On the seven-hundred and ninety-fifth day, Douglas MacArthur “Ro” Rourke almost decided not to send out the weekly log at 0900 as usual.
The Mars-born sergeant of Sol Defense Initiative hesitated, the screen in front of him blinking with the invitation to confirm command and send the records whizzing off through space and binary to inform his superiors that Psi Relay-96 was the same boring heap of junk as it had been seven hundred and ninety days ago. The scarlet box onscreen continued to flash in the same pattern, the square below the CONFIRM COMMAND text awaiting his fingerprint.
“What if I don’t send it?”
Ro long ago decided not to bother thinking silent in his mind but spoke his thoughts aloud. After all, no one but himself occupied the five-thousand cubic meters of titainaid and bellanite that rested and sometimes hovered above Ellidaey, the moon closest to the Sunset Nebula. The closest hint of civilization was three hundred and ninety-seven light years away – Psi Relay-90 which was under communications blackout as far as idle chatter and philosophical debate was concerned. Ro guessed they had been ordered thus so as to maintain his private chastisement.
Chewing on his lower lip for one moment more, Ro tapped the readout. The box vanished, followed by a series of red dots, then a green pair of brackets appeared around the words: DATA SENT.
“Lucky data,” Rob brushed his cheeks, feeling the first of the evening stubble. “Almost time to shave again.” Despite his lone sentinel upon the station, he kept his appearance neat and presentable. “No sense in getting sloppy because we don’t expect guests. Because we do.” Chuckling, he raised his eyes to the yellow placard affixed to the monitor frame; Ro read the words, as he had every day for the past seven hundred and ninety-five, aloud to keep his voice strong.
Regulations for Psi Relay-96 Station Personnel
- Ensure safety and maintenance of transmitter installation.
- Broadcast all findings (or lack thereof) to Psi Relay-96 once per day at 0900 hours.
- In the event of hostile contact, disengage main generator link as per protocol Sheridan.
Ro then reviewed in his head the special instructions Primer Hache gave him eight hundred and twenty days ago.
“Not many like you get this chance, mooner,” in his mind’s eye, Ro pictured the grizzled old man’s bright golden hair and wattled throat where the stiff military collar dug into the wrinkled flesh of his neck. By discipline or endurance, the Primer paid it little heed. He glared into Ro’s eyes with the steel-grey of his own. “Anybody else would be ice-drilling on Ganymede. But someone up there must be dumber than the one who caught you and failed to plug you on the spot.” For hundreds of days, Ro worked on the impression and would gamble its veracity against the real Primer.
Setting his fingers against his temples, he sighed as Primer Hache sighed, the memory taking over in his head. “You will instead man Psi Relay-96, also known as ‘Endspace’ which houses the Deep Space Communication Array Omega Infinium.” The screen behind him flickered and revealed a model of a small space station, a patchwork of red light and white lines. “While there, you will ensure the scans continue. You will ensure, if any Non-Human civilizations send you travel brochures, those come to the SDI first and no one else. You will ensure the station does not fall into anyone’s hands but our own. And you will not discuss your duties with anyone, pre-, post-, or mid-mission. Is this clear, Sergeant?”
“Yes, sir,” Ro spoke for the first time since he had been called into the primer’s office. “But repairing-”
“-is not your area of expertise, I know.” Sitting back, the primer nodded once, a grudging respect twitching one corner of his mouth. “And yet, before your insubordination, you applied for Special Engineering.” The screen morphed from a space station model to a profile outline complete with picture; Ro wondered how he had been able to work up a smile on the day they assembled his ID.
“Your mechanical aptitude tested near expert-levels,” Primer Hache twisted his mouth in a half-grimace. “Though you have no formal training, you possess talent, mooner. You will learn how to fix what problems arise. Now, have I made the expectations clear? You will ensure these tasks are performed, Mister-Insubordinate-who-knows-if-he-says-no-he’ll-be-mooner-by-name-and-by-nature-and-admiring-many-charms-of-Ganymede.” He worked his jaw as Ro saluted. “Good.” For a tenth of a heartbeat, the primer’s eyes registered pity, then turned to briskness. “Now, here’s what I can ensure…”
“Two septa years of punishment for pardon and no dishonorable discharge. At full pay. Who wouldn’t have taken that?” Ro ceased the impression. The promise was what he reassured himself with whenever the isolation itched in the waking hours of day-night. And yet Psi-Relay 96’s nickname, “Endspace,” fit well. Built during the first term of a Sol President as part of an initiative to rejuvenate exploration into deep space and search for other life forms, Endspace was the farthest outpost from Earth. Naturally, it was also the least-visited.
The mechanical aptitude came in handy, Ro teaching himself via manuals and the Network Uplink how to keep the station running. Automated supply ships delivered his food and other necessities. When his first letter home returned unopened, Ro realized the posting was little more than solitary confinement; Endspace was a government facility and fell under top secret clearance protocol. Therefore, his family would have no contact with him for the duration. “Nice of them to tell me,” Ro groused not for the first time at the console in front of him.
A siren blared, sparking off a winking light. Ro grumbled, and hefted a wrench. Bestowing a brisk tap upon the console, he grunted in satisfaction as the light died out. A compartment opened up to reveal the innards of the computer. Reaching in, he wielded the wrench with a deft flick and turned over a gyroscope. The siren fell silent. Five minutes and it would turn back on, demanding the process to be repeated.
“It is Tuesday, after all.” Some of the station parts acquired tics and habits that acted according to pattern. Fission couplings steamed at intervals, circuits boiled dangerously close to their melting points, and Ro learned to preserve each and every one as well as he could. The monthly supply drops did not deviate from schedule without authorization and then only in emergency situations; the latrine backing up every Wednesday at 0500 hours did not qualify for spare parts as long as he had the rechargeable PlungeRootAZ.
Tending the glitches kept him busy. None of them ever turned serious, the problems more annoying than life-threatening. At times he wondered if the powers of bureaucracy would find the station’s upkeep an unnecessary expense and move toward decommission. Preferably before his term of service ended. True, the military would require him to serve his full sentence elsewhere, but elsewhere might at least include more human contact.
“Contact.” Scooting his chair over to the bulbed observation port, Ro studied the towering antenna mast. All the other broadcasting antennae he had seen included a massive half-sphere receiver for the influx of data. The only receiver present on the station was not connected to the main array. Instead, it was connected to the relay-to-relay antenna, enough to allow communication between Endspace and the next relay, but no farther. “It’s probably nothing. What do I know?” Ro shrugged, reached into his pocket for his ping pong ball, and put his feet up on his console. “After all, I’m the uneducated Sergeant with an untrained gift.” He tossed the sphere of hollow plastic at the observation port, bouncing it off with a thnk and catching it again. “Not a radio expert.” Thnk. He caught the ping pong ball and sniffed. “Besides, it’s gotta be a different, better design if you’re gonna impress unexpected neighbors, right? Maybe it’s a prototype.”
As a teen, Ro watched a few of the old science fiction stories. The people who “established First Contact” with aliens were for the most part the leaders, the scientists, or the innocent. Leaning back in his chair, Ro tilted his head back to peer out the observation window. “But I’m no leader,” he studied the antenna mast. A violent yellow rod ran parallel up the bottom half, sending a pulse of light towards the top. Above that, an octagonal platform held a tangle of wires, tubes, circuitry, and lights flickering in shades of electric blue, vermillion, and more yellow. Atop the mass, four more rods formed a pyramid, culminating into a tiny spindly ebony blue orb at the very peak. “I’m no leader,” he repeated and a flurry of light pulses twinkled up the bottom rod toward the octagonal platform. “I never commanded any troops.”
Ro had commanded legions of paperwork and administrative details. He had been shuffled to an Administrative Quartermaster role due to family connections and weak reaction time. At the Sol Defense Initiative Institute, each day’s training ended with him bruised and battered from the polymer rounds he failed to dodge.
“I could always see them coming,” Ro watched the pulses creep up the rod. He rubbed his shoulder, the memory causing his muscle to squirm and needle. “That was the worst part. Watching them fly right at me and then, BAM!” The harsh explicative sent a spray of spit splacking on the dark INCOMING SDI TRANSMISSION indicator; he shot a sheepish glance around, wiping his mouth and the console clean. “I’m not a scientist, either.” He motioned to the antenna, leaning back once again. He nibbled on the inside of his cheek. “Couldn’t tell you how half of this stuff works besides telling which part needs what.”
“And are you innocent?”
Ro had confessed. From day one, from the first question to the final judgement, Sergeant Douglas MacArthur Rourke admitted every action he had taken to assist Colonel Bright. Colonel Bright remained free due to Ro’s decision and the SDI treated this as treason. But someone somewhere atop the chain of command had championed his case, doubtless due to the connections that made him an AQM. That someone overturned the regulation-ordered court martial. Instead, SDI command transferred him to Endspace. Word in the service among the SDI grunts said treason ran deeper in the service than Colonel Bright. Either that or the unknown advocate had been impressed with Ro’s insistence that he had followed his duty to the SDI’s oath of allegiance.
“If I were declared innocent, it would have established legal precedent. As it is, I am guilty of sub-standard adherence to protocol, and, at worst, unwitting conspiracy. I am innocent of treason.” Even as he spoke the words aloud, the same sinking feeling curled in his gut, Ro remembering the sensation from when he heard them from the private tribunal. The result; him, here and now, talking to himself as he always did, fixing the same glitches over and over again, the human mirror of Endspace which broadcasted the same message over and over again to uncharted universes, looking for other life forms besides the ones already known.
Ro figured Endspace’s mission would continue longer after his end of service. Ro held onto the promise of full pardon after two septa years of solitary service. He had one hundred and ten days to go.
“I’ve made it this far,” Ro studied the pulsing lights again. “I spent my spare cash on solitary living manuals and psychology texts. I researched for three months traveling here. I learned to let go of social norms-” he banged his fist on the side of the console, the light flaring up on the antenna, “-the wrenching feeling of loneliness-” he hit it again, raising his voice, “and the soul-mangling boredom.” With the third strike, several realizations brought sudden paralysis to his form and a tingling chill up his spine.
One, five minutes had passed. The gyroscope klaxon had not gone off as it normally would have. Ro dropped his gaze to the panel. No warning light blinked on the board. Is it still Tuesday? It must be.
Two, the pulses on the antenna rod were matching themselves to his voice perfectly, as though he were watching sound waves on a screen.
Three, he had answered a question he had not asked. I am innocent, but who asked if I was?
Isolation did not affect him as much as it did now, the realization he was not alone peeling away the calm to reveal an ironic, pervasive loneliness. His hands trembled, his heart near stuttering through his ribs in its furious pounding.
Terror followed loneliness – he was not alone. Elation conquered terror – he was not alone. Confusion followed elation – who was with him? Confusion lingered. The voice had not come through the communication link. Terror staged a general insurrection against confusion and presented the conclusion that the voice had born no electronic resonance and therefore was in the outpost with him.
Whipping his head to and fro, Ro scrabbled for the emergency compartment embedded under the main console.
The military-issue EMpH leaped into his hand and winked with a red NO CHARGE reading.
The alien ship took thirty-seven minutes to move into view. For thirty-seven minutes, Ro discovered the communication link’s outgoing transmission module was in perfect working order save for the fact it could not transmit, the charge for the EMpH would not power the EMpH even though the manual promised full charge in thirty-seven seconds, and all maximum security seals on the outpost were working perfectly.
“Do not be afraid,” said the voice after the first five minutes.
“Please, do not be afraid.” said the voice ten minutes later.
“I assure you, you will not need that,” said the voice after Ro checked the EMpH charger relay for the third time in twenty-three minutes.
Ro pressed shaking hands to his face. “I wish-”
“-that you were alone?” the voice finished. The alien ship halted at last, one kilometer from the outpost. Ro thought it an almost respectful range away, then bit his cheek to keep his teeth from chattering.
“No!” slamming his hands to the console, Ro glared at the pulses on the antenna rod once again. “This is good! You’re here. Case closed. Game over. Mission accomplished.” A nervous half-sob, half-giggle squeaked from his throat. “I can, uh, go home, what – a hundred days early.” Another sob-giggle escaped. “Kinda wish you guys showed up earlier. They would have cut my sentence short, I bet.”
“I do not understand.” The voice paused. “We do not understand,” the voice corrected itself.
Roy shivered. “The whole reason for this station to exist is to find alie- uh, other life.”
Silence. The alien ship did not budge. Ro stared at it, still shaking; his fingers fumbled against the console, somehow keying in sensor commands. The scanners remained in full working order and besides the strange energy trails emanating from what Ro supposed was the aft portion, the alien ship registered no EMpH buildup, ionization fields, or magnetic drives to suggest activated offensive systems. Of course, the eerie curves and complex shapes on the vessel already suggested an advanced technology far beyond the SDI’s. It could have been preparing weapons but he had no way of knowing for sure.
“You are not aware of the true purpose of this station.” The voice spoke again, perplexed.
“I just told you,” Ro protested. “We sent-”
“We received no transmissions. Intercepted, yes, but not directed towards our territory.” On the console, a winking light announced a waiting message. “All transmissions are directed towards the center of your territory.”
Images filled the screen, even as Ro raised his hand to refuse transmission, remembering too late the PA1I5ADE5 was still deactivated from his last cloud search. About to engage the emergency cutlinks, he froze, recognizing the man in and setting of the pictures.
Every one of them was of him. Eating. Sleeping. Studying the cloud and information link on the console. Picking his nose. Fixing the console. Walking on the underside of the base to perform weekly inspections. Then copies of his sent and received transmissions. Every scrap of information he had accessed over the netLinks, every time he had spoken his thoughts aloud formed into audio clips, sleeping patterns, times he bounced the ping pong ball around, and then lines upon lines of code.
“Did you ever stop to wonder at the regularity of each failure?” The aliens sent new coding, rearranging the old into a detailed diagram. “They programmed each breakdown and caused it to repeat over and over again.”
Ro stared at the console where the LED should have been blinking in error by then but had not during the entire hour and seven minutes since First Contact. “Then, everything…everything-” he stumbled over his words.
“Except your reactions, everything was for nothing, is that what you would say? No. We made it for something, human.” Taking on a tone of pride, the alien voice continued, “You spoke aloud, we listened and were able to decode your language-”
When the aliens manifested in sibilant waves and wrapped gentle arms around him, Ro stopped screaming, his strident howl turning to violent sobs. The aliens hummed and purred, and his mind settled, his thoughts of anger, helpless fury, and utter seclusion unvanquished but disarmed. Warm scents of bread and his father’s pipe smoke soothed him; he sagged in the enfolding embrace, eyes falling shut.
“All this time, you thought they were looking out, but instead they were peering in. To you, Douglas MacArthur Rourke. They wanted to train you into a man that could be broken and then they would have studied the shards.” Ro’s limbs seemed to jellify and he tumbled into their smooth coiling arms, sobs subsiding into shuddery breaths. “They expected no reproach when they swept the vase from the table, Douglas MacArthur Rourke. But we caught you.” Cerulean eyes gazed down into his as the voices grew in timbre all around taking on a stern tone. “And we will reproach.”