by Mark Stanley
One month out from Alfred's Star, the Mayflower's alarms sounded, awakening Edman from a nap in his cabin.
"Huh!" he shouted, startled from his dream. "What?" For a few seconds he was still running through the surging and receding waters of a tropical beach, chasing an elusive girl. He wrestled with a tangled sheet as he tried to focus on his surroundings.
"Captain to the bridge!" he heard Peterson, the first officer, call over the PA. "Collision alert!" Edman jolted fully awake at the warning and arose from bed, groaning as his joints creaked. He acknowledged the order over the intercom and struggled into his jumpsuit and boots. When dressed, he shuffled out of his cabin to the nearest deck hatch. The hatch was an entrance to a spoke which led from the rotating ring of the living quarters down into the main body of the ship. He made the descent on the narrow ladder with difficulty, raising bruises on his tender shins and forearms as he went. The transition to zero-g also made him queasy, an effect he was lately rediscovering from his old cadet days.
Once in the main passage that ran the length of the ship, Edman was blinded and deafened by rotating beacons and signal gongs. Weird shadows scooted along the maze of pipes, wire bundles, and conduits that snaked across the curved bulkheads of the passage. Odds and ends of ship's gear were tethered to every possible surface. A few items floated free. The combined effect made the area resemble a chamber-of-horrors from an old-fashioned amusement park. The noise alone was enough to drive a person mad. Edman swore and called Peterson again through the intercom panel at the base of the spoke.
"Turn off the damn alarm," he said. "I'm coming!"
"I've tried," was the first-officer's response. "But the override doesn't work."
"Then just pull the breaker!"
"But that will also shut down the --"
"Do it!" Edman punched the intercom off with his left hand balled into a fist. It was missing three fingers. Fifteen years earlier a hull-breach had caused an emergency door to automatically slam shut upon it. If he had been any slower the door would have taken off his entire arm. After a moment, the assault on Edman's eyes and ears ceased. He took half a minute to recover and then began to pull himself, hand-over-hand, down the passageway to the bridge. His palms were soon fouled by grime.
Amidships, he was joined by Jasper, his mate and one of the system specialists. She had emerged from the monitoring station of the cryonics chamber where one-thousand budding colonists had been sleeping in ignorance for thirty-seven years. Their long wake-up call had just begun.
"I don't understand," Jasper said, concern highlighting the pattern of wrinkles on her face. Her voice had been a croak ever since exposure to vacuum had damaged her lungs. "This must be a false alarm. We're clear of the local Oort cloud and our course avoids the asteroid belt."
"You're probably right." Edman's arms were tiring. "Almost everything else on this heap has failed, so why not the alarm, too?" His pace slowed and he found it hard to speak between breaths. "But we have to be sure." They arrived at the bridge to find Dawson, the other system specialist and Peterson's mate, also present. The four of them constituted the entire crew. Two others had perished years ago; one from an accident and the other from suicide. Edman closed the hatch behind him and lowered himself into the pilot's seat. He fastened a frayed belt over his lap.
"Okay, what do we have?" he asked Dawson, who was seated at the nav station. The chair she was strapped into was oozing stuffing. She was running her fingers across a keyboard and staring intently into a monitor.
Dawson pounded her console, causing a cloud of tiny debris to rise into the air. She brushed it aside with several swipes of her hand. "I don't know, yet." she said. "I have to work around a crashed sub-routine in the proximity sensor."
"Easy, Leslie." Peterson stroked her long mane of gray hair as he floated behind her. "Relax." His bald dome reflected the lights from an overhead panel. A structural failure had left him paralyzed from the waist down. Peterson never ventured into the gravity ring after that. His body was a skeleton.
"It's just that I'm so damn tired of this rotting hulk!" Dawson shivered. "I'd go crazy if we weren't so close to -- Wait! I've got it, now. Give me a minute."
Edman sighed; the ship did smell as if something was literally rotting. Or maybe it was just the high concentration of ozone. Jasper hovered near him, resting a hand on his arm. He noticed that her nails were cracked and yellow, and her fingers crooked with arthritis. Edman patted the hand.
"This is funny," Dawson finally said.
"How so?" Peterson asked.
"Something is paralleling our course. It's about two-hundred klicks to port."
"What?" The other three spoke at once.
"I'm serious." Dawson turned to look at them. Her face was still scarred from a fuel-cell explosion ten years past. She shrugged. "I guess it's another ship." She didn't need to say anything more.
Nobody spoke for a full minute. Edman rubbed his chest.
His heart had started to bother him, lately. He supposed he was in a race with the Mayflower to see which would expire first. The others peered at him anxiously, waiting for an order. "Go active and see if you can get an image," he said, mainly to turn their attention away from him. He shifted in his seat. His work was supposed to be coming to an end. Contact, if required at the journey's termination, was supposed to be the passengers' job. This was work for a young man, not a --. Edman shook his head and blanked-out the thought.
"I'll try." Dawson turned back to her console. "But it will take awhile to get the radar up and running." Jasper left his side and strapped into the comm station.
"We're being illuminated by a laser," she said seconds later.
"Why didn't the alarm sound?" Peterson asked.
"The radiation alert system is off-line."
Peterson slapped his forehead. "Yeah, that's right," he said. "I must be getting senile. It operates off of the same breaker as the collision alarm." He twisted around to face Edman. "That's what I was trying to tell you, before."
Edman placated him with a wave of his hand.
Peterson frowned in disgust. "Who designed this barge, anyway?" It had become his favorite question.
Edman ignored him and turned to Dawson. "Have you got the radar working yet?"
"That laser beam is modulated," Jasper said. "It's carrying data, but I can't read it. Decryption mode has crashed. And I can't illuminate them with our own laser, because it's down, too."
Peterson cursed. "Can you believe this? Here we are about to experience the initial encounter with an alien intelligence and nothing on this wreck works!"
"Look!" Dawson said in a hushed voice. "There it is!" She pointed at her monitor. The imaging radar had finally come on-line and picked up a long, sleek, and shining spacecraft gliding through space.
"My god! That's beautiful!" Edman wasn't sure if he or someone else said it.
"They've down-shifted to microwave!" Jasper said. "The same band as ours!" She looked at Edman with wonder in her cloudy eyes. "This is incredible! They must be desperate to talk to us. We've got to answer them, somehow."
Edman massaged his chest. He turned to Jasper. "Bring up that old universal-greeting message from file," he said, "and put it out on our beam."
Jasper accomplished the task with a few key-strokes. "Done," she said, studying her monitor. Then she took a sharp, deep breath. "Their data format has changed to ours! My god, that was fast!" Her hoarse voice dropped to a whisper. "Most of it is comprehensible, now. See?" She transferred the text to the main bridge display so that they could all read it.
"Unidentified vessel," the large screen spelled out. "This is the (no-such-word). Analysis of your communication indicates friendly intentions on your part. However, please state your name, origin, manifest, and purpose for the record."
The others looked to Edman. He swallowed and took a moment to generate some saliva in his mouth. "Tell them," he said, "that we are the Earth ship, Mayflower, carrying colonists, and we request permission to enter orbit around the third planet to carry out peaceful exploration and establish a settlement." He tried to sound formal, aware of the momentous occasion. Jasper made the entry on the keyboard with clumsy fingers.
"Acknowledged, Mayflower," the bridge display read. "You are cleared to orbit, but be advised that you are in controlled space. (No-such-word) center requests you alter course by three solar-arcs, starboard, and increase speed to 0.28 C to avoid other traffic. If possible, please contact (no-such-word) center directly via the (no-such-word)."
Edman had to chuckle. The fusion drive had been shut down permanently weeks ago when braking had been completed. The ship carried only enough conventional fuel for the maneuvering thrusters and a single firing of the main rocket when they were ready to drop into orbit. The old junker couldn't go any faster.
Edman did some number-crunching using the flight-control system. He discovered the requested course correction was minor and could be achieved using thrusters alone. It would merely add a week to their nearly four-decade-long journey. Edman took hold of the side-stick controller.
"Coming about by three solar-arcs, starboard," he said and glanced at Jasper. "But tell them that this is our top speed and that our comm is limited to VHF, UHF, and microwave." The slight acceleration forced Peterson to hang on tightly to the back of Dawson's seat.
"Acknowledged, Mayflower," was the reply. "Maintain your present course and speed. We will escort you to orbit. The following is relayed from (no-such-word) center: Welcome to (no-such-word), Earth ship Mayflower. We have eight planets, seventeen moons, and thousands of orbiting communities inhabited by sixty-three different species. There are numerous spacious accommodations to choose from for the new residents you are bringing to our diverse community. All of (no-such-word) looks forward to greeting you and adding your cultural heritage to our rich mixture. End of message. As Captain of the (no-such-word), let me also extend my own personal welcome to you, on behalf of my crew and my people, the (no-such-word). We are honored by your presence."
Peterson whistled. "Jackpot," he said. Dawson was crying. He put his hand on her shoulder.
Jasper became animated. She typed rapidly, talking to herself, and then turned to Edman. "Request permission to send this message, sir." Her back was ram-rod straight.
Edman read it off of the main screen and nodded. "This is Captain John Edman of the Mayflower," it said, "on behalf of my crew, my passengers, and the people of Earth, I accept your warm welcome and hospitality with abundant gratitude. You have made our mission a success."
"Permission granted, Elizabeth," he said. "And don't ever call me sir, again." He smiled. "We're through with that now." She smiled back at him and then transmitted the message with a flourish of her arm.
"They're coming closer!" Dawson shouted. She transferred her monitor to the bridge display. "I've got them on optical." The Mayflower crew watched as the graceful ship slid in next to them. The elegant vessel was a delicate, abstract sculpture brought to life. It sparkled like a finely cut, precious stone in the blackness of space. There was no visible means of propulsion. Their escort was a vision from fairyland, driven by pixie-dust.
But none of them had any illusions about how their own ship appeared to the other. Each had undertaken countless EVAs around the Mayflower's ungainly and battered hull. They were an exhausted, heavily-laden mule stumbling at journey's end to keep pace with a magnificent race horse in prime condition.
Peterson shook his head. "You just know that thing's FTL," he said. "They must be laughing their butts off at this scow -- if they have butts." He let his breath out slowly. "And so," he went on, "it comes down to this. We, and this old girl," he patted the overhead," have come to the end of the line. I'm sure our passengers will be happy. But now it's time for us, and the May, to just fade away. They'll put us in a retirement home and send this antique straight to the scrap yard." The others shook their heads in agreement.
"Well," Edman said, "at least we can take satisfaction in a job well-done." Peterson grunted. Both women were crying now.
Dawson's console began to beep. She turned to her monitor. "There are ships appearing all around us," she said. They're popping up on radar from out of nowhere."
"You can see them!" The other three turned at the sound of Jasper's voice to the main display. Their escort had grown by at least a score of exotic-looking vessels.
"I never thought I'd see the day..." Edman trailed off, unable to continue.
"We're being bombarded by messages," Jasper said. "So many that they're interfering with one another. I'm only picking up bits of each." She began to read from her monitor.
"--Welcome, friends, to--is that a ramjet?--how many limbs do--such classic lines, may we come aboard?--used to build models as a--how many does it take to crew--your ship must require immense skill to--into a shrine, if you'll donate--how long have you been--skip the boring reception ceremony and come party with--do you manually interface with the--can I get your autograph for my--never seen such a fascinating--come live on our moon--make your ship do a roll--the rights to produce commemorative replicas of your--love to see your bridge--my children will be ecstatic at these pictures--want to trade the Mayflower for my--welcome home!"
"Uh, oh." Jasper frowned. "They've stopped."
Peterson snorted. "Let me guess, the receiver crashed." "No," Jasper said. "Now there's a single message coming in." She read it out loud.
"Captain John Edman of the Mayflower, this is Captain (no-such-word) of the (no-such-word), your escort, again. Please accept my apologies for the confusion. (No-such-word) center has the situation under control once more. But you must understand that your vessel represents a romantic age long since lost to us. You are from a time when space travel was adventurous and full of perils, when ships had (no-such-word) and the (no-such-word) who crewed them were (no-such-word), indeed. I would give up my (no-such-word) for the chance to have been born back in your day. But I know that I no more deserve to sit in the Mayflower's command chair than a (no-such-word). I am just a ground-transport driver compared to you. All I ask for is the privilege of (no-such-word) your (no-such-word). I beseech you to honor my humble request when we meet."
Edman's eyes began to sting, undoubtedly from the burning insulation of an overloaded circuit. "It will be my pleasure," he said when his voice returned. Elizabeth sent his reply and then reached over to touch him. He realized she was more beautiful to him than ever before. Surely, somewhere up ahead there was a beach for them to walk upon, hand-in-hand.
Story/Poem copyright © 1999 by Mark Stanley <Mark@speculative-fiction.com>
Artwork "The Derelique" copyright © 1999 by Romeo Esparrago <firstname.lastname@example.org>