A Small Universe

Original fiction by Amphibious1

Prendergast wasn’t greatly surprised to see the maser being used by the native. He checked his wrist screen as much from habit as a need to confirm what he already knew – this planet was rated Early Metal. It was part of his job to note the detritus of millennia of galactic expansion – where/who had what beyond their cultural level.

He had already been about to register the planet as contaminated by external input when he noticed that the maser’s power cell still had some energy, flickering with that typical ugly green of Aldabad’s odd niche in the atomic structure. He wasn’t worried about being shot or threatened. The local was holding the outlet and using the handle to pound the lava granules into powder. It was likely that he, and his ancestors, had been using the weapon as a hammer for generations to judge from the smoothness of the butt – the wrist link toggle was almost worn through.

He only recognised it as Aldabanian military, standard grunt issue, several centuries and thousands of light years distant, because Sandringham was an antiques enthusiast. He didn’t understand her interest as her field was linguistics & archaic religions. She saw no contradiction and was writing a thesis on how technology shaped belief systems. Many species made little or no use of metal yet traversed space via chemistry; some that he’d recently encountered in the Dogon sector had crystal-based technology that didn’t even use fire.

What puzzled him was that the cell could not have retained a charge for more than a decade or two, even if fired occasionally to keep the reactor in fettle. Aldabadian princes didn’t trust their vassals to remain loyal much beyond a campaign’s end and it was not wise to leave them with functioning weapons when demobbed. Either someone was retro fitting ancient technology, which was irrational and extremely dangerous – Sandy’s artificial forearm and hand weren’t a fashion accessory – or … what? He couldn’t think of another explanation.
He called the ship. Xho-che was duty officer and, equally concerned by the anomaly, suggested that he bring the maser back for the tekkies to examine.

“It can’t be the original charge, those things were last made at least … sez here, about 600 years ago, on the other side of the Coal Sack.”

“If there’s one there may be others. I’ll try to trade something for it. The original survey said there were signs of alloys so flick me some jewellery, maybe electrum or white gold, most humanoids like their feel and heft.”

“Are you sure they’re Oids? DNA scan shows they aren’t close enough to propagate.”

“They may not be ideal dinner guests but they aren’t in the least surprised by my presence. They, or their forebears, know what an alien is so there’s plenty of work for Jzerri’s team.”

“Oh, t’riffic” broke in Petra, one of Jzerri’s field anthropologists, “6 months of snotty babies and interminable heroic epics.”

“Don’t whine, you could have majored in astrometrics. They’re not bad looking – their blue skin has shades that change and merge. You’d like one of them, Petra, he seems to be deferred to though I don’t know why. A bit weedy but his eyes have depth and …”

“OK, I’ll bring a nice selection of gee-gaws and we can get down and dirty if you think they’re already compromised.”

He left the man, intent on grinding the luminous gold lava and lifted a couple of klicks over to the hilltop they’d selected as unobtrusive. Petra and Glyphen, one of her students, a Gnossian hoping to specialise in first contact, were waiting, already overlaying a grid on the village below for later analysis.

“Any suggestions?” he asked Glyphen, who glanced up from his slate out of politeness. He could have continued working, using his other eyes, but his species knew that binoculars found it disconcerting that they could carry on several tasks simultaneously. To Gnossians such races, unable even to separately focus the two eyes they had, seemed ploddingly slow and limited.

“Your arrival didn’t perturb them yesterday so let’s set up our stall in the main square and see who’s interested. Artworks are usually a good indication of basic technical skills so we can sell or swap until we get a feel for their sophistication.”

Petra nodded assent as she finished the grid & topography mapping, sent it back and called down the trade goods.

This world seemed already too alien aware to be his concern as a First Assessor. Since the Restoration, barely a hundred years earlier, most of the systems in the once known sphere of influence had been evaluated.

Now there only remained scattered worlds which, for lack of interest or resources, had never sought or been granted access to FTL.

Millions of them but quantity didn’t make quality. The majority wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, be contacted for millennia. He’d once believed that he was going to help make a difference, contacting benighted, lost societies and bringing them, if not back to the light, at least helping to prepare them for reconnection.

There were still too many privateers roaming unregulated space, with too many weapons and unpleasant intentions. There were even parties in the Presidium, elected by apparently civilised people, which advocated, and lobbied for, rapine. Not just of uninhabited or non-sentient planets.

If he was going to spend the next decade or three finding worlds listed naive to be compromised maybe he ought to change career.

Petra was not looking happy, concentrating on one of her screens.

“There’s more than one type of energy signature down there. From different worlds, at opposite ends of the Galaxy. Something odd about this place. Your arrival didn’t freak them which suggests that last alien contact wasn’t too long ago, certainly not beyond living memory.”

“Not so much that they weren’t worried, just not particularly interested. If it was the usual privateer or hostile they’d hardly be unconcerned – have you ever known one of those predators to treat a virgin culture decently? Even with the best will there is inevitably some conflict which ends in a vaporised population centre.”

Glyphen interrupted, “I’ve been checking hormone levels and found what appears to be a maternity area. But no corresponding bachelor/warrior building that I can detect. Who rated this place Early Metal?”

Prendergast ran through the previous assessment, “It was 48 years ago, a team from Centauri, headed by … Phillpot, Patel Prakash Phillpot! He was my tutor on Endoline Prime. His passion for reconnection inspired me to opt for Assessment.”

“Call him tonight and ask why” suggested Petra.

“That’d be a bit difficult. He refused Extension and died normally about 6 years ago, just after I graduated.”

“Sounds a bit weird, what can anyone do in a hundred years?” Glyphen, who’d already had three earlier careers, was coming up to his 2nd Extension and Gnossians lived at least a couple of hundred years naturally.

They floated down to the village outskirts and walked towards the marketplace. The fresh food stalls were packing up before the second sun rose too high so there was plenty of space amid the bustle and clamour.

Some children watched as Petra put the trunks into display mode, squealing with delight at the new colours beyond anything they’d seen on even this highly chromatic world. Their skin was variously green, gold and even pink, and appeared to be age & gender relative, the females slightly darker hued than the males, and it wasn’t stable, changing shades like an excited cephalopod.

A couple of adult idlers came to gawp and one laughed when they saw Glyph’s many eyes. He could have adapted his appearance to the planetary norm, or that of his colleagues, but thought it a good test of just how tolerant they were of aliens.

“The house of the wise woman or official I mentioned earlier is the one with the crowd outside.”

“The oestrogen concentration is in the one beside it which makes sense I suppose.”

Petra looked basically female and had altered her clothing to resemble the locals so she wandered over towards the crowd.

In almost all of the explored Universe females could recognise others, even if only subconsciously at an olfactory level whereas males, of most species, usually needed flashing lights to distinguish and had no hope of multi gendered planets. They suffered severe psychological dislocation, or worse, on those where gender was transient.

Glyphen was soon surrounded by a curious crowd, adults looking at the jewellery and children eager to try the puzzles he gave them. They quickly moved on to the more complex testers. One of the youngsters, possibly a girl, was already concentrating on the last of the non electric series. They hadn’t thought to bring down anything more complicated. She finished it and, with a look of deflated expectation, stalked off when Glyphen had nothing more to proffer. Not exactly by the book but this certainly wasn’t a First Contact situation, which was worrying Prendergast.

Phillpot wouldn’t have made such an obvious error. It looked, superficially, like a typical Early Metal culture. Big, muscular males with lots of scars, though many were obviously decorative or aesthetic, wearing blades, some thin espaliers, others broad as paddles or so long they’d have dragged on the earth if worn by anyone under 2 metres tall. Swords by any definition but others had cudgels or obvious weapons whose use he couldn’t imagine.

Atypical of such a culture, many of the females also had very keen edges on their hips; the more obviously pregnant in the group with which Petra was now mingling had theirs slung over their backs. Delicately embellished certainly but not toys and their arms didn’t lack the sinew to wield them.

He began to notice that the SIL’s fine jewellery often contained remnants of high technology, apparently chosen for their appearance and incorporated into creations of exceptionally artistry; titanium chips scintillate prettily in one light source. In the double suns the colours went beyond standard spectography. Many of the intricate designs were formed of ancient datadots. He’d ask Sandy to be certain but he remembered that one could hold about a hundred teraquads of information.

The necklet worn by the young girl who’d so quickly solved Glyphen’s testers could have held the planet’s entire geology, climate, atmospheric and chemical data base with room for the population’s genome and still have excess capacity.

So why would Patel, who never took anything at face value, classify this world as he did? He would argue and examine a student into exhaustion to ensure sound reasoning. Even if the outcome were incorrect, he believed that the process was crucial. He must have done so intentionally.

Was he trying to spare them further intrusion? He’d bought them 48 years from the Sphere but that would have done no good had a mercenary ship found them. It wasn’t an adequate, or even rational explanation; but for a deliberate “misdescription” he would have had a good reason.

Prendergast was obliged to report the error. There had been cases of deliberate misdescription before, religious bias or for financial advantage, in the early days of Reconnection but not recently. It was the antithesis of Assessment and only the truly genuine & dedicated opted for such a career – years of harsh conditions with an exceptionally high fatality rate weren’t wildly attractive in a civilisation with no need to put oneself to any discomfort at all. A large proportion of the populations of the Sphere worlds did nothing but indulge in sensual gratification once beyond adolescence. There were plenty of highly skilled and ambitious immigrants from other worlds eager to do any real work necessary, beyond what automata managed such as actually making things or food. Even most art was synthetic, as humans had long ceased to take themselves seriously.

Xho-che called to say that he’d found something of interest in the planet’s magnetic field. It seemed to be, if not artificial, certainly regulated. Some planets in the Sphere did this for their own reasons but they were all highly advanced worlds, at the very apex of scientific achievement. Equally capable cultures thought it was a bad idea with unforeseeable side effects and few tangible benefits; camouflage wasn’t an issue as they were unassailable by any but their peers, which was unthinkable.

Like jump starting life on a freshly formed planet – it was easy enough to do but begged the question – why?.

“Regulated? Do you mean variable or unstable?”

“No, it is precisely calibrated. At first I found nothing at all, as if the planet wasn’t there. I sorta figured that, since we’re in orbit and you lot are kicking about down there in the mire” – Xho-che rarely set foot on any planet; space born and bred, he loathed the idea of impure air, uncontrolled weather, pathogens, spores, contaminants and the hurly-burly of crowds – “that perhaps the sensors were out of alignment. The solar winds of those two stars play hell with readings but that’s not unusual and well within the system’s capability. The magnetic field is adjusted to be undetectable. Our ship recognised it but I doubt that any other ship would know the planet existed. I don’t just mean a non Sphere ship. I mean ours, dear old “Nonesuch”. I found a line in the basecode that, well, it wouldn’t have been put there by management. Did you know that Phillpot had been Assessor on “Nonesuch” when it was first commissioned?”

“…?”

“Thought that’d knock your socks off”

Prendergast called Glyphen & Petra,

“Did you hear that?”

Glyphen acknowledged but Petra had been too deep in discussion of women’s business. She asked for clarification,

“I think we ought to dust off and re-evaluate. You’re not going to believe what I’ve been told.”

The rest of the crew had caught up on the news before they returned and everyone had their own questions & speculations, according to their speciality. Most of geology was still in their section, dousing the planet with every sensor they had or could contrive. Their arguments were growing fairly heated, “… not natural …”, “…molten core… thin mantle…”, “…who could do that in this sector…”,” who/when/why/how?”

The two suns, though not binary, weren’t far apart so the planet had a fairly normal diurnal rhythm; the night was about a third of the daily rotation of 30 standard hours. There was almost no axial wobble, extremely rare on naturally formed planets, so there was almost no seasonal variation. Seasons were generally thought to be essential for evolution, as was a decent sized moon in an appropriate orbit.

“This place is going to be an Academy course in itself when we report.” offered Azan, the usually unimpressible captain.

Space born like Xho-che, more or less standard human, he’d seen too much that wasn’t in text books & manuals to trust theory. His life philosophy, “look, check sensors, think”, had served him well for nearly 400 hundred years. Extension wasn’t much use to a corpse floating in vacuum and he’d avoided the usual hazards of his profession – never lost a ship, and very few crew – so he was always in demand for the toughest missions into unknown space.

 

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