One way or another - the end was a million years in the making

Submitted into Contest #140 in response to: End your story with total oblivion.... view prompt


Science Fiction

In a small town deep in the provincial heart of the largest continent, one nerd stared at her screen. How had this been missed? Surely someone else must have downloaded the same data and found the anomaly. Had everyone else just ignored it? Why? Did they fear ridicule if they were proven wrong? Can I say anything? I’m just me. The university is so far from here. Will they listen? Have they already rejected other people in the capital but not said this is rubbish?

She had been downloading data from the orbiting telescope since she could use a computer. Despite its makers having moved on to other methods of searching out the mysteries of the universe The telescope had continued its tasks, its computers following programs set years before although its makers no longer bothered with the data being constantly downloaded.

The only individuals interested were themselves following a process agreed decades before. Each of the mini-computers sitting in the homes of thousands of nerds across the world could access the data and analyse small amounts. Their feedback allowed the professional researchers to, sometimes, complete tasks which might otherwise have failed. Now she had found something that beggared belief.

Sleep came slowly as she struggled with her finding. Dare I risk any chance of being accepted for my degree course? If they laugh at my finding, I will never reach the capital or even the local university. But if I were to hide this and they were to find out, then I would be left to be a waitress here.

The next morning, she took a deep breath and prepared an email to the head of astronomy at the leading scientific university, one well beyond any that she could look to be accepted by.

Her parents had looked on in concern – was she risking her whole future? How had she got the email address of such a pre-eminent scientist? He was one of the originators of the programme and his name was on the website. So, he had to be the one. If she was wrong perhaps, he would recognise that it would be wrong to hide the result even if she had misread it.

She went back to the original data and tried to prove herself wrong – was there any new data? She started a search programme. Only minutes later fresh images appeared. To her horror they simply reinforced what she had worked out. Something was heading towards them and it didn’t look natural. Surely, surely someone else had seen this?

In the end she thought, if no-one knows then I would be wrong and I can’t hope to be a true scientist if I hide data I don’t like. She gritted her teeth and pressed send.

The tiny vessel had coasted across the abyss between the stars. For over a million years it had carried a message from its makers. “We are ****. ** are *am*o*. List*n to our so**ds.”

As the craft had travelled it had had its outer skin gradually worn away. The abyss was not completely empty and every so often a particle would collide with the alien presence. Nothing not of a natural source should have been there. Rare as the impacts where they had reached hundreds of millions over the time the probe had been out of its sun’s system.

Then the amazing had happened. The scientists would have had you believe that it was inevitable that the probe would reach a star system eventually but only if it survived millions of years, now in less than one million it had been caught by the gravity of a star.

The email had managed to get past his several levels of assistants and that annoyed him. That programme should have been killed off years ago. These idiots couldn’t find a new star if they had it pointed out to them. At least it had kept them off his back after the telescope had been left to run itself on automatic. It should have failed an age ago but had we really made such a robust tool? It seemed so.

He sighed. If this had reached his desk then he would have to waste time looking at the data and the ridiculous assumption made by some young nerd wanting to be important. He thought a moment – and decided that when it proved worthless his assistants would really feel his wrath. He turned to the datafile and started to look at it – carefully, for he did not believe in trying to skimp on such things even when he was sure they were rubbish, it was not how he had learned understand the universe, at least as far as he could. The file opened….

The craft shuddered as it ran through a zone of asteroids. Somehow it avoided any serious impacts while its course was slowly altered towards a planet.

The professor sat motionless. “Get out!” he snarled at one of his team who interrupted him. The data was unbelievable but also undoubtedly real. Why had no-one else seen this? Was the new technology a waste of time? It took time but eventually he called his team in and briefed them.

“That’s stupid.” Was the response from one junior. “Sir.” He added belatedly.

“Really? I hope you can prove that because if you can’t you might want to re-write your paper.”

The junior undergraduate winced and scurried away wishing the floor to open up and swallow him.

“I have claimed time on every telescope we have including the solar probe. We need to examine this object. The data is totally clear. It is not of our solar system and it does appear to be artificial. When there is an investigation, its question will be “how did we miss this?”.

His deputy breathed carefully before. “How did we find it, sir?”

The explanation silenced his remaining team. “One of those nerds! That’s impossible.”

The professor gritted his teeth. “I will be inviting that “nerd”, as you call her, to come here and I will offer her a scholarship for a degree.”

“Really, just for that?”

“Just for that. I have looked into her background. At best she had hoped to study at the City University. And it is my belief that she would have feared the reaction if she was wrong. She might have lost everything. It took courage and an acceptance of the risk in reporting what she had found. I imagine she would have thought – could I be wrong? In the end she believed, as she said in her email, that hiding it was worse. That takes everything a scientist needs. Now we need to understand what this thing really is. Before it hits the planet.”

The entire scientific community was coerced into studying the object.

The probe continued its journey towards the star and the single object close in. When launched the data included had no definition of what a planet might be, for the makers had looked to study their planets not those of a star system hardly visible from its origin, so far in the past that even its makers might no longer exist. The gravitational pull of the star was accelerating it to a velocity faster than it had known since a few months after its launch, a million years before.

The “nerd” arrived in the professor’s rooms, nervous as was only to be expected given the status of the invitation. The greeting was not as she might have expected. The professor first complimented her before explaining that she might never undertake her degree. She had given the leaders a chance but if they failed then the planet would suffer an impact such that life would be extinguished.

“I am sorry that I cannot promise more. The object may well be artificial but its speed and size place us at great risk. We are going to try and divert its course and that is only because you showed courage. Had you not risked your career we would certainly have all died without knowing why. The end would have come at us without warning.”

The probe continued its acceleration. Its sensors came alive as it soaked up the solar energy but it was primitive and had no ability to change its course. Ahead it could see another object.

“Citizens, please be aware that we have managed to fire rockets at this object. We can now only pray that they will be enough to destroy this monster. The next few hours will be critical.”

And the following hours were.

For the probe the end would be sad. A million years would not end with communication with another civilisation but with its end. One way or another the probe faced oblivion. We cannot know whether that would include the death of another civilisation that had grown on a planet no bigger than……


April 08, 2022 22:19

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