The FAS probeship Finder's Keepers drove through the dark between the stars. An argent 30-meter needle, tapering at either end. A shell of woven carbo-fiber and quantum nano-circuitry. Within, a frigid heart of solid anti-matter; frozen gamma-fire. Without, the hum and whine of shield-fields and plasma screens. Over it all, the deep, bass note of the Pitch Drive. Spinning ring of matter, crushed beyond all reason, driven by the spark of fluctuating vacuum. Barely ticking over in this, the cruise phase of the journey, but still formidable. It straddled the aft portion of the probe, its pulsing fields flinging metric forward. The probe rode the wave.
Within the virtual space of the probes cyber-net, souls danced. The mind-state of the probe was host to an amalgam of borrowed psyches. Volunteers from a dozen systems, from worlds and ships and stations. They lived within the probes mind, cradled in a virtual world shaped by their whims and desires. They were companions, pets, crew and passengers. They lived with the probe, spoke with it, operated some of its tertiary survey functions, helped to keep it sane. Witnessing all that it did, they would provide another point of view. And, when the probe completed its century long circuit of the dozen star systems it was assigned, they would upload their memories back to their primaries and make their lives a little richer.
Currently the probe was exploring along a swath of stars on the Rimward side of the Outer Volumes. Darting from star system to star system like a bee among flowers. Measuring and surveying and recording. Looking for something of sufficient worth or interest to justify an early return to base or the maser driven summoning of others of its kind. Yet it was not around any sun, but in the void between, that the discovery was made.
Yllin manifested into the bridge-space of the probe. Wrapping herself (e had an interest in archaic body types and was female at the moment) in an icon of flowing, ebon hair, milky skin and rounded bosom, she would have been the envy or the lust of any hormone- wracked ancient. Turning, she observed the appearance of her companion on the other side of the virtual chamber.
M'lla was not so conservative in his iconography. His form (actually gender was rather in vogue aboard ship right now) was that of a splendid, centauroid. Rock hard, equine legs and flanks rose upward into a chiseled, humanoid torso and head. Sporting a gently waving back and head ruff of sensory cilia in assorted colors and four muscular arms ending in gently writhing tendrils; he was quite the striking figure.
Yllin briefly aks'd the icons specifications and toyed with the idea of arranging a sexing with him. The possibilities of the form in both its male and female versions were interesting. But duty, after all, called. Or at least sent a polite paging signal.
Moving toward the center of the hexagonal chamber they both seemed to inhabit, the two beings began exchanging communications with each other and the probe mind. Their conversation consisted of conceptual blocks that were crafted, transmitted and incorporated into each other's thoughts at a rapid pace. Rendered into a form understandable to mere baseline minds, their discussion went something like this:
"Ok, ship. What have you got for us? You don't normally put out a summons for a couple of Witnesses on a whim, particularly in mid- transit, so can we assume that something rather big is up?" Yllin `said' with a touch of excitement. The trip so far had been moderately boring.
"You could put it that way," said the ship-mind with a touch of dryness. "You see, I've encountered something I don't understand, in a place I wasn't expecting to find anything. It seemed justified to request Witnesses."
"Something you don't understand?" M'lla asked sardonically. "Oh, do tell. What is this conundrum?"
A series of images inloaded directly to the pair's minds.
Black space and the hard pinpoints of stars. A marker grid materialized and delineated a section of sky, which expanded in their vision. Against ultimate night, a circle of smudged green and blue.
A ghostly false-color panoply of radio sources painting the heavens. The whisper and crack of fusing hydrogen, spinning neutron stars and the cosmic birthing cry all rendered visible. Against this rainbow background a circular area showing the distinctive sparkle of the radio whip crack of atmospheric discharge. Lightning.
Multi-colored hues of heat sources now filled the skies. Again in the same quadrant of sky a circular patch of anomalous warmth.
And perhaps most telling of all.
Now a palette of elemental composition. In the now conspicuous quadrant of the sky, distinctive colors knotted. Hydrogen, oxygen, methane, and something very close to chlorophyll. The stuff of life.
"I first detected this source approximately 100 minutes ago at an angle of 47 and a half degrees along the z-axis from our current line of flight. You can see the results of various frequency measurements. I should also note that the anomaly is over a light- month away from our current position and moving at approximately .1c from a stationary reference frame along a track heading directly toward the galactic rim. Based upon its initial detection and later measurements I estimate its size at over 1 million kilometers in diameter. It must of course be artificial."
Yllin had been accessing sub-menus and running analysis protocols on the results.
"Any idea as to who might have put it here? I assume you already checked the records for mention of prior missions or colonization ventures out this way."
"Of course. There is no official record of any activity out to this distance and along this vector by either FAS or any other polity we normally interact with. Of course that still leaves groups like the Hiders or the Panvirtuality or the Diamonds, but our last updates on such matters before leaving base showed no indication that either the SP's or the Sparklies were moving in this direction. The Hider's don't bother gracing us with records of their movements or intentions naturally, but it is unlikely in the extreme that they could have traveled out this far given the limitations of their drive systems."
M'lla had been doing his own data mining.
"Any chance that this thing could be Muuh? We don't actually know how extensive their holdings are, and they don't bother telling us either. Or maybe the Deepers are setting up housekeeping? They like deep space habitats don't they?"
The ship somehow managed to convey mild condescension without ever changing its tone.
"Highly unlikely in all cases. The Muuh could certainly construct something on this scale, but generally don't go in for that sort of thing. The Deepers are mainly concentrating their efforts in the Eta Carina Rush right now and don't build this large even if they could get out this far without us knowing about it, which they couldn't."
Yllin was quick to see where this was heading.
"So what you're saying is that this whatever-it-is probably isn't built by anyone we know. That it's alien. Non-human."
"That would seem to be a rather distinct possibility," the ship replied quietly.
M'lla's sensory ruff was rippling with excitement.
"Aliens! This could change everything! First contact with another non-human species! We'll be famous if this pans out. We have to stop and try to make contact!" The probes reply was measured.
"We don't know for sure that whatever we've detected is of non- terragen manufacture. In fact the odds are that it's not. I would advise against getting too excited until we have more data to work with."
"To get more data we have to get closer don't we?" asked Yllin. "Which means we have to run an intercept course with the object, yes? Which means we might as well plan on stopping and checking it out thoroughly."
"Well, yes," the ship replied, "But I didn't want you getting your hopes up only to be disappointed. Naturally we must stop and examine the phenomenon more thoroughly."
"When," M'lla asked tightly, "do we arrive?"
There followed several weeks of high-g deceleration, important only as a point of interest to the probes non-material crew, followed by even more weeks of maneuvering and boosting back up to a velocity to first catch up to and then match course with the unknown object.
In due course, there came a day when the probe was cruising in a position a few hundred thousand kilometers from the mysterious artifact. Radar and lidar beams probed, multi-frequency scanners scanned, and insect sized microprobes dropped away from the main ship, thrusting toward the unknown on ghostly candle flames of anti- matter annihilation. A short time thereafter, another meeting took place in the ships bridge-space.
The probe spoke first.
"In the interests of efficiency, I shall summarize what we have learned about the artifact so far."
"The results of our initial explorations are quite definitive. The artifact is a dynamically supported sphere of just over 1 million kilometers in diameter. The outer surface of the sphere supports what at first appeared to be a single extensive biosphere of approximately terrestrial composition. Closer examination however, has revealed that much of the sphere is apparently covered by sterile water while approximately 48% of the surface is actually divided up into several thousand separate terrestrial class biomes, separated by effector barriers of near angelnet sophistication. Light and heating for each biome is provided by a reflector system suspended by light pressure emanating from an opening at the center of each biome cell. This, combined with the measured mass of the artifact, leads to the obvious conclusion that it is enclosing a star."
"Finally, in the nine days we have been examining the artifact at close range, we have received no response to hails or active scanning modes. Our probes and telescopic observations have revealed no indications of biological or cybernetic sentience active on the surface. A number of automatic maintenance and control systems, but no consciousness of any kind. The artifact appears to be completely automated, but otherwise deserted."
Yllin was growing impatient with the probes penchant for pedantry.
"So what your saying is that it's a dyson. A dynamically supported, solid dyson. I've heard of things like this. There's a couple of them in the MPA isn't there? Do you think they built this thing? That it's human after all? But abandoned for some reason?"
M'lla was projecting disagreement on an emotive sub-band.
"I don't think so, Ylly (during the weeks that the probe had moved to intercept the artifact, a rendezvous of a different sort had also taken place, and affectionate diminutives were now common between the two)."
"Even as much as they love big engineering projects, not even the MPA, or anyone else for that matter, has ever tried to move a star, let alone boost it up to .1c. What would be the point? Stars are everywhere. Why would you need to take one somewhere?"
"Also, take a look at these radiometric dating assays taken from some of the reflectors. They're over a million years old! Somebody built this thing, but they weren't human."
Yllin was projecting a mix of excitement, anticipation, and a tinge of nervousness.
"Someone new then. A whole new alien race! We'll be famous! Interviews on the Net. Visits to all the big empires and primary worlds. Our future is made!"
"Before you get too excited, I think there is something you should see," the probe managed to interject a tone into its bland statement that instantly overrode anything else on the minds of the two Witnesses.
"This image just came in from one of the micro-orbiters mapping the surface of the artifact. Remember that this...vessel seems the only word for it, is moving outward from the regions of the galaxy we are familiar with toward the galactic rim. And that it is apparently very old."
Once again images were inloaded into the pairs minds. A view of the sphere looking down from mid-level orbit. Ocean and clouds, looking slightly curdled in areas where the nearly invisible effector barriers divided one region from another. Near the center of each divided region, what at first appeared to be clusters of islands, but were in fact continents. The view zoomed in on one continental cluster in particular.
M'lla frowned. "There's something about that cluster that looks familiar. Like I've seen it before. But that's impossible, right? But still. Give me a moment...Trees! Those continents down there are the same as those on Trees, in the Inner Sphere! Here, I've called up a map overlay! It is! It is Trees! This thing has a perfect recreation of an Inner Sphere Garden World on it? That's wild!"
"If you think that's `wild'," the probe said dryly, "then take a look at this."
Another image, another cluster of continents. This time there was no hesitation, no searching of memories or data stores in order to achieve recognition. The continental outlines below were known to every schoolchild and crechling, every newly minted droid or aioid of turingrade or beyond.
"Earth!" M'lla would have choked on the word if his projection had the wherewithal for choking. "But, that, that can't be! How?!"
The ship interrupted with a high, clear note followed immediately with an announcement whose tone and pacing was carefully designed to forestall interruptions.
"Warning! We are being actively radar scanned from multiple sources on the artifact and in orbit. Recommend we withdraw to a minimum distance of 100 million kilometers."
"Just withdraw? Nyen!" Yllin was having her first experience with fear and wasn't liking it. "Ship, this is too big and too weird for us. We need backup, we need advice, and we need to not be here. Rev up the drive. Get us out of here. Get us back to base. Now!"
"M'lla, do you concur?" Such decisions must be unanimous under most circumstances, although if mission safety was threatened the ship could override all others.
M'lla was experiencing shock for the first time, much like Yllin was experiencing fear, and could only nod his concurrence. The ship was easily able to interpret the gesture and acted accordingly.
Drive energies flared, building toward critical values. Shields erected and stabilized and navigation sub-routines activated. The probe began to move, first gradually and then rapidly increasing acceleration to emergency levels. Within a matter of seconds it had broken orbit. Within a matter of minutes it was lost in the dark between stars.
As the enigma that was the artifact began to shrink in their rear view, Yllin found herself pondering. The artifact was a mystery of galactic proportions. An alien dyson being used as a starship. Thousands of habitats covering its surface with plenty of room for thousands more. And among those thousands, one in particular. A duplicate of humanities homeworld from how many millennia ago? Sixty or seventy thousand years at least, she figured. Just wait until the high minds of the FAS got wind of this. They'd blow their circuits.
It was all so unreal, finding such a thing as this. More like some virch-drama then something that happened in the real world. Yes, this would make a marvelous adventure for the `tainment nets. Exploring the unknown reaches at the edge of civilization and finding strangeness. Yes, it had been a most marvelous adventure.
"Yllin, M'lla how are you feeling?" the shipmind sounded slightly nervous, " Was the simulation to your liking?"
"Very much so, ship. At the time it seemed completely real. I almost forgot it was a virch. You do good work."
"Excellent work, actually," M'lla stretched and smiled widely. "I was completely convinced. The reality factor was flawless. I actually felt nervous or fearful a couple times there."
"Thank you. It passes the time. On another note, we are on schedule and should be arriving at the next star on our itinerary in 3.68 years or 34 days ship-time."
"Excellent, ship. We're both looking forward to it.
"As am I. Now, on to more immediate matters. Shall I schedule dinner for 1730 hours? Perhaps poolside overlooking the Valles Marinaris?"
Within its control chamber the Keeper withdrew its mind from the control interface and relaxed. Using sub-quantum string resonance technology to rewrite the minds and memories of the beings aboard the encroaching vessel was distasteful in the extreme, but the Mission must remain inviolate. The Keeping must not be compromised. Having curious younglings wandering about its many biomes was not to be tolerated.
Equally unacceptable would have been destroying the probe as it neared the Keeping. Not to mention counterproductive. The terragens, for all their manic diversity were virtually universal in their fetish of curiosity. The loss of one probe would only bring others. Better to convince this vessel that nothing of interest had been discovered and that the experience was nothing more than a cybernetic dream. By the time another probe ventured this far, the Keeping would be far from here. Only the need to perform a routine recalibration of the in-flight shields had prompted a slowing to half of normal cruising speed in the first place. Soon they would be back up to normal velocity and the protection of the Peoples avocation would be complete.
As a final precaution, the Keeper routed a message thru the Prime Radiant to the mobile cluster in closest proximity to the younglings expanding civilization. Contact with a new species would distract the younglings for a time and, with a little subtle prodding, shift their focus from this area of space to regions more `interesting'.
In their long history the People had seen much. The discovery of the Prime Radiant at Galactic Center had opened the cosmos to them and let the People spread their spore across a hundred galaxies. It had granted them discoveries unparalleled. But some of those discoveries brought disturbing knowledge:
The Harbinger, approaching across the intergalactic gulf. The People had sourced its vast enigma long before the transmission from the Third Galaxy had brought its strident warning.
The Gigasphere, a made thing dwarfing galaxies (made by whom? For what?), whose arms of gravitation reached across the curve of heaven, drawing in galaxies across half a billion light-years toward a destiny unknown.
And finally, overarching both these mysteries, the mind shattering works of the Deep Night Runners. Dancers on the edge of gravity and chaos, whose ever-traveling constructs, swollen with relativistic mass, were slowly, inexorably, and all but undetectably, altering the expansion of the universe itself. Remaking space-time for some purpose that not even the greatest of the People could understand.
All in all, the universe is potentially a dangerous place. And a prudent being plans ahead. The People could not yet interfere with the vast forces they had seen moving in the dark. They might never be able to, despite their best efforts. But perhaps they could survive them.
While many worked to achieve their races greatest potential, others had stepped down from the transcendent heights from where they had once reached across the stars, the better to become inconspicuous. They had used the Radial Net to spread themselves far, the better to survive as a species. And they had created the Keepings, forging arks of life to preserve the genetic treasure chests of naturally evolved ecosystems and move them to the cloaking depths of intergalactic space.
Perhaps all the efforts of the People were futile. Perhaps they would fail and die. The Keeper did not know. But the People could only try, in this universe of enigmatic titans, to survive and thrive as best they could. It seemed a worthy goal.
Enough introspection. The Keeper and its cohorts had much to do. There were shields to recalibrate and a journey to resume. Time to get back to work.
Focusing its mind on the tasks at present, the Keeper rustled its branches, summoned its choir, and got back to work.