Something Happened Here, But We’re Not Quite Sure What It Was

“Something Happened Here, But We’re Not Quite Sure What It Was” by Paul McAuley is a complex sf story about politics and xenophobia when human colonists on an Earth-like planet are faced with the possibility of reaching out to alien cultures, especially when a big organization that has previously done harm is in charge of the operation.

 

The origin story we like to tell ourselves is that our little town was founded by a grumpy loner name of Joe Gordon, who one day parked his RV at the spot where a ceramic road left by an unknown long-lost Elder Culture cut across the new two-lane blacktop between Port of Plenty and the open-cast iron mine at Red Rocks. He named his crossroads campsite Joe’s Corner, set up a couple of picnic tables, and commenced to sell coffee, hot dogs, candy bars, and e-cigarettes and rolling tobacco to the passing trade and the first explorers of the City of the Dead.

Joe Gordon had come up and out three years after people first set foot on First Foot. A lanky, morose man from Hoboken, New Jersey, he peers with narrow suspicion out of the only known photograph of him and his makeshift truck stop, as if wondering how much he should charge for the liberty of having his picture taken. By then, the shuttle cycling between Earth and First Foot was bringing up ten thousand people every three weeks. Too many people for Joe’s liking: He’d spent just two months in Port of Plenty before striking out into the backcountry, and when other people started to make themselves at home around his crossroads he moved on again, heading deeper into the dry heart of the planet’s largest continent. We know that he worked for a time at the copper mine at Mount Why Not, but after that his trail goes cold. One story has it that he burned his ID and joined a group of homesteading Sovereign Citizens; another claims that he set up a road tavern on the far side of the Badlands and was shot dead in a brawl or a robbery. He left behind his name, a story slowly fading to myth, and the photograph which—enlarged, retouched, and printed on canvas—hangs in the reception area of our community center, a steel-framed glass box erected just last year next door to the ragstone bunker of the Unitarian church whose spire, three steel I-beams welded into a skinny pyramid and topped by an aluminum weather vane burnished by sun and sandstorms, is visible for miles around in our flat desert territory.

Joe’s Corner is approaching its thirtieth anniversary now. We are some three thousand souls, with a school and a small clinic; a strip mall anchored by a Rexall’s; a sheriff’s office and a volunteer fire department; two charge stations (one of them a Toyota franchise); three churches; six motels; a dozen bars, coffeehouses, and restaurants; a solar farm and a nine-hole golf course; a small factory that fabricates mining equipment; and a workshop turning out handmade souvenirs of the City of the Dead, mostly for the export trade. The community center houses a small library and a cinema club that just closed a season of classic Westerns with Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. At a lodge run by a couple from New Mexico, guests pay six hundred bucks a night to sleep in tar-paper shacks, wallow in black mud baths, and eat vegan Mexican-Chinese food. They come here for the silence, panoramic views of alien constellations in night skies untainted by light pollution, and, of course, to explore the tombs of the City of the Dead.

There are several million tombs scattered across fifty thousand square kilometers, built from small, round-edged clay bricks that some believe to have been excreted by the creatures that constructed them, the so-called Ghostkeepers. We call them tombs because they appear to memorialize the dead of the Ghostkeepers, although no bodies have ever been found. They may be houses, works of art, the by-product of some kind of mating ritual, or something beyond the grasp of human imagination. Once upon a time, tomb raiders made fortunes by finding Elder Culture artifacts that kick-started new industries. Our last sheriff but one played an instrumental role in the discovery of navigation code that had migrated from a fragment of a crashed Ghajar spaceship into a nest of hive rats, and pointed toward the wormhole network of the New Frontier. Although it’s generally agreed that the glory days of mining the City of the Dead are long gone, tomb raiders still dig up various trinkets—sympathy stones, ceramic shards containing entangled electrons used in q-phone manufacture, tesserae doped with algorithms that generate scraps of Ghostkeeper memories as well as, sometimes, actual ghosts—and people still come out here hoping to hit the jackpot. Most leave broke and disappointed after a year or so, but a few stay on, and others drift out here and set up homesteads or little businesses. Living the good old American dream on an alien planet, at the edge of a vast alien ruin.

Leah Bright was one such incomer, moving to our little town after a divorce and a business failure in Port of Plenty. She rented a single wide in the trailer park, used eBay to sell inert tesserae that she claimed to have activated by a secret psychic process, gave lessons in dowsing for artifacts and consultations with her familiar, which she said was the ghost of a Byzantine priest whose spirit had transmigrated to First Foot a thousand years ago. She was a handsome woman in her late thirties who wore boho scarves, denim jackets and jeans, and tooled leather boots, and mostly kept herself to herself. She gave the impression that residence in Joe’s Corner was a temporary setback, but we grew used to seeing her sitting at an outside table in the Old Bean Café and poking with furious concentration at her iPhone, or leading a gaggle of tourists on a dowsing expedition amongst the tells and dust heaps at the northern edge of the City of the Dead. It was general knowledge that she and the town clerk were an item. We told ourselves that because neither party was married it was no business of ours that they liked to pretend that they were no more than casual acquaintances, but we sometimes wondered what they had in common. Leah Bright with her glamour and flair; Troy Wagner a mild, pedantic guy ten years younger than her, so straightlaced he was the only person in town who went to work every day in a suit.

Someone suggested that Leah kept him around to remind herself of a road not taken, and everyone pretty much agreed that Troy must have told her about the planning application for a radio telescope array. At the town meeting where it was due to be heard, Leah sat in the center of the front row with half a dozen allies flanking her, a solid block of defiance in a hall otherwise sparsely occupied by the usual professional busybodies, people who had a planning or licensing matter they wanted to see through, and a few cantankerous cranks who at every meeting aired old grievances that everyone else had long ago laid to rest.

The planning application came at the end of business, a seemingly innocuous statement that a company named Universal Communications had been granted a license to erect radio communications equipment on a four-hundred-acre patch of land they had acquired several months ago, plans available upon request at the library or to view on the town’s website, and so forth. After Troy Wagner dryly read this out, the mayor, Joel Jumonville, said that if there were no comments he would declare the meeting closed. But before Joel could bang his gavel, Leah Bright reared up and said that as a matter of fact she did have something to say.

“It’s my understanding that the ‘radio communications equipment’ is in fact an array of radio telescopes,” she said. “And I also understand that Universal Communications is planning to establish communication with extraterrestrial intelligences.”

“I believe those might be more in the nature of unfounded assertions rather than comments,” Joel Jumonville said in his Texas good-old-boy drawl. “As Mr. Wagner explained, there’ll be a copy of the plans lodged in the library. Anyone who wants is free to check them out.”

Joel was a former astronaut, one of the Fortunate Fifty who had come up and out on the very first shuttle trip from Earth, back when it seemed very likely that the Jackaroo’s gift of fifteen worlds and the means to reach them was some kind of trick or trap. He had been mayor of Joe’s Corner for a quarter of a century. Although his majority had been considerably reduced at the last election, he had lost none of his God-given authority, looking at Leah over the top of his old-fashioned gold-rimmed bifocals like a teacher humoring a difficult pupil.

But Leah wasn’t the least bit intimidated, saying firmly, “If you want facts, Mr. Mayor, then it’s a fact that Universal Communications is owned by the Omega Point Foundation, which once upon a time funded a company called Outland Archaeological Services. A company that caused some considerable trouble here twelve years ago, as I’m sure many of you will recall.”

She was referring to the breakout of a harmful eidolon that had gotten into the heads of people who had dug up a second fragment of the crashed Ghajar spaceship, causing them to attack and kill each other with their teeth and bare hands. The last person standing had run repeatedly at a boulder until she’d split her skull open. At the mention of Outland’s name, a couple of old-timers sat up and started to pay attention.

“I can assure you that the application is in order,” Joel Jumonville said, with a trace of exasperation. “Universal Communications doesn’t have anything to do with archaeology. And it has no plans to do any digging, apart from a few trenches when it lays foundations for its equipment.”

Troy Wagner had the look of man trying to become invisible by the power of thought alone. Everyone else was following the conversation as if it were a tennis match.

Leah said, “This equipment being radio telescopes.”

“Something like that may be mentioned in the plans,” Joel said. “Which, as I’ve said, anyone can go check out.”

“Radio telescopes which Universal Communications wants to use to talk with extraterrestrials,” Leah said, with her supporters nodding and saying exactly and there it is like a gospel chorus.

“I believe that they may be planning to search the sky for signals or suchlike,” Joel said, clearly on the back foot now.

“And if they find a signal, they’ll want to talk,” Leah said.

Joel tried to turn it into a joke. “Is this about the planning application, or are you making a criticism of their scientific methods?”

“It’s about the harmful effect this project will have on the City of the Dead,” Leah said. “And the very real possibility that the Jackaroo may not approve of it.”

“The approval of the Jackaroo has nothing to do with our planning process. And in any case, the application is merely a formality. The site is on federal land outside town limits. I can no more stop it going ahead than I could stop a sandstorm,” Joel said, and when several of Leah’s supporters stood up to shout objections he banged his gavel so hard the head flew off the handle.

That was the end of the meeting and the beginning of Leah Bright’s campaign. Her most prominent supporters were dealers and assayers in the artifact trade, merchants whose business depended on tourism, and a number of tomb raiders, including Jayla and Shelley Griffith-Fontcuberta, who had been in the biz more or less from the discovery of the City of the Dead. All had good reason to worry about possible disruptions to their livelihoods. Despite decades of research, no one could claim any authoritative knowledge about the revenants left by the Ghostkeepers. They were rooted in algorithms that ran deep inside the quantum properties of the tesserae, projecting fleeting emotions, glimpses of exotic landscapes, and actual eidolons or ghosts. Harmless scraps like tattered bats or the animated shadows of warped dwarves; rare potent spirits that got inside people’s heads, as in the breakout that had killed the crew employed by Outland Archaeological Services. Which is why the association between Outland and the outfit that wanted to build the radio telescope array was enough to give even the hardened rationalists amongst us pause for thought.

In an interview with Sally Backlund, the owner, editor, and sole reporter of our town’s newspaper, Leah announced that she intended to hold an open meeting about what she called the reckless and outrageous intrusion. It was a riotous affair at which everyone with a crank to turn or an ax to grind held forth, everyone talking over everyone else and fierce little arguments breaking out everywhere; people had to drag Ben Lamb and Aidan Fletcher apart when raised voices and finger poking threatened to escalate into a fistfight. Leah struggled to keep any kind of order, and her keynote speech was shouted down by people who felt that their own opinions were equally important. As Sally wrote in her story about it, although the meeting ended with a unanimous condemnation of the project, everyone appeared to have a different objection.

Universal Communications set up a public event to explain its plans, with a free buffet and a lecture by a tame scientist about SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, but after Leah and her supporters declared that they would picket the event, it was canceled by our sheriff, Van Diaz, on the grounds of public safety. Van had good reason. The ranks of Leah’s supporters had been swollen by out-of-towners, and there was a discordant mood in the air. Rival street preachers set up at opposite corners of the crossroads, one ranting about an upcoming Rapture that would transmigrate our souls to permanent servitude in an alien hell world, the other warning about the dangers of what she called cargo-cult culture and colonization by alien memes. An outfit that called itself the Brotherhood of Human Saints marched down Main Street, dressed in monk’s habits and spraying onlookers with what they claimed was magnetized water, to ward off unsympathetic eidolons; Hoke Williford objected to being sprayed and punched out one of the monks and was promptly arrested. And a group of earnest young people held a be-in outside the community center, with banners, drumming, and chants, and consciousness-raising exercises that some of us worried would brainwash our children. The jamboree went on for three days, long after Universal Communications’ PR people had folded their tents, and none of it did a thing to stop the construction work that started up two weeks later.

Sally Backlund did her best to be evenhanded in her coverage. She published an editorial supporting the view of Leah and her supporters that science did not have all the answers. A hundred years ago, she wrote, we thought that we would soon know everything worth knowing. Now, after the arrival of the Jackaroo and colonization of the fifteen habitable planets they gave us, we are equally certain that the universe is more complex than we can possibly imagine, and if there are fundamental questions that science can’t answer, then perhaps other ways of addressing them are equally valid. She also interviewed Darryl Hancock who owned the hardware store and with the twenty-inch reflecting telescope in his backyard had spotted more than two dozen comets and discovered one of the tiny moons that orbited Godzilla, the biggest of our system’s three gas giants.

Darryl explained that SETI was still a valid enterprise long after the Jackaroo had first revealed themselves. We know now that we are not alone, he said, but we still do not know if we are the only clients of the Jackaroo, or if there are other alien civilizations as advanced as theirs. The bedrock of SETI research is a famous equation written by the astronomer Frank Drake, which gives an estimate of the number of active, technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy by multiplying together estimates of relevant parameters—the percentage of stars with life-bearing planets, the proportion of those planets on which communicative technological civilizations arose, the life span of those civilizations, and so forth. After the Jackaroo made contact, we acquired real numbers for parameters that previously had been hypothetical; we know, for instance, that the Elder Cultures, clients of the Jackaroo who previously inhabited the gift worlds, flourished for an average of approximately five centuries. Plugging hard data into the Drake equation suggests that between one and twelve civilizations are presently active in the Milky Way, which raises all kinds of interesting questions. Do the Jackaroo currently have other clients besides ourselves? Are there alien civilizations they are watching but have not yet contacted, or alien civilizations more advanced than theirs, which have refused their offer of help? Are all the Jackaroo gift worlds more or less habitable by humans, like First Foot and the others, and those worlds previously inhabited by Elder Cultures that we’ve discovered out in the New Frontier? Or are there more exotic gift worlds, for more exotic clients? Gas giants where intelligent blimps ride frigid poison winds, worlds that are wrapped in ocean from pole to pole, or baking at furnace temperatures and inhabited by life-forms whose biochemistries are based on sulfur or silicon rather than carbon, and half a hundred other possibilities.

The Jackaroo have been asked these and other questions many times, of course. But their answers are always about as much use as fortune cookie sayings. “It’s an interesting question,” they’ll say. Or: “The universe is very large and very old, and contains many possibilities.” Or: “Many of our previous clients asked similar questions. Each found their own answers, in their own way.”

This was why Universal Communications was building radio telescope arrays on the fifteen gift worlds, whose stars were scattered across the Milky Way. The galaxy is huge, some four hundred billion stars, so there is only a vanishingly small chance that an active, communicative alien civilization will be orbiting a star close enough to one of those arrays for easy detection. Even so, according to Darryl, the implications of success were so staggeringly profound that it was worth the gamble. Suppose we could get answers to all the questions that the Jackaroo so skillfully and charmingly evade? Suppose we could get a different perspective about the Jackaroo, or even discover their history and origin?

The interview didn’t endear Darryl to Leah Bright and her supporters. There were anonymous threats, and an attempt at swatting. Someone spray-painted ALIEN LOVER across the window of Darryl’s store. A small group gathered outside his home and banged saucepans and blew whistles and chanted insults until he came out with his 12 gauge and fired a double load of bird shot into the air. He was arrested for that, but Van Diaz, whose patience was being sorely tried by the protestors’ antics, released him without charge a couple of hours later.

Leah denounced the threats and vandalism, but also accused Darryl of being in Universal Communications’ pocket. And some of us accused her of being in the pay of outside parties who had a financial interest in sabotaging Universal Communications’ plans. The whole town was divided. You couldn’t not have an opinion, for or against. Meanwhile, heavy trucks brought in the prefabricated parts for the radio telescopes, big white parabolic reflectors set on skeletal support structures that allowed them to point at any part of the sky, assembled in a twenty-by-ten grid. Construction took six months, and all the while Leah Bright and her crew of protestors camped outside. They held up traffic, locked themselves to construction machinery, tied banners and balloons to the mesh security fences, leafleted traffic and people in town, sat around campfires in the cold desert evenings, and sang old songs from Earth.

Most were out-of-towners, and most were young. They had not volunteered to come up and out to First Foot after winning a shuttle ticket in the UN lottery or buying a ticket on one of the repurposed Ghajar ships. They had been born here. It was not a wonder, for them, to be living on another planet. As far as they were concerned, First Foot was home and Earth the alien planet. A hundred years ago, they would have been protesting about the Vietnam War and the Man. Now they were campaigning against the colonial attitudes of off-world companies, and the alliance between scientists and big business that was exploiting Elder Culture artifacts they believed to be theirs by right of birth.

Some of us sympathized with them. A large part of our town’s income derived from the City of the Dead and the artifact business, and we’d chosen to live there because it was remote from central government and gave us the space to express our lives as we saw fit. So although we had businesses to run and families to feed, many of us visited the camp, donating food and water, sitting and talking with the kids, and participating in sing-alongs, an attempt to encircle the camp with a chain of people holding hands, and an attempt to levitate the radio telescopes as a demonstration of human will triumphing over science (some swore it actually happened). Elmer Peters, the Unitarian minister, held a nondenominational service at the camp every Sunday. Ram Narayan supplied daily meals of vegetable curry and bread; the New Mexico couple from the yoga retreat brought macrobiotic food and said that the camp had a beautiful air of spirituality; Jeff James sold pot he grew in his hydroponic greenhouse. Sally Backlund was often to be seen interviewing someone, an external microphone clad in a furry windshield attached to her iPhone like a dead hive rat soldier. She was writing a series of stories about individual protestors and uploading her interviews to SoundCloud. Craig and Jody Mudgett brought their kids as part of their homeschooling. And other kids visited, of course, because of the excitement and transgression. It was the biggest thing to have happened in our town since that unfortunate breakout. A carnival. A freak show.

Leah was there from beginning to end, holding daily séances to consult her Byzantine priest, chairing interminable camp meetings, giving interviews to TV and net journalists from Port of Plenty, and leading every protest action. She said that the presence of the camp was a shield between the black energy of the radio telescopes and the fragile noosphere of the City of the Dead. She was arrested twice, but although Joel Jumonville wanted to keep her ass in jail until things cooled off, she was quickly released both times, thanks to supporters who paid her fines and a sympathetic lawyer from Port of Plenty who was doing pro bono work for the protesters. She was dogged, determined, and, most of us agreed, very happy.

She’d broken up with Troy Wagner soon after she’d begun her campaign. He sourly confided to the bartender at Don’s Joint that it wasn’t so much that she’d found a cause, but a cause had found her. She had become the lightning rod for the discontent of well-to-do kids who joined protests because it was the hip thing to do, or because they were rebelling against their parents. He felt badly treated by his former lover—Joel had investigated him over the leak about the planning application, and although nothing implicated him, bad blood remained—and we weren’t surprised when, two months later, he took a job with the UN in Port of Plenty.

By then, construction was nearing an end. The garden of radio telescopes sat behind a double wire fence topped with razor wire, bowls turned to the sky like giant albino sunflowers. There were ranks of solar panels to provide power, a short string of flat-roofed, single-story prefabs where security guards and technicians would live and work. Q-phone circuits linked it directly and instantaneously to a facility in Paris, France, and to the headquarters of Universal Communications’ parent company at Terminus.

Several of us were invited to the facility’s inauguration, including Joel Jumonville, Sally Backlund, and Darryl Hancock. As was Leah Bright, in what was either a spirit of reconciliation or a sneaky PR move. She formally burned the invitation in front of a crowd of her supporters and a couple of reporters (Sally and a stringer from NBC First Foot) and announced that there would be an intervention, but refused to divulge any details.

“It will be nonviolent but potent,” she said, adding that testing of the equipment had already caused significant agitation amongst eidolons and other potencies in the City of the Dead.

“She felt a great disturbance in the Force,” more than one of us wisecracked, but many had a sense of foreboding. We were remembering that breakout, and all the tomb raiders and explorers who had been to one degree or another driven crazy by exposure to eidolons and other manifestations of Ghostkeeper algorithms. People who had invisible friends, or believed that they were dead, rotting corpses, or had caught counting syndrome or spent half of every day scrubbing themselves down with industrial bleach in the shower because they believed that the pores in their skin were infested with alien bugs. And all of us were affected to some extent, living as we did in the penumbra of a vast alien necropolis, where alien ghosts infested alien tombs and scenes from long-lost alien lives were replayed to any sentient creature that strayed close to the tesserae that contained them. All of us were changed.

A couple of years ago, a PR company hired by Joel Jumonville to boost the tourist trade came up with a cute cartoon mascot, a fat green-skinned elf with puppy-dog eyes, a goofy grin, sparkly antennae, and a slogan: Experience Ten Thousand Years Of Alien History! But that history wasn’t cute, wasn’t amenable to Disneyfication. It was the background hum of our lives, a psychic weather acknowledged by the amulets or tattoos some of us wore to ward off bad luck and bad eidolons, jokes stolen from corny old horror movies, and the little rituals tomb raiders performed before entering a tomb. I guess you could say that our love of gossip and stories was part of our coping mechanism: a way of reassuring ourselves that we were still human. Even visiting scientists and archaeologists talked about bad spots and weird feelings. That psychic weather, those weird feelings, were what Leah and her protestors had tapped into. And it turned out that they were right, although in the end it wasn’t the radio telescopes that blew everything up. It was Leah’s attempt at sabotage.

The company and the government took her talk of an intervention seriously. There was heavy security around the radio telescope array on the day of its inauguration. Two hundred state troopers were on standby and a small army of private goons checked the IDs of VIPs, patrolled the perimeter, and flew drones above the protestors’ little encampment. According to Van Diaz, they weren’t so much worried about Leah and her friends, but that some lone crackpot might use them as cover.

“Still, none of us has any idea about their plans,” he said. “The company tried to infiltrate the camp with a couple of undercover guys, but they were spotted and turfed out. Leah is playing everything very close. But man, really, what can she do?”

Many of us resented the intrusive security, the closure of Main Street while a convoy of press and guests rolled through, the noise of helicopter traffic that brought the VIPs, the journalists stopping us on the street or knocking at our doors or coming into our places of business, asking us for our opinions. And while we wouldn’t admit it, we were anxious that there might be an outbreak of some kind of stupid violence, or that Leah might turn out to be right, and the radio telescopes really would trigger something incomprehensible and catastrophic out in the City of the Dead. So although we tried to go about our normal business, we were secretly watching the skies. And at four p.m., when the radio telescopes were due to be switched on, most of us found excuses to hunker down at home.

But nothing happened. Despite all the rumors, Ada Morange, the billionaire who bankrolled the Omega Point Foundation, did not appear at the inauguration. Instead, a colorless executive read out a short message from her, and an astronomer who had helmed a TV series about the gift worlds and the New Frontier, brought from Earth especially for the occasion, gave a short speech before pressing the button that activated the dishes. All swung ponderously towards a spot high in the day sky, aiming towards a G2 star eleven light years away. It was the twin of Earth’s sun, but it wasn’t known if it possessed any planets, let alone one that could support life. As Darryl Hancock said, the project was in many ways a symbolic gesture, making the point that the human species wasn’t going to stop asking big questions just because the Jackaroo had happened along with their gift worlds and shuttles, and their offer to help.

The protestors built a huge bonfire that night and held a cross between a séance, a prayer meeting, and a free concert. Leah didn’t appear; she was in conversation with her Byzantine priest. We didn’t know then that her plan to disrupt the inauguration had been foiled by a failed comms link.

That link went live two days later.

The first most of us knew about it, the power went off in the town. It was just after seven in the morning. The municipal grid, solar power, generators, and LEAF batteries: everything cut out. Vehicles drifted to a halt, broadband fell over, TVs and radios and phones howled like wolves. Some people say they saw an arc of pale sun dogs in the sky; others that a host of eidolons rose up from tombs and sinkholes across the City of the Dead and formed a thickening haze that poured north, towards the radio telescope facility. Esther Aldrich, the manager of the Shop ’n Save, claimed that she saw beings like glowing balloons drift through the plate glass window, head down the liquor aisle, and vanish, leaving behind an odor like burnt plastic. Several people suffered fits. Kyra Calliste, a former tomb raider who for three years had panhandled around town, haunted by an eidolon fragment that had robbed her of her voice, suddenly stood up in the church hall where she was eating her customary breakfast with other transients and started talking about everything that had happened to her out in the City of the Dead. She hasn’t stopped talking yet. On the other hand, Monica Nielsen, eating breakfast with her husband in Denny’s, was struck blind. Hysterical blindness is the opinion of specialists who have examined her, nothing organically wrong, but she hasn’t seen a spark of light since.

Others spoke of hearing the voices of dead relatives, or a vast lonely roar like a jet plane passing low above the roofs of the town, although the sky was cloudless and empty that morning. And at the radio telescope array, the dishes began to move under a command fed through a clandestine link which a sympathetic IT worker had installed in the control system, overriding the program that until that moment had kept them tracking the G2 star.

The technicians had not yet started their shift; by the time they responded to a q-phone call from the actual controllers, on Earth, it was too late. The dishes locked onto a new target and their dormant transmission system came online, linked to a qube in the protestors’ camp that was running algorithms extracted from several hundred tesserae. At least one of which, it turned out, had been contaminated or overwritten by code extracted from a fragment of that crashed Ghajar spaceship. The ship code took control of the telescopes, and began to send a complex powerful signal towards a distant star.

After the technicians tried and failed to regain control of the array, they shut everything down. It’s still shut down three years later, so I suppose you could say Leah Bright and her followers scored some kind of a victory. Trouble is, they also helped Universal Communications discover something new.

Leah was arrested by the UN geek police and charged with sabotage, interference with telecommunications transmissions, and a ragbag of lesser crimes. She and several of her supporters, along with the technician who had installed the clandestine link, were released on bail put up by an anonymous supporter, and all charges were eventually dropped. Partly because a trial would have been a PR disaster; partly because Universal Communications discovered that the transmission had been aimed at a red dwarf star more than twenty thousand light years away—a star with, it turned out, a single wormhole orbiting it.

An expedition was promptly dispatched, taking more than a month to make its way from wormhole to wormhole, star to star. It discovered a vast debris disc circling close to that cool, dim star, a churning mass of organic and metallic fragments twelve million miles across and just thirty feet deep, with about half the mass of the Earth’s moon. The remains of millions Ghajar ships, perhaps. Or the wreckage of some huge structure, a space metropolis or moon-sized orbital fort, ground small by innumerable collisions and time.

Five companies have purchased licenses to map and explore the debris disc, searching for artifacts and scraps that contain active algorithms. So far no one has found anything useful—or if they have, they aren’t talking about it—but one thing is clear. Radioactivity, chemical changes, and stress marks show that the debris was subjected to energies so immense they would have caused serious deformations in local space-time.

It seems, the experts say, that the Ghajar were divided against themselves. The spaceship that crashed in the City of Dead did not crash by accident, but was shot down while fleeing from an enemy; the debris disc was created by some unimaginable battle, part of a war that ended with the Ghajar’s extinction. And in their fate we may glimpse our own future, because the human race is already split into opposing factions by the influence of artifacts or technologies. By ideas not our own. By the ravings of mad alien ghosts.

The Jackaroo have said nothing at all about this theory. They will neither confirm nor deny our speculations about what happened to the Ghajar, saying only that they are “interesting.” There is a rumor that three of their gold-skinned avatars visited the radio telescope array while the geek police were making the qube safe. Van says neither he nor any of his deputies were informed about their presence, but one night in the Green Ale Inn one of the facility’s technicians said the avatars stood there for an hour, facing each other like gunfighters in some old Western, then walked off to a town car without saying a word and were driven away.

Perhaps someone will find something immensely valuable in the debris disc. Or perhaps it will drive those trying to understand it insane, or infect them with some kind of combat eidolon. But despite those risks the prospect of reward is too great to stop exploring.

Meanwhile, although the radio telescopes remain offline, Leah Bright is still camped at the gate. Like our founder, Joe Gordon, she lives in an RV. She supports herself with royalties from a self-published e-book about her campaign, by charging tourists for taking selfies with her, and by holding consultations about the Ghajar message that, she claims, passed through her. Unlike Joe, she loves to talk. She’ll talk to anyone who’ll listen. And with her garrulous eccentricity, and her obsession with the inscrutable alien dead, she has finally become one of us.

 

“Something Happened Here, but We’re Not Quite Sure What it Was” Copyright © 2016 by Paul McAuley

Art copyright © 2016 by Eleni Kalorkoti

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