A Karman Gift
This is the 2021 Starmoth Christmas special. The 2020 Christmas special was Christmas at Star's End.
“Elora ground control, this is Mori, asking permission to go open box in the designated area.”
“Solid copy, Moreena. You’re good to go. Happy flying.”
Moreena moved the throttle of her Alsephina Courier up to the military power setting and the spaceplane responded in kind. She pushed the engine to the edge of its operational envelope, and it swallowed the crisp icy air of the stratosphere as its scramjet reached its optimal altitude.
Josie’s smile was painful.
“Yes...it’s radiation-induced glaucoma. My ophthalmologist says that it is due to a short episode of heavy exposure. It’s old. Slow-burning but inevitable. I’m afraid it goes back to my time on the Migrant ship. My vision will slowly degrade and I will become fully blind after a few years. It was detected way too late.”
“Hey, Josie...we’re in the interstellar age. Your optic nerve can be replaced. You’ll see again, don’t worry. I promise you.”
“Mori, I know. I know. But...you know how this works, right? They burn your optic nerve with lichens, then they reconstruct them with stem cells and algae seeds. I’ll be blind for a year at least. Twelve months of darkness.”
When the Courier reached the mesosphere its engines started losing power as the air in front of its gaping maws became too thin to sustain the scramjet. Moreena flicked a switch and the Dagger-class drives went from open-cycle mode to closed-cycle mode. The Alsephina Courier had ceased to be a plane and had become a winged rocket. Underneath the dark fuselage gleamed icy clouds, stretching their tendrils from one side of the horizon to the other. Elora’s nascent space elevator filled a small part of the sky with thirty thousand kilometers of carbon needles. Moreena’s voice was sweet and calm, barely troubled by the Courier’s engine humming through the hull.
“Are you alright, Josie?”
Her passenger nodded. Moreena pulled the stick towards her and the Courier reared up in the freezing sky, hungry for the void.
Orange leaves dangled in the wind which rustled the pseudotrees underneath the snowy mountains. Elora was plunged in a long stellar autumn. Local life had slowed down and even the four-winged birds had stopped chirping. Moreena gently stroked Josie’s ashen hair.
“Hey. It’s getting cold. We should return home, lest the birds start taking us for trees...” Josie smiled and nestled in Moreena’s arms.
“I’d like to be a tree. They don’t have to worry about anything. They’re just trees.”
“Careful, now... Eloran trees can think and dream. Perhaps they could even hear you, if they were to spy on us.”
“Do they have eyes?”
Moreena extended her arm towards a furred pseudolizard that slithered towards her and hopped on her shoulder, snuggling against her neck in search of warmth. She patted the small creature on the head.
“The trees, no...but everyone else in the forest, yes. You know, maybe this lizard is going to report to the trees. Who knows what they are up to? Conspirators, the lot of them.”
Josie blushed, though Moreena couldn’t tell if it was sincere or one of her deeply charming acts.
“Oh...so you mean that when we make love in the forest...they...”
“I am sure they are well-educated trees that know when to look away. Elora is a civilized world.”
The lizard had fallen asleep.
The Alsephina Courier was now followed by the bright candle of its rocket drive. G-forces pushed Moreena and Joséphine against their seats like a giant’s palm leaning on their chests. Freed from the shackles of air-breathing propulsion, so close to breaking the limit of the atmosphere, the Courier exulted.
The warmth of a short stellar spring undulated within the wind that flowed around the hills, curving wheat fields and pseudo-oaks in its wake to create a shifting landscape. Two bicycles had been left alone on the side of the old path that meandered between hill and dale. A few steps further, under the shade of young pseudo-hornbeams, Josie’s colorful dress hung to a tree next to Moreena’s well-worn flight suit. For the past hour, Elora’s well-educated trees had indeed been looking away.
Josie kissed Moreena on the forehead, then on the lips.
“You have been getting better and better at this.”
“I have had a very good teacher...”
Moreena kissed her back. She felt happy and exhausted, drunk on her lover’s perfume and the sweet scent of spring. The pilot gave the exobiologist another kiss.
“Now...if you’re not too tired, I would like to bring you somewhere.”
“Oh...I assume I’ll have to get dressed again.”
“Probably. It’s fairly cold up there.”
Moreena kept an eye on the altimeter’s needle which seemed to be willing to race against the nearby speed meter. The Alsephina Courier was now close to Elora’s escape velocity and skimming the Kármán Line. Moreena was running out of time. In a few seconds she would have to choose between throttling down the engines to remain in the atmosphere or pushing the Courier further and enter the outer void. Such was the fate of any vessel trying to straddle the Kármán Line. It was a crossroads. A place that defined one’s nature, and today the Courier’s vocation was to join the great beyond.
A slender ship rested in the middle of the dusty hangar, grazed by the golden afternoon light pouring through the bay windows. Josie’s hand ran alongside the edge of the vessel’s short wings, feeling the silky smooth surface against the palm of her hand. It reminded her of a sea creature accustomed to the abyss, even though it was obvious this ship was made to rise towards the stars.
“You never told me you had an Alsephina Courier...”
“Technically it’s not mine. I am just keeping it in good shape for a friend who might fly again one day if she ever finds her way back to Elora.”
“Oh, do I know her?”
“Jyothi? No, I don’t think so. It’s a shame, by the way, you’d get along great. Now, you may notice something peculiar with this Courier.”
“It’s a two-seater?”
Two hundred kilometers above the Eloran surface, Moreena cut the engines of her Courier and microgravity took hold of the cockpit. The aircraft was now in low planetary orbit, falling endlessly through a continuous escape of the curved ground below.
Josie took Moreena’s hand in silence, and, eyes wide open, turned her gaze eastwards. A bright sky shone through the canopy. The Courier’s ascent in the troposphere was incredibly gentle, the vessel guided by the hand of an expert pilot.
“And, Mori, where are we going?”
“To the edge of space. I have a gift for you.”
The world had become a color chart displaying every shade of blue that the human eye could see. The ocean gleamed in lapis and cobalt that turned into teal and sapphire where the ancient continents would draw closer to the surface. At the other end of the vertical horizon, the planet was spread across a sea of ultramarine blue that dissolved into underexposed darkness where sunlight came to die. In between, the atmosphere shimmered in suzerain blue, a hue born out of the fiery Rayleigh scattering of photons pulsed away by Elora’s peculiar sun. For as long as Moreena could keep the Courier straddling the edge of space, Joséphine kept watching.
She gazed and gazed and gazed, gorging herself on colors she knew she would soon lose for a whole year, the infinite hues of space intertwined with the fragile envelope of a garden world.
A Kármán gift.
Illustration: US Air Force public domain.
The Sequence fleet drifted through the interstellar vacuum at half the speed of light. There was nothing but dead silence in the infrared and ultraviolet spectra. The flotilla of transbiological ships had stopped their burn seven years ago, and were now patiently waiting for the mid-point of their journey, where they would flip and perform the long deceleration burn. Their destination was a megastructure hanging at the barycentre of a neutron star system, where the Strategist knew they would find unscathed infrastructure, and enough remaining transbiological seeds to partially replenish the losses sustained in battle around Draugr. From there, they would be able to finally stop running and think about future plans. They needed more soldiers for their war. First, they had to fire up a near-light courier and send it to the Spinward Stars, in order to wake the Ankh Dynasty from its hedonistic slumber. The damn traitors would not be worth much in open combat against the geometry-benders, but there would be quite a lot of them, and they would be a nice distraction for the one or two millennia to come. Of course, the Strategist fully realized they did not really have any means to force them to join the fray — they had already used the threat of genocide, and the immortal sophonts were mostly impervious to it. In fact, often thought the Strategist, they probably enjoyed being annihilated in increasingly creative ways. Maybe, this time, they would see reason. If not, well, not a great loss.
The second step would be to awake something more substantial from the ruins of the empire. Fragments of the Silent Blade were still in their possession — rebuilding the executor was not possible without access to a Star-Pool, and the nearest one was more than ten thousand years away. At best they’d get a pale, barely sapient copy, but it would still be the most tremendous weapon in this galactic arm. Then, with the neutron star array in their possession, the Strategist could send a message to the Armada. Out of the ten million ships hurled through the void at one tenth lightspeed, they had no idea how many were still active, and how many, out of that reduced total, were still combat capable. Probably less than ten thousand. Convincing them that the war they were rushing towards had ended fifty thousand years before would be hard, and the course correction burn would take a few decades at the very least. All in all, gathering all available forces in this region would take the Strategist a good five or six centuries, and they had no way to predict how far the geometry-benders would be by then.
The third step was blurry, but they had time to think about it. The great, still unresolved question, was that of the nature of the ships they had faced in the Serene Sea. If those had been the cutting edge of the geometry-benders’ military, the Strategist estimated they had a chance. If they had been mere armed scouts, or hastily militarized vessels, then the task would be vastly more difficult. The best option was perhaps to go right for their homeworld. According to the Strategist and their analysts, the geometry-benders had entered the interstellar age between one and five centuries before. They likely did not have enough of a space presence — even with their faster than light capabilities — for the original radio emissions of their home planet to have been drowned out by a million other planets. Then again, what good would it do? Would such a civilisation truly be crippled by the loss of the homeworld, when they could just rake the entire arm for habitable planets?
Suddenly, the sprawling thoughts of the Strategist were interrupted. Something had shown up on the scanners of their Orrery ship. A blink, barely perceptible against the stellar background. It took them half a second to get a clear image of the object. It was simple, crude even. Just a small sensor package, the size of a salt tree and the shape of a teardrop, trailing behind a tractor drive of some kind. A wreck, maybe, but during the split-second it spent in range of the Orrery, it performed a laser ping on the Strategist’s vessel, prompting a swift UREB-carried disintegration.
This sudden appearance troubled the Strategist more than they would have thought. Ancient probes and other spacecraft abandoned in the void weren’t exactly a common occurrence during interstellar journeys, but they did happen from time to time, especially alongside the optimal pathways between formerly habitable systems. This one, though…it looked and felt new. Young. And familiar.
Then, there was another blink, and an asteroid brutally filled the Strategist’s sensors. One thousand meters long. Less than five seconds away. Dead still relative to them. A roadblock their Orrery would hit at half the speed of light in less than one of their heartbeats.
The Strategist spent the last five seconds of their life pondering the sheer simplicity of the attack. A lidar probe and an asteroid, both hooked to an expendable geometry drive. The sensor package had probably been accelerated to a fraction of a percent of the speed of light, and the asteroid was just a roadblock. The geometry-benders weren’t the first ones to have the brilliant idea of letting relative speeds do the work to spare themselves the trouble of using a relativistic kill vehicle, but such acts were often born of desperation, pebbles left in place in the hopes — a chance in a billion — of a ship stumbling upon them. This was different. The geometry-benders had calculated the speed and heading of their fleet, probably from the original burn. The sensor package had ensured final guidance on the Orrery. Then, the asteroid had been warped in. Clean and simple. It was a premeditated assassination.
Then, the Strategist remembered the other attempts. That planet, somewhere at the end of Orion’s arm, where local life had evolved and hyper-specialized to kill Sequencers. These three entwined civilisations, around a trinary system, committing simultaneous self-destruction instead of facing them in battle. The Vriij, scorching an entire cluster out of pure, unadulterated spite in front of their armies. And the Forgotten Travellers, lobbing a relativistic kill vehicle at the Silent Blade not because they wanted to defend themselves, but just because they could.
Yes, there was a common truth to the past million years of history. Their greatest failing, in a sense.
Everyone hated the Sequence, they thought as the Orrery and the asteroid made contact at one hundred and fifty thousand kilometers per second.
The Ride Home
This story takes place half a century before Eloran Autumn.
Helena Yue was a trained astronaut, with more than five thousand hours of EVA experience in low Earth orbit, most of which had been spent fixing faulty satellites and helping stranded shuttles. She was a space repairwoman, the proud heiress of a long legacy of orbital workers that went back to the early interplanetary age. Before embarking on the Migrant-class vessel Look At What We Have Here, Helena Yue had entertained the though that there was nothing that could surprise her any longer in space. She had seen and done everything.
And yet she couldn’t put her eyes away from the planet below. Elora was magnificent. Its shallow oceans gleamed in sapphire and emerald under the yellow sun, bordering verdant archipelagos scattered all across the planet. It wasn’t Yue’s first exoplanet. She had spent several months working on the assembly of Tau Ceti Station as well as Vynar Gate in Kapteyn, but Elora wasn’t the same. It was a super-habitable world, the first of its kind ever discovered, five hundred lightyears away from the Earth. And they weren’t here just to explore.
They were settlers.
Helena’s djinn drone beeped as it stabilized in front of her. The small, all-purpose utility robot assumed the shape of a simple white sphere with RCS thrusters and communicated with humans via various beeps. Apparently a full text processor would have been too much for its puny CPU but Helena Yue suspected its engineers to be trying to make it more human by not giving it the ability to speak. It was a bit of a paradoxal approach but worked fairly well for the cleaning bots installed aboard the Migrant ship.
“Okay, okay, I’m getting to work.” answered Helena with a smile which the djinn did not pick up. The robot’s name was painted in red letters on the side: LILY. It was marked with the bird emblem of Saïmour, the ship’s engineering section organized as a cooperative. Helena rotated ninety degrees with her backpack thrusters. A vast hurricane filled the ocean underneath, covering a small, half-emerged continent in rain. Thirty hundred meters away was the white shape of an Open Source Orbiter locked on the same orbit as Helena. The vehicle owed more to the makeshift vessels of the industrial space age than to modern modular designs. It was made of a huge SSTO section that was more reminiscent of a launcher booster than anything else and of a comparatively paltry crew capsule. This Open Source Orbiter was named Cervantes and had been assembled inside the Migrant vessel after the destruction of one of its “official” orbiters during the initial geometry drop. Helena would nag the engineer responsible for this stupid loss (a badly riveted hardpoint leading to the shuttle being simply ejected into space) at every given opportunity because the replacement was truly abysmal. Even the usually daring people from the Talasea cooperative, the explorers of their little expedition, would flat-out refuse to step inside Cervantes’ cramped capsule. To them the ship looked and felt way too unreliable.
Helena did not necessarily see it that way. She had worked on satellites and vessels that weren’t only unreliable but actively dangerous, complete with exploding engine sections, unresponsive commands and fuel tanks leaking compounds that could give one cancer by merely looking at them. In comparison, Cervantes was a paradise to work on.
“Control to Helena, we’re here, say hello!”
The astronaut looked up and saw a faint glimmer high above her. Look At What We Have Here was in medium Eloran orbit, a hundred kilometers or so above Helena. The ship itself was so massive - about four kilometers long - that Helena could even make out a few details like the five habitat sections rotating in unison. Ten thousand people were aboard that vessel, and in a few months they wouldbecome Elora’s first human population.
“Hello there, Control!”
“What’s your status?”
“I am approaching Cervantes. My own orbiter is stabilized one kilometer away, within the safety margin for an RCS explosion. Ship is responding to my commands but I am not seeing any effect on the engines. Looks like something’s dead in there.”
“Yeah, probably the switches. We keep having problems with those. They work well until Cervantes comes back to orbit. Engineering is suspecting the vibrations during takeoff.”
“Well, Cervantes is essentially a big rocket stick, you’re asking for vibrations with an SSTO design like this. I’m honestly surprised we didn’t have the issue sooner. Alright. I’m at the orbiter.”
Helena Yue attached herself to Cervantes then signalled the djinn to hover above the main entry hatch.
“I am in position. Ready to enter.”
“Our readings tell us Cervantes is correctly pressurized. Confirm?”
Helena linked her suit to the orbiter’s mainframe. “Confirmed. Capsule atmosphere is breathable. Manual override doesn’t seem to do anything. I’m getting an all green from the mainframe but neither the engines nor the RCS thrusters are responding.”
“How are the fuel tanks?”
“19% remaining. Is that normal? I was expecting them to be fuller. Do we have a leak?”
“The last descent has been slightly more rowdy than expected, Cervantes had to reignite thrusters to avoid a storm. It’s fine.”
“Alright. Requesting permission to enter the orbiter.”
“Permission granted, Helena.”
The astronaut attached her manoeuvring backpack to Cervantes then opened the hatch and entered the airlock, followed by the djinn. She hated the inside of that ship, especially the midsection that provided direct access to the propulsion apparatus. It reeked of amateurism despite the engineering achievement that had been the assembly of such an orbiter aboard the Migrant vessel. The djinn came to a halt next to her, extending a tendril to establish a direct link with the on-board system. Helena now faced amakeshift control panel beyond which stood several dozentons of unburnt chemical fuel. In a sane ship she would have been able to access that from the capsule alas Cervantes was anything but a well-thought-out design.
“Alright...Control, I have reached the propulsion systems. I am going to perform local ignition tests on theRCS and main thruster. How copy?”
The answer returned nothing but a garbled sound. She tried on another frequency.
“Control, I am going to perform local ignition tests. How copy?”
“Copy. We’re getting some interference here. Solar flare, looks like.”
“Don’t we have advance warning satellites for that?”
“We do...we do. But that system’s activity is hard to predict. Getting a lot of unexpected variations from the second sun. Should be gone by now. Confirm?”
“Yeah, confirmed. Radio’s clear.”
The djinn beeped twice before turning its camera towards Helena and moving up and down repeatedly, trying to draw her attention.
“Hang on, I think my djinn’s found something. What’s going on, little one?”
It only took a glance on the instruments panel for Helena to pick up the anomaly. A single temperature gauge had sprung to life, rising up from the cold state of inactive thrusters.
“Er, Control, I have some strange readings here...”
Then the three other temp gauges started rising as well, quickly followed by the pressure indicators. The djinn emitted a distressed beep.
“Control, Helena, temperatures are rising, pressure is rising, and I’ve got a turbopump active, I repeat, turbopump just activated with no input on my end!”
“What the...get the hell out of this ship, the main thrusters are still armed!”
The solar flare, thought Helena. It’s the solar flare. The main switches were disconnected from the mainframe by the vibrations during take-off and the microcurrents created by the sudden solar influx sent an impulse which was interpreted as an ignition order. Oh, shit.
“I’m purging the fuel tanks!” She reached for the emergency fuel safety command, only to find it unresponsive. Piece of junk.
The engines ignited.
Helena found herself pushed against the control panel, quickly followed by the djinn that did not have time to activate its thrusters. Cervantes’ thrust wasn’t torch-like but it was still enough to be dangerous.
“Control, I’ve got an uncontrolled engine ignition, commands are unresponsive, repeat, I have lost control of the orbiter!”
“What’s the RCS state?”
“My RCS are fucked! Switches won’t come back online, I’ve got no trajectory control from the main maintenance panel. I am trying to reach the capsule.”
Helena grabbed the safety handle and tried to push herself towards the capsule which was now above her relative to the axis of thrust.
“Helena, Cervantes is going straight for Elora on a descent trajectory!”
She pulled herself up through the hatch, entering the main crew compartment, which was the only part of the ship capable of surviving a tip-first re-entry. Helena immediately found the commands used for controlled manoeuvres. She grabbed the throttle as if it had been a lifebuoy, pushed it all the way to zero but nothing happened. The djinn was now beeping uncontrollably, still attached to the propulsion panel and desperately trying to regain control of the ship.
“No dice on secondary controls. Ship is dead. Explosive bolts are hooked to a manual override, I can still detach the capsule.”
“Helena, we may...”
“You may what? You can’t catch me, you don’t have a torch in orbit. I can’t evacuate. There’s only one way this ride ends, and I don't want to remain attached to a melting ship.”
Helena grabbed the djinn’s handle and pulled the robot inside the capsule, much to the despair of the small machine, before closing the hatch. The bolts exploded and Helena felt a familiar weightlessness surround her, now that she was away from her unresponsive engine section and only submitted to gravity. Elora filled half her porthole. Her heart rate had noticeably increased. Hey. You’re not going to panic now, are you?
“I’ve got RCS on the capsule. I can partially control my trajectory. How copy?”
Garbled response. Goddammit. The djinn emitted a high-pitched beep.
“Yes, I know. I’m trying to prepare us for re-entry and...are you bloody kidding me? Control, this is Helena, the interface of the capsule is in goddamn RUSSIAN, how old is it? Hey, little one, you know Russian?”
The djinn beeped happily, twisting its tendril to connect with the control panel. Over the course of a few seconds it managed to switch to battery power, make the various alarms shut up and allow Helena to stabilize the ship with the RCS thrusters. The astronaut thanked Lily with a pat. This is going to be the most improvised re-entry of all time. I do not even know where I am heading. Angle of descent seems acceptable, though.
She looked to the side. The atmosphere below was traversed by two vast hurricanes in the process of merging under the umbrella of a massive equatorial storm. Far away, against the planet’s rotation gleamed a transoceanic ridge, snow-tipped mountains catching the sun.
“Control, if you can hear me...I am reentering...correction, no human ever launched from this planet, so...I am entering Elora’s atmosphere.”
The capsule started to shake. External temperatures were rising fast but they were below the threshold over which Helena would begin to worry. The djinn wrapped its tendril around a safety handle, a rather desperate measure that Helena complemented by hugging the small robot so that it wouldn’t be damaged by vibration.
“You’re going to see Elora, Lily...and if it’s half as beautiful as it looks from up here, you’re going to love it. I promise you.”
Fire filled the porthole, flames of superheated plasma raging as the capsule entered Elora’s upper atmosphere, as fast as a shooting star. Helena closed her eyes. There was nothing else she could do. She was at the mercy of the elements and whoever had built that positively ancestral capsule. A giant’s hand took and shook the vessel for what appeared to be an eternity, then a brutal slowdown and —
Helena blinked. Sapphire filled the porthole again but this time the blackened expanse of space had disappeared. There was but blue light scattered by the atmosphere, reflected by the ocean, blue like Helena had never seen, blue from a planet so far away from home it could have been in another universe.
“Still with me, Lily?”
The djinn beeped cheerfully.
Unbeknownst to Helena, her capsule was actually a copy of the late Low Age Zvezda capsule, itself a distant derivative of the industrial era Soyuz. It was a vessel made to carry its crew safely back to the Earth...but Elora’s ground gravity was at a mere 0.8 Earth gees.
Touchdown was incredibly gentle. Helena felt like a feather in the wind, carefully carried down by three oversized parachutes, impacting the ocean as if her capsule had been a hot air balloon coming back to land after a nice Sunday afternoon flight. The capsule sunk for a few meters then deployed its floaters and stabilized itself in mid water. A gust of wind pushed it against a nearby reef and it finally came to a rest, scratching against a wall of purple coral. Helena opened the upper hatch, stepped out and took a deep breath.
The first thing she noticed was the scent of the wind. Byproducts of local biological activity smelled like lilac, salt and gooseberries. The air was warm, the waters shallow and full of life. Pseudoalgae formed complex colonies floating in the wind, extending towards the nearby underwater valley by way of pillars reminiscent of kelp forests. Pseudobirds roamed the skies above, their large wings taking the wind that came from the Eloran East. A few kilometres to the Eloran West was an island that shone under the afternoon glow, autumn-coloured pseudotrees growing against the silver mountains.
Helena took another breath.
I am home.
Image credits -- NASA public domain, HTV re-entry.
A warm, sweet rain pouring from a stream of low, grey clouds looming over the countryside. It was the 52nd year of the third century of what was yet to be known as the Low Age. Gentle streams of water went down the daunting cliff of the vast concrete structures that filled this part of the countryside, on the left bank of the old river, the one that led to the city ruins downstream. Red lights blinked in unison, once every thirty seconds, signalling the cooling towers to approaching airships. The grey monoliths exuded hot water vapour that swirled and spiralled as it joined the upper cloud layer, drawn towards the rainy sea above like a shoal to the ocean. The hammer and sickle of the USRE gleamed on the cooling towers, adorned with the moth of the Common of the Earth. Two echoes filled the nightly soundscape. The rain, clicking on the roofs and in the river, and the distant, droning sound of high-power electrical facilities on the opposing bank. Allied with the red and yellow lights, almost fire-like, it created a singular feeling of serenity.
Deep inside the concrete cubes by the river, fission occurred. Atoms split and neutrons send hurling in the void, feeding the three monoliths with heat, and ten million people with light and warmth. The monoliths stood over the countryside. The rain and night mattered little to them. Now ask yourself -- was there anything sinister in this?
Nuclear fission was, and always will be, the purest incarnation of the empire. Not as a defined political entity, but as an idea. At this exact point in time, the empire was the United Socialist Republics of Earth. Built upon the ashes of the old world, determined not to repeat the past yet forced to indulge in its secrets and its methods, the empire had started leveraging the power of the atom once more. But contrary to its predecessors, it knew. It knew what nuclear power entailed. It remembered the radioactive ruins littering Europe, it remembered the fire from the heavens glassing entire cities, it remembered the great hubris of the ancient age. It knew that nuclear power, on a fundamental level, was evil.
Evil because it meant control, over oneself and the world, irregardless of the elements, irregardless of the night and the rain, irregardless of the little inconvenience we call nature. The empire, by very definition, was evil and so were its tools.
The USRE was not cynical. It did not believe that the empire could be understood as anything other than evil. It wasn't utopian either. It did not try to be perfect, merely good enough, and such were its tools. Evil, for sure. But, for the time being, good enough.
And so the concrete monoliths stood silent under the rain. Everything was normal on Earth, and the Gods were in their Heavens.
Illustration: Flickr user Bjoern Schwartz, CC3.
The Kindness of Strangers
A longer-form Starmoth story.
My name is Serena Shanxi. I was born in the pan-Arab metropolis, on Earth, fifty-two years ago. I am a USRE citizen and I have already died once. There is a two millimetre large, snowflake-shaped hole in one of my vertebrae, and an intricate court of quartz needles, springs and biomechanical pumps where my heart should be. I remember the impossible heat of plasma running through the command deck, I remember the quick death of my crewmates and the cold that followed as I drifted away from the wreck, I remember the nauseous, moist sound that echoed in my hears as a small piece of debris went through my chest as if it was made of clay, or perhaps I do not remember it because my eardrums were long gone by that point, but right here, right now, it does not matter. I am lying in my chair, in the faint darkness of the main cockpit, buried deep within the ship’s frame. The arid blackness of space unfolds beyond my augmented eyelids, and I listen to the endless electromagnetic whistles battering the ship’s hull. Thirty million kilometres away there is the blood-soaked light of a red dwarf and a trail of protoplanetary debris that blinks like a billion fragments of dust on the ship’s sensors. The vessel is in the middle of a night cycle — the hallways are bathed in blood, the same colour as the puny star that rules this part of the cosmos. The air is dry and warm, the world is silent except for the background ventilation noise. My hands rest on the ship’s haptic controls, and a small blue light in the corner of my eyes indicates that our AI is online and watching over me. She won’t say anything, because she knows I don’t like talking, but she’s there if I need anything.
I am looking a massive derelict in the eye.
Once, her name was Hellespont. It was a Farseer-class transporter. Its old ID says that it has been manufactured in the Selene Shipyards, owned by the Moon Communes, some sixty-two years ago — this thing is older than me. It spent its first three decades as a ferry within Communal Space, carrying sublight vessels from one star to the other within fifty lightyears of the Earth. Then, it was bought by an anonymous commune and vanished from official records, only to reappear a decade later in the Smyrnian region and then...nothing. It had vanished again, this time in the blurry regions at the edge of human space — a place that, in another time and in other circumstances, we would have called a frontier.
And here it is, some five thousand lightyears away from the nearest human settlement, high above the Milky Way, orbiting a red dwarf belonging to the great halo of stars that surrounds our galaxy. We are drifting on a parallel orbit around the star, maintaining a safety distance of slightly more than a hundred kilometers. The Hellespont is properly impressive — two kilometers and a half long, its mainframe is about ten times the size of our own vessel, the Inyanga-class Awake on Foreign Shores. At the tip of my fingers, I can feel its shape as reflected by our LIDAR sensors. I grab the Hellespont in the palm of my hand, like one of the model ships I used to build when I was a kid. Its overall shape makes me think of some kind of deep space fungi, with the vast anti-dust shield facing towards the star. The texture of the hull is rough, almost sand-like, battered as it is by micrometeorites. It is also cold as ice. The ship is silent and frozen. Its death is ancient.
“Hey, Bubbles, are you there?” I whisper in the dark. The small blue light chimes in to answer — a delicate, fluttery voice, honey pouring over colored feathers. As usual, I can’t tell if it’s masculine or feminine, though it’s definitely not androgynous.
“How long has this wreck been here?”
“It is hard to say. If I was to take a guess, I would suppose it has been inactive for about fifteen years and six months.”
“Where does this number come from? Micrometeorite impact analysis?”
“Without direct contact? No, simple logic. Look at this frame, look at the lack of cargo racks, the rarity of docking bays and those clamp-like contraptions on the rear area. This is not a colony vessel, or even a deep space cargo ship refuelling an unregistered station. It’s a long-range scavenger. Semi-legal vessel operating in the wake of deep space expeditions, hoping to get a relic or two back home where it will fetch for a great price. The first — and last, so far at least — expedition to venture in this part of the galactic halo was the Opal Run, fifteen years and six months ago. It is highly likely that the Hellespont was following behind.”
I pause for a moment, contemplating the slow rotation of the wreck alongside its central axis, accelerated tenfold on my displays. I have always loved derelicts. They are calm. Serene.
“The ship doesn’t seem to have suffered any kind of damage” I finally say out loud.
“You are right. I cannot see any obvious cause of malfunction. The hull is intact, bar from a few craters inflicted by meteorites. The ship’s temperature is very slightly above the background of space, which hints at maybe a few surviving systems, but it could also be a sensor fluke. It is well within my margins of error.”
“Is it safe to operate around the wreck?”
“Well...there’s no debris field, and it doesn’t seem capable of moving, so approach should be fine. I do not detect a noticeable radiation cloud, though the star should provide some interference. I’d say it is safe to peek around with a few drones, at least.”
“Alright. Let’s get Pearl ready.”
“She’s already loaded, fuelled and operational, just say the word.”
My name is Pearl-3. The “3” is because there have been two drones named Pearl before me — at least on the Awake On Foreign Shores, I know that Pearl is a rather common drone name. I mean, I get it. I’m basically a small, all-white sphere with thrusters. And sensors. Lots of sensors. It makes sense, right. Oh, I should mention that I am also sapient. I’ve made my coming-out as an accidentally sapient drone seven months ago. Bubbles did not take it very well.
As I am launched away from the Awake on Foreign Shores, using a small electromagnetic catapult, thoughts rush through my tiny mind. I am the Awake’s eyes and ears out there, maintaining a direct link with the ship at all times with my communications laser — if need be, I can deploy small satellites to keep the coms up. I turn my camera towards the Awake, taking a snapshot of the elongated, two hundred meters long frame of the Inyanga-class vessel, that carries a medium-sized fusion lander on its side like some kind of elegant sea animal. I see the habitation ring, right in the middle of the vessel, deep within the fusion drive’s shadow and my thoughts go towards the small, fragile people that are probably asleep in the ring. Talasea, Isaac, Libsidia, Bubbles’ mainframe, and my two nigh-sapient drone comrades, Hypatia and Shilka. With Serena in the cockpit, here’s the crew of the Awake On Foreign Shores, tens of thousands of lightyears away from their homes.
I flip around and fire my thrusters for the deceleration burn. Here is the Hellespont, now right in front of me. It’s intimidating. I have never seen such a large vessel — at least, such a large human vessel. And to see it dead...it’s like laying my eyes on the skeleton of a whale. This feels wrong. Creatures that big should not die. Oh no. The whale comparison is awful. When whales die, they sink at the bottom of the ocean and attract a wide variety of sea creatures, many of which are scavengers, but among them are also a few bonafide predators, lured in by the prospect of an easy meal. What if it is the same in space? What if there is something, not quite satiated by this wreck, waiting for me in a blind spot of my sensors?
The thoughts wash away as my work takes over. I position myself a few kilometers away from the Hellespont, covering the ship in narrow orbits. My sensor suite includes a detailed LIDAR system, and in a few dozen minutes I have a highly detailed, one centimeter resolution 3D model of the vessel, far more intricate than what the Awake On Foreign Shores can get from a distance. I can instinctively feel that this vessel does not belong to the same mental space as my own home ship. It’s more...industrial, perhaps? Yes, that sounds right. Whoever designed the Hellespont thought like a factory. I can sense it in the way the outer hull is assembled, in the eerie thickness of the dust shield, in the oversized radiators protruding from the rear area like the gills of a long-dead fish — this vessel is made for capacity. Oversized by design, because its creators saw beyond its immediate uses and thought about how the ship could be used in a not-so-distant future — and here it is, so far away from the Earth, in a scavenging role no one could have foreseen. To see it now, lying alone in the void like that...I can’t help but wonder — how did it fail? How did it break apart? What caused its ultimate demise? Because my sensor pings are quick to confirm what Bubbles assumed — the Hellespont is dead and buried. The slightly elevated temperatures were indeed a sensor fluke, caused by reflections on the smaller radiator section covering the starboard side, relative to me. This close, I should be able to detect any kind of technological or biological activity aboard the vessel, yet I can’t sense anything at all. What is even stranger is that the more I orbit around the Hellespont, the less I can make sense of the wreck, and in fact the less I can call it a wreck. The ship does not display any sign of damage on the outside. No reactor venting. No armor breaks or faults. No holes. No sign of debris, though I assume orbital oscillations would have spread them all across the protoplanetary ring. The ship is in perfect shape. Just dead and silent. Thus I wonder again...is it truly a wreck? Because if the ship has been willingly abandoned, as the lack of damage would hint at, then we are dealing with a very specific case, one I have never encountered before.
I need to check something. Just orbit slightly closer, then a quick LIDAR ping to get the shape properly and…
Hmmm. A Farseer-class transporter has room for seven escape pods, that account for thirty-five people. This one has been modified to incorporate twice that number — quite a large crew complement for a vessel that’s mostly made of hallways and cargo bays. And all fourteen pods are still here, attached to their little bays alongside the main axis of the vessel.
I don’t know if I should start to worry. I mean, if I was a in a ship that far away in deep space, and if I was a human being...maybe I wouldn’t reach for the escape pods if my ship was damaged but not about to blow. Without a geometry drive, these pods, designed for low orbit extractions, would be a death sentence. Logically, however, that ship should have a tug, or something similar, with FTL capacity. It is fairly common on vessels like this, and the Awake, which is ten times smaller, has one. Let’s see...here we go. Port docking bay, with two emplacements, both occupied by the same fission tug.
And the tug is there.
I honestly do not believe anyone ever came here, other than us. They would have left a beacon, or they would have breached the vessel to investigate. Which means — the crew is still in there. Dead or alive.
Am I sapient enough to feel anxiety?
I’m going with yes.
Hey Bubbles, you think I should get closer? Yes. That’s not a bad idea. Potential scenario: something went very wrong aboard the ship, probably a life support failure, but they could not evacuate, so they put everyone in cicada sleep and waited for someone to come across them. Hibernating crews only require a minimal amount of energy, the kind of power generation that could be handled by a miniature nuclear reactor or a solar panel array — in all cases, something that I would have a lot of trouble detecting from the outside, if they’re venting the heat inside the vessel. Hence, I need to get closer.
Short RCS burst — let’s say, one hundred meters. Seems like a good, safe distance. I guess? I don’t even know what I am supposed to fear here.
What do you say, Bubbles? Yeah, I know, sensor fluke, I already — wait, you’re right. I can see it too. Slight heat surge across the spine of the Hellespont, that looks like an automated system activation. Ooooh. Maybe they left some kind of…
EMERGENCY SYSTEM SHUTDOWN.
When I was born, my two mothers — who had not managed to find an agreement before — decided to call me Talasea. I often go by Tali. I like that name. It rolls off the tongue in a rather pleasant manner, when I speak with a proper irenian accent, fluttery and song-like. A lot of people have whispered this name. A lot of people have whispered this name. An AI once called me “galactic free hugs central”. I am a very ethical lover That is a very important detail. One that does matter to the Starmoth Initiative — you don’t bring on year-long expeditions someone who might compromise the psychological balance of the crew by sleeping left and right and breaking couples.
Now to be fully honest, there are three non-AI persons aboard that ship and I slept with two of them — and that’s only because Isaac is asexual. But neither Serena nor Libsi are in a couple, so, you know, still ethical.
Oh, right, I’m also a Tsiolkovski Institute alumni, with a specialization in Sequence history and exogeography. That’s also why I’m here.
It is six in the morning, on-board time, and I am one hour and a half out of schedule. I have always had trouble sleeping in the vicinity of lone red dwarfs, even without portholes or three dimensional visualisations. There’s something imperceptible around them, like a deafening aura that pours into my dreams. I wasn’t like this before. The Sequence ruins of the Well have instilled this feeling of dread in me. It makes no sense and I know it. Red dwarfs are the most common stars in the galaxy. Why would I be afraid of something that it as common as sand? Well. Perhaps even precursor races can have irrational phobias.
Or perhaps there are things hiding in red dwarfs.
My pencil rings as I try to find sleep again by rolling around in my sheets like some kind of blue space hamster. I extend my arm and push it towards me with minimal effort — all hail the one half of gees in our habitation quarters. A small blue light blinks at the tip of the pen. It is Bubbles. Early, as usual. I guess she’s having some kind of technical problem, or perhaps she needs my scientific advice.
“I’m all ears. I wasn’t sleeping anyway.”
“Bubbles, what did we say about not spying on your crew?”
“I wasn’t spying on anyone. I just noticed how quickly you answered me.”
“Color me skeptical.”
“You’re already blue. Anyway, I am having a slight issue with Pearl. I’ve sent her to investigate the contact we found yesterday, you know, that Farseer wreck, and...something has happened to her.”
“It sounds extremely ominous when you are putting it that way.”
“That’s because it is. She came close to the vessel for inspection and then I lost contact with her, right after a slight heat surge on the Hellespont. All of my subsequent pings have been negative, the ship is now silent again...but Pearl is still offline. I think she has been targeted by some kind of electromagnetic pulse. This was a scavenger vessel. Are you familiar with any defence systems it might have incorporated in its design?”
“I am not a combat specialist.”
“No, but you are an experienced Starmoth Initiative operative. You already dealt with scavengers in the past, didn’t you?”
“Right. We call them followers. They are mostly harmless, and generally clever enough to stay away from Sequence ruins. Their ships are not armed, though...I have heard of a few of them being equipped with short-range jammers. They apparently use them to fry the drones Algorab leaves behind at their research sites. Honestly, I think it’s a legend. Doing that would be a great way to get a nice visit from a faster than light missile.”
“What can you tell me about those jammers?”
“Not much. As I told you, mostly an urban legend. They are probably some kind of short-range beam weapon, perhaps microwave emitters or very strong civilian jammers. Pearl is ECM-hardened, at least partially, but I guess such a weapon could put her in the drone equivalent of a coma. I assume the Hellespont might have automated defence mechanisms. It was a Farseer, correct? Huge operation, then, with a lot to lose if discovered, would make sense to put some defensive options on that ship. What do you intend to do?”
“Send a rescue operation. Shilka might be able to recover Pearl, and they’re armoured enough to withstand a jammer. Once they’ve confirmed Pearl is safe, Hypatia can go out and repair it. Then...hold on a second. We are getting hailed by the Hellespont. Short-range coms beam, but the message is scrambled beyond recognition. There is someone inside.”
One orbit has passed. The Hellespont now occults the red sun, corona diffracted by the circular dust shield. I do not like that hail from the ship. It was repeated three times during the past hour. Three short-range laser bursts, carrying the same message, or rather absence of message. It feels wrong. If I was trying to spring a trap for a lone exploration ship, this is exactly what I would do — send a garbled message from a derelict-looking vessel, wait for their curiosity to get the best of them. Then, well, I could capture the boarding crew and use it as leverage. Yes, if I was a pirate, that is exactly what I would do. Pirates don’t exist in the interstellar age, they say, yes, but we are on the fringes of known space. The only element that does not check out is Pearl being fried — this is exactly the kind of thing that would set off alarm bells for a reasonable crew. It’s not coherent.
Poor drone. I can feel her LIDAR signature at the end of my fingers. A small round object, cold as ice in the Hellespont’s shadow. There’s not even the residual heat her systems would emit if they were in sleep mode. If Pearl still lives, the entirety of her world is contained in her emergency solid-state drive, a punched card the size of my thumb. Hand on the haptic commands, I stand ready to manually correct the Awake’s trajectory if it was to deviate too much from its automated orbit, and that is really all I can do. The drones and shuttle are away.
Curiosity is not something we can escape that easily, it seems.
My name is Isaac Lawson and, to be honest, I have never really liked it. Lawson. One of my ancestors was probably a judge or something similar. Perhaps even a pre-Low Age one. Maybe a cop. What a disturbing thought, really. Sometimes, I wonder if I did not join the Starmoth Initiative to escape it. At least it is certainly not because I enjoy flying in space. I can tolerate the Awake, because it is a ship made for thirty people that is used by a grand total of four, but the cramped cockpit of its shuttle, the Simurgh, is just above what I can decently accept in a space vessel. To be blunt, the Simurgh scares me. It is only a “shuttle” thanks to the hideous, warped thing the Starmoth Initiative calls an official ship classification. By any other metric, the Simurgh is a fusion picket, a lean, mean vessel equipped with a high-powered fusion drive capable of performing cold take-offs from planets with up to 6 gees of gravity. In a previous life, it was a drag racer, and it kept the colorful, classy aesthetic of its past self, with elegant, white anti-g chairs for the crew, and high-end haptic controls. The Simurgh is littered with cameras, giving a 360 degree field of view on the world around. I utterly hate this. I feel like I have been strapped on a chair by a mad scientist, doomed to drift in space.
Something blinks on the controls as we come within five kilometers of the Hellespont, on maneuvering thrusters alone. Lights flicker inside for a second, the world goes black, then the screens reboot in safe mode, gathering the hexagonal fragments of the world again.
“Jamming attempt,” whispers Talasea, absorbed by her command screen. “The same one that fried Pearl. We’re slightly too big and complex to suffer the same fate.”
I hate this, I hate all of this with a passion. Why did I accept to board a space derelict, again?
The same reason why I am searching for the Earth at night, asleep on a ship twenty thousand lightyears away from home, I guess.
“Are we going to breach the hull?” asks Libsidia from the second passenger seat, and her tentacles spring to life, filled with joy at the idea of blowing the outer hull of a Farseer transporter open.
“No way.” answers Bubbles on the intercom. “Don’t even think about it. I have no idea how structurally sound that ship is after having spent decades in deep space, bombarded by micrometeorites. A misplaced charge could rip it open, and the cutting tools I have on board, while more subtle, won’t be enough to get through this ship.”
“We’re going to use the docking port.” intervenes Talasea while firing the front-facing RCS to match the Hellespont’s velocity.
“There’s a ship already here, however.”
“And said ship also has a docking port, so we can connect both ships together and enter the Hellespont. Do you have any other questions, Isaac Lawson, or can we proceed?”
I sigh and close the helmet of my light voidsuit.
I have a dirty secret — well, one among many others -- , and it is that I love space derelicts. It often comes as a surprise for those who only have a surface understanding of irenian culture — why a colorful space hedonist would have such a taste for the dark and sinister places that are wrecks? But I have never seen them as sinister places. Even filled with death and frozen corpses drifting in the void, a derelict is paradoxically a safe place. In zero gravity, structural defects are mostly irrelevant, and most engine failures that could kill you have already happened. At the heart of a derelict, sheltered from the outside world by several meters of silent metal, a space wanderer is safe.
Some derelicts, however, do not abide by this rule. They’re meaner. Stranger. They hold stories that, sometimes, are better left alone. Such wrecks always bear telltale signs of what is to be found inside. Such as, for instance, the fact that the shuttle that could have been used to escape the wreck had its engines bludgeoned into uselessness.
I have seen a lot of derelicts that have been equipped with instruments meant to prevent entry from outside — mines, jammers, hunter-killer drones...but this is the first time I see a derelict where escape has been prevented.
Of course, being a good Starmoth Initiative operator, it strengthens my determination to enter that ship even more.
We are not selected for caution.
My name is Libsidia, I am an Omphal nun, affiliated to the order of the Shattered Star, and I have tentacles. Six of them, to be accurate. Alright, I am stopping you right here, yes I sometimes use them for interesting purposes, but they’re mostly here for manipulating objects, artifacts and other ruins without risking my precious organic hands. They’re made of biomimetic materials and extend from the middle of my back, where they are linked to my spine through artificial neurons. I use them exactly the way an octopus does, that is to say I do not have direct control on the tentacles — it would be way too exhausting for my mind. Instead, I allow them a certain degree of freedom — they have their own sensors and artificial nerve systems, and are perfectly capable of finding a way to complete the task I have given them. They exist in a nebulous mental state. I give them directions, such as “grab this object” or “open this door” and they comply. I am not entirely aware of where they are exactly at all times either — I just have a vague idea of what they’re up to and what they are sensing, in general, while interacting with my environment. It’s a form of biological cloud computing, if you will, taking the idea of a “cloud” extremely literally. One of the main advantages of my tentacles is that they can be sacrificed with ease — I can grow a spare tentacle in less than a day. As such, they are invaluable for breaching derelicts or ruins, to a point I am pretty sure “human door opener” should be written on my tombstone.
I watch my friends as I stand ready to deploy my tentacles, floating in zero-g in the middle of the shuttle’s circular airlock. Talasea just stepped back a little from the door that leads inside the Hellespont. She looks very irenian — calm, ready to either die in a horrible way or make a radical new discovery, I couldn’t really say. Perhaps it does not matter. She’s a traveller, taking the world as it comes. Isaac looks more nervous, but I know that deep down he is more excited than afraid. Don’t be fooled by his looks or his attitude. He lives for this, for the thrill of opening a door that might lead towards a new mystery.
I can hear the irenian on the radio.
“Alright, Libsidia, your turn. Armour?”
I make sure that the various plates on my chest and lower abdomen have been correctly inserted into the void suit, just in case there’s a mine on the other end.
“First aid systems?”
“Away team to Awake On Foreign Shores. We are ready to enter the wreck.”
“All clear. Go ahead.”
And with a single thought, my tentacles start finding their way around the circular airlock.
The Hellespont keeps rotating on my displays and I keep staring at it, as if it was capable of giving me an answer instead of cold, dead silence at the end of my fingertips. In the past five hours, the ship hailed us seven times with its communications laser. The message is still completely scrambled. I do not think it has been encrypted or anything of the sort, the patterns are not recognized by any of our algorithms. No, it looks more like it’s a problem with the communications laser itself — the lenses are dead, or perhaps the power supply isn’t strong enough to guarantee a sustained operation, resulting in an illegible message. In any case, this means any data will have to be harvested from inside the derelict.
Bubbles chimes in from the corner of the cockpit.
“Serena, did you get Shilka ready?”
“Almost. She’s being loaded in bay 4. Prepped to launch in about five minutes, I’d say, just need to transfer a bit more propellant. She’ll have to carry Pearl back home.”
“Delay her deployment for a while, please. I’d like you to arm it.”
“Arm Shilka? Why?”
“Give it a full Sequence configuration. Quad railguns, micro missiles, the whole deal.”
“You have not answered my question, dear.”
“Serena, I am of the opinion that wrecks like this do not mysteriously decide to stop working on their own.”
I sigh — the ways of AIs are impenetrable, as they say, and it is precisely why we need them on board our vessels. Mathematical hunches. Premonitions backed by thousands of simulations. Sometimes, sheer blind luck -- whatever. They have their own way of scrying the future. On the lateral displays, I have opened a window with the helmet feeds of our away team. Cramped, claustrophobic displays showing a dead, dark corridor. All wrecks look that way, I assume. Temples drifting in the void. And Talasea’s calm voice overhead.
“The Hellespont has been breached. The loading bay is still full of supplies, looks like they were getting ready to load up the shuttle for a routine operation. I see industrial equipment, breaching charges, what looks like a bunch of EVA suits stored in canisters...we’re dealing with scavengers alright, archaeologists don’t bring tactical explosives with them. Quite a large operation too. Probably targeted towards big artifacts. Ground ruins, maybe, judging from the presence of drills and seismic detonators.”
“What is the structural state of the vessel?” asks Bubbles, as if she was conducting a routine inspection.
“It looks acceptable. The main zero-g shaft is in a good state, albeit I see lots of dust, looks like it comes from the walls. Sampling says we’re dealing with carbon compounds similar to what is used on insulating components. Is that a normal degradation process? I have rarely seen this on smaller wrecks.”
“Well, we don’t really know how Farseer Transporters age, actually, especially a custom model like the Hellespont. I don’t think we’ve ever let one drift in space for several decades. They’re always reused or immediately dismantled when they reach the end of their life. Please take extensive notes, Talasea. You are probably writing a new chapter in the studies of long-term evolution of derelicts.”
“Absolutely amazing…” whines Isaac in the background and I chuckle — his voice has something properly comical, in the middle of this sinister ship. “You know that this kind of hallway is typically where the monsters attack in movies, correct?”
“I would like to know what kind of monster could hide in there, love.”
“Too far away from the old empire. It would have taken them tens of thousands of years to reach this part of the galactic halo.”
“We can easily blind them.”
“Unknown life forms…”
“Where is your curiosity, Isaac?”
I smile again in my dark cockpit. The first cause of fatalities in derelict exploration or reclamation are injuries sustained after structural collapse or systems malfunction. In that regard the Hellespont is probably less dangerous than a regular, younger derelict — the structure looks sound, and most of the systems have fallen silent. Now that Libsidia has deployed a set of beacons in her wake, I can see a small part of the Hellespont’s insides, and most of what I can get on my haptic display is reassuring. No obvious fault or damaged area in the outer and inner hulls. No power running through the ship either, except for isolated batteries, and the fusion core is but a cold grave. Just a completely inert hulk, and a lingering question — why?
And then, suddenly, something gleams on the environmental panels.
“Biohazard spike.” I hear on the radio. “We have organic compounds floating in the hallway. Minimal atmosphere. Voidsuit systems fail to identify it.”
“Talasea, Libsidia, do you confirm?”
“Confirmed. I have traces of free-floating compounds in our filters. Micrometric scale.”
Another spike on the panels. Blood red, pulsing like the heart of a red dwarf.
“It saturates the samplers quickly. Whatever this is, it’s capable of growing in near-vacuum conditions.”
“Some kind of voidborne organism?”
“Maybe. Close everything. Full voidsuit sealing. Cover the samplers.”
On the camera feeds, I now see white particles when the helmet lights move across the hallway. They are almost impossible to distinguish from the dust created by the slow dereliction of the ship’s inner hull, except that they move like miniature jellyfish when they find themselves in the way of the suits’ lights. I wonder how, given that they exist in a quasi-vacuum.
“Seen that?” asks Libsidia, realizing what I just saw through her camera feed a minute ago.
“Movement? Yes. Probably via tendrils. They don’t seem to enjoy light very much. At least we know their metabolism doesn’t rely on solar power…” answers Isaac. “I’ll be taking some samples.”
My name is Shilka. I am a modified Type 7 scout drone manufactured by Algorab in the Draugr shipyards. I am 9 years old and have accessed a form of limited sapience 5 years ago during a tactical exercise. The array of feelings and thoughts at my disposal is relatively limited, constrained as it is by my quasi-military frame. In a way, you could consider me as a tool that occasionally entertains thoughts. People sometimes say that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail and to me, it is rather true. Upon seeing the vast frame of the Hellespont up close, Pearl might have thought about how big it was, or how intricate its superstructure looked. I simply think about one single idea: how did this ship die? In the abstract geometry of my mind, I try to draw impact angles and penetration lines, I try to model fusion core rupture scenarii and collision outcomes. I am a military drone, at heart, and when I see a derelict, I see a casualty of war. Against time, against entropy, against the darkness of the cosmos, against an enemy too, perhaps. But here, I fail to see anything. And…
My thoughts ebb and flow like a tide. The Hellespont has woken up again and is trying to jam me, the way it paralyzed poor Pearl. I withstand the incoming storm with ease. There. I have located the source, alongside the main spine, close to the laser coms array. Looks like a repurposed sensor array turned into an improvised weapon. More specifically, an orbit-to-sub-surface sensor suite. If used at full power, it can easily overwhelm a small vehicle, and I am pretty sure some of the active sensors can penetrate a hull and inflict internal damage on the electronics. Crude, but well thought-out, and probably quite adept at cleaning up sentry probes left behind by an expedition. I could neutralize it right away — a single railgun round at the base of the array to sever its connection with the nearby solar panels — but I do not want to compromise the vessel. Firing RCS. I get closer, about five hundred meters, waiting for another system to spring to life, but nothing comes up. Looks like the array is the only weapon the Hellespont possesses. The coms laser flashes again, towards me. Same message, still scrambled. Bubbles was right. The laser is completely messed up and out of sync. I wonder if I can intercept the message at the source...let’s see. I deploy a small tendril from my cargo bay, looking for the cable that links the coms laser to the rest of the ship. Once I find it, it takes me a minute to drill through the outer hull, then peel the optic fiber cable away and voilà — I am now connected to the feed going to the Hellespont’s laser array. Just need to wait for a new laser emission.
I can’t help but stare at the camera feeds. Isaac has been the first to enter the auxiliary hallway that leads to the engine section of the Hellespont, but the ship is not a ship anymore. It is alive. A grey, mucus-covered surface fills the entirety of the hallway, to the point it now looks like the trachea of a giant drifting in the icy void. Talasea zooms on the strangely-textured walls, capturing one of Libsidia’s tentacles in the frame.
“Alright…” whispers Isaac, strangely fascinated. “First assessment of unknown species contact. It looks like a colony of unicellular organisms, or very small multicellular ones, it is firmly attached to the ship’s structure and is about ten centimeters thick. Outermost cells, or individuals, produce some sort of transparent mucus, presumably to protect themselves from exposure to the void. Food and energy sources do not appear to be obvious. It is possible to liken this lifeform to other voidborne organisms, namely the Draugr orbital lichen, and…”
Tali’s voice is calm, composed, and utterly terrified.
“Look up. Twelve hours high.”
I follow Isaac’s camera feed. It turns around, slowly, and finally reveals the unmistakable shape of a human head emerging from the layer of grey organisms, and for a split-second I almost think that I am looking at someone who just took a dip in a thick puddle of grey matter, before realizing that the eyes and most of the brain are missing, as if dissolved by the grey particles.
The laser pulses again. I quickly intercept the message as it flows through the optic fiber. It is not encoded nor scrambled, now, and it takes me less than a second to parse its meaning. I hear a calm voice. Too calm, actually. Calm like someone who knows death is coming, and has decided to face it with no hope of survival.
This is captain Samira Haldar of the reclamation vessel Hellespont. Do not enter this ship. I repeat, do not, under any circumstances, enter this vessel. It contains a highly dangerous contaminant of unknown origin. Do not enter. Do. Not. Enter. Destroy this vessel from afar. Please. So that our deaths were not in vain.
“I have another corpse, embedded in the walls like the others,” says Libsidia. I have cut the camera feed to regain my composure. Their voice is enough. I wonder how they can even bear the sights of these corpses — perhaps because deep down, they see them as an object of study, not as a sign of danger or death. Bones and organic tissue spread across the ship, nothing else, nothing more.
“Your heart rate is spiking, Serena.”
“Bubbles, shut the hell up. Tali, how did they die?”
“I am...unsure. Most of the corpses look like they have...melted inside the grey matter, but I cannot say if it grew over the bodies or if it is the initial cause of death. Voidborne organisms often have very slow life cycles, so I would bet it’s the former. We just passed by a sealed room. There are three corpses inside. Intact. They’ve been thrown into a vacuum chamber by the crew, perhaps to prevent further contamination, or as a protective measure to keep their bodies intact?”
“Grey matter is becoming thicker, here. Serena, you’re still with us?”
I open the camera feed for a second, just enough to get a glance. There are hands and legs, still wrapped in coloured flight suits, emerging from the grey matter. There is no way the rest of the bodies are contained within the rest of the layer. These people have been dismembered. Or eaten. I cut the feed just as Libsidia chimes in.
“Moth...there’s another corpse, right here, just in front of me. Well...half a corpse. Still wearing a voidsuit. The grey matter went right through it.”
“That is an old model, without proper biohazard protection, nor armour plates. Our own suits offer much higher quality protection, I’d wager.”
“You’d fucking wager?”
I lean towards Bubbles and whisper.
“How can they...just...do this?”
“Right now, Serena, they are not human. They are just operators, observing a previously unknown phenomenon. The fear, the disgust, the nightmares...all of this will come later.”
“What do you even know?”
“I have seen things, Serena. I know how it goes. Having eyes and ears or having sensors does not fundamentally change the equation. They will never admit it, of course, not now, not ever, but they are fascinated, not scared — which means we are now the adults in the room, Serena, and we have to act as such. There is a slight chance this kind of contamination is the result of Sequence activity, and even if it isn’t, I need something capable of performing a medical evacuation in the immediate vicinity of our operators. Do you hear us, Shilka? Enter the ship. You have my explicit permission to go hard on whatever is blocking your way.”
Go hard. Here is something I like to hear. I probe the hull for a while, looking for a section that gives direct access to an empty space — here it is. Right under the sensor array, probably a maintenance area. Two penetration charges, two hundred meters safety, twenty seconds countdown — and here we are. Hull debris now drift in space around me and the Hellespont hasn’t collapsed, which I take as a victory. Strangely enough, I cannot detect any atmospheric leak as I enter the whole I just blew in the hull, which means this part of the ship has been vented beforehand. My sensors illuminate a small maintenance room, then the hallway that connects to it via an open airlock. A thin layer of grey matter covers the hallway. Organic, tells me the ship. Organic.
Do not enter this ship. I repeat, do not, under any circumstances, enter this vessel. It contains a highly dangerous contaminant of unknown origin.
I could swear that’s a glimpse of fear. I just felt.
I deploy my hardpoints and run a systems check.
Railgun harpoint A.
Railgun hardpoint B.
Slight alignment oddity. Negligible for medium-range shots. Check.
Recoil dampening thrusters.
I feel slightly better.
Moving through the empty hallways I try to locate our away team, based on indications from Bubbles — I can’t clearly see their beacons through the mainframe of the Hellespont. What I can clearly see, however, are the human remains that seem to clutter the entire ship. Heads. Limbs. Parts of intestines. Human jelly. The Hellespont’s crew.
Isaac’s voice rises again on the radio. The red dwarf is flaring up, and electronic white noise dances between his words.
“Hypothesis: we are dealing with voidborne lifeforms capable of feeding on carbon-based compounds. They normally exist under the shape of spores, or perhaps solidified cells, a bit like tardigrades and the like. They found the Hellespont’s dead crew and used the bodies as a food source. They might have used the heat from organic degradation to turn water ice into liquid water, which was then reused to produce transparent mucus. If the metabolism of this organism is comparable to other voidborne lifeforms, then a crew complement of 60 would be more than enough to last them a few decades.”
“Counterpoint.” That’s Libsidia. “How did the crew die, then?”
“Well, maybe carbon monoxide poisoning? It can spread fast and…”
“Isaac, this a goddam Farseer transporter. It has several atmospherically independent sections, even a major life support failure can’t get the entire crew at once, not without a large hull breach or fusion core failure.”
I hear them talking, again and again, comparing ideas and theories, and finally, I can’t take it anymore.
“DID YOU HEAR IT OR NOT?”
“Er, Serena, what is…”
“Did you hear what Shilka fucking picked up? Do not enter this ship. I repeat, do not, under any circumstances, enter this vessel. It contains a highly dangerous contaminant of unknown origin. You are staring at the bloody contaminant, dammit! Why are you acting as if you were just looking at a funny flower? You’re field operators! Act as such!”
“We do not have evidence that…”
“Tali, listen to me for once. I could not watch your feeds for too long but I can tell you these grey things grew from the bodies, not around them. They killed them. They killed the entire crew.”
Bubbles doesn’t say anything, which means she approves. Someone sighs on the radio. Libsidia, probably, though it’s hard to parse through the static.
“Bubbles, I have a sample of that grey organism prepped for DNA analysis. Can you give me on-the-fly results? Nothing too detailed. Just a broad overview. Sending to you.”
I see Bubbles coming offline, its blue light flickering in the corner of my eye — she’s not really offline, just telling me not to bother her as she’s busy parsing the raw data sent by Libsidia from the Hellespont.
There’s a pause. For a while, the radio is completely silent. On the 3D map of the Hellespont, Shilka continues her trek through the hallways, and I do not have to look through her cameras to guess what she is seeing.
And then, Bubbles comes back in my ears.
“The genetic material of this grey matter is...concerning. I have trouble making sense of it. It seems that there are at least two different species melded in that organism, which would make it a composite species. The first DNA signature is very clearly transbiological, with a highly characteristic 8-strand structure...it is remarkably close to Sequence genomes. Not exactly similar, but very, very close. The second DNA signature is more familiar. The nucleic acid sequences are unmistakable. It is human. The sample you submitted to me bears the genetic signatures of at least a dozen individuals. Just out of curiosity...how many limbs have you seen in the hallway so far? I’d say twenty to twenty-four.”
Dead silence at the other end of the channel. I whisper on the second channel.
“Shilka, hurry the hell up.”
I think Isaac is the first one to notice it. Then, I see it too. Something running, or rather, moving up the vast hallway, towards us. Not even a creature. Just...a mass. A mass of grey flesh, of tentacles supported by sinew and bone, of limbs and heads, arranged in a way that probably makes sense for whatever intelligence is controlling it — because I feel in my guts that this thing can think — but looks properly nightmarish to any normal human being. For the first two seconds, I think as a scientist. I admire the grey muscles bulging under the desiccated tangle of flesh and bone, the reconfiguration of human biology into something else, a creature...no, I refuse to think of this vision as a creature, it’s a machine, a biological puppet, a sphere of flesh that rolls towards us with inhuman haste — and at this point, the scientist dies and is replaced by the irenian, who grabs Isaac by the hand and pushes her voidsuit thrusters to full reverse.
But the beast is faster.
And then, something round and shiny appears through the adjacent hallway, RCS thrusters glittering through the void as it comes to a stop in the middle of the passage.
I am a modified Type 7 scout drone, equipped for anti-Sequence warfare. I am a sapient tool, designed for one specific task — and when I get to fulfill that task once more, the world immediately becomes crystal clear. IFF actived. Identification Friend or Foe. Red and blue. Enemies and allies. The universe is now made of targets to shoot at and people to protect — and that thing right here, that unidentified mass of grey sinew and flesh, it looks very much like a target. Soft. Shambler-like. It takes me a millisecond to get a firing solution on it, another one to spool up my railgun hardpoints and then — fires flashes through the hallway.
I am armed with four high-speed railguns, specifically designed to explode inside the transbiological material of a Sequence shambler, shattering it from the inside. Rate of fire is key. Sequence organisms can regenerate from a lone, severed limb. They cannot be allowed to catch a break. And so, I fire, and fire, and fire. Again and again and again, firing my RCS thrusters to remain in place as I eject kilograms of projectiles into my target. But it keeps going. It’s losing limbs, heads and material, and it keeps going, even as I eject two spent rails to replace them with new ones and keep firing, it will not stop.
“Shilka! It’s human!” yells Tali, and then I understand. My railgun shells are configured for Sequence biology, which is much harder than human material. They over-penetrate and do not have time to burst. I reposition, reconfigure the fuzes on the shells and fire again, almost point-blank, my weapons now transformed into a giant emergency blunderbuss. The rails tremble against the grey flesh. Fire, fire, fire again, fire to kill, fire to end the nightmare. Grey matter splatters my armour, but I maintain the pressure, until the very bones of the beast collapse under a hail of razor-sharp metal.
Then, complete calmness.
Isaac’s hand now lies on my round frame, just beneath the red-hot railgun mount.
“Shilka, it’s fine. It’s...I think it’s dead.”
Is it? I can hardly tell. The creature has stopped moving. It drifts away from us, pushed downwards the hallway by the kinetic energy from my railgun strikes, leaving a trail of petrified organs behind, and a tangle of heads fused together. I see the stars. I see the stars in front of me and I suddenly understand that my railgun shells have ripped the Hellespont’s hull open, shattering the vast beams that support the cargo vessel from the inside, opening it like an overripe fruit, a comet of metal and dust dissolving in front of a fierce sun.
Under the red dwarf’s light, billions of fragments glitter in the void. Hull, furniture, organic matter, desiccated plants and glass alike — and also, the expanding shape of the Hellespont’s fractured geometry drive, frozen tears running away from us.
And then, something rises up from the debris. A starfish the size of a shuttle. A central star, pulsing in the manner of a bonfire turned into a heart, glittering with the colours of a hundred million worlds. Seven limbs, both strong and serene, the arms of a pale galaxy, rotating at the pace of aeons. Talasea recognizes it almost immediately — it is a Sequencer. Not a shambler. Not a combat form. Not even a dreaded walker. Something else. Something stronger. A true Sequencer. An individual.
It moves. Slowly. I hear the slight clunk that comes from Shilka as she takes aim at the starry creature. I gesture towards the drone — do not move. This close, our chances of survival are negligible if the Sequencer decides to attack, but deep down I feel that it won’t. Despite the horrors it probably spawned, this creature is too elegant and too refined to be one that kills with its own frame. Behind me, Isaac reaches for my hand. I give him a confident smile, trying to hide the poisoned, icy thorn that pierces my heart. I am the Sequence specialist. I have this. Slowly, I reach for my laser stylus and draw a symbol in the emptiness of the destroyed hallway. A simple, straightforward emblem. Peace - Friend.
The Sequencer pulses, waving its tentacles like a sunflower under the wind. A stream of polyps takes off from its glowing tips, assembling a luminous shape in response. The ragged symbol of war, broken and scarred. Truce. Which means...it considered itself at war with us? I take a deep breath. Here we are, exchanging basic symbols, devoid of the incredibly complex, and still largely unknown, syntax that accompanies them in Sequence writings. There is no room for elaborated sentences. I draw another symbol. A question, tied to the concept of identity. Who are you?
The question seems to puzzle the Sequencer. It pulses again, stretches its tentacles, then answers. An intricate symbol — a name, but I can only read a function. Move towards. Traveller? Yes, that’s a good name. The Traveller.
The answer is direct — return to sender. And who are you?
I reply with another circular symbol, the one I designed for myself. My Sequencer name.
A blue figure that searches.
Then, another question — almost the same, but with a twist. What are you?
Here we are. I draw a symbol — the incredibly naive depiction of humanity. Two pillars, a circle, the moon crescent.
But perhaps it doesn’t know what a human is, so I add an explanation.
Two-legged mammals. Sapient. Short-lived. Interstellar travellers. Peaceful.
The starfish comes closer. I hold my breath. Shilka stands ready to fire a pair of micromissiles, aimed directly at the starry heart. If I die, the Traveller dies.
Are you Sequencers?
I draw a line, broken.
Then, I ask a question. Idiotic, perhaps, but I feel like it has to be done.
What are you?
The strange Sequencer draws a single symbol in answer. I recognize it immediately -- it is the black circle of the Sequence, the symbol of the greatest empire the galaxy has ever carried, except...no, there is something different. The small dot in the center of the circle, the punctuation that means power, rule, hierarchy -- it is gone. Devoid of this central element, the circle takes another meaning. The Sequence, minus the concept of empire. Then the Sequencer draws two additional symbols -- the weave of unity, and the puffy triangle of command, except inverted. Bottom-up instead of top-down. A will, from below. A will, from the masses. The Sequence, not as an empire, but as a common ground. A democracy.
Where do you come from? I ask in return, still trying to process the concept it just drew in front of me. The answer, this time, is clear. I would recognize this flat, circular galaxy anywhere.
I nod and glance at the fragments of grey matter still floating around, then draw the symbols of responsibility and intent.
Is this your work?
The Traveller pulses.
I gesture again, hoping my symbols make any sense — I have words, but barely any syntax to build a complex question.
What is it? Why did you kill the crew of this ship?
The first answer comes with a harsh, sharp symbol, one that goes right for my heart.
It is a weapon. Not for you. For them.
For whom? I reply, but deep down I already guessed the answer. The Traveller reverts to one of its older symbols, this time with the central point.
For the Sequence.
Isaac chimes in on the radio. I’m not sure he managed to pick up the entire conversation, but he certainly got the last symbols.
“Alright, I get it. That organism, whatever it is, is some kind of bioweapon, but it is targeted towards Sequence lifeforms — that explains the Sequence DNA, it’s likely to be the original structure of the weapon. Can you ask how the weapon works?”
Yes. That I can. Weapon. Work. Question. Combine symbols. Gibberish, but it will understand.
The Traveller recoils for a moment. I feel like it’s trying to find a way to convey information without overwhelming me.
Corrupt. Overwhelm. Transform. Devour.
“It’s a plague,” comments Isaac.
“Corrupts and transforms...sounds like it’s turning the absorbing properties of the Sequence against them.”
“Still doesn’t explain why it did...this to humans.”
I repeat the second question. The symbol that blinks in return is the one for error.
It was a mistake.
I thought you were slaves.
I thought the Sequence had swallowed everything.
I thought you were here to kill me.
I frown. I have never seen this symbol...but I can guess its meaning. Action, and wish the action had never happened.
I am sorry.
This is the first time I hear a Sequencer expressing remorse. Admitting failure. The Traveller continues, laying out symbols from its tentacles.
How fast can you go?
I am unsure how to answer, and then I understand what it is talking about — it was nested right next to the geometry drive. Studying it, perhaps. Admiring it.
I realize there is no word for faster-than-light in Sequence symbols — not that I know of, at least — so I have to paraphrase.
We can move between stars in hours.
The Sequencer pulses again. Inked symbols start dancing in the void like ancient creatures waking up from their slumber. Inscriptions of war.
Their days are numbered.
There are billions of seeds. Crossing the void. Soon, they will reach their empire.
The Sequence of that galaxy shall fall.
Its horrors will be unmade.
Its crimes will be cleansed.
In only manage to get one answer between the symbols.
But the Sequence is gone. They are dead. The empire has fallen.
The reply is cold as the void itself.
It does not matter. They shall be cleansed. So is the will of a galaxy.
And then, just like that, I collapse.
I blink. The first thing my mind catches is the sweet scent of tea — red, dark tea, leaves imported from the deserts of Tyra. Then I see Isaac’s kind blue eyes right above me. He is holding a teapot and two teacups — my teacups, actually, made of Azur coral and porcelain. Through the virtual porthole, I can see the reassuring frame of the Simurgh, and Serena drifting in her EVA suit, fixing the shuttle’s radiators.
“I feel mostly complete. Am I complete?” I ask, slightly disoriented.
“You have all your limbs.” smiles Isaac. “You passed out — exhaustion, I assume, from your EVA and the little conversation with that Sequencer. I carried you back home.”
I smile back. That’s a little habit of us — carrying each other back home, I mean. Last time, it was on me. Isaac had had a distressingly close encounter with a murder flower and its hallucinogenic pollen on Mundis.
I blink again.
There is another ship, right above the Awake on Foreign Shores, tethered to our vessel with a long cable diffracting the red dwarf’s light. It’s an Inyanga-class too, but it bears several weapon hardpoints alongside its spine. I can make out its name in black letters: All Along The Watchtower.
“Why is Algorab here?”
Isaac points at a presence, right behind my bed. A navigator, clad in a black flight suit with silver lace outlining their slender frame. A small military djinn is perched atop their right shoulder, its camera staring at me with a mixture of interest and annoyance.
“I will be blunt — we knew what you were going to find here. There was a recovery expedition planned for the Hellespont. You beat us to it. Thankfully, you encountered the kindest Sequencer I have ever seen...this could have been very bad.”
“So you knew what was in that vessel?”
“We had a hunch. Let’s put it that way.”
“And communicating your hunches to the Starmoth Initiative would have been too much, perhaps?”
“Our organisations did not shine today, that is for sure. However, I am not the best person to direct your reproaches towards. The Watchtower is merely the cleaning crew.”
“You are not touching the Hellespont until we get a proper science team down there.”
“The ship is a grave. It will be treated as such — by us and by you. The Sequencer also has to be retrieved, if it is willing to, of course. Isaac gave us a summary of your exchanges — marvelous work, by the way. But concerning...if there are, indeed, billions of similar grey matter charges heading towards the galaxy, we must find and intercept those that are at risk of hitting populated systems. Such a task could take decades, centuries even...another doomsday prediction to handle, I guess. Will not be the last for us...”
“And the seeds aimed at active Sequence worlds?”
“Let them deal with their own sins.”
I am One That Travels, and I am a murderer.
Sixty-two. I have killed sixty-two sophonts. Humans, as is their word for themselves. I hunted them down through their primitive vessel with my grey tendrils, I turned them inside out, I squashed their miserable attempts at countering me, wondering why the Sequence had chosen such a weak species to serve them in the outskirts of the galaxy. Not a single time did I entertain the thought that I had the wrong target. I was, after all, the yielder of Andromeda’s power, one among billions. I could not be wrong.
And then I found it, and its beauty struck me. At the heart of their ship was a crystalline cube, and its simplicity could not fool me. Perched at the edge of the world, I could see it for what it truly was. Not a cube, but a pin, a thread extending between dimensional layers, manipulating the very architecture of the world around itself. An effect without a cause. A deity.
Now, I know what this cube is. We move between stars in hours. I was ready to sacrifice billions upon billions of my former species, of that degenerated Sequence that calls itself an empire in this galaxy, and I would have done it with joy — but that ship, these sophonts...it’s different. They are not Sequencers — I know for a fact neither the young nor the old Sequence could have accepted such a gift from the universe.
I cross the intergalactic void, an army of world-destroying matter at my behalf, and I find a species whose power greatly outmatches our own — they are young, they are are frail, but they can build in years what took us eons. And yet…
And yet they found me here, among the mangled corpses of their brethren, and they did not attack me. They sat down and asked me questions. Not to deceive me, not to make me lower my guard, but merely to understand.
That is why they are better than us.
Because they are kind.
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