CHAPTER 2: FIRST CONTACT PROTOCOLS
“You wanted to see me, Captain?” Jaeger asked, standing to attention as he stepped through the automatic door into the briefing room. Before him, Captain Fielding of the Rorke and several other high-ranking personnel were sat around a circular table, a hologram of the asteroid field projecting from its center. Fielding gestured for the pilot to be at ease, his hand gloved in the same pristine white as his uniform, Jaeger relaxing as he waited for further instructions. A few of the other attendants were also dressed in white, indicating that they were the captains of some of the support ships. Others were wearing the standard Navy blue, or the yellow of the engineering corps.
“We’ve read your report concerning the incident in the Oort cloud, Lieutenant Jaeger,” Fielding began. “I wondered if you might give us a more…personal account of what you saw.”
“Of course Captain,” he replied. He proceeded to go over the details of everything that he had seen in the asteroid field, the glittering green laser that had burned through the Bug vessel, the flashing colors in hues of blue and purple. When he was done, he glanced nervously around the table, hoping that they weren’t about to ground him for a psych evaluation.
The Captain tapped at a touchpad that was embedded in the table, and then the hologram shifted, showing a three-dimensional image of one of the Bug ships.
“Fortunately, your railgun’s targeting optics were tracking the enemy vessel when the laser hit it,” Fielding said. “Watch closely.” He advanced the recording frame by frame, everyone leaning in as they concentrated on the flickering video. They gasped and muttered as the feed suddenly warped, corruption and digital artifacts tearing up the recording. “The green beam that you claim to have seen isn’t visible on the camera. However, the light that it emitted seems to have damaged the recording. If we advance the footage, we can clearly see where it impacts the dorsal armor of the Betelgeusian fighter and begins to melt through it…here.”
He paused the video again, then zoomed in on a spot on the metallic armor. It was blurry and pixelated. The target had been far away, and the resolution wasn’t great, but Jaeger could clearly make out an orange glow. The Captain advanced the video by another few frames, the armor slagging and becoming molten as the laser burned through it. A murmur passed around the table, a few of them glancing at Jaeger. They had probably been doubting his field report.
“Chief Engineer Campbell, what can you tell us about this weapon?” the Captain asked as he gestured to a man wearing yellow overalls. The engineer stood, scrutinizing the still picture for a few more moments.
“You said that the beam was green?” he asked, directing the question towards Jaeger who nodded in response. “In that case, my guess would be a very high wattage neodymium laser, continuous rather than pulsed it looks like. We use these lasers ourselves, mostly for medical purposes and for laser targeting equipment, but nothing this powerful.”
“So we have this technology?” a man wearing blue who was sitting across from him asked.
“Yes,” Campbell continued, “but it’s not very effective as a weapon. Lasers have some value for point defense applications, but generally speaking, the range at which most fleet engagements take place renders them next to useless for offensive purposes. The problem with lasers is that they tend to scatter, the beam is dispersed as it passes through a medium and encounters microscopic particles. Let’s say you fire a laser beam in an atmosphere, every droplet of water and mote of dust that it encounters is going to refract the light, which dramatically reduces the amount of photons that actually reach their target. That results in a huge damage falloff, and even in the vacuum of space, there’s plenty of gas and dust particles that can interrupt the beam. That’s the only reason that a laser beam is ever visible, because of scattered light that’s being flung out of the beam by collisions. One solution is to increase the power of the laser so that even with scattering, the light that reaches the target is still enough to be lethal. But as the range and the density of the medium increases, so too do the power requirements. It’s just not an efficient weapon.”
“This one seems to be working pretty well,” the man added.
“It’s probably wasting an enormous amount of energy,” the engineer shot back.
“If I could have your attention again, gentlemen?” Fielding asked. He moved his hand back to the touch screen, the display shifting once more. Jaeger recognized this new recording as the view from his helmet, looking back over his shoulder as he zoomed in on the area of space where he had picked up the heat signature. He waited with bated breath for the flash of purple light, hoping against hope that it had been in a spectrum that the cameras could capture, unlike the laser beam.
It was faint, barely larger than a fingernail at such extreme range, but the flurry of colored lights was clearly visible.
“What the hell is that?” Campbell asked. “Can you enhance it, Captain?”
Fielding blew up the picture, and again the low resolution meant that the resulting image was blurry and pixelated, then he paused the footage as the blue light appeared. It was illuminating the hull of the ship around it, not by much, but enough to make out a vague shape. He played the video in slow motion, a light like a strobe moving from left to right in a wave, passing through different hues of azure and magenta.
“Captain, if I may?” Campbell asked. Fielding nodded, stepping away from the touchpad as the engineer took his place. “If we can take snapshots of the footage and overlay them,” he began, “then we should be able to…”
Jaeger watched as Campbell manipulated the footage, taking screenshots and overlaying them one on top of the other as the wave of light passed along the side of the vessel. What resulted was a single view with the entire band illuminated, along with the rough outline of the ship itself, the light reflecting off the hull.
“What kind of ship is that?” one of the other captains mused, leaning across the table to get a closer look.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Campbell replied. “The UNN has no ships with a hull shaped like that to my knowledge.”
It was seen side-on, and so the exact composition of the wings was uncertain, but the shape of the hull was unlike anything that Jaeger had seen before. It was curved and smooth, almost teardrop-shaped, while UNN ships of that size were usually blockier and more angular. He couldn’t make out any details beyond the vague outline, and the light seemed to be emitted by some kind of panel that was mounted along the flank of the vessel. Why would a ship have a need for something like that? Decoration? Communication?
“What’s the name of this system again?” the Captain asked, “I can never remember these damned numbers…”
“We’re currently on the outskirts of HD-217107, roughly sixty-four light-years from Earth,” one of the men sitting at the table volunteered.
“Out in the sticks,” Fielding grumbled. “Coalition space is a bubble about a hundred light years across, and we’re right on the edge of it. Has this system been surveyed for habitable planets?” He looked around the table as he waited for a reply, but nobody had an answer for him. Instead, he hunched over his touch screen, spending a minute or two digging through files. “Ah, here we are,” he said as he stood up straight again. “Two gas giants detected, no terrestrial planets.”
“It’s possible that the astronomers missed something,” Campbell suggested. “At this range, most planets are detected using transit photometry, measuring the light of a star to see if a planet passes in front of it. Usually, when they detect something the size of a terrestrial planet, they send a survey vessel to check it out. If they only picked up gas giants here, and no rocky planets, then they probably struck it off as a potential colony system.”
“Or that these guys are from another system entirely,” one of the captains added. “Should we enact first contact protocols?”
Fielding considered for a moment. First contact protocols affected the entire fleet, it wasn’t an order to be given lightly. When operating in what might well be alien territory, measures had to be taken to avoid potential misunderstandings and confrontations. The last thing they needed was a war on two fronts. That said, the Betelgeusians were also in the system, and getting shot out of the sky by some weird variation of Bug ship because you couldn’t get a positive ID on it wasn’t much better.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” he finally replied. “Enact first contact protocols across the fleet. Let’s hope that this goes better than first contact with the Borealans…”
Jaeger looked about the table, everyone seemed just as nervous as he currently felt. First contact protocols meant that nobody could fire at an unidentified vessel unless they were first fired upon. If hostile action was taken against UNN ships, such as a shot across the bow or a target lock, then they were expected to give way and retreat to a safe distance. Absolutely no aggressive measures were to be taken against alien ships unless they were confirmed hostile. The problem was that if someone shot at you, you might not get the chance to shoot back. Jaeger also knew that they would have to watch that fucking video again…
“You’re all dismissed,” Fielding said, the hologram flickering off as he left the table. “Get back to your respective vessels and spread the word, FCP is in full effect. I don’t want a single round fired unless you can get a positive ID on a Bug ship, and by positive I mean ironclad. There’s a good chance that we’re trespassing in someone else’s airspace right now.”
There was a chorus of affirmations, and then everyone began to file out of the room. Fielding stopped beside Jaeger as he passed by, placing a gloved hand on his shoulder.
“I want your squadron out on another patrol as soon as your fighters are spaceworthy again,” he said. “If we got a look at them, then these aliens have probably gotten a good look at you too, which means they’ll likely recognize an FS-26 the next time they see one. If they’re out here hunting Bugs the same as we are, then we might have a potential ally here. Make sure the next time you boys meet one, everything goes down smoothly.”
“Yes Sir,” Jaeger replied with a salute.
The sound of chair legs squealing against the deck was deafening as Jaeger took a seat beside Scratcher, Baker sitting down next to him as they joined the other three hundred or so crew members who were waiting for the presentation to begin. The mess hall had been cleared, all of the tables had been pushed out of the way, and someone had brought in a projector that had been set up at the front of the expansive room. Above their heads was a maze of criss-crossing pipes, wires, and air ducts that reminded Jaeger that he was in a giant tin can. As large as the carrier was, over a thousand feet long and with a mass of a hundred thousand tons, it somehow still managed to feel cramped. Along with the hangar, the mess was one of the largest rooms on the vessel. As many people as there were crammed inside it, this was only a tiny fraction of the six thousand strong crew compliment, the others would be cycled in and out as their duties allowed for it. Jaeger could see blue and yellow uniforms, humans and towering Krell, even a handful of feline Borealans who looked even more surly than usual.
The sound of a hundred muttered conversations died down as an executive officer walked in and stood to attention before them.
“Quiet down! As many of you know, Captain Fielding has enacted first contact protocols. This isn’t a situation that any of us expected to be in, but it’s crucial that every single one of you understands exactly what it means, and what your responsibilities are.”
He gave the pack of six Borealans a pointed look, their furry ears twitching with irritation. The aliens didn’t make good pilots, but they were formidable shock troopers, boasting superhuman strength and resilience. They had claws like meat hooks on their fingers, their eight-foot frames cloaked in fuzzy fur and muscle, old scars visible on their faces and exposed forearms. There were always ‘mad cats‘ on carriers, just in case they were tasked with boarding an enemy ship or leading a landing party. They were about as sociable and as well adjusted as their appearance suggested.
“Now you’re all going to watch the video,” he continued, a groan passing through the crowd of personnel. “Don’t give me that, I know half of you have probably forgotten most of this shit by now. Pay attention, and let’s all do our best to avoid accidentally starting an interstellar war, shall we?”
He stepped aside and took a seat at the front, examining the touchpad that he was holding for a moment before pressing a button on it. The projector came to life, a device about the size and shape of an ammo crate projecting a hologram into the air above it, filling the available space. The image quality didn’t even come close to that of an actual monitor, it was washed out and slightly transparent, but it was big enough that everyone in the room could see it clearly. There was a hiss as the built-in speakers came online, and then the fuzzy cloud of colors took shape, the giant image of a man in a blue uniform shown from the chest-up appearing before them. There was a line of white text superimposed across the center of the picture, ‘First Contact: What You Need to Know‘.
“The Galaxy is a big place,” the presenter began, the camera zooming out to follow him as he strolled across a terrible bridge set with a shit-eating grin on his face. “Nobody truly knows what lies out there beyond the stars,” he continued as he leaned on a nearby console, actors playing the roles of bridge crew randomly pushing buttons behind him. “But we can take a few simple precautions to ensure that if we do come across something alien and unknown, we can minimize the potential risks.”
“Sir,” one of the women who was manning a flimsy approximation of a comms station began, “we’re picking up an unknown vessel in the system!”
“An unknown ship,” the presenter continued as he addressed the audience, pausing for dramatic effect. “We need FCP, first contact protocols!”
“But what are first contact protocols?” another of the phony bridge crew asked, walking in awkwardly from out of frame and eliciting stifled laughter from the room.
“I’m glad you asked,” the presenter replied, “FCP is something that we all need to understand when operating in uncharted space. There are more stars in the Galaxy than there are grains of sand on every one of Earth’s beaches combined.”
“That’s a lot of stars!” the crewman added, his stilted performance causing another wave of snickering to pass through the mess hall.
“Indeed it is. Around each one of those stars, there might be planets, planets which might harbor complex life. Odds are that there are thousands, even tens of thousands of advanced civilizations in our own backyard, and the further we venture into space, the more the odds of us encountering them increase. They might be friendly, like our allies the Krell.”
A still image of a Krell appeared on the hologram, the giant reptile sharing an Olympic swimming pool with its human neighbors, cruising along one of the lanes with only its snout and the hump of its armored back protruding from the water like a giant crocodile. One of the Krell in the audience rumbled happily, the sound making Jaeger’s bones vibrate. Whether he appreciated the positive portrayal of his race, or if he just recognized that there was another Krell on the display was unclear.
“Or…they might not be so friendly.”
This time a picture of a Betelgeusian drone appeared on the display, a bipedal insect about five feet in height, its vaguely humanoid body sheathed in a tough exoskeleton that shone in iridescent hues of blue and green. It had two pairs of arms, the upper pair longer and thicker than the secondary pair, which protruded from about where the ribs would have been on a person. Its thorax seemed to be split into two bulging segments, and there was layered armor covering all of its joints, whether artificial or natural in origin was hard to tell. The face was almost featureless, the head round and smooth. It had two large, compound eyes that glittered in the light, and a set of cutting mandibles where the mouth would have been. Sprouting from its forehead was an ornate antler or horn, branching off almost like the limbs of a tree.
Nobody needed to be reminded why the Coalition wasn’t on friendly terms with the Betelgeusians, the alliance had been assembled for the sole purpose of stopping their incursions into civilized systems.
“The most important task when interacting with an unknown species is to avoid confrontation,” the presenter said, turning to the comms operator again as if anticipating her next line.
“The unidentified vessel is locking onto us!” she exclaimed, “take evasive action!”
“Delay that order,” the presenter said with a dramatic wave of his hand, turning back towards the audience once again. “Locking might not be a hostile action, they may simply be targeting us with their sensors in an effort to find out what we are. Always keep in mind that in their neck of the woods, it’s ‘we‘ who are the aliens. Always err on the side of caution, and don’t assume hostile intent without good reason.”
“Their weapons are powering up, they’re bringing their forward guns into range!” the operator continued.
“Don’t act rashly!” the presenter warned. “Territorial behavior is a natural response in this situation, after all, how would you like it if someone came into your home uninvited? If the aliens show signs of aggression, back down, deescalate the situation. Let them know that you didn’t travel across the stars to start a fight with them. If you must retreat, then retreat. The only circumstance that permits you to fire on an unidentified vessel while FPC is active is if you are being actively engaged. Always remember the three Ds,” he added as the words scrolled across the shot one by one. “Deescalate, diffuse, disengage.”
“The vessel is signaling us,” the comms officer said, and what followed was a distorted voice listing off nonsense words that were intended to represent an alien transmission. The presenter started to speak again, pointing to his ear.
“Communicating with an unknown species will be difficult, and it may even be impossible. What if they see in different wavelengths of light than we do, what if they hear at different frequencies? What if they’re entirely deaf, and they communicate only through pheromones? They may be incapable of speech, or their concept of communication may have no equivalent in our experience. They won’t understand common gestures and non-verbal communication either. Shaking your head to indicate ‘no‘ or waving as a greeting might seem self-explanatory to you, but it won’t be to them! It might even frighten or startle them, so try not to make any sudden moves or violent gestures.”
“They want to come aboard, Sir,” the woman added. “What should we do?”
“If you manage to reach this stage, it will likely be under the supervision of your ship’s captain, but let’s assume for the sake of this demonstration that you have to make these decisions yourselves. Perhaps you’re exploring an uncharted planet, and you’ve encountered sentient natives…”
The bridge set vanished as the video cut to a forest scene, clearly not an alien jungle, but a national park on Earth. A group of Marines in black combat armor walked into the flat shot from the right, the leader holding up his fist and indicating for the rest to stop. From the trees to the left emerged what looked like a B-movie alien, or something from a low-budget TV show. It held its arms out in front of it as it took exaggerated steps towards the soldiers, the mess hall erupting with laughter. The XO stood and turned to look back at them angrily, putting his finger to his lips as he gestured for the crew to be quiet.
One of the Marines raised his rifle and pointed it at the creature, but then the presenter appeared once again, leaping out from the background with almost comedic timing and standing between the two.
“Stop! Just like in space, never assume that actions are hostile without good reason. If an alien attempts to invade your personal space, back away. If you can’t back away, push it back gently and make it obvious that you don’t want to be touched. Remember the three Ds,” the presenter repeated as he held up three fingers and counted off. “Deescalate, diffuse, disengage.”
The Marine demonstrated, letting his rifle hang from its sling as the monster approached. He placed his hand on the alien’s chest, the other resting on his sidearm holster, gently pushing it back. After a couple of pushes, the pretend alien got the picture, keeping its distance. Jaeger tried to imagine someone trying that maneuver with a Borealan, they’d probably lose the arm…
“If the alien becomes hostile, retreat if you’re reasonably able to do so, and avoid responding with violence. You’re on his turf, keep that in mind.”
The fictional alien advanced, waving its arms aggressively, and the squad of Marines began to retreat as they kept their rifles trained on it.
“As UNN personnel, you are representing your entire species, so do your best to make that first impression a good one!”
The forest scene faded out, and this time it was replaced with a wall of text listing off regulations and rules of engagement.
“Now we will review the rules of engagement and the clauses of the UN charter,” the disembodied voice of the presenter said. Another wave of groaning passed through the room, this time the XO was the only one who was laughing to himself.
“I thought that fucking video would never end,” Baker groaned, walking beside Jaeger as they filed out of the mess hall along with the other personnel.
“I see why they like to show it to us,” Jaeger said, dodging around a passing engineer who was hurrying off in the other direction along the cramped corridor. “ROE generally goes out the window when you’re fighting Bugs. They don’t surrender, they don’t have anything like the Geneva Conventions, they don’t shy away from using chemical and biological weapons. I guess some of the guys need a refresher, reminds them that there are supposed to be rules in war, even if they’re only on paper most of the time.”
“Some Bugs surrender,” Baker replied with a shrug. “You hear about what happened on Jarilo?”
“Oh yeah. They caught a colony early, and the roaches gave up, right?”
“That’s what I heard, yeah. Don’t know the details, it’s all been very hush-hush. But of course, rumor gets around.”
“Well, I’ve never heard of a Bug giving up. A drinking buddy of mine who’s in the Marines told me that when he was deployed on Kruger III, he found a Bug on the battlefield after a CAS run that had been ripped in half at the waist. The main guns on those Penguins just chew up infantry. The thing had one arm left, and it was still trying to fire at him with a plasma pistol. They’re not even sentient I don’t think, no more than an ant or a termite.”
“So the brass really thinks we’ll be meetin’ aliens?” Baker asked skeptically, “I mean…even you ain’t sure what you saw out there.”
“I know that I saw ‘something‘, I’m just not sure what it was. Seems like they’re serious about it though, this FCP shit is nothing to joke about, it really fucks us over. You know how fast Bugs react, sometimes the element of surprise is all you have. If you waste it scanning them, they’re going to spin around and drill you a few new exhaust ports.”
The carrier was cavernous, the winding corridors and packed rooms stretching for literally miles. It was like being inside a giant submarine, and as huge as it was, everything still managed to feel claustrophobic. It was large enough that the bigger aliens like the Krell and the Borealans could get around. The ceilings were high enough that they didn’t have to duck too low to avoid hitting their heads on pipes, and the passageways were wide enough that they could pass one another, but only barely. The Rorke was so large, and the crew were often stationed on it for so long, that it even had its own general store where they could buy things like snacks and drinks. Jaeger made a beeline for it, turning corners and passing innumerable side rooms. Every few feet there was a pressure door, intended to seal shut in the event of a decompression to prevent the whole ship from blowing all of its atmosphere into space. There were almost no bare surfaces in sight. The deck was covered in panels that opened up to grant access to internal systems, snaking wires and pipes decorated the walls and ceiling, miscellaneous electronics clinging to every available surface.
Jaeger hated it, it was like a giant, flying coffin. Yet it was the only way to see action as a fighter pilot. He had to endure the weeks or months of boredom and claustrophobia, just for those few hours of freedom. There was nothing like it, zipping through the emptiness at speeds that only a bullet could reach in atmosphere, with only his ship and his wits to rely on.
They came to a stop beside the line that had formed outside the store, Jaeger rummaging in his pocket for his tablet computer. He turned the handheld device on and tapped at the wafer-thin screen for a few moments, checking his account. When you were a dozen light years out from any civilized planet, you couldn’t exactly access your bank account, and so the crew deposited their money into a Navy credit account for use during their deployment. He still had a fair amount left, he’d have to remember to top it up again next time they were in port. It would likely be several months yet. He couldn’t imagine surviving one of these tours without enough sugar and nicotine to knock out a Polar.
“So what did they talk about in that meeting they dragged you off to?” Baker asked, leaning against the bulkhead with his hands in the pockets of his jumpsuit as he made small talk. “Or is it all classified?”
“They just wanted to hear my report in person,” Jaeger explained, keeping his eyes on his tablet as he thumbed through the messages. There was no internet connection on the carrier either. Even at the speed of light, a signal from the nearest inhabited planet would have taken decades to reach them this far out, but the vessel had an intranet that allowed the crew to communicate and access media.
“It’s been five or six years since we made contact with the Borealans, right?” Baker continued. “And before that, it was about twenty-five years since we met the Bugs and the Krell.”
“And the Brokers,” Jaeger added.
“Yeah, right. So that’s…what? Four alien species in thirty years? Doesn’t that seem too low? Think about all the explorin’ we’ve done since then, we’ve traveled about a hundred light-years from Earth in every direction and we ain’t seen shit for years. Where’s everyone hidin’? Didn’t the guy in the video say that there were probably tens of thousands of sentient species in the galaxy?”
“I mean, we’ve found life,” Jaeger added with a shrug.
“Yeah, animals and moss and shit like that. Fish and bacteria, nothing smart.”
“The galaxy is a big place, I guess everyone is just spaced really far apart. That or the Bugs got to them before we did. We first encountered them at Betelgeuse, but nobody knows where they really come from. They could have colonized half the Galaxy for all we know.”
“Well I hope we meet some more aliens,” Baker grumbled, pulling his hand out of his pocket and idly scratching his nose. “I want to be there, y’know? I was one year old when we joined the Coalition, I had only just joined the Navy when we met the mad cats. It’s a once in a lifetime thing, I want to see it happen.”
“Careful what you wish for,” Jaeger muttered, looking up from his tablet. “There’s no guarantee that they’ll be friendly.”
“Well they saved my ass, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, but that might not be because they’re on our side, they might just hate the Bugs more than they’re worried about us.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Baker stated confidently.
“You know that the guy who came up that saying was assassinated, right?”