I actually wrote this a couple of months ago, probably sometime in late summer but I’m not entirely sure when, and then just left it kicking around as a backup story for a slow day. Today is definitively a slow day. Or at least it’s a day where I don’t really want to expend any more energy doing something complex. Thus, rather than leave it drifting around even longer to maybe eventually fiddle with it later, I figure I might as well post this one!
People come from all across the galaxy to explore the relic. Trained and untrained, rich and poor, prepared and clueless, they come, they land, and many of them never leave. They call it a relic, but really, no-one even knows if that’s the appropriate word for it at all.
Seen from several AU away, it looks like a glowing thistledown, ephemeral and fragile. A ship closing in at sublight speeds could watch it grow, slowly, the initially fluffy appearance growing ever more complex. At its furthest extents it’s more than 2 AU across, filling and overspilling a volume of space similar to that enclosed by the orbit of the Earth, and it’s lit all through with the light of the star at its heart. Close up, it begins to look almost fractal, with delicate detail on every scale.
Another ship lands, and more explorers disembark. They come every day, to seek and to study. Some enter the many and varied training programs that have sprung up around the landing sites. Others shoulder their packs, pick up their cases, and begin to walk.
The areas surrounding the landing sites are well-mapped, and even so, now and again an explorer will find a new surprise. But it’s further out that the real finds lie, strange and true. Some have still never been seen by human eyes. Some may be worth vast amounts — but most explorers of the gossamer relic aren’t in it for the money.
Parts of the landscape arc up and away at impossible angles. Sometimes there’s soil, solidity, plants in familiar green. Sometimes there’s nothing but slender translucent bridges, turning at implausible angles and the local gravity smoothly changing to suit. An explorer in a vast open space relaxes by a lake, bathing in the light of the sun, and looks up to where a bridge wide enough to be a motorway crosses high above him. Another party pause there and look up at him, dollhouse figures at this distance: to them, he’s on the ceiling; to him, they’re on the underside of the bridge. He smiles, three perfect crystalline finds laid out beside him, and closes his eyes. His week has been a good one, and when he returns to his party’s camp, he’ll have any number of things to show them. Perhaps he’ll even bring them to the lake, if they don’t decide to go another direction instead. There are fish in there, silver darting shapes. Perhaps they’ll fish.
* * *
Further still from any landing site, another explorer hums quietly as she measures and catalogues her discoveries, photographs and sketches of the scenery she’s passed through supplementing her descriptions. She taps out the tune on a silvered piece of pipework with her free hand: tap-tap, tap-ta-tap. A cool breeze stirs her hair, and she pauses, looking up into it: a new door opening, or just the ventilation? But the tapping continues, fainter now, as if another hand somewhere else is striking the same pipe. She turns back, curious, as the new breeze continues to blow faintly. Something about the rhythm catches her attention. Morse code? She taps again: tap tap tap tap, tap, tap tap-tap tap tap, tap tap-tap tap tap, tap-tap tap-tap tap-tap. HELLO?
The answer comes after a minute or so: HELLO STRANGER. The explorer laughs to herself with no-one around to hear it. Far away from known routes, she has the comms IDs of explorers she’s crossed paths with, networked into a loose collaboration, but travels entirely alone.
Striking a pipe to sound out words one letter at a time, two explorers communicate in a whimsically old-fashioned way. They don’t trade names, or precisely news, but embroidered tales of the fantastically convoluted, gracefully arcing spires of the gossamer relic. There’s no telling where either of them really is on its endless surfaces, or if there’s any possible path between them. The unspoken rule becomes not to ask.
SOLO EXPLORER, STRANGER?
SMALL PARTY, comes the response. YOURSELF?
SOLO, the explorer taps out into the pipe. She looks around her at her camp, everything arranged just so, ready to be packed and gone at the slightest whim. The new breeze ruffles her hair again, and it feels stronger now, carrying with it hints of the unknown. How long does she have until whatever door might have opened closes again? Did the stranger open it, all unknowing? Is there someone on the other side?
She shakes her head and turns her attention back to the pipe just in time to catch the next response. It’s undamaged by the abuse she’s put it through: when she’s gone there’ll be no trace of the chance ‘meeting’ at all, and she finds herself reluctant to leave. But countless explorers pass each other like this, a few moments’ brief contact in the endless journey — because there’s always something more to discover. Still, perhaps she’ll make camp a little longer.
* * *
Far away, a park of slender blue-leaved trees plays host to a larger expedition. It’s a known landmark, this expedition beginning, at least, in the footsteps of many who have gone before. One young explorer takes three-dimensional holographs of the trees; another assiduously collects biological samples. A third maps and measures the extent of the chamber, exclaiming about the angles. A fourth gazes up at the sun where it shines through the intricate lattice above them, and muses about the nature of a people who would build this strange and endless artefact, and about the philosophy of the artefact itself.
“Was it for them, or for us?” he asks the air, and receiving no response, goes on. “Or is it they, or we, who really build it? We know parts of it reshape themselves from moment to moment. What if all we see here is a reflection of ourselves, and it’s what we see from here that tells us about the real universe?”
One of his companions tosses a twig at him. “How come this place is on all the maps, then?”
“What about the computers?” another chips in. The artefact has endlessly complex systems, and many come to believe that it is, in some way, alive, intelligent and aware, and watching them. Some respect it, some fear it, quite a few even worship it — but this hypothetical intelligence has never been proven to exist.
The first shrugs. “They’re complex, but they could still just be emergent. Maybe. When we get further out, I think I’ll study them.”
There are students of every possible aspect of the relic. Some are trailblazers, others follow familiar, well-defined routes. It’s never been wholly mapped, and as yet, no-one has ever worked out a way to wholly map it. Perhaps, though, it will all be understood… one day.