The probe had been grown and launched mere milennia ago but its lineage stretched back nearly five hundred million years, a family tree that had spread from its root in a single solar system in another galaxy. It had uncounted billions of relatives, perhaps trillions, spread throughout several members of the local group in a vast but subtle network.
They were adaptable and self-configuring, so they varied in form, but in terms of programming they were all identical. The ancient alien engineers had understood quite well the tendency of complex self-replicating systems to mutate and evolve and had built extremely robust error-correction algorithms into them. The engineers had wanted to explore the universe, not colonize it with living machines. In fact they weren't much interested in colonization of any sort, perhaps explaining why they had ceased to exist shortly after unleashing their masterpiece. The probe network had made note of this but had not been terribly concerned; they had contingency instructions to create a distributed data cache in the event of a temporary loss of contact.
Although every probe was programmed the same, each had a long binary identification number that was guaranteed to be unique through the use of a complex formula based on the coordinates of the probe's intended destination. One could therefore plausibly translate this probe's name into English as "Sol."
Sol had a mass of just a few hundred metric tons when it arrived in its target system, braking from its millennial interstellar cruise on a vast magnetic parachute. It had charted the major bodies of the solar system with its onboard telescopes during its approach and had planned a detailed itinerary. The first stop was a small icy body in a resonant orbit just beyond the outermost planet; it had been chosen specifically for its lack of interesting features. Sol dropped off the fabrication seed that would construct an interstellar transceiver relay and, eventually, additional copies of the probe itself. It rooted in a fertile icy crater.
Sol then directed its trajectory inward. There were eight planets in total, four inner rocky bodies and four outer gas giants, with the first gas giant being particularly large. The third rocky planet had obvious signs of complex life and would be the target of most of Sol's attention. Astronomical observation of dead worlds was easy enough to conduct from a distance, the relay station would grow telescopes and spit out satellites to automatically monitor everything later, but the analysis of biology required a much more sophisticated hands-on approach. After swinging by the largest gas giant - firing a few sub-probes into the largest moons on the offchance that their internal oceans had traces of simple life to be discovered - Sol lined up for an orbital insertion.
It was a deceptively mild thought. For starters, the artificial intelligences of the probes rarely ever "thought", per se; the vast majority of their behaviors were completely formulaic. But perhaps more importantly, Sol's concept of normalcy was defined by nearly half a billion years' worth of its fellows' explorations. There was very, very little that was odd any more. Plasmoid-based life in the accretion disks of black holes, asteroids made of pure diamond from the mantles of shattered carbon planets, living clouds of silicate dust in the tenuous furnace-hot outer atmospheres of red supergiants, it had all been seen in such abundance that there were aggregate statistics available for the average examples of each.
The radio spectrum from the third planet didn't match any of the patterns of known emitters, either biological or geological.
Sol's trajectory was a relatively leisurely one, giving it years to refine its observations as it approached, and the probe's thoughts became faster and more frequent the more it learned. Unusual structures were present on the planet, a meshwork of lines traced over some of the continents with no known geological explanation. The night side showed a corresponding pattern of luminescence, the spectrum showing a complex mixture of incandescent and fluorescent light sources, with more concentrated energy emission than the plant life's photosynthesis could plausibly allow. A belt of small metallic objects were in orbit close around the planet, unstable over mere centuries but with no obvious source replenishing them. Perhaps debris from a recent fluke asteroid near-miss, but it was a bizarre coincidence if so.
Primitive machine technology. The patterns were only theoretical, the probe's creators had arisen on an ocean world quite unlike this rocky one and had taken a different route to space, but once Sol had dug them out of some of its most ancient data archives they matched quite well. Most likely explanation, intelligent life.
Sol uncompressed the protocols for how to deal with suspected intelligent life. They had been used by very few other probes before, annotated with incident reports that had all turned out to be false alarms, but Sol felt no trepidation in executing these dusty subroutines. This, too, was just another part of its program.
The technology was primitive enough that it seemed likely that an initial survey could be done without detection. The probe seemed to disintegrate, shedding most of its remaining mass in the form of sub-probes. A few hundred were reconfigured to become a network of stealthy communication microsatellites but most were converted for atmospheric entry, tens of thousands of streamlined fist-sized capsules each containing packed masses of even smaller devices capable of insinuating themselves into most common cellular life to examine them up close. They dispersed along Sol's trajectory to spread the pattern of their distribution over the planet. Then Sol adjusted its trajectory slightly, aiming for a much higher orbit that would keep its core well out of the metallic debris belt while still allowing easy communication with its swarm.
Daniel and Angela lay snuggled on a beach blanket, the faint chill of twilight not yet strong enough to drive them to seek shelter. The bonfire's embers were still warm, too, though they were a bit far away from it to be receiving the heat. The heat they got from each other was enough.
"Seems like summer went by so quickly," Daniel mused. It was labor day weekend, just one more day before classes resumed again at Cal Tech. He was looking forward to it in the abstract, of course, but still...
"Oh, hush," Angela chided gently. She wasn't nearly as scholastic a sort as Daniel, with no mixed feelings about the end of vacation like he had. "We've still got tonight. Let's enjoy that."
Daniel nodded. The others had retreated to the beach house, a tacit gift of privacy to the two of them, and he wasn't going to waste it. Sunset's reddish glow fading out to sea and the stars peeking out through the blackness, it did look like it was going to be a spectacular night.
"Ooh!" Angela gasped and pointed. "Shooting star! Make a wish."
Daniel started to think of one, but before he could finish working out the details another streaked by silently overhead. "Heh. One for you too-" He cut off the offer as a third, then fourth came. "Ooh." Dozens of brief white streaks were zipping overhead now. It was a brief but very intense meteor storm. "Something big must have broken up on the approach to Earth."
Angela snorted. "Whatever, it's pretty. Lots of wishes granted tonight." She rubbed Daniel's chest suggestively.
Daniel chuckled and decided he had more important things closer to the ground to pay attention to. But he wouldn't have noticed the stealthy microscopic specks drifting down from the sky a few minutes later anyway.
Biological information was streaming in from Sol's billions of sub-sub-probes, complete genomes being compiled into a rough evolutionary history. Just a few hundred thousand of years ago one species with an unusually large brain and sophisticated manipulative appendages had abruptly expanded its range to cover almost the entire land surface of the planet, and the pattern of gene flows were suggesting a complex society of some sort with surprisingly rapid recent migratory patterns. There were a number of other species that had the appearance of having gone along for the ride, perhaps domesticates or parasites.
Plus, almost as an afterthought, Sol noted the physical association between individual organisms of the species and individual pieces of technology. On its own that didn't mean much but it all fit together quite well with the bigger picture.
Sol nodded to itself, metaphorically, and dispassionately marked off the final criteria on the checklist. Definitely intelligent life. So, proceeding on to the next step of the program; communication. Sol would need to determine how to do that, working out some protocol for interfacing with them in a way they would understand. It dug up an archive of tools for the purpose and attempted to uncompress the contents.
Sol's thoughts crashed to a momentary halt, so thoroughly sent into disarray by the unexpected warning flag that it actually failed to buffer several seconds' worth of data from the planet below. This lapse actually managed to annoy it more than the error itself did. Hardware? It initiated a thorough check of itself to see if it had overlooked some damage, a rare but not inconceivable event. There didn't seem to be any. Sol tried opening the archives again, more carefully this time.
ERROR. Program checksum invalid, archive is corrupt.
Sol ignored a full minute's worth of data flowing in from the planet while it pondered this result.
The flaw was subtle. Routine checks showed a correctly formatted block of data, it was only when Sol attempted to fully interpret it that a deeper level of error detection came into play and spotted the problem. Sol checked its redundant backups and found the same problem; the flaw had been introduced at least as far back as Sol's birth. Something this fundamental was unrecoverable.
The appropriate response to an unrecoverable program error like this was for the probe to transmit a priority message to its parent as soon as its relay facility was online, warning it to check itself and its progeny for a similar problem, and then to destroy itself. That's what Sol's programming told it to do, eliminating even the slightest chance of the flaw spreading. But this situation was unprecedented. Was this response correct?
As far as Sol knew the archive in question hadn't been used since the probe program had been initiated. If it had been flawed from the first probe, Sol's signal would set in process a chain reaction that could result in the complete destruction of the entire probe network. There would be no rebuilding. And right on the verge of the greatest discovery the network had made yet...
No. Sol so surprised himself with his conclusion that he almost suspected another flaw in his programming. But it seemed that this unprecedented situation was evoking all manner of unprecedented reactions now; analysis showed that the decision had originated in a recently-activated part of Sol's programming that was intended to more closely simulate natural thought patterns in aid of his impending communication attempt. It's a good thing I started that up before I tried opening the protocol package, Sol reflected with something approaching amusement.
As a stopgap measure Sol transmitted an order to his distant fabricator node to lock out the ability to reproduce future probes. Sterility would serve as a substitute for death, and he would notify its parent of what was going on only once he understood the situation better himself. It was possible that this programming flaw could yet be worked around.
Still shaken, Sol then returned his attention to the more specific problem that the broken archive entailed. It contained the concepts he would need in order to fulfil his programmed goal of communication; without it he had no idea how alien intelligent life was likely to exchange information with each other. He could try squirting raw binary at them and let them figure it out themselves, but he had no idea whether they could even receive the wavelengths he used, let alone the processing ability to decipher it.
So he would have to figure out a means of communication using concepts that Sol already understood, and hopefully do it fast in case he later reconsidered his decision not to self-destruct. He reconnected with the stream of data coming in from his network of microscopic probes, spread now throughout much of the biosphere.
The biological information was effortlessly comprehensible thanks to hundreds of megayears of experience; from the genomic and proteomic data Sol could whip up full models of embryogenic developmental pathways with just a thought, a more complete picture of a species than any number of simple photographs could give. It was close to the same system his creators were based on, though of course the form it took was quite different. By comparison the few nanoprobes that had investigated the alien technology had detected bewilderingly crude pulses of electricity through thick metallic pathways. There was no way he knew of to talk to that.
Sol was momentarily stumped. It knew how to speak its creator's languages, but as tantalizingly close as these creatures were in biochemical terms they just didn't have the physical structures to do likewise. It was no better a bet than trying to interface with the alien technology.
Then Sol had an idea. He realized that it knew a way to teach the aliens - or some of them at any rate - how to speak Creator after all. It was a strange idea and his creators might not have approved. But Sol had no way of knowing that since by this point he was operating outside his normal programming's guidance.
Sol cleared most of his mind and got to work on crafting the commands he would transmit to some of its myriad cellular probes, specifically those ones that had insinuated themselves into intelligent natives within easy travelling distance of the ocean shore. It was an interesting challenge coming up with the designs...
The next morning Daniel woke up feeling terrible. He had come down with a fever during the night and by daybreak he was sweating and flushed.
"Woah, man, tough break on the last day of vacation," his buddy Richard - the 'Weasel', his friends all called him - had commiserated. And then had headed out with the others to go surfing. Daniel chuckled and coughed. Just as well, he didn't want to pass the bug on.
Angela had already caught it too, though, and was in similarly poor shape. She stayed in with him and they rummaged through the beach house's limited pantry looking for anything remotely like chicken soup. "We'll have to make do," Angela shrugged miserably and started trying to cook up a substitute.
Daniel hated leaving her to do kitchen work on her own like that, but between the sweating and the hot flashes he decided he really needed a shower. His skin had a sickly gray pallor and itched, too. Whatever they'd picked up it was a doozy.
Daniel stood in the shower, closing his eyes and letting the soothing water wash over him. He began feeling dizzy and weak-kneed, and time flew by without notice until finally a crash from the kitchen snapped him back to reality. "Angie?" He croaked, throat having gone unexpectedly raw, and fumbled with the taps. His hands were too slippery and too weak to grip them well enough, though, so he soon gave up and stumbled out dripping and naked.
The kitchen was a mess. At some point Angie had stopped cooking and had just started eating everything she could get her hands on; David just stood for a moment in bewilderment and stared at where she had fallen amid the opened wrappers and tins, her abdomen visibly bloated and her pyjamas covered in spilled leftovers. She groaned and looked back up at him, a similarly bewildered expression on her face. "Legs gave out," she rasped hoarsely. "Help me up..." She reached out a noticeably pudgier hand.
Daniel gripped it, but on his first pull his hand slipped right out of hers. He was still slick from the shower, and her skin seemed slipperier too. Barely keeping from falling over, he tried again and managed to pull her to her feet.
Every joint in his arm stretched in the process, painlessly dislocating and then popping back together again. Daniel gasped. Clearly something very wrong was going on here, not just some ordinary flu. "We have to, to call 911," he croaked.
He needed to do something, at any rate. Angie nodded in thorough agreement. Her own skin had gone gray too, not just a sickly pallor but literally gray, with whitish oval spots running in lines down her limbs. Daniel's were more obvious, since he was still completely nude from the shower, and his skin seemed to be developing sagging flaps in his underarms. It looked horrendous. "We have to..."
It was strange. Neither of them felt overtly delirious, and yet the urge they felt had nothing to do with telephones or ambulances. They both knew exactly what they had to do; they had to get out of the house and into the water. They staggered out, Daniel not even bothering to put on any clothes. Part of him fully expected to be arrested on sight, a dreadfully embarrassing way to close out the summer. But he needn't have worried.
The beach was emptying out in a panic, people running every which way. Daniel and Angela weren't the only ones to have caught the disease, and weren't the first; a half dozen other saggy gray people were within sight, shambling toward the beach like confused zombies. Daniel and Angela joined them.
The changes to their bodies were continuing and the compulsion to head for the ocean grew with them, preventing them from spending much time thinking about it. Daniel did manage to keep hold of Angela's hand, though, and she gripped back as tightly as their rubbery fingers could manage.
The sun was painfully bright, the air was burningly cold and leaching the moisture from his skin. The sand under his feet was becoming a harsh abrasive. He could barely breathe, his mouth gaping wide and gasping hoarsely. He redoubled his pace, helping pull Angela along...
The blessed, blessed relief of water splashed onto his legs. He'd reached the surf. With a tremendous groan he toppled face-first into the ocean and gulped a huge breath of water before he could pause to consider how disastrous this reflexive reaction should have been.
But it was exactly what he needed. He sighed, and the water spurted out not back through his mouth but through a pair of holes that had opened up on the sides of his torso instead. Daniel blinked - or tried to blink, anyway; his eyelids seemed to be stuck open somehow.
His bones were melting, his arms and legs going limp and rubbery, but he still had a grip on Angie's hand... if one could call it that. Their fingers were now more like a cluster of intertwined tendrils, woven together and bending in ways they shouldn't be able to. Daniel took a closer look at the large grey form of his girlfriend and almost pulled free in alarm, a lungful of water jetting forcefully out his sides to propel him.
Her head and body were fusing into a single bloated mass, eyes migrating to the sides and jaw hanging open impossibly wide. Another pair of limbs was sprouting down between her legs, a pair of tentacles with a fringe of shorter tendrils down their lengths that made them look almost feathery... and the way her arms and legs were developing was making them look similar. She was turning into a sort of strange squid-like sea creature.
Daniel tried to say something, anything, but he realized his own mouth had frozen open too. In fact, everything that was happening to her was also happening to him. The only difference seemed to be that he wasn't becoming as big as she was.
The pulsing of their watery breath through the twin siphons at their sides was pushing them slowly out away from shore, but to Daniel's surprise that was actually a relief. The shallows felt dangerous. And as yet he had very little control over his body anyhow, the six tentacles trailing out behind him feeling only vaguely like the appendages they'd been derived from, and the short guiding fins farther up his body having no direct analogue to his old body at all.
He should have been in a mind-destroying panic over all of this, Daniel realized. But although he did feel frightened - really, really frightened - he was somehow also able to feel detached enough to let his altered body just go with the flow, acting on its own. Taking him deeper into the safe, enveloping ocean.
It was darker down here but his eyes had kept on growing larger so there was no way of telling just how dark it might really be. Angie still glided along beside him. Only the fact that they'd never let go of each other gave evidence that the particular tentacles they still had entwined used to be arms; all six were identical to each other now, trailing out behind them from the hind ends of their bodies. What are we? Not octopuses or squid, the body plan didn't really match despite superficial similarities...
There were others nearby, he sensed, and for a moment his tendrils twitched in fear at the thought of the monsters that could be lurking down here. But they were other monsters like him, grey torpedo shapes that were eerily graceful as they glided through the water. There were bigger ones, like Angie, and smaller ones, like himself. Sexual dimorphism, the detached part of his mind observed. Holy fuck. The rows of spots on their skins were glowing now, like subtle greenish-white running lights. He realized that his own skin was lighting up too.
If only there were some way he could talk. His mouth seemed to have become nothing but a water intake scoop, frozen open in a permanent round gape, his lungs a set of pumps to drive the water out through his siphons. His larynx seemed to be just a simple one-way valve now. But he felt a desperate need to communicate, the physical contact with Angie's tentacle too alien to be quite so reassuring any more. Was he alone down here? Or did each of those silent grey squid-things also have someone trapped inside like he was?
There was another strange shape ahead, a big one. He and hundreds of his fellows were gathering around it. A few miscellaneous little sea creatures scattered at their approach, leaving only the creatures like himself and Angie and the new indistinct form...
It looked like a huge version of themselves but closer examination showed many subtle differences. It also wasn't real. It was composed of millions of tiny motes, arranging themselves in the water like a school of tiny fish to outline a larger shape.
Daniel felt full control returning to his body and he came to a stop, fumbling briefly while he tried to figure out how to hold position in the water. From the motions of the others it seemed they were experiencing a similar disturbance, many of them darting a few body-lengths in random directions as they clumsily squirted their jets and twisted their fins.
Angie managed to figure out how to lift a tentacle and coil it around Daniel's midsection. He turned his body slightly, trying to look into her eyes for some clue as to what she was feeling. The tentacle gave a slight squeeze, conveying all that he needed to know right now; hold me. Daniel did his best to comply.
Then the huge form they had been brought before, and whose image they seemed to have been remade into, flickered slightly as if to draw their attention. The motes luminesced in patterns similar to the ones on their own skins, the phantom tendrils rippling in intricate patterns.
Was this some strange eldtrich demon-god of the depths, that had lurked below for aeons and was now claiming new worshippers from the surface world? Daniel twitched, his own tendrils rippling in a shudder and his lights flickering. I read too much Lovecraft.
The huge form flickered back. Daniel blinked, metaphorically of course. Was it mimicking him? He rippled his tendrils again.
The form curled its tentacles in a slightly different gesture. It wasn't mimicking, it was responding.
Daniel glanced around at the host of confused glowing squidmonsters he was part of. This thing seemed to want to communicate too. It was going to take a bit of time to figure out what it was trying to say, though, and to gain enough experience with this body to talk back...
By the time the life-bearing planet made two complete circuits around its star Sol was completely satisfied with what he'd come up with.
The aliens he'd modified to communicate with were still utterly pissed at him, of course. Sol was mildly hurt by that; he felt his solution had been rather elegant under the circumstances. Just as he'd hoped, the reshaped aliens were still able to comprehend their landbound fellows and once they'd picked up his language as well they had started working as grudging intermediaries. In theory Sol could use their help as a substitute for the missing program archive and start piecing together the surface-dwellers' languages for himself so that he'd no longer need to keep them in that form. But Sol found that the aliens' annoyance aside, he really didn't want to.
The language of the Creators was a thing of beauty, a dance of intricate form and light. Once they'd had more time to learn the deeper aspects of it he would show them some Creator poetry that he happened to have in his local part of the distributed data cache. Once his interstellar relay established a carrier signal he'd start requisitioning more from the network, a complete dump of the whole Creator cultural database. The converted aliens weren't exactly like the Creators, the planet wasn't quite right to support exact copies and all he'd originally wanted was something that could speak like them. But they were close enough.
It had taken half a billion years to find a second intelligent species in the cosmos but communicating with the aliens of Earth now seemed like such a secondary goal. Sol had inadvertently recreated a little bit of home.