By the close of the 28th century, man - as tenuous as the term now seems - was forced to concede that the diversity of life in the Milky Way stretched far beyond Terran species. Humanity's growth from planet-locked to space-faring race was marked out by tentative, often painful explorations that punctuated centuries.
As other Galactic inhabitants were encountered, many were found to be biologically similar to Terrans, which raised questions about their origins. Certainly it was not without precedent that several apparently disparate races could have common ancestors; it is widely accepted that Terran humanoids originated from a single point, expanding far enough for some to survive the cosmic events that wiped out most of their brethren. Nonetheless, the idea of it occurring on planetary scales was considered rather radical.
The discovery of biological similarities in species separated from Terra by dozens of light-years confounded the picture further still. The information-sharing that followed the establishment of communications revealed that similarities in technological development existed as well. This suggested not only that the species involved may have had common ancestors, but that they still existed and were subtly influencing the development of their descendants.
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As the reader may be aware, the historical data that suggest this conclusion are not the only indications there may be Others who also share - or shared - the Galaxy with us. During humanity's exploration of its immediate Galactic neighbourhood several anomalous objects were discovered; while their origins remain a mystery, they are undeniable indications of alien races that predate, and far exceed technologically, those that have so far been encountered.
One such discovery, rather discoveries, is Unidentified Objects #003 and #024. Both were discovered decades apart and no connection between the two was initially spotted or investigated, until a fortunate accident revealed how they connected small chapters of human and interstellar history.
Unidentified Object (UO) #003, as the catalogue number suggests, was encountered fairly early in Galactic exploration, in one of the first sectors to be charted. Jump drives had been pioneered some fifteen years earlier and had allowed generally safe traversal of long routes, but space exploration had become a cautious affair after hostilities previously resulted from botched attempts at first contact.
The initial detection was made when a Pan Am Space Clipper, after emerging from warp on the Scorpius Strait, was unable to jump to its next position fix. A survey of the surroundings, though limited by the Clipper's equipment, found a physical obstruction was preventing jump (drive systems contained automatic safeguards to prevent dragging nearby objects into warp). Debris did occasionally drift through the spacelanes so this was not particularly unusual, but scans of the object were inconclusive. The crew later reported the object appeared to be artificial, but spaceline schedules prevailed: the Clipper dropped a marker beacon, moved clear of the object on conventional thrusters and continued on its way.
Several days later a Terran Space Agency scout was able to make contact with the object - by then designated as UO #003 - though as it was obstructing a major trunk route, at length it was towed into orbit around a nearby star before a detailed inspection was carried out.
It was clearly a large spacecraft, albeit of an unrecognised design. Although over one kilometre in length it was not entirely dissimilar in configuration to a Terran atmospheric craft; sections guesstimated as propulsion mounts, gas collectors, control surfaces and reaction control systems were all present, with a voluminous cylindrical fuselage. However, the whole ship was heavily damaged, evidently missing several major sections and with others only attached to structural remnants or tangled in wreckage.
A party was able to board and search the craft; as far as they could tell none of the on-board systems were functioning and the hull was incapable of maintaining pressurisation. No remains of the ship's crew could be found, and inspection of what appeared to be the command deck revealed neither its origins nor the length of time it had been adrift.
The most interesting and surprising aspect of UO #003 was its cargo. Tethered in a holding bay of some sort, the inspection team found a small saucer-shaped craft. Although itself missing large sections, what remained of the craft was in good condition and appeared to be of pre-crisis Terran construction. The cockpit of the craft was found to contain two human corpses, dressed in fatigues of the former United States military. The corpses were fairly well-preserved and they, along with records recovered from both ships were returned to the TSA Research Department for detailed analysis.
The corpses were subsequently confirmed by DNA and skeletal identification to be a Colonel and Major of the former United States Air Force; archived personnel records of the North American State Military listed both as killed in action in 1952, but were absent any further detail or biographical information.
All attempts to translate the records obtained from UO #003 have so far failed. The logs of the smaller craft required no translation, though antique playback equipment had to be unearthed to view them. The recording, assumed to have be taken by the same craft, is aerial night footage of a small wheeled vehicle, in which the vehicle stops, its occupants disembark and stare in apparent horror at the camera before collapsing. The craft's own recording ends abruptly a short time later. The following is an excerpt from the audio stream:
Pilot 1: Ranch, we got the subjects in sight, over.
Operator: Six-four, copy that.
Pilot 2: Tweak it right a bit.
Pilot 1: It's twitchy.
Pilot 2: Okay, bring it down. (pause) Hah, look at those
Pilot 1: We're going to hell sir, you know that?
Pilot 2: That's odd.
Pilot 1: What?
Pilot 2: Another contact at nine o'clock. Stand by.
Ranch, who else is out here, over?
Operator: Six-four, I got nothing, over.
(a roar is audible on the recording)
Pilot 2: Jack... what is that thing?
Pilot 1: How the hell should I know, sir?
Pilot 2: (SHOUT) Maximum speed! I think...(end)
The circumstances of this event are still unclear, but it appears to at least partially confirm the theory prevalent in small subsets of pre-crisis Terran popular culture, that military organisations were staging 'alien abductions', although the motives for this are also unclear.
Whatever the reason for the subterfuge it seems that in an unfortunate twist, those staging the 'abduction' were themselves captured during the act by either UO #003 or by some other craft, then transported away from Terra, ultimately arriving where they were found. A search of tracking archives indicates no other craft were present in the area, though it is likely such a comparatively advanced craft would have easily been able to evade the tracking devices of the time.
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Absent further clues as to its purpose or origin, UO #003 was eventually relegated to a historical curiosity and was berthed in a Terran orbital museum. No further analysis was run or planned, but low-key attempts by scattered individuals to decode the language of the ship's records continued.
Although the analysis of the Terran craft partially explained its condition and location, it did nothing to explain how the capturing ship came to be wrecked. Dating methods were employed in an attempt to determine its age but the results were inconclusive; certainly there had been no reports by Terran ships of accidents or encounters with unknown ships along the retroactive course. This was further cross-checked with other species known to use the surrounding space, but with the same negative results.
After some years, interest in the wreck had diminished and it was moved to a mothballing complex. No further trace of its past had surfaced and neither had any good theories, until some thirty years later when a formation of hydrogen harvesters operating in the Helix Nebula picked up an object in their scoop route. The crews notified TSA and moved on, reporting an artificial object not squawking or responding to repeated hails. It took them several attempts to register their reports due to communications interference.
By this time, unregistered artificial objects (UAOs) had been reported by Terran ships often enough that the TSA had established a small dedicated team for investigation of such artefacts; they arrived on the scene within a day.
Whatever UO #024 had been, it was impossible to determine. All that remained were two hollow objects drifting in parallel tracks, one about twice the size of the other, shaped like flat-bottomed boat hulls. Although gigantic by contemporary standards—larger even than the industrial complexes orbiting Jupiter—both were empty hulks and what remained of the outer structures was in very poor condition, apparently having been drifting in space for about two hundred years. After extensive audio and visual records of both were taken and samples of the hull removed for study, the remains were destroyed as they were emitting dangerous levels of radiation and unsafe to leave adrift.
UO #024's wreckage gave no indication of its purpose or the nature of its builders. With such little data to go on, archaeological interest was limited and not revived until several years later; a misfiling of artifacts in a museum archive happened to bring sections of Objects #003 and #024 together; the filing clerk noticed visual similarities in both and resubmitted them to the TSA Research Department for comparative analysis.
The study found that both samples contained material found in the composition of the other, strongly suggesting the two had come into contact at some point. UO #003 was quickly pulled out of storage and the exterior inspected again, to find several crushed sections of the hull of UO #024 entangled in its own structure. Whether the opposite was true is not definite, but frame analysis of video records appears to indeed show parts of Object #003's hull in the wreckage of UO #024, suggesting that somehow a mid-space collision occurred.
It is impossible to determine where this occurred, and the causal factors will most likely remain a mystery forever. At the time of writing, still nothing is known about the occupants of either spacecraft. Although UO #003 must be at least as old as UO #024 was determined to be, this raises the unsettling question of how the Terran craft and the corpses inside were so well-preserved, despite ostensibly being some six hundred years old at the time of the collision.
It seems unlikely that any firm conclusion will ever be reached as to what occurred in the intervening time. Cosmic archeology relies as much on luck as on the skills of its practitioners, and notwithstanding further such fortuitous appearances as that of Object #024, research avenues are virtually all spent.
These discoveries remain, nonetheless, a heartening testament that other races, even those which are relatively advanced, are still fallible. That their interstellar forays are as risk-laden as our own. The struggle and setbacks we suffer in our reach for the stars should serve only to strengthen our resolve to earn our place among the community of galactic civilisations.
Loosely based on a segment of the TTA book 'Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD' by Stewart Cowley, with an idea cribbed from an episode of The X-Files.