The general gazed pensively at the viewscreen. He was tall and slender, clean-shaven, his hair greying at the temples. His bearing was rigid, yet his posture betrayed some unease.
"How far away is it?"
"It's just passing Pluto," said the science officer, a short, bald, bespectacled man. "At its current velocity, it will reach our position in approximately seven hours."
"And it's alien."
"Well sir," -- the science officer licked his lips -- "it doesn't fit the known trajectories of any comets or asteroids, nor does its composition match any of those. It's definitely man-made... except mankind has never made anything like that. Not to mention it's coming from the wrong direction."
"Seven hours, then. Initiate first contact proceedings."
Seven hours later, they assembled in the largest hangar on the space station: five men and two women. The general stood in the centre of the group, tall and proud, unmoving. Next to him stood the science officer, fidgeting nervously. The others were linguists, xenobiologists, physicists, and astrozoologists.
The hangar had been cleared; nothing remained but a wide empty space lit by garish floodlights.
One of the physicists broke the tense silence. "How do we know it's coming here?"
"We've done everything we can to indicate that it should," replied the science officer. "Wide-band broadcasts, landing lights... apart from that, we'll just have to hope that it -- whatever it is -- is intelligent."
That drew a chuckle from some of the other scientists, abruptly interrupted by a low humming that filled the hangar. All other conversations died down as the alien object approached: first a speck in the distance, then larger and larger...
Until finally it rested lightly on the ground before them.
The science officer stared in awe. It was unlike any spacecraft he had ever seen. Long and bulbous, it resembled nothing so much as the hull of an ancient ship encrusted with barnacles.
One of the xenobiologists stepped forward.
"Please, stay back," said the science officer. "We don't know if it's safe --"
The xenobiologist ran a hand over the side of the probe. "Incredible," he said. "It feels..." he stopped, and raised a hand to his throat.
The science officer moved towards him. "Are you all right?"
The xenobiologist shook his head. He stumbled, and collapsed to the ground.
"His condition seems to be stable, sir," said the science officer. He was speaking to the general from the medical bay, via a viewscreen; the general sat alone in his office.
"It's been... what, fourteen hours now?"
"And still no change to the Object?"
"No sir. We can't get any readings off it. It doesn't appear to be doing anything. But we've been analysing it extensively, it's fascinating, it could be revolutionary, even --"
"All right. Keep me posted if anything happens."
"Sir? There's something else." The science officer paused. "I've been talking to the doctors. And Dr. Carter... well, his condition is stable, but..."
"Well? Come on, spit it out!"
"His brain activity is off the scale, sir."
The general sighed. All of a sudden he felt tired, and old. "Look, make it simple for me."
"That's just it sir, I don't think I can. I mean... okay, it's like he's dreaming."
"Yes... but a dream so intense and vivid it shouldn't be humanly possible."
"What does that mean?"
"I don't know, sir --" The science officer broke off. There was a commotion in the background; he glanced off to his right -- "Sir! Dr. Carter! He's awake!"
When the general arrived in the medical bay the xenobiologist, Dr. Carter, was sitting up in his bed, his doctor on one side and the science officer on the other. The room was white, sterile, smelled of antiseptic, and filled with the humming and beeping of countless machines. There was something ethereal about it, like entering another world.
The general stepped to the side of the bed, next to the science officer. "How are you feeling, Dr. Carter?"
The bed-bound xenobiologist looked up slowly. "This... body is... functioning... within normal parameters." He spoke slowly, enunciating each word precisely, in the manner of one savouring a fine meal.
The general glanced at the science officer, who merely shook his head and shrugged, then back to the bed.
"Listen... to the message."
"Great distance... has been travelled to reach you. You have been... chosen."
The general looked up at the doctor. "Is this man delirious?"
"No, general. At least, it is unlike any delirium I have encountered. He is completely calm, completely responsive, except..." he gestured helplessly.
"Message," murmured Dr. Carter. "You have been chosen. You will serve in the battle."
The general paused the recording that had been playing on the screen. He sat with the science officer and the other members of the first contact team, in a darkened meeting room. The large screen behind him was filled with an image of Dr. Carter's face: slack, expressionless, and somehow eerie.
One of the linguists spoke up. "I have a theory. It seems as though the Object is using Dr. Carter as a... filter of sorts."
The linguist leaned forward. "Think about it," she said. "This is an entirely alien culture. When we talk to each other, to another human, there's a tremendous amount of assumed knowledge. Cultural understanding, a shared memetic background, that sort of thing. That's totally absent here. We have nothing in common with them. So they're using Dr. Carter to filter out anything that we wouldn't understand."
"You mean... translating?"
"Well... obviously I can't say for sure exactly what's going on. But translating's an active process, and to me this seems more passive. My guess is -- to put it very crudely -- they're simply chucking a large volume of information into Dr. Carter and seeing what comes out on the other side, and using that 'residue' to communicate with us."
"So that increased brain activity that was mentioned earlier... that intense dreaming...?"
"Exactly. I think that was when they were passing all that information through their little makeshift filter."
A long silence filled the room. Troubled glances were exchanged, papers shuffled nervously. "I don't like this," said the general. "What if this is a prelude to some kind of invasion?"
"Well," said the science officer, "from what 'Dr. Carter' was saying, it seems like they need our help."
"They could just be trying to assess our capabilities," replied the general.
The linguist shook her head. "Surely they would have better ways to do that."
"You think the request is genuine?"
The science officer shrugged. "It does seem a little strange, I admit. But in that sense it's almost too strange to be anything other than genuine."
The general sighed, and leaned back in his chair. He rubbed a hand across his eyes.
One of the other men at the table cleared his throat. "Maybe it would help if we went over the request again? If we tried to break it down, summarise it?"
"Good idea." The science officer nodded. He held up a hand and began ticking off points on his fingers. "Okay. The Object comes from the Andromeda galaxy. War is brewing. These people want to avoid a costly conflict, and they've decided the best way to do this is to get other people to fight for them. We've been chosen as one of the combatants, and the outcome of our battle against the other chosen race will resolve the conflict in Andromeda. Sound fair?"
Nods from around the table. The science officer continued. "What I don't understand, is why. Why get us to fight for them?"
The linguist spoke up again. "Well, putting aside the fact that they're alien and we couldn't hope to understand them at this stage, the concept isn't completely new. The concept of a substitute, of a battle in which one person fights for another... isn't that basically what war is? Soldiers aren't personally involved in any conflict, they fight for an ideal, on behalf of their country -- in fact, that's probably why that request made it through the filter --"
"This speculation is pointless." The general stood. "What we need to do is decide our recommendation: to accept their proposal, or not."
Hours later, the general stood on the observation deck, gazing at the stars. The science officer approached him slowly.
"All these years," said the general, without turning. "All these years, waiting for contact. I always thought it would be some superior race. Some utopian society, some friendly exchange that would finally end all our conflicts. I hoped
and now it finally happens, and what message do they bring? War. Always war. Is there nothing else in the universe?"
The science officer cleared his throat. "I
take it the Council has reached a decision," he said softly.
The general sighed. In front of them the stars glittered coldly.
"We're going to war."