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The Signal

The Signal

By

Ryan F. Gassien

Spacetime started as no bigger than an atom. Everything within our universe – from the largest galaxy to the tiniest of particles – once fit in an area so small that it could only be observed with a powerful microscope. Then 13.82 billion years ago spacetime expanded. No one knows why. Maybe it was the work of a god, or maybe it was just happenstance. Regardless, it stretched outward in all directions and at a rate greater than the speed of light.

Gluons, among the smallest of particles, appeared and disappeared at random, and sometimes smashed together to form quarks. These quarks collided with anti-quarks. A titanic battle was being fought, matter versus antimatter, and the universe became so hot that matter and energy were the same. Ultimately, matter unnumbered antimatter and won.

After the universe had expanded to about a billion kilometers, it cooled to a point where quarks stopped reverting back to energy. No more matter would be created, and it might shock you to learn that the universe was still less than a second old.

Shortly after, hydrogen atoms came into being. Spacetime eventually slowed down. Millions of years would pass before it became the frigid vacuum we know today, when gravity forced matter to coalesce, forging increasingly larger structures until stars were born. These stars were short lived but would give rise to new ones that could shelter planets.

On these worlds, life evolved, from simple cell organisms to beings intelligent enough that they could deduce the nature of spacetime. With this understanding, they built ships capable of tunneling through higher dimensions, thus enabling them to travel between stars.

One such vessel was the Ul-ta-ka, a craft designed to ferry cargo from colonies to more established systems. It raced towards the edge of a solar system, a risky maneuver, even suicidal, with the hope of using its star’s gravity well to give itself a boost. Instead, something gave way. Smoke bellowed from its engines. Hyperspace collapsed, forcing it to transition back into normal space, and it came to a stop seven light hours from the sun.

On its bridge, sparks erupted from consoles, coolant vented, and wiring fell from the ceiling. The captain, an At-ka-ti, a race of centipede-like creatures living within Rettikkee-controlled space, scuttled forward on sixteen legs and weaved around the hazards. “Of all the undisciplined, reckless… You’re lucky you didn’t scatter our atoms across this sector.”

“My maneuver should have worked,” the helmsmen objected. His talons tapped the controls. “I don’t know why. A gravitational anomaly perhaps?”

The captain pursed his mandibles together. “Chief mechanic, what is the damage to my ship?”

“Ultramatter/antimatter reactor is venting coolant, but repairable,” the At-ka-ti said from his station. “Tachyon transmitter is operational. Broadcasting standard S.O.S on all frequencies. One of our main graviton engines is offline. It will need a complete overhaul.”

The captain reached the star chart and manipulated the controls. A yellow star with eight planets materialized in front of him, but no warpgate accompanied it.

The captain sighed. He knew he shouldn’t be surprised. The Retikkee-built warpgate network might number in the hundreds of thousands and span the breath of the Milky Way Galaxy, but the Milky Way had over four hundred billion stars. If that wasn’t the case, there would be no need to equipped ships with much slower hyperdrive cores.

“No warpgate,” he said. “Please tell me that our hyperdrive isn’t beyond repair.”

“No,” the chief mechanic said. “I should be able to get it working in three days.”

“Well, at least we have that going for us.” The captain fiddled with the sensors and did a passive scan of each of the planets. “That can’t be right.”

The ship’s helmsman approached him. “What’s the matter, boss?”

“The ship’s sensors are detecting only one inhabitable world,” the captain said.

“Why is that odd?”

“Well, according to the star chart, this system should have three.”

The helmsmen cocked his head. “Maybe they were both hit by asteroids.”

The captain’s antennas vibrated, signaling to the crew his skepticism. “Hum. When was the last survey of this system done?” He inputted a command. “Thirty-two thousand years ago? No. It’s doubtful such a cataclysm could happen twice in such a short timeframe.”

“Well, if it wasn’t the result of asteroid strikes, then the only alternative is sabotage,” the helmsman said. “Possibly by a quantum phase cannon.”

“A quantum phase cannon would have obliterated the worlds. No, they are still here. One looks like its suffered a runaway greenhouse effect, while the other—”

“Captain,” the coms officer screamed. “I’m picking up a transmission!”

The captain’s heart fluttered. Had someone already answered their S.O.S? He made his way to the coms officer’s terminal and asked, “What’s the source of the transmission?”

“The third planet from the star. Captain, it’s coming in the form of radio waves.”

“Radio waves? Who would use such a primitive… Play it. I want to hear this transmission.”

A series of sounds exited the ship’s speakers, a language of some kind. The computer analyzed the speech pattern and translated it into their own. “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe—”

The communication officer deactivated the speaker. “It keeps on like that for a while.”

The captain nodded and made his way to the forward viewing window. Somewhere in this system a civilization was on the verge of reaching adulthood.

“Contact the Retikkees,” the captain said. “They must be informed of this at once.”

***

Seven years later, Engineer Un made his way down a hallway, gliding through the air by the power of his thoughts. He reached a doorway and stepped out onto a balcony. Before him was Retikkee Prime’s capital, a majestic city that floated among the clouds. His homeworld, long ago reclaimed by Mother Nature, was visible below, a palette of blues, greens and purples.

Lightning crackled, and Un glanced left to see electricity dancing along the tower’s surface, ribbons of blue and white that always managed to catch his fascination. He knew what caused them. That they were simply excess energy venting from the neutron stars that rested at the core of every Retikkee building. Still, he found their glow soothing.

Un watched them until a flying saucer crossed his field of vision. It corkscrewed, then headed upwards towards the Greater Ring World. Its diameter equal to their planet’s orbit around their star, the megastructure dominated much of the sky. Mountains, rivers, oceans, forests, deserts and grassy planes, along with wisps of clouds, stretched across its sun-facing side.

Un’s gave turned to the hole that punctured the ring and recalled his role in calibrating Retikkee Prime’s orbit, so it would thread through it whenever their paths converged. A difficult feat of planetary engineering. The slightest error would have resulted in both the destruction of his homeworld and the megastructure. Still, it was worth it, the alternative being to destroy the planet to make way for the much larger ring world, which could house quintillions of Retikkees.

Un sighed. He missed those days, when all he had to worry about was ensuring its stability. He turned and headed for another section of the tower.

Un only got a few yards when he spotted his father, Communicator Yu. The other Retikkee hovered there, his expression neutral, yet below the surface, Un sensed fury.

Un drew closer and, with his telepathy, said, “I take it that the Collective Will has deliberated.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Yu said. “I’m very disappointed in you, Son. If you only knew the effort I went to, trying to convince the Collective Will not to exile you.”

“Exile me? For what? If not for my actions, those colonists would’ve died.”

“That’s irrelevant. Your modifications went against procedures,” Yu said.

“The planetary shield we were installing was of a radically new design,” Un explained. “Had I gone with standard procedures, the shield would most likely have collapsed, crushing the moon and killing everyone on it. Frankly, I should be given a medal.”

“Again, that’s not the point. This isn’t the first time you’ve deviated from protocol, and you’re not as good an engineer as you make yourself out to be.”

Un sent a psionic ripple through the ether, the telepathic equivalent of snorting. “My modifications worked this time. Isn’t that all that matters?”

“No. We are Retikkees. We don’t deviate from established procedures. Ever.”

“Even when those procedures no longer make sense?”

“You aren’t a member of the Scientist Caste. Devising new protocols is their mandate.”

“So, until they stumble upon the problem and correct it, I have to continue making the error, even when I know it will get me and others killed.”

His father came to a halt and gazed at his son with large, black, oval-shaped eyes. His lips twitched. “A collective is only as strong as its weakest link. When you disregarded procedures, you become that weak link and endanger us all. Is that understood?”

Un twirled away. “We Retikkees are wedded to rules like a star caught in a black hole’s event horizon. Maybe that’s why we can’t vanquish the Vijics.”

His father branded teeth. “Long have we sheltered the younger races from the Vijics.”

“And a great job we’re doing, Dad. How many species went extinct during the last war?”

“Enough!” The two passed a doorway. Below was a flying saucer, at the center of which illuminated a micro neutron star, the ship’s power source. A particle fountain ejected from both its north and south poles. His father gestured to it. “This ship will take you to your next assignment. Your team will be observing the natives of a planet called Earth.”

“Earth?” Un recalled the last time he’d visited that world. “I thought the Zelturians declared the Sol system off limits, even to we Retikkees.”

“That proclamation was made five million years ago. It no longer applies.”

“Even so, when have we Retikkees ever gone against the Lords of Time?”

“When they refused to take sides in our war with the Vijics.”

“Well, they have been in seclusion for the last million and a half years, and they do see both us and the Vijics as their children. You can hardly blame them.”

His father huffed. “We Retikkees fight for law and order. They should side with us.”

Un shook his head, realizing that his father was beyond persuading, and eyed the Retikkee vessel. An older design from the looks of it, probably by a few decades, maybe even more, but still space worthy. Not his first choice. Did it have self-replicating nanoparticles?

Un frowned. “Why do I have the feeling that this is a less than glamorous assignment?”

“Be grateful that I was able to get you this,” his father said. They descended to the lower deck and approached the vessel. “Now, seven years ago, an At-ka-ti freighter briefly jumped into the Sol system. They intercepted a transmission, one sent from Earth.”

Un turned. “The Orrorins have developed long range communications?”

“Humans. They refer to themselves as humans these days, but yes, they have.”

“And this happened seven years ago. Why are we only now investigating it?”

“It was deemed a low priority, and you know how the protocol works—”

“In situations like this,” Un finished. “Yes, yes. We mustn’t deviate from protocol.”

“Sarcasm is unbecoming of a Retikkee, Son. I advise that you reframe from using it.”

***

His father gave Engineer Un a tour of the four-deck vessel before leaving. The thing was even more antiquated than Un originally assumed. He thought about refusing the assignment, but then remembered that the alternative was being exiled to a penal colony.

He brought his stuff to his cabin and got himself settled in before heading to the bridge. By the time he reached it, the crew was doing final pre-flight checks.

Navigator Zi sat at the helm. Un had already served two tours with the self-righteous jackass and was again considering declining the assignment.

He manned the console beside him. “Am I the only one troubled by the state of this death trap?” Un asked. “You do realize there’s no warpgate where we’re going. If we crash on Earth, and if somehow, we get captured by the humans and if the Collective Will decides to send a starcruiser to negotiate for our return, it will take two years to reach us?”

Zi waved a hand over his console. “Humanity doesn’t even rate a Type One Civilization. It can get away with sending an escort ship, which can arrive in seven days.”

“Yay, seven days at the mercy of the humans. That’s going to be fun.”

“The Collective Will shelters all. You’ve spent too much time among aliens, Un. They’ve twisted your sense of our collectivist identity.”

“Forgive me if I attach a value to my life.” Un brought up the ship’s directory and performed a diagnostic on the ship’s micro neutron star. What he saw greatly disturbed him. “A sixty-petawatt core? I thought those were decommissioned ages ago.”

“She’s old, but she can still go four thousand times the speed of light. Communicator Tu, traffic control has given us permission to depart.”

“Navigator, you may depart when ready,” Tu said.

“Exiting the hanger and accelerating to maximum atmospheric velocities,” Zi said.

Un gazed up at the main viewing screen. The flying saucer climbed into orbit and headed for one of the warpgates at the edge of the solar system.

Hours passed before Un caught his first glimpse of the moon-size structure. The warpgate pulsated with energy. Lightning webbed towards its center, forming a tear in spacetime, a ten-dimensional singularity or wormhole. Formless, its surface became a reflection of the cosmos itself, which came to mirror them as they neared its event horizon.

Un closed his eyes. He hated this part. The transition was supposed to be instantaneous, but because of a wormhole’s nature, which existed partly outside our universe, the brain was tricked into believing that there was a time delay, and the experience was most unpleasant. It started with a numbing sensation, followed by a feeling of vertigo. Un’s stomach churned, and he fought to keep it from spilling its contents over his dashboard. Eventually, it subsided.

Un opened his eyes and checked his console. They’d reappeared twenty-one light years from their starting point. Another wave of the hand informed him that the negative mass bubble had expanded, thus propelling their craft forward at near relativistic speeds.

“We’ve left the warpgate and have achieved 99.2% light speed,” Un said. “Core is optimal. The structural integrity field and negative mass bubble are at 100%.”

“I can confirm that,” Zi said. “Calculating a hyperjump to the Sol system.”

“At cruising speed, we should reach the Sol system in seventy-two hours,” Un said.

Zi made a gesture. “Is that frustration I hear in your thoughts?”

“I’m not eager to get there, but neither do I like waiting in hyperspace.”.

“Well, again, we could be taking a two-year long trip on a starcruiser.”

“At least it has amenities, not to mention a space time distortion field.”

“Our particle shields are more than sufficient.”

Un made a hand signal and brought up the shield’s schematics. Again, he didn’t like what he saw. “So long as the humans don’t have nuclear missiles.”

“No missile the humans can build can catch this ship.”

“I rather not risk it. Not in this death trap. We should’ve built a warpgate long ago.”

“Humanity doesn’t warrant a warpgate at this time,” Tu said.

“Yes, but what about Un’s overinflated sense of importance?” Zi asked. “The Collective Will forbid if he has to be inconvenienced, even in the slightest.”

Un gazed at the navigator. “You do know sarcasm is unbecoming of a Retikkee?”

Zi sent the telepathic equivalent of a chuckle. “Engaging hyperdrive in five… four… three... two…” He gestured. “And one.”

The flying saucer transitioned from normal space to the swirling ether of hyperspace.

***

A few hours later, after making unsanctioned modifications to the ship’s engines – Engineer Un saw no reason why he couldn’t apply some of the more advanced engineering techniques to get them to Earth a little sooner – he headed for the mess hall.

Like the exterior of the vessel, the hallways were in a constant state of change. Not only did sections of the walls hover but moved, revealing the innerworkings underneath. Doors formed using a similar mechanism, and Un passed through one.

“Three centuries,” Un mumbled. “I’m going to spend the next three centuries observing a bunch of hairless primates scratch their asses.”

“Three centuries is the average time it takes for a species to go from developing radio-based communications to becoming a Type One Civilization.” A female Retikkee floated towards him. “Personally, I can’t wait to watch them from a far, as well as analyze Mars’ and Venus’ atmosphere and soil to determine why they became uninhabitable.”

“Only a member of the Scientist Caste could find digging up dead worlds interesting.”

The Retikkee female glided past him. “Well, we need to know exactly why they became barren before we can activate the terraformation array satellite.”

Un stopped in his tracks. “We have a terraformation array?”

The Retikkee female headed for the food replicator. With her mind, she caused water to exit a nozzle, loop several times in the air and fly into her mouth. “Yep, we have a terraformation array.” She extended her hand. “By the way, I’m Scientist Li.”

Un grimaced. “What in the Collective Will are you doing?”

“I’m greeting you,” she explained. “According to the data files the At-ka-ti vessel supplied us with, this is how humans greet each other for the first time.”

Un eyed her hand. “Yeah… I’m not doing that. Ever.”

“You’re choice.” Li grabbed several larva-like creatures and placed them in her bowl.

Un examined her, noting how her enlarged cranium pulsated with a pinkish glow, as well as the sharpness of her jawbone and the softness of her eyes, the latter being as dark as black holes and just as hypnotic. Un cursed himself for his stupidity.

He grabbed a bowl and joined her. “Look, that came off wrong. I didn’t mean to be rude. Okay, maybe I did. Anyways, I’m Engineer Un.”

“Nice to meet you, Engineer Un.” She reached for some fruit.

Un plopped some grubs into his bowl and followed her to the table. “So, were you joking about us having a terraformation array satellite?”

Li blinked. “You know Retikkees cannot tell a lie.”

“No, we can’t answer a direct question with a falsehood. Sarcasm is a form of open lying.”

“My father told me that sarcasm, and humor in general, is only used by those with low IQs and that I should never ever date such men.”

Un cringed. “He told you that, did he?

“Oh, yes. He was very explicit.”

“And do you always listen to your father?”

“Always. Anyways, no, I wasn’t joking. We have a terraformation array satellite.”

“Why would we have one of those? This isn’t a battlecruiser.”

“Protocol only requires that they be transported in battlecruisers when being moved outside of Retikkee space. Mars and Venus, however, resides deep within our territory.”

Un took a seat at the table and started to toy with his food. “Still, had I known we had one on board, I would have opted for exile.”

Li gave him a look. “Don’t you want Mars and Venus to be habitable again?”

“Sure, I just want to be far away when the thing goes off.”

“They’re perfectly safe when handled properly. You have nothing to fear.”

Li plucked a larva out of her bowl with two fingers. She bit down and tore the critter in two, its blood splashing against her lips, a light yellow.

Mesmerized by her beauty, Un goggled at her every act, his heart pumping rapidly.

“Are you going to consume your grub?” Li asked.

Un’s eyes glazed over. “Say what now?”

“Well, are you just going to sit there and stare or are you going to eat as well.”

“Oh, of course.” He shoved a handful of grubs into his mouth. “Um, yummy.”

Li gave him a look of disgust, then went back to enjoying her meal. Un pondered on how he could salvage the situation and win her over.

Li slurped from her juice box. “I’ve been reading up on the humans, or what they were like during the War of the Ancients. Very primitive. Bipedal and with dexterous hands but lacked the cognitive faculties to make tools. Of course, that’s no longer the case.”

Un shrugged. “Well, I hear they’ve finally gotten rid of the body hair and that nasty habit of eating whatever they pick off each other’s backs. That’s something I guess.”

“Okay. Anyways, the records also mentioned an Engineer Un. Said that he played a pivotal role in saving mankind from extinction. Was that you?”

Un beamed her a grin. “Yeah. I was part of Princess Shakti’s unit during th