“The Bicamerals would think of it as more of a— a pilgrimage, I suppose.” His mouth tightened at one corner: a small lopsided grimace. “You remember the Theseus mission.”
It was too rhetorical for a question mark. “Of course.”
“You know the fuelling technology it used— uses.”
Brüks shrugged. “Icarus cracks the antimatter, masers out the quantum specs, Theseus stamps them onto its own stockpiles, boom. All the antiprotons you can eat.”
“Close enough. What matters is that Icarus has been beaming fuel specs up to Theseus‘s telematter drive for over a decade now. And lately there’s been some suggestion that something else has been coming down along the same beam.”
“Wouldn’t you expect them to send back samples?”
“Theseus‘s fab channel went to a quarantine facility in LEO. I’m talking about the actual telematter stream..”
“I didn’t know that was even possible,” Brüks said.
“Oh, it’s quite possible. It was part of the design, in fact; fuel up, data down. Of course, the state-of-the-art’s still lightyears away from being able to handle complex structure, the receiver’s for — very basic stuff. Individual particles, exotic matter, nonbaryonic even. Stuff that might take a lot of energy to build.”
Brüks sipped and swallowed. “What the hell were you expecting to find out there?”
“We had no idea.” Moore shrugged. “Something alien, obviously. And the cost of sticking a condenser on the sun side was negligible next to the mission as a whole. So that’s what they did. In case it proved useful.”
“Which I’m guessing it did,” Brüks said.
Moore eyed the empty glass at his side, as if weighing the wisdom of having set it down. After a moment he reached for the bottle.
“Here’s the thing,” he said, refilling his glass. “Theseus got — decoyed en route, did you know that? Did they ever make that public?”
Brüks shook his head. “There was something about course corrections out past Jupiter, new and better data coming down the pike.”
“I can never keep it straight any more,” Moore growled. “What we’ve admitted, what we’ve massaged, what we’ve covered up completely. But yes. After Firefall we were all staring at the sky so hard our eyeballs bled. Found something beeping out in the Kuiper Belt — that much you know — sent a squad of high-gee probes to check it out. Sent Theseus afterward, soon as we could slap her together. But she never made it that far. The probes got there first, caught a glimpse of something buried in a comet just before it blew up. All that way to get suckered by a — a decoy, as far as anyone could tell. Glorified land mine with a squawk box bolted on top. So we went back to our radio maps and our star charts and we found an X-ray spike buried in the archives, years before Firefall and never repeated. IAU called it an instrument glitch at the time but now it’s all we’ve got to go on. Theseus is already fifteen AUs out and headed the wrong way but you know, that’s the great thing about an unlimited fuel supply. We feed her a new course and she spins around and heads into the Oort and she finds something out there, tiny brown dwarf it looks like. She goes in for a look, finds something in orbit, starts to send back details and pfsst—”
He splayed the fingers of his free hand, brought them together at the tips, spread them again as if blowing out a candle.
“I didn’t know that,” Brüks said after a while.
“I’d be worried if you did.”
“I thought the mission was still en route. Nothing on any of the feeds about finding anything.” Brüks eyed his own glass. “So, what was it?”
“We don’t know.”
“But if they’d started sending—”
“Multiple contacts. Thousands. There was some evidence they might have been seeding the dwarf’s atmosphere with prebiotic organics — some kind of superjovian terraforming project, perhaps — but if they ever followed that up we never heard about it.”
“Jesus,” Brüks whispered.
“Maybe something else in there, too,” Moore added, staring at the deck. Staring through it. Staring all the way out to the Oort itself. “Something— hidden. Nothing definitive.”
He didn’t seem to be entirely in the room. Brüks softly cleared his throat.
Moore blinked and came back. “That’s all we know, really. The telemetry was noisy at best— that dwarf has one mother of a magnetic field, shouts over anything you try to send out. The Bicamerals have some amazing extraction algorithms, they were squeezing data out of clips I swore were nothing but static. But there are limits. Theseus went in and it was like, like watching a ship vanish into a fog bank. For all we know she could still be sending— they left a relay sat behind at least. It’s still active. As long as there’s hope, we’ll keep the feed going. But we’re not getting anything back from the ship itself. Can’t even get a signal through that soup.”
“Except you’re getting a signal right now, you said. Coming in along—”
“No.” Moore held up his hand. “If the system was operating normally we’d have seen it operating, and we didn’t. No handshaking protocols, no explicit transmissions, nobody from up there telling us they were sending something down here. None of the usual bells that are supposed to go off when a package arrives. At most we got a little hiccough that suggests that something might have started coming down, but the checksums didn’t pass muster so move along folks, nothing to see here. Mission Control didn’t even notice it. I didn’t notice it. Wasn’t until the Bicamerals helped me squeeze the archives through their born-again algorithms that I clued in, eight years after the fact.”
“But if the stream isn’t even running its own protocols, how can it be—”
“Ask them.” Moore jerked his chin towards a vague point beyond the bulkhead, some nexus of Bicameral insight. “I’m just along for the ride.”
“So, something’s using our telematter stream,” Brüks said.
“Or was, at least. ”
“And it’s not us.”
“And whatever it is, it’s gone to great lengths to stay off the scope.”
“What would it be sending?”
“The Angels of the Asteroids.” Moore shrugged. “That’s what the Bicamerals are calling it, or at least that’s our closest approximation. Probably just their idea of an op code. But I don’t know if they really think anything’s down there. Maybe it’s just a glitch after all. More likely it was some kind of attempted remote hack that didn’t come off, and we can learn something about the hackers by studying dusty footprints eight years old .”
“Suppose there is something down there, though,” Brüks said. “Something— physical.”
The Colonel spread his hands. “Like what? A clandestine mist of dissociated atoms?”
“I don’t know. Something that breaks the rules.”
“Well,” Moore said, “in that case, I suppose…”
He took a breath.
“It’s had a few years to settle in.”