A Problem In Translation

 

 

 

a novel by

 

 

J Alan Erwine

 

 

 

 

A Problem In Translation

by J Alan Erwine

 

All rights reserved.  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or recording or by any information storage and retrieval systems,  without expressed written consent of the author and/or artists.

 

A Problem In Translation is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

Story copyright owned by J Alan Erwine

 

Cover illustration "A Problem In Translation" © 2012 by Laura Givens

 

Cover design by Atomic Fly Studios

 

First Printing, March 2012

 

Sam's Dot Publishing

P.O. Box 782

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 52406-0782 USA

e-mail:  sdpshowcase@yahoo.com

 

Visit www.samsdotpublishing.com for online science fiction, fantasy, horror, scifaiku, and more.  While you are there, visit the Sam's Dot Bookstore at http://sdpbookstore.com for paperbacks, magazines, and chapbooks.  Support the small, independent press...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For my amazing and beautiful wife Rebecca, and for my wonderful daughters: Eryn, Juliah, and Alexis. You make me want to be more than I've ever been, and I'm so thankful all of you are in my life.



 

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

I'd like to thank Joan McCarty who edited a little webzine called Alternate Realities. This is where the original short story (that would later become the first chapter of this book) was published. I'd also like to thank Tyree Campbell of Sam's Dot Publishing who took that same short story and turned it into a wonderful, and reasonably popular illustrated chapbook. I'd also like to thank David Lee Summers who published my short story The Limit of Tolerance (that would later become the second chapter of this book) in Hadrosaur Tales.


Finally, I'd like to thank my family for all of their support over the years as I pursued this bizarre little trip I've been on.



 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

     The Astrid translated out of hyperspace into an uncharted star system.  Captain Shiro Takahashi and his crew had come to the system to harvest hydrogen from the gas giant their mass spectrometers told them had to be there.  Fuel was running low, and they weren’t sure how many more systems they’d be able to check before they ran so low that they’d have to return to the Earth system.

     “The planet is orbiting at nine AUs as expected,” Brenna Kincaid said from her position at the helm.  “Size is two point five Jupiters.  Chemical make-up similar.”  She turned and faced the captain at his control console near the back of the bridge.  “Should be an easy refueling,” she said. 

     Brenna had the kind of smile that lit up her face, the kind of smile that Captain Takahashi always got lost in.  She had sandy blonde hair, and most people would have said she was a few kilos too heavy, but it didn’t matter to Takahashi.  Every time she smiled at him, the universe narrowed to focus only on her.

     Trying not to think about Brenna, he nodded, stroking his thin mustache, and trying to keep his mind on his work.  “Good.  You know the procedures.”  The viewscreen quickly showed the fiery plasma of the ship’s entry into the planet’s atmosphere.

     Satisfied that the fueling was beginning, he turned to Quent Regget at the communications console.  “Quent, send by ansible to Earth that we’re refueling and preparing to proceed to Beta Ceti.  Expect to leave system within forty hours.”

     Quent nodded.  There was little formality aboard the Astrid.  They’d spent more than two years together and discipline had become lax.  Everyone knew their job, and everyone did their job.  It was that simple.

     Takahashi watched as Quent attached the AI connection to the neural shunt in his temple.  The shunt was a small nodule that had been surgically implanted into Quent’s brain years earlier, and even after all this time, it still made Takahashi shudder every time he looked at it, or every time he saw Quent plugging himself into the ship’s system.  It was hard for him to imagine someone wanting to wire themselves to a computer system, even if the wiring wasn’t permanent, but it did make for much faster communications between man and machine.  Even so, it wasn’t something Takahashi was planning on doing any time soon. 

     Quent was tall, and muscular with a perfect smile and vid-star good looks that made most of the women of the crew act like idiots.  Takahashi always found that funny, because he knew it was the same kind of effect that Brenna had on him.

     The crew busied itself around Takahashi, and he watched their progress from the monitor at his console, occasionally stopping to watch the swirling clouds of the gas giant churning around his ship.

     The refueling went as expected.  The ship passed through the upper reaches of the gas giant’s atmosphere, drawing hydrogen into its massive fuel tanks; breaking orbit thirty-three hours after fueling had started.

     “Fueling complete,” First Officer Inessa Alexandrova said from her chair beside Captain Takahashi.  Inessa stretched regulations by wearing her hair long and unrestrained.  He’d always thought that she had the most beautiful hair he’d ever seen.  It was straight and black as midnight, hanging three quarters of the way down her back.  Where most people would say Brenna could stand to lose a few kilos, Takahashi always thought that Inessa could stand to gain a few.  She was far too thin, but still muscular, and even if people had never heard her name, her face made it very clear that she was from the Russian Consortium.

     He had a good crew, and they always did their jobs, and he was proud of them as a slight smile crossed his face.  “Good,” he said.  “Prepare to translate back to hyperspace.”

     Brenna Kincaid nodded her understanding from her seat at the helm before she turned and began the necessary calculations to return the ship to hyperspace.  Takahashi watched as she was verifying the AI’s calculations, but her face suddenly twisted into a frown.  “Captain Takahashi,” she said, and then paused.  “I have an anomalous gravitational signature.  It’s on an approach vector,” she finally managed to say. 

That was something he’d never heard before.  He wondered if it might be a stray asteroid that none of them had picked up on sensors.  “Can you be more specific?” he finally asked.

She called up a visual display of the object on her console, and Takahashi watched as she suddenly grew very still, only her hands trembling.  “There’s a ship approaching at roughly .2C.”

     The bridge grew silent.  “We don’t have any other ships out here,” the captain finally said, unnecessarily.

     “It’s not one of ours,” Brenna replied.  The bridge remained silent while she called up a display on the main view screen.  The unidentified ship wasn’t much more than a large cylinder with several protuberances, which Captain Takahashi could only guess at the significance of.  He just hoped that none of them were weapons.

     “It’s an alien ship,” Quent finally said, although it hardly seemed necessary.

     No one answered until the captain began to snap his fingers in Quent’s direction.  After five snaps, he got his voice back.  “Quent, send the greeting.”

     Quent nodded, putting his index finger against his neural shunt as he tried to direct the ship’s AI to do something none of them had ever thought they’d do.  “No response, sir.”

     “Are you sure?”

     “I’m scanning all frequencies.”

     “Captain,” Inessa shouted.  “I’ve got an energy surge headed towards us.”

     “What kind of energy?” Takahashi asked, his voice much louder than he’d intended.

     “It’s…it looks like a deuterium plasma at an energy level of two million kilojoules.”

     “Brenna, take evasive action,” Takahashi shouted louder than he needed to.

     The helmsperson did everything she could to avoid the energy blast.  The ship vibrated harshly as it tried to move out of the way of the intense energy.  Takahashi grabbed the armrests of his chair, trying to hold on against the shifting gravities as the ship’s artificial gravity system tried to compensate for the unexpected maneuvers. 

     As the deuterium plasma passed, it became obvious that the aliens had intended to miss them.  The blast passed more than two hundred kilometers from their original position, which wasn’t much different than their current position.  Things tend to happen slowly in space, even with massive ion engines like the Astrid had.

     “Sir, I’ve got something,” Quent shouted.  “They’re broadcasting X-rays.  I even have visual.”

     The captain took a deep breath.  “Let’s see it.”

     The image of an alien flashed onto the view screen.  The creature had a brownish green bulbous body that was nearly circular except for a slight protrusion at the top of the body.  There were what looked like sensory organs of some kind mounted on the bulge.  The creature also had six multi-jointed limbs protruding from its body.  The torso rested on three of the limbs, which formed a tripod beneath the creature.  It was covered in shimmering scales that seemed to not touch the body.  It might have been clothing, or it could have had any other purpose.  Takahashi had no way of knowing.

     “Can you make out anything they’re saying?”  Inessa asked.  Takahashi could hear the strain in her voice; something he’d never heard before.

     Quent shook his head.  “The AI’s working on it.”  His normal jovial smile was gone.

     “Send our greeting back to them on the same frequency,” the captain said.  “Hopefully they won’t fire at us again.”

     After thirty seconds more of sending messages at each other, the translator aboard the Astrid began to sort out the words of the aliens.  “Unknown/ Aggressive/ Violent ship, you are violating/ intruding upon/ stealing the territory/ realm/ property of the Lemec.  What are your intentions/ aggressions/ actions?”  The brownish green shading of the shimmering scales seemed to be changing as it spoke.

     Captain Takahashi shook his head and looked at Quent.  “Is this the best the AI can do?”

     Quent shrugged.

     “Is this the way the creatures speak, or is it a flaw in the translation programs?” Takahashi asked.

     “I don’t know, sir.  This is the first alien I’ve ever tried to communicate with.”  Quent’s smile was nervous; a definite change from the annoying but endearing grin he usually gave people.

     The captain glared at his communications officer.  “Get on the ansible and update Earth.  I want communications at my control.”

     “Yes, sir,” Quent responded crisply.  The bridge of the Astrid had taken on a level of formality it hadn’t had in years, possibly since they first left Earth.

     “Alien ship, we had no idea we were in your space.  We have not had contact with any other species.  We are not aggressive.”

     There was a five-second delay before the alien responded.  “This is not/ is Lemec space.”

     The captain looked around the bridge, but no one seemed to understand the alien’s message any better than he did.

     “You have attacked/ stolen/ raped the Vintho.”

     Takahashi stared at the view screen for several seconds.  “I’m sorry, but we are having trouble understanding you.  We may be having trouble with our translator.  What are Vintho?”

     “The Vintho are in/ on/ of the planet.”

     “Lifeforms?”  Inessa asked from beside him.  She began a scan of the planet.  After twenty seconds, she shook her head and looked at Captain Takahashi.  There were tears wreathing her eyes, and he’d never seen her frown like she now was.  “Sir, there seems to be an organization in some of the hydrogen and helium in the planet’s atmosphere.  It’s possible there are lifeforms down there.”

     Captain Takahashi sat back in his chair and shook his head.  “And we just scooped them up for fuel.”

     Inessa nodded.

     The captain turned back to the alien.  “Are you Lemec, or is your species Lemec?”

     “We are Lemec.  I am Birnea.  We are the protectors/ saviors/ guardians of the Vintho and others/ many/ all (?).”  The shimmering scales darkened.

     Captain Takahashi began to rub his temples.  “This is beginning to give me a headache.”

     “You are new/ different/ dangerous to us.  We wish to know/ find/ absorb more about you.”

     That at least seemed somewhat promising to Takahashi.  “We would like to know more about you, as well.”

     “Your ship is capable of hyperspace/ trans-dimensional space/ (untranslatable)?”

     The captain shrugged.  “Yes.”

     “Will you return to our homeworld with us?”

     “A straight translation.”  Inessa said.  “That worries me.”

     The captain nodded his agreement, as he silenced the communications pick-up.  He took a moment to survey the bridge.  A dozen concerned faces looked back at him.  He knew that his next decision could change the universe as he knew it, but more importantly, it could kill his crew.  Still, he didn’t feel that he had much choice.  “This is a once in a lifetime chance,” he said to the crew.  “We have to take it.”

     Inessa nodded, but she frowned at the same time.  “I hope this won’t be a mistake.”

     Takahashi tried to smile at her before he turned back to the view screen and turned the communications system back on.  “We will return to your homeworld with you.”

     “I have the coordinates,” Brenna said.  “They sent them straight to my console.”

     The captain nodded, trying not to look alarmed.  Now wasn’t the time to worry his crew, but it seemed that the aliens knew more about them than they were letting on, and that didn’t seem possible, but what could he do about it?  Not much, he realized.  Matters now seemed to be going in a direction he felt he’d have very few choices in.

*          *          *

     The homeworld of the Lemec was only four light years from the star system that held the Vintho homeworld.  The Astrid translated out of hyperspace less than two AUs from the Lemec homeworld, high above the ecliptic, and immediately began to fire its engines for orbital insertion.

     The Lemec named Birnea immediately appeared on the view screen, or at least they guessed it was Birnea.  “Is your ship/ shell capable of landing/ joining with our world?”

     “No,” the captain said.  “We have a special craft for landing.”

     The Lemec made a strange gesture with two of its prehensile arms or tentacles and the view screen flashed off.  “Any guesses on what that gesture meant?” the captain asked.  He didn’t get a reply, nor had he expected one.  “Inessa, what can you tell me about the planet?”

     Inessa inspected the displays on her console and began to read off a string of information.  “.93 AU from its primary, which is a G5 star.  Radius and mass of the planet are slightly higher than Earth’s.  Density is lower.  Gravity is almost equivalent to Earth’s; at least it’s close enough that we wouldn’t notice a difference anyway.”  She scratched her temple as she studied the information.  “Rotation period of less than twenty-two hours.  Water makes up nearly eighty percent of the surface area.  Atmosphere is predominantly nitrogen and oxygen at near Earth sea-level pressure.  I would guess we could breathe it, but probably not for long.  Too much oxygen.”

     “You’d guess?” Captain Takahashi asked, trying not to frown.  Now would not be a good time to start showing any kind of disfavor towards his crew.  “I need something a little better than a guess.”

     “Of course, sir,” Inessa said, scrutinizing the console more closely.  “We can definitely breathe it, but like I said, not for long.  I’d imagine you’d develop a rather nasty case of euphoria after a while.”

     Captain Takahashi grunted his understanding, stroking his thin mustache.  Maybe the high oxygen levels were why the aliens were so hard to understand…they were all a little spacey perhaps.

     The alien appeared on the view screen again.  “Unknown/ aggressive/ violent ship, you will send a ship/ envoy/ victim to the surface now.”

     Captain Takahashi stared at the screen.  He silenced the audio pick-up and turned to his crew.  “I don’t like the sound of this.  Quent, can’t you get a better translation for me?”

     Quent shrugged.  “I don’t think it’s the translator.  I think it’s their language.”

     Takahashi resisted the urge to throw his hands in the air.  “That’s insane.  How can any species survive with such a vague language?”

     Quent shrugged again.

     “It was rhetorical,” Captain Takahashi mumbled. 

     He looked at each of his crew.  “There’s a big difference between an envoy and a victim," he said.  “I’m not sure I’m comfortable being either one, but I won’t ask any of you to go.  I’ll do it.”

     “Sir,” Inessa said, suddenly standing.  “You shouldn’t leave the ship.”

     Captain Takahashi just stared at her.

     “You’ll need a pilot, sir,” she said in a quieter voice.

     “We can’t both go, Inessa.  You’ll have to stay.”

     “Then I volunteer,” Brenna said, standing up.

     “Thank you, Brenna.  I was hoping you might.  Quent, we’ll check in every half-hour, and make sure you’re reporting everything that happens back to Earth.  If anything goes wrong, I want them to be able to fix it.”

     “Yes, sir.”

*          *          *

     Humidity was the first thing Captain Takahashi noticed upon landing on the Lemec homeworld.  The planet obviously held a great deal more moisture than Earth.  Water seemed to drip from everything.  The second thing he noticed was the smell of smoke, obviously from the fires they’d seen on their descent through the atmosphere.  Several of what looked like forests seemed to be burning.  He’d counted more than a dozen of them.  None were close enough to threaten the city they’d landed in, but it didn’t seem like it would take much for them to expand.  His light-headedness quickly told him that oxygen was overly abundant.

He and Brenna descended the landing craft’s ladder and didn’t move once they were on the ground.  The planet was green; more shades of green assaulted their eyes than either of them had ever seen before.  Large green tree-like plants rose all around them.  Each plant was covered with a canopy of what looked like hexagonal leaves fifteen feet or more above them; each leaf more than a foot in diameter.  Captain Takahashi couldn’t help but think of these things as trees, but the variety was nowhere near as great as he would have expected on Earth.

Bushes in all varieties of green ran along the sides of the spaceport, but again there wasn’t as much variety as he would have expected to see on Earth.  The sky was also a darker blue than he thought it should be; looking like it was close to twilight, even though Takahashi could tell by the position of the planet’s sun that it was only just after noon.  It was hard for him to make sense out of much of what he was seeing, but then this was the first inhabited planet that he’d ever been on.

     The Lemec were now approaching; more than twenty of them, walking in a bipedal manner, their other four limbs holding objects, objects Captain Takahashi was hoping weren’t weapons.  He also noticed that the Lemec weren’t as big as he’d expected.  The tallest stood not much more than four feet in height, but their limbs were heavily muscled.  The captain was certain that one of them would be more than a match for him and Brenna.  More than twenty of them seemed like overkill.

     One of the creatures approached the captain.  It made a gesture with one of its limbs, something akin to a spiral motion with a closed hand that ended up open at the end of the movement.  The limb had bent in ways the captain couldn’t follow.  Obviously the Lemec were multi-jointed, or maybe they didn’t even have joints.

     Captain Takahashi took a hesitant step forward and bowed.  It seemed to him like the logical thing to do.  The Lemec that had approached him stepped back quickly.

     “Your ways are strange/ threatening/ understandable to us.”  The creature said, it’s brown skin or covering lightening.

     The captain shrugged.  “As yours are to us.”

     The Lemec turned and gestured towards the others, then it stepped forward.  “I am the one called Birnea.  We welcome/ accept you to our world.”

     “Thank you.”

     “What is your name/ designation/ function?” the alien asked.

     “I am Captain Shiro Takahashi.  This,” he said motioning towards Brenna, “is Helmsperson Brenna Kincaid.”

     Birnea quickly began to introduce the other Lemec with him, every single one of them, including details about their purposes that would have been confusing even with a straight translation.  With the translations they were getting, it was impossible to figure out what any of the creatures might do.  One of the first was introduced as a gardener/ engineer/ hyper-structural minimalist.  The captain didn’t even want to try to figure out what the last of the three might be, or what it might have to do with gardening.  Instead, he just nodded to each of them and quickly forgot what Birnea said.  He wasn’t cut out to be a diplomat, and he knew it.

     Takahashi took in all of the sites that he could as he and Brenna were led around the buildings immediately adjacent to the spaceport.  There were areas where vegetation seemed to grow wild like on an abandoned farm on Earth, but these areas weren’t abandoned.  There were other areas where the vegetation seemed to be cut so that every single bush, or what he thought of as bushes, were cut to be of equal height, and equal width.  In fact, they all looked almost exactly alike.

     He saw Lemec going in and out of all of the buildings, none of them seeming to be in a hurry.  In fact, the more Takahashi observed their hosts, it seemed like none of the Lemec, neither the ones escorting them, nor the others going about their Lemec business were in a hurry.  It was very different from what Takahashi was used to seeing on Earth.

     The Lemec with Takahashi and Brenna stopped briefly and two of them spoke to each other, saying something that Takahashi’s translator couldn’t pick up before one of the Lemec, maybe Birnea turned to Takahashi, “Our destination/ resting place/ court.”

     The creature pointed one of its prehensile limbs at a ziggurat shaped building that looked like something taken straight from the Yucatan Peninsula, only this building sparkled and shimmered in the light from the Lemec sun.  There were several of the ziggurat shaped buildings along the road they’d been walking, but this one towered at least two thousand feet into the air, overshadowing every other building in the Lemec city.

*          *          *

     The Lemec had arranged themselves in uncomfortable looking chairs that Takahashi and Brenna had no hope of sitting comfortably in.  The chairs were meant for creatures with bulbous bodies and six limbs that seemed to work as both arms and legs.  The humans’ bodies could never hope to fit into the chairs, but still Takahashi and Brenna tried.  They didn’t really have much choice.

     Takahashi surveyed the rest of the chamber they’d been led into.  It was filled with objects; objects that Takahashi’s human brain had no chance of understanding, but he didn’t have enough time to even try to examine the objects because the Lemec quickly moved their chairs to completely encapsulate Takahashi and Brenna.  He had no way of reading the aliens’ expressions, but he was pretty sure that anger was something that they were trying to convey.  He had some idea of why they were angry, but he had no way of knowing just how deep their anger with him was.  The Lemec began to question the two humans, and it seemed like they only had one thing on their minds.

     “Why did you attack/ rape/ steal the Vintho?” one of the creatures asked.  It was the question that they just kept asking over and over again.  The word order changed, and sometimes different words were used, but the question was always the same.

     “We didn’t know there was life on the planet,” Takahashi answered again, his throat raw from talking so much, and his head trying to spin off of his spine because of the high oxygen levels.  “Like I’ve told you repeatedly, we’ve never encountered any kind of life until we met you.”

     One of the creatures raised a limb, but Takahashi began talking faster in an effort to cut it off.  “I know what you’re going to say, we met the Vintho before we met you, but we didn’t realize it.  Believe me, if I would have known there was life on that planet, we never would have chosen to refuel there.  You have to trust me on that.”

     He didn’t think the creatures were going to start trusting him any time soon.  It was obvious that he’d committed some grievous error, and he was truly sorry about it.  Life was sacred, and never having met aliens before, that life would have been even more sacred…but he couldn’t go back and change the past, although that seemed like it would be the only thing that might make these aliens happy.

     The only thing that would make Takahashi happy would be a chance to lie down.  Trying to make out what the double talking aliens were saying, and trying to do it in the oxygen rich atmosphere was making him very ill.  He needed a break, but he didn’t expect one any time soon.

     The inquiry continued, and slowly, Takahashi thought he was beginning to get his point across, at least it seemed like the creatures weren’t quite as angry as they were at the beginning of the meeting, or maybe Takahashi was just getting ready to faint.

     Even if all life was sacred, Takahashi thought as another of the creatures asked, “Why did you rape/ steal/ attack the Vintho,” he was beginning to think that these aliens could quickly make him change his opinion.

     After five hours of discussion, the captain and Brenna were shown to a room in a ziggurat-shaped building Birnea had referred to as guest/ processing quarters.  The captain wasn’t sure if there had been a slash in the translation.  Either way, he didn’t like the sound of it.

The quarters were barren, even when compared to the crew quarters aboard the Astrid.  There was a plank that ran along one wall about one meter off the ground.  Other than that, there was nothing in the room.  No chairs, no bed, not even a window, and the shape of the room clearly showed they were at one of the corners of the ziggurat, so there should have been windows.  Worse yet, all of their belongings, other than their handheld AIs and translators, had been taken for study/ research/ dissection, as the Lemec had said.  They hadn’t even let them keep one of their coms.

     “Captain,” Brenna said, “What do you make of all this?”

     Captain Takahashi laughed.  “Not much.  I don’t know what the hell’s going on.  I hope Earth’s sending another ship, and soon.  Hopefully one with diplomats.  I’m sure as hell not capable of handling this.”  He paused and tried to smile at her.  “Maybe Earth should have thought about who they assigned to captain these ships a little better.  Someone with diplomatic skills would be a better choice than a pilot from the Tokyo-Caloris Basin Run.”

     He felt like he wanted to keep laughing.  Obviously the overabundance of oxygen was beginning to affect his brain.  He just hoped it wouldn’t cloud his judgment if he had to make an important decision.  More than anything, he’d like to be back in his old shuttle, blasting away from the Iromote Spaceport on his way to the moon.  Instead, he was talking to aliens who couldn’t really talk.  He started to giggle, trying his best to suppress it.

     Brenna nodded and frowned at him before sitting down on the plank, still nodding, seeming to be incapable of stopping.  The air was obviously getting to her too.  They needed to get back to the Astrid to get some kind of medical attention.  Both of them were obviously getting quite sick, and slowly losing their ability to think rationally.  They had to get off the planet, and soon.

     A sudden chiming noise began to come from an area near the door.  It was a repeating tone, one tone every three seconds over and over again.  Captain Takahashi walked towards the door and began to search the wall, looking for some way to open the door.  Finally, his hand came across a small nodule protruding from the wall.  He cautiously pushed it, and the door slid open. 

Stepping towards the opening, he expected to see a Lemec, hopefully Birnea.  Instead, he saw a creature completely unlike the Lemec.

     In the doorway was a creature with a bulbous body, somewhat like the Lemec, but this creature was green and had two heads and four arms.  More disturbing to the captain than the creature’s two heads was the fact that the creature had no legs, but its body didn’t touch the ground.  It just floated in the air.  Captain Takahashi turned and looked at Brenna, but she was only staring at the creature.

     The creature began babbling unintelligible sounds.  The captain shook his head, trying to make the creature understand that he had no idea what it was saying.  The creature responded by pointing at the captain’s translator, before it resumed its babble while the captain stared at it.  Slowly, his translator began to spit our words, one at a time, spaced out between several words it hadn’t yet figured out.  After only a minute or two, the creature’s words were all being translated correctly, or at least Takahashi hoped they were being translated correctly.

     “I am Grisan of the Kulnar,” the translator said for the creature.

     The captain nodded and introduced himself and Brenna, who was now standing beside and slightly behind him.

     “Your hosts felt you might be better able to communicate with one of my kind than you are with them.”

     The captain took note of the word hosts.  Maybe there was still hope.  “Yes,” he answered, “Maybe we can.  It would seem that our AI doesn’t have the problems with your language that it does with the Lemec’s.”

     “There is no problem with your translators,” Grisan said.

     The captain raised an eyebrow and began to stroke his mustache.  Finally, he laughed.  “I don’t think you’ve heard the translations we’ve been getting.”

     The creature’s two heads waved back and forth.  “The (untranslatable) heard, and so have I.  There is no problem with your translator.”

     “But the intentions of the Lemec aren’t clear,” Takahashi said.

     “Yes,” Grisan answered.

     Brenna stepped forward.  “You mean their language is intentionally vague?”

     “Yes.”

     “How do they communicate?” Brenna asked, casting a wary glance at the captain.  He just continued to stare at the slightly bobbing heads as if he were mesmerized.

     “They are the Lemec,” the Kulnar responded.

     The captain threw his hands up.  “Of course.”  He began pacing back and forth, his head spinning.

     “Their language is not entirely verbal,” the Kulnar said.  “They communicate visually as well.  Perhaps you have noticed their skin changing color?”

     Captain Takahashi stopped pacing and stared the creature in the eyes, at least, in one set of eyes.  “Would you mind telling me what they’re going to do with us?”

     The creature seemed to hesitate for a second or two.  “That has not yet been decided.  Most likely they will ask you to accompany them to your homeworld so that they can offer your people an invitation to be subjugated.”

     “What?”  Takahashi took a quick step towards the creature.

     “I’m sorry,” the creature said turning a darker shade of green while its heads bobbed frantically.  It slowly floated backwards; obviously making sure it was outside of Takahashi’s reach.  “Maybe that is not the right word.  They are the Lemec, and we have been subjects to them for centuries, and we still have trouble understanding them at times.”

     “They conquered your race centuries ago,” the captain said, “And you still willingly serve them?”

     “They did not conquer us.  They invited us to join them because of our ability with (genetics?).”

     “I don’t understand,” the captain said, running his hands through his thinning and graying hair.  Brenna nodded her agreement.

     “No, I’m sure you don’t.”

     There was silence.

     After a few seconds, the Kulnar, Grisan, explained that the Lemec Empire was made up of a number of species from this region of space.  Many of the species, like the Kulnar, helped the Lemec run their empire.  Others, most of whom had not achieved space flight, were protected by the Lemec.  The captain flinched at the though of the Vintho.  He never would have refueled had he known, and he wished he could make the Lemec understand that.

     “Who do they protect these races from?” the captain asked, wishing he had a window to look out.  The creature's two bobbing heads were disconcerting to look at, to say the least.

     “This is not for you to know yet,” Grisan answered.

     The captain grunted.  Somehow he knew that was going to be the creature’s reaction.  “And all of these races willingly serve the Lemec?”

     There was a slight hesitation.  “As I’ve said, we work with the Lemec.  We don’t serve them as your language seems to indicate to you.”

     The captain wasn’t exactly sure what the Kulnar meant, but he was becoming more and more agitated, and much less happy with the situation.  His oxygen euphoria was quickly wearing off.  He hadn’t signed up for this.  He’d wanted to explore the galaxy, not meet possibly hostile aliens.  When was Earth sending a diplomatic team?  “Can I contact my ship?”

     There was a long pause.  The Kulnar’s two heads looked at one another before looking back at him.  “You haven’t yet?”

     “My AI doesn’t allow me to communicate with my ship,” Takahashi explained.  “I need our coms back.”

     “Why not use the Lemec communication systems?” Grisan asked.

     The captain stared at the creature.  It was obviously too dumb to know what being subjugated was.  No wonder he was having problems with it.  The creature pointed at the wall.  Captain Takahashi and Brenna both looked where it was pointing, but didn’t see anything.  The creature floated into their room, no sign of propulsion.  It just floated, although it floated well wide of Captain Takahashi.  It went to the wall and pushed in on something they couldn’t see.  A display screen appeared in the featureless wall.  The Kulnar then went around the room, pressing unseen buttons or levers.  Soon the drab brown room was outfitted with strange furniture, and screens, and what the captain guessed might be a kitchen, although he had no intention of finding out.

     Grisan explained how to use the system and within seconds Captain Takahashi had Quent on the screen in front of him.  “Captain, it’s about time we heard from you.  The Lemec were saying they couldn’t understand why you hadn’t contacted us yet, and Inessa was about ready to start slagging the whole planet.”

     “A misunderstanding,” the captain said.  “It wasn’t really the Lemec’s fault.  Any word from Earth?”

     “They were waiting to see if we heard from you,” Quent said.  “When we did, they wanted your impressions, because they’d like to invite a Lemec delegation to Earth.”

     The captain paused, glanced over at Brenna and then took a deep breath.  “I’m not sure that would be a good idea.  I don’t know if I trust them.”

     “Captain,” Brenna said from behind him.  “You’re probably being monitored.”

     The captain nodded.

     “You are,” Grisan added.

     The captain shrugged.  “Quent, I want you to request access to the Lemec databases, even if it’s only limited access.  I want…”

     “We already have, Captain.  The order came in from Earth shortly after you landed, but the Lemec denied our request.”

     The captain turned toward Grisan.  One of the creature’s heads was turned to face him, while the other was staring out the window that hadn’t been there a few seconds earlier.  “Why won’t they let us learn about them?”

     “They will teach you everything you need to know,” Grisan answered, as if that should be enough of an answer.

“We need to have some idea of what these Lemec are before I can recommend that they come back to Earth with us,” Takahashi tried to explain.

Both of Grisan’s heads turned to face him.  “All that you need to know will be provided by the Lemec.”

“Not acceptable,” Takahashi said, wishing he could break something.  He didn’t usually have a temper, at least not this bad of one, but these aliens were really starting to frustrate him.  If he made it back to the Astrid, he’d be meditating for hours just trying to get back to center…or at least as close to center as he ever got.  Back to the Astrid, he thought again.

     “Quent,” Takahashi finally said, “Have Inessa prepare the ship for departure.  I believe that the Lemec are intentionally misleading us about what’s going on here.  They’ve taken most of our possessions so they can learn about us, but won’t give us any information about themselves.  I see no reason to trust them, so we’re leaving.  Send to Earth that I don’t think a delegation would be appropriate.  They might want to send some representatives here, but I’m not sure I’d even recommend that.  And Quent, if you don’t hear from us in the next hour, leave orbit.”

     “Captain?”  Brenna and Quent both said.

     “Those are my orders. Takahashi out.”  He turned and tried to smile at Brenna, but he stopped when he saw four Lemec in the doorway.

     “Your species is unstable/ crazy/ a violation.  You may leave, but none of your kind will be allowed to enter/ violate Lemec space.”

     The captain nodded.  “I…”

     “Do not speak to/ annoy us.  You will leave/ exit/ cease to exist.”

     “You invite us here, and now you…”

     The limbs of the Lemec began to flex and sway.  “It’s a gesture of hostility,” Grisan said in a very calm tone as it floated up along side of Takahashi.  “They won’t speak to you anymore, and if you don’t leave, or if you continue to try and talk to them, they will become hostile.”  The creature paused for a second, one of its heads examining Takahashi, “And your skeletons do not look like they could handle that kind of hostility.”

     The captain grabbed Brenna by the hand and hauled her out the door, shaking his head as they left.  They made it to the shuttle without incident.  In fact, they didn’t pass a single Lemec once they’d left their processing quarters.  As they were boarding the shuttle, a Kulnar floated out of the shadows.  Takahashi thought it was Grisan again, but he couldn’t be sure.  It was dark, and he still hadn’t gotten used to the idea of aliens.

     “You have made a grave error for your species,” the Kulnar said.

     “I can live with it.”

     “No human ship will ever be allowed in Lemec space again,” the creature said.  “They will be destroyed.”

     The captain stared at the bobbing heads, each bobbing to its own rhythm.  “We don’t need Lemec space.”

     “You don’t know the boundaries of Lemec space.”  The creature paused for several seconds.  Takahashi got the feeling that the creature was weighing its options, trying to decide how much the humans needed to know.  Finally, it said, “Even if one of your ships accidentally enters their space, it will be destroyed.  If they can not destroy that ship, they will seek retribution on the first ship they can find, even if that means going to your homeworld.”

     “What?” Takahashi shouted.  “You can’t…that’s…how can they be like that?”

     “They are the Lemec,” the Kulnar said, as if that explained everything.

Instead of wanting to meditate, Takahashi wished for four hands so that he could wrap them around both of the Kulnar’s necks and choke.  This was madness, absolutely insane madness.  Looking at Brenna, he noticed she was just staring at him, her lower lip quivering slightly, and her eyes as wide as he’d ever seen them.  What had he done?  Humanity couldn’t be condemned to stay on Earth.

     He tried not to sigh, but he heard a hint of it as he asked, “Can you help us?  At least let us know the boundaries of their space.”

     “No, we can’t do that.”  There was a pause as both humans stared at the creature’s heads.  “We might be able to intervene in some way for you.  Maybe we can convince them to send a delegation to your homeworld anyway.  Your species really could benefit by joining with the Lemec.”

     “If you can do that,” the captain said in a resigned tone, “We would appreciate it.  Explain to them that I am not a good representative of my people.”

     With that, the humans went aboard the landing craft.  Once the Kulnar had floated away, Brenna put her hand on the captain’s arm.  “What did you mean?”

     “You heard what I said,” Takahashi answered, and he could hear the resignation in his own voice, and he didn’t like it, but he couldn’t do anything about it.

     “You reacted the way any of us would have,” Brenna said in a soft voice.

     The captain nodded.  “That’s what worries me, but I had to lie to them.  It might be our only hope.”

     Brenna sat without saying anything.  Captain Takahashi didn’t look at her.  Instead, he started the launch sequence.  Soon they’d be back aboard the Astrid and headed for Earth.  He knew their mission to Beta Ceti would be called off.  The powers of Earth would want answers from him, demand answers from him, but the truth was, there were no answers.  The Lemec were a threat.  He knew it.  The people of Earth might believe him, but would they be happy being confined to a few light years of space near Earth?  He knew he wouldn’t be.

 

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