In the year 2025, humanity received an answer to one of its most fundamental questions: “Are we alone in the universe?”
Only one thousand standard years later, unnoticeable and unfathomable to the greatly aged cosmos, a galactic alliance was formed, a coalition of inhabited worlds bound together in cooperation, friendship, and mutual progress. The Grand Unified Milky Way. The G.U.M. was protected by the Milky Way Planetary Rangers, whose members hailed from every planet in the alliance, and whose mission was to patrol within and outside the borders of their home, the galaxy the Earth humans charmingly named the Milky Way.
For there were dangers lurking outside the galaxy, dangers from rivals, dangers from enemies, and dangers from the cosmos itself. But there were also wonders, potential allies and friends, and discoveries beyond the imaginings of the most imaginative citizen. The G.U.M. had official voyagers, researchers, and adventurers. But so many times, it was an unassuming Ranger patrol ship that encountered the extraordinary.
So the Rangers became both guardians and ambassadors. Both watchers and explorers.
Episode 1: The Argon Weapon
“And where do you hail from, lieutenant?” the ambassador asked.
“Earth, born and raised.”
“No joke. My ancestors were from Earth. I supposed that’s true for most humans. I haven’t been there myself. But I’ve heard it’s a wonder.”
Lieutenant Myrmica took a deep breath and released a deep sigh. She smiled. “Nothing else like it.” She sipped her drink. “I would say it’s the jewel of the galaxy, but on a Ranger ship, that’s like throwing up a cloud of flour during a gravity loss malfunction.”
There were chuckles around the table. But the ambassador had an uncertain expression on his face.
Chief Bristle attempted a clarification. “It’s a comment on the granular nature of such an argument in the presence of so many who hold such different opinions and perspectives, based on both objective and subjective measures.”
“Clogs up the works,” Commander Roditore said. “So many particles and they’re so small, they can’t be contained fast enough and don’t settle, especially without any gravity. They just make the air hazy and clog up the workings of the ship, making it inefficient and groggy.”
“Thank you, Commander, but I understood,” the ambassador said, laughing. “I’m a diplomat, if you’ll remember.” He wrapped his hand around the handle of the stein. “I’ve had to listen to far less pleasant arguments than ‘what is the best planet in the Unified’?”
“I must admit,” Bristle said. The pinkish vapor of his cocktail swirled within his clear helmet. “The Apollo system does have many charming and worthy planets and moons. But I too am sentimental and must put forth my own home for consideration.”
“Relax, Bris. No one’s taking a vote just now.” Lieutenant Myrmica’s glittering garnet-like eyes turned to the door of the canteen as it opened. Her antennae flicked to attention.
“There’s the captain,” Myrmica said, addressing the ambassador. “If you want to hear all about the Apollon planets, she’s the one to ask.”
“And is Earth her favorite too?”
“Now, Mister Ambassador, I know you didn’t come aboard our ship not knowing our captain’s infamous nickname.”
The ambassador smiled and bowed his head to the young pilot. “Indeed, I did not. She’s a Saturnian.”
“I’m a Titaness.”
The ambassador rose in the captain’s presence. Though it was customary to do so in formal settings, everyone was equal in the canteen commons. The crewmates gathered at the table shared surreptitious glances. The ambassador had started the dinner asking questions about the captain and the ship. But mostly about Captain Nova. Diplomatic as the ambassador could be, he was not accustomed to being at table with quite such a diverse group of natural and subtle talents. Talents that could pick up the gentle flush of his cheek when someone mentioned that the captain was not in union with anyone. Talents that could read the slight increase in his heartbeat when he spotted her at the doorway. Talents that saw the aura of his energies sparkle and shiver when the captain shook his hand in typical Apollon greeting.
“Captain, won’t you join us?” the ambassador asked. He gestured to the empty chair beside Bristle.
“Be at ease, everyone,” Sal said. “I’m just here to pick up dinner.” She gave the ambassador a sly smile. “I’m not here to interfere with your ribbing of the ambassador. Just don’t take it too far…this time.”
“Ay, Captain,” Roditore said, nodding once and raising her jug to the ambassador. “We all need to be rested for tomorrow.”
Despite the captain’s presence, or perhaps because of it, because it might encourage the ambassador to speak, the Commander’s comment gave the gathered crew the opening they had been looking for all evening. A chance to ask about their mission.
They were one of four Ranger ships escorting the Unified’s most prestigious and prized star cruiser, the Leche de Libertad. The cruiser, affectionately known through the galaxy as La Leche, was on its first diplomatic mission outside of the galaxy, just outside. On the outskirts of the Heran system, there was a cloud of particles, mostly the remains of pulverized asteroids and dwarf planets, enmeshed in a net of exotic particles and dynamic but stable vacuum energies.
A Heran researcher had discovered some anomalous readings. He made it his life’s work to study them. Over the recent decade, he proposed that there was life within the particle cloud, which he named Caligo after some mysterious island in an ancient myth. The initial skepticism (and from some, ridicule) gave way to curiosity and collaboration when others were able to replicate and corroborate his findings. And build upon them.
The researcher passed away before the most extraordinary “finding” was revealed. The cloud was obtrusive to sensor devices that attempted to pierce through it, and damaging to vessels of any known material that attempted to enter it. One day, a signal came from within the cloud; a signal that was purposefully sent.
“Have you met any of them? What are they like?”
Everyone turned to Bristle. Even the captain was somewhat stunned. They had all expected the young pilot, Myrmica, to be the one who was ultimately incapable of containing her excitement and curiosity.
“They know this a free galaxy, right?” Roditore said. “They don’t have any barbaric practices, like slavery or war.”
“Commander…” Sal still had a half-smile on her face, but a single brow was raised, and her eyes expressed—for now—a friendly warning to her first officer.
“It’s all right, Captain,” the ambassador said. He turned to face the crew seated around the table. “I’m as eager and nervous about this meeting as I imagine each of you are. The stakes…well, they’re cosmic, aren’t they?” He beamed at the crew. “Don’t worry. There will definitely be people there who know what they’re doing.”
“I’m sure one of those people will be you, sir,” Roditore said, and she raised her glass to him again. The others followed suit.
“This might sound strange to all of you, but I’ve never been on a Ranger ship before.” He turned to Chief Bristle. “I’m still quite eager to finish our tour.”
“Of course, Ambassador. I was saving the best for last.” He took a breath but before he could speak, everyone else, including the captain, spoke first and in unison.
“Careful, Ambassador,” the captain said as she received her dinner basket from the canteen crew. “Or he’ll be lecturing you about vacuum drive technology for the rest of your trip.”
“Is there that much to know about it?”
“Our chief engineer seems to think so.”
The captain left them then, laughing and merry, and beneath it, excited and nervous. They were on the verge of an event that could change their galaxy forever.
“We’re coming along the Leche de Libertad now, Captain,” Myrmica said. She was at the helm, piloting the ship into the nearest dock of the star cruiser, which probably could have fit a dozen Ranger ships inside.
The ambassador stood on the bridge beside the captain, who was seated at her chair, checking readings. She was at her highest level of alert. Some of the ship’s feeds were sending images of the preparations onboard La Leche. The first in-person meeting between the representatives of two galaxies would happen behind closed doors, of course, but if the aliens agreed to come out and take part in some of the ceremonial hubbub, there might be some interesting speeches to come. More importantly, they might catch the first glimpse of the alien people from another galaxy. There had been no pictures—still or moving, no depictions even, and no descriptions from anyone. Jokes began to circulate about how security was supposed to do its job without knowing what the potential threat even looked like. Such jokes were countered with accusations of pessimism. But soon a rumor had started that the security closest to the event were being issued devices or instruments for detecting exotic cloud particles. For most, however, there was a crackle of excited expectation and nervous hope in the air.
Commander Roditore, whose usual place beside the captain was taken by the ambassador, was manning one of the general operations stations. She alerted the captain to an alarm reading that she found puzzling.
“It’s not coming from us, Captain,” she said. She looked up at the massive star cruiser. “This can’t be right, but sensors are picking up a fire on the aft starboard side of the flagship.”
“That’s troubling considering what day it is and who’s already on that ship. I’m sure La Leche’s systems will have it under control if it isn’t already.”
“Our sensors have been glitching since we’ve gotten closer to the particle cloud,” the commander said. “It’s probable the same has happened to the other ships. If that’s so, we may have to request moving away from the cloud a bit.”
The ambassador seemed to stiffen. Moving away from the particle cloud may not have been a negotiable action on the part of the aliens.
“We should be able to see it for ourselves in a moment,” Bristle said from his position at the bridge operations console.
“Thank you, Chief. If we do see something, we should report it, even if they’ve got it under control. I don’t want to take any chance—”
Someone gasped. It was the ambassador’s assistant, a Heran who was patriotically named Hera. Her eggplant purple complexion darkened.
There was a fire running along the midline of the Leche de Libertad.
“It’s on the outside of the hull,” Myrmica marveled. “Captain, how—?”
“We just lost communication with the other ships,” Bristle announced.
Suddenly, a brilliant yellow light appeared beside Commander Roditore’s station. The light contracted and took the shape of a biped figure. The figure held some kind of rifle, also made of light, though it was not as harmless as visible light. Whatever radiant energy that light entity was made of or was emitting disintegrated part of Roditore’s console.
The commander released a piercing shriek and leapt at the entity. She struck it and bounced away, as if she’d struck a solid wall. She shrieked again just as a beam of green light struck the light figure, joined by another. The captain was up now, standing between the light entity and Myrmica. She was firing her blaster pistol at the entity, and from her right, Bristle too was firing a blaster rifle. Neither blast seemed to have any effect on the entity.
The captain yelled for Roditore to take the ambassador to safety as the light entity turned to the helm and fired at the helmsman. The beam of the alien weapon passed through the chair. The helmsman doubled over in pain as the weapon burned and charred his belly. He disintegrated from the middle outward, his cry of pain cut off as his vocal cords vanished, and following his voice, the rest of him, as if he were never there.
“Alpha-two-zero!” Myrmica cried out. The bridge crew heard her voice both from the helm and echoing from the ship-wide communications.
Those among the crew who had time to react braced themselves as the pilot jerked the barely moving ship to an extreme tilt. Alarms began to sound.
“Reports are coming in, Captain,” Bristle said, as he strained to hang on to his station. “They’re boarding, all over the ship.”
The captain crawled into the chair beside her pilot as two more beams of light appeared on the bridge. These too took the form of bipeds and bore rifles.
“Into the cloud, Lieutenant!” the captain ordered.
The engines hummed and droned to maximum power, and the ship turned toward the particle cloud.
The captain activated the ship-wide evacuation announcement and sent a distress call to the other Ranger ships to pick up the pods, and a warning for all the ships to move away from the particle cloud. Then she activated the self-destruct.
She must have known that none of the ships, including La Leche, would have been able to escape the blast of the vacuum drive overload from so close.
She glanced behind her and saw a sight she did not expect.
The light entities were struggling with each other. One of them had been disarmed. Its rifle lay on the ground, solid and glowing. Two of the light entities overpowered one. They pushed that one to its knees. Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, all three vanished.
“Captain!” It was Roditore’s voice over the comm system. “They were all over the ship, but they’re vanishing now.”
Within minutes, similar reports came from the rest of the ship, even as alarms were still sounding from the damage the ship had incurred.
Captain Nova disabled the self-destruct and powered down the engines, just on the edge of the particle cloud.
Repairs were underway. From where they were, they could see the Leche de Libertad, but could not tell the extent of the damage their flagship had taken. They themselves had not taken as much damage as the captain had feared. Yet the cost of their presence near the particle cloud had been immeasurably high. Reports were still coming in, but thus far, four crew members had died. Three of them were directly killed by a light entity’s rifle. One was killed in a chemical leak as he tried to help others to the escape pods on one of the more badly damaged decks.
Communications were not yet restored, and they could not check on the other ships. All their pods were accounted for, and while captain and crew assessed the current situation, the pods were left drifting.
The captain went to the medical bay to check on her crew and on the ambassador. He was in the canteen, staring out toward the particle cloud.
The captain approached and asked how he was doing.
“I crouched in the corner, like a child. No…but that would be an insult to all the brave children that I’m sure you have onboard. I didn’t even go to protect Hera. I’m sworn to keep her safe on our assignments.”
Sal stepped toward him. “Ambassador, there’s no shame in reacting as we do in emergencies. That’s like trying to feel ashamed about dreams. We don’t have much control—”
“Your first officer. She was right there in its path. She recoiled, but then she…she jumped at him.”
“She’s a different species with different instincts and abilities. Trust me, there are things in this world that you and I don’t fear that terrify her.”
“Ambassador, look at me.” She gripped him by the shoulders. “Hear me.”
He would not look at her, and she could not have known whether or not he was truly heeding her words, but she spoke anyway.
“Jumping toward danger during a crisis, for good or ill, that’s instinct. And it’s partly training. Courage isn’t jumping toward danger when you don’t know what the hell is going on. Courage is knowing there is something to fear, and choosing to face it, and preparing to face it.”
“You need me to pull myself together, don’t you? To not be afraid.”
“Ambassador, if you can figure out how not to be afraid, then by all means, pull yourself together and teach the rest of us. Barring that, I need you and everyone else to do your best to take care of yourself first. Then and only then will you be fit to tend to anyone else.”
“Tend…Roditore.” He looked up at Sal. He met her gaze. “Her arm and face. They were burned. Is she—where is she? Is she all right?”
Sal frowned a puzzled frown. “Aside from that fear thing we’ve all got, she’s perfectly fine.”
“But how can that be?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out. That and a whole slew of other things.”
The ambassador’s hands shook. He squeezed them into fists. “I can help you with some of that. Information that I and the other ambassadors know, but were ordered not to share with the captains and crews, even the captain of our flagship. Maybe if you’d known…”
“Tell me now.”
Sal gathered her officers so they too could know what the ambassador knew.
“The entities are not from the nearby galaxy,” the ambassador said. “They don’t live in the particle cloud. The cloud supplied the exact right conditions they needed to form a doorway from their dimension into ours. It’s been a struggle to communicate with them. Their language is so alien from ours. All of our translation algorithms have been far from…intelligible. I’ve uploaded the key to your ship’s computers, so you can take a look at the messages yourself. They seemed to come not just from another dimension, but a…reverse dimension. We weren’t sure, but when we started preparing for this summit, we got the notion that there may be a rift in their society. It’s something we can relate to actually. Some of them were eager to reach out to us and establish diplomatic relations. Others opposed it.”
Roditore frowned. “I’ll say.”
The ambassador continued. “They are amorphous. I…I didn’t know they could be solid or even take any shape. I don’t think anyone did. They said the base material from which they were made was argon.”
“Argon…but it’s a noble gas,” Bristle said. “It should be inert.”
Roditore rubbed her chin. “But this creature comes from the reverse dimension. It stands to reason therefore that in that dimension, argon is not inert but—“
“These aliens. They’re evil,” Hera said, her skin darkening to indigo. “They should never be allowed in the Unified.”
“It seems like there were some that were trying to sabotage these talks,” Myrmica said. “But the others came and stopped them.”
The captain nodded. “Their authorities did respond swiftly.”
“Not swiftly enough for those who died.”
“We can’t judge them all by the actions of a few,” Sal said. “We don’t know them yet.”
Roditore rose from her seat. “And while we extend our hand out to them, getting to know them, figure out which ones want to meet us and which ones want to kill us, how many times can we bear to get burned, Captain? It’s not our job to judge them or be kind to them. It’s our job to protect our people, the people of the Milky Way.”
The captain met her first officer’s gaze. “It is our job to be Rangers. To bear the brunt of those blows, to get burned, to take those first few steps into the dark room. It’s our job to find out if there are monsters there, or if there is magic there. Or both. If we shoot into the dark, hoping to kill the monster, we might end up killing a friend. Having said that, it seems we’ve been dragged into an internal conflict.”
“We don’t know them,” the ambassador said. “We don’t know if they think and feel the way we Unified do. Extending our hand in friendship might seem like weakness to them, weakness they can exploit. Forgiving them for the actions of a few of their citizens might seem like foolishness to them, foolishness unworthy of alliance, much less friendship.”
“This isn’t the time for that discussion, Ambassador. We’re just one ship, and right now, we’ve got to solve the problem that is right in front of us. I’m not naïve.” Sal swept her gaze around the table. “I know that whatever happens, we cannot let La Leche fall.”
“Whose idea was it to bring all those leaders out here to the edge of the galaxy with no protection?”
“Ambassador, don’t lose hope on us now.” The captain rose and turned to Bristle and nodded.
“During the attack, the ship’s sensors detected reactive particles that it couldn’t quite identify,” the chief engineer said. “They were coming from the light entities, and similar particles are being emitted by this.” He pulled a container from under the table, eliciting frowns and glares from his crewmates. The clear container had within it one of the light entities’ rifles. But the rifle seemed to be losing its shape, dissolving, and as it did, it was eating away at the container.
“Does it help that we know the entities are made of this…anti-argon, or reactive argon?”
“I think so, Captain. I’ll have the ship run some simulations with various particle cocktails, incorporating the cloud research and some classified data that the ambassador has shared.”
The captain nodded. “If we can find a way to contain the reactive argon on this small scale—”
“Then you could contain it on a larger scale,” the ambassador said, his eyes wide. He sat up. “You could seal that doorway.”
With communications restored to the other ships, Captain Nova shared what she and her crew had learned and discovered, a way to contain or possibly even disrupt the light entities’ solid forms. Almost a day had passed, but no further attacks had occurred, and no further communications received from the particle cloud. The alien authorities were likely also recovering from the incident. They likely knew it would be a futile endeavor to offer help to those who would now be suspicious.
Captain Nova kept her ship perched on the edge of the particle cloud, ready to dive in.
“The vacuum drive can quickly create a cloud of highly reactive exotic particles,” the captain explained to the ambassador. “If we’re correct, then when these particles meet the threshold of the aliens’ they should become inert. It’ll serve as a net, making anything that tries to pass through it from the alien dimension become inert, effectively sealing the…doorway.”
Roditore added, “Or they could do what reactive particles do when they meet other reactive particles, and make this ship go hypernova.”
The captain frowned. “That’s why I want all non-essential personnel to make their way to the escape pods immediately and start breaking off within the next hour. Commander, once the drive is spun up, I want you to lead the bridge crew off. And Bris, you go down to engineering and do the same for them before we start the reaction.”
“And you, captain?”
“The auto-navigational controls were not a repair priority. They’re still shot. I’ll have to take the ship in manually.” She reached down and patted the side of her chair. “I won’t abandon it.”
“But you expect us to abandon you?”
“All the words I just said, Commander, were not suggestions. They were orders. I expect them all to be followed. If you can’t remember, the ship’s computer can replay them for you.”
“It’s not so easy to bait my temper these days, Sal. A very confounding captain has taught me a thing or two about keeping my cool in situations like this. I might also add that I am a far better pilot than you are. And there is an awful lot of maneuvering that needs to be done between here and the inside of that cloud.”
The captain was silent for a moment. “Agreed,” she finally said, then she addressed the rest of the bridge crew. “Commander Roditore has used up the crew’s quota of defiance for this mission. The rest of you had better hop to it.”
“What if this is what they want?” the commander asked the captain, as they stood aside from the bustling bridge crew. “What if their real objective is one of our ships? Maybe the vacuum drive? Is that the real reason you want everyone off the ship? You plan on blowing it up if Plan A doesn’t work?”
“I realize it’s your job to know me well, but sometimes I find it disturbing that you do.”
“No offense. But you’re not all that complicated, Captain.”
“If only we could launch a beam of reactive particles straight into the heart of that anomaly and seal that doorway.”
The captain put her arm around her first officer. “Alas, it doesn’t work that way.”
Bristle stood at the communications console, staring down at it. “There’s a signal coming from the cloud.”
The captain took her chair and ordered the bridge crew to their stations. “Brace yourselves.”
“What does it say?”
“Translating now.” He shook his head. “The ambassador was not exaggerating about the difficulty of deciphering their language.”
“I’m reading fluctuations in the particle cloud’s vacuum energy,” Commander Roditore said. “We should move the ship away.”
“You heard her, pilot.”
“Wait…” Roditore was silent for several seconds. “This is…Captain did we do something yet?”
The captain turned to her. “What do you mean?”
Captain Nova’s Ranger ship still hovered at the verge of the particle cloud. It looked the same, but it was not the same. The strange swirling energies that had characterized the cloud for so long, that one scientist had spent his life studying, they were gone. The cloud was…inert. No one had said aloud what they thought it meant. The readings were what they would have expected if the captain had carried out her eleventh-hour plan.
The captain ordered Bristle to securely send the communication they received to a few other ships and stations that used more sophisticated, but slower translation algorithms. They wanted to make sure that they did not misunderstand the message.
It took a few days to receive and compare all the translations. A few days of vigilance. A few days of positioning more and more Unified ships at the verge of Caligo Cloud. A few days of mourning for those who were lost.
The most direct translation of the message was as follows:
Regret is sent. Fear is strong. Way is sealed.
“We’ll keep an eye on it,” the captain said as the ship moved away from the particle cloud. “Put it on the regular patrol schedule.”
When everyone else’s vigilance faded, when their interest died down, and when the alliance’s best ships eventually left the inert particle cloud behind, it would be the Rangers who continued to keep watch.
“What if they try again?” the ambassador asked. “To reach out to us?”
“We’ll be here,” Sal said. “We’ll reach back.”
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “The Argon Weapon” by Sanjay Patel.