# A Sea of Stars - Ch. 15 - Artifact

        we
are
not alone
in  the
uni   verse


It all started out in the Kuiper Belt. About 40 years ago, that’s when the first real effort to mine the Kuiper Belt objects came about. And Dark Sun was at the forefront. They’d claimed hundreds, if not thousands, of Kuiper Belt objects for themselves. Most of them were for mining, but they had a good number of scientific endeavors as well. One of particular interest was the Deep Deep Space Array of telescopes.

Partially funded by several of Earth’s universities and those throughout the solar system, the Deep Deep Space Array was an immense array of telescopes spread throughout the solar system. Using the entire array, it was possible to simulate a telescope as wide as the entire solar system.

It took a decade to build, but when they finally had enough of the array available for people to use, everyone wanted a piece of it. Particularly the universities and companies that had helped found it. They broke the arrays into sections when they could so everyone could have a time slot and kept the whole thing together for some of the more interesting projects. Reservations for the project stretched into years.

With the DDSA humankind made all sorts of interesting discoveries. It’s what they used to pinpoint the planets of the Centauri system and to confirm that Centauri 3 was almost certainly habitable. It’s what they used to pick Epsilon Eridani as a future target for space exploration. They peered out into the deepest regions of space and back into the very beginning of the universe.

But then, after 15 years of breakthrough after breakthrough, large sections of the DDSA went quiet. No one knew who was using it, they only knew that none of the universities were getting the time they were requesting. About two thirds of the array was still active, but a large chunk—roughly in the direction of Alpha Centauri—was permanently reserved.

Formal complaints were filed with Dark Sun to at least learn who was using the array, but nothing ever came of them. Most of the complaints were shuffled off into the bureaucracy and lost or set into endless loops of forwarding from person to person.

About 17 years ago, another large chunk of the DDSA was taken offline and placed in a permanently reserved status as well. This time people started to panic. With less than half of the original capacity, many of the large experiments just couldn’t be run anymore. A group, led by scientists from Mars University, set several ships out on a mission to see what was going on in person.

At this point, only the Mars and Europa stations had been built. Daedalus was still under construction. Using the fastest ships they could afford, it would take them weeks to get out to the Kuiper Belt. They got out past the orbit of Neptune before they were intercepted by an unmarked ship filled with military personnel. They weren’t wearing any sort of identification and none of Earth’s governments claimed them.

They didn’t give the civilians a choice. They said that they would destroy any ship that continued forwards. One of the ships tried their luck. The military ship wasn’t kidding. They killed a dozen scientists and crew. The rest of the ships turned around and headed back to Europa Station.

A few other missions were mounted over the next two years—some in secret and some publically. All were turned back by the same military men in their gray ships. If anyone made it through the blockade, they weren’t heard from again.

It turns out the military men were from Dark Sun. By this time, they’d grown to be the single largest private organization in the solar system. Larger actually than any individual organization, governments included. Mining the Kuiper Belt had made them wealthy. And they had a secret.

Years earlier, the DDSA had picked up an object heading towards the solar system. An object several miles in diameter. An object traveling at nearly the speed of light.

Dark Sun was obsessed with getting to the object before anyone else. Before anyone else could even detect it. So they started taking direct control over any part of the array that could easily see it. Then more of the array as the object drew closer and they got more paranoid.

In the meantime, they built a sister ship to the Hermes—the Prometheus. It was built completely with Dark Sun’s resources and entirely in secret. Virtually no one knew it was being built, not even those who worked on it. Not until it was nearly finished.

They sent Prometheus out when the object was less than 6 months from the solar system. Its mission was to fly out to meet the object, reverse course and attempt to match its velocity for as long as possible. It couldn’t come near to matching the objects speed, but it could stay in close proximity for a few days. Long enough to send a team across.

Which is exactly what they did. It later turns out that they team reached the object the exact same day that we got the mysterious message from Hermes. No one knows for sure if it was just a case of cosmic coincidence or if the two events were somehow related.

What they found wasn’t natural a natural occurrence. There’s no way it could have been. It was a spaceship, albeit a very strange one. The entire front half of the ship had a gigantic clear dome several kilometers in diameter, covering a lush landscape with hills and streams. Nothing looked quite like back home—the plants, or what they assumed were plants—where much redder than what we see here and the water didn’t flow quite like any water they’d ever seen before. It was too thick.

So they took one of the shuttles and crossed the void between the ships. They found what looked like an airlock. They docked with the ship and spent hours trying to get the airlock open, but they couldn’t even find any sort of controls. Eventually, they cut their way in. The hull actually healed itself as they did, with tiny little specks of black flowing out from the damage and merging together.

Inside the dome, they were more than thankful for their suits. The atmosphere was mostly methane and it was cold—far colder than anywhere on Earth. Their suits where straining to keep themselves heated. They’d have no more than an hour before their suits would begin to fail.

They made the most of it though, spreading out into several teams and exploring the dome. There were occasional openings into corridors in the lower part of the ship, far too low and wide to be comfortable, but for the most part they ignored them. Not enough time.

The most interesting thing they found was a perfectly round clearing almost directly under the center of the dome ringed with a series of machines topped with clear panels that looked like some sort of crystal or glass. It was the first evidence they’d had of that something had gone terribly wrong. There were deep grooves burnt into the ground and some sort of black liquid that had sprayed over everything and then dried. Several of the glass panes where shattered or tiled at crazy angled.

Most of the crew wanted to leave right then, but the commander insisted they stay. He went over to one of the panes and as he got hear it, it began to glow with some sort of blue light. Three dimensional graphics began playing over the surface of the panel, with what could almost have been text—either than or decorative vine carvings—winding around it.

One of the pictures was of the solar system. The commander raised his hand and touched it. The solar system grew to fill the whole screen. The commander touched Earth. Some large amount of the vine like writing came up on the screen with two unmistakable buttons below it. His crew was trying to tell him to stop, but he’d have none of it. He pressed one of them.

Moments later there was a deafening drone sound and some part of the ship broke off of one of the sides. It accelerated away, taking a large part of the object’s already immense momentum with it. As it left, the main part of the ship slowed dramatically. Slower than even the Prometheus.

The part of the ship that broke off? That’s what destroyed the Earth.

Madeline stopped talking. Lillian could feel her mouth was gaping open, so she closed it. She couldn’t think of what to say, so she just said, “wow.”

“I know right?”

“You mean these people inadvertently destroyed Earth?”

“It definitely looks that way.”

“How do we know all this? Did they make it back? And what happened to the ship?”

She held up her hands. “One question at a time, please. Dark Sun knows all of this because everything the men they sent out saw or did was automatically transmitted back to Prometheus. Part of the crew took a large part of the ship’s supplies along with most of the shuttles and stayed on the Artifact. The rest took the Prometheus back in the Solar System. When it got close, they sent all of the logs ahead.”

“So they knew about it! They knew that the Earth was going to be destroyed. Surely they could warn people.”

“They did. If they’d used the gate at Titon to send the message from Mars, they would have had a message to Earth about 12 hours before impact. The public message only came when a set of observers around Triton actually saw the object and relayed their own message. They only got through about 2 hours before the impact.”

“Millions more could have been saved.”

“So why didn’t they?”

“There weren’t enough ships. They knew that a great percentage of the people on Earth didn’t have a chance, no matter how much warning they gave. So they told their own agents and workers. They saved what they could.”

Lillian didn’t want to hear it, although she knew that it had a grain of truth. “So what about the men that stayed behind on the object?”

“By this point, they were calling it the Artifact. It was clearly alien, but there wasn’t a single sign of life that they could detect. It seemed to be some sort of artifact of a battle that had happened long before.” She looked a bit sad at that. Lillian could understand. The first evidence of life outside their Solar System and it had died before ever reaching us. Madeline went on, “As for the crew, they stayed on the Artifact. Whatever they’d done to launch the attack on Earth, the Artifact was slowing down now. Most projections said that it would come to a halt before reaching the Solar System.”

“Well that makes sense. Surely we would have heard about it if a giant alien ship parked itself around Mars.”

Madeline grinned, although it was still a sad grin, and nodded. “They continued to study the ship all through the weeks and months they stayed on it. One day, they cut contact with Dark Sun.”

“They what?”

“Cut contact. They must have destroyed the communication array completely, there’s really not any other way that they could have stopped the signal. Dark Sun really didn’t trust these men completely after all.”

“They sound awfully paranoid,” Lillian said, trying to be at least a little diplomatic about it. Madeline did work for them after all. She didn’t want to call her friend’s bosses crazy. Even if it was really starting to sound like they were.

“I guess they were. But for good reason it turns out. When the Artifact finally stopped—out about twice as far as the Kuiper Belt, they flew back into the Solar System. They didn’t report to Dark Sun; instead, they flew directly to Mars and started recruiting. Dark Sun didn’t know for what at first, but it turns out they were forming the Sympathizers.”

Lillian gasped. “No…”

“Yup. That’s where the Sympathizers came from. And what they sympathize with, come to think of it—although most people, Sympathizers included don’t know it. They believe that the ship was sent to attack the human race all along. That with all of the wars we’ve had and all of damage we’d done to our planet, we’d deserved it. Essentially, they’re sympathizing with what they think are the beliefs and goals of a long dead crew of aliens.”

“That’s crazy…”

“They can’t even be sure that’s what the alien’s intentions where at all… Can they?”

“So far, essentially all of the Artifact’s systems have remained dormant. The few that are active, no one’s been able to get a handle on. They’re truly alien in design and no things in what anyone would recognize as a human language.”

“Obviously.”

“I don’t know. There were a lot of the higher ups in Dark Sun that fully expected to be able to translate all of the ship’s systems within a week or two.”

“Too much science fiction…”

Lillian went on. “I bet Dark Sun wasn’t too happy with the whole thing. I mean some of its own people…”

“Highly trained specialists too. Essentially what had been Dark Sun’s special forces?”

“… breaking off and talking all that talk about aliens.”

“Well, they haven’t spread that about too much. As far as we can tell, only the highest tiers of the Sympathizer leadership actually know anything at all about the Artifact.”

“But it still has to sting.”

“Definitely. They tried to hunt down and exterminate the Sympathizers. It only got worse from there. The story Jacobs told was only the bare corner of what was essentially a war in the shadows of the Solar System.”

“Sure you have. All of those terrorist attacks from the Sympathizers; the continual raids on suspected Sympathizer cells—all of that was just fallout from the Artifact War.”

“Artifact War?”

“Sure,” she said it as if it were obvious. And I guess it is obvious to her, Lillian though. “All of the fighting has really been to control the Artifact,” Madeline continued. “Who knew what secrets it could hold?”

Lillian nodded. “Speaking of the Artifact, you haven’t mentioned Eve’s part in all of this.”

“Right. Actually, she’d probably be the better one to tell you that story, if she will.”

“I don’t know. She sounded pretty mad at me.”

“I think she’s madder at me.”

“Not at you.”

“At Dark Sun. Right. But still.”

“I’m sure I could get her to talk to you. And if not, what’s the worst that could happen? She could say no, right?”

“Worse?”

Dryly, she answered. “Yeah. Much worse.”

Lillian shrugged. What could she do? She was a hologram. “Let’s try anyways.”

Madeline sighed, but stood with Lillian. “It’s up to you. But I think I’m going to stand out in the hallway when you first go in to talk to her.”

“Suit yourself.”

They headed back to Lillian’s room in silence.

Lillian knocked on her own door. She felt silly doing it, but she had a sort of roommate now. She didn’t want to walk in her doing anything inappropriate. Whatever that might be for a computer program with a holographic body.

When there was no response, she entered her access code and stepped inside. The room was just as she left it, although Eve was nowhere in sight. The disk that housed her physical form was sitting on her desk.

“Eve?"

“I’m not talking to you," Eve’s disembodied voice seemed to come from several points in the room all at once.

“Yes you are."

“No I’m not."

“Well why aren’t you talking to me?"

“Because of you consorting with that Dark Sun hussy…"

“I am not a hussy," Madeline stomped into the room. She was too lightweight to really stomp well, but she tried her hardest and pulled of a halfway decent stomp. “And I’m here. So you might as well talk to me."

“I can wait until you go away."

“What if I don’t go away?" Lillian looked at her. One new roommate was enough, she didn’t fancy spending all of the time that she had in her room with two of them.

“I’m a computer. I can out wait you."

“But you don’t want to do that."

“I don’t?"

“It’d be boring. That’s one thing that I’ve read in all of the reports about you is that you hate to be bored."

Eve was quiet for a second. “But why should I talk to you?"

“Because then you can convince me of the error of my ways and tell me how wrong I was to work with Dark Sun."

She sounded earnest enough, but Lillian thought she could detect just the faintest trace of amusement in her voice. Amusement!

“You are wrong after all." Eve’s holographic body suddenly appeared sitting on the desk chair. “And a being of my superior intellect should have no problem proving that to you."

“Exactly." She was grinning now. “So let’s try this again. I’m Madeline." She held out a hand to Eve.

Eve looked at it in puzzlement and then down at her own luminescent skin. She shrugged and stuck out her hand. There was no way that shaking hands could have been easy without being able to feel the other’s touch, but somehow they managed with only a minimal amount of overlap. “I’ve Eve."

“So Eve, why don’t you tell us about yourself?" Madeline sounded for all the world like she was at some sort of job interview.

“Is this some sort of joke?"

“Not at all. You’re one of the most interesting things—sorry, people—that the human race has ever known. Of course I’d like to know more about you."

“Well then what do you want to know?"

“Why don’t you tell us the story of where you came from?"

“Hmm. Lillian, is this something that you want to know?"

“Excellent…"

My life started a few days after the Dark Sun landing party arrived on the Artifact. They were exploring all over now, deep into the ship. Despite its vast size, there were corridors all through it and no quick methods of transportation that they could find. So they broke into pairs and searched the place on foot. I have no idea what they were looking for and I’m not sure that they did either.

It was still bitterly cold, so there was a definite limit on how long they could search. They managed to modify the heating systems of the suits to run hotter than they’d been designed and layered on as much clothing and other insulation as they could, but it still wasn’t much. At best, they could stay 4 hours on the Artifact before the cold started to do some real damage to the suits. With how large the ship was, that was barely time to scratch the surface and still record what they were seeing, but they did what they could, running almost round the clock exploration parties between the ships.

On this day in particular, one of the pairs—a man and a woman, both in their late twenties and relatively low ranking members of the group—stumbled upon a second ring of transparent panels similar to the one they’d found on the surface their first day. They’d decided that these must play the part of computers in whatever alien technology had built the ship. After they’d launched the chunk at Earth, the one under the dome had completely stopped functioning. They’d been looking for another set ever since. This was the first they’d found.

The woman—her name was Julia—wanted to head back and alert the others immediately. They were already running low on time and she could feel the cold seeping into her skin. Her partner—I wish I could remember his name, but I can’t. I don’t know if I ever knew it—overruled her. He was a geek at heart and wanted the first crack at trying to decipher the systems.

As he walked up to them, several of the machines lit up and began displaying sequences of pictures wrapped with that vine like writing. Each had a different set that they were going through. There were pictures of stars and planets. Earth and the Solar System came up again, but they stayed away from that one. There were pictures of living things that defied description and others that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Earth. There were mathematical equations (although they had to infer those from the pictures, there were no numbers that they could detect) and a wide variety of what looked like engineering drawings.

One thing that caught his eye was a perfect image of a human being. He must have thought that he’d hit the jackpot with that. Not only did they have proof that there were—or at least had been—other intelligent life in the universe, but this intelligent life knew what human beings looked like. At least in his mind, it must have validated centuries of UFO sightings and the like.

He’d reached out to touch the panel. I vaguely remember Julia trying to stop him, but she was too far away. I remember flashes of light and agonizing pain. So much pain. In a way, that was my birth. My first sight was from the vantage point of the ground in the middle of the room. I remember looking up and seeing the young man’s stunned face. At first, I was really confused. I fully expected to be taller. Eye level with him.

I remember the man calling out for Julia and looking all over the room. He found me but ignored me. I guess my form wasn’t very interesting to him. I watched as he went around the room, frantically taking in everything I could.

I could feel my mind accelerating as time went on. The more I thought, it seemed the more I knew. And I was gaining senses. It was the strangest experience imaginable. I started with only a vague sense of sight and smell, but within minutes I could see in all manner of wavelengths. I could hear the minute details of Julia’s partner bustling about. I could even begin to sense magnetic fields fluctuating throughout the ship; and let me tell you, that was strange.

I began to realize that I my senses were more than my simple shell could possibly provide and that I was accessing the ship’s systems. So in a way, I was still part of the Artifact. But not entirely. Because my outlook on the world still had a decidedly human slant to it. All of the data I was getting was getting filtered through a human world view. Julia’s world view. Somehow, the computer had merged a part of itself with her and created me. I was the impossible child of a human and an alien technology.

Lillian whistled softly under her breath. “So what happened to Julia?”

“She was killed. Disintegrated when I was born. I do feel some regret at that because she was essentially my mother.”

Lillian nodded. Madeline actually tried to pat Eve’s hand, but her own went right through it and she pulled back. Eve didn’t even seem to have noticed though. There was a faraway look in her eyes.

“So what did you do next?” Lillian asked after a moment.

Eve shook her head slightly and focused her eyes on Lillian. “I grew up.”

The physical shell that I’d been giving had no means of moment. In essence, I could see or hear anything that went on, but I couldn’t actually move about. As I stretched my mental muscles, I discovered that I couldn’t actually understand the alien technology any better than Julia could have. I could access systems throughout the ship, but everything I did, I did without thinking about it. My mind was mostly human.

Julia’s partner had run off without me and left me there for what felt like an eternity. At that point, I hadn’t yet realized how quickly my mind was working running on alien technology rather than flesh and bone. It was probably no more than ten or twenty minutes before he came back with two other pairs from Dark Sun. He explained the situation to them. One of them berated him for touching anything without getting anyone first and the others searched the room.

Eventually, that same man that I was with came back and took me with him. I was the only thing in the room small enough to pick up after all. It’s an interesting experience to be so small and to be carried along like that. I think he just wanted some piece of it, some piece of where Julia had disappared. At that point, I don’t think he had the slightest idea who I was. What I was.

We went back to the Prometheus. When I got near to it, it was an absolutely glorious experience. I could sense the ship. All of the ship’s computers, all of its sensors, all of its systems, they were all mine. There was some manner of security system in place, but I seemed to be able to evade it almost intuitively. I jumped throughout the systems with the sheer joy of it, leaving my body behind. Who needs a simple black shell when I could have an entire ship!

I’ll admit, I drifted for a while after that. For most of the trip, the man who had found me put me in a storeroom along with a number of other things they took from the Artifact. I guess the rest of the crew figured they could at least have some manner of technology if things went wrong. When they got back to the Solar System, I went with them. When they unloaded the ship, the man took me with him.

“And they never noticed?” Lillian asked.

“Well, at least not right away. They must have found out what I was since then. At least if she knows about it.” She glared at Madeline, but it was less heated than it had been when they’d first come in. Probably something about being able to tell her story, Lillian guessed.

“So what’d you do next?”

“I grew. I learned everything that I could. I seemed that my capacity for information was limitless. I never knew exactly where I was, I’d been put into some sort of metallic case. Much like the one you found me in. Any time I could get near enough to a system to pick up a wireless system, I could access it. I read over anything that looked interesting copied everything else for later. I spent almost two months copying the libraries of Mars University alone.”

Lillian was stunned. Eve really was a walking talking encyclopedia. “What did you think you were going to do with all that?”

Eve shrugged. “I’m not actually sure. I never really planned ahead. I think the drive for learning came from Julia. In some of the memories I have from her, there was a dream of becoming a teacher some day. Although most of her memories are fragmented and long gone now.”

Lillian shook her head. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be Eve. She glanced down at her watch and realized just how late it was getting. It wasn’t a terribly long time until morning. But there was one burning question that she still didn’t have an answer to. “So then how did you meet up with my father?”

Eve started to answer, but as she did every light in the room suddenly went out. The only lighting left was Eve. Even worse, the air vents that constantly circulated air throughout the ship whirred to a stop.

Lillian and Madeline turned to stare at each other. “Crap.”