“Black Box” by Sean CW Korsgaard
When mankind tells the story of our first message from an alien civilization, I hope they’ll remember that it began with two old soldiers at a diner, and ends with two old soldiers at a bar.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s funny to think it all began with breakfast.
I should have known that Alan wanted something when he offered to treat me to a hot meal at Dino’s Cantina, one of the rare greasy spoons that serves real food on Flotsam Station. Alan’s a decent sort for a scrapper, but he could have been trying to talk me into selling him a kidney if it meant avoiding another meal in the station mess hall.
Credit where it’s due, the man knew to wait until we’d finished eating to try and pitch me on anything. The eggs were runny, and the bacon overcooked, but considering it was the first meal that I had eaten in weeks that wasn’t freeze dried, vat grown, or squeezed from a tube, I savored every bite. Mopping up the last of the yolk with a hunk of dark bread, I decided to finally broach the topic.
“Alan, I know you didn’t ask to meet just to swap war stories, and if you’re springing for real eggs and pork, it’s got to be one hell of an ask,” I said. “So, what do you want from me?”
“Straight to business then, eh Murph?” Alan said, running a hand across his scalp, his short red hair bristling. “Officially, our techie was injured on the job working our current patch of the debris field, and you’re her replacement until we can decide whether there’s enough worth a damn in our current patch to file a claim.”
If I weren’t more observant, I might have taken it personally that I was essentially being offered scut work. Luckily, we’d done this dance before.
“It’s true we had our techie get hurt, and we need a replacement,” Alan said. “Not with another techie though. No, we need a proper net diver, and as far as I know, you’re the only one in the entire system.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. There aren’t a lot of veterans of the Siberian Pacification Wars out here; it was one of the reasons Alan and I had become fast friends. He’d seen frontline combat with the U.S. Army mobile infantry everywhere from Kamchatka to Lake Baikal. For comparison, I’d been in a support unit stationed in one of the warlord states in the Urals, one of the cybernetically augmented “net divers,” who handled virtual and digital sabotage and espionage well behind enemy lines.
In theory anyway. Alan was one of the only people on the station who cared to know what my job in the military was. Everybody else just knew I was a survivor of the 99th Mobile Infantry Sustainment Brigade, the so-called Bloody Nines.
If he was playing that card, this really was a serious favor.
“What the hell did you find out there that you need a net diver for?” I asked.
“Now that, Murphy, is exactly the right question to ask,” Alan said, a grin spreading across his face. “In all the years salvage crews have been picking the bones of wrecks in this system, how many fully intact vessels have been found?”
“None. Just from thousands of years of drifting in the void alone, it would be like finding a needle in a haystack.”
“Well, we just found the needle then,” Alan said, passing me a tablet. “Meteor we were scanning for mineral deposits came up with some unusual readings. As far as anybody on Flotsam is concerned, we found a massive deposit, and are setting up camp to start prepping it for transport to the station. What we actually found was this.”
I flipped through a series of photos on the tablet, and my heart began to race. There, embedded in a crevice, plain as day, was an alien spacecraft, a little dinged up, but still all in one piece. For what it represented, it might as well have been made of gold.
“My friend, you finally hit the motherlode, congrats,” I said, passing the tablet back, hoping my response was more contained than I felt. “So why the secrecy, the subterfuge? File your salvage claim and collect your payday.”
“Because we’re not going to settle for a claim on just the ship. Not when the money to be made on reverse engineering the tech alone makes that look like pocket change,” Alan said. “So far though, all we’ve managed to do is get inside and get the oxygen flowing, but we’ve hit a wall everywhere else. And our one attempt to break through it damn near put our techie in a coma.”
“So you think a net diver might have better luck patching into whatever alien systems almost fried a techie?”
“We’re almost certain of it, but there’s a lot of specifics I can’t tell you unless you accept. Succeed or fail, you’ll get an equal cut of the claim, same as the rest of the crew. But I’ll need an answer before I pay for breakfast.”
I debated it longer than you might expect. Aside from a few of the more useful augmentations, I’d made a point of avoiding any actual net diving work as much as possible—too many bad memories of the day that the Bloody Nines earned our nickname. One of the reasons I’d made my way out to Flotsam was the lack of any use for that skillset. I hated it almost as much as I hated the idea of hooking my braincase into an alien spacecraft.
Wealth beyond measure and glory has a funny way of making a man accept a lot of what he hates.
“Tell me this much—what makes you think I’ll have any better luck?”
“Because we didn’t just find a ship.” Alan leaned in conspiratorially. “We also found a body. And it’s augmented.”
When mankind eventually hopped our way across the nearby stars to Lalande 21185, we’d initially been disappointed. The few dead, rocky worlds that orbited the red dwarf are bathed in enough radiation that even probes can’t stay on the surface for too long. Worse, a system-wide debris field makes navigating all but the edges of the system hazardous for large spacecraft and was almost enough of a reason to write off the system by itself.
At least until it turned out that debris wasn’t space junk or asteroids, but wreckage. Our first and, to date, only proof of life beyond Earth was several asteroid belts worth of material from the shattered remains of what had to have been thousands of alien spacecraft and megastructures. Thousands of years old, and entirely free for the taking.
So, thousands of would-be prospectors made their way to Lalande 21185 and stations like Flotsam. Hundreds of salvage crews like Alan’s making fortunes by harvesting the wealth of material left behind, trying to recover or reverse engineer the rare bits of working tech found among the wrecks, or trying to figure out just what happened here. Them, and scores of people like me offering the kinds of industry and services every budding boomtown needs.
An entire star system of people had made fortunes picking through an alien scrapyard, and I might have a chance to find out who left us all those goodies.
Alan guided me through the inside of the alien ship, which had been strung with basic mining lights since they hadn’t figured out yet what powered the craft, as he led me to the cockpit area.
“This is where we’ve set up our work area, though Jonda, our techie, can fill you in more on the technical details,” Alan said. “Brace yourself—you’re also about to get your first look at an alien.”
The door to the cockpit opened, and Alan pointed to what I assumed was the pilot’s chair. I wasn’t sure what I’d expected my first sight of an alien corpse to be, but mummified to the point of being almost unrecognizable as a corpse wasn’t it. Aside from some kind of long-since-faded jumpsuit, it was hard to tell what the alien might have looked like beyond having two legs, two arms, four eyes, and no evidence of a mouth.
“Amazing what a few thousand years of exposure will do to a body, isn’t it?” said a woman’s voice behind me.
She was short, and had a half-shaved head, the half without hair bearing some of the gaudy plugs and attachments that were the price of getting a cybernetic augmentation as a civilian. Augments are one of those areas where paying for military-grade really does make a difference. Save the interface plug at the nape of my neck, all of mine were subdermal.
“Jonda the techie, I presume?” I asked.
“And you must be Alan’s drinking buddy, the net diver from the Bloody Nines,” Jonda answered, and I bristled at the jab at my old unit. Alan must have noticed because he intervened before I could retort.
“Jonda, why don’t you tell Murphy why we’ve brought him here,” Alan said.
“Might be easier just to show him,” she replied. “No point explaining if he fares as poorly at interfacing as I did.”
She pointed to what I assumed was the alien’s neck, which I noticed was wrapped in what appeared to be a series of mesh and rings.
“That, we assume, is the ET answer to cybernetic augmentation. It’s also the only device of any kind on the ship we’ve managed to achieve any interface with,” Jonda said. “As to what it is we’re interfacing with . . . hopefully you’ll be able to tell us.”
She pointed to a collection of wires that trailed from the alien’s mesh rings to a device set up in the cockpit’s corner. That it looked like a crudely jury-rigged diving chair did not fill me with confidence.
“That’s the only device you’ve managed to connect to on the ship?” I asked.
“We can’t even get a handle on the coding with some of the other computers, and while we have some idea what some of the larger systems on the ship might be, we don’t want to mess around with them unless we can crack the alien’s language so we know what we’re actually dealing with,” Jonda said. “This is our best and only lead to going any further on our own.”
“There weren’t any physical clues?”
“Very little,” Jonda answered. “The extraterrestrial—along with an empty vial and a faded memento of some kind, maybe a photo—was the only thing in the cockpit when we arrived. Those were the only bodies or personal effects we found anywhere on board.”
“No sense beating around the bush, then, I suppose.”
I sat down and started plugging myself into the chair, until I felt the familiar locking of the interface jack at my neck. Just like riding a bike.
“Don’t let the size fool you: whatever that alien is hooked into, I promise it has a kick like nothing you’ve ever interfaced with,” Jonda said. “It makes the systems from the war look like an Atari, and the stuff on Flotsam look like an ENIAC, so brace yourself.”
“How long did you make it before you had to be unplugged?”
“A little over thirty seconds,” she replied, typing into a keypad on the device.
“Then put me under for just over a minute for a trial run,” I said, hopefully sounding braver than I felt. “That should be more than enough to test the waters. Hey, Alan?”
“Yes, Murphy?” he replied.
“If I pull this off without giving myself an aneurysm, you owe me a bottle of scotch.”
“Murph, you get us something useful out of that alien, I’ll buy you a full case.”
She wasn’t lying, the level of connection was astonishing. A flood of sights and sensations washed over me, and it took me a while to get any bearing on where this torrent stopped and where I began. This is what separates a net diver from anyone else plugged into virtual or digital space, being able to steady yourself against the flow of information coming from every direction in digital space where anyone else would drown.
The torrent began to slow to a more bearable level. Sound first, strange klaxons blaring, followed by voices. Even if I couldn’t understand them, I could feel words reverberate through me, each syllable ringing clearly in my head. There was also a strange new undercurrent I couldn’t yet place, flowing through like electricity.
Images came next, slowing down gradually into a steady vision. The level of detail was astonishing, beyond even the best virtual realities devised on Earth. This wasn’t a simulation though, this was a recording, albeit one of unmatched clarity. I could watch, even move in limited directions, but not interact—a backseat observer, nothing more.
As I gained my bearings, I finally got a look at the aliens. They physically resembled what you might get if you split the difference between reptilian and avian. All mottled gray, they each had four eyes spaced out over a large lobed head with the bottom portion covered in tendrils, yet I saw no beak or snout.
They had no mouths, but voices remained. The words rang—and more than the words, there was that electricity. I focused on that humming energy, and there came a rush of moods, thoughts, feelings, flowing through like electricity.
No sooner had I made the connection than I was pulled back out.
“How long was I plugged in?” I asked, a low ringing in my ears. “That was more than a minute.”
“You’re right, you were under for fifteen minutes. Once we saw the system wasn’t spitting you right back out, I didn’t want to interrupt,” Jonda said. “Have anything to tell us?”
“I know what our alien used to look like,” I said. “And that their species communicated telepathically, or something close to it.”
“I told you he was the man for the job!” Alan said. “Any idea what we’re dealing with?”
“Some kind of recording, I think, though like none I’ve ever seen. It captures everything, even what I think must be thoughts or emotions.”
“Think you can handle another go?”
“Let’s see how far we can take this.”
I rewatched long stretches, explored different angles, and pushed the recordings to their limits, trying to learn everything I could as I went along.
As I watched, I came to realize these recordings were focused on a singular alien’s point of view. I watched through his perspective as ships from his species, thousands of them, took formations across the Lalande 21185 system, set up bases on the planets, which at this point of time were free of radiation and lush with plant life. I learned that they had traveled the stars through a system of massive star gates, one of which was active in the system.
I had even started to piece together some names in the alien tongue—the alien’s personal name was Silon, their species called themselves Ra’tuath. There was one moment I’d replayed before, when Silon was in a formation with hundreds of others, listening to what could only be an officer delivering a speech, when some phrases caught my attention. It took me a moment to realize why.
Driven into exile by the Enemy . . . It is the most desperate hour . . . By the stars, the Ra’tuath will prevail!
I could understand their language. Parts of it anyway, but growing parts of it.
I’d long since started listening for patterns, latching onto common words, but this wasn’t mere pattern recognition. It was almost osmosis of sorts: the longer I listened, the more I understood. I wasn’t just learning as much as I could, something in the program was teaching me.
As if on cue, I saw a chance to test these abilities with a recording I hadn’t watched yet—Silon was sitting on a large mat across from the officer from earlier.
I see you, Fleetlord Dhakar. Silon gave the formal greeting gesture of the Ra’tuath.
I see you, Craftpilot Silon. The leader returned the greeting and gesture. Do you know why I have called you here?
You have special orders for me.
Indeed. You are among the best pilots in the fleet. You are being trusted with an important duty.
The Fleetlord took out a small black box and slid it across the mat to Silon. The dread emanating from Silon as all four of his eyes fixated on the box was overwhelming. Slowly, he reached out and took it.
Do you know what that is, Craftpilot?
Yes, Fleetlord. The Final Answer.
And if the need arises, you are to be our Messenger. Do you know what that means?
If we should fail to hold the Enemy here, this weapon will not fail.
Preparations have already been made. Charges have been placed and delivered throughout the system. Your ship has been prepared for your new duty. Do not use it while the gate remains open. Otherwise, trust your judgement, and wait until the moment defeat has become certain. Do you understand?
Yes, Fleetlord. Though I hope the need does not come.
If it does, though, the Answer is in your hands.
Klaxons wailed overhead, but before I could see why, I was ripped away from the vision entirely.
They’d apparently pulled me back once my nose had started bleeding. I had a splitting headache. Not uncommon for long net diving sessions, but usually ones measured in days, not mere hours like this one. The intensity of the alien hardware was much stronger than I’d realized.
I washed down a few painkillers, and the ringing in my head stopped. I relayed what I’d seen and learned, and we started tossing out theories while I took some time to recover.
“So, what we have is some kind of alien livestream?” Jonda asked.
“I think it’s closer to something like a black box, capturing as much of the events as possible. It might even explain details like how I started to understand their language,” I explained. “The alien, Silon—while everyone else is told to prepare for an enemy attack, he’s ordered to hide and hunker down, to be the guy who sees things through if everything goes wrong.”
“Makes sense to me—it’s standard designated survivor protocol. You have a guy you set aside in case everybody else gets wiped out,” Alan said. “They gave him the doomsday device to ensure mutually assured destruction. We’re even standing in the bunker.”
“It doesn’t appear to have done him, or the Ra’tuath much good,” Jonda said.
“That’s just it . . . all this effort to establish defenses in the system, a massive fleet sent to create a redoubt, a superweapon to activate in the event both failed,” Alan said. “If they thought all these measures were necessary, just what kind of enemy were they were fighting?”
There was a pause before I answered.
“I imagine we’re about to find out.”
I returned to find myself in a nightmare.
The Ra’tuath armada was no longer alone. The enemy fleet poured through the star gate, seemingly without end. The skies of Lalande 21185 were filled with ships, with missile barrages, and beam weapons of several colors and devastating effects. I saw waves of bombs flood each of the rocky planets—familiar mushroom clouds marked where what had been livable worlds for the Ra’tuath became the radioactive hellscapes mankind knew today. It was a scale of violence I could scarcely comprehend.
It’s not surprising my thoughts turned to the desperation and panic in Magnitogorsk.
My unit had been supporting a half dozen Spec Ops units near what was once Magnitogorsk—what still was Magnitogorsk at the time. There’d been vague rumors of an old Russian nanotech experiment unearthed by one of the warlord states in the southern Urals, and the 99th was providing intel and support from the city.
We’d lost contact with four of those Spec Ops units within minutes of each other. The survivors of two units fled back into the city, having found what they were searching for, and barely survived. They reported human experimentation making monsters of men, and terrified people fleeing to the city, with a horde on their heels.
What attacked the city wasn’t human, not anymore. Nothing short of vaporizing kept them down for good. Thousands of soldiers with heavy weapons and air support barely held the line for an hour. A few hundred survivors managed to make it to the last vertibirds out before everything within fifty miles was scoured by neutron bombs.
The things I’d seen and done that day were bad enough that I couldn’t put several light-years between myself and the same planet as Magnitogorsk fast enough. So I’m no stranger to nightmares. What soldier is?
I’m just generally used to those nightmares being of things I’d actually seen. And I’d never seen anything like this.
Silon was flying a ship through the middle of all this chaos, and the alien’s own feelings of desperation and panic were palpable. Despite some terrifying near misses, and taking a few hits, Silon managed to break away from the chaos long enough to make his way to an isolated asteroid I recognized as the same one I was on right now. His ship had arrived at its final destination.
I understood why Alan’s crew found the ship where they had, once I saw through Silon’s eyes how it had arrived. The asteroid was far enough from the worst of the fighting—and the crevice he’d landed in offered shielding and protection from other ships and strafing fire—while remaining close enough that he could still observe most of the battle.
I watched the battle unfold for what seemed like hours, waves of fleet movements on a scale that dwarfed anything I previously could have imagined. Yet one pattern was unmistakable—no matter how many enemy ships the Ra’tuath took out, the enemy’s numbers kept growing . . . but the Ra’tuath fleet did not. Scores of enemy ships kept coming through the star gate to fill the ranks. There were no such reinforcements for the Ra’tuath.
While fixated on that desperate situation, I’d almost missed the equally desperate response, only noticing because Silon’s reaction was unmistakable. The massive dreadnaught I knew to be the Ra’tuath flagship had slowly begun to change direction and build up speed. Once I saw its large engines flare to life, I looked to where it was aimed—directly at the star gate.
Other ships in the Ra’tuath fleet moved to support the flagship, firing barrage after barrage toward the gate, clearing as much of a path as they could. If the enemy fleet took notice, they never had the chance to react. Like a bolt of lightning, the flagship surged forward and hit its mark. The resulting explosion was blinding and lingered long enough that for a moment Lalande 21185 appeared to have a second, yellow sun.
It wasn’t for nothing . . . It wasn’t for nothing, by the stars.
As it faded, the Ra’tuath flagship and countless nearby vessels from both flotillas in the vicinity had been blown to smithereens—and so had the star gate.
I was kicked back out to reality a bit more roughly this time around, the strain much heavier. My nose was bleeding, and the headaches were much worse coming back this time, so we’d agreed to wait a few hours before plugging me back in. I needed the break.
“It was always obvious something cataclysmic had happened here, but to think we’re basically strip-mining an extraterrestrial Gettysburg,” Alan said.
“Their Stalingrad, more like. This was a clash of civilizations, and these two sides were throwing everything they had into it,” I said. “Even without the telepathic overflow from Silon, it’s hard to watch. How much more do you guys need?”
“Ideally? Anything that might help crack their written language or coding—”
“Not what he meant by the question, Jonda,” Alan interrupted. “You don’t have to do any more, Murphy. You’ve pulled plenty enough data already, if you’ve reached your limit.”
“He can’t stop now, not yet!”
“That’s not your call to make!”
“No, she’s right, I can’t,” I said. “Putting aside the odds I might pull something useful, there’s the possibility there’s the remains of a hostile alien invasion force in nearby space, or some unused alien superweapon still waiting for some unlucky salvage crew to activate on accident. Just promise me one thing, Alan.”
“Don’t get me the cheap stuff.”
Everybody, even places on the edge of settled space like Flotsam, knows the name and reputation of the Bloody Nines. Not a lot of people bother to learn where that nickname originally came from. I’ve heard all kinds of stories of guts and glory, and some colorful theories. All wrong, of course.
The truth is much simpler. It’s because according to the early after-action reports and casualty statistics, after Magnitogorsk, only one out of every nine members of the 99th Mobile Infantry Sustainment Brigade survived. I can tell you the math has that number a little lower, but soldiers like nice easy-to-remember numbers and nicknames almost as much as they like black humor.
I mention this because I know what fighting a hopeless battle looks like. And despite sacrificing their flagship in a kamikaze charge to bring down the warp gate and cutting their enemy off from reinforcements, the Ra’tuath were still losing. At a rough estimate, what was left of their fleet was at best at half strength from when they started—even cut off from reinforcements, the enemy numbers dwarfed theirs.
Watching the battle unfold before him, Silon might not have had a mouth, but telepathically, he was screaming. Rage, despair, horror, all were palpable and played back and forth as battle data as it came in.
Whatever process had helped me pick up their spoken language hadn’t yet kicked in for written stuff, but while I couldn’t understand the data on the viewscreens, with Silon’s reactions, I didn’t need to. I didn’t need help for the reports coming in over radio—they were going down fighting, but minute by minute, the Ra’tuath were going down all the same. Vague visions of building a redoubt for his people were replaced with Silon’s certainty of complete and total defeat.
No options remained, save one. With resignation, Silon reached for the box handed to him by the fleetlord. He opened it, and after a moment’s hesitation, pushed a button.
I looked for the first signs of this alien superweapon. I remember being surprised that there was no series of explosions, no visible ripple, no spectacular sign that this alien superweapon had worked at all—until I noticed that as the effect began to spread, all of the myriad ships that filled every corner of Lalande 21185 began to go dark.
I awoke to Alan, Jonda, and a couple of other crew members trying to hold me down. I’d been thrashing around so much they feared I’d suffered a stroke. I tasted blood and smelled copper and was completely drained. I knew I was approaching burnout. The dive setup, not in the best shape even when we’d started, was in rough shape too.
“Best I can figure, sounds like some type of EMP kind of thing,” Alan said a little later. “Must have packed one hell of a punch to knock out an entire solar system.”
“What was left of one, anyway.” I said before taking a bite out of a protein bar.
“You don’t think, whatever it was, that it's on this ship somewhere?”
“No, near as I can tell, Silon was only given the detonator to some kind of charges or relays already placed around the system,” I said. “I’m sure the defense contractors back on Earth will be devastated they have to settle for cracking the code on beam weapons and shielding instead of something that can kill a star system like flipping a light switch.”
“Not what I meant, Murph. You know me. I just don’t want to sit on something I shouldn’t and end up knocking us out, too,” Alan said, pointing to the mummified remains of Silon. “Leave a dozen new bodies for the next guys to stumble upon.”
That earned a few dark chuckles from both of us.
Jonda gave the thumbs-up that the system was ready again. And physically recovered, or close to it, I made my way back to our dive setup.
“I know this is rough on you, Murph,” Alan said as I was hooking myself back in. “There’s not that much left. Whatever’s still on there, learning it isn’t worth getting yourself hurt.”
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” I said, a bit braver than I felt. “Besides, I wouldn’t say that’s entirely true; we know we’re guaranteed to learn at least one thing from me going back in.”
“How this ended.”
With the exception of a low red glow from Lalande 21185, the ship was completely dark, the power and systems knocked out by the Ra’tuath superweapon. Whatever had remained of both of the warring alien fleets after the gate was destroyed were now completely dead in the water.
Silon sat in the pilot’s chair, starring out at the battlefield which he had turned into a tomb. The emotions and thoughts coming from him were overwhelming.
A small amount of pride.
The Enemy shall not spread. At least this part of space will be free of them.
A great deal of guilt.
How many millions of my clanmates did we murder to achieve that? That I murdered?
The temperature was cold, and dropping fast, with condensation starting to form on the glass of the cockpit. Silon didn’t need the instruments to tell him that if the drop in temperature didn’t kill him first, the decreasing amount of air would. Whatever protections the engineers had ringed the cockpit with had not been properly extended to the engines or life support systems.
Silon was going to die. Acceptance.
I will die here. Just as I have sentenced millions of others to die. Not a good death. But a fitting one.
From a pouch of his uniform, Silon removed two things, which I recognized from the cockpit. The empty vial, here filled with a black liquid, and the faded icon, not yet faded by centuries of stellar light.
Silon drank from the vial, and his breathing began to slow—a poison of some sort, then—and placed the icon on the rim of the cockpit window. There was enough light that I could see it was a group of Ra’tuath. Silon leaned forward, his head touching the glass above the icon, and there was a wave of overwhelming grief.
I’m sorry. If this was his family, a group of friends, or a revered leader, I would never get an answer.
As Silon looking at the icon, there came a new feeling, warm, strange and hard to place. His breathing became labored. He adjusted slightly, and with a shaky, yet firm hand, scrawled into the condensation on the cockpit glass a message. A prayer? A farewell? The longer I looked, the more I thought I could almost make out what it said in the dim light.
The stars . . . how peaceful they look . . .
Almost on impulse, I looked away from the message, and up at the stars. There’s an old wives’ tale, that you can’t see the stars in space—it’s not true of course. Yet I’ll admit, the stars here looked magnificent.
Silon slumped back into the pilot’s seat. Yet before I could try and look back at the message he’d left on the glass, I noticed that Silon turned his head toward my direction.
The look in those four raptor-like eyes appeared to be fixated on me. I knew what I was watching was only a recording, a simulation, that I was only there for the ride as a passive observer, no matter how real it may look or feel. Yet the look in Silon’s eyes was not the half-glazed stare of a dying creature, but one of rapt, full attention, as if something had managed to catch him completely by surprise.
I see you. There was a certainty to his words that would stick with me until my dying day.
Then in a moment, that resolve was gone, and with a few last spasms, Silon was dead, dropped back into his seat. The most massive wave of vertigo I’d ever felt washed over me.
And with my head still spinning, my pulse pounding, and any number of explanations still being tossed about regarding to whom or what those last words were directed, the recording ended and I was pulled back to the real world for the last time.
I woke in the cockpit, the real cockpit, with a jolt, not noticing or hearing the reactions of Alan, Jonda, or the crew. My nose was bleeding again, my pulse was pounding, and my head felt like it was about to split in two, but even as I took a few deep breaths and stabilized, one thought wouldn’t go away.
I tried to get up, and I stumbled, waving away someone who tried to help me up. Taking it slower, I got to my feet and made my way over to the cockpit glass, desperately looking for a particular spot. I must have seemed half-crazed—I know I felt it—but when someone tried to pull me back, Alan motioned for them to give me space. When I thought I’d found the spot where I’d seen Silon writing in the condensation, I took a deep breath and exhaled on the glass.
There, on the glass of the cockpit, a short series of smeared, curlicue alien symbols revealed themselves. A message, scrawled in a trembling hand—which, by some alien osmosis, I could read as easily as my own—and containing the final message of a warrior who’d died never knowing if those they’d saved would ever know.
We gave our futures
That you might have yours
It was as grand an epitaph as a soldier or a civilization could ask for.
“I see you, Silon.”
“Looks like I owe you that case of scotch,” Alan said, grabbing me by the shoulder. “Hell, Murphy, I owe you a hell of a lot more than that. We all do.”
It had been a few hours since I’d found Silon’s message. Once I’d calmed down enough to form a coherent sentence, I’d shared the full extent of what I’d seen. With me available to translate and point out certain critical systems, the rest of the team had been busy jury-rigging what they could back online. There was some debate that with a few new parts, the ship could have flown back to Flotsam under its own power. Not that we’d risk that, when reverse engineering every part on the ship stood to make everyone a king’s ransom.
What’s more, while the crew’s techie, Jonda, might not have been a proper net diver, once she had a rough guide on how to decipher the Ra’tuath language, she managed to do the same with their computer code. She’d been pulling every scrap of data she could off anything she could and had found a treasure trove. Blueprints, data, records, and a hoard of information that teams of scholars and researchers could spend years going over. One that stood to make each of us an even greater fortune than the ship itself.
All that, and a story that changes everything we know about life in the universe.
With some idea of the full extent of what we’d found, we’d finally called back into Flotsam Station to report our salvage claim. The rest of the crew had made their way back to our own ship to celebrate our new status as probably the richest people this side of Sol. Yet I’d found myself gravitating back to the cockpit, thinking on the dozens of questions, on everything I’d seen, on the last words and final message of an alien soldier. I didn’t know how long I’d been there before Alan finally snapped me out of my thoughts.
“You know, I didn’t particularly like having my own battles rattling around in my head,” I said. “I haven’t quite wrapped my head around the fact that now I have an alien’s up there too.”
“It’s a hell of a thing you saw,” Alan said without a trace of his usual lightheartedness. “Hell of a thing they did too, what that Silon did; no wonder you’re feeling overwhelmed.”
“Entirely different species, thousands of years apart, yet so much of what I saw of them, what they felt . . . it wasn’t overwhelming because it was alien, but because it was so familiar,” I said, a lot of my thoughts pouring out at once. “Facing fearful odds, throwing yourself back into the fray. The desperation when defeat seems like a certainty . . . Not knowing if you won, if your sacrifice will matter . . . or if anyone will remember that sacrifice at all, will know you ever existed.”
“We know. Hell, soon all of humanity will know. That’s got to count for something,” Alan said. “For all we know, the Ra’tuath might still survive somewhere in space, wondering what happened to this fleet.”
“What a story we can tell them at first contact, eh?” I said. “By the time we meet, they might seem like old comrades to us, while they still won’t know a thing about humanity.”
“It’s the stuff we don’t know that bothers me. The enemy they fought may still survive somewhere out in space, and we know even less about them than we do the Ra’tuath. Hell, we don’t even know which side was the aggressor, or for that matter, if they both were.”
“I suppose that could be true,” I conceded. “But we know one of them sacrificed themselves to give us and anyone else in our part of space a fighting chance, and that’s enough for me. We can worry about that later. You still owe me a case of scotch.”
After all, there was a very old soldier that I planned to be the first to raise a glass to.
Copyright © 2023 by Sean CW Korsgaard
Sean CW Korsgaard is a U.S. Army veteran, award-winning photojournalist and freelance reporter, and an assistant editor and media relations manager at Baen Books. As a reporter he has over 1,500 bylines to his name, and his work has been featured in outlets as diverse as The New York Times, VFW Magazine, and Analog. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he studied mass communications and history.