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A satellite peacefully floated above a dark red, beige, and blue planet. Long, streaking clouds slowly drifting over rugged mountain ridges resembling giant fish scales. Two gray moons pockmarked by eons of meteorite impacts were visible from its current orbit.

The peace and quiet were rudely interrupted by a monstrous, impossibly sleek spaceship larger than a skyscraper imploding into existence out of nowhere. It clumsily tumbled end over end, smashing into the satellite, instantly and silently obliterating it.

Caught in the planet’s gravity it curved downward, trying to steady itself in vain. After getting a moment of stability, it ignited from air compression, bounced off the atmosphere, and started violently tumbling again, leaking glowing gas like a wounded animal from a deep, jagged tear along its triangular body with downward curved wings.

Something dark and ominous warped into space behind it, with several more sharp, angular, blurry shapes in tow. Managing to get the timing just right, the wounded craft fired a long, thin metal slug at its primary pursuer, shattering it A pitch-black sphere stamped with a red glyph quickly followed the kinetic round and began to heat up, turning redder and redder as it approached.

As the triangular craft’s massive, glowing red engines gave out, it exploded with enormous force just as a small, pebble-shaped pod shot out of it like a guided missile. The pod tried to insert itself into orbit while the now glowing sphere flew toward its pursuers and detonated with an apocalyptic fireball which almost immediately imploded into a tiny dot of churning white plasma.

The dot spun wildly around its axis for less than a second before unraveling into a blast wave of radiation and blinding light which simply erased anything and everything in its range from existence. The planet below was bathed in auroras as the fallout from the two blasts collided with the atmosphere. The pod angled itself away from the shockwaves and accelerated to its top speed while still trying to follow the curve of the atmosphere, its electromagnetic shielding ablaze.

Meanwhile, in a large, bright, two-story mission control room, a group of uniformed technicians sitting behind large, slightly curved desks looked at banks of monitors and terminals in near panic. In front of them hung an enormous, curved screen with a SIGNAL OUT message across two-thirds of its area, while the other third was a dashboard showing the outpost’s operational vitals with numerous warnings.

Christine Hayes, the Director of Communications, practically flew down from her office on the mezzanine overlooking the hub of activity, tablet in hand. Her subordinates furiously typed, clicked, and yelled statuses and instructions.

“SATCOM rebooting in 33 seconds.”

“Health check on primary sats?”

“Alpha Constellation can’t respond when SATCOM is rebooting.”

“Outpost shielding?”

“At 53 percent but coming back up.”

“Time to 100?”

“One hour, ten minutes.”

In the scramble, they barely noticed their boss waiving her tablet in the air.

“Hey, what the hell just happened?” asked Christine.

“One of our primary satellites got hit with something huge,” replied a technician named Sandra while furiously clicking.

“How damaged is it?” asked Christine.

“It’s not damaged, it’s gone. Like, no longer exists gone.”

“Whatever hit it blew up and showered us with radiation,” chimed in her colleague Kepa. “My numbers might be wrong, but we’re talking over two gigatons and an EMP that’s like getting punched in both ears. We had to reboot all our communication arrays.”

“Why didn’t our shielding hold?” asked Christine while studying the main screen.

“It’s made for solar flares, not a nuclear bombardment,” said yet another technician named Edwin.

“You think it was a nuke?” asked his colleague.

“What else makes explosions that big and emits that much gamma-ray energy?” he shrugged. “And there were two blasts that came one right after the other like a volley.”

“Did we get a visual?” cut in Christine.

He typed in a few commands and excitedly snapped his fingers when he saw the icons of the files he wanted in a window that appeared on his terminal.

“Yeah, one from the satellite’s last transmission. We just finished the recovery.”

On the main screen, the image of the ship in question was just clear enough to display a sleek, jet black wedge with a red seal featuring a stylized flame surrounded by sharp, angular glyphs on its top.

“I’d ask if anyone has any ideas about what the hell that thing was, but that would be stupid,” softly said Christine.

The computers automatically zoomed in on the image as various progress indicators showed them struggling to analyze the outlines of what it was seeing. With a ping, it was pushed to the side as feeds from other satellites came online.

“SATCOM is back up,” announced Kepa. “The remaining satellites survived, but two are in rapidly decaying orbits. Calculating correction maneuvers.”

“Well, that was unpleasant,” Christine sighed with relief.

Her moment of calm was quickly interrupted by an alarm. New windows began to pop up on the screen in rapid succession.

“Ma’am, we have a small spacecraft in an unstable orbit near our backup satellite. Moving it out of the way and getting a visual.”

The screen was now lit up with a live feed showing a pod trying to maneuver itself for a landing. It slowly but confidently stabilized and began its descent. A red electromagnetic shield lit up as it hit the denser layers of the atmosphere, but something seemed wrong as the pod began to shake and wobble inside the bubble. Nevertheless, it retained its trajectory while plunging through the atmosphere.

The glow faded as the pod tried to make lazy spirals for a soft touchdown, but its last-minute S-shaped adjustment looked very sloppy and as it fired its retro-thrusters, it began to spin sideways to the horror of the anxious observers in the command center.

It finally came to a rest after landing just a bit too hard for comfort and sliding slightly, kicking up dust and rocks. Its engines shut off, allowing it to settle at an awkward angle where it sat for a disconcerting amount of time. The stillness quickly became eerie as the dust settled in silence while a few alien birds flew above the snowy peaks of a mountain range in the distance, unperturbed by the crash landing below.

###

In a sparse, secure conference room with a view of the rocky, alien desert outside, those in charge of the city, including Christine and Chief of Engineering Steve Robbins, as well as Ingrid, the Mission Commander, sat around a sleek table with electronic tablets. In the center of the table was a large holographic display showing the crashed pod and a freeze-frame of the ship that destroyed the satellite.

“Look, I understand your concern Christine but approaching the pod is a no-go for me,” the Chief of Security said, wagging his finger in the air to emphasize his points. “We don’t know what it is, or what the creatures in it -- if there are any -- are like, or what they’ll do. There are just too many unknowns and we have to think about the millions living here!”

“If anything is still alive inside, it’s going to need assistance,” replied Christine. “If there were occupants and they’re dead, there’s a lot to learn about both the pod and what’s inside. Even an empty pod is now the most valuable thing on the planet to us, scientifically speaking.”

“We all want to know what we’re dealing with. The question I have is whether the help we can offer will be welcome. They might think we’re attacking them.”

“Maybe,” agreed Steve with a nonchalant frown. “But we do all understand that someone will come looking for the pod, right?”

He was met with confused stares, as was often the case. While his colleagues greatly appreciated the speed at which his mind worked, they were far less happy when he forgot to bring them along for the ride, bursting in with something completely out of context for everyone in the immediate vicinity.

“Just look at it,” he tried again, pointing to the hologram. “It’s enormous. I mean just look at this friggin’ thing.”

Entering a few commands on the keyboard in front of him, the patchy, but mostly complete three-dimensional render of the mysterious ship spun around and was placed in the middle of a model of the city to sharp exhales and shaking heads. It was notably taller than the most imposing spires, and its base was just as wide as it was tall. It would’ve easily dominated the skyline and city plan had it landed upright like this.

“A thousand meters long, massive engines, appears completely out of nowhere, emitting weird radiation, setting off weird explosions,” continued Steve. “It’s a spaceship built to fly between stars faster than light, and it was probably fighting something on its way here.”

“I don’t know if you have any evidence for that,” Ingrid shook her head.

“We know there were two distinct explosions,” insisted Steve. “They came one after the other, but their hypocenters were too far away to be triggered by the same event. Either this ship blew up twice over 50 kilometers, or it fired off a huge bomb right before, or right after it was destroyed.”

The other directors looked at their tablets and each other as Steve let his words sink in.

“Yes, that seems to match the data we collected,” Christine nodded. “We triple-checked. There’s no way it could’ve made it through either explosion.”

“As for warp capability,” continued Steve, “I’ve seen some designs for warp ships. Theoretical of course, but they were based on real physics. Some of them looked an awful lot like that because, after a certain point, their shape is determined by manifold geometry, not aesthetics.”

“But we have warp drives and our ships don’t look like that,” noted the Chief of Security.

“We don’t have warp drives, we have warp bubbles,” corrected Steve. “We wrap the ship in a Casimir field so we can move it at just about 99% of the speed of light and deflect all the gas and dust coming at us, which is why our ships are still pretty damn aerodynamic already. Now, it gets a bit more complicated if you break the speed of light because you’re distorting the fabric of space-time to ridiculous extremes and have to deal with a constant tsunami of charged particles.”

“So that’s why it’s shaped like a hypersonic glider?” asked the Chief Pilot. “To cut through a dense field of charged subatomic particles?”

“Exactly. Well, not exactly. But close enough in principle.”

The room fell silent.

“Trust me, someone will come for them,” finally said Steve, his eyes glued to the 3D model. “And we better know who it’s gonna be. For what it’s worth, I’ll personally volunteer to lead the effort.”

Ingrid looked at the others intently.

“I’m worried he’s right,” sighed the Chief of Security.

“All right,” said Ingrid. “Suppose we recover the pod. How do we deal with possible contamination?

“Same way we deal with it now,” replied Christine. “There are already living things on this planet, and we manage to do just fine because their DNA isn’t even DNA, they use tetrose as a sugar. If this is alien, what are the odds it will interact with our biochemistry at all?”

“Besides, after that flash of gamma rays, I don’t think there’s any contamination to worry about,” added Steve.

Ingrid’s eyes drilled into both Steve and Christine. Dammit, these little hellraisers planned out these tag-team arguments. They wanted to retrieve the pod and were not about to take no for an answer. How very like them.

“Yeah, about the gamma-ray flash,” asked the Chief of Security. “Did we ever figure out what caused it?”

“We’re pretty sure it was antimatter,” replied the Chief Scientist. “There was almost no other residual fallout, so the only thing it could be is matter-antimatter annihilation.”

“Which kind of backs up my theory, don’t you think?” nudged Steve. “We use antimatter to catalyze fusion and to help with thrust, channeling ions around the warp bubble to keep it stable.”

He shrugged and tilted his head expectedly. Any minute now.

“So, you think this is a technology stack we can understand, risks we can deal with, and you’re volunteering to lead the excursion?” asked Ingrid, finally softening her tone.

“Yes, yes, and yes,” confidently smirked Steve.

“All right,” Ingrid nodded. “To be honest, I really want to see what we’ll find in that pod. Get your team and your gear. Move out when ready.”

“Just tell me what cover you need and I’ll have it in the air,” said the Chief Pilot.

“Thank you,” smiled Steve.

“Very well,” punctuated Ingrid. “We all have our assignments. Meeting adjourned.”

###

He loved the smells and sounds of a spacesuit. As a kid, his absolute favorite thing in the world was to sit in the back of an ATV rolling through the desert hills and mountain passages with his dad, exploring and charting the planet. He learned how everything used by other explorers worked because it so often needed repairs in the harsh terrain and his dad was happy to teach him how to fix it, smiling ear to ear as the equipment would finally light up and chirp exactly how it was supposed to.

Testing the flexibility of his suit, Steve glanced at the two former fellow explorers who volunteered to accompany him, Jonas and Imogen, who insisted everyone called her Imo. They tried to suppress their laughter watching him squirm as he tried to get hardware and wetware to cooperate once again, and we’re doing a terrible job, breaking out in friendly but somewhat scolding cackles.

“Oof, haven’t worn this in a while,” Steve rebutted. “Spending way too much time behind a desk these days.”

“You’ll get used to it again,” replied Imo with a laugh. “It’s like riding a very uncomfortable bike. Backward.”

“Mr. Robbins, will you need any weapons on this mission?” asked a technician who appeared behind Steve, tablet in hand, stylus checking off boxes on his paperwork.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Steve shook his head. “The drones are armed, so that should be good enough. Minimal crew. Minimal gear. Quick in, quick out. That’s my plan.”

The Technician nodded and walked off, swiping on the tablet while the astronauts finished adjusting their gear and put on their helmets. Imo hopped a few times and clapped her gloved hands, trying to release her nervous energy.

“Ready?” asked Steve.

The explorers both nodded in agreement. Steve put on his helmet and sealed it, the sound of the tightening seal resurrecting fond and soothing memories. He was once again in his element.

“Robbins to base. We’re moving out.”

“Roger that,” said Christine’s voice over the intercom. “Good luck Steve.”

A few minutes later, a large, six-wheeled transport flanked by two drones made its way across the planet’s surface. In the distance, the snowy peaks of the mountain range were backlit by a faint aurora as the sun was setting. Sitting in their large, swiveling bucket seats, Imo, Jonas, and Steve looked out at the picturesque landscape in front of them as the transport drove itself.

“Is that the residual radiation from the event today?” asked Jonas.

“Maybe,” replied Steve. “The gamma rays excited a lot of particles in the atmosphere, so maybe it’s still calming down.”

“That makes me a little nervous,” groused Jonas in reply. “If this is how much energy they’re putting out...”

“Well, that was a catastrophic explosion of an interstellar spaceship,” replied Steve. “I don’t think we’re going to be up against antimatter bombs and death rays in a ship that small.”

“What do you think we’ll find?” asked Imo.

“Either just a ship or some alien corpses,” shrugged Steve.

With that, the crew fell silent, lightly bobbing along with the bumps of the terrain.

###

Christine looked out from the command center’s panoramic window at the numerous spires of the sprawling city and the spiderweb of sealed pathways between them and their support modules. Far from being a lonely outpost cut off from the rest of the galaxy, the city was a thriving hub of more than three million people, many of them descendants of explorers from other outposts in other solar systems, coexisting in this cozy hive for the last four millennia.

Before the first human was sent to another star past Proxima Centauri, scientists on Earth realized that shooting self-contained groups of several thousand astronauts to a distant solar system was a recipe for failure. Even a crew in the tens of thousands wouldn’t be enough for genetic diversity and preventing the so-called island effect over the long term. And so, they drafted plans for a steady, ongoing stream of resupply missions, both technological and genetic.

Exploring deep space out of desperation was foolhardy, they concluded. Humans should settle other systems because they want to, not because they had no other choice. This is also why warp the bubbles were created: to make the journeys faster and easier, protecting explorers from the worst that space had to offer and allowing them to keep moving between systems thanks to the positive side-effects of time dilation on the crews.

This was still an ordeal, of course. While a journey of 950 light years felt like less than thirteen for the large crews, thousands of years passed on their planets of origin, so every trip was effectively one way. Even the latest generations of quantum entangled communication systems sent by Earth couldn’t work while the ships were in transit. Any two-way communication meant a pre-planned pit stop to send and receive messages, usually about the inevitable passing of those who sent the astronauts into space due to the ravages of time.

Even more problematic was that over time, resupply missions and communication from Earth faded to nothing. Or, at least, that’s what Christine was told. The last transmissions came almost 700 years before her birth and contained little substance. As she grew up, she heard stories about the world from which her species hailed and saw many pictures and videos. Yet as she reviewed the communication records, she was fascinated with why Earth slowly cut contact with its extrasolar progeny.

Thousands of years of detailed updates, news, and media, crafted like gifts, slowly but surely lost their warmth and detail. The last century of transmissions was nothing more than delivery timelines and manifests. Attempts to contact Earth were ignored until even the dry logistics stopped coming. Now the complex quantum communication network meant to keep in touch with all humanity’s home was instead used to coordinate travel and trade between far-flung human cities across hundreds of alien worlds, planning generations in advance to account for the vast distances and the effects of time dilation.

One of the reasons why she ended up studying quantum mechanics and engineering was to try and answer the mystery of why Earth fell silent. Maybe, if she knew enough about how the systems worked, she’d find some obscure or bizarre glitch that when fixed would once again light up the command room with voices and images from a home she’d only known from a distance. But there was no glitch. She was sure of it and was crestfallen when she became yet another Chief of Communications to confirm this fact.

It seemed so strange and unfair. What parent sends their children out into the cold, dark, barely charted galaxy, then abandons them to their fate? It seemed like an ominous sign, so trying to figure out what happened to Earth was a hot research project among explorers on the frontiers. Their telescopes said little since they showed the planet as it was hundreds of years ago, and a snapshot only a few pixels square simply couldn’t yield enough information to determine anything for sure.

Her heart fluttered a little at the idea that the massive spaceship that warped into orbit could’ve been human-made, as Steve’s analysis of their engines and designs suggested. If it was that advanced and if it could truly travel faster than light, they might know something important about Earth’s fate. But at the same time, what exactly exploded as their ship was disintegrating?

“Christine, we have first visuals of the crash site from the rover,” said a technician named Katja looking at her monitors, snapping Christine back to reality.

“Main screen please,” she nodded, turning her head to the array of windows with live feeds and metrics.

She could see the vague outline of the pod growling larger on the horizon. They’d find out what it was and what secrets it might hold soon enough.

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neutronfish

Bio: Slightly irradiated ex-Soviet computer lobotomist who makes new technology by day and writes about weird science at night.

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