Recently I started cranking out flash fiction, just for fun. This kind of thing is how writers sometimes relax; pulling together a short piece, usually around 1,400-1,500 words. Mine are all going up on Reddit, because Reddit’s a major thing for me when it comes to the internet. Also, there’s a fairly vibrant sub for Writing Prompts that is a pretty steady flow of ideas to run with. Find something that sparks my fingers to start typing, and about half an hour later, poof; finished flash fiction piece. I call them flash fiction because, to me, even a “short story” is going to be at least three or four thousand words. Your mileage may vary. Anyway, enjoy.
This one’s called Reunion. The prompt was “After achieving interstellar travel, the first intelligent aliens humanity meets say ‘welcome back.'”
This one … sort of turned into more of an actual short story. Reddit’s post limit is 10,000 characters. Which normally is about 1,500 words, at least for me usually. This story ended up taking two full posts, about 3,300 words by my computer’s count, and I still had to trim a little. What can I say. I was kind of having some fun with it.
“We’re being scanned!”
Captain Mercer straightened in her chair. “What?” The bulb of coffee she’d been drinking bounced off the holder intended to keep drinks from floating freely around the bridge, but she ignored that. “Confirm.”
“Confirmed, several directed beams of radiation sweeping across us.”
The holographic screen came to life before Mercer, showing the inner portion of the star system her ship was just entering. Data built up on the plot quickly as Tracking updated it. She stared at it, forcing herself to wait. Captains were expected to be calm, to wait for full information, but it was hard. Especially when Tracking added velocity vectors to the origins of the scan beams focusing the Gyaan.
“Reconfirm,” Mercer said as she studied the display. Her bulb of coffee rebounded from the Engineering console, and would have kept going if Commander Huber’s assistant hadn’t snagged it quickly. “And launch a second probe shell.”
“Already done,” Commander Lynn said. “You want me to redirect the closer of the first shell toward them?”
“Uh, Commander?” Ensign Acevedo asked hesitantly.
Mercer and Lynn both looked at the man sitting in the most junior seat at Tracking.
“Spit it out Ensign,” Lynn said.
“The camera feeds on the drones—”
“—Are lightspeed. It’ll be half an hour before we can get any usable information from them.”
“But we’ve been receiving them ever since they launched, and the probes have been using the cameras. I just triangulated the point sources against the probes’ data, and ran the target areas through enhancement. I’ve got … you should see this.”
Mercer spoke before Lynn could. Her Second could be impatient, and prone to dismissiveness. Which was why he wasn’t a captain yet. “Throw it on my display Ensign.”
A window opened in the holographics before Mercer’s chair. She blinked as she saw what were, unmistakably, several spaceships. The design was completely alien, but there was no way those were just asteroids or some other natural body caught in a weird pattern of shadows. Metal and other advanced materials, smoothed and cut and shaped into what could only be pressure vessels, sensor dishes, thruster nozzles, and other ship parts.
And there were three of them in the recorded camera footage.
“Status change,” Lieutenant Burris announced from Lynn’s other side.
“No,” Burris said, shaking her head. “I think it’s a broad spectrum communications attempt.”
Mercer raised a hand as Lynn turned, his eyes meeting hers. After thinking for several moments, she turned to Lieutenant Commander McCray. “Pull up the first contact package, and start broadcasting it. Make sure we use some of the frequencies they are in their comm attempt.”
“Aye Captain,” her Operations officer said. As the woman bent to her own console, Mercer looked back to Lynn and beckoned to him. He unstrapped and pushed away from his own chair, floating closer. She waited until he’d grabbed onto one of the holdfasts on her chair to stabilize himself in zero gravity so they could talk.
“Defense?” he asked quietly.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “We’re not combat, just exploratory. Even if they’re as unarmed as our ships were prior to the System Rebellion of 2127, we’re out numbered. They’re either willing to talk, or willing to let us leave, or we’re already screwed.”
He didn’t like it. She could see it in his eyes. But he nodded after a moment. “Should we at least go to DS Two?”
“No, that’s too aggressive. But I want a hyper fix prepped and set for continuous updates, so we can jump without delay if we need to. On a random vector, so we don’t point the way back to Lumiere. Do the same with the comm drones; make sure they’re all set for three successive random jumps, at least ten lights each jump, before they return to Lumiere. Drop one now with everything we’ve got at this point, and make damned sure the others are on continuous update.”
“Captain,” McCray said.
“Go,” Mercer told Lynn. He nodded and pushed away from her. She looked at her Operations officer as Lynn grabbed onto the back of his chair.
“They’re responding to our hail.”
“Let me know when Dr. Zachegio has an estimate on how long until we can translate—”
“The hails are in … they’re in our languages,” McCray interrupted quickly. “English, German, Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish, Japanese … in fact, every language in our first contact package.”
Mercer blinked and forced herself to sit thinking for several seconds. That was … either a good sign, or a very bad one. “Okay, let me hear it.”
McCray tapped several controls as Mercer adjusted her earpiece. A few moments later, she heard a strangely normal voice.
“Greetings and welcome to Orias Nine. Peace be with us all. If you’ll hold your course, we’ll rendezvous with you so we can talk without lightspeed lags. Or, if you want to take it slower, adjust your frequencies and power settings on the transponder you used to send your message according to the instructions attached to this response, and you’ll be able to talk to us in near real-time.”
Mercer glanced at McCray as the voice fell silent. “Is this a joke?” she asked, unable to help herself.
“What? No! No ma’am.”
“How is it I’m hearing a human voice, in English?”
“That’s what was transmitted to us.”
Mercer considered the pale expression on the Lieutenant Commander’s face for several seconds, then swiveled her chair to look at her Engineering officer. “Johan?”
Johan Huber was studying his displays, hands moving non-stop, and spoke without looking away from what he was doing. “I’ve got the instructions they appended. I don’t see how they’ll get around lightspeed lag, but they’re easy to follow. Software changes basically. Won’t take a minute to input. ”
“It could be a trap,” Lynn said immediately.
“How?” Huber asked, still not turning from what he was working on.
“Give them better targeting information, guide missiles or assault drones in on us.”
“They can do that already,” Mercer said, snipping the budding argument off immediately. “We’re broadcasting like a Christmas tree, with sensors and comm beams. Three options, remember?”
Lynn looked over his shoulder at her, and nodded after a moment. “Orders Captain?”
“Make the changes,” she told Huber.
Mercer sat patiently while her officers studied their consoles. Some of the junior members of the bridge crew were glancing around, but the more experienced personnel stayed on task. Focusing on the sensor data, on whatever their duties demanded, while Mercer waited for Engineering to get caught up with the strange instructions.
“Finished,” Huber said, finally looking up at her to nod. “It’s on the display as Orias Response Channel.”
“You heard him,” Mercer said, shifting her gaze to McCray. “Put me on live mic.”
She waited until the Operations officer flashed a thumbs up. Her stomach was fluttering. Over six thousand years of human civilization, nearly two hundred years of off-Earth colonization, thirty-four years of space duty, eighteen system explorations, six years in command of Gyaan, and it had all led to this moment.
“This is Captain Jessica Mercer of the UHS Gyaan. We come in peace. To whom am I speaking?”
“Greetings. I’m Toolan, of the Alpha Expanse. Do you have visual communications capability, or can you only do audio?”
“We can do video.”
“Feed this signal through it then.”
Mercer raised an eyebrow, but when she looked at McCray, the officer nodded and touched several controls. A new window opened in Mercer’s holographics, and she felt the tingling warmth of the display’s scanners sweeping across her to capture her own image for the transmission.
She blinked when she saw what was unmistakably an adult human male standing in what could only be a human styled room. Not floating, or sitting strapped down like she was, but standing. All the proportions of the furniture and fittings and clothing she could see were human. Strangely styled, and with a ‘fashion sense’ that was foreign to her; but human. Several other people were in the background, all of them standing watching. One waved, and received an elbow in the ribs from one of the others.
“Is this some sort of elaborate prank?” she asked before she could stop herself.
“How so?” the man close to the camera, or whatever they were using to capture his image for the signal, asked.
“You look like us. And know our languages. Are you human?”
“Technically, you look like us. But that’s a philosophical question. Are you Captain Mercer?”
“I am. Are you Toolan?”
“Yes. Congratulations on reaching the stars again.”
“What do you mean again?”
“It’s a long story.”
She frowned. “I’d appreciate some form of the short version if you don’t mind.”
“If I understand your numerical system correctly, about six thousand years ago a primitive colony ship went off course and crashed on a remote planet. One of ours, and the planet was yours. At the time, we were in the middle of a long period of social upheaval, and no consensus could be reached about whether or not we should rescue the survivors or … use them as a sort of science experiment.”
“What?” Mercer blurted. She heard that same word echoed, openly or in a more restrained fashion, by a number of her listening officers.
Toolan shrugged. “I wasn’t there, so don’t blame me.”
“What kind of science experiment?” she asked, forcing herself into the most logical response she could muster.
“Most of our upheaval was centered around, for lack of a better description, what kind of people we should be. As a people, a whole people you know? The colony ship, you guys, was seen as a way to encapsulate a control into the debate. By the time we stopped arguing, you guys, or your ancestors anyway, were already busy evolving again. So it was decided to just leave it alone and watch.”
“We’ve only had space flight for a couple of centuries. If we were you, and we crashed on Earth, why did we have to start from scratch and re-evolve technologically?”
“Well, see, the survivors were pretty beat up. And technically, they weren’t survivors. They were clones the ship managed to regenerate, before the ship itself was destroyed by damage sustained in the crash. So you were pretty much a blank slate.”
“Why?” she persisted. “Why not rescue us, or at least get in contact.”
“That’s the best you can give me?”
“Sorry, I’m still receiving updates,” he said. Then he tapped his head when she frowned at him. “Brain uplink I guess would be the best way to call it. About you guys. Let’s see, if I’m assimilating your history correctly, up until about eighty years ago you were still fighting factional wars?”
Mercer frowned at him, but the length of time matched up with an obvious major moment in history. “The UHG formed seventy-nine years ago, yes.”
“And prior to that, humans—”
“Wait, if we’re you, what do you call yourselves?”
“Language really should wait for later,” he said. “Why don’t we just stick to yours for now. Yours and your terms.”
“Fine,” she said after a moment. He was probably right.
“Prior to what you call the UHG, you were a collection of independent countries scattered across one planet, hell bent on distrusting one another?”
“Actually, we were scattered across two planets and three moons,” Mercer said. “And about two dozen space stations. But if you mean we were still fighting large scale wars, against one another, then yes. That was the major reason United Humanity was formed; because enough of us got tired of constant conflict.”
“Right,” Toolan said, nodding. “Well, see, that was us for a while. Definitely when your ship crashed. Most of what we were arguing about was what you guys went through when you formed a single government and started acting as one people, one species. I have to say, you accomplished it a little faster than we did.”
“It took the, what did you call it — the Alpha Expanse — six thousand years to stop fighting amongst itself?”
“No, but it did take about three centuries from the time we started talking about it before we formalized it and gave it the teeth to keep the peace. Though we weren’t at war except for a little bit of it. The rest of the time we were just … arguing.”
“If you’re not arguing anymore, what was the decision?”
“Oh, peace. Definitely peace. We’re one big happy family,” Toolan said with a smile. “Which is why I’m so happy you’re here. This makes it official, you see. You guys have been bopping around for a little while, but by making it here that meets the conditions that were set to officially end the experiment.”
“You know … okay, hang on,” Mercer said, shaking her head. “I know this is new — for me, us, probably more than you — but I’m still confused. I’m not a scientist, but I’ve got a whole bunch aboard the Gyaan I can get into this circuit. To point out all the reasons why it doesn’t make sense when you say humans have only been on Earth for six thousand years.”
“Oh, that,” Toolan said, suddenly looking embarrassed. “Yeah, that’s … that’s our fault.” She raised an eyebrow, and he coughed into his hand. “After it was decided to use you as a control, it was pointed out that if you got far enough along, you’d start noticing how you seemed to just up and appear out of nowhere on your planet.”
“Right, Earth. So we … sort of set things up to fix that.”
“Wait,” McCray said. She had the grace to look embarrassed when Mercer darted a sharp look at her, but didn’t stop what she was doing. Which was tying herself into the channel. When she spoke again, her voice was going out to Toolan aboard his ship. “My degree’s in physics, but I took some evolutionary biology as electives. We’ve got fossil records going back hundreds of millions of years on Earth.”
“You do,” Toolan admitted. “And some of them are even real. The others, the ones about you and what you think your evolution is on the planet, on Earth, were added.”
“That’s impossible,” Mercer said. She was still looking at McCray, and made a go ahead gesture when the Operations officer looked like she wanted to say something else.
“You’re talking about creating an unimaginable amount of false evidence,” McCray said. “I don’t care how advanced you guys are, there’s no way—”
“You guys have cellular and sub-cellular scale manufacturing, right?” Toolan interrupted. “And machine controlled computations, right?”
“Nano construction, and computers, yes.”
“It’s just a matter of writing the programs and letting the factories work on the problem.”
McCray’s mouth sort of flapped helplessly for several seconds. “You’re telling me you created enough fake fossils to make us think we’re independently evolved, over millions of years, on a planet we’ve only been on for about six thousand?”
“Sure. Scale is only one factor in any problem; and dealing with scale is just a matter of taking the problem seriously enough to address it.”
“What about the animals we know are part of our genetic lineage?”
Toolan shrugged. “None of my training’s in biology. And I think we’re drifting into subjects that are probably better suited to a future conversation I’m sure we’ll all be having. Maybe not you and me specifically, but us and you, definitely. But honestly, we’ve had genetic and biological control at a sub-cellular level since before your ancestors crashed landed. Planting the … apes, I think you call them, along with the fossils and everything else wasn’t a big deal.”
McCray was shaking her head, but she made zipping motion across her mouth when she realized Mercer was still looking at her. And added a helpless shrug for good measure.
“Let’s say I’m willing to take all this on faith,” Mercer said when she was sure McCray was giving up on the question of whether or not the scientific evidence humanity had come up with to ‘prove’ their evolution on Earth was real or artificial. Frankly, she found it pretty ridiculous too; but she also agreed with Toolan. That was something other people, other humans — UHG humans — and Alpha Expanse humans, could argue about at a later date.
“What does us being here, now, talking to you, have to do with what you called ‘officially ending’ the experiment?”
“Oh, well, after a while inertia sort of kicked in. I mean, we were busy debating for a while, then it was decided to leave the crash survivors alone to see how they addressed the stuff we were arguing about. Then, when we settled down, you guys had been busy doing your own thing for so long that the new decision was to just leave you be and see it through to the end.
“And the end that we came up with was if you could get far enough in to the galaxy to get in contact with us. Which you did. So now we can move forward and get you guys reintegrated back into—”
“Woah,” Mercer said, holding up a hand. “This is a lot to process.”
“Oh I know, believe me. I mean, I don’t speak for the Alpha Expanse any more than I guess you speak for United Humanity.”
“Actually, I am empowered to represent Humanity in a first contact situation,” Mercer said stiffly.
“Okay, well, you’re one up on me. I’m just a colony administrator.”
“What— oh, right. Guess, since it’s official now, we can turn the dampers off. Hang on.”
Mercer watched as he turned to one of the people who’d been hanging out in the background of the conversation the whole time. He said something his end of the transmission didn’t pick up, and one of them nodded. A moment later, Mercer’s eyes left the window on her display as she heard everyone sitting at Tracking gasp in unison.
“Captain—” Lynn said.
“Show me,” Mercer said immediately.
Her plot changed, and she blinked. And found herself, again, wondering just how far this joke was going to go. Because it had to be a joke. A big pieces of the inner system had just become … something else entirely.
Preliminary scans when the Gyaan had dropped out of hyper had shown five planets and two distinct asteroid belts, plus a pair of gas giants in fairly eclectic orbits. Two of those planets had been in the habitable range from the star, and there had been a told of twenty-three moons orbiting the planetary sized bodies.
The number of planets, and gas giants, hadn’t changed; but now three of them blazed with energy emissions that put Earth to shame. And the number of moons was nearly double. As she watched, Tracking’s computers were furiously updating the plot. Information started tagging in, indicating the new moons were constructed. Space stations, but on a scale that cast even the asteroid processing nodes in Sol as toys.
“We’ve, meaning the Alpha Expanse, been purposefully avoiding interfering with you. That included drawing your attention artificially. But now that you’re here, we don’t have to hide,” Toolan said, and she reluctantly tore her eyes away from the still changing plot to see him smiling slightly at her. “So, now, the only question is; do you want to talk some more, come closer and we can talk in person, or do you need to return to your people and have them decide?”
Mercer realized she was gaping at him, and made herself close her mouth. Thinking furiously. Captains were supposed to think. She was supposed to report anything extraordinary … but the regulations didn’t say she had to do it in person. The comm drones could file this report perfectly well.
If she gave up the chance to see some of this for herself, she’d never live it down.
“Give me a course, and we’ll meet you at our best speed,” she heard herself say.
“Welcome home, Captain Mercer,” Toolan laughed.