Star Light, Star Bright by Nina Shepardson
August 2023 | Utopia Science Fiction Magazine
Abhay Subramanian paced in circles around the bridge of the Goddard. The holographic display hanging in midair at the front of the room showed an image of the star system they were approaching. Although he knew it wouldn’t make a difference, Abhay couldn’t resist the urge to lean forward and peer at it, as if there were some tiny detail he was missing. Had the system truly been abandoned for uncounted centuries, the signal they’d detected the last cry of a long-dead civilization? Or was he about to make one of the most momentous discoveries in human history?
There was no doubt that there had been a civilization here at some point. The readings were proof of that. Pulsars were a well-known phenomenon, and even variable stars, whose pulses were irregular, weren’t unheard of. But no star would naturally pulse in the first ten digits of pi.
“Switch sails to braking configuration,” he ordered.
“Switching sails,” Alice Pindris confirmed. She swiped her fingers across her holo-console. The main display switched to an image of the photon sail that trailed behind the Goddard. With a grace that belied its enormous size, the alumina sheet split into two pieces that shifted into a precise orientation. Now, instead of speeding them on their way to the destination star, the laser beam sent from the colony at Kepler-438 would reflect from the outer sail onto the inner one, countering their momentum and slowing them down.
“J’Erisen, are we picking up any signals that could potentially be a form of communication? Any clearly artificial objects in the system?”
J’Erisen’s fingers poked at his console. “No signals other than the star itself, Director. And I’m not picking up any indication of other ships.” He tapped his fingers and thumbs together, as he often did when he was thinking. The two thumbs on each of his hands were no shorter or thicker than the two fingers, but humans called them “thumbs” because they were opposed to the other digits. “I also don’t see any structures on the planets that are likely to have been built by a society with this level of technology.”
Abhay turned to one of the other stations, this one occupied by a human man with red hair and twinkling blue eyes. “Crispin, start broadcasting the Standard Greeting Signal.”
“It’s going out now, sir.”
Abhay forced himself to stop pacing, took his seat at the central station, and waited for an answer.
Abhay shoveled another forkful of noodles into his mouth. Ship’s meals were designed to be suitable for long-term storage, both in terms of perishability and space required. While taste and variety had both been dramatically improved over humanity’s spacefaring history, the military personnel on the ship still referred to them as MREs (which, depending on who you asked, stood for either “Meals Ready to Eat” or “Meals Rarely Edible”).
With his other hand, Abhay gestured at the holo-display shimmering above his desk, moving an embedded video of the star from one section of his report to another. Abhay was used to writing reports. As a junior engineer on one of Marimbrium Corporation’s exploratory vessels, he’d written reports for the senior engineer. After being promoted to senior engineer, he’d written reports for the director. Now that he was a director, he wrote reports to the central project liaison. Reports seemed to be one of the fundamental constants of the universe.
Both his meal and his latest exercise in boredom were interrupted by a blaring intercom. “Answer call.”
A beep acknowledged the command, and the excited voice of Yan, the night shift communications specialist, came through. “The signal has changed, sir. It’s now repeating our Standard Greeting Signal.”
Abhay swallowed an exuberant “Yes!” He contented himself with the more professional-sounding, “Tell J’Erisen to come to my office.”
The lanky native of the Barnard’s Star system entered the office and sat down without ever taking his eyes off the tablet in his hands. His face was flushed a deeper green than usual.
“Well, what do you think?”
“There’s no doubt, Director. The signal has obviously changed, which means it isn’t just a pre-recorded message. Someone must be present in the here and now to have received our signal and changed their own message to replicate it.”
“Then it’s true! Do you have any idea what this means, J’Erisen? A species capable of manipulating the total energy output of a star!”
“If they’re friendly and willing to share their technology, it could represent a quantum leap forward for the Intersolar Confederacy. If they’re unfriendly…”
Abhay waved a hand, as if brushing away a gnat. “If they were unfriendly, they could have obliterated us the moment we entered the system.” He pushed himself from the chair and started to circle the room. “The question is, where are they? Why haven’t we seen their ship or station or whatever they have?”
J’Erisen tapped his fingers and thumbs together. “A society that could manipulate energy on the scale of a star might be able to build ships that don’t bleed off a significant amount of waste heat into the space around them. Since that’s our primary method of detecting other ships, it would render them effectively invisible.”
“Well, keep trying to find them.” Abhay tried not to wince. Yes, because I actually need to tell him to do that.
“Of course.” J’Erisen stood. “Oh, by the way, Doctor Hanscomb and I were planning to get together for a couple of games of almazek after dinner tomorrow.”
“He’s still practicing for the tournament?”
“At this point, I think he’ll keep practicing after the tournament’s over, just on instinct. Anyway, I was going to ask if you wanted to join us.”
Abhay had moved his holo-display off to the side while talking to J’Erisen. He squinted at it. If I finish up the report and send it off tonight…
He smiled. “Sure.”
Abhay’s fingers twitched over the yellow disk. The green disk hovered at the edge of his vision, taunting him with the prospect of more points. It was also a riskier move, but he was only ten points ahead of Hanscomb. I think I need to take the risk. He tapped the green disk and sat back in his chair.
Abhay had been on his college’s almazek team, but he was out of practice and lost the game to Hanscomb after a few more turns. He and J’Erisen switched seats so the Barnardian and the doctor could play a round. Watching them, Abhay thought that Hanscomb’s opponents in the tournament would have their work cut out for them.
“Excuse me, Director.”
Abhay looked up and saw Alice Pindris standing at the edge of the area set aside for game tables. Behind her, the holo-display at the other end of the recreation room was showing a news broadcast. “Hi there, Alice. You want to help with Mark’s tourney practice?”
Alice shifted from one foot to the other. “Um, well, I saw you weren’t playing and figured you might want a game.”
“Sure.” He gestured to the next table over.
Hanscomb looked up from the array of disks. “We can switch partners after we’ve each done a game, if you want.”
Alice nodded and sat down across from Abhay at the empty table.
“I didn’t know you were interested in almazek,” Abhay said after the third turn. He already had a good-sized lead.
“Oh, I’m not. I mean, I don’t hate it, but it’s not really my thing.”
Alice glanced over to where four of her crewmates were watching the holo-display. “They’re doing a lot of coverage of the situation at Kepler, and I guess I needed a distraction.”
Abhay followed her gaze. The sound on the display was off so as not to bother the people reading or playing games, but a caption scrolled across the bottom of the image. “The Administrator has rejected the latest offer from the IC Parliament, insisting once again that the Kepler colony be granted fully independent status.” He nodded. “I know things are pretty tense, but we’ve been through this before with the Lunar and Martian colonies. We’ve got experience that’ll help us work this out peacefully.”
Alice’s shoulders relaxed a little, and she poked at the blue disk. “You’re probably right.”
J’Erisen adjusted the settings on his holo-display projector. The screen expanded to cover three of the walls of his cabin. Images flickered into view, showing the rest of the communications team as if they were all sitting around a conference table. After briefly confirming that everyone was up-to-date with the situation regarding the unknown entity, he asked, “Does anyone have any ideas about how we might be able to establish communication with it?”
Clementine leaned forward, auburn curls spilling over her shoulders. “They’ve acknowledged our Standard Greeting Signal by repeating it back to us, but we have no idea if they really understand it. It contains a lot more complex information than the simple mathematical sequences they were sending out on their own. If their natural method of communication is radically different from ours, they might not be able to decipher it.”
“What are you thinking?” Yan asked.
Clementine spread her hands. “There are species on Earth that communicate concepts using pheromones or colors or body movements. What if we pair concepts we want to convey to this entity with a chemical structure or something like that? Make a bridge between our words and other ways someone might communicate?”
“We could put some little holo-display projectors on the hull to make lights,” Antoine suggested.
Yan snapped her fingers. “What about pairing words with their translations in American Sign Language? Maybe they’ll understand a gestural language better than a spoken one.”
Clementine had turned to the side, clearly consulting a supplemental holo-display. “According to our records, the Talar have been through this region. There’s no indication that they encountered an unknown intelligence, but it’s not exactly an exhaustive report. We could try translating the SGS into Talar.”
Nodding wasn’t the way Barnardians naturally showed affirmation, but with a mostly human team, J’Erisen had trained himself to do it. “Those are all good ideas. Translating the SGS into Talar is the easiest to implement, so let’s start with that. Clem, you’re the best Talar speaker here, so I want you to take charge.”
“I’ll want to check a couple of things with O’Malley’s lexicon, but it shouldn’t be too hard.”
“Antoine, is there a problem?”
“Ciaran O’Malley’s been one of the biggest agitators for Keplerite independence.” Antoine leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “I don’t like the idea of using his work for something where we’re supposed to be representing everyone.”
Clementine rolled her eyes. “The Keplerites basically were independent for a decade. They had to be. And the design flaw that took the FTL ships offline for that time was an Earthborn engineer’s fault. Maybe after all that, we should be willing to treat them as equals.”
Antoine cast a disbelieving look to his right, which was clearly where Clementine was showing up on his holo-display.
J’Erisen opened his mouth to cut off the budding argument, but Yan beat him to it. “Guys, this project is important. We’ve got to use whatever resources give us the best chance of talking to whoever’s out there.” She paused, and her eyes flicked to each of her combative colleagues. “Besides, imagine if these super-advanced aliens figure out we’ve been arguing about politics. They’ll be like, ‘Nope, I’m gonna shut up now and hope the primitives go away.’”
Antoine sat back in his chair and sighed. “Yeah, you’re right. I guess I got a little carried away.”
Clementine shrugged. “It happens.”
J’Erisen rolled his shoulders in the Barnardian equivalent of a smile. If she keeps showing conflict-resolution skills like that, she’ll be ready to lead her own team soon. “Okay, let’s get started with the Talar plan. If that doesn’t work, we’ve got plenty of good backups on the table.”
After various indications of agreement, everyone signed off.
“Director, we’ve got it! I mean, we’re getting it! I mean, we’re getting something!” Yan sprang up from her seat.
Abhay wasn’t supposed to be awake, but he couldn’t bear to sleep through the moment that could change humanity’s course forever. He reached up and let his fingers brush the electrodes that stimulated some brain regions and depressed others, putting off the need to sleep. It was much more sophisticated than the chemicals people had taken in the old days, but it could still only go on for so long. “Tell me more, Yan.”
“It’s the original SGS we first sent, but some of the words have been replaced. With Talar, I think.” She held up a finger and tilted her head, listening to something in her earpiece. “Yes, it’s definitely Talar.”
A’Tevrik tapped her fingers and thumbs together. “Maybe they have some familiarity with Talar but aren’t fluent. They lined up the two languages and replaced the words they know.”
“Okay, that gives us a starting point.” Abhay propelled himself out of his chair and strode to a position next to Yan. “Let’s see if we can teach them some more Talar. If we can get them to understand the whole SGS, we can use that as a basis for further communication.”
“Will do, Director.”
“The big issue,” Yan said, “is the difference in anatomy. The Talar words for describing movement, orientation, and direction reflect the rotational symmetry of their bodies. We’re having a hard time asking about where the aliens came from or telling them what we look like when they don’t seem to understand those terms.”
“Hmm,” said Abhay. “Could we try transmitting images to bridge the gap in understanding? Send them pictures of ourselves?”
Yan smiled. “That’s exactly what J’Erisen wants to do.”
“Good, it sounds like you have this — ” Abhay broke off as his holo-display rose into view between him and Yan. It should only do that in an emergency. He tapped the flashing icon in the center of the display.
The worried face of a middle-aged human woman appeared. “Director Subramanian, I’m Alyssa Morgan, administrator of the Kepler-438 colony.”
Abhay was even more concerned now. He’d spoken with the director of Kepler’s interstellar laser facility before, but if the chief executive of the whole colony was on the line with him, something momentous must have happened. “What’s on your mind, Administrator?”
“I’m afraid I have to give you some disturbing news. There’s been an attack here.”
Oh, Ganesha, no. “What kind of attack? Was anyone hurt?”
“The target was our laser facility. There were no fatalities, but the laser itself suffered catastrophic damage. We’ve got every engineer at the colony working on it, and we’ve requisitioned every replacement part we can, but…Director, I don’t think we’re going to be able to bring you home.”
TO BE CONTINUED…
Originally published in the August 2023 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.
Nina Shepardson (she/her) is a scientist who lives in New England with her husband and an ever-expanding collection of books. Her short fiction appears in On Spec, MetaStellar, and the BSFA’s Fission anthology series. She blogs at ninashepardson.wordpress.com.