Unidentified Alien:

Object #7 - Delta Pavonis

A Terran Trade Authority writeup

Delta Pavonis, a type G yellow star, was an early source of interest for Terrans during initial exploration of their localspace. It was one of several subjects of searches for extra-solar planets, especially planets capable of harbouring life. Initially only of mild interest against potentially more habitable finds, Delta Pavonis was eventually discovered to contain one of the most awe-inspiring examples of interplanetary engineering yet seen.

Pre-warp Terra had fielded several methods of detecting planetary candidates, using both surface-based instruments and unmanned spacecraft. These included attempts to detect occlusion or transit of stars by orbiting planets, or examining the light from a star for minute movements relative to observer that could be induced by the same.

These and other methods shared a common flaw: unless the orbital plane of the particular star system was aligned with the observer, observations were very unreliable.  Although all of the positive detections were eventually discovered to be accurate, a great number of false negatives were also recorded.  On-site exploration eventually made this clear as frequently star systems were found to contain several or many planets, when previously they were believed to contain none at all.

In the meantime, the available observation methods made vast numbers of star systems impossible to examine conclusively.  The tiny proportion of nearby systems indicated to contain planets did not sit well with current theories of planet formation.

* * * * *

In 2028, after years of development, the Terran Research Foundation fielded several Explorer remote observation spacecraft in one of the earliest operational deployments of the deVass Warp Generator. At the time these units were not viable for powering manned spacecraft, but this suited both the TRF and proponents of the new propulsion system well: the intended stellar survey required great speed but not manned operation, and the advancement of the propulsion engineering industry would benefit greatly from one of its designs being proven in interstellar spaceflight.  Finally, in the unfortunate event the drive did fail, it would not leave a crew stranded in deep space without hope of rescue.

The first decades of galactic exploration revealed a curious, inverse relationship between the sophistication of a spacecraft's propulsion and navigation systems, and its scientific equipment.  No longer were detailed analyses needed to infer questionable results from abstract measurements taken at vast distances; spacecraft could simply be flown directly to the location to point comparatively low-tech equipment at the subjects of interest and quickly achieve conclusive results.

The TRF's latest creation was intended to fly to the desired star system and take up a static position roughly five hundred astronomical units from the parent star, in line with its axis of rotation. In binary, ternary, quaternary or larger systems the craft would align itself with the stars' centre of mass, perpendicular to the plane of their orbits. This was not likely to be possible in systems containing more than two stars and in such a case the craft would start with an approximation of the orbital plane.  From its distant vantage point, the craft would turn its instruments to the centre of the system and, using extremely wide angle and high-resolution imagery, observe the star system for one Terran year. A detailed record of the galactic background would be built up and the craft would continually monitor this internal 'picture' for systematic occlusions by orbiting bodies. The craft's field of view and the long period of observation made it highly likely that if a system contained planets, most or all of them would be successfully detected.

* * * * *

The Explorer probes performed successfully over a long period, marking many star systems for later manned exploration, but also confirmed some negative results from earlier Terran observation. Delta Pavonis, though one of the systems marked, was not an outstanding proposition.  The visiting Explorer probe had detected two likely planetary candidates that merited a future visit to the system by a manned vessel, but the collective volume of compelling data arriving from the scattered Explorer probes reduced the assessment of the system to merely the word 'interesting'.

No manned ships made it to any of the marked systems until several years after the probes arrived, the deVass Generator that powered them initially having proved difficult to scale up for heavier applications.  When the TRF survey ship finally arrived at Delta Pavonis in 2040 the crew were hoping to get it logged quickly so they could move on to somewhere more interesting, and immediately set about cataloguing the two candidates.

Delta Pavonis 1 was indeed a planet. It was approximately 10 light minutes from its star, with an indicated radius at least two hundred times greater than the other (as yet unobserved) candidate, though itself slightly smaller than Terra.  Visually, DP-1 was an unremarkable, dusty rock sphere and while the initial mineral soundings showed some deposits, relative to the other planets examined by that point the results were not particularly promising. It would have barely made a page on a report but for the anomaly that became visible almost as soon as the ship arrived in orbit: an extremely well-defined square adorned one hemisphere of the planet, the same hue as the surrounding terrain but of lighter shade, centred on the equator.  Although detailed measurements of its dimensions were impossible from orbit, the survey team estimated it to cover at least fifteen million square miles of the surface.

No feature like this had ever been seen on any world and the excited survey team, having satisfied themselves the surface was passable (albeit in pressure suits) set down their craft near one of the borders of the square.  The 'border' turned out to be a very wide, deep trench that appeared to have once contained liquid of some kind.  Several stone bridges were visible and while badly eroded, appeared to have been constructed for larger beings and still capable of supporting Terrans.  After crossing one the explorers were confronted with a field of smooth, milky-coloured material stretching almost seamlessly to the horizon, crossed at regular intervals by thin trenches.

On closer examination the material was found to be translucent and solid but brittle, easily breaking when one of the team attempted to walk on it.  Several samples were taken and analysed aboard the survey ship.  A close examination showed a very regular pattern of crystal lattices, which seemed to change configuration in the presence of electrical fields (the ship's drive was shut down during the examination, after which the material appeared inert).  The team had no idea what function the material served in this agitated state but whatever it was, it appeared that a nearby electrical field acted like an 'on' switch.  Although there was no indication how old it was, if the present arid and calm conditions prevailed on DP-1 it could potentially have survived for thousands of years.

On day-long treks tracing the perimeter of the square, the team discovered long graphite blocks every mile or so, that were connected to the material by a very fine web that passed through it.  The blocks had glossy upper surfaces and sides festooned with clusters of symbols recognised by neither the team nor the translator packs they carried.  All of the blocks inspected were found to be identical in every respect, so one was documented in detail before the explorers moved on, flying their ship completely along one side of the square.  Using inertial navigation equipment, the team established its length and width at some 4,000 miles, close to the original estimate. During this trip they set down several times, finding identical features to those seen on the first landing.

The team did not want to cause further damage by landing in the square's interior but made several low passes over the surface, which revealed only the same endless covering of milky white and rows of trenches miles apart stretching from one horizon to the other. The survey commander later described these flights as:

"...like flying over a vast, calm white ocean."

There was no explanation as to what purpose any of this served and the team left DP-1 more confused than they arrived, noting wonder in the survey log at what a gigantic operation must have been undertaken to construct the installation they had found.

* * * * *

The second planetary candidate was found to be a satellite of DP-1 in an extremely wide and slow orbit.  As the ship approached, it quickly became apparent the candidate was an artificial addition to the star system and although it dwarfed their ship, the team were still surprised the Explorer probe had picked it up. It defied easy visual description: the initial entry for the object in the survey log contained only a time index for the video record.

Although from a distance appearing a solid sphere, close up it was a huge, irregular and seemingly disorderly network of interconnecting tendrils, with a blue mesh stretching between many of them.  The object, approximately twenty miles in width and length, was so expansive that despite the wide space between individual columns, over the length of the object they collectively blocked all but small patches of light from penetrating one side to the other.

The object was too small and of insufficient mass to have much gravity or its own atmosphere, so exploration was limited to an awkward series of spacewalks.  As chaotic as the form appeared there was no evidence of damage, suggesting its appearance was intentional.  Most curiously, each column consisted of two or more irregular lengths supporting one or more huge graphite blocks containing specific shapes such as corners, long straight edges, curves or holes.  All observed straight edges supported by successive columns aligned perfectly with one another.  Despite these intriguing discoveries, several days of documenting and close examination passed with no indication of the order or purpose of the design.

After almost a week of exploration marked by repetitive log entries and the slow inset of boredom, one of the team discovered a smoothed section on a thick column near the centre of the object's interior. It was shaped as a flat square not unlike a plaque, and contained a number of glyphs stylistically similar to those on the graphite blocks discovered a few days earlier on the surface of DP-1.  These inscriptions surrounded a series of diagrams which illustrated the orbit of the object around DP-1, followed by an illustration showing the object by itself.  Two rows of inscription below the diagram consisted of only two individual glyphs, which if read as binary indicated the numbers 231 and 3,464.  This was all the plaque contained, further compounding the team's growing confusion and frustration.

After further fitful and unsuccessful attempts at theorising the purpose of either or both of these artefacts, the team requested a dedicated archaeological outfit from the TRF.  They arrived within a week, but even after a further month of careful examination of the planetary installation and the orbiting object, were still no closer than their predecessors to determining the purpose of either, or translating the language they had been inscribed with.  The site was abandoned after some two months of study and Delta Pavonis with it, the system having been deemed to be of little financial value.

The planet/artefact pairing was relegated to a historical curio but as space travel became more easily accessible to the public, Delta Pavonis featured on a growing number of tourist routes and was also one of several recharge points for freighters between jumps.  There were no further indications about the nature of the planetary installation or its apparent companion in high orbit until 2051, when a chartered Skymaster emerged from warp in the system as part of a sightseeing flight.

A bored travel guide reciting a short history of the two artefacts was interrupted by cries of shock from two of the passengers, who were staring out of the ship's windows at the planet.  The guide and the other passengers were astonished to see the entire sunward hemisphere of DP-1 eclipsed by the orbiting artefact.  Innumerable, unintelligible diagrams joined with row upon row of glyphs and markings shone brightly in mile-wide strokes from the vast, crystalline field hiding in the darkness of the Pavonian desert.

* * * * *

After recording as much footage as possible before the image shimmered away a short time later, the ship immediately returned to Terra and submitted the recordings to the TRF. Analysis teams excitedly set about trying to solve the decade-old puzzle with these fresh pieces.  The message was found to contain a brief 'legend' enabling the rest of it to be more easily understood, and in less time than the original surveyors spent in the Delta Pavonis system, the TRF had decoded enough of the data to be able to make several statements about its contents and purpose, as well as a basic explanation of the device itself.

First, the original survey team had correctly deduced the glyphs on the orbiting artefact were binary code, but as they were etched in an unconventional format had been reading them incorrectly.  The first number - 24 - was the number of years between eclipses.  The next number was believed to be some kind of serial marker, strongly suggesting Delta Pavonis was not the only star system to contain such a planet/artefact pair.  Further diagrams indicated the designers had built the pairing in many star systems, as celestial invitations to those patient enough to read it.  There was also a diagrammatic 'address' for the race's home system by way of relating its star to the position of several black holes (whose radiant properties were also noted), several of which were known to Terran scientific organisations. With some detective work, it became possible to identify the location of the system in question.

How the device works is still something of a mystery, though experiments on it and observations made during DP-1's next eclipse were at least able to identify the end to which it operates.  The actual content of the message is displayed by sunlight passing through the device - the rest evidently being obstructed by its interior - and being reflected back from the crystalline material on the surface of DP-1.  It is not fully understood why its reflectivity is so much greater under eclipse conditions, but it is believed to be connected with the behaviour that was previously observed when a sample was exposed to an electrical field.

As for the trenches that surround and cross the reflective material, so far no reference to them has been found in the planetary message. It is hypothesised they form a system to channel water off the surface to preserve its reflective qualities, suggesting the planet was once far more humid than it was found.

Although we now have a cursory understanding of the design and its purpose, the reason for such a convoluted method of displaying the message is as elusive as it is impressive. This could of course be a matter of perspective; certainly it is possible, even likely, that other species would have equal or greater difficulties decoding the contents of the messages carried by early Terran space probes. However, this comparison is rather unbalanced; the information presented in Delta Pavonis is comparable in makeup to early interstellar messages sent by Terrans and the authors have helpfully done all of the work needed to display it, but have added a random element for no apparent reason.  If the Skymaster that discovered the message had not happened upon DP-1 at the precise time that it did, there is no telling when the message would have been discovered, or if it would ever have been discovered at all.

With that in mind, the prevailing theory is that the construction is either something of a vain streak of the designers made manifest (not hugely removed from the motivations of the Pharoes who constructed the Pyramids of ancient Egypt), or an attempt to impress their capabilities upon the viewer. Although the two could be argued to be the same thing, the latter could conceivably give pause to some, in deciding whether to seek out the authors. That being said, there is no telling how much effort the builders of Delta Pavonis' planet/object pairing actually expended to construct it, despite what an enormous undertaking such a project would be for us.

* * * * *

Delta Pavonis is now a regular fixture on the tourism routes of several species.  So many ships crowd the system to witness the 24-year eclipse that those immediately following the discovery of the message saw many collisions between spectators' ships. An AAF 113 Warhawk is now stationed there for the week preceding and following the event to provide temporary space traffic control.

The ambassadorial craft that eventually embarked from Terra, after some months of discussion within the TTA, are still on their long flight to the homeworld of the beings that signalled their existence so dramatically.  Despite the uncertainty these cosmic sculptors still exist, the prize of a relationship with a race seemingly so advanced and benevolent makes the trip a worthwhile risk. Like the kin of a thousand explorers on a thousand other worlds, we wait for our brothers to return.

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