“It’s my favorite chief mechanic,” the captain said. I looked to my left and saw her smiling as she glided toward me.
“I bet you say that to all the chief mechanics,” I said, feeling the tablet tucked under my hand slide a little as sweat suddenly appeared on my fingertips.
“I do, but I only mean it when I say it to you.”
I chuckled. We joined up and started down the main concourse, both on the way to our duties as the first shift of the day started.
“How’s everything on the starboard side?” the captain said, as she activated the newly installed console on her right armrest.
I tried to act casual as I glanced over to see how it was working. I had installed that console. The captain swiped through a few readings and frowned.
“Uh, it’s good,” I said. “Is a repair in order?”
“I’m not sure,” she said, shaking her head as she flicked her index finger up, then left. She suddenly seemed to realize something and looked up at me. “Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it’s not mechanical,” she assured me.
“It’s not taking up too much power, is it?” I asked, noticing that she wasn’t in hover mode.
Before she could answer, an alert appeared on her left armrest. A blinking orange light. The captain pressed it. I heard nothing in my earpiece. The message was only for the captain.
She listened for several seconds, then said, “I’m on my way.”
Her chair lifted silently up, the wheels folding under it. She glanced over and gave me a courtesy nod before rushing off to the bridge.
But before she was out of view, I caught another light glowing from behind me and ahead of me. I thought it might be the emergency panels along the tops and bottoms of the hull. But the light I saw was not the orange I expected. It was pink and green and luminous.
And it was coming through the windows.
Our sensors were overwhelmed. We were scrambling to recalibrate them, adjust thresholds, redirect. Not enough time had passed for us to worry about what had just happened.
I felt a sense of mystery, excited anticipation, nervousness.
I wondered if we were too close. If we would get pulled into whatever had just appeared around us.
Only an hour had passed since the anomaly appeared. We’d been at a full stop the whole time. Under normal circumstances, that would have been a breach of contract in the absence of a legitimate reason. Dire need of repair. Under attack by pirates. The list of so-called “legitimate” reasons was a short one. The ship was making automated micro-adjustments to our position. But there wasn’t much around in this part of the sector to push against us.
Not much except for the spatial anomaly.
Maybe we were under attack?
The captain herself had made the first announcement. She assured us she would take full responsibility for the halt in schedule. Moments later, the official memorandum with her seal and signature appeared in each of our personal files. She simply said that we had encountered something unexpected and were obligated to remain in place for the time being. She had already sent notifications and reports, and a science and exploration vessel was already on its way to our position.
There was no indication that we were in danger. Environmental conditions had not shifted inside the vessel. And even outside, there was only a slight rise in ambient radiation, and of course, the lovely light show, but nothing to worry about. So since we were staying put to ensure we didn’t disturb this unknown anomaly, and to take what passive readings we could with the instruments available, all duties and activities directly related to charting were suspended. Crew were required to do ship maintenance duties and maintain any other deadlines—like turning in reports. But once we were done with those things, we could either catch up on other work, or take the rest of the time off until we were relieved by the exploration vessel.
In the meantime, if we noticed anything unusual, even if it seemed small or silly, we were to report it, just in case it provided a meaningful clue at some later time.
For five years now, I’d been serving aboard Cartography Ship 47—unofficially named the Weird Quark by our captain. I’d left dreams of discovery back in my youth. It was the general wonder of wandering through space that drove me these days.
In fact, I had purposely chosen to join a cartography vessel that was bound for the most boring sector of space possible. No detector array had marked anything of note in this sector. Until now, it had been considered a waste of resources to have a vessel with a living crew chart it. But the margins of civilization had advanced far enough to almost meet this region of space. And so, it was finally worth it for someone to take a closer look.
But how could they all have missed this?
Five different galactic detector arrays, not to mention several hundred individual detectors, scanning space for every imaginable signal. Countless computing machines parsing all the incoming data, establishing baselines, and subsequently searching for any discernible pattern or shift from that baseline.
They didn’t miss it. That was the prevailing theory. No one missed anything, because this anomaly had not existed until it appeared right before our proverbial eyes—and then before our physical eyes.
Later updates from our lead cartographer explained that glitch the captain had in her new console. I was relieved to have it confirmed that the issue was not mechanical. When I’d run into the captain that morning, she had been frowning down at some readings that puzzled her. For several weeks, we had been drifting through our assigned sector, charting and plotting. I’d installed that chair console a week prior, so the captain just happened to be playing with her new toy and noticed the slight rise in ambient temperature over the past few days. Two other crew members noted it. The threshold was outside of the range for automated detection systems to alert us. The ranges for those systems were set according to standards of crew safety and parameters of optimal equipment function.
But we now thought that the “balmy weather” had been a harbinger for the appearance of the anomaly. And maybe there was more yet to come than the luminous pink and purple spirals that drifted past our windows.
It wasn’t touching us yet, but the anomaly seemed to be shifting and changing.
In the following hour, crew members started posting observations and speculations on our ship’s public logs.
Our squidosian medical chief reported feeling strange sensations in the suckers along some of her tentacles that didn’t seem to match the symptoms of any known condition.
Blind crew members—one a human who was born blind, and four other crew members whose people just don’t have the sense of sight—all reported hearing what they called a “song.” And that’s how they described it, a melody, and one they couldn’t seem to replicate when asked. No one else heard it, even if they shut their optical organs.
Over the course of the next few hours, crew members reported perceiving ghosts, and some started exhibiting sudden leaps in skill and the sudden emergence of remarkable abilities. At first, the observations might be explained. A technician who took a nap and woke up remembering in perfect detail a series of complex engine efficiency calculations performed in their dreams. But increasingly, the observations were more fantastic: telekinesis in humans, sound projection in aquatics, wingless flight in larvari.
Another announcement requested that all crew members direct questions and concerns to the leads and chiefs that they reported to. The captain would give everyone thirty standard minutes.
A few minutes after the announcement went out, I received an invitation to a meeting in the ship’s largest conference room.
The captain couldn’t fit all hundred plus crew members in the room. So she was inviting everyone who was in charge of even one person or of any major operational component on the ship.
I met up with my counterpart, the chief mechanic of the port side, on the main concourse. The plumes on his upper left loop were twitching.
“Nervous?” I asked.
“No,” he said. His right plumes started twitching. “Yes, of course. Half my crew have reported stuff like being able to see down to the microscopic level, or being able to see and process patterns in raw data that even the computer can’t parse.”
“What about you? Developing any special powers?”
“Aside from the ones I already possess?” He looked over at me, upper mouth smirking, while his lower mouth, betraying his true emotion, remained neutral, lips pressed into a thin line. He shook his head. “Not that I can tell. No unusually vivid dreams either.”
“I remain equally powerless,” I said. “I don’t know if I should be scared or…jealous.”
“How about neither?”
“This thing is changing by the hour. We may not have time for Vessel 86 to arrive before something even more intense happens.”
I walked on a few steps before I realized that my crew mate had stopped short. I turned and walked back to him.
“More intense than that?” he asked, pointing out of the nearest porthole.
The fluttering spirals that we’d become accustomed to had shifted color, darkening in a pattern that was familiar to both of us.
That pattern was a word.
The word was, “Hello.”
“Captain, this changes things,” the executive officer said, stating the obvious to get the two dozen people in the conference room on the same page. The room was only made for half that number. Some of us were half-standing and half-leaning on peripheral consoles set against the walls.
The captain nodded to acknowledge the momentous leap in the meaning of our unintended discovery.
Other messages had manifested in various other parts of the anomaly that were positioned outside of the ship’s windows. The manifested as shifts in color, symbols, and shapes. Simple messages, expressed in recorded languages for crew members from species who had written and recorded languages. We had received our first solid clue that the phenomenon was or contained a sentient entity, and that that entity was attempting to communicate with us.
The captain had gathered us to discuss our current concerns, and whether we should move further away, or request permission to leave, or just leave without official permission and answer for it afterwards.
But now, we debated whether or not we should answer. We debated even sending the question through our chain of command, because it might be intercepted and perceived by the entity as an attempt to communicate with the entity. The entity must have had some way of accessing our databases, because how else would it know to send those messages.
“Everything our fellow crew members have experienced,” the captain said. “The song they’ve heard, the abilities they’ve gained…it all indicates this entity has access to more than just our databases.”
“Shouldn’t we answer it? Let it know we mean no harm?” someone asked, triggering a cascade of responses and more questions.
“What if it means harm?”
“Would it be saying ‘hello’ if it did? You have to figure, if it wanted to conquer us—or eat us—it would have said, ‘prepare to die’ or something.”
“Or it would have said nothing at all.”
The captain raised her hand. “By our understanding, the communication we’ve received so far is a greeting, a friendly gesture. I’ve just sent an update, including a request for a diplomatic vessel. In the meantime, I’ve requested permission to open basic communications just to make sure we aren’t perceived as being rude by not responding.”
“Any word yet, Captain?”
“It’s only been a few minutes,” the captain said.
The executive officer frowned. “They’ll be just as silent a few hours from now,” she muttered.
“This is too big for us captain.”
The captain offered the ship’s lead cook a patient smile. “It is. But we’re the ones who are here. We came expecting to find nothing. A nice peaceful assignment.” She threw her hands in the air. The captain’s gaze surveyed the room. Her glances were casual. Her posture and her breaths were easy. She let her smile fade, but not all the way. The captain seemed calm. And her calm seemed to be cooling the agitation in her crew enough for them to keep the questions civil and direct.
“What do you plan on doing?” someone asked.
The captain’s chair rose a few inches. “I plan on answering with a ‘hello’ in return.”
“As with many other conversations I’ve had, including this one, I’ll craft my response once I hear what the other person has to say.”
“Do you have any training in diplomacy, Captain?”
The captain swept her gaze across the room again, ending on the person who had asked the question. “I don’t,” she said. “I’m just going to do my best until I hear back from a higher authority.”
She asked for a pause in our conversation, while she sent our message to the entity.
She said no more.
We watched the glowing, spiraling, luminous anomaly originating from beyond the bow of our ship as it shifted color and shape.
The entity responded.
Yes, the captain answered. We comprehend. We understand this form of communication.
Prefer this form of communication.
It was unclear if this was a question or a declaration.
I gazed at the nearest console. I wanted to gaze out of the window, but the anomaly, the entity, was too bright, even through the shading panels that were now lowered over every window panel and porthole.
We prefer this form of communication, the captain replied. Query. Is it comfortable for you as well?
With that simple reply from the entity, I felt a surge of intense emotion. Relief, anticipation, excitement. I felt the emotions. They were mine. They were coming from within me, rising through my gut to my chest. But they were also surging around me, like ripples in a pool. I glanced around at the responses of my fellow crew mates. The relaxing of tensed shoulders. The lowering of raised tendrils. The leaning back in chairs. They seemed to be feeling what I was feeling.
The entity sent another communication.
He. I am he.
“That sounds ominous,” someone said.
The captain shook her head. “Let’s not assume that it’s a declaration of godhood. I think he’s just telling us he’s male, so we don’t keep calling him ‘it.’”
“Then…he can hear us.” The executive officer narrowed her eyes and leaned over her console. “In that case, we might make some requests for courtesy as well.” She rose and gazed out of the window. “Such as, can we have some privacy to discuss amongst ourselves?”
One corner of the captain’s mouth rose in a smile. “Confirmed. He can hear us.”
Others in the room didn’t share the captain’s apparent amusement.
“Maybe he doesn’t know that most of us consider it rude to eavesdrop.”
“He can get into our heads. He knows what we’re thinking. How does he know what we mean and what we don’t mean?”
“Captain, we’re already communicating with him,” the executive officer said. “Maybe we should just invite him to this meeting. We can start with introductions. We know his gender. What’s his name?”
My fellow chief mechanic leaned toward me and whispered, “And his purpose. Can we confirm that his intentions are…friendly?”
I whispered back. “He can probably hear us whispering too.”
The captain sent a longer message to the entity. She explained the concept of privacy. And the entity thanked her but expressed that he still did not understand.
I continued to feel the surges and ripples of excitement, and something else, something that felt equally…positive. I couldn’t place it. But again I looked around the conference room and saw indicators of my fellow crew mates feeling what I felt. Faint smiles on faces. Antennae sweeping to and fro. Eyes shifting colors. Postures relaxing.
The captain explained that we would remain silent now in our purposeful communications with the entity. We were awaiting the arrival of others, those who were skilled in meeting new peoples and in answering questions.
I felt a twinge of worry that we might be lowering our caution too much and too soon.
The entity answered.
I don’t want to talk to them. I want to talk to you.
The captain sighed and sat back. “We’re just a cartography crew on a mapping vessel,” she said aloud. “We’re not authorized to…to…”
She hadn’t written out her words, but the entity answered anyway.
Not authorized to make friends?
That captain raised her brows as she lowered her shoulders. Her eyes gazed at the screen. And I just knew that another surge of emotion was passing through her. I knew, because it was passing through me too and everyone else in the room. I glanced around, catching the gazes of those who just realized what I had just realized. Every time he spoke, we felt it.
We felt his emotion toward us.
Why this celestial entity should feel affection for a ship full of ordinary working spacefarers was a mystery to me.
But I felt it.
And then, he confirmed it by saying it.
I want to talk to you. I am fond of you. I know you.
He was very fond of us, as a collective. So fond that he wanted to get to know us as individuals. He didn’t quite understand what we were until he came closer. At first his curiosity and affection were for our ship, a tiny little entity that he thought was…cute.
He’d been asleep. Our movements stirred him out of his sleep. He watched us, expecting to be disinterested enough to fall back asleep. But as he watched, our movements charmed him. He understood right away what we were doing. He understood what a monumental task it was for such a small thing as us. He told himself that he should let us be and not interfere. He worried that if he showed himself, we might scatter. So he manifested gently, hoping that our curiosity would be a match for his.
He agreed to respect our privacy, once he somewhat understand what it meant, and seemed to respect that agreement.
But there was no use in attempting to maintain a chain of command for communications. The entity just reached out and talked to everyone on the crew, not just the captain. So the captain announced that everyone should log official reports on their conversations with the entity. And she tried to explain to him that they would have to answer a lot of questions, and they might get into trouble for revealing things to him that they weren’t authorized to reveal.
Over the course of a standard day, the entity simultaneously had conversations with individual crew members, and even with small groups through various means of communication, as decided by the crew’s preference. We taught the entity bits and pieces about our individual lives, the worlds and cultures we hailed from, stories and jokes. We asked the entity questions about himself and the universe. He was as careful with his answers as we were with ours.
The more we interacted with him, the more his affection for us grew. I felt it in a way I’d never felt anyone’s affection for me. I was surrounded, buoyed, by layer upon layer of warmth and comfort. Fear and worry bounced off. If any made it through, it melted and fizzed away before it reached my heart. Despite this, most of us were still wary, even if only in some small part of us. Some of us were cynical, a few quipping that we had only earned the entity’s goodwill because he thought we were cute. And he might change his mind about that any minute. They were partly right.
He had told us so himself.
Your activities and behaviors are charming.
We were right to wonder what this cosmic entity had in mind for us, and how we could possibly continue to hold his interest.
His true answer came when he spoke to the captain. And we all heard it.
The captain broadcasted her own communications with the entity. We all figured she did that keep herself more on guard, so she wouldn’t get too comfortable and unintentionally reveal anything she shouldn’t. He was never insulted when she or anyone else declined to answer a question they didn’t want to answer.
We would have known if he was. We would have felt it. In that one way, he was completely open to us. We felt his calm curiosity, just as we felt his affection for us, and his admiration and respect for us, a true surprise.
“You may mean no harm,” the captain said, “but unlike you, most of the people on this ship can’t read minds. We can’t read your history and your intent. We understand and believe you when you tell us that your knowledge would overwhelm our computers and our own brains, which are indeed tiny compared to yours. But in the absence of that knowledge, we have to trust you. And trust, real trust usually takes time, or…or maybe a gesture that is major and meaningful.”
What gesture would suffice to earn your trust? Shall I tell you my story?
“That’s a good start.”
Shall I download a map of this sector into your database?
“Honestly, if it’s not too much trouble—“
No trouble at all for me, but…would I be robbing you of you accomplishment?
“By just giving us the answer, you mean? I don’t imagine so. Space is vast. And our lives are relatively short. There’s plenty more for us to chart…and explore.”
So he gave us the map. A map that would have taken us a year to draw. And he told us his story, though he told it in brief.
Before he slept, he too wandered as we wander. He too logged his findings and explorations. He too grew tired after working so much. He took a short rest, and an eon passed in the meantime. Then another.
Planets swirled into being that were capable of nurturing a kind of life that the universe had theretofore not seen.
And life erupted on most of those planets. Life that was brief and fragile. Life that was never meant to wander the stars.
And yet we did.
Separately. And now together.
That was what impressed him about us. To him we were bold. We were brave. We were clever. For creatures with so many bounds, our spirits were boundless. Our imaginations were boundless. Our aspirations…were boundless.
And though we were small and limited, in our cooperation, we expanded our bounds, again and again.
I am vast. You are varied.
We came level with the entity.
But just as we did, he announced that he would be leaving.
He had perceived the approach of the science vessel dispatched to our position almost as soon as it began moving towards us.
And it would soon arrive. They already detected him.
He regretted any trouble we might get into if we were to be blamed for his disappearance. To that end, he drafted a formal message to our higher authorities.
We felt his feelings, and so we understood. There was no profound reason for his leaving. He just didn’t like crowds.
Many of us could relate to that sentiment, myself included. I often remained on the periphery of the ship’s unofficial social gatherings, if I wasn’t absent altogether.
That wasn’t so in the moment of his departure. I gathered at a window, along with a few of my fellow crew mates. Other groups were similarly gathered at almost every major window panel in the ship. We pressed out hands and tendrils and antennae and claws and feathers to the surfaces of our windows. The entity notified us when he had faded enough for us to safely bear perceiving his light with our own senses. For those who couldn’t see him, it was his song that faded. For those who could only perceive him by feel, it was the gentle thrum that his presence had added to the vibrations of our engines.
Our ship drifts in darkness now. Our sensors have reset. They already detect the distant stars that my eyes can’t yet see. Readouts that were overwhelmed by the luminous phenomenon only seconds ago are already recalibrating and redrawing the stellar map of the surrounding sector. The ship begins to whir and beep, but she too had been silent a moment ago. As if she too was holding her breath.
A drop of sadness tracks over my cheek.
But every other drop is hope and happiness and solidarity with my crew mates.
My cheeks rise in a smile.
I gaze out of the starboard window, as the last glittering wisp of cosmic color dissipates.
I wave to a friend I may never see again. He moved on the scale of eons. What happened between us had been quick for us. For him…for him maybe it had been imperceptible. But then again, his memory was not small like mine. His memory was vast.
I take comfort—or try to—in the last words that he spoke to us.
If I don’t see you again, know that you have changed the universe for the better. Because you, alone and together, have changed me for the better.
And I am vast enough to affect the universe.
I release a breath, as I realize there is one feeling that is not fading as our friend fades back into the beyond.
I draw in another breath, a deep one.
I smile. That breath. It fills me with wonder.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel