"So this is where we control the ship," Arella looked around the cockpit, its cramped space barely large enough to house both of them at the same time.
"Yes," Alecander answered, half in the door to give her more room to look around.
"Only we don't ever control the ship. The AIs do."
"Yeah. Unless something goes wrong and cripples them both. In that case, we're not much better off, because we have no navigation or guidance systems."
"Why is the cockpit here then? We could use this space for something else."
"Too many systems are based here to just rip it out with a complete overhaul of the entire ship's systems. Besides, it's the best view in the ship, agreed?"
The starfield was projected onto a set of screens that mimicked various viewports and canopies from actual cameras mounted on the ship's hull, giving a realistic and open feeling to the tiny bridge. The projects were convincing enough to be somewhat disorienting, as the ship currently was moving fast enough to experience a noticeable parallax, even though the deceleration could be felt under their feet.
"I wonder what this button does," she asked in a teasing voice, flipping open a panel on the arm of the command couch to reveal a series of nondescript grey buttons.
"That button will depressurize the command capsule, which you are both in, and then engage fire suppression systems in the fuel tanks, tainting the fuel to an unusable state, but keeping it from igniting or exploding."
Arella snatched her hand away at the computer's voice.
Alecander barked a laugh. Arella began blushing furiously.
"Apologies, Arella," Duncan took a sincere tone, "first of all, none of the controls in this room work while I am functional, and second, those buttons control the firmness and angle of the of the chair."
"Is he serious?" Arella looked rather annoyed at the computer.
"About what?" Alecander asked, still chuckling.
"Well, all of it. Was he lying to me?"
"The first time, yes. The second time, he was telling the truth. This room isn't functional while he is. And, if the design is standard, those should be nothing more than the ergonomics controls for the seat."
"Where do we have left to tour?" she asked, "preferably somewhere without a computer with a perverse sense of humor."
"I can follow you anywhere in this ship," Duncan pointed out.
"Well," Alecander managed, composing himself, "we've not seen either of the crew quarters, but they are identical, so you've basically seen mine, or the secondary cargo bay. So I think we've pretty much seen everything worth seeing in here."
"Well, what next?" Arella asked.
"Do you play chess?"
"Bishop to queen's rook four," Alecander studied the volumetric chessboard in front of them, "check."
"Knight to queen's rook four," Arella responded.
The pieces on the board moved, Arella's beige units vastly outnumbering Alecander's burgundy ones.
"Well, I will admit it. When I asked if you played chess, I guess I should have asked how much better than me you possibly could be."
"Chess was big at the Academy. Being at least competent was a necessity."
"Great," Alecander grumbled, "It wasn't that big when I was there. But that was twenty years ago, I guess times change."
"You went to the Academy? I didn't know that! What did you study?"
"Pawn to queen's rook two. I went for tectonic and lunar sciences."
Arella attempted to get her hand to her face to hide a smile, but couldn't get move fast enough.
"I know, I know. It's not glamorous, but it looked interesting. Besides, I'd have the chance to live on Io or Dione. Could you imagine that?" he drummed his fingers on the table in front of him.
"I never thought of it that way. Why did you quit?" she was impressed, obviously having never thought of it from that aspect.
Tectonic specialists were, while well respected, never really employed in their primary fields. More often than not, they worked with corporations in mining or drilling projects.
"Well, I guess I just wasn't one for schooling. My grades weren't as good as they could have been, and because of it, my primary school cut the funding they were providing. Since I lacked the financial support I needed, I dropped out, signed up and spent my two years in training."
"What did you do in the military?" she moved a pawn forward, neither of them really paying attention to the game anymore.
"Believe it or not, I was a specialist with expertise in tectonics and planetary processes. I worked with gunnery crews and demolitions teams, providing advice so they could operate more efficiently and gain any tactical advantage they could. Eventually, I did my tour, retired from the lines, and became an instructor. In tectonics and planetary sciences and their use in warfare."
"You might be the most distinguished geologist I have ever met," she said truthfully.
"I'm not a certified geologist, even," he countered.
"Still, you have quite an impressive career. And I couldn't even begin to think about operating in any sort of battle zone. I'd be scared stiff."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. I was never in the direct line of fire, but it still was fairly intense at times."
"Did you ever get to see a Delta? What were they like?"
"I've never seen a live one, thank God, but I've seen bodies. Pictures."
"I've heard they that they don't look all that different than us. Some of my classmates at the Academy had claimed to have seen some classified pictures that the exobiology department received from Fleet Intelligence. Of course, I didn't see them, but they all had stories to tell me about it."
"Well, what do you know?"
"Just what the government tells us. We found them setting up a colony on some fertile moon a hundred or so years ago. We were heading there as well, with a colony ship, and when we made first contact, they set to and butchered every last colonist. Ripped the computer and guidance systems out, used them to figure out where Earth was, learn our language and the basics of our history and military, and set to invade. It's been a back and forth war for decades, but we've recently developed jumpships, able to travel much faster than our traditional ships can, as well as theirs, and there have been predictions that the war will be over within our lifetimes."
"Yours, maybe, but not mine,"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, classified. But I guess, since we're on a classified mission, it'll come up sometime."
"Is it true about them? And their religion?"
"The Deltas? Well, kinda. It's not a religion as much as it is an overlying cultural belief. They loathe us. The fact that we exist mars their beliefs, though aside from that one, we are very unsure of their culture and society. We've estimated they've extinguished at least a dozen civilizations in the past- and as far as we can tell, we are next on their list."
"Do they really look like us?"
"Not as much as rumors would have you believe. They are bipedal, sure, but so are most of the other intelligent species we've encountered. It seems to be almost a prerequisite for advanced civilizations."
"How many other intelligent species have we found?"
"Well, the Deltas and us are the only two we know of so far that have explored and colonized beyond the confines of their system of origin, but we've encountered about a dozen civilizations in various stages of development, some space-faring, some still in the middle of terrestrial advancement. All but three of them, that I know about, are bipeds."
"There are some you don't know about?"
"Well, I'm sure there are some secrets I don't know. It is the military. The ones they can't keep from me are the ones I am present for."
"You've done this before," Arella realized, her jaw dropping, "That's why you're here. You don't have any skills other than your experience."
He cocked an amused eyebrow at her, and she quickly recovered.
"I mean, geology? It has nothing to do with contact. You know what I mean."
He smiled easily, "Yes, I know what you mean. I'm here as a liaison for the military, for security purposes, and because, as you guessed, I have done this before. This will be my fourth attempted first contact, actually. But I can't tell you anything more than that. Classified."
"When do I get the clearance to learn all these secrets?"
"Well, I assume that if we are successful here, you'll be offered an officer's commission, and assigned to a science team. Likely, you'll become a lieutenant commander and be assigned to an area of study of your choosing, or you will continue to serve on contact teams."
"Me? In the military?"
"I can see it happen. Good pay, clearance to know the answers to those questions I cannot answer."
"Well, when you put it that way—"
"Proximity alert. Alecander, we've just intercepted a packet envelope," Duncan's head appeared in the middle of their forgotten chess game.
"Report," Alecander stood sharply, his voice adopting the tone of military precision and steel.
"Standard greeting packet, timestamped almost two years ago. Text and course data, military regulations followed. One moment, I'll compute the ETA until the primary message."
"Duncan, upload a copy of the message to my tablet. Leave it in its original form. And display ETA," Alecander strode over to the console and slid a geltab from its housing slot.
"Timer adjusted for current speed and rate of deceleration. Displaying now," the computer reported.
Duncan's face disappeared from the chessboard, clearing the half-finished game as it left. A set of green number replaced took their place, set to just under five minutes. They began counting down, a stead click as the second passed.
"What is going on? What happens when that timer runs out?" Arella asked, her voice pitched in the excitement.
Alecander held up a single finger and wagged it slowly, his attention focused solely on the pad in front of him. The room grew quiet, broken only by the tick of the countdown timer, and the whirring as Duncan extended a pair of wirearms, no doubt anticipating interaction with his human passengers soon.
"Numbers," Alecander said, still staring that the tab, "the first line is nothing but numbers."
"Heading and speed," Duncan confirmed, "Coded, of course."
"Have you decoded it yet?"
Arella knew that if Duncan was imaging himself in the room, he would have looked offended at the suggestion that he couldn't solve a simple code.
"I have," the computer said, though smugness was rampant in his voice.
Arella made it to Alecander's shoulder, and tried to peer over the taller man's shoulder. She was only to by craning her neck and standing on her toes.
The screen he looked at had a short message on it, only a paragraph in length. The first line was, as Alecander had said, numbers. A string of numbers separated by dashes that made absolutely no sense to her at all. Below it, recognizable letters were arranged into unfamiliar and strange words, no doubt code. She didn't bother trying to read it.
"Show me. Translate the whole thing."
The screen divided itself into two parts, the original message shrinking to fit in the bottom half, and a translated copy began to occupy the top.
Text flashed. Letters blinked into existence, and arranged themselves into familiar English words.
427-144: 7.38: 277
The numbers had changed, but it still meant nothing to her. She assumed that Alecander was right, and it was just navigational data.
Ground team. Protocol fourteen-seven. Looking forward to talking to you. More to come.
Arella frowned, "That's it?"
"For now," Alecander set the tab down, "this was just a packet envelope. Tells us where and when to expect the real message."
"Why would we need that? Why not just send us the message first, instead of all the cloak and dagger?"
"Because if the Deltas get a hold of it, then they'll know exactly where to look and find another fledging civilization to stamp out."
"Excuse me," Duncan interrupted, his image flickering on as a geltab descended from the ceiling, "We'll need to make the course change within the next minute to be on course for the data packet."
"Do you have the course plotted?" Alecander asked.
"Of course," the computer responded, numbers appearing on the geltab in front of them.
"Then why haven't made it yet?" Alecander raised his eyebrow.
There was a soft shift under their feet as a booster engaged on one side, altering the course of the vessel to match up with what the message recommended. A soft sigh escaped the speakers in the room, but Duncan's virtual lips never moved. Alecander grinned.
"And now we wait?" Arella asked, looking at the clock.
"And now we wait," Alecander confirmed.