Chapter 8 - The Alien

Blaine stood rigidly at attention before the massive desk. Fleet Admiral Howland Cranston, Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty's forces beyond the Coal Sack, glared across a rose-teak desk whose exquisite carvings would have fascinated Rod if he'd been at liberty to examine them. The Admiral fingered a thick sheaf of papers.
"Know what these are, Captain?"
"No, sir."
"Requests that you be dismissed from the Service. Half the faculty at Imperial University. Couple of padres from the Church and one Bishop. Secretary of the Humanity League. Every bleeding heart this side of the Coal Sack wants your scalp."
"Yes, sir." There didn't seem to be anything else to say. Rod stood at stiff attention, waiting for it to be over. What would his father think? Would anyone understand?
Cranston glared again. There was no expression in his eyes at all. His undress uniform was shapeless. Miniatures of a dozen decorations told the story of a commander who'd ruthlessly driven himself and his subordinates beyond any hope of survival.
"The man who fired on the first alien contact the human race ever made," Cranston said coldly. "Crippled their probe. You know we only found one passenger, and he's dead? Life-system failure, maybe," Cranston fingered the sheaf of papers and viciously thrust them away. "Damned civilians, they always end up influencing the Navy. They leave me no choice.
"All right. Captain Blaine, as Fleet Admiral of this Sector I hereby confirm your promotion to captain and assign you to command of His Majesty's battle cruiser MacArthur. Now sit down." As Rod dazedly looked for a chair, Cranston grunted. "That'll show the bastards. Try to tell me how to run my command, will they? Blaine, you're the luckiest officer in the Service. A board would have confirmed your promotion anyway, but without this you'd never have kept that ship."
"Yes. Sir." It was true enough, but that couldn't keep the note of pride out of Rod's voice. And MacArthur was his- "Sir? Have they found out anything about the probe? Since we left the probe in orbit I've been busy in the Yards getting MacArthur refitted."
"We've opened it, Captain. I'm not sure I believe what we found, but we've got inside the thing. We found this." He produced an enlarged photograph.
The creature was stretched out on a laboratory table. The scale beside it showed that it was small, 1.24 meters from top of head to what Rod at first thought were shoes, then decided were its feet. There were no toes, although a ridge of what might have been horn covered the forward edges.
The rest was a scrambled nightmare. There were two slender right arms ending in delicate hands, four fingers and two opposed thumbs on each. On the left side was a single massive arm, virtually a club of flesh, easily bigger than both right arms combined. Its hand was three thick fingers closed like a vise.
Cripple? Mutation? The creature was symmetrical below where its waist would have been; from the waist up it was-different.
The torso was lumpy. The musculature was more complex than that of men. Rod could not discern the basic bone structure beneath.
The arms-well, they made a weird kind of sense. The elbows of the right arms fitted too well, like nested plastic cups. Evolution had done that. The creature was not a cripple.
The head was the worst.
There was no neck. The massive muscles of the left shoulder sloped smoothly up to the top of the alien's head. The left side of the skull blended into the left shoulder and was much larger than the right. There was no left ear and no room for one. A great membranous goblin's ear decorated the right side, above a narrow shoulder that would have been almost human except that there was a similar shoulder below and slightly behind the first.
The face was like nothing he had ever seen. On such a head it should not even have been a face. But there were two symmetrical slanted eyes, wide open in death, very human, somehow oriental. There was a mouth, expressionless, with the lips slightly parted to show points of teeth.
"Well, how do you like him?"
Rod answered, "I'm sorry it's dead. I can think of a million questions to ask it- There was only this one?"
"Yes. Only him, inside the ship. Now look at this."
Cranston touched a corner of his desk to reveal a recessed control panel. Curtains on the wall to Rod's left parted and the room lights dimmed. A screen lighted uniformly white.
Shadows suddenly shot in from the edges, dwindled as they converged toward the center, and were gone, all in a few seconds.
"We took that off your sun-side cameras, the ones that weren't burned off. Now I'll slow it down."
Shadows moved jerkily inward on a white background. There were half a dozen showing when the Admiral stopped the film.
"They look like-like that," said Rod.
"Glad you think so. Now watch." The projector started again. The odd shapes dwindled, converged, and disappeared, not as if they had dwindled to infinity, but as if they had evaporated.
"But that shows passengers being ejected from the probe and burned up by the light sail. What sense does that make?"
"It doesn't. And you can find forty explanations out at the university. Picture's not too clear anyway. Notice how distorted they were? Different sizes, different shapes. No way to tell if they were alive. One of the anthropologist types thinks they were statues of gods thrown out to protect them from profanation. He's about sold that theory to the rest of 'em, except for those who say the pictures were flawed film, or mirages from the Langston Field, or fakes."
"Yes, sir." That didn't need comment, and Blaine made none. He returned to his seat and examined the photograph again. A million questions...if only the pilot were not dead
After a long time the Admiral grunted, "Yeah. Here's a copy of the report on what we found in the probe. Take it somewhere and study it, you've got an appointment with the Viceroy tomorrow afternoon and he'll expect you to know something. Your anthropologist helped write that report, you can discuss it with her if you want. Later on you can go look at the probe, we're bringing it down today." Cranston chuckled at Blaine's surprised look. "Curious about why you're getting this stuff? You'll find out. His Highness has plans and you're going to be part of them. We'll let you know."
Rod saluted and left in bewilderment, the TOP SECRET report clutched under his arm.

The report was mostly questions.
Most of the probe's internal equipment was junk, fused and melted clutters of plastic blocks, remains of integrated circuitry, odd strips of conducting and semi conducting materials jumbled together in no rational order. There was no trace of the shroud lines, no gear for reeling them in, no apertures in the thirty-two projections at one end of the probe. If the shrouds were all one molecule it might explain why they were missing; they would have come apart, changed chemically, when Blaine's cannon cut them. But how had they controlled the sail? Could the shrouds somehow be made to contract and relax, like a muscle?
An odd idea, but some of the intact mechanisms were just as odd. There was no standardization of parts in the probe. Two widgets intended to do almost the same job could be subtly different or wildly different. Braces and mountings seemed hand carved. The probe was as much a sculpture as a machine.
Blaine read that, shook his head, and called Sally. Presently she joined him in his cabin.
"Yes, I wrote that," she said. "It seems to be true. Every nut and bolt in that probe was designed separately. It's less surprising if you think of the probe as having a religious purpose. But that's not all. You know how redundancy works?"
"In machines? Two gilkickies to do one job. In case one fails."
"Well, it seems that the Modes work it both ways."
She shrugged. "We had to call them something. The Mote engineers made two widgets do one job, all right, but the second widget does two other jobs, and some of the supports are also bimetallic thermostats and thermoelectric generators all in one. Rod, I barely understand the words. Modules: human engineers work in modules, don't they?"
"For a complicated job, of course they do."
"The Moties don't. It's all one piece, everything working on everything else. Rod, there's a fair chance the Moties are brighter than we are."
Rod whistled. "That's...frightening. Now, wait a minute. They'd have the Alderson Drive, wouldn't they?"
"I wouldn't know about that. But they have some things we don't. There are biotemperature superconductors," she said, rolling it as if she'd memorized the phrase, "painted on in strips."
"Then there's this." She reached past him to turn pages. "Here, look at this photo. And the little pebbly meteor holes."
"Micrometeorites. It figures."
"Well, nothing larger than four thousand microns got through the meteor defense. Only nobody ever found a meteor defense. They don't have the Langston Field or anything like it."
"But -- "
"It must have been the sail. You see what that means?
The autopilot attacked us because it thought MacArthur was a meteor."
"What about the pilot? Why didn't -- "
"No. The alien was in frozen sleep, as near as we can tell. The life-support systems went wrong about the time we took it aboard. We killed it."
"That's definite?"
Sally nodded.
"Hell. All that way it came. The Humanity League wants my head on a platter with an apple in my mouth, and I don't blaine them. Aghhhh..." A sound of pain.
"Stop it," Sally said softly.
"Sorry. Where do we go from here?"
"The autopsy. It fills half the report." She turned pages and Rod winced. Sally Fowler had a stronger stomach than most ladies of the Court.
The meat of the Motie was pale; its blood was pink, like a mixture of tree sap and human blood. The surgeons had cut deep into its back, exposing the bones from the back of the skull to where the coccyx would have been on a man.
"I don't understand. Where's the spine?"
"There is none," Sally told him. "Evolution doesn't seem to have invented vertebrae on Mote Prime,"
There were three bones in the back, each as solid as a leg bone. The uppermost was an extension of the skull, as if the skull had a twenty-cm handle. The joint at its lower end was at shoulder level; it would nod the head but would not turn it.
The main backbone was longer and thicker. It ended in a bulky, elaborate joining, partly ball-and-socket, at about the small of the back. The lower backbone flared into hips and sockets for the thighs.
There was a spinal cord, a major nervous connective line, but it ran ventral to the backbones, not through them.
"It can't turn its head," Rod said aloud. "It has to turn at the waist. That's why the big joint is so elaborate. Right?"
"That's right I watched them test that joint. It'll turn the torso to face straight backward. Impressed?"
Rod nodded and turned the page. In that picture the surgeons had exposed the skull.
Small wonder the head was lopsided. Not only was the left side of the brain larger, to control the sensitive, complexly innervated right arms; but the massive tendons of the left shoulder connected to knobs on the left side of the skull for greater leverage.
"All designed around the arms," Sally said. "Think of the Motie as a toolmaker and you'll see the point. The right arms are for the fine work such as fixing a watch. The left arm lifts and holds. He could probably lift one end of an air car with the left hand and use the right arms to tinker with the motors. And that idiot Horowitz thought it was a mutation" She turned more pages. "Look."
"Right, I noticed that myself. The arms fit too well." The photographs showed the right arms in various positions, and they could not be made to get in each other's way. The arms were about the same length when extended; but the bottom arm had a long forearm and short humerus, whereas in the top arm the forearm and humerus were about the same length. With the arms at the alien's side, the fingertips of the top arm hung just below the bottom arm's wrist.
He read on. The alien's chemistry was subtly different from the human but not wildly so, as anyone might have expected from previous extraterrestrial biology. All known life was sufficiently similar that some theorists held to spore dispersion through interstellar space as the origin of life everywhere. The theory was not widely held, but it was defensible, and the alien would not settle the matter.
Long after Sally left, Rod was still studying the report. When he was finished, three facts stuck in his mind:
The Motie was an intelligent toolmaker.
It had traveled across thirty-five light years to find human civilization.
And Rod Blaine had killed it.