Authors: Andrew Hindle
Copyright © 2015 Andrew Hindle
All rights reserved.
For my brothers James, Fredrik and John
The famous first communication between Molren and humanity, back in the mists of history when the Fleet entered Earth’s region of space, was a story that had long since been repeated and retold until it had taken on the patina of mythology. The Six Species had gone on to make contact with enough so-called ‘dumbler-folk’ species over the intervening centuries, however, to lend a certain credence to the legends.
“Be quiet,” the communications boffins had eventually deciphered from the coded transmission that later came to be known as the Rosetta. “Be quiet or they’ll hear you.”
As it happened, they were right. And – as the subsequent centuries once again proved amply, to greater Molranity’s horrified incredulity and exquisite frustration – humans were not a species defined by their ability to shut their mouths.
Humanity did at least
to take the Fleet’s admonishment into consideration, for a while. They were bright-eyed and enthusiastic, excited by the new vistas opening up before them and eager to enjoy the cultural and technological riches offered by the new alien arrivals. And they were ready, after generations of xenophobia and isolation, to finally face the fact that they weren’t alone in the galaxy. Well,
Part of the difficulty they faced, of course, was the reality that they very nearly
This was a paradox that had confounded human observers for a very long time. The galaxy was unimaginably big, its planets innumerable, its age staggering. Even with access to faster-than-light technology that allowed a certain amount of skipping from place to place, the overwhelming majority of the galaxy was uncharted and was likely to remain that way for eternity. In purely statistical terms, over the billions of years the stars had been burning and spinning, a huge number of interstellar cultures should have flourished.
So, as the diplomat and noted philosopher Gaius Modine asked on the occasion of the Fleet’s arrival, “Why has it taken so long, and why are you here now?” Or, as Enrico Fermi said long, long before Modine, not to mention somewhat more punchily, “Where is everybody?”
The Five Species Fleet was impressive, with their vast starships that were home to billions of denizens and storage to tens of billions of sleeping passengers … but it wasn’t exactly the dizzying cultural patchwork of civilisations of all classifications and levels of development that
to have been out there. Where were the omnipotent ancients who had begun their evolution when the galaxy was still accreting? The universe-spanning super-civilisations? The biomechanical hordes? The self-replicating machines that fed on stellar matter?
Even at a slow crawl, not taking superluminal travel into account, the galaxy ought to have been completely colonised on a scale of
tens of millions
of years. Instead, the few hundred scattered sentients and the occasional weird relic floating around out there seemed to exist purely to highlight the terrifying emptiness, the
of classical cosmological philosophy. The Fleet’s opening message addressed at least a facet of this question. It was a dangerous universe out there, and it didn’t seem to pay to draw attention to yourself. But another defining characteristic of the human race was its inability to take an answer for an answer.
Other facts of life, as delivered by the then-Five Species, covered the
of the paradox. The Cancer in the Core, as mentioned, did account for the resounding silence from the densely-packed systems towards the centre of the galaxy. Damorakind by all reports spread slowly, tending to
planets and solar systems before moving on. They occasionally expanded in spurts and prominences, as they encountered and hunted down and eradicated other spacefaring sentients, but the Cancer generally displayed an incremental ellipsoid growth that was stable and predictable.
The occasional dusty relic found orbiting some forgotten sun or another promised to explain more of the paradox, but these finds invariably fell short. It seemed unlikely, given their distance from the Core, that any of the intelligences responsible for their creation would have met their ends at the hands of Damorakind. And their very
was also a problem. The Cancer was a newcomer, on the cosmological timescale. Had to be. Damorakind had been expanding outwards from their mysterious homeworld in the Core for hundreds of thousands of years, at the absolute outside. And the galaxy, as mentioned, was
. The galaxy, and many of the relics found floating in it.
All in all, the scattered and tantalising remains of alien cultures raised more questions than they answered. The aki’Drednanth, older and stranger than the tattered history of the entire Molran super-species, had
answers about bygone eras and lost civilisations, but their opinions and explanations were unique to their mentality and viewpoint. For the most part, their descriptions were clouded by species-gap to the point of uselessness, just another set of creation mythology in an alliance of sentients which seemed to have three or four conflicting creation myths per head of population.
The Molren, hard-bitten by Damorakind in the early days of their exploration of the galaxy, were silent and cautious far beyond the point of obsession, and their tireless efforts to shut up every “shouter” species they ever met tended to account for a large part of the paradox. The Fleet had learned from long and bitter experience the value of going unseen and unheard through the deadly dark. And the shouting dumblers of Earth, so soon after meeting and joining the alien alliance they’d dreamed of for so long, had a very hard time coming to terms with this reality. They had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that sometimes, there were no satisfactory answers. And that yelling the question louder and louder was not
Humans had enough trouble learning from their own experiences. They considered the experiences of others to be a challenge.
After Earth was destroyed, the remnants of humanity hitched a ride into space with the Molren, Blaren, Bonshooni, aki’Drednanth and Fergunak of the Fleet. The newly-minted Six Species, the shoots of what would one day become AstroCorps, fled into the stars and searched, shocked into silence for the first time in their deafening history, for a place of refuge. And in time, they found Aquilar.
There were a lot of myths around the galaxy.
It was an old galaxy.
The counsellor’s patient leaned forward, smiling, and Janus wished he hadn’t done either. “So.”
This was, at least technically, a red-letter day for Janus Whye. His first session with a real live human patient. Although in the case of Doctor Glomulus Cratch, the Barnalk High Ripper, Janus conceded that perhaps the term ‘human’ should come with a few disclaimers.
He’d chatted with the Bonshoon, Dunnkirk, from time to time, about his upcoming intergalactic adventure – now, sadly, cancelled in favour of a return trip of indefinite length on the
– but they had not really been official
sessions, nor had they been sessions with a human. Not that counselling a Bonshoon was in any way less legitimate, he hastened to add to his inner critic. Janus had a Blaran under his theoretical wing and it looked like he would have the affable, oddly-spoken Bonshoon for the foreseeable future as well. At least Dunnkirk was willing to sit and talk to him without telling him every three minutes that this wasn’t a therapy session.
Maybe he could provide
to the abandoned Dunnkirk. Perhaps even study the phenomenon of the Bonshoon’s connection to the aki’Drednanth Dreamscape. Once they came back out of relative speed and got back into contact, of course.
they got back into contact.
they came out of relative speed.
Hey, there was always a first time to get stuck in the grey. Laws of energy and dynamics be damned. The longer they spent in there, the more likely it had to be getting, right?
He realised he’d been putting off actually starting a conversation with the doctor, and he had now been sitting and staring for far too long.
The husky, quiet-natured former horticultural mood analyst and the skeletal, mass-murdering former doctor had been sitting in horrifically anxious and smilingly expectant silence, respectively, for about fifteen minutes now. About
minute ago, the quiet chime of maximum subluminal cruising speed had sounded and they had skipped without fanfare back into soft-space. Into the grey nothingness of superluminal physics, away from the edge of the galaxy and the frozen payload they’d left drifting out there, back towards the hopefully-still-extant bright lights and teeming settlements of the Six Species worlds. Away, it was to be fervently hoped, from further trouble. Although Janus expected there was still more of
in their path. There always was.
Perhaps one minute in soft-space was too short a time to begin gestating pessimistic concerns of never returning to the real universe. Janus couldn’t help that. Just as he couldn’t help his nervousness around Glomulus. Nobody could help that, he told his inner critic. Okay, so about the first thing Cratch did after being released from the brig was save Janus’s life – that was a good sign. Janus was no less
because of it, because he’d balanced that particular ledger many times over. Not by saving the Rip’s life, it was true, but by having his own life
by Cratch? Sure. That had happened. All hilarious misunderstandings, to be sure, but…
Well, whatever was to come, they also faced another interminable stretch of long-haul flights and another sequence of practically uninhabited stopover worlds where people called the modular things like “yon sky-waggon” and stuff. Good food, but also dust and bugs and having to remember to recite verses from the Book of Hoo Hah before you touched the cake. And after a while, it just started to seem like the grey was the more interesting option.
It was late, but Janus wasn’t tired. It had been an emotional day, and when Z-Lin had contacted him with this request – more like an order, really, although they’d always had a pretty informal rapport – he hadn’t felt able to refuse. No matter how much he might briefly have
to. Counsellors did not sleep when their patients needed them.
Janus reflected, again, that the term ‘patient’ might also need some disclaimers in this case. Then he realised he was
sitting and staring.
“So,” he said again.
“Here we are?” Glomulus added helpfully.
“Ah,” Glomulus’s smile widened, and Janus wished it hadn’t because it had already widened three or four times now, and every time it did Janus thought
okay, that’s as wide as it goes
and he was beginning to worry about what might happen if the Rip’s grin widened too far and the top of his head came off and the rest of his gaunt body peeled away like a banana skin, and everybody else on board was too far away to hear Whye’s screams and he had pushed himself too far back from his desk about six minutes ago in a moment of greater-than-usual social awkwardness and now he wouldn’t be able to reach the comms system or his pad before Doctor Cratch did.
, he said to himself in a glazed, cold-sweaty panic,
remember the subdermals, you have the subdermals
He let his fingers curl closed and felt the reassuring firmness of the little signal tabs under the heels of his hands. At the same moment he became painfully aware that he was staring at the heavy bracelets on Glomulus’s long, bony wrists. And that Glomulus was still looking at him with a grin. And he remembered what Janya had said, back when they’d first put the bracelets on their would-be chief medic.
I’m sure it’s something that you have looked at from a security and tactical point of view
Janus tore his gaze away from the bracelets and fixed it instead on the sturdy little chest-high
-nut tree in the pot in the corner of his office.