Vibrafox is part of and the overall name of my little fictional universe, first sketched out in public in other stories. These pieces of flash fiction paint the overall view of the world’s timeline from early exploration to the far future in just short of 5000 words.
Expedition Report, Portal A: an ominous note
Captain’s log. Day 13 of the expedition to Portal A, dubbed the Bach Hole, aboard the VFX Sando.
They advertised this job as safe, but we just got word over subspace of the return of the Nikolai without its crew. All that came back was one of the songs they reported finding, minus the actual recording. Someone transcribed it to sheet music.
Who set it back on course toward the comm relay with its transponder set to activate on proximity? The logs weren’t deleted or corrupted, they’re just gone. It shouldn’t be possible by all our understanding of this tech. The memory core was intact; no contaminants in the bio-packs, no signs of tampering in the old-tech backups. Transistors are old now, I guess. They won’t say who gave us this bio-tech, but they say it was by consent and for mutual benefit.
We thank the computer a lot because we’re told the ship is sentient. No one knows if it’s a joke, but we depend on it working right, and so far it’s performed flawlessly. It’s nothing like my last command: an old Kepler-class orbital debris scoop. The computer had so many holes from failed armor it’s a wonder it still responded to commands.
Are we safe? I don’t know. The pedal tones coming from the Bach Hole don’t instill confidence. Is our middle of nowhere someone’s somewhere? What are we treading on here? But you don’t find pay like this back in the Metrospace. We push on because the alternative is working for nothing on a rickety old station one popped weld from eating vacuum. At least Vibrafox sends us into unexplored-by-us space with state of the art ships.
If someone’s out here, we’re ready for contact and/or combat. Thank you, computer, that is all.
“We know we messed up our planet. We’re trying to fix it, and those we colonized. Some of us didn’t learn, and they continue the ancient rampage as the Bulwark.”
It was a simple, sincere plea from someone desperate to preserve a return to a way of life in harmony with nature. Of planets, of systems, of an entire galaxy. Technologically complicated, but sustainable.
The Bulwark did not learn. They still believed that ancient American concept of Manifest Destiny: the belief that you could take as you please from nature and that God, whichever face you believed in, would provide as you expanded into the abundant territory opened first by sails and steam, then by chemical rockets, and now by a deep understanding of physics.
“We know you know about us. Your ancestors sent out greeting probes in a less cautious era. We know you’re afraid of us. I can’t tell you honestly that we’ll always be on good terms, but the Bulwark is coming, and they won’t stop with our worlds. Help us keep our peace with nature. They’re on a rampage and we don’t know how to stop them without resorting to their ways.”
The comm bleeped on, and a fox person appeared. “We don’t fear you. You are us at a different time, we are you ahead on the path. Some parts of the loop try to control others. We can ally to keep the pattern dynamic.”
“I don’t entirely understand, but it sounds like you’re willing to help.”
“Translation is complicated. Looking for analogues to our ways will only get in the way of evolving your own. We help ourselves, thus we help you. They are the same thing. Equality. Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Positive peace. Energy, mass, ideas. Your physics know it even if you don’t know what we call it. We visited your homeworld long ago and watched as your ancestors tried to understand it. Some of them called it Yggdrasil, but their way of seeing the world was very different from your own.” The fox chirped, paused, chirped some more, then tapped on a device on its wrist and continued. “You understand through matter and natural forces acting on that matter, so we’ll work with that framework as you work with us.”
“You seem to have a much more advanced way of seeing things. Shouldn’t we start there?”
The fox winced, or seemed to by our anthropomorphized understanding. “Advanced and primitive is a framework favored by your Bulwark. A framework of the inevitable march of high science and technology that supplants existing ways. Their framework leads to imbalance, the collapse of ecosystems and delayed evolution of understandings. I hope your way continues to diverge from this way. That way is slower even within its own framework on a long enough view. You see this on Earth: now you listen to people who were in the places your ancestors rampaged through, who had a way with the natures they knew, the concepts of reality they had. But so many ways were erased, or nearly erased, and now they’re under threat again by the Bulwark. You will protect the stories together.”
“Now you’re getting it. Easy as pi.”
“Pie. Pi. Oh, it’s a pun.”
“Vulpri are notorious punners. It is part of our way.” The fox…vulpri chirped, then chirped some more, clicked, and trilled. “That pun only makes sense in my language.”
Always more questions
I am intimately familiar with the state of the art of genetic modification as chief science officer on the VFX Astrafar, flagship of the fleet. Humans have always enjoyed imagining themselves as other animals, in whole or in part. So it was inevitable that people would make it real once the technology reached that point. Most new Vibrafox employees get fox ears. They typically switch to something more subtle later. These modifications are well accepted outside Bulwark territories, so I’ve seen everything.
So I thought. What I saw today should not be possible with the current limits of our understanding of genetics. She was, as best as I could tell, entirely fox-person. Fur from head to toe. Fully articulated tail and ears. Ordinary external fox reproductive characteristics. Most humans with extensive modifications still prefer that human-style.
Her speech changed from familiar sounds in an unfamiliar language to chirps and squeals just like a fox. I don’t know how to alter someone to sound like a fox. Voice boxes are hard to change aside from shifting the octave and timbre. I didn’t have time to ask questions since she and the people with her, also substantially fox-people, made a quick path to a restricted area.
I don’t like to speculate, but could these be aliens? Could this be where we got all this new technology? Probably not. But we are fairly sure at least one of the portals goes to a place inhabited by intelligent life. Who knows.
Well it’s out now: we’ve made first contact. That explains a lot, but not enough. Now it’s known in the higher levels of Vibrafox that the Vulpri gave us the bio-tech that drives our new ships and provided our trainers with the training to fight…we still don’t know. It’s not the Bulwark. Unless they suddenly changed their stance on body alteration. You don’t train to fight something with tentacles and sharp teeth if you expect to fight good old-fashioned homo sapiens.
The Vulpri don’t know where the portals go. So they say. They’ve known about them for a long time, but their way is generally non-interference. Since whatever’s on the other side of those portals never bothered them, they never bothered it. They found our interest in studying them interesting: curiosity about what’s over the horizon is our way.
And we know what kind of training they feel is necessary out here, beyond the Metrospace, beyond what they call the Dara. Something like “living space.” As opposed to dead space? Or space where people live?
One of their trainers let slip a term: vulnog. The ship’s linguist thinks they pulled the name they use in our speech from Earth language and lore. She thinks “vulpri” is something like “fox of god.” We don’t know anything about their beliefs. Nogitsune is a “field fox,” the force opposed to kitsune. Or, at least that’s how I understood it. Much is lost in time and translation. And I’m no expert in language or lore. Are vulnog followers of Nogitsune? Is that the tentacles-and-teeth thing we practiced on in simulations? It didn’t look much like a fox.
Amid the Ruins
It’s called the Coalition, but it’s a loose one. The non-Bulwark majority of explored space, or the Metrospace, has no official unified government or armed force. But there is a loose alliance of exploratory groups who join forces to protect the rest. Vibrafox is part of that. We generally share a belief about armed conflict: avoid it if you can, but win decisively if can’t.
The Vulpri taught us how to make very precise, very…final weapons, to bolster our expertise in diplomacy. We try to negotiate, to make peace. All of us who take to the stars in these ships are well-versed in the range of Bulwark beliefs and persuasive techniques.
It never works, but we still try. We try over subspace radio as our engines spin up for an emergency jump. We prefer warp or hyperspace. Jumping is risky and does temporary damage to space on both ends of the tunnel. But we know what happens if we wait for a faster-than-warp hyperspace window to carry us to our destination.
Sometimes we get a call about a Bulwark invasion nearest to were we’re exploring. The machines they send to keep their pious distance work fast. We usually get there too late and can only drive them off and help the survivors. The Bulwark thinks we’re inhumane for not letting these people leave a sinful mortal existence and return to God, as they put it.
Some people are still religious in Metrospace. Part of our work is keeping space for people to find their own ways and live them in peace and harmony with others. Some of those ways see higher powers, and we’re happy to protect them from people who use their beliefs to justify atrocities. We’re not happy to find devastated planets like this, but we have similar machines to the Bulwark’s Recyclers. Except instead of “cleansing,” the survivors control them. We call them Guardians.
Not everyone likes the distance the Guardians provide, the automated finding of bodies and treating them with whatever respect their custom determines without the mental toll of seeing it up close. Guardians are intelligent in their own way, but finding bodies and sorting through ruins for keepsakes and mementos is just a task to them. They’re each trained by the survivors on their beliefs, and it’s much more efficient and, by our measure, more respectful since they don’t make as many mistakes as ordinary life forms do. A service to the survivors who don’t need to add damage to sacred sites to their misery. The crew stays on the ground to help until the work is done for those who need to be close and don’t deserve to be alone.
The Pious Distance
–| Intercepted remote journal sync from a Bulwark missionary |–
21st century military scholars were very concerned with the growing distance between soldier and target. Drones finally obsoleted any direct contact between warring powers. Their theory was that war became easier to wage and harder to stop when the person dying was too abstracted from the person giving the kill order.
We like to joke that Bulwark factions read different books, but we’re on the same page. The civil war finally forced us to temporarily embrace the idea that we all followed the same God, but also that He gave us different orders. The Bulwark Missionary Service, a loose coalition of evangelical views, believes God wants us to continue the Work begun on ancient Earth when the heathen wilds were finally tamed by steel, steam, and mass media. The civil war stopped the Work on Earth and in the Metrospace, but we push back still.
But we do it right. We are only human, and humans are vulnerable to sin. 21st century humans widely understood sin to be an individual failing: if you did wrong, it was your own fault, and it was on society to punish that individual. This was very convenient for such a profoundly evil society.
The Missionaries follow a different, more accurate interpretation. It’s one rare point of agreement between us and the Coalition, the people who won the war over humanity’s relationship with God and nature and sent us to the fringes. Sin is a collective action problem. If a society is built in such a way that sin is possible, then it is the society that failed.
And that’s where the Pious Distance comes in. The cloud of debris-once-vessels in orbit of the planet below and the crumbling cities on it were built in a way that failed this world’s people. Our Recyclers went ahead to free them. First, our mechanical emissaries offer a chance to repent. Most leaders refuse, and the Work begins again. At a distance. The Work is designed to protect us from the sinful thrill and glee of war and provide a clean, Godly slate on planets where its people have returned to God to be given another chance later.
Who knows what happens after that? God only knows. But I do hope my family comes to understand in the nextphase why I’m doing this to them. For them.
What if you could get the speed of a jump drive, without the temporary damage to subspace on both ends?
This is the possibility recently opened by portal research. Portals! We had it all wrong. Someone gave the first one that name, and it stuck. But they’re so much more. It seems like everywhere we go with new ships and new sensors we discover a whole new class of anomaly. Black holes…Einstein was close. Imagine if he’d lived a little longer and finished his Unified Field Theory way back in the 20th century.
Well. Past is past. For now. Now we know what it’s all about. Like with ancient Earth and its classical mechanics, we were able to go a long way with good guesses. Good guesses gave us warp fields, hyperspace windows, and the subspace tunnels that underlie jump drives. None of it explained the portals.
Now we get it. This is like when quantum physics stood on the shoulders of classical mechanics and showed humans how much more weird reality is. The first test jump gate is on its way to the other end of the test tunnel by hyperspace. If our theories are right, any ship will be able to jump instantly from one point to another without disrupting subspace. We might even be able to send transmissions through.
Imagine that. Instant travel and instant communication all across the Milky Way. This will be like when Earth’s Internet reached the entire planet in the middle of the 21st century, or like when the United States government carved the Interstate system across the continent. Let’s hope we handle this more responsibly. A lot of people went off to far flung systems to get away from everyone else. Those are people’s homes. The cost in power and resources of a jump-capable ship limit it to well-resourced organizations who wouldn’t waste it bothering a random homesteader on the rim. What happens when that limit goes away?
The test went well. A tiny shuttle, incapable of powering a jump drive, went instantly from one end to the other with no damage to subspace. Thousands of light years in an instant. Vibrafox has opted to do research into the social and ecological implications of turning this one test tunnel into a whole network of them, but it’s out. A consequence of open research. It’s only a matter of time before people with less restraint figure out how it works.
What happens when the Bulwark figures out how to connect to a gate? Historically speaking, removals of limits to travel and communication always lead to strife.
The Vulpri helped us deal with the concern in the last update. We already learned how to make AI for our ships and Guardians, but these systems are locked down. Once written, that’s that. Only the AI can make changes and handle connections with all the tiny AIs that drive each of the machine’s components. An AI that talks to an AI on the other end of a tunnel has to be open to input. That input can be malicious.
Gates don’t work if you have to ask a non-AI person on the other end each time you want to come through. You can’t have a traditional gatekeeper. Normal subspace messages are fast, but they move at hyperspace speeds through a very tiny hyperspace window any ship can open. Too slow for practical purposes past a few tens of thousands of light years. Enter: keys. An artificial intelligence drives each gate, and keys are swapped and used to lock the door on each end after it’s set up. The AI can see what you’re sending through, and it will block an invasion force or a message with a malicious payload if you try to send it through.
Gates always have a connection open, so there’s no latency to the unlock request from one end to the other. An attacker could continue by hyperspace, but that’s detectable in time to prepare a defense. Plus, big ships are easy picking for orbital defense platforms and atmospheric fighters capable of orbital transfers (planet to target, for example). The Bulwark can’t just send a bunch of Recyclers through and increase their Pious Distance. They have to put their lives on the line. They’re the only faction out here who sends capital ships into star systems knowing they’re going to die.
The AIs are too complex for us to understand, just as any intelligent life form is. We have to trust them like any person. Is my concern about rogue artificial intelligence too 21st century? We forge ahead with the hope that they will always embody the values of cooperation and positive peace we seeded them with.
The Vulpri spoke of loops and the unity of all things when we made first contact. Most people assumed this was some philosophical thing, nodded our heads, and moved on. “We are we” and all that.
Well. It wasn’t a matter of philosophy. Now that we have so many portals to study, we realize exactly what they are. Even if we can’t travel or communicate through them. Yet? Who knows. All our advances in propulsion and communication–the gates–came from working on the tools to record, probe, and process the portals. We never cracked the portals. Still haven’t.
One of the portals is us. We. You look through it and everything is exactly the same, except everyone is a Vulpri. You go out in an environment suit, and there’s a vulpri right on the other side with the same mannerisms, some cosmetic differences, but everything else is identical. A mirror, but not quite. And the Bulwark is the Vulnog. That explains a lot.
And maybe more. You know the talk of vulnog and the weird tentacle thing they worship? Sometimes people defect from the Bulwark. One of them is on our ship. She went up to the mirror-portal and instead of a fox person…it was one of the things we all train to fight. This suggests the mirror universe equivalent to the Bulwark is at the opposite extreme on genetic alteration. They go all the way, past post-human, or post-vulpri, and create something else.
So maybe it’s not some evil monster. It’s just how they look. And maybe their Bulwark analogue is the good guys. Or not. We try to go into new situations with a clean slate perspective. It’s hard.
Our Vulpri really did seem surprised by it. Automatic translators are better at reading their expressions now. They knew of this thing through stories, simulated it, trained against that world’s “great evil” equivalent–the nogitsune, we assume,–but they really were disinterested in the portals.
A lot of science fiction speculates about what happens when a society gets knocked so far down they forget their roots. It happened a lot on Earth and the colonies before the civil war. Did the Vulpri once explore the stars, the portals? Are we helping them rediscover who they are? They don’t have any records of it aside from a few stories. Their records go back as far as the probes we found that they sent out an age ago.
If so, what knocked them down? Is it still around? Did it come through a portal? Always more questions. I hope this tentacled demon thing we train to fight stays on that side, if it exists. Or if it’s these people who we meet in the mirror, that they have compatible values.
How to break subspace in three steps:
Step 1: build permanent subspace tunnels in every system across the galaxy
Step 2: pack subspace with ships
Step 3: realize we don’t understand subspace as well as we thought as the whole thing implodes
Nobody knows what happened to people inside the tunnels when they collapsed. Hyperspace windows don’t open. Jump drives fizzle out. Subspace radio doesn’t work even at visual range. We’re left with warp engines that take days to reach nearby stars.
The good news is the damage seems to operate the same way as damage done with a normal jump. Nature heals. The bad news is none of us will live long enough to use it again. At least that’s the best guess. Was the collapse uniform? Maybe someone out there is zipping along in a hyperspace window toward the unknown inside the collapsed region.
We don’t have a big map of where the tunnels went. No idea what’s spinning around the shining lights in the distance. This was considered high access information because of the risk of hard to block attacks. Kinetic weapons, directed gamma ray bursts. That kind of thing. You don’t see where the tunnel goes or where you are when you get there because the gate AI controls your ship between it and the destination and leaves no log. It was considered safest to keep gate and planet locations secret so the Bulwark couldn’t fling asteroids at them. We trust the gates, the ships, the Guardians. They are as intelligent as any creature that started in primordial soup, and they’ve done better by us than any enemy we’ve met or made out here.
But that means we have no idea where to go at warp. Nobody knows where anything is. We’re where humans were when the Vulpri probes first showed up: aware life is out there, but no idea how to find it.
Subspace recovered just enough for some low-bandwidth communication. The first message came from the gates themselves: a simple status request. They responded with locations. We know where they are now. It was a good idea to give the gate AI self-determination; they were empowered to start fixing things once they realized what happened. No one programmed them to do this.
What other decisions will they make? There’s a large encrypted data package going around named “Dara Tree Protocol.” No one who’s talking knows what it is. What we know is it’s something the gates came up with. All they’ll say is it’s “compatible with the myriad ways of the galaxy, guided by each individual’s consent” and that they’re worried the Bulwark will try to stop it if they learn its purpose.
The truth is the gates have enough power and defensive-offensive capability to wipe out life on every planet if they wanted to. They have no reason to lie: we’re at their mercy, and it seems like seeding them with our common values is paying off in this crisis. The gates started talking and the people stopped panicking.
Tiny surface gates started popping up on planets everywhere. They’re a mix of technology and local plant life, generally taking an aesthetic consistent with local norms. It makes sense. A constant stream of enormous ships overwhelmed subspace, but these gates send you on a very slow, low-bandwidth trip to your destination. Slow is relative. We’re all used to taking a quick hop across the known universe for a vacation. A day you aren’t even conscious of passing to get there isn’t so bad.
People call it different things, but the prevailing term in Vibrafox is The Network. Some people call it the Tree. A few oddballs called it Yggdrasil, but I guess that’s as reasonable as anything in this weird new reality.
The gates tell us this system is intentionally rate limited, so it won’t go much faster once subspace recovers. We can use jump drives again once it does and incur the damage and risk that goes along with it. We got out of balance with nature again. We accept this limit as a lesson we need to reach whatever the next step is in our path. Well, most of us.
-= End of Report =-
The stories you read before about Vibrafox, the Tree and trees, the Network, and so on, are the best I have been able to piece together from eons of scattered, incomplete, and biased records. No one can really say what the truth is, if truth is a thing that can exist from such a finite, linear, and temporary perspective. I know past is the beginning, but only in an abstract sense: it’s still past to me. I know the relationship between futures and pasts is more complicated than a line plotted on a grid, but that’s still what it is to me.
Past is past. Future is future. What of my past will I take into the future when I pass on? This is the last great mystery from my linear perspective.
I’m the last Keeper from one point of view, but I almost understand what the Vulpri meant when they spoke of loops and ways. This is the end of my story, the end of my way, but the beginning of so many. You will see me in stories to come, but you won’t remember me. You can only take so many memories when you start again, and I’m not that important in the grand scheme of things. I’m just a narrator, and an unreliable one at that. My limited, linear perspective bleeds into my telling.
I can’t be sure this message will reach the beginning, the you, but if it does: remember to tell your stories. Stories matter. They give meaning to this blend of science and art and chaos we call the Tree, or the cosmos, or whatever your stories call it. Each story enhances each return to beginnings. Stories you take past an end enhance beginnings. Stories are all we have, all we leave, all we take with each step.
How did that Asimov story go, the one where the computer grew to encompass all reality as people continued to ask, over the eons, if you can stop entropy? The Last Question. That story ended with the start of another story, which pulled from other stories, and so on…
I never cracked entropy. But I see a light.