Thursday, February 12, 2015

2/12/15

Sigma Berkey Duran 76j
By E.S. Wynn (on Zero Dusk)


When between-space opens to stars and void, your eyes immediately catch on a shining white world all snowy, glassy-smooth oceans and towering, icy peaks. Scans triggered by your ship's integrated intelligence pick up unusual metallic signatures in orbit almost immediately, but it takes the system a moment to make sense of the readings. Trash, you realize, almost the instant your ship does. A thin layer of space debris rattling through the darkness, all of it primitive, alien.

The mote-probe carves through the darkness as you sink into the feeds, reach out with digital sensor suite feelers and finger through incoming data. Most of the debris seems to be several thousand years old, registers mostly as fittings and connectors similar to bolts and screws. Shards of solar panels, flat steel paneling, gold foil– all the remnants of a simple civilization's early grab for the stars. No life, though. No energy signatures. No infrared or radio reaching out beyond the few powdery clouds skating through the planet's upper atmosphere. Nothing.

Descent comes easy– readings show a nitrogen-xenon atmosphere, skies clear and open from the thermosphere to the snow below. Ten meters from the surface, sensors reach out and comb through the icy white, find nothing but barren wastes, a thousand years of snowpack piled over rock, over bare earth, rotting vegetation–

And that's when you see it. A spire of anomalous readings rising through the feed with unrestrained urgency– something other than stone, clusters and nodules of iron, cubic shapes and straight lines. By the time the snow yields to a field of bumps that turns out to be a cluster of skyscrapers buried up to their domes in the snow, it's obvious that this world was once home to an alien civilization, a civilization now long extinct.

Hive-like towers and machine-precise roads appear as a map slowly resolves within the feed. A city, you realize. A city lost in the snow, a city connected to other cities, connected to bridges that span the frozen gulfs between continents. An image, an idea of a global civilization begins to coalesce in your mind. A species taking its first shaky steps into the void beyond a cradle world just starting to feel a little snug around the edges

But something went wrong. Something happened that snuffed out this little light before it could even truly begin to glow. The ice, the snow– it came later, perhaps as a consequence of whatever great, world-spanning event wiped out the people of Sigma Berkey Duran 76j. Perhaps not. Even with the reams and reams of data you've already gathered on the world, there's no way to tell for certain.

Silent, sad, you trigger the return cycle on the mote-probe and rise out of the data feeds to take in the shining surface of that frozen grave world from your place in orbit. So brilliant with sun, so serene– and then a ping brings you back to the mote-probe's data feed, brings you back amidst readings of something that stands out among the orbital debris haze, something different, something you missed with initial scans, something that gives you hope.

It's a ship, you realize almost immediately. Beaten by debris, scarred by time and neglect, but still humming, still lit from within. Quick scans place its age within a handful of years of that of the cities under the snow, and then you pick up the signatures of an ailing fission reactor steadily pumping power into a handful of inconstant, flickering systems. Curious, you re-route the mote-probe to the ship, send it circling slowly around the hunk of plastic and steel. Ancient computer systems crackle to life at your digital touch, yield easily to translation matrices built and put forth by your ship's integrated intelligence. Within seconds, the whole history of Sigma Berkey Duran 76j's lost civilization opens to you, gigabytes upon gigabytes of art, music, sculpture, philosophy and tradition yielding themselves with incredible ease. Small sections of the database are inaccessible, lost forever to corruption, but the bulk of their legacy is there, passes easily though the uplink to the network, where it will be preserved for as long as humanity maintains its own data archives among the stars.

But there's more here than just cultural data, you quickly realize. The ship's original mission parameters were much more ambitious– frozen for thousands of years, a whole host of fertilized ovum from a hundred or more different species is also contained within the ship. The ship itself is an ark, you realize. Sigma Berkey Duran 76j's last, desperate gasp for life against the dying of the light. Its target was a distant star, empty and near perfect for the ark's passengers, but with engines disabled by debris, the ark never even managed to leave orbit.

A quick consult of notes within the network concerning the ark's target reveal that it's a virgin world, untouched and unclaimed. With the distance, getting there would be a fifteen hundred year journey for the ark's simple engines, but with a few minutes of modifications to your ship and the ark, you open a passage through between-space big enough to accommodate both vessels, make the jump to the target world in a space of seconds. Simple commands planted in the ark's systems set it into an orbital cycle immediately, and you watch like a proud parent as this tiny seed of life and civilization slips into the new world's atmosphere, cruises towards the largest, most temperate landmass and settles on rich, fertile soil.

It'll take decades for the automated systems to wake and grow all of the life within the ark, you realize, but at least the life of Sigma Berkey Duran 76j will have a chance to begin again. Pondering what wonders they might achieve in the centuries to come, you turn your ship back toward the void, slip into between-space and continue on your own journey. For you, many more worlds and many more wonders wait amongst the stars, wait to be seen, wait to be discovered, to be shared with the people of now and the people who will rise and look to the heavens in generations to come.


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E.S. Wynn is the author of over fifty books in print. Explore more alien worlds on Zero Dusk.


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