The battle for your mind has already begun…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from XX, the debut science fiction novel from Eisner Award-nominated comic artist and graphic designer Rian Hughes—available now from The Overlook Press! You can also join Hughes and prolific comic author Grant Morrison for a virtual book launch event hosted by The Strand on Thursday November 12th.
At Jodrell Bank Observatory in England, a radio telescope has detected a mysterious signal of extraterrestrial origin—a message that may be the first communication from an interstellar civilization. Has humanity made first contact? Is the signal itself a form of alien life? Could it be a threat? If so, how will the people of Earth respond?
Jack Fenwick, artificial intelligence expert, believes that he and his associates at tech startup Intelligencia can interpret the message and find a way to step into the realm the signal encodes. What they find is a complex alien network beyond anything mankind has imagined.
Drawing on Dada, punk, and the modernist movements of the twentieth century, XX is assembled from redacted NASA reports, artwork, magazine articles, secret transcripts, and a novel within a novel. Deconstructing layout and language in order to explore how ideas propagate, acclaimed designer and artist Rian Hughes’s debut novel presents a compelling vision of humanity’s unique place in the universe, and a realistic depiction of what might happen in the wake of the biggest scientific discovery in human history.
382,000 miles away and 2.56 seconds into the past, a telepresence drone followed the loneliest human in the cosmos along a lunar lava tube. Fitted with proximity detectors and programmed to keep a certain distance, it had a small degree of autonomy and provided a stable base for the camera and comms. She had made this trip to and from Daedalus Base many times in the last few months; sections of colour-coded cable, stripped from the outlying mirrors and spliced together every 500 metres, now covered the route like an airport wayfinding system. She was certain her commute to work was unique.
Watching on the monitors at Jodrell Bank, Jack could see the bobbing sweep of Dana Normansson’s helmet light as it flitted from outcrop to floor to boulder. It alighted on an overhang of deeply chiselled rock that Leonie had noticed during a previous excursion. She was now pointing out certain features and discussing them excitedly with another colleague, a vulcanologist Jack had not been introduced to. Another story, he reflected, this one written in stone, detailing the Moon’s geological past; an open book, but only for those who spoke the language of sediment, basalt, and impact stress.
Signs and symbols, and the ability to read them. It always came down to signs and symbols.
Jack adjusted the colour gain and contrast. A short delay, and the picture became incrementally clearer. Best to just trust the automatic systems. The drone followed her progress, up and over boulders, ducking in places where the roof swooped low. They followed the cables, curving along the floor of the tube or looping across gaps, in places hung from the walls by impact brackets, in others crossing empty caverns too big for the lights to fill.
Finally the walls opened up one last time, a curtain parting on a final act, and the drone passed into the chamber in which the spindle had come to rest. Dana thought of this as the liminal space normally hidden from the audience’s view, the stage that can be here, there or anywhere depending on the needs of the story; all it took were gifted actors to spin a convincing semblance of reality within it. Dana wished someone had leaked her the script.
This time an audience had been invited in with her. Since that first trip she had set up the portable night-work floodlights, a small desk beside which was mounted a camera on a tripod, the seismometers, and the data recording station, all just outside the bubble’s perimeter.
The camera now rolled continuously, sending a feed back to Daedalus Base and from there, via Lagrange, to Jodrell Bank. The data station, primarily designed to measure gas and radiation levels in the ambient lunar environment, was not ideally suited for the job to which it had been repurposed. However, it was equipped with infrared and basic organic sensors, and could sniff the extremely attenuated atmosphere and provide running reports.
It was still there, just as Dana had left it. The loops of connecting sinew strung between its curved carapace and the capsule’s interior seemed greyer and stiffer. It turned towards her as she drew closer. Its movements were noticeably slower and more deliberate. A mottled rash had begun climbing the left flank of what she thought of as its face.
Though she had the best exobiologists available advising her, she had no idea what, if any, help she could provide. Food? Medicine? She knew nothing about the creature’s dietary needs. Even if she could step inside the bubble, which might be the only thing protecting it from the near vacuum of the lunar environment, she had no idea what she might do next. The Moon was inhospitable to humans, and there was no reason to think that it, or the Earth-normal atmosphere back at Daedalus for that matter, would be any more welcoming to this creature. She had resigned herself to recording as much as she could in the time they might have left.
She tethered the drone to a leg of the desk. It hovered there like an attentive fairground balloon. The alien shifted. A pallid light could be seen darting around its head. It was aware of her presence.
“Can you move in closer? Give us a better look?” That was Daniel, in her earpiece. “We have someone new here today. Jack Fenwick is going to be observing. He has expertise in data analysis and semiotics. Language. He may have some insights.” The sound quality, as always, was not good. There was a short delay, as of a poor mobile connection.
“Sure. Hi, Jack. Welcome to the zoo.”
Jack looked for a microphone. Daniel pointed to a small foam bud on a stalk. “Hello, Dana. This is, um, incredible. I— I’m happy just to tag along. Daniel’s running the show. So. Carry on. Uhm. Thanks.”
Daniel swung the mic around. “Jack’s been looking at the material you’ve sent, trying to make sense of it. He has full clearance. You can talk to him openly. How do you feel, in yourself? Are you still getting those disorienting headaches?”
“I can deal with them. I don’t think they’re intentional. If it wanted to really harm me, I’m sure it could have done so by now. Right. Word of advance warning. I’m about to take a few, uh, calculated risks. I need to try a few things.”
She stepped closer. The bubble was now just an arm’s reach away. Unclipping a soil sampler from her belt, she extended it before her. “I’m going to probe the field. My previous investigations lead me to think that it’s non-conductive, and that I’ll be protected through my suit.” She seemed to be saying it aloud more to convince herself than assert a fact. Daniel looked around at the faces nearest to him, seeking some kind of confirmation. Shrugs. Gesticulation. “Uh. We think you’ll be OK. Please proceed with caution. You’re a very long way from a hospital.”
She held out the probe, moved forward until the end of it lightly touched the bubble. A refractive shudder of rainbow colours, like petrol on a disturbed puddle, appeared around the contact point, then quickly dissipated. She pushed harder. This time the result was more pronounced. She pushed to the limit of her strength, but the probe would not penetrate the barrier.
She reached out.
She’d already put a gloved hand to the surface before the cautionary message reached her. The same multicoloured light display silhouetted her fingers, and she felt a sensation like a loss of blood circulation, a barely detectable ache.
There was no appreciable give whatsoever. Solid. Impassable.
Jack had an idea. “Can you send the drone around the other side? So the bubble is between you and one of the floodlights?”
“That may be difficult to do for anything but a shallow angle. There’s not a lot of room to manoeuvre down here. I’ll move one of the floods as close to the point where the bubble intersects the far wall as I can, and send the drone around the periphery. Let me know if that works for you.”
She did so. The creature tracked her with a small egg-shaped protuberance as she went.
“OK, stop. Thanks. Perfect. Please press the bubble with the soil probe again. We’ll analyse the light as it passes through.”
“Dana? Did you get that?”
Dana complied. A sparkle of coruscating light again spread from the point of contact, dissipated.
Daniel looked around the room. “Leonie? Atmospherics? Pressure? What can we deduce, if anything?”
A pause, this one not due to signal time lag, then four of those present darted back to their desks. There were a few more moments in which all Jack could hear were keyboard taps. “The floods are not a controlled light source, of course, but making a few educated guesses – refraction suggests high pressure within the bubble. More than one atmosphere. Can’t be precise, but around 1800hPa. That’s one and a half, one-point-seven-five times sea level on Earth.”
“Sounds plausible for a habitable planet with a solid crust and a breathable atmosphere. Anything else?”
Steve/Stephen spoke up. “Using the refractive index, the absorption signature and some very big assumptions, I’d suggest the air inside may be a high nitrogen, oxygen–argon mix. Traces of benzene or arsenic, judging by the colours. Poisonous, for humans. Oxygen too, though nowhere near breathable levels.”
“A life-support system, but not one made for humans.”
“So I don’t want to burst its bubble.”
“No. Do not burst that bubble.”
Dana returned front and centre. Wait. The alien . . . Something was happening.
The section on the top of its snout opened and slid back, again revealing the starfish-like splay of short moist tentacles, much like a pair of hands held wrist to wrist. They unfurled, shook to unstick themselves from one another, and turned first in her direction, and then the drone’s. Centred between the palms was a deep socket, rimmed with short hairs but otherwise vacant. It dilated, closed, opened again.
She checked the drone was functional. Below it dangled two manipu-lating limbs, jointed like human arms, each ending in a three-fingered mechanical hand with an opposable thumb. A small selection of optional attachments – drills, scoops, flashlights, sample bags – were attached to a utility belt around the drone’s midriff, below the suite of cameras, aerials and dishes that clustered at the top like a floral arrangement. Everything was working. All the data was being sent back to Daedalus, encrypted, and from there to the huge radio dish at Jodrell Bank.
“Daniel – I don’t think it has very long left. We’re running out of time here.”
Daniel looked at Jack. “What do you think? Do we risk trying to breach the bubble? Assuming we can?”
Jack held up his hands. “Daniel, this is your call. I’m just the code monkey and language nerd. You people here have been watching this unfold for months. You’re the ones with experience.”
Leonie put her hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “Of this?” Her mouth turned up at one corner. “Not so much.”
Daniel looked around the room, but there was no more advice to be had. “Dana. Our options are limited. We assume the capsule provides life support, but that can’t last indefinitely. We could think about bringing it back to Earth somehow if we could breach the bubble and separate it from the spindle, which is embedded in the rock – that spindle is not going anywhere without heavy lifting equipment. Which we don’t have.”
They could not see Dana’s face, of course, only judge her state of mind from the tone of her voice.
“These are our options. Such as they are.”
It’s not going to leave this cavern, Dana thought. This will be its final resting place, its crypt. And I think it knows this.
“I’m beginning to recognise some of the movements it makes with that fingered thing, the snout. A kind of cupping.”
“Daniel, I’ve been through all this. I simply don’t have enough to decipher what it may be trying to say. We’d need a much bigger data set. We’d need more time.”
“The shifting colours on the carapace . . . I think it’s using multiple channels, and also broadcasting in a manner that the monitors can’t pick up. Not telepathy, nothing like that, but I think it can affect my biorhythms in some subtle way, like it did with the display on the tablet. I think it can skim the surface of my mind, and when I think certain things I can feel a, a restriction in my diaphragm, as if some motor response is not entirely under my body’s control.”
“A yes, no, twenty questions, Daniel?”
“Give me something to go on, guys. Ideas. Anything.”
Jack leaned in to the mic. “Dana – just my guess, but – I think it’s beckoning you towards it.”
There was a sudden explosive decompression. The pressure wave threw Dana hard against the wall of the cavern; her knee bent sideways on impact, pain shot from her ankle. Dust filled the air, cutting her visibility to less than a metre. Even protected inside the suit, her ears had begun to bleed. Her helmet light illuminated a fog of particles and little else. She righted herself. She was deaf and winded, but otherwise unscathed. The suit was unbreached.
On Earth, two-thirds of the screens had gone dark. On them, a small Jodrell Bank logo now spun above a no signal caption.
“I’m here. I’m OK. Knocked the breath out of me, and my ears are ringing, but I’m OK.”
“The barrier dropped.”
“The bubble? The bubble burst? What did you do?”
“Nothing. It did this. By itself.” The dust was beginning to settle in the low gravity and visibility was improving. The drone had been thrown against a sharp stalagmite of crystalline rock and now lay on its side, immobile. The monitoring station had been slammed right back through the cavern entrance and into the tunnel beyond. She could see pieces of her laptop strewn across the ground. The camera now pointed up at the roof, its lens shunted back into its body at an awkward angle, the legs of the tripod buckled beneath it.
“We still have your helm-cam feed. But nothing else. What is your situation?”
“I’m unhurt, but we’ve lost the drone and the cameras. And the monitoring station. If you have the helmet-cam feed, the cables must have held.”
For the first time, Dana could see the spindle clearly, without the distortion of the bubble and the atmosphere it had contained. Its pointed upper section emerged from the pall of disturbed moondust. She stepped forwards.
The creature was in a distressed state. Both of its eyes had burst, and a transparent fluid now dripped down its carapace from the empty sacs. It must have known this act would blind it. Dana unexpectedly felt emotion well up, threaten to overwhelm her. To have come so far . . .
Without thinking of the possible danger to herself, she walked forward, into the volume previously circumscribed by the bubble. Hesitating only momentarily, she held out her hand. The fingerlike protuberances folded around her glove.
In her gut she felt a breathless constriction, as if something older and far larger than her short human existence had suddenly connected with her at an elemental level. Her mind flashed back to the time she first heard Night On Bald Mountain at the Kölner Philharmonie during astronaut training in Germany, and the almost overwhelming wave of emotion she had then felt – not of sadness, or of fear, but an expansive opening up to the numinous and sublime. It was all she could do to prevent her legs from buckling and falling to her knees.
“Dana, can you hear us?”
“I can hear it. It’s talking to me.”
“What’s it saying? Dana?”
“It has a request. It wants to interface directly with my mind.”
“What? Please repeat that?”
“I think it wants to connect with my—”
2.56 seconds later, at Jodrell Bank, Dana’s helmet-cam feed suddenly went dark and her vital signs all dropped to zero.
2.56 seconds earlier, in the caverns of the Moon, the bubble had been restored, with Dana now inside it.
The snout released her gloved hand, tightened into a ball, and opened, fingers outstretched. Dana could see the shimmering field now enveloping her, and through it, distorted as if through a fisheye lens, the smashed drone and the remains of the monitoring station. She brought up her wrist tablet. On it a green circle held, steady.
A breathable atmosphere, more or less. An unbidden thought scooted across her consciousness. For humans.
She suddenly understood what she had to do.
She unclasped her helmet. A warning chirped in her earpiece, but she ignored it. There was a short audible hiss as the pressure inside and outside the suit equalised. She lifted the helmet up, over her head.
The stench stole her breath away. A putrid miasma of broken biology overlaid with a metallic tang she could almost taste in the back of her throat. Heaven knows what kind of organisms I must now be breathing in. She laid her helmet down on the rubble around the spindle’s base. She already knew what was required of her.
The creature was blind. It was now poisoning itself with toxic terrestrial air. She knew that it knew that very soon it would die; but it was grasping the opportunity to make one final gesture.
She knelt down in front of the spindle, brought her face close to the writhing tentacles and the orifice at their centre. She looked down, closed her eyes, and leaned forwards.
Her head was caught and cupped, held gently in a cradle of alien fingers.
She felt the warmth of the touch of a creature from another world, and it simultaneously filled her with an intense sadness and an overwhelming joy that forced the air from her lungs and blurred her vision with tears.
A door opened in her mind to somewhere else, and without hesitation she stepped through.
Excerpted from XX, copyright © 2020 by Rian Hughes.