Grift never enjoyed breakdowns, especially when they occurred in the middle of nowhere.
“Come now, darling. We were so close,” he said. "Run a diagnostic and let me know which systems have been compromised. Oh, and figure out where exactly we are."
It was one of Grift’s habits to talk to his ship when he was stressed out. He found it oddly comforting in the void and lonely space through which he traveled. Since he was often on journeys that took several years to complete, he found any companionship comforting.
His ship, the Dartmouth, was a cargo vessel meant for hauling goods and materials across intergalactic space. His current task was to deliver a few tons of ice and lithium metal to a developing colony on Praxis VI. This was no small feat, as the mixture of the two elements can be quite explosive, but Grift had taken all the necessary precautions in outfitting his ship for the job.
"Diagnostic complete," Dartmouth's computer system said. "The fusion drive is offline due to overheating in the drive coils. The temperature monitoring systems are not responding, and seem to have been compromised. They should be replaced before we continue."
Grift sighed. He could override the temperature sensors, but it would be suicide to travel any significant distance with those safety systems turned off. Not to mention his cargo could become unstable if the temperature on board started to get out of control. He knew he had been pushing his little Dart too hard these past weeks, and going through his last set of temperature sensors was the nail in the coffin. He had to be more careful.
"51 lightyears from our destination, and 51 lightyears from the next advanced system," Dart responded.
"Great, so there is nowhere to go but forward."
"Sensors indicate that we are 2.74 light years from restricted space. Recommend we proceed with caution."
"Thanks Dart." Grift had become accustomed to the sterile and business-like replies from his ship. Though the conversation was one-sided, he still felt as though he connected with Dart better than he had any living thing. Such was the life of a cargo-hauler in the outer reaches of space.
He also couldn't help but wonder why there was restricted space way out here, in a relatively empty section of the universe. Typically, restricted space meant that there was a military establishment or high-powered governmental facility nearby. No such thing existed this far from civilization. He had heard of travel restrictions based on fledgling civilizations that desired to be free from the influence of advanced technology, but such things had long since been abandoned as space travel became more widespread and hundreds of non-profit organizations had taken up the mantle of bringing pre-space species into the void.
Grift was not particularly interested in educating pre-space civilizations on the wonders of modern technology, but he was intrigued about what could be restricted in this lonely corner of the galaxy.
"Dart, can you tell me why this is classified as restricted space?" If he was going to be stuck out here, he might as well indulge his mind in a little mystery.
"There is no official record of classification as restricted space in our database," Dart said. "A quick search of the navigation logs from this sector show an unusual amount of radiation emanating from a small system about 3.4 light years from our current location. This seems to indicate a semi-advanced civilization that may be on the brink of space travel."
"That's just what I was thinking. What are the odds that they would have parts to repair our fusion drive?"
"Based on extrapolation from average technological advancement, there is a reasonable probability that the tools exist to repair our systems; however, the probability that they have developed a similar power source is very small."
Grift tapped a few commands into the screen in front of him, reprogramming the engine to run without temperature checks. He then keyed in the coordinates for the source of the radiation his ship had found, and engaged the fusion drive.
"Warning, temperature overrides are in place. The fusion drive may not be stable," Dart said.
"It's going to have to remain stable. We're going to that planet to fix the ship."
"Interstellar regulations prohibit travel through restricted space or the interference with developing..."
"I know, Dart," Grift interrupted. "There is no option, and I don't really care what interstellar regulations prohibit. Space is too big to be governed by a single body."
Dart had no response, but it is only a computer system, so that was expected. He had always been glad that technology had not advanced so far as to give artificial intelligence a political opinion. At least, he hoped that was still the case.
"Jim! Quick, come check this out!"
James Hardin peered over the side of his stereotypically bland cubicle. "What now, Gary? Another asteroid on a collision course? Should I call Bruce Willis?" A slight smile played across his lips.
"Yeah, yeah. Shut up and look at this." Gary swiveled his monitor so that James could see the plots and calculations arranged on the screen.
James ducked around the corner and entered Gary's cubicle. After a quick look over the information Gary had called up, he was convinced. All joking aside, he trusted Gary's insight. He had employed several analysts over the years, but none were quite as bright as Gary. Also, there was something about this information that he could not dismiss. It was something he had not seen in many years.
Gary took the prolonged silence of his colleague to be agreement. Still, he felt compelled to explain. "This telescope imagery shows an object just appeared nearly 3 light years from us."
James understood the information that he was being shown, and picked up the pieces. "So this thing appeared nearly three years ago, which means that depending on how fast it is traveling, he might already be here." He turned to Gary and met his gaze. "I strongly suggest that we do not mention this to anyone. It's too important to fall into the wrong hands."
Gary nodded in assent. James trusted the man, to the extent that he could supervise him. If his mission was to continue, he would need to keep the news of this foreign object a secret. What he could not understand is why something would have appeared at all, given the level of precaution he had taken to warn away any potential visitors.
The trip took longer than it should have, given the state of the Dartmouth. With the fusion drive damaged, it could only sustain relatively low acceleration. Under normal circumstances, constant acceleration travel was acceptable, since eventually the ship would get up to a fairly substantial speed. The fusion drive would protect the ship from small debris, as well as the intense heat and radiation produced at such high speeds, and the navigation computer could route around larger objects. Unfortunately, these were not normal circumstances. The fusion drive was not capable of both flying and protecting the ship at the same time, so the Dart was limiting top speed to avoid being pummeled by space dust at high velocities.
As the ship neared its destination, a bright blue planet slowly grew before the Dartmouth. Grift knew that it was habitable by simply looking at it. A nitrogen and oxygen rich atmosphere, liquid water, sufficient land coverage. It had everything that the allied galaxies look for in a colony planet. The only reason that he could see for not approaching the planet is that it had been forgotten in this lonely corner of space.
"A transmission has been received from the planet," Dart said. "Translation in progress."
"Can you locate the source of the transmission?"
A map overlay appeared on the Dart's forward view screen. It showed several continents arranged around a large ocean. One of the continents was highlighted and the map zoomed to show a city near the coast of one of the smaller continents.
"Set a course for this city, Dart. Have you completed the translation?"
"Yes, translation is complete. The message reads: 'Welcome travelers! This message contains coordinates on our planet that will serve as an ideal meeting area. We ask that your entry be along the provided route to minimize your exposure to the population at large.'"
"Pause playback," Grift said. "Show me the location and suggested route, Dart. Looks like they have had some contact with advanced technology in the past."
The map flew over to a new area. It appeared to be a desert on the same continent, near the opposite coast from their previous destination.
"No signs of advanced technology have been found," Dart said. "We appear to be the only intergalactic ship in the area."
The situation was beginning to make Grift nervous. He had heard the cautionary tales of space travelers landing on planets that had yet to reach modern levels of technological advancement, only to be stuck for years trying to educate or replicate some of the gadgets they brought with then. Most of the stories had to do with civilizations that were closer to long distance space travel than those that were not. This planet was clearly of the former, and the direct message told him that they knew he was more than an incoming asteroid.
On the other hand, this could be a blessing in disguise, since they might be more willing to help him on his way in exchange for some small piece of new technology. He might not have to sneak around to find what he was looking for.
"Well, I suppose we should follow their wishes, since they have obviously encountered someone like us in the past. Dart, follow the suggested route in and land at the coordinates provided." The ship beeped in compliance and began to shift direction towards the landing zone. "Oh, and resume that transmission."
"Transmission resuming: 'We thank you for your compliance in this matter. If there is anything that we can assist you with, please let us know. We can be contacted on this frequency, which will not be overheard by the population at large. Again, thank you for your compliance, and welcome to Earth.' Transmission complete. Would you like to compose a response?"
"Yes. Let them know the state of our fusion drive, what we need in order to repair it, and specifications on the required parts and tolerances. Make sure that you leave out any proprietary information or advanced technology that they may not possess." Grift took a deep breath. "We might need some basic supplies as well, but we can discuss that after landing. That is all."
"So, this is Earth," Grift said, mainly to himself.
"They must have received the message. The ship is making course adjustments to align with the coordinates we sent them." Gary was ecstatic. His voice had become clipped and his speech was faster than usual. James could not blame him, as he had never encountered a traveler before. It was quite exciting.
"Good. Be watching for a return message. It should be on the same frequency," James said.
The two analysts were standing near a large abandoned runway on an old military airfield in New Mexico. They had arrived on site a few days prior to set up the radio transmitters and prepare a room for the arrival of the extraterrestrial being. There was a bunker nearby that had served as their living quarters since they had arrived, and a small shelter near the airstrip that housed the newly installed radios, satellite, and telescopic imaging equipment that they would need to track the incoming spacecraft.
James also carried a handgun on him at all times, concealed from Gary to prevent any panic on behalf of his colleague. To Gary, this was to be a simple meeting and information exchange.
"Will we be able to understand the response? I mean, we don't exactly have translators for this."
"Don't worry, Gary. They should translate it for us." James was calm. Perhaps he was too calm in the moment. He realized that Gary may become suspicious and come to the conclusion that this was not, in fact, James' first rodeo. He turned to Gary and flashed a sheepish smile. "That's what they do on Star Trek right? They have translators and stuff?"
This provoked a laugh from Gary. "I think we need to be a little bit more realistic about this situation than Star Trek."
“Presumably they were able to interpret our message, so it would not be a big jump to assume that they would be able to compose their own.” James paused and looked thoughtfully up into the sky; he needed to redirect Gary’s attention. “I suppose it's possible that they simply saw the coordinates in the message and corrected course to intercept.”
Gary looked concerned with this bit of news, and followed James’ gaze into the sky. The telescope was tracking the ship as it approached, and it would not be long before it was within visual range.
The truth was that this was not James’ first encounter with extraterrestrial life. During his first encounter he was exceedingly preoccupied with whether or not the United States government satellites and radar systems would detect the incoming ship. To his relief, it appeared that the modern hull material of these ships were impervious to radar and were very difficult to spot with current satellites.
That is why James had set up his little analysis unit. That is also why he was not alone for this meeting. He had hired Gary almost immediately after opening his division of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. He knew that he could trust Gary to keep the information to himself, not to mention that the man was a brilliant physicist and astronomer.
Gary hooted in excitement. "We have received a response!"
“That must be our landing pad,” Grift said.
He was looking out the main view screen at a long strip of paved ground that appeared to be used for landing primitive aircraft. The Dartmouth set down near a temporary shelter with several antennae and dish receivers on the roof.
As the ship settled down, he noticed two men emerge from the shelter. One was shorter than the other, with hair that stopped just shy of his shoulders, and facial hair that signified he had not shaven in several days. He was visibly nervous, which told Grift that this was his first experience with off-worlders. The other man was tall, dressed in black, and looked downright menacing. This man was unshaken, and it was abundantly clear that he had dealt with this sort of meeting before. He decided that he would greet the short man first.
The hatch in the rear section of his ship opened, and he made his way down the ramp to the ground. He took a few steps out into the sunlight and removed his flight helmet. This simple action caused the short man to stop dead in his tracks, mouth agape. The other man remained unfazed.
"Jim, are you seeing this," the short one asked. Dart was still actively translating for Grift, and could utilize a speaker on his flight suit to communicate with them.
"Greetings, gentlemen," Grift said. There was only a slight delay between his speech and Dart's translation, but it was strange to hear his ship speaking their tongue. "I am happy to meet you. My name is Grift, and I would appreciate some assistance in repairing my ship."
The short man was growing paler by the moment. He started to utter something, but was cut off by the other man. "Grift, it is a pleasure to meet you. We will attempt to help you in any way possible. My name is James, and this is my colleague, Gary." He slapped Gary on the shoulder as he said his name, jolting him from his daze. "I apologize for the state of my friend, but he has never encountered one of you before."
"I figured that to be the case." Grift said. "It should wear off quickly then."
James smiled and gestured towards the small shelter. "Shall we go inside? It will be getting rather warm soon."
The three men had returned to the shelter and taken seats around a large table. Grift was sorting some items in his pack, and Gary was beginning to return to his normal color.
Gary leaned forward in his chair, never peeling his gaze from Grift. "I have a question."
"Found it." Grift pulled a small rectangular object from his pack and held it in the air triumphantly. He placed the item onto the table and spoke a command to his computer that was not translated. The device sprung to life, projecting a two-dimensional schematic of his ship onto the surface of the table. He finally looked up to meet Gary's eyes. "What is your question, Gary?"
"Maybe it's just me, but you look human. How is that possible? Are you a time traveler? I mean, I understand evolution and I guess it is possible that you evolved as we did, but that is highly unlikely. What types of animals are on your planet?"
Grift let out a laugh that interrupted the string of questions. "That's more than one question, Gary. But it's just fine, I realize that I'm not used to meeting pre-space civilizations." He leaned back in his chair and steepled his hands near his mouth in contemplation. "Now, I have to remember what the official response to this question is. Surely it's in the manual." He began to speak to his computer again, in words that were not translated to Gary and James.
"The manual?" Gary asked the question, but neither of the other men bothered to respond. James continued to silently watch the visitor, gauging his actions carefully.
"Ah yes, here it is," Grift said. "When the universe was formed, it was seeded with life, with us. We were scattered throughout the stars, left to form our own civilizations, to live our own lives. Some of us banded together, utilizing the tools and technology that we had been given to travel the universe and create an empire that has lived in harmony with all.
"Others took the opportunity to start fresh. They abandoned all technology and culture in order to create their own. Some of these groups have since entered into the empire, while others have remained isolated. There are still countless other civilizations that have yet to enter the void of space. You are the latter, and I am convinced that it will not be long for your people before they too can enter into the great expanse."
"That's a great story, and I'm sure that the planet will want to join the empire at some point," James said. Grift and Gary both turned to look at the man, who was now standing. "Unfortunately we cannot stay here for an extended period of time, as we are at risk of being discovered. We have some materials to repair your ship, but I'm going to have to ask you to be on your way as soon as possible."
James' eyes were hard, and Gary was too dazed to speak or even think clearly. Grift slowly rose to his feet, never breaking eye contact with James, and began gathering his things back into his bag.
"I thought that you were different when I first saw you James," Grift said. "But now I see clearly that you are not from this planet."
James' stare only intensified at this comment, but Grift continued, his eyes narrowing, "Yes, I can see right through you. You came to this planet, and for some reason are trying to protect it from outside interference. I don't know if you've heard, but the regulations for meddling with pre-space civilizations has been considerably relaxed."
Clarity returned to Gary's face. "James, is this true?"
James sat down in his chair again, breathed out a long sigh and looked up at Grift. "I don't have adequate time to explain to you the state of this planet, or these people. I've never before seen the hostility, anger, and hate that these people carry. There is crime and fighting in our universe, but these people have fought wars that ravaged the entire planet. They have taken lives by the thousands and hundreds of thousands. We are not talking about tens or even hundreds of tainted minds, but every single one of them has this hate inside. There is not one soul on this planet that is untouched by this evil." James realized, when he had finished talking, that he had raised his voice considerably over the course of his monologue. He also found himself at the edge of his seat, so he cleared his throat and relaxed back into his chair.
The room was silent for a few moments as the words settled into place. Finally, Grift took hold of his bag, hefted the box of supplies and exited the shelter without a word.
Gary turned back to James, a look of utter confusion etched across his face. He could not bring himself to ask the questions that were swirling around in his mind. Where would he start?
James understood his expression completely, as he had seen it on a few occasions before. "Gary, this is going to be a long story, but you must know that you are only one of a long line of assistants that I have trained. You are fortunate to have experienced such a meeting, but the fact of the matter remains that we must do all that we can to limit our exposure to the galaxy at large."
They were still discussing the situation when Grift's ship lifted off from the abandoned runway and disappeared into the evening sky.
"Dart, resume course to our primary destination."
The Dartmouth beeped an affirmative response.
Grift could not force James' impassioned speech from his mind. He had seen some terrible things during his travels, but never an entire civilization that was bent on evil. He was certain that some of them must have been good people, but as James had pointed out, the malice lived within them. Some of them may appear to be good, but they are all capable of doing harm, and that was a good enough reason to protect the galaxy from them.
Grift rubbed his tired eyes, "I think I'm going to get some rest. Wake me if you need me."
Another affirmative beep chimed. Grift unstrapped his flight harness and rose from his seat. He was glad that his tiny ship contained a small sleeping area where he could stretch out and get a full sleep cycle. It was something he had specifically looked for when purchasing the vessel, since he had spent plenty of restless nights in the cockpit of his last chip. Something told him that tonight would be restless, but not because of his sleeping quarters.
"Dart, erase the log files from our last breakdown up until now. Delete everything we have on file regarding our trip to the planet Earth. Fill the space with error messages."