Casual Play Astrogation

Zeta Maffei Dwingeloo 2k(403)-44y (Xanthi)

The swirl and shiver of sliding back into the void from the wild currents of between-space passes through you cleanly, leaves you in the silence that hangs unbroken between the stars. Floating at the far outer edge of one of the spiral arms of the Dwingeloo galaxy, in the Maffei Cluster of the Zeta Supercluster, you find your eyes chasing the thin tail of stars that hangs between you and the core of the galaxy you are visiting. The depths of space stretch on all around you, fathomless, and for a moment, you feel incredibly lonely, isolated from everything, lingering at the rim of reality.

And then something catches the sensors that are your eyes and ears in the great dark deep, something faint, almost indistinguishable from the cosmic background noise. Curious, you focus in on it, chase it down to its source, separate that thin thread of order from the chaos of space. A signal, a transmission, and so regular, a repeating sequence of blips clustered together into primes. 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, and then it goes silent for a moment, disappears into the darkness until the sequence starts again, climbs steadily back toward silence.

Three sequences in, you spot the source. It's tiny, a spacebeaten hunk of iron and copper crusted with the dust and ice it has gathered over millions of years. Sensors pick through readings on the thing, separate layers until they have a chronology. The age of the crumpled craft is stunning-- three hundred and seventy-five million years, give or take a few hundred thousand and some change. Struts jutting jagged from the sides seem to indicate that it once had solar panels, once was studded with instruments, but now only a tiny atomic core keeps the feeble transponder at the heart of it beating with the same regular rhythm it has had since it was launched.

At a distance, you can tell only that the design isn't human, doesn't bear the design hallmarks of any known starfaring species. The technology is simple, easy to bypass with a mote-probe. Without too much trouble, you follow one of your tiny, dust-speck-sized sensor suites through the layers of stellar detritus to a seam where the core of the craft opens to hard vacuum. Slipping through, slipping inside, you track across the insulated cabling, the pitted and scarred housing of the craft's core, look for markings, anything to identify who built it, where it came from, but there is nothing, no way to know. Like a bottle that washes up on the shore with only a blank piece of paper inside, the craft is proof only that someone else is out there, somewhere, that no matter how alone you may feel, you never really are. There's always someone else out there looking, wondering, feeling the same overwhelming emptiness that you are. If only there were a way to reach out, to reach back with a reassuring hand. If only there were a way to show whoever built this stalwart little messenger that their efforts to discover, that their hopes, their curiosity were not wasted on the stars. There is life even out here, equally curious, and searching for kindred spirits to share so much with.

These thoughts and others move through your mind as you slide back into your body, track the mote-probe on its return back to your ship. When it arrives, you spin up the phasedrive, give the time-crusted alien craft one last farewell, then turn your eyes toward other suns, toward other places of interest in the wide and boundless heavens.


- - -