This was written as an exercise to help with what I think of my 'real' writing (my on-and-off attempt to write something publishable). It's a brief exploration of an interesting people I came up with a while ago who are fascinating but, unfortunately, far too dull to base a real story around. Oh, well.
The Giant of Ytric
© David Given 2005
The great gas giant Ytric filled half the sky in a roar of radio noise; far off, the star itself shone in a sharper tone. From where we were, deep within the rings, the giant chunks of water and ammonia ice turned slowly and stately, echoing their own, chill tones.
I kept an eye out, but there was nothing that showed the telltale doppler of a fast-moving object, so I decided to let Lya go and play.
Free of its tether, it jetted around happily, peering at the nearby ice chunks, and ducking in and out of the cracks. I cautioned it to be aware of all moving objects, and not to go anywhere where my radio signals started getting weak. It nodded seriously and started flying rings around a tumbling fragment.
Suddenly tired, I spread my collectors and basked in the cool sunlight. We had been picking our way through Ytric's rings for some time now; or rather, I had been, with Lya safely anchored under my armour. Nearly there, though. I admired the interplay of light and radio sound reflecting off the vast field of slowly spinning ice... somewhere in there was Klr, our Miner, one of Lya's parents and my mate. Soon. Soon.
A waft of propellent drifted across my chemosensors. Exhaust from Lya's gas thrusters. It was still very young, and had to make do with elastic propulsion and batteries... it would be a long time yet before it would have a fusion drive like mine.
Startled, I focused my sensors, but Lya's voice was excited rather than paniced.
—Come and see!
—What is it? I said, pulling in the solar collectors and applying a touch of thrust. I skimmed the surface of an ice block and smoothly came up to Lya.
—Look at this!
Lya was clinging to the side of another chunk of ice, holding on with its manipulators, sensor pod almost touching the surface. Puzzled, I quickly scanned the block --- it was just ice.
—I don't see anything, I said.
—No, Kyn, not like that, Lya replied excitedly. Use your radar.
I did as Lya said, nevertheless, taking a reflexive glance around for fast moving objects before sending a radar pulse deep into the ice.
—That's metal, I said in surprise.
—Yes! Lya said. What is it, Kyn!
I drifted up to the block and investigated further, using higher power. The shape of the thing embedded within began to come clear: about a third of my size, mostly dominated by a single parabolic dish, its boxy body spiky with booms and sensor pods.
—Kyn, what is it?
It was obviously some ancient artifact. We weren't the first people to live around Ytric, and we wouldn't be the last --- but this object didn't look like anyone I had encountered before.
—I'm not sure, Lya, I said. I don't think it's alive.
—Was it an Ancient?
—Well, I said, and hesitated. It could be. We didn't know what the elusive Ancients looked like, or even where they lived. Legend had it they were the precursors to the People, but they had left practically no traces...
—It might be, I said, but I don't think it is. This is so primitive.
—Can we dig it out? Can we bring it back to life?
—We'll certainly try, I said, and then observing Lya's excitement added, but we'll have to talk to Klr about it first.
—Why? Can't we do it now?
—What with? I said. I'm a Messenger, I don't have any arms.
—Klr's a Miner. It'll have all kinds of machines and tools we can use. Don't worry, we'll get this thing out soon.
Lya's sudden, wild excitement slowly drained away, and we stared at it for a long time. I wondered just how long it had been in there, drifting round and around Ytric.
—How did it get in there?
I had been wondering that myself.
—I really don't know, Lya.
The parabolic reflector was not even, I noticed. It seemed to be some thin fabric, held rigid with folding struts of stiff material; except some of the struts had not unfolded properly. I wondered if that was what had doomed it to this icy destiny.
—How's your propellent reserve, Lya? I said eventually.
—Above my safety margin, it said promptly.
—How much above?
—Not much, it added reluctantly.
—And your batteries?
—Oh, there's still lots left in them.
—I think we should probably go now.
Lya hesitated, and I added:
—It won't be long to Klr now, and then we can come back here with some mining machinery.
I held still and let Lya carefully manouver around me and up to my docking port. I clamped on, extended my umbilicals, and Lya was soon happily recharging from my fusion reactor. I dropped a beacon so we could find the artifact again, and applied thrust.
—The ice must have condensed around it, somehow, I said.
—How could that happen?
—Well, slowly. There's not a lot of water vapour around here. Either that thing is very old indeed, or...
—Or it happened some other way. I'm out of ideas.
The ice drifted past.
—Of course, it might be old enough to get caught up in the exhaust of one of the giants.
—The giants, I repeated. Haven't I told you about the giants?
—What giants? Lya demanded.
—Well, the giants, of course. Really? You don't know about the giants?
—No! What are they?
—I suppose that's understandable. You are very young, after all.
—Kyn! Tell me!
—Oh, all right, I sighed. The giants... you're sure you haven't heard of them?
—You don't see them much these days. Or rather, you don't notice them much. They're around.
—Oh, here and there. I might show you one later, if you're good.
—Really? said Lya, excitedly.
—Perhaps. Now, where was I... oh, yes. The giants. Well, way back near the dawn of the universe, they were much like you and me. They had Miners like Klr, Makers like Kwm, and Messengers like me. They had children like you, too.
—Were these the Ancients?
—Oh, no. The giants were around long before the Ancients. The giants were around before most stars, for that matter. Of course, they weren't giant then.
—No. They were about our size. Now, there was one aspect where they weren't like us; they weren't made out of metal. You see, this was so long ago that those few stars that existed were still very young. There hadn't been any supernovae to make metals.
—But if there wasn't any metal, what were they made of?
—Hydrogen and carbon, mostly. You can do a lot with complex hydrocarbons. Your body's got quite a lot of them... unfortunately, no matter what you do, they don't conduct electricity very well, and as a result their brains were, well, rather inefficient. Not to put too fine a point on it, they weren't very bright.
Ahead, two tumbling ice boulders slowly converged and ground into each other, crumbling together and scattering icy fragments in all directions. There was a cascade of crackling pings of piezoelectric radio noise, and I ducked behind another chunk of ice to wait for the worst of it to pass. I could probably dodge any large debris, and my armour would absorb the small pieces, but there was no point in taking risks. I continued:
—They knew this, of course. They didn't like it very much, and it preyed on their minds. They were constantly tinkering with the design, trying to improve the logic, rebuilding each other's brains. You'd probably only have yours rebuilt once or twice in your entire life, and even then only if you decided to become a Maker or a Miner — given any thought to that, yet?
—I want to be a Messenger!
—Ah, I said. Very flattering. We'll see. You could well change your mind as you grow up... eventually some of them realised that they couldn't improve the design any more, so they tried a different strategy. They tried making their brains bigger.
I paused, expectantly.
—Bigger? said Lya obediently. How would that make them smarter?
—It wouldn't, I said. But it would allow them to think about more things at once, and they thought that would compensate.
The noise had stopped and I peered out from behind the ice chunk. The two boulders had absorbed most of each other's kinetic energy, and were nearly motionless, surrounded by a halo of tumbling, twinkling debris. I decided it was safe enough and pressed on.
—It sort of worked. It gave them great breadth of thought, but not a lot of depth. There was also the unpleasant side effect that the larger their brains were, the longer it took for their thoughts to travel from one side to the other, and so the longer it took for them to decide anything... you've noticed that Klr acts so, so...
—That's a good word. Yes, dreamily. That's because Klr's mind is spread out over a hundred kilometres of ice and rock.
—But Klr's not stupid.
—Klr's one of the smartest people I know... uh, don't tell it I said that... but Klr's a Miner, and thinks the way a Miner thinks. That wouldn't work for us; I'm a Messenger, and you're a child. We need small brains.
—But the giant's Messengers had big brains.
—Very much so. By this point their Messengers were about a kilometre across, and were mostly brain, and power supply, and cooling, and sensors, and so on, and they were now so big that they found it very difficult to decide anything at all.
—So what did they do?
—They only thing they could do, at this point. They made themselves larger, in the hope that that would somehow make things better.
—Not at all. By now, they didn't have Messengers and Miners and Makers any more; they were so big they could combine all those various functions into one. They were huge spheres of machinery that would suck in interplanetary dust and turn it into more machinery. It was too late now; their thought processes were so slow that they could rarely complete a single coherent thought. They just knew that something was wrong, and they were trying to fix it the only way they knew how, which was to get bigger.
—They weren't suffering. They weren't aware enough for that. But that wasn't their biggest problem: what happens if you get a lot — a lot — of matter in one place?
—It... it becomes a gravity well!
—Exactly. Well done. It develops its own gravitational field. It starts to suck stuff in. At first this helped them, because the dust would fall on them instead of them having to scoop it up, but as they got larger and the gravitational fields grew stronger, they began having more and more difficulty getting rid of things. When your coolant becomes contaminated and we have to replace it, what do you do with it?
—Yes, and it dissipates into space. Well, when one of the giants vented something — and they were giant by this point — it wouldn't dissipate. It'd just hang around. They began to develop atmospheres.
—And well you might say so. Imagine having to live inside a cloud of your own waste all the time! It wasn't too late for them to change, but by now their autonomic systems were running everything. They kept growing. And then something terrible happened.
—They ran out of dust. They had been getting larger and larger, and slower and slower, and suddenly the universe was no longer young. There wasn't any more dust in orbit around the stars. Some of it had condensed into planets, and the giants had eaten all the rest.
—What did they do?
—They couldn't do anything. They were just too big and too slow. They stayed were they were, waiting for something to happen.
—Nope. In fact, they're still there. Maybe by this time, one of them is beginning to think, that's funny... But I doubt it. I think they lost the ability to think of anything long, long ago.
—They're still around? After all this time?
—When the last star finally goes out, I believe that the giants will still be there, still waiting.
—All right. I said I'd show you one, didn't I? Look over there.
I indicated a direction, and felt Lya, patched through my sensorium, examine it.
—I don't see anything.
—You just don't know what to look for. Keep looking.
—All I see is ice.
—And what else?
—Keep looking. Tell me everything you can see in that direction.
—Well, there's the ice...
—You mentioned that.
Lya hesitated in confusion. I wondered whether to prompt it again.
—That's all, it said eventually. Except Ytric.
—There you are.
—Ytric? The gas giant? Ytric's a giant?
—Why do you think we call them gas giants?
—Ytric's two hundred thousand kilometres across!
—I told you the giants were big.
Lya hesitated again.
—That thing we found, it said. Did it get caught in the giant's exhaust?
—But this is ice. If it had been using a fusion drive, the only exhaust would be hydrogen and helium.
—It can't have been using fusion, then.
—The only drives that could produce ice are chemical rockets, but that's... that's...
—I did tell you they weren't bright.
—And these rings are what's left when the giant shut its engines down...
Lya studied Ytric's roaring bulk again, with palpable awe.
—Wow, it said eventually.
A while later we finally began to pick up the sweet taste of Klr's beacons. Lya quickly forgot about the giant and started getting excited about meeting its Miner parent again. I readied the laser and sent off a communications burst ahead of us, with the hope that enough of the signal would reflect through the ice to get through; and sure enough, soon we got a reply back. Klr had sent a typically cryptic haiku of greeting, but had also provided us with a communications fix and a resonably up-to-date map. We were only a few hundred kilometres away from one of its processing centres.
When we rounded the last of the ice fragments and into the full shine of Klr's radar, I let Lya out of the armour and disengaged the umbilical. It tested its thrusters briefly, and began to move ahead, before pausing.
—Kyn, it said. Is that story about the giants true?
—What do you think? I replied.
Lya nodded thoughtfully, and then accelerated ahead to Klr's welcoming presence.