Author : J. R. Hargenrader
When Mission Specialist David Branson joined the Solarian Defense Force, his romantic ideal of “see the universe, learn advanced skills, and encounter alien civilizations” never meant hiding on the far side of an asteroid, cleaning regolith-covered optics, and spying on Gliesians he never met.
“Do you ever wonder if we should be doing this?” Branson asked. He lifted the zero-gravity cup to his lips and glanced at the senior officer seated next to him.
Commander Culligan stared at the satellite feed centered on the alien launch pad. The imposing man was all military—square jaw, short cropped hair, low body fat.
And efficient sentence construction.
Branson also didn’t envision being stuck at the far end of the galaxy in a pioneer outpost with a guy less companionable than the station’s railgun. At least today would deviate from their regular routine of scanning satellite images flagged by the computer or unclogging the Waste Collection System again. The Gliesians were preparing another rocket launch and, if their last few attempts were any indication, there was a good chance they’d get something into orbit this time. A part of him secretly hoped for their success.
“This violates SDF’s non-interference policy,” Branson said.
“Don’t you think?”
“Non-interference is secondary to the safety and perpetuation of humanity,” Culligan said, quoting SDF doctrine. His face remained cold and hard. “Besides, 581 won’t be the first system where we’ve done this. Or the last.”
The primary display flashed an alert and the image zoomed on the rocket. Branson straightened in his chair.
“Get ready,” Culligan said. He swiped his hand across the console and the display panned down the slender vehicle.
Branson admired the elaborate patterns of colored dots that decorated the ship and appeared on structures throughout the city. Everything they crafted was functional and beautiful. The Gliesian rocket was a vehicle to the stars and a work of art.
White hot light erupted from the engines. The support trusses swiveled away from the airframe and the rocket lifted above the launch pad. Branson’s breath caught in his throat.
“Perfect,” Culligan said. “The trajectory couldn’t be more perfect.”
The rocket arced over the sky as blue melted into black. The first stage disengaged; then the second. The hurtling nose cone soared along the curvature of the planet into a stable orbit. The Gliesians had done it.
The display flashed “IN RANGE.” The walls rattled as the outpost’s railgun tracked its target. “LOCK” flashed in red.
The cone unfurled to reveal a silver sphere at its core. This sphere rocketed away as its crystalline extrusions caught the red sunlight and created rainbows over the blue world. Branson opened his mouth to speak but no words came to him.
Sensors detected a new transmission. A beeping noise.
“Fire,” Culligan said.
“Wait,” Branson said. “There’s a signal.”
A suppressed flash of plasma lit up the barren asteroid landscape and the outpost shuddered.
The sphere burst into a shimmering spray of silver and crystal. The beeping stopped. Branson thought he watched his own heart as the satellite tumbled forward into a silent death spin.
“That will keep them planet-bound a while longer,” Culligan said.
Branson imagined the explosion as the Gliesians would see it from the surface. Beauty and catastrophe as one. Did they feel shock, confusion, defeat, or sadness? Or were those emotions exclusive to humans? A burning sensation rose in his throat.
“What have we done?” Branson asked.
Culligan sniffed. “Completed our mission.”
Mission? To preserve the ‘safety and perpetuation’ of—
Oh, God. What have I done?
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