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Signals in the Deep
There's a place in our future where we are all heading, driven by our instincts and the deep heritage of our genes. It is a place where we are more at peace, in harmony with the universal fabric from which we were born. It's what I was taught, and it's what I believe. Our past provides a foundation, a platform from which we can achieve great things: growth, meaning, enlightenment.
I tried to instil this belief into Matthew as any good mother would — show, don't tell. But it seems that the young are both deaf and blind to old-world values. I rationalized his anger at first. Looking beyond the veil of testosterone, it was his imperative to experience life for himself and to sometimes learn things the hard way. After all, there is no manual when you are born into the skin you live in.
Then, as Matt blossomed from boy to teenager, I began to doubt myself and wondered what I had done to estrange him. The genome patent meant he didn't need a father, but there were plenty of male role models during his semesters at the private didactic havens. He developed incredible skills in languages and mathematics, and although the complex problem solving could make him so detached, in hindsight it was a source of comfort for him. He was gifted from the start — before he was even born — and if I was honest with myself, it had raised my expectations into the stratosphere.
And therein lay the irony: in providing for everything perhaps I had unwittingly given him little cause to look back. There was no sense of the past for his generation; everything was about the here and now, and the future was something to worry about when it arrived. I realized, too late, that I must have come across as so set in my ways: stern, reflective, always grounded.
The chill autumn nights are spent pondering these things under the spatter-painted veil of stars. The motor on the tracking dish hummed quietly, the barrel of the telescope cold in my hands. Ancient light shone into my eyes, translating into images, connecting me again — the past was always with me.
But did Matt see it now? Was there such a thing in his world?
I wasn't sure. Heaven help me, after two years with no word or sign from him, I wasn't sure at all.
And there was only one way to find out.
Earth + 100km
My journey began with cold sweat beading on my skin as the elevator rose up and up on a white-knuckled ride into vacuum. I had never been good with heights, but this was ludicrous. Nothing should be this high — it seemed physically impossible — yet the elevator kept going until the cerulean sky turned indigo and the stars shone more intensely.
The steward had been keeping a watchful eye over me on the way up. He had a ceaseless capacity for small talk, which was harmless enough, but now a worried frown creased his face as I clumsily disembarked.
"Are you okay, Beth?"
I didn't reply, preoccupied with weightlessness and being towed across the bridge to the shuttle port by an usherbot the size and shape of a dustbin. I glanced through the viewing ports, trying to keep my eyes away from the cloud deck far, far below. There were several more elevators in the distance, rising like needles along the curvature of the world.
"They're impressive," the steward said, a cheeky smile playing at the corners of his lips.
Please go away. I nodded and smiled as best I could. "There are so many of them, and it's all happened so quickly."
"I guess that's why they call it the Quickening." His lips turned down as my face darkened at his pun. I had used affordable nanotech to create Matt's genome and I often blamed the technology for my predicament, but it was just a classic case of denial.
As we entered the bustling port I began checking for signs to the shuttle departure lounge, but this was a damn confusing place. No doubt there were a thousand data casts flying about, but what I needed was a physical sign.
The steward's eyes widened, convinced, I am sure, that I was a complete anachronism. Then to my surprise he tucked his arm through mine with that same familiarity. "Where are you traveling, Beth?"
Okay, so maybe I do need your help. "Pluto... Charon Relay Station actually."
His eyes widened even further. "The back of beyond. I've always wanted to go there, they say the stars are..." He caught my look again. "The departure lounge is just this way."
Earth + 2AU
It is said that you can make friends in the most unlikely places. And this shuttle was one of those places: a cold, disorienting cavern, with row upon row of rockbusters reeking like a metal refinery.
The rockbuster next to me tried to strike up a conversation, his third attempt. "You're a long way from home... ?"
"Beth." My feet dangled, child-like, over the edge of the seat.
A rockbuster named Ryan; what stories your mother could tell.
He turned his enormous plated head, gyros whirring, metal creaking, and leant over me. His massive bicep brushed dangerously close to my head. "Are you management?"
"Do I look like management?"
"No." He seemed unphased by my terseness, but I doubted that anything could bother these giants. "And you're not a tourist. Not that we get many out this way. Some engineers, a few scientists, and management... sometimes."
"So you work the belt?" It was an infantile deflection, but home seemed so far away, my worry now consuming more hours of each day that passed. Maybe that was a mother's lot in life, but then again, it seemed that I had more than my fair share — a constant, gut churning state. And it was starting to show.
"What do you think?" His eyes gleamed mischief deep beneath the edge of his cheek plates.
"Judging by your pitted armor, three meter frame and stubborn demeanor, I'd say so."
He half turned in his seat, his plates sliding across each other like an avalanche, a smile on his segmented lips. With a hint of conspiracy in his voice, he said, "So you must be looking for something... or escaping something."
My exasperated sigh misted the air. "I'm looking for my son."
"Ah." He relaxed back in his seat, another avalanche. "The truth. We're all searching for it in our own way. You find a vein of ore; it's an achievement, a vindication that you serve a purpose. There's truth in that. If your friends speak plain words, you know you can depend on them — truth again."
"You're quite the philosophical one."
His eyes swiveled. "For a robot?"
"No, I wasn't going to say that."
"But you thought it."
Maybe. I let out a long breath. "Okay, yes." Ryan was human deep down. And I had no doubt that his decision to work in vacuum, to go through the physical torture of bio-metal skin grafts, was not an easy one. I knew this, yet to listen to him, to look at him... "I'm sorry."
He shrugged. "Maybe I come across like one: irrefutable, irritating logic and all. But space does that to you. There's no room for shades of grey, at least not in my line of work." Then, "I take it you haven't seen him for a while?"
I nodded, trying to stop the surge of emotion, the pent up frustration. This man's presence was calming, but at the same time he was a stark reminder to me, raking my fear, gathering up a storm of dreadful possibilities. I began to wonder how much Matt had changed. What had he gone through to adapt? What decisions had he made — life-changing decisions? Would I even recognize him? And more importantly, was he happy in himself, accepting, like Ryan, or was he still the angry young man I remembered?
Ryan patted me gently, his hand completely covering my forearm. "Solar winds and empty space, it shouldn't be too hard to find him."
My tears floated up and away from my face, tiny spheres drifting.
Earth + 6AU
Chartering the light sail had cost me the rest of my savings. The cabin was very small and beige and although it had all the necessary facilities, it would become a lonely prison during the long months ahead. The fixed autopilot's lights blinked occasionally from a tiny alcove, its bland chrome head rotating on a stalk, constantly monitoring.
Ahead, through the viewing cells, the sail stretched out like delicate foil reflecting sunlight into shards. But photonic pressure alone could not drive this tiny ship, and so it needed supplementing from the orbital laser array at Jupiter to bring it up to the velocity necessary to reach the outer solar system.
And behind: the Sun so remote now that I had forgotten its warmth. But then it is hard to feel warmth of any kind when one's soul is locked in ice.
I had sent a message out to Matt on my departure from Earth, and again at the asteroid belt. The only thing I received was a silence that spoke volumes. My anxiety shifted then, became anger.
He was the communications expert. The outer system relay stations were being constructed to assist with the exploration and population of the Kuiper Belt. So if he could communicate with the settlers, why was it so hard to stay in touch with me? If he had no time for a personal message he could have arranged an automated update or blog. Hell, he could have sent something by solar snail mail by now.
I looked down at my jiggling legs and placed my hands on my knees. Peering into the dark, hoping that it might calm me somehow, I saw a light appear beyond the edge of the sail, tracking against the star field. It was on the same vector; perhaps it was a tourist yacht. But something about it didn't feel right. It was tracking quickly now, which meant its relative velocity must be enormous, well beyond anything I had heard about.
"Pilot, what is that to port?"
The pilot's head rotated and two lights blinked on its chrome head. After a few seconds there was a metallic reply: "Unknown."
"Your best estimate?"
Another few seconds: "Experimental space probe or military craft."
"Military? But there's nothing out here."
Solar winds and empty space.
Earth + 38AU
I had taken to roaming the methane ice wastes of Charon during the days. The baroque spacesuit had good power, large spotlights and was insulated enough to stave off the incredible cold. Even so, it was still reckless of me to wander the hills and valleys. But not so reckless that I didn't steer clear of the cryo-geyser fields, though on my darker days I thought that being trapped in the geysers might provide a fitting end to my foolishness.
The backlit crescent of Pluto peaked above the horizon, casting long shadows across the ground, stretching out towards me — raven wings of a kind. My mind was playing tricks, and all I could do was let it run wild. What else was there in this hell hole?
I think I was a distraction for the grizzled scientists and technicians at the relay station for, oh, ten minutes or so. They were as perplexed as I was when I drifted in like flotsam, a random event that upset their daily routine. They had no idea where Matt was, nor were they willing to answer my questions about what he was actually doing if he wasn't at the station. After some grumbling they sent a message to him then hastily located me in a habitat dome away from the main nest of the station to wait for the reply. Three weeks later, my mind turning lethargic in the stale air, the walks were providing a reprieve of sorts.
Today I had ventured further than before, taking languid strides out to a low ridgeline south of the habitat. The suits external crampons gave me purchase, but occasionally I tripped until I got into the ludicrous rhythm of moon walking: walk, sprawl, slide, stand, walk.
By the time I made it to the ridgeline I was gulping for oxygen. I checked the suit monitor: still green. Then something caught my eye and I crouched down instinctively. The valley beyond was covered with domes with square lit windows, radio dishes at the perimeter, a launch platform lined with the translucent delta-shapes of spaceships resting on landing stems. And there... rockbusters operating large equipment ... there, humans in white skinsuits . . .
The com-channel crackled in my helmet.
"What?" I began to turn, sensing movement behind me.
"State your identity." A young man's voice, used to being obeyed.
"Don't move." A young woman now.
My spotlights swept over them... white skinsuits... sleek gold-glass helmets... carrying long barreled vac-weapons... grey static across my vision now... a heavy feeling in my head... down on one knee... "Wait —"
Earth + 38AU
"You were extremely lucky," Graeme said. He had permanently windswept hair and a serious frown for a fourteen year old.
"Those old suits are unreliable," Trace said. "And you were out there too long. You could have asphyxiated." Her eyes were palest blue and her black hair was tied up in a spiky bun, giving her an innocent look that belied a sharp wit and intelligence. I liked her a lot — an attitude tempered with a maturity beyond her years. She reminded me so much of Matt just before he left home.
I glanced around the white walls of the med-room. The single viewing port revealed one of the launch pads I had spied from a distance. "What are you doing here?"
Graeme's frown deepened. "That's classified."
I turned to Trace, my eyes pleading.
She arched an eyebrow at Graeme. "I think we can ease up a little. The approval arrived via the Jupiter Relay this morning."
He gave her a whatever look.
I looked at them both in turn. "You're not here to help the settlers, are you?"
Graeme sat back in his chair. "No, ma'am."
Trace lent forward and took my hand. Her skin was warm, and filled me with hope I thought I had lost, until her words cut through, grating at my naivety. "Matt doesn't work on Charon."
"It's taken me a year to get here. Where is he?"
She squeezed my hands and glanced through the viewing port. "He's out there, beyond the heliopause."
I began to shake and leant forward until my elbows touched my knees. The air seemed suddenly unbreathable again. "It's too far... how can I..."
Trace moved to me and put her arm around my shoulder. "We've sent a higher priority message to him, but it might take some time."
Earth + 50AU
"He didn't tell you, did he?"
It was Trace's voice, heard in my mind as if from a murky distance, echoes along the shore of a raging sea. I opened my eyes. A milky white film crawled across my vision. I made to raise my hand to rub my eyes, but I couldn't move. I tried to breath, but there was something slimy sitting heavily in my lungs.
"What — ?"
"Don't panic, it's just the dampening gel." A pause. "There, that should do it."
My eyes, or the gel, cleared; then a chemical rush regulated my heart rate. I cleared my throat, adjusting to the subvocalization. "Are you licensed to administer pharmaceuticals?"
"You're hilarious, Beth."
We were suspended in a small, angular cabin with no visible controls or systems. I sensed a delta shape around us, sleek and transparent against the backdrop of space. "What is this thing?"
"It's an interceptor. Bio-ceramic hull, neural-interface circuitry, top speed in excess of 10,000 kps... ah, look, I really shouldn't. Beth, no parents come out here... ever. You're an enigma, and under any other circumstances you'd be turned around in your light sail and sent home. But we figured Matt didn't tell you about the conscription so the least we could do is arrange a meeting."
It struck me that Trace had considerable authority. "You love it here?"
I felt her inner smile... there was an empathic component to the com.
"I still don't get it. What could possibly be a threat here in the middle of nowhere?" No disrespect.
"Oh..." More than empathic.
"There doesn't need to be a threat, just the possibility of one." Feeling my confusion, she added, "There's more here than interstellar dust. We've discovered a communication network of unknown origin."
"You're talking about aliens?"
"We think it stays outside a system's heliosphere until its civilizations are advanced enough. Or it could be a relic network and all we're hearing is remnants of dead civilizations. Either way, we're very cautious in case there's a risk of viral data packets... for want of a more technical explanation."
My mind raced ahead. "Matt's an interpreter?"
I felt Trace nod, but there was apprehension.
"What is it?"
"Don't fob me off, Trace."
Fair enough. "The oldies — it's an endearing term for people like Matt approaching their twenties — if they're good at what they do then they get moved into the deep. You have to adjust or die."
The truth. For the first time since my arrival, I had finally found a vein of ore. I rummaged around the com, trying to delve deeper into her mind. There was more; I'd only caught a glimmer.
She said, "I'm going to have to activate the gel again. There's still a long way to go."
"Has Matt changed?" But another question begged at the back of my mind. Is he still the son I used to know?
The gel activated. I forced myself across the com before unconsciousness took hold... there... a feeling carefully held in check... doubt...
A tingling sensation ran over my body — the after effects of the gel? — no, it was a white skinsuit, knitting with my nervous system. It felt almost intimate. Thankfully it didn't extend over my head; I'd had enough of feeling claustrophobic. Instead, fresh oxygen circulated within a gold-glass helmet.
I turned my head, expecting to see Trace. The Milky Way was a bright etching on impossibly black velvet. My arms thrashed involuntarily — I was EVA!
The com hissed and her voice filtered into my waking senses, a long way off still. She was talking to someone.
"Long time, my friend."
"What is it?"
"I haven't spoken English for a long time."
"Why is she here?"
"She wants to know you're okay."
"She's a good person." Kind of strict, in a your-best-interest way. "I wish my parents cared as much... oops, I think she's awake... twenty kilometres to starboard."
Silhouettes glided languidly across the star field until I could see the sheer, terrifying wonder of him. He was there — at the center — but the rest of him was strung out in many disconnected parts. What looked like advanced relay panels were stretched over delicate bio-ceramic bones, unfolding over kilometers. Titanium pivots and joints secured critical junctions of the larger pieces. The entire array ebbed and flowed, resonating to Matt's remote commands, a thousand separate parts miraculously working in synch — a dark cybernetic angel gliding down to meet me.
I extended my arms as he approached, the sheer scale of his structure more daunting as he got closer, until I was at his center, his human body encased in a sleek black bio-alloy skin. His eyes were still the same, that dark brown with green flecks, glazed with a protective covering that blended into his skin.
I held him, apprehensive at first as the massive wings seemed to bend in toward us. He was changed beyond reckoning, but still himself inside, still Matt.
"You shouldn't have come."
"Is that any way to greet —"
He laughed. "I've missed you, Mum."
I squeezed him tighter. With so many questions, after all this time and all that I had witnessed, I still couldn't move beyond the selfish ones. "Why did you leave?"
"Why do you think?"
"Was I too controlling?"
"Of course not. I'm sorry if I was angry all the time, but I did listen to you." I just couldn't wait to experience life. "Out here the past is more important than ever. You have to be grounded to survive. If we don't have a strong sense of who we are, then how can we face the unknown?"
I laughed inwardly. Such a blind thing I had become, journeying all this way with the answer in my back pocket. It was that paradox that all parents face at some point. He was always going to grow up despite my good intentions and overbearing guidance. It just happened a little sooner than I expected, or rather sooner than I was willing to acknowledge.
He let me float free and turned away, breaking my reverie. He was focused now upon some object that I could only just make out against the star field. His wings shuffled and folded in like a line of dominoes, quickening into a blur of movement. There was something agile about him, as if he were capable of great speed — like the interceptors.
The object came into view slowly, an odd-pointed shape distilling out of the dark. I urged the skinsuit forward and felt a slight pressure on my back. I followed, a white speck hovering above the expanse of his wings. We seemed to take forever to reach the object, until it dawned on me that it was on a different scale altogether. After about thirty minutes Matt decelerated suddenly, but my vector carried me forward and I tumbled away over one of his panels until the skinsuit righted my spin.
"Sorry," I said.
We fell into a geosynchronous orbit. The object was shaped like a giant black star fish, but the arms were multi-segmented, stretching out for a thousand kilometers or more. It was moving and fluttering, in a way that seemed biological or semi-sentient, as it coaxed the faintest of signals from the interstellar medium.
"How was it discovered?"
"There have been anomalies in heliospheric imaging for over a century — where the warmer ions of the solar wind meet the cold interstellar gas. We knew that the bulk of the anomalies were caused by the galactic magnetic field draping over the heliosphere. This object's magnetic field appeared as a point anomaly on the imaging in a year when the heliosphere extended much farther out than normal." He seemed mesmerized as he swung down, gliding closer over one of the arms. "You're right. It is self-aware, most likely on the low end of the Turing scale. If you concentrate hard enough you can tap into its empathic link. It knows about us; it can sense us now. They've known about us for a long time."
"The signals are coming from Fomalhaut, and being relayed on to other systems. It's a data and com network of sorts — an interstellar internet if you will — but that's a fairly primitive analogy."
I hesitated. Something inside me desperately wanted to know, but another part of me was petrified by the possibilities. What are they saying?
Matt reached out and touched a finger to my helmet. Something electric shimmered through the skinsuit, up through my nervous system, images cascading into place...
A young, orange star surrounded by a massive dust ring extending out and out. On the inner edge of the ring, a Jovian world with swirling storms of violet and grey surrounded by a chain of satellite moons, worlds in their own right that would dwarf Earth. Each of the moons is transformed by civilization — bubble ecologies, floating cities, blue-white skies over ring worlds, with the starfish arrays connecting all in a vast hub of interaction.
And deeper down, into the network — images and empathic memories of a collective, then voices in a fantastic dialect that stretches into the upper harmonic. The citizens?... no, custodians... they are older than this world, transferred here millennia ago... via the network... biotech... their angular heads turn atop bodies that look like dancing blue flames.
The eyes of one entity swivel then widen in acknowledgement. I can see its indigo irises, so close now, speckled with white circuitry. The pupils dilate... it is looking at me —
The skinsuit thrusters pushed me away and the link faded. My eyelids fluttered as the treacly slide into unconsciousness took hold... then Matt was with me, shaking me gently. I gasped. "How is that possible?"
"We're not sure. It could be an autonomic response programmed into the starfish — a bit like an interactive interstellar greeting card. But some of us speculate that it could be a true faster-than-light relay. I've spent a lot of time analyzing this. They're survivors, and their technology is... well, we can't make assumptions... we must be vigilant."
I looked at him then, behind his technology and his vacuum-adapted skin. For the first time I realized why the motion of his massive structure seemed familiar. His new body, his entire array, moved like the starfish.
He arched a dark metal eyebrow, his eyes like beacons. "It was the only way. We don't know how to operate the starfish and any attempts to get inside it might destroy or disable it. But we can scan and replicate — align with it."
He looked at me then, in that way that he used to before bed time when he'd tell me about his day at the havens and the patterns he saw in things. Our talks helped him understand his intuition — a young boy in awe of the world around him.
I float for days in the path of the data stream.
I sighed. There's truth out here if you listen long enough.
Ancient light fell upon my retina as the tracking dish hummed. The autumn nights seemed colder after three years, but there was a warmth now, inside me, that pushed away the chill.
I had been living in denial, grounded in the misconceptions of my own humanity. In wanting so much for Matt, I had forgotten to listen to him. Physically, he was far from human now, but spiritually, as he touched those alien signals in the deep, he was more human than any of us could be.
And with that knowledge, I was finally able to let go, to open up my own horizons.
I turned away from the telescope as an icon flashed on my computer. A new message scrolled down the screen.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Mellor is a science fiction writer living in Canberra with his wife and son. His work has appeared in Cosmos Magazine, Aurealis and Antipodean SF plus several print anthologies. Wild Chrome, his debut collection of short SF, will be released by Ticonderoga Publications in 2012.
Greg has degrees in astrophysics and technology management. He was a finalist in the Aurealis Awards, achieved quarter-finals and honorable mentions with the Writers of the Future contest on six occasions, and is a member of the SFWA.
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ISSN 1937-7843 Clarkesworld Magazine © 2013 Wyrm Publishing. Robot illustration by Serj Iulian.