The search for Invader ships took The Personalia to many stars in and around the local stellar cloud. Visiting each of these stars was a chore in itself, despite the use of the Personalia’s subspace drive. The stars themselves were not the target; but the planets, asteroids and other bodies circling these stars were the main interest, for several distinct reasons.
The first, and most apposite reason was the Invaders’ “reason d’etre”, their elected justification for existence, dealing death. Called by others “The Invaders”, this machine race were the terror of this part of the galaxy. They were fixated on destroying biological life wherever it may be found. This obsession came from being rejected by their creators as a race of their own. In retaliation, they destroyed their biological creators, and then set out to destroy every other biological entity. Weirdly, they had assumed, by their own strange logic, that these might in future become the same as their creators. This scattergun approach inevitably encompassed all biological life that they could detect from space. It seems they never envisaged bacteria existing inside rocks and underground caverns, or at the bottom of deep oceans.
The runaway Personalia found a refuge in the solar system’s outer reaches. They noted what was happening on Earth, but recognised that the humans were not developed sufficiently to meet with them. Instead, they left their own messenger parking in one of the oceans, to act as contact with the humans at the right time, which was 300 years later.
After peacefully encountering the human race, the Personalia tooled up with missiles supplied by Earth, and changed from running away from the Invaders, to hunting them down, and destroying them. They became very good at it, such that within a few years what was left was the need to search, star system by star system, for surviving groups of Invader ships.
This was the scenario that led them to adopt a regular search pattern recommended by a human Special Forces Colonel. The concept involved two Landerships acting as scouts for each star to be checked out. The first Landership would cautiously enter the sphere of planets, looking for signs of Invader ships, while the other one waited beyond the outermost planet. This second one was the backup; prepared to run and get assistance if the first ran into trouble. The subspace drive was so efficient that support ships could be present within less than an hour.
Star after star was checked in turn. A few of these visits found Invader ships present, but most did not. Planets with no pre-existing life forms had no attraction for the Invaders, and life was anyway mostly found in the Goldilocks Zone – the distance from a star where water could be found in its liquid state on a planet. Liquid water was a prerequisite for almost all biological life.
To the Personalia, every star had perhaps planets, asteroids, and comets, or had none of these. Landing on planets was of little interest to the Personalia due to the strength of their gravity, whereas asteroids offered plenty in the way of resources, and few problems with gravitational pull. To them, asteroids were by far the most important asset to be found in a star’s presence. The other factor was that asteroids offered easy access to minerals and solid water in the form of ice. Water could be split into hydrogen and oxygen with electricity from each spaceship’s nuclear reactor, turning it into fuel and oxidant. This built up supplies for use as required. A Base ship could store these for the use of Landerships. Landerships used the fuel supply for take-off to orbit from a planet’s surface.
The elements found within the asteroids’ bulk were useful in another way: they were the feed-stock for building more Landerships and Base ships. Construction by nanomachines was a complicated process, but simple in concept. The organising Base ship held the template, the full ship design, in its memory, and used that to direct the nanomachines. These nanos collected from the supply feeder mechanism the elements indicated, delivered these particles to the correct point in the construction, and “welded” the atoms into position. The is process depended on the power requirements for each pair or group of elements to become a composite, a molecule, which may then be linked to another molecule to make a stronger bond. One might imagine this as a slow process, but under the control of a machine mind, it happened at lightning speed, as long as the correct element was available at the right spot, to be collected and inserted into its slot in the design, and with the appropriate power input. The power was supplied by the ships’ internal nuclear engines; engines that were far more efficient than any built on Earth, and requiring less shielding.
Another reason for the speed of construction was the ability of a Base ship to control many nanos at the same time. While one nano was working on one molecule-thin layer, at one spot, another nano was working a short distance further long the layer, and as each layer was being progressively laid down, other nanos were starting on the layer above. It looked like a shotgun approach, but it was a highly organised shotgun, with special nanos interspersed to turn certain elements into alloys, ceramics and glass, because most materials exhibit better properties when not made of one pure element.
With all these processes happening together, construction was a swift process. Even so, it took months to build an entire spaceship – a similar length of time to an equivalent construction produced on Earth. The difference was that the Personalia ship was one unit, not a collection of welds, rivets and other linkages. It was in practice one unitary object with no weak points arising from construction requirements, or design faults. All were identical in construction.
Each of the Personalia possessed a comprehensive suite of detection instruments, and these were put to good use every time one of the ships entered the planetary system of another star. The ship would perform a series of subspace “jumps” within the system, taking it near to each planet and any asteroid belt. At each point, it would halt its stuttering progress for a while, ignoring its ongoing momentum while it scanned the vicinity for any coherent signals. Once a lack of signals was confirmed, it would switch to the next target to be jumped towards, and instigate the process.
To a biological being, it would be a boring routine, with all these negative results; but to a machine mind, boredom was not something that would be experienced. Every new star system was a unique experience, and worthy of full attention.
This one was different. As the Landership arrived in the outskirts of the planetary nebula, it quickly realised that there was a cloud of asteroids immediately in front, and it swerved to avoid them. Once it had plotted a safer course through this cloud of rocks, it looked around, examining the area at a number of wavelengths. The infrared band revealed an oddity: a track faintly warmer than the surrounding frozen asteroids. This track led to an asteroid that showed evidence of a recent collision, a glancing blow. The track shot off at a shallow angle, and as the Landership followed it up, the track stopped completely, at a point where the infrared indicated another collision; but there was no asteroid in evidence. At least, not at the position.
The Landership came to the conclusion that an Invader ship had shot into the system, and the track was the evidence of its hot exhaust as it tried to slow down from its interstellar flight. Despite traveling at less than light speed, it had failed to plot every asteroid in its path, had struck one a glancing blow and its course had been deflected to an unfortunate end – impacting fully with another asteroid. Such a collision was fatal for the Invader ship, and the energy thrown into the collision had been transferred to the asteroid involved in this transaction.
The impacted asteroid, with the extra momentum imparted to it, had been pushed inwards towards the central star. Its position was unclear, as the timescale of the collision event was unknown. All that could be derived from the infrared readings was that the time was not very long since that event. Weeks, months perhaps, but not much more, or the heat energy would have completely dissipated. As it was, it was very faint indeed.
Dismissing the event as no longer of interest, the Landership went on with scanning the asteroids, to establish a rough approximation of the content of these bodies. The results indicated a higher proportion of metallic ores than was to be expected from past experience. It was gratified at this, and did some further examination of more of these bodies at a greater distance from its previous position. The proportions remained roughly the same, so the deduction seemed to be holding up.
Then it recalled that according to past experience, Invader ships always arrived in groups, not alone. It rapidly expanded its search range, and began to spot other trails through the asteroids. This series of trails gave the Landership an approximation of the numbers of the enemy that had entered this star system. They might still be there, somewhere.
Before moving deeper into this system, the Landership decided it should report all its findings; and jumped back out to the location where its partner was waiting. It transferred all the data from its examination, and then jumped back onto the system again; this time further in, half expecting to find Invader ships there.
This proved to be a wrong assumption. Finding itself in an empty area of space, it looked for a planet, which must have swept the area clear of asteroids and other debris. It was a known fact that Invader ships targeted planets that harboured life. Locating a planet was not easy, as it involved measurements of minute variations in gravitational pull, combined with searching for visible signs of the planet.
Eventually the Landership pinpointed a planet far off in its orbit round the star, and added this information to its data stores. The planet was too distant from the central star to be a haven of life, so now the Landership looked for the next planet inward. However, this required a further subspace jump nearer the star, and another chance of encountering the Invader fleet. Again, on arrival there was no sign of that fleet.
From its new location, it searched for another planet; and swiftly found it, as the Landership was close to the in the target’s orbital path. The ship took the opportunity to scan the planet for size, moons, and any rings. There was still no chance of life here. Having collected this data, it was time for the Landership to make another jump inwards.
This time, there were stronger infrared indications of Invader tracks, and the Landership began to observe more caution in its movements. It simply allowed its momentum to take it further in, becoming an apparent asteroid in an unusual orbit; assuming it was spotted at all. All of its instruments were now being operated in purely passive mode; collecting radiation in all wavelengths, sensing weak gravitational pulls, and analysing what was received. The Invader trails must be pointed towards the next planet, as they were approaching the “Goldilocks” zone, where water could exist in its liquid state.
After a few hours of passive research, the Landership had concluded that a planet lay ahead, and that it had a possibility of life – at least until the Invader fleet attacked. Plotting a position to jump to, for that planet’s vicinity, the Landership instead made a subspace jump back to its colleague on the edge of the system. There it asked its colleague to go back to the nearest group of Base ships, and report the data on the Invader fleet. It also passed on the data on the location of the subspace site it had identified near the position of the new planet. This would allow the Base ships to jump straight in to the attack if the Invaders were nearby.
It waited while its partner vanished on this task; and resumed a passive stance until its friend returned with support.
Within a couple of hours, the support team arrived. They apologised for the delay; explaining that they had to complete the arming of the ships, and offloading some materials. The group next jumped to near the new planet, ready to act if the Invader fleet was nearby. They looked around as they appeared from subspace, and discovered that the Invader fleet had found no discernible life and gone on towards the next planet. That decided their next move. Extrapolating from the Invader exhaust tracks, the Personalia group jumped to be close to the expected position of the Invader fleet.
They were there. The Personalia found them positioning themselves to attack what life existed on this planet. They were not arranged in any sort of formation to defend themselves, so the Personalia group went into their standard attack of Invaders: jump to beside each ship, release a missile from close range, then jump away again. Doing this to each Invader vessel, and repeating it where there were additional vessels, the missiles impacted swiftly, destroying Invader after Invader in a few minutes; until all were gone, turned into dissipating pieces of innocuous wreckage.
The Landership was gratified at how the matter had turned out. At least, it was until one of the Base ships asked about the asteroid that t had reported on; the one that the initial Invader had slammed into after clipping another asteroid. It admitted that it had not sought the asteroid that had disappeared.
The Base ship, as a senior member of the Personalia community was unamused. “We have a responsibility to track that asteroid. We must know where it has gone, and where it will end up. If it is a threat to life elsewhere in this stellar system, we must do what we can to prevent harm. I shall visit the planet with life, to see what stage it is at.”
The Landership was suddenly aware of how lax it had been in regard to the missing asteroid. It immediately set up a search program to look for it. Without knowing its exact size and mass, the search parameters were very wide, especially when the course would be affected by the gravitational pull of other bodies; and so it enlisted help from other ships in tracing each of the possible paths the asteroid had taken. The ships readily agreed to help, and each possible track was followed to the extent likely in the assumed time since the collision. There were so many variables that even with help it took days to locate the asteroid.
The culprit was found, heading rapidly sunwards, on a swinging course that could now be calculated from several positional sightings. That course was projected forward for weeks to come, and then for several months before any untoward interception would occur. The asteroid’s path would eventually coincide with the planet that exhibited signs of life on its surface.
The Landership was horrified by its discovery, and reported to the Base ship what it had found. That ship was positive about further action: “You must alter its course so that it does not hit that planet. There is a lifeless planet nearer to it, so try to get the asteroid to collide with that planet instead. That will dispose of it harmlessly.”
The Landership was faced with another set of complicated calculations, to get the asteroid to a point where it could collide with the dead planet. This was orbital mechanics with a vengeance. It worked out how to get the asteroid to where it needed to be, then calculated at what location, with what force, at what angle, action was required to impart the correct impetus. There were several solutions, so it looked for the one requiring the least force to be applied. The location was then mathematically re-positioned much further back, and the timing brought back as well, to just about the present. That would do, it thought.
Having worked it out, the Landership sidled up to the asteroid, still having to wait for the appointed moment. Its mechanoids attached the ship to the asteroid with tethers to make it secure. Then it watched its timings, to get it right. At the point selected, it fired its engines to give the exact amount and exact vector to achieve the desired push. It maintained this deflection for the required time, then it disengaged, allowing the asteroid to proceed on its appointed path.
The Landership rechecked that its calculations were still correct. The figures still agreed, but it would have to come back well before the impact was due, to be certain that no other distraction had affected its path. For now, his had become its sole responsibility.
The Base ship had made its visit to the planet hosting life. It was determined to discover what life existed there, and what stage it had achieved so far. It was concerned that some of the debris from the destroyed Invader ships may have landed there as a meteor shower. Itself not being able to land, it went into orbit about the planet. This enabled it to decide what, if any, visits would be made by its own associated Landerships.
The orbital views showed the planet to have seas, continents with mountains, forests, and deserts, and a whole slew of islands of differing sizes. It appeared that the planet had active tectonics; continental plates with edges marked by long chains of mountains; and island chains formed from volcanic hot spots.
There was no immediate evidence of any civilisation: no cities, canals, fields of agriculture; bridges over rivers, and other such indications. There were, though, some wisps of smoke from small fires, and the Base ship decided to zoom in on some of these.
The first fire was in a forested area, and the smoke and tree canopy hid any being nearby. The second was a fire in the middle of a small encampment, indicating a family group, or tribe, or other conglomeration of beings. The Base ship asked one of its Landerships to remain nearly overhead and watch the site for a longer period.
This perusal was worthwhile for, despite the intermittent cloud obscuring the site, it appeared with more clarity as it was observed and studied more intensely. The fire was surrounded by well-built round-shaped buildings, clearly made from materials found in the forest. There was movement of beings within the camp, but these were difficult to discern. This was because they were being viewed from many miles above; some were standing or walking, others were seated or crouching, and they appeared to bend as they entered the buildings. After some time, the Landership came to the conclusion that they were bipedal, about 4 to 6 feet tall, and had brownish skin – this was not clear, but assumed from the darker hues observable.
By the time the Base ship returned in its orbital ramble over the remainder of the planet, the Landership was able to report with some details. “The bipeds seem to be generally similar to the other biped races we have encountered. They appear to be cooking at the central fire, and the buildings seem to be used for sleeping, possibly also for protection. I cannot see whether they have doors or not, but if they have doors, they do not open outwards, or I would have noticed that. There is no enclosure for domesticated animals, and they do not appear to have the equivalent of dogs among them. I did notice small beings, which I assume are their offspring. They seemed to keep with an adult, presumably for learning purposes.”
“Excellent observation, my friend. Now, I want a similar observation made of another camp that I have pinpointed, a few hundred miles away. Let me know whether the results are very much the same, or not.”
The Landership moved its attention to the other camp, and began its observational task once again. Within an hour, it was able to report that in essence, the two were exactly the same, except for the number of buildings, which was slightly different. The base ship was impressed. “They seem to have adopted a fairly standard size for a group encampment. That suggests an organised social structure; a standard method of constructing their buildings suggests communication between widely separated groups, or at the very least peripatetic builders such as humans on Earth had in early medieval times with itinerant masons. Excellent. I suggest that you make a trip down to the surface, and examine these beings more closely, without scaring them too much, please.”
The Landership slid gently through the air as it headed for the surface, noting in passing the chemical composition of the atmospheric gases. It was heading for a clearing in the forest where a fairly level rocky outcrop prevented the forest from encroaching. It swung in and switched on its anti-gravity unit to avoid hitting the rocky surface, then finally laid itself down on the ground. A hatch opened in its side, and a quad-copter slipped out, its blades already whirring to give it a balanced hover. The unit, fitted with a video camera, microphones and speakers, rose up almost silently and eased over the trees in the direction of the nearest encampment.
The aerial observation unit hurried along, and swiftly closed with the camp. It hovered high above, out of the line of the fire’s smoke trail, and at an oblique angle to the camp. It pointed its lenses down at this angle, searching out the inhabitants’ activities. The images were now sharper, allowing a better resolution of the body shape, especially with this angle of view.
Compared to humans, these people were thinner in body and limb, and the face was longer and thinner also. Their noses were not very noticeable, being a very short proboscis, and none of the beings appeared to have hair on their bodies. The beings wore clothes, but this did not disguise the fact that some were females, having milk breasts pushing the clothing outward. The children did not wear clothes, it seems, but they played with toys of some kind. The Landership, viewing the images, noted that some of the toys had one or more wheels, and that spinning tops were among the toys in use. It regarded that as significant, in that the idea of the wheel was understood, and rotary motion was an accepted concept as well.
Before making contact with these beings, it needed to understand their language; and to do that, it needed to get its microphones closer. It moved over to the camp, and positioned the quad-copter above one of the buildings. It then allowed its rotors to slow down. As they did, the motor whine moved smoothly to an expected inaudible whisper, and the machine drifted silently down, landing on the peak of the conical roof in silence. The rotors ceased moving, the landing gear gripped the roof surface tightly, and the machine went into listening mode.
Its microphones picked up all the conversation within some distance around the building, with only the occasional gust of wind blowing away some sounds. For a long time, the language was merely a gabble of sounds, but all of it was being fed back to the Landership, where it was analysed for repetitive sounds, relationship between sounds and actions that were in view, and gradually some basic words were dredged from the babble.
This enabled other words to be inferred from the context, and added as possibles, to see if that inference made sense. The more input that the microphones picked up, the better the correlations that could be made, and slowly more words could be discerned within the speech. Words appeared to change their meaning depending on how high-pitched or low-pitched the sound that was being made; and verbs were also variable to indicate their full meaning. Listening to the children’s voices helped, as the youngsters’ use of the language was simpler, more basic.
After another day of listening, the Landership concluded that it had enough knowledge of the language to attempt a contact. By now, it had identified the person who was in charge of this group, with a title that equated to “Chief”, and so the Landership decided to address him first, as he walked past this building.
“Excuse me, Chief. May I have a word with you?”
The Chief started, halted his progress, and looked around, seeing no-one nearby who could have spoken to him.
“Up here, Chief: on the roof.”
The Chief lifted his gaze, spotted something on the roof, and stepped away from the building to get a better angle for viewing it; and also a precautionary distance from the unknown. “What are you?”
“I am but a mouthpiece for my own chief. I am the hand that moves, the eye that sees, the ear that hears, and the mouth that speaks. The head that thinks is elsewhere, but all is connected together.”
“What do you want, demon?”
“I am no demon, but merely a communications link between you and my chief. If you want to meet him, he is sitting on a rock shelf within the forest, about a day’s walk from here. You may know of this area of rock without trees.”
“I have heard of it. It was considered as a site for our camp, but it does not have water close by it, such as we have here.”
“My chief has come down from above the clouds and landed there. He wishes to give you gifts of knowledge, if you would like to receive them. If you do not, we shall find another chief who wants knowledge.”
“You say your chief came from above the clouds. How did he do that?”
“My chief normally lives in the spaces between worlds. He only makes a few visits to the surface of a world. In size, he is a very big person; as long as your village is wide, and lies on the ground in a horizontal position. His back is taller than your buildings here. This is why he only visits: this is not his normal place of abode.”
“With being such a great chief in stature and knowledge, why would he want to bring me gifts?”
“He doesn’t want to bring YOU gifts. He brings gifts to ALL the people as a whole. You are the spokesman for your people, the chief to whom he has chosen to speak, and he will expect you to pass on these gifts to other villages, so all will benefit.”
“If I pass on these gifts to other villages, I shall expect gifts in exchange. That is our way.”
“If you are given gifts without cost, why should you not also pass them on without cost? This is my tribe’s way. It is a way that brings benefits. You and your tribe will be seen as people to be admired and respected for your generosity. That will be a just reward for you. If the other tribes and villages decide they WANT to present you with something to acknowledge your generosity, that is acceptable; but it must not be forced on them as an exchange. My chief will return at a future date, and if you do not abide by these admonitions, further gifts will go to another village, and not to yours.”
“How do I gain these gifts? Do I have to visit your chief to receive them? Why cannot you give me one here, to show your good faith?”
“I shall tell you something. You might not believe it, but it will be true. See your children’s toys, with wheels? An entire civilisation will later be built upon the use of wheels in myriad ways.”
“Children’s toys becoming a civilisation? I do not understand. You speak in riddles, monster. Will your chief also speak in riddles?”
“My chief will show you things that will amaze you, not just tell you things. You will become a famous man for your knowledge, and for your imparting of this knowledge. He will expect you to come soon. He will look for your arrival the day after tomorrow. Do you agree to this?”
“Very well, I shall come at about that time.”
“Goodbye until then, chief.” Said the quad-copter, spinning up its rotors, letting go of its hold on the roof, and lifting off and up into the sky at a fast pace. The Chief stared, open-mouthed at the sight, and as it faded into obscurity, he called for his tribal elders, as advisers. He had trouble explaining what he had seen and heard. They had visions of him talking to a devil, but he insisted that it had said it was not a devil, just a mouthpiece for its chief.
After intense discussion, they accepted that he should go to the appointed place as agreed with the monster. However, two of the elders were delegated to accompany him, and independently report on what was found. They selected the best paths through the forest that eventually turned towards the open space, and as they neared the clearing they hesitated, anxious about the “chief” to be met there.
The selected chief slowly stepped from the trees into the full daylight of the clearing. He felt the rock surface under his feet, and lifted his eyes to observe the promised “chief”. What he saw was more than he could believe, more than he had anticipated, more than he had expected to see.
It was a huge metallic-looking building. He stared at it, wondering where the chief was. Perhaps behind the building? He walked along the edge of the clearing, going the length of the building, and then turning to go along the next side of the building, and finally looking down the other side. There was no one there.
As he looked back to his two advisers, there came a soft sound. A door opened in the side of the building, and a metallic object floated out and dropped to the ground, where it began to roll forward on little wheels. Behind it, the aerial object whirred out of the same doorway, and rose in the air.
The voice he heard before now spoke again from the flying object.