In that moment, if someone had asked Molly how she knew there was another set of organisms, two more vessels full of beings she’d call people to be exact, she wouldn’t have been able to say exactly how.
Of course, no one asked, because aside from Manifold, they were all experiencing senses that they could not describe. They’d accepted them from Phage, and it had been coaching them how to use them.
What she did know was that if she stared in their general direction long enough, she could feel them there, home in on them, and visualize them in great detail, mostly abstract details like hull composition, mass, number of electromagnetic fields, relative velocities, flow of heat, etc. But as she paid attention to those details a vision of them formed in her mind.
She could not read their thoughts or glean their intentions. But the fact that they had embedded their vessels in layers of rock and dust, making them resemble nearby asteroids, and seemed to have all of their non-essential systems powered down, did not speak well for them in her mind.
There were organic compounds aboard their vessels, and most of them were surrounded by weak and quickly fluctuating electromagnetic fields. People with some sort of intention that necessitated hiding.
The little asteroid miners that seemed to be working with the gas giants (as she’d started calling them in her head) were not organic. They would have appeared to be uninhabited ships to most people, except that their computer systems or networks or electronics, or whatever they called them, had wildly fluctuating electromagnetic fields, too. More complex than one would expect for simple algorithms. And, the Light had called them a set of organisms. Molly assumed she could call them people, too.
And the asteroid miners were swarming the asteroids and the edge of their movements were getting closer and closer to the two hidden vessels.
Molly marked the two false asteroids with orange points of light. And then she started writing what she saw of them to a file to be displayed to the right of everything, along with all the new data.
She wasn’t very quick or thorough with her writing, even on the Network, but she did her best to summarize it.
She turned to the crew of Anchor and said, “I’m pretty sure that by the time our message reaches them, they will have met. I think that even if we jump there, they’ll have already met. And I personally don’t want to risk what might happen to Anchor if we do. But I think it’s an ambush.”
In Susan and Lesley’s language, ‘ambush’ was used to describe something that humans might do. In Inmararräo, the word almost always referred to something fauna did to each other. Animals. Ktletaccete might maliciously surprise another ktleteccete on the Sunspot, but they didn’t ambush each other. So, it felt weird to Molly to use the word, but it was absolutely appropriate for what she pictured happening.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“I think we should send the message as if you didn’t see anything,” Susan answered fairly quickly. “It’s what we were about to do, and if it happens to arrive before anything happens, it might scare the ambushers away. But, it also won’t necessarily tip our hand that we’ve seen them.”
“I’ll second that,” Manifold said.
“Efficient,” said the Light.
“OK, let’s vote,” Molly said.
Everyone said ‘aye’.
Molly curtly nodded and said, “Sent.” And she sent the message that Manifold had suggested, word for word, in the Light’s language.
“We are ambush predators,” the Collective said. “And we are prayed on by ambush predators. Let us help.”
“Chime in with anything you have to add at any time,” Susan told them. “Thank you!”
“Hmm…” rumbled Phage.
“What?” Susan asked.
“Think,” the Chief of Monsters said. “If Molly had inserted herself into a conflict between countries on your home world instead of picking up you and Lesley, what would have happened?”
Both Lesley and Susan visibly slumped.
Susan put her forehead in both of her hands and said, “Shit, you’re right.”
Lesley looked up from her seat and said, “But, so are we really just going to sit out here and watch as violence occurs in front of us?”
Molly sighed. She really wanted to intervene, but she’d just told them it was probably hopeless, and she reiterated, “They’re thirty-two light minutes away. Even by jump speeds, the violence might already be happening. And our ship is too fragile for violence.”
Lesley got a truly horrified look on her face and asked in a haunted tone, “What would happen if we jumped through one of their ships?”
“Destruction of their vessel,” the Light responded, while nearly everyone else mirrored Lesley’s horrified look back at her.
“Assuming we can target them like that,” Manifold added.
“Yeah,” Lesley muttered. “I’m asking about the danger of jumping through someone we want to be friends with as much as anything.”
“The ambushers are outnumbered,” the Collective pointed out. “They will strike the weakest vessel at the most opportune moment, and then leave as quickly as they can. If they have such an opportunity. Attacks do not always present themselves.”
“OK, so the best thing for us to do is wait for a response to our message,” Susan grumbled.
“Yes. That’s what I think,” Molly said, and then turned back to watch the ambushers as closely as she could.
“I expect,” Manifold said, “that if they are all capable of interstellar travel, let alone interplanetary travel, then they can do the math well enough to understand why we didn’t intervene when the time comes.”
It was a nice thought, but Molly was starting to feel cynical about other people’s reasoning and intentions. At least, for people she didn’t know.
She’d just made new friends on a planet only to be threatened by a fission bomb for the effort, and now she’d left that system to whitness an ambush in action. Was this just what life was like?
At least the Light of Anchor, and by extension the Light of the Abyss, didn’t seem to have any intentions of purposefully harming anyone. She wondered what kind of path of evolution would create a being that developed interstellar travel seemingly for the sole purpose of making relationships between other lifeforms “more efficient”. Of course, evolution didn’t really work that way, and probably not the motivation to take to the stars. But it sure seemed like it had in the case of the Light.
As she watched the asteroid miners expanding outward toward the ambushers, she thought about what she knew of slime molds, since the Light seemed to resemble them.
Those that were visible to the unaided eye were able to create large networks of cytoplasm, seeking out nutrients and ferrying them to the rest of the organism. And they were able to adjust their pathways over time to cut down on wasted energy. It often seemed like that’s all they did, unless you paid close attention to their full life cycles.
But could something that simple translate to a being as large and as complex as the Light after millions of years of evolution? It really wasn’t Molly’s Art to be able to figure that out, but she did feel a thrill of endorphins at the thought that she was bearing witness to it herself.
Endorphins that were squelched, or rather coopted, by the realization that she could trace the path that a single asteroid miner was taking to just the right spot for an ambush, and the fear and worry that accompanied that.
“Manifold, zoom in on this one,” Molly said, highlighting the target in blue.
A new viewscreen appeared in empty space with a clear visual of the spacecraft. Just like the vehicle that had left the gas giants’ space station, it looked like a sparkly black cluster of bubbles. It was not riding the fire of a fusion torch, apparently coasting and maneuvering ever so slightly on its ion thrusters.
“I’m guessing about sixteen minutes until the trap is sprung,” Molly said. “And 23 minutes until our signal reaches the station, a little more before it reaches this ship.”
“Shit,” Susan hissed.
“What would happen,” Lesley asked, “if we jumped through a star?”
“A very long trail of plasma,” Manifold said. “And not much else, actually.”
“A black hole.”
“We become part of the black hole.”
“Or something weirder that we still wouldn’t be able to report to anyone about.”
“Yeah, that makes sense.”
“Sorry. I’m fixating on something other than that,” Lesley pointed at the screen.
“It’s understandable,” Manifold said.
Molly found herself fixating on the idea that maybe she could somehow use her new abilities to warn the asteroid miner. But she’d have to violate spacetime and the speed of light to do it. Her personal senses were synced up almost perfectly with the visuals from the telescope. She wasn’t detecting anything happening before the photons reached her. But, if Phage had used its knowledge and awareness of reality to help the Artists of the Sunspot design a warp drive, maybe, just maybe she could somehow use the same forces as a warp drive to effectively reach back in time and do something.
Something such as to cause a part to fail in a weird entropic way. Or to flip the right combination of q-bits in their ship’s processors to trip an alert. Or something.
But she couldn’t get a handle on anything and it wasn’t working.
All she could do was watch with the others as the asteroid miners came ever so much closer to the trap.
There was an enticing looking rock they were orbiting toward. And that rock was just on the other side of what she thought of as the strike zone.
And just as the asteroid miners reached that spot, Molly hissed. Long and hard, her mind completely occupied with the sound and effort of it. It was like the hiss itself could stop it from happening. Or at least stop her from seeing it happen.
“Oh my god,” someone said.
And the miners continued on toward their rock.
And for several seconds nothing happened.
Then, the two asteroids that Molly had marked began to crumble. Rocks and dust started to rise off their surfaces.
One of them changed its rotation and jerked in an odd direction, little bursts of propellant shooting away from it here and there, sending debris everywhere.
The other one didn’t move at all.
“Too easy,” Phage smirked.
Everyone looked at it.
“I thought you said something about interfering,” Susan said.
“I said, if I recall correctly,” Phage replied, “that I would not leave this ship unless I was in your presence. And that you should imagine what would happen if Molly had interfered with a conflict on your planet. And I have done nothing contrary to those two statements. In fact, I may have done nothing at all.”
“What did you mean by ‘too easy’, then?”
Phage shrugged and grinned. Then it pointed at the screen and said, “Watch. Equipment failure can happen at such inopportune moments.”
“How did you violate space/time to do that?” Molly asked, watching the ambush ships flounder.
“Did I?” Phage asked.
“I think you did. And I want to learn,” she said.
The one that had started rotating was nearly facing the other way when it suddenly seemed to implode, taking most of its camouflage coating with it. The rest of the debris was extremely agitated in its wake.
“They jumped away,” Phage said. “Now, it’s the other one’s turn.”
Meanwhile, the asteroid miner altered course. Instead of trying to match the orbit of its target rock, it veered to the side and accelerated, to get away from the shenanigans that were now happening behind it.
At this point, there seemed to be plenty of time for the involved parties to make their decisions. And it sure did take a while before anything significant happened.
Eventually, the remaining ambush ship managed to do something that forcibly expelled its coating definitively. Probably the mechanism that had failed before.
In the expanding cloud of rock and dust, there was an angular, dull surfaced irregular polyhedron of a vessel with very few protuberances. It didn’t really resemble anything Molly had seen before. It wasn’t sleek by her sensibilities, but rather brutish looking. And it fired some attitude jets until it was facing its preferred direction.
And then it jumped, too.
The visual effect of its warp drive resembled that of the Light of the Abyss’. And without anything that looked like warp drive pods, Molly strongly suspected it was a very different technology.
“Welp,” Manifold said. “About another half hour until we might get a response to our greetings.”
And they all found themselves just waiting and looking at everything. All the green and purple blips, which were all in the act of moving but didn’t really look like it because scales of orbital dimensions were like that. All the data they were collecting and had set to display off to the side. Various odd notes from the Light as it shared what it was working on.
“I have to admit, I’m feeling really discouraged that there’s violence out here amongst interstellar people,” Lesley said eventually. “I’m not sure what I really expected, but I hoped it wouldn’t be a thing.”
“Right?” Susan said.
“Some organisms perceive it as more efficient,” the Light of Anchor said. “Some see no choice.”
“I’m having a hard time seeing how attacking a mining ship is more efficient than mining an asteroid yourself, when you’ve got technology like… all that,” Lesley said, gesturing in the direction of the event.
“Maybe the other guy makes a better mining laser than you do,” Susan said. “I don’t know. Were they maybe desperate for something? Trying to send a message? What? I guess some people just grow up to be like humans, huh?”
“Life is life,” said the Collective. “Predation happens.”
Susan yanked herself around in her chair to stare at it and said, “Really?”
“We did just watch it happen,” Manifold said.
“Yes, but did we really have to?”
Molly narrowed her eyes and stared at the hull of Anchor for a bit, then said, “I’m with the humans on this. I feel like what we saw was something that didn’t have to happen.”
“Now, hold on,” Susan said. “I’m not sure I believe that so much as wish that were true. I mean, some people say that in an infinite universe, everything is possible and maybe even likely. There could be an evil galactic empire out there waiting to be toppled by the son of a printer with a magic sword made out of neutronium.”
“I don’t think so,” Manifold said.
“You have warp drive, and Phage just gave us all magic powers,” Susan said. “I’m not ruling out a neutronium sword, or a galactic empire.”
“A neutronium sword would kill the wielder,” Manifold said.
Susan just raised her eyebrows at it and tilted her head down to look through them. Some kind of expression of incredulity or a dare or something, from what Molly had seen.
Manifold stared back, obviously confused.
“Well, anyway,” Susan said. “That kind of guerilla tactics has historically been used by the underdogs in most societies on my planet. It might have been the only way for them to get food for all I know. And as much as I hate to see the violence, I’m not interested in policing it, myself. It’s not my job. Not until I get the full story, anyway.”
“That is the crux of it, isn’t it,” Manifold agreed. “We don’t have the full story yet, and may never have it.”
“Inefficiencies,” said the Light.
Susan gestured at it, and shrugged.
For all this conversation, Molly’s mind was still on what Phage had apparently done, and figuring out how to do it. She was having trouble focusing on anything else.
She hadn’t seen or sensed anything that might have indicated Phage’s action the whole time she’d been focused on the ambushers.
But, of course, she also hadn’t really sensed anything more or different about Anchor’s jump after receiving Phage’s gift. She’d been able to track the distance of that one star, and a few others around it, but she hadn’t necessarily sensed the flowing of energy throughout Anchor nor anything to do with the gravitational fields they’d generated or relativity or anything like that.
And that lack of a sense was probably some combination of just being so new to it and also maybe being specialized somehow, like Phage had speculated.
“So, when I researched asteroid mining,” Susan was saying, “no scientist really ever thought it was feasible or cost effective. The resources needed to get to them outweighed the returns.”
“Isn’t that if your base of operations is a planet, though?” Lesley asked.
“To borrow a word from the Light, I think it also has something to do with the efficiency of your technology,” Manifold said.
“Affirmative,” said the Light.
Molly was convinced Phage had done something, though. Its smugness and coyness really felt like signals from it that it had acted and that there was something to learn there. She really wished that it would be straightforward about it, though.
She didn’t remember it being like this in any of the stories she’d read. Except for maybe when it talked to Morde. But even then, it had shifted between saying unexpected things and honest candor, and never really outright lied. Did being around a different set of beings bring something out in it? Or was it really a different being now than what it had been on the Sunspot? Or were she and Susan just reading too much into its behavior?
Or had the writers of those stories misrepresented it?
“Do you want me to explain what happened, Molly?” Phage asked.
Susan perked up and said, “Well, I sure would! Remember our discussion, Phage?”
“Yes, I’m sorry,” it said. “I’ll try to be less evasive in the future.”
“What happened?” Molly asked.
“I sensed almost everything you all picked up, but faster,” it explained. “Remember, I have had over a hundred millenia more practice than you, and I have had these senses since I can remember. I ascertained what was about to happen and acted all before you read how far away they were. I did not need to violate space/time, or warp it, to do this.”
“What about others like you who might have interfered?” Susan asked.
“I took the action I did, causing their camouflage release mechanisms to fail, because it was subtle enough it might go unnoticed,” Phage replied. “It also just took a quick little push on my part. It was a risk, but I’m pretty sure my counterparts in this system will be aligned with the people established here, not the ambushers. If there are any here.”
“Huh,” Susan grunted.
“But, so, we can sense you pretty strongly,” Lesley said. “Can you sense whether or not others are here?”
“I don’t know,” Phage admitted. “Your family were the first I’ve ever encountered, and they took me by surprise.”
“So, we could still be struck down for your action, and you might not see it coming,” Susan concluded.
“That might be true,” Phage said. “I suggest that you do what I am doing and loudly revoking consent to be harmed or interfered with by anyone here.”
Molly was very interested in that so she asked, “How?”
Phage looked at her, “You know when you’re having a nightmare where you’re being chased by a predator of some sort? Have you ever had that nightmare?”
“Yes,” she said. “When I was very young.”
“Did you ever turn to face that beast to tell it ‘no!’?”
“Yes,” she said. “Manifold told me that doing that was the way to stop the nightmare from happening anymore.”
Both Susan and Lesley were nodding, indicating they’d had similar dreams and experiences.
“That feeling, that force of will that you mustered to drive the beast away just before you actually shouted ‘no’ is how you communicate that boundary now,” Phage said with a wan smile. “You can even use it on me if you don’t like what I’m doing. In fact, we should probably practice that sometime. Now, if any of you’d like.”
“You’ve had nightmares?” Lesley asked.
“I’ve been nightmares,” Phage replied.
Was that what it had done to get locked away in the Engine Room of the Sunspot? Molly wondered. But she didn’t have time to ask.
“We have a reply,” the Light reported.
Everyone checked the records for themselves.
In the Light’s language, there was the message, “We also speak Light of the Abyss. Communication is accepted. We call ourselves the Siphon and the Drill. Do you bring exchange?”
It turned out “Anchor” translated pretty well into the Light’s language, so after some discussion they sent back, “We call ourselves Anchor. We bring navigational and historical information. We also seek contact, if accepted.”
They’d debated heavily about including the last phrase and just how to word it, but settled on something that could be reinterpreted or explained further later, essentially negotiated for everyone’s comfort level.
As captain, Molly was adhering to strict parliamentary procedure, so that everyone got a word in who needed to. But she did everything she could to keep it brief and snappy.
But, then, there was a full hour to wait until the next reply.
They started talking about how to get closer.
They could jump. That would be the absolute fastest method. But they wouldn’t want to jump too close, or they might risk ramming a moving object.
“We have improvements that can be made to Anchor’s warp drive, to avoid that danger,” the Light offered.
“You do?” Molly asked.
“Affirmative,” said the Light, bringing up a list of options amongst the screens of data they already had floating around in space.
So far, there were ten different proposals, ranked by how much they would alter the structure of the ship.
Everyone took the time to look them over.
“It doesn’t look like we can make any of these changes any time quickly,” Susan said.
“It depends on your definition of quick,” Manifold said. “But we’d also need resources.”
“Affirmative,” said the Light.
“Molly,” Phage spoke up. “Your predictive abilities look like they might actually be better than mine. You could probably do it on your own.”
She looked at it with wide eyes, and asked, “what do you mean?”
“When I first glanced at this system, I saw nearly everything, and it was obvious to me what was likely to happen from what I could see,” it said. “But then I watched you. You didn’t hone in on the ambushers because you could see them. You seemed to sense the future point of conflict first, then that helped you focus your other senses.”
“You could tell how I was looking at this?” she asked. That sounded an awful lot like mind reading to her.
“To me, it’s like if you watch a child notice something. If they hear it first, they tilt an ear towards the sound. If they smell it, they lift their nose,” Phage explained. “Remember, I’m fully attuned to all my senses and understand them intuitively in a way you haven’t learned yet.”
Molly considered that. It made sense to her, but she didn’t find it very reassuring in the moment, so she said, “In other words, I’m a child to you?”
“That would be a good analogy,” Phage said.
“Should a child do something dangerous, that could kill people, with a talent they haven’t practiced yet?” Molly asked.
Phage held up a finger and said, “Fair point.”
“I’d like to learn the Art of navigating by intuition, but not here,” Molly told it. “And not by putting Anchor at risk. I think if we let them know where we’re going to jump to, first, they can avoid our path.”
Susan leaned forward in her chair and looked back and forth between Phage and Molly, “I mean, we’ll be moving faster than light, right?”
“Not at such short a distance,” Molly said. “At least, not on average. We might hit superluminal speeds for the last few thousand kilometers.”
“Ah,” Susan frowned. “Well, nevermind, I don’t think I was thinking about relativity correctly anyway. No matter how fast we go, we’ll still be at least 32 minutes behind their movements, right?”
“Something like that,” Phage said.
“OK,” Susan replied to it. “But aren’t we being a little precious still, anyway?”
“How do you mean?” Molly asked.
“Well, I know we’re talking about doing something like this for the first time, but we’re eight whole astronomical units away,” Susan pointed out. “And we’ve got a processing system that is capable of warping us to within orbit of a star from over fifty light years away, matching velocities and everything. Not to mention its ability to simulate life to such a detail that it basically just creates it and the environment it lives in. And we have aboard our ship a being that was able to warp its own vessel around ours, taking us by surprise. And also a manifestation of Entropy Itself.
“But, like, all we really need to do is get mostly closer. Like, let’s drop it down to half an A.U. Still well away from any of their ship movements, but just four minutes away by light. We should still let them know we’re going to make the move, so we don’t spook them, of course.”
Molly felt embarrassed. What Susan was pointing out was so obvious, but she’d let her own anxiety distract her from it. She had been thinking about essentially trying to jump within docking distance of the station, and they didn’t really need to do that. Maybe it was because of the last two intimate jumps she’d had to consider. One, when the Light of the Abyss had intercepted them. And then the jump they never took to try to stop the ambush. Maybe they’d just put her in that frame of mind.
She looked at Phage, wondering why it hadn’t brought up Susan’s point earlier. And then she realized that neither she nor Phage were the only people who’d been involved in this conversation. Even the Light had assumed they were trying to jump within spitting distance, along with the rest of them.
“Yeah, let’s do that,” she said, experimentally.
“Yeah, it’s a good idea,” said Phage.
“I like it,” Manifold agreed, its own embarrassment in its voice evident to Molly.
“OK. So, something I’m curious about is energy consumption,” Susan interjected. “Like, is it really efficient to make that short of a jump?”
“No,” replied the Light of Anchor.
“I’m sorry, everyone,” Lesley stood up shakily from her seat. “I have to go to bed. Can you all have this discussion with the gas giants – Or, I guess they’re called the Siphon? But, like, without me? I really, really have to sleep.”