For all his political posturing and his penchant for charismatic public overtures, Leon Brault was having second thoughts. It wasn’t an ideological shift he was experiencing, but an awareness of his survival instinct. He was close enough now to see the Artifact with his own eyes, separated only by a few kilometers and 4mm of clear plastic.
If he’d been totally alone he would have turned around, made up an excuse, sent someone else. But the whole world was watching; literally 99% of the world’s population was live streaming humanity’s first contact with another civilization.
No backing down now.
Leon piloted the small shuttle craft, Giant Leap—a prototype originally intended for asteroid prospecting—toward the Artifact. He approached from behind, or at least from behind its direction of travel. It expelled nothing, had no apparent emissions, no thrusters that he could detect. Four towers pointed outwards forming a plus sign, or a crosshair, connected by thin struts. Leon thought of them as X and Y axes. Along the Z axis were hundreds of long black strands that stretched for kilometers in either direction from the towers like the cables on telephone polls that only remained in the old western world.
The design was alien by definition, but the Artifact certainly lived up to the description.
Leon approached the tower that felt like it was “on top,” guided by intuition.
“Approaching the Drifter. 1,800 meters out.” He’d taken to calling it the Scorpio Drifter due to the direction it approached from and its passive trajectory, but everyone outside his inner circle called it the Artifact. People were stubborn about strange things.
As he closed in, he could start to make out details: tessellated textures, small repetitions of form like fractals, and—light!
It was starting to glow! Sporadic points of dark red light at first, they pooled and merged rapidly until the whole tower burned neon orange like a toaster coil.
No; not the whole tower. Only the portion in the shadow of Giant Leap, deprived of sunlight.
“This is incredible! It’s responding! This is…”
A sudden horror overtook Leon as he saw the orange trail dim and blacken. The tower began to crumble—disintegrate. The entire Artifact was coming apart, crumbling into powder.
“Something’s happening. Stand by.”
One of the cables lost its tension and ripped through Giant Leap like it was a soap bubble. The Artifact was gone in minutes; just enough time for Leon to watch and get covered in its dust as he ran out of air in his unpressurized suit.
Leon Brault’s troubles were over. But when his body was eventually recovered, the ashes of the Artifact found their way to Earth, and the real trouble began.
Notes: I used an image as a writing prompt for this piece. You may be able to find the image on the artist’s ArtStation page. Image by Barthelemy Aupetit, used with permission.