New Snippet–Magic Words

2 Oct

Chapter One

Elyria could not contain her excitement as she waited in the virtual room. She was young, barely a mature student in the field of pre-singularity civilisations, hardly any more than her first century old. To be invited to attend a meeting of the Confederation Security Council was a singular honour, one she had never heard extended to anyone outside Government or Peacekeeper circles. Indeed, she couldn’t think of any reason why they had invited her.

She had been born into the greatest civilisation ever to exist, a society that ensured that almost every demand of its hundred trillion inhabitants could be met easily, without undue delay. Her formative years had been spent absorbing an educational stream that had made it clear exactly how lucky she and her generation were, compared to humanity’s past generations. She lived in a world her ancestors would have considered a paradise. The lessons must have stuck, for when she had come to choose her first career path she’d started to study primitive civilisations, those that existed without any real knowledge of the stars.

There was no shortage of primitive civilisations in the galaxy, she knew. The Confederation intervened on human worlds that had been cut off from the galactic mainstream for thousands of years, helping them to overcome the limitations forced on them by limited technology and uplifting them to join the Confederation as beings who could make their own choices for the first time in their entire lives. She’d even joined the faction that wanted to intervene on alien worlds too, although they hadn’t been successful in convincing the Confederation as a whole to support intervention. Meddling with humans was simple, at least for the Confederation; aliens tended to take it a little hard.

But what sort of primitive world would demand a full meeting of the Confederation Security Council?

She could not be in trouble. Nothing had gone wrong on her last two excursions into pre-singularity societies. Even if she had intervened more than the Confederation considered acceptable, she would have been called to account by her peers, not the full CSC. The worst that could have happened would have happened by now.

A flicker of light marked the arrival of the President, the elected figurehead who gave the other races who had diplomatic relations with the Confederation someone to meet. Behind her, the Grand Admiral of the Peacekeepers appeared, followed rapidly by the heads of all four major factions and the strange, endlessly shifting figure that represented the MassMind. Right at the end, a blonde woman appeared, the averter the AIs used when they were talking to their human creators, whom they had long since surpassed.

“The chamber is secure,” the AIs announced. “The meeting may now proceed.”

“I believe you called it,” the President said. The AIs had a seat on the Council; unlike the other members, who came and went, they held it in perpetuity. Only the MassMind came close to their level of awareness. “We are at your disposal.”

The AI representative stepped forward. “Two weeks ago, a scout ship operating along the Rim stumbled across a human colony world,” she said. Elyria leaned forward with some interest. Lost colonies were hardly unknown; indeed, most of her case histories came from worlds that had lost contact with the rest of humanity. “The ship’s commander performed a basic scan of the planet, determined that the general level of technology seemed to be mid First Age, and then prepared to depart orbit, leaving it for a future intervention team from the Confederation. It was then that his sensors picked up a thoroughly weird image from the planet’s surface.”

A viewscreen appeared in front of them, displaying a man…riding on a flying carpet? Elyria stared in disbelief. It was easy to produce flying objects – the Confederation did it all the time – but even a late First Age society couldn’t produce anything more complex than a simple glider. And as the flying carpet twisted and turned in the air, clearly under the command of its flyer, it was obvious that it was far more than a glider.

“The Captain’s first thought was that he had stumbled across a world that chose not to use technology to any great extent,” the AIs explained, “but when a full hail refused to provoke any reaction, he made the decision to send remote probes down into the planetary atmosphere. They picked up considerably more data, some of it remarkably disturbing. It seems that the laws of science simply do not apply on Darius. We have scanned the records and observed manipulation of local space that is well beyond anything outside a virtual environment. Further investigation revealed that the locals consider such manipulation to be magic.”

Elyria stared at the blonde woman. Every primitive society believed in magic, and gods – and, to be fair, there were gods, the elder races. But very few societies had actually encountered the Ancients, as far as anyone had been able to determine. The transcendent races kept themselves to themselves. Magic was a superstition that, eventually, a society grew out of as it started to advance.

The President saw it first. “You’re talking about manipulation of the quantum foam.”

“Yes,” the AI representative said. “We have been unable to think of any other explanation for their abilities. They, or someone from one of the Elder Races, are somehow manipulating the quantum foam.”

Everyone who took a basic science course in the Confederation learned about the quantum foam, the underlying bedrock of reality, even though very few people truly understood it. If pressed, Elyria would have had to admit that she was one of the many who didn’t; as she understood it, the quantum foam determined the nature of reality itself. Learn to hack into the quantum foam and one would be able to hack reality itself. Manipulating it served as the basis for the Elder Races demonstrated omnipotence; mastering it had been one of the human race’s goals since the discovery that there were entities out there so powerful that they could snap their fingers and wipe out the entire Confederation.

The Confederation had researched the whole issue thoroughly for years, but most research had either come up blank or produced results that didn’t make sense. Certain artefacts appeared to be capable of manipulating local space around them, as if they were designed to influence the quantum foam, often to the point of allowing frankly impossible events to occur. The Dead Zone, a region of space where modern technology simply refused to function, encompassed at least thirty stars, completely unaffected by a force that should have snuffed them out like candles.

And if someone could manipulate it on a very small scale…

“I find it hard to believe that humans can do this,” the Grand Admiral said, finally. “Are you sure that there isn’t a trick involved?”

“We have refrained from making actual contact, but we have deployed literally millions of snoops all over Darius,” the AI representative said. “If there is a trick, as you put it, we are unable to identify it. Furthermore, the communications links report…glitches comparable to recorded glitches on both Ancient worlds and Essence. As you are well aware, there is no known theory for explaining disruptions to QCC communications links. It should be impossible.”

Elyria swallowed, hard. She had never studied the Ancients – she had a theory that any real discoveries about the race that had vanished six billion years ago would have been made by now, given the vast amount of resources poured into investigating their worlds – but she knew enough to show her just how weird their worlds were. Modern technology didn’t fail, not like the Dead Zone, yet it did suffer glitches. The AIs couldn’t function on the strange worlds and it drove them insane with curiosity. No wonder they were so interested in Darius.

“I think I see where this is going,” the President said. “You want to research Darius thoroughly.”

“Yes,” the AI representative said.

The representative from the Isolation Faction smiled. “Is this really something we should be messing with?”

“We believe that we have been granted a priceless opportunity,” the AI representative countered. “It would be foolish not to make the most of it.”

“Except that by intervening, we may destroy what makes them so special,” the Darwinist representative pointed out. “Do we really want to open ourselves to them?”

“We believe that we should study them first, before intervening,” the AI representative admitted. “This situation is unique.”

Elyria made a face. There was no reason to deny humans the benefits of human civilisation, no matter what warlords, kings, emperors and even elected politicians thought about it. A society so primitive that it used gold as a means of exchange and practiced the slave trade didn’t deserved to exist, and the shock of discovering that there were humans out among the stars who were practically gods tended to destroy any fond feelings about the former government. Maybe, if Darius’ population all shared the same abilities, they would be loosely democratic, but she doubted it. A democratic First Age society was a rare thing and almost unprecedented among human experience.

“If they can manipulate the quantum foam,” the Grand Admiral said, quietly, “they pose a danger to the entire Confederation.”

“There is no evidence to suggest that they can manipulate it outside a certain range,” the AI representative pointed out, “and certainly no evidence that they can reach outside their own atmosphere. There doesn’t even seem to be any awareness that they live in a solar system, although they have managed to grasp that the world is a sphere.”

The President smiled. “We do have a duty to our fellow humans,” she said, seriously. The Confederation didn’t object to people living in primitive conditions if they wanted to live in primitive conditions. Making sure that humans had that choice was one of the Confederation’s prime reasons for existing. “On the other hand, this world might be able to bite back.”

Elyria caught herself nodding. A warlord whose principle weapons consisted of men on horseback armed with spears would be utterly helpless against force fields capable of picking his army up and depositing them somewhere safe for re-education. Removing the yoke of local tyrants was often little more than the work of an afternoon, even if it took years afterwards to help their victims realise that they no longer needed to bow and scrape to their so-called betters.

But a society capable of manipulating the quantum foam? They might very well be able to defend themselves against the Confederation, certainly to the point where more extreme measures would have to be taken. And if their powers got really out of hand, they might even start threatening the structure of local space. The results would be disastrous. No, the AIs were right. They had to know more about Darius before they stepped in to help its population achieve its full potential.

And, she considered silently, studying Darius might unlock the mysteries behind manipulating the quantum foam.

“We believe that Professor Elyria will be more than suitable as the head of the overall study group,” the AI representative said. All eyes turned to Elyria, who flushed. Her society didn’t really believe in hierarchies, but those who had reached high rank did so because of very genuine achievements. What would they make of her? “She is already experienced at dealing with First Age societies and young enough not to be shocked by the impossible.”

The President nodded. “I certainly have no objections,” she said, after a moment in which she no doubt reviewed Elyria’s complete file. “I assume, however, that the study team will include representatives versed in security matters?”

“Of course,” the AI representative said. “We welcome all input from the Peacekeepers.”

“I disagree,” the Isolation representative said, quickly. “This calls for a very careful research effort carried out over years, not a hasty study before yet another intervention.”

There was a brief debate, followed by a quick vote. Elyria was surprised to discover that everyone seemed to have an equal vote, all but one of them in favour of her appointment.

“As yet, this has remained unnoticed by the media,” the AIs said. “I think it behoves us to keep it that way as long as possible.”

“See to it,” the President said, “but make sure you keep us informed.”

One by one, the representatives vanished from the secure chamber, until only the Grand Admiral and the AI representative stood with Elyria. She couldn’t help feeling a little nervous, despite the various modifications her bloodline had undergone in the years since the foundation of the Confederation; she’d never operated at this level in her entire life. And the AIs had brought her in without getting her selected first…either they’d been certain of the outcome, or she was missing something. Probably the latter.

“You want the secret behind manipulating the quantum foam,” the Grand Admiral said, flatly.

“Of course,” the AI representative said. “Don’t you?”

“I am responsible for the physical security of the Confederation,” the Grand Admiral said. “As nice as it is to discover a shortcut to unlocking the greatest mystery in the universe, I must view it, first and foremost, as a possible threat. These people can do the inexplicable and that alone makes them dangerous.”

“They have no idea that we even exist,” the AIs pointed out. “How can they be dangerous?”

“I’m sure that the Essence Entities had no idea we existed either,” the Grand Admiral said. “That didn’t stop them being incredibly dangerous.”

He nodded to Elyria, and then looked back at the AIs. “I’m going to have to insist on complete security,” he said. “A planetoid and supporting elements will be placed within five light years of Darius, with additional ships on alert if necessary. The research vessel will be a Peacekeeper-controlled science vessel, not a standard one from the Intervention Group. In the event of Darius posing any threat, we will withdraw from the system and quarantine it until we can decide what to do next.”

The AI representative smiled. “One Peacekeeper cruiser can go toe-to-toe with an entire battlefleet from the 5th Interstellar War and emerge victorious,” they said. “What do you expect to encounter that requires an entire planetoid to fight?”

“I do not know,” the Grand Admiral said, firmly, “but I do know that this is going to be dangerous. And if it gets out of hand, I want resources on hand to combat it.”

He looked over at Elyria. “You’ll have command of the mission, but there will be a Peacekeeper in command of the science vessel,” he added. “Don’t let the AIs push you into moving too quickly. And if the Peacekeepers issue the order to evacuate the surface, don’t argue with it.”

“Understood,” Elyria said. No intervention mission had failed completely, ever. But this was a research mission into possibly hostile territory. Maybe the Peacekeepers had a point, whatever the AIs said. Any kind of quantum foam manipulation was potentially deadly dangerous. “What about the other races?”

The Grand Admiral scowled. Relatively few races matched humanity’s technological prowess and none of them possessed anything as many ships as the Peacekeepers, who had over two million starships. But many of them thought that the Confederation was simply too big and powerful already, and they all wanted to know how to manipulate the quantum foam. If any other race worked out that Darius existed, they’d either demand access or bombard the planet into radioactive plasma. The results would not be pleasant.

“There should be no other advanced civilisation within two thousand light years,” he said, finally. “However, we will be taking security precautions. If worst comes to worst, we will claim the system outright and let the pieces fall where they may.”

He nodded politely to Elyria and flickered out of the chamber.

“He’s serious,” Elyria said, quietly. Understanding clicked. “You wanted all that, didn’t you?”

“It is only logical to be paranoid,” the AI representative said. “And besides, the Grand Admiral is right. We could allow our lust to understand the quantum foam to blind us to the dangerous.”

Elyria had to smile. “He didn’t say that out loud,” she said.

“No, but it is a logical surmise,” the AIs said. “You should start preparing the basic list of team members already. Some will not wish to deal with security precautions, so you may have to invite your second or third choices to the team. The Grand Admiral has already assigned you a Peacekeeper liaison officer. We suggest that you treat him as part of the team.”

There was a long pause. “We have already prepared you a full data download for your neural implant of everything we have recorded and surmised about Darius,” they added. “You will, of course, be able to use it as a guide to planning your investigation of the planet. It is hoped that you can devise a way to insert agents into the population to gather data.”

“I should hope so,” Elyria said. That was easy, given enough data. Darius clearly had trading networks, so any strangeness could be explained away by claiming that the strangers were from out of town. On the other hand, they’d have to check how much knowledge the locals had of other cultures before they make too many claims. It wouldn’t do to allow the locals to spot a blatant lie. “I’ll start studying the download at once.”

“Make sure that you are under observation,” the AIs warned. Elyria gave their representative a sharp look. Privacy was one of the most highly valued luxuries in the Confederation, not least because there was so little of it. “The data is somewhat startling, almost unbelievable.”

Elyria didn’t doubt it for a second. Linking out of the virtual communications network, she checked her data store and discovered a new data packet marked DARIUS. Activating it, she accessed the file…and plunged into a whole new world.

4 Responses to “New Snippet–Magic Words”

  1. The Deposed King October 3, 2012 at 8:18 am #

    Could be fun. What happens when those primitives you are ‘helping’ have something you value and are more than capable of biting back?

    The Deposed King

    • chrishanger October 3, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

      That’s more or less what I have in mind.

      I’m currently musing on Darius’s society. Any thoughts?

      Chris

  2. thelyniezian October 5, 2012 at 11:33 am #

    It’s an interesting idea Chris. You have an interstellar post-singlularity civilisation coming into contact with a world that basically uses magic!

    Am I right in thinking said post-singularity civilisation seems to be a little (to me, uncomfortably) propagandistic in its own achievements? In the sense that “we are the greatest society ever” (could of course be true in a given sense) and that intervention is seen by many as a matter of course?

    How are low-tech human worlds so diverse? Remnants of early-stage colonisation?

    • chrishanger October 5, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

      Pretty much – of course, they really are (mostly) all that; they’re capable of giving everyone more than enough to eat, without really straining their recsourses. But you’re right too – they do have a big ego. Low-tech worlds are the remains of colonisation, yep. The Confederation is slowly reabsorbing them as they’re discovered – this one, of course, can bite back… Chris > Date: Fri, 5 Oct 2012 10:33:35 +0000 > To: christopher_g_nuttall@hotmail.com >

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