The Progenitor (1)
Commander Rekex studied the information scrolling across his monitor and could not comprehend what he was seeing. Long-range scans showed the system was devoid of any signs of life. There were no indications of intra-system travel or communications. The radio chatter normally associated with space-faring races was absent as well; all channels were dead.
The Commander punched a button on his screen and the image of his science officer appeared in a small window in the upper right corner. “Thenesh, do you have an explanation for these findings?”
“No, Sir,” the scientist replied. “Sensor readings during hyper-sleep are so far inconclusive. I am attempting to correlate the readings we received en route with the data recorded by the probes.”
“Please inform me of your findings as soon as possible.”
Rekex punched the button again, and the window disappeared, the screen immediately expanding the data he had been studying to fill the void. It made no difference, however. The information could have been projected onto the bulkhead across the room, in figures as large as his torso, and it would not make any more sense than it did now.
The last briefing Rekex and his crew received before launch had indicated the society they were attempting to contact was relatively advanced: capable of spaceflight, and in the initial stages of establishing colonies on their home planet’s single satellite. The species had made tremendous strides in technology over the century the Serethi had been observing them. Initially, Serenthi scientists believed this sector of space to be devoid of intelligent life. Until radio signals were discovered. Faint at first, these early signals were barely discernible from the background radiation that shielded them from detection, and contained juvenile messages of popular entertainment and the rhetoric of posturing of local factions.
Over time, however, the signals became more complex and easier to receive. The information they conveyed denoted a surprising amount of technological advancement in a relatively short space of time: within thirty solar years, they had progressed from primitive rockets barely capable of achieving orbit around their planet, to manned flights to their moon, to manned missions to neighboring planets.
These developments had prompted the High Council to organize an expedition to initiate first contact with the species, who called themselves Humans, in hopes of establishing an interstellar bond of friendship. A single ship, manned by a crew of the most qualified officers, scientists, exobotanists, exobiologists, astronomers and medical technicians would be dispatched to their home world in order to establish communications and exchange information. Due to the distances involved, however, the crew would need to be placed in hyper-sleep. The ship’s sensors would continue to receive a steady stream of signals while the ship crossed the galaxy toward their destination. The onboard computer would analyze them, attach a time index to each, and file them in chronological order in its databases for retrieval by the crew.
Automated systems were programmed to revive the crew, beginning with the command personnel, as they approached the outer edge of the Humans’ star system, allowing the commander and his staff enough time to study the latest data and revive the necessary personnel to evaluate the information and implement any changes.
Rekex had never anticipated what they would find upon revival, however.
He attempted again to decipher the stream of data the computer was scrolling across the screen of his monitor. According to the latest sensor readings, there were practically no signals emitting from within the system. Radio, microwave, nothing to indicate an advanced civilization existed on any of its four habitable bodies. At this range, the sensors should be able to discern high levels of radio and microwave transmissions emitted by ground-based transmitters and orbiting communication’s satellites. Even if spaceflight programs had been curtailed or cancelled entirely, their communications networks should still be intact. Since there was no evidence of these, Rekex had to assume that something catastrophic had occurred in the intervening decades between their departure from Serenthii and their arrival at the Humans’ solar system.
He was hoping Thenesh would be able to tell him that.
“It appears as though the entire Human communications network has been defunct for nearly a century now, Commander. According to the data we received during hyper-sleep, their technology continued to advance for fifteen solar years after launch. They established colonies on Mars and, one of the moons of the fifth planet, as well as several asteroids in the belt between the fourth and fifth planets.
“We’re not receiving signals of any sophistication from either of those outposts either, Sir.”
Rekex’s ridges crumpled into a frown of consternation. “Nothing sophisticated? What does that mean?” He did not like generalities, not when the stakes were this high.
“I mean,” Thenesh began, “that certain technological advancement – long-range aircraft, satellites, interstellar spacecraft, etc. – that there is a certain signature to the frequencies used to communicate. There are no indications that any of those frequencies are being used within this solar system.”
“Meaning,” Rekex picked up the thread, “either the Humans have developed other means of communicating that don’t make use of those frequencies or they are no longer communicating on a scale that would require the use of those frequencies.”
“Yes, Sir,” Thenesh agreed. “And there are no indications that they are using another form of communication. We’ve scanned across the known spectrum. We had no way of knowing what developments then Humans could have made in the last fifty solar years and needed to ensure we recorded every known frequency in case of that eventuality.”
Rekex rubbed a hand across his ridged head, subconsciously tracing the pattern of whorls and lines that denoted his caste and rank – three concentric circles for command rank and four segmented lines forming a square denoting the Military caste. Thenesh, though only adorned with one ring, indicative of a junior rank, had five segmented lines forming a pentagon and representing his membership in the caste of Scientists. Beyond his was the highest caste, the Royal caste, an unbroken double diamond. The lower castes, those of artisans, theologians and merchants were represented by one, two or three segmented lines respectively, and were not generally associated with a military rank. Only rarely would one of these caste’s members be allowed into the military, and for highly specialized missions such as trade missions to other systems, cultural exchanges or religious research.
Thenesh tapped his monitor with a fore claw, bringing Rekex’s attention back to the matter at hand. “The frequencies at which we originally discovered the Human signals were in this range.” He pointed to an area on his screen represented by a series of jagged lines overlaid on an illuminated grid pattern. “As you know, the first signals we received were very faint, in the lower frequencies here.” He pointed again to indicate a downward spike in one of the lines. “Stars emit a tremendous amount of radiation; each type of star emits radiation at a different frequency, and can be filtered out when searching for artificial types of radiation, such as radio emissions. Those first signals were barely discernible from the background radiation of their star.
“Over time, their signal strengths increased, making it easier to separate them from the background radiation. Now . . .,” he paused, “Now, we have nothing stronger than the solar radiation coming out of this system.”
“So where are they?” Rekex asked, not expecting an answer.
“We do not know, Sir,” Thenesh answered anyway, receiving an annoyed glare from his superior.
No signals? Nothing to indicate the presence of this Human civilization they were sent to contact? What did it mean? What happened in this system while they were traveling through space to meet these Humans? Obviously the sun had not gone nova; the ship’s sensors clearly sho0wed it was still there, and stable. Had another space-faring species received their emissions also, and conquered them? The Xexelic had territorial ambitions. Or the Geshtikii? He would not be surprised.
“Could they be employing some sort of shielding technology to keep us from viewing their installations?”
“That is a possibility, Sir. However, even the most advanced shields give off a distinct form of radiation. Since we are scanning across the entire spectrum, we would detect even the intervalst traces of residual radiation.”
Commander Rekex was fast becoming frustrated with this situation. To curtail his emotions, he attempted a different approach. “Is there any evidence of battle damage to any of the colony sites?” he wondered. “Any indications of a hostile force arriving here ahead of us?”
Thenesh’s claws clicked on the computer’s keys as he searched for the information. After several moments, he responded. “None, Sir. There are no structures standing on either the outpost orbiting the fifth planet, nor any in the asteroid belt, but neither are there any weapons signatures to explain the absence of these structures.” He consulted his monitor again, tapped several more keys, sat back, and crossed his arms over his chest. He began tapping the plating over his left bicep.
As he contemplated the information displayed there, Adjunct Zechor approached from her position at the tactical station. Rekex cast a glance in his First Officer’s direction, communicating without words that he wished to hear her opinion of the information. As she stepped up to opposite side of Thenesh’s seat, leaning slightly to get a closer look at the data, she noted the distinct absence of artificial radiation. “Do these readings account for the interference of the system’s star?”
“Yes, Adjunct,” Thenesh answered simply.
“And there are no residual signatures that might indicate the use of weapons with which we are not familiar? Any unusual or unidentifiable signatures?”
“There are no signs of high energy discharge of any kind within the range of our sensors, and no signatures to which the computer cannot assign a known value. Perhaps as we draw closer to their home planet we will detect something anomalous that might shed light on the situation. For now, I’m at a loss. It’s as if a giant claw scooped up all evidence that the Humans have ever been here.”
In Rekex’s experience, situations were seldom as simple as that. There was always a rational explanation for the disappearance of a settlement or civilization beyond the metaphysical. His instincts told him that something awesome and ultimately understandable had occurred in this system.
And he was going to find out what.
“Thenesh, calibrate sensors to scan for the most likely frequencies used for communications. We are going to move deeper into the system, take a look at the outpost sites and see if we can find a solution to this mystery.”
“Sir,” Zechor interrupted. “What if whatever happened to this species is still at work within the system? We could be vulnerable to it as well.”
Rekex had considered that. A biological agent of some sort would not necessarily act upon technology, however. Unless . . . . Unless did not matter. His orders were clear: establish contact with the Humans. If any Humans remained with whom he could make contact, it was his duty to do so.
“Helmsman, keep maximum safe distance from the sites and keep shields at maximum.” He turned to Zechor as he finished. “They should keep any contaminants – biological or industrial – from getting through. Just in case, have the crew observe alert protocols.”
“Yes, Sir,” his Adjunct replied, returning to her post.
Rekex returning to his post, as well, flipped the monitor built in to the chairs armrest open and stabbed the button that would activate the intra-ship communicator. The window that appeared in the upper right corner of the screen displayed the image of a crewmember whose ridges were less prominent than his own and more tapered, smoothing completely as they joined the hairline, and adorned with a segmented pentagon within a single circle. “Technician Hekten, please initiate alert protocol Omega for all crewmembers. Have your staff monitor all bio readings and report any anomalies immediately.”
“Any particular symptoms or reactions for which I should observe, Commander?” Hekten inquired.
“Not at this time. Simply monitor the crew. We are proceeding into the system to investigate the apparent disappearance of the Humans.”
“Yes, Commander. I will inform you if I find anything out of the ordinary.”
Rekex nodded to the image then stabbed the communicator off. He folded the monitor back into its compartment and turned his attention to the imager at the front of the command deck.
“Helmsman, take us in. Half power.”
“Aye, Sir. Half power.”
The ship’s sensors swept the outer planets as they passed and, aside from a few points of astronomical interest, they found nothing useful for their investigation. The eight planet boasted intense atmospheric activity and a satellite with a retrograde orbit, while the seventh planet had assumed an unusual orientation in respect to that of its neighbors. The satellite systems of these gas giants were interesting in their diversity. Astronomers found evidence of elements conducive to the formation of the amino acids on the surface of a planet-sized satellite in the sixth planet’s system.
Commander Rekex studied the view on the imager as they approached the fifth planet (named Jupiter by the Humans, after an obscure mythological being from their ancient past). The sensors were trained on the satellite on which an outpost had reportedly been constructed. Atop the planet’s icy mantle, were indications that several structures had existed at some point in the recent past. However, those structures were long gone and whatever function they had serves was lost with them, Rekex feared.
“What are the sensors telling you, Thenesh?”
“Nothing, as yet, Sir.” The Science Officer sounded distracted, as if there were a small insect circling his cranial plates. “Preliminary close-range scans show that a section of the mantle was penetrated to a depth of two-thousand units. For what purpose is uncertain, however; there does not appear to be any abandoned equipment in or near the drill site. Could have been simply core sampling, Sir. Though why they would have needed a permanent installation for that purpose I do not know.”
“Is that the only site of apparent construction?”
After a moment to confirm, Thenesh responded. “Yes, Sir. There appear to be no other incursions into the satellite’s mantle.”
“And still no evidence of weapons signatures or cloaking technology?” He knew the fact that they could see where the installation had stood meant there would not be a cloak obscuring it. Still, his Science Officer’s confirmation served to elevate his level of frustration.
“Speculations as to their reason for drilling here?” He realized that any speculation would only create more questions about the disappearance of this civilization, but he felt that every possible avenue needed to be explored, no matter how remote or seemingly unrelated.
Thenesh did not answer immediately. He scrolled through a series of data streams, looking for information that would help him respond to the Commander’s question. He found a readout that detailed the moon’s compositional analysis. “Perhaps,” he began. “There are unusually high levels of sulfuric acid within the satellite’s crust. The Humans might have been studying ways to safely extract the substance.
“Also, I am detecting a liquid water ocean beneath the crust. The Humans may have been conducting experiments to determine the possibility that some form of life developed on the moon.”
Rekex was astounded by this speculation. “Life? This far outside the biosphere of their star? Is it possible?” He found himself wondering what shape life forms evolving in such an environment would take. Images of primitive sea creatures on Serenthii flooded his mind: huge, legless monstrosities with cavernous jaws and needle-sharp teeth, swimming through the murky depth in search of prey; its prey, equally primitive-looking creatures with long, sinewy bodies and misshapen cranial plates, slinking through the solidified calcium reefs in an attempt to root out smaller aquatic animals on which it might feed. The brutal, precarious existence his imagination conjured made him shiver.
“Unlikely, under the best conditions,” Thenesh replied, “but not impossible, Sir. Serenthii is on the outside edge of Seren’s biosphere. And a multitude of diverse floral and faunal species managed to develop and thrive.”
“Could there be flora beneath that ice sheet, as well?” Rekex found it impossible to imagine a xeryx bud growing from the frigid mud beneath Lake Tengel in winter, let alone on a moon hundreds of millions of units from its star.
“Difficult to say, Sir. Our scans have not detected any life forms on the satellite, but without a frame of reference, we could simply be overlooking them.” Thenesh did not believe that was the case, but he decided to keep that information to himself for now.
After another minute glancing from the imager to the data displayed on Thenesh’s screen, Rekex heaved a heavy sigh, flaring his nostril flaps, and turned away from the Science Station. “Since there seems to be no pertinent information here, let us move on to the asteroid belt. Perhaps the outpost site there will yield more results.
“Helmsman, ahead, half power.”
“Nothing but floating rocks,” Rekex snorted in dismay as they neared the band of asteroids caught in the sun’s gravitational pull between the fourth planet – Mars, he reminded himself, again named after an mythological being – and its giant neighbor, Jupiter. Serenthii scholars and theologians had long ago debunked the idea of a celestial pantheon of being responsible for controlling the sequences and events of an individual’s life. Once, in the millennia preceding the Great Enlightening, Rekex’s ancestors had believed the stars in the night sky were spirits, watching over them while the world slept, and Serenthii’s twin moons were the twin entities the male deity, Derstish and female deity, Sestrish who judged the world and provided or destroyed as they saw fit. During eclipses, when the shadow of Serenthii fell full across the face of one or the other, the inhabitants knew whether their prayers had pleased or angered the gods: if Derstish was disappearing and Sestrish fully visible, then the hunts would be plentiful and the females would bear healthy young; if Sestrish was hidden, crops would fail and the beasts of the field would devour their children while they slept.
Such nonsense, Rekex thought. Primitive minds seeking answers to the most basic questions in nature. Now we know better and are better off knowing.
Rekex watched the seemingly endless parade of asteroids float across the imager’s screen. “Can you locate the asteroid on which the outpost was based?” he inquired.
“Attempting to now, Sir,” Thenesh answered. The sensor readings provided no insight into the possible location of a single installation, however large, on any of the asteroids within range. It was possible the rock on which the station was based had broken out of its orbit and had plunged in toward the star. But, as with the outpost on the satellite of Jupiter, there were no indications of a permanent settlement of any kind within the belt. He told the Commander as much.
“And there are still no signals from either the fourth planet or the Humans’ home world?”
“Nothing as yet, Sir,” Zechor answered. She had been monitoring the various frequencies for any sign the Humans’ signals had reverted to an earlier, weaker form. She could not see how that was possible, but thought she had better explore the possibility.
Commander Rekex thumped his fist down onto the arm of his chair, his neck flaps flaring and a low growl issuing from his throat. “What have these Humans done to themselves? How can a species just vanish, taking all signs of their existence with them? Certainly any natural disaster, biological agent or military campaign would leave some residual evidence, would they not?” He addressed the question to no one crewmember in particular, but Thenesh answered nonetheless.
“Not necessarily, Sir. If the star had gone nova the system would have been destroyed, therefore eradicating all signs of any life previously inhabiting it. Solar radiation could account for the absence of life, but would not eradicate structures. Solar flares would lick a planet clean, burning the atmosphere off and killing the inhabitants and, if they were intense enough, destroying installations, as well. An invader would likely employ destructive tactics in order to cripple communications and intimidate their enemies, but would undoubtedly leave some of the infrastructure intact in order to better facilitate the control of the conquered.
“Nothing we have seen in this system hints at either of those explanations. No single theory, at least thus far postulated, could account for what we have found – or not found.”
“Thank you, Science Officer,” Rekex‘s tone was pure acid. Thenesh hunched into himself, his ridges visibly shrinking as he returned his attention to his monitor.
“Can you tell me anything of use at this time?”
Copyright © 2006 W N Dayley