Sundog: Frozen Legacy (excerpts)

Excerpts from Sundog: Frozen Legacy (A Frasgird Novel), by Bruce F. Webster (forthcoming)

Interlude: In which some things are explained to the reader

Once humanity started looking – really looking – at the stars and realized that they could (and did) hold vast numbers of worlds, too, the question came: where is everyone? If humanity could leave the surface of Earth, then surely other intelligences could leave their worlds, or at least broadcast their presence. Yet over 100 years after man first looked down on Earth’s atmosphere, the heavens were still silent. Men and women poked around the solar system, only handfuls moving into space, while trouble brewed and occasionally boiled over back home. Space-based telescopes millions of miles apart began the process of mapping worlds in nearby solar systems, some of which were clearly habitable and gave evidence of active biospheres.

And then the first signals finally, finally came trickling in from distant stars, bringing both cursings and blessings.

Decades were spent decoding the signals, even after it became clear that the signals were meant to be decoded. Once understood, the information they contained provided great leaps in technology, including the foundation of sub-dimensional quantum teleportation of macroscopic objects to what at first appeared to be other stellar systems in the same universe, but were actually systems in a different (though extremely similar) universe. The apparent effect was faster-than-light (FTL) travel, but the reality was you were hopping between universes.

Of course, the new means of travel had to be called hyperdrive, even though it was not a drive and did not involve anything hyper. However, one researcher used the term in jest, and it became embedded in the global culture within hours. (The Trekkie contingent argued vociferously for “warp drive”, just as the HardSpace fans argued for “ultradrive”. But – as usual – both groups lost the argument.)

The bad news came along with it. The universe was prone to occasional and unpredictable quantum stutters in some of the key parameters of reality, usually settling back to their original values quickly. At best, the result was usually a technological collapse as many advanced devices would suffer microscopic or even macroscopic damage. Sometimes significant infrastructure damage resulted. Abrupt geological and climate change could occur. At worst, entire forms of life became crippled or damaged overnight, or simply ceased to be alive; in other cases, spontaneous evolution would take place. The universe would, in effect, reboot itself, but not all civilizations and not all life would survive the process unscathed or even at all.

Once the true nature of hyperdrive was understood – that it did not really transport you within your own universe but to another quantum variant – the quantum stutters made sense. They represented the collapse of an unthinkable number of near-identical quantum universes back into a single universe. Conservation of reality, if you will.

Interestingly, the same technology that gave humanity hyperdrive also made artificial intelligence – always close, always elusive – actually possible. It turned out that intelligence of any form was a sub-dimensional quantum effect as well. But – singularity proponents notwithstanding – there appeared to be an inherent upper limit to intelligence. An AI could have access to great computational power, great data stores – but the actual intelligence, the actual ability to conceive and comprehend and abstract, quickly hit diminishing returns. AIs (or “heyayes” as they became universally known) were very, very smart, but they were not superhuman.

The signals contained one more key breakthrough: a means of inducing a self-sustaining sub-quantum stasis field that could protect life and technology through such a quantum stutter. But such fields took time to create – they could not be triggered in time to respond to a quantum jitter – and they could only be released with advanced technology precisely of the sort that would likely be damaged by a quantum jitter. The fields glowed a neon green color and became known as “green ice” or (in some literary circles) as “stasis-22”.

Humanity began its expansion into the stars. One of the first interstellar expeditions sought to trace the signals received back to their sources. What they found was an alien race that had taken several thousand years after the last major jitter to raise itself back up to the point of sending out broadcasts to nearby stars. Ironically, the race didn’t fully understand what it was broadcasting; it was following instructions left before the last collapse. Humans found themselves expected and were lead to an ancient underground facility containing within it four large green ice pods.

What they found inside those pods would change everything.

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Chapter: In which Jace finds himself in deep waters (selected excerpts)

A few steps led [Jace] into a chamber carved out of the stone itself. A large opening – one of those he had seen from below – looked out over the island’s small interior court. A shelf carved at knee height along one wall afforded him a place to sit. As he did so – to rest and think for a minute – a human appeared before him, slightly translucent to indicate that she was actually a projection. Jace noticed she was an attractive young human woman — close-cropped black hair and brown skin a touch lighter than Jace’s — and so sat up a little straighter and ran his fingers through his hair. He then realized that some of the suppressants he had been given regularly back at the mines were starting to wear off.
“Hello, Jace. My name is Elare. Glad to see you made it across the lake. We are sorry to put you through all these difficulties, but we need both privacy and security.”

“You’re not telling me that others don’t know you’re out here, are you?”

“Oh, others know, or at least they can guess. We have a few dozen islands like this scattered around Jondd. We use them as rendezvous and drop-off points. All are heavily protected and shielded; none is the colony itself.”

“So, why all the secrecy?” Jace shifted his position a bit, trying to get comfortable on the stone shelf without slouching.

“There were a lot of humans working at the glass mines, correct?” Jace nodded. Elare went on, “How many humans have you seen you were freed from the mines?”

Jace thought for a few seconds. “Probably about thirty or forty, all told.”

“Didn’t that strike you as strange?”

Jace shook his head. “Not really. Most off my time so far has been spent in transit, not wandering around cities. Plus, I just assumed there weren’t that many humans on the planets we’ve visited so far.”

“Well, you are right, in a sense. The problem is that there are not that many humans on any planet you care to visit. There should actually be a lot more than there are. Several million humans left Earth before it vanished, possibly quite a bit more, and as far as sentient species go, humans are actually pretty prolific. But for the last few centuries, human populations appear to be shrinking across known space when they should be growing or at least holding steady. We are not quite sure if this is a natural consequence of the human diaspora or if another sapient race is doing some culling.”

She paused, then continued. “In fact, we are quite worried that it may be something altogether different. What do you know about Earth?”

“Well, I know that it’s supposed to be where all humans came from, but that nobody knows where it is. We lost it, or something.”

“Oh, no, we know quite well where it was. The star system it was in is still there, and its location is known. Earth itself is gone.”

Jace thought for a few seconds. “Look, I know what inhabitable planets typically mass, and I can’t think of any technology that can destroy or move an entire planet. What do you mean, it’s gone?”

Elare looked away for a second, then back at Jace. “Let me back up a bit more. Do you know what a quantum stutter is?”

“Well, yeah, it’s kind of like the universe hiccupping, isn’t it? Tends to break things?”

“That is as good a description as any. It actually refers to a momentary jittering of some of the key universal constants in time-space, caused by a collapse of an incomprehensible number of ‘many world’ universes back into just a few such universes. Unfortunately, it has the effect of disrupting any quantum-dependent technologies and can often have macroscopic effects within the universe – solar flares, planetary climate disruptions, and so on. While little stutters occur on a regular basis, the last major stutter in this region of space occurred a little over 500 years ago.”

“So what happened to Earth?”

“We are not quite sure. It took about two centuries of technology rebuilding after the stutter until humans from outside Earth’s solar system got back to it. When they got there, Earth was gone, and there were serious orbital disruptions of the other planets, including Mars and Venus, the two that had been terraformed. Earth’s moon was also gone, though the records indicated that its new and rather erratic orbit took it into the sun. Few humans had survived. Data records of the usual sort were mostly wiped out by the jitter itself. But the accounts found were largely consistent. It didn’t matter the point of observation – they all said the same thing, more or less. Earth rolled up into itself and vanished. It did not appear to be crushed or to fall apart – it just somehow rolled up, regardless of the angle of view, and then vanished.”

Jace looked out at the trees for a few moments, then looked back at Elare. “So what does that have to do with me? Or with the contract?”

“We fear that humans may be disappearing because they no longer belong in this universe. At the last major quantum jitter – at the consolidation of what were myriads of ‘many world’ universes – somehow we ended up in a universe where Earth never existed. Therefore humans should not, either. The first humans to go were the remnants in Earth’s solar system; the planets and other bodies in the system itself appear to be stabilizing.”

“What, did the humans vanish or something?”

“Well, for the most part they just died out. It didn’t matter what technology was made available to them, they just died much earlier, much younger than they should have. Illness, accidents, violence, and, yes, unexplained disappearances. We’ve seen the same trend among humans through the settled worlds. We have a hard time telling if this is some strange quantum effect or a conscious effort by one or more sapient groups.”

Elare looked out the window for a while, then turned back to Jace. “Since the huida from Earth, humans have been scattered through other sapient worlds. We are building this colony to give the human race a capital, a city entirely of our own. We believe there will be resistance to that effort, possibly violent resistance; indeed, that may be why your uncle Brock Prautes died. We need you to go out, buy the agreed-upon supplies, and bring them to the location we will give you so that we can build and populate the colony. But we need it done in a low-key way, at least until we reach a certain size. Hence the secrecy.”

“But what’s the point?”, Jace asked. “If we’re all going to die off, how does this city help? Seems a bit pointless, if you ask me. And I know about pointless.”

. . .

“Well, one of the first human interstellar expeditions followed a signal beacon to a system – which they dubbed Rock-on – inhabited by sapients, the ‘Rokhis. The ‘Rokhis had been bootstrapping themselves back up for several thousand years, but had not yet figured out how to crack the stasis field themselves, even though their canned broadcasts gave us all the information we needed to do just that. The humans found several stasis crèches, most of which had documentation and devices specific to the ‘Rokhis. But one of the crèches was quite different. It had four humans in it.”

“What? Alive?”

“Yes. Alive, alert, highly intelligent. And quite human, though DNA analysis suggested that they went back 12,000 years pre-huida or so. They predated the previous major quantum stutter, which apparently triggered what was later known as the Younger Dryas period, a brief but very sharp cooling period right at the end of Earth’s most recent ice ages. The stutter also appears to have also wiped out the last traces of an advanced human civilization that had barely survived the ice ages themselves.”

“So, wait – how did they get out there?”

“They flew. In spaceships. Using hyperdrive.

“You’re telling me that we as humans had hyperdrive, over 12,000 years ago?”

“Yes.”

“So, what the frak happened to us?”

“Ice ages, mostly. Pre-Dryas humans climbed the technology ladder so quickly that they did not have the time to leave a major infrastructure footprint, particularly while dodging all of the ice ages going on. The human populations were relatively small, quite long-lived, and very, very bright. There are some hints in their own records that another sapient race may have done some uplift with them. By the time of the Dryas stutter, they knew enough to travel from star to star.”

Elare looked out the window again. “Moreover, they somehow learned how to predict quantum stutters. They knew that one was due to happen very soon, and so they sent out a series of ships to place humans, in sub-quantum stasis, on a variety of systems.”

“What about back on Earth?”

“The humans who were found on the ‘Rokhis’ world – they had their own names but ended up calling themselves Alice, Bob, Carol and Dave – were pretty sure that their own civilization planned to set up sub-quantum stasis crèches back on Earth as well, but no trace has ever been found. The continent they were located on – the northern part of Earth’s western hemisphere – did have some kind of major burnover around that time, though. No evidence of an actual impact comet or asteroid impact was ever found, so it may well have been the work of a sapient race, reducing the competition. The attacking race may even have known how to thaw green ice and simply wiped out whatever the humans had stored.”

Elare looked a bit more sober. “They were horrified to find that it had been over 12,000 years since they had gone into stasis. They had expected to be awakened much sooner than that. And they knew that another major quantum stutter was coming up very quickly – in less than 100 years.”

Jace smiled. “And that’s what caused the huida – the mass exodus from Earth. Right?”

Elare shook her head. “No, it was more than that. Once they came up to speed on modern languages – and for them proto-Indo-European was a modern language – they began looking for clues in post-Ice Age literature for survival of their culture. They found it, too. It mostly showed up in ancient religious literature from various cultures. There were key phrases, archetypes, meta-narratives that all had linguistic and cultural markers from their pre-Dryas civilization. And these clues all suggested the same thing: that at the next quantum stutter, Earth itself would somehow disappear or be destroyed. In most cases, that prediction had become woven into some religious context – apocalyptic literature about the ‘end times’ – but these two were certain this had been a deliberate attempt by the remnants of their civilization to preserve warnings about what was to come.”

Jace watched some flying creatures land and take off from the water near the island’s landing. “So, how did they convince everyone that this was true? I mean, they could have been wrong about this.”

“That’s the interesting part. Alice and the others really did not have to convince at all. It was as though their findings, freely available on the feeds, triggered a racial or genetic memory. Humans, as a species, started cranking out large numbers of hyperdrive-capable ships – by the hundreds, then by the thousands, then by the tens of thousands. Even with the size limitations of hyperspace ships, this meant that humans could leave Earth by the tens of millions, and they did, pushing out in all directions. Of course, most human-habitable worlds they found were, in fact, inhabited by other sapient species, but accommodations of some kind were often reached. As I said, some unknown number of humans had left Earth for other systems before this last big stutter occurred and the Earth itself – with several billion humans still on it – scrolled up and vanished. In retrospect, humanity was like an organism spawning and releasing a cloud of spores or larvae before its own death.”

Jace looked away from the window and back at Elare. “Can I ask a question? Why did you drag me all the way out here to tell me this face to face? Or face to projection? You could have just sent me all this information via a singular feed to ship. Or you could have just appeared on Sundog as a projection there.”

Elare smiled a bit less. “It was partly for security reasons, as I mentioned. But it was mostly for dramatic effect. Humans thrive on drama; it is actually a survival attribute. I cannot quite say, to quote the classics, that you are our only hope – but you are our only current hope. Other efforts we have made have been blocked or thwarted. You may well end up dead; others have, including your uncle Brock.”

“I still don’t get it. You could arrange for anyone, for any sapients, to buy and deliver all the supplies for this capital. Why me, or at least, why a human?”

Elare’s face became very somber. “Because your cargo will not just be those supplies; in fact, to a large extent, that is just a cover. The real task is more difficult and more dangerous. Scattered around the inhabited systems – and probably some uninhabitable ones as well – are more sub-quantum stasis crèches from the pre-Dryas human civilization. We believe each will contain four pre-Dryas humans – typically two females and two males – along with pre-Dryas information and technology. We need the genetic stock to graft back into the human race, which is now threatening to splinter into incompatible species – cross-group fertility has been dropping sharply for the past few centuries. And we need that information and technology to figure out when the next stutter will occur and, if possible, what happened to Earth, or at least how they knew it would disappear. You need to find those crèches and deliver them as well. The fate of humanity may well rest upon your choices and actions. But the decision is yours.”