On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Walters was really going to have to change the melody for his wake-up alarm one of these days, otherwise he’d end up putting his fist through a perfectly good display panel.
He silenced the sound with a wave of his hand, and sat up in bed, pushing the thin covers away. The room immediately came up to his preferred temperature, and he felt a powerful urge to just go back to sleep — which wasn’t an option. Reluctantly, he dragged himself out of bed and trudged into the adjoining bathroom.
Fifteen minutes later he was very much ready for breakfast, and he paused only to straighten his uniform before taking a last glance in the mirror, then walked towards the door. It opened automatically, and he stepped out into the corridor.
The day shift was well underway since it was already after 07:00 hours, but one of the perks of Walters’ senior position was that he could start a little later. He arrived in the mess hall within a further few minutes, and it was clearly just after the morning rush. Crewmen were clearing tables and cleaning up, and Walters nodded to each one he passed. He was popular amongst the crew, which helped when you were the deputy chief engineer, and it wouldn’t be too long before he had the opportunity to begin the process of applying for the top job in his department — albeit on another ship. Walters would have mixed feelings about eventually leaving the Heaviside, but there were plenty of other vessels out there.
Most are closer to home, though, he thought.
They were currently on a two-year survey mission in a region which had been charted before anyone had ever left the solar system, but never explored until now, and it had been relatively quiet work so far. Of course, engineering was never really quiet, and the astrophysicists always found something to study, as did the materials analysis people in their various disciplines. But in the end, it was yet another long mission out in the dark, alone except for a few hundred other people all living in the same luxurious metal box hurtling between the stars.
Humans had explored to a radius of about a thousand light years from Earth, and had settled dozens of planets. It had taken several centuries to get this far, and what greeted them in every star system was the same: minerals, rock, gas, and nothing at all that was artificial. The empire of humanity was vast, but it was apparently also otherwise uninhabited.
Walters tried not to think about that sort of thing, but it was difficult to avoid when every window was a frame around blackness and a few twinkling points of light. He usually ate facing away from any of the windows in the mess hall, but today for some reason he chose a chair which sat at a slight angle from the largest window, a couple of tables back. He worked his way through his usual morning repast of mixed cereal, orange juice, and the compulsory suite of vitamins and supplements. He had just finished and stood up to go and get some coffee when an alarm sounded overhead.
Everyone on the ship was exceptionally well trained, and Walters found the corridors very easy to move through even though everyone was in a hurry to return to either their duty stations or their own quarters in response to the general alert. His own station was on the bridge, acting as liaison to the engineering deck where his superior officer worked, and when he reached his destination, he found the captain standing in the middle of the large open area staring pensively at the screen which occupied most of the far wall.
There was an unremarkable asteroid field visible out there, and Walters vaguely recalled reading about it in the previous day’s briefing. There was apparently the possibility they’d be able to source some tantalum. He could see no immediate cause for concern, but the faces of everyone on the bridge were tense. The captain, a woman called Akinyemi, noticed his presence.
“Take your station,” she said, “and keep your eyes on the viewer.”
Walters moved to his console, doing as instructed, and Akinyemi nodded to the duty helmsman, who triggered a sequence of controls to move the ship forward very slowly. To the utter amazement of Walters, twenty or so of the nearest asteroids grew a series of jagged, irregular, and massive crystalline spikes. The ship came to a stop, then reversed course. As it did so, the spikes retracted out of view, but much more slowly than they’d appeared.
“Christ,” Walters said, unable to suppress the exclamation. Akinyemi seemed to choose to ignore the remark, instead turning her attention to the row of science stations on the port side.
“What are they, and how are they doing that?” she asked, but even Walters knew that a conclusive answer wouldn’t be forthcoming. Something occurred to him, and he reluctantly tore his attention from the viewer and turned to his own console, pulling up the primary sensor array.
He half-listened as a series of very qualified people found several creative ways to tell Akinyemi that they had no idea at all. Less than a minute later, though, Walters had finished his analysis.
“Captain,” he said, without looking away from his own display, and he heard the sound of the captain’s footsteps approaching.
Walters nodded towards his console, but Akinyemi was already looking at the table of figures and the corresponding set of several dozen overlaid plots.
“Perfect unison?” she asked, and Walters nodded. The asteroids, or whatever they were, had responded to the ship’s presence in absolute synchronisation, without any flocking effect or associated micro-delays. It was a dead giveaway.
“Someone made them,” Walters said, all too aware of the magnitude of the claim. But there was something else too. “And look at this.”
Now he pulled up the navigational sensors, showing a cyclic scan of the area beyond the field. To almost all of their conventional sensor equipment, it was normal space, but with one critical difference: its substructure was fractured in a way he’d never seen before. It would be impossible to fold, at least with their current technology. Walters couldn’t imagine the energy required to cause such a thing — a supernova wouldn’t even touch it — but he knew what the most significant consequence would be.
“If we go in there, we’ll be becalmed immediately,” he said. “I don’t think we could ever move past the leading edge, even on thrust. I advise immediate retreat.”
To either his credit or otherwise, the helmsman implemented the overheard recommendation without waiting for an order, and the asteroids on the viewer began to recede. They looked like perfectly ordinary chunks of rock. Akinyemi turned away from the sight after another few moments.
“One question answered, and fifty new ones to take its place,” she said. It was a momentous day, in so many respects. She looked tired already, and just when Walters thought she would cross to her own chair in the centre of the bridge, she instead looked at him again. “What made you try the forward subscan? There were no indications of any anomalous space.”
Walters had been hoping she would ask, but his forearms were still puckered with goosebumps. They’d found at least circumstantial evidence of highly intelligent non-human life at last, after all.
“Do you know what a ray cat is, Captain?” he asked, and Akinyemi frowned. She thought for a moment, then shook her head, so Walters continued.
“We used to bury highly radioactive waste underground,” he replied, “back when we were still burning oil, in the dark ages. They were stupid people, our forebears, but they did realise they’d need a way to tell future generations to leave those toxic waste storage dumps well alone.”
“You know I love a semiotics problem,” Akinyemi said. “I’ve heard of that part, at least. This is not a place of honour. The problem being how to communicate over thousands of years, when languages have changed, and technologies might have moved very far forward or even backward.”
Walters nodded. “One of the proposals was to introduce a genetic mutation into felines, since humans have kept them as companions for millennia and probably always will. The idea was that the cats would change colour in the presence of a weak gamma source. People would notice it, of course, and hopefully take it as a warning. It wasn’t one of the better plans.”
Akinyemi raised an eyebrow. “Did they ever do it?”
“Not as far as I know, but I grew up in a dog kind of family,” Walters replied. “And it was barely a century later that they learned how to alter the decay constant, so they got rid of the storage dumps safely.”
Akinyemi looked at the viewer again, with the asteroids filling most of the way ahead. “As I recall, one of the other ideas was spikes,” she said. “Big ones, jutting out of the ground, built from materials that would make agriculture impossible.”
Walters nodded again. The thought had occurred to him. “Coincidence, maybe. Or perhaps spikes are a universal evolved feature. Either way, whoever made these things didn’t like them any more than we do.”
“That leaves one big question,” Akinyemi said, folding her arms as she stared at the viewer.
“Captain?” Walters asked, not following.
She sighed. “The question is, did they create these asteroids, these… ray cats, if you like, to warn us about the damaged substructure ahead, or…”
Now Walters understood, and he didn’t like it at all. He finished the sentence himself, in a quiet voice.
“Or did they damage space deliberately as part of the warning, because there’s something even worse beyond.”
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