The Long Death (Part II)

“Madness. Absolute madness. Would you look at this thing?” Annie had a pod designed to facilitate extra-vehicular operations. It was virtually an antique, a kind of bubble-domed monstrosity that two people could barely squeeze into.

“Kind of a tight fit,” Peters joked.

“Yeah, well, don’t get any ideas. As we discussed, you’re not exactly my type.”

“I know, I know. This does feel a little like the beginning of a pornstream though…”

She eyed him coldly through the visor of her helmet. “I don’t know what kind of porn you’re watching, but if both people die in the vacuum of space at the end, you must find it in some pretty specialist corners of the ‘net.”

The ship had taken up a matching orbit with the structure, which everyone was now calling either Pi or Spacehenge according to taste and sense of humour. They were about two kilometres away from it, but it filled their vision as the doors of the bay opened up with an ominous silence. The bay wasn’t in the habitable part of the ship, so it had no atmosphere, and the pod was no different. In effect, they were already exposed to the vacuum, hence their bulky spacesuits. Another anachronism from an earlier age. Their oxygen would last two hours each. As Levitt gave their clearance they floated sedately through the open doors. At least, that’s how it felt. In reality, Annie was moving at around six kilometres a second in order to maintain her delicate orbit around Tethys, just a fraction more quickly than the Pi as it was in a very slightly higher orbit and the calculations required to pilot them smoothly over the intervening distance without sending them drifting aimlessly into space until their air ran out required half the ship’s computational power. Gia took a deep breath as she reflexively held onto the metal handles inside the pod’s cockpit, her eyes wandering over the control panel that Peters was operating. She’d flown a high-atmosphere fighter before, but this was beyond her expertise, so she was just a passenger. The only sound was her own breathing, the thud of her heart and the low-pitch hum of the radio receiver nestled in her ear. As Peters moved against her in the close confines of the pod, their suits rubbing together made a faint rustling noise. And that was it. Otherwise, dead silence. The yawning gulf of space opened out around them, and her breath caught. Every instinct she had was screaming in horror. The bubble dome allowed a disturbingly panoramic view of the endless black, peppered with stars. She realised that this was the first time she’d seen space with the naked eye since leaving Earth. Everything else had been filtered through the cameras that studded Annie’s surface, and as high resolution as they were, they still put a barrier between the reality of the void and her mind. But now…now she could see everything. The light of the stars, the glittering web of constellations, nebulae, dust clouds, was awe inspiring. She loosed her grip on the handle and, not knowing why, put her hand against the glass of the dome.

“You’ll get your chance to go out there, Gia,” Peters said through the radio.

She was about to say something sarcastic, when a light broke across the curved crescent of Tethys and, before their astonished eyes, the huge, orange-brown disc of Saturn crested the moon’s narrow horizon. The reflected light of the gas giant almost blinded them, until their visors automatically adjusted. Gia blinked away purple spots. “Wow…”

“Saturn rising,” Peters breathed. “How many human beings have ever seen that?”

Gia shook her head dumbly. She was barely even thinking about the alien object they were jetting their way towards. It was ironic, she realised, that here on the edge of perhaps the greatest discovery in the history of her species, what left them speechless was the simple majesty of the movement of the celestial spheres – planets that had been here, orbiting at their seemingly stately paces, for billions of years. It shouldn’t amaze them, but she was reminded of the words of her instructor, Hawkins, and his assertion that space was not their natural environment. They weren’t evolved to live in this place; no ape ancestor had ever dreamed of seeing Saturn rise over Tethys. No ape had even known that Saturn or any of its moons existed. The universe was so much bigger than their minds could encompass. What were they even doing out here?

“I’m going to land it on the top, okay?” Peters said.

“Huh? Oh. Yeah, okay.” She looked out at Pi, or Spacehenge, stark against the pale surface of Tethys. “Which part is the top?”

“The flat bit. What else would be the top?”

“We’re in space, Peters. There’s no such thing as up and down.”

“Fair point,” he acknowledged, “but it’s the biggest flat area of the object. Makes sense to touch down there. You know that, being the former ace and all.”

“I wasn’t an ace. There weren’t aces in Syria. Just a lot of people killing and a lot more people dying.”

“I’d love to talk about it sometime, but I think we have more immediate things to deal with right now.”

“I’m not ever going to talk about it.” She pointed ahead. “Set us down in the middle, I guess. Unless…”

“What?”

“Are we sure the magna-locks will work?” The pod’s flimsy-looking legs ended in four semi-circular magnetic grapples that could attach the vehicle to any metallic surface.

“Spectroscopy shows it’s made of metal. As long as there’s free electrons, the locks can handle it.”

“And if it can’t?”

Peters turned slightly and she met his eyes through his darkened visor. “Tie a rope to something?” he suggested.

They approached the object. It looked huge up close. Gia was so used to dealing in astronomical distances, thinking of hundreds of kilometres as close range, that in her head it was tiny. But compared to the cramped pod, and compared to her own tiny human body, the cylinder three-hundred metres across that made up the main body of Pi seemed enormous. Peters manipulated the thrusters to bring them down roughly in the centre. “We’re going to touch down in about thirty seconds,” he said as he pressed a few buttons. The control panels in the cockpit were chunky, like something from a century ago, so that someone in a bulky spacesuit could use them. “On my mark, engage the magna-locks.”

“Roger that,” Gia said. As her gloved finger moved over the relevant control, she considered how reliant they were on technology in that moment. If the magna-locks didn’t work, if their radios failed, if a screw was lose somewhere in the pod…the Long Death. The spectre of it always lurked in the back of their minds, but what would it be to be stranded on this strange structure, to be able to see the brightly lit Annie accelerate off without them, leaving them there to die alone? There was no spare pod, and no means to rescue them if something went wrong. They’d be stuck here for aeons, most likely, their frozen bodies a testament to mankind’s foolishness.

“Gia! Now!”

She realised Peters had been speaking to her, and she hit the button with a start. There was a dull vibration through the seat of her suit as the magna-locks engaged and the pod adhered to surface of the object with a clunk. The vibration didn’t stop once they’d attached. She and Peters both stared around themselves as the pod shook.

“Some sort of resonance? A power feedback?” Peters hazarded. Gradually, it subsided.

“Well either way, we aren’t going anywhere,” she said.

“What happened there? You were miles away…”

“Sorry. Radio the ship.”

Peters held her gaze, then tapped a button on the chest of his suit. “Little Orphan Annie? This is Peters. Come in. Over.”

“We’re receiving you loud and clear, Peters. Over.” Levitt’s voice said through their earpieces.

“Roger that. We’ve just made successful touchdown. Now proceeding to run final checks before disembarkation. Over.”

“Understood. We have you on our cameras. Over.”

Peters pressed the button again, and they were alone. “Reassuring,” he said.

Gia nodded as she ran through the checks and, finally, attached the clip to her belt that connected her to a long, carbon-fibre tether, the other end of which was attached to the pod. Peters did likewise with the second cable. “Ready?” she asked.

“As I’ll ever be.”

The bubble dome opened, and another layer of security between Gia and the hard vacuum of space evaporated. Her heart was beating fast now. Her pulse felt like a bass drum pounding in her ears, and she thought Peters must be able to hear it through the radio. She slowly unclipped herself from the seat and took a step out onto the surface of the Pi. To be told about the dangers of space travel was one thing, but to be out here, with only an insulated layer of fabric containing the environment that sustained her – the right air, the right pressure, the right temperature – was a different experience entirely. She stared out through the darkened visor as she left the pod and stood on the alien surface, looking out at the huge crescent of Tethys that filled half the sky, and the even huger shape of Saturn creeping up behind it.

“Congratulations,” Peters whispered.

“What?” She turned to see he was still strapped into the pod.

“No one’s ever done a spacewalk this far from Earth before,” he said as he followed her example and clambered out of his seat. “You just made history.”

“When they write down what happened today, somehow I think that aspect of it is going to be just a footnote…” But for the first time it occurred to Gia that they were doing something truly momentous. Word must have reached Earth by now. Clarissa would be watching the news, waiting to see what was about to happen. It would be hours or even days before she knew what was going on. What would she think? It had been hard enough to reach the decision for her to go into space at all. When news spread that she was on a spacewalk, investigating in person a strange, possibly alien phenomenon that…

“Look at this, Gia,” Peters said, taking her out of her reverie. She turned, a little too quickly, almost losing her grip on the ground below her feet. The boots on the spacesuits had specially designed grips that created enough friction to allow them to adhere to even an apparently smooth surface, so long as they didn’t make any sudden movements. And the tether to the pod meant she wouldn’t just drift away. But still, she didn’t want to have to be hauling herself back to safety every five minutes.

“What is it?” she asked after composing herself.

Peters was kneeling down, running his hands across the ground. The surface of the object seemed to be composed of some kind of cloudy, grey material. It was evidently metallic, or the pod wouldn’t have been able to attach itself, but it didn’t look like any metal Gia had ever seen. There was a strange sense of depth as Gia looked down at it, as if it was semi-transparent, but composed of many thousands of layers. As she stared, she felt like she could perceive some kind of structure in the mottled shapes within. Then there was a dull flash in the depths. Gia took a step backwards and looked at Peters. He nodded. It’s what he’d been looking at. “Did we pick up anything like that from the ship?” she asked him.

“Don’t think so.” As he moved his hand, a ripple of white light seemed to respond to his touch. “Best guess,” he went on, “it’s some kind of response to electromagnetism. Maybe when we engaged the magna-lock, it activated something.”

“Like our radio signal?”

“Exactly. And now the bioelectric signals from my hand…”

“This was waiting for us,” Gia said softly, “waiting for something to wake it up.”

“Let’s not jump to any conclusions,” Peters replied as he straightened. He tinkered with one of the instruments attached to the wrist of his suit. “Let’s try the diffractometer on this thing.” He nodded to himself as the readings came back. “As I thought.”

“What?”

“The structure of this material is a complex lattice. It’s crystalline. Thousands upon thousands of ordered layers of minerals.”

“Any idea what mineral?”

He shook his head. “Can’t tell from here. We’ll need to bring a sample back to Annie.”

“Okay then.” Gia crouched down and took out a sample tube from one of her belt pouches. She ran her hand across the surface. It seemed completely smooth, but up close she could see it was pitted all over by tiny holes. Impacts from micro-meteors. How long had this thing been out here? She removed a small scalpel from another pouch and drew it gently across the ground. Immediately, there was a bright flash in response. “Peters, it’s responding to the metal in my scalpel…”

He moved over to her position slowly, with the languorous movements typical of travelling in a zero-g environment. “Show me,” he said.

She touched the blade to the ground again and, as she held it there, threads of light seemed to spark somewhere deep in the structure, illuminating the criss-crossing lines of crystal lattice. She held it there, and the light got brighter and brighter, focusing on the point where the scalpel pressed gently against the surface, until it grew to a distinct, pulsing glow and then, with a jolt of energy, Gia found her hand pushed away. She released the scalpel in surprise, and could only watch in dismay as it pirouetted away from her, turning end over end as it floated off into space. The sight of it sent a shudder down her spine.

“Now that was interesting,” Peters observed.

“You think this thing’s…protecting itself?” she asked.

“No. I think it was just electromagnetic feedback. The metal in the scalpel, I guess.”

“Well, I guess we can say goodbye to getting any samples then. They’ll have to infer the make-up of this thing from spectroscopy.”

“Sure.” Peters looked around. They were in the middle of a huge, featureless grey disc. He walked around for a little while, then turned to Gia and shrugged. “There’s nothing here. It all seems pretty uniform.”

She bobbed her head in agreement, then tugged at the tether attached to her belt. “How long are these things?”

“Three-hundred metres, I think?”

“So let’s take a walk over the other side and see what those columns look like.”

“Sounds like a plan. Maybe this isn’t the top after all.”

“I notice you’re assuming that whoever built this even knew what a ‘top’ was.”

“And I notice you’re using the past tense to describe whoever built this…”

She stopped and turned to him. “Excuse me?”

Peters grinned through his darkened visor. “Who’s to say they aren’t still around? And now their satellite’s been reactivated by the presence of intelligent beings…”

“This isn’t 2001.”

“You’re the one who said this thing was waiting for us. And, as I recall, the original book did take place in orbit of Saturn.”

“I’m still going with the theory that this was built by humans.”

He walked up beside her and shook his head as he held out the instrument on his wrist. “No, look at this. The crystalline structure of this object? As far as I can tell, it goes all the way down. This whole thing is built out of a dense mineral lattice. No nation or corporation on Earth has the technology to synthesise this.”

“Maybe they dug it up.”

“And fired it into space? I think we’d have heard about that, Gia.”

“All right. Well let’s just check out these columns on the other side, shall we?”

They made their way past the pod, and then to the edge of the cylindrical platform that Peters had arbitrarily designated the top of the structure. There was a disorientating moment as Gia clambered over the edge and was then walking along the curved side instead. It shouldn’t have made a difference: there was no up or down here in space, and she was no more walking on the side of something that she had been before. It was all just her mind trying to make sense of an environment without gravity. But as she turned and saw Peters move from perpendicular to her to standing right beside her, she felt her stomach turn a somersault. “You okay?” he asked.

“Sure. Just…trying to ignore a few billion years of evolution.”

“We’re going to be overturning enough established scientific principles today without adding that one to the collection,” he smiled.

They walked a few minutes longer, their footing a little unsteady on the floor that sloped gently away from them to their left and right, then repeated the stomach turning ninety-degree transition again, so that they were now on the opposite side of the cylindrical base than they had been before. It was impossible for Gia’s brain to encompass the topography at any level beyond the theoretical, so she just pushed it out of her head. It wasn’t hard, because as she climbed to her feet on the other side, her mouth dropped open and her eyes went as wide as saucers. The great white crescent of Tethys hung over their heads and, above it, Saturn. From this angle, the main rings – the ones from all the telescope images – were visible, in all their heavenly glory. But, in front of all that, framing it almost, were the two towering columns, piercing the beautiful star field. They were two perfect cylinders, much taller than they were wide, of the same mottled grey material as the rest of the structure, and from this vantage there was no visible means of connection to the main base. They simply grew abruptly from the surface, at a precise right-angle, as if the thing had been manufactured as a piece, cast in some monstrous celestial lathe. But what commanded all of Gia’s attention were the rippling ghostlights that pulsed across the ground, towards the columns, radiating inwards and then flickering up their height, casting the whole scene in a ghoulish, stark light.

“They weren’t doing that before,” Peters said from one side. He was peering over the edge, eyes wide.

Annie, are you seeing this?” Gia asked, forgetting all protocol.

“We’re seeing everything you are, Sanchez,” Levitt’s voice answered her, “over.” They would be of course. They had several cameras on their suits.

Peters fumbled another instrument from amongst the machinery on his wrist. “Readings all over the electromagnetic spectrum. Concentrated on the columns and the…the space in between.”

“It started just a few minutes ago,” a voice said in their ears. It was Ostenfeld this time. “Do you know what might have triggered it?”

“Possibly,” Gia said, thinking of her impromptu experiment with the scalpel. “Is it safe?”

Ostenfeld’s silence spoke volumes. “I think…I don’t know…”

She exchanged a glance with Peters. “Do you really want to turn back now?” he whispered. It would be as audible to the others back in the ship’s control room as it was to her, but she appreciated the attempt at intimacy.

“Let’s go,” she said, move from edge of what she still thought of as the bottom of the main cylinder of the object. The frequency and brightness of the light pulses seemed to increase as they moved towards the columns, responding to their steps. It was all focused towards the columns themselves, sparking from the soles of their boots to their bases, then up and down, reverberating with some unknowable resonance.

“Peters, Sanchez,” came Ostenfeld over the radio again, “we’re picking up some very strange readings.”

“I can believe it,” said Peters.

“I think you were right about the structure of this object. It appears to be crystalline.”

“How can you tell from there?” Gia asked.

“The radiation. It has a very distinct pattern. Like a…a crystal resonance. There’s structure encoded in the amplitude and frequency of the pulses. I think it may be some sort of signal.” “Like language?” Peters said.

“No, more like…”

“Music,” Gia breathed. “I can almost feel it. I don’t know how, but the way these lights are moving, it’s like…like a song I think I should know…”

“Gia,” Peters said, placing a hand on her arm, “let’s not get…”

She shrugged him off. “I know what I’m doing.”

“Sanchez,” Levitt said though the radio, “hold on a second. The readings we’re getting are all over the chart. Wild oscillations, throwing out all kinds of radiation. The closer you get, the more agitated it’s becoming. It’s like you’ve struck a wineglass with your finger.”

“I know. I can hear it.” And she could. The vibrations were travelling through ground beneath her, up into her boots, and she could feel the faint hum of it all through her suit and then her body. Her eardrum vibrated, like tinnitus, but it was a beautiful, keening cry.

“Gia!” Peters called after her, but his voice was drowned out by the noise.

She held out her hand. The columns were less than ten meters away now, and she could see the lights starting to coalesce. They formed whorls and shapes across their surface, still pulsing and rippling, but now they adopted fixed shaps. Symbols. Letters. She almost felt she could read them. They were recognisable.

“Sanchez, you need to get back!” Levitt was screaming in her ear now, but she ignored it. As she held out her hand, lights spun on the column closest to her. Only a few metres now. They spun crazily for a few moments then, at the exact height of her hand, they resolved themselves into five points. Four were arrayed in a gentle arc, slight off-centre, and the fifth was off to one side, almost at a right angle.

“Gia…” Paters whispered. The surprise at finding him beside her barely registered, she was so transfixed by what she saw.

“This wasn’t built by aliens,” she said softly as she held her hand just inches from the surface of the column, where the lights matched almost precisely the shape of her fingers. “It was built by humans. To be used by humans.”

She reached out, lips slightly parted, eyes filled with light, then an iron grip on her arm stopped her short. She turned to see Peters staring into her eyes. “No,” he said.

“What?” The spell faded.

“Not today. Some day. But not now. It isn’t safe.”

She blinked, then drew her hand away in horror. The sudden movement nearly sent her flying again, but Peters’s grip on her was firm. He pulled her close to him, not out of affection, but simple human concern. “Holy shit…what was I about to do?”

“Something crazy. Something insanely dangerous.”

“I couldn’t help myself.” She stared up at the columns. The lights for her fingers were still floating there, seeming to be just under the surface of the column. The strange characters continued to glow too, just tantalisingly beyond the limits of her understanding and, between the columns, the lights flickered like arcs of lightning, bouncing from one to the other and back again. “I know this place. I don’t know how. I feel like…like…”

“Like you can understand it.” Peters finished.

“Yes.”

“We need to get back to the ship and examine all our readings. Then maybe we can come back, better prepared.”

Gia nodded dumbly and let Peters lead her back away from the columns. But she craned her neck back as she walked away, staring at the space in between the two huge grey pillars. Was it her imagination, or was the space in between them blacker than the rest of the endless, starry sky?

*

Gia sat huddled in the dining room. She couldn’t explain why she suddenly felt cold, but she kept her arms wrapped closely around her as the others went over the findings. They would have talked in the control room, but Levitt had wisely decided that everyone should probably be party to any discussions about this situation. Ostenfeld was currently summarising some of the readings.

“When Ms Sanchez approached the column, there was a massive build up of energy, all focused on the area between the two columns. It seems as if her touch was about to activate something within the object.”

“But what?” Levitt asked.

“Who knows? It’s nothing like anything we have on file. But it’s clear that it was intended to be used by a human being. That, or the object was capable of adapting itself to be used by whatever species was present.”

“No,” Gia said, shaking her head, “it knew me. Just like I recognised its song, it recognised mine too.”

Everyone stared at her like she was crazy. Well let them. They weren’t there. “What song?” Kuar asked.

“The rhythms of our bodies,” Peters answered for her. “Our steps, our breathing, our heartbeats. Maybe even our voices and the signals from our brains.”

“Funny you should say that,” Ostenfeld said.

Peters frowned at him. “Say what?”

“The electromagnetic signals given out by the object resembled, in some ways, the firing of neurones in the mammalian brain. In fact, even its composition, from what we could tell, resembles the mind in certain key ways. The crystalline structure is extremely orderly, and appears uniform, but from the waves being bounced around it, we could see a lot about its interior arrangement. There’s order there, but also a certain amount of randomness.”

“What’s so unusual about that?” Krinov, a stolid Russian, asked.

“Nothing. Except that, within that seeming randomness, was a deeper structure. Like…”

“Language,” Peters said.

“Music.” Gia looked up. Everyone was staring at her again. “There’s information in there, isn’t there?”

Ostenfeld looked uncomfortable, like he wasn’t willing to extend a hypothesis at this stage. “That’s…one possible conclusion,” he finally allowed. “The structure does seem to be encoded somehow. As if the crystal lattices are arranged in a way that should mean something.”

“It’s like a massive computer,” Peters said. Now it was his turn to bask in the incredulous attention. “You said it was like a brain, right? And the lights are like the signals in a brain, or electricity moving in the circuits of a computer. And the encoded structure, it’s where all the data is stored. It’s a vast memory bank of some kind.”

“You can use crystals in that way,” Ostenfeld acknowledged, “but it’s beyond our technical capabilities.”

“This whole thing is beyond our technical capabilities!” Peters said, throwing up his hands. “But we built it. Right, Gia? Humans built it, didn’t they?”

She nodded. “I’m certain of it. Don’t ask me how. If you went down there, you’d understand.”

“No one’s going down anywhere,” Levitt said firmly. “We’ve had word back from Earth. A science ship has been dispatched to investigate this. They’ll take it from here.”

Peters looked disgusted. “So what, we just go on with the mission? They really expect us to just fly away and leave this discovery behind?”

“Not yet,” Levitt said. “Ostenfeld?”

They all turned to the scientist. “We found something else out as well,” he said carefully. The too-tight skin on his narrow face seemed to be making his eyes bulge as he spoke, like a lizard having the life squeezed out of it. “There doesn’t seem to be any kind of power source that we can find in the object. Its energy seems to be…tidal…”

“Tidal?” Peters arched an eyebrow.

“Yes. That is to say, it gets its energy from some sort of resonance with Tethys. It may explain some of the odd structural features of the moon that have been observed. There’s some sort of feedback between it and the object to do with its orbital distance.”

“So what?”

“We don’t know how long it’s been in orbit, but from the micro-meteorite impacts we have to surmise many thousands of years. Well, since it was put there, it’s orbit’s decayed. It was still stable, but when it was…reactivated…well…”

“The feedback goes both ways,” Gia guessed. She was staring off into space now.

“Exactly. By using up some of the tidal energy, its orbit has been changed. And now…”

“It’s falling,” Peters guessed.

“Right. And erratically too, as its power spikes. Its orbit is now too chaotic for our computers to predict.”

“In other words,” Levitt summarised, stepping forward, “we’ve been asked to hold position. To keep track of the object, lest the science ship be unable to find it again.”

“How long?” Kuar demanded.

“A month. They’ve sent the fastest ship in the fleet.”

“We don’t have a month,” Rajesh, the other Indian on board, said.

“No, we don’t. We’re already behind schedule thanks to this, and it’s no good just setting course for home when the other ship gets here, since our projected course depends on a number of gravitational slingshots that we’d miss. It’d take us even longer. I’ve told Earth all this, and they have no wish to condemn us to death for discovering the most important find in scientific history. So the science vessel will resupply us and, once they arrive, we’ll continue with the mission.”

Everyone seemed to relax after that, although no one much relished the idea of an extra month in space. Only Gia felt discomfited. She knew they’d opened some kind of door today, a door to a world that humans had somehow forgotten all about. How did the Pi get here? If it was thousands of years old, what human civilisation launched it? And she knew, with a grim certainty, that there was no way she wasn’t going back to those columns. She looked up and saw Peters staring at her across the room. She tried to smile, but couldn’t manage it. She felt so cold. As cold as the void of space.

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