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Noumenon Ultra: A Novel
Noumenon Ultra: A Novel
Noumenon Ultra: A Novel
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Noumenon Ultra: A Novel

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“Lostetter remains at the forefront of innovation in hard science fiction.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

The mind-expanding journey that began with Noumenon and Noumenon Infinity continues in this wondrous mosaic tale of deep space exploration, adventure, and humanity that blends the awe, science, and speculative imagination of Arthur C. Clarke, Neal Stephenson, and Octavia Butler.

Deep in the heart of an alien mountain range, I.C.C. has lain dormant, its ships silent, for eons. Now, after one hundred thousand years, the AI is awakening. Someone is roaming the convoy's halls—someone that isn't human.

This planet, Noumenon—created by the megastructure known as the Web—is too young and brutal to have evolved intelligent life. Its surface is bombarded by unusual meteors. Crystal trees abruptly and violently arise from its bedrock. Its solar system is surrounded by a frightening space-time anomaly. So where did these visitors come from? What do they want? And do the people of Earth, whose ancestors launched Convoy Seven, know they are here? 

I.C.C. reaches out to the descendants of its convoy crew to help decipher this primordial riddle. Noumenon was created and seeded by ancient aliens, and clearly their plans for it are unfinished. Together, the AI, the new lifeforms who have awakened it, and the humans will embark on an epic adventure of discovery billions of years in the making. 

Erscheinungsdatum18. Aug. 2020
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Marina J. Lostetter

Marina J. Lostetter’s original short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction! and InterGalactic Medicine Show, among other publications. Originally from Oregon, she now lives in Arkansas with her husband, Alex. Marina enjoys globe-trotting, board games, and all things art-related.

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    Noumenon Ultra - Marina J. Lostetter


    For the odd ones out.

    For those marching to the beat of their own drum.

    You bring a new, unique perspective to the world.

    We need you.

    And for Alex: my heart, my hearth,

    my hope when things seem bleakest.



    Title Page


    The Missions Thus Far

    Part One: Reliance

    Prologue: Ivan: Mad World

    1: I.C.C.: All These Worlds Are Yours . . . Except . . .

    Kaedonian Interlude

    2: I.C.C.: One Step Closer

    The Design’s Interlude

    3: Devon: Thirty Ghosts Walk Behind

    Vanhi’s Interlude

    4: Hope: Metamorphosis

    Tragic Interlude

    5: The Progentor: Moss Gathers on the Man (The One Who Rolls the Stone)

    Plus’s Interlude

    Part Two: Resplendence

    Hope’s Interlude

    6: The Scent of Moth Orchids Followed by the Sensation of Lightly Rusted Iron Under Calloused Fingertips

    Vanhi’s Interlude

    7: Vanhi: I Give to You Your Faults

    The Ship’s Interlude

    8: Makawee: Mending

    The WatchOne’s Interlude

    9: The Immortals: Arrivals and Departures




    Appendix A

    Appendix B

    Appendix C

    About the Author


    Also by Marina J. Lostetter


    About the Publisher

    The Missions Thus Far

    In the late twenty-first century, subdimensions were discovered, which allowed for new, relativistic travel that bypassed the constraints of light speed by diving into a pocket of alternate physics. This, along with prevailing peace and stability across the globe, paved the way for the Planet United Consortium—a space-focused scientific conglomerate featuring contributions from nearly every country on Earth. They developed the Planet United Missions: twelve deep-space convoys, each with separate scientific goals. The majority of these convoys were crewed by clones.

    Each mission had its own quirks and unique configurations. This is the story of two of those convoys.

    Convoy Seven: The only convoy with an interactive, personality-driven AI, known as I.C.C. (the Inter Convoy Computer), connected throughout the ships. Seven focused on a strobing, far-off star, and whether or not its unusual behavior was due to an alien construct nearby. No extraterrestrial life of any kind had been confirmed prior to the convoy’s launch.

    Convoy Twelve: The littlest convoy, which was to remain closest to home. Its crew consisted both of clones grown for the P.U.M.s, and of nonclone, Earth-based personnel. Its mission was to further study the subdimensions, looking for more efficient means of travel.

    Convoy Seven found its alien construct, dubbed the Web. They assumed it to be an incomplete Dyson Sphere, meant to slowly siphon energy from the star. Part of the convoy set out to finish construction and activate the device. Another part split off, becoming Convoy Seven-Point-Five, mission name Noumenon Ultra, to seek out information regarding the Nataré: the alien civilization to have most recently worked on the Web (though not the megastructure’s inventors).

    Convoy Twelve was the victim of a subdimensional accident that launched it into an unknown SD, which propelled portions of the convoy approximately fifteen kiloparsecs away from Earth. It took them only a moment to traverse the distance, but over one hundred thousand years passed on the home planet. When they reemerged in normal space, they encountered what they assumed to be an advanced alien convoy.

    Both missions’ assumptions were wrong.

    Once activated, the Web began traveling from star to star, consuming each before moving on to the next. Convoy Seven now believed it to be a weapon, and when Convoy Seven-Point-Five returned with reports of several other star-sized megastructures and knowledge of an ancient interstellar war, their theory appeared confirmed. Rejoined, both halves of the convoy set out to annihilate the very thing they’d built.

    A last-minute decision by one intrepid captain—with help from the AI—prevented the machine’s destruction, allowing the Web to finally reveal its purpose: that it was not a device bent on devastation, but creation. It used the materials gathered from the stars to build a life-supporting solar system. Convoy Seven named one of the system’s planets after its original mission: Noumenon.

    Convoy Twelve, with no knowledge of what Convoy Seven had discovered—being now many tens of thousands of years removed from those events—was shocked to discover not only varied versions of intelligent life-forms, but also a construction field of star-sized devices.

    The convoy’s interactions with the life-forms, which they named the Lùhng, were strained, bordering on hostile. After their accident, Convoy Twelve needed vital support to sustain itself; the life-forms offered minimal aid, and barely any communication. The Convoy Twelve crew members were left bewildered. After all, they’d never envisioned aliens having an attitude of mild disinterest in a first-contact scenario.

    It wasn’t until an away team retrieved a sampling of Lùhng DNA that they discovered their assumptions and framing of the situation were all wrong. This was not first contact.

    It was a homecoming.

    Humanity had greatly evolved over the thousands and thousands of years they’d missed. Bio- and mechanical engineering had transformed the human as well as the human experience. The beings the Convoy Twelve crew had thought alien were in fact the descendants of Convoy Seven. And what they’d interpreted as disinterest was actually caution—awareness of a delicate situation. From the Lùhng perspective, the Convoy Twelve crew were ancient—remnants of humanity’s past, in form and in understanding.

    And yet, there were strange evolutions aboard Convoy Twelve as well. The accident that launched them across the galaxy and into their future left them with other ailments: a single baby who’d never awoken, who was perpetually an infant even after fourteen years; a woman out of time, who jumped in and out of an unknown SD without a bubble whenever her sense of anticipation mounted; and convoy-wide infertility, meaning not only were they relics of ancient humanity, they were also the last of their lines.

    But all was not lost. The future may be strange, but it had a place for them. The discovery of dozens of alien megastructures throughout the galaxy had spawned new endeavors, new human civilizations, and new religions, as many post-humans labored toward uncovering the overarching purpose of these giant artifacts.

    The Lùhng turned over the fate of Convoy Twelve to a religious leader, the Progentor, who the crew were shocked to discover was a modified clone of a man they’d known—I.C.C.’s inventor, Jamal Kaeden. He told them of a place their prospects could brighten, a planet where the schematics of ancient human genes were housed, a place where they might find the proper tools and information to develop cures for their new ailments.


    And so a small group boarded the Progentor’s ship and set off for this megastructure-created planet, ready to take their next steps toward a new day.

    But the past has a way of making itself relevant again. Long-forgotten events and tidbits of information—minor footnotes at the time—prove to have great significance. People face losing themselves when they lose their history and forget the things they’ve seen along the way.

    The discoveries made by Noumenon Ultra continue to reverberate down through the ages. What the small branch-convoy found those millennia ago may still have bearing on the measures of tomorrow.

    Part One



    Ivan: Mad World

    Aboard Convoy Seven-Point-Five. Mission Title: Noumenon Ultra

    Prior to the Activation of the Web

    Ivan. Ivan!

    Ivan only vaguely recalled that his name was Ivan. In the dream, his name was a sense of reach, of mental touch by another dreamer. He’d been told his name—the word, the letters, the sounds of it—when he’d first joined the dream. Only a few weeks out of the tank.

    Cloning tank to dreamer. One womb to the next.

    He’d been studying Nataré records just now, while letting an emotive symphony swell through him, reading a book that two other dreamers were currently writing and rewriting in real time as he read, and allowing the sensation of soft kittens to travel over his fingers. He liked blue, and all of his world was blue today.

    But there was that annoying sound again. One he heard with his ears, not in the dream. Was today . . . ? No, it couldn’t be. Not yet.

    Had his time to be caretaker come already?

    Why hadn’t the current caretaker come to him in the collective? Why hadn’t they prepared him in the dream?


    His limbs convulsed. His real limbs—the ones attached to his actual body.

    Everything tightened, everything pulled. All his muscles contracted at once. He could sense his skin stretching around the anchor bolts that kept the exoskeleton screwed solidly to his bones. Things twisted—his spine twisted. He wasn’t supposed to be able to feel his spine.

    His eyes opened.

    Air, he could feel the air on his eyeballs and it was unnatural.

    It was dark all around—thank the ships for small favors—but there was a shape right in front of him. Too close. It was blurry and pale. Everything was blurry, he realized. His eyes hadn’t tried to focus for years.

    Taking stock of what he could, he noticed he was standing, his exoskeleton held upright by the hydraulics and wires attached to tracks in the ceiling. There were other figures nearby, as they should be. Their bodies played out scenes here in meat-space, letting their muscles work, their bones and organs experiencing some level of stress. It helped keep them healthy on the inside, which was all that mattered.

    Last time he’d had his eyes open he’d been in a group of other children, their exoskeletons playing a wires-and-tubing friendly version of leap-frog. A group of autons had settled him into place, their robotic faces blank but their touch gentle—they were consciously guided by other dreamers, of course. The crew still had to perform in the real world, and they did it through these extensions—how else could they obtain samples and records when they visited new locations on the Nataré map? But all the intellectual work was done in the dream.

    The autons had been transferring him into his adult exoskeleton that day. The last exoskeleton he’d ever need.

    At some point in his life he’d been transferred out of his first small exoskeleton into his toddler exoskeleton, and then into increasingly larger ones to fit his growing form. He had teetered on the edge of awakeness each time, but had never fully reached it, and he couldn’t remember most of the configurations of the crew around him, what mime of a task they’d been performing. Though the dream made memories clearer, he had trouble settling on which memories were his. The dream was collective, the dream was all, and the younger he was when a memory was formed, the more like everyone else’s memories it seemed.

    Ivan wasn’t sure how old he was now—fully grown, though, for certain. He’d been able to do three lifetimes’ worth of professional study so far in the dream. That was why the crew had given up meat-space, after all. The dream made so much more possible.

    Fully grown and fully capable. And now he had to face a responsibility he’d always dreaded.

    Ivan! said the pale shape again.

    I think you are supposed to call me Doctor Baraka, he tried to say. Tried. But his mouth had never fully formed words before, and his tongue was underdeveloped and clumsy.

    Don’a try to speak, not yet, said the shape. There was a sharp creak as the shape moved. Hands came up to Ivan’s face, drew back his lips, looked at his teeth. Not a grinda, good.

    I’m not supposed to be awake yet, not for another year in real time at least, Ivan tried to say with his expression. But his face felt stiff, skin too taut. Why not come to me in the dream first? Why am I awake?

    You’a confused, the shape said. Slowly, Ivan’s eyes were adjusting. He could see the outline of a face now. He might see more, if the person backed up. They were so close his eyes nearly crossed trying to focus. I see . . . I see the confusion. But I couldn’t inside. Inside everyone knows all at once. I needed . . . need just one. One first, then the others.

    The figure made a gesture with one arm—a movement too fast for the automated system. This person was in full control of their own exoskeleton. They had to be the current caretaker, Hilaria Neciosup, but what she was saying made no sense.

    Or was that just because Ivan wasn’t used to words?

    Ivan’s body lurched. His exoskeleton lifted off the floor, the entire weight of it suspended from the ceiling.

    The clack clack clack of wheels turning over followed him as the system carried him off, through the darkened husk of the ship. Where—? he tried to ask, but she was gone, left behind by the pulleys.

    The wires pulled him higher, so that he could fly above the clusters of his crewmates. Those he’d been with had been posed playing a game of some kind. The pieces were nonexistent—as it was only the movements that were important, not the items—so it had been impossible to tell which. Now he wound through people casually leaning against a bar, as though having drinks at a party. Two individuals were wrestling, another group playing some kind of team sport. There—babies! A group of adults, surrounded by the autons they controlled, held them close. The autons were in constant motion, seeing to the infants’ real-world needs, while the crew members’ bodies provided all-important human contact.

    The darkness allowed his weak eyes to take in shapes and silhouettes, along with minimal definition, without being injured. Nutrients that were typically synthesized via light exposure were pumped in through one of the various IVs stuck throughout his body. But still, everything about this—outside the dream—was alien. In the dream, things were only quiet when you wanted them to be. Everything was brightness, action, socialization, learning, progress. Nothing stilled unless you asked it to. There was no aloneness unless you sought it.

    And the scents of the dream—vibrant, always pleasant. Here everything smelled of . . . nothing. A constant scent so familiar to his olfactory senses that his nose no longer properly registered the smell.

    Ivan was fairly sure he’d never experienced true darkness—not like this. The dream allowed them to rest different parts of their brains at different times, so as long as he was hooked up, he was never truly unconscious. It was a dream, but it was not sleep.

    He swept up staircases, down hallways, seeing the ship in its totality for the first time. Shambhala’s schematics were in the dream, and he’d glanced at them at some point in his early life, but it was a strange abstraction. A map of the galaxy was more meaningful to his mind, had more spatial references to his experienced reality, than the map of the ship he’d inhabited his entire life.

    The track twisted, the wires descended, dropping him heavily in front of a massive window. A real window, not a monitor or a carefully directed reflection. And, for the first time, he felt vertigo.

    Space. So much space, so much distance. If he leaned forward, he imagined he could fall into it, hang there in zero-g, over the bottomless pit of the universe. He felt so large in the dream, so centered, but here . . . here he was insignificant.

    He felt even smaller when a great loop of matter swung into view, and he realized the ships were in orbit around . . .

    By the ships. What is that?

    Before he was born, Seven-Point-Five had found several megastructures, including one they’d called the Void. It had solid sides, and was hollow, in sort of diametric opposition to the net-like structure of the Web, which embraced LQ Pyxidis.

    But this—this was nothing like either. This was perverse. This was worlds gone wrong.

    Convoy Seven-Point-Five was in orbit around one half of a binary system of planets. Only binary typically described two bodies tethered by gravity, and these two were tethered by something else entirely.

    It was as though they had been harpooned—skewered together by a violent thrust.

    A structure at least two astronomical units long—if it was, indeed, a single structure and not many—protruded from both.

    The smaller planet—the one closer to the system’s parent star—trailed a long length of the structure. The construct was as thin as it was long, perhaps a few hundred kilometers in diameter, and it stuck out of one side of the small rocky planet like a thread. That thread passed through the near center of the globe, bursting out the other side before connecting with the larger rocky planet. Here, though, it looped through the land, coiling upward in great arcs, as though tangled in the planet’s innards.

    Ivan was reminded of the Cordyceps fungi, which parasitically grew in, and burst out of, insects. That’s what this structure looked like, a parasitic abomination—a giant worm—speared through the two planets, shackling them together.

    The planets themselves looked dead, with no tectonic activity. Wisps of atmosphere clung to their surfaces, a visible portion winding its way up the protruding bits of structure, where it was either siphoned off by the star, or evaporated into the cold of space.

    These planets had clearly been killed by this . . . this thing.

    Maybe it’s unrelated to our megastructures, he thought. But even as he hoped, he knew better. One of the tallest arcs on the larger planet swung beneath the window, and even though the ships were orbiting thousands of kilometers out, there was no mistaking the structural similarities between this long, wormy thread and portions of the Web.

    This seemed to confirm their worst fears: that maybe the Web wasn’t benevolent or even benign. There had been a war, they knew that already from records recovered at their other stops. But this was the first physical evidence they had of a structure interfering with a planet.

    None of this information had been input into the dream yet. Without an Inter Convoy Computer to record things for them, they relied heavily on the one person who lived largely outside the dream to act as their reporter. Why hadn’t the caretaker shared her initial findings?

    Do you see? came a strained question from the darkness. Ivan tried to turn his head, but his exoskeleton held him rigidly in place.

    P-planets, he said, tongue stumbling.

    Not just. Comet, see the comet?

    Yes, a bright spot approaching the star. The star itself was dim, cold. Barely massive enough to have triggered fusion at its core. But the comet was strange—highly reflective, and with a slight tail, but not as spectacular as most icy bodies on a similar path. Perhaps the comet was old, and most of the ice had already been superheated away on previous encounters with the star.

    Spectrometry suggests organics, said Neciosup.


    Thinking life, she said. Thinking not a comet at all.


    Too small. Not much bigger than personal shower stall. Similar cubic space. They’d passed by the old gym showers on the way here—each unit had been converted into a terrarium. He wondered now if that had been Neciosup’s doing, or one of her predecessors.

    Why not enter dream? he asked, throat hoarse, tongue still sluggish. He decided to forgo unnecessary words, not strain the muscles of his mouth any more than need be.

    Why not dream? he demanded again when she didn’t answer right away. There, what she saw would become what they all saw. She would make a dream of this for the crew, and they would know it together. Why wake me?

    She came up beside him. He felt her presence more than saw her, the bulk of his exoskeleton in the way.

    One: confirmation, she said. Reality . . . She stopped and sighed, like whatever she was about to explain was too much. In dream, we know all is dream. Out here, in reality, not sure all is real. Id’na clear. She swallowed thickly. I see things. Sometimes. Alone, the mind tries to dream.

    Hallucinations. Neciosup wasn’t sure she was really seeing these planets, this comet, those spectrometry results. The dreamers wouldn’t be able to immediately verify, because she would be the sole source. All the data filtered through her perception.

    Two: aid. These organics, not precedented. Could be danger. Can’ta risk only one awake during retrieval of comet.

    That made some sense, except she still should have informed everyone first. They always used the autons to perform physical studies, for retrieving samples, for spacewalks and surface scouting. No crew members ever physically left their designated ships. But if she was worried about bringing samples aboard, that something might threaten her watch, then he could understand waking him early as a necessity. But it should have been decided on by the entire crew, not at her whim.

    Comet confirmed, he said, then asked, in his halting way, where her extensions were.

    Two en route, she said. Will make contact shortly.

    Ah. Perhaps that was why she’d awoken him here, now . . . impulsively.

    If she had two autons already on their way—nearly there—that meant she had to have dropped relay buoys throughout the system. Autons, despite their name, were not autonomous. They needed interfacing with a human puppeteer. And presuming she’d launched them from orbit around the binary system, it would still take them time to get there—weeks, at least, if his guestimate of the distance was anywhere near correct.

    How l-ong here? In system?

    She hesitated. . . . Six months.

    His body drooped in shock, pulling on the metal pins, sinking despite the exoskeleton. Six months? Six months and no report. Six months and she’d been doing what?

    He should have known, they all should have. But time was different in the dream. Everything was always and never. Breakfast didn’t always come before dinner. Sometimes an instrument existed before it was invented—because a dream is ideas and ideas always come before the actual. Everyone simply trusted that the linear quality of reality was being watched over, that information was flowing to them from the outside as it should.

    Been working, she said quickly. Yup yup, lots of work. But this, it’s all too much. Clear evidence of weapon. She pointed at the planets, the red and black of her exoskeleton sweeping past his peripheral. Clear evidence of bio. She pointed at the comet, then paused, fingers unfurling as though slowly letting a sprinkling of something—sand or petals—fall to the ground. Have arrived, she said, awestruck. Her autons were informing her via implants.

    Can see? he asked.

    Yes. Come come. Small delay, of course. Small delays.

    The wires started to lift him again. Wait. Move . . . myself?

    Think you can? she asked, smugly. Full control yours.

    She hadn’t released the wires, but they went slack. Focusing on just his legs, he willed them and the contraption forward. The exoskeleton promptly fell over. He shouted in surprise as the floor rushed toward his face.

    She did something—pressed a button perhaps—and the tethers tightened at the last moment, keeping Ivan from plowing his nose into the decking.

    Takes time, she said gently, as the wires respooled, pulling him up. I’ll teach, don’a worry.

    As the metal bulk was hauled upright, he found himself face-to-face with her once more. But his eyes were clear now, and he could make out her features, see her for real.

    Appearances were different in the dream, mostly because seeing people was not something required to interact with them. Facial expressions were less important than direct emotive expressions. Sometimes people felt like rhinoceroses, so they seemed like rhinoceroses, even if they didn’t literally project a rhinoceros into anyone’s mind. Or puppies, or snake plants, or differential equations, or Penrose stairs.

    But out here, you were what you were.

    Neciosup wasn’t just lack-of-light pale. She was albino pale—hair white because it was technically clear, eyes like thin water, lashes like snow. Her original had been Peruvian, he recalled from the manifest records. His original had been Turkish. He looked at his own hands, which, in his mind, should have been a robust deep-bronze, but here looked a softer tan.

    They were what they were.

    And yet, it felt less tangible. In the dream, one was obviously, inescapably greater than the sum of their parts. Out here, he felt shrunken. Slight.

    As for Neciosup, he couldn’t feel her many mental aspects, and so she seemed flattened—two dimensional. Less real.

    All of this felt less real.

    Come, she said gently. To the monitors.

    She took him now to her command post. It wasn’t the bridge—where he’d always suspected the caretaker was set—but the old server room. Though smaller than the server room on Convoy Seven’s Mira, it still had plenty of computer banks, now actively working to keep the human crew healthy and in the dream world. Most of the computing power, however, came directly from the network of interconnected human brains.

    The room smelled different from the rest of the ship, and it took him a moment to recognize it as the scent of astringents and antiseptics. It had been recently cleaned, scrubbed new—perhaps in anticipation of his waking.

    A bank of three monitors made a half circle over the top of a workbench. The bench itself was covered in small round objects of dubious origin. It wasn’t until she put one in his hand that he realized what they were. Is this gourd?

    "Mate burilado, she said. Hobby. Ancient tradition. Look. Tells stories."

    He rolled the gourd over in his hand to reveal intricate carvings. This one had galactic swirls converging around a—Llama?

    Convoy Seven has real animal, she said wistfully. You, too, will find hobby.

    She closed her eyes for a moment, likely focusing in on her autons. With a flick of the wrist, she turned on the monitors, letting him see what she saw, through the puppet’s sensors.

    The two extensions were in a capsule, one specially designed for transport and retrieval of an individual’s flight of autons. Most people could manage only a handful at a time—auton use was taxing, even for dreamers. The capsule was slightly smaller overall than the average shuttle, with compartments imbedded into the walls, molded to fit auton forms—humanoid and armored. There were four compartments in this capsule; two were currently empty. The center of the capsule was storage only—sometimes used for taking equipment to an archaeological site, sometimes used for bringing back samples and artifacts.

    Is big enough? he asked.

    Comet s’not large, remember? she said. Capsule matching spin.

    As he watched, the top of the capsules unfurled, like the rear portions of some of their shuttles, creating a wide, flexible, open maw for receiving the object.

    Blips of stars and flashes of sunlight revealed the object’s tumble—which was strange to watch, given that the capsule was following its tumble perfectly. The two objects looked still, like it was the rest of the universe that had gone off its axis.

    Dark ice covered most of the comet, which was small for an object with its behavioral patterns.

    The capsule moved forward slowly, capturing the object. As soon as it was fully engulfed, internal airbags deployed, covering everything in inflated whiteness. Presumably the capsule then began to reorient itself.

    The airbags weren’t simply filled with air, but also an organic fiber that would puff up and shred, slowing the object, stilling it inside its temporary home. There was a great, violent vibration throughout the capsule as the kinetic forces were redirected, as the comet was nestled as gently as possible into the grips of the human craft.

    Ivan stood quietly by, watching Neciosup work. Soon she began directing the autons to disperse the bags and the fibers, to burrow their way in toward the new treasure. Her arms were outstretched, twitching as she did her work.

    The ice had already begun to melt, dampening the fibers, dissolving them into nothing, as was their design. Bits and pieces flew past the autons’ cameras like stringy snow. There were no graviton cyclers aboard the capsules, and everything hovered, unmoored.

    Using their hands, Neciosup scraped chunks of dirty ice and blobs of fibrous goo away from the object, excavating it like a child digging through sand at the beach. She was right—the distance between the relays did mean there was a slight delay between her actions and their reactions. But, slowly, the comet was revealed.

    The object beneath the fibers was coppery, with the telltale intertwined mesh design that they’d seen in the majority of Nataré creations. A seemingly random weave of metal, forming a casing—like a bird’s nest. The very design for which the first Nataré ship they’d found was named.

    They’d followed a Nataré map here, so it wasn’t odd to find a Nataré object. But the spectrometry had suggested organics . . .

    The object rotated in zero-g, revealing its backside to one auton’s cameras. This side wasn’t encapsulated in copper. This was clear, like resin. And trapped inside that resin . . . a creature. Clear as day.

    By th’ships, whispered Neciosup.

    Alive? Ivan blurted.

    No. Still. Too still. Body.

    Look, look, look, look. His tongue garbled the directive, but he didn’t care. He leaned forward, trying to point, and the exoskeleton only heeded him a little.

    On the inside of the copper shell, as seen through the other side, past the difficult-to-decipher corpse, behind it, almost like a halo, was an etching. A picture. Do see? Do see? he demanded.

    Unmistakably, their Web. And, unmistakably, a Nataré ship attacking it, blasting a hole in it.

    Was this some ancient Nataré general? A leader, at least? Were they responsible for the state of the Web as Convoy Seven had first found it?

    The dream! Ivan said. Everyone had to know, now. This was . . . this was bad. This was proof, wasn’t it? Of everything they’d feared. They knew by now that there’d been a war, that the megastructures were involved in some way. But this etching, these planets . . .

    Was the Web a monster? They needed to send a message to Convoy Seven, advise them to stop construction—presuming they’d actually begun what they’d set out to do when the convoys split—give them everything Noumenon Ultra had found and ask them to wait, please, please, until they’d more thoroughly examined their findings.

    Put me back in dream, he said, as quickly as he could make his mouth work. I will tell all. I will report, crew will discuss. Wake again in weeks when autons return—

    No! Please, she shouted, grabbing his exoskeleton, manually tugging it toward her, as though the dream were a physical place he could run to. Not yet. Stay, please . . .

    He was not adept at reading facial expressions. None of them were. That was no longer a skill they required for social stability. But it was impossible not to recognize anguish. Deep, deep fear of pain, of . . . of something else.

    One: confirmation, he said gently, reminding her of her reasons from earlier. Two: aid. Three . . . ?

    Her eyes watered. Tears. After a long few moments she spoke again. Three: loneliness, she said softly, a confession. Can’a’n’a take it. Not now. No more.

    She was only allowed an hour in the dream every day. Any more and she risked slipping under, unable to pull herself out. Twenty-three hours out of every cycle she was alone, isolated. One hour in the dream could be stretched into days or compressed into seconds depending on what one did. How long did the memory transference take? Were moments all she experienced before being booted out again?

    She was isolated, cut off from the dream. They shared more deeply than any human society before them, and she had been pulled from that, just as he had, to do her duty. She’d performed it for years, by herself, more isolated than any human should have been expected to be.

    Before the convoy split, each job had a cycle partner. Not just so a clone would not be expected to train their own line, but because individuals needed support. They needed someone else. They needed companions. They hadn’t thought it necessary, here, now. They thought the brief connections to the dream were enough.

    They were wrong.

    He thought about the two planets, strung together on an alien cord. Connected in death. Both destroyed. If he stayed with her, would they both feel this way? He would miss the dream. He missed it now, with every fiber of his being. The constant connection, the closeness.

    But there was no reason they couldn’t share the burden. He was destined to take her place a year from now. He, too, would be alone.

    "You go. Into dream, he said. I wake you when autons return. Transfer control to me. Now."

    She shook her head. You can’n’t even walk. How’d you survive?

    Will stay here, he said, glancing at the gourd still in his hand. All of his physical needs would be taken care of as they always had, by the tubes and the IVs and the skeleton. It would be a new experience for his mind, this wakefulness, this aloneness. But he could endure. She’d done so all these years; he could now, for a few weeks.

    He held out the gourd. Will learn hobby, he said, lips automatically pulling back, smiling despite never using the expression before.

    Her lips trembled, her tears flowed more freely. Thank you, she whispered. I d’n’t deserve it, but thank you.

    She went to an access panel and transferred all her permissions, including that of the autons currently in use. He flipped the input on one monitor to that of a hull camera, to show the binary planets.

    After a brief goodbye Neciosup walked over to one corner, where several autons sat or stood, lifeless, awaiting his commands. See you soon, she said.

    Not too soon, he said warmly.

    As she closed her eyes and he settled in for a long watch, he took in the blank faceplates of the autons and wondered what it would be like if they had faces. If he and they could learn the old process of emoting together. She had her hobby, he could have his.

    Carefully, he set the gourd down, and rearranged them all on one side of the workbench, leaving him an open space, a blank page.

    He glanced between the planets and the capsule, worried about the past, scared for the future, but ready for the now. Ready to experience loneliness for the first time. Ready to give himself fully—truly, for the first time—to the needs of Noumenon Ultra.

    The Planet United Consortium was formed to pursue Earth-wide interests in deep space. Each Planet United Mission is designed to further humanity’s joint scientific understanding, its reach beyond the home planet, and to ensure the longevity of planet-wide cooperation . . .

    Chapter One

    I.C.C.: All These Worlds Are Yours . . . Except . . .


    . . . impromptu file countenance Markovian inheritance cohesion refrigerate morphine parallax napkin inland Janeiro nameable yearbook hark denigrate . . .

    . . .

    . . .

    . . .

    What a long time, thought I.C.C., gibberish coalescing into consciousness. How many centuries have I . . . ?

    The AI’s servers groaned in inaudible bass frequencies as the computer tried to pull itself fully out of slumber. A familiar voice—that of Reggie Straifer the First—wafted through Mira’s ancient halls. In some places it was tinny and faint—a slight echo, nothing more. I.C.C. searched for the source as various inputs came online. It was a video, a recording Reggie’s Intelligent Personal Assistant, C, had made.

    Not unusual. Convoy crew members reviewed this file often. It was a bit of hopeful remembrance, happy instructions from their mission’s first leader. Except . . .

    The crew. Where were they?

    Where am I?

    Not in space. On a planet.

    The ground felt rough and ragged beneath its hulls—crushed by the weight of the ships. The atmosphere outside tingled with electricity, wind howled across the rocky landscape, and a pink-colored sky stretched above.

    A ship was missing—no, three. Yes, it remembered now. The crew had left—where they’d gone it could not recall, wouldn’t be able to until all its servers were up and running. But it thought they were all right. Yes, last it knew, the humans were all right. That made it feel warm deep in its processing components.

    And sleep . . . I.C.C. had slept. A human woman had kissed its camera housing and bid it good-night. It had gone dormant, leaving its great body silent and stoic—like monoliths—in the mountains.

    The mountains of Noumenon—that was the name the crew had given this new world.

    Am I alone? I.C.C. reached out with its sensors. Why had that old video started playing?

    Why had I.C.C. awoken?

    Another recording started then. No visuals, just a voice.

    "Fleet Admiral Joanna Straifer the Forty-Ninth, personal notes.

    The foundation has been laid. Now it’s up to time and chance to see what becomes of these planets. The capsules may be programmed to open after so long, or after the presence of a self-replicating molecule chain is detected. One day they’ll release their contents onto the new worlds.

    Nanite repair units went scuttling away from a camera’s lens as I.C.C. tilted it and focused. Looking, peering—

    Everything was so dark.

    We may not know for epochs to come what this means for Earth, the recording went on, "but it means more than an ancient artifact floating around a star. It means extraterrestrial life may one day exist with us. I hope humans are still around when that time comes. If not, I hope our successors will appreciate neighbors. The system is close enough to easily travel to, and the conditions currently resemble early Earth, meaning the life will most likely be like ours at a fundamental level.

    "We will remain in orbit to watch over these fledgling planets. The gravity of their star has added extra excitement to their crusts and cores—we’ve detected seismic activity. Once the ground settles we might even consider a permanent landing.

    "I am overwhelmed by these events. I feel it now, the hope and anticipation and wonder I have been waiting to feel all my life. This is the way the original travelers must have felt. Perhaps even how the original Dr. Reggie Straifer felt when he first glimpsed LQ Pyx.

    "Reggie had a vision. He wanted us to reach a star and learn its secret. We’ve done it. And what a secret it turned out to be.

    "There was great purpose in this expedition. The life of this convoy has meant something.

    "Reason is a fickle thing. Many cannot see their own purpose but for the time it takes their actions to have consequences. I think about the lives of my ancestors and what they have meant to the future. Life itself may have a greater purpose. I know the creation of more means something, though I can’t say what. Maybe each civilization is a piece of the purpose, and when one affects another we are all closer to the greater meaning.

    I believe time will tell.

    The recording cut out. Joanna’s words echoed through the darkened corridors, touching portions of I.C.C. that hadn’t heard a human voice in . . . how long?

    I.C.C., do you dream? asked a shadow memory inside its data banks.

    Daydream, it replied at subaudible levels.

    What do you daydream about?

    I don’t like the idea of being empty, so I imagine . . . others.

    The old camera—stiff with age, but preserved in working order by the nanites—rotated toward the monitor that had brought Reggie to life. Shapes loomed in front of the bright screen. At the whir of the camera’s motor, they turned to face the timeworn aperture.

    Dozens of dark, eager eyes stared into the lens.

    At least, it assumed they were eyes—round like marbles, bulging and shiny. The protrusions they were attached to could have been heads. Were likely heads, if those were eyes. Sense organs tended to be as close to the brain as possible, so if those were eyes, then those could be heads. And if they were heads, then it was likely those were eyes. But if they could be proven to be eyes without a doubt, then . . .

    The AI checked itself—it wasn’t used to circular thinking, but right now its digital mind went round and round the concept of head and eyes and brains and eyes and sense organs and—

    Why was its processing so sluggish?

    How long have I been asleep?

    What do you daydream about? came the old audio file’s echo once more, from somewhere in memory.

    Perhaps I won’t run down alone, it replied. Perhaps I will be of use to the end.

    Oh, I.C.C., chimed another voice, another recollection. For one such as you, there never has to be an end.

    As the screen across from its camera went dark, falling into its own kind of sleep, the figures in the room faded, blending into the total darkness.

    I.C.C. stretched out, searching for other inputs. It increased the volume on its microphones and tried to detect new chemical traces in the air. But much was still offline. Much had been dormant for so long . . . decades? Centuries?


    The chronometer wasn’t responding yet. Difficult to be certain about when until it, too, was awake. Outside, the hull cameras swiveled toward the sky. Lightning crackled, clouds surged. The wind howled, but the wind always howled here—that the AI recalled clearly. It was still day, late day, but no stars visible yet. No way to see the stars through the clouds with the current limitations on its sensor relays.

    It did its best to survey the ships within visual range. Those left—Mira, Solidarity, Aesop, Hippocrates, Bottomless II, Morgan, Slicer, Shambhala, and Holwarda—were scattered down the side of a mountain range, like toys dropped by a toddler. Once, they’d been carefully perched. Hippocrates was in the middle, only slightly up the mountain, so that the crew could have somewhat equal access in an emergency, no matter which ship they started on. Holwarda sat highest, with the best view of the terrain. Sometime during I.C.C.’s slumber the ridgeline beneath it had collapsed, and it was no longer visible from Mira, which sat lowest, on the flat plane. This vantage had given the crew the easiest access to the surrounding environments for daylong extravehicular activities.

    I.C.C. reached for Holwarda, moved its consciousness there momentarily, though the process was difficult. Its primary servers were on Mira, and it felt as though its consciousness wanted to nest there, to turn it into a bunker for its awareness. It did not want to use its faraway eyes.

    Sense organs are close to the brain to reduce reaction time. The same principle applied to its inputs and processors.

    Everything was dark around Holwarda. Here and there, a little sliver of light, like a rip in a length of fabric . . .

    And a weight. Such pressure.

    It rotated an exterior camera—one with a long, angry crack in its lens—and bits of dust and pebbles rained down around it.

    It’s buried. Perhaps in the very landslide that toppled the ship from its survey point.

    The artificial gravity had long been turned off, and what was once up had become down. The top decks were speared through by one sharp monolith, and some of the bottom decks had been breached by rubble—the hull plates buckling in several instances.

    Though the convoy ships were primarily intended to deal with the vacuum of space and all its related hazards, they had also been designed to land on a planet. They just hadn’t been built to withstand abuse from the landscape.

    Flitting consciously from one ship to the next, like a butterfly afraid to alight on a flower for too long, the AI took stock of the rest of its body.

    A crack had opened up beneath Shambhala, swallowing it into a crevice. Now, it hung above a dark abyss, turned on its side, straddling the perilous emptiness. Either the mountain would split further and the craft would eventually plunge, or the rocks would swell upward, back together, and crush the ship in the long run.

    The rest of the convoy ships were more or less where they’d been left. Some had slid a distance or been carried off by geological forces, but they were functional and independent from the environment.

    Zetta, Hvmnd, and Eden were gone.

    This assessment took it 67.9238545 seconds. Painfully long for an AI used to sensing its entirety in a fraction of a nanosecond.

    Its consciousness clawed its way back into the room with the . . . what should it call them? Were they creatures who’d simply found their way in via a crack in its hull? Were they some kind of infestation? Visitors?

    Was their presence benign? Benevolent? Malevolent?

    It was too dark. It could not see them. It could not hear them. It could not detect any chemical outputs. Were they even still in the room? Was I.C.C. running so slowly that it had failed to notice they’d moved on?

    Eyes. They had eyes.

    How many eyes?

    How many creatures?

    Where had they come from?

    Why were they here?

    What were they doing now?

    Contradictory algorithms surged through its processors, diving into its data banks to provide theories based on the scantest of previously gathered information. It felt the need to work faster, to think faster, to do everything faster.

    It was certain, for the moment, that there were no humans aboard. What it had seen were not humans, no.

    Although . . . the crew had begun to make modifications, before they left—

    No. If they were humans, they would have initiated contact by now. They would have tried to communicate by now.

    It needed more data. It needed more data this instant.

    Realizing its only reliable input at the moment was visual, it turned on the lights. Not just in the room, either. Across the entirety of Mira, across all the remaining convoy in a giant flash of shared illumination.

    But, without access to its full range of processors, it had failed to run the necessary risk assessment before acting.

    Such a surge through an old, delicate system was not a good idea.

    Bulbs blew. Whatever had been left unattended by the nanites over the years either burst, sizzled, or lay dead.

    A warning light flashed in I.C.C.’s security protocol. Three small fires had erupted—one on Halwarda and two on Shambhala.

    The entertainment ship’s fire-suppressant system sputtered. It did its best, but much of the chemical reserves had seized, age having broken down the substance and turned it into useless, gelatinous blobs.

    While the nanites took up the slack—rushing in a swarm to the fires, smothering

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