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Secondary Mission

by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro

This was the first time we made love in more than 170 years, objective time. More important yet: I hadn’t copulated with him since two months before the last period of Sleep, when we were in the Delta Pavonis system.

After more than one century I still remember my feelings in those last weeks before the suspended animation, when the Outsider stayed at stable orbit around Jokerman, Michael and Aline Juggersen were very close, for they had to conclude their joint research project. For quite similar reasons, Mário Sandriotti and I also spent a great part of that time together. Well, as the saying goes “those are things the that just happen in a voyage…”

I loved those hours we passed in my cabin, three days after our Awakening in the vicinity of PD Molton I. They were like mooring in a friendly, rarely visited port Hours and hours of tender caresses and joyful sex. Love made in a languid but vigorous way and above all, at a gratifying pace. Absolutely no hurry. What a sharp difference from those brief instants of crazy ecstasy with Mário!

I woke up that morning with a delicious sensation of plenitude and satiety. Michael snored by my side on the platform. The smile of a satisfied child shone on his lovely ebony face. I got up, after kissing his cheek carefully to avoid waking him.

I entered the cabin’s electrostatic shower, relaxing with the pleasant tingling that ruffled my skin, as the weak EM field removed the perspiration film that had accumulated in the last hours.

Still naked, I practiced two sequences of tai-chi chuan exercises with the virtual instructor that I had smuggled aboard from the Lunar Academy. I never used to practice entirely nude. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the frankly interested glances that Master Omar Tsao Lee gave to the muscular contraction of my glutei maximi always made me blush. Omar was just a program, but sometimes he forgot it. Some of those psychointeractive VRs were much too willful for my taste. Mário affirmed that kind of program usually behaves in agreement with the user’s unconscious desires. Perhaps the Outsider’s witty specialist in Self-Aware Artificial Intelligences was right. The fact is, however, I had rather Omar left my buttocks alone, consciously speaking. They already had more than their fair amount of attention from my organic crewmates…

I picked up some of our dispersed clothes on the floor and threw them in the recycler. I dressed in a new uniform and went down for mess hall. Faruk, Aline and Mário were already there.

The Arabian engineer officer seemed even more edgy than usual. Then I noticed he was being coldly and methodically annihilated in a most unequal chess confrontation.

As usual, Aline played with the black pieces. It didn’t make sense to play alone against her. The medical officer was absolutely unbeatable, never losing a match. Except for the master program, of course. At that time, Faruk was the only of her five crewmates who still dared to try his luck against the former Solar Grandmaster.

Mário Sandriotti sat absent-minded at the hall’s table. The Brazilian seemed quite relaxed in the armchair beside Aline’s stool, though this was technically his duty shift. Sometimes I think the Outsider’s computer officer was wiser than the Captain and the executive officer at least in one point: he always considered preposterous that article from the ordinance of the Academy that prescribed that duty should be performed in the Command Center. At that time, Michael and I still insisted on observing such article, while Mário, on his own initiative, had instituted a practice he had nicknamed “remote duty”, which meant to be present in the CC only when absolutely necessary.

Immersed in his hobby, Mário lifted a clear glass to his mouth. It contained a thick and dark hot soup served a few moments before by the robot-cook. Feijoada [1]. In spite of considering its aroma simply gorgeous, I never got entirely used to the strong flavor of the Brazilian’s favorite food. Almost all the pleasures of the expedition’s most brilliant member were as overwhelming as the feijoada he appreciated so much.

Once in a while, the cyberneticist played with a tiny luminous stick inside one of the numerous divisions of a small folding grid open on the table. He murmured one or two short sentences now and then. They sounded completely incomprehensible to the others. He had a microscopic link with the MP inside his inner ear. I guess the device was answering something intermittently, because Mário shook his head often in mute agreement.

The Brazilian spent large amounts of his leisure time in direct interaction with SAI, both the MP and its specific expert systems. Sometimes, other crewmates complained to me that Mário preferred VR to the company of the organic crew. There was some exaggeration in those complaints, but not much.

I glanced over to the chessboard. Only Faruk Achernar’s futile stubbornness and sheer pride impeded him from tumbling the white king. Aline stayed impassible. Being seemingly endowed with stoic patience exercised through the years on board the Outsider, she awaited the engineer and inferred the inevitable.

I decided to show some interest in the apparently erratic behavior of my Brazilian crewmate.

“Etruscan again?”

“No, Sylvia.” He muttered, his mouth full of food. He chewed the last piece of dried meat, paying full attention at his grid. It had several sections throbbing in green pulses. “Etruscan was before the Sleep. Now, I am striving in a program to translate some runic texts from the late Middle Ages.”

“As far as I know, those texts were already translated before the Holocaust.” I objected without conviction.

“And so what? The Etruscan had also been entirely translated to English by the middle of the 21st century…”

After that emphatic statement, Mário returned to his favorite hobby, utterly ignoring the presence of the others.

Apparently, Michael and Olympia had not awoken yet.

Losing all interest in the match, Aline adjusted the ribbon that tied her blond hair in a ponytail. Then she finally seemed to notice I was standing behind Faruk’s stool.

“Sit down by my side, Sylvia. Since I woke up from the Sleep, I have some questions I wish you to clarify .”

“Of course.” I kissed her as I sat down in the empty armchair beside her stool. Her serious glance crossed mine. In those occasions, I used to feel that her deep blue eyes were able to see into my mind, in a special way not even Olympia could excel. “You have questions? I hope it’s not about any chess puzzle…”

Faruk lifted his eyes from the chessboard and, in one of his rare cheerful moments, gave me a mild smile. However, his countenance frowned shortly after. Again he glared, sometimes at the ceiling, sometimes at the chessboard.

“Forget the chess. My questions are about gravitation. Or perhaps stellar astrophysics, I don’t know for sure.”

“Go ahead.” I invited, feeling curious.

“Could you explain the Molton Discontinuity to me?”

“Well, Aline!” I smiled amusingly. “After so much time living together, almost fifteen years not counting on the Sleep periods, this is the first time you’ve shown some interest in my field.”

“Please forgive me, darling, but this field of yours has always sounded very arid to me. Having so many tasks to perform, two whole biospheres to explore and classify, so many new life forms to study, I didn’t suppose it was really necessary to know a thing about Molton I, until now.” She excused herself circumspectly. “However, the very proximity of such an object makes me consider this as the right time for trying to correct my deficiency in physics, in order to understand Molton I I must try to understand it. After all, people think this natural phenomenon is important enough to qualify itself as the secondary objective of the first manned interstellar voyage. Well, having finally decided to understand/comprehend Molton Discontinuity’s entrails, I called the master program to clarify my doubts…”

That was typical of Aline! Of course the mission’s support team had insisted that the medical officer should understand gravitastronomy enough to perform alone our secondary mission, if the worst happened to the more qualified crewmates. However, as our crew had on board three science officers, one engineer officer and, above all, the master program, those support guys thought it better not press Aline too much. In the worst possible situation, if that knowledge were actually necessary, the MP could teach her yet.

“I guess you don’t feel very satisfied with MP’s approach, do you?”

“Of course not. The master program led me to its specific expert system on gravitation and relativistic astrophysics. Surprised with the depth of my ignorance on the subject, that subsidiary self-aware artificial intelligence appointed me for an eight-hour hypnopedagogical course.”

“I see. I guess you want a very simple explanation in few words, don’t you?”

“Exactly. If possible I would also like you convince that expert system to release me from the course…”

“All right. Let’s start from the beginning. A Molton discontinuity, also called permeable discontinuity, is a kind of singularity rather similar to a non-primordial substellar black hole rotating with angular momentum…”

“Sylvia, you are speaking exactly like that expert system.” She complained quite impatiently. “I only want to know the differences between a Molton discontinuity and a standard black hole. Could you explain it? No expert language, please.”

“The differences?” The engineer finally tumbled his king with an abrupt and melodramatic gesture. “Holy Galactic Spirit, she wants to know the differences between a PD and a black hole in laywoman terms…”

Aline threw one of her dreadful glares to her former opponent. Faruk sustained it for a while, lifting his eyes to the ceiling after a deadlock of twenty seconds. Pretending to have already forgotten the duel of egos against the engineer, the medical officer returned her attention to me, insisting:

“Whether or not it is an abusive question of mine, what is a permeable discontinuity?”

“O.K., I will try to explain it briefly. Permeable discontinuities are similar to standard black holes in terms of mass and angular momentum. Most experts think the differences between these two classes of objects may be essentially ascribed to a lack of symmetry in a group of dimensions higher than the Einstein space-time ones.”

“And what are these differences?”

“There are essentially two differences. In the first place, a really small conventional black hole, a quantum black hole, has a quite shorter lifetime than a permeable discontinuity, which can last several billion years. However, the second difference is by far the most important. Although the matter inside a black hole could be hypothetically transmitted to a fairly distant place, in practice it would be disintegrated in the process, being entirely converted into energy. Under certain circumstances, a PD could be able to keep the structural integrity of the matter that crossed its outer event horizon.”

“They are like those dimensional gates the old SF writers loved to describe in their stories?” Faruk asked, showing some interest in my explanation at last.

“We rather think of PD as a kind of tunnel effect for objects larger than mere subatomic particles. Assuming a favorable set of probabilistic circumstances, I think a macroscopic body could cross a discontinuity of this kind and emerge safe and sound on the other side.”

“I see.” Aline frowned the forehead, reflecting on the subject for a few seconds. “Where would this other side be?”

“That is a very good question.” I sadly confessed. “However, there isn’t an answer to it yet.”

“It was to know this very answer that Sylvia – and we – came here.” Faruk Achernar said. “What the Federation intends to learn is if it would be feasible to use Molton I as a method to make interstellar voyages easier and faster. Perhaps it would allow us to travel through light-years in the blink of an eye.”

“Space-time shortcuts.” I shortened Faruk’s explanation. “A fine extrapolation, although based on a very remote hypothesis.”

“Even so, we came here for this extrapolation.” The engineer insisted on his point, led by a utilitarian view of the scientific research. “This is the first singularity, PD or not, which a human vehicle will be able to approach close enough to detect its direct quantum gravitational effects.”

“Although that’s correct,” I agreed, “some of these things are not so simple as Faruk pretends they are. The asymmetry I mentioned generates gravitational oscillations on the surface of the Molton discontinuity. In theory some of those oscillatory modes could produce an instantaneous counterbalance to the tidal gravitational force. On the other hand, according to the prevailing theory, the transmitted object’s point of emergence is a function of the permeability between both points of instability. Translating to laypeople: the larger that permeability the more distant the arrival point could be from the departure point.”

“For what I understand, these events are merely probabilistic ones… I bet there is some kind of quantum explanation, isn’t there?”

“Exactly.” Mário Sandriotti finally awoke from his private trance. He folded the grid and stared Aline, frowning his thick brow. – Well, Doc, I think you are beginning to catch the general idea.”

“Oh! What’s this?” Faruk suddenly said with surprise. I knew at once why, because we all suffered the same sensation of dizziness.

In that instant, without any previous warning, we all had a brief, but nevertheless disconcerting and unforgettable experience.

I felt as if I had been turned inside out. As if my body was subjected to an abrupt acceleration of several G Although there was no acceleration at all, except, of course, the centripetal acceleration my crew still insists on calling the “artificial gravitation” of the Outsider’s habitat cylinder. It was usually kept about 1 g standard, thanks to the rotation of that cylinder around its axis.

“Did you feel something strange about ten seconds ago?” I asked the others as I recovered myself from the shock.

“I also felt it.” Although worried, Faruk Achernar’s tone denoted rather his apprehension of a probable failure in the life support systems than with a mere sudden indisposition. “A mild thrust into the stomach, as if we had been subjected to an intense but brief acceleration, though we didn’t accelerate, at all. I guess it was just the psychological sensation of an acceleration…”

“I didn’t notice this sensation as an acceleration.” The Brazilian was fully watchful for the first time in that day. “Instead of it, I felt all my internal organs wriggle, twist and untwist so fast there wasn’t time for the pain, just for a mild sensation of nausea. What could cause an effect of this kind, Doc?”

“Although I also felt that very sensation,” Aline spoke in an undisturbed tone. “I don’t have the smallest idea about its cause. Outsider, do you know anything about it?”

The MP answered Aline’s question, but nobody could hear it. Because in that very moment, Olympia entered the mess hall playing her psychical trombone inside our heads. The Martian telepathist didn’t transmit such agitation since our first year in Delta Pavonis.

“What happened? It was as if something had tried to pull my mind from braincase! I was sleeping. Suddenly, I woke up with a very strange sensation. For one moment I was all alone in the ship. There was no one aboard but me. At least, nobody that was able to think… I didn’t even receive this slight noise from the telepathic insulators of Sylvia’s and Mike’s cabins. I reckon that the whole dreadful silence lasted less than one second. After that moment, I started to receive you all normally again.”

“You couldn’t receive us?” I asked full of amazement. “Has this ever happened before?”

“No, of course not! Quite on the contrary, I usually have to exert a conscious effort to avoid receiving thoughts.”

“Outsider,” I said, only then remembering that the MP had something to say, “report.”

Once requested, the SAI spoke in a perfect English, with its distinctive monotonic voice:

“A nonperiodic oscillatory perturbation in the permeable discontinuity was the only noteworthy phenomenon that happened almost simultaneously with your atypical indisposition. the anomaly lasted 523 nanoseconds. During a 12-femtosecond interval it reached a gravitational peak of 857 torsional g. The shock wave passed by me about 290 seconds ago. The gravitational transient didn’t produce any perceptible effect. In theory, you should not have noticed the phenomenon.”

All of a sudden, I had an appalling idea. Could Molton have played a dirty trick on us?

Not knowing enough about the discontinuity phenomenon then, I could hardly estimate at once whether my fears were based just on an outburst of panic, or whether they had grounds on my expertise in the matter.

As far as I knew, we were at a safe distance of one astronomical unit from the outer event horizon. There was not a real chance of being captured by the PD and transmitted to another space-time locus. That frail theoretical argument was not convincing enough to calm me, however. But quoting the ordinance of the Academy, command doesn’t admit doubts, only certainties in my mind, I tried to purge my voice of any sign of apprehension as I called the MP.

“Outsider, inform current position.”

“Current position remains unaltered. Triangulation through the Sun, Sirius A and Delta Pavonis indicates I am in stable orbit around permeable discontinuity Molton I. Position of main sequence stars within fifteen parsec range: unaltered. Position of globular clusters of the…”

“Enough.” I sighed, relieving the tension.

Sandriotti stared at me. There was a cunning shine in those eyes. “What did you expect, Captain Chang? You didn’t suppose, by chance, the PD had played a trick on us, did you?”

“I don’t know what I had expected.” I lied. “We don’t have enough knowledge on Molton to suppose anything for certain. I concede, however, I am glad that every star seems to be in its proper place.”

“It is always comforting to know that Molton One did not teleport us to the Andromeda Galaxy!” Where Sandriotti had put a touch of irony–the kind of jest my crewmates usually regarded as witty–Achernar sounded like the very personification of bad taste.

The matter of the perturbation was set aside for a few minutes.

The chat returned to the usual subjects. Faruk invited Aline to a new match. She declined, alleging she had to perform a battery of tests on several samples of alpha-fergunsonine. Olympia returned to her low gravity quarters. The Brazilian followed me to the CC, just for discharging his conscience, according to his own words.

I ordered the MP in a neutral tone:

“Proceed the data collection. Inform at once any occurrence of gravitational perturbations.”

“Order acknowledged. In execution.”

Those procedures were not really necessary. The MP knew its obligations perfectly. It would be very difficult indeed to persuade it to abandon its mission without an excellent reason.

At any rate, as usual, the confirmation of the SAI soothed my worries and relieved me of my personal ghosts, at least for a while.

One hundred and forty-two hours, thirty-two minutes later, the Outsider detected the fragment.

* * *

According to the jargon of the Scientific Council of the Federation, the four-month close research at PD Molton was our “Secondary Mission”. Our “Primary Mission” had been the ten-year expedition on Delta Pavonis, a stellar system 19 light-years from the Sun.

Insofar as I was concerned, Delta Pavonis was a fiasco.

As Outsider’s xenologist and exobiologist, Michael McFerguson had another opinion.

I admit Federation had approved the first manned interstellar voyage just because of the Pavonians. Thanks to the existence of a technological alien culture so close to humankind, the Scientific Council obtained the necessary resources for the construction of the Outsider and we began to plan the first manned interstellar mission.

It still sounds all but impossible that they had discovered us, and not the contrary. In A.D. 2280, we picked up the Pavonian answer to one of those old messages that pre-Holocaust astronomers transmitted in the first decade of the 21st century. The Pavonians had a technological level in most aspects similar to our early 20th century. Lacking computers, they spent a century and a half to decode our paleolincos. The Pavonian answer was the result of that remarkably strenuous handmade effort (tentaclemade, in fact). It was the first concrete evidence of the existence of an alien civilization.

The Pavonians had said they owned a prosperous and peaceful culture, although they were still in their monoplanetary stage and not under a single government, but yet divided in several nations . After facing and overcoming so many crises, humanity should have suspected their rosy political profile.

When we woke up from our first Sleep, at a mere ten light-hours from Delta Pavonis, the MP informed us the system owned six planets, and not five as we had observed from our system. Two of those worlds had oxygen atmospheres. Two worlds where higher life forms had thrived. Jokerman, Pavonian’s homeworld, was the second planet from primary; a gorgeous world, very similar to pre-Holocaust Earth. On the other hand, Sandman, the third, was a cold and desert planet lacking any rational inhabitants; its higher life forms were insectoid animals with dozens of articulate limbs.

Jokerman was a more fertile world than Sandman, with vast oceans and forests, instead of the handful of shallow seas, immense dunes and ancient swamps dried aeons ago of its neighbor planet. Jokerman’s dominant taxonomic class was constituted of a fascinating group of terrestrial homeothermic nine-limbed vertebrates. The Pavonians had belonged to that class. Of course, there were no Pavonians to salute us at our arrival…

Apparently, they were not so peaceful as they had affirmed. They also had their own total war experience in planetary scale. Instead of the thermonuclear holocaust of our North-South Confrontation, the Pavonians fought a global bacteriological conflict. They didn’t have so much luck as humanity. The several epidemics of viral infections were quite selective: they eliminated only the unique rational species of Delta Pavonis system.

The extinction happened in A.D. 2441, about 140 years after our departure from the Solar System; a mere 35 years before our arrival in Delta Pavonis.

In spite of such a terrible disappointment, there was always plenty of work to do. We translated the main Pavonian languages to English, Portuguese and Mandarin. We visited their museums, laboratories and libraries. We even activated several of their few primordial computers in an attempt to witness Pavonian culture’s last sigh.

None of the wonderful discoveries we made in that system could dissipate the frustration, for we had lost our cosmic encounter with the Pavonians by less than four decades. If we had arrived before, perhaps we could have halted that process of extinction, quite similar to the one that nearly wiped out humanity. If the Outsider could travel faster…

The Pavonians knew we were coming to their system. The news of our arrival instigated the hostilities among the several antagonistic nations, as their governments decided they should monopolize the potentially superior knowledge the aliens would bring from the stars. The cold war balance was already a century-old situation when we left the Sun. Although those rivalries didn’t begin for our cause at all, the impending arrival of the Outsider seems to have acted as a fuse to ignite the hostilities.

By unanimous agreement, we decided to omit every hint of humanity’s involuntary participation in the extinction of the Pavonians from our transmissions to the Solar System. We judged a fact with so great ethical and political implications should be revealed only after the necessary sociological preparation.

* * *

Six days later, we could hardly remember that sudden indisposition. We didn’t register other anomalies. My fears had almost dissipated, when we discovered the fragment of the alien spaceship during a duty shift Mário and I had exceptionally performed together in the CC.

We followed the preprocessing of the data transmitted by the probes the MP had sent to the border of the outer event horizon. Every rehearsed procedure had worked satisfactorily, until that visual warning began to flash. A purple bright pulse throbbed on the surface of the main simulation holotank.

The master program informed:

“Anomalous body detected .67 A.U. from my current position. Distance from the outer event horizon: .43 A.U. Distance from the closest probe: 31.740 km. Composition predominantly metallic; 72% of the body is made of vanadium steel alloy. Organic carbon compound traces: confirmed. Artificial origin: confirmed. Probable classification: space artifact from an alien technological civilization.”

“Spaceship debris!” After shaking slightly his head to break up the symbiotic link with the MP, Mário proceeded. “This is not one of ours. Pavonians didn’t possess the necessary technology yet… There is only one remaining hypothesis: we are before the vestiges of another alien culture!”

“I think such a categorical statement is premature.” I replied while trying to keep my own excitement in check. “Perhaps it is human after all. Remember we have been away from home for almost four centuries. Perhaps the Federation had grown impatient from waiting for the data we would collect in Molton I.”

“Maybe you are right, Captain. But I smell alien in those debris. Hulls made of steel alloys were already considered obsolete two centuries before our departure… Anyway, let’s check it.” Changing to a softer intonation, he talked to the MP in Portuguese. “Ordene à sonda que implemente um curso de interceptação para a coleta de dados in loco.”[2]

The SAI answered in the same language, in a friendlier and much more familiar tone than the one it employed to other crew members:

„Comando já transmitido há três minutos, Mário. Tempo para confirmação e execução estimado em cerca de doze minutos.“[3]

“How about those traces of organic compounds?” I remembered. “Does it mean a manned ship?”

“Not necessarily. Maybe it was just a probe with one or more biochips into its processors.”

“Perhaps Mike can clarify this issue.” I ordered the MP “Outsider, executive officer to the CC. Communicate the discovery to the others.”

“Affirmative. In execution.”

Five minutes later, the others joined us in the CC. We sat at the round meeting table placed on starboard side. We were expecting to receive a new data package from the probe soon.

Olympia asked the MP orally:

“Can the probe collect samples from the detected organic material?”

“Probably yes. The hardware of the Outsider XXVII includes laser drills, manipulation limbs and several tight recipients to store collected materials. The probe owns one of Professor McFerguson’s expert systems, so it is theoretically able to collect data on alien specimens. Nevertheless, a conclusive answer to this question will depend essentially on the access conditions the probe will find in the fragment and on the amount of organic compounds existing there.”

Mário asked the xenologist. “Is this expert system of yours able to process the collected data?”

“Nope. It is a mere data collector program. When I programmed it, I tried to optimize the data extraction capabilities to the detriment of the processing. So, the data analysis shall be performed on board the Outsider; moreover we own much larger processing and analytic simulation capacities here than the ones it would be possible to implement in the probe biochips.”

That statement finished the discussion. The data analysis would be executed on board by the MP, with the aid of the main xenology expert system. The processing would be supervised by Michael and perhaps also by Aline.

The SAI finally announced the probe’s data receipt:

“Reception of the first data package from the Outsider XXVII is now complete. Data integrity check: positive. Shall I present an oral briefing?”

The executive officer ordered, “Proceed.”

“The object has an approximate mass of 27 tons. The organic carbon compounds found inside amount to 35 grams. The probe is now trying to create an access to the organic material. Observe the holographic simulation of the fragment.”

The impressive hologram of a crushed and twisted metal ball appeared few centimeters above the surface of the table. There is also an illuminated metric scale that informed the real dimensions of the fragment. It was a roughly spherical body, about seven meters in diameter. Twisted steel beams and deformed metal plates emerged from its surface in several points. They seemed to have been subjected to a sudden crushing process.

It was not a human artifact at all. As Mário had said, our space engineers already considered the steel hulls obsolete long before our departure. Being molded in zero-g environments, the metallic plastic displays a much stronger structural resistance per unit of mass.

In his usual concise way, Faruk expressed the conviction that had impregnated the CC.

“Alien.”

“Look at our probe!” Olympia emitted, drawing attention to the minute simulation of the cylindrical vehicle that MP represented as it approached the wreckage, starting from the tabletop, until it was about ten centimeters (one meter in scale) from the fragment.

A fine blueish beam emerged from the probe’s nose and touched the wreckage. We appreciated the hologram till its dissolution about two minutes later.

Half an hour after, the probe reactivated its laserlink with mother ship to begin the transmission of a data sequence several terabytes long. After inspecting cursorily the contents of the probe’s data in the holotank and dialoguing briefly with the MP, Michael liberated the Outsider XXVII to return to its gravitastronomical data collection in the discontinuity’s vicinities.

The executive officer went to the biological laboratory. The remaining crewmates and I tried to restart our normal activities in the best possible way.

We spent several anxious hours waiting for Michael’s analysis results. Before leaving the CC with an unusually fast and resolute pace, the exobiologist had announced we should have interesting news shortly.

* * *

Michael stayed closed into the xenological laboratory exactly 7 hours, 41 minutes and 27 seconds, according to a quite irritated Aline. My executive officer had excluded the doc from the data analysis, not even allowing her to follow the procedures.

When Michael finally left the laboratory, he ordered the MP to request a meeting at the CC.

Already in our first year as rookies at Space Academy, I noticed Michael had a strange inclination to assume a theatrical pose whenever he was under stress. When he was the last one to arrive for the meeting, I didn’t have the smallest doubt on the intentionality of his delay. We all awaited him quite impatiently on the comfortable armchairs around the circular table.

As a mild form of retaliation, when he finally entered the CC more than fifteen minutes late, Aline had the lovely mischievous idea of requesting the MP to perform a passage from the Triumphal March of Aida. When the melody finished, Faruk and I applauded vigorously. Mário bellowed a “Bravissimo!”, while Olympia allowed herself just a short bashful smile. Michael sat down dauntlessly on the only empty armchair, between Aline and me, keeping a very dignified silence. He threw me a naughty glance, however. Then, he sighed and declared in a serious tone:

“I would have preferred the Second March of Pomp and Circumstance, but Aida was fine too.”

“What then?” Olympia asked inside our minds, breaking our jest protocol.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” his full lips opened in that bright smile I appreciated so much, “it’s a real pleasure for me to announce we are before a seemingly insoluble paradox.”

“Please save your traditional bombastic statements for a later time!” In spite of being a Brazilian, Mário was by far the promptest person of our small crew, the one who considered time the most precious of his goods. Therefore, he was the one who usually felt more irritated by our crewmates’ unmotivated delays. “For the present discussion I ask you to restrict yourself to the facts. Answer one simple question without any further circumlocution: Whose carbon compounds are those out there?

“I will try to do it, I swear.” The North American was in a visibly cheerful mood. “In the first place, I shall inform you that the compounds included a tiny amount of genetic material. This finding weakens the hypothesis that the residues had belonged to a biocomputer.”

“Why?” We all heard in our minds.

Calmer than a few moments earlier, the cyberneticist explained to the Martian telepathist:

“Mike based his assertion on a chauvinistic though plausible premise. As the biocomputers that shelter our programs and SAI don’t need to procreate in the organic sense, we imagine that no technical civilization would bother to manufacture biomachines endowed with genetic codes written in nucleic acids.”

“Exactly.” Aline agreed with Mário.

Michael greeted the Brazilian with a smiling bow. “I could not have explained it better.”

“So, the fragment belonged to a manned ship.” I murmured enunciating the obvious conclusion.

“Human beings?” Olympia’s telepathic flow was an entanglement of sadness and hope.

“No, they weren’t” My executive officer assumed a sober and categorical tone in that moment. “This possibility is totally discarded.”

“Well then. It is the second alien civilization we found.” Mário adopted a conciliatory posture. “It is an outstanding discovery, no doubt. We departed from Earth to find one nonhuman culture and now we have been gifted with a second one entirely free of charges. But, where is the paradox?”

“The paradox resides in the fact that, though we have come across a rational and undoubtedly alien new species,” Michael’s frank smile indicated he was about to exhibit his trump card, a cosmic ace in the hole he was about to share with the others, “a nonhuman species indeed, these aliens have their genetic codes written with DNA!”

Although the statement had sounded crucial, I must admit I didn’t notice the paradox at once.

The medical officer, however, produced a whistle and paled with amazement. Aline’s shock reached me as a real physical blow. I have known the Norwegian for a long time. We were close friends. We had explored two unknown worlds together during our Delta Pavonis residence. There had been many critical situations in that time. Nevertheless, I never had seen her in that disturbed state before.

What had scared her so much, after all?

I reviewed what I knew about self-replicating molecules that used to be associated with the organic life. We knew only four types of such molecules up to that time: DNA; Jokerman’s alpha-fergusonine; Sandman’s beta-fergusonine; and the orthotroyanine from the alien prokaryotic microfossils buried in several small asteroids of the inner solarian belt. In fact, before our departure Michael had been one of the greatest experts on those microfossils.

However, I hadn’t understood yet why Michael and Aline felt so impressed by the discovery of an alien species whose genetic code was also based on DNA.

Noticing the apathetical silence that had fallen on his crewmates and understanding that the truth had struck Aline only, the executive officer roared:

“Good Universal Spirit! Will you be speechless forever? Please, say something!”

“What do you intend us to say?” Looking thoughtful, the Arabian engineer officer stroked his goatee. “I can’t imagine that an alien DNA-based genetic code is so exciting after all…”

“‘Can’t imagine why it is so exciting?’” Michael echoed Faruk, trying to imitate the engineer’s jocular tone. “I am frankly surprised, for I had supposed to be enunciating the most obvious evidence.”

“Please be plainer, darling.” I pleaded in order to avoid a new fruitless discussion.

“Yes, because this pretended obviousness of yours worked only on Aline up to now.” I heard Olympia’s ironic chuckle in my mind, though she had kept a sober face.

“This is neither the time nor the place for such silly wisecracks, my naughty Martian girl.” The executive officer’s voice had sounded affectionate yet solemn. He faced the doctor and asked her with a very convincing supplicatory tone. “Aline, please.”

After making herself cozy on the armchair, she finally assented.

“All right, Michael. As everybody should already know by now, our researches on the fergusonines had supplied us the necessary elements to the elaboration of a quite sound mathematical model. This model seems apt to clarify the processes associated with the origin and subsequent evolution of the self-replicating molecules. Although we had not contacted the Pavonians, from both the comparative evolution and molecular biology standpoints the primary mission was quite a success, because thanks to the processing of the data we collected there it was possible to understand the phenomena associated with the origin of life and the evolution of life forms in a new quantitative way.

“Very well.” Mário agreed impatiently. “But how are those researches in Delta Pavonis related to our current issue?”

“Thanks to those researches, we gained a better knowledge than the molecular biologists from our departure’s time. This knowledge allows us to state that the probability of the same kind of self-replicating molecule to appear twice independently on two different worlds is virtually nill, even if we suppose strictly identical environmental conditions.”

“Well, my darling doc, I have the slight impression your beautiful theoretical model has just crumbled.” Faruk chortled.

“It is not a mere theoretical model. We are speaking of scientific facts already experimentally demonstrated. Perhaps it is necessary to clarify further this point: only one single planet in the whole Milky Way, in the whole Universe, could have originated life whose genetic code is based on DNA…”

“Ah, no! Wait a minute!” Mário snorted his surprise.

“You don’t mean…” Olympia couldn’t conclude her thought. Her confusion overflowed as a great wave of amazement across a rough sea of chaos, drowning my spirit.

I was taken aback by the Martian’s emotional shock wave. Feeling fully stunned, I shook my head in a vain attempt to empty my mind from that hellish cacophony of fear, surprise and anxiety. Finally, after an endless interval of chaos, noticing the harm she had provoked, Olympia blocked her emotional tsunami.

Mário punched the tabletop with a powerful blow. Achernar grumbled a few curses in Arabic, while Michael just whistled his surprise. Aline shot a fiery accusative glare at Olympia. That was all. After so many years of close friendship, we had learned to withstand those involuntary bursts fairly well.

Still feeling quite dizzy, I fought to impose some order to that confusion.

“Please, Olympia, try to control yourself. And you, Michael, stop provoking those psychic storms and elucidate this issue right now.”

“I believe our pretty doctor already made it satisfactorily. She has just enunciated the facts we both had judged to be utterly known.”

“Even whether you regard me as an idiot, I must confess I didn’t understand anything. Those DNA molecules came from nonhuman creatures that had evolved on Earth… Did I lose something on the way or is this whole matter really a little bit confused?”

“You understood everything well, darling. In the absence of a better designation, we could name the statement you have just articulated as The Paradox of Sandriotti.” The exobiologist presented us with his most candid smile. “That DNA originated on the Earth indeed. Let’s flesh that genetic code: its carrier belonged to a vertebrate bipedal species, like ourselves. A paleo-homeothermic oviparous rational species. Its genetic code presents remarkable similarities to the code fragments belonging to a certain class of Mesozoic fossil vertebrates… In other words, I am talking about intelligent dinosaurs!”

Michael made a dramatic pause in that point. Before his crewmates’ shocked stillness, he proceeded:

“Aided by the MP, I analyzed the creature’s genetic program with regard to its morphological features. This analysis was made easier as the basic structure of that program is essentially identical to the one present in our own chromosomes. Outsider, real size simulation.”

“Affirmative.”

A hologram appeared on the tabletop. the large amount of information one can extract from a few micrograms of DNA is truly fascinating.

The depicted specimen was a bipedal being. It possessed two arms ended in delicate tridactylous hands, and fingers with long and narrow fingernails. There was not a metric scale then for that was a life-size hologram. The specimen was about 160 centimeters tall. In the darkness it could be easily taken for human. Once illuminated, however, its slender silhouette turned into a body covered by moist skin made of lustrous tiny gray scales.

There was hardly a neck. The vaguely humanoid skull emerged almost directly from the lean, bony thorax. As the creature turned aside, we noticed its short, rigid tail. The nostrils and the vestigial ears were little more than mere orifices. Instead of lips, the mouth had a pair of horny excrescences rather similar to a bird’s beak. Those excrescenses were not covered by the scaly skin that protected the remainder of the body. The creature kept its beaklike snout ajar, letting us observe the rows of sharp, even teeth, revealing its descent from carnivorous dinosaur forebears.

The eyes were, however, the face’s most striking feature. Large and brilliant eyes. The creature’s expressive gaze produced the deep impression it owned an intellect devoid of emotions. The black pupils were reduced to elliptical slits. The amber irises filled the eyes almost completely, being rimmed by the thin whitish rings of the sclerotics.

Positively malign eyes.

Although that gaze had belonged to an early earthling, everybody considered it much more alien than anything we had faced in Delta Pavonis.

At first glance, the specimen looked like a velociraptor with a shorter tail and an oversized braincase. In spite of being obviously more intelligent, it seemed no less menacing than its relative. Later, when Michael showed me nearly half a hundred subtle differences, I recognized they were two entirely distinct animals.

However, despite conceding velociraptors and Fakers*** did belong to separate evolutionary lineages, I could not avert my prejudices against either species.

* * *

“So… those critters… the crew members of that wrecked ship looked like this holo…” I heard Olympia’s mental stammer inside my skull. I know it sounds today as a rather xenophobic foolishness, but I felt a certain relief as I noticed the Martian also had been intimidated by the creature’s appearance. But, now, try to understand me, I was exhaustively trained to perform a First Contact mission with true alien beings and not with an intelligent velociraptor lineage…

“Just like this.” Although more used to the creature, Michael was apparently as impressed as the rest of us. “Some details related to its real stature and its limb’s relative size perhaps deviate a little bit from this holo. Besides, the hue of its skin has a 150 ångström margin for error. However, excluding these small details, I would say the simulation is fairly close to the living critter.”

For the executive officer, this last statement had closed the issue. However, in my ship those matters were never concluded so easily.

Several hot arguments had followed the presentation of the creature whose species Mário soon nicknamed as Fakers***.

Michael and Aline assured us that the species had originated on Earth. The MP asserted the possibility of an extraterrestrial origin was in effect virtually null.

Olympia, Achernar and I expressed our doubts about the validity of Michael’s theories. Not that we had questioned his competence. At the time of our departure from Earth, even before he had acquired so much knowledge in the Delta Pavonis system, Michael was already considered perhaps the best xeno-expert of the whole Federation. However, from our lay viewpoint, the facts insisted in thwarting his theoretical model…

Then, in the very heat of discussion, Mário elaborated one of his notorious instant hypotheses.

According to him, the Fakers would have belonged to a dinosaur civilization supposedly evolved on Cretaceous Earth, about 65 million years ago. The xenologist rejected the argument, classifying it as “the newest fatuousness from our genius on duty.” Their altercation strengthened, degenerating in to one of those dangerous battles of egos the Brazilian and the North American used in disputation.

Olympia assumed her traditional role of hot tempers’ firefighter. Judging opportune to raise the discussion level, she inquired of the MP when the Faker spaceship had been destroyed.

The master program informed her that the radioactive dating tests implemented by the probe determined the specimen about half a millennium ago, with a margin for error lower than 25 years.

Knowing the result of the tests beforehand, Michael stated in a conciliatory tone that was foolish to think of a Mesozoic culture of rational dinosaurs.

Mário began to laugh stridently. Between two bursts of laughter, he shouted the xenologist had lost 65 million years in some point of his calculations.

Calm and ironic, Michael stressed that apparent discrepancy was the cornerstone of the Paradox of Sandriotti: as the radioactive dating had demonstrated, the Fakers were in fact earthlings, but not from the Mesozoic Era. Their spaceship had been operational less than 500 years ago.

I thought of another possible explanation. If those starship debris had spent sufficient time just above the event horizon, the time-dilation effect of the discontinuity’s gravity could make 65 million years seem like 500 — but nothing would be left after so much time that close to Molton. Any debris would have been converted into microscopic particles of dust.

Setting my jaws, I struggled to restrain the shudder.

Even I could devise a relativistic explanation for the paradox. Time dilatation inside a ship traveling almost as fast as the speed of light. Except that vanadium steel ship hulls were not capable of enduring such relativistic speeds and accelerations. There was, also, a gravitastrophysical explanation…

Olympia threw me a frightened stare and asked in the mental equivalent of a whisper:

“What is this gravitastrophysical explanation?”

“Get out of my head, your busybody!” I muttered tightlipped.

Fortunately, nobody else noticed the Martian’s inopportune question.

Distant from the rumble generated by the quarrelsome divergences between the two science officers, Achernar sat down at the port console of the CC and requested the activation of the auxiliary holotank. He began to analyze in detail the several views of the Faker wreckage.

The engineer requested that the MP compute some data and spent a few minutes interpreting the results. Then he explained that the analysis of the tensional forces that had operated on those beams and plates suggested the Faker spaceship had been crushed by the action of Molton’s tidal gravitational force.

Perhaps that primitive slow ship had approached the event horizon so close it was simply smashed by the PD gravitational tide like a walnut thrown in an EM field grinder.

I suppose the crew had tried to break their ship loose from the jaws of Molton I. At any rate, something inside the vehicle had exploded during the process. Most fragments were soon dragged to Molton’s outer event horizon, being disintegrated to their subatomic particles, the matter of the former fragments dove faster and faster inside the discontinuity, till it was annihilated and emitted as gamma radiation and hard X-rays. Perhaps a few tiny fragments had been admitted scarless in DP, after emerging in remote space-time points maybe situated in our universe, maybe not. Some fragments ejected from the vicinity of the event horizon kept a rather stable orbit around Molton I, as the wreckage we had found.

However, the probable cause of the Faker ship’s demise didn’t elucidate the origin of its crew.

Tired and annoyed, Michael declared he considered Mário and, on a smaller scale, Faruk and Olympia and me, as scientific illiterates. As always, the insult turned the Brazilian more furious than ever, worsening an already bad situation.

After some fruitless quarrels, the executive officer abandoned the Command Center in an angry mood. The spirits calmed gradually afterwards.

I left the CC half an hour later. After Michael’s retreat I couldn’t pay much attention to the chat. I was utterly mystified by the paradox of the Fakers.

Walking to my cabin, I remembered the brief indisposition we had felt few days before and began to ruminate about it. Could that indisposition be just the side effect of a larger phenomenon? From that reasonable doubt I jumped to an entire bunch of nonsensical ideas.

Ultimately, ignoring not only the sound scientific background I had acquired in the Academy but also the very principle of objectivity, of which I was so proud, I decided to give an ear to a quite foolish apprehension and requested the MP that it attempted to pick up any EM signal proceeding from of the Solar System.

The chances to pick up those signals were very small. We were very deep inside Molton’s destructive interference sphere. It would be almost impossible to receive even a spurious transmission from the Solar System until we had several light-hours between the PD and us. Even if one of those Federation’s new laser beacons had sent a direct beam to Molton I, the message would be utterly distorted by the PD.

I could have ordered Outsider to send one of its probes to the interference sphere’s outside, so it could relay a transmission from the Solar System. My crewmates, however, would discover my scheme soon.

Even so, I commanded the master program to observe strict secrecy whether we succeed in receiving a signal or not.

The secondary mission continued on schedule, devoid of new jolts, and occupied most of my time over the following three months. Overburdened by hard field work day and night, I didn’t have time to worry about futile hypotheses, those typical concerns in a long reposeful interstellar trip: silly little musings like the mathematical subtleness on the theory of the divergence of reality surfaces…

Mário assisted me a lot in elaborating new data analysis routines to process the information collected by the probes. We were very close during that time.

On the other side, Michael became more taciturn and ill-tempered than ever. As if he was already eager for the next period of Sleep. He spent almost all his off duty hours alone either in his cabin or closed in the xenological laboratory. He shared a few moments of intimacy with Aline once in a while, but didn’t talk to the others more than was strictly necessary.

* * *

Two days before we began the preparations for our Sleep for the homeward journey–in one of those rare moments I rested alone in my cabin–the MP contacted me using the neurolink on my private frequency band.

We had picked up a fragmentary emission.

The fragment had been part of a videomessage transmitted from the Solar System by laser beacon. About three years before, somebody in the External Solar System concerned herself with sending a message to us, in spite of our small chances of picking it up. A good portent, no doubt. A hypothetical saurian culture would not bother to transmit a signal to Molton exactly while our ship was carrying out a mission there.

We faced a technical problem. Although the message seemed fairly free from noise, it lacked its code parameters Thus, even after a tremendous amount of processing, we only recovered about 40% of its original contents. The MP ascribed the absence of parameters to the very distortion generated by the destructive interference of the discontinuity. Furthermore, the emission was received in the worst moment, when Molton was aligned between Outsider and the Sun.

After the slow data decompression and the patient work of the signal enhancement routines, we achieved the recovery of a video information fragment about seven seconds long. It was not possible to restore the signal’s audio information from the noise background generated by the intermittent annihilation of matter in the vicinity of the PD.

I awaited apprehensively as the master program began to exhibit the message’s video fragment. I must confess to having been afraid of confronting myself with a pair of agile and restless bird eyes. That cold and inquisitive saurian gaze , belonging to a specimen of the race we had named “Fakers” few days before.

The human face I watched on my cabin’s holocube was one of the most comforting visions of my life. I shivered all over from sheer relief.

The man was speaking in a serious mood, but there was no sound.

The skin of his face was brown. A hue of brown that seemed to be the real color, not just suntan. A fine light tone of brown situated between Michael’s beautiful dark skin hue and my Sino-Hawaiian one.

A greenish gem shone in a tiara around his large forehead.

At first glance, I wondered at the lack of any Federation insignia. I relaxed one or two seconds later. What did it matter? He was a human being! Four hundred years separated us from that citizen of the twenty-seventh century. Perhaps the badges had changed or even being utterly abolished during our long absence from the Solar System. Perhaps the whole structure of the government system had been altered. Who cares? There would be people, human beings, waiting to welcome us. Even better, they seemed eager enough to send a greeting to us three decades before our arrival.

I spread the good news to the crew. Everybody felt animated by that silent message.

When Mário and I met privately, he confessed to me that he had nursed suspicions similar to mine. He took advantage of our relative privacy to invite me to share those last hours preceding the Sleep with him.

Even Michael was affected by the climate of satisfaction prevalent on board. He broke his vow of silence and presented us with his never-ending repertoire of naughty jokes.

The enigma of the Fakers remained insoluble. However, a consensus was formed aboard on those last hours before Sleep. We decided to offer our assumed paradox to the support team. When we returned to Earth, that mysterious issue should be calmly analyzed by the greatest Solarian scientists.

We believed some kind of solution would be found sooner or later.

Thus comforted, we began the last phase of our long journey, the return Sleep.

We didn’t know what waited for us in the Solar System…

* * *

In fact, we returned to an Earth inhabited by humans, and not by Fakers. But this is not our Earth. And you are not descendants from the humanity who had sent the Outsider to make the first contact with the Pavonians.

We were somehow translated by the permeable discontinuity in Molton I. Almost without feeling, I would say…

We finished in this different timeline, where the patricians of the ancient Roman Republic were converted to Buddhism and disseminated that doctrine to all the Mediterranean world. Centuries later, those alternative Romans ended up forming a enduring alliance with the Han Chinese Empire, thus blocking the barbaric hordes from eroding the foundations of both civilizations. Christianity was relegated to oblivion. There was no “Middle Ages” on your Earth. The fusion of Roman expansionist ideals and Buddhist philosophical canons enabled the humanity of this timeline to mature faster, even without the wars that were the most remarkable features of our human history. In an admirably peaceful way, your Roman-Chinese ancestors achieved the integration of both the Old World nomadic barbarians and the New World tribal societies and advanced cultures into a harmonious confederation.

As you had reached the outer space earlier, you explored and colonized the nearby stellar systems and, in so doing, you could arrive in time to save the Pavonians.

After the initial shock and the subsequent adaptation period, I began to admire the cosmic culture you erected after following a quite different way from the one chosen by my humanity. I admit that once in a while I still miss my Earth, even after half a century in your world. Just silly homesickness, for I know it’s impossible to return to our timeline. It is extremely probable that Mário and Faruk have perished in that fool attempt…

I try to solace myself with the argument that we are living in the best possible world. Although our people and yours are different, both of them are just alternative branches of humankind.

We had a lot of luck in this aspect, for we humans are an exception, not the rule. We could have returned to an Earth of Fakers. And I know now that there are other timelines inhabited by nonhuman earthlings. Some of them so nightmarish that it makes critters like the Fakers seem almost as human as ourselves…

[1] A Brazilian dish of black beans cooked with dried meat, pork, sausages, etc.

[2] “Order the probe to implement an interception course so it can collect data in loco.”

[3] “This command was already transmitted three minutes ago, Mário. Estimated time of confirmation and execution in about twelve minutes.”

Copyright © 2012 by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro

Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro is a Brazilian science fiction and alternative history writer, editor & publisher, and alternative history scholar. He has published short stories and novelettes in professional Brazilian science fiction magazines, one  of which, „The Ethics of Treason“, was the very first alternative history story ever published in Brazilian science fiction. Gerson was publisher of Ano-Luz Brazilian small press and between 1999 and 2003 president of the  Brazilian Science Fiction Readers Club.

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