We called it ‘Oumuamua.
‘Oumuama is Hawaiian, and means “a scout or messenger from the distant past.” This is what historians would later refer to as ‘an incredibly ironic turn of phrase’ as well as being an apt name, for ‘Oumuamua was indeed a messenger from the distant past.
‘Oumuamua looked like rust.
It looked like rust because its surface was composed of primordial metals that had been baked for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years of cosmic radiation. The theory was that over an unknown period of time the outside of the meteor oxidized and gave it a red – though the newspapers would garishly call it ‘pink’ – outside.
‘Oumuamua also tumbled.
It tumbled and spun because over all it’s long interstellar life it had been jostled and pushed by various planets, stars – nay, entire systems and even weakly by galaxies – and spun like a drunken top, or a jack tumbling on the ground. It pierced our solar system’s axis, flew dangerously close to the sun, and then arced off in a direction not altogether the same vector that it came in on.
‘Oumuamua came and went, and all our eyes were upon it, for it taught us a lot about ourselves, our history, and the universe.
– – – –
They called it PSP-RRRR-04187-19-887B.
PSP-RRRR-04187-19-887B is a Karnakian Designation, and breaks down thusly:
PSP – Passive Scanning Probe
RRRR – Rapid Response, Random Retreat
04187 – Probe Manufacturing number
19 – Sector
887B – Sub-sector.
Which is just a really roundabout way to say that the name didn’t mean anything in particular; it was a designation meant more for neural networks, reports and AI than to be sapient-readable. The Holy Karnakian Diarchy’s science division was pumping these out by the millions – as was the Dorarizin Empire and the Jornissian Federation, because why send a team of living beings to survey a system when a robot could do it for you, quicker and for less pay?
PSP-RRRR-04187-19-887B looked like rust.
It was a probe amongst an uncountable mass of probes, spinning it’s way to possible oblivion, launched hundreds of years ago to a part of space that – by the time it finished it’s tour – would be ripe for expansion and resource exploitation. It’s internals were some of the most advanced passive electronics that credits could buy – cheaply, mind you – and by casting it in simple elements like iron, nickel and silicon, you could turn the entire body of the probe into an omni-directional sensor array. The shield was the antenna was the shield, basically. Very elegant, very durable, very cheap.
PSP-RRRR-04187-19-887B scanned as it tumbled.
Of course you don’t put all your sensors in one part of the probe, nor put them all facing the same way – you spread them out, you diversify – micrometeorites won’t breach the solid iron “body” of the probe, but they’ll dent. Spread out your sensors, spin the probe and launch it. Every bit of space gets scanned by multiple redundant systems, eliminating error while still allowing for operational effectiveness. Very elegant, almost idiot-proof and again, very cheap.
PSP-RRRR-04187-19-887B skipped along the galactic meridian, as was its wont to do for the past 750 years. The reason why most probes were “fire and forget” was because they had an average lifespan of about 500 years and most likely either (1) found nothing of importance or (2) slammed into something of importance, which would then be cataloged, marked as a hazard for interstellar flight, and re-probed a couple hundred years later to see if/when it had moved and what it could be.
However, there were those rare-but-not-infrequent times where a probe would skip into a system and detect something. It didn’t have to be galaxy-shattering; about 15% of the time it was echoes from a nearby settlement or starship that went joyriding into the “unmapped beyond” before coming back. There was another good 50% of the time where all that EM detection did was pickup a particularly fussy star, or a very enthusiastic gas giant. Again, log it and move on. 5% was marked up to “programming errors, dents, misc.” And the vast, vast majority of the rest – 29.99999999841% – were illegal settlements, pirates, ancap rebels or people running from someone. Those were the EM pulses that were rapidly responded to, because the last thing you want as a species is a lone mad scientist trying to figure out how to teleport stars on his little outpost in the galaxy.
Then there was the 00.00000000159%. At the time, there were two – well, three, depending on how you look at it – instances where a probe detected something that was decidedly not mundane. The first and second instances were the simultaneous discovery of the Karnakian and the Dorarizin to each other. A Dorarizin ship ended up intercepting a wandering Karnakian probe, tracing it’s origins and returning it to the system of origin – so the dispute as to who discovered whom is still unsolved to this day. Then there was the discovery of the Jornissians, whom all species agreed that if they were sending out such blatantly artificial probes then they wanted to be discovered.
PSP-RRRR-04187-19-887B plunged through yet another system, it’s passive scanning suite up and operational. As it neared the main sequence star it detected blanket EM radiation; it’s algorithms determined it was artificial and intentional. Nearing the star collected more and more data to the point that an internal metric turned over – PSP-RRRR-04187-19-887B enacted a protocol that it’s kind had done many times before; using a quantum-linked series of bits it flagged the star system, changed its trajectory, and let the gravity well fling it into a semi-random direction – far away from any Karnakian settlements, home worlds or blacklist sites.
PSP-RRRR-04187-19-887B, nee ‘Oumuamua came and went, and all our eyes were upon it, for it taught us a lot about ourselves, our history, and the universe.
We just didn’t pay attention to the real lesson.
– – – – – –
“|Alright, settle down, settle down.|” Matriarch Tr’Nkwi said, a bemused smile on her face as one of the young tech leads, Tk’il’a, finally sat back down on his seat, the auditorium quieting down to a manageable level.
“|So congratulations, Tk’il’a. This gray gas giant will now be known as …|” the matriarch sighed, “|…Bitter grass. I swear, every single mission-|”
“|You do realize that they’ll rename it, right?|” His friend, Ch’irci said, leaning over her seat. “|It’s a rude name-|”
“|Don’t care I won-|”
“|I said settle down back there.|” Matriarch Tr’Nkwi repeated, and was rewarded with total silence and complete, undivided attention.
“|Very good. Now. We just received a ping from the Windsongs; apparently a probe a couple dozen light-years from here discovered some unregistered EM radiation -|”
There was a groan from the older crew members and a barely-contained trill of excitement from the newbies who hadn’t realized that no, the answer is never new aliens, the answer is always a weird star.
“|- And yes, that means we’re adding another 2 months to our exploratory mission. Yes, that also means an accelerator on your credit pay, so although it’s bitte-|” Tr’Nkwi stopped herself as she saw a feathered crest rise in the audience, quickly clicking her talons against the ship’s hull as a distraction. “|-bitter truth, it’s the nature of this assignment. I know some of us have left yearlings and hatchlings at home; we’ll be back soon enough. And for our more security-minded team, if we have time I don’t see why we can’t use a few of our munitions to destroy an asteroid or something. Equal weight?|”
“|Yeah, that’s an equal weight right there.|” crooned Security Chief Ri’tiki, his molting crest fanning out slightly. “|Just don’t accidentally run out of time before we can have our fun. My knights deserve at least that, wouldn’t you say?|”
“|Mmm. Maybe.|” Matriarch Tr’Nkwi smiled, before plastering data on the screen behind her. “|This should be quick – roughly 9 planets, 4 rocky with the rest as gas giants plus the usual detritus from system formation. The odd radiation comes from near the star-|”
“|That’s where liquid water can form, right?|” Piped up Tk’il’a, getting excited. “|What if this could be-|”
“|A pirate’s stronghold, a private unlisted pleasure-planet for a retired governor, a convent of fanatics, a crashed ship still beaming a garbled transmission or a junior technician interrupting her Matriarch for a second time during her presentation? Why yes. Yes it could be. Why don’t you tell me which one it is?|” Matriarch Tr’Nkwi growled, not entirely in a purely jesting way.
Tk’il’a shrunk into his seat, almost sliding down past his station’s desk as if to escape his Matriarch’s gaze. Tr’Nkwi held it on him for a few moments longer than necessary before continuing. “|…so what we’ll do is jump in a couple light-seconds from the second-largest gravity well, actively scan the outer system using it as a shield, and then spin around to scan the inner. Ri’riki and I have done this a great deal of times, so if you’re a junior on his team or on navigation ask for the details from him; the short version is that by masking our presence in a larger gravity well we won’t trigger a flight-or-fight response from anyone in-system, and by the time the active pings have gotten back to us we know what we’re dealing with and can call for aid.|”
“|It also keeps us out of range for most non-military self-defense orbital systems, begging your pardon for the interruption.|” interjected Ri’tiki, giving a slight deferential dip of his head to the Matriarch. “|Which lets us turn tail and run if we have to.|”
“|That too, though I prefer the more noble advancing-in-an-empty-direction, rather than fleeing, Security Chief.|” The matron’s joke was met with a light chirp of a chuckle, before she continued. “|Anyway. We’ve got another 2 days in orbit of this system, so break out into your Master and Apprentice groups and learn as much as you can. Since this is a rapid-response, only seniors will be at the helms, but…if everyone performs admirably, I don’t see why we couldn’t let some of the juniors work their stations as well.|”
A stray thought crept into Matriarch Tr’Nkwi’s mind.
‘…but what if this time were different?’
She entertained it for a moment with a soft smile as she watched Tk’il’a gather his robes and leave a little too quickly, the chastisement still hot on his scales.
‘What if, indeed.’