I’m staring at the console but not seeing it. I’m inside my own head, running the possibilities around and around, bumfuzzled. What is it that my headset is receiving?
“What’s going on?” asks Katya.
I jump a little and turn to her. She’s standing right next to me, watching. I been so engrossed in my headset problem that I hadn’t noticed her arrival. “Um…I don’t know,” I say. “My headset is acting up. Something is wrong with it, or maybe with the wristy. I was playing guitar—but I’m hearing stuff that I didn’t play.”
She tilts her head. “Really? That’s strange. Maybe the file got corrupted?”
“Yea, that’s possible I reckon. But the weird thing is, what I’m hearing back ain’t random. It’s extra notes, like as if it’s being composed.” At least that’s what I was thinking but now that I’ve said it out loud—that it’s composed—I realize how stupid it sounds. She’s gotta think I’m an idiot.
But if she doubts me, it don’t show. Her eyebrows furrow with interest. “Can I listen?” she asks.
Sure, I nod. She pulls out her own headset and mates it to my wristy. I play a few notes on the guitar. The notes come back, then more notes, then a synthesizer, then me singing that same song from the other day.
She lights up. “That is really bizarre! It even sings!”
I know I’m blushing. “Um, that’s me, actually. From before.”
“Oh. But you’re right, it’s not random! Not at all!” She pulls a meter out of a bulkhead compartment and waves it over my wristy. She shakes her head, confirming that the wristy is not transmitting. She holds the instrument in the air, slowly turning with it, trying to find the source. She settles on a direction. “It’s coming from outside,” she says. Without another word, she sits at her comm console and her hands fly over the controls. “I can triangulate using the ship’s antennae. Let’s hope whatever it is keeps transmitting.”
The sounds keep coming through my headset. If this is a ProvGov ship messing with me, my goose is really cooked now. But as hard as I try, I can’t imagine why they would do such a thing. So I sigh and hope for the best. There ain’t much else I can do.
“It’s about 20 kilometers out,” she continues, “on the starboard side, at about 2 o’clock, 15 degrees elevation.” She peers hard at the display, her hands working a small joystick to zoom the camera. She plays with the zoom. She adjusts focus. Ain’t nothing there. Katya searches for several minutes, her pretty face locked in concentration. Either the source is invisible or too small for the cameras to pick up or it’s coming from another dimension or who knows what. She sighs and puts her hand on her forehead. “There’s just nothing. I honestly don’t know what else to do. Any ship would have been pegged immediately by the radar. Maybe some kind of tiny drone?”
“I got no clue,” I say. “I get the feeling like somebody’s trying to talk to us, though. Maybe they just don’t know English.”
“You’d think they’d talk in whatever language they know, but OK, maybe…let me try some Ukrainian.” She keys her headset to transmit. “Vitayu,” she says, “Zvidky vy?”
The music stops. There’s a short silence, then the sound of Katya’s voice repeats back in the headsets, as if playing back a recording. Katya raises her eyebrows and her lips curl into a frown. “Bonjour? Hola?” she says. The words replay back to her as before, then the music resumes. Me singing, mostly, but now with bonjour and hola mixed in. Like I said before, I don’t much like the sound of my own voice. And now Katya gets to hear it too. Ugh.
“OK I’ll trying something else,” she says, as I watch over her shoulder. She sets up her console to transmit on the headset’s frequency. She configures a simple oscillator to make tones, like a telegraph or Morse code. She keys the console button; I hear the tone in my headset. The music stops. Whatever it is, it’s listening.
By now Nastez is back on deck; so is Louis. We’ve got an audience. Nastez puts the sounds on speaker. Katya taps out a code. Tap, tap, then a delay, then tap-tap. 1 plus 1 equals 2. The speakers respond: tone, tone, delay, tone-tone. It can repeat like a parrot at least. Katya continues. Tap-tap, tap-tap-tap, then a delay, then tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. 2 plus 3 equals 5.
The speakers respond with the same pattern; 2 plus 3 equals 5. But then it adds one of its own: tone, tone-tone, then a delay and tone-tone-tone. 1 plus 2 equals 3. The speakers chatter on with more tones, more combinations, as if whoever is out there is grateful that somebody has finally caught on. Katya looks at me, her eyes wide. “You’re right, Straker. They are trying to communicate.” She explains everything to Nastez as Louis listens in. Louis looks lost. Nastez looks as interested as Katya. This is my first mission, but I recon even they ain’t never come across nothing like this before.
“This is beyond me,” says Nastez, “but under the law, if we encounter a spacecraft in trouble, we are obligated to assist and rescue if necessary. Perhaps that’s the case here. We need to know, one way or the other.” He keys his wristy. “Captain, I’m sorry to disturb you, but we’ve had a communication from an unknown source.”
“I’ll be right there,” replies the captain through the wristy’s tiny speaker. Her response was immediate. The woman never sleeps.
* * * * *
The captain and Nastez spend most of the next watch conferring privately in her ready room below decks. The rest of us linger around the galley chatting, listening to the speakers. My watch is over and I could have returned to my quarters an hour ago, or headed to the gym, but I am too excited. I am past my fear of being found out and realize that this was something very big. And it had all started with me. Finally, Nastez floats into the galley from the lower deck, followed by the captain. The rest of us clam up, waiting for the word.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” says the captain. “We will treat this as a rescue operation. Our first priority is to establish basic communications with the other ship. We will then be better equipped to ascertain what sort of assistance, if any, they require. We also need to know their location, obviously, if we are to rendezvous with their ship. For some reason our equipment can’t determine that.”
I look over at Katya. Looks to me like she’s taking that last remark personal but I can attest that she did try and was pretty damn creative about it. Louis is looking at her too but of course that’s his usual, since he’s crazy in lust with her.
“So for now,” the captain continues,” we will hand the task of establishing a common language to Doctor Kapoor back in Shacktown. The home-facing laser comm link will be prioritized for that purpose.” She looks over at Katya, who nods. Then the captain turns to me. “Recruit Yuuta, am I correct that you have an acquaintance with Doctor Kapoor?”
“Aye Cap’n, I do. Doc Kapoor is the smartest man I know. He was a friend of the family back when, uh, my dad was around. Went to school with his daughter Alia too.”
“Oh, yes, the poor girl. All right then. Yuuta, you will assist Second Officer Navolska with whatever she requires to configure the comm. You will also act as primary point of contact with the doctor. Apprentice O’Neill, you will alternate water closet duties with Recruit Yuuta as needed to allow him time to work this issue.” Then to all of us: “Doctor Kapoor has been contacted and has agreed to take on the project. Yuuta, you and Navolska have a conference with him at twelve hundred hours local. That is all.”
With that, the captain releases her sticky boots and pulls herself through the aft hatch. I look over at Louis. He don’t look too pleased; it may feel like he’s been demoted but I don’t think it was ever the plan for me to do the honey-pot for the whole trip anyways. Mostly I think he’s pissed because I’ll be working with Katya. His dark expression makes him look more dangerous than usual. I take a deep breath and go to him. “Nothing like a little toilet patrol to make your day,” I say.
His expression lightens up a mite. “Oh, well,” he says, shrugging his shoulders, “it’s not like I ain’t done it before, no big shakes. Besides, we’re sharing it, remember?”
“Oh I ain’t forgot,” I say. “We’ll split it up fair and square.”
“OK Yuuta. You get it day after tomorrow.”
“Aye, Apprentice. I’m obliged to ya.” I turn to go, but then say back to Louis, “I’ll tell Katya that we’re square about the whole thing. Maybe it’ll make an impression with her.”
Louis manages a dark grin. “Yea, well…every woman loves a man who can fix a toilet. What the hell—I’ve tried everything else.” With that, he pushes off in his effortless jock way to resume his watch on the flight deck.
I don’t know whether to be afraid of him or feel sorry for him.
* * * * *
“And the foreign ship continues to transmit?” asks Doctor Kapoor. We’re sitting at Katya’s station at the rear of the flight deck while Louis and Nastez sit up front at the main consoles.
“Not continuously,” says Katya. “It goes in spurts. They transmit music and tones, then go quiet for several minutes, then resume. It seems random to me. It responds to transmissions from our side but we can’t determine what language these people speak. All we have in common is music and simple arithmetic.”
Doctor Kapoor’s face is blank, but that’s just the delay. These past few days we’re travelled nearly a million kilometers so it takes a while for the signals to travel to Luna and back, even at light speed. “Well,” he finally replies, “I suggest we get them to tell us what language they speak. We’ll set up a connection between them and the Shacktown servers, using the laser and the radio link you’ve already established. We’ll point them to a language-learning application. The computer will catch on quick enough to what language they’re requesting. From then on we can use standard translation software and move forward with the rescue, if that’s what they need.”
Katya and I look at each other. I shrug. Seems like a decent idea to me. “What do we need to do from here?” I ask.
The delay again, then the reply comes: “Oh, oh yes…Katya just needs to set up the protocols on the laser between Allgood and Shacktown. Configure a two-way pipeline from the laser to the radio link with the foreign ship. Then sit back and watch us work from here. Just sit back and watch. Very, very simple.”
“I’ll get back to you when I’ve set it up,” says Katya. “Bye for now. Out.” She kills the video, looks at me and says: “You know how to get back to the redoubt, don’t you? From the emergency training. It’s that closed hatch at the back of the pivot room.”
“I seen it,” I say. The redoubt is the long tubular space beyond the areas of the ship usually used for habitation. It goes aft all the way to the stern of the ship, nestled under the huge water tanks between us and the nuke engines. Normally it’s used for crew protection during a solar storm, but it is also a utility space through which all the comm and power are routed between the antennae on the stern trusses and the avionics in front of the ship.
“OK, I’ll need you to reconnect some fibers. I can do the rest from here.” She gives me the details and forwards the schematics to my wristy.
I head aft. The redoubt is normally closed off from the habitable areas but at least it’s pressurized, so I’m told. I pull myself through the airlock and docking portal and continue on until I get to the pivot room. The hatch to the redoubt is usually kept closed as a safety measure. I pull down the two levers to undog the hatch and pull the handle. It takes a bit of effort, but once the seal is cracked, it opens easy.
I’m staring down a seemingly endless tube about 2 meters in diameter. Except for the habitable areas of the ship—which don’t account for much of the ship’s length—this tube runs nearly the length of the ship, and it’s a very long ship. Jeez. I take a breath and pull myself in.
There’s a bunch of equipment strapped to the curved walls: breathers, helmets, casual suits; all staged there in case of a massive decompression of the ship. There’s also a small console to talk to the ship’s computer. Some emergency rations. Beyond that, just smooth steel walls pockmarked with fastening points, an occasional handhold and an even more occasional dim little light. The lights stretch out in front of me in a perfectly straight line—must be a hundred of them—back to the butt of the ship, as the walls meet at a dark vanishing point way yonder.
I kick off from the rim of the hatch opening to give myself a little velocity. Am I there yet? The wristy says no. How about now? I drift deeper and deeper into the narrow space. Drifting weightlessly, I look back past my feet towards the entrance: big mistake. The circular hatch already seems tiny. This don’t reassure me. Keep your eyes front, I tell myself. It’s really cold too; my breath fogs. I’m shivering in my jumpsuit.
“How’s it going, Straker?” asks Katya through the wristy’s speaker.
I swallow and try to steady my voice. “I’m in the redoubt,” I say. “Almost there.”
“The redoubt is pretty creepy, huh?” she asks.
“No big deal,” I say, lying. But with the help of my wristy, and with Katya’s confident voice egging me on, after about 10 more minutes I locate the fiber junction. I grab a handhold to stop myself. I refer to the schematic and make the changes, disconnecting a fiber from one port to another port, which is identical to the first except for the number stenciled above it and with only a few centimeters separating them. Then I rocket out of there as fast as I dare. The trip out of the redoubt is not as harrowing as the trip in, since I can see the hatch growing as I get closer. I have to grab hard onto a hand hold to break my speed at the last minute and almost crash edge-on into the open hatch. I’m back on the flight deck within an hour, shaking off the chills and very glad to be out of the redoubt.
Katya re-establishes the video chat with Doctor Kapoor. “We’re ready here,” she says.
“OK, very good, very good,” says the Doctor after the pause, “let’s give this a try.”
Katya and I listen in from her station. The doctor starts with the same tones we used. Tone-tone, tone, pause, tone-tone-tone. The other ship responses immediately. The doctor smiles on the video. “Oh my, that’s very good indeed! Looks like our friends are still on the phone.” He continues the progression of numbers, and the foreign ship responds, seemingly with enthusiasm. The doctor then sends through a packet of pure digital numbers; nothing for us to hear but we can see it on the visual display. There’s a small delay, as if the foreign ship is probably trying to understand the change. Then the packet is echoed back from the other ship. Katya jumps in her saddle and squeals when that happens.
From there the Shacktown computer takes over the conversation, from packet and echo to packet and new packet back, as both the Shacktown server and the foreign ship improvise and adapt to each other’s statements, each reply building on the last, the conversation quickly becoming too rapid for human eyes or ears to follow. “Oooh, seems likes true love,” laughs Katya.
“Oh my goodness yes, yes this is fascinating!” replies the Doctor. “It appears to be computer-to-computer communication now. I don’t know why these people don’t follow regular protocols. But while they may be ignorant of some things, they are clearly technologically accomplished.”
“I can’t wait to find out where they are from,” says Katya.
“Yes, I am sure there is an interesting story there. In any case, if they do need your help you should be able to provide it soon. If not, at least you’re off the hook. Either way we’ll know before long.”
As for me, watching the slowly climbing bandwidth meter is not all that interesting. Everything is quiet. It seems like my part of this is over. It’s only a matter of time before we can mount some kind of rescue mission or whatever. How odd that this all started with them hacking my headset. To detect the weak wireless link between the headset and my wristy at a distance of 20 klicks would take some very sensitive radio gear, I think, but I’m no expert. Maybe that’s their mission, some kind of deep space radio telescope.
I can’t stop yawning. I’ve been awake for a long time and my cut hand is killing me. All I want to do at this point is gobble some meds and hit the sack. My next watch will be coming up all too quickly. I ask if I can go; Katya says OK. She’s starting to look bored herself. I head back to Carousel B.
* * * * *
I’m back on the flight deck in time for the next Red Team watch. Actually, I’m a little early. I’ve had time for sleep and a shower and some breakfast and I can’t wait to find out what happened with the foreign ship: did we find out their language? Are we preparing to mount a rescue mission? Can I go?
But as I pull along the hand-holds, through the hatch onto the flight deck, there’s surprisingly little going on. The captain is seated in the left pilot’s saddle watching displays and Katya has fallen asleep at her comm station. Her eyes are closed and her arms are drifting freely out to her side. She’s not on watch but I reckon she stayed up to man her console. Or maybe she’s been sleeping all this time, I don’t know. I stick my boots to the floor and gently shake her shoulder. “Hey Katya,” I say, “you should go to bed.”
One eye opens, then the other. She pushes a loose lock of dark hair back into her tight bun and takes a deep breath.
“So what happened with the other ship?” I ask.
She’s awake enough to sit straight in her saddle and look at me. “Oh, that. It went bad during the watch. I was asleep, had to come down from my bunk.”
“Went bad? What? How?”
“The bandwidth just kept climbing until the laser comm saturated. Normal ship’s traffic couldn’t get through, even the high priority stuff. It was pretty wild.”
Wow. I ain’t smart about communications compared to Katya but I got the impression this was supposed to take up some small fraction of the link.
“So Dr. Kapoor tried to throttle it but it wouldn’t stop. He shut down the link but found that the foreign ship, or whatever it is, had hacked into the Shacktown servers and was downloading all kinds of stuff, petabytes worth. Everybody panicked. He’s spent the last few hours rebooting everything.”
“What? Really? Some kind of sabotage?”
“I don’t know. Doctor Kapoor is still trying to assess what was copied. But so far he’s baffled. He said, of the stuff he knows they took, none of it was especially sensitive. Just general information: languages, dictionaries, encyclopedias, movies, music—you name it.”
Hmm. I’m thinking if it was a hack by Nifty Jim’s boys, they would have gone straight for financial records. Maybe personnel. But dictionaries? They got all that already.
“Doctor Kapoor is feeling very foolish, I think,” she continues, “because it was all his idea. He said he had set up a firewall to prevent this very thing, but the foreign ship blew right past it, didn’t even slow it down.”
Wow. Whoever these people are, they know their stuff. I’m reminded that Nifty Jim’s people have all kinds of tech that we don’t got. “Are the servers OK now?” I ask.
“Yea,” says Katya. “Everything’s fine now. Dr. Kapoor even said they work way better than they ever have before, which is impossible but I didn’t say anything. He’s a nice man.”
“So can we at least talk to the foreign ship now?” I ask.
“They aren’t responding anymore,” she says. “I’ve been sitting here for hours, sending tones and music and all the same sorts of things they replied to before. But they’ve clammed up. It’s a mystery. I think they’ve moved on.”
Well, at least this thing ain’t gonna get me in trouble, so there’s that. But I was getting excited about finding out who the heck they were. Anyways, it looks like the excitement is over: they got what they wanted—I guess—and they’re done with us. But now Katya is exhausted. “You really should hit the rack. You look done. I can watch the console. I’ll call you if there’s any change.”
She nods. Her eyes blink but they stay closed more than open. “OK,” she says, “do call me if something happens or if the Doctor needs us to do something. I am really tired. Thanks for taking over.”
What the heck, it’s my watch anyhow. Katya releases her strap and pulls herself aft towards her chamber. I take her saddle. The laser link to Luna is back to normal traffic, but the radio reception display shows zilch. For sure, the other ship has either gone silent or it has moved away never to be heard from again.
Nastez arrives and he and the captain have a quick conversation, as usual during a change of the watch. The ship’s intercom sounds the first bell of afternoon watch. The captain floats past me on the way out the hatch; she smiles and wordlessly touches my shoulder on her way through. I go sit in the right pilot’s saddle, careful not to touch nothing except what I’m told to.
For the next few hours, Nastez walks me through the navigational software screens—as if I’m going to be driving the ship anytime soon—but everybody gets trained, because anybody can kick the bucket at any time and take a critical skill with them. After showing me each screen, he grills me on what I’ve learned. If I get any answers wrong, he harrumphs and goes over it again in his usual why-am-I-wasting-time-on-you way. From time to time I sneak back and check the comm displays at Katya’s station. Every time I check, the link is still flatlined.
Hours later, the watch is over and I’ve done with all my other duties (including the disgusting toilet detail). My turn to sleep. I climb down the spoke, go to my room and flop onto my bunk. That’s when everything changes.