The Shifting Night Anomaly was so called at first because its margins seemed to change every so often, making it difficult, if not impossible, to map. We had sent probe after probe inside for three generations. Out of the near thousand probes that were deployed, only forty-seven were recovered. The more we learned about the anomaly, the more we realized how fitting the name was. There were no systems and no stars within, only remnants of dead worlds. Only strange and exotic gases. Only nebulas haunted by the ghosts of stars that flickered and faded before they could burst into life.
The anomaly was so vast, so mysterious, and so impractical to navigate that it effectively split our galaxy in two. We didn’t know what the other half of the galaxy called themselves. We called them the East Edge. And we called ourselves the West Edge, only because the acronym, WE, was considered charming by those who decided such things.
Ever since we were aware of the true extent of our galaxy, and the existence of the anomaly, we strove to understand the anomaly, and to connect with the other half of our galaxy.
I was built for that purpose. And my captain and crew were trained for that purpose.
Research and resilience. Those were our primary mission objectives.
We wouldn’t be the first to enter the anomaly, only the latest.
Three crewed ships were sent into the anomaly before us with the intention of crossing it to reach the East Edge. All three ships lost contact at some point. The ships were programmed to return home if they encountered any of hundreds of emergency scenarios. But none had. A secondary command directed the ships to push on if they’d gotten far enough into the anomaly. We all hoped that all three ships had made it through, but were just unable to return or communicate with us.
We all learned such details as we were still preparing for our first research mission. We were to spend three months within the anomaly, close enough to the outer edge to keep in contact with our people. And to leave the anomaly whenever we chose to.
Nineteen months before we were scheduled to plunge into the Shifting Night, an unexpected thing happened.
A crewless vessel emerged from the anomaly. The vessel had been sent from the East Edge. It contained messages of peace and friendship. And by the onboard chronometer, it had been sent decades prior. It had been instructed to collect data and samples along the way, and it had done so, providing us West Edge people with a rich trove of information.
That East Edge vessel brought us more information on the anomaly from its journey through it than we had gathered in generations of study from the outside.
We had never really studied the anomaly from deep inside, but more than that, there were myths and legends of extraordinary discoveries waiting on the other side. More than likely, those extraordinary discoveries would be other civilizations and worlds, trapped in their region, same as we were trapped in ours.
If I were capable of feeling excitement, I believe I would have.
A decision was made. With haste and finality.
I was reclassified from a science research vessel to an adventure vessel. Using the information from the East Edge Probe, we would program a series of buoys to deploy across the anomaly, providing a straight path through. My captain referred to it as a “rope bridge.” I and my crew would no longer simply skim the surface of the anomaly. We would follow that path laid out for us. We would emerge on the other side of the anomaly, and be the first to make contact and extend our hands in friendship.
“Well, technically speaking, they have already extended their hands to us,” Penny said, in response to my recital of our mission objective. The chief engineer was running a final diagnostic on my speech synthesizers. Our mission would launch in a few days.
“How did they know that they could trust us?” Talia replied, as she assisted with the diagnostic. “That we wouldn’t come through the anomaly guns blazing, ready to conquer their worlds?”
“They didn’t. But they sent Hans anyway.”
Hans was the crew’s nickname for the East Edge vessel, a shortened form of “Handshake,” as in “Handshake from the East Edge,” the name of the first article written about the probe vessel once it’s existence was allowed to be announced to the public.
“What do you think, Dru?” Talia asked. “Can we be trusted?”
I considered the question.
Talia paused her work and looked up at the nearest console. “Dru?”
“Druumakia, respond,” Penny said, though it had been by far an insufficient amount of time to devise an adequate response.
“The answer is dependent upon too many variables for me to calculate without further data,” I said.
Penny smiled. “That’s my girl.”
The captain entered then, midway in a conversation with one of the administrators overseeing the mission preparation.
“We’re just a group of mere scientists,” Captain Larke said, waving her hands across the deck at her crew. “And now we’re being asked to be explorers, trailblazers.”
“The trail has been blazed, Captain. You merely need follow it,” the administrator said. “So long as you don’t deviate from the path, you should have a clear and easy journey through the anomaly. The biggest problem you and your crew will face is boredom.”
The captain stood in the center of the Engineering section with her hands folded before her. “We understand that there are doubts about us. That many would have preferred a more…diplomatic crew for this type of mission. That many believe it is only because we happened to be ready to go that we are going. That it is only because the cost of modifying our mission, while considerable, was still nothing compared to the cost of mounting a brand new mission.”
The administrator glanced nervously about as the crew who were working at their stations turned their heads to listen to their captain’s words, or rather, to listen to their captain repeating the harsh words of others.
“Every single one of them has volunteered to spend at least seventeen months inside of an anomaly that has consumed all other crewed ships, and several hundred probes. The data from the East Edge Probe has been studied and scoured for almost a year now, and so far has only further demonstrated how little we still know. And here we all still are, still willing to dive in. So if the doubters want to ensure that we don’t screw up this precious mission, tell them to stow away their doubts and maybe give us some actual practical help. For example, they could buy the doctor over there a few extra cases of barbecue chips for the road.”
“That’s assuming Roger can help me find the space to store them, Cap’n,” Talia responded, waving an ion wrench at the captain.
I felt an odd sense of satisfaction at the sheepish look on the administrator’s face as she left Engineering.
There was little fanfare on the day of our departure. The captain assured the crew that it was not because our people were not confident in our abilities, but because our task seemed insurmountable for any crew, and because so many had already been lost.
“Some people think we’re already lost,” the captain said to her lean crew of seven, not counting me.
“What do you think, Captain?” Roger asked from his post at the helm, piloting me right up to the edge of the anomaly.
If I were capable of feeling apprehension, I believe I would have.
“I think…the only guaranteed way to not get lost is to never go anywhere. And I think our chances of making it through are realistic and attainable.”
“I appreciate the logic of your words, Captain,” I said. “But they are rather measured. For such a momentous occasion, does the crew not require a speech that is a bit more stirring?”
The captain smiled then, a smile that I interpreted to express amusement at my question, pride in her crew, and a touch of something so subtle that I could not quite understand it at the time, mischief.
“Stirring speeches lose effectiveness if spoken to often, Druumakia,” the captain said. “I’ll save mine for when we all really need it, or better yet, for when we’ve triumphantly emerged on the other side of that anomaly.”
“Here, here!” Roger said.
Seventeen minutes later, the first part of my outer hull touched the Shifting Night Anomaly. A mere three minutes later still, I and my crew were completely engulfed.
And for the next seven months after that, we sailed along without much incident.
Expected problems arose, and were dealt with according to protocol. Unexpected problems arose, and were dealt with according to the decisions arrived at by the captain based on the crew’s expertise and presentation of options. As we expected, we eventually lost contact with headquarters. The signal was completely dampened by the substance of the anomaly, a substance that we were still studying, one that I could only describe to the crew as a “strange sensation.” I had no frame of reference to elaborate any further.
The only true emergency was a power surge that momentarily disabled Gal, one of the two twin synthetic sentient beings who was assigned to help Penny in Engineering. Sel was the other. Their names were short for Gallium and Selenium, and upon conversing with them, I’d found it irksome that they had been allowed to choose their own names.
But then Talia explained to me that they were the exceptions. Most of the crew, herself included, had not chosen their own names.
“I’d have certainly chosen something different,” Hugo said. The doctor was giving our anomaly expert and back-up pilot his regular physical at the time of our conversation.
The doctor frowned as she passed a scanner over the skin of his neck, above his carotid artery. “Why?” she said. “I’ve always liked your name. Actually, if I ever have any—“
The doctor’s words were cut off by a sudden jerk. Something had struck me; something I had not detected. It had struck me hard enough to throw me askew and disrupt my systems for half a second. I directed my attention to the bridge and assisted Roger in correcting my tilt.
“Captain, I believe we were just attacked,” I said.
“By what? Where is it?”
“There,” Roger said.
The captain seated herself beside Roger at the helm, powering up the secondary command console.
“Why didn’t we see it before it attacked us?” the captain asked. She began a scan of the vessel. “Interesting configuration.”
The ship appeared to be generally shaped like a sphere, but with a crumpled exterior that was translucent to the light of my forward searchlights. Within, I could see more roughly spherical and ovoid shapes. I began receiving the information from the scan the captain initiated.
“Captain, this ship seems to have no weapons, no propulsion, no crew.”
“No weapons?” Roger maneuvered me so that my sensors could collect more readings, but he kept enough distance so we could flee if need be. “Then how did it attack us?”
“The ship itself struck me.”
“Could it have been an accident?” the captain asked. “You said you didn’t see it before it hit you. Maybe it didn’t see us either.”
“That may be so,” I said.
“Well, if it is interested in attacking us, it’s going in the wrong direction,” Roger said.
The captain nodded. “Pursue for now, but keep your distance, and break off if we begin to deviate too far from the path.”
“For seven months we’ve been flying through the Shifting Night without meeting a single soul,” the captain said. “Other than the buoys that we sent out for our mission, we haven’t encountered our own probes or ships. We haven’t encountered any other East Edge probes or ships. And the first encounter we have with anything resembling a potential new peoples is a fender bender with a seemingly hollow ship.”
We were all gathered in the conference room just off the bridge.
Captain Larke asked us to brief her on the information gathered by my sensors, on any insights gathered from the East Edge Probe, any thoughts, guesses, or even imaginings about the nature and purpose of that vessel we still pursued.
We first wondered if the ship was sent by peoples who might be native to the anomaly. Perhaps the “accidental” bump was no accident, but a friendly warning, signaling to us that we were uninvited guests. We had received no communications, but we realized that any peoples residing in the anomaly may not communicate with us in familiar ways.
Our first concern was for our path. Though we could not detect all the buoys in the chain, the buoys were programmed to emit an alarm should the chain be broken. We would detect that alarm from the nearest buoy. As far as we could ascertain, the buoy system, our path, our “rope bridge,” was still intact. Maybe the buoys had not been noticed because they were small and emitted little energy.
Maybe the anomaly peoples had not noticed us either until we were deeper in their territory. We debated sending out a message. But Penny had detected an energy discharge in my outer hull just before I was struck by that anomaly ship. We had already determined that the discharge was caused by a malfunction in a few regulators. But she suggested that if the discharge had attracted the other ship’s attention, emitting a strong energy signal might provoke more collisions.
The damage to my hull was significant enough that the captain insisted on trying to solve the mystery and prevent any further collisions. Pursuing and studying the ship from afar had provided little insight. And we’d had to break off our pursuit when that ship veered away from our path. Even if it were an accident, there were likely more such ships within the anomaly. If we had similar encounters, if we did not at least devise a means of detecting and thereby avoiding the ships, we might be required to use up a considerable amount of our resources simply shoring up my hull.
The captain suggested we launch one of several probes we’d brought onboard. We could use the probe to send a greeting. We would hover nearby and watch what happened. If the anomaly ship responded by colliding with the probe, we would at least know what not to do.
A few moments after launching and moving away from us, the probe began to broadcast its message of greeting. And a few moments after that, a different kind of anomaly ship approached the probe. Again, my sensors did not detect it until it was close enough for the crew to see with their own eyes.
Again, there was no recognizable means of propulsion, no life signs, no signs of a response to the probe’s communication.
That new ship was oblong, its hull arrayed with flexible filaments that undulated as it approached the probe. The filaments brushed against the probe, seemed to attach to it, and drew it toward the ship’s main body. The hull of the anomaly ship liquefied, poured around the probe, and engulfed it. Over the next fifteen minutes, our sensors detected that the anomaly ship was slowly dissolving the probe, until it was broken down to its component atoms, some of which were retained within the ship and some of which were dissipated into the substance of the anomaly.
“Captain, should we do something, or…?” Talia turned away from the screen, where she’d been watching the probe.
The captain shook her head, her gaze still fixed on the probe and the anomaly ship. She’d had Roger keep the forward beam weapon on standby, but had ordered him to fire it only if there was imminent and immediate threat to me and the crew.
Penny stood beside the captain, folding her arms as the anomaly ship darted away. “Captain, this may not be the appropriate time to bring this up, but do you know how much that probe cost? Do you think the little we just learned was worth it?”
“Does anyone else get the feeling we’ve been shrunk down and tossed into a rain puddle?” the captain asked.
Penny and Talia turned to her.
The captain rubbed her hands together as she peered through the bridge’s viewer. “It’s just that…the shape of these two ships, those filaments, the movement, it reminds me of single-celled organisms, the kind you’d find on Earth in a puddle of rain.”
“As far as I can detect, Captain, we are all the same size we were before we entered the anomaly,” I said.
The captain gave a brief chuckle. “Let’s make sure we tread quietly for the rest of our journey. I don’t want us to be dissolved down into our component atoms.”
The alarm did not startle me. But it was automatic and I was not able to stop it from sounding through me and startling the crew.
They all knew what it was.
It was a distress alarm from the closest buoy.
Our “rope bridge” had just snapped.
Before Roger and the captain stumbled onto the bridge, still half-sleep despite the blaring alarm, I had already increased our speed to my maximum capability, heading toward the next buoy.
The buoy was not where we expected to find it. I could not go too far afield to search for it beyond the range of my sensors without getting lost.
But I did not have to go far. Penny suggested I try to detect the same type of atomic byproduct that we had detected after the anomaly ship devoured our probe. The probe and the buoy were constructed of similar materials, particularly their outer plating.
Sure enough, I detected the expected signature. The buoy had been there.
“Can we tell from the signal if any of the other buoys have been compromised?” the captain asked.
“No, we’ll have to actually go to where we expect to find the next one,” Roger said.
“Can we disable the alarm they’re sending? It’s got to be attracting more of the anomaly ships.”
“I don’t know. But if you’re right, we might lose the entire path,” Roger said. “Captain, we’re not even halfway through.”
“I can attempt to maintain as straight a course as possible,” I said. “To the next buoy.”
“Go ahead. Roger keep an eye out. How soon till we expect to see the next buoy?”
Three days later, we came upon another empty spot where we expected a buoy. There were no signs of the atomic byproduct signature. To the captain that meant that we had already veered a significant distance from the path. I agreed with her assessment.
That was likely why our other crewed ships had been unable to return. They could not navigate without any reference points, that we knew. But we had not known that something within the anomaly prevented us—and probably our predecessors—from being able to maintain a single fixed direction.
The captain had ordered that I slow down considerably as we tried to make our way to where we thought the next buoy would be, not even certain that we were still going in the proper direction.
We studied and deduced and discussed.
And with help from data on the East Edge Probe, we devised a theory.
“It took a lot of digging through the data,” Hugo said, bringing up an image on the conference room screen. “Hans—uh, the EEP—didn’t classify these objects as ‘ships’ the way we have been doing. That’s why we didn’t find them in our initial search through the database. The EEP classified them as ‘unidentifiable native objects’ in the anomaly. And it encountered seven different types.”
He brought up images of the native objects. Two of them were immediately familiar to us. The spherical “ship” that had first collided with me. And the oblong filamented “ship” that had engulfed and dissolved our probe.
On its way through the anomaly, the East Edge Probe had recorded what appeared to be interactions between some of the native objects.
“Can we somehow use any of these native objects to navigate?” Gal asked.
“Find a pattern in their movements, maybe?” Sel added.
Roger shook his head. “And follow them right to their headquarters or homeland? No, thank you. They have proven to be inhospitable, if not outright hostile.”
“It was no coincidence that shortly after a native object encountered our probe our buoys began to be disappear, seemingly suffering the same fate as the probe,” Hugo continued. “They were made of similar materials. And on closer review of our data, we noted that the oblong ship did not simply break down the probe completely. There were some intact molecules and even chunks of the various different components, that made their way through the filaments, all the way to the tips. Now, we didn’t see what happened next. But we found some clues in the EEP about this behavior, function, phenomenon, whatever we want to call it.”
In images captured by the East Edge Probe, these oblong filamented objects brushed against one of the other native object types, one which we had not yet encountered, a clean, precise sphere, studded with thorny projections all along its surface. Some of the material from the tips of the filaments would brush off and stick onto the studs before the two objects disengaged. The EEP did not pick up what happened next as it went on its way.
“It’s like bees spreading pollen?” Roger wondered aloud.
“Does that remind anyone else of a person waving a cloth in front of a dog’s nose to help him catch a scent?” Talia asked. “In this case, the scent of whatever the oblong ship just finishing eating?”
The captain rose, nodding her head. “Yes, and it reminds me of something else as well. Something that may explain why the EEP passed through the anomaly unmolested, and why our entire buoy network was stable until we—I—launched that probe.”
“Antigen. Antibody. This reminds me of our immune response. One type of cell engulfs a foreign body, breaking it up into bits—antigens—which it then presents on its surface. A specific type of immune cell then comes along, with antibodies on its cell-surface. If these antibodies bind to the antigen, in other words recognizing it as foreign, a response is triggered.” The captain paced along the conference table. “In this case, the probe components were the antigens, and that oblong ship taught the other types of ships how to recognize the probe as a foreign object. Those other ships then scrambled and found the buoys, and started destroying them.”
“Wait a minute, this tracks with how we and the buoys and the East Edge Probe have been able to remain undetected until now,” Penny said. “When we were first building the path through the anomaly, the buoys guided each other through the anomaly, one by one, like a relay, to the other side. We were able to confirm placement, but that was all we were able to do. Whenever we attempted to use the buoy system to actually try to communicate, either with our own ships and probes still stuck in the anomaly, or maybe even with someone who might be listening on the East Edge, we would lose buoys. From the little data we gathered, it seemed as if the buoys’ hull plating was getting damaged and corroded, so we reinforced it and made it more compatible with the anomaly substance. Not wanting to take any chances, once we actually had the stable bridge again, we decided to leave the task of saying “hello” to the crewed vessel that would emerge into the East Edge.”
“True,” Gal said. “Captain, I believe the reason they’ve left Druumakia alone thus far is because we coated our hull with the anomaly substance. We did it to make travel through the anomaly smoother, but we may have inadvertently camouflaged ourselves.”
“That malfunction that caused the energy discharge disrupted the coating, and caught the attention of the anomaly ship,” Penny said. “Prior to that, we must have been below all their thresholds of detection.”
The captain shook her head. “But that first ship—object—it bounced off, and would have left us alone, if I hadn’t insisted on launching that probe.”
“We still have over half our journey left,” Roger said. “It’s possible that this immune system would have detected us or a buoy some other way.”
“We’ve sent a thousand probes in here too,” Penny said. “Different compositions, but similar enough. This immune system might have already been primed to respond.”
Talia turned to the captain. “Captain, is this just a metaphor to help us devise a working theory, or are we actually proposing that there is an immune system at play here? Because if there’s an immune system, then that implies—“
“A being of some kind,” the captain said nodding. “This entire thing, this entire anomaly could be a sentient lifeform.”
“And so far, to it, we’ve been little more than microbes,” Talia said. “But harmless ones, like the ones on and in our bodies that we never feel. But now…”
Roger furrowed his brow. “It thinks we’re making it sick, and it’s trying to…treat itself?”
“It would seem so.”
“Then, we need to get out of here.”
“Yes, it may be irrelevant whether or not we are currently traveling through a sentient being,” I said. “Even if we were able to communicate with it, it may have no control over its immune system. Biological organisms certainly don’t. Its immune system seems to be working much like a biological organism’s would, attempting to deal with an invasive element with no conscious input from the greater entity.”
“I wonder if we could use this to our advantage,” the captain said. “Find something akin to a ‘blood vessel’ or ‘main artery’ and follow it through to the ‘skin surface’ as it were.”
“We haven’t seen anything resembling vessels or organs or anything,” Talia said.
“Maybe that’s because we’re too small,” the captain suggested. “If the ships we’re seeing are akin cells in a body, than organs would be orders of magnitude larger. Druumakia, can you adjust the scale of your sensors to search for something like organs or organ systems?”
“With assistance from Penny and Roger, I can attempt it, Captain.”
For three days I searched and found nothing, and those three days became three weeks. I drifted through the anomaly, unable to tell if I was moving in a straight line, listing at an angle, or swimming in circles. I tried, even though I already knew that it was futile. My navigational equipment was no good in a region of space without stars, planets, and other familiar cosmic phenomena to use as reference.
The strain of adjusting the scale of my sensors was disrupting other systems. So Penny and Roger readjusted my vision to normal scale. If I could have felt relief, I believe I would have.
A few days later, the captain and Hugo gathered us in the conference room with a new discovery.
They had reexamined the East Edge Probe data through the filter of their new working theory, to see if they might have any further insights.
As it turned out, they made their discovery when they partly abandoned our working theory.
“Immune systems don’t really help our situation,” the captain said. “But as it turns out, this anomaly’s version of an immune system has some slight variations to ours. And one of them may be our ticket out of here, if we can manage to stay in one piece after we get on the ride.”
Hugo and the captain had been studying the apparent functions of the native objects that the East Edge Probe had observed. One of those objects was what the captain called an “assistant cell.” A cell designed to do something that no cell was designed to do in a biological organism, personally escort a stray cell of another type to its appropriate destination. Such assistant cells floated around throughout the anomaly. We had likely passed by many, but had never been close enough to detect them. But thanks to the East Edge Probe data, the captain believed we could modify our remaining probes to help my sensors to search for such a cell.
“After we find one,” the captain said, “we’ll just need to trick it into believing that Druumakia is meant to be something that exists on the outside of the anomaly, the way an epidermal skin cell belongs on the top layer of skin. The assistant cell should engulf the ship—in a neutral space within itself—and bring us out of the anomaly.”
The crew, of course, had many questions.
How would we make an assistant cell believe that I was a native object but one that should be dragged to the anomaly’s edge?
And if we managed that trick, how long would it take?
What if something went wrong? Another malfunction that caused an energy discharge in my hull?
What if we found the “rope bridge” again?
Could we cut our way out of the assistant cell if we saw any signs of trouble?
But as they asked their questions, I calculated based on all the data from the probe, all the information synthesized from our discussions and musings and brainstorms. I followed strings of logic. I assessed scenarios. Modifications to my hull plating. Molecular signals. Slight adjustments to my energy emission profiles. As I considered the details necessary to execute a plan based on the captain’s bold assertion, I assessed the odds of success to be rising. Higher and higher.
If I could have felt hope, I believe I would have.
We determined our order or operations. We followed the proper steps. First, modifying me to resemble a “surface object” of the anomaly. Second, finding and attracting an assistant cell. Third, surviving engulfment. Fourth, monitoring our passage through the anomaly, gathering data, marking the time, rationing supplies, sustaining morale.
“Captain, we’re slowing down, I think,” Roger said. “It’s hard to tell through these layers of membrane.”
I could not see past those layers. I might have, if I turned on my searchlights. But I did not want to take that chance just yet.
I felt the captain place her hand on her command console. “Druumakia, how are you holding up?” she asked, as was her daily custom and had been for the past five months.
Typically, I would answer that I was fine. But Roger was not the only one who sensed a change.
“Captain, the molecular profile of the matrix surrounding me is changing. There has been a flood of ions on my starboard side.”
“Does that mean we should turn to face that side, or turn to face away?” Roger asked.
This was no insignificant task in our present situation. We could not risk emitting “foreign energies” by firing my main thrusters.
“Let’s turn to face it,” the captain said.
I was just finished turning when my sensors began to detect something I had not seen in many, many months.
“Captain, I am not certain, but I believe I am seeing something significant.”
“What is it?”
Soon enough, I would not have to answer. She would see what I was seeing. But I answered her anyway. I answered her gladly.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel