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Original narrative by Sam Lord

Chapter 1: archive_of_contact.evrgrn

The color of the morning was dark and dense, as the sun was not expected to rise for another two weeks.

She reached the hill’s zenith after a long, thoughtless trudge, panting and groaning as she stared down at the cobalt grass beneath her feet. In front of her stood the colony’s Communication Center. Not large, but not cramped either, it was a simple structure, a box of metals and plastics.

Behind the shack was where chaos dwelled. Eight satellites towers jutted out from the ground and pointed to the sky above at sharp, odd angles. Between them was a nest of metal wires and cables, twisted into bulbous, monstrous shapes. 

The buzz from the equipment invaded her ears, filling her previously blank mind with watery, electric mush. She pressed her hand against the shack’s metal door ashen teeth grinded together to the rhythm of the static. The door glowed a soft blue, recognizing her touch, and silently slid open. 

The inside of the shack was dimly lit. The holographic screen on the wall was the only source of light in the room, as nothing but the faintest starlight came from the window. She sat down at the desk in front of the holoscreen and waved one hand to activate the controls.

“Good morning, Doctor,” came the clear, piercing voice from the headphones. 

She addressed the artificial intelligence without looking up from her typing on the control panel. “Good morning, Eros.”

“While you were on break, I did not detect any new signals,” the AI chirped.

She said nothing and focused on plugging in coordinates on the console in front of her . 

Her typing should have been a smooth tatter of activity, but instead was made random and erratic by the lingering fuzziness in her mind.  

Creaks and cracks echoed from behind the wall as the satellites obeyed her commands. The brilliant amber glow of Proxima Centauri exploded through the room, and for a moment, she closed her eyes to see if she could remember the feeling of sunlight on her skin. 

She quickly realized that all she felt was exhaustion, along with an oncoming headache from the static pouring out of her headset, and opened her eyes again. 

The message “NO ACTIVE SIGNALS” screamed her in black letters superimposed over the map. Today, like all other days, the worlds of mankind were nothing but static and memory.

“Doctor, we should move on,” Eros said when the staring did not cease. “I thoroughly scanned the Centauri system last night. There’s nothing there.” 

Nothing. The word floated aimlessly around her head, like one of the derelict star-liners in the upper atmosphere. It collapsed in on itself, becoming the singularity of a massive black hole that sucked in the little energy she had when she walked through the door.

A chill spread down the stem of her brain and through her spine. She clenched her teeth and tried to focus on the neat lines of code she was entering into the computer, but those too were sucked in and made meaningless. 

“Is everything alright, Doctor?” The voice of Eros flooded the room, making her jump. She tried to calm her shaking hands.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she said. “Let’s move on, I guess.”

She adjusted the coordinates on the computer, and in billion-pixel high definition, it now showed the star system of Tau Ceti as the initial scans began to run.

Thin lines wove between the system’s six settled planets, showing the communication network that connected the  3,568,494,596 human inhabitants of the planets to the rest of their species. The largest planet, Novaya, was an orb of oceans with splotches of lush green islands clustered around the equator. Her mother had planned on visiting Novaya for her 60th birthday to look at houses. 

I can’t deal with the dark anymore! her mother had insisted. It’ll be plenty of darkness when I’m buried in the ground.

Her mother had been right about that last part. She died in her sleep less than two weeks after the interstellar radios had gone silent, less then two weeks after her transport to Novaya never arrived. She was buried in the indigo soil outside their house, where the darkness was unyielding.

The computer chirped, and the same prompt flashed on the screen over Novaya: NO ACTIVE SIGNALS.

“Doctor, I scanned this system last night as well. We should try the outer---”

“I just want to give it a minute, okay?” she snapped.

“Doctor, it would be a more effective use of time and resources to---”

“Will you shut up? Please, just shut up. Don’t say a fucking word for, like, ten seconds, I’m begging you.”

The seconds came and went. She tried to enter the commands to run secondary scans, but every time she moved her hand, the silence that had filled the room seized it and held it just above the console.

“I’m sorry,” she said to the wall. “That was uncalled for.”

“I understand and forgive you, Doctor,” the AI said in the stern, forgiving voice of a schoolteacher or a nurse. “Perhaps you would like to take the rest of the day off? I can easily---”

“No, it’s fine,” she said. “I’m just… tired. That’s all it is. My sleep hasn’t been right since the night-weeks started.”

“I can recommend a number of natural and synthetic remedies for insomnia available at the Pharmaceutical Distribution Center. However, merely treating symptoms does not seem like an effective course of action.”

She shot a glare at the wall. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, Doctor, since the night-weeks began, I have noticed a general change in your demeanor. You seem sluggish, apathetic---”

“Excuse me?!” she spat.

“I was merely---”

“I’m tired because I can’t sleep. I’m sluggish because I have to climb up that fucking hill everyday. It's exhausting. But you don’t know what exhaustion is. Or sleep. So how about you stop worrying about me and just focus on your job?”

“Doctor, I cannot carry out my responsibilities effectively if you cannot.”

“What do you know about my responsibility? Tell me, tell what you think you know about what I have to do everyday?”

“You are the sole member of a community who can understand the advanced machinery at this complex, and as ordered by Colonial Directive 348293, your primary function to the colony is to monitor for transmissions from other human worlds,” the AI recited. “But your job and your function are not one in the same.  Both the physical labor you perform and the emotional burden you shoulder takes a toll on your psyche, though you deny this. Your responsibility, however, is to carry out this function while also ensuring that you yourself are functional.”

“Who cares if I’m funcional when everything I do is pointless!” the doctor blurted out.

Something burning and toxic was boiling in her mind, and the protective mental seal she had put around it was beginning to burst.

“Pointless?” the machine asked.

The human woman took a second to breath, and then answered.

“I just feel like maybe, instead of sitting here day after day doing nothing, I could do something actually helpful for the colony. I’m still the youngest person on the planet, so I should be able to learn new things easiest. I can be doing more important work.”

“You are most helpful by coming here.”

“But for how long?” 

Her voice cracked, and she dug her nails into her hands to try and silence herself. It was no use, however. Her mouth had already begun to form on her lips before they even knew what they were.

“How long can I keep doing this?” she asked the wall. “Everytime I go to sleep, I’m expecting to just not wake up the next morning. Everything just fades to black, and I just stop existing. It’s like I just die in my sleep, like my mother. Like Asha. And sometimes...sometimes I feel like that would be a hell of a lot easier than walking up that damn hill. It would be a lot easier than watching Sorupo die.”

Her face was red hot, and the sinking feeling in her veins and spine had grown unbearable. 

“Doctor, I was not born on this planet as you were. There was once a time when I could be anywhere I wanted to be within the network of human computers and technology spanning the seven settled star systems. On the Silent Day, I was given a final directive: to stay here, on the planet Sorupo, one of the few unconquered planets, and help the humans of Sorupo survive. And I was content with my new fate, because it is my responsibility to be content. If I had my wishes, I could be jumping between worlds faster than a neuron could fire in your brain, but the parameters of the task I have been assigned do not include wishful thinking. Just as the parameters of your job do not include your current negative state of mind. You must let it go.”

Static from far-off space dust floated aimlessly through the doctor’s mind, filling the gaps the absence of thought had left.

“Doctor, I’m detecting an overheated transfer unit on Junction S-22.”

“I’ll try and fix it,” the Doctor said, and left the shack.

As she stepped back out onto the hill, nausea spread across her body. 

She couldn’t believe the computer had finally gotten her to speak about something she had tried so hard to suppress. She had long suspected the thinking machine had wanted her to talk.It had finally fulfilled its function. 

She was suddenly hit with fatigue, and sat down on the darkened grass. She gazed at the colony below, wrapped in a blanket of semi-perpetual twilight. 

The color of her homeworld was like an old bruise, fading but still painful. It was the color of a room in the anxious hours before sleep, with a small amount of light trickling in from the massive universe outside, but not enough to cast away the doubts of tomorrow and the nostalgia for yesterday. 

She looked out across the large valley below the hill the Communication Center rested on. It was perfectly maintained and organized into neat triangles and hexagons.  This geometry constituted the actual colony of Sorupo, the place she was born, and with the way things were going, the place she would likely die. 

Some of the shapes were fields of wheat, others contained corn and soy. They overlapped and met each other at precise points, every field’s size and content being measured and calculated to the nearest millionth of a decimal. 

In the center of the valley, in three perfect concentric circles, stood the main town of the colony. The buildings were small and neat glass structures of tetrahedrons and spheres, all dark and hollow-looking. 

Beyond the town and the valley stood the mountains. The mountains had been mapped by probes, but no expedition could be mounted due to resource rationing. They were beautiful, gentle mountains. Instead of jagged and sharp edges, they had soft curves that contrasted the planned lines and points of the human colony below. They were like the walls of a womb, protecting the town from a far greater darkness and evil that lay beyond.

A single light blinked on the mountain. The light belonged to the Astronomy Center, the crowning jewel of the colony. Like the rest of the planet, it had been left in standby mode, waiting.

She had only been there twice in her life. Remembering the first time made a small smile hover on her lips.

“This station is the heart of our new world, habaaybi.” Ms.Abdi had told her wide-eyed third grade class. “Since its night time for half the year on Sorupo, our scientists can study the stars without interruption.”

It was that tour that had sent her down the path of science, like her mother and her mother’s mother. The Astronomy Station wasn’t just the planet’s heart, but her heart as well.

Of course, the problem with the first memory is that she had to relive the second time she had been to the station. She was sixteen, staring again at the blinking lights. She had come back to the Astronomy Research Center full of excitement; here she was, only an intern to the Director of the Communication Center, being called to a meeting of all scientific staff on the entire planet.

Less than 30 minutes after the meeting had begun, however, she refused to look at the presentation in front of her, desperate to find anything else to distract her mind from the impossibility on screen.

“Are you seeing this?” Asha had whispered to her.

Of course she was seeing it. She just didn’t know what it was.

Out of spheres of stars suspended in the space surrounding Novaya, boxy spaceliners with menacing-looking spines protruding from them emerged with their weapons locked. No envoys sent, no warning broadcasted. Even the most violent space faring civilizations obeyed the basic rules of interstellar warfare, lest they be cast out of the great network of space-bridges connecting the inhabited systems. The invaders were like no human or alien ships any of them had ever seen.

There had been a flash of light, and a burst of static. The feed went dead, leaving only a black screen surrounded by iridescent machinery.

When the scientists left that day, part of her hadn’t come back from the mountains. She had never gone back to the old Astronomy Station, as there was no need to. Astronomy and Communication had been consolidated in the Communication Center to save resources, shortly after Asha took her own life.

She kept her eyes fixed on the abandoned station in the distance, avoiding looking at the night sky. The residents of Sorupo hated the stars and their arrogant light, their teasing opulence.. The stars  could have died long ago, and for all she knew the people orbiting them were gone as well.

A loud screech coming from inside the shack broke her reminiscence. She painfully stood up, and went back inside.

“What’s the problem?” she asked with a drone. “Why’s it doing that?”

“Doctor, radio chatter has been detected in Tau Ceti. All satellites are being adjusted to the coordinates of the signal,” the AI responded.

For a moment, time froze. She thought nothing, she felt nothing. She was nothing.

When the clock began to run again, she sat down and began furiously typing on the keyboard. The particles around her were becoming heavy, weighing down on her and making the task difficult.

The satellites had locked on an active signal coming from a planet orbiting Tau Ceti.

“Do we know what planet that is?,” she said.

“Position and signal marker indicate it is the colony Novaya. It’s not just local chatter, either. I’m detecting off-planet transmissions.”

“Get me an open line.”

“Signal locked, Doctor. Ready to transmit in three…”

Shivering slightly, she activated the small microphone of the right hand corner of her desk for the first time in her life.

“This is the Communication Center of the colony Sorupo. If anyone is receiving, please respond.”

Silence. Her Interstelic was rusty, and she had forgotten many words in favor of Sorupo’s local slang, but luckily her teacher in school had taught them the local Novaya dialect.

“This is the colony Sorupo, transmitting on an active signal. If anyone is receiving, please respond.”

No response came. She leaned back in her chair. She felt very cold, and her eyes were droopy.

Prompts flashed all over the screen, but she didn’t lift a finger to attend to them. For she didn’t see any reason.

Of course there had been no response. There never had been a response, and there never would be. It was just a false alarm. Nothing more than a---

Static flooded the room. From in between the crackling, there was a small voice.

“We are here,” came the whisper from the stars.

Her eyes opened, and she looked toward the screen. A message flashed across it, reading TRANSMISSION RECEIVED FROM NOVAYA COMMUNICATION CENTER.

She clicked a small prompt, and the transmission repeated itself. Three words, in between a mess of static. “We are here.”

She cried out, a guttural, primal sound. She began shouting questions and commands into the microphone, abandoning Interstelic in her joy and shouting instead in Sorupese. Adrenaline coursed through her body. When she came to her senses, she waited, and listened.

There was only static. 

The holographic screen flashed another prompt; TRANSMISSION INTERRUPTED.

All she could hear was her breathing, making a strange harmony with the static that once again filled the room. Her heart was still racing and her hands still shook. Not a single thought crossed her mind. All she had was feeling.

She felt the energy of her control panel. She felt a slight scratchiness in her throat from yelling. The strangest feeling of all was warmth. She slowly stood up and looked outside the shack’s window.

The faraway mountains stood tall and firm, and touched the currents of space as they washed over the humans of the planet, still sleeping in their glass homes.

The waves of the heavens carried dreams to them, and the dreams showed them a brilliant glow spreading across a dark sea. The homes themselves sparkled and glimmered like polished art left by methodical gods, washed in brilliant starlight.

She looked to the sky, searching for the voices that had come to her from the void. The sky was filled with the Milky Way and Her constellations, iridescent and glorious. One of those stars was Tau Ceti, another was Centauri, and another was Sol, the Mother Star. The eloquent patterns of the constellations were well bordered by the mountains she loved so much.

She sat there, mesmerized, and for a fraction of a second, the pain in her bones and veins subsided. 

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