A WALTZ IN ETERNITY

Gregory Benford is a Nebula winner and a former Worldcon Guest of Honor. He is the author of more than thirty novels, six books of non-fiction, and has edited ten anthologies. He has been our regular science columnist from the get-go, but opted this month to deliver a brand-new story instead. His column will return next month.

***

When on some gilded cloud or flow’r

My gazing soul would dwell an houre,

And in those weaker glories spy

Some shadows of eternity.

Henry Vaughan, The Retreate, 1690

Falling in. She can feel somehow the gossamer sailcraft’s long nose-dive into the red star’s grav potential, as if her own body were there, plunging arrow-quick, dozens of light-years away.

Her pod hummed, using her entire body to convey connections through its induced neural web. Sheets of sensation washed over her skin, bathed in a shower of penetrating responses, all coming from intricate flurries of her nervous system—the burr and tang of temperature, particle plasma flux, spectral flickers, kinesthetic glides and swivels, sharp images in the unending dark, lit by a smoldering dot of a sun.

These merged with her own in-board subsystems, coupled with high-bit-rate feeds the Artilects had already processed and smoothed from the sailcraft’s decades of laser-beamed signals back to Earthside.

She went to fast-forward and the sailcraft plunged, its magnetic brakes on full. Down the potential well it flew in star-sprinkled dark. It heard no electromagnetics bearing patterns, from radio through to optical. Yet Earthside knew from a few pixels that one world here held an atmosphere out of equilibrium, clean signs of life that used oxygen and methane. So: life, perhaps minds, but no technology that spoke in waves.

This L-dwarf star was of the commonplace majority, perhaps seventy-five percent or more of those stars in the disk, fully half of the total stellar mass in the Galaxy. Small but many, ruddy crucibles for life.

The craft chose its own path, looping intricately through repeated grav-wraps around three gas giants in the outer system, losing delta-Vs all the while. Now it had lost enough of its interstellar velocity to rummage among the inner worlds—one cold and gaunt, then the prize, long known from Earthside ’scopes: a superEarth.

The sailcraft folded in its mag-web brake and deployed ’scopes as it swanned into a high orbit around the cloudy world, 1.63 Earth masses. Its burgundy star glowered down on cloud decks thick as pancakes in the morning.

Rachel licked her lips. Here was the tasty truth, a world for the unwrapping. Smart and sure, the white metal bird blew itself into full plumage. Its inflatable beryllium sails shone in ruddy daylight, hollow-body banners just tens of nanometers thick, the body swelled by low-pressure hydrogen. These it used to steer into lower orbit, scanning the orbit space for satellites—and finding none.

The overseer Artilect inserted == correlates with the spectral strength of water, with strong water absorption lines as seen in clear-atmosphere planets, with the weakest features suggesting clouds and hazes—and she cut it off.

Now the main show: a self-guided human artifact plunging into a fresh solar system, embodying her; a hairless biped, so noble in reason, so infinite in faculties, heir to all creation; and an animal trapped in a box, really, just lying in a pod and sensing inputs that had flown on wings of electromagnetic song across the light years.

This world she dubbed, to herself, Windworn. For such it was. A thick atmosphere ripe with oxygen, smothered in good ol’ nitrogen, yet beset with methane too—clearly a world-air out of chemical balance. Good!—life.

Pearly cloud decks prevented much down-seeing. The Artilect aboard the craft had elected to deploy its one great immersion resource: the balloon.

The smart aero package fell away on its own braking wings and soon enough, slammed through the cottony clouds, its brake shell burning away—and into a realm of thick, filmy air. Blithe spirit, bird thou never wert—blazing through alien skies as a buzzing firework.

The balloon popped into a white teardrop, lighter than this sluggish air and with its heater able to stay buoyant. Ten kilometers below the land opened, solemn dark green and cloud-shrouded.

The first clear glimpse below was of big smooth whitecap ocean waves that crashed like armies against the rearing snow-white mountains guarding the continents. I should have called it Rawworld, she thought.

Below the balloon she watched alien vistas unfurl—big broad brown rivers, lakes, crags. The vegetation was gray and black, not green. Just as the astrobio people had said: around small red stars, plants needed to harvest all the ruddy glow. So they evolved to take in all the spectrum, with little to fear from the small slice of ultraviolet, since it was weak.

She watched the land and air carefully as the balloon skated tens of kilometers above, its cameras panning to take it all in. She did a close-up of the data feed, saw small birds flapping below—and roads.

She froze the image. Small dots that might be vehicles. Yes—she watched them crawl along. They went to—caves. Entrances to large hills that had slits of windows in their slopes, rank upon rank of them, orderly, horizontal…all the way to the summit.

Hills upon hills, marching to the distant horizon. Hills of grassland, hills of rumpled brown rectangular stone, hills with great clefts sharpening their edges. Artificial hills.

Hailstones rattled on the balloon. Microphones recorded long shrills, the trembling of tin in sheets, snapping steel strands. Harsh, brittle rings. Distant bellows, perhaps from the barrel-chested six-footed ambulating creatures far below in their herds of many. Once the hail cleared, the balloon could see things the size of houses burrowing into moist soil, after something. Yawning herbivore throngs looked up at the balloon, showing great rows of rounded molars. Forests, animals, birds—all moved before the surging winds.

The balloon acoustic microphones caught a huge manta ray–like thing conning fwap fwap fwap fwap across the roiling sky, somehow navigating through. She thought, Crazy thing, looks like it escaped from a cartoon on video, with its long lazy strokes and manic grin that she saw was a scissor smile sporting long teeth…on a bird.

Then—black.

End of craft report #3069

a flat statement told her.

An interstellar spacecraft moving at a hundred kilometers per second does not have accidents; accidents have it. The craft turns into a blur of tumbling fragments inside a second.

#

She let herself drift up from the immersed state—slowly, letting the alien landscapes seep from her mind. It was over. She knew going in that the mission had snapped off, never heard from again. The balloon, its gossamer thin carbon nanotube and graphene covered in conductive metal skin, the super-lightweight rectenna—all gone. Something had blocked their transmissions—accident, intervention? No one knew. The mission report ended in a blank wall.

But she had needed to feel it. She knew full well this encounter lived only in thick bricks of data, info-dense and rigid. The lived experience was real, just turned into 0s and 1s, bringing across light-years their stuttering enlightenments to the SETI Library. Still, it mattered as an abrupt lesson in how hard interstellar exploration through sailcraft was, and how sudden the deaths of such adventurers.

When she climbed from the pod she ached all over, stretched, wheezed. Yet she had done no true exercise, except in her mind.

#

She was late for her appointment, but she paused to look up through the crystal dome at good ol’ Earth, a multicolored crescent marble in the Lunar sky.

All but the last few centuries of human history had played out there. Throughout that history men and women had filled in the dark unknowns with imagination. So expeditions crossed oceans and high vacuum until new lands came into view—in just a few thousand years. Go back that far and you would see Sumerian ziggurats whose star maps cartooned the sky with imagined constellations and traced destinies through star-based prognostications. Someday a robotic follow-up probe might fall again toward the red star she had just seen to become the Schliemann of this alien Troy.

That might happen; there were so many stars to reach out and see, and more candidates by the day. Now she could swim by other strange distant worlds and feel them, fed by slabs of data—and still sense the great dark unknowns. Which was her job.

#

The Prefect raised an eyebrow, pursed his leathery lips. “I gather you are behind in your summations.”

A flat fact. “I am, yes. I have been taking a careful review of some expedition records.”

“You are a Trainee, not a Librarian. Nor, if you continue this way, much hope of becoming one. Best to shape your skills to the essentials.”

“I think I can better fathom records if I see the planetary explorations in direct sensing.”

His face soured more, lips turned down, his frown a ladder of creases. Legendarily, he favored the scowl over the smile. She had to change the dynamic here.

She stood. “My, you have a window.” She had never seen one in a Lunar office.

“I like to have some perspective.”

Outside was the sweep of the plaza, pearly in the Earthshine. “A view, yes, I can see—”

“I like some separation from the rest of all this. Also the glass is a constant temptation.”

“To…what?”

“Throw something through it. Usually a student. Sometimes a Trainee, such as you.”

“Ah, I—”

“Fly-in recordings will not reward mere poking around. They have been studied in great detail and can yield nothing more. Especially this red dwarf you just sensed.”

“I am not just reviewing—”

“No, you are taking up pod time with full-sense flyby data.

“It was odd, how it suddenly cut off—”

“Many expeditions simply died, yes—accident, equipment failure. Those were the early days, full of verve, over a century ago. Ignore them. I want to see more of your time spent in the hard work. Take up third level Messages and work with the Artilects to advance our understanding. Remember, these are not linear languages at Level Three.”

“I, I will try.”

“And do not use the pods to simply joyride on old explorations.” He turned toward the view and she realized her appointment was over. At least she didn’t have to exit through the window.

#

Quick!—a world in a few passing hours. Then to sum it up in the brittle frame of linear sentences, the frail girders of mere flat words:

A ruddy world with lesser grav. One huge sprawl of a continent, plus lesser land mass in the other hemisphere, of humped and dirty rock-rimmed mountains. Skies the color of crisp sand. Spiky mountains cut into curiously precise pie slices by iodine rivers that flowed to the continental center, making a vast somber bay of jade waters.

Go closer, lower: Giant caterpillars stretched in trees as tall as mountains. The low grav here made for monsters.

Forested slopes in close-up were mushroom trees of violent orange. Huge blue birds with wings like parachutes, bills shaped like Death’s sickle, feathers like flapping palm fronds. A plain of plants evoking erect oak leaves. Smaller growths resembling inside-out umbrellas.

Rain turning to snowflakes at high noon on the equator. Rain like drops of blood in the rocky highlands. Mists glowing like white fire in the valleys. Chasms radiating in mountain ranges like fractures in frosted windowpanes. Winding rivers in the fevered tropics, shapely as women’s torsos or slim violins. Icecaps featuring swollen growths like blue berets. Storms that solidified like hurled hammerheads across tropical isles. Clouds drifting like pregnant purple cows. Wind-blasted rockwork in curious curved forms, like frozen music. Lurching beasts all angles and ribs, grazing across mustard grasslands.

The sailcraft played out its fat helium balloons, which went roving roving roving until they ran out of lift. These captured close-up the many odd beasts, eyed landscapes for buildings, assayed the sweep of land for betraying rectangles—signs of intelligence, or else of obsessive animals who knew Euclid in their souls.

Grazers aplenty swept by under the balloon’s down-looking eyes, plus carnivores, big and furred and fanged. The craft saw big floater insects too, with steering wings and armor plates and strange inexplicable leggy bits like antennae. These creatures eyed the balloon uneasily, braying roars into the acoustic balloon ears. Some angular beasts gazed upward warily, as if the balloon were a new foe in their air. They bristled, blared and thrust up narrow snouts that ended in the blunt truth of mouths like a pair of pliers. Some, in a narrow canyon lined with goat-like shambling monoliths, shot lances at the balloon eye, which fell far short. Still, perhaps a compliment of sorts.

And again: roads. Towns tucked under ample tree canopies. No electromagnetic emissions beyond the faint and local. Cities under regular humps of hills. Ships dotted the inland sea, white and slender. Yet this advanced society had only a weak signature in the radio, microwaves, and in the other bands, no signals at all.

Then the pod went silent, done. Another failed expedition.

She lingered a while in the quiet. Biting her lip, she wondered if silence was not the true state of the universe, now that the ancestral acoustics of the big bang had faded into scratch-marks in the microwave sky. Silence: far more noble than humanity’s squeaks.

This world had been a treat, really. She took planetary records at random, not really knowing what she was seeking. Most worlds in the habitable zone were of a sameness. Solemn planets sleeping in the silence of ice and stone. Seaworlds awash in dark purple waters betraying no life, only its eventual prospect. Baked plains of ancient lava, unblessed by seas or even ponds, a likely match for a collision with a wandering waterworld, should orbital dynamics ever bring one from farther out: a Newtonian miracle awaiting. Black volcanic corkscrews spiraling up to the atmospheric roof of planets still in process, getting baked to oblivion. Vast planets of crawling slime. Oceans lapping against barren shores. Plankton mats the size of continents.

To find a mature, thriving biosphere was a blessing. She savored them in the sensory auditorium of her snug pod.

She began to favor the dwarf suns and their narrow habitable zones. Such stars lived long, as old as the galaxy’s ten billion years, yet scarcely a fraction along their stable lifespans. So too, their worlds had millions of millennia to work their slow, gravid marvels. She studied them whenever she could manage the time, outside her own work and research at the Interstellar Library. These labors, she felt, were perhaps foolish but also a proud thing to do, as a fleck of dust condemned to know it is a fleck of dust.

#

Rachel said to her friend Catkejen, “I’m going crazy. Or maybe I’ve already arrived.”

“Brain-fried with work, maybe,” Catkejen said with a sardonic eye-roll, sipping a barely acceptable red wine—but also the only available, fresh from the fragrant farm domes deep underground.

Rachel still wore the single white patch on her collar—“the mark of the least” as they were known. One-patchers were greener than summer grass. Catkejen had two, so was one leg up in the ladder from Trainee to Librarian. Amid the hub and bub of techtalk of the other Trainees, she was sporting a fine plum-colored coat with a laced waistcoat in a deftly contrasting shade, crossed diagonally with a red ribbon. With leggings and heater shoes, current Lunar fashion stressed subtle resistance against the creeping cold of their world, despite the ferocious warmth shed by their reactors. Rachel just wore heavy pseud-wool dresses in severe gray, plus close weave black tights—all free downloads and printouts, but yes, dull. Thrifty was not nifty here, but she didn’t care. She wanted to escape notice, to tend her own internal gardens.

“I’ve added to my historical studies of the dwarf stars,” Rachel made herself say amid the babble of the open-air restaurant, gazing down on the gray work expanses of the Lunar plain below. “Something odd going on there.”

“Great era, that was,” Catkejen said, distracted by the stellar displays that coursed across their social area ceilings. Rachel thought the images odd, skies of galaxies and erupting stars. The psychers said such spectacles fended off the boxed-in phobias that plagued many Loonies. “Centuries ago, right? First closeups of the neighbors, the 550 ’scopes just getting started.”

“I’m looking at the old missions, the microwave-beamed sail ships that scoped out the nearbys.”

Catkejen eyed a passing guy, maybe looking for an evening elsewhere; some of the higher-ups had their own singleton rooms—great for parties, and of course a romantic perk. Catkejen yawned, a clear come-on signal, but the guy just kept moving. “Yeah, long before we knew what a web of interstellar messaging there was.”

Rachel leaned forward to keep Catkejen from diversions. “I’m looking at the 550 lens data too. Plenty of life-bearing planets around the galaxy’s dwarfs, that says. Some with signs of a civilization too. But most dwarf-star globes are shrouded in clouds, hard to see.”

Indeed, Rachel loved roving through the images gathered from coasting telescopes at the great theater in the sky, the worlds of the galaxy itself on display. The sun’s focus spot was 550 A.U. out, where gravity gathered starlight into an intense pencil. The many sailship telescopes there fed back distorted images of faraway solar systems, as if seen through a funhouse mirror.

Rachel had learned much by scanning those images. The talent for not dying was distributed undemocratically. Few worlds could dance blithely through a gigayear, or far from their parent star. So many planets—crisp and dry, cloudy and cool, cratered yet with shimmering blue atmospheres—and stars, sometimes in crowded clusters, at times seen close-up and going nova in bright, virulent streamers, or in tight orbits around unseen companions that might be neutron stars or black holes. After a while even exotic alien landscapes became repetitious for her: blue-green mountain ranges scoured by deep gray rivers, placid oceans brimming with green scum, arid tan desert worlds ground down under heavy brooding brown atmospheres. Many ways for life to blossom, or die: ice worlds aplenty beneath starry skies, grasslands with four-footed herds roaming as volcanoes belched red streamers in the distance, oceans with huge beasts wallowing in enormous crashing waves, places hard to identify in the swirling pink mists. Life adapts, indeed.

Catkejen rolled her eyes. “Um. That improves your stats?”

“In time, sure. Mostly I just…follow my nose.”

Catkejen leaned forward too, her ironic wry grin mocking. “Look, your nose should lead you to use the Seekers of Script more. You’re behind in code-processing—way behind, gal!”

Meaning, of course, Look, I have two patches already. The Seekers of Script were supposedly below Trainees, but more experienced in deciphering SETI messages, using brute force methods from cryptology. They assisted Trainees and reported to Librarians. Rachel reported to a Prefect and Catkejen, at a higher level, now answered to the enigmatic Noughts. All this staff layering the SETI Library had amassed through two centuries of calcification.

Rachel dodged the advice. “How’s your Nought?”

“Let’s say he—uh, it—relishes the cadences of the language.”

“Ah! You mean it’s an incorrigible windbag.” Apparently having no actual sexual organs lead to verbal ejaculations instead. Just another gender choice, it seemed.

“Right, downright gushy.” Catkejen had changed her hair to tarnished silver but her voice was still of scrap brass. Rachel envied her ability to conform to Library’s Byzantine styles. Clothes and skin enhancers were the classic methods of competition and display. Men wore Rapunzel hair down to the shoulder blades at the moment. Women had great tangled thickets of hair in the armpits, often displayed in string-shirts. All this, despite the strange blend of decadent excess and harsh asceticism that prevailed in elite Library culture. To Rachel this was a special puzzle comparable to a labyrinthine SETI message.

“I heard they thinned some Trainees last week,” Catkejen whispered, glancing around. “No announcement, just—poof!—you notice some are missing.”

“Part of the method,” Rachel said. They had seen this before. Those Trainees of both sexes, or even none, who had gotten by Earthside by being pert, pretty, perky were soon memories.

The Library had begun as a minor academic offshoot, back when there were few SETI messages and none had been well deciphered. Under rigorous mathematical methods, Artilects, and objective though human minds like the Noughts, it had grown in prestige and influence, into a citadel where there was a five-year wait for a windowless office.

Rachel said, “I hear some Trainees are planning a demonstration against these abrupt firings.”

Another of Catkejen’s patented eye-rolls. “I mentioned that rumor to my own Prefect. I got one of her rare laughs. She said, ‘Demonstrations never achieve anything—if they did, we wouldn’t allow them.’”

“Ah. A word to the wise?”

“Look, my nun-like friend—you’ve got to get style here. Dig into the ramified SETI messages—thousands of ’em, thick as bees—lurking back there in the vaults.” Catkejen let her exasperation out in darting phrases. “Learn the pleasure in dispute, in dialectic, in dazzle. Get some freelance dash, peacock strut, daring hypotheses, knockabout synthesis—and get laid.”

Rachel felt her face tighten, struggled to manage a smile. “I’m, you know, wrong time of the—”

“Month? Come on, gal!” Eyes flaring, grin spreading, hands shooting out. “When I’m on my period, I just stand in the shower and watch blood run down my legs into the drain and imagine I am a warrior princess who is standing in the aftermath of a battle where I murdered all my enemies.”

At the moment Rachel was mostly about cramp diarrhea. Which meant maybe stay away from the claustrophobic pod and the dwarf stars?

“You don’t want to be in the next culling, my friend.”

Rachel allowed herself a thin, uncertain smile. “Maybe they keep me on simply to serve as a warning to others.”

***

The Library reception was on the rampart walk above the main plaza. The setting implied antiquity: vaulted and corbelled ceilings, columns sporting reverse flutings and crowned with Corinthian elegance. In a community that spent most of its time in small rooms with faintly oily air, taking advantage of views was essential for social functions. Crescent Earth was just a sliver, a comma, a single eyelash in the star-rich sky.

She looked for the Prefect but he was not in the murmuring crowd. Probably feasting inside on Muscovy duck with pears and greens balsamico, she thought, succumbing to the Lunar cliché of fixating on food. The Library hierarchy emerged most visibly in what luxuries one could afford. Rumors proposed fragrant, exotic dishes none had ever seen, but thought they scented in the closed air of the Library. To the nose, there were seemingly few secrets. Whatever a Muscovy duck might be, keeping one a secret seemed impossible. Still, there were ever more rumors about the sealed and secured portions of the Library, where only Prefects or better could venture.

A mecha band played its typical klunketta-klunketta rhythm and she found herself among some other Trainees, buzzing with talk about Earthside matters. She joined the line for the stand-up banquet—in 0.18 g, not a problem. Above, moon birds looking like paint-splattered sparrows banked and swirled. These had plenty of parrot genes, and others swooped in flocks of sharply elongated eagles, and even a huge impossibility she called Moby Hawk.

There was sweet-smelling bread made from an unpronounceable root vegetable, molasses, something called hoppin’ john and tart collard greens, plus rich butter from goat’s milk. She favored the usual pickup food of crickets, bugs and odd crispy-fried creatures with Byzantine names, and the obligatory pork and chicken. Considering, she pitied the vegetarians; most went back Earthside soon enough.

She wandered, not spotting any friends, and into a circle discussing the deaths in the latest human cold-sleep method.

“…and they all died, within a two-year span,” a slim woman said mournfully. “I wish they would stop inflicting such torture on us.”

Torture? Scan the news at your own risk, she thought.

She was a bit tired of the Lunar sophisticates’ habit, their narcissism of borrowed tragedy. It came from viewing from afar—or at least far enough—the perpetual disasters on overcrowded Earth. It struck her as inverted empathy—relate some tragedy from the news and express your sad-eyed care, and soon enough, other people’s suffering becomes about you. You convey with raised eyebrow or warped lips that you’re owed some measure of the deference and compassion that the victims are.

“They knew the risks going in.”

The thin woman frowned. “Well, I’m sure, but—”

“And chose to take them. Too bad it failed, but honestly—how likely is it that we mammals, whose sole hibernators are bears and the like, could take decades of cold sleep?”

“Well, they’ve been working on this for—what, a century?—and I think the scientists know what they’re doing.” The woman gave Rachel a sharp look that should have stuck several centimeters out of her back.

“Seems not. They all died?”

“Uh, yes. Twenty-five. Some made it for the six years mark, but none past eight.”

“How’d they die?”

“The connectomics scientists say their slowed metabolism just stopped. Wouldn’t restart.”

A light-haired brown man added with a smack of lips, “The report said when they opened the life chests, there was a distinct smell of porcini risotto. Armpits filled with fungus.”

A big laugh. This was enough to disband the group before Rachel got in too deep. But something in the issue tickled her mind. Did a century of trying cold-sleep mean it just wasn’t possible for complex animals, including aliens?

If so, no visitors, no crewed starships. Even if civilizations arose and persisted, they could only visit other stars robotically. Then all interstellar contacts were the province of artificial intelligences… A glimmering of an idea.

Maybe—

“I have noted that you are disobeying,” the Prefect said at her elbow.

“Oh! You startled me.” Somehow the Prefect’s bald head loomed large out here in the open. Or maybe it just reminds me of how many dead worlds I’ve seen.

“You are spending pod time on old reconnaissance. I will have to write a report.” Not a flicker of emotion. Write a report meant blocking her from becoming a Librarian, maybe forever.

“I have an idea I’m pursuing.” Not quite a lie.

A long, slow blink, as if thinking. “I give you three days to stop.”

The Prefect turned and walked away with the long lope those born on the moon made in a graceful sway.

***

At every stage of her life she’d been reasonable, dutiful. But now a vague intuition made her bat away the advice of her friends, and the everyday world of what people said, of tips and tales, theories and tidbits that might add to the Library’s already vast stores of alien messages.

The Library had evolved into a factory, producing minds distended out of all proportion—force-fed facts, as unlucky geese are force-fed corn. The succulent foie gras of such mind was then to be dined on by the Library, digesting alien 0s and 1s into a digital aesthete’s wisdom. A Librarian’s life, like the goose’s comfort, was certainly secondary.

Even the Prefect, and that Librarian constriction, she shrugged off; her ascetic trainers Earthside had been Dionysic compared him. But she was mature now, nearing fifty and the end of her obedient-student mode.

Instead of worrying, she worked through the latest stellar evolution theories, well buttressed by myriad data links and erudite commentaries. Astronomers loved their data-mountains, indeed.

A star lived very long if it had a tenth of a solar mass and so a tenth of its radius—a pigmy, glowering at its close-clustered children in sullen reds. So a planet in the thin habitable zone of a typical dwarf M star remained in that zone for a hundred billion years. In essence, such stars lasted so long the length of habitability becomes more of a planetary than a stellar issue. If an intelligent species properly managed its environment, it could persist far longer than any around a Sol-like star, which would grow unstable after about ten billion years and swell to fill a world’s sky, baking it. Any dwarf-star civilization might have begun billions of years before fish crawled up a beach on Earth and learned to breathe the rising oxygen in the air. Such societies had to manage their worlds or die out.

Pondering this, she booked pod time again.

***

She knew from her Artilect that the Prefect’s boss, the Nought Siloh, was checking on her work, so while her period lasted she actually spent time on the message inventory. She made little progress, even with the ever-helpful Seekers of Script. Picking tiny feelers of meaning from myriad messages—some seemingly simple, many blizzards of digital chaos—was like trying to hear a moth in a hurricane.

To the deep translation problem came also that many Messages were ancient, coding bronzed into memories of dead alien cultures, their beamed hails simple funeral pyres. Many could be solved by a lost wax method of digital abstraction, but that often yielded cries of despair in alien tongues.
After a week of work she got a call to report for review.

***

The Nought named Siloh frowned, apparently its only expression. “Your performance lags. I suppose insights gathered from your inspection of planetary observations could augment your Message work, yes. But.” It stopped, eyeing her.

Noughts had intricate adjustments to offset their lack of sexual appetites and apparatus, both physical and mental. They had been developed in the 2330s to give them a rigorous objectivity in translating the Messages. Somehow this evolved into the 2400s to mean management of the Library itself.

“I assume your but implies that you hold doubts?” She managed a smile with this but the Nought’s frown did not budge.

“I solely wish to remind you that such interests are a diversion,” Siloh said, drawing out vowels, eyes lidded.

“Perhaps not. I have found some…curiosities.”

“You will find in working with your Artilect—the Transap one, I see, excellent choice—saying no more than you mean is essential.”

“I looked back at a classic case of direct exploration today, Luhman 16. An old flyby, 6.5 light-years out, the nearest L-type dwarf. For a while the third-closest known star to Sol, after the Centauris and poor lonely Barnard’s star. Point is, it’s a binary and both stars had planets—a bonanza, but both held remnants of shattered cities, billions of years old.”

The Nought sniffed. “Of course.”

The obvious rebuff made her bear down. It was easier to act herself into a new way of thinking than to think her way into a new way of acting.

“There’s a pattern here. Dead civilizations around dwarf stars.”

“The universe is cruel to the unwise. You are ignoring your essential tasks. Does that seem wise?”

***

She made herself be systematic.

The dwarf stars were marvels, in their way. She had always been impressed by their efficiency at packing hydrogen, the stuff of flammable zeppelins, into such a small space; some were more than twice as dense as lead. The density of Sol was bubblegum by comparison.

Many were tide-locked, or nearly so. Some had a spin/orbit resonance like Mercury, which rotates three times every two orbits around Sol. Others were split worlds, with a twilight border rich in black and gray forests, with mostly minimal animal life. The best were those who spun lazily in the ruby furnace of their skies.

There were systems whose sun was but a tarnished penny above a world where three moons played at their races. Winds were whips, polishing continents to smooth mausoleums. Such hells of sand gave her itchy flashes as the centuries-old probe explored. She rejected these, and many stony rocks and super-Jovians who circled burning circles in the sky.

There were even worse. Some circles lose enough to their star that atmospheric temperatures exceed the boiling point of water. Clouds of unlikely mixtures of potassium chloride or zinc sulfide, lifted high into the atmosphere, yielding a flat, dull spectrum.

Yet even here brightly glowing plumes reminded her of an underwater scene with turquoise-tinted currents. Strange nebulous strands reached out, echoing starfish, giant beings aloft in an atmosphere that would have crushed a dinosaur. If anything lived there, she did not wish to know of it.

***

She had two more days to comply with the Prefect’s orders. But she couldn’t. She kept on mining the recon files, experiencing them whole-body.

In her mind swarmed filmy ideas. She slept restlessly, tossing in sweaty sheets—and alone; no social life seemed worth the lost moments. She skipped meals and snacked on garlic-flavored fried beetles.

Then back in the pod. The Prefect could have cut off her privileges, but no such order came.

Among the dwarf stars Earth had explored, or had seen through the lenses coasting out beyond 550 Astronomical Units, there were some worlds on which fancy sorts of watery membrane learned to think—and made great wet beasts from green crusts and reddish films and fizzing electricity. These were often on warmer, cloudy L-class dwarfs and cooler T-dwarfs, whose atmospheres were clear and sharp. In the solar corona something like manta rays coasted—life on a star. But their client planets were even stranger.

A dawn like a gray colloid. The dwarf’s ruddy glow stirred the air like a thick fluid, sending blue streamers through the clotted air, bringing soon enough sharp shafts to bear on black forests below. They already knew, from SETI messages and innumerable probes, both human and alien, some sad truths. A million worlds had brimmed with life but like a puzzle with a sole dreary solution, the show ended soon. Ice or fire snuffed out life’s promise.

But on living worlds, there was a plentitude of wonders. There was even oxygen—the slow fuse to the explosion of animal life. On Earth around 635 megayears ago, enough oxygen supported tiny sponges. After 580 million years more, strange creatures as thin as blue crêpes lived on a lightly oxygenated seafloor. Fifty million years later, vertebrate ancestors glided through warm, oxygen-rich seawater much as she had done as a girl.

So dwarf stars with oxygen-rich children had billions of years of advantage over latecomer Earth.

They used their eons, she saw. Probes dropped into the atmospheres of these planets heard distant calls like screechy toots on a rusty trombone, gut-bucket growls, sighing cries—from creatures that looked as dull and gray as sluggish rutabagas. Then—goodness gracious, great balls of fire! Odd beings who burst into flame at mating season, apparently after passing on their genes—and leaving the stage in hasty crimson blisters.

Her heart jumped like a mullet, quick and hard, just as she recalled seeing them in the salty warm Gulf bay air where she grew up. Angels we have heard on high; Sweetly singing o’er the plain, she thought, as she played back the sounds of distant animals she would never see, beyond mere pixels.

Then the entire vibrant world was gone in a sharp instant.

***

She staggered a bit, going away from the yawning mouth of the pod. Looking back, it seemed indeed like a giant grin that had swallowed her, and now spat her out, altered. The experience had turned her inside-out, like a pocket no good for holding much anymore.

Somehow the sensorium had been fuller, more invasive this time. Smell carried memory, carried history. She bore now an after-memory of the shimmering redlands she had seen, somehow transmorphed into smells, sounds, and textures in her recollected sum of all she had experienced. The pod made that transition across senses, embedding the past into the sensual present. The pod was an Artilect and so learned her too, and each new world had held greater impact, from that.

She had seen shattered worlds, those at one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust. Those who could pour no more into the golden vessel of great song, sent across the eons and light-years. Their Messages might once have sung of alien Euclids who had looked on beauty bare, and so stitched it into Messages of filmy photons, sent oblivious into the great galaxy’s night…

Such fools we mortals be…

She stopped for a glass of wine and some snack centipedes, delaying the inevitable. A passing friend gazed into her eyes and asked, “Hey, what’s biting your bum today?”

Rachel opened her mouth, closed it, and the whole idea she had been seeking came together in that second.

“Shut up,” she explained. And went to see the Prefect.

***

“I’m aware that I’m not the fastest fox in the forest here,” she began, after seating. “But I have an idea.”

The Prefect brightened. “Ah. Fastest fox—I do appreciate bio analogies, since we live on a dead world.” He steepled his hands on the desk and took up an expectant face, eyebrows arched.

She took a deep breath, nostrils flared at the antiseptic air of the Nought’s shadowy preserve. “The older dwarf stars with rich biospheres—they’re lying low.”

“From our probes?”

“Yes—that’s why they shot down our observing craft.”

“Aha.” A salamander stare.

So he wants me to spell it out. “I estimate the rejecting biospheres are several billion years old. They let us approach, even drop balloons, then—wham.”

“Indeed. You have done the required statistics?”

“Yes.” She let her inboard systems coalesce a shimmering curtain in the air, using the Prefect’s office system. The correlation functions appeared in 3-D. The Prefect flicked a finger and the minamax hummocks rotated, showing the parameter space—a landscape covering billions of years, thousands of stars.

“Perhaps significant.” A frown formed above his one cocked eyebrow. She recalled that the Prefect was the sort who would look out a window at a cloudburst and say, It seems to be raining, on the off-chance that somebody was pouring water off the roof.

“They’re probably the longest-lived societies in the galaxy, since they’re around red stars that hold stable. If they can’t do cold-sleep, either—and so can’t go interstellar voyaging, like us—they’re stuck in their systems. And they’re still afraid.”

The Prefect nodded. “Correct, yes—the cause of the dwarf-star worlds’ insularity lies in the far past. An antiquity beyond our knowing, from eras before fish crawled from our seas.”

“Whatever could have made them fear for so long?”

“We do not know. It is a history…” Mixed emotions flitted across his face, as if memory was dancing within view. “…for which adjectives are temporarily unavailable.”

“We have to be alert!” She got up and paced the office. “These aliens hunkering down around their red and brown stars, they have lasted by being cautious.”

A shrug. “That seems obvious.”

She had hoped for help, not a blasé, blunt assessment. “So we need to find out more,” she said, realizing it was lame.

He leveled a stare. “Intelligence is defined by sufficient detachment from one’s own case, to consider it as one of many. A child becomes humanly intelligent the moment it realizes that there are other minds just like its own, working in the same way on the same world available to them. It seems to be the same with societies across the galaxy.”

She nodded. “Other worlds, other minds, strange—but they have suffered the same past.”

“True. This is not a matter of dry certainties. It is a quest for archeological wisdom.”

She whirled, her mouth a grimace, eyes wild. “Whatever they’re afraid it could be, be—comin’ right atchya!”

He was calm, further confusing her. He gave her a cautious, precise, throat clearing. “I have an allergy to dogma, including my own.”

“What’s your dogma?”

“Placing the Library on Luna, safely away from the torrents of Earth, was a primary motive. Best to contemplate the stars where one can see them anytime. In other words, take the long view.”

She was getting more frustrated by his blithe manner but resisted raising her voice. “Look, you wanted me to go back to studying decrypting SETI messages, but this, this—I just couldn’t give it up.”

“Research is not devised, it is distilled.”

She let out a loud, barking laugh. “Building logic towers from premises wrung out of thin air, more like it.”

“You have got it nearly right.”

“Nearly?”

He eyed her narrowly. “We think of the Elizabethan world as one we perceive through our own reductive devising. We think of it as populated by the Queen and Ben Jonson and the Dark Lady and the Bard and a raucous theater full of groundlings. That’s what we know, from some texts. But the real Elizabethan world had a lot more people in it than that, and countless more possibilities. Here at the Library, we deal with not a mere handful of centuries. We have received messages sent across thousands of light-years, from beacons erected by societies long dead.”

“Well, yes—”

“So we need to know more, before deciding anything.”

She finally let her anger out. “Nonsense! This is a threat! People need to know.” She spread her hands, beseeching him.

“Go and think some more. You are following the right path.”

With a wave he dismissed her.

***

Catkejen came in from a date, all fancied out in a maroon bioweb Norfolk jacket with fluorescent yellow spirals down the arms, and found Rachel calculating some ideas. “Actual penciling out! Pushing graphite! You should get outside sometime, y’know.”

Feeling every inch a pedant, Rachel rose, stretched. “I was backtracking those red stars that had hunkered down.”

“You mean the ones that prob’ly knocked out our probes?”

“Yes, plus ones we’ve seen from the 550 AU telescopes that had ruins on them.”

“So you’re running backward their orbits around the galaxy?” A disbelieving frown.

“Yes, it’s a tough, many-body problem—”

“Hey, another example of cross-field confusion. We already have that!”

This was how Rachel learned that astronomers had developed a reverse-history code of extraordinary ability. They had first evolved it to study galactic stellar evolution of spiral arms. Which led to her next audience with the Prefect.

***

She walked—no, she decided, she skipped with schoolgirl joy in the low grav—out of the advanced computational dome, feeling as if she had returned from a great distance.

She blew past the Prefect’s office staff and marched straight in on the great man, who was staring at a screen. He looked up, not showing any surprise. “You have more.” Not a question.

She flipped on her personal Artilect interface so it projected an image on the office 3-D display. “This shows the dwarf stars our probes and the 550 AU ’scopes found to be defensive or destroyed. No particular correlation between their locations, notice.”

He merely nodded. She had tagged the forty-three cases in bright green. They were scattered through a volume more than a thousand light-years on a side—still a mere bubble in the colossal galactic disk. “Now let’s run the galaxy backward.”

The green dots arced through their long ellipses. The slow spin of the galaxy itself emerged as the bee swarms of stars glided in stately measure. The Sun took a quarter of a billion years to cycle in its slow orbit at about two hundred kilometers a second, taking more than a thousand years to move a light-year. Humanity’s duration was less than a thousandth of one galactic cycle. From SETI messages marking funeral pyre societies, the Librarians knew that humans were mayflies among sentient cultures, the newest kids on the block.

The Prefect watched the backward-running swarm and raised his eyebrows as the green dots slowly drew nearer each other. “They follow somewhat different orbits, bobbing up and down in the galactic plane, brushing by nearby stars, suffering small tilts in their courses,” she said, as though this wasn’t obvious. Was she making too much of this? She told herself a sharp no and went on.

“I can see some, well, clumps of several green specks forming,” the Prefect said. “They seem to be…” —surprise pitched his voice into a tenor note— “…occasionally passing within a few light-years of each other. There! And now…” —a pause as four dots swooped together— “…another cluster.”

Rachel made herself use her flat, factual voice. “Stats show these were nonrandom, four sigmas out from any bell curve odds.”

“They…group…at different times. How far into the past are we now?”

“Six million years.”

He frowned, pursed his lips. “I have never seen this before.”

“Astronomers study star dynamics. This is about the hunkered-down planets, or the ones destroyed, orbiting those stars.”

The Prefect gave her a sour smile. “So this is another example of the perils of specialization.”

“Um, yes, sir.” Let the idea percolate…

The Prefect bit. “Which means?”

“The endangered worlds were near each other, millions of years ago. Whatever attacked them—killing some societies entirely, scaring others so much they still remember it, guard against it—came at them when they were close to each other.”

She paused. Let him figure it out…

“Whatever menace does this…” The Prefect let his puzzled sentence trail off.

“Wormholes lie somewhere in those intersecting orbits.”

The Prefect stiffened. “We know of no wormholes!”

“Right. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as some philosopher said.”

A furious head-shake. “But—where could wormholes come from? We know they’re impossible to build—”

“The big bang? We know it was chaotic. Maybe some survived that era. Got trapped into the galaxy when it formed up later. Goes coasting around, just as the stars do.”

He blinked, always a good sign. “So when a wormhole mouth gets near a group of stars…”

“Something comes through it. Someone—some thing—that found a wormhole mouth. Y’know, theory says wormholes aren’t simple one-way pipes They can branch, like subways in space-time. So something comes through, attacks inhabited planets.”

The Prefect looked puzzled. Maybe this was coming too fast? Explain, girl. Go technical.

“We—well, I—saw it in the planets around dwarfs, because there are more of them. Better statistics, the pattern shows up.”

She let that sink in while the Prefect watched the galaxy grind into its past. More green dots swooped along their blithe paths, nearing each other, coasting on, apart…the waltz of eternity, Newton meets Mozart, on and on through thousands of millennia, down through the echoing halls of vast, lost time.

The Prefect was a quick study. His sharp, piercing eyes darted among the bee swarm stars, mouth now compressed, lips white with pressure. “What are the odds that there’s one near us?”

This she had not thought about. “Given the number of dwarfs nearby… Um. Pretty good.”

He smiled, an unusual event. “This is utterly new. When you found the ancient tragedies, I was impressed. If you were wondering, only one in several thousand Trainees catch on to that fact—that secret, I should say.”

“Really? And this—the clustering—how often has any Trainee turned that up?”

A quick shake of head. “Never. This is a new discovery.”

“Really?” She had thought she would surprise him, get some reward, but…new?

“No one knows this. Wormholes! Maybe nearby? So—if there’s one nearby—where is it?”

This was going too fast for her. “I sure as hell don’t know. I’m not an astronomer! I want to be a Librarian.”

The Prefect nodded. “So you shall be, in time.” He paused, gazing at the slow, sure grind of the galaxy. “We have a saying, we Prefects. ‘Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart.’ You have proven that we do occasionally let talent get through.”

She sat silent, not knowing where this was going.

“Also… Congratulations.”

“What?”

“You have found the unsaid. The essence of research.”

“What…?”

“The Library is not a mere decoding society. We must use the full range of exploration, not just the messages. You saw that. You first ferreted out a truth we Prefects do not wish to make known—the deaths of whole worlds, the closing in of others. Your discovery now, the proximity of the stricken worlds—is a gift.”

“Gift?”

“Yes. Much we discover needs time to…digest. But we become calcified, mere decoders. To become a true Librarian, one must show innate curiosity, persistence, drive.”

“I, I just got interested. You leaned on me hard to keep up my studies, not fall behind the others—”

“It is they who have fallen behind. We cannot drill creativity into our Trainees. They must display it without being asked.”

She gaped at him, not following. “So…”

“You are now promoted. You shall not tell your fellow Trainees why. Let them bathe in mystery. Do not say a word of what you have learned.”

“But, but—”

For the first time ever, she saw the Prefect smile. “Welcome. I will see to getting you a private office now, as well.”

Outside, the night Earth seen through the vast dome was a glowing halo, sunlight forming a thin rainbow circle. She saw his point. Earth was always there, and so were the waiting stars.

And something dark hid in the yawning dark beyond, something even a Nought or a Prefect did not know. Something shadowy in the offing out there in the galaxy, waiting, patient and eternal.

Wormholes? Through which something horrible came? They were out there, hanging like dark doorways between the stars.

It came in a flash she would recall all her life.

Now she knew what she wanted to solve, an arrow to pierce the night beyond and find the doorways. To see across eternity and into the consuming dark above that awaited all humanity.

Copyright © 2018 by Gregory Benford