Chapter 1: Contact with the Stewards

Building a steel tower on the port side of an alien starship seemed like a weak joke, but the Stewards had yet to show any sense of humor in front of a human being. Daniel Baldwin paused to lean on his translucent work station and looked out across the Concord, enjoying the peculiar visual sensation of watching the clouds disappear underneath the mountainous ship.

Even three month after first contact with the Stewards, Daniel could barely find words to describe their ships, other than mountainous. The vessels were not only figuratively mountainous, being miles in length, but they were literally carved-out mountains. Each ship was a piece of their homeworld, lifted from the planet like teeth from a child.

The "root" of the Concord was also like a tooth in that it was several times longer than the original height of the mountain. Further distinguishing the ship (for no two ships were quite the same) were two ice drifts that extended out the port and starboard sides near the aft of the vessel, roughly perpendicular to the ships highest and lowest points. Daniel thought that the wings looked like frozen rivers caught in midair, except for the jagged bulges at the ends.

Both of the bulges were pierced by the only part of the ship that did not appear to be ice or rock: silvery rings, with a gap pointing aft that took out about an eighth of the ring's length. Somehow these rings kept the Steward vessels in the air without producing noise or wind: somehow these rings were responsible for faster-than-light travel. Of the many technologies that the Stewards had, those rings were the most coveted by the human race. And no matter how little he wanted to admit it, the rings were the real reason Daniel stood atop the portside peak of an alien starship.

Three Months Prior

Daniel sat in a crowded cafeteria, utterly alone. Around him bustled dozens of students from the technology department of his college, but he barely recognized his classmates, despite two years of classes with them. Daniel sighed, poking his half-eaten sandwich listlessly.

Ditching the leftovers, Daniel walked out onto the patio and gazed at the sky, feeling out of place and tired of noise. A plane left long white marks across the sky, the tiny black dot looking like an ant next to the colossal clouds around it. Daniel wondered what the people in the plane thought of the clouds they saw to either side.

"Wait." Daniel frowned and squinted at the distant plane. It looked... stationary. Even from a great distance planes usually moved a little in the sky.

At that moment a great hum sounded, like a Tibetan horn sounded hundreds of times over. Daniel slowly pulled out his phone as clouds began to split and dissipate, turning into floating mountains. One, two, three... more and more revealed themselves, at least two dozen within sight. The horn cut off and a deep voice spoke, first in English, then in Spanish, then in a third language that Daniel suspected was Chinese.

"Stop, and listen. We are the Stewards, and we have brought you no war. Your airborne inertia will be returned to you shortly, we wished only to prevent any violence. We are the Stewards, and we wish to speak to your peoples- all of them. A portion of our fleet will gather over your 'Pacific Ocean' where we wish to introduce ourselves in person. We are the Stewards, and we look to you as future allies."

With that, the icy mountains began to climb, slowly turning towards the west. Daniel spared a glance back at the dot of the plane and saw it smoothly regain normal speed- and then wobble for a second, probably from the pilots regaining control of their engines. The great ships of the Stewards flew quickly out of sight, though Daniel suspected he could see the outlines of many, many more flying west at a greater altitude.

Daniel inhaled for the first time in several seconds. He hit the stop button on his phone to end the recording, but then growled at himself as he realized he had never started recording. Glancing about, he saw that dozens of other students were ending their own recordings, several of them uploading them directly to the web. Excited chatter rose to a roar.

God I wish I had been an astronaut. Daniel thought to himself. And suddenly diplomat's not looking too bad either.

Hours later, above the Tropic of Cancer, west of Hawaii

The ships did not land in the ocean, but rather came to rest just above it, so that only the jagged tips of their undersides touched the waves. General Clarke watched with interest as the ships descended vertically to form a jigsaw puzzle of a landscape, the edges of each craft only a few yards from the others. They all seemed to orient themselves the same way, their apparent engines facing east-north-east.

"Look at how they retract their wings. I can't see any moving parts or overlaid plates or anything," commented Colonel Heinlein. "It's like watching ice melt in high-speed, minus the excess water."

"I'm sure the engineers are wetting themselves now," replied Clarke. "Look at how they approach from the cardinal and ordinal directions at different altitudes, and then drop straight down. Every single one of those ships has a VTOL years ahead of our best aircraft."

"I wonder how much redundancy that layered-direction system has?" asked Heinlein. "I think I see... twelve layers? So at least four redundant altitude-direction pairs."

"With ships that big, it makes sense to have a little redundancy. Wouldn't want to climb the entire height of the system to make a 45 degree turn." Clarke clenched his radio on his chest. "Alright pilot, you see the runway they've put up?"

"With the white and yellow holograms of people? Yes sir."

"Bring the Osprey down near of the middle of it and let's see what happens next." Clarke leaned back from the window of the aircraft. "All other teams, fall back and keep out of the aliens' way. Try and keep us in visual range."

Heinlein waited until the other teams finished responding before posing the next question. "The runway looks like it's made from one big slab of rock leading up to that cave. You figure they have some kind of fighters in there?"

"No, actually." Clarke pulled out a little notebook and scribbled down some notes. "Hard to tell from here, but it looks like that strip is about 20,000 feet long and marked in the North American style. That leads me to think that this isn't a native part of their setup, particularly with their obvious engine capabilities. They built this in imitation of our own design, as an invitation."

"So no fighters?" Heinlein peered out the window again, at the approaching landing area.

"Didn't say they don't have them, just that they're not in that cave. If they have them, they can probably launch them from any side of these ships, using that ice-stuff of theirs to cover up the entrances."

"Makes sense. Hey, is that the Japanese?" Heinlein jutted his chin out at a helicopter coming over an eastern mountain.

"Intelligence says that the ships appeared over every land mass on the planet, speaking the dominant languages in each area." Clarke glanced at his watch. "A few places even had ships broadcast an extra line about wanting all of Earth represented, and were offered an aerial escort."

Heinlein whistled slowly. "Serious business. Makes me glad I was stationed in Hawaii again."

"Getting tired of the beach, Colonel?" Clarke asked as the Osprey touched down.

"Not much of a hot weather person, General." Heinlein glanced at the ice drifts just beyond the runway. "I'm guessing the new arrivals aren't either."

"Sir, we're... being gestured at, how should I respond?" came the voice of the pilot over the radio. Clarke leaned over to the window to watch a thirty-foot tall hologram of a human being make a lifting and placing gesture next to it's side.

"Go to where it's indicating. Careful not to... clip the projection or anything, we don't know how they'll interpret that," Clarke instructed. "Heinlein, you are completely unarmed?"

"Yes sir, as instructed." The younger man nodded sharply.

"Good, just double-checking. Once you're out of the Osprey, stick close to me. The rest of you, hang tight." Clarke picked up his briefcase and adjusted his radio. "We'll keep the channel open so you can hear everything."

"Ten-four, sir."

Twenty Minutes later

"Sir, we just got intel saying that there are at least three other runways in the area. All of them have substantial international presence by this point." The pilot's voice crackled over the radio, fighting with the cold wind for attention. "The Pentagon has let representatives of most of Europe fly over our turf, if I'm understanding this report correctly."

"Any word on the reps not flying over?" Clarke replied, trying not to shout.

"Not sure, but we and several others are broadcasting our video to the public. You'd have your head pretty deep in the sand not to witness whatever's about to happen."

"Thank you, Clarke out." Clarke turned to Heinlein and raised an eyebrow. "You think the aliens are going to wait until everyone's here?"

"No sir, looks like somethings starting to happen now." Heinlein nervously adjusted the small camera clipped to his shoulder. "The runway is... changing."

As Heinlein spoke, seams appeared in the runway and formed a semicircular pattern of rectangles near the entrance of the cave at the end. Some of the rectangles began to rise, stopping at about waist height, forming wide tables. The giant holograms, which had been standing to attention up to that point, turned and began walking towards the tables, fading away as they approached.

"Guess that's an invitation," Clarke muttered, and began walking forwards. "Some verbal instructions would be nice."

"Any seating preferences?" joked Heinlein, eyeballing the other representatives walking forwards. "I see the Brits and I think those are Aussies."

"Wherever works, but keep an eye on your six. I'm worried that the religious implications of this could lead to some violence."

The two officers stopped behind a table, standing at attention. To either side of them, other representatives stopped and stood nervously. There were a few coughs.

The cave in front of them was dark, and quiet.

Someone sneezed.

And then a rumble boomed from the cave so suddenly that it nearly caused the representatives to fall over. It was deep, like the hum sounded when the ships first appeared, but this was also more complex. It was like hundreds of tubas were playing scales at once, in coordinated chaos. It was loud enough to rattle bones, but not so loud that it hurt anybody's ears. Clarke and Heinlein struggled to regain their compose, facing back into the cave where the sound came from.

The rumbled ended as suddenly as it began. It was at that moment that Heinlein first saw the aliens.

His first thought was of mountain goats. They had curved horns, long faces, thick white fur, and black eyes. But the details were all wrong. There were at least six horns, each a different length, all longer than Heinlein's arm. The face ended in four slitted nostrils that formed a wide X. The fur seemed to move on its own and had a bit of a greenish tinge. Rather than two eyes they had four, the front two somewhat larger than the back two.

Heinlein's next thought was of the Brachiosaurs from Jurassic Park. The aliens were far larger than he had expected, at least eight feet tall standing on all fours. They held their thick necks upright in a rough S curve. They had thick tails balancing out the great horns, and the legs were thicker than a goat's. What little of the hooves he could see under the shaggy fur seemed to have four parts. The aliens moved slowly but deliberately, like unstoppable glaciers.

A substantially more tolerable version of the previous rumble began, emanating from the alien in the center of the approaching group. This time the interweaving sounds seemed more complex and governed, and after a few seconds a deep African-sounding voice began speaking.

"Welcome, representatives of the human race. We are the representatives of the Stewards, sent to establish a peaceful alliance among your peoples." The Steward paused to let the translation catch up. "As you can see, we possess the technology to defend ourselves from your weapons, so we ask that all plans at violence be abandoned immediately. Our race does not care for war, but we will defend ourselves."

There was a pregnant pause as the seven Steward representatives eyeballed the uncomfortable mass of human representatives. After a moment, the center Steward began to speak again. "Thank you for your patience with our caution, we have studied your history and know that we represent a potential threat. Our races can learn much from each other without violence."

A second Steward stepped forward and began speaking. "As you can probably guess, we have reservations about sharing all of our technology with you immediately. Overly rapid technological growth causes dangerous instabilities in power, and your species has a history of finding war applications for everything. Thus, we intend to pool our cultural resources with you first, followed by medicine, and then working towards technological equality. Are there any objections?"

The British representatives spoke first. "Exactly what kind of timeline are we looking at here?"

"It could be many of your Earth years, possibly even generations. It depends on how quickly our races can come to trust each other."

"How do you intend to disseminate these cultural resources?" asked Clarke.

"On our home world, emissaries from different ranges are exchanged, and share verbally with those around them. We were hoping to establish a similar behavior with your world."

"These ranges, are they similar to our nations? Will you exchange with all of the Earth countries equally?" Heinlein looked around but could not identify the speaker, despite their heavy accent.

"You could draw comparisons between our ranges and your nations, yes. I would liken a range more to a fleet of ships." The Stewards exchanged looks that Heinlein could not interpret. "As for information equality: should a nation choose not to exchange with us, we will not insist. Our hope is that the mutual benefits are readily apparent to all."

"So, an exchange program. Will human emissaries be going to your planet?" Again Heinlein was unable to spot the speaker.

"We are the Stewards of the remnants of our homeworld, preserved in our ships. Our sun went nova hundreds of years ago, and we have been nomadic ever since. Any human emissaries would be free to join our travels in our territory."

"Are there other alien races out there?"

There was a pause before the Stewards answered. "Yes, but the sentient ones we know of are embroiled in a culture race, and we fear the consequences of contact between your race and theirs."

Heinlein glanced at Clarke as questions began to pour out from all of the representatives, straining to be heard. "Well, the paperwork for this is gonna set some new records."


Yan Jia rolled slowly off the bed, grimacing as sore muscles protested the resumption of movement. It had been two weeks since the Stewards had announced their presence, but Yan's job hadn't changed in the slightest. It irritated her that despite massive, fundamental changes to the place of mankind in the universe, her crummy job kept right on going, business as usual.

Yan pulled on a t-shirt and comfortable pants as she stood up. As she passed the bedside table she scooped up the small gun lying there and tucked it into the back of the pants without even thinking about it. She knew the moment she picked it up where the safety was. She confirmed the weight of the full cartridge as easily as she could confirm the weight of a glass of milk.

Milk. Maybe that would be good with breakfast. Yan stopped and pondered the empty fridge. Milk would require her leaving, and that would involve smiling at people, talking to people, maybe even listening to people. Yan was good at smiling without meaning, she was good at talking without really saying anything, but she hated listening. It was hard to listen without having to actually commit things to memory, because then they always wanted you to respond about what they were talking about.

Especially nowadays. Speculation about the strange new species was rampant, and Yan had trouble keeping abreast of the strange new details that were coming out about the Stewards. It seemed that every day a new rumor was circulating about one of their peculiarities, and then the next day the rumor was replaced with another, and then days after that the truth would come out. Yan had trouble caring that the Stewards were practically mammals, because she knew she would never see one of them give live birth, or probably never even see a Steward child. The Stewards were very protective of their young, apparently.

Another example of their higher moral standards. Thought Yan Jia bitterly. No children left to fend for themselves in some criminal hellhole. No abandonment, no drugs, no ... wait. Do the Stewards have drugs? Would they tell us if they did? Hm.

Out of habit, Yan took a glance through the window, surveying the tops of the buildings for a telltale glint. Nothing today. It had honestly been several years since anyone had sent a sniper after her, but it didn't hurt to be careful. One misstep would be her last, she had to be careful.

Still, starving isn't an option either. Yan decided that milk was worth going outside to get, despite having to interact with the rest of the human world and walk the streets exposed. Living hidden in some crappy apartment building wasn't her idea of a good life.

She changed quickly and efficiently into her street clothes, her leather jacket easily concealing the second gun she always brought outside with her. A single shake of her foot confirmed that a small throwing knife was secure but accessible in her boot. A dark burgundy scarf went around her neck- there had been more than one occasion in her history where such a garment had given her vital time to get herself to medical attention without attracting any civilian attention.

It was a bright day. Good. It meant that her sunglasses wouldn't stand out. As she exited the apartment building, Yan glanced up at the rooftops again, but for once, she did not return her gaze to the street.

There, just beyond the skyscrapers, was a mountain that hadn't been there before she got dressed.

The scale of the mountain took her breath away. Most Steward mountains were pretty craggy, like Himalayan mountains, but this one had a truly distinct look. The mountain had a long rising cliff on either side of fore, giving the whole thing something of a hatchet-head shape. The jagged engine pods on either side of the ship were so large that the light reflecting off their icy texture was starting to hurt Yan Jia's eyes, even through her sunglasses. Long silvery lances projected forwards from the engine pods, immediately recognizable as powerful weapons.

Its one of their armed scout ships: the ones that explore potentially dangerous reaches of space. Yan tried not to gape at the ship. The scale of it... just... Yan ran out of words to describe it, even to herself, and found herself truly awed for the first time in her life. To her, the ship was a thing of powerful beauty, a combination of nature and machine that dwarfed everything she had ever seen.

"Heed us." Boomed the powerful voice that the Stewards used for Japanese translations. It made Yan think of samurai movies for some reason. "We offer the chance to walk the stars with our people to all human beings. Be you man or woman, young or old, we will consider anyone who wishes to join us. Should you want to exchange with us, merely write the words 'Steward Exchange' on a flat surface, followed by your name and a means of contact you, and point the surface and your face straight up. If we believe the exchange will be mutually beneficial we will contact you."

The scout ship began to rise, its business carried out as quickly as its arrival. "Remember," the voice boomed in Japanese, English, and then Chinese in rapid succession, "'Steward Exchange', followed by your name and a means of contact."

Something changed in Yan Jia at that moment. Up until then her life had been about survival. She was the best, at least in her dirty corner of the world. She had never considered escape because it had simply never been possible. But aboard an alien ship... she would be incomprehensibly far away from everything that she hated, and everything that hated her back. In that moment, Yan Jia's outlook on life changed, and she found herself genuinely grinning for the first time in years.

By the time the ship was above the cloud line Yan Jia had already hunted down a student and paid them 2000 yen for an unused notebook and a well-chewed marker. In bold Chinese letters she wrote Steward Exchange on the back of a middle page, and on the facing page she wrote her name in both Chinese and English. After a moment of consideration she wrote the number to an emergency cell phone she hadn't used yet in considerably smaller Arabic numerals.

Yan Jia held the notebook and her face to the sky for a full sixty-two seconds before her instincts forced her to start moving again. She disappeared into the now-crowded, hundreds of hopeful faces hiding her from anyone who might wish her harm.

Nine Days Later

Daniel did not answer his apartment door when it first rang. His pitifully small group of friends always texted him before coming over, and his family always called. There was a good chance it was the first time he had ever even heard his door alarm. Then came an authoritative knock, and Daniel found himself tripping over his sheets in an effort to get out of his bed.

The military man knocking at his door proved to be youngish, probably in his early thirties, no facial hair to speak of, black hair already sporting little flecks of grey. He looked like a firm, intelligent man, the kind of man who could handle the truly unexpected without blinking an eye.

"Can I help you?" Daniel asked, acutely aware of his wrinkled pajamas.

"Are you a one 'Daniel Baldwin'?" The man glanced at a binder in his hand, and then held it to his chest so that Daniel could see his Driver's License picture staring back at him from the top corner.

"That'd be me." Daniel glanced to the side nervously. "What can I do for you, ahm..."

"Colonel Heinlein. Would you mind answering a few quick questions for me?" The older man did not offer his hand, but Daniel somehow felt more at ease with the muscular man now that he knew his name.

"Yeah sure, come on in. Pardon the mess, I wasn't expecting any company." Daniel silently debated whether to take the man into the kitchen or the living room. He decided that the living room was cleaner, and Heinlein had probably seen most of it the moment Daniel opened the door.

"Thank you." Heinlein sat in a worn wooden chair at Daniel's gesture, while Daniel flopped down on the equally worn couch. "Now, as you may have guessed, I am here in regards to you application to the Steward Exchange Program."

Daniel glanced around again, now confused. "OK... I thought that was a public thing, anyone could apply. Is it supposed to be just astronauts or something, am I in trouble?"

Heinlein flipped a page in his binder and set it down on the cluttered coffee table between them. "Far from it, Mr. Baldwin. The Program is being organized by the Stewards in full, I am not here entirely on the behalf of the military. As it so happens, the Stewards have invited us both to be aboard the same ship."

Daniel blinked in relief. "Oh. Whew. Wait, why didn't they tell me themselves?" He was filled with a new, strange apprehension. Was this an elaborate trick?

"They tried." Heinlein's expression betrayed nothing. "Twice in the past two days. I suspect you were sleeping, which is why you did not receive the message. That's why I'm here."

"Oh." Daniel glanced down at the sheet of paper visible in the binder, which looked like it was an official form that had been cobbled together in a single afternoon. "So are you going to fill me in on the details?"

"Nope." Heinlein glanced at his watch. "The Stewards should be doing it themselves in about two minutes. I came to wake you up, and meet you in person."

"At the behest of the military, I'm guessing?" Daniel raised an eyebrow.

Colonel Heinlein just smiled.

After a moment of rather anticlimactic silence, Daniel noticed something strange. The window facing the east was beginning to frost over, despite it being a relatively warm day. Before long the entire window was solid white, and then a grumbling horn sound started up, which was quickly dubbed over into deep, Canadian-sounding English.

"Daniel Baldwin, your application to join us has been heard." Daniel shot Heinlein a quizzical look, to which Heinlein just shrugged. "If it is still your desire, we invite you to join us aboard the Concord, along with two other human beings: one from your country, and another from the country of China. To view our invitation, place your fingertips on the display and rotate them clockwise. To decline it, draw a vertical line in the display with a single finger."

Daniel jumped up and walked over to the icy display. "Why doesn't the audio repeat? Would have saved you a trip."

"They may have been trying to be polite. I don't think they considered the possibility of no response, since the ice melts pretty quickly."

Daniel moved his hand as instructed and the ice lit up with random hexagonal patterns that quickly sorted themselves into a cluster of hexagonal photos with English text overlaid on them. Daniel thought the font looked a lot like the font used in road signs. "So is the confirm button in here?"

"Yeah, there's a section that explains the gist of what you're getting into." Heinlein stood up and stretched before walking over beside Daniel. "It goes into the restrictions aboard theirs ships, possible cultural issues, a few warnings. There's a whole page on not trying to tamper with the doors."

Daniel flipped through pages quickly by rotating a little control hexagon near the bottom of the display. "How much info is actually in this thing? I see a lot of stuff about trip length and food rations, but not a whole lot on living quarters or crew mates."

"We get a photo, a name, a nationality, and not a whole lot else for potential crew members. You were pretty easy to find, since you're an American, but we don't know squat on the third human, and the Steward crew is frustratingly cryptic."

"I don't see names for the crew, just positions." Daniel squinted at the display. "Also, there are only four of them, and the fourth photo appears damaged."

"Apparently three or four is a common crew size for a Steward ship." Heinlein shrugged again at Daniel's surprise. "I know, the ships must be pretty damn reliable or self-repairing, we don't know. As for the names: we think they use their position as their name. You attach the ship they serve on as a surname."

"That's interesting, if a little strange. What's up with this photo though? It looks like his head got Photoshop'd out."

"Your guess is as good as mine, my display showed the same picture." Heinlein folded his arms. "So, what do you think? You in?"

Daniel looked at Heinlein like he was crazy, flipped a few pages, and jammed his finger on the CONFIRM hexagon so hard the window rattled.

Two Weeks Later

Daniel was sitting on his floor, tapping away at his laptop. He had given or sold most of his furniture away to friends or family, so his living room was oddly empty at this point. He found it interesting that he was more productive on his laptop if he was sitting on his floor, which was why he wasn't sitting on his bed, which he still had. His phone rang and he struggled to get it without standing up.

"Hello." Daniel had missed the caller ID, so he tried to keep his voice as neutrally friendly as possible.

"Dan, this is Heinlein. I've got some news for you." As per usual, Heinlein was holding his phone too far from his mouth, and Daniel had to struggle to hear him.

"What's up?" Daniel saved the email he was writing and closed his browser.

"Seems that the Stewards have agreed that the human living quarters should be more... man-made, I guess is the phrase they're using now. Apparently they now want us to build our accommodations onto the side of the ship."

"What? You mean like some kind of life support pod?" Daniel pushed his hair up his scalp backwards, confused.

"No, more like... I dunno, it sounds like we're strapping Earth spaceships onto the Steward ships, where they're completely self-sufficient and stuff." Heinlein's voice sounded tired, even through his too-quiet cell phone. "The Stewards will help us build these automated facilities that will keep us fed and breathing while we're up there with them."

"Jesus, what brought all this one?" Daniel asked. "How much is it gonna cost to build these... sidecar spaceships?"

"Apparently, agreeing on life-support requirements has become a serious problem. Most of the world is not OK with Siberia-like conditions around the clock." Heinlein sighed heavily. "There's also some simple logistical problems about providing fresh food over a long period, and all that psychological mumbo-jumbo about not seeing Earth plants for months on end."

"So we're building our own compartments that will piggyback on their ships while we fly around the galaxy at faster-than-light speeds. Greaaat." Daniel found himself genuinely mad, and feeling a little cheated. "Isn't the whole point that we spend time among them, learning each other's customs and habits?"

"Yeah, well... Apparently the Concord will remain just as open to us as before, but our actual quarters will be in the man-made section." Heinlein paused, collecting his thoughts. "To put your worries down, the human section will be armored in Steward materials, so FTL won't be dangerous at all. They're also going to check after us and make sure that the human section is up to their building codes, which are cryptic as hell to me but apparently make sense to them."

"Who's gonna build the quarters, NASA? Some shitty lowest bidding contractor?" Daniel was still pretty mad, and almost smacked his laptop as he gestured with his free hand.

"Us, actually. We're going to build the quarters ourselves, directly on the Concord. The Navy is gonna bring us the parts and equip us with some heavy machinery to clamp it all together. They're giving us the really cool toys too, because there's a lot of really big parts. Orchards aren't small."

There was a long pause as Daniel digested that information. "You're shitting me."

"Not a bit. We bolt the whole thing together ourselves, and then wrap it in magic Steward materials. NASA apparently had a similar design put together ages ago, the means of getting it into space never materialized. Something about hitching rides on asteroids." Daniel could practically hear Heinlein's wide grin. "I saw a schematic when I was briefed on all this, the design kinda looks like an aircraft carrier, it's pretty badass, you'll like it. The pieces are already in production."

Silence dominated the conversation once more.

Finally Heinlein broke the silence. "Whatcha thinking, Dan?"

"A number of things. Let's start with this: who's paying for all of this?" Daniel set his laptop on the floor next to him and crossed his arms.

"The US military is funding the facility we build on the Concord. I'm not sure why China isn't pitching in too, but that's neither here nor there."

"Will this make our trip somehow beholden to the military? I'm not spying for you."

Heinlein suppressed a snort. "No spying. You aren't becoming some kind of military contractor, we just ask that you represent the species and the country well."

"Are you going to be spying?"

"No one's asked me to yet. It goes without saying that I'll do a thorough report when I get back, but it's not like I've been assigned to steal technology. This is a volunteer-only situation."

"So our... facility will be self-sustaining." Daniel uncrossed his arms and stood up, sounding less angry. "Are we gonna have to garden or something?"

"I think the gardens are going to be pretty low-maintenance, the NASA guys said that having a blank slate to start from really simplified the whole gardening process. It's not supposed to consume all our time, even though the whole thing is gonna be pretty big."

"Is the human area going to be zero gravity? How big are we talking?"

"The artificial gravity on the Concord will be extended to our section. It's gonna be a pretty big section, Uncle Sam is planning to get a lot of future use out of this setup. Modular design and all that." Heinlein paused for a moment, searching for a description that would mean something to Daniel. "Think aircraft carrier, but flatter."

"OK, OK, I'm sold. When do we start putting this thing together?" Daniel paused as his earlier questions caught back up to him. "Also, why are we putting this together?"

"The Stewards want us to put it together personally, I get the impression it's a trust thing, maybe a sort of assurance that we aren't strapping big bombs to their ships." Daniel could practically hear Heinlein's characteristic shrug. "As for the when: as soon as you can. I fly out in the morning."

Pearl City, Hawaii

"You will be building the very first Eisenhower-class ships in existence," began the coordinator. "So don't mess it up."

Daniel glanced at Heinlein, who was seated beside him in the surprisingly old briefing room. A digital projector purred above Daniel, putting off an alarming amount of heat. The coordinator ignored all of this and continued presenting to the small crowd of American exchange participants.

"The Eisenhower series is designed with modularity in mind. Core systems, such as power generation, are arranged in a three-story block at the center of the ship. Permanent life support, food production, and waste reclamation chambers surround the core block on each horizontal side, creating what the engineers call the 'support belt'. Above the core block and support belt is a grid of airlocks and corridors, which you will be locking extension modules onto." The projection changed to show a large flat surface, painted with yellow lines to indicate the locations of horizontal airlocks.

"Beneath the core block are three hangars in a row, each large enough to comfortably fit a modern space shuttle. Only the first and last open directly to space, though all three can be opened up to create a single open hangar if needed." The projection changed again to show the three roughly cubical hangers nestled into the angled underside of the support belt. Daniel mentally noted that each hangar has a complex-looking crawlspace running beneath it, presumably to allow for special-case airlock situations and tool storage.

"The ships you will be building will be without independent propulsion. The technology simply doesn't exist yet to move this much metal around in deep space. For that matter, all of your power will be supplemented by your hosting Steward vessel, to keep from consuming your very limited fuel. It's inefficient, but they'll provide power by simply shining some intense light at the solar panels on the bottom of the support belt."

Someone in the room raised their hand to ask about the logic behind this, but was shot down by a stern look from the coordinator. Daniel decided to hold on to his questions as well.

"This entire ship will be built out of relatively simple parts which you will assemble using a combination of Navy and Steward construction equipment." The coordinator paused to glare at the room. "You must get certified on each piece of equipment before you can use it. The training should be pretty simple, it will have to be fast, and it is not negotiable. "

A second coordinator stepped forward and addressed the room. "Thus far, the Stewards have put a lot of effort into making this program work, and in particular, they have put a lot of trust into you lot. They will be building accommodations here on Earth for themselves at roughly the same time you are building your ships. Training with the Steward equipment will be done on Steward accommodation sites. This means that it is doubly important that you are on your toes, paying attention, and not horsing around."

The second coordinator made a gesture and projection changed to show what looked like a column of ice lacked with veins of silver. A slim silver rod was jammed into the base of the column. Pointing at the image, the second coordinator continued presenting. "This is a typical piece of Steward equipment, similar to an Earth forklift. You drive it by pulling the rod out and pointing it like a laser pointer along the path you want it to follow. Twist different parts of the rod to change the dimensions and positioning of the column, among other properties."

The projected image animated to show the column slide over to a crate, bend almost double, and attach itself to the top of the crate. The second coordinator paused the animation momentarily to interject. "We chose the Steward forklift as an example because it's easy to explain how this could go wrong. Remember, the Stewards have much, much better building materials than us, and far more powerful machinery. If the driver of this device twisted the dial too far, the crate here would be pulverized. Worse, if the operator decided to mess around, we're looking at a highly mobile catapult.

"The whole goal of learning this kind of equipment and building these ships is to establish a cooperative history with the Stewards." The second coordinator unpaused the animation, allowing the column to pick up the craft and lift it over to a second column. "We, as an entire species, need to prove that we can handle powerful technology without turning to violence."

The first coordinator switched off the projector and folded his arms over his chest. "Starting questions?"

To Daniel's surprise, Heinlein asked the first question. "You mentioned extension modules?"

The coordinator nodded. "We want the Eisenhower series to be flexible. We don't know what you're going to need up there, what kind of capabilities we might have to have in the future. So, the top layer of airlocks let us stick extensions modules onto the ship as need: they're basically big freight containers that have been insulated for space. To start with, personal quarters, a little medical bay, and a mess unit will be stacked onto each ship."

"Why stacked?" Someone in the back asked. "Why not spread out horizontally, we have lots of area."

"Because if you wanted a meal, you'd have to get up, climb down into an airlock, walk down the hall to another airlock, climb up that airlock, and then make your meal. Stacked will keep them closer together, and you won't have to keep as much of the ship lit up while there's only three or so of you onboard."

"I noticed that there was no mention of a bridge." Remarked a young man sitting beside Daniel. "Where is the brain of the ship going to be?"

"No bridge at the moment, just a systems control room at the heart of the ship." Answered the coordination, pulling up an image of a cramped looking room with a touchscreen table in the middle. "It's directly above the server room. Since these ships don't have propulsion there was little need for most of the control equipment that NASA ships have had."

Daniel started to ask a question, but was cut off by several other people speaking louder. He settled back and decided to wait it out.

The Next Morning

"The Stewards have translation devices that they use to speak with us. This is great, but we need to start learning their language immediately." General Clarke dropped a thick binder on the podium as he walked into the room. "Who here can tell me what their written language even looks like?"

The crowd of American soldiers gathered in the room glanced at each other hesitantly. After a moments pause, Heinlein spoke up.

"It's wavy, almost like a recording of a sound wave." Heinlein stuck his hands in his pockets, keenly aware that he was one of the few in the room who had seen the Steward script at all. "I saw it on the sides of some of their tools."

"Good, but not good enough." Clarke pulled out a blown-up photograph and held it up so the room could see it. "What the young Colonel here is referring to is called Common Notation by the Stewards, and it serves as an international standard for them. If it's important, they will probably have it written in this style."

Clarke reached back down and picked up two more photos, one in each hand. "What Colonel Heinlein did not know is that the Stewards have over a dozen other written languages that we know of. As you can see, style varies considerably."

Heinlein studied the photos as best he could, noting how one looked like it was written in cuneiform, and the other looked like a terser version of the flowing lines of the script he had seen before. Inwardly he marveled that the languages could be written by creatures without fingers or thumbs.

"Now, to go along with their multiple writing systems, the Stewards have multiple ways of transcribing numbers, just like how we have Roman and Arabic numerals." Clarke held up a photo of what looked like jumbled Morse code. "I expect that most of you will have an easier time with this. Just to warn you though, they use base six, rather than base ten."

"Wait, are we supposed to speaking these languages?" demanded one of the older soldiers. "I can barely speak Spanish."

General Clarke grunted impatiently. "No, of course not. A human being could never vocalize any of their languages, we're too different. What you are expected to learn is how to read and write Common Notation, do math in Common Mathematical Notation, and eventually develop listening comprehension to Harmonic, the international spoken language of the Stewards."

Another soldier spoke up in protest. "Base six? Sir, when the techies start talking about base two my eyes glaze over."

"Then you had better start studying now." Clarke pulled a handful of printouts out of his binder and handed them to the nearest soldier. "I've had some squints throw together a few mnemonics that should help you, but I don't want anyone causing an interstellar incident because they can't count. Start learning, that's an order."

Heinlein raised his hand. "Sir, a question?"

"What is it Colonel?"

"Why aren't the civilians in here?" Heinlein glanced nervously at the room full of soldiers. "Won't they need to know how to count in Steward?"

"I can't give civilians orders." Clarke paused, obviously trying to make an uncomfortable. "Tell you what, if you want to share with your crewmates, that's fine with me. But I'm not going to go out of my way to help the Chinese."

A Lieutenant spoke up. "Sir? Help the Chinese do what, exactly?"

There was a pregnant pause.

Clarke cleared his throat. "Look, I'm sure that the Chinese are having the exact same meeting right now. Just get out there and do your jobs."

The Lieutenant spoke up again. "I don't think our jobs have been outlined yet, sir."

Clarke shook his head. "Just learn what you can before you leave, and come back to us with as much insight as you can. Dismissed."

As Heinlein left the room, he made a point to walk up beside the Lieutenant who had spoken last. "Brave of you to stick it to the General like that."

The Lieutenant snorted. "What's he going to do, forbid me to go?"

"Don't be too overconfident, he still outranks you, Lieutenant." Heinlein cautioned.

The Lieutenant smiled and stopped. "Lieutenant James Baxter, sir."

Heinlein shook his hand and grinned back. "Colonel Heinlein."

"I know. You were at First Contact, right?" asked Baxter as they resumed walking.

"Yeah." Heinlein dismissed the subject with a wave of his hand. "What do you think the General was not saying back there?"

"I think it's pretty obvious." Baxter shrugged meaningfully. "The military is letting us go because they want us to gather intel on the Stewards, and figure out any tech that we can. That's why they're emphasizing the extra learning, even though the Stewards are always wearing translators."

"But they're not going to explicitly order anyone to do so." Heinlein nodded. "My conclusions exactly."

"So what do we do?" asked Baxter.

Heinlein cocked his head to one side. "We go. We keep our eyes and ears open, but we do not step on any toes."

James grinned at the accidental joke. "I'll try not to step on any Steward toes."

Heinlein smiled as well. "I'll see you around, Lieutenant."

Daniel's Temporary Quarters

"What's with the mask?" asked Daniel's older brother Aaron. "You sick?"

"No, nothing like that." Daniel smiled through the clear plastic. "For an hour every evening we wear these things. The Steward atmosphere is a kinda different than Earth's, so we're getting acclimatized over time."

"I thought you'd be living in human compartments? Won't they have Earth-like air?" Daniel couldn't see his brother's hands through the video feed, but he knew they were open in supplication. Aaron always had a dramatic flair.

"The human section will use Earth plants to maintain an Earth atmosphere, but the rest of the ship will be mostly unaltered. If I want to explore it, I have to get used to the air." Daniel shrugged. "I'm on the net for a couple hours every night anyhow, so it's not much of a hassle."

"Still, gotta be a little annoying." Aaron made a twisting gesture in the air as he shifted in his chair. "Are they at least going to turn up the heat while you're on board? I heard the Stewards like it damn cold."

"Well..." Daniel got up and grabbed something from his bed. "Tada! The Steward exchange uniform! Every one of us has been given three of these."

"It looks like a Columbia jacket."

"It pretty much is, it's a synthetic fleece with some sort of high-tech inner layer." Daniel peeked out from behind the gray garment. "What do you think? Pretty stylish, huh?"

"Uhm... sure, for someone going out for a camping trip." Aaron ran his fingers through his hair. "Daniel, you're going into space. Shouldn't they have given you... you know, a spacesuit? At least something with gloves?"

"I've got gloves actually, they're in my pants pocket. The Stewards say we should be mostly fine without them though, they're talking about lending us some kind of heat equalizing device." Daniel threw the jacket back on his bed. "Still, spacesuits are a bit of a sore subject around here."

"Hows that?" asked Aaron.

"Well, spacesuits are expensive. Really expensive." Daniel rubbed the edge of the mask absentmindedly. "Everyone going up wants one, but no one is willing to pay for them To make matters worse, the Stewards are freaked out by clothes. They do a good job of hiding it, but the tighter the clothes the more uncomfortable they get."

"What does that have to do with spacesuits?"

"We can't ask the Stewards to make the suits, since they find them disturbing. No one can afford to cough any up, especially since modern spacesuits have to be tailored to the individual wearing them." Daniel shrugged. "An uncomfortable impasse."

"You're going into space without a suit?" Aaron frowned deeply. "Are you insane?"

"We're hoping that someone figures something out before we depart, but no one wants to back out of the program just because we don't have suits. It's extremely improbable that we'd need them anyhow."

"Wait, what do the Stewards use then? If they need to fix something on the outside of their ships?"

"Apparently its an extremely unusual occurrence, but when they do they wear personal force fields. Walk around in space with a bubble of air around them."

"Why don't the Stewards just let you guys borrow some of those?"

Daniel raised an eyebrow. "A personal force field? Bro, the Stewards are scared stiff of humans using their tech for warfare. You don't see how a one-man force field could be used to change the tides of war."

"Well, yeah, but just a moment ago you mentioned them lending you heat equalizer thingies. Seems like their equivalent to space suits would be more helpful."

"A heat equalizer has limited military application, even in human eyes. The Stewards ultimately want us to be equals, but they don't want to rush it. Hence the entire purpose of the exchange program, open up avenues of communication and sharing."

"Yeah yeah. Speaking of communication, you learning how to speak Steward yet?" Aaron made a trumpeting gesture with his hands. "I head their horns are hollow, and that's how they talk without mouths. Like those dinosaurs that lived in the swamps."

"Psh, not at all. The Stewards I've talked to so far have all used translating devices. I'm hoping that we'll be given translators of our own before we go up."

"Seems kinda awkward to be depending on translators the whole time."

Daniel shrugged. "On the ship I'll be on, the Captain, Navigator, and Lookout are all from separate ethnic backgrounds. The Navigator and Captain speak sister languages but the Lookout speaks something completely different. It could take years to even pick up a basic vocabulary, since I can't even begin to reproduce the sounds on my own."

"So you've finally met the crew?"

"Not yet, but their ship is in the solar system. They've got some kind of base set up in orbit of Jupiter: training for them about what to expect with us, that kind of thing." Daniel pulled off his mask. "I bet one of them is breathing in Earth-like atmosphere right now."

Earth Orbit

The Navigator shifted his hind legs nervously. He was excited but also terrified to meet the humans that would be joining him aboard the Concord. Colonel Heinlein, Daniel Baldwin, Yan Jia. He ran the difficult names though his head again, trying to remember the gender differences in humans. It disappointed him that neither of the males had facial hair: that would have made it so much easier to remember.

With skill that had taken him years to acquire, the Navigator brought the Concord into Earth's atmosphere, dynamically plotting a course that would take them to their exact rendezvous coordinates. He was deliberately controlling as much of the ship manually as possible: one final exercise before welcoming the humans into his domain.

The Captain called out to the Navigator from her preferred spot on the bridge, a small ledge a short distance behind him. "Adjusting the forward shield to deflect more atmosphere, we are making more noise than is necessary."

"Acknowledged." The Navigator replied, casting one of his back eyes on his local shield display. The hologram was a little far for his rear eye, so the Navigator spun a control to make it drift closer to him.

"Done," the Captain said they began to skim the clouds. "Any sign of our guests?"

The Navigator flicked the tip of his tail, a negative sign among Stewards. "Impossible to say, there are a large number of human lifesigns on the island."

The Captain glanced up in alarm. "Are they clear of our touchdown location?"

"Hm..." The Navigator studied the bioelectric hologram intently, struggling to contextualize it. "There are a few humans in the water nearby, but I do not believe they can swim fast enough to get in the way."

"Are they in the water or in vessels?"

"It looks like vessels, from how they are moving." The Navigator returned his attention to the flight readouts. "Do you think they have accounted for the displaced water?"

"They've got a whole planet of surface area to work with, I doubt they even considered it." The Captain ran a few mental calculations as she spoke. "As long as we descend at minimum speed it should not be an issue."

"I will make certain that we fall like powder in the night." The Navigator activated the outer display, flooding the bridge of the Concord with light. "We are about to break the cloud layer."

Both Stewards paused to watch the display. The ship's massive bridge was very deliberately designed to be visually informative. The floor was shaped exactly like the upper surface of the ship, only squashed in the vertical axis by one third. Corresponding, the ceiling was shaped like the underside of the Concord, but it was even more distorted, compressed to one sixth of it's proportional height. The walls of the room bent outwards from the floor and ceiling, and usually looked like smoothed ice, but with the outer display active the white walls instead looked like the space surrounding the ship.

Suddenly, they were through, and even Captain seemed impressed. The great blue ocean stretched out beneath them for miles, and dead ahead were the islands that the Concord would be neighboring for the next few weeks.

"Concord, raycast and identify animals species in highlighted area." The Navigator instructed, peering at the edge of the display.

The Concord's echoing voice replied with a typical lack of inflection. "None of the species in that region have common names. Use non-common identifications?"

"Confirmed, use Human English for identification." The Navigator smiled to himself. This ought to be interesting, hearing the Concord speak a human language.

"Species on or above water surface are: Seagull, human, dolphin. Continue with species below water?"

"No," the Captain cut in. "Navigator, attend to your duties. We can learn about the local wildlife later."

"Sorry about that." The Navigator tucked his tail under his back knees. "Touchdown in twenty-five blinks."

As the Navigator was speaking, a small portion of the outer display became hazy and the Lookout stepped through it, followed by the Hornless. The two older Stewards walked up the slope to the apex of the bridge with an unusual briskness and stood beside the Captain and Navigator.

"Good of you to join us." The Captain commented to the Lookout. "I wasn't sure if you would or not."

"The Concord has never landed on another planet before," replied the Lookout calmly. "I feel it is worth witnessing in person."

"I halfway expected you to step outside to see it with your own eyes," the Navigator said. "But I guess even you have your limits."

"I guess I just don't trust your piloting that much," the Lookout responded wryly. "When do we meet our esteemed guests, Captain?"

"They have to have seen us approaching, so they are probably loading into a vessel of their own as we speak." The Captain pulled up a hologram of the sea floor and studied it quickly. "Navigator, we're going to need to stop a full ship length before we reach the original coordinates, or we will scrape the bottom."

"Aye aye, adjusting vector. Retracting the nacelles." The Navigator straightened his stance as the ship pulled it's engines inwards. "The tip of the ship will touch the ocean in 3... 2... 1... touchdown."

The Corcord's bottom tip sliced into the ocean like a plow, throwing water high into the air. Along the shore of the nearest island, crowds of people stopped in awe as the ship dipped deeper and deeper into the ocean, hundreds of meters of alien material disappearing into the depths. The ship descended almost silently, only the crash of water announcing the arrival, until only a few meters of the underside were visible. As the surf died down around it, the ship drifted closer and closer to the island until it came to rest as close to the island as it could.

From the boat where he was standing, Daniel let out a low whistle. "I'll be damned."

"That is one hell of a ship." Colonel Heinlein agreed.

"Look at it. It's taller than the island is, and the bulk of it is underwater." Daniel slapped his hand against the railing of the ship. "We'll never manage to explore the whole thing."

Chapter 2