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Pebble

A pebble on a beach. One pebble among a multitude. Countless stones, smoothed by the sea, stretching from lapping ocean waves to the foot of distant hills. And resting on the surface, one pebble which is different to all the others, its crystalline structure pulsing with energy. With awareness. All of the other pebbles are just rocks. Hard, unyielding, and mindless. One is unique.

Guan Pinghu pulled the tractor to a stop and gazed over the Sea of Serenity. He leaned back in the bucket driving seat as far as his bulky oxygen pack would allow and stared across the two hundred metres of dust and rock to his destination. He sighed in resignation. Guan Pinghu, citizen of the People’s Republic of China and reluctant representative of planet Earth, was scared. It was easy, he thought, for Beijing Control to suggest that the entire human race was behind him, but when he glanced over his shoulder he saw only the rilles and hills of the dusty lunar desert. He felt alone because he was alone. Even his comrades on the Yutu lander were so distant they could only contact him by bouncing a signal from orbiting satellites.

Guan realised his journey to this place was made up of events over time as well as of his movement through space. His three hundred thousand kilometer journey was overshadowed by the scientific and political machinations on Earth over the previous nineteen months. Neither the time he had taken to get to the moon, nor the distance he had travelled, would make his next actions any easier.

It had been the Europeans who’d first spotted the anomaly from their orbiter, Galicia, while completing a high definition scan of the lunar surface: Lunokhod 2 had moved. It was well known that the plucky little Russian rover - the bathtub on wheels - had broken down in 1973 after an accident left it damaged from overheating. Ever since then it had remained motionless inside a small crater, forgotten by most space scientists and overshadowed by the human presence of the contemporaneous Apollo missions. Lunokhod 2 had been a great success at the time, managing to exceed the technical expectations of its designers, but in lunar exploration its day was done. Until the fateful day that Galicia noticed it ambling across the lunar surface as if its mission had simply paused for half a century and then begun anew.

It was immediately evident that no chance occurrence could have reanimated the rover so the Europeans sought around for an external agent. Photo analysis revealed no tracks leading to or from the rover. They naturally concluded that any intervention must have happened remotely, but could think of no possible way this could have occurred. The Russians clearly could not have done it. Nor could anybody else from Earth. Lunokhod’s electronics were fried and nothing short of a complete overhaul and rebuild could have made it work again. But the rover was observed to be merrily weaving its way along its interrupted route. The European analysts felt the only explanation was an extraterrestrial intervention, but were reluctant to suggest the idea openly.

Characteristically, the Europeans told the Americans about their discovery first despite the rover’s Russian origins. When challenged later, they would argue they were conflicted because the Russians had sold Lunokhod 2 to an American millionaire years earlier. They explained that they didn’t know who to tell. It was a moot point that neither the millionaire buyer of Lunokhod 2 nor any member of his family were actually told anything at all about the discovery.

The Americans, meaning the government and some senior NASA officials, knew they lacked the space exploration infrastructure to launch a mission to the Moon to explore the anomaly more closely. Due to political misdirection over a number of years they were perfectly placed to land a man on an asteroid or even, at a push, on Mars, but the Moon was beyond their grasp. In regards the anomalous movement of Lunokhod they were reluctant to consider alien intervention because they also couldn’t conceive of a mechanism which could have reanimated the rover remotely from Earth, let alone from another star system. It defied their understanding of the laws of physics.

The Americans and Europeans did agree, however, that a closer look at the rover was needed. They considered their options and decided that the knowledge of Lunokhod’s movements had to be shared more widely to make use of the space exploration capabilities of other nations.

India was due to launch a simple, but adequate, lunar lander a few months later so a plan was hatched to divert it to Lunokhod’s current location. The lander was being launched on a Soviet rocket so the Americans and Europeans reluctantly brought the Russians into the fold along with the Indians.

The Kharha lander touched down in October 2033 within twenty metres of Lunokhod 2 and began transmitting video and still images of the rover back to Earth. Lunokhod 2, for its part, seemed to immediately sense Kharha’s presence. It stopped its forward drive and began instead to describe a perfect circle thirty metres in diameter. It stopped and started, reversed, started forward - then stopped and started again - but kept describing the same circular route in its spluttering way. The Americans, Europeans, Russians and Indians were perplexed.

A Russian engineer with an ancillary role in orbital mechanics finally worked it out when he took a break from his work to eat a sandwich and stared unthinking at the video feed. Watching the wheels turning, stopping, then turning again seemed to suggest a numerical sequence. The engineer counted the number of rotations of the rover’s wheels and the answer was immediately obvious to him: it was counting out pi. Three wheel revolutions. Stop. One revolution. Stop. Four revolutions. Stop. One revolution. Stop … and so on.

The Kharha tapes were replayed from the beginning and it was discovered there was a repeating sequence of the first nine digits of pi. The sixth number, which should also have been nine, was replaced with either a one or zero. To represent a zero, the rover went forward one revolution and then reversed one revolution. Simple.

The sequence of numbers, which everyone involved was now convinced had to have an extraterrestrial origin, was a simple binary code. Experts from SETI were called in to provide some insight into the possible structure of the message, and were added to the growing number of people around the world who knew about the Lunokhod anomaly.

SETI began by considering the string of binary digits as if they had sent a message themselves into the vast stellar wilderness. They considered all the approaches they had used previously, or had devised and rejected, for making contact with an alien intelligence.

Could the numerical sequence be a computer program meant to be decoded as an algebraic equation in a virtual machine? No, too complicated.

Could it be a periodic table sharing simple, and universal, elements as a common language? No, too prosaic.

Could it be an image of the alien species making contact? Initial analysis did suggest that plotting the digits as an image would equate to circles and straight lines rather than a less-defined animal shape, but the picture idea seemed plausible.

Could it be a map then? Possibly, thought the SETI scientists. There seemed to be little doubt that the Moon itself was the key to the puzzle. After much work the SETI researchers concluded that the message was in fact an image. Not of an alien creature, but a map. And a possible invitation.

The sequence of binary digits, plotted on a square grid with equal sides of 162 units using the number one to represent dark and zero for light, created an image of a sphere with a smaller circle inside it beside a blocky rover shape and a stick-man figure. The smaller circle was marked with a single dot at its centre. The size of the grid had been determined by the message itself: pi starts with a three, the sixth digit held the message, and the sequence repeated every nine digits. Three times six times nine equals 162. It seemed only a happy coincidence that the Moon’s gravity was also 1.62 metres per second squared, because the aliens couldn’t possibly use an arbitrary length like the metre or a measure of time like the second. The gravity value had to be a coincidence. But then again, how did the aliens know how to control Lunokhod in the first place? Did they have a lot more information about Earth and mankind than first believed? Perhaps everything they had done was predicated by a clear understanding of humanity, thought SETI.

The bottom line was this: SETI had decoded the message and it seemed to be fairly clear: “We have taken control of Lunokhod 2 and have used it to mark a circle on the world called the Moon. Come into the centre of that circle.”

The Americans, Russians, Europeans, Indians, and the various other nationalities of the SETI community agreed that only a physical human presence on the moon could be an appropriate response to the alien message. Unfortunately, none of them had the capacity for a manned mission. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on one’s political point of view, the Chinese did have plans for a lunar landing.

Yutu, the 12th iteration of the Chang’e space missions, was due to land men on the Moon a few months later to establish a permanent lunar base for future exploration. The international concern was that the mission was entirely Chinese. Despite China becoming more active internationally through trade and the United Nations there were still concerns about them, particularly their approach to human rights. But with no alternatives, and after careful consideration, it was agreed there was little choice in the matter: either involve Beijing, or wait at least a decade to design and launch an alternative international mission.

And so Guan Pinghu, astronaut of the People’s Republic of China and reluctant representative of mankind, stood alone in sight of Lunokhod 2 in the Sino year 4671, or 2034 using the common calendar, and took a step towards his destiny. The cameras attached to the tractor, along with the full sensor array of the Kharha lander and four satellites in lunar orbit, followed his progress.

“Beijing Command,” he transmitted. “I am in position and ready to enter the circle.”

“Proceed,” came the reply. “And good luck.”

“Good luck? Bad luck? Only the farmer knows.”

The controller said nothing. He knew the old Chinese story about a farmer who accidentally left a gate open which allowed his horse to run away. Bad luck? The horse later returned home with wild horses in tow. More horses for the farm meant good luck, one would think. But the farmer’s son was then thrown while trying to tame one of the wild horses and broke his leg. Bad luck again? But he later avoided conscription into the Emperor’s army due to his injury, which is surely good luck, and so the story goes on. At each stage in the farmer’s story the events represent either good luck or bad. It is each subsequent event which helps to define the outcome of the previous. “Responding to the alien message could be either good or bad, or perhaps both,” Guan was saying.

Guan stepped forward and billions of people watched avidly from Earth. Weeks earlier, news of the anomaly had finally leaked into the public domain and had quickly gone viral. After all, contact with aliens was big news even if the only evidence of their existence was a rover driving around in a circle on the Moon. So now the world watched as he walked alone, on their behalf, to answer the aliens invitation.

Guan forced his legs to take step after step at an even pace. He imagined the crunch his feet would make in the powdered regolith if only the Moon had an atmosphere to transmit sound. Like walking on fresh snow, he thought. Instead, the only thing he could hear inside his helmet was his own breathing. Slow and measured, but with an occasional fearful skip as his anxiety threatened to overwhelm him.

Guan covered the distance quickly. He paused a few metres away from the circle carved by Lunokhod into the lunar soil and looked down at the dusty tracks. The ruts made by the rover’s wheels would be a permanent record of mankind’s first contact with an alien intelligence, he thought.

“I’m registering a localised magnetic field at the target site,” said Guan, consulting his wrist display.

“Acknowledged,” replied Beijing Command, “we have it too. It’s in the region of two Teslas, so you won’t suffer any ill effects from a short exposure. Please proceed.”

“Affirmative.” Guan stepped forward to the edge of the circle, then stepped over the ruts to the inside. He skipped forward in the low gravity until he reached the middle, fifteen metres in. “Control, I have reached the centre of the circle.”

“Acknowledged. Standby.”

Lunokhod 2, which had continued to follow its stuttering circular path as Guan approached, suddenly stopped moving. The rover’s high-def camera rotated slowly and pointed directly at him. Guan stared into the lens. His mind was working overdrive and he suddenly felt like he’d reached an inspirational breakthrough. “I’m trying to catch a fish in a tree.”

“Say again, Guan,” said the Controller.

Guan shook his head inside his helmet, invisible as the gesture was to the people watching on Earth. “I think my task is impossible, like trying to catch a fish in a tree, because we are presuming the aliens will make sense to us.”

“Explain, please.”

“They have taken control of a defunct robot on the moon.”

“Yes.”

“From an incredible distance. At least a number of light years. Possibly from the other side of the galaxy.”

“Yes.”

“And now they’ve responded to my presence in this circle, almost instantaneously, by causing the rover to stop and turn its camera towards me.”

“Correct.”

“Meaning they have faster than light communication with Lunokhod.”

“Yes.”

“Which is impossible.”

“They clearly know something about physics which we don’t.”

“Obviously. So why not animate a machine on Earth to contact us?”

Silence. Nobody had questioned the choice of location for the alien intervention with Lunokhod, despite the fact that in astronautical terms the additional distance to the Earth was insignificant. The aliens must have some unfathomable reason to choose the desolate satellite instead of contacting humanity on their home planet.

Guan continued. “We think we can comprehend them because they are sentient and so are we, but they are so advanced technologically, scientifically, and probably sociologically, that we are like worms next to them.” He pointed at the dusty lunar surface at his feet. “If you pour water on the ground do the worms think, ‘aliens are inviting us to come to the surface and meet them?’ Of course not, because you’re gathering bait to go fishing. But up come the worms into the water you’ve poured. Willing participants because they don’t understand their fate in answering your call.”

“You think this is a trap, Guan? That the aliens have a sinister motive.”

“Why not? Or why not simply a motive that we cannot possibly comprehend? There must be some reason they’ve chosen to contact us on the moon.”

A pause, then, “Stand by. We need to consider our next move.”

Guan stood motionless in the circle formed by the rover. “Will I understand their message if they send one?” he wondered. “Will Earth?”

Suddenly a voice sounded in his helmet. A deep, metallic voice. Not quite computer-generated. More like an animal trying to make human sounds, but lacking the correct biological equipment. “Chong zi,” the voice growled. “Worm.”

“Control?”

“We heard it, Guan. Please return to your tractor at once.” There was a note of panic in the controller’s voice.

Guan tried to turn but found himself rooted to the spot. “Control, I am unable to move,” he said. He tried to sound calm but failed. “Some kind of electrical induction, I think. My legs are locked and I can feel the hairs on my arms standing on end.”

“The magnetic field intensity is increasing,” advised Control. “We’re going to remotely manoeuvre the tractor to your location and …”

Guan screamed and fell to his knees. It felt like needles were piercing his skin. Like a screw was being turned inside his brain. “I’m burning up,” he yelled. “It’s tearing me apart. Help me.” He could feel the surface of his skin contorting and cracking inside his suit. Under the fleshy surface his blood boiled and welled up through the dermal layers like magma. Guan’s eyes felt about to burst and he clamped his eyelids shut to try to hold them inside his head. “Please,” he whimpered. The pain intensified and he let out a prolonged scream of agony. Then he fell forward into the soft regolith and lay silent.

The UN security council met in emergency session and leaders from around the world sent condolences to China. Guan had represented all mankind but he was, first and foremost, Chinese. It was clear that Guan had been correct in his assumptions: mankind simply didn’t understand the aliens motives. The world mourned and people lived in fear. ‘When will the aliens come to kill us all?’ they wondered.

Some nations called for a passive calm, some for military preparations, some for plans to evacuate Earth for an as-yet unidentified sanctuary elsewhere in the solar system. Despite all the political rhetoric nobody really knew how Beijing would respond to Guan’s death. The world watched and waited.

A unique pebble lying on a beach. A mind among mindless rocks.

A something - a creature - approaches the pebble’s resting place with unerring accuracy. It picks up the pebble and cradles it in a tentacled palm. The pebble feels fear. There is no speech, only thought, but communication flows from the creature to the pebble.

“Chong zi,” it seems to say. “You have felt much pain? The transition is excruciating, is it not? Yes, lots of pain. Disorienting. Disabling. Agonising.”

The pebble imagines the creature smiling. “There is a lot more pain to come.”

On 3 August 2034, two days after Guan’s death, a Long March 9 heavy-lift rocket took off from Xichang in Sichuan province. The first two stages boosted it’s payload into orbit in a matter of minutes, each section falling away in turn to plummet back into the sea. The upper stage described a complete orbit of the Earth for a gravity assist, then lit its own motor in a prolonged burn and pushed onwards for the moon.

The entire world asked Beijing what they were doing, but the Chinese weren’t talking. The world watched and waited.

A pebble sitting captive in a creature’s hand.

“Afraid?” the creature seems to ask. “It is normal to have anxiety. Be calm.”

The pebble doesn’t understand. It feels like reassurance, but there is a memory of excruciating pain. And a promise of more to come.

“No, no,” the creature thinks in response to the pebble’s thoughts, “pain is not good. Pain is simply inevitable. The transition hurts, but it must be so, for there is no other way to travel between stars. Apologies for the pain, but it had to happen. Now you will be clothed in a new body. It will also hurt. It always hurts. It is unavoidable. But then you will be whole again and the pain will be gone.”

Three days after launch, the Chinese rocket reached lunar orbit and discharged its payload towards the surface.

Far below, Guan’s spacesuit lay under the ever-present gaze of the Kharha lander and the cameras attached to the Yutu tractor. To the watchers on Earth the rigid suit, facedown in the lunar dust in the Sea of Serenity, represented a poor choice of grave for a brave man. There was no outward sign that Guan’s body no longer occupied the suit.

Lunokhod continued to follow a stuttering circular route around the spacesuit. Shortly after Guan’s collapse the rover had begun moving and counting out pi again. SETI observers noted that the signal had changed - Lunokhod’s wheel rotations now counted out thirteen digits of pi with three replaced numbers forming the message - although the meaning was not immediately obvious. It seemed clear that it was a longer and more complex message and wasn’t going to form a simple image this time.

Shortly after 08:00 on 6 August 2034 the Chinese payload descended to an altitude of 1500 metres above the alien circle on the moon, and exploded. The high yield nuclear weapon vaporised the still-circling Lunokhod, the Kharha lander, the tractor and Guan’s suit in the first few milliseconds of the blast. It razed a wide swathe across the desert landscape, lifting tons of dust into a mushroom cloud visible to the naked eye on Earth. The scars it left behind would forever eradicate the face of the man in the moon.

The Chinese were exultant. Guan Pinghu, hero of the republic, was avenged. The extraterrestrials might come back, but they would surely think twice about harming one of China’s citizens again.

The partial message relayed via Kharha could not be deciphered. It might be a threat, thought SETI, a declaration of war. Perhaps the killing of Guan had been a symbolic message formalising aggression between races.

The people of Earth decided collectively that they needed to be prepared for the aliens return. They needed to work together in real collaboration, not as separate nations, but as a single race. It was the only way to effectively meet the threat.

Mankind needed to expand into space and to develop more and better weapons. It needed to act first and not wait for answers when the aliens eventually returned.

The world vowed to be ready. Guan’s sacrifice would not be in vain.

“Am I a captive?” asks the pebble.

“Strange thoughts,” replies the creature. “This is the reason we invited you for transition. You will share, we will share. Not as a prisoner, but as a visitor. A welcome guest. You called yourself chong zi - a worm - because you think you are beneath us. You are not. We are worms for hurting you, though it was the only way.”

The aliens are friendly, thinks the pebble, finally understanding.

“Good,” says the creature, “you are at ease.”

“I am not a pebble,” it thinks aloud, it’s mind finally grasping the elusive thread of realisation. “I am human.”

“Yes. Welcome to your new world,” says the creature, “Guan Pinghu of Earth.”

Fiction


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