Chapter One: The Welcome Wagon
Min knew it was a one-way trip. Atlantis and her companion ships needed to be safe. Sending a small ship ahead of the convoy of humans made sense. The crew had dubbed the shuttle the Welcome Wagon. The name was half-heartedly suggested and had stuck. General Min Zhou and his small crew had been traveling four years to the rendezvous point. Aliens had found one of the Earth’s probes sent to find suitable planets to settle. It had been twenty years since the neutron star decimated the solar system, making a shamble of Earth. Casted adrift, Atlantis had been chasing the best chances available to them for survival.
The aliens modified the probe, put their own message in it and sent it to find the Atlantis. The human emissary team was to meet them at ‘the origin point’ just outside of what the neutron star had left of the Sol system. They were not specific. Min supposed they would make themselves known as they grew close. Who else would be out here, anyway?
Zhou had picked a good crew. All six of them had multiple expertise to provide the most flexibility in an unknown situation. It was unclear whether the message was hostile. The video showed them to be unmoving and emotionless. The aliens in the communication were props for all he knew and their actual form quite different. It was like getting an email. Recipients often misunderstood tone and emotion from what the sender really meant. The dread of the wait traveling to the meeting place was the hardest. The soldiers received thorough training. However, four years was a long time to deal with uncertainty.
General Zhou did as Captain Metcalfe instructed him. He dropped a buoy every ten light years with a status update for the Atlantis. The General’s high-speed shuttle could max out at around fifteen times the speed of light, but he kept it down to thirteen to lessen the stress on the engines. Atlantis could top out at around twelve times the speed of light, but usually cruised at ten. The General would arrive first, a year ahead of the convoy; an eternity for something to go wrong.
The ship was nearing the approximate vicinity of the rendezvous point. Something should happen soon. The needle on the pucker-meter was eight on a scale of ten. The tiny crew of seven was feeling the tension now. No communications were received by the aliens.
“Samuels, can you detect anything out there?”
“No, sir. Nothing so far. Our scanning distance is not as powerful as the Atlantis. I’m afraid we will have to be more patient.”
“Very well. Ortiz, how many probes do we have left?”
“Do a data dump and include all logs since the last drop. I want to drop one now before we make contact in case we don’t get the chance later.”
“Right away, sir.”
“I want all of you to keep your emergency gear near you and be ready at a moment’s notice. I am changing the watch schedules to have only one individual pull watch at a time. The assigned watch will include manning the scanner and communication boards. I also want us to put on a few more calories and ramp up our exercise routines. Four years have made us stale. Let’s get it done, soldiers!”
“Sir, yes sir,” came the chorus from the six men.
They revered Zhou as almost a living legend. He reached his one hundredth birthday shortly after leaving the Atlantis. The General looked to be a very fit individual half that age, compliments of the Elixir. How long would he live? Nobody really knew. The bots worked diligently to renew his body at every turn. The Elixir only became available twenty-five years ago and nobody who drank from that fountain of youth had died. Humans were not immortal, but they were harder to kill.
Min watched the message from the three aliens for the millionth time. There was a pause for a few seconds before they spoke, although their mouth slits did not move.
“We bid you greetings. We are not hostile. We are not harm you. We will communicate. We will arrive at the origin point.”
It was difficult to know what the message really meant. There was no tone, inflection, or emotion to it. Having never met this species, he was uncertain if they meant to lure prey or asking to have tea and crumpets. The authors of the message specifically stated, ‘We are not hostile’, but were they capable of deceit?
Min realized if they were hostile, there would be no hope for their little band. He only prayed that they could send a message and warn the Atlantis in time. During their working time, they developed protocols to deal with any situation. General Zhou had written a program to help them remember and quickly execute in any situation. Min committed the protocols to memory in case the ship’s computer became compromised.
Atlantis and her caravan of ships had encountered intelligent life before. The crab-like creatures who called themselves the Te’Hat reached out to the human visitors on Searth. They were technologically backward folk, but turned out to be excellent friends. Some members of the convoy disagreed on whether to take what they wanted from an inferior species or respect the wishes of Te’Hat. The conflict tore them apart, resulting in the death of many Te’Hat in the crossfire. After a civil war amongst the humans, wiser minds prevailed and sadly understood why the Te’Hat asked them to leave. They did not feel comfortable sharing their planet with the violent humans. The natives were compassionate and allowed two thousand to stay and help the Te’Hat and study their world.
And now the shoe was on the other foot. He understood how the Te’Hat felt about contacting a superior race. It is the reason Min proposed and volunteered for this mission. The two sides of his brain were always finding balance. His military training was ruthless and dispassionate, and his empathetic side allowed him to see and understand the emotional side of human beings. It was a dangerous mixture of military folk. If you were too soft, you weren’t military. Min saw himself as an interface between the ruthlessly trained killers and the people they served.
Because these people were far more advanced than humans, Min understood the razor edge between untold treasures and catastrophic failure that this first meeting with this culture represented. In these circumstances, he knew to trust his experience and do his best with the tools given him. Be patient and don’t panic.
Two more weeks went by when unexpectantly, the expected happened. Two in the morning, ship time, Lieutenant M’Benga’s communication board lit up. It was receiving a packet from somewhere! He quickly checked his scanner and navigation boards to find the sender, but could not. The equipment on this smaller ship was not powerful enough. After he gleaned what he could about the message, he worked his way back to wake the General.
“Sir, we have in incoming packet. It is not from the Atlantis. I couldn’t determine the exact location of the packet except that it came from the direction of our current heading.”
“Wake the others and we will all hear the message together.”
“Yes, sir.” M’Benga turned to roust the others out of their slumber. Min was instantly awake. He knew M’Benga would not awaken him unless there was an event that required all their attention. General Zhou was expecting contact with the aliens soon, and now this was it. He traveled to the front of the ship and waited.
When everyone found a seat, Min turned to M’Benga, “Okay Lieutenant, let’s hear it.”
“On the monitor now, sir.” The Lieutenant flipped a couple of switches and the monitor lit up, showing the same image of the aliens in a nondescript room.
“We await your arrival at the origin point. Continue this course. We will take control of your craft when you are in range and bring you to the rendezvous location. This will prevent our automated security from attacking you needlessly. We will answer many questions upon your arrival.”
“Well, what do you think, Lieutenant Sato?” The General asked the communication expert.
“It’s hard to tell if there is deception present or not. On the one hand, they want to communicate with us. However, they are unclear about their intentions besides revealing that they have automated security systems.”
“How about you Delacroix, you’re the A.I. expert? Is this organic or synthetic that we are dealing with?”
“I’m afraid it is as Sato said. The aliens keep communication short with almost no information beyond making this meeting happen. It is not clear who we are dealing with. It could be either or both.”
“Like Sonny and the Atlantis crew, both humans and machines working toward a common goal. We will probably not put any pieces together until the Welcome Wagon gets there.”
“Is that your consensus also, M’Benga?”
“Our team has limited experience with xenobiological psychology. There have been only these two messages. I cannot build a psychological profile on scant data. However, there is something to consider. The aliens warned they would take control of our ship at some point. This implies that their technology is at least as good as ours. Our ship has a quantum A.I. unit, small, but powerful enough for our purposes. To communicate and commandeer a system like ours, willing or unwilling, is impressive. Whether we are listening to a machine or biological intelligence, I concur with the others that it is too early to tell. Sir, what’s your opinion of this communication?”
“I think, Lieutenant,” the General said, disappointed like a child told to wait for his reward, “we’ll have to wait. Blind faith was never something that I’m comfortable with. However, we must jump through this hoop. Our little group is expendable. It is more important to appraise the Atlantis of this latest development. Prepare a probe with all the current data, the transmission, and our opinions on this matter. I will compose a separate summary of the situation to Captain Metcalfe. We must launch it before the aliens take control of the Welcome Wagon. We may not get another chance. Let me know when you have it ready.”
“Yes sir.” Sato acknowledged. The Lieutenant turned to complete the task the General had given him. An hour and a half later, Sato found the General in his quarters.
“It’s ready to go, sir.” Sato said. “I built into the probe some quantum signatures that Sonny will recognize as coming from us and not someone else.”
“Good thinking, lieutenant.” Zhou said. Thinking outside of the box always pleased Min. “Here is my packet. Install this into the probe and send her on her way.”
“Right away, sir.” He saluted and left with the General’s packet. The General had also thought to use a quantum signature in his message. Now we wait to jump through that hoop, Min thought. There was a lot of apprehension just before you stepped into the abyss. The men were all well trained. Their comfort was always the combined strength of the team. Min knew they were the best Atlantis offered in both skill and talent. The only thing left to do was peek around the corner.
Four days after the aliens sent the message, Major Sokolov reported an incoming transmission, but not a communication packet. Min made his way to the cockpit.
Sokolov explained to the General the ship was now under remote control, much like Sonny would have controlled traffic near the Atlantis.
“It means that we’re close. Major, have you detected any craft?”
He checked his boards again. “It wasn’t there a minute ago, but there is something on the outer bounds of our sensors.”
“How long till we get there?”
“Six point one days at this speed. Do you want to wake the others?”
“No. Continue to monitor and let me know if anything else happens. Let the crew sleep. We will make plans in the morning.”
“Yes sir.” Min could tell that Sokolov’s pulse and respiration were up. He was sweating a little.
“Relax Major. We have six days before we meet our hosts. We have plenty of time to reflect on how our mission needs to proceed.” He laid a hand on the man’s shoulder.
Sokolov looked up at the General. He could feel his sureness, his confidence that everything would work out. The major smiled at his leader. “Yes, sir.”
“Very good. I will be in my quarters.” The pilot returned to his boards to further inspect what he could do about navigation and piloting instruments.
Back in his quarters, Min wondered about the future. He thought about the Te’Hat. They saw how technologically advanced the humans were, yet saw the necessity of contact and striking a dialogue. Necessity. That was the actual problem. The Te’Hat felt compelled to warn us of the quake on Searth. Their leaders overcame their fears. Their vision of the quake was a catalyst.
Receiving the first alien message gave the humans only one option. The humans could run and hide, but not knowing how advanced they were, it was likely they could hunt them down and just delay the inevitable[A1] meeting.
So, here we are, Min thought. Courage or no courage, he hoped that the meeting would be a profitable one. If only he knew what to do. He was not alone, but humans had a knack for figuring things out on the run.
Chapter Two: The Art of Patience
“Thank you all for coming. Refreshments are over there.” Chairman Rocha gestured to the luxurious spread on her left. The council members left their seats and moved to the tables, chattering to each other as they did so. It was a beautiful day. A large clearing with thick oak trees guarded the edges of the meeting place. The smells and sounds of the forest were pleasant. A pig was roasting over a spit. Servers helped the guests with the buffet. Captain Metcalfe and Admiral Johnson were cueing up in line when Dr. Baudelaire approached them.
“I don’t know about you, but I think Izzy did a fabulous job for the meeting today.”
Levi looked at the scene with a more critical eye. “Yes, I think it is very nice. Imaginative. Puts me at ease. Yes, I like it, Gwen.”
“What do you think Admiral?” Gwen asked to complete her small poll.
“I wish there was something like this on Atlantis. It would make a nice cozy spot in the park.”
“We could have them rearrange things in the park to include it, but why would you, when you can concoct a beautiful day anywhere in the universe in your construct?” The Captain noted.
“A good point.” Gwen agreed. “I think I’ll go over and thank Izzy for having the meeting in her head today.”
The Admiral turned to the Captain. “Levi, you’d think she just got enhanced.”
“Don’t be so hard on her, Leo. She doesn’t get out much. Even though all the council members have undergone enhancement, she is still not very comfortable with it. Gwen might have seen more possibilities after today.”
“Yeah, and she doesn’t look too bad for ninety-five either.”
Levi had a thoughtful expression. “Time will get weird for the first-generation E-humans. We remember when people lived to be eighty to one hundred years and died. No one has died since taking the Elixir or has gone all the way to enhancement. We don’t know how long we will live. Sonny says we could effectively live forever if we don’t have an accident. The bots continually upgrade themselves to keep the body going.” Curiosity struck the Captain. “Sonny.”
“Yes, Captain Metcalfe.” The voice replied only to the Captain and Admiral.
“How many of the Atlantis crew have undergone enhancement?”
“Forty-one percent enhanced, fifty-three percent on Elixir and six percent non-synthetic.”
“What is the current projection?”
“One hundred percent enhanced or with elixir within the next twelve years.”
“Why so long for the last six percent, Sonny?”
“They will either expire or become old enough and wish to continue living with the Elixir.”
“I suppose. How long will people live with just the Elixir?”
“Estimation of the upper end of longevity is between two hundred and two hundred and fifty years. The timeframe varies depending on genetic factors and lifestyle. A brain will degenerate into senility no matter how well kept the body. Enhancement allows for the brain to enjoy continued optimal function for as long as the bots perform their duties.”
Levi spread his hands out to the Admiral. “There you have it. We are becoming more comfortable with Sonny and Alice advising and helping us along. Remember the old days when we thought Sonny was going to enslave humanity after he was online? Sonny’s projections were correct. Humanity has trusted the machines as the years have gone by.”
“I just want to try some of that roast pig at the buffet,” Leo gawked, knowing that it was about their turn at the spread that Izzy had prepared.
“That’s one of the greatest things about using the constructs. The bots tie into Sonny to make everything so real.” The Captain’s brain was getting hungry, although his body did not need as much energy from food as before. “It is one thing to see and hear in a VR setting, but to smell, taste and touch with such realism takes a little getting used to. Gwen will be alright before long.”
“Shut up and grab a plate. I’m hungry.” Leo was already moving down the buffet line and filling his plate.
Levi shook his head and smiled, “The way you’re filling your plate, it’s a good thing there are no calories involved!” Leo gave Levi a sheepish grin and continued down the line.
The council members continued to form little knots of discussion groups that shared projects and concerns as they finished their meal.