Close Encounters For Their Kind


by John Steiner

Recouping from their losses, and breaking in replacements, Colonel Rama is briefed for a mission that potentially violates exo-solar planetary research treaties. Rediscovered among archives of a telescope considered lost in the prior century, the data includes surface changes on the alien world that may suggest intelligent life. Taking off under the cover of a scientific survey mission, the Mockingbird is actually loaded for bear. Conscious of the fact they are alien invaders, the surface team faces an indigenous species with aggressive tendencies beyond belief. The question is why?


Chapter 1

Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet


“Colonel Ramachandra,” a Self-Ware facility administrator addressed her through the office’s Air Variation Resonance system. “Lieutenant Imafidon is outside your door.”

“Enter.” Sumitra Ramachandra’s reply was relayed directly to the new lieutenant.

For two weeks, Sumitra and the rest of Mockingbird’s crew had been stationed at Vandenberg for repairs to the ship. Her temporary office began to feel more like her quarters, for all the extra administration work she had to do. Filing numerous reports, Rama acquired a near-flawless memory for the thirty-seven crewmembers recovered from the late ISS Magpie. A third of those remained deceased with the mission commander, Colonel Laurent among them. A handful of Magpie’s crew who had been neurologically reconstituted exercised their enlistment or commissioned rights to resign.

Surviving death was a well-understood traumatic event in the 22nd century.

As for Lieutenant Imafidon, who stepped through the door and closed it, Colonel Rama had already spoken to him over telecoms prior to the interview she was about to conduct. In appearance, he looked African, but his family roots were squarely in the U.K. for five to ten generations. He proudly voiced a South-East London accent known for dropping T’s down a quantum singularity and mutating other enunciations more radically than Todd Nathanial Ash’s genetic experiments.

“Lieutenant Thomas Imafidon, reporting as ordered,” the twenty-eight year old stated crisply. He was a bit over average height at one-hundred eighty centimeters.

“Have a seat, Lieutenant,” Rama instructed, shuffling network files aside on her desk display, before returning eye contact. “Or do you prefer leftenant?”

“Either is acceptable, Colonel,” Imafidon answered in contradiction to his psyche profile.

“I want you to know,” Rama began, “that you’re stepping into the boots of another quite talented engineer who was well thought of by her subordinates. Bear that fact in mind, when you introduce yourself to the crew.”

“I will, Ma’am,” Thomas acknowledged with a solemn blink.

“According to your file,”—Rama waved a hand to now inactive displays — “technical academy instructors thought you were better cut out as flight officer than an engineer.”

“Let’s just say that didn’t work out, Colonel,” Imafidon responded in short.

Letting it go at that, Rama continued with the interview, and was about to escort Thomas Imafidon out to the Mockingbird. However, on leaving her office, she saw Brigadier General Benjamin Chaffee, Lieutenant General Roslyn Dolinsky, and two rather stern-looking young officers, Rama suspected at a glance to be from International Services Clandestine Operations or whatever their ‘unofficial’ unit designation was.

“Go ahead, Lieutenant,” Rama sent Imafidon on, indicating the quartet. “I have a meeting.”

Rama opened the door for them and followed them into her office.

“I know this is a rough transition, Colonel,” General Chaffee began, scratching at his nose and forgoing his manner of addressing her as Sue for Sumitra. “However, we’ve got a mission and it’s a big one.”

“They can’t have figured out the nano-planetoid that fast, could they?” Rama said.

“This isn’t connected to your last op,” General Dolinsky dismissed the reference, and looked to one of the officers while pointing at Rama’s desk surface. “What you’re about to see straddles a precarious legal line between an Exo-Solar Research Treaty violation and SETI Protocols as they existed at the time of this find.”

One of the officers plugged a wrist-top computer into her desk, rather than wirelessly send data over. Then, a display popped up that Sumitra recognized in part. It was a spreadsheet she might’ve otherwise expected in a spaceflight museum. The catalogue was of exo-solar planets and their associated data. Selecting one, the officer punched up telemetry that Rama thought came from a more recent deep space orbital observatory. Next, appeared a grainy image she recognized as a planet surrounded with two rings. The hue of blue appeared more like liquid oceans than the hydrogen gas of Neptune or Uranus.

“This was taken by the Ramirez-Schawlow Exo-Solar Spectral Analysis Telescope in twenty eighty-two,” General Dolinsky stated. “The satellite’s placement in the Terra-Sol Lagrangian Two orbit cut off all interference from the sun. That allows for a much cleaner nuclear resonance-based observation derived from Arthur Schawlow’s work and adapted by Graciela Ramirez in the mid-21st century.”

“Excuse me, Ma’am,” a confused Colonel Rama interjected. “I thought the Ramirez-Schawlow X-SAT was permanently damaged by an NEO collision shortly after deployment.”

“It was,” Dolinsky confirmed. “It wasn’t certain how much information it collected, if any.”

“That was actually true for a several months,” General Chaffee added, and nodded to his superior, Dolinsky. “As I’ve been made to understand it. However, the Pan-American Space Agency’s materials ended up in the Pan-American Combine’s Defense Division.”

“Okay, go ahead with the image,” Dolinsky said to the nameless officer.

The blurry image sharpened a bit as it zoomed in. Rama could make out landmasses, which was amazing for the age of the telescope. Even hints of weather manifested, as did seasonal changes over several scattered continents. However, a dark blot developed on one continent that spread rapidly to almost all of the land.

“Using the strategic exo-solar network,” Dolinsky began, referring to varied deep space observatories and instrumentation arrays clustered throughout the solar system, “Our own observations have been ongoing for a little over fifteen years.”

Those images started with the landmass, once overcome by the dark patch that was clear again. Other images displayed blemishes that grew to different shapes and shrank again. The last zoomed in to a particular coastline. It revealed two darker blue lines unerringly stretching out under the ocean toward the beach. Yet the resolution wasn’t good enough to get informative detail.

“It’s the third planet around the star designated Ramirez-Schawlow 87,” Chaffee informed Rama, “It’s around 2375 light-years away, which means it could be a whole lotta nothin’ but a misread by X-SAT and modern arrays. That’s why NATO could withhold the data without drawing attention.”

“It could also be the result of a Natural Environmentally-Selected Intelligent civilization, microbial growth bloom with a semi-regular die-off or simply organic compounds that undergo certain chemical changes under specific weather conditions.” Dolinsky proffered alternate interpretations with a serious face. “We don’t know. That’s what you’re going to find out.”

“General, if I might venture a question?” Rama said to Dolinsky. “NATO’s been sitting on this rediscovery for fifteen years. Why go there now?”

“Its galactic orbit placed it behind another star and cut off line-of-sight until 2160,” she answered. “You’re aware that India’s recent spatial rotation experiment succeeded. They’ve scheduled a test bed FTLV to conduct a Flip in 2187. While India refused membership in the Russian Federation, they’ve stayed closely aligned for over a century. Many of the Russian advances in spaceflight are due to engineers from India.

“What’s more, the ISO Science Division has reached full consensus that no natural phenomena of physics or any plausible malfunction of their FSD’s can account for the Astraeus Event. If there’s a civilization at RS Eight, Seven Delta we need to know if they’re responsible, and if so, to resolve the matter.”

Resolve the matter? Ramachandra recognized the vague undertone. Either, Captain O’Connell and his SETI team could establish peaceful communication, or the Mockingbird was going to ascertain the NESI intent and capabilities.

“What if they’re indigenous and incapable of spaceflight?” Rama ventured.

“The fabled principle of Noninterference is a lovely ideal,” General Chaffee prefaced Stanley’s vaunted space-opera mythology. “However, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle has a sociological manifestation. Even being in orbit of a planet makes alien presence known, and therefore changes the behavior of the observed on the surface. Someone on that rock might decide your arrival is the heralding of their end times or some sort of holy light sent by their deities.”

“We’re including specialists in geology, biological science, and xeno-sociology, but they’ll be squarely under your command as part of Captain O’Connell’s team. Launch bay template will be thirty, thirty, sixteen, and six,” Dolinsky explained, with the pylon number configuration of each bay. “Your takeoff payload will be strictly ISO science vehicles for public appearances. However, once those are deployed according to the mission schedule, you are to pick out a solar orbit. There, you are to reload the bays with military inventory as provided. Because of the public profile, we can’t provide you ADS strike fighter support, exterior supply modules for the FSD frame, or issue a HYDRA System. Cat Two clearance will be granted once authenticated from within RS-87. You will be issued a tactical assault dropship as well as a SOAR Capsule. The ISO has been using a civilian-variant of the UDS-55 Tang Sword anyway, so we’ll slip you the TADS-55 in its place.”

“The ISO agreed to all of this?” Rama inquired of both generals.

“It didn’t take much prodding for them to grasp the situation,” Dolinsky said. “One of them is an old friend to Captain O’Connell, so we expect that personality issues won’t be counted among your difficulties.”

“You deploy in a week,” Chaffee stated, as the others headed out. “Brief and prep your crew.”

“Sir,” Colonel Rama sounded off with more enthusiasm than she felt.

With everything the Mockingbird crew had to do, that week passed quicker than Rama imagined. Launch day found Rama standing off to the side of the Mockingbird’s cargo bay’s fully lowered loading ramp. Lieutenant Imafidon supervised the loading of the tactical assault dropship. Rama was interested in seeing how he handled command and got along in general.

“Aw, she’s a beaut,” Imafidon praised with his Cockney accent, as he walked under the front of the TADS-55 dragging his fingers along the hull. “I’ve always had a love affair with this machine.”

Most dropships served roles similar to helos of the 20th and 21st centuries. The TADS-55 Tang Sword bore a nosecone akin to jets capable of above Mach two. A pair of domes on the sides of the nose housed frontal assist VTOL thrusters, with the exhaust and intake vents on opposite sides of the semi-ball-socket assembly.

The Tang Sword’s short wings could reshape themselves for the delta profile necessary to break the sound barrier. Or they could sweep up for the aero-surfing style atmospheric glide entry, which was pioneered over two hundred years ago by Russian engineers of the BOR, or Unmanned Orbital Rocket-plane. The concept had been reincarnated by the United States and a private spaceflight company in the form of the Dream Chaser.

The entire central fuselage lowered, to make the craft’s wings into roofs overhanging both doors, to resemble more closely utility helos that modern dropships replaced. The tail boom’s stabilators stayed permanently swept up, and between them emerged a swelling of the hull. It housed the electrically lubricated gyroscopic orientation motors for rapid maneuvers, with another concealed in the craft’s nose behind instrumentation.

The main Planck engines atop the central hull resembled the shoulders, and their exhaust ports reminded Sumitra of a bird’s wrists when folded back for cruising flight. The ports swiveled down for hovering, with rear assist VTOL thrusters augmenting stability from the end of the tail boom.

It was time to raise the ramp, and so Colonel Rama stepped aboard. Lieutenant Imafidon seemed to notice that all of those under his command were present, and decided that was the moment.

“Alright, here’s the thing,” Imafidon began, giving everyone his or her turn to look him in the eye. “I’ve been assigned as your senior engineering officer. Now, I can’t replace Lieutenant Sveindottir, I swear I won’t even try. I’ve lost people over me and under me, so I know what that feels like. However, I promise you this. You won’t get pushed into more than you can bear, because I’ll be right there in front of ‘ya pullin’ instead. Each man and woman gets his or her fair shake. Mistakes do happen, but I won’t have ‘ya repeatin’ any under my charge. Above all, what with our tasker, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Yeah, that settled it, Rama mused, as Imafidon activated the ramp to close using technical assist glove. Definitely flight ops, and now we know on what aircraft.

The ISV-71 Raven that was to serve as the Tang Sword’s mother, was now sealed. The crews got to work securing the dropship with actuated coupling arms in the cargo bay ceiling. After which, the Mockingbird crew all reported to their stations and strapped in for launch. The surface-to-orbit flight, the nuclear engine burn to Lagrangian Station Five, docking with the FSD, and even spatial rotation from Sol to the target star began to feel routine to Colonel Rama.

After four days of mixed nuclear engine burns, XIP thrust, and launches of solar-orbiting ISO research vehicles and satellites, Colonel Rama realized that Ramirez Schawlow 87 was anything but a regular habitable-zone exo-solar planet. Smaller than Earth, its surface gravity pulled with a bit more than eighty percent of one gee. What truly took Rama’s breathe away, as she gazed through one of the ISO telescope vehicles, were its two rings. The planet was on the warm side of the habitable zone, which itself stretched farther from a star that was smaller but brighter than Sol. One moon orbited just inside the first ring, the second between that and the outer ring, with two moons in almost the same orbit policing up the beautiful astronomical necklace by creating perturbation bands in the outer ring.

“I am so tempted to call this Planet Oz,” Rama whispered to Major Fitch seated to her right.

“What kind of debris forms rings around a habitable zone world?” he replied doubtfully.

“Time to find out,” Rama said. “Station Four, start a search for artificial satellites in solar orbit or around RS-87D.”

After a couple hours of telescopic surveillance, radar, lidar, and even gravitational readings, courtesy of Mr. Goddard, Rama knew everything above the third planet’s atmosphere was put there by Newtonian physics and chance. That discovery cleared the way for the last of the civilian launches, once the Mockingbird parked in Ramirez-Schawlow 87D’s second star-planet Lagrangian Point.

“Station Four,” Rama addressed the ISO astronomer, “Coordinate with Weapons for the GPS network vehicle, polar orbital surveyor, and dropping the No-Lo array in place.”

“Underway, OCS,” the ISO specialist acknowledged.

By the end of Colonel Rama’s Operation Command Watch, all launch bays were cleared. Supply-Deployment crews, along with modulated humanoid robots, went to work reloading them and prepping the TADS-55 for the graver half of the mission, once the second bay loads no longer clogged the cargo bay. The next two command watches oversaw a slow XIP thrust around the four lunar tracts and two sets of rings that lit up with a brilliant yellow and green on their daylight sides.


"Flipspace: Close Encounters For Their Kind" by John Steiner


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