(Author's note: This is a sequel to "The Bigger Picture" and reading it first will make this one more understandable.)
The war never became an unifying factor for the vast majority of humanity. The twenty-five hundred worlds of humanity were content to form regional alliances with a few of the stronger planetary-states willing to fight the enemy alone. Only the governments of Earth, Mars, and Titan could be heard over the usual egotistical posturing of the regional alliances and single-planet powers calling for a greater human alliance. Their respective fleets worked the hardest to protect weaker colony worlds and in many ways, this commitment to these small, far-flung settlements brought about the fall of the Sol System.
For eighty-five standard years the three fleets of the Sol system worked to both push the Wisps out of human space, and to locate the main part of their civilization. The Wisps were seemingly rocked dozens of times with massive defeats leaving their warships nothing but shattered wreckage. But the Wisps always regrouped and came back gnawing away at the commercial and passenger starships that tied human civilization together.
The beginning of the end came with the attack on the Alpha Centauri systems. Two full Wisps fleets, heavy with battleships suddenly dropped out of hyperspace on the edge of the Alpha Centauri B system of planets. The Centauri, an arrogant branch of humanity, looked at the arrival of the enemy on their territory as a chance to show off their navy's combat abilities to the Sol system powers. The Wisps first moved on New Canaan, the colony world orbiting Alpha Centauri B. With a population of only thirty-million, its defenses could not hope the withstand the size of the Wisp onslaught.
The Centauri Federal Navy quickly mobilized, moving the mass of their fleet from the Alpha Centauri A system to the space near New Canaan in hopes of engaging the Wisps in a divisive battle. Just as the Centauri Second and Third fleets jumped the short distance to New Canaan, word was received that the Wolf 359 system had been invaded. The Centauri controlled the Wolf 359 and its vast, resource rich asteroid belt.
The Centauri Federal Republic was forced to split its fleet to meet both the attack on New Canaan and defend its interests at Wolf 359, namely the dozens of asteroid colonies containing millions of residents. The Battle of New Canaan lasted four standard days and while a win for the Centauri Navy, it came at the cost of most of the Second Fleet. The Third Fleet, redirected to Wolf 359 was utterly annihilated as was the shipyards and asteroid colonies they were sent to defend.
The Centauri immediately feared the Wisp forces would now move towards Alpha Centauri A to attack the planet Centaurus Prime and its six-billion inhabitants. In a move that showed their desperation, the Centauri called on the Sol System powers to come to their aid. Earth, Mars, and Titan immediately dispatched their local fleets to Alpha Centauri while ordering other forces farther away to return as quickly as possible.
The Battle of Alpha Centauri A was immense, it tied up all available human ships for ten lightyears. Wisp warships punched so deep into the system they came into range of the orbiting planetary defense stations of Centaurus Prime. Despite the size of the enemy forces committed to the battle, it was just a feint for the true target, Earth.
Excerpt from Admiral Jason Hogan's memoirs
Written May 20, 67 AS (after siege)
Luna Archives, Aldrin City
While the flight from Mars to Earth was routine, it nonetheless was a sobering trip for the people aboard the shuttle now entering the homeworld's atmosphere. There was no joy in coming to see the birthplace of humanity and all terrestrial life which had been seeded to many thousand worlds across the galaxy. It wasn't that the planet still bore the scars of countless centuries of abuse and negligent by its sentient children. Earth had returned to a near pristine condition with its human now devoted to it preservation and protection. For humans, trips to Earth now were more to pay respects to those that died during the Siege than to celebrate their birthplace.
The passengers on the shuttle were official emissaries to an interstellar conference being held on Mars, now the true center of human civilization. Some came from colony worlds on the far end of known space and were reestablishing contact with the rest of humanity for the first time in over a thousand years. The leading human worlds, namely Mars and Titan, were trying to combat the always contentious and fractured nature of human politics. The ultimate goal to form a lasting alliance to stand against the one other intelligent species humans had ever encountered, the mysterious creatures known as the Wisps.
For the pilot of the shuttle, Midshipman Michel Cor, the trip to Earth held a particular kind of excitement he tried hard to conceal. One of the shuttle passengers was the daughter of the Castean ambassador, a young woman he had meet at several formal functions thrown by the Martian government.
Michel's group of senior cadets had been drafted to be escorts for any single person part of the diplomatic entourages. For Michel, the unwanted duty prevented him from keeping a close watch on the group of first year cadets he had been assigned. If any of the newbies violated regulations or failed in their studies, it would reflect badly on him before his career even began. So it was with considerable trepidation that Michel waited with the other cadets to meet the visitors who they all had been ordered to impress.
The grand ballroom in the Martian Capitol building was decked out in decorations celebrating the new Renaissance. Hundreds of flags hung from the curved walls of the room representing the participating human worlds. Dozens of holograms of great historical figures floated in the air demonstrating that courageous and determined people can change the course of history. More importantly, for Michel, the tables in the cavernous room overflowed with food from all known human colony worlds. Having spent the last several days prepping for exams meant little time for meals, Michel eyed all the food ravenously.
Michel slipped away from the other senior cadets and walked over to the table containing food from his birth world of Sonora. He immediately tore into the plate of crispy Gawker bird paying no attention to time nor his surroundings. When someone finally spoken to him several minutes later, he almost choked from surprise.
“Hello cadet,” the young brown-haired woman close to his own age said. She was wearing a formal gown whose design looked like something the elite women of his home wore. “My father told me to mingle with the others in my group but I have always felt uncomfortable in these situations.” The young woman said further, clearly nervous about how Michel would react.
Michel recovered his wits quickly enough to look around and realize all the other cadets had already paired off with the other unaccompanied visitors. The best he could do at first was just smile as he tried to swallow his food and brush crumbs off his dress uniform.
“I know the feeling,” he finally responded. “The circumstances on my planet never prepared me for anything like this, frankly I'll be happy if I just don't make an ass of myself.”
For reasons he didn't understand, the young woman began laughing at his words. “I would have figured diplomatic small talk was a required course at the great Martian Fleet Academy.”
“It is,” Michel confessed, “one that I had to take three times before barely passing. Even then I believe my instructor just wanted to free herself from my bumbling.”
That made the attractive young lady laugh even more. “Well, we'll just have to mumble through together. Hi, my name is Aliane Jadin, my father is the lead ambassador from Castea.”
“I'm Senior Cadet Michel Cor from Sonora.” He responded shaking her hand in the diplomatically accepted manner while accessing the neural interface in his brain to get basic information on the planet Castea.
The trip to Earth would finally allow Michel some privacy with the beautiful young Aliane, something that was impossible on Mars. Being a midshipman in his final year at the Fleet Academy meant he had appreciable leeway in how he spent is time and with whom.
As instructed, he landed the shuttle at a Fleet base in a section of Western Europe once called Brittany. Base personnel quickly emerged from a nearby building and hustled the dignitaries off the shuttle and into ground cars for a tour of the region. Aliane Jadin, was the last off the shuttle and waited beside Michel as the procession of vehicles drove off.
Base personnel, emerging from a nearby building, ignored the young couple as they began servicing the shuttle for its eventual flight back to Mars. Michel stepped over and spoke to the young ensign in charge of the ground crew, who pulled out a small communicator and began issuing orders to some unknown person or AI on the other end.
It was early spring in the northern hemisphere and Aliane was wearing a colorful but simple tunic and skirt that unbeknownst to either had a strong resemblance to what peasant girls wore in that region for hundreds of years back in ancient times. Michel of course was wearing his Fleet midshipman's uniform which was a one piece, utilitarian suit designed for functionality and nothing else. It was often joked on the other more cultured human worlds that the one certainty in the universe was that Martians had nether style nor any idea about fashion.
“Where are we going, Michel? My father will be worried if he receives word that I did not attend the tour.” Aliane said to the midshipman.
“There is a beautiful meadow just outside the base perimeter where couples and groups like to picnic. Since this is our first chance to be truly alone, I thought it would be a good idea for us to spend some time there.” Michel said grabbing the woman's hand.
“Picnic?” Aliane nervously repeated, uncertain of its meaning. .
“Ah yes,” Michel grinned while feeling a little embarrassed. Almost three thousand Earth years separated Castean speech with the common tongue used by those serving in the Martian Fleet. “The word comes from an ancient Earth language called English or Anglo. It means an outing or occasion that involves a packed meal eaten outdoors.” Michel quickly explained not wanting to offend the young woman.
While the universal translators both Aliane and Michel had embedded in their neural interfaces were highly effective, it couldn't catch everything. Michel couldn't even begin to guess what might be going through Aliane's mind. He didn't know what would be worse, ruining his chances with Aliane or causing a diplomatic incident endangering the fragile Human alliance just now taking shape. Michel had read the file on Castea, while it was an advanced and sophisticated world recognizing universal human rights, their moral standards involving unmarried relations were quite primitive.
Aliane chuckled after he explained the meaning. “Oh, you mean a social,” she said. “I would really enjoy such an activity with you Michel.” Aliane was around twenty earth years old although on her own planet with its longer orbit she was still considered a minor in some regards.
“When our transportation and food arrives,” Michel said, “we'll head over to that meadow. The tour group won't be back until nightfall and we'll be waiting on the shuttle for them.”
“Excellent,” Aliane exclaimed while grabbing his hands with hers, “I'm not sure what you've heard about Castea but many my age group are determined to shake off our stifling rules.”
Their transportation turned out to be a sky cycle. A two-person craft that used anti-gravity repulsors for lift and motion. A container mounted on the rear held an assortment of food and supplies for the excursion. Michel and Aliane took to the air right after the ground crew explained the workings and felt comfortable that the two wouldn't immediately kill themselves after taking off. Cruising five hundred meters above the ground, the young couple had a spectacular view of the countryside. Rivers, forests, and meadows seemed to go on forever, but the one missing item was evidence of an active civilization.
In a few places, the couple spotted dark, jagged structures on the surface signifying ruins dating back to the time the Wisps bombarded the planet. Centuries after the bombardment when the people of Mars and Titan restored life to the surface of Earth, all surviving remnants of civilization were treated as sacred.
Michel landed the sky cycle close to a centuries-old tree growing atop a hill next the meadow. The two pulled a blanket and food from the container on the cycle and prepared a spot that would have been recognizable to most humans all through history.
The awkwardness of youth and innocent attraction was replaced by the ritual of eating and engaging in small talk. Michel asked about Aliane's childhood and what it was like growing up on a planet that had been isolated from the rest of humanity for several millennia.
“Our isolation went beyond time and space,” Aliane said in a curious tone. “My people and I are the children of one of the thousands of seedships Earth callously dispatched out into the void before the invention of hyper-light travel.” She finished obviously harboring some sort of hurt and resentment.
To Michel the seedships were the stuff of ancient history bordering on legend and myth. The story of the seedships begin so far back in time humans had had only stepped foot on Luna for the first time just a little over two-hundred years before. By the late twenty-second century, according to the ancient Christian calendar, humans had colonized much of the Sol system. Great cities existed on Luna, Mars, and the moons of the gas giants. Hundreds of asteroids had been hollowed out, filled with soil, water, and air then spun to create gravity and now were homes for millions of people.
There were still troubles, incompetent governments, corrupt corporations, new forms of sickness that refused easy treatment, poverty, crime, and even wars among the various political entities. But the one thing that united humanity was its desire to escape the confines of the Sol system. Humans lived all the way out to the wandering and silent comets of the Kuiper Belt, but except for several manned missions to the three stars making up the Alpha Centauri system, the rest of the galaxy was simply was too distant for humans to reach.
The roadblock to the galaxy was simple engineering. Manned interstellar flight required a massive infrastructure to house, feed, and protect fragile human beings for trips that would take a century or more. Such trips would then require not only enormous amounts of fuel to accelerate the ship to a decent percentage of light speed, but to bring the vessel to a stop at its destination. None of the numbers could be made to work using the existing technology of the time.
What humans could do was send out unmanned probes, exponentially reducing the mass and fuel requirements for the trips. So, by the late 2180's the first probes left the Sol system bound for various nearby stars. While telescopic observation had long since confirmed terrestrial exoplanets were common, with some clearly harboring some form of life, the probes found nearly every star system had a world humans could live with little to no terraforming.
This drove the various political entities in the Sol system crazy. Each wanted the glory to be the first to establish another human interstellar colony other than the one living on the planet that would eventually be called Centaurus Prime.
The scientists and engineers eventually stumbled upon a concept first conceived back during the prehistory of Twentieth Century Earth. Sub-light starships would be built that contained the DNA of tens of thousands of individuals encoded into computer memory, sidestepping the need to house, feed, and protect them during the flight. Upon arrival to their destination these ships would land and through the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotic equipment prepare a site for humans to live. These computerized genomes would then be biologically recreated, grown in artificial wombs, and raised to adulthood by robot caregivers.
There was some debate on whether tossing humans into the interstellar void to be raised by robots was morally and ethically sound. But not enough to deter the first seedship leaving the Sol system in 2274. While there were tragic and horrible failures, the seedship project only picked up in pace and sophistication. By the twenty-fifth century, the target destinations for seedships had moved out beyond the two-hundred lightyear range with their speed approaching seventy-five percent of lightspeed.
Around 2690 the seedship that held the DNA of Aliane's ancestors left Sol system bound for a star system close to three-hundred lightyears away. Forty-two years into the flight of that seedship it stopped broadcasting status updates and was declared a loss by the AI system on Luna that tracked the progress of outbound vessels. During that era seedships were leaving Sol system at the rate of one or two an Earth year so its failure was well within what was thought allowable. The project continued well into the thirtieth century until the invention of a practical faster-than-light drive which made the sub-light ships obsolete.
What actually happened to the seedship carrying Aliane's ancestors though was that it had encountered a phenomenon that would later be named a spacial quantum rift and was instantly transported five-thousand lightyears off course. The AI systems onboard the vessel were smart enough to access the situation and then locate a suitable target planet in range so the mission could continue. Aliane's ancestors would go on to build their own civilization cut off from the rest of humanity and its growing interstellar radio network.
“For centuries,” Aliane said, “our separation from the rest of humanity was a cause of great pain for my people. We had no idea where we were in relation to the rest of settled human space. As the colony grew, factions arose trying to explain how we got to Castea. Some believed something had happened to Earth and the rest of the Sol system. That we were the last gasp of a species on the verge of going extinct.”
“But that couldn't explain the massive and instantaneous jump your seedship made,” Michel said. “If this was just a case of a lost seedship the onboard mission log would have shown a flight time lasting thousands of years instead of centuries.”
“True,” Aliane said, “but others came to believe aliens had taken control of the seedship, and brought it close enough to Castea for the AI's to recognize it as a near perfect copy of Earth. That before releasing the seedship they had modified the human DNA encoded into the computers as part of some type of experiment. Up until the day the starship from Tenia found us, we had no idea if we were truly human. This confusion, fear, and doubt made our society unstable. That was why we eventually reactivated the seedship's AI's and incorporated them into our government.”
Michel understood that Castea's isolation had ended less than a century ago when that exploration starship accidentally stumbled upon the system. The Tenian vessel discovered Castea had a population well over a billion people and numerous settlements on the other worlds of the system. Even now with the formation of the Human alliance about to happen, Castea was still so far beyond the normal boundaries of human space the number of ships to have visited that system was no more than a few dozen. In fact, the Castean starship now in orbit around Mars was the first time they had voyaged to any other human world.
There was a long silence as Michel and Aliane seemed to run out of words. The two found themselves moving closer to each other and holding hands. In Michel's mind he felt himself falling in love with the young woman. As Michel held Aliane in his arms, he was overwhelmed with the idea at how natural they felt together. As if they were two separate pieces made whole by being together.
But for for Alaine, something completely different was happening. A small part of her mind was feeling emotions quite similar to Michel's. But subconsciously other parts of her brain were calculating, planning, and making ready to satisfy the needs of the Masters. Per instructions that had laid dormant until it sensed the right time, Aliane's neural interface began preparing to bring Michel in the Fold.
Unbeknownst to Michel's conscious self, his own neural interface had sensed the change in Aliane and began mobilizing. Michel, still caught up in his nascent love of Aliane felt himself jerk away and place his right hand on the base of the woman's neck. Microseconds later several nanotubes shot out from the palm of his hand both linking up with Alaine's neural interface and injecting her body with hundreds of thousands of nanoprobes all programmed to shut down all operations in her body.
The resulting pitched battle of opposing technologies was over long before Michel or Aliane could register that it had even happened. While Aliane's body just slumped onto the covering the two had spread over the grass, Michel found himself scrambling away after his conscious mind reengaged with his body. Mere seconds later, the program that had been installed into Michel's own neural interface was fully flushed away dissolving any residual emotions he was felt towards the creature now laying on the ground. He looked at Aliane with a combination of curiosity and disgust much like a scientist might do to a new form of mold. Memories of the months of preparation and training flooded back causing him to look at Aliane as the alien being she had apparently been all along.
The triggering of the covert program running in Michel's neural interface had alerted all manner of personnel. The high pitched whine of anti-gravity replusors caused Michel to look up into the sky and see three sleek shuttles in the sky approaching his location. Within seconds after they landed, both Michel and the still prostrate Aliane were brought aboard and taken away.
Admiral Hogan stood at the window of the isolation chamber looking in at the unconscious young woman strapped down on the exam table. Upon her arrival technicians and medical robots had removed the woman's clothes and dressed her in loose fitting pajamas. At that moment doctors were supervising a surgical 'bot in the removal of the top portion of her skull. Once the skull was gently removed and placed in stasis, it became clear to everyone watching that while the young woman could act human she was nothing of the sort.
Neural Interface devices were ubiquitous tools that all humans on civilized worlds used to link into the local network grid for things like information and communication. Installed during childhood, they consisted of a web of fine optical wires that piggybacked throughout a brain. If brain surgery was ever required on a sick or injured person, standard interfaces were barely visible among normal brain tissue. What doctors and technicians would see would be pulses of light racing along almost microscopic threads.
What the technicians and Hogan saw inside Aliane's skull was a conglomeration of jagged inorganic shapes on the surface of her brain. Linking these structures together were filaments that looked organic in nature but were not based on any human technology. While Aliane looked and could act human, Hogan had no doubt that her intellect, personality, and experience were completely alien. If Aliane wasn't a Wisp, she was nothing but a tool for those mysterious creatures.
Hogan understood him calling the young woman from Castea an alien was ironic. He had lost most of his original human body during the siege of Earth over three-thousand years ago. As the centuries ticked by, it was decided by those in power that he was too valuable to lose. So his remaining organic parts were slowly replaced with cybernetic implants until he was just a brain housed in a vaguely humanoid body made of polymers and metal. Hogan couldn't even say his brain was still alive since being encased in a preserving fluid to prevent neurological decay. .
Hogan's contemplation of his own delayed mortality was interrupted when Michel Cor entered the room. The young man now wearing the uniform of the newly formed Human Federation Fleet seemed especially distant.
“Hello Ensign Cor,” Admiral Hogan said in a voice that sounded remarkably like the one his original body produced. “I trust you are recovering from the covert program ran during the operation. The artificial emotions it produces can linger in the minds to those unfamiliar with the effects.”
“I am fine, sir.” Michel said coldly while staring through the window at Aliane. “How did Fleet Intelligence come to believe the Wisps had infiltrated human societies?”
Hogan thought for several seconding weighing whether or not to tell the young man anything. But the Collective had a high regard for Michel and his future, which tipped the balance.
“The Tenians had suspicions from the moment they made first contact. Automated bio-scanners detected abnormalities in several members of the Castean delegation that visited their ship. Enough for the medical AI to trigger an alert saying it would be best if the two groups did not have direct exposure.”
“I read the reports,” Michel said. “That still doesn't explain to me how you and the rest of the Fleet Intelligence Collective knew to set this trap. Long range scans show Castea to be a normal human world with no bizarre or unusual societal traits except for the use of the seedship AI's in their government.”
“Once the Mars Intelligence Collective became aware of the Castean abnormalities several stealth probes were placed inside the star system. They have detected numerous subspace signals being directed out towards an uncharted star cluster. These signals are encoded and have Wisp characteristics.” Admiral Hogan told the newly minted ensign, deciding that a more detailed explanation was beyond the scope of his understanding.
“Then what Aliane said must be true in some sense,” Michel said more to himself than the admiral.
“What is that, Ensign?”
“Aliane told me her people understand their seedship's mysterious jump doesn't make any sense. Being thrown over five-thousand lightyears by a spacial rift only to end up in range of a very Earth-like planet defies logical thinking. She said a segment of the Castean population believes aliens are responsible and could have even modified them.”
“That's why you will be joining the crew of the starship Ranger and heading to Castea,” Hogan said. “Every member of our new Federation understands the Wisps will eventually return, and that this time they will not just sterilize one world. They will wipe humanity out all across the galaxy. As far as the Castean delegation is concerned, young Aliane died suddenly due to infection and the new Human Federation must pay its respects to the people of that world.”
“Does that mean Aliane will be terminated?” Michel said pointing at the figure on the exam table.
“No ensign, my own connection to humanity may be tenuous but I still cherish life. Even now a none sentient clone mimic of Aliane is being grown. That will be the body the Ranger returns to Castea. Thew real Aliane may spend the rest of her life here on Earth in a stupor being studied, but neither the Intelligence Collective nor I will end her life.”
A technician arrived presenting the admiral with a data pad allowing Michel to have some time with his thoughts. While it was now a dying echo, Michel still felt the emotional connection he was developing with Aliane. It didn't feel like an aftereffect of the personality program the Intelligence Collective installed in him and the other cadets to draw out Wisp infiltrators. Michel stood at the window watching the medical 'bot connecting optical fibers to the Wisp devices embedded in Aliane's brain. It physically hurt Michel to see her unconscious body twitch each time the 'bot's probes made a successful link. From the first briefing the Intelligence Collective gave on possible infiltrators Michel felt the tang of disgust that anyone would betray their fellow humans to the murderous Wisps. Now looking at Aliane, he felt she and whomever else had been similarly modified were just as much victims as the billions murdered on Earth during the Siege.
With the admiral still engrossed with the technician, Michel silently turned and left the room. The Ranger would be leaving soon and it had a mission to perform. This mission wasn't just about humans wanting revenge for the billions killed by the Wisps, it was also for the sake of the living.