Earth is the cradle of the mind.
Sounds like junior needs a kick out the door.

It was raining on Earth.
. . . the whole Earth.

Well, except the poles—there, the rain was a furious blizzard. It was also raining underwater. Such fury had been excited in the impact that great cannonballs were pounding the shallows into a seething, bubbling confusion of water and air.

Humanity had seen the asteroid coming. It was 31 years out when we first spotted it, but it was also big. NASA took one look and shrugged. The other national space agencies did the same. There was just nothing to be done. We didn’t have the infrastructure. Didn’t have the experience. The tremendous rockets of the space launch system were finally putting our men and women on Mars. But it couldn’t budge that rock from its fateful course. Literally couldn’t, correct to the first five decimal places.

The politicians all begged and promised money. Especially in the United States. But it just couldn’t be done. It was already too late. We could only evacuate the East Coast, strengthen the colonies on other planets to hedge our bets, and hope for the best.

On that morning of 2060, a mountain-sized interplanetary bullet on a chance encounter kerplunked into the Atlantic Ocean, and Earth shivered in the torrent of its own frozen waters, churned up from the depths. Debris fell on the other side of the planet; the sky was darkened for a year; the loss of life was catastrophic. And so the people declared that whatever it took, whatever expense had to be paid, whatever technologies had to be developed, this would never be allowed to happen again.

. . . and that’s how we finally reached for the stars . . .


Some things are more important than gold statues, Indy.

Forerunner galactic civilizations are a staple of xenoarchaeologic research grants, yet their underpinning, background ubiquity seldom enlighten those who study them. Currently, no fewer than eleven separate forerunner civilizations are known to have colonized the Milky Way to various degrees, the earliest surviving artifacts of which date back some eight billions of years.

It seems that some natural cycle of rise and recession alternately unites alien races and then isolates them, creating a chronology of forerunner civilizations—of which ours is merely the latest. There is no reason to believe our present civilization is privileged, and yet no one is quite sure why no iteration has ever really caught on permanently.

Some of the very longest-lived species have surviving legends that possibly implicate membership in the previous civilization—which decayed some tens of millions of years ago—but on such timescales of millions and billions of years, it is more common for member races to die out entirely.

Surviving artifacts are common, but often maddeningly uninformative. Almost no devices survive the ravages of time intact, save only those few that self-repair. (The most famous examples are the ring devices—featureless wheels whose only interesting property is making investigating vessels disappear. For 30,000 years, nothing more about them has been discovered.)

It seems that, just as galactic-scale government is not fit for cosmic longevity, nor are any individual species, let alone their technologies.


We’re a little short on crew.

The first “live” interstellar colonists to arrive successfully on an exoplanet in a nearby system were a group of six malnourished Vietnamese women. (A seventh died in hibernation, as had been statistically predicted.)

Between Sol’s planets, economies of scale and orbital infrastructure allow minor differences in weight to be tolerable. Tickets are still based on mass, as-measured by the travel agency on launch day to the nearest gram, so women and children are cheap. But even if you’re obese, you can still pay your way.

But when you’re talking about interstellar distances, every extra gram you accelerate to and back again requires energy comparable to the annihilation of a weapons-grade quantity of antimatter. That energy has to come from somewhere.

So, because men’s contribution can be saved and women’s can’t, the colonists were all women. The large diversity of the former could also cut down on the number of women required. But a bit of careful selection and reduction of key nutrients in her diet cut down the average woman’s mass by 15kg each. When you factor in the commensurate reduction in life support, their ship spent only 248 years in transit—fast enough to arrive by 2599-11-3, just under two months before the UFP’s deadline.

First Impressions

To learn a profession is not to wisen to it.

[From foreword to Introductory Xenosociology, 3rd Ed.]

First (radio) contact with an alien civilization happened on 2318-01-01 13:44:57, Earth Standard Time (EST). It was a Tuesday.

Specifically, we picked up the Haðu[note 1] radio chatter from something like 500 light years away from Earth—a statistically fortunate stone’s throw away in the immensity of a galaxy—even one containing (at least!) the hundreds of sapient species known today. Just as the young queen was drawing the 13-year civil war to a close, the planets and moons of the newly reformed UFP stood unified in awe—finally, aliens! Besides hastening the end of hostilities, the announcement also spurred the development of interstellar seedships in the coming decades[note 2].

Mistakes were made. Truly, alliances can be obliterated by sheer incompetency.

Nevertheless, due to the vastness of interstellar space, humans have only recently colonized far enough out to practicably encounter Haðu in the flesh, after 6000-odd years. The Haðu are not the first (we’ve of course already had an entire war with the even-more-improbably-close Tassad), yet as with any such case study, students would do well to learn from the mistakes that were made.

The first was in our haste to prepare to make the visit ourselves. The Haðu are a cautious race, and the departure of a hibernation-emissary-ship from a nearby system was viewed with alarm. Due to light-speed delay, it was five years before the system could retract the ship, and another five years after this before the Haðu could reassure us that they were merely nervous, that an emissary was welcome, and that the ship should be un-retracted.

The second error was cultural. Ambassador López, upon orbiting the single planet[note 3] of the Haðu, Praðeb, pronounced it dead—nevermind the indignant radio transmissions which disproved that conjecture. The Ambassador simply didn’t see any cities, and mistook this for a sign of underdevelopment. This is the sort of dangerous insensitivity that can obliterate alliances.

The third error was operational. Praðeb is larger and less-dense than Earth, combining in favor of mass to produce a 2.3x stronger gravitation. López (also acting captain; his military crew disappeared after hibernation under what can only be called suspicious circumstances) believed that the strong gravity would put himself and his aides at a diplomatic disadvantage, and adamantly refused to land. The aptly-named battleship UFP Enforcer, passing through at a distance of one light-month and so acting upon its own authority, rectified this by dispatching from its escort the light cruiser UFP Polaris, which saw to it that López and his aides disembarked right-the-hell-now. Besides the obvious confusion and embarrassment, the Haðu were thus made to suffer a federation warship in low orbit.

The fourth error was actually more a misunderstanding of scale. The federation shuttle came in slowly, saving nearly all of its fuel for the single-stage ascent to orbit, relying on aerobraking to absorb the brunt of speed on descent. The computer then performed a hard burn just above the surface, bringing the shuttle to a soft landing with minimal fuel consumption.

Haðu are each actually about the size of a small house, and enclose themselves in mounds of earth as they move. It was on one of these mounds that the shuttle had alighted, scorching it—and the hapless Haðu farmer underneath.

Fortunately, the creature was not seriously injured, and diplomatic relations were finally established. The patience and honor of the Haðu testify that such incompetence—tolerated at all levels—was not catastrophic. It is fortunate that the case of the Haðu can serve as a pleasant—if motivating—object of future study.

[note 1]N.B. “ð” is transliterated as a voiced dental fricative; “th” as in “then” (not as in “think”). Haðu produce the sound by a resonant and extremely loud thrumming.
[note 2]This colonization effort would ultimately be largely overtaken by faster, laser-accelerated ships, but this initial thrust is what made later efforts successful—and possible.
[note 3]The system, a binary, has two habitable planets and three marginally-habitable planets. Yet, the Haðu have no space program whatever, and have not colonized any.

Phoebe Station

Tickets now available: 50 to 107 light-minutes.

[Heard on live evening newscast 2197-06-01 on Ceres]

“Twelve kiloseconds ago, Orbital Materials LLC announced their intention to establish an oxyhydrogen propellant depot on Phoebe, a retrograde satellite of Saturn, within the next decade. A spokesman from Orbital said Phoebe was purchased from a private collector. We have colonization analyst Helen Graves here with us on Ceres. Helen?”

“Right here, Mindy.”

“Helen, what are your thoughts on the Orbital Materials acquisition?”

“Well Mindy, as you know, I’ve studied interplanetary colonization for decades, and the Orbital acquisition seems hopelessly long-sighted. Phoebe orbits Saturn, and there are no present plans for colonization that far out. The closest well-frequented base would be Pasiphae Station, in the Jovian system. Frankly, Mindy, they just won’t have any customers.”

“What do you think is their aim in acquiring such a risky investment, then?”

“I’m guessing they intend to bootstrap colonization efforts themselves. Phoebe is undeniably well-suited for it. The moon orbits retrograde, which makes it easier to rendezvous with from certain Hohmanns, especially with slingshot capture tethers. It also has the vast wealth in water to make the fuel itself.”

“Thanks, Helen. Again, if you’re just joining us, Orbital Materials has acquired the moon Phoebe for speculative use as a propellant depot. Construction will start after the first crews arrive; I’m told Orbital will use higher-energy transfers to cut down on the six-year Hohmann from Earth. I’m Mindy Graham, and this is Ceres Evening News.”

The Great Filter

Hint hint.

The sky teems with life. Most isn’t sapient. By the time colonization of the galaxy concluded in CE 27000, the bakers dozen of known sapient species known in the days of the proto-empire had expanded to well over a thousand, with non-sapient species numbering in the trillions.

Humans were startled to find that that not one of those thousand-odd sapient species had colonized even a single other planet. Even, for example, a one in their home solar system, mere light-minutes away. Worse, while a few had primitive space stations in low orbit, the majority hadn’t even that.

This level of space inferiority was all the more surprising for the cultural and technological marvels the surfaces of the home planets themselves boasted: undreamed-of advancements in medical and physical and mathematical sciences! So it obviously wasn’t a question of intelligence (which was, besides, approximately equal to that of humans). Therefore: “Why?”, was the question the explorers asked their (usually congenial) alien hosts.

There was no ready answer, but gradually sociologists cobbled together a theory: laziness.

As anthropocentric as it might sound, the theory made a good deal of sense. Getting off your home planet is technologically difficult—a challenge made harder still when you have to inspire a population that, by definition, has never left home, to the requisite elevation of perspective. And so it was that none of the thousand-some species, save humans alone, had ever made any progress beyond those first few, symbolic rocket flights. Imagine the catastrophe if humans had been counted among them.

Nonvariable Intelligence

Improving lives doesn’t.

Among the baker’s dozen of known galactic species that crawled their way to sapience, sociopsychologists were astonished to find that every one of them had the same intelligence. The bipeds from Earth, the avian dinosaurs from that one outer rim world, the furry bear-creatures that ate methane, put any together and they score within 10 points of each other on an IQ test. This wasn’t true for any other attribute. (Im)mortality? widely varying. Genders? Different systems. Biochemistry? Carbon through Arsenic. Size, shape? Hell no.

But intelligence? Why that?

For some species, this is an extension from a lifespan of decades to millennia. This is bad.

It turns out that entry-level sapience evolves as a survival trait. Hunt/find your food, develop technologies to make that easier, maybe do some farming, and so on. After basic establishment of civilization, mortality drops by factors in the hundreds or thousands. Population booms, and you start getting plagues from the species concentrating in cities.

This is where it gets interesting. See, once you have plagues, you need doctors. And once you have doctors, you start thinking about all of the other ways to cheat death. So the plagues are beaten back by vaccinations or antibiotics, and then your civ starts concentrating on welfare and quality-of-life.

Pretty soon, your species is living at the maximum, or nearly, of their theoretical longevity. For some species, this is an extension from a lifespan of decades to millennia.

This is bad.

At best, evolution stagnates. Your weak and stupid have the same chance of reproduction as anyone else—and they’re certainly not going to die before influencing their environments. Diseases that should have killed are mere annoyances, chomping futilely against a barrier of solid medical science. Predators that once ravaged tribes now are confined in zoos or hunted to extinction.

So no one gets any smarter.

The long and short of it is, after a certain point, intelligence is no longer a tremendous advantage to survival and, subsequently, traditional selection factors are abrogated completely. That is point at which medical science develops, which itself happens only when sapients begin the process of introspection and develop sympathy—that is, shortly after the development of sapience itself.

Ring Device

You ever see an inquisitive feline?

The first ring device was discovered in its own extremely high orbit around the brown dwarf binary Luhman 16, a mere 6.5 light years from the green hills of Earth. As an artifact, the device was impressive: fully a kilometer in diameter, and half that in transverse thickness, yet with a wall thin enough to squeeze between your fingers. From a distance, it looked, for all the worlds, like a rolled up piece of paper.

The discovering ship, U.F.P Vega, relayed news of the discovery to the recently established outpost on Luhman system’s one habitable planet, then cautiously sent a probe into the device’s aperture.

U.F.P. Vega was never heard from again.


Well that’s depressing.

There is a terrible problem with interstellar travel. That problem is distance.

At the speed of light, faster than which no material object can dream of traveling, Earth’s nearest neighbors lie years away, and the truly interesting ones, decades or centuries. But even if the, quite frankly, absurd energy requirements to accelerate a spaceship even close to that fast were tractable—which, do not forget for a moment, they are not—there are other obstacles with which to contend.

One of these is dust. At relativistic speeds, dust particles start looking an awful lot like mountains. And hitting one of them starts to look an awful lot like detonating a nuclear warhead, point-blank, against your hull.

So you can’t cover that inconceivably vast distance by going fast. Which means you need to go slow. And there, you have another, tremendous problem: time. In some sense, this is the same problem—which is why distance and time are the same thing to a rocketeer.

To put this in perspective, the U.F.P. Discovery left low Earth orbit in the year 2401. At its (destination-relative) ludicrous speed of 0.00114c, its target Gliese 667 Cc lay 23.62 light years—and nearly 21,000 years—ahead. That’s like the empires of ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, ancient and imperial China, the Mayans, the Romans and Greeks, Mongols, Ottomans, and the entirety of modern world history all concatenated together end-to-end.

Distance and time are the same thing to a rocketeer.

How do you build an airlock door that lasts that long? You can’t. Let alone a nuclear reactor, a computer, a rocket engine, a 3D fab, or any of the other necessities of the 25th century. You probably can’t even build a wrench.

So the Discovery really is just a tremendous steel cylinder, with walls some 90 meters thick at points—and the people and resources were just welded permanently inside. It has no guidance, no sensors, no engines, no nothing. It’s the only way the ship itself could possibly survive. It was accelerated by Mercury’s laser launching grid, beaming maximum power clear across the system for ten full months.

So there’s a self-contained biosphere, plus raw building material, out in that speeding hulk. Someday, in Earth’s distant future, they will arrive, and the Discovery, still on utterly passive guidance, will spontaneously be captured into a wide and long elliptical orbit around the system’s central two suns.

The hope is that, if any of the humans’ descendants survive tens of thousands of years of cultural isolation, they will be able to devise a way to slice their way out of their steel imprisonment—that protective eggshell—to seek their futures on the unknown worlds they may find.

Assuming, of course, that their remembered origins are not lost to the relegation of legend.