a to z: communication

"It's protocol." Captain Sorensen held up her comm device, but didn't break eye contact.

Jason tried one more time. "But won't it slow down setting up the shelters and the defence —"

"It's protocol, Ensign. We've got plenty of people to help with the other things. Worse comes to worst, the ship's the best fortress we have. There's not actually any rush on anything except for trying to contact the other ships."

"Yes Captain."

"I want to get on the surface as much as you do. But we need to make sure we tidy up here. Do things right. People will need structure more than ever right now." Captain Sorensen turned away and tapped at the screen of her device.

Jason turned to the communications control panel. It had been hidden under a cover for decades, not available for use while the great generation ship 8 voyaged through space. The engineers who had built the ship back on Earth — the ancestors of everyone now on the ship — had decided to make the room to include a powerful comm array, one capable of reaching the other nine ships in the colonisation fleet. Capable even of communicating with Earth, if there was anyone left on Earth to communicate with. But the array used a lot of power, far more power than a ship on a multi-generation, interstellar flight could spare.

The panel's cover had always been used as a table, a handy empty space in a crowded bridge. Now the cover was stowed in the captain's cabin for lack of anywhere else safe to put it.

Jason studied the buttons on the panel. Unlike any other set of controls on the ship, the labels on this one had never been replaced. He squinted at the unadorned, old-fashioned printing, and hoped he wouldn't miss out on any steps in the procedure.

There wasn't anywhere to set down his own device. He decided to hold it in one hand while he pushed buttons with the other. Maybe it would help him be more accurate.

He verified the status of the ship's solar panels on the device, and the power availability. The checklist put the information right beside the procedure description, so at least he didn't need to do anything there.

The next step was to press a series of buttons to open the port that protected the dish array, and deploy the dishes. Normally it was the sort of thing that would be automated and fully under the control of the ship's computer, but the engineers had decided that since the comm array would sit dormant for over a hundred years, it made sense for a human to walk the machinery through, one step at a time. That way, if anything wrong happened, it would be easier to abort the procedure and call in a repair team. When they were finally available, thought Jason.

The parts involved had been checked during the post-landing ship inspection, but they moved slowly, stiffly. Jason remembered something from his training, something about how they'd been designed that way in case the atmosphere was denser than expected. Of course, if it were too dense he'd have been sending a distress call — which, unless at least one of the other colonies were very well settled, which never reach the Gaia 8 colonists in time.

Jason stared out the porthole over the comm panel while he waited for each step to complete. His fellow colonists were walking around in the pale red light of early evening. He was too high up in the ship to be able to see their expressions, but every once in a while a few of them would run for a few steps, or dance. He reminded himself he would be doing the same soon enough and pressed the next set of buttons in the sequence.

Finally. The array was powered up and arranged to transmit to Earth and the calculated locations of the rest of the fleet. He dialled through the selection of pre-recorded messages and chose the "arrived safely" one. He pressed the "send on repeat" button and turned on the alert for responses.

The comm panel had a second cover, a clear one that protected the controls from being pressed accidentally, but which let bridge crew see the settings and the status of the array. Jason set it down carefully and locked it with his palm print.

The Captain was on the other side of the bridge, double-checking the navigation controls were powered down correctly. She glanced up as Jason approached her. "All done?"

Jason nodded. "According to the controls everything is working and we're transmitting."

"Good." She indicated the forward viewport with her head. "Now get out there and enjoy the last of the sunshine. We'll have to lock down for the night soon."

Jason smiled, thanked her, and left the bridge. Sorensen could hear him running down the corridor towards the entrance ramp.

She walked over to the comm station. They wouldn't be expecting any responses for weeks, but given Jason's impatience she didn't think a little double-checking was out of order.

The response alert light was already blinking. She sighed. He must have missed something in the checklist. Probably the ship had responded to itself.

To her surprise the message was text-only, not the text-and-sound default. Frowning, she palmed off the lock and lifted the protective cover, then pressed the button which sent the received message to the nearest display screen.

STOP TRANSMITTING NOW OR ELSE THEY'LL FIND YOU TOO