Dispatch from Companion to Coral Bloom
This is my first report as an actual member of the Triad space force.
[Memory, Terra Nueva as seen from Freedom in orbit at Gaspia] I have been on Gaspia in training and I have seen video of our world from orbit. Freedom has actual windows (ports?). I can see our world with my own eyes. My duties are routine for now – a communications officer. I was able to schedule my watches so I could see Freedom pull away from Gaspia and begin our fall towards the smaller sun.
You would find the air flat, sterile. There are few scents of anything but machines, and, the old wood of the hull. The crew mostly wears bioplas, which contains our scents. The filters scrub the rest. Once Terra Nueva becomes just another point of light, we settle into routine.
Chief Engineer Samman leads the mission, although Captain Joradottir is in command of Freedom. Samman is an Uatsu male. I find him deliberate, mission-focused. He would be most satisfied if the mission had remained an engineering problem.
Kr’tn is our pilot, also an Uatsu male. Again, he seems calm, deliberate, and focused. He offers suggestions about the broader aspects of the mission and has some intrinsic curiosity about the problem we discover.
Maxwell Mercury is the third of my portion of the team. He is a bio-engineered human – a machine telepath with a group of Echo-like intelligences.
The other two members of the team – Engineer Stoneham and Marine Grignak spent much of the travel portion of the mission planning their separate part of the repair mission – I did not get a chance to speak with them much.
[Memory, a briefing] Samman explained the problem. All of the Triad’s fast space ships (not the Pegasi) are fueled by antimatter, which is collected by ten automated satellites around the smaller of our system’s suns. This is our sole source of antimatter – if it fails, then the Triad space program would quickly fail as well. Recently, five of the ten stations have stopped responding to signals and are invisible to our sensors. We are being sent to find out what went wrong and fix it.
This problem occurred shortly after two large comets passed close to the smaller sun as part of their normal orbits. The Triad tracks space objects to make sure they are not a danger. The comets seemed routine. Once the satellites went dark, their astronomers looked at their records and found the comets had lost more mass than is normal in their pass. There were dark nodules visible as the comets approached that are not there as the comets head back into the Oort Cloud. The nodules were made of things like silicon, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and iron – building blocks of life. The Uatsu warned about a silicon life form in the asteroids; early explorers had also found silicon proto-life. Could there be something that lives on comets.
Engineer Samman’s plan is to send the Alloy (a smaller ship) with a team to repair and inspect the intact arrays while we begin with the first dark asteroid. In their past, the Star People used glass lenses to make telescope. They long since replaced these with more powerful sensors, but some Star People have small telescopes as a hobby. We have borrowed one. It will be mounted on the hull so someone. Me, it turns out, will be able to look through it.
[Memory, approaching the asteroid] This is my first time in a vacc suit outside of training. Freedom has gravity in the airlock, which makes this possible. But there is no horizon, no ground, nothing but space. It is terrifying. I can see the asteroid. It looks like a grey rock, but it is a couple of kilometers long. [strong emotional overtones of curiosity, wonder] There is life here. Four fragile fluid creatures, something like jellyfish, float around the asteroid. I can see them. Freedom’s sensors cannot. They keep position near what I’ll call the north pole of the asteroid. They are huge – the size of the grove guardian communicators.
We stop and observe. They absorb almost all electromagnetic radiation from nearly 600 kilometers around themselves. Thus, they shield the asteroid from our sensors. We can see them. They glow very slightly. Engineer Samman calculates when Freedom’s energy signature would seem greater to them than the small sun. That is the inner limit of how close we can go.
I suggest we try to send radio pulses at them. The same sorts of simple pulses the Star People used to talk to the Uatsu AI they call Rocky. Engineer Samman does not want to attract the jellyfish to Freedom. We start preparing a comm buoy instead. Meanwhile Engineer Samman has us use Freedom’s laser to heat the south pole of the asteroid to see if the jellyfish are attracted to energy.
[strong emotion, surprise, wonder] The jellyfish closest to the south pole moves rapidly away. Two more appear suddenly. We couldn’t see them until they moved and they are fast. Faster than Freedom. Ky’rn and Samman think they have a sort of solar sail. There is a burst of energy when they move. But there may be dozens of them around that we cannot see.
These are creatures of space. Freedom’s tractor beam would probably hurt them. Why are they around the asteroid then?
Simple pulses attract a couple of jellyfish to our buoy. They play with it, moving close enough to silence it, then moving away. I try more complicated patterns. Music. That brings more from elsewhere. Now there are ten. Always four near the asteroid. Why? Eventually we spot a structure in a crater – biological. An egg mass. Periodically, one of the four passes over the egg mass and directs energy at it. They are feeding it. Are they guarding it. Are the predators out here?
We suspect that’s what’s happened to our arrays. They gather energy and would probably seem like good egg sites. So we turn off the buoy, let them lose interest, pick it up, and head for the closest array.
[Memory, approaching the array] As suspected, there are four more jellyfish here. And eggs filling all 13 collectors. We need to get closer. Maxwell has greater range than I do. (I am jealous of his echoes.) They can talk to the station from 50 miles away. We heat up a small rock and send it past the station at about that range. The jellyfish ignore it. So we send in Maxwell and Kr’tn in a small mining bug. The jellyfish ignore them. The satellite is functioning. They pass close enough to listen to the jellyfish. They are not machine life. There are many eggs. Too many to clear by hand, ignoring how the jellyfish might respond.
We cannot afford to just wait and let them hatch. We don’t know how long it would take, if it would damage the arrays (the structure might, for example, explode to push the young jellyfish away from the microgravity of an asteroid), and we need the antimatter. These are vermin.
Before we try to clear the eggs, Captain Joradottor suggests we experiment with the asteroid so we don’t damage the station. So we throw a rock at the egg mass. The jellyfish ignore it. It destroys the eggs. Many of them gather for a time, then drift off. What sensors we have show an energy spike when the eggs broke. That’s a problem for the satellite. Once the jellyfish are gone, we use the tractor to take samples.
Engineer Samman and Maxwell devise a plan. Samman and Kr’tn take a bug to the satellite. They collect the antimatter, secure its electrical systems, and reel in the solar panels. Then we use Freedom’s tractor beam to spin it – the resulting force will push the eggs out of the tubes or break them. Satellite is sturdy – it should take spinning at 1 to 1.5 G, but we expect the eggs to break away at far less. Meanwhile, we’ll use a comm buoy to broadcast a signal when the spin begins. If the jellyfish are smart enough to learn, we hope they’ll associate the signal with the spin, not Freedom.
[Memory, spinning satellite] It works. At about .3G the eggs begin to detach. Then some explode. About 20% of the vermin eggs survive. Many jellyfish gather. Some take the surviving eggs, probable to another rock. Samman then goes back to the station, puts the pail back, re-sets the solar panels, and does the maintenance. We repeat on the other four stations and take an egg sample at the third. (Sealed container, with its own grav plate to protect the egg.)
We move our optical satellite to watch the other dark asteroid and set its comm laser to send data back to Terra Nueva. I expect Scientist Ozone to be very busy with the new data. Energy-vores. They don’t seem to have consumed the arrays — where does the mass for the eggs come from? The Uatsu can convert mass and energy, can the jellyfish? If we can learn how the jellyfish absorb energy and move so quickly, that may solve the Captain’s concern about alternative propulsion, at least close to a star.