For Your Troubles

by Nicholas Stillman

Missiles from every continent struck the nebula in a beautiful greeting. The fireballs, of course, never once rippled the nearly amorphous sphere. The gaseous vessel only wobbled with its own random yawns while it entered the exosphere of the planet–a pretty, misty blue one.

The larger of the two nebular pilots sent a thought along several dendritic wisps. Larger’s foggy body, merged with the vessel, willed the dense shell of xenon to diffuse slightly. The outside warmth that entered felt inviting, however fleeting.

“Feel that?” Larger asked via an electrochemical vapor stream.

“Nice,” Smaller propagated back. “The soot tastes bitter, though. I’ve repelled it all out with the neon layer.”

Larger adjusted the nebula shell further. Heat from the planet’s festivities coursed into the hydrogen plasma region via gaseous contact. The engines formed a few more deuterium-deuterium bonds through nuclear fusion. Both pilots shared a pang of guilt from taking the people’s energy. The vessel did have a long way to go to reach the colder planets, though.

Larger sensed every contrail circling in from around the world. “Such colorful ribbons! Such impressive fireworks! I’ve never witnessed so much ceremony.”

Smaller willed the nebula to stop. It absorbed a corona of fire from the light show. Larger sensed the copilot worrying, probably over the world’s apex species spending too many resources on welcome celebrations. Or perhaps…

“Smaller, doesn’t that whole hostile-space-alien theory sound ridiculous now? You can’t give it much credence once you experience these sorts of formal greetings.”

“I suppose,” Smaller thought. “It does take heightened cooperation, teamwork, and empathy to travel in space. But these people can only live in space, briefly and in small numbers. Can you really call them travelers when they keep sipping air and energy from their planet?”

“Even so,” Larger argued, “they’ve prepared a huge spectacle just to show how sociable and welcoming they’ve become.”

The air repelled by the nebula turned a gorgeous black with flashes of nuclear white confetti.

“What bothers you, Smaller? You don’t feel right at all.”

A silence ensued while a coordinated blast of rockets vibrated the xenon in a grand finale.

“I just wonder,” Smaller mused, his concern spinning ions throughout the vessel, “what if our hosts don’t actually want to greet us but instead…feed us?”

“With energy?”

“Yes. They wouldn’t know any better, at their level. They might see us as starving wanderers on a desperate voyage.”

Larger pondered, tasting the well-sculpted plumes which spread across the hemisphere. “They may have evolved into a species far friendlier than we thought. I find it far-fetched, though, that they’d believe they could rescue us.”

“But in case they do see us as helpless,” Smaller thought, “we shouldn’t stay here convecting their emergency energy. We’ll never know if we’ve exploited them since we can’t properly communicate. They use liquid instead of gas to think, after all.”

“But we shouldn’t let their energy diffuse and go wasted either.”

“Then we should give it back.”

This time, Larger only had to swirl a few trillion isotopes to reach his conclusion. “Agreed.”

“I’ve shunted some extra energy for them,” Smaller thought. “It should cover seven eighths of each continent with fire via all jet streams.”

Larger checked the reserves himself. He sensed a level of stored heat far more generous than anything the people below could fathom. “Whether they’ve fired fuel at us or simply shouted ‘hello,’ they deserve our kind reply.”

“They’ll get the idea,” Smaller asserted.

Larger released the energy in a rain of plasma and pure fire. Though mundane in its pattern, the gift bathed everyone worldwide with more free energy than all their customs combined.

“For your troubles,” Smaller willed at them, though he knew they would never hear.

The nebula continued its journey, leaving the red-hot planet and passing the cold red one a short ways out. The vessel proceeded to the prettier gas giants beyond, its pilots content. After all, when someone waves, you should always wave back.