SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS – snippet 2:
"It's an airlock," Kretz said, looking at the shape of the alien structure that Zawn had projected up onto the screen. "That much is obvious, Leader Zawn. Engineering convergence is as inevitable as biological convergence. A bridge looks like and works like a bridge—within certain limits—no matter where on our world it was built, by whatever linguistic group or culture."
Zawn looked thoughtful. "And tetrahedronous religious building and tomb-structure are more of a sign of structural and material dictates than historical contact. True. But the question remains. Do we attempt to open this airlock?"
"It's what we came for," said Selna, caressing Kretz's back.
"Not strictly speaking," said Kretz. "We came to investigate an alien artifact, assumed long dead, or to be a probe. Yes, I'd love to see an alien lifeform. But it is also true that whatever is in there may not care to be disturbed. And we are the interlopers."
Selna snorted, stopping his distracting activity. "Look," he said, "what are we going to do? Come nearly 1.8 light years and then go home wringing our hands and grimacing, just in case the occupant might be showing their teeth, and not welcoming visitors to their nest? We are males. Some of you are even quite attractive." His hand trailing down Kretz's back again.
The physician didn't see things quite the way a behavioral biologist did. "They might not have two sexes," said Kretz. "Maybe three. Or only one."
Selna laughed. "No. Convergent evolution dictates that they'll have at least two. Females to tell the males what to do. Males to ignore them."
"And get killed," said Kretz.
Selna laughed again. "Well, we'd have overpopulation problems if males were as nest-minded as females."
"I think they're going to be very small and very different, or else in cyronic preservation," Kretz said firmly. "Look at the size of the each of those beads. They're not really big enough to be bio-viable."
"I thought that the consensus was that they'd have to be at least of roughly equal cranial capacity to us to allow for the evolution of sentience," said Selna, betraying that he'd read far more than he admitted to. After the existence of the alien artifact had been confirmed, theories had proliferated like bacteria. The cranial capacity one had quite caught the public eye. Of course it assumed that aliens would have a cranium…
"Only assuming that their biology is close to ours. If the brain is not convoluted, for example, they'd need about three times the cranial capacity—assuming their nervous system works even remotely like ours," said Zawn, showing that he'd read the same speculation.
"I personally hope that they're going to be dead sexy," said Selna, getting up and walking off in search of new prey, with one of his sudden mood-swings. "You're all too boring."
Selna’s absence did make rational conversation easier. "So," said Kretz to Leader Zawn. "I suppose what you are really trying to ask me is how many people we should send in, and what dangers they can expect to face? I know you well enough to know you are going to go yourself."
Zawn smiled. "Yes," he said. "So long as you accept that the number will include me."
"Both of us," said Kretz. "We're relatively expendable."
Zawn was amused. "What a shocking thing to say to your leader."
"True enough, though. And as for the dangers… well, it is relatively unlikely that we're going to find any life in there, or that any contamination will survive contact with hard vacuum."
Zawn's lips stretched and narrowed in a smile. "And that pink furry tentacled aliens will come out and run off with Selna."
"He's being exhausting right now," admitted Kretz. The attention was flattering, but still…
"We'll all get there," said Zawn, tolerantly.
"If we live that long. I'm quite looking forward to him changing and settling down in a nest-territory and never moving again," said Kretz.
"At the moment his promiscuity is a little tiring," said Zawn. "But spare me a territorial female to deal with as well. So: You and me, and maybe Abret. There is not much call for a deep-space radiation scientist. We have a spare pilot, beside him. And Selna can do his life support work in a pinch."
There was more to Leader Zawn, thought Kretz, than mere boundless enthusiasm and a capacity to think the best of everyone. More than an encyclopedic knowledge of the historical artifacts of seventeen cultures too. It must have been difficult for the expedition committee to chose a male to lead, but he was as good a candidate as you were likely to find this side of changeover. "My choice, exactly," he admitted. "So when do we go?"
"Now," said Zawn, calmly. "Abret is just off getting some adjustments done to his suit. His growth has been slower than predicted while he was under the trance drugs."
"In other words, you'd already made up your mind before you asked me," Kretz said.
"Well, not quite," admitted Zawn. "I wanted your opinion, and I wanted you along, of course. But I wasn't sure how expendable to engineering you considered yourself." Zawn showed the tact that had led to him being chosen to lead the alien artifact interception mission, over the heads of the obvious candidates in Navigation or Steering. He took Kretz by the arm and the two of them walked toward the passage to the outer airlock. "The decisions on risk profiles were actually taken back on Miran, before we left, you see. But a willing participant is always best." He looked mischievously at Kretz. "And if we go now, well, what Selna doesn't know he can't fuss over. He is not to be considered for any high-risk operations."
"A very good point," admitted Kretz.