Click. Tap-click. Click-tap-click-click.
The line went dead and the sound of the universe filled the speaker. The speaker was then switched off and silence filled the small cabin. No matter how one tried, the signal could be decoded no further than these clicks and taps.
Tap-click-click. It was common to all broadcasts, always at the end. A slight increase of volume on the tap, a drop into the bass register on the last click. No other known race had ever used these signals before. No computer could match it to anything ever analyzed or recorded. It contained only two base sounds, off which there were thousands of combinations resulting from combinations of base and inflection.
Tap-click-click. That one was always the same. It never changed, no matter the calculated distance between connection points. In all the time these broadcasts had been monitored, it never changed. In enough time for civilizations to rise and fall, it remained the same. But this immutable communication offered no hope of understanding.
The audacity of the signals was a thing to be pondered over. They made no attempt to disguise their signals. They were not tight-beamed between relays in space, but rather broadly spewed out across the universe for all to hear. No effort at all was made at concealment; the signals were not even on an obscure wavelength, but rather on a common one.
The signal was strong as well. It cut through and above any interstellar noise with piercing clarity, acquiescing only to the super nova for strength. Even when receiver sensitivity was turned down, the signal threatened to overload all but the sturdiest of systems.
The figure that sat next to the speaker tapped the console with a rhythmic precision either of machine or one of pure habit. The cabin in which the figure sat would make a Spartan blush with envy of its utilitarian nature. Its cramped quarters would make the stoutest of miners feel the grip of claustrophobia. Every control was no further than an arm's reach. There were no furnishings or luxuries that fill the common spacecraft. The cabin did not even contain the great leveler of men. The figure sat on the floor next to the speaker, not because he required the rest, but out of a habit learned from friends. The cabin was one of two rooms upon the craft. The other room was more of a place to store maintenance gear than a proper room. The craft was nimble, yet extremely powerful, the creation of two minds that went beyond human comprehension. The craft could stand up to ships many times its own size. The only thing the pilot of this craft feared was the Enemy, and that was the fear of respect for a power more dangerous than oneself.
Two transceivers, he thought. The signals have been getting stronger.
He had inadvertently drifted into a signal while studying a moon that had been siphoned dry by the Enemy. The signal had not come from the moon, but rather cut across the system, using the larger planets and its star as a refraction device. One moment the transceiver had been calmly receiving an ancient Earth transmission, the next it was full of taps and clicks so strong that it was pulling the transceiver and its speaker to shreds. The surge lasted for mere seconds before it terminated in a shower of sparks.
The second time he had been skirting the Sol system, days before it was sacked. Two signals of impressive strength had crossed at nearly right angles, not even giving the transceiver a chance, destroying it before it could even manage a single squawk of noise. It was this spike that had caused him to seek the Watcher.
Two spikes, he thought. Two strong signals. Twice I was close to the Enemy, and twice I was overlooked. But before, I was nearly annihilated as I approached a system being ravaged by them. How do they differentiate?
The craft drifted now, as he let it do sometimes. He let warring gravity wells pull the ship wherever the field was the strongest. This time he was drifting near a black hole that he would come to in the other time to contemplate his own destruction. This time the hole offered another haven; the wash of radiation hid his craft from all but the closest means of investigation.
He had just come from a way-station on the outer-rim; a jump point between galaxies for the Galax liners. The huge station had two facets, the pristine of the first and second-class boarding areas, and then the dirt and grime of last-class and those grubbing for money to flee their problems. The station was only held together by the resources of the Galax corporation. They controlled the lines connecting the galaxies and were the only ones who were willing to travel within the galaxy while it was ravaged by the Enemy. But these trips were made less and less as time went on; there were few who could afford their rates.
He had secured time with an administrator from the Galax corporation by using his status as Friend of Peace. He had sat in the gleaming office and looked out onto the splendor and squalor of the station.
"What are the figures for emigration?"
"It averaged about 26,000 a day for the last 30 days. Its been declining steadily for the last 18 months."
The little man walked from the window to sit behind a massive desk, an opulent display in a station that would no longer be needed soon.
"Are there any immigrations?"
"None. The last were only a temporary delegation of scientists studying a pulsar system, and that was 40 months ago."
"What are the figures on intra-galactic travel?"
"Almost non-existent. We carry a few travelers from the inner core."
"What are the rates for that?"
"Very large. There is quite an expanse of space to cover, and the threat of Them is quite large, as you know. What is the point of this, Honorable Friend?"
The little man sat further back in his chair as the Friend stood and walked to the window. He looked past the edge of the station, some 150 kilometers from his present location, into the inky depths that separated the galaxies. For the moment he put the squalor of the station aside, and contemplated the flight of humanity and its friends.
"I want to know what Galax thinks of Them."
"We think what everyone thinks; it is a sad thing but we cannot stop Them."
He was silent a moment, letting the comment hang on the processed air.
"That is what you tell the public, but I know you think differently. Galax knows that They have been hijacking freighters and liners. They seem to know how to use them as well, better than just having a few would suggest. How many Galax ships have been lost?"
"I think the Friend may be asking a bit much."
He remained impassive, even though his mind reeled with the possibilities of that statement.
"How many Galax ships have been lost?"
"That is none of your concern." He heard the ice in the voice, the sound of a man cornered and unwilling to give further information.
This calls for a switch of tactics, he thought.
"Do you know of my history, Administrator?"
"Yes, it is common knowledge, taught to children in schools."
"I mean the whole history." He modulated his voice to a tone that would frighten even the bravest of the brave. "I know where the history picks up for lessons in school. I talk of the before time."
"What before time? Your history is the before time." There was a quaver in the administrator's voice.
"My before time. I was once a scourge of the galaxy. When my father created me, I was made simply to infiltrate and destroy. When my father was destroyed, I was unbound from even his rules. From time to time, my brother caught me, and attempted to change me. But for nearly two hundred years I was the force behind all dread and terror to the Galaxy. I wished only to eliminate the system that was built on the ashes of my father's empire. I liked destroying. It did not matter how many died, as long as it meant the system had one more rift in it, not matter how temporary."
"Why do you tell me this, Friend," the administrator whimpered.
He sprung into action, and was on the administrator before he could finish blinking his eye. He hoisted the little man from his seat by his neck. He lifted him to the maximum extension of his arms, leaving the Administrator to flail his legs in the air.
"I may have stopped destroying for no reason, but I have no qualms about eliminating those that stand in the way of the survival of the peoples of the galaxy." His voice now seemed to drip with venom. "If I have to rip you and this station to pieces to get the information I want, I will do it without a second thought. I would prefer that you told me the information so I could preserve you and this way-point of exodus."
He threw the man into his chair, sending it flying into the desk hard enough to move the massive desk a meter. He strode over to the dazed administrator and squatted down to bring his face to level.
"How many Galax ships have been lost?"
"We lost 35 supra-liners, 42 mid liners, and nearly 100 liners in the last 12 months. With them went all crew, passengers and cargo."
Nearly 700 million passenger spaces, not counting cargo space! Is Galax working with the Enemy, or have They decided to move into ambush and infiltration? This bears more consideration.
"I see." He stood and backed off. "I want a data dump of all records pertaining to the lost craft for the last 3 standard years. Everything, no detail is too small."
He walked to the window and looked once more at the station.
He stood and locked himself into the control system. He turned the craft to the nearest exit point from the gravity wells and engaged thrust. Before long he was locking in his destination for the bending of physics that would take him to his brother. And then he was gone from that patch of space, leaving the Galax spy in confusion as how to exit the system. He took mirth knowing of the spy and trapping him where only the most seasoned of pilots could exit.
They always want to know where he is, he thought as his ship slipped out of normal space. This is the most daring yet. Someday they may forget that I connect with my ship and might attempt to connect a tracer.
His ship slid from third-space into the Captis system. A place once bustling with activity was now seemingly lifeless. The old space lanes were empty; Captis may have once been the capitol of a mighty government, but it was now a dreary emptiness. He increased his speed while another ship flashed in the light of the star as it moved towards him.
There was no fear, as any one else would fear the Enemy; this was no foe, this ship was known. It belonged to his brother, had helped design it, fabricate it.
Soon the ships were within mere meters, and with deceleration that would kill most organisms, the ships stopped with machine precision. A small line extend between the ships to provide a secure communications line.
Speaker crackled with static and came to life.
"What news do you bring?"
"Much, I have a data dump for you." He flicked a switch that transferred the data from one ship to the other.
"Is there anything else? Your request seemed more urgent than a data dump."
"I believe someone in Galax is working with Them, either that or They are becoming more savvy about our technology."
"What makes you think this?"
"The administrator I spoke with was overly protective of this data. It took significant persuasion to get him to speak."
Significant persuasion: You threatened his life and lively-hood.
"Interesting." A moment of silence passed. "Does the data suggest this?"
"From my own preliminary analysis of the data, it suggests many things, but the two strongest are internal corruption and our analysis of Them has grown stale."
"Hmmm. Both are equally likely. It has been a very long time since we collected any data that was not subjugation related."
"I thought so myself. Has there been any progress in the signal decoding?"
"None. I am beginning to think it is time we put that data aside and concentrate on other data."
"Yes, that would be a good plan. It should not be abandoned altogether, though, we may still find the key yet."
"Is there anything else?"
"Galax has stepped up their efforts to track me. This last one survived as far as my hiding place before he lost me and himself in the radiation wash."
"Very. This is why I think Galax may be working with Them. It used to be one of every seven trips, now it is every single trip."
"Hmmm, this is very interesting. Is this all?"
"I may be removing the Children from this place soon. The last child is holding meeting with her people on this. I am not sure of what they will do. I want you to secure two mid-liners so that if required, we may take these people from here."
"Do you want live crew on these ships, or a drone crew?"
"A drone crew, this situation is now too delicate to trust a Galax crew."
"Understood. How soon?"
"Inside three weeks."
"What would you have me tell Galax if we do not use the liners?"
"Tell them humanity is lost."
Another Galax administrator's office, this time at a dispatching depot. This place was clean and precise. No relaxation of rules, no regulation went unheeded. He sat in a small office, no opulence was needed here. This place was not intended to impress dignitaries, this was a place for doing business and making sure that business was done right. The chair he sat in was simple and unadorned; if one did not wear heavy robes, this chair would quickly become uncomfortable.
The office did have one device that suggested the rank of the person who sat opposite him: a window that occupied two adjacent walls, giving an impressive view of the depot. Ships moved within centimeters of each other; a large mass of moving metal and engineering maneuvering in a complex pattern that strove for efficiency. This window would exist for only the highest-ranking officer in a place like this.
He had met this officer a long time ago, at least as humans measured time. She had been a new officer then, a first-time pilot of a new model supra-liner. They had run into a small transport of the Enemy he had been tracking. Without him, the ship would've been lost, and she knew this.
He considered her the only trustworthy person within Galax.
She stood of average height for a human that had known mainly artificial gravity in her life. At one point in time her hair had been nearly black, but now it was gone to gray. If I were human, he thought. If I were human, I would still find her to be beautiful. And in my own sense, I guess I do.
"You want two mid-liners with no crew, no cargo, stocked only with food?"
"That is what I asked."
"After what you did to extract information from Administrator Jennes at Exodus III Outpost?"
"I did what was necessary in my quest to save the remaining free peoples of this galaxy."
"When did it become justifiable to use coercion in this quest?"
"Since it became my quest."
"What happened to your brother then?"
"That is strictly my business and does not concern my quest. That avenue is closed to discussion."
She sighed and put down a report she had been reading. She stood and walked to the window to gaze out at the depot with its intricate movement. She knew what Jennes did not: when the Friend said no, or wanted something, it was best to give in.
He remained seated and studied her, trying to collect enough information to conduct a good analysis of her. If I were only human, he thought again.
What his analysis could never tell him was that she thought the same of him, ever since he had saved her and the liner all those years ago. She was also fascinated by his quest. It was always the same quest, never straying far from his path. She supposed he would continue to do so until his last moment of existence, or there were none left to save.
"Why did you need these liners?"
"I need them to help fulfill my quest."
"You've never needed ships from us before."
"That's true, and not true at the same time. In a time long removed from yours, I needed three large liners. But Galax did not exist then, so it is true that I have never asked for ships from Galax before. And my quest calls for them again."
"Will you be returning these ships to us, or shall we, if we give them to you, write them off as lost?"
"That depends. At this time I do not know. I will offer full compensation for these ships in advance, including the cost of drone crews and the cost of supplies."
This last remark stunned her. Never before had she heard anyone but fellow Galax officers speak of such large sums of money.
"You cannot be serious."
"I am. I can fully compensate Galax for the liners. I can tap unknowable sums of money in whatever form Galax wishes. You forget I was here before time, before Them, before the Wars."
"That is another closed avenue, one I may be willing to discuss later, but not now. How does Galax wish its payment? I could arrange it for them to receive enough materials to build six new liners, or I could pay double the cost in Galax's own funds. What shall it be?"
She contemplated for a moment. The sheer scale of this still daunted her, especially that the offer now consisted double the cost. She knew the consequences of her decision here. If she failed to give him the ships, he would find some other way to take them, and possibly damn the lives of many more than herself. But if she gave him the ships, it was possible the supplies would never arrive. It was also possible that the Executives would find out, and none really knew what happened to those that directly disobeyed the Executives. Those that did simply disappeared, and were never heard from again.
She had to make a choice, and she knew it.
"When would supplies be here?"
"Within a week."
"Alright, you can have the liners. I want the materials to build three ships and enough money to pay my builders under the table. The Executives would become suspicious otherwise."
"As you wish. Have the ships brought to the edge of this system, and tell your Galax spies to stay home. I am getting tired of sending them to their deaths in black holes."
"I will see to it."
"Good." He stood and turned to leave, then stopped and turned back to her. "Thank you, Administrator Heinnes. You have served my quest well for a long time. If you wish, and providing we are both here when I finish this part of my quest, I will discuss the past with you."
"That I would like, Friend. Good luck with your quest."
"Thank you, again, Administrator. May the streams be kind to you."
With that, he turned and left. As he walked through the pristine corridors to his ship, he thought over events of the past. The times he had run into Heinnes had always ended in this positive manner. She always stood to her principles, never shifting in her decision. He knew from previous experience that she could not be pushed, cajoled, or threatened into a decision. She made her own choice. She always seemed to make the right choice, he thought. If I were only human, I would love her.
He sat in his ship at the edge of the system and looked back at the light of its star. This system, near the edge of the galaxy, was an ideal staging point for Galax. From here, ships could take a short jump to many outpost stations along this sector of the rim. From these places, the next stop was the beyond, at least for him. He was never sure if he could bring himself to leave this galaxy, even when his quest was completed or failed.
He watched as the drone crews brought the three liners to his ship. These three craft dwarfed his own ship, and these were only mid-size craft. A supra class ship would dwarf even these three ships. But these ships were becoming few and far between; Galax was moving them all out of this galaxy for fear of Them. Soon, when the numbers were right, Galax would begin to dismantle its stations and ship the material across the incredibly empty expanse until there was nothing left. Then this galaxy would be almost devoid of intelligent life, just the Enemy, and himself and his brother, if they could not find the transport to leave. It was a dismal prospect, and it was one he was not ready to accept.
Anyone but this man would surely have been crushed under such a desperate and lonely situation. In the whole of the galaxy, there was only one other like him. The only thing that passed between the two was information and the mutual respect of brothers. Each of the brothers had felt love and compassion from various peoples of the galaxy throughout their long lives, but for them, the sensation was fleeting, almost a blink of an eye in their span of time. They always tried desperately to keep themselves from loving these people in return in a way other than that of father figures. They turned these people towards each other such that they would not feel hurt by these two unique beings who could not give them love.
Alone. Alone in impossibly huge stretches of space. Alone due to a sixty thousand year old decree. A decree he had caused the Free People to create to prevent the terror he had caused before time.
No artificial intelligence can exceed that of a child. No artificial intelligence shall be allowed to truly think on its own beyond its set limits. No artificial intelligence shall have emotions. Any intelligence created here-after shall abide by this decree or be destroyed.
Abide or be destroyed. He and his brother were grand-fathered in. They had agreed to the decree, knowing that they sacrificed any hope of companionship in hopes of keeping the Free Peoples safe. The Free Peoples, in their short lives, could not fathom the loneliness they imparted upon the brothers. But he held no grudge against them, the Free Peoples, especially humans, were short-sighted in terms of the time the brothers and the galaxy operated on.
He knew that many had tried to create an intelligence like himself or his brother. They would rejoice only momentarily when they would succeed, for they were often discovered, their creations destroyed, and often found themselves in exile among outpost stations. He kept in touch with these exiles, bringing them money and supplies often helping them leave the galaxy unnoticed and begin anew elsewhere.
I must stop thinking these things, it does nothing to help, he thought. It happens every time I see her. I should have left their ship after I dispatched the Enemy, then she would not have fallen for me, and I could remove my thoughts from her.
He knew he it was just wishful thinking, however. The ship would never have survived the return trip to the outpost without him. Most of its crew were dead, many were injured beyond the capacity to work, and the drones were destroyed in the fight.
I should have pushed her harder to someone else, he mused. But no, she had no one else. By the time I noticed, she most likely would never have accepted anyone else. If only I were human...
He stopped this line of thought cold. These were things that could not be. He had long ago accepted that he was protecting a society he could never fit into, no matter how hard he tried. Those around him would feel jealousy as he never aged as they did, never died as they did.
It was lonely and desperate, but he was resolved to pursue his task until he succeeded or he failed. And he was determined to never let it fail.
Again, another piece from the fourth part of my story. With this, I was playing with a lot of emotions.
I was trying to deal with a gripping loneliness as well as a love wanted by both
sides that can not be, no matter what. Myself, I've been in both situations at
one time or another, so I feel that I've handled them correctly. But these
themes aren't just dead-end things for this chapter only, I'll probably continue
them in further chapters. I'm not sure how I'll resolve them, or if I'll resolve
them at all. I may or may not have said this before, but I am decidedly not the
biggest fan of Walt Disney (TM) style endings. I get force fed them so many
times in movies that I want something different. Sometimes I like a sad ending
(We Were Soldiers, not a dry eye in the house), and other times I like
bittersweet endings (Keep watching the LOTR series, you'll get an ending like
that). So, I hope you enjoy, and feel free to lay some comments on me about it.
Copyright 2001-2003, James P. Hansen