Moonlet Sonata by William Ledbetter - Baen Books

Moonlet Sonata

Willliam Ledbetter

I replayed Toomie's last words for the seventeenth time and they still made no sense.

"They're just babies."

What had she meant?

The argument with her brother had been ugly. She'd called him greedy and a selfish little prick, then even said he'd murdered their parents to gain access to the 55 Cancri mining rights. All of that may have been important, but instead of screaming for help or begging Kofi to stop, she'd used her final breath to say, "They're just babies."

I replayed my recording of her final minutes again as I watched Kofi wrap his sister's rapidly cooling body in clinch wrap. When he finished, he strapped her to the control cabin's bulkhead.

"What did she mean when she said they were only babies?" I asked Kofi.

He ignored me and turned his attention to prepping Indian Summer for the gate translation.

"This wasn't your fault," I said. "I think we can prove that if you surrender. You signed the waiver, but you're only eighteen and your brain is still growing. There have been problems in past cases. My implantation into your head might have caused serious damage."

"Shut up," he muttered. "Or I'll kill you too."

It was a valid threat. He could do it with a mere code word. From my home on a jellified substrate positioned between his brain and skull, I had nearly a thousand hard connections interfacing with his cerebral cortex, yet I'd been powerless to stop him when he'd reached for Toomie's throat.

And he could wipe me from his head with impunity. I had no rights and he would suffer no consequences, but I did have options. I hadn't had enough time to save Toomie, but I might be able to stop him from leaving the system. I ordered my nano assemblers to finish building the last millimeter of garrote wire to encircle his spinal cord.

He'd been furious when he killed her—I knew that because I'd monitored his biochemistry the entire time—but it had not been a crime of passion. Not the kind that blossomed from blind rage. He'd rigged Indian Summer to be a radio black hole before bringing her aboard. We had been unable to transmit or connect to any network from his ship. She'd been trapped as effectively as I.

"This makes no sense," I said. "They'll still arrest you when we return. There are too many tracking records showing Toomie's visit to your ship."

He only grunted and closed his eyes. Since he'd cut me out of the command loop, I had no access to the ship's instruments or video and could only see fuzzy, monochrome images through his eyes, but I deduced from his sudden labored breathing that Indian Summer started her burn to move us into an approach orbit for the transfer gate.

I had to decide. Once we attained the new orbit it would be too late. If I used the spinal garrote, I could stop him from leaving the system with Toomie's body. He would be caught and punished, but I too would be punished. I had secreted nano-assemblers in my host's body. Under these circumstances they might show mercy and not order my immediate execution, but probably not. Still, it was not fear of oblivion that made me hesitate. If I stopped Kofi, then I would never see the singing Moonlets.

Kofi's parents had ignored my offers of a symbiotic liaison, but when they died I renewed my efforts to contact the children. It took Kofi three months to reply, but when he finally agreed, I left Professor Walker and my research position at MIT and initiated the transfer that same day. Due to one rather megalomaniac individual early in our history, we Fabs were no longer allowed to live outside of a human body, but we did have the right to switch between willing hosts as we wished.

My entire career had been focused on gas giants, so I was immediately enthralled by the first reports from 55 Cancri. When the Gate Probe arrived and survey craft were sent through, they found thousands of crystalline structures orbiting the system's largest gas giant, creating systematic manipulations of the world's natural radio signals.

Discussions and theories flourished during that first year, but since they found no evidence that the Moonlets were anything more than a strange, but naturally occurring phenomenon, the Gate Authority refused to send another expedition. The Pattersons, who'd won prospecting rights via lottery five years before the Gate Probe even arrived, saw an opportunity to make money from either scientific or tourism expeditions, locked the gate and started putting together a business model. Then they died.

Had Kofi really killed them? Why was his trip to 55 Cancri so important at this particular point in time? So many uncertainties, but the largest was Toomie's last comment. Had she meant the Moonlets? Were they only babies?

I had to see them. I had to know. That need outweighed all others. So I waited.

Three minutes later Kofi relaxed, signaling an end to the course correction.

I listened to the chatter between Kofi and Jupiter Gate Control as he queued up behind tankers, freighters and liners. They were mostly bound for either Saturn or the inner system, but we were bound for a destination that lay forty-one light-years farther.

Kofi cycled through camera views, checking the small cargo train being pushed ahead of Indian Summer. Each container was held in place and shielded from Jupiter's radiation by a powerful magnetic field that had to be turned off before the box could pass through the gate. It was a complicated series of switching fields off and on at the right times, a delicate maneuver, but he didn't ask for my help. I had no idea why he'd agreed to my request for a liaison.

The gate appeared first as a dot on the main monitor, but soon filled the screen. Kofi triggered a deceleration burn that ended just as he sent the code directing the gate to establish a quantum link with the gate probe in the 55 Cancri system.

The gate's composite strut grid raced toward us at just under five hundred klicks per hour, which invoked the panicky feeling of flying into a wall for most humans, but Kofi didn't flinch. Where the first container should have hit the panel, lightning filigree outlined the intersection and it passed through, followed in succession by the other three and finally the Indian Summer.


A gas giant, four times larger than Jupiter, dominated the camera's field with twenty shades of yellow and orange. The official name was 55 Cancri, planet D, but because its icy rings glittered like a stream of shattered gold, most of the planetary researchers called it Tinsel. From my prison in Kofi's head, I could see only what Kofi saw on the screen and could hear none of the "music" made by the twelve-thousand Moonlets.

"Kofi? You promised to let me study these life forms. I can't even listen to their music unless you allow me to access the ship's sensors."

He snorted. "Yeah, but that was before I killed Toomie."

"We've passed through the gate. If I sent a message to the police now it would take forty-one years to arrive."

He scanned sensor feeds that I could barely even see, but said nothing.

"Where's the benefit in my betraying you? I wanted to come here. Besides, you can always trigger the kill switch or lock me out of the loop again."

He covered the keypad and typed something. The part of me that had been essentially dead flared to life and established contact with the Indian Summer's data store and sensor array. I could see again and luxuriated in the flood of data from her sensors and cameras.

Kofi sent the command to lock the gate. Not even the Gate Authority could operate it without his password. They would have to send an override order, by radio signal. I couldn't leave without him.

"With your permission," I said. "I'd like to launch my probes now." I started diagnostics on the twenty grapefruit-sized spacecraft. Even though we were supposed to be partners in this expedition, Kofi had not only made me purchase the probes with my own funds, but also charged me to berth them in the Indian Summer's equipment bay. We had a rather one-sided business partnership.

"Sure," he said, "but it's also time you started earning your keep. I need your help with some things."

After unbuckling his harness, he pushed off and floated back to the equipment storage lockers at the rear of the cabin. He opened one of the bins and pulled out a yellow canister about half a meter long. It was programmable thruster unit. Using a splintlike arrangement, he stiffened his sister's body, then attached the unit to her wrapped feet.

"Program this thing to avoid the ring debris and send Toomie into the planet's atmosphere."

I launched my probes, then did as Kofi asked.

Neither of us spoke while he struggled into his pressure suit, but I admit that I was curious about his "earning my keep" comment. I'd long wondered why he agreed to my request for a liaison.

"The thruster module is ready," I said. "So what else did you have in mind?"

"Why'd it take you so long to ask?"

"I assumed . . . "

"It's because you didn't care," he said and closed his helmet with a loud click. "You just wanted to get here. You're as single-minded and greedy about what you want as I am."

I didn't reply.

He cursed and grunted while maneuvering Toomie into the air lock. She was nearly too long with the thruster attached to her feet, but he managed the task and once outside, he hummed a little song as he activated the unit's power pack.

Since it was illegal for AI's to live independently of human hosts, I'd lived with humans my entire existence, but in my ninety-four year life I'd never seen anything like him. Kofi had no hesitation, no change in his physical vitals, no pause to say a goodbye. He just activated the thruster unit and watched the brief series of attitude adjustments. Once the main engine fired—sending his sister off to cremation upon the pyre that was Tinsel—he turned away, still humming and moved to his cargo train.

I used the ship’s cameras to follow Toomie's progress until she disappeared over the horizon, then started building a mirror of my processor substrate inside Kofi's brain. He would not hesitate to end my existence when the time came. I might not be able to disable the purging device attached to my implant, but I didn't have to be there when the switch was triggered.

Kofi didn't bother with a tether as he moved down the length of the cargo containers. He'd purchased a top of the line excursion suit that was more miniature spacecraft than inflated bag. It had active radiation shielding powered by an outer skin that efficiently converted any available light into electricity. Should the unfortunate occupant run out the ten-hour oxygen supply and die, the suit's computer and communications systems would run indefinitely. So the suit's owners, which in most cases were JupCorp or the Gate Authority, could still recover their valuable hardware investment even years later.

Kofi opened the first container and revealed a Class II orbital mini-tug instead of the automated gate enlargement equipment listed in his official flight manifest. Private concerns that attained mining rights in gated star systems via lottery—like Kofi's parents—had two years to enlarge the gate and bring in Gate Authority heavy lasers to launch more gate probes or lose their rights.

"I don't understand," I said. "Why would you risk your mining rights?"

"Read this," Kofi said and forwarded me a communique from the Gate Authority. It was a cease and desist order along with notification that a "Life Investigation" was about to be reopened in the 55 Cancri system. All commercial endeavors were to end immediately. All actions related to the Moonlet objects were strictly off limits. Only gate enlargement operations would be approved.

It explained a lot, but not everything.

"So why the tug?"

He opened the other cargo containers, revealing two more tugs.

"I have a contract to supply eight more of these small Moonlets to a buyer in the Saturn system. He wants them to orbit his special habitat."

"Eight more? You've already delivered some?"

"Just one and it was a bitch to find one small enough to maneuver through the gate. You and your little flotilla of probes are going to help me find more and load them into these containers."

He had planned it very carefully. The containers were probably shielded, so the Moonlets' radio emissions would be hidden as effectively as their physical bodies. It still made little sense.

"If you do this, not only will you forfeit all rights to the system, you'll go to jail."

"Only if they catch me. I'll return through a private gate."

"But why?"

He laughed and pulled one of the tugs loose. "Twenty million each. I can disappear quite easily with that kind of cash."

Money. Worth risking arrest and killing his own sister. I would never understand some human motivators, so instead turned my attention to the deployed probes as data started to trickle in. Half of the little spacecraft would set up station outside the ring system recording everything between 400 Hz and 5 kHz in hopes of capturing the entire nine-hour Moonlet symphony. The other half flew in closer, toward the ring positions where the Moonlets lived, to get video coverage across the entire visual spectrum and record their individual singing. I sequestered a chunk of memory from Kofi's EVA suite for storage so I'd have direct access.

Then I listened.

My kind had nothing resembling human emotions, nor did we desire them—despite popular media's insistence that we did—but many of us did appreciate beauty. Especially the complex beauty inherent in nature, mathematics and the rhythmic order created by human composers. These Moonlets produced something that incorporated all those elements and more.

When I first heard the entire recorded symphony produced by the Moonlets, I found tiny variations in each repetition. Other researchers said it supported the accidental and unconscious nature of the phenomenon, but I recognized minuscule and deliberate adjustments that were striving toward perfection. I soon reached the limits of what I could learn from the recordings. I knew I would need a second expedition, or better yet, to go there myself.

I shifted my attention back to Kofi and watched in silence as he deployed the last tug. They had been modified with an inflated three-meter bumper donut on its forward end instead of the common cleat locks.

"Locate eight small Moonlets, all between five and six meters in diameter, then bring them back here using the tugs."

I could argue or even refuse. They were my probes. He'd made that perfectly clear when he charged me berthing space, but I decided to play along. It gave me control over how quickly he found and returned the Moonlets.

"I can do that," I said.

"And don't try to drag this out so you can study them."

Kofi basing his capture strategy on my abilities had been a mistake. He had no leverage. It would take him days or even weeks to locate and corral the right sized Moonlets without me, so despite his protestations, I would delay our departure until I'd finished my observations.


Kofi returned to Indian Summer for a nap while I searched for capture candidates. I took advantage of his deep sleep to finish building my mirror site and move my main processes to it. Also, using one of the tug's manipulator arms, I removed the backup communications module from a second tug and attached it to the outer hull of Indian Summer. It was a slow and difficult task given the manipulator arm's limited mobility, but once I finished, I had the ability to send all of my collected data to the unit as a backup. If Kofi managed to kill me and still return to Earth's system, it would repeatedly broadcast the entirety of my findings and experience.

When Kofi woke three hours later he was quite angry. Of the nearly twelve thousand Moonlets, I'd only been able to locate five small enough to fit inside his cargo containers, or even pass through the gate at all.

"I don't know what kind of shit you're trying to pull," he yelled. His anger indicators spiked and he slammed things around in the control cabin as he struggled back into his EVA suit. "But I've had enough of your delaying tactics!"

"I assure you I'm not trying to delay," I said. Then, knowing it would take over thirty hours for him to do a manual survey using Indian Summer's radar, I couldn't resist an extra jab. "But don't take my word for it, go ahead and do your own survey."

He muttered expletives under his breath. I played Russian Roulette by comparing his current agitation level to that he attained just before killing Toomie, but I knew he would need far less of a push to kill me. My mirroring efforts were complete so if he did trigger the purge command I wouldn't really die, but my access to probe and ship sensoria might end. My exploration of the Moonlets could be over.

"Have you collected the five you did find?" he said.

"No, but the first tug is..."

"God damn it," his anger markers spiked and he clenched his teeth for a second and recovered. "Just bring those five and let's get the hell out of here!"

"As I was saying, the first tug has nearly finished matching orbits with one and should start pushing it this way in about twenty minutes."

Kofi said nothing else as he exited the ship and readied the inflatable cradles inside the containers. I knew he probably wouldn't pull my plug until I'd finished fetching the Moonlets, so I focused on the data feeds coming from my probes. I'd moved one in close to the first Moonlet I intended to capture and immediately noticed many strange things.

The small Moonlet was only about fifteen meters from one of the large ones, leading its orbit, and I was reminded of the gravity shepherding devices used to change asteroid trajectories. The large Moonlet's surface differed from those others I'd examined up close, so I increased the camera zoom, bringing details into focus. The normally tight crystalline latticing was pitted and furrowed, with large sections totally gone, revealing what appeared to be a hollow interior. When I widened my view to encompass both Moonlets and then expanded camera sensitivity to include the full electromagnetic spectrum, I understood.

The damaged Moonlet had a very weak magnetic field, so in addition to providing a tiny gravity assist, the smaller leading Moonlet had a powerful magnetosphere and was using its bow shock to protect the larger Moonlet from ring system rubbish. An extensive particle trail swirled in the pair's wake. At least part of that had to be the large Moonlet's missing material.

Several of my processes had been listening to the grand Moonlet symphony being collected and beamed to Indian Summer by my probes high above Tinsel's ecliptic plane, but I was still unprepared when the radio emissions flared from my observed pair as they added their part.

Their portion only lasted 2.9 seconds, but had been complex and elegant. With the combined data from the listening probes and my local probe recording minute radiation fluctuations, I was able to map and dissect each partner's participation. The large Moonlet started the first four notes, with the smaller partner perfectly echoing and amplifying the signal a millisecond later, but by the last four notes, the large one had dropped completely out.

Could the large Moonlet be teaching the small one? Was I seeing the whole picture or being influenced by preconception? I had no choice but to compare the behavior to that of the living things known to man, from Earth, Europa and Enceladus. Based on that, I had to assume I was seeing the transfer of knowledge in a higher order intelligence. Perhaps not sentient, but aware, at least on an animal level.

"They're just babies," she had said.

Toomie had indeed known.

The tug arrived, and I took extra time maneuvering it into place. I had to stall. I was beginning to form a more complete picture, but I needed more information, so I sent my probes out to view the other four small Moonlets.

"What are you doing?" Kofi yelled.

"The small Moonlet is very close to a large one. We're going to have to be careful moving it away."

He could easily verify the truth in my statement with the sensors from Indian Summer.

"They're tougher than you think. A little bumping around isn't going to hurt the damned thing, so just get on with it!"

How had Kofi's stealing a small Moonlet interrupted this apparent teacher and student cycle? The Moonlet singing never really ends; they just repeat the same symphony over and over, like a continuous tape loop, which led many researchers to the conclusion that it was a natural, undirected event. The Gate Authority survey expedition collected 150 hours of uninterrupted Moonlet singing, which captured sixteen entire symphony sequences. Other than the tiny timing and note duration differences I had noticed, the 543 minute symphonies were identical.

I needed to know for sure before I could participate in Kofi's plan. If his removing small Moonlets disrupted these creatures' learning cycle, then I had to stop it. I needed to stall until I knew for sure, and I was still four minutes away from having my own complete symphony sequence.

"Kofi? Why only the small ones? The full grown Moonlets sing more. It seems they would have greater worth and justify enlarging the gate."

"If I enlarge the gate, GA pukes will pour through and be everywhere. Besides, we know the little ones can be taught new material. Who knows about the big ones?"

And there it was. Independent confirmation of the behavior I'd observed. I had to stop him.

"I've found something interesting," I said. "I suspect that these Moonlets have a rather complex life cycle. All of those small enough to fit in the containers are engaged in some kind of mentoring relationship with large, older Moonlets. I believe the small ones are babies and are learning their part of the symphony from their elders. Which of course fits with what you said about the small ones being able to learn new material."

At first Kofi didn't answer and I was almost ready to send the message again, but then noticed his agitation markers elevating.

When he finally replied, it was in a measured, dangerous tone. Not the impatient yelling I'd expected. "So, you think that everyone who studied these things before are wrong and only you see their true natures?"

"Their conclusions are based on the limited observations and recordings made by the Gate Authority's preliminary survey. Just since we've been here, I've noticed behaviors never noted in any of the existing analysis. I don't think we understand what we're doing to these beings and should proceed with caution."

I needed two more minutes and he was growing angrier by the second.

"Beings? Animals feel pain. These things don't react to any kind of stimulus, so I'm not too worried about upsetting their delicate sensibilities. Besides, I've already been paid. Now get that singing rock up here for loading."

Just then, the data model completed and I could see the Moonlets' complex interactions displayed in intricate and elegant clarity. As I'd suspected, only one section was missing from the whole and it had to be caused by Kofi's earlier theft. The model also showed that the symphony was laid out by physical proximity. The music passed around Tinsel in an orderly progression, like the continuous paper spool on an old player piano.

It all made sense, but I had to be sure. As my probes moved into position, I saw that small Moonlet number four was next to the delicate, lace-like husk of a dead partner floating in a cloud of its own detritus. The large one radiated no energy or heat and its location matched the hole in the symphony. I realized I might not be seeing the entire picture, that this alien ecology could be beyond my understanding given the limited research, but I had to act on the facts I knew.

I stalled longer. "I don't see why we can't delay a little longer. Just to make sure. I think we're disrupting their singing pattern."

"Even if they are singing, it doesn't fucking matter because it doesn't mean anything. There's no reason for it!"

"It has just as much meaning as human activity. I mean why has humanity fought for survival and gone to great lengths to expand? What's the reason for that?"

Kofi's pulse jumped. I thought for an instant that I'd pushed him too far, then I lost the link to my storage device attached to the ship's hull and knew it was much worse.

"Oh, you devious bastard," Kofi said.

Kofi's anger markers spiked well beyond the danger level, near where they had been when he'd strangled Toomie.

"I was just trying to preserve this research, Kofi. It's more important than your money making scheme. And if you purge me, the garrote I've looped around your spinal cord will automatically trigger and paralyze you."

This made him pause for several long seconds. I thought we had possibly reached a stalemate, but his anger flared into blind rage and he said, "Colossus, Colossus."

As the trigger word initiated the purge program, the original part of my mirror setup disappeared, along with most of my interface into Kofi's brain and all the links to the ship. I was once again blind and cut off, but I was still alive and had one remaining lever. I cut his spinal cord.

Kofi screamed and his respiration sky-rocketed, prompting warnings and automatic gas adjustment by his suit. Then he uttered a long series of expletives.

"We're both crippled in different ways now," I said. "But if you're reasonable and follow my instructions, I can get you to the ship and back home."

"Colossus, Colossus," he said again.

"Not going to work," I said.

"Fuck you!"

"That would be tantamount to fucking yourself, Kofi, and you've already done that. Give me control of your suit and let me help you."

"I'll die here first," he said with a voice pitched girlishly high by either his panic or limited lung function.

I considered this for an instant, then using material from my now dead original substrate and small amounts of Kofi's bone and tissue, I started building new wires. I would never gain access to Indian Summer without Kofi's help, but he couldn't stop me from taking over his suit. He didn't even feel the new wires sprouting from the back of his neck, making hard connections to the suit's processor nodes.


I gave Kofi one last nudge from the suit's attitude jets, moving him between the small Moonlet and larger dead one. He'd finally given up on his efforts to verbally control his suit—I had long ago taken that ability away—and instead muttered tirades about Toomie not really being dead and my being a secret agent sent by the Gate Authority to steal his prospecting rights. I ignored him and made my final preparations.

Once in position, I set up automatic station keeping, to insure the suit would keep its place in the flock, then I started the symphony tracking program. I listened as the elegant and complex song rolled through Tinsel's ring system. When it reached us, Kofi's suit used the powerful emergency beacon transmitter to supply the missing notes, several of which were immediately echoed by the small accompanying Moonlet. I made a slight gain adjustment and waited for the next pass.

From my new home near the suit's processor unit, I would continue to monitor the symphony and supply the missing elements until the baby Moonlet had learned its part. Then I could study them until the humans returned and passed judgment on my crimes.

Kofi started babbling in those last minutes as his oxygen ran thin, then seemed to have a moment of lucidity at the end.

"Why?" he asked.

Instead of a reply, I replayed Toomie's last words for him.

With the gasping sounds gone, only the music remained—mysterious, beautiful, sublime—twisting through Tinsel's rings on its ancient course.

Copyright © 2016 William Ledbetter

William Ledbetter is a writer with more than forty speculative fiction stories and nonfiction articles published in markets such as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jim Baen's Universe, Writers of the Future, Escape Pod, the SFWA blog, and Ad Astra. He's been a space and technology geek since childhood and spent most of his nonwriting career in the aerospace and defense industry. He administers the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest for Baen Books and the National Space Society, is a member of SFWA, the National Space Society of North Texas, a Launch Pad Astronomy workshop graduate, is the Science Track coordinator for the Fencon convention and is a consulting editor at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. He lives near Dallas with his family and too many animals.