"This, ladies and gentlemen," said the Colonel, "is our enemy."
He pointed at the holographic orb that hovered over the conference room table. It was a large ship that they had captured a few weeks before. "We know next to nothing about them," he continued, "except they are the only other living spacefaring race we have encountered."
Captain Joshua Price, known as Tree to his friends, wasn't sure the Colonel was right about using the term enemy. Price had been on the ship, a huge asteroid that had been converted into a ship by encasing it in metal and adding engines to it. As they had tried to explore it, Price and his team had been captured by it and held for testing. Of course, that was a little strong. The ship had been like a giant rat trap, letting them enter but then sealing itself so they couldn't escape. There didn't seem to be a hostile intent behind it. A yearning for knowledge, a way of exploring the galaxy using a device that was ingenius because it was not faster-than-light, but was fully automated. That seemed to be the key.
There hadn't been a biological entity on board for the purposes of regulating the testing or even designing the testing. But there had been one to repair the machinery if it broke down and the self replicating technology needed something a little more individualistic. It had been held in statis until its special skills had been needed.
Price didn't want to be in the conference room or to listen to the Colonel's briefing. He knew more about the internal workings of the "enemy" craft, of the living, intelligent creature found on board, of the whole system as anyone who in the fleet. Hell, the Colonel was reading from a report that Price had helped construct.
"We believe," said the Colonel, "based on what we've been able to learn from the computer systems and records, that the asteroid... the ship, came from a point very near the galactic center."
Price closed his eyes momentarily. There were a dozen things he'd rather be doing. He opened his eyes, turned slightly and glanced at windows, thick blocks of glass that looked out on the blackness of space. The closest stars were light years away. Some were very bright, like Venus when it was near Earth. Others were tiny points of dim light almost invisible in the thick haze of drifting hydrogen atoms and space dust.
The Colonel studied the faces of the officers around the table and saw that they were bored. He grinned and touched one of the buttons in front of him. The orb vanished in a flickering of light. An outline of an alien body appeared, filled in and then turned at the same speed that the orb had revolved earlier. It gave everyone at the table a complete view of the alien but more importantly, something new to look at.
It was a small creature with long hair from the elbows to the wrists and from the knees to the ankles. It was a feline looking creature with pointed ears and yellow eyes. Of course Price didn't have to see the holo of it. He'd seen it when if first appeared on the alien ship and then had worked with it as they tried to construct common ground for his interrogation of it.
As he watched it rotate above the table, Price thought that it didn't look like much of an enemy. There had only been one of them on the ship and it seemed to function as a maintenance man. At the moment there was absolutely no reason to call it the enemy.
"The autopsy," said the Colonel, "revealed a very simplified internal structure. It looked as if someone had taken the human body, figured the best way to restructure it, and then genetically engineered it to a specific function. One adapted to the function that it fulfilled...that is, sleeping most of the time."
Price hadn't been listening closely. He'd been wondering how soon he could get out of the meeting. There were things that he wanted to do. People he wanted to see. And then the Colonel's words sunk in.
"Autopsy?" said Price, not realizing that he had spoken out loud.
The Colonel turned his attention on Price, seemed to pin him to the chair with his gaze. He stared at Price for a full thirty sceconds and then nodded. "Yes, autopsy. I'm afraid that the creature died two days ago."
Price was going to protest, to suggest that it had been healthy enough the last time he'd seen it, and then decided to say nothing. He was not an exo-biologist, knew next to nothing about the study of anatomy and didn't know how to begin. Even with that, it didn't seem right that the alien should have died with no warning.
"Dr. James?" said the Colonel.
James stood up. He was a short man with pasty white skin and jet black hair. There were black circles under his eyes and he had thin lips that made his face look skull like. His hands shook, as if he didn't like the idea of speaking to the group of officers assembled.
He opened a folder, took a sheet of paper from it and placed it on the table in front of him. He glanced at it, looked up at the holo and said, "I have made a detailed study of the internal organization of the specimen..."
Price watched the doctor rather than listening to him. He was standing with his hands behind his back, rocking from heel to toe, speaking in the monotone that put generations of medical students to sleep and giving his information in such detail with so many technical terms that no one other than another doctor would understand it. If, however, he could stay awake long enough to hear much of it.
James wound down and the Colonel took over again. He left the holo of the alien spinning slowly above the table, talking around the problem, letting the ship's chief navigator speak, letting the astronomer speak, and adding his own comments after each.
Finally, when he had dragged it out as long as possible, the Colonel touched a button and alien vanished. He dropped back into his chair, turned so that he was staring into space and said, "A spacefaring race we don't know is a danger to us all. They may know exactly where we are but we can only guess where their home world is."
He paused dramatically and then said, "That is why we have been given a new mission. Find them and fit the if necessary, destroy them."