It’s fifteen thirty, galactic standard time, and the middle of the night here. The Vortigaunt perches on a barren plateau on a wrinkled rock in a nondescript system in the outskirts of the Pleiades Nebula. Under her headlights, the strange rocky spires pulsate with their ethereal green light.

Back at Horrocks Gateway this morning I leapt into the Vortigaunt, Margot clutched unhappily under my arm, as soon as we touched down. She seems to like the Mule – she can see me from the flight seat next to me. In the Vortigaunt she’s relegated to the gunner’s deck below, and no doubt some of the finest views a cat has ever witnessed, which are utterly lost on her.
We blasted off and I quickly charted the twenty-odd star jumps to the Merope system. That’s where the anomaly had been spotted, on a rocky moon of the fifth planet. When we’d cleared the mass well of Horrocks Gateway I punched the command to charge the hyperdrive, and watched the familiar yet awe-inspiring whirls and clouds of witch space envelop the ship as space-time itself contracted in front of us.
Some hours later I arrived. The Vortigaunt drifted lazily in the blue light of the star for a minute or two, while I took stock of the systems. A browse of the scanner revealed that Merope had picked up somewhat since my last visit; explorer-class ships like mine dipped in and out, as well as several that looked worryingly ill-equipped for science. I picked out a peaceable-sounding vessel and initiated a local hail.
‘Greetings, Commander. Off to 5C?’
‘Greetings. I was, but now’s not a good time. Best stay away.’
‘How so?’
‘There’s a blockade. Stupid thugs, blowing up anyone and everyone.’
‘Apparently to avoid angering the aliens. Thinly-veiled excuse for gratuitous murder.’
Stupid Luddites. Of course, there was no law enforcement here. The nearest authority was in Maia – my friends the Ant Hill Mob, who were unlikely to lift a finger. I thanked the commander and closed the comms.
I pored over flight charts for around an hour, looking for planets that might harbour the same phenomenon I’d seen on the Galnet report. Merope 5C is a barren, rocky body. After drawing up a shortlist of similar sites I plotted my course and blasted away.
The day was spent searching. I would drop down near a planet’s surface, maintaining an altitude of less than a kilometre, scouring the landscape. Sometimes I’d land and deploy my light surface rover. The six-wheeled, insectoid thing would pelt away through the dust, my ship dwindling to a dot behind me. I imagined Margot’s anxious face peeping from the cockpit.
After several hours I found myself orbiting an unlikely binary pair. The planets were both tiny – hundreds of kilometres across – and lumpy, misshapen things, circling each other so tightly it was a wonder they didn’t smash together. One was green (an unusual colour in deep space) and the other was an earthy yellow. I picked the green one and descended.
I followed the horizon. I forced the Vortigaunt through narrow ravines and across wide plains; through narrow mountain passes and deep canyons. As day turned to night and the land became veiled in darkness, my movements became almost robotic.
Then, out of the black, I spotted several pinpricks of light. As I moved closer these arranged themselves into a muddled ring, and then I could pick out the rocky spires I’d seen from the video footage.
This was it.
My palms sweaty with excitement, I brought the Vortigaunt to rest overlooking them and deployed the lander. I could almost hear my heart thudding in my chest as the ridged wheels of the buggy rolled across the dirt towards the structures.
I must have spent three or four hours there. I conducted various tests, took samples, made audio recordings and analysed the light patterns. As I worked, my sense of wonder began to overtake my fear.
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The central structure does indeed closely resemble a barnacle. It is made up of six interlocking ‘shells’ – each heavily ridged, not unlike an oyster shell. The tip of these shells is a bleached, creamy white, while the base is a darker brown. Where the shells intersect some kind of more organic tissue can be seen, and it is from here that the light emanates.
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On every second shell there is a symbol. It could be a letter ‘C’ in negative, or perhaps a stylised rendering of Barnard’s Loop. Operating my turret camera to zoom in at this marking was possibly the most sobering moment of the day – looking at a marking that could only have been made by some kind of intelligence, and yet not one I could ever recognise.
Around this central structure the Spires grow. I use the word ‘grow’ because I’m increasingly convinced that that’s what they are doing. Every so often, there would be a deep rumbling from below the ground and I fancied a barely-perceptible movement from the spires. They seem to be comprised of rock intersped with a similar bluish, alien tissue as can be seen at the base of the Barnacle. All over the spire grow small, organic-looking buds. Their skin is leathery – like a reptile – and the more developed the spire, the more likely they are to bud.
They bud to reveal a luminous green ‘fruit’. This fruit is a powerful light source, and generates the same field of sparkling blue ions as I witnessed around the UA some weeks ago. I removed one of these fruits – my ship’s scanners would only identify it as a ‘meta-alloy’.
Further tests revealed that the immature spires yielded concentrated quantities of raw elements and minerals. It is my view that the central structure – the ‘barnacle’ – is some kind of sonic drill that seeds the ‘spires’ around it, and possibly encourages their growth. The synthesis that takes place in the spires – from raw elements to complex, organically-formed alloys with a cellular composition – is either instigated by or regulated by the central structure.
I carefully loaded the meta-alloy into the hold and secured it. Back in the pilot’s seat, I checked for radioactive damage – nothing on this. That was good, because it would be a long journey back.
I’m going to Varati, the home of the Canonn Interstellar Research Group. They have requested samples of these ‘meta-alloys’ to study. I charted the route and prepared for take-off. I’d be glad to get back into sunlight.
As the hulking craft lifted itself from the dust, there was another eerie rumbling from the structures before me.
The spires grew quietly on.

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