1 - The Ambassador
A technological singularity is an event where scientific and engineering progress enters a positive feedback loop and artificial intelligence expands rapidly beyond the understanding of its creators.
The only occurrence of this in Human history remains the brief but catastrophic event in Oslo in 2040 (see the Singularity).
Admiral Lene Willoch smoothed over her uniform and adjusted her cap as she stepped up outside of the Lontan Ambassador's office. She had been meeting with him for years, but she always liked to be perfectly arrayed before proceeding in. She was conscious of being a representative for her species, especially because the Ambassador wore his own Lontan body-not a synthetic Human one as most aliens did. Willoch suspected the Lontans showcased their true form this way in order to allay suspicion: wearing 'Human clothing' might make them easier to talk to, she thought, but we still find it inherently sinister. We want to know that the strangers will always show themselves unmasked.
The door opened onto the Ambassador's office, showing off its high ceiling and gaping rear window that offered a feast of starlight. While the Earth was never visible from these levels-hidden in Gateway Station's nadir-, a full moon hung brightly in view.
Despite this being the abode of an alien, the Ambassador had decorated solely with antiques that had been gifted to him by Terran governments. There was European portraiture, Asian screens and calligraphy, and a grand piano. The Ambassador himself was seated on a chaise longue-with the Lontans' size they found Human chairs uncomfortably narrow. His four arms rested at his sides while his hands were clasped meditatively in his lap. He wore an unadorned, single-piece suit that covered all but his head and hands. His face was a Picassoesque jumble of features, only some of whose organs could be paired with Human cognates.
"Good afternoon, my dear Admiral. I trust you've been well?" the Ambassador greeted her.
Since he was wearing a Lontan body, he had spoken in his native language. Willoch's implanted body computers had transcribed all these warbles and hisses, translated them to Norwegian Bokmål, then ticker-taped the lines of text to her over her Ocular Heads-Up Display-her OHUD, the computer interface painted into her vision.
While his greeting was simple in principle, most of the Norwegian words pulsed with caveats to show all the translation's imprecisions. The 'Good afternoon' was tagged to show that the original Lontan phrase had been more exact, specifying a time closer to the 'second dog watch' in nautical terms. And the word 'dear' wore an entire paragraph describing the exact breed of Platonic attachment the Ambassador was implying. But Willoch disregarded most of these and responded only:
"Very well, Ambassador. And yourself?"
"Occupied with preparations. I have just received my next assignment."
"Oh?" Willoch was genuinely puzzled that he would be moving on. The Ambassador had been 'the Ambassador' ever since the beginning of Earth's first contact. Ever since she had been a little girl.
As if sensing her exact confusion, the Ambassador answered, "Fifty years may seem to presage an eternal commitment to your people, but for us Lontans it is merely a passing engagement. Time to move on."
"I see. And your next posting is to ... "
"The Xaccus Ringsystem."
Willoch was impressed. Xaccus was the only extraterrestrial place that most Humans knew of, as apparently it was to the Milky Way what Tokyo, New York, and Hong Kong would be to the Earth if they were all combined. This made it an obvious step up from being ambassador to a world barely past first contact.
"Congratulations," Willoch said.
"It is only a deputy position ... " the Ambassador stipulated.
"But any posting to Xaccus is prestigious," Willoch countered for him.
The Ambassador nodded thanks-the Lontan nod, which consisted of pursing the over-shoulders. The gesture was also tagged in Willoch's OHUD by her translator, which could decipher alien body language. Though by now Willoch could recognize even subtle Lontan gestures herself.
"You must be excited at the prospect of getting back to ... well, civilization," she said.
"It's a lot less civilized than you'd think," he replied while making a Lontan grin. "Though I shall miss the provincial charm of your Earth, every day breaking new ground, reliving the first steps to the stars ... I plan to come back and visit after a century or so, to see the progress that's been made."
"I'm humbled," said Willoch.
Though privately she suspected that the Ambassador was not telling her the whole truth about his sudden reassignment. It might really be due to the Singularity. The worldwide depression was now five years old and every day brought new anti-alien and anti-technology protests. Perhaps the Lontans were sacking their Ambassador as an act of mea culpa, hoping it would relieve some pressure.
The Ambassador joined his over-hands in front of him, steepling the fingers-a symbol of change in topic. "But then we have urgent business to discuss," he said. "The piracy."
"Oh. Yes, indeed." Willoch had forgotten the original purpose of this meeting. Earth maintained a low tempo of imports from the nearest Lontan system, but the last freighters that were scheduled to arrive had all been hijacked. Willoch was here as the liaison of Earth's navies to the Lontans, as she was one of only eight admirals who command a black-water fleet. It was a lofty position, but she always felt like a mere pupil who handed in homework and wrote down whatever the Ambassador said.
She opened a notepad and the latest reports in her OHUD. She used eye gestures to set these documents off to the side in her vision so that she still had a full view of the Ambassador. "Do you have any new information for us?" she asked.
"No, it is still just the three freighters missing, all intercepted around six parsecs out from your system while on their way in. And we have no more details on those who are responsible."
Willoch subvocalized some notes, then started working down a list of prepared questions: "Do you have any idea how the pirates discovered our trade route with you? We thought the Lontans were keeping Earth's location a secret to guard against occurrences such as this."
"Oh, yes-in fact, we protect the locations of all first contact planets. Yet that does not change the eventuality of their being discovered. There has not been one first contact in the last millennium where we have revealed the planet's location on schedule versus it being discovered prematurely. -And then typically by pirates.
"In Earth's case, we were only expecting to be able to keep you hidden for a hundred to a hundred and twenty years. So of course fifty-as it has turned out to be-was on the low side of our expectations, but it is still nothing exceptional. Pirating bands are only too eager to be the first to burn a virgin trade route-they collect them like titles. And it does not take much to discover the economic footprint of a first contact planet out here in the hinterland."
This piqued Willoch. She was aware that the Earth was on the fringes of Milky Way civilization, but it was still no trailer home.
"And what response is the Lontan Governate planning to this piracy?" was her next question.
"Oh, we have already made our response: we have put a temporary hold on trade to your system to prevent further seizures."
Willoch was puzzled. "I meant, what actions is the Governate planning to resolve the piracy?"
"Oh, none whatsoever."
Willoch was now stupefied. Yet how to show that diplomatically ... "I'm sorry, 'nothing'?"
The Ambassador performed a flourish with his hands. "Our role as the stewards of your first contact is twofold. We are to empower your people by accelerating your development, and we are to guide you along that altered course. But you must always remain independent and capable of making your own decisions. If you became reliant on us now, you would never recover.
"As an example of this policy, the Lontan Governate maintains no military forces in your system, nor do we allow any other species to do so. But meanwhile we have sold you a fleet of our own warships, and those are your ships operated at your discretion. You yourself are an admiral in your country's navy. You could even turn those ships against us, should you wish, and-though we would advise against that-," he joked, "that is the power of decision we have not deprived you of.
"So you have asked me how the Lontan Governate will handle the appearance of this pirate threat. But I should ask you how Humanity will handle it, as you're the only ones with a fleet around here."
Willoch now understood, but she had still not expected this abrupt washing-of-hands from the Lontans. A pirate blockade was an interstellar issue, yet Humanity had never taken the helm on that stage. While they did fly around in the spaceships the Lontans had sold them, and tended the colonies on Mars and Venus the Lontans had helped them establish, they had never done anything without the sanction of their stewards. It seemed almost reckless to suddenly give them the lead here.
Luckily Willoch was not caught completely unprepared, as she and the other fleet admirals had sketched out a response to this pirate threat. Although they had done so merely as an exercise, thinking this would be thrown out in preference for whatever the Lontans dictated as the optimal course of action. Now that the Ambassador was actually asking for this, Willoch felt as if a bluff had been called.
She cleared her throat. "Well ... what we planned"-she began tepidly, already on the defensive and stressing the past tense-"was to send a small task force ... out to investigate the ... the missing ships." She was skimming the plan in her OHUD, looking ahead for any glaring errors. "We need to gauge the strength of whoever did this. And it will also serve as a ... fitting martial response to their actions. They've challenged our sovereignty by raiding our commerce, so we have to show some muscle.
"Of course none of our military officers has seen a real battle yet. We're all drills and exercises. So we would still like some ... direction from the Governate," she looked up. "Whatever you feel appropriate to provide. And who better for that than yourself, Mister Ambassador: you did spend three hundred years as an admiral in the Imperiate, I believe." She smiled ingratiatingly.
The Ambassador bowed. "I am happy to be of assistance. And your plan lies in the right direction. Might I ask what size task force you were considering sending?"
"We'd planned for thirty-five ships. That's a large number for a reconnaissance mission, but that many ships will be able to hold its own against even a significant force. And it still leaves nearly a hundred ships back here to defend the system."
"Which ships are you sending?"
An odd question, Willoch thought. He must not be asking her to recite names and hull numbers ... Then she realized:
"At first we considered sending just one of the large, single-nation fleets like the States's or China's-that way the fleet would be best at functioning as a single unit. But then we thought that, since this might turn into a search for the pirate vessels, it might be best to send a few ships from each fleet. That way they'll be able to break up quickly into small groups along national lines and still operate effectively. And, after the mission, we'll have given field experience to officers from all eight national navies."