Pandora’s Box


Argo, Pollux System, 2433

Barren Buttes Archeological Station,

Processing Lab


Two of the most important things ever to happen to Virginia Denton occurred on the same day, almost at the same time, and when they happened she was unaware of the importance of either.

     Every day seemed important to Virginia then -- and there was certainly a case to be made that her work could never be as important again.  They had found a virtual treasure trove, artifacts from Dynasty 2c, immediately before the third and final fall of the Argonaut civilization of Argo.  Artifacts close to two million years old shouldn’t even be recognizable, but Dynasty 2c had reached a level of technology beyond that of Earth in most ways.  That was not daunting to Virginia -- it was thrilling.  Any item potentially provided the opportunity to uncover new science or engineering, beyond even the immense archeological value that was her primary interest.

     Today she got to open what she had dubbed 'the box,' what appeared to be a chest, a meter long and half a meter high and deep.  Dull matte gray, unassuming, it awaited her under the hood.  She wished she had one of the X-bots to help, but they were all on site steadily and meticulously uncovering other artifacts, work for which they were immeasurably better suited than humans, and she wasn't going to wait -- she'd been promising herself this treat.  She only had the hood’s robotic manipulators for reliable assistance, as Virginia didn’t count on her summer student.  Anatole was new enough still that she didn’t yet trust him with anything too critical.  Besides, his boundless enthusiasm, barely an exaggeration in truth, was not limited only to archeology; that quality had seemed a plus when she'd selected him for the position -- broad interests often seemed advantageous to her -- but she was seeing the downside today.  The kid could be scatterbrained.

     Anatole, at the moment, was across the lab watching the New Colchis satellite feed.  There was some sort of event – Virginia hadn’t followed it closely – involving the unexpected arrival of a ship from Earth.  Although the event was already a continent and a small ocean away, it seemed even more distant with the unopened box before her.

     A Pandora’s box, she thought, chewing on her hair, then dismissed the notion.  Greek mythology had seeped into the naming of everything in the Pollux system, from its planets to its inhabitants, and sometimes into more than just the naming.  Pollux was one of the two stars that, from Earth, made up the core of the constellation of Gemini, the twins.  Castor was the other star.  In the myths, Pollux and Castor had been twin sailors on Jason's famous ship Argo who quested, ill-fatedly, for the Golden Fleece.  As occurred all too often with naming things, or renaming things as was the case here, everything was wrong or backwards.  Now the name of the ship that bore Pollux was the name of a planet in orbit around Pollux, which had never made sense to Virginia.  But never mind the ancient history.

     She smiled in anticipation as she pulled on the remote gloves.  In response, the robot arms under the clean hood twitched, and sprang, hovering, to electric life.

     The box had no lid, or opening mechanism, but that was not atypical for artifacts of this material from this site.  You just reached out to open such a box and it would open.  Random jostling, other contact without intent to open, didn’t normally do the job.  Nothing magical about it, just differences in the impact and forces, something she could probably program herself with enough time and a smart material like the one before her.

     Virginia moved her arms, splitting her attention between a direct visual of the box, and watching the monitor fed by a camera on the robotic hand.  She reached for the box, felt the feedback pressure when she touched it, and grabbed and lifted the top.

     She grinned, immediate understanding filling her as the lid opened.  It wasn't a Pandora’s box, full of all evils.  Far from it.  The box was full of toys.  There were bright, multi-colored round objects, furry eight-armed dolls, plastic disks, and more.  Despite the odd assortment, she was sure it was a toy box -- alien toys, to be sure, for alien juveniles, but certainly toys.  This was fantastic!  In those first moments of delight, she couldn’t think of anything more important than finding children’s toys because, after all, this would be something that would get into the psyche of the ancient Argonauts at a fundamental level that nothing more adult could do.  After all, wouldn't dolls and toy guns be quite revealing about humans?

     “Anatole!” she called.  “This is wonderful.  Come see!”

     She panned the camera over the contents, recording three-dimensional information to better than a micron with the laser scanner.

     Virginia took a moment to control her overpowering smile.  She wondered if any Argonaut child had ever felt such excitement as she did in opening the toy box.  The Argonauts had to be more than the ruthless monsters that their extinction indicated.

     Where was Anatole?  He should be here.  Sure he was more distractible than she’d banked on, but this was a golden moment.  Virginia was from Earth, second mission, and had signed up to come to Argo.  Anatole, on the other hand, had been born locally and like many of his generation seemed to resent it.  She supposed she could understand how Earth would sound -- high-tech, glamorous, and infinitely enticing to someone who viewed their home world as a backwater.  But Earth didn’t have ten-million-year-old artifacts.  To an archeologist, Earth was the backwater.

She couldn’t wait for him.  She began lifting individual artifacts -- toys! -- into individual containers.  They'd be cradlefoamed into place for transport back to the more sophisticated labs of New Colchis arcology.

     Giddiness flashed up her spine and lifted her cheeks back into a painful smile.  She should be going slower, going more carefully, but the Argonaut boxes preserved their contents so well she knew the toys were likely in fine shape.  Fine enough for a quick, careful lift anyway.

     Hell, they were probably ready to be played with, as fresh as the day alien hands had put them away for the last time.

     Breathe.  Go slow.  As slow as possible, anyway.

     Where was that kid?  “I’ve got something great!”

     A moment later she heard him push open the door and felt the wave of warm, moist air that flowed in with him. She didn’t bother looking up, and proceeded to lift out a reflective hexagonal box with no apparent purpose, not one so obvious compared to the figures and spiky balls anyway.  What was it?  The best stuff was never obvious at first glance.  Perhaps this was something exceptional.

     “This guy on the feed,” Anatole said, “Klingston's his name, he didn’t come from Earth.  Not directly.  He’s a scout, and he met aliens, real live aliens.  Living extraterrestrial intelligences!”

     Okay, that was intriguing, Virginia admitted.  She had become interested in archeology initially as a window into alien cultures, human or otherwise, separated from humanity by time.  She was surely as interested in alien intelligences separated by space.  An abyss opened before her as large as the universe, a place full of interacting aliens rather than just ancient ruins of lost civilizations.  She’d gone into archeology because that was the big show, the only place you could touch those other cultures, but perhaps that wasn’t true anymore.

Still, she couldn’t think about that now.  She could hear about it later, and find out all about this enigmatic and fascinating Klingston, maybe even meet him and pick his brain.  But now, now, she had to focus on the toy cradled in the slaved robot's hands.

What she was doing here was still exciting, but her smile had vanished in mixed emotions.  Wasn’t the world full of wonder?

“Okay,” she said, “tell me about it in a minute.  Let me get this baby put to bed.”

     She continued to move the hexagonal box, slowly, steadily, to the scan pad a meter away.

     Suddenly, something pricked her arm and she jerked involuntarily.  Her smile twisted into a snarl and she exclaimed, “Oh!”

A tenth-of-a-second glance revealed the culprit: a blue stabber had flown in with Anatole, careless Anatole.  The stabber inhabited an ecological niche very close to that of the mosquito, and like the mosquito, its bites were masked by a local anesthetic –- except that it didn’t work on aliens from Earth like humans.  It didn’t matter that she didn’t dare slap at the Argotian bug because the medical nano in her blood would kill it almost as fast as she turned to look at it.  She had jerked, and that was enough.

The box bounced out of the mechanical hands.

“Hey,” said Anatole.

The box skittered to an abrupt stop on the scan table.

Virginia’s pulse accelerated with a surge of adrenalin.

The box lit up.

Lit up wasn’t the right phrase, Virginia realized, given that it was more of a dark cloud above the box, making the box itself appear lighter in contrast.  Something floating above the box, and the way it appeared, had triggered the thought as it had reminded her of a holographic monitor powering up.  An image materialized.

What materialized looked to be a star field, with something wispy at the center.  The field rotated as the wispy thing sharpened and came into focus.  As this happened, sound began to emanate from the box.  Tones, in a minor key, ominous and deep, passed effortlessly through the whispering pressure hood and resonated in Virginia’s chest.

“Cool,” said Anatole.

Virginia ignored him, and leaned closer to peer at this alien image.  She’d read of two artifacts that had done something like this before, although she hadn’t seen one actually activated herself.

On top of the low tones, a sibilant hissing emerged.  An Argonaut voice – perhaps more than one; a narration, she surmised, explaining the picture crystallizing before her.

The wispy thing was a structure floating in the night, an eight-armed space station of some sort, she thought.  The absolute size of the thing was impossible to determine, but the way the image grew so slowly, with so much detail and relief, it seemed like it must be immense.

The hissing, alien voices continued for several minutes, and she noticed a tiny glittering light at the focus of the perspective, approaching the station.  A ship?  The point of view enlarged, and the narration quickened.  The light sharpened into something resembling an attacking silver octopus, but it did seem a starship of some kind.

This was a story-telling device, and this story made her feel uncertain, and deeply disturbed.  The Argonauts of all eras had only rarely used fiction.  Not for education anyway.

The toy before her was interesting, in the most profound way.

“I think this is important,” she whispered to Anatole.  “Alien-encountering scouts or not today, we’re going to make the feed, too.  We’re going to have a real story worth telling.”

The tiny ship docked with the station, and the toy emitted such a sour, disquieting note that Virginia had an involuntary reaction to try to shut it down.  She ignored the feeling, and watched the strange story unfold as best she could follow.

Anatole said, "I wonder if it has a happy ending."

She hoped it did, but wasn't getting that vibe from it.  "I doubt it," she whispered.  "But neither do most fairy tales.  Let's keep watching."




















Part 1: Pollux System, 2453 AD


Chapter 1

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Charybdis, Inner Moon of Argo


     Without an atmosphere to create distortion, the stark crags of the Pindus range cast exceptionally sharp shadows across the plains of Charybdis.

     Commander Manuel Rusk took a deep breath, admiring the view, even though he breathed only his suit’s slightly stinky recycled air.  The view was still grand.

     “Drop position confirmed, all relays good," Sloan Griffin, his second, said over the public channel from orbit.

     He almost felt like it was real, that they were in the Castor 6 system, instead of a training mission on Argo’s larger moon.  Fine, he’d go with the feeling, treat it as real as he could, since that was the best way to be successful.  Here he was, leading an investigation into a five-sigma gravitational anomaly on a planetary moon.  Not so exciting, he supposed, although the anomaly was real and worth exploring.  Probably just a mineral excess of some sort, a random fluctuation. . .

     But maybe not.  This was how a buried Argonaut power plant had once been discovered, after all.  Definitely worth a look.

     “Fan out,” Rusk ordered.  “Let’s proceed through the foothills, systematically, heading north, with Selene and Melinda on the perimeters, at two kilometers, with X-bots trailing in the gaps.”

     He hopped forward in the light gravity, deliberately moving slowly as he scanned every direction.  Compared to the humans, however, the bots were more likely to find something given their extended spectral capabilities, but they were not foolproof.  Humans had millennia of natural selection going for them when it came to hunting the unknown.  Rusk was a modern hunter, and had skills that the cyberneticists could not quite duplicate.  Yet.

     So he hopped, and looked.

     With no atmosphere or significant erosion processes, tracks in the dirt would last for millions of years.  It might not be so hard to locate something of interest, if it were present.  Charybdis had not yet been mapped at the sub-meter resolutions necessary to necessarily spot fine details from orbit.

     Sixteen individual Argonaut landing sites, plus two long-term bases with associated activity, had been located on Charybdis from satellites.  The nearest base was over 100 kilometers away, not all that far.  But anything military, the most interesting sites, might well be designed to avoid detection from orbit, high-resolution imaging or not.

     “Rusk,” Walter Stubbs’s voice floated over the public channel.  “I’ve got something.  A hole.”

     A hole?  Okay, worth a look, but it didn’t sound so promising for everyone to quit what they were doing.  "Walter, I'm on my way.  Everyone else keep on.  Come, Magellan.”

     His X-bot, fifty meters to his left and a little behind, closed the distance between them.  The bot didn’t bounce in the lower gravity like he did, but moved in a sinuous, snake-like manner with its multiple legs undulating beneath as one.  Apparently that was more efficient than the more spider-like way it moved under heavier gravity.  The X-bots had a built-in library of movement patterns for a wide range of environments spanning more properties than just surface gravity.

     Rusk's head's-up painted a green label 'STUBBS' over the silver-suited figure a short distance away.  Stubbs's X-bot, Phyllis, squatted beside him, leaning its sensor-adorned head downward and to the right of the pair.

     “What do you have, Walter?” Rusk asked over the short-range channel.

     “Phyllis picked up an aberration in the dust at a radius of thirty-four meters.  I mean, a non-aberration aberration.  I'll let her explain.”

     Over his HUD, a ghost of a face appeared, one of Phyllis’s expert patterns: an older, blonde woman with long, straight hair.  Rusk couldn't recall the pattern's human name.  She said, “There’s a circular region of enhanced randomness.  That is, it exhibits perfect Gaussian statistical randomness, which happens all the time with large enough samples, but I guess you'd call this anally random.”

     Walter said, “Especially when there’s a big rock at the center, with a hole under it.”

     Too random?  There had to be a chance of getting perfect randomness that wasn't too small.  But it did seem to be of interest, potentially.  And any protected nook here was worth at least a quick look.  “Tell me about the hole.”

     “It’s a hole.  It’s a meter across, at least ten meters deep, then it slants off.  You can't see it from orbit at all.”

     Rusk considered the situation, the chance that this was something artificial.  It seemed like it might be.  Under normal circumstances, he would drop everything and allow an archeological team to proceed.  But these weren’t normal circumstances -- he was on a training mission, and directed to play it honest as if this were a real find, so he should proceed as he would if this were a moon orbiting a planet in the Castor 6 system.

     So. . .onward.  And downward.

     “Magellan,” he said, “give me a line.”

     Rusk turned toward his X-bot and extended a hand.  The X-bot responded by taking two of its legs and grabbing a nub in its thorax.  The bot pulled the nub out and handed it to Rusk.  A filament of high-tension nanocarbon ribbon connected the nub to the X-bot’s carriage.

     Rusk locked the nub into his belt and stepped to the edge of the hole.  “Give me a solid belay,” he said.

     Wrapping the line around his back, Rusk stepped back to the hole, and jumped in.

     Jagged rock walls flashed slowly by in the low gravity.  His helmet lights followed his head, providing a strange perspective as he looked about during the repel.  When his feet touched the wall, he kicked off, slightly, and continued to drop.

     Rusk fell into the hole, trusting his equipment and training.  Training was for real, something one could rely upon in the face of any challenge.  For one properly prepared, fear was unnecessary.  He wouldn’t get caught on a sharp outcropping, and he wouldn’t twist an ankle with an awkward landing.

     He landed, softly, on a flat surface covered in a few millimeters of dust.  Flat seemed interesting.  He shone his light down, panning around his landing area.

     Tracks in the dust.  Hundreds of them.  Not human prints, either, but the smaller oval prints of suited Argonauts.  Jackpot.  He radioed up calmly, “This is the real deal.  Get everyone over here, and get Timothy down here, and an X-bot with Argonaut military expertise.”

     Timothy knew Argonaut history, such as it was presently understood, and could provide an informed opinion about anything they might find.  He’d be a useful human counter to any X-bot perspective.  Despite being based on human personalities and expertise, X-bots often lacked the big picture view.

     He wished he had an omni-bot, or O-bot, as he thought of his dream assistant, that could synthesize disparate information more effectively.  People had been daydreaming about decent help for the entire history of civilization, and you worked with what you had.  X-bots were useful, but their narrowness sometimes let people down when relied on too much.  Still, Earth-based researchers were always improving the things and broadcasting the results to Argo.

     Rusk didn’t pay much attention to the discussion topside, the logistics of moving people and bots down.  His team was competent.  Rusk focused on the tracks in the dust.  These were at least many hundreds of thousands of years old.  Part of him realized that he didn’t dare move, but another part of him didn’t care.  These were mere footprints.  His suit was recording them, not only video but, he picked out a menu on his HUD and eyed the appropriate activation, with scanning lidar.  If he were in the Castor 6 system, he’d make high-quality recordings, and proceed despite the destruction his own movements would cause.  So would he here.

     He hadn’t come here for just footprints.

     Onward then.

     “I’m moving ahead,” he said, detaching himself from the drop cable, and oriented himself toward the downward sloping tunnel filled with prints.  “Full archival recording engaged.”

     Rusk shuffled along, slowly, looking at his surroundings.  The tunnel itself wasn’t natural, he decided.  The walls were smooth and round, but not perfectly so, slightly elongated in the horizontal, to maybe three meters wide.  The ceiling was two and a half meters high at least, and he didn't have to stoop.

     It wasn’t spooky, exactly, as he didn’t think anything had been here in untold millennia, but there were ghosts nonetheless.  He was the first here in eons, and he couldn’t help but imagine what things might have been like when the Argonauts had abandoned this place.  Which era had built the base, and what had ended things here?  Had it been war?  Economic depression?  Or perhaps just a bureaucratic decision?

     He didn’t know, but speculation made him feel closer to the long-lost beings of Argo, exploring and establishing their presence on their largest moon the way men had done in theirs.

     About 50 meters down the tunnel, the passage opened up into what seemed an antechamber, close to ten meters in diameter.  While much of the floor was covered with more oval footprints, there were also several flattened areas that looked as if something large and flat, like crates or machines, had once rested there.

     Rusk scanned it all.

     Opposite the tunnel was something that was clearly a door of some type:  a flat indentation in the wall, wide at the bottom, tapering to a rounded top, similar to other Argonaut doors he'd seen in ruins and in videos.  “I’ve got something.  Get that X-bot down here, and another to relay.”

     “Acknowledged,” said Timothy.

     When Rusk was sure that he’d recorded every detail, he stepped toward the door.  He didn’t see any obvious way of opening it.  It had no handle, or knob.  There was no keypad.  He supposed it might open with a radio frequency combination, or have a light sensitive lock.  Maybe even something much more exotic.  In the worst case, they could always force it open one way or another.  The team had enough explosives to make an academy of archeologists cringe, but it probably wouldn't come to that.

     One thing about it, though, was a mark.  Close to what he perceived as the middle of the door, was a dark indentation.  The shape was familiar: like a four-leafed clover from Earth, with the top two leaves larger than the bottom two leaves.  It was the Argonaut symbol for “heart,” equivalent to the human symbol with two bulges on top, narrowing to a vee at the bottom.  This symbol, he thought he recalled, was associated with one of the primary nation-states during one of the high-tech civilizations.  He should know it, and was irritated with himself for not being able to place it exactly.  He’d studied this topic, extensively, for an exam once, and didn't usually forget.

     Rusk let it go for the moment.

     The question was, for him as training mission commander, should he continue as if he and his team were really in the Castor 6 system, alone and isolated, or recognize that this was an opportunity for some crack archeology team from Argo to take over?

     Inside this lunar cavern, inside his helmet, where no one could see, Rusk frowned.

     This chance of this sort of discovery was remote enough that it hadn't come up explicitly, and from experience he knew the real answer to the unknown range in possibilities had always been 'use your best judgment.'

     And then he'd be judged in turn, later, with perfect and unforgiving hindsight.

     He could argue either position, and he could see those with control over him and his future arguing the opposite positions.  He imagined the back-and-forth conversation.  He took a deep breath.  People in charge always condoned success, when it could be visibly measured, but blasted failure.  At this point, he and his team would get credit for the discovery, and credit for the methodology that produced it (Anatole's new algorithm had selected this site as more unnatural as he defined it than others).  Any additional level of discovery would be a bonus, but only that, on top of the basic find.

     He should stop now, he realized, from a political perspective.  They'd score points for no additional risk.

     As fascinating as Argonaut discoveries were, he’d grown up with them, and nothing here could match the importance of the initial exploration the previous generation had performed.  Only something like opening a new solar system, or a multiple system like Castor 6, could compare to that.

     Training his team should take precedence over a marginal increase in the archeological understanding of the ancient Argonauts, but it wasn't the safe move.  Leading an unsupported team in an alien star system would require safety.  He grunted to himself: too much second-guessing already.  Safe or reckless?

     Rusk made his decision.  He stepped forward through the ancient dust, stopping before the doorway and its dark symbol.  He raised his hand, and, with only a little hesitation, briskly knocked on the surface before him.  The surface felt firm, and resonant.  A satisfying sensation, even though he couldn’t hear any sound.  He spoke, but did not broadcast, “Is anyone home?  We’ve arrived.  Now I turn you over to the experts to follow with their slow, careful brushes.”

     Rusk stepped back, satisfied with the state of the universe.

     “Rusk?”  It was Griffin’s voice, relayed to him from orbit.  “About six seconds ago we picked up a neutrino pulse.”

     A neutrino pulse?  That was far from the easiest thing to detect.  And when he knocked?  Exactly when he knocked?  That seemed unlikely.

     “From here you think?” he asked.  “And real?"

     “Yes,” she replied.  "Several dozen detections.  Really strange, isn't it?"

     Neutrinos barely interacted with anything.  Gazillions spewed out of Pollux all the time, essentially all of them passing through everything peacefully, including a star and the entire planet of Argo.  Spacecraft Cerenkov detectors were small and only picked up neutrinos as a byproduct of monitoring dark drives, and without the drives they wouldn't even have known about the burst.  Furthermore, Griffin had to have had a good position to intersect the neutrinos.

     A cold sweat trickled across Rusk’s forehead, and because of the helmet he couldn’t wipe it away.  Was it possible that he’d triggered it, with his simple knocking?

     No. . .couldn’t be.

     “Yes,” said Griffin, “I’ve backtracked the trails, and the 95 percent confidence interval is centered within a kilometer of your location.  Did anything happen down there in the last few minutes?”

     A knock.  That's all, but there it was.  A giant black spot on his career, for a little knock?  Oh. . .how?  Ludicrous!  And he had decided to play it responsible, to play it safe.


     He took a few deep breaths.  He was probably okay here.  What could a neutrino signal do from a lunar base millions of years old, after all?

     But a neutrino generator as an alarm system was a very, very strange thing indeed.




Chapter 2


A Walk in the Park

Hesperides Park, Argo


     Frank Klingston landed his car in the deserted parking area of Hesperides Park.  It seemed they had it all to themselves today.  He looked to his wife, Virginia, and caught her smiling back.  She was beautiful in the sunlight, with her tanned face, dark hair, and golden hoop earrings, complimented by her gleaming smile.  She winked at him.  Life was good.

     “Dad!” Kenny said, poking his head up from the backseat.  “Let’s goooo already!”

     Kenny was his youngest, and at six, much more vocal than his moody older brother Allyn.

     “Okay, sport,” he said, letting his grin out.

     His family poured out of the car and onto the white permacrete.  Virginia rescued the picnic basket from the trunk as he was shutting down the engine.  His sons were already patrolling the forest perimeter.

     “Hey!” he called.  “Don’t go too far!  Allyn, watch your brother!”

     Allyn turned to give him a dirty look.  Watching Kenny was far from his favorite job. Kenny was running and jumping about and didn’t give him a look at all.

     Virginia leaned into him.  “It’s okay.  Nothing’s going to hurt the.”

     He took her in one arm and the picnic basket in the other as they marched to follow their children.  “I suppose not.”

     Hesperides was a secure park, with ultrasonic barriers tuned to deter the larger predators, and most Argotian life had already learned to give humans a wide berth.  Especially young humans, who especially seemed to enjoy the way even their spit would kill bugs.

     A dirt trail wound into the shallow hills above the parking lot.  Frank and Virginia followed the path, at a stroll, letting the kids pull ahead, out of sight, but not quite out of earshot.

     This was a special place to them.  This had been where they’d met.  Frank had been touring Argo, and Virginia had been the archeologist assigned to show him the ruins of Hesperides.  “You weren’t so happy the first time I came here with you.”

     Virginia laughed, bright in her yellow sundress.  “No, I sure wasn’t.  I really wanted to meet you, but the request to play docent still stung a bit.  Claude Martin was as big an ass then as he is now.”

     “That’s government for you, even here.  I’m glad you didn’t hold it against me.”

     “You’re lucky I still hold it at all, old man.”

     He grinned -- he was lucky she still held it -- and cherished what they had.

     The trail continued up, and slightly to the right.  Spotty light leaked through the canopy, highlighting their way and illuminating the occasional flutterwing.  It was also the season for flowerflies, with their overly sweet and sour odors coming and going along the trail as they passed mating balls.

Another five minutes of walking brought them to the crest of the hill where it was possible to get a view of the valley.  They paused.  Everyone did, every time.

     Great spikes of dull metal, hundreds of meters tall, sometimes singly and sometimes in sets, thrust upwards from the jungle foliage.  Some of the sets betrayed patterns that made Frank think of dinosaur skeletons, the colossal remnants of antiquity lost for millions of years.  It was as if some vast metallic beast had crawled into this valley and died long ago, its life and flesh leaving it, only the hardest and most stubborn parts persisting.  And in some sense, that’s what had happened.

     “Come on, Frank.  The kids are almost down already.”

     He saw them, two blobs of white t-shirt bouncing along way down the trail.

     “Okay,” he said, feeling a small ache in his lower back and sweat moistening his hairline.  “Let’s go.”

     Downhills were easier on his wind than the uphills, but his back and knees complained more.  He was a little too fat and happy, he supposed.  So be it.  There were things worse in life than being fat and happy.

     They descended down the trail and back into jungle, which soon blocked most of giant metal spikes.  Far ahead he heard the mournful wail of an Argotian spider monkey troop.  On Earth, spider monkeys had a high-pitched screech that they emitted with no particular organization.  On Argo, the alien creatures physically resembled their Earthly namesake, plus a few limbs, but differed significantly by joining their voices together.  Together their voices built, harmonized, and, reaching a crescendo, all dropped the call -- stone dead silence within the span of a single human heartbeat.  It was usually unnerving to listen to.

     “When I first came here with my advisor,” Virginia said, “he told me that the monkeys were the ghosts of the Argonauts.”

     Frank agreed it was a spooky sound, amplified by the presence of the ruins.  “Kenny better not have nightmares after begging to come here.”

     “How could he not beg to come here, after the way you built up how fantastic your first visit was?”

     “I was referring more to the company.”

     “Flatterer,” she said, smiling.

     The trail led into a small clearing.  In the center of the clearing rested a thick, metallic gray slab, half consumed by some pink pastel rust.  On top of the slab stood Allyn, hands on hips, imperiously gazing down at Kenny.

Kenny, at the base of the slab, was jumping up and down.  “Let me up!  Let me up!”

His hands, at the zenith of his jumps, still missed the slab top by ten centimeters.

Frank thought it was kind of funny, and couldn't keep from smiling.

Virginia elbowed him in the ribs and stepped forward to lift Kenny up.

Kenny squirmed and crawled with every muscle, grunting as he ascended to the top of the slab.  When he got there, he carefully rose up, starting from his hands and feet.  Then he yowled and began stomping around, raising his small fists in the air.  “I’m the king of the ruins!”

Allyn pointedly ignored him.

Virginia caught Frank’s smile, and he felt warmed by his family.  “Come on, boys.  There’s more to see before lunch.”

“I am the King of the Ruins!” Kenny shouted.

Virginia lowered her head and looked at him through her dark bangs.  “I think this will do, if His Majesty will let us feed him.”

“Okay,” said Frank.  He set the picnic basket onto the slab.  Then he made a hitch with his hands and gave his wife a boost, wishing at the last second that he’d pushed her bottom up rather than her boot.  Oh well, a lost opportunity that could provide inspiration for helping her down later.

Frank joined them as Virginia was already pulling out the blanket from the basket.  He stood on the high slab and looked around.  Blue sky, a few puffy clouds floating by, perfect.  Some trees cast a shadow onto one end of the slab, so they’d have some shade if it got too hot.  Reaching above the trees loomed several nearby spikes, the last remnants of some great structure.  Quiet, idyllic, and ancient.

“Pretty cool,” said Allyn.

“Isn’t it,” said Frank.

A spider monkey troop started to howl very close by.  Kenny must have jumped a meter – he’d have surely made it onto the slab on his own with that inspiration!

     Frank started to laugh, but then stopped himself.  There was something odd about the call.  An uncharacteristic lack of harmony, perhaps.   Odd sounding, at a minimum.  Then he caught a glimpse of another oddity.  The shadows from the irregular-shaped leaves were not sharp, rather they were asymmetrically blurry, holding shadows within shadows in an unusual pattern of light and dark.

     "Da, what's that?" asked Allyn.  The boy pointed toward the sun, Pollux.  Not quite at Pollux, Frank realized, but a bit off in the direction of the greater of the two moons, Charybdis, its crescent visible just above the trees in the eastern sky.

     Pollux, as seen from Argo, was a tinge more yellow than Earth's sun, and appeared half again as large.  That bothered Frank sometimes -- not because it appeared larger, but because it didn't appear more than slightly larger.  Pollux, an evolved giant star, burned helium in its degenerate core, and was an order of magnitude physically larger across than old Sol.

     The contacts protecting Frank's eyes automatically polarized and darkened as he turned his attention to Pollux, permitting him to stare almost directly at the star without too much discomfort.  A bright, thin line stuck out from the star's disk, like the handle of a lollipop.  It was a very strange thing to see and didn't make sense.  "I don't know.  I’ve never seen anything like that."

     Kenny quietly slipped his hand into Frank's and squeezed.

Frank squeezed back.



Chapter 3


The Gate to Hell is Guarded

Charybdis, Inner Moon of Argo


     Over the last several hours, Rusk had nearly put the neutrino incident out of his mind.

     They were in the midst of hauling up the final X-bot, Theodore, from the hole.  The X-bots had documented the tunnel thoroughly with seventeen different scanning technologies, and their Specialist bosses were pouring through the data despite rationed oxygen.  Rusk himself felt sweaty and grimy, and kept checking his internal suit temperature although it was always exactly where it belonged.  They'd discovered something, and it had been a good day, if a long one.

     It was time to leave it for the scientists with the brushes, he thought again, when Griffin called.

     "Commander?" Griffin's tinny voice echoed in his stuffy helmet.  "I've got something coming in for your ears only."

     "Okay."  What was this, now?  Was he getting reprimanded, or rewarded perhaps, for how he'd handled things before he even returned to Argo?  "Patch it through."

     "Commander Rusk, acknowledge."

     He didn't recognize the voice.  That meant it wasn't someone from normal Corps operations.  Who else could it be?  "Rusk here.  Talk to me."

     A pause to let the signal travel the light second to Argo and back, maybe even to run through voice print verification.  The gas mix and pressure were not those of the Argotian atmosphere, and he wondered how easy it would be to account for that in any verification routine.

     A click, then, followed by a new voice at a higher volume level.  "We have a situation you should be aware of, Manuel."  Rusk recognized the deep timber immediately.  Claude Martin, Commander-in-Chief of Argo, their branch of the Specialist Corps, and all space operations in the Pollux system.  "They woke me up for this, so it must be important, and as I'm rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I'm starting to agree."

     "Sir?"  Just like Martin.  It was hurry up and wait even trying to have a simple conversation with the man.  Well, curmudgeonly bureaucrats like him were important to have around, Rusk supposed.  He kept thinking he'd figure out why when he got older, and had had that thought for some years now.

     His current theory was that it was a combination of slowing mental faculties requiring more start-up time, a minor reminder of power, and being lonely.

     Rusk waited with a small sense of relief, knowing that no one would awaken Martin just to chew him out.  Still, something that required waking up Martin and contacting him in the middle of an exercise was something both serious and mysterious.  Something important was happening somewhere that mattered to him.

     "So there's this thing," Martin said.  "We don't know what it is, so I'm calling it a thing.  That's as good a name as any.  It's a thing flying out of Pollux at a good fraction of light speed."

     Rusk didn't know how to respond to that, so he waited again.  He had questions, but imagined he would be supplied with the necessary information.

     "Well, here's the crux of the matter.  They tell me you sent a neutrino signal a little while ago that went off in the direction of Pollux."

     Ah!  He was tired, or he'd have made the connection more rapidly.  Neutrinos traveled at essentially light speed and could penetrate normal baryonic matter, even the core of a star, with only a small chance of interception.  There had been enough time for the neutrinos from this base to have traveled to Pollux.

     As soon as Martin stopped speaking, Rusk jumped in.  "No sir, we didn't send a signal.  Not exactly.  We found a hidden Argonaut base on Charybdis, and shortly thereafter a neutrino signal was sent from that base."

     A long pause.  Then: "You think they're in there, still?"

     That was not a thought that had occurred to Rusk, and he should have thought of it hours ago.  A secret military base, self-sufficient, shielded, with a handful of long-lived hibernating Argonauts, or their descendants, holding down the fort, so to speak.  Interesting.  "That seems exceedingly unlikely, but honestly, I don't know, sir.  We could find out."

     "Well, you'd better I think.  That thing, heading out of Pollux, it's heading your way."


     No hesitation now.  "This thing.  They're telling me it's a great, grand fireball flying out of the sun on a trajectory that's going to smack into your newly found base in a few hours.  If there's anything there, I want it.  Get in, get everything you can out, now, and get out of there as fast as you can."

     It seemed this was not the time for brushes, after all.




Chapter 4


An Angry Sun

Hesperides Park, Argo


Frank resisted the urge to look up, and instead looked at his lovely wife.

Virginia gazed into the azure sky with curiosity playing on her face.  “What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know,” Frank said.  This was family time, and he’d left his link in the car to keep the kids from spending all their time on it.  He could hike back and get it, he supposed.  Frank considered.  He had been waiting for three weeks to get everyone’s schedules synchronized for a quality outing, and it certainly was not clear at the moment what was going on.  It was likely something innocuous, some comet rounding the star, or a new Dark Heart test he hadn't remembered.  If it weren't something easily explained like that, they could easily spend all day hearing wild speculation to no good end.

“Frank,” Virginia whispered, arching one eyebrow in that cute way she could.

He looked over at her.

She held the picnic basket open and leaned it toward him.  He made out her link inside.

     Of course Virginia had her link with her.  With their car several kilometers away, at a semi-remote location, what mother would leave her link behind?

     He felt suddenly inadequate as a parent.  Why couldn't he always manage to be as thoughtful and protective as his wife?  He didn't dwell on the thought.  The thing in the sky was likely something innocuous.  They could check later if it seemed warranted.

     "Come on, boys," he said, shaking his head slightly and looking away from the basket.  "Let's have lunch!"

     Allyn and Kenny went along with the proposal.

     As they dug out sandwiches, cheese, star fruits, and soy sticks, Frank watched his boys steal glances into the sky every few minutes.  He resisted the urge.  It might well be nothing, and even if it weren't, he no longer played in such big stake games.  Such matters were the province of young men looking for names for themselves, and sitting around speculating wouldn't do anyone any good.  His big stakes games were behind him, and his stake now was here having a picnic with his family, and that’s what he would focus upon.

     So he tried to focus on them, the way he imagined Virginia did every minute without effort.  Kenny's pants were too short, he noticed.  Time to get him a new set, or invest in a smart set of clothes, or two.  It wouldn't be a big portion of their quota on the local nanoforge.  And Allyn, why hadn't he started to get interested in girls yet?  Or boys?  Or something?  He didn't seem to be shy, or hiding things, the way some kids did.  He looked fine, a good-looking kid.  They didn't have to live up to his fame.  They were fine boys.  Of course they were.

     His family was fine.  No reasons to worry.

     They ate their food, a little more quietly than usual.  Frank’s peanut-butter and quixoberry jelly sandwich was on the dry side, crumbling on his pants.  Virginia asked a few leading questions, but his kids had both mastered the monosyballic reply and they used it to cover their distraction.  It started to get to him, too.

     Above him a fiery line was emerging from the sun.

He finally decided there wasn't much use resisting.  How could the thing going on in the sky not be of interest to them on Argo?  How could it not be important to him personally, and his family?  Maybe being a good parent could also mean focusing on the world around you, watching for danger.  This was unlikely to be dangerous, but perhaps that should always be his first reaction.

He looked to Pollux again.

There was no doubt about it.  The line of fire was visibly longer.  How much longer?  It would probably be foreshortened, wouldn't it?  He knew to think three dimensionally about astronomical objects.  Whether foreshortened or not, it had to be growing fast.  Argo was nearly six astronomical units away from Pollux and at that distance light took about 50 minutes to reach them.  Any visible change in less than an hour meant enormous velocity if in fact the thing was close to the sun.

This thing really could be dangerous.

"Boys," Frank said.  "What do you think is going on in the sky?"

“Dunno,” said Allyn.

“Space ray gun!” offered Kenny, excitedly.

“That’s dumb,” said Allyn, lightly punching his brother in the shoulder.

“Allyn!” Virginia warned.

“Sorry, Mom.  What do you think it is, Da?”

Frank gestured toward Pollux, and shrugged.  "It's nothing, probably, except distracting.  But let’s find out for sure."

Frank gave Virginia a meaningful look, and after a moment's hesitation and a look back, she dug the link out of the basket.

A few seconds later they were all clustered atop the ancient ruin, under the weird sun, watching the tiny display.  There were reports, with lots of graphs and animations -- many more than Frank had ever seen growing up on Earth, but the population of Argo was better educated and his kids soaked it all in.  The reporter was saying, "The origin of the phenomenon is unclear, but something is emerging from the sun at nearly 30,000 kilometers per second.  Spectral analyses indicates a temperature of...."

Frank did the math to make sense of the velocity -- that was ten percent light speed!  Incredible.  It couldn't be headed for Argo, he realized.  If it were headed directly toward Argo it wouldn't extend out so far, and be growing longer.  He pondered a little more and thought it could appear to curve away from them and still hit them since the planet was moving in its orbit...but the effect wouldn’t produce a very large curvature, would it?  He wasn’t sure.

He used to do calculations like that in his head all the time, and felt old now.

“It’s not going to hit us, is it?” Virginia asked.

"I've been thinking about that, and I don't see that it could.  It's headed somewhere in our general vicinity, but not at us."

Virginia bit her lip.  "Well then," she finally said.  "It's not a danger.  Let’s enjoy the rare spectacle, whatever it is.  It’s a special event to mark our special picnic day."

Frank looked at his wife, her dark tousled hair and bright eyes, alert yet uncertain.  Was this one of those times he was supposed to ignore what she said or to overrule her and suggest they fly home immediately?  Being married was good, but not always danger free.  He knew she had to be as desperately curious as he was, but since their first child had been born she had prioritized family in an instinctual manner he wished he could match.  His own family situation and the years alone in space had blunted whatever instincts he should have had, and he had to constantly work at it, thinking about things she immediately knew.  "Okay, we'll make a holiday of it."

"I love you," she whispered quickly.

"Love you, too," he replied, quietly.

“Yuck!” said Kenny.  “Mushy!”

Virginia straightened up and said, “Like oatmeal!” which always made Kenny laugh, and this was no exception.

     So they finished eating, and watched the sky.

The bright line had grown a little more.  The day remained relatively cloudless and the view became clearer as the line extended further away from Pollux.  It reminded Frank of watching bamboo grow -- he'd done that a few times when he’d been on the Scout7 in the deep space between the stars and had nothing better to do.  Okay, it had been more than a few times. 

"What's the line in the sky?" Kenny asked.

"I don’t know," Frank said.

"Why not?"

"Not enough data," Frank said.

"Why not?"

"Not enough time to collect it," Frank said.  Kenny liked the question game, but thankfully less now that he was older.  Frank was happy that Kenny let it drop at that and that Allyn didn't hit his brother.

They continued to watch, and Frank worried that, despite the time he was spending with his family, he'd simply become more worried about what might be happening, hanging out like this.  He tried to ignore the feeling.  Worrying about worry wasn't productive.

It was a pleasant afternoon, all in all, he decided at one point.

The spider monkey troop had settled down and no longer seemed bothered by the strange lighting.  The dark-bristled creatures crawled out into the clearing on their four legs, and, with their four arms, began picking through the soil for bugs and other edibles.  Frank still found them interesting to watch although he'd seen similar troops regularly for the nearly twenty years he'd lived on Argo.  The spider monkeys moved with a jerky motion that was more reminiscent of birds, or insects, than of Earth mammals.  Their movements were arresting to watch.  One of the monkeys found a sant nest and yowled.   A ripple propagated outward as others moved in to fight for their share of the fat, apparently tasty bugs.

Kenny, giggling, threw a piece of cheese into the troop.

"Kenneth!" Virginia shouted.  "Don't do that."

The troop scattered, the rippling circles in reverse.  They made a brief unified call of outrage, and then the inner circle dove in for the cheese.  They would eat most human food, fight over it even -- they were an aggressive species.  The colonists, their pets, and livestock had undergone gene therapy to be able to extract nutrition and live off the different combination of amino acids in the Argotian ecology.  The life forms of Argo, however, could not as readily digest most Earth food.  Especially dairy.  Why had he thrown the cheese of all his choices?  Soon the area would be covered in tiny puddles of pungent monkey crap.  Even with their alien biochemistry, the waste from most Argotian animals exuded a foul stench to the human nose.

"Sorry," Kenny said, and continued to giggle, albeit more quietly.

Frank, embarrassed, glanced at Virginia.  She didn't say anything, but her stern look revealed a hint of dimple.

"Hey, it's really starting to move," said Allyn.

It was the thing in the sky, of course, not needing explanation.  And so it was.  The luminous trace etching along was growing faster than bamboo now, clearly moving as he watched it.  Also apparent now was that the part of the line extending back to Pollux no longer seemed quite connected.  The line had become a pulse.

They watched.

A glowing line drew slowly across the sky, as if God himself had reached down to tear open reality.  The finger of God trailing through the heavens.  It was awesome to watch, and all the more scary for not knowing its origin.  Ancient peoples must have felt similarly watching an eclipse.

"Da," Allyn said.  "It's aimed at Charybdis."

And surely enough, it was.  The crescent moon was now high overhead.  It was smaller than Earth's moon, but closer, and came in at about a third larger, just less than a degree across.  At a glance, Charybdis didn't look all that different from Luna, but the pattern of craters was far from the same, and there were linear patterns, darker latitudinal lines, across the surface, that had no equal on Luna or other moons in Earth's solar system.  The origins of the much-studied dark marks were not understood.

Away from Pollux, the color of the light of the pulse clarified to a light, bright violet that stood out even in the cerulean blue of the early-afternoon sky.

Frank felt a warm pressure on his knuckles.  Kenny's tiny hand wormed its way into his.

Virginia asked, "Did you ever see such a thing?"

"Uh uh." No, indeed, he had not.  He’d traveled longer and farther than any other man alive that he knew of, but this was new.  He felt as if he should have something more profound to say, but he didn't.  He wasn't often struck wordless.

"I live on another planet from where I was born," she continued, "and I've seen some amazing sights, but this silent, steady scrawl across the sky...I'm thunderstruck."

He, too, was awed.  He didn’t say anything more.  The kids started to look spooked though.

The pulse crawled inexorably toward its goal.  They watched, minutes passing.  The pace accelerated.  What had been a barely perceptible motion now seemed fast.  Even though it was moving several kilometers per second, fat, round, Charybdis appeared to sit still in the sky like the easiest target in the history of target shooting.

"What's going to happen?" asked Kenny.

"I don't know," said Frank.  He had always prided himself on the honesty with which he raised his children -- no made-up stories, no nonsense answers, no appeals to mythology or mindless tradition, no resorts to tickling to get out of answering a question.  Now, however, he desperately wished to reassure his son, reassure himself, but his own sense of integrity wouldn't permit him to do it.  He wasn't truly sure if the events warranted being scared, but he was afraid they did.  He resisted thinking about that contradiction.  Worrying about being worried, afraid he should be scared.  He shook his head at himself.

Thankfully Kenny refrained from pestering him with another question loop.

"Would you look at that," Virginia said.

The pulse quickened, and suddenly its trek across the sky zipped along faster and faster and, proceeding relentlessly, splashed into the edge of the moon.  Splashed, with an intense flash brighter than the sun, making his corneas instantly darken.  Disturbing, for more than the obvious reasons, a burst lasting many long seconds, with no sound, no smell, nothing an explosion of this magnitude would generate in an atmosphere.  For a few minutes there were two suns in the sky.

Kenny buried his face in Frank's side, holding him tightly.

"Wicked," whispered Allyn.

Frank didn't know what to think as he watched the impact's glow on the edge of Charybdis facing Pollux.  The glow was bright, searing.  Plumes of molten material blew off the moon's surface and slowly fell back, as if they were watching a distant volcano of fire and black lava.

Without warning, on the opposite side another plume erupted on a beeline through the body.  The pulse continued on its fiery way into interplanetary space.

From their feeding spot in the field, the spider monkey troop looked up into the sky and called out in an uncoordinated and mournful cacophony of distress.

Frank said, “Try the link.”

“I’m just getting static,” Virginia answered.

Frank hoped no one was up there.  Still watching the spectacle in the sky, and feeling very concerned, he said “Let’s get home.”