Starlight on the Water

The lake was first discovered by scientists using the Hubble II telescope way back in ’39. At the time, it was merely a small curiosity in a galaxy filled with them, none of which we could do much more than speculate on and occasionally say, “ooh, neat,” about. That all changed in ’82 when Krueztner and Fields applied for the patent on their logically, if un-originally named Krueztner Field Device.

But even after the first prototype EFTL-drive manned vessel rolled out of the factory, the lake was somewhere in the bottom half of the things scientists most wanted to explore. It ranked above, “funny oval-shaped asteroid in elliptical orbit around the third gas giant in Rigel Kentarus,” but below, “that nebula in Andromeda that sort of looks like a candy-cane.” So it was many years, and thousands of missions, before anyone got around to visiting the lake. In the meantime, we had discovered life on other planets (none of it sapient, of course), built the first true artificial intelligence, and cured the common cold.

When we finally did travel to the lake, it was a small mission comprised of three scientists in a hundred year old EFTL vessel meant for a full team of ten. The trip took six weeks, even with Effectively-Faster-Than-Light travel methods. The trip was, by all accounts, boring and quiet. The vessel felt, according to Dr. King, the mission leader, “practically empty.” The mission on site was expected to take no more than a handful of days. Go out, get some samples, take some readings, and head home. That was the mission. The Agency even booked the vessel they took for another mission four days after their expected return.

What they found when they arrived was not what anyone expected. Not that anyone knew that right away, of course.

The first clue that anyone had that anything was wrong was when the mission scheduled to use the vessel after Dr. King’s team complained to the Agency that the vessel wasn’t ready for them. The Agency checked around and realized that the vessel had not returned. It took a couple of weeks before another vessel, one suited for a reconnaissance and rescue operation, could be outfitted and dispatched. The rescue vessel was a newer model, with a better EFTL drive, and so the outbound trip only took them three weeks.

When they arrived, the rescue vessel personnel immediately began scanning the area around the lake for signs of Dr. King’s mission. There was no trace of the first vessel, however they did record some residual radiation from the lake, consistent with the type of generator used by older model vessels like King’s.

Captain Kelso, the leader of the R&R mission, ordered computation for an EFTL skip that would put the rescue vessel a number of light-weeks away from the lake corresponding to the number of weeks since King’s vessel should have first arrived. The rescue vessel then skipped away from the lake.

Emerging again from EFTL they immediately deployed every type of sensor they could, all aimed at the lake. A vast web of sensors on a massive, kilometers-wide net, was spread out to increase the resolution of the information gained. The sensors fed the data they recorded into computers, which in turn attempted to create a composite of events that had happened months ago, when the research vessel first arrived.

Once all the relevant data was assembled, the crew gathered around large holo-immersion tanks to watch. At first, nothing interesting happened. The research vessel arrived and simply sat there. Scientists on the rescue vessel concluded that Dr. King and his people were using passive sensors at first. A few hours after arrival, the research vessel had directed a series of small EM radiation bursts at the lake. The scientists guessed that they were using their active sensors, perhaps attempting to penetrate the depth of the vast sphere of water in order to see if there was anything else inside. More time passed, and then a large burst of radio wave signals emerged from the research vessel in all directions. Moments later, energy signatures consistent with an attempt to utilize the EFTL drive flared briefly, and then all energy from the research vessel ceased. It was as if the vessel had entered EFTL, and never emerged again.

The crew of the rescue vessel was silent for a time after the replay finished. Then one, a senior engineer named Hotchkiss, suggested playing that burst of radio wave signals through the normal communications software. He theorized that it was possibly a distress call of some sort.

Several scientists scoffed at this, pointing out that any normal radio-wave signal sent by the research vessel would not reach the nearest inhabited planet for many dozens of years at the speed of light. Running the data through the communications software was a very minor task that took almost no resources, however, so Captain Kelso ordered it done. And it turned out that Hotchkiss was right. The signal turned out to be a message, in Dr. King’s voice.

“Holy shit, that thing is huge! It… it’s coming for us. Shit. Um, anyone who hears this, do not approach the water nebula at 18 by 12.25 by 5.8! Do not scan the water! Just let it sleep! Oh god, it’s reaching for us! Get us out of here! Get us out of here now!”

The crew returned to analyzing the data, looking for anything they may have missed before, and focusing more intently on the lake itself. Hours passed before Dr. Sprecher, a junior physicist, informed Captain Kelso that she had discovered a sudden spike in antineutrino emissions from the lake just before the research vessel’s distress call. This information was passed along to the other departments, but for a time it seemed like a mere curiosity. No other types of radiation, particles, waves, or any other sort of interesting phenomena could be gleaned from the lake.

The rescue vessel spent another day trying to learn more before Captain Kelso decided that it was time to go home. The sensor web was reeled in and secured, except for one small cluster that had somehow managed to become semi-detached and wouldn’t fit back into the storage bay. Kelso logged that he had decided to go ahead and skip anyways, just assuming that the stray sensor would sheer off in transit. The calculations were made and entered, and the vessel skipped into EFTL.

When the vessel arrived back at the Agency hangar, Kelso was expected to brief his superiors about the mission, and present the full report that he should have composed during the trip back to Earth. However, half an hour after landing, the vessel remained closed and all attempts to hail them were ignored. The vessel was scanned for radiation or other potentially dangerous substances, but the scans revealed nothing.

Attempts to open the vessel from the outside failed; someone had triggered the emergency lock-down from inside. Eventually, technicians were brought in to cut the hatch open with portable laser welders. Several senior Agency representatives were present to greet Kelso, but again he failed to emerge. The Agency people went aboard to look for him. What they found would have haunted them for the rest of their lives, except it was eventually eclipsed by what they learned later.

There was not a living soul aboard the rescue vessel. There were signs of violence everywhere. Forensic teams were brought in, and their conclusions were chilling: of the thirty-five people aboard the rescue vessel, twelve had been murdered and the rest had taken their own lives. There was no immediate evidence why the massacre took place; the Captain’s last log was from three days into the return trip and he did not indicate anything was wrong. There was a side note that senior engineer Hotchkiss had informed him that, against all expectations, that one lone sensor was still feeding data to the computers. The investigators found no traces of poison, hallucinogens, gas, contaminated food or water, in short, nothing at all to explain what happened to those people.

Nothing, that is, until they started looking deeper into the computers. In an attempt to solve the mystery, computer technicians were assigned to trace the computer usage of each member of the vessel in the final day. They discovered that one file in particular had been accessed many times. They dug around and discovered that it was the data from the sensor web, recorded after the ship went into EFTL. There should have been nothing there, but that one rogue sensor had stayed active.

Senior Agency officials arrived to watch the footage, and what they saw replaced the images of the dead crewmen as their long-term nightmare fuel.

It seemed innocuous at first. The sensor recorded nothing at all on the visual spectrum, of course. Wherever it is that vessels go when they enter EFTL, there is no visible light. This has been known since the very first prototype vessel was sent through. That vessel had, in a fit of optimism on the part of the designers, windows. It was the only one ever to carry them, since there was nothing on the other side, nothing to see and no light with which to see it.

Or so we thought.

While there was no visible light for the sensor to record, it did record other things. Patterns of antineutrino activity, to be exact. Groupings of higher density of antineutrinos that would come and go. A computer model had been made of the patterns in an attempt to figure out what the sources were. If there were black holes or other strange things that had never before been noticed in EFTL, that would represent a possible danger to other vessels travelling there. The computer model was created by the crew of the rescue ship to try to determine how common these sources were, how large, and attempt to ‘map’ them as well as could be accomplished given the situation.

This, then, is what drove the crew of the rescue vessel insane. This is what drove them to kill each other and themselves. This is what gave life-long nightmares to anyone who viewed that model. This is why all EFTL use was made illegal. This is why the great Terran Empire collapsed overnight.

The model showed that there were quite a few sources of antineutrinos. The sources were large, larger than the vessel, although still small by celestial standards. The very largest, which was quite far away, looked about the size of a single main-sequence star, but most of the rest of them were no larger than a tall building. In itself, this was alarming but not cause for panic. But it was the distance tracking that was the issue. The sources were moving. And not just orbiting that large sun-sized one either. No, they were moving independently.

Some would move erratically. Some would approach the rescue vessel and then retreat, or parallel it for a time before moving on. Under their own power.

The computer even tried to predict what the sources were shaped like. One of the sources traveled with the vessel long enough to get a fairly good idea of it’s general shape from it’s emissions. It wasn’t round like a sun or a planet. It wasn’t roughly football-shaped like an asteroid.

It was bulbous, like a pear, with a smaller sphere attached at the narrow end. From the wider end, dozens of long, thick tendrils trailed ‘behind’ it like a squid. And spreading out on three sides, equidistant from the main body, were what could only be described as wings. Not fixed ones as you might see on an atmospheric craft. These wings moved and lazily flapped. Then the thing finally moved away from the vessel, the computer model showed it to rotate and flap two of it’s wings while using the third somewhat like a rudder on a sea-faring vessel.

Tracking the movements of several of the sources, there was no doubt. They were alive. Huge, monstrous things the size of tall buildings, living in the non-place that the EFTL drive passed through, and they were alive.

That was enough to induce nightmares, but it was the last two pieces of data that caused the madness, the death, the collapse of civilization.

The first was a small note from the sensor module that it was detecting pressure waves, rhythmic and pulsing, from the direction of the large sun-sized source. When the computer was questioned, the only similar types of waves it could find were those produced by audible sound in a gaseous medium, such as air. The computer recorded that one of the crew of the rescue vessel had ordered it to replicate those waves as audible sounds on the speakers. The Agency seniors had the computer do this again, and what came out was a sort of weak, tuneless piping sound over a dull, gibbering rhythm like a mindless, endlessly repeated chant.

But the last piece of data was the worst. Not simply by itself, but because of the conclusions it forced one to draw. The computer noted that the antineutrinos that the sensor recorded from the sources in EFTL were identical to the ones it recorded from the lake when the research vessel was lost. The conclusion was inescapable, and undoubtedly what rendered the crew of the rescue vessel mad enough to slaughter friends and selves. These things, these giant, horrible creatures that lived in the non-place that EFTL vessels pass through, were not confined to that place. At least one emerged from that lake, that nebula of water at 18 by 12.25 by 5.8. They were not confined to the other place, not locked safely away from the clean, sunlit worlds of Man.

They had a way out.

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