Patterns emerge in the most unexpected places as a scientist studies the flora and fauna of a new world.
Jingru smelled the storm long before it came.
The dusty, moist scent wafted in on the morning breeze as she tended the flowers on her porch. It tickled her nose. Her assistant-intelligence, Aimee, chirped a precipitation warning through her jawpiece.
“Attention! A significant pressure system has been detected by Central Station. There is a 64 percent chance of a sub-category storm in Reserve-133 in the next 12 hours. Estimated wind speed is 57 kilometres per hour. Please stow all lightning- and wind-sensitive equipment in an appropriate location, Dr Lee.”
“Yes, Aimee. Thank you. I’ll get the collectors.”
She put the watering can away; there would be no need for watering today. With a deliberate ease, she glided across the faux-wood boards of her front porch and slipped into her shed. The shed, somewhere between smithy and laboratory, was neat and almost well-mannered; her unstudied specimens, packed in cryojars for preservation, were neatly shelved and categorised. A long workbench was arrayed with glassware and cutters, while various items of powered lab equipment and assistant drones lay dormant along the walls. A door at the back led to a large storage room, where the specimens she’d finished studying went. Her field armour was in the corner, plugged into its charging station: a silvered, helmeted suit equipped with an exoskeleton for speed and laced with shear-thickening ferrofluid to protect from unexpected impact. Manoeuvring cables, tightly wound and connected to a body harness, rested on either side of her hips, and a pair of flechette guns were woven into its wrists. She unfastened her clothes from her body, stepped into her armour, and checked its equipment one more time before stepping out. She had work to do.
Jingru stepped out of the house to a second chirp from Aimee.
“Update! Central Station has detected an unexpected increase in meteorological activity. Storm classification has been upgraded to Category 1. Please be careful out there, Dr Lee.”
“Noted with thanks, Aimee. Ask Central Station to authorise the mission. Oh, and ping Maia for me, please.”
There was a click; several seconds passed, with their attendant ringing, before Maia answered the call.
“Hey sweetie, what’s up?”
“Not much, beb. Heading out for a routine collector retrieval. Central’s detected a storm. How’s Luna going?”
Jingru could hear Maia sigh audibly over the connection. “Six hours of Martian civil servants, with so little charisma they make resource management boring, talking into their slides. Watching plants grow in real time is way more exciting, and I’ve actually done that. At least dinner was good, but we’ve got another full day of this before it’s my turn. I’m definitely better than these folks.”
“Aiya. That sounds awful,” Jingru said. A notification from Central popped into view; she was clear to proceed. “Listen, I have to go, but I’ll ping you when I’m done. Love you.”
“Love you too. Take care out there, alright?”
Jingru cut the connection. She sighed. The biannual Luna Economic Conferences brought economic scientists from all over the Democratic Community of Nations, which governed Earth Original, Mars and most of humanity’s galactic outposts, together. They also took Maia away for three weeks at a time; a week both ways using a faster-than-light shuttle from Central Station, located over Earth-IX, and then five days of conference with two “social” days included. Hypercomms made telepresence possible, but physical attendance at such conferences was still insisted upon. Jingru thought it absurd, but clearly the senior members of the academic community did not.
She slipped her helmet on; the heads-up display took less than a second to initialise, projecting data on suit power, wind speed, air quality, and half a dozen other indicators onto her faceplate. She stepped off the porch and looked up at the vast expanse before her; rolling fields of knee-high yellow-and-red foliage, with a tangled web of tree-like vines in the distance.
She exhaled. “Suit, engage exoskeleton. Aimee, please give me a countdown to that storm, and locate my collectors. Let’s go.”
T-11:45. The first collector was approximately 10 kilometres away, nestled among a clutch of red bushes with striking pink flowers. The device was simple: a ten-centimetre-wide multifunctional sensor staked into the ground, with a second sensor encased in aerogel floating three metres above it tethered by a thin carbon nanofibre. The sensor pair, which gathered environmental data as well as images with sound, was protected from inquisitive fauna and the occasional mobile slime mould by active camouflage, but its minimal-impact design meant that unlike the larger, shielded automatic observation stations, it wasn’t protected from storms. Jingru deactivated the collector with a suit command, and it gently collapsed itself, its lower half retracting its upper half with an inbuilt motor. As soon as the last of the aerogel had disappeared into its main body, she unfastened it from the ground and put it in her suit’s inbuilt pouch.
“Aimee, I’ve retrieved the first collector. Mark it, please.”
“Yes, Dr Lee. Local fauna activity has been detected, if you wish to observe. Biosign monitoring indicates your presence is unlikely to have been noticed.”
“I’ve got time for it. Suit, record.”
Jingru peeked out from the bushes as a herd of chubby isopod-like creatures scurried past. Some of the most common fauna present in most of the Reserves on Earth-IX, they were about thirty centimetres tall with shiny, oblong brown-and-yellow bodies ending in two long, reed-like “tails”. The species was entirely herbivorous; its two large pincers were meant for tunnelling and cutting vegetation rather than predation, and its twin tails were highly sensitive antennae rather than stingers. Despite their appearance, they were warm-blooded and had highly efficient respiratory systems, as most of the invertebrate life here did. They chittered among themselves, switching their antennae back and forth to maintain group cohesion as they scuttled on their spindly legs. Jingru knew they were headed for the nearest body of water, to dig in and weather out the storm.
Jingru waited until the isopods had departed from projected sensory range before stepping out. T-11:40. Plenty of time to retrieve the rest of her collectors. Her suit chimed: its sensors had picked up a rapid increase in temperature about a kilometre away, which quickly subsided. She frowned. The collectors had recently been reporting these “flashes”, as she’d called them, at seemingly random times and locations in Reserve-133. She checked her pouch to make sure it was secured, logged her location with the suit and sprinted towards the next collector, her exoskeleton lightening her feet.
She ran almost mechanically; almost two years training with the suit in Beijing, and three years using it on Earth-IX, had familiarised her with its waypoint system. All she had to do was keep the blue indicator on her HUD centred, and she could concentrate on other things. Now, she thought about what she would do next. The other researchers on the planet had reported similar flashes over the past few weeks, and Central had cleared them to investigate. Dr Vijay Menon, her counterpart from Reserve-32, had proposed that these flashes were a cyclical phenomenon that had gone heretofore unobserved in the eleven years that the planet had been under study; they were regular, as opposed to atypical, events. He had suggested investigating subterranean activity, as well as the soil chemistry in areas where flashes had occurred, to see if spontaneous geological processes or chemical reactions had triggered these flashes.
Jingru thought about convening a teleconference with the other researchers, both environmental and economic, after the storm was done. Central would take a while to process this, but it would probably go ahead. She smiled in anticipation, and kept running.
T-10:39. Three down, seven to go. Jingru pocketed the collector, which had been on a small rocky outcrop on a hill overlooking a clump of vine-trees, and informed Aimee. She fired up her manoeuvring cables again. The one on her left anchored her to her current position, while the one on her right arced towards the top of the hill and impacted with a soft chnk, locking itself firmly into the rock. She detached and fired the left cable at a separate anchor point, and once her HUD indicated both were securely in place she began her ascent. Between the suit’s power and the tension on the cables, running up a steep incline was almost as easy as running along a horizontal surface. She sprinted, leaping and swinging over and around the small boulders in her path.
The view was, in her opinion, spectacular. The hill, which she’d previously named “Rocky Hill,” gave her a great vantage point over several kilometres of reserve. The clump of vine-trees below bristled with the larger forms of flying insect, Earth-IX’s analogue to birds. Dense and shady, the trees provided shelter from storms, and collected enough water to serve as watering holes. A bonded pair of hawk-wasps began a circling descent towards the trees, not for predation but for protection. In the distance, several packs of isopods merged into one striped, twitching mass, evidently headed for the same destination; the trees protected all, predator or prey, without prejudice.
There was still no visual evidence of the storm, which was good. The wind had picked up slightly, by a few kilometres per hour, but it was still sunny. Jingru sat down and sipped from her suit’s built-in hydration system, modelled after those used for extra-vehicular activity in space, which not only contained several litres of water, but also recycled every drop of sweat and urine that its wearer excreted through a highly efficient reverse-osmosis system. The suits hadn’t changed much from those issued to the first research teams on Earth-IX, when it was assumed the planet might have been unexpectedly hostile. Since then, Earth-IX might have been deemed near-ideal for terraforming, with an environment that could be adapted for human habitation in a minimally-invasive way, but for scientists like Jingru it would always be a dangerous, if beautiful, world.
Jingru’s HUD chimed again, as various types of insect burst from the top of the tree cluster in clouds. Another flash, and this one had been particularly hot. Her suit indicated that, in less than two seconds, temperatures somewhere in the cluster had hit two hundred degrees Celsius, flash-boiling anything unfortunate enough to be caught within. Jingru looked at her countdown timer. T-10:35. She hadn’t had nearly long enough to rest, but there was work to be done.
“Aimee, send a message to Dr Menon, from Reserve-32. A flash has occurred in my vicinity, and I’m investigating it. Mark the time as of now, and give Central Station my location and intention.” She exhaled slowly through her teeth, and then continued. “Put the Vega Protocol on standby too, please.”
“Yes, Dr Lee. Connecting audiovisual feeds to your designated backup device… done. Preparing hypercomm for automated message… done. Preparing statement of assets… done.”
“Thank you, Aimee. I’m moving out.”
Anchoring her right cable firmly to the top of the hill, she ran for the trees.
Jingru’s helmet switched to low-light mode as she stepped into the cluster of vine-trees. The trees in each cluster were part of a single organism. Somewhere between plant and animal, its flexible, vine-like “trunks” had evolved broad leaves and a responsive, hydraulic system that enabled each trunk to quickly reposition its branches in order to block off almost all the light beneath their canopy. Below, its subterranean root networks stiffened the soil so water would remain close to the surface and not percolate rapidly through to the layers underneath, maximising accessible resources. Water collected in pools where the roots were thick, and it was around one of these pools that Jingru saw what the flash had done.
Gently but firmly swatting aside curious beetles, bumbling flies and the occasional aggressive wasp (whose stingers could never penetrate her armour), Jingru knelt beside the watering hole, where her HUD indicated the flash had occurred. The water level had been significantly reduced to about half the level it was in the other pools. Dead insects drifted on its surface, bodies shredded by the force of the steam expanding from within them. A large water-bug slipped into the water, grabbed hold of the abdomen of a hawk-wasp and sank beneath the surface. The wasp’s head and thorax struggled weakly by the water’s edge; having only been half-caught in the explosion, the wasp had been torn in two, slowly but surely dying. Jingru grasped its head with her right hand and fired a single flechette round into its brain, putting it out of its misery.
Removing a specimen vial and a multitool from her suit, she carefully retrieved several samples from the wasp, slicing them out of its body. The smaller insects, dead and dying, she swept into specimen bags, one for the insects on the water and the other for those on land. She dug samples out of the soil and the watering-hole’s mud and placed them in separate vials, alongside samples of the water itself. The cause of the flash could be revealed by any of these things, she knew; she would bring the samples back, analyse them and pass the findings on to her colleagues. Taking one last look around, she turned to leave for the next collector.
Then, the suit screamed a warning.
Instinctively, she tethered herself to the nearest vine-tree with both cables, pulling herself into the canopy; her body slammed into a thick branch, winding her but doing no serious damage. Her chest ached slightly from the impact, but it was better than being boiled to pieces. The HUD had shown a flash forming right behind her; she’d barely gotten out of its way before it peaked at a hundred degrees, and then subsided. The light was still blinking, though.
“Suit, engage active thermal overlay. Highlight that abnormal heat source!”
Jingru’s HUD briefly flickered as the suit scanned her surroundings for thermal abnormalities. It highlighted a large red spot near the watering hole, where nothing had been visible just seconds before. Through the overlay, whatever it was looked like a swirling, almost spherical cloud of thermal energy about a metre across, invisible to the naked eye but clear as day in thermal. Its temperature fluctuated between 50 to 70 degrees Celsius. Jingru timed the fluctuations and visualised them on the HUD; the average cycle lasted five seconds and followed a predictable, almost-consistent sine-wave pattern. Then, as Jingru watched, the flash began to move.
It circled around, moving in an ever-widening sweep from its original position. Insects scampered out of its path, with those that could not escape in time left writhing from the intense heat. It moved through the vine-trees, and the cluster trembled in pain; Jingru’s tether held her fast, but she nonetheless reached for the trunk to steady herself. The flash stopped once it reached the tree she was on, and then, to her horror, it centred itself within the tree trunk.
Jingru yanked herself to the next tree just as the one she had been tethered to splintered at the base; the suit’s HUD recorded a sub-second increase from 50 to 500 degrees Celsius from within the flash. The vine-trees, whose hydraulic systems relied on significant amounts of pressurised water to operate, were prone to exactly this kind of situation; Jingru had watched collector footage of vine-trees detonating from lightning strikes. Shards of vine-tree embedded themselves in her suit’s outer layer, prevented from going any further by the shear-thickening fluid below. A jagged chunk slammed into the back of her helmet, driving her faceplate into the tree she was on; she could feel a slight sting above her eyebrow where it had impacted the faceplate, but nothing too bad.
The light on her HUD had stopped blinking. The flash seemed to have exhausted itself. She checked the countdown; T-10:18. Jingru was angry, but also curious; as much as whatever this was had gotten the better of her, it was… intriguing. She took a moment to catch her breath, then started to think.
“Aimee, send audiovisual feeds for the last 17 minutes directly to Dr Menon, please. Include both raw and thermal overlay versions. He’s going to want to see this.”
“Yes, Dr Lee. Data transfer in progress… done.”
“Also, visualise the correlation between the number of localised spikes in temperature disregarding lightning strikes, proximity and intensity of storms at or above sub-category level, using collector data.”
“Yes, Dr Lee. One moment… done.”
A three-dimensional visualisation appeared on her HUD. Jingru sucked in a breath through her teeth as she looked at the results; there appeared to be a strong correlation between how often the flashes occurred, and the proximity and strength of Earth-IX’s storms.
“Aimee, first give me a prediction for when the highest number of spikes will occur during this storm, and their approximate location. Then, put in a request for an all-environment research vehicle to Central Station, and have it airdropped outside my house. Finally, drop a message to Dr Menon, ask if he can get here by shuttle in five hours.”
“Yes, Dr Lee. Working… done.”
“Good. Mark the next collector, please. I still have a mission to complete.”
T-5:43. Jingru had retrieved the collectors and now stood over her workbench, making minor repairs to one of them. She hadn’t encountered any more flashes while exploring; several times her HUD had alerted her to the presence of a flash several hundred metres out, but she hadn’t engaged. Central had confirmed the all-environmental research vehicle would be here in under an hour, and it’d be unsafe to investigate further without one. The vehicle, designed to weather hard vacuum, storms and lightning strikes and walk unharmed through wildfires and over volcanic terrain, had supercooled cermet armour and a Faraday mesh. Jingru was reasonably sure these features would prevent the flashes from inflicting any damage or worse, infiltrating it. The folks at Central called it a Tardigrade, owing to its incredible resilience and the multiple, stubby spike-toed legs it could extend to climb nearly-vertical surfaces that its tracks could not. It could be remote-piloted in most environments, but Earth-IX’s storms produced sufficient electromagnetic interference to make this impossible. Jingru would have to pilot it herself.
Captain Nurul Isa, the ranking scientific officer at Central, had called to request a pre-authorisation briefing. She’d sent her the footage of her engagement with the flash, and her theory about the flashes. Her hypothesis was that the combination of the electrical activity of the storms and several of the novel compounds in the soil, which had been found in supernormal amounts in the bodies of the insects she’d sampled, had briefly created a new phenomenon heretofore unknown to human science. It didn’t entirely explain how the flash she’d encountered had seemed to know where she was, but it was certainly worth further study, she’d thought. The Captain agreed, authorized the mission and the Tardigrade, and sent a separate message to Dr Menon asking him to ride along. Dr Menon’s shuttle would be there in less than fifteen minutes.
Jingru sighed. She shut the casing of the collector she’d been working on, sealing it shut from the elements, and placed it on a shelf. She spoke into her jawpiece. “Aimee, ping Maia.”
“Yes, Dr Lee. One moment.”
Her jawpiece clicked, and almost a minute passed before Maia picked up. She sounded sleepy; Jingru remembered what time it was over at Luna, and giggled. “Beb, sorry for waking you up, but it’s important.”
Maia yawned, then said, “Nah, it’s fine. What’s up, sweetie?”
“Remember that theory you had about the compounds? The ones the strategic resource teams found in the soil? I’m about to prove it right. We’ve got clearance from Central; there’s a Tardigrade inbound, and Dr Menon’s coming with me.”
“I hear a ‘but’, Jingru.”
“…but it’s going to be dangerous. I can’t guarantee I’ll come back in one piece.”
She paused. “I don’t know if I should go. On one hand, I’ve got a mission to complete. On the other hand, I have you, and as much as all of us have protocols in place for this exact situation I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to lose us. I can still kill the mission if I submit a risk assessment right now.”
The line was heavy with several seconds of Maia’s breathing, before she responded.
“Look, we’re pioneers. Scientists who’ve left the comforts of Sol to go out, on behalf of humanity, and lead the way. Sometimes it’s dangerous, sometimes it’s tough, but hey. It’s in the job description. It’s a damn sight more exciting than this bloody conference, at any rate.”
Maia chuckled, but Jingru thought she could hear her voice catch slightly. “So get out there, sweetie, and try not to die. I love you.”
“Love you too, beb. I’ll take care.”
Jingru held the line for a while, then put it down.
She could hear the shuttle landing in her front yard. She stepped out of the shed; Dr Menon was clambering out of the sleek, matte-grey shuttle, already in his full suit of field armour. He crossed the yard quickly, and she extended her hand to shake his; he instead reached out for a fist-bump, which she switched into awkwardly.
“I got your message, and I got the Captain’s message too. No worries, mate, I’m just as excited to be here as you are.”
“Dr Menon, please. We’re about to engage with a large number of entities that could potentially kill us. What do you have on them that I don’t yet?”
“Glad you asked. Ariel, send the spacing analysis to Dr Lee.”
Aimee automatically downloaded the file from Dr Menon’s assistant-intelligence, and displayed it on Jingru’s HUD. The file was a two-dimensional, world-map style visualisation of where the flashes had been appearing over the past few weeks, with glowing orange lines connecting them. Jingru noticed the flashes had appeared in clusters that looked rather neat. Within these clusters, there was an almost-natural pattern, something that seemed just to fit.
“Aimee, superimpose the storm patterns over this period onto the visualisation. Show me where the storms originated and the path they took, as well as the projected location of the highest number of temperature spikes using the correlation model developed previously.”
“Yes, Dr Lee. Working… done.”
A series of blue arrows, with a bulbous tail to indicate their origin, appeared on the visualisation, with red spots indicating where the epicentres of flash activity would be resolving briefly afterwards. Jingru gasped; there was a near-exact match, with some slight variance, between the predicted and actual epicentres. Again, the location and end-points of the storm seemed to Jingru to fit. It was uncanny. She shared the file with Dr Menon.
“…well. That’s interesting. Why do they look so neat?”
“I don’t know, Dr Menon, but I think it’s about time we found out. The Tardigrade I’ve requested will be equipped with an array of sensors that should, in aggregate, give us the ability to model every single process that goes on in that mess we’re about to walk into on Central’s systems. We’ll be cut off from our assistant-intelligences and all support from Central, but we’ll just have to survive until we’re out of the interference zone. Fifteen minutes, in and out.”
“I’ve already instructed Ariel to settle my affairs in case we don’t make it. I trust you’ve done the same?”
Jingru nodded. The Vega Protocol was still on standby. Aimee had been backed up to Central, informed that she’d be going into an interference zone, and ordered to trigger the Protocol either after 24 hours had passed or if her suit confirmed her death.
“Right. By the way, Dr Lee, do you have any tea?”
“It’s in the kitchen, by the bread. Please, help yourself; Maia’s bringing more back from Luna.”
Jingru leaned back in the pilot’s harness and felt the automated docking system engage. She shuddered as the blue liquid filled her helmet. Fighting her body’s natural instincts, she breathed in.
Instantly, while still herself, Jingru was also the Tardigrade.
She hadn’t done this for a while, and her body took a minute to acclimatise to the sudden change in perspective. She could see in all directions, hear every sound for kilometres around and taste the wind, temperature and a hundred other environmental metrics, but she could also feel her chest rise and fall with her breath, and her lips move as she confirmed, “Dr Menon, sync is good.”
“Sync’s fine on my end too, Dr Lee. Ready when you are.”
T-4:58. Jingru shifted the Tardigrade into track mode and rolled towards the location of what they’d decided to call the “flashpoint”. The Tardigrade picked up speed and raced along at over a hundred kilometres per hour; while Jingru piloted it, Dr Menon was her backup, controlling and monitoring the sensors in greater detail. The location of the flashpoint had been backed up on the Tardigrade’s internal computer systems, which not only provided mapping support but also hosted the primary copies of Aimee and Ariel. It appeared as a blue arrow in the distance, with a marker indicating how close the Tardigrade was to it. Currently, it was 647 kilometres away; Jingru and Dr Menon would be driving straight into the storm when it hit Reserve-133, but they both knew the Tardigrade could take it.
Jingru watched a flock of large, metallic butterflies turn sharply upwards as the Tardigrade passed beneath them in the opposite direction. Each the size of dinner plates, the butterflies were no doubt headed for the nearest cluster of vine-trees to roost in. One, a straggler hanging below the rest, failed to make the turn in time; it collided with the front of the Tardigrade, disintegrating in an instant across its rostrum. The chemical sensors picked up the iron smell of its blood and the oddly grape-scented powder on its wings as they rolled off the vehicle’s non-stick plating, and Jingru took a deep breath, drawing more air over the sensors. This was the smell of the planet. She felt sorry for the butterfly.
“Almost there, Dr Menon. We are exactly 1.5 kilometres to the flashpoint.”
“Gotcha. I’m looking forward to catching these flashes in the, ahem, flesh. Get up close, figure out what they are. Thermal energy that moves. Really makes you wonder, no?”
“Yes, it does. This could be an entirely new form of life. If we make it out of here, we might even publish a paper,” Jingru noted.
The Tardigrade, in walker mode now, was galloping through the wind and rain. The lightning was intense here; bolts would strike the Tardigrade every three minutes, on average, but the vehicle’s armour easily shrugged them off. The sensors tasted like ozone, dust and high-velocity winds, as expected, but also here and there the odd whiff of iron, sulfur and pure carbon; likely, she thought, because the storm had stirred up buried minerals.
Several flashes had appeared in close proximity to the Tardigrade, but had not approached; the flashes had either drifted away or disappeared. Jingru noted that the flashes all displayed the same initial pattern: a starting temperature of well over a hundred degrees Celsius, followed by a stable cycle that fluctuated between 50 and 70 degrees Celsius for the duration of their existence. This lasted usually about four to nine minutes, after which they faded just as quickly as they had begun. They were unaffected by the wind, and moved in the same peculiar, spiralling pattern she’d observed previously.
“On target in five… four… three… two… folks, we have arrived at our final destination,” Dr Menon crowed. “Immersive recording is now active, all sensory data is being recorded and archived.”
There were still almost ten minutes before the flashes were projected to appear en masse. Jingru sighed and relaxed in her seat. She tuned out the external audio, which had already been reduced to a human-tolerable level. She could see the lightning, the swirling winds and the dust they had kicked up, the sheets of warm, sweet rain, but to her there was now only silence, and the soft hum of the Tardigrade’s internal machinery.
She’d taken Maia out in a Tardigrade before. That had been an assignment to Reserve-198, an area whose star feature was a massive, seventy-metre-deep and crystal-clear lake dotted with thousands of perfectly circular islands, each several tens of metres in length. The reserve’s environmental scientist, Dr Fukui, had requested a second opinion on her findings and Maia, on a scheduled break from her regular work, had insisted on coming along. They’d spent three days underwater, crawling and mapping the lake floor and sampling its inhabitants. Maia had been particularly intrigued by a species of four-armed mollusc that walked the lake floor in a single herd, tens of thousands of individuals strong, snatching up everything in their way. They parted in an orderly fashion as the Tardigrade crossed their path, and remained in almost-military formation even after Jingru had sampled some of their number. She wondered what Maia would have thought about being in the middle of a storm.
Jingru felt the first flashes appear, the temperature rising in sharp bursts all around her. She switched the Tardigrade’s panoramic recording on; it would record and track not only video and audio, but also every variable it was able to detect within 500 metres, in order to facilitate accurate modelling in the future. So far the flashes were appearing in exactly the manner Aimee had predicted: the same vaguely natural pattern, a whorl whose centre they now stood in.
She engaged her thermal overlay. The enhanced visual feeds provided by the Tardigrade enabled her to see them in greater detail than her HUD could. The flashes were swirls of reddish-orange in the false colour, writhing angrily in defiance of the wind. They held their position and watched in silence as the flashes grew in number. The storm was intensifying around them, and Jingru could feel tingling as more lightning rolled off the Tardigrade’s armour. The air took on the pungency of ozone. Dr Menon shifted instinctively in his seat as the ground in front of them cracked from a particularly strong bolt, the damp grass smoking in a spidery pattern.
The flashes began to converge. Jingru took a deep breath as they closed in. Through the overlay, she could see their temperatures pulsing as they drifted serenely towards the Tardigrade. Some took to the air slightly, rising a couple of metres above the ground, while still others seemed to submerge themselves in the earth, leaving grass to boil in their wake. Jingru hoped the armour would hold as the flashes surrounded the Tardigrade, a bubble of scintillating light gently pressing up against its skin. She felt itchy, as if suddenly hundreds of insects had begun crawling all over her body; the Tardigrade’s external temperature was rising, although its insides remained at a comfortable 25 degrees Celsius. The flashes clambered around the Tardigrade, rolling their scorching-hot bodies over its every surface; she could no longer tell where one began and another ended, but she could feel their movements.
They began to iridesce, then. Jingru noticed a slight ringing, despite having muted the audio feeds. The temperatures were now oscillating out of their previous ranges; the flashes were dipping below 50 degrees, hitting subzero temperatures and bouncing right back up to boiling in the space of less than a second. It was as if a rapidly shifting, opalescent cloud had surrounded the Tardigrade. Jingru tried to cut the thermal overlay to dispel the visualisations, but the Tardigrade wasn’t responding. She opened her mouth to call out to Dr Menon, but her lips only twitched in spasmodic intervals. She struggled to squeeze thoughts together, unable to feel anything but a deadened panic. In the seat next to her, Dr Menon had gone entirely still, the only indication that he was still alive being the green light on his helmet.
The iridescence peaked. Jingru managed to force a crackling grunt out, and then her mind faded into the light.
Jingru opened her eyes to find herself underwater. Dr Menon was floating beside her, seemingly naked. Her eyes travelled downwards, but she did not find what she had expected; every detail of his body had been rendered out and replaced with a velvet-like, mahogany bodysuit the same colour as his skin. She looked down at her own and discovered the same suit, this time in her distinctly lighter skin tone. She vaguely wondered if she could breathe, before exhaling a mouthful of sweet glacial water and realising she had been doing it all along.
“Where are we, Dr Menon?” The words came out less as sound, more as echoes; her voice was as clear in her head as if she had spoken on land, but her ears perceived a dampened bubbling. Dr Menon, nevertheless, responded; the words seemed to enter her mind directly.
“You’ll see. Try to move.”
Jingru tried to lift a hand, and then a leg. Both resisted the movement, remaining in place as if tethered by invisible straps. She tried to lean forward, and only got so far before something tugged at her chest. Seat-belts, she realised. This, whatever it was, was still the Tardigrade.
Below them, she could hear a rumbling. A herd of molluscs, the same species she had seen in the lake of Reserve-198, was on the move. Her perspective was forcibly rotated; they were now parallel with the lake bed, watching the four-armed creatures stomp towards their destination.
From up here, the herd looked uncanny. As she tried to figure out why, a grid suddenly appeared in her field of vision. It tracked the movements of the herd, each member fitting perfectly into a single square. Here, she could track the movements of each individual; occasionally members would swap places in the file, creating a small, shifting section of orderly, leg-width movement which reshuffled parts of the herd while keeping its shape. Then, there was a flash in the distance, and the herd stopped. From the direction of the flash, a cascade of shuffling spread throughout the entire herd, and it rotated. Two flashes appeared above the herd and lingered in a holding pattern, temperatures spiking occasionally. These spikes corresponded with spikes in the distant flash.
When the herd had finished rearranging itself, the flashes above it all disappeared. A final spike from the flash in the distance, and the herd began to move again, in its new direction. An image, unbidden, appeared in her mind—a complex series of lines and nodes across a grid, the pattern of the cascade. She felt it etch itself into her memory. The grid burned with a bright, opalescent pattern, her body jerked upright, and the scene, again, changed.
Now, they were exposed in the middle of a storm. It wasn’t the one they were in; it was somewhere else, another Reserve, or perhaps another time. She, again, was anchored to her place, her head the only part she could move. There was sand, nothing but glittering sand, into the distance. The storm threw up lines of sparkling dust, and the rain simply percolated through ground to its destination. Three flashes appeared: one in the distance, spiking repeatedly, and two others drifting in contraposition to the spiralling winds. Jingru could see the grid again, except it was more of a mesh this time, outlined in stark black contrast to the shining sand. It followed the whirling of the storm, the patterns of the wind made visible in black lines, and the new image of a spiral funnel sucked the previous image of the grid into itself, curved it in three dimensions across its webbed surface.
Jingru thought the result looked like planets, or molecules, or perhaps both. She didn’t know what to make of it. It resembled an old vase that had been colonised by brightly-coloured spiders, their webs vibrating at odd intervals and setting the entire structure awobble. The funnel burned itself into her vision, rotating swiftly. Jingru noticed a thin, grey grid crossing the centre of the visualisation, and that the nodes were bobbing in a pattern around each… coordinate? Yes, she thought, they must be coordinates, in three dimensions, and then her body jerked once more and now—
—they were outside her house, on her own front lawn, and several fuzzy, bee-like insects the size of hummingbirds with long, flexible probosces were feeding from her flowers. She recognised them; the hummingbees were friendly, inquisitive and intelligent animals, and occasionally crawled on Maia and her when they were relaxing on the porch. Several new hummingbees arrived, led by an excitable specimen. They hovered on the edge of the porch, breaking into the communicative dance of their species. It was a complex aerial manoeuvre, taking place in a tightly defined area, a ballet of call-and-response. A single flash appeared, spiking just above her house, and the hummingbees began to trace black gridlines in the air with their bodies. The funnel, and the grid within it, retraced itself within the confines of the dance, creating a spherical web traversed by a series of chords. More coordinates?
She raised her voice, shouting at the flash, “What is this? Why are you showing us these things?” The flash made no reply. It drifted closer, stopping right in front of the porch, and dipped into the ground. It spiked, crisping the grass in a neat circle, and lifted off. The hummingbees dispersed, driven off by the heat, but the sphere they had traced in the air remained, etching itself into Jingru’s memories. The house faded away as the Tardigrade was surrounded once again by a bright, white glow, and then darkness.
Bugs. Bugs chirping. Something on my back.
Jingru woke up. She was still synced. The Tardigrade was in one piece, anchored firmly to the ground, and it was covered in small, fuzzy mole-crickets, which had emerged from their burrows after the storm. The chemical sensors picked up a thin, shiny layer of the soil compounds, which clung to the Tardigrade’s armour; this, apparently was what had attracted the mole-crickets, which were busily licking it off.
“Dr Menon? Dr Menon!” She sent a loud feedback screech through the internal comms circuit, which startled him awake.
“Aaahhghhgh. I’m awake, yeah.”
“Glad you’re awake.” She checked the time; they had been out for about six hours since the flashes had done their thing. “Dr Menon, did we get all that?”
“Yeah, mate, every second of it. What was that?”
“Coordinates. A map of some kind, perhaps. I suspect the team at Central will be very interested. Come on,” she said, turning the Tardigrade around, “let’s go home.”
Jingru flopped onto her couch, her freshly-showered body sinking into the cushions. She’d reached home, deactivated the Vega Protocol, sent her immersive recording and report to Central and then staggered into her shower, drained by the day’s work. Dr Menon had added his own recording and report to hers before collapsing into his shuttle; Ariel had activated the autopilot and taken them home. She was now alone, and completely drained. She picked her jawpiece up off the coffee table, where she’d left it before heading into the bathroom. “Aimee, give me a Class 1 secure line to Maia. Authorisation zero-three-five-nine-two-six-eight. I don’t want anyone snooping on us.”
Her jawpiece clicked, and almost immediately she could hear Maia say, “Hey, shweedie, whashup?”
Jingru could hear Maia chew a couple of times before swallowing. “Ah. Sorry, Jingru, that was lunch. I swear, they’ve got the best roast duck here. My presentation’s in two hours, I can’t wait. Glad you’re back, by the way. Knew you’d make it.”
“Oh, beb. Are you somewhere private?”
“Hold on,” Maia said, pushing her chair out. Jingru could hear her clopping footsteps, until she found a quiet corner. “I’m ready, what is it?”
“I think we’ve discovered something big.”
“I’m on a Class 1 secure line, so only the authorised officials will be able to hear this. The flashes showed Dr Menon and me something while we were out there, synced with the Tardigrade. A set of coordinates expressed in the movement of the planet, in its life and its weather. I think Earth-IX isn’t just a planet. It’s a living computer, and everything on it is a calculation. I don’t know if the flashes are sentient, or if they’re just automatons, but they weren’t attacking me; they were trying to communicate.”
“So… intelligent life. You found intelligent life.”
“Maybe not here, but yes. This is evidence that somewhere out there are, or were, species capable of turning a planet into a supercomputer. They wanted someone else to find something, but not until we had the tech to handle it; that’s why the flashes, their communications devices, were designed to kill most living things on contact.”
“This changes everything. Central will debrief me tomorrow, once they’ve had a chance to go through our reports. I’ll keep you updated. Now, get back to your roast duck before anyone starts wondering where you’ve been. Enjoy it for me. Love you!”
“Love you too, sweetie. Bye!”
The call ended with a click. Jingru exhaled, leaned back and closed her eyes. She focused on the pattern she’d seen, the chorded sphere she recalled in perfect clarity. She let it take over her thoughts, the mystery of the pattern sweeping through her mind, and then she let it float away.
Disconnecting her jawpiece, she curled up and closed her eyes, right there on the couch. Rest now, she thought as she drifted off. Things are about to get seriously busy.
“The Awakening of Insects” copyright © 2017 by Bobby Sun
Art copyright © 2017 by Gregory Manchess