Bureaucracy moves in mysterious ways. Here I was, a nineteen-year-old quantum-mechanics intern, the junior scientist by far with only 10 days of on-site training, and I was responsible for the most advanced piece of technology humanity had ever built.
The Earth end of Starlink had orbited in the weightless void for 52 years. The probe end of the Starlink had traveled almost to the star Beta Hydri—the nearest star with an Earth-like planet.
The best artificial intelligence of the year 2118 calculated the odds of something happening on the Starlink during my watch at one in three hundred billion. All the important people—senior physicists, engineers, project managers, military brass—went groundside for the pre-activation ceremonies.
I buckled into my usual spot in the far corner of the command theater. Designed for use in space, half of the command center was a display wall and the other half a hemisphere of seats, each with a built-in computer console and pneumatic dumbwaiter for snacks.
The feeling that I was in charge was amazing—for about an hour, until the newness wore off. Then it was boring. Eventually it was creepy to be alone in the big room. Finally, I nodded off staring at the blank monitors on the front wall.
Something brushed my shoulder. I twisted in my seat, throwing my arm up. My hair stood on end, ready for the next attack. My heart went into overdrive.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” She was about my age, with long auburn hair floating in a halo around her head. Her sparkling green eyes and green jumpsuit gave her the appearance of a forest sprite.
“Wh- what are you doing here? Security doesn’t usually allow visitors.”
“I beg your pardon, I’m not a visitor. I’m a scientist.”
“Oh . . .” I faltered. I’d put my foot in my mouth before we even introduced ourselves.
“Actually, I’m an apprentice xenologist. Where would I find Chief Xenologist Lambert?” She glided back toward the door. No doubt, she’d already seen more than enough of me to tell I was a nerd. I kept my hair short so I didn’t have to comb it, and my scraggly beard meant I didn’t have to shave, either.
“Lambert’s not here right now. Nobody’s here. They all went Earth-side.”
Her hand caught a chair and she stopped. “So, it’s just you here?”
“Well, not just me. Lieutenant Hafton is officially in charge, and I guess there are a few guards around,” I said.
Her eyes pulled mine toward them. It was fascinating, and exciting, and frightening, all at once, making eye contact with a woman.
“No scientists?” she said.
I blinked and looked down. “No, just me, sort of. I’m a quantum-mechanics intern. I like working with numbers.”
“Ohhh. Then that makes you the brains around here. I’m Aletha Heaton.” She floated closer and held out her hand.
I took her hand. It must have been electrically charged—some kind of current ran up my arm. “Uh, nice to meet you. I’m Kethel Kirkpatrick. So, what exactly does a xenologist do?”
“I study extraterrestrial civilizations.”
“But . . . there aren’t any. How can you study them?”
“Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there. Like in quantum mechanics. You can’t see quarks, but you know they exist.”
“But there’s lots of evidence for quarks. What about project SETI? In the past two hundred years, they have found exactly nothing.”
“Oh, Fermi’s Paradox.”
“Uh. Finding nothing has a name?”
“Everything has a name. It’s just a question of knowing it. Surely you’ve heard of Fermi’s Paradox? If Earth is an ordinary planet and Earth has intelligent life, then the galaxy must be full of intelligent life. So where are they?”
“Yeah, that one. So . . . where are they?”
“It wouldn’t be a paradox if we knew the answer.”
I couldn’t find a good reply to that, and I did enjoy talking to her. I took a deep breath, steeling myself for rejection. “I’m keeping watch on the Starlink. I don’t suppose you’d like to keep watch with me for a while?”
“Sure, at least until Doctor Lambert gets back.” She strapped into the seat next to mine. “Why are we looking at a blank wall?”
“We’re watching, just in case.”
“Just in case something interesting happens?”
“Precisely. Right now, the Starlink to Beta Hydri is off, but if the link comes on, we need to be here.”
“It’s not going to be turned on until next Friday.”
“Then why are we watching it now?”
“In theory, something unexpected might happen to the probe, and the probe might wake up and call us to ask what to do.”
“Wow.” She sounded impressed. “And you’ll tell the probe what to do?” I felt a blush start to creep across my face.
“Yeah—well, most likely, I’ll ask the probe to send a detailed damage report—assuming the officer in charge authorizes it.”
“Then you’ll tell the probe what to do?”
“Most likely, I’ll tell the probe to go back to sleep.”
“That’s all?” She sounded disappointed.
My cheeks grew warmer. “We have to do an in-depth analysis of the problem before taking action—unless of course it’s a problem with the quantum-entangled link. The link experts already analyzed all possible link problems in detail. If the comqubits become information bearing, link entropy exponentiates.”
She tilted her head. “What?”
“Well . . .” I stalled. I tried explaining how the Starlink worked to my grand aunt once. The attempt had not gone well. Nonetheless, it was a chance to share a bit of my world with her. “A comqubit occurs when two quantum-entangled particles are created together, as identical twins, and then moved apart. We know the twin particles are in the same quantum state except for opposite spin numbers. But, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, we can’t know which particle has a positive spin number until we interact with one of the particles.”
I took a breath. She seemed to be listening to me, so I continued, “We can set the spin of one of the entangled particles, which means the other one resolves to the opposite spin. Then we read the remote particle’s spin, and we have communicated one quantum bit of information—a comqubit—to the location of the other particle, no matter how far away it is. In the case of Starlink, that’s 24 light years to the Beta Hydri star system.”
“Wow. It seems like magic: transporting unknowable quantum states and making them known light years away.”
“Exactly. Quantum mechanics is magic. Even Einstein got that one wrong. As Niels Bohr kept pointing out, Einstein’s assumption of ‘no spooky action at a distance’ was just that, an assumption. The idea that cause and effect must be local is a macro-phenomenon from our everyday non-quantum world.”
She frowned. “What does a line graph shaped like a one-armed person mean?”
“Where?” I had been watching her lips move. They had their own spooky action at a distance on my ability to multitask.
“I thought we were watching the wall?”
I jerked my attention to the front of the command theater. “It’s a damage profile. The probe is in trouble.”
“Wow. So now we call Lieutenant Hafton to authorize a damage report?” she asked.
I had only met Assistant Financial Officer Lieutenant Archibald Hafton once. He was senior to me on the duty roster by virtue of starting on the Starlink two days before I had, but we had never met. I called his perscom, got no answer and left a message.
The one-armed cartoon mocked me from the front wall. I tried distracting myself by describing it to Aletha while we waited on Hafton. “The damage profile is a circle graph—the distance from the center of the circle indicates the amount of damage to various sensors. The legs indicate a 60% failure in the alpha and beta ray detectors and the head and arm mean a 25% percent burnout of ultraviolet and microwave sensors.”
I did some numeric calculations on my workstation and became even more worried. “That amount of damage would correspond to roughly a 10 gigajoule surge in the ambient energy level. That much energy could damage the comqubits—although the probe wouldn’t have contacted Earth if they were completely destroyed.” I shook my head. “This is bad. We need to know what’s going on at Beta Hydri. Where is Lieutenant Hafton? We need detailed reports.”
“Calm down.” How could she be so calm? “There must be something you can do.”
I took a deep breath. She was watching me. I couldn’t just sit around and ignore a link problem. No, I’d take charge. I jabbed a button. “There is. I sent the diagnostics command.”
While the probe prepared the damage report, I issued another unauthorized command, and two bright dots gleamed on the wall. “That’s the view from the probe’s navcam. The yellow dot is the star Beta Hydri. The blue one . . .”
“What’s the blue dot?” she prompted.
“I don’t know. It feels familiar, but nothing else in the vicinity should be that bright.” The diagnostics report came in and I studied the results. “That’s weird. A 12.3 gigajoule burst of protons hit the probe—the equivalent of a lightning bolt. But protons don’t come in sudden bursts like that.”
“I’m backtracking vector eight zero one . . . Aha. Look at the screen. See where the blue line crosses the probe’s path? That’s where the damage occurred.”
I panned the navcam to follow the blue streak. “The line originates at the bright blue dot. Hold on, I have an idea.” I put a spectrogram of the blue light on-screen. “Look at the distribution of wavelengths—that cluster of three lines.” I zoomed in and overlaid a grid. “The distance from the first to the second is 2.57 times the distance of the second to the third.” My heart rate kicked up a notch.
“Which is important, why?” she asked.
“It’s the exact ratio you’d expect from proton ejection by a plasma Wakefield ion drive. It’s what powers interplanetary ships from Earth to Mars or Saturn. This blue dot is from the drive of a spaceship. Somebody beat us to Beta Hydri.”
She let out a whoop and raised her arms in triumph. “Another ship! Aliens!”
“Slow down,” I said. “We don’t know it’s aliens. Maybe Saturn Federation sent out a secret interstellar explorer.”
“There’s no evidence of that,” she countered. “How could they get there without our knowing?”
I thought about it for a minute. “I have to admit it’s unlikely—”
“Right. So it must be aliens.” She rubbed her hands together in excitement. “Can we get a better close-up of their ship?”
“That’s the best the navcam can do. Let me deploy the main telescope.” A few seconds later the screen on the front wall brightened. My shoulders slumped. “An asteroid? Where’s the spaceship?”
“Maybe it’s a disguise. Or maybe they hollowed out an asteroid to use as a spaceship,” she replied.
“Why would they do that? Pushing all that rock around would be a big waste of energy.”
Her face brightened. “Well, the one thing we do know about aliens, is that they are alien.”
Aliens–the enormity of our situation hit me like a transcontinental subway. This was humanity’s first contact with a superior civilization. I glanced at her face; she glowed with excitement. I felt giddy, light-headed. “I can believe this is happening. I–that wasn’t there before.”
“What wasn’t where before?”
“See the little display on the upper left? The computer has been monitoring the navcam for changes.”
“Another blue dot!”
“Two spacecraft? A whole civilization must live around Beta Hydri.”
I put the spectrum of the second blue dot on-screen: a cluster of three lines showing the 2.57 ratio. “It’s another spacecraft, all right. I’ll get a close-up.”
I expected another asteroid, but instead found a sleek, shiny, sliver rocket.
A chime interrupted us before we got a good look at the new ship. She looked at me. “Now what?”
I pulled up the asteroid ship again. “The asteroid has changed course: distance 6100 kilometers; velocity 34.1 kilometers per second, trajectory variance zero.”
“That was the collision alarm. The asteroid intersects the probe in 30 minutes.”
By the time Assistant Financial Officer Lieutenant Archibald Hafton arrived at the control room, I had calculated that the silver ship would intercept the probe 5.2 minutes before the asteroid.
“This is incredible!” Lieutenant Hafton bellowed, his double chin quivering. “This is unbelievable!” He stabbed his stubby fingers at the alien spaceships. “This is a most egregious violation of Department of Space Exploration Regulation Number 12.2.4. How dare you use the link without my approval! Consider this your official warning, per DSE Regulation Number 8.27. If you step out of line one more time, you’ll be subject to discharge, fine and imprisonment.”
I gulped hard. “Ye- yes, sir. Um. I just responded with standard maintenance protocols when the probe woke up.”
“Try responding with standard approval protocols. You have no authority to respond to the probe. Responding is my job. Now let me get to it—” He took the seat in the center where Commander Marsh usually sat. “Show me what woke up the probe.”
I showed him what I knew about the two ships.
He never looked at me, just kept staring at the screen showing the asteroid ship. “I’m going to make first contact. I’ll use Alien Contact Protocol number one. Send them Arecibo,” he ordered.
“Who sir? Uh. I mean which ship?” I glanced at Aletha. She stared at the screen. I wondered what she was thinking.
“Send my message to both ships.” Hafton answered.
I broadcast the Arecibo message—the same 73-by-23-pixel picture the radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, had broadcast to the stars in 1974. It had been rebroadcast periodically ever since, as sort of a terrestrial trademark. The message depicted the chemical elements and double helix of DNA, a stick-figure person, our solar system and a radio telescope dish.
I held my breath and waited.
A narrow-beam response came back to the probe from the silver craft. I put the reply on-screen in 23-pixel rows–an exact mirror image of the Arecibo message.
Aletha clapped her hands. “They decoded our message.”
Hafton turned in his seat and glared at her. “Who are you and what are you doing in my command center?”
“I’m Aletha Heaton, then new Assistant Xenologist. How may I help?”
“I’ll let you know.” He turned to face the front wall again. “They got the message backward. Send Arecibo again.”
“Excuse me, sir,” Aletha said. “I believe they reversed the message on purpose, to show they understood how to decode it.” I felt a bit of admiration for her as she held her ground. Angry people always intimidated me, and Hafton was always angry.
He opened his mouth to reply, but another message interrupted him. The top half of the new message showed a list of some kind. The bottom half featured a round object with small tree-like appendages all around its perimeter.
“What’s that supposed to be?” He tilted his head to the side to see if he liked the picture better that way.
I recognized part of it. “The top half looks like a list of chemical elements. You can tell by the number of pixels: iron, cobalt, germanium, thallium, and tungsten, and some kind of lattice . . .”
Aletha picked up where I left off, “The lattice is located where we sent them a picture of DNA, and the round thing is located where we sent a human figure. I’d guess they’re showing us that they’re made of metallic crystals and that their bodies have a round central core with multiple appendages.”
Hafton had ideas of his own. “Arecibo only contains a stick-figure person. Send them a picture of a real person. Send them my photo.”
Aletha rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything. I converted his file photo to a pixel array and put the result on-screen. “How does this look, sir?”
“It makes me look fat. Make it taller.”
He was fat, but I made his image taller anyway. “How is this?”
“Can’t you colorize it?”
“No, sir, we can only send monochrome.”
“It’ll do. You may send it.”
I sent the aliens Hafton’s photo. A few seconds later, pictures flooded in from the silver ship. I displayed the frames in real time as fast as they came in. The resulting movie on the screen made no sense. “What are they saying?” Hafton asked.
“Try slowing the pictures down so we can look at them one at a time,” Aletha suggested.
At the slower rate, each pixel array formed a distinct picture with Morse-code-like dots and dashes at the bottom. The pages looked like they had come from an alien child’s picture book–maybe they had.
A second transmission stream came in, broad-beamed and powerful. A five-frame series from the asteroid showed the asteroid absorbing a dumbbell shape. The meaning seemed obvious to me. “Our probe is shaped like a dumbbell. I’d say the asteroid wants the probe to dock with it.”
Hafton nodded, “No doubt their captain wants to welcome me in person. They think I’m on the probe. They don’t know about the Starlink from Earth.”
“What about the little silver ship?” Aletha asked. “It’ll get to the probe first.”
I switched the telescope back to the little ship.
“Can you get any better focus on the front part?” she asked.
I tried several contrast-enhancing filters. “This is the best I can do. It looks like a blister. The spectrogram says it contains nitrogen and oxygen.”
She pointed to the display. “See the round shape in the middle? It keeps moving around.”
I was catching her enthusiasm. “I get it. A cockpit–and that’s got to be the pilot–“
“Kirkpatrick. Pay attention to the big ship,” Hafton interrupted.
The monitor on the right was blinking an alert. I zoomed in on the asteroid ship. “They’re changing course, sir.”
“To what?” He demanded.
“I don’t know, but the blast from its drives is moving dangerously close to the probe. We’ve already seen how that beam can cause major damage.”
“Take evasive action,” he ordered.
“Sir? The probe’s engines are off.”
“Turn them on. Get away from that beam. Do something. I don’t want the loss of that probe to be my fault.”
Before the engines could warm up, the proton beam changed course again. “Sir! The beam is swerving to the side. It’s going to miss the probe.”
“Well, of course,” Hafton said, suddenly nonchalant. “They would never harm the probe. Remember the pictures? They want to welcome me in person.”
The beam swung around the probe and zoomed away. “They’re going to destroy the small ship,” Aletha muttered.
“Nonsense,” Hafton thundered. “Why would they destroy one of their own spacecraft?”
“I don’t think that spacecraft is theirs,” she replied. “Look at how different the two ships are. I think they represent two different groups of aliens–maybe even two groups competing for first contact with us. And the ones on the big asteroid ship are about to eliminate the competition.”
I kept my eyes glued to the monitors now. “The silver ship is turning. It’s accelerating away at 3.8 gravities . . . Wow, 15.3 grav–“
“See, the asteroid is just chasing away the little ship,” Hafton said.
The beam changed course again. The silver ship moved fast, but a particle beam, even a huge beam like this one, could move faster.
The small ship’s outline glowed red, turned blinding white and vanished.
An icy chill crept through me. The screen was black, but the red afterimage of the dying ship hovered before me like a ghost. “They just committed a cold-blooded murder.”
“Nonsense,” Hafton said. “I’m sure there’s a more civilized explanation. DSE Regulation Number 19.3.2 allows for self-defense against pirates. Probably the aliens have similar regulations. If the silver ship was full of pirates, they got what they deserved. How soon until we reach the big ship?”
“Eight minutes,” I said, turning the telescope to the asteroid. Shiny metal structures dotted its natural rock surface. Antennae? Weapons? The asteroid had rotated to reveal a large crack running the length of its side. “The warm-up of the probe’s engine is complete. What are your orders, sir?”
“Send them my picture again. My picture got the other ship talking.”
I resent his picture, but I couldn’t get the image of the small spacecraft’s fiery death out of my head. A deathly silence filled the dark theater. I quietly prepared several alternate flight plans, fearing the worst.
Aletha hunched over her console, studying the book from the silver ship. Lieutenant Hafton stared at the image of the asteroid on the big screen. “Send my picture again. Maybe they didn’t get our message.”
I sent his picture again, and this time got a response. I put the response on-screen–a picture of the asteroid with crosshairs overlaid. A dotted line extended from the crosshairs to a small dumbbell shape.
The cross hairs reminded me of a riflescope. For a second it felt like they should be targeting our probe instead of the asteroid. I cleared my throat. “That must be where they want the probe to dock, near the middle of that fissure.”
Hafton pointed to the screen. “Set course for–“
“Wait!” Aletha interrupted. “You need to see this.”
She put a picture from the alien’s book on the theater screen. The asteroid ship had several smaller blobs arranged in increasing size coming out of it–lumpy figures with random appendages sticking out all over.
“That’s what the creatures on the asteroid look like,” she said. “Big amebas. Now here’s the next page.”
Four panels showed a progression that started with a human stick figure standing beside one of the lumpy spheroids. The spheroid extended an appendage to cover the stick figure’s arm, then it’s head, finally, only the ameba shape remained.
Aletha waved her arms. “It’s a warning. The blobs from the asteroid eat humans.”
Hafton crossed his arms. “That’s just propaganda from the black ship. Civilized beings don’t eat one another. Besides, thanks to Starlink, we’re not aboard the probe. We’re safe here at Earth.”
I noticed I had stopped breathing. I shook myself and took a breath. “We may be at Earth, but we’re not safe,” I couldn’t bear to look at either Hafton or Aletha. “They could learn a lot about us from analyzing our probe. Probably enough to locate Earth. I don’t think we want them coming here.”
“I’ll do the thinking around here,” Hafton proclaimed. “Set course to dock with the asteroid.”
The image of the silver ship’s unprovoked destruction still haunted me. I made one more try. “Sir, as Xenologist Heaton pointed out, someone aboard the silver ship gave his life to send us this warning. Out of respect for the dead, we should listen.”
“My order stands,” Hafton said. “Even if this girl is right, there are too many stars. They’ll never trace the probe back to Earth. I’m not going to miss my welcoming party. I’m going down in history as the first person to make contact with an alien civilization. Disobeying a direct order is subject to court martial under DSE Regulation G 3.1.3. Change course now.”
No, even an intern quantum engineer like me knew how to use trace metal ratios to determine which star an object came from. If Aletha was right, we were all in danger. But Assistant Financial Officer Lieutenant Archibald Hafton had made up his mind. Reluctantly, I turned to my console, selected a flight plan and locked the engine controls. The probe accelerated toward the asteroid ship.
Hafton seemed satisfied. Aletha fumed. “This is wrong. Stop it, Kethel. Please.”
I crossed my arms and watched in silence as the asteroid grew larger. Soon if filled the entire screen.
“Hey!” Hafton roared. “The probe is supposed to be slowing down to dock, not speeding up. Kethel, what did you do? You’re going to the brig for this.”
Busted. The flight plan I had selected was not the one he had ordered.
Aletha grinned. “Good for you, Kethel. Like I said, you are the brains around here.”
My moment of self-congratulation was short-lived. Two security guards with weapons drawn rushed into the control room. “Who called Security?”
“I did,” Hafton roared. He pointed at me. “Arrest him. The charge is insubordination.”
“Wait!” I said, stalling to see what would happen to the probe. “He’s the guilty one. He ordered me to give secret information to enemies of the Interplanetary Federation.” It was a stretch, but true in a way if you accepted Aletha’s theories.
The main screen showed a field of stars from the navcam opposite the alien ship. Earth orbited peacefully around one of those stars.
One of the security guards came over to my chair. The other guard floated over to Hafton. “Sir, perhaps I should remain here with you while my partner takes the suspect to the brig. We can sort this out when the senior officers return.”
The probe rotated and the navcam showed the pockmarked asteroid rushing toward us. Hafton waved at the monitors, “Nonsense, look at the screens. He set the Starlink probe on a collision course with that asteroid. Add destruction of government property to his charges.”
“It’s not a collision course,” I said. “Look!”
As if on cue, the probe angled away, past the asteroid, alongside the ominous glow of the asteroid’s enormous drive beam. The beam blotted out one corner of the view screen and grew brighter, culminating in an intense blue flash . . . Once again I stared at a blank wall, blinking away a pink afterimage.
I imagined the probe glowing red, then white, then vanishing altogether.
Hafton pressed for charges of insubordination and destruction of government property. He had a good case–but I wasn’t about to admit he was right. His orders were stupid. Too bad stupidity wasn’t a crime.
The prosecution seemed in no hurry to go to trial. They probably hoped I would change my mind and plea bargain. But I couldn’t take their offer of two years in prison. Two years or twenty, it would end my career as a scientist.
The judge began by instructing the jury not to waste the court’s time and money–it had a number of cases on the docket. They were bound to render a verdict based on my actions alone, not to waste the court’s time by debating hypothetical ethical justifications that a higher court would overturn anyway.
The prosecution’s opening argument described how I disobeyed Hafton’s orders and destroyed the crown jewel of Earth’s technology. They pointed out that creating entangled matter is expensive, accelerating a space probe to 60% lightspeed is very expensive, and maintaining and staffing a space station for 52 years is very, very expensive. It turns out that the number of dollars it took to get the probe to Beta Hydri would feed every person in the solar system for a week.
When the prosecution finished, a hush fell over the courtroom before my defense attorney had a chance to stand up. I followed the judge’s eyes to a well-dressed stranger, who came in and whispered to my defense attorney. I couldn’t understand what he said, but my attorney nodded and stood. “Your honor, in lieu of an opening argument, I beg the court to permit a statement from Assistant Secretary of Science and Technology Manuel Rodriguez.”
The judge scowled, then said, “It’s your nickel, counselor. As long as his statement replaces your opening and doesn’t make this trial take longer and cost more tax dollars.”
The Assistant Secretary stepped into the center of the courtroom. “Thank you, Your Honor. President Hargrove has asked me to read a letter from her to the court.”
“Objection, Your Honor,” the prosecutor stood. “The defense has not established that President Hargrove has a legitimate interest in this case.”
“I said I’d allow it. Don’t waste the court’s time with a lot of objections.”
Assistant Secretary Rodriguez nodded his head and turned to face the main camera, as if addressing an audience, as he read:
Honorable Judge and Jury,
The Niels Bohr Interplanetary Laboratory has decoded the the book Mr. Kirkpatrick obtained from the alien spacecraft. It describes our galaxy as a perilous place. SETI found no signs of extraterrestrial intelligent life because the surviving extraterrestrials are hiding from other more aggressive extraterrestrials. Their civilizations have built undetectable interstellar networks of quantum-entangled communication links, much like the Starlink from Earth to Beta Hydri.
I felt a pang of envy for the Niels Bohr scientists who, even now, must be pouring over the alien’s book, uncovering the secrets of the galaxy. Why the President choose my trial for the release of this amazing news made no sense–I was nobody.
Our solar system is at the frontier between two powerful interstellar empires. One of these empires is a federation of stars, much like our own Interplanetary Federation. The other empire is a feudal society ruled by ruthless blob-like creatures.
He paused and looked at me. The main camera followed.
When our Starlink probe arrived at a star system connected to both empires, Kethel Kirkpatrick showed remarkable insight and courage under extremely difficult conditions. Mr. Kirkpatrick’s clever maneuver to vaporize our probe before the tyrannical blobs could analyze it most likely forestalled their immediate departure to subjugate Earth.
In contrast, the orders of Lieutenant Archibald Hafton to give our Starlink probe to these creatures were self-serving and dangerous.
“Objection, Your Honor,” the prosecutor interrupted. “I move to disallow this letter and strike it from the record. Mr. Kirkpatrick broke the law when he disobeyed DSE Regulation 12.2.4 and when he destroyed the taxpayer’s 7.3-trillion-dollar probe. The subsequent discovery of interstellar empires is irrelevant.”
The judge nodded at the prosecutor and then addressed the Assistant Secretary, “I’m inclined to agree with the prosecution. I fail to see the relevance of alien politics to the truth or falsity of Mr. Kirkpatrick’s insubordination and destruction of government property.”
The Assistant Secretary nodded. “I am nearly finished, Your Honor. If you will bear with me for two more minutes, I believe the relevance will become clear.”
The judge frowned. “I still don’t see where you are heading. However, you may have two more minutes. At that time I will rule on the motion to strike your letter from the record.”
The envoy didn’t look at the letter. He had it memorized. He looked at the camera.
Therefore, in the interest of rewarding intelligent and courageous behavior, the Interplanetary Office of Science and Technology promotes Kethel Kirkpatrick to Associate Quantum Engineer and Aletha Heaton to Associate Xenologist, and demotes Archibald Hafton to Ensign.
A murmur began to hum through the crowd of onlookers.
As president, I stand by the principle that justice meted out through a body of impartial written laws best serves the interests of society. However, written laws can be imperfect. Blind obedience to laws and regulations may at times conflict with true justice or the actual best interests of society. You have before you today an example of this problem, and the Federation’s constitution provides a solution to that problem.
In recognition that Kethel Kirkpatrick’s heroic actions saved the Interplanetary Federation from grave danger, and in the event that the courts find him guilty of any crime in connection with his use or destruction of the Starlink, I hereby grant him a full and complete pardon.
President of the Solar Interplanetary Federation
The Assistant Secretary folded his hands and waited.
All eyes were on the judge. He fiddled with something on the surface in front of him, presumably examining legal precedents. He scowled and raised his eyes to the Assistant Secretary. “The executive branch has the right to pardon anyone it wants. A preemptive pardon is almost unheard of, but Mr. Kirkpatrick’s guilt or innocence is now irrelevant. In order to avoid wasting any more taxpayer money on an unnecessary trial, this case is dismissed.”
I jumped at the bang of the gavel. The judge left and the courtroom broke out into general mayhem. A crowd of strangers rushed up to shake my hand. They had to wait while a guard unlocked my handcuffs, but I shook every one of them. The Assistant Secretary offered me a job at Niels Bohr Lab, building the devices described in the alien’s book. He even invited me to a press conference to meet President Hargrove in person.
Aletha was there too. She squeezed my hand and said, “I’m glad you’ll be joining us.”
“At Niels Bohr Lab. I’m part of the team translating the alien’s book.”
A thrill made every part of my body hypersensitive. She seemed to like the idea that we’d be working in the same lab. I grinned. “At least xenology has something to study now.”
She laughed, “Fermi’s Paradox resolved–“
Hafton passed us on his way to the door. “Don’t look so smug. Your disregard for DSE Number 12.2.4 will catch up with you some day.”
“Not as long as I do what’s right,” I said. “You heard the president.”
He snorted. “You idiot. Do you think that’s what this was about? You believed the president’s hogwash? You were saved by the numbers.”
Aletha looked as confused as I felt. “What numbers?”
“Your case went viral–all over the media. They tried delaying your trial until the hubbub wore down, but it has only increased. The public is now 78% in your favor. President Hargrove’s popularity is at an all-time low. She pardoned you to boost her numbers in the polls.”