The morning sun ascended its familiar arc
, bluish-white, torch of life falling in hard sleeting ultraviolet
on the jungled face of M'sekan. As the eastern coast caught the first rays of the hundred-twenty-six hour day, instruments sheathed to protect them from the damp and cold smoothly rose from their hiding places in a pillbox
at the shore, swiveling cold eyes to watch the lifestar as it began to climb above the distant horizon. Data began to flood down the lightpipe
s into the pillbox's systems. The monitoring AI performed the equivalent of a glance across the room and noted the beginning of data acquisition before returning the majority of its subminds' attention to a joint research project it was pursuing with the nearest sea-floor research station AI some four hundred klicks offshore and seven klicks below the surface.
The blue-white light shone down, sterilizing unprotected surfaces of weak and damaged life. Humans donned protective gear and continued their routines, building, maintaining, researching; the approximately seven hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants of M'sekan were busy. They always were; there was much to do. The ferocious evolutionary pressures of the hard sun and the long night produced a wild scramble of speciation in those dark colored jungles - exotic compounds and processes hid there, offering potential riches and understanding. AIs and humans alike toiled to delve into the mysteries M'sekan and its contents offered.
M'sekan orbited a white dwarf star with the unprepossessing name of Taukinos, which was at least an improvement over its original designation of WD0740+390 in the McCook-Sion White Dwarf Catalog. Survey activity had been ongoing for some twelve years, with highly profitable results despite the harsh environment; the on-planet research and support staff had grown to the current levels in response to the bonuses offered for successful project and/or tour completion. It was not an easy posting, but could certainly be a lucrative one, and was no harder than many. The long planetary day was beginning over the single continent, bringing with it the beginning of a new cycle of outdoor prospecting and study activity.
The sunlight wobbled.
Coastwatcher, the pillbox's inhabitant AI, was instantly aware of the deviation; all but one of his subminds reverted to their base sensoria and began scanning sensor data, reviewing logs, and looking out over the coast to determine what had happened.
"What was that?" Benthos was aware something had happened, but with no direct units on the surface, was unsure what it had been.
"I'm not sure. Checking now." Coastwatcher set two of its subminds to handling the sudden influx of queries flooding into its comm systems and reran the sensor logs. There. The sun had blinked. He went back, called up the spectroscopy data, and had he had a spine, ice would have drizzled down it. He called Benthos.
"There's iron in the sunlines."
There was a few microseconds' pause, an eternity of shock to the AIs. "That's highly unlikely."
"Indeed." Coastwatcher dumped his raw logs over their research warpcom link. Benthos took several more milliseconds to peruse them.
"That is disturbing."
"I would call it more than that," replied Coastwatcher dryly. He was contacting the orbital warpcom station as he and Benthos conversed, dispatching his logs and an alert to Terracom Station, but honestly had no idea what could (or would) be done.
Together, through the pillbox instruments, they watched Taukinos rise into the Eastern sky. There was a scar on the sun, and its heart was bleeding iron.
* * *
Iron is the death knell of a star. When a star of particular characteristics known as an Asymptotic Giant Branch star having a mass greater than 25 times that of Sol reaches senescence it will evolve to a white dwarf. It will begin to burn its own waste products as its mass increases and its temperature rises. When it has nearly exhausted its hydrogen, it will fuse the resulting helium into carbon, then carbon into neon. Eventually, when the star has shrunk in size enough, the temperature will rise enough to fuse the resultant neon into oxygen, and the oxygen will fuse into silicon. This is the sign of the End Times, for although stars can live billions of years, by this point our notional star is consuming itself as it shrinks. It takes a mere six months to burn through the oxygen phase of its lifecycle, and finally the temperature at the core is hot enough, over 3 billion degrees, to fuse silicon. The silicon will all fuse into iron over the space of a mere 24 hour period, roughly - and iron is death, because iron is the first element the star will produce whose fusion absorbs net energy. As it fuses, it will cool the core rather than heat it, forming a solid mass and quenching the outflow of radiation which has been supporting the star's outer layers of lighter elements against their own gravitational attraction.
Once this happens, the light goes out at the star's heart as metal blossoms from the sand. The remainder of the star begins to accelerate inwards, reaching speeds of up to 0.15 c. The core is forced into a neutron-packed incompressible sphere, and further layers infalling rebound off its surface, exploding outwards into a shock wave at their original inward velocity. Some hours later, that wave reaches the surface of the star, and the star expands into space at double-digit percentages of the speed of light - becoming a supernova.
Iron was singing inside M'sekan's sun.
* * *
"I realize it's not possible. The star isn't anywhere near the proper sequence; there's no oxygen in the spectra, much less silicon. Yet there's iron." Coastwatcher was patiently confirming his results to Stargazer, the planetary traffic control AI.
"Is the iron mass increasing?"
"Yes. The spectral mass indications have been rising steadily. However, they are not rising exponentially, which would be expected if this was the result of uncontrolled cascade fusion processes."
"Are you suggesting the iron is being somehow introduced into the core?" Stargazer managed to sound disbelieving.
"I am not attempting to suggest any particular explanation, merely point out that the usual method of iron introduction into a AGB stellar burn is not, apparently, operational here," Coastwatcher replied. The fifty-six Sapiens class AIs present on M'sekan were in conference. Eight seconds had elapsed since the first observations. With a significant minority of his capability, Coastwatcher was running simulations of the internals of Taukinos. As yet, he had found no sequence of natural events, no matter how hard he tweaked the parameters, that would let iron show up in significant quantities inside the star.
MacDonald, the agriplanning AI, spoke up. "Occam's Razor."
"William of Occam's famous dictum is a preprocessing hack meant to allow humans to cope with extensive amounts of data and subtle differences in probabilities which they cannot parse at all, much less in realtime. I fail to see what it has to do with the situation." Stargazer was huffy by this point.
Coastwatcher could understand the reaction; astrophysics was technically Stargazer's patch, and the beachcombers and farmers weren't supposed to be telling him what was happening to the nearest star. The fact remained, however, that the iron readings were there, and Stargazer's tasks were directed mainly at navigational and traffic control analysis, not scientific observation. There was no point reminding him of this, of course; he knew it as well as the others. "In this particular case," Coastwatcher said while his subminds continued to run projected lifecycles of the sun still just beginning to rise, "We, so far, fit that description ourselves. There is a mass of data which we cannot explain; there are probabilities which make no sense given our models. Occam's Razor hence may yet be of use."
One of Coastwatcher's subsystems, a barely-intelligent drone that had been set to simply monitor the spectroscopy of Taukinos in realtime, shouted urgently at all of them for attention. All fifty-six AIs turned to the dataflow. It didn't look promising.
"Ferrous lines have increased in depth," Stargazer noted.
"Indeed." Coastwatcher queried his sensors, both atop his pillbox and spread around the planet. Stargazer yielded control of the TRACON satellite imagers; MacDonald linked his sunwatch grid into the net. Around the planet and local space, various sensor arrays turned their electronic eyes to Taukinos and began unblinkingly to watch. "Thank you. I am collating now." The others waited, the microseconds of their vigil incomprehensible to a human but their patience recognizable.
Coastwatcher threw a representation of the star into their shared space. "This is quite interesting. The iron readings are not continuous throughout the corona or concentrated in the core; rather, there are discrete 'bubbles' of extremely high-temperature fusion occurring in the mid-convective. These bubbles are producing localized fusion ramps, resulting in high iron content at their completion. The iron is absorbing energy from the local surroundings as it is produced, resulting in roughly spherical cool regions with iron spread nearly evenly through them."
Benthos chimed in. "Is the aggregate iron content enough to destabilize Taukinos?"
"Not as yet. However, the bubbles are increasing in frequency. The iron is falling towards the core as it is created; if enough gathers there, it will cool the core below equilibrium point."
"We will need to report to human planetary authorities within seventeen seconds realtime. Projected impact assuming this scenario?"
Coastwatcher deliberated, stalling until various calculations completed. "Unknown. If the rate at which the iron is appearing continues to increase at the current logarithmic rate, enough fusion ramp regions will eventually be present to trigger oxygen and finally silicon burn across the stellar mass. Whether it will be even enough to produce a normal iron core collapse and resultant supernova, I cannot as yet say. If the rate levels off, however, it may simply inject enough iron into the structure to cause a slow collapse, resulting in an even helium or neon burst as the star contracts far enough; that would result in a cyclical nova, period unknown."
"In either case, the system will be rendered uninhabitable?" Stargazer asked with the air of an entity Just Making Sure.
Mandarin, the administration interface AI, recorded this. "I will report to planetary staff."
"This does, of course, beg the question of what is happening and why," Benthos noted.
"Yes." A general agreement floated through the congregation.
* * *
It was, in fact, Stargazer who first noticed. Fifteen seconds after Mandarin commenced notifying the human administration that they had a fairly significant problem, he addressed Coastwatcher. "I have detected an anomaly."
"Type and location?" Coastwatcher's reply was almost absent, indicating his high level of processing resource commitment.
"TRACON sensor arrays are detecting a wave of malformed warpfield radiation from Taukinos."
That got everyone's attention. Mandarin ducked back into the room, leaving his submind to explain what was going on to the abominably slow people who were listening. Coastwatcher indicated that Stargazer had most of his attention, and Stargazer continued.
"I am picking up continuous bubble collapse signatures consistent with small warpfield exits. However, there are several anomalous factors present. One, the warp exits are far too closely collocated for known ships of any size; two, the locations of the disturbances, although roughly plotted due to the fact that they are occurring behind the TRACON array's main focus, appear to be within the convective zone of Taukinos, and three, they are showing signs of heavy positron emission from the bubbles."
"Positron emissions?" Benthos asked. "Do ordinary warpfield exits generate positrons?"
"They do not," said Stargazer. "Unless the warp generator is significantly de-tuned in its zeta frequencies. However, if this is the case, the warp generator and any attached structures are usually instantly consumed upon exiting warpspace, and the signature is a burst of EM and nucleonic decay particles. The positrons are almost immediately annihilated by the normal matter of the generator and attached structure or ship as it exits."
MacDonald performed the AI equivalent of raising his hand. "De-tuned in the zeta frequencies? I have no warp physics."
"My apologies," said Stargazer contritely. "It indicates that the presence of positrons is detected due to their spin state retaining tau pseudovelocity on exit. In short, a positron is an electron traveling backwards in time. The only condition in which a warpfield emits positrons is if there has been temporal displacement in the jump. The math is abstruse but indicates it is certainly possible; no one, however, has figured out how to prevent the positrons from reacting with the generator's mass, and generally the energy required to perform a time-imbalanced warpjump means that the jump itself must be from extremely short distances. Useless in interstellar or even cross-system transits."
There was a silence for a further ten microseconds. Then Coastwatcher said, slowly for an AI, "However..."
"What if destroying the translating object was intended?"
* * *
Coastwatcher leapt up from the surface of M'sekan. He hopscotched through the lower orbitals, jumping from node to node of the localspace infrastructure, touching on those vehicles with complex enough computing facilities to sustain an avatar-class submind. On the surface, most of his raw processing power continued to model Taukinos' strange new behavior, but his decisionmaking faculties bootstrapped themselves across seven observation satellites, the main orbital cargo transfer station, and outwards until they came to rest at a maintenance manufacturing node quiescent in synchronous parking orbit. The gigantic shape of a starfreighter, dark against the stars, contained nearly-empty raw materials hoppers and the complex mechanisms of nanobuilders. It had been used during the initial facility installations to provide complex large machinery spatial hardware; now, it was mothballed, slowly receiving shipments of raw materials from the eight robotic miners it had deployed throughout the system, waiting for its belly to fill again. Once it had, it would ponderously swing out from Taukinos, out to its next scheduled planetfall some years hence. For now, as Coastwatcher arrived, the incredibly valuable and expensive nanoformers sat quietly waiting.
Coastwatcher thought about it for a microsecond or two, then shrugged electronically and deleted the Formship's scheduler and ops plan. Part of him was horrified, but most of him felt the thrill of a vandal as he threw a large piece of Mill-Surat-Roe corporation's multi-decade colonization and exploration schedule into what his initial imprinting programmer had liked to call 'a state of complete fuckery.'
The Formship blazed to sudden life, power systems online fully, and began to check over its modules with autonomic care. Coastwatcher hunkered down in the main design and prototyping unit and began to sketch out his long shot.
Girders began to spin from the formers. Bots caught them, webbed them together with parts fished from smaller formtanks. Generators, complex and massive, emerged slowly from the larger formtanks a meter at a time and were mounted inside the rapidly-growing icosahedron of Plastisteel and duramex. Thrusters, compute modules, power reactors - some pulled from parts storage, some minted agonizingly slowly in the tanks. Coastwatcher finished in the prototyper and pulled back to watch his creation come into existence.
Thirty-seven seconds since arrival. A multi-hundred-meter shape floated inside the Formship's main processing bay, remotes dashing frantically around it. Coastwatcher pinged his pillbox, found that the disruption patterns were continuing although the rate had begun to plateau. His calculations were showing that a supernova event was now extremely unlikely, but if the bubbles continued appearing at anywhere near the present rate, a nova collapse was nearly inevitable. His subminds estimated that M'sekan had somewhere between three and seven hours, depending on the rate of fusion ramp introduction, before the white dwarf would contain too much iron to avoid a core collapse.
A minute and seventeen seconds later, his geometric brainstorm powered its way out of the Formship's bay on a pale beam of hydrogen fusion. The Formship powered down.
The icosahedron was accelerating smoothly and rapidly towards Taukinos. Some fifty-two minutes later, it was approaching the edge of the star's corona, by now moving at a significant portion of lightspeed. Coastwatcher flipped mental switches and winced at the interference as no fewer than eight layers of energy shields materialized around the object he had begun to call Catcher.
What are you doing? The voice was Benthos, over their still-open warpcom research link.
Something foolish but necessary.
I don't believe the others have noticed yet.
Well, don't tell them for another three seconds please.
The Catcher began to slice into the plasma of the photosphere. Coastwatcher made extremely delicate adjustments to its course. At the same time, the Formship began to power up its warp generators and ponderously swung its bow towards open space.
"What are you doing?" Stargazer, still performing his traffic control duties, had noticed the Formship moving.
"Something foolish," Coastwatcher repeated. "Give me space. I'm moving the Formship but I don't know where, yet."
"What?" Stargazer produced a remarkable simulation of shock and horror. "Are you glitched?"
"No. Route all traffic away from the following cone -" Coastwatcher sent an Einsteinian coordinate system- "and wait."
He did not have time to see if it was being done. The Catcher had entered the star itself, and was rapidly approaching the layer where the disturbing bubbles were continuing to appear. Coastwatcher hijacked Stargazer's TRACON arrays, and sat on the feeds, watching intently. There was a pattern, sort of; but more important, there was a brief but present lag between warpfield indications and positronic burst and annihilation. Catcher would be through the bubble layer in less than thirteen milliseconds of flight. He watched as it punched into the star's midplanes, the outer energy shield already flaring into failure with the load.
At the last microsecond, a bubble indication appeared, just within the Catcher's cone of possibility. Coastwatcher punched lateral adjustment, spun the shape, and watched its projected course intercept the forming bubble. At the moment the bubble stabilized, he flipped the second set of mental switches, and things began to happen even faster.
Inside the Catcher, a small 'lure' warp generator spun up. It lasted only a few microseconds, but that was enough to attract the incoming bubble to its own location - the reason ships were so careful not to activate generators within the danger radius. The bubble popped into existence - inside Catcher's hollow shell. As it did so, an object 'fell' out of it - and the warp bubble, collapsing, remained 'biased' towards the one formed several kilometers back, now, by the lure generator. The bubble 'pulled' backwards through the Catcher's hull, collapsing as it went, and a positronic burst was recorded a kilometer and a half behind the Catcher...
Just as the second, full-size warp generator inside it triggered and the Catcher, along with its cargo, vanished from inside Taukinos.
* * *
"You did what?" Stargazer sounded like he couldn't decide whether to be horrified or furious. Either would have been a neat trick, thought Coastwatcher, but he certainly sounded close.
"I caught one of the objects warping in, and slewed its warpfield behind the Catcher to avoid the positronic burst. I then warped the Catcher out, but because of course I couldn't calculate the jump, I don't know where it came out. I had estimated the power input into the warp generators as enough to take it approximately a light-month, the minimum with a reasonable chance it wouldn't destabilize in transit. It has a warpcom; if the warpcom is functional, it will report back on reaching normal space and the Formship will go retrieve it."
Several of the AIs indicated stunned surprise, or approval. A few indicated strong disapproval, Stargazer among them. Coastwatcher was not surprised. "You deliberately violated fourteen separate priority-Alpha traffic safety regs?"
"Yes. In the event Taukinos destabilizes, those regulations will certainly matter very little."
"A warp jump inside the convective zone-"
"Will do less damage to the star and its surrounding environment than has already been suffered by the sum total of ramp bubbles and resultant iron content."
A pause while calculations were checked. "Well, yes."
"A moment." Coastwatcher reoriented a comsat, cocking an orbital ear. "I have the Catcher's signal. Dispatching Formship now."
The enormous mass of the Formship flared brightly at one end as its auxdrive brought its mass up to the appropriate velocity to clear mass occlusion, and then with a blaze of warp radiation it was gone.
There's something you should see, said Benthos.
Coastwatcher hopped from stone to stone back down to his duracrete home. What's that?
I've been going over my deepscan data. I have found several interesting items. For one, I have found that the alluvial plain covering the plate just offshore of us is several hundred meters in depth and composed of a particularly dense form of mud.
This is important right now?
Yes, for it is almost entirely anaerobic and has a near-zero ph factor. As a result, I have deepscanned it thoroughly over the past few months, and looking through the data I am discovering artifacts at the base level of the mud layer, against the basal plate.
I believe so. The reason I am interested is that as Stargazer pointed out, these warpfield bubbles could not have traversed great distances. The only major body in the region is M'sekan. I have discovered, as of present time, while reviewing automated survey data, what appears to be the remains of a mid-sized city if one is willing to make a large number of unsupported assumptions.
Coastwatcher paused. You think the bubbles came from here?
Benthos hesitated before replying. I do not know. Certainly there is no indication that any high energy or high charm event such as a warp field has been induced anywhere near these artifacts.
Continue collating. I will retrieve the Catcher.
* * *
The Formship downjumped into Taukinos' inner system placidly, returned to is parking orbit, and signaled its return. Coastwatcher impatiently jumped back up again, bringing manipulators and cameras online this time as he released the Formship back to its original scheduling, noting that a seven-month delay for additional restocking had been added. On a whim, he left a file in the main Ops area with the words "BILL ME" in it. Inside the Formship's bay, he carefully peeled back the Catcher's hull and systems to expose the object inside, checking to ensure that the disturbances were still continuing. They were.
The Catcher, broken, peeled away. The object inside caught the various lights. Coastwatcher looked at it, surprised out of all reasonable expectation.
* * *
"It's a weapon," Coastwatcher said to the conclave. "A fairly crude one in terms of delivery. It's a chemical-fueled rocket, actually. It has a warhead on it."
"What sort?" asked MacDonald.
"Gravitonic imploder weapon. Crudely built but extremely functional."
"That is what has been causing the bubbles?" asked Stargazer.
"Apparently so. Examination of the warhead indicates that its yield curve would be sufficient to produce a localized fusion ramp of the observed levels."
"But what is it doing there? And whose is it?" asked the planetary archives controller.
"These are excellent questions," said Coastwatcher dryly. "I propose they be tabled in favor of asking how we stop its compatriots from being here."
A general buzz of agreement, coupled with several nervous examinations of the spectroscopy, greeted his words. Stargazer continued. "Does it have a warp generator?"
"Yes. A crude one, again, but functional. Interestingly, however, the warp generator appears to be an applique rather than original equipment; it is mounted in a most inefficient manner and in a location where it is liable to suffer damage from a particular set of thrusters if they fire often enough during the weapon's active phase."
"That does explain the warp bubbles, doesn't it?"
"Not entirely," said Coastwatcher. "It explains how the bubbles we are observing inside Taukinos are likely being initiated. It does not explain from where or why."
"Actually," said Benthos, "I may have an answer to that." There was another silence. Benthos continued, unruffled. "I have been continuing to collate scan data in an effort to obtain additional information. I believe I have found some." He broadcast an image. It was of a faded, battered object, still dripping with mud and seawater; it was corroded and holed, but it was recognizably a twin to the weapon that Coastwatcher had shown them. A murmur of consternation went up.
"Where did this come from?" asked Mandarin sharply.
"Here," said Benthos simply. "M'sekan. Bottom of the coastal shelf."
"But that couldn't be where they were launched from," said Stargazer. "We would have seen it."
"I may have neglected to mention," said Benthos smoothly, "that this particular example is some eighty-five thousand years old."
* * *
It took the entire lot of the AIs to finish the cleanup. Stargazer to do the navigational calculations; Coastwatcher to build the warpfield mines, Benthos and several others to excavate enough ruins to find the answer. Some two and a half hours after sunrise, Mandarin was able to report to his human counterparts that everything was being handled, and they shouldn't worry. Secure in the knowledge that their AI partners were dealing with the situation, most of the people on the planet sighed in relief and went to have lunch.
Coastwatcher, Benthos, Stargazer and Mandarin 'stood' on the shoreline in remote manipulators, looking out over the placid ruffled water. Above them, as Coastwatcher brought the warpfield mines online, bright pinpricks were appearing in the sky, even shining past the risen white glare of Taukinos. These were safely outside its perimeter, however - on the side opposite M'sekan. The mines, tiny advanced warp generators, were activating with the proper timing to displace the returning missiles some five astronomical units across the system from M'sekan, leaving them safely remote from the star and the planet as they detonated.
"It was the only way," Benthos said softly. "There were too many of them, and they had too many weapons. They must have been armed to the teeth. They had to get rid of them. They knew what detonating that many weapons would mean, even if they did what they thought would get rid of them forever and drop them into the sun."
"So they changed the game," Coastwatcher said, looking up. "They added unbalanced warpfield generators and threw them into the future."
"Do you think they died out?" asked Mandarin.
"No," said Benthos. "Not then. The ruins down there are a spaceport. A massive one. Hundreds of klicks wide. They got off the planet. That missile was a thousand years old when it was buried by the sea."
"What was it doing there?" asked MacDonald. He didn't interact with humans much.
"I think it was a reminder," said Coastwatcher. "To remind them why they had to leave, and what they were working for. We don't know how they left, but their leaving appears to have caused enough disturbance to sink the spaceport - and, presumably, any other remnants of their civilization, although now we know to look for it - within a few tens of years."
All four of the AIs looked up.
It was Stargazer who said it. "I wonder if we'll meet them?" he asked. "I wonder if they made it?"