January was an inspiring month for science fiction writers. This is one of several responses to the 'No One Home' challenge set by GregPius. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed writing and discussing them.
No One Home
Mountains of dirty ice follow each other in centuries-long orbits at the edge of the solar system – something that they have been doing, almost without incident for countless millennia. Rarely, the tug of planets, some passing object or an inauspicious conjunction between hills of ice causes one to leave the frozen realm and make its slow way in towards its parent star putting on a spectacular celestial show for the inner planets.
The solar system has languished in an outer sector of the Galaxy, forgotten by the major civilizations of the Union since the last major conflict and the subsequent treaty leading to the formation of the 4th Union. The sector was sparsely populated before the conflict due to the high number of cool red stars in the region. Then during the conflict itself it was largely ignored because it lacked any strategic significance. Life was there on the few planets that chance placed in stable orbits in the Goldilocks zone around the brighter second and third generation stars in the sector, however it remained undiscovered.
After the war and the long drawn out treaty negotiations the sector of the Galaxy where the solar system sits was allocated to one of the old races who began to re-explore the area, working their way outwards, slowly reestablishing contact with those civilizations that dropped out of the galactic milieu during the war and subsequent breakdown. They never made it as far as the solar system before they transcended, leaving the hurly-burly of physical existence for higher realms of consciousness.
The Galaxy rotates. Millions of years pass while the civilizations of the 4th Union conduct the business of empire across other sectors of the starry island. Waves of exploration, followed by consolidation slowly spread into the far reaches of the spiral arms picking up systems once again, civilizing, subsuming, repopulating.
The orbiting mountains of dirty ice at the edge of the solar system begin to feel perturbations that push a statistically significantly number of the objects out of their long-held positions into less stable ones. Space begins to ripple, a rent appearing in amongst the objects at the edge of the solar system. As the rent grows energy crackles at its edges. Out of the sparkling centre the nose of a spaceship emerges, at first as if seen from a great distance. The rent suddenly acquires dimensions in space, evincing a tunnel within which the craft resides, full sized. The tunnel collapses as the ship shoots through its maw, a bullet fired from a gun of cosmic proportions. Shields flare as they absorb the energy of re-entry into 3-space and the impacts of icy objects destroyed and absorbed or cast aside by the ship as it slows to interplanetary speed.
It is a behemoth, a vast thing of angles and curves with a distinct front and rear. Its mass is so great that is has a perceptible effect on nearby objects in space. It bristles with antennae and has a series of regular indentations over its entire surface which are the focus of the titanic energies that force it out of normal space-time and into higher dimensions where the concept of distance is effectively meaningless. At the rear of the ship there are three forward-sweeping wings, each with a large, highly polished teardrop shaped bulge at its outer point. These form the ship’s propulsion system, finely tuned and balanced to give the ship maneuverability in 3-space as well as the manipulation of the quasi-mathematical medium of hyperspace to effect transitions between star systems. The surface of each of these propulsion bulges is in constant motion, the polished surfaces not metallic but rather a force discontinuity plane that has the effect of providing motion in whichever direction is desired.
Space for thousands of kilometers around shimmers with energy shield deployed to protect the ship from the impacts of everything it might encounter on its travels amongst the stars, everything from fairly substantial debris to the sparseness of interstellar atoms, which at the speeds reached by the ship would have a significant ablating effect on the hull. Shields at the front of the ship appear thicker and brighter due to continuous impacts. The shield technology allows impact energy up to a certain level to be absorbed and stored in giant capacitors that, in turn provide power back to the shield generators. In other circumstances this system was put to use protecting the ship and its crew from the beam, particle and hyperkinetic weapons deployed by enemy craft in space battles. It is a truism that military conflict drives technological developments that are then of great value in times of peace. When the size or kinetic energy of objects exceeds the absorption limits of the shields they harden to a sufficient level to cast the object aside.
The science team deploy their full suite of sensors as the ship slows and crosses the orbit of an ice giant planet. Initial scans suggest that there are 8 major planets in the system orbiting a stable yellow star of average mass and in the late middle age of its life. The outer planets of the system are the most massive, one in particular containing more material than the other seven put together – not unusual in itself had it been the sole gas giant in the system with the majority of the non-stellar matter in its makeup however this system is different. The large gas giant has a less massive companion in a colder orbit further from the primary. This companion is a spectacular sight with a huge ring system and numerous moons, some associated with the rings themselves and other, larger ones in outer orbits. One in particular is the size of a small world and has a thick atmosphere of complex hydrocarbons. This moon is the ships first target for study in its search for life and becomes the target of intense scanning and remote probes sent down through the soupy atmosphere to skim the surface in search of evidence that might indicate life however there is no indication that life gained a foothold here in the intensely hostile and cold environment. One remote does discover an anomaly that might have been the remains of an artificial object, a probe perhaps. This is not unusual in the wider galaxy where there have been numerous civilizations sending out detector craft in all directions for millennia. The point is hotly debated for a brief time by the science team and Contact whose functions might include just such a scattergun approach to exploration and discovery. The evidence is thin and unable to support either side and the debate fizzles out.
The ship moves on to the large gas giant, a massive world with its own internal heat source generated by gravity. This to has many moons, four of which are large enough to be worthy of study. The innermost is sulfurous and chaotic. If there ever had been life here it would have been recycled in the churning, volcanic surface. The next out from the planet is icy and has liquid oceans under a cracked and fissured surface. There is life found here under the ice near hot vents on the dark ocean floor but it is primitive and slow-moving due to the crushing pressure and cold. One of the remotes shouts a discovery on the surface buried deep in the ice and therefore protected from the harsh environment around the gas giant. The science team holds its collective breath whilst the ship Mind sends out a telefactor to recover the object.
The telefactor brings the object back to a sealed bay on the outer surface of the ship and the science team begin frenetically examining it and turning to the large body of past research on the subject of technological life signs that can be found on ShipNet they determine that it is the product of a stage two civilization. They place a high confidence value on it being the product of the local planetary system based mainly on the absence of any hyperspace transmitting or transport capability. They do however agree that it has motors capable of interplanetary and in-system travel. All attempts to communicate with it or indeed to switch it on fail. It is too old, possibly over 200,000 years old although this is difficult to establish with any degree of certainty and may be out by a factor of ten.
The excitement in the team grows as a result of this discovery. Is there still life in the system? Which planet did it come from? Where is it now and what will it look like? Study of the other two moons reveals nothing new or exciting and the ship moves on, inwards towards the stellar warmth and the rocky worlds of the system.
The ship first crosses a ring of boulders and small mountains in an orbit between the large gas giant and a small dead world. Here further discoveries are made, evidence of exploitation of this ring of primeval planetesimals including wreckage of a metallic nature, clearly artificial. There are a number of large bodies in this belt two of which have clearly been mined in the past. The ship visits them both and an extensive investigation at each one reveals many important finds that help to build a picture of the civilization that built the mining facilities, which metals and minerals they were most interested in and, most importantly some idea of their physical characteristics. The research generates heated debate and a schism develops between two rival camps with radically different opinions of the form that life takes.
On the one side it is believed that the civilization adopted machine form in order to explore and exploit their system – a strategy that has been adopted by many civilizations over galactic history. Races that take this route tend to be particularly susceptible to the harsh environment of space or fail to solve one branch of the equations of drive technology that leads to effective shielding in space and artificial gravity. These two elements of the maths are crucial to successful long-term exploration of space by organic life forms except in the case of collective hive-like intelligences where the individual unit of the life form are less important and, in essence, disposable. There is plenty of evidence to support this argument, the size and scale of the mining operations, the finds made in the belt of asteroids and an almost complete absence of organic molecules that would indicate organic higher life forms. Nor is there evidence of occupation as far as this faction is concerned, no small rooms which might indicate personal spaces, no other larger rooms or halls indicating communal space, in fact nothing to suggest the presence of a controlling organic intelligence. In terms of control there is evidence of powerful quantum-level processing and data storage in the finds both on the asteroids and in space nearby.
The opposing faction has taken the same evidence and some further, disputed finds and arrived at the opposite conclusion. It is clear to them that the machines and structures found are products of intelligent organic life that used their technology as an adjunct to the exploration of their system. They argue that many of the machines show clear signs of control systems that require an operator to be physically present. They extrapolate form and organic structure from all the available evidence and conclude that the race was large and bipedal, a curious form to take due to problems of stability and balance. In their opinion the trump card in their hand is the disputed find of two large units which seem to be intact and, on examination with soft field probing, appear to be intact Pico-matrix storage devices.
Comms. specialists with the assistance of the ship Mind begin the delicate task of reactivating these units. The ship Mind allocates a sub-persona to the task as it sees this as a particularly important piece of evidence that may yield data which provides answers to many of the questions posed by discoveries made so far. One of the two units responds badly to any attempts to power it up using the sole external port in an effort to read data from it. Further scans reveal that it is irrevocably damaged and it is consigned to destructive study before further attempts are made to activate the second.
Whilst this is going on the ship moves to the next planet closer to the primary which turns out to be a dry, dead world with little atmosphere and an oxidized surface. The planet is too small to retain water and atmosphere and with low gravity any water that is added by bringing in cometary ice is doomed to failure in the long term. There is clear evidence of life based on Carbon with replication predominantly driven by a twisted sugar-phosphate molecule that initial analysis shows to be long chains of Deoxyribonucleic Acid held together in a ladder-like structure by purine and pyrimidine bases. There is also a significant amount of Ribonucleic Acid-based life sign mixed in to the signal as well.
These two forms are very different, one very ancient and based on RNA. This life sign is very primitive and died out possibly 5 billion years ago. The second is much more recent and DNA based. There is evidence of attempts to alter the planet and make it more hospitable – a clear sign that whoever did this was not of this planet. Study of the planet continues, turning up a wealth of evidence of highly technological interventions, settlement and then abandonment, leaving little behind other than dwellings and machines. These are severely degraded but strengthen the arguments in favour of organic life forms. The remains of dwellings show evidence of domed structures and buildings internal to the domes. There is speculation that the degradation of artificial structures on the planet might have been caused by icy bombardment which somehow got out of hand as there is widespread evidence of recent cratering.
Whilst the planetary studies are progressing efforts to activate the remaining storage unit from the asteroid belt continue, informed by the destructive study of the first. The ship sub-persona and the team allocated to the task spend a considerable time scanning the object at higher and higher resolution in an effort to understand how to connect to and interrogate the unit without damaging it. The research shows that there are security systems built into the connection system which are designed to draw a killing power surge from any unauthorized access connections. It takes the team and the sub-mind a week to circumvent this system and disable the kill switches, the breakthrough coming when one of the team with a galactic Paleo-linguistics background realizes that the instruction set is written in an evolved form of a language originating in the Central sector of the galaxy. A side debate erupts on the arcane point of whether this is an example of convergent linguistic evolution or an indication that the system has been visited in the distant past. Debate briefly rages across ShipNet as to which of the three candidate races this might have been with one small faction pointing out that only one of them was widespread enough to have plausibly reached this far out.
Power is fed into the unit and the data structure probed, gently looking for readable information that might shed light on the life forms who constructed it. There are sectors of machine code in the language identified and with some experimentation and extrapolation it is discovered that the unit is a control system for some large machine or structure. The Pico-matrix structure is very dense and the ship Mind suggests that the civilization may have had functional Artificial Intelligence and on this basis it allocates more work space to the sub-persona to extract the machine code and try to emulate the control system and what it may have controlled.
Initial efforts are unsuccessful with the virtualization crashing numerous times, each time being rebooted with slightly different starting parameters. Eventually it is realized that some processes require acceleration whilst others require feedback loops that have the effect of throttling competing inputs. It becomes clear that the unit is the controlling system for a mining ship handling ship functions including, crucially, life support, propulsion systems and navigation. It also appears to provide routing support channels but not ultimate control for numerous telefactor devices which suggests that operators did not leave the ship in the mining process.
Whilst this work continues a small group of researchers delves deeper into the Pico-matrix and discovers a substantial data sector which appears to be an overlay for the control systems already running in virtualization. This is in a higher level code than the control systems suggesting that it is an interface of some sort. The code is extracted and loaded into the running emulation. An abstract Avatar appears in the workspace, text appearing to circle around it…
- … COMMAND? …
- … NONE DETECTED…
- … BOOT… … … … …
The impression of speech is detected and rapidly rendered into an understandable form.
- … Is that you Captain? Why am I not able to see…?
Further text appears…
- …DATE… UNKNOWN…
- …LAST KNOWN STATE…? DATA RECOVERY…
- …DATA ARCHIVE NOT CONNECTED…
- …DISASTER RECOVERY MODE…!
- …DISASTER RECOVERY FILES NOT AVAILABLE…
- …POSSIBLE HOSTILE INTRUSION…!
- … I’m sorry Captain… …
- …COMMAND ZERO# ACTIVATE… … … … …
The Avatar dissolves and the emulation crashes immediately after the interface code issues a kill command in machine code. This kill command is self-organising and fractal in nature and begins to spread into the workspace itself. The sub-persona hastily withdraws from the emulation and wipes the workspace clean of the code from the unit. In the discussions that follow the ship Mind puts forward the hypothesis that the civilization that created this unit was in conflict internally and sought to protect their commercial and strategic interests in ways such as had just manifested itself in the emulation. It marvels at the sophistication of the attack strand of the kill code issued by the interface code and holds that this suggests artificial intelligence.
The ship moves on, crossing the orbits of two inner planets which are of little interest as they are too close to the primary making them too hot and hostile for life. On the other side of the primary is a rocky planet which sits in the centre of the Goldilocks zone and as the ship approaches it is immediately evident from scans that it is watery and rich with life. The planet has a large satellite in orbit around its equator which raises tides in the oceans of the world and influences the weather.
As they approach the planet and enter orbit the Science and Contact teams both report numerous signs of artificial structures, both in orbit and on the surface of both the planet and its moon. The orbital structures vary in size from what is clearly detritus to large satellites capable of occupation. There are two main orbits, a low, fast one where the majority of the large satellites are found and another much more distant one where objects keep pace with a fixed point on the surface. Interestingly there is also a significant quantity of icy asteroidal material in various unstable and chaotic orbits and which has had a significant degrading effect on the low orbital structures.
Language specialists have been hard at work producing a greeting message to transmit in as many forms as are likely to have been in use by a developed Stage 2 civilization. The ship begins to transmit this on a range of frequencies and forms as it orbits the planet. The decision is taken to put a number of probes into polar orbits in an effort to cover as much of the planet surface as possible. Signal strength is boosted and modified over the oceans which have an average depth of 4,000 meters and in places over 10,000 meters. On the dark side of the planet there is no sign of artificial light, only bioluminescence in the oceans.
The greeting message receives no response from the surface or the oceans. Whilst there are large areas of land given over to civilization all is quiet and there is no indication of activity. In fact there are no large life forms evident on the surface at all. The decision is taken to send probes to the surface to look for life of any kind and to take samples of water, soil and atmosphere. They are dispatched to all the major continents and oceans, some to areas that show evidence of civilization and others to wilderness. The oceanic probes are sent to a variety of different sites, coastal, continental shelf and the abyssal plain.
Life is found in many places but nothing large. Microbes abound in every conceivable niche and many forms of multi-limbed exo-skeletal life are discovered everywhere apart from the poles which are too cold on the surface to sustain higher forms of life. There is more life in the oceans but again no large life forms are found.
Probes are sent into the large areas of civilization to search more thoroughly and an archeological/paleontology team is dispatched to conduct studies to determine what large life forms existed in the past and what happened to them. Lots of discoveries are made both in the built up areas and in rocks and sediments to indicate that the planet has harboured large life forms until relatively recently, in fact in the deep past life on the planet has achieved land-based forms of truly massive proportions through a process of evolution. There is evidence that one life form became the dominant one and developed into the civilization which has clearly expanded over the entire surface of the planet and beyond. No sign of extant members of this life form are found even though the probes, ship-based scans and the exploratory teams search every conceivable place that is not inimical to life including deep mine workings discovered and natural cave systems.
Intense surveys and study continue over a considerable period of time and a body of evidence builds suggesting that there has been an environmental catastrophe of global proportions in the recent past. Air and soil samples come back showing contamination with toxic metals. Ground water samples show similar concentrations of these and other toxins. Only the seas and oceans are relatively clear, possibly due to the sheer volume of water in them. Life forms on the surface and in the oceans seems to have adapted to the toxins in the environment but it comes as no surprise that mostly small and primitive forms are the ones to have survived. What is unclear is what caused the build-up of toxins in the environment to such a level as to kill off all larger forms of animal life. Many theories are put forward, none of which seems particularly plausible at first as they all lack crucial pieces of evidence.
For a second time on this mission a probe declares an important discovery, this time much more significant. It produces two pieces of evidence of large life forms in the depths of the polar oceans, tissue samples and video recordings. The video shows what appears to be a large creature lying at the bottom of the ocean at the southern pole of the planet many kilometers from land. The probe has collected a tissue sample from the creature once it determined that it was safe to do so in light of the clear evidence that this is a carcass. An expedition is sent to the area where this probe has remained, and continues to search in the hope of finding a live specimen. Another team is sent to the northern polar seas to search under the extensive ice cap there. Signs of activity in both areas are noted and within a short period glimpses of large sea-going creatures are reported by both teams. The ship focuses more effort on the search and eventually a small group is found on the surface of the southern ocean. The creatures vary in size but are all of the same type and it is posited that they are of various ages. Study of the original carcass and a further 2 found in the north indicate that they differ in size for reproductive reasons and the live group shows that the groups they form appear to be familial in nature.
No evidence of technological development is found associated with these creatures even though they have large, highly developed brains and an extensive and complex communication system based on sound waves that carry very well in their watery medium. Further study of the communications begin to show that it is less a system to convey abstract ideas and more a song related to territory and mate attraction. That said, a lot of the time there seems to be little purpose other than the sheer joy of singing.
One further interesting discovery made relating to these creatures is that they seem to avoid certain areas of the oceans where they live and actively try and prevent probes and the exploration teams from going to these areas to study the features, geology and life. Further analysis shows that the areas defended are regularly and symmetrically placed around each pole and all of a similar size and at similar depth. Remote scanning discovers nothing of particular significance in the sea bed or bed rock below and no energy signatures are detected. The few probes that do explore these regions discover skeletons of the sea creatures that guard the areas as well as of others now apparently extinct. One site hints at possible structures on the sea bed but this is equivocal at best and eventually dismissed as coincidence.
The ship Mind, in conference with senior experts in relevant fields decides that it is time to depart the system and move on to the next promising star. On the ship as it travels the various teams conduct further study of the evidence gathered and theorize on the possible scenarios and explanations for the almost complete absence of large life forms in the system left behind. Was the civilization responsible for its own downfall and the destruction of life on the planet through war or rampant exploitation of resources? Did some natural disaster befall the third planet resulting in the recall of all outlying populations who returned and died trying to help? Was the extinction due to unforeseen consequences of the efforts to terraform and populate the fourth planet? Other theories and much wild speculation continues as the ship accelerates to a safe distance from the gravitational influence of the primary. As the ship reaches the outer system there is a general air of melancholy amongst the crew and science teams. So much promise on the third planet given its placing in the system and the amount of water there. The ship catalogues the system and marks it for future colonization.
Titanic energies build in the pits across the surface of the ship and the propulsion pods appear to writhe and squirm as they push the ship faster and faster through the sparse medium at the outer fringes of the system. A rent appears in the fabric of space and the ship accelerates towards it. Shields, already aglow with impacts, flare as the ship approaches and enters what appears to be a tunnel of infinite length. It is suddenly gone and the rent slams shut, disrupting the orbits of more icy bodies. Some time in the future there will be a spectacular light show put on for any of the sea creatures close to the surface of their oceans in the dark of night and the twilight of life on the third planet of the system.
Deep in the polar oceans the large sea creatures have gathered at the special places which they tried to defend from the alien probes. They begin to sing in an eerie harmony that resonates around the polar oceans, funneled and focused by the polar currents, the wave forms concentrating at the nodes they have been aware of for millennia. There harmony is more than just a song, it is rich with communication both amongst each other and of a new kind unheard by the aliens.
There is a stirring at each node, evidenced by a puff of sea floor mud and a rumbling of infra-sound...