Chapter 1: Aliens
Something happened that I never thought would. It challenged all that I’d known before, but it reaffirmed what I’d already suspected, and gave me the courage to outwardly express what I’d felt for years. I guess I’ll start with when I woke up that day. It was the thirtieth day of the twelfth month of the one-hundred-ninety-ninth year. Yes, I know that I just used a forbidden word. As Leader of the Space Colony, I give myself a pardon for that. Soon, though, you’ll see why it shouldn’t be banned.
It was almost the bicentennial of the launching of the Space Colony, the ship that we all live on. I removed the dream clip from my hair. You know those mornings when you feel like you actually can’t get out of bed? My arms and legs felt heavy and I wanted to go back to sleep. No, I had to go to work at least. Once I managed to sit up, my energy returned. I was easily able to get up and walk around.
My cabin was just about the same as any other: a blue, cubic room with a door on one side, a plain white bed on the other side with the dream machine, which creates dreams that I consciously control while I sleep. By the foot of the bed is my closet, which holds my night clothes during the day and my day clothes during the night. The clothes is washed automatically when I put it in the closet, to be ready for me. My night clothes is a blue cotton robe that is comfortable enough for sleeping in. My day clothes is a light silver, airtight, full-body suit that can extend an air helmet around my head in case of the air leaking from the ship. My bed can also create a dome around me if a leak happens while I’m asleep.
Across from the bed, to the left of the door is my desk, which is made of unpainted iron and has a flat screen computer on it, along with a mess of paperwork. Sometimes, I think that if I threw a dart at a scale model of an entire galaxy, the chance of it hitting any particular planet would be better than my chances of finding what I need on my mess of a desk. After sifting through the papers for fifteen minutes, I realized that the papers I needed today weren’t there and opened the drawers, looking through dozens of folders before finding the paperwork I needed. I’d actually organized them for once. I take those papers, as well as my phone, and head out the door into the hallway.
I see the familiar red walls outside of my room, as well as my two body guards at my door. The red halls are ones that only I and other government officials can enter, while green ones are for anybody who wants to go there. My body guards walk with me down the hall. The guard to my left asks, “Did you sleep well? You’re a little later getting out of the room than usual.” I told them, “I slept well, but I had a little trouble finding my paperwork this morning.” The guard to my right said, “Well, I hope you aren’t late again.” I don’t receive much punishment for tardiness, as the leader of the ship, but the Senate may take me even less seriously than they already do because of it.
The Senate is a group of advisors that I have to deal with every day. Although I technically have supreme authority, I have to consult the advisors on important things. If I don’t follow their advice, or don’t consult them, on something that they deem important enough, they can pass an “Assassin’s Call” by unanimous vote. Such an act makes it legal to kill me, although I still have authority while I’m alive. I, and other leaders as far as I know, always follow the senate’s advice for this reason.
My first stop was at the engine room. Eugene, the lead engineer in charge of keeping the ship running, was in there pressing buttons as I entered. He’s a slim man with paler skin than usual. Normally, we’d all have a slight tan from cosmic radiation, but he was white as a ghost. He wore a white lab coat over his day suit (which wasn’t necessary, but he always insisted on it), and had thick, circular glasses. “How are things going, Eugene?” Eugene noticed me and stopped to address me, “Hello, Leader Orleans.” I replied, “Hello, Eugene. What’s the status of the ship?” He told me, “The ship is doing well. Everything is in good working condition. We were headed into an area with a low concentration of quarks just now, but I steered us away from it at the cost of entering a planet’s gravity well. We may experience changes in gravity as a result, but we have enough momentum to not hit the planet.”
Quarks, along with leptons and bosons are elementary particles, which make up atoms, which make up everything else. Our ship uses a machine to convert the loose particles floating through space into things that we need like fuel, food and water. That’s about as much as I know about the mechanical workings of it, which is why we have Eugene in the first place. I handed him a form and told him “I need you to fill out this status report form by the end of the day so I know that you’re doing your job right. Not that I don’t trust you, but Martha pressured me into making this new regulation. You understand, right?” Eugene said, “Yes sir, I always hear you lament about the senate forcing you into things. I sympathize with you, too: the senate shouldn’t have been given the power they have. Anyway, I can fill this out right now, if you’d like.” I told him, “but I’m running late right now, so you’ll have to bring it to my cabin later.” Eugene responded, “Can do.”
I left the engine room and began towards the end of the hall, where the senate’s meeting room was. I walked quickly to the orange door and opened it. The inside of the meeting room is painted orange, a color meant to stimulate critical thinking. The 60 senators sat in their seats, 15 representing each of the 4 quadrants of the ship, waiting for me, while the speaker sat at the front of the room. “You made it, Orleans,” the head speaker, Martha Rouge, said. “You are not quite as late as yesterday. Trouble sleeping lately?” She had a condescending tone in her voice. I told her, “I’m sleeping fine, thanks for your concern,” almost sarcastically. Martha and I never liked working with each other, and why the senate she headed ever appointed me is a mystery. She was an average-bodied woman with a little more of a tan than me. She had her blonde hair in a ponytail, and her blue eyes might’ve been pretty if they weren’t on her. She hardly ever smiled. She sighed and said, “Well, I guess that begins the session of day thirty, month twelve, year one hundred eighty-nineteen.”
I said to her, “Eighty-nineteen sounds off. Every other multiple of ten has its own name, but we call the ninth one eighty-ten. Why is that?” I knew the answer, but I liked bugging her about it. She said, “Must you bring that up every day?” I said, “I forgot to bring it up yesterday, so I guess not.” She sighed, put her hand to her forehead, and said, “For the last time, there was a word for nine tens, but it was banned, so each of us can only say it once in our lifetime. I used up my only chance to say it the first time you asked about it.”
The word she’s talking about, Ninety, was the surname of Samuel Ninety, someone who was apparently so controversial that a previous leader had added his name to the banned list. I don’t think anyone even remembers what he did to have this fate. Either way, it’s a number. We should be able to use it just like twelve and eight. That’s why I bring it up every chance I get to try and make other people say it. “Well,” said Martha, “Now that that’s out of the way, are there any issues that you need to bring before the senate?”
I put most of the papers down on my podium and looked at the first one, presenting the first issue to them. “There’s been an uproar in the starboard-stern quadrant. Someone has been abusing a loophole in the Anti-Information act.” Said act was one that banned any written, photographic or video records of life before the Space Colony was launched. It had been passed by the first leader of the colony. All we’re allowed to know is that we used to live on a planet, and it was supposedly horrible. Who’s definition of horrible? Who knows? I continued, “The person in question retained knowledge that his ancestors told him about the world we lived in before the launch. Oral history isn’t explicitly forbidden by the act. I want to let him go, but since this is a controversial issue, I have to bring it to you.”
Martha said, “You want to let him go? Please make your case.” I cleared my throat. “Well, as you know, I never saw the merits of hiding our history. If it was horrible, maybe we could learn valuable moral lessons from it. At that, I doubt it is. “Horrible”, as the world we come from was called, is a subjective word. In other words, it is an opinion. Maybe to us, it’s not so bad. Besides, his stories will probably change over the years, as human memory is flawed, to the point that it’ll be indistinguishable from fiction. Finally, the man never really broke any laws, so we have no need to prosecute him. I say that we let him go free and make a separate decision on whether or not to close the loophole. I’m finished making my case.”
Martha thought for a moment. Then, she stood up and said, “Well, my counter-proposal is that we arrest the man and immediately amend the law to forbid oral history as well as other forms. This man abused a loophole and is undermining the government, and in addition to that, knowledge of the past will cause some dimwit to want to go back to it. We don’t want the instability that’ll come with knowledge of previous societies. I’m finished making my case. Now, the senate will vote on what we advise you to do.”
Each senator pressed one of the two buttons on their console, voting for either my suggestion, or the Speaker’s suggestion. The screen in front of everyone says that everyone had voted for Martha. Except Steve, of course. Steve always has my back. “Well,” Martha said, “There’s our advice, Orleans. Do you follow it, or defy it?” It didn’t seem like a big issue: just one man being jailed or set free. However, it also represented the broader question of whether willful ignorance of our origins was right. I wanted to defy the Senate’s advice, but I knew that Martha wouldn’t hesitate to call for my assassination. The issue wasn’t worth dying over. “I follow the Senate’s advice,” I said, “The man will be jailed and it is now illegal to keep an oral history of the past.”
I still can’t believe how easily I gave into the council’s advice. I know that a unanimous decision, such as what is required for an Assassin’s Call, is rarely ever reached, but I don’t take such risks. We went through all of the issues for that day. Most of them were everyday issues: ones that came up every day because Martha and her followers insist on keeping the status quo. At last we finished with the last issue, and Martha asked, “So, what are we doing for the bicentennial?”
I asked, “Bicentennial? Of what?” Martha said, accusingly, “Of the launch, of course. It’s almost year 200 aboard the Space Colony.” I said, “Yes, but what was there before? If you don’t know what happened then and what we accomplished by launching, why do we have to celebrate it?” Martha replied, “We don’t need to know what was significant about it. It was evidently significant enough for us to base our calendar around it, and that’s good enough to warrant a celebration. Putting on a celebration will make the people think that the government cares for their happiness.” Then, I pointed out, “but you don’t, do you? You’re just worried about keeping them ‘stable’ so that they’ll do whatever you want.” Martha replied, “That’s true. I never said otherwise. Our jobs are to keep order, not to make anyone happy.” I said, “We don’t need a celebration for what we don’t remember.” Martha said, “The council already agreed yesterday that we do. We told you then. Do you need us to vote on an Assassin’s Call?” “No,” I said, “I guess we’ll put up some banners, and have Eugene sync our gravity with that of the planet we’re entering the gravity well of today, simulating being on a planet like we were before launch.” Martha said, “That sounds good, and you’d better go through with it.” “I will,” I said, and then the session was closed.
I hated the way I had to follow Martha’s whim on everything. When I was appointed as the Leader, I thought I’d be able to change things for the better, but I am just a puppet. Any time I try to refuse what she wants me to do, she threatens an Assassin’s Call, as if she doesn’t understand the weight of it. I decided to go up to the stargazing deck to relax for a bit. The stargazing deck is a huge deck on the top of the ship with a transparent plexiglass ceiling, allowing a clear view of space. There were also benches for sitting down on to observe. The deck may very well be a square kilometer or two in area. Today, I could see a planet directly above me, with a deep purple hue and swirls parallel to its equator. A light patch around it’s north pole looked like ice, but its south pole was darker. It looked beautiful against the surrounding stars. I spent an hour or so looking up at the sky, pondering the sky that I saw. So many planets out there, with a nearly certain chance that some of them had life on them. Somewhere out there was our former home, which we’d never find. There was so much out there that humans would never find, even if our species lived forever.
I heard a bleeping sound, like my phone received a message. I looked at it and where the sender’s name normally would be, it said, “???”. That was odd. I hadn’t heard of anyone having a name consisting entirely of punctuation marks, and each person’s phone came with their name programmed into it. Could it have been aliens living on that planet? Nah, chances are they wouldn’t be using a frequency we can pick up. Then again, we don’t have much to gain from dealing with aliens, so I declined to open the message.
Just then, Eugene sent me a message. He said he was waiting at my door to give me the papers. How’d I forget about that? I walked down to my cabin, and met him at the door. He gave me the reports, and I told him that I would look over them tomorrow. I went into my cabin, and began sorting out paper work. While I was working, I heard the phone bleep again. Once again, it said, “Unknown Caller”. Something was trying really hard to make contact. I considered opening the message, but nobody would take me seriously if I said I’d made contact with aliens. Once again, I figured that’s the only thing it could be, since anyone on this ship would have a name on their phone, so I deleted the message again.
Once I’d finished my work, I sent Eugene a message explaining what he had to do for the bicentennial. Then, I decided to try going to bed early so that I wouldn’t wake up late the next day. I hooked up to the dream machine and dozed off. I was in a blank dream world. Nothing but darkness for all I could see. I wondered what I wanted sort of dream I wanted. I decided to have one that lets me make peace with what was recently bothering me: being controlled by Martha. I created the senate’s meeting room. I made sure to have the right details, including the three circular windows behind Martha looking out into space.
I said, “Martha, I want to let the guy who was telling oral history go!” I heard a bleeping noise. I hadn’t made that, but then dream-Martha said, “Yes sir. He will go free.” She snapper her fingers. I saw the cell open behind her, a man stepped out, and said, “Thank you so much, Leader!” I told her, “I also want you guys to do all of my usual work. Do you have anything to say to that?” She said, “No, it’s done.” I saw a floating stack of paperwork rip in half. I told her, “I want this room painted blue.” It was. In my dream world, I decided what happened. In this case, I wanted to have a Martha that actually respected me as a leader, and she did. I liked that, but then I heard another “bleep”. I thought about that. The only way something happens in a dream that I didn’t make happen, is if it’s caused by an outside occurrence. Suddenly, a third bleep awoke me, and I saw my phone lighting up on my desk.
I disconnected myself from the dream machine. I walked up to the desk and looked at my phone. The unknown caller was being consistent. I’d have to answer it if I wanted to get any sleep. I opened the message. I expected to see some sort of alien writing there, but I could read it normally. It was in plain text. There were dozens of messages there, saying things like “Help”, “Anyone” and “Please respond”. It was a distress signal from something. I didn’t want to get involved, but I wanted to know what was up. I replied to the message, “I got your message. What is wrong?” They replied, “Our vessel is about to crash into yours. Please help!”
So it was someone outside of the ship, on another vessel, but clearly someone who knew how to communicate with us in our tongue. I asked, “Can you give more information about your situation?” They said, “We’re on a smaller probe, in orbit around the planet you are also in orbit of. We see your vessel from here and we’re on a collision course.” I asked, “Can you steer away from us?” They said, “No, our thrusters are destroyed.”
I was fascinated. There was another spacefaring vessel near us. I rushed up to the stargazing deck and looked up. I looked around for one of the telescopes I knew existed on the deck for the more avid star enthusiasts. The first one I found had someone using it. I asked him, “May I please use the telescope?” He said, “Well, sure, Leader Orleans.” He stepped back. That’s when I realized that my guards weren’t with me. I hoped nobody with malicious intent recognized me out here. I looked through the finder scope, scanning the sky for anything looking artificial. At first I saw the gasses of the planet’s atmosphere, swirling around, with no sign of a surface in sight. The last planet we’d passed by had a thin atmosphere, allowing an easy view of the surface. I couldn’t be distracted by the beautiful swirls, though. I scanned near the planet’s equator, where orbit is most likely. Indeed, I saw something shiny to the right of the planet, reflecting starlight at me. I looked through the telescope at it and found that it was a little metal craft. It had what looked like half of a rocket engine, a glass window with a light inside, and two figures standing inside. Assuming the beings inside of the vessel were human-sized, the vessel could’ve fit within my bedroom.
I sent a message back, “I’ll try to get you help.” I put my phone up to the eyepiece and took a photo of the vessel. Then, I went down to Eugene’s cabin. I knocked on the door, and he opened it. “Leader Orleans?” he asked, “It’s late. What do you want?” I showed him the picture on my phone and said, “There’s an alien vessel on a collision course with ours. We need to do something.” Eugene looked at it and said, “You took this picture?” I told him, “Yes, through a telescope on the stargazing deck. They’re orbiting the planet, and they’re on a collision course with us.” I navigated back to the messages I’d received earlier. He looked surprised. He said, “Well, I never thought we’d ever meet outsiders. Fortunately, we have a force field around our ship. They’ll be destroyed before they can damage our ship.”
I told him, “Fortunately? That’s terrible. We should save them.” Eugene pointed out, “We have no obligations to outsiders. As far as we’re concerned, they don’t exist.” I said, “I may not be politically obligated to them, but personally I feel responsible for them, and as your boss, you are obligated to do what I say.” Eugene conceded, “You are right. I’ll go and see what I can do.” He and I went up to the stargazing deck. He looked through one of the telescopes and said, “Where was the vessel when you saw it?” I told him, “to the right of the planet, near the equator.”
Eugene adjusted the telescope, and said, “Yep, I see it. The angle it is approaching in makes it impossible for us to change courses in time to save it, though.” I asked him, “What about the repair crane?” That was a robotic arm magnetically attached to the outside of the ship, which is used for making repairs. “Can we catch the vessel with the crane if we turn the force field off for a bit?” Eugene pointed out, “Well, the arm is certainly strong enough, but removing the field is dangerous. The vessel’s hull was never reinforced for space debris impacts.” I said, “Then we’ll have to be quick. Right before they hit the force field, turn it off, catch the vessel, and then put it up to the airlock used to pass repair materials to the crane.” “Yes sir,” he said. Both of us walked down to the bridge of the ship. He found the controls for the crane. There were monitors showing video from 5 cameras: one in the palm of the hand and 4 on the fingers.
He opened the fingers of the crane. The middle monitor could see the vessel approaching rapidly. After a bit of moving around, Eugene said, “That’s the right position, but the ship won’t get to us for another hour. What do we do in the meantime?” We needed to stay attentive. I took out my phone and looked at the messages. I typed in the message, “We are prepared to save you. Tell us about your origin.” New messages came from them, “We are from a planet called Earth. We left there almost two-hundred years ago.”
So they were aliens. Although, it was coincidental that their launch coincided with ours. I texted, “So, do beings from Earth normally live over a hundred years?” They responded, “No, time dilation slowed down our aging. Biologically, we are 16 and 14.” So there were two. Two teenagers. I asked, “What are your names?” They responded, “Our names are Julia and James Ninety.”
Those were oddly human first names. Their last names were also suspicious. I showed the phone to Eugene. He expressed the same confusion as I did. “Perhaps it’s a coincidence,” Eugene said, “It’s possible that an alien race could have a similar phonology to us, although unlikely.” The Earthians (or whatever the word would be) asked, “What planet are you from? Are you from the one we are orbiting?” I replied, “We don’t know the name of our planet. We’ve been on this ship for 200 years.”
They said back, “Does your ship have a name, then?” I replied, “Yes, we call it the Space Colony.” They said, “Oh, we know that ship. You are from Earth, too.” I asked them how they knew so, to which they replied, “Our father designed a ship named the Space Colony. His name was Samuel Ninety.” I showed the messages to Eugene. He said that we should wait to continue questioning them after we meet them face-to-face. I turned my phone off.