My Crappiest Stories: “First Impression”

Welcome to the fourth installment of “My Crappiest Stories,” sports fans! There was supposed to be a “how-to” post here today, but I’m going out of town tomorrow (I’ll be in SoCal, bartending at a friend’s wedding) and I’m knee-deep in preparations.

But the rules of this game are still the same: every five weeks I’m gonna post one of my serially rejected sci-fi stories. This is some of the worst crap you’ve ever read, guys, seriously. Hogwash, junk, trash, garbage, dreck, call it what you want. Everybody from Asimov’s, F&SF, Apex, and Analog has rejected these stories. But I’m putting them here so I can at least educate you on what NOT to do.

I am not even the slightest bit proud to present…

First Impression

The signal came in at about 30 degrees past Garngaeli azimuth. A low, thumping hum blasted into my ear canals at about 40 megahertz. I winced, took the phones off my head, and beckoned to my signals analyst, Korandi.

“What’s up?” she said, wandering over. Unidentifiable bits of pink fruit pulp were stuck to her bottom eating-lips. She’d left them there just to taunt me. She knows I’m a fastidious freak.

“Something loud just came in,” I said. “I reckon it must be the latest bio-barge from the Zaha’reth colonies.”

“Can’t be,” she said, peering over my left shoulder to peer at my readout screens. “They’re not due for another two full rotations. And besides, that signal’s frequency is much too low. That’s barely within auditory range.”

“Well, then, what is it?”

“Hang on a tick there, hot-pants,” she said, sliding smoothly into her cushioned saddle and waving her fingers over the haptic holoboard. “Let me work my magic.”

She clicked a button to broadcast the signal over the PA speakers scattered throughout the quiet, sterile, empty monitoring room. Most of the holo-displays were dark and the floor had been swept clean by the night staff. With only one sun in the sky, most everyone was at home and getting some much-needed rest. Korandi and I usually volunteered to take the night shift because we were the only two people who could stand each other for 46 kahrrs straight.

But we have to be here, all our radio equipment tuned to all frequencies, directional equipment zeroed in on the Zaha’reth colonies, listening intently like a ghanaft’i going down to a crystal pool to drink in the silent night. We must listen close or we won’t hear the incoming freighters, and their supplies and air will run thin and we’ll lose the crews. And possibly their precious payloads. That can’t happen. Iridium ore and refined nitrogen are all that’s keeping our dying little world alive. Rendezvous tugs have to be scrambled the moment—the very moment—we detect an inbound freighter. So we listen very hard, all day and all night, kahrr after kahrr.

The speakers hummed to life at the touch of Korandi’s light fingers. Then, even as I listened, the hum deepened, lightened, bounced up, bounced down, flailed about through the air like a children’s jump-weed, ululated like a belling mog during the rut, and settled into a kind of gavotte.

“What the Flange was that?” I griped, sticking two fingers in my ear canals and wiggling them around.

“Navor,” Korandi said, leaning in close to the HUD and boggling at it, “I think it’s extraterrestrial.”

My fingers froze, inserted into my ear canals up to the second knuckle.

“Come again?”

“It’s come from a Flanging long way away,” she said, brushing fingers across keys made of solid light, finally deigning to raise an elbow and smear the pink fruit bits from her lips. “The higher frequency bits got here first, and we’re only just now receiving the lower frequencies.”

“So?” I was getting annoyed with her childish whimsy.

“So that means, you mog-head,” she snapped, “that this signal has passed through some kind of interstellar interference to get here. It’s originating outside the system.”

“Can you hear a freighter at all?” I asked, glancing nervously at the still-thrumming speakers, but Korandi ignored me, of course.

“There, look,” she said, pointing at the holo. I exhaled and leaned over to peer closely at the blue-green-black real-shape image being projected there. What I saw looked like the jagged mountains of Keloft about eight hundred kalangs briim-by-gonbriim of Capital City—an unbroken series of jagged peaks and steep valleys, uneven and jumbled.

“Garbled and unclear and messy,” Korandi said, translating with her voice what my eyes couldn’t process. “Judging by how broken up it is, it’s been out there, winging its way through the universe, for a very long time indeed. It may not even originate within our galaxy.”

“So?”

“Navor, why aren’t you more excited about this?”

“Three reasons, Korandi: number one, we’re supposed to be listening for freighters, the quick detection of which our lives and the survival of our civilization depends. Second, we’ve always known there was life in the galaxy, and probably beyond it. Big whoop. Number three, even supposing that this message was sent by intelligent life from somewhere else in the universe, what good does that do us or anyone else on Garnoohra? The moons will keep spinning and the world will keep turning and the suns rising, and that’s good enough for me.”

Korandi went very stiff and quiet and I knew I’d gone too far.

“Navor, for someone who spends his every waking moment listening to the quiet murmurs of the stars, you certainly are shockingly provincial.”

And with that, she got up and minced across the room, back to the reclining couch and the rest of her midnight snack. I stared after her, threw out my elbows, rolled my head around my neck, switched the audio from the speakers back to my phones, and clamped them back on.

There was a comforting silence. I heard nothing but for the hiss of blood in my ear canals and the omnipresent hum (and occasional loud click) of interstellar radiation.

No freighters.

I craned my head around to look at Korandi. She was reclining on her couch, tapping her bare toes against the crimson vellum upholstery, gnawing on another piece of pink fruit. Somehow she managed to make even the act of relaxation look spiteful. I wouldn’t hear the end of this anytime soon.

Unless, I thought with a sudden burst of brilliance, I decode this signal for her. Yeah. That’d shut her up good.

I turned back to my personal console. A quick swipe of my hand transferred all of the radio signal data from Korandi’s terminal to my own. Signals analysis wasn’t my strength—I’d been chosen for this line of work because of my above-average hearing—but I knew a thing or two about it from watching Korandi. I figured I could at least tinker with the signal for half a kahrr or so and see what came of it.

I realigned all the frequencies we’d received piecemeal and ran a plastering program to fill the gaps. Radio signals traveling through space could theoretically go on forever, but they usually don’t. Space is actually full of…stuff. Dust, gases, asteroids, and other bits of cosmic debris, you name it. So after a while—a few trillion light-gnaars, let’s say—a signal gets so many holes in it that it looks like mog cheese. Plastering programs analyze what bits are intact and then fill in the rest by inference. It isn’t perfect, but it’s usually enough to give you the picture, so to speak.

An image flared to life on my screen: white, black, and all thirty shades of grey.

The first thing I saw was a massive metal—thing. I don’t even know how to describe it. It was shaped like the fruit of the pinarulla tree. It was affixed to some sort of crossbeam in a little house and it was swinging back and forth, making a booming noise. I’d heard sounds like that only once before—when the sky-fire came down and set the Great Brass Cliffs of Duneva gonging.

Then the metal thing slowly faded out of the picture and I saw a great bowl with a wide, open space in the center. Its inner slopes were shallow and scalloped so as to admit thousands of cheering, howling spectators.

“Whatcha watchin’?” Korandi asked, leaning on my right shoulder, and I nearly jumped out of my feet. I’d forgotten how quietly she could move around on those bare feet of hers.

“Oh, Navor,” she gushed, eyes widening and speaking-lips curling with delight, “you translated the signal?”

“Yes,” I said, rubbing my shoulder and feeling mutinous. “I was going to surprise you.”

“What am I looking at?” she said, confused.

I peered at the screen, but couldn’t tell her. All I saw was a sea of alien craniums with strange disc-like structures perched on their heads, and huge scraps of cloth on poles waving above them. The creatures had two arms and two legs, and their bodies were draped in large, squarish bolts of cloth. Their purpose seemed to be decorative: some cloths had stripes, others had stars, some had stars and stripes, some had triangles and diamonds and other geometric figures, and there was one that was simply white with a single, perfectly round red ball in the center. The most predominant flag was white, with five interlocking circles of different colors (what colors, I had no way of knowing)—three on top and two below.

I scanned the crowd. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the headgear: some looked to be made of soft cloth and belted with bands, and others were hard and shiny and looked like hazard gear. The incessant roar went on and on. Every single one of the aliens, I noticed as the blankets-on-poles fluttered in the breeze, had stuck out his, her, or schmer right arm out straight. The grift arm they kept at their sides. Indicating something on the horizon, perhaps?

“They’re definitely alien,” Korandi effused, practically gluing her face to the screen. “Navor, this is huge! We’re the first people on Garnoohra to ever intercept and decipher signals from another species! We—”

“Save it,” I snapped, because I wanted to hear what was going on.

Aliens—they looked stupider the longer I looked at them—marched across the field in what I presumed to be the center of the great bowl. Some wore long, floppy clothes of light colors; others wore more form-fitting gear. White was the predominant color on the lower half of the body. First would come one bearing a big pole with a board with strange scribbles on it; then would come another with a pole with a bolt of colored cloth affixed to it. Behind these two harbingers marched larger groups in serried ranks, each with their heads turned to the right. Several of these groups stuck their right arms out straight, and a bunch of men—including one dour little figure with a short rectangle of bristles on his upper lip—stuck his arm out in response. Some kind of greeting, I figured. Most of the other groups did not, though one or two raised their hands to their heads as they marched past.

And so it went, group after group, interspersed with shots of the dour-looking man with the black bristles on his lip, right arm eternally raised (I wondered that it didn’t get sore) and images of the crowd hooting and hallooing and showing their teeth and tongues in a most uncouth manner. Hooting and honking sounds competed with the braying of that hellish pack, and I assumed they must be festive in nature.

“I know,” Korandi said. “This is some kind of harvest festival. Those bolts of cloth on sticks must be the results of the—”

“Come off it,” I scoffed. “You think people would gather into a great bowl like this—a tremendous waste of resources, I might add—just to celebrate the harvest? That seems mighty ironic to me. Nope, this is a declaration of war. That fellow there on the podium must be some kind of potentate or poobah. All those marching idiots down on the field are from tributary nations and they’re here pledging allegiance to their emperor.”

“Shush, your poobah is about to say something.”

“He’s not my—”

Korandi placed one of her left hands over my mouth.

The poobah, if that was who he was, stepped forward and honked, squawked, and grunted a few words in a language that sounded like a mog drunk on a whole ocean full of ponji-juice. The crowd roared again (the beasts had lungs of steel). Then the largest piece of cloth yet was run up a pole that was almost as tall as Korandi and me on each other’s shoulders. A great flock of flying creatures winged their way once around the great bowl and then flew away into the sky, accompanied by a strident hooting sound—fanfare, I guessed.

Then the transmission ended. Korandi took her hand away from my mouth and rubbed her chins with the other three. All four of her eyes were wide open.

“What do you suppose that was?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, shaking my head in disgust, “but I really hope they never invent space travel.”