To my beloved writer, Stanislaw Lem.
He succeded in a lot.
– Sergei, are you ready?
– I have been already heating up the handles for five minutes.
– Then as always.
The countdown started. When it got to zero, in Portugal Nicholas let go of his handles. I pressed both my thrust buttons and immediately let go. And nothing. The telemetry was running, the imaging was normal, but no reaction to the keystrokes. I repeated the input on the touch panel with the width of the dining table and the fore-part bending upwards into the screen with a concave spherical surface, in the imaginary center of which was the operator’s head, that is, mine. There was no reaction to this either, I mean the spaceship’s reaction, whereas on the panel there was launched rough activity reflecting the processes of testing the channels, the attempts to trigger the control signals, bypassing the basic system, having modified the connection circuits of the elements in the reprogrammed modules in order to regain control over the spaceship.
– Nicholas, she does not respond.
– You are pressing feebly. How do you say? – You haven’t had enough porridge this morning. You must have the panel pressed into and the handle bent!
– No, I’m not kidding. She’s not talking.
I tried running a turn. No result. Mutt was dead or became proud and didn’t obey.
– Nicholas, might I have a problem with the transmission? You try to do something.
– Sergei, I’ve already taken my sensory gloves off and I’m out of the chair.
The gloves were IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) for the operators. If your hands were not in the gloves, the panels and the handles simply did not react so as to avoid someone’s casual pressing the panel with his elbow and launching the spaceships on a date with the moon, for example. The gloves were named and they monitored the operator’s condition, the electrical conductivity of the skin, the selection of the sweat, I think, the PH skin, and naturally, they monitored that the operator had to work on his console and on his shift.That is, the variant “Will you take my place for a few minutes till I quickly run to…?” was excluded. Both taking the gloves off and stepping out of the control room in the gloves caused the signal “Operator is disconnected”.
– Do put them on before the cross time is not over. At least press something to check.
Cross time is the period of the transfer of the watch, when the control was possible by both operators with the priority of the one who had been finishing the shift unless there were other input data.
– I’m going to unfold the solar batteries at full capacity. It’s simple and fast.
Ten seconds later.
– Sergei, he’s really not talking!
Nothing could be done: I pressed the call button of the trouble crew on-duty and waited. They arrived and started a range of attempts to bring back to life the Spaceship Control. One-and-a-half-hour hassle led to nothing. The signal got to us, some signals got back as well, but «CS-005» had no reaction to the Earth. Then the response/ backward signals went out.
The full name of «CS-005» was CleanSpace-005, the fifth spaceship in the series, all of them had been more than eighty. A spaceship for cleaning the near-Earth space from debris. The idea of creating such spaceships had visited someone’s head in the UN, when dew to a collision with a piece of something of obviously artificial origin «Helios X», an international project under the auspices of the UN, had ceased to exist. He had his antennae disadjusted, had some blocks distorted, and as a result, the aggregate that had cost the Earth almost one billion euros, proudly beeping with beacon, wandered off in the opposite direction to the perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic like a cat that walks on its own.
Since at least a third of the billion had spent on advertising the project, its importance to the world community and other puffing out the cheeks, then after the star of the show sauntered away to the infinity, either the cheeks should be deflated or inflated much more and lay the blame on someone except themselves of course.
And before that, a space tourist from Luxembourg in a Russian spaceship had barely landed. The spaceship looked like an airplane that had flown into a pack of terminator ducks or other highly resistant species. That’s when it was decided to puff out the cheeks to completely spherical shape and declare another crusade against something. The ecology of near-Earth space became the purpose of that.
Such ideas had existed before, but that time it was realized. There were formed some pop bands singing about clean space, about a puppy being killed by a piece of satellite falling on its head, and about other things that could be sucked out of it. After the pop bands, the spaceships did are built, automatic space cleaners. For a while everyone cheered, then got tired of that and switched to the simpler joys of life. Then these space debris collectors got permanent pilots controlled them remotely, after «CS-003» carefully, in automatic mode, had disassembled the working American state multifunctional satellite into components and sent ones to burn in the atmosphere. The Americans had got upset, the satellites had got the pilots, and I had got the job.
Half-hour shift every two hours. Four of these shifts and then three days of rest, even though I could work every day (I used to play computer games daily, ten years ago, and those games were much more strained). The pilots were recruited mainly from the settled former gamers who had managed to shine themselves in any championspaceship. That was a cushy job: you were sitting, stareing at the screens without breaking a sweat. The spaceship was searching for debris, when it was found, the spaceship queried all databases. If data was not available, it was a debris. Then it was my turn to act: I made a decision whether to disassemble or not or vice versa, to weld together the separate pieces and change orbit, or to release a disposable network that glues small debris into some kind of mirrored string-bag covered with metal-membranous corner reflectors.
The relationspaceship with Nicholas was warmer than with other operators, because of a strange and unpredictable reason. He was so impressed that I as well as him had read “Winnie the Pooh” by Milne (had not watched the cartoon, but had just read) that he began to congratulate me on all the holidays found on the website dedicated to Russia.
As I think he used an incredibly plain program for that and neither edited nor read himself the sending messages at all. The program was probably normal, but Nicholas hadn’t set it up. Because if it sent out messages like that, the software company would have been bankrupt by addressees’ lawyers. For example, on the 8th of March I got a letter that started with:
– Sergei, your Nicholas congratulates you. On this day, I want to congratulate you, as a woman, without such women like you…
I have kept these pearls in the special folder and duplicated them just in case. I have not explained to Nicholas anything. Is that necessary to him? The man is happy that he has congratulated and OK.
When the space clean-up programme was built and funds were sought, Dmitri Kaspersky suddenly responded. He thought it was symbolic to invest in a program that would clear the sky of debris like his Internet programs. I don’t know how much money he put in, but the spaceships number two to five (my spaceship is number five) are flying with his logo.
The idea turned out to be contagious for antiviral owners.
A good pun! I’ll write it down.
And soon, all the first twenty garbage spaceships, except the first, flew with the logos of antivirus programs. And the proper nicknames were sticked to them. I won’t bring them here, I am afraid that they may be seemed as an advertisement or on the contrary а discredit. The rest of the cleaners took logos of other companies that had nothing to do with antivirus.
And so my garbage spaceship, the clean space fighter, went out like a light bulb at Sim’s hospital on the 6th of August (Who doesn’t remember, it’s in Hiroshima). It’s not like I had anything to do with it, but I’ve already started to figure out how to get back to my scientific research institute. I’m actually an applied mathematician with a specialization in adaptive signal filtering with the use of Markov chains. It must have made a difference, too, that I was given this job, or maybe not.
All the activity was useless for the next 24 hours. I wrote a stack of papers, got an alcohol and drug blood test and even sperm for who kbows what, talked to a psychiatrist, a neurologist and another nervous doctor who didn’t introduce himself. On the second day, I was even given an M.R.I., and the image of the volume blood stream in my brain was stared at for a while. Nothing weird or abnormal weren’t found. Then the Sector Chief arrived and said a commission was formed and I was included. Payment would be made equal to continuous duty, that’s a relief.
The first meeting with journalists and the public did not go well, that is, an ocean of chatter and nothing more. Except a couple of new jokes from the journalists, both about how junkies accidentally became astronauts. It was interesting later, after the official public part. All the Sector Chiefs and out-of-duty operators gathered, and new people appeared. One of them I knew, a renowned mathematician, an expert in information theory, and others, obviously, were from similar sphere. Two Asians were with interpreters, that was interesting. And several military officers. They had already shown up on the base.
– Gentlemen, you have all signed your non-disclosure notices, so anything you hear must not leave this room.
That was the Regional Sectors Chief. He gave the floor to the Emergency Sector Chief, an active swarthy Indonesian. In my head I continued the speech of the Regional Sectors Chief in my mind: “Even in the form of information in your brain.”
– I’m without foreplay. There is no connection to the number five garbage spaceship. Having tried to study it from the outside by another spaceship, the situation was repeated, also at the moment of switching. The third spaceship, which was urgently sent there, was not switched from operator to operator. The communication was not interrupted, but the engines and manipulators broke down, to be more precise, stopped obeying to our signals.
– What other spaceships are these?
The question was asked by operator Ingemar, who was in charge of refuelling for our garbage spaceships. The point is, that there shouldn’t be any other garbage spaceships around that should be able to change their orbit and equalise their speeds so quickly.
– Solar batteries are good, but sometimes it isn’t enough – one of the military officers replied. – For some purposes, spaceships with autonomous reactors are needed. Or do you think the old battle platforms disassemble by themselves? There are garbage spaceships with military operators. And several operational support spaceships, for emergencies.
A trickle of cold sweat ran between my shoulder blades. When such information is made available as if by the way, without curtsy, that means it’s nothing compared to the real problem. I surveyed the hall with a cheerful green light in the spirit of the Elvish forest and, having overcome my uncertainty, I said:
– Why are we here? If foreplay’s out the window.
– We need any opinions. We’re going to bring you up to speed and have a brainstorming session, – said the Communications Chief. – We’re going to give you all the accessible information.
And then we were promptly given everything they had, or almost everything, by words a little and pile of records. The second spaceship, a copy of my “five”, was being watched by a spaceship with a military operator. At the time of loss of control, there was a burst of activity in the electromagnetic range, from medium waves to infrared, corresponding to a temperature of four hundred and fifty kelvin. Nothing else interesting. And a ton of all sorts and calibres sensor records, photos and videos.
There was nothing to discuss until the study, and taking my copy, I went to a new cabin with a powerful computer and the ability to connect to the station’s computational cluster.
The analysis of the burst didn’t tell me anything, I had nothing to compare it to. I gave the computer the task of searching analogies in the range where it’s ruled. Then the additional information came from the military officers: the flash had an optical part. The spectrum analysis of the optical part showed that these were spectra of radiation of evaporating materials, as in spectroscope. We vaporize the material and the spectrum of the radiation says what it’s made of. The spectra corresponded to a standard set of construction materials, with almost no light elements. Vaporized technogenic space debris, in short. With one exception, there were infrared sites of the spectrum where molecules had not yet broken down into atoms. And there was a spectrum that was not defined for a long time. After a few minutes of search and reconciliation, the expert program said that with 87% probability it was a polymerized fulleritis. How did it get there, twice as hard as a diamond, was unclear. On one photo, after one and a half hour-long processing of all their sequence, cleaning of interference and artifacts, I noticed a light variation on my, already disabled «five», which was moving as if something similar to a stain of mud was crawling to the docked counterpart spacespaceship. And nothing more. I formalized that and loaded it into the database of findings at twenty to three in the morning, local time. The message was recorded as 001-AA. Looks like I was the only one who had managed to dig something interesting.
On the second day, the information about an orbital explosion was all over the news. We watched it during the morning meeting. The military officer was the first to speak, again hopelessly exhaustive and straight:
– The information given to us at 2.41 a.m. by the operator Sergei Longeronov (such surname my father, who was brought up in the orphanage after the war and didn’t remember his family, got from the director, the retired disabled pilot) made the following step to be necessary: the capture of the silent spacespaceships. A spacespaceship provided by China to our program has captured all three spacespaceships and isolated them from the outside world. The spacespaceship’s crew proceeded to investigate the objects, recording all the data and broadcasting them to Earth and the nearest satellites. Then the connection was cut off, and a few milliseconds later, a 150-kiloton device of elimination went off. That’s what the press is talking about.
He sat down. I wonder why my information made it necessary to capture the spacespaceships? A Chinese comrade stood up. He spoke English fluently. That wasn’t clear why he needed an interpreter for. Or was it a bodyguard?
– The hangar-spacespaceship was a simple folding metal sphere of two halves. They could open and capture objects. All records are provided.
Then he kept silent for a while and added:
– My nephew was there.
I got up. Everybody stared at me.
– What I had found, I loaded them. Something had been crawling to the counterpart spacespaceship. Or it was the shadow of something. More information could not have been squeezed out of that.
– Now we have, – said the Communications Branch Chief. – Immediately after the loss of the “five” all possible telescopes and recorders were aimed at this zone, including orbital, many without the knowledge of the owners. A batch of information in several terabytes has been received this morning, it was sorted and ordered for almost 24 hours. What equipment do you need for further analysis?
I asked for a computer with neural network boards, because its hardware acceleration is better than its software implementation. I was given a dedicated channel to communicate with the neural network cluster, which was in… I actually don’t know where it was, but it doesn’t matter. Do you care about where the power plant that powers just your electrical outlets is?
I asked to provide me connection to a colleague, Yura Stepanov, aka Stepashka. We had studied together and we have been in contact periodically ever since. He was a fan of getting out secret meaning on well-known photos and records. He called it “the reverse side of bits”. I was given a connection to him and he got access to a similar neural network cluster within four hours.
– Hi, Seryoga. Have you decoded the American Constitution, and it turns out it’s a continuation of the Bible? What happened? I was told some rubbish about crawling spots and that the Chinese had exploded in orbit.
– They didn’t lie if it makes you feel better. I’m glad to hear you, but I’m not sure what’s going on, like everyone else. Let’s cut to the chase. The assignment is as you like: there’s a pile of information of known origins, you have to find something that shouldn’t be there.
– That’s great. What is more, it is paid. Seryoga, you’re a genius-manager.
– Yura, let’s get started, beer’s on me.
– Plenty of beer?
– 0,31415 cubic meters.
– That’ll do!
An hour to drill down into the interaction refinements with the dedicated to me neural network, an hour for a problem statement, a half hour to coordinate with Jura, another hour for joint rewriting the goals of the search. And go! Megawatts floated to the processors and the coolers. We got all the information in all ranges. There were even data from the near-solar station and from the recorder of gravitational waves in the ice of Antarctica. But the answer appeared in the usual electromagnetic range, wavelength 21 centimeters. The sequence of signals that occurred when one spaceship approached another before losing control. The same sequence occurred at the collision of large debris in orbit. That was done by enthusiasts from the distributed networks Seti@home-enterprise, who are looking for aliens, but they were not interested in it because they didn’t have time-synchronized other data, and we had ones. So when we found out that these signals appeared before the problems with the spaceship, we gave the filter to the search similar signals. Having analyzed Seti@home-enterprise data and the data from other sources not available to UFO enthusiasts, we found coincidences, many coincidences of the appearance of such signals and collisions of large, man-made debris. I personally called the number issued for these cases. A Chinese comrade replied. He listened to me and answered very strangely:
– I wish they’d died by mistake.
And he cut off. I, in coordination with Yura, made a request for the longer period of the time and proposed to probed by this signal any object in orbit. Then I went to bed.
I was woken up in the morning, brought to a typical interrogation room and severe officials began darkly but energetically to find out who I had leaked the information about the signal to. Then the military officer rushed in and said that they had found: from the emergency sector one enthusiastic Ufologist had managed to hand over the information to his colleagues by a pre-prepared code (in case he and the base were taken over by aliens). It turns out they were on duty outside the building, and he attached a modulator to the laser pointer and sent the information to them through the window. And now he has confessed and he offeres to work together.
We had a general meeting, now with ufologists. I found two acquaintances: the one was a mathematician like me and the othe was a physicist. We drank non-alcoholic beer with natural shrimps (I would have prefered even plastic shrimps, but organic beer: Doppelbock, AltBier or Barley wine and nuts, of course). We talked a lot, but it was not productive. Then a few more people came. Complete strangers for me. The man of obviously Slavic appearance, made a speech:
– Good day to you, gentlemen. I could be considered the founder of this whole mess.
In short, it turns out that this comrade and his comrade, about ten years ago, noticed that in orbit something was going on. The debris did not move quite as it should did by calculations. At first, it was written off as unaccounted factors and the measurements were carried out more thoroughly. At any measurements there was a discrepancy with the theory, which was nothing to be correlated with. The military got interested in that and they gave money to go on the research for another couple of years. And the conclusion was that debris lives its own life, their life is not very active, but they live. The pieces of debris put themselves in their own order and gathered into clusters, sometimes they break apart. At times, bursts of radiation corresponding to the evaporating debris appear. And the theory that this analyst and his comrade came up with was that in the debris there was a pseudo-life, the very nanobots that was talked about a lot by fantasists and many technogenic preachers scared people by them. The question about the origin is open, but we see the result. Their military curator has started a rumour about the nanobots developed by China. China was implicated to guarantee money for further research.
The money was given, and the team was enlarged, aimed at on extensive research. Just then the analysts launched a program to collect and dispose of space debris, having supported the still-amorphous wishes of the UN. The most interesting fact is that they didn’t lie: in another 20 or 40 years the debris would make it impossible for us, people, to be in near-Earth space at all. So that was a usual company with a double bottom. The turning point occured two years ago when the Americans caught a Chinese scout at NASA. During the interrogation he was also asked about space debris. He didn’t know anything, but kept the question in his mind. Fortunately, he was not a military operative, but a scientist, and fortunately, China arranged the exchange. And then a week later China contacted to NASA: it turns out that China had suspected the Americans. Russia was in the dark, but when it got involved, it was very enthusiastic. On the proposal of the Russian participant of the project, an emergency worker and a great lover of Stanislav Lem, the project was named “Invincible” (similar problems were considered in the story). A year ago a pattern of the debris with weird behaviour was delivered to Earth in a special ceramic box with a self-destruct system. Strange formations were found in it: they are might be semiconductors or nanomechanisms. What are they is still unknown, they have to be seen in the dynamics. They seem to be something self-organizing and incomprehensible. Different variants were tried. The last one turned out to be a luck. Generators of active interference, which caught external signals, distorted and relayed back, were installed on my “five” and other spaceships. At low power, the nanobots might be interested in it. They were interested indeed, with fatal consequences for my spaceship.
After that we had a little bit of an argument and went to process the data based on the new information.
The request came, and Yuri had already processed it with an adaptive algorithm, breaking off pieces of meaning and washing off the information noise. Now when it was known what to look for, the things went faster. It turned out that the first such signals had appeared relatively recently: when “Voyager-1” crossed the orbit of Pluto, an object flew from there at a half of light speed and a mass of several grams. It was found out indirectly: it braked by gravity, to which the sensor responded in Antarctica; and because it was charged, then during the braking it sounded in radio range, like a synchrotron emitter. Gravitational wave detectors defined that gravitational burst as a system failure since nothing similar to it was registered. After 48 hours there was a second signal, on the approach, and then – six months of silence.
Then the whole orbit started emitting and soon everything fell silent again. As if something flew in, put a brake on, gave a signal “friend-or-foe” and, when they did not recieve any answer at all, they sowed out themselves on the orbit and had been reproducing until the critical density was reached, and then moved to a new quality level.
The following day our hypothesis was taken for a working one. A new project was organized. It was named “Solaris” by a proposal of the same person who gave the name to the previous project.
Six months has passed. The situation is completely repeated as in Lem’s “Invincible” or “Solaris“: everything is visible, but what to do with it is unclear. But in books the scene of action was far away, in other star systems, whereas now the scene of action is here, around us, and we are inside the action and we feel like germs. The record from the Chinese spaceship has been scrolled at least a hundred times only by me: they come in, turn on the extra lantern, start taking scrapings and other tests (We have the results: nothing special compared to what is already known). Then the astronaut in the red suit turns on another lantern, and all the telemetry from the inside cuts off, then after 3.23 seconds the Antarctic recorder catches the gravitational wave. An external independent review shows that at first the sphere shrink s slightly, then starts rushing outwards. The process lasts for 2.2 seconds, and in 1.5 seconds after the first tear of the hull plating, the spaceship’s commander in the wheelhouse turns the charge on, and the crunch is already heard, which after deciphering was identified as the crunch of the broken bones. Or maybe firstly the mechanics is triggered by the automation shutdown. And the flash produces 150 kilotons. The rest of the nano- inhabitants of the space debris, which were on the other debris, have not reacted to all that, at least not explicitly.
It’s a little scary to study them by trial and error. It’s like sitting in someone’s stomach, being naked, and figuring out how and what the wall of its stomach reacts to – the gastric juice might be secreted. And if they all together in orbit respond at the same time? What if they can generate a stronger gravitational burst? The idea has been already appeared that the Tunguska meteorite was an echo, a side petal of a gravitational impulse that these creatures generated for their own purposes. There is another, more large-scale theory that these creatures periodically collide with their brothers of “another software version” and then the struggle begins for whose upgrade will win. The side effect of that is a gravitational storm which produces the breaking down of the tectonic plates, extinction of the dinosaurs, the beginning of the Permian extinction and other disasters in the history of the nearby planet. Of course, the theories could be checked out, but I don’t really want to.
Now we know more. There’s no question of contact with these nano-ants, most probably that it’s a mechanical adaptive mould. And its reaction to the distorted signal is the phagocyte’s reaction to the wrong chemical response of a cell from a different culture, the same as the struggle of our immune system with microbes. Besides, the phagocyte with a distributed genetic program. Would you be able to predict the actions of a monkey when you are inside it, moreover not knowing it is a monkey and understanding nothing in anatomy at all? The analogy is rather poor, because a monkey and even a virus, compared to those creatures, are a kind of relatives and close organisms to us. And why is the spectrum of radiation so weird? They fly by using the debris as a jet mass. But mainly they drift, slowly chew the debris and leisurely self-replicate. Sometimes they are active, shooting small masses from one debris to another. The purpose of that is unclear. Everything in them is mostly unclear. The samples brought to Earth make it possible to judge about their information structure no more than the scrape from the throat does about the anatomy of a person and his education. To study them as a system it is necessary to “wake up” them because only then the system is started. However, to do it is just frightened.
Extremist-ufologists implemented the idea of irradiating everything in the vicinity of the Earth with an undisturbed signal. They have it done. At first, some sections of the asteroid belt responded, sort of waved in response: “And we are also fine”. There appeared an idea that “debris dwellers” have been there since the time when there was probably a planet there (now the planet is a belt of asteroids). Then the response signal came from the Kuiper belt: firstly from the nearest parts of it. Yet, the signal is still coming and it seems “the scattered disk” is already answering. It is the turn of the Oort cloud. How many are there? And who are they? Are they naturally arisen interstellar mechano-bacteria or degraded explorer-robots? Although, they are adapted rather than degraded. I wonder Lem knew about them or assumed, when he was writing “Invincible”? And is Eric Drexler happy or sad?
The studying of the interaction of these mechano-creatures led to the discovery in the field of quantum electrodynamics. According to experts, it is no less important than theory of relativity, but the complexity of this subject for understanding is at the level of proof of Fermat’s great theorem by Andrew Wiles. As has been said by a theoretician-physicist, a friend of mine: “This part of knowledge will allow to confuse a picture of the universe completely, because the time needed to get the preliminary knowledge to understand it, plus the time to understand it. All these time, for the vast majority of the people, exceeds the time of their lives, and you also have to have the desire to do it. So we have to change oure physiology to think much faster.”
All the parameters of the signal are being kept secret, but now I am getting choked with the thought: what if we, on a massive scale from Earth, transmit the distorted signal, which has impelled these nano-midges to destroy the garbage spaceship, they will try to destroy Earth as a breeding ground for mutated brethren? And how can they do that? Will they drop an asteroid?
Maybe we’re not the first civilization on Earth to find them, wake them up, and provoke them to drop something on our heads.
Maybe the transpluton relativistic object was such a kind of USB flash drive, an unplanned upgrade of their software.
There are, as always, more questions than answers.