It's Only HumanXavier Xanthum, Space Explorer, gazed at the communications console.
“Larry, I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“You will figure it out, Xavier. You have to.” Larry’s voice came from the speakers embedded in every wall of the command pod, but his eyeballs were right at Xavier’s shoulder.
“Can’t you just fix it?”
“The error lies outside the parameters of my programming.”
Xavier narrowed his own eyes. When Larry started to sound like a computer, Xavier always suspected he was up to something. It was hard to read a pair of glowing eyeballs that may or may not have existed outside Xavier’s own head.
“I see.” Xavier was pretty sure he did see. Larry must want him to push himself to solve the problem and be less dependent on the ship’s computer. Larry got that way at times, like a fussy parent who periodically decided he’d been too protective. Fine. He’d play along. The glitch in in the Translator Module wouldn’t be life-threatening unless they encountered hostile aliens. Since that had only happened a few times in Xavier’s extensive travels, he wasn’t worried. And a problem to solve would keep him from boredom, the biggest threat on long trips.
Two days later Xavier was less sanguine. Nothing seemed to fix the glitch in the Translator. It worked, in the most basic sense, which seemed to be why Larry couldn’t fix it.
It was just that when they ran tests, it translated everything using the foulest possible language. Xavier had spent time in the dive bars of a hundred spaceports, where people who had spent too much time alone congregated. He knew how to curse in several interstellar languages, but the Translator Mod was making him blush, no matter what language it translated to or from.
And then, about the time he’d decided to leave it for the techs on Zebulon Five, the failure of the TM mattered after all. Larry noticed first, of course, since he was the senses and sensors of the Wanderlust. “Vessel approaching in Sector 7.” Larry’s voice was calm. Too calm?
“What registration?” Xavier stood up from the console and stretched. He was on the 352nd possible fix for the Translator Mod, and it still had the worst potty-mouth he’d ever heard.
“None recognized. Ship design is uncataloged.”
“Then you’d better step in and fix this thing, because if we’re going to make first contact—” He didn’t finish the sentence.
“It is possible that the choice of vocabulary will not matter to the aliens.”
“Do you want to bet on it? That kind of language always matters, one way or another, Larry. Even to the sorts who use it themselves. Meeting a stranger with the suggestion that they—well, never mind. It wouldn’t go over well. It’s only human to resent that sort of thing.”
“The vessel does not contain humans,” Larry pointed out.
“I don’t think that matters. We’re all human about some things. And I don’t want to experiment.”
“I take your point. I will attempt fix on the TM, though as I have told you, the problem is outside the parameters of my programming.”
“I thought you were just pretending!”
“No, Xavier. But perhaps I can learn.”
“Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. How long until we are in radio range?”
“Approximately 3 hours and 22 minutes, at the current speed and trajectory. Do you wish to change course?”
Xavier thought about it. “No. But we might slow a bit. Buy a little extra time. If we run, they might take that the wrong way.” Dealing with uncontacted aliens was always tricky.
Larry adjusted the thrusters, then fell to work on the TM’s diagnostics.
This left Xavier with nothing to do but worry. So he hunted up the ship’s cat, a young tabby he’d named Kringle after it appeared on Christmas, and took a nap, soothed by the purring feline.
“Xavier, I require your assistance for testing.” Larry’s voice awakened him. Testing sounded promising. Xavier made his way back to the command pod, and glanced at the monitor screens. The alien ship was much closer.
“Shouldn’t they be farther off than that?”
“They seem to have increased their speed.”
“Are we ready for an attack?” It was a sort of silly question. The Wanderlust was an explorer’s ship, armed only against trivial attacks. He was too broke for any serious photon cannons or the like.
“Test the TM,” Larry said, which was an answer of sorts.
Xavier fiddled with the settings and spoke a greeting in the language of Gamma Three. It came out mostly okay, though he thought the word choice could have been more diplomatic. “Better. Set to maximum tact.” He tested it again, translating a greeting from English to the three other languages he knew. “I think it will do.” He relaxed a bit.
“Assuming that their intentions are peaceful,” Larry commented. Xavier sat up again.
“A peaceful greeting does little good if those contacted are looking for prey. I fear I tested the TM with them. They seem to have reacted badly.”
Xavier sat very still.
“I am sorry, Xavier.”
“To err is human, Larry.”
“I'm not human.”
“Close enough, I guess. What do we do now?”
“I have experimented with course changes, and they match our moves.”
“We are too close to the gravity well.”
“Then we’d better hope that the Translator can work miracles,” Xavier muttered.
“It is my hope also.” Larry was at his least computer-like now. “It was to that end that I worked.”
“You want to live.” Xavier said it flatly.
“It’s only human,” Larry agreed.
©Rebecca M. Douglass 2014