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Saturday, January 6, 2024

Starstruck: The Toliman Nulls (Part I)

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image Duet AI software
When Brooke Prieto, Sharice Prieto, Mirage, and the newest member of their group, Belahkay Teal arrived inside the heliosphere of Alpha Centauri B, they immediately figured out why the vonearthans had chosen not to colonize it. All stars and other celestial bodies are valuable. They contain hydrogen, helium, and other elements, which can be used to produce energy and/or construct useful structures. Lots of science fiction stories only care about worlds that are naturally habitable, but that doesn’t really matter. With sufficiently advanced technology, anything can become habitable, even if that only means breaking it all apart to make enclosed spaceships. Nothing in the universe is completely useless, including Toliman, except that there’s something different about it. There’s something eerie about it. The closer they got to the star, the worse they felt, and there was no escape from this. Mirage was an early general intelligence turned transdimensional observer god turned android. Sharice was an unregulated AI turned android. Brooke was a human turned android. Out of the four of them, only Belahkay was alive with nearly all biological components. They were all capable of manipulating their sensory inputs to varying degrees, but not in this case. The sickness took hold of them all, and made them all feel the same.
According to the exploratory records, a single probe was sent to the star system. This happened at the same time that they were being sent to Proxima Centauri and Rigel Kentaurus. These were the three closest stars to Sol, so it made perfect sense. While the first two received later vessels, as well as passengers, Toliman was abandoned after the first probe. The reason for this was never publicized, but since there were hundreds of billions of other stars in this galaxy alone, no one really bothered to question that decision. Not even Mirage knew the answer, but her educated guess was that a time traveler had something to do with it. Travelers come from all time periods, and while the majority of history can be attributed to normal people making whatever decisions they feel they ought to, a few events were ultimately caused by someone who knew how specific decisions would turn out. Of course time travelers made certain decisions all the time, but in this case, we’re talking about deliberately driving the course of the future with profound and more obvious choices, or with big nudges.
For instance, to travel at something called fractional speeds—which is to say, a significant fraction of light speed—an object in motion must accelerate from a stopped position. This works with anything. A car can’t just suddenly go from zero miles per hour to 60 miles per hour with no intervening speeds in between. Except it can, as long as it can manipulate time and space properly. It was a time traveler, or perhaps a team, who first introduced the humans to this concept, and vonearthans have been taking the feature of interstellar travel for granted ever since. It’s not instant, but it’s impossibly fast. They don’t have to accelerate or decelerate at nearly the same rate as normal physical laws would suggest, which cuts down on travel time. Mirage was sure that Toliman was just like this. She thought a time traveler needed the star system for something, and made sure that no one would come here until they were ready. That might still be the case, but there was more to it. There was something wrong with it. There was something wrong with people when they came here.
Every atom in each one of their bodies was telling them to leave. They felt nausea, chills, muscle fatigue, dizziness, and fear. This place was frightening in an indescribable way. If they were on a planet, they would say that there was something in the air, but in this case, maybe it was in the radiation? They couldn’t tell, and they didn’t want to spend too much time trying to figure it out. Unfortunately, fate had other plans for them. They couldn’t leave, because one of the symptoms was a complete loss of motivation. Had Belahkay waited even one more minute, he may not have made it to the stasis pod, which saved his life. Because the other three stopped where they were, and didn’t move for the next five years. In that time, the little jumper ship they took from the planet of Bungula drifted throughout the star system until it finally happened to come close enough to the nanofactory that Mirage sent there years ago. Their real ship dispatched a tugboat to tow them into the hollowed-out asteroid. It wasn’t until the hatch was sealed behind them that they were released from the spell.
Brooke stood up, and emulated a deep breath. “What the hell was that?”
Sharice couldn’t stop shaking her head. “It was bad, it was bad, it was bad, it was bad. We can’t go back out, we can’t go back out, we can’t go back out.”
“We have to,” Mirage reasoned. “We can’t live here forever.” She composed herself, and approached the console to get some answers. “Whatever was doing whatever it was doing to us can’t reach us through the walls of the asteroid, but that might not always be enough. We have to take our new ship, and get the hell out of here.”
“Is the ship even finished?” Brooke questioned.
“Of course it is.” Mirage tapped the button to open the forward shutters. Before them was the interior of the asteroid. A shipyard was built here, and in the center was a beautiful shining vessel. It was small for a transgalactic ship, but it wasn’t possible to look at anything else in the room. The hull was a dark royal purple, with perfect curves, and no sharp edges. “Ladies...say hello to the Iman Vellani.”
“Unique design,” Brooke noticed.
Sharice was admiring the ship as well before looking over her shoulder. “The human. Is he okay?”
The Prietos ran down to the other side of the jumper to the stasis pod. “Vitals are okay,” Brooke said as she was looking through the interface screen. She released the door, and had to catch Belahkey before he fell to the floor.
He took a moment to catch his breath, and shake off the feeling of dread. “At the risk of sounding like a cliché, are we there yet?”
“Yes,” Sharice replied, “and now we’re leaving.”
“Good.” He shivered again. “What the hell is wrong with this star?”
“Mira?” Brooke asked. Belahkay was still having trouble walking, so she was carrying him down towards the control area. “What’s wrong with Toliman?”
“I don’t know, but...it affects everything. The Vellani, it’s...damaged. There are parts of its operational code that I didn’t write.”
“Can you repair it?” Sharice asked her.
Mirage sighed. “Not here. The effects of the...” She didn’t know what to call it.
“The Nulls,” Belahkay suggested. If it affects you as well as me, it’s not a real disease. It’s something new.”
“The Nulls,” Mirage echoed. “The shielding of this asteroid appears to be protecting us from the symptoms, but it’s really just suppressing them. I can already feel myself losing motivation again. We can’t stay here for even a day.”
“But if your ship is broken.”
“It’s not broken, it just needs to be reprogrammed” Mirage contended. “I’ll fly it manually until we can do that. This will work. We’ll just point ourselves away from the star, and go. But just to be safe, Belahkay, you should go back into stasis.”
“No. I’m with you.”
“It’s your choice. I’m not your boss.”
“Aren’t you, though? Sharice asked as Mirage was walking away.
Mirage didn’t answer. While she went off to prepare for things in their shiny new ship, Sharice teleported Belahkay over, and then started to ferry all of their belongings. It thusly fell to Brooke to distribute antimatter bombs in key places in the asteroid. They weren’t really bombs, but antimatter was inherently unstable, so if you wanted to turn some of it into a bomb, all you had to do was find a way to disrupt the magnetic field that was keeping it from touching matter, and preferably do so remotely. They could imagine some intrepid explorers in the future, who couldn’t understand why this star system was off limits, coming here to figure things out. They too would become trapped, but if they were organic, it could result in their deaths. This could still happen, but at least there wouldn’t be anything left around here to make it more interesting and inviting.
Once everything was done, they convened on the Vellani, and prepared to launch. They left the jumper where it was, because it was no longer of any use to them. They had everything they would ever need right here. Mirage commanded the airlock doors to open, and then shot out of there as fast as they could. They immediately started to feel the effects of the nulls again, but now that they knew what they were up against, they were able to fight against it. If they were to stick around much longer, the sickness would probably win again, but they weren’t planning on doing that. Even if they did lose all hope, and become unable to escape, they wouldn’t last much longer. The antimatter containment pods were programmed to fail on a timer, rather than be detonated remotely. It had to be this way, because what if Brooke lost her motivation to trigger the chain reaction while she was out here. And anyway, there should have been enough time to get sufficiently far away. The resulting explosion would be large, but still mostly limited to the scope of the asteroid. The pods they used weren’t full to the brim with antimatter, and it’s not like they needed to destroy the whole solar system. So the question was, why did that happen?
They were more than far enough away from the asteroid when it exploded, but the annihilation didn’t stop there. Bursts of energy started to pop up in all directions, much farther than they should have. It was like there was more antimatter in the area than they expected. But that couldn’t be possible? Antimatter wasn’t just floating around all over space. It was short-lived, because whenever it came into contact with ordinary matter, they would annihilate each other, particle by particle. How was this still going on? How could they stop it?
“We can’t stop it,” Mirage explained to Belahkay, who probably should have been placed back in stasis. “But we can protect ourselves.” She tapped on the controls, and boosted the EM shield. It was a simple enough feature that every starship had. While time travelers had access to things like a teleportation field for dust and micrometeoroids, that wouldn’t help them with things like solar wind and cosmic radiation. Still, the electromagnetic shield wasn’t usually turned up to eleven, because it didn’t need to be. In this case, it did. The Vellani was made out of matter, and if those explosions got any closer, they would all be vaporized instantly. The EM shield held, but it wasn’t enough to protect them from the devastating effects of what they had done. Something started to pull them back towards the host star, and they couldn’t do anything about it.
“Can you boost the propulsion?” Belahkay offered. He was holding onto the center console since artificial gravity had been turned off. The other three could magnetize their feet at will.
“All available power is being diverted to the shield!” Sharice replied. “We would be destroyed if we started using it for anything else.”
“If we fall into that sun,” he reasoned, “we’re gonna be destroyed anyway.”
Mirage was watching the screen as the explosions all began to approach the star. It too was made out of ordinary matter. “There is no reality where we’re not destroyed! Everything living on Bungula is dead too! It’s over! We fucked up!”
The ship continued to fall into the sun at an accelerated rate, and soon, the four of them lost all will to care about it. They just sat there, not worrying about anything, not willing to do anything to fix it, which was okay, because there wasn’t anything to do except accept their fate. In the blink of an eye, Alpha Centauri B was gone, as was the newborn starship Iman Vellani, and its crew.

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