One in a Million: Chapter 16

The observation chamber was private and secure. Inside they found a half dozen others, including a tripodal reptoid with anemone-like hair that Max introduced as Chief Jaskarr (short, sharp vowels and roll at the end). The entirety of the floor, walls and dome ceiling displayed the expanse of space and only a grid of narrow blue lines provided an anchor for Caleb’s perspective. He did his very best not to puke.

“This is Caleb Farnsworth,” said Max to the Chief.

“Yes,” said Chief Jaskarr in a voice that made Caleb think of metal plates grinding against one another, “the human I ordered.”

“Another set of eyes,” said Max diplomatically.

Caleb nodded in Jaskarr’s general direction but otherwise did not react to the Chief. He scanned the others in the room. They were aliens of various sorts, some of types he had seen before and others he had not. An apparently cybernetic ostrich and something completely encased in a containment suit were talking nearby while father into the room a trio of rubber-mask humanoid aliens clustered. They were all looking at the structure that dominated the display on which he walked. There was no way to determine its size but his gut told him it was massive. It looked very much like an incomprehensibly large collection of cargo shipping containers, or possibly Lego bricks, in the form of a rhombus.

“Thi is Planet X?” Caleb asked Max. After taking a moment to parse Caleb’s meaning, Max answered in the affirmative. Caleb looked again at the aliens in conversation and at Chief Jaskarr, who was staring impatiently at him. “You didn’t expect to find this here,” said Caleb to Max.

It was Chief Jaskarr that replied, “The Spiral Hegemony has a lot of territory to cover and–”

Caleb waved his hand, which caused the reptoid’s hair tentacles to swell. Max started to apologize to the Chief but Caleb hushed the robot. “You didn’t expect to find it,” he repeated, “because you think you are the biggest, most advanced civilization in the galaxy. But, we aren’t on high alert and are in fact going toward this thing right now, which means you don’t think it’s dangerous.” He walked up to the Chief and said, “You didn’t expect to find it but you aren’t actually surprised. So this is what, the relic of some pre-Hegemony civilization?” he watched the reactions of the Chief and the other aliens. “And if you need a new perspective on it that means you have not seen it before and–” he trailed off. “You don’t know how to get inside,” he said after a moment.

Chief Jaskarr made a terrifying sound that Caleb assumed was laughter because none of the others ran screaming.

Max said to the Chief, “I told you this human was perceptive.”

“And insufferable!” guffawed Jaskarr. “Right on both counts!”

Chapter 15

Chapter 17

One in a Million: Chapter 15

Max escorted Caleb down the hall. Caleb did not see as much of the alien robot as he had during the initial period of integration into life on the ship. He felt anxious given Max’s sudden attention.

“You are being reassigned,” said Max.

Caleb bristled. “That seems a little excessive. There was nothing in the ridiculously long handbook about interpersonal relationships.”

Max stopped and considered Caleb. “Fascinating. Your intelligence and perceptive capabilities are inversely proportional to the degree of intimate contact you desire or have had with another individual.”

Caleb considered Max right back. “Well, yes. But this isn’t about Faith? Or Nel?”

If Max was capable of laughter, the robot surely would have chuckled. “No. This is not about your indiscretions or infidelities.”

“I didn’t know we were exclusive.”

“Nonetheless,” said Max, “this is about your inherent capabilities. You are being reassigned to the Exploratory Unit. The Hegemony has determined you would be an asset when encountering novel phenomena.”

Caleb allowed himself to relax and said, “So I am getting a promotion?”

“If you perceive it that way,” said Max. “It is significantly more arduous than maintenance, and potentially more dangerous. The galaxy is very large and full of uncertainty.”

Caleb thought for a moment as they waited for a lift between decks. “There must be some sort of vetting process,” he said after as they entered the lift. “Like when you guys came here, you did reconnaissance and studied us before you made overtures.”

“Of course,” said Max.

“If we had turned out to be dangerous or incompatible with the Hegemony way or whatever, you would have just mined ice and went on your way.”

“Yes.”

The lift stopped and opened and they started down another hallway at Max’s direction. Caleb’s mind swam with possibilities and pitfalls. Finally, he said, “It isn’t that I am any smarter than anyone else. There are aliens on this ship that make humans look like chimpanzees.”

“True,” said Max. “For biological entities, intelligence is mostly based on neural density. Humans inhabit the 66th percentile of known lifeforms in this regard.”

Caleb smiled. “So it is about perspective. Humans are new, so the way they see things is new, and might provide a different perspective.” He suddenly laughed loudly. “We’re going somewhere you have been before! Somewhere you failed.”

“Well,” said Max, “That’s not entirely–”

“Never mind,” said Caleb. “I’m in.”

Chapter 14

Chapter 16

One in a Million: Chapter 14

Faith looked at him. Caleb tried to read her expression but it was jumbled. She looked like she was going to laugh, cry, scream and joke all at once. When she said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” he got it.

“I just thought it might be fun,” he said, knowing even as he did, no matter how honest he was being, that it was probably the wrong response.

“You are,” she said loudly enough that people at nearby tables in the cafe looked up. “Because there is no way in Hell that you would have seriously just said to me that you thought I, your girlfriend, would find it fun to have a threesome with you and the alien girl that you just fucked — and apparently fucked you.” By the end of it she was yelling and standing and pointing at him. Her face was flushed and her skin was shiny with sweat and her eyes were wide, wet pools.

“Girlfriend?” he said quietly.

Faith threw her plate at him and stormed off. Caleb sat there with something meant to be curry dripping down his face and arms. Other people, humans and otherwise, looked at him until his eyes met theirs and then they went immediately back to their meals and hushed conversations.

He was still tracing the conversation in his mind, trying to figure out where it had gone wrong, when Obligolkulat tromped up to him in his frame. “Whoa, it’s worse than I thought,” said the alien.

Caleb blinked. “What? Did someone call you?”

“Caleb, buddy, half the crew called me.” He gestured with a few tentacles and for the first time Caleb realized that many of his coworkers were also in the cafe. Of course. They were on lunch break, too.

“I should get back to work,” said Caleb.

“You should get a shower and then take the rest of the shift off,” said Obligolkulat.

“Okay,” said Caleb. He was still wrestling with the conversation in his head as he got up and left for his quarters.

Chapter 13

Chapter 15

One in a Million: Chapter 13

Nel ulan Joridwin — pronounced so that the syllables starting with soft consonants were stretched and those starting with hard consonants were clipped — caught Caleb’s eye during a briefing at the beginning of a shift. It was only a few days after they had left the Jovian system on the way to the frozen Neptune-like planet that Earth astronomers thought of as Planet X beyond the Oort Cloud. Nel was a member of the same maintenance class as Caleb, mostly acting as custodians for the smarter, more efficient microngineers.

She — he thought of her as she and Nel did not correct him — was slim and tall, almost willowy. Her species was not mammalian so she did not have breasts, but her slender waist and wide hips gave her a feminine allure. Her skin was porcelain white on the front of her body and navy blue on the backside, fading smoothly between so her ribs, inner thighs and armpits were the color of a summer sky. She did not wear clothing besides a harness to hang tools on and a pair of sandals with slight heels. Her face was angular and long, vaguely equine, with large oval pools of black for eyes and two rows of nostrils running from her mouth to her forehead. She noticed him noticing her and was intrigued by his — to her eyes — alien features.

The fucked in a maintenance crawl space during their lunch break. Caleb was pleased to discover that the universe had deigned to keep sex organs in roughly the same place for all humanoid body plans. Nel was pleased to discover that male human anatomy, like her species, included both a penetrator and receiver in close proximity.

Caleb bit his lip in surprise but not pain or revulsion. Nel’s phallus was about the size of an adult human index finger and that wasn’t the first time he had felt that during coitus. Their sex was awkward but enthusiastic, driven by curiosity as much as lust. There were false starts and uncertain postures but ultimately they both found satisfaction.

As they cleaned up, Nel said, “You should introduce me to that, what did you call her, girlfriend of yours.” She nuzzled his neck with her snout like face and squeezed past him and out of the crawl space.

“I will definitely do that,” he said and pulled up his pants.

Chapter 12

Chapter 14

One in a Million: Chapter 12

“That is definitely something,” said Faith to Caleb, squeezing his hand. He looked down at their intertwined fingers but judged it was best not to pull away.

They were standing in one of the observation halls. It was a grand room with tables and chairs that morphed to accommodate any body plan. Food and drink dispensers were close at hand. The dome of the ceiling was an image of open space most of the time and usually the hall was a relaxing place to take a meal. Not today.

The dome was dominated by the swirling face of Jupiter. Less prominent but still easily seen was Europa with its blue-white face crossed with dark cracks. There were flashes on Europa’s surface and tiny torches moving from it to a dark spot between Jupiter and its moon. The dark spot was the ship on which Caleb stood watching the display. The torches were chunks of ice on the order of the size of the Sears Tower being pushed from Europa to the ship.

“This is what we sold,” said Caleb matter of factly.

Faith looked at him. “Sold?”

“Yes. This is why they came here. They bought Europa’s ice with all the technology they are giving us at home. It’s funny. It isn’t even ours.”

Faith considered him. “No,” she said finally. “That doesn’t make any sense. There’s more ice out where the comets are than there is in a thousand Europas. They did not need to even come this far, let alone all the way to Earth and then buy our permission to mine it.”

“Besides,” said a voice behind them, “they already paid the Europans.” It was Obligolkulat, holding a few drinks in some tentacles and a few small bowls and plates in others.

Faith did an admirable job of masking her deep unease.

“Europans?” asked Caleb without flinching.

Between bites and sips, the cephalopod said, “Yeah. Big jellyfish things. Millions of year old civilization under the ice, powered by tidal energy. Smart but slow if you know what I mean.”

“And they joined the Hegemony?” asked Faith

“Nah. They declined. Millions of years and no sky. They weren’t about to go spacing, you know? But they gave the Hegemony permission to mine some ice.”

Caleb looked perturbed. “So why did they negotiate with us, too?”

“Who knows?” said Obligolkulat as he finished his last morsel. “The Hegemony has weird rules about sentients. My people are one of seventeen in my solar system and the Hegemony had to make a separate agreement with each one. It’s their thing.” He turned his attention briefly to the display above then said, “Gotta get back to shift. You coming?”

Caleb nodded. He started to leave but Faith pulled him back to give him a quick kiss. “Are you coming by later?” she asked.

He kissed her back and nodded, then followed Obligolkulat out of the hall.

Chapter 11

Chapter 13

One in a Million: Chapter 11

Obligolkulat was a terrestrial cephalopod with sixteen limbs of various lengths with different sorts of claws, suckers and sensory organs. His head was a bulbous mass of eyes and orifices and when he spoke it sounded like a concert of flutes working together to approximate human speech. He came from a world with relatively low gravity, so he used a frame — a robot pair of legs, more or less — to move around most of the time. Caleb was assigned to shadow Obligolkulat as part of his training and orientation. The first few days Max remained nearby at all times but slowly the robot allowed the two to work without interference.

“The conduits are texture coded,” said Obligolkulat while working in a crawl space. He sounded winded. He had left the frame in the hallway to allow himself to squeeze into the cramped area. “Not everyone on the ship sees visible light wavelengths the same way, but everyone has tactile sensors of some sort.”

“Cool,” said Caleb sincerely. He reached out and touched the conduits one by one. There was not much visible difference between them but when he rolled the thin cables between his fingers he could tell the difference. Some were smooth like liquid silicon and others felt like sandpaper. One scratched like fine hairs and another felt sticky like drying glue.

Obligolkulat blinked a dozen or so eyes and seemed to be trying to process the idiom but then gave up. “An ingenious solution,” he said and then undulated his way back out into the hallway. As he stretched long tentacles out and pulled himself into his frame, he said,”Most of the basic maintenance is done by microngineers, but the Chief likes us to double check.”

“So we’re busy,” said Caleb coming out of the maintenance shaft and closing the panel.

The alien made a bubbling fluting sound and then said, “Yes. To be honest, these ships don’t require as many crew as are present, but what else are you going to do with 28 trillion sentient beings?”

It was Caleb’s turn to blink. “That’s… a lot.”

“Right? Let’s go get a drink. We’re close enough to the end of our shift.” Obligolkulat started down the hall, his robotic legs whining quietly as he walked.

“You speak English really well, including slang,” said Caleb.

“Well–”

“But you don’t, do you? You’re not speaking English?”

“Nope,” said the alien as he led Caleb down the hall. “One of those shots you got before you left Earth was a micongineer cocktail. Some of them built an autotranslator in your brain.”

“Cool,” said Caleb.

Chapter 10

Chapter 12

One in a Million: Chapter 10

Her name was Faith Konneh. She was an economist from Monrovia, Liberia, possessing three masters degrees from elite universities on three different continents. She had been serving her first term in the House of Representatives when the Hegemony arrived and she was selected. She wrestled with the prospect for a few days but ultimately her pastor convinced her to follow her heart and bring back knowledge and experience that would make her a better leader for the people of Liberia. She loved sunny days in the park and greasy American chilidogs. Telling her how pretty she was made her both blush and smile. She came powerfully if you pinched both nipples while tracing the alphabet with your tongue over her clitoris.

Caleb learned all of this in the three days following the first orientation. He and Faith had been assigned to the same Integration Group — based on something akin to IQ scores, according to his Max (she had not bothered to name hers so he called it Maxine) — and he had approached her sometime during a lecture about how the artificial gravity, inertial dampeners and faster than light drives all worked on the same basic principle.

Quarters were small but comfortable. They lay next to each other in Faith’s bed, breathing contentedly. “Do you think they heard us?” Faith asked. Her accent recalled both stereotypical English and stereotypical African, becoming something unique and delicious when blended.

“The aliens?” asked Caleb absently in his post coital fugue.

“Max and Maxine,” she said.

“It’s likely,” he said flatly. “But the aliens too, I think. All of our rooms are probably bugged.”

She reflexively pulled the sheet up to cover her bare chest. “Eww.”

Caleb shrugged. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch. I am sure they are studying us as much as we are studying them. More.”

“And that doesn’t worry you?” she asked, relaxing her hold on the sheet and turning onto her side to face him.

“No,” he said. “We’re pretty basic, after all. What humans want and need isn’t that difficult to understand.”

“That’s pretty cynical,” Faith said as she moved closer to him.

“Yup,” he said and kissed her.

Chapter 9

Chapter 11

One in a Million: Chapter 9

The orientation took place in a chamber that reminded Caleb of an amphitheater style college classroom. Tiered steps descended to a dais in a semicircle. Behind the dais was a curved wall which was a screen half again as high as the topmost tier. Projected on the screen was the speaker at the dais, an alien Caleb judged of the high budget television show variety: essentially humanoid, even human-like, with unusual coloration, skin texture and additional (probably) sensory organs. It — he had no sense of its gender, if it had one — talked with its hands, which possessed six digits including two opposable ones.

Caleb was standing in a middle tier next to Max. He guessed a few hundred other people filled the tiers, each one with their own Max. While the people ranged broadly in body style and ethnicity, the speaker was addressing them in English. Caleb guessed there were other orientations happening simultaneously in different languages.

“–joined the Spiral Hegemony.” the speaker was saying. “It is our custom to invite emissaries of new member species on to our vessels as a beginning step of full integration into galactic civilization.” While the speaker’s English was perfect, unlike Max it spoke with an accent Caleb could not accurately describe, as well as a sharp glottal stop instead of a hard “t” sound.

In his peripheral vision, Caleb noticed a pair of hands wringing nervously. Deep black skin. Bright white manicured nails. Slender fingers. He stole a glance and saw a thin black woman on the tier above and behind him. She saw him look and smiled weakly. He considered her momentarily. She was pretty, a few years younger than himself, dressed in a conservative pantsuit. No wedding or engagement ring. Conservative makeup. One very subtle stud in her left eyebrow. She smiled again, more nervously this time, and he remembered himself, smiled in return, and turned back to the screen.

The alien was discussing work assignments and how they, the humans, would be apprenticed to aliens based on their skills and desires. “None shall be forced to work, of course, as you are guests, but it is our experience that newcomers find the workings of the vessel and its systems quite engaging.”

After the presentation ended and they began to file out of the chamber, Caleb asked Max, “Who’s that?” motioning to the black woman as she walked ahead with her own Max.

Chapter 8

Chapter 10

One in a Million: Chapter 8

The city fell away beneath Caleb’s feet. The floor of the transport had either turned transparent or become a screen when it began to lift off. With no sense of thrust from the vehicle, the image made Caleb a little nauseated even though he was not afraid of heights.

He was alone except for Max in a cabin about the size of a walk-in closet. There was a chair that looked like it could recline all the way to a lying down position and a cabinet that looked like Apple had designed a vending machine within reach of the chair. Other than the small plate on the wall where they had entered — there was no indication of an actual door — the room was empty. His luggage had not been brought to the room as was presumably stowed elsewhere on the transport.

“Where are the others?” asked Caleb. “Are they on this, um, elevator?”

Max said, “Others?”

“There are over ten million people in the New York City area, so there should be ten of us.” The city was just a concrete colored smear on the green, brown and blue background of the Earth now and Caleb was feeling suddenly uncomfortable. He moved to sit in the recliner. “I can’t be the only one.”

“You are not the only one,” said Max. “You are the last one. The others are already on the ship.”

Caleb stretched and the recliner responded by settling into a less erect configuration. “I’m a replacement, aren’t I?” asked Caleb. “Someone else got to the spaceship, saw the slime monsters and noped out, right?”

It seemed to take Max a long time to parse the question but finally the robot said, “Yes.” After a beat, Max asked, “Do your fellow humans find your perceptive abilities as irritating as I do?”

“Yes,” said Caleb and closed his eyes against the image of the receding Earth.

Chapter 7

Chapter 9

One in a Million: Chapter 7

The insectile alien robot called itself a string of unpronounceable phonemes, so Caleb decided to call it Max. Max did not seem disturbed by this. Max’s job appeared to be acting as personal assistant, liaison and camp counselor to Caleb through processing and orientation.

“The Spiral Hegemony has selected you as one of approximately seven thousand humans to join the compliment of one of its starships. As a new space traveler–”

“Why?” interrupted Caleb. They sat waiting in the defacto Hegemony embassy in New York near the United Nations building.

“The lottery was entirely random, I assure you. Your selection was completely by chance. Had you maintained your original position that you did not wish to–”

“No, why is the Hegemony taking one in a million people into space at all? We can’t have much to offer a starship crew, and anything they could learn from us could better be learned on Earth.”

“Oh,” said Max. The robot paused for a moment, head tilted as if in thought, then said, “Other than raw material to sustain life and provide fuel, such as the water ice of Europa for which the Hegemony is trading with Earth, the Hegemony needs very little. Its expansion is based purely on the collection of knowledge.”

“Right,” said Caleb. He did not see any other ‘new space travelers’ waiting. The office appeared staffed by robots remarkably similar to Max, along with a few stranger beings. They were all bipedal and generally humanolid in shape. “Where are all the weird aliens?” he asked.

Max did the head tilt thing again, then answered, “Most less advanced species respond with more curiosity and less violence when presented with more familiar forms.”

Caleb laughed. “You figured we would freak out and started firing nukes if a bunch of slime monsters landed.”

“Yes,” replied Max.

“So, is that body new?”

“Yes.”

“What did you look like before? Body plan I mean?”

“Well, I am not in a position–”

At that moment a door opened and a voice called for Max and Caleb. Caleb thought he detected something like relief in Max’s posture as they stood and walked toward the office.

Chapter 6

Chapter 8