Private Constellations

Entry
1.024
June 28, 2021
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Meri was a doodler. She couldn’t help it.

Everyone else seemed to do OK thinking all their thoughts in their heads, but for Meri, a blank page was like an extension of her mind. A place to put her thoughts in the form of little cartoons, using a visual shorthand she’d refined over the years. She wasn’t too picky about her canvas, she’d doodle on paper, canvas, clay, sand, and in the case of her current environment, windows.

Windows were a particular delight, because they came with an implicit challenge. Incorporate the scene beyond the plane into the design. With most other mediums, every detail came from Meri. But with a window, it was a collaboration between her markers and the world on the other side. Here in the fleet, the windows offered a spectacular view, though a pretty monotonous one. The sky out here was vast, deep, and full of glittering stars and galaxies. With no local star dominating the scene, there was nothing but infinite star sea in every direction.

But since all the stars were so far away, they didn’t really move from day to day. The fleet was effectively stationary, as much as it could be with limited reference points and fritzing sensors. So the windows had the same view. Which led to Meri’s recent mega-doodle. A series of tall windows along a lesser-used walkway on the Chrome Cinnamon. They were perfectly faced away from the fleet and the thruster array, providing a large star canvas for her to play with.

Staring out at so many stars, she embraced the childlike wonder of it all. It was easy to take for granted out here in the fleet, but she new how to dive deep and stir up those old feelings of awe. From when they first left the atmosphere. Or even further back, when she camped out in the desert with Tam. Staring at the stars for hours, trying to coax her mind into accepting the scale of things. Dreaming about what mysteries lurk around those shining specks. Boggling over the distances, and how long these photons must have traveled to be seen together here.

Before long, an old instinct kicked in, and she started grouping the stars into shapes, constellations. As soon as she connected the first set of glowing dots into a loose skeleton of a duck, she knew she was on the right path. Sketching in detail around it, she smiled, and realized all the best constellations had names. Tam, she scribbled beneath it, The Far Seeing Duck.

The next few hours dissolved into a blur as Meri worked her way across the stars, filling the windows with constellation diagrams and names. Varuk, the Resting Cobra. Sakaal, the Watchful Lemur. Minna, the Ox Goddess of Weather. Pak, the Curious Jellyfish. Before too long, all 5 windows were full of her new pantheon of celestial beings.

When it was done, she stood back taking it all in. The fleet’s position was a lonely one, which meant that this particular view of the universe was unique. No one anywhere else would see the stars quite like this, the arrangements she made were particular to this obscure time and position in the universe.

She thought back to the constellations she knew from Earth. The Sheng Xiao, the Zodiac, the Sidereal, all beautiful reckonings of astronomy, mathematics, and human imagination. The private astrology she has illustrated on these windows is another step in a long tradition of pattern-matching. But none of her predecessors had the luxury of changing their position like the fleet can. The thought of exploring constellation making as a progressive medium was suitably subversive and deeply alluring to her artistic mind.

Preferring subtlety to bravado, it was another week before word began to spread of her new creation. Before long though, it was a cultural sensation. First was the steady stream of curious Fritzers coming to see what the buzz was about. Then the writers took up the call to flesh out the new mythos. In typical Fleet fashion, the new stories were synthesized combinations of “Old Culture” tropes and surrealist humor.

But the moment Meri truly felt successful was when she started to see new constellations on different windows throughout the fleet. Seeing her spark of inspiration reflected in the minds of the creative community filled her with a deep sense of belonging. We may be the only ones out here, she thought, but at least we’re out here together.

The Fritz Fleet Uniform

Entry
1.023
May 30, 2021
Audio reading available.
1.023
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Welcome to the Fleet

I asked the immensely talented Rylan Woodrow to envision the Fritz Fleet uniform, and they knocked it out of the park. Take a look!

There's a lot of detail tucked into the design.

  • The uniforms used to be for the Andromeda Ambassador Fleet. When the fleet changed their name, they removed the old AAF insignias. See the patches in the arms, and of course the new logo stitched in on the breast.
  • The sketch in the upper right corner shows a hidden feature of the uniforms. The collar can expand to form a quick helmet to give fleet members protection from environmental danger.
  • The puffy orange padding around the suit is a specialized polymer that stiffens in response to sudden force, giving fleet members a bit of defense in an emergency. In it's relaxed state, it is soft and comfortable.
  • The grey fabric is a flexible weave that can be tightened with an electric impulse, becoming watertight at a moment's notice.
  • The gold sun belt design is a reminder of Sol, the home sun of the fleet.

This art was commissioned from Rylan Woodrow for Fritz Fleet.

Want to see more of Rylan's amazing work, or commission some art for yourself?

Go take a look, and share your favorites to your friends!

Do you know a cool artist or creator I should approach for commissions? Let me know!

Twenty Questions

Entry
1.022
May 26, 2021
Audio reading available.
1.022
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It is true that Naomi only took Xenosocial Negotiation at the academy because it fit her schedule and let her keep Wednesdays free.

However, of all the elective courses she took, she had the most fun in "XeNog". A terribly clever instructor developed a rigorous array of games, simulations, and thought experiments related to negotiations with alien intelligences. Riveting debates about the ethics of interstellar trade, examinations of the trapdoors of implied logic, and reviews of countless fictional imaginings written over the years all equipped Naomi with at least a basic framework of talking to aliens.

The entire first month was devoted to the language barrier. As the professor quipped, "Sticking an alien fish in your ear probably won't work out in your favor." Even if proper dialogue was unachievable, basic interactions and transactions may be possible. In fact, these transactions may be the foundation of better opportunities to establish more robust communication.

But this sphere may have some sort of babblefish up it's sleeve, after all. It clearly figured out some basics of human language, enough to greet us and make an offer. Or something like it. The sphere hasn't been forthcoming with details, but to be fair, we haven't responded yet. That's why Naomi was asked to have the conversation.

"Share or Discard?"

What struck Naomi first was the polite nature of the request. In all of the simulations she's played through in the academy, it was taken as a given that information learned would be retained by either side. If the sphere was offering to discard the information about human language it had obtained, that's a pretty respectful display. It can't be inherently trusted, but if it wasn't an option, why pretend?

Implied logical conclusions are self-made chains. The lesson had been hammered over and over. Don't assume that aliens have any common sense. Until we know how they construct truth, we shouldn't be hasty to assume we know what they are thinking.

Discard. Toss away? Could it be a misstated threat? It would be a lot more in line with the simulations. But Naomi never liked those scenarios. A hostile alien would open a conversation with violence, not a dance around language, right? Implied logical yadda yadda..

Best to take it slow, keep it simple, be friendly. Avoid over-commitment.  The council has approved Naomi to make a decision here, but that doesn't mean she has to rush to it. Remember what Suri said, "You're already in the record books." Deep breath.

Naomi approached the sphere.

"Language mapped. Share or Discard?" it asked, in the same steady tone it asked anyone who came near.

"We have questions," Naomi responded.

The sphere flickered with sudden interest. After a brief pause, it said "Questions are favors or interrogations or prayers or quiz show?"

Naomi resisted the urge to chuckle at the last suggestion. We'd like to ask favors, but that's a bit forward for now. Since we're not expecting to encounter any gods out here, that leaves interrogations. That word has some connotations that aren't always pleasant, but does the sphere know that? "Our questions are peaceful interrogations."

"Peaceful accept," the sphere said. "Boundary required, accept?"

Naomi considered. Did it mean conversational boundary or physical? Maybe the sphere needs to unfold into something? She was only a meter away from the sphere, but there was room to move if needed. "Define boundary."

"Mapping, unlimited. Discard, unlimited. Share, limited. Owner, limited. Network, off-limit. Archive, off-limit. Oracle, off-limit. Accept boundary?"

Naomi's eyes lit up at the peak into the sphere's internal taxonomy. Network, Archive, Oracle? So many exciting trails, even if they are closed for now. Owner limited, how limited? It'd be nice to know who we're transacting with. And what Share means. But if limited isn't "off-limit", this could be enough to get started.

"We accept. First question, ready?" Naomi winced as soon as the words came out of her mouth. She knew better than to use shorthand grammar like that! OK, shake it off, there's a lot of pressure but no need to freak out over a small mistake.

"Ready is awaiting the first question. Proceed."

Whew, good enough. Things are going well! But what to ask first? Well, let's get the big one out of the way. "Are you peaceful?"

"Peaceful is friendly, kind, non-violent. Yes, I am peaceful."

Naomi appreciated the relational approach to establishing definitions. She should try to emulate it to build a closer connection. "We are peaceful, friendly, kind, non-violent."

"Acknowledged. Ready second question?"

Off to a great start. Time to negotiate! "What is share?"

"Share is give, take, trade, upload, swap, show. Wanting to share language mapping. Ready third question?"

"What is language mapping?" Naomi asked.

The sphere responded "Language mapping is structure, vocabulary, waveforms, interpretation and limited. Ready fourth question?"

"What is discard?"

"Discard is remove, delete, forget, erase, disappear. Ready fifth question?"

So far, no real surprises. Keep steady. "Is share two way, reciprocal, mutual?"

The sphere hesitated. Something about that question wasn't simple, Naomi guessed. Sharing is a tricky concept. "Share is every way, open, public. Ready sixth question?"

Oh. Are there other parties to this transaction? Naomi realized she carried an assumption that this was a single point of contact with another intelligence. But it could just as well be a representative of something more than that. "Will you share with us?" she asked, hoping it wouldn't stumble on the new question format.

"Understanding. Correct. Share is mutual, co-operation, knowledge. Ready seventh question?"

This is a really impressive language processor. It seems like it re-contextualized the previous question in light of the following question, and noted the connection. Naomi's inner data-science nerd was squealing with fascination. "Who is your owner?"

The sphere darkened briefly. "Limited information permission. Owner is peaceful, strong, careful, hidden. Ready eighth question?"

Well, that's what you'd want any new aliens to think, right? You're kind, powerful, and mysterious. Fair enough. "Will we meet your owner?"

The sphere processed for a moment. "After sharing, meeting is possible. Biology complications. Ready ninth question?"

Interesting. Wonder what sort of biology the owners have. That's certainly off-limits for now. Let's circle back for a second.  "Who will we share with?"

"Everyone. All who have shared. Details limited. Ready tenth question?"

Oh. Really? "How many civilizations have shared?"

The sphere dimmed slightly. "Many. Details limited. Ready eleventh question?"

Many. This isn't just an offer from one civilization, it's an offer to connect to some kind of language translation network. The possibilities nearly overwhelmed Naomi. She took a deep breath to steady herself. She might be negotiating the most significant information trade in human history. No need to rush. "Can you explain why the details are limited?"

This time the sphere took several seconds and shifted in hue before answering. "Limit extends from Philosophy, Memory, Programming. This machine has sub-mind: language not knowledge. Protections against violence, hacking, spoiler alerts. Ready twelfth question?"

Naomi could barely believe it. Did this machine just explain an intergalactic spoiler policy? It made some sense, if you're sending a.. language probe?.. out to learn languages, maybe it's best to save the wiki swapping until actual communication is established. So this is sort of like an opt-out First Directive? If we want to go it on our own, we can just ask to be ignored. It was a respectful gesture, but Naomi wondered how likely it was that would last in practice.

But let's be real, Naomi already knew she wanted this. Who wouldn't? A language interface for intergalactic communication? An alien Rosetta stone? How could she say no? Every major advancement in human culture has been on the backs of expanded communications capabilities. From writing to printing to the internet to the commlink.

She hesitated. The flip side of that story is that the parts of civilization that pioneered new forms of communication had a bad habit of dominating the cultural exchange, leading to all sorts of atrocities. If we open ourselves up to a whole universe of other civilizations, ones who've maybe been at this for a lot longer than us, we'll be the culturally disadvantaged ones. Can we withstand the pressure of not just one alien culture, but multiple? Are we offering ourselves up as an easy mark?

Or is it anthropocentric to project human corruption on our intergalactic neighbors? On this, Naomi felt woefully unequipped. The sphere represented her only encounter, presumably, with alien intelligence. It's been reasonably coherent. Despite minor grammar roughness and a few idiosyncrasies, the sphere is making sense. That suggests there's at least some shared logic. And it's offering to be the translator for the rest. Or is it?

"What happens after sharing?" Naomi asked.

"Language mappings are synchronized, uploaded, made available" the sphere responded. "Ready thirteenth question?"

"How are language maps made available to us?" Naomi asked, hoping to get to the heart of her question.

The sphere replied "Technological interface. This machine will interpret until you build language circuits. Ready fourteenth question?"

Good, no fish in our ears. And it sounds like there will be at least some tech trade involved, a chance to learn how the more experienced civilizations do communication. It's sounding like a good deal, but Naomi still wants to be thorough.

"Is sharing dangerous?"

Apparently, this was a tricky question. The sphere flickered rapidly for a few seconds before answering. "Knowledge is safe. Communication is uncertain. Ready fifteenth question?"

Fine. The sphere doesn't want to guess what will happen when we start talking with others. Maybe there's another way to approach the issue. "Are we in danger here?"

Another flickering pause. "Danger is fear, risk, loss. You are not in danger here, now. Ready sixteenth question?"

Another shallow answer. Naomi didn't let her frustration show. "Are we near any wars that might endanger us."

The very mention of the word "war" turned the orb to a dark blue hue. "Details limited" it replied coldly. "Permission to question?"

Naomi perked up with curiosity. "Ready question" she said, imitating the sphere's broken grammar.

"Do you wage war?" the sphere asked.

A chill raced down Naomi's spine.  Humans have an embarrassingly long history with war. The world the fleet left behind was closer to peace than it had been in the centuries and millennia prior, enough to launch an international exploration fleet at great cost. But still, squabbles over power and resources always bubbled under the surface, and Naomi couldn't confidently say that humans had finished with war.

Even the fleet had weapons. She'd never looked too much into the details, but she remembered a few training sessions at the Academy going over the fundamentals of zero-gravity weapon usage. Most of it was horrifying explanations of just how fragile these floating tin cans were in the face of focused destruction. Maybe the point of those lessons was to discourage violent engagements. If so, it worked, at least for Naomi. Still, the fleet was armed, regardless of how peaceful we say we are.

How does she put all that into an answer? Will the sphere keep up with the nuance? What happens if she answers wrong. Has her curiosity put the trade in jeopardy? Don't panic, she thought, it's just a question. "Humans on Earth have waged war. Humans in space, here, desire only peace." She hoped that was good enough.

"Recorded. Ready for question seventeen?"

Naomi wasn't sure if that was a good sign or not. She had the sinking feeling that something was just put on humanity's permanent record. But at least the conversation wasn't over. She didn't totally blow it. Hopefully.  Maybe she can turn the tables? "Do you wage war?"

"No" the sphere responded immediately. "This machine specializes in language. Ready for question eighteen?"

Oops. She left it an easy out. "Do your owner's wage war?"

The sphere returned to its dark blue color. "Limited information permission. Ready for question nineteen?"

Oh right. Trying to backdoor around the restrictions was a pretty silly idea. If Naomi, or the fleet, wants to know who sent this sphere, she'll have to agree to share language mappings.  Deep down, she knew she wanted to make the trade. When were they going to get such an offer again? If she turns it down, what would a better offer look like? It was hard to imagine a more amicable exchange. "Are there any costs to us you haven't disclosed?"

"The cost is your language mapping" the sphere replied. "Ready question twenty?"

Naomi nodded, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Even with all of these reassurances, it was still daunting to announce humanity to everyone out here, whoever that might be. It felt a lot like her first day at the academy, stepping into a space full of knowledge, wonder, mystery, and lots of strangers.

"I think we are ready to share," Naomi announced. "How do we start?"

The orb shimmered with swirls of green and gold. "Understood. Initiating network link. Requesting permission to boot full brain, please authorize."

Oh, is that what limited meant? The device is in a low-power state? Very interesting, she'll have to ask about that later. Well, no point in holding back now. "Permission granted, but please don't tap the power lines without further permission."

"Acknowledged. Power lines unnecessary. Please wait for reboot." The sphere dimmed to a dull amber, then filled with a cloudy gas. Flashes of storm-like flickerings lurked deep within the haze, moisture beaded along the inside of the shell, and then the sphere began to spin. Slowly at first, but accelerating to a speed that made Naomi a bit nervous.

With a sudden loud clap, a burst of light, and a wretched mechanical screech, the sphere came to a nearly instant stop. All of the momentum it had built up soaked down into the haze and fluids built up inside the shell. In a process she found hard to understand, internal bits of haze crystallized and channeled the fluids in complicated internal aqueducts that would make Escher dizzy. The glow subsided back to a comfortable blue.

"Thank you, Naomi. I'm now operating in full capacity" the sphere announced, in a new Irish timbre. Naomi was stunned at the sudden eloquence. "Please give me a short bit to set up my network connection and inform my owners of your decision. I know you have a lot of questions still left, and I'm sure soon you'll have at least a few answers. But I am still permissions bound until my owners agree to grant you greater network access."

"Um.. yes, that's fine, of course." Naomi gathered herself up. "Can I know who your owners are now? It would mean a lot to the fleet to have a name."

"Certainly. In your naming style, you can call my owners the Raxxians."

"Raxxians! Like the cabbagesteak!" Naomi hadn't tried the dish herself, but she'd heard a podcast about it's mysterious origins. Was it really an alien dish? How did that happen?

"Yes," the sphere said cautiously. "I need to apologize for that. I think I may have polluted your food archives when I arrived. A small glitch, nothing to mention to anyone."

Did the sphere just ask her to keep a secret? Naomi would have to think that through later, for now she politely changed the subject. "Well, we look forward to meeting the Raxxians. Let me know if you need any supplies."

"I'm well equipped, but I would recommend you begin fabrication of high-grade earplugs for the entire fleet."

"Earplugs? Why?"

"Like I said before. Biological incompatibilities. The Raxxians are quite a bit louder than you are accustomed to."

"Really? Are they much larger than us?" Naomi asked, picturing bellowing giants.

"Slightly larger. Just much, much louder. Like usual."

"What do you mean?"

"Frankly, you humans are the quietest things I've ever heard speak. My report identifies you as Humans, the fleet of curious whispers."

Naomi wasn't really sure how to take that. It didn't sound mean, but in all of her wildest dreams, she'd never imagined that space was going to be too loud for humans.

Good Duration Memes

Entry
1.021
May 19, 2021
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1.021
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Intervention of the Sphere

Entry
1.020
May 14, 2021
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1.02
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We don't know exactly when it showed up.

It seems like the sort of thing someone would notice, a meter-wide sphere, floating about ankle-high off the floor. Inside, a hazy swirl of cloudy gasses with a dimly flickering inner core. However, the first reported sighting of the sphere occurred in the cold storage bay aboard the Sodium Compass when it was found patiently waiting to be let through a door. How long had it been there, waiting to come out?

Well, after that point, it didn't seem to have any further trouble with our doors. I think it learned how to imitate a crew badge signal. Then again, we've seen it on three ships now, and there's no way it rode a transfer shuttle between them. So maybe it stayed behind the door because it didn't understand that a door represented hidden space. It's hard to say, we almost never see it moving. When we do, it's pretty quickly, and surprisingly quiet. Usually though, it just sits somewhere out of the way and.. I don't know, watches? Listens?

Obviously everyone has theories, and of course the most popular is that it's alien. I'm not so sure, I wonder if it's a prank by a bored engineer. And of course, it could be some new sort of Fritz. They've been pretty localized so far, not moving like this sphere, but it's not like we have any idea what causes them. Whatever it is, it didn't seem too interested in telling us. It doesn't give off any radiation that we can detect, and doesn't seem hostile. If you yell at it, it will scurry off and hide. But we haven't seen anything that even looks kind of like a weapon or a defense.

-----

I think it's pretty obvious it's a prank now.

Today it allegedly spoke! A scientist was observing it on the Compass, and recorded the first known sound from the sphere. I listened to the recording. It's a human voice saying "Good duration!" I don't know what that's supposed to mean, but it's got to be something a human came up with. It sounds like the kind of pseudo-mysterious gibberish you'd find in a teaser for some ARG back on earth. I'm not getting too invested at this point. But I do have to admit, prank or not, this is one of the more entertaining things to happen to the fleet.

Oh, but the memes are great. "Good Duration!" has become a great punchline. As you probably guessed, a meme-cult sprout up casting the sphere as a divine prophet. When it finally spoke, that crowd just went nuts. It's their go-to greeting in the halls now, "Good duration!" It's kinda like that "Happy Morning!" trend from a few years ago. There's a series of memes making the round right now that border on the surreal, but all feature the Sphere bellowing its now famous first words. It's hard to describe, but I can't stop laughing about them. It makes me miss how vibrant the meme culture was on Earth. We try to keep the spirit alive out here, but this has been the first time we've really had a hot topic to rally around for fun. I'll try to get some together to send in a media package soon.

-----

OK, hear me out. It could definitely still be a prank, but I'm starting to wonder who would take it this far.

The sphere spoke again. "Language mapped. Share or discard?" Tell me that doesn't sound like an alien translator AI. Not that I've ever met any, but it makes sense at least. We can't expect alien intelligence to share a language with us. For a long time, futurists have speculated that interstellar communication would require "translation interfaces", computers or AI that build up an ad-hoc communication protocol starting with basic signal patterns, eventually working up to a logical mapping of the shared parts of it's home language and any new language it encountered. There were designs for such devices in the labs here, though none really ready for production. Until we knew the nature of the aliens we'd encounter, it seemed silly to commit to a final form factor. Anyways, what if that's what this sphere is, from the other side? It's been watching us for a few weeks now, soaking up our words and behaviors. Maybe "Good duration" really was an attempt at a greeting?

Per council order, we've decided not to respond actively quite yet. If this is an alien asking for permission to translate for us, we could be looking at one of the biggest moments in human history. But maybe a dangerous one too. This sphere slipped right into the transport bubble, and seems to move about the ships without restriction. A civilization that can do that is probably more sophisticated than we are. We're having a vote in the morning about how to respond, but at this point everyone's getting excited. I don't think there's really that much interest in "discard". But we still want to go over basic approaches and have a few plans for what comes next.

If this turns out to be a prank, whoever's behind it is really putting their reputation on the line. It just seems too complicated, and too important of a thing to joke with at this scale. I'm sure we'll find out tomorrow, one way or another.

Good Duration!

- Netuno

Raxxian Cabbagesteak

Entry
1.019
May 12, 2021
Audio reading available.
1.019
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Dinner's ready!

A dish of strange food, looking somewhere between pancakes, mashed potatoes, and a garnished steak.

I asked andirkz what Raxxian Cabbagesteak might look like, and he whipped up this tasty dish. Is it meat? Is it mush? Are those leaves? Despite all the unknowns, it kinda looks tasty.

Go check out andirkz profile, enjoy his art, and consider him when you need some great art quick!

Do you know a cool artist or creator I should approach for Fritz Fleet commissions? Let me know!

Same Hulls, Same Halls

Entry
1.018
May 10, 2021
Audio reading available.
1.018
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Dejana walked the hall from her bunk to the starboard lounge.

Officially, there wasn't a day and night cycle aboard the fleet. For convenience, the 24 hour day cycle was maintained, kept in sync by a quantum clock aboard the Thruster Array hub. Social scientists expect the crew to shift their sleep schedules around over time so that a roughly steady number of crew members are awake at any given time.

But for now, most of the crew still slept in the familiar hours, settling in around 21:00. Here at 02:00, Dejana couldn't hear footsteps in either direction. She closed her eyes, and let her mind maintain the scene. She paced through it confidently, turned the corner with almost no hesitation. She'd walked this path at least a couple of times every day since launch, she knew it well. She stopped, eyes still closed, and pointed. If she was on target, she'd be pointing right at the synth-fuchsia on the small table, the sparse bit of décor that hinted to passerby's that the lounge was nearby.

Keeping her eyes shut, she remembered what she'd read about blind folk using sound to navigate. She snapped with her spare hand and tried to imagine the sound echoing around the room. Snap... snap... snap. With a slow breath, she admitted to herself the snaps weren't really helping. Only one thing left to do.

She opened her eyes, and her finger was pointed right at the flower. But instead of the usual rush of success, she'd grown familiar with, this time she was left disappointed. Her memory and accuracy were as sharp as ever, but recently she'd been hoping for... well, something new. Something different.

Here she was, aboard one of the most sophisticated ships humanity has ever built, thousands of light-years away from home, and Dejana managed to be bored.

But who could blame her? Things didn't change on board a spaceship. They reached a nice boring equilibrium and just stay that way.

Inside the long, Dejana brought up the menu for the food console. Call her old-fashioned, but announcing her meal selection to the room to make use of the voice recognition always seemed unnecessary. Paging through with the touchscreen to find something she hadn't tried before, she grew dismayed at how deep into the library she had to dig.

Past the paella, scrolling by som tam, after the arepas and chiles and curries galore, something surprising caught her eye. "Raxxian Cabbagesteak". Raxxian? Dejana couldn't remember what kind of cuisine was called Raxxian. And come to think of it, she wasn't really even sure what a cabbagesteak was.

She tried to imagine how to grill a cabbage like a steak, then imagined how to slice a steak like cabbage slices. Either way, she figured, it sounded interesting enough to try. And more importantly, it was new. She stopped for a second to savor the feeling. It was bittersweet, while she was thrilled imagining what might come out of the food console, she worried there weren't too many more surprises left like this to find.

She punched in the order and tried to temper her expectations. Just because it was new, doesn't mean it'll be good, she reminded herself. Memories of a school trip to Norway and a dare involving lutefisk came to mind. For just a moment, she was back there, proudly holding the can, sure that the stores wouldn't sell it if it wasn't tasty. She shakes away the daydream before it can reach its gut-churning climax. Poutine was great though, remember?

The food consoles were usually pretty quick. The computers were quite good at synthesizing solutions for heating and cooling processes that would usually take hours. But in this case, Dejana couldn't help but notice the dish was barely beginning to materialize, a couple of minutes after she expected it to be done. What did this cabbagesteak require that slowed the machine down so much. Whatever it was, not knowing left her salivating.

With a characteristic chirp, the machine finished its hard work. Opening the door, Dejana was greeted with a peculiar sweet aroma undercut by something she couldn't say was far off from a tire fire. The "steak" didn't look like beef, or pork, or lamb, or any other meat she could identify, but it wasn't quite plant-like either. Puzzled, but ever optimistic, she carried it to a nearby table and began the task of making a brand new memory.

Once a Fluke, Twice a Pattern

Entry
1.017
May 6, 2021
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1.017
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"Another Skitter!" Sa- announced.

-Karn continued, "It's that same one from before, out in the Jingg Sectors. This time it went a lot farther. And this direction."

"Discovery!" Rim shouted. -Magua hesitated, "Let's not jump to conclusions. It is hard to deny that a two step jump like that looks like intentional navigation."

"New Mission?" Jen- asked. -Raka follwed, "Are we going to investigate?"

"YES!" Rim- declared. -Magua agreed, "Protocol is pretty clear. Especially if there's a chance it's headed this way. Sa-Karn, prepare the report. Jen-Raka, give us an approach. Three hops, so we can track them if they move again."

The crew got to work while the captain configured their comms channel for a full-ship announcement. "This is Captain Rim-Magua. Our signals have detected activity in a previously dark sector. Per the Explorer's Pledge, we are both duty-bound and honored to investigate this mystery. It is time to brush up on First Encounter Protocol, and make preparations for a three-hop jump. As always, the safety of the crew and this vessel we share remains my top priority. Please remember, communication about first contact scenarios should be limited to approved channels until the official report is released. Keep your top lips tight, but this could be our way to earning Presence. Jump in 2 days. Captain out."

Popping the Bubble

Entry
1.016
May 4, 2021
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1.016
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"We can't just disconnect the thrusters.

I mean, yes, we can probably stop power to them, if we figure out where to store the drive core output. But it's not just a matter of power. In their non-thrusting state, the Pak Array maintains the transport bubble. We don't want to pop the bubble without thinking it through."

"OK. I'll be honest, engineering wasn't my best class in school. Explain the bubble to me."

"So you have the thruster array at the head of the fleet, right? Big round spindly thing, fun to look at. That's where all the energy, jump navigation, and thrusters are housed. It's the tugboat for the whole fleet. When we spin it up, it starts generating the Pak field."

"Jeez, Pak really named everything after himself, didn't he?"

"Sort of. Believe it or not, there were two Paks working together on these discoveries. Jeung Pak named the thruster array after his partner, Namgung Pak. While Jeung worked on scaling up the array, Nemgung focused on the energy field it produced. In her first paper, she named it the Pak field, after her partner Jeung. From there, it kind of snowballed into a big inside joke for engineering nerds."

"Wow. I had no idea."

"Anyways, the Pak field is sort of like a membrane of energy. It inflates out from the thruster array, kind of like blowing a soap bubble from a wand. We call this the transport bubble. You probably remember seeing the "northern lights" when we first spun it up."

"Yeah, that was the first moment I really felt like this whole trip was real."

"It is really pretty to watch. As it expands, it makes contact with the ships in the fleet. Each one carries a Pak anchor, usually somewhere back in the engine bay. It's just some fancy matter that makes a disturbance in the Pak field, so it's easy to detect. The thruster than focuses essentially a tractor beam to each anchor. Some fancy signal interference expands that focal point to encompass the whole ship."

"That makes the jellyfish shape I always see, right?"

"Yeah, the thruster array is the head, and the Pak tethers are like the tentacles. The transport bubble grows in a shape like a grape, and with all the tethers and ships inside. Once every ship is covered and all the tethers are secure, we can freeze the field. That was the part they had to close the observation decks for, it's too bright to look at. We dump so much energy into the Pak field it essentially crystallizes. At that point, everything is locked in position relative to the Array. So when the thrusters thrust, we get carried along."

"So the bubble keeps us all together?"

"Yeah, and it also has some strange interactions with gravity and momentum. The crystallization I mentioned is a feat of metamaterials wizardry. Honestly, I barely understand it myself, but external forces are mostly ignored within the bubble. So when we go billions of miles per hour, we don't turn into paste."

"But we still have to use jumpfluid because of the acceleration."

"Well, yeah. The bubble isn't totally opaque to external force, it's really a lot more complicated. Someone explained it once like some kind of lens distortion like everything is stretched out of scale, but the math got too confusing pretty quickly. We experience just a fraction of the forces we'd encounter if we were using conventional thrust. Those ratios are part of why we planned dozens of jumps along the way to Andromeda. Even with the bubble, we can't go too far in one jump or the forces that make it through the bubble will still break us."

"Alright. So we use the bubble while we're jumping to stay safe and stay together. But what's wrong with turning it off now, or popping it as you say."

"It's not that we can't do it, it's that once we do, it's slow to set back up. Forming the bubble and the tethers takes a while, a few hours at least, but gathering up the energy to crystalize it is another story. Back home, the first time we did this, we had the benefit of a nearby sun. It was pretty easy to harvest a bunch of solar to supplement the reactor output. Out here, we have to build it up ourselves. That's a process that will take about a week."

"Oh. So a week to build up the energy, then a few hours to establish all the tethers and crystalize the field. But, I mean, we're in deep space, what's the rush?"

"Right now? No rush. But we don't know what's out here in the Fritz. If something scary shows up, do you want to wait a week to be able to move?"

"No, I suppose not. But we aren't really expecting to encounter aliens, are we? I mean, we all got those long lectures about the Fermi Paradox and not getting our hopes up."

"Sure. It seems unlikely there's alien civilization hanging out this close to Earth. But it's also unlikely that our thrusters would start up all on their own. Or that missing cat with all the clones. Or the green engines. We clearly don't know what it's actually like out here. So our assumptions about the Fermi Paradox need to be re-examined. I'm not saying there are certainly evil mean aliens here that want to hurt us. I'm just saying if we see some aliens, I'd like to know we could jump before we find out if they are mean."

"I see. I guess that makes sense. But the alternative is to leave the thrusters primed, right?"

"Yep. Whatever caused them to jump before could cause them to jump again."

"Arbitrary distances, in unexpected directions. We'll be fully lost with only a few more jumps like that. If we don't wind up in the right patches of sky, we're literally off the charts."

"Yeah, but that's where explorers are supposed to go, right? Off the map, beyond the charts. Seems to me that getting a bit lost along the way is just part of the territory."

"But what good is getting lost if you don't find your way back home?"

"Let's be real. We were never going home. You know that, right? The 'Return Clause' is basically toothless, even more so now that we aren't going to Andromeda. The only thing headed back to Earth is whatever we upload through the commlink."

"Speaking of which, what's your engineer opinion on Commlink Earth?"

"I can tell you all about a planet's orbit based on Newtonian physics, no sweat. But once planets get out of alignment, that might as well be the territory of astrologists."

"Not even a guess?"

"Honestly, it creeps me out, and I don't like thinking about it. I mean, say somehow that's really Earth. It got sucked up and flung across the galaxy with us. What about the rest? The other planets. The sun? A planet chasing us on a leash isn't a healthy planet, it's a dying one at best. Fatally cold and losing temperature quickly. Let's hope that's not the case."

"We got the letter from them."

"Yeah, about a week after the first jump. More than enough time to freeze to death, and they didn't. So what does that leave us with? What scenario can be so convincing to our commlink to fake a back-and-forth data connection to a whole planet? Or what insane reality breaking are we doing by maintaining the commlink. Have we built a communication wormhole? Or is it just a bug that our best scientists can't crack? None of these outcomes fills me with hope."

"You're right. That isn't fun to think about."

"What if the bubble is maintaining the connection, somehow? Every other force that passes through gets distorted. Maybe the Fleet bubble is working as a giant megaphone for interstellar communication?"

"Do you think that's true?"

"I don't know. But it's another good reason to keep the bubble in place, at least while we figure things out."

"Hmm.. Alright. I'm convinced. The bubble should stay up. I'll do my best to explain why to the operations council. I still think it'd work better coming from you though."

"You know how I get. Too many people looking at me, I just shut down. I can't present in front of a council, let alone Operations. I'm itchy just imagining it."

"That's fair. I guess I'll have to do my best. Do you think they'll listen?"

"Oh, almost certainly not."

Two-Thousand Four Hundred and Seventy Four

Entry
1.015
April 15, 2021
Audio reading available.
1.015
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The human mind is not well equipped to handle large numbers.

We rely on abstractions and tools to help us keep track of scale. And while we've accomplished an incredible amount as a species, sometimes that just means we don't really appreciate the large numbers we talk about.

2,474 lightyears is one of those numbers. It's an insane amount of distance to comprehend. More than you and everyone you know will travel over land in your entire life, cumulatively, by several orders of magnitude. Even attempts to rationalize how much distance those numbers represent require other large numbers.

It's 14,544,000,000,000,000 miles. That's 14.5 quadrillions as if that makes it any more intuitive. 23 quadrillion kilometers. But we don't practically use quadrillions much, it's just a big number. It just means "more than you'll ever need to count".

Let's try it another way. When you look up to the stars on a clear night on Earth, out in the countryside where you can find real dark, you're seeing a collection of galaxies, shining nebula, and of course a few actual stars. But only the close ones. The nearest, Alpha Centauri, is a bit over 4 LY away from our sun. Any star farther than about 2,000 lightyears just isn't casting enough light for us to see it from Earth. Beyond that, we can only make out larger clusters like galaxies.

Imagine that sometime in the Classical Era of Rome, around 500 BC, a particularly lucky photon bounces off the polished headpiece of some extravagant merchant, and begins a journey out to space.

Traveling at lightspeed, it would wander through the dark for ages. Through the rise of agriculture, the foundations of most scientific practices, the entirety of the ages of castles and sails, through industrialization, through globalization, through the dawn of the computing age, and all of the time spent planning and building the Fritz Fleet, this lonely photon would drift through empty space.

2,474 Earth years later (plus or minus 60), it just might bump into humanity one more time, as it crosses our path.  That's how far from home we are. It's a good thing photons don't get embarrassed though because we made that trip in one minute. 67 seconds, as far as we can figure. That's just shy of 7 billion miles per hour. Congratulations, crew, you're among the fastest moving humans in all of history.

As you may have guessed, this means we can't see our own sun from here. If this jump is like the last one, we can't rely on simple math to tell us where we landed either. We should be able to find some familiar stars, ones that both Earth and the Fleet are within visual range of. Once we do, we can reorient and figure out where specifically we are. Until then, I recommend a trip to an observation deck, because we're seeing new stars.

Many of you know a larger number, one that was very important to all of us. 2.5 million lightyears.

The distance to Andromeda. The distance this fleet was built to travel. Compared to that, our 2,474 hop is small. In this you can take comfort, we were designed to travel this far. We knew we'd be farther from home than this. All of our critical systems are intact. Well, other than jump navigation.

Finally, some of you might be wondering about our commlink to Earth. I was too, so I spoke with Salina from Communications. What she shared was no less surprising to hear the second time, Earth appears to be 20 LY behind us, according to the still active commlink. I will refrain from drawing conclusions about what this means until our scientists spend some time with it.

So there you have it. We just took a dive into the deep dark, with our eyes closed and only half a map, and now we swim among strange stars. A few relative hours ago, I was gripped with panic as we all rushed to strap in for an unexpected jump. But standing here now, 2,474 lightyears away with no reported injuries, no damaged hulls, and a curious universe spread out in front of us, I can't think of any place in the universe I'd rather be.

Forge the Fritz!

-Ivett Biskup,

Navigation Officer, Granite Charm