The tunnel walls were smooth as blown glass, hard as diamond, and cold as everything else in the empty depths between the stars. A brown marbling splintered across the cream-colored surface like veins. Jiten had never seen anything like it anywhere in the solar system, and he’d been to three rocky planets and a hundred moons.
The perfectly cylindrical tunnel measured 3.4267 meters wide down to the micron, and 243 tunnel mouths were counted on the surface. Jiten flew down the center in zero-g, puffing another gentle propulsive thrust from the valve terminals at his wrists. Hiro, he noticed, stayed close to the edges. Jiten didn’t know him well, but he guessed he probably grew up on a station; a lot of them grew up uncomfortable with open spaces.
Every tunnel ended the same way: a Y-shaped intersection. The absence of right angles was disorienting. No one had taken a gauge to them yet, but he was certain they were precisely 120 degrees apart.
They worked their way toward the center as best they could, but the branching structure bested them over and over again, unexpectedly spitting them out at the surface until they were forced to return to the Gamsa to top off their oxygen and propellant gas. But Jiten had made up his mind about one thing already: the city-sized structure was no natural object. Its geometry was too perfect, too uniform, too clean. It was a made object, but not made at any human hands. So then whose?
It was only once they were safely back on board they were given the news of a new discovery. The tunnels hadn’t been bored out at all. They’d been grown. The whole structure was growing, albeit slowly, gathering stray atoms in the void and arranging them on its surface. It’s like a crystalline cosmic dust bunny! they’d told him with amused excitement. But Jiten and Hiro both said No.
Jiten recalled that veiny marbling in his mind, and knew, somehow, that Hiro was recalling it too. He reflected on how they were redirected away from the center. Nudged.
Jiten looked to Hiro, but his colleague had already moved to the hatchway and pulled the emergency lever to seal them in. To isolate them. They were linked, now, and knew the truth together. That thing wasn’t built by humans, and wasn’t built by anyone else. It built itself, intentionally. It was alive, and now it was in their minds.