Hands Across The Void

on February 12, 2012 in Science Fiction

The sleek dark ship prowls through the void. Its skin absorbs the rays of distant and feeble stars, converting every bit of heat and radiation it can grab into energy it can use. It isn’t much, but it doesn’t have to be. There are no life support systems on the ship. Nothing that cannot be turned off and on at need. Nothing that would damage the ship if it went inert.

The original fuel core had decayed long ago, but the power it had imparted had been sufficient to carry the vessel far beyond its system of origin and left it traveling at a velocity few artificial objects could ever achieve.

The power gleaned from each absorbed transmission is sufficient to record information about that transmission, which will be reviewed when the accumulated stellar radiation is sufficient for the ship’s main computer system to reactivate itself. These systems are rudimentary in the way a machine meant to last forever must be — the simplest and most basic technologies available made out of the most durable materials possible. There are few moving parts and multiple redundancies. Its builders knew what they were doing. Nothing on board has failed except the fuel core, and that was inevitable and planned for.

Lacking any store of propellant, the ship steers itself by way of propulsion via a stream of ejected molecules of cosmic debris. It is a slow, slow process, but space is big and mostly empty. The chance of it needing to make a sudden turn is remote compared to the chance of a system failure. The craft passed through two asteroid belts on its journey from its planet of origin to the edge of its system and did not need to steer around an obstacle once.

The ship carries no cargo. It has no preserved remnants of a culture and no great secret wisdom for the universe. It was designed to find another world, any world, with intelligent life. It looks for patterns in the radiation it absorbs. When it finds what it’s looking for, it will point itself in the proper direction and begin the long, slow process of deceleration. It can survive re-entry, at the right angle. It can store enough power to transmit a mathematical pattern of beeps to attract attention as it approaches. Nothing more reliable than the prayers of its creators exists to make sure it lands in a place where it may be observed and recovered, but it can let the natives know it’s coming.

The chances of success are tiny. Space is big and mostly empty, and as well as the craft was built all things must eventually end.

Its builders know that success is possible, though, however unlikely it may be. They copied the basic design of the craft from one that fell to their world.

It sparked first panic and then a deep debate as to its purpose. There were no weapons. It had no means of sending a signal back to its point of origin, and it was clearly old enough to make any such signal pointless. It bore no inscription or attempt at conveying any message, save for those which could be gleaned from the existence of the ship itself.

The motivations of the original ship-builders — or even if they were the originators of the idea — couldn’t possibly be known, but to the people of that world the ship came to be known as The Sign. It told them that they were not alone in the universe, that they could build a thing that would outlast everything else, and that it was possible to reach out and touch the infinite.

For a period of about one and a half lifetimes, there was a mania on that planet for building ships. It was likened to putting a message in the bottle. Some people included personal messages, copies of important historical documents or works of art. Some went so far as to include genetic material, preserved or encoded somehow.

Most of the ships, though, were as the first one: blank, black ciphers that proclaimed nothing more than themselves. Those who invested the most resources in the great work of slinging ships out in the void understood the wisdom of the ancient people who’d sent the sign to them. Nothing they could send out into eternity would necessarily hold any meaning to the people who found it. Nothing they could say would make sense. Their symbols of peace and gestures of understanding might very well convey the opposite meaning to the recipients.

Before the changing tides of public fashion and fancy shifted to characterize the act of ship-building as one of pointless vanity, tens of thousands of them were sent out. Most of them are still going. None have yet discovered a destination, much less reached it. Some of them will. And some of the planets they reach will be inspired to do the same.

All across the galaxy, dozens or even hundreds of races will end up shouting into the darkness, knowing they will never hear a reply but that sometimes it’s enough to be heard.

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5 Responses to “Hands Across The Void”

  1. Brenda says:

    I noticed one apparent typo:

    “propulsion via a stream of ejected molecules cosmic debris.”
    (ejected molecules of cosmic debris?)

    The tenses are a little confusing – mainly this second paragraph:

    “The original fuel core had decayed long ago, but the power it had imparted had been sufficient to carry the vessel far beyond its system of origin and left it traveling at a velocity few artificial objects could ever achieve.”
    Shouldn’t this be simple past tense? As it is, it doesn’t seem to match the rest of the story, which is being told in present tense and past tense. (I can’t quite remember which tense it is with “had”.)

  2. AE says:

    Poetic license… it flowed better that way. Is it actually confusing? I mean, does it leave you unclear on the order of events?

  3. Brenda says:

    Well, it was enough to distract me from reading the rest of the story for a moment, so it disrupted the flow for me…

    If it had started in past tense, then it would have made sense:

    “The sleek dark ship prowled through the void…
    The original fuel core had decayed long ago.”

    Since it starts in present tense, it whould be

    “The sleek dark ship prowls through the void…
    The original fuel core decayed long ago.”

    I had to stop a moment and figure out if it was still talking about the same ship, since the tenses didn’t match up correctly.

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