The Ones Who Came Before

Newton class starship
MSCV Empiricist
Elliptical Orbit
8 AU from Luyten’s Star
January 2219

First contact protocols for organisations and governmental entities were first created following the discovery of a garden world orbiting Proxima Centauri in 2204, and amended every few years after. However, the more years that went by without a contact, the less they seemed to matter.

The Martian first contact protocols had been derived from military operating principles. As a result, the protocol was, of course, an acronym. The Contact Operating Procedures Manual, or COPMAN, laid out an elaborate decision tree designed to accommodate dozens of potential moves by hundreds of different hypothetical aliens. Every officer cadet was put through a first contact simulator based on a randomized COPMAN scenario during their senior year. .

The possibility of a starship two-thirds the radius of the Earth hadn’t been included, but Ivy was prepared to forgive that particular oversight. Nobody could reasonably be expected to prepare for the physically impossible.

Fortunately, the opening steps in the tree that began with an attempt by the nonhumans to initiate contact were straightforward–establish a common computing language. This boiled down to bombarding one another with prime number sequences in binary, building up to a primitive program in a low-level digital language, and then letting the computer rapidly bootstrap up from that humble beginning to progressively more and more complicated programs in a potted history of human software and communication protocols from first principles.

The next step was harder, and ended up stretching onwards for the next week. It involved establishing a conceptual language onto which an understanding of the actual alien linguistics could be built. Dictionaries, labelled image databases, and children’s textbooks flooded out of their x-band antennas, while they received back collections of the alien equivalents.

There had still been no actual communication, it was only yesterday that Emmy and their sociologist (moonlighting as a linguist) had actually managed to figure out which of the images sent back was supposed to be their selfie.

The creatures were eight limbed and radially symmetrical, four lower limbs were offset 45 degrees from four slightly longer upper limbs. Their limbs were feathered and seemed to come in a variety of colors, each one terminating in a set of clawed, four fingered digits. They wore something akin to clothing over their central torsos, with something akin to a hood pulled up over half of the creature’s head. It had eight eyes, two on each side, set one above the other. Between the hood and the feathers, Ivy thought they had a vaguely wise appearance, like alien bird priests.

That image was projected onto the wallscreen of the conference room alongside several other different although apparently also clothed creatures for the 41st senior staff meeting.

“Good thing we didn’t send them a copy of the Voyager plaque,” Jean joked a little desperately. “They’d have thought they’d made contact with a species of naturists.”

“They did send us full 3d anatomical renderings, so they’re not total prudes” Cale answered lightly. There was a mood of almost forced joviality in the meeting, everyone was excited by the discovery, and yet it was by its nature profoundly uneasy.

“I notice I’m confused here.” Ivy said reclining in her chair and steepling her fingers,  “I’m looking at nine different types of aliens. Or is this some very elaborate life cycle?”

“Oh,” Kestral spoke up to correct her, “No, they’re different species. There’s a bunch of distinct alien biospheres on that ship. You can see the differences between atmospheres in different sections on the spectrographics.”

“We think the bird-spiders are in charge.” Cale said. “They put themselves and one other species, that’s the furry octopuses with hats,  into a category that translates to ‘the ones that came before’, the rest of this lot are all called ‘the ones who followed after’.”

Ivy rubbed the bridge of her nose, “Do we know anything about their culture? Do they love their children, pray to gods, what?”

“The answers to those questions are probably in the data they sent us, but we haven’t built up enough of a knowledge base to generate meaningful answers. It’s a lot to sift through, even with Emmy helping,” Kestral answered with an unhelpful shrug.

“How close are we to actually talking to them?” Ivy persisted. “These guys are practically in our backyard as far as interstellar distances are concerned, I definitely have some questions to ask them.”

“We’re pretty close. We could probably do it now honestly, but you’d be getting a lot of ‘untranslatable’ dumped into the string.” Cale answered.

“You can’t talk to them.” Evangeline spoke suddenly from the back of the room, tucking her pale blonde hair behind her ears. “The Contact Operating Procedures Handbook clearly states that an initial line of communications requires a senior diplomat be sent from Sol.”

“Unless.” Cale responded from his position in front of the wallscreens. “Continued silence on the part of the human vessel would represent an unconscionable danger to said vessel’s wellbeing.”

“Cale just because every line in COPMAN is appended with that doesn’t mean you can use me as your personal override because you’re too impatient to wait for a diplomat.” The Conscience snorted and crossed her arms. The Pragmatist shrugged at her and proceeded with his presentation.

“It is however, the case I will be making in this instance.” He changed slides. The next slide was of text, it read.


Cale was silent while the rest of them digested the text. “When they first started talking, it was in their signal codes, in their language. First they sent a series of numbers which I can only assume must be some sort of squawk code along with what we believe to be the ship’s name–Lament for Lost Worlds–followed by that string of words, both in audio and text. They mix in that string every twelve hours within their data dumps.”

“I’m going to ask the stupid and obvious question.” Jean stated, “But what do those untranslatables mean?”

“I find I’m rather concerned with the content we already have translated.” Ivy said softly. “I don’t want to anthropomorphize them, but they seem worried about something, agitated even. That seriously frightens me. These guys rolled up in a ship bigger than our planet, what sort of thing worries them?”


Horizon Breaker Class Exploratory Mining Vessel
IF-EMV Stoneburner
Elliptical Orbit
30,000 KM from Amateru, Epsilon Tauri
January 2219

The mining vessel was a gargantuan, ungainly thing. It was as if someone had frankensteined together all the equipment one might find in a pit mine, a deep sea drilling rig, a good portion of a smeltery, and of course, a spaceship. It had a sort of anti-grace that many of the inhabitants drew comfort from. They said it made the huge vessel feel ‘real’ and ‘solid’ something frequently lacking in the depths of space. From his position high above the ore intake bays, it seemed to Owen McGregor as it the ship was some giant beast, toothed with all manner of rock chewing equipment.

First conceived of to mine ice from the rings of Saturn, Stoneburner had been hastily repurposed following the invention of warp drive, and now stripped precious metals from the rings of a giant boiling world, orbiting a giant incinerating sun. At 155 light years from Sol, the now five year old Hyades expedition still retained the title as second furthest a human had gotten from Earth. She hung on the world’s dark side, flitting between the orbits of moons and spending as little time as possible in the exposed glare of the red giant while conducting EVA assisted harvesting operations.

The entire vessel shuddered as a small metallic asteroid slammed into its collection bay and was shredded apart by the internal machinery. The jolt threw Owen’s work console into an error state, its screens all flashing red suddenly. Owen smacked the side of the console and the alert message vanished, however, the music flooding his crane cabin cut out then as well.

“Damnit.” He grumbled, twisting in his seat to figure out what he’d just done, when his daughter’s voice broke over the radio, sounding as curt and frosty as all their communications had been over the week since Owen’s arrival.

“Warning, incoming bolide swarm. All exterior work crews please return to the ship immediately. That means you too Owen.”

Owen grumbled and scratched at his scruffy red beard. His eyes went out past the various spacewalkers now making their way back inside to the cloudtops of Amateru, lit in dull crimson by the world’s intense heat. Streaks of white light were already sliding across the sky as bolides slammed into the atmosphere and exploded with the force of a nuclear blast. There was something else though: the cloudtops of Amateru were boiling with a previously unseen vigor, and enormous storms flickered up from the depths. The sight managed to actually get him moving.

He unstrapped from his operator’s seat and started climbing down the long pressurized hamster tube that connected the crane cabin to an airlock. He thumbed his earpiece in as he coasted down the tube and listened to Alice issue another round of withdrawal requests. Once she finished, he tapped the communicator and asked her, “It’s rock soup down here, what’s going on up there baby girl?”

“Some sort of explosion on the sunward side of Amateru.” his daughter answered, “There’s a lot of debris getting kicked up. And don’t call me that Owen I’m a grown woman.”

Owen cycled the airlock mechanism and made a beeline for the Mining Information Center, the closest thing to a bridge on the hulk. “How big are we talking here?” He asked calmly as he floated along the corridor. 36 years in space mining had taught him the value of calm in the face of emergencies. Alice hadn’t told him to shut up, which meant he wasn’t pushing her buttons either, that was especially good, given the potential circumstances.

“Hard to say, it was down in the atmosphere, but it’s blown gas and ring fragments up to 200,000 kilometers and still rising.” Alice’s voice shifted in tone, “Which is why the rest of you need to hurry your asses up and get in the fucking boat!”

He whistled appreciatively without keying up. That was big, almost unimaginably so. He struggled with that visualisation as Alice made another shipwide announcement. “Thrust warning, one minute, strap yourself into something, this is gonna be a bit bumpy.”

Owen double timed it to the MIC and strapped into an unused chair as dust particles started falling out of the air. He felt the ship’s thrust pressing him down into his feet, and overall it felt more stable than freefall. This was a lie though, they weren’t just under thrust, they were actively maneuvering, twisting and turning the ship with cold gas thrusters and gimbling their exhaust nozzles as they maneuvered around city sized chunks of rock and metal.

The MIC was awash with activity: Alice was still shouting orders into the radio, her husband Kaito, eschewing reason and chairs, paced the unsteady floor agitatedly, his dark eyes tracking between cameras mounted to satellites around the world. Operators for various stages of the refining process hastily punched commands into their consoles, shutting down equipment before the jostling they were giving the gear caused it to rip it from its mounts or gut itself.

An exceptionally loud bang reverberated through the decks and new sets of error messages blossomed red across the screens. Kaito snapped up his radio from its holster and shouted into it. “What’s going on up there Murphy, are you breaking my boat?”

“We’re in the thick of it now Cap’n, whole ring’s comin’ apart at the seams,” came the voice of Eleanor Murphy, the ship’s pilot and navigator, from her position up in the nav bridge.

“You get us out of this rock soup and into a higher orbit pronto, you hear?” Kaito replied into the microphone, using Owen’s earlier term for the deteriorating conditions.

“We’re going to have to completely clear the orbit to fully get out of this.” Alice said behind him, her lips creased into a tight frown while her green eyes went between Kaito and Owen. “It’s like the planet is gutting itself. The gas plume is rising past 300,000 kilometers. The ring is going full kessler and one of the inner moons broke up when it passed through the plume, there’s a lot of new rocks flying around out there.”

“Can Murphy avoid the plume, or is it just too big?”

“Too big.” Alice said tightly. “It spans the entire daylight side of the planet up into high orbits. We’re going to hit it at least once.”

“Better batten down then.” Owen said, speaking up for the first time.

“The old girl can handle it.” Kaito said confidently to his father in law. He was slightly undercut in his confidence as he stumbled under the shifting deck.

“Get ready for main engine cut out.” Murphy said over the grainy speakers. Kaito quickly grabbed a support pole as the thrust ended, sending the ship back into freefall. “I matched velocities with one of the moons, we’re going to ride it’s orbit through the plume, and hopefully the bulk will shield us from the worst of it.”

“How long until we hit the edge of the gas?” Kaito asked quickly into the microphone.

“About an hour, and it will take three hours to cross. Once we’re through, we’ll pass through our periapsis in two hours, and we can make an ejection burn.” Murphy responded.

“She’ll hold together.” Kaito said to no one but himself.

“You so sure about that Captain?” Owen asked him sincerely as he unstrapped and launched himself towards the hatch. “You sure this isn’t the same thing that took out the Goose that laid the Golden Egg?”

There was a moment of intense silence as Kaito thought about the other, now vanished EMV. “There’s no way of knowing what happened to them at this point. They could all be fine.” He paused. “This does seem like the sort of situation they sent that second Lighthorse for though, doesn’t it?”

“Not really.” Alice said said without looking up. “It would take at least two hours to get everyone in the tanks and loaded into the ship. We’ll be in the plume by then, and the Lighthorse is much less of a brick than Stoneburner. If there was a rock strike or something before it completed its auto-warp procedure, that’d be it for us.”

“So we ride it out.” Kaito said firmly. “She can take it.”

“I’m going up to the navigation bridge with a spare suit just in case.” Owen announced.. “We’ve got Murphy up in the most exposed room on this barge. Alice, make sure bulkheads are actually getting sealed throughout the ship, I know Anders and Carlton like to prop the hatches open to their sections.”

“I think you’re worrying a bit much dad.” Alice said kindly. “It’s just a rough patch of space weather.”

Owen just pointed at one of the screens, a satellite image of the daylight side. The giant world had detonated in a gassy starburst that spanned most of the world’s daylight side and rose now hundreds of thousands of kilometers into space. “You ever seen anything like that before Alice? Or you Kaito? Cause to me, that shit there looks downright biblical, and I really don’t reckon this boat will fare too well in that rough of weather.”

Kaito lifted one eyebrow, crossing his arms. “Are you insulting my boat?” It was an attempt at a witty quip, something to lighten the mood, but it came off hollow and overly harsh, and he quickly silenced himself afterwards. When no one spoke, Owen took it as his cue to gently push off the deck and drift over to the hatch.

“Make sure those bulkheads stay sealed.” Owen said before removing himself from the room, closing the hatch behind him as per his own instructions.




Owen floated up the central spinal column around which the rest of the ship was built. The central axis was nearly two kilometers long, but he didn’t need to go all the way to the top, fortunately.

The massive ship groaned around him, the metal protesting and shifting as Murphy tweaked their course with the cold gas thrusters. He gently pushed off the walls as they came too close to him, but was otherwise free to drift unimpeded, drawing along a pair of spacesuits in his wake.

Three quarters of the way up the stack, he swung through a bulkhead. Beyond it another long corridor took him outward towards the skin of the ship, where the navigation bridge was mounted on an exposed flank, designed to give the navigator a wide field a view.

He entered the cabin and was immediately assaulted by Murphy’s voice as the young mulatto skinned woman shouted at Kaito into a headset.

“I’m doing my best okay? There’s too many rocks up here to avoid all of them, we’re going to take some damage no matter what I do and you need to get over that!“

“Just keep us out of the worst of it, it’s your ass on the line in this too Murphy.” Kaito’s voice came out of the speakers.

“I’m doing my best, just shut up and let me fly. What do you want Owen?” The two statements were strung together to the point that it took Owen a moment to realise she had started speaking to him.

“It’s not safe up here, put this on.” He pushed a suit towards her. She minutely adjusted course such that it stopped drifting towards her and began floating back towards Owen.

“Suits make me claustrophobic, I need the freedom of motion to fly the ship.” She whined. Owen ignored her and began putting on his own suit. Her suit continued to hang in space between them.

“We’re floating in a glass tank in the middle of an asteroid storm, put on the damn suit Murphy.” He said brusquely.

“Its reinforced.” She argued. She wasn’t even looking at him, he followed her eyes out the windows towards the otherworldly scene around them. The blue, water covered moon of Susanoo hung ahead of the Stoneburner a great blue sphere, light pouring over one crescent and leaving the other shrouded in darkness. Amateru boiled and burned beneath them, and behind the moon, the cloud deck rose upwards to reach towards the sun. The metal rich ring they had been orbiting within had completely disintegrated, and chain reaction impacts continued to throw rocks around at an ever increasing rate. There was something in her tone of voice as she stared out into the scene of silent, slow motion destruction, a sad resignation of their fate.

“Hey, we are not going to die here, put on the suit, we need you in one piece to get us through this, and we will get through this.”

Murphy grumbled but climbed out of the pilot’s cradle and began clambering into the bulky exosuit. Outside, Susanoo was beginning to encounter the edge of the gas plume. Her atmosphere burned and her oceans seethed as the storm of particles tore off her cloud layers. As the moon’s electromagnetic field lines began pushing through the cloud, the gas lit up in brilliant auroras that arced across the void, enfolding the blue moon like enormous angel wings.

“It’s kind of beautiful.”Owen said as he floated in the compartment.

“If you like watching living worlds be boiled sterile.” Murphy retorted frostily as she finished clambering into her suit.

“Point taken.” He said with a chuckle. The scene unfolding around them was a spectacle in the same way an asteroid impact on an populated station was. Dark, violent, and tugging at the deepest parts of the human psyche. Still, it possessed an otherworldly beauty to which few eyes would ever bear witness.

They watched together in silence as the blue world died. It turned red hot, it’s oceans boiling and steaming away into space as the now exposed rocky core continued to be bombarded by the high velocity plasma in the rising gas plume. Those oceans had been alive. Swimming creatures of every size and description, floating reefs that matted together into a thick layer of life, vast leviathans that roamed down into the depths, now all dead in a matter of minutes. It was a humbling and disheartening sight, awesome in power and terrifying in scope. Murphy dabbed her eyes with the suit cuff to stop the tears from obscuring her vision. 

As the dying moon slid deeper into the burning gas, its formerly invisible tectonic plates began to glow along their margins as the world was deformed by the titanic forces engulfing it. The world was also slowing down as the gas created drag, causing the Stoneburner to begin overtaking it.

“Aren’t we getting a bit close?” Owen said, leaning forward over Murphy’s shoulder.

“Close is relative in space, and the last thing we want to do right now is slow down.” Murphy said as she shifted their course to avoid a tumbling rock coming up from behind them. The hull was beginning to groan and rattle around them as the gas impacted the hull at high velocities. Murphy kept them in the moon’s slipstream, letting the moon shield them from the thickest of the streaming particles, but the slightly sick pallor to the young woman’s face made it clear she wasn’t confident it would be enough.

“She’ll hold together.” Owen said reassuringly. “If she can handle aerobreaking, she can handle this.”

Murphy said nothing in response, merely maintaining a tight grip on the steering handles and grinding her teeth. The clang of an impact echoed out of the metal as a rock impacted some distant part of the hull, and Owen’s eyes were drawn back out the windows as they sailed into the storm of swirling, rising particles.

Alarms began going off all around them. Pressure sensors were now reading the outside atmosphere as being thicker than the vessel’s interior, and temperature sensors indicated exterior heat was rising rapidly as friction against the hull increased. Owen was about to say something else reassuring, when Susanoo exploded. The world seemed to flatten, the side facing Amateru was compressed by the intense pressure exerted upon it, and finally the  forces became too great, the margins of the equator were ripped away and the world cracked down to its roots. A lot of things began happening very quickly then, as the wind began blasting upwards against the hull through cracks in the moon’s rubble, and continent sized boulders began tumblings towards them.

“Shit!” Murphy exclaimed, keying up her microphone. “Susanoo just bit it, we’re about to be dodging rocks the size of Olympus Mons, everyone brace yourselves.”

“Turn us into the wind and go for a hard burn, right now.” Owen said quickly.

“What? Shut up Owen, that sort of radial burn is incredibly inefficient.”

“Stop thinking of it like orbital mechanics, we’re not orbiting, we’re plowing into the front of an airmass. If we keep going at this speed we’ll cook ourselves just like that moon got cooked. We need to turn into the wind and accelerate to keep pace with it so the pressure and friction lessens.”

“If we turn our engines into the wind and there’s a blowback, we’re dead, that’s it.” Murphy shot back.

Another gust of wind slammed into their ship and rattled everything that wasn’t secured. Murphy tapped the forward facing thrusters to slow them down enough that a chunk of burning stone the size of Africa could slide silently in front of them.

“Our vector is already drifting upwards, look at the trajectory calculator.” Owen pointed out.

“There’s a rock coming up from below us, and I can’t dodge it so you’re about to get what you want.” Murphy spat acidly. She keyed up the mic, “Everyone get in a crash couch, we’re about to pull three gees to try and avoid turning into roadkill.” She gave Owen a hard look and pointed towards a chair. The room was already shifting around him as she pivoted the ship so her engines pointed away from the exploding moon.

Owen had just finished clambering into the crash couch and strapped himself in when he was suddenly pressed into it by three gravities of force. He could feel his skin being drawn downwards, cheeks pressing against his teeth, muscles hanging heavily from his bones. The worst pressure was where his flesh was pinched between the formerly soft plastic of the couch and his bones. His eyeballs were pressed against the backs of their sockets, causing his vision to go slightly blurry. The ship rattled and shook around them, components broke loose and fell backwards towards the engines as they forced the ungainly vessel upwards on a fusion fist.

He wasn’t sure if the city sized boulders flying past them were real or phantoms created before his eyes by the intense acceleration, and the world seemed to constrict down towards a point. He heard Murphy saying something to him, but it was far away and out of focus. Darkness overtook him, and he dreamed of fire.

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2 thoughts on “The Ones Who Came Before

  1. “with something akin to a hood pulled up over half of the creature’s head. It had eight eyes, two on each side, set one above the other.”
    This description confuses me. Two eyes on each side totaling eight on a radially symmetrical head would mean either two at the front, two at the back, two right and two left or two front-left, two front-right, two back-left and two back-right. Either way a hood would completely blind one or more pairs of eyes and seem like a very weird fashion for any truly radially symmetrical race to adopt as formal. I have the feeling I am missing something in this description.

    Again, the relationship between Owen and Alice seems inconsistent. Who goes with their father’s given name in annoyance over being called ‘baby girl’ but then uses ‘dad’ the moment they meet face to face again even though they immediately started out frosty and accusatory over the comm before said father said anything?
    Also, are they really having that particular exchange over the open comms during an emergency procedure? How many people are employed on that mining vessel?

    On a lighter note, have you read/seen The Expanse? I find it interesting how so much in that story could have occurred in a very similar fashion in your setting’s back story. Independence wars first by socialist Mars and then by gas giant orbiters. Large ice mining vessels. You name it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    Lastly, I didn’t want to comment too much on the technical stuff in a sci-fi story but two things jumped out at me. One is how weird it seems to me that a huge and expensive mining vessel would benefit from, let alone require, actual pilot maneuvers in emergency situations. Given how extremely advanced military AI are one would expect that multi-million $ business ventures would be able to cough up something at least half as sophisticated as well when it comes to mining tools that could easily level a country. Second is that 3 Gs isn’t actually all that extreme. I don’t think sight would become all that blurry from it.

    All in all I can say that I am much more involved with the Empiricist’s story than I am with the Stoneburner’s right now. Curious though what kind of alien presence feels the urge to destroy planets filled with non-sentient life.

    Liked by 1 person

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