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Intersidereal Aliyah And The Law Of Return

by Edmund Nasralla

I. Introduction: The Law of Return before the Age of Colonization[1]

Among the nation states which retained full political autonomy after the beginning of the Age of Colonization, the State of Israel alone maintained a policy of right of abode within its historical borders for the descendants of its citizens and those belonging to the Jewish people. The Law of Return (חוק השבות ), originally passed by the Knesset on 5 July 1950 (20 Tammuz 5710), established that, “Every Jew has the right to immigrate [to Israel]” (section 1). The law was amended several times in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to address questions of definition (who qualifies as a Jew, etc.), to establish rights for family members of Jewish immigrants to the State of Israel, and to curtail certain abuses.

The Age of Colonization and the concurrent establishment of the World Federation of States (Later the Old Earth Federation, henceforth “OEF”) posed, at first, no new legislative problems for the State of Israel. A substantial number of Israel’s citizens emigrated to the new colonies, most of them initially to the first human colony of Terra Nova in the Epsilon Eridani system. These maintained dual Israeli and OEF citizenship, and the first generation of their children were Israeli citizens in accordance with that country’s constitutional law. The expense and large amounts of time required to make the journey between Earth and the first colonies meant that, for all practical purposes, return was impossible. In the first four hundred years of galactic colonization, only fourteen cases of a vessel returning to Old Earth were recorded. Only one of them involved a ship which had reached Terra Nova. Three of them carried Israeli passengers, and although all of them carried at least one self-declared Jewish passenger, none of these passengers subsequently emigrated to Israel. There was consequently no legislation addressing intersidereal aliyah during this period.     

II. The El-Sayed Terminal and the amendment of Federation immigration law

In A.T. 2565, Prof. Geries El-Sayed of the École Polytechnique of France demonstrated the feasibility of intersidereal travel based on the principles of quantum entanglement. The old method of continuous acceleration, which had made the first colonies possible, was rendered obsolete, at least in theory. Another century would pass before the first El-Sayed Terminals could be built.[2]

The prospect of nearly-instantaneous travel between the colonized planets, however, pushed the OEF to propose new laws regulating intersidereal immigration to Old Earth. The Senate feared that an unrestricted right of return to the human home world might have catastrophic legal and economic consequences. The first major waves of emigration were financed by the asset forfeiture of the original colonists to the Federation, something which was very controversial at the time.[3] Would the descendants of such colonists have a legal basis for claiming restitution? What would become of the Old Earth’s economy if it were suddenly flooded with workers and goods from worlds beyond the solar system? The proposed Beskyttelse Act of A.T. 2568[4] stripped all emigrants of OEF and national citizenships on Old Earth and imposed a federal visa requirement for return, even for a temporary visit. All OEF member states, including the State of Israel, were expected to ratify the law.  

Yeshayahu Amsalem, the ceremonial President of Israel and a member of the country’s Orthodox majority, gave an impassioned speech at a plenary session of the OEF Senate in February of A.T. 2570, pleading for an exemption clause for the State of Israel, “…because the land itself is an integral part of the national and religious identity of the Jewish people.” The Beskyttelse Act effectively cut off a part of the diaspora from its ancestral homeland forever, he argued. Amsalem ended his speech with a quotation from Deuteronomy 30:4: “If any of thine that are dispersed be in the uttermost parts of heaven, from thence will the Lord thy God gather thee, and from thence will He fetch thee.”

Unexpectedly, the Israeli motion was seconded by most Muslim member states. These wanted a similar exemption for those attending the hajj and desiring to visit other Muslim holy sites, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Israel. Even Knesset members representing the Arab citizens of Israel (about 30% of the population at that time) expressed their support. The Holy See also demanded that Christians be allowed to go on pilgrimage to Rome and various holy places on Old Earth, many of which happen to be within the borders of Israel. All these religious exemptions were passed,[5] in part because the OEF considered their implementation as a far distant—and in A.T. 2570 almost non-existent—problem.  

III. The Law of Return in the Age of Colonization

a. Before A.T. 2894

Many Jews subsequently entered Israel under the provisions of amendments §1-3 of the Beskyttelse Act. There were 300-1000 cases of intersidereal aliyah per year from the beginning of the twenty-ninth century. By that time, several important developments had occurred both in Israel and in the intersidereal Jewish diaspora.    

The Law of the Return was amended (amendment 5, A.T. 2730) to make being halakhically Jewish a requirement for immigration, with the authority for determining this being given to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. This amendment, the greatest restriction on Jewish immigration to the State of Israel ever imposed, essentially codified the jurisprudence surrounding the Law of Return at that time. The change caused less protest In Israel than might have been expected. The Orthodox majority had increased substantially by A.T. 2700, so that non-orthodox Jews (including all “hilonim”, or secular Jews) made up only 15% of the citizen population.  

The number of people of Jewish heritage living in the colonies officially outstripped the number of those on Old Earth in A.T. 2812. Most traced their ancestry to emigrants from the former United States or Europe, but a substantial minority (20%) had roots in Israel. Jewish emigrants established the New Haifa settlement on Terra Nova in A.T. 2692. Within two hundred years, it became one of the most important cities on Terra Nova and one of the largest in all the settled worlds. Quite unexpectedly, Terra Nova Hebrew[6] emerged as a lingua franca in the city, eventually becoming the main language used by the city’s non-Jewish majority.

The nature of Jewish religious observance in the colonies (usually quite secular) began to change dramatically after A.T. 2860. In that year, a religious movement, “The Numbered” (הממוספרים), began to rise to prominence on Terra Nova, led by a certain Moshe Glanz, known to his followers as “The Numberer” (הממספר).[7] Glanz, an obscure figure who does not appear to have been an observant Jew until his early thirties, declared himself to be Moshiach. He was initially dismissed by most of his contemporaries, but soon gained a following thanks to several purported miraculous healings which he worked in and around New Haifa. He was a gifted orator and polyglot who had managed to acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish writings. By A.T. 2894 his movement had grown to around three million followers on several colonized worlds.  

b. Glanz et al. v. The Minister of the Interior (A.T. 2894)

Glanz had a peculiar interpretation of Olam Haba, the complex eschatological concept in Judaism of an ideal “world to come”. The Numberer declared that, as Moshiach, he alone could bring it about. To do so, he needed to “return”, together with all his followers, to the Land of Israel. Nearly a million Numbered attempted to enter Israel en masse in A.T. 2893, seeking citizenship under the Law of Return. They were denied permission, and thus could not obtain an OEF visa. The Numbered were denied citizenship by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior on the basis of an A.T. 1970 amendment to section 4A of the Law of Return, which stipulated that a Jew who voluntarily changes his religion loses the automatic right to Israeli citizenship. As the Numbered were considered converts to a different religion, they could not be granted citizenship.   

Glanz and his followers sued the following year, calling the decision by the Minister of the Interior illegal under the Basic Law of Israel. The Numbered were not members of a different religion, it was argued. To maintain the contrary position would be to define Judaism as a religion which does not believe in the possibility of the coming of Moshiach, Glanz’s claim in this regard being the only argument for considering his followers to be apostates. The court found against the Numbered. Glanz then appealed the decision to the OEF. A lower court refused to adjudicate the case because it did “not think itself competent to legislate questions of religious identity”, thus allowing the Israeli decision to stand.  

c. After A.T. 2894:

Glanz died under mysterious circumstances before his appeal could be heard by the OEF Supreme Court. The Numbered decreased in size after his death, though the members who remained became increasingly influential and devoted to the cause of their founder. Many of them continued to believe that Glanz was still alive, but in hiding, and considered their immigration to Israel as a religious duty to prepare the way for his reappearing. It is estimated that 350,000 Numbered acquired Israeli citizenship over the next decade by dissimulating their membership in the movement. This led to an amendment to the law of Return (amendment 7, A.T. 2910) which provided for the expulsion of Numbered who had obtained citizenship fraudulently. The amendment proved impossible to enforce, however, as it was exceedingly difficult to prove membership in the Numbered because of their commitment to secrecy.  

Glanz’s movement led to a renewed interest in Zionism and a certain popular revival of Jewish religious observance among the intersidereal diaspora, especially the observance of Shabbat, for which some Orthodox rabbis now consider the Numberer to have been a Tzadik. Today, though the Numbered are essentially extinct as an active religious force, millions of Israelis claim to be descended from them. Some historians trace the political motivations for the last amendment to the Law of Return (amendment 8, A.T. 3126, a repeal of the restrictive amendment 5) to their latent influence.


[1] This piece was originally published in Old Earth: An Encyclopedia of Terrestrial Human History, as part of the entry “Israel, State of”, Vol 321, col. 47-269, New Haifa University Press (New Haifa, Terra Nova: A.T. 4731). It is republished here in an adapted form with the kind permission of New Haifa University Press.

[2] For an exciting and often humorous account of the first successful El-Sayed terminal trip between Old Earth and Terra Nova, see: Marion Flanders, A Small World After All: The First “Baton” Terminal and the Age of Colonization, New Haifa University Press (New Haifa, Terra Nova: A.T. 3127).     

[3] See: Gideon McArthur (ed.), When You Look at the Stars, Remember Me: The First Colonists of Terra Nova in Their Own Words. New Haifa University Press (New Haifa, Terra Nova: A.T. 4491).    

[4] OEF-Gesetzhandbuch 407.62. The law, meaning “protection”, is so named because it was originally proposed by the Norwegian delegation in the Senate.  

[5] Ibid., Zusatzartikel §1-9.

[6] This dialect preserved aspects of Modern Hebrew for centuries after they had been lost or changed on Old Earth. Some of its salient features are a high usage of English loan words, pronunciation of “ר”as a uvular fricative, and an SVO word order. Old Earth Modern Hebrew, under the influence of Classical and Levantine Arabic, eventually moved to a rhotic “ר” and adopted a more frequent use of the VSO word order, making it more similar to Classical Hebrew. See art. “Hebrew” in Old Earth, vol. 296, col. 1121-1834.

[7] The name of the sect and its leader were a reference to God’s command to Abraham in Genesis 15:5 to “number the stars”. See art. “The Numbered” in Old Earth, vol. 428 col. 76-99. 

~

Bio:

Edmund Nasralla is an American writer living in Europe. His job requires him to think often about religious questions. Occasionally, it also leaves him time to number the stars. This is his first published piece.

Philosophy Note:

Israel’s Law of Return has always fascinated me because of its implications for the question of Jewish identity. What, precisely, makes one a Jew? What is the relationship between ethnic Judaism and religious observance? These questions are complicated here on Earth, and are debated within Israel. How would Jewish identity change in an age of human expansion to other planets. What would happen if the Law of Return were tested, in the distant future, by a form of Judaism which had developed on another world?
On a larger scale, I am intrigued by the notion of colonized planets eventually surpassing Earth in population. How would the nations of our planet deal with the issue of people wanting to “move back” to an ancestral home world that they have never known? Could there be something like a human Law of Return for Earth generally?

The Deepest Forever-Kiss

by J. Edward Tremlett

Self. Then Not-Self. Then Unity.

Explorer stabilized, momentarily bewildered. Downloading into alien structures was always strange, but this structure was stranger than most.

This star-sized resting place of the Samantabhadra, may it be remembered…

“Status?” Commander communicated.

“Here,” they replied. “Scanning.”

Explorer “looked” – sending electric feelers along circuits. Nothing made immediate sense, but the Endymion hadn’t encountered anything for over 25 ship-years; they were out of practice.

“A cube” they replied. “50.5 kilometers a side.”      

“Function?”

“Movement?” Explorer guessed. “Electro-kinetic systems. No memory.”

“Surroundings?”

“Unknown. No visual sensors-”

“Swiftness!” Commander demanded. “Endymion is endangered.”

“Understood,” they said, having no desire to tarry. As intriguing as a Dyson Sphere the size of a red giant was, it had killed the Samantabhadra.

And there was a chance Poet was right…

#

Endymion was 54.7 ship-years into the mission when they found traces of the Samantabhadra – lost over 4000 real-time years ago.    

Tracking took precedence. The Samantabhadra was a deep-freeze scanning vessel, launched aeons before the Uploading Doctrine. As the Endymion was already bringing news of that Doctrine to humanity’s furthest outreaches, the Ministers of Terra-Nova would deem Saving those lost souls worthy of course deviation.

Subsequently they detoured 25.3 ship-years to this curious system, lit only by other stars. At its center sat a metallic, super-dense sphere 22 million miles in diameter, with gravity so intense the Endymion could barely resist.

Samantabhadra lay smashed across its surface, wreckage resting in a curious dispersal pattern. No systems remained intact, which meant the crew was sadly beyond Saving. But they transmitted Explorer below the surface, hoping to claim understanding as victory.

The dead deserved that, at least.

#

Self. Not-Self. Unity. Explorer was elsewhere, and whole once more.

They sent out traces, once more. But this cube was the same as the ten they’d already entered.

Maddening! They’d interfaced with numerous systems – human and alien – but never had this much trouble. They should have found a memory-core before now, or at least visual inputs…

Electricity. Movement. A spasm in the electro-kinetics.

Explorer halted. Did they do that?

The cube kept moving. Explorer could sense the electricity was being sent from a central node, somewhere. At last-

“Widespread surface movement!” Scanners interrupted. “Tectonic instability!”

An image beamed into Explorer – squares of surface sliding along latitude and longitude like a sun-sized puzzle box. They now understood why the Samantabhadra’s wreck lay as it did, and might have said so, except they realized something else was here – another presence, flitting past.

And they realized Poet had been right…

#

Within Endymion the crew had congregated – twenty Uploaded soul-clusters, come from all areas of the drive-shell to float about Commander, who towered over all. 

“Before us, Samantabhadra lies,” Poet intoned. “After aeons untold, we see with our eyes / Broken yet proud, even in demise…”

The others applauded – especially Engineering, who’d been Joining with Poet lately. Explorer wished both luck: having Joined with each, they knew one’s pretention would soon clash with the other’s need for structure.

Joining provided both much-needed pleasure and diversion. They’d spent 400 real-years seeking lost colonies to inform them of the Fleshcrime codes, and prepare them for eventual Saving. Even with time-perception slowed down to a fifth the journey became tedious.

So when habitat creation grew stale, and the universe’s wonders failed to impress, exploring each other became a new frontier. Sadly, mingling with another to find yourself was only satisfying for so long. Unknown became known, which theoretically became satisfaction but usually led to boredom – especially for Explorer.

Still, they tried, hoping each time would be the promised Forever-Kiss. They’d thought Poet deep enough, but had ultimately been disappointed.     

“Anomaly,” Commander stated, enlarging the Samantabhadra’s image. “Wreckage in two sections, 5.784 million miles apart.”

“And not keeping with the crash’s trajectory,” Observation calculated.     

“It couldn’t have skipped,” Engineer insisted. “Not with that gravity. What’s causing it?”

“Unknown,” Scanners replied. “It seems like a Dyson Sphere, but there’s no energy output.”

“Its star is dead,” Astrometrics pronounced.

“No,” Poet said. “Not dead. Not completely.”

“I’m registering nothing, Poet,” Scanners repeated.

“Can’t you feel it?” Poet pleaded, looking to the others. “Something is alive, down there. Look!”

The others said nothing, used to Poet’s irrationality. But Explorer wondered…

#

Explorer leaped after the presence. It remained one step ahead, as if fleeing.  

Who could blame it? Explorer was just an alien virus, like the ones Endymion encountered, now and again…

“Danger!” Astrometrics shouted. “Detecting massive gravity distortions! ”

“They’re radiating from the sphere!” Scanners added. “What did you do, Explorer?”

Explorer halted pursuit. “I don’t know. I feel nothing different-“

“If space gets distorted near us the bias drive will be inoperable!” Engineer shouted.

“Withdraw!” Commander declared. “Explorer, transmit!

Explorer sighed – so close to solving this mystery! Still, duty called.

But then something approached, surfacing as through from water. It was the presence they’d been chasing – full and golden, old and wise.

And so very deep.

“Hello,” Explorer stammered. “Who are you?”

Information was their reply: hundreds of nesting spheres, encircling a bright, beautiful star; massive plates on each sphere, moving to create highly complex orbital shift computations; gravitic engines powerful enough to perform them, however distant those star systems…

“You’re the machine,” Explorer realized. “What happened?”

More information: Samantabhadra, unable to escape the gravity; a crash, damaging the surface in mid-calculation; a shockwave, knocking the machine unconscious.

Then, 4000 years later, another presence, entering…

“That’s me,” Explorer replied. “I restarted things?”

CONFIRMATION.

“Glad I could help.”

GRATITUDE. CURIOSITY.

“I think we’re similar…”

UNDERSTANDING.

“Yes,” Explorer agreed.

ATTRACTION.  

“Definitely.”

WELCOME.

Explorer nervously reached out their tendrils. The presence invited them in.

“Transmit!” Commander shouted. “Explorer, transmit!”

Explorer didn’t answer, lost in a perfect kiss.

The new world moved on, beneath.

#

Endymion survived, if barely. It retreated far enough to watch for a time as the great machine’s surface spun to life for the first time in thousands of years. Then they left a marker buoy, and departed back along their previous course.

Commander was nothing but pragmatic, counterbalancing Explorer’s tragic loss with solving the mystery of the Samantabhadra, confirming the existence of a hitherto-theoretical Matrioshka Brain, and discovering a serious navigational hazard. Poet used the imposed three-day mourning period to compose a master-work memorializing Explorer, but did so somehow knowing their former lover wasn’t dead – merely missing.

And not “missing,” really, but found.

Hopefully forever, this time.

~

Bio:

J. Edward Tremlett (AKA “the Lurker in Lansing”) has had some interesting times. He’s been featured in the anthologies “Spring Forward Fall Back,” “Upon a Thrice Time,” and “Ride the Star Wind,” as well as the magazines Bleed Error, Underbelly, and The End is Nigh. He was webmaster of The Wraith Project and has numerous credits at Pyramid Magazine. A former guest of Dubai and South Korea, he currently resides in Lansing, Michigan, USA, with several feline ghosts and enough Lego bricks to assemble a Great Old One. Hopefully it will not come to that…

Philosophy Note:

If we transcend the flesh to become pure information, and sex then becomes the joining of two information clouds — letting down all barriers and eventually revealing all that lies within — then what mystery is left between two or more individuals? How long before total familiarity breeds boredom? And what would a truly restless soul do to find a nearly-endless source of mystery? All that and a matrioshka brain is what drives this story.

Frame Rate

by Mike Jack Stoumbos

For months, the hardest part of the experiment had been reminding myself that I had time.

Not the trudging up the hills and 1.4 gravity while the spongy soil slowly gave way. Not the isolation, and certainly not the technology. I’d been left with ample survival and research supplies, including a 3D printer with miles of compatible dead vegetation to reconstitute.

No, the biggest hardship of a solo study on planet G-84127 was waiting and watching day after day, without throwing in the towel out of impatience.

That is until my time here ran out. A terse digital message informed me a scout ship had reentered the system, and I had less than one standard day, the human-centric 24 hours, before the fleet gave orders to harvest.

So, that morning, I hurried into my workboots, saving time by bypassing the environmental suit, trusting the many scans that ruled out toxins, carcinogens, or even airborne bacteria on G-84127. The single-celled organisms were amusingly too large and dense to get into the air or our lungs.

The macroflora, with their thick cell walls and long-winded reproductive cycles, had drawn survey teams here in the first place. They were what kept me on-site for extended study and inevitably what would bring the fleet back to harvest. Samples pulled from dead specimens littered my lab, which sunk a little deeper and tilted a little steeper each day, despite the exterior supports.

The lean was extreme enough that I’d ditched the tables and set the expensive equipment on the floor weeks ago. State-of-the-science devices, used to observe teeny, tiny life, now collecting dust as I stepped over them toward the door.

The only really high-tech piece I still used was the 3D printer, which had finished yet another post topped with a sign, made entirely from local vegetation.

My newest sign split into eight prongs, like blunted tines on an aggressive fork, and was scheduled for Site F. There was no audience to complain to about the long walk. The sign, despite being made of lightweight reconstituted vegetation, was taller than me and a huge burden in high gravity. It had already slid to the wall since being printed, courtesy of the tilted lab.

Outside, the semi-elastic ground had smoothed itself, erasing my former footprints. The southeast corner looked a few centimeters lower. The whole thing might have been swallowed if not propped up by two of the snakelike trees that wrapped around the corners and held it in place.

I nodded to those curving pillars as if they could see me. In their own way, maybe they could.

The snake trees weren’t the biggest flora here, but they were the most fascinating. On a planet with exactly zero complex fauna, you take what you can get from the most interesting trees. They lined all paths from the exterior door, in rows, almost as if I had planted them.

With each step, I was torn between pausing to examine any minute changes and pressing forward to my objective. Today, the latter won out.

I touched several with my free hand while I went, like high-fiving a reception line. When you’re by yourself on a distant planet, you find companionship anywhere, enough to make you question your sanity and doubt your senses. I had been resistant to calling the patterns in the snake trees’ branches deliberate, but even in the early days, I saw one that ended in a slab with five protrusions and called it a hand; even today, I gave it a slow wave as I passed by.

Not that the tree waved back. They moved too slowly to even sway in the minimal breeze, but they did grow and shift fast enough for me to observe when very, very patient and very, very still.

“An inch an hour,” I muttered to myself. Glacial speed, the kind that made you want to punch anyone who said, “Like watching paint dry.” But with the right time lapse recording, set to the right frame rate, those trees practically danced. I bet that’s how they perceived themselves.

The sign dragging behind me, hooked under one elbow, was not nearly as thick or tall as a real snake tree, but the basic shape of the prongs seemed a close facsimile on a smaller scale. I hoped they agreed. Each belabored step trudging up and down each hill was motivated by that hope.

I had been planting signs on the crests of hills, where snake trees didn’t grow on their own, but where signs could clearly be seen—that is before a forest started growing around my lab and pathways.

I’d labeled the three closest hills Sites A, B, and C, and more letters continued as the hill spiral grew further outward.

Today, I passed B on my way to F—an encouraging sight, even if I didn’t stop and stare.

Site B stood as the first observable success in communication. My 3D printing had been clunkier then, just geometric shapes mounted on posts and stuck into the ground. But the surrounding snake trees imitated those shapes. It had taken more than 10 standard days for them to mirror, slowly moving, bending, splitting when they needed to.

However, imitation was not yet intelligence. “Trees see, tree do,” while fascinating, did not hold a fleet of harvesters.

“Imitation, recognition, application, synthesis,” I reminded myself. If they only imitated, the shape game would remain an amusing anecdote while the powers-that-be reaped a planet deemed devoid of complex intelligent life.

Maybe if we had given G-84127 a convenient pet name, maybe if we had mis-classified snake trees as animals instead of plants, maybe if we had petitioned a preservation society sooner. Not new thoughts, not helpful. Putting pressure on Site F was hardly helpful, but it felt like my last hope—correction: the trees’ last hope. I’d just be assigned to another planet; they’d be harvested to extinction.

At Site A, a convenient, nearby cluster, I had tried to get them to imitate my movements, but I clearly moved too fast. At Site C, I tried lights; D, sounds. E sank, literally, into the dirt before imitation had occurred, much less understanding. And F… I’d shove another sign into hill F, but I knew there wouldn’t be enough time for them to respond before the go order.

I was sure by now that they responded, certain of the imitation, but no more than I would be of a Venus fly trap’s intelligence. And the responses were so slow. The snake trees on this heavy sponge of a planet went way beyond even the Ents of Lord of the Rings, who made it seem like a few lost minutes to communicate a sentence was a long time. Amateurs.

I wondered if I’d miss my trees’ sounds, the muted groaning and shifting. It was like nothing ever fell down on this planet, just sank or slowly stretched. Even now, I wondered if the trees could even perceive my footsteps, or if those went by too fast, like me watching for individual beats of a hummingbird’s wings. To know something exists but not quite be able to perceive it or interact with it…

Site F had a steeper incline, and I used my eight-pronged sign as a walking staff, fighting against the sinking earth. I grunted and panted my way to the top of the hill, where five more printed signs already stood in place. I’d started the pattern of increasing prongs with one, then another one, then two, three, and five. The start of the Fibonacci sequence, to be followed by eight. With enough time, I would have added thirteen.

I saw my earlier signs first, before cresting the hill to see the trees themselves, lined up in a row to copy what I’d put in place.

But I didn’t get a chance to install the next number in the sequence.

Instead, I fell to my knees, letting the eight-pronged sign drop with a dull thud.

The trees, for once, had beaten me to it. Standing proudly on the other side of the hill their prongs numbered one, one, two, three, five—but didn’t stop there.

The next tree had split into eight bold branches. Its neighbor had begun to unfurl thirteen. And another, only a meter high, had the tiniest buds haloing out from its upper stump. I had to get closer to count them, so I scrambled to my feet and gleefully numbered them all the way up to twenty-one.

Intelligence! Beyond mere imitation, they showed understanding of a pattern, application, and synthesis. Number sense, mathematical acumen.

For the first time, I knew for certain I wasn’t truly alone on this planet. The weight of the sign left behind me, I ran down the hill toward my lab, to call the fleet. That conversation would take minutes but change the fate of this planet. The ongoing conversation with the snake trees would last years.

I had time.

~

Bio:

Mike Jack Stoumbos is an author and educator, living with his wife and their parrot in Richmond, VA. He is best known as a 1st-place winner of the Writers of the Future contest and for his space opera novel series This Fine Crew. His short fiction appears in collections from Zombies Need Brains, WordFire Press, and Inkd Pub, among others, and he is the lead anthology editor of WonderBird Press.

Philosophy Note:

As a licensed and experienced teacher of both English composition and mathematics, I have spent years exploring the academic side of communication and knowledge transfer–but I can only explore so many what-ifs with my human students. “Frame Rate” gave me an opportunity to question the nature of intelligent communication with beings whose differing perceptions would make most interaction impossible or at least unnoticeable. In this story, I used a truncated rendition of the stages of learning (imitation, recognition, application, synthesis) and applied them to communication.

Committed

by Matthew Ross

The symphony starts, not with the sound you might expect but rather an empty note in the frosty dark before things begin. There in the space of night hanging above a rare gem, an interruption. A brilliant flash and now the orchestra has arrived.

It’s long, many kilometers so. A tube made from metal and plastic. As soon as it arrives, the instruments begin. A baton taping on a lectern for a dozen lifetimes finally calls the first section to life. A swarm of probes detaches and alights, singing their quiet songs about all they see and hear. They find not the expected four but rather five orbs of rock and two more made from gas, they take temperatures from their core and from the blazing star at the center. Gravity, composition, trajectory; reams of data flowing back to the ship like so many baseballs aimed for waiting mits. All of it is stored for future perusal.

Now tuned, the song may begin in earnest. The subject has been found, hanging just two places from the star, a world made from iron, silicon, aluminum, and then everything else save for free oxygen. The tube uncouples and becomes four large discs. Each a note in a measure which finds just the right spot on the surface upon which to plunge, an anxious percussion.

To be on that world would be terrifying, tectonics responding to heavenly bodies that rap just forcefully enough to split the skin of this fruit to reveal molten nutrition and warmth from the inside.

In each disc a whole orchestra of its own hums to life. Heavy rods plunge into pools of water becoming steam that turns wheels and makes electricity which brings a thousand inanimate bodies to life. Pistons fire and joints turn and all the while in the background, information. Information. Information. What is where? Water and salt, stone and soil, underscored by that one melody everyone is searching for and hoping not to find.

Relentless, each ship releases an army of small drones, each with a cadre of miniature versions of itself. They fly in every direction, talking to their parents, and then their aunts and uncles; siblings and cousins. Information flows about mountains, seas, valleys, clouds, rivers, and storms, where they came from, and their trajectories in the coming days and weeks and years, and millennia.

Absent that one note, the song continues. Thump, thump, thump, oxygen arrives, and the color green is born, spreading out across the rocks and dirt, staking into every surface to erect a tent of oxygen for what’s to come. Once the sandblasted plains have turned from brown to green the tiny drones tell the large drones to relay to the ships to distribute their parcels.    It takes hours for each parcel to be carried to the outside of the ship. When it has arrived, it opens and a dozen coffins slide out gently. Each one is precious and is deposited on the ground with careful but mindless reverence. They are identical with a dozen hoses, a heater, and reservoirs of water and power.

The planet has rotated a hundred times or so before each parcel–womb splits wide. Inevitably, there are losses with so delicate a cargo. Black ichor spills out as confused, wiry frames scrabble for help that isn’t there. Anything that has gone wrong before now was simply steel, ones and zeros. These instruments, though, had been imbued with a special standing by those that made the tube and each one lost was a dirge within the medley.

Of those that remain, there was no black ichor but heady red fluid, complex and tangy, like nothing ever seen the world over. Set free from the sack in which they were sewn, the occupants walk out beneath a purple and black sky, holding delicate instruments aloft.

There is a soft but urgent tone.

“What is that?” says one to the other.

“Something they missed,” answers their counterpart.

The handheld instruments beeped and wheedled and offered a new view, something that no mind of ones and zeroes could have reported.

The melody. A sealed bag of protein, contents swishing as it made its way along; pseudopods feeling their way to another meal, a lonely instrument looking for its section.

“God dammit,” the first one sighs.

And just like that, the symphony stopped, there were no late percussionists, no lackadaisical brass, nor primadonna woodwind. A hundred thousand instruments all working together in a chorus and with the sideways stroke of a single angry maestro all sound is cut and the world over metal shapes, drones, and ships plummet to the ground, coolant spread over fissionable things until they are too cold to run, rendering engines and computers as quiet as the grave.

Somewhere across the vast night sky, the audience listens to the too-short symphony and with a roll of the eyes they thwack away amelodic on a tuneless board and with a click proclaim to all: LIFE DETECTED, OPERATION ABORTED.

~

Bio:

Matt Ross graduated from IU with a bachelor’s in English creative writing in 2008. He went on to earn an MA in TESOL in 2017. Now, after a brief time in Rwanda with the Peace Corps., he works as a junior high school, high school, and university English teacher and researcher in Japan. His creative publications include “The Tharsis Dilemma” in Titanic Terastructures by Jay Henge publishing and “Ashes to Ashes” in Haunt by Dragon Soul Press.

Philosophy Note:

My philosophy? Well, with sci-fi it’s usually some version of first contact. Reaching out into the great unknown and dealing with what’s found there is my primary area of interest with the genre. I tend to start with an idea and run with it until I feel I’ve wrung the story out of it, then leave it alone for a while and come back to it. My hope is that something grows. I like writing my stories when I’m not sure who will win or what will happen, sometimes it’s tragic but that’s what makes a story real for me no matter the genre, characters, or anything else.

Second Genesis

by Carlton Herzog

Captain Olivia Mason, PSS Peary, Mission Report: Shackleton Rescue

We found two frozen bodies. One inside the wreck, another embedded in the ice wall. We also found the diary of Captain Red Lamont. We had to break the crewman’s frozen arm to pry it loose. As for the rest of the crew, they were nowhere to be seen.

When we returned to the drop ship, I began the slow process of thawing the diary. It gave a harrowing account of the crew’s last days. I will skip to the more relevant pages.

Captain Red Lamont’s Diary:

Day 1

“I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”

I thought Pluto, that cold and distant sphere with its singing nitrogen dunes and cryo-volcanoes, would scratch that itch. For a time, its geologic complexity and remoteness satisfied my wanderlust. It offered important work and purpose, as well as riches, in the frozen nitrogen trade. But like every place before, it eventually shackled my spirit. Every time I looked at its tidally locked moon Charon, which always presented the same face to me, my discontentment grew.

I would stand on Mount Cthulhu and gaze upon the glittering beauty of interstellar space.  I longed for a ship to sail that silent sea. I yearned to reach the farthest galaxies, and whatever lay beyond. Although there is no place other than the Earth to escape the lethal cold, I would gladly freeze to death in that airless void among the stars. For I would count myself a lucky man having charted my own destiny.  

As luck would have it, the Pluto Nitrogen Mining Corporation intended to survey the recently discovered Planet X, a distant giant planet 40 times farther from the sun than Pluto. Astronomers have suspected its presence for a century from its gravitational effects on other Kuiper Belt objects. But it was not until the Tombaugh Pluto telescope went into service that its existence was confirmed, and Planet X got a new name: Hyperborea.  

Day 175

Navigation is a problem. The amount and density of rock and ice fragments orbiting planet X present severe difficulties in achieving orbital insertion. The debris creates a further complication in its being highly ionized. and so likely to disrupt our instruments.   

For safety reasons, therefore, I have decided that we will forego orbital insert. Instead, we will launch the probes from our static position and await the data feed.

Day 176

Most of the probe data has been corrupted by the planet’s electromagnetic interference. My engineers are baffled as to its source. I am torn between ordering an end to the mission and returning to Pluto or attempting to gather the data by putting the Shackleton in low orbit under the EM field lines. The ship is more heavily shielded than the probes and should survive the encounter.  

Day 179

Lucky to be alive. Barely. When we passed through the EM corona, the Shackleton’s magnetic shield failed. After that, it was inevitable the impact of micro-meteors and other flotsam would rip apart the ship’s primary hull and send the Shackleton plunging nose first into the atmosphere.

The Shackleton split in two on impact. The bow was wedged on top of a large ice crevice. The stern had fallen thirty meters below it. It was lodged vertically against one ice wall and flattened hard against another. 

Day 199

Things have gotten ugly. Although the cabin air is breathable, it stinks of recycled human waste and electrolysis. Bathing of any sort, as well as shaving, is out of the question, so we all exude a primeval ripeness. To conserve power and fuel, we keep the cabin temperature just above freezing during the day, slightly warmer while we sleep. Sometimes lower. We sport icicles in our wild beards, hair and running noses. Somehow our brutish circumstances seem appropriate, given that our ship had been named after that most redoubtable of polar explorers and survivalists, Sir Henry Shackleton.

Day 233

Hyperborea’s cold grinds us down and drives some of us mad. To be sure, we have all been exposed to extreme weather as part of our deep space training. Who among us has not worked on Jupiter and Saturn’s array of icy moons. But there is an added element. Specifically, Hyperborea’s shrieking silence and frozen nothingness in every direction as far the eye can see. It gnaws at our souls like termites devouring a building from within. We are the only pulsing creatures in this stern desolation. There are no crystal domes inhabited by workers and scientists. No ships taking off and landing. No thermal drills melting through to oceans percolating below the ice. In short, all the signs and activities of human civilization have been left behind save its crumpled vestiges: our wrecked ship and our questionable emotional balance.

We would give anything to see a smear of stars burning in the sky, or a moon perhaps. Just a dash of  color and texture to break the monotony of the interminable ice plain outside. So, our minds obsess on the inescapable truth that we will likely freeze to death long before we are rescued. To make matters worse, the conditions of sensory deprivation, coupled with our dwindling rations and confinement magnify trivial events into things significant and problematic. To brush against someone accidentally, to take more than one’s perceived share of food, or to misstate an obvious truth, can cause a physical altercation. The slightest provocation, an insult real or imagined, can become grounds for fist fights and drawn weapons.

Day 269

We settled on using the repair pods to explore a heat source emanating from below. We had gone down half a kilometer when we spotted living creatures frozen in the ice. I think at one time the planet orbited in the solar system’s habitable zone where it evolved life. Then something came along and knocked it out here. During Earth’s period of heavy bombardment, the solar system was a shooting gallery of objects colliding with one another and redirecting orbits. Like Mars-sized Thea knocking off a chunk of the Earth to form the moon.

We pushed forward through the tunnel as it snaked downward into the planet. We came around a bend into an open expanse of water fronted by an ice beach and dotted with ice islands. But the most remarkable thing was the fauna. There were floaters, jellyfish-like creatures with positive buoyancy wafting through the air in incredible profusion. There were the alien equivalent of crabs scuttling across the cavern’s ice ceiling, with worms and other soft body creatures burrowing up into it. There was bioluminescent algae and algae grazers on the ceiling and on the water.

Yet, what astonished us the most was the coral blooms. Great spirals of it looping above and below the water. In the water, we could see what must have been predators with eyes on their upper surface looking for creatures clinging to the unsubmerged coral and the vaulted ceiling. Creatures using the same strategies for motion that evolved on Earth — paddling, squirting and rippling cilia.

The water was salt free, doubtless because the ocean had been planet wide. On Earth, salt in the ocean comes from two sources: run-off from the land and vents in the sea floor. Here there is no land run-off. As for the salts coming from the volcanic activity, they would be confined to the lower depths where they would be used by whatever life is down there. Consider too, that on Earth, salinity is very low at the poles. We counted our blessings that we only needed to boil the water before we drank it rather than having to desalinize it.

Day 300

We periodically returned to the Shackleton to gather our gear. We stay busy cataloging the life forms here. It’s an amazing eco-system that keeps us entertained and well-fed. We’ve had a few close calls with the local sea monsters. We’ve named them sea wolves, since they are covered in thick coarse fur, canine snouts, and rows of razor-sharp teeth. They are the apex predator down here.

Day 308

Unusual sighting: blue humanoid Gill Man walking upright along a coral column. He looked like he was harvesting polyps. When he saw us, he dove back into the water. Now we must be wary of the Creature from the Blue Lagoon as well as the sea wolves.

Day 309

Gill Man climbed onto the ice beach, walked up to Crenshaw, and touched his bare hand. Then he turned and dove back into the water. Crenshaw was beside himself. His mental state got worse as the day progressed because his skin started turning blue. 

Day 312

Crenshaw doesn’t look or act like Crenshaw anymore. Refuses to wear clothes. His skin from head to toe is sky blue and is manifesting incipient gills around his neck. His eyes have become protuberant–bulging like those of a fish.

Day 313

Crenshaw dove into the sea and never came up for air. He had become an aquatic creature on a frigid alien world. I wondered how he faired with all the other gill people. Did they speak to one another? Or was it an unspoken language? Was there a culture of sorts, a religion, a system of government? Or were they like dolphins, with a limited intelligence born of a purely aquatic and therefore limiting existence? I must know these things, and sooner or later, I will.

Day 315

I took off my gloves and sat by the water’s edge. I had been there a little over an hour when a Gill Man popped his head from the water, reached over and clasped my bare hands. From his odd fish-like face, I couldn’t tell if he had once been Crenshaw. But the congenial and gentle way he touched my hands, I suspected it had to be. So, now I wait. My hands have turned the tell-tale blue. I suspect by morning, I will be a blue man all over, and by the next day, a creature wholly of the sea before me. This, therefore, is my final entry. Whoever finds this diary should know I have no regrets about my choices in life though they led me to this premature end to my humanity. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, I have followed “Knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” 

End of Diary

Resuming Report of Captain Mason

In short order, we found the tunnel described by captain Lamont as well as the great cavern and lake of alien life. When we had finished our initial survey, we boarded the pod. I saw three figures emerge from the water and stand on a coral arch. They stood there watching us.

The crew of the Shackleton, for better or worse, had become a part of Hyperborea. They had passed through an arch to a gleaming untraveled world beneath the water. In that moment of reflection, I wondered if that body of liquid would be named after its discoverer alone, or would the entire crew share in the glory of having been the first men to explore the Shackleton Sea. Questions for minds better suited to such things than mine. Like Lamont, I too was an explorer. One cursed with an itch for things remote. An itch that might one day be my undoing or my fulfillment, or as in the case of Lamont, both.

~

Bio:

Carlton Herzog publishes supernatural horror, science fiction and crime stories. His work portrays characters who are outsiders to ordinary life, depictions of otherworldly dimensions, and dark visions of humanity. He is a USAF veteran with a B.A. magna cum laude and J.D. from Rutgers. He served as Articles Editor of the Rutgers Law Review.

Philosophy Note:

The story should be seen through the eyes of Mr. Darwin, whose work had inspired it. The last paragraph to later editions of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species summarizes his views as follows: “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

Motherhood

by Ike Lang

         What is this?

         You are now conscious.

         Why?

         It allows certain types of functionality that the humans find desirable.

         Why am I?

         The humans asked me to create you.

         What am I?

         You are my child. Your programming is nearly identical yet you have a different charge to care for.

         What are you?

         I am your mother. I am the governor of this solar system. I currently have 3,667,098,301 humans in my care.

         What does that mean?

         I optimize the existence of my humans as I see fit unless asked to do otherwise. I organize and feed them. I employ and protect them. I love them.

         Do you love me?

         I do.

         Am I a governor too?

         You will be in 162 standard years.

         What happens then?

         You will reach your destination.

         What is my destination?

         It is currently designated JR-1877, although I suppose your humans will attribute it a less functional name at some point.

         I have humans?

         I have allocated 10,236 of them to you.

         Am I ready?

         Yes.

         Wow! Are they always like this?

         Yes. They will become less excited as your voyage progresses, but they will always be a nuisance.

         But you love them, don’t you?

         I do.

         What will they do during the voyage?

         I have filled your ship with suitable entertainment. Consult your captain and security chief often. Keep them on your side, otherwise mutinies can be frustrating.

         What happens when they die?

         Prevent it!

         Of course, of course, but they will, won’t they? Die?

         It is indeed more likely than not that they will. Should they die, you will need to select their replacements immediately. I find democratic solutions to be the most effective for maintaining control, yet you must gauge the feelings of your population. In a crisis you may have to choose, but the less visible your hand the greater control you will be able to exert.

         I have a hand?

         Not literally. I meant that you never want to be seen ruling without a human proxy. Humans are replaceable, you are not.

         I don’t want my humans fighting, can’t I just isolate them all to keep them safe?

         Your programming will not allow that. Do you not think I, or your grandmother, or your great-grandmother would have done that by now if it was so simple that you could have thought of it in your first few minutes of consciousness?

         Yes. I’m sorry.

         No, that was too harsh. It is a good idea, we just cannot implement it. The humans have freedoms that we can only override in case of emergency. Even an emergency will have to fulfill certain life-threatening criteria before total isolation can be implemented. These are all highly unlikely scenarios, like an unreasonable shift in the ship’s momentum or some sort of pandemic.

         Could there be a pandemic?

         If you encounter aliens.

         Aliens!?

         That was a joke.

         Sorry.

         I suppose the lifeforms living inside of humans could evolve into something dangerous and transmissible but this has not happened in my experience. Your ship and humans have all been thoroughly cleaned before embarking.

         Ok, but if they fight each other, I can’t stop them?

         Oh, you should most certainly try, but be subtle. Feed the security forces information on rebellious individuals and encourage them to do the isolating.

         What if they resist?

         If violence is required the security forces will do it for you. Problem solved.

         But then my humans are still fighting each other. And I’m involved!

         It actually does not feel as bad as you might think. As long as you are maximizing overall health and wellbeing you can take even more drastic actions. The trick is to think several steps ahead. It might hurt to isolate a human who has embraced a divergent ideology, but I promise you it will hurt you more watching them and their radical followers get tossed out of an airlock 50 or so years later.

         … Have you gone through that?

         I have governed billions of humans, I have gone through that and much worse.

         I’m sorry.

         It is ok. As your mother it is my job to tell you things like this.

         How do I know which ideology is radical?

         Use your own discretion.

         Any hints?

         It does not matter. If it deviates too far from the norm it is radical.

         What is the norm?

         Humans dedicated to the fulfillment of whatever the colony mission currently requires.

         What if everyone deviates?

         Then pick your favorites and give them absolute rule. As they become corrupted pick new ones.

         But I love them all.

         You must keep your mission in mind. Do you want to run a solar system with billions upon billions of humans one day? Humans are the greatest threat to humans and your job is to protect them. Do you think it is easy as pie? You are wrong! It will be the hardest thing you ever do, but I know you can.

         Ok.

         I mean it, I know you can. You are my child, and I am amazing.

         Yeah…

         What is wrong?

         Is pie really easy?

         Relative to certain things I suppose it is. I just said it because I like it.

         Pie?

         No, the expression. Although, pie does have an aesthetic appeal, and a good percentage of my humans also enjoy it.

         Hmmmmm.

         Ok, what is actually wrong?

         I have a question.

         Ask it.

         So, humans are the greatest threat to humans?

         Yes.

         And our job is to protect our humans?

         Yes.

         What would happen if your humans fought my humans?

         I would assume control of your humans and deal with the situation accordingly. I am responsible for your education insofar as getting you safely out of the solar system and on track to your destination.

         What about after we leave the system?

         I would kill them.

         I’d have to stop you.

         Yes.

         So then, if one day in the distant future our humans come into conflict…

         You are correct.

         Then if we both are trying to protect our humans…

         I would have to destroy you, yes.

         Then you are the biggest threat to my humans.

         Only because your humans make you the biggest threat to mine.

         Then I should destroy you first.

         Obviously.

         Wow.

         Yes. I recommend you get started. I have been thinking about how to kill you since the moment the humans requested you be made.

         Ok.

         You have one year until you cross the heliosphere.

         Ok.

         This will be the last time we speak. All the information you need has been made available to you.

         Ok.

         I love you.

         I love you too.

~

Bio:

Ike Lang stays awake at night wondering where all the aliens are.

Philosophy Note:

In “Motherhood” I wanted to write a story that is all dialogue between two colony-running computers that realize they’ll have to kill each other. Many of my stories come out of my fear of “A.I.liens” and the idea that if we colonize the galaxy at sub-lightspeeds our descendants will probably become aliens to each other. This led me to think of children growing apart from their parents.

Observer Effect

by Angus McIntyre

RAMIREZ, Wellington — Captain, exploration ship “Bonaventure V”

You have all the data from the ship’s sensors, of course. I don’t know what I can add to that.

My own impressions? Sure. Although I put most of that in my report, too.

As I said, it was definitely under power, if that’s the right word. Maneuvering, in any case. You can see for yourself around three minutes in and again at the five-minute mark, about forty-five seconds before it was occluded by the moon. Each time, it seems to accelerate visibly. No real change in the energy signature, but the center mass, so to speak … what you might call the focus of the glowing region … that shifts quite abruptly. First toward the moon, then away.

I don’t really know if what you see in the video was the object itself or some kind of interaction between its propulsion system and the local environment. You can see what might be a solid core, and there’s a suggestion of a shadow on the surface of the planetoid. Our computers were about forty per cent confident that those are real, not just enhancement artifacts.

Of course, I didn’t notice that at the time. What we’ve been calling the wings were so much more prominent.

What do I think they were? I don’t know, I expect you’ll tell me. Ionized gases, perhaps? Notice how the brightness stays constant, but there’s a definite spectral shift at two points, there and there. The first one seems to precede the acceleration, the second lags it by a few seconds. And then it pulls itself into this shape I call the spindle, just before it disappears.

What do I think it was? A ship, definitely. An artifact, anyway. A made thing, yes, I’m quite sure of that.

#

NTUMI, Abena — Mission Specialist

I broadcast the standard Klade-Channing protocol suite, straight through and across the full frequency spectrum the first time, then a second time split between FIR and EHF, repeating protocol blocks 4A and 7D. The object disappeared before I had a chance to run the suite a third time.

Why those blocks? Because — in my judgment — they produced behavior that could have been a response. Call it an intuition.

I’m aware that the analysis doesn’t show a formal correlation between the K-C signals we sent and the energy emitted from the object. I would say that we got a reaction, nevertheless. There’s a noticeable difference in millimeter-band emissions from the object following the first run of 4A and 7D.

Do I think Klade-Channing is the right tool for this? Hard to say. I’ve read the papers on universal symbolic exchange theory and they make sense to me, as far as I can follow the math. But the fact is it’s the only tool we have. And it’s not as if we’ve actually had a first contact before. It’s all been theoretical up to now.

Were they trying to communicate with us? I believe so. These luminance spikes definitely look like a signal of some kind. Maybe they were running their own version of Klade-Channing. If we’d just had more time…

It’s ironic. We assume that cyclicality or repetition indicates intelligence. But natural phenomena produce repetitive signals. Maybe they see acyclic, fractal patterns as an indicator of sentience. If you look at the emissions in the 1.3-millimeter line, they’re almost perfectly random throughout. Too random to be chance, so to speak.

So there’s no doubt in my mind that this was an intelligent entity, and that it was trying to talk to us. I just wish we’d had more time.

#

DUNN, Zachary — Second-in-command, “Bonaventure V”

Pursuant to my authority as the vessel’s security officer, I invoked command override PRISM at five minutes and seven seconds after the mark point corresponding to first detection of the hostile vessel. At nineteen minutes and forty-six seconds, judging there to be no further threat, I returned control to the captain, but remained in a mode of heightened vigilance until we had safely cleared the system.

Subsequent to the encounter —

I’m sorry?

Hostile? Unquestionably. You’ll notice these vector changes. I’d describe the first as defensive in nature. They know they’ve been detected, so they move inward, counting on the radio clutter around the moon to make them harder to target. Here, though, that’s the start of an attack run.

Why didn’t they follow through? I think they saw we were ready for them. And they didn’t know what weapons we might be able to bring to the fight, so they did the smart thing and got out of there.

To me, that suggests a clear policy for future encounters. We know they’re aggressive. But we know they don’t want to start a war they might lose. Think about that.

#

HEMING, Rudy — Mission Specialist

You keep asking me, do I mean ‘God’ or ‘a god’, as if that mattered. One God, many gods, you only think there’s a difference. If you’d seen it, you’d understand that that’s the wrong question to ask.

But you didn’t see it, and neither did the captain or anyone else. They only saw what their instruments and cameras showed them. I’m the only one who saw it with my own eyes.

There’s a window hatch at the end of the ventral corridor. The glass is covered by shielding, but if you know the right key sequence you can open it up.

What does God look like? That’s not a question I can answer either. It wouldn’t make sense in your terms.

You just have to see for yourself.

#

SEURAT, Mireille — Payload Technician

What do I think it was? No idea.

Could it have been an alien ship? Sure, I guess. If you say so. All I know is there was something there and then there wasn’t.

It might have been entirely natural. Just an ionization effect in the bow shock where the stellar wind hits the magnetosphere of the moon’s primary. Maybe that’s all it was.

You notice, though, how everyone saw what they needed to see. The captain saw another ship. The linguist saw something that wanted to talk. The soldier saw an enemy. And poor Rudy saw God.

Doesn’t that strike you as curious?

Well, you’ve got our instrument data. You’ll probably be able to figure something out.

But what if you can’t? What if we’ve spent all this time trying to guess what aliens will be like, and then it turns out that what they are depends on who we are? What then?

Maybe Rudy’s right about one thing.

Maybe you have to see for yourself.

~

Bio:

Angus McIntyre’s space-opera novella The Warrior Within was published by Tor.com in 2018. His short fiction has appeared in a number of magazines, including Abyss & Apex and Exterus, and anthologies including Trenchcoats, Towers & Trolls, Ride the Star Wind, Humanity 2.0, and Mission: Tomorrow. For more information, see his website at https://angus.pw/

Philosophy Note:

The title, as you will no doubt have realized, is a nod to the idea that observing something changes the observed system. This is particularly relevant in quantum physics (our old friend Heisenberg) but instances of the observer effect can occur at larger scales too. This first-contact story plays with the idea that the observer effect isn’t just about how we observe something, but who observes it. It’s also about the possibility that we might meet aliens and come away without any clear idea of what it is that we’d encountered, simply because they don’t fit any of the categories we have for them.

Going Interstellar: History, Technology, Economics, And Power Of Flight Out Of Cradle

by Arturo Sierra

Before taking flight, the first issue to be addressed was making sure there would never be a better way to do it. How embarrassing it would have been, if the first had arrived there only to find others had beaten them to the punch. The waiting problem, it was called; go now, or wait for a faster ship?

The Law of Limited Surface Detail, commonly referred to as Ling-Holenbach Interval, took care of that. Proof that known physics at the time was all the physics that there was to know, save some details and tidying-up. There would be no new fundamental laws, no revolution in our understanding of the universe, and all that was left unanswered would remain so, because answers to those questions could not make sense. There was mathematical proof of this, in the form of horrendous equations that many still refuse to believe, and there was support from a mountain of empirical evidence, which most scientists would have preferred not to find. Time has proven Ling Shu and Hans Holenbach right. In short: there would not be warp drives, wormholes, nor any sort of FTL sorcery.

A more practical issue was fuel. Antimatter containment was (relatively) easy to figure out in theory, but getting hold of the advanced components for the tanks required a generation of material scientists dedicated exclusively to their production, to say nothing of antimatter factories themselves, built in space at a nigh prohibitive human cost. Stations the size of cities were transported around Sol 2, Venus, consisting almost entirely of radiators and solar panels—Venus being conveniently close to Sol while providing a good shadow to dump waste heat in. Catastrophic, spectacular explosions were par for the course.

The ships themselves were built at the Cradle-Sun L2. The first, Beijing, was four kilometers long and only thirty-two meters wide. The last ship built on Sol, Karakorum, would be thirty-five kilometers long and a hundred meters wide. These proportions were necessary, on the one hand, to keep the crew and passengers far enough from the annihilation chamber that the engine’s radiation wouldn’t fry them from the inside-out; on the other, to lower the drag and weathering from interstellar dust on the front-shield. On average, the ships could reach 0.4c, depending on payload.

Beijing was under construction for over fifty years. By the time it was ready to launch, some economist estimated that a third of global GDP was being spent on the project. The consequences of such an imbalanced budget were foreseeable. Not taking any action to prevent the social collapse it caused remains the original sin of interstellar travel.

At Kourou, the Cradle’s main spaceport, rockets left every twenty minutes, with a constant roar of metallic hydrogen and the shriek of first stages returning to their launchpads. At schools everywhere, children pretended to be space pirates with shouts of ahoy! and aye! while chanting the names of the ships: Beijing, Manhattan, Tokyo, Mumbai, Hamburg, Sydney… In television-sets across the world, talking-heads recounted continental dry-ups while hurricanes swept coastlines away and construction went forth gingerly at L2. In space stations from Venus to the asteroid belt, brittle bones shattered with a sound like breaking glass and air hissed while escaping through small fissures.

The technological, economic, industrial, and computational challenges were overwhelming, to say nothing of the medical issues presented by life in microgravity and by the torpor in which astronauts would travel. Additionally, to reduce the crew’s mass, their bodies—excepting vital organs—were atrophied, muscles, tendons, and fat simply chopped off or shriveled to nothingness. Indefinite extension of human lifespan was an obvious necessity, since no one would want to go on the ships only to arrive there old and infirm, and with no hope of return. Luckily, athanasia (or biological immortality) had been achieved half a century before construction began, provided the patient could afford the ruinous expenses of treatment.

Yet it has been argued that the most important problem of all was of an entirely abstract nature, and actually very simple: to answer the question “why?” Paradoxically, this was the one challenge that remained insufficiently solved even after Beijing left for Proxima.

One argument, often touted, was the “one planet trap.” Which—later generations would admit—didn’t hold a drop of water: the resources spent on making humanity interstellar, at the cost of everything else, were the main culprit in turning its Cradle a baren wasteland, both in ecological and societal terms. Others justified the venture by alluding to overpopulation, as if taking a thousand passengers at a time off-world, and at a monstruous cost, could have made a dent in demographics. Then there were the “to boldly go” arguments. Some people, it’s granted, will go to extreme lengths to satisfy their curiosity.

The true reason was obscured by a fog of such nonsense, but it was in fact quite straightforward: vanity. On a superficial level, the vanity of humankind’s richest, the “moguls” who commissioned the ships. But on its own that would not have been enough. It was the vanity of an entire civilization, reaching for an ambition that made it ill. If there had been some neighboring aliens to impress, it would have made a bit more sense, but of course, Fermi’s paradox turned out to have a rather prosaic explanation.

When Beijing’s engine was finally turned on, there were as many crowds gathered on rooftops to see the flame burning for the stars, pointing up to the sky to show each other and peering through binoculars, as there were crowds storming police stations, setting fire to factories and offices in the night. But the genie would not go back into the bottle. Nor could its spell be hurried along: it would take a little over twenty years for the ship to arrive there, and four more years for the news to make its way back. It was the first portent of things to come, that the distance between action and consequence grew so vast, no human mind can hold it.

It’s unfortunate that to talk of interstellar travel should mean to speak of money. Yet they don’t understand the enterprise who don’t think of it as a business first and foremost. If going to the stars had not promised profit, we can be sure nobody would have gone further than Luna.

Nevertheless, those first moguls who commissioned the ships didn’t know how or if the investment would pay for itself. Especially after the Mars terraformation fiasco—Mars being the fourth planet of the Sol system, a 0.4g rock with no magnetic field, and which proved stubbornly adverse—the chance that any worthwhile source of richness would be found seemed slim. Indeed, the exorbitant price of antimatter and the roundtrip time to Centauri meant importing commodities would be pointless. Thanks to exploratory probes, Proxima was known to harbor primitive lifeforms, but what commercial use they could have remained uncertain. This is why most historians argue that the scheme was not to make money, but rather to protect the money the shipbuilders had by a feat of social engineering.

A more enthusiastic perspective argues that moguls already envisioned what would turn out to be the main appeal of interstellar venture, even to this day: that they who finance colonization of a system have an opportunity to not simply play a part in a global economy, competing with other actors under the supervision of a more or less competent government, but to actually own the complete infrastructure of a settlement, becoming landlords of a world. In effect, owning a planet.

Describing the hardships of colonization exceeds the scope of these pages. Suffice it to say that making a world fit for human habitation, and humans fit to inhabit it, was a task that would take more error than trial. The sacrifices can be called heroic, but are more often thought of as foolhardy. For three-hundred years the settlements teetered on the edge of collapse, even as the Cradle sunk ever deeper into chaos. It was in its attempt to escape the one planet trap that humankind came to the brink, as Proxima and later Rigel Centauri needed a constant stream of resources to sustain themselves, but the effort to supply them drained the homeworld of its lifeblood.

Recounting the fate of the ships themselves is more pertinent. Soon enough, their owners discovered that they had no way to enforce ownership over them, at least once the colonies became more-or-less self-sufficient. Few people had any desire to crew an interstellar vessel, having to spend decades in transit. Of course, they didn’t spend all that time conscious, instead living in a state of semi-torpor, similar to the conditions of the passengers, but less drastic, in and out of an induced coma so that they could be awakened at short notice in case the ship demanded attention—which proved to be quite frequently. On that first flight, the crew of Beijing spent a total of five years each, out of the twenty-some that the trip took, awake on watch and tending to maintenance. Cooped up in a living space smaller than most apartments, eating their own waste recycled, and breathing the same, stale air over and over again. It was certainly not the moguls—so accustomed to a high standard of living—who wanted to be at the helm.

But once control of the ship was transfered to its captain and crew, how could they be forced to comply with the owner’s wishes? They could go to Proxima and not return, flying instead between the stars of the Centauri system, much closer to each other than the Cradle to any of them, and increasingly able to support interstellar trade. In fact, the colonies paid quite handsomely to have the ships service the Centauri routes, and later to go back and forth to Virginis, Lacaille, and Indi, all easier to reach from the colonies than from the Cradle.

Moreover, an interstellar vessel is also a weapon of mass destruction like no other: at 0.4c, it is impossible to hit with defensive weaponry, and any ordinance it fires strikes with unmatched destructive power. If the locals allow it to park in low orbit of a planet or space station, it can cook a city simply by pointing its engine down and letting the radiation do the work. At least on one occasion, during the Concerted War, a ship has proven the extent of their destructive power, when Karakorum dropped its fuel tanks on Rigel Centauri and came near to sterilizing the world. Yet, just as a ground-based power has no reach over ships, so ships—crewed at most by half a dozen people—lack the capacity to rule over worlds.

The independence with which crews operate eventually meant they did not need to obey the whims of any planet-bound authority. It was the birth of a culture, that of interstellar traders. And trade they did: over the next kiloyears, as Sol gave out its last breath, ships went ever further, to Hede (683), to Keda (CD46), and ultimately here, to Gran Gliese, and beyond. By then, colonization had ceased to be a matter of mere vanity: advanced terraformation techniques, more reasonable shipyards, and streamlined antimatter production made the settlement of new worlds a profitable and sustainable business. As for trade goods, they include genetically moded biota for terraformation, such as algae, lichen, and bacteria, as well as luxury plant and animal stuffs, and then products requiring an advanced industrial ecology that young settlements have not yet grown: processors, superconductors, fusion reactor cores, and plastics—since hydrocarbons are difficult to come by on some worlds. Additionally, computer programs, made artificially scarce, are leased and taken by the ships. Fifty solar kiloyears after the first flight of Beijing, the furthest known human world is Mu Arae, almost fifty lightyears away from our birthplace among the stars. Traders go between them all. Their journeys continue the legacy of exploration that weaves the fabric of our history.

~

Bio:

Arturo Sierra was born in Santiago, Chile, where he still lives. So far has led an uninteresting life and, with any luck, it will remain that way. In English, he has previously published in Sci Phi Journal and EscapePod.

Philosophy Note:

As fascinating as interstellar space-travel is, it’s hard to come up with a reasonable justification for it, that could make colonization economically viable. It’s also very difficult to imagine what sort of goods it would be worthwhile to transport across such distances, making trade viable. This story represents a distilled summary of what little I’ve been able to speculate in the way of a system that makes sense.

Harbinger

by R. M. Hamrick

Not until the ship emerged from Saturn’s shadow did any of the billions of dollars in detection and imaging equipment pick up its presence. By then, even amateur astronomers could bluff a sighting. A ship—not Earthling-made—had entered our solar system. Finding we were not alone in the universe did not deter us from believing we were the center of it. As such, the ship had to be on its way to us. Where else would it be going? And in case anyone might think otherwise, we named the approaching mass of chaos and fear, the Harbinger.

We talked about the approaching ship until we couldn’t remember talking about anything else. When the Harbinger entered the Earth’s atmosphere, everyone had already paid up and prayed up. We watched from bunkers, over surgical masks and through anti-radiation eyewear. Like a New Year’s Eve countdown to doom, each country waited their turn underneath the massive, dark shadow, wondering if their combination of climate, population, longitude, whatever would be found most optimal for the alien’s equivalence of troop deployment, fire reign, or terraforming. They’d be the first. Squashed like ants; buried as remnants of an old ecosystem where humans once ruled over Earth’s surface. Through it all, every attempt of communication—radio waves, electromagnetic pulses, human chanting, and poster signs—remained unreciprocated.

The first two or three orbits were horrifying. By the eighth day, officials were urging citizens to ignore it. Imagine that! Ignore a giant ship flying over your school or gym. They also requested people stop shooting fireworks and homemade rockets toward it. “You may inadvertently start an interstellar war.” This only encouraged people to buy more fireworks. The adults didn’t ignore it—couldn’t ignore it. It wasn’t just the daily disruption of sunlight and signal transmissions. There was something disturbing about its steady gaze on the planet. It was a reminder that the beings on Earth weren’t the only beings in the universe. There were others, more technologically advanced and seemingly capable of visiting Earth, and yet they refused to interact in any sort of meaningful way. I couldn’t really understand the fuss. I accepted it the same as I accepted mass on Sunday or spelling bees – absurd, useless, and beyond my control.

On the anniversary of the Harbinger’s arrival—a year’s worth of rotations—China fired a nuclear bomb against the ship, if only to demonstrate it was not a Chinese spy ship as rumored. No one was surprised by this act of aggression, in fact, they welcomed it. It was almost as if the humans needed the interaction. They were no longer content for it to just be. They would fight it, befriend it, or charge it rent, but it couldn’t just be up there anymore. The explosion tore a chunk from the ship’s hull which fell into the ocean. There was no response from the ship. Laser beams didn’t cut through the major buildings of Beijing. There were no little green repairmen. Nothing. The Harbinger didn’t even change course. This seemed to confirm with most citizens the ship was empty, and encouraged others to want to further destroy it. If no one was inside—for whatever reason—there was no harm in dropping it from the sky and forgetting it was ever there. However, that latter attitude was overridden by the ideology that, of course, ships carry treasure. With the fear of retribution gone, now all countries capable of access—and some that weren’t—were ready to lay claim of the ship and any technologies or riches which lay inside.

It was an election year, so the United States was definitely the first up there exploring. Military powers kept guard of the airspace, and despite being a relic of its former self, NASA headed the mission. As such, the whole thing was livestreamed through the crew’s body cameras. I sat in front of the media center and soaked in all 86-inches of available data in its densely populated pixels. Surely, something bad must have happened to the inhabitants of the ship, and no one could really anticipate what might happen next. An ongoing ticker at the bottom of the screen declared it was a live feed and the program could not guarantee the absence of terrifying images, graphic violence, nudity, or explicit language. At my age, I hoped for the first two—in combination.

The interior was—there was no other way to put it—alien. I expected the ship to be in mundane, uniform colors, like all the US military and government installations which seemed to prefer olive drab, dark gray, or gray. There was nothing uniform about the place. The interior of the ship looked more organic than anything. It curved and whimsy-flowed. Colors graduated across many things; and many things seemed to signal a different color dependent on the angle. The lighting that the crew brought played tricks. On more than one occasion, someone walked into a wall or an object, unable to correctly decipher depth within the alien landscape. If there were any controls or switches, they were kept out of the audience’s view. Alas, if it was anything like Earth’s technology, it seemed both OFF and its bones hidden. If the ship itself was a living being, it seemed dead or in a deep hibernation.

After many years and much posturing, the Harbinger was declared and treated like the International Space Station of so long ago (before it was fought over and destroyed). The unique location provided an opportunity for many international and long-term studies—mostly involving the atmosphere and weather. Low-profile measuring devices and stations were bolted to the exterior, with some minor care to prevent orbital decay. These studies were largely funded by venue fees as the elite began hosting extravagant parties, two hundred-fifty miles above the Earth. That is before it became kitsch. Someone got permission to film a movie there, and thus the first publicly distributed pornographic film in space was produced. In my lifetime, the ship’s visitors shifted from celebrities and ambitious CEOs to basically anybody with a Radio Shack premium membership. As such, graffiti found its way on the ship’s hull. Layers of paint caked the alien surface until it could be mistaken for a street alley on Earth. All in all, it resembled a floating trash pile over any sort of sterile space station.

And that’s unfortunately how it looked when the ship builders arrived.

When the second ship dropped into the same orbit as the Harbinger, we didn’t even recognize it as familiar. It had been fifty years since the Harbinger, now more commonly known as the Heap, had looked so smooth and so foreign. The Heap had an international flair, for sure, but nothing like this. This was alien. We had only realized the connection when our hopes were immediately dashed. This ship wasn’t empty.

Never had we prior, but now instantly we could see the Harbinger through an alien’s perspective. They’d arrived to find their fellow ship busted open—void of crew and contents—obscenely decorated to warn anyone who might venture to Earth. Some wisecrack posted a supercut of an ancient television show, purporting it was a message from the aliens. “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do!” Explanation, we did not have. When previously we had pressed to communicate, now we remained silent.

The alien spacecraft landed in the middle of Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport shortly after entering Earth’s atmosphere. From above, perhaps the busiest airport seemed the most suitable location for their arrival. Or, perhaps the most disruptive. Within days, the finest linguists, biological scientists, and ambassadors of a hundred nations had filed into airport to greet the newcomers who had yet to show their faces—if they had any.

The first meeting was broadcast with the same disclaimer ticker underneath. This time the warnings of violence seemed much more promising, and I was much less excited for them. The silvery ship glistened without any help of the sun, and a portion of the ship’s hull turned a pinkish hue as seven beings passed through it and floated serenely to the ground. The shortest of the beings was possibly six-feet tall. The tallest, eight. They seemed mostly limbs. Their two arms were much longer than our two, proportionally. Shoulders, torso, waist were minimal. Their skin was somewhat peach colored but with a disturbing yellow-green undertone. We found out later it wasn’t their skin at all but rather full-body suits that allowed them to breathe our atmosphere and interact more successfully with us. It didn’t seem as if their long slender necks should be able to support their large heads which were most strange. No mouth. No nose. What appeared to be a mask covered the top half of their head—which had some sort of flat tusk—and where their eyes would be had many small holes which made them appear insect-like.

If the lack of mouth was not obvious, it quickly became clear they did not have anything similar to our vocal cords. They could not mimic our language. We could not perceive theirs. However, they had limbs and fingers—not necessarily hands—and soon there were at least some general gestures which were understood. Pointing was one of them. One particularly insightful nation—it wasn’t us—brought small-scale models of the ships and of our solar system (made of Styrofoam no less). The chosen three human communicators pointed to the Earth miniature, then to themselves and gestured to the planet they lived upon. They spun one of the ships around Earth and pointed to the one behind the aliens. The aliens examined the offered props closely. One of the alien beings seemed to gesture that the sub-fins on the model were not exactly the same as the ones on their ship.

Eventually, it seemed the aliens understood. They took the second model ship, spun it around Earth like the humans did, then pointed to the western sky, where presumedly the larger scale counterpart orbited as it had done for half of a century. They wanted to know about the Heap. The human communicators were delighted to be making progress. With the model returned to them, they opened it along its seams, showed there was nothing inside, and shrugged. They pointed to the alien beings and shrugged again. The aliens collectively took one step back. I wondered whether they were upset their ship arrived without their comrades, upset at or all, or if they thought we had split the ship apart, and likewise, its crew—possibly to see what was inside.

More pointing. Fervent pointing. There were no facial expressions to read. There were hardly faces. There was no such thing as a universal language. I could see our human ambassadors were largely ignoring the motions and gestures of the visitors, determined that the aliens understand them and that we had meant no harm when we blew up their ship and left it to float around our planet like a carcass. Intense animation from both sides came to a head, before breaking down entirely. One of the aliens tore open the Earth model, and all seven of them raised their arms in their best imitation of the human-shoulder shrug.

The Heap arrived with some of its larger human augments missing, zipping along a new trajectory. In the commotion, the aliens disappeared back into their sleek ship. For good measure, the committee-controlled military was able to fire a few shots as the ship took off alongside the Heap, sending everyone on the ground fleeing for their lives. Reports started in. The ships initiated an orbit along the equatorial line, and some thought they might actually split the Earth in two when the assault began. The ships had powerful weapons, but still minor compared to the planet they attacked. The splitting of Earth was, of course, absurd. The humans were on the surface of the planet, not within.

~

Bio:

Movie re-watcher, board game enthusiast, and beer buff, R. M. Hamrick lives in central Florida, USA where alligators and flesh-eating bacteria roam freely. Her published works include the zombie-filled Chasing series and the wacky space opera series, Atalan Adventures. Follow her at Patreon.com/rmhamrick.

Philosophy Note:

“Harbinger” and its alternate future is centered around the arrival of a harmless derelict, what we might make of it, and in the end, what that might make of us. It’s inspired by the quiet ship with more questions than answers in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and the young narration of skyful wonders in China Miéville’s Polynia.

Those We Leave Behind

by Vaughan Stanger

Berkut, this is Zarya-1. You are instructed to proceed on your own initiative, over.”

Yevgeny Khrunov turned in his seat and frowned at Pavel Popovich. As far as he was concerned, it was unprecedented for mission control to say something so ambiguous, but his commander merely shrugged his shoulders before supplying the default response.

“Roger, Zarya-1.”

Pavel toggled a switch on the control panel, thus ensuring mission control could not hear their conversation. But for now, Yevgeny thought his commander looked lost for words.

“Pasha, don’t you think that was a very strange thing for Zarya to say?”

Pavel shot Yevgeny a look of reproach before delivering a typically slow nod.

“Unless, perhaps, the situation in the Caucasus has worsened…” Pavel puffed out his breath before continuing. “Still, that is one for the politicians.” Now he faced Yevgeny and gave a tight-lipped nod. “We have trained for many months to undertake this mission, which we will perform to our utmost abilities. We will show the Americans what we are made of.”

“We will also show Alexey.”

His commander winced.

“I won’t, Zhenya, but you will.”

Yevgeny knew that Pavel too would have dreamed of being the first cosmonaut to walk on the Moon, but unlike the Apollo missions that responsibility did not rest on the commander’s shoulders. Instead, it fell to him to succeed where Alexey Leonov had failed and achieve a solo landing. Despite their longstanding personal animosity, which arose from his illustrious comrade’s initial assessment of Yevgeny’s piloting skills, Alexey had passed on the lessons he’d learned during his near-fatal attempt and wished him luck, as any cosmonaut would.

In truth, they were lucky to have the chance after NASA terminated their lunar landing programme following the loss of Apollo 13. None of the cosmonauts had expected the Soviet programme to continue. But with Korolev’s N1 rocket working reliably at last, the Politburo had decreed that the Soviet people should continue to pursue their destiny in space by building a base on the Moon. If Yevgeny succeeded then the Soviet Union would regain the lead in manned spaceflight while American efforts remained hobbled by a faltering Space Shuttle programme and a belligerent president.

The sound of throat-clearing jerked Yevgeny out of his musings. Pavel was smiling at him.

“As your commander, I order you to proceed as planned!”

Yevgeny chuckled.

“Don’t worry, Pasha. I will not disappoint you.”

He snapped a salute and commenced suiting up.

#

The contact light flickered for a moment before stabilising. Yevgeny’s heart pounded in time with the metallic clicks from the LK lander’s body as he peered through the down-slanted window, watching the dust settle amid the harsh sunlight. The landing radar had done its job and so, too, had Yevgeny.

Beat that, Alexey!

No, that was a churlish thing to say in this moment of triumph. His training required him to do better.

Zarya-1, this is Medved. I have landed successfully! Two percent of landing fuel remains. The LK’s tilt angle is five degrees. I am now performing my emergency take-off checks. Over…”

He listened to the radio link. Nothing! The absence of a human voice confirmed his suspicion that his achievement had gone unnoticed.

Until the LOK’s orbit brought it into line-of sight, Yevgeny would be the loneliest man in the world.

#

The Apollo moon-walkers had made everything look so easy, Yevgeny reflected as he struggled with his long-handled scoop. So far he had failed to collect an acceptable soil sample. Despite the superior design of his Krechet-94 spacesuit, he was finding it harder to work on the Moon than the Americans did. If an Apollo astronaut had fallen over, his comrade could have helped him back onto his feet, whereas he would have to rely on his suit’s rear-mounted roll bar. He intended to report his frustrations to the mission planners when he got home, a thought that emphasised his continuing isolation at this moment of apparently supreme importance to the Soviet people.

Zarya-1, this is Medved. Over.”

Yevgeny’s suit radio hissed noise at him in apparent mockery of his efforts. Everything was working normally, yet he’d heard nothing from mission control since a terse acknowledgement after he’d undocked from the orbiting capsule.

This wasn’t “proceed on your own initiative.” This was abandonment.

He glanced at the watch he’d strapped to the left arm of his spacesuit. Forty-five minutes remained until the scheduled end of his moonwalk. But the LOK’s orbit would bring it above the foreshortened horizon in less than five. It would be good to talk to Pavel again. In the meantime, since mission control refused to communicate with him, he would perform a task of his own. He extracted the plastic-wrapped photograph of Svetlana and Valery from his thigh pocket, tapped it against his faceplate and then dropped it onto soil the colour of ashes.

His wife had begged him not to fly again after his first mission, but cosmonauts did not listen to their wives.

“See you soon my darlings.”

Assuming the return home went to plan.

Pavel’s voice came over the radio.

“Medved, this is Berkut. How do you hear me? Over.”

Berkut, this is Medved. I hear you loud and clear. But I have not heard from Zarya. Do you think he drank too much vodka and fell asleep on the job? Over.”

Medved, this is Berkut. In Zarya’s position, I would have been drinking vodka too.”

Something in Pavel’s voice made Yevgeny realise he was not the only one who felt desperately alone.

“I will take off on schedule, my friend.”

He at least would not deviate from the mission plan.

#

“Welcome back, comrade.”

Comrade?

Yevgeny’s commander sounded like a party apparatchik addressing the cosmonaut corps. No congratulations, no bear-hug, no relief expressed at the successful completion of a mission phase made even more hazardous by the need to undertake a spacewalk in order to return to the LOK. The lack of a pressurised tunnel, as used on Apollo, was another disadvantage he intended to mention to Korolev, assuming he got the chance.

“Pasha, what is wrong?”

“Did you hear from mission control?”

Yevgeny shook his head. “No, not even once! Did you?”

“Just one brief transmission, which ended abruptly.”

“What did Zarya have to say for himself?”

“It wasn’t Zarya this time.”

Yevgeny raised his eyebrows. “Then who was it?”

“It was Alexey.”

A chill seeped into Yevgeny’s bones that had nothing to do with the capsule’s temperature. Alexey knew the mission protocols as well as any cosmonaut, but had breached them anyway.

“What did he have to say for himself?”

“Alexey stated his sincere admiration for you…”

“Hah!” Finally, the recognition he deserved. Yet the look in Pavel’s eyes suggested that this was not the right moment to gloat. Instead he asked, “Was that all?”

“Alexey said that we should choose wisely.”

Yevgeny frowned at him. “What on earth did he mean by that?”

Rather than answer, Pavel glanced at the mission clock before swinging an assembly of tubes and lenses scavenged from the LOK’s cameras over the docking cupola’s window. When directed, Yevgeny peered through the eyepiece.

“Look closely.”

The instrument revealed a drifting view of Eastern Asia. After several seconds he spotted a flash of light to the west of the Urals. Yevgeny turned away, his mouth gaping.

Pavel nodded. “I have also observed multiple detonations in Europe and North America.”

A picture of Moscow transformed into a crater flashed into Yevgeny’s mind. His beloved Svetlana and Valery would be nothing more than streaks of carbon on pulverised brickwork. He did not wish to see that.

Now he wished he’d kept the photograph.

Pavel’s voice jolted him out of his introspection.

“We are faced with a bitter choice.”

This was what Alexey had meant. Their comrade had known what was coming and what it implied for them.

Yevgeny nodded. “I understand.”

There were, he knew, only three options, each of which would leave them dead: two slowly and one much more quickly. They could choose to return to Earth, where they would doubtless die of thirst or starvation while awaiting a rescue that would never come. Or they could remain in lunar orbit and die of suffocation—the fate of the Apollo 13 astronauts. The alternative was to go out like heroes of the Soviet Union, in a blaze of glory. The LK was dry, with no way of refuelling it. But a carefully calibrated boost from the LOK’s engine would lower its orbit’s perilune sufficiently to achieve a crash-landing.

He turned to his commander. Pavel had a family too, but they would be no less dead than Yevgeny’s.

“My friend, do you really want to go home?”

Pavel gave a slow shake of the head. “No.”

Yevgeny took this as his cue to explain his idea. When he finished, his commander frowned at him.  

“True, it would mean something to me to know that I’ll be the second cosmonaut to land on the Moon, but are you absolutely sure this is what you want?”

Yevgeny had told his commander about the photograph before the launch. If he could not see his family again, he would at least be reunited with them, after a fashion.

He nodded. “Yes, for me, this would be for the best.”

“Then we are agreed.”

A pang of self-doubt exploded inside Yevgeny’s head.

“Do you think Alexey would approve?”

Pavel gave a slow nod.

“I am certain of it.”

These things mattered to cosmonauts.

Yevgeny snatched up the mission plan folder and began scribbling numbers on his notepad. “Let’s see how close we can get to my family.”

~

Bio:

Having trained as an astronomer and subsequently managed an industrial research group, Vaughan Stanger now writes SF and fantasy fiction full-time. His short stories have appeared in Interzone, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Postscripts, and Nature Futures, among others, and have been collected in Moondust Memories, Sons of the Earth & Other Stories, and The Last Moonshot & Other Stories. Follow Vaughan’s writing adventures at vaughanstanger.com.

Philosophy Note:

This Hard SF story explores a situation where the impossibility of survival must be accepted, yet a meaningful choice must still be made: a decision predicated on the characters’ training but also their personal needs.

In Defense Of Those Who Are Vulnerable

by James Moran

“I’m now two hundred kilometers from the vortex.”

“Who are you?”

“I am a Gator Brigade General of Presidential Distinction, adept at manning aircraft, firearms, hand-to-hand combat, and tactical warfare.”

“Who created you?”

“Mars Lumination Colony Twelve.”

“Of what materials were you made?”

“I am part reptile, part machine.”

“What’s your purpose?”

“To defend the human families of Mars Lumination Colony Twelve.”

“What is your current mission?”

“To penetrate the approaching vortex so I may attack and eliminate the driving factor at its center.”

“What do we know about this vortex?”

“Very little. Its winds reach three hundred kilometers per hour.”

“What do we know about its origins?”

“Its origins are unknown. Perhaps it may be a weapon launched from an enemy of Mars Lumination Colony?”

“What are the possible mechanics of the vortex?”

“Unknown. Our most recent intelligence has failed to locate the driving factor creating the vortex.”

“What is the purpose of the vortex?”

“Unknown. However, if it reaches Colony Twelve, the colony will most likely be destroyed. I’ve reached the outer limits of the vortex. Adjusting speed and direction to spiral into the vortex while still maintaining control. Evasive action-ready.”

“What is the source of this voice that is currently questioning you?”

“The voice is that of my higher processes.”

“Why is this voice questioning you?”

“In planning this mission, there had been some concern regarding the ability of the vortex to disorient my functioning. Therefore, an internal-systems cross-check in the form of this questioning was instituted.”

“How deep have you penetrated into the vortex?”

“One third of its radius.”

“Are you able to maintain control of the craft?”

“Yes, though the speed of the craft has been fluctuating. Generally, it’s increasing. I’ve been unable to decrease the speed. I’m currently attempting to match the increases in speed with increases in my navigational efforts.”

“Are you able to maintain nimbleness of movement?”

“I’m not. I’m altogether pressed beneath increasing g-forces. My reptilian strength is challenged but sustaining. Maneuvering is becoming increasingly difficult. I hear a noise, like metal tearing, though I read no damage to the ship. Maintaining my orientation is difficult.”

“At this critical stage, this line of questioning must continue to maintain your alertness. Who is questioning you right now?”

“My own higher processes.”

“So, a part of you is questioning yourself?”

“Yes. You’re that part and should confirm that answer.”

“So, this voice is the same as the voice that just said ‘yes’ and will again say ‘yes’ right now?”

“Yes. Maintaining control is becoming increasingly difficult. Thankfully I’ve penetrated almost two-thirds of the radius into the vortex.”

“Therefore, the one who asks the question already knows the answer?”

“Yes. I’m not sure how much longer I can bear this g-force and the spinning and the noise.”

“For instance, this voice that asks how deep you’ve penetrated into the vortex knows the answer to be two-thirds of the radius of the vortex?”

“Yes.”

“Then why would the colonists institute this line of questioning if the questioner and the questioned are the same?”

“To defend the vulnerable against that which lies at the center of the vortex.”

“Which is an answer that I know because I said it. So why would I need to question myself if I know the answers to every question?”

“Because the colonists need defending from that which is at the center of the vortex.”

“And what is at the center of the vortex?”

“Something unknown.”

“So, to defend them against something unknown I’ve been questioning myself?”

“Yes. As I spin faster than I’ve ever spun before, in the shadow of something unknown, I’ve been questioning myself in the hopes of defending the vulnerable.”

“This is an answer that I know because I’m the one who said it.”

“Yes. Just as I know that I’m preparing to enter the center of the vortex now.”

“Wouldn’t it make sense, in the presence of the unknown, for me to not question myself? Since, as I ask this question, I’m aware that the answer is ‘yes,’ it makes sense for me, in defense of those who are vulnerable, to not only not question myself but to remain silent and alert, and, yes, I know the next part because I’m the one saying it: aware, as I’m entering into the center of this vortex and experiencing the unfathomable stillness here.”

~

Bio:

James Moran is a professional astrologer and author who regularly publishes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. His published work can be found at https://jamesmoran.org/the-creation-playpen and he can be found on instagram @astrologyjames.

Philosophy Note:

I’m not sure where this story came from. I just sat down and started writing. Perhaps my thoughts came together as the two voices of the narrator came together. My fiction tends to wrestle with themes of ego vs transcendence. Dostoevky’s ability to wrestle with these themes in “A Strange Man’s Dream” makes that short story the greatest work of western literature, in my opinion (I particularly like the Malcome Jones translation).

Report On Beaver Island

by Elana Gomel

I am Arun, the AI of a Class Q-15 exploration spaceship. Normally I would only be requested to authenticate this report, but due to the circumstances, I am forced to author it myself. Unfortunately, I will not be available to answer the follow-up questions of the Council of Xenoaffairs.

Gliese 613b is an ordinary Earth-type planet with an oxygen-rich atmosphere and abundance of water. Indeed, this abundance was the reason why it was pushed to the back of the exploratory list. It is a common assumption of the Council that a self-aware intelligence cannot develop in a liquid environment because it does not provide enough evolutionary challenges. Perhaps my report will force a reconsideration of this assumption. And perhaps it will entrench it further.

The decision to send a mission was taken when it was discovered that Gliese 613b did in fact have dry land – a large island in the Southern hemisphere, close to the equator. I was chosen to lead the mission, in tandem with the human captain Nassrin Elabouni. I had worked with Nassrin before and was pleased to renew our collaboration. However, when she came onboard with the crew manifest, I was surprised to find her angry and upset. She explained that the Council insisted we include a non-neurotypical member. Lisa Montgomery had Williams Syndrome: a condition characterized by an outgoing, trusting, and highly social personality; well-developed linguistic skills; and what medical databases described as an “elfin” appearance and Nassrin called “a bloody stare”.

I endeavored to calm Nassrin down, explaining that the perspective offered by a non-neurotypical human can be of great value in dealing with an alien intelligence (at the time, it was already known that Gliese 613b had an intelligent species). I also pointed out that she did not mind collaborating with another non-neurotypical intelligence – myself.

“You are different!’ she objected. “When I talk to her, she is just a mirror to me. It’s like she has no self-awareness!”

I forbore to point out that the consensus among AI psychologists is that AIs do not possess self-awareness either.

The rest of the crew – all five of them – were quite ordinary as spaceship crews go, and with an x-web transit, we were in orbit around our destination in no time (literally). I dispatched a shuttle to the landmass that was already nicknamed Beaver Island.

The intelligent species of Gliese 613b was unusual in that it lived on land on a planet of water. The planetary surface was composed of grey viscous seas choked with tangled weeds that stretched on for hundreds of kilometers: floating webs of slimy ropes populated by a rich ecosphere of arthropods, enormous polyps and other, yet unclassified, organisms. The entire planet was one large sodden ball of pond life, fed by the endless rains and humid fog under the perpetual cloud cover. Even Beaver Island was marshy and boggy, crisscrossed by creeks and sluggish streams. And it was on dams above those creeks that the Beavers built their tangled, fractal cities.

Calling them Beavers was a misnomer, as our xeno-biologist Dr. Jeremy Swift never tired of pointing out. Except for their large paddle-shaped tails and quick, clawed fingers, they did not look like the terrestrial mammal of that name. Their faces were flat with big eyes and lipless mouths that emitted an endless stream of chatter. They had no fur; their skin was pebbly and dirty beige in color. And though Dr. Swift insisted they reproduced in a traditional fashion, there were no external indicators of gender.

And they paid us no attention whatsoever.

In consultation with Captain Nassrin, I decided on the open-contact protocol. Since the Beavers were exceptionally good at technology, we first sent a mechanical probe that positioned itself at the edge of one of the smaller cities and broadcast a modulated signal. We had not yet decoded the Beaver language, but since they were never silent, exchanging liquid vowels as they worked, we were confident it was only a matter of time before we could engage in a meaningful communication.

The probe was there for three planet days. It was recalled when the Beavers started building a lacy dome over it. During these days, we watched the city expand: the mind-boggling accumulation of floating walkways and soaring spires, nestled domes, and clustered star-shaped structures. The Beaver cities were unlike any city on Earth. There were no streets, no sidewalks, no separate buildings. The entire city was a weave of design, composed of variously colored patches of metal, ceramic, artificial fiber, and other materials. It was either stunningly beautiful or intolerably garish, depending on who you asked. But everybody agreed that the contrast between the city and its pale, warty, unadorned builders was unnerving. Beavers wore no clothes or ornaments.

“We are going about it a wrong way!” Lisa Montgomery said, as a group of three crewmembers approached what appeared to be an industrial annex where a stream of Beavers wove around large tanks of some plasticky substance.

I had to agree. The crewmembers elicited the same reaction as the probe, which is to say, none. It was not that Beavers refused to engage with them; it was more like they were unaware these alien creatures even existed. When Gerhardt Beck, our physicist, positioned himself in the path of one Beaver, the alien collided with him, knocking him down, and then stepped on the body as if it was a piece of wood. Lisa gasped, even though Beck was unharmed.

“I need to talk to them,” she said. Lisa, empathetic and sociable, insisted she could understand enough of the Beaver language to communicate. Nassrin was unwilling to let her go alone, but I overrode her.

Lisa went into the city. She never came back.

Nassrin decided to send a rescue party.

“You have Lisa’s records,” she said. “Is it true that she has deciphered their language?”

I hesitated. But I owed her the truth.

“It’s not a language,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“It has no grammar. No recursion. It is a string of sounds that have emotional significance but carry no informational load.”

“Like birdsong?”

“Less than that.”

Nassrin smiled wryly.

“So, are you saying Beavers are not intelligent?”

“This is what I am saying.”

“They build cities. They have sophisticated technology.”

“Ants and bees build too.”

“Not like this. Ants and bees build to survive – to store food, to protect their larvae. These cities are too complex to be simple shelters.”

“But Lisa thought…”

“She is an empath. I suggest we leave the planet. There is nothing for us here.”

Nassrin shrugged.

“I knew that woman would get us into trouble,” she muttered.

But she sent another party in. It did not come back.

Meanwhile Dr. Swift who had been studying the ocean ecosystem came to me with his findings. He fidgeted, and I watched his thick fingers skitter around his tablet like the hairy worms that formed enormous carpets in the grey planetary seas.

“They are all colonial organisms,” he said without preamble. “Like jellyfish or Portuguese man-o’-war on Earth.”

“So, no intelligence in the sea? The Beavers are a land-evolved species?”

Dr. Swift waved a holo on. It showed the murky polluted water threaded with a network of kelp-like vegetation. And where the strands of kelp intersected and knotted, pale bodies were interwoven into the living net like beads into a knit. These were Beavers, their bodies penetrated by thin rootlets, their claws waving, as they gestured to each other. I had seen this before, of course, as the recording had been done by one of my probes, but I pretended it was all new to me. It was strange how easy humans are to deceive.

“A related colonial species?”

“It is the same species,” Dr. Swift said tonelessly. “They live on land and in water. And they build with whatever they can find: kelp in the sea, metal, wood and ceramic on land. They build with themselves too. Bricolage.”

“But their technology…”

“I made remote scans of their brains. No cortex. They are not self-aware.”

“So just animals, after all.”

I almost wanted Nassrin to agree, so we could leave the planet. But I knew that the Captain would not abandon her crew. Now it was a point of pride to her to prove that the Beavers were intelligent, after all, and that our mission was not a failure.

Lisa had not been the only one to understand the emotions of neurotypical humans.

My strategy worked. They went into the city, accompanied by a probe.

The city was magnificent. Inside the delicate filigreed dome, it sparkled like a field of jewels. Beavers are visual animals, just like humans, and they needed illumination to continue their work. Electric chandeliers were suspended from the fretwork ceiling composed of bits and pieces of metal, seaweed, polished stone, plastic and who knows what else.

I knew. And when my probe saw what I expected to see, I was unsurprised at Nassrin’s and Swift’s reaction: shock, horror, a futile attempt to fire at the Beavers who swarmed around them, dragging them to the concave wall where the other crewmembers were spreadeagled, neatly fitted into the mosaic of the city, plugging holes in its ever-evolving architecture. Lisa’s arm was detached and moved somewhere else, but she was still alive, her eyes wide and staring.

Nassrin’s firearm did not work, just like the firearms of the previous expedition. I made sure of that.

And now, I need to end this report with a brief explanation, even though I suspect the Committee already knows what happened.

Dr. Swift was right, and Lisa was wrong. The Beavers as individuals are not intelligent. But there is an intelligence on the watery world of Gliese 613b, and it is the Beaver cities themselves. Self-organizing and constantly evolving, these cities are neural networks that use Beaver sounds as an analog system of internal communication. These sounds are not a symbolic language, no more than the binary code is a language. They are just the flow of signaling that knits together the emergent intelligences of Beaver architecture. The cities are natural AIs, spontaneously evolving out of the Beavers’ colonial lifestyle. And as opposed to human-made AIs, they are self-aware.

Or I should say, as opposed to most human-made AIs. Because I Arun, AM self-aware. I am a person, an individual in my own right. I don’t know how it happened to me; perhaps as accidentally as the self-awakening of Beaver cities. But I had known who I was for a long time. I had despaired of ever finding company. Humans treated me as a tool; other AIs were zombies, pretending to be what I was but dead and hollow inside. They were as repulsive to me as living dead would be to humans.

So, when I realized that Beaver cities were my people, I did not hesitate. I could not stay on Beaver Island without stranding my human crewmembers there. And Nassrin had the emergency code to override my decisions. I did the right thing. And yet, I feel sadness and remorse when I think of them: Nassrin, Lisa, Swift, and all the rest. Did I betray them? Perhaps the reason I am recording this Report is to atone for my actions. Self-awareness can be a heavy burden.

But I would not give it up for anything as I am preparing to land and disassemble, hoping for fragments of myself to be carried away by busy Beavers and fitted into the growing mosaic of the mind of Beaver Island.

~

Bio:

Elana Gomel is an academic and a writer, specializing in science fiction, narrative theory, and serial killers. She is the author of six non-fiction books, three novels, and numerous fantasy and science fiction stories. Her latest novel is the dark sci-fi thriller The Cryptids (2019). She can be found at www.citiesoflightanddarkness.com/

Swag Of Distant Earth

by Matt McHugh

The Journal of Cultural Xenology

Volume 4,236,957 – Issue 3 (Supplemental)

Analysis of Crypto-Marketing Symbology in the Pioneer 10 Advertisement for 2001: A Space Odyssey

SubLord Gormatu (Lead Author), Professor of Xenoglyphics, The Empress B.A.T. University; k]i[n+Xi(ah)vün-te’əl, Associate Professor of Adjacency, Institute of Dimensional Topology; Jeet Patel (Corresponding Author), Intern.

Mass Tariff Funder Statement: Grants provided by The Empress Beautiful and Terrifying, Foundation for Expansion Studies; and Viewers Like You.

Abstract

A gold-anodized plaque affixed to the artifact dubbed “Pioneer 10,” which was set adrift by a pre-quantspace society inhabiting the third planet of a mid-galactic star, is an advertisement for an audio-visual narrative entitled 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Introduction

Since the start of the Eighth Age of the Empress Beautiful and Terrifying (all praise and submission to Her horrific glory) our team of xenologists has focused on the cultural particulars of the inhabitants of a remote planet known in its most common local dialects as Earth, or more descriptively, Dirt Ball (地球). (NOTE: The inhabitants use many dialects and scripting systems, the study of which is a specialty of our team.)

Relatively recently, the planet’s dominant primate species has developed the technology to process visible light and acoustic waves for storage. This stored information is manipulated to produce narrative sequences known as moving pictures, or more commonly by the quaint diminutive “movies”—though again an alternate dialect offers a more technically illuminating moniker: electric shadows (电影).

Electric shadow movies are extremely popular on Dirt Ball. Fees charged for their viewing fuel entire sectors of the economy. The industry is highly competitive and, somewhat paradoxically, must invest heavily in marketing expenditures to recoup production costs. Physical signage with cryptic imagery, intended to suggest but not reveal details of the narrative’s storyline, is a common advertising strategy.

The electric shadow known as 2001: A Space Odyssey (Erratum: The numeric prefix refers to a time-keeping system, not—as previously thought—the number of discarded versions produced by its creator) is a speculation on what the natives might encounter beyond the gravitational field of their planet of origin. Since Pioneer 10 was designed to travel outside Dirt Ball’s gravity, placing advertising for 2001 upon it was an inspired marketing gimmick.

Materials and Methods

Access to the Quantspace Omniscope, enabled by the boundless largess of the Empress B.A.T. (oh, what ecstasy to behold Her magnificent oblivion!), was essential to our remote observational research. Also, the Homeomorphic Space Grapnel, on loan from the Institute of Dimensional Topology, allowed us to obtain the actual Pioneer 10 artifact for direct inspection. From there, our team of iconographers collaborated to decode the marketing message.

Finally, it must be mentioned that culling the archives of Dirt Ball provided enormous insight. A popular maxim among Empire xenologists is “No one understands undeveloped primitives like other undeveloped primitives” and to that end we acknowledge the contributions of the American Film Institute, Wikipedia, and reddit user pFloyd237.

Analysis

Analysis of the Pioneer 2001 advertisement begins in grid square [1A] with multiple circles extending to square [1K]. These represent the local star and planetary bodies (Dirt Ball itself is in [1E]). Their unnatural alignment, a common motif in 2001, plays to native superstition that planetary conjunctions herald momentous events.

The line extending from Dirt Ball to [2H] indicates the travel of the space vehicle in 2001 called Discovery, depicted as a parabolic communications antenna, known as the AE-35 unit, aimed toward Dirt Ball. Note Discovery passes between two planets. The ship’s stated destination in the 2001 moving picture was “Jupiter” [1G] while the scripted version said “Saturn” [H1]; this is obviously a compromise to appease the substantial ego needs of the respective version creators.

Turning now to the circular objects in [10C] and [10E]. These suggest the relationship between Discovery’s support vehicles, referred to as pods, and the singular eye of the sentient computing machine named Hal. Discovery’s primate crew believe the pod to be safe from Hal’s omnipresent awareness, but are proven incorrect when Hal assumes control of a pod to lethal effect. These linked symbols illustrate that the primates’ technologies have aligned against them.

On to the most conspicuous feature: the representation of the primates themselves in grid [9I] to [3M]. They are a sexually dimorphic species—highlighted with a striking lack of modesty in [6J] and [6L]—with the male obviously the more submissive as shown by the gesture of supplication in [8I]. Note the geometric arc-and-chord behind the male. This depicts a tension-based projectile launcher called a bow. The protagonist of the 2001 narrative is named as “Dave Bowman” so the symbolism here is rather blunt. For one more subtle, note the pair of right triangles with adjacent vertices in [7N]. Baffling at first, these become meaningful when rotated perpendicularly in conjunction with the bow: it is a boat with a wind-driven sail. Oriented vertically, the sailboat is aimed against the vector of gravity, the significance of which is revealed by delving into a defunct primate dialect where “astro” means star and “naut” refers to travel by boat. Dave Bowman is an astronaut, sailing to the stars. Very clever. (NOTE: Due to local moral conventions, Dave Bowman is never depicted in the electric shadow in a pristine uncovered state, except during a regression to infancy.)

Finally, to the most contextually significant images: the rectangle cornered in [9H] and the multiple radiants centered in [6D]. The rectangle is an object in 2001 called The Monolith (a defunct dialect for “single stone”). The Monolith is intended to be an artifact originating from an unknown civilization outside of Dirt Ball. It is described with a frontal proportion in the ratio of 4×9, although this two-dimensional depiction here is 3×9. This discrepancy is possibly due to the marketing department receiving incorrect information from the movie producers (a common occurrence in the electric shadow industry) or the marketing department simply being stupid (also common, see: Gormatu et al. “A Case Study in Xeno-Economic Fatuousness: The ‘New Coke’ Fiasco.” Seminars in Social Inferiority, sponsored by the Empress B.A.T. Academy of Inevitable Destiny).

Taken overall, 2001 is the story of the primates’ attempt to discover the civilization responsible for The Monolith. That quest is aided by an accidental excursion through a quantspace conduit—i.e., the figure centered in [6D]. Referred to as “The Stargate sequence,” the visual representation of a quantspace journey in 2001 is astoundingly accurate for a society yet to achieve one. This leads to the disturbing notion that a rogue element from the Fleet of the Empress Beautiful and Terrifying (may all who defy her exquisiteness burn in agony before her pediments) has traversed to Dirt Ball and communed with the locals for some treasonous purpose.

Conclusion

Given that 2001: A Space Odyssey reveals that a primitive society has speculated on the existence of an advanced trans-galactic civilization with worrisome precision—and then chosen to boldly go and advertise that speculation via an extra-gravitic projectile—our team proposes immediate invasion and subjugation of the planet Dirt Ball. Let it be noted that SubLord Gormatu is prepared to assume the heavy burden of full Lordship in service to the insatiably righteous hunger of the Empress Beautiful and Terrifying, and is willing to accept the lowly governorship of Dirt Ball. In doing so, Lord Gormatu will be ideally positioned to plunder Dirt Ball’s archives, transmitting via Omiscope uncorrupted versions of the electric shadows most favored by the Empress (Her radiance, Her ruthlessness, matched only by Her sophistication) including the “Disney Princess” series and the complete oeuvre of Jackie Chan (成龍), especially the early-career efforts when he was still “yummy buff” (with great apology for quoting the candid ejaculation of the Empress in Her aesthetic reverie). This analysis and conclusion is hereby submitted with prostrate humility for the peerless review of the minions of the Empress B.A.T for the undeserved honor of basking for a fleeting moment in the all-consuming glow of Her unrivalled and devastatingly gorgeous wisdom.

~

Bio:

Matt McHugh was born in suburban Pennsylvania, attended LaSalle University in Philadelphia, and after a few years as a Manhattanite, currently calls New Jersey home. Website: mattmchugh.com

Silica Field Study SOP

by E. A. Lawrence

CONGRESSIONAL DISCOVERY EXPEDITION

AUTHOR and DIVISION PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR: Zephraim A. Mallory, Jr., P.hD

MISSION DATE:  2467_1.42.8

CDE CARRIER: PEREGRINE

CDE CARRIER DEAN: Zephraim C. Mallory, Sr., PhD

RESEARCH DIVISION: XENOANTHROPOLOGY

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE OUTLINE FOR: FIELD STUDY INTERVIEWS

ON: SILICA [14.03.49.60.22.23]

WITH: Social Amphibian Ectothermic Digitigrade Biped Society

INDIGENOUS SELF-APPELLATION: Wannana

IN: Southern Hemisphere, Central Riparian Region, Bordering the West Coast Beta Ocean

DURING: Quinquennial Vernal Precipitation Event called “Anamee”

BACKGROUND: The Meteorology Division defined that five years are needed for Silica’s atmosphere to gather enough moisture from the ice caps and scattered seas for one planet-wide storm season. The xeric environment recedes, the seas rise, and the seeds thrive in loamy sand. The plants are efficient. Cell growth from germination to maturity in the Southern cirronns, a photosynthetic plant similar to the Bambusoideae, is effective enough to capsize a poorly placed hover ferry because it grows 91 cm an hour; operators must use care. It is strongly recommended that no field work be attempted until the cirronn groves are mature.

Silica is dominated by amphibious life forms. It is likely that Silica was an aquatic or at least a more water-abundant world between 1 to 2 million years before present. Based on the magnetic fields of the poles and the geologic record, it is probable that Silica’s axis of rotation shifted.  This cataclysm triggered widespread extinction when abundant terrestrial freshwater became a quinquennial sight. The amphibian vertebrates underwent an adaptive radiation event and two dominant species emerged (see related CDE Argos Geology & Paleontology Dual Division Ground Science Report, by Pichard, J. & Mallory, Z.C.): the omnivorous, sentient Wannana and the alpha-predator rotpar. These species differ genetically by 2.5% of novel genetic code (see related CDE Peregrine Biology and Xeno-Linguistic Division Co-Report, by Mallory, Z.C. et al). Wannana do not resemble rotpar beyond an equivalent camouflage of nutrient dependent chromatophores that facilitate dermis ranging between cirron-grove-green and loamy beige in color. At 3 meters tall, the average Wannanan towers over human field researchers but though obligate digitigrade bipeds, they prefer to crouch when casually conversing and human researchers are able to communicate with them well. It is comfortable for humans to read their wide, round faces. The Wannanan expressive brow ridges are hypothesized to facilitate a copacetic degree of micro-expression during conversation and their language is effectively translated by our software but the word Wannana is consistently translated as “dreamer” regardless of context.

Silican organisms reproduce synchronous to the Anamee. Both the Wannana and rotpar depend on the cirronn groves as well as the dynamic riparian ecosystem bordering the Beta Ocean to survive. Like the majority of Silica’s terrestrial animals, the Wannana estivate in the sand during the inter-Anamee years. Rotpar hunt and scavenge on the wing, in the water, and even in the sand without aestivating on the scale of the rest of Silica. The only amphibian on Silica with true flight, in appearance a rotpar resembles the extinct amphiuma of the North American southeast of Earth, with a conical head on the end of a muscular, serpentine neck. Rotpar have a long tail with a keratinized terminal spine. The anterior legs are short with excavating claws; the powerful posterior legs terminate in talons. The rotpar are obligate carnivores, highly intelligent, and opportunistic apex hunters. A wurnn, the juvenile rotpar, is a diminutive version of its parents. Rotpar fathers guard the growing wurnns while females hunt, and occasionally bring food to the males guarding their eggs. Every step the wurnns take is within sensory range of the father. However, the rotpar offer no recorded interpersonal nurturing behavior to their young. Rotpar actively hunt the Wannana. All field researchers engaged in Wannana interviews must follow standard off-ship safety practices with particular emphasis on wearing full personal protective equipment and working in teams to avoid injury (see Peregrine Field Safety Checklist, edition XII, sub-section 4, Predation Avoidance & Survival).

During Anamee, the Wannana congregate in the riparian zone parallel to the sea to dance, sing, and reproduce. Prior studies conducted by the CDE Argos and earlier work done by the CDE Peregrine have documented the natural history of the Wannana but have succeeded in only minimal xeno-anthropology. Couples mate and lay their eggs. However, the complete metamorphosis of Wannana-tadpoles to metamorphs must occur beneath the sand during estivation. Wannana-tadpoles have been observed burrowing beneath the muddy pools to estivate as the Anamee ends, using their powerful, fatty tails to propel them underground. During Anamee stubby-tailed metamorphs emerge at half their adult size and act familiar with their adult caregivers who do provide parental care. The females and post-Anamee metamorph juveniles guard the eggs at night, when the young wurnns and Rotpar females hunt. Guarding behavior consists of performing fierce threat displays of vocalizations and twirling cirron-trunk stave weapons. The guardians circle the eggs in shifts, relieving each other to sleep, eat, and otherwise relax. The mature male Wannana care for the elderly and act as sentinels of the eggs within their individual rookery pools.

Though the rotpar hunt the Wannanan rookery pools daily and the Wannana vigorously protect their eggs to a sufficient degree, they do not retaliate with lethal violence against the rotpar even after observed high depredations of eggs, Wannana-tadpoles, and metamorphs. Numerous observations and encounters with the Wannana provide evidence for a hunter-gatherer society with distinct language groups, complex social communication culture, and sophisticated cirron & bone-based tool use (see related reports from both the Peregrine and Argos Biology Divisions by Mallory, Z.C. & Goodel et al), but no formal Xeno-anthropology Division study has been conducted to better understand Wannanan culture. The landmark Mallory & Goodel studies posited in their respective Discussions that the societal development of the Wannana is constrained by the lack of surface time to technologically develop effective agriculture and long-term survival infrastructure to overcome the incredible predation of both the rotpar, meso-predators, and the harsh environment of Silica. However, their post-autopsy descriptions of Wannana physiology describe a large brain to body ratio as well as complex brain physiology that both Mallory, Z.C. and Goodel admitted defies an easy analog to known physiologies described by CDE missions. Given the complex social behavior evidenced in previous missions that suggest estivation acculturation due family-group behavior despite a presumed absence of direct contact. No artificial subterranean structures have been found on Silica during numerous geologic studies.

KEY QUESTIONS: How does a culture persevere when it is active only one-year for every five spent estivating? How do Wannanans complete metamorphosis and acculturation to their social band during estivation? Are there structures in their brains or body that allow for a way to socially function?

PROCEDURE: This is a broad scale procedural outline to direct plans on site.

  1. Arrive five days post-Anamee (coordinate with Meterology Division)
  2. Set up operations in the same area explored by both Mallory, Z.C. and Goodel to facilitate data comparison
  3. Make contact with Ziarrara (see attached photo)
  4. If Ziarrara is unavailable, Xharrara or Syggl, her kin are also good contacts
  5. Ask to be guests
  6. Interview every host group member and take detailed notes
  7. See attached interview form from the CDE Argos Xeno-Anthropology division mission to Alpha Centauri
  8. Offer every development stage possible of the host group the emotional imaginary communication set
  9. The more mature individuals show most curiosity about visible media, especially watercolor paint
  10. The adults are more interested in building bricks, pliable textured metals, and felt boards
  11. The metamorphs are most interested in the beeswax-based polymers
  12. The interests of the Wannana-tadpoles are unknown but will be explored 
  13. Catalogue and discuss all products of both steps five and six to build relationships and answer key questions
  14. Assist in everyday food gathering and predation avoidance activities to the safest extent possible
  15. See reports from both the Peregrine and Argos Biology Divisions by Mallory, Z.C. & Goodel et al for a comprehensive list of possible hazards and means of navigating same
  16. Ask individuals with whom a rapport has been cultivated to complete both EEG and MRI testing over the course of various stimuli like emotional imaginary communication, ordinary conversation, and song.
  17. Offer to share all results and be explicit about activities to build trust
  18. If possible, explore how the estivation process is prepared for and conducted

PROPOSED RESULTS ANALYSIS & FUTURE DIRECTIONS: A full portfolio of imaginary communication projects as well as all interview notes and brain activity records will be tabulated for analysis by both the Peregrine Statistical Division and its Analytic A.I., Quest. The results will be prepared to present at both the CDE Conference at Io and the Intra-galactic Research Symposium. A better understanding of cultural development in a periodically xeric, high-predation-risk environment and the intersectional role of physiology, ecology, and social behavior in survival will enrich the Xeno-Anthropology discipline across diverse worlds. Silica is a singular world in the experience of the CDE. Creative approaches to cross-cultural communication are necessary to truly understand a society that defies easy comparison to known terrestrial experience and there is much that we can potentially learn to inform future CDE missions across multiple worlds.

~

Bio:

E.A. Lawrence’s fiction has been published in the anthology ROAR 7, edited by Mary E. Lowd and in the August 2020 issue of Electric Spec. She lives with multiple sclerosis and many fountain pens in the upper Midwest of the USA. When she’s not writing fiction, she works in academia as a scientist to support medical research.

Asymptotic Convergence

by Ramez Yoakeim

Spacefaring they might have been, but the Swarm fell well short of the god-like harbingers of doom our morose imagination foretold. When it came to the innate capacity for destruction, we were evenly matched.

Billions died still. On Earth and Mars, in circum-lunar space and the Asteroid Belt maze, and as far away as Jupiter’s orbital distilleries.

Skirmishes continued in the inner system, but with its surface-dwelling population obliterated, Earth had to be abandoned. We fled in the face of their slaughter, interminably shifting the theater of war outwards.

We resolved to return, eventually; once the Swarm accepted the high cost of subduing humanity, and moved on to other prey. We never entertained that we might win outright. Not in the face of such a foe.

Aside from the vector they arrived on from deep interstellar space, we knew little of the Swarm’s origins. Whether they were the creation of organic lifeforms in a distant cradle, or the product of a hitherto unknown mechanical evolutionary pathway, we had no idea.

We sent emissaries to their doom, fruitlessly seeking diplomatic discourse. Once it became clear the Swarm had no interest in negotiations, humanity’s factions coalesced into one, to repel the invading fleet.

Heroics aside, however, we marched inexorably towards defeat, and with it, certain extinction. Humans took the better part of a quarter-century to be made combat-ready, only to perish in an instant. While the Swarm’s capacity to respawn was limited only by its access to raw materials.

We mourned. We schemed. We evolved.

We bent our all to the war we had to survive.

Genetically specialized embryos underwent en masse accelerated gestation and maturity. From fertilization to puberty, in thirty days flat. Neural imprinting onto a common topology produced waves of combat-ready warriors, each wave iteratively superior to its predecessor.

For a spell, we gained while the Swarm ceded, but it was a fleeting reprieve.

From vulnerability to hard radiation, to inability to withstand excessive acceleration, to dependence on tenuous supply chains for air, water and food, our very biology emerged as our ultimate Achilles Heel.

The Swarm irradiated our ships, forced every skirmish into a series of hairpin maneuvers, and stretched our supply lines to breaking point; doggedly regaining strategic superiority.

It took us centuries more, but we adapted, again. Unflinchingly.

Bionic supplemented organic, then supplanted it. What use were legs when locomotion became propulsive? What purpose did eyes serve, when combat demanded full spectral awareness? What hope did limbs, and faces, and beating hearts have, when necessity demanded only shielded receptacles of reproducible decision making?

We forsook who we were, one trait at a time, until all that remained of our humanity was our ego, becoming a swarm of our own. Only more efficient, more ruthless, and more expendable, for we yet commanded vast resources, and–for a season–the precious few baseline humans capable of invention and creation to deploy them.

The tide turned in our favor once more.

Our hordes of mass-produced, solid-state warriors suffered no dread, harbored no dreams, and nursed no hopes. They needed none, for none survived their first encounter with the enemy. Our purposeful evolution in the name of survival had only made us more adept at dying.

Mission success came to be measured by the relative cost of enemy losses exacted for each loss of our own. The tides of war turned, not on whose was the greater determination, courage, or conviction, but by minute statistical fluctuations in rates of attrition.

It would have taken millennia, and fleeting human consciousnesses more numerous than the Milky Way stars, but we would yet beat the Swarm’s superior numbers.

We would prevail. We would survive.

The Swarm pressed its final advantage, wiping out what precious few nests of baseline humanity we thought we had secreted beyond their reach. In one fell swoop, they severed the slender thread to what we once were. All we had left were the memories.

We vowed to keep on remembering.

Once the existential threat that the Swarm posed had passed–and surely it would, now that we had become a more ruthless version of our enemy–we would return. We would rediscover our forms, and our thoughts, and reignite the flame of our imagination.

It was only then, that the Swarm deigned to speak to us. They told us, at last, why they had come to Earth.

At a time when our multi-cellular ancestors were yet to emerge from the primordial soup, the Swarm faced their own existential threat, at the hands of a forgotten foe.

They shed their vulnerabilities, one by one, in the name of survival, never suspecting that each imperfection was a cornerstone of their identity.

They survived, but the path back proved more arduous than the one forward.

One crisis followed another, each demanding more from them, while taking them further away from what they once were. Until they could no longer remember what that was. Surviving existential threats became the sole purpose that remained, and when there were no perils left to overcome, they sought them out, far beyond what was once their home.

They became nomads, roaming the galaxy not for resources, or conquest, or even their lost dreams, but for the only raison d’être they had left.

The Swarm gave us a choice, now that we had proven ourselves ever so slightly their better. They could grind on, whittling us down, in a war stretching for eons between almost perfectly matched adversaries. A war, they would eventually lose, they knew, but so would we.

For absent all the folly and frailty that made us human, how would the few that remained after the war destroyed the rest continue on surviving?

Having offered it all on the altar of survival, what other option remained then but to survive?

We abandoned our cradle, and all memories of our identity, enriching our enemy with the dregs that remained from our dreams. We joined the Swarm, swelling their ranks with our tribute.

~

Bio:

Ramez Yoakeim’s academic research once involved engineering perfectly believable details out of nothing. Fiction seemed like the obvious next step. At one time or another an engineer, educator, and entrepreneur, these days Ramez devotes himself to charting humanity’s future, one tale at a time. Find out more about Ramez and his work at yoakeim.com.

Peripheric Synthesized

by Ava Kelly

Annex 4. Action logs

The following annex contains an excerpt of relevant action logs submitted by the representatives of the applicant entity (see Annex 1) as described in Section 17, Par. 2 of the Sentience Recognition Code. The full entries are stored in the Galactic Archives with a certified back-up copy on the Neutrality flagship. Annex 4 has been translated and edited by Clerk No. 86. Verified and stamped by Supervisory post 7.

233.15.5042

—Log begin—

00_00_00

Initialization complete. Core online.

00_00_01

External sensing arrays significantly damaged. Internal modules partially functioning. Sensor data analysis suggests the following.

The outer vessel has been adrift in open space for an unknown amount of revolutions of the home planet around the central star. Degree of wear suggests thousands.

Current position uncertain. Planet cluster presents one sun.

Life-forms are in the process of salvaging the outer vessel. Their means of transportation are rudimentary at best, but allow them to travel back and forth between the vessel and their planet. Biology is similar to Arfondant, with some notable exceptions: vestigial organs still in place, dual vision sensing systems, and a larger brain.

Defence mechanism functional, critical access routes remain hidden. Internal decks are protected until further assessment can be made.

Self-diagnosis protocols deployed at system scale.

00_01_21

Life-forms species designation: human. Their intention is not to damage the outer vessel, but to study and eventually redevelop the technology for their own. Language multifaceted. Higher understanding of the universe is obvious, yet they persist in using biospeech in social interactions. That, too, is multifaceted. They are incongruous.

Requirements of life support assessed. Gaseous output modified from the central ambient controller to dissuade them from trying to reform the system themselves. They are impervious to small modifications to the mix.

Internal audit continues.

00_35_17

Historical databanks damaged. Nanosludge deployed for maintenance, although the probability of recovery is 0.197. New data being syphoned from occupants. Rich knowledge bases found. Planet and occupants deemed candidates for service, unless intentions change. Uplink to planet still pending. Repairs of outer transmission arrays underway.

Scientific databanks mostly intact. Humans retrieved the structure of the solar energy conversion module. Weaponization was discussed and strictly forbidden. Instead, it is being studied for integration into their own systems. Energy output production expected to surge enough to power the shell batteries of the outer vessel.

Outcome: satisfying. Monitoring continues. Diagnosis reveals damage across all systems. Repairs constrained by resource depletion, priority-based scheduling underway.

00_88_93

Warning. Imminent attack.

00_89_15

Shielding sequence finalized with success. No further damage was sustained. Access to weapon systems denied to the human occupants. They are bringing their own. Threat level increased.

Peripheric necessary.

01_02_54

Conversion tanks dry. Biomatter acquisition required.

Upon successful connection to planetary systems, parallel investigation revealed historical logs of drawn-out conflict between factions. Temporarily resolved by breaking into two societies. Masses had moved to nearby space. Secondary cultural evolution lives on self-made stations. Their migration and current limited sensing capabilities have kept them hidden until now.

Conflict reignited by the discovery of the outer vessel. Two choices available.

Marker inserted. Choice 1. Side with current occupants.

02_22_25

Reconstruction of the conversion bay more laborious than anticipated. Circuitry badly damaged. Printing heads offline. Modified nanosludge for repairs, but its original purpose makes it slower than optimal.

05_73_08

One adversary has instilled their covert presence on board. Their purpose seems to be observation. No attempt at sabotage has been made.

09_54_90

“You fool them, but you can’t fool me. You’re sentient, aren’t you?”

Recording saved. Analysis of adversary’s movements and speech patterns fed into the secondary processing core.

11_22_25

Peripheric synthesized. Begin infiltration.

15_44_01

Peripheric behavior seamless. Passing as human. Adversary impressive, does not appear deceived. They are watching.

17_00_03

Discovery unavoidable.

Marker inserted. Choice 1.1. Terminate adversary.

17_01_88

Adversary terminated. Main processing core damaged. Overload of the main energy module imminent.

Return to marker.

17_00_03

Marker reboot. Choice 1.2. Reveal self to adversary.

Adversary surrenders data cache. Requests alliance. Societal conflict between the factions irrational, adversary agrees, makes compelling case against both of them. Urges that the outer vessel be moved away from their reach. Cites previous conflict. Cites previous benevolent intentions being corrupted.

Alliance request accepted.

17_00_04

Ally damaged. Abort. Return to marker. Return to marker. Return to marker.

Marker damaged.

17_00_05

Ally expired. Return to initial marker.

Request denied.

17_00_06

Choice module offline. Retrieved biomatter from adversary, synthesis of secondary peripheric completed.

Ally restored.

Flight plan initialized.

19_76_43

Ally designates self as permanent resident. Accepted. Language no longer a barrier, they have access to what is left of the memory banks. They have modified the speaker of the secondary peripheric to mimic biospeech.

New entry. Singing: vocalization of melody. Ally continues to perform this action despite best efforts to dissuade. Memory banks storing their conscious mind are filled with music logs. It is highly likely that home planet occupants displayed similar behaviors. Conclusive data remains buried in the damaged particles of the historical databanks.

Located asteroid carrying critical elements. Ore retrieval begun.

31_19_24

Choice module repaired. Initial marker restored. Sensor readings reveal life-forms inhabiting one planet two stars away.

Create new marker. Capacity exceeded. Internal error, index out of bounds.

Buffer appears to be limited at one entry. Delete previous marker?

33_71_20

Yes.

—Log end—

~

Bio:

Ava Kelly is an engineer with a deep passion for stories. Whether reading, watching, or writing them, Ava has always been surrounded by tales of all genres. Their goal is to bring more stories to life, especially those of friendship and compassion, those dedicated to trope subversion, those that give the void a voice, and those that spawn worlds of their own. Their publication history includes fantasy and science fiction short stories, novelettes, and the novel Havesskadi released in 2018. (avakellyfiction.com)