Voices/Future Tense

An Orions’ Arm E-zine

Solar Anomaly

Linus Cohen

    Weapons are unlike other objects. It’s true. Certain weapons have remained dormant for millennia, some even dating back to the Version War or the Consolidation Wars. In weapons caches on distant asteroids and moons, in the minds of their controlling AIs, there are still battles to fight, still enemies to defeat, and still millions to kill. Only once all the weapons still floating in space are disabled, whether active or dormant, can the peace process begin.

    Duag Okow, Superbright Writings on Weaponry, 10008 AT

The asteroid AGS-585G slowly drifted on its 4-year orbit around the brown dwarf Rionwe, rotating once every five hours. A five-kilometre long carbonaceous chunk of primordial rock, it was one of the handful of places in the system that had been shaped by the hand of intelligence, namely, the secret high-level weapons cache embedded on its surface and the thousand-kilometre long spacetime catapult that dwarfed the asteroid itself.

The dull grey hemispherical cache was one of the many on deserted asteroids and moons, kept by the sephirotics and others in the unlikely event another war should break out. But this cache was slightly different. It had been constructed during the Version War, and provided the housing for 110 Class 1SN Q-node conversion weapons. Supernova weapons. These were now banned by treaty; as such, the cache had been ignored for millennia, its fullerene surfaces left for micrometeoroids to pound with the pockmarks of ages. Until one day.

Due to thousands of years in isolation, the cache’s controlling AI was completely insane. It tended to imagine things, and have strange delusions of the real world. On its 1,262nd orbit, the station intercepted a large amount of radio static, caused by a violent flare on the surface of Rionwe. The controlling AI, now completely deluded about the real world, interpreted the pure noise as an order to jettison all the weapons into space, at maximum priority.

110 50-metre wide spherical objects shot off the huge spacetime catapult at half the speed of light. They were launched off at different times in AGS-585G’s rotational period to ensure that none of them went in the same direction. And once again, the deserted weapons cache fell silent.

733 Years after jettison

The diamondoid spire of the Figment of Destiny shot through space at ten percent of light speed. The spaceliner was heading for the G2V star Gialfa, a reasonably average Keterist system, with one terraformed world, a dense asteroid belt and an ice giant further out. Inside the Destiny’s computronium banks, four hundred passengers traveled in luxury.

Captain (Second Class) Destinion Rawnes, the hyperturing controller of the spacetime-manipulating engines that had propelled the Destiny across forty light years and through two wormholes, materialized in the crewspace virch node. After merging with eir important subroutines, the Captain made a broadcast announcement to all 256 virch nodes. The modosophonts aboard received this version: “Destinion here. We are now 3.5 AUs out from Gialfa, and 3 AUs from our final destination, Gialfa Prime, also known as Tykon. ETA is 4.866 standard hours, taking into account the deceleration. We will arrive just in time for the Foundation Festival to begin. Destinion, out.”

Meanwhile, in eir private virch node, HelioEngineer (Grade A3) Taxon Seven reacted to the news with little interest, although the myriad subroutines of eir transapient mind meshed the information into eir consciousness. What Taxon was more concerned about at the moment was Gialfa itself.

Ever since e had been born, as a biont in the Pi3 Orionis system, e had been fascinated by stars. The study of incredible balls of gas, each one containing a point at their exact centre with hundreds of millions of tonnes of hydrogen gas fusing into helium every second. It mattered not to em that, when approached from a scientific point of view, the fusion reactions inside a star were woefully inefficient. And then there were the more exotic types of stars, the strange-degenerate matter stars, magnetars, and black holes. The centre of a black hole, e mused, is one of the few places in the universe that not even the Gods can know fully.

*****

In a luxurious virch node which simulated Nova Terra, the nearbaseline Jije Dainq walked along a terrace, right down from which was the beach, with digital waves lazily lapping against the sand. Next to him was his friend and colleague Eldn Wsqdo, an uploaded ‘bud’ transavant liquiform. Through eir datastreams, e was saying, “One of the more annoying social problems that we liquiforms encounter is that we usually have names that are completely unpronounceable in Anglic, unless one is willing to have a drink of liquid helium beforehand. Even I can’t say my own name in Anglic. How the hell do you pronounce Wsqdo?”

“Ah, Eldn, that is one of the great mysteries of the universe that not even the gods can answer definitively, like ‘Can entropy be reversed?’ or ‘Where is this electron before it is observed?’.”

“A, I don’t think so, and B, the question makes no sense. It didn’t when it was first asked ten millennia ago, and it still doesn’t now. What are you going to be saying next? That t’ does not equal t times the square root of one minus beta squared? Come on.” Jije walked and Eldn flowed down the terrace.

*****

The intruder passed through the inner Kuiper Belt around Gialfa at 0.5c, leaving only the planetary system in front of it. It had detected the light of Gialfa from a tenth of a light year. Ancient mechanisms activated, expert systems switched on, and the decision was made. This supernova weapon was falling faster and faster towards Gialfa.

Taxon Seven materialized into crewspace, eir vaguely defined form settling on something reasonably comprehensible in the microvirch. In levels of conversation unknowable to the modosophont mind, the discussion went something like this:

“Captain?”

“Yes?”

“I’ve received some data that will have some bearing on the rest of the voyage in. It’s to do with Gialfa. The star itself, I mean.”

“Is it about the coronal mass ejection last orbit?”

“Sort of. Look at this.”

Inside the crewspace, a hologram appeared. It was a sphere glowing ghostly green, with bright spots at some points.

“This is Gialfa in X-ray light, false colour. It’s a live feed from the wormhole-linked monitoring satellites around the system. As we zoom in on this active region, we find sunspots. The magnetic field loops around these ones are the strongest I’ve ever seen. My projection is that within six standard hours, a solar flare shall erupt of unprecedented proportions. The Destiny can shelter the radiation, but we might have to warn the orbital habitats around Tykon.”

“You’re sure of this?”

“Captain, my expert system analysis posits a 99.995 percent probability of- what’s that?”

“What?”

“There’s something showing up on the far-range satellites. It’s…20 AUs out, and closing at…Gods, that thing’s moving at half light!”

*****

“ … Fourteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety-two point seven five one cubic centimetres!” Eldn exclaimed happily as e flowed past a nano-engineered fern.

“I wish you’d stop doing that. It’s very annoying.”

“But I like doing that! Anyway, it’s the only one of my intriguing abilities that doesn’t get disrupted when I’m uploaded.”

“So? It’s like the Pre-Atomic age engineer Nikola Tesla [dload :knet_files/PreAtoAge/Serbia/Bios/Engineers/Tesla_textonly]
who, when he went slightly mad, resorted to calculating the exact volume of his dinner.”

“I’m not mad. At least, not very. Come on, let’s go to infospace, have a scan of the local sights.”

After transferring to the infospace of the ship’s virch, Jije looked up current streaming information.

“Nothing much here, Eldn. Just our basic telemetry, known net access and comms channels. There’s also something called ‘WHLSMSP’. Heard of it?”

“No, I don’t think so. Look it up.”

Jije interfaced with the ship’s computers. After a brief moment of compressed information transfer, he returned to lucidity.

“Well, Jije?”

“It’s an acronym. It stands for WormHole-Linked Solar Monitoring System Protocol.”

“Can we stream it here as well?”

“Certainly.”

A hologram appeared in the middle of their infospace virch. In its very center hung a tiny green sphere, surrounded by many bright spots. Around the sphere there were two circles, and beyond the furthest circle, a small, blinking dot.

Eldn was the first to datastream.

“That sphere in the center must be Gialfa. The first and second circles must be, respectively, Tykon and Giar’s orbits. And that blinking dot is — what is that blinking dot?”

“I don’t know. But seeing how fast it’s moving on that scale, it must be going at, wow, nearly half light speed. According to this info, it is about fifty metres across, and has no identification marks. It’s not yet close enough for a hi-res scan. Can we plot a prediction of its trajectory?”

“I think so.”

Eldn transmitted a few commands into the computer.

“There, Jije. If nothing diverts it, it should continue on directly into Gialfa.”

“Right. And just what would be the effect of that thing slamming into the photosphere at half light?”

“Unknown. Besides, it’d be vaporised by the corona long before it hits the photosphere. Let’s keep watching. We’ve got nothing else to do until the nightly entertainment, and that’s not for five hours.”

733 years, 5 hours after jettison

The weapon shot through the orbit of Giar. Now only forty minutes out from the star, its expert systems began preparing for the final detonation. As it plunged further down the gravity well, it began to heat up.

The captain, eir virtual form a diffuse cloud of nanotech, was moving around the shipspace while Taxon Seven stayed close to the hologram, puzzling over what the mysterious intruder was.

‘I don’t understand it.’ the Captain said. ‘We’ve tried looking on every frequency and protocol and still nothing! And there are no Known Net records of anything with such a shape. Maybe — ‘

“It’s a xenosophont ship? Already considered it. No, the engineering is all wrong. The Meistersingers wouldn’t build mysterious spheres. And the Muuh don’t seem interested in this area of the Terragen Sphere. Gialfa is on the Coreward edge of Keterist space.”

“Even so, it could be something totally unknown. Maybe it’s an ISO, made of superdense computronium? At that density, it could be a high-level Power, or greater.”

“I’ve got something,” e said suddenly.

“What?” The captain replied.

“There’s a signal coming off it at the 0.4547347 GHz band. Employs G8K encryption. Odd, that’s a military ID beacon protocol.”

“But 0.4547347 GHz hasn’t been used since the Version War! Everything is on 1.880 THz now. It must be some very old military device. A relic of a long-forgotten conflict.”

“Let’s see. Tuning antennas to 0.4547347 GHz. Most of its ID beacon sequence is heavily encrypted…that’s illegal nowadays…I can extract its header sequence though…Oh no.” If Taxon Seven had had blood, it would have frozen colder than liquid helium. The binary header sequence was that of a Class 1SN supernova weapon.

733y 5h 24 minutes after jettison

The weapon shot past the orbit of Tykon, and continued on towards the parent star. Punching its way through the corona, the weapon’s transapienttech shielding dispersed the superhot plasma away from its dull grey body. A mere few seconds later, the weapon slammed into the photosphere.

Alarmed, Taxon Seven urged, “Captain. Divert Destiny outsystem, now.” Even as e finished, the ship’s vector was changing noticeably in the displays. A projected course appeared, aimed away from the star, and towards one of the system’s wormholes.

“Taxon, how long till the star erupts?”

“Best approximation: 117 seconds, plus/minus 13.”

“Right. 104 seconds, maximum acceleration? We beat the plasma shockwave to the wormhole… Are we warning local shipping?”

“To all ships insystem, Captain.”

A long pause.

“And the sophonts on Tykon…”

“There is nothing that can be done.”

As Destiny turned away from Gialfa, Taxon Seven’s warning swept from her, a pulse of emissions describing a Code Red threat to the system. All ships in system were told to evacuate at once. For some ships receiving the warning, that effort might have been in vain; by the time the message reached the ships orbiting Tykon, they would have but ten minutes before the first blast hit.

Beneath the photosphere of Gialfa, terrible processes were taking place. The Q-node weapon was wreaking havoc throughout the star; within two minutes, the entire star would implode, releasing a blast of energy as potent as a natural supernova.

60 seconds passed.

Suddenly, without any warning, half of the star imploded in on itself, and barely a thousandth of the star’s mass converted itself to pure energy. But it was enough. The remaining half was blasted out as a hammerfall of plasma, chasing the light pulse at a quarter the speed of light. All that remained where Gialfa used to be was a strange matter star, half a kilometre across.

*****

In their infospace, Jije looked at eir’s dataflow in horror. “What the hell just happened?”

Eldn answered, “A incomplete supernova weapon detonation. Only a fraction of the star’s mass was consumed… the rest blasted away; a massive light pulse, followed by a blast wave of plasma. That kind of fizzle is often more dangerous than complete detonations, which just generate huge light pulses.”

“Where exactly did you learn all this?”

“Easy. One of my friends is Taxon Seven. E’s a HelioEngineer. Apparently he’s on this flight although I haven’t seen em. Anyway, e was my mentor at the Pi3 Orionis Institute of Heliology. And E used to be friends with another transapient who used to be a military historian. And so, by an increasingly long-winded chain of knowledge, I learnt all about supernova weapons.”

“So what will the captain be doing?”

“The only thing one can do. Run for the nearest wormhole, and hope you can stay in front of the plasma front until you get there.”

Unheeded, the infospace display showed a myriad of ships around Tykon, doing precisely that. Responding to Destiny’s alert, urged on by a frantic System Traffic Control, the system’s vessels ran for the wormhole mouth … 330 AUs away.

6 minutes after detonation

Taxon Seven watched sadly as the feeds from consecutive satellites crashed to static as their bodies were vaporised by the light pulse. The system’s wormholes themselves were largely intact. That was fortunate; being a gift from a Third Singularity godling, they would be irreplaceable to all intents and purposes. The light pulse would hit Tykon inside of two minutes; the plasma shockwave, eight minutes after that. Eir calculations had shown that by running at maximum acceleration they could arrive at the plexus with barely one minute to spare before the plasma wave hit. Sadly, most of the ships around Tykon would not be so lucky, unless they were shielded by transapienttech or godtech materials; the light pulse would be sufficient to incinerate them.

Aft of the ships, Tykon orbited, with a billion people downplanet, and hundreds of thousands in the habitats, tranquil… until the light pulse arrived.

To an observer on the surface of Tykon, it would have been one of the most wonderful and terrible sights a sophont could ever hope to see. The star Gialfa, for so long the giver of life on this world, had turned against them. The star flared, impossibly bright, intolerably hot. In mere seconds the atmosphere burned away, and the oceans boiled. The orbiting habs, except those on the night side, were blown away like leaves in a hurricane. But the habs in the shelter of Tykon’s shadow would soon pass into the lethal dawn. Lethal radiation comprised of exotic particles that had never been seen before and regular members of the particle zoo ghosted through the red-hot planet. Tykon’s crust buckled and shattered, as the mantle expanded due to the incredible heat pulse. Then that too began to blow of into space, as the iron core exploded.

10 to 22 minutes after detonation

Four minutes into the pulse, twelve minutes until the plasma wave arrived. Most of Tykon had been vaporised, leaving a comet-like trail of gaseous rock at thousands of degrees, so incandescent it could be seen from the Oort Cloud. The light storm was working its way down through the layers of Tykon, having just finished the mesomantle. The light pulse had just eaten away to the core, when, in all its glory, the plasma wave arrived. Merely ten kilometres thick, each square millimetre shining brighter than Gialfa had before the explosion, the expanding sphere simply absorbed the remains of Tykon’s shattered core, and indifferently continued outwards.

15 minutes after detonation

The next place to be hit was the main asteroid belt, 2 AUs out. The belt fared no better than Tykon had; rapid superheating shattered all but the largest asteroids into dust, which was blown outwards on light pressure alone.

16 minutes after detonation

In crewspace, Taxon Seven watched the satellites disappear, layer after layer, as the light wave swept ever closer to the ice giant Giar. The inner system was disappearing from knowledge as the light wave consumed every satellite, every sensor it encountered. Datastreams indicated that the captain was putting the modosophonts aboard into dormant storage mode, as the ship focused all its resources on escape. (Idly, a small part of Taxon Seven’s gestalt noted that one of those modosophonts was a student of e’s acquaintance, and put the information aside for later.) Taxon watched as the distance between Destiny and the plasma front slowly decreased. It was possible to outrun it, of course; the light pulse would catch them, but Destiny’s transapienttech shielding, (purchased at exorbitant price from Djed) would protect them from that threat. E continued to watch as feeds were sent in from Giar.

20 minutes after detonation

The dark blue ice giant Giar, circled by five rings of glittering ice and rock, was hit by less energy than had claimed Tykon, but fared no better. In less than a second the light pulse had vaporised all of the rings not on the night side. The day side of Giar flared, shooting millions of tonnes of hydrogen into space. Giar’s frozen moons melted, and boiled away to steam. The convective processes inside Giar had been shut down for two billion years; now, in its death throes, they were restarting. Vivid red hydrogen plumes gushed straight from the interior, caused by chunks of super-compressed hydrogen deep in the mantle heating and expanding due to the massive energy dump of the solar inferno. The wave of high-energy radiation slammed into Giar’s magnetic field, covering the entire planet with ghostly red aurorae down to the equator. Giar was surviving in conditions that had destroyed Tykon, but was slowly succumbing. Soon there would be nowhere else left for the heat to go.

80 minutes after detonation

Giar had expanded to twice its normal size when the light became bright enough to blow gases off the planet. The now-cherry-red giant planet gave up its gas shield. A comet-like tail a hundred million kilometres long started to form behind Giar. Giar’s atmosphere had been half-depleted when the plasma wave struck.

It washed over the remains of Giar, absorbing the last remains of hydrogen gas, and tearing off chunks of the crushed silicate core. After the last had passed, the last remains of the once-mighty ice giant Giar was a small sphere of superheated, crushed silicate.

1 day after detonation

A mere handful of the ships from Tykon — those with advanced enough shielding — had survived the ferocious light pulse, and they were now trailing Destiny as she accelerated towards the wormhole gate. They were the last ones left, the only witnesses to the destruction of an entire planetary system. Aboard Destiny, modosophont passengers had been shifted into dormant mode, ready to be uploaded at a moment’s notice to a moon-sized memory node sixty-six light years away. Messages had been sent through the wormhole earlier, warning all ships not adequately shielded to stay as far away as possible from the wormhole mouth on the other side. All the remaining crew and passengers could do now was hope that the drive did not fail in the last hundred AUs.

1d 21h 39m to 3d 13h 10m after detonation

On the other side of the wormhole, all nearby vessels had retreated to a safe distance.
Suddenly, the light pulse flooded through the spatial distortion, pouring from the doomed Gialfa system. Spacetime curvature around the terminus caused the pulse to exit from all directions, turning the wormhole itself into a brilliant beacon, shining like a new star in the skies of the nearest planet, Reio 3.

3d 16h 17m 17s after detonation

The Figment of Destiny shot through the hyper-dimensional shortcut through the fabric of space itself, and emerged on the other side unharmed and intact, traveling at the brisk pace of 0.45c, much faster than the plasma front. The modosophs aboard were returned to active mode, and many of them likely never knew anything had happened. Inside shipspace, Taxon Seven breathed a silent sound of relief.

They had survived.

7d 14h 36m after detonation

A tiny fraction of the plasma front rolled out of the wormhole mouth and was promptly deflected into deep space by magnetic shields erected after the other ships from Tykon had arrived through the wormhole. The superfast atoms of hydrogen and helium continued outwards, into the void between worlds.

The Figment of Destiny had survived the worst disaster to hit sephirotic space outside of wartime. But there are many more weapons floating in space, silently lethal, just waiting for a star’s gravity well to capture them. But they won’t. No-one wants a repeat of the Gialfa Incident. So a massive microwave pulse detection system was built, piggybacking on the Argus Array, to detect and plot accurately the trajectories of the thousands of weapons left over from wars, still floating in space… lest one day, one of them plough straight into a star, repeating the Gialfa tragedy.

*****

More about the author, Linus Cohen, here.

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