7690 words, novelette
The Symphony of Ice and Dust
“It’s going to be the greatest symphony anyone has ever composed,” said Jurriaan. “Our best work. Something we’ll be remembered for in the next millennia. A frail melody comprised of ice and dust, of distance and cold. It will be our masterpiece.”
Chiara listened absently and closed her eyes. Jurriaan had never touched ice, seen dust, been able to imagine real-world distances or experienced cold. Everything he had was his music. And he was one of the best; at least among organic minds.
Sometimes she felt sorry for him.
And sometimes she envied him.
She imagined the world waiting for them, strange, freezing, lonely and beautiful, and a moment came when she could not envy Jurriaan his gift—or his curse—at all. She checked with Orpheus how long the rest of the journey would last. The answer was prompt.
In three days, we will approach Sedna.
Chiara decided to dream for the rest of the voyage.
Her dreams were filled with images, sounds, tastes, smells and emotions. Especially emotions. She felt the inner Oort cloud before she had even stepped outside the ship. Orpheus slowly fed her with some of the gathered data and her unique brain made a fantastical dream of nearly all of it.
When Chiara woke up, she knew that they were orbiting Sedna and sending down probes. Orpheus had taken care of it, partly from the ship’s own initiative, partly because of Manuel. The Thinker of their mission was still unconscious, but actively communicating with Orpheus through his interface.
She connected to the data stream from the first probe which had already landed and recorded everything. Sedna . . . We are the first here at least since the last perihelion more than eleven thousand years ago. It feels like an overwhelming gap—and yet so close!
It almost filled her eyes with tears. Chiara was the Aesthete of their group by the Jovian Consortium standards. Feeling, sensing and imagining things was her job—as well as it was Manuel’s job to primarily go through hard data, connect the dots, think everything through, even the compositions, the results of their combined effort—and Jurriaan’s job to focus on nothing but the music.
She sent a mental note to Manuel. When can we go to the surface?
The response was immediate. When I conclude it’s safe.
Safe is bad. It’s stripped of fear, awe, even of most of the curiosity! I need them to work properly, they’re essential. Let me go there first.
All right, he replied.
Chiara smiled a little. She learned to use logic to persuade Manuel long ago—and most of the times she was successful.
As she was dressing in the protective suit, a memory of a similar moment some years ago came to her and sent a shiver through her body. It was on Io and she stayed on the surface far too long even for her highly augmented body to withstand. When it became clear that she’d need a new one because of the amount of received radiation, she decided to give that one at least an interesting death—and she let it boil and melt near one of the volcanoes. Although her new brain was a slightly inadequate copy of the last one, thanks to the implants she remembered the pain—and then nothing, just a curious observation of the suit and her body slowly disintegrating—as if it happened to this very body.
She didn’t intend to do anything like that here. No; here she perceived a cold and fragile beauty. There should be no pain associated to it, no horror. Fear, maybe. Awe, definitely yes. Standing there on the icy surface, the Sun a mere bright star, darkness everywhere—she ought to feel awe.
Chiara felt she had a good chance of being the first human being who ever stood on Sedna. The dwarf planet was nearing its perihelion now, still almost a hundred astronomical units from the Sun, and there were no reports of any expeditions before them during the recent period.
When the lander touched the surface of Sedna, she stayed inside for a little while, getting used to the alien landscape around her. It had a strange sense of tranquility to it. Chiara was used to the icy moons of the Jovian system which she called home, but this landscape was far smoother than what she knew from there. It was also darker—and an odd shade of brown-red.
She turned off the lander’s lights and stepped outside through the airlock, into the darkness.
It wasn’t a complete darkness. But the Sun was not currently visible from this side of the dwarf planet and it felt like being lonelier, further away than ever before. She was able to see the disc of the galaxy clearer than from anywhere else she had been to.
She knelt and slowly touched the surface with one of her suit’s haptic gloves.
We’ve found something, Chiara, suddenly Manuel’s voice resonated in her head. See for yourself.
He sent her a mental image of a couple of objects not deep beneath the icy surface found by one of the numerous little probes. The biggest one resembled a ship. A small, stumpy, ancient-looking ship, unmistakably of a human origin. They were not the first.
But these must have come here a very long time ago.
And a few miles further and far beneath it, another shape was discovered by their sensors. A bigger, stranger shape.
Probably from much, much longer ago than the first one . . .
It took less than an hour to drill through the ice to the first ship. Getting inside it then was a matter of minutes.
Chiara saw the two bodies as the probes approached them. Both dead—but almost intact. One male, one female. The probes suggested the small chambers they found them inside were probably designed for cryosleep. They must have been prepared for the procedure or already frozen when they died.
The ship was long dead too but that didn’t constitute much of a problem for the probes. They quickly repaired the computers and what was left of the data.
They found the ship’s logs and sent it to the crew of Orpheus even before others had time to drill deep enough to reach the other object.
Chiara was back aboard at the time they opened the file and heard the voice of the long gone woman.
I think I don’t have much time left. I have no means of getting from here in time. But I know that there will be others who come here to explore. I hope you find this. I’m telling our story for you.
Ten days ago, I discovered something . . . —wait, let me start from the beginning.
“How is it going, love?”
Theodora smiled while unscrewing another panel on the probe. “Good. Suppose we could use this one tomorrow on the last picked site. I’ve got just one more bug to repair.”
She was wearing a thin suit, protecting her in the vacuum and cold of the storage chamber, very flexible and quite comfortable compared to EVA suits. Despite that, she’d prefer to be outside the ship, walking on the surface of Triton which Kittiwake was orbiting for more than two years now.
Kittiwake was a small ship, but sufficient for sustaining two people aboard even for a couple of decades if necessary. Provided enough hydrogen, easily extractable practically everywhere, its bimodal MITEE could function for half a century without any serious problems. If one element failed, it still had many others and could push the ship forward with a good specific impulse and a decent thrust while also providing the electrical energy needed by the ship.
Now the mission on Triton was nearing its end. Theodora didn’t know whether to be happy and relieved that she and her husband would finally return to Earth, after so many years of isolation, or sad that she wouldn’t ever see this remarkable place again.
When she was done with the ice-drilling probe, she went through several airlocks to the habitation deck. It was tiny, but sufficient enough for hers and Dimitri’s needs.
“It seems we have a word from the outside world,” her husband smiled as she entered the cabin. “Kittiwake just picked it up.”
After checking the signal for malware, the ship automatically showed them the recording. The face of their superior, OSS Mission Supervisor Ronald Blythe, appeared on the screen. He congratulated them for their results on Triton and mentioned that a window for another long-term scientific expedition was opening. Theodora’s stomach rocked. She was eager to find out. But still . . . a new expedition would mean yet more years away from the rest of humanity. The company picked her and Dimitri because they were a stable, non-conflict couple with steady personalities and a lot of technical and scientific experience. They were supposed to be able to spend years without any other human contact in a tiny space of their ship, exploring the outer solar system, without a chance for a vacation, without feeling the Earth’s gravity, smells, wind . . . However, we had a contract for eight years. The time’s almost up. Are they proposing to prolong it? And what for? thought Theodora.
“Last week, we received a signal from Nerivik 2.”
“Isn’t it the probe sent to Sedna in the eighties that stopped transmitting before it reached an orbit?” murmured Theodora.
It was. Blythe went on explaining how they lost contact with the probe for more than ten years and suddenly, out of thin air, it sent out a signal five days ago. Scientists at the FAST observatory who picked up the signal by accident were a bit surprised, to put it mildly. They began analyzing it immediately—and fortunately didn’t keep intercepting the transmission for themselves.
“And the findings were . . . weird. It became clear that the probe lost its orbit, crashed, but probably regained control of its thrusters shortly before the crash and tried to change the collision into a landing. It was just damaged. It’s possible that it kept transmitting most of the time, but without aiming the signal, the probability of reaching any receivers in the system was very low. However, it probably had time to send down its two landers before the crash. They kept measuring all they were supposed to record—and among other tasks, they tried mapping the ice layer. That’s where it became really strange.”
Theodora listened avidly as Blythe started explaining. Her interest grew every second.
The ultrasonic pulses showed an intriguing structure some two hundred meters below surface. It could not be told how large it was, but it had at least one hundred meters in diameter; maybe a lot more. The signature seemed like metal.
Blythe included the data in the transmission so that Theodora was able to look at it while he was speaking. It really was strange. It could have been a part of a metal-rich rock layer. But what would it be doing on Sedna? The dwarf planet was supposed to have a thick largely icy layer composed mostly of methane, nitrogen, ethane, methanol, tholins and water ice. Nothing even remotely like this. Maybe a big metal-rich meteorite buried in the ice crust after an impact then?
“We don’t know what it is, or even if the measurement was correct. But it surely is interesting. It would be desirable to send a manned mission there. This looks like a situation that needs more resourcefulness and improvisations than robots can do,” continued Blythe.
And for this, they needed someone with an expertise of frozen bodies of the outer solar system; someone stable, resourceful and determined; and of course, preferably someone whom the journey would take around five instead of ten years. Sedna was still quite near its perihelion, but growing away slowly every year. In short: They needed someone like two experienced workers closing their successful mission on Neptune’s icy moon Triton.
“ . . . of course, I cannot force you into this. But with prolonging the contract, you’ll receive extra money for such a long stay on your own and all the associated risks. I attach the new version of your contract to this message. I expect your answer in three days.”
Theodora didn’t have to look at the document to know the bonuses would be large; almost unimaginably large. There were medical risks associated with long-term radiation exposure, dangerous activities, immense psychical pressure, stay in microgravitation and above all, the cryosleep necessary to travel so far away without losing many years just by the voyage itself.
But it wasn’t the money that primarily tempted her to accept the contract.
Theodora and Dimitri looked at each other expectantly. “Well,” she broke the silence first, “looks like we’re gonna take a rather long nap; do you agree?”
Theodora shivered. At the first moment, she felt exposed and frightened without any obvious reason, which was even worse. Then she remembered; she was in the cryosleep chamber and slowly awakening. They must be near Sedna now.
“Dimi?” she croaked. There was no reply, although the ship was supposed to transmit every conversation to the other chamber—which meant that Dimitri hadn’t achieved consciousness yet.
It took Theodora another hour before she could gather her thoughts well enough to start going through the data. When she was in the middle of checking their velocity and trajectory, the speaker in the chamber came alive: “Darling? Are you awake?”
“Yes, how are you?”
“Well, nothing’s better than a good long sleep!”
Theodora laughed. Her throat burned and she still felt a bit stiff, but she couldn’t stop. They actually were there; further than any human beings ever before!
In the next couple of days, Dimitri and Theodora had little time to rest although they didn’t do anything physically demanding and were still recovering from the cryosleep. First they searched for and found the Nerivik 2 crash site and the two nearby stationed landers. The ice in the area seemed different from other sites, as if it had been gradually modified by inner volcanic activity. That explained why Nerivik 2 sent both its landers there in the first place. Kittiwake sent down a probe, continued mapping the surface and after that sent a few other probes on different locations. It was a standard procedure, but it needed a lot of time.
When the first results from the probe near Nerivik 2 arrived, Dimitri sat still for a moment and then found his voice and called: “Dora! You must come see this.”
The readings were peculiar. The object buried almost two hundred meters below the surface seemed a bit like an asteroid now, more than a hundred meters in diameter in one direction and over five hundred in the other. According to the ultrasonic pulses data, its shape seemed conical and the layer reflecting the pulses quite smooth. A very unusual asteroid indeed.
“What do you think it is?”
Theodora shrugged. “Don’t know—and can’t very well imagine, to be precise. Until it’s proven otherwise, I’m betting on an asteroid, albeit a weird one. But let’s find out soon.”
“I’ll send down the drilling machinery, shall I? Or do you propose to wait for even more readings?”
Kittiwake had two major drilling devices—three before Triton—and one backup machine. Theodora and Dimitri decided to send two at once. It was riskier, but they wanted to compare the data from an area with the anomaly and from another place chosen because of its similar surface structures. The equipment was old but reliable and lived through many more or less improvisational repairs.
At the end of the first day of drilling, they reached almost thirty meters below surface. On day three, they were about one hundred meters deep. On day four, the probe got through almost one hundred and fifty meters of ice and stopped.
Theodora had the uncomfortable feeling of vertigo as every time she performed telemetric control. She guided the repair drone carefully to the drilling probe’s main panel. She felt strangely dissociated with her body when the robot picked the cover and she felt as if it were her arms raising it and putting it aside. There she was. “Oh, not this,” she sighed.
No wonder Dimitri had no success trying to get the probe running again from here. It was no software bug, temporary failure or anything the self-repair systems could handle. Most of the processors were fried and needed replacing. The repair drone didn’t have all of the components. They could send them down during some of the next orbit. But—
She lost her connection to the drone, as Kittiwake disappeared over the horizon from the drone’s perspective, before she could end it herself. She gasped. It felt as if her limb had been cut off. She gulped and tried to concentrate again.
Yes, they could send the parts down. But Theodora feared that although the drone itself had more than sufficient AI for common repairs and had all the blueprints in its memory, it might overlook something else, something an AI would not notice and that might cause future trouble. She’d not be happy if they had to replace the processors again, like it happened once on Triton. She could control the drone from distance again, but there was no chance she could achieve that much precision and look everywhere through telemetry.
Well, they wanted to initiate manned exploration anyway. It would just have to be sooner than expected.
Dimitri watched Theodora’s descent. He knew that she performed similar procedures many times before—but that never prevented him from worrying.
The view distorted as Kittiwake started losing connection. In another thirty minutes or so, they would be out of range, so Dimitri moved the ship to a stationary orbit above her. The two satellites were operational and deployed on an equatorial and polar orbits would continue to scan the rest of the surface. He could have made them relay stations, but he liked being able to communicate directly with Theodora, her landing module, her rover and the drilling probe. Less things could go wrong. And after years spent so far from Earth, they knew that things often went wrong.
He gave the engine command for more thrust and checked on the planned stationary transfer orbit. Everything seemed fine for a while.
Until a red light flashed next to the screen and a warning presented itself.
Theodora was descending through the tunnel in the ice. It was dark except the light from LEDs on her suit and the reflectors from the top of the shaft. Her rope was winding down gradually. She could see the drilling device below now.
The light above seemed faint when she reached the probe. It took her only an hour to get it operational again. She smiled and let the winch pull her up again.
Just as she neared the surface, she heard a noise in the speakers of her suit. “Dimitri?” she spoke. “What is it?”
“Have to . . . come down . . . ”
She barely understood him through the static.
For a while, she heard nothing. Then the static returned—and after that, Dimitri’s distorted voice. “ . . . have to land.” Cracking and humming. Theodora tried to amplify the sound frantically. “ . . . send you the coordinates . . . hope it works out . . . ”
A file found its way through the transmission. It was a technical report generated by Kittiwake. Theodora opened it and glimpsed through it quickly.
“Oh no,” she whispered.
Dimitri was doing his best to lead the remains of the ship on a trajectory ending with something that would approximate a landing more than a crash.
It was less than twenty minutes from the moment he accelerated Kittiwake to reach the transfer orbit but it seemed like an eternity. During that time, a warning indicated that the main turbine in the ship’s power station was not working properly. He ran a more detailed scan and a moment later, everything was flashing with error reports.
The turbine in the power cycle broke down. It was tested for signs of wearing down regularly, but a hairline crack might have been overlooked in the control. The ship was moving with inertia most of the journey, the crack could have expanded during the deceleration phase and ruptured now, when the engine was working a little more again.
Things could go wrong. And they went wrong. Worse even, one of the blades pierced the coating of the reactor and the heated helium-xenon gas started leaking rapidly. The damage was too much for the automated repair systems. It was still leaking into the space between the coatings.
And the reactor itself was overheating quickly. Once the turbine stopped working, the gas still trapped in the cycle kept getting more and more heat from the MITEE—but couldn’t continue through the cycle and cool down.
It was not critical yet, but would be in another couple of minutes. Dimitri sent all the repair drones to help the built-in repair and emergency systems but could see that it was not enough. He had also shut down the MITEE and all the rods were now safely turned to stop the reaction. It still wasn’t enough. The overheating continued and could lead to an explosion. It could happen in a few minutes if not cooled down quickly.
It was just a way life went. Nothing serious happened in years and suddenly he’s got minutes.
He knew there was only one thing to do. So he gave a command for the valves in the outer reactor coating to open. Then all the gas would leak outside. The ship would be useless without it, but it was the better one of two bad scenarios.
So far, only a minute had elapsed from the breakdown.
In the next few seconds, things went from bad to worse.
“Shit,” exhaled Dimitri as he felt how the Kittiwake started spinning. One of the valves must have been stuck, so that the gas started leaking outside in just one direction. It quickly sent the ship into rotation.
Dimitri tried to compensate it with thrusters on both RCSs, but then Kittiwake shook hideously and then many of the screens went down. He realized what happened.
The rotation was too much. The ship was never constructed for this. There was too much tension in wrong direction . . . She tore apart.
Still coping with the rotation, he checked the systems. He was right. The engine section was gone. He was lucky that the habitation section was still operating almost normally. There was his chance.
This section’s reaction control system was apparently still working. The RCS’s thrusters were small, but it was all he had.
He tested them with a short blast. Actually working; good. He used them to provide a little more distance from the other remains of the ship and then reviewed his situation calmer. He had to land if he wanted to live; and he needed to do it quickly, otherwise he’d drift into space with no means of correcting his trajectory.
He smiled rather sadly.
About twenty minutes after the turbine breakdown, Dimitri was now leading the rest of the ship down on Sedna and praying he could actually land instead of crashing.
“Dora?” he called. He hoped she’d pick up the transmission. “Dora, can you hear me? The reactor had a breakdown and the ship tore apart! I’m left with our section’s remains. I have to come down . . . ”
Theodora was driving her rover frantically to the landing site. She could not contact Dimitri, but that didn’t mean anything; the antenna could have been damaged, while most of the ship could be perfectly fine. It’s all right. He is fine.
She wished she could go faster, but as on most ice-rocky bodies, Sedna’s surface could be treacherous. It had far less cracks or ridges than Europa or Ganymede and was actually very smooth compared to them, but it was still an alien landscape, not resembling anything on Earth at all. Himalaya’s glaciers were children’s toys compared to Sedna. The perspective was wrong, the measures were wrong, the shadows were wrong; it wasn’t a land fit for human eyes and spatial recognition.
Finally, she approached the site. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw the habitation section in the lights of the rover. It seemed almost intact.
She ran to the nearest reachable airlock. It was still functioning; she could get inside.
It didn’t look as if the ship had been through a bad accident. The corridor looked nearly normal. Everything was strapped or permanently fixed anyway, so a sight of total chaos wasn’t to be expected. However, most of the systems were disabled, as she found out by logging into the network.
The door of the control room opened in front of her, a little damaged, but working.
He found time to get in an emergency suit and was safely strapped in his chair. Good. Theodora leaned to him. He looked unconscious. She logged into his suit and read the data quickly.
Time of death . . . Suit’s healthcare mechanisms could not help . . .
“Oh, Dimitri,” she croaked. Her throat was dry and she felt tears coming to her eyes. She forced them down. No time for this. Not now. She must do what he’d do in her place.
She moved his body in the suit to the cryosleep chamber. Once she managed it there, she ran a similar procedure as they had gone through many times before. Only this time it was slightly different, designed to keep a dead brain as little damaged as possible, in a state usable for later scanning of the neural network. Theodora knew that her Dimitri was gone; but they could use this data, complete it by every tiny bit of information available about his life, and create a virtual personality approximating Dimitri. He wouldn’t be gone so . . . completely.
After that, she checked on the ship’s systems again. No change whatsoever. Nothing needed her immediate attention now, at least for a short while.
She leaned on a wall and finally let the tears come.
This is a part of an older log, but I don’t want to repeat all that happened to me . . . I must go to sleep soon.
Kittiwake is dead now, as is Dimitri. I could do nothing in either case. I’ve got only one option, a quite desperate one. I have to equip my landing module in a way that it could carry me home. We went through this possibility in several emergency scenarios; I know what to do and that I can do it.
Of course, I’ll have to spend the journey awake. The module hasn’t got any cryosleep chamber and the one from the ship cannot be moved. But if the recycling systems work well, I can do it. I’ve got enough rations for about five years if I save the food a little. It doesn’t get me anywhere near Earth, but I looked through the possible trajectories into the inner solar system and it could get me near Saturn if I leave here in three weeks, before this window closes. If I don’t make it in this time, I’m as well as dead. But let’s suppose I make it, I must . . . During the journey, I can contact Earth and another ship, even if only an automatic one with more supplies and equipment, could meet me on the way. I’ll get home eventually.
If I succeed in rebuilding the landing module for an interplanetary journey. No one actually expected this to happen, but here I am. I must try.
The next few days were busy. Theodora kept salvaging things from Kittiwake and carefully enhancing the module’s systems. In most cases, enhancement was all she needed. Then she had to get rid of some parts needed only for the purposes of landing and surface operations—and finally attach the emergency fuel tanks and generate the fuel.
The module had a classical internal combustion engine. High thrust, but despairingly high need of fuel.
Fortunately, she was surrounded by methane and water ice—and purified liquid methane and oxygen were just the two things she needed. Once she got the separation and purification cycle running, the tanks were slowly being refilled. At least this was working as it should.
She’d very much like to let Earth know about the accident, but she couldn’t. Most of the relay stations were behind the Sun from her perspective now and the rest was unreachable by a weak antenna on the module; the one on the ship was too badly damaged. The Earth would know nothing about this until she’s on her way back.
The plan seemed more and more feasible each day. She clung to it like to what it really was—her only chance of surviving.
When a message that the drilling probe had reached its target depth and stopped drilling appeared on the screen of her helmet, Theodora was confused for a couple of seconds before she realized what it was about. It seemed like a whole different world—mapping the surface from above, sending probes . . . In the last three days, she had little sleep and focused on her works on the module only. She had completely forgotten about the probe.
Well, after she checks the fuel generators again, she should have some time to look at it, she was well ahead of the schedule. After all, true explorers didn’t abandon their aims even in times of great distress.
I’m glad I decided to have a look at it. Otherwise I’d die desperate and hopeless. Now, I’m strangely calm. It’s just what a discovery like this does with you. It makes you feel small. The amazement and awe . . .
Theodora couldn’t believe the results until she personally got down the shaft into a small space the probe had made around a part of the thing.
She stood in the small ice cave, looking at it full of wonder. She dared not touch it yet.
The surface was dark and smooth. Just about two square meters of it were uncovered; the rest was still surrounded by ice. According to the measurements, the thing was at least five hundred meters long and had a conic shape. There was no doubt that she discovered . . . a ship.
You cannot possibly imagine the feeling until you’re right there. And I wasn’t even expecting it. It was . . . I cannot really describe it. Unearthly. Wonderful. Amazing. Terrifying. All that and much more, mixed together.
I gave the alien ship every single moment I could spare. My module needed less and less tending to and I had almost two weeks until the flight window would close.
I named her Peregrine. It seemed appropriate to me. This wasn’t a small interplanetary ship like Kittiwake; this bird could fly a lot faster. But still . . . she seemed too small to be an interstellar vessel, even if this was only a habitation section and the engines were gone.
It was probably the greatest discovery in all human history yet. Just too bad I didn’t have a chance to tell anyone. I really hope someone’s listening.
Theodora directed all resources she didn’t vitally need for her module to Peregrine. Only a day after her initial discovery, the probes picked up another strange shape buried in the ice not far from the ship.
When they also reached it, Theodora was struck with wonder. It was clearly an engine section!
While she worked on her module, she kept receiving new data about it and everything suggested that Peregrine used some kind of fusion drive; at this first glance not far more advanced than human engine systems. It seemed to her even more intriguing than if she had found something completely unknown.
I was eventually able to run a radiometric dating of ice surrounding the ship. The results suggest that she landed here some two-hundred and fifty million years ago. The ice preserved it well. But I must wonder . . . what were they doing here? Why have they come to our solar system—and why just this once? Although I don’t understand a lot of what I see, the ship doesn’t seem that much sophisticated to me. Maybe it’s even something we could manage to make. But why use something like this to interstellar travel? With too little velocity, they’d never make it here in fewer than hundreds of years even if they came from the Alpha Centauri system!
Unless . . . the distance was smaller. We still don’t know the history of the solar system in much detail. It’s supposed that Sedna’s orbit was disturbed by passing of another star from an open cluster, where the Sun probably originated, about eight hundred astronomical units away not long after the formation of our system.
But what if an event like this occurred more times? Could it possibly have been also a quarter of a billion years ago? Just about any star on an adequate trajectory could have interfered with the solar system. In some million and half years, Gliese 710 should pass through the Oort cloud. We wouldn’t have much evidence if an event like this happened in a distant past—only some perturbed orbits and more comet and asteroid bombardment of the planets later.
Hundreds AU is still a great distance, but surely not impossible. Hell, I’m almost one hundred AU from the Sun now, although I haven’t traveled the whole distance at one time. If we used a gravity assist from the Sun, we could overcome even distance of a thousand AU within a decade only! They could have done it too, maybe hoping to reach the inner part of the system, but something had prevented them. And possibly the very first object they encountered, quite near their own star at the time, was a frozen dwarf planet from about a hundred to almost a thousand AU far from the Sun, sent on its eccentric orbit by an earlier passing star and now disturbed again. They must have been lucky that Sedna wasn’t captured by their star at the time. Or could it have been that theirs was the original star that deviated Sedna’s orbit that much? Anyway, they’d have had to cross hundreds AU, but that’s doable. If we had a sufficient motivation, we could manage a lot more.
Let’s assume for a moment that my crazy hypothesis is right . . .
Then, I wonder what kind of motivation they had.
It happened three days before her planned departure.
She was at the surface at the time, which might have saved her life—or rather prolonged it.
The quakes came without any warning. She was getting a little sleep in her rover when it woke her up. Four, maybe five points on the Richter scale, Theodora guessed. Her throat was suddenly very, very dry.
The fuel generators . . .
After the quake stopped, she went to check on them. Overcoming the little distance between her and them seemed to take an eternity; new cracks formed in the ice.
When she saw them, Theodora knew she ought to feel anger, panic or desperation. But she just felt impossibly tired.
Two of the tanks were completely destroyed and the generators were damaged. She performed a more detailed control anyway but the result did not surprise her.
They couldn’t be repaired; not in time. Maybe in months . . . but she’d be too late in less than a week.
She sat back in the rover, exhausted but suddenly very, very calm. What was a threat a while ago was a certainty now. She wasn’t going to make it and she knew it.
The best what she could do was to use her remaining time as effectively as she was able to.
When I’m done here, I’ll freeze myself. But this time I’ll set the . . . final cryogenic procedure.
If you found us and it’s not too late . . . Well, we might talk again.
The original shaft was destroyed by the quake, but she used the remaining probe, continued drilling with a maximum achievable speed and kept measuring the ice layer via the ultrasonics. While these processes were running, Theodora tried to find out more about Peregrine. She was able to get spectroscopic readings which suggested that its surface consisted mainly of titanium, however, she couldn’t read all the spectral characteristics; the alloy seemed to have many components.
She also obtained more results on the thickness of the ice crust. The probe got almost two kilometers deep. Its results suggested that a liquid ocean beneath the layer might be possible—maybe fifteen, maybe twenty kilometers deeper than she was now. Theodora knew she’d never live to see a definitive answer; but these measurements might still be useful for someone else. If they could intercept her message.
She tried several times to send the data back to Earth, but she knew the chances too well to be even a little optimistic, although she salvaged a bigger antenna from Nerivik 2. But the transmitter was still rather weak and the aim far too inadequate. Without reaching relay stations, her message would become a cosmic noise, nothing more. The most reliable way to let the humanity see the data someday was to store them here in as many copies as she could and hope it would suffice. She didn’t have much of an option.
She kept thinking about the alien ship. If her dating was correct and it landed here a quarter of a billion years ago, it would vaguely coincide with the Great Permian-Triassic Extinction Event. It was usually attributed mostly to geological factors, but there was a possibility of a contribution of other effects—a disturbance of the Oort cloud and more comets sent to the inner solar system afterward would do. She was recently able to measure how long had Peregrine been exposed to cosmic radiation and it seemed to be just several hundred years unless there was a mistake or some factor she didn’t know about. There was no chance any ship like this could have come here from another star system in such extremely short time—unless the star was really close at the time. It started to make more and more sense to Theodora, although all she had was still just a speculation.
“And it will remain a speculation until someone else finds us,” she said aloud, glancing at Peregrine. “But they will. You’ll see.”
However, she wasn’t so sure. Would the company send a new expedition after they realize that Theodora and Dimitri were not going to ever call back? It depended mostly on the budget; she was rather pessimistic. And about other companies or countries, she couldn’t even guess. But Sedna’s distance would grow each year. Before another mission could be sufficiently prepared and launched, years would probably pass. And other years during its voyage. Then even more years on the way back.
She had to admit to herself the possibility that no one was going to discover them soon—maybe until the next perihelion. So far away in the future she couldn’t even imagine it.
She looked at the other ship and touched the dark metal surface. But still closer than how long you had to wait . . .
“You were shipwrecked here too, am I right?” Theodora managed a little smile. “Pity that we cannot talk about what happened to us. I’d really like to hear your story. And it looks like we’re gonna be stuck here together for a while.” Her smile grew wider yet more sorrowful at the same time. “Probably for a long while.”
I hope you found us and heard our story, whoever you are. I really wish you did.
“Very interesting,” said Manuel. “We must report these findings to the Consortium immediately.”
Without waiting for an approval from Chiara or Jurriaan, he started mentally assembling a compact data transmission with the help of Orpheus. In a few minutes, they were prepared to send it.
Nor Chiara, nor Jurriaan objected.
When he was done, Manuel sent them a mental note of what he intended to do next.
“No!” Chiara burst out. “You cannot! They don’t deserve this kind of treatment. They died far too long ago for this procedure to be a success. You won’t revive them; you’ll get pathetic fragments if anything at all! They were heroes. They died heroes. You cannot do this to them.”
“It has a considerable scientific value. These bodies were preserved in an almost intact ice, sufficiently deep for shielding most of the radiation. We have never tried to revive bodies this old—and in such a good condition. We must do it.”
“He’s right,” interjected Jurriaan. Chiara looked at him in surprise. It was probably the first thing he had said on this voyage that didn’t involve his music.
She was outvoted. Even Orpheus expressed a support for Manuel’s proposal, although the Consortium didn’t give AIs full voting rights.
She left the cabin silently.
It took Manuel several days of an unceasing effort just to prepare the bodies. He filled them with nanobots and went through the results. He kept them under constant temperature and atmosphere. He retrieved what he could from the long dead ship about their medical records.
And then he began performing the procedure. He carefully opened the skulls, exposed the brains, and started repairing them. There wasn’t much useful left after eleven thousand years. But with the help of cutting edge designed bacteria and the nans, there was still a chance of doing a decent scan.
After another week, he started with that.
Chiara finally felt at peace. Since their rendezvous with Sedna, she felt filled with various emotions every day and finally she thought she couldn’t bear it anymore. As she stepped inside Orpheus after the last scheduled visit of the surface of Sedna, she knew it was the time.
Inside her cabin, she lay down calmly and let Orpheus pump a precisely mixed cocktail of modulators into her brain. Then Chiara entered her Dreamland.
She designed this environment herself some decades ago in order to facilitate the process of creating new musical themes and ideas from her emotions and memories as effectively as she could. And Chiara felt that the story of the ancient alien ship, Theodora, Dimitri and Sedna would make wonderful musical variations. Then it will be primarily Jurriaan’s task to assemble hers and Manuel’s pieces, often dramatically different, into a symphony such as the world has never heard. Such that will make them famous even beyond the Jovian Consortium, possibly both among the Traditionalists and the Transitioned. They will all remember them.
Chiara smiled and drifted away from a normal consciousness.
During her stay in the Dreamland, Orpheus slowly abandoned the orbit of Sedna and set on a trajectory leading back to the territory of the Jovian Consortium. Another expedition, triggered by their reports back, was already on their way to Sedna, eager to find out more especially about the alien ship and to drill through the ice crust into the possible inner ocean.
Chiara, Manuel, and Jurriaan had little equipment to explore the ship safely—but they didn’t regret it. They had everything they needed. Now was the time to start assembling it all together carefully, piece by piece, like putting back a shattered antique vase.
Even Manuel didn’t regret going away from this discovery. He had the bodies—and trying to revive their personalities now kept most of his attention. A few days after their departure from Sedna, he finished the procedure.
Chiara was awake again at the time, the burden of new feelings longing to be transformed into music gone. She didn’t mind now what Manuel had done; it would be pointless to feel anything about it after she had already created her part of the masterpiece.
Manuel first activated the simulation of Dimitri’s personality.
“Where am I? Dora . . . Dora . . . Dora,” it repeated like a stuck gramophone record.
“His brain suffered more damage than hers after he died,” Manuel admitted. “She had time to go through a fairly common cryopreservation procedure. However . . . ”
“I’m stuck here. Our reactor broke down and the ship tore apart. There is too much damage. My husband is dead . . . But we found something, I have to pass this message on . . . But I feel disoriented, what have I finished? Where am I? What’s happening?” After a while, the female voice started again: “Have I said this already? I don’t know. I’m stuck here. Our reactor broke down . . . ”
“They are both mere fragments, a little memories from before death, a few emotions and almost no useful cognitive capacity. I couldn’t have retrieved more. Nevertheless, this is still a giant leap forward. Theoretically, we shouldn’t have been able to retrieve this much after more than eleven thousand years.”
Chiara listened to the feeble voices of the dead and was suddenly overwhelmed with sorrow. It chimed every piece of her body and her mind was full of it. It was almost unbearable. And it was also beautiful.
“It is great indeed,” she whispered.
She didn’t have to say more. Jurriaan learned her thoughts through the open channel. She knew he was thinking the same. He listened all the time. In his mind and with help of Orpheus, he kept listening to the recordings obtained by Manuel, shifting them, changing frequencies, changing them . . . making them into a melody.
“Keep a few of their words in it, will you?” Chiara spoke softly. “Please.”
I will. They’ll make a great introduction. They will give the listeners a sense of the ages long gone and of personalities of former humans. And he immersed into his composition once again. She knew better than to interrupt him now. In a few days or weeks, he will be done; he’ll have gone through all her and Manuel’s musical suggestions and come up with a draft of the symphony. Then it will take feedback from her and Manuel to complete it. But Jurriaan will have the final say in it. He is, after all, the Composer.
And after that, they should come up with a proper name. A Symphony of Ice and Dust, perhaps? And maybe they should add a subtitle. Ghosts of Theodora and Dimitri Live On Forever? No, certainly not; far too pompous and unsuitable for a largely classical piece. Voices of the Dead? A Song of the Shipwrecked?
Or simply: A Tribute.
Julie Nováková is a scientist, educator and award-winning Czech author, editor and translator of science fiction, fantasy and detective stories. She published seven novels, one anthology, one story collection and over thirty short pieces in Czech. Her work in English appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Analog, and elsewhere. Her works have been translated into eight languages so far, and she translates Czech stories into English (in Tor.com, Strange Horizons, F&SF, Clarkesworld, and Welkin Magazine). She edited or co-edited an anthology of Czech speculative fiction in translation, Dreams From Beyond, a book of European SF in Filipino translation, Haka, an outreach e-book of astrobiological SF, Strangest of All, and its more ambitious follow-up print and ebook anthology Life Beyond Us (Laksa Media, upcoming in late 2022). Julie’s newest book is a story collection titled The Ship Whisperer (Arbiter Press, 2020). She is a recipient of the European fandom’s Encouragement Award and multiple Czech genre awards. She’s active in science outreach, education and nonfiction writing, and co-leads the outreach group of the European Astrobiology Institute. She’s a member of the XPRIZE Sci-fi Advisory Council.