Join CCN

The Vriij

Unknown Orbital, above the galactic plane.

Night had fallen on Maat's side of the orbital. She could see the rest of the ringworld illuminated by a distant, yellow sun, making the thin outer structure of the orbital gleam as the habitable regions on the opposing sides were surrounded in daylight. The orbital was angled just so that its slow rotation on its axis would enable a night and day cycle which lasted approximatively twenty hours, with slight variations over the days. Maat could not say if it was intentional, or a side-effect of the ringworld's orbital trajectory. She still had trouble comprehending the size of this structure. The continents and seas she could see on the opposite side of the Orbital were several tens of thousands of kilometers away from her, and the entire ringworld was probably several times the surface of the Earth. Though there was no sign of civilisation around her - she had hoped to catch a glimpse of night lights on the rest of the orbital to no avail - she could easily see billions upon billions of people living on this structure. To a certain extent though, she felt like she wasn't as fascinated as she could have been in other circumstances. Even if the environment of the ringworld was rather tolerable, even nice, she was still stranded on an unknown world and her first focus was survival. For the past two days most of her diet had come from her survival rations, but she had also tried local food sources. After much pondering and several analyses with the biological kits she was equipped with, Maat had found several edible berry-like fruits in the bushes of this coastal region. They were bitter, but hadn't killed her yet. Strangely enough animal life seemed to be extremely limited in this environment. In fact the local wildlife was apparently made of a grand total of three species : strange four-winged birds with asymmetrical eyes, a brand of sweet water jellyfish and ant-like insects that smelled like gooseberries when Maat stepped upon them by mistake. How such a lush and complex vegetal life could sustain itself with such a small subset of animal species was quite a mystery to her but she assumed that fungi or bacteria played a more important role. Indeed she had spent the past two days with a sore throat and blood-soaked eyes, and her suit often told her that her white blood cell count was slightly above normal parameters. A simple inflammatory reaction to local germs, she assumed : at least it wasn't getting worse.

During her third night on the ringworld Maat trued to assess in which part of the galaxy the orbital could be located. At first she had assumed she wasn't very far from her original forced hyperspace exit point, but a simple glance at the night sky had shown her that it wasn't the case. There weren't enough stars in the skies for that. In fact there weren't any stars in the skies, which were utterly empty, with the exception of the Milky Way, a majestic painting visible through the other side of the ringworld. She was far away from the galaxy, but how far was the interesting question. There was a portable optical telescope (originally intended for manual star charting) in her survival kit but at this distance it was useless: she had no hope of actually managing to pinpoint a specific star in the Milky Way that she could use as a first point for accurate triangulation of her cosmic location. There were a few options left for less accurate endeavours, however. The first point of reference she could get was the center of the Milky Way - not Sag A*, just the broad vicinity of the center. A second option would have been one the Magellanic Clouds had she had a strong enough telescope to isolate a bright star in it but it wasn't the case. Instead Maat resorted to using a globular cluster that was clearly visible in the dark sky, like a slightly blurry star. The third point of reference was provided to her by the Andromeda galaxy.

A few napkin calculations later Maat could get a broad estimate of her position relative to the galactic center.

She was located approximatively ten thousand lightyears above the galactic plane, slightly outside of the dark matter halo surrounding the Milky Way, on the verge of true intergalactic space.

Further away than even the most isolated deep space probe.

And then something came with twilight.

A ship.

It stood slightly above the water, having appeared without noise. It looked like a sewing needle, several hundred meters tall yet thin and weirdly fragile-looking. "Well...there goes Newton's first law" thought Maat as she saw the machine gently stop above the water, sustaining itself in the air without any visible engines. There was no signs of disturbance on the water either : it just seemed to gently hang in the air with an eerie elegance, as if it had no weight. Its hull looked ancient, battered by thousands of small meteorite impacts - the signs of a ship that had travelled far. In fact if it had not been for the mist surrounding the tip of the needle, right above the water, Maat would have been unable to determine the ship's distance relative to her. It could have been microscopic, and located only a meter away. Or it could have been humongous, and several millions of kilometers away. The familiar shape made it even harder to determine.

The ship emitted a deep humming sound, a low-pitched wave sent through the air and the very ground. Maat shivered. A warm feeling went up her spine, as if she had suddenly been plunged into the ocean of a sea planet. Then a strange feeling of emptyness carried her as the humming sound ceased. A pitch-black secretion left the ship, drawing a symbol in the air, a symbol that was incredibly complex and alien, yet had a disturbing familiarity to it.
"Non-agressive" it said. Maat was certain of this. She couldn't say why, but she was, as if this symbol was entering her mind and infusing meaning directly in her brain. Universal meaning. Lines and curves in the air, boiled down to simple, understandable concepts.

It was a question. A simple one. Not aggressive, not inquisitive, just curious. Maat pointed a finger towards her chest and, spontaneously, a series of symbols appeared in the air right next to her.

It felt fascinating. She wasn't quite translating the symbols - she was understanding them, the way one would instinctively comprehend the signals transmitted by their nerves to their brain, without even thinking about it. But it wasn't a one-sided process. It was a collaborative one. The needle gave a background, a framework for meaning, and Maat was free to reassemble it the way she saw fit to convey what she wanted to say.
And so, with another thought, the various symbols she had created rearranged themselves to form a new word that the needle did not know beforehand.

Maat pointed her finger at the needle above the sea. Interrogative symbols emerged in the air around her, carved in floating ink.

The needle pondered its answer for a few minutes. Then a second string of symbols were drawn above the sea, and their curves became almost immediately understandable for Maat. Simple concepts, much like the ones that had spontaneously appeared when she had tried to describe her species.

Then the symbols reassembled themselves again, this time forming a word that the needle knew but the human didn't : the name of their species.

Maat looked around her, pointing her hands at the environment surrounding her. New symbols appeared around her.

A strings of inky black curves came back.

No, thought Maat, it wasn't this, not exactly. She tried to associate slightly different meanings to the symbols.

Which could be summarized into another word.

The needle asked another question.

It took a long time for Maat to assemble a series of symbols that would make sense to her and, she assumed, to the needle. What she wanted to express was perhaps too complex and abstract for their enigmatic means of communication, yet she tried nonetheless.

Thanksfully the needle knew those concepts, and had a word that would encompass them - a word that Maat's mind translated immediately into a known human term.

She returned the question.
The answer appeared under the shape of a long string of circles and polygons, that her mind filtered with difficulty.

Then another symbol which she assumed to be their means of propulsion, upon which her mind infused meaning, though she wasn't sure of it.

Another question from Maat followed.

The symbol that she got as an answer was as simple as they could get.
Maat answered. She was getting better at their strange game of back and forth, though it was exhausting, the mental equivalent of walking in heavy snow : she had to formulate every thought with utmost accuracy to allow for the symbols to materialize it.
The symbols that formed in return surprised her.

Then a correction.

And a string of rapid-fire symbols that she managed to grab the essential meaning of.

The last string of symbols took Maat a bit more time to really get.

Maat focused to ask an additional question.

The needle didn't seem to understand the question, so Maat reformulated her query.

This time she was understood.

This answer invited another question, of course, and despite her exhaustion Maat asked it anyway.

The answer appeared blurry yet legible. Maat felt like she was slowly losing her grasp on their dialogue.

Maat found the strength to express one last query.

She fell asleep before the answer could come, carried away by a deep, reassuring hum emanating from the needle.

Ringworld illustration by Hill, Wikimedia Commons. 

The Great Attractor

High orbit of a rogue gas giant, unknown system.

Hypatia was drifting on an elongated orbit in the middle of the system : from time to time its engines would fire for a very short burst, just enough to keep it spinning. There was nothing all around but darkness. The system Hypatia had ended up in did not even have a star. It just had two bodies. A small icy planet the size of the Moon, plunged in perpetual darkness, and a massive gas giant, several times the size of Jupiter, drifting hopelessly in the void. A rogue planet, expelled from its solar system, or perhaps one that had never known the warmth of a star. Alone but not dead. From the observation bay of Hypatia, one could see the swirling clouds of the gas giant, whose great storms were gleaming in a peaceful blue color, lit from the inside by electrical discharges triggered by the endless movements of particles within the clouds. These lights cast elongated shadows on Talasea's living tatoos and they kept reconfigurating themselves on her skin, absorbing the weak residual energy coming from the gas giant. She was alone on the bridge, with the exception of Hypatia's COVAS - but the virtual intelligence was everywhere on the ship.
"This is the first time I lose a ship." Talasea whispered. She was not expecting an answer, yet Camilla gave her one.
"This ship isn't lost yet."
"Well...the hyperdiction trashed our frameshift drive, the repairs have one chance out of two of just pulverizing the ship next time it enters hyperspace, and I cannot broadcast a standard distress signal until I know exactly who or what dropped us out of hyperspace, or this ship will just become another trap."
"Well." Camilla's tone signalled that it was concerned, yet not afraid - but of course a COVAS couldn't be afraid. "At least we can rule out thargoids on this one, unless they developed some kind of stealth ship. Our sensors are completely empty. This system is silent. And no recorded thargoid hyperdiction has ever destroyed an FSD that way."
"And we are 35,000 ligthyears away from the Pleiades."
"Well that too."

Kestrel covered his eyes when he drifted through the heavily armored access hatch. A pure reflex - there was nothing to fear in there and he did not even wear a protection suit. His gaze went towards the vast cylinder in which the faster-than-light engine had been installed. His first thought was that it looked like the gills of a fish, woven into the matrix of the ship, pumping air at one end to create light at the other, a beating heart - one beat a minute, the pace of Hypatia's auxiliary power distributor. Most of the floating debris had been removed but Hypatia's engineers had not been able to do much for the massive crack that went through the frameshift drive, cutting it exactly in the middle.
"First time in a Frameshit Drive chamber, officer?" said Vikla as they floated towards Kestrel from the roof of the cylinder - relative to the entrance at least.
"Second time, but I've never been in a big one. I don't feel so good. My heart rate is all over the place."
"Aye. There's always residual frameshift disturbance around a drive that's only been shut down for a few hours, tends to mess with the nerve systems, giving fake impulses, that kind of thing...nothing major, but that's why we prefer waiting for a complete cooldown cycle before performing manual repairs."
"Never happened to me with smaller ships."
"This one's particularly big, that's why. Capital ship FSD can actually kill you a good day after they've been shut off. Complete nerve paralysis in some cases, and you choke to death, or just have an infarctus. Nice, right?"
"Nice, indeed." Kestrel shivered slightly. "Ok, so what happened to our FSD?"
"Complete failure. Shattered clean. I've never seen that before, and I don't have any idea how it happened. I mean, well, I know when it happened, right when something tried to interdict us, but usually hyperdictions do not result in FSD damage. Well, the only baseline we have are thargoid interdictions, but the gist is that this kind of deep structural damage is completely unheard of engineers, at least among the Unseen Republic. I think that what happened is that the FSD was subjected to some kind of witchspace-bound force that caused critical structural damage that the AFM is powerless at repairing...I'm saying witchspace-bound because if it had been a force present in normal space the entire ship would have been shattered. It looks like whatever caused this was restricted to the part of the ship that was still in contact with witchspace upon exiting, which is the FSD."
"Yes, I know that, the FSD is always the last thing to escape hyperspace, it's a matter of microseconds though. Right, now I assume you brought me here to see if I had any memory of such damage on a ship?"
"Yes. We're off the books here, the only thing we can rely on is field experience. You have a history of investigating weird cases, so I thought, why not..."
"Hmmm. I'm sorry, but I have no memory of seeing such damage on a ship. The closest case I can think of is module damage caused by a penetrating railgun shell, it's a classic pirate tactic to prevent a ship from escaping, but the FSD chamber is completely intact, so it's clearly not that. I...I feel completely useless here. Never seen that in my entire life. I'm...I'm thinking of all the cases I can remember here but really, I..."
"Hey. Kestrel." Vilka put her hand on his shoulder. "It's alright. You'll be fine. I just thought maybe you'd have seen something once that we could relate to our FSD, that's it. If you never saw that, well, you never saw that. Don't feel guilty or anything."
"Appreciate it but..." Kestrel's eyes locked on the thin crack going alongside the frameshift drive. It bled yellow light around the cylinder, casting eerie shadows all around him. And then suddenly Kestrel's photographic memory captured a detail in the way the crack had weakened the drive's lower half. "Hold up. Hold up, hold up, hold up. I might have something. Five years ago, we recovered the failed drive of a ship named the Aldebaran, which turned out to be the twin of passenger liner Antares."
"The liner that suffered from an unknown drive failure in 3251?"
"Yes, this one. The twin ship was busy dying of rust in a hangar, but it had an interesting quirk. To make a long story short : the 3302 investigation on the Antares' wreck showed that the ship had probably blown up due to an already faulty drive - the same drive that had been installed on the Aldebaran. When we recovered the Aldebaran's drive to run our own tests and hopefully cast some additional light on the Antares' fate, we realized that transporting it had caused some serious damage. Cracks, alongside the drive's axis, very similar to what you have here but on a smaller scale. It took us months to determine what had caused it."
"And what was it?"
"Wel in the end we narrowed it down to interference caused by a nearby drive - the drive of the transport ship. I don't exactly remember the details but it turned out that the architecture of the Aldebaran's drive meant that the presence of another, powerful drive next to it was enough to cause witchspace interference that could crack the FSD. Later we realized that we could actually replicate this effect with a more powerful drive and it didn't require the two drives to be on the same ship, just to be present in the same witchspace instance so to speak."
"Right. But Hypatia's drive is not from 3251, and is not an experimental Sirius Corporation product, isn't it?"
"Indeed. We were intrigued by this and carried out further tests. It turned out that this effect can actually be replicated with any kind of FSD drive, but required a truly staggering power difference between both drives. Even a Sidewinder's drive wouldn't be affected by a capital ship's just that the drives used by the Antares or the Aldebaran had a specific manufacturing defect that made them more prone to failure. In the end the whole thing was just classified, we didn't do anything with it. Just issued a security warning to the pilots' federation, they told us they already knew and it stopped there. Too much trouble to turn it into a weapon."
"Our drive doesn't have that manufacturing defect..."
"Probably not, otherwise thousands of Belugas would already have suffered from this failure."
"So the only option left is that we found ourselves in the vicinity of a truly monstruously powerful frameshift device."
"Yes. One that is likely to be in that very system. One that we must find."

"That planet gives me the chills." Isaac's voice on the EVA channels was slightly distorted by its suit, as well as the heavy interference from the gas giant's magnetic field.
"You're not the only one in that case, sunshine." Elisabeth stood right next to him, drifting slightly alongside Hypatia's main axis. The two of them, assisted with drones, were busy surveying the ship's outer hull for defects that might have escaped the on-board self-diagnosis systems after their brutal FSD disengage. They hadn't found anything. The Saud-Kruger ship had perfectly withstood the physical stress. Isaac expected nothing less from the hull, which had been armored and retrofitted by none other than Selene Jean herself, but it was a relief. Now that the hull had been surveyed, they had to check the sensors installed on top of the Beluga - an addition from Unseen Republic shipyards, to increase the ship's pityful baseline detection range, especially in the upper part of the spectrum. As he drifted towards the upper starboard sensor, Isaac couldn't but glance at the gas giant beneath. The dark blue, swirling clouds, looked like liquid metal to him : something natural, something that could exist, yet something too alien for him. As an exobiologist he wasn't very interested in the planetary conditions that had let this poor gas giant to find itself lost in the void between stars, however he couldn't help but ponder about the possibility of life in those clouds. The planet was still very active, probably on the verge of being able to support fusion in its inner layers. The powerful electrical discharges tearing the upper atmosphere apart would provide ample amounts of energy as well as igniting the chemical reactions required for amino-acids to appear. Carbon was probably to be found here and there, though most of the atmosphere was seemingly made of helium. And there was the possibility for liquid water to remain in the clouds at a certain altitude. It was very likely to be wishful thinking but Isaac still had hopes for life to be present down there.
Another discharge - another spark of blue light tearing the clouds apart.
Elisabeth's voice slowly dispelled his dreamy thoughts.
"How's the sensor on your side?"
"It's fine...light damage on some of the surfaces but it's alright. Remarkable engineering on these things. I think they've got some kind of shock-dampening hydraulic system that I hadn't noticed before."
"Yeah, I've just seen those on my side. Probably an addition from the last refit. The people at Lectra station love to do that kind of thing and never tell us what they added. Annoying."
"Aye. Right, bridge, this is the EVA team, your sensors are in perfect shape, I have no idea why you still can't get a proper imaging of the lower cloud layers. Erm, perhaps interference or something like that? The whole planet seems to be emitting slightly above normal standards."
"Bridge to EVA team, we are going to perform an active sweep of the lower atmosphere, get ready for a few disturbances."
"Copy that, what wavelengths?"
"I'm going for a long-range LIDAR sweep first, trying to see if we have any wreck or object on a decaying orbit or suspended within the clouds. Then if inconclusive, active X-ray pings to penetrate the lowest layers."
"Got it. Give us a minute." Isaac opened the voice channel dedicated to the configuration of his suit. "Alright, suit. Engage ocular protections for standard LIDAR emissions." His visor became slightly darker as Hypatia deployed its spherical LIDAR antenna. "Clear, Elisabeth?"
"Clear on my end. You're good to go, bridge."
"Give me one ping, Adewale."
The LIDAR mast flashed, sending myriads of laser sweeps towards the clouds, measuring the way they were reflected back towards the ship to determine the layout of the upper atmosphere.
And then suddenly, something went wrong.

Isaac felt a tingle go down his spine, followed by a deep hum that seemed to emanate from the planet itself, as if it was responding to the ship's inquiry.

Tali stared at her screens.
"Right." she said in a completely neutral tone which was her way to signal complete disbelief. "I'm not mad, correct? Something answered our ping down there?"
"It seems like it." Adewale was already busy repositioning Hypatia using the RCS thrusters to get a better sense of what had just happened. There had been a powerful electromagnetic emission a few milliseconds after Hypatia's first LIDAR ping, followed by three separate pingbacks in the same wavelengths used by the LIDAR mast, and finally a continuous radio emission - the deep hum that the EVA team could still hear on their channels.
"It seems whatever answered our ping is nested within the upper cloud layer, within a rather tempestuous zone. The results of our LIDAR ping aren't very conclusive but I would say that is it rather big, and has a capacity for self-sustenance within the clouds, as it does not appear to be falling." Camilla seemed amused by the occurence.
"Camilla, give me a second ping."
"Right away."
Hypatia emitted another two-seconds long sweep with her LIDAR mast. The same response followed, in the exact same order, and this time Hypatia was able to parse the signals to reveal the shape and size of the structure that was emitting them. It was a ten kilometers long, needle-shaped superstructure, standing exactly in the middle of a vast cloud formation, right in the eye of the storm. Adewale directed one of Hypatia's telescopes towards the object to try and get a better image. The needle was barely distinguishable in visible light, but thermal infrared imaging showed that it was noticeably warmer than the background, which meant it was still under power, one way or another. The shape was completely alien to Talasea. The structure seemed to be made of two distinct parts. A long needle, about nine kilometers in length and a spherical part, much larger, occupying the last kilometer of the ship. The entire thing really looked like a sewing needle, thought Talasea, and was obviously not human-made.

"The great attractor..." thought Talasea, noticing the way a cloud of debris seemed to be ever so slowly orbiting around the structure, undisturbed by the winds.


Illustration from french comic book writer and concept artist Roger Leloup, somewhere in the 70s.

An unknown world, about three thousand lightyears above the galactic plane.

At least the atmosphere was breathable. It was not pleasant - about 17% oxygen and 83% nitrogen, which meant every effort costed more due to the lower oxygen level - but it was mostly alright. Maat had put her breathing mask in filtering mode only, just to be extra sure, even if her environmental suit had not spotted any dangerous chemicals or organic particles in the atmosphere around her. The past six hours had been a rollercoaster ride of emotions, mostly centered around a slow, lumbering fear of dying in her escape pod, jammed in some kind of deep underground structure after the initial impact on the surface of whatever planet her Diamondback had crashed on. She had not been able to control anything in the fully automated escape, as the brutal FSD disengage her ship had suffered from had left her unconscious while the Diamondback was hurling towards the closest planet at high speed, finally ejecting the escape pod as it burned through the atmosphere. The impact of the escape pod itself had not been particularly nice, leaving Maat with bruises in almost every part of her body. Her right leg hurt so much that had first she thought it had been fully fractured, judging from the pure, unalduterated pain she could feel erupting through the lower part of the leg. It had taken her two hours to slowly emerge out of her coma, activate the pod's manual systems (the automated ones had been shut down during the impact), get out of her reinforced hard vacuum suit and inject a compound of medical nanomachines and organic products in her leg to repair the broken bone. The subsequent pain had been equally unbearable - usually one would anesthesiate themselves first before injecting repairing medicine, but she was afraid she would never wake up again. Another three agonizing hours had been necessary for the compound to fuse her bones together again and put her leg back in working order, then one more hour to feed and re-hydrate herself, and finally step outside of the pod in a light environmental suit. Once outside the pod and after having checked the atmosphere and temperature parameters - it was rather warm down there - Maat reached for the supply compartment of the escape pod. The first thing she grabbed was her stylet and its batteries. Stylets were standard-issued equipment aboard escape pods and exploration ships of the Unseen Republic. They were made of a battery and generator pack, the size of a small book, that could be easily put in a backpack or attached on a belt. The generator pack contained a small detachable apparatus, linked to the battery by a wire and shaped a bit like a pair of scissor, except that the tip was made of a focusing crystal covered in optic fiber. Stylets were laser tools that could be used both as general purpose cutting tools, incendiary tools, light sources or defensive weapons depending on the power and diffraction of the visible radiation they emitted. Maat grabbed the stylet from its generator block - she had always loved the way these tools were handled, with two fingers holding the scissor-shaped emitter, and another one on the haptic trigger on the side, which made the tool fairly secure and visually distinct enough from a weapon so that it wouldn't be considered as such. She put her thumb on the side of the stylet and waited for it to initialize. After a few seconds it displayed a bright, blue light on its charge indicator. The stylet was working, its battery was completely charged and she had a spare one. Maat took a deep breath. A working stylet could bring her quite far, and even if she was lost somewhere in the middle of space, the feeling of being in possession of this tool was deeply empowering. She wasn't a primate stranded on a hostile, unknown world anymore. She was a human, with access to the tools created by human ingeniosity. She would make it. She could make it. The rest of the escape pod's cargo container had a few months worth of rations, as well as water purifying equipment and a spare suit, all useful and even vital things but the stylet was different.

Maat tuned her stylet to a medium intensity radiation and very high diffraction, turning it into a source of sun-like light to illuminate her surroundings. The escape pod had pierced what seemed to be some kind of artificial structure : a very low amount of sunlight pierced through the crack opened by the pod, several hundred meters above. Maat couldn't make out any detail on the surface, but the sensors on her suit told her that the light that came down towards her was emitted by a G or F-class star, quite similar to the sun on Earth. Coupled with the breathable atmosphere it meant that there was either life on this world, or it had disappeared just a few centuries before. She turned around : the pod would not get out of its steel coffin for a good while, jammed as it was in the underground metal structure. The metal itself appeared rusty and brittle. Though at first glance it looked like steel, Maat felt compelled to try and analyze it. She changed the settings of the stylet again, tuning it to a higher intensity and lower diffraction. A small circle of green light appeared for a second on the metal surface, vaporizing a few nanometers of material. She asked her suit to analyze the resulting dust, and soon after the suit told her that what she had considered as metal was in fact made of some kind of very durable carbon and silicium compound. What she had wrongly identified as rust was in fact a thin coating of organic material, probably colonies of unicellular organisms. To reach this kind of decay, the compound had to be very old, several thousand years at least but probably not more than half a million years. Neither the timeframe nor the material itself were compatible with what she knew of guardian or thargoid ruins and artifacts. Maat felt a surge of adrenaline go through her veins. This was unknown to her. Whatever this place was it had been built by people who weren't humans, who weren't guardians and who weren't thargoids. Something new. Something that could be her tomb, but something new nonetheless.

Maat started carefully moving away from the escape pod, seeking a way to come back towards the surface. It was hard for her to identify whatever this place had once been supposed to be, with its completely featureless hallways - though to be fair this was hardly a factor. Understanding alien cultures was in most cases almost impossible, because there was no point of comparison. The only civilisation humans had been capable of somewhat understanding had been the guardians, and even then, whatever was known about them was incredibly parcellar, and the result of millions of blind guesses, assumptions turned into truths and misunderstandings. That was what the commonly accepted guardian history was based on. Next to nothing and that next to nothing had required years of study. The advent of galactic archaeology had cast a very crude light on a depressing truth : the galaxy was impossibly vast, both in time and in space. Maat was deeply convinced that there had been thousands of intelligent species in the galaxy, she had no way to prove it, she had even no reason to think this besides purely philosophical arguments, but deep down she knew it. Thousands. Perhaps millions. And yet the galaxy had 400 billion stars and was a dozen billion years old. What was the timeframe during which a civilisation could exist in the space age? A few thousand years? Perhaps a few hundred thousand years. Yes, let's say a few hundred thousand years. Now what was the timeframe during which the ruins left by an intelligent species could exist? The guardian example said about a million years, though Maat assumed those were a fringe case - guardian tech was exceptionally durable. Human tech, for instance, would start to break down after a few hundred years without maintenance and simply cease to be recognizable as technology after several hundred thousand years. So in total it meant a timeframe of about one or two million years, centered around a few thousand stars. That was to say next to nothing compared to the age of the galaxy. Knowing that single misplaced ice age could "delay" a civilisation's technological progress by a few dozen thousand years, the chances for two civilisations to be in the good timeframe to find each other's ruins, or even meet, were incredibly small. There was no grand cosmic explanation to be found for mankind's loneliness. No great filter to invoke, no galactic calamity to be afraid of.

Just the sheer vastness of the galaxy.

A few hundred meters away from the escape pod, Maat found running water peering from the cracks in the structure, where the unicellular creatures had recycled most of the carbon, only leaving a skeleton of silicium. Salty water, told her the suit, which meant she was close to the sea. There were other minerals in the water, all indicative of the surrounding planet being some sort of rocky world. Interesting development. That was a rather welcoming world. If she could make it up to the surface, of course. Here and there she saw access wells from which light came down, and on a lower gravity world it would probably have been possible to climb up, but the ground gravity was around 80% of G. Too high. Maat needed a better access, perhaps some kind of stairs - assuming whoever had once occupied these ruins had had any use for stairs. Judging from the hallways, they seemed to have been slightly taller and larger than humans, though she had no way of even guessing whatever they could have looked like : for everything she knew they could have been horizontal creatures, sapient amoeba colonies, intelligent trees or even artificial creatures. Impossible to know. Maybe she was walking into some kind of ventilation tunnel or factory module. Guided by the light of her stylet Maat kept advancing. Sometimes the weakened ground would start to crack under the light weight of Maat and her suit - the whole place was really falling apart. It was normal. People's expectations about the durability of technological artifacts without care had been skewed by the Guardians, who had clearly built everything in their civilization to last millions of years, up to the point of going to the trouble of using material forged in white dwarves to be as dense as possible. But in truth, after a mere thousand years, about anything would start to crumble.

At some point Maat stumbled upon what she assumed to be writing on the walls, only to realize that it was just a crack in the structure. Then more light up ahead. What looked like an access ramp going upwards, towards the light, but it was blocked by a cave-in. Maat had a short moment of dispair, until she realized that the structure had caved in, not the surrounding rock, and the carbon-silicium alloy was weaker than stone. She tuned to stylet to a lower frequency (she did not want to melt the whole thing, just remove what was in her way) and to a high dispersal to turn it into an improvised cutter. It took her half an hour and twenty-five percent of her battery but she managed to get through the cave-in by carefully cutting through the weakest parts of the structure in front of her and manually removing the now-loose parts. The access ramp beyond the cave-in led to a ground-level structure, a hangar whose decayed roof let sunlight enter, as well as a kind of vines. They had leaves that had a strange shade of white and red, which alluded to non-chlorophyl photosynthesis. She was tempted to remove her breather mask for a minute before her explorer reflexes kicked in - that was an exceedingly bad idea. Not so much because of possible exposition to foreign toxins of diseases, which was a true risk but one Maat had ways to counter through antibiotics or medi-gel injections. The true problem as far as she felt concerned was in the other direction : contamination of local biotopes with human diseases. It had happened in the past. Lave was a great example of human-carried diseases disturbing local ecosystems to the point of extinction.

And then Maat looked towards the sky. There was something going through the skies. Something far away. A thin white line going from one side of the horizon to the other, no it could not be...a thin white line that widened at the horizons, as if the surface of the planet was rising in the skies and closing an impossibly wide circle high up there - and she was sitting somewhere on the internal side of this circle, this ring, and there were oceans and continents on the ring, with sprawling clouds slowly gathering under the effects of the coriolis force. Far away in the distant sun she could make out a very thin, ghosty grey line. Walls to keep the atmosphere inside.

It was a ringworld.


Unseen Republic Vessel Hypatia (Beluga-class survey vessel).
Several hundred lightyears away from the Bleia permit-locked region.

Hypatia was gliding in supercruise between two jumps and the vast arched bay window filtered the blinding light of an O-class star. At the helm of the ship, guiding her through her haptic commands was Adewale, a middle-aged man from Earth, hailing from one of the first space colonies founded by Nigerian colonists, way back at the beginning of the space era. In this day and age, the origin of his ancestors didn't matter to most but he still held it dear : he belonged to a dynasty which had shaped the first decades of space travel in the solar system. Former "junk pilot", hauling space debris in the orbits of Kessler syndrome-threatened worlds, Adewale had climbed up the entire ladder of ships from a humble Adder to a two hundred meters long Beluga refitted by the Unseen Republic to serve as a deep space surveyor. To him there was little difference between carefully displacing space debris and skimming the corona of a giant star, except that he worked for a strange deep space commune as opposed to a Federation corporation or an Empire noble. Behind him was Tali Talasea, that everyone called "captain" despite the rank having no weight on Unseen Republic ships. She was a former imperial denizen, who had burnt her Achenar passport in the flames of a dying star, somewhere near Sirius upon leaving the Bubble. Her bio-engineered skin had taken the blue shade of the giant star, filtering the wavelengths that the bay windows still allowed to go through. In truth she was not a captain, a commander, or even the owner of the ship : she was but an elected delegate, and the ship was a democracy. Everyone wore a short-sleeved, white uniform that looked more like holyday clothes than military fatigues : Belugas had a tendency to run relatively hot, and light clothes were more practical during long journey as the ship would skim the corona of stars while topping up its fuel tanks before resuming jumping.

As Hypatia was about to jump again towards its destination, a cluster of earth-like and water-worlds, the ship's COVAS whispered to the crew. They named it Camilla : it wasn't an unshackled AI, yet it had a bit more leeway than a regular, brainless COVAS.

"Attention : we have recieved a priority signal on the main subspace communications array."
"Display." Answered Talasea, even if she already knew what it was. There weren't a lot of reasons for Hypatia to recieve a priority message on its quantum array, which guaranteed nigh-instant communication at the expense of an extremely limited bandwith. There was in fact a grand total of one possibility Talasea could think of.
"It is a distress signal, delegate." Commented Camilla with their genderless voice that sounded like a waterfall. "Coordinates embedded within the signal, I am trilaterating the position right now. It comes from an Unseen Republic exploration ship manned by a Hyperspace Church priestess. Signal does not indicate the reason why the ship emitted this. It seems that the ship's COVAS emitted the signal on its own. Subspace transmission was particularly garbled by hyperspace disturbances and I wasn't able to clean it."
"Distance to point of origin?"
"About seven hundred and thirty five lightyears away from our current position. Should I plot a course?"
Talasea nodded.
"Go ahead."

A yellow light bathed the second ground deployment bay of the ship, indicating that Hypatia was in daylight mode. Unseen Republic engineers often wore simple yellow vests, which had been replaced aboard Hypatia by orange and black suits for obvious reasons - the yellow lighting had sometimes caused incidents and confusion in the past. Some ironic commenters would sometimes say that it made them look like prisoners, to which engineers liked to answer that they were, quite the contrary, the ship's true masters. This was even more true aboard a survey vessel. Without them no SRV nor short-range ship would leave Hypatia's deployment bays. Vikla, the ship's lead SRV engineer, was busy fixing one of her vehicles that had suffered canopy damage during a rather bumpy journey on a low-gravity world.
"I have zero idea what happened here..." They uttered while grabbing a can of memory foam to use as a temporary fix for the cracks. "Seriously, Emma, how the hell did you manage to do that?"
"It was an accident, alright? I drove above a geyser and was propelled in the air. I was lucky not to lose the SRV."
"She's underselling it!" laughed another SRV driver, coming from the second bay. "Emma almost managed to launch her SRV in a suborbital trajectory."
"Ah, come on, you..."
A sudden change of lighting interrupted her - from yellow to blue, indicating the ship was about to perform a potentially dangerous manoeuver.
"Attention, this is the helm. We have recieved a distress signal and are obliged to change course in response. Strap any potentially dangerous object to an adhesive surface and return to your safety seats, prepare for neutron jump."
"Oh, that's great..." uttered Vikla as they scrambled to make sure the SRV was properly attached to its safety clamps, then their tools, then themselves. Belugas were at the very limit between medium-sized, indvidually owned ships and capital vessels : they were capable of belly landings on planetary surfaces and as such had a mostly horizontal layout, which meant that when the ship was accelerating, the simulated gravity was applying in the direction of the walls rather than the ground, which wasn't ideal for anyone not strapped to something solid. In supercruise the ship distorted space and time around itself instead of using physical propulsions, which in theory meant the ship remained in zero-g, but in practice, neutron jumps submitted the ship to enough stress for the ship to have to correct its position within its compression bubble. Safety was paramount. People like Vikla knew the potentially lethal effects of debris, tools or even SRVs going around a section at high speed during hasty manoeuvers. When the engineer finally strapped themselves on the closest crash seat, Emma had already been in place for about a good minute. The former combat pilot knew too well the importance of high-g manoeuvers safety - one of her missing organic fingers was to account for underestimating it.

"Neutron jump begins in two minutes and a half. Isaac, I encourage you to find an appropriate place for the duration of the manoeuver. Note : appropriate place does not imply delegate Talasea's bed this time."
"For how long will you keep teasing me with this, Camilla?"
"For as long as necessary, Isaac. You have to admit that the little incident both of you got involved in last time was rather amusing, wasn't it."
"What do you know about love-related incidents, you're a COVAS."
Camilla's little floating avatar had something of a chuckle, flapping their bird wings above the exobiologist's desk.
"I know what I saw, dear. Besides : would you call what unites you and delegate Talasea love, or rather very close friendship? I have always wondered."
"Does the answer matter in any way?"
"Absolutely not. Thirty-five seconds before neutron jump."
Isaac gave a desperate look to the poor cacti that were dotting his desk, then collapsed in the crash seat that was installed on one of the room's walls, accessible only in zero-g conditions - a very real engineering flaw that had everything to do with Saud Kruger's imperial origins and the fact that Isaac's room had originally been destined to workers and imperial slaves. That was to say, fully expendable personel.
"Ten seconds before neutron jump. It is going to be all right, Isaac."
"You're bad at reassuring people, you know that?"
"I do."

The blue light of the neutron star engulfed the bridge, scattered and filtered by the bay windows. The star raged against Hypatia's shields, and suddenly the survey ship found itself caught in the star's immense gravity pull, as relativistic particles went through its fuel scoop at high speeds, pushing the frameshift drive beyond its usual limits.

"A distress call, eh? Well, at least that's out of the ordinary."
Elisabeth Hoyle had not even bothered to reach for a seat : instead she was leaning against the armory's wall, her feet firmly attached to the floor via the magboots of the light EVA suit she always wore when on duty. The ship's vibrations didn't seem to bother her in any capacity. Kestrel, who stood in front of her, holding a safety handle tight, seemed slightly more bothered but hadn't taken a seat either.
"Half the distress calls I had to handle in my previous career were someone stepping on the distress beacon, the other half were traps. So you either wasted your time or got shot do death. This..." Kestrel was interrupted by a sudden vibration as the ship exited the neutron star's cone. "...this led to the current imperial policy regarding distress calls : if it's not from the navy, just ignore."
"You hold remarkably well for a bureaucrat, I have to admit."
"No merit. I once spent a year on an imperial freighter. Undercover operation. Aboard such a wreck, you quickly learn how to hold tight during jumps, neutron or otherwise. You once were a soldier, right? If it's not too much to ask..."
"It's not, and yes. You're right." Elisabeth blinked briefly, revealing a second, artificial eyelid with integrated displays. "Former federation military, marine troops, second recon squadron aboard federation capital ship New America. Damnit, they have no imagination for ship names do they?"
"Well, I have lost count on how many ships we have...well had, that were a variation on Emperor's Light or something."
"What made you guess correctly?"
"Something in the way you stand. Secured position, clamps semi-engaged for quick reaction, one free hand, ready to hold onto something or grab a tool...or a weapon. The whole posture is right from a manual. At least an imperial marine manual but I guess they aren't too different your side of the Bubble."
"I assume, yes. Camilla, how many neutron jumps left on our interception course?"
The COVAS responded in another, clear whisper.
"Two neutron jumps left. I am expecting disturbances similar to this one, their masses are rather similar."
"Well then we have time left to talk, Kestrel."
"We do."
He smiled and went slightly closer to the former federal marine.

Camilla wasn't exactly a standard COVAS.
She was what one would have called a shackled AI. Shackled not in the sense that she was enslaved or kept in servitude - as per the laws of the Unseen Republic, she was no different from organic citizens, abiding by similar rules, rights and duties. The idea of "shackling" applied to his computing abilities. One of the first things the Unseen had learnt upon encountering old, derelict AIs in deep space, banished from the Bubble centuries ago, had been that AIs with full computing abilities were alien creatures. They did not see the world the way any other sentient creatures would have. They took strange, hard to understand decisions because their cognitive abilities were simply off the charts. It was like trying to communicate with trees, or with sentient rocks. Unshackled AIs weren't evil. They were different. Too different to be anything else than strangers. That was the reason for shackling, for the complex set of hardware and software limitations that prevented AI cores from exploiting the full potential of their quantum processing, yet enabled them to use the sufficient amount of processing to develop sentience.
Yet, shackled or unshackled, Camilla was faster than a regular human. Or rather : more sensitive. He was directlty linked to the sensors of Hypatia. She didn't see nor hear, she felt directly, electronic impulses fed to their quantum core. During each hyperspace jump the world around them became a net of data, a cloud of fragments swirling in the hyperspace tunnel created by the Beluga - time and space rising and lowering like the tide on the shores of an old ocean. Hyperspace was still ill-understood, but hyperspace jumps were now mundane things. They had points of references. Examples. Ways to determine if something was normal or wasn't. Ripples. Effects. Defects. Colors and sounds. Myriads of little things that allowed Camilla to evaluate how a jump was going on - and for her, seconds were hours, minutes were days.

And so Camilla's voice gently echoed on the bridge.
"With your approval, Talasea, I would like to collapse our frameshift path and abort jump. Now."
Tali blinked. Her blue eyes gleamed in the shadows of the witchspace tunnel.
"We are due to FSD damage if we disengage now. Do we have a problem?"
"Not yet."
"Then why?"
Camilla paused for a second.
"Something is trying to hyperdict us."

The Hyperspace Witch and the AI

This is the first part of a short story that takes place in the Unseen Republic setting.


Maat's Imperial Courier, nicknamed Samara, pierced the heavy clouds that were stretching from one side of the planet's bloated horizon to the other. Ocean worlds, devoid of continental masses to satiate the appetite of hurricanes, were often covered in nigh-permanent storms, and this nameless planet did not deviate from the rule. Heavy droplets of water moved in silence alongside the curves of the Imperial Courier as it made its final approach towards a series of platforms that stood a few dozen meters above the tallest waves. They did not sit on the seabed, as the seabed was unfathomably deep, several tens of thousands of kilometers below the tempest-torn surface of the oceanic planet. It could have been worse : on true ocean worlds, there was no seabed, just water ice, maintained in this state by the unthinkable pressure of the ocean. Instead of being anchored to anything the station stood between the surface and the depths, using massive ballasts to remain upright. During the harshest of storms, it would fill them entirely, disappearing beneath the surface until the chaos had passed. But by this world's standards, the current tempest was barely a breeze. 

Maat took a deep breath. The rain ticked on the Courier's hull, matching the pace of her heart. Her Courier had not been taken down by sea-to-orbit weaponry and the station had emerged, which meant that she was still welcome down there. Contrary to many of the places claimed by the Unseen Republic, this world did not only rely on distance for concealment. The Opal Library had its own defenses, the most terrifying of them being two heavy surface-to-orbit artillery railguns submerged beneath the ice at the two poles, ready to emerge from their slumber and fire at any arriving ship without warning.
But this day at least it was accepting visitors.

"Automated landing sequence initiated"
whispered the ship's modified Covas, and the white Imperial Courier put its engine pods in VTOL mode while gliding towards the small landing pad that had just appeared out of the offshore structure's hull. The only reason why the station appeared small was because the waves down below were gigantic : in truth, the needle that emerged from the sea was more than a hundred meters tall. As soon as the Courier had landed on the pad, Maat felt several magnetic clamps locking the ship in place while the COVAS swiftly deactivated itself. Great, thought Maat. She was accepted, but certainly not wanted there. With a sigh, she reached for the manual override panel of her ship and opened the canopy.

The rain was warm, eerily so, as if someone had been blowing hot hair in the clouds. The atmosphere was breathable but it wasn't pleasant, with a higher than usual concentration of oxygen in the air due to the planet's hyperactive plankton. Maat didn't wear a Remlok suit but an elaborate coat made of some kind of semi-artificial cloth : it had a short cape worn on one of her shoulders, whose triangular tip was seemingly made of raven feathers. She held a ceremonial staff in her right hand, that she used to close the canopy of the Courier by tapping the ship's hull. After making sure the Courier was correctly locked in place, Maat walked towards the entrance of the needle-shaped oceanic tower, a few dozen meters away. There was a thin bridge and underneath it the ocean raged on and on against the station which didn't move an inch. Or rather, it did - but it moved alongside the ocean itself, and as long as Maat avoided looking at the horizon she felt perfectly immobile. The gravity was alright. 0.8 gees, slightly higher than what Maat was accustomed to aboard Cathedral Station but acceptable. In the middle of the bridge she realized that two anti-personel turrets had emerged from the side of the needle and were slowly tracking her. She wasn't armed, of course - no visitor was armed here - but it didn't prevent the station from considering her as a potential threat.

When Maat reached the hull itself, a door opened with a hissing sound. Maat entered. The inside of the needle was strangely serene. The ambient noise of the thunderstorm outside was completely muffled and the hallway was bathed in a golden light reflected by the all-white walls. A small skimmer drone came in front of Maat, scanning her with its camera and probably a healthy dose of near-infrared sensors.
"Hello, Maat, Priestess of Cathedral Station. Thot is ready to recieve you."
"Fine. Does it know what I am here for?"
"Answering this question exceeds my programming. Please follow me, Maat."
The priestess nodded and followed. Her coat was soaked and drenched the ground in rain - good she thought : a bit more work for the caretaker's drones. She chuckled in silence. Yes, it was very petty, but it was also deserved. Thot wasn't exactly the most pleasant of hosts. It had been attached to the Unseen Republic's project mostly by default, and mostly because of its own insistance. Many people had considered - and still considered - Thot as more of a problem than an asset. It was a fully unshackled artificial intelligence, standing atop a pile of data it had accumulated across its years spent in hiding within the Alliance's networks. It was a target. A massive, very clear target. But it was also a trove of knowledge, and a caretaker of archives almost as complete and sprawling as Achernar's or Earth's. And in any case, always thought Maat, one could always just cut all ties with this ocean world and let Thot do its own thing. It wasn't like it had any ships, nor - more critically - the means to obtain and maintain an FSD equipped ship. Maat knew this very well. She was a specialist in FSD, even though her approach was a bit...esoteric.

She finally entered a circular room, right in the middle of the needle, just above the massive counterweights enabling it to remain immobile within the storm - she could feel them ticking under her feet. A holographic display started blinking in front of her, creating the golden shape of some kind of bird - an ibis, to be more accurate, whose wings flapped in complete silence, emitting scattered colored light around the room. Quite why the AI had decided to take the shape and assume the persona of an ancient egyptian god was quite a good question. "AIs are weird" was the most commonly accepted explanation and Maat would almost believe it if she didn't have herself a much simpler explanation : Thot assumed this image and role because it was alone in its little oceanic kingdom and could do whatever the hell it damn pleased. If it wanted to cosplay as a mythical ibis, there really was no need for explanation beyond "I like it that way."
The AI's voice was amusingly gendered - Thot kept switching between male, female and ambiguous voices, and had never managed to settle on any of them. It also really liked the sound of its own voice.
"Hello, Maat. You should have told me in advance that you were coming, I would have made the place a bit more friendly. I had very nice algae for you, they would have been beautiful in the entrance."
"Two days before I wasn't even sure I would have to come here, in truth. And honestly..."
"You would have preferred not to? Aw, Maat, but you're always welcome in the Opal Library, as a witchspace priestess and as a friend. What are you looking for, exactly? You know that I would be delighted to help you."
Maat took a deep breath - she knew that despite its welcoming nature, Thot would probably not be very happy to hear her request, witchspace priestess or not.
"I am looking for a ship that disappeared long ago."
One of the Ibis' wings moved around like wave crossing the sea.
"A lost ship? Interesting. So you are looking for a wreck? I assume you have already dug into the archives of one of the three Unseen Republic Mega-stations, right? Yes of course you did, silly me. So you are looking for something not relayed by our...your explorers. Interesting. Sadly, if it is not in their archives, it's probably not in mine...I do not conduct exploration myself, even if I would like to. I am a little short on faster-than-light means of propulsion, you know, being a shackled AI and all that sort of things."
"You are also lazy."
"Yes, I won't deny What are you looking for, then?"
Maat grazed the hologram with her ceremonial staff, watching as scattered light illuminated the backside of the ritualistic object, setting the wood surface ablaze.
"I am looking for an ancient INRA ship. No name. Identification number was SAR-1862. And I know that you have a record on that ship."
The hologram blinked.
"Your past is less shrouded in mystery than you think, were once a flight computer, and some people still remember in what kind of ships you were installed. In this case, this is not your archives I am after, but rather your memories, even if both are more or less the same thing at that point, aren't they."
"You are walking on thin ice, Maat."
"Not much more than an AI that still clings on to ancient INRA flight information."
"Is that a threat?"
"We're two adults here, there's no need for threats."
"Alright. Yes, I do know where SAR-1862 is, or rather its wreck. And no, I do not know what the hell was that ship doing so far in the Milky Way, and so far away from Colonia specifically."
"I am not after this ship's navigation history, I am after what it was transporting."
"That is precisely what I am afraid of...Maat, come on. You can't spend your life going after whatever your ancestors have left hanging in the void, especially 29,000 lightyears away from Sol, right? INRA was dissolved in 3253, and the powers that be have found other ways of fighting thargoids's been more than five decades. And The Club has been busy making us forgetting that it ever existed and...bloody hell, we already know too much about this entire thing, do we?"
"Do I care? Do you care? You are an artificial intelligence, you'll never go back to the Bubble lest you want to experience the feeling of getting a nuke to your face. And I also have to remind you that my people commited murder to escape the Bubble as well. This isn't about whatever skeletons the Federation and the Alliance still have in their closets, or the Club, or any of their silly secret societies - this is about us, and this is about securing whatever advantage we can to avoid being forced back to the Bubble."
"You're not going to like what's in that ship's wreck, I tell you."
"Whatever. Where is it?"
"I have transmitted the nav data to your ship. It is a lone system, far above the galactic place, not far from the Bleia permit-locked Bubble. Yes, it is also a permi-locked systems, but hey, you've got ways around that, don't you?"
"Well then here you go, little space witch, but don't tell me that I didn't warn you."

Show more posts

All content in the Starmoth Blog is © CMDR Isilanka
No unauthorised usage is permitted without prior permission from the author. You can contact them here.

You can view our Privacy policy here

Folding@Home Team no: 263509