The first set of instructions was received in May of 2089. After a period of disbelief, skepticism and blame, it was the scientists who finally knuckled down to decipher the message. Written in a slightly abstracted form of Base-7, this didn’t take too long and the content of the message became clear.
Earth had picked up a broadcast for a set of instructions on how to build a spaceship. By the time the UN, various organisations, and the couple of dozen governments capable of building the ship had finally decided on a course of action to build it, South Africa had already done so.
The first completed ship, christened the Mandela, was a bizarre conglomeration of pipes, cells, and pods, surrounding a crew capsule built for seven. There was zero space for any cargo bar moderate supplies for the crew.
After extensive ground tests, which revealed almost nothing about the ship, the Mandela took off for the first time in early 2090. A shakedown flight proved the ship to be an intuitive and capable flyer, after which the initial mission was launched.
During this time various governments and agencies attempted to build another ship from the same instructions. All failed. Design and manufacture were checked and rechecked, scientists from the successful Mandela construction were brought in to no avail. The ships simply sat there, inert. All attempts to coax them in to life failed. The South African team began construction of a second ship from the same instructions, to be called Biko, but after several months found the same problem as all the other teams. The Biko simply sat in its construction bay, refusing to do anything at all.
Earth now had one functioning spaceship that was able to journey to Saturn in a single flight. The data it brought back was invaluable in research terms, but from a practical point of view – apart from some minor advances in material sciences – the alien instructions had brought little to the people of Earth.
Eighteen months after the failed attempt to build the Biko, another message was received. This time there wasn’t just one set of instructions, but three. The three spaceships were all totally different from each other, and from the Mandela. The only similarity was in the style and construction of the weird pods, capsules, modules, and nacelles. One of the ships was huge, measuring over 120m from tip to tip, yet only had room for a crew of one. The next was a similar size to the Mandela, but room for a crew of four and a large storage area that seemed to be made for cargo. The third ship was smaller than all the others, had two identical crew compartments, each with seating for one, and had a very small cargo compartment.
If there was method or design to the types of ship instructions being beamed to earth, nobody had manage to figure it out yet.
The three ships were to be built, instructed by the UN, by China, the US, and the EU. No other agencies, corporations or governments were permitted to attempt to build ships. This obviously didn’t stop rogue building projects starting up. Some were discovered and shut down, some were only rumoured, and some weren’t discovered until it was too late.
Of the three official ship-building projects, two were successful. The EU, and China both managed to produce working ships, almost identical in operation to the Mandela, but with slightly different performance figures. The US attempt to build a ship failed. Nothing seemed amiss during construction, but once completed the ship simply sat inert in its berth. Scientists from South Africa who had successfully built the Mandela, and failed with the Biko consulted with the US, but nothing was found that could explain the dead ship. Until a few weeks later when a new ship, launching out of Russia, was observed. It was identical in design to the ship the US was had built – but it was obviously successful. Once the diplomatic incident had died down the scientific consensus seemed to be that there was something inherently unique about the way the ships manipulated Space/Time, and that meant only one of each specific ship could be built. The way each ship interacted with whatever weird dimensions, forces and fields provided propulsion, seemed to prevent that exact configuration being used elsewhere. There was much discussion about whether or not this effect was proximity based. Would the Biko work if the Mandela was far enough away? The answer to that, after extensive tests, was no. After sending the Mandela out past the orbit of Neptune, testing of the Biko commenced – and it still just sat there like an expensive rock.
Over the next eighty years, at intervals which were as random as could possibly be established, the instructions for another 317 spaceships were received on Earth. Sometimes the messages included instructions for up to a dozen ships, sometimes the instructions were for a single ship. Eight sets of instructions were received in 2099 for what were obviously interplanetary communications relays. Looking like small ships these provided a massive boost to the speed and bandwidth available for human communications between the planets.