Captain Macintyre is about to live the dream of every starship captain since the dawn of space exploration and make “first contact” with a race of beautiful alien women. But is everything all it seems?
The ESS Endeavour disengaged its star-drive and the bridge crew got their first real look at this previously unexplored system. Captain Macintyre drummed his hands against the arms of his chair as he pivoted it back and forth slightly. Long space trips always left him quite bored, and now he was no doubt impatient to begin exploring. “What do initial scans show us, Rod?”
Lieutenant Rodney Atkins, the science officer, consulted his instruments with a frown. “Yellow dwarf star as the surveys suggested. A little on the large side. Actually, it’s almost precisely one solar mass. Interesting.”
“Another sun,” Macintyre said with an approving nod. “Planets?”
“Twelve that we can detect. Seven gas giants and five terrestrial worlds nearer to the star.”
“Sounds just like home.” He smiled at his first officer, Commander Jane D’Souza, seated just to his left.
“It certainly looks that way, sir,” she replied, carefully keeping her tone neutral. It was best not to get him too excited. They’d surveyed any number of systems like this, and most were devoid of any kind of complex life. At best, they might dredge up a few microbial fossils should they be lucky enough to find the right spot on the right planet. They would only be here for a few days though.
“I’m getting some interesting signals from the fourth planet, captain,” Atkins said.
“Radio emissions, sir.”
There was a silence across the bridge. D’Souza discreetly confirmed the lieutenant’s findings on her own control panel. “Can you determine the cause? A layer of radioactive material in the bedrock perhaps?”
“No, the signal’s much too orderly for that.”
D’Souza glanced at the captain. She could already see the flicker of enthusiasm in his eyes. She’d have to be diplomatic about this. “Well, our flight plan takes us into a high orbit of that planet in three days’ time. That would be a good opportunity to…”
“Captain,” Atkins interrupted, sounding a little breathless, “I…I may be going out on a limb here, but I think that signal is broadcasting prime numbers!”
“My god!” Macintyre was already on his feet, staring at the viewscreen. “That means…”
“It’s possible it could be evidence of intelligent life,” D’Souza said quickly, “but no alien intelligence ever encountered by humans has used radio, or had a system of mathematics close enough to ours to even understand the concept of a prime number.”
“Primes are fundamental,” Atkins said.
“No mathematician worth his spice has thought that in a hundred years.” She tapped a few buttons. “But…that signal does appear to be artificial.” She turned to a nearby officer. “Ensign, search the databanks for any records of Earth ships lost in this sector. It’s possible this is the remains of a crew that became stranded.”
“Marooned on a far-off world,” Macintyre said, stroking his lantern jaw thoughtfully. “Their ship damaged and out of control…”
“An out of control ship would never make landing on a planet, sir,” D’Souza told him, “it’d be like hitting the bull’s-eye on a dartboard from a hundred miles outside the bar.”
“Even so…even so…”
“It doesn’t have to be humans,” Atkins said.
D’Souza swivelled her chair so she could look right at him. “Aliens don’t use radio signals. You’re a science officer: you know that.”
“None of the species we’ve encountered yet do, no, but there could be anything out there. They could be humanoids.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Is it so ridiculous?” Macintyre asked of no one in particular. “You said that sun was almost the same size as ours.”
“Same age too, sir,” Atkins said, “and spectroscopy scans show it’s almost identical in every other way. And I’ve just completed a preliminary long-range scan of the fourth planet and it orbits at almost the exact same distance as Earth.”
Macintyre snapped his fingers. “Right in the habitable zone!”
D’Souza closed her eyes and massaged the bridge of her nose. “Sir, the idea of a habitable zone was discredited the moment we first encountered the intelligent plasma toroids that dwell in Sirius-B’s photosphere.”
“Yes, but an Earth-like world has more chance of supporting life than any other, doesn’t it?”
“Not really. Most planets we’ve surveyed that match this description are devoid of multi-cellular life. I suppose the closest is Fomalhaut IV, which at least has an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere and is home to the continent-spanning fungoid life-form known as…ahem…Alan.”
Macintyre smiled faintly. “Oh yes, Alan. Nice fellow.”
“Sends a Christmas card to Starforce HQ every year since we made contact. But, and this is crucial, sir, not by radio.”
“In any case, I think we need to investigate this fourth planet a little more closely.” He sat back down in his chair. “Helm, take us in-system and establish an orbit of the planet.”
“Our itinerary is quite specific, sir,” D’Souza told him.
“Where’s your sense of adventure, commander?” Macintyre grinned.
“I’ll let Starforce know we’re changing plans,” she said with another sigh.
A few hours later, when they’d safely attained a high orbit of the planet, they began performing more detailed scans. Atkins shook his head in wonder at what his instruments told him. “Oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, ratio of water to land on the surface is virtually identical to Earth’s, I’m picking up life-forms in abundance. And just look at it!” He gestured wildly at the screen.
“Blue oceans, green vegetation,” D’Souza said flatly.
“You could sound a bit more excited,” Macintyre chided. “This is an amazing discovery! A new Earth!”
“It’s very amazing, sir. Too amazing. Even with a near-identical orbit, an equivalent mass and all the rest of it, the chances of everything else being the same is trillions to one.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I’m saying…remember last year when the machine intelligences of the rogue planets in that dark matter nebula sent all those creepy robots to make first contact?”
Macintyre paled slightly at the memory. “Yes…”
“Well, they looked human, didn’t they? I mean, apart from the weird eyes…but you know what I mean. That was the work of a sentient life-form attempting to make us comfortable. I doubt very much that a planet this similar to Earth could occur naturally. It must be some sort of trick.”
“Who would go to all this effort though?”
“It might not be an effort, sir.” Sometimes when she talked to Macintyre, she wondered how he’d become a captain in the Starforce. He seemed to belong to a different era. “Just think about the beings that built the gravitational web in the Delores sector. In their own territory, they’re essentially omnipotent. Something as powerful as that could easily create an illusionary world to draw us in to some kind of trap.”
“Sir,” Atkins said, “I’m picking up structures of some kind near the point of origin of that radio signal. It seems to be some sort of village or town.”
“It’s probably not a town, sir,” D’Souza said. “That would be ridiculous. No alien species humans have encountered has ever so much as used a tool that we’d recognise. The idea that there’d be a settlement made up of buildings down there is utterly absurd. Ensign, did you find anything about any missing ships?”
“We have to go down there,” Macintyre said. He was standing up again.
“Um…no…no, we can’t do that. It’s against all regulations. A landing party can’t set foot on an unexplored world until a science team has had the opportunity to properly ascertain that…”
“You can’t rely on remote surveys to explore a new planet, commander,” Macintyre laughed, “sometimes, you have to grab the bull by the horns.”
“Wouldn’t that make the bull angry, sir?”
“Atkins, you’re with me. You too, D’Souza. And tell a security detail to meet us at Shuttle Bay One.”
“Fine. I’ll assign Blue Team.”
Macintyre thought about that. “No, bring Red Team. I like the colour of their shirts better.”
D’Souza rolled her eyes. “Right…”
The landing party stepped out of the shuttle and they had at least taken D’Souza’s advice to wear breathing apparatus, despite the alleged breathability of the air. “I’m scanning for pathogens,” Atkins said, sweeping his sensor around the jungle that surrounded them. They’d landed the shuttle in a small clearing.
“What are you hoping to find? Nothing that originated on an alien world could possibly harm a terrestrial creature. The very idea is…”
“That way,” Macintyre announced. He was pointing towards a path that led from the clearing and snaked off through the jungle. He was also already taking his breathing apparatus off.
“Sir, we should really…”
“Come on, keep up.” Atkins and the security detail followed their captain off into the forest. D’Souza thought about just getting back in the shuttle and flying off, but in the end she sloped off after them, complaining under her breath as she followed suit and took off her own mask.
“Remarkable,” Atkins observed as they trekked beneath the canopy, “these plants are almost identical to Earth vegetation. I mean, the specifics are different, but in their basic form…these could have grown in the Amazon rainforest under different circumstances.”
“And the temperature is comfortable,” Macintyre said. “Blue sky, light levels about right.” He breathed in deeply. “Just like home!”
“Sir,” D’Souza called from the back of the group, “may I remind you that the cosmic unlikelihood of this situation makes it more possible with every passing second that this is some kind of elaborate ruse. Finding an Earth-like plant on a world over five-hundred light years away is as bizarre as a monkey dropping out of the canopy.”
Right on cue, a small, furry creature tumbled from a branch and landed deftly in front of them. It scrabbled around on the floor, paying them no heed at all.
“Remarkable,” Atkins said again, performing a quick scan of the animal. “A primate!”
D’Souza shouldered through. “It only looks like a primate.”
“Convergent evolution,” Atkins said.
“This planet is so similar to Earth, is it any wonder the life-forms are similar?”
“Well…yes. For one thing, for most of Earth’s existence, the life-forms were completely different, or buried under sheets of ice, or hadn’t evolved yet. The chances of us coming across this suspiciously similar planet and finding something we’d recognise as a terrestrial monkey are vanishingly remote, even if monkeys were to evolve here too.” The monkey or whatever it was bounded off into the undergrowth as they argued.
“In Earth’s history, many body plans have been repeated,” Atkins said, “look at dolphins and sharks.”
“Dolphins and sharks had a shared ancestor only a few hundred million years before the present day. They have lots in common already – they’re vertebrates with bilateral symmetry, discrete organs, eukaryotic cells…”
“Look, can we save the arguments for the report submitted to HQ?” Macintyre pointed ahead. “I’m the captain, and I say we’re carrying on that way. If this does turn out to be a trap, well, that’s what the security detail are here for.” The men exchanged nervous looks and took a tighter grip on their laser rifles.
After less than a kilometre the path opened out into another clearing and D’Souza’s mouth dropped open as the landing party found themselves walking into what could only be described as a primitive village. The buildings were different in design to something built by humans, but their rounded forms were still recognisable as dwellings, with doors, windows and roofs. In the centre of the settlement was a stone idol depicting a humanoid form holding carved flowers in its hands and gazing up towards the sky. “That’s the source of the signal,” Atkins said, although it was hardly necessary.
“My god,” Macintyre said.
D’Souza looked around helplessly. “Sir, I really must insist that we take nothing we see here at face value.”
A figure walked out of the closest building and was soon followed by many others, all crowding into the village’s square. They were between one-and-a-half and two metres tall, with two lower limbs, two upper limbs, discrete torsos and heads connected by a short neck. Their faces had two eyes set about halfway up with noses, mouths, teeth and everything. In short, they were humanoids. And they all looked female. And beautiful.
Atkins swallowed as held up his scanner to one of the scantily-clad women. “Definitely…definitely mammalian…I mean, I can see that they are capable of…uh…of lactation. If you catch my drift.”
D’Souza pulled on Macintyre’s arm. “Seriously, we really need to get out of here.”
“Now, let’s not be too hasty, commander…”
“Oh for fuck’s sake…”
“Get that universal translator working, Atkins,” Macintyre growled. They’d been in the village for half an hour now, and so far all the humanoid women had just stood around looking at them and smiling and occasionally babbling away in their unknowable language. They looked almost precisely like human women, except they were universally beautiful and voluptuous, and their hair was a little strange – it looked more like petals than follicles, but that was really the least bizarre thing about all this. The security team were ogling the natives and all grinning foolishly. Several had already been presented with gifts of flowers that they were wearing attached to the lapels of their uniforms or in their hair. Each had a small crowd of the women cooing over him. Only D’Souza was being ignored.
“I’m trying, sir,” Atkins said, playing with the machine.
“What’s the point?” she asked. “The only non-human species that piece of junk has ever worked on was chimpanzees, and the only thing they said was ‘please let me out of this cage’. No alien species has ever had any sort of language we could make any sense of without decades of work.”
“I just think it’s worth a shot,” Macintyre said as he eyed the closest alien, a blonde pin-up who smiled lasciviously at him.
“Okay, I think I’ve got it.” Atkins held up the translator to her and beckoned. “Say something…”
She tilted her head and spoke a few words. There was an expectant hush and then the translator tinnily croaked: “Welcome…to…our…planet…”
“Ah ha!” Macintyre grabbed the translator from Atkins and turned to his new friend. “My name is Captain Macintyre of the starship Endeavour, a vessel of the Earth Starforce. We..uh…we come in peace.”
The translator crackled and then issued a stream of unfamiliar syllables. The woman raised her eyebrows. “Welcome…Captain…Macintyre…” she said through the device, “…our…planet…is…happy…to…host…such…a…knightly…crew…”
Atkins frowned. “Ah, the translator may be having some trouble with approximations, sir. It probably means noble.”
“Ah, okay. Do you…uh…do you host many visitors here? From off-world, I mean?”
“I see. And are they…like us? Humanoid, I mean?” The translator couldn’t find a word in their language for that, so Macintyre gestured until he made himself understood.
As light dawned, the woman smiled widely. “Yes…others…like…you…and…us. Many…come…here. Knightly…pollinators…”
“Pollinators? Any idea what that means, Atkins?”
“She means sperm donors,” D’Souza said, “isn’t it obvious?”
She held up a hand. “No men.”
“They may reproduce by hybridisation,” Atkins said, “wouldn’t that be something, eh?”
“Aliens are drawn in by the radio signals in order to help them to reproduce.” Macintyre rubbed his jaw. “Yes, that is interesting.” He lifted the translator again. “What’s your name?” he asked the woman who seemed to have been nominated as spokesperson for her people.
“Ah, wonderful. Well,” he adjusted his uniform slightly, “Well, at ease everyone, I’ll signal the Endeavour to send more landing parties down. Might as well enjoy some shore leave. And I’ll…make first contact…”
D’Souza held up her hands. “Fine, whatever. I’m staying out of this. But don’t blame me when it all goes wrong.”
A little later, when lodgings had been arranged for the landing party, D’Souza sat in one of the dwellings, morosely examining her own scanning equipment. Annoyingly, everything really did seem to be above board. They weren’t mammals, not exactly, but they were close. They resembled humans in many key ways, but it was impossible to imagine how any sort of cross-breeding would be possible. Not between two species that evolved separately on distant planets. Atkins walked in and sat down across the room from her. “Quite a place, huh?”
“None of this makes sense,” she said.
“It’s certainly the find of the century.”
“I thought they could be a transplanted population,” D’Souza went on, “maybe ancient humans brought here by an alien race? But they’re different enough from us that I can’t see how we’d have a common ancestor so recently. So maybe primates? But even then, how would they evolve to be so similar to us?”
“This planet is very Earth-like.”
“Yes, but even so, the resemblances are based on parochial traits. We’ve encountered thousands of new species on our voyage, many of which were sentient. But none of them were even a little bit like us. Intelligent clouds of magnetic gas I can believe, the hyper-giant calcium whales that swam in the atmosphere of that Jovian planet are fine, even the ionised crystal spheres of Darius Prime. All perfectly normal, all perfectly alien. But people? Humanoids? Impossible.”
“It’s a big universe, commander,” Atkins said diplomatically, “anything is possible.”
“Maybe. But I don’t understand why the captain is buying into this so readily.”
“I’ve known Macintyre longer than you have,” he said with a smile, “and, as you know, his father commanded a starship too. And his grandfather served aboard the very first vessel to use star-drive. All his ancestors have been adventurers and explorers. Even before we left the solar system, they were spaceflight pioneers, or served in marine navies. Going back centuries, the Macintyres have been a certain kind of man. He’s continuing that tradition. He wants to experience the wonder and awe of new worlds and new civilisations. He doesn’t just want to scan a nebula, or meet with funguses the size of Asia. He wants to meet people.”
“And have sex with them…”
“Well, that too,” Atkins admitted.
In the High Priestess’s home, Macintyre was just making himself comfortable. He took off his jacket and smiled at the handful of women who were tending to the meal being set out before him. Anya had disappeared with a mysterious wink, taking the universal translator with her. He looked around the low, domed room. It was decorated with all kinds of floral motifs and, indeed, every object seemed to have some reference to flowers on it. The bowls were painted with pretty little blossoms and the colourless liquid they each contained was host to a floating lily of some kind that filled the air with a heady fragrance that seemed to relax his muscles as he breathed it in. “This is nice,” he told the women – handmaidens he supposed – although they couldn’t understand him.
A curtain moved aside and Anya re-entered. She’d slipped into something more comfortable and, he noted, more revealing. “Definitely mammals,” he observed approvingly.
“Welcome…again…brave…captain…” Anya said through the translator. She set it down on the table between them. “I…hope…you…do…not…mind…my…sisters…being…present.”
“I…not at all. Are they really your sisters?”
“I see. Metaphorically, right. Very nice.” He looked around at them. They were all as gorgeous and curvaceous as Anya, but each different in their own way. “And will they be…uh…staying for the duration…?”
Anya let out a tinkling laugh. “They…are…vital…for…the…pollination…”
“This is quite a society you have here.” He picked up one of the bowls and took a sip from it as he saw the others do the same. “Delicious.”
“It…will…make…you…receptive,” the girl to his right said.
“I’m already pretty receptive,” he grinned.
“Humans…are…most…interesting…creatures,” Anya said.
“Oh? Thank you.”
He wasn’t quite sure how to take that. “I’m glad you think so.”
He blinked. “Come again?”
“Right. Orifices?” He held up a hand. “Maybe that translator’s doing something funny again. Let me take a look at it.”
But Anya was already removing her skimpy robes and then she straightened and stood before him, revealing the elaborate coloured blossom between her legs and, emerging from between the petals, a probing, engorged stamen, threaded with clumps of yellow pollen.
“Ah,” Macintyre said, “pollination. Yes, that makes a bit more sense now…”