This story was written as an entry to the Wattpad SF competition: Legend.
It was December 5th, 3786 CE; not long now, not long at all. 8 hours alone remained of a wait lasting 500 years. One “theory”, held that it would be a perfect half millennium to the day, and hour, when those few hours passed. Live and let live, sure, thought Annie, but resulting memetic spam littered even her rank of the Uninet. “We’re gonna party cos it’s 3786”, a horrible re-working of the legendary Prince song was ambushing surfers throughout human-settled space.
“Hahaha, you just got Prince’d” or similarly inane messages would arrive from the culprits shortly after. Only you weren’t “Prince’d” were you? The “makers” of the track were very different from that musical icon of a past era, so different she hoped they were sterilised.
Breathe, Annie, breathe; stop getting so riled up.
Yes, human irrationality did annoy her; but this rant was just self-distraction. The pachyderm in the airlock wasn’t going away: in 8 hours, she would take her place as senior scientific advisor to the first contact team. To prepare, Annie Morikawa was going to a bar; well the ship’s refectory, but it would do. It served the real thing there: straight from the leaf, tea.
Now in her opinion, the vending stations through the ship were first rate, they printed a mean meat substitute. Tea, though: machines had never, and could never, replicate it adequately.
The walk there was supposed to do her good, to calm her down, yet she was stomping through the access corridors like someone on their way to a murder. She drained the aggression from her stride, but not the pace, the Earthcraft Gulliver was the largest space vessel ever built; strolling got you nowhere, fast.
The designers really hadn’t built with the casual pedestrian in mind. Excepting designations printed at junctions, each semi-cylindrical walkway was an identical exercise in sterile light and composite metal.
She checked her internal chronometer. In 7 hours, 58 minutes, and 29 seconds, humankind would meet the Droitja.
Heritable technogene modification provided Nano-second accurate time-sense across all non-luddite humanity: quite the miracle. Still, Captain Grigor Semenov was busy telling people that the Droitja were the first sentient species in the universe and they were the model for humanity’s earliest depictions of angels.
Grigor, fabled captain of the Earth Ship (E.S.) Asimov, the youngest command officer ever in the fleet. Grigor, successful negotiator of humanity’s first contact with another sentient species. Grigor, who indulged in myth and legend like a giddy school boy.
You’re doing it again Annie, breathe. Walk, and breathe.
The account of that deft handling of an accidental encounter with the Fleek (real name unpronounceable – even by the A.I.’s), was core educational curriculum. A routine search for minable resources in system Kepler-444, finding instead, Earth’s first friends in the cosmos.
Approaching one rocky planet from day-side, the Asimov entered into low orbit, cresting the dark horizon only to find another, far larger, ship holding position there.
The textbook move was to make for home. Semenov decided the ship hadn’t appeared “designed for aggression”, and recognised something akin to social insects in both their form, and activities on the asteroid surface.
Reasoning that such life on Earth was rarely aggressive, unless provoked, he asked the ship’s A.I., one Zex-263, for a suitable greeting message. The A.I. offered up a modified “Arecibo” message, and transmit it they did. The results were positive, the foreign ship duly transmitting back its own version basically reading, “Hello, we’ve got eight legs. We come from far away. Nice to meet you.”
So far, so lucky, but there was no mistaking the genius in what followed. The Fleek agreed to meet. When it transpired that the Fleek had no equivalent visual display technology (they eschewed display technology in favour of direct neural stimulation), Semenov had a problem. He could ‘speak’ in incredibly basic terms to them, they couldn’t talk back.
Semenov adapted, and, linking his augmented intellect to the ship A.I., developed a sign language based on ancient hand languages, and even social insect activity. The Fleek, impressed, adapted to speak on these new terms, and the future was made.
This Titan of humanity smattered serious discussions over the Droitja, with this Angel crap.
Never meet your heroes, Annie.
Duly uplifted by her trek, she finally arrived.
At 0300, patrons of the Ref were few. This first night trip ‘above decks’ wasn’t offering much to the diurnal tourist. The serried food stations were certainly emptier though, the choices limited.
The “Senior Nutrition Management Officer” or “Cook” as she insisted on being called, didn’t offer repro-food here. If you wanted non-menu items, you could “go rot your guts with that soulless crap from one of those fucking food printers.”
Sitting on one of the high stools at the bar adjoining the food stations, was Cook herself. A genuine paper book in hand; museum-piece chef’s hat to one side. Annie knew the tales of Cook’s eternal vigil. She must sleep sometime, yet here she was, just as she had been at 0630, 0130, and 0715 prior.
Tea and coffee urns, along with biomilk and sweetener dispensers, were, thankfully, in their usual place. Annie extracted her properly sized mug from a small carry bag and went forth. Cook never stirred.
On the fifth return trip, the urn was empty. Still in need, Annie looked around and realised there was nothing for it.
“Ahem, sorry to disturb Cook,” (said with a capital C), “but there’s no tea left.”
Cook’s eyes stopped scanning the page in front of her, and her gaze slowly lifted to hers. Unexpectedly Annie then experienced mortal terror; death was imminent. Those eyes lacked life; they were the cold, dead eyes of a zombie. She stifled an “eep.”
An instant later, Cook appeared to switch on, and when she smiled, without fangs, Annie sighed her relief.
“Well we can’t have that, can we dear?” said Cook, and setting book aside, she reaffixed the hat, collected the urn and vanished into the galley. Annie considered commenting on the anachronistic and vaguely insulting address, remembered the eyes of a moment before, and didn’t.
She took a stool, leaving one between her and Cook’s. Irish tones issued from the galley, “So Annie, why are you visiting my domain at this hour of the morning?”
She replied, “I just can’t sleep, too much on my mind, what with the first contact coming up.”
Cook duly returned, full urn carried with ease, and no obvious thermal protection. Annie decided that when the Droitja turned out to be demon proctologists, he was coming to hide here.
Setting the urn down Cook offered, “So you thought you’d come down here for a vat of tea. Quite sensible.” She came forward a step and reached out a hand. Annie considered shaking it before realising she wanted the mug, so he gave her that instead.
“So,” Cook said returning it full and steaming, “what’s the actual reason you’re here?”
“Oh, you know,” she shrugged, “nerves.”
Cook tsk’d. “A person, “she said indicating herself, “makes you a nice cup of tea, and you make with that horse-shit?”
Annie spat some tea. This was not how people conversed. Cook barrelled on,
“Come, now” she urged, “tell the truth, shame the devil.”
So now it’s crass religious references. Where does the rudeness end?!
“Well if you must know,” Annie huffed, “I just don’t feel qualified to be on the first contact team. I’m a big fake, and the good Captain’s an … eccentric.”
Annie took a drink, and let the inner glum claim her expression.
Cook snorted, “And what, exactly, makes you a fake?”
Annie moaned, “People think I’m some big genius that found the Droitja planet, when all the other astronomers and A.I.’s couldn’t.” She pointed to herself with her free hand, “Truth is I was a somewhat alcoholic postgrad who got lucky.”
Cook laughed at her. So rude!
“So,” replied Cook, “did you not find it then?”
Annie couldn’t deny that she had, and Cook offered that some people always saw the jug half full, even when it was “filled with diamonds”
“So, let’s set you aside for a moment. What’s wrong with the Captain?”
Responding to the compulsion in Cook’s gaze, Annie discussed the Captain’s tendency to share fanciful stories about the Droitja, and how this was not the inspired leader she’d learned of in school.
Cook commented that this was “truly fascinating,” before berating Annie for distracting her from the time, and vanishing into the galley. It was 0427:30.
At 0430, the Captain walked in, offering a surprised hello, evincing pleasant surprise at seeing Ms. Morikawa up so early. They engaged in chit-chat for only a few minutes before Cook emerged from the galley, setting down a plate of food before the captain.
Annie suspected a routine. What the food was, Annie could not say, but the smell was delightful.
Salivating, she made for the food bays, prepared to accept just about anything. As she did, Cook emerged with fresh toast, vegetable spread and marmalade; Annie’s favourite. Cook winked.
“So Grigor,” Cook said, gesturing to Annie, returning mouth full, and with a loaded plate, “this one thinks you’re a bit mental.”
Annie choked, staring at Cook through sudden tears. So, she had meant to kill her after all.
The captain was soon patting Annie’s back gently, chuckling away, saying, “You’re probably right! Zex says much the same regularly!”
Recovering, Annie took a drink while Grigor, smiling, tucked back into his own food.
“Ok, so tell me Annie, why does my idea, that the Droitja are what our ancestors called angels, disturb you so?”
Assured that there was no danger of offence, Annie was cajoled into hesitantly outlining her concerns.
Swallowing some stringy food item, the captain smirked, “Ah, you and Zex really do sing the same song my friend! You both have a point, but you’re both quite wrong!” He pointed his fork towards Annie, “You see, I just call it thinking outside the korobka!”
Annie averred, “But Captain! It’s one thing to think laterally, but where do space faeries figure into this?” She finished the last of her current mug-full, “Going to meet the Droitja, dreaming of human myths and legends surely can’t help!”
The captain cleared the plate, and turned to her, “I see, I see, so tell me Annie, how have you been preparing?”
Annie detailed how she’d been reviewing, intently, analyses of humanity’s three prior first contact events, including the captain’s meeting with the Fleek. She also mentioned her exercise routine, and dedication to 8 hours sleep nightly.
The captain nodded along, and asked, “And how is that working out for you?”
Annie replied that she felt in good shape, and as equipped as possible to take on this momentous responsibility.
Cook broke in, “And yet, dearie you wandered in here looking as sick as a small hospital at 3 a.m.”
Annie, peeved, observed that the Captain had entered shortly after. “Aye, lassie”, Cook winked, “but isn’t he here this time every day, and looking more handsome every time?!”
The Captain chided Cook for her flattery, something beyond less mortals, “Seonaid! Any more flattery and I’ll surely have to marry you!”
They both shared a laugh, and to his surprise, Annie found herself smiling too. There was something relaxing about watching authority figures kick back.
Cook, Seonaid apparently, looked over to Annie and nodded, was she approving of her for smiling? Cook then elbowed the captain, “Tell her about your real meeting with the Fleek, Grigor, she’ll love that one!”
The Captain averred that he only told stories with good bottle of Whiskey, around an open fire. Seonaid vanished. The lights dimmed, and then she emerged carrying a covered pot to the nearest food station. She uncovered it, revealing a small fire, burning over clear liquid. The few other early morning patrons looked over in some confusion, but said nothing.
Cook disappeared once more, briefly, and emerged, bottle and glasses in hand, setting both before their noble leader. Through a raised eyebrow, the Captain observed, “Cook, you do know it’s before 5, in the morning?”
In answer, the sovereign of the Refectory, leaned over, unscrewed the cap, and poured 3 identical measures. Annie almost missed the glass as it sped down the counter at her. “Drink up, you’re at your Auntie’s and your Aunty in the Co-op!”
The Captain turned to Annie, “Annie, as senior diplomatic advisor, would you care to translate?”
From behind Grigor’s large back, Cook’s voice came small, but deadly, “Drink up, or I’ll poison your tea.” Annie began to chuckle.
She raised her glass to the Captain and said, “I think a toast maybe, Sir?”
The Captain slapped the bar then, making everyone but cook jump. Laughing now, he took his own glass, raised it to his companions, saying, “To the Fleek, and their sense of humour!”
With that they each drank. Annie coughed; whilst the other two savoured. The Captain sighed, “Wherever did you find a bottle of that nectar?”
Cook winked at her, “Won it in a poker game. Just like the hat. Now tell yer story!”
The Captain, apparently over his concerns, poured a fresh round. Annie would have said no, but for the pleasant relaxation sinking into her bones.
The Captain was an excellent story-teller, they should simply record him and show it in schools. Annie felt the tension in the landing pod as humanity’s first ever first-contact team, went to say ‘hi.’ The tentative approach of the parties to each other, the attempts to look non-threatening without any cultural clues as to how you achieved that with a race with 8 ‘legs’ and a vague suggestion of a head. It was amazing. Annie was now quite drunk.
She was, thus, slow to recognise when the narrative changed. The “Arecibo” message hadn’t had quick results, yes, the alien vessel had directed signals their way, but the human linguists, working with Zex, could make nothing of it immediately.
The Captain took them to the surface based on nothing but a hunch?
The Captain wasn’t done re-writing his legend. “You see, the Fleek couldn’t even use our technology, even with a simple interface, it still requires understanding of the underlying linguistics and logic.” Grigor took an appreciative sip,
“We tried signalling to raise a left leg for yes, and a right for no. Then we played twenty questions with no idea what the answers were.”
He pointed his glass to Annie, “The only good part was that no one had started a fight.”
Then the Captain had a Eureka moment. He ran it past Zex. Zex told him he was an idiot. Grigor told Zex to do it anyway, unless it had a better idea. Zex-263 did not have a better idea.
10 seconds later, Zex uploaded the created file to the Captain’s augmented awareness. “And this, is what I did next.”
Awed, Annie prepared to witness the language that had bridged worlds.
The Captain stood and slowly began to walk in a figure of 8 before suddenly, and violently, waggling his ass.
Cook hooted her approval and began tapping out a rhythm for the performance.
Grigor then sprang into ‘modern’ dance, hands flashing through sequences that were vaguely reminiscent of walking, flying, or stroking a cat? A final flourish, and the captain lay prostrate in a limp heap.
Well-oiled though she was, Annie, dumbstruck, uttered only “The fuck was that?”
Cook was, by this point, in convulsions of laughter. The Captain, now also laughing, picked himself up and made his way back to the mostly empty bottle.
He poured himself the last of the Whiskey, and toasting them both, took a languorous sip. He spoke, eyes distant, “That, Annie, is a hybrid of human sign language from the 20th and 21st centuries, the waggle dance of the honey bee, and contemporary expressive dance from the 25th century. It roughly translates as: we come here to mine these rocks, we are from far away, we value beauty and knowledge, we are no threat.”
Annie said, “I see.”
Grigor asked Annie if she’d known what happened next. Annie said of course, the Fleek had recognised some part of this new language and used this to speak back. From there they had built a universal understanding.
Cook, by now had gathered herself, and, draining her glass, offered, “Ah but that’s just the shite in the books, d’you know what really happened next?”
Annie did not.
Captain Semenov set down his glass. Next, he extended his arms and started rubbing them together rapidly. “This, Annie, is what they did next. They did it for some time. We thought it might be some pre-meal ritual, and prepared to run.”
Annie couldn’t help it, she started laughing. Fleek were increasingly common tourists to human space, and there were 3 on the crew. They were incredibly communally minded, made friends easily, and loved humour.
“You’re telling me,” Annie guffawed, “that the Fleek laughed at you?”
“Da,” Grigor Semenov said, bowing to Annie, “I made the Fleek laugh. Humour, you see, is a truly universal language. From there, everything was really quite easy. Zex, and the alien ship worked out how to decode each other’s signals afterwards. But we were already friends.”
Annie toasted him with her final drops.
Cook stood and gathered glasses and empty bottle together. Before taking them away, however, she looked at Annie, “Remember, lassie, being a bit of a cook, is what made him a legend.”
Hours later Gregor Semenov, and Annie Morikawa took their places at the head of the human delegation. The foreign craft, they took for a Droitja vessel, was already on the asteroid surface when they arrived; there was no sign of a mothership.
When the alien pod ‘opened’ and tall, elegant, winged forms came forth, Annie had only two words, “Fuck me.”
The Captain turned to her, and said, “You first. I’m already in the history books.”