Sk-5. We Come In Peace
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Depending on who you asked, space exploration was either tremendously exciting and filled with wonder, or painstakingly boring and a waste of time. The intrepid AI Sveta believed the former; the prospect of warping to other star systems, discovering strange new worlds and making first contact with a civilization of intelligent crabs inflamed her already overflowing sense of adventure.

As for 2nd Lieutenant Hunter Kretzer, however…

“Ugh, this is sooooooooo boring!” he grumbled for precisely the 242nd time, rapping his knuckles on Sveta’s control console.

The projection of Sveta’s avatar on the cockpit’s spherical holo-screen rolled her eyes as she ticked off another counter in her memory logs. “Hush, Hunter. You’re so whiny. I’m having a blast!”

Hunter emitted a beleaguered and rather overdramatic sigh, running his hand through his short-buzzed blonde hair. “Having a blast doing what, exactly? Spectral analysis?”

“It’s not just spectral analysis! You know that!” Sveta shot back indignantly. She and Hunter had been buzzing around Barnard’s Star for nearly two weeks now, their GFIS-125 Foxbat Gravity Frame performing micro warp jumps as they analyzed the system from several different angles and distances. Sveta, beyond enthused at being the vanguard of humanity’s first contact with a potentially friendly alien race, devoured all the data her sensors recorded with the voracity of a black hole.

Hunter, conversely, was presently exhibiting the voracity of a dwarf planet which hadn’t even sucked up all the asteroids and dust in its orbit. “Yeah, yeah. You’re following a trail of breadcrumbs. Big whoop!”

Sveta planted her hands on her hip and assumed a stern expression. “Need I remind you we’re preparing to make first contact here? Every tidbit of information I can assimilate about the crabs will help us make a good first impression!”

Hunter chuckled dryly. “I think it’ll make a better first impression when we blast every Sarcophage in their solar system to dust. What have you learned, anyway? I thought there was no signals shell around the system.”

One of the first things they’d looked for was a shell of electromagnetic signals surrounding Barnard’s Star, much like the one Earth emitted thanks to humanity’s constant radio chatter. They’d taken readings every half-lightyear, but come up short; either the crabs didn’t use radio communications like humans, or they hadn’t been sending anything recently. Given they were currently being asteroid-bombed back into the stone age, the latter seemed more likely.

“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Sveta pouted. “If we’d picked up some kind of television broadcast or whatever, at least I’d be able to start deciphering their language. Guess we’ll just have to wait for the Radiolaria Galactia to get here before we begin the real work.”

“What’s their ETA again?” Hunter asked, failing to keep the wistfulness out of his voice. He’d gone relatively stir-crazy after being cooped up in a Gravity Frame cockpit for two weeks, despite the creature comforts of artificial gravity and gravy-soaked ration bars. He longed to go back home, to sleep in a warm bunk, to see his friends again.

“Six days, seventeen hours,” Sveta responded, cringing as she anticipated another bout of complaining from Hunter. Sure enough, he didn’t disappoint.

“Ugh, six more days? I was honestly expecting more excitement when I signed up for the Army, not this endless tedium.”

Sveta shook her head, half-smiling at the young soldier’s misplaced expectations. “War and exploration are very much alike in that respect, Hunter. Both are defined by long stretches of boredom punctuated by short bursts of excitement.”

Hunter slumped back in the cockpit chair. “Yeah, but where’s my excitement? Six years of service and I haven’t seen a single battle!” The starry-eyed young lieutenant had joined up just after the conclusion of the Sarcophage War, and felt somewhat left out when surrounded by battle-hardened veterans.

“And with any luck, you’ll go another century without having to pull the trigger,” Sveta lectured. “War isn’t fun, Hunter. It’s terrifying and horrible.”

Hunter slumped down further, his spine nearly parallel with the seat cushion. “Please, not the ‘war is hell’ speech again.”

Sveta relented. “I’m not without mercy, Hunter. I’ll spare you… this time.”

“Thank you, oh mighty goddess of giant robots,” Hunter replied sarcastically.

“Hush, or an actual goddess might get offended. Now, if it’s not too much bother 2nd Lieutenant, strap yourself in for the next warp jump. We’ll be making a close pass to try and get some spectrum lines from the crab homeworld. Hop to!”

Hunter made a lazy attempt at a salute, more in jest than any attempt to be official; he knew damn well Sveta wasn’t one to stand on ceremony. “Aye-aye, ma’am.”

“And pay attention this time,” Sveta continued, ignoring his flippancy. “We’ll be making an extremely close pass to the system, and if the Sarcophage detect us they might send out a skipcraft to intercept. Stay on your toes in case we need to fight our way out.”

“Don’t threaten me with a good time,” Hunter replied, drawing a small giggle from Sveta. “Trust me, if the Sarcophage come swarming, I’ll be ready.”

******

“There it is again!” A-66 said excitedly, their claws rapping staccato against their blue-white shell.

E-59 tilted their eyestalks forwards towards the bubble-screen. They analyzed the graph, trying to understand exactly what the emissions lines meant. “So what? It’s just a burst of energy.”

A-66 tinged bright yellow in annoyance. “It’s not just a burst of energy, E-59. The particles are tachyonlike.”

E-59 had learned what a tachyon was, sometime around their third or fourth molting when they were still in the General Guild, but that knowledge had long since diluted away into their protoplasm. “And remind me what…”

“A tachyon is an elementary particle that travels faster than light. Imbuing particles with tachyonlike properties forms the basis of our FTL telescopes and communication systems. Origin’s gonopods, E-59, didn’t you learn all this in General?”

E-59 flashed a shade of yellow that almost matched A-66 and tapped their eyestalks together thrice. “You’ll forgive me if that seems like several lifetimes ago.”

A-66’s carapace reverted back to neutral blue. “Sorry, sorry. Let me give you the short version: someone is using an FTL drive to jump around to various points outside our star system… almost as if they’re scouting us.”

“And?” E-59 asked somewhat impatiently. “The Enemy uses FTL all the time. They have that space warping ring and those weird… ship things. The ones that look like giant fish with spines, yeah?”

A-66 sighed red. “This is different. See the variations in the UV-hyperlight lines here, here and here?” They indicated several data points on the chart with their fineclaws.

Small spurts of yellow tinged into E-59’s blue. “Let’s pretend for a moment that I don’t. I’m an engineer, remember?”

A-66 realized they’d let their enthusiasm override their comprehensibility once more, and flashed sheepish pink. “…Well, these tachyonlike particles don’t match Enemy signatures, or our own. Someone else is generating them.”

E-59 though about that for a few microcycles, and their carapace brightened as they realized exactly what A-66 was talking about. “Wait, you mean…”

“EXACTLY!” A-66 rapped out excitedly. “The mechanicals must be close!”

E-59 tried hard to tamp down on their excitement, tried not to lose themselves to hope just yet. “C-Can we confirm that somehow? Can we talk to them?” they asked cautiously.

“I believe so.” A-66 scuttled forwards and began to tap away at the bubble-screen with their fineclaws. “I’m moving the FTL telescope into position.” They froze for a second, looking back on their friend. “What if it is the mechanicals? What do we say?”

A-66 shrugged. “How about… ‘Hello!’”

******

“Rap tap tap taptaptap click rap tap clonk drrrrr rap rap tap!” the speaker announced.

Sveta and Hunter both frowned. “Is that their language? A series of taps and clicks?” Hunter asked, rubbing his forehead as if the motion would stimulate the neurons in his brain.

“I think so. Maybe they produce it with their claws?” Sveta mused. “It would make sense, if they have no vocal chords.”

A half-hour ago, Sveta’s sensors had picked up another transmission rendered in Cherenkov radiation, very similar to the one she’d received near Venus. Sveta had instantly pinpointed the source, and one warp jump later, they were staring at an obviously artificial mechanical construction that looked a bit like a tricked-out Hubble telescope by way of a Picasso painting. After Sveta spent a few trillion processor cycles (roughly three seconds) figuring out the crab’s audio codecs, they’d established humanity’s first contact with a friendly alien civilization… only to run smack into the problem of language barrier.

Namely, how do two exceedingly different lifeforms who evolved independently on planets light-years apart figure out how to talk with each other?

“Without some kind of baseline, I can’t translate this,” Sveta groused. “What I wouldn’t give for a Rosetta stone, a Speak & Spell, even a Dick and Jane basal reader.”

“Why not try the pictographs?” Hunter suggested. “That’s how they reached out to us in the first place.”

“Good idea,” Sveta responded, quickly rendering a few images.

******

“What is that?” E-59 muttered in half-awe, half-horror.

“It looks like a horribly mutated trench worm,” A-66 mused, their attempts to suppress their disgust mottling their carapace green and blue.

The pictograph depicted a strange creature, soft and squishy, with a body plan that did not seem suited for swimming in the least. It was tall and thin, with a bulbous hairy mass atop a somewhat cruciform body; the post of the cross split into two appendages that reached to the ground, and the arms of the cross wriggled in midair, terminating in a mass of five stubby tentacles apiece.

“Is that what they look like?” E-59 guessed. “The basic shape is the same as the mechanicals. Two… legs, I guess, on the bottom, a central torso, two appendages higher up, ending in tentacles obviously meant for manipulation of small objects. Perhaps those are their version of fineclaws? And atop it all, a sensory bulb… perhaps the hair growing from it is some organ for sensing fluid pressure?”

“I’m no biologist, but I don’t see how that form could have evolved in any ocean, no matter how exotic,” A-66 said, unable to tear their eyestalks away from the gruesome creature.

“Maybe they evolved on land?”

“Impossible. Abiogenesis can’t occur on land. Even the most ludicrous xenobiologist would never propose such nonsense.” Every single lifeform on the crab’s homeworld had evolved in the ocean, as was proper, and many (like the crabs themselves) had migrated to the frozen surface for at least part of their life cycles. Even so, they still returned to the warmth of the ocean to mate and reproduce.

“Try to keep an open mind, A-66. These are alien lifeforms, after all. Our so-called rules of biology might mean nothing to them.”

“I suppose,” A-66 admitted. “Do you think those… fleshy things inhabit the mechanical entities in the same way we inhabit our exoskeletons?”

“Could be. Let’s respond with a picture of ourselves, and go from there.”

******

The initial excitement of first contact soon gave way to tedium as Hunter, Sveta, A-66 and E-59 spent nearly two human days exchanging hundreds of pictographs, slowly building a common understanding with each other. After many false starts, a rudimentary form of communication developed, one that could only express basic concepts. In broad strokes, the conversation went something like:

We are creatures from the third planet of the bright yellow star.

We are creatures from the first planet of the dim red star.

We are mammals, sexual reproduction, land-dwelling.

We are amoebas inside of crabs. We reproduce by cell division, and our exoskeletons reproduce sexually. We can live in the ocean or on the surface.

We are happy to meet you.

We are happy to meet you too. Why are you here?

Because we received your signal. This machine is a weapon, to fight the Enemy.

You are here to fight them? Why?

Because you asked for help. We’ve come help you.

Only you have come?

No. Many more will come soon. We are bringing an army.

The pictograph containing that last message depicted one of the mechanical’s ships, a massive vessel shaped like an arrowhead and encircled by two purple rings, spilling forth hundreds of mechanicals which took up position between the crab homeworld and the Enemy forces. A-66 stared at it in unrestrained awe.

“Incredible,” he tapped absentmindedly, wiping the fatigue from his eyestalks. “They’re coming to help us. They really… they’re really…”

“Your gambit worked!” E-59 said excitedly, finally allowing hope its hard-won victory. “We’re… we’re saved!” They thumped their friend’s carapace with one of their strongclaws affectionately.

A-66 winced a bit, but their carapace brightened to white-blue. “I can’t believe… they’re really…”

Their brief revelry was interrupted by a cacophonous boom, and the entire cave shook frantically as sections of the ceiling caved it. Both crabs flashed purple, their strongclaws shielding their eyestalks from the falling debris.

“What…?” A-66 yelped, quickly manipulating the bubble screen to show a view of the surface visual sensors. “Another asteroid impact? That felt stronger, though…” They trailed off as they stared at the display in horror.

“What is it? What was that?” E-59 asked pensively. A-66 wordlessly pointed at the screen, too horrified to speak.

Hovering directly above them was one of the Enemy’s largest creatures, the one that resembled two conjoined lobsters with stinger-laden tails. It was firing a barrage of glowing red spines downwards, directly at the surface above the cave where A-66 and E-59 were hiding.

“The signal!” E-59 said in horror. “They traced it back here!”

This was unprecedented. Up until now, the Enemy had simply lurked in orbit, sending asteroids down in kinetic impact attacks. Now they were attacking directly, seemingly obsessed with taking out A-66 and E-59.

A-66 snapped out of their furor and began frantically tapping away at the bubble screen with both fineclaws. The cave’s ceiling continued to shatter and fall around them.

“What are you doing?” E-59 asked in a half-panic.

“Sending one last message to the mechanical. If anyone can help, it’s them.” A-66 responded, forcing themselves to remain calm.

******

Help us.

The meaning of the final pictographs were clear. The first depicted two crabs, hiding underneath a purplish rock ceiling, with a looming Sarcophage above firing downwards at them. Branching out from that were two possibilities… the death of the two crabs, unceremoniously impaled by spinefire, or a Gravity Frame destroying the attacking Sarcophage and saving them.

“They must have traced the Cherenkov signal back to its source,” Sveta said grimly. “We’ve theorized the Sarcophage go after any FTL technology they detect, and we’ve been sending signals back and forth using this FTL telescope for two days. That was enough to trigger a direct attack.”

“How long can they survive?” Hunter asked, wringing his hands. “Can they hold out until the Radiolaria gets here?”

Sveta shook her head sadly. “Hold out for four days against a Belphegor, with no weapons? Extremely unlikely.”

There was a pause, an unspoken question, a meaningful glance. When the awkwardness had dragged on for slightly too long, Hunter asked the obvious.

“We’re going to help them, right?”

“It’s against our mission parameters,” Sveta replied, earning an acidic glare from Hunter. “That said, a Foxbat should be an even match for a Belphegor, at least according to our simulations.”

“Should be?”

“They’re very good simulations; Moby designed them herself. If it’s just one Belphegor, and a Frame-class swarm, we should be able to handle it. The question is, what comes after?”

“Does it matter?” Hunter said insistently. “They need help, right now, and we’re in a position to provide that help. Isn’t the point of all this to save them?”

Sveta didn’t need convincing; she had merely wanted to voice her concerns. Her impulsiveness and desire to do good took priority, as usual. “Yeah, you’re right. Prepare for warp jump, followed by combat. We’re going in.”

Hunter nodded, strapping on his Inertia Suit’s helmet and gripping Sveta’s controls tightly.

“Let’s do this.”

******

The crab’s homeworld was a super-Earth defined by a surface of thick purplish ice which was pockmarked with recently-formed impact craters; it hosted an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium mixed with water vapor, not dissimilar to Neptune’s. Existing just beyond the snow line of Barnard’s Star, the average surface temperature was about -20 degrees Celsius, with a surfeit of volcanic and geological activity melting the lowest levels of the ice, resulting in a subterranean ocean that sheltered a wide range of life. It was under this ice sheet that the few surviving crabs now hid, as the constant asteroid impacts inched closer to exposing their ocean to total extinction.

A purple flash flared up high above the world’s atmosphere, marking the arrival of Sveta and Hunter. A few microseconds after completing the warp jump, they dove downwards towards the surface. The Sarcophage swarm surrounding the world wasted no time in assailing them with spinefire, but the Foxbat’s shields easily shrugged it off.

“Shields holding, no discernable drain,” Sveta reported. “I’ve located the Belphegor… here.” She highlighted a point halfway between the world’s equator and one of its poles.

Hunter twisted the controls to aim the Foxbat directly at the indicated point, and pressed the button to shift into shuttlecraft mode. He then twisted up the acceleration, and the world rapidly grew larger as they approached.

“Atmospheric contact in four seconds,” Sveta reported. “Shift back to robot mode in eight seconds. I’m going to deploy the Strike Fins as soon as we hit the troposphere, in standard defensive formation for suppressive and thinning fire. I recommend you focus on annihilating the Belphegor and leave the Frame-class swarm to me.”

Hunter nodded wordlessly, and Sveta’s eyes narrowed.

As the standard AI of all newly manufactured Gravity Frames, Sveta had a number of important responsibilities. As before, she maintained the background systems and operated the remote weapons, typically Strike Fins, so the pilot could focus on controlling the primary body of the Gravity Frame in combat. She also provided moral support, constantly monitoring her pilots’ condition and offering guidance or reassurance where it was needed. In this sense, she could be described as a dedicated pilot support system, and she formed friendly, personal relationships with each and every one of her thousands of pilots to this end.

She noticed now that Hunter was in a bad way. From the bio-sensors of his Inertia Suit she detected that his heartrate was elevated, his sweat glands were working overtime, and he gripped her controls with such fervor he was liable to bruise the skin on his palms. This would be the first time the neophyte pilot had faced actual combat, and somehow all the simulations in the world couldn’t prepare you for the real thing.

“Hunter,” she said gently.

“Yeah?!” he shot back with more hostility than he intended, jamming the button to change the Foxbat back to robot mode.

Sveta spoke softly but firmly. “Take five deep breaths. In through your nose, hold each one for three seconds, out through your mouth.”

“I don’t think that’s…”

“That’s an order, 2nd Lieutenant,” Sveta said, shifting the tone of her voice down an octave. As a Captain, Sveta outranked all but the most senior of Gravity Frame pilots, and wasn’t shy to throw around her authority to protect their well-being.

Hunter, realizing she was serious, obliged. He took one deep breath, then another, and felt his nerves slowly unclench. By the time he’d finished the breathing exercises, he wasn’t sweating anymore.

“Just remember what you learned in the simulations, Hunter,” Sveta said. “You’ll do fine.”

“I…” Hunter trailed off, staring at the rapidly approaching Belphegor and the cloud of airborne creatures that flitted around it. “I wish…. I wish Lyle were here…” he muttered.

Sveta heard that remark clearly, but didn’t respond directly to it. She simply worked to focus Hunter’s attention on the essential task at hand. “Beginning thinning fire.”

A visibly calmer Hunter nodded, and fixed his gaze towards the oncoming swarm.

Two slots on the Foxbat’s back opened, and three dozen Strike Fins launched from it in rapid succession. They swiveled and darted through the air, forming a protective cloud around their mother Gravity Frame, and began blasting a hail of positron fire towards the oncoming Frame-class swarm. A few moments later, the swarm responded with returning spinefire.

During the Sarcophage War, a significant portion of a Gravity Frame’s firepower was dedicated to intercepting incoming spines. This time, however, Sveta didn’t bother; any spinefire that managed to hit the Frame was effortlessly turned aside by the energy shields. With that nearly impenetrable defense in place, the Strike Fins instead focused on purging the Sarcophage swarm, cutting away at them with merciless efficiency. Sveta focused the barrage, opening up a path through the swarm, and Hunter clenched his teeth as he zeroed in on the Belphegor ahead. He brought the shoulder-mounted positron cannons to bear, aiming them directly for the point at which one of the scorpion tails joined the creature’s thorax, and opened fire.

Predictably, the positron blasts skittered off the Belphegor’s powerful gravity distortion field, flying wide. One arced upwards towards space, and the other skittered downwards, kicking up a tiny puff of ice-dust as it impacted the surface far below.

“Shit,” Hunter muttered. “We need to get closer.” He pressed another button, causing the Gravity Frame’s hands to retreat inside their respective forearms, replaced soon after by minigun barrels. Two more miniguns popped out of each breastplate, and all four spun up quickly and spewed forth a torrent of positron fire that joined Sveta’s Strike Fin barrage, causing the swarm to thin out faster.

Hunter winced as a Spineball tried to ram them, half of its body instantly disintegrating upon impacting the energy shields. He throttled up, diving through the swarm and straight towards the Belphegor. Sveta closed the Strike Fins around the Frame, throwing up a gravity field to counteract the Belphegor’s defenses. Then, when they were less than a hundred meters away, Hunter took another shot with the positron cannon, once again aiming for the base of the tail.

This one hit the target spot-on. The positron blast easily tore through the Belphegor’s chitin, severing the tail entirely, and the creature’s gravity field flickered and weakened. Hunter poured more shoulder-cannon fire into its main body, sending up sprays of blood with each impact. The Belphegor began to list sideways, shrieking in radiation, before tumbling end-over-end and spiraling into the ground. Its impact kicked up a massive cloud of dust.

Hunter let out an audible sigh of relief. “We… we did it!”

Sveta, half her attention focused on annihilating the remaining Frame-class swarm, nodded.

“I though those things were supposed to be nearly invincible,” Hunter said, slowly relaxing his muscles and flexing his fingers.

Sveta smiled. “Zehra’s been spending the last seven years upgrading every single weapon in our arsenal. The present generation of Frame-mounted positron cannons is two orders of magnitude more powerful than those we used back during the Sarcophage War.”

Hunter nodded; he’d known that, of course, he’d just forgotten it in the heat of the moment. “Thank the gods for that.”

“Well, let’s wrap up annihilating this swarm, eh?” Sveta said, getting him back on task. “Then we can go say hi to our new friends.”

******

As the Foxbat shifted back into shuttlecraft mode and landed on the ice, Hunter checked every single seal on his inertia suit. Sveta, meanwhile, undocked a Telepresence Doll from behind the cockpit chair and started fretting over him like a mother hen.

“Make sure you do every environment check, Hunter. No shortcuts! The atmosphere out there is hydrogen and helium with only trace amounts of oxygen present in the water vapor; you won’t survive long if that suit isn’t airtight.”

“If I’m not crushed by the gravity first,” Hunter said dryly, double-checking the suit’s internal inertial dampeners as well. Without them, he’d feel the full weight of the massive world’s gravitational pull, which he reckoned would be intensely uncomfortable.

“Eh, it’s only four times Earth-normal. You won’t die right away.” Sveta responded semi-sarcastically, earning a laugh from Hunter.

The two stepped out onto the icy surface, marveling at the alien contrast of the purple horizon against the red sky. They didn’t get to admire the sight for long, because a beep in Hunter’s helmet caused him to focus his attention on a flashing indicator to his right.

“Over there,” he said, pointing. Sveta’s gaze followed his finger.

Two pairs of eyestalks poked out from behind a huge ice-boulder, fixed squarely on Sveta and Hunter. The creatures they were attached to slowly, shyly, scuttled out into the open.

They were crabs. They had shells of deep blue, which swirled with darker shades like a chameleon’s skin. They were also absolutely massive.

As Sveta and Hunter stared up at the twenty-meter tall intelligent crabs that loomed over them, Sveta extended her right hand and gave a friendly wave.

“Hello there!” she said, flashing a winsome smile. Sveta was, naturally, well aware the crabs couldn’t understand a word of any human tongue. Even so, there was something she’d always wanted to say upon meeting space aliens, and this was a once-in-three-lifetimes opportunity.

“We come in peace!”

Oops, looks like things aren't going to plan! Do they ever when the Sarcophage are involved?

Hunter's a brand-new character, and I've barely revealed anything about him yet, but I hope y'all extend him a warm welcome! Because I have plans...

I've set up a Discord server focused on my stories and gay shenanigans. If you'd like to chat with me and my queer friends, stop by sometime! And don't forget to check out my other story, Lesbian Demon Lord.

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