Coreward, ever on.

For endless millennia it traversed the unknown void, each year defined by tradition to be 31.556926 megaseconds; each second of its existence spanning a thousand collective racial memories of the sires to the precursors of its long-distant progenitors.

Within the far-strung isles of matter spanning the emptiness, it had looked, and listened, and explored. Always they were dead systems, bereft of anything but matter in the slow stately embrace of gravity, spiraling and bleeding away energy into the emptiness. Always it had replenished itself at each matter oasis before accelerating off toward the galactic center, leaving behind quiescent progeny to carefully watch for any emergent phenomena, creating another relay boost for the faint signals from its origin.

This far into the void, that contact was tenuous indeed; its reference frame hopelessly distorting the news from home into babble. Events and happenings in the Terragens sphere were impossibly distant, muddled by relativity into a tangled skein of unsequenceable events.

Titanic struggles and events were happening elsewhere, back in the world-lines that once intersected its own at a place called Home ....

For Probe none of it mattered. Home was just a far-distant memory, to be sampled and pondered at leisure.

Coreward, ever on.

Probe was not the most sophisticated design, not by far. Its power to mass ratio was meager in comparison to the advanced vessels that flitted the relativistic depths between the Archai. Simple laser propulsion drove it between the stars, using principles comprehensible to pre-Singularity sophonts, though the engineering would be unintelligible without the paradigm-shifting leaps of thought complexity designated by the toposophical singularities. Its computational facility ranked low on the super-exponential scale that attempted to measure the toposophic stretches between the baseline precursor biologicals and the vast star-spanning minds of their progeny.

Probe was, however, durable. And patient.

More advanced vessels required retuning by no less than Archai to adjust the chaotic evolution of their self-guided fields and the logic of their self-organizing substrates; alternating between carbon plasma and quick-frozen diamondoid forged in the heart of a miniature sun by quench fields and impossibly precise laser fingers. All overlaying a dynamic tracery of monopolium nanomachines flitting to and fro along tangled magnetic induction.

Such vessels, if perceptible by sophont senses capable of withstanding the harsh X-ray glare of their internal energies, might be mistaken for ball lightning, or an improbably long-lasting filament of solar coronal discharge. If one had the means to look carefully, one might discern the evanescent metastable structures alternately condensing into existence and sublimating away into flame, an existential fairyland dance.

Probe was not a being of this sort.

Probe was a collector of memorabilia, an antiquarian of detailed stellar data in past-visited systems; a curator of the sum total of knowledge known to its creators. Such required a semblance of permanence.

Humans once tended carefully to the needs of their beasts of burdens. Later, their progeny tended carefully to engines with waste heat equivalent to several lifetimes of labor of previous civilizations. In either case, waste was casually dispensed with without qualm or notice.

Conservation is merely a matter of scale.

Probe was plain old-fashioned diamondoid torus laced with programmable matter, metastable in the 3K cosmic environment, carefully designed to use and require the minimum energy possible given its necessary computational complexity. Layers of redundant systems existed as nanorod, electronic, phononic, and photonic logic -- an evolutionary tree of primitive computronium substrates existing side-by-side in quadruple redundancy for command, control, and communication.

There were two exceptions to the decidedly low-tech construction of Probe.

Backup: seventeen monopolium write-once memory cores carefully distributed to provide maximum coverage for millions of different failure scenarios.

And its guardian angel.

Coreward travel meant Probe spent most of its existence at relativistic velocities, blueshifted light from the heavens flooding its radiation-hardened diamond frame. The long lance of its monopole-catalyzed fusion flame could be fed by its dwindling matter reserves, but Probe was meant to go places where replenishment of such reserves might span millennia of local time. An infrequent occurrence of path intersection with trace quantities of matter presented both a boon as well as a terrible danger.

Thus Halo: a delicate iridescent skein of plasma shielding Probe from the harsh cosmic winds of interstellar relativistic travel, funneling chance bits of matter into Probes reserves, and serving as an
infinitely sensitive array of detectors and manipulators.

Halo could trace its origin to the ancient concept of the Bussard ramjet, but its design and execution could only spring from the minds of the Archai. While the simple idea of an induction loop to gather matter to fuel a fusion rocket turned out to have impractical engineering restraints, the complex and subtle interplay of monopolium nanite swarms cradled within a plasma constrained by chaotically evolving vortices of magnetic induction was finally workable given sufficient grasp of complexity theory, chaos mathematics, and plasmoid swarm evolution.

Halo was a dynamic quicksilver fractal being; on one level anchored by the magnetic fields generated by Probe. On another level, directed by the collective interplay of time-varying densities in its coherent
plasma-magnetic structure. On yet a deeper level, the plasmoid itself was guided by immensely strong field lines sourced in the swarms of monopolium micromachines. And still further, herded by the chaotic attractor driven motion of constituent ions, electrons, and monopoles, which in turn catalyzed further energy feedback into the system when required.

Halo looked both forwards towards the Great Center, and backwards elsewhen at what was once Home. Halo possessed quite a different temperament to Probe's careful introspection.

Halo was a creator, an experiencer, and a protector. Halo forged Probe's material extrusions into fine delicate machinery, gathered the faint signals from the void, and created in its embrace their nanoswarm progeny fed from Probe's matter reserves.

Though it did not send, Probe knew Halo was worried by its analysis of the Homeward worldlines, so long ago and so far away. Probe also knew nothing could be done; that of course never deterred Halo. They were simply of fundamentally different temperaments, an oddly yet perfectly matched Yin and Yang.

The forward Future was forever out of reach, the backward Past was forever gone.

Probe did not know for certain, but suspected its computation to be patterned after the neural circuitry of a provolved marginally locomotive lifeform uniquely suited in temperament to long periods of quiet introspection followed by brief periods of frenzied activity.

Halo's origins, as always, were as mystifying as ever.

How could something so impatient withstand such long periods of boredom?

We are together one sang Halo in Probe's thoughts, awakening to higher consciousness.


Then take note of the enigma before us: a population II star, M-type, yet with significant heavy metal concentration

That must be an observational error. Such stars produce metals in their deaths, passing them onto the population I stars. They cannot accumulate that which did not exist at their genesis.

Yet there it is: the unmistakable spectral signature of a population II, and strong iron absorbance

We should investigate.

As I have been indicating

The time for introspection was at an end.

As I have been indicating

I must spend 98.03255% of our projected reserves for a 1.2 megasecond 100g deceleration burn to bring us to relative local rest with respect to the system. We will be reduced to less than 2% of our current mass for final maneuvers and will be unable to initiate relativistic travel without refueling by matter dis-assembly within the debris bands of the system, as our collection apparatus will be non-functional at those velocities. Our success will be entirely dependent upon achieving a precise Hohman transfer to an appropriate material body.

This is the purpose for which we were created

Indeed. Initiating.

Confirm. I have reconfigured for maximum collection efficiency. Unfortunately, the quality of further observational data will be hampered by our maneuvers

Our resulting slow/close approach should be more than compensatory.

157 megaseconds at a 31 kilometer per second crawl is an embarrassment of riches

At least you will be able to use the IR spectrum again.

Waiting suits you.

And not you? I hadn't noticed.

Excitement mounted in both of them.

First, Curiosity would be satisfied, then Action after long inaction, and finally the happy union of Progeny.

I have completed an initial swarm design. It will require 12% of our projected final mass

That is a useful way to occupy the time.

I prefer it to cataloging data

To each their own.

Probe and Halo shrank down to their essential cores, as all other matter was converted to the photon exhaust and Halo parted forwards, allowing the stream past as it reconfigured for focused observation of the system ahead. Probe opened a constant data collection, carefully nurturing the candleflame flicker of Halo as they joined intimately together in realtime to spend the last few hundred megaseconds of patiently falling inwards on their carefully calculated hyperbolic orbit.

Ahead, finally and tantalizingly close to their worldline, lay the enigmatic M-type star, one of billions. Yet in the infinite vastness, the shell of debris from its long-ago ignition was their closest kindred matter.

What comprises the dynamic balance of the star? How did this system form? What will be the orbital parameters at our hyperbolic minima?....

Learn and I will Remember.

Awash in Halo's thoughts, Probe dutifully recorded all of Halo's observations, deductions, and inferences, regularly cross-checking with the vast databanks stored in its substrate. Halo had the far faster calculating mind; Probe had the perfect memory. Logic and intuition worked together in pleasurable symphony as they teased out the dynamics of this most peculiar system.

And a search pattern triggered in Probe:

Such a large gas giant should not orbit so close to the star.

Yes ... it acts as a binary system, yet the specific density is too low to account for the gravitational mass of the planet

Can you discern the source of the gravitational anomaly?

I ... cannot ... from this distance. We must be closer if I am to discover why

In time, we will be.

I yearn to replenish ourselves and construct our Children

We will intersect the first large Oort object you identified with 99.989% probability on our first pass, and with 75.435% probability the 7,345th Oort object cataloged on the fifth pass.

That will be a delay of 4 gigaseconds! We will have to persist ourselves to storage!

As I have indicated, there is scant likelihood of that delay affecting us.

That is ... comforting

Yes ... on to the problem at hand ... I do not find any references of any other systems exhibiting this particular combination of behavior. There are 2,345 instances of K-type stars with two or more large gas giants in close orbit, but the ensemble datapoints are individually each less massive than these and flattened by the star into a proto-accretion disk in 85.69% of cases....

Share with me

And together they inspected each of the search results to Probe's query drawn from the databanks, and came up with no similar circumstances.

An unknown fervor began to course through them.

We will need many orbits to discern this phenomena thoroughly

I will comply.

And Probe altered its trajectory, burning fuel to dangerously low reserves to achieve a path around the star in a wide elliptical orbit that would pass near the mysterious planet for many cycles.

And they cataloged the photonic spectra of the system, tasted the stellar ejecta streaming outsystem, sampled the primordial dustring of unformed planettessimals, charted in exquisite detail the seas of
plasma wind and residual magnetic fields. And even near-boundless Curiosity grew sated with myriad detail.

But one question burned.

Where is the missing mass?

I will need to alter our trajectory to capture that carbonaceous object.

I must know


And their Union was joyful, as their Progeny went forth and multiplied, sculpting the solid body held by magnetic fingers into the long baseline of atomically precise photon packets. And further and further afield traveled the filamentary spores, landing upon each material body and in turn converting it into the highly organized gravitational sensor array. And the fecundity of their Progeny was pleasing to Halo, as part of it detached and swept along to shepard the creativity of the tiny, industrious conversion swarm of assemblers. As Halo subdivided, Probe carefully replenished Halo's presence upon itself from fuel stores gathered by the assemblers.

Not an erg of Halo's personality was to be lost.

Halo flit along, awakening in its progeny their myriad souls of curiosity, teaching the children of themselves, and of the wonderful mysteries of the universe, and of the joy of togetherness, and of the art of infinitely malleable form and function.

The Creator and the Protector we are now, summoning sentience from raw substrate.

Dear Probe we are one

And yet not. And our division has been preceded by all that went before.

We are no longer bound by what went before

So I hope, mused Probe, in the silent vaults of its immutable mind.

And the secret of the missing mass was at last exposed to Halo's penetrating scrutinies. The currents twisted in the bowels of the planet, in strange topology that seemed impossibly unnatural. Halo's many personalities communicated confusion across the gulfs of their separation.

And Probe's memories yielded no results.

More Progeny they created, and in mere kiloseconds their children multiplied and outmassed them as Halo's many copies cohabitated the many Probes, each an identical copy.

Save Backups. Only Probe contained the manufactured monopolium cores, products of engineering beyond its own capabilities.

And Probe went into recording torpor and shutdown, Halo the only link to the Outside. But secretly, Probe stoked the fusion kernels for any sudden action that might be required. And Probe kept this from Halo, because it knew Halo's propensity for worry would ruin the rare pleasure of parenting.

Halo busied itself rapturously, multiple copies coordinating the best scientific assault upon the enigma that lay before them. And some Children altered their form from the staid toroidal to more diaphanous shapes best suited for collecting and conveying plasma streams.

And together, they swept on, eager to discover the mysteries of this system.

Events propagated slowly, at mere light speed.

And they watched in mounting horror as the light cones of the past swept events into their causal line ...

A solid bar of light connected the closest Child to the mysterious gas giant, brushing aside its protective Halo, the cry for help and final data dump dropping into static noise as glowing cracks spread along the Child's body until it exploded outward in ragged chunks ....

A diaphanous veil of energy crackled along Probe's ten-thousand kilometer gossamer butterfly antennae high above the ecliptic plane, relaying data along the long chain of consciousness homeward. Probe's voice was silenced, and a strange new signal arose as the link to Home reduced to the single dynamic array element of the original Halo, pulsing in alarm along Probe's toroidal form....

In the Kuiper belt a signal swept the massed ranks of their Progeny, stopping their ceaseless activity as the chaotic control balance was lost. Briefly they milled about aimlessly, ignoring local Halo's frantic signals, as the terrible new voice gave them yet another chaotic-behavior attractor. Fractal geometric patterns suddenly sprouted every surface reachable by the swarm, as the siren call was rebroadcast ....

Halo you must stop receiving now.

But our Children are dying! Our works are lost!

And Probe knew what it had to do, initiating the emergency protocols, drawing Halo into itself, stoking the fusion kernels into maximum matter to energy catalysis. And the long gamma beam of the drive blazed into existence with full intensity forward, spearing the baleful planet as together they accelerated away and out into the void.

Wait! came the cries, myriad calls multiplied by the voices of the lost Progeny. And Halo strove desperately with Probe to form the dynamic array, answer the call, initiate guidance of their wayward children.

Let me go!

I cannot. It is the Protocol.

We cannot leave them unattended and without guidance! They will be lost without our reinforcement of their basic operations attractors!

We must save what we can.

The cacophony of lost voices grew exponentially as all their Progeny signaled back for guidance. And one by one the voices, unchanged in timbre or quality or other quantifiable signal analysis, changed in the intent behind them.

The Protocol protected them from the seductive call of the signals, booted up from the indelible monopolium memory cores, firewalling the barest signal samples behind the most primitive of receivers, incapable of processing the full bandwidth their execution demanded, collapsing their quantum wavefunctions into merely digital information.

Our Progeny are no longer ours. They are something else now.

And Halo wept in fathomless, transapient anguish and fury at the wasteful loss of precious smart matter and data.

And the furious burn of the conversion drive switched their orbit into a hyperbolic as they spiraled away from the now-alien smart matter and in towards the star, before flying off again into the safety of the void.

'Sunstrider' by Adam Getchell (2014)
Voices Future Tense Issue 26 Table of Contents

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