by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Typewriter Emergencies, June 2018
Rerin jostled the control panel while rubbing it down with a rag. The racoon-like alien didn’t know how the day-crew got the bridge controls so sticky. They were supposed to be searching the oceans on this world for signs of sentience — not snacking and boozing on Eridanii brandy. Rerin had expected janitorial detail on a starship full of human and s’rellick scientists to be an easy job. Instead, the naked-skinned primates partied all day, and the s’rellick shed scales everywhere — not to mention the extra work involved in tending to their live food. Ugh. Terrarium after terrarium filled with scuttling insects and rodents. Rerin would not be signing on with this ship again.
And yet, the view of the virgin planet they were studying was breathtaking. Framed by the bridge’s broad curving windows, azure oceans were hugged by ragged dark wine-colored mountain ranges. It was the last planet in this star system, and each world had been more beautiful than the last — green swirling gas clouds on the first; the second had been entirely glittering ice; the third was another ocean world, but it had been studded with island chains like emerald gemstones.
None of them housed sentient life. At least, that’s what the raucous human and s’rellick scientists had concluded. With the amount of Eridanii brandy they imbibed… Well, Rerin wasn’t sure they could be trusted.
The raccoon-like alien finished scrubbing the sticky residue off of the pilot’s controls, carefully avoiding bumping any of the glowing buttons or switches. She tucked the damp rag into her belt and knelt down to gather up the empty glass bottles discarded under the communications console. Her ringed tail swayed with agitation as she strained to reach far enough with her black-furred paw.
“Ouch!” Rerin exclaimed, cutting her paw on a piece of broken glass. Startled by the pain, she wasn’t careful in pulling her arm out. Rerin stumbled and fell against the control panel, pressing heaven knows how many buttons and catching her rag on one of the switches. “No, no, no…” She held her paws out, wanting to fix it, but she had no idea which buttons had been green before and were red now. One of them was even yellow. Had any of them been yellow before?
Rerin held her injured paw to her mouth; the black fur was matted with blood. She was still trying to figure out what to do — whether she had to tell the scientists about her blunder or not — when the computer said in a mechanical voice, “Receiving transmission. Translation 80% complete. Please wait.”
Rerin’s rounded ears flattened, and she looked out the window at those oceans again. Was there someone down there? Someone sending a message into orbit?
“Translation complete,” the computer intoned. “Play now?”
“Uh… sure,” Rerin answered.
“Begin message: Hello? Hello? I’ve been scanning the skies and picked up your burst of radio waves just now. Welcome to Oceanica! No one is going to believe me that I’ve found signs of extra-oceanic life in orbit of our very own planet! Please don’t leave without answering me. I’m going to transmit several image files now — I hope you can decrypt them! End message.” After a few moments, the computer added, “Image files decrypted. Display now?”
“Yes, please!” Rerin exclaimed, whiskers quivering with excitement.
The computer screen over the communication array flickered to life, showing several images of a whale-like creature, grinning widely, mouth filled with shaggy baleen. Its flippers were divided into wedge-like fingers, and its long tail curled under it with a surprising flexibility as it floated beside some sort of computer console. Its small eyes sparkled.
The delight in the alien whale’s expression was infectious.
Rerin knew she should alert the scientists onboard immediately, but she let herself get caught up in the whale’s friendly demeanor anyway. “Send a return message,” Rerin said to the computer. “Begin message: Hello back! Thank you for the images. The vessel orbiting your world is a science ship, searching for sentient life. I guess we found it! I’m actually the night janitor… But I’m really excited to meet you. End message.” After a moment’s thought, Rerin added, “Computer, can you transmit the image file of the profile picture for crewmember Rerin?”
“Affirmative,” the computer answered. “Transmitting.” Lights twinkled on the communications console. “Return message received. Begin message: you’re a land mammal! I didn’t know that was possible. Can you come down to visit? Can you teach us to build starships of our own? End message.”
Rerin’s rounded ears splayed. She realized that she was getting in past her depth. She didn’t know the answers to those questions — or probably any of the other questions this alien whale would have. It was probably time to turn this conversation over to the experts who were actually prepared.
Still, she decided to send one more message. “Computer, begin message: Like I said, I’m only the night janitor, so I’m going to go wake up the scientists who you really want to talk to… But can I ask you for one thing first?”
The alien whale responded, “Anything!”
Rerin had sworn to herself that she was done with this ship as soon as they hit the next space station… But now that she’d seen the wonder of discovering an alien race firsthand, she wasn’t so sure. Still, she deserved more respect than the humans and s’rellick scientists gave her.
“Tell the scientists that their janitor needs a raise!” Somehow, Rerin figured the request would carry more weight coming from a newly encountered cetacean alien.