Further Adventures of Xavier Xanthum, Space Explorer
We first met Xavier Xanthum two weeks ago, when he became the companion of a pair of sentient and telepathic eyeballs. The two are now comfortable partners in space exploration, which proves to be a good thing when the going gets weird.
Aboard the space vessel Wanderlust, Xavier Xanthum finished his morning coffee while poring over space charts, looking for the blanks that suggested there was nothing there. It almost always turned out that something actually was there, but no one had bothered to find it. Those were the spaces Xavier sought. Larry—he’d named the disembodied eyeballs that were his only companion after his favorite writer of space history—watched with interest, occasionally calling his attention to an interesting feature, or lack of features.
By the fourth cup of coffee, Xavier and Larry (who didn’t drink coffee but seemed to like drifting through the steam rising from the cup) had decided on a destination. They spent the rest of the day programming the NavCom. The tricky part in jumping to unknown planets was avoiding jumping into them. They would jump to the nearest known safe spot, scan to the limits of their equipment, and jump again, until they found something. It was a tedious process, but was better than becoming part of the melting core of a gas giant.
Over the next three days, the flight unfolded exactly according to plan. On the evening of the third day they found something. It wasn’t exactly a planet, but it was something.
“Hey, Larry, come look at this!” Xavier knew that Larry read the speech in his mind, but speaking aloud kept his vocal chords from atrophying. The eyeballs drifted over to join Xavier at the viewport. They looked at an object about the size of a large asteroid, but with the spheroidal perfection of a planet—or a made object.
It’s not natural, Larry thought at him. Xavier had to agree. An object that small wouldn’t develop as a sphere, not in the vacuum of space. Well, maybe if it were dense enough, but things didn’t usually work that way.
“Computer. What’s the gravitational field of the planetoid?” The computer gave its answer both verbally and on a screen for Xavier to study. He didn’t have to translate for Larry, because Larry was a part of the computer, though it maintained a separate personality for the more tedious work of being a computer.
“Let’s get a bit closer.”
After a long and cautious approach, the Wanderlust settled into orbit around the orb, and deployed probes to determine if a landing were possible or desirable. Not for the first time, Xavier wished he could send Larry down to look around, but the eyeballs only existed within the ship. Unlike Xavier, Larry never got to explore a planet directly.
Xavier was nearly ready to go down to the planetoid, or whatever it was, when he saw something leave the surface. He studied it, unworried. It looked generally humanoid, though it had two heads and three arms, and seemed to walk through the space between the orb and the ship. That gave Xavier pause, for two reasons. First, because you can’t walk in a vacuum, and the orb had no atmosphere. And secondly, because the being—and it did appear to be a being, as opposed to a construct—used no life-support, and nothing can live in a vacuum. It didn’t seem to know that.
Xavier shifted in his observation seat, nervous at the idea of something that alien. Did it want into the ship? How would he communicate airlock instructions even if he wanted to let it in, which he was pretty sure he didn’t?
Xavier was still considering, and Larry wasn’t offering any useful ideas, when the being reached the ship. It didn’t even slow. As though there were no hull, it walked into the spaceship, and then it sat down across the table from Xavier.
“This is now my ship.” Naturally, Xavier couldn’t understand it. The translator widget in the computer did its thing, and Larry silently passed it on to Xavier.
“*-&^%#@” Xavier replied. The translator squealed. Idiots who’d designed it hadn’t bothered to make it capable of translating a profane request that someone bug off.
“You are my slave. You will program a course for Alpha Centauri III.”
Great. A lifetime of exploration, and what did he finally discover? Something that thought it was a ruler of the Universe.
“*-&^%#@” he repeated, with emphasis.
The thing pointed something at him. Xavier grinned. This was an old ploy. Threaten to shoot him, and he could point out that the thing couldn’t fly the ship without him. In fact, the ship was programed to self-destruct on Xavier’s death. He explained all this, in language the translator program could manage.
The being’s two heads conducted a rapid discussion in tones too quiet for the translator to pick up.
Larry, can you tell what they are saying? Xavier asked.
No, Larry, I am sorry. They use a language beyond the knowledge of my translator program.
It—they?—knows enough to use a known language to talk to me.
I don’t like this, Larry.
No. Be careful of the third arm.
Xavier almost smiled. Larry knew him so well.
Xavier meant to preserve the alien being, since he knew a scientist on Hardscrabble II who’d pay good money for aliens, but the tranquilizer stream, or possibly the coffee he knocked into its lap, caused the thing to bubble and melt. In seconds it was nothing but a vapor, which the ventilation system absorbed and disposed of before it could reach Xavier.
He got up and poured another cup of coffee.
“What’s our next possibility, Larry?”