Park blinked, but that only made the huge red spots dominate his vision even more. He could see his HUD, but he couldn’t focus on it. He looked up and to the right, and he could almost make out the brightness control in his lower peripheral vision. He managed to dim the HUD without blinking or looking directly at what he was doing. It didn’t make the spots go away, but his eyes needed a rest to recover from that explosion of blue light. Flash blindness wouldn‘t make landing on Mars any easier. This was one scenario he had never gone over with Dr. Krupp.
As he sat there, trying to will the annoying afterimages to fade, a disturbing realization struck Park. Even without the benefit of being able to read his HUD, he knew it must have been at least a minute since the Krupp drive had engaged. It should have only lasted for a few seconds. This could not be good. Park needed his vision back, and he needed it now.
Park began to count to himself to keep a measure of time because what else could he do? If he manually shut down the Krupp drive before he could focus, he’d be unable to avoid anything that might be approaching him at twenty-five million kilometers per hour. Even sighted, he could be screwed if he got unlucky and popped up right in the middle of the asteroid belt.
Around two hundred Mississippi’s later his vision began to clear, and Park didn’t want to wait any longer to get out of this…void, or hyperspace, or whatever the hell this place was called. There were no stars here; no light at all that didn’t emanate from within his own ship, and it made him uneasy. He pulled up the emergency procedures on his display and powered down the Krupp drive. Stars blinked into existence along with a new red spot rapidly growing right in the middle of his field of view. This one was no afterimage though.
“Well,” Park thought, “I’m out of the frying pan, and here comes the fire.”
He flipped the ship around and set the max G’s to 7, then he used the knowledge of hacking the sub-light engine he wasn’t supposed to have to disable the governor. He fired the sub-light engine up to forty-five percent, a personal best, for a ninety second burn. He might pass out from the g-forces, but he was fine with that. If he was about to nosedive into a star, he preferred to do it unconscious. The redness of the stars in his severely limited field of vision slowly faded to a more reassuring light pink. He used the brief respite in g-force as the ship came to a stop to knock down the max G’s a couple of notches.
The stars ahead of him shifted blue as the X-88 finished the last thirty seconds of its burn at a more reasonable five g’s. After the engine shut off, Park programmed the ship to bring itself to a halt with a maximum of three g’s so that he could take a minute to assess his situation. Just as he was about to run the program, a star caught his eye. He could swear he just saw it move.
“Please don’t be an asteroid field,” he said aloud before he pressed Execute. The band of the Milky Way swung into view as the ship flip turned, but it didn’t look right. Park didn’t have time to put his finger on what was wrong with it before it disappeared from sight. Then the sun rose from the bottom of the windshield. His visor automatically tinted to protect his still aching eyes, but it didn’t take away the impact of the obvious fact of the matter. That was a sun, but it was not the Sun. “Where am I?”
He turned the ship to face the Milky Way after it came to a stop. He needed to think, and that red sun wasn’t helping. He sent out a Mayday call he knew was pointless followed by ping to get an idea of what was around him. Anything that came back within a minute would mean he needed to find a safer place to think. He didn’t even get that long until multiple contacts showed up, and they were headed straight for him. Park hit the Evade button that would put him on a perpendicular course to the nearest object, but nothing happened.
“Evade!” he yelled and pushed the button again, “Evade, dammit!”
Suddenly, his radio came to life, “Plah tellen see get!”
Park frantically hit his transmit button, “Mayday! Mayday! This is X-88! Do you read me?! Mayday! Mayday!”
“Plah tellen see get!” came the reply.
“This is X-88! Do you read me? I can hear you, but you’re breaking up! Mayday, mayday, mayday! I’m on a collision course with an asteroid, and my engine is not responding. Please respond!”
“Plah tellen see get,” came the reply, “See bat eckla shamatah.”
“Red sun,” he thought aloud, “not my sun. Not an asteroid. Not people. Oh, boy.”
As the nearest contact on his screen merged with the circle representing the X-88, Park braced himself for impact. Instead, a ship pivoted around to the front of Park’s ship and parked itself just a few meters off his bow. It was about the same size as the X-88, but it had a sleek low profile. It looked like a cross between a sports car and a delta wing fighter jet, and it had undeniably been designed for atmospheric flight. The ship had markings on it that Park couldn’t see very well from this angle, but he was more interested in the six gun-looking things pointed at him; two from the front of the ship, and two on each wing.
He couldn’t see a cockpit, but he waved at the ship anyway and said, “Hello. Hi there. Friendly human here. Totally harmless, totally unarmed human. If you could just point me in the right direction, I’ll be on my way.”
He heard a couple of thumps, and he noticed the second contact on his screen was right on top of him. A few seconds later the nose of the second ship came into view above him. It was clearly a different design from the first. It was at least twice as big for one thing, and what he could see of the front of it didn’t look very flight capable. A third thump jostled his ship, and the three of them took off to…somewhere.
Five minutes later, Park noticed the star directly in front of them was actually a planet and its moon. He had no idea how far or how fast they had gone since, as far as the X-88 was concerned, he hadn’t moved since getting picked up by the intergalactic tow truck. He could tell they were slowing down as they approached the planet, but it still kept growing at a pretty brisk rate. When they got close enough, he was able to identify a few features. It had oceans and clouds. That was good…if they were made of water. There was also at least one sizeable piece of land. Also good. They were still too far away for him to pick out anything smaller than oceans and continents, but at least he might not die of asphyxiation if he had to stay here longer than the eighteen hours his rebreather had left. If he had to guess at its size, he would have said it was maybe twenty to twenty-five percent larger than Earth.
Park hoped they didn’t plan on taking him down there attached that this big square brick-looking thing. He had serious doubts about its airworthiness. He lost site of the planet as they entered orbit, but a moment later he caught site of where they were actually going. It was a space station shaped like a thirty story wagon wheel with several spokes leading to a hub in the center. The hub looked stationary. Its only purpose seemed to be to turn the spokes on a gimble. The spokes themselves were about eighty feet long and twenty feet thick. Park noticed they were forked as they extended out from the hub. The outer ring made up the bulk of the station. It was at least ten stories wide and just as thick. Lights shined out of windows all along its circumference.
They moved along the inner edge of the outer ring until they reached a large open bay door. The tow ship matched speeds with the ring and lowered Park and the X-88 into the opening. If his HUD was accurate, they were operating at about three-quarters g. The X-88 hit the landing platform with a thud, and the tow ship disconnected from him. A few seconds later, he saw water vapor coming from several large vents as conditioned air pumped into the hangar bay.
“Time to meet the neighbors,” he said to no one, “Here’s hoping they’re friendly.” He didn’t open his hatch though. He would let someone else be the first to trust the atmosphere in the hangar. He wished he had some better way of testing its breathability other than removing his mask; unfortunately, this was another scenario that he and Dr. Krupp had failed to foresee.
They came into the hangar carrying things that Park was sure he didn’t want pointed at him. They wore dark uniforms and helmets, but he could see their faces. They had pale skin and big dark eyes, and there were protrusions of some kind where their noses should be. Park couldn't decide if they looked more like earthworms or tiny elephant trunks. Their helmets had slots near the top for their catlike ears. As they circled his ship, Park noted that they also had tails.
The alien-in-charge stepped to the front of Park’s ship as the others pointed their weapons at him, “Chakta see get!”
When Park didn’t respond, he repeated himself, “Chakta see get! See bat eckla shamatah! Chakta see get!”
“Fuck it,” Park said, “I can’t stay in here forever.” He popped the hatched and pushed it up. He yelled down to the alien-in-charge, “You guys got a ladder? A ladder? Anyone? No?”
“Chakta see get!” he replied.
“Guess not,” Park said, “I’ll just figure something out here. I hope you aren’t saying not to move.” He was glad the gravity was a little low and his landing gear was still up when he lowered himself down from the cockpit. He was very happy that nobody shot him while he did so. As soon as he hit the ground, a couple of the guards rushed to restrain him.
The alien-in-charge stepped forward and said, “See bat eckla shamatah oh klavacal from shama tess inshee. See get bat rishunal.”
“I have no idea what you just said,” Park responded, “but I get the feeling it wasn’t welcome.” The AIC gave him a look he couldn’t read. His trunks lifted up and seemed to be sniffing at Park. Suddenly, he reached out and ripped the mask from Park’s face.
“Woah, motherfucker! I don’t know if I can breathe!” Park took a breath, “Huh. Still a dick move.”
Someone said something over a speaker in the hanger. The AIC said something to his troops, and they led Park out of the hangar. They marched him down a corridor and into a small windowless room. It was completely empty except for a large throw pillow near the far wall. The AIC said something to two of his guards presumably akin to “Watch this guy” since they stayed in the room with Park after he left.
Park figured he might as well remove his rebreather since the air in here hadn’t killed him yet. He started to unclasp the straps, but his guards started yelling and pointing their weapons at him.
He put his hands up, “Easy, fellas. I’m just gonna take this heavy ass tank off my back.” He slowly continued to remove the rebreather, “Nice…and…slow.” He lowered the rebreather to the floor with one hand while keeping the other up.
“See? Nothing to worry about,” he put his other hand back up, “just lightening my load. No need to shoot me.”
A new alien came into the room wearing a robe. It just stood in the doorway looking at Park for a minute, then it pulled something from its robe and walked over to him. It sniffed him with its little trunks. Then it took a step back and pointed the device in its hand at Park’s head.
“Woah, woah. What is that thing? What are you doing?” Park said as the alien started pointing the device at different parts of his body.
“It’s a scanner? You’re scanning me?” The alien finished its scan of Park, said something to one of the guards, and left the room.
“See groos,” the guard ordered and gestured towards the door with his weapon. He might not understand the words, but that gesture was easy to interpret.
“You want me to follow him?” he said as he took a tentative step towards the door.
The guard gestured towards the door again, “Groos.”
"Groos it is," Park said and walked towards the door.
The robed alien was waiting in the corridor. When Park walked through the door, he turned and started walking down the hall. Park followed with his guards in tow. They led him to another windowless room, but this one was much larger. Equipment lined the walls, and translucent screens hung from the ceiling over what looked to be examination tables. Park hoped it was a medical facility and not a dissection facility.
The alien walked over to one of the tables and said to Park, “Leen. See leen pattoo.” It patted the table. If Park didn’t know better, he might have thought it was actually trying to make him feel comfortable.
He walked over to the table and gave the alien a stern look, “No anal probes.” He sat down on the examination table.
The alien gestured for him to lay down, “Pattoo. See bat far. Pattoo.” Park laid down. The screens above the table came to life. He could see what looked like a real-time image of his internal organs. He held his breath, and the digital lungs on the screen held their breath. The heart on the monitor was beating a little fast, just like the one in his chest. A panel in the ceiling above his head slid open, and something began to lower towards him.
“Um, what’s that?” he asked the alien. The device had mechanical arms on either side of it that looked to Park like they might have lasers in them. It stopped a few inches above his head, and the arms positioned themselves so that their tips were in his ear canals. The image on the overhead monitor changed to show only his brain. “Oh, man.”
The alien doctor gave Park what he hoped was a reassuring look, “Zap.”
Park’s eyes widened, “Oh, shit. I hope that doesn’t mean the same thing in your language. No zapping. No.” He felt a piercing pain in his ears and heard a loud rushing noise. The ear piercing device withdrew and raised itself back into the ceiling.
The alien took Park by the arm, “Very good, thank you. You can stand now.”
Park sat up with a start, “That was English. You spoke English!”
“Eeng lish,” the alien repeated, “No. I do not speak Eeng lish. I uploaded your language to our database and provided you with a data chip. It will translate any known language for you, provided you are within range of a network node.”
“Freaky,” Park stuck a finger in his ear, “Your mouth doesn’t match your words. It’s like I’m living in a Kung Fu movie. That’ll take some getting used to.”
The alien looked at him for a second, “I do not think all of that translates to Klavaci, but yes, it takes some people time to adjust to the chip.”
“Klavasee?” Park asked.
“Klavaci,” the alien replied.
“Klavatsee,” Park tried again.
“Good enough,” the alien said, “I am Lanteel. I am a Klavac. The planet we are orbiting is called Klavaci.”
“Nice to meet you, Lanteel,” Park extended his hand, “I’m Jim. Jim Park. From Earth.” Planteel looked at Park’s extended hand. He looked down at Planteel’s hand and noticed for the first time that it wasn’t really compatible with a handshake. It had five fingers like a human hand, but they just kind of grew out of the end of his arm. It was more like a fleshy grappling hook than a hand.
He put his hand back down, “Yeah. I guess we can work that out later. For now, if you guys can point me in the right direction, I really should be getting home.”
“I can not help you with that, Jimjim Park” Lanteel replied, “I am only a doctor. You are immunized against our most common illnesses. You are likely to feel sick for a short time. You are likely not to die from this.” He turned to the guards and said, “I am finished.”
One of the guards gestured towards the door, “You move.”
“Right,” he said as hopped down from the table.
Back in the first room, he tried to strike up a conversation with his guards, but their vocabulary seemed to be limited to “move”, “sit”, and “quiet.” He would have passed the time trying to fix the straps on his mask if his rebreather had been there when they got back from the medical facility. Instead, he sat down and tried to memorize as many details as he could about the anatomy of his guards.
“Jimjim Park. Is it dead?”
Park opened his eyes to see a Klavac standing over him, “Not dead. Just a little tired and amazingly bored considering the circumstances.”
“Jimjim Park,” the Klavac said, “You are pleased to know…”
“Jim,” Park interrupted, “Just Jim. My name is James Park, Colonel James Park. You can call me Jim.”
“Jim,” the Klavac continued, “I am correcting your information in a moment. You are pleased to know you are not charged with your crimes, but your ship is prohibited to leave until it complies with Klavacal law.”
“Crimes?” he asked, “What crimes?! I just got here! And what‘s wrong with my ship?”
“You are not charged,” the Klavac repeated.
“Yeah, I caught that part,” he said, “but what am I not charged with, and what about my ship?”
“Details of your crimes and the court’s decision to grant you amnesty are in your file,” it replied, “You can access your own file at any time. You are also to find the list of corrections you must make to your ship. You are following me now to your room. You can rest there.”
“Sounds good,” he said, “What’s your name?”
“I am Reesal.” It walked to the door and looked back at Park, “You are following me now.”
As Reesal led him to his new room, guards in tow, Park thought about asking him how to access his file, but then suddenly he knew.
He thought to himself, “Access Jim Park file.” Nothing happened.
He sighed loudly and thought, “Access Jimjim Park file.” Suddenly he knew all of the laws he had unknowingly broken when he entered the Kravaci system. He knew the court that ruled on his case had reached its decision shortly after his trip to the doctor. He knew they knew everything he had said and done and even thought from the second he woke up that morning. He knew they had found him guilty. He knew they pardoned him as a gesture of goodwill in a case of first contact with a new species. He knew the location on the planet where the X-88 was impounded, and he knew the long list of repairs that had to be made before he would be allowed to leave. He didn’t have a fucking clue what most of those repairs entailed, but at least he had the list.
“Reesal,” Park said, “Can you fix my name in your system, please?”
“I apologize,” Reesal paused, “Your name is corrected, Jim.”
“Thanks,” he replied.
Reesal stopped outside a door and gestured for Park to enter, “This is your room where you are quarantined until Lanteel Baij releases you.”
“Any idea how long that might be?” Park asked as he entered the room. This room was nearly as large as the medical facility. A large window dominated the far wall, and the planet below filled most of the window. A huge pillow lay on the floor near the window. A basket of black fruit hung from the ceiling to the right in what appeared to be a kitchenette. A dozen mundane questions, and a couple of embarrassing ones, popped into Park’s mind and were instantly answered.
He heard Reesal speaking from behind him, “Most new visitors to Klavaci release from quarantine after three to four days. I can not tell you how long you will perceive our day. Are you asking me any further questions?”
“Actually,” Park turned around, “I could do with a change of clothes.”