“Because we are insatiable.”
The last few words of the summons still buzzed around Brandon Renford-Lehmin’s thoughts, despite his best efforts to deflect them with more pressing matters. He hadn’t needed the reminder that it was mankind’s own fault that the borrowed time they’d all been living on was about to run out. He got it. Why else would he agree to do the right thing—the only thing that might open up an alternative to humanity’s impending extinction? Especially when the right thing was never the easy thing.
Brandon tried to suppress the throbbing, dizzying sensation that lunged out from the darker corners of his mind at the thought. He couldn’t do this again. Not when he had just been waved through the final tier of security to meet Dr. Rhurzin, Earth’s Chief Science Officer and the woman who had summoned him. The C.S.O. was a woman more legendary than the united scientific division that she had lovingly—or brutally (depending on the story), brought together under her leadership a mere decade ago. Critics said it was too little too late. Cynics had agreed.
Brandon was neither. He just hadn’t been able to convince the one person that mattered that it was still worth trying to find a new home for mankind: his husband. Jeff Lehmin-Renford had begged him to find an excuse not to go when the summons came. There was only one possible reason the C.S.O. would call his husband away, and they both knew what it was.
“Honey, we don’t know that this is a follow-up to the Diaphoneah’s mission to Galeonshard-C,” Brandon had said to Jeff.
Jeff’s grip had tightened. “Yes we do. There should have been a broadcast by now whether or not it had colonization potential. Something went wrong. And you’re the back-up.”
Brandon had searched for a comforting lie, but hadn’t been able to find one. Instead, he had turned around and held his husband close.
He clutched that memory now and could almost hear Jeff’s racing heart, and feel the gentle but insisting pressure of his small frame leaning into his own. He lingered in it, like he did a warm shower, as the C.S.O.’s door slid open.
He stepped in as Captain Renford. He couldn’t be Brandon just then—not for the meeting that lay ahead.
“I trust you’re familiar with long-range, fail-safe protocols, Captain? Of course you are,” C.S.O. Rhurzin continued, not waiting for a reply. Straight to the point, Brandon thought, but on the mark. Fail-safe protocols were part of pilots’ standard training. They were, in principle, just like the little black boxes commercial airlines still used. Only these black boxes were designed to automatically send off pre-composed, long-range messages outlining the most likely cause of a spacecraft’s destruction as soon as a catastrophic threat was detected.
Jeff had been right. They had both been right. Brandon wished they hadn’t been.
“Are you following, Captain Renford?”
“Captain Renford-Lehmin,” her personal A.I. and acting secretary said.
She glared at Brandon, likely on account of having no one else to direct her pants-wetting scowl at. He felt his mouth go dry and suddenly decided that he liked virtually embodied A.I. over faceless ones like Rhurzin’s audio-only secretary. Giving A.I. an expressive face might be considered a frivolous concession to man’s desire to anthropomorphize by some, but at least it would’ve given people like Rhurzin someone else to throw ocular daggers at.
“Hyphenation,” it elaborated.
“I don’t care if he’s got a wife—” Judging by the way she clipped her sentence her secretary had just corrected her on her internal feed. Heteronormativity might be passé, but that didn’t mean it was dead.
“Captain Renford-Lehmin,” she continued. He took her left eye twitch as an apology. “As you might have guessed, we received a long-range, fail-safe protocol from The Diaphoneah. And it wasn’t a false alarm. She’s gone. Was gone nearly the moment she arrived in the Galeonshard system, an amount of time that proved insufficient for her captain to compose and direct a long-range endgame report. But not so short as to prevent the ship’s sensors from detecting a catastrophic threat and authorizing the protocol—one I believe points to a technical malfunction. Something about the Galeonshard system we missed. It wouldn’t be the first time in space exploration history.”
“Just not recent history,” Brandon said.
“To your knowledge,” Rhurzin said, with a wave of her hand. “But let’s focus on your mission, which is to address a worst-case scenario: a critical mission failed and its cause left unreported. Fortunately, we have another Observer available.”
“And have made modifications to it in order to rule out hypothesized risks,” the A.I. added.
“So the data we have points to Galeonshard-C being habitable?” Brandon asked.
“Correct,” Rhurzin answered. “So we’re trying again.”
Brandon’s stomach did a summersault and landed poorly. Jeff. He had to—
“Immediately,” Rhurzin replied. “You know the timeline we’re on and conditions are optimal. I’m sure you said your goodbyes to Mr. Lehmin-Renford on your way in, being an experienced Observer pilot—one of few. Your species needs you. Now.”
Brandon booted the duplicate of Rhurzin’s A.I. secretary upon system entry, briefly resenting it for not having the biological capacity to feel like shit from the initial shock of skipping and getting to receive the Sleeping Beauty treatment Global Space Operations justified on account of electromagnetic vulnerability. At least it had been a short trip once he’d gotten out of Earth’s orbit. The view hadn’t been pretty. Nor had the thoughts of leaving Jeff without a formal goodbye.
He was considering taking a jab at the half-booted A.I. when his vision adjusted enough for his jaw to drop.
“What the hell am I looking at? I don’t think my vision’s right.”
“Your vision is fine, Captain. Concentrate on what you’re seeing, not whether you can categorize it.”
Brandon listened. He knew what the stakes were. So did it, apparently; few A.I.s consented to having their intelligence framework copied and downloaded—one of the few rights they had earned in the last decade since they reached human-level intellect and reasoning levels. Brandon contemplated the A.I.’s presence on the protocol-heavy Observer while his vision sharpened.
Brandon suddenly rubbed his eyes; the question of why Rhurzin would ensure a copy of her secretary was on his vessel was cast away like garbage out of a space vacuum.
“Describe what you’re seeing, Captain. We’re in expedited orbital rotation, we might pass it.”
“It’s…darker up ahead. But that should be impossible given the stars.”
Brandon focused on the lights. They had a greenish tint to them. He blinked. Yes, they were moving. “They’re not stars,” he said aloud. “They’re in orbit. So, they’re planets or moons, or some other kind of satellite body. But where is the light coming from then?”
“You’re making a lot of assumptions, Captain.”
“I guess that’s why you’re here.”
“In part, Captain. The light, from everything I can gather, is originating from those bodies you’re describing. But all I detect is a sourceless wavelength. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard of. And it’s having no effect on the negative area you described, is it?”
“You’re right. But how is that possible? Even if, say, they’re old, weak dwarf stars, they have to be emitting some light. Otherwise how would I be able to see them?”
“The wavelength is only directed outwards. Away from Galeonshard-C and the negative space they’re circling.”
“I see it,” Brandon said, after a few minutes.
“That’s because we’re closer.”
“What? Are you taking us closer? Are you over-riding my command?”
“I’m not, Captain.”
Brandon swallowed and licked his lips before responding. Now that he knew to look for signs, he saw that they were indeed moving closer. Fast. And the closer they moved the more the orbits looked non-uniform. Like there was a pattern…an organic one. Rhythm was the word that came to mind. Hairs stood up on his arms.
The incandescent bodies no longer looked like planets. There was too much movement on their surface. At first he thought it might be a gas or tidal force he was seeing. It wasn’t. Shapes writhed into focus. He cringed, and pulled a hand away from his hair. It came away with several strands.
The darkness on the other side of Galeonshard-C stirred. It was like watching oil, a small ocean of oil, being poured into the fetid waters of a polluted lake on a moonless, starless night. Darkness spread. Darkness writhed. Darkness beckoned with a million shapeless fingers made crooked one moment, sinuous the next, and something beyond description the longer he stared.
“Life?” he heard himself whisper. Or was it a shout? There was a sound in his ears. A blaring, discordant jumble of acoustics he could barely perceive. He put his hands to his ears to block out the sound but jerked them away when they touched something wet. They came away red.
“Congratulations, Captain. When the next vessel arrives they will be better prepared.”
“Next?” he asked, trying to focus. He’d felt a trickle of something run down his nose. Then another. Soon, a small stream began to flow down from his nostrils. It tasted coppery. Concentrate! he told himself. “You said next…wait. What?!” Adrenaline kicked in and he briefly regained focus. “She knew?!”
“No. Only that native life in this system was a possibility, albeit one she believed to be unlikely.”
It was nearly impossible to process what the A.I. had said with the unnatural noise oppressing his thoughts. Even his momentary outrage was ebbing into a numb confusion. The noise…it felt like it was coming from a place somewhere between the very threshold of his hearing and a part of his brain usually reserved for dreams. And nightmares.
Red lights flashed and he clung as hard as he could to his memories of Jeff, to a life and world that held goodness and meaning amidst the dark maelstrom of chaos he was sinking into. The ceiling inched closer—or was it his vision itself that was caving in? And the noise…did he detect a rhythm to the now-blaring sound that echoed though his mind in haunting, building waves?
Moments before the Observer was structurally compromised a long-range fail-safe protocol was sent: “Mission A Failed. Mission B Success. Cause of Observer OL5’s compromise: Life.”
Back on Earth, C.S.O. Rhurzin ran a hand through unwashed hair. “Life,” she repeated, reaching into her desk drawer for the whisky. “He was right.”
“Your predecessor?” her A.I. secretary asked.
“Yes. Disgraced. Treasonous. Mad. And suicidal, but he was right to hide Galeonshard-C.”
“He might have saved two lives and ships had he revealed what he knew.”
The C.S.O. gave a bitter chuckle and refilled her glass. “Even now there are Senate members who would happily risk our entire department and whatever resources remain on Earth to mount a pre-colonization offensive against an unknown sentient threat.”
“That’s cold comfort, even for you.”
“This won’t be better.”
She poured herself a third round. “Hit me.”
“There was something else in the encrypted message my counterpart sent—”
“But you should know—”
“—You don’t want to make me ask a third time.”
A blaring, undulating rhythm began; one that twisted into a language she felt more in her bowels than ears. An image flared up, not on a screen, but behind the C.S.O.’s eyes: writhing, reaching darkness.
The A.I.’s voice cracked. Then crackled into static-ridden life:
“The trail, so clear now. A path to end the hunger blazes before me. A means to leave this consumed world behind. From the places between the stars, I am coming.”
The C.S.O. closed her eyes, trying to resist an impulse to clamp her hands over her ears. She unconsciously settled on dabbing at her nose that had started to run. A drop reached her lips and she tasted blood, but the sensation was barely processed, though it would have been a welcome distraction.
She couldn’t escape the words that started twisting beneath her eyelids once her secretary had finished delivering the message. They had been her words, the same one’s she had sent her pilot—the man whose sacrifice was not only in vain, but would bring ruin. She tried to blink away the letters but they stayed, floating like dark cataracts.
And the voice that spoke them wasn’t her, though it relished their meaning.
“Because we are insatiable.”
BIO: Jason M. Harley is a professor of educational technology and psychology. He spends his days hopping between university labs and lectures and his nights hopping between fictional worlds. Sometimes it’s tricky to tell where his days end and his nights begin, however, given the nature of his research. His fiction has previously appeared in Perihelion Science Fiction, SQ Mag, and Every Day Fiction. Check out his fiction and research on https://sites.google.com/site/jasonmharley/ and follow him on Twitter @JasonHarley07.