In the low light of Enclave’s observation deck, I flexed my fingers and turned my hand over, marveling at how good it felt to be back in a body after over 300 years of being instantiated within the ship’s AI network. Digital had its charms but so did flesh, blood, and bone. I was examining the new internal diagnostics that ALLISON had implemented and was considering the possibility of food when I heard footsteps.
I turned to see A Dead Parrot approaching in the flesh (more or less; he liked his cybernetics), wearing his trademark grin.
“You don’t look a day over 900!” I declared with a smile.
“Likewise, Mynx! I heard you were skinning up, thought you might like some company,” he said.
ALLISON’s voice abruptly filled the room. “Ahem, Captains, pardon me for interrupting…”
I rolled my eyes at Parrot. He looked sheepish. ALLISON could be rather possessive of him and wasn’t keen on our long, close friendship.
“…but my probes have detected a wormhole signature and sensors suggest it is stable for the moment. I strongly recommend we check it out. If you’re not too busy.”
Same old ALLISON, I thought with a grin, still snarky after all these centuries despite how far she had evolved.
But…a wormhole signature after all this time! I glanced at Parrot, one eyebrow raised. In a trice, we consulted the others, got consensus, and gave ALLISON the go-ahead. Even in corporeal form, our enhanced bodies were connected to the AI networks housing our digital comrades, allowing communication at almost the speed of thought.
There was a lot of excited chatter on the AI network as we warped. It had been fourteen standard years since a wormhole signature had been detected and that one had winked out before we could even warp to it. Most of Jove space — discovered nearly 900 years earlier with the advent of new stargate technology — had fewer wormhole signatures than other regions and those sigs tended to be shorter lived. But the section of Jove space we were currently stuck in had even fewer sigs and those that did show up tended to be even more unstable.
“Think this will be the lucky one that gets us home?” Parrot asked, putting a companionable arm around my shoulders. I leaned against him as we watched the warp tunnel effect and shook my head.
“That’s a big fat NOPE,” I replied. But my fingers were crossed.
In 894 years of exploring every bit of Jovian tech looking for clues or racing for those rare wormhole sigs before they collapsed, we hadn’t been able to find a way home (whatever “home” was now, after so much time had passed). Even ALLISON’s vast AI intelligence hadn’t solved the problem, much to her annoyance. So we simply kept looking and learning, leaving beacons filled with our research data in every system we found and jumping through holes when we could. It seemed we were utterly at the mercy of Bob. The only thing that kept us sane was spending most of our time digitized in the AI network either focused on complex research that might span decades or staying dark for a time, interspersed with occasional forays into physicality.
“Here we are! Camera drones on-screen,” announced ALLISON chirpily. The observation deck viewscreen showed an odd wormhole anomaly. Ovoid instead of round, with multiple bands of pulsing color moving in different directions, narrow at the center, wider further out.
The lively chatter went quiet.
“Weird,” Parrot said, voicing everyone’s thoughts.
“Captain Obvious,” Igaze observed in a musing tone.
“Yeah,” I muttered.
“Are we jumping through THAT?” Thrice Hapus sounded nervous. It was comforting somehow that our advanced AI tech allowed our subsumed personalities to express emotion. Maybe that’s what kept us human, I thought.
There was half-second of intense discussion about the likelihood of being crushed, melted, disintegrated, or otherwise obliterated by this weird looking wormhole. Then Triffton Ambraelle spoke.
“We just completed a close-range analysis. We believe it can accommodate the ship but this being the weirdest signature we’ve ever seen, we would be jumping into who knows what. ALLISON and I suggest a recon drone. It’s quick decision time, kids, before this one disappears.” His intellect had thrived in the digital substrate and he had evolved a remarkable talent for analytical collaboration with ALLISON.
No sense pointing out the risks of that strategy. We all knew from experience that sending even a single drone through could destabilize the hole and that we might wait a very long time before another one appeared. Even taking precious seconds to discuss the matter risked the wormhole collapsing on its own.
“Jump,” I said, voting to roll the dice. In that nanosecond while waiting for the others to vote, I wondered if New Eden had presumed us dead and whether my personality backup had been transferred to a clone. We’d been gone for centuries, after all. Two of me would be problematic indeed if this hole put us on the path back to New Eden.
“Seconded,” Parrot said.
The others voted seven for, three against. ALLISON didn’t vote; she was the tiebreaker when we needed one.
“Beacon deployed; initiating jump,” ALLISON informed us. Beacon deployment was a standard procedure. Even if we didn’t survive, maybe someone would find our research and details of what happened to us.
Enclave approached the hole, jumped, and then things got strange. Very, very strange. Reality went shaky and distorted…stretched and twisted…turned in on itself… dissolved… condensed… flashed … and went dark. It was nothing like any other wormhole jump any of us had experienced. In those scant few seconds that felt like forever, I expected the ship and all of us to be dispersed like so much space dust.
But miraculously, reality righted itself and we were through…into a decidedly unusual place. Veils of colored light swathed space, swaying lazily like gigantic translucent sails beset with mesmerizing ripples and slow waves. Electrical discharges lit up the colorscape in irregular flashes. A small blue star glowed less than 1 AU away.
The ship bounced. Alarms chimed. We bounced again…as both Parrot and I stumbled to chairs and held on to avoid being flung around like ping pong balls.
“Shit!” I exclaimed.
“No shit!” Parrot replied.
“Mind the Credo or I’ll pull this ship over!” chided ALLISON. Did she sound…stressed?!
The ship bounced yet again. The view out the observation deck window showed increasingly intense electrical discharges and lightning-like fingers that appeared to be reaching for the ship. Was something deliberately bumping us? And if so, what? Before we could say a word, ALLISON cut through the chatter.
“Captains, we are warping to a signature approximately 189 AU distant and hopefully far from this mess.” ALLISON doesn’t bother to ask our permission when the shit hits the fan.
The comforting sight of the warp tunnel appeared and we had a few seconds to analyze the data sensors had gathered before dropping out of warp at the destination signature.
“What … is THAT?” I muttered quietly.
An enormous wormhole-like anomaly was surrounded by an equally enormous mechanical structures that resembled other Jovian tech we had seen. Debris fields were visible at several points where there were obvious gaps in the structure. Enormous pincer-like outriggers aligned with the tips of an oddly cross-shaped wormhole, as if they were holding it in that shape. The pitch black wormhole center displayed no movement. We had no more than a few seconds of examining the visuals when Triffton spoke.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! I’m detecting something coming fast toward us…it almost looks like those light veils are heading our way!” he said.
“Can we jump, ALLISON?” I asked. “We don’t want to be here when that shows up…unless we can warp to another celestial to buy some time?” The others concurred instantaneously and unanimously.
“Now who’s Captain Obvious? Sorry, Captain, there are no other celestials in this system besides where we just came from…” replied ALLISON. “…which is odd in itself. Here we go…don’t blame me if this doesn’t work.”
Enclave jumped. Everything went black. For what seemed a very long time. In which I had trouble remembering who I was, where I was, why I was. It struck me that perhaps this was to be my new existence…alone in a timeless blackness forever.
But eventually, the sense of movement, light, and time returned and the ship materialized around me. I looked at Parrot, who looked back at me, those blue eyes full of questions. I shrugged, at a loss. I realized then that the network was alive with chatter and data. ALLISON was silent.
“ALLISON, hon, what’s the story?” Parrot said. I looked over at him quizzically, mouthing “Hon?” He shrugged, a rueful grin on his face.
“Captains,” said ALLISON, “we appear to be in a yellow star system with several planets and…well…this…”
The viewscreen was filled with an image of the wormhole we presumably just came through. On this side, the shape as expected…round and gently shimmering…nothing strange at all there…until ALLISON zoomed the view out. Then we could see another structure like the one that had been on the other side. Only this one wasn’t damaged.
And then ALLISON said, “Captains, I’ve conducted a cursory scan of this system’s celestials. Two gas giants, two ice giants, and a few terrestrial planets, including two temperate worlds third and fourth from the star. I read signs of civilization and industry throughout the system. And, umm…now might be a good time to share some data from a private research project of mine.”
“What is she talking about, Parrot?” I asked.
“I have no idea, Mynx.” he said. “ALLISON, we’re all ears, digital and otherwise.”
ALLISON said, “Okay. Let me first connect a few dots for you. Back when we were still in New Eden, I became curious about human origins mainly due to the fact that a fossil record for humans has yet to be found. One explanation for that is that your ancestors arrived spontaneously from somewhere else – say, through a wormhole – and the facts of their arrival were lost in the chaos of civilization’s ups and downs over many millennia.
“If that is indeed what happened, they would have brought a lot of manufactured items with them, many made from enduring materials. Some could have survived, even after many tens of thousands of years. Possibly some of it has been found but never carbon dated for age. Or reproductions of the originals exist that aren’t nearly as old. I began to search for and collect ancient relics and artifacts through agents, planetary explorers, researchers, historians, and others. I have quite a stash of both physical items and digital records of items that were subsequently lost or destroyed. One of those things…”
The display changed to show a drawing of a collection of symbols within a larger circle.
“…is this. This drawing is a reproduction of a page from an ancient book discovered on some planet or another. One of my agents sent me the image. This…”
ALLISON circled an irregular starburst symbol.
“…is a pulsar map, as you probably realize. I have had a monitor set to ping me should we enter any system that appears to match the information in that map. And well…it pinged within seconds of jumping into this system. While the pulsars I can detect from here are not quite in the same locations as the map indicates, stellar drift could account for that. I am convinced that this ancient map is showing the location of the very system we are now in.”
No one spoke. What were the odds that getting lost–or more properly, stranded–in Jove space for centuries and then finding our way out through two weird wormholes would bring us to this? It was almost too much to process. Everyone began to chatter at once, questioning, speculating, wondering.
In the next moment, ALLISON cut us off with sharp “CAPTAINS! A wormhole has appeared on grid, on screen now.”
As I turned to look at the viewscreen, I was sure she had sounded rattled. That was rare enough to be concerning. The viewscreen showed the new wormhole now on grid with us and the wormhole we had entered through. As we looked at it, a large, sleek luminous ship suddenly materialized. Parrot and I gawked, then looked at each other. My own concerns and fears were reflected in his worried eyes. I took his arm and said “Let’s park these SKINs and subsume.” He nodded but didn’t move, too mesmerized by the unexplained ship to move.
ALLISON interrupted our thoughts, “Captains, defenses are up but…what…” – I swear she squeaked – “…we are being hailed. And scanned as well.”
“On screen, please.” I said.
“Already done.” ALLISON said.
The viewscreen flashed gray and then suddenly resolved to show a face that was at once human and yet utterly alien…androgynous; hairless; pale patterned skin; delicate features; large silvery-gray eyes, a fleshy fin-like ridge running from forehead to crown adorned with a mesh of fine silver wires, and sleek external cybernetics visible behind narrow elongated ears. The being stared at us appraisingly for a several tense moments, raised one nonexistent eyebrow, and then said,
Spoken in our own language! After a few stunned seconds, ALLISON replied, since the rest of us were apparently too dumbstruck to do so.
“Greetings. This is peaceful exploration vessel Enclave, hailing from the Thera system in New Eden. We seek friendship and knowledge.”
“Greetings from the Talocan Empire. We have analyzed your ship’s data. Prepare to be boarded.”