Consider an eyeball. Billions of years of years ago a few light sensitive cells on a mere blob of primordial protoplasm. Fast forward and we have two hundred million cells in one of nature's great visualizing tools hooked up to the brain, scanning the universe. Wonder then what other senses may have developed in the untold eons and the eleven dimensions. Wonder and worry. They might be watching us now.
-Winteroud Sole, Caldris.
General Ossa glared at the holos from spy ships for weeks. He'd seen every seedy O'Neil station port and every two bit ore hauler with bad registry in three systems. He had a team on it working round the clock. Nothing that indicated private navies. Nothing that even indicated a stray Guildsman trading without tariffs. Yet that wasn't his true concern. Yes, he would do his duty. Private armies were a bad thing. His real desire was another search, the search for the missing intergalactic matter signature signal that had been edited from the probe reports before it hit the hive mind.
The ensign he'd assigned that covert research was standing before him now. Tamara Fortunato had grown up on Earth's moon in an industrial region humankind had occupied since the conquest of the solar system with sub-light drives. It was a world with traditions of mastering a complex artificial environment old as any, and people conditioned to subterfuge techno bureaucracies as a way of life. She was perfect. Ossa loved her for decades, but he was a general. That was that.
"Ensign?" he queried.
"Sir." She hesitated a moment and Ossa realized she was about to throw him a curve. "I tried eight-hundred different ways of getting at the data but it's locked up with overlord only security codes on every channel. I came in under a different auspice each time, but sooner or later a red flags going to go up-if it hasn't already-and the overlords are going to come after whoever is hacking the data."
"Are you requesting we surrender?" He chuckled.
"No Sir. I'm not. But on a hunch I thought maybe the matter we found out there was something we sent. I did a search of historic migration records and there was a colony ship-a huge one. It was sent out centuries ago.
"About a hundred miles long, really an O'Neil station with mega drives strapped on the back. Religious fundamentalists-they wanted out of our galaxy completely because it was too darn sinful, Sir. So they left on a journey that will take an eon to finish."
"The trajectory? That matter was coming towards the Milky Way, not away." Ossa knew she'd have an answer for him, but they had to run through this inquiry by the numbers.
"That's correct, Sir. Its orientation was in the departure trajectory, only reversed. They turned
"Too much of an assumption. I don't buy it. They turned around an ark ship a hundred Kilometers long and started coming back?"
"I know it's a lot to buy. But I figured if they did turn around they might have had trouble, sent out a mayday. So I went through the files of guard satellites outside the Hercules cluster. One had record of a transmission but the codes were so old it hadn't translated them, simply filed. It was our mayday. I've managed to convert the file." She laid it on his desk.
"Have you seen it?"
Ossa threw his hands up. "You never fail to amaze me, Ensign. Put it on."
Nervously, she loaded the file and adjusted a flat screen projection.
It showed the hull of an O'Neil ship. Several people in Eva Suits were walking along the outer hull as if on routine maintenance work. They were followed by a couple of auto bots hauling equipment. Suddenly one of the humans turned and seemed to look up.
He stared for a moment and then began scrambling in a frenzy away from where he'd been...