Framed in the large wall screen on the bridge of Jupiter Five, the alien craft hung in avoid against the background of stars. It was almost an hour since the new arrival had slowed down to rest relative to the command ship and gone into a parallel orbit over Ganymede. The two ships were standing just over five miles apart, and every detail of the craft was now easily discernible. There was little to interrupt the sleek contours of its hull and fin surfaces, and no identification of any kind. There were, however, several patches of discoloration of former markings that could have been abraded or scorched. In fact, the whole appearance of the craft gave the impression of wear and deterioration suffered in a long, hard voyage. Its skin was rough and pitted, disfigured from end to end by steaks and blotches, as if the whole ship had been exposed to severe heat.
Jupiter Five had been the scene of frenzied activity ever since the first meaningful pictures came in. There had been no indication so far of whether or not the craft carried a crew, or if it did, what their intentions might be. Jupiter Five carried no weapons or defensive equipment of any kind; this was one eventuality that the mission planners had not considered seriously.
Every position on the command floor was now manned; all bulkheads had been closed and the main drives brought to standby readiness. Communications with the surface bases on Ganymede and other UNSA ships in the vicinity had ceased in order to avoid revealing their existence and locations. The daughter ships of J5 capable of being made flight ready in the time available had dispersed into the surrounding volume of space; a few were under remote control from J5 to be used as ramships if need be. Signals beamed at the alien craft had evoked a response, but J5's computers were unable to decode it into anything intelligible. Now there was nothing to do but wait.
Throughout it all, Hunt and Danchekker had stood virtually dumbstruck. They were the only people present privileged to enjoy a grandstand view without the distraction of duties to perform-perhaps the only ones able to reflect deeply on the significance of the events that were unfolding. After the discoveries of first the Lunarians and then the Ganymeans, the notion that other races besides Man had evolved to an advanced technological level was accepted. But this was something different. Just five miles away from them was not some leftover relic from another age, or the hulk of an ancient mishap. It was a functional, working machine that had come from another world. Right at that moment, it was under the control and guidance of some form of intelligence; it had been maneuvered surely to its present orbit and it had responded promptly to J5's signals. Whether it contained occupants or not, these events added up to the first-ever interaction between modern Man and an intelligence that was not of his planet. The moment was unique; however long history might continue to unfold, it could never be repeated.
Shannon stood at the center of the bridge, gazing up at the main screen. Hayter was beside him, taking in the reports and other images being presented on the auxiliary screens below. One of them showed a view of Gordon Storrel, the deputy mission director, Standing by in the emergency command center with his own staff of officers. The outgoing beam to Earth was still operating, carrying details of all that happened.
"Analyzers have detected a new component," the communications officer called from one side of the bridge. It meant there was a change in the pattern of signals being picked up from the alien craft. "Tight-beam transmission resembling K-band radar, PRF twenty-two point four gigahertz, unmodulated."
Another minute or so dragged by. Then another voice reported: "New radar contact. Small object has separated from alien ship. Closing on J5. Ship maintaining position."
Alarm swept through the observers on the bridge. If the object was a missile, there was little they could do; the nearest ramship was fifty miles away and would require half a minute, even under maximum acceleration, to intercept. Captain Hayter, however, did not have time to juggle with arithmetic. "Fire Ram One and engage!" he snapped.
"Ram One fired. Locked on target."
Perspiration showed on some of the faces staring at the screens. The main display had not yet resolved the object, but one of the auxiliary screens showed a plot of the two large vessels with a blip beginning to cross the gap between them.
"Radar reports steady approach speed of ninety feet per second."
"Ram One closing. Impact in twenty-five seconds."
Shannon licked his lips as he digested the data on the screens. Hayter had done the right thing and put the safety of the ship above all other considerations. What to do now was a problem solely for the mission director.
"Thirty miles. Fifteen seconds to impact."
"Alien object holding course and speed steady."
"That's no missile," Shannon said. "Captain, call off the interception."
"Abort Ram One," Hayter ordered.
"Ram One disengaged and turning away."
Long exhalations of breath and sudden relaxing of postures signaled release of the tensions that had been building up. The Vega streaking in from deep space made a shallow turn that took it into a pass at twenty miles' distance and vanished once more into the cosmic backdrop.
Hunt turned to Danchekker and said in a low voice, "You know, Chris . . . I've got an uncle who lives in Africa. He says there are places where it used to be customary to greet strangers by intimidating them with screams and shouts, and brandishing spears. It was the way you established status."
"Perhaps they regarded it as no more than a sensible precaution," Danchekker replied dryly.
At last the optical cameras found the bright speck in the middle-distance between J5 and the alien ship. It was a smooth, silver disk devoid of any appendages; the view gave no clue of its true shape. It continued its unhurried pace until it was a half mile from the command ship; there it came to rest and turned broadside on to reveal tp present a simple egg-shaped profile. It was just over thirty feet long and appeared to be metallic. After a few seconds it began showing a bright, slowly flashing light.
The consensus arrived at in the debate that followed was that the egg was requesting permission to approach and enter the ship. The communications time lag to Earth did not allow consultation with higher authority. After sending a full report Earthward via the laser link, Shannon announced his decision to grant the request.