The Return-Final

November 7, 2020

Astimelin waited until they entered the lift before he asked. “Is there some kind of trouble?”

Mestra Ande said, “I think you should hear it from Captain Rostonai, but don’t worry, Doctor.” The lift doors parted and they continued down the corridor to The Captain’s office.

Rostonai rose from his desk as they entered and gestured toward seats. “Doctor, Commissioner.”

After they were seated, Astimelin said, “Sir, Commissioner Ande said that you wanted to see me?”

 Rostonai placed his hands on the desk and steepled his fingers. Yes, put into simple terms, the Ministry of Alien Affairs, under the Council of Sentient Beings has overruled the Koplushian Council. Your patient, the eruithairkan will be returned to its kind when you decide it has sufficiently healed.”

Astimelin glanced over at Commissioner Ande and then back to the Captain. “I believe it is fully recovered now, Sir. How would we go about returning it?”

“A science team which arrived with the Itsen hypothesises that we can return the eruithairkan by placing it in its lifepod and sending it into sector 42. We would do this from Sector 15. They suppose that the communications buoy there is being monitored.”
    “That sounds reasonable, Captain since Erui thairk and Shengek Barinium were rescued in that sector.”

“That was our thought as well, Doctor. In another day the exploration ship, Pewkam will be joining us. We’ll return your patient then. The Koplushian Council wanted some extra firepower here just in case.”

“Captain, the Itsen was nearly destroyed when it met their ships.  I doubt…”

Rostonai lifted a hand to stay the argument. “Doctor, sometimes we just have to do what our superiors say.” He glanced at Commissioner Ande.

The day after the exploration ship, Pewkam arrived, Astimelin led the eruithairkan down dimly lit corridors to the lander bay containing the alien lifepod. It had been cleaned and recharged by the able engineers. Understandably, it had also been thoroughly examined.

The alien walked up the ramp and into the pod. Moments later the hatch closed. Commander Pretan, who had quietly accompanied Astimelin said, “I guess that means it knows how to pilot it.”

“We don’t know anthing about it. Someday I hope we can communicate with them in some way.” He turned to the door. “We should leave before they close the airlock.”

Pretan followed him through the door and down the now well lit corridor. “We can watch from the bridge,” she said. “Your two patients are there already.”

“I released them this morning,” he said.  “Technically they are now patients of Doctor Balaften.”

They entered the lift and it started upwards. “So much for the excitement then.”

Astimelin sighed. “I look forward to a few days of cuts, bruises, and renewing the crew’s fertility blockers.”

Commander Pretan chucked just as the doors before them parted. The big screen showed the Eruithairkan lifepod picking up speed on it’s way to sector 42.

Captain Rostonai said, “Comm, is the alien distress signal still being transmitted?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Let’s hope it get’s picked up by one of their ships,” said Pretan.

Astimelin walked over to his former patients. “Well, that’s done,” he said quietly. “Do you have any plans?”

“Provided the aliens don’t come out and destroy us,” said Shengek. “Captain Karpla has offered to take us home to Koplushia. But I’m not so sure I want to go back. There’s nothing there for me.”

“Hmm,” he said. “You realize the Council will want a complete debriefing of your experiences.  We have very little information about the… aliens.”

She nodded. “I know, but Captain Karpla told me that the debriefing could be done enroute to Koplushia. After that, I don’t want any undue attention. Being from that era…”

And being a Barinium…” added Astimelin.

She sighed, “I just want to be left alone,” she said quietly. “I’m thinking of settling on Anthtl Zetek.”

He nodded. “From what I hear, the colony there is still safe and sane, if not a bit larger than it was. I’m sure you would be welcome there.”

“I can’t wait to get home,” said Thairk. “I mean to weedle my way back into the Institute of Linguistics…”

“It’s the Ministry of Linguistics now….”

“Whatever!” he said, dismissing Astimelin with a wave of a hand. “I’m going to force them to reform that Interspeak or Interworld, or whatever they call it.  What they have now is just ridiculous!”

Astimelin nodded a few times, glad to see such spunk from the man. “When you get some spare time, I know that a few Vritian colonies were discovered whose language has severely diverged from the standard.”

“Excellent!” he said. “I’ll add them to my collection!”

The Eruithairkan life pod entered sector 42 a day later. Two days after that the distress signal ceased. The Vethuimus and the two exploration ships waited one day before each of them made a hyperspace jump away from the area.

Epilogue: 

The Eruithairkan lifepod was intercepted by the huge city-ship and brought inside. The eruithairkan in the lifepod, Exiled-one, was escorted to Captain and asked to report.

“Captain, the humans treat me with kindness,” said Exiled-one. “They feed me and play with me. They keep me safe and return me to the Family-tribe.”

Captain stirred in the tub of warm water in which it sat. “The test is over. It is good. We have success in knowing that they are compassionate. But Humans do not belong among us.  It is well that we rid ourselves of the ones in our ships. They cannot communicate with us and they are a drain on our resources.”

“There is a human there who speaks our words, yet he does not speak intelligibly.” Exiled-one changed location in the room. “How does the human know our words?”

Captain turned in the tub to the statement pose. “That one is the closest we had to knowing our words. And now it seems humans want to speak to us. It is well they try to teach us words we can know together. Yet we cannot know what the buoy speaks to us.

“I do not think they want to harm us.”

“That is well because they cannot. We are strong and do not allow them in our Expanse. But we wait until we use the same words.

The End

The Return-6

November 6, 2020

The next day, Doctor Balaften came into Astimelin’s office. “I think maybe you should have my job,” he said casually. “I tried to draw out the details of Thairk’s trauma any number of times without success. He kept it inside so deeply.  Now that you’ve brought it into the open, I can help both him and Ms. Barinium.  I suspect she had the same sort of experiences.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” said Astimelin. “And I thank you for letting me try my approach to the problem.”

Balaften noticed the contents of the computer display on the desk. “Taking an interest in politics are you?” he pointed to the screen.

“Only as much as needed to help another patient.”

“Hmm. You might want to drink some coffee while you read that. The Vritians had a lot of input into that document.”

“I’m hoping that is a good thing,” said Astimelin.  Doctor Balaften took his leave to attend to his patients. And finding what he was looking for, Astimelin composed a message to be sent via hyperwave.

During the ten days that passed, his patients continued to heal, both physically and mentally. The eruithairkan was beginning to behave in a restless manner, but was kept in its ward. One of Astimelin’s nurses took to interacting with it, playing catch with a soft ball and bringing its food. Erui Thairk did not visit it and Shengek wanted nothing to do with it when she was informed it was aboard.

On the tenth day an explorer class ship made a rendezvous with the Vethuimus. The ship’s captain and a small entourage came over in a lander and consulted privately with Captain Rostonai for a time. In a few hours, the matters were settled.

Astimelin was in the lounge with Shengek Barinium and Erui Thairk. They had enjoyed a relaxing meal together and were listening to Erui Thairk repeating a recent diatribe. It was the most animated that Thairk had been since he arrived on the Vesthuimus.

“This so-called  ‘language’ they created to communicate with the aliens is so illogical and unorganized!” he said in a loud voice. “I can only figure that some committee put it together in a pub using a pair of dice to make decisions! I’m going to tell them how to fix it. It really needs to be done from scratch!”  

Commander Pretan appeared in the doorway then, paused to glance at the trio and came over to them.

“Mind if I join you for a moment?” she asked.

“Not at all,” said Astimelin, relief showing in his voice. “What brings you here? I hope another lifepod hasn’t turned up.”

Pretan smiled. “Nothing so mundane, Doctor. I came to inform our guests that they have a visitor.”

Shengek’s eyes widened. “Not the….”

Pretan shook her head quickly. “No, but it is someone you know.”

Astimelin straightened in his seat. “Who…”

He was cut off by Thairk and Shengek shouting, “Captain?” They were facing the door and recognized who had just entered.

“Yes, it’s me!” he said in a gruff voice. Then he stode to the table.

The man seemed familiar to Astimelin. Then it dawned on him. This was the explorer, Captain Dagrith Karpla in the flesh!

Shengek immediately stood up, followed more slowly by Thairk. She threw her arms around Karpla and gave him a long hug. “How can it be you… Sir?  It’s been so long!”

Karpla laughed. “Because you thought I was dead? Ha! Time dilation!”

Thairk came over and shook his Captain’s hand. “It’s good to see you, Sir, but why are you here?”

Shengek finally let go, but then immediately gave the Captain another quick hug. She wiped a tear from her cheek as they parted.

Karpla had grayed considerably over the intervening one and three-quarter centuries of ‘real’ time, but he was still able and fit. “ I didn’t come for personal reasons, though that would have been enough,” he said. “We were laying over at Koplushia and when I heard both of you had been rescued.”

He turned his head away momentarily to ‘scratch’ his eye. “I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear you were found.”

Then a young woman appeared in the doorway.  She looked around and headed for the table. “Doctor Barinium?” she said, holding out her hand.

Astimelin turned to face her. “Yes, that’s me.”

“I am Commissioner Mestra Ande. I got your message regarding your alien guest.”

His face brightened as he politely took her hand. “You’re from the Council of Sentient Beings then?”

“Yes. I’m from the newly created Ministry of Alien Affairs,” 

Astimelin glanced at Commander Pretan, expecting a clue about what was happening. A pleased smile appeared on her face and she gave a slight nod. 

Ande said, “Doctor, Captain Rostonai is waiting to meet with us.”

“Of course,” he said. “ The Captain’s office is this way.” and he lead her from the lounge.

After they left and were out of earshot, Captain Karpla said, “She’s the other reason I’m here.”

Shengek said, “He’s not in trouble, is he?”

Commander Pretan smiled broadly. “The good Doctor is in no more trouble than anyone else with your family name has ever been in,” she said. “Don’t worry. And enjoy your reunion.” She turned and walked purposefully out the door.

The Return-5

November 5, 2020

The next morning at the daily briefing, Captain Rostonai said, “Doctor Barinium, I have good news,”

“What is that, Sir?” said Astimelin.

“The Ministry of Science is going to take the eruithairkan off your hands.”

“Why would they do that, Sir? I’m still studying it.”

The Captain glanced at Commander Pretan and then at Astimelin. “The Koplushian Council believes they can do more in-depth studies than we can here on a ship. After all, this is the first one we’ve had such access to.”

“Sir, I’d like to formally protest.” he stood up. “I’m fully capable of investigating the eruithairkan. And when I am finished I think it should be returned to its own kind.”

“I doubt that would be as easy as you think.  We cannot even communicate with it, can we?”

Astimelin raised a finger to say something, but stopped himself.  His shoulders went down and he said, “No.”

The Captain slowly gestured for him to be seated.  “Now, how are your other patients?”

He gathered his thoughts for a moment. “Ms. Barinium is doing fairly well. Physically, she and Mr. Thairk are putting on much needed body mass. Psychologically, Doctor Balaften says there is progress, but there is something that both are holding back.”

Commander Pretan said, “I would think that both of them have been traumatized. It can’t be easy to live alone with aliens for such a long time.”

“I’m sure Doctor Balaften will sort it out. Thank you, Doctor.”

After a moment, Astimelin stood up and said, “Good day, Sirs.” He then left the room and consulted with Balaften. Afterwards, he searched for and found Erui Thairk  in the lounge with Shengek. They were at a table on the other end of the room. The lounge was otherwise empty, save for a nurse who sat alone near the entrance..

“Am I interrupting?” asked Astimelin.

Shengek shook her head. “Please join us, Doctor.”

He pulled a chair over from another table and sat down. Leaning over the table, he said to both of them, “How are you feeling?”

Thairk shrugged. A moment later he said, “I think I’m getting bored, but I feel all right.”

Shengek said, “I have no complaints, Doctor.”

“I’m hoping that you can help,” Astimelin said, pulling a folded print-out from his pocket. “Can either of you tell me what this is?” He opened the paper and placed it on the table between them.

Shengek gasped, but immediately composed herself. Erui Thairk straightened in his chair and in a clear voice demanded, “Where did you get that?”

“Can you tell me what it is?” said Astimelin.

Thairk studied it intently. He took the paper, and turned it a few times. “It looks like the alien script, from the aliens that had us.” He looked at Astimelin and said deliberately, “Where is this from? Tell me!”

“Do you know what it says?”

Thairk looked at the paper one more time. He began making a variety of soft slurping sounds. Shengek immediately rose, covered her ears, and started to leave. The nurse intercepted her at the door and accompanied her away.

    Thairk said, “If only I could explain to you how impossible their language is!” He sounded exasperated. “Meanings can change depending on the positions between the individuals.” He let out a long sigh. “I think it says… ‘Return home’.”

The door to the ward which held the eruithairkan opened and Astimelin stepped in. A moment later, Thairk followed him. The door closed and he took a deep breath. “You’ve done a good job with the temperature and humidity, Doctor,” he said. “You need to dim the lights though. They’re a bit photophobic.”

Astimelin immediately went to the control and halved the brightness.

“Better,” said Thairk. “Ideally they like to sleep in a pool of water, but you had no way of knowing that.”

“So noted,” said Astimelin.

Erui Thairk went to the alien resting in the sling and put a wrinkled hand gently on its head between the eyes. He began making slurping sounds. One of the eruithairkan’s manipulators touched Thairk’s arm and it responded. He changed position and made more sounds. To Astimelin it sounded like a duet of slow drains clearing.

“Doctor, I believe it said that you have been kind. That’s the gist of it at least.” Then Thairk crouched down, keeping his hand between the creature’s eyes. He bowed his head and slowly whispered over and over, “I’m sorry… I’m sorry…”

Finally, he paused. Keeping his head bowed he said in a low voice, “Have you wondered how we survived on the alien spaceships, Doctor?” He took a breath. “Ms. Barinium and I faced the same situations and came to the same solutions.”

Astimelin cleared his throat and said, “What are you talking about? What situation?”

Thairk paused, and then, “The aliens are pure vegetarians, Doctor. I don’t think they even have legumes in their diet for protein.”

“The human body can’t…”

Thairk cut him off. “After a few months on board… After the Itsen got away… I guess they trusted me, or started to ignore me.  I don’t know.  Their ships are gigantic and house entire multi-generational communities… I was getting weaker from my diet and I was exploring the ship one night…” Thairk’s voice cracked and turned back to a low whisper, “I’m sorry… I had to… I’m sorry…”

Astimelin felt frozen in place.  What was Thairk getting at? He spoke gently, “What have you to be sorry for? To me it seems that you and Shengek were abused, even if it was only from the aliens’ ignorance of your needs.”

He cleared his throat. “I was deep in the ship… and I was so woozy from the lack of protein…” Thairk’s voice became raspy. He was speaking slowly as though it was an effort to get the words out. “I entered a section where I hadn’t been… It was very dim, but I found them…”

Astimelin waited for him to continue. Finally he said, “Found what?”

“Vats of little swimming frogs.  Swimming around in vats of water. Food! Protein!” Thairk’s voice broke at this point. He removed his hand from the eruithairkan’s head and fell to his knees. “I caught them in my hands and ate them raw!  They were delicious! I ate them until I was full and then I left the section.”

“That seems forgivable. They were out a few frogs. I’m sure there were enough…”
    “But Doctor!  They weren’t frogs!  When I got hungry again I returned to that section to eat more. But this time the light was brighter…” Thairk curled up and rolled onto his side on the floor, weeping.  Between sobs he said, “They were little baby aliens!  Not frogs at all!” He began rolling back and forth, and wailing hysterically. “It was my only source of protein!  I had to go back ever so often and feed again and again! For over fifty years!” 

Thairk broke down completely at that point.  Astimelin dashed over to him and held the man until he calmed down. Finally he was able to call a nurse and have Thairk tranquilized and taken to the infirmary.

The Return-4

November 4, 2020

They took her to the infirmary where she was cleaned and changed into proper clothes. Not long after the examination and confirmation of her identity, Commander Pretan stopped by for a report.

“Is she all right?” she asked quietly, looking across the room at the sleeping woman.

Astimelin looked up from the display at his table as if to double check the reading visually. “She is suffering from exhaustion and a bit of malnutrition. I found a healed bone fracture in her left arm, and the outermost toe on her left foot is missing. The arm is not a perfect mend, but not bad. I think she’ll be fine in a few days.”

Pretam said, “I imagine this is strange for you, treating your distant ancestor.  Where has she been all this time? With the Eruithairkans?”

“Hopefully she will answer all of these things,” said Astimelin. “The ship’s logs from the Itsen report that she was abandoned on the planet they were exploring with Med-tech Glorin Traid and Commander Mogbee Eloe.”

Pretan smiled. “Are we to expect them next?”

“Plus the crews of the ships that went missing in sector 42?” said Astimelin. “Who can say?”

The Commander took a breath and exhaled. “How far separated do you figure you are from her?”

“I don’t even have to guess,” said Astimelin. “In Basics school I had to do a research project about her.  We are seven generations apart.”

“So she’s your great, great…”

Astimelin held up his hand. “Don’t bother,” he said. “Following the Apocalypse, Shengek Barinium’s offspring were grown through ectogenesis from her harvested ova during the Re-population. She’s simply known as the Ancestress.”

“Is she the progenitor of all Bariniums?”

“No,” was Astimelin’s immediate answer. “A few branch families survived the Apocalypse, but Shengek is the cornerstone, so to speak, of my personal lineage. Even so, all Bariniums can still be traced back to old Mornerth on Norem.”

The commander shook her head slowly in disbelief. “You Bariniums get into everything,” she said. Then she smiled.

“At times we’ve been called trouble-makers, too,” he said drolly.

There was a noise as Shengek stirred and opened her eyes. She started to push herself up and said weakly, “Where… am I?”

Astimelin quickly pressed the nurse pager and went to Shengek’s side.  “Easy, easy,” he said gently. “You’re on a Koplushian medical ship, the Vethuimus. You’re safe. We can help you.” He assisted her to a sitting position.

“Koplushians?” she gasped. Then she looked up at him and touched his face. “Humans! I’m among humans! Thanks be to Zog you’re humans!” Shengek threw her arms around Astimelin and began weeping uncontrollably. Between sobs she occasionally muttered, “Humans!”

Astimelin began stroking her hair and back to comfort her. The nurse came in carrying a sedative, but he waved it off. “It’s healthier if she lets this out first.” he said.

After a few minutes the sobs lessened and then stopped. Astimelin gently pulled her away from him and removed her encompassing arms. “She’s asleep again,” he whispered to the nurse as he laid her back in the bed. “Give her a light sedative so that she can rest for a few hours. Then we need to start getting food into her.”

    After a few days, Astimelin guided Shengek to the lounge nearest the infirmary. She was still a little unsteady on her legs, but doing well. He took her to a small corner table and sat down. 

“Do you still feel all right?” said Astimelin.

Shengek pushed her long hair behind her shoulder. It was newly trimmed by the ship’s barber, but remained somewhat long. “Yes, I’m fine.  I should have asked for a tie-back. I used to keep my hair braided.”

“A lot of women still do that when on duty or while working.”

Shengek scanned the room. “It’s good that some things haven’t changed.”

A pause. Then Astimelin said, “I think you will find that not very much is different. We certainly haven’t had any social upheavals lately.”

She sipped from her glass. “I’d hardly call five generations of children created through ecto-genesis normal.”

“Who told you that?” said Astimelin casually.

She smiled and said softly, “Have you forgotten who my father was?”

After a moment of thought he nodded and said, “Your father was the Chairman of the Koplushian Council at that time.”

“Learn your history, young man!” This was said with a smirk.

“Was the Council of Sentient Beings formed before you left?”

She shook her head. “There were talks going on, but the charter wasn’t finalized.” She paused. “Ambassador Ti’con from Vrit was involved quite a bit.”

“Yes. He was responsible for inserting a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo into it. In the end everyone signed on and we all became members of the ‘Alliance of Sentient Beings’.”

Shengek asked, “Are there still only six planets of aboriginal humans?”

He nodded. “All five signed the charter. Karpla, of course did not.”

She sighed. “They named the planet, Karpla.” Shengek bowed her head momentarily. “I admired the Captain, of course.  During my few months on his ship, he was quite the father figure. Everyone on the Itsen was like family to me. And now they’re gone.” Her voice trailed off. “I think I’m talking too much, Doctor.”

Astimelin shook his head in disbelief. “You remember all of that from almost two centuries ago? Observers always amaze me.”

 “Trained Observers are capable of complete recall. We forget nothing.” Shengek bowed her head briefly. “Bear in mind,” she said, “For me it was only about twenty-four years ago.”

He nodded. “Yes, the joys of time dilation. You said that you were on the Eruithairkan ship for about eleven years.”

“But I don’t know exactly. I have no idea about their time cycles.” 

Astimelin saw a pair come in the entrance which conveniently was behind Shengek. “Ah, I see my surprise has arrived.”

She turned to see one of the nurses guiding a gaunt elderly man into the room. Astimelin and Shengek stood to greet them as they approached the table. “Shengek Barinium, I believe you’ve already met Erui Thairk.”

The two looked at each other in silence for a few moments. Shengek was the first to speak. In a thin whisper she said, “The young lieutenant? How?”

He straightened a bit and reached out to take her hand. His voice was shaky. “I feared they had to leave you behind. Captain Karpla didn’t say that he had retrieved you from the planet, and the Itsen was under attack… “

“What happened? How can you be here?” she looked down for a moment. “And how can you be older than me?”

“It’s a quirk of time dilation, I guess,” he said. “I was on the alien ship…”

Shengek took his hand between hers and patted it several times. “I was on a ship with them too, for years!” They looked at each other and suddenly embraced. They began weeping together. 

Astimelin had backed away from the pair a few steps. Under his breath, he said to the nurse, “I didn’t expect this reaction. I hope it’s a good thing.”

The psychologist, Doctor Balaften came up beside him, having just entered in time to hear the remark. “It’s a good start,” he said quietly. “Thairk is suffering from a trauma from living with the aliens.  I imagine the same is true for Ms. Barinium.”

Astimelin watched as the nurse seated the pair at the table. Thairk and Shengek composed themselves, wiping noses and eyes. Then clasped hands across the table again. “It’s like they have a connection,” he said.

A steward came over then to get them some food. Balaften said, “Possibly they can help each other.  I will start appointments with her in a few days.  For now we should watch them, but leave them be.”

Astimelin said, “We can sit over on the other end of the lounge.  I’m hungry anyway.” He led Balaften over to a table and they sat down.

After the steward took down their orders and left, Shengek and Thairk sat in silence for a few moments. They unclasped hands, Shengek putting hers in her lap, Thairk left his on the table. 

He spoke in a soft voice, a bit quavery, “The last I knew, you were on the planet with Commander Eloe and Med-tech Traid. How did you get here?”

Shengek bowed her head and was quiet for a few moments. Slowly she looked up at Thairk. “It was hell for me. The heat and the bugs. After you went back to the ship, Glorin was killed by an animal.” She shook her head slowly. “I feel as if I’ve awoken from a long nightmare.”

Thairk said, “I’m sorry.  If you don’t want to talk about it, I understand.”

She let out a long sigh. “Mogbee and I were left on the planet. Eventually we were accepted into the village and lived with them for years. After Mogbee died…” she paused. “I was going through his possessions and I found his comm band. He said it was useless after the first few weeks with neither word nor rescue coming from the ship.”

Thairk extended a hand towards her, but she raised her own as if to keep him away. She said. “I activated the distress signal and it still worked! After all the years that it just sat there, unused. It worked! I hung it around my neck with a cord for several weeks, just as a sign of hope.”

Thairk said, “From the little they have told me, no more Koplushian ships have entered that sector. Captain Karpla barely got away.”

“It wasn’t a Koplushian ship that found me,” she said. “It was… them.”

He made a grunt of comprehension.

“I went to sleep in my hut one night and woke up on a table in one of their ships. I guess they traced the signal.”

The steward brought their food then. He set the plates in front of them with steel cutlery and a short, wide, glass which he filled with water.

After he left, Thairk said, “Perhaps it’s best that you got away. In a primitive culture like that you might have been sexually attacked.”

Shengek paused and glanced at him.  Quiety and in a matter of fact way she said. “I didn’t say I wasn’t attacked.”

Thairk’s reply was a whisper, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to…”

“No need to apologize,” she said, picking up the cutlery. Shengek cut her food thoroughly and then said, “Tell me something,” she stabbed a piece of fish on her plate and paused, holding it midway between the table and her mouth. “On the alien ship you were on, did you ever find a hatchery?” Shengek placed the fish in her mouth and began chewing.

Erui Thairk sat and stared for several moments. Then he looked down at the table, slowly picking up his cutlery. After a soft sigh, he replied with an anguished, “Yes.”

They finished the meal without another word, but Thairk only picked at his food.

The Return-3

November 3, 2020

Captain Rostonai called a briefing later that day to discuss the situation. The search for a linguist was ongoing. None of the respondents could make any sense of the small bit of language that the eruithairkan had scrawled on the wall.

“I think they’d need a good deal more of it to have any chance of figuring out an unknown language from a non-human species,” said Astimelin wryly.

Captain Rostonai nodded. “What is the status of your patients, Doctor?”

“The eruithairkan is continuing to gain strength,” he said. “We are monitoring it and keeping it isolated.”

“What about our latest addition?”

“Lieutenant Thairk is in stable condition and conscious. He is responding to treatment,” said Astimelin. “I repaired his tongue. The man had managed to split the tip of his tongue in an effort to better communicate with his hosts.”

“Can he talk to the eruithairkan in our infirmary? According to his record, the Lieutenant was quite a prodigy in his day,” said Commander Pretan.

Astimelin sighed. “I doubt it. He told me that while he was on their ship, he was unable to get anything across to them beyond his simplest needs. He’s been through a lot, Sirs, but isn’t talking about it. I haven’t told Mr. Thairk that we even have an Eruithairkan on board.  I want to assign a psychologist to him for a while.”

“Very well,” 

“Does he know how he ended up in an old lifepod from one of our missing ships?” said Pretan.

“Thairk only remembers an alien grabbing him. Then he woke up a few times and was aware he was in the lifepod. He must have been in it for days without food or water.”

Commander Pretan said carefully, “Are we presuming that Mr. Thairk returned to us 175 years later, but only having aged about sixty years due to his travels in an Eruithairkan ship?”

“Yes,” said the Captain. “It’s much the same as how the crews of our own exploration ships effectively travel forward in time at an accelerated rate compared to the planet-bound.”

“Explorer ships map hyperspace at near the speed of light,” added Pretan. “When they periodically make the Jump back home, they find a different world where their family and friends have aged appreciably in their absence. It can be a lonely life.”

Astimelin said, “It’s likely one reason why the crews of exploration ships tend to knit into a quasi-familial unit.”

“Collectively it’s called the ‘joys’ of time dilation.” The Captain pushed himself away from the table. “We’ll let you return to your patients, Doctor. Thank you.”

The meeting broke up at that point.

Two days later, the eruithairkan had recovered enough that it was walking around in the isolation ward. A vegetable-based ink and a stylus had been provided to (hopefully) prevent it from harming itself  if it felt like writing. Any and all sounds the creature made were recorded for later study.

Erui Thairk had been moved to a private room, but was kept under observation. An assistant had been assigned to him because of his somewhat frail condition. The assistant was also assuring that Thairk was visiting the psychologist, Doctor Balaften. However, he still was not talking.

Then the Vethuimus received another distress signal from sector 15. The signal was pinpointed, and the ship jumped to just outside Eruithairkan space to retrieve it.

Astimelin with his medical team met Commander Pretan at the entrance to the lander bay. The warning light forbade them entrance.

“This is getting habit forming, Doctor.” She smiled.

“What have we got this time?” he said.

“Our readings show it to be another one of our lifepods. And yes, there are life signs inside.”

Astimelin shook his head. “What by Omniscient Zeg is going on?” he said.

The warning light cleared and the door to the bay opened.

“Let’s find out,” said Commander Pretan as she stepped in.

As the engineers quickly went over the small craft, one of them said, “It’s from the Ukenwas!”

Another said, “The Ukenwas? Askuit! That’s pre-Apocalypse!”

Pretan indicated the lifepod. “Let’s get this opened.” She motioned for Astimelin to go ahead.

Astimelin walked to the hatch and paused. He reached out and pressed the release control. The servos hummed and the hatch yawned downward, forming a ramp. There was dim light inside.

“Hello?” called Astimelin.  He took a step forward, but suddenly stopped as he saw someone coming out. He backed away a few paces, holding his arms out from his body to prevent others from coming near.

The woman who staggered out of the lifepod was a mess. She stood just outside of the hatch with one arm raised to hold onto the lip of the opening. She looked middle-age, with touches of gray in her long, scraggly hair, and she was thin to the point of emaciation. Her clothes consisted of a crude halter top hung around the neck and tied in the back, and a ragged, knee-length skirt, both made of thin, brown leather.

Astimelin held his hands out before him in a non-threatening way and began taking slow steps towards her. “We won’t hurt you,” he said. “You’re safe. We want to help you.” 

Her attention immediately went to him and her gaze became intense.

Again, using soft tones, he said, “You are safe here. It’s all right.” He stopped when he was within arms length of her.  She was looking at him as if in disbelief. Putting his hand to his chest he said, “My name is Astimelin, Astimelin Barinium.” Then he pointed to her with an open, upturned hand. “Who are you?  Do you understand me?”

The woman’s eyes opened wider and she straightened slightly, still holding the lip of the door. She took a breath and in a raspy voice she gasped, “I… I am Shengek… Barinium.” She let go of the door and fainted into Astimelin’s arms.

The Return-2

November 2, 2020

The Vethuimus jumped, emerging near one edge of the sector. It took readings on the signal and jumped again to triangulate the location. While no ship had dared enter Eruithairkan space since the confrontation in the Karpla star system, the area immediately around it had been well mapped for hyperspace jumps.

Sector 15 was also where the Ministry of Linguistics had chosen to locate their experiment. For the past several decades, a stationary buoy had been sending friendship messages into Eruithairkan space. The messages were in a new language, specially created to communicate with the Eruithairkans. 

No one knew if the powerful and xenophobic aliens were even listening. They had never responded in any way. Perhaps the Eruithairkans simply needed more time to sort out the attempts at communication. 

A final jump put the Vethuimus in close proximity to the signal source. It was a small lifepod, the sort used on exploration vessels. After being notified, Astimelin and a medical team headed to the lander bay. He met Commander Pretan in the corridor.

“Is this Déjà vu?” he said.

She responded with a smile and said, “We detected life signs in the pod.” 

Astimelin nodded. “Where did it come from? There’s nothing out here.”

“From its heading, it looks like the pod came out of Eruithairkan space.”

They arrived at the door to the bay, but the warning light indicated they could not yet enter.

Astimelin tapped the indicator as if to force a change in the staus. “I just don’t see why they would use one of our lifepods?”

She shugged. “It might just simply be one of ours.”

He glanced at the medical team and turned to her, lowering his voice. “Have we lost any ships out here recently?”

Pretan shook her head. “No ships have ever been lost in this sector,” she said quietly, “but you know that we are adjacent to sector 42 where five ships went missing.”

Astimelin thought for a moment. “But that was over two hundred years ago.“ 

Finally the warning light cleared and the door opened. They walked onto the landing bay and into a flurry of activity. The engineers were going over the craft as quickly as possible.

After one of them announced that everything was safe. Astimelin walked towards the hatch of the lifepod as it was unsealed. Even before it was completely open, he ducked into the dim opening. A moment later Astimelin called out, “Bring a litter. He’s still alive.”

The man was taken to the infirmary and examined. He was in fair shape, though very thin. He was also rather old. His thick gray hair and beard, and deeply wrinkled face attested to his age.

“Who could he be?” asked Pretan. “The lifepod is listed as belonging to the K.S. Elemeno which was presumably destroyed in Sector 42 two hundred years ago.”

Astimelin looked at the mystery man in the diagnostic bed from whom he had just extracted a blood sample. “This should tell us something,” he said holding up the small vial. He placed it in the analyzer and activated the device.

“Could he be from that long ago?” mused Pretan.

Astimelin shrugged. “Maybe, through the quirks of time dilation.” He was looking at the vid-plate and scrolling down through the readout. “He’s definitely human… A little undernourished…. Hmm…” He began bringing up more screens.

“What?” she said expectantly. 

“Commander,”said Astimelin, as if to alert her to bad news, “his DNA identifies him as a Lieutenant Erui Thairk who last served as a linguist on the exploration ship K.S. Itsen in 1082 K.E.”

“What do you mean?!” That was…  almost two centuries ago. How could this man be him?”

Astimelin straightened up from his stooped position at the computer. “It was about 175 years ago, Ma’am. They lost Lieutenant Thairk on the same mission as my ancestress.”

Commander Pretan glanced at the man lying in the diagnostic bed. “Lieutenant Erui Thairk,” she said in a whisper. Then she turned to Astimelin. “The species of your alien patient was named after him.”

“Yes. I am somewhat familiar with the event, Commander. The Institute of Planets could have just as easily named the planet they explored after him.”

A stirring from the bed caught their attention. The man was moaning and rocking back and forth. His eyes were closed. Astimelin quickly paged the nurse and went to the man. He glanced at the readings above the bed and instinctively took his hand.

“He’s dreaming,” Astimelin said to the Commander. Then he leaned over to the man’s ear. “You’re safe. We can help you. Can you understand me?”The man shook himself and opened his eyes, partially at first, then suddenly wider. “You’re humanth!  Oh Thankth be to Zog you’re humanth!”

The Return-1

November 1, 2020

The  Return

(A sequel to Terra Incognita)

By

D. Eliot Rutan

Astimelin Barinium checked the timestrip over the door to his office in the Main Ward and secured his work on the terminal. It was time to assemble at the airlock for the rendezvous with the Noremian freighter. The freighter had sent out a call of recovering a lifepod of unknown design in sector 77. The Medical Ship, Vethuimus, his ship, was assigned the task of the rescue and recovery of the pod. As Chief Medical Officer, he would be in charge of any casualties or survivors.

As he approached the airlock corridor, he was joined by the ship’s first officer, Commander Yorsa Pretan. “Wait up, Doctor,” she huffed, jogging up to him. “The recovery gang is still bringing the pod into the bay.” Commander Pretan was a handsome woman in her seventh decade. Her braided hair was gray, but her face still retained the joy of youth in her brown eyes. In his tenure aboard the Vethuimus, he had learned to admire her leadership and trust her judgement.

“At this rate,” said Astimelin, “we’ll be lucky if anyone’s left alive in the thing.  Whatever happened to urgency?”

“We were here within an hour of the call. Lucky thing we were in the general area,” she said, walking beside him. The corridor turned and they saw Captain Rostonai, several security guards, and the engineers. 

“What’s the status, Captain?” asked Astimelin.

Captain Afrisel Rostonai was considerably younger than his first officer. Additionally, he had a boyish face which he tried to hide with a well trimmed, but grayless beard. “The pod has just been secured,” he said. “As soon as security opens it, we can go in.”

“You suspect a trap?” asked Pretan.

Captain Rostonai glanced sideways at them, his body facing the doors to the bay. “We detected some sort of life forms onboard, but the message did come from a Noremian freighter.”

“The attack on Koplushia was over two hundred years ago,” said Pretan.

“I think,” said Astimelin, “the captain is saying that it takes time to change minds.”

Captain Rostonai nodded. “Exactly!”

The doors opened again and one of the security personnel came out. “All clear, Sir.” As if on cue, a group of junior med-techs arrived with equipment and litters.

Astimelin, Rostonai and Pretan walked into the bay, followed by the litter crew. The pod was definitely of alien manufacture, not having the lines of anything known in the Alliance. Astimelin strode right up to it and watched as one of the engineers pried the hatch open.

It was dark inside, but when one of the lights was directed in, Astimelin saw something incredible. “Omniscient Zeg!” he said.  “Get the litters over here. Now!”

    Astimelin had just sat down to begin filling out reports when Commander Pretan stepped in the door. “How is the patient?”

    Astimelin turned his chair to look at the Commander. “I believe it’s stable, but still unconscious.”

    “May I see it? It’s not everyday one gets to see an eruithairkan.”

    “I suppose,” he said, standing up. He led the Commander down a short hall and through the ward door. It was hot and very humid in the ward. Resting in a sling suspended from a small cargo hoist was a human-size squid-like creature. It was grayish green and had a large oblong head with two large, bulbous eyes. 

Three supportive legs hung limp as did two large arms suited to lifting and three smaller three fingered manipulative appendages. A mist of water was being constantly sprayed over the creature.

    “I’ve made a few assumptions,” said Astimelin. “Let’s hope I’m right.  It exhibits many of the traits of an amphibian, so I’m trying to hydrate it. The physiology is different than ours, so I didn’t want to chance subcutaneous infusions. 

Apparently, it is cold blooded,” he added. “I got the report on the pod it was in. This room is up to the heat the Techs say the pod was designed to maintain.”

    “It looks like you have things well in hand, Doctor.  Keep me posted of any change.”

    “Commander,” said Astimelin, “What are we going to do with it?” He indicated the unconscious eruithairkan.

    Yorsa Pretan looked at the patient and back to Astimelin. “I think that’s up to the Council, not us. Keep me posted.”

    The next day, the eruithairkan awoke. Astimelin had begun referring to it as Spot in his notes, because it had a large round mark over the left eye. He and a nurse did some rudimentary examination of the creature while trying to calm it with soft voices. Spot’s lifting-arm groped out while making slurping and gurgling sounds. Then it began alternately holding out one of its manipulative arms and putting it in its apparent mouth.

    “I think our patient is hungry,” said Astimelin.

“What do you suppose they eat?” said the nurse.

He sent the nurse away to bring in some selections he had made. She returned with a large bowl of water, a tray of fresh fish, courtesy of the onboard fish farm, and a selection of raw vegetables from hydroponics. Spot devoured every bit of it and drank down the water. Astimelin sent the nurse to bring more of the same. “We have no idea what their appetite should be like,” he said.

While the nurse was gone, Astimelin examined the eruithairkan. The sling it was in allowed its legs to touch the floor. Spot slowly swung itself around to watch Astimelin.

He then proceeded to lower the sling to the floor. The eruithairkan stood on its three legs with ease and shambled over to the cart of food. Astimelin motioned for the nurse to follow him out.

“Let’s keep an eye on it via the video,” he said. “We can learn a lot from how they behave when alone..” The nurse nodded and secured the door to the ward.

Astimelin just finished composing his report for the morning briefing when the nurse called him to the ward. He met her at the monitor where she had been watching the eruithairkan. “Look at that!” she said. “It’s writing something on the wall!”

The monitor was zoomed in to the wall of the ward, Spot had used a vegetable stick as a stylus to write on the wall. It had used blood from a small self inflicted wound as ink. It had returned to the sling, but blood was slowly dripping into a small red puddle on the floor.

“What do you suppose it means?” she asked.

“First let’s get a bandage on that wound,” he said. After the nurse started doing that, Astimelin went to his computer. “I’m adding this latest development and grabbing an image for the briefing. Let me know immediately if anything else happens.”  He grabbed his pocket computer and left.

Astimelin returned an hour later. He went over to the nurse, who had been monitoring the eruithairkan. “Any changes?”

“No,” she said. “It seems alert, but hasn’t moved from the harness.”

“Captain Rostonai wants to bring in a linguist. By rights we ought to have one on staff.”

“I guess since our patients are usually human, it didn’t seem necessary,” she said.

Astimelin sighed. “And the ones that might do us some good are all away on exploration ships. It may take weeks to get one.”

Suddenly the intercom beeped. “Doctor, we’re receiving a distress signal from Sector 15. We’re about to make the jump.”

Astimelin pressed a contact. “Thank you, Sir.  We’ll be ready.”

The nurse turned to look at him. “Isn’t that sector near… Eruithairkan space?”

He shrugged. “Maybe our patient is about to get some company.”

Terra Incognita-Final

October 24, 2020

Captain’s Log of the Koplushian Spaceship Itsen: 5th day of the 7th month of the year 1082 of the Koplushian Era

   It has been two weeks since Lieutenant Thairk crossed over and entered the alien vessel and we have heard nothing from him. Our field generators are beyond repair and it will be at least a week before power can be restored to our engines. Three of our crew, including Commander Eloe, Observer Barinium, and Med-tech Traid are stranded on the planet below. It is unknown exactly how the aliens would react to a rescue mission, but one of our landers was already destroyed trying to return to the planet. I hold hope that Lieutenant Thairk knows what he’s doing.

Captain Karpla sat looking at the viewscreen showing the three alien vessels. He wondered what was going to happen and he wished there was a right action he could take. Every minute that passed reminded him that no ship had ever returned from sector 42.

“Sir, message coming in from the alien spacecraft,” said Lt. Glin.

“On screen,” said Karpla.

The face of Erui Thairk came on the display. He looked tired, but well. “Captain, you have to leave immediately. They want you to leave.”

“It’s good to see you too, Lieutenant. What do you mean. I can’t just leave you over there and we still have people on the planet.”

Thairk looked annoyed. “You don’t understand, they don’t want you here. If you don’t leave you’ll be destroyed.”

“And you?”

Thairk’s eyes kept darting left and right as if keeping an eye on his hosts. “Don’t worry about me sir. Get the ship away before it’s destroyed. I’ve been able to delay them this long so that you could make repairs, now go!”

“Mister Thairk, I told you before…”

“Thairk’s face became furtive.”Oh Zog, they’re targeting… Go!” The screen went blank at that point, and a blast shook the Itsen.

“Mister Leslai, get us out here. Full thrusters towards home. Now!”

Another blast hit the ship. “One more like that and we’ll be walking…” said Leslai.

“Get us away! Now” barked Karpla.

Another blast hit the ship as if to help them along. The lights on the bridge blinked this time.

“We’re going, damnit! Leave us be!” yelled Karpla. Another blast hit the ship, this one a bit softer.

“Are they pursuing, Mister Leslai?”

Leslai checked the scanner readout at his station. “No sir, the hostiles are out of range. They’re letting us go.”

Karpla slumped back in his chair in relief. Hardly a successful mission for him. “Lieutenant Glin, send a message to Koplushia telling them our status. The Itsen is on her way home.”

From the Journal of Shengek Barinium, Observer for the Koplushian Council. 1082, 7, 20

   We’ve been on this Hellhole of a planet for a month with no contact from the Itsen. Even Mogbee says it doesn’t look good. He believes he saw a few tiny flashes in the sky about 15 days ago. I hate this place.

Shengek had finally resigned herself that she was stuck on this planet. It wasn’t a joyous prospect to be sure, but it was what life had given her. Bagumba continued to help her learn and the women of the village seemed to welcome her company, especially as now she could start talking to them. They listened intently to her stories of other worlds and places, asking for clarifications about things they would never truly understand. Then they would go about their daily chores.

Often she and Mogbee would find a spot away from the village where they could talk. Conversation together was the only thing left of their former lives. No longer was she an Observer for the Koplushian Council and no longer was Mogbee a Commander aboard the Itsen. Shengek began to wonder how long their clothing would last. Would they both end up dressed in animal skins, or less like the natives? She missed her father, but at least he was on Koplushia, not this primitive planet.

One evening she found Mugbe on the nearby rise of the land looking into the darkening sky. “Naming that moon again?”

He nodded.

Shengek paused. “It is a beautiful satellite, Mogbee. Koplushia doesn’t even have one, not that I would have seen it anyway.”

“Vrit does, but it isn’t that large.  It’s named Tinvrita. That’s the name of a goddess from our ancient myths. She was the Goddess of the harvest.” Mogbee paused, and took an audible breath.

“Looks like it’s up to us to name this planet after all,” said Shengek. “Do the natives have something they call it?”

“I’ve asked. The best answer I could get is ‘Mother‘. I’d still prefer Vhaim.”

She chuckled softly. “As you wish. Vhaim. But are you sure you wouldn’t settle for Loo Suitl?”

Mogbee laughed. “Close enough. In Vritian or Koplushian, it still means The Sixth.”

Shengek smiled. “And the satellite?”

Mogbee shook his head. “I couldn’t figure out what they call it, but I think naming it Glorin would be appropriate.”

Shengek nodded solemnly and sighed. “I do truly hate this place.”

Mogbee looked at her. “I know.”

“What’s to become of us? Are we really abandoned on this… this…”

“Rock?” finished Mogbee.

“Hellhole,” she answered. “Is there any hope we’ll be rescued?” Even in the twilight, he could see she was becoming distraught.

“I don’t know. We have no idea what happened up there.” He pointed skyward.

She looked up at the moon named Glorin, and back to the ground.

“What I do know,” he said, “is that we’re alive. The best hope we have of rescue is if we stay alive. The villagers here are friendly and they’ve begun including us in their group. I think we’ll be safe as long as we stay with them.”

Shengek sighed and glanced at the moon again. She wiped her eye and sniffed. “I have to get back to the village. I promised the women I’d help prepare for tomorrow’s meal.”

“I promised I’d help the men get ready for the hunt. While the power unit in this lasts,” he indicated the mag-rifle, “the village will eat well.” Mogbee stood up, glanced at the moon once more, and accompanied Shengek back to the village. 

Epilogue

Captain’s Log of the Koplushian Spaceship Itsen: 15th day of the 8th month of the year 1082 of the Koplushian Era. 

   We are nearly out of Sector 42 where we can rendezvous with a ship to repair our field generators so that we can jump home. A message from Koplushia states that the Council is placing Sector 42 under Protected status and that no ships are to enter the sector. The aliens are to be called the Eruithairkans, after the brave Lieutenant. When repairs are made, this ship is to begin exploring beyond sector 27. Who knows what we’ll find out there?

The End

Terra Incognita-5

October 23, 2020

Captain’s Log of the Koplushian Spaceship Itsen: 23rd day of the 6th month of the year 1082 of the Koplushian Era.

   We have been attacked by three alien vessels of immense power. Our weapons and defenses are ineffective. Our field generators are damaged. Lieutenant Thairk has convinced me to allow him to attempt first contact with these unknown aliens. I can only hope he is correct in his plans.

On the screen, a single spacesuited figure floated out from the Itsen. Using only the maneuvering backpack, the figure moved slowly towards the nearest Hostile ship. A square of light appeared in the ship and a long mechanical arm extended out, sporting a claw. It grabbed the spacesuited figure and pulled it in. The square of light closed.

From the Journal of Shengek Barinium, Observer for the Koplushian Council. 1082, 6, 23. 

   We’ve been alone on the planet for two days. Glorin Traid, the Med-tech is with us, but she spends most of her time with the natives, gathering data, I suppose. Lieutenant Midge was to return this morning with the lander and the ship’s been out of contact with us. I hope all is well. One of the native children has taken a liking to Commander Eloe. His name is Bagumba, I think. He follows us around as we explore the area. It could be that he’s been ‘assigned’ to help us learn to speak.

Mogbee smiled as usual as he approached Shengek. He found her sitting on a flat rock by the small stream that flowed near the village. Further down, it widened into a rocky pool where the village women washed out the rudimentary clothing they wore.

“Any word from the ship?” asked Shengek.

Mogbee shook his head. “Aglaiya,” he said, using the natives dialect.

Shengek frowned. “I hope they come soon. I hate this place. The bugs bite,” she swatted one on her arm, “it’s hot, and there’s nothing here but savages and animals.” At that a loud bird cawed overhead.

Mogbee paused, slowly taking a step back. He had just been given a ceremonial staff, but now re-thought the idea of showing it to her. “Look at the bright side,” he said, trying to cheer her. “We have air to breathe, food to eat, and… look at the scenery. Where else would you see a moon like that.” He indicated the semicircle rising behind her.

Shengek turned to look over her shoulder and suddenly shrieked and jumped towards Eloe. “Snake!” she cried, pointing. Mogbee laughed. “A snake? I’ll take care of it.” Mogbee strode over gallantly holding out his ceremonial staff. He put an end of it in a loop of the snake, and flung it a long distance away. “Your snake is dispatched, Madam.”

Just then, Bagumba, the native boy, broke through the brush gibbering quickly and pointing back the way he’d come. “What’s he saying? I don’t understand it,” said Shengek.

“I can’t tell,” said Mogbee. “I thought he said something about Traid. He’s going too fast. Let’s just follow him.”

They ran behind the boy through the village to where the trees opened up to a grassland. Bagumba stopped and pointed, several of male villagers were there, holding spears at the ready. Shengek saw a large four legged animal out in the field. She could also hear the screams of Glorin Traid. Before she could say anything, Mogbee aimed his mag-rifle. He fired and the animal howled, then fell over. The villagers rushed ahead. They dragged the animal a short distance and began gutting it.

Shengek was frozen in fear at what had happened. She saw Mogbee run up to where Glorin Traid lay and crouch down. He looked up at her, the look on his face told her everything. The shake of his head confirmed it.

Shengek fell to her knees and cried. When Mogbee walked back to her, she pushed him away, screaming, “I hate this place! Do you hear me? Call the ship and get us off this hasker planet. I hate it here!”

Mogbee kept his distance and said, “I can’t. The Itsen must be out of range or we would have been contacted.”

She screamed again, wiping the tears from her cheeks. “‘Skuit this whole world! It’s a living Hell!” Shengek began running towards the village and Mogbee followed. She ran into the hut they had been ‘given,’ throwing herself down on the mat. Mogbee stayed outside.

Bagumba appeared at his side and Mogbee strove to get across to the boy that Shengek should be watched. He then went back to where Glorin Traid lay. The village men had gathered and Mogbee managed to arrange for a pyre as was typical for Koplushian funerals.

The sun was setting when Mogbee entered the hut. Shengek had fallen asleep after her rage. He turned on the lamp from his kit and shook her gently. She stirred. “There’s no easy way to say this Shengek.” She turned over and propped herself up on one arm to look at him expectantly.

“I’ve arranged the pyre…”

“Oh,” she said quietly.”Do we have to?”

“No, you don’t have to, but I wanted to give you the chance.”

Shengek coughed and stood up. She poured some water from a gourd into her hands and washed her face. “I’m sure I look a mess.”

“That doesn’t matter here,” said Mogbee. “I mean…”

“The truth is fine for now,” she said, trying to adjust her hair without so much as a mirror. “It’s not about me.”

They left the darkness of the hut and entered the dimness of the outdoors. Shengek swatted a bug on her arm absently. “Damn bugs!”

Glorin Traid’s body had been wrapped in an animal skin and rested on a platform made of arm-thick logs over a pile of similarly sized wood. Torches on long poles stuck in the ground surrounded the pyre. The native they knew as ‘The Chief’ came over as they approached and said a few slow words. Shengek still couldn’t quite get what was said, but Mogbee answered in the affirmative. The chief handed Mogbee two torches. 

He looked over to Shengek. “I’ll do this alone if you like.”

She shook her head. “No, I need to go through with it. Glorin deserves it.”

They approached the pyre together, the other villagers stood surrounding it at a safe distance.

Mogbee said, in sing-song fashion, “Kani ronostewa kanum, Glorin Traid” Shengek, beside him, repeated the petition in Koplushian, “Zog tei liri siv, Glorin Traid.” Then they plunged their torches into the pyre together.

Terra Incognita-4

October 22, 2020

Captain’s Log of the Koplushian Spaceship Itsen: 22th day of the 6th month of the year 1082 of the Koplushian Era

   Our landing party has discovered primitive humans on the third planet and has initiated contact. They appear to be only at the level of the stone age, but have been confirmed as aboriginal humans by Med-tech Traid. The landing party believes we have found the sixth planet of humans as prophesied by Engreth Pretm.

Sensors have indicated the approach of three large unknown vessels. I have recalled Linguist Thairk and the science team back to the Itsen. Commander Eloe, Lieutenant Commander Traid, and Observer Barinium will continue with the first contact.

“Lieutenant Thairk reporting in, Captain.” The young Lieutenant stood looking expectantly at Karpla.

“Mister Thairk, there are three unknown vessels approaching us from the interior of the sector. I’ll need you at your best for first contact. We are currently broadcasting friendship images at the vessels. I don’t think I need to remind you that no spacecraft have ever returned from this sector.”

“No sir, you don’t. The same thought occurred to me. I’ll do my best. When should the Unknowns arrive?”

Karpla looked over at Lt. Leslai at the Helm. “They will be within effective weapons range tomorrow at 10:50 hours,” said Leslai.

Thairk whispered to himself, but audibly, “Surely we’re not firing on them…”

“Only in self defense, Lieutenant,” said Karpla. “We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

Sleep evaded Erui Thairk and the morning came too soon for rest. He reported for duty early and took a seat at a computer terminal. The Captain was right. Over the past score of years no fewer than five ships had entered sector 42. None were ever heard from again. The Itsen was likely the only one to actually get off a message before… whatever happened, happened.

Sector 42 was also nicknamed the ‘Unknown Sector’ because it had never been explored while adjoining areas had to some extent. Even the records of the one-time Vritian Empire were blank in this region. A map of that quadrant of the galaxy showed that the unexplored area was considerably larger than just one sector. Could the Unknowns…

“Getting an early start Lieutenant? Very commendable.” It was Captain Karpla, standing right behind him.

“Yes, Captain, I…”

“I see you’re doing research on the area. Again, very commendable.” Captain Karpla strode to his command chair and sat down. He was sipping his morning tea. “The Unknowns are just entering our weapons range, Captain. They’ve been slowing as we expected. Definitely coming to us.”

“Very good, Mister Leslai. Break orbit from the planet. We may need to maneuver.”

“Aye, Sir. Breaking orbit.”

The Itsen waited. It was well clear of the planet and its moon. On the screen the three Unknowns were becoming clearer. The design was unlike anything on record. They looked like sleek, multifaceted domes with semicircles inscribed on the upper surfaces. 

“Captain, Lieutenant Midge requests permission to launch for his return to the planet.” Said Com-tech Glin. “We’re still within landing range.”

Karpla was watching the ships approaching, but glanced over at Glin, “Permission granted. Commander Eloe would never forgive me if he were stranded for long.”

A moment later a beam leapt from one of the Unknowns. The force of the explosion rocked the Itsen. “The lander’s been destroyed!” said Leslai.

“Shields up! Battle Alert!” ordered Karpla. A klaxon wailed throughout the ship. “Mister Leslai, Target missiles on the lead ship.”

Thairk turned in his chair to face the Captain. “Sir, if we’re going to talk to them…”

Karpla spun around to him. “Don’t tell me how to run my ship! Lt.Glin, send this message to the Hostiles: Attention alien vessels, This is Captain Dagrith Karpla of the Koplushian Spaceship Itsen. We are on a mission of peaceful exploration and mean you no harm. Please respond.”

Thairk turned back to his station and continued working.

“Message coming in Captain,” said Glin.

“Put it on screen.”

Thairk finished what he was doing and turned to the main screen. On it was a huge, tripedal cephalopod with tentacles. The sound that accompanied it was best described as a slurping/sucking sound, like that of a drain emptying, punctuated by gurgles.

Karpla turned to Thairk. “What do you make of it?”

“Very interesting, Sir. I’d need to hear more to sort it out though. Thairk made some experimental slurping sounds, trying to imitate what he’d heard. “Captain I have an idea…”

There was a flash and Itsen shook. “You may not get a chance if this keeps up. Mister Leslai, fire those missiles!”

Four missiles sped towards the lead ship. A beam leapt out from it and destroyed the missiles. The beam was then turned on the Itsen. The ship rocked and a few of the control panels exploded into sparks. Leslai reported, “That one hit our number four field generator. It went right through our shields!”

“Ready the particle beam,” ordered Karpla.

Thairk stood up, “Captain, if I may…”

“Particle beam armed and ready, Captain.”

“Fire!”

The beam was aimed at the lead ship, but just short of the contact it was seemingly absorbed.

Another blast from the Hostiles. The Itsen shook more violently this time. Thairk fell towards the Captain.

“Port side field generators are gone, Sir,” said Leslai.

Thairk pulled himself up to Karpla. “Sir, if I may. I don’t see us winning this fight. None of our ships have ever returned from this sector, but I have an idea.”

Captain Karpla looked at him. “Yes, Lieutenant? What is it.”

“We need to talk to them. It’s obvious we don’t understand them, nor they us. We’ve the same situation the exodus fleet had with those Breisardees.”

“What would you suggest?”

Thairk went over to his console and pressed a button. “Let me go over there, alone. It’s the only way. One man won’t be a threat to them.”

“Are you mad?” asked Karpla. “What’s to stop them from firing on you as they have the ship?”

“I’ve just sent them pictures of what I intend. I think they’ll be curious enough. If you’ll notice, they’ve stopped firing. Once I’m over there, I’m sure I can learn to communicate with them.”

Karpla looked at the three alien ships on the viewscreen. “Very well, Lieutenant. We’ll try it your way.”