It was only nine and a half hours later that we met again. There were ten of us: The captain, Mary, Bradshaw, Earl, Hennley, Jones, Rollins, White, and me, along with Jack Knight. And of course Omni.
The captain started without preliminaries.
“Jack, how long before we can engage the interstellar drives?”
“Well, Captain.” Jack scratched his beard. Like many heavy-tech types, he wasn’t big on personal hygiene. He was the only one on board that grew one, and it was long and unkempt.
“The interstellars are not high-G drives; they’re efficient, not fast. We don’t usually engage them until we’ve reached escape velocity and are outside the planetary regime of a star, so we don’t get pulled off course by an unexpected gravitational effect. Around our Sun, that depends on the position of the gas giants. Their orbits are well known, and if they’re all on the far side as we are leaving, we might engage as close as passing the orbit of Saturn. Here, I wasn’t planning on engaging them for about twenty days.”
“Thank you,” said the captain. “Jones, please update us as to the status of the interceptors.”
“The two ships appear to be twins. They started out at 143 times our mass. Their initial acceleration under chemical power was 9.3 G’s. The chemical engines stopped after 2 hours 10 minutes, and nuclear engines were engaged in their place. They’ve been burning nuclear since then, approximately 12 hours, with an acceleration of 2.1 G’s. They’re on an intercept course, and they’ll reach closest approach in 27 hours 30 minutes.
“Of their armament we can tell little. When they passed the stealth satellite, we got some sensor readouts and a distant visual. Here are the results on the display screen.”
The visuals were computer-enhanced animations of the twins passing the stealth. The ships were huge behemoths, consisting mostly of fuel tanks, with tremendous chemical flames pouring out to the rear in delicately traced sharp-edged cones. Their payload areas were compact cylinders, covered with numerous bulges.
“The ships are heavily armored. We know this because the stealth satellite detected very little radiation, even though the ships are packing nuclear engines.
“All those bulges are likely to be gun ports of some sorts. They’re covered to protect them during the exit from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, they also prevent us from finding out what’s behind them. We still don’t know much about their weapons’ capabilities.”
“Thank you, Jones. Mr. Bradshaw, what do you have to report from Communications?”
Bradshaw stood up quickly. There was a bright glow in his eye that spoke of either good news or significant accomplishment.
“Captain, we’ve broken their new code and we’ve been communicating with them for three hours now.”
There was a gasp through the room.
“The robots have been quite courteous, in fact. We’d forgotten they didn’t realize we already knew their language. Their ‘new code’ that caused us such consternation, when it started a few hours back, was their way of trying to communicate with us in open transmissions, based on mathematical principles.
“Once we’d figured that out, we started responding in kind. It’s been very informative. There have been significant lapses in their logic as they’ve tried to build it up for us piece-by-piece, and we’ll be analyzing for the etymological and cultural meaning of those lapses for many years.
“In the meantime, we are on the verge of knowing enough of the new language to say ‘hello’. That should happen in a few minutes. You’re invited, Captain, to say our first human words to our first extraterrestrial alien intelligences.”
“Let’s pray they’re not the last,” snorted the captain. “I thank you for the opportunity, Bradshaw; let me know when you’re ready. In the meantime, do you have anything else?”
There was a long silence. Then Mary asked, “What do they want? What are we going to do?”
The captain looked at her gently for a moment.
“We don’t know the answer to either of those questions yet. Perhaps we’ll know more in a few minutes, after we’ve talked to them.”
Bradshaw scurried up beside the captain carrying an odd box. “Excuse me, Captain, we’re ready to begin formal greetings.”
“We don’t have voice contact yet. We’ll have that later, after the computers have had more time to analyze their speech for intent and historical context. Without that analysis, the synthesized inflections they would add would be erroneous and misleading. Instead, we’ll work with the printed word—using a keyboard and typing messages.”
“Typing?” The captain looked at Bradshaw quite peculiarly. Bradshaw just beamed back like the cat that ate the canary.
“It’s an old skill. I mastered it as a hobby, and I’ve brought my keyboard with me.” He held up the odd-looking box.
“Now look at the main display up on the wall. What the robots say will appear in red on the display.
“You tell me what to say and I will type it in on my keyboard. That’ll show up on the display in green. Those words or phrases that aren’t translatable will be shown as a string of white question marks on the screen. As the computer is able to translate the word or phrase, it’ll change the white question marks into words or phrases of the proper color. The more intense the color, the surer the computer is of a correct translation. Is this clear?”
The captain nodded.
“Excellent, let’s get started.”
Bradshaw poised himself, hands raised over the keyboard, like he was about to start playing in a piano competition.
“What would you like to say first, Captain?”
The captain considered for a moment, then said, “Hello. This is Captain Jessie Wonder of the Starship Mahatma P. Gandhi. We come in peace. Who are you?”
Bradshaw’s hands lowered; his two first fingers started clicking busily on the keyboard. At first a series of white question marks appeared on the main screen. Then, the first few quickly resolved themselves into a deep green “Hello” on the screen.
“The computer takes a moment to analyze the content of your sentence. As it finishes and makes the translation, it clears the question marks with words and transmits the message on to the robot ship.”
The last of the question marks cleared into words and left the whole message on the display.
Hello. This is Captain Jessie Wonder of the Starship Mahatma P. Gandhi. We come in peace. Who are you?
Bradshaw was jiggling in his seat, like a little child waiting for his turn to get desert.
“It’s finished. And it was able to translate everything you said accurately. Excellent! Would you like to send more, or wait for a reply?”
We all did, anxiously.
It seemed like endless minutes passed. There were stirrings. There was a cough. Then white question marks started appearing on the screen. Quickly, they resolved themselves into pale red words that said:
We are the Mechtrons. Stop your ship or we will cause harm to your universe.
The letters were still in faint red, then they shifted, changed, and turned to medium red. They now said:
We are the Mechtrons. Stop your ship or we will cause it harm.
New question marks started appearing between the two sentences.
“They’re sending more, captain.” said Bradshaw.
After a few moments the message resolved itself into:
We are the Mechtrons. I am the leader of the ship. Please stop your ship because we need your help. If you do not stop, we will fire on your ship.
The words were various shades of red. The whole first sentence was deep red. The last two sentences were fairly faint.
After waiting a full minute and seeing no more changes, the captain said, “Bradshaw, tell them we will stop if they stop and if they promise not to fire on us. If they agree to that, then we will listen further to their story and see if we can help them.”
Bradshaw thought for a moment, and then started typing. As before, his typing first produced question marks on the screen as the computer started working on the translation process, then they started changing to faint green words. The result was:
Greetings, Mechtrons. We are ????[glad] that we can communicate with you. ???[Our] captain sends her greetings. We will stop our ship if you will stop your ship. We will stop our ship if you will not fire at us. We will ?????? ?? ???? ????? [listen to your story] if you stop your ship.
“I took a few liberties with your message, captain. The computer seems to be having difficulty with the part about listening to their story. Let me try again.”
Bradshaw thought a few more seconds, then typed some more. The message now read:
Greetings, Mechtrons. We are ????[glad] that we can communicate with you. ???[Our] captain sends her greetings. We will stop our ship if you will stop your ship. We will stop our ship if you will not fire at us. We will ?????? ?? ???? ????? [listen to your story] if you stop your ship. We will talk more if you stop your ship.
“Excellent, Bradshaw. Let’s see what we get.”
We waited, patiently this time, for more question marks to start appearing. For a minute none did, then two, then three. We started getting restless again.
Then Jones announced, “Captain, both robot ships are cutting power!”
We broke out in cheers. I found myself hugging Phil while he was clapping me on the back. Then the captain waved us quiet.
“Jack, please shut down our own propulsion systems. But be ready to start them up again at a moment’s notice.”
As she was speaking, new question marks started appearing on the screen. The room quieted rapidly, as we started waiting for words to appear to replace them. The captain took this moment to stand up and announce.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m gratified that you’re all so interested in this conversation. However, now that we have a new lease on life, I’m sure you all have many things to attend to. We’re not out of this yet!
“I’ll leave our conversations displayed on the ship’s general view channel, but I want all of you working on how we get out of this situation permanently.
“We still have a probe, right? I want it equipped for surveillance. Send it towards them on some sort of curve that will make it hard to detect and difficult to trace back to us if it is found. See how close it gets before they do detect it.
“Given our current coasting status, I want to know how soon we can expect to be in range of their weapons and how long before we coast out of range again.
“And I want all the computer power we can spare working on translation and inductive anthropology on the data we collect. We’ve got to learn more about these robots and their culture if we’re to find a weakness.
“I thank you all.”
As we filed out, the message from the Mechtrons started appearing:
We are stopping our engines. Please stay and talk with us.