Chapter no 30

Winter World

FEEL LIKE A SAILOR, marooned on a desert island who has just seen a sail on the horizon. I don’t know if we’ll be saved, or if it’s even a friendly sail, but it’s hope. That’s what first contact with the artifact means. Hope. Hope that we can communicate. Negotiate. Find a way to survive.

In the bubble, Charlotte is practically buzzing. Everyone is here. Emma, sleepy-faced. Min, looking stoic as usual. Grigory, hair in a mess, expression skeptical. Lina and Izumi are uncharacteristically animated, and Harry and I are overjoyed.

I want Emma to hear everything.

I hold a hand up. “Let’s take it from the top—and record it for posterity.”

Everyone sits a little straighter as Harry activates the bubble’s camera.

Grigory even runs a hand through the rat’s nest on his head, to no avail.

Harry goes into his official voice. He has a very good official voice. “The crew of the Pax is happy to report that on mission day ninety-two we have made contact with Beta, the second artifact identified in our solar system. The alien construct is currently transiting the system, destination unknown, but on an intercept course with the Sun. As the mission log states, we launched a fleet of drones, Janus, to search for the first artifact, Alpha. They were unsuccessful. A second fleet of drones, Icarus, located Beta, and the Janus fleet was re-routed to it. Janus contains two scout drones and three specialized drones: observation, communication, and intervention.”

I can’t help but smile at the term “intervention.” Sounds better than “rail gun drone” or “battle drone.” Harry doesn’t miss a beat.

“The observation drone performed a successful fly-by, taking visual and other passive non-emissive readings. That drone will rendezvous with us in approximately twenty hours. We’ll reach the artifact in twelve days. And we’ll link up with the Fornax in four days. With that said, I’ll turn it over to Charlotte Lewis, the mission’s first contact specialist.”

Charlotte’s Australian accent seems a bit more pronounced than before. I’m sure we’re all thinking that this video could be shown around the world

—and even watched for generations to come. Assuming there are future generations.

“Our first contact protocol was to issue a series of simple mathematical challenges in a variety of wave forms: microwave, radio wave, and light, for example. Our first mathematical sequence was the Fibonacci numbers. Zero, one, one, two, three, five, eight, and so on.” She inhales. “I’m happy to report that after the communications drone issued the forty-sixth number in the Fibonacci sequence, the artifact responded with the forty-seventh. For the first time in the history of the human race, we have made contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence.”

This feels like a good place to cut the video. Charlotte’s enthusiasm oozes through, and whoever is watching, wherever they are, whenever they are, will feel what we’re feeling right now.



I give Harry a quick hand motion, and he taps his tablet. “Recording ended.”

“Okay,” I begin. “The plan has always been to comm-brick major updates to home. I say we send one right now and include this video.”

The group agrees, and we break and reconvene when the brick is on its way to Earth. It’s the first communication we’ve sent. I can’t help feeling a little pride that it carries good news—and ahead of schedule.

Min opens the meeting. “Well, let’s discuss.”

“I wish I were there,” Charlotte says.

“Depending on what it does to that drone, you may not,” says Grigory. “Meaning?” she shoots back.

Grigory shrugs. “Meaning is clear. Drone could be in pieces by now.”

I hold up a hand. “We need to talk about whether our plans should change.”

Emma speaks first. “I for one am optimistic. Maybe it’s because I want to believe, but I tend to think this could be a break. Alpha summarily destroyed or disabled the probe—”

“A probe that spied on it without permission,” Charlotte says. Grigory scoffs. “Spying is always without permission.”

“My point,” Emma says, cutting off Charlotte’s retort, “is that this is clearly a change in behavior. Granted, the drone acted differently than the probe, but the fact remains: upon learning of the drone, Beta didn’t react aggressively. What does that mean? Maybe this artifact is at war with the other.”

The idea hangs in the air a long moment. If true, it complicates matters.

And gives us a potential ally. And a chance of ending the Long Winter.

“Maybe,” Harry says, “whatever is happening in our system is related to that war? One side needs solar output somehow or is compromising it? Or maybe we’re linked to one side in ways we don’t understand.”

I’m surprised when Lina speaks. “Maybe we’re a descendant race—one side’s offspring. Or biological drones.”

Interesting theories. You never know what someone’s thinking, especially the quiet ones.

Min speaks next.

“Or we could be simply caught in the middle. One side wants to protect us for moral reasons.”

“The question,” Harry says, “is whether we should alter our plans based on this information.”

“Of course,” Charlotte says. “We need to increase our speed and get to Beta as quickly as possible.”

“Reason?” Grigory asks.

“The reason is obvious,” Charlotte snaps. “We need to be there to communicate. Adapt our approach. This is the most important event in human history, and we’re taking our sweet time getting there.”

“We are not taking sweet time,” Grigory says. “We are flying through space at a significant fraction of speed of light. We are going fast.”

“And we could be going faster.” “Has cost,” Grigory mutters.

“Which is?”

“Less energy for drones. Reactor can only produce so much. We need the excess for Midway.”

Charlotte is exasperated. “I can’t believe we’re even still thinking about launching the Midway fleet. I mean seriously.” She looks around at the group. “We’re talking about launching a fleet of drones to look for other artifacts when we’ve got one right in front of us that’s already talking to us?”

I shake my head. “Midway is about more than that, Charlotte. We can’t just make double time to Beta and put all our eggs in one basket.” I get blank stares from Min and Izumi. I have to dial back the idioms. “We need to take action that prepares Earth for all possibilities. One successful communication with one artifact isn’t the end of this.”

Harry offers a welcome break in the argument. “Remind us, Charlotte, what the next step is in your first contact protocol.”

“Right.” She inhales. “The scout drone was programmed to return to us the minute first contact was made. The comm drone actually received the Fibonacci response fifty-two hours ago.”

“And while the scout drone returned to us, what’s the first contact drone been doing?” Emma asks.

“Following protocol,” Charlotte replies. “It’s advancing to more sophisticated vocabularies, trying to establish a rich communication method. The primary goal is to convince the artifact that we’re intelligent and peaceful.”

In my thirty-six years of experience with the human race, I’ve found both points debatable.

“We’re closing the distance to the artifact quickly,” I say. “The original plan was to send the scout drone back to Beta, observe any further progress in communication, then return to us. Based on our speed and distance, its next round trip would be about forty-four hours—if we dispatch it now. So I favor sending the scout drone back, keeping our planned rendezvous with Fornax, and continuing the construction and launch of the Midway fleet. Thoughts?”

“I agree,” says Grigory. Min: “I do too.”

Emma: “Yeah, same here.”

Harry: “Charlotte’s point is worth considering, but I still feel we need to find out what other artifacts may be out there.”

Izumi: “I agree with James.”

Lina: “The observation drone arrives in twenty hours, correct? It will have full data from the fly-by of Beta?”

I nod. “Correct.”

“And the scout drone will return in forty-four hours with more data on first contact. In that case, I favor following our plan unless the data from the observation drone reveals a reason to change.”

With that, the meeting breaks. Charlotte isn’t happy, but we’ve all had our say. This mission is a lot more complicated than I ever imagined.

Every section of the ship and every department lead to the bubble. The energy of the crew coalesces there. Our opinions clash there. And in the storm, we make our plans better. Consensus is forged.

But back in the lab, Harry, Emma, and I are mostly on the same page (with the glaring exception of balancing Emma’s health and workload). When the three of us get back to the lab, the tension from the bubble is gone. Harry pulls me into a bear hug. Emma joins us, and I pull her close.

“We did it,” Harry says. “Can you believe it?”

“I can’t,” Emma whispers. “I went into space hoping to do work that would lead to a human colony someday. But this—contact with an alien life form—it’s beyond my wildest dreams.”

I like seeing her like this: happy, inspired. A kid again. This moment is the best I’ve felt in a long, long time.



CAN BARELY SLEEP the night before the observation drone arrives.

We’re all sitting in the bubble, staring at the widescreen, when it comes into view. It looks just like a small asteroid. Min issues docking instructions via the comm patches on the outside of the Pax. The drone maneuvers alongside us and into the open bay we’ve prepped for it. When the exterior hatch closes, Izumi floats in, suited in her EMU. She plugs the drone into the ship, and Lina’s software interface begins pulling the data in.

“Don’t wait for me,” Izumi says over the comm. We’re all excited to see the artifact, and every second counts now.

Lina’s fingers work furiously, sorting the data. The screen switches to a video feed from the drone. All eyes are glued to it. Everyone is silent.

Beta hangs in the distance. The sun is behind the drone, illuminating the front of the artifact. The previous image, taken by the probe, was from the rear, the sun in the distance, the artifact simply a dark blur before the blazing sun. The drone zooms closer to the artifact, and several things strike me. First, its size and shape. From this angle, the outline of the object appears circular. I can’t tell yet whether it’s a sphere or if perhaps we’re looking at the end of a cylinder. But it’s large. It must be a mile across. Maybe two. The drone does the math. In the lower right-hand corner of the video, white text appears against the black of space:

Estimated width: 2.4 km Estimated height: 2.4 km It’s a mile and a half across.

The drone flies closer, moving at a slight angle, not on a direct intercept.

The image zooms in. The edges of the artifact come into focus.

My mouth drops open. My heart races. It’s not a circle. It’s a hexagon. A giant hexagon. The implications hit me like a sledgehammer. My head almost spins.

Emma notices. With her eyes, she silently says, What is it?

I shake my head subtly, hoping the others haven’t seen.

The drone closes the distance. The sun illuminates Beta’s surface. It shimmers, like a lake at sunrise. It’s a dull reflection, like a sea of obsidian bound by the hexagonal border. There are no lines, no protrusions.

I think I know what comes next. But I dread seeing it. I dread being right.

The drone slips past the artifact. The video freezes at the moment it passes. A still image remains on the screen, showing a clear side view of the artifact. At the drone’s distance, it looks wafer thin. A sail drifting toward the sun. The drone estimates the depth at three meters. I feel my stomach drop. I have to focus.

The shape is the key to understanding it. A hexagon. The shape occurs in nature for good reason. A bee’s honeycomb. The eyes of a fly. Soap bubbles.

Why a hexagon and not a circle?

Hexagons fit together. That is the conclusion.

What it means for humanity, I’m not certain yet. But I have a hypothesis. And it’s not good.

The screen snaps back to video mode, showing the back of the artifact. There are no markings here either, simply another dark pool, this one with no sunlight dully reflected. It would be almost invisible against the black of space if not for the sunlight illuminating its edges, outlining it.

Data scrolls on the screen. Lina narrates.

“Tests for emissions are all negative. It’s like us. Running dark.”

When the video ends, Min says, “Let’s talk about what this means.”

I’m only vaguely aware of the debate raging. Grigory asks whether it might be alive—like some giant space insect. Min suggests it might be a piece of a ship that has broken off. Charlotte insists that it can communicate and that it is therefore intelligent, no matter what it is.

I’m so deep in thought, I barely hear my name, once, then again, Min calling me. “James. James.”

“Yeah. I’m here.”

“Well, what do you think?”

“I think… I need some time to think.” A long pause.

Harry: “Me too. Actually, that’s probably a good idea for all of us.”



BACK IN THE LAB, Emma corners me. “You know something.” “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“James. Tell me.”

I can’t tell her. Not until I’m sure. “We need more data.”



WE GET MORE data ten hours later. Fourteen hours ahead of schedule. It confirms my worst fears.

“The scout drone has returned from the artifact,” Min says, his expression stoic. “The comm drone that exchanged the Fibonacci numbers with the artifact is non-responsive.”

“A malfunction?” Charlotte asks. “Possible,” Harry says quietly.

“Scout drone is early,” Grigory says, cutting to the chase.

Min nods. “Yes. It was on its way to Beta when it found the comm drone, adrift.”

“Timeline?” Grigory asks. Min raises his eyebrows.

“When did it…” Grigory seems to rifle through several word choices. “Become inactive?”

Min glances at his tablet. “Right after it made first contact.”

I swallow hard but try not to show any emotion. I feel the way I did that day in court, when I stood and heard the judge sentence me to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Except I’m not the only one getting a bad rap now. It’s the whole human race, whose major crime, it would seem, is being born on the wrong planet at the wrong time.

Grigory is more to the point now.

“Artifact attacked it. Just like probe.”

“It could have malfunctioned,” Lina says carefully. “We should have been there,” says Charlotte.

Emma reacts quickly, and I’m glad.

“I think we should talk about what we’re going to do now.” “I agree,” says Min.

Everyone looks at me.

“We need to get the comm drone back,” I say. “Quickly. And figure out what happened.”

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