ALAMBRE • by Holly Schofield

Sub-space radio transmission from the direction of Tau Ceti: “Mayday! Mayday! Do you read? ‘Beef’ Vaquero reporting in! Over, dammit!”

Reply from Nina Bozovic, technician at Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico: “Is this a joke? Not funny. I’m just an underpaid grad student not worth pranking.”

“My name ring any bells? How about Operation Fermi?”

“Wait, I studied that in school! The ship sent to explore anomalies in Tau Ceti way back in… 2019, right? Just one astronaut aboard, held in stasis a year or so until the ship arrived there. A publicity stunt to crowdfund space exploration. Is that you?”

“Publicity stunt, my ass! I was ‘The One True Space Cowboy’!”

“Omigod, people still study those recordings you sent after the ship woke you up and the aliens captured you. When you stopped transmitting, people got upset!”

“Upset, nothin’! You abandoned me there after the aliens sliced my brain like it was a tenderloin! Thirty years I’ve been accelerating, trying to return home!”

“Hey, I wasn’t even born then. Does it help to say I’m glad you’re heading back?”

“I am back! Just passing Mars. About ten minutes until I reach Earth.”

“Wow! That’s, um, half light speed? This is the most exciting thing to happen on my shift ever!”

“Exciting! That’s all you can say? Shit, people haven’t changed!”

“Actually, humanity has improved dramatically. No wars anymore, no one’s hungry, we fixed the climate issues. Things are pretty good nowadays.”

“Get the President on the phone! I demand an apology!”

“I apologize on her behalf, Mr. Beef. And I’m sorry that your crowdfunding dried up and the project was dropped. I see why you’re upset. You must have been lonely, those thirty years.”

“The aliens *squeal*’d my mind! And my ship’s computer too!”

“Uh, I missed something there. They did what?”

“Listen, dammit. My computer’s wonky. I’m flying almost blind. Can you give me a navigation signal? Something to aim for?”

“A beacon to guide you in? Hmm, too much blue-shift to use visible light. Ohhh, I know. Remember that ionospheric communications system the government was putting into place when your mission set off? It was called HAARP then. We call it The Wire now. Pulsed high frequencies, like tiny stars spaced along longitudinal strings. Like the Earth was wrapped in barbed wire.”

“Big deal. How does that help me?”

“I’ll just program one tiny site for you, smack over the middle of the Atlantic. I’ll make it into a plasma marker. As if one of those barbs was gleaming at you in the sunshine.”

“You have the authority to do that?”

“I told you, people are nicer now. Everything’s on the honor system. Just a minute…wait. Okay, your sensors should pick it up now.”

“Hang on… Got it! Course corrected — I’m aiming straight for it. See you all in ten minutes… nine minutes… eight… Hah! Hah to you. All of you.”

“Uh, Beef? What’s so funny?”

“There’s something you don’t know. The aliens *squeal*’d my ship to be so fast that it’s attractive to cosmic dust. I’m not a cowboy anymore, I’m a mud-covered cow. A big, dirty, mad cow.  At this speed, I’ve got the kinetic energy of a comet three kilometers wide. Should take out North America, at least.”

“Omigod, your attitude is so atavistic. So much unresolved anger.”

“Spare me the psychological bullshit. You all deserve to die. You left me there! Two minutes.”

“Beef? There’s something you don’t know.”

“Who cares. Ninety seconds.”

“The Wire sensed your mass and velocity as soon as we started talking. I knew all along that you intended to wipe out the whole continent.”

“Damn! But it doesn’t matter. You can’t stop me now!”

“Well, actually, that barb on the Wire that I lit up? It wasn’t actually over the Atlantic. From your point of view, it was right on the edge of the Earth’s outer atmosphere. In less than a minute, you’ll skim right on by us. No time for course corrections now.”

“You lied!”

“Yup. We’ve grown more humane, it’s true, but our survival instincts are as good as ever. You’re on course for the Sun.”

“What!”

“Sorry, Beef, but it’s barbeque time.”


Holly Schofield’s stories have appeared in many publications including Lightspeed, Tesseracts, and Unlikely Story. For more of her work, see hollyschofield.wordpress.com.


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