01 Feb We built a gateway to a star 1,470 lightyears from Earth
On December 2, 1987, the Soviet Deep Space Network received a transmission from outer space. It was first picked up by the Galenki RT-70 radio telescope and soon confirmed by the other telescopes within the system. The signal – which was repeated every day for about two weeks – came from KIC 8462852, today more famously known as Tabby’s Star. It’s an F-type main-sequence star located in the constellation Cygnus approximately 1,470 lightyears from Earth. Unusual light fluctuations of the star, including up to a 22% dimming in brightness, were discovered by citizen scientists as part of the Planet Hunters project. These observations puzzled the scientific community, which has yet to explain what kind of natural phenomenon could cause such a massive dip in brightness in a star. My team, however, wasn’t as surprised. Given the transmission and the nature of its content, we felt confident that the dimming of Tabby’s Star must have been the result of some kind of artificial megastructure, such as a Dyson swarm.
The transmission contained two data sets. The first set was a mathematical blueprint of a large rectangular structure – resembling a doorframe – and the second one was a date, communicated to us with the help of a number of illustrations of our solar system where the planet’s orbits around the sun were used to indicate the passage of time. It only took us a week to figure out which date it was (November 18, 2019), but we weren’t able to figure out what would happen on that date. Although, as you can probably guess, by now we know…
We spent decades trying to build the structure, and almost lost our funding several times – especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union – but slowly but surely, we kept trying… and trying, and trying. And then, around the same time Tabby’s star began appearing in the media, we finally finished it. It looked sublime. A giant gateway standing at the center of our Siberian facility in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t have any visible features, except a hole at the top, but it consisted of billions of intricate circuits, cooled down to around -237 degrees and it was powered by a small nuclear reactor.
Even though the entire facility felt as cold as Antarctica, not just because of the dilution refrigerators but also the harsh weather outside, I was still sweating when we were about to turn the power on for the first time. But nothing happened. No matter what we tried, we couldn’t get it to do anything. For years, all we could do was to monitor it. It was disappointing, especially after all the hard work we had put into it. Our last hope was the mysterious date. And after it had come to pass, everything changed.
On Monday, November 19, 2019, at 23:54 KRAT an object entered Earth atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean. To the unexpecting astronomers around the globe, it looked identical to a small meteor. We knew better, though, and a Lada-class submarine was deployed with me onboard together with the rest of the crew.
The object came down on Disappointment Island, an uninhabited island in the Auckland Islands archipelago. It felt surreal stepping ashore, not knowing what kind of alien artifact we would find there. It was during the hour of fading twilight when we arrived, and the birds swarming the island – as if in apprehension – aroused an eerie sensation crawling up my spine.
We found the object inside a crater. It was spherical, about as large as a pool ball, and its surface looked like the surface of the giant structure we had built in Siberia. Unlike our construction, however, this dark sphere was active. It took some time for us to understand that, though, since its activity was only audible.
“Quiet!” I said to the soldiers that had stepped ashore with me. “Listen.”
None of us moved a muscle while we stood around the crater. There was an echo of slow, dragging footsteps coming from the sphere. It didn’t sound like a recording, more as if we heard something actually happening in front of us – if that makes sense. The footsteps stopped for a minute and then continued until they faded out completely. After that, at least as far as we could hear beneath the agitated birds on the windy island, the sphere went silent.
I brave soldier volunteered to touch the sphere, making sure it was safe, and after that, we moved it to the submarine. It wasn’t as heavy as it looked, just as if it was hollow. During our entire voyage back to Russia, I sat next to the sphere, listening carefully. It was mostly silent, but now and then I could hear the echo of something that reminded me of metal scraping against metal. Although I couldn’t explain what it was that I heard – or by which means I could hear it – it still felt ominous and foreboding.
Back at the freezing facility, we soon discovered that the sphere would fit perfectly within the hole at the top of the structure, and thus that it was what had been missing all these years – the last piece to our puzzle.
“It has traveled through space for more than a thousand years,” my colleague and dear friend Dimitri told us although we all already knew it. “Alexander,” he said and looked up to me from his wheelchair, “you really heard footsteps?”
“Amazing,” Sonya, our chief engineer, said. “Alien footsteps from a thousand year–”
I cleared my throat, interrupting her. “I-I’m not so sure these sounds are recordings,” I said and looked at my colleague’s uncertain eyes. “There have been no repetitions so far,” I continued. “Every sound we’ve heard has been unique, and there have been several hours.”
“What are you trying to say?” Dimitri asked, anticipating an answer beyond his wildest imagination. “Are you suggesting–“
“It’s just a thought – a hypothesis at best – but I think we have to consider that the sound has something to do with the obvious function of this… of this black orb. The structure is clearly meant to be a doorway, and this spherical component – as you all probably think as well – is most likely what will open that doorway… what will connect our world to their world.”
“You mean this thing is already connected to–“ Sonya began without finishing.
I bit my frozen lip nervously, collecting my thoughts. “If I would have to guess, I would say it’s entangled with an identical object on the other side on a quantum level, somehow allowing us to hear what is happening a thousand lightyears away in real-time. And although it’s beyond our knowledge how, I do believe that it is through this entanglement that the sphere will allow us to go there, perhaps in an instant, if we were to place it inside the hole on top of the structure.”
We all felt the pressure of fate – perhaps the fate of mankind – on our shoulders.
“If this is true,” Dimitri whispered, “it means that it goes both ways.”
“Gospodi bozhe,” Sonya said with a trembling voice, “they can hear us!”
We proceeded to set up a soundproof chamber in which we put the sphere together with microphones so that we could observe its activity without it being able to observe us. While we studied it – trying to find as many clues as possible about what to expect on the other side – we began talking about what to do next.
At this point, the higher-ups in the Russian Space Forces, and even in the government, had suddenly become extremely interested in our little underfunded team of engineers and researchers. They sent in analysts, diplomats, and generals who all wanted their say in the matter of how to proceed. I will not dwell on the politics of it all, but it quickly became a mess and its first victim was unsurprisingly the scientific method.
My team wanted to study the sphere for maybe two years before putting it inside the structure, not only to learn as much as possible but also to be safe, but the generals – only caring about their careers – didn’t want us to sit on this longer than a few months and in the end, even though we had still only heard strange metallic scraping coming from the sphere, they decided on a very simplistic plan. Namely to put the sphere in place, send in a probe and then – if it looked safe – send a team through what was assumed to be a gateway.
They didn’t listen to our warnings about rushing things, but they did at least take the potential threat seriously enough to prepare for it in the way we asked for. Since we knew next to nothing about the beings who sent us the sphere, except that they were thousands of times more advanced than us, we had no choice but to prepare for the worst with the strongest defense known to man: a thermonuclear missile. Seeing the РС-28 Сармат being rolled into the facility prior to opening the gateway was a menacing sight to behold. If something hostile were to enter from the other side, the bomb would be detonated and obliterate everything in the area.
In the middle of June this year, a crane lifted the sphere up to the top of the structure. I stood next to Dimitri and the rest of my team down at the floor, alarmingly close to the armed missile. I looked at the young soldiers next to it who had been given the assignment to trigger it in the worst-case scenario. I asked myself: were they really prepared for death at their tender age? And then I thought: If so, how brave, if not, how foolish.
The structure was surrounded by military guards with dogs while the generals stood on an impromptu observation deck a few hundred meters away.
The probe we intended to send in was a rover sent to us from Roscosmos. A female voice spoke through the public address system and echoed through the cold facility. There might have been a way for us to avoid noise around the sphere, but since we had been ordered to go through with the mission so quickly, we hadn’t had the time. This meant that everything said on our side – especially the instructions being delivered through the speakers – could be heard on the other side. It was reckless, to say the least.
As suspected, the sphere fit perfectly in the hole at the top of the structure. We didn’t know what to expect, but we all expected something. A silence fell upon all of us. I didn’t even dare to breathe. But nothing happened. For a moment, we thought that there was something wrong… Then the dogs began barking like wild animals. It made the hair on my neck stand on its end because it meant that something had happened – we just couldn’t sense it.
One of the dogs got free, somehow, and ran up to the gateway. The soldier in charge of it ran after, yelling for it to stay put, but it wouldn’t listen. And then, when it ran through the gateway, it vanished. A collective gasp could be heard throughout the facility, and then a concerning murmur. The gateway was, without a doubt, open.
“D-did that dog just travel over a thousand lightyears?” Dimitri asked.
No one said anything for a couple of minutes – fruitlessly trying to hear the dog through the sphere – and then one of the generals spoke with authority from the speakers in the ceiling:
“Send in the probe.”
The rover vanished just like the dog. We all looked at the screens on the wall, which were connected to the rover through a cable that now seemed to hang in the air by itself, in suspenseful anticipation. Nothing. There was a crash coming from the sphere, and then everything went silent again. I gulped out of anxiety. We debated what might have happened, but of course, there was no way for us to know. It was suggested that the rover might have fallen over by accident, and for no other reason than convenience that was taken as a fact.
Next, we put a camera on a metal bar and inserted it into the portal and after having been retrieved fifteen minutes later we finally got to see our first glimpse of what it was like on the other side. The recording was heavily distorted and didn’t reveal much, just as if the camera had been subjected to some kind of radiation (although none was detected), but it was clear that there was a large, open space on the other side. The ground was too flat to be natural, and there were shadows in the distance indicating structures. Nothing of what we saw offered any explanation as to what had happened to the rover and the dog were nowhere to be seen.
I had to argue for Dimitri to be on the team that was eventually decided to be sent through the gateway. Since he was in a wheelchair the general in charge thought that he would be a liability to the rest of the team, but I convinced him that his expertise in exobiology was absolutely necessary. That wasn’t entirely true. After the accident with the Soyuz TM-5 spacecraft that put Dimitri in the wheelchair, he had spent almost all his life working on our top-secret project. I would be damned if he – my best friend – wasn’t allowed to see the fruits of his own labor. And thus, I proudly helped him inside the spacesuit.
“Now you’ll get to be the cosmonaut you were always meant to be,” I said with a smile on my otherwise weather-beaten face. “We’ll make history again, just like we used to do back in the day.”
“For the Motherland, eh?” he said and laughed himself into a coughing fit. “I think I need a drink.”
“After this,” I said, “we will have deserved it.”
Aside from myself and my small team of scientists, a group of highly trained commando frogmen was assigned to assist us. Their presence didn’t make me feel any safer. Whatever waited for us on the other side… if they greeted us with hostility, we wouldn’t stand a chance. We were nothing more than pesky ants walking in through the front door of a house beyond our comprehension. Standing in front of the large gateway, all suited up, enhanced that sensation considerably. While saluting the generals on the observation deck, a female choir sang the national anthem.
“All this splendor,” I whispered to Dimitri and patted his shoulder, “only to cover up how infinitesimally small we are beneath the ancient secrets we’re about to uncover.”
The commando next to me had to struggle in his spacesuit to make the sign of the cross. I nodded at him and smiled in an attempt to inspire some confidence. He didn’t need to know that his gun would be useless. All I could hear in my helmet was my own rapid breathing – telling me how scared I really was – and the radio chatter.
“Proceed forward.” It was the general. He cleared his throat, and then continued with a softer voice: “Make Russia, and the whole of mankind, proud.”
I took a deep breath. Dimitri grabbed the wheels of his chair and pushed his way toward the gateway. I hesitated for a second and looked at the people behind me. The fact that they would be over a thousand lightyears away from me in a few minutes was almost impossible to wrap my mind around.
“Alexander,” Sonya said. “It’s time.”
I helped her carry a metal crate with equipment. It made me feel somewhat safer, somehow, to walk next to her.
Even though the space suit protected against the cold, I could still feel the extreme temperature coming from the frozen gateway. The gold visor attached to my helmet fogged from my icy breath. We all stopped right in front of the invisible threshold. That minute felt like hours. All I could see behind the gateway was the wall at the other end of the facility. There were no visual cues at all, not even the slightest vibration in the air. It made what was about to happen even harder to believe. No one said anything. The commandos made sure their guns were ready to fire. I looked at Sonya, but I couldn’t see her face behind the visor.
“Well then,” Dimitri finally said, “godspeed, comrades.”
That became the unofficial go, and we stepped over the threshold.
The transition was seamless. A crack in the radio was the only indication that something had happened, cutting off our contact with Earth. For some reason, the radio signals couldn’t penetrate the gateway.
A wondrous sight greeted us. The star, filtered through a partly cracked, orange-tinted dome that covered the entire sky, shone down on a dark and silent cityscape filled with skyscrapers taller than anything ever built on Earth. They were all black silhouettes against the rising sun. Outside of the dome tons of twisted metal and enormous chunks of broken structures floated through space. Two things become immediately clear to us after seeing this: that we were standing on a space platform large enough to allow for its own gravity, indeed a part of an attempted Dyson swarm, and that at some point between when the message was sent to Earth and now their entire civilization was either abandoned or destroyed.
Another enormous platform came into view, solemnly rising at the horizon like a black flower and casting its giant hexagonal shadow on top of us. It was ripped apart in the middle, by unimaginable ancient forces, letting through a sunbeam that illuminated the landscape in front of us. Large steps climbed down from the gateway and the rover we had sent through lay crashed against the ground beneath them. The gateway stood at the edge of a large, oval square that was surrounded by identical gateways, indicating that the people who built this civilization had sent out many messages to the stars and patiently waited for answers.
The dog came running toward us from the middle of the square, proving that the platform was pressurized and filled with oxygen. Taking off our helmets was out of the question, though, since we didn’t know what other gases or possibly even pathogens might have lingered in the atmosphere.
We descended the stairs – Sonya and I helping Dimitri – and investigated the rover. It had clearly fallen down the stairs, just as we suspected, but there was also a set of small holes in its side that we couldn’t explain.
The dog wagged its tail when it reached us. One of the commandos bent down and patted it on its head. He looked at her tag.
“Good girl,” he said and laughed. “Her name is Aliona, a true hero.”
“I have a bad feeling about this place,” Dimitri said. “I mean… what happened here?”
“All these gateways,” Sonya said, “just waiting to be connected to some faraway world.”
“Look,” I said and pointed at one of the gateways at the other end of the square. “That one is broken, almost as if it was blown up.”
Although my gut feeling – an uneasy inkling of apprehension – told me to stay away from this forsaken place and return to Earth, my scientific curiosity kept me going. The gateway was indeed in ruins, and by the looks of it, it was the result of an explosion. I looked back at our own gateway, anonymous among the rest of them. If anything was to happen to it, I thought, we would be stranded further away from home than anyone in the history of mankind.
“Alexander!” I heard Dimitri’s voice in my helmet. He was a few hundred meters away from me. “Look at these.”
There were enormous, seemingly fossilized bones scattered across the ground. Sonya helped us collect some of the smaller pieces while the commandos patrolled the area. Hundreds of small holes covered the brittle fossils, just as if they had been eaten by worms at some point.
“This looks like a part of a skull,” I said and pointed to a piece as large as a boulder. “How fascinating,” I continued, “how astonishingly fascinating.”
“Its size might explain why the gateways are so large,” Dimitri said. “They might have used their own size as a point of reference.”
“I-I have a theory,” Sonya said. “All these gateways… They must have built them to reach out to potentially civilized worlds. But this gateway, this particular gateway–”
“You don’t think it just collapsed over time, from natural causes?” I asked.
“Maybe they invited something unfriendly,” she said.
“Something more powerful than the beings who built all this?” Dimitri asked.
I took a deep, unsteady breath. “If so,” I said, “the question is–“
“What happened to the ones who destroyed them?” Dimitri continued, sending shivers down my spine.
“I think maybe we should return and–“
Sonya was interrupted by the commandos who yelled at us to get behind them, again as if they didn’t know that in this place we were nothing more than primitive troglodytes. From one of the broad, desolate streets leading to the square a figure as tall as a building appeared. It limped toward us, slowly stepping into the light. Just by seeing how slow it moved I understood that it was the source of the footsteps I had heard coming from the sphere on Disappointment Island. It had a skinny, grey body filled with bleeding holes. Its huge head resembled the fossil we had found on the ground, with ten or more small eyes covering the entire face. No mouth or nose, just unblinking eyes. It moved its long arms in such a way that it looked like it wanted to shoo us away, but it was impossible to say if there were any aggressiveness behind it.
“Mother of God,” Dimitri said. “This isn’t right… Please, Alexander, take me back!”
The dog barked furiously, and the commandos prepared to fire out of pure panic. I grabbed Dimitri’s wheelchair and instructed everyone to return to our gateway. But just before we were about to move the alien being collapsed and fell forward. It kicked up a cloud of dust as it hit the ground. For a few minutes, we stood in silence and watched its seemingly dead body. My heart was racing, and I could feel my pulse in my temples. An echo of something large falling to the ground in the distance reached us. The uneasy feeling from before turned into a dread mixed with the uncanny sensation of being watched.
A sudden twitch spread through the dead body, and then – to our screams of terror – creatures began escaping through the holes in its skin and even through its many eye sockets. It’s hard to describe the abhorrent sight that played out in front of us. These creatures resembled over-sized, black centipedes. One of them, the largest one, forced itself out through the mouth of the body and it was at that repulsive moment the commandos opened fire.
The spacesuits made it more or less impossible to run, and it felt like running in a nightmare where you never picked up speed no matter how hard you tried. The arthropodic beasts swarmed toward us. One of the smaller ones crawled inside the suit of one of the commandos. I could see it enter his mouth, and then eating its way out of one of his eyes. A bigger one crushed the visor of another commando and ripped his head off with his spine still attached to it.
I didn’t run to save my life, not even to save the life of my friend, because I knew that only nuclear eradication awaited us on the other side. I ran to save mankind from the same fate that had bestowed the inhabitants around KIC 8462852 and to save myself and my friend from the jaws of the beasts. Even larger creatures – as big as trains – appeared from their hiding spots inside the dark city.
The dog ran in front of all of us and was the first to reach the gateway. Dimitri’s wheelchair fell over just as I was about to drag it up the stairs. Some of the creatures ran past us, obviously more interested in getting through the gateway than killing us. I bent down and reached for Dimitri’s hand. Sonya ran up to me and helped put Dimitri back in his wheelchair.
More and more creatures entered the gateway, and there was no indication that the warhead had been set off.
“Why haven’t they detonated the nuke?!” I asked.
Since there was no way to open the visor and no time to take the helmet off, I crushed my visor against the ground and yelled toward the sphere as loud as I could:
“Blow it up, you fucking cowards, blow it up!”
Sonya helped me drag Dimitri’s wheelchair up the stairs.
“Leave me here,” Dimitri begged. “I’m just–“
“Shut up,” I said. “I’m not leaving you with these abominations!”
Two commandos ran past us, one got through the gateway but just moments later his headless body was thrown back through it again. And then Sonya screamed and let go of the wheelchair. I almost dropped it. She put her hands on her helmet in a desperate attempt to take it off. But there wasn’t any time. The creature ate its way in through her eye and continued to her brain, making her vomit uncontrollably until she fell down the stairs.
It was a miracle that I got through the gateway together with Dimitri. The chaos that met us… I can’t even describe it. The women in the choir were being ripped apart. The guards were shooting at each other while naively trying to hit the creatures. The soldiers operating the missile were nowhere to be seen, most likely because they left their post as soon as the first centipede appeared through the gateway. Except for one or two that were lying dead on the ground, the generals weren’t anywhere to be seen either. But helicopters were taking off outside, so it wasn’t difficult to figure out where they were.
The glass from my visor kept cutting my chest behind the suit as I zigzagged through the mayhem, pulling Dimitri in front of me. I could still hear him through the radio in my helmet.
“Leave me next to the missile,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, although I already knew.
“There’s no reason for both of us to stay here,” he continued. “Alexander, save yourself.”
“There’s no way any of us get out of here if we succeed,” I said, “that’s the entire point!”
“Try,” Dimitri said. “You can walk, I can’t.”
I stopped next to the missile, not knowing what to say.
“I’ll give you some time unless they get too close to me,” Dimitri said. “No time for a sentimental goodbye, my friend, just run!”
And I did, with tears of shame obstructing my vision, I did. I managed to get inside one of the helicopters that were just about to take off outside. A wife to one of the generals was sitting in it with her little boy who must have been brought to the facility against protocol. Just to let him watch history be made. He looked shell shocked, but he was kept calm by the dog laying on the floor beneath his legs.
“You saved her,” I said and tried to smile while the helicopter took off. “You’re a hero, young man, a true hero.”
The facility shrunk beneath us as we rose to the sky and the further away we got, the more worried I became that one of the creatures had gotten to Dimitri. But then, maybe one and a half kilometers away, the blinding light from the nuclear explosion overwhelmed us. I don’t remember much after that. The shockwave must have hit us pretty hard.
I woke up in the rural locality Oymyakon. They told me that they had found the wrecked helicopter in one of the valleys beside the town. The boy and the dog had survived, but the mother and the pilot hadn’t. The villagers had seen the mushroom cloud, but other than them no one would have been able to see the explosion given its remote location. However, the increased radiation levels were detected over Scandinavia sometime later. Naturally, the government kept quiet about the reason, and I truly thought that everything would go back to normal and that we had successfully averted the extinction of all life on Earth.
But last week I learned that Aliona had collapsed outside. Apparently, one of her eyes was missing.