MAKING CONTACT - by Tarot Barnes
00:00:00001 A.I.EYE2: Maintenance Cycle Complete.
00:00:00004 A.I.EYE2: Online; Beginning Search.
01:14:02343 A.I.EYE2: False
01:14:03344 A.I.EYE2: False
01:14:04345 A.I.EYE2: False
01:14:05346 A.I.EYE2: CANDIDATE!
01:14:06349 A.I.EYE2: False
01:14:06350 A.I.EYE2: CANDIDATE!
01:14:06351 A.I.EYE2: CANDIDATE!
01:14:06352 A.I.EYE2: CANDIDATE!
01:14:06353 A.I.EYE2 _ A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53:
Request Check, location: I.S.C. 518,208. Reason: "CANDIDATE!"
01:14:06354 A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53 _ A.I.EYE2:
01:14:06355 A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53 _ A.I.EYE2:
01:14:06356 A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53 _ LocalCHAN4:
Halt Order: Offaxis Search: Check I.S.C. 518,208
A.I.EYE4: Indeterminate: 48%
01:14:08361 A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53 _ GlobalCHAN53:
Halt Order: Offaxis Search: Check I.S.C. 518,208
A.I.EYE4: Indeterminate: 23%
A.I.EYE2: Indeterminate: 42%
A.I.EYE4: Indeterminate: 49%
01:14:10366 A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53 _ A.I.EYE2:
Request Report on I.S.C. 518,208
01:14:10367 A.I.EYE2 _ A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53:
Attached: I.S.C. 518,208 "Non-random EM chatter."
01:14:11368 A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53 _ I.S.C.-Central Intelligence.:
Request Check on attached: "I.S.C. 518,208 'Non-random EM chatter.'"
01:14:11369 I.S.C.-Central A.I _ A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53:
01:14:11370 A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53 _ I.S.C.-Central Intelligence:
Request False. Nonrandom EM chatter = Prev Identified: Object I.S.C. 518,208-e ("Planetary Gas Giant").
01:14:11371 I.S.C.-Central A.I _ A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53:
Resume Normal Function.
01:14:11372 A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53 _ GlobalCHAN53:
Resume Normal Function.
8 Months later.
Imperial S.E.T.I. Observatory: 18
Orbiting I.S.C. 518499
They called the star the Dustball, or the Lightbulb or -- when the days dragged particularly long -- the Ember. It also had another name; Barnard's Star, though this was not known to them.
The Ember was ancient. Having gained form in the surging million year ripples which followed the creation of the universe, it had suckled hydrogen from the first turbulent molecular clouds, fusing it into helium until the furnace at its core had reached such intensity that the flare of light and heat was the birth scream of the foetal galaxy. Reaching maturity 6 billion years before the current population of stars had even been conceived, it slowed down, watching its larger, hotter, siblings race through life, gorging their mass into exotic new forms of matter like oxygen and carbon until they literally popped with the effort.
One by one its family departed, leaving a generation of population II stars which in turn vanished, leaving hot young sparks; adolescents, but younglings with a remarkable new talent. One which put even the exotic carbon to shame.
Or more accurately, put it to use.
Ancient, but not close to its senescence, the Ember had nonetheless developed some interesting eccentricities; one was a rare but violent temper, another was a tendency to wander.
But most of the time it was quiet. Content to slumber as the sparks fizzed and gabbled.
It was the Ember's cool fire which attracted the Empire. While its nephews and grand-nephews waged an unceasing argument, flooding the universe with unending electromagnetic chatter, the Ember burned softly. Almost as quiet as space could get, it was the perfect place to anchor an interstellar observatory.
The observatory, resembled an enormous pinecone with 30,000 flakes; each one an ear which endlessly flicked from star to star to star, listening.
The work was some of the most important in the Empire. Without it, there might not have been an Empire, yet its endless boredom attracted few volunteers. The Functional Intelligences that inhabited the equipment did 99.99% all the analysis and nine days in ten, an operator might do nothing more demanding than log in.
On the tenth day, however...
To the minuscule Functional Intelligence, A.I.EYE2, the galaxy buzzed, literally. Its single dish-shaped ear heard not sound, but the interstellar radio hum of solar flares. In its tiny mind, each star was a song, every stellar cluster a chorus. It observed them all, critiqued their electromagnetic voices and, usually, passed impassive judgement on their mundane content.
A.I.EYE2, like its 30,000 siblings, sought not the song, but the dissonance. Panning space, the intelligence listened for the tiny patterns in a star's voice that betrayed an understudy.
To date, none of the ten thousand stars A.I.EYE2 regularly judged had demonstrated anything more interesting than the re-energised falsetto of a cannibal pulsar, but... there had been some intriguing possibilities. Over the last several months, the star centred almost directly in the middle of its arc had started to sound... odd, as if its voice were cracking. So far A.I.EYE2's superior intelligences had dismissed the dissonant notes, but A.I.EYE2 didn't understand failure, just the search.
Slowly, A.I.EYE2 panned its ear, hearing nothing but the usual harmonies. Panning back, it heard the same and yet... something was wrong; someone was singing off key. Its tiny mind could not think as such, but in referencing the base average it had compiled over so many turns, it found an unidentifiable discrepancy. The quirk was not far enough outside the norm to justify direct action, but on its next pass, it paid more attention to the probable source and...
The conclusion flashed through A.I.EYE2's tiny mind with such force that it was forced to pause; a hard wired reaction that allowed every flicker of power to focus on confirming, checking and then referencing its findings.
There was no mistake. On its own authority, A.I.EYE2 broke rank with its array, rapidly sweeping back to where it detected the dissonance; star I.S.C. 518,208.
A.I.EYE2 rapidly flicked through its logs, checking against the earlier disappointments. There was a similarity and for a few tenths of a second the Intelligence considered disregarding the find, until its logic tables demanded that the signal's unparalleled coherence be investigated.
Immediately A.I.EYE2 shot a report off to the array's supervising intelligence, A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53. The controlling intelligence checked the findings, referenced its logs, found the same similarity but had no hesitation in ordering all four Ears in A.I.EYE2's net to track the discordant star. All four confirmed the unique signal, prompting the array to order every ear under its command to break formation and begin tracking. First two, than three, and finally all four arrays reported a powerful candidate signal from I.S.C. 518,208.
A.I.SUPEYE-ARRAY53 then contacted its superior in the Imperial Stellar Cartographical mainframe, attaching the array's findings. The mainframe took two whole seconds weighing possibilities and then contacted three other supervising intelligences with telescopes at equidistant positions to the first, instructing them to target I.S.C. 518,208.
With 2,016 baselines between the 64 ears spread over the observatory, the mainframe was able to superposition the radio waves; artificially building up the ones it wanted to hear while canceling out the others. Armed with past records it could tune out the star, I.S.C. 518,208, and its two noisy gas giants, leaving nothing but faint yet pure electromagnetic pulses which could have no natural origin.
The resolution was not enough to determine where in the star's system the signal originated, but that was unimportant; with an unambiguously artificial transmission, the mainframe's priority was to record as much as possible for later analysis. Past experience had taught its programmers how arbitrary the universe might be; a slight undulation of the interstellar medium could drown out laser signals between planets, let alone radio waves between stars.
A global command was issued, ordering every ear and array capable of tracking the discordant star to move. For long moments half of the pinecone observatory's surface appeared to ripple like a pebble-struck pool as thousands upon thousands of convex ears turned on the suddenly naked transmission.
Even before the first telescope began to swing, the mainframe was conferencing with both of its sibling computers and its own backup system, then negotiating a 10% power spike from the station's reactor. At the same time, it was building a long list of tasks and objectives, while also writing a report for its organic superiors. Following its self-generated instructions, it dedicated an enormous fraction of its processing power to coordinating with the Ear's master intelligence, analysing each of the millions of streams of data and conducting the results safely into the memory mainframe.
An equally large fraction of itself was speaking with that enormous archive, requesting a detailed history of I.S.C. 518,208 and a copy of all signals received from it. By collating that information -- the mainframe added tags over the previous alerts A.I.EYE2 and a half dozen other ears had generated - it would be possible to expose any previous transmissions and approximately date when broadcasting had begun.
Barely fifteen seconds had passed between A.I.EYE2's first discovery and the enormous observatory-wide movement.
Only two technicians, one idly listening to random stellar voices, the other scratching out a report, were on duty in the control centre when the signal was detected; that was less than usual, but not by much. Undemanding work did not require much supervision.
Einn, the first to see the alert could only blink in surprise at the massive telescope movement. Then, as the implications sunk in, his hands began to move as he opened more and more of the flood of records popping into view before him.
Irrationally, a surge of embarrassment heated his neck when I.S.C. 518,208's location, and distance, were highlighted.
6.01 light years. Not even the third most distant star.
Of course there was no shame in failing to spot evidence of intelligent life, even from so close a neighbour. Mathematically, Einn knew the inverse square rule gave a significant bias to stars within a hundred and twenty light years. Still... it was the second closest sun. Surely they should have seen something if someone was there?
In haste, he closed the search and ran his fingers over his board. A forest of holographic history undulated beneath his fingers. The system was "Average"; a hot, midsized metallic star surrounded by a mixture of largely rocky planets which followed a nearly mathematical curve in mass and distance. He briefly wondered why it'd never been cited for more intense study. Life was the product of a complex and demanding sum that, nonetheless, was as predictable as 2+2. It required circumstances so exacting that the necessary arrangement of stars and planets, gravity and gasses, might only occur naturally a few thousand times in the galaxy, but when they did happen, life was guaranteed to appear.
So, the technician wondered, why when presented with a system that had every hallmark of balancing the equation, had no one thought to take a closer look?
Then his eyes flicked down the text and found the heading, 'Previous Contact.'
I.S.C. 518,208 had been studied. Seven centuries before, the warship, Empress Seor 2181, had used the system as a transition point and the captain, recognising the planetary equation, had had her crew log a preliminary report.
Einn was disappointed, but unsurprised, by the account's sketchiness; no one could do a proper survey with a warship's sensors, but the few concise paragraphs were enough to explain why no one had bothered with a follow up investigation.
I.S.C. 518,208 was a text book case, from its warm sun out to an asteroid deflecting mid-system giant. Even its cometary hydrology was perfect. Nurtured in the tranquil locus of the equation, life had taken root exactly where the mathematics said it should; a beautiful blue green planet in the sun's hot zone. Einn's eyebrows rose briefly when he read a footnote suggesting that the lifeforms might actually have evolved there, which was novel to say the least in a galaxy which relied on panspermia to propagate organisms.
But, while the world's surprising diversity of life was interesting, non-sapient organisms weren't important, and the Empire had consigned I.S.C. 518,208 to the depths of the database.
Over the succeeding seven hundred years, the system's file had been reopened less than dozen times; the life bearing third planet would have made the perfect site for a colony... but the Empire had efficient methods for controlling its population and never needed breathing space. The system might also have been acquired for the hydrocarbon reserves which were likely to be rich and deep, but it existed uncomfortably close to the caul of the Dark Stars -- perhaps within just a few weeks of the Fallen Capital itself, and no amount of plastic was worth the fallout of a confrontation with that evil culture.
But while the Empire hadn't found the planet worthy of attention, someone else had, and it seemed they liked the place enough to take up residence...
Not turning away from the still live signal, Einn snapped his fingers to call his friend back from the world of data points and discarded commas.
Skekund, who had been warring with a S.E.T.I. officer's recurring nemesis - explaining, with correct jargon, why a good candidate signal was nothing of the sort - started to growl at the distraction, only to let her jaw drop. Coming back to the world with a shock, she clipped her hip trying to vault the desk's corner.
"It's confirmed?" She slapped him gleefully on the back, staring with undisguised longing at the delicate tracery of the wave. "Last month we had that crazy Steffan..."
"The F.I.'s already confirm the source as outside the system," her friend shook his head, placing his finger above the stark white dot of I.S.C. 518,208. "6.015 light years."
"Still tracking in," Einn answered, "it was looking at I.S.C. 108961; two hundred by one fifty degrees off bearing."
Studly was an array telescope, similar to the radio dishes, except that it wasn't attached to the station; 220,000 kilometres away, flying in a pattern so precise they required lasers to maintain formation, the sixteen reflector spacecraft flew around their receiver at the L2 lagrange point behind an artificial black body the Empire had installed for the observatory. Unlike the observatory, Studly was an optical telescope with the ability to search well into the sub millimetre band; it being a scientific irony that a telescope designed to observe the miniscule wavelengths of light required an order of magnitude more distance between each component than arrays looking for radio waves of many kilometres in length.
"Seven hundred seconds."
Sliding into the secondary station and eagerly entering her own command string, Skekund's fingers jumped back and forth across the holographic controls like a pair of energetic ballet dancers. When the results of her inquiry materialised, she studied them and then nodded, "Pattern is regular, but I don't see any repetition; whoever it is they're not going out of their way to get our attention. Are the F.I.'s sure this is real?"
"Look at the modus; it doesn't repeat but there is a pattern."
"Are you thinking of a singularity?"
"Would have to be; the planet can't have been inhabited more than seven hundred years."
"Not a lot of time to go from the bronze age to mechanisation," the Skekund agreed, tapping her teeth, "of course, it could just be an S.O.S." One of the ironies of their work was that on the rare occasions when a signal was detected, it usually came from an intelligent source which had already been discovered and come under attack. The need to distinguish between a genuinely alien signal, and Pel's leaky reactor was the reason their work wasn't entirely handled by Functional Intelligences.
"My first thought," Einn answered, trying to level his voice in contrast to his partner's growing excitement, "but it's not in any format I'm familiar with."
Skekund continued to squint at her display, her grin faltering slightly as she admitted, "...And it's weak; do we have a seismic report for eighty two oh eight? If that's a standard Grunzwei star then it looks like we're in the upper middle of its cycle and I don't like the look of those coronal magnetic fields."
"It's no star quake," Einn shook his head, "not unless this one is setting the record for consistent massive mass ejections; the probable source is between... one forty eight and one fifty two from the primary."
The two worked for several minutes, steadily eliminating every single possibility that the signal was either a natural source - sheer random chance meant that even stars would start to count in primes given enough time - or an artificial, but known one.
Only once they had exhausted every possibility on the tablet - and a few more they concocted on the spot - did they allow themselves to look each other in the face, and grin.
"It's alien," Einn breathed.
"There's definite sidereal motion," Skekund beamed, "too soon to say if there's an orbit there but..." she used one elegant nail to tap a holographic window, then drag it so it was superimposed on top of another, "I'd say that it's a pretty close match for the third planet."
"Well, don't get excited; might still just be a curious third party. I'm not so keen to get out of this tour that I want to jump into a penal battalion." Einn murmured, referring to the early history of S.E.T.I. when an overeager officer named Pel killed more than a thousand people.
Ironically, had her enthusiasm been warranted Pel would actually have been rewarded; even with the loss of life, a forsaken colony might number up to a billion people and the Empire would sacrifice a fleet for their salvation.
But the diverted warship had found no colony, no life-bearing planets, no system except a single solitary ball of iron orbiting its parent star. Their entire journey had been a monumental waste of time. Had Pel conducted even the most basic investigation, she would have realised that a system lacking both a meteor shield and a significant planet-satellite pair was incredibly unlikely to shelter any kind of life.
The candidate signal had been nothing more than a Scalantran freighter using the planet as an anchor while its crew unsheathed and repaired their reactor, 26 years before.
Still, Pel might have survived; even a thousand years later, it was still common for signals to be misidentified. But the warship her report had diverted had been designated as head of convoy DD-165, on route through a feral sector of the empire's perimeter. Subsequent investigation determined that the loss of an intersystem liner and its thousand passengers were directly attributable to the destroyer's absence, and her negligence.
"It would get you back into action, though," his friend pointed out with a delicate chuckle.
"Hmmph, if I want to commit suicide, I'll walk into Her Highness's quarters and ask for a quickie; it'd add up to the same thing."
No one knew exactly what had happened to Pel, or her commanding officer. Legend said they were ordered to charge a Planetary Protector without even the negligible defence of their swords, while their Houses were fined the entire cost of the liner.
"Some of the humans I've met say it's good to die in bed," Skekund quipped, "...but not like that." Female Primes were universally idolised by their male Betan subordinates, but their outstanding beauty was offset by their sheer lethality. Any Betan who displeased a female Prime was likely to end up as a non-cohesive mass, approximately one-half centimetre thick and up to three meters in diameter.
"What makes you think I'd ever make it to the bed?"
"Depends how much you splattered," Skekund grinned, about to say more when the control room's computer interrupted with a chirp, announcing in eloquently accented Arion, "Studly has reached position and is receiving images, would you like to view the data now?"
The equivalent of trying to read a book through a hair thick fibre optic wire, Studly's sole advantage was that while the observatory's ears were incapable of resolving anything as small as a continent, it could resolve individual rivers in true colour.
In normal operation, the telescope scanned individual planets, looking for bursts of light which might signify cities or other signs of industry which signify occupation. It was a slow process, requiring many seconds of analysis per planet, but much more accurate than radio interferometry and had the added bonus of being invaluable when the former revealed a possible candidate. Pel might not have made her disastrous report if she'd had access to even the most primitive of Studly's ancestors.
"Yes, thank you," Einn nodded, holding his palms flat to the console and wiping to clean the board. "There is more than one accent in that voice suite you know."
"Her Majesty is from the capital," Skekund shrugged primly, "she can't help it if she prefers a little 'refinement.'" Then she ordered, "Dim lights 30%."
Einn took the barb with a wounded grin, but turned his attention on the large two-dimensional hologram.
"Pretty," Skekund leaned forward on her elbows, "if you like it green."
"Not everyone likes sand in their socks," Einn chuckled. "What's the resolution?" Six light years was by no means the limit of Studly's range and the image was still amazingly clear; he and Skekund might have been looking at something from their own system.
"14.07 kilometres to the centimetre; we could take the arrays further apart... but I don't fancy spending the next week looking for them if they lose synchronisation."
"Me neither," Einn shook his head, "not without Her Majesty's authorisation."
"Shame we can only see the daylight side," Skekund chewed her lip, "I'd have liked to see if they have any cities; get an idea of their population size and advancement."
"If someone's there, they've got to have at least one."
"Not always," she disagreed, "there was Dezrezpid... Petyem, oh and Toltna; all totally dispersed societies."
Einn just grunted, "We can guesstimate their population; Seor 2181 visited seven hundred years ago, so they can't have been there any longer than that." He rolled his eyes, calculating, "if they had a Bronze Age starting tech base, they'll have about five, six hundred million... maybe a billion people if they've discovered antibiotics and follow the usual population patterns."
"Speaking of which; there's not much land," Skekund murmured, consulting the original report, "only a hundred and fifty million square kilometres; almost 50% of it outside tolerance ranges. That's not a lot of space to support a large population unless the biosphere's unusually fecund." She hmm'd, and then ordered, "Studly; narrow wavelength. Let's look at the mid-infrared spectrum and cycle upwards from... 1.4 micrometers."
Instantly the picture changed, the true colours of visible light bleeding out into a false spectrum of yellows, greens and blues, each slowly swirling as the dispersed array of satellites expanded through steadily longer wavelengths.
"That's a lot of CO2," Einn blinked in surprise.
"And monoxide; methane... sulphur dioxide," Skekund echoed, equally shocked as the image rotated back through her original specification, "could be a volcano I guess, maybe grass or forest fire... but I doubt it. The dispersion is all wrong. This is the... lesser continental division, isn't it?"
Einn glanced back at the minute globe on his desk and nodded, "Yes; the greater division is just coming over the horizon on the right."
"I wish we could see more," Skekund sighed, "if there're going to be population concentrations anywhere, there's more breathing room on the larger continent."
"Assuming they got dropped there."
"True," the Seeding race wasn't particularly careful when it chose to create a colony, and seemed as likely to deposit its abductees on volcanic plateaus, or feverish swamps as fertile pasture.
"Wait, computer freeze!" Einn ordered suddenly, then apologised for the outburst, "sorry, but look; haloalkanes and chlorofluorocarbons! There's no way they are natural."
"Skietra, you've got good eyes," Skekund peered closer, making a rough size estimate with her thumb, "it's small; I'd guess they haven't been making them long, maybe fifty years?"
"Just as well really," Einn replied. "...Computer; please enhance this area and switch back to visible."
The computer did so, detaching and expanding the tiny square until it was one quarter the size of the original image. Though blurred slightly, it was possible to make out the elongated, 190 kilometre island next to its continental neighbour.
"I don't see anything," Skekund shook her head, grunting, "There's too much greenery; if it was a nice sensible desert..."
"Computer, look in the... Cindiclair band for this window?" Einn ventured. His proficiency was communications, not sensor analysis. "See it now; that brown smudge, right where the island touches the continent?"
"Mono-nitrogen oxides," Skekund said excitedly, "maybe VOC's or some other photochemical reaction. That's wonderful! Good work; I would never have seen that."
"I just got lucky," Einn grinned, "we can make a more detailed list later; there's a lot more pollutants than I'd have expected for a planet at this stage of development."
"Maybe they're late to radio?" Skekund ventured. "There's no rule that says everyone has to discover everything in the same order."
"No, but there is a ladder of precedence and radio is a keystone development; once a population gets to the size where it can truly mechanise, as we can see this one has," he tapped the holographic haloalkane graph, "it also needs some form of mass communication. Telegraphy is ok for a few thousand end users but when you're talking about millions of educated workers," the product of a civilisation with universal education, both officers took it as a given that other nations would provide something similar, "then you need something more efficient than a cable newstheatre."
"Either way, there is most definitely someone there," Skekund crossed her arms contentedly, "and have been for quite a while."
Einn frowned and grunted, "Yes, eight months at least; did you see this?" he flicked A.I.EYE2's very first log report over to his partner, "the mainframe should never have discounted that."
"I did," Skekund was only too happy to agree, "but look at the system," she made a wiping motion to clear her display, then sprinkled the target system over the matt black console. "The primary is coming into the peak of its activity for this cycle and the two planetary gas giants are intense transmitters." She cupped the mid-system blobs, playing the stop motion footage captured by the ancient warship. The larger of the two was one endless red storm, compressed into stressed bands wider than most worlds. The other was even more uninviting, its surface a uniform carbon dioxide white, struck only by the vast shadows of a vast dusty disk. "That big one has its own micro-system of ferrous rocks transversing its magnetic field, and I'd be amazed if it doesn't have rivers of trapped ions driving metallic hydrogen between the poles. Those are perfect conditions for Thiefda waves, and we're perpendicular to the system's horizontal plane; as far as the intelligences were concerned, half of those candidates were just the planets lining up."
Einn rolled his eyes at her entirely reasonable, explanation, "Oh come on."
She shrugged, "I'm just saying if I was an F.I. and I saw a gigawatt radio source coming from those giants, I might have thought twice as well."
"So you would have discounted them?" He raised an incredulous eyebrow.
"Of course not," she frowned reprovingly, "but then I have acuity greater than one arc degree, and more than 500k of dedicated memory."
He clucked disapprovingly, unwilling to let go, "Still, I've been telling you for a year that someone needs to update for the identi-clar protocols. Nagas Lrac was a visionary, but these aren't the 2500's any more; we need to recalibrate," He shrugged and added, "It's not like there's many more colonies left to find."
The older woman smiled at the old argument, "If you have a suggestion for the Imperial Cartographical Company, please submit it to them along the proper channels; their rejection will take no longer than five to six years."
Einn laughed heartily, "They'll have to listen now; if we had modern detection thresholds, we would have found that planet eight months ago. Fuck, we might even have a ship in orbit by now. Which," he added slyly, "would make your bank balance very happy indeed."
"Oh, you know I do this purely for the betterment of the Empire," she coughed, "... although a slice of that planetary bonus would be nice; I'm in the market for a new sword now the 1796 pattern is finally reaching us."
"I'd just be glad to be out of here," Einn muttered. It was an unwritten, but strong, rule that the war office would reward any officer who detected an unknown Extra Territorial Intelligence with a transfer to a warship of their choice.
"Got any preferences?"
"A cruiser maybe? The Empress Klev's are supposed to have this great suite; full spectrum radomes with super conducting colloidal gel so there's no harmonic interference? Or perhaps a long range destroyer; it'd be nice to visit some of the universe, not just watch it." He gestured to the holographic world.
Skekund just snorted, "If you're bored here, your brain will rot on a deep space mission; four out of five never do anything except go from planet to planet to planet."
"Hmm," Einn thought about that, then shrugged, "what about you? Near Planetary Commands are always desperate for senior specialists."
But Skekund shook her head, "I actually like it here; there's not much chance for glory, and the paperwork sometimes makes me want to mutiny but... it's important." She shrugged, "Society needs everyone to do their part and at least this is interesting. Though... it would be nice to be posted a little closer to civilisation; I hate only being able to go shopping every hundred and fifty days." She sighed and tapped her teeth again, looking at the delicate transmission wave, "I do wonder what they're saying,"
"'Testing, testing, one, two, three; is this thing on?'" Einn quipped in a strangled falsetto.
"Ha ha," Skekund laughed dryly, "well, if it is their first broadcast, maybe they are... though," She nodded at the still wavering signal, "I suspect they might have moved on to something else now."
"Like, 'why does no one answer?'" Einn asked, instigating another round of laughter.
Of course, even if they had modern equipment, used standard communications protocols and spoke in fluent Arion, it would be impossible to determine what the third planet was actually saying. The averaging of radiated energy over interstellar distances reduced the information content to random noise in less than a light year. The idea of being able to beam messages from one system to another, except as a very slow pulsed code, had been discredited even before Pel's time. Indeed long wave interferometry might have been dropped as a means of detecting extra territorial intelligence if someone hadn't realised that even if it was impossible to read the message, the carrier signal was as distinct as a fingerprint; it was just a matter of knowing how to find its coherence in the static of a star's chatter.
Skekund shrugged, "Anyway, shall I wake Her Majesty, or," she nudged him, "would you rather visit her quarters?"
Einn cleared his throat to cover his embarrassment, "I would not dream of denying the senior officer the honour of announcing our find."
"Coward," she chuckled, nudging the planetary hologram aside so she could tap the link to the Commissioner's quarters. To her surprise, the observatory Commissioner was already awake, dressed in a light camisole which did little to hide her figure. Like all Primes, she had little body modesty and showed no shame in appearing before her subordinates with just a single layer of silk over her skin.
"My lady," Skekund faltered, more by the speed of her superior's response, than her nightwear, "I apologise for disturbing you."
"You haven't; I couldn't sleep," the Commissioner answered succinctly, "What's happening?"
"We have a candidate signal, My Lady. Both Einn and I have analysed it and we believe it to be true."
The Commissioner allowed a rare flicker of surprise to raise her jet eyebrows. "You're sure?"
"Yes, My Lady, both of us."
"I shall be right there. Please have the relevant documents on display; I shall wish to review them as you talk," the Commissioner acknowledged, waving the link shut.
Both technicians stared at the blank console for a moment, then began arranging their displays for presentation to their superior. Pulling up the Seor 2181's initial contact report, Einn chuckled and murmured, "You know; this is where we realise we've been tracking a barge of radioactive waste."
"Better now than when the Empire bills our Houses." Skekund joked, flicking away the last superfluous screens.
"I have no intention of allowing the Empire to seek compensation from your Houses," the Commissioner's melodious voice made them both jerk to attention in their seats. Moving with the efficient grace of her kind, her sword in its scabbard batted softly against her thigh, the Prime had donned a light tunic to cover her camisole, though this was more a concession to military formality than modesty. "Of course, if this does turn out to be someone's garbage, I will make drink from our free alpha slush." Her tone was light, but like all Betans, the pair knew better than to assume she was joking.
"My lady," Einn indicated the world, and then the signal, "if you will observe?"
"The signal was first detected eleven minutes ago," Skekund took over, allowing Einn to manipulate the presentation, "since then it has been continuous, random, but with a modal repetition which suggested an artificial source; we have determined that it originates from the third planet in system 518,208. Further investigation with Studly shows evidence of heavy industry, perhaps - and this is speculation - even to the extent of mechanisation."
The Commissioner nodded, absorbing everything, "A shame we will not see their night side for three months." She observed, looking at the optical images. "Is that the only continent?"
"No, My Lady," Skekund shook her head as Einn rotated the holographic globe, "there is another landmass here."
"Curious displacement," the Commissioner noted. "How long have they been broadcasting?"
"We are uncertain... but there is evidence that the first signals reached us eight months ago."
"And why was it not detected then?" her voice was not accusing, just curious.
"The system is unusually active, My Lady," Skekund nodded to Einn, who highlighted the gas giants, "in addition of the sun's coronal period, these two planets are..." The Commissioner held up a hand, studying the images with dark eyes.
"Gigawatt transmitters, likely boosted by an electron torus in the larger..." She shook her head, "The local geography is less than ideal but I will call especial attention to it in our report; perhaps the I.S.C. will even take note this time. I assume I can rely on the both of you to co-sign it?" Again, her voice was pleasant, but then it didn't need to be anything else. As a Prime, even her questions could be orders.
"Of course, My Lady," both Betans answered at once.
"In fact," the Commissioner looked directly at Einn, "you will be sending a letter, in addition to our report?"
"Uh," Einn froze, pierced like an insect by her electric blue eyes, "...My Lady?"
The Prime relaxed her expression slightly, "You have mentioned over the last eight months how dated our detection protocols are. Now, I trust, you will take the opportunity to gloat?" She smiled, the expression of a cat contemplating a mouse.
"Oh, yes My Lady, of course. We were talking about something similar before we contacted you." Skekund nodded quickly in agreement.
"Good." The Commissioner dipped her head. "When circumstances prove you correct, you should capitalise on them."
"Yes My Lady, I will."
"Please, continue, Skekund," The Prime asked, listening to the younger woman speak as she read, occasionally gesturing for Einn to bring up more information until she snapped her head up sharply, "Wait!"
"My Lady?" Skekund nearly jolted out of her seat by the outburst.
But her superior was looking coldly past her, at Studly's hologram, "This world should be in the middle of an ice age."
"...My Lady?" Einn ventured after a moment, directing an anxious glance at Skekund who could only spread her hands helplessly. "The world is in an ice age."
"The tail end of one," The Commissioner agreed, "but the planet the Empress Seor 2181 investigated was in the middle." she pointed at one single phrase in the middle of the page.
Einn and Skekund both followed her point, read the phrase, then looked at the hologram. Finally, Skekund tapped her teeth and opined, "Rapid vulcanisation within fifty years of the ship's departure?"
"Awfully convenient," Einn answered. "They're industrialised... so perhaps they've been intentionally creating pollution with an attenuating effect on infrared radiation? We already noticed the unusual CO2."
"Unusual, but not sufficient for climate change of that magnitude," the Commissioner shook her long black hair.
"We could be seeing the conclusion of a concentrated climate shifting policy?" Skekund suggested. "I wouldn't want to live in an ice age."
"Neither would I," agreed the Prime, someone that could tolerate walking barefoot on an ice moon. "But there has been no mass communication until now."
"Unless it was muted," Einn thought aloud, "enough carbon to affect climate change would have markedly increased the moisture content of their atmosphere. If it was severe enough, it would absorb electromagnetic radiation."
"If it was that severe, the humans would either suffocate or drown," The Prime answered with deadly certainty, then shook her head, "Assuming they could live with the storms such a climate shift would entail. No, it is a curiosity, but of no real consequence. Ours ships will have to explain it when they visit," that appeared to remind her of something, "and when will that be?"
"I'm not sure, My Lady," Skekund answered, "there are two fleet bases in the vicinity; Picket 21-181, and Silavant Station." She paused, consulting her console, "...I'm not sure which is closer to us." It was far from an easy question to answer, though the star I.S.C. 518,208 was a mere six light years away that was an impossible distance in a universe which had so far failed to allow anything approaching a useful faster than light drive.
Without it, the Empire, and every other nation, was forced to putt between stars using a decrepit network of wormholes so utterly ancient that its age could only be described in galactic rotations.
Nor was any route particularly intuitive; while the wormhole builders might have laid out a logical network originally, the endless percolation of stars over eons had utterly eroded it. Moreover more than two thirds of the wormholes were so badly degraded that they were unusable, suffered weird temporal paradoxes, or could only be traversed at extreme risk.
The Commissioner glanced at the spidery diagram of wormholes and stars and cocked her head, "I believe the picket force is closest."
Skekund winced, her finger already on the search key. Before her the computer was radiating fibrous lines away from the Ember's single junction, into the core of the Empire's vastly convoluted segment of the network.
Like free potassium skittering on water, the sparks bounced back and forth from one end of the network to the other, seemingly at random until they finally homed in on one of the fleet bases.
The wrong one.
Skekund licked her lips, "...It would appear Silavant Station is slightly closer, my lady. But only by two weeks." She added quickly.
To her great relief, the Commissioner merely shrugged, "Silavant it is. When can we expect their ship to reach orbit?"
"Approximately six months, My Lady," Skekund allowed herself to relax, glad she'd already asked the computer to estimate travel time. "The Station is only three weeks from Fifty one, eighty two oh eight, but it is some distance from us and we must assume delays in execution."
"Of course," The Commissioner nodded. Like all Imperial offices, S.E.T.I. had considerable discretion, if only because to route a movement request all the way back to Aria would double, if not treble the actual arrival time
However, while the Commissioner had the authority to request a ship be despatched to any system, the Commander of that distant station had equal authority to ignore her if they judged their ships were better used elsewhere, or even if they simply disagreed with her interpretation of the signal. Space was simply too vast, and communication too slow, for true central authority.
"Perhaps we will get lucky," the Commissioner mused, sweeping cobalt eyes over Silavant's probable ship roster, "and they will have a Klav'stevan on station."
"If they do, it could knock almost a week off their arrival time, My Lady," Skekund echoed, smiling inwardly.
"That would be most... efficient."
With a fifty person crew and just enough consumables to get from one destination to the next, Klav'stevans were among the smallest vessels in the navy. The only reason they could even be called warships were the dozen standoff missiles in their magazine.
But what they couldn't fight, they could outrun. Out of the entire Galaxy, only Couriers and FTL communications drones were faster than a Klav'stevan once it got up to speed. However their speed was not what the Commissioner had been referring too; a planetary bonus was awarded to everyone involved in a colony's discovery. No one could know how large a bonus would be until after the assessors has gauged how much the colony would enrich the Empire, but however many billions of Sovereigns it might be, the head of the observatory could expect a generous share.
The operative word was 'share'. Everyone involved in discovery was rewarded; if that included Klav'stevan's crew, then each share would be worth a fortune, but if a destroyer - or worse a cruiser - was dispatched, their thousands of crewmembers would drain each share down to a mere substantial sum.
"I know how much you want that '96 pattern blade," the Prime answered, smoothly, her fingers drumming lightly on the ornate, chitinous material of her scabbard.
"As always, I bow to your experience in such matters, My Lady."
"Although," her superior continued, "if you wish to switch to a Betan weapon; I have heard very good things said of the '95 pattern."
"I thank you for your advice, My Lady," Skekund dipped her head at the very mild disapproval in the Commissioners tone, "but my sword was a gift from the head of my House, and I have found I'm more comfortable with a Primal grip; the slashing motions are very effective at keeping an opponent at a distance and I don't think I would have won either of my duels with a rapier."
The Commissioner paused, unable to disagree with the fact the gently curving, single handed Primal swords were designed to keep enemies outside the lethal cutting circle. Nor could she advise a Betan to easily replace the gift of another Prime, especially one who was the head of her House. "You make a good point," she finally replied, "I hope you never insult someone who can do likewise."
"As do I, My Lady," Skekund allowed herself to laugh in time with her Superior.
"Of course," the Prime laid a hand lightly on Einn's shoulder, who stiffened minutely, "I believe that a Klav'stevan would only hasten your departure. Have you decided on where you wish to serve next, Einn?"
"Not yet, My Lady..." Einn shook his head, trying with every muscle not to show how much he enjoyed the caress of the Prime's strong fingers, "I haven't had much time to consider my options. And of course, it will take a year, if not longer for news to return to us so it makes sense to wait and see what shape the galaxy is in at that time."
The Prime nodded, patting then releasing his shoulder, "A wise strategy, though I hope that you give at least some thought to staying with us. You would be missed."
Einn blushed, "You are too kind, My Lady... but as much as it pleases me to hear that, and with the uttermost respect, I would like to serve somewhere that sees... a little more action."
"Understandable," the Prime nodded, "I have a cousin who is captain of the Empress Santhe 23. If you are still interested when news arrives, I would be happy to recommend you to his communications department."
"You honour me, My Lady," Einn breathed.
"Good work should be rewarded." The Commissioner answered simply.
Riding high on the double rush of endorphins, Einn felt inspired to ask, "And you, My Lady. If I may be so bold, will you stay, or move on?"
The Prime's face, never very emotive, suddenly became utterly unreadable. She sucked in a breath, held it and breathed out. "Some of us have seen too much action." Her fist twitched, then without looking at the communications orbits she barked, "We have two hours and thirteen minutes before the next drone returns to Geodesic space. I will get changed, and then we have a lot of work to do. Wake third shift and tell them to start counting particulate elements in that atmosphere with particular attention to those VOC's. Skekund, consult with Studly for high resolution images; inspect them for any macro-scale architecture; even with daylight, farms and suburban areas might be visible. Einn, while we still have you, please go back to the original signal; if we can estimate its broadcast power we might have a better idea of their level of technology."
"Yes, My Lady," both technicians answered at once.
"Good... and good work, both of you." The Commissioner graced them with a final piercing glance, and turned out of the room.
Only when she was gone and the sealed doors ensured their privacy did Skekund elbow Einn hard in the ribs, "idiot! I thought you were joking when you talked about asking her to kill you."
"Hey, hey!" he warded off a second blow, "she didn't take offence."
"I can tell that from the way your head isn't bouncing along the floor" she hissed, "you're lucky she's fond of you."
"You think she's fond of me?"
"Men! You're still breathing aren't you? Skietra must have forgotten something when it came to your family; even someone from the provinces must know you never ask a Prime a personal question unless she wants you to!" She forced herself to breathe normally, spat something under her breath and pointed at the board, "Get back to work; if she comes back and you don't have some kind of answer for her, your head will roll!"
Chastised, and feeling all the worse for coming down off his endorphin high, Einn took his friend's advice and returned to his console.
The transmission... whatever it was, was still broadcasting strong and steady. That was good; it'd be easier to estimate power if he could experiment with a live signal than relying on recordings. Once again Einn wondered what it contained, who was sending it, what they were saying. Was, or rather, had some technician six years ago scratched his head, looked up at the sky and wondered if this time someone might answer? Or had it been a megalomaniac dictator ushering in a new era with revolutionary new technology?
If it was, then they were right. Just not in the way they expected.
Einn was suddenly struck by the urge to answer, nothing outlandish, just a simple text string by way of thanks... or maybe just proof of receipt. It was a bizarre impulse; the interstellar averaging rule applied to him as well, and even with all their equipment, it'd been little more than luck that the observatory had detected anything.
Still... the urge wouldn't leave. Einn chuckled self consciously and derided himself; what could he send anyway? Standard Letterhead: "ISCSETI18 to Unknown, Message Received, 18:36h 18/10/2946; statement of intentions please?", or something more fanciful like "I'm sorry, no one is at the console right now, but if you leave a message we will provide salvation as soon as is practical". But no... that wasn't right either, the technician shook his head looking for inspiration; it needed more... apt.
And then it came. Simple, concise, perfect.
His fingers hesitated briefly over the console. Then with predatory speed they tapped out, "Found You."