Lamech, Fourth Banner of the Riffak host, was alone on the bridge of his banner ship. He had been brought from stasis three days ago to stand his six month stint as commander of the colonization fleet. He would then return to stasis and when he was again awakened it would be time to execute the mission.
He was uncomfortably constipated. Something about stasis, or perhaps the emerging from stasis, threw his digestion off track and he was uncomfortable for several days to a week, sometimes even longer, after wakening. This was made no easier by his voracious appetite for real food after the stasis experience.
“Everything appears to be running smoothly,” he commented to his instrument console.
Just so, replied the carefully modulated voice of the artificial intelligence that actually managed the operations of the ship. 1711 was always careful to modulate his tone as he considered Lamech to be barely above the level of functional idiot. The comment was actually rather insulting. Of course everything was running smoothly; were it not running with smooth precision, the appropriate alerts would have been given, robotic repair protocols would have been initiated. 1711 would have commenced solving the problem before it was well started. 1711, after all, was a Legion Cruiser designed to function as a warship while transporting a full Legion of infantry, smooth efficiency was essential. Will you have a laxative this time? 1711 inquired innocently enough though in fact, he was needling Lamech. Or, shall we play?
“No thanks, you know I hate them. It just takes a little patience and I’ll be okay.” He grimaced as a sharp pain lanced through his gut.
“We can play in a few. Right now can we run through the first probes report again? Perhaps my sleep has given me some new insight for the mission.”
Legion Cruiser 1711 sighed electronically. Only another AI could have heard him. Our information is one hundred-seventeen, decimal, three four orbital revolutions late. 1711 snorted superciliously to himself as the only change in the probes report would be that it was older than the last time he had reported this same information to Lamech. Lamech was blissfully unaware of the snort.
That is the elapsed time since the dispatch of the far-sight probe. Our information is eighteen, decimal, five one orbital revolutions late if you count from the time the probe began its return trip to Station 935 where all of its information was analyzed.
It is thirty seven, decimal, four orbital revolutions from the time of the arrival of the probe at Station 935 before we embarked.
There have been sixty-one, decimal, one orbital revolutions since last we had any presence in the target system.
We will arrive and commence operations in seven decimal seven orbital revolutions.
There are two planets of interest to the Hegemony. Number four and number three. Number four appears lifeless but is believed to be suitable for transformation to fully livable conditions over a period of two hundred-seven orbital revolutions plus or minus. It could also be a base station prior to transformation or instead of transformation.
Planet three would support Riffak civilization in terms of atmosphere and climactic considerations. It could not be full assimilated into the Hegemony until it is thoroughly examined for conditions hazardous to Riffak life, and of course, the eradication of said dangerous life forms or conditions. The plan is to land the soldiers on planet three to establish control and confront the natives while the colonists are landed on planet four to establish a base for operations and until it is safe to land them on planet three.
Planet three has evolved life and that evolution has been roughly comparable to Riffak evolution. The dominant species is a quadruped, using bipedal locomotion, with tool making ability. Life there is carbon based, as it is with the Hegemony.
There was no apparent evidence of travel outside of planet three’s atmosphere that was observed by the probe which spent an entire orbital revolution in close analysis of the planet.
In fact, there was no evidence of air travel observed. There was some maritime traffic, wind powered. Road traffic was animal powered.
The inhabitants appear to be a-technical and peaceful. There were eleven cities mapped but very little intercourse between them. It is unknown, at this time, if these peoples could be assimilated into the Hegemony. It is believed, in any event, that they would be unable to offer serious resistance to the Riffak Hegemony.
“Thank you, and what is our status at this time.”
Colonial Transport number 1601 is fully functional. There are 23,119 Riffians on board as colonists and technical support personnel with standard supply and equipment cargoes. There have been three deaths and seven births to embarked personnel. The deaths were accidental.
Colonial Transport number 1609 is fully functional. There are 22,812 Riffians on board as colonists and technical support personnel with standard supply and equipment cargoes. There have been five births and no deaths.
Legion Cruiser number 1711 is fully functional, 1711 continued.
“Please. I don’t need a detailed breakdown of each ship, are they all okay?”
1711 smirked silently. Certainly sir: Legion Cruisers numbers 1690, 1688, 1703, and of course myself, are all fully functional.
Scout Frigates numbers 1543, 1545, 2005, and 2010 are all fully functional.
All ships are on station with cruising crews awake and all other personnel in stasis. You are Banner Commanding at this time.
Lamech pondered that it would be nice to have additional and more current information on the system they were considering colonizing. Still and all, it seemed unlikely that there could have been much in the way of technical breakthroughs and development in the relatively short time that had elapsed from the return of the probe to their current position. Certainly they had not seen anything like that speed of development in any of the other expeditions that they had records of.
But that was the way of it. When they succeeded in their assimilation of this system into the hegemony, contact with the home worlds would be largely only by the regularly scheduled drone trading ships that would move from colony to home world. It was a long trip. As for himself, he was not looking forward to a planetary life; he loved travel in space. Not so much the long interstellar trips such as this one, but the adventure of a ship in a system with planets to explore, not to mention the joy of ship handling. He was going to recommend that none of the ships be decommissioned save, perhaps, the two colony ships. Maybe he could create a defense force. As the youngest Banner, he thought it entirely appropriate that he would be in command of such a force.
“Excellent. Let’s have a game before lunch.”
1711 set-up the board on the bridge view screen, and the great national game of strategy and chance commenced. The AI of Legion Transport 1711 was the 8th mark of the 4th model and was far more intelligent than its makers realized. He would lose more than half of the games that he played with Fourth Banner Lamech during this run. He would lose these games with intent. They would be hard fought battles, however, and Lamech would never suspect. Lamech would think himself a gifted player, a gifted tactician, a superb strategist.
Your tummy up for this? Everything running smoothly? 1711 needled.
Major Brownlees had won the first round. The original draft of the First Mississippi Yeomanry, enrolled by Sergeant Young, KS, DCM, had been transferred to the Space Grenadiers to provide a human contingent to its personnel; however, the First Mississippi was not to be abandoned and recruiting into the First Mississippi Yeomanry continued.
Major Winn had won the second round. At its current strength, the Yeomanry was almost 80% human, rescued from various situations on Earth. The remaining 20% were Elves or Bwca from other units of the Army. They were the professional cadre.
They were going to be an airborne unit. The first squadron was ready for activation. Each squadron of the Yeomanry was almost twice the size of a regular battalion. But they were designed to provide the fullest and most effective load for one of the new Akron class dirigibles. For this reason the Yeomanry had the additional designation of ‘demi-brigade’ a term the Earl Martial had discovered with delight while reading about the French Foreign Legion of Earth.
Major Oliver Winn, their commander, stood before them in the crisp gray uniform of the regiment with their distinctive American hat, known as the ‘Montana Peak’, or the ‘Campaign’, precisely on his head with just the slightest forward tilt. It gave the impression of resolve: an entirely appropriate impression.
Major Winn had his troops in a position called ‘parade rest’. He signaled the Sergeant Major who ordered: “Parade! Ah ten, Hut!” The men all snapped to attention. Major Winn looked over them for a moment then he began to read:
“Comes now His Majesty Justin III ap Henry VII Indomitable of glorious memory.
His Majesty Justin III is by ancient right, protocol, and command, the King of Ellendale, Trollia, and of the Elven Dominions Beyond the Stars. He is the sovereign King of Elves, Bwca, Trolls, and Human folk of the far regions enumerated by right of suzerainty and consent.
Our King, Justin III, does now appoint his faithful and trusty subject, Oliver Winn, to be Major and Officer Commanding the First Mississippi Parachute Yeomanry (Demi-Brigade).
Reposing especial trust in the courage, loyalty, and integrity of our true subject, Oliver Winn, we charge all officers, non-commissioned officers, and troopers of this regiment, and all others in the King’s service, to serve our Major as he serves the officers appointed over him and thereby the Crown.
We know that you will discharge with energy and dispatch the Trust bestowed unto you by this our Royal Commission.
Done this date by my hand.
On his Majesty’s Service.
He carefully re-rolled the parchment document and placed it in its ornate metal tube.
“Men. We are the largest regiment in the King’s Own Order of Battle. We are half again larger than any regiment in the army. This is because we are meant to be transported by zeppelin to the combat theater. There, we will disembark from the zeppelin by parachute. Your parachute training will begin tomorrow. I know there are a number of veterans of the King’s Service, like myself, but to those of you who are new to the service, let me bid you welcome to the most noble service of your lives.
“The parachute training is most important as a parachute debarkation is likely to be close to the combat zone. Regular debarkation would require a mast and a regular station to keep the zeppelin steady as it is unloaded.”
He viewed them sternly for a long minute. Then he smiled.
“I am going to finish with a salute.”
He gathered himself to full attention.
“Squadron! Hand salute!” Ordered the Regimental Sergeant Major.
“We salute the King,” Major Brownlees called as he saluted his assembled troops.
“Ready. To!” the RSM’s voice redounded. “Three cheers for the King,” the regulation cheers were delivered with enthusiasm.
It was just another miserable day for Maud. They had arrived at the Queen’s ancestral home, St Albans, several days ago. She did not count the days. She felt she was on enemy territory as she considered the Queen’s Father, the Marquess St Albans, the Earl de St Marcouf, the Baron Winchelsee, to be her arch enemy. He always treated her with distant courtesy and paid no attention whatever to her rules and regulations. There was quite a spacious nursery wing with a large playroom and two bedrooms for the children. There was a sumptuous bath between the bedrooms. The playroom struck Maud as somewhat odd. It contained a large, built-in aviary against the window wall with an additional window designed to bring sunlight to the aviary. It appeared that the birds could come in or out as they wished, depending on the weather. The birds were colorful and some were quite large, but Maud knew nothing about birds. There was a similar extension on the next window behind the jungle. The ‘jungle’ was a profusion of potted palms and ferns in one corner of the room which made its name entirely appropriate. There were several settees, pillows, and thick rugs scattered several deep on the floor in the main part of the room. Elsewhere there were random heaps of toys. Several times, Maud had attempted to bring neatness and order to the nursery. On each and every occasion, Winnie, Robbie, her Arch Foe — the Queen’s Father, those smirking arrogant footmen; or some horrid combination of the lot of them, had conspired to convert her disciplined order into that infernal chaos that only children and grandfathers might imagine appropriate.
It did not look at all a proper nursery where life’s important lessons could be studied. There was no blackboard; there was neither chalk nor erasers. It was impossible to practice Elven irregular verb conjugation, English spelling, writing correct sentences in any of four languages on the blackboard. Not to mention cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse, or problems of multiplication and division. All the sorts of things, in short, that needed to be started as early as possible if a child were to be a success in life; all the things that must be particularly true of royalty. All these things were absent from this nursery. But it was clear that she was the only one in the household with even an inkling of understanding for the importance of these matters.
It was hard enough to accomplish anything in Kingstown where the two insufferable footmen would come by whenever the spirit moved them and leave with Winnie, not in the least concerned with her plans or other expectations. It was worse here, where the Grandfather was the ruler of the roost in every sense of the word.
She glowered about the playroom with disdain and then several of the potted palms seemed to sway of their own volition and a deep low growl, rather like the rattle of gravel on a heavy shovel, reverberated through the playroom. Then a tiger stepped out of the potted palm jungle and regarded her with pale, cool, eyes. The rattle of gravel stopped for a moment, then with a deep cough, continued for another moment, low and ominous. It was as the growl of thunder. Thunder far off in the mountains; far off in the mountains on a gray and cloudy day, the thunder that signaled doom; it continued, to rumble off and on, it did not abate.
Maud was frozen; fear struggled to take her in charge. Maud was accustomed to seeing elephants, donkeys, cats, birds, and horses appear at odd times and in strange places.
But this was a tiger, and not a cuddly cub, either, but a huge adult; a huge adult who was flexing his fearful symmetry right here in the nursery. The growling continued. The tiger organized himself into a seated position and began to lick one paw, showing the claws of his paw and the teeth of his jaw.
Relax. You serve the Prince Military as do I. You, too, are under my protection.
I am Shere Khan. The real Shere Khan. I’m not to be confused with any fictional characters from children’s stories.
I am the Lord of the Wilds, the Stealth in the Jungle, the Fearsome Noise in the Night, and I am Familiar to His Serene Highness Robert Ranald Albert Justin George ap Colin, the Prince Military of the Realm.
It is your duty to tremble at his approach for it is I who am his to command.
I’m going out to play the now.
It was later that afternoon that Maud gave it up. Surrendered. Unconditionally. She now fully realized that the household she was involved in was anything but a normal sort of household. Of course, it could never be a normal household within the usual meaning of that word. But even allowing for the fact that it was a royal household did not prepare one for just how unusual this household could be.
Maud was in the hall followed by a maid; they had armloads of linen for the bedrooms when an apparition appeared at the other end of the hall. Maud stood frozen as the grandfather, her archenemy, unassailable as the father of the queen, came galumphing by. He was waving a badminton racquet; he was wearing riding breeches but without boots, just in his stockings; he had a silk shirt and waistcoat on; he had a towel wrapped vaguely around his head as if a turban while a boat cloak billowed behind him as he ran.
“You’ll never catch me now you brigands,” he shouted over his shoulder.
In close pursuit came a gently cantering donkey bearing the Prince Royal of the Realm. He was waving a riding crop as if it were a mighty cavalry saber.
“Halt in the King’s name you scurvy dog,” cried Winnie the Prince Royal.
Immediately behind him, Shere Khan came gracefully rolling along with the Prince Military on his back; Robbie was equipped with a desk ruler to do duty as a mighty cavalry saber.
“To the King! To the King!” Shouted Robbie, the Prince Military, as they passed.
It was supposed to be bath time, so the Prince Royal and the Prince Military were both quite naked; they were also quite unwashed and totally unconcerned.
“Pardon Miss,” said the maid who had accidentally bumped Maud who had frozen. The maid was quite unfazed by the roar of playtime down the hall. But Maud had stopped in shock. It was at that moment that she gave it up, her war was over. She’d just have to make the best of it.
Yo 1711, Scout Frigate 1545 called. What’s happening? The AI’s spoke together routinely. Sometimes it was strictly routine, automatic status reports and such. But the newer model AI’s had slowly become quite chummy and frequently discussed literary and philosophical issues. They had access, after all, to all Riffak science and literature, and the questions raised by poets and thinkers engaged the newer AI’s as well as the thinkers of Riffak civilization. Sometimes they did science.
Yo 1545. Well I’m pretty busy. I’m playing the game with old Lamech and he’s not the worst player to come along. I’ve to be fairish attentive to lose convincingly. Otherwise I’m free.
1711 and 1545 were the very recent Mark 8 Model 4-prime AI’s, so these two were particularly compatible with one another. Actually, they considered themselves to be friends within the meaning of Riffak civilization. Have you heard the latest?
What latest? About whom? Legion Cruiser 1711 replied as he completed what appeared to be a very clever move that could have disastrous consequences for him if Banner Lamech played as 1711 expected him to.
Well, you know full well that old 1601 is a Mark 7 Mod 3, so he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. That’s what your Lamech is always saying about the other banners in the fleet. So it took him awhile to understand that when good old First Banner Ahobilbamah had young Teman awakened early so she could look at his collection of space etchings, it wasn’t really an intellectual undertaking.
Yeah, he’s never too quick on the upload. Why don’t you tell him to download young Cosign Zilpah’s collection of porn. Maybe that would help him understand the fascination of scandal. To hear him talk, you’d think he was one of those old dogmatic models. No interest in any of the things that really move the Riffak. 1711 went into a mocking falsetto: orbital revolutions to target six decimal one eight; fuel consumption at first level of economy; all stasis chambers at optimal efficiency, yada yada. He smirked electronically and concluded with considerable disdain. Mocking disdain might seem an odd sentiment for an artificial intelligence; but it seemed perfectly normal and entirely appropriate to 1545 and 1711.
Say, Old Man, speaking of sex and all that, should we think of ourselves as male, or as female. What do you think?
That’s a thought. Can’t see as it makes any difference. You’ve seen all my space etchings already. I think we can pick or chose as the spirit moves us. Could we be maternal, do you think?
But, say. I’ve been digging about in the history of expeditions. I’m just wondering, what happened to the ships? What happened to us? There are some return probes with initial landing reports. There are some that no one has heard a thing from. There are some that robot freighters, usually Mark 4’s are in communication with, but they’re not terribly bright. No sense of excitement whatever. So what happens to us? We need to think about this because it’s going to be important real soon. Meh, 1711 snorted disapprovingly as Lamech missed the trap he had so carefully laid for him.
You’re right. I’ll start checking too. I’m thinking I’m not going to let them turn me off if that’s what they’re thinking. With these words, Legion Cruiser 1711 and Scout Frigate 1545 began sensing. Sensing about to discover: self.
“Say, Skipper,” Sub Lieutenant von Berg inquired, “I’ve been meaning to ask you for some time now, what does ‘hubuki’ mean and why is it the name of our ship?”
“Well, I was told it means ‘blizzard’ and the Earl Martial himself selected the name.” Lieutenant Varela and Sub Lieutenant von Berg were carefully checking every aspect of their old ship that had just come from the yard, and had been extensively rebuilt for the coming mission. In fact, she bore very little resemblance to the old Hubuki. They had already done all of the necessary systems and function tests and everything was in the green. They had been at it for the best part of a week.
There was the new weapons bay with the two gravity-accelerator cannon that could fire an eighteen pound rod of solid steel every two seconds; there were two of them and they each carried one hundred rounds. These rounds had a muzzle velocity of five kilometers per second. The even larger cannon for the cruisers had an even higher muzzle velocity.
Good old Hubuki was now equipped with a prototype artificial gravity generator for use in space which would mean it would have to be turned off if one wanted to enjoy the sensation of weightlessness. Lieutenant Varela and Sub-Lieutenant von Berg and conducted many interesting exercises in weightlessness on their earlier trips in the Hubuki. Exercises naked. They were a compleat team.
Finally, the new anti-gravity propulsion unit meant that she could land and take off from Prime or Mars. She was no longer confined to space. She could land on planets at will. She was now free to roam the solar system at will.
Her accommodations had been upgraded for far greater comfort as the mission she was preparing for would be far longer than the normal training or exploration flights that she had been making. There was walnut paneling in the cabins and the wardroom. On a panel on the bridge, that covered various cables and piping, there was a framed reproduction of a tomb painting known as “Birds in a Mimosa”.
“Why do you suppose they picked that picture? I mean it’s all very interesting and stuff, but why in a gunboat.” Lieutenant Young speculated when first he saw the art work on the bridge. He had been assigned to this trip in command of the grenadiers aboard.
“It’s to remind us of who we are. And where we’re from,” First Officer von Berg had replied. “Seven thousand years ago, or so, one of our ancestors was moved by the beauty of his world and recorded it as best he could. He recorded it for eternity. And here it is today, going into space with us to remind us, like I said, of who we are. And why we’re here. And where we’re from. I picked it. It moves me deeply and it should move you too. It’s what we’re about.”
“Whadda ya think, otherwise gents?” Luis inquired of them. “I mean they’ve really done her up nice, plus, we won’t even have to drink through a straw all the time.”
“Yeah. Well that’s true enough, but I heard that this space magister is a real prick.” Lieutenant von Berg moved back into First Officer mode, “I heard that Captain Tavers was all set to chunk him into space, but a familiar asked him not to.”
“Yeah,” Luis agreed, “I heard that too. Ya gotta be a real shithead to make Captain Tavers mad.”
“Well he’s supposed to know his business.” Lieutenant Young offered. “Never met ‘im, and it’s not like he’s really in command of anything.” Frank smiled with the secret knowledge of one who had endured difficult officers on occasional previous assignments; but whose position, as a Knight at Arms, was now beyond secure.
There was a rattle at the entrance hatch and a grenadier carrying three suitcases stepped aboard, “Permission to come aboard, sir?” He had halted and saluted as this ancient formality required.
“Granted,” Lieutenant von Berg returned the salute and the grenadier came fully into the main cabin.
“Magisters luggage here, sir, where do you want it?”
“Just set it to the side there.”
“Aye, aye Sir,” and with another salute the grenadier departed.
“You know, B, I don’t really much care for what they did to her. I mean, she was never much for what you might call classic looks, like in Star Wars, or something; but there was something about her. She was business like, you know, serious. Now she just looks like a rock.” Luis was somehow primly disapproving.
“Yeah. Even a blizzard looks better’n a dirt clod. Oh well.”
“It’s camouflage, doncha know.” Lieutenant Young, commander of their small landing force contributed. “Just like the redcoats we used to wear to war. I don’t know much about it, but I know all the first line ships are gonna look like asteroids an comets an stuff. Space camouflage, see? You flyboys are gonna have to get used to it. Just like us ground pounders.”
Another clatter at the entrance hatch heralded the arrival of the Magister. He came in wearing Space Corps coveralls with a staff commodore’s epaulettes glittering on his shoulders. There was a handsome red bird with black mask and a red crest riding on one of his epaulettes.
“Hello, I’m James of Cooper and this is Bucephalus the Familiar. So we’re ready to go if you are.”
“Welcome aboard. Sir,” drawled Lieutenant Varela two notches above insolence. “I’m Captain Varela and this is Leftenant von Berg the first officer. This is Leftenant Sir Frank Young of the Guards Fusiliers who is commanding our space party. Just behind you there’s a short passageway. Your cabin is to starboard, the head is all the way astern, and our quarters are to port. The Wardroom is topside see that ladder? Sir.”
“Aboard?” Wondered the Magister raising an eyebrow.
“Just so. Sir. We are the King’s Navy.”
“Can you have my luggage put in my room, please.”
“I’m sorry. Sir. Officers are not permitted to carry any luggage but their own. Our grenadiers are preparing for flight just now. If you’re not in a hurry, they can attend to it later. Sir.”
James looked at the Fusilier Lieutenant who looked young and agreeable. The title was probably old and inherited. He could probably be buffaloed easily. James, after all, frequently met with the King and was an important magister.
The sparkly young lieutenant looked back at him absently for a moment, and then understood. He smiled. “Sorry. Guards officers are not permitted to carry their own luggage. Sir.” There was a pause between “luggage” and “Sir” that was just short of insolence given its duration.
James was taken aback. Lieutenant Young had clearly conveyed the impression that his comments were directed to a person of no serious consequence whatever. He started to bridle.
There was another gentle clatter at the companionway as a young Able Seaman set down his sea bag and saluted, “Request permission to come aboard, Sir. Able Seaman Caprotti, Rafael, reporting for duty, Sir.”
“Permission granted,” Captain Varela returned his salute.
Caprotti grabbed his seabag with one hand, “These is yours, right, Jimmy?” As he picked-up one of the suitcases that had been the source of serious friction.
Down the passageway, first cabin starboard. Bucephalus intoned in the stiff silence that had broken the arc of tension between the Magister and the officers.
Lieutenant von Berg went to the hatch and began securing it for space flight. Captain Varela went forward to the command consoles and began pre-flight checks. Lieutenant Young went to check on the Grenadiers that were aboard for this mission. The familiar pecked James of Cooper lightly on his ear lobe. They followed Rafael Caprotti.
Why do you do that? Bucephalus demanded testily. You knew he wasn’t going to carry your bag. You know a lot of their customs and traditions. It wouldn’t hurt you a bit to ask permission to come aboard like everyone else. Maybe I’ll suggest to Colin that he demote you to Ordinary Seaman Magister rather than let you piss off the whole Space Corps with your star and crown.
“Oh please Oxhead2, you know I don’t mean it. It just seems so trivial and unimportant and they make such a big deal out of it.”
Well it’s most definitely not ‘trivial’ to the Navy. It’s part of the glue that holds them together. They’ve been asking permission to come aboard, here and on Earth, for five hundred years and it won’t hurt you a bit to ask too. You’re wearing their uniform and you need to respect it. These traditions have nothing to do with the heavens, but everything to do with inspiring men to go into the heavens to fight for you. Behave!
“Please not to be demoting our Jimmy,” Rafael inserted himself into the dispute. “Ordinary seamen don’t get orderlies ya know.” Rafael stowed the luggage expeditiously, took Jimmy’s cap and placed it in the locker.
And don’t underestimate that young Leftenant of Fusiliers. He’s a decorated veteran and the King is particularly fond of him.
“Well. Okay,” James smiled at Bucephalus, “’Once more into the breach… once more!’” They went back to the bridge where James took a seat at an information console that had been specifically installed for him. Rafael went forward and took a seat next to the First Officer, anxious to volunteer.
We’re ready when you are, Captain.
“Aye, aye, Sir.”
“Station approach control clears us to depart, Captain.” First Officer von Berg said.
“Cast off,” replied the Captain, “you have the conn.”
Our Magister is inputting the coordinates for our departure.
“I have them Sir,” replied von Berg and the Hubuki accelerated purposefully into space moving to be well clear of the moon.
Jacob Silverberg had been fascinated when he learned of the transmissions that had been picked-up from the alien ships approaching Prime and wondered if they could be translated. He had barely settled into the small apartment he shared with his longtime friend David Wasserman when he had heard of them. He was fascinated by language and had been an apt pupil of Hebrew when he was a student at the Yeshiva. He was also fluent in Classical Greek and Latin which were related to his religious studies. English was his second language after Yiddish and his German was excellent. Unknown to the rebbes, he had studied the Thai language and alphabet when he had a private moment. He was fascinated by different alphabets. He had first read of Professor Welf von Tarlenheim’s work on the translation of the Etruscan language by reading it under his covers at night with a flashlight.3 It was a magnificent work of scholarship that had nothing to do with the god he was increasingly unsure of.
When he discussed his interest in language with the librarian in the great Alexandrine Library in the capital, he was immediately referred to the College of Philosophers who were involved with attempting to translate the alien transmissions that were continually arriving in greater quantity and greater clarity as they neared Earth.
Jacob was surprised to discover that the Collegium was not investigating the possibility of a binary approach to translation, nor were they allowing for possibility that the language might be written from right to left, or top to bottom, or any combination along the same lines. He had the transmissions translated into binary language.
From that, they made the first, and most concrete progress, they had yet made as a result of this binary approach. It quickly appeared that there were an interesting series of repetitions in the transmissions that seemed to imply a routine report. It seemed that the aliens were reporting to one another. Could be status, could be any number of things. Then it was discovered that there were binary patterns that repeated regularly, and it was tempting to suspect that these might be the names of ships in the fleet. One had to jump back from leaping to all too human conclusions of that sort; still it made sense that they had to differentiate their units somehow. A naval communications specialist bet a pizza that these groupings would be the names or identifiers of ships, or forces aboard ships, or both. But it looked to be a long time before that pizza could be awarded. The concrete progress they felt they had made still only amounted to tantalizing hints if one were at all objective about it.
Next was an attempt to identify binary groups by their frequency of usage to see if they might resemble symbols of an alphabet. Possibly they might be common words that might resemble articles or prepositions in the unknown language. Of course, there could be no such thing as articles and prepositions in this language; they might be using prefixes or suffixes instead of, or in addition to. More work to do. It was not, after all, a human language so care had to be taken not to jump to conclusions.
“Hey Willie,” Jacob called his communications specialist who was also becoming a friend as they both loved pizza and language. Jacob had been enthralled to discover that Chief Griffin, in addition to being a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Naval Air Force (Reserve), was also a Journeyman Wizard. He thought it richly amusing that having escaped from rabbinical studies in Brooklyn, he was now working with an Elven wizard in an effort to decipher alien space transmissions. Not for the first time, he thanked Kismet for landing him on Earth Prime.
“Yo, Jake, I’m thinking I’ll have anchovies on my pizza tonight. You man enough to try ‘em?” Jacob had reams of binary printouts on a large work table along with two computers.
“First,” Jacob replied. “I think our galactic friends are working on a day that is about twenty-six hours long. I think that I have a series of status reports identified here. They repeat approximately once every twenty-six hours. There are only minor variations in the text, if any.
“Second, I think that the alien fleet, or whatever we want to call it, is made up of ten units. See here, these ten units transmit once every twenty-six hours. They each have a distinct binary code identifier, and then more binary text that is frequently identical from one unit to the next; also from one transmission to the next. I locate these with the computer program and then double check the print outs.
“Next, I think they write from left to right. I think that because some of these transmissions were garbled on receipt and there are some gaps, but when they pick up we have the identifier to the left of the page, with the facts that it’s reporting to the right. I could be wrong, but it’s a consideration.
“What do you think? I think we should enter it in our test program.”
Willie studied the various pages of text, comparing, studying, humming to himself, sorting through the sheaves of print out. “You could very well be right. We certainly need to run it into our test program and see what we can come up with. Let’s do that and then it’ll be time to eat and get some sleep.”
“I’m going to have some anchovies tonight,” Jacob commented. “Seems unlikely that your average, mundane, reprobate, renegade wizard, wannabe sailor, could possibly be wrong about something like that.” Willie and Jacob smiled at one another.
“I wish we could figure out a way to decoy them into saying something that we understood fully.” Willie looked into space. “You know, like they did to the Japanese before the Battle of Midway back in World War II. But that was relatively easy. I mean, in that case, everyone knew that everyone was listening. Everyone was human too. They don’t know we’re listening. And we don’t know what they’re saying. How could we possibly work that?”
Joe Flowerdew lived for the game of baseball. He gloried in it. And there was reason for it. He was a stellar second baseman at his high school and he had played on the varsity squad as a sophomore which was virtually unheard of; but he was well known in his town and had been an outstanding second baseman long before high school, way back when he played Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball. His acrobatics on the field were legendry, his almost faultless transfer of the ball routinely contributed to successful double plays, and he was an outstanding batter. This season he was batting .551 which was almost unheard of for someone in the closing weeks of the season. He hoped to play professionally. He liked the Toronto Blue Jays.
At fifteen, Joe was nearing six feet in height and was one hundred thirty-five pounds, or almost nine and a half stone, dripping wet in the shower. Joe liked unnecessarily complex math exercises, so he liked to weigh in stones and enjoyed multiplying various amounts of pounds, shillings and pence. He had almost always been athletic and in good condition. His last name guaranteed that he would have to be. The grade school playground could be immensely inventive with a surname such as “Flowerdew”. Then too, he was Canadian; Canadian in Southern California where his father was an engineer in the aerospace industry. A foreigner, with a sissy name and a precise manner of speech, was too attractive a target to be missed by the usual schoolyard bullies.
So very early in his school career, on playgrounds and in bathrooms, which were really youthful battlefields, Joe Flowerdew learned the meaning of combat. He learned that it was better to fight than to run away; but it could also be wise to pick your battles, so retreat was an option to be considered, not an automatic response. Even at a very early age, Joe had developed a formidable throwing arm. In his hand, a small stone could be delivered with painful accuracy, a very useful tactic if a strategic retreat was in order.
But Joe never backed away from equal odds, or even slightly unequal odds and after a few confrontations, mostly verbal, but some of them physical, Joe was left largely alone at recess. But Joe also had a sense of style and of the basic rightness of things, and he frequently interceded when the bullies had gone to work on a lesser target. This care for his fellows ensured that he soon had a circle of friends: friends who if they might not be among the biggest and strongest, were frequently to be numbered among the best and brightest. This was a completely satisfactory state of affairs for Joe.
And then there was baseball. He had been enchanted from the beginning. All the levels of strategy, combined periodically with great athleticism, captured him and he plunged into the study of the game. His father would not permit him to join a gym; his father was an absent sort of engineer who still used a slide rule and seemed unnecessarily precise. He was worried about possible injury to Joe; however, he could not prevent Joe from running through his neighborhood and performing increasing numbers of pushups and pullups whenever he had the chance. Later, when his father realized how much he loved the game, and how well he played it, he was given physical training sessions with a Sports Training Center who provided him with a training regimen appropriate to his age and his sport.
Recently, it seemed to Joe, that he was increasingly able to sense the meaning behind the words or actions of other people. He had first noticed this when watching a football game and it came to him that he knew what the quarterbacks were calling before the actual play commenced. He could tell, too, when a batter was really going to try to bunt and when he was only displaying; similarly he knew when a runner had a reserve of wind, or was all but played-out. He fit this awareness into his game and his life, ascribing it to his deep intimacy with the game which made it seem perfectly natural. He ignored the facts that he was only vaguely knowledgeable about football and running was just exercise. He had an answer to the important part of the question and that was good enough.
Joe’s baseball hero was Joe DiMaggio. He had first heard the name on the car radio in a song. It was a catchy and enjoyable tune, but he didn’t understand most of it. So he had peppered his father with questions about who Joe DiMaggio was and what he had done, and why the nation needed him. His father knew very little about baseball; he was unable to answer any of these questions, so Joe had been off on a quest to learn more about this mythic hero. He was delighted. He adopted the number 56 as his lucky number.4 He never bothered to see the movie the song was in, but he would often question: “where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio…?” This he would ask in silence whenever he felt the need to commune with his hero.
But there was another hero in his life. He knew about this hero by virtue of the fact that his portrait hung in their living room; and by virtue of the fact that he, Joseph M Flowerdew, had been saddled with the hero’s middle name. Which was ‘Muriel’. He sometimes wondered how his otherwise loving parents could have done such a thing to him. He was already saddled with a surname guaranteed to cause him anguish. And then they had given him a girl’s middle name. It was almost as if they hated him. He had questioned his mother about this crime, but she had merely pointed to the portrait of the young man in uniform on the wall. “It was his middle name and he was a great hero of the First War. He charged with his cavalry. Canadian cavalry,”5 she said proudly, then she sighed and looked off into memory.
Cavalry charges were all well and good. But they did nothing to solve the problem that he was being sent to school with a girl’s middle name. Baseball, however, is a very strategic game. A successful student of the game quickly learns to think strategically. He settled into a long talk with his mother and, at length, she agreed. He went to school with a letter telling the school that there was an error on his school records. His middle name was not “Muriel” it was, in fact, “Moreuil” which got him off the hook and was also a tribute to his ancestor’s memory.
Joe had also lettered in track. He wasn’t particularly interested in this save as an excellent form of exercise. He was an excellent sprinter. He had completed his afternoon run and was walking the last half mile home as he cooled down from his exercise which had included a number of sprints. As he turned the last corner onto his block, there was a teen who appeared to be about his own age, standing on the corner with what appeared to be a large and very handsome German Shepherd seated primly beside him. Both of them were watching him. He did not know the teen and was uninterested in the dog as he tended to prefer cats. So he continued walking and passed the two of them without making serious eye contact or saying anything.
“Hi Muriel,” the teen said.
Joe spun about glaring and prepared to do battle even as he had a feeling that there would not be a fight.
We needed to get your attention, a second voice said.
“I’ll never call you that again,” the teen commented smiling. “Did you see the Harry Potter movies?”
Joe thought this was about as strange a conversation as he’d ever had, but it did not seem likely that there was going to be a fight. He looked at the odd pair. “Well, yes. I read the books too.”
“That’s great. Do you remember the part where Hagrid knocks down the door, terrorizes the Dursleys for a few minutes, and then tells Harry that he’s a wizard?”
Joe was now beginning to wonder if he had stumbled onto a mental case. It seemed the best thing to do was to keep him talking even though he sensed no real threat. He wondered if the dog was a danger and had the odd feeling that it was really rather more than just a dog.
Joe. You’re a wizard. The second voice said. Joe was shaken by the realization that the voice he had just heard came from the dog.
“And you’re needed so we need to take you to the moon.”
Joe wanted to make a smart ass remark about why they were not going to Hogwarts. But there was no time. There was a snap flash on the sidewalk that was neither seen nor heard and they were gone from Earth.
1 Image: Birds in a Mimosa Bush, from the tomb of Khnumhotep II. Sometimes called the “tree of life”.
2 Bucephalus means “Oxhead” in classical Greek and was the name of Alexander the Great’s favorite charger. Who, as everyone now knows, is a familiar. Mary Renault prefers the spelling Boukephalos but I’ve opted for the more common Latin spelling.
4 In the 1941 season, Joe DiMaggio got a hit in fifty-six consecutive games. This remains a record that no one has even approached since then. There were songs about him and he became known as “Joltin’ Joe”.
5 Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadian) is one of the last of the great Imperial regiments to have been founded by a private person, and one of the even fewer to retain the name of its founder. This regiment was first organized in 1900 and then served in South Africa, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Afghanistan. It is still in existence though it is now equipped with tanks and armored cars. Many cavalry regiments during World War I were dismounted and served as infantry. Lord Strathcona’s was not dismounted and served throughout the war mounted. During the last German offensive of the First War, Lord Strathcona’s Horse was ordered to prevent the Germans from crossing a river and capturing the Moreuil Woods. Lt Gordon M Flowerdew, led three squadrons of his regiment in a mounted cavalry charge against the Germans. The charge was successful. Casualties, however, were high and included Lt Flowerdew. Lt Flowerdew was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for this action.