Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness, So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.
Kim was sitting with Ali in the pilot’s room when they made the jump back into realspace, into the Alnitak region. She heard the oooohs and aaaahs downstairs as everyone got a look at the view.
The captain’s manner throughout the flight had been detached, unemotional, under control. The sort of perspective you’d want in an emergency. She was consequently pleased to see him catch his breath when the great illuminated star-clouds appeared in the windows. He turned the lamp down and got up from his chair.
“It’s why the Hunter stopped here, Ali.”
“The hand of the Almighty,” he said. “Still at work.” Kim had grown familiar with the instruments on the Hammersmith, and she’d made it her business to acquaint herself with those of the Mac. Especially with the long-range sensors, which were set to sound off at the first indication of an object moving contrary to orbital requirements. Her eyes went to them now, looking for telltales but finding none. Ali stood for several minutes in the crystalline light, and then directed the AI to adjust course for the gas giant. He turned toward Kim. “Good luck,” he said.
“I hope so.”
She summoned the team to the mission center, where they briefly reviewed the plan. Matt asked whether there’d been an incoming transmission yet.
Yet. Now that they were here it did seem inevitable. “No,” she said. “We haven’t heard anything.”
They began broadcasting a visual program. It consisted of a portion of the numerical interchange between the Hunter and the Valiant, and the recorded Mona Vasquez, in her most inviting manner: “Hello. We are happy to have the opportunity to greet you and to say hello.”
They’d deliberately repeated the “hello” in an effort to imply its use. “It would be,” Maurie said in his somewhat pretentious manner, “an appropriate beginning.”
“We hope,” Mona continued, “to establish a long and fruitful collaboration for both of us. We look forward to exchanging ideas and information with you at the earliest opportunity.”
Mona added that she and her friends were a long way from home, and that they had made the voyage specifically in the desire to meet the entities who had been seen in the area of Alnitak a long time ago. She emphasized the star’s name. Its spelling and its picture appeared beside her.
She got some mocking applause when the broadcast finished. There was a sixty-second delay and it started again.
No one expected an immediate response, but Kim remained hopeful at the beginning. Although after the first few hours, when it became apparent that contact would not come quickly, she grumbled inwardly, fought off discouragement, and went to lunch.
The team members drifted idly through the ship, anxiously awaiting whatever might happen. Most congregated around windows, and Kim found Mona in one such location holding forth to Terri and Maurie.
“What happens here,” she was saying, “is that you get a better sense of the sky’s depth. It’s not like Greenway or Earth, where all you see at night are stars and moons, and it could all be just a shell with holes poked in it. Here you look out and you see those clouds and you know they go on forever. It would have to have a radically different impact on a developing civilization.”
“If there were one,” said Maurie.
“That’s right,” said Terri. “And there isn’t. You wouldn’t get any local lifeforms out here. Too much UV.”
“It wouldn’t have to be orbiting Alnitak,” said Mona. “It could be parked up there anywhere. Just give it a little distance, and it loses the radiation and keeps the view.”
They were seated in a circle. Kim sank into a chair.
“I wonder,” Maurie said, “what kinds of societies would have developed if Earth had had skies like this?”
“Religious fanatics,” said Kim.
Terri chuckled. “They got that anyhow.”
Mona shook her head. “I’m not sure you’d get religious zealotry under these kinds of conditions. I think it would be easier to see the mechanical aspects of the environment, which aren’t so obvious at home.”
“Kim.” Ali’s voice, from the pilot’s room. “Message for you.”
“On my way,” she said.
When she got there, the heading was onscreen:
TO: GR 717 Karen McCollum
SUBJECT: Artifact Personal for Dr. Brandywine
SOA was the Secretariat for Off-World Affairs. “Run the text, Ali.”
“You can read it in your quarters if you like, Kim.” He looked worried. “Is this their reaction to your dealings with Woodbridge?”
“Probably.” She smiled. “It’s too late for them to do much now. Run it.”
If you have the object with you, be aware that failure to deliver it immediately into official hands will result in prosecution. No further warning will be sent.
Edward was Woodbridge’s boss. The man who’d given her the Brays Stilwell Award.
“How does he expect us to do that?” asked Ali. “He knows where we are.”
“I’m not so sure.” His dark eyes were hidden in the half light.
“I think we’ll be having company.” He swung around to face her. “Do you really intend to give the microship back to its owners? Its original owners?”
“Easy. Once we find them.”
“Tell me how.”
“Just lean out the door and hand it to them.”
“Isn’t that dangerous? These are the same creatures who tried to kill you in the Severin Valley.”
“I think that was an anomaly. I think the thing that got stranded became deranged.”
“I hope they’re not all deranged.”
“They have to be rational, Ali. Or they wouldn’t be out here.”
She heard a sound deep in his throat. “Maybe,” he said. “But that sounds like an epitaph to me.”
They settled into a routine during the first few days, working on individual projects, watching the sensor screens. Maurie and Terri never tired of standing by the windows and looking out at the view. To Kim it seemed as if the emptiness looked back. Gradually the assumptions that had held sway throughout the flight—that contact was virtually inevitable, that the celestials would be waiting anxiously for the appearance of another giant ship—came to seem first unduly optimistic, then doubtful, and finally hopelessly naive. They began to speculate that the opportunity had been lost. Fumbled away by the clumsiness of the first expedition. Kim even overheard some comments that suggested she and Solly might have done better if they’d thought things out a bit.
The current situation, the silence that roared at them from the empty sky, was perceived as somehow her fault. If she had gone to them in January with what she knew instead of coming out here alone, they might have salvaged everything.
She saw it in their eyes, heard it in their voices. And as the days dragged on, and the gas giant came to fill their windows, their attitude toward the Valiant changed. If it had once been a unique artifact, a link with another civilization, it now became simply an oddity thrown up by the retreating tides of history, a symbol of human incompetence.
“At least,” said Paul, “we know now we’re not alone.”
“Maybe it’s just as well if we don’t find them,” said Maurie.
The remark brought frowns from everyone.
“Why would you say that?” asked Gil.
“How old would you guess their civilization is?”
Matt let his impatience show. “We’ve no way of knowing,” he said.
“They could easily be a million. Six million. What’s a civilization that’s been around that long going to look like? Do we really want to talk to them?”
Maurie took a deep breath. “What could we possibly have to say to them that they’d be interested in?”
Kim was playing chess with Mona when Ali buzzed her. “Please come up for a minute.”
She left the game and climbed the stairs to the top floor. When she walked into the pilot’s room, he was wearing a strange expression. “We’re being scanned,” he said.
He shrugged. “No idea.”
“Where are they?”
“Don’t know that either. We can’t track it back. But somebody’s keeping an eye on us.”
“You think the fleet has arrived?”
“Maybe. But I doubt it’s any of our people. If it is, they’re pretty good. The scopes don’t show anything out there.”
The screens were blank. “So what are we saying? That we’ve found what we came for?”
“I’m only saying that the technology behind the scan is of a very high order.”
“Marvelous,” she said, clapping him on the back. “What can they learn about us?”
Ali propped his jaw in his palm. “Which way we’re headed, of course. What kind of engines we have. Maybe they’re able to do an analysis of light leakage. Hard to know what their limits might be. If it’s really celestial. This is where it would have been helpful to have dissected the microship.”
Kim ignored the implication. “Is there a chance they can see into the ship?”
“I don’t think anything we have, or anything anybody could devise, could penetrate this kind of hull. Mac’s hull. It’s designed to survive in high-energy environments. We could take her in pretty close to Alnitak, if we wanted, without frying the help. So no, they wouldn’t very likely be able to do that. But they’re probably able to get a sense of our electronic capabilities, of armaments or lack thereof, of engine architecture, that sort of thing.”
“Thanks,” she said. “Anything else?”
He shrugged. “Listen, don’t get so carried away with this that you forget they have a tendency to bite. Okay?”
She returned to the mission center, called everybody in, and passed the news. Somebody’s watching us. The reaction was mixed, a sense of exhilaration combined with a dash of disquiet. Paul recommended they begin broadcasting the second-phase package. The others agreed and Kim passed the instruction to Ali. A minute later he reported that transmission was underway.
The second-phase package contained a vocabulary list with pictures and pronunciations of 166 objects that the team hoped would be common to the experience of both species. They included words like “star.”
“lamp.” Eric, who claimed to have gone to acting school and in any case had exquisite diction, had provided the voice.
They’d also included linking verbs with examples of their usage, a few personal pronouns, and the interrogatives who, what, where, when, and why. Eric maintained that the explanations of the latter, which were elaborated by pictures of sample cases, probably would not be understood, but the terms would be so helpful that it seemed worth the effort.
The package was transmitted realtime rather than compacted, on the theory that celestial technology might not be compatible. It was fifty-six minutes long, and would be repeated every hour.
Ali called down early during the first broadcast with the news that the scan had stopped. Its total duration had been roughly seventeen and a half minutes.
Kim thought it would also be a good idea to accompany the transmission with an image of the Valiant. While the package was running, she looked again at the various views which she’d loaded into the transmitter: the microship seen head-on; the microship from above, bathed in the light of Alnitak; the microship in silhouette against a blue planet; a dozen others. Best, she sensed, would be to send a single image.
She chose finally the Valiant in full sunlight, seen from the port side and slightly below. It was majestic, a lovely vehicle traveling bright skies. It exuded optimism and power, and she hoped it would strike the celestials with the same kind of emotional force she felt when she looked at it.
“That should get a response,” said Matt, who’d come up unnoticed behind her. “It just demonstrates once again that you need to have PR people along when you do a first contact.”
Kim grinned at the thought. Flexner’s Theorem. But it was true.
She was trying to put herself into the heads of the celestials. They had to be motivated, at least in part, by a desire to know what had happened to their ship, which had disappeared so many years ago. Here then were those who knew about the missing vessel, prepared apparently to talk about it. How could they resist that?
When Ali told her she was clear to transmit, she invited Matt to punch the button.
“Yes,” he said. “By all means.” And he sent the sunlit Valiant into the void.
“We’ll hear from them within the next few hours,” she predicted.
They went back to the mission center where the entire team was gathered to await what most earnestly believed would be the historic response. “You don’t want to be in the washroom just now,” Tesla told Kim.
Shortly after the first transmission had been completed, Ali informed them they’d been scanned again. “Only for a few seconds,” he said.
They waited, not talking much, watching the screens for incoming visuals, keeping track of the broadcast status of their own package.
Not long after it had run a second time, Ali reported another scan.
And more than an hour later, still another. “Every sixty-three minutes, looks like,” he said.
The afternoon wore on. Eventually Tesla wandered off to the washroom.
They had dinner at six. It was quieter than usual and they exhorted one another on the need for patience. Ali, who usually ate in the pilot’s room, dined with them.
The scans continued through the evening, always separated by sixty-three minutes and seventeen seconds. “We’re probably going to have to wait while whatever’s out there communicates with its home base,” said Matt. “If they have nothing better than hypercomm, that could take a while.”
That possibility cheered no one. But Kim thought that the present situation was a distinct improvement over the response she and Solly had encountered.
She gave up at eleven-thirty and went to bed, read for an hour from a collection of political essays, and finally dropped off to sleep. She woke again around three, wandered out into the corridor and made for the washroom. Downstairs she could hear voices in the mission center, Sandra and Eric, and somebody else she couldn’t make out.
Sandra was laughing.
A few minutes later she was just returning to her compartment when Ali’s voice crackled over the comm. “Kim, I hate to wake you—”
“Go ahead, Ali. I’m here.”
“We haven’t had a response. But there’s something else you should see. Can you come over for a minute?”
She threw on a robe and crossed the hall to the pilot’s room.
Ali sat in front of one of the auxiliary screens. As she entered, he turned toward her. “The fleet’s arrived,” he said.
She didn’t know what she’d been expecting. But that brought a stab of disappointment. “Our fleet?”
“Yes, indeed. A banshee and a pair of escorts.”
“Coming this way?”
“How much time do we have?”
“Before they get here? About eight hours.”
“That’s not so good,” said Kim.
“They appeared on the scopes a few minutes ago.”
“But they couldn’t have been the source of the scans?”
“Negative. No way.”
Well, she thought, at least somebody’s coming to talk to us.