top of page

Artifact 
by Jaclyn Costello
(opening pages) 

Prelude
The Molecule
 
 
The structure suspends itself in deep space floating in the darkness. Trillions of billions of light years away from all celestial bodies. Its geometric structure is not fixed. It remains in constant motion, a slow dissolving followed by deliberate becoming. When it takes shape, it is composed of two colossal strands in a double-helix formation, each metallic filament twisting gracefully around the other. The metal is coated in sugar-phosphates, nucleobases, and purified energy. The rungs between the two strands are also floating, friction-free, dissolving into shimmering fragments of light before silently re-forming. As it twirls, the structure ascends to a primordial melody. A song gentle enough to lull the entire Universe to sleep.

If the structure had to be assigned a cardinal direction, it would be North. Cartesian: Upward. But there are no coordinates in this space, no frames of reference, no identifying nodes. To travel here would be to catapult one’s self beyond the snow-covered peaks of Tibet, past the living crystals in the sky, through the pink and golden vaporous clouds at the edge of the mesosphere, beyond the explosive, dying stars in all known galaxies, through the time-space manifold to the center of a dark, cosmic sea – a peaceful emptiness containing nothing but the structure, dissolving and becoming.

 
 
Part One
 
Location: 8♃µ:2qψ - Elonia moon
Date: 2703


 
Santi adjusted his lab glasses and broke another beaker. 

“Fuck.”

Not quite under his breath, but soft enough that Aadhya believed he was finally adjusting to her presence in the laboratory. He pushed the broken glass aside with a cloth before wiping the contents of the spilled beaker from the counter onto a tray. He held the tray under a light source, examining. When he was finished, he placed the tray aside and reached for a vial and pipette hanging from a collection rack above the counter. He used the pipette to eject the vial’s contents into a crystalline substance in a small dish. Then he placed his instruments aside and stepped back to watch the reaction taking place.

Aadhya sat upright in her chair. She’d been watching Santi work for eleven weeks in the Elonia moon laboratory. Sometimes she saved observation notes to a private vault in her mind. Other times she did not save; she just examined and released. In this moment, her thoughts were fixated on one of her initial questions about the laboratory: why was Santi working in such archaic conditions? Surrounded by glass containers, clunky machines, handheld laboratory tools, and not an AI in sight – as if the laboratory had been constructed in the 19th century.

We’re in one of the most protected, pristine star systems in the galaxy, she sent Santi on a shared thought-stream. You could have created anything.

I am creating anything, sweetheart,
Santi looked up from what he was doing. Why do you think I’m here?

I’m referring to the primitive lab.

Santi swept his hand in a gesture that embraced his surroundings. I think better in these conditions. I find this environment comforting.

Aadhya glanced at the lab coat hanging from a peg on the corrugated silver wall. And that?  

“I’m nostalgic,” Santi said. “For unnecessary formality.” He returned to what he’d been doing.

What is he creating? Aadhya formed the thought in her mind’s private vault. She’d been assigned to this lab by her commanding officer after they’d first discovered Santi – a rogue, undocumented scientist practicing in the far reaches of the Milky Way. Aadhya had been sent to assess the situation, to make sure Santi wasn’t disturbing anything. After her first few days of observations, she suspected he was a madman, sly and cunning with an unspoken mission he refused to reveal.

“I’m not a madman,” Santi said. “I’m what my ancestors would call a ‘coyote.’”

How did you know what I was thinking? Aadhya sent. I had those thoughts privately.  

Not private from me.

You can access private vaults?

Santi’s eyes remained fixed on the slide through the microscope. I’m surprised you don’t also have that faculty, being military.
 

You’ve been able to access my private thoughts for the past eleven weeks.

I have. They really took me somewhere I wasn’t expecting. Thank you for that. They’re slick. Transparent. Remind me of ice. Make me feel something.


Aadhya stood. All this after I negotiated the removal of formal recording devices and disconnected from the neural-nano cloud interface, as you requested.

It will be more fun for the officers back home to decipher reality through the filter of your mind. Don’t you think? Santi waited for her reply. “Don’t you think?”

“I feel deceived.”

He looked up at her again. She was fit and militant. Thick boots, strong thighs. Enormous, beautiful, brown eyes. Full lips. Full chest. Full hips. Round cheeks. She wore her long, dark hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. He was sure she’d been raised on Earth, but he couldn’t place her ethnicity. Samoan-Polynesian. Moroccan. Greek.

“Particles change when they’re being watched,” he said, “so from the moment you arrived, has anything here been unadulterated?” He removed his lab glasses. “I like your voice. The resonance is refreshing.”

Aadhya ignored his comments and motioned to his work at the microscope. “Tell me what you’ve been doing. What do you mean by ‘coyote’? I can’t access that vocabulary.”

“Limited space?” Santi shook his head. “They’re slacking down there, aren’t they? Or are there laws about information storage? I thought all forms of censorship would be decreed.”

“It’s me,” Aadhya told him. “I chose a limited recall capacity of obsolete terms because it frees up my mind for other things.”

“Like forward remembering?”

“You practice that?”

“I’ve activated it inside me.”

Aadhya wasn’t sure she believed him, but she stored the note anyway. “If you still won’t tell me what you’re doing, tell me more about your personal history.”

“Which personal history?” Santi asked. “The one where I roamed the streets? Or would you like to know about the injustices I suffered for my genius during the 23rd century? I can tell you what I was smuggling. Or do you want to hear something happy? A story from the lifetime I was a Gabonese boy enamored with the stars. I hadn’t left Earth yet so my relationship with the sky was still a way to transcend my body. Every glance to the stars was an escape from the confines of my humanity. Which lifetime do you want? Give me a century.”

Aadhya studied Santi’s face, the weight of the grief held in his eyes. It did appear as if he carried a full history. She even had reason to believe he’d traveled through the manifold.

“Not yet,” Santi said. “Not like you.”

Aadhya tried not to think.

“Don’t get anxious about me knowing,” Santi said. “I can’t see everything. There’s still a place inside your mind I can’t gain access to. It’s the most intriguing place to me. I have seen you cross though the manifold though, many, many times. Few people have crossed through like that, so effortless and with such charge. You’ve been on a mission since the beginning, Major Aadhya Lemalu. Lemalu. It just came to me. Your roots are Samoan? In this lifetime at least.”

“It’s all one lifetime for me,” Aadhya told him. “No matter what body.”

“I thought so. What’s it like for you to have existed for so long in one identity?”

“One soul, many identities.”

“A soul, huh?” Santi leaned forward and peered through his microscope. “Would you like to see something?”

Aadhya hesitated, surprised by the invitation. No matter how many times she’d inquired over the past eleven weeks, Santi had refused to reveal the details of his work in the laboratory. She approached and waited for him to move from his chair so she could sit at the microscope. She placed her hand on the eyepiece and brought her face forward to peer inside. When the slide came into focus, she didn’t know how to interpret was she was viewing: a dark spot on the slide – a perfectly formed black sphere – with what felt like an enormous density. Yes, Aadhya could feel the spot’s overwhelming gravity acting upon her body.

“Nothing can escape it,” Santi said.

Aadhya backed away, her heartbeat rising.

“It’s still a baby,” Santi continued, “but I’ll nurture it to maturity. Then I’ll release it into the wild to feed upon the sky, first on dead stars, then living. Its density will grow as it devours all the mass in its surroundings, expanding beyond the size of any known object in the cosmos, seen or unseen.”

“And then what?”

“At the heart of the hole, all matter is compressed to a non-dimensional point – a singularity – a solitary point of zero size and infinite density. And that,” Santi told Aadhya, “is where our Universe is going.”

Aadhya instantly disappeared into her mind, moving within it to stand before her communications HGC. She sent out an alert and waited for the holograph of General Revel to appear. It did not. Hurry, General, please, Aadhya couldn’t help herself from thinking. Why isn’t he responding?

“He’s not coming, sweetheart,” Santi said. “It’s just you and me.”
 
*
Aadhya lay in her sleeping space, staring up through the ceiling to the stars. What to do? she thought. She could no longer think privately. She could no longer contact home; Santi had blocked all incoming and outgoing messages on her internal HGC. She knew she could leave the Elonia moon through the manifold, but something stopped her from leaving. It was a feeling she couldn’t attach to a rational reason or any language’s vocabulary. It wasn’t fear or fear’s opposite; it wasn’t inner peace. It was an intuitive understanding of future history. There was something unchangeable happening here. In a way, it had already occurred. The closest Aadhya could come to describing the feeling was: inevitability. She, nor anyone, could stop the coming event from arising. But what made this feeling ever more powerful was the sense that she was somehow directly involved with the event’s unfolding. Did she feel this way because some part of her knew there was nothing she could do to stop Santi? Or was it more than that – was she sensing that her future self was going to help Santi bring forth this calamity? Was it a calamity? Or a necessity? She concluded that whatever it was, it was set to happen, was already happening, and – looking forward – had happened already.   

This must be forward remembering, Aadhya thought. She wondered if perhaps by mere proximity to Santi, who claimed to hold the ability to know future history, she, too, had unlocked this latent ability from within her own biology.

Aadhya shifted her thoughts to back when she’d first arrived on the Elonia moon, eleven weeks ago.
 
The moon was barren and empty, housing only Santi’s living space and makeshift laboratory. When he’d first seen her, she’d been crouched down on one knee, filtering the moon’s fine, white sand between her gloved fingers. Something in the sand’s composition was oddly trance-inducing. Aadhya hadn’t known if this was due to a new atmospheric element and its effects on her physiology, or perhaps something about the moon’s sand carried within it a beloved familiarity. She’d told herself that after she was settled in, she’d spend more time exploring the physical terrain, but Santi rarely left the lab, and watching Santi work was her foremost duty. 

“Name and rank,” Santi had demanded. He stood outside the entrance to the laboratory.

Aadhya did not yet see him. She was still on one knee, adjusting to the atmosphere. She released the sand from her palm and placed her second foot on the ground to stabilize herself, crouching on both feet. Her fingertips grazed the surface of the moon for support as she began to stand. She took in the topography around her: mainly flat. Vegetation: nil. She raised her head further to see from where the male voice was coming, and as she did, more of her immediate surroundings came into focus: a level, dusty horizon in all directions save for a lone sand dune, vivid, mercurial colors swirling in the starry sky. She zoomed through her eyes into the sky. Several of Elonia’s sister moons were orbiting nearby. Further out, the old prison planet, NXK-43, came into view. Aadhya used distance-viewing to shift focus of the scene to the very same plot of sky but within her own century; in that future reality, NXK-43 had been transformed into a relaxation planet. Aadhya checked in on the safety of the structure-builders who resided there. They were resting peacefully on the beaches and beneath the arches of the elaborate architecture that comprised the cities there.  

She snapped her attention back to her immediate surroundings. Santi’s figure came into view, standing on the side of the prefabricated laboratory. The building was windowless and one story, constructed of corrugated aluminum and other dated technologies. Aadhya hadn’t a moment to wonder why. Santi was again speaking:

“Tell me who you are.”

His face was trustworthy. That had been Aadhya’s initial read. His eyes were brown. Neatly trimmed facial hair. Slightly sunken cheeks. He had the face of a wise and isolated man who had no need to answer to anything. Yes, Aadhya thought. He has a peculiar authority. He looks like someone with many answers, yet motivation to share them with nobody.

He was thin and wearing clothes from the 23rd century. No protective spacesuit or helmet. No pressure-gauging devices. No oxygen reader. This was in stark contrast to Aadhya’s headpiece and her self-adjusting bodysuit, made of a slick, black material resistant to cold, heat, fire, radiation, and chemical weaponry. The suit was also made to adjust to her surroundings, allowing her to survive in a variety of atmospheric pressures, weather systems, and gravities.

Aadhya checked the read on the atmosphere: an oxygen level similar to Earth’s. Must be manufactured. The NO₂ was exceptionally low. She finished gauging her reading and concluded it was safe to remove her suit’s headpiece. As she did, Aadhya took in her first, slow, shallow breaths of the Elonia moon air. And when she felt fully aware and had fully adjusted to her new surroundings, Aadhya stood at full height, 6 foot 3, and presented herself to Santi.

“F.S. Nation, Earth. Unit: Nativity. Major Aadhya Lemalu.”

Santi nodded. “I see. They’re on to what we’re doing.”

“We?” Aadhya was taken aback. She’d been under the impression he was alone.

“You’re in this with me now, sweetheart,” Santi grinned. “You’re here. You’re in.” He turned and walked back inside the laboratory. 

Over the following weeks, Aadhya tracked his movements. She ate when he ate. Slept when he slept. Spent the rest of the time watching him work in the lab. Her military training and personal activations helped her remain hyper-vigilant, despite her lack of sleep. Santi only required 2-3 hours of restoration each night. He worked the rest of the time. It was astounding. 

“What are you doing?” Aadhya asked.

Santi looked up from the microscope. “Tinkering.”

“That’s always your answer.”

“It’s always what I’m doing.”

Santi swore loudly when things went wrong, then apologized immediately. By the third week, he’d unbuttoned the first few buttons of his black shirt, revealing a tattoo of something Aadhya believed to be a religious painting. When she stared too long at the tattoo one night, Santi suddenly stopped working and buttoned the shirt back up to his chin. 

By the fourth week, Santi was sending Aadhya messages without speaking. She found this type of communication helped them form greater intimacy, and she hoped it would allow Santi to further divulge information about what he was creating. But during those first weeks in the Elonia moon lab, Santi had more questions than answers for Aadhya.

Why didn’t they send someone with a scientific background? he asked her.

I have the strongest training in manifold traveling, Aadhya sent. It isn’t easy journeying this way.

I understand that but – you? A high-ranking officer who doesn’t know a thing about physics or molecular biology?

I have access,
Aadhya tapped the back of her head.

Information recall isn’t the same as a lived understanding. You know that.

bottom of page