Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Biotic Crisis

by Dean Giles



At first there was nothing, no pain, no feeling, no memory. I fought hard to understand who I was, what I was. I had the curious notion that I was a bird flying across a never-ending desert desperately searching for a safe place to land.

Then there was the pain -- fierce and firm -- a glimpse inside Lucifer's cage. Searing, sharp throbs in my head and eyes, my limbs were heavy and useless, but utterly alive with feeling.

Darkness gave way to harsh unyielding light, hitting my eyes like salt to an open wound.

My name came to me first, Tom; round and round it echoed in my head, an incessant chorus. The name formed in my mouth and with much effort I pulled apart my parched lips -- and regretted it instantly. Eight months without taking on water orally left my throat feeling like I'd swallowed a rusted blade.

A slow tide advanced across the desolate beach of my mind, another name jolted into the sloppy space between my ears and joined the endless chorus, Brook...

Gently, my memory returned... It wasn't the mind-jarring experience I'd expected, more like I had been searching for them in the wrong place all this time.

After several months in stasis you may notice slight side effects, including numbness and temporary memory loss. That's how the manual phrased it; truth is they hadn't tried it. How we would be affected physically or mentally was an unknown, we were the guinea pigs right from the start.

Leaving Earth's atmosphere was a violent furore; housed in the nose of a rocket we hurtled through the air at the edge of consciousness, able to relax only after leaving Earth's gravity well.

The ship's design was revolutionary, beautiful in its simplicity; and her moment of glory was obvious. The UN Discovery disconnected from the rocket like a butterfly emerging from her cocoon, huge solar sails spreading a full kilometre in all directions catching the Sun's radiation to propel us further away from home than anyone had ever ventured.

This was hailed as the pinnacle of human exploration and technology. And rightly so; never before in Earth's history had we built such a marvel; never before had we needed to.

Brook's Signal changed everything -- the only signal ever found that originated off world and appeared to be non-random, intelligent, and what's more, in our own backyard. From somewhere in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, it pulsed relentlessly, invitingly.

The Captain's voice crackled over the intercom, interrupting my thoughts and renewing my aching head.

"Attention crew, mission briefing on the bridge in fifteen minutes sharp."

Hardly worth having an intercom for a crew of four and a ship the size of a large bus, but that's not my department.

I stepped onto the bridge, last to arrive. It was big enough to accommodate a cockpit and a meeting table -- nothing more.

I sat down on the cold metallic chair and shivered, clinging to my coffee and wishing the world would stop throbbing in my ears.

The captain, Sue Li, looked decidedly worse than I felt. Despite her weary expression, she was an impressive sight standing nearly six feet tall with sharp eyes that perfectly matched her wit.

She was an experienced astronaut and a capable physicist. She had hand-picked our little crew, choosing the Doctor from her own team back on Earth. Danny was the brains behind the ship, a remarkable feat of engineering. And I was chosen for my knowledge about the formation of planetary bodies.

"Okay, here's the situation. The sails have been successfully retracted and we are on schedule to rendezvous with Brook's signal as planned. No surprise here, the object is still broadcasting and hasn't changed position -- it looks much the same as it did from Earth. However, our sensors have picked up something unusual a few degrees off route and MCC has given us the go ahead to investigate. According to their calculations we have enough fuel for the detour. Danny, can you verify?"

"Two steps ahead of you, Captain." Danny smashed numbers into his keypad at high speed.

"Yup, I agree. There's certainly enough for the deceleration and detour. ETA is twenty-six hours."

"What's the anomaly?" I asked.

Li swivelled her chair and looked at me with a hint of amusement in her smile.

"Well, actually, I was hoping you could tell us."

Sue Li brought up an image on the projector screen behind the table. I could make out a large asteroid with an untidy appendage.

On closer inspection I noticed it was two separate objects, a small black cylinder attached to an asteroid of a lighter grey complexion. It looked out of place.

"Any theories?" I asked, unable to take my eyes off the image.

Danny passed a ream of paper to Li and she read aloud.

"According to its spectral reading the smaller object consists of plastics, ceramics, titanium, aluminium, carbon and more.

"Not your typical asteroid, but not impossible considering the sheer numbers out here," I said. "But the shape is very unusual.

"The smaller object is approximately five metres in diameter and ten long," Li said. "It appears to be partially embedded in the larger asteroid. Both are showing some very odd readings, according to the scan they have considerably less mass than expected."

Danny swivelled his laptop so I could see the screen. "The computer simulation agrees with Li's initial hypothesis."

It took me a second to come up to speed with the implications. "Li's hypothesis... you think they're hollow?"

"You catch on quick, Tom," said Li.

A circular mass in a sea of rock pulsed gently, not a message as such, but a structure within a signal. A repeating gesture delicately pointed at the fragile Earth, waiting patiently to be heard.

I prepared for the spacewalk with confidence. My training had readied me well, and leaving the ship was an inevitable part of the mission. We had practised rigorously, but still it was un-nerving.

Li was the only member of the team to stay onboard. She was in constant radio contact, on an open channel.

Our objective was to find an access point into the smaller asteroid. Failing that we would drill into the body and take samples. Secondary was to examine the attachment point of the two objects.

My suit was securely clipped to the rotating cord and I gently moved along the harpooned line. It was my first close up glimpse of the asteroid.

The ship provided a bright backlight spilling shadows across the barren face of the ancient rock. It was obvious from this distance that the smaller object was different in substance -- perhaps a collision.

The Doctor, Glyn Roberts, was the first to make contact. I watched his bulky frame as he unhooked from the rotation cord and smoothly anchored to the smaller of the two objects. He slowly worked his way around the asteroid as I made my approach.

"My God." Glyn spoke the words softly, almost under his breath.

"What is it, Glyn?" I asked as I docked the object and prepared to move clear.

"You have to see this for yourself."

I clambered over to him as quickly as my space suit would allow in zero gravity -- the mass of the asteroid being too low for any noticeable gravitational affects.

I reached Glyn on the dark side -- my breathing was loud in my ears from the effort.

The Doctor was anchored to the asteroid with a standard electromagnetic hook. His flashlight was set on wide beam across a flat section of the object.

Along the side, only slightly faded and partially dented was what could only be described as writing.

My trembling hands ran over the symbols. I looked through Glyn's visor and saw wonder reflected in his wide eyes.

The symbols looked familiar.

"Guys, get over here," Danny shouted, breaking the spell. "I've found a hatch."

Two meters tall and one wide with a circular wheel protruding from the surface and more of the same symbols scribed along the side. The hatch looked like it belonged in a 1940's German U-boat.

I gripped the wheel pulled back and the door opened outwards on hinges. The whole process was intuitive.

Danny held back studying the door for a minute, confusion obvious in his expression.

"That was way too easy," he said.

Entering the object I looked again at the writing on the hatch, the enormity of it sent shivers across my skin.

I entered first and darkness swallowed me. The eerie silence of vacuum was utterly unwelcoming in the ancient tomb.

I pushed myself into a rectangular room and switched on the flashlight, drilling a hole through the darkness and lighting up a thousand questions.

Danny cracked open some illuminating sticks and threw them down on the dusty floor.

Several seconds passed as we took in the nightmare of our new surroundings, slick, curved panels and surfaces with built-in screens and switches everywhere.

Several internal hatches were open and led through to unknown parts of the vessel. Strapped to their seats were six bodies, all unsuited. Five were missing a large portion of what must have been their face. A sixth body had its face intact and was holding a knife still buried a full inch into its wrist.

They appeared to be human.

Silence penetrated our delusion of normality as we spun relentlessly around an axis. Like a pendulum that never slowed, a reminder of home, of gravity, but really just a falsehood that befits our nature. A comfort that underlines our discordant relationship with the wider universe.

Nearly a million miles from home with just three souls for company, I could only hope to shut out the loneliness for a time.

All eyes were on me and the mood was intense.

"The facts are clear," I said, "the vessel's crew is human and the radiocarbon measurements date them between four and five thousand years. The symbols are consistent with what we know about the Sumerian language, which in principle agrees with our carbon date. Records are scarce. In fact almost everything about the Sumer is vague, but they seem to have been wiped off the face of the Earth more or less four thousand years ago."

I had the crew's undivided attention.

"It has long been accepted that they were advanced and had certainly mapped the Solar System. They also understood their place in it. However, the possibility of them developing technology this advanced was firmly in the realm of conspiracy theorists and cranks.

"That said, I think it's fairly safe at this point to assume the cranks were right and we are dealing with a four thousand year old space mission. And if we were to take this hypothesis further I would also say their motivation for travelling here is exactly the same as ours -- Brook's signal. So, maybe the more pertinent question is why are they still here? And what happened to them?"

"You're right," Li said. "Brook's signal, It has to be related."

"I agree," Danny said. "We've just made the second biggest discovery in the history of man, a stone's throw away from the first -- I don't believe in coincidence."

Glyn was pacing the small meeting area, his fingers were interlinked and his movements seemed abrupt, he was nervous.

"I've been thinking about how we found them, the bodies, I mean." He pulled up a chair and sat down at eye level with the rest of the crew. "You realise that it was murder, don't you?"

I knew what he was getting at, but I had deliberately put the images out of my mind and tried to occupy myself with the riddle of how they came to be here.

"So what's your professional opinion, Glyn?" Li asked.

"Well, I think it's pretty clear what happened. One crew member seems to have murdered the others and then killed himself."

Li breathed out heavily and closed her eyes for a moment. "Look, there's a whole host of reasons they could have ended up like this and I wouldn't like to waste resource on speculation. I think we just need to accept, for the moment, that we don't have all the answers. We need to focus on the evidence we have and work from there."

Li was good. She steered the discussion firmly back to business.

"Danny, are you able to shed any light on the significance of the larger object?" she asked.

"I reckon so, Captain, looks like we've got a double mystery on our hands. According to the echo scans the inside of the object is a maze of tunnels roughly twelve centimetres in diameter culminating in a central sphere about the size of my SUV."

"The central compartment is connected to every surface of the object through smaller tunnels and leads to a complex section at the back that vents to the outside. If I were to guess I'd say the Sumerian's noticed something odd about this rock and docked to investigate, but I have no idea of the significance."

"Could it be that life evolved on this asteroid and we are looking at dead civilization of mini ET's?" Li opined.

"Unlikely," I replied. "Microscopic life might take hold in an environment like that, but nothing complex enough to build what we see here. No I think we are dealing with something else."

"Maybe the Sumerians somehow modified the asteroid themselves?" Li said.

"Perhaps, but I don't think so. The carbon date puts the structure at over two-hundred and fifty million years old -- the late Permian period, long before mammals evolved."

"Look," Danny said. "I'm not usually one for making wild theories but if I looked at this scan from an engineering point of view and weighed up what we've seen so far, we have to face the possibility that this asteroid has been built by something... I've been involved with designing and building space vehicles my whole adult life and based on these scans I think we are looking at another ship."

Silence draped over us, clinging like a wet towel. I tried to consider the facts with some element of objectivity but something in Danny's tone resonated with us all -- he voiced what we were all thinking. What we all feared.

"Okay, let's assume you're right," I said. "Then we're looking at something wholly strange. We have to consider that if this object is two hundred and fifty million years old and has come from somewhere in our Solar System, which accounting for its size and the fact it's so close to Brook's Signal, seems a reasonable assumption. And if that's the case, then it's equally reasonable to assume it came from Earth, being the only habitable planet in the System."

"So what type of animal are we dealing with? It's got to be pretty small to fit through those tunnels," Danny said.

All eyes were on me as I flicked through my PC's library.

"It was the late Permian period, so most likely insects," I said.

Glyn spoke up for the first time. "You could be right. The scans show a typical hive structure with access throughout the formation and a central area to house the hive mind. You see these everywhere on Earth in various shapes and sizes."

Glyn suddenly took on a formal posture. "I used to teach a class on the human brain and comparisons in the natural world. Even wasps can create complex nests and have rudimentary communications between the workers. But you'd think that if insects evolved to this level there would be some evidence on Earth?"

"Two-hundred and fifty million years on an active planet is a pretty good way of hiding the evidence," I told him.

Glyn rubbed his chin and removed his glasses, looking gloomy.

The briefing dragged on through the virtual night. Finally beaten by fatigue we got some rest.

I dreamt of flying; soaring over an endless desert, desperately searching for a safe place to land.

All the ship's sensors were fixed on Brook's signal as we approached. An enigmatic sphere, an unknown substance, deep black in colour, a solid mass of impenetrable design, unchanging and unfathomable -- alien.

The gaping question lay thick in the air, unsaid. Outwardly we focused on the fantastic nature of our discoveries. We preoccupied ourselves with details, all the while the silence grew louder. The sphere grew closer, quiet, and relentless.

"Approaching Brook's Signal," Li said over the comm.

We began our advance and laid our naked eyes on the Sphere for the first time. Its proportional, circular shape was out of place in the asteroid belt. The light from the ship somehow unable to penetrate its depth -- was it just my imagination?

We drew close, and the alien nature of the object became clearer. It was rough and uneven. Seemingly random peaks and troughs covered the surface, as if it was infested with dark tentacles. The light from the ship drew shadows across the uneven surface illuminating dancing shadows like a thousand writhing worms.

Li activated the scans -- a full sweep -- and we watched in silence as the UN Discovery's eyes penetrated the object on all levels.

Gently at first, the slow rotation of Brook's object began to increase. Even from the viewing screen I could detect a change with a naked eye. For the first time in the twenty-two years since the object was discovered it was doing something different.

"Shit!" Danny said. "This can't be happening. The signal has stopped!"

Li and Danny huddled close over the control terminal franticly hitting buttons and arguing over the results. I couldn't keep up with the technical jargon, so I just watched through the viewing window. I was unable to take my eyes from the pulsating object, it seemed to be alive.

The thick tentacles that made up the exterior were moving. It was like watching the roots of a tree in fast forward -- growing at an alarming rate.

"Li, what's happening?" I asked trying to keep my voice calm.

It was Danny who answered: "It's growing," he said without taking his eyes from the terminal.

"I can see that!" I told him.

It seemed to grab his attention, Danny took his eyes from the computer console and looked out the viewing window, "Shit," he said, again. "Its diameter is increasing at a rate of one-metre per minute. But its mass is growing exponentially.

Li moved quickly to the ship's control terminal and engaged the thrusters at the fore of the ship. "We need to back out or this thing is going to pull us in," she said.

I felt the gravity shift as the ship changed direction. The gentle rotation around the engine core that gave us a constant 0.75G was negligible in comparison to the applied force. I was thrown against the viewing window where I had to push hard to lift my cheek from the cool glass.

"I'm sorry," Li shouted. "Hold on, this is going to get rough."

I couldn't say how long I lay pinned against the wall of the cabin, my arms no longer able to hold me away from the surface. The side of my face and body was numb of feeling.

The pressure in my ears began to recede and my vision cleared as my head finally felt my own again.

"We're free," Li said.

I looked around the cockpit. Li was strapped in, and Danny sat with his face resting against the operations terminal. Maybe he was unconscious.

Glyn was already up, gathering his medical kit and making his way over to Danny.

"He'll be okay," Glyn said after a moment. "He passed out, but he'll live."

Li printed the MCC report and placed it on the metallic table for all to see. "We are free of the object's gravity well, but in order to keep it that way we have to continue to move. Its mass is still increasing."

Li pointed at the report. "The object is pulling in everything in the local vicinity."

An enhanced image of Brook's object on the projection screen showed a thin cloud of debris forming around the pulsating sphere.

"It's spitting out debris," Li said. "In system."

Danny moved to the operations terminal to track the trajectory of the discarded debris. "The biggest is about five-hundred metres across," Danny said. "The other two are much smaller but all three are heading directly for Earth."

Li motioned towards the MCC report. "They seem to be confident that our orbit defence can handle asteroids of this size."

"Yeah, but anything over a kilometre and they might need to revaluate that stance," Danny said, shaking his head.

####

I sat and listened as the other three discussed possible hypothesis for the violent reaction. They continued to talk in circles leaving the biggest question stubbornly unanswered. What is this thing?

My fear kept me from speaking, the fear that I may be right. I worked hard to disprove my own theory before I dared to air it.

I was queasy, unable to compose myself -- for I was sure I was correct. Being pinned against the ship's wall had somehow knocked the pieces of the puzzle into place.

I waited for a gap in the discussion, breathed in deeply and began to speak.

"I have a theory, and to be frank I don't much care for it. I say this to you all now only so that you can prove me wrong." I looked at their faces. All apart from Li's were pale and frightened.

"The Sumerians were wiped off the face of the Earth with little trace," I said. "This seems to have happened suddenly, records just ceased. But tie this in with another disaster, in this case the biggest biotic crisis the Earth has ever seen -- the end of the Permian period. This fits exactly with the carbon date of the other vessel. Don't you see? The two ships we encountered share just one thing in common: death. I think we have inadvertently tripped a trap."

"What the hell are you talking about, Tom?" Li demanded.

"My guess is that this thing is a security system of some description, or a defence mechanism. Look at the facts. The ships are related by disaster, I just didn't see it before. This thing, Brook's signal, is a reset button. When a civilisation is advanced enough to detect it and physically reach it, it is activated; its job is to destroy, to kill."

Danny started to type into his laptop, presumably making calculations. He seemed deeply concerned. "So this thing could be using its increased mass to attract and fire missiles."

"I think we can safely assume the debris' destination is no coincidence' Li said. "

"Exactly," I said. "There is evidence that asteroid hits could have been responsible for such disasters in the past. Think about it, what if this thing waits here until we are smart enough to actually find it, and then it activates an ancient defence program."

"Like something's trying to stop us from progressing past a certain level? Maybe some sort of automatic leash," Glyn said.

"Perhaps," I said. "But... I don't know. Something about the structure of the object -- it looked almost alive. Did the scans reveal anything new about the composition?"

Danny brought the scans up on screen and passed the laptop to me. Among a host of unknowns it showed liquid water at its core and ice water trapped in compartments in the upper surfaces. "Could it be alive?" I directed the question at Glyn.

"Without a physical sample it's difficult to say for sure, but the growth pattern is pretty similar to a biological process -- setting aside the question of where and how it is acquiring the mass it is adding -- but closer to plant life than animal."

"Tell us what you think, Tom," Li said, probably sensing I was holding back.

"Okay, I think that Brook's object certainly looks like some kind of plant life. But could it be acting like an antibody? I mean, animal life on Earth, particularly Human could be viewed as virus like, especially from the point of view of Mother Nature."

"What if this thing sets into motion the process of cleansing the Earth of its animal virus? As we know, the rise of man led to industrialisation -- a destructive process. It is well known that humans are responsible for worldwide environmental damage. Perhaps Brook's signal is some kind mechanism that halts that destructive process. We can only ever get as far as Brook's object before being wiped off the face of the Earth'

"Too much guess work," Li said. "We can use Tom's theory for the time being because nothing else fits, but let's concentrate on what we already know --"

Glyn put his hand up to stop Li. "There is one way we could test the theory. If Brook's object is indeed plant life, it will be using the sun and water ice as its power source. If we could cut off its supply, of either, maybe we can slow it down."

"You're a genius," Danny said to himself.

He stood up and stretched, rotated his head left and right. "Okay, there's no way we can get close enough to cut off its light supply, but we may be able to heat it up, try and dry it out."

Li had taken the ship into orbit around the object, two-hundred kilometres out and positioned towards the growing mass. Thrusters still in full reverse to stop them from being dragged in.

"We've got to act fast," Li said. She brought up some images of debris moving into orbit around Brook's object. "This one," she said pointing to a cigar shaped asteroid, "Is nearly two kilometres long. We've got maybe one day before it reaches a close orbit with the object at this rate."

"We've got to do something now," she said directly to Danny.

The UN Discovery extended her sails to full capacity and soaked up the warmth of the distant Sun.

Danny reconfigured the radiation detector and rewired the huge capacitors to capture the raw energy. And we waited.

The huge asteroid loomed in the distance, closing in, threatening.

"We're on the clock here," Li said. "We have approximately twenty hours before the massive asteroid is in the danger zone'

Danny shrugged. "There's nothing else I can do. We have to wait for the cells to charge; we've got eighteen maybe twenty hours. It's going to be tight."

####

Pacing, waiting -- the atmosphere was palpable. As the hours dragged, my skin began to tingle. Just metres away the Solar Cells grew in power beyond their design capability -- the ship's temperature rose adding to our collective torment.

Danny configured the launch beams. He collated them to create a multifaceted ray and focused the line width as narrow as the equipment would allow. Several hundred focused pinpoints made up a collective beam a few centimetres in diameter.

"I think we're ready, Captain," Danny said.

I watched the viewing screen as the behemoth asteroid was dragged into Brook's grasp. A giant loaded cannon pointed at Earth.

"Activate the beam," Li said through gritted teeth.

Danny input the codes to the terminal and we watched as the focused beam spread across the surface of the object.

Minutes passed with no affect, and then gradually its growth began to slow. It was subtle at first, but with each sweep-scan Danny detected an increased depletion of water. Brook's object was working hard to convert ice into liquid. It was working.

As I watched the magnified image I could make out blisters forming across the surface only to be quickly replaced with a moist tentacle. It was clearly affected by our attack.

The growth had all but stopped, but it was still massive enough to pull in the surrounding debris. The large asteroid arced around the object's apex at an unnatural angle. It was being manipulated into a complex geodesic orbit.

"Can we speed this up?" I asked. I felt like a spare part in the unfolding action. The Doctor and I could only watch as Li and Danny franticly adjusted our position and kept the beam true. My question was ignored.

Glyn took me by the arm and brought my attention back to the viewing screen. The picture was changing and the object actually seemed to be shrinking.

Danny slammed his hand against the terminal and jumped from his seat. "YES!" he cried.

All eyes were on the large asteroid as it slipped from Brook's grip and fell back into the mass of rocks of the local region.

Li continued to hold the beam against the object, shrivelling its bulk and starving it of moisture. Slowly it shrank to its original size and beyond; the withered husk no longer pulsated. It was inert, finished.

Li activated the control terminal and turned the ship towards Earth. The huge solar sails withdrew into the interior of the UN Discovery, where they would stay until deceleration on Earth approach.

Li looked at us one by one. She smiled. "Good job," she said. "We may have just saved the world."

"Prepare for stasis," she added "We go under in twelve hours."

As we drifted from the deck, the terminal speakers vibrated into life. Li moved quickly to the console. The object was signalling again.

This time it broadcasted out-system. Past the outer planets and into the debris that engulfed our solar system.

Somewhere in the far reaches of the system an ancient mind was awakened. Its enormous intellect focused on the signal of its dying probe.

Slowly it opened its pores to the distant light of the nearest star. It gradually powered up ancient systems and calculated its destination: the small marble-blue planet with a single moon.

The infestation would be contained.

THE END


© 2011 Dean Giles

Bio: Dean Giles is married to a beautiful woman and is father to a 2 year old boy who has recently become a big brother. One day he plans to write about his experiences training in martial arts overseas. He spent three months in the wilderness of Northern China, running up and down mountain steps while being hit with sticks by small (but deadly) men in orange trousers. Surely there’s a story in there somewhere? (Yes...I think it was called "The Thirty-Sixth Chamber". Ed.) His story D.A.V.E. appeared in the April 2011 edition of Aphelion; other publishing credits include a free short story on smashwords, Alien Apocalypse - The Hunger, an e-book in the same series, Alien Apocalypse - The Storm, and a second, unrelated e-book, Ghost in the Machine. For more by and about Mr. Giles, visit Dean Giles SF.

E-mail: Dean Giles

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