Ancient. Capricious.


They lived among the stars and they hurled firebolts that would destroy any world they touched. We could see their tracks, once we knew how to look: faint wisps of ionized hydrogen out in the Oort, barely detectable after cooling for a dozen years; warmer footprints smoldering in the Kuiper and inside the orbit of Neptune. The ghosts of footfalls past. Something stamping across the heavens, releasing a million megatons with each step.

They were omnipotent and unknowable. They used suns as weapons and wormholes as delivery platforms. They drew ever closer, and there was little we could do except name these gods as we had all the others.

We called them Agni.

Our priests scanned the heavens for portents and signs. Over time that smattering of footprints grew into a cloud, a sample, a population large enough to warrant focii and frequency distributions. It grew thicker in its center; its confidence limits contracted past the Earth and continued to clench around the sun instead. It was as if some vast forest creature, never clearly seen, had roared and crashed toward us and then passed in the night, never noticing the small terrified beings cringing underfoot.

Down from their mountain the priests brought word that perhaps the Agni were not angry or vengeful after all, but merely indifferent. Maybe they didn’t even know we existed.

Still to be feared, of course. A boot will crush an ant just as dead even when its wearer hasn’t bothered to look down. But maybe if the ants called out. Maybe, if the Agni knew the threat they posed to eight billion sapient beings, they might step a little to one side. Maybe these gods were moral.

Maybe Ondrej Bohaty could ask them nicely.

Then came the refinements, and the predictions, and all those eyes staring along all those wavelengths when the heavens opened. Then came the emission spectra: and whatever sun gave birth to these flares, it was unlike any predicted by the usual models. Hints of strontium and terbium on its breath. Overtones of cerium and europium. Doubly-magic atoms, long-lived nuclides that seem to hint at the existence of stable quark matter: dark denizens of some fabled Continent of Stability, rumored to lie beyond the limits of any Periodic Table known to Man. Light from Here There Be Dragons.

So the priests threw away their sensible models and started building nonsensical ones instead. They built them further and further from common sense; by the time the models actually fit the data, the implications were too crazy to take seriously.

Maybe the Agni didn’t just use suns. Maybe they lived in them.

No one believed it at first. But the wormholes kept opening, and the fit kept improving. Something was altering reactions in the core of that distant star. Something was hastening its demise. Maybe something like those fabled cosmic strings said to span the whole universe, but—smaller. Much smaller. Small enough to make a proton look big.

And so Models begat Predictions; and Predictions begat a whole new breed of machinery. And now, here we are: the machines have seen something.

Magnetic fucking semipole pairs.

So now it looks like all those fires in the sky aren’t a weapon but a transit system. Now it looks like the Agni aren’t gods but just beings from some polluted hellhole, looking for a new home. Now, they are only immigrants.

At least we know how to deal with those.

This entry was posted on Friday, December 17th, 2021 at 2:23 pm and is filed under fiblet. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

22 Responses to “Defective.”

  1. Literal Eco-Totalitarian

    Great! Can you give us some crumbs of genuine science behind this?

    Pretty please.

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  2. Bill Matheson

    With the last sentence, my sympathy shifted 180 degrees.

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  3. Peter Watts

    Literal Eco-Totalitarian:
    Great! Can you give us some crumbs of genuine science behind this?

    Pretty please.

    Well, since you ask so nicely:

    Can Self-Replicating Species Flourish in the Interior of a Star?

    The answer may surprise you!

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  4. Newman Masada

    Beings living in stars that catalyze stellar death but otherwise ignore humanity? Reminds me of the dark matter photonic birds of Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence.

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  5. Daniel

    If even lifeforms that can step between stars cannot escape their compulsion to consume all accessible resources thereby rendering their habitats uninhabitable, then it speaks even poorly of humanity’s chances of moving beyond earth, and if we even deserve to life amongst the stars.

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  6. Martin Dudley

    Immigrants/migrants/refugees – each comes with a slightly different emotional load, and maybe a slightly different interpretation of the punchline – to me, at least.
    Was it always “immigrants” or did you try other names for size?

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  7. Helward Mann

    When I came across this article a year ago (thanks to binge-watching PBS SpaceTime videos), I thought ‘wow, this is so cool, maybe Dr. Watts can use this idea in his books one day… maybe these sentient magnetic monopole beings can even become a third force in the war between the vampires/hive minds and the Rorschach civilization’. And then boom, I’m reading this story. Amazing!

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  8. oge

    Thought this was from the Sunflowers cycle but now not so sure. Perhaps this is a poem about a cool paper you read 😉

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  9. Peter Watts

    Newman Masada: Reminds me of the dark matter photonic birds of Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence.

    I am aware of those books but have not read them. I don’t know if I’ve read any Baxter, actually.

    Daniel: If even lifeforms that can step between stars cannot escape their compulsion to consume all accessible resources thereby rendering their habitats uninhabitable,

    I’ll admit there’s an element of metaphor to the story. But if the paper I based it on is right, it’s not really a choice on the part of the Agni. Increased stellar cooling would be an inevitable effect of their very existence.

    Martin Dudley: Was it always “immigrants” or did you try other names for size?

    I considered “refugees”, but ended up going with “immigrants”.

    “Invaders” also pops up, later in the story.

    Helward Mann: And then boom, I’m reading this story.

    Not a complete story, for the record. An excerpt. The whole thing’s ten times longer.

    Also I don’t know if I’ve ever hated the actual process of writing so much. This was a tough one. I don’t yet know if it even hangs together narratively.

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  10. KSW

    (i’ve never said a word here in public before, and it’s time to make some noise)
    For seven years, i’ve been trying to imagine “what if the stars were alive, how could it work”. Got my own (space opera, fairy tale, almost not scientific you can call it) concept for my own purpose, and lack of any degree in physics related to electromagnetism and\or stars – fascinated by the way stars function in our universe, though. Yes, this is not about living stars (let alone “sentient”, ha), more about star parasites (aren’t we all, humans the most, sort of them for the Earth?), but i enjoyed the excerpt, had fun watching my own emotional reaction change, yes, to the opposite in a few dimensions. i liked it, screamed at it and smiled at it. And this is very nice description of how humankind will treat any firstly-perceived-as-gods it’s likely to find or imagine. Thank you, Dr. Watts – for the link to that article, too.

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  11. Anonymous

    Peter Watts: I am aware of those books but have not read them. I don’t know if I’ve read any Baxter, actually.

    Baxter is an edgelord who really can’t write that good. I’ve read a bunch of his books and fundamentally they are just not that interesting.

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  12. Billy Oblivion

    I’m reminded of Wan-To from Pohl’s _World at the End of Time_. I won’t spoil it for anyone, except: I go back and re-read it now and again, and enjoy the parts from Wan-To’s POV, and pretty much ignore the rest. Petty humans – they simply aren’t *interesting*.

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  13. Mouse

    Peter Watts,

    Give him a chance, he’s pretty hit and miss but real good when he hits his stride.

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  14. zhao

    Peter Watts,

    makes me wonder if life as a concept wouldn’t be better quantified by using a generalized form of kolmogorov complexity.

    also, since someone else mentioned photino birds: are non-baryonic lifeforms still constrained by math?

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  15. elphamale

    Newman Masada: Reminds me of the dark matter photonic birds of Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence.

    Reminded me of Diaphanous from Niven&Benford’s ‘Bowl of Heaven’ trilogy. But those weren’t harmful to their environment and were comfortable in other environments rich in magnetic fields (i.e. Bussard ramjet’s operating fields or system of orbiting black holes).

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  16. B. Traven

    Bingo on Wan-To (ah F. Pohl there you are again, as always a couple weird steps down almost any SF path). Good book. He seemed an acerbic optimistic much like our good Dr. Watts.

    Baxter’s Flood is intriguing apocalypse fiction that might be worth a read, moreso for his take on environmentally-displaced communities than anything else. Depressing, but interesting science lies behind the concept:

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  17. Nestor

    Ah yes, Wan-to, what a loveable asshole. Pohl pretty much prefigures the whole Dark Forest thing in that book too as Wan-to and his kind pretty much behave in that way with each other (Organic life is more like roaches in the kitchen as far as they’re concerned)

    Yeah, spoilers but the book has to be 50+ years old…


    Oh wow, he wrote it at 71 in 1990. That still makes it a 30+ year old book but still.

    As for the piece, always welcome, of course. If I may offer a word of caution, you may end up getting fans from an unexpected quarter if the humans in the story are indeed capable of mounting a defence against the immigrants. There’s a whole genre of internet sci fi called “Humanity Fuck Yeah!” that you’d probably find philosophically abhorrent on principle.

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  18. Tran Script

    That’s really cool, and like others have pointed out, has a Baxteresque feel to it. I’m becoming more and more convinced at this point that assuming life is going to be anything like it is on Earth and thus basing search efforts upon that, is futile.
    Hell, stars produce so much free energy, wouldn’t even surprise me if the dominant type of life in the universe wasn’t made of nuclear material or plasma or something.

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  19. Trottelreiner

    Concerning Baxter, you might (or might not) like “Evolution”.

    Solar biospheres are some of the strange attractors of
    SF, AFAIR they are even mentioned in passing in Clarke’s “2001” series; there is also one story about a magnetic confinement fusion going awry by Stanislaw Lem, creating a very primitive organism. And, again AFAIR, there is one FreeSpace mod mentioning the idea as a backstory.

    I’m waiting to see what you make of it. 😉

    In other news, just bought a new German translation of “Roadside Picknick” by the Strugatzkis.

    And since the FDP who said “economy has to be unleashed” gained many young voters with the last German election and I have met a good selection of stoner capitalism fanboys in the last few years (don’t ask), my inner cynic has this to say about these results of the neoliberal pushback:

    “We must honor the comrade children, whose minds are not corrupted by the past.”

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  20. Billy Oblivion

    Upon re-reading the fiblet and the comments, I note that Mr. Watts considered referring to the Agni[1] as “refugees”. Which implies that they’re fleeing from something. If you’ll forgive me for another allusion to Pohl: “All that was sure was that, with Them, the Heechee wanted no confrontation.”[2]

    Baxter is a fine writer, IMHO. The Time Ships – the authorized sequel to Well’s The Time Machine – was quite good, as was The Light Of Other Days (w/ A. C. Clarke). Baxter’s Wikipedia article says “Character development tends to be secondary to the depiction of advanced theories and ideas” and that’s about right, especially in the Xeelee sequence. But the Xeelee sequence is so freakin’ cool that its faults are easily forgivable.

    Baxter’s Photino Birds are a neat concept. I sometimes wonder if maybe that’s where all of the intelligent life in the Universe has gone – I mean, we currently know fuck-all about “Dark Matter” and “Dark Energy” except that it doesn’t seem to interact much with anything. Which might mean it’s an attractive plane of existence for immortals; no worrying about pesky gamma ray bursters ruining your day.

    [1] All I know about the Hindu pantheon comes from Zelazny’s Lord of Light.
    [2] Beyond the Blue Event Horizon.

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  21. Johan G Larson

    Hi, Peter. Happy new year! What works do you have in the pipeline for the coming year?

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  22. Peter Watts

    Johan G Larson:
    Hi, Peter. Happy new year! What works do you have in the pipeline for the coming year?

    Hey Johan. Well, I’m going to start by trying to find Doofus, our new cat who somehow got out last night and is only showing up on security cam footage at 3am. (Even as I type this, I am sitting outside in 0-degree weather freezing my little fingers off because I don’t want to miss his potential return whiles the porch camera is recharging.)

    Then I’ll spend a few weeks doing the things I wanted to do over the holidays— during all of December, in fact— before this fucking story hijacked my life (I’m still working on it. It really sucks.)

    Then there are a couple of other commissioned stories I’ve committed to. Ongoing video game work. Above all, I must learn to say “No.”

    Then, just maybe, I can get back to Omniscience.

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