“After months of want and hunger, we suddenly found ourselves able to have meals fit for the gods, and with appetites the gods might have envied.” — Ernest Shackleton
A Tale of Hayward’s Reach
It tore at her as a ravenous beast might; the hunger. She had never believed it could hurt so. Was this what it was like to be so near to dissolution? This tenuous feeling that she might be flying apart, her molecules, thinner than gossamer, forced to feed. She was the thickness of a butterfly’s wing; a wisp floating in space.
She was weak, so weak that she could only consider the unthinkable, a blind jump to the nearest star and hope there might be food there. Hunger had not been something she had been accustomed to having grown up near the center of the galaxy, within the blazing confines of the galactic core. So beautiful, stars everywhere, light constantly bombarding her every surface, so bright, she was forced to condense herself and reflect light. Her neural network fluttered with the idea, light so abundant she could return it to space, uneaten.
Her current form, adapted for dark space travel was large, millions of miles across, diaphanous, and absorptive, capturing every stray photon, every bit of random hydrogen, every fragment of solar wind. But the pitiful scattering of radiation from stars in this portion of the galaxy would never be able to support one such as her unless she found a supply of new mass, and soon.
It had been many years since she had a substantial meal. Living on nothing but the sparse energy between the stars, she had grown lean. Once so powerful, she might have been mistaken for a star herself; she was now so enfeebled she did not even emit light, a flicker between the stars.
The last three unstable wormholes she discovered had taken her far from the galactic core and the abundant light sources she was accustomed to. In the beginning she did not panic. She was certain she would be able to find a path back to her part of the core. She had been assigned to study the rare pairing of two black holes circling each other in a collapsing orbit. Both stars spinning at hundreds of revolutions per second and circling each other in minutes, created a gravity song rarely heard by her people, who studied such phenomenon for the secrets to the underlying First Sound.
Suddenly, perhaps it was her own great mass, she had as much mass as a star herself back then, or perhaps some unknown equilibrium had been struck but the two stars event horizons collapsed into each other. They crashed together and the resulting energy blinded her and caused her to lose her equilibrium. The resulting gravity distortions disrupted her perception of the First Sound near her and she was unable to maintain the probability of her position and she was lost.
The energy of the explosion did not hurt her, of course, her species fed on the radiation of millions of stars, less than a few light years apart, as well as the gas scattered throughout the luminous core, a rich feeding area for her people who had lived for billions of years traveling the gravimetric fields, listening to the harmonies of the stars with their interacting fields of light, gravity, and super-string harmonies against the ominous baritone of the super-massive stellar mass that the entire galaxy revolved around.
Her people called the object at the core of the galaxy the First Sound. She missed its comforting vibrations of the gravity web she grew up in. Out here, its baritone was muted by distance, barely a ripple, but its reach is felt even here as all that is part of the First Sound stays close to it, surrounds it and moves through the universe bound to it. At this distance, though she barely knew it existed.
Her senses strained to their limit, she was aware of a tiny white dwarf on a nearby galactic arm, an island in this lonely part of space. She realized if there was no gas giants in this star system, she would starve to death in a few centuries, unable to activate her probability engine and return to her people. To die alone was the worse thing she could think of and that spurred her to take the rash action of jettisoning fifty percent of her remaining mass. She had barely more mass than a small planet now. She focused her attention on the star, and brought it into resolution. Ten times, fifty times, still not enough. One hundred times, one thousand times, she compensated for gravitation lensing caused by dark matter, she compensated for galactic drift, noted the declination in the fabric of space-time caused by the star. She would attempt to drop out of drive near the edge of its gravity well.
Then she waited. Two dozen years passed as she watched the star to see if there were other planets around it. And there was the flicker as a world passed in front of it, again and again, so quickly she was unsure of what she was seeing. The planet is massive, and its close to the star. It was a gas giant but so close to the star. How was she going be able to feed off of it, when it was so fast and she was so slow now. She would have to retain her speed now if she was to have any chance.
Another dozen years pass as her probability drive activated using nearly all of her remaining energy. Folding space-time, she willed herself to cross this vast gulf of space. She could see her family and hear the baritone of the First Sound. The jump took too much energy. She had been unconscious and only the proximity to the sun woke her. She was still moving fast, her jump had successfully conserved her movement.
The sun took up one third of the sky. Its gravity clawed at her, pulled her, drew her toward it. She looked around and prepared to redirect her course away from the star. Where was the gas giant? She looked around and only then did she realize she had miscalculated and was heading directly toward the world which was supposed to be her refuge. She had planned to come up from behind it, scoop the atmospheric mass that she needed, make the repairs necessary and leave once her drive was recharged.
That plan was gone now. At this angle of descent she would smash into the thick atmosphere of the planet and its violent storms and be destroyed. She had only one chance and not much time. She began to redistribute her mass. She shifted her non-vital mass and prepared to launch it away from herself. She was not used to working this quickly and many of her vital systems were still active. She would suffer memory loss, but she hoped it would be nothing vital. But she did not have the luxury of time.
She was used to having years to do things, now she had hours. She had never had to make decisions this quickly. She looked at the approaching gas giant and could see its gravity well going deep into the fabric of space-time. Its mass must be enormous. She would have one chance. She would use the last of her energy, to propel the inactive matter away from her and thrust toward the planet in order to ride into the gravity well and whip around the planet. If she timed it just right, she could arrange to end up trapped in a permanent Trojan orbit with the planet.
All of her computations said she would be held at the Trojan point indefinitely, but there was a large margin for error since she did not know enough about the planet’s atmospheric density, wind speeds or chemical makeup. She did not have the luxury of time. So much had gone wrong, she was simply without enough choices. There was also the matter of mass to be ejected. The most massive element of her remaining systems after her neural complex was her probability drive. She would need to eject it and work with her attitude systems only, and what she could reconfigure on the way down. which means if she is unsuccessful and cannot gain enough mass, she would never leave here.
Less than an hour remained. She prepared the probability drive for jettison; the mass she ejected would begin a spiral toward the sun. The information to build another was within her, but only if her neural complex could be saved. She streamlined herself and created a form capable of skimming the atmosphere. She would also attempt to grab some mass for analysis and conversion.
The time passed so quickly. She had not been this close to a sun in decades, and the radiant energy soothed her and she made peace with this insane plan. She ejected half of her mass again and material equal to the mass of the Earth fell away toward the white dwarf. The shunted mass redirected her, partially due to the action-reaction and partially because she became much more maneuverable. Her new, streamlined self hurtled toward the planet, and it grew large, obscuring the sun in a matter of minutes. She turned her belly toward the planet and she could sense the density of molecules increasing, gently at first and then more heavily. She rode the top of the cloud layer briefly while she picked up speed.
She opened her ram jets and ingested the matter. She saw she could burn it and her plan depended on this. She scooped it, compressed it and attempted to start the engines. No success. Fuel ratios, out of balance, must correct. She was beginning to catch too much atmosphere, she would begin to slow down. If she did not get these jets started she would begin to lose too much speed to escape.
Fuel mixture needed higher pressure, higher ignition rate, she needed to go deeper into the atmosphere. She inched her way into the atmosphere, her wide wings spread out, increasing the pressure bit by bit. Once she had the right pressure, the engines ignited and she had a sudden burst of speed, Then the engines performed better. The faster she went the faster they gathered mass. Her plan was working.
Then she noticed a storm below her and the ionization on her hull. As she moved through the atmosphere, she was building up ions on the hull making her attractive to the storm below. The storm was thousands of miles wide and would take her minutes to pass over. The first lightning strikes were the worst, as her cold hull was covered in ionized matter and gas. There was damage all over her body, systems overloading everywhere. She made what repairs she could internally and hoped she would be outside of the range of the storm shortly. As the hull heated due to friction and energy discharges, it lost its attractiveness and within a few hours the energy discharges stopped.
She extended her senses into the atmosphere of the planet and noticed there were differing layers, each with its own weather activity. And there was simple life here just below her layer in the clouds. A cloud creature of some sort, floating in groups like she and her family once did. She reconfigured her primary boosters to utilize a refined fuel she had been working with while studying the clouds. She was more than halfway around the planet and now needed to begin adding to her thrust profile. The ramjets would not be enough. She prepared her new fuel and pressurized the systems.
Each engine was the size of a mountain and she had hundreds of them. She activated them in a series of controlled operations, because to fire them all at once in atmosphere would tear her apart. The controlled burns began, each exploded with the force of a million nuclear weapons, in a sequence, faster and faster. Unexpectedly, the engines began to ignite the atmosphere, its natural chemical makeup allowed the powerful engines to ignite it and the flames surged out in a fire trail for thousands of miles, and once the storm started, it spread. She saw the flames surging toward the giant creatures and eventually overtake them.
They burned quickly, the gas that kept them buoyant was highly flammable. They did not suffer long. The last of her engines ignited and she was certain she would make it once the last step was made. She prepared the final jettison and fired the last of the main engines as she left the atmosphere. The ramjets and wings, hundreds of megatons fell away to burn up in the atmosphere, now she was just a needle, her core systems, her engines, her data network, her manufactorum, her ability to create a new her, was all that was left as she streaked away from the planet. As she entered the light of the sun, she flickered like a diamond and slowly came to rest in the Trojan orbit of the planet.
There was so little of her left. She could still see her fiery trail burning in the clouds, as the planet orbited beneath her. Now in geosynchronous orbit, she created a tendril of matter to drop into the atmosphere of the world. She also spread herself thin to gather the energy of the solar wind. With the tendril below, she would slowly siphon off mass from the planet. With the energy of the sun she would spread out until energy was flowing freely. This would allow her to rebuild herself over a few centuries.
Nearly a thousand years passed. She has grown from a tiny sliver of light to a massive moon of the great world below. And she has a satellite, a daughter moon of her own to ease her loneliness. She has told her daughter of the voice of the First Sound and how she can barely hear it from this location. She has told her of the probability drive and how it was almost complete. She would be able to take them back to the core and to their family. Unfortunately, the storms destroyed much of her memory of their migration routes so they would have to hunt for them. It might take some time, a few centuries at least.
Her daughter asks her about their sun, and their animals in the atmosphere of their Jovian world. She loved taking care of them and using her smaller bodies to joyride through the solar system.
Mother explains they will be fine and now that we have been here and lived here for so long, we will be able come back and see them any time she wants. This location would be keyed to their drives.
Her daughter tells her how happy that makes her and says she could not imagine living anywhere else.
Mother agrees with her daughter but will also be glad to be going home. This place saved her life and she was grateful, but it would never be home, even if she lived here for a thousand years. And she did. And it still wasn’t.
Hunger © Thaddeus Howze 2011. All Rights Reserved
Wow. Truly lovely story, really enjoyed it – a great balance of scientific detail and a human/emotional journey.
I have to admit, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of biological animal life that can feed off of sunlight for years, ever since I read a story by Philip Dick (the author I aspire to be…) about people who learn to sit in the sun and feed of its energy.
This story reminded me of that + also of the biological space-ship Moya from the tv series Farscape which was a living entity in every sense.
Kudos on a very well-crafted narrative.