This is the sixth round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For these submissions, it’s the letter “F”.
Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “F” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — E. J. D’Alise
(3,078 words – approx. reading time: about 11 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“How did you do?” Jen asked as soon as I got back aboard.
“No luck,” I said.
Jen showed no reaction, but that was just Jen, the embodiment of the Stoic philosophy. We’d been business partners for three years, good friends a long time before that, and in all that time, I’d never seen much of what I would call a reaction. Sarcastic comments, yes, but no other sign she even registered anything I said. Her response was true to form.
“Kind of ironic,” she said, “this being the Falcon and not flying.”
That was kind of tame as far as Jenisms went. Our ship was named for the extinct bird once listed among the fastest bird on Earth. Of course, out here in the Asteroid Belt and far from Earth, neither of us had ever seen a real bird, let alone a falcon.
“Not flying, and we’ll be drifting soon if we can’t pay for our berth,” I replied.
“We can draw on the credit line,” Jen offered, “and yes, I know that puts us back a couple of months, but business is bound to eventually pick up.”
“Mars Astro is cutting back on the materials orders as they wait for the elections,” I replied. “They’re hoping a change in government will net them better terms.”
“Yeah, but they must be getting low on reserves. Last I heard, Mars is expanding and planning to double capacity in another Earth year.”
I looked at Jen. It wasn’t like her to sound optimistic. I shrugged.
“Whatever their timing, I’d sure like to hear from them now as opposed to later,” I said.
I’d barely finished speaking when the comm chimed. We looked at each other and busted out laughing as I made my way to the board.
“They must have heard you!”
“Hallelujah, we’re saved!”
I flipped the switch and composed myself as the screen fired up. Son of a gun! It was Mars Astro.
I stole a glance at Jen and pointed at the screen. She leaned over and nodded.
“Mark, Jen,” the figure on the screen said, “how are you?”
“Uh, we’re fine, Trevor. How are you doing?”
That’s me, the conversationalist. Jen is better at speaking with customers; there’s something about stoics that gets people to open up and offer up information without having to ask.
“I’m fine,” Trevor said. “Listen, one of our water asteroids, Larunda 5, sent a fault signal, and the extractor is currently down. It might have gotten hit by something.”
My good mood evaporated. Repairs runs were barely break-even. On the other hand, we would save berthing fees.
“You’re asking us to be out of circulation for five or six weeks; what’s the pay?
“Fuel expense and standard rater for 24-hours onsite, double if longer,” Trevor said as he held up his hand, “and yes, I know that barely covers your expenses, but we’ll throw in salvage rights to whatever impacted the extractor provided it doesn’t match any registered chemical composition.”
Most sizable asteroids were claimed, their spectral and chemical composition registered, thus making it near impossible to pilfer one and sell it as a rogue. Trevor was saying whatever hit was likely too small to have been claimed, but we’d be taking a risk; it could turn out it was a chunk that was once part of a claimed asteroid. That said, I didn’t buy the impact story.
“Come on, Trevor! The odds of it being an impact are practically nil, and the odds are even less that we’d find a piece of an unclaimed rock,” I said with maybe a bit more annoyance in my voice than was suitable for finalizing the deal.
“What Mark means,” Jen said as she nudged me off-screen, “is that while we might risk doing no better than breaking even, taking the job at an almost certain loss isn’t much of an incentive, even for us.”
Trevor didn’t hesitate, which meant he already had the next offer approved.
“We can throw in salvage rights for any damaged equipment. You’d be traveling with a complete replacement packet, and whatever you bring back damaged — legitimately damaged — is yours.”
Jen didn’t react to the implied possibility we would pull a fast one and purposefully damage something, but I knew Trevor just earned himself a black mark in Jen’s book. Erasing it would cost him. But not now; now we needed the job.
“Hold on a second,” Jen said as she paused the feed.
She turned to me with a questioning look.
“It might work out,” I said. “The independent outfits buy and repair damaged parts; if the extractor is damaged, we could make a tidy little sum. If we include the savings of the berthing fees, we should come out ahead and give us some breathing room.”
Jen turned the feed back on and answered Trevor.
“Alright, we’ll do it, but we want a 15% fuel reserve safety margin.”
Trevor glanced off-screen and, after a brief pause, he looked back and nodded.
“I’ll send a draft of the contract along with the code for the fuel and extractor. You’ll go to the cargo hub to supply up, and they’ll even boost you on your way; saves you some fuel. Thanks; Trevor out.”
As the screen faded, I fired up the navigation and the information on Larunda 5, a G-type asteroid with a frozen water interior. One of four such asteroids in convenient orbits, Astro had been extracting water from Larunda 5 with regular automated tankers going to and from Mars for a half a year now. In another six months, they would shut it down and switch to the next one. At any one time, only one was operational based on how closely it tracked Mar’s orbit. Larunda 5 would come online again in six years. It was still cheaper and less dangerous than extracting water from Mars, so still profitable to Astro.
The messaging app chimed, and we set about going over the contract. After a few back-and-forths, we settled on the terms and pay.
I entered my excited stage immediately upon signing the contract. I loved flying Falcon into The Belt; I loved being on the move and doing something, even if it promised to be tedious and boring.
Two days out from Larunda 5, we commenced deceleration and brought up visuals. It was nothing more than a dot on the screen, but it would grow quickly, and I liked seeing what we were approaching. Besides, I always recorded our approaches; it made for fewer arguments should anything out of the ordinary happen.
One day out, and we were looking at something out of the ordinary. Larunda 5 rotation happened to be inclined relative to our approach so that the extractor was in our field of view for only half of the three-hour period-of-rotation. But when it was visible, we stared in disbelief.
For one, nothing had hit the extractor. Instead, something had landed next to it. Something looking like a vessel of a type we’d never seen. Had it not been on the surface, the ship would have been utterly invisible against the blackness of space. Despite the changing light conditions and the enhancement from our visual, complete black was its constant feature. No reflection, no lights, nothing that would indicate something was there. It might as well have been a hole, except that it wasn’t a hole. It was a ship.
“What do you want to do?” I asked Jen.
“Isn’t it obvious? We go down there and find out what the heck that is,” she answered.
“Look, Jen, I’m not a xenophobe, but that could be an alien ship.”
“You mean it’s not a Space Force Black Ship?”
Did I say Jen had great sarcasm? I don’t know what I was thinking.
“Snark all you want, but we have no weapons, no training in alien contact, and we don’t know if they’re friendly. Have you ever read Berserkers?”
“Yes, I have,” Jen replied. “And, if you did, you would know the humans always win.”
“Plus,” she continued, “had you read Niven, you would realize we have a massive weapon.”
“You mean our drive?”
“I don’t know if you’ve gone space bonkers,” I said, “but we don’t exactly have a targeting process for using our drive as a weapon. Besides, how do you know they’ve not read the Man-Kzin Wars as well?”
Jen looked at me with one of those “What a maroon!” looks she reserves for special occasions.
“What do we propose we do? Go back? I’ll remind you that if we don’t do the job, we’ll not only miss our payments, but we might lose the Falcon.”
I hate rational people; they think they’re helping, but often they just crystallize the difficulties of most decisions. Then again, not thinking about it wasn’t going to make things any better.
And, I hate thinking! Some people find it easy, almost second-nature, but I’ve always had to work at it. I’m much better at gut-feelings, but my gut was doing the equivalent of “hey, don’t look at me!” so, thinking it was.
“How about we go into geosynch and observe for a while?” I suggested.
“A while? How long of a while?” Jen asked, not letting me walk the vagueness trail.
“Let’s just get a closer look and then decide, alright? Also, we should contact Astro and Mars Central to let them know what we’ve found.”
“What have we found? Look,” she cut me off, “right now, this is a huge opportunity. One that I don’t want to hand others. We do this right, and we could be set for life.”
“Or dead!” I shot back.
But, there’s no arguing with Jen when she’s focused on something
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
Parked in geosynchronous orbit a few kilometers above the object gave us a better view but still frustratingly vague. We could see the extractor plainly enough, but, as Larunda rotated, the changing shadows blended with the black shape of the alien ship and made the determination of the exact shape and size difficult. Still, the thing was approximately the size of the Falcon, but we couldn’t see exhaust ports or any feature resembling hatches or portholes. Not that they weren’t there, we just couldn’t see them . . . but we did see when one opened.
And, we saw when a figure emerged from it. It must have been wearing a suit made of a material similar to that of the ship because it was difficult to differentiate from the shadow. Still, magnifying the image, it appeared bipedal and if the shadow was any indication, tall and lean.
It also appeared to be waving. It knew we were there.
After a short discussion, we commenced descent, programming the computer for a landing a safe distance away. We determined fifty meters a safe distance, whatever “safe” meant in this context. The figure went back inside as we commenced our descent, a good idea in case we kicked up some debris.
The alien ship was now better defined, and it looked oval but with six landing legs supporting it off the surface of the asteroid. As we deployed our temporary anchors, the figure reemerged and walked halfway toward the Falcon before stopping.
“I’m heading out there,” Jen said. “You stay here.”
“What are you thinking?”
What I actually wanted to say was, “Are you nuts!?” but I thought that might prompt another argument.
“Look,” Jen said, “I know you’re scared,” she held her hand up, cutting off my defensive response, “but I think it wants to talk. If I’m right, its ship broke down, and maybe we can help.”
“Yes, I’m an engineer; I can fix anything,” I replied.
“Sarcasm doesn’t become you,” Jen said without a trace of irony in her voice. As she was already suiting up, I had little choice but to help her check seals and fit.
Unlike the figure waiting outside, Jen connected the tether, a nanocarbon filament allowing a range of two hundred meters. It would not do to be somehow set adrift, a real danger given Larunda barely had enough gravity to allow walking.
“Be careful out there,” I said as Jen stepped into the airlock.
“Check,” she replied. “I hear you fine and clear.”
I wasn’t worried about the radio check, but I let it go.
I heard the outer hatch open and sat at the control console to monitor her progress via the two exterior cameras.
Moving deliberately and slowly, she reached the figure. I could now tell the alien was nearly seven feet tall and on the thin side. If I were to guess, it belonged to a race of space travelers . . . or so I thought based on the fiction I’ve read.
I got alarmed when Jen followed as the figure headed back to their ship.
“Jen,” I asked, “what do you think you’re doing?”
“We can’t communicate out here. Do you want them in the Falcon?”
“I’ll be fine,” she added.
She followed the alien and waved before unhooking the tether and stepping into the open hatch.
“Signing off for a bit,” she radioed shortly after.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
‘A bit’ turned out to be a couple of hours, so I felt considerable relief when I saw the hatch open, and Jen emerge. She hooked up the tether and made her way back to the Falcon.
“Ok, as near as I can work out, she’s a grunt like us. Her ship is on an exploration mission and has been in our solar system for the past two years. They don’t want to make contact, hence the material that absorbs all wavelengths; no reflections across the entire spectrum.”
“And, I was right,” she said. “Her ship is damaged. An unfortunate encounter with a micrometeorite took out her drive and comm. She has no way to contact her ship. That’s why she disabled the extractor; to get someone here.”
“So, we’re taking her back with us?” I asked.
“Think about it,” Jen said. “What do you think will happen to her if we take her back?”
I didn’t like the direction this conversation was taking.
“Wait,” I said, “does she speak English?”
“No, that’s why I was there so long. We communicated via drawings and numbers. And, get this; if I understood correctly, they’ve been exploring this portion of the Galaxy for over two thousand years.”
“How old is she?” I asked. A stupid question, but that’s the first thing I thought of.
“She’s three-hundred-and-forty; she was born on the ship, and no, I don’t know when or even if they will return to wherever they come from. As far as I can tell, they’ll just keep exploring.”
“Where are you going with this, Jen?”
Jen looked at me, and her serious look replaced her excited look.
“Let’s go with them, Mark.”
“What?” I said. I didn’t yell it; I was still processing what she had said. It was more of a ‘I don’t understand‘ than a ‘are you crazy!?‘ response.
“Think about it, Mark. What kind of life do we have? Neither of us has anyone in our lives, and our existence consists of doing grunt work. Eat, work, sleep, shit, and eventually die,” Jen said. “This is a chance to literally explore the Galaxy and see stuff no other human is likely to see for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”
My gut was silent again, so I had to do more thinking.
“What about food, medicine, and other things I can’t think about right now?” I asked. “What if you get hurt? What if they’re acclimated to things that would kill you? What if they decide to find out whether you might taste good?”
“Thanks for that. It’s been years since I watched Serving Humans. And thanks for understanding. It’ll be amazing!”
Jen knew me well; I don’t crack jokes when arguing a point in earnest. But she also misread me.
“Jen, I’m not going. I can drop you two off at the ship, but I won’t be joining you.”
I saw her face drop, her shoulders slump.
“What is it?” I asked. “Don’t tell me you’ll miss me. I mean, I’ll miss you too, but . . .”
She walked to the console and typed in what looked like coordinates into the trajectory computer, and then stepped back to let me read it.
It would be a one-way trip. To rendezvous with the ship and match speeds, we’d have to do a sustained burn; there would be no fuel left to slow down, let alone make the return trip. I added a few parameters but found nothing we could use to slingshot us back.
Jen didn’t say anything. She headed to the EV suit and began to put it on.
“I’ll go tell her it’s a no go,” she said.
In silence, I helped her get suited up.
No gut at all, this time; just thinking.
“Does that ship have enough air for a few weeks?”
It took another ten seconds before she understood, smiled, and hugged me.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
I’m rich. I’m comfortable. I’m old.
Mostly, I stay in orbit around Mars, but I occasionally make trips to Earth, something I never thought I’d do. I own a company that caters to independent miners and contractors, and I make sure I take care of them and their families. I have everything anyone could ever want.
I often think about Jen and the Falcon somewhere out there in the Galaxy.
I had moved into the alien ship with some provisions. Jen and the alien had left in the Falcon right after we contacted a big law firm, Mars University, and Mars Astro, in that order. I was picked up two weeks later by one of the University’s research ships along with a tow-tug that hauled the alien ship back to Mars.
It turned out my salvage contract was pretty good. It also turned out the alien ship was priceless. I donated the ship to the University in exchange for royalties from the technologies they developed.
As I said, I’m rich, I’m comfortable, and I’m older . . . older and wiser.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish I was out there, in the Falcon, helping an alien race — and Jen — explore the Milky Way.
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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