Happy First Contact Day!... Maybe
It's March 15th and as everyone knows that means it is the pre-anniversary of the 2629 destruction of the TCS Iason, mankind's official first contact with the Kilrathi! Or was that March 16th? Or was it April 15th? Or was it in August and ten years later? There's no one answer... so it's time to run through everything we know about the event!
The Iason story originates in Claw Marks, the initial Wing Commander manual written by Aaron Allston. Mr. Allston would later go on to fame as an author of Star Wars novels and also wrote a series bible during the development of an aborted Privateer television series in 1995. Claw Marks introduces the history of the war in a series of sidebars, with the first ('25 Years Ago') covering the discovery of the Kilrathi. Here's the text:
25 Years Ago
Exploration and colonization ships of the Terran Confederation increase their penetration into Vega Sector.
On 2629.105 (3/15/2629 Terran reckoning), the exploration ship Iason encounters a spacecraft of unknown origin. Iason commander Jedora Andropolos beams the standard wideband non-verbal greeting designed by the Committee for Interaction with Alien Intelligences. Captain Andropolos keeps Iason motionless for twenty-two minutes standard while the alien vessel waits. Finally, the alien vessel opens up with all guns, utterly destroying Iason and all hands.
The first problem with this is potentially Wing Commander's earliest continuity error: it clearly states March 15th, 2629 'Terran reckoning'... but 2629.105 is a month off: the 105th day of the year is APRIL 15th. As we will see, both numbers will be repeated several times in the future, compounding what was surely a small math error.
Additionally, many have compared this short history to Larry Niven's 1966 short story The Warriors which details humanities first enounter with another feline species: the Kzinti. At the time Claw Marks was written, The Warriors had recently been republished as part of the first 'Man-Kzin Wars' short story collection (from Baen, of all places, who would go on to print the first line of Wing Commander novels less than two years later.) The two stories have a similar setup, but the endings are vastly different: in Niven's story, clever humans turn their comm laser into a weapon and defeat the Kzinti, whereas Claw Marks destroys the human explorer ship with all hands. For his part, Chris Roberts has noted that the look of the Kilrathi was a placeholder carried through development of the game rather than a concerted effort to create a race of cat aliens. If there's a connection, it's most likely an intentional nod (such as the 'Niven Sector' in Wing Commander II.) Sadly, Mr. Allston passed away several years ago, so we will never know for sure.
The Iason story immediately became a touchstone for Wing Commander fans, with plenty of fanfic and speculation arising out of 'first contact' scenario. In 1993, Mark Minasi's unofficial Secrets of the Wing Commander Universe included an extended version with more details. The account was non-canon and several details have been changed by later official sources (for example, he has Captain Jedora Andropolos' as a woman)... but that expanded telling still lives in the hearts of Wing Commander fans.
The Iason story was not officially updated until 1994, when versions appeared in the timelines for Wing Commander Armada and Wing Commander III. Each adds unique information. VOices of War, the Armada manual, tells the story from the perspective of both sides:
Orbit 151, Sun Year 5105
While establishing footholds in the recently explored Krat’na Sector, the destroyer K’rath’kan detects an intruder. Leader Brath’kar nar Caxki reports that the unidentified ship is attempting to neutralize his shields with wide-band radiation. When the enemy fails to leave the area of trespass after three-eighths of an hour, the destroyer opens its guns to eliminate the threatening vessel.
The Terran Confederation expands exploration and colonization efforts and penetrates Vega Sector. On 2629.105 (March 16, 2629 Terran time) the Iason encounters a spacecraft of unknown origin. Commander Jedora Andropolos transmits an international wideband, non-verbal greeting designed by the Committee for Interaction with Alien Intelligences.
Andropolos keeps Iason’s guns off-line for the TCN-recommended 20 minutes and awaits a response from the alien vessel. Finally, without warning, the unidentified ship opens fire with full lasers, utterly destroying Iason and all hands.
The rewrite of the Claw Marks story introduces one more problem: it lists 2629.105 as March 16 rather than March 15 (as previous) or April 15 (as correct.) That aside, it's an interesting expansion of the story, with unique details especially from the Kilrathi telling.
Victory Streak, the Wing Commander III manual, does not introduce any continuity errors. It removes the 'Terran reckoning' reference and now lists only 2629.105 (April 15.) It expands the story in an interesting way, though: by revealing that the classic Wing Commander timeline was written by 'TCN military analyst' Guthrig Andropolos, the son of Commander Jedora Andropolos of the Iason. He talks a little about his father in the intro:
Updated 2669.098 by Guthrig Andropolos, TCN military analyst
This month, the war between Terran and Kilrathi forces turns four decades old. It’s no cause for celebration – millions of lives on both sides have been lost, and deep space is filling with debris faster than our recovery crews can tractor it up.
Most of you on board TCN fleet ships aren’t old enough to remember 2629.105, when the first Kilrathi scout ship attacked the patrol vessel Iason. In fact, most of you probably only know half the story this war has to tell. You’re about to be exposed to some sobering facts. While all of us have personal reasons for this war – including revenge, glory and honor – many of us know little about its history. As dismal as this may seem, we all need to remember.
My father, Commander Jedora Andropolos, became one of the first casualties of the war. He can’t be brought back and I can’t spend my career trying to avenge his death. Yet we still have much to learn in our ongoing pursuit of victory. Perhaps, in some small way, this history can help you do your part.
Iason encounters a spacecraft of unknown origin. Commander Jedora Andropolos on board Iason transmits a wide-band, nonverbal grgeting and waits for a response. Less than twenty minutes later, the stillunidentified ship opens fire with full lasers, completely destroying Iason and its crew. Although the identity of the attacking ship is never definitively established, Confederation deep space tracking computers point to a possible point of origin from a previously unexplored planet, soon to be known by its native name, Kilrah.
Who is Guthrig Andropolos? If you aren't familiar, the answer will surprise you! In addition to being a "TCN military analyst" he's also a doctor of psychology who served on the Tiger's Claw! Wing Commander Academy introduces a character referred to only as Guthrig on-screen (mockingly called the 'doctor who needs a doctor')... but the series' press kit confirms he's the same man:
Guthrig Andropolos -- A civilian analyst employed by the fleet, Guthrig is the much-despised medic in charge of the psychological evaluation of the cadets. And although cold and unemotional, he is ironically subject to a variety of phobias.
Guthrig has a happy ending, though: Wing Commander Arena's Star*Soldier manual references that the expanded 27th century timeline is excerpted from his "seminal Official Terran Confederation Navy History." (The manual re-uses the Victory Streak version of the story word-for-word.)
Then, there was the movie! The Wing Commander movie has two connections to the Iason. First, the finished film includes a voiceover segment in the introduction that's intended to serve as a reference to the first contact with the Kilrathi. On screen, a model Snakeir superdreadnaught is shown over a map of the Vega Sector and the following conversation is played:
PILOT: Coming up on the far side... Looks like maybe three or four kilometers long.
CONTROL: Copy that, Sparrow. Proceed.
PILOT: It's like nothing I've ever seen before. Wait. Something's going on here. [Radio static]
There are no real specifics, but the implication seems to be that the "destroyer K’rath’kan" looks like a larger Snakeir (the version in the movie is said to be 915 meters long, not 3-4 km) and that the Iason had a smaller craft flown by 'Sparrow' who was the first casualty. No date or other background is given.
There's a much more confusing story about the Iason, though! In the version of the movie initially shot, the Iason is mentioned by name... with the claim that Paladin was a survivor of the ship. Early in the movie, Blair is supposed to notice that Paladin has an unusual tattoo. As they arrive on the Tiger's Claw, Paladin explains he was a member of the Iason's crew and that it marks him as a prisoner of war:
So what about the tattoo?
You know what it is?
It's a Kilrathi marker. You were a prisoner of war.
That's right. I was on the Iason when they took her.
The Iason. That was the first ship to have contact with the Kilrathi. There weren't any survivors.
I guess not.
Elevator doors open. PALADIN steps in.
Why don't you have it removed?
Let's just say, it helps me not forget.
Not forget what?
Why I fight.
Doors start to close.
So what exactly do the Kilrathi look like?
(directly to Blair)
The scene was ultimately removed from the movie, but it's impact is still felt. Making it 'canon,' it also appears in the novelization by Peter Telep. Since Mr. Telep was familiar with Wing Commander I, he addresses the continuity error head on, noting there were not supposed to be any survivors of the Iason:
Blair hurried after the captain. "Marshall? I'll meet you back here." He didn't wait for the expected reply and finally caught up with Taggart.
"Before you go, tell me about your tattoo."
"You know what it is?" Taggart asked, lifting his voice over the collective whine of power tools.
"I think I got it figured out. It's a Kilrathi marker. You were a prisoner of war."
"I was on the lason when they took her."
That caught Blair off guard. "The lason? She was the first ship to have contact with the Kilrathi. You served under Commander Andropolos?"
Taggart nodded. "We encountered a spacecraft of unknown origin, transmitted a wideband, nonverbal greeting, and waited. Four hours later
she fired upon us with all batteries. But you know the story."
"Yeah. And I know there weren't supposed to be any survivors from the lason."
"I guess not."
They reached the lift doors, which slid apart. Taggart stepped inside and turned around.
"Why don't you have it removed?" Blair asked, staring at the captain's neck, the tattoo partially exposed.
"Let's just say it helps me remember."
"Why I fight."
The doors began to close.
Blair stepped forward. "Wait. I've seen photos and holos, but what do the Kilrathi look like? I mean, in the flesh?"
"They're ugly. Good luck."
The doors sealed.
The Wing Commander Confederation Handbook, by Chris McCubbin, is essentially the 'manual' for the movie. It expands everything mentioned in the shooting script (it was written before the final cut that removed the traitor and scenes like the one quoted above) and it goes into a LOT of detail about the Iason. Unfortunately, it's a new version of the story moved forward in time to 'allow' for a Pilgrim War to take place and for Paladin's character to be younger. The new Iason story and the explanation of Paladin's connection is given several pages (since the movie's intro was not done or scripted when this was written, it does not include "Sparrow.")
Is it possible for both stories to co-exist? Yes, but it's a stretch. The story printed above notes that the Iason was refitted in 2633 for a different role... you could claim that the ship was scrapped by the Kilrathi, recovered and repaired and that the incident mentioned by Paladin in the novel and detailed in the book is simply it's ultimate destruction at the hands of a then-known enemy years later. Easy, right?
All of that said: did we really first encounter the Kilrathi in 2629? The answer is... no. Wing Commander: Action Stations (now available as an ebook) details a series of 'unofficial' contacts between border worlds and the Kilrathi. This isn't a continuity error, though: the book has Landreich President Blucher note that "... we knew about the Cats a full year before any of your official histories will ever acknowledge it." That would be 2628... but there's an even earlier connection!
The copy protection for the Secret Missions disk was simple: a series of 'facts' about the background of the expansion that you would look up to unlock the game. One of those facts, for Secret Missions 2, is that a man named Dr. Kohl was executed by the Kilrathi in 2621 after being captured observing the Sivar-Eshrad ceremony on Ghorah Khar. Presumably, Dr. Kohl's fate did not make it back to the Confederation... perhaps the notes were not recovered until Ghorah Khar rebelled in the mid 2650s!
All information in this article was compiled from the notes of anthropologist Dr. C.L. Kohl who was captured and executed by the Kilrathi priestesses in 2621 while secretly observing the Sivar-Eshrad ceremony on Ghorah Khar.
With that, happy First Contact Day... whenever you choose to celebrate!