As a birthday treat to myself, I wrote a snippet. Enjoy!
The alien city was vast, immense, unknowable.
Professor Joseph Buckley felt it in his bones as he walked through the grey city. It sprawled out for thousands of miles, a towering maze of ziggurats and strange, blocky buildings that seemed subtly wrong to human eyes. No one knew what the aliens who had built the city looked like, or why their worlds were completely dead, leeched of all life and colour. It was a mystery that had attracted him and thousands of others from the Confederation of Mankind, each one hoping to solve the question that had been puzzling humanity since the first Ancient world had been discovered in 2326. What had happened to a civilisation that had had the power to spread out across the stars to render it extinct?
The world was dead. No plants grew in the soil; no birds flew in the sky. There wasn’t even a trace of life energy on the planet, raising the question of why the atmosphere was still breathable after so long. The Ancients had lived and died over a billion years before the human race had started to take its first steps into the interstellar void. And yet, Joseph had the feeling that their world wasn’t completely dead. Every so often, there were things in the corner of his eyes, flickers of movement that vanished when he tried to look at them. The sensation of being watched was overpowering. He wasn’t the only researcher to have such experiences. Telepaths couldn’t visit the dead worlds without picking up psychic residue that deafened their talents. Whatever had happened to the Ancient civilisation had been so traumatic that it had permanently blighted their worlds.
He stopped in front of a pyramid and looked up at the statue the Ancients had placed in front of the building. It was the same as many others on the dead worlds, a vaguely octopus-like shape with a single big eye staring down at him. No one knew what the statues represented, but theories were rife. One school of thought held that they were depictions of the Ancients themselves – there were at least four other races known to be non-humanoid, so alien that communication was incredibly difficult – while another believed that the octopuses were gods, or monsters. Joseph himself wasn’t sure what to believe. The alien buildings might well have been designed for a non-humanoid race, yet there were aspects to the city that suggested that the inhabitants had been humanoid. Or maybe he was just imagining it. There were no points of reference in the city to suggest how the Ancients had populated their buildings.
It was one of the many mysteries surrounding the Ancients. Over a thousand dead worlds had been found within the space claimed by the Confederation – and several hundred more were known to exist in alien empires. The mystery puzzled every sentient race; races that rarely cooperated with aliens on anything had joined the ongoing research project into what had killed the Ancient worlds. Their input had been just as speculative as humanity’s. No one knew anything for sure about the Ancients. Even the attempts to work out precisely when the Ancients had died out were fraught with uncertainty. Nothing quite seemed to make sense on their worlds.
No one knew how they’d moved from world to world either. Humanity had started with primitive rockets and gone on to warp drive, wormholes and hyperspace travel. Most of the known races with an interest in space travel had followed the same basic route, unless they’d been contacted by someone more advanced and offered the chance to obtain more advanced technology instead of developing it for themselves. But the Ancients? No one had ever discovered one of their starships, or indeed any space installations at all. A starship should have remained preserved in the vacuum of space, while the worlds should have decayed and slowly returned to life, but instead the opposite had happened. It was a mystery. The most likely solution, the consensus of the Confederation, was that they’d developed planet-to-planet wormholes and bypassed the need for space travel, yet no other race had been able to construct permanent wormholes without developing warp drive first.
He shook his head as he looked up at the statue, plucking his terminal off his belt and using it to take a picture, uploading it to the monitoring satellites orbiting the Ancient world. The technology was primitive, something recognisable to a human from the pre-Confederation era, but more advanced technology had a tendency to glitch – or fail outright – on an Ancient world. AIs couldn’t work on the dead worlds, nor could the implants that were every human’s birthright, the implants that connected them to the gigantic data network spanning the entire galaxy. Precisely why certain kinds of technology failed to operate on an Ancient world was yet another mystery, one that fascinated most of the researchers. It was almost as if some god had ordained that advanced technology wouldn’t work on their worlds. There was certainly no hyperspace disruption, like the Dead Zone, or absorption field sucking in energy from every possible source. Technology like that should be detectable, but there was nothing.
The best guess – only a guess – was that the Ancients or whatever had destroyed them had used their technology to ensure that their worlds remained preserved as a testament to their existence, or as a warning of the power that had crushed their civilisation. If there was a technology that could keep functioning after a billion years, without maintenance, the Confederation wanted it. Humanity had come far in the five thousand years since they had started pushing into space, developing technology that would have awed their pre-space ancestors, but no one had matched what the Ancients had done. There were even those who believed that the Ancients had been so advanced – or so different – that their technology had been effectively magic. Maybe they’d been capable of interfacing with the quantum foam directly and teleporting themselves from world to world. Humanity’s telepaths could teleport small objects over vast distances, with enough power and support. The Ancients might have been far more powerful, or maybe they’d evolved into beings of energy, leaving their worlds and migrating to a higher dimension. It was a popular theory among those who didn’t want to consider the possibility that they’d been exterminated by an outside power, a power that might still be around to menace humanity.
But a threat didn’t need to be billions of years old to be dangerous. There were a dozen races that resented humanity’s effortless domination of the Milky Way. Many of those races had sent survey teams to abandoned or dead worlds, picking through the rubble in the hopes of finding something so advanced that they could break humanity’s technology and rule the galaxy for themselves. Joseph suspected that they wouldn’t be able to find anything on the Ancient worlds that would help them to advance past humanity, but the Peacekeepers – the Confederation Navy – took the threat seriously. One piece of advanced technology in the wrong hands might have disastrous implications for the human race.
His terminal bleeped, acknowledging the upload, and he returned it to his belt. There were hundreds of humans scattered through the vast city – like bugs crawling over something they couldn’t even begin to comprehend – but he was alone. He’d chosen to leave the eager young newcomers from the Confederation at base camp, allowing the more patient scientists to assist the younger researchers in adapting to a life without direct and permanent access to the data network. It had been years since he’d immersed himself in the endless flow of news and entertainment produced by his fellow humans, but he still remembered the wrenching days when he’d been isolated, trying to grow used to living without voices in his head. Some of the newcomers would leave within the first few days, taking the shuttle – no teleporters on an Ancient world – back to orbit and returning to the network. It wouldn’t be held against them by the Confederation, but they’d lose their chance of making a discovery that might allow humanity to finally unravel the mysteries surrounding the Ancients. Joseph had promised himself, over fifty years ago, that he would solve at least one of those mysteries personally. It was a promise that he had, so far, been unable to keep.
Pushing his thoughts aside, he stepped up to the entrance and peered into the darkness. It was almost a living thing, seeming to press in around him as he stepped into the building. Shadows moved at the corner of his eye, sending a chill down his spine as he unhooked the flashlight from his belt and shone it into the darkness. Centuries of genetic tinkering had given him – and most of humanity – eyesight that his ancestors could only dream of, but even his eyes were useless without any light at all. Some of the Ancient buildings were illuminated – the exact source of light was yet another mystery – while others were as dark and silent as the grave. This one seemed to be one of the latter. No one knew if some parts of the city were illuminated as a matter of course, or if some of the ancient machinery was breaking down. But then, as far as anyone could tell, the buildings were made of nothing more interesting than stone. There was no sign of any advanced technology within the city.
The beam of light illuminated the far wall, revealing an endless string of writing. It looked like a combination of Greek, Egyptian and Arabic scripts, but no one had ever been able to decipher it for human readers. The AIs, humanity’s incredibly intelligent children, had been able to establish communications with beings that lived in gas giants and beings that existed as compound hive minds rather than individuals, yet they couldn’t understand what the Ancients had carved into their walls. Joseph had heard that the AIs found the Ancients to be an incredibly frustrating puzzle, one that threatened their very existence. The technology that caused advanced technology to glitch could be used against Calculus, the world the AIs had adapted as their own. Unlike humanity, they couldn’t survive in such an environment.
He stepped closer, tracing the writing with his fingertips. As always, there was the vague sense that there was meaning, if only he could stare at it long enough for his mind to grasp what the Ancients were saying. The Ancients couldn’t be that alien, could they? Humanity had encountered several alien races that thought in ways that made little sense to human minds, but they had been able to communicate. Why were the Ancients so beyond their comprehension? And why had their civilisation not survived into the modern era?
Centuries ago, before the human race had developed the first primitive warp drive, human researchers had speculated that the absence of contact meant that there were no other intelligent races in the universe. They’d postulated that a race older than humanity would have been able to settle the galaxy – and Earth – long before the human race learned how to make fire on demand. Such a race would have foreclosed the possibility of other races evolving by settling their planets. And yet – apart from the Ancients – there was no clear proof that races much older than humanity had ever existed. Had something happened to exterminate all life in the galaxy long before humanity could evolve, or had something changed to allow intelligent life to start evolving? There were a million and one theories, but no one knew anything for sure.
Recording the writing as he moved, he stepped from room to room, struck – once again – by the wrongness of the alien building. The proportions were strange, almost as if the designers had been creating rooms for several separate alien races. Some doorways were wide enough to admit a shuttlecraft; others were so small that it was a struggle to squeeze through them and into the room beyond. Joseph had even heard rumours that some of the buildings had changed between visits, reconfiguring their internal structures, although no one had ever been able to prove it. Even primitive monitoring systems had a tendency to fail if left too long in the alien city.
Another passageway appeared in front of him, leading down under the ground. Carefully, he stepped down the slope, shining his flashlight ahead. An eye looked back at him and he nearly jumped out of his skin before realising that it was yet another octopus statue. This one seemed almost alive in the half-light. It wasn’t until he flicked off the flashlight that he realised that it was glowing faintly. The single eye looked unpleasantly malevolent in the darkness. Joseph shivered and walked past it, into the chamber beyond. The air seemed…different, somehow, poised in nervous anticipation. It felt as if the chamber was waiting for someone. He flashed his light over the far wall and blinked in surprise when the writing came to life, casting an eerie red light over the chamber. In the centre of the vast room, mounted on a pedestal, was a small cube, small enough that he could have picked it up with his hands. It too started to glow as the room came to life, flickering a strange, almost alien colour. The sense of power building up grew stronger; his flashlight winked once and blinked out, leaving the room illuminated only by the alien technology. Frightened, despite the chance to learn more about the Ancients than countless researchers had done over five thousand years, Joseph turned to the passageway…
…And stopped. The passageway that had led down into the chamber was gone. Frantically, Joseph glanced around, trying to find another way out of the room, but he saw nothing. The light was growing brighter. Panic bubbled at the back of his mind as he touched the stone walls, only to receive what felt like a mild electric shock as soon as his fingers touched the wall. He stumbled back, suddenly realising where the Ancients had hidden their technology, a billion years ago. Their technology had been so advanced that they’d literally been able to inscribe it into stone, infusing the raw material with their power. The Confederation and every other race had been looking at the alien technology all along and they’d never realised it! It had been right in front of their very eyes.
He turned and looked back at the cube. It looked brighter now, illuminated by an almost sickly light that both repelled and attracted him. There was something about it that was surprisingly familiar, as if he’d seen something like it before. He’d started by studying other dead planets before moving on to the Ancient worlds…something about the cube triggered a memory. But what? His enhanced memory seemed to have failed him and none of his implants would work in the city. He stepped forward, not quite realising that he was doing so, and reached out towards the cube. His mind screamed in horror as it finally made the connection, remembering Essence and what had happened on that doomed world, but it was too late. His fingers brushed the cube…
…And something flooded into his mind. There was an instant of comprehension, a dawning horror at what he’d done, at what he was going to unleash upon the galaxy, and then his awareness simply winked out of existence and was gone. Something would walk and talk and wear his body, but it was very far from human.
Commander Nadia Portman was irritated and trying not to show it. Few of the researchers – particularly the older ones – had any real understanding of the dangers involved in poking away at alien technology, particularly alien technology that was beyond immediate comprehension. If even primitive alien technology could produce nasty surprises, how much more dangerous could Ancient technology be? But none of the researchers were interested in listening to the Peacekeepers who had been sent along to nursemaid them and ensure that any discoveries were transmitted to the Peacekeepers first, before they were announced to the entire galaxy. Some of them just wandered off into the city and emerged days later, after she’d worried herself sick that they’d vanished – or had been eaten by the city, for all she knew.
She ran a hand through her short brown hair as she reached Professor Buckley’s last reported location and glanced around. The search would be so much easier on a Confederation world, where technology functioned perfectly – but then, if technology functioned perfectly on an Ancient world, she wouldn’t be so worried about the researchers. Buckley hadn’t reported in after he’d transmitted his pictures of the building – maybe he was lost, or playing a game, or maybe something bad had happened to him. She caught herself peeking into the darkness, unable to avoid the impression that the shadows moved every time she looked away from them. The city wasn’t built for humans; in fact, she suspected that the best course of action would be to quarantine the Ancient worlds altogether and leave their mysteries alone. It was not a belief that made her popular with the researchers.
But then, if the researchers on Essence had been a little more careful, they might not have destroyed an entire colony – and condemned thousands of humans to a fate worse than death.
Nadia heard a cough from inside the building and peered inside. Professor Buckley staggered out, looking as if he was on the verge of death. He was pale and sweating, moving almost as if he were drunk, or hyped up on one of the glandular drugs the hedonists used to expand their minds. Nadia stepped forward and he looked at her. For a moment, she could have sworn that a total stranger was looking back at her. Whatever had happened inside the building had clearly been traumatic, even if he looked intact. His smile when he saw her was skewed, almost inhuman.
“Professor,” she said, finally, “what happened to you?”
“Tripped and fell,” Buckley said, slowly. He sounded as if he’d forgotten how to talk and was having to learn again from the beginning. “Don’t worry about it. I’m fine – and I have made a wonderful discovery. I know what happened to the Ancients!”
He smiled. It looked more natural this time. “Nothing bad, nothing bad at all,” he added. “And I know how we can do what they did – and reach for supreme power.”