away.

-----

A few years later, after the humans got the hang of the aliens’ radio frequencies and coding, BBC Solar and the other major media outlets in the system would start airing deciphered, reformatted and redubbed (or subtitled) Federation - mostly Elyran – video shows (all with permission, of course, courtesy of the Royal Elyran Communications Institute). Not surprisingly, what became the most popular shows were what humans would have called alien “action movies” and “soap operas.” The gender role reversal, and the existence of “bridges,” gave an interesting twist to what would have been very familiar themes and plots and, even though Elyran programs had a “medieval” kind of atmosphere (given the knight-errant kind of ethic, and swords, armor, kingdoms, castles and so forth), many humans became avid fans. Critics thought they were over-wrought, and over-acted, but the fans didn’t care. Besides, most humans thought Elyran females were gorgeous, and Elyran males cute.

By that time, many humans became obsessed about the pseudo-telepathic/empathic phenomenon of Elyran “bridges,” and many wondered if they would be able to experience such things. They would be disappointed later when it would become known that virtually all humans were unaffected by the phenomenon. However, there was one bigger secret to this effect that would never be directly disclosed to the general human population.

On an even more mundane point, the growth in popularity of Elyran entertainment would affect human entertainment as well, and programs with Arthurian themes, knights, kings and queens would become extremely popular. And, in truth, the gender role reversal wasn’t too strange as modern human society had gotten over archaic gender-associated social mores a long time ago. Well, more-or-less.

The bigger thing, however, was that the understanding that humans had of Federation society - Elyran society in particular - became all the better. Earth’s ability to integrate into the galactic community became virtually assured.

-----

An hour later, after Seeker’s video systems were properly adjusted to be able to read Elyran radio signals, the Secretary-General was able to converse in real-time with the Elyran Prince and Princess, the First Ambassador of Arachnia and his surviving staff, and High Admiral Daxx of Dixx Prime’s Planetary Defense Squadron, who was leading this Federation contingent. Transmissions to and from Earth were transmitted via Phase-Wave and then relayed to the Federation ships via radio courtesy of the Seeker. It was the farthest and longest two-way radio videoconference in history.

The Federation envoys were very pleased to be talking directly with the leader of the Earthers, and Romarkin was pleased as well. The aliens thought it was an incredible stroke of luck that the Earthers were fluent in Elyran, or had tools that made them virtually fluent - misunderstandings were kept at a very minimum. (The aliens didn’t inquire too closely about how the Earthers became fluent, since they seemed unwilling to discuss it.)

Pleasantries and other things that people talk about when they want to get to know each other took up a leisurely hour or so. It was a cordial talk, each being very careful not to offend. In later years, Romarkin would comment that it was easy to be friends with the aliens. All it took was a laugh and a smile. The problem, of course, was to understand what constituted a smile to an Arachnian or a Dixx...

As they talked, a new complication had arisen. It seemed Admiral Daxx was harboring stowaways...

As they chatted, one and one-half eights of new faces (an Earther would have said one dozen instead of “one and one-half eights”, but there was no single Elyran word that was an equivalent to the human word “dozen”) walked into camera range on Daxx’s screen: A pair of mated Dixx priests (judging by their accouterments), two Arachnians, two large Dravidians and five little Erocii servitors. Along with the Elyrans, the newcomers represented some of the most powerful races in the Federation.

The twelfth alien, though, was of a species that Mia didn’t recognize. She recognized the Dixx and Arachnians, and recognized the others from clues she heard or read based on the audio and video intercepts, but she was clueless with this one. It appeared human or Elyran for the most part, except that it was taller than an Elyran - about as tall as an average human female - and had four arms - one pair below the more normally-positioned pair, and the expected Elyran three-fingers-and-thumb per hand.

The four-armed humanoid looked like a tenth-century mandarin priest - he was dressed in a flowing silk (or silk-like) robe in white and gold, and a silken box hat sat on his head. He had a slim build and a wizened, faintly oriental face, long silvery hair, bushy eyebrows and a long mustache-beard combination. All four of his hands were thin and spindly - appropriate for a human of his apparent age, each with three long fingers and a thumb, topped with nails that were probably colored with some kind of chrome nail polish.

The deference of his retinue indicated to the humans the high regard that they held him in. Romarkin caught Mia’s eye, her question faintly evident. Mia shrugged, not knowing who or what the new alien was.

Admiral Daxx introduced this new group. “Friends from the Earth, it is honor to introduce you to the Keeper of the Heritage and his retinue. The Keeper of the Heritage is to be addressed as ‘Your Excellency’ or ‘noble born.’”

The Admiral’s words intrigued Mia. Who, or what, was this “Keeper of the Heritage?” She desperately wanted to check in with Walter and his staff but for the moment she decided to play it by ear.

She bowed towards the screen with Daxx and the new aliens, as an Elyran would bow towards someone of royalty or high nobility. “Greetings, noble born,” she said in formal tones. “We are pleased to meet you. I am Captain Amelia Steele. May I introduce she who leads us, Madame Alexandra Romarkin, Secretary-General of the New United Nations of Earth.”

Taking her cue from Mia, Romarkin bowed as well.

“Your Excellency,” she said.

The four-armed alien remained quiet and studied Mia and the other humans. His gaze lingered on Romarkin’s face, and lingered even longer on Mia’s. With his white-tipped cane, Mia couldn’t help and think he should be wearing a top hat instead of something that looked like a mandarin box-hat.

After a while he nodded to one of the Dravidians, turned and walked out of the range of the screen. Except for that one Dravidian, he and his “retinue” left the room.

The big bear-like Dravidian that remained turned to Mia and the Secretary-General and bowed in what was unmistakably a courtly manner.

“Greetings, Excellencies,” the Dravidian said. “Please forgive my master - it is his time of prayer and reflection. He does not mean to be impolite. He has commanded me to ask that he be allowed to talk with you in person as soon as it is convenient. He has much to discuss with you.” Again, he bowed courteously. “If you will excuse me, I need to go and join my comrades.” He then turned and walked out of the screen.

After a moment, Romarkin spoke.

“Who the heck was that,” she asked, puzzled. What she actually said was more... colorful. Fortunately, her translator’s program was equipped to translate even rude colloquialisms into more polite Elyran equivalents.

Daxx found it hard to answer Romarkin. “That was, ummm, our most important religious leader. And his retinue. He speaks for most citizens of the Federation in matters of spirituality and other holy things.”

Mia was puzzled. “I didn’t know that the races of the Federation had the same religion?”

“No, we do not,” Daxx said. “But most of our, how shall I say it, our written religious... legends...”

“Scripture?” Mia offered.

Daxx nodded. “Yes, scripture. Most of our scriptures have common, or at least similar, ...legends. In fact there is such a commonality, such an uncanny parallelism that many theologians claim this to be proof of a common root or ancestry or origin, of our cultures, histories and beliefs. The Keepers of the Heritage have become the caretakers of many of our different races’ holy relics, and they are the ones that help us interpret scripture. For those of us who believe, he is the most important person in the Federation.”

“How did he come to be the Keeper, and a stowaway on your ship?”

Daxx shrugged. “Most would not gainsay His Excellency in any of his wishes. And it is rare that His Excellency would leave Chaisteal An Linn Arsaidh, his home, and deign to travel with any of us mere mortals. He said he wanted to come, so he did.”

Mia and the Secretary-General looked at each other, not understanding any of it. Mia was disappointed - the Admiral didn’t answer her question completely, so she surreptitiously sent Pedro, her designated CETI specialist over in Triton, a short text message by Phase-Wave phone, asking him to look for the phrase “Keeper of the Heritage” in his Elyran intercepts, and to send her all the material he could find on it.

However, Daxx noticed Mia’s reaction. “As to how he was selected to be Keeper,” Daxx continued, “prior to his ascendancy, he was apprentice of the Keeper of the Heritage then. When the old Keeper passed away, he assumed her mantle.”

“Well,” Mia thought, “that literally gives an answer to my question, but that wasn’t what I wanted to know...” She decided not to pursue this line of questioning since the Dixx didn’t seem too forthcoming on the topic. “How long has he been the Keeper?” Mia asked instead.

“Not too long,” Daxx said. “A little over twenty-four thousand, four hundred twenty Elyran years.”

Romarkin, listening to the translated speech, was goggle-eyed. Mia had to do some computations in her head, translating the Base-8 number into decimal, but even without translating the number, the humans were shocked, to say the least. Still… 10,512 years…

The humans stared at the Dixx Admiral. She shrugged.

“By tradition, Keepers are treated as if immortal,” she explained. “But they are the same as all living creatures - they do not grow old but do pass away, perhaps by accident or some other cause. Otherwise, why would Keepers have apprentices?”

Through the magic of Phase-Wave, Mia and Romarkin looked at each other.

-----

Later photographic analysis showed that the similarity of the new humanoid to the Earthers was actually superficial. The high organometallic content made the hair more similar to thin wire. The skin reflected a subtle patterned sheen that indicated that the alien probably had scales. Folds in his sleeves showed that his arms actually had two elbows each, like the jointed limbs of, say, Arachnians. His eyes were actually compound eyes, and the thick nails on his fingers were most probably something similar to claws. Still, the total image he presented was like that of an old, four-armed human or Elyran. Weeks later, Pedro would still be trying to match his image to a race.

But there were more pressing matters at the moment, so the humans dropped the topic of the Keeper altogether and the discussion continued, and it slowly turned to more immediately serious matters.

The recent military encounter was discussed at length, and the Federation representatives were all in agreement that it constituted a declaration of war against the Federation. Prior to embarking on the expedition, the Ambassador, Tasha and Daxx were empowered by their governments to confirm a declaration of war on behalf of their governments, but they need to announce it at Colossus first and present it to the Federation’s leaders in the hopes of committing the rest of the Federation to making a similar declaration. If ever they did so, the First Ambassador said that word would get back to most of the major Federation planets and mobilize their combined forces in about five Earth years. It was unfortunate or that their expedition was not completely defeated, joked the Arachnian, because if they were, the Federation would avoid all the trouble of mobilizing for war.

Romarkin was taken aback - she didn’t realize the timelines involved. She looked at Mia’s projected image, and Mia nodded. Mia would later explain that, without Earth’s Phase-Wave technology, the aliens needed to use their ships to courier messages from star system to star system, and, without Earth’s more efficient FTL engines and inertia converters, their ships would take more than three times longer than Earth’s new cruisers to do the same. It was probably because most humans took Phase-Wave for granted nowadays that Romarkin didn’t make the intuitive connection.

-----

Admiral Daxx held up a peremptory hand (or was it a wing or a claw) - they needed to get the particulars straight first, and see if it was even possible to conclude a presumptive act of war even happened. Per the logs of all the Federation ships, it was the Dixx who fired first, and this was worrisome for the Admiral. It might be said that, technically, it was the Federation that declared war.

But human telemetry records showed that the Tiros ships had deliberately blocked the path of the Federation cruisers, knowing that this would force the Federation ships to stop and engage them in battle. Furthermore, the humans had intercepted and recorded most of the Tiros and Detterex ship-to-ship audio and video transmissions; the most damning of these recordings was the one taken from the Defiant, the Detterex flagship: “Prepare to launch attack according to plan as soon as able,” the voice of their comm officer said before the arrival of the Federation ships. The transmission ended with the phrase, “by order of Princess Arvan.”

Secretary-General Romarkin knew most of the important details of the Seeker, Constellation and Hermes’ records of the battle. She and Admiral Silverman had no choice but to recognize and approve the actions of their three cruisers. Either that or arrest their crews as genocidal mutineers. So it was in Romarkin’s interest to help the Federation. True, she would have wanted to regardless, but this gave her a politically convenient justification.

She agreed to share the humans’ records, and to send an envoy with them back to Colossus as well, to swear to the veracity of the recordings.

The rest of the human population was another matter - this action that Romarkin suggested needed to be sent out to the public - the human public - and eventually get a consensus, perhaps through a referendum. After her talk with the aliens, Romarkin met with her people to talk about this. Her chief of staff suggested holding a press conference, and to release to the public the video and audio recordings from the battle. Romarkin agreed and asked him to contact BBC Solar. “And while you’re at it,” Romarkin said, “contact Sahsha Delyer as well. She’s at Triton, I believe, with Dr. Bidwell. I want her to be the one to control the content.

“Also, coordinate with the Fleet Admiral’s office and contact Mia’s number one, Commander O’Connell. Get as much footage of the battle as you need.” She had also called Silverman and asked him to send a moment-to-moment timeline of the events of the battle, basing it from the reports of the intercept fleet as well as the telemetry of the fighters involved in the battle. Romarkin needed it for her briefings, and for public dissemination.

She called Mia back and told her everything they talked about.

“What do you think, Mia?” she said.

Mia shrugged. “Getting Sahsha involved was a good idea...”

“But?”

“But I think there’s more to be done. For example, you need to convene the General Assembly, or at the very least a meeting of the Security Council - get support for what we’re doing.”

“Done. That’s happening tomorrow. Marc will take care of it.”

Mia grinned at that. “Okay. Next, assuming this is passed, and passed unanimously, we need to tell our alien friends the criticality of the timing. With Phase-Wave and our faster ships, we can substantially reduce the time it’ll take to report to Colossus.”

“All right. I’ll leave that to you.”

“Then we will need to contact Admiral Silverman and get cracking on getting ships ready, assigning ships, et cetera...”

“Done. What else?”

Mia grinned again. “You think you’re pretty smart, huh?”

Romarkin laughed. “Whatever do you mean, my dear?”

-----

The next day, talks proceeded with the aliens, but without Romarkin. Mia explained that the Secretary-General had a lot to do at the moment, and she would be the one managing things for now, which Mia found hard to do given a new problem that had arisen.

As a discussion on the matter of the Empire threat started, Mia received a call from her Chief Engineer. She excused herself to answer her CC.

It seemed that, after their last use of the inertia converters, data indicated that their converters would likely fail if ever they flew for a more extended duration than they had yet flown, or at higher velocities, as there would be more energy to convert. It seemed, unlike the purpose-built projectors of the new Type-One and Type-Two cruisers, Seeker’s new projectors were not rated to cope with the higher energies that their “Frankenstein engine” could now produce (the term was coined by Mia’s CETI expert on board, Nick, who was a 20th Century “movie buff”). It wasn’t something anticipated, and only after a period of sustained use would they have found this out. But the fix was easy - just put in more converters.

The thing was, they didn’t have any more. To manage any possible overload, the chief suggested putting a brace of emitters made from sixteen spare gun turret parts in the cargo bay just in front of, and below the bridge section, just in case. They’d sit in the area where the old vertical retro thrusters were before.

Mia asked why not run the converters longer if they needed to, but the chief engineer said that Seeker was not a purpose-built FTL ship - her superstructure would have imploded or the storage coils would have melted and exploded long before the converters siphoned off enough potential energy.

Though that meant dumping a lot of stuff overboard to clear enough space below deck for the new emitters, Mia reluctantly agreed. But she was told that the stuff they had to dump was Seeker’s old stuff - the old tankages and pipe sub-assemblies of the old thrusters that weren’t needed anymore. She wondered why they kept all that junk, but the chief explained that they didn’t know if Mia’s “upgrades” would take, and they might have needed them again. It seemed that some people still weren’t completely sold on Seeker’s changes.

Mia sighed. She decided not to get offended and cleared the chief to start her new project.

“Just another day in the life of Seeker’s captain,” she sighed again. She walked back to the conference.

-----

In a lull in the talks, Mia brought up the latest thing Romarkin wanted to be discussed regarding the Empire threat, and the critical timing issue connected to it.

“The Secretary-General,” Mia began, “feels that our people need to be informed of everything that has been discussed so far, as soon as possible. We must inform them of our plans and get their approval. And then we can be in a better position to help you raise the alarm.”

“When would we arrive on Earth?” Daxx asked.

“A month from now. Maybe less. It depends on the maximum thrust of your engines, and the balance of acceleration and deceleration.”

“That is true,” Admiral Daxx said heavily. “I wish there was a way to get word to Earth more quickly.”

“I understand that, sir,” Mia said. “But whatever time we can get is time that we can use to do what is needed. However, Admiral, they already know back home.”

The alien Admiral’s image on the screen smiled and nodded to Mia. “Well spoken, Captain,” she said. “You think like a Dixx. You are right, of course. I suppose we can transmit our data and start sending some reports. But not communicating face to face would not be very efficient.”

“I think you misunderstood, sir. Secretary-General Romarkin is currently on Earth and, even as we speak, she is meeting with our leaders. Our officials already know the details.”

This was greeted with silence.

“Then who was the Earther that we have been meeting with?” the Dixx Admiral asked, perplexed.

“That was the Secretary-General, sir.”

She and her staff looked at each other in confusion.

“What...”

“We have been communicating with her via a direct link from my ship to U.N. headquarters on Earth.” Inside, Mia was smiling at the consternation that she was causing, but outwardly, she played it cool and polite.

The Elyrans and Dixx, and the Arachnians in their bio-isolation rooms onboard Seeker, erupted in loud exclamations and general confused discussions. Mia and Nick looked at each other, smiling faintly. Mia gave Nick a wink.

“Quiet!” Ren, the Elyran Prince, and the expedition’s chief scientist, finally shouted. It cut through the confused melee, and as soon as the noise died down enough, he turned to Mia.

“Captain Steele,” the Elyran said, “are you saying you are able to send real-time transmissions anywhere? Even over interplanetary distances?”

Mia nodded. “Yes, Your Highness, provided that the other party is similarly equipped with the proper devices.”

The Prince exchanged significant looks with his staff.

“What sort of devices would those be, Captain?”

“I am sorry, Your Highness, I am not allowed to divulge any information about that.”

The scientist look nonplussed.

“For the moment,” Mia added.

That failed to mollify the alien Prince, but Mia couldn’t help that so she just continued on with the meeting.

Mia said that they had done some turnover figures and, with their direct route to Earth, and by increasing their acceleration, or rather slacking off on their deceleration, they could arrive a couple of weeks ahead of the approximate arrival of the Empire ships.

Talon’s pilot said that they would overshoot Earth if they did, but O’Connell said no, and she showed their calculations - more precise because of more detailed, exact information and better equipment. The aliens reviewed and crosschecked the figures and the pilot grudgingly agreed. The various ship crews would therefore be conferring with each other later, and synchronizing flight plans.

Nick was thinking of suggesting that the Federation representatives transfer over to Seeker since the Earth ships could be back home in less than a day (given their newly-available FTL capacities), but Mia said that wasn’t necessary since most of what needed to be done could be done via Phase-Wave telepresence. Nick shrugged.

An hour or so later, warning klaxons rang throughout all of the ships and everyone felt a slight change in their ships’ gravities as their crews executed their new flight plans, based on the Earthers’, or rather, humans’ calculations.

Nick and his former colleagues in the Alien Threat Assessment Command largely took over the discussions the following day, with much of their discussion being relayed back to CETI, the U.N. Security Council, the Fleet Admiral’s Office, and a lot of the protocol-related offices and departments of the U.N. Agreements were made and an itinerary of sorts for the visiting alien dignitaries was drawn up, assuming an arrival in a few weeks’ time, and if the Empire doesn’t throw a monkey wrench in the works. But to the humans, that “few weeks” was quite a while to wait, therefore much of what should be ideally done dirt-side was to be accomplished onboard while en route.

Discussions commenced in earnest, and Admiral Daxx suggested a three-pronged approach, which both groups readily accepted:

One - an exchange of technology would be undertaken while en route to Earth, where the technical and science staff of the alien expedition would meet, via telepresence with leading representatives from the humans’ scientific and industrial communities and institutes. Through Admiral Silverman, Secretary-General Romarkin appointed Mia as the one to select the human representatives to these real-time teleconferences, and everyone in industry and all the major scientific institutes agreed with this appointment, which made Mia more popular than any video star of the time. Various individuals and interest groups clamored for a Phase-Wave audience with her, hoping to be part of this group. In the end, after Mia briefed everyone on the necessary restrictions, she selected ten individuals, three of whom from CETI. Talks commenced the following day.

Two - a cultural exchange would be attempted, and many academics throughout human society clamored to be included in this discussion. Again, Mia was the one appointed to select the human representatives, and she loaded the committee with CETI people - five of the ten representatives were handpicked from Mia’s former CETI staff, to be headed by Professor Jennifer Priestly. Talks on this would commence two days later.

Three - representatives from the governments on both sides would discuss matters of government, policy and détente. Romarkin took this upon herself. Chief among the activities for this part were accreditation of various Federation governments as sovereign states, establishment of embassies, and the creation of treaties for economic and commercial cooperation, and mutual defense. The aliens were surprised to find that the humans were as prepared as they were - even as the Federation representatives proffered drafts of treaties they had painstakingly crafted after months of wrangling with their politicians, and consulting eights and eights of legal experts, the humans also had their own versions to proffer.

This effectively tabled their discussions for a while as both groups took time out to study each other’s documents.

Before they ended for the day, though, Romarkin did have a surprise - she announced that, through a U.N. appropriations act, seven smallish islands that were part of a small archipelago called the Isles of Scilly off the southwest coast of England (secretly bought by the world government from the Duchy of Cornwall and passed on to Mia to be her new duchy), will be used by the Galactic Federation as a site for their embassies and other facilities they may want to construct, so as to insure a continuous presence on Earth (like such things as hospitals, food preparation facilities, housing, et cetera), provided, of course, that the aliens would agree to regular inspections for weapons, and the building of filtering and disposal systems for substances inimical to indigenous Earth life forms.

It never would have been discussed at all if the Earth scientists did not say that there would be minimal danger from extraterrestrial contaminants. Still, they said this wouldn’t be allowed without further tests.

The aliens were aghast. But it wasn’t the proviso regarding testing and inspection-on-demand that surprised them. It was because they couldn’t get over how generous the humans were being.

Ren asked about the sizes of the islands. When they were told that the islands being leased to them had a surface area of over seven square kilometers altogether (they explained what a kilometer was, of course), not to mention several square kilometers of ocean surrounding them, they were in further disbelief. And that the lease was to be for one hundred Earth years.

Usable and habitable locations were at a premium among Federation-registered planets and territories. The generosity of the Secretary-General was unbelievable. The Federation representatives excitedly pored through all the material they were given about the seven islands. Initially, they were disappointed to find that the islands were affected by nuclear fallout in a global war many Earth years ago, but they were happy to hear that all traces of radioactivity and other damage had been removed, and that the islands were, in fact, the home of over a thousand individuals now. The names of the islands were St. Martin’s, St. Agnes, White Island, Bryher, Gwael, Gugh, and Tresco. St. Mary’s was the largest of the Isles of Scilly, but that wasn’t being given up by the duchy – only the other islands. Still, the other islands put together had a surface area that was larger than St. Mary’s. But it was judged that having separate islands might be good for some species, so it was accepted that the seven major islands, excluding the largest, would be used for the Federation embassies.

Ren wondered how the Earthers were able to recover the radiation-contaminated land in such a short time when Federation and Empire protocols required areas that have been contaminated by radiation to remain fallow for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years until such radioactive areas would naturally recover on their own. He resolved to ask later how they were able to accomplish that.

They expressed concern about the humans they would displace, but Romarkin said that most humans were very excited about their arrival, and wanted to help in any way they could. The residents were mostly glad to accommodate them, even if they had to relocate. But they were government employees in any case. Even so, the government gladly offered generous compensations, provided them with new and better homes on the mainland in Cornwall, and even to transplant some of the families’ houses for those who didn’t want to stay on.

Ren then expressed concern about whether they could afford the appropriate guild payments. There was a little bit of confusion as the humans tried to understand the problem. It turned out that the Prince was just concerned about the expected rent and taxes (or the equivalent) that would be levied on them.

The humans were ready with an answer to that, and they said that, as rent, for each Earth year, they would charge the Federation ten tons each of pure Lanthanum, Cerium, Neodymium, Europium, Erbium and other minerals, in easy-to-manage ingots (or other equally easy-to-manage form). After a long discussion on what these minerals were, and what a ton is exactly, the Federation scientists said that most Federation planets don’t normally produce or use these admittedly-exotic minerals in any meaningful quantities, but the amounts demanded were more than manageable for the Elyrans, Dixx and Arachnians (especially the Arachnians) though transporting them back to Earth would be problematic. Again, the Earthers were ready with a response, saying they’d pick the minerals up themselves, if necessary.

Ren asked what these would be used for and Mia explained that these “rare earth” minerals were needed for the production of their electronics, optics and other related systems. Daxx’s chief technician confirmed that these were indeed used in the fabrication of some of the Federation’s more exotic experimental computer systems as well, though their current computer systems and electronic equipment were made mostly from other materials.

Mia asked what sort of raw materials they used in creating their regular computer systems, and it turned out they used more common minerals like tungsten, carbon, thorium, copper, barium and strontium. Ren explained that the main component, or module, of their electronics was typically composed of electrodes and a heating filament surrounded by a metal plate and then sealed inside an air-tight tube made of glass or other material that is a poor electrical conductor. They preferred glass since it was strong, cheap, easily produced, and allowed them to easily see inside the tube.

Mia and her scientists looked at each other. “My God,” Mia thought. “Vacuum tubes? Seriously?”

She thought of it and, seriously speaking, there were many advantages that a vacuum tube gave: it was useful for high-powered applications, has little feedback, has a resistance to EMP, burn-through and overload, and the materials needed for it were cheaper and more plentiful.

Mia stopped paying attention. Her mind was still stuck. She couldn’t believe it. Vacuum tubes. They’re outdated four hundred year-old technology! She was itching to have a look at one of their computers.

Mia could imagine their electronics still working with vacuum tubes if they didn’t discover solid-state electronics, but since they had, despite the higher cost of production, vacuum tubes were quickly replaced. It intrigued her. Vacuum tube technology definitely needed to be revisited. But the discussion was still going. Mia turned her attention back to the others.

“Madame Secretary-General,” Ren continued, oblivious, “I think we can easily meet your price. But we will need to inspect the islands first, of course.”

Romarkin, not picking up on the consternation spreading among her own scientists, nodded. “Of course,” she smiled.

Ren also made some comments about wanting to see some of Earth’s fabrication plants where these minerals were used, and Romarkin said that she could arrange that but she’d have to check schedules first.

Ren and the others then went back to looking at the pictures of the Isles of Scilly, and he and the others resumed their excited discussions. They spoke so rapidly, and there was so much of it, the humans’ translator devices could hardly keep up.

-----

The following day, in coordination with the other ships, Seeker’s techs set up three comm. channels - channel “A” would be the frequency dedicated to the technology exchange, channel “B” was for the cultural exchange, and channel “C” would be for government. With the ships’ speed and relative distance between each other, radio transmission was not a problem. And as the humans slowly got themselves organized, formal discussions began.

The staff of the Keeper of the Heritage somehow found out about it, and requested to be provided viewing facilities for the three channels. The Earthers didn’t know the import of this, so they just shrugged. And besides, what could they do about it, anyway?

 

Channel “C” –

Part of the humans’ plan was for the U.N. Security Council to ratify a proposal to send envoys to Colossus, to apply for membership to the Federation, and to offer assistance in any interdiction action on the Federation’s vanguard planets nearest to Earth that were in immediate danger, with an agreement that the arrangement would be reciprocal. The Secretary-General, with the assistance of Ambassador Bidwell and other representatives from the Outer Planets, was confident that this would pass - not easily, but pass nevertheless.

And although the Federation ambassadors were anxious that Earth ally itself with the Federation against the Empire as soon as possible, this was all that Romarkin was willing to discuss.

The aliens conceded that this was all they could reasonably expect. Nevertheless, on the assumption that Romarkin would be successful, they planned accordingly.

Admiral Daxx, however, said a contingency plan should still be prepared.

Nick informed the aliens that the Neptune delegation had offered to sponsor one of the Federation representatives to speak before an ad hoc general assembly of the U.N. If their plans go awry, the Neptune representatives could then try to make their case for them, and perhaps convince the Human Race to ratify this hoped-for alliance.

 

Channel “B” –

Before then however, the Earthers planned to give the visitors a gala reception when they arrived, on a scale the likes of which humans had not done since before the war. Earth’s nominal leading authority on alien culture, Professor Jennifer Priestly, a brilliant academician from CETI, with a forceful and masterful personality at odds with her blonde come-hither, runway-model looks, worked closely with Nick and the Elyran Prince, checking if the things they had planned were acceptable, and for those that weren’t, to find out what was.

Princess Tasha never really grew to like the professor. Mia and all the others had correctly assumed that the Princess was actually jealous since the Prince seemed to have developed a small crush on Jennifer. But despite her brusque nature, Mia knew that Jenn was at least a kind and understanding soul, and Mia trusted her to manage this sticky situation correctly and with kindness.

In their talks, Jennifer and her new “team” voiced their concerns to Ren about pathogens and other biologicals that might be inimical to the aliens, and vice versa. This could be a serious roadblock to any sort of cultural exchange they were trying to do.

Even back in the nineteenth century, humans had already thought of this possibility, and theories like back-contamination were things that were taken seriously. But through their years of limited exploration, such fears were never conclusively proven. Recently, however, with the beginnings of extra-solar exploration and the confirmation of the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, such theories had been brought out of mothballs and again reconsidered. One of the things that the aliens did for Earth was to make these theories more believable. However...

Federation and Empire races had been co-mingling for hundreds of thousands of generations now, and the biological ecosystems of the various races had adjusted to each other. True, there were many outbreaks of unprecedented virulence in the past brought on by the co-mingling of similar but incompatible ecosystems, but with the invention of the Arachnian lifesigns detector, steps were taken early, and they had become a rarity over time. The Arachnians onboard Seeker had been continuously sending out readings from such detectors to the other Federation ships, courtesy of Seeker’s comm people, and if Seeker’s environment was a normal Earther environment, then no Federation citizen should fear setting foot on Earth, or any Earther in visiting any Federation world for that matter. Ren asked what Earth’s equivalent was to their detector and Jennifer said they didn’t have any. She didn’t explain that all humans are inoculated periodically with organic nanobots that were programmed to eradicate any known biological or viral infection or parasitic infestation in the body, plus, in recent years, Earth medical science had been pursuing the concepts of universal antiviruses and antibiotics, and in time, Earth scientists were confident these would become available. But for the moment, they weren’t sure Earther medicine could cope with alien bugs.

“That is worrisome,” Ren said.

He explained the rudimentary functions of their detectors and said that the Earthers should replicate them - he knew the Arachnians had already given sixteen of them to Mia. To help, Ren transmitted to Jennifer all the information they currently had on the belts, including, fabrication, breeding the yochus, and their application. He explained further that, based on the readings the Arachnians had been sending them from their detectors, they and the Earthers had no reason to fear anything in terms of any environmental factors. Surely something or other would be found, something always was. But Ren was confident that they would find a way around it, whatever it would be, his confidence borne of more than a million years of Federation history coping with alien bugs and things.

Jennifer had enough scientific background to understand the meaning of this - a universal detector. It had many potential applications, and the potential ability to completely open up the universe to humans.

She hurriedly excused herself from the meeting, switched her screen to Mia, and asked her about these detectors. Mia showed her, via Phase-Wave video, the belt devices that the First Ambassador gave her. Jennifer then talked with the Secretary-General and asked her to find a way to have the devices be brought to Earth right away. This was absolutely vital, she said, and explained why.

The thing was, they were above ship-maneuverable speeds, and transferring from ship to ship was impossible.

The Secretary-General was advised to order their speed to be reduced. But Mia thought a bit and came up with a notion that she discussed with her chief engineer. After a while, a complicated procedure was initiated where one of the other Earth ships, in this case the Hermes, would inch closer and closer to the Seeker until their drive fields merged at their interface point. This allowed one of Hermes’ two-man Eagle fighters to trans-ship to Seeker and take on a package made up of a bio-isolation case containing ten Arachnian “lifesigns detector” belts, including the two that the Seeker’s science people had already started to take apart.

If the maneuvers were done slow, and were as precise as expected, the whole operation should be safe, but since it was the first time this was even thought of much less attempted, it could conceivably destroy both ships. But Jenn was able to convince Romarkin and Silverman that it was worth the risk. Needless to say, everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the operation was over. The aliens were unaware of all of this happening, of course.

With the package aboard, Hermes then pulled away and went into high velocity, pulling ahead of the Earth-Federation flotilla, and would eventually arrive on Earth less than a day later - weeks ahead of schedule (at those velocities, the inertia converters would work).

 

Channel “B” –

Jenn went back to the meeting several hours later, with Mia “in tow.” Being left alone for such a long time with Earthers he didn’t know miffed Ren, but he tried to hide it. Mia noticed the Prince’s agitation, however (so far she was still the best at reading Elyran facial expressions), so she explained what they just did and why. Ren listened, once again at a loss for words. No one among the known races had even thought of doing such a thing before, perhaps because they considered it too dangerous an operation. And here come the Earthers...

Ren called Daxx, the Princess and Reena, Talon’s pilot, and asked them to tune in to Channel “B”, and he asked Mia to repeat what she just said. Mia explained again.

“The reason you were unable to detect our actions, and the acceleration of Hermes,” Mia added, “was because, as you know, most detection systems are not reliable in short range when ships are above what we call “ship-maneuverable” speeds, or when they are accelerating. We were also unable to inform you right away because we were, ummm, a little busy at that moment. I am sure you can detect her on your long-range scans now that she has a somewhat reasonable lead on us.” Reena momentarily left the screen, presumably to do just that.

Ren nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes, yes. I understand that, but you say your cruiser will be on Earth in less than one of your days?”

“Yes.”

“How is that possible?”

Mia shrugged helplessly.

“Why do you not...”

“My engineers believe our ships are a little faster than yours in sublight, Your Highness. It’s that simple.”

After another one of those breaks that had been coming on more and more frequently, Ren and the others asked more questions. Channel “B” suddenly got crowded when the others switched frequencies, so Mia suggested that they take this particular discussion over to Channel “A” and not disrupt the meeting.

Ren clearly wanted to pursue this but decided on a little forbearance. He stopped the stream of questioning and bid everyone to return to their own discussions and allow those on Channel “A” to pursue this topic. He continued on with his own meeting with the Earther professor. And, as their discussions progressed, the fascinating facts that Ren learned about the Earthers’ traditions, customs and history soon took his mind away from the matter of Hermes’ departure and possible early arrival on Earth.

 

Channel “A” –

The Federation representatives on Channel “A” were all on tenterhooks, and waited impatiently for Mia to come online.

“Hello, everyone,” Mia said as she again rejoined the technical discussion on “A.”

“Forgive me, Captain,” Daxx said abruptly. “But you must explain what you and your battleship, Hermes is it?”

“Yes...”

“... Hermes, yes - what you and the crew of Hermes just did.”

Mia turned to Nick, and Nick explained the concept of merging FTL fields, and how it was done. “It’s all about making sure that the fields are tuned and synchronized,” he said, and explained the basic theory. As it was during most of the meeting, the attendees again brought out notepads and their equivalents, and took notes.

A little Arachnian scientist raised an armored limb in a gesture that the humans had come to understand. It was somewhat akin to a schoolboy raising his hand to get the teacher’s attention.

“Yes, sir?” Nick said, acknowledging the Arachnian.

“May I ask, Earth Lieutenant,” the Arachnian that everyone referred to as the “First Engineer” said in flawlessly accented, if stilted, Elyran, courtesy of his Elyran translator, stood up. “Earth Captain Amelia Catherine Steele has said that the Earther warship Hermes will be arriving on Earth planet in less than one Earth day. Is that correct?”

“Yes.” Clearly, pronouns were not much used with Arachnians.

“Earth Lieutenant, I would like to ask how Earther warship Hermes will be able to accomplish this?”

“I do not understand the question, sir.” Nick shrugged helplessly. “She’ll just fly there?”

The aliens all had puzzled looks.

“Let me explain, everyone,” Mia interrupted. “Hermes is not doing anything unusual. She is just on-course to Earth with a less decelerated flight plan. It is well within her operational parameters. As far as we can tell, Seeker, Hermes and Constellation are able to decelerate more efficiently than your ships, making them about eleven times faster.” She turned to her fellow humans. “That’s nine times, in decimal.”

“So we heard from the translation, sir,” O’Connell smiled.

Daxx looked disbelievingly at Mia and O’Connell.

“How is that possible?” Daxx asked. “You described to us theory behind your ship’s drive, and it is basically the same as ours.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Then how is it that your ships are able to fly that fast?”

“You mean, decelerate better.”

“There is no difference. You know what I mean.”

Mia shrugged. “What can I say, Admiral. We aren’t using new technology. Maybe our equipment is just more efficient?”

The aliens weren’t willing to accept what the Earthers were saying, and continued to ask the same question over and over. Before they could pursue it further, Mia deftly changed the topic, and the discussion finally continued on. Mia knew, of course, that this topic would be brought up again. She hoped her team would be prepared to manage it by that time.

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About the author

Bobbi-C

  • Washington DC
  • Mistress of Confusion

Bio: Bobbi Cabot is a transgender girl in her thirties (35 y.o. as of 2016), who transitioned in 2005. She is known as "Roberta J. Cabot," "Bobbie-C," "Bobbie," "Bobbi" and "Bobbi-C" in the sites where she posts her stories.

Though not a professional writer, Bobbi is under the delusion that she writes passably well and indulges this delusion by sometimes posting stories, which is, thankfully, very seldom.

Bobbi's day job (the phrase "day job" is hereby stressed) involves being the big cheese of the overseas BPO practice of a Top 100 computer technology corporation.

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