Return of the Ancient Ghosts

The morning news was not good.

It’s not every day—or every lifetime—that a mysterious ghost vessel appears in the heavens above our world. But it just happened here, and I want to record how things are now, because I fear they will soon change forever.

When the news came, my mate and I were relaxing on the deck of our hilltop aerie, looking out across the purple valleys and hills, just drinking in the beauty and peace. Our young had departed for their day’s activities, so we were enjoying the quiet and each other’s company.

That’s when I heard the chime from the comm unit. Instant fear. What could that mean except some problem with our eldest male, who is somewhat rambunctious. I was up out of my lounge in a moment.
This chime also alerts us for civil emergencies, but these never happen. Our world is so tranquil and peaceful that we haven’t had such an alert for as long as I could remember.

Then the holo came on, and the image of our mayor popped into existence as if she were standing there inside our main chamber.
“My friends and neighbors,” she began with her customary smile, “I have exciting news.” Her chin fingers waggled, proving her excitement.

“Just half a turn ago, several huge space-leaping vessels, frightfully impressive, showed up in far-orbit around our world, and asked to have their odyssey declared completed. Our devices had trouble identifying the language they used, it was so old, but they finally did so.

“They asked permission to land and address our council. We sent a probe up to their vessel in orbit to investigate them and see if it would be prudent to allow them to land and come in contact with us. After checking for alien micro-organisms, and taking other suitable precautions, we invited a small delegation to visit our city.”

“They wish to tell their story, and we want to hear it. This is scheduled for mid-day on the morrow in the town square.”

The next day, people crowded into town from leagues away, having heard the rumor of this tale. They overflowed the square and jammed the side streets. My mate and I, disdaining crowds and tumult, watched via holo. Our young, of course, were there in the thick of the throng.

The crowd’s excitement was palpable. Through the holo, we were so close, I imagined we could smell the dust and sweat. Our people were inordinately stirred. Why?

After lifetimes of strife and angst, with one group dominating another, our world had settled down. We have an easygoing life, good relations with one another, plenty of life’s goods. This is what we had known all our lives.

I considered this a blessing; some saw it as stifling boredom, and yearned for some kind of excitement, perhaps even another war. “If only some other world would attack us. We could fight for the Motherworld, and die glorious deaths in it defense, rather than this unending featureless life.” But that was not my viewpoint, not at all. Nor my mate’s. We loved our lives as they were.

We were surprised to see that the emissaries were not living beings like us, but blocky mechanical devices. Our guards helped them mount the platform we use for holiday pageants and political debates.

One of the robotic devices stepped forward to speak. He was a squat, dark, metallic thing, only vaguely oki-like. But his voice was rich and cultured and mellifluous, yet sad and wistful—if a machine can be such. Since his voice was deep, I thought of him as male. The mechanical man, or device, or robot, told us he is called Quat, and here is his story:

“Our orbiting vessels are the remnants of a long-ago expedition that departed from this world,” he intoned.

What we didn’t know, or had lost in the mists of a forgotten worldtime, was that our humble world had once been a powerful center of galactic empire, and a major space-jump nexus, with worlds under our control, and outposts halfway to the Little Brother galaxy.

Ours had been an ancient civilization, so old it strains the credulity of a myth weaver. At the peak of its galaxy-spanning might, it sent out numerous expeditions in all directions to explore and open up galaxies in the local group and beyond. Using galaxy-jumping technologies we would deem impossible, they skipped to the Big Brother, the Little Brother, the Neighbor, the Interloper, the Three Virgins, and other galaxies that bore only our numbers.

“Huge vessels they were, crewed by scientists and engineers and adventurers and diplomats, but inhabited now by only we few sad devices. Robots, mostly modeled to look like our oki masters. But all the oki, the original crew members, are so long dead that even their remains are gone. But before dying, the last oki told us robots to go home with their story. And now, at last, we have returned.

“We were wildly successful. We found worlds of aching beauty and dismal ugliness. We encountered oki-worlds and non-oki. We had to fight off some aggressive races. We discretely observed the primitive ones that should not be disrupted by interstellar visitors. But with friendly oki worldraces that had already traveled in space, we sat and shared tales.

“Whenever we arrived in a planetary system and contacted local oki races, we invariably caused a stir. None had ever before encountered such distant visitors. And once they saw that we had no hostile intent, their natural curiosity opened up. We would tell each other many things about our worlds and travels and dreams. We heard fabulous stories, some probably true, of the panorama of oki life in all times, all distance, all directions. Our knowledge wells filled up.

“At each world, we catalogued and sampled and recorded and set up high-orbiting jump sites. And then we moved on. On to another world, another civity, another cluster, another galaxy.

“After a long while, it seemed we had heard all the stories. But then something new: At one world, we learned that another equally ambitious expedition had passed that way, coming from a different direction. Rivals? It was easy enough to track them by following the trail of their jump beacons.

“One final jump and suddenly we were face-to-face above the same planet. A mutually tense initial encounter soon dissolved into joy at finding kindred spirits beneath strange exteriors. We spent a long time there on that world, sharing and comparing and exchanging. Before departing, we even exchanged some crew members.

“Our missionaries continued their quest, but gradually a malaise set in, growing deadly. The Universe was all too vast, and in spite of its incredible variety, after a time it was all so familiar. And SO infinite! Exploring it was like examining every grain of sand on a beach.

“If it’s all basically the same, why leave home? The weight of this realization slowly crushed our brave oki leaders. Not quickly, but it ate away at them over stretches of time. Heroes vigorous for lifetimes began falling to accidents, to lassitude. Much too late we turned for home, knowing full well ‘home’ no longer existed.

“After an eon of victory heaped upon success crowned with glory, we were defeated. Not by an enemy, nor by disease, nor superior technology, but by vastness.

“The remaining vessels turned for home, retracing our path of jump sites across the galaxies, until we arrived here, back at the planet of our origin, manned only by we handful of never-dying, ever-functioning machines.

“We devices seek an oki master to declare our mission completed.”

Mr. Quat spoke for the sad devices arrayed behind him. Though devoid of emotion, he was imbued with the sadness of their former masters.

Our mayor climbed up onto the platform, looked into the holocam, and replied, “We are grateful to hear the story of your exciting exploits. We believe you have done the right thing, and have returned to the right world, to seek this permission. I am quite sure we will grant this, as soon as I can confer with my council.”

It may have been my imagination, but the assembled robots seemed to slump slightly in relief from having this burden lifted.

Quat responded, “Once you grant the completion of our mission, we will turn over to you all our findings, preserved in our data wells.”

At this, a murmur of growing excitement arose from the crowd, as the realization of what this could mean began to sink in.

That evening our family clustered around the holo in our main chamber. Outside, the stars appeared in the sky in a thick tapestry. They seemed closer than they ever had before.

On the holo, the mayor appeared once again. “We have granted the galactic emissaries’ request. Their mission is complete. They have released their findings to us.”

Our world’s foremost galactologic scholar was standing beside her. Her chin fingers vibrated with suppressed energy. “All the information they stored away over eons–the data, the jump codes–have survived, and even now are downloading into our data wells.” She extended her hand, revealing a palm-sized translucent green stone. “It’s a crystal that contains jump codes to strategically-placed worlds throughout the nearby galaxies.”

The mayor again spoke in a voice deep with excitement, “This can extend the reach of our vessels to realms never even imagined. Great things will become of us!”

The next morning’s holo brought together the mayor, the galactologist, and a circle of well-dressed dignitaries nodding and smiling in agreement to everything she said.

We could see a new gleam in the eye of the commentators. The holo zoomed in on throngs dancing in the streets. People were still celebrating from last night.

Already, I hear, franchises are being bid on. Our tranquil and civilized community will soon become a boomtown.

Ah, the lure of forbidden knowledge. Better left hidden. I felt we were like one of the primitive world races that our explorers had carefully avoided intruding upon, for fear of disrupting them. I wish they had treated us the same. Even though we are their descendants.

I turned to my partner, my chin fingers twisted with sadness, and said, “What will become of us now?”

Our young had joined the revelers in town.

A large cwar, flying in a lazy circle above the next hill, was suddenly attacked by a sharp-taloned brakk, and knocked out of the sky to become a meal.

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