Mankind eventually hopped its way across the nearby stars to Lalande 21185, only to find a few dead, rocky worlds bathed in radiation and a system-wide debris field that made navigating all but the edges of the system hazardous for large spacecraft. But the debris was more than just stray asteroids and space junk. It was wreckage. A war had occurred in the system. But despite hundreds of scavenger crews searching the system for scrap, no complete ships were ever found—until now.
And if you enjoy “Black Box,” check out more stories of ancient aliens in Worlds Long Lost, edited by Christopher Ruocchio and Sean CW Korsgaard here.
When mankind tells the story of our first message from an alien civilization, I hope they’ll remember that it began with two old soldiers at a diner, and ends with two old soldiers at a bar.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s funny to think it all began with breakfast.
I should have known that Alan wanted something when he offered to treat me to a hot meal at Dino’s Cantina, one of the rare greasy spoons that serves real food on Flotsam Station. Alan’s a decent sort for a scrapper, but he could have been trying to talk me into selling him a kidney if it meant avoiding another meal in the station mess hall.
Credit where it’s due, the man knew to wait until we’d finished eating to try and pitch me on anything. The eggs were runny, and the bacon overcooked, but considering it was the first meal that I had eaten in weeks that wasn’t freeze dried, vat grown, or squeezed from a tube, I savored every bite. Mopping up the last of the yolk with a hunk of dark bread, I decided to finally broach the topic.
“Alan, I know you didn’t ask to meet just to swap war stories, and if you’re springing for real eggs and pork, it’s got to be one hell of an ask,” I said. “So, what do you want from me?”
“Straight to business then, eh Murph?” Alan said, running a hand across his scalp, his short red hair bristling. “Officially, our techie was injured on the job working our current patch of the debris field, and you’re her replacement until we can decide whether there’s enough worth a damn in our current patch to file a claim.”
If I weren’t more observant, I might have taken it personally that I was essentially being offered scut work. Luckily, we’d done this dance before.