Star X 4

Valadium 5 enjoys four suns in its sky. They wax and wane in intensity according to their distance from the planet at any given time.

Valadium 5 is named after the largest of the four. Like its sister planets, Valadium 5 weaves amongst the four suns in an intricate and highly eccentric orbit. For the coming one hundred standard years, it will be situated beyond all of them except Demonos, a red dwarf that loops far out into the system, in a slow circuit that requires thousands of years to complete.

When I arrived on the planet, the three larger suns were rising each morning at more or less the same time, at different points along the eastern horizon. This configuration had last occurred five standard millenia in the past. Demonos rose around midnight, casting a lurid red light over the planet until dawn, when the brilliance of its sister suns drowned it out.

I exited my transport ship at the spaceport on the outskirts of Clanton, the capital of Valadium 5. I sent the ship’s crew off to their quarters in the city while I waited for my monitoring equipment to be unloaded. I rode with it out to the shelter built for me on the lava plain north of the city. On my way, I got my first look at the skyline of an all-metal city, through the back window as we drove away from Clanton. The buildings caught sunlight in their recesses and reflected it from edges in a strange and alien way.

This was five days before solar conjunction.

I spent the five days installing my equipment in the shelter, a hut sunk halfway into the igneous floor of the plain.

Valadium 5 had been settled two hundred standard years before. Cities dotted the globe. Humans were well-entrenched on the world. Now, their preparations to shelter underground had been completed and the evacuations had commenced. For the first time since colonization, Valadium 5’s three major suns were following trajectories that would bring them together at the top of the sky simultaneously. The surface of the planet would become a griddle, too hot to inhabit, too hot for life of any kind to survive. More importantly, the flux of EM radiation over a vast spectrum would increase to deadly levels.

All structures built to code would survive, but the citizens of the planet had decided long ago to deal with a temporarily fatal environment by taking shelter well below the surface, bringing everything combustible with them. Furniture that would burn or melt was not popular on Valadium 5.

After the suns moved out of their rare coincidence, all the water from lakes, rivers, and oceans that had turned to steam would come down in a deluge.

With my tracking and recording devices installed, I commenced attaching them to the hut’s built-in connectors. What spare time I had, I spent out on the plain. In spite of its barren appearance, life existed in its nooks and crannies – tough vegetation and lizard-like and insectile critters.

When the time came, I suited up. I wouldn’t be leaving the hut but I had three-sixty visual access to the plain through a series of ports.

Why was I here? To babysit the equipment throughout the solar conjunction and to add “a human perspective,” which, given the comprehensive sophistication of the measuring devices, was probaably more of a poetic notion than not.

The suns’ radiative flux would cause a total die-off of surface flora and fauna on the planet. Since life had evolved on Valadium 5 under these conditions over hundreds of millions of years, it was to be presumed that those lizards and insects outside, and that scrub, had evolved methods of recovery, as with a forest on Earth after a bad fire. We’d soon see.

The three suns approached their common zenith on separate angles from the east. The temperature ticked steadily up. I ran through my suit checks. All in the green.

The electronics were on and operating at spec. Outside, the glare increased and sent shafts of light lancing into the hut through its filtered, polarized ports. My suit hummed to itself, keeping me comfortable. Cake batter would bake on the metal table beside me.

I lowered the light shield on my helmet and watched out the port as vegetation burst into flame. The plain became an old-fashioned vision of Hell. All that was missing were little red men with horns, pointy tails, and pitchforks.

And then as I watched, even as everything combustible was consumed, something began to grow in its place. A scaffolding of attenuated, red, jointed, girder-like shafts built itself, rising rapidly above the surface. In no time, through every port, I could see that the hut was surrounded by, the plain was covered with, a latticework of connected metallic, crystalline segments. A network, vibrating with currents in a comprehensive spectrum of harmonics.

Was this happening all over the planet? What dormant life form was this, actuated by the extreme temperatures and EM flux? Perhaps using the ashes of all the organic matter that had just been consumed, as raw material?

How high the lattice, or network, rose, I do not know. Well past the roof of the hut. Looking up, I saw only red as the higher segments merged in the distance.

I felt a tickle in the ear, a sense that the comm channels in my helmet had been activated. The tickle became a sound, or the feeling of a sound, or a vibrational pattern, that crawled farther into my head, past bone, into the aural portion of my brain, and thence spreading over the sheet of neural tissue that is the cerebral cortex, beoming thoughts. Thoughts – my own and the others – were illuminated in the neuronic networks behind my forehead. I was sharing the thoughts of the living construct outside my hut. They were too alien for me to interpret. I had a sense of something living, thinking, planning, plotting, acting, experiencing at a speed too fast to follow. A sense of birth morphing into maturity and then senescence.

A lifetime story told in seconds.

Others joined. First one, two, three, then hundreds, thousands, millions, all communicating, sharing, living.

Readouts on the consoles displayed peak temperatures outside. The value plateaued for several minutes and then began to recede. The distance between the suns in the sky and the intensity of their joint luminescence – which apparently increased exponentially in the moments before they were not only in conjunction but also in maximum proximity to one another – seemed quite sensitive to the angle of separation between them.

As the temperature dropped, the structures outside the hut began to corrode, erode, and finally collapse. By the time the first steam in the atmosphere condensed into rain, no more than a metallic granular litter covered the scorched earth. It dissolved as soon as raindrops fell upon it.

The suns crept apart and in time, all-clears sounded in the cities. The inhabitants began to emerge from their shelters. My brain felt like some complex computer connected wirelessly to the world around me. The sensation began to pass. While it was still strong enough, I became aware, as if distance were an unimportant metric, of every other human brain on the planet, in the same way that I had experienced the alien life forms. Unlike that life, so united, so flowing, so directed, the humans appeared to be point sources, a chaotic yammer, which gradually faded as my sensitivity lapsed.

In those final moments, I understood what it would mean to be able to read minds. I was unutterably relieved that I would never have to do so. Especially those of the human species.

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