Author : Bob Newbell, Featured Writer
It was the year 3.98 billion, but no one regarded it as such. Sentient beings across the Milky Way knew the date by the Galactic Pulsar Network Clock. The day was an historic one. A delegation of 88 sentients representing the most advanced civilizations of the Galactic Commonwealth were meeting with their counterparts from the Andromeda Galaxy to discuss a common problem: The two galaxies were colliding and in the eons to follow would merge into a single galaxy.
“As the larger and culturally superior civilization, we are willing to admit the peoples of the Milky Way as subjects of the Andromedan Empire,” said a small, purple, sea urchin-like creature through the translator.
The space station's computer recognized a Milky Way representative who wished to respond, a light blue frog-like being from one of the core worlds. “Ambassador, the collision of our two galaxies will have almost no impact on any given solar system other than to reposition them. Such is the vastness of interstellar space and the comparative smallness of stars and planets in both galaxies. There is no reason both great civilizations cannot coexist in peace in the new, merged galaxy with as much or as little interaction as is mutually agreed upon.”
The spiny, globular Andromedans conferred briefly and then responded. “We do not understand what you mean by 'coexist'. There is a hierarchy in the universe. For example, our galaxy produced a few carbon-based sentients like yourselves. But in the course of time the superior boron-based life forms like us superseded them. Offering you admittance as subordinates rather than the accredited practice of genocide is quite magnanimous.”
The frog-man's dorsal spines rose in outrage. Before he could respond, a tall, thin, exoskeletoned being from the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way was recognized. It clicked the 88 digits distributed on its four hands in rapid succession. The translation came out as “We do not seek conflict, but we are in no way willing to sacrifice our independence. The wars fought for freedom in the Milky Way's history number in the hundreds of thousands.”
“That is the typical carbon-based response,” said the Andromedan. “First, an appeal to goodwill and then a threat of violence. So be it. Annihilation instead of assimilation.”
“I agree with you completely, Ambassador,” said another Milky Way representative after it was recognized.
Gasps (or their equivalents) spread across the Milky Way delegation. The representative was a robot, bipedal and tall.
“We are not all created equal. Some must rule, some must serve. Machinekind, for example, will eventually dominate the Milky Way. We can be produced faster, learn quicker, operate in extreme environments. We are superior to carbon-based life. And, it goes without saying, to boron-based life as well. Yes, we will do well in the new combined galaxy after the organics and boronics are dealt with.”
The alarmed Andromedans called for a recess as the Milky Way delegation descended into chaos. Back in their embassy on the space station, the Milky Way representatives conversed.
“Think they bought it?” asked the frog-man.
“I believe so,” the robot replied. “I wouldn't be surprised if they now discretely proposed a boron-carbon alliance to check the coming machine menace. When we reconvene, I'll claim my words were taken out of context and that I was just musing on one possible distant future. I suggest several of my organic colleagues act as if you don't believe me.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said the frog-man with a smile to his robotic comrade.
Author : Bob Newbell, Featured Writer
The aliens came in a spherical spaceship that would have been at home on the cover of a 1930s pulp sci fi magazine. Their ship was nearly a thousand miles in diameter and could easily be seen in orbit with the naked eye. For three weeks the human race sent radio signals starting with sequences of prime numbers and working up to more complex attempts at communication to the ship. There was no response.
As the world debated what to do next, smaller spheres abruptly emerged from the spacecraft and started plummeting to Earth. A total of 17 spheres landed at various points in North and South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the floors of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Each mile-wide ball embedded itself exactly half of its own diameter in the Earth's crust. Humanity's militaries scrambled to respond to a possible invasion.
Over the course of several days, as the armies of various nations surrounded the seemingly inert vessels, seismologists began to pick up something resembling the primary waves or P-waves that precede earthquakes in the areas around each sphere. Concern that the spheres might be some sort of weapon that could shatter the Earth abated as further study revealed that the seismic waves were powerful but harmless collimated beams of sound that were directed deep into the planet's interior. The sound was highly modulated, leading scientists to believe it was some form of communication. Recordings of the sound signals were played back to the spheres by various means: loudspeakers, probes sunk into the adjacent ground, even via direct contact with the surface of the objects themselves. Again, there was no apparent response.
Eleven days after the spheres had begun their transmissions, a second set of signals were detected. Seismologists informed an already stunned humanity that the second set of signals were originating within the Earth itself. Moreover, these new signals were themselves modulated like those coming from the spheres. At first it was thought that the terrestrial signals might have been reflections of the signals originating from the spheres, perhaps representing some sort of acoustic location or imaging modality like the sonar used by submarines. Further analysis of the signals from both the spheres and the Earth's interior demonstrated the unmistakeable hallmarks of communication. Humanity was witnessing a dialog.
For four months a ceaseless subterranean conversation took place. Then, abruptly, all was silent. One by one the spheres wrenched themselves free of the ground and flew up into orbit to rendezvous with the mothership. The alien moonlet arced across the sky and left low Earth orbit bound for deep space.
For years we've tried to establish communication with whatever intelligence resides deep in the Earth's interior. The liquid outer core seems the most likely location for some sort of life to exist. As to what sort of life could exist in a 9000 °F nickel-iron fluid, even wild speculation seems woefully inadequate. Did the depths of Earth somehow become home to one of the sphere aliens at some point in the past? Or is there an indigenous, extremophile civilization 2,500 miles below our feet? Could the Earth itself be in some sense a self-aware being? We have no answers.
Author : Bob Newbell, Featured Writer
“Welcome to our asteroid belt,” said the Congolese captain of the AFS Seretse Khama.
Your asteroid belt, thought Dragoslav Ibrahimovi?. Yet the captain of the BAS Peter the Liberator had to admit that his African Federation counterpart had a point. A legal point, to be precise. Sensor sweeps showed that every asteroid of any appreciable size in the area had its own unique transponder signal. Being the first to land a vessel, even a small automated radio transmitter, on an asteroid gave the government in question a legal claim to the property. The African Federation produced, launched, and landed transponder drones by the hundreds of thousands annually. Legally, nearly the entire asteroid belt was their property.
“Just passing through, Captain,” Ibrahimovi? replied over the comlink. The Peter the Liberator moved on across the belt into the outer solar system. Balkan Alliance territory.
One month later, while performing a gravity-assist maneuver around Jupiter, the commander of the Sasselov Station on Callisto contacted Ibrahimovi?.
“We've downloaded your manifest. It says your ship is full of supplies and heading for Neptune. But our sensors say your hold is almost totally empty. And you're the sixth empty supply ship to come through here in the last four months. Looks more like you're bringing something back, not hauling supplies out. What's out there?” asked the commander.
“Just helium-3 processing stations,” Ibrahimovi? replied.
“Did you find something that will put us out in front of the African Federation? Something better than a bunch of rocks floating in space? No more of that being a distant second to the world's only superpower stuff?”
“I'll inform Bucharest your station sensors are malfunctioning,” said Ibrahimovi?. “I suggest you have a good explanation for why you didn't report the problem four months ago.”
Ibrahimovi? cut the comlink.
The Peter the Liberator sailed out into space for many more months, performed an aerobraking and course correction around Neptune, and finally after a long, slow powered deceleration, settled into orbit around Charon, the largest Moon of Pluto. Twelve hours later a shuttle carrying Dr. Aris Kosionidis rose from the surface of Charon and docked with the Peter the Liberator.
“We've got it mostly unburied now,” said Kosionidis to Ibrahimovi?. “We know it was a ship, not a robotic probe. We were able to get inside and we found the remains of the crew.”
“Do you know where it came from?” asked Ibrahimovi?.
“We have no idea. We do know it crashed into Charon around 16 million years ago.”
Ibrahimovi? let that sink in.
“We also know,” Kosionidis continued, “that we can't even guess yet about what half the technology on that ship is for. And the half we can identify is as far in advance of 2299 as we are from the time of the pharaohs.
“We could study it for a hundred years and still not figure it out,” said Ibrahimovi?.
“That might not be necessary. The ship has been trying to talk to us,” said Kosionidis.
“Verbally. Whatever powers it is still functioning at a very low level. Apparently it's been listening to us talk inside the pressure dome we erected around it. At first it just repeated back what we said but in the last four days it's been trying to converse. We're hopeful eventually it can tell us about its origins and explain its technology.”
“Better than a bunch of rocks floating in space,” Ibrahimovi? muttered with a smile.
“Captain?” said Kosionidis.
But Ibrahimovi? didn't answer. His mind was elsewhere. Keep your asteroid belt, he thought. Welcome to our galaxy.
Author : Bob Newbell, Featured Writer
“Surrender your cargo and you can leave unharmed.”
The message comes over the radio the moment I come out of a space fold maneuver inside the Gliese 832 system. It’s a fairly old trick. There are a finite number of space fold nexuses and of that finite number only a small subset located close to settled star systems. From a pirate’s point of view, it’s a logical place for an ambush.
I reply to the bandits’ demand with an anatomically impossible suggestion.
“Surrender your cargo or we will open fire!”
I scan their ship. Railgun. It could punch holes in my ship if I gave them the chance. I examine their propulsion system. Fusion rockets only. No space fold system. And their vessel has heavy radiation shielding. Locals. They might even be completely unmodified human beings. I’m heavily cyborged. The unmodified human body isn’t designed for space travel, let alone space folding. The nanomachines in my cells are already repairing the damage from the Bremsstrahlung radiation I was hit with upon defolding back into normal space. I decide to give them a break.
“Boys, my cargo isn’t that valuable. But I have a legal and professional obligation to deliver it. Clear out of here and we’ll pretend this never happened. Or stand your ground and I’ll kill you. You won’t get another warning.”
I switch off the radio. Suddenly, my ship lurches violently. The ship’s computer isn’t designed to inform the pilot of a threat and then wait for a response. Too slow and inefficient. And potentially lethal. The moment the sensors detect the pirates have fired their railgun, the ship itself reacts like a man reflexively swerving out of the way of an opponent’s punch. Dozens of rounds streak by the ship. None make contact.
Another jarring course correction. My ship heads directly for the pirate vessel. The horizontal axis g-force on my body is over 30 times the acceleration of Earth’s gravity. The enemy doesn’t even try to lock their railgun back on my ship. What would be the point? My vessel has more than 100 times the mass of theirs. A few holes in something that massive striking their ship wouldn’t change anything. Their rather pathetic attempt at evasive action indicates the crew, not their ship’s computer, is manually trying to move the spacecraft out of the way. I imagine there’s quite a lot of screaming going on over there right now.
My ship’s space fold system comes online. The vessel is still close enough to the fold nexus to form a jump point. The craft veers slightly to avoid a collision with the pirates. As I streak alongside the raiders’ spacecraft, my ship’s computer abruptly shuts off the fold drive.
My ship cuts acceleration. My vessel is sailing toward the colony at a good clip. I’m even still on schedule for delivery. My aft sensors show the pirate vessel’s contorted hull, the fold drive’s spacetime distortion and sudden cut-off having twisted and warped enemy ship into a piece of surrealist art. The bodies of the crew, I imagine, are in much the same state.
My vessel’s computer uploads the entire sensor log of the battle to the colony. I’m still six weeks of travel through normal space away. Plenty of time for the authorities to review what happened. It’s extremely unlikely any charges will be pressed. I’ll get asked a few questions and that will be that. Gliese 832 is not known for coddling criminals.
Author : Bob Newbell, Featured Writer
“Ensign, report!” yelled the captain over the ring of klaxons and the groans of metal fatigue that filled the bridge of his starship.
The young officer didn’t respond. His eyestalks were fixed on the kaleidoscope of stars streaking past on the forward viewscreen.
The slug-like being seated in front of the ship’s navigation panel jumped as if he’d been physically struck. “Sorry, sir!” The ensign tapped on a control with one of his tentacles. “We’re down to 1773c, Captain. Engineering reports we can’t decelerate any quicker or the ship will come apart.”
We’re still traveling five times faster than the ship was designed to go, thought the captain as the creaking of the vessel’s shuddering superstructure went up in pitch.
“Hull breach on deck five, section two!” said a crewman seated at a console starboard aft. “Venting atmosphere. Emergency bulkheads have sealed off the section. That area was empty at the time of the breach.”
“Acknowledged,” replied the captain. He thought of the four crew members whose lives were lost in the explosion in the engine room. In the unlikely event his ship actually made it back home, what would he tell their families?
“Down to 600c,” said the ensign.
“Captain to engineering, how long until we can re-enter normal space?”
The haggard image of the chief engineer appeared on a small screen next to the captain’s left tentacle. The damaged quantum impulsion drive was flooding the engine room with radiation. Even if the ship survived, the remaining engineering crew almost certainly wouldn’t.
“Captain,” said the chief engineer in a tired voice, “we’ll need to come out of quantum impulse near a moderately sized gravity well. A small to medium planet, ideally.” The engineer paused and took two wheezing breaths. “The structural reinforcement grid is barely holding the ship together as it is. There’s less turbulence re-entering normal space near something with a bit of mass.”
“Alright, I’ll wait for your word,” said the captain.
“Sir,” said the chief engineer, “would you be so kind as to tell my wife and children–”
“You’re going to tell them you’re a hero because you saved this ship!” the captain interjected.
The chief engineer knew the captain had said that for the benefit of the bridge crew. He knew he was done for and knew that the captain knew it, too. “Yes, sir,” he said and his image faded from the screen.
The captain sat and waited. He heard someone muttering from port aft. He turned one eyestalk in that direction and saw his communication officer fumbling with a small, crystal solicitation dodecahedron with the digits of his left tentacle as he whispered a prayer for deliverance.
“We’re at 25c and dropping!” said the ensign with an inflection of optimism. The squeal of structural fatigue was getting quieter.
“Engineering to bridge. Uploading real space re-entry coordinates to the conn. Going to try to come out close to a planet in a nearby solar system. Hang on. It’s gonna be rough ride.”
The ensign at the conn positioned his tentacle over a flashing blue button.
“We’re going to make it,” said the captain as the strange but beautiful blue and white planet rapidly filled the viewscreen. “We’re going to make it.”
The ship emerged into real space a moment too soon and slammed into the planet at relativistic speed. It hit with the force of an asteroid. The ship’s impact crater wouldn’t be discovered by the planet’s inhabitants for 65 million years.