Humanity’s first contact with the Ouro wasn’t quite the expected revelation. Civilization wasn’t wracked by philosophical earthquakes, only a few new religions were founded and everyone got up for work the next morning. We’d discovered life on other worlds, after all—microbes in caves, hydrothermal vent worms at the floors of ice oceans. These first intelligent aliens certainly were exciting, but they were also awfully weird.
We’d been getting their old transmissions for decades, it seemed, though nobody could prove the masses of semi-coherent EM radiation were broadcasts instead of quasar noise. Once the crew of ECV Alexander made face-to-face contact in a spacewalk, those bubbling stews of color and sound fit into place.
Imagine an octopus, was the starting point in most Xenoscience courses, and Vivek Mohinder’s had been no exception. Every schoolchild had some idea of the Ouro, saw them in entertainment and in the news if they were precocious. Vivek was not precocious. He was an awkward child in an awkward place, just clever enough to be painfully aware of his limitations. Having given it much thought, he’d rather have been born stupid. But he knew others had more talent and ability at seemingly everything, from running to mathematics, and though Vivek had always been an excellent swimmer he knew he’d have to work ferociously hard at anything else. Once in secondary school, he inscribed every word his teachers said in an ever-swelling library of notebooks with color-coded covers. Being the only student with paper notebooks singled him out for a unique flavor of ridicule, but he remembered handwritten notes better than typing.
Imagine an octopus, a boneless “head” and mantle holding the major organs, six muscular tentacles—not eight—attached to the mantle’s base near the mouth. Instead of a sharp chitinous beak like a Terran octopus, an Ouro mouth has four interlocking mandibles, like so. The components grew and rotated on the classroom’s front screen—a far cry from the battered slates of Zachariah Obo’s upbringing. Vivek didn’t have time to sketch them, but he left a large gap on the page to do it later, at home with the textbook.
You’ll notice four eye structures on the front of the head. Only two are eyes similar to ours—the lenses and retinas are different, but we’ll have a whole section on that. They see visual light with lower acuity than human eyes, but their spectrum also extends through a good portion of the ultraviolet. Those are the bottom eyes. The top pair don’t form coherent pictures, they’re more a mix of motion sensors and heat sensors. In the oceans where they evolved, light wouldn’t always penetrate to the hunting grounds. So as you can imagine, this second set of eyes was a huge advantage. With even a general idea of where their prey was, tentacles could pick them up and do the hard work. Which brings us to the really special part of Ouro anatomy: the nervous system!
Vivek flashed awake to the sound of footsteps in the hall. His caller set off the gentle call tone and he turned in his bed to face away from the door. “Half lights,” he said out loud, squinting as the room complied. He heard the door open, saw the hall’s bright lights framing Ashley’s silhouette against his wall. “I can’t take the brightness,” he explained.
“Then you’d better put on shades. Cap’n’s calling you to the bridge. She wants to board the Ouro.”
Vivek wanted to groan but, for Lorena’s sake, sat up in bed and stoically reached for his undershirt. “So they haven’t answered.”
“And Obo saw ice buildup on their thrusters. She thinks they might be marooned.”
Wouldn’t they be broadcasting, then? he asked in his head but not with his mouth. Instead he only nodded. “Give me a minute in the head. I’ve got eyedrops for some of the symptoms.”
“The occipitals going crazy? I read it’s like a migraine, basically.”
“Basically,” he said, shuffling into the next room with a hand visoring his eyes against the light.
* * *
The convened, the five of them, on the bridge. The Ouro vessel grew steadily in the telescope, her antennae and bulging protrusions rendered in exquisite detail as Konoko approached her dorsal hull. She came in slowly so as not to startle the aliens who, if they were to startle, would have long since done so. Back up audacity with precautions, as Commodore Adler had been saying for years going back to her days as Doctor Adler of ECV Messina. Lorena still deeply admired the Commodore, but preferred to think of her as Annika.
“We’re plotted down to the dorsal docking port, five M/S on last approach.” Ashley flicked her eyes to Vivek for approval, then back to her console once he nodded.
Lorena clapped her hands once in agreement. “All right. Once we engage, it’ll take Konoko a minute or so to negotiate with the Ouro computer. If they lock us out, that’s it. We dive out to find the Navy boys. If not, we’ll use the pressure suits and Tech Obo will handle the airlock procedure.”
“I’m not cleaning it afterwards. You ever smell that shit?” Zachariah quipped, looking around at the younger crew.
“I will lead the boarding party, along with Pilot Duggins and Tech Genz,” the C.O. continued. Ashley looked horrified, Karl speechlessly elated. Before either could respond, she explained, “Tech Obo will monitor ship systems and keep us ready for departure at any moment. Pilot Mohinder, as Executive Officer, will command the bridge in my absence and maintain unbroken contact with the boarding party.”
Vivek was in no shape to board the Ouro, but Lorena was kind enough not to mention that. “Understood,” he said loudly, prompting the rest to echo him.
Ashley raised a hand. “What….what are we actually supposed to do in there?”
“I don’t know,” Lorena smiled for a moment before growing serious. “We’ll make contact, ask if they need help and wish them well if they don’t. All I need from you is to follow my lead and remember your training.”
“I scored in the eighty-eighth percentile on my Xeno Protocol exam,” Karl assured her. Ashley fought every instinct to keep herself from topping him with ninety-three.
Lorena checked her watch. “We’ve got about two minutes to docking, gentlemen and lady. Obo, prep the airlock. If we get approval, the boarding party will be down shortly.”
The Explorer Corps Vehicle drifted down the last two hundred meters without any power before, in the last ten, fluttering her ventral thrusters. The circular port, at roughly four meters, was all but hidden in the Ouro vessel’s grand immensity. This close, the hull's subtle ridges betrayed the secret of its construction. For the Ouro didn’t conventionally build their ships, didn’t slap together millions of metal plates with crude heating tools as a skeleton and then a full creature accreted in a zero-gravity drydock. Instead they produced hulls in single pieces, growing them in the pressurized depths of superheated oceans. Legions of engineered microbes labored day and night weaving one carbon lattice over another until the product resisted gamma radiation and space’s cold seep. Superconducting tugs lifted the wrought leviathans from sea to sky in christenings that were, as the English word coyly suggested, essentially religious events. Essentially was the qualifier, since no human truly understood the Ouro concept of faith.
Konoko’s Ouro-capable docking collar extended down from her belly, for reasons of density that were obvious to anyone who’d done his homework. With a mechanical whine inaudible in space’s vacuum, the apparatus extended to grip alien hardware. A tube two meters wide fixed its circular mouth to the carbon skeleton and emitted a puff of air to check the seal. It held. The two ships’ computers were already locked in a fumbling, chattering congress like the mating of mismatched butterflies.
Locking them out would have been a simple matter—a ship’s computer was the ultimate authority over its own airlocks. They might be cut through, given equipment Konoko did not possess and Lorena wouldn’t in any case have used. So when a clanking noise sounded in the little clipper’s hull and the docking indicators went green, all the humans were surprised. Eyes swung to Lorena, who for the first moment felt tremors of doubt run through her bones. She clenched the muscles in her arms, balling her fists as though she might force the tension out from her core into her extremities and from there out into cold space to flash-freeze like diamond garlands.
“It looks like,” she said through a dry mouth, forcing a smile, “they’re happy for company. Let’s get to it, folks. Obo will have the lock ready. Genz and Duggins, with me. Mohinder, keep that friendly voice in our ears. I hope you’re all ready, because we’re representing the species here. Everyone remember your training and use your common sense. When in doubt, keep your hands at your sides and be quiet.”
* * *
In a room the size of a large walk-in closet waited six adjacent lockers containing six pressure suits. Paper cards bearing each crewmember’s name in Obo’s blocky handwriting had been slipped into slots, so they’d know which fit them. Blue-grey with white piping about the shoulders and Explorer Corps patches on their left breasts, the MAR-12V “Marina” suits were the last generation’s state-of-the-art. It was not a generation in the engineering sense.
“My dad kept his old Marina when he left the Navy. I’d run around wearing the helmet,” Ashley reminisced while hiking the rubbery material up her legs.
Lorena chortled. “You’re lucky to have one. The price dropped a couple years back and we finally got them standard issue. The old ‘Duncans’ were emphatically not so nice. Not even a HUD.”
A slim backpack battery powered the environmental systems built into the chest and tricep panels, in addition to the helmet’s Heads-Up Display. Lorena’s faceplate offered her a wealth of information: everything from her own vitals to Zachariah Obo’s weekly maintenance reports. She couldn’t imagine this operation without a self-updating 3D map. Ouro environments were notoriously disorienting for a human species accustomed to flat savannah planes.
They performed cursory checks on each others’ suits. Karl Genz, nearly two meters tall and resembling an enormous blue crane, tightened the seals down Ashley’s spine. Lorena powered up the XenoComm device, like an oversized flashlight with a touch screen on the handle. It was only when she tried to tuck it into a utility pouch and found that pouch occupied that she realized the mistake she’d made.
“Oh, shit. Check your hip pockets for sidearms.” She extracted one from her own pocket: dark grey barrel with a clean white stock, firing stud inside a stylish trigger guard, battery pack in place with an LED winking green. Checking the safety, she tucked the pistol inside her locker. Ashley and Karl did the same, handling the weapons like delicate glass instruments they didn’t trust but didn’t want to be without.
“That would have been a disaster,” Lorena sighed. The C.O. felt enormous relief—she’d nearly boarded a foreign vessel carrying a live weapon! She imagined Annika’s withering expression.
They tromped awkwardly from the locker room, getting accustomed to the suits’ extra bulk. Servo motors in the joints made the “Marina” essentially weightless, but a ponderous sensation remained. Karl carried his mobile scanner unit, Lorena the XenoComm, Ashley a hoard of odds and ends. Flares, spare batteries, and Lorena’s medical kit though it held little to aid an Ouro. Zachariah Obo stood by the airlock control panel, waiting for their signal to open the hatch sunk into the ready room’s deck.
“Pressure look good on the other side?” Lorena asked Obo. He gave her a thumps-up. “Okay. Switch to internals.” With a flick of a switch at the base of her helmet, her vents snapped shut and the world went very quiet. The only sound was her own breathing until Obo’s speech triggered the microphone.
“Ready when you are.”
“Right. Open her up. Duggins, you’re first.”
“Roger.” Ashley stepped up to the hatch, which hissed and lifted off the floor to expose a slim tube lit by soft fluorescents, terminating in a slightly wider chamber known as the “Pre” whose floor was a second hatch. Ladder rungs ran down the wall to the Pre Chamber and it was down these rungs Ashley Duggins descended. Reaching the bottom, she slipped off and pressed herself against the wall to conserve space for the others. Even had Karl been smaller, it would’ve been a tight fit. All three crewmembers wedged themselves into the Pre Chamber and looked up as Obo shut the hatch above. They heard a warning klaxon.
Coin-sized apertures opened in the hatch below their boots. From them welled a fluid, hot and slightly viscous, clear but tinted orange.
“Jesus Christ,” Ashley hissed. Karl said nothing though his eyes were wide.
“Stay calm and control your breathing,” snapped Lorena. “It’ll feel normal in a second.”
“Have you done this before, Doctor?” came Genz’s voice in her ear.
“No,” she said flatly as the ooze swallowed them all.
Ashley wanted to panic, felt like she was drowning. Shutting her eyes to keep out the orange horror threatening to seep through her faceplate. She imagined its taste in her mouth and wanted to gag. Instead she forced into her mind the musty smell of her father’s old suit—Marina from the Marines! He’d praised her for making the connection—and that forced down the nausea, the agitation. Breathe, Lorena sounded in her ear like nothing but air stood between them. So she breathed and with the oxygen came enough calm to open her eyes.
Everything in the flooded Pre Chamber was vaguely orange. Karl held a hand before his face, turning it over and back while he worked his fingers, testing the liquid’s properties. Lorena looked right back at her with a concerned look, and the Pilot blushed with shame at her own squeamishness. There was just something so saltily awful about it, the heat like fresh vomit though the suits had compensated and were now comfortably cool. Ashley realized for the first time that her feet no longer touched the deck, looked straight down and nearly panicked again. The doors below were open, leaving them all suspended above a dark downward tunnel with no visible bottom. Dim lights glowed ghostly blue somewhere deep below.
“Ashley, I want you to take point.” Lorena’s voice was gentle, but the junior Pilot knew better than to balk. Placing palms against the bulkhead, she pushed herself downward. It was strange swimming deeper without the sensation of pressure, but gravity was disabled in the Pre Chamber and throughout the Ouro ship. What use had a swimmer for artificial gravity fields in her ship? Ashley looked down and flicked her HUD’s eye cursor to switch on her helmet light. The floor was close.
She reached the bottom and took in the airlock chamber: an-onion-shaped bulb ringed by blue lights, a round sealed hatch adjacent to a softly glowing control panel on what she considered the floor. Such concepts, she knew, were counter-productive here. “I see you’re no longer aboard Konoko,” Vivek’s voice crackled in her ear with considerably less fidelity than Lorena’s had. “Can I confirm you’re not adrift in space?”
“Roger,” Ashley replied. Her comrades sounded off as they sunk to join her. “If we can open that door, I think it’ll be with that console.” She pointed.
“Tell me what you’re seeing,” said Vivek. “The computer’s got some diagrams of basic Ouro interfaces. Narrow it down and I’ll send them over.”
Ash peered in, wishing her magnetized boots made any difference on carbon decking. Staying in place was a constant chore even without currents, each infinitesimal muscle twitch seeming to send her off course. “It’s not a touch screen. There are two red lights, a tube like a handle about twenty centimeters long. Two other protrusions like…well, like nipples. All three in a vertical line left of the lights.” She restrained a comment about wanting to twist them.
Vivek considered. “Okay, that looks like some of these door controls. Transmitting now—they might take a while to get through that hull. Nobody’s come to greet you?”
“Haven’t seen a soul,” said Lorena, looking at the same panel. Genz ran one hand over the chitinous walls while the other worked his scanner.
Their HUDs flashed with the information just sent: a half dozen 3D diagrams of Ouro control panels very much like that currently blocking their path. “Looks like we use the big one,” Ash remarked, wolfing the information down. “Says to…’place two fingers at the base and move them in a 180-degree clockwise arc, terminating no less than three-quarters distance between the base and node tip.’ Well, if that isn’t clear…” She did as she thought she should, and nothing happened. The lights pulsed a bejeweled mix of gold and emerald green, then went back to flat red.
“Does red mean locked?” she wondered out loud.
Lorena gave an exaggerated head shake so it would be clear despite the suit. “The opposite. Red’s one of their happy colors. It’s a prey signal, something like that.”
“Well, it didn’t work.”
Vivek chipped in. “Maybe you did the arc too quickly. Try to make it really smooth. Think of a tentacle tip.”
“Gross,” Ashley grunted, and repeated the action as he suggested. The lights, already bright red, somehow grew more violently so. Without a perceptible sound, the circular door slid sideways and out of sight. A blank bulkhead showed through the opening, on the far side of an open space. She couldn’t see how large. “That did it,” she said grudgingly.
“Aha!” he crowed in her ear.
“Well, Vee, apparently you’re a genius. You want to come down?”
“Enough,” Lorena chided, though she knew the junior Pilot ran her mouth to focus. She turned around. “Genz, we’re moving on. Do you have any pulses?”
“Pulses?” Karl finally took his attention off his HUD screen.
“You said you needed to be inside the hull. Is anything alive on the ship? Can you see?”
He looked disoriented, as if suddenly woken from a nap. “Uhh, yes, Doctor. Many life signals. Just not so many as I expected.”
“What?” Lorena snapped. The two women looked around as if the room held anything but themselves. “Are they outside the door?”
“None within thirty meters, but at least ten within a hundred. The suspension fluid and machinery keep me from seeing exact positions. But they aren't moving quickly; it’s like they don’t know we’re here.”
“How could they not notice us?” Vivek asked, as if anyone had a satisfying answer.
Lorena Mizrahi gripped the doorway with one hand, checking her XenoComm with the other. “We’re about to find out. Genz, Duggins, flanking me. Let’s go!” Without another word, she gave the rim a tug and launched herself into the blue-lit beyond.
COMING NEXT TUESDAY: PART FIVE, WHEREIN OUR HEROES MAKE ODD ACQUAINTANCES AND DISCUSS FELINE MURDER.