Back to IndexWritten January-August, 1998


Point of Origin
Prologue

It was an ordinary room. It might have been anywhere in the galaxy. Cream coloured walls bore occasional images of figures from the pasts of hundreds of different cultures interspersed with depictions of prominent Imperial starships. In a corner only the slightest hint of an indentation betrayed the presence of an entrance and yet managed to still maintain the impression of the uninterrupted perimeter.
To one side the wall was composed of glass, affording the occupant an uninterrupted view across the lush green grounds of the campus which stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. The grounds were mostly orderly grassland, punctuated occasionally by single trees adding the golds and orange of their leaves to the overall picture. Paved pathways cut their courses through the scenery to reach their destinations.
It was not a sterile scene. People and drones walked along the narrow pathways, often arm in arm. The campus was open to anyone, not just those who worked on it. The silence could almost be seen as well as heard and the peace was only broken by the sounds of laughter and happiness ringing along the ways.
Occasionally the view was split by the silent form of a skimmer, moving across the grass and leaving only a swirl of air currents in its wake. They carried only those who worked here, those for whom the journey they had to make was simply too long to walk and those who were simply lazy. But they carried everyone from the lowliest researcher to the most respected professor equally. For this was a place of equality, its goal - to research the one place where equality was not readily found.
The past.

The Galactic History Archive had been founded scarcely three centuries ago, and during its brief existence it had grown to such an extent in size and reputation that every budding historian dreamed of journeying here. Satellite archives had sprung up across the galaxy, all reporting to here. Here, where some of the most advanced non-intelligent computer systems ever designed with the greatest memory capacity ever conceived stored, catalogued and made ready for retrieval the past.
Trillions of records, stretching across millions of civilisations and thousands of years. Visual, textual, audio recordings were all viewed, indexed and stored. Biographies were researched and written, impressions recorded. It was a constant bustle of activity for the task was large, and those who spent their days working towards their goal of a complete historical record knew in their logical minds that their task could never be complete, despite what they yearned for in their hearts.
Hundreds of thousands of humans, drones and even the odd starship worked towards that goal. They were not paid, they were not compensated in any way other than the satisfaction they gained from a job well done. They did their jobs to make a difference, what everyone in the Empire truly desired.
But all the cataloguing ability in the universe would be insufficient if there was no data to catalogue and every day thousands of terabytes of information flooded into the archive from around the galaxy. Some came from starships, bulk dumps of the information they had collected over the course of years, more came from observer stations in orbit around planets where primitive societies waged wars with bows and arrows and made peace.
And some came from individuals who had been involved in historic events, and wished them to be recorded. Of all the types this was the rarest, and the most valuable.

The man leaned back in his chair, his head declining and being enveloped by the comforting artificial fabric. His young hands encircled a book on his lap. It was not the common type, a terminal book of electronic complexity bearing changing images and scrolling words along its artificial membranes, it was made of paper. It was the last surviving physical record of a civilisation which had grown from tiny roots to occupy its planet, had sent probes into near space, had fought wars, had split the atom...and had been wiped out.
He had watched their progress thoughtfully, carefully, recording every moment. He had watched the development of technologies without the development of the social structure to properly use them. He had watched as the world grew nearer and nearer to war. He had watched through the Imperial observer station, using its powerful affectors which could read and alter the state of electromagnetic waves at any point in space to view scenes on the planet below.
He had been in the rooms where the two leaders had debated and spoken and tried to pull back. He had been in the room where the plans were made, and he had been there at the end, when the plans were executed.
He had watched from high orbit the hundreds of tiny sparks and then the all encompassing explosions. Releases of energies too awesome for such a primitive race to control. There had been no defence. No survivors.
It was a terrible burden of memory to bare, and a terrible responsibility. He had asked for intervention in the weeks leading up to the crisis but the decision had come back negative. This was one struggle this civilisation was going to have to resolve on its own, except that it hadn't, and now there wasn't a civilisation left.
He couldn't help wondering if he could have tried a little harder, pushed a little more. Might they have sent a ship? A single ship. What a difference that would have made. The utilisation of a tiny fraction of the navy's power could have saved five billion lives, five billion hopes, five billion futures. This was one struggle this civilisation was going to have to resolve on its own.
He sighed a sigh of someone who has grown old before his time and, with a gentle movement, closed the book. He ran a finger along the spine, feeling the texture of this world's wood, unique in the galaxy.
He touched a hidden switch and a sub-sentient servitor drone flew out of its alcove. He held out his hand and the drone took the book irreverently in its cold fields and conveyed it away.
The man sighed again and stroked his tiny beard. Now, he had another catastrophe to index, to catalogue and to file, but he was waiting.
"It's here Galen, all that you asked for".
The voice that spoke in his head had no end and no beginning, it was a thought, merely one that had been implanted from outside. His neural connection web hummed in his thoughts, it was waiting for a reply.
"Very well, thank you." Even his thoughts seemed tired, fatigued by what they had been forced to comprehend. "Please put it on."
The man settled back in his chair, stretching his legs luxuriously as he noticed subconsciously the playback beginning. The message composed for him from so far away filled his thoughts, occupying his mind. The image of his distant friend's face appeared before him and, for the first time in a long while, the man smiled.

** Begin STARNET transmission **

Source: 122.22.33.55.22.45.222.981.345.333.25.2.111.434 (Tier Orbital Habitat Communications Hub - relayed from sub-unit 111.2.3.45.2 "Tan someth'g")
Destination: 133.45.345.35.334.245.234.33 (Coruscant - relay to sub-unit 112.3.4.54.2 "Galactic history archive") Message Encryption E12 (Maximum Civilian Encryption)
Begin message
DEJJC RP WV¡¥ÿÿåWV¡P WV¥ÿ // WV¡¥ÿJJCRPJ CJJR PWV¡ ¥ÿÿJC [åWV¡] PJJ

Message Playback Aborted
Autotranslate Activated
TidyUp Activated
Restarting playback

From: Tan Someth'g (Tier Orbital)
To: Galen Massoon (Galactic History Archive)
Civilian-type Encryption

Begin Message

So, old friend you finally got round to contacting me. I had heard about your secondment to the GHA so I knew it would only be a matter of time before you contacted me to ask for my story. I've given it a lot of thought over the past century or so and some things still bother me about it. Strange how some things just won't die down. But never mind. I have taken the liberty of contacting the starships Strangely Silent and Quietly Confident to make sure their input has been represented and I think it has. Both the ships seemed somewhat un-talkative but that is only to be expected I suppose - after what happened. I remember one of my old friends commenting that privacy of thoughts was a great thing most of the time but does occasionally cause problems. Although with humans [AutoTrans: Definition: Organisms capable of surviving within 12% variance of standard M-class planetary conditions] this tends to manifest itself in practical jokes and silly pranks, with ships it can occasionally mean that they forget to tell people that they have discovered entire civilisations. Although nothing so dramatic has happened here I only feel it is right that I mention it so that you can take it into account.
I was of course at the time residing on the Quietly Confident but it seems to have gone into somewhat of a decline over the last few decades I've divided this account into a number of distinct sections. Let me see, where shall I start? Oh yes…

When we first approached the system Ar01934233(1) it appeared similar to any other. A routine mission we thought, until we got in closer. That was when the confusion really started. Our primary mission was stellar system survey. I'm sure you have the information from the original scans but I will relate the basics anyway (you doubtless remember my talent for being over cautious).
The system had eight planets in orbit around it including two asteroid belts, one much smaller than the other. The star was a standard G type quite a way through its lifetime. What really surprised us was the third planet from the star. It had an oxygen atmosphere and appeared to have a stable temperature at around normal tolerances. What was so strange about this was that the planet was well outside the normal "life-belt" in which we expect planets of such composition and that it was sandwiched between two asteroid belts. Anyway the Quietly Confident clearly thought it was interesting because it cancelled the other systems we were supposed to visit and slowed into the system.
Of course all these decisions were made before any of the crew were told. We were sitting in the main lounge waiting for some scan data to come through so that we could do our bit (of course the ship was moving so fast that we wouldn't have the data until we had actually left the system) when suddenly the ship executed a crash stop. I tell you I have never seen anything like it. We were cruising at around 140 kilolights (that's 140,000 times the speed of light by the way!) and before we even knew we had reached the system we had slowed to more or less a complete stop.
I'd never been in a crash stop before although I had heard of them. When I later looked at the 4D holoimage of the stop it looked like a tiny pebble had pushed up a massive tsunamis in front of it. The amount of energy required to do this was far from trivial. Back then we didn't have the methods of power provision we have now. The Quietly Confident had a generator that was only capable of providing about 190,000 TerraWatts. Even with the extreme efficiency of our engines the ship's kinetic energy alone must have gone somewhere, and so it did - into our fields. We couldn't see out of the portholes for days there was so much energy stored there. It was like looking into the centre of the star. But the energy did slowly distribute itself. As it was doing so we must have shone so brightly that the outer few planets would have had a second sun for a while. The ship told us later that this served a double purpose, if there had been any intelligent life on any of the planets they would surely have noticed and sent something to investigate. We waited beyond the orbit of the furthest planet for nearly a week, but nothing was forthcoming - so we went in.
We cruised in slowly, the ship said it was being cautious but I think it was merely trying to avoid the asteroids. We were scarcely moving faster than one of the legendary space ships which once plodded from system to system, taking generations to reach their destination. But then, the distance we had to travel was much shorter. It was on the fourth day in that we found the ship.
We practically ran straight into it, which is just as well because it was so small (scarcely 0.2 klicks long) that we didn't even detect it until it was less than 3000km away. It was located just on the inner edge of the first and larger asteroid belt outside the orbit of the fourth planet and was emitting no power signatures of any kind. At first the ship was worried that it might have some sort of power generation system that we could not detect - but after three days (three days!!) of watching it concluded that it was in fact dead. It was at the same time a great relief and a great disappointment.
I took a shuttle out of the Quietly Confident on the second day in order to take a look at both ships. The alien one was completely dwarfed by the Quietly Confident. It looked like a tiny fish against a background of the whole ocean. This is perhaps a little inaccurate since the alien ship was only about 10 times smaller than the Quietly Confident in terms of length but the internal volume of our ship was over 2000 times that of the other. That instilled some confidence in us - in fact you could say that we were Quietly Confident Hah. (Sorry).
Anyway, on the fourth day the ship decided to send in two drones for reconnaissance prior to taking the whole ship inside its hull and putting it in its general cargo bay. The ship discussed it with the crew and sent two slaved drones aboard. They only had a basic AI core system that would allow them to return to the ship if contact was lost, otherwise they were completely slaved to the Quietly Confident's "Mind". Strange really, we don't even build slaved drones nowadays. Not that I have a problem with that - some of my oldest friends are drones, but anyway…
Ah yes, from here on in we started making real-time holo recordings of everything that happened. The other ships later did the same. I have managed to get hold of the recordings from the point of the drone insertion. The recording isn't from any particular perspective and quite a bit of it has been constructed over years. I had the module piece it together from all the records. Anyway, here we go…

The image of the man thousands of light years away slowly faded away, the picture degrading into nothingness until all that was left was darkness. Another image impinged upon Galen's brain, being created pixel by pixel until the Quietly Confident's short range displacer array occupied his view. Ahead a light appears, building in intensity until it overwhelms his vision. It too faded away, leaving only darkness.

The light clicked on with a noticeable sound.
"0.002 decibels", thought the ship, "I'll have to get that fixed." It activated the drone's self-repair nanites and instructed them to fix the relays aboard the drone. The immediate surroundings were bathed in a slightly tinged light which seemed to have no source and cast no shadows. The drones were situated in a long, wide corridor that ran the length of the ship. The Quietly Confident performed the starship equivalent of a smile and instructed the drones to proceed along the corridor.
On either side of the corridor there appeared to be cargo bays, small compared to those aboard the Quietly Confident but nevertheless they were pretty sizeable. There was no sign of any accommodation facilities however. This puzzled the ship, a vessel with this low level of technology should not have its own AI core so how was it to be controlled without pilots aboard. Interesting. Perhaps the accommodation section was somewhere else.
The drones reached the end of the corridor. There was a…what was it. A door!
The ship manipulated the drones' fields carefully and pulled the door open. The door creaked as metal ground against metal for a few seconds. The ship performed the mental equivalent of a wince at the lack of care the bad engineering implied. Imperial ships were constructed with precision and care to the extent that they were in fact minor works of art. That other civilisations tended to regard ships as workhorses and put no more care into their construction than to check that their engines work properly was found by most Imperial ships to be almost a crime. This ship had clearly fallen in the latter category.
The door led to a small room decorated on all sides with primitive control consoles. All were blank of course. The drone extended a sensor field and touched the panels.
"Physical controls" It thought, "How delightfully primitive."
The room was not in itself physically very impressive. A semicircle of control desks occupied it centrally. They appeared to the ship to be constructed of some sort of low quality polymer. Definitely a workhorse. Whatever information the panels had once displayed was a mystery to the ship although it was naturally curious. The consoles were arrayed so as to surround two moulded polymer chairs which were set into the floor. They did not look very comfortable. The drones continued their search.
In the centre of the corridor the ship noticed that one of the ceiling tiles was not, in fact, a tile at all. There was a slight recess to one side of the tile which might have originally been some sort of hand hold but which was now worn away. The ship instructed one of the drones to grasp the recess with a traction field and pull it down. With a creaking sound which the ship found vaguely offensive the tile turned on its hinges and opened up. The ship enhanced the drones' optical systems and looked into the dark cabin the removal of the hatch had revealed. It could just make out the outline of a dark chamber and a ladder just inside. The ship looked at the ladder for a moment, it seemed to be folded up and ready to slide down. The drones, finding such methods of gaining height unnecessary, simply floated up through the hatch.
Once they were in the chamber the drones' affector units illuminated the room in the same ghostly light they had been using so far. This appeared to be the sleeping quarters for the crew, situated above the cargo storage areas. A single metal bed of simple and unadorned design occupied the centre. The ship performed a metallurgical analysis on the material it was composed of. Several seconds later the ship became aware that the results were available.
The bed appeared to be made of a highly brittle form of iron with a high carbon content. It had been carelessly moulded and welded together. The metal frame was covered by a single lump of spongy material which, the ship guessed, was designed to make the otherwise hard and unforgiving metal surface, somewhat kinder on the occupant's back. It was, all in all, a fairly typical bed as might be used by any stage 2 or 3 civilisation.
The ship mentally sighed, there was nothing particularly interesting here. It scanned the cold metal walls. They were adorned with flexible biological material onto which dyes seemed to have been attached. Paper. The posters seemed to be mainly concerning sporting events of some kind, but none of them actually featured a person, they mostly seemed to be some sort of advertisement. The drones moved on.
In one corner of the chamber there were two doors. The drones manipulated the first open carefully (quietly this time) and glanced inside. It appeared to be some sort of combined storage area and kitchen. A stack of paper bundles in one corner contained some sort of fine writing but the ship ignored them for the moment, there would be time to translate them later.
The drones withdrew and pulled open the next door. What met them was surprising. The room was scarcely larger than a single, person sized, chamber which occupied it. Several lights blinked carefully on the chamber and for a second the ship wondered where the power was coming from before it traced a cable running from the chamber to the wall. The ship remembered that there had been a small solar panel array on the hull. That was what was powering this chamber.
In comparison to the rest of the craft the chamber appeared to have been carefully constructed and was painted in a silvery white. On the front a legend plate held instructions in some illegible language and several illuminated control buttons. At the top was a glass window which would allow the drones to see into the interior but it had a thin layer of ice on it. The ship took a temperature reading of it - it was cold, very cold.
The ship set the drones' laser beams to a low power level and played it across the window, causing the ice to near-instantly liquefy and then evaporate. When it had finished the ship could clearly see the contents of the chamber.
A severed human head.
The head was surprisingly human although missing the slight forehead bulge which might indicate a genetically enhanced brain. The face also bore a large quantity of facial hair but that did not prove anything. To the ship it was clear that this must be some sort of primitive cryo-stasis chamber. It was also clear that the person who was contained inside, was very much dead.
The ship had been prepared for encountering lifeforms inside and had outfitted its drones with a neural scanner. Even in lifeforms which have been dead for incredibly long amounts of time there is often still a readable brain pattern, and there is always a detectable pattern of some kind. Because this head had been cryogenically frozen the ship hoped that there might some be some very intact patterns.
It ran the scan. Curious. The brain patterns were completely blank. The ship ran the scan using the scanner on the other drone just to be sure. Still nothing.
That should not be possible. The ship ran an energy signature check, there was a faint pattern imprinted on the lifeform's brain. The conclusion the ship reached after a fraction a second of thinking was a frightening one. Someone had used a weapon which had not just killed this person, but had done so by completely wiping his mental patterns while leaving the physical structure of the brain completely intact. To the ship's knowledge, nothing was capable of doing that. Inside its Mind matrix it mentally shuddered. This was not good news.
The drones withdrew slowly from the chamber room and slid gently down into the main corridor. They continued their exploration of the ship.
At the other end of the corridor there was another door, the ship sighed inwardly and gently extended the drones field to manipulate the door away from its closed position. It wouldn't budge. Unlike the other door which had merely been closed, this one was actually held in place by some sort of latching mechanism.
As the ship was getting steadily more exasperated it did something it probably shouldn't have. As a last, angry attempt it withdrew both drones to a safe distance and sent a stream of super-hot plasma towards the door. Within a few fractions of a second the door disintegrated and the ship deactivated the drone's weapon.
It was still congratulating itself on having so carefully selected the method to open the door without damaging the surroundings a few milliseconds later when it became aware of frantic calls from the AI cores on the drones. Although the drones the ship had chosen were slaved to the Mind of the Quietly Confident but they did have their own rudimentary intelligence, it was that which was calling out now. They knew what was happening but could not conceive of how to stop it.
The ship watched the atmosphere flooding out into space for a nanosecond or so before realising that the drones were being sucked out with it. The ship instructed the drones to create a strong anti-gravity field at precisely the same strength as the pressure from the escaping gas. This had the effect of holding the drones in place as the life-supporting atmosphere swirled away from around them.
Oops, thought the ship. It decided to try and communicate with the AI core's on the drones. "That was close!" It sent.
One drone just ignored it, the other simply replied, "Yes."
"Weren't you a little worried?" The ship asked the talkative one.
"What would be the point of worrying?" The drone sent back.
"Ah, yes, of course." The ship signed off. Idiot it thought.
Hoping desperately that the crew wouldn't want to come aboard the alien ship - not that there would be any danger of it not being able to reconstitute the atmosphere, it was just that the ship hated to admit it had made a mistake - it sent the drones onwards.
It saw the problem instantly. The images from the drone's sensors showed numerous fractures in the ship's hull in this room. Far too small to be seen from space, but large enough to let the internal atmosphere escape. Never mind the ship thought somewhat belatedly. Despite the fractures it was the centrepiece of the room that took the ship's breath away.
A piece of history! It thought to itself. The object that occupied the centre of the room was doughnut shaped and surrounded by coils of metal wire. The dull metal of the torus still shone with a strange lustre in the affector light. It was without doubt, a fusion reactor. The ship used the drone's sensor field to find the generators and the power grid. It was compatible, with a bit of adaptation to that on the drones.
For the first time in the mission (at this point nearly 43 seconds old) the ship was glad it had sent two drones. It instructed the nanites inside the less talkative drone to begin reassembling the internal parts and reconfiguring the power controls. The tiny robots sliced at molecular bonds with their incredibly weak fields and reassembled the component atoms into new molecules. Within seconds the reconfiguration was complete and the drone settled down onto the power conduit. Now it would serve merely as a power source for the ship.
Judging by its current intelligence, thought the ship, it probably counts as a promotion.
For the first time in many millennia power coursed through the circuits of the ship. The one (still active) drone raced to the control centre. It was just in time to see the panel light up, displaying some of the information the ship must have gathered years ago. The warning barely appeared on the screen for a fraction of a second but it was enough time for the ship to consider, condemn its own actions and activate the defence fields on the two drones.
Half a second later the ship blew itself out of space destroying everything within 10km. The two drones were left floating in space, reflecting the energy off their fields and back to its source. The ship made the Mind equivalent of a exasperated cry and displaced its two drones back into its cargo bay.
With its primary sensor field it scanned the wreckage, but nothing had survived above the size of individual atoms. It had not been a large explosion, but then it had not needed to be.

The crew of the Quietly Confident were now clamouring for explanations, seconds after the fact. For them the mission had only lasted 55 seconds, for the ship it had seemed like an eternity. For that amount of time part of it had been inside a part of history. It cursed the forethought of whatever species had foreseen this eventuality and prepared for it and turned its attention to its crew. Pacifying them might turn out to be the most difficult job of all.

"What!" The exclamation was as loud as it was incredulous and it echoed around the main meeting room on the Quietly Confident before dying away. The others merely stared. Where a few seconds ago there had been an archaeological find of great significance, now there was only a slowly expanding sphere of molecule sized debris.
Virtually the whole crew had gathered by the view windows to watch the ship while the drones were aboard. The view window was only about 10 metres long but it was high enough for about three people to stand on top of each other - and so they were. At the request of some of the people at the back the ship had nullified the gravity field in the room allowing people to stand three high against the window. Not that they had expected to see anything, you never do really. Still, they had to feel as if they were doing their part, so around 200 of them had gathered to watch the ship while the mission took place. It was just as well that they had.
There was a faint sparkling in the view as the kinetic and mass energy of the particles was absorbed without trouble by the ship's protective field and then the view returned to one of the blackness of space punctuated only by the soft light from the few stars that were visible this far from the galactic centre.
It was Helen Jikara who broke the silence. A human Imperial operative who had signed on for a second navy stint after completing her first. She was regarded by the crew as a person who seemed to have some stories to tell but was not interested in recounting them. This suspicion was borne out by her naval records which had annoying blanks at various points. To the even slightly devious mind this suggested 'special operations'.
What her file did reveal was interesting. She had been born on a small orbital habitat in a newly colonised star system named 'Ourtius' (apparently after one of the gods of a primitive civilisation which inhabited a nearby stellar region). Helen's somewhat boisterous personality early in life had not been conductive to life on a small orbital on the frontier and she had left at age 17. What happened to her after that was not entirely clear and six years later she had suddenly appeared on the navy's books. Since she had no recorded test scores and no interview records and seemed to have bypassed the normal recruitment procedure the only conclusion that people could reach is that something happened in those six years which made any formal tests redundant. At this point the ship would normally clam up, it was obvious that it either didn't know her history or was hiding it.
Several times during her years in the navy she vanished. Strangely enough these times coincided almost exactly with events on some primitive civilisations which it was rumoured that the navy had intervened in. In the end, everyone agreed, it all came down to rumours, bargains and outright lies and curious though most of the 'Confident's crew were they tended to lose heart when faced with such a impenetrable mystery.
Despite her long navy career she had only been onboard the 'Confident for a few months and during that time she had earned herself a reputation as an outspoken and clear minded member of the crew. It was therefore no surprise to anyone that it was her who questioned the ship first - indeed, it was almost as if the crew waited for her to take the lead.

"Ship, would you like to explain a few things?"
When a ship wants to communicate using physical means it does so by means of an avatar. These are usually holo-images with a physical surface provided by super-dense fields which enclose the image. They can also however be a drone which can either have its own independent intelligence and merely serve as a messenger or be completely slaved to the sub-routine within the Mind. Both types of avatar are also controlled by a sub-routine running within the Minds own matrix. The Quietly Confident had never been confident in drones delivering its messages. Whenever possible it preferred to use the holo-image option.
The mind of the ship was still formulating its responses when a few seconds later it projected the holo-image of an avatar into the meeting room. It hardened the fields encompassing the avatar to give it a physical surface and turned it loose to explain the situation to the crew while it continued to consider what its next actions should be. It had made its decision a few milliseconds later and instructed its avatar sub-routine to steer the crew in that direction. How better to pacify them than to let them think that they had made the next decision?
An hour later the crew finally made "their" decision. The Quietly Confident would continue inwards towards the third planet but a few larger ships would also be contacted - just in case.

Tight beam message (M0029485332)
Source: General Survey Unit Quietly Confident
Destination: Special Systems Unit Glint of Steel
Encrypted E32 Level (Unbreakable)

Quietly Confident:
I am concerned. I have run into a problem at [co-ordinates attached]. We encountered a ship of ancient and unknown origin. According to procedure I sent two drones aboard and they managed to reactivate the ships power supply. However, there must have been some sort of failsafe system aboard, the ship self-destructed and nearly took both my drones with it [SIGNAL FILE ATTACHED].

Glint of Steel:
I see. This was most careless. How could you have not have detected the self-destruct system? Who knows what we could have learnt from that ship if it was still in one piece! Why did it self-destruct? There are too many unanswered questions here. Was it a malfunction? Did the ship destruct because of the presence of your drones? Because there were no humans aboard? What was its purpose? If it was intentional then why would anyone want to destroy such as ship anyway? Could you have prevented the destruct?

Quietly Confident:
I have not been playing games these last few hours. I have considered all these questions and others. It seems that their can be no other explanation than that for some reason the people who built this ship were terrified that it would fall into enemy hands and rigged it to destroy itself if it was activated without certain codes being entered.

Glint of Steel:
That does not explain how a self-destruct device could have existed at all without your sensors having detected it. Certainly magnetic field generators at this level of technology would be far too primitive to hold any reasonable amount of anti-matter without giving off stray energy.

Quietly Confident:
I have a thought about that. What if the ship was so primitive that it didn't even use anti-matter? There were high concentrations of a number of highly unstable radioactive elements in the debris shell. It is possible that the ship was destroyed using a purely nuclear Fission-Fusion-Fission device. Such weapons are very weak compared to their modern counterparts but this was a demolition device - not a missile. This would explain why I failed to detect it.

Glint of Steel:
But why would any civilisation be afraid that such an old ship would fall into anyone's hands? There is much that still does not make sense.

Quietly Confident:
You are thinking in terms of the advanced technologies that we possess. It is quite possible that that ship represents the peak of technology that this particular civilisation had at the time. Whatever they had then, who knows what they might have now, I may need help, that ship was at least several millennia old and in that time we have advanced from a level below theirs to our current position. Who knows what technology they may possess. I don't think the ship's origin was in this system anyway, so I should be safe here but the investigation may eventually take me to wherever this species now resides and that could be…dangerous. I am not a warship, despite my designation as a military vessel.
There is also another problem, and one which I find much more disturbing. The human head inside the cryo chamber had had its brain patterns erased but the physical structure of its brain was left untouched. It appeared that some sort of weapon was able to destroy this individuals brain. To my knowledge this is simply not possible, and that makes me very nervous. I will say now that I am not prepared to continue into this system where I may very well encounter the civilisation which possesses this technology without some sort of reinforcements being available.

Glint of Steel:
Understood. We will take all possible precautions. As the senior ship in this sector I believe the best course of action will be for me to see this situation for myself. I will therefore recommend the following procedures.

1. I myself and the heavy offensive unit Strangely Silent will move towards [Co-ordinates enclosed] about ½ a light year away from the system. We will be ready there in case you need assistance.
2. All ships within this sector will go to condition yellow in case of any possible danger to them.
3. A Special Contact committee will now be formed comprising GSU (General Survey Unit) Quietly Confident SSU (Special Systems Unit) Glint of Steel HOU (Heavy Offensive Unit) Strangely Silent and MS (Megaship) Torrential Fall to oversee events unfolding on this front. (The Torrential Fall is just entering this sector and can, if necessary, provide massive backup support.)
4. I will also go as far as to appoint myself the Incident Co-ordinator for any events within the bounds of this investigation.
5. This system will no longer be referred to by its name even on E32 level code transmissions and co-ordinates will be given relative to the system's star which will now be referred to as "Protea".

I have now forwarded this message to the HOU Strangely Silent and the MS Torrential Fall.

By the way, what makes you think that the point of origin for this ship was not within the Protea system?

Quietly Confident:
Call it intuition.

** Message Stream Ends **

The Quietly Confident powered up her engines and propelled herself further into the Protea system.

Throughout time humans and later machines have sought to move through space by the most efficient means possible. In the beginning chemical rockets were used to propel small ships at minuscule (but what seemed at the time to be huge) speeds. The next development made by most civilisations is a modification of the chemical system, ion propulsion uses chemical fuels but instead of exploding the fuel vast electrical currents split the chemicals into ions and accelerate them out of the ship.
The two previous advances are closely related and it was not at all unknown for Imperial ships to encounter less advanced civilisations using both technologies at the same time. The next most advanced (and one skipped by several civilisations) were warp or "phase" ships. These ships do not really propel themselves, they create a wave of expanding space behind them and a wave of contracting space in front of them. This has the effect of pushing them forwards at speeds which can easily appear to exceed the speed of light simply because although the ship is travelling quite slowly it is travelling over compressed space and so appears to travel very quickly. This method of travel can damage the "skin" of space-time and so the usage of warp units for propulsion is not encouraged, but they do have other applications - such as inside Minds for increasing memory capacity.
The generally recognised pinnacle of space travel technology is that of hyperspacial displacement. This basically involves the formation of tiny wormholes between start and destination and it is the basis for displacers - the devices which allow people or machines to move a few million kilometres virtually instantaneously. This technology has severe disadvantages once the distances start to grow however. The energy requirements increase exponentially so that from only a small amount being needed to open a wormhole between two points a few kilometres apart, starships soon have to double their energy output to move each additional light year. This is clearly not practical as a method of interstellar travel although it enjoys widespread adoption as a method of ship to shore transport and for delivering antimatter explosives onto targets with deadly precision.
Given the inherent problems with hyperspacial displacement or "true hyperspace" travel a compromise was reached. All imperial ships use this method, no matter how fast they want to travel. Instead of creating a wormhole a ship uses its energy fields to grab onto a point in 4D space and throw itself forwards at great speed. The ship's partial protrusion into hyperspace means that the light speed barrier is nicely circumvented and everyone is happy.
It was this method that the Quietly Confident used now. Its fields slowly expanded out from the field generators, feeling their way across the membrane of real space resting between the bounds of subspace and ultraspace. When they reached a certain distance they fastened onto the membrane and extended into hyperspace on both "sides" of real-space and gave the ship just a tiny shove forwards. The kinetic energy possessed by the ship did not literally exist because of the ships partial protrusion into hyperspace - quite conveniently negating the equation E = mc2. The Quietly Confident was once again on the move. It was less than 2 hours since the destruction of the ship.

"What exactly is the danger to us?" Helen wanted to know.
The ship's avatar paused as if to contemplate. This was entirely unnecessary but the ship had found that it gave its responses more weight. "I should think that any risk to you would be negligible."
Helen looked vaguely unhappy and then realised why, "Then why did you ask the Glint of Steel for reinforcements?" She demanded.
"Ah, yes," replied the avatar, "Despite my comments to our esteemed incident co-ordinator I believe myself capable of dealing adequately with any threat that might feasibly be posed against the ship by a species of this level of technological development."
By this point Helen had started to pace back and forward in the now deserted meeting room. She glanced around momentarily to take in any changes in her surroundings. She saw Tan Someth'g coming in through one of the portals [AUTHORS INSERT: That's me Galen, in case you've fallen asleep by this point.]. He spotted the woman standing next to the slightly gangly form of the avatar and walked over to them.
"I've just seen the message the old Quietly Confident sent to our mutual friends," he said by way of introduction. "It really reassures you when some of the most powerful ships in the fleet start talking as though they are all in imminent danger of being blown out of existence!"
In comparison to Helen's chequered and mildly enigmatic background Tan was a fairly ordinary character. He was neither exceptionally tall or exceptionally short and his hair, while short, was not cut to the scalp. His brown hair was unkempt and looked like it hadn't been combed for several days although it had been washed recently and his blue eyes were piercing. It was common talk on the Quietly Confident that Tan often looked as if he was trying to cut to the back of peoples' skulls, using his eyes as lasers.
He had been born over a century and a half ago on a small orbital over a planet named Tier. He had in fact had a fairly sheltered upbringing, not even going into space until he was fifteen. Living amongst an extended family on a single continent had nevertheless seemed stifling to him and as soon as is usual he had taken a cruise through several star systems, more because it was the done thing than out of any particular desire to see space. Despite this, however he had developed a love of space which was borne out five years later and much to his parents annoyance when he decided to apply to join the navy. After the usual battery of tests and exams he had been admitted to one of the Imperial training academies.
Several years spent aboard a systems unit was to only further his love of space and he skipped from posting to posting, often gaining quite a reputation for himself by the time he moved on. When the time had come for him to choose whether to sign on for another tour of duty, he had scarcely hesitated. The tour of duty is an interesting concept and does not, as the name might imply, mean that the person is required to spend that length of time in the navy but rather that the person undertakes to remain in the navy for that much time. In reality it is possible to resign at any time but people doing so are rarely allowed to return to the navy later except in the case of exceptional circumstances.
His first posting of his second stint was aboard one of the navy's few special operations vehicles, the few ships which often see action and are crewed entirely by navy veterans. It was here that his strong build, cautious nature and agile mind earned him places on several special operations missions. It was this link in his past that gave him something in common with Helen Jikara and assured their friendship.
He had been in the navy for over a century by this point and had been stationed on over twenty different starships and orbitals. The Quietly Confident was intended basically to be a rest assignment and set against the mostly new operatives which crewed the Quietly Confident he managed to give himself quite an aura of respect. He had also learnt the lesson which most operatives take several years to master, it is all right to argue with your starship.
The avatar frowned with exasperation and turned to face the window, tracing the outline of the wall with its hand. "As I have been explaining to your friend here there is only a minimal danger."
"Then why all the alarmist nonsense?" Queried Helen, jumping back into the conversation.
The avatar turned back to face the humans, its face looked tired - entirely an illusion since the Mind of the Quietly Confident was conscious all the time and physical tiredness was as foreign to its avatars as it was to a chemical reaction. Even though, ships do suffer from a form of emotional exhaustion sometimes. "What you are describing was a message that I sent as part of standard procedure. Its contents are open to misinterpretation." "Open to misinterpretation!?!" Tan was incredulous. "That message was the Mind equivalent of a scream for help!"
"I'm afraid you exaggerate Mr Someth'g." The avatar retorted. "Minds are naturally over cautious - you know that - and in addition nothing has happened within this sector for a long time, it's possible that the Glint of Steel merely feels that something interesting is happening and it want's to be in on it. As for me, when I expressed my worry it was for the significance of this discovery - not out of any concern for my safety!" Tan and Helen were about to query the avatar further when it slowly dissolved in front of their eyes. They both sighed, the ship was slightly busy at the moment anyway, they supposed.

Far from being something which could simply be described as busy the Quietly Confident was involved in so many actions that there does not exist a word in any language to describe its activities. As well as its standard accommodation and weapons rigs the ship had primarily been outfitted as a survey ship and as such it was fitted with the most complicated sensor systems ever designed. As the ship moved slowly further towards the centre of the solar system and the planet which had been arbitrarily named Protea 3 it was constantly scanning every piece of debris that came within half a million kilometres of it. Billions of particles of space dust were scanned each second before the ship determined that they were exactly what they looked like.
Occasionally the ship saw something which might have been something dangerous, instead of refocusing its scanners to take a closer look and so risking the object being a diversion it simply displaced a small anti-matter warhead to the vicinity of the object and watched its destruction while continuing on its course.
The Quietly Confident was one of the most advanced ships ever constructed. Properly handled, not even a singularity - the most destructive force in the universe - posed a threat to it. There was simply nothing in existence that could threaten a ship of its sophistication (with the exception of another Imperial ship). At least that was what it kept telling itself as it blasted yet another few molecules of space matter out of existence. The vast probability was that none of the things it was destroying were unnatural in anyway but the Quietly Confident was far from home and for the first time in its artificial life it was very, very scared.


If I feel like it I may post a few extra chapters later on but the full document runs for about one hundred A4 pages and it would take me a very, very long time to convert that to HTML.

Oliver Pell