The Artifact hung just below the massive orb of the planet Jupiter. Astronaut Dave Roman made some minor attitude adjustments to his tiny pod and fired the thrusters.
This close, you could see the tumult of the Jovian clouds, the angry rotation of the Great Spot. That alone would inspire awe. But there was the Artifact.
It appeared a few years earlier. At first, they identified it as a newly discovered moonlet of an increasingly crowded Jovian system. The scientific community was galvanized by what they saw when space-based telescopes provided a closer look. The massive object was artificial; constructed by who or why was unknown. A perfect short cylinder, like a barrel big enough to hold Mount Everest.
They sent the Eureka, Earth’s first crewed deep space probe, to investigate. Dave was the mission commander and chief pilot. It took years to get there. The Artifact had not moved.
The rest of the research team was still thawing. Dave had left their care in the trusted virtual hands of the ship’s AI. Their safety assured, he decided not to wait for the de-hibernation process to run its course. He would have a closer look alone.
The pod ran just above the surface of the Artifact. Smooth and dark, with no visible ports, fissures, or means of propulsion. Yet it held station perfectly. At the end of the cylinder, the end Dave arbitrarily called the front, the pod dropped over the edge like a barrel falling over a silent, invisible Niagara Falls.
Dave’s eyes grew wide as he discovered the front of the cylinder was a miles wide open maw. Inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly to steady his nerves, he moved inside with floodlights blazing in all directions. The lights revealed another startling discovery. At first, Dave thought his little pod was rolling, but it was the Artifact’s inside that was moving.
The thing must have a double hull. Where the outside was featureless and motionless, the inside was moving, and it did have features. The surface of the inner cylinder was a smooth gunmetal gray with thousands of evenly spaced holes. There were also great struts running the length of the cylinder. He counted six.
The strut structures were like gigantic, elevated highways but for eight lanes of cars the size of cruise liners. At the other end of the Artifact, they came together at a great impenetrably black opening.
The internal structure of the Artifact was stupendous, humongous, overwhelming, yet strangely familiar.
The memory came from childhood when Dave would ride his bike over to Grandma’s house. She lived alone. He’d help with the housework. One day, when helping with the folding, he climbed right into the machine. What he saw inside the drum then was what he was seeing now on a massive scale.
He had climbed in to investigate a great mystery of the universe. Why did even numbers go in, but odd numbers come out? He couldn’t accept Grandma’s shrugged non-answer to the question.
“They are with Jesus, Dear.”
There were still chemists and physicists who believed that fusion could be achieved on a lab bench with just the right mix of compounds and electricity. Why not that a machine with just the right temperature, just the right electrical field, and just the right spin could open a tiny hole in the space/time continuum?
What if millions of such devices were operating around the globe for over a century? Each sending a tiny item or two to another place and time, perhaps even another universe.
A great amorphous mass had appeared at the other end of the Artifact’s interior, emanating from that round black exit. Or was it an entrance? It was moving fast toward Dave’s pod, too fast and too big to be avoided.
Like a civilization orbiting a distant star sending us back our earliest television signals to tell us they were there, someone or something was sending back what had been sent.
Now the mass was upon him. It wasn’t one thing. It was a great cloud of soft little things. They plastered over the pod, blocking the window and dousing the lights. They snagged on protruding bits like the robotic arms and communications array.
It would take 46 minutes for Dave Roman’s last signal to reach Earth, once relayed by Eureka. By then, the Artifact had already disappeared.
Like shoving half-thawed TV dinners back into the freezer, Eureka’s AI would re-hibernate the science team and return them to Earth with only minor brain damage and the loss of a few fingers and toes.
For decades, they would puzzle over what they heard in Mission Control that day. It would be that long before the discovery of a new almost invisible ring of a billion frozen somethings orbiting Jupiter. Mostly dark brown, blue, or black, there were some brighter colors and patterns: red, yellow, pink, green, striped, and argyle. “The thing’s hollow. It’s rotating inside and — oh my God! — it’s full of socks!”
John Sloan has been writing in London, Ontario, Canada for 35 years mainly as a journalist, columnist, and technology analyst. He chose this path due to Lou Grant, a degree in Journalism, and a need to eat. He lives in neither a rambling Victorian house nor a cozy flat. He does not own a cat.