A Short Story
Author’s Note: This story takes place in the same fictional universe as “The Lacertan Incident,” but it is separated by millions of years and millions of light-years from that story. A permanent link to this story will be placed on the Short Stories page.
Green space was at a premium in the Fleet. As much of the space as possible was either residential or engineering-related. Most of the food was grown in hydroponics bays—no heavy, hard-to-maintain soil. The public parks were invariably crowded, and the semi-public parks, where you had to reserve the space, always had long waiting lists.
It was in one of these reserved, semi-public parks at the forward-most part of the ship that a young boy and his father played catch on the turf under a strange sky.
The park could be said to be under natural lighting only insofar as there was no artificial lighting in the park itself. The appearance of the sky was anything but natural. Looking at the forward “horizon”, where the great, clear vault of the inside of the cylinder curved down and met the hull, it was a uniform blue, but it wasn’t that much brighter than the internal lighting, and it shifted to white, to yellow, and then to red as one looked higher and higher towards the zenith, where one saw green space overhead—more parks in other segments of the great ship all bound together in a spinning cylinder by a delicate superstructure. Far to aft, there was a circle of pure blackness at the far opening on the cylinder. No light could catch up with the ship to come in that way.
Aside from the many other ships, The only features in the forward half of the sky were a number of blurry, but bright blue swirls, two or three in particular being much brighter than the others, and aside from the slow creep of those swirls across the sky, this same view shone down upon this park, and the whole of the Fleet, unceasingly, for every hour of every day.
After playing catch for a while, the boy decided to take a break and lay back down on the turf nearer to his mother and his baby sister, and he looked up and admired the sky. Not that it was any different from usual. The sky hadn’t changed perceptibly in his entire life, but he liked watching it for the promise it represented. And, like so many in the Fleet, he liked to imagine what was out there.
“What are you thinking, Destin?” his father asked, sitting beside him.
“If we’re seeing radio waves, can we see if the aliens are sending us a message?”
Destin’s father laughed: “No, I don’t think we could see it with our naked eyes. At least not unless they knew to point it right at us. And even then, it might not be on the right frequency. But the scientists are always looking with special telescopes just in case they send us something.”
“That’s nice…” the boy said. “Do you think there’s a lot of aliens in those galaxies?”
“Oh, I’m sure there are. The records say there were lots of them in our home galaxy. You can’t them, but there’s over a trillion stars in that big galaxy alone.”
“Wow. That’s a lot,” Destin said.
It was certainly a lot to him. Destin had never seen even one star except in the old historical files. No one had in living memory. They never saw stars in the sky. It was always the same sky, and there were nothing by distant galaxies in it. It was too bright, and they were completely in the wrong frequency range. The uniform blue glow of the forward sky was actually the cosmic microwave background, and the brighter blue splotches that made up the galaxies did not come from stars, but from interstellar gas and dust, both shades far out on the back end of the blackbody distribution so that they barely differed at all except in brightness. Only in the very centers of the galaxies did a different color emerge—a reddish glow from way out on the front end of the synchrotron spectrum. Stars, which shone mostly in visible light, were lost in the glare.
“Do you think they’re nice aliens, Father?”
Thurgood Shoemaker froze, unsure how to answer his son. Years ago, when he had asked his own father that question, the man had said, “Of course they are,” knowing full well that he probably wouldn’t live long enough to find out. Times had changed since then. Now, he was one of the people who were actually watching for signals. And they were getting…well, it was inconclusive so far. He didn’t think he could lie, now, though. “I don’t know, son,” he said. “We hope they are, but if they’re not, will do the same thing our ancestors did—collect enough hydrogen to refuel and move on to find another galaxy to live in.”
It was only half-true, Thurgood reflected to himself. The Fleet could only last so long. Three hundred years had put a lot of wear on it, and there was only so much they could do to repair the ships on the fly. But a few more centuries, if it came to it, didn’t worry the engineers—or so they said, and Thurgood generally trusted the engineers. Technically, he was an engineer himself, but he didn’t feel like one. He was only a communications engineer. He wasn’t one of the great Engineers who worked on the actual engines.
“How many galaxies do you think we’ll visit?” Destin asked him, snapping him out of his thoughts.
“Well, hopefully, we won’t need to visit that many. We’re going to that little one straight ahead, you see?” He pointed directly forward of the ship, along the hull, where one small, bright blue blob sat bisected by the edge. “But we’ll probably go to the big galaxy because that’s where most of the stars are.”
“And then we’ll see the stars up close. Right, Father?”
Thurgood chuckled. “Yes, son. We’ll see all the stars up close, then.”
Destin soon got bored with watching the sky and got up to run around the park again. Thurgood smiled as he watched his son, who would lead a far different life than he had. But with that thought, his attention was drawn to his daughter. Serenity was only a baby. If all went well—and if they were as close as the navigators said—then she would grow up not even remembering a time when one couldn’t see the stars in the sky. She would never remember the Great Wayfaring. She might even live out most of her life on a planet. She would have only stories to tell her of life on the great city-ships a life that ten generations of her ancestors had been born into and died seeing it as completely normal, never knowing anything different—who had lived their entire lives as part of the great mission to save their civilization. What would life be like for them, in another generation?
The family went back to enjoying their day in the park, but a little while later, they heard gasps around them and saw some of the other people in the park pointing up at the sky. There, far ahead, at the very front of the fleet, a ring built around one of the great city-ships began to glow with a dull red light. That was an uncommon sight. Destin had never even seen one before. It was an engine test—a full power engine test.
Unfortunately, this test didn’t produce any change in the ship’s motion. They were still stuck going thirty thousand c for now—and that wasn’t much when you were traveling between galaxies.
But still, if they were testing the engines as this point, they were almost certain to work soon—sooner than Thurgood had thought—as the got nearer to the new galaxies’ gravity wells. Suddenly, it felt a lot more real to him.
His wife and children were just enjoying the pretty scene.
“So what were the results on the engine test yesterday?” Thurgood asked his coworker.
“Oh that?” his coworker said. Hope was her name. “From what I heard, it wasn’t a completely pointless result. They actually did get some reaction, just not enough to up it to full power.”
“They did? So how close are we—?”
“We should be just about there now. Within a day or two.”
“Within a day or two? Already?” Thurgood said reverently.
“That’s the rumor. After that, three weeks to get to the nearest galaxy.”
“Wow. I didn’t realize—I can’t wait to tell Destin. We’re almost there.”
The engines, of course, warped space to travel faster than light, but the faster the Fleet moved, the more the cosmic microwave background was blueshifted and intensified. Right now, the blue sky ahead of them was the visible part of a mostly-ultraviolet CMB. Any faster, and it would become too bright, and the ships would overheat. The great engines solved this by creating a diverging gravitational lens to bend the light around the ships, but for reasons not fully understood, they needed a certain amount of intrinsic curvature of space as a sort of seed to start the effect, and that meant they could only work in the gravity well of a group of galaxies. Here in the gap between one group of galaxies and another, they didn’t have that advantage, and it meant three centuries to cross that Gulf.
“It worries me a little,” Hope said. “Those engines haven’t done a full duty cycle in a long time. What if something goes wrong?”
“It can’t go wrong for all the ships, can it? And anyway, the engines are huge, and built to last. There’s only so many ways for things to go wrong on that scale.”
“Hmm, I suppose not. Still, it’s unnerving. Everything’s about to change, isn’t it?”
“I know it is. I’ve been thinking about how my kids are going to grow up. It’s going to be a completely different life for them.”
“Do you think it’s true?” she said. “What the records say about planets?”
“I should think so. Why wouldn’t they be?”
“Well, it’s all just so strange—Water falling from the sky, air currents large enough to blow small structures down, deadly electrical discharges in the air, huge, uncontrolled swings in temperature…a sun in the sky with exposure to ultraviolet radiation? Everything about living on a planet seems so…harsh.”
“It’s only harsh to us, Hope,” Thurgood assured her. “Our ancestors lived on planets for thousands and thousands of years and had no problems with it. To them, our lives must have seemed equally strange and even oppressive—being confined to ships with limited space and hardly any green space, having to maintain it against the vacuum of space and radiation, a while in constant motion faster than light, letting our skills at being anything but spacefarers atrophy for ten generations. One’s not more difficult than the other. It’s just that they’re so different. But our ancestors adjusted to life on generation ships, and we’ll adjust back to life on planets just fine.”
Hope smiled a little. A lot of people had been expressing concerns and apprehension now that their journey was nearing its end. Indeed, even when they found a new planet, it was likely that a sizable minority of the people would continue living in the fleet. But Thurgood, though he waxed philosophical about the next generation, had never really worried about those more mundane concerns.
“I guess I can understand that,” she concluded. “Although…have you seen these new sensor logs from the Wayfarer, yet?”
“The radio signals, you mean?” he clarified. “Have they gotten something useful out of them?”
“No, not those—well, we have them, but—they found something in our wake.”
“In our wake?” Thurgood was surprised. The Wayferer was the flagship of the Fleet, one of the largest class of city ships and the seat of the Central Government, the home of all the best astronomers and engineers. They only had a fraction of the resources here on the Haven, so the Wayfarer was in a much better position to make such a report, but still he had to confirm what he had heard. “You mean a foreign ship moving with the Fleet?”
“They don’t know if it’s a ship, but they say there’s something moving with the Fleet that isn’t supposed to be there. They almost missed it, but they detected its own wake by correlating the sensor logs from all of the city-ships.
Thurgood was impressed. The delicate ripples in spacetime produced by the passage of a faster-than-light ship could be detected as far as a light-year away—in good conditions that is. To tease out a foreign signal among the thousands upon thousands of ships in the Fleet, especially if it was trying to hide itself in the strongest ripples of the wake of a larger ship, ought to be nigh-impossible, but apparently, if you could look from enough angles, you could find it.
“Well, that rules out a ghost in the machine, then,” he said. The Fleet was built to last, but the sensors were so old…Still, they couldn’t all be making a mistake. “They think it’s alien?”
“The report says it probably is. It could be a wayward drone, though, or even a bit of detritus caught in out slipstream. The Wayfarer wants us to check it out.”
Thurgood almost tripped.
“The Haven’s Squadron is the closest,” Hope clarified.
He took a deep breath and said, “Let me see the map.”
The map of the Fleet was a large, complicated, and ever-changing three-dimensional display that showed the real-time locations of every ship if one so desired. The Haven’s squadron was at the port-side edge of the Fleet about a third of the way back. A pulsating dot marked the unidentified objects. It was quite a ways out, sitting at the convergence of the wakes of three city-ships—the perfect place to get caught in the slipstream and dragged along faster than light, but such particles were never trapped for very long in the unstable space-time there. Even so, it looked like it was hiding, sitting out there where it was almost undetectable and barely doing anything.
“Okay, we can arrange this,” he said, half to himself. “Send a petition to the Squadron Council to divert…the River Run to go out and come up behind the object from a distance so we can get a good look from its forward telescopes. Depending on what we see, we might have them send a drone to get up close.”
“Do you think whoever sent it will have a problem with it?” she said. “I mean, it does look like it’s trying to hide.”
“I don’t see why not. Whoever sent it must know the theory behind space-time ripples the same as we do. I can’t imagine them thinking it would be guaranteed to go unnoticed.”
“But we barely saw it with the whole of the Fleet watching. Maybe they’ve never dealt with a fleet this large before. It’s not transmitting—just recording, if it’s doing anything.”
“Yes, but—well, why wouldn’t they want us investigating closer. If this object is of alien origin, we’re going to run into them sooner or later. We’ll be giving them a closer look at us, too. This is a civilian fleet. We have nothing to hide.”
“I’m just worried about making a bad first impression, Thurgood.”
“That’s a fair sentiment, Hope, but I don’t think that curiosity makes such a bad first impression. And anyway, it was the Wayfarer’s idea, and I’m sure they know what they’re doing.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Good. Now, what about radio signals? Have they found anything new there?”
“Not much more than we have,” she reported. “They improved on our image processing a little; that’s all. One of the astronomers attached a memo. There’s something in the database called ‘interferometry’ that lets you combine signals from multiple telescopes, but he says it’s basically impossible through the distorted space around the Fleet and was designed for use on a planet without the blueshifting. So he couldn’t do anything with it.” She chuckled a little. “He sounds pretty annoyed about it.”
“Ha! At least he’ll get a chance to try out it in his lifetime. The last ten generations of astronomers sure didn’t. Anyway, if there’s nothing else alien to worry about, we have a squadron to maintain.”
Thurgood’s family sat down around the dinner table that night as he told them the story of the possible alien probe, and the news about the Fleet’s imminent arrival in their new galaxy.
“And they’re really going to do it tonight, Father?” Destin said eagerly.
“Yes, they are. After dinner we’ll go out to the public park to see.”
“It’s sure to be pretty crowded,” Faith said as she tried to feed baby Serenity. “More and more people were talking about it today.”
“That’s not surprising,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event—once in many lifetimes. This is history today.”
“When will we get to see real stars and planets?” Destin asked.
“About three weeks, when we get to the nearest galaxy. We might have to survey around, though. Or maybe the aliens there will tell us where to find a good planet.”
“And what’s it going to be like when we get there?” Destin asked again with wide eyes.
“Well…” Thurgood leaned back and trying to remember the stories his father had told him. He had plenty of theoretical knowledge of planets, just as most people did, as interest had grown as they approached their destination over the past few years. But that theoretical knowledge didn’t translate into a real intuitive sense of what was out there. “On a planet, the light doesn’t come from the sky—I mean, it’s in the sky; the star provides light. It’s so bright that during the day, you can’t even look at it. But most of the sky looks a lot like it does here—light from the star that bounces of air molecules in all those miles of air in the atmosphere—”
Thurgood was interrupted as Serenity squealed and knocked her bowl over. Faith did her best to wrangle her, but she seemed to be determined to cause mayhem tonight. Faith finally picked her up, whispering calming words to her.
Thurgood smiled at them as he continued speaking. “You know that a lot of planets rotate. Our home planet rotated. It was dark half the time when the sun was on the other side of the planet. That’s why we work during the day and sleep at night. Of course, a lot of habitable planets don’t rotate—I think more than half of them. They keep one face to their star all the time, and we’ve gotten used to a sky that doesn’t change for so long that we might choose one of those to live on, but I hope not because if we go back to a planet that rotates, we’ll be able to see the stars at night.”
“That would be amazing! How many stars can you see at night?”
“It depends. If it’s a planet that’s far from the center of the galaxy, a few hundred. But if it’s in the center…maybe as many as a hundred thousand, if I remember the old stories right.”
“Really, Thurgood?” Faith said skeptically. “That many? How would the planets stay in their orbits? Wouldn’t their gravity interfere?”
“No, I don’t think so. I think it takes a lot more stars than that to knock planets out of their orbits.” He was mostly guessing on that point. An actual astronomer would know better, but he was pretty sure that was right. “Life is different on a planet,” he continued. “You don’t get water from a tank there—well, you don’t have to. Water evaporates and condenses all throughout the atmosphere, and you get rain, which is when little drops of water fall from the sky.”
“No way. That can’t be,” Destin reasoned. “Everything would get all wet with pools of water everywhere.”
“No, I’m sure that’s true. A lot of the old stories talk about ‘weather’. Cities on planets have to be built with open drainage systems so that the water can flow out. There’s no temperature control outside the buildings, either. It can get really hot sometimes. Or sometimes, it can get so cold that the water turns into little flakes of ice, and you have to dig it out.”
Destin didn’t even know what to say to that. His mouth just dropped open in shock.
Thurgood couldn’t really fault his son, but he had to wonder at times like this if his ancestors would be shocked at his ignorance. Surely, a good education in planet life had been part of their original plan. But as generation followed generation and planet life became more remote and arcane, more practical concerns like the maintenance of the Fleet gradually pushed it out until ‘rain’ and ‘snow’ seemed like fantasy stories to most people. Thurgood generally trusted the records, but a lot of people, his wife included, thought that they took quite a bit of artistic license.
“Wouldn’t it be too cold to live on a planets where water freezes, though?” Faith asked. “I don’t think I’d like to live someplace that harsh. How could anyone survive outdoors?”
“Our ancestors wore much heavier clothing in cold ‘weather’. Heavy like blankets.”
“Ugh. Who would want to wear one of those around?”
“Anyone if it was cold enough.” The temperature in the Fleet was always kept very mild—mild enough for light clothing during the day and only a sheet and maybe a light bedspread on the bed at night, to account for one’s lower metabolic rate. He wasn’t sure if it had always been like that, or if the habit had crept up on them gradually, but heavy cloth blankets were only used in emergencies, like when the heating broke down in part of a ship, or for sick people you couldn’t regulate their body temperature. “Anyway, there are something called ‘seasons’ on a lot of planets, where it’s cold part of the year and hot in another part of the year.”
“You mean people would have to have different wardrobes for different times of the year?” Faith said in horror. “Why not just live in space if there’s that much inconvenience?”
“I’m sure we won’t see it that way once we get used to it, Faith. After all, our ancestors had to start somewhere. They loved their planets and were sad to leave them, most of them. You know that’s how the stories go.”
“Father…” Destin spoke up hesitantly.
“Why did our ancestors leave our old home, then?”
Thurgood and Faith stared at each other uneasily. This was a question that every child asked eventually. Faith sighed and said, “I suppose he is old enough, dear. I’ll go put Serenity to bed.”
Thurgood nodded and waited till she left the room before turning back to his son. This would be a hard tale to tell. Young children were all too often told some rudimentary fairy tale about the fleet being a mission of exploration—at least until they started questioning why anyone would launch an exploration mission that took three hundred years—but the real story was far more sinister. Many people would not have believed the truth but for the fact that they were on the journey to start with.
“You have to understand, Destin,” he began, “in our old galaxy, our people controlled about a hundred star systems. We weren’t the largest civilization around, or the most advanced, but we did pretty well for ourselves—until one day, a squadron of ships from a neighboring civilization appeared over one of our planets. The ships were badly damaged, and we had to evacuate them right away and scuttle about half of them in the ocean. Most of them never flew again.
“What happened to them, Father?”
“They said their nation was under siege. They were being attacked by ships that we had never seen before and had heard of only in rumors. It was as if their fleet had swept into our galaxy one day and started taking over. It wasn’t long between when this neighboring confederation was attack and when they showed up on our own doorstep.
“Who were they,” Destin asked nervously.
“No one ever got close enough to find out. All we know about them is that they called themselves the Masters. They were very powerful. Our allies, our enemies—everyone—Our entire galaxy was being completely overrun. The Masters were more powerful than any force our ancestors had ever met. Their technology was more advanced, and their numbers were so great that they must have controlled whole galaxies wherever they had come from. They attacked without mercy, and they demanded nothing short of unconditional surrender.”
“Why does anyone attack anyone else? They just wanted as much power as they could get, and they didn’t care who stood in their way.”
“And…and then we…we ran away?” the boy said. “Because we couldn’t fight them.”
Thurgood continued more darkly. “Our ancestors saw that no one could stand against the Masters, and that they would come for us soon. They had to make a very hard decision. They couldn’t fight. If they ran, then ran, then at least some of our civilization would survive. So they took nearly their entire space fleet, including all of the big city ships, and loaded them with people from every star system. It was the largest gathering of ships our people had ever assembled. They left only just enough to keep things running until the Masters arrived. The entire Fleet went to the edge of known space, beyond the farthest places where the engines could work at full power, and started out across the Void. This was the beginning of the Great Wayfaring. That was three hundred years ago. We’ve been crossing the Void ever since, but now, we’re finally reaching the end.”
“But what happened to the rest of them?” Destin asked in shock. “All the people they left behind?”
Thurgood sighed again. “No one knows,” he said. “Some people want to fight, but the leaders overruled them and sent away every ship they could. They probably surrendered without a fight, but we never learned for sure what happened to planets the Masters conquered.”
“So we just…left them?”
“We had to. It was the only way to ensure our civilization’s survival—by escaping to someplace the Masters couldn’t reach us. They knew there was nothing else they could do when they saw how powerful the Masters were.”
“But…but…how do we know the Masters didn’t follow us?” Destin asked frightfully.
“Because they couldn’t cross the Void any easier than we could. No one can. We made it across because we had a well-supplied Fleet with city-ships and crop land and other supplies, but they would have had to send a massive invasion force big enough to take care of us and anyone who’s on the other side of the Void, and that’s a lot harder. It’s just not possible to send a military force that big across the Void.” He wished he was as sure as he sounded. That was what the experts all said, but they were the only ones who really understood what they were talking about.
“So we’re the only ones left, then?”
“Not the only ones, Destin. The others are still out there, but probably under the Masters’ control. But who knows? Maybe someday another great fleet will come across the Void and tell us the Masters were defeated and everything’s alright again.”
“Will we go back if that happens, Father?”
“Some of us might. But it’s a very long journey, son, and I think three hundred years is long enough for me.”
The family caught a tram to the forward-most park in their section of the ship after dinner. Word had spread by then, and the place was filled almost shoulder to shoulder. The same fuzzy, blue galaxy hung in the sky, as it always did, and the ships of the Fleet were scattered across the field of view in their normal arrangement. The blue sky, fading to black by amidships, was unchanged, but if all went as planned, that was about to change.
A large countdown was displayed across the window itself, blinking in red numerals that contrasted against the sky. As the final moments ticked, down, the people counted with it with a fervor normally reserved for end-of-year, or perhaps end-of-century celebrations. Under the sound of the crowd came a low, building hum as the space-bending devices roared to life. If they had come close enough to the galaxy, they would react to the natural curvature of space and begin bending the ultraviolet light of the blueshifted microwave background around the Fleet.
When the countdown ended, there was not a shout, but a great silence as the crowd waited to see if it would work. At first, there seemed to be no effect, but then, the view began to bend. The crowd thundered. The forward view of the Fleet squeezed further forward, seeming to grow smaller and farther away as the array of ships filled a smaller and smaller circle. The crowd could feel the creeping cold as the black around the edges encroached closer and closer until the whole sky was compressed into a tiny disk. The light was bending around the Haven so that only a small disk of it could reach them.
There was a great rushing feeling, perhaps only imagined, as the circle of the sky grew brighter and brighter, a brilliant, blue ‘sun’, until it was too bright to look at. The warmth returned from the brilliance of the light. The Fleet had accelerated—fifty thousandfold, if the engineers were to be believed. Now they could finally reach that galaxy that had tantalized them for so long.
“It’s working, Destin,” Thurgood said. “It’s finally working.” He had dreamt of this day his whole life, and he looked like he might weep with joy. “Faith, Serenity,” he said, “we’re nearly there…We’re nearly home.”
Three weeks later, at the edge of the Triangulum Galaxy, a welcoming party waited. It was a large fleet under the circumstances made up of hundreds of ships, well-supported and well-supplied. They hoped it would be enough. The people crossing the Gulf were usually in need of some kind of material aid, and they didn’t even have a complete idea of how large this group was.
As they waited, a point of light appeared in the distant darkness. It let out a bright flash as it dropped below light speed, and the photons trapped in its distorted space field escaped. To the telescopic view, a streak appeared moving in the reverse direction behind it, as light that slipped out earlier caught up with it. The ship was of moderate size: a bit large by the welcoming party’s standards, and perhaps holding a thousand passengers. Its design was strange, made from an oblong core with both the space warping coils and the diverging lens generator mounted on an elaborate scaffolding encircling it. It was unlike anything the welcoming party had seen, and clearly very old. The hull was worn, pockmarked, even a bit corroded by the electromagnetic drag after what must have been centuries of constant flight. It had few windows, and some parts of the hull even looked patched over.
Withing seconds, several more ships dropped below light speed and sped forward to come up alongside the first. More ships appeared, one by one, but then, there was a much larger one. This ship was less rounded and more cylindrical than its smaller companions. Its face was divided into quarters, and its body was divided in half lengthwise, so that it was built in eight separate segments linked together by scaffolding. It was rotating to provide artificial gravity, and the inner surface of the cylinder was covered in skylights. It was easily ten times the size of the first ships and not even the largest in the fleet.
Dozens more of these lesser city ships and many smaller ships appeared faster and faster as the main part of the fleet arrived. The fleet was, indeed, very large. In a matter of seconds, there were hundreds of ships, and, in a brilliant flash, an even larger ship dropped below light speed. It was considerably wider than the others and four times as long, built out of forty-eight segments surrounding a single, massive central core. A great latticework of scaffolding bound equally massive engines to the hull. That ship alone could hold a hundred thousand people.
More and more ships poured out of the blackness, filling the sky ahead. This convoy was larger than anyone had imagined. The number of ships soon climbed into the thousands, and more of the enormous motherships appeared. After many minutes, the stream finally stopped. It was by far the largest convoy that had ever come across the Gulf: thirty thousand ships, probably sixty million sentient beings. The welcoming party hoped that their help would not be needed. If this fleet was not self-sufficient, there was little they could do from there.
But they could still greet them. Once the convoy was assembled, the leader of the welcoming party signaled to her subordinates to open a channel and activate the translation program they had developed from their probe’s received messages.
In the great forward green spaces of the Haven and the Wayfarer and a hundred other great city-ships, and on the viewscreens of the River Run and its thousands of sister ships, an image of an alien appeared, the first anyone had seen outside the memory banks. Its appearance was quite strange. It was bipedal, yes, and it had a recognizable head, yes; but its skin was pale, and tinted with brown, and it almost seemed to glow with a soft, golden light. Long strands of fine, black fibers seemed to be growing out of its head. It gave an impression of being female, but it was difficult to be certain.
The alien’s arms were short and appeared to have only one elbow joint. Her ankles bent forward, or perhaps they were knees set low and at a rather odd angle. Her eyes were unusually small, and what looked to be some sort of breathing organ protruded prominently from her face. Her whole frame seemed top-heavy, with legs set close together and a wide chest. She was surrounded by an assortment other aliens, some of whom resembled her superficially, while others took even more exotic forms.
The alien stepped forward and began speaking to them; in their own native tongue, no less; they must have found some way to translate their language, but learning it? That was a surprise. “Greetings,” she said. “I am Tara Morning Star, the President of the Star Federation of Andromeda, and the representative of the united nations of the Andromeda Group. We are pleased to welcome you to the Triangulum Galaxy. We have been observing you from a distance for some time, though we did not realize the full scale of your fleet. However, if you are in need of assistance, we will be glad to render whatever help we can.”
President Tara Morning Star stopped and waited for a response while her subordinates listened to the radio chatter coming from the vast Fleet before her. Anyone one could tell that this was the best thing the Wayferers could have hoped for. After three centuries of living on the limited resources of the Fleet, meeting a powerful and benevolent nation on their arrival was a miracle to them. Some disorganized signals went between the city-ships, and then the Wayfarer began transmitting back, the image appearing on the President’s screens, and those of the rest of the Fleet.
As Tara Morning Star watched, on the upper deck of an enormous chamber stood a stately alien with a distinct look of authority. Aids surrounded him—they were pretty sure it was a him—and the background was filled with a crowd of awestruck onlookers. He had smooth, blue-grey skin with no hair on his head or face. His eyes were set far apart, and he had no nose or ears to speak of, but only small holes on his face. His legs splayed out to the sides above an extra pair of backward-bending knees, jutting from hips that were set wider than his chest. His double-jointed arms hung nearly as low as his knees.
Stepping forward as the President had done, the leader of the Fleet began to speak, addressing her as a friend and equal expressing his gratitude on behalf of his people for her hospitality. They were not in need of supplies, he said, but only a habitable planet on which to settle, which they would greatly appreciate help in finding one. Their ancestors had prepared them well, and they had ample resources to rebuild their civilization. “And above all, thank you,” he said. “Thank you for allowing us to bring our Great Wayfaring to an end, for my people, we have finally made it home.”