A Moth in a Hurricane

Horizon Breaker Class Exploratory Mining Vessel
IF-EMV Stoneburner
Hyperbolic Planetary Escape Trajectory
82,000 KM over Amateru, Epsilon Tauri
January 2219

High velocity gas and microscopic rock fragments pelted the thick metal hull, echoing around inside like rain on a tin roofed house. Eleanor Murphy was born in space though; she had never felt the rain on her skin, laid in a field on a sunny day, or swam in the deep blue waters of an ocean. To her, the sound was unnatural, unnerving, it spoke to her of the incredibly hostile environment all around them, one which would not hesitate to kill her and everyone else in an instant. A wave of goosebumps rose up her back and she felt a chill despite the exosuit she was wearing.

The Stoneburner had completed its burn, they were coasting in a hyperbolic trajectory that would take them across the center of the gas plume before ejecting themselves from the planet’s sphere of influence entirely. They were still accelerating slightly from the pressure of the gas on their hull, but they had nearly matched velocities with it so the thrust it imparted on them was minimal, just enough to make loose items slowly drift to one side of a room, but otherwise impossible to detect.

Murphy ground her teeth together as she struggled to see past the clouds they were soaring through. Even with the radars, they were getting enough bounceback that it was impossible to see more than a few kilometers in any direction. She adjusted course slightly as yet another continent sized chunk of dead moon loomed up out of the gloom and slowly tumbled by them. Owen was still unconscious from the brutal acceleration, and Murphy let him rest, the old foreman would work himself into an early grave if he had his way. She filled the emptiness as she usually did, talking to the ship.

“That’s it girl, just ease right on around,” she mumbled as she tapped the thrusters. The gas was beginning to thin as the ship neared the center of the plume, and visibility slowly began to climb. Alarms began going off then though, trajectory calculators began throwing up impact alarms, alerting Murphy that their course had them on an imminent collision with an object still lost ahead of them in the gas clouds.

“What’re you seeing…?” She asked the equipment, tapping her finger against one of the screens. She strained her eyes out the windows but could not see anything beyond the orange and yellow clouds of hydrogen. The collision sensors were telling her there was something huge in there, but there was nothing that big anywhere in the world’s orbit.

“Hmm.” She hummed to herself. “Dense cloud of gas maybe?” She twisted a dial that adjusted for atmospheric density, but the dedicated screens interpreting that data continued stubbornly insisting there was a solid structure hundreds of kilometers across that was blocking their passage.

She gave Owen a shove, “Hey,” She said as she shook him lightly, “Wake up, I need you to take a look at the radar data.

Owen groaned and squeezed his eyes, trying to block out the light of the cabin. He was aware first of pain: the stiffness of his joints, the tender aches in his muscles and bone, the deeply seated fatigue that penetrated his organs and bones.

“Owen!” Murphy said insistently, jabbing him again.

“What?” He asked gruffy, flipping up his visor and rubbing his forehead. Not willing to take chances, Murphy had already began slightly deforming their trajectory, attempting to curve around whatever the sensors thought that obstruction was. She pointed at the radar screen, where a thick line curved away from them, as if delineating an impossibly large cylinder somewhere ahead in the gloom.

“Have you ever seen something like that before? Could it be some sort of sensor echo off the clouds? Cause I don’t have unlimited fuel to work with, and I’d really like to save it for real things if I can help it.” She explained as he looked confusedly at the monitor.

“I can’t say I’ve seen something like this before.” He said after a moment, “could it be another moon somewhere in there?”

“It’s wider than any of the moons were, going off the measured curvature, its like, 3,000 klicks across. Amateru doesn’t have any moons that big.” She tapped the glass screen. “And it seems to be in the center of the gas plume.”

Owen pursed his lips but shrugged. “I can’t say I like it, but I also can’t say I know what it is. I’ve never seen anything like any of this.”

“Well whatever it is, it’s so big I can’t do a very good job of steering clear, we’re going to pass within a few klicks of it in a bit.” Murphy said as she tapped the thrusters again.

That drew Owen’s eyes out the glass windows. Something huge was looming ahead in the gas, but it was impossible to discern at this stage, it existed merely as an area of darker gradient than its surroundings.

“Should we tell Kaito? He might want to turn the mining LIDAR on it at th–” Murphy’s words were cut off as one of the windows suddenly exploded, ripping all the air from the room in a terrific lung collapsing gust of force. There was a moment of great sound as the wind whistled past his ears and the alarms roared in anger before everything fell silent in the absence of a medium to conduct the vibrations.

His visor had been up, and so had Murphy’s. He blinked back freezing and boiling tears and looked to his left. Murphy was flailing in her seat, panicking as she gasped and found only emptiness.

Owen could hear the blood pounding through his veins, the liquid gurgling and trying to boil in his guts; in the absence of other noise, his body was obscenely loud. He tried to draw a breath, and his circumstances and observations finally caught up with his thinking.

He calmly reached over and closed Murphy’s visor before doing likewise with his own. There was a suddenly loud hiss as the suit repressurized, and he gasped in a breath despite himself. He shook Murphy to make sure she was still breathing, and sighed when she made a thumb’s up gesture through the suit. He activated the internal radio and keyed it to the command frequency.

“Kaito the nav bridge just lost pressure, I haven’t looked into the cause yet, but if I were a betting man, I’d say it was a rock strike. Murphy and I are alright, we’re both in suits up here, but these computers were designed with air in mind. Half the screens are dead already and the other half are quickly dying. You’re going to have to take over navigation down there.”

There was a few moments of intense silence as Owen assumed Kaito digested the news. Then his voice came back over the headset. “Copy that. Get Murphy and get out of there for now. Do we need to make any immediate course changes?”

“No, not at all, don’t do that.” Murphy suddenly broke in, having connected to the line while Kaito was speaking. “I just put us onto a course to avoid a very large unknown object at the center of the plume, if you adjust course, we might hit it. Maintain our trajectory exactly if possible, I’ll take back over steering when I get down there.”

Owen turned to exit the room, but he froze in the middle of unbuckling himself when his eyes went out the now destroyed front window. Something impossible was emerging from the clouds ahead of them. In the center of the gas plume, a huge hollow far larger than a world had been created. The hollow reached down into the deep roots of Amateru’s core, which shone with a brilliant yellow light. In the center of this cavity though, was the impossibility. A rude spike of dark metal, point facing towards the shining core, hung in space before them. It had to be hundreds of thousands of kilometers tall, with thin wire-like protrusions reaching out from the point and impaling the shining nugget of the planet’s hot center. Green, purple, and orange lights danced across the object’s surface in inexplicable patterns and it hung there motionless, like the barycenter around which all of reality might pivot. Murphy poked him when he didn’t move for a moment, so taken aback by the sight that he hadn’t heard her speaking to him. He pointed out the shattered window and finished unstrapping himself. When he looked up again, Murphy was now also frozen in transfixed awe.

“Are the rest of you seeing this?” Owen said finally into the radio.

“We see it Owen.” Alice’s voice came back. “We see it.”

 

Newton Class Exploration Ship
MSCV Empiricist
Elliptical Orbit
8 AUs from Luyten’s Star
January 2219

HUMANS?! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? HOW DID YOU COME TO THIS PLACE? WE MUST [UNTRANSLATABLE] WE HAVE MANY [UNTRANSLATABLE] TO DISCUSS. WE HAVE LITTLE TIME BEFORE [UNTRANSLATABLE]. IF YOUR VESSELS HAVE REACHED THIS DISTANCE FROM SOL, THEN THEY WILL ENCOUNTER [UNTRANSLATABLE] VERY SOON. THERE IS LITTLE TIME. YOU MUST [UNTRANSLATABLE] AT ONCE.

The translated alien message hung on the wallscreen, as if silently passing judgement upon all of them. The staff meeting had stretched into overtime as the decision to begin communicating was argued back and forth.

“Let’s just go over the content of the message again, and see if we can’t draw any further conclusions from it before deciding what to do, okay?” Kestral held up eir hands in a placating gesture, using a soft tone to make up for cutting Evangeline off before she could begin shouting at Cale yet again.

Jean held up a hand, and when the room went quiet, she asked, “Cale, can you replace the untranslatables in the message with the…” she fumbled for the proper terms, “The untranslated alien script, the thing that’s untranslatable.”

“I can.” He said, raising an eyebrow and taking on a vacant expression as he started manipulating the document from his implants. “Why though? It’s just scribbles until Emmy’s deep learning algorithms finish pairing symbols with concepts.”

“I want to know if they’re different words.” She answered.

“But, they don’t have individual words, their language is more compressed than that, if you could hear them communicate, which you can’t because it’s outside the human auditory range, it would just sound like music, continuous.” Cale replied. He’d replaced the first two untranslatables with strange squiggly lines that curved back and forth over each other.

“No, no, I see what she’s getting at.” Ivy said, encouraging the younger woman. “Even music has individual notes, at some level there need to be individual bits of information.”

Jean nodded, pointing at the message as Cale finished swapping the untranslatables with the raw alien script. “See, they’re all different, except for the first and last, which are the same. Its like mad libs.”

“Mad libs? Really?” Evangeline snorted. “None of you are linguists. This is all conjecture and I still think the most conscionable course of action is to hold position and continue with our information exchange until another vessel arrives with more equipment.”

“It’s useful conjecture, we can narrow down the problem space and at least eliminate some possibilities.” Cale retorted.

“So to break it down,” Kestral began, holding up eir hands again to prevent another round of bickering. “Here’s what we know, based on the message.”

Ey went up to the wallscreen and interfaced with it through eir implants, ey made a gap between the lines of the message and began writing in between the margins, like a teacher making edits to a student’s paper. Ey circled the word humans in the message.

“First thing, they identify us as The Ones Who Will Become, it’s a set classification for a hierarchy of species based on technology level. However, they append that phrase with the exact location of Sol with respect to the center of the galaxy. That’s how they identify us as humans in their message. That means they know about our species, and they must have encountered us at least once before. But despite that, they’re surprised to see us here. The set we fall into is basically ‘pre-spaceflight industrial’ so the last time they visited us was probably a while ago. ”

“Are they capable of being surprised?” Ivy asked. “They’re not human, their emotions might not neatly translate into ours.”

“Based on their line of questioning, they weren’t expecting us here, and yet here we are. Even if they don’t interpret that sequence of events emotionally the way we do, we still violated their expectations, that’s basically equivalent to the idea of surprise.” Ey answered with a shrug. When Ivy didn’t raise any further objections, ey continued.

“So anyway, we must something. This one is probably related to communication and our two methods of talking are different enough that the translation algorithms are stumbling over it, it’s also the same as the last something in the message.”

“Makes sense to me.” Cale said.

“Which brings us to the main body of the message. We have a lot of X to talk about. We only have a little while before Y happens. Then a logically ordered if then statement. If our ships are here, then we will encounter Z soon. They don’t give time intervals, or if they do then our algorithms haven’t figured them out yet. Then they say again that we’re short on time.” Kestral went quiet and pursed eir lips, ending the set of edits made to the message.

“But they don’t give time intervals.” Evangeline said from the end of the room, folding her arms in front of her chest.

“Evangeline, what exactly are we allowed to do under COPMAN as far as the information exchange goes?” Jean asked.  “Are we allowed to ask for elaboration on specific concepts, or does that go past information gathering and into the realm of diplomacy?”

“We can request elaboration. That doesn’t exceed the bounds of our role.” the Conscience responded.

“I think we should ask them specifically about that fourth untranslatable.” The XO said. “Whatever it is they are…concerned…about, seems to center around that term. It’s the thing they say we will encounter soon if we’re at least this far from Sol.”

“That’s actually a really good idea Jean.” Ivy had to fight to keep the disbelief out of her tone, she almost couldn’t believe that once again, the flighty, panic prone XO was proving to be the voice of reason. Ivy felt as if she’d fallen into wonderland or something.

“Let’s just ask about all three terms.” Cale offered. “Request specifics on all those untranslatables. We’ve already been doing that to a degree, but we’ve hesitated to ask for more before now, since they’re already flooding us with more than we can realistically sift through, even with Emmy’s help.”

Ivy clapped her hands. “Yeah, let’s do it. Any objections?”

The staff members looked between one another, but no one raised any new concerns.  

“It works for me.” Evangeline said finally, peeling herself out of her chair. Cale nodded in assent and Ivy let out a sigh.

“Alright then, meeting adjourned, go do your jobs everyone.”  Ivy said as she quickly shooed them all out of the room before they could start arguing again. She grabbed Jean as the XO was preparing to leave and held her back, waiting for the last of the other senior staff members to leave before closing the door.

Ivy collapsed back into her seat, rubbing her face with her hands. Jean hugged her arms to herself, her expression pensive as she studied Ivy’s face.

“Are you alright Commander?” Jean asked finally when Ivy failed to speak up.

“This whole thing makes me nervous.” She answered, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “How’s it all sitting with you?”

“Well, it’s kind of one of one of the greatest discoveries of all time. We’re probably going to show up in history books alongside Armstrong and Thellis.” Despite her claim of optimism, Jean’s voice was drained; the week and a half since they found the Lament for Lost Worlds had been hard on all of them.

“I sense a but in there.” Ivy responded with a small smile.

Well yeah.” Jean admitted. “It’s all incredible and fantastic right now, but sooner or later the other shoe is gonna drop. This is an inflection point, it’s going to change everything.”

“For the better?” Ivy asked.

“We should hope to be so lucky.”

Δ

The color had drained from all of their faces. Even Orion, whose skin was normally a shade of dark chocolate, had taken on a sick, greenish pallor. The dark rings hanging from all their eyes attested to the turmoil of the prior day. All around the members of the senior staff meeting, the wallscreens displayed images of carnage at an unimaginable scale.

On one wall, a ship the size of Neptune’s orbit was slowly swallowing a red giant sun. Across the table from it, a life bearing world was being rapidly strip mined from orbit by a huge many-legged alien machine. There were images of desperate space battles fought as last stands, war fleets of a dozen species obliterated in an instant before their homeworlds were dismantled and images of hopeless evacuations as refugees fled the wave of destruction; the screens scrolled through what seemed like an endless parade of misery and death.

Ivy tried to push the fear and anxiety from her voice, leaving her sounding dull and drained. “Today is January 27th 2219, Meeting 42 Mission 11 on the MSCV Empiricist, the topic of the day is…” She stumbled, her eyes drawn to the wallscreens. She shook her head and looked away before the scenes of destruction could completely distract her. “We all know what this meeting needs to be about. Attending today, Mission Commander Ivy Czininski, First Officer Jean Paoloni, Pragmacist Cale Rouschev, Chief Science Officer Kestral Schiaparelli, Chief Medical Officer Orion Warrego, Chief Engineer Mathias Corbin, and Conscience Evangeline Daedaelia. Does anyone have any opening remarks?”

Evangeline looked like she had spent the last several hours being violently ill, Kestral’s hands were visibly shaking, even Cale had nothing to say. The images of celestial destruction continued to dance on the screens behind them as the room fell into an uncomfortable silence.

“It’s almost too big to swallow.” Cale said, rising shakily, he leaned on the table for support while waiting for the blood to finish swirling around his head. “I don’t want to believe it, and I would be extremely relieved it turns out this is some sort of elaborate lie to steal our technology.” He chuckled nervously and rapped his knuckles on the tabletop. “But it’s also too big to ignore. We have to act, for now, as if the information they gave us is valid. If it is, then based on what we’ve translated so far, then there’s another alien race out there somewhere in the galaxy that represents an imminent existential threat to humanity.”

Evangeline answered hollowly from the end of the table. “I agree with the Pragmatist’s assessment. It would be unconscionable to ignore the potential risk represented before us.”

Jean cleared her throat, and asked, “So I’ve been looking at these very pretty pictures of shit getting wrecked all day, but no one’s bothered to tell me anything about what exactly is doing the wrecking. Who are the bad guys here?”

Cale and Kestral looked between themselves and Kestral answered, “The Ones Who Came Before call them the Reshapers, though that might not be what they call themselves.” Kestral stared into eir hands as ey spoke.

“Yeah, and according to the Spider-Birds,  they’ve been systematically dismantling the galaxy for the last 10,000 years, sweeping up and destroying anything in their path.” Cale said, continuing for em when ey went silent.

“If they’re so bad, why haven’t we seen them before?” Jean persisted. “How have we just not noticed something this huge going on?”

“Well, the Spider-Birds said the Reshapers originated near the center of the galaxy, which is 26,000 light years from Sol. They’ve been expanding for the last 10,000 years and they’re already almost to us. That means the wavefront of their expansion is outrunning its own light cone.” Cale’s voice was laced with an undercurrent of awe that he couldn’t quite keep out of his tone.

“So what do we do then?” Jean asked, leaning her elbows against the table. “Go back to Sol and warn everyone?”

“That’s one option.” Cale said, “But I don’t think that’s the one we should take.”

“The Contact Operating Procedures Manual gives us a wide degree of latitude in how to respond to an X-risk.” Evangeline explained from the end of the room. “Most of the regular contact procedures can be discarded in this event. Our primary purpose is now to learn as much about the X-risk as possible, and neutralize or delay it as a threat to humanity if we are able.”

“I doubt we’ll be doing much neutralizing today unfortunately.” Ivy added on.

“Which leaves us with information gathering.” Cale said. “And we definitely need more information. I think it’s time we start actually talking to them.”

All eyes in the room went to Evangeline, remembering the argument from yesterday. She sighed, trying to prevent the formation of an awkward silence. “I agree with the Pragmatist. It would be an unconscionable risk to humanity not to use all avenues available to us in order to investigate this new threat.”

The room fell silent as they all digested this information. Behind them, the crawling scenes of destruction played silently across the wallscreens, still showing world after world snuffed out and harvested for material.

“So,” asked Jean lightly, “Who wants to be the spokesperson for humanity?”

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One thought on “A Moth in a Hurricane

  1. When Owen lowered Murphy’s visor first I had to smile as I remembered the airplane oxygen mask instructions they drone on about before every single flight. Owen definitely isn’t one for professionalism and protocol even if he has the staying calm when shit hits the fan part down to a tee. 🙂
    And those are some really damn shitty computers for a room adjacent to space…

    I’m curious if the aliens all originate from the same planet or something. Because one would expect that otherwise they would already have immense experience when it comes to first contact and that, coupled with their superior technology, they would have done quite a bit better with that first message of theirs and wouldn’t have needed to rely on human translation protocols. Then again, maybe humans actually are more advanced when it comes to AI and translation systems. Who knows.

    By the way, what is your stance on typos being pointed out in the comments? I saw a couple of very minor ones in the last few chapters but I never know if I should openly point them out in the comments when no one else has done so yet.

    Like

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