The Paragon of Animals

The Paragon of Animals

The ship fell towards the star on a pillar of flame a light-second long. It was moving slowly now. Over the last months, Zoe had watched the stars emerge from the glare surrounding the forward shield, little points of brilliant blue light visible through the plasma plume. Every morning she came to the observation room and looked through the floor and watched the ocean of stars slowly flooding the sky. Each day they were a little less brilliant, a little less blue. Now it was hard to tell that there were more below than above. She could look through the diamond windows and imagine that she was back in Utopia. But above her there was always the red point of Sol. She could never go home.

In her other field, the countdown was running. For a moment she faced the machine. Graphs showed the energy of the capacitors, the temperature of the coils, the output of the fusion reactor. Another display showed projections of the trajectory of the payload relative to Empedocles. The railgun ran a sequence of magnet tests. The payload was working through its own diagnostics. She monitored the checklist as it flickered to green. A counter reached zero. For a brief moment the floor shuddered. She looked back to the ship and saw the cylinder of the probe occluding the stars as it raced away. As she watched, her own view was seamlessly merged with that of the ship's scopes and she seemed to ride along with it. The package hung motionlessly before her. With a suddenness that made her jump, the probe shed its outer shell, burned its engines to turn towards the target, and began to unfold. Such a beautiful thing: a mechanical flower blossoming silently and gracefully into a telescope ten metres across. In the other field, a disc swam into view. Blue brushed with swirls of white. Patches of brown edged with amber. Oceans and continents. A world. Isis.

* * *

"I think you should see this. It's a picture from one of our recon sats. The image was taken almost ten hours ago by a sat passing over the west coast of Isis' second continent."

Zoe glanced at the image for a moment and then faced the room. Alexei was floating in front of her. His physical presence meant it was important but she couldn't tell if he was excited or scared beneath his facade of military coolness. She looked at the image again, studying it carefully this time.

"It's an oblique shot and partially obscured by cloud cover. The viewing conditions weren't ideal so it took a while for the expert system to flag it as interesting."

The picture showed a small region of the tidal flats that stretched for hundreds of kilometres along the continent's coast. At the upper edge of the image were little clusters of amber vegetation, at the lower edge the dark ocean. Between, so blurred it was almost imperceptible, stretched a honeycomb of pools. She reached up with one hand and traced their dark edges.

"Those aren't the only ones. I asked the ship to search the image library and it thinks it's found seven more sites. I've retasked the sats and we should have better images this afternoon."

"Artificial structures?"


There had been no communications leakage, no industrial pollutants or synthetic isotopes in Isis' atmosphere, no artificial lighting, no machinery in orbit or on Osiris, no visible transport infrastructure.

"You're sure?"



* * *

Empedocles carried a modest armament. Its main drive could sterilise worlds. Almost hidden amongst the cluster of spheres and stretches of girders that made up its engineering module was a clutch of ten deadly black eggs - stealthed aeroshells with antimatter warheads. The concertinas equally spaced around the neck between the engineering section and the habs were folded railguns. Their magazines held kinetic-kill weapons, sensor drones and fusion bombs. Point-defence massdrivers were scattered across its hull. The six black pipes running the length of the ship were coaxial x-ray lasers and neutral particle beams. Two of the hanger locks held hypersonic aerospace fighters. There were cargo bays with boarding drones, cluster bombs, automated tanks, tac-missiles, hunter-killers, combat suits, small arms. But these trifling weapons were dwarfed by the deadly data it carried. Within Empedocles' memories were the designs of every weapon the Sphere had ever designed.

Zoe was working from the observation deck again. For a while she watched the robots slowly moving across the planetoid, melting and processing the ice. Nearby was the skeleton of the new rocket stage that would one day power Empedocles as it accelerated away from this system to its next target in the Deep Periphery. Diagrams in her other view showed not just this little world but the thousands of others that were slowly being taken apart by her machines. Higher levels showed the fusion reactor stations that the ice would power, and then the antimatter distilleries that provided the ultimate product: the fuel for Empedocles and the other ships. Already she commanded more heavy industry than the average planetary economy, but this was just the beginning. At last, she turned away from the window and started to reconfigure the manufacturing trees.

* * *

Isis Station was a small square of metal floating in the deep ocean near the coast of the second continent. The surface of the station was criss-crossed with runways and dotted with VTOL pads, sensor arrays, the discarded husks of aeroshells and a dozen types of aircraft. Almost hidden amongst the machinery was a small human figure. Sunlight danced over the waves and cast complex tangles of shadow across the deck. The man shaded his eyes and looked out towards the coast. Occasionally he saw flashes from the wings of the gliders as their angles caught the light and it overwhelmed their camouflage polymer. Most of the time they were all but invisible, their outlines just slight discontinuities in the background sky. Without his overlays he would've lost them entirely.

In another field Jean looked through a glider's eyes as it made a low pass along the beach. He kept the cameras locked on the Fisher colony in the distance. A floor of sand and shingle and mud raced beneath him. Sometimes he passed over a tendril of orange vegetation that extended towards the sea from the inland jungles or an outcrop of rock on which little exoskeletal creatures sunned themselves. Above, the sky was a deep blue streaked here and there with high cloud. He strained against the limits of his resolution. The colony was a cluster of seventeen hexagonal pools that extended across the tidal region. The walls were causeways of rock cemented with mud. Some of the cells were full of clear water that dazzled his optics with reflections of the sun, but others were choked with polyps and fronds. The long, snakelike forms of Fishers moved lazily through several ponds. He longed to be down there with them, to be the first human ever to come face to face with a being from another world. He watched a Fisher that was coiled on one of the walls. The front of its body reared up, and it slowly twisted its sinuous neck back and forth as it scanned the pool. Suddenly it plunged its head forward into the water. The pool clouded with mud and the Fisher jerked its head back, swallowing its prey in huge gulps. Then the glider banked and the view filled with sky and the creature was gone.

* * *

A physical person, an avatar, an agent and a jinn stood on the flight deck of the station as they waited for the transport to land. The roar of the turbofans shook the ground beneath Jean's feet and the heat of the exhaust washed over him. Everyone watched quietly as the transport VTOL corrected its position so that it was over the centre of the pad, gently descended until its wheels made contact, and then powered down its engines. The black wedge of the airframe shimmered in the haze. Finally the expectation became too much for them and Alexei's avatar broke the silence.

"Jean, summarise what we know."

"Okay. The Fishers are an amphibious, omnivorous species. They construct clusters of artificial tidal pools that they use to confine their prey. They may also be growing crops in the pools. They live in bands or tribes of between a handful and several dozen individuals. They appear to have a sophisticated language..."

"Why do you say they only appear to?"

Alexei's avatar lagged very slightly. He was speaking from the Operations Room of the expedition's flagship, one of three attack carriers equally spaced in synchronous orbit. The capital ships were supported by twenty escort vessels. There were more weapons platforms in low orbit, smaller fleets at the Isis-Osiris Lagrange points, reserves out in the asteroid belt. He was still feeling a little nervous. He'd rather have waited until construction of the full fleet was complete before deploying forces in the inner system, but Jean had insisted on venturing to the surface.

"They might just be simple signals. However, Empedocles and I have put together a plausible scheme for partioning the signals into sentences and a possible dictionary of lexemes. The distribution of sentence lengths and the entropies of tokenisations of sample signals are broadly in the range of human natural languages."

"Okay, go on."

"The Fishers seem to have a complex social hierarchy. They use simple tools built from the structural elements of the tree-analogues. There is some ambigious evidence for cultural transmission..."

"Many of your statements are conjectural."

"That's why it's so important to examine one closely. We can only learn so much by remote observation and stealth spybots."

"Excuse me," the jinn interrupted. "We've now finished the post-landing checks and so we can begin the transfer."

* * *

Jean peered through the window. He heard the clattering of the drones' legs on the deck, saw their reflections in the diamond pane. Each of the mechanical spiders had adjusted its position when he moved forward. Annoyed by the distraction, he edited the window pane from his vision. The Fisher was lying on the far side of the chamber. Its fins fluttered for a moment and then it coiled more tightly. Perhaps it was asleep. He reached up and tapped the window and it jerked its head towards him, suddenly alert. The creature dipped its head and then swayed it from side to side. He noticed that its eyes traversed as it moved, keeping its gaze fixed upon him. Suddenly it unfolded its mouthparts, let out three deep bellows, began clicking its claws and shuddered convulsively so that its fin spines rose and fell. Then it began to move slowly towards him, its body sliding over itself in a complex pattern like some hellish snake. He fought his urge to step backwards. As it neared the window he glanced quickly towards the drones. The black curves of their gun pods were suddenly reassuring.

* * *

The sky was an obsidian vault scattered with millions of stars. There was a gentle breeze and the slightest hint of salty spray in the air. The station rolled a little as long, slow waves made their way to the distant shore. The only sounds were the gentle hum of the reactors and the whispering of the ocean. The brilliant disc of Osiris was low in the sky. A little higher was the ruby smudge of Sol. He focused on the nebula and zoomed until he was looking through one of the network's telescopes. From this far away they couldn't resolve any of the filaments or structures, just the bright pink of the outer ring, the dimmer blue within, and the brilliant point of the central star. For a moment, it was a demonic eye, staring back at him, menacing. He shivered slightly though the night was warm. A slight perfume of metadata seeped into his awareness. He turned, and Zoe's avatar was there. She was masterminding the construction of the interferometers on Osiris now so they could talk in real-time. He smiled and for a while they stood together watching the sea and the sky.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?"

Zoe nodded, but said nothing. She seemed lost in her own thoughts.

"I wish I could study this world my whole life. Study the Fishers"

"I know." She closed her eyes for a moment. "But you can't - we have a job to do."

"Do you ever think we might be wrong?"


A fighter drone raced above them, the scream of its scramjets and the booming of its shockwave tearing apart the silence of the night. The Fisher began to hiss and shriek in its pen.

"Is that really necessary?" He gestured in the direction of the drone, already half way to the horizon.

"You know it is."

"Alexei's just paranoid. He thinks the Fishers are hiding a battle fleet..."

"There might be more than Fishers here." Her gaze flickered for a moment towards Sol. "We need depth of defence so we can deal with anything."

"I'm sure the Sol Expedition thought they could handle anything too. The Fishers aren't a threat yet. Anything else..."

She nodded, remembered. They were silent again.

* * *

[Scene with detailed xenology goes here]

* * *

The galaxy hung before them, vast and luminous. Countless stars were bleeding into a whirlpool of blazing light. A dust of rubies coloured the core. Nebulae were soot smeared across the brightness. The globular clusters were motes dancing in the deep night. The view shifted. She was overwhelmed with a sensation of falling. The brilliant clouds became a wall racing towards her. Suddenly, she was inside. Stars swirled past her like snowflakes lost in a storm. She slowed, stopped. Around her burned the constellations of an alien sky.

* * *