Benny and Anka stood on a promontory overlooking a broad New Mexican valley. The point was secluded enough for the both of them.
Benny etched a circle in the sand at Anka’s feet. He leaned back, tilting his body—his neck, if you could call it that, didn’t bend that way. The look he gave her said: You remember, this is the limit.
“Ya, ya Benny, we still got cameras out to there.” Anka’s cabin, high in the mountains, miles from Taos, came under attack from hunters every fall as her property butted up against national forest. Her half-mile driveway, spurred off a BLM road, collected deer-hungry Californian yahoos who frequently wandered in lost—disturbing her privacy. It was this privacy that had, for fifteen years, protected Benny’s identity.
The thickset Benny, his arms hanging past what Anka would call his knees, rubbed out the circle and drew, instead, a rectangle. He began filling in the tall box, one line at a time. When he reached the top, Anka took a quick breath and raised an arthritic hand to her mouth.
“You mean… You mean you’re finished? All done. All, ready…” She pinched her lips together, lowered her hand to her chest and hugged herself. “So… So soon?”
Benny spread his long arms, palms up. A glance would indicate normal hands. However, close inspection would reveal the actual number of fingers and digits. Such a revelation would compel anyone to knit their brow, force a smile, and step slowly away.
He tried to shrug, a tree stump attempting to shift in the earth. Benny had learned to articulate many of Anka’s words, and his hearing, Anka would admit, was exquisite, but his native range and manipulation of sound was pitched much higher, ultra-sonic. With effort he drew out a low register reply, “Ssooon?”
It came out like the squeak of a dying-mouse.
Anka understood. She chuckled and twirled a finger around her temple. “Ah, look at me. Fifteen years go by and I think it’s like yesterday. You’d think I’d gone daffy.”
“Quaaaaccck, quaaaaccck,” Benny said, reaching for her hand.
She let him take it and the pair worked their way back to the cabin, she, cautious of the stony path, he, waddling on his pedestal like legs.
“When will you go?” Anka asked. She stood at the wood stove adjusting the flavor of their stew. It was composed primarily of the mushrooms Benny cultivated in a cave a short distance away. His metabolism, they’d found, couldn’t stand animal or plant proteins. He could consume some fats, a few starches, but the fungi served his unique physiology best. Anka had made adjustments. From time to time, while in town getting supplies or doing other things, she’d splurge at local fast food restaurants. Benny said he could smell the evidence wafting from her skin. “Ain’t my fault you’re sensitive,” she’d say.
Benny watched her cook. “Beeeen ready, twenty nights. Leave, soooon.”
“You should’a spoke up.” She took a sip of stew, nodded her approval. “Be good to finally be rid o’ you.”
He set two bowls on the counter and rested a hand on her shoulder, with his long arms it was an easy reach. “Miss you, three.”
Anka tsk’d, “Miss you, too!”
His laugh came like a squeegee stuttering on a window.
“Oh, you, come here.” She stooped and gave him a hug. He felt like immovable granite. The floorboards groaned at his every step. Over the years, he’d managed to find the words to explain his world to her and how its gravity was more than twice that of Earth’s. Anka had bought Astrophysics for Dummies, which helped, but mostly she came to realize that his extraordinary strength and weight came standard for his race. He was, after all, an alien.
She wondered aloud, “If you’ve been ready for weeks…”
“Waiting, planet position, and…”
Anka set his bowl of stew on the table and helped herself to the flatbread she’d cooked. She sat and began dipping her bread. Between bites she said, her voice edgy, “And you what? What else have you been up to in the cave of yours?” She looked away less often now. Benny’s eating style disturbed her still, yet, the fleeting thought that he’d soon be gone endeared him more with his eccentric behavior. He had made adjustments too, she admitted. For instance, he now used a spoon.
“Will show you, ingestion complete.” Benny, with his exquisite motor skills, could have consumed the meal in seconds. On her behalf, he’d learned to pace himself. He stood before the table, sitting was not something his race often did, and methodically ate his meal.
“You have a surprise for me?”
“A gift?” Anka swallowed hard and pushed away her bowl. She bit her lower lip and fought back a tear. “I… I have a surprise for you as well.”
Anka rose abruptly and vanished into her bedroom.
“I’m sorry, Benny, I’m sorry. Leave me be for now.”
Benny’s mushroom cavern, nestled against the foot of the mesa, provided more than just a source of food. Buried within, he’d hidden his vessel and alongside, an assembly of equipment used to extract heavy water—the fuel he required for his return journey. During the process he’d managed to extract other elements as well.
He reflected on his short time here, a fraction of his race’s longevity.
When they’d first met, fifteen years ago, it was he who’d saved her. His ship, though triply redundant, had suffered a catastrophic puncture; he’d had to make an emergency, but controlled landing. During descent and while scanning for a hiding place, his sensors had discovered a planetary native who’d become stranded in a deep ravine. His race’s knowledge of this species indicated this individual required immediate assistance: immobile and cooling, it would soon perish.
Against better judgement, he’d rescued and nursed it back to stability. During lucid moments, it had appeared to become aware of its predicament, yet had remained calm. He later surmised that his comically high-pitched noises had disarmed it despite his obvious, non-native appearance.
“A real, goddamn alien. Holy shit.” had been its first words. “Holy shit.”
He’d recorded the event, that first one and from then on. Against his expectations, the native became amenable to his presence. Within days, it had regained mobility and returned to its home. He’d expected broad exposure, a contingency his mission forbid. Leave no evidence, the directive stipulated. But no exposure came.
She, not it—he learned later, returned alone to the cavern and now, fifteen planetary revolutions had elapsed and he’d collected enough fuel to power his trip home.
And, despite better judgement, he’d become captivated.
“What’s this?” Anka asked, recomposed. Her voice tight.
She unfolded the cloth, one of the shirts she’d purchased for him, his own clothing would have caused concern had he been seen. Folding back the sleeve, a glimmer caught her eye. “Is this?” She exposed the full length of a five pound bar of gold.
“One here. Ten and six more. Hidey-hole.”
Early on, Anka and he had worked out a plan for him to quickly vanish. The hidey-hole, a root cellar twenty yards from the cabin, disguised like a rock pile, was the solution. They’d had to use it for the hunters and twice for the law; the sheriff had come calling, once for poachers, and once for an escaped convict.
Anka began to cry.
“No,” she sobbed. “I’m sorry, Benny. I’m so sorry.”
He moved to console her and she shook him off.
Multiple sweeps of red light flashed through the cabin’s windows. Anka had disabled the alarm system.
“I learned more than you know,” she said, tears streaming down. “I learned what your ship can do. Its energy and how it works.” Again, she pushed his hand away, like moving a stiff oaken branch. “I told you I don’t care about the planet, about what happens to humanity.” Anka stood and moved away from him. “But, I do. And I know you can help us.”
“No. Not allowed.”
“You, Benny, you can help us.”
Benny spread his arms and she moved hesitantly into them. She pressed his head, as she could, to her belly. He wrapped his arms around her…
And kept squeezing.
“Benny, I can’t breathe.” She struggled to push him away. She began beating on his rock hard skull. “Let… Let me go.”
“So sorry, Anka.”
When she passed out, he carried her inert body to her bed. Back in the kitchen, he lifted the trapdoor and descended to the escape tunnel that led to the hidey-hole. From there, avoiding the eyes of the half-dozen law enforcement officers, he made his way to his mushroom cavern.
That night, after the ambulance had left, and all the red lights had pulled away, Benny, the alien, bid a bitter farewell. His reflections, for his final report: a species blood runs thick. Thicker than friendship. Thicker than love.
How did life arise on Earth?
The mechanisms of that process continue to elude scientists. The answer could provide both the foundation and exasperation of many human disciplines.
- Knowing how life arose would support the continued separation of science from theology.
- Creating artificial life using the discovered process could aid in genetics, medicine and the development of artificial general intelligence.
- Confirming the process could solidify the estimations of the prevalence of life in the Universe.
Fermi’s Paradox poses, at its most basic: if there are trillions of life supporting planets, where are all the aliens? As a correlated argument, Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher and physicist, posed the theory of “Great Filters”: assuming Fermi’s lack of observational aliens, what aspects of existence “filter” out the aliens?
The answers to Bostrom’s question fall into essentially two groups where, given humanity exists (duh):
- Is life itself hard to create, hard to manifest and generally rare in the Universe? That is, the Great Filter is behind humanity. (Yay!) Or,
- If life is easy to create and shows up everywhere in the Universe, what kills off (filters) the myriad alien civilizations that should exist? And, are some of those Great Filters ahead of humanity? (Boo!)
Essentially, is humanity “in the clear” or are there a shit-ton of existential threats, known and unknown, waiting to pounce and smudge us out of existence?
Pushing this boulder further up the hill… Finding that life is hard to create—is good for us. We have, in mostly likelihood, squeezed through the Great Filter that throttles life. But, finding out that life is easy to create, is bloody everywhere in the Universe—is bad for us. There should be a slew of aliens out there, but there ain’t, so, something kills them off, and will probably kill us off too.
Enter RNA and the fact that it forms on basaltic glass.
Recent studies (reference: Catalytic Synthesis of Polyribonucleic Acid on Prebiotic Rock Glasses) have shown that, perhaps, the mechanism for creating the building blocks of life looks like this. And, given that we believe life bloomed damn fast, geologically speaking, on Earth perhaps only five-hundred million years after Earth formed, this method could help explain why.
In lab experiments, they show how rocks called basaltic glasses help individual RNA letters, known as nucleoside triphosphates, link into strands up to 200 letters long. The glasses would have been abundant in the fire and brimstone of early Earth; they are created when lava is quenched in air or water or when the melted rock created in asteroid strikes cools off rapidly. (link)
Bottom line? Scientists may have found an intriguing and perhaps prevalent “bio-genesis” mechanism that could indicate the relatively straightforward process of creating life in the Universe. (Yay!)
Which means that, following most Fermi Paradoxers and Nick Bostrom’s Great Filter theories, humanity is doomed. (Yay! Ha.)
(Of course, we’re all doomed. In 100 years, everyone reading this is guaranteed to be dead, so, why the hell should we care about the future of humanity? I’ll be dead. You’ll be dead. We’ll all be dead.)
“The final thing you need to realize is that Cylinder is not hollow.”
The bored expression on Petr Dolanoff’s face deepened. He’d studied all the vids, all the specs, in fact, he believed his knowledge surpassed even that of the AI-pilot who had just triggered the deceleration procedure that would bring the shuttle into Cylinder’s docking hub.
“…wobble,” completed the voice in their helmets. The seven other astro-tourists, all but for Petr, eagerly consumed the space-tech-babble the AI-pilot recited with silky-smooth intonation.
“Say again?” Petr stiffened in his seat. “What wobble?”
“Pete, pay-the-fuck attention.” Alsatia, Petr’s sister and tag-a-long for this trip, reached over and rapped his visor with a gloved fist.
“We heard that, young lady.” The Dolanoff family had booked a month’s long stay at Cylinder, the L1 positioned space habitat built like a city-sized tennis ball can. Reina Dolanoff leaned near her daughter, touched helmet to helmet and spoke softly, “We discussed this. Our reputation on this station remains…”
“Tenuous? In jeopardy?”
“Or worse. So, manners and forbearance, remember?” Reina leaned back and adjusted the stiff collar that hosted her helmet. They’d traveled most of the distance from the LEOtel without the suits, but docking mandated full preparation. She gave a wave to her son. “Petr, try again.”
The boy, seventeen and brimming with hormones that sloshed between brain and balls—giving neither the time to stabilize—licked dry lips, he’d sucked his water-pack dry, and asked again. “Can you repeat the part about the ‘wobble’?”
The AI sounded all too happy to comply. Cylinder’s rotation required precise management of mass and its position around the nested shells, the can within a can within a can concept. If mass shifted in unexpected ways, wobble incurred. The constant monitoring and active redistribution system, using the easiest material possible—water—ensured that wobble never happened.
“But, if it does happen?” The strain in Petr’s voice indicated either its parched condition or something else.
The AI laughed, “Impossible. There are two artilects, artificial intellects like me, but much, much smarter, dedicated to maintaining the perfect health and well-being of Cylinder.”
“That’s enough, Petr.” Alexi Dolanoff generally encouraged such attention to detail, especially when it came to risk and safety. He’d been, after all, a founding investor. “After we dock you can begin an in depth conversation with the artilects that run the station. Until then… Ah, will you look at that.”
The eight tourist crew had spent most of their time watching the screens that encased this end of the shuttle. The few true portals provided limited viewing. Now that they approached the station, the immensity of Cylinder, its actual appearance seen through those portals, consumed them. Even Petr.
“Wow. That thing is gargantuan.”
The AI-pilot agreed. “Cylinder is nearly a kilometer wide and, currently, over five kilometers long.”
Alsatia scanned the monitor which depicted the space station’s dimensions. “Currently?”
“Plans are to extend Cylinder to fifteen kilometers.”
Mr. Dolanoff offered context. “One klick at a time. Right now, we’re negotiating the purchase of three additional asteroids.” He tried to clear his throat. He’d sucked his water-pack dry as well. “That’s one of the reasons we’re here.”
Petr swallowed hard. “I sure hope they’ve got more water onboard. I’m drained dry.”
“Plenty of H2O on Cylinder. It is a by-product of mining.” The AI-pilot’s timber dipped. “Docking procedures begun. Brace yourselves.”
This 1500 word opening chapter is a rehash of something I started years ago.
The idea that a generational starship is the exact wrong way to send humanity (and its supporting environment of plants and animals and bacteria and fungus) out into the stars, is why I started this story. Generational ships are just plain stupid. Nobody wants to live and die traveling in a tin can. And cryogenic preservation of grown humans will probably never work.
So, how does humanity infect the galaxy with its ilk? With a starship designed to travel, arrive, and then grow humans, as well as all other fauna and flora, from zygotes and seeds; with android “Mother” and “Father” figures to raise children (Raised by Wolves’esque) once orbit around a distant candidate planet was attained.
The problem with such a system is that the ship itself must be the primary caretaker. But how can an intellect survive, sane, the hundreds of years necessary to travel to the target system? I propose the ship be equipped with a duality of intellects. Janus-like.
Read the story in a new tab here.
(I’ll get my editor to review and correct obvious mistakes. She, however, hesitates when tasked with serious wordgery. So, no doubt this piece will suffer from the lack of stronger skills than my own.)
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
TITLE: NORTH KOREAN ROCKET LAUNCHES & EXPLODES
Earlier this morning, UTC 03:27:00, North Korea launched a ballistic rocket of unknown intent.
The rocket reached an LEO (low Earth orbit) of approximately 390 kilometers where it separated into independent payloads, some continuing to travel out to 500 kilometers in altitude above the surface of the planet.
Fifteen individual payloads were identified, each accelerating to nearly 30,000 kilometers per hour, at which time they detonated releasing pellet sized projectiles, roughly seven mm in diameter. It is estimated that more than two billion pellets were delivered across 300 kilometers of LEO altitude.
The intent, as described by U.S. Military, ESA and NASA officials, can only be considered “all-out war on our communication systems.”
“We’re already experiencing satellite failures. Every satellite in LEO will probably be destroyed. Starlink? Toast. Network channel satellites? Gone. We’re looking at near-complete blackout.”
“And the Space Station? Thank God they had an emergency capsule they could deploy. But the station itself, total loss.”
An international response is pending. Early news shows that Chinese forces are already flowing across the North Korean border.
“As far as space exploration and communications go, we’ve been sent back to the 1940’s. Humans are never going to travel to LEO again. You can kiss the Moon and Mars goodbye. Sorry Elon.”