Written by J.R.H. Lawless
It’s lonely in space.
When I was a little girl back on Earth, I used to find any excuse, on clear days, to stay out until after sunset — usually games with imaginary friends I never seemed to be able to make for real in the yeast farm’s housing compound. Any excuse would do, so long as I could stay out to watch the stars appear in the night sky, alongside the shuttles and the satellites. And even, on clear nights, the glittering cord of the Quito Space Elevator, in the western sky.
I think that’s probably what got me interested in space in the first place. The idea that out there, on a station around Jupiter, on a shuttle riding the Lightway, or maybe even on one of those far-off twinkling dots in the sky, I might find the friends I clearly could not make down on Earth.
So I worked hard. Convinced myself and everyone around me that I had a passion for space, for science, for discovery. That I wanted to play my part in humanity’s great step outward into the Solar System, and beyond.
But for a child born in Brasilia to yeast farm technicians, in the dying days of the 23rd century, this was easier said than done.
“Jaci,” my parents said time and time again, “space isn’t for people like us. You’re so obsessed with a life all alone up the Elevator, you’re not seeing everyone who cares for you down here. What will you do all alone up in the black, when the people who love you are all down here?”
Lovely sentiment from my parents. But, as usual, they had no idea what they were talking about. They were right about one thing, however. The world of commerce, travel, and science at the end of the Elevator was not designed with yeast farm vatrats in mind.
Even with top marks in all my Academy training software, and excellent results in the Energy Department competitive exams, I only just qualified for a job up in space. And I suspect that my psych profile scores as a congenital loner played as much a role in that as my actual exam results.
And despite all my efforts, all my success, the best position I could unlock was Lightway relay station monitor at the Earth-Sun L5 point.
My prize was therefore the privilege of getting to sit behind an AR monitor, overseeing a giant light-cannon and mirror array as it beams photons to and from shuttles all over the Solar System. Pushing cargo and people I’ll never meet to and from fantastic places I’ll never get to see. The only human in over 300,000 kilometres, watching over equipment that runs just fine without me, just to reassure the far more important people riding the Lightway there’s a human brain watching over them, and their lives aren’t entirely in the incorporeal hands of computers.
Even the relay station’s AI refuses to talk about anything other than work. I’m pretty sure my life is what the corporate era cool kids used to call an “epic fail”.
I may be low on company, but one thing I have in spades is time for thought. Far too much time, and, if I’m honest with myself, probably far too much thought than is healthy for me.
And so, one sleepless night cycle, as I lie in my soiled, regulation jumpsuit atop the cot in my tiny personal cubicle, watching the stars twinkle in the AR screen floating above my head, a strange idea pops uninvited into my head.
I wonder what the Lightway, this monster of energy I’ve ended up devoting my life to, might look like to my imaginary childhood friends on those far away, twinkling dots. The main beam only covers the plane of the ecliptic, to connect the planets, of course. So only alien star systems in that axis would be able to see anything at all, for a start. But what would they see?
I make the external starscape disappear with a flick of a finger, and pull up my astrophysics app instead. The main outbound Lightway beam works like an ancient lighthouse, spinning to cover the whole plane of the planets at once, in perfect sync with the inbound relays at the four corners of the System, and around Mercury. So when viewed from interstellar distances, if you were lucky enough to be in the right axis, it would look like a point of intense electromagnetic energy, flaring at regular intervals.
With a few finger-twitches in the interface, I shift my viewpoint to a random star near the plane of the ecliptic — Kappa Librae, reads the label — and rotate the view back towards Sol, on telescope-grade magnification, to simulate the experience.
Then I grumble, shake my head, and wipe the sleep out of my eyes. I must have gotten it wrong, that can’t be right. So I restart the app, double-check the coordinates, and launch the simulation again.
As Albert Einstein is famously, but erroneously, quoted as saying, it is insanity to do the same thing over and over again, and expect different results.
I’m not sure if I’m insane or not, but the image I’m looking at is identical to the ones in my Academy astrophysics program about pulsars.
With curiosity burning a hole through the bottom of my mind, and plenty of time to kill, I spend the next few cycles digging into all and any info I can find about pulsars. My fascination only increases with every new article.
I discover with amazement that, back in the primitive days of astrophysics, the first pulsar discovered was half-jokingly classified under the label “LGM”. Standing for “Little Green Men”, of course. The object was so strange, so regular and intentional-seeming, the first observers could not avoid thinking of an artificial construct right off the bat.
Even more fascinating to me, the articles go on to explain that the “alien intelligence” hypothesis was “immediately discarded” when a second pulsar was identified. I try to locate what ancient sources I can in the public databases, to verify this, but I can’t find a single publication that directly addressed and refuted the notion of pulsars being, at least in part, artificial constructs.
My rational mind boggles. Such a position flies against the basic tenets of the scientific method. It doesn’t even make any sense as a basic logic proposal.
Yes, there is clear, objective proof that such a thing as a naturally-occuring pulsar phenomenon can exist. That’s unquestionable. But how could the existence of naturally-occurring pulsars possibly mean that all pulsars — every single one of the ten thousand or so identified in our galaxy alone — must necessarily be naturally-occurring. How can it rule out any possibility of an artificial, pulsar-like artefact, somewhere in the near-infinity of stars speckling my viewscreen?
I can only think of one explanation. That we humans, as a species, are so self-conscious about our drive to find other intelligent life that we cynically blind ourselves to the possibility it might exist.
I run through a list of the most anomalous pulsars recorded over the past three centuries, and the results are astounding. Pulsars that inexplicably turn on and off, sometimes at apparent random, sometimes like clockwork. Pulsars that shift between radio waves, visible light, and other bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. Pulsars that remain silent for centuries, then flare up into brief life. Pulsars of all shapes and colours. Pulsars with planetary systems.
And as I review the erratic and unexplained behaviour of some of the most bizarre “pulsars”, I am more and more convinced that I’ve found my long-lost, childhood friends.
Of course, they’re much too far away for any meaningful communication, even if some common language could be worked out. It would take over 4,000 years for any message from my favourite “pulsar” friend to reach me, and another 4,000 for my response to get back. And I can’t find any meaning in the twinkling I’m seeing today.
Trust me, I’ve tried.
And yet, as I sit once again in the Lightway relay control room, monitoring the laser output, I can’t help but smile. Somewhere, behind one of those specks of light, there must be another poor, abused soul, sitting in the alien control room of their species’ own Lightway equivalent.
Maybe their people already know not all pulsars are natural. Or perhaps they have the same conceits we do, and my tentacled alien analogue is also the only one to have seen the truth.
For an instant, I consider sharing my findings with the rest of the System — then brush aside the idea with a smug grin. Not that I’m not confident I’m right. It’s just that… well, these are my friends. I’ve waited long enough to find them, and now I have a whole starscape full of my own, personal alien buddies. A galactic community of Lightway operators.
And I’m not sharing them with anyone.
If you liked this story a second story by this author in the same setting is available to supporting members.