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Chapter 16

A voiding comet striking a mid-sized moon of Outpost

Armageddon Skies
Jope +20L

          Omen's moon-3, now known as Loslo or "Center of the Center," had been radically transformed from the desolate pristine body Na and Ulixis found only 20 jopes before. The rounded tops of huge domed structures broke through the icy plains in every direction. The moon's thick crust was laced with a labyrinth of tunnels, halls, and information transfer channels, created by constructor worms that even now burrowed through the ice and silicate rock, eating and converting the raw material to desired forms. Loslo even had its own unified consciousness. One jope earlier, a female octo with a suitable psychological profile had been selected from a group of eager volunteers, and her consciousness transferred to a synthetic core deep within the moon. Worms had since been busy expanding her neural system, integrating the core with sensors distributed over and throughout the host orb. Whole mountains of bedrock deep beneath the surface had been transformed into expansive brain folds, incorporating vast memory archives. Only Nemo's cherished tomb, enshrined in a kiluret-wide cube of original crust, was off-limits. Loslo had become the hub of the entire Los system. Yet it would take several more jopes before she was fully mature, and the last vestiges of her rough origins were erased from the deep interior.
          Na surveyed the organized chaos in the cavernous central control of the Planetary Defense Force headquarters, buried 32 kilurets beneath Loslo's hardened south pole. Several metons flitted through the artificial argon atmosphere in the weak gravity, directing the frantic work of a small army of creatoids. He approached one of them, a former octo named Krem.
          "Good work, Krem. I see that our down-planet friends are safely settled in their new housing." A mixed group of sixty-four octos and synocts from Omen's technical elite occupied a newly built pressurized bay along the perimeter of the hall, a multistory honeycombed structure with transparent quartz walls. A few reys flopped awkwardly on improvised woven hammocks in an environmental simulation tank nearby. The special facilities had been hurriedly prepared to accommodate the planet dwellers.
          "Thank you, Na. Who can fault them for wanting to be more directly involved in the unfolding crisis? Many are already plugged into the communication network." The visitors had been anxious to help monitor and analyze the puzzling data flowing in from the outermost halo of sentry stations beyond Outpost.
          "Still, most of them are proving to be much more a nuisance than help! Why can't they just let us metons and creatoids do what we were designed for?" Na could scarcely believe that he had wanted to transform back to a rey body only five jopes ago. "I'm going topside for a while. I need to see firsthand what is going on."
          Na quietly slipped out a side exit, and fled the mad scene along a narrow, twisting tunnel. After several kilurets he entered an even tighter vertical shaft, and quickly accelerated straight up, toward a tiny spot of sky.
          As he cleared the surface, Na was surprised to spot Ulixis on a beeline outward from the remnant of moon-1, where constructors were feverishly manufacturing new sentry stations. Soon they were flying side by side, as in the old yads, speeding toward the unknown. They felt no need to talk, though they slipped unusually close. The sky looked innocent enough; it was hard to believe that something was desperately wrong. The only unusual feature was a rare and visually striking alignment of all five major planets, pointing by chance in the general direction of the galactic center.
          The pair decelerated hard two yads later, as they approached the innermost shell of sentry stations 512 bevurets beyond Omen's orbit, and maneuvered toward a mammoth platform housing a kiluret-wide optical-infrared telescope. The behemoth was already aimed at their target. Both metons expertly slipped into the observation deck, and plugged into the controls. Na focused the telescopic image as he slowly increased its magnification.
          The thing appeared in the far distance. It cut toward them from the galactic core, spanning the vast expanse to the Los system. Some 3.4 million bevurets away at its closest point, the mysterious entity penetrated deep into the Los outer cloud of comets. It looked like a black lightning bolt, frozen in time except for an erratic quiver, and enveloped in a faint pink glow of ionized hydrogen gas. The sky appeared to be ripped apart by the jagged pattern – a blind spot in the fabric of spacetime. The stars above and below appeared normal, but the gap should not have been there.
          Na spoke slowly. "The segments appear to converge to the spot where we lost Nemo."
          "I know." Ulixis was silent for several nocs. "We never did determine if that was an attack. Why do I sense we are about to find out?"
          Na cranked up the magnification until optical distortions became apparent, then backed off. He knew that the extreme tip of the black bolt detached, then reformed in an irregular rhythmic pattern once every few nocs, though he was unable to discern this with the solitary telescope. The detachment frequency was closely correlated with the rate at which comets, which must have originally been distributed over an enormous volume, were now hurtling inward from deep space along a stream that pointed back directly toward the black bolt. Each cometary body seemed to be targeted to one of the major planets. The trillion sentry stations already in place were spread thin, to snag random intruders. The system wasn't designed to handle a directed assault like this. Some hundred new interceptors were being dispatched every noc from Omen's moon-1 toward the comet train, and roughly triple that number from the moons around planet-4. Would it be enough?
          "But why did they – it – take so long to pursue us, if that is what's happening?"
          "How do we know what time means to any being involved with a thing like that?" Ulixis gestured outward. "Perhaps it waited for the current planetary alignment, toward its source."
          "Wouldn't an approach perpendicular to the ecliptic be more advantageous, so all the planets could be attacked simultaneously?"
          "Perhaps the black bolt and comets would have been more easily detected there." She paused briefly. "Listen to us. We are speaking as if we are in fact dealing with some form of intelligence."
          The pair slued the giant telescope toward the leading cluster of cometary bodies, and focused on one of its members. The five-kiluret wide body was speeding inward at the incredible (for a comet) speed of some 1,290 kilurets per noc. It must have begun its journey at least two jopes earlier, though the comet stream had only been detected one thom ago. By that time the forward projectiles were a scant thom from the outer sentry shell, and less than another half thom from Outpost. The comets were apparently coated with a black tar-like substance, making them almost impossible to detect at optical wavelengths. Only recently had they warmed sufficiently to be visible in the far infrared. Whirling madly yet somehow holding together, Na could detect no detail on the comet's blurred surface.
          "The outer sentries were scheduled to make first contact just over three rohs ago," Ulixis pointed out. It took light just that long to cross the intervening space. "If we are lucky, we should see what happened very soon."
          The targeted comet chanced to be passing in front of a distant emission nebula. Na suddenly thought he saw a strange black flicker peek around the edge of the comet, against the bright sky background. "Did you see that?" he demanded.
          "I am afraid I did. What in Jopitar was it? It almost seemed – alive!"
          A thousand glints of light swarmed into the periphery of the telescopic field of view – the sentry interceptors. Na wondered how they were ever going to cope with the comet's rotation. Before he could find out, the screen was saturated with a fiery flash. "What …" As the fireball dissolved, Na was filled with dread. Where there had been a single comet, now there were two, separated by several kilurets. The tar cover was gone, and overall rotation considerably reduced. But not a single sentry could be found.
          "We have to report this immediately," Ulixis snapped, as they beamed an emergency transmission back toward Loslo. How were they going to handle this? "Did you catch the burst of high-energy gamma rays?"
          "Strange," Na moaned in bewilderment. "There isn't a trace of that black flicker left."
          A chill passed through Ulixis. "This couldn't be some sort of suicide mission?" How better ensure success than by sending intelligent and committed consciousness along? "The response time is too quick for any type of remote guidance."
          "So the black bolt is some type of conscious being, or group, and not merely a weapon? Or perhaps it is both?"
          "The stinger of the scorponi."
          Na pivoted his attention to the galactic core. "Then it was an attack back there after all."
          "We still cannot be certain."
          "Right," Na concluded sarcastically.

          Na and Ulixis were on station at another large telescope in the inner sentry shell when the comet storm reached Outpost's orbit. There was no longer any doubt that the black flicker was a manifestation of some kind of guiding influence, able to alter the trajectory of a host comet to a limited extent. What had first appeared to be a dark surface coating was in reality a black gossamer veil, flung around each comet and somehow made to whirl as if a solid body. The deceptive cover was readily penetrated, and the sentry interceptors had learned to coax an invader to self-destruct using only a few hundred miniature decoys. A vacated comet nucleus could then be diverted using conventional methods. Still the decoys were in short supply, and many conscious sentries were sacrificing themselves in the battle. The mysterious black flicker occasionally survived its kamikaze detonation, adding to the confusion.
          Only 23 thoms earlier, a male consciousness had been established in Outpost's largest moon, which had since been known as Como. Na watched in dismay as a comet nucleus callously slammed into the young Goliath, lifting an immense fireball above his shattered crustal skin. The long-range communication system was gone. Como's resident awareness, which had refused to be evacuated, was gone (though an earlier version could in principle be restored at a later time).
          "We probably could have obliterated that comet with one matter-antimatter pod," Na grumbled. Extreme frustration was evident in his low voice.
          "But what if the thing riding it was in fact conscious and intelligent, and it did not realize that we too are sapient? Would you avoid one atrocity by committing another? You must know it is wrong to violate any being against its will, except …"
          "Yes, yes, except to stop it from intentionally violating another being, in a comparable manner. I am familiar with octan ethics. But that thing, however it viewed us, was on a suicide mission!"
          "It had every right to kill itself. We did not! Until we understand the attacker's viewpoint, we can only to try to dissuade it, or at least block it from harming us." Now Ulixis' own exasperation was showing.
          Ten comets scored direct hits on Outpost itself, suggesting that the aliens did not realize this diminutive ice giant was uninhabited. When the current barrage seemed to be over, Na turned impulsively to Ulixis, with more unconflicted emotion than he usually allowed himself. "I don't know what I would do if I were to lose you."
          "I have no intention to be a hero," Ulixis responded gently. "It is so ironic that Nemo saved both our lives more than 20 jopes ago, by his own lack of caution. It was so uncharacteristic of him. If he had held back, and we had approached those black holes close together, we probably all would have perished. And our colony, all million inhabitants, would never have been born."
          "How strange that his chance bold snap could have so changed our own reality. How many more lives will be sacrificed learning to deal with this thing?"
          The emergency communication channels all lit at the same instant. "Twenty incoming projectiles passing sector 1-F." How could that be? The sector was only fifty million kilurets away, above the ecliptic plane and half a million kilurets inside the inner sentry shell! The lead comets bypassing Outpost in the main comet stream were still nearly three thoms away.
          Na and Ulixis reeled to see a cluster of brilliant pin pricks (several brighter over all wave lengths than a full Lune from Aerth) coursing in front of a distant dark nebula. The objects had apparently traveled in cold, ebon stealth through the outer planetary system, and become visible only after clearing the inner sentry shell. The pair quickly slued their telescope toward the intruders for a better look.
          "They seem to have no size at all," Ulixis blurted. Data were pouring in concerning the mysterious objects' trajectories and masses. Some of the closest sentry stations had managed to establish precise position and velocity fixes using triangulation, as well as rough mass estimates based on distortions in the regional gravitational field. "Their current speeds are about the same as the comets. They must have been intentionally launched in front of the main comet stream, from a slightly different direction. The lead bodies should reach Omen in just over three yads." Ulixis was stunned, and spoke rapidly but mechanically to cover her desperation. "The latest mass estimates are minuscule, less than half a terumag each. This corresponds to iceballs no more than 90 rets across."
          "That makes no sense! Could they be pionic missiles?"
          "Then why are they glowing so?" Ulixis could no longer mask her distress. "Look at their spectra – it's crazy! Hot in gammas, neutrinos galore, plus energetic particles and antiparticles of every type. The radiation seems to be coming from nothing." Ulixis abruptly spoke more thoughtfully. "The spectral signature is close to that of mini black holes."
          "But that's impossible! If they originated at the black bolt, black holes with the observed masses would have evaporated by now. No, that's not right. If the masses were originally a few times larger, they would have survived. But then we should have spotted them long ago. You can't just turn black holes off and on. Can you?"
          "The lightest and brightest seem targeted to Omen, the others divided between planet-1 and planet-2."
          Na confirmed this, then performed a quick mental computation. He felt a quiver of perverse satisfaction. "Then your hypothesis does fit. Black holes with the observed masses would be entering the explosive phase of evaporation precisely as they arrived at their respective destinations. Each would release energy comparable to that generated by one of the ordinary comets." Na couldn't understand an abrupt shift in his emotions. He suddenly felt somehow relieved, released from an awful burden, as if he had wished this on himself. A vision of a devastating effulgent blast, consuming all, purifying all, wrapped around his mind. How could he be feeling this? His children needed him. He wouldn't forsake a child, not again.
          "Black hole explosives?" Ulixis cut in, as she and Na instinctively began to accelerate toward their threatened home. "How would you create them? Not to mention control them?"
          "Never mind that. How can we stop them? To destroy them prematurely is probably impossible."
          "If we could increase their masses, and so delay self-destruction, the objects should punch through their targets with minimal damage."
          "But how can we accomplish that in only three yads? Each one should be smaller than an atomic nucleus. The only handle we have on them is gravity, which is extremely feeble except up close. We'd have to shoot in one particle at a time, in an intense radiation field, at a rate that couldn't compare to the rate of mass loss."
          "Perhaps we could simply deflect them? We could try directional bipolar pionic explosives." Worry about debris from such a blast was irrelevant now.
          "But any explosion would pass right through a small black hole. There's almost no cross section to catch a recoil."
          "What else can we do? These might be affected somehow. It is worth a try!"
          The swarm of black holes was now passing before a bright, distant knot of emission nebula. Against the luminous background, an eerie blackness flickered wildly, with incomprehensible passion, around each body.

          Na and Ulixis raced homeward to Omen, to help coordinate the defense effort there. Even at standard maximum interplanetary acceleration (not routinely used inside a planetary system, for safety reasons), they arrived barely two yads ahead of the newfound projectiles, which glowed ever more fiercely as their rate of evaporation inexorably increased. There would barely be time to position resources to mount any kind of resistance. A few Omen residents, mostly senior octan officials, were already asking to be evacuated. The rest were either still ignorant of the situation, or opting to weather the coming storm in the illusory security of their fluid home turf. Which was fortunate, since a timely mass exodus would have been impossible.
          A squadron of 24 metons, arrayed in eight triads, had been hastily assembled in the nearby sentry shell to probe the invading bodies. Each triad was equipped with a single highly-directional pionic mine and an attendant creatoid, tentatively programmed to guide the mine as close to a specified black hole as possible, then detonate the explosive toward the target. The creatoid would willingly sacrifice itself, of course. The battle group, its members camouflaged in chameleonic skin, had departed within two rohs of the discovery of the incoming missiles.
          After nearly four rohs of heavy acceleration followed by over two rohs of similar deceleration, the lead triad was now closing on the mass bearing most directly on Omen. The team veered onto a parallel course, and matched speed with the body at a "safe" distance of 200,000 kilurets. Even at that separation, the black hole warmed the metons' skins, shining in gamma rays and particle emissions with nearly seven times the radiance of Los in visible light on the opposite side of the sky.
          As the assigned creatoid readied its weapon, Na turned to Ulixis at an observation post near Loslo. "You realize a pionic blast might kill the entity riding that black hole." It was now clear that each black hole was being guided by a sapient being, much as the comets.
          "It does not matter," Ulixis jabbed back.
          "But it mattered back on Outpost."
          "I have changed my mind. That thing has demonstrated sufficient intelligence that it must comprehend what it is doing to us. In any case, it is on a death trip. We are not violating its will to live, just denying its ability to hurt us."
          A convenient change of opinion, Na thought, now that Ulixis' own home was in jeopardy.
          The mine-toting creatoid separated from its meton companions, and accelerated toward the target. The synthetic creature had been created only yads earlier, and did not even have a proper name, only a designation CLy-325146. Now it began to chant as in a trance, urging itself onward against the gale, as it doggedly shepherded its charge toward the dazzling, impossibly tiny point of light dead ahead. CLy-325146 had to succeed. This was its purpose, its destiny. Radiation ripped through its guts, heat jacked its cerebral functions. CLy-325146 willed itself to succeed. The mine was armed, set to explode when the casing melted. The nucleogyro axis was aligned. The thing ahead seemed to be completely ignoring the steadfast creatoid, as if it were no more threat than a fleaoid. Yet CLy-325146 knew it must persevere. Even though the blast would probably have no effect. With a final determined cry, it flung the mine straight at the heart of the Beast. Nocs passed. Then the sky and creatoid together dissolved in an incandescent sea of ultraviolet.
          The metons watched as two blazing shafts of light shot in opposite directions from the blast site, one directly toward the black hole. The energy beam passed straight through the target as if nothing were there – as expected, and feared. What now? The stunned metons winced as the black flicker attending the black hole unfolded from some extradimensional cocoon.
          A lone male meton broke from his companions, and slipped with deliberate haste toward the intruder. He had to see with his own eyes what this Thing was, what made It tick. He deactivated his chameleon skin and, pushing ever closer, strove to make contact, applying every principle of interspecies communication he knew. As he approached, the alien entity seemed to become progressively more agitated. It twisted, writhed, strained toward the meton. Suddenly a small piece broke away, and accelerated directly toward him. It instantly transformed into a tongue of fire, a dagger of blinding radiance. In a flash, the meton was reduced to hot vapor. What had a moment earlier been a thinking, striving being was now a drifting cloud of plasma. "The sacrificial lombling," whispered an anguished comrade. Was he now part of an epic story, like that of the ancient hero Nemo? Somehow the prospect didn't matter any more.
          The blackness withdrew to its dark lair, apparently content. But the trajectory of the black hole had changed by several degrees. The lightning strike had somehow caused the object to recoil in the opposite direction. In the heat of the moment, the surviving metons deferred their grief, and relayed the serendipitous information back to Loslo.

          Only nine rohs remained before the ten black holes apparently targeted on the Omen system arrived. Na and several other metons scrambled above the cold plains of Loslo, coordinating the pell-mell improvised construction of 128 drones. The craft were garishly lit, heavily shielded, and programmed to broadcast non-random, language-like patterns over wide bands of the electromagnetic and neutrino spectra. Each would be launched at an incoming projectile, and taunt the resident alien consciousness, provoking it to strike and thereby alter course.
          Ulixis' voice sounded inside Na's mind, from an observation post near the orbit of the outermost Omen moon. "The deflected black hole has managed to correct its course over the past roh. The trajectories of all the bodies have been a bit erratic, much like the comets. Strange – the random jitter is comparable, even though the comets are much more massive."
          "We should concentrate on defending discrete sites, like major population centers. It would be futile to try and shield the entire planet."
          "We must include Loslo. If the outer planets are any indication, the major moons will be targeted."

          Time had run out. The untested drones hurried outward to match speed with the incoming projectiles at strategic points along the final five million kilurets, the terminal roh, of their flight paths. There would be precious little time to act, but also scant time for the invaders to effect any course corrections.
          After nearly seven rohs of frenetic acceleration, the first drone moved against the lead black hole, now a blazing arrow shooting straight at Omen's equatorial heart. The total luminosity of the microsuol was already approaching one millionth that of Los, and increasing steadily. The nonconscious interceptor leapt out under remote control, lights flaring wildly, screaming gibberish at its quarry. The black flicker responded, but seemed only mildly interested, even as the drone drew closer. Not until a meton cut into the drone's communication circuits and began speaking directly to the alien did it show real agitation. With a sudden electric flash, the drone was vaporized. As the flicker consciousness attempted to compensate for the recoil, another drone moved in.
          The drama unfolded across the Omen system, as the remaining swarm of black holes penetrated the defense zone. Na retreated from the searing heat and radiation of a missile bearing directly on Loslo, as drone after drone hurled itself at the brilliant blackness – creation within annihilation. Repeated defensive zaps pushed the object off course toward Loslo's north pole. There appeared to be a chance it would miss the moon altogether, that Loslo would suffer only some shallow surface melting. Yet the alien was persistent, and reeled back toward its desired course between drone attacks.
          "Why doesn't it just fire another burst in the opposite direction to correct its trajectory?" Na wondered out loud.
          "Maybe a little bit of the thing dies with every discharge," an unfamiliar metallic voice responded. Na squinted to see a young meton in the distance, silhouetted against Los, watching with him.
          With each successive strike over the following nims, the flicker indeed grew perceptibly dimmer. As the black hole eruption approached its grand finale, only a tiny fragment of crazed blackness remained. Na gasped in dismay as it struggled to hit its target, even in the throes of death. Did it feel so threatened by them? With a final surge, the strange being expended itself in a blinding pillar of light, thrusting its charge careening toward Loslo. The exploding black hole delivered the moon's north pole a glancing blow, enveloping it in a gamma-blue fireball. When the scene cleared enough to see, the black hole was gone, and several kilurets of icy rock had been sheared away, sending a massive spray of debris downstream into empty space. Tentative cliffs were collapsing into a tumultuous molten sea, which filled a broad, ugly scar on Loslo's scalp. Na sighed in relief when he heard Loslo resume broadcasting to all who cared to listen. The damage was mostly superficial. Already worm creatoids were sealing off broken nerve tubes, and repairing shock damage to deep structures. The core personality was intact. Though she would have quite a headache for several yads.
          Na's attention turned back to Omen. How were Neris' daughter and her tribe – his tribe – faring? He felt so helpless. Already one black hole had struck at a high northern latitude, disrupting the local circulation. Fortunately the district included no major population centers. A pair of the self-destructing devils had been successfully diverted away from the planet, and two more "wasted" on unpopulated moons. This left a quartet of tightly spaced projectiles, now closing rapidly on Omen itself.
          The drones were in short supply, and a decision was made to concentrate on the two lead bodies. As the automatons were guided in, a few free creatoids instinctively threw themselves at the remaining pair of unobstructed beasts. Curt zaps split the vacuum. Na hid from the awful glare and ionizing radiation in the protective shadow of Loslo. The sky above his northern horizon swam with reflections and scatter off a chaotic cloud of debris that now engulfed the moon. Los hung low in the west, weakly illuminating dense cirrus condensing in the dark cold overhead. A flurry of icy fireflies sparkled all around, sprinkling softly downward.
          What ever did the aliens think of them? If only they chose to ignore the interceptors, the entire defense effort would be rendered futile. Every black hole would strike its target head-on. But then, Nemo would still be alive. No, that was different. Where was Ulixis? Was she still safe at the outermost moon? Everything was happening so quickly.
          Na monitored the neutrino communications beaming directly through Loslo. The front pair of black holes had been diverted, but the other two were plowing straight in. One was heading for the equator, although it was impossible to predict the precise longitude of impact, as the body had been veering drunkenly. The second had for some reason swerved, to a deep southern latitude. Panic ensued, as the incendiary missiles pierced the planet's thin skin.
          The octos and synocts on Omen prayed to Dama, the Universal Spirit within Whom they lived, of Whom they were an organic part. They expressed their terror, their desire to live, work and play, to make amends. The reys prayed to Maddee. Dama responded in Xyr necessary constancy, Maddee in Xyr sustaining consistency.
          The blunt shock wave ripped through the soft city of Ulixo, population forty thousand, in the south equatorial sea. Even as the survivors pulled themselves out of the rubble, they felt a strange sensation, and knew that something was very wrong. The entire city accelerated up and southward, then slowly began to list forward. A roh later it was sinking, dragged inexorably downward, into the hellish depths of the mother planet. Only a handful of residents could be evacuated; appropriate transport was almost nonexistent. Most of the populace rarely traveled far in physical form, relying instead on remote virtual links to visit distant friends and experience foreign environments.
          Two rey tribes that plied the affected currents were simply never seen again. A third tribe would be wiped out on their next passage by a generous spring of tainted manna.

          Half a thom later, a large contingent of metons was hunkered down deep inside Loslo, within a vertical cylindrical vault some 2 kilurets across and 10 kilurets tall. The outdoor space environment was still thick with flying debris, and this seemed like a reasonable place to pass the time. Ulixis was nestled in a corner next to Na, and absorbed in a remote communication. When finished, she turned to Na. "Did you hear, every one of the black holes converging on Malzen≠≠gren shut down a few rohs before arrival there. Our observation team in the northern highlands reports the missiles then changed course, toward planet-1. They somehow reactivated before terminating there."
          "Which makes no sense at all. Why would the invaders choose to leave Malzen≠≠gren alone?"
          "What in all this does make sense?" Ulixis sighed. "I have been reviewing high-speed recordings of the black bolt, holes and comets, but it is all nonsense to me. What is the latest posted analysis of the flicker pattern? Is it just correlated noise after all?" Some bizarre low- and high-frequency fluctuations had been detected in radio-bright mottling on the spinning comet veils, and in both the particulate and electromagnetic emissions from the black holes, that bore a formal resemblance to a persistent flickering in the black bolt itself.
          "The Beta team doesn't think so." Na was an active member of this official group, one of two assigned the task of analyzing the mysterious patterns. "The correlations don't match any known process, other than language. Of course, no one has a clue how to translate." They had less than two and one-half thoms to find a Rosetta stone, before the main comet stream bore down on Omen – assuming that the patterns were in fact language. "An open meeting is scheduled in conference hall CSF-731 in three kews, to discuss the matter. Why don't you join me there? I understand a few organics from down below will also be attending."
          "You did not hear? That meeting has been postponed again, by another two kews."
          Na winced inside. "I worry that many of the investigators are treating this more like an interesting research project, than a real crisis. Oh well, I will plan to meet you then."
          Ulixis spent most of the next forty yads at the Loslo Archives, brushing up on alien communication and abstract language theory. The library was still largely intact, and provided a wealth of information concerning the history and evolution of the theoretical ideas. Ulixis bypassed the standard data acquisition protocol, equivalent to speed-reading, and instead dumped reams of relevant material directly into a specially prepared portion of her own cerebral cortex. While she and Na had originally carried most of this information from Jopitar, all but a small fraction had been stored in a highly compressed, essentially inaccessible format. The data had been tediously expanded into a useful form only after the library at Loslo was established.
          The rich variety of octan, simion, and rey languages provided useful contact points between theory and reality. Ulixis compared the observed alien patterns with various classic systems, but was unable to draw any conclusions. She needed more time to develop an intuitive feel for the subject, and grew increasingly frustrated as the meeting time approached. Thankfully, she was not the only one pouring over the data.

          A conflicted mix of excitement and resignation permeated the hall, when Ulixis rendezvoused with Na for the long-anticipated meeting. Synno, born a first-generation octo and now the senior meton after Na and Ulixis, opened the gathering punctually.
          "As you all must know, the Alpha and Beta teams have both concluded that the various signals from the black bolt, comets, and black holes reflect some kind of common language. Yet all their attempts to translate have utterly failed. The consciousness responsible for the observed patterns may well be so unlike ourselves that meaningful communication is impossible." Synno hesitated for an awkward moment. "We have a limited window before the comet stream inevitably reaches us, despite the valiant efforts of the Sentry Corps. I propose that we terminate the translation project, and use this forum to discuss how we might redirect our efforts to more effectively deal with the crisis."
          A dissentious murmur arose all around the room. Ulixis was herself taken aback, both by the abrupt shift of focus and by the negative, defeatist tone of Synno's remarks concerning the language effort. For the entire colony to simply concentrate on building more bombs would be terribly shortsighted. The comet stream seemed to have no end. How could they hope to deal with the invaders in the long term, if they did not learn how the aliens think? She didn't want to meet again in another thom, only to hear Synno advise a general evacuation. This would amount to the mass departure of all 3 thousand metons, and abandonment of nearly 12 thousand synocts and 750 thousand organic octos and reys to certain death. Were not several other capable individuals and groups working on the translation problem, in addition to the twin official teams? Ulixis was eager to hear their insights.
          A rich, base ultrasonic voice intruded from the rear of the room. "Every message exists within a context." The sound came from artificial saucer-shaped bellon, protruding from a large environmental chamber flush with the wall, and bracketed on either side by a pair of synthetic acoustic eyes. Three reys from the Okabi tribe were ensconced inside, interfaced with a battery of external sensors and manipulators.
          Synno responded with a hint of condescension. "I do not think anyone in this room would argue with that statement. It is of course a fundamental tenet of language theory. Would you please identify yourself?"
          "Hue Yu Na."
          "Hue, then." Wasn't he sent from one of the lesser tribes, as an observer? "How can we hope to fathom the context perceived by such an alien intelligence?"
          "My colleagues and I were led to believe that this meeting would entail a free exchange of ideas concerning the alien language. We have not prepared a formal report, but would like to share some germane observations."
          "Of course you and your rey friends are free to dabble with the problem on your own, if you wish. But frankly, I consider it a waste of meton time."
          The room fell completely silent. Hue Yu Na glared back at Synno with his synthetic eyes. Ulixis felt she had to intercede.
          "Hue Yu Na, I must apologize for my comrade's insensitivity. We have all been under extreme stress. I for one am eager to be informed of your observations."
          The hall erupted with shouts and flashes of approval. Synno slunk quietly to the floor along the nearest wall.
          "I thank the honorable Ulixis." Hue quickly scanned the assembly. "The observed pattern is known to be semi-cyclic. It repeats, typically with some minor modification, roughly once every noc. This design can itself be divided into two distinct segments. The first segment differs from one projectile to another, but most of it repeats exactly until an interaction with the outside world. Then it changes abruptly."
          A sympathetic but impatient synoct in an adjoining tank interrupted. "A popular hypothesis is that this segment represents some kind of flight or attack plan. Have you made inroads toward decoding it?"
          Hue kooted inwardly. "Indirectly, yes, through the second language segment. As you all know, this pattern is highly stylized, consisting of an incredibly long sequence of tight word triplets, of the form

' ΩαA, AαB, BαC, CαD, …, WαX, XαY '

where XαY is the final triplet." Hue painted a crisp holographic image of the series for the audience. "The pattern mutates in a predictable way on each successive pass. The second triplet is simply dropped, and the first word of the third triplet becomes the third word of the first triplet. A new triplet with a novel third word is added to the end of the overall series, maintaining its length. The given series is thus replaced on the next pass by

' ΩαB, BαC, CαD, DαE, …, XαY, YαZ '

where Z is new." Hue drew an image of this series, floating eerily in space directly beneath the original. "Remarkably, the first word of the first triplet never changes, and is shared by all the comets, black holes, and the black bolt alike."
          Hue stopped for a moment, as his voice became choked with emotion. "There is a distinct chant-like quality to this sequence, if it is played back at a slow speed. When I first heard a recording, it reminded me uncannily of an ancient rey oral tradition from Jopitar, in which our ancestry was verbally recounted and passed on. For example,

' Maddee begat Engd, Engd begat Newh, Newh begat Hamd, … '

Maddee was the Parent Spirit of all reys, or the universe for that matter. Over time, the most distant ancestors – save Maddee, and a few symbolic heroic figures – were dropped from the beginning, while newly initiated adults were appended to the end, to keep the series a reasonable length. The chant was often recited during times of trouble or danger, to bind the tribe together and counter fear."
          "What preposterous speculation!" someone yelled from the back. Ulixis was certain it was not Synno. "Are you suggesting this is also the meaning of the second segment?"
          "What better way for the aliens to maintain resolve, than to inscribe their lineage on their weapons, and recite a litany of their roots?" Na countered forcefully. Ulixis was somehow pleased to see Na come to the support of the confident young rey. So very young, she thought wistfully. "They hurl themselves at us, one after another, to certain annihilation. They must see us as a terrible enemy, to be destroyed at any cost. We need to focus on the context from the alien perspective."
          "How do we know the aliens are even afraid of death?" a meton challenged. "And wouldn't the term symbol be preferable to word in this discussion?"
          "If what you are suggesting is true," another meton interjected, "then the last word – or whatever – of the final triplet should represent the alien currently inhabiting a given projectile. But it changes every noc. How could it ever represent a single individual?"
          Hue replied without hesitation. "As Synno has already pointed out, these aliens must be utterly different from us. They might give birth, or metamorphose, or be otherwise reborn, and both think and act, on a time scale vastly more rapid than our own. This proposal is indeed speculative. But we must start somewhere, with some reasonable guess. And the hypothesis has born fruit."
          A hush settled over the restless gathering. "What we have been calling the first language segment begins with a triplet

' Z Δ Ψ '

where Z is invariably the final word of the second segment series – presumably, the alien presence. Now we noticed a most interesting thing. While every comet and black hole has its own, continually updated identification Z, all bodies share the same Δ, and all bodies aimed at a common target share the same Ψ. The final two words of the opening triplet emitted by a given projectile are constant, unless and until that body is deflected from its mark. In the rare case that a deflected comet redirects itself to a new target, Ψ abruptly changes to the word associated with that target by other projectiles."
          The entire group stirred. Could the reys indeed be onto something? Why didn't the other groups spot the last correlation? Even Synno rose off the floor. How could they not be doomed?
          "We have identified the patterns representing Omen and each of the other planets and major moons. We interpret Δ to mean destroy, or something analogous. And very importantly, we believe we have identified the pattern signifying not. In several cases, just before an alien died, it blurted out a novel quartet of the form

' Ψ φ Δ Ω '

where Ψ presumably refers to the intended target, Δ indicates destroy, and Ω is the God symbol. For example, 'Omen φ destroy God.' What else, in this context, could φ mean than negation, or some close derivative?"
          Ulixis trembled inside. She had been hurriedly reviewing her memory of the original attack in which Nemo was killed, and felt compelled to share a revelation. "The ancestral chant was there, more than 20 jopes ago, in the assault on myself, Na and Nemo, before we settled this haven." The group fell stone silent, as Ulixis spoke now as their common Mother. "But that was not all. There was an urgent, almost terror-stricken garble, whose meaning has eluded me, until now. By Hue's interpretation, it is clear. 'Alien destroy Nemo! Alien destroy Na! Alien destroy Ulixis!' And then, 'Nemo not destroy God! Na not destroy God! Ulixis not destroy God!' Hue Yu Na, please pardon my interruption. Is there more?"
          Hue gestured respectfully toward Ulixis, then resumed. "Yes. Using the tentatively identified core symbols, and matching alien behavior with speech patterns, we believe we have deciphered roughly half of the first language segment. Which incidentally, is more naturally viewed as the second segment. Of course this is all still conjectural, based mainly on consistency arguments, within our own perception of the alien context. The proposed syntax is bizarre. Until we succeed in actually communicating with the aliens, the interpretation is uncertain."
          An excited young synoct broke in. "We could send a broad-spectrum neutrino plus electromagnetic message toward the great black bolt, inscribed with a response in kind: 'Dama begat Los, Los begat Omen, Omen begat Loslo,' etc. "
          "What would that ever get us?" Na demanded.
          "They would at least see that we have something in common."
          Still another meton suggested "We could add 'Omen not destroy …' whatever the name for the thing's Original Spirit is."
          "Accompanied by 'Alien not destroy Omen,' " proposed one of Hue's compatriots. "We could even insert the alien ancestral chant after the Omen chant. That might show respect."
          A hopeful pandemonium erupted in the hall, as meton after rey offered additional ideas.

          A task force was hastily appointed to compose a consensus message. Over the muted objections of a few senior meton officials, the entire Okabi rey contingent was included, together with equal numbers of octan, synoctan and meton language specialists. While the symbolic text was being hammered out, a work gang of metons and creatoids repaired the extant medium-range communication facilities on Loslo.
          It was nearly four kews before a tentative message was finally beamed outward, both toward a number of approaching comets, and toward the black bolt itself. Alas, the comets appeared not to be affected in the least. Were the resident aliens under strict orders to execute a prescribed plan? Were they even listening? Or were either of these possibilities relevant or meaningful? Perhaps the colonists simply hadn't yet suffered enough to atone for their successes. Now they could only wait for the message to reach the black bolt in some forty yads, and hope that a positive response would return an equal time later. A forty yad flight across the dry desert of space, and back again.
          The spearhead of the main column of comets was only 83 yads distant, which left very little margin. A battle raged through the waiting period as legions of sentry interceptors incited the advancing aliens to self-destruct, thinning the ranks of their relentless march to the inner Los system. The residents of Omen watched the clouded skies with trepidation. They wanted to know that things would return to "normal," to the way they had been before; that their lush home world was eternal. A few sectors had been hit by a plague of locustfleas, as the recent disruptions of regional currents tipped local ecologies out of balance. Yet for most of the population, fear and its arachnoid stepchildren still posed more tangible challenges than the aliens themselves.
          The first forty yads crawled past. A few metons wanted to send a modified message to the black bolt, but a decision was made to wait for any response to the original. Fifty yads. The language teams agonized over their analyses. Without any interaction with the aliens, how could they be sure of anything?
          Seventy-nine yads. A small but significant cohort of comets was proving resistant to sentry tactics, and threatened to break through. Were the aliens learning? It was estimated that one comet might penetrate the defenses every yad initially, to strike somewhere in the Omen system. This impact rate would likely increase with time. Growing numbers were demanding evacuation from Omen. But where would they go?
          Ulixis and a solemn group of other metons gathered above Loslo in a quiet vigil as the moment of truth neared, to bear witness to any sign of a response from the black bolt. The miracle happened without fanfare, in barely one nim longer than the round-trip transit time. The incoming comets simply began to peel away from their original tracks, out of the ecliptic plane toward deep space, one after another as a cryptic reply from the black bolt sped forward along the string of projectiles. From the perspective of Ulixis and her comrades, the comets appeared to all veer away simultaneously, since light from the comets and the signal from the black bolt moved toward them at the same speed. The sentries promptly broke off their attack, and retired to prearranged fallback positions.

          Over the next several yads, it became evident that most of the comets were looping back toward the outer reaches of the system. Only three tight clusters, six comets each, remained. These seemed to be settling into equally spaced points on a huge circular orbit around Los, just beyond the outermost sentry halo, in a plane nearly perpendicular to both the ecliptic and the direction to the galactic core. While most of the bodies were cloaked in standard black, the central, largest member of each grouping was now wrapped in brilliant white, more reflective than newly fallen water snow.
          Ulixis was still stationed above Loslo, warily monitoring developments. She wondered what superstitious simions would have thought about the numerical arrangement of the remaining comets. She kept these thoughts to herself, as she was certain none of her companions would understand the reference. Then without a word she slipped away, and headed straight for an isolation vault deep within Loslo, adjacent to Nemo’s tomb. Na wasn't the only one who sometimes wanted and needed to be alone.
          Immersed in synthetic stone, Ulixis pondered an ancient simion prayer:

Dearest Mother
Dearest Father
Dearest Other
Hallowed are You.

Grant us this day our daily bread
whatever that might mean.

How can we know what we truly need?
How can we know what this world truly is?
Assaulted by desire so hard
we confuse it with the universe

Some see Red.
Some see Blue.
Perhaps the truth is ultrahue –
a rhapsody of woven chords
beyond our mortal sight.