Authors: Christopher Nuttall
“Material unknown,” her suit’s sensors said, when she examined it. Something completely unknown to human science was odd, but looking at it, she wondered if she was merely managing to misinterpret what she was seeing. It should have been impossible to produce a material that nanites couldn’t crawl through, unless perhaps they had used nanites to produce the material and then maintain it. Human starships did have some self-repair functions and there was no reason why the Killers couldn’t have something comparable, but she’d never seen anything on this scale. The thought was oddly terrifying; despite the power failure, could the starship still be maintaining or even repairing itself?
“Nothing,” Chris said, bitterly. “Can we dig into the metal?”
“I would advise against it,” Paula said, sharing his feelings. The lost Footsoldier was almost certainly dead, but they’d want to take his body for a solar burial. There seemed to be no way to recover him. “We can get some specialist tools up here and dig into the material once the starship is secured.”
She turned and froze, feeling a hot liquid trickling down her legs. She was staring right at one of the machines that had chased them down into the heart of the starship. It took her a moment to realise that it was as dead as the remainder of the ship and the position it had been caught in was just a coincidence, but she’d been certain that it was about to tear her apart. The darkness had kept it well-hidden. She hadn’t even noticed it until it was too late.
“Don’t worry,” Chris said, softly. “It’s dead.”
Paula flushed, remembering that Chris could see all of her vital signs through his suit. “I didn’t mean to panic,” she said, crossly. “I just saw it and…”
“It happens to us all,” Chris said. “Just follow us up towards the surface and you’ll be fine.”
The flight out of the starship was more leisurely than the raid into the starship, but Paula was still sweating like she’d never sweated before when she was finally helped out of the hole they’d produced in the maintenance hatch – or whatever the Killers had used it for. She felt as if she were right at the end of her tether, but she still had enough energy to look up towards the Milky Way and feel awe as she took in the galaxy from such a distance. It was impossible to make it out as anything, but a great band of light in the distance, yet it was an astonishing sight. There were no traces of the Killers – even their vast construction projects had made no mark on the galaxy that she could see – and nothing to suggest that it was anything, but safe. It was a humbling sight. On such a scale, even the massive Killer starship was less than a speck of dust.
“The starships are coming in now to pick us up and deliver the first load of researchers,” Chris said, prodding her gently. “I suggest that you get a good eight hours sleep, at least, before you think about going back into the ship, or anything else.”
“Yes, sir,” Paula said, unable to disagree. The Milky Way still captivated her. “Are you going to be sleeping as well?”
“We have to purge our systems of all of the stimulants,” Chris confirmed. “After that, we’ll have to write reports for our superiors and brief other Footsoldier combat teams on what we encountered inside the Killer ship. They’ll have to know what we found if they get sent inside other ships.”
She heard him chuckle. “At this rate, we should have all their ships captured within a few hundred years,” he added. She got the impression that he was trying to reassure her, somehow. “The war is as good as won.”
Somehow, Paula couldn’t smile. A dark shape appeared from space, rapidly turning into a landing craft settling down on the hull, unloading the first researchers who would be digging into the mysteries of the Killer starship. A day ago, Paula would have loved to be one of them, but now she had the urge to just go home and lose herself inside a MassMind fantasy program, one where the Killers didn’t exist. It would have meant abandoning the rest of the human race, but at least she wouldn’t have to worry about the Killers – until they destroyed the asteroid settlement she used as a hiding place.
“I doubt it,” she said, shaking her head. If she worked with the other scientists, she might have a chance to influence the outcome of the war. “They’re not going to let this pass without a response.”
“My God,” Matriarch Jayne breathed, as the final sections of the report faded away. “They actually did it!”
“Apparently,” President Patti Lydon agreed, sourly. “They captured a Killer starship and took it to Star’s End.”
“They did more than just that,” Administrator Arun Prabhu said. “They killed a Killer.”
Tabitha Cunningham smiled inwardly. One Killer was small compensation for the billions of humans and countless other races who had been killed by the Killers, but it was a start. It was more interesting to know that there only appeared to be one Killer on each of their starships, which suggested that their total numbers might be much lower than anyone had thought. If they could take out a few more starships, they might actually get the Killers to take notice of them. Of course, not all of the War Council thought that that was a good idea.
“And now they will feel inclined to retaliate against us,” Patti said, grimly. “Has there been any sign of a response from them?”
is still on station at the scene of the battle,” Admiral Brent Roeder said. “So far, there has been no sign of another Killer starship coming to investigate the loss of one of their ships, or anything else. It has only been a day, however, and we have no idea how quickly they can react to anything so unexpected.”
“We don’t know that it was unexpected,” Patti pointed out. “For all we know, they lose a dozen ships a year.”
“We know that they don’t,” Tabitha corrected, softly. “If they lost starships so frequently, they would be a great deal more careful about what they allowed so close to their ships. They ignored our attack wing until they opened fire and didn’t bother attempting to do more than drive them away. They completely missed the boarding parties until it was far too late. No, I think that we have good cause to believe that no one has ever hurt them like this before.”
“Except for the minor detail that it’s petty,” Jayne pointed out, sharply. “We take out an entire starship; they dismantle entire solar systems. We work on unlocking their science; they react and come after our remaining settlements and worlds. It’s not as if we’ve suddenly developed a new weapon that completely changes the balance of power. How long will it be before we actually manage to incorporate their technology in our ships?”
Arun frowned. “We have several thousand scientists and researchers crawling over the starship at the moment,” he said. “It has, however, only been a day since we brought the ship into Star’s End. We have made some interesting discoveries already, but there’s no way that I can give you a timetable for when we’ll know everything about their ships, or what makes them tick. Don’t mistake me; we
in a better position than we were in last week, but we still have a long way to go before we start looking at technological parity.”
“And they seem to have ignored us, again,” Patti said. “How long will that last?”
“Unknown,” Brent said. “Overall, however, their normal means of operation was to launch an attack on any of our colonies that they encountered. We had no guarantee that they would leave us alone even if we left
alone. Our only other choice was to admit defeat and sail off to some other galaxy, where we might have been discovered again by them, one day.”
“There is no evidence that they possess any holdings outside the galaxy,” Farther Sigmund pointed out. “The survey teams that went through the Clouds found no trace of their presence, or any other form of life.”
“Which does suggest that
scorched those worlds free of life,” Brent pointed out, angrily. “There were hundreds of worlds in the Clouds like Earth, worlds that should have developed their own form of intelligent life. They never did – why? I think the Killers went through the Clouds centuries ago and wiped out any possible source of intelligent life.”
“We never even found ruins,” Farther Sigmund said.
“We can barely operate on Earth
, a thousand years after they blasted the planet into a dead husk,” Brent countered. “The bottom line is that if there is any life in the Clouds, or anywhere else apart from the Killers and us, it’s very good at hiding. There might be entire alien civilisations hidden somewhere in the Milky Way, but as far as we know, it’s just us and the Killers. And, one day, only one of us will survive.”
seem to have the advantage,” Patti pointed out, coldly. “We lost fifty starships on the capture mission; they lost one, which they might be able to recover if they track it down. Hell, is it emitting any kind of signal?”
“Not as far as we can tell,” Arun said. “It appears to be a low-level RF broadcaster, but none of those signals will reach any known Killer outpost for thousands of years; they’re not FTL signals. They may have something not unlike the MassMind, or relay posts held together by quantum entanglement communications links, but we have no way to detect them, any more than they can detect ours.”
Tabitha nodded. Quantum entanglement communications links made use of the principle of quantum uncertainty to link two very distant relay nodes together; by constantly shifting their quantum state, they bound the MassMind together into a galaxy-spanning mind. They couldn’t be linked into without knowing the precise quantum fluctuation pattern and it was impossible, even, to tell if one was being used without inside knowledge. The Killers might be advanced, but even they couldn’t detect one – she hoped. It should have been impossible, but if they could…the entire MassMind would be open to their gaze.
Patti was clearly thinking along the same lines. “And if you’re wrong?”
“If we’re wrong,” Arun said patiently, “the Killers will attack Star’s End and recover their ship. We will have everything we learned in the time between its capture and its recovery – far more than we knew before we launched the raid on their ship – and enough insight to fuel genuinely original science. We may already have enough new insights to develop our own versions of their systems.”
“You don’t know that,” Jayne pointed out. “You just finished warning us that there was no hope of a time table, just…we’d have our discoveries when we had them.”
“And in the meantime, we have reminded them that we exist,” Patti added. “You might have exposed the Community to their notice…”
Tabitha tapped the simulated table angrily. “Enough,” she said, coldly. Her age and general renown kept everyone quiet. If she wasn't the oldest personality still active, she was definitely the person with the longest history. She
history – and she wasn't above using it for attention if necessary. “We knew that we had no choice, but to accept the risks and launch the raid. We are no more exposed to them than we were two days ago. We lost High Singapore because we believed that they didn’t care about its existence. We had no choice.”
She looked from face to face, wondering what they were thinking. They could project whatever images they liked in the MassMind; they could certainly use filters to keep their faces under firm control, even catching anything that accidentally slipped out of their mouths. She couldn’t blame Patti and Jayne for being worried about what the Killers might do in retaliation, but the destruction of Earth had convinced her that there was no room for doubt – it was humanity, or the Killers. There was no room for coexistence.
“And there is nothing to be gained from constantly rehashing the decision and bemoaning the risks,” she continued. The Community’s politics were considerably less poisonous than the ones she remembered from Old Earth, but at the same time, it’s very decentralisation made it harder to agree on a coherent policy. “We knew what we were doing when we launched the mission and now we succeeded…we can reap the fruits of success.”
Unbidden, the term
rose to the top of her mind. Back on Earth, with an endless war against all kinds of wreckers and terrorists, the term had referred to defeating an enemy force without having the manpower to hold the ground afterwards, allowing the enemy to come back and rebuild their influence without a serious fight. The Killers had been poked hard. They’d definitely respond in some way, but how? How much of the Community was exposed to their sensors? No one knew.
“Now,” she said, when silence fell. “Arun, what can you tell us so far about the Killers?”
“Very little for definite,” Arun said. “There is no reason to argue about Researcher Handley’s contention that the Killers actually originated in a gas giant, rather than an Earth-like world. It seems absurd and we have the MassMind running possible evolutionary simulations, but there has to be
very weird about their homeworld. The atmosphere they chose for the starship is nothing like anything we or the Ghosts used.”
Tabitha shivered, despite herself. The Ghosts, like humanity, had been a spacefaring race before the Killers arrived. Unlike humanity, they hadn’t been able to establish a working civilisation in space after their homeworld had been bombarded to rubble and had died out among their asteroid belt. The haunting images of dead spacecraft and ruined asteroid habitations had provided a sobering look at how humanity’s story could have ended. Tabitha and her fellows from that era had saved the human race.
There were MassMind produced entertainments that had human explorers stumbling across the remains of the Ghosts – hidden colonies that had somehow survived – but as far as the researchers had been able to determine, the Killers had got them all, directly or indirectly. It was just another wonder of the universe that had been crushed under the heel of the Killers.
“Overall, however, they appear to have operated on the same basis as the Spacers,” Arun continued. “There was one Killer that was blended into the starship’s computer network, rather than a live crew and AIs.”
All eyes turned to Rupert, the Spacer. “We have attempted for quite some time to develop a starship…body for a human being,” he said, blandly. “The experiments tended to fail rapidly, leading either to complete mental collapse or insanity. One starship went completely insane and attacked a colony, before heading out to fight a Killer ship and being destroyed. We believe that the task of operating a starship was beyond the capability of a human mind, although we achieved limited success by pairing the human mind with several AIs intended to cushion the shock.”
He paused. “That did not, however, develop any greater efficiency than standard neural links like the Defence Force uses,” he added. “While some Spacers are, in effect, small spacecraft themselves, the task of operating a full-sized starship was something beyond any of the experimental subjects.”
Tabitha felt deeply shocked, even though she understood that every one of the experimental subjects had been a volunteer. Back on Earth, experiments like that would have been banned – along with a vast number of far less harmful experiments – leading to the Technical Faction’s decision to set up a massive base on Titan, away from the interference of people who knew nothing about science, but considered themselves capable of controlling it. After Earth had been destroyed, all moral and ethical limits had rapidly vanished, pushed aside by the desperate demands of survival. The Spacers had come out of research programs launched after Earth became a blackened cinder.
“Spacer-crewed starships are generally operated in a vacuum,” Arun commented, into the silence. “The Killers could have operated their own ship in a vacuum, but they decided that maintaining their atmosphere was important to them – and we don’t know why, yet. Our researchers believe that they had some motive that overrode more logical concerns – such as damage to exposed components caused by moisture in the air – but…”
He shrugged. “Research programs are ongoing,” he concluded. “I propose that we meet to review progress in a fortnight, or earlier if we make any surprising discoveries. Until then…?”
“One point,” Rupert commented. “The Spacers are all very happy about the successful mission and many have volunteered to assist with the research programs…”
“And we’re very happy to have them,” Arun injected. “They are actually more suited to an alien craft than most of our researchers.”
“…But we would like to know how the remainder of the Community is taking it,” Rupert continued, ignoring the interruption. “Admiral, how are your own people coping with developments?”