Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Silicon and Solitude
by Shane D. Rhinewald

Expedition of the Arcturus
by JZ Murdock

Nude Bargain
by Olga Godim

Dirtsiders on Cinnabar
by Patrick Lundrigan

by Tom Tinney

History of Humanity’s First Alien Contact in the Year 2023
by Eric M. Jones

Space Cadets of the Apocalypse
by Dave Fragments

Illegal Alien
by Betsy Streeter

A Tangle of Brilliance
by Charles Barouch


Playing a Role in Science Fiction
by Clayton J. Callahan

Prof. Pickering’s Practical Plan
by The Editors




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



History of Humanity's First Alien

Contact in the Year 2023

By Eric M. Jones


IT APPEARED OUT OF THE bright glare of the L4 solar observatory’s HDI continuum sensors on a late October day. At first glance, it seemed only a shadow where a sunspot might have been, but it was sharply defined.

“This is different. Now this is really different,” said Norman Delage, Virgin Galactic Space Station’s only full-time astronomer. Within an hour, its position, approximate dimensions, velocity and probable destination were all understood. “Fifty-three million kilometers, 1.5 million km/h; decelerating. Length, about a kilometer, destination: probably near Earth,” mumbled Norman, “and it’ll probably destroy Earth and leave me stranded up here ... Ke-rist.” he whispered to himself, staring at the L4 solar observatory image screen.

But there was neither radar reflection, nor electromagnetic emissions and its thermal image was hard to measure. And it was huge; far too large to be made anywhere but in orbit somewhere. Yet there it was, slowly changing its aspect ... an actual starship shaped by an intelligent hand, or tentacle, or claw, of some alien species that prayed to none of humanity’s gods, and obeyed none of Earth’s rules, and surely had its own agenda.

All he could do was report and watch for now. This was a good time for a cigarette. Too bad he’d had to give them up before taking a post on the space station. Norman tilted his head back and put in a couple anti-smoking nose drops, now twice as hard to use in the 0.5G laboratory, and just as unpleasant.

He returned to watching the silhouette carefully, occasionally recording voice-notes. But as the hours passed, the orbital-tracking truth began to look much worse. “The good news is that it will not hit the Earth; the bad news is that it will wipe out the space station,” mused Norman.

Luckily the ship was not yet observable to Earth-based astronomers, and the few who had access to the L4 data were told it was a derelict satellite and their return calls were auto-blocked. Then he took the L4 data off-link and posted a down-for-servicing message. But this was only going to quiet thesunspot curious for a few more hours. Already space station communications were becoming jammed with people who had a keen nose for flimflam, fabrication and official deception. “Yeh, well, we’ll get back to you ...” said Norman, not even finding out who was calling.

But was the craft just adrift? This suspicion suddenly vanished when the alien craft’s trajectory was occulted by the Moon, then the craft did not reappear on schedule. Impossible, thought Norman. A brief survey of available space observatories showed that nothing was available to image the alien craft’s new approach path. Something had happened behind the Moon—out of sight of all Earth-based orbital observatories. The farside lunar observatories were all shut down for two weeks, since this was a new moon phase. Could these aliens have known that?

Nearly an earthday went by. Finally, a Mars-mapping orbiter was brought out of hibernation and repositioned to image the alien craft. But little of importance could be seen, merely a dull speck that showed the spacecraft was still approaching Earth from behind the Moon. It hadn’t impacted the Moon since lunar seismic monitors were quiet. Whatever it had done behind the Moon was not to be seen.

Norman Delage finally curled up in his space-sock to get some sleep. But he’d positioned the monitor so he could see it and could manage only a few fitful minutes of sleep at a time without looking at it. Finally he fell asleep for an hour. The computer woke him with Sting singing “There’s a little black spot on the Sun today ... da-dah-da-dahhh ...”

Norman squirmed out of his space-sock and squinted at the computer screen. Now the craft could be seen as a bright spot on the limb of the new Moon. The spacecraft was no longer hiding; it could have hidden on the other limb still in darkness. But here it was. Even more surprising was that there were lights on the alien craft which soon began changing colors—red, violet, blue, yellows, oranges, greens—every color and beautiful hue. What might have been braking rockets shot out pinwheels and bursts that changed colors on their own. There were ... colored streamers ... puffs of colored smoke. Ridiculous. What was all this about? Was the circus coming to town?

This was no longer anything that could be kept secret. An hour passed. Half the telescopes on Earth were watching. But nobody who thought the alien craft was a threat could now be taken seriously. Two hours passed. By this time, billions more had awaked in the middle of the night to breathlessly stare into their vid-screens.

The vid-news had become an endless single topic. Billions waited and watched the approaching alien craft. Preparations were made in the major capitals of the world for elaborate ceremonies welcoming the first alien visitors. Messages of hope and friendship were aimed skyward from lasers, mirrors, lights, and radios all over the planet. Christian and Islam were sure it was the second coming, the parousia. Religions all over the world were galvanized to believe that this was the critical moment in their particular history. Governments hurriedly passed laws to control the electromagnetic and public melees, but to absolutely no effect.

Now thirty-eight hours since Norman first saw the L4 image, he watched the spacecraft slow to match the orbit of the Virgin Galactic Space Station. The approaching alien ship was huge; an off-white rounded-edge oblate rectangular bar almost a kilometer long with odd bumps and dozens of transparent spheres held on short stalks jutting out from its surface. From the middle of what looked like the rear there were hundred-meter-long elliptical doors behind which lay unknown technologies. There were signs of minor scrapes and dents here and there.

Apparently the ship had been in space for a very long time, and the craft looked like it was designed with no means for landing or even for traveling in atmospheres. But who knew what could be unholstered from those huge elliptical doors? Wings, rockets, landing craft, laser cannons? Norman tried to remember what the silhouette had looked like. This hardly looked like the same craft. It had reshaped itself considerably.

Soon the ship was a mere several hundred meters from the space station when it drifted to a stop ... and nothing happened.

There was a pause when every person on the space station stared out portholes and said nothing or spoke only in whispers. Then the ship began doing odd sorts of docking duties. Ports opened and closed, occasionally giving off small puffs of gas. Some of the transparent spheres were drawn into the hull. More complex machinery-shapes elevated to sit on the hull. Were they weapons? Some internal lighting changed, and then changed again. A section of the hull began to change color. A 50-meter wide band now calmly rotated around the waist of the alien ship's hull, displaying strange shapes and symbols. The display reminded Norman Delage of maritime signal flags.

But it was odd, thought Norman. The shapes and symbols seemed happy and non-threatening. There were shapes that might have been orange flowers, soft rectangles of blue, ovals, wavy stripes. Not a jagged, pointy, fear-inspiring symbol among them. Someone would get a PhD studying this. Maybe the symbols meant nothing at all. Maybe they were just hypnotic shapes.

Finally, things seemed to be calming down. Nothing more was changing on the ship. Whatever had been happening seemed finished. Suddenly Norman’s computer spoke. “Hello?” Norm was not sure where the sound had come from. Again it said, “Hello?”

“Hello?” said Norman. “Can you hear me?” Nothing ... Norman pushed the open voice-channel button on his computer and repeated.

This time the voice said, “If you can hear me; we are galactic traders and we would like to establish a mutually beneficial business relationship with Earth people. Is docking here okay?”

Centuries from now school children would have to learn these first words that the aliens spoke. Too bad it couldn’t have been more profound, thought Norman.

“Okay, I think ...” said Norman, realizing that he had just—in the least profound way—made the most profound, Earth-changing, and momentous decision in history—also to be taught to schoolchildren for centuries. He frowned at the thought.

The alien responded, “I am Opm. My associate Pqn and I greet you. Is that okay? We understand you will want to gather some of your associates and prepare a small meeting room. We will send over our trading-units. How long do you need to prepare?”

Trading-units? Norman Delage replied, “I’ll need to consult with my associates and get back to you in,” he glanced at the clock. Did these aliens even have clocks? What did they use as time? Norman said, “... in five orbits. Is that okay?”

The alien responded, “Then we will hear back from you in approximately eight hours. Thank you.”

Norman thought, so they did understand Earth time and English too. Let’s get this show on the road. Norman punched the comm-channel to Virgin Galactic Control. “Guys, help me out here. The aliens asked for a schedule and want to sit down and talk in eight hours. What do you want to do?”

There was a long silence, then someone said, “Hold on ...” and there was continuous dead air that went on for minutes.

Norm tried again, “Guys ...?” Then he heard a half-second of meaningless noise, then a longer silence. Norman smiled. What a barrel of monkeys ... he thought to himself.

Norman decided that he would just have to wait them out. In the meantime, Norman sent out four robotic inspection cameras to look over the alien craft in detail. If the aliens objected, they were free to complain. Norman could spend days looking over the exquisite but baffling technology of the starship.

An entire orbital period had elapsed before Norman heard his first sensible reply. It was the CEO of Virgin Galactic Corporation, Thomas Sekibo, certainly calling from some boardroom surrounded by hastily rounded-up corporate directors and vice presidents. “Mr. Delage,” said Thomas Sekibo, “This is Tom Sekibo. Hello?”

“I’m here, Mr. Sekibo. It’s your call on this thing. What would you like me to do?” asked Norman.

Tom Sekibo spoke with a firm voice accustomed to giving commands, “First, I want you to have absolutely no contact with them at all. We are dialoguing with government and military authorities and we are formulating a plan. Any communication with them will simply make things harder ... Do you understand?”

Norman sensed some tiny fear in the seconds of silence that followed his order. What was Norman supposed to do? He hadn’t called any aliens for take-out delivery. They’d just shown up on his doorstep. They’d called him. “So what do I do when they call me in a few hours ... ignore them?” asked Norman.

“Just route the call down to us and we’ll handle it,” said Tom Sekibo, straightening his necktie for action. “And anything you learn, we need to know about it here immediately. We want you to keep a minute-by-minute recording log regarding this historic event.”

HQ signed off. For a few minutes Norman considered his options. Virgin Galactic was clueless and desperate. Out the porthole was a magnificent starship from another world. Nobody had any contingency plans for this. In a few hours the aliens expected some sort of arranged meeting to trade technologies from other worlds. He knew that earthside there was a bureaucratic yellow crapstorm starting that would take months to resolve and probably end in a witch-hunt where politicians would try to claim credit and assess blame. Perhaps humanity would do something sensible. But more likely not ... Someone would probably launch a missile attack. Did the alien ship park off the wake of the Virgin-Galactic-Space-Station-slash-Plutocrat-Doughnut Hotel to discourage a sneak attack? It would certainly make sense. Was some of that alien technology hanging on the hull capable of parrying an attack? Nobody who had any sense would want to risk it.

An hour-and-a-half, and another orbit; Norman gradually became aware that people on the station were looking to him for solutions. Norm was looking in vain for a cigarette. Someone must have smuggled one. He could buy pot up here from three or four different sources. The aquaculture techs had stuffed pot genes into six or seven different plants. Why couldn’t he get a damned cigarette?

The scheduled shuttle flight to the station had been aborted several hours earlier—at the instant the starship was seen approaching. There couldn’t be another one—even in an emergency—for at least an entire day. Communications were under his de facto control since the comm-tech was sitting in Norman’s lab looking helpless and asking him what to do, and appearing entirely ready to follow Norman’s commands.

Norman noticed that the doorway to his lab was starting to fill up with hotel staff and station technicians with expectant looks on their faces. This spaceship arriving seemed outside normal hierarchical command structures. At the head of the line the hotel manager raised his hand to ask a question. That’s a good sign, thought Norman ... they’re raising their hands to ask questions.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” announced Norman with mock formality. “Let’s just do whatever we were doing before this thing arrived,” motioning with his thumb over his shoulder towards the porthole. “It will be several more hours before anything happens, and by then HQ will give us directions. They have contingency plans for this sort of thing.” Norman hoped that the “HQ directions” were going to be much improved over the first ones he had received, and he knew that the “contingency plans” remark was just a comforting fiction ...

Norm noticed a few people roll their eyes.

But soon, the Virgin Galactic Space Station returned to normal, or as normal as it could get with a kilometer-long alien starship docked a few hundred meters off its wakeside. People peered out portholes and took photos. Not much was getting done.

A waitress tiptoed in and offered Norman a plastic-wrapped sandwich and a sippee-coffee. He thanked her. Bless her. Norman had forgotten how hungry he had gotten. Maybe she could find a cigarette?


Tom Sekibo sat at a desk, but certainly not his office desk—there was already a bullet hole in his office window. What the hell kind of hornet’s nest had been busted wide open? There was no use answering calls. When he did he was assaulted by a barrage of nonsensical ideas, fears, and emotional pleas-for-action. Craziness. The You-Name-It were the people who should handle this. There were local police, state police, federal officers, FBI, CIA, military, and every brand of quasi-official uniformed jackboots on his doorstep. He’d even seen a troop of Boy Scouts offering first aid. People had signs and banners proclaiming either the Age of Aquarius or Armageddon, sometimes both ... Now how did they get the damned signs so fast? Was there a store for emergency crazy-signs?

Tom Sekibo swiveled his chair around and peeked out the office window. Police with bullhorns shouted muffled, and usually conflicting, orders that made no sense, while wandering phalanxes of military troops, police swat teams, and even unidentifiable, helmeted gray-suited toughs wielded batons and seemed to bludgeon people at random. Why doesn’t everyone just go home? thought Tom. Fires were burning where there shouldn’t have been fires. Columns of smoke drifted skyward. There were sirens. It was getting dark.

He’d told Norman Delage to just hold tight and wait for the cavalry. That was now a promise he couldn’t keep. He couldn’t get through to anyone, even on priority or emergency channels. He could see a huge alien starship behind the Virgin Galactic Space Station Hotel, it was on every vid-channel. But it wasn’t doing anything. Nobody was doing anything. And the clock was ticking. The aliens wanted a response in ... let’s see ... three more hours. Just two more orbits.

After the emergency meeting the rest of his staff had wandered away, making lame excuses. But he knew they had escaped to their private refuges to avoid the civil unrest that was likely to come ... or an alien invasion. They wouldn’t be much help anyway.

The aliens hadn’t made the least threatening gesture. Of course, there is the Trojan Horse approach. “Let’s show them a friendly face while we study their defenses ... and then destroy them while they sleep.”

His executive assistant knocked on his door, opened it and quickly closed the door behind her. She was the only other person left at HQ. “The Governor is trying to get in touch with you, Tom.” said Ellen Sandoval, “She’s on the alpha-2 emergency line.”

Tom looked at his comm and punched the alpha-2 line, “Governor, how did you possibly manage to ...?”

The Governor ignored the pleasantry and said, “Tom, I just got a call from the President who told me to be sure we did nothing until plans are made and we can get all our resources on line. So don’t do anything. This comes from the President himself. Do you understa—?”

Suddenly the line went dead. No sense waiting for a return call, just to hear that he shouldn’t do anything. He got the message. Things were getting worse rapidly. So that is how things are going to be? The President and the Governors—and everyone from top to bottom—have been ordered to sit on their hands ... Tom knew he had just told Norm Delage exactly the same damned thing. Marvelous plan! Just wonderful ... While civil unrest is spiraling out of control and the cities are starting to burn. But somebody at the top has a plan. Good luck with that. “Sure, we’ll keep in touch,” Sekibo could hear sporadic gunfire around the Virgin Galactic HQ building. At least they were shooting at the offices where he had left the lights on. He could hear breaking glass and spats of spent bullets.

Tom Sekibo considered his rapidly-shrinking options. His last comm from the launch facility was disheartening. There were armed protestors at the outer perimeter and the roads to the launch complex were completely jammed with vehicles. Still, the launch-site security was extremely good, and the number of protestors was limited on the island. People don’t take boats to be in protests; they take boats to get away from them.

He opened the curtains in the dark office and looked out over the city. Tear gas and mayhem drifted up into the night. The choices were narrowing. There was a safe shelter in the basement of the building, but there was no good way to get out from there, once inside. Furthermore the safe shelter had vid-reception and its own power, but not any better comm than the office. Everyone else was smart enough to leave except Ellen and him. But there was a helicopter on the roof. Maybe he could fly it. This seemed the best of all the possible terrible choices.

“Ellen, wanna’ go for a ride in a helicopter?” asked Tom. “See if you can find some snacks and some water. Oh, and a jacket and some shoes ...”

Tom grabbed a comm unit, started to fill his briefcase with papers and books, but tossed it aside and found his utility knife, a couple of LED hand-torches, his passport, and a jacket. He unzipped two leather seat cushions and pulled out the stuffing. They would do for handy satchels. He spent several minutes looking in vain for a roll of duct tape ... A great emergency tool, he thought. But oh well.

He took one last look at the crowd down on the street and he could see security was having a hard time preventing them from breaking into the HQ building. “Time to go ...” He entered the hallway where he ran into Ellen, now dressed in a jacket, workout clothes and athletic shoes.

Ellen said, “Let’s raid the cafeteria vending machines.” And pointed the way down the dimly lit hallway. They examined the six vending units along the wall. Tom tossed Ellen a leather seat cushion cover and was surprised that—without hesitation— Ellen grabbed a stool and smashed the glass front on the water bottle dispenser without even pausing, destroyed the glass on the other five vending machines as well.

“I’ve always wanted to do that ... watch the glass,” said Ellen, stepping gingerly on broken glass and stuffing the leather satchel with bottled water and energy bars, chocolate bars, and cheese and crackers. “Leave the potato chips, pretzels and salty stuff,” she said to Tom. “They’ll just make you thirsty.”

Tom and Ellen finished ransacking the vending machines, zipped up their snack satchels and found the emergency stairs to the roof. They ran up three flights of stairs to the helipad. On the roof was a red and white Bell Jet Astro-Ranger sitting almost expectantly in the helipad lighting.

For a moment they stopped, and Ellen turned and said to Tom, “You can fly this thing, right?”

Tom didn’t reply, instead he grabbed an emergency fire extinguisher and quickly walked around the helipad perimeter giving each of the lights a couple bashes with the cylinder. “We need lights to land, but we ain’t landing here. They need lights to shoot us. Hop in; let’s go for a ride!” said Tom, feigning boyish enthusiasm to cover his trepidation.

Ellen opened the rear door and stowed the bags. Tom opened the right hand door, jumped in, closed it firmly and stared at his hands for a moment while catching his breath. He hadn’t flow this bird, but he had flown an hour in a helicopter trainer and a couple of light aircraft some years ago. It was a Christmas present from his wife. But no use telling Ellen, now buckling in on his left.

“Seat belts!” she barked. Tom buckled up, lap belts, shoulder belts, then noticed the anti-submarine belt and fastened it. He pointed it out to Ellen who frowned but quickly fastened hers. Such details might save their lives.

Tom shouted “Headsets!” and passed one to Ellen. He put his own on. Now how hard can this be, he frowned. He shined his hand torch on the instrument panel, then swept the beam around the cockpit to see where any switches and controls were located. In the door pocket there was a flight manual with convenient checklists. But this was the power-out-checklist. The computer would do most of it for them.

Master ON, read the switch. But first he located the exterior position, landing and anticollision lights. He flipped them all to OFF. No use making a lighted target for anyone. He flipped the master switch ON. In the old days you could hear gyroscopes spooling up, but all he saw was instruments and switches lighting and the glass cockpit screen blink on, displaying an Engine-Start screen with ...

Ellen tapped Tom on his forearm and motioned him to look. The lights in the city were going out. In moments only a few scattered buildings had emergency lights.

The display had indications for fuel pressure and temperature, oil temp and pressure, clock, volts, amps, aux fuel, NG, N2, and Nr (the rotor tachometer). and about a dozen other parameters with which Tom was not entirely familiar. This was a great frustration. Tom saw a button on the side of the display that said Declutter and punched it. Now only the T.O.T., turbine out temperature, NG and a red button marked Autostart were all that showed on the screen.

Tom muttered, “Autostart ... well, hell, there’s something I understand.” He punched Autostart hopefully. Immediately he could hear the turbine spooling up. The gauges showed activity. Small LEDs blinked red, but then they seemed to settle down. Then some of the LEDs turned an optimistic green. When the NG gauge showed 15 percent, fuel automatically began feeding the turbine and the engine began to come up to operating temperature. There were three short beeps as the main and tail rotors began to turn smoothly. The helicopter began to hop delicately on its suspension.

Tom knew the helicopter was nearly ready to fly and fumbled around looking for a control to change the monitor into flight controls. He couldn’t find one and for a moment considered switching off the declutter, but as soon as he unlocked the collective control lever at the left of his seat the monitor switched to a compass, altimeter, horizontal situation indicator. Those could be flown like any little aircraft. Not too hard. Maybe ...

Tom found the throttle and pushed it in—a little more throttle was better than too little in this situation. He carefully pulled up the collective lever and the helicopter slowly climbed into the air. He’d forgotten how similar the helicopter was to an airplane with wings; his feet kept the helicopter pointed in the direction he wanted by habit and a little shove on the cyclic joystick got the Bell Jet Astro-Ranger to put nose down and sail into the void over the edge of the helipad.

For a second Tom fought vertigo from seeing the empty space to the street. No time to panic, Ellen’s eyes were wide open looking straight ahead, perhaps in surprise or disbelief. He slowly pulled up on the collective thrust lever to increase his airspeed. He heard the strike of a bullet before the helicopter was moving fast enough and high enough to allow them to relax just a bit. Tom checked the flight instruments, which had now conveniently added an airspeed indicator to the monitor. Slowly, experimentally, Tom began a climbing turn towards the ocean. The launch facility was a hundred kilometers off the coast and with a little luck and maybe some on-the-job flight-training, they could make it. Hey, how hard could it be?

They soon crossed the beach and were flying over the cold blackness of the ocean. The city lights began to recede behind them. An occasional boat or oil platform were the only stars in this dark universe. Tom knew that this was the time the concern about that bullet strike would start to gnaw at him. Did the engine sound funny? Tom knew that the engine instrument readings were tucked away by the declutter switch and he wanted to keep it that way. Better to keep going—a certain to-hell-with-it attitude was best. We all gotta die someday ...

The Virgin Galactic launch facility had radar and would see them coming. But if the launch facility was running in blackout mode, Tom and Ellen were probably going to drown in the cold black ocean, since this helicopter had no sure way of finding them if they wanted to remain hidden. And even if they could locate them, the launch facility could probably shoot them if they landed uninvited.

Ellen tapped him on the shoulder. She wanted to know what was happening. Tom spoke into the intercom, “... have to tell you later ... got to concentrate ... on flying ... Sorry.” Even good helicopter pilots were in their own world and knew distractions could be fatal. Tom looked for the transponder. Tom set it to 7700 and pushed the ident button. He could see the radar sweep light on the transponder. Somebody was watching.

What was the comm frequency he needed? He couldn’t remember if he’d ever heard it. It had to be on a map or chart someplace. He’d felt some papers in the door pocket. He’d have to get Ellen’s help. Shoving a handful of papers at Ellen, Tom said, “Here! See if you can find the radio frequency of the Launch Complex. It should be on a map or chart. It’s probably twelve something, point something, something ... maybe.”

Ellen used the onboard map light and looked over the handful of papers in her lap. A few moments later she showed Tom a map and said to Tom, “127.85 ... looks like.”

Tom punched in the frequency, entered it and listened to it for a moment. Hearing nothing he pushed the Push to Talk button and spoke “Jet Ranger 24679 calling Virgin Launch.” Then he released the button.

Tom was surprised when John Chiu, the Virgin Launch chief engineer responded a moment later, “It’s about time you showed up, Tom. I didn’t know you could fly a helicopter.”

Tom replied, “Remains to be seen, a pilot is paid for landings. But set up a conference link to the space station. Is the helipad clear? We’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

John added, “Tom, the helipad is clear but we recommend crazy amateurs who steal Jet Astro-Ranger helicopters use the soccer field to the east. We’ll light it up for you. Be very careful. Take it slow. We’ll have a real pilot talk you down.”

Ten minutes later Tom saw the soccer field lights turn on, just a bright spot on the horizon. He turned the helicopter towards it and reduced the throttle. He watched the vertical speed indicator descend perilously and alarms went off. Tom wished he didn’t have to do this. Landing seemed somehow completely impossible, even if he’d made it this far. Things were happening just too damned fast.

Ten minutes later with the helicopter reasonably stable the radio interrupted, “Tom, this is Whitney, I’ll get you down. You’re probably pretty light and the weather is clear with not much wind, so this shouldn’t be too hard. When you get near the soccer field, just pull back on the cyclic to get the nose up a bit. Now reduce the throttle to 70 percent and just leave it alone. Change the pitch with the collective to control your rate of descent. Don’t touch the damned throttle. We just want to get you to hover over the field.”

And juggle some chains saws, thought Tom. But he did as instructed, a little clumsily, and the Jet Astro-Ranger responded. Forward speed dropped to nearly zero and the airspeed indicator obligingly disappeared from the display while the vertical speed indicator suddenly doubled its size, and grew some new features.

The helicopter descended slowly towards the field. Tom was reluctant to make any changes but kept his sweaty death-grip on the cyclic and collective. Finally the helicopter was just meters above the ground when he increased the collective pitch control and the helicopter touched down firmly.

Before he could congratulate himself, Whitney jumped onto the skid and jerked open the door and unbelted Tom Sekibo and threw him onto the wet soccer field grass with one deft motion.

“Sorry,” said Whitney, leaping into the helicopter.

Ellen looked on disapprovingly. “He had this under control you know ...”


“Norman? Hello,” said Tom Sekibo, seated in a conference room with several engineers and managers. “We have arranged a vid-conference which is the best we can do for now. No ships are launching ... government orders ... if there is still a government.” Tom ceremoniously introduced the people around the table, who at the same time were passing around two leather satchels of vending machine snacks.

Norman opened the comm channel and turned on the vid-screen to show several people sitting at a table in a Virgin Galactic conference room in orbit. Norman introduced them, “I have invited the space station manager, Roy Sekibo, and the Senator from Nebraska, Roberta Chastain, who was on vacation here.” Norman touched the vid-screen to indicate who was who. They each nodded hello, but nobody smiled.

Norman continued, “And here are the stars, so-to-speak, of our meeting, Opm and Pqn.” Norm turned the camera to show two tanned, healthy-looking, very attractive, smiling, but perfectly androgynous humans. They looked identical and both dressed in exactly the same plain tan jumpsuits with baseball caps and boots.

Opm spoke. “Let’s not waste time on this. Neither our physiological differences nor unfamiliar physical forms would make our jobs easier, so this is just our space garb. We actually would look like large furry-fingered frogs to you. So let’s get on with it.”

After a moment, Tom Sekibo spoke. “We understand. We would really like to have your ship and its crew come down to Earth where we can more properly welcome you; when the civiltraders  unrest quiets down, of course.”

But Pqn said, “We sincerely apologize. Landing on Earth invites dangers and problems that we are not prepared to face. If we were to land on Earth, nobody would be safe. We would gladly meet a few Earth people here in orbit. We hope you understand and do not feel we have disrespected you, but you will come to understand that when meeting alien civilizations, low orbit is normally as close as one dares approach. This is quite close enough to conduct business.”

Opm explained, “We are traders. Of course, we already have your cultural and intellectual information bank stored. We logged onto your Internet while approaching and finished the download several hours ago while waiting for this meeting. It’s a great resource and it seemed there for all to copy, so we hope you don’t mind. What we have examined of it is truly fascinating and Earth should be very proud of it. We have also given you as much information as it was possible to download onto your servers. This should keep your scientists busy for generations. We have left additional information stored in these memblobs,” said Opm, motioning at Pqn to open a box containing a pile of oddly quivering gelatinous cubes, “And we have supplied information on how to open and read them when you develop the capacity to manipulate the information. Consider this as our gift to you.”

Opm looked around the room and nodded. “But please understand this is simply more of the same as what we have already transferred to your servers. There are yottabytes of information. So deal with it as you like. These sixty cubes are all duplicates. Each is identical.” Opm picked one up and tossed it to Norman Delage.

“You understand that certain information will not be shared, including the location of other civilizations. Neither do we expect you to share any with us. Your location will remain our secret. We shall not give you our home system location. This is the most carefully guarded of our secrets.

“You will want to know some things about us. We work for other people who have provided financing for our business. Our technology is merely a century or two ahead of yours. We have learned that technologies that are more than a few centuries apart seem to have nothing to say to each other. This is sad but understandable.

“You will want to know some things about our technology. No, you may not come aboard our ship, but we have left you a vid-record of it. As far as we know, the speed of light cannot be exceeded by material objects, but some of our theoreticians still hold out hope for a solution. It takes us decades to travel between stars. Of course, we can use a kind of sleep, which is actually an alternate reality. We don’t seem to age while in this condition. People who spend their lives mostly in alternate computer-generated realities are becoming common on Earth. Pqn and I spend 95 percent of our lives in this computer generated realm, but as a result we will live twenty times as long as Earth people ... if you call it living ...” Opm flashed an odd grin.

Opm continued, “Now there are a few other things we need. We can make virtually any material object. Gold, diamonds, precious metals are trivial and not worth transporting. But there are some things that are unique and valuable on any world. We trade items that have enormous scientific and industrial value, as well as highly valuable artifacts that reflect the core values of alien civilizations like yours. But basically we trade items with provenance.”

Tom was puzzled. What did Earth people think was of value to trade with other worlds? Materials and devices, inventions and artwork, sacred books and recordings, toys and decorations? Scrolling through the US Harmonized Tariff Schedule would list about everything. He wondered if the aliens had a list of such trade goods. That would make great reading!

“But we have already done what you would call shopping on your Internet,” continued Opm. “ We have examined various items and find the objects of most interest to us are—first, rubber.”

Rubber? You travelled light years just to get some rubber?” said John Chiu, sitting next to Tom Sekibo in the Virgin Galactic Launch facility conference room.

Pqn stood up. “It is easy to understand that you would be puzzled. Rubber is very common on Earth. But it is very common simply because it is so useful. Extraterrestrial civilizations—including our own—have nothing quite like it. You would be astonished how many complicated and expensive solutions are employed where Earth rubber would be the best solution. When we first discovered that your civilization employed rubber-wheeled vehicles that traveled on abrasive cementitious-mineral admixtures and stone roads for tens of thousands of kilometers—we simply could not believe it. We examined this issue quite carefully but found no deception.”

Still flabbergasted, John Chiu said, “So how much—and in what form—do you need this ... ah ... rubber?”

Pqn looked at Opm for the answer. Opm said, “The DNA of the various species and seeds plus samples of processed materials; a kilogram of each will suffice.”

Tom Sekibo touched the screen of his computer and said, “Done. What’s next?”

“Wristwatches ... fine-quality mechanical wristwatches,” said Pqn. “There is no technology in them that is of particular interest. They have no hidden technical secrets. And frankly they aren’t usable as timekeepers anywhere else in the galaxy. But they represent craftsmanship and art beyond anything found anywhere else, so far as we know. No civilization other than Earth goes to such lengths to do something with such finesse and beauty that is of so little importance to anyone. And they carry great provenance.”

Opm interrupted, “We have seen these on the Internet, but would like to have many examples to take with us. On our world, ten fine mechanical Earth wristwatches would easily pay for our starship.”

John Chiu, now having regained his composure, said, “So how much, and how many wristwatches? We’d be happy to get these for you?”

Opm said, “We have one more thing to request; afterwards—whatever value remains— please fill it with fine mechanical wristwatches until you are satisfied that the deal is fair for you.”

Pqn shot his partner a glance. Opm went on, “We preferred to ask you what Earth people consider being of value from your world. But that information did not seem to be forthcoming. Thus, we were forced to surveil the Earth to see what people considered to be of greatest value. Some things were eliminated for various reasons you can understand, like vehicles, food, human volunteers, T-Rex skeletons, collectibles and some for reasons that you would never suspect nor comprehend.

“But after much study we think the most valuable thing we can transport is ... cats ... or specifically the DNA, nutrient formulations and several genetically diverse samples of cats, or kittens if you prefer.”

There was shocked silence in the room ...

But Tom Sekibo was not shocked by this. The wristwatches and rubber request had destroyed any capacity to be surprised that remained in his soul. He would not have been more surprised if the aliens had wanted ... but nevermind. Tom bowed his head in thought and simply asked, “Are these your regular domesticated cats and kittens ... not any rare species, I hope?”

“Yes,” said Pqn. “Can you imagine a spaceship full of Siberian tigers ...?” The agreeable-appearing androgynous alien creature flashed a mischievous grin and chuckled. “We’d like a broad genetically-diverse selection of domesticated cats, if that is agreeable.”

Tom Sekibo was deeply disturbed by the alien’s use of humor. How and where did they get a sense of humor? But Tom just nodded in agreement. Did the aliens understand human head-movement gestures?

Opm stood up. “Now here is what we have brought to offer in exchange.” He opened a small box on the table and took out a small package and displayed it to the delegates. “This is a quantum modem,” he said, almost reverentially.

“A quantum modem will allow Earth to communicate with other civilizations who choose to link to the central comm-core. You will find it frustrating until you understand it. For example, it allows no astronomical photographs, solar spectra, and many other subjects since they could give away locations, or be inherently dangerous. The censorship is all done in the central core where these issues are decided.

“We have included information to allow you to connect your standard electronic communication devices. We estimate that this will take your engineers less than one year. And yes, this quantum modem communicates instantaneously and its bandwidth grows as needed. It’s way cool ...”

Pqn shot Opm a glance saying, “Better knock off the hipsterese. You’re not very good at it.”

Opm continued, “The next device we offer for trade is an integrated circuit called a sentient chip. We have included instructions on how to reproduce these. This is an integrated circuit containing downloadable quantum software and necessary interface components which produce sentience in a computer ... Now, whether the computers that contain them are sentient or not—many of our scientist have debated this—there is no disagreement that they will be accepted as entirely conscious.

“The computers that use this part will design new computers that use similar parts. This will raise much concern, no doubt, but our experience indicates that Earth will greatly benefit. Besides, you can always just not use them, we suppose.

“Is this sufficient? Do we have an agreement then?” asked Pqn, standing up.

Tom Sekibo, far below in the vid-conference room on Earth looked at the others at the table who were all staring blankly, shrugged his shoulders, stood and said, “We so agree.”

Small talk with the aliens was attempted, but it soon became clear that the aliens had other things on their minds and no tolerance for additional questions. They had said all they had to say and done all they had come to do. Opm and Pqn soon politely excused themselves and walked back to the elevator, took it to the central zero-G hub airlock docking complex, walked into the airlock, cycled it and zoomed away aboard an open tiny rocket scooter ... without so much as a friendly wave goodbye.

Norman watched a vid-feed. “Look at those guys. Those are their spacesuits.”

“Those were either their spacesuits, or their robots,” said Tom Sekibo. “I guess we’ll never know.”


The Virgin Galactic staff requisitioned all the expensive wristwatches in the duty-free shops. Several chartered jets collected rubber trees and material specimens from around the world. A collection of thirty-two healthy kittens with their DNA samples and cat food was prepared. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals president complained, but a brief and unexpected communique from Opm assured them that they all would be very happy and that the joy of cats would spread across the galaxy.

The aliens hard-landed a trailer-truck sized cylindrical pod at the Virgin Launch complex. When approached, it was heard to say “Hello,” and the doors opened invitingly to a lighted interior. It was then carefully packed with wristwatches, rubber-tree seeds and sample materials, kittens and required supplies. The aliens had included a special carrier for the kittens which put them into a dream state when they were placed inside it. One of the technicians repeatedly put a squirming, meowing tiger-striped kitten into the enclosure and took it out again half-a-dozen times. Nothing untoward seemed to happen. Asleep, awake, purring and happy, asleep, awake and happy, asleep ... it seemed fine. The technician could feel a warm pleasant tingle in his hand when he put the kitten into the chamber. But when his hand was inside the chamber, his arm was paralyzed up to his elbow. It took just a minute to recover completely.

When the pod was filled, the doors closed automatically. A pleasant voice said, “Thank you,” and the pod rose silently into the sky until it vanished from sight with a sonic boom.

A few minutes later, at the Virgin Galactic Space Station, the pod was seen entering a door in the alien ship’s hull. Just moments later, the alien craft smoothly increased its distance from the space station and within a few hours was too distant to be seen by any astronomical instrument available to humanity.

“And they never even said goodbye,” thought Norman Delage, staring out of his lab porthole at the blue crescent of Earth, “but then again I wonder if there was ever anybody on board?


Norman—and soon everyone on Earth—watched the vid-record that the aliens had given them of the inside of their starship. Norman soon added the extensive reconnaissance of the ship taken by the space station’s four robotic inspection cameras. The debate regarding the veracity of the recording went on for years and every pixel of the vid-record was closely examined. The final tally was that 42 percent believed the alien vid-record was genuine, and 33 percent believed it was a computer-generated fraud, either by the aliens or the government. They gave myriad reasons for the suspected fraud, spun claims of truly amazing conspiracies, and published books for centuries supporting their claims.

Norman was among the remaining 25 percent who believed that there was a zero possibility of ever finding out. He became a vid-celebrity, then went on speaking tours until he tired of fame and bought a large retirement yacht. Norman and his yacht disappeared south of Maupiti in the Leeward Islands in the Typhoon of 2057.

The aliens never returned. The galaxy is a big place.

Tom Sekibo made a fortune then lost it all in questionable ventures that never paid off. He was convicted of felonious acquisition and spent a short stint in federal prison. Ellen Sandoval went on to become the CEO of Virgin Space Systems and before she retired, pushed for starting construction on Earth’s first interstellar spacecraft.

As the aliens had promised, within a year the quantum modem was working and humankind logged on to become a probationary member of the galactic community. Within a few years the memblobs were decoded and humanity’s computers, using sentient chips, were conscious—or at least stubbornly claimed to be—much to the annoyance of some.

Humanity soon learned how to build starships, even better and faster than the ones the aliens had used, and spread out into the galaxy.

Everyplace humanity went, they found smug self-indulgent cats that had preceded them by over a century. Cats and fine mechanical watches, in fact, had become the galactic coin-of-the-realm. Fine mechanical wristwatches remained the chief medium of exchange long after the galaxy became saturated with cats.

Meow. infinity

Eric M. Jones is the Contributing Editor of “Perihelion.” He is an engineer, designer, consultant, and entrepreneur, currently working in his Internet business PerihelionDesign, designing, building and selling unique products, parts and materials for people in the home-built experimental aircraft community.


once crowded sky