A short cosmic horror story.
They had found the Factory in the darkened valley of an airless moon.
It was artificial, that much was certain, unless some unknown natural phenomenon could shape geometrically perfect tunnels and fashion metallic instruments with apparent clarity of purpose. Yet there was nary a mark of the makers, save one wall, containing a bizarre mural, or perhaps it was a message, written in alien characters presumed to have no human meaning—the Diagram.
The discovery of such distinctly alien artifacts was a cause of no small amount of celebration in some circles, especially among those who had tried, with only moderate success, to convince their peers of the validity of the many smaller artifacts that had been brought home over the years. Their celebration was only mildly dampened when tests showed the Factory had laid undisturbed for many millions of years—that they were, in fact, older still than the human race itself, older even than the primitive mammals that scurried about in the shadow of the tyrant lizards, perhaps older even than the most distant of multicellular progenitors.
Researchers swarmed the complex, buzzing like highly-educated insects. The geologists studied the composition of the rocks and minerals, searching for any clue of how these fantastic halls were formed. The biologists scrubbed every surface, hoping to find the detritus of biotic material. The chemists and physicists and engineers studied the machinery, perchance to ascertain their hidden purpose. The astronomers surveyed the nearby planets and moons, hunting like wolves for any sign of the society that designed these chambers and tools.
And the linguist studied the Diagram.
The linguist had only a thin spacesuit between her and the void, with a flashlight to illuminate the work of an extraterrestrial. That was unintentional, of course—but with only one linguist—indeed only one person—in this section of the Factory, it hadn't been worth lighting up yet. The rest of the catacombs were extensive, and those backing these expeditions had decided they were more valuable.
No amount of study could have prepared her for this experience—no matter how many endangered language speakers she interviewed, no matter how many sound change rules she had derived—since, after all, those were all human communication systems, and so not all that different after all.
Perhaps, the linguist thought, this could be her big break. And so the linguist began to study the Diagram.
It quickly became apparent that there were no other permanent structures on the moon. The geographers had come to believe there had been other, temporary structures, but the Factory was the only one intended to last.
But, demanded the backers, ever eager for results, what was the point of putting a factory on an uninhabited moon? The geographers had to admit they had no answer for that.
Neither did the linguist have answers. She quickly ascertained that most of the Diagram was pictures, with some characters in an alien alphabet perhaps providing a caption. But she could make out little of the meaning, so she continued to study the Diagram.
The leading theory, now, was that the machines were incubators of some kind. What, precisely, the machines were incubating was still a point for debate. Many had decided that the Factory was no kind of factory at all, but rather a nursery for the young of whatever alien species had constructed it. Some fanciful storytellers had even begun to construct a model of the alien society, using rather more of their own imagination than the available evidence.
The linguist agreed with that theory. The Diagram clearly showed creatures growing in the equivalent of test tubes. But what, precisely, those creatures was a mystery—and mystery didn't get grant funding, only results. She needed to continue studying the Diagram.
The engineers, through great toil, had managed to find what had become known, for lack of a better term, the ''on'' switch. Of course, it wasn't a literal switch, but it was easier to explain to the backers that way.
There was copious debate over whether to restart the Factory, a debate that launched the careers of some of the most well-known philosophers and pundits of the time. Both sides had their merits; ''curiosity killed the cat,'' one would say; ''curiosity also killed smallpox,'' their interlocutor would retort. Ultimately, the natural curiosity of humankind won out—the Factory would breathe once again.
The linguist didn't pay much attention to the arguments either way. She didn't care. All she cared about was the Diagram, the meaning of which still just eluded her grasp. She needed to understand. And so the linguist continued to study the Diagram.
Most of the researchers had gathered to celebrate the Startup, as it was called. They were toasting each other and the visiting dignitaries, both present and telepresent, making many great speeches about the greatness of human ingenuity and the dignity of hard work.
The linguist, however, did not join the festivities. In fact, the linguist had barely eaten in a week, or even slept for that matter. She had no need for such petty material concerns—if she could just understand. She promised herself that she would decipher the Diagram if it was the last thing she did.
There was some cheering and clapping—had she been paying attention, she would have noticed the festivities reaching their climax.
She felt that she was on the verge of a breakthrough. Any moment now, she would determine the meaning of those enigmatic images that floated before her, like the ghosts of a long bygone age.
Distantly she heard the clanking of machinery, as the ageless structure began its first stirrings.
And then, all at once, she saw it. She saw the machines at work, producing unknowable biological agents. She saw the alien creatures, writhing and choking on the floor. She saw the list of stars—no, targets. She saw, with horrific certainty, what the alien characters contained.
But by then it was too late. The Factory had returned to life.