It had not been an easy task to refit the Kingfisher to allow it to travel underwater, but this was not the vessel’s first visit to a R’Dokken instillation, so the crew at least had known what to expect. Nevertheless, manoeuvring the unwieldy orehauler-cum-destroyer whilst submerged was a tremendously complex task. Certainly rotation was impossible, leaving the crew in the tenuous grip of the station’s micro-gravity field, which was more or less unnoticeable. Ryugi sat rigid in his harness, his eyes fixed unblinking on the screen. A pale green overlay transcribed their approach vector through the night-black water. They had long since left behind the piercing shaft of light at the entrance to the sea, and the only illumination came from the spotlights the Kingfisher had once employed to aid asteroid mining operations. Occasional shapes drifted through the darkness; huge shadows that occasionally betrayed an enormous tail, or the tip of one mammoth fin. Davis identified them as R’Dokken prey animals. The closest Earth analogue was the manta ray, but the comparison was as an elephant to a poodle. Not only that, but these monsters were apparently carnivorous, and quite happy to devour any R’Dokken they had come across. Quite why the alien had seen fit to ferry such dangerous creatures to the stars to allow them to threaten R’Dokken lives in other systems was a mystery. Perhaps it was part of the Kellarealm xenoc’s love of combat. Or perhaps they were the only things the R’Dokken wanted to eat, plankton aside. And just what else was out there for the uberrays to feed on? There had to be an entire ecosystem down here, all for the benefit of the few hundred thousand R’Dokken who lived here. She shook her head. Aliens.
“How long now?” Gabe asked.
Ryugi flicked his gaze down to his console, and back to the screen.
“Another twelve minutes. Assuming we don’t get sent another course change.”
Flight Control (Swim Control?) had ordered five alterations to the ship’s flight path in the last fifteen minutes.
“You think they’re pushing for a screw-up?” asked Jaime from beside the captain. Jaime didn’t speak much, but when he did he had an unnerving tendency to summarize what was going through everyone’s mind.
“I think it’s more likely to just be corrections for the current,” replied Ryugi.
“What’s that?” asked Jaime quietly. He was leaning forward in his seat and squinting at the viewscreen.
“What is what?” said the captain.
“I see it too,” Jessa said, who did. It was an indistinct cloud, no, two clouds, of ephemeral yellow light. It looked to be no more than a few dozen metres from the bow, but the surrounding water hampered the judgement of distance.
“Any thoughts?” Gabe asked, with a sidelong glance at Davis.
Whether or not Davis knew the answer, he had no time to say anything before the clouds shot forwards into the full glare of the Kingfisher’s spotlights.
Jessa had never before seen R’Dokken in their natural environment. Divested of their suits, they seemed somehow smaller, perhaps three metres from mouth to tail, although once again the silt and murk of the pseudo-ocean made such estimation inaccurate at best. The only real clue to their size was provided by the incandescent smears Jaime had noticed. These proved to be streaks of what was presumably bio-luminescence. Three longs stripes of light ran along the aliens’ segmented bodies with perfect radial symmetry. Travelling alongside the strips were the creatures' “legs”; hundreds of small, soft, feathery limbs that rippled in waves as they thrust their body forward. When suited up, R’Dokken legs seemed much like those of the millipedes to which they owed their nickname. Without such obstruction, the overall effect might almost have been beautiful, had it not been for the aliens’ faces. Each R’Dokken head was marked by three feeder tentacles, each half as long again as the armoured torso to which they were attached. The appendages twitched lazily as they sifted nutrients from the cold water. At the centre of this crown lay gaping jaws, surrounded by semi-circular and razor-sharp teeth, ready to accommodate any wishes from the alien for larger prey. The bloated, fleshy tentacles and lethal, crimson maw contrasted sharply with the streamlined symmetry that followed, and left Jessa feeling distinctly uneasy.
Her discomfort was not aided by the realisation that one of the two R’Dokken had some form of device wrapped around the end of one tentacle. Its snub, almost ovoid form made it very unlike the R’Dokken weaponry Jessa had seen, but nonetheless she considered it foolish to believe it represented anything remotely positive.
The alien promptly fed the device into its maw, and swallowed it. No, it didn’t swallow; it was holding the object in its mouth.
“Signal!” reported Gallagher, “I’m putting it on speaker.”
“Human visitors,” said a voice suddenly, alongside a sound which sounded an awful lot like whale song, although simultaneously more gravely and at a higher pitch.
A transmitter, Jessa realised, kicking herself. And a translator, presumably.
Gallagher was now looking at the captain, eyebrows raised in question. Gabe nodded, never tearing his eyes from the screen.
“This is the Free Merchant Starship Kingfisher,” Gallagher intoned into his mike. “Please identify?”
Silence. The R’Dokken had stopped swimming, now they were simply floating. Just within the searchlight beams.
“I repeat, please identify?”
“We are ambassadors,” sang the speakers. “We request conversation.”
“This is Captain Gabriel Merriman, ambassador,” said Gabe slowly, “Are we not conversing right now?”
“I will clarify. We request conversation within your vessel.”
That raised everyone’s eyebrows. Face-to-face contact with the R’Dokken was very rare, and for it to be outside the field of combat was all but unheard of.
Gabe slashed a flat hand across his throat, and Gallagher deactivated the comm.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” murmured Jaime. No-one else spoke; all attention was directed at the captain. Gabe looked lost in thought. Gallagher began absentmindedly caressing the button that would reactivate the comm.
Finally the captain spoke.
“Two R’Dokken? We won’t have any problem taking them,” Jaime assured him.
“They could be suicide bombers,” Davis pointed out. “The R’Dokken sense of self-preservation is markedly less pronounced than our own.”
Gabe shook his head. “If they wanted us dead they could have blown us to pieces with those immense pop guns up on the surface.”
“Unless these two aren’t Kellarealm,” Davis pointed out.
“Noted, Mr Davis. Medical?”
“Sir?” asked Jessa, puzzled.
“Our “ambassadors” aren’t wearing suits,” Gabe explained. “If they come in here like that, what are the health risks?”
“Unknown,” she confessed, “We’ve never bothered trying to find out. It never even occurred to us that we could meet a R’Dokken without at least one of us being in suits. We didn’t think they could survive out of water.”
“They can’t,” said Davis, clearly implying that things would be moving along far faster if the crew consulted him with greater regularity.
The captain nodded slowly.
“Right. We’re going to try this. Mr Gallagher?”
“Comms on, sir.”
“This is Captain Merriman to R’Dokken ambassadors. We would be honoured to have you as our guests. Please proceed to port side airlock L4, where we shall wait to greet you.”
“We thank you, Captain Merriman. Transmission ends.”
The R’Dokken retrieved its transmitter, and spasmed sharply. The sharp movement was echoed by the alien’s luminous stripes, which flared angrily.
“A signal?” the captain asked himself quietly. Jaime nodded beside him.
It appeared they were right. Another cloud of light swam into view, this time far brighter, from beneath the R’Dokken, ascending leisurely. As it entered the spotlight beams, two suited R’Dokken were revealed, operating some kind of submersible skiff. The vehicle was around six metres long, and only a few centimetres in height. The machine curved from the centre outwards, ending in several prongs with its crew nestled safely inside. From above the craft was shaped roughly like a tapering oval, with a powerful headlight at the pointed end (presumably the front from the direction its pilots were facing).
Behind the two crew were stashed a pair of long, curved troughs, each permeated by two rows of holes travelling lengthwise. The ambassadors swam to these troughs, pausing above them.
“This should be good,” Davis murmured.
What followed was almost too fast to see, and later Jessa had to piece together the images in her memory in order to form a coherent account of what had occurred.
The two R’Dokken twisted sharply, before flicking themselves downwards. Simultaneously, they thrust erect the two rows of limbs currently beneath them, whilst flattening the third row against their chitinous bodies. As they reached the trough, limb found hole all the way along the alien’s body, in a bewildering display of co-ordination. Once each leg was inserted, the troughs shifted somehow, curving smoothly upwards to envelop the aliens, hugging them so tightly Jessa could still faintly discern where each armoured segment met the next. The final stage of this process involved pulling on the protective sleeves for the feeder tentacles, an operation soon completed with help from the skiff crew.
“Well, that’s one question answered,” said Gabe.
Jessa was still stunned by the display she had just witnessed. The sheer skill that manoeuvre must have taken…
“Still with us, Doctor?” asked the captain.
“Yes sir. I’m just a little…” awe-inspired? “Impressed.”
Davis snorted. “You should see them get suited up for combat. Those things have three rows of leg holes; and far more unpleasant things than sleeves for their feeder tentacles.
“So those aren’t combat suits?” mused the captain. “Well, that’s reassuring, anyway.”
“Those are guns, though,” said Jaime, nodding at the screen. The skiff crew had retrieved two weapons from a compartment in between them. The devices were harmless enough in appearance, large discs thicker at centre than edge, and with three curved prongs sprouting from the back and sweeping over the top. But Jessa had seen and tended to the wounds those odd-looking objects had caused in her fellow crewmen; she knew enough to treat them with respect.
Irritation flashed across Gabe’s face.
“Gallagher? Ask them what the hell they’re doing.”
“This is the Kingfisher to R’Dokken ambassadors,” started Gallagher, not quite masking the tension in his voice, “Why are your… companions carrying weaponry?”
Jessa watched the lead R’Dokken return the translator to his mouth.
“Our fellows are no more than an escort,” explained the ambassador’s translator, over its backdrop of singing, “And an escort must be armed. It is how things are done.”
Gabe signalled to Gallagher. Let me deal with this.
“Ambassador, this is Captain Merriman. You are more than welcome aboard the Kingfisher. Your bodyguards, however, are not; not armed at any rate.”
“No R’Dokken Realmguard would ever forsake his weapon,” replied the alien. The translator’s dull tones gave no clue as to its operator’s emotions, but the accompanying whale-song was now higher in pitch. Jessa’s intuition told her this was not a good sign.
The captain remained stone-faced. “Then no R’Dokken Realmguard will ever set foot aboard my vessel.”
There was a pause.
“Ryugi,” said Jaime quietly, “Plot a course for the ice-hole, and start feeding power to the thrusters. Nice and gentle. If the R’Dokken get nasty, we’re going to be gone before they can take aim.”
“Yessir!” said Ryugi, furiously tapping commands into his console.
Finally the R’Dokken responded. “Our fellows will escort us to the airlock, and will then remain outside your vessel. Are these arrangements acceptable?”
“Entirely. I look forward to meeting you, ambassador. Perhaps we can talk about the prospecting team you are holding in this installation.”
“Of course, captain,” said the alien. “We have a great deal to discuss.”
It was gone two in the morning by the time Jessa stumbled into engineering. Her colleagues at med school had assured her that with sufficient experience, doctors acquired the same skill as sailors and smugglers; awakening instantly to full alertness whenever necessary.
Jessa had never got the hang of it. Perhaps she was not sufficiently addicted to caffeine.
She looked around for her patient. There, by a control console, Harlan was half-kneeling, his injured leg splayed in front of him. He was cradling his left hand beneath his right arm, his eyes closed and screwed with pain. Quickly she strode over to him.
“Harlan, are you OK? What happened?”
“Goddamn… console blew. Burnt my- fuck!- burnt my hand.”
“Let’s take a look, honey.”
Jessa inspected her husband’s wounded palm, clicking her tongue. The burn ran most of the way along his hand, and started to travel up his wrist, but none of it was particularly serious.
“It doesn’t look too bad, Harlan. A few injections; a dermal-sealant spray, no problem.”
As she began to fish the relevant supplies from her bag, Harlan leant over and whispered in her ear.
“You wanted to talk.”
She stiffened. “Are you sure we’re-?”
Harlan nodded. “The vids can’t see us from here, and I reckon the engine vibrations will screw up any pressure plating. This is about as private as we’re gonna get right now.”
The penny dropped. “You… you did this to yourself, didn’t you? You deliberately mutilated yourself to make sure we could-“
“I had absolutely faith in your skills, darling,” said Harlan, with a trace of amusement. “Speaking of which…” He wiggled his scorched fingers.
Jessa set to work.
“I did want to talk,” she confessed in a murmur, “About Geiss.”
Harlan nodded, an action his gaze didn’t quite manage to compensate for; the effects of the anaesthetic in the DS-spray. Harlan must have picked up on it too, he settled down against the bulkhead, and allowed his eyes to close.
“You don’t trust him,” he said neutrally.
“Do you?” she asked, inspecting her handiwork. The index finger still needed a little more attention.
Her husband shrugged slightly.
“I’m not sure anyone on the ship has ever trusted Geiss as a person. But…”
“But you have to remember two things. First, Geiss is a top-notch engineer. If he told me he could build a Starport from tin cans and catgut; I’d be collecting kittens for him.
“The second reason is even more important. There’s no reason for Geiss to betray us. We saw yesterday how… disappointing the captain’s rewards are.”
“And how lethal her punishments.”
Another shrug. “That’s a motive for not helping us. It isn’t a motive for selling us out.”
There was silence for a few moments. Jessa had now completed her treatment, but she continued to feign concern for Harlan’s hand, inspecting it continually.
“What if… I had doubts about his competence?”
Harlan’s eyes flicked open.
“And what would lead you to that conclusion? Something nasty lurking in his files?”
“You know I can’t answer that,” she admonished.
“Of course not, Doctor Lambert.”
Jessa had kept her original name after they had been married. The tradition of double-barrelled names had been abandoned some time ago, after it had been realised that the population was facing an epidemic of exponentially growing surnames.
Harlan made a good spouse, as such things went, but he always seemed convinced that her confidences as a doctor should be entrusted to his confidence as a husband.
“Anyway,” he continued, “I wouldn’t worry. I’m quite sure we can trust Geiss, and if not; we’ll handle it.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Jessa mumbled, in a tone that implied anything but. She couldn’t maintain the pretence of administering to Harlan’s hand anymore. Leaning forward, she lightly kissed her husband.
“It’s been a while since you did that,” he commented as she stood.
“Kissed me, I mean. It’s been quite some time.”
“Has it? I hadn’t realised. I guess… it’s just with all this going on, I really don’t feel comfortable-“
Harlan rose to stand beside her.
“I wasn’t fishing for an explanation. Or an apology. I’m just saying.”
He grabbed hold of her, and they kissed again; searchingly, painfully. It was a long moment before he released her.
“Time we were off,” he said, once they had separated. “We both have very busy days tomorrow, and the sooner we crawl into our little boudoir in the mess hall, the happier I’ll be.”
They held each other briefly once more, and then they were gone.