Ryker’s Hiders, 2775

Independent RAIR tradeship Waheguru’s Hand decelerating into orbit around the brown dwarf Ryker Survey One, in or around 2775.
My mind was cradled in a substrate crafted from two tonnes of spin-glass, gold and ceramic, buried deep within the armoured innards of the scoop probe. I watched through the external feed as the Waheguru let me go, the patina of rust scaling over the docking clamp flashing in the dim starlight. The ramjet ship shrank, slowly at first, and then altogether too fast. 
Below hung the brown dwarf we'd called Ryker Survey One, a blood-red substellar object still glowing with the heat left over from its formation. They tell me there's something wrong with it, that it's too small and too old to be as hot as it is. That's why they were dropping me, to better study the brown dwarf. We might not have found paying customers, but scientific data on some weird astronomical oddity would probably help Ryker recoup his costs.
Soon I was crossing the wide pale band of the rings, watching a dozen bands of darkness fall past me. I'd slowed my clockspeed to pass the time; the past six days felt like only a few hours. Now, though, I needed to be attentive. I felt the scientific package shift, sickeningly, within me, exposing its sensors to open space. Soon the information sang through my fibre optic veins like fire -- temperature, spectral lines, the fuzzy images put out by the mass readers.

"Hmm," Sadie said, her voice a sudden partner to my internal monologue. "That's strange."

[What's strange?] I thought back at her, trying to remember how my vocal cords would have moved, back when I was alive. 

Three seconds later -- was that the light delay between us, now? -- she replied, "I thought the gravitational field imagers would roughly map on to the most visible clouds, that's where we'd expect the mass to be. Storm systems, weather fronts. That sort of thing."

She flashed the images into my visual cortex suddenly; I tried to screw shut eyes I no longer had.

Ryker Survey One was done up in moody shades of blue, teal, soaring up to green in a few spots. I could make out the banded clouds of the brown dwarf, but there was something else... like crosshatching, or interference. Almost like brushstrokes on canvas. I said as much.

"But there's nothing to cause that interference," Sadie replied, troubled. "Telescopes get that sort of thing, maybe, from diffraction caused by imperfections in the optics and structural bodies in front of the lens -- but a gravitational imager? I really don't understand."

[You're going to make me go down there, aren't you?]

"Sorry, Nadheer."


I was falling now, quite concretely. The sky above was taking on a livid tinge, the slow, massive cloud systems of Ryker Survey One crashing over one another beneath me. My body had sprouted its heat shields -- some bizarre mix of sunshade and reentry shield, aerogels sandwiched between irregularly-spaced mylar. I could feel furious activity within me, autofac arrays rapidly manufacturing optics, vacuum balloons and sensor probes. My chrysalis was transforming me into a butterfly.

Beneath me, the strange readings were taking on new shape. Faint crosshatching had given way to long, thin concentrations of mass, separated by thousands of kilometres in height. Sadie thought they were tight cloud formations, perhaps, strange storm systems. Aaron had suggested they might be being corralled by the intense magnetic fields of the brown dwarf's core, that perhaps these clouds were the remains of some metallic body dropped into the dwarf, an asteroid or moon rich in iron. 

Something like terror washed through me, unbidden.

I fell, and dreamed as I did, compressing the days into hours. My descent was slowed by the newborn vacuum balloons, vast silver things larger in diameter than the rest of me by far, while most of the heatshields shed like dead skin. Soon, the clouds began to swallow the sky above me. I felt the searing heat against my outer hull, separated from my mind by a layer of insulating vacuum. The dim sun this brown dwarf orbited soon lost its lustre, and all I could see was illuminated by the ruddy glow of the clouds around me. 

I found myself wondering -- why was Ryker Survey One so small? What strange horror lurked in its heart? The terror bit into me again, coming from nowhere and receding back almost as suddenly. There was a flash, lightning, and for a moment, one of the crosshatch clouds was caught, black shadow against shocking, vivid white.

Only it wasn't a cloud. It couldn't be.

It was vast and dark and terrible, with structure and form. 

Bigger than worlds and perhaps older, lurking here in the bloodied twilight of Ryker Survey One. I knew at once that these were the teeth of something stranger and far more ancient than humanity. WEAPON. The word formed in my mind.

In the scarlet darkness, something moved, and then moved again. Whatever it was fluttered like cloth, yet there was a hardness to it I couldn't quite grasp. It flapped towards me, and then stopped dead in the air. Viridescent light cut through the dark, the whole universe turning green, like being caught in the facets of an emerald. Soon it was piercing me, too, the light shining through my body and my thoughts alike. I felt strange, alien hands picking over my brain -- at the same moment, the neuromorphic hardware my mind was running on began to throw thousands of errors, millions. My hull seemed to freeze in space, pinned by some invisible force.


It took me longer than it should have to realise that the words, although spoken in my inner voice, weren't my own. I blanched, reached for the panic button. Suddenly my thoughts were squashed, tilted sideways -- the contents of my soul being decanted into a state vector -- and then the Maser mounted to my spine lit, and I rode a tightbeam of microwaves into orbit, where a relay hung, ready to retransmit my mind back to Waheguru's Hand.

As interstellar traders went, Waheguru’s Hand was hardly exceptional.

She had previously been owned — and built — by the Barker-Kavelin Corporation, then sold to a private concern handling frontier settlement and exoscience beyond the wormhole nexus, before being bought by free trader Hassan Ryker. She was a RAIR — a ram-augmented starship drawing her reaction mass from the thin gasp of hydrogen in the space between the stars. On a good run, she could scrape as high as eighty-six, perhaps eighty-seven percent of the speed of light, fast enough to reach the nearest suns in a little over four and a half years — but only at the spectacular cost of half a tonne of antimatter.

Ryker and his crew were seeking wealth and fame beyond the wormhole network. Several decades earlier, a corporation had funded a mission to a red dwarf so-far unconnected by a stargate, and had found a small but intensely profitable colony with whom to trade. Many of the subsequent missions to red and brown dwarves in the nearby Galaxy had been awful money-sinks, plunging crews into incredible debt — but a handful unearthed yet more riches, either in the form of small, uncontacted colonies eager for the trinkets and tools of modern technology, or else strange artefacts left behind by transhumans and solipsist AIs — enough to drive yet more fools out into the darkness beyond the settled worlds.

Ryker’s crew were unthinkably lucky. They’d charted half a dozen red dwarves and found very little, aside from a strange glass bridge built by a Skyjack, and the ruins of a Superbright ship riddled with phage cancers, left over from some previous skirmish or war. But it was while at one of the quieter dwarves, waiting for a solar antimatter facility they’d grown in-situ to produce the fuel needed for a journey home that Ryker’s science officer, Sadie Makhov, detected the brown dwarf they’d later name Ryker Survey One — mainly by sniffing out anomalous neutrino emissions.

Neutrinos are rare in nature, away from the vast energies of stellar fusion, at least. Though Ryker Survey One was still rather warm, it wasn’t thought large enough to host substantial deuterium fusion deep within its core — these neutrino emissions, then, Ryker thought might be the product of advanced technology. The Waheguru transmitted her claim to the nearest node in the wormhole network, to be filed at her home port in the famous Indi Band of Epsilon Indi, and burned for Ryker Survey One’s parent sun, a dim and distant red dwarf.

The Waheguru’s Hand arrived in or around 2775 — records aren’t clear — and braked into a high, lopsided orbit around the brown dwarf, searching in vain for radio emissions or technosignatures among the giant’s moons or rings. What struck Sadie Makhov and the rest of the science and engineering crew was the apparently tiny mass of RS1 — much larger than Jupiter, but much too small to be as hot as it was. Although the mission seemed a bust, this scientific data could at least help cover the cost of the mission — and so Ryker ordered that a single-use, disposable probe be dropped into the clouds of the brown dwarf bearing his name.

Even by the standards of relativist trading crews, known for their tolerance of the bizarre and macabre, the crew of the Waheguru’s Hand was unusual. Among their ranks they counted persons from all strata of interstellar society — Deontologists and renegade Superbrights, reformed murderers and gutter thieves, brutish ribopunks and sleek, glassy cyborgs. Most notably — perhaps even unique for the era — one of their number was Nadheer el-Anwar.

Six hundred years previously, he’d been a patient of the infamous Tel Aviv Institute for Comptuer Science, terminally ill with a sort of lymphoma stubbornly resistant to gene treatments and chemotherapy. They’d euthanised him gently, divided his brain into razor-thin slices, and poured his soul into a computer — and all of it in complete and total secret, right under the nose of the Turing Police and against the UN’s ban on mind uploading.

By the time the authorities raided the Tel Aviv Institute, el-Anwar and two dozen other patients were up and running on the Institute’s basement servers. The United Nations hadn’t quite settled whether or not the process of mind uploading constituted murder, but they sure as hell weren’t willing to face the PR disaster of pulling the plug on these strange digital people. Within a decade, el-Anwar and the others were granted the same rights they’d enjoyed before shedding the flesh.

Sometime around the Starving Years, el-Anwar vanished off the records. No-one knows what he did during these years, and the man himself has been either unavailable for, or unwilling to, comment.

Eventually he found his way aboard the Waheguru’s Hand, by now having traded nearly five tonnes of semiconductors and computing gels for a tonne of spintronic glass and optical fibres. One of el-Anwar’s roles was to be, in essence, disposable — with the ability to transmit his mindstate at a moment’s notice, el-Anwar could pilot the machines deployed into dangerous environments no embodied human could ever survive. It was this role which left el-Anwar face to face with the vast, inscrutable alien presence deep within Ryker Survey One — and which, apparently, soured first contact.

The whole brown dwarf boiled with their fury, cloud systems larger than worlds shifting in response. Some sort of energy weapon emitted from deep within Ryker Survey One, hard purple light tearing the failed star’s innermost worldlet to glowing shrapnel, forcing the Waheguru’s Hand to withdraw to safety.

The crew of the Waheguru’s Hand found themselves divided. Ryker and those loyal to him wanted to keep the alien presence within Ryker Survey One to themselves, hoping to profit from their discovery. Anwar, Makhov and the others believed themselves to be well out of their depth in the face of this strange alien presence, and wanted to reach out to the rest of the Civilised Galaxy for help.

For months they lay at stalemate.

The loyalists controlled the Hand‘s communication array. The mutineers controlled the ship’s engines and manufactories. And, far below, shrouded by the vast atmosphere of Ryker Survey One, inscrutable alien minds watched these visitors from distant Earth, and debated.

Soon both conflicts turned physical.

Across the spread of Ryker Survey One, great storms broke, energy enough to smash planets into gravel tearing through those vast, wine dark skies. Light danced beneath the clouds, the impossible structures within RS1 shedding exawatts of particle exotica.

Seeing this, the engineering crew knew they had no choice but to act. They crippled the Waheguru’s Hand, disabled her engines, detached her fuel tanks and went to work on killing the ship’s power grid. As Ryker’s loyalists tried to storm the engineering deck, the engineering crew dumped the atmosphere from the chambers between the ship’s habitat chambers and the engineering bay.

With the Hand finding her systems in a palsy, the engineering crew saw a narrow window of opportunity. Limpet drones were deployed from the ship’s probe storage, skimming the hull unseen by blind, unpowered sensors, until they found the communications array. There, they forcibly disconnected the ship’s transmitters from the command deck’s control, and routed its feed through engineering.

As soon as the Waheguru’s Hand powered back up, the rebel engineers sent a brief message to the nearest node in the wormhole network, begging the help of the Empire. By the time Ryker’s people managed to gain control of the engineering deck, it was too late. The broadcast was sent, the fight was over.

By the time an Imperial ramjet arrived, almost a decade later, the vast conflict boiling within Ryker Survey One was now confined to the southern hemisphere, auroral fire blazing across the skies. The crew of the Waheguru’s Hand — by now without enough supplies to support themselves — were in suspended animation, save for el-Anwar, who welcomed the Imperial newcomers by sending them the vast trove of transmissions he’d received from the aliens within the brown dwarf.

The Empire’s starship began to inflate the wormhole it carried, enough to transfer the syncs of a number of key personnel into newly-grown bodies within Ryker’s star system, including a handful of transhumans in the Empire’s employ. Over the course of several months, they studied not only the data el-Anwar had compiled, but also the bizarre alien artefact which had risen from the cloudtops of Ryker Survey One.

This object was a flat, glossy, metallic ball six kilometres in diameter, shedding from its anterior face tens of thousands of gossamer filaments which trailed into the clouds below, apparently wound from the strange, deeper structures within Ryker Survey One’s atmosphere. Unwilling to send a remote-controlled probe after they learned of el-Anwar’s ordeal, the Imperial crew instead traveled to the alien structure by shuttle, hoping to make close contact while remaining in low orbit so as to avoid the titanic gravitational pull of the brown dwarf.

Instead they discovered that the artefact and its immediate surroundings — approximately several hundred kilometres — hung in apparent microgravity. The origin of this anomalous effect continues to defy human understanding, though it appears to be a mainstay in the aliens’ — by now known as Ryker’s Hiders — engineering and technology. The artefact’s outer skin opened, and the shuttle was drawn inside by an invisible, unfelt force.

We drew in close, the shuttle riding teakettle on her maneuvering thrusters. It felt strange, the space around the artefact. None of us could describe it, but we all knew what we felt […] like the air had become slightly viscous, making every motion heavier, even though we were freed from the brown dwarf’s gravity.

And then?

Then, the object irised open, its strange, silvered surface puckering like some great steel rectum to reveal… I don’t know. It was… like it was bright, but it was the colour of the hole a sudden flash leaves in your vision, a bruised, flickering sort of thing. The shuttle began to shift — not that we felt any acceleration — towards the artefact. Our pilot tried to resist the pull, firing the RCS thrusters […] the thrusters jetted, but we didn’t feel any push from it, and although it grew thinner, the plume stayed with us… eventually most of it either settled on the shuttle’s hull or ghosted away.

We were going inside.

–Excerpt from a leaked debrief with one of the Imperial scientists

Only scraps and tidbits of what came next have been revealed to the public. Misinformation and conspiracy theories abound, but over time, a credible account has been pieced together from a mixture of official disclosures, leaked data and informed speculation.

The Imperial scientists were drawn into the artefact, during which time their recollections become unclear. Individuals appear to remember different orders of events, radically different events themselves, or even the experiences of others — most notably in one instance, a baseline member of the group apparently remembering what it felt like to be one of her rather radically biotechnologically enhanced transhuman crewmates, expanded sensoria and all. In some cases, other memories — including ones relating to childhood and previous experiences — seem to have been transferred.

It is thought that during this period, the shuttle was disassembled — apparently by the same “reactionless” field effects as drew the shuttle into the artefact — and examined (?) by the Hiders, though it was later reassembled. Some reports indicate that the shuttle, after reassembly, was shown to differ from the original in a number of ways, including suggestions of anomalous properties, but this has not been substantiated.

In any event, the crew of the shuttle made contact either with Ryker’s Hiders themselves, or with some kind of emissary representing them — the crew themselves seem to have been divided on this issue during their debriefing. The Imperial scientists came to believe that the Hiders themselves relied on radically different biochemistry to humans, living in cryogenic conditions not too far from the surface temperature of Saturn’s moon Titan, using a mixture of methane-ethane as a chemical solvent rather than water. Given that they did not meet the Hiders face-to-face (for obvious reasons), the degree of detail the scientists could recall about the Hiders’ biochemistry is quite remarkable.

The Hiders reportedly claim to have once been a founding member of an interstellar civilisation spanning much of the Milky Way and possibly the Magellanic Clouds, although this was destroyed approximately three quarters of a million years ago by a group whose name best translates as the “Dawn Hunters.” These Hunters apparently scoured the Galaxy, wiping out all signs of advanced technology, save for the Hiders, who managed to survive this purge by hiding in the atmospheres of brown dwarves and smaller, free-floating orphan worlds deep in interstellar space, studiously masking all indications of their continued existence. Brown dwarves seem to have been ideal because the leftover heat from their formation could hide the waste heat produced by truly enormous industrial activity.

[It is speculated that these Dawn Hunters may have been some kind of machine civilisation, perhaps explaining the Hiders’ violent negative reaction to the upload Nadheer el-Anwar being dropped into their world to study them.]

Some reports suggest that, even several years after leaving the artefact, the mental processes of the scientists were permanently changed, showing signs of supposed correlation. Whenever brought into close proximity, the science team reportedly become able to coordinate with one another almost instinctively, and also experience similar transference of memories.

This happens independent of substrate — many of the scientists have been synced, backed up and even in one case copied outright since their original exposure to the Hiders — suggesting that whatever form these changes take is the product of some fundamental change in their mindstates, rather than an augmentation of their physical brains. This oddity has supposedly made them invaluable tools in studying the exact details of consciousness and mental activity.

The loss of the Hiders’ whole civilisation — clearly far in advance of humankind’s greatest achievements — begs the question: what hope do the various squabbling polities of Human Space have if these Dawn Hunters, in whatever form they may now take, arrive in our skies?

This question has driven both culture — the rise of the Dawn Hunter Hypothesis, otherwise known as the Inhibitor Conjecture, which claims to solve Fermi’s Paradox by suggesting all civilisations face destruction by some aggressive force like the Dawn Hunters, has had enormous impact on art and literature — and legitimate scientific inquiry, as both the Empire and the Outer Worlds have begun long-term programmes to study the fate of Ryker’s Hiders and their anomalous technologies.

Some maintain that Ryker’s Hiders are lying about their past glory and the Dawn Hunters, or may be mistaken about their own history — although why, precisely, this may be varies from theorist to theorist.

Ryker’s Hiders, for their own part, remain largely silent — aside from one brief visit from an Adelaide Sinclair, during which she ominously claimed to have had a “productive and urgent, if confusing, exchange of ideas.” This raises the possibility that, like the members of the House of Sinclair, the Hiders may themselves be posthuman — explaining the advanced nature of their technology and the difficulty human polities have had in studying and communicating with the Hiders.

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