Nils Michaelson was about as bored as it was possible to get. The locater on the mother ship, Freya, had indicated that there were Wasp pyramids in this neighborhood. Well, whatever the fancy sensors might say, Nils' Mark 1 eyeballs had not given him a glimmer of a sighting. Nils had been flying about in his spacetub for hours without any hint of a Wasp, and he was very happy that his shift was about over. He was a bit more confident of what he could see than what his sensors could indicate; his experience was that human eyes were just more reliable than any number of electronic instruments.
He knew as well as the next pilot that sensors had a greater range than his eyes, but sensors were not directly connected to his brain, so they weren't going to register that flash of light or stellar occlusion that his eye/brain combination would notice, because his body was tuned to detecting a flash of moving elk among the trees. Anyway, he was almost ready to speed up to near light speed and jump to the mother ship when his wingman shouted a headsup.
"What you got, Jesus?"
"I'm not real sure. My instruments are not registering a bogey, but I was sure I caught a flash of light out of the corner of my eye just a moment ago. Look left 80 (degrees) and down 10 (degrees). See if you can see anything over that way."
"I trust your eyes, compadre. Let's go take a closer look before we head back to the hacienda.
Jesus Ortiz laughed and said, "Come on, Nils, cut out that shit. I know you're no cowboy. You keep that up, and I'll find some Norwegian words to throw at you."
The two pilots sent an update on their plans back to the Freya by FTLR (Faster Than Light Radio) even though the automatic tracking capability built into their spacetubs would have kept the mother ship informed of their actions. But, sure as hell, if they had not reported the deviation from plan, they would have received a soul-searing scolding from their CFO (Chief of Flight Operations).
Sure now that they would remain in the good graces of the CFO, they turned their full attention to trying to identify what Jesus had noticed. Supposedly, there were no space ships flying through this segment of space at less than light speed, except for the Wasps' pyramids. Should there be another space traveling species, the humans sure wanted to know about it.
The Wasps were all over this arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, and nobody wanted to tangle with them without plenty of bug killing weapons of one sort or another. Ever since the ill-fated Wasp invasion of Earth, the humans were well equipped to defend themselves, and they were on a crusade to eliminate Wasps from the galaxy.
Unfortunately, many species were not able to fight the Wasps well enough to save themselves, so the humans had deputized themselves to police the galaxy. They jokingly called themselves the Orkin Brigade.
It was lucky for the rest of the galaxy that the Wasps did not have the right kind of mind set or society to develop their own equipment, though they were highly adept at stealing anything that they could use. That's how the humans had gotten a lot of their technology—by stealing from the Wasps what the Wasps had stolen from an octopus-like civilization. The pyramid-shaped spaceships that the Wasps used was one of those technical items that had been stolen. Fortunately, the builders of the pyramids had not yet developed FTL flight—the FTL flight used by the humans had been their own development.
When they got close enough, Nils whistled in surprise. They were not looking at a pyramid. This was a cylinder of monstrous proportions. It was rolling slowly along its long axis; Jesus postulated that the users of the vehicle might not have an artificial gravity generator, so they were using centrifugal force to simulate gravity. There was no sign of an obvious propulsion system, so there were more questions than answers about this strange craft.
Nils used his FTLR system to send a burst of video back to Freya so that they would know exactly what the two scouts were seeing. He also sent a request for a landing party, since this was obviously outside of the pilots' normal activities.
Nils and Jesus were asked to remain near the strange spaceship until the landing party could be dispatched, which should be about half an hour. Precisely 31 minutes later, two large vehicles appeared in space between the spacetubs and the huge cylinder. A voice came over the tactical radio, "Flight Officer Michaelson, this is Capt. Bridget Janson. I am in command of the landing party. Please remain in the vicinity until my flying cover arrives in 10 minutes. Then you may return to Freya."
Nils answered, "Roger that, Capt. Janson. We'll remain on watch until relief arrives."
"Thank you. Janson out."
The relief showed up on schedule and the two scouts returned to Freya for debriefing.
Capt. Janson was commanding two platoons of Marines. This was the first time that any humans had encountered something quite like this. All previous experience had been against Wasp pyramids, so there was no doctrine on this situation. Bridget was going to have to play this one by ear. She did not have any idea of the conditions inside the cylinder; she did not even know if they needed assistance. There were no ports, so there was no way to look inside. All in all, this was a potentially nasty situation.
The scouts reported what looked like a docking port about half way down the length of the hull, so she headed for that. Fortunately, the hull of the alien ship was magnetic enough for the human grapplers to hold on to the hull next to the port. She sent a sergeant and two troopers out to see if they could find a way in without blasting a hole in the hull.
The sergeant reported back that they had found what looked like a control box that might open the door. He said that he was going to give it a try. A few minutes later, the door started to move. It retracted a short distance and slid sideways into a slot in the wall. There was a light on inside, so the three men went in. These were seasoned warriors, so they were not afraid, just cautious.
The three Marines were not wearing space suits, instead they were equipped with a force field which protected them from space quite effectively, but conformed to their bodies so closely and so well that they were able to use their hands as if they had no protection at all. The only problem was that they did not have a sensitive sense of touch; otherwise, their hands were functionally bare. Of course, they carried their weapons on the outside of the field so that the bullets would not be deflected by the field.
The sergeant was about to report to the captain, when he heard a voice say, in English, "Strangers, why have you boarded our ship?" Talk about startled! All three men immediately assumed defensive positions and flipped the safeties off their weapons.
The sergeant said in a somewhat anxious voice, "Who are you, and why can you speak our language?"
"We are Arlosians, and we are not speaking your language. We have a device which can speak directly to the speech center in your brain, and the machine does the translation. Please answer my question, why are you here?"
"We are humans, and we thought that you might be in need of assistance, so we came aboard to see if we could be of help."
"Welcome, then. No, we do not need assistance, but thank you for offering to help us. Would you like to come into our ship?"
"Yes, we would like to visit with you. May I bring the rest of my people with me? There are 78 of us, so we will not all come if that is too many. I am part of a military unit, so I would like to bring my commanding officer, at least."
"There will be no problem with that many of you entering. I think that dock is large enough to take half of you at once, so I suggest that you come in half at a time."
"Fine, we'll be right there." The sergeant switched to his tactical radio and contacted Capt. Janson. "Did you hear that conversation I just had with the aliens?"
"No, Sergeant, I did not. How were you able to talk to aliens? I did not know that you were a linguist."
"I'm not, Captain. They have some sort of translating device that works directly to the brain. I thought that we might try to trade for it. I think that it is worth the antigravity technology, but I have not said anything to the aliens about it."
"Good, Sergeant. That's a policy decision way over our heads. What do they need from us?"
"Nothing, as far as I know. However, they did invite all of us aboard to meet them, and I thought that we should take them up on the invitation."
"An excellent idea. We may find that they have other things that we can use. Is there some protocol that we should follow?"
The sergeant asked a few questions of the aliens and relayed the information to the captain. She agreed to the aliens' suggestions and went to their ship after relaying her plans back to the Freya.
The aliens turned out to be six to seven feet tall and looked remarkably like orang-utans, but with blue hair. The Arlosians welcomed the humans aboard their ship, and it quickly turned out that the two species were quite compatible. They both breathed oxygen, but the atmosphere aboard the ship differed from Earth normal by having less nitrogen and more argon, but it was 21% oxygen. The humans were a bit reluctant to test the air before both sides were checked to be sure that no microbes would be harmful.
The humans stayed in their force fields until that test had been run, since neither side wanted to harm the other. When asked why the Arlosians were in space in a ship not capable of FTL flight, Ik'rox, the captain of the Arlosian vessel, explained that they were on the run from creatures that had invaded their planet approximately 1,000 years earlier.
Ik'rox explained, "We were an expedition sent to colonize the next planet out from our sun. Only 6.78373 days (the translating machine was somewhat literal minded) after we set out, Arlosia was invaded by creatures intent on using our bodies for incubators for their young. Our people had no effective defense against these interlopers, so we were ordered to head out of our solar system in hope of settling somewhere else free of these creatures.
"Apparently, we were ignored by the creatures, and we were able to slingshot into interstellar space by looping around our sun two times before heading out. We only had 12 males and 12 females aboard, so there was plenty of living space. Since then, we have maintained a careful breeding program to keep as much variety as possible in our gene pool, but, honestly, I don't know how much longer we can last cooped up in this spaceship. Our food supply is starting to fail, although everything else is working fine."
Capt. Janson said, "That is so much like our story that I'll bet that the same creatures caused trouble on both our planets. In any case, we can fix your food problem with a device we have which can make anything from raw electrons. It's called a replicator and we can make one up for you in a few minutes. It will duplicate any non-living matter that you request. I'll order one for you right away."
Capt. Janson used her tactical radio to contact one of the covering spacetubs. "Please order a medium sized replicator with a sample pan for use by these people. They are in desperate need, and should have one delivered as soon as possible." The order was sent out by FTLR and a unit was promised as soon as it was ready.
Less than 20 minutes later, a spacetub showed up. It was towing a shipping container holding the replicator. It was quickly set up in a convenient hold, and the Arlosians were shown how to use it. The Arlosians were so enthralled with the device that they had to be persuaded to back off before they filled the ship with duplicated items they didn't really need.
Meanwhile, a FTLR message had been sent to Earth describing the situation and the existence of the communicating device. It took remarkably little time for a negotiating delegation from Earth to be dispatched to trade for the translator and whatever else might be useful. The trade was to go both ways.
The next day, an engineer was headed back to Earth with detailed plans and a sample of the machine. She was sure that the humans would have one available no larger than a cell phone within six-eight weeks. The big problem was going to be deciding how much RAM to put on board the translator.
The humans had become quite enamored of the Arlosians and offered to take them home and chase out the Wasps for them. Ik'rox readily agreed, so Freya took their vessel under tow and jumped to their home planet. Freya carried 1,273 spacetubs which could also operate in the Arlosian atmosphere, so they were turned loose on the Wasps in a war of extermination. Counting Earth, this was the third planet that had been cleared of the Wasps by the humans, so the operation was becoming somewhat routine. None of the pilots objected to the routine, they were glad to do it.
These Wasps were the slightly smarter kind that cooperated with each other, but that really made no significant difference at this point. The Wasps had actually made the job a little bit easier for the humans by rounding the Arlosians up and putting them in holding pens until they were needed as incubators. The captured Arlosians had continued to breed because the Wasps periodically allowed a small percentage of the Arlosians to escape from the breeding pens and run into the woods. This gave the Arlosians hope, so they continued to breed in the hope that their child would be one of those selected to escape.
What they did not know was that the Wasps had tagged every one of the "escaping" Arlosians with a tracking device that made them easy to find. As soon as they were out of sight of the breeding pens, the "escapees" were rounded up and sent to nests to be used as incubators. Thus, none of the incubators were wasted, and the Wasps had a little fun with their hunt.
The unfortunate Arlosians were in for a lot of hard work once the Wasps had been eliminated. Oh, there were a few Wasps still around, but Arlosians were provided with tubs and trained to use them so that they could finally annihilate the last of the Wasps. The Arlosians were provided with several of the replicators, so, the first thing they did was duplicate the replicators. Once they had enough, they went into high gear rebuilding their civilization that had been destroyed by the Wasps.
A few of the younger Arlosians asked to join the humans in their hunt for Wasps and were accepted into the Brotherhood of Orkin Men. The humans even came up with an initiation ceremony which resembled that used in an earlier time when sailors crossed the Equator for the first time. King Orkin anointed each initiate with a bucket of sticky goop and a bucket of chopped paper. This sticky mess had to be washed off in public with a fire hose. The Arlosians were physically much stronger than the humans, so they were not harmed by the dousing with the fire hose and a great time was had by all.
It turned out that the Arlosians made superlative pilots. Their dexterity gave them an especially good control over the movement of the spacetub, and they were particularly adept at operations which required that they fly backward. Luckily for morale, 19 female and 19 male Arlosians joined the Orkin brotherhood, so there was a balance of sexes among the Arlosians.
Up until this time, Freya had not encountered a Wasp pyramid between planets, but that was about to change. Freya returned to the area she had been patrolling and resumed the hunt for Wasps. Currently, they were flying through a volume of space which did not have many planets troubled by Wasps. The humans had no way of identifying potential hosts for the Wasps, other than that they needed an oxygen atmosphere. Many planets in the neighborhood had oxygen atmospheres, so the humans were a little surprised that the Wasps were not more in evidence.
The problem with the pyramid locater aboard Freya was that in long range mode it was not very precise, so that it was sometimes difficult to pinpoint which solar system was actually infested. That meant that a solar system had to approached fairly closely before they could get an accurate reading. From a distance this system showed a cluster of pyramids, but, when they got closer, they saw that the pyramids were approaching the system, but not quite there. It was impossible to get an accurate count of the pyramids in the swarm, it looked to be somewhere in the range of 300-350.
A pyramid had a formidable array of offensive and defensive armament, but the humans had no idea how well the wasps could use that armament. Well, the humans were about to find out! One mother ship and 1,291 spacetubs were making ready to attack.