There Are No Exceptions

Originally written 29th December 2017. Written for a collaborative fiction project on NationStates.net. The full story is still on-going and can be read there.

Extinction is the rule. Survival the exception.
-Carl Sagan

You are waking after almost six years in cold storage. Your chest burns as you start to breathe, the bones and muscles crack with exertion as life is forced back into them. Your limbs refuse all commands to move. Your thoughts trickle from the back of your mind as sludge, oily and indistinct. Bones creak and snap as they are forcefully realigned. Waking up is agonising, and it takes a very long time. Nerves start to fire as electricity is forced into them, causing muscle spasms and pain in equal measures.

You cannot tell whether you are blind, or your eyes have simply not been turned on yet.

You inhale as deeply as you can through your nose and cough as slush and bitter chemicals force their way down your airways. You trust it will vaporise in your lungs, though at least if you drown it will all be over. More nerves fire without being told to, your leg twitches and spasms. You involuntarily headbutt the chamber wall. This has always been your least favourite part of your hobby.

Three hours later you stumble from your cryopod naked and freezing. Your eyes are still not working, but the implants in them have started to pump information to your brain. You can see without seeing, which will suffice for now. Slushed, half-frozen nutrients ooze and slide from every part of your body. Gel packs, implanted in each arm, each leg, your spine and between your breasts kick into life. They burn as they inject the needed hormones and ingredients to properly bring you back to life. The pack on your chest does so directly into your heart. You feel something that you might describe as life flourish there.

Welcome back to the world of the living, Sascha Roshanak. You are in desperate need of a hot shower. You also need hot food, but you will not be able to stomach it for another five hours. Your implants are piping messages from your ship to you, an avalanche of numbers and diagrams your mind is still much too close to dead to decipher.

Start with the shower.


Sascha resurfaced twelve hours after showering, floating into the Observatory dressed in simple civilian attire. No cause to wear anything more than trousers and a shirt while she was still getting her bearings. The ship’s Maitre had been streaming data to her implants throughout her entire ‘morning routine’, but without plugging into the Observatory directly she couldn’t properly commune with it. She still had a quarter of her original wetware installed, the last bastion of grey matter before her final operation, and the Maitre was not particularly adept at dumbing things down to a cyborg’s level.

‘Alright, Maitre,’ she thought to herself, ‘what do you have for me.’

The Observatory illuminated all around her, more to alert her to its activation than any other reason. The smooth white of its walls shifted to show the endless depths of space outside. The image, a real-time display of every photon that collided with the ship, was littered with pinpricks of distant stars. One, larger and brighter than the others, must have been the star of the local system. Sascha pursed her lips. There was no planet, no obvious sign as to why the Maitre had woken her up. With the body of the Argo eliminated from the footage, there was no chance an object of interest could have been obscured.

Sascha coasted around the edge of the Observatory, pulling herself along its surface to a single control panel hidden behind the displays. She inserted a limb to lock herself in place, then activated its broadcaster. A quick check of her wireless implants, a security code verified, and she was suddenly in the ship. She could almost feel what was left of her brain buzz with the surge in awareness. Her body went numb, and her limbs flopped uselessly as the entirety of her nervous system disconnected and turned itself off. The ship was her body, shared between her and the Maitre.

“Update me,” she thought. Her voice echoed inside her head, but her vocal cords remained dormant. Something to make the user more comfortable, they had said. She had simply found it distracting.

[OBJECT] DETECTED. BLACK BODY TYPE. NO HEAT SIGNATURES. PHYSICAL IMPOSSIBILITY. NO DISCERNABLE SPACETIME CURVATURE. TRACKING BY ABSENCES AND OBSTRUCTIONS OF CATALOGUED INTERSTELLAR PHENOMENA.

“How was the [OBJECT] detected if it has no signatures?”

[OBJECT] SOURCED [EVENT CLASS ASSORDANTE].

That gave Sascha pause. So the Object had evidently done something to shock the Maitre into waking Sascha before she could have reached her intended destination. Assordante was not an event classification she was familiar with, which meant the Maitre had been forced to define a new one. That was interesting. And no small measure of frightening. In the back of her mind, and a million miles distant, she could feel her heartbeat start to thunder in her chest.

“What is the distance to the [OBJECT]?”

[OBJECT] ON IN-SYSTEM APPROACH. CURRENTLY MOVING TO INTERCEPT. DISTANCE ESTIMATION CURRENTLY NOT WITHIN ACCEPTABLE ACCURACY PARAMETERS.

Sascha flinched. All in her mind, of course. Every form of drive, supraluminal or otherwise, left some trace on the cosmos. Newtonians left traces of their fuel, gravitics had gravity signatures. Even some of the more elaborate non-Newtonians would bend space or leave a scattering of exotic matter. To say nothing of the violent reality bending committed by supraluminal drives. For the object to be moving, it had to be doing something. But the Maitre had only detected the Object by a single action, performed before it had woken her. It was being tracked now only by observing where everything else wasn’t. It was, for all intents and purposes, invisible to the universe in its current state. But somehow moving.

“What is the propulsion methodology of the [Object]?”

NEGATIVE DATA.

“What is the velocity of the [Object]?”

[OBJECT] CURRENT VELOCITY IN EXCESS OF ONE THOUSAND LIGHTS. [OBJECT] IS DECELERATING. ORIGINAL VELOCITY AT DETECTION IN EXCESS OF FORTY THOUSAND LIGHTS. LACK OF IDENTIFIABLE EMISSIONS AND TRACKING INFORMATION MAKES CALCULATION CERTAINTY MAXIMUM FORTY-THREE PERCENT.

Good God. Even with the unprecedented low accuracy – Sascha had never witnessed the Maitre, with all its processing power and available sensory equipment, give a prediction with accuracy less than ninety-six per cent – that was horrifically fast. “Is the course predictable?”

COURSE PREDICTABLE. MOVING TO INTERCEPT.

Sascha disconnected and took a moment to collect herself before removing her arm from its clamp and floating listlessly away from the edge of the Observatory. For the first time in recent memory, she felt an all too human chill roll up her spine.

“Maitre,” she said aloud. Her voice was scratchy, weak, after almost a decade without use. “Forward the information associated with the Assordante Event to my quarters. Designate the Object using standard threat name listing, and alert me when it gets close.”

CONFIRMED. OBJECT DESIGNATION [OSCURITA] ASSIGNED. PREPARING PERSONAL DATABANKS.

Sascha floated down towards the exit of the Observatory, taking one last look before disappearing through the porthole. Her implants were flashing warnings of an elevated heart rate, pupil dilation, ‘do we have permission to medicate’, ‘panic imminent’. She leaned her back against the edge of the exit, trying to steady shaking hands. A half dozen of her own assignments, combined with a library of thousands more, had covered every conceivable and possible phenomenon the universe could conjure. But out there, beyond the edge of the Observatory and hidden amongst the stars, was something impossible.


“Space is big.”

The above phrase is commonly spouted by scientists, college professors and just about every piece of science fiction that has ever been written. Not necessarily in exactly that manner, but the meaning is carried across regardless. There is an enormity to the universe that is not easily explained and even less easily comprehended. Travelling at one hundred times the speed of light, and it would still take a thousand years to cross the Milky Way Galaxy. A mortal being could spend its entire life exploring a single planet and still not reach every point on its surface, yet that planet would be insignificant next to its own star. Two galaxies could collide with one another, and yet no two stars would ever impact one another. It would be a rarity that two stars would even exert a noticeable gravitic pull on one another as the galaxies phased through each other.

This is why the default state of all things is that of invisibility.

The inverse square law makes monitoring every corner of the sky exponentially more difficult the further out you look. A suitably advanced civilisation might be able to, at all times, observe the immediate orbit of its planet. Perhaps they could even monitor a few light minutes out from the surface at all times. But as the distance grows, and the sheer volume of space being observed grows faster, so much faster, than the radius of the observed area, the challenge quickly becomes insurmountable. Over great distance, light speed lag further compounds the issue of observation and surveillance. By the time the light of an approaching object reaches your telescope, it could already be in another location entirely. Surprise, now you get to try and find it all over again.

So space-bound civilisations more often than not must resort to cheating. Sensors based on faster than light technology to eliminate lightspeed lag, by detecting (usually) the emission of supraluminal particles from a source. They scatter their observation posts along a solar system’s ecliptical, primarily around planetary bodies and their orbits. Focus instead on the important areas of a system, rather than the star system itself. Only a bare fraction of its volume is of any interest anyway, there is no real sense in observing vast swathes of nothingness round the clock. Give yourself the illusion of omniscience in your own back garden, and never admit that most of it cannot even really be called yours.

Sascha, having spent the better part of six decades travelling through the Milky Way and cataloguing what she found, was more familiar with the sheer emptiness of it all than most sapient beings she had encountered. Admittedly, she had spent nine out of every ten of those years frozen in a state of undeath. It was difficult to portray sixty plus years of experience in the body of someone still a few years short of being thirty. But the point remained, she was well aware of how impossible it was to find anything of note in the cosmos unless you were explicitly looking for it. Yet now, impossibly, she had stumbled upon something so utterly unexplainable completely by chance.

Why was it approaching this system? What were the odds it was approaching at the same time she had been? It was still billions of kilometres away and could have gone completely unnoticed by her, or anyone for light years in any direction. Why did it advertise itself to a completely empty system?

The first question was something Sascha could guess at. It was likely here for the same reason she had come. Approximately two hundred and thirty light days from her current location, adrift in the system’s Oort cloud, was a life-bearing planet. She had almost missed it, even with her hundreds of thousands of drones scattered about the galaxy. Fortunately, it was rich enough in plant life to have an oxygen-rich atmosphere, something detectable even at obscene ranges, and on closer inspection, her sensor net had found evidence of the assorted complex chemistry that screamed ‘there is something alive here’. The Object – Oscurita – had likely detected the same. It was the only thing of note in the system, amidst eleven other planet-sized bodies (four of which qualified as ‘gas giants’, with one super Jovian) and a single, simple star. Sascha could think of no other reason Oscurita would be approaching. What concerned Sascha was the timing of its arrival.

Oscurita was travelling faster than anything she – or any member of her organisation – had ever encountered before. More than that it was doing so through real, three-dimensional, space. No hyperlanes, no wormholes, no bending indicative of a warp bubble. Not so much as an exhaust emission from a rocket. It could have arrived at any point in the past thousand years, or in the next thousand, in the blink of a proverbial eye. Instead, it’s final approach was being made right around the same time she had been making hers. The Maitre had estimated, given its current constant rate of deceleration, that it had likely started its long crawl to a stop well before Sascha had been present in the system, so it wasn’t here for her.

But then why the perfect (imperfect?) timing?

And then, of course, the Assordante Event. Assordante, Sascha had learned, equated to ‘deafening’. Seconds before the Maitre had forced Argo into subluminal deceleration and woken Sascha, the entire system they were set to investigate had lit up like a nuclear bomb. Over four million objects had arrived in perfect synchronicity in the system, encompassing a sphere centred on its star with a radius of five light hours. None of them had seemed to be that complex from what limited information the Maitre had been able to gather. Small, perhaps a metre or so in diameter, and without the black body nature of their assumed source. Maitre hadn’t been able to guess what they were made of, but their tiny size meant they had to have been cheaply produced. They’d burned in cold, blips of black against the cosmic background radiation, settled into position.

And then exploded.

The scream of their death almost overwhelmed the Maitre. If the Argo had been caught in the path of their broadcast the sheer force of it would have liquefied its ceramic skin, fried its incredibly sensitive sensor array, and possibly killed its artificial intelligence before anything on the vessel would even have been aware of it. Fortune favoured the small craft, and distance had saved its life. Enough of the death scream had been captured by the Argo and stored by the Maitre that Sascha was able to learn something. An extremely broad ‘something’, but at least that was a piece of this rapidly growing puzzle. There was a pattern in the mess of their deaths. The objects hadn’t all exploded in the same way, not even strictly speaking at the same time – even if it had all happened in less than a second. But there was structure to the Assordante. And structure meant a message, intelligent and purposeful.

It was safe to assume then, even if she could not decipher the exact contents, that the system had been examined. Not in any kind of fine detail, surely, but Sascha did not think it safe to assume anything where Oscurita was concerned. The sheer force of the signal, the perfection with which the object had all arrived from over four million different directions, the audacity of the act, screamed to Sascha of an actor that utterly convinced of its own superiority in this scenario. So far, she was forced to admit, she had seen nothing to prove it wrong.

She caught herself staring at the hard light picture clasped in her hands. A memento she had whipped up as if solidifying the image would give her some insight she couldn’t glean from data directly fed into her visual cortex. A sea of scattered stars, and the glow of the galaxy’s core. And there, almost imperceptible, impossible to see unless you already knew it was there, was a single black smudge.

Oscurita.

Sascha curled up onto her bed and let the hard light image splinter into non-existence. She pulled her knees tight into her chest, felt her breath shudder uncontrollably, and wept.


[OSCURITA] HAS DECELERATED TO SUBLUMINAL SPEEDS.

The alert woke Sascha from her slumber. Strictly speaking, she no longer needed to sleep in any major capacity. Two or three hours and she could stay conscious for the next seventy without much difficulty. But she’d drugged herself up and allowed unconsciousness to take her for no less than eleven hours. Trusting that when she woke up, the nightmare of facing Oscurita by herself would be over. The Maitre, in its infinite subtlety, had proven her wrong. She felt tears sting at the edge of her eyes again. A weight settled in her stomach. Her heart – or what remained of its organic original – clenched tight in her chest. She curled up in the centre of her bed and stared at the alabaster ceiling.

“Link to my quarters and implants.”

She was immediately rewarded with a further stream of data. The hole in space that constituted Oscurita had taken up residence in the Oort cloud alongside Sascha and the Argo. It drifted lazily through the vast collection of asteroids, all the easier to see thanks to the added debris in the background. Even this close – close being a few million kilometres – she could not even guess at its size. Without a flat background of colour to see it against, Oscurita bore no outlines, no edges. It was a smudge on the lens. If she was forced to guess, Sascha would have said it was…’large’.

“Can we get closer? Into a low orbit?”

NEGATIVE. DETECTING ANOMALOUS FIELD AROUND [OSCURITA].

Sascha sat up in her bed, bringing up the readouts of the field into her implants. Information flashed across the walls and hovered just out of reach. The field was much more detectable than Oscurita itself, though that would not have been difficult. A repetitive spike in radiation across a roughly fifty thousand kilometre radius from the estimated centre of Oscurita’s mass. It would fade out almost as quickly as it occurred, and didn’t appear to adhere to any kind of predictable cycle. The radiation itself acted…strangely. It showed intermittently on scans as everything from beta particles to gamma rays to exotic, supraluminal matter spontaneously appearing in a near-perfect sphere, then vanishing. It never bled out past the rough edge of the sphere, and never appeared the same way twice, but it was definitely there.

“Can we identify its purpose?”NEGATIVE DATA.

Well, that was more than less than unhelpful. But now Oscurita wasn’t just moving, it was performing some kind of activity. Sascha’s implants told her it was still moving towards the star at the centre of the system, and it was due to pass within forty-five thousand kilometres of the life-bearing planet along the way.

“So,” she said. To nobody in particular, obviously. “The biosphere will be touched by its field. Obviously intentional.” She tapped a finger against her knee. “But why?” She threw her legs over the side of her bed, recoiling slightly as bare feet touched cold, ceramic flooring.

“Maitre, bring us within twenty thousand kilometres of the edge of that field and match Oscurita’s movement. If the field grows or it looks like we might interact with it, move us away immediately.”

The ship rumbled beneath her feet. For the briefest of moments, she floated just off the floor as the change in thrust threw off the careful balance of centrifugal forces (imaginary or not) that constituted the hab units artificial gravity. Sascha readied herself to see Oscurita as close as she would dare to. But first, she had some calls to make. Certainly, nobody else in her organisation would be near enough to help in any reasonable amount of time, but Sascha had met more than a few explorers and scientists in her time travelling the galaxy. Even if they couldn’t add anything the Argo didn’t already provide, she was already starting to feel…steadier on her feet at the idea of staring down oblivion with someone at her side.