Arkamoto is part of a binary star system where two sun's dance elliptically around each other. The second star in this gravitational embrace is enigmatically named 'Arkamoto 15'. Whilst the giant Arkamoto was discovered first and became a Founder star, its partner 'Arkamoto 15' was of such diminutive size relative to Arkamoto it was deemed insignificant and largely ignored by explorers. Arkamoto itself is a white supergiant supporting seven planets and two asteroid belts within its solar system. Two rocky planets fall into the life supporting sweet spot otherwise known as the Goldilocks zone. This untapped potential has brought much attention to Arkamoto and has left nearby 'Arkamoto 15' unwatched. This is a mistake.




The Arkamoto system is a popular tourist destination not least because of its 'Emerald Heart Day' celebration. The event marks the occasion when it is acceptable for a lady to propose to her lover. Its origins trace back to a vestige of earth history. Back on earth before the six nebulae diaspora, every fourth year required the addition of an extra day to keep the calendar in step with the seasons. During this “leap year” the month of February would get the extra day, the 29th. It was on that day that tradition sanctioned for a lady to make a marriage proposal to her man.

This quaint concession found echoes in 'Emerald Heart Day'. Once a year Arkamoto orbitally approaches its closest point or perihelion to ‘Arkamoto 15’. Unless you had an interest in astronomical trivia it would pass you by unobserved. However, every second perihelion, this green tinged star loses its circle outline and adopts a wondrous heart like shape. Contradicting the wishful musings of the romantics, scientists have explained the phenomenon using loveless laws of physics. In keeping with their predilection to suck the fun out of any viable excuse to party, they explain away the magic in daily news feeds. The short version of their explanation is as follows:

The large size of Arkamoto relative to 'Arkamoto 15' bends its green starlight out of shape. Both stars have slightly tilted magnetic poles in relation to their planetary planes. Whilst the poles on Arkamoto are fixed, its sibling's poles annually perform an equatorial flip. Every second perihelion these magnetic fields collude to act as a lens distorting the star's circle at two opposite points on its circumference. Both points pull down equally thereby creating the shape of a heart. It is this switching of the poles that results in this phenomenon only every other year.

The cosmic light show is an enchanting illusion. The small green star takes on its most perfect emblem of cupid's work for the 32 hours when the stars are at their closest positions. During those 32 hours you will witness one of the wonders of the Solaverse. Anyone on the planetary plane around Arkamoto, whether planetside or on board a ship, will witness the 'Emerald Heart'.

At least that was true until the Anomaly happened.



Chapter 2: THE ANOMALY

Businesses had been in full flow marketing all the must have paraphernalia to celebrate the biennial event. Cards and gifts had been sent and romantic venues booked. There was even a countdown clock projected onto the solar system's 14th largest moon selected for its apt name 'Huni'. The Ministry of Commerce had sponsored this using taxpayers money. Few objected though as 'Emerald Heart Day' was an interstellar money maker. Travelers from all the other five nebulae came to witness the celestial spectacle. In spite of the obscenely high prices the visitors were liberal with their hard earned $SOLA. Proof that love is indeed blind.

Unfortunately for this year's love tourists, things didn't turn out as expected. Hours before the ‘Huni’ moon clock had reached zero it was apparent that the star didn't look right. When at last perihelion was declared 'Open for proposals' the 'Emerald Heart' was not a heart at all. It had taken on a shape not emblematic of love but of despair. The star's disc had elongated to a point at the bottom but it had remained unchanged on its upper hemisphere. It was not a heart but an inverted teardrop.

There was outcry from both the sellers and the spenders. But nobody really knew who to complain to. After all, how do you sue a natural phenomena for losses incurred? The courts would have to grapple with that one.

Financial compensation was not foremost in more enquiring minds. Much discussion ensued as to the meaning of this both disappointing and economically expensive altered skymark. What could possibly account for it? Something had changed it, but what?




In the days following the failed 'Emerald Heart Day' the inevitable corny headlines ran the story.

"Heart breaks and now tears",
"Tear drops profits as traders lose heart",
"Emerald Heart Day' now Jaded".

The ‘powers that be’ would have two years to put things right before the next skymark event. Not a long time, but apparently long enough for it to lose the attention of the media. Indeed, most forgot about the Anomaly when the next big news story was served up. The new headline read “Extremophiles Eat Your Heat”. The feared unicellular glop had been detected colonizing on and eating through ships’ heat shields. All but essential space travel was to stop until the outbreak had been contained. Not great for any traveler but really bad for the already miserable and now stranded tourists.

In the weeks that followed the conspiracy theorists had a field day. The Anomaly was quite literally a gift from heaven. First up as the prime suspect was "The Process''. This shadowy presence is readily blamed for all things unexpected and troublesome. They declared that The Process were sending an interstellar emoji message. The governments knew this and were suppressing the truth. And what was the message? It clearly meant tears for the Solaverse. Ecological advocates lamented the damage space travel was inflicting on the solar system. Heavy metals spewing from inefficient fusion reactors were impeding the light from 'Arkamoto 15'. Surely, evidence that the light from Arkamoto must be dangerously altered in ways we can't imagine. Even skin cancer may make a comeback!

As usual, these alarmist reports never made it to the consciousness of the masses. The news algorithms ensured they got little exposure. The Council for Clarity still did a good job obfuscating narratives that didn't support their own. Maintaining a ‘healthy’ state of fear made for a stable society.




In the months that followed, the green star in the sky was for some a constant reminder that something was amiss. All politicians filibustered, many scientists fretted and a few explorers got itchy feet.

The politicians did their best to pacify the people but we're vague as to the next steps. To do nothing was politically risky as so much business was reliant on the Emerald Heart skymark. Notwithstanding this the elections were not for another 18 months. Perhaps this could be kicked down the road for a future government to deal with. In the end, as is often the way with all truly thorny problems facing governments: a committee would be appointed to investigate the issue and submit its findings for review by a cross party panel that would then make its recommendations. The arcane art of doing nothing without appearing to do nothing.

The anomaly was really a problem for the scientists. They needed empirical data but sending an unmanned probe was unlikely to be of any use. The star's blue nebula was saturated with thallium. This element rendered all but optical sensors ineffective. Digital sensors simply could not penetrate the reflective metallic fog. Even if they did penetrate there was no way to retrieve the signal as it would reflect randomly. To send a manned expedition was too risky. Thallium is toxic, and the symptoms of thallium poisoning are often mistaken for other things, making thallium a popular device in both fictional and real murders. Its blue nebulous cloak rendered the star system inhospitable to technology and life.



Was Arkamoto 15 was a dying star? A star so close to home going supernova would be an extinction level event. Candidates for supernovae become unstable in their death throes and fluctuate in size and colour. As the two stars drifted apart, Scientists closely watched as the teardrop reformed to a circle within a day. Nothing out of the ordinary at all. Both stars appeared normal. Arkamoto 15 continued to resist the standard tests due to its blue thallium nebula. No energy signatures would ever be detected in that hall of mirrors. This ruled out heat maps and kinetic distograms. All they could use was good old fashioned optical telescopes. The star looked the same as before the Anomaly. Consequently, it was thought that a supernova was extremely unlikely.

It was also postulated that perhaps Arkamoto 15 poles had not flipped. This though did not explain how half the effect still took place causing the teardrop. Anything less than a complete equatorial flippening of poles would wobble the orbits of its planets. All five planets seemed unperturbed, something that could not be said of the scientists.They could offer up no explanation. Without new data to stir the pot the Anomaly became uninteresting.

What piqued the interest of the explorers? It had long been entertained that the blue nebula of Arkamoto 15 was likely to consist of more than just thallium particles. There were other metals positioned close by on the Periodic Table that would be quite at home in such a nebula. Gold was just two squares away on Mendeleev's masterpiece. What if this and other metallic dusts are mixed in with the thallium? Fortunes could be made mining such a nebula. Alas, the authorities proclaimed the whole system out of bounds due to the risk to life. Cynics believed that this was just a cover story. It was rumored that they were planning to control prospecting there so as to levy mining taxes. Regardless of what people believed, Arkamoto 15 had always been a no go zone despite it being within starship reach at 0.25 to 0.33 light years away. Since the Anomaly there were signs that the 'no entry' stance was wavering in the halls of power. "Leaks'' from the authorities were signaling a relaxation on travel there but only for "scientific" purposes. Predictably many explorers suddenly developed a keen interest in science. For the time being though the 'stay away' edict remained in place.




Six months after the Anomaly, something happened that shook the scientific community from it's lethargy and brought the problem back into the limelight. Deep space communication arrays had captured fragmented data packets originating from Arkamoto 15.
These packets were traveling on a subspace frequency at nearly half the speed of light. The arrays had triangulated the source to an area of empty interstellar space. However when rewinding the solar orbits to factor in the traveling time, the signal had originated in the vicinity of Arkamoto 15. Compounding the mystery, it seemed to have been transmitted at the same time as the Anomaly. Had some crew already made the illegal trip to Arkamoto 15? The star ports logs in the Arkamoto system revealed no ship equipped for interstellar travel as MIA. When a ship and crew could not be identified from the port authority logs then all attention switched to the fragmented data packets.

The best method for making sense of incomplete and/or corrupted data was to employ AGI (Artificial General Intelligence which as defined by the 21st century prodigy Demis Hassabis is a general system that can perform well across all cognitive tasks to at least as good as human level). Ever since artificial intelligence had beaten the world champions of chess and the board game ‘Go’, complex problem solving had been delegated to AIG. However the fragmented data was parsed repeatedly by the latest quantum AGI computers but with no success.




Like the rest of the Solaverse, Arkamoto enjoyed the company of a few of the Companions. These now ancient robots had been endowed with AGI in the pre-Solaverse era. Over many centuries of service they had become somewhat unconventional in appearance and eccentric in communication. This was not considered a bug induced by wear and tear. Their odd demeanor was the manifestation of the culmination of mathematical remainders. These rounding errors were accumulated by subroutines that had been running for hundreds of years. You might say that quirkiness was a Companions way of letting off steam.

The scout Companion successful in finding the Arkamoto solar system was #1288. He had opened a wormhole and brought the refugee Ark named “Amoto” safely through it. “Amoto'' was an optimistic name with Nigerian origins from Earth. Its meaning “Destiny Fulfiller”, came true for them. Out of gratitude, the solaverse star lighting their new home solar system was named after the Ark “Amoto”.

Naturally #1288 had celebrity status but he preferred usefulness to greatness. Lately he had taken to dressing up in a puffer jacket and beanie hat as if for a cold day. He has observed in humans that long years of life result in being more sensitive to the cold. Now, with his runtime measured in centuries rather than years, he thinks it is better to be safe than sorry. "Old = Cold'' is his working hypothesis. He will solemnly tell you that his eyes are heart shaped in deference to the Arkamoto skymark and that the Anomaly will never reduce him to tears. Notwithstanding his comedic and sartorial lapses he was fascinating to be around. If asked what he was good at, he would list 20th century movies, gravitational wave memory in wormhole spacetimes, and knitting. His real talent was problem solving.

This is why he was called upon to try and make sense of the fragmented data packets. Over more advanced systems he had the advantage of a great depth of experience to draw on. This was something that could not be downloaded. It was a reservoir pooled from long cycles of machine reinforcement learning. It was something akin to wisdom. It wasn't just stored knowledge, but rather the wise application of that knowledge that set him apart. So it was that he unlocked the encryption within those fragments that quantum computer mainframes would not have solved in many lifetimes.





On first inspection of the data fragments #1288 recalled a subroutine that he had not run in a long long time. It led him to access a ROM that in turn invoked an array of variables that he would say equated to nostalgia. This in turn triggered algorithms that approximated surprise, happiness, hope but most importantly, a solution. To us the data was random text strings of ASCII characters.


To #1288 it was poetry.

It was not what was communicated in the fragments that was important. It was how they were communicated. The message was encrypted with an old but robust encryption protocol called sha256. The Companions used this natively to communicate with each other. They shared the private key necessary for encryption and decryption. This ensured secure comms between all of the Companions. There was nothing sinister or even secretive about the Companions. Quite the opposite. They wore their digital hearts on their sleeves. Just like us though they valued their privacy and preferred to verify than trust.



Chapter 7b: LANGUAGE OF THE HEART (continued)

They had selected this cryptography algorithm following its successful implementation in Bitcoin. Bitcoin continues to be the digital gold of the Solaverse whereas $SOLA became the solaversal means of exchange pegged to Bitcoin. Since the advent of quantum computers Bitcoin has upgraded its encryption. It remains a constant arms race that Bitcoin was built to wage and shows no signs of losing.

In the 21st century the Companions had cloned the chain and built a multisig lightning wallet application solely for messaging each other. The block time was increased from an average of 10 minutes as on the original Bitcoin chain to 10 days on the Companion's chain. This allowed for synchronized nodes no matter how far apart the Companions were spread across the Solaverse. As it took about 8 minutes for light from the sun to reach the earth, a 10 minute blockchain tick was not going to cut it across the six nebulae. It was an elegant solution to digital eavesdropping. There was no crypto currency involved other than what was 'spent' to send the message. The Companions had no need or interest in money.

Sha256 had not been used by anyone else for generations. It was the modern day equivalent of Latin; only occasionally read and never spoken. Whilst everyone had moved on to new protocols the Companions had not. They had not forgotten the language of their heart.

When #1288 saw the encrypted message, he was sure that it had been sent by one of his brothers. Perhaps a scout like him that had been written off as a lost but in reality had been stoically carrying out his mission to reestablish humanity somewhere. So many scouts had gone out but only one in five were successful. Could Arkamoto 15 be another successful Solaverse outpost?

That was a happy conjecture. However, one thing was certain. Someone had sent a message that made it through that thallium firewall. This new piece of information prompted the authorities to finally relent and sanction missions to Arkamoto 15.

Anyway, they had a much bigger problem to deal with.




The unicellular glop had become a pandemic. All the star and space ports had served as efficient vectors to propagate the glop to all types of space vehicles. It was everywhere. The marbled yellow slime lay dormant on the hulls of stationary ships in the vacuum of space. In flight the glop would thrive wherever there was heat. Invariably this was wherever the crucial heat shields were installed. Here it would multiply at the expense of the insanely hot metal it browsed upon. All stations now deployed swarms of small ceramic bots tasked with scraping off the 'space snot'. As the glop was unicellular it was impossible to get a ship truly clean. But it did allow for those ships' flight permits to be reinstated at least until its next reinfection manifested.

Space travel became very expensive. The economy fell into recession as supply lines faltered and businesses scaled back or closed. The glop pandemic increasingly impacted all aspects of Arkamoto's way of life and the Anomaly was now a low priority in the minds of the general public.



Chapter 9a: THE MISSION

Commander Pierid Phallin and his crew had been planet side ever since the Anomaly. His ship, the ‘Dartmouth’ had been one of the first to be quarantined. It had taken fifteen weeks to remove the glop from his large interstellar miner. It would take another week to negotiate the red tape to release her. Still, he had not been idle whilst grounded. He had submitted his application to go to Arkamoto 15 as soon as the green light was given. The government had invited applications for Interstellar missions to Arkamoto 15. The purpose was to gather useful data on the Anomaly. Successful applicants would receive a grant of twenty thousand $SOLA plus have their costs reimbursed on return with useful data. He wasn't impressed by the bounty offered. It wouldn't amount to much once shared with the crew. In truth gold bug Phallin would have gone for nothing.

In order to satisfy the authorities that he was going for scientific purposes he had approached #1288 with an invitation to join them. He had readily accepted. The Dartmouth crew were somewhat in awe of the little robot. He was the legendary scout Companion their grandparents had told them stories about when they were little. #1288 had grown accustomed to the staring and whispering by those that recognized him. In truth he needed little persuading to join them. After solving the transmission he had promptly but a little unhelpfully posted his conclusions onto as a review for the 1999 film “Message In A Bottle”.

Despite this lapse, his post was quickly found. The Council for Clarity had bots constantly scraping data from all the social media sites scanning for flagged expressions. His post is what prompted the rescinding of the ‘Arkamoto 15 no go zone’ legislation. #1288 was anxious to get there and so readily accepted Commander Phallin’s invitation. For #1288 this wasn't a data gathering exercise, this was a rescue mission.



Chapter 9b: THE MISSION (continued)

It would be quite a long trip. Faster than light travel based on tunneling through subspace is the conventional way to travel between Solaverse systems. It can take a couple of days to get from one end of the six nebulas to the other. This though was not an available option. Long ago, a scout Companion had been assigned to escort an Ark to Arkamoto 15 but they were never seen again. To reopen another wormhole exiting at that star would invite the same fate.

The Dartmouth was powered by a neutron beam repellant engine, so was quick for normal space traveling. Still, it would take a month to get there. The relativistic consequences of traveling at a significant fraction of the speed of light would equate to 14 months passing for their friends back at Arkamoto. The crew advised their loved ones that they fully expected to be away for a round trip taking about 3 years. This was a serious commitment but one they all agreed was worth it, but not for the same reasons as #1288.

He was going with the prospect of finding a lost friend.
They were simply going prospecting.



Chapter 10a: ARRIVAL

When at last the 'Dartmouth' powered off its fission reactor focuser, the sudden absence of the neutron drive hum came as a jolt to the travellers' psyche. The ship's now expansive silence almost hurt. Yet it was welcomed, as it signalled their arrival. #1288 had recommended they cut the neutron drive so as to park right outside the thallium nebula. Looking out the nebula remained blue but now less like a cloud and more like a haze. What was unexpected was the asteroid field within it. Floating metallic boulders marked the boundary of the nebula. The commander thought that was not ideal for nebula mining but not impossible either.

The crew worked hard to make sense of their much improved ship's sensor readings. Even at this close range the nebula was keeping secrets. The short range elemental scanner was both the most fruitful and disappointing. It revealed that all of the elements with lower atomic weight than thallium and also shared its column on the Periodic Table, were present. Iridium, Gallium and Aluminium registered strongly on the spectral readout. Sadly there was no trace of the gold dust they had hoped for. But the glistening asteroids orbiting in the nebula renewed their hopes of finding the yellow metal. #1288 was checking the readings with another priority. Would the thallium nebula allow safe passage for the ship? It presented two known problems.



Chapter 10b: ARRIVAL (continued)

The first was the risk of poisonous thallium getting inside. A ship this large was constantly peppered with bullets of fast moving rocks that penetrated the hull leaving tiny perforations in the metal skin. The Dartmouth’s AGI regularly scanned the hull for impact sites and nanobots were dispatched to weld them up. The holes themselves posed no threat to the crew. However, once they left the vacuum of space by entering the nebula, pressures outside the ship would become slightly higher than those inside. If the holes allowed Thallium to seep inside then that was a risk to the health of the crew. #1288 calculated this risk to be low and the crew agreed that in the context of the mission it was an acceptable one.

The second problem was the Dartmouth’s AGI. In such a thallium rich environment there would inevitably be some ingress via these holes before the bots closed them. The Dartmouth’s sniffers would quickly detect the thallium, turn the ship around, and get the ship and its crew back to safe space ASAP. They would not travel more than a few minutes into the nebula and the Dartmouth would ‘save’ them. It was impossible to override this ship’s response. Any attempt to do so and the Dartmouth would conclude that you were already badly poisoned and acting irrationally. Health and safety were at the top of the ship’s decision tree. Obdurate Dartmouth was not open for discussion on the matter.




The crew were as keen to proceed but they had to make and keep the ship thallium free.
#1288 proposed a solution inspired by the 1995 movie “Outbreak”. To prevent a deadly virus from infecting a technician working with it, a positive pressure suit was worn. This suit maintained a higher air pressure within than existed outside. This means air can leave the suit without circulating back in. Gases, particles, and other potential contaminants in the surrounding environment would not enter the suit. He proposed turning the whole ship into one of those suits by significantly increasing the atmospheric pressure inside. This would prevent any thallium getting in through an unrepaired hole that the Dartmouth could detect. So as long as the ship was later decompressed in a controlled way the crew would suffer no ill effects other than a popping of ears. This idea was well received by all the crew except Chief Engineer Haras. She had a furrowed brow as she made calculations on her screen. To keep this ship purring she had to know how she was built and what stresses she could tolerate. She had suspected, and was now mathematically sure, that the increased pressure inside could be catastrophic if anything larger than a fist sized asteroid hit the bridge’s windows. It would shatter violently and flood the ship with poisonous gas.

#1288 suggested that the windows be plated over with metal. The commander winced at the thought of flying blind. Handing full flight control to the Dartmouth was something he was unwilling to do. In such a novel nebula environment the AGI was as ignorant as he was. With so many unknowns, he trusted only himself to be at the helm of his ship. On this point he was as intransigent as the Dartmouth.

Phallin asked if the windows could be strengthened in some way? Haras acknowledged that she had the equipment to fabricate rudimentary shutters but lacked the raw materials to make the strengthened glass. Even if she did, the thickness of glass needed would render it opaque.



Chapter 11b: PREPARATIONS (continued)

It was then that #1288 got really excited and brought up the 1986 movie “Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home”. The film included a scene where chief engineer ‘Scotty’ gave a 1980’s materials scientist the method to make transparent aluminium. Aluminium oxynitride is now a reality. Providentially, just outside the ship’s fragile windows in the thallium nebula, the element aluminium existed in abundance . Being a mining ship there were smelting facilities on board. The transparent aluminium would be strong enough to withstand sizable rock strikes yet thin enough so as not to reduce visibility through the bridge’s windows.

The crew sprang into action. This is what they did for a living and were now in their comfort zone. The remotely controlled miner craft was deployed and sent across to the nebula. Less than an hour after launch it was ready to begin mining the nebula for aluminium. Five ceramic scoops deployed around the miner giving it the appearance of an opening flower. On board filters were calibrated to skim out the aluminium particles and reject all else to maximize the storage space. Without fully entering the nebula the little craft ploughed up and down the outer limit of the nebula until at last its bins were full. The miner was summoned back to the Dartmouth and the crew got to work fabricating the transparent aluminium shutters. A couple of days days later all the transparent aluminium shutters were completed and ready for installation.

The Chief and her assistants put on their space suits to go outside the ship and fit the transparent reinforcing screens. Once content that her crew no longer needed her help Haras took the opportunity to examine the condition of the Dartmouth whilst she was on the outside.

She was simultaneously both glad and sorry that she did.




Once all were safely back on board, the crew's spirits were high. The screens had been installed without incident. The positive pressure test idea could now be trialled and preparations made for entering the thallium nebula. When Phallin and Haras emerged from a private meeting their faces were grim. A meeting was called and the bad news was quickly broken. During her external inspection of the ship the Chief had been horrified to see that the heat shields had turned to that dreaded shade of yellow. The glop had re-infected the ship. On the long outward journey the glop had proliferated on the exhaust heat and ruined the heat shields. The ship could not risk starting the neutron drive even for a second.

This critical scenario had been envisaged and a contingency enforced by the authorities before they had left. No repair and rescue units would be out here. As a condition of their mission application they had agreed to take a full set of replacement heat shields. Fitting these should get them home but they could not risk going any further towards Arkamoto 15. The level of infection left no room for doubt. The spare heat shields must already be infected as indeed must the entire ship. They would have to return. Their mission was over.

Over the next few days a glum crew carried out the glop lateral flow tests to gauge the extent of infection. As expected, it was found everywhere. It wasn't an immediate threat as it remained almost dormant at room temperature. Where it was found at heat sources the condition of the integrity metal would need to be regularly checked on the journey home. When they did get home the ship and crew would again have to be quarantined for weeks. It was a depressing situation.

#1288 was also infected with the glop and he could feel his surfaces fizz slightly. He ignored it. His thoughts were bent on rescuing the sender of the sha256 message. He approached the Commander with a plan to go into the nebula. It required borrowing the RC miner craft. Designed to be an unmanned craft it had no life support, but this was not an issue for #1288. He could sit in one of the bins and navigate the craft using the handheld controller. This would show his position and what was around him. This latter point was an important consideration as this craft had no windows.



Chapter 12b: ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK (continued)

Phallin could not conceal his surprise at the request and wanted to know what he hoped to achieve. #1288 was not naive. Contrary to the goals laid out in the mission application, he knew that the commander and his crew were not interested in solving the Anomaly much less in finding the sender of the fragmented message. Gold was why the miner ship Dartmouth had risked the voyage. He explained that by taking the miner craft into the nebula he would meet the scientists' need for empirical data and in turn satisfy Arkamoto authorities that the mission was a success. Only then would they reimburse the mission costs, including quarantine losses.

Phallin seriously doubted that #1288 had reimbursement high on his agenda. #1288 had shared his hopes with him regarding the rescue of a lost Companion. He had listened sympathetically but did not believe it possible that a Companion could be marooned for hundreds of years and still be ok. He knew that #1288's well prepared speech was to tickle his ears into allowing the trip. Still, he agreed to the plan on one condition. Whilst in the nebula, the miner must be set to asteroid mode and search for gold. If the scanners detected gold it would divert course to mine and collect the ore into the other four bins.

The condition was of some concern to #1288. The metallic nebula was dense and not friction free. At its maximum speed the fuel range of the miner was likely to be no more than twelve hours; about six hours in and he would have to return. He wanted to get as far in as he could. Any deviation off a straight course to collect the shiny yellow rocks was a waste of travel time in his opinion. Nevertheless he agreed to the Commander’s condition.



Chapter 13a: INTO THE NEBULA

The crew was informed of the idea and were excited that gold exploration was back on the table. Only Haras, who had grown to enjoy having #1288 around, voiced her apprehension. She worried about him surviving the craft’s harsh environment: no air, no light, no sound proofing and no heating. #1288 thanked her for her concern but assured her he would be fine without those human creature comforts.

A few hours later the RC miner was ready for launch. Haras and her team had cobbled together a harness inside Bin One and #1288 was secured into it. He was handed the RC controller that had been tethered to his seat. That way if he dropped the unit it would be retrievable. Haras had also made a comms headset that would transmit sound via a clever over the ear cup that was air sealed. Phallin explained that the miner was calibrated to scan for gold in the asteroids that passed within range. #1288 would have control of the ship unless gold was found. If that happened an automated protocol would start to laser mine and collect the gold ore fragments. Once the ore was stowed in a bin, #1288 would regain control of the miner’s navigation. What that range was once inside the nebula could not be estimated. It was #1288’s hope that it would be very short-sighted.

A few moments after the noisy launch, all the air leached out of the RC miner and everything went silent. “In space nobody can hear you scream” thought #1288 referencing the 1989 movie “Alien”. He put on his headset and heard Haras say she was handing control of the ship over to him. His RC controller came to life and the screen showed his position and orientation in the centre of it. Its simplified view looked remarkably like the old arcade classic “Asteroids” minus the asteroids. That would soon change, he thought.



Chapter 13b: INTO THE NEBULA (continued)

He set a course directly through the thallium nebula towards Arkamoto 15 and felt his body mass strain on the harness as the ship accelerated away. As he entered the nebula the radio crackled and hissed Phallin’s last words “Make us proud” and then silence. He took off the now useless headset. He was now on his own.

As he travelled deeper into the nebula the pressure outside increased and gas filled the ship’s interior. The RC miner had no AGI to commandeer the controls and reel him back to the mothership. Even if it had AGI there were no poisonous gas detectors to inform it. He thought the nebula gas had the smell of metallic vinegar. Now there was no gravity and no light other than what came from the RC controller. It was very cold. He was glad of his beanie hat and puffer jacket.

There were lots of clangs and bangs from the hull. He wasn't sure if these were rock strikes or the hull’s metal shrinking with the cold. Suddenly his controller beeped excitedly as the shape of the first small asteroid drifted onto the screen. A moment later a dialogue presented the results of the elemental scan.

“Au = Null”.

The screen cleared and resumed its previous view. This happened repeatedly over the next five hours but the ship never registered gold and so he never lost control of the ship. He noticed that the asteroids were steadily getting larger and more abundant the further in he went. He worried about whether the ship’s clever asteroid dodging algorithms would find a way through.
It did and it did it so with ease.



Chapter 14: SIGNS OF LIFE

Just after passing the largest asteroid thus far, there was a sudden screeching hiss as all the thallium gasses were sucked out of the ship. He looked at his screen for a clue but it offered nothing, just empty space ahead. Even more inexplicable was that the large asteroids he had just passed a moment ago had also disappeared from his screen. Was it a sensor malfunction? This was unlikely as the RC controller would have reported it.

Then the realization hit him. He had exited the thallium nebula. He had come out on the other side. The nebula was nothing more than a thin shell of gas and rocks on the solar system’s perimeter. From his new position inside, it was behaving more like a one way mirror. Only this mirror reflected nothing back. The asteroids the RC miner had just dodged were unseen to its sensors. He imagined that living within this solar system must be like living in a void. There would be no stars at night, no galaxies, nothing. There would be the light of Arkamoto 15 and the reflected light from planets and moons but that would be it.

Planets and moons!

#1288 grabbed his headset and put it on. As the earpiece created the seal static could be heard. Then he heard faint voices. It was an odd accent but he could understand what was said in moments of static free clarity. It was radio chatter. The kind of clipped, official tone pilots and ground control use to speak to each other. There were people here. He tried to speak but the vacuum of space meant no sound was heard for the microphone to transmit. Frustrated, he sat there listening as what it all meant sank in.

He knew what he must do next. He could do no more here. He looked down at his controls and reluctantly set a course back the way he had come. He again felt the weight of his own body in the harness as the ship slowed and then arced 180 degrees. The ship re-entering the nebula was signalled by the loud hissing as once again the thallium gas rushed in. He had not felt this excited since the Ark came safely through the wormhole an aeon ago. Five hours later he emerged from the thallium 'wall' where the Dartmouth was waiting.




The attentive Dartmouth crew quickly re-connected to the RC miner and piloted her back inside the Dartmouth. They already knew that the miner had not mined gold before #1288 had even docked. The moment they took over its controls they had seen that the bins were empty. Despite this they were glad to have their Companion back in one piece. When they opened Bin One to let him out he was speaking so excitedly they thought his higher functions must be damaged by his glop infection. After repeatedly assuring them that he had never felt better he eventually was able to coherently describe what had happened. When he had finished his account the crew stood silently in disbelief.

Haras had reviewed the ships logs and they concurred with #1288’s account. The thallium nebula was indeed a wall but a thin wall with clear space beyond it. Recordings of the radio chatter were played over and over. The voices sounded funny but were undeniably human. As far fetched as it first seemed #1288’s story checked out. The crew wanted to set off immediately to visit this undiscovered civilization.

The Commander brought the crew back to reality. They were in no position to go anywhere except home. Thanks to the ubiquitous glop even the trip home was a high risk. The replaced heat shields had already been colonized by the glop for longer than the original shields. Haras wondered if they would even last long enough to get them home. It was impossible to tell, but they had no choice but to risk it. Haras knew she had to support the Commander and there was no more to be said about it.



Chapter 16: CURED!

The crew readied the Dartmouth for return. Haras reminded #1288 that in spite of him saying that he had never felt better, he was in fact badly infected with the glop. She recommended he be given the once over. #1288 just stared down with expressionless eyes. She felt sorry for him and tried to console him. To Haras he seemed to be dazed with a far away look in his eyes. Then his attention was in an instant fixed back onto Haras. “He had never felt better”? The fizzing he had felt was now gone.

With Haras in tow he went straight to the RC minor craft now secured in the landing bay. Haras watched as he carried out the glop lateral flow test. Negative! He then tested himself. Negative again! Believing that the test equipment must be faulty, Haras carried one out on the wall of the hangar bay. Positive. There could be only one explanation. #1288 and the RC miner were somehow now not only glop free but seemed to have immunity to it.

The source of the immunity could only have been one thing: the thallium nebula. To #1288 it made sense. Thallium and its family of elements are classed as transitional metals. You could say they were almost metal but not quite. The unicellular glop, so hungry for metals, will have ingested the thallium and poisoned itself. Their demise leaves any metals immersed in the nebula altered so as to be immune to recolonization. Haras considered this theory and could not fault it. In fact the glop tests run inside the RC minor showed that it was clean when it should have been re-infected as soon as re-entering the Dartmouth.

On receiving this revelation Phallin and the crew were ecstatic. It seemed that the thallium nebula would sterilize and immunize any ship that entered it. If true then this space wash would put an end to the pandemic and get things back to normal again in Arkamoto. They resolved to test the ‘ship wash’ theory using the Dartmouth.



Chapter 17: SPACE WASH

To eradicate the infection both inside and outside the ship meant allowing the thallium nebula to flush over and through the ship. This resurrected the previous problem. The Dartmouth’s AGI would again detect the gas and evacuate the ship to safety. Haras came up with a solution. They would enter the nebula using #1288’s positive pressure plan. Then, once a couple of hours into the nebula, the cargo bay doors would be blasted open with a controlled explosion. The thallium would saturate the interior of the ship long before she could exit the nebula. The crew would have to be suited up and ready to make the repair to the bay doors. Once the door could be sealed then the ship would re-pressurize, exhausting the poisonous cleansing fumes into space.

The plan worked perfectly. The ship was tested and confirmed to be glop free both inside and out. Getting home was no longer filled with risk. This also meant there was no pressing need to leave immediately. They could and would now cross the thallium wall.

Flying through the asteroid field in the Dartmouth was a spectacle to behold. #1288 could only imagine the outside world whilst staring at his screen inside the RC miner. Now he could see the asteroids and blue haze of the nebula from his window seat. Unlike the RC miner that weaved a path through, the Dartmouth made a path through. The Dartmouth’s AGI used its impulse cannons to precisely hit the larger rocks that would in turn hit others out of the way. It was playing three dimensional snooker with superhuman accuracy. Quite a few tennis ball sized rocks struck the windows startling all inside but the transparent aluminium screens shrugged them off. The high air pressure environment kept the thallium out as hoped with no ill effects felt by the crew. As he watched, #1288 quoted the catchphrase of Hannibal from the “A-Team” movie,
“I love it when a plan comes together”.




In an instant they flew out into empty space. Everybody winced as if curtains had been drawn back to reveal a bright sunny day. Once they had adjusted their eyes to the bright Arkamoto 15’s light they saw that they were not alone. There was a mixed array of ships stationary before them. The flotilla was not in a battle formation though. They were in tourist formation.



Chapter 19a: ARKAMOTO 15’s STORY

When #1260 had opened the wormhole in subspace to bring through the Ark “Resolute”, he would say he had messed it up. The tear in space time had opened up too close to the star in their new solar system. This had dangerously destabilized the star's core. Ninety nine times out of a hundred this would not have been a problem. Unhappily for the colonists, that one hundred sided dice had rolled the ‘One’. It could not be undone and he blamed himself for the isolation the colonists would have to endure as a result.

The consequences were two fold. The first was that the star’s poles now flipped every four hundred and twenty days like clockwork (unknowable to #1260 this period corresponded to the length of an Arkamotoan year). This had no adverse effect other than navigation systems had to re-calibrate each cycle. The other problem was huge. The solaverse they were now in mysteriously blocked communications with other colonists in other Arks and solaverses . There was some kind of reflective barrier phenomenon on the outer perimeter they could not see or penetrate. To send a manned mission into this abyss was unthinkable. They had launched various probes into it with no success. The probes simply vanished and were never seen again. This was not an inviting excursion even for the bravest of explorers.

Ordinarily #1260 would have reopened a wormhole and tried to find a friendlier system. That was not an option any longer. To do so would risk destabilizing the star further, likely triggering a supernova. Ever since, the colony had been completely cut off from the rest of humanity. They had no choice but to make the best of the situation, and they had done this with great success. Despite the communications black out, the system enjoyed five planets and an asteroid belt. There were plentiful resources and the potential that comes with necessity. The night sky was comparatively empty compared to the star filled skies back on earth. This was now home for them and they were grateful for what they did have.

#1260 had ever since dedicated himself to long range communications research. He always wore his signature red headphones constantly, always listening for some response. He was committed to reconnecting the colony to the rest of the solaverse. Every form of transmission he had tried so far had bounced back.



Chapter 19b: ARKAMOTO 15’s STORY (continued)

His latest idea was to build a transmitter in orbit away from the signal degrading atmosphere. He had secured sponsorship from a group of businesses that saw an opportunity to construct an ‘out of this world shopping experience’ they called the Valt. There would be four themed retail quarters: Art, Music, Gaming and ‘Science & Tech’. Each of these would include hotels, apartments, theatres, stadiums designed in keeping with the quarter they inhabited. A resort that offered “Something For Everyone” set in outer space.

Powering the Valt was a fusion reactor designed to #1260’s ground breaking specifications. Not only did it keep the Valt humming but it's excess power manifested itself in a spectacular fashion. The Valt resembled a massive spinning top in shape not in motion. Beaming out from the centre axis of the four quarters and upwards into deep space was a blue beam of laser light. It looked majestic and it had a lofty purpose. #1260 had designed a focused and powerful carrier beam. He hoped it would carry data through the unseen barrier that has so far defeated him. He had waited until the flipping of the star’s poles before powering it up and sending his first messages. His theory was that the flipping was likely triggered by an unseen star that passed nearby. If true then this would surely be the best time to send a message with potential to be received. He didn't know in which direction it should be pointed and so he ran it parallel with the star's poles.

Flippening Day arrived. One quarter of a light year away in the Arkamoto system it was Emerald Heart Day. When #1260 switched on the blue carrier beam he unwittingly caused the Anomaly. Probably the most effective attention grabber he could have possibly sent. Lagging behind the Anomaly came his message, albeit in a fragmented state.

Of course #1260 had no confirmation that his message had been received by anyone. But he remained ever vigilant, constantly listening for any response.




When #1288 had emerged from the thallium nebula the first time, his tiny craft had suddenly registered on thousands of spaceship radars then magically disappeared. #1260 had listened to all the excitement on the radio about the presence of a UFO. Had someone received his message and traced the source? If so, why had they left so quickly without making contact? He would not find the answers on the Valt. He elected to go and investigate for himself. #1260 was picked up by the Valt Solar Yacht; a perk for being the scout Companion, and was on his way with other dignitaries..

The interest in the UFO sighting was huge and all those that had the means to travel went. Hundreds of ships slowly patrolled the area that the UFO momentarily occupied. The media relayed the scene back to the folks planetside. The sense of expectation was beginning to wane when out of nowhere the Dartmouth materialized in front of them.

Commander Phallin surveyed the scene but could not believe what his own eyes told him. Before him was a flotilla of ships of all shapes and sizes flashing their colourful lights. It was an awe inspiring scene. There was no sense of threat or impending attack. It felt more like a welcome home parade. His feelings confirmed. His ship was being bombarded with variations of the message. "Welcome friends, to Ceti Beta".

#1288 was instantly in contact with his long lost brother #1260. Within a few moments both #1288 and #1260 had comprehensively answered each other's questions but everyone else still brimmed with questions. The Dartmouth crew were invited back to the Valt for debrief. Here they were treated like royalty. Everyone wanted to know about life in the outside Solaverse. Equally the crew wanted to know all about this new civilisation. The entire Ceti Beta solaverse, hitherto known as Arkanoto 15 to the crew, rejoiced in the news that they were no longer alone. The celebrations lasted for days and the crew became overnight celebrities.

As they walked out onto the Valt’s Arena stage to frenzied applause, Haras looked to #1288 and asked him what they should do. He looked at her and the nervous crew. “Smile and wave boys, smile and wave” was his reply.




In the following weeks #1260 learned that his beam had not fully penetrated the wall but had instead disrupted the magnetic fields between the two stars. This had prevented the lensing effect on the top edge of their star creating the inverted teardrop. Fragments of his "Hello World" message had been chaotically reflected in all directions. By random chance a few fragmented packets had been bounced towards Arkamoto. Thanks to him Arkamoto had taken notice and allowed the Dartmouth to investigate. The rest was history.

Now that #1260 had been given the exact position and orbit of Arkamoto, he could point the blue carrier beam directly at it. This established a stable ultra-broadband data link between the two civilizations. First contact via this link was made well before the crew of the Dartmouth arrived home. Both governments were keen to share new technologies and forge trade links.

News of the thallium nebula ship wash resulted in a steady flow of ships from Arkamoto keen to purge their ships of the glop. Commerce between the two solaverses grew rapidly and was a boon to both economies.

The Valt was a particular Mecca for Arkamoto tourists. They booked their trips now not to Arkamoto 15 but now used its locally given name, Ceti Beta. The gaming quarter was renamed ‘Arkamoto’ to commemorate first contact and it was there, in Building 15, that an embassy and museum was established. Future ‘Emerald Heart Day’ celebrations were now guaranteed. Valt maintenance droids, interestingly entitled ‘Guardians Of The Light’, agreed to power down the beam once every two years to allow for the 32 hour spectacle.

The meeting of the two civilizations dawned a new era of prosperity and hope. These were changing days.
Not so much though for #1288.
He continues to wear his beanie hat and puffer jacket.

Why not visit Building 15 in the Arkamoto quarter of the Valt yourself?

A fully immersive shopping, retail, and entertainment experience in virtual reality. Combining various gaming elements and forming its own standalone metaverse.

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