Outward: Chapter 29: Safety

The whitish-blue dot receded into the distance. The creature relaxed. He was finally safe.

He had gone into the expedition with such high hopes. From the depths of interstellar space, the planet had appeared to be the most interesting yet discovered. Spectral analysis had shown its atmosphere to be abundant in diatomic oxygen, a sure sign there was some unusual chemistry taking place on its surface. The gas would bury itself in the ground and form minerals given the slightest opportunity, so to see so much of it airborne meant something was continuously generating it anew. None of the other worlds he had visited had anything like it.

He had been so excited to see what was there that he had foregone the usual preliminary fly-through of the system to head straight to the planet and take a peek. In retrospect, the creature considered as it flung itself around the planet’s star, boosting his speed tremendously, this had been a devastating mistake. The planet’s moon had been obvious, but what hadn’t been apparent until it had already inserted itself into orbit were the thousands of tiny satellites whipping around it too, too small to notice until he had already maneuvered himself into the thick of things. It was precisely the sort of thing a fly-by would have discovered.

It hadn’t taken long before he had collided with one and lost control, sending himself tumbling down towards the planet. He had strained to slow his descent as much as possible. A controlled landing had been impossible, but he managed to crash as gently as possible into the surface before losing consciousness.

He pointed a few antennas towards the whitish-blue planet as he flew out towards the system’s largest gas giant, the final maneuver before escaping the system entirely. The planet was still watching him. He could feel the dim pulses of energy being fired at him. But that was all. It wasn’t sending anything physical at him. And even if it had, he should now be moving too quickly for anything to catch up to him.

He had regained consciousness in a panic, feeling himself accelerating uncontrollably before realizing that was merely the planet’s surface gravity. It was always a weird sensation after having landed on a planet, feeling gravity pulling in a single direction across his body. He never quite got used to it, even after millennia of crossing the stars. He always longed to once again feel gravity pull inward instead of downward, as he had been accustomed to for the billions of years before he decided to start exploring the galaxy first-hand. But the nature of the mission meant that he had to launch towards his next targets before he could finish spreading himself out around the planet.

He hadn’t even had the opportunity to try that on the whitish-blue planet, he lamented as the system’s gas giant slung him towards a new star. Once he had reminded himself what localized gravity felt like, he had discovered he was under attack. He had always been aware of the possibility of finding an inhabited planet, but all the lifeless worlds he had visited had made him think that life elsewhere in the galaxy was just a theory. Yet he had suddenly found himself engulfed on all sides by the planet’s resident, trying to push its way into every minute crevice in his body.

He had tried to communicate with it. The thousands of strange chemicals it oozed at him must surely have been how it tried to communicate, or so he had thought, but he couldn’t decode what any of it meant, and none of the chemicals he tried to secrete in response seemed to have any effect on its behavior. He had been forced to conclude the alien was unintelligent, incapable of communication and seeing him as nothing but another resource to be consumed. Out of sheer self-preservation, he had been forced to find a way to kill the part of it attacking him.

He had now escaped the gravitational thrall of the planet’s star, crossing into the relative void of interstellar space. His acceleration towards his next destination slowed, as the gas and dust around him had become far too sparse to effectively propel himself against. He interrupted his reflections to consider the stars around him, then spun himself around and pointed a nostalgic antenna towards a distant star. It was too far to detect from where he was, but he know that circling around it was Inward. He retracted the antenna and settled in for another long interrupted voyage.

The whitish-blue planet hadn’t taken the hint and continued to assault him, initially to no avail. He had set about the business of staking out his own claim to part of the planet, at least long enough to give him a chance to heal. Like his old self back on Inward, the alien was ubiquitous on the planet’s surface, but he had hoped that if he dug deep enough, he could find a place of his own. As he did so, however, he had begun to suspect the alien wasn’t quite as unintelligent as he had initially thought. The planet was filled with materials and structures that weren’t naturally occurring. The air was filled with countless radio waves that fluctuated in ways explainable only by their being deliberately modulated.

Perhaps he had been too hasty dismissing the alien, he had realized. Perhaps he had merely chosen the wrong means to attempt communication. He tried using radio emissions where chemical secretions had failed, and for a few fleeting moments, it answered.

The alien then surprised him a second time by killing him immediately afterward.

Fortunately, the alien had underestimated him as well. Successful interstellar travel requires a mastery of resilience and robustness, and he had had a long time to practice each. The fragments of himself that had burrowed deeply enough into the planet to avoid the cataclysm rebuilt him out of the available materials, just as he had built those fragments out of the materials at hand earlier. It took time, but interstellar travel also gave plenty of time to practice patience.

He was approaching the new star. He swept the space around him with his antennas as he threw himself against the interplanetary gasses, slowing himself down enough to observe his new surroundings. He confirmed the results of his earlier survey: seven planets, two of which looked like they were sufficiently hospitable and would contain adequate raw material. He performed a few fly-bys of the one closer to the star before entering orbit and preparing for descent.

After he had rebuilt himself anew within the whitish-blue planet, he reassessed his priorities. He was the interloper, so it would be his responsibility to leave as quickly as possible. Exploration was off the table, except to study the alien above him enough to come up with a plan.

He had learned the alien wasn’t so fundamentally different than himself. It too was a combination of organic and inorganic components, inextricably linked together. He listened and watched closely until he understood enough of it to influence it without making his own presence readily known, nudging it forward with a gentle poke here and a prod there. The fastest way back off the planet would require borrowing some resources the alien was using, but he couldn’t afford to spend the time to build everything from scratch, lest the alien find him and decide to finish the job it had started. No, he would borrow what he could, and build what he must.

This new planet would do nicely. Rocky with a variety of minerals. A thin, mostly inert atmosphere surrounded by an intense magnetic field. And most important of all given recent events, blissfully sterile.

He unfolded himself, exposing his organic core. He set about secreting nanomachines to begin harvesting materials from the planet’s crust to construct larger machines, which would then be able to build the tools he needed to settle in. He had all the time he needed.

Unlike the situation on the whitish-blue planet, where he had narrowly escaped. Perhaps he had pushed the alien too far, and it started to turn its attention back against him. He started suspecting as such when he lost the use of one of the alien’s orbital uplinks. He became sure of it when one of the tendrils he had pushed up to the surface was broken off. Fortunately the rest of him had been busy readying the launch system and constructing a few additional copies of himself.

It was hardly the most elegant solution, but it had worked. The biggest technical hurdle had been working within energy constraints. Geothermal energy was abundant below the surface, but it only went so far, especially when taking into account how himself and his clones needed to each store enough energy to survive another couple interstellar voyages. Most of what was left went to construction of the mass driver needed to get himself off the planet. Finding a way to actually power the thing took some creativity, and a little luck, but ended up working out.

When he was ready, he allowed himself to be discovered. The alien obligingly fired the energy he needed right down into the central reactor, apparently not becoming suspicious of how unlikely it was to have a direct line from a satellite orbit to something buried hundreds of feet below the surface. In the end, the only difficult part was keeping as much of the alien as possible away from the launcher. Just because it was out to harm him didn’t mean he was going to return the favor.

The first major project on the new planet was complete: a massive antenna array capable of sending a message back to himself around other stars, who would relay it further back until it finally reached the part of himself still on Inward, where his reports would join those from the other copies of him still spreading outward across the galaxy, star by star. He would finally be able to provide details of his experiences on the whitish-blue planet. The primitive technology available to him there wasn’t capable of sending much more than the briefest of messages at those distances, so he had had to limit himself to the essential information about that system.

“Alien. Hostile. Avoid.”

It was a shame; there were other planets and moons in that system that had looked interesting as well, but it was too dangerous to go back. Here, however, he could relax and stretch out as much as he wanted as he built a new launch device. He turned his attention to the night sky and considered where to explore next.

Chapter word count: 1,787 (+120)
Total word count: 51,424 / 50,000 (102.848%)