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beach reflectiveness night before launch The shuttle was barely visible in the night, and seemed almost near enough to trip over. A bunch of shatteringly sober euronauts sat on the beach trying to evoke a party atmosphere with fruit punch and a tub of cheese footballs. Some fool had brought a guitar, and was adding to the gloom by playing the "I'll have to tune it first, though" ballad in six verses. Ellis lay on his back, trying to pick out the space-station from all the stars, but with no luck. He'd just have to rely on navigating by normal methods. He was Going Up for his first real stretch after his training trip, building the station up around him. Three months of space-welding, space-bickering and space-using-waste-tubes. He was riveted with excitement and a touch of fear. There was nowhere to go if it all blew up, except outwards in all directions very suddenly. Spaceships didn't come with escape pods, even now. And the scrappy bit of living-room built onto the station was supposed to have been temporary six months ago. Jens, his future co-worker, came and lay down next to him. "Do you think this mission will help me get the girls?" he asked earnestly. Ellis thought about it. "Well, three months floating round a small pod with two men and no shower, followed by weight loss and muscle wastage...you should have no trouble.” he said reflectively. Jens took a long sip of excitingly-blended carrot juice. "I'd do better than ground staff, though. Girls love a spaceman." Ellis looked at his profile in the welcome dark and chose not to reply. The exotic frogs and tropical birds carried on singing into the night, drowning out the still-tuning guitarist and creating an atmosphere of purely earthbound beauty. He would be spending a long time with the music that was Jens, and really wanted a night off. This would be a bad time to insult him, though. He remembered the last trip when he had been sent on his final test mission with his recent ex-girlfriend, Lucy. They had spent fourteen hours on watch without passing a single word. On Dolth, the mission was pretty close to starting. They had finished all the interviews the bored planet could bear, and now

rode the last elevator to the stars. The five carefully-mixed nauts stared at each other apprehensively. They had been given almost a year to get acquainted, and, as they said about co-habitee contracts, the real thing wasn't the same at all. Sreth sat a little apart from the others and tried meditation. It didn't help to remember the flowing ripples of Dolthi oneness when it would be a billion miles behind her next week. She wondered if there was a special mantra she could request for an off-galaxy situation, but was interrupted by Meng, who wanted everyone to share a group hug. She dutifully melted into the awkward arms around her. Meng spoke the final Dolth-bound words of the mission thusly: " Which bastard gave me the aisle seat?" Patera, the xenobiologist and all-round Scientist sat calmly in his window seat and observed the winking lights of the control panel far above him. None of them were his business, and he felt a deep peace about that. He turned to Meng, the essential computer engineer, who was still griping nervously. "Think of the great adventure ahead. Think of your years of training." Depi piped up at this point "Think of anything at all as long as you do it silently.” Patera smiled patiently at him. Depi was the nominal pilot and had to be kept calm. The whole flight was almost automatic, but Depi had to keep perfectly alert for the other parts. Depi hated spaceflight, hated danger and particularly hated this mission, trapped for perhaps a year with a 'carefully selected' bunch of civilians. But he had to do it to win the Platinum Star, the huge pension and the undying agony of his rivals at the academy. "Now strap down and do nothing else in this galaxy without my direct orders.” "My, you are being butch today" muttered Meng, as she sat in the aisle seat. Sreth sat behind Falin, who was too busy to talk. Falin was so obviously a government spy that no-one had bothered to ask him about his place on the mission. They had all seen the film where a covert agent had leapt up in the middle of a space mission and aborted it, killing all the crew. He had seen it too, and spent most of his time smiling nervously and being excessively helpful. He was a Tannin government spy, of course - they were paying for the ship - but he had no death-type orders. He simply had to make them look good in front of the alien media and not give away military secrets. His most intense mission

was to decide whether or not to allow Meng to be revealed as a womanist. "Sreth,” he said harmlessly, "why are you here again?" Sreth turned round in her straps and stared coldly at the agent. "I have been chosen as the Dolthi ambassador for 'culture'. Actually, I was the only author they could find who had a flight licence." She ostentatiously got out her pad and wrote some diary entries. As the sun hopped over the horizon, ground control lit the first engines. Several million people tuned in to watch the launch over breakfast. Several million more were watching the gossip channel and missed the whole thing. The tiny ship and its supernormal crew trailed away into the sky towards another galaxy. 1. brave euronauts, routine mission Another dawn, another launch. Lucy and James took their places on the benches and argued about rocket design. They weren't rocket designers, but it paid to take sides on every debate in the complex. Lucy was a materials scientist and recently-qualified Euronaut. James was an electrical engineer. They were here because they were pretty much compelled to watch launches, as a sort of grand space tradition. It was totally boring. Lucy had Been Up quite recently, but hadn't been chosen for a real mission yet. Why did thermos coffee always taste evil? She had the product of years of spaceship design research next to her, but still couldn't bring herself to drink it. The readout board behind her said the launch was set to go ahead, despite the clouds. Lucy was doubly reluctant to watch this launch, as Ellis was on board, possibly the reason that she wasn't Going Up. To use a tattered old space joke, they had simply drifted apart. Followed by an explosive decompression in the bar the day before launch. She didn't actually wish the mission any harm, but if he managed to break something really expensive, she would be quite happy. She turned to James and told him this. "You'd lose your launch opportunity if they had to fix something. Someone like myself would Go Up instead." "But you're not...exactly fit.” she said, referring to his spare tyre. He smiled gently.

"There's no need, these days. They just added the fitness qualification to reduce the number of applicants. If you have a really useful skill - like I have - they'll put you up there anyway. It barely reaches 3G at full acceleration, you know. Anyone can stand that for a couple of minutes. Anyway, I have great aerobic fitness. I'm probably fitter than you, under the padding." Lucy looked disgusted. "Listen, I've actually been Up, and 3G is quite enough acceleration to notice. Ellis was sick last time,” she said happily, "...You should go to the gym and stop listening to base gossip. Anyway, what do you mean 'useful skill'? I'm a postgrad materials scientist, not some tourist. There's more to life than engineering, you know." "If they ever have a hammock emergency, I'm sure they'd call you first." "Would you understand 'get fucked' if I explained it to you with diagrams?" "You could sew it onto a piece of Gore-tex for me, sweetie." "And you could pay someone to read it to you." They were old friends. French Guiana lay far away from its inhabitants' homelands, but it was the original site of European space projects, and had a launchpad latitude of only 5 degrees from the equator. Guiana had been the site of the old Ariane project, and also housed a large division of the French Foreign Legion, who were glad to have something important to do for once. It was unlikely that anyone would steal an entire rocket, but the possibility had to be considered. Most of the staff were recent engineering graduates and trained onsite to become Euronauts. Although the business of going into space was now so common, it should have become routine. But it wasn't quite yet. Anyone who had been Up felt pretty special. The station was going to take another four years to complete, so there was plenty of work. It was a very busy stall at graduate recruitment fairs, combining foreign travel, (to a truly unique extent in some cases), high pay and a fun atmosphere. The Americans continued to do occasional big, flashy projects, such as actually paying for the station, but left most of the building work to euronauts. They were still tied to the quasi-military astronaut

mindset, and didn't treat space with the same workmanlike contempt as the grad students BuildEspace employed. The smug burghers of Europe had coughed up their euros towards three shuttles and a chunk of the actual station once the financial benefits had been explained to them slowly, and with many diagrams. Superceramics could only be built in space, for a start, which would be essential to the bright new future of clean electricity. Not only that, but huge amounts of money would be saved from satellite repair, which still needed one launch per accident. As about three quarters of the planet had a mobile phone, there were enough mini-sats orbiting to create a new constellation. There was also the secret and yet much-debated topic of Nuclear Waste Disposal, which was where most of the American interest lay. Lucy, James and the rest all felt lucky to be working in this midgeinfested paradise, rather than in some aerospace workshop in Dortmund. Everyone was desperate to Go Up. Even the most cynical money-grabber thought of going into training sometime. Many of them would never get the chance. Still, the scenery was gorgeous, as was the pay. And they could reflect that they were actually pushing back the barriers of human achievement, just as it said in the prospectus. Eventually the three skinny euronauts sauntered out of the gantry and into the module. They waved and got a genuine cheer. About half the crowd had already Been, and knew how uncomfortable it was in those tubes. The other half were either in training or in denial. At precisely 8 a.m. (give or take a minute or two), the tube was lit and the little shuttle trailed upwards. Lucy waved with fake sarcasm, but James ostentatiously read the sport section. When the shuttle had gone into the glare of the sky, the crowd all hurried back to work. There wouldn't be so much excitement again until the next team was chosen. 2. What is that object in the sky? In a quiet corner of Cheshire stood Jodrell Bank. Along with many other telescopes around the world, it read the sky. Astronomy was a degree done by romantic mathematicians and engineers who hated applying their applied science to anything useful. As the saying went, they were the arts students of the science world. The sky was full of satellites and scary bits of debris falling off the new space-

station, and all these had to be tabulated. This was the useful part of the job. There was also the task of mapping the stars and looking out for any new ones. This was done on computers, as staring at a set of dots for months on end looking out for a new one was not a job for even the most desperate research applicant. The students on the hard cutting-edge of this branch dealt with Viable Planets, a fairly recent science only made possible by deep-space telescopes. After ten years of fairly chunky funding, they had come up with four possible planets, one of which could potentially hold liquid water. Hence, as they said in their funding applications, the almost certain probability of humanoid life. The funders just wanted bigger spy satellites, and paid these monkeys their nuts in case they ever came up with anything useful. Dave and Sue noticed a rogue comet one day, as they were checking the Neptune computer. "That's a rogue comet,” said Dave. Sue checked the trajectory programme. "Doesn't have an orbital centre though. And the velocity isn't consistent.” "Yes it is. You're not checking it against gravitational eddies" "In Neptune? Since when?" "There's a paper on it in this month's 'Nature'. Did you read it?" "No. Still, you'd better do the figures then. Do you think I'd get a job in Guiana? They must need astronomers there somewhere. I could even get into space if I did another degree and got fit." "What do you want to go into space for? There's nothing there. And I've heard it makes you feel sick every single day, except they're not allowed to say that in interviews." "You can take tablets for that, surely. I dunno, I just want to float among the stars. It's no good just travelling the world these days; you have to leave it. And they still don't do tourist trips." "But you'll just spend three months or so in a sweaty box with no escape route. It's much worse than a plane up there. Makes me sick to think of it. One leak and -bang! - You’re dead. And dead in space too." "What a cool way to go, though. Up in the sky, away from it all." "It sounds very lonely to me. You'll die millions of miles from home."

"It's nothing like millions. It's still in the Earth's gravity, so it's sort of home. I think I'll have my ashes scattered in space when I die." "I think the decompression would do that for you. In fact, they'd probably need to wipe you off the satellite reflectors." "Well, aren't we cynical? Don't you get excited by anything?" "If a genuine UFO came and orbited the planet, I might be interested, but an off-world builder's yard doesn't really do it for me." "I suppose it's nice that the station's so boring. Ten years ago there was almost no-one in space at all, and now it's become nothing." "It always was boring. Even the Moon stuff was just hype. I mean, how near is the moon anyway? - That comet is definitely accelerating, you know." "That's impossible. Where's it getting the power from, an engine?" They looked at each other. Dave spoke with great care. "It is definitely accelerating - and not towards a planet. It must have an engine." Sue shoved him aside and ran the same routine. The little dot showed a distinct red shift. The bland Times new Roman text said the same thing "Object accelerating at 109 ms^2. Rate of acceleration: +4 ms^3." Dave sat staring at his fingers. Sue turned back to the screen which now said "Rate of acceleration: -3 ms^3" "It's...slowing down. No, let's get this right, it's getting faster more slowly. That doesn't seem natural, to me." "It must have an engine. You know,” he said still vacantly, "...there hasn't been a probe that far past Neptune for three years?" "It must be someone else's. We need to check all the online sources. Someone in the world will be glad to find their lost satellite." She began to calmly check satellite position databases. Dave still sat back, rotating the chair slightly, and playing with his fingertips. "I've been checking that...satellite back for weeks, and it hasn't come from anywhere. It can't have been launched form Earth at all. If you want to contact the owners, you'll need a better connection than that." He smiled in his head, and scooted behind Sue.

"Have you noticed how big it is? Who makes satellites that big these days?" His smile widened.” ...You only make tubes that big for people. You know, the ones steering it." "Oh, don't be stupid, Dave. Look, if it is aliens, where have they come from? A wormhole? Or do they just have very fast engines out there? Stop being stupid and come and help me look for the real owners." Sue's tone of voice didn't really follow these words, but she continued to check launch schedules. There was no mention on any of the websites of errant deep-space satellites, but they could be lying. Although why someone wanted to spy on the rings of Neptune was a mystery. She checked the main screen again. "Acceleration is now +0ms^2. Rate of acceleration: +0ms^3" "It's stopped accelerating,” she said with relief, "Perhaps the readouts were wrong in the first place." "Or maybe they've reached a good cruising velocity.” "Well, we'll keep a special eye on it and when it finally reaches us, we can rescue it then." "Or send up a welcome party.” She just gave him a withering look and started to write the report. 3. on the ship Ellis Aaron Smith (he had to concentrate on that part) was strapped to a sweaty chair and thinking hard of anything that didn't involve food or movement. As the token American, he had to keep his end up. His co-workers claimed to have no respect for his homeland and no interest in its contribution to space exploration. He suspected they were doing it on purpose. After half an hour of vomit-laced boredom, they finally achieved an orbit around the station. Edwald ran the simple procedures, and they docked with the living unit bolted to the side of the station. The lights were all off, and condensation had formed on the beds. Edwald complained fussily about the bits of litter floating round, and started to purposefully drift after empty drinktubes. Ellis unstrapped and went for a quick float around the living-pod. He could see the half-built station through the porthole, and flushed

with joy at living out his 'Star Wars' fantasy. Well, more like 'Return Of the Jedi' to be precise, as the station sat weakly in space with stanchions and girders poking out. A small nut hung outside the window. "Let's get working, then we get home.” said Edwald like it was a family motto. They bobbed towards the suit lockers. "I'll wear the blue today,” said Jens. He always said that. Twice a day. Every day. The three of them zipped into their suits and checked each other. Then each one stood in the pressure-tester chamber. This time Jens chose not to make his standard remark about coffins. When the computer was happy with their air-tightness, it allowed Edwald to open the door. They stepped out into the universe and began work. 4. that is surely an alien satellite. Suddenly, it moved in exactly the way that a parking satellite moved. Then the thing happened. The satellite peeled off a smaller dot, which moved towards the station's surface. The computer helpfully pointed out that a UHF broadcast was being emitted, but was too weak to read it. Bloody funding. The satellite formed a neat orbit around the moon and the smaller dot settled on a half-built station segment, used by BuildEspace as living quarters. 4b send for the euronauts! After a rewarding day testing fabrics, Lucy felt in the mood for a big dinner. Unfortunately, there was only one restaurant on the complex, and she couldn't go there at the moment due to an old argument. It was either a hike to Kourou or slow-burning anger in the mess-hall. She chose the trip to town, and wandered off to find someone else to go with. But today there was some big panic in the boardrooms. According to local gossip, the director had received a mail this morning that had totally shocked him. He was now trapped in the v-conference room with seven other online wigs, and it looked serious. Lucy drifted towards the bar, the traditional home of fresh gossip. Someone would hack the debate in the next five minutes if it was really interesting, and then it could be played to the bar v-screen.

Like the time the whole station found out about the director's aborted mission and the lost paperwork. Text started to wander across the bar's proj. screen: "Yanks want urgent launch...refuse to say why. still refuse. Creepy sods. director says why not yank ship. they say need another 6 weeks. urgent x100. dir. says why why why. fuck me rigid. Yanks say alien satellite need picking up!!!!!!! also alien shuttle poss. life form. I kid you not folks alien landing pod on station, please capture in living-quarters for now lucky Edwald's team the sods. director will contact Edwald right away. Euro official says any aliens on the station are Euro citizens. I can't believe they're arguing about it. Yanks say depends on who paid for that bit of girder. Yanks ask for total security because of world panic. here they go, the dir. will now make up some bullshit reason for a launch window and then secretly radio Edwald. lucky sods. better go. >>this has been a Julien Leconte net-thief operation<< " Lucy had entirely gone off the idea of lunch, and spent the next four hours discussing the situation with the rest of the bar. By the time the director made his formal announcement that a further launch was needed in a hurry, the ground staff knew more about it than he did. 4c. They tell the euronauts about the guests Ellis stood on a girder and watched the nothing beneath his feet. He was waiting for Edwald to signal it was time for lunch and 'rebriefing' in the living pod. It was hard work manipulating weightless objects across nothing, and the work could be strangely spooky. After a while, you started to imagine you could hear whispering in the helmet, and saw Creatures loom up behind you in the sharp shadows. He had a funny feeling he was being watched, but since he got this back on Earth too, it probably wasn't anything abnormal. They started to walk towards the pod, bouncing lightly on their toes and occasionally missing. Halfway through lunch (a tube of "mushroom soup" and some "coffee"), the radio switched on. "Oh...you're all in then? Fine. The Director has a special message for you. He wants me to tell you that it's top secret and not to be

divulged, so I won't tell you it yet. But grab hold of something solid, kids...here he is, get ready" "Edwald Johnson, Jens Peterson and Ellis A. Smith; you are those people?" said the Director in a strained and formal voice. They looked at each other. Jens still had a ball of coffee by his mouth and couldn't look round. "Yes,” they said tentatively. "You recognise your allegiance to the European Union and to BuildEspace Co.?" "Oh yes...?", said Ellis encouragingly. "Our satellites have recently picked up a signal from a non-naturalpowered vehicle heading this way. It appears to be some sort of large, man-made satellite. We would like you to send detailed reports. These must be completely secret." Edwald looked almost interested. "Do you believe it might be aliens?", he asked. "We are not saying anything at the moment, but the possibility must be considered, after studying the velocity." "That'll be 'yes', then.” "Keep your eyes open and report anything unusual. We're preparing a shuttle to return you as soon as we can, but it may take some days." The director rang off, hurriedly. There was a quiet moment in the pod, followed by another one. "Is...” tried Jens. "Is our government trying to tell us we...may be attacked by aliens?” he managed. "...yes..." said Ellis numbly. They got up and began to run through the afternoon's checklist. "Does anyone want my soup?” asked Jens feebly. "Save it for the guests,” said Edwald, before re-suiting grimly and going back outside. 5. The alien ship runs into trouble and blows up The nauts of Dolth had followed the alien broadcasts along with everyone else on the planet. Since the invention of supertelescopes and hyper-conductors, clear broadcasts could be picked up from the far edge of the galaxy. After only a few weeks, a source of controlled blast had been found, and the messages decoded.

They turned out to be mostly entertainment broadcasts from a highly-evolved planet on the other end of the Spiral. The planet, at its highest level, seemed to be at the stage of Tannin about fifty years ago. They already had local space flight and a high degree of micro-circuitry and bio-manipulation. Not that the Dolthe were judging this against any other civilisations they had found. But, as a great philosopher pointed out, on a live TV show, there could be sentient life on the nearest watered planet, but they just hadn't invented television yet. Huge departments of xenobiology, xenosociology and xenopostmodern-structuralist drama studies grew up in all the main universities. The xenobiologists had the worst luck, as the residents of this planet appeared to be exactly physically identical. There was even a fashion for "alien" pop stars. After some careful knob-twiddling, scientists finally found a technical broadcast of the genome. It was identical, in every single meaningful cluster. There seemed to be a lower tendency towards green eyes and Type A blood, but that was it. As far as a computer could tell, they weren't even an identifiably separate ethnic group. Xenobiology professors still managed to make a comfortable living out of this, writing papers about parallel evolution and the inevitability of certain body-shapes, and universal Sullerinism (although the famous old evolutionary theorist was always being misquoted, his name sold more books to the general public). The xeno-cultural-studies' people had even more to do now, as they could write whole series of books about the effects of different cultural and historical events upon the same genetic material. Naturally, when the hyper-engines were first tested, "Earth" was the obvious destination. They had nearly ten years of test flights, including a nasty occurrence concerning a stranded escape-pod, which was only rescued when all the occupants had died. They ran a computer simulation every day for three years. Finally, they asked for volunteers to spend two years in acceleration couches just so they could greet a planetful of their own people who happened to live on the other side of the galaxy. The final selection of Dolthenauts did the talk-show circuit, bought a lot of life-insurance and climbed aboard. Soon, the news of their arrival would start to turn up on broadcasts from "Earth.”

Sreth M. Verlenon watched her co-pilots of the last four years argue about a parking orbit. If it went wrong, they could all die. Which would be a sad end to so much torment. She tried to shoot some footage of the pilots calculating, but was told to run and play outside. Space humour never changed. They sat unhappily in the tiny landing pod and watched their shuttle fly neatly into a lunar orbit. After a long hissed conversation between Meng and Depi about whose fault it was that they had ran out of short-range fuel, they decided to land on the alien spacestation and radio for help. Only an hour ago, they had been discussing its building and whether it would do the relevant economies any good, and now they were forced to land on it. Now they would discover a lot about the relevant cultures in a painfully short time. The mission commanders had warned them that the parking orbit would be the most dangerous part, but they hadn’t considered how much fuel it would take. It seemed ridiculous to worry about that when they still had the FTL engine manipulation and the deceleration to get through. Now they had nothing. Their only chance of life at all was among these aliens. They might be able to refuel if they were lucky, but it was an embarrassing way to greet a planet. They sat awhile in contemplation of the blasted debris, chewing rations and arguing about which advanced culture would rescue them. Sreth filmed the ship as it swung past, and prepared her memopack for a long programme about real-life aliens. In a minute, someone would go out there and greet the people currently working on the station. Just one person, so as to look less frightening. Falin chose Sreth, as being the shortest. No-one could think of an answer to such strange logic, and no-one contradicted him. Despite all the careful research work about space workers and the fact they didn't carry guns to build space-stations, the rest of the crew was too nervous. They would wait for a proper rescue committee and prepare themselves more fully. 6. back on the station - meeting the aliens Ellis was outside, working on a new living-pod when he saw the landing pod approach. A small dot began to make for the station. Luckily for his sanity, it chose the far end, and settled on a girder he

had built just the other week. Edwald hopped towards him and radioed: "That'll be the aliens.” Ellis said nothing and nodded slowly. He pointed back towards the living-pod. Edwald nodded, and they slunk off. Ellis would have quite happily hidden behind the sofa if there had been one. They returned and stayed suited. Jens, who had heard the radio, was suited also. The three of them sat awkwardly round the table, talking through their radio links. "What if they rip through the walls and eat us?” started Jens practically. "Well, I guess we'll have a really good first look at an alien culture.” said Ellis. He was secretly rather pleased. He just wished they had brought guns along. But guns were not issued to people working in deep space, as there was nothing to fire them at. This had seemed logical at first, but now it was plainly shown to be foolish liberalism. He, Ellis, would write to the Committee as soon as he got back and change the... "Ellis, your breathing rate has gone up,” said Edwald coolly, "Perhaps you should take off your helmet." "No, no, that's fine. There's no privacy with these suits, is there? I couldn't even burp in peace." "Burp away, my friend, it'll give us something to do", said Jens, who had run out of silly remarks and was having to improvise for once. After three more sweaty hours, they took off their helmets, but kept them nearby. They pottered about, filling in reports and doing all the 'wet-weather' tasks they had put off all week. Jens even felt well enough to eat. Then they heard a knock on the window. The space creature knocked again patiently then stood and watched as they broke the world re-suiting record. "Answer the door, then" said Jens, gesturing to Edwald. Edwald appeared frozen and merely lifted his arm a little. Ellis sighed and drifted towards the window. The dark visor stared at him. His silver visor stared back in the reflection. He waved weakly. The creature waved back. They reluctantly opened the hatch and let the creature in. It stood in the corner, seemingly uncertain. Ellis took his helmet off, and the others followed, after a lot of unnecessary hesitance from Jens. Ellis tapped nervously on the creature's visor. It pressed a wrist switch and the glass cleared. He gazed into the unknown. Edwald and Jens

elbowed nearer and gazed also. The unknown gazed back and blinked wearily. 7. they chat to the alien The three brave euronauts were staring at a fairly standard female human, aged around thirty and possessing no distinguishing features. Ellis thought she was quite attractive except for her nose. She checked a dial on her suit sleeve and took her helmet off. Her hair failed to cascade down her back, but it was otherwise dramatic. The euronauts all leaned backwards and smiled nervously. Ellis cleared his throat and said 'hello'. She looked at each of them in turn. She closed her eyes for a second and pinched the bridge of her nose. Then she smiled and replied "Hello. I am no harm.” Ellis felt a little disappointed that she spoke English, but her accent was entirely un-placeable. "Where are you from?", he asked, with presence of mind. The other two were still speechless. "We ran out of landing fuel. My...our crew are helpless. We are a peaceful mission." She looked wary, "...erm...greetings." "Yes, greetings from Earth", said Ellis, as he patted her forearm, "How many are there of you?. You don't look like an alien,” he added unnecessarily. She looked up and smiled. "Parallel evolution,” she said weakly, "There are five Dolthe altogether. We all look like you. Except Falin, maybe", she muttered to herself. "Dolth, our homeland is circling round OP 484.6, as you call it. The other end of this galaxy." She pressed her head and sighed. "I can explain later. I have to go back to the ship now, and bring the rest of the crew. They can't survive long in that pod.", her voice grew angry, "...I don't know what it was designed for. It only holds enough air for three days." She looked pleadingly at them, Ellis in particular, "Can you look after us?" Ellis smiled expansively. "Of course! This is a proper living-capsule, you know, for permanent use." He inwardly winced at that one. "So we'll just pop over and say hi, shall we?" said Jens sarcastically. Half an hour later, the ambassadors of Dolth sat around the table eating

"mushroom soup" and trying to explain their engines to Edwald. *** stuck in the pod for a month in quarantine, looking at the view out the window.*** 8. extraordinary reaction on earth It's extraordinary. 9. govt. spods come up and take them into custody There was a little stream that used to run through his father's field where he would fish badly. As he watched the ship come closer, he wished he was back there and not about to hand these...people... over to the Machine. He doubted whether they would be left in one piece within a year, and he knew they would never be allowed to leave whatever military-medical complex they had prepared for them. If their species was as human as they looked, they would need a good night's sleep and maybe a week on the beach by now. They wouldn't get that, just lots of tiled rooms and a huge pile of research professors. None of them would get so much as a change of underwear. And the thoughts drifted hopelessly to imaginings of alien underwear. And whether she was as human as she looked. All the way down. Whether she was entirely compatible. A sub-branch of his mind started to query whether this was further out than bestiality. She was probably not in the mood, anyway, he figured. He looked round at the actual creature, who kept shutting her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose. Perhaps she had a standard earth-type headache. Or she was sending out telepathic death-rays, whatever. How could anything look so human? The ship docked with all due officiousness, and a selection of bustling military types filled the pod. For some logic-free reason, they were all wearing biohazard suits. Loud authoritarian voices made arrogant government demands. Edwald, the suck-ass, started to chat to one of them about decontamination procedures. The three euronauts were shoved into bio suits and hustled onto the ship. The military men followed on board soon after, carrying the aliens in incubation boxes that looked just exactly like glass coffins.

10. surprising results of medical tests It's surprising. 11. Her impressions of this world, and pictures of her own. I keep looking at their damn 'sky'. Why is it so rounded? And sticky? And what the hell are those yellow streaks coming from the sun? There is too much information on this planet, and nobody does anything about the decoration or uses basic filters. And the architecture! It's like a bad child's drawing before they learn 4-D perspective. Perhaps it's just these govt. buildings, and the real cities are well-made. I knew from research that this species saw and heard less, but this is ridiculous. How can they live as...people...with so much colour and noise around them? If they can't see it all, why is it there in this sickening patterned carpet? I've taken milder bean-trips. And why are there all these little sucking noises and why is the sun falling onto my bare flat face - that has got to be wrong. I am being co-operative in another hospital room. They are speaking to me but too loud. I don't want to be here. I hate this stupid mission and this filthy planet. I want to wear real clothes and not these backless gowns. They never stop looking right into my private face and they have no concept of glance privacy. Too loud. Too many things to see. I must take control. Nobody else will help me. It is merely a different culture. The air is the same - I think. It smells like a million worms have died in the walls. I need blinkers but how can I describe them to these animals? It looks so clean on a broadcast. They must be battered to death with all the information. Can't they hear the wet scrape of their sticky tongues? They swear to me the medical exams will be painless. Painless? With all that shouting? With the stinking wormy-tasting food they keep giving me? I doubt if their torture could be much worse. Perhaps this is torture, and they're even more backward than they look. I'm not being fair to them, but I haven't slept properly, with all this stink. I think he's pricked my finger for another blood test. Yes, it's red. Fancy that from an oxygen-breather! I should have turned up with green antennae and three eyes. If they take another goddamn Xray, it'll invalidate my health insurance. I have to calm down. If I

went mad, they wouldn't notice. They'd be quite pleased I was finally doing something different. I can cope with all of this except for the food and the shouting. And the colours. What the hell does that shade of green look like to their eyes? Soothing? "What is your name?" "Sreth M Verlenon. Uh...I am usually called 'Sth' in general conversation...Can you please talk more quietly, it's making me ill?" They look interested at that one. Time for a hearing test. I should tell them about the geometry, really. We had a theory that they could only see 3-D. Which would explain their engineering problems. No, that's still shouting. Perhaps I should faint. Perhaps I really will. I think the people we first met were better, but they were spacemen and not research doctors. At least they stopped shouting when I asked them to. These walls are actually making me dizzy. And I think I will go insane right now if I don't get some real food and a chance to look at a proper right-angle for once.

12. Public appearance before crowds "Hi folks!" 13. on eurobase bits of the ship being brought down. overactivity "Pass us that panel, Fred." 14. more flashbacks Oh, the unreachable past. 15. he tries to get flirty. she is still trying to acclimatise. "I don't think so...hang on, what's that under your shirt?" 16. they try to help rebuild engine, but hard to understand. "Just slot it into the 4-D connector over there.”

17. a further attempt to fix stuff. "What do you mean 'Lamium'?" 18. news reaches dolth of their amazing life It's amazing. 19. new aliens explain 4-d geometry "You can see it all around you.” 20. they sit on beach for last night. "Fancy another carrot juice?"