Sci-Fi: Unexpected Desirable Outcome

Paul Pepera

Unexpected Desirable Outcome

They’d let him name his ship. He picked “Hope”, after the virtue and after his sister. Translating Hope into Galactistandard was difficult, but they’d settled on “Unexpected Desirable Outcome.” A few alien consultants politely pointed out that if you didn’t expect an outcome, your prediction system was poor. Why would you admit that? But Wyatt liked the self-effacing implications.

UDO, his custom-trained voice assistant, woke him up three hours early with a non-emergency tone. He stuck an arm out of his sleeping sack and tapped at the nearest screen. A long transmission in Galactistandard appeared. An open broadcast, but it specifically named his vessel, along with every other vessel in system. The automatic parser had run into real trouble. Large portions of the message were highlighted in speculative yellow, and a few clauses weren’t translated at all. Wyatt switched to the raw Galactistandard, sighed, and got to work.

‘Hzoc’ is the species name. “Explorer Individual Hzoc Letien” right, that’s odd. Starts with a disclaimer, Request, no consequences. So even reading this doesn’t require a response of receipt. Dum dum dum dum... Request assistance... what’s this word? I’ll come back to it. Request assistance something something something manipulator size.... under 154cm total... I think that’s followed by...

Thirty minutes later, with a great deal of cross-checking, Wyatt worked it out.

Medical assistance. Hzoc Letien is in medical distress and needs help. The issue is on the upper side of its body. The issue is physical in nature. The issue will kill them. The issue is not complex. Further instructions can be provided,” Wyatt summarized aloud.

The Orlo vessel Large Reflective Grub, the scout ship that had picked up his Hitchhiker Waiver and hauled him into this system, had already responded. “Reply: unable to assist. Clarification: regret.” Wyatt stared at the word.

Galactistandard did not make regret easy. If you took the time to respond to a message that did not ask for a response, said you were not going to help, and did not clarify why, then the regret was built into your response. To state it again was, as far as he could tell, an intensifier. Galactistandard was a language, not a physical law, and species used it in different ways. Even if the Orlo could help, the Large Reflective Grub was several thousand kilometers away, coasting towards another station in the ring of factories and solar collectors dotting this system's asteroid belt.

Could anyone else help? The Orlo were too far away, and the only other non-automated ship at this station was occupied – or, more accurately was – a hibernating Downlink Ball, waiting to be picked up by another ship in a few decades. Maybe he should have spent some time greeting the Hzoc, but he’d been enjoying a long conversation with the Orlo.

Wyatt opened the file on everything Humanity had recorded about the Hzoc. It wasn’t much. No images. No recorded contact. No connections. No rumours. Their habitability code listed a methane and nitrogen atmosphere at 0.3 bar and 45 degrees C. Not breathable... but workable. He could stick his bare arm into that without any issues, not that he wanted to.

“Reply: Human Explorer Individual Wyatt Anvar. Acceptance: tentative. Request clarification procedure. Request: tutorial. Request: images.” He copied in the standard human wavelength and resolution codes and sent the message. It wasn’t good Galacticstandard, but he hoped it would do.

“Fuck it,” he said out loud. He had no idea how long Hzoc Letien’s medical distress would continue before death, or its equivalent, intervened. They could already be dead. But it was him out there, he’d want to know that someone was at least trying to help. Wyatt brought up a system map. Hzoc Letien was docked to the station, on the same shadowed side but further down. Over a kilometer away. Invisible, at least to his eyes. Wyatt switched to the flight control panel, tapped the “undock and reposition” button, scrolled through the checklist, and confirmed.  

UDO turned off the magnetic plate and automatically pulled through the mooring wire. Wyatt thought about how lucky it was that hadn’t set up umbilicals or a more permanent connection. In under a minute he was free, typing a flight path frantically into the console. Slow, steady, and radar-guided. He locked rotation and distance to the station’s arm and puffed sideways at just over 2 metres per second. Above, blinking through the window, he could see UDO’s navigation light pulsing a general warning signal in Galactistandard. The randomized pause between code-pulses made it impossible to mistake the pattern for light glinting off a rotating ship.

A reply from the Hzoc, and it was a complicated one. Wyatt watched the parser chew on the files. A video! This was something new. He opened the file. The video was low resolution, around twenty seconds (if the parser had calibrated it correctly), and had no sound. A blurry blob in darkness. He fiddled with contrast and brightness settings, then replayed the file. Much better. Hzoc Letien was a green-grey... lump.

What’s the scale? If that’s the interior of the ship, it’d be about the size of a cow. Four limbs? The pod looked just as crowded as UDO, with curved metal panels and soft bundles of who-knows-what. He watched the creature move around the pod, brace itself against the walls, and loop two limbs around something unseen. Whatever it was pulling came free suddenly. The alien flew back. It collided with the edge of an open panel and flung its limbs out in a gesture that Wyatt interpreted as agony. The sharp edge of the panel had gouged a deep wound in the Hzoc’s back. No matter how it positioned its limbs, it couldn’t reach the wounded spot. Wyatt watched the video again. Pull a little too hard and something snaps, he thought. Could happen to anyone.

The message also contained a sequence of black-and-white images, presumably copied from the equivalent of Hzoc anatomy textbook. Lines, diagrams. Instruments. A clamp-like thing with grips like the end of a whisk. A blade. And, astonishingly, what seemed to be sutures. From the images, Wyatt finally acquired a firm sense of the Hzoc’s form. Six limbs, not four. Starfish-like. Two limbs, what Wyatt decided to call a “head” and “tail” were unique. The other four were identical. The four main limbs ended in filaments or ribbons. The underside of the Hzoc’s body didn’t contain a mouth. Not a starfish then, a plesiosaur, with fat flippers and a very short neck and tail.

The creature had no skeleton, just a series of plates along its back, under its skin... or its suit? One or more of those plates had shattered. The sharp edges were, presumably, digging into its flesh every time it moved. Was it just in pain? No, it had mentioned death. Perhaps the injury threatened the bladder system that ran through the creature. A few phrases from the initial message made more sense. The Hzoc were vacuum-adapted. If its skin couldn’t seal, it couldn’t leave its ship. All he needed to do was remove the broken plate or plates, then ladder-stitch the outer layer shut.

Wyatt flipped back through the messages, then spotted a little red warning dot at the end of the Hzoc’s atmosphere list. Methane, nitrogen, formaldehyde, not great, hydrogen cyanide, very bad, and in bright red, chlormethine. He tapped to expand the entry and was greeted with a wall of red text. Blistering. Death. Slow death. Fast death. Horrible full-body symptoms. What sort of insane biology produced chlormethine? The atmosphere code doesn’t list a percentage. Was it trace? A temporary product? Could he count on that?

“No leaks,” he mumbled. “And even if I could get my EVA suit into the Hzoc ship, and it didn’t dissolve or explode, I can’t do surgery with those thick gloves. The robotic arm? Maybe, but it’s not designed for atmospheric use either. I could wrap it in a bag, but then...”

Wyatt sent off another message. “Acceptance: continuation: tentative.” The grammar check lit up in yellow, but he hit the override and plunged on. “Request: time to death.” Galactistandard did not have a lot of room for bedside manner. “Request: tutorial: airlock Hzoc Letian vessel.”

The Hzoc vessel was visible now in the faint glow of UDO’s navigation lights. A long cross-braced arm covered in radiators, and fuel tanks and a nuclear reactor at the far end, with a pressurized grey cylindrical module attached to the station. It was hard to gauge its scale visually, but the screen showed that the pressurized segment alone was three time the size of the UDO. No windows, just the usual collection of lumps and aerials and ports.

“Reply: imprecise estimate: time to death [3 hours],” appeared on the screen, followed by a series of images. Hzoc technical drawings were even less comprehensible than their anatomical drawings, but the airlock seemed to be a sort of sheet or membrane. He’d seen a similar device in training; other species apparently used similar technology. An inch-thick sheet of goop with reinforcing strands running along one direction. Objects could slowly push their way through a sealed slit in the middle of the goop. Contiguous objects only; a pipe would still let all the air out.

The autonavigation system chimed, nulled velocity, checked for anything that might the hull, and carefully swung the UDO’s stern around, dropped and locked the magplate. The suitport was less than 10m from the Hzoc airlock.

“Not bad,” Wyatt said. “I’m here. Now to do something useful. Come on, brain.” He didn’t feel like a steely eyed missile man. He felt helpless and tired and stupid. In order to help, I need to get my arms into that capsule. The airlock design will help. Option 1, I use the EVA suit. Can’t use delicate tools. Wait, I can’t use the Hzoc tools at all, I think. Wrong finger shape.

He tapped out another message. “Inquiry: Hzoc atmosphere biology general react polytetrafluoroethylene, [stainless steel]?” and let the auto-parser chew on the statement for a few moments, converting English nomenclature to grammatical strings of Galactistandard. If Hzoc biology ate teflon, there wasn’t much he could do. Luckily, the response came back negative across the board.

Option 1, he mused. EVA suit arms in a Teflon bag. No dexterity. Option 2, robot arm in a Teflon bag. Even worse. Option 3. Give up. Option 4...

Teflon bag. Why had that popped into my mind all of a sudden? Teflon bag...

“Oh that is dumb,” he said aloud. “That is very, very dumb.”

He opened up the life support menu and initiated a depressurization program, from 1 bar down to 0.6 bar, and with extra oxygen cycled in. He set his EVA suit’s baseline values identically, but with a pure oxygen mix, even though the suit’s systems were currently dormant. As UDO’s fans spun up, he popped open the surgical kit, took out a handful of stainless steel instruments, and stuck them in a plastic pouch.

Sutures, he remembered. What are the chances human surgical thread is compatible with Hzoc biology? Zero. He opened the image of the Hzoc surgical tools, added a marker and boundary box, and sent it back with the note, “Request: make this.” He stuck the bag of instruments in the small sample airlock and cycled it to vacuum.

“Ok, Hzoc Letien, I have a plan,” he said. “Let’s see if I can describe it to you.”

Explaining a plan in Galactistandard had several advantages. It forced Wyatt to examine his assumptions, to check for ambiguities, to go through a procedure step-by-step. He gulped down oxygen-rich air as he typed, trying to push nitrogen out of his body. The plan made several assumptions, including that a species that put a nuclear reactor far away from their living space didn’t enjoy casually bathing in ionizing radiation, that a species that sent over diagrams and videos was, to some degree, sighted, and that Hzoc Letien wouldn’t do something violent or foolish. 

Hzoc Letien accepted, tentatively.


Wyatt opened a storage pouch and drew out one of the extra-large teflon bags stored inside. The bag was milky white, but still translucent between bands of with high-tensile polymer wires. In training, he’d seen one of these bags hold 1 bar of pressure in vacuum. Sealed with the locking plastic flaps and with tape, of course, but it held. If an alien wanted an in-situ sample of something from a pod, but the sample didn’t fit in a vial or jar, then a bag could, in theory, work.

He also grabbed a roll of sealant tape, slapped an anti-nausea patch on his arm, and started UDO on the pre-EVA checklist.

The suitport was a small airlock, bigger than the breadbox-sized sample airlock, and just large enough to fit one very uncomfortable human. The inner door was a plug door, designed to seal under the pressure of air in the pod. The outer door was locked against the back of the EVA suit, and opened inwards, into the tunnel.

Wyatt stuck his head into the space, opened the outer hatch, and began carefully taping the bag to the top of the ring of metal on the back of the EVA suit. He carefully creased the tape with his thumb. No gaps, no air bubbles.

After ten minutes, he retreated, then entered the tunnel and EVA suit feet-first, the correct way, sealing the inner door behind him. Working blindly this time, he taped the rest of the bag to the edge of the suit’s entryway, leaving a gap by his left kidney. Slowly, letting air escape through the gap, he pulled the bag in behind him until it was wedged in the small of his back, then closed the EVA suit’s door. He sealed the last bit of tape, rearranged his arms into their arm-holes, and checked his helmet displays. Everything looked good. Suit pressure of 0.6 bar, pure oxygen mix. “UDO, EVA door seal check,” he said. Servos whined as the door flexed inwards.

“Sealed,” UDO reported. 

“Decouple suitlock,” he said. The bolts around the back of the suit retracted. The inner plate of the door stayed attached to the ship, while the outer plate was attached to his back. He reached over and gently undid the clamp connecting his backpack to the ship, then, with great care, swung it closed. It clicked against his back, and a new set of lights blinked green in his helmet.

He turned and carefully opened the tiny sample airlock and removed the bundle of surgical instruments. Finally, he unclipped the safety line and, with one hand always clinging to part of his ship, climbed down to the enormous trusses that composed the arc of the station. The Hzoc ship isn't to port, he thought, it's up. And up he climbed. He could have pushed off and drifted, but what if he missed, or started to tumble? Even with the gyro in his backpack, it was too great a risk. His maneuvering pack could have puffed him over instantly, but it was another system that could easily fail. Best to minimize the risks, not compound them.

“UDO, cycle the air in the suit. Maintain pure oxygen mix, 0.6 bar,” he said. Better to lose some air and try to get the last bit of nitrogen out of his blood than to die in of a stroke. He could see a faint white cloud in his rearview camera as UDO flushed the suit, the hiss of new air entering, then silence.

The Hzoc ship was lightly textured, as if the outer shielding had been knit from thick wool and then sprayed with white paint. The airlock, or gooplock, was just above the station’s scaffolding, surrounded by the half-embedded rings he’d seen in the diagram. The outer protective door was open, as, to judge by the extremely faint light visible through the rubber-like sheet, was the inner door. Wyatt could see nothing inside the ship.

“UDO, switch radio to band 44,” he said. He could try tapping on the hull, but transmitting on the Hzoc’s frequency seemed quicker.

He clicked the press-to-talk button on the front of his suit. “Greetings: formal: Human Wyatt to Hzoc Letien” he said in rapid but carefully enunciated Galactistandard. “Declaration: location of this one is adjacent to airlock. Request: this one enter.

The Hzoc transmitted back and UDO read out the text. “Acceptance.”

Wyatt was surprised to feel a brief flicker of anger. He realized that part of him had hoped the creature would deny entry, or be dead already, or have come up with a better plan, or revealed that this was all a test put on by the Orlo or some other species. He knew it was just part of his mind looking for a way out. No way out now. He could always leave, of course... but who would he be if he left?

He pushed the bag of surgical tools into the goop, marvelling as they sunk through the layer of mysterious gel. Was it biological? Some extremely fancy polymer? The shadows inside the pod shifted.

“Tools,” Wyatt transmitted. No time for grammar.

He turned around carefully, facing his backpack towards the airlock. “UDO, unclip backpack lock,” he said. He swung the backpack away from the suit, locking it to his left in the position normally used for maintenance or docking.

“UDO, hold command. Set the desired pressure of the suit to 0.3 bar pure oxygen, but do not depressurize,” he said. “Repeat that back to me.” UDO dutifully repeated the instruction. “Perform command,” he said, and watched the indicator on his display reset, while the measured pressure remained constant.

Reaching to the bundles of tools on either hip, he clipped his left safety line to one of the rings around the airlock, clipped his right safety line to the opposite side, then repeated the process with his two utility lines.

“UDO. Hold command. Open EVA suit door.”

“Invalid command,” UDO said, “EVA suit is not docked. Opening the EVA suit door will cause the suit to depressurize.”

Oh no it won’t, he thought, because I have a teflon bag. Assuming the tape holds, and that it expands into the airlock, and that the bag doesn’t pop. What a stupid way to die. Here are the mummified remains of Human Explorer Wyatt Anvar. He stuffed himself into a trash bag. We don’t know why. Heh. Heh heh heh. Is this nitrogen narcosis? No, wait, the pressure is dropping, not rising. Get it together.

“Override. Hold command. Open EVA suit door.”

“Override accepted.”

“Request: Imperative: position Hzoc Letien to airlock increase to maximum. Position tools to airlock increase to maximum,” he broadcast.

“Acceptance,” came the response a moment later.

Wyatt pulled his arms out of the gloves and wedged them against his sides, then pulled his head down and hunched over. He wiggled to line himself up with the rearview camera, just barely visible if he looked up and into the helmet. “UDO, perform command,” he grunted.

The door swung open and slammed into the backpack, hard enough to rattle Wyatt’s teeth. He stretched backwards, like swimmer bouncing off the wall of a pool, pushing the bag towards the airlock. Alarms beeped frantically as the pressure dropped like a stone. Wyatt’s left knee flared in agony.

Directed by Wyatt’s arms, the bag slid into the airlock. “UDO override retract all lines,” he said, and the EVA suit’s servos began cranking the braided steel lines back onto their drums, forcing the suit’s entrance flush with the gooplock. “UDO lock lines,” he said, when he felt like he was close enough.

Well this was a fine place to be, he thought. Half in and half out of an EVA suit, bent over backwards, in a bag, in the dark. At least there are no leaks. And I’m alive. Somehow. He could see the Hzoc ship only dimly through the bag and his new mildly bloodshot eyes. Hzoc Letien was flattened against the opposite wall, with the bundle of tools clutched in one set of tendrils.

“Greetings,” Wyatt said aloud. Just in case, he signed with one hand. He suddenly realized that this was probably the first time Hzoc Letien had seen a human. What an awful first impression.

The alien gently cartwheeled around the craft and touched part of a bulkhead. Wyatt couldn’t see what it was doing, but a moment later, a screen lit up, flickered, and settled on a black-and-white Galactistandard pattern. “Greetings.”

Non-vocal then. It might still be able to hear me, since it was able to understand and reply to my radio transmissions. But I can’t help if I can’t see, he thought, and those bumps looks like lights.

 “Request: Increase radiation... blackbody full.” Wyatt said and laboriously signed. I hope that gets the point across.

The soft yellow glow slowly increased. When the pod was bright enough to see details, he said “Acceptance. Inquiry: acceptance.” Best to check if the Hzoc was comfortable.

“Acceptance,” flashed onto the display.

“Request: position Hzox Ld...” he signed, stumbling in his haste, “Request: position Hzoc here.” He wiggled his arms to show his limited range of motion, pinching his fingers together.

The Hzoc was larger than he’d expected, and as its bulk swung over him, he saw that its skin, or whatever coated it, was textured like asphalt. The cluster of red filaments on the end of each of its four legs, or what Wyatt had chosen to call legs, had a metallic sheen and square white tips.

And what was it using as an input device? A keyboard? He squinted at the bulkhead. More like an abacus or the volume dials on the front of my EVA suit. Strings of cylinders, rotating under the tendrils.

There’d be time for questions later. Hzoc Letien carefully positioned itself next to the bag. With the pressure inside the bag the same as the pressure inside the Hzoc vessel, Wyatt could, with great care, pinch and fold the bag enough to use the tools he’d brought over.

One of the Hzoc’s limbs passed over the bag. He saw, but did not feel, the filaments, move across the surface. Incredible control. Wyatt looked again. There was a black globe embedded in the softly tapered end of the limb, just above the tendrils. An eye? And was that little groove a mouth, a chemical sensor pit, or something else? He realized he’d have to revise his mental view of Hzoc anatomy yet again. Focus. Don’t anthropomorphize. See. Don’t project.

The Hzoc positioned itself very carefully, brought the arm with the tool bundle around, disassembled it, and handed a clamp to him. It was clearly reasonably intelligent and able to extrapolate. Wyatt stared at the jagged wound in the creature’s back tried to remember every step of the procedure. He was already sweating in the heat. The suit’s thermal system kept his legs cold, but his face was squished against 45 degree plastic.

It wasn’t difficult, just tedious and slow. The Hzoc’s skin had three layers: leather over rubbery sponge cake over a broken porcelain plate. With claps, forceps, and carefully drilled patience, Wyatt extracted splinters of glass and pushed them towards a waiting arm. Red tendrils caught the pieces and stowed them in a wall pouch.

Another arm passed him a cube of blue fibres, while yet another arm tapped out “Request: to liquid.” Assuming it was a sponge, Wyatt dabbed it along the wound. It seemed to absorb the clear oily fluid and leave behind blue flakes.

In training, he’d performed tasks like this (though perhaps not quite as difficult). He’d trained for frustration. Moving greased marbles with chopsticks. Rewiring a console in a vibrating, tumbling simulator. Mild torture. A hundred tedious, pointless, personalized tasks and tests designed to find and exceed his limits, so he’d learn to recognize and control fatigue, impatience, and fear. 

“Request: tool. Clarification: sharp with long long...” but the alien was already handing him the pre-prepared Hzoc needle and thread. Brass, or maybe a gold alloy? The scale was wrong. It was smaller than expected, and he struggled to use the steel needle holder. His eyes burned with sweat. At least the stitching was easy. The outer skin layer didn’t tear or stretch. All the while, the Hzoc watched with one or more arm-eyes. 

And then, finally, he tied off the last suture and passed back the needle. “Request: inspect this,” he gestured.

“Acceptable,” flashed the display panel. Then, more characters. “Request: place hexagon here.”

What hexagon? But the Hzoc was already extracting a package from a wall pouch. It carefully peeled a large hexagon covered in brown slime from a protective case, handed him a clamp, and positioned the sheet above the wound. Simple enough, he thought, as he did his best to position and smooth the dressing. 

“Request: time to death,” he signed.

The Hzoc shifted away from him. “Reply: unknown,” appeared on the panel.

“Reply: Desirable outcome,” Wyatt signed back, grammar be damned. The Hzoc’s tendrils waved all at once. Wyatt had no idea what that signified.


He caught his breath and considered his next steps. Suddenly, despite the heat and the exertion, his blood turned to ice. He felt sick. He’d made a terrible miscalculation.

With the bag inflated, he couldn’t close the back hatch, and if he couldn’t close the back hatch he couldn’t dock to the suitport. Even if he had the strength to pull the bag back into the suit, it was coated in who-knows-what horrible chemicals from the Hzoc and its atmosphere.

This really had been a stupid idea. He stared at the Hzoc, and it, uncomprehending, stared back at him.

He’d have to leave the bag behind, but the bag was the only thing keeping air in his EVA suit. If he squeezed the door mostly closed, and then disconnected the bag... He was glad he’d laid down the tape stepwise, so it could theoretically be removed in one pull. He’d still have to pass it hand-to-hand, behind his back. Not ideal.

“Request: imperative,” Wyatt signed, after what felt like an eternity. “Grip this.” He pushed a fold of bag towards the Hzoc. With one set of tendrils, it cautiously grasped the folded plastic.

“Request: imperative: maintain position of this,” he signed. “Request: imperative: not inside airlock.” He gently slid back into the EVA suit while the alien held onto the bag with a firm grip.

“UDO,” he said, “unlock lines.” The four wires connecting him to the Hzoc hull flexed slightly, but friction on their drums held him in place for now. He turned to the right, twisting gently, cautiously, to give him enough room to shut the rear door. Not enough. He unclipped two of the lines.

“UDO, switch to override mode, and close rear door to 5 degrees.” 0 degrees was locked, 5 ought to be enough. Servos droning, the door slowly swung closed. Wyatt twisted gently to keep the bag from tearing away from the suit prematurely. He could hear air hissing through a few tiny gaps in the tape.

“UDO, hold command. 5 second countdown, then close and lock the rear door.”

While he’d never experienced decompression, it had been part of his training. He breathed rapidly, then said, “Perform command,” and exhaled hard.

“Five, four, three,” UDO dutifully counted. Wyatt swung his arms and legs back and tore away from the Hzoc ship. He couldn’t tell if the bag tore free or not. Air rushed around his ears. The door pressed against his back. The bolts clicked closed. Over the frantic beeping of alarms, he could hear the life support system trying to restore pressure. He opened one eye and checked the pressure gauge. It was holding. His ears ached, but he otherwise felt no worse for wear. He turned slowly. The bag stuck out of the Hzoc gooplock like a tissue in a tissue box, flat, deflated, and detached, with a ring of tape around the edge. Wyatt whooped with joy.

“Statement: Human Explorer Wyatt Anvar is alive,” he shouted into his mic. He spent a few moments catching his breath and satisfying himself that his suit was truly sealed.

“Reply: desirable outcome,” Hzoc Letitan replied a moment later.

“Request: imperative: release thin white object,” he said, tugging on the bag. It slowly emerged from the gooplock. He debated what to do with it. He couldn’t bring it back inside the UDO, but if he let it go his hosts would probably be annoyed. He decided to postpone a decision.

Half an hour later, he was back inside his ship, exhausted but alive. His EVA suit was down to less than 20% stored air, but he could top up the tanks in a day or two. It didn’t seem to have taken any permanent damage, save for a few scrapes on the titanium frame. The pain in his knee from his less-than-optimal decompression routine was slowly fading. Air mix in the living module was back to normal.

“Request: informal: conversation in [four hours],” he typed. He had a thousand questions for the strange being he’d just met, but he needed to rest, to check his own systems just as carefully as he’d checked the UDO’s systems.

“Reply: acceptable.”


Three weeks later, Hzoc Letien emerged from its ship, which Wyatt had learned was also named Hzoc Letien, and carefully trundled down the station truss, gripping with two limbs at all times. One of its non-eye limbs was half-embedded in a bucket-like device which served as a radio transmitter, light source, manuvering unit, and toolbox. Currently, it contained a bag full of carefully cleaned and sterilized human surgical instruments.

The Hzoc crept its way along the Unexpected Desirable Outcome’s hull and peered into the window with one black eye. Wyatt waved. The red tendrils, like a fringe of hair or a bushy eyebrow, waved back.


Sci-Fi: Plot Seeds for the Bright Conference

If the Bright Conference ever gets made into an RPG book, I’d like to have a cutaway illustration of a pod and its contents. Like this, with much more detail, and actually good:

Here’s what you’ve got. Now solve your problems.

In the 1995 film Apollo 13, there’s a great deal of dramatic panic and shouting and flailing around while problem-solving. In reality, everyone behaved far more sensibly and professionally. Very few of the situations encountered were outside the realm of training. A lot of very clever people worked out possible scenarios, tested them, refined them, and filed them in case they were ever needed. Using the LEM as a lifeboat, using its engine to boost both vessels, and even connecting the mismatched CO2 scrubbers, were not entirely improvised procedures.

In the real world, the problem is figuring out what is happening, and then deciding what to do. Not guessing. Just math. But in the Bright Conference, guesswork and improvisation are required. Without live access to the collective brains of Mission Control, a lone astronaut/ambassador in the Bright Conference has to think, improvise, and set their own objectives. There is a mission, but there is no mission plan.

Before launch, an astronaut can drill for known problems (a failure of one or more of the pod’s many systems, a solar storm, first contact in general), and for scenarios dreamed up by instructors and ambassadors, but no training can cover every scenario. The computers in a pod contain thousands of plans, procedures, and contingencies (and a lot of backup info), but sorting through them under pressure isn't easy. 

Compressed Plot Seeds

In a boring, bare-bones format. The seeds assume that you are a human in an exploration pod on the far side of a gate. These aren't the only plot seeds, or even the best ones. They're on the level of "there's a dungeon full of gold" or "bring me six wolf pelts". 
Plots need to follow the rules of the Bright Conference. No magic technology. No floating alien obelisks, zombie rays, reactionless drives, precurors, nanomachines, or bottled genetic engineering. 

1. Plenty Of Time For Caution

A nearby spacecraft is rotating uncontrollably. Cause:
1. Gyro failure.
2. Power loss.
3. Propellant leak.
4. Life support leak.
5. In a strong magnetic field.
6. Abandoned and adrift.

If you can rendezvous with the ship and line up with its axis of rotation, you could use your ship’s gyros or reaction control system to stop it.


  • Your ship doesn’t have a docking port (and even if it does, docking ports aren't universal). You’d need to move your ship’s magnetic plate to the very front or grab it with your ship's robot arm.
  • Electrostatic discharge. Your ship can take care of itself (hopefully!), but the other ship may have built up a huge electrostatic potential. It might spot-weld the first piece of metal to touch it.
  • You have enough delta-v to catch the ship, and enough delta-v to return (to a station or safe orbit) on your own, but you don’t have enough delta-v to catch the ship and haul it back, unless you can use its fuel and engines.

2. Space Madness

An alien reports that a human is behaving oddly. They’re telling you out of politeness (because you are also a human), not demanding/requesting that you take action. The human ship isn’t transmitting.

The human is:
1. Depressed after an equipment failure. Might be possible to repair.
2. Celebrating a holiday.
3. Drunk (also see 2.).
4. Impaired due to slow carbon monoxide (or another toxin) buildup.
5. Ill and contagious.
6. Violent. Prepare to avoid EVA axe murder.


  • Do you believe the alien? The description isn’t clear.
  • Do you want to get involved?

3. Requiem for a Dingbat

An alien reports that a human on a Hitchhiker Waiver died some time ago. They want to observe our funeral rights (and are willing to pay/trade for the privilege, something that mission control has put).


  • Another alien contact/previous info hints that the alien might be obsessed with death (a personal or cultural quirk). They might have killed a human on a Hitchhiker Waiver just to arrange this situation.
  • Or were they framed?
  • Is the ship safe to approach?
  • What rites would you consider appropriate? 

4. Sargasso Sea

“What’s a Sargasso?" "There was this... manuscript. I think. They made a film of it which was very influential. A sort of nested story thing.”

Recycling dead or abandoned spacecraft is too much trouble for some highly developed species. Shipping junk between systems isn’t energy efficient. Dead ships are not just boosted to a graveyard orbit, but manipulated into a graveyard lump, typically in deep space or behind the heat shield of an asteroid. This minimizes tracking and the chance of debris.

These agglomerations can be a gold mine for low-tech species, but also pose significant risks.


  • Nuclear reactors are hard to disable temporarily. Expect (and avoid) radioactive lumps.
  • What does it say about humanity that we resort to picking over the remains of the dead?
  • If you loot something from another species, can you explain it later. Will they care?
  • Is this an alien politely saying "dig your own grave before your ship fails?"

5. Shooting War

Go to bed, everything's quiet. Wake up, it's a civil war. Beaming power from solar collectors near a star to manufacturing stations near asteroids is common, but beamed power can easily become a weapon. Microwaves and lasers burn across the system. Clouds of debris flash and sparkle. Who’s shooting? And why?

Nobody’s aiming at you. In fact, they'll probably try to avoid collateral damage and transmit warnings about dangerous zones or lines of fire. The gate, or anything near the gate, is also probably safe. 


  • The species controlling the system has transmitted a blank cheque to use the system's gate, possibly to prevent anyone else from entering. A free ticket anywhere in the galaxy. That legendary destination you heard about? Or home?
  • Or play chicken. You probably shouldn’t lie, but you don’t have to tell anyone about Earth’s capabilities for messy revenge. Can you help (in more ways than just being a diplomatic wildcard/shield)?
  • A sweeping beam fried a number of your pod's surface systems. Now you've got to do whatever you were going to do, but also fix your ship.

6. Landing Not Advisable

An ambitious human program attempted to land an astronaut on an alien world (with permission and with plenty of on-Earth mission planning). The world has a thin atmosphere atmosphere, low gravity. The plan was for the astronaut to land, shake hands, deliver gifts, walk around, then back to orbit on an alien rocket (pod and all). 

The landing worked, the contact mission went well, but the human ship in orbit – the crewed lifeboat – suffered a catastrophic failure. The aliens picked your pod as a backup.


  • Delta-v, for once, is not a problem. The aliens can tow you around the system. But they can't keep a human alive.
  • Contamination and sterilization issues. The original plan involved a full and complex decontamination procedure. You could rig up umbilicals and use the lander pod as a separate “room”, but that's not a permanent solution.
  • The landed astronaut is from a very different ideology/program/background. Trust and language issues.
  • Dust. Dust is a terrible thing in space.

Maciej Rebisz

Resource Requirements

"You're out of X resource, what do you do?" is a fairly basic problem. Solutions can still be interesting, until the last variable in the Cold Equations falls into place.

Fuel (delta-v)

  • Controlled atmosphere release. Very low thrust. 
  • Ask for a pickup. 


  • Run out a long loop of conductive wire. If there's a local magnetic field, you might be able to pick up eddy currents. Spinning might help. Might be enough to keep the lights on.
  • Shut down everything you possibly can.
  • Some tech (flashlights, in particular) have independent power sources. At least you can read the printed manuals.


  • If your recycling system is working, then there's very little you can do. Any system you rig up is unlikely to be more efficient than that.
  • If it's not, break out the emergency procedures manual.


  • If you're lucky, your ship has an emergency water-splitting system. 
  • If not, you might have an oxygen candle. 
  • Or you can try and make an open electrolyzer, but filling your ship with hydrogen is, traditionally a bad plan.
  • If not, any ship that uses oxygen as an oxidizer can top off your tank (assuming you still have a tank) if you have the right adapter, or if you can make an adapter.


  • It's hard to unexpectedly run out of food.
  • If you're lucky, you've got refining microbes that can turn The Vital Ingredients into starches and sugars, which will keep you alive (but malnourished). You can stretch them using nutrient pills and your remaining food.
  • The emergency procedures manual has a section on cannibalism. It's not a fun section. If you find another human out there, and it's a dead human, then Mission Control feels you should have all the options.
  • The emergency procedures manual also points out that if you find a dead human, you might find that dead human's food.Check all your options.


  • Galactistandard uses visual patterns (glyphs, gestures), frequency patterns (sound, radio), sequence patterns (binary, Morse code), etc. If you want to talk, you've got options.
  • If your radio goes down, you can rig up a very simple transmitter as long as you've got power. 
  • If you've got a laser, point it at something and blink out a message, then write down the reply (if there is one).
  • If you don't have a bright light, use the big free fusion reactor in the sky. I.e. a mirror on a stick. Ideally you'd want this on a motorized control, like the end of a robot arm.
  • If you can point a camera or a detector in the right direction, a computer program can automatically parse incoming pulses into Galactistandard. If you can't, writing them down and converting them is possible; it's not easy for humans to gain casual fluency in pulse-patterned Galactistandard.

Alex Ries


You are not solving problems in a vacuum. 

Well, you literally are, but not in a metaphorical vacuum. You have to assume you are being watched and evaluated. Every action is part of a pattern. Not just an ethical dilemma, but potentially the only data point any observers have on how humans solve ethical dilemmas.

"Remember that time we picked up a Human and they immediately exploded?"
"Urgh, yeah. Let's not do that again."

If you rush in, are you saying humans are bold and selfless, or terrible at statistics and incapable of thinking quickly? If you avoid interaction, are you cold, pragmatic, aloof, ignorant, or hibernating? Greedy, desperate, or ambitious? 

Should you modify your actions based on the preferences (or perceived preferences) of potential observers? 

If and when you return to Earth, your communications and actions will be scrutinized and evaluated. Programs have to balance trust with a desire for knowledge. If you make a mistake, and you know you'll be evaluated on it, why come back at all? Sensible programs offer a blanket amnesty and untouchable benefits.


Sci-Fi: Practical Rocketry for the Bright Conference

 More notes on my draft optimistic hard sci-fi setting, the Bright Conference.

Arthur Gurin

Fuels and Engines

Rockets make people a bit weird. Some proposals feel like "Pro Tip: You can commute to work faster by taking amphetamines, driving through oncoming traffic, and firing a belt-fed machine gun." 

It's technically correct advice, but Isp isn't everything. Arriving at your destination is nice too. Normally, I'd go "Augh, hydrazine!" but after reading about some of the speculative engines and fuels out there I've started to say "Nice, safe, predictable, cuddly hydrazine. You'd never betray me." 

For the Bright Conference, I'm limiting technology to something with a real-world test or a thorough proof of concept, not just a sketch on a napkin or a thought experiment.  Anything at a Technology Readiness Level of 3 or above on this table is probably fine. This means no antimatter rockets, no fusion rockets, and no handwaved reactionless drives. I'm going to err on the side of plausibility.

For human exploration pods, liquid methane and liquid oxygen makes a lot of sense, with hydrazine or some other monopropellant used for reaction control. Other species may have other requirements, technology chains, etc, but they're still limited to the viable, and not just the possible.

You can make some rockets more efficient with cheap power. Where do you get cheap power? The local star is the obvious source. You've already got a giant fusion reactor. Why not use it?

Solar panels. Plenty of room for improvement, but panels add mass and cooling requirements.

Beamed power. If you're staying in a system for a long time, set up a solar power station and send the power to your ship. Microwaves, lasers, battery transfers: whatever works best.

Use a solar sail / magnetic brake to move from location to location slowly, which may not be a concern for species that travel efficiently. Humans do not travel efficiently.

Alternatively, use a nuclear reactor. Waste heat management is an issue (Damn you Carnot!), but this seems like a technology chain that could be optimized, given sufficient time. It also seems like a solid modular product. Buy an off-the-shelf nuclear brick with a built-in radiator, stick it on your spacecraft, and use an adapter to convert the output to your needs. No user-serviceable part inside.

Ditto for fuel cells. Hydrogen is a bit tricky to carry around unless you need it, and you can't get very much power out of one, but it's a neat trick.

Fusion reactors are possible, but only on an installation scale, and only when using the free fusion reactor in the sky isn't viable. They're usually next located near their hydrogen source, or used in gate devices.

You can use mass drivers (a.k.a gravel guns) to move an asteroid. Filling a system with high-velocity pellets might seem like someone else's problem, but that someone else inevitably becomes you, so this probably isn't a common or portable method.
Scott Scneider, Supernova (2000).
Not a great film, but great miniatures, and at least some sensible hard-ish sci-fi decision making.


No shields, no magic, no credible defense. This isn't a tactical sci-fi setting. It's a policy sci-fi setting.

Accidental impacts (micrometeorites, debris), general radiation, and solar storms make some form of armour useful, but not every component can be armoured.

Nuclear weapons are still viable (for different reasons than in an atmosphere), but conventional explosives, or even simple kinetic impacts, are still dangerous. If someone really wants you dead, they will find a way. The missile/drone/laser/plasma/shell always gets through. Spaceships are fragile. The most technologically advanced alien ship is unlikely to survive a few direct hits from an autocannon.

The choice is this: do you haul around a defensive system that you'll probably never use, and won't save you even if you do use it, or do you rely on reputation, risk/reward calculations, and unintended consequences?

Most species use dual purpose systems. Technology that could be weaponized, but has another useful function to justify its existence, and the cost of hauling it around. You don't need to pack a rocket launcher, you need to pack a hiking pole.

Probes/missiles are expensive. Each probe is a miniature spaceship, with its own fuel supply, maintenance costs, and duplicate (in miniature) of many systems aboard the main ship. Cut corners and your probe becomes unreliable or even a liability. It's the same problem faced by escape pods and shuttles. On the other hand, having more than one eye is very useful.

Lasers can be used for long-distance communication or accelerating small probes. Most high-velocity probes ride behind a laser, which sweeps dust from their route. It seems plausible that compact high-efficiency lasers could exist, but they aren't completely effective defensive weapons. You can turn an incoming bullet into an slightly warmer incoming bullet, while filling your ship with waste heat in the bargain.

High-density energy storage mediums can be turned into explosives, or at least inconveniently feisty devices, under the right conditions. Communications equipment can be used as electronic countermeasures. If you can transmit a signal, you can transmit a countersignal, noise, or lies.

And finally, thermonuclear bombs can be made low-maintenance, relatively safe to store/hit with a hammer. You can't guarantee any given ship isn't carrying a small missile with a city-destroying warhead.

Side Note: Atomic Rockets and other hard sci-fi advice sites remind readers that most FTL systems can be casually turned into weapons mass destruction. This can be a problem for military sci-fi, but the Bright Conference says, "So? We have weapons of mass destruction."
Dave Malan

Human Astronauts

How do you train an ambassador who cannot be held accountable?

How do you prepare someone for a mission where death is very, very likely? Not deliberate murder, but accidental death from malfunctioning equipment, radiation, running out of fuel and air, or living a long, interesting, and terribly lonely life around some distant star.

How do you train someone for a situation that is almost entirely unknown? No mission control, no fixed criteria for sucess or failure. Just guesswork, improvisation, and staying calm under pressure. Playing the long game when you can't see the board.

Anyone running an ambassador training program also can't rely on the sci-fi standard youth indoctrination camp. You can't rely on secrecy and limited information. You need wholehearted consent. Your ambassadors will be out in the world, thinking for themselves, reading all the forbidden literature, uncovering all the leaks and war crimes, or running into another astronaut, alien, or adaptive artificial intelligence trained to argue philosophy.

An Excerpt: Training

"Moving on to proposal three. Hire some puzzle-makers and psychologists. Tell them to design some non-anthropocentric puzzles. Really hard ones."

"Should we ask an alien for advice?"

"Perhaps, if we can explain the concept to them. I'm sure other species have had the same problem. But they could bias the training."

"Noted. I think we should look at full-scale simulations as well."

"Like virtual reality?"

"No, that never works. I mean the sort of simulations that paramedics use. You arrive on scene, there's fake blood everywhere, an overturned car or a collapsed stage, and you need to triage. Like an obstacle course, except it's realistic."

"And instead of actors it's logic puzzles?"

"Or actors in alien costumes."

"Right. And our trainees have to navigate the scenario."

"On mescaline."


"Hear me out. We want our trainees to be used to bewildering situations, of clinging to rationality when the world is apparently going mad. So we dose them with mescaline, and perhaps a mild emetic, or something else to simulate zero-G sickness. I don't know, I'm not a doctor."


"Can someone explain how we'll get useful information out of this proposal? How are we evaluating trainees? Is this timed or..."

"It's holistic. The point is to see how they do under extremely adverse conditions designed to simulate, as best we can, the experience of being out there. Alangrave described visiting a station as 'being a mouse in a shopping mall designed by Escher.'"

"And trying to solve a rubix cube, on mescaline, while theater students dressed in rubber suits hit you with pool noodles is exactly like that, right? Come on. Proposal four..." 

Pack Only What You Need

In null gravity, humans aren't going to do a lot of walking Is leg amputation really such a radical proposal? Cybernetic eyes and cortical implants are science fiction, but chopping off legs is science fact. 30-40% a human's mass is legs, and you don't need legs in null gravity. Space agencies in the real world seem to agree. Launch mass is one concern, but maneuvering mass is also important, and a species surgically altering itself make space travel easier is not uncommon.

"We had a very pious and humane man, who gave them a most excellent sermon on this occasion, exhorting them not to kill us all at once. 'Cut off only one of the buttocks of each of those ladies,' said he, 'and you will fare extremely well; if you are under the necessity of having recourse to the same expedient again, you will find the like supply a few days hence. Heaven will approve of so charitable an action, and work your deliverance.'

-Voltaire, Candide

Closed-Loop Ecological Life Support

The ultimate goal is to turn a human into a closed cycle. The only input is energy. The only output is waste heat. Everything else is recycled. Unfortunately, humans require a lot of complex inputs and make a lot of weird outputs. There's no way to get a backpack-sized permanent life support system working for a human. Even with mildly handwaved tech, a full recycling setup would probably be too large to bolt to a one-person spacecraft. 

Since this is an RPG and not a manual, I can probably get away with saying "Feces centrifuge," "biosolids conversion algae," and "algae supplement pellet" and let you imagine the rest. Closed-loop recycling is both a psychological and an engineering problem. NASA claims the ISS is 80% efficient.

Some back-of-a-napkin math suggests that a perfect plant/algae based CO2->O2 recycling system (i.e. algae in tubes) is probably not portable, or stable for 1 astronaut. Since cryogenic storage of large quantities of O2 and N2 is viable, this system does not need to be 100% efficient.

A human Bright Conference pod usually uses three systems:

  • Alien bioengineered algae pods. Mostly used to supplement food. CO2, power, and water in, O2 and sucrose out... but nowhere near enough to close the loop. It could if humans were more efficient, but we aren't.
  • A regenerative metal-organic CO2 scrubber. CO2 buildup will kill you faster than you'll run out of O2.
  • A sealed chemical scrubber in case of a fire, power loss, or other catastrophe. Peel the top off the tube, get an extra few hours of life.

We can't eat alien snacks, and they can't eat our snacks. You have to pack a lunch.

The Vital Ingredients (a.k.a. There Is Such A Thing As A Free Lunch)

"Vital Ingredients" is a mistranslation, but it stuck. The theory goes that most newly contacted planet-bound species need time to adapt to the level playing field of null gravity and hard vacuum. An altruistic well-established species can set up a buffet (or bird feeder) of raw materials. A traveling species can replenish supplies for free (or under the terms of a very generous supply-limiting contact). It costs the altruistic species very little and earns them an enormous amount of goodwill.

It not something you can count on, but it does exist. There's usually a term to prevent permanent freeloading, but some species don't mind if their buffet attracts permanent residents. A buffet can create a space station and a culture. Locating these buffets could be a mission for the PCs. Not all are equally useful.

A Vital Ingredients buffet usually includes a few tanks of bioengineered algae-analogues to upgrade raw materials. Almost nothing on the buffet is something humans consider food. Aside from oxygen and water, ethanol is usually available. Tbe joke runs that you can starve to death sober or you can starve to death drunk.

Luckily, some alien species have fancy algae-analogues that will upgrade methane, acetic acid, or other common buffet items into glucose or starch, and a handful of vital amino acids. The life support package of well-equipped Living Module may include a few of jars of these cultivated organisms, in the optimistic hope that the module will be useful for decades.

Back-Of-The-Napkin Math

NASA (values are per day)

For 1 person-year:

  • Water (80% efficient recycling): 1.3 tonnes. Call it 1.5 tonnes. Note that this only counts biologically necessary water. ISS astronauts use a lot more water for hygiene.
  • Oxygen (no recycling): 0.3 tonnes. Call it 0.5 tonnesfor safety and to provide extra O2 to flush the filters. Doesn't count fuel oxygen.
  • Food (with minimal water) (negligible recycling): 0.2 tonnes. Call it 0.3 tonnes, or 0.5 tonnes if you want to be generous. 

Artificial Gravity

There are no magic gravity plates in the Bright Conference. You have to get your gravity from Sir Isaac Newton. The assumption is that exploration is sufficiently dangerous that long-term health effects of null gravity are probably not what will kill you. Living Modules contain exercise equipment, but spun gravity rings are not viable at the moment. If you make it back to Earth - and it's a very big if - a long hospital visit will be mandatory.


No showers. Just a wash cloth and centrifuge, or wet wipes, or perhaps, as a luxury, a plastic bag you can climb into. Pre-launch, consider permanent hair removal from some areas (or your whole body; it'll save time), cauterization of nail beds (see below), and freezing your gametes (if you want to have offspring).

Human spaceships require constant maintenance. Sterilize the vent filters. Suck up skin flakes and dust with a tiny vaccum wand. Wipe down surfaces with your limited supply of biocide. A UV sterilization lamp might not be the worst idea. Could help with vitamin D and, possibly, the blues. While most gates are near stars, "near" is a relative term.

Human Spacecraft

The Bright Conference is a 5-minutes-into-the-future setting. If we can't do it now, then I can't include it.

Spacecraft are designed to use Hitchhiker Waivers. Humanity cannot currently afford to pay the Gatekeepers, but other species will occasionally pick up a low-mass ship or two and take them along, with no assumption of liability on the other side. Humans can also negotiate travel arrangements with alien species directly, usually with better terms.

I'm thinking around 20 tonnes is a good value for a one-person one-year ship.  

Excursion Module

A spacesuit with a backpack. The backpack partially swings to the side to reveal a hatch. You attach the hatch to your living module and climb out, like a spider shedding its exoskeleton. A spacesuit isn't clothes. It's a small uncomfortable room with pockets for your limbs. 

The helmet has a ranging laser and one or more visors. Inside, there are a few display screens, a water tube, a microphone, and speakers. 

The backpack has a battery, radio, radiator, tiny solar panel, air tank, water tank, gyroscope, and propulsion system. The backpack stays outside the living module. If it breaks, the astronaut can use the entire living module as a sort of giant backpack.

Gloves are the worst. Human hands are not designed for space. Portable robotic analogues are not viable yet. EVA work means losing your fingernails. Getting your nailbeds cauterized before you go to space might not be the worst idea. Fine manipulation is almost impossible. 

Side Note: Real-world spacecraft typically use a high-pressure low-oxygen mix for habitats (to prevent flash fires) and a low-pressure high-oxygen mix for EVA suits (to prevent the suit from popping and to allow astronauts to bend their limbs). For the Bright Conference, I'm assuming a high-pressure suit could be designed with current-generation materials (and a blank cheque). If not, I'd need to add a decompression / bends procedure for every EVA.

The backpack has a control arm for the maneuvering unit. Compressed nitrogen or CO2, very limited delta-v. If you can, stay tethered. If you can't, you may need to ask for a push back to your spacecraft. How embarrassing.

Living Module

A small pressurized room with a bed (a sort of sack), a toilet, a bunch of computers, the high-maintenance bits of the life support system, and a lot of storage. "Snug" and  "cozy" might be applicable if you're feeling generous, "a coffin with pockets" if you're not.

Forward-thinking designers add a second hatch. It's not an airlock, but a second Excursion Module can dock, or you can dock hatch-to-hatch and link two or more Living Modules in a chain (though it'll be an ugly unbalanced mess of panels and radiators). It'd be nice if humanity settled on a universal standard for hatch designs. Spirit of cooperation and all that..

Service Module

All the other parts that make a spacecraft possible, but do not require human interaction or regular maintenance. A robotic arm with a camera may be useful. Propulsion system. Reaction control system. Solar panels, heat radiator, main battery. Tanks. And adapters. So many adapters.

How Many Crew?

One is the loneliest number. A Bright Conference astronaut is, arguably, the most expensive and vital part of a mission. Given the chance of death and failure, why risk two astronauts when one will do? Loneliness is also an incentive to seek contact and make connections. Either make friends or go mad.

Pair-bonded humans form a common cultural unit. Two astronauts can also keep each other honest (in ideology or chores ). On the other hand, two can be as bad as one. Personal space does not scale.

Three is an interesting number. Three allows for luxurious watch rotations. You can have a human active and communicating at all times.

Reza Afshar

The Kardashev Scale

A few species in the Bright Conference have managed to hit Kardashev II, through Dyson Swarm-like constructions. Megastructures can give a civilization a goal. They are also required for ultra high-end research and manufacturing.

Given the age of the galaxy, sensible species might expect more Kardashev II+es around the place. The most plausible answer is the inherent instability of organized life. A 10,000 year construction project has a lot of room for error, sabotage, changes of priority, etc. Civilization may not collapse, but it wobbles a fair bit. There's no stable plateau.

Data on failure is available. Learn what to do, what not to do... but who's lying to you, and why? Aside from differences of perspective, philosophy, and judgement, there's a temptation to insert false and misleading data. Pretend to fail. Pretend to succeed for non-obvious reasons. It's another reason for contact (and potentially a secret the PCs can discover) Xenoarchaeology is more than just looting and resource reclamation.

Some species aim for a timeless, god-like, inscrutable reputation so that other species leave them alone. In a setting without magical technology, this is tricky. Some species deliberately erase their past and start anew.

Paul Pepera

Getting It Wrong

Post-contact, every washed-up billionaire with access to a rocket wanted to explore life outside our solar system. They signed Hitchhiker Waivers, strapped their tiny improvised capsules to the hulls of outgoing alien ships, and disappeared. Very few made it back. The decision-making process of a coddled wealthy sociopath is not useful in the Bright Conference. On Earth, you can fail gently. There's always the secret bank account, the equity in your house, the friends in high places, the speaking circuit, or the consultant route. If all else fails, there's ditch water and roasted rats.

In space, trapped in a refurbished Soyuz capsule three hundred light years from Earth with twelve days of oxygen and no one willing to pay the exorbitant costs to return an unprepared Hitchhiker to their backwater planet, failure feels very sharp indeed.

Hitchhiking: An Excerpt

The system was more beautiful than he imagined. A binary star, and the glittering arc of a space station. A line of solar panels and reflectors, black as midnight on the inside, glowing red on the outside, with glittering silver supports and docks. The Kurslek ship that had accepted their Hitchhiker Waiver took them within a few hundred kilometers of the station, then let them go and changed course to dock with the massive solar collector.

The novelty of the view faded within a few hours, though, given the cost of this little adventure, Brandon milked every flicker of joy for all it was worth. After taking thousands of nearly identical photos and drafting a few nuggets of wisdom, he had his new assistant Flynn tap out an open Hitchhiker request using the translator program and waited. And waited.

And waited.

Brandon felt like the two-person pod was shrinking. His doctors had told him that he couldn't take uppers or levelers with the antinausea meds, and he'd downed the backup bottle of celebratory champagne hours ago. Masturbation was out. "Are you sure it worked?" he asked, yet again.

"Yes. You can see the receipt ping from the Kurslek ship, the Gatekeeper station, the solar station, and even a mining outpost. They heard us. They just haven't replied." Flynn was hired because he was supposedly an expert on this sort of thing.

"Why not?"

"Because nobody in the system wants to go to Earth right now," Flynn said. "Once again, if they wanted to go, they'd tell us how long we'd have to wait. But they don't. So they haven't."

"Do they know we're running out of air?" Brandon growled. 

Flynn shrugged.

"Give me that," Brandon said, reaching for the tablet. Flynn dutifully handed it over, and, with smirk of authority, Brandon selected the Kurslek ship from the dropdown menu and typed, "Take me home right now."

"Clause requires statement: Consequence." The statement was printed in yellow. No transmission.

Brandon typed again. "Take me home right now or I will die."

"Clause requires statement: Consequence."

"Fucking thing is broken," he said. 

"It's not. If you want to issue a demand in Galactistandard you need to offer something or state the consequences of a failure to accept. It can't be implied." Flynn didn't sound worried, just bored.

"But the consequences are that I, we, will die."


"And... humanity will take revenge?"

"No they won't. We signed a Hitchhiker Waiver. Didn't you read it? We are on our own."

To his credit, Brandon had read the waiver, in both a literal Galactistandard translation and in a summary presented by a lawyer. He just hadn't believed it. He stared at Flynn with growing rage, then tapped at the pad.

"Statement: Clarification: Unless we are returned to Earth we will die in 72 hours." 

The app accepted the statement, translated it into a much longer string of Galactistandard, and beamed it to the Kurslek ship.

Six long minutes later, the ship replied. "Statement: [this ship] is not returning to the [Sol system]. Statement: Overriding Fact: Transmission from [this system] to [Sol system] is not possible for [9.8 days]."

"What the fuck," Brandon said. "Why not?"

Flynn put his hand on the tablet. "That's how gates work. It has something to do with relativity. The Gatekeepers won't allow quick return tickets."

"So you knew? Why didn't you tell me?"

"Back in college, my roommate signed up for one of your brain hacking trials. Remember, the miracle slow-release neurotransmitter booster? He was supposed to get a paycheck and expand the frontiers of science. Instead he had a massive stroke and died, along with everyone else who signed up."

"They signed a waiver," Brandon said automatically.

Galactic Rest Frame

Gatekeepers arbitrarily allow passage. They rarely allow multiple quick trips, and almost never allow a leap-and-return journey. 

There are several explanations:

  • It's a method of preventing war. Everyone has time to think about their actions.
  • Two vessels colliding in the same gate is catastrophic.
  • The Gatekeepers wish to appear more inscrutable than they really are.
  • It has something to do with relativity.
Stellar velocities are low. They're similar to the escape velocities of a planet. For most stars, doing the Lorentz calculations is a bit silly. With rounding, we're all in the same boat.

Let's take the worst case scenario. The fastest star we've measured is whipping around a black hole at 8% of the speed of light. That's a mild Lorentz factor of 1.003. And an oddly convenient bit of math: for every year and a day you spend orbiting that star, a year and one day passes on Earth. That's not a lot of time to get up to relativity-based shenanigans. "Behold my twin! Their birthday is in February but mine is... slightly later in February! Dun dun dunnnn!"

Relativity though experiments include often include phrases like "an appreciable faction of the speed of light relative to one or more observers", as if rocket fuel is free. It's possible get a rocket up to those speeds, of course, but it's not easy. Saying "some high fraction of the speed of light" makes thought experiments interesting. Actually getting to some high fraction of the speed of light, without handwaving the material costs or inventing magic engines, is trickier. 

Speed is expensive and risky. In the absence of gate tech, it's far more efficient to develop some form of stasis (biological, AI inheritors, etc.) and slow-boat your way around a system or between the stars.

Gate tech is heavy. It's difficult to miniaturize and very energy-inefficient at low transported volumes. No ansibles. The smallest gates are used on scout probes, and they still weigh 500kg and only work once before melting. Species have tried to make smaller ones, of course, butthe investment to make them at all is enormous.

And if you do try to use a gate to send information into the past, the experiment will fail. Someone leaves the lenscap on the detector. The rocket explodes. The gate hits the wrong receiver. Funding gets cut at the last minute. Civilizations still try of course (because physicists can't believe it, and frankly, you can't blame them), but it never works.