The Aliens, Murray Leinster, Astounding Science Fiction, August 1959. Note: The copyright for this magazine short fiction has expired in the United States and was not renewed, thus, The Aliens now resides in the public domain.

The new setup began its operation, instantly the last contact closed. The three-dimensional map served as a matrix to control it. The information-beam projector swung and flung out its bundle of oscillations. It swung and flashed, and swung and flashed. It had to examine every relatively nearby object for a constitution of silicon bronze and a rounded shape. The nearest objects had to be examined first. Speed was essential. But three-dimensional scanning takes time, even at some hundreds of pulses per minute.

Nevertheless, the information came in. No other silicon-bronze object within a quarter-million miles. Within half a million. A million. A million and a half. Two million ...

Baird called the navigation room.

“Looks like a single Plumie ship, sir,” he reported. “At least there’s one ship which is nearest by a very long way.”

Hah!” grunted the skipper. “Then we’ll pay him a visit. Keep an open line, Mr. Baird!” His voice changed. “Mr. Taine! Report here at once to plan tactics!

Baird shook his head, to himself. The Niccola’s orders were to make contact without discovery, if such a thing were possible. The ideal would be a Plumie ship or the Plumie civilization itself, located and subject to complete and overwhelming envelopment by human ships—before the Plumies knew they’d been discovered. And this would be the human ideal because humans have always had to consider that a stranger might be hostile, until he’d proven otherwise.

Such a viewpoint would not be optimism, but caution. Yet caution was necessary. It was because the Survey brass felt the need to prepare for every unfavorable eventuality that Taine had been chosen as weapons officer of the Niccola. His choice had been deliberate, because he was a xenophobe. He had been a problem personality all his life. He had a seemingly congenital fear and hatred of strangers—which in mild cases is common enough, but Taine could not be cured without a complete breakdown of personality. He could not serve on a ship with a multiracial crew, because he was invincibly suspicious of and hostile to all but his own small breed. Yet he seemed ideal for weapons officer on the Niccola, provided he never commanded the ship. Because if the Plumies were hostile, a well-adjusted, normal man would never think as much like them as a Taine. He was capable of the kind of thinking Plumies might practice, if they were xenophobes themselves.

But to Baird, so extreme a precaution as a known psychopathic condition in an officer was less than wholly justified. It was by no means certain that the Plumies would instinctively be hostile. Suspicious, yes. Cautious, certainly. But the only fact known about the Plumie civilization came from the cairns and silicon-bronze inscribed tablets they’d left on oxygen-type worlds over a twelve-hundred-light-year range in space, and the only thing to be deduced about the Plumies themselves came from the decorative, formalized symbols like feathery plumes which were found on all their bronze tablets. The name “Plumies” came from that symbol.

Now, though, Taine was called to the navigation room to confer on tactics. The Niccola swerved and drove toward the object Baird identified as a Plumie ship. This was at 05 hours 10 minutes ship time. The human ship had a definite velocity sunward, of course. The Plumie ship had been concealed by the meteor swarm of a totally unknown comet. It was an excellent way to avoid observation. On the other hand, the Niccola had been mapping, which was bound to attract attention. Now each ship knew of the other’s existence. Since the Niccola had been detected, she had to carry out orders and attempt a contact to gather information.

Baird verified that the Niccola’s course was exact for interception at her full-drive speed. He said in a flat voice:

“I wonder how the Plumies will interpret this change of course? They know we’re aware they’re not a meteorite. But charging at them without even trying to communicate could look ominous. We could be stupid, or too arrogant to think of anything but a fight.” He pressed the skipper’s call and said evenly: “Sir, I request permission to attempt to communicate with the Plumie ship. We’re ordered to try to make friends if we know we’ve been spotted.”

Taine had evidently just reached the navigation room. His voice snapped from the speaker:

I advise against that, sir! No use letting them guess our level of technology!

Baird said coldly:

“They’ve a good idea already. We beamed them for data.”

There was silence, with only the very faint humming sound which was natural in the ship in motion. It would be deadly to the nerves if there were absolute silence. The skipper grumbled:

Requests and advice! Dammit! Mr. Baird, you might wait for orders! But I was about to ask you to try to make contact through signals. Do so.

His speaker clicked off. Baird said:

“It’s in our laps. Diane. And yet we have to follow orders. Send the first roll.”

Diane had a tape threaded into a transmitter. It began to unroll through a pickup head. She put on headphones. The tape began to transmit toward the Plumie. Back at base it had been reasoned that a pattern of clickings, plainly artificial and plainly stating facts known to both races, would be the most reasonable way to attempt to open contact. The tape sent a series of cardinal numbers—one to five. Then an addition table, from one plus one to five plus five. Then a multiplication table up to five times five. It was not startlingly intellectual information to be sent out in tiny clicks ranging up and down the radio spectrum. But it was orders.

Baird sat with compressed lips. Diane listened for a repetition of any of the transmitted signals, sent back by the Plumie. The speakers about the radar room murmured the orders given through all the ship. Radar had to be informed of all orders and activity, so it could check their results outside the ship. So Baird heard the orders for the engine room to be sealed up and the duty-force to get into pressure suits, in case the Niccola fought and was hulled. Damage-control parties reported themselves on post, in suits, with equipment ready. Then Taine’s voice snapped: “Rocket crews, arm even-numbered rockets with chemical explosive warheads. Leave odd-numbered rockets armed with atomics. Report back!

Diane strained her ears for possible re-transmission of the Niccola’s signals, which would indicate the Plumie’s willingness to try conversation. But she suddenly raised her hand and pointed to the radar-graph instrument. It repeated the positioning of dots which were stray meteoric matter in the space between worlds in this system. What had been a spot—the Plumie ship—was now a line of dots. Baird pressed the button.

“Radar reporting!” he said curtly. “The Plumie ship is heading for us. I’ll have relative velocity in ten seconds.”

He heard the skipper swear. Ten seconds later the Doppler measurement became possible. It said the Plumie plunged toward the Niccola at miles per second. In half a minute it was tens of miles per second. There was no re-transmission of signals. The Plumie ship had found itself discovered. Apparently it considered itself attacked. It flung itself into a headlong dash for the Niccola.

Time passed—interminable time. The sun flared and flamed and writhed in emptiness. The great gas-giant planet rolled through space in splendid state, its moonlets spinning gracefully about its bulk. The oxygen-atmosphere planet to sunward was visible only as a crescent, but the mottlings on its lighted part changed as it revolved—seas and islands and continents receiving the sunlight as it turned. Meteor swarms, so dense in appearance on a radar screen, yet so tenuous in reality, floated in their appointed orbits with a seeming vast leisure.

The feel of slowness was actually the result of distance. Men have always acted upon things close by. Battles have always been fought within eye-range, anyhow. But it was actually 06 hours 35 minutes ship time before the two spacecraft sighted each other—more than two hours after they plunged toward a rendezvous.

The Plumie ship was a bright golden dot, at first. It decelerated swiftly. In minutes it was a rounded, end-on disk. Then it swerved lightly and presented an elliptical broadside to the Niccola. The Niccola was in full deceleration too, by then. The two ships came very nearly to a stop with relation to each other when they were hardly twenty miles apart—which meant great daring on both sides.

Baird heard the skipper grumbling:

Damned cocky!” He roared suddenly: “Mr. Baird! How’ve you made out in communicating with them?

“Not at all, sir,” said Baird grimly. “They don’t reply.”

He knew from Diane’s expression that there was no sound in the headphones except the frying noise all main-sequence stars give out, and the infrequent thumping noises that come from gas-giant planets’ lower atmospheres, and the Jansky-radiation hiss which comes from everywhere.

The skipper swore. The Plumie ship lay broadside to, less than a score of miles away. It shone in the sunlight. It acted with extraordinary confidence. It was as if it dared the Niccola to open fire.

Taine’s voice came out of a speaker, harsh and angry:

Even-numbered tubes prepare to fire on command.

Nothing happened. The two ships floated sunward together, neither approaching nor retreating. But with every second, the need for action of some sort increased.

Mr. Baird!” barked the skipper. “This is ridiculous! There must be some way to communicate! We can’t sit here glaring at each other forever! Raise them! Get some sort of acknowledgment!

“I’m trying,” said Baird bitterly, “according to orders!”

But he disagreed with those orders. It was official theory that arithmetic values, repeated in proper order, would be the way to open conversation. The assumption was that any rational creature would grasp the idea that orderly signals were rational attempts to open communication.

But it had occurred to Baird that a Plumie might not see this point. Perception of order is not necessarily perception of information—in fact, quite the contrary. A message is a disturbance of order. A microphone does not transmit a message when it sends an unvarying tone. A message has to be unpredictable or it conveys no message. Orderly clicks, even if overheard, might seem to Plumies the result of methodically operating machinery. A race capable of interstellar flight was not likely to be interested or thrilled by exercises a human child goes through in kindergarten. They simply wouldn’t seem meaningful at all.

But before he could ask permission to attempt to make talk in a more sophisticated fashion, voices exclaimed all over the ship. They came blurringly to the loud-speakers. “Look at that!” “What’s he do—” “Spinning like—” From every place where there was a vision-plate on the Niccola, men watched the Plumie ship and babbled.

This was at 06 hours 50 minutes ship time.