The alien Waisters, after initiating and then breaking off an extermination campaign against the six star systems then inhabited by the human race, have returned to the double-sunned Sirius Gate system for a detente of sorts, dropping ominous hints of a “Blue Star Plague” which threatens the galaxy. Since the Waisters have “accidentally” exterminated every race they’ve previously encountered, while humanity managed to fight, psychoanalyze, and bluff its way out of this fate, the Waisters seem to regard the human notion of “Peace” as revolutionary and ingenious, and to view the humans themselves with a kind of patient, almost mystical awe.
In a distant region of the galaxy hidden from view, for millions of years a stain of darkness has been spreading: the Blue Star Plague. Stars thus afflicted begin to turn blue, and then to dim, until finally they become completely invisible, radiating only in the infra-red. The pattern of spectrum loss is consistent with a light source being submerged in liquid water, the implication being that these stars are somehow acquiring a spherical “shell” of liquid some 20 kilometers thick. The physical scope of such a process is unimaginable — for humans or Waisters it would require the dedication of trillions of individuals for hundreds of centuries — and yet the Blue Star Plague spreads quickly, consuming individual stars in a decade or two, and leaping across the gulf between stars at around .05C, a substantial fraction of the speed of light. Once thought to be a single infestation, the phenomenon turns out to be spreading from several independent sources throughout the galaxy, and will reach human- and Waister-occupied space within the (artificially extended) lifetimes of many or most of the people currently alive.
The Waisters fear that the (supposed) intelligent beings causing the Blue Star Plague must be too strong and too numerous to be defeated, and they seem to expect that if they present their problem to the human representatives at Sirius Gate, they’ll be told what to do. When they find this isn’t so, a protracted diplomatic mission ensues. The catch? The Waisters can’t seem to comprehend that humans use more than one language, and will only attempt to speak or understand the dead language called “Standard,” which was in widespread use at the time of their invasion. Too, they seem distrustful of the nanotech enhancements most of humanity now employs — implicit in their actions is the certainty that such modified humans must be the servants or “implements” of the original strains, and no amount of dialogue seems able to convince them otherwise.
The loose interstellar government known as The Suzerainty of the Human Spaces has therefore decreed that all “Base Human” speakers of Standard, regardless of their backgrounds or culture, must be transported to Sirius Gate for resettlement, with the intent that they become embassadors, teachers, and above all, economic negotiators; humanity, while reviling direct contact with the Waisters themselves, desperately wants access to their superadvanced technology and scientific understanding. Unfortunately, prying these secrets loose seems all but impossible, not because the Waisters are unwilling but because they seem unable to communicate anything but the most basic concepts to their human counterparts.
At the opening of our story, some 500 years after the Waisters’ arrival at Sirius Gate, 2500 years after their sterilization of the same star system (the first of three thus treated during their invasion), and approximately 3900 years after the present (21st century) era, the only real progress in Blue Star Plague investigation has been a swarm of automated probes which will not reach their destination for several centuries more. At the present, Sirius Gate is occupied by three major factions:
First are the Waisters themselves, who have dismantled their starship and built a sort of space station in close orbit around the blue-giant star Aye of this double-sunnned system, occupied by several hundred of their number. Inhumanly patient, they seem prepared to remain at Sirius Gate indefinitely, despite their lack of progress in obtaining a “to do” list regarding the Blue Star Plague.
Second are the Gate colonists, a.k.a. Gateans, a.k.a. Aggressors, who occupy several of the “Lesser Worlds” (asteroids) orbiting Aye at greater distance. These people are among the biomodified members of the galaxy’s “Mode Human” population, in this case modified for the specific purpose of imitating — and thereby communicating with — Waisters. While mostly human in appearance, they are morphologically specialized by function, and fall naturally into Waisterlike organizational heirarchies, employing the Waister tongue as their own genetically-coded native language. Since the Waisters don’t seem overly interested in this themselves, the Gateans are generally regarded as a failed experiment. Many Gateans accept this readily enough, finding new, self-derived purpose in their existence (e.g., as willing advisors to humanity regarding Waister psychology), but others are bitterly resentful of both the Base Humans and the Waisters for shunting them into a subordinate role, when they had fancied themselves somewhere between saviors and conquerors to both species.
Third are the Base Humans. Relocated — often unwillingly — to Sirius Gate, this heterogeneous population of over three million consists of cryostasis refugees from bygone eras, members of obscure naturalist cults, and citizens of poor, backward societies from four different star systems. Because they are minimally biomodified and often grew up without advanced medical care, there is also a small but important incidence of dwarfism, autism, mental retardation, and other genetic and environmental afflictions long unknown in the rest of humanity.
Since all three factions are — barring accidents — physically immortal, there is on the one hand little sense of urgency about resolving their differences. On the other hand, though, a strong sense pervades Sirius Gate that what they’re doing will prove very important in the long run. Since most of them will still be here in the long run, people do tend to weigh the long-term consequences of their actions, and to worry about real but distant threats such as the Blue Star Plague. Political and economic pressure from the distant Suzerainty help to reinforce these feelings.
Before the Waisters’ return, Humanity had reoccupied the three star systems they had sterilized, and expanded to two others, in the direction opposite the Waister empire. This siege-mentality expansion has continued: in the 500 years since then, another three systems have been colonized, in the directions furthest from both the Waisters and the Blue Star Plague. These colonies are acutely conscious of their role as “preservation and escape points;” should humanity come under attack again, these are the regions that will have the most warning.
The systems of Sirius Gate and Lande serve just the opposite role: as buffer systems against the Waisters and Blue Star Plague, respectively. Lande’s history is particularly harsh, since it is not only the first system likely to be subsumed by the distant Blue Star Plague, but was also razed by the Waisters during their long-ago invasion. However, Sirius Gate is the only system in which the Waisters are permitted — or seemingly interested in visiting — and this unique role gives the system a very real, contemporary importance in interstellar affairs.
Most of the Base Humans resettled at Sirius Gate live — to their eternal distress — on the surface of a gas giant planet called Creta, from which the Waisters — for obscure purposes of their own — have blasted most of the hydrogen and helium, leaving behind a massive core of rock and metal surrounded by an atmosphere which is marginally breatheable by both humans and Waisters (though healthy for neither), but which is ultra-dense. The planet’s fierce gravity is thus compensated for by its crushing atmosphere, in which substances like concrete and human flesh are buoyant enough to hold their shape and structural integrity, albeit uncomfortably. A number of plant and animal species of unknown origin have also been loosed on the planet, resulting in a riotous and enigmatic ecosystem, but the Base Humans lead a gloomy, deep-sea existence in depressions shielded from the slow but deadly planetary winds.
For those humans constitutionally incapable of withstanding the high gravity, pressure, and halogen levels of Creta, habitable domes have been erected on the airless, icy surface of Anafi, one of the planet’s two moons. Curiously, lifeforms have been introduced to Anafi as well, aquatic species adapted to the vast ocean beneath the moon’s icy crust. Five such ecosystems are known elsewhere in the Suzerainty of the Human Spaces, and this one created by the Waisters is quickly growing to resemble those others in key respects.
No one knows why the Waisters have created these environments. No one knows much of anything about the Waisters.
Vadim Grigorivot Kurosov — Son of Malyene Andreivne Kurosov’e, Sirius Gate’s first Overdirector. A victim of involuntary cryostasis, twice frozen out of the eras that created him, Vadim was born ten years before the Wasiter destruction of the human civillization at Sirius, and is now among the oldest members of the Base Human society established there. He has also spent many subjective years in virtual environments, so that his mental and chronological ages are both far ahead of his physical age.
Katrine Va — A Base Human structural engineer residing on Creta, Katrine descends from members of a deeply religious naturalist cult in the Epsilon Eridani star system, but remains stubbornly agnostic herself. She is an expert on Creta’s weather patterns and their effects on materials and structures. At various points in the story, her running commentary helps to illuminate the dangers of the Cretan environment, and the ingenious adaptations of the lifeforms on its wild surface. Upon meeting Vadim Kurosov, she is impressed with his age, his heritage, and his legacy as a “near-native” of Sirius.
Xiaoa Chen — An intelligent but autistic man, now entering his third century of life, Chen is a menial laborer in the Cretan city of Kolger Depression. Autism being fundamentally a developmental disorder, Chen has had over twenty decades to develop coping mechanisms for getting along with his fellow humans, so that while he is markedly eccentric, it isn’t immediately apparent just what is wrong with him. He is exceedingly good with numbers, puzzles, and machinery.
Min Chen — The daughter of Xiaoa Chen by an autistic woman now deceased, Min is also autistic, and at 26 years of age does not possess anything like the coping and masking abilities of her father. She is explosively violent, barely able to speak, and given to long periods of total inactivity.
Kenneth Jonson — A virtual personality, recorded for posterity after helping to save the human race from the Waister onslaught, Jonson is a longtime veteran of both combat and diplomacy, and a great historical figure throughout the Suzerainty. He was among the first humans to grasp the fundamental differences between human and Waister modes of thought, and remains a popular oracle for advice in such matters. Jonson himself is not overly happy with this arrangement, wishing for a “genuine community” of virtual personalities, rather than the fleeting moments of existence such entities have traditionally been restricted to.
Link 15 — A Gatean of the “drone” morphological class, one of the only two classes able to survive the harsh environment of Creta, Link has been assigned indefinitely to liaison duties in Kolger Depression. He accepts this fate with good humor, knowing that this, too, shall pass, and that the experience may prove valuable in the long, long life he anticipates. As a “Mode Human,” he is much more comfortable with the idea of physical immortality than any of the Base Humans, who grew up mortal.
Edge 4 — Another “drone” Gatean, who does not accept his work assignments or his people’s co-option, Edge is a cautious but deeply angry revolutionary whose agitation becomes increasingly apparent (and important) as the story progresses.
Some sort of document or report, 2-3 pages long, which helps to establish the temporal, cultural, and spatial gulfs that separate our story from both 21st century Earth and from the rich Base Human and Mode Human history of the 41 intervening centuries. Possibly, it will concern the swarm of automated probes the humans and Waisters have sent off toward the Blue Star Plague.
After completing his third fruitless 5-year stint with the Ministry of Contact out in the Lesser Worlds, Vadim returns to the city of Kolger Depression on the surface of Creta, along with the Gatean known as Link 15. Settling back into life at Kolger Depression, he comes to know the autistic man Xiaoa Chen, is surprised to learn of his affliction, and is even more surprised, upon meeting Chen’s daughter Min, to learn that his condition was once as deeply pathological as hers.
On a submarine-like “flight” to a neurological institute in Glim Depression, some uncharacteristically wild turbulence causes the vehicle to crash, and Chen, Vadim, Katrine, Link, and one or two cannon fodder wind up stranded together in the wilderness, forced to make the perilous overland journey back to Kolger Depression, facing toxic rains, freezing downdrafts, hostile lifeforms, and other perils. Most of the way back, they are aided by a Waister, apparently living wild on the surface of the planet. As enigmatically as it arrives, the alien leaves them again once they are safe.
Safely back in Kolger depression, Vadim, having connected Chen’s compensated autism with certain aspects of Waister behavior, is further surprised when a group of Waisters comes to Kolger Depression to obtain information from the humans and Gateans who crashed. Vadim helps Chen to take an active role in these communications, and several minor breakthroughs occur quickly thereafter, including discovery of a Waister obsession for aquatic creatures which “know no shore.”
However, the increasingly turbulent disruptions of Creta’s thick atmosphere, which turn out to be the result of a sophisticated Gatean sabotage campaign aimed at forcing the Base Humans offworld and into scattered Gatean habitats, suddenly start getting out of hand. The domes and low towers, all the aboveground structures of Kolger Depression, are collapsing as the thick, slow winds dip down like ocean currents into the valley, with much death and mayhem resulting.
The Gang flees to the moon, Anafi, to escape the mayhem below and bring the Waister envoys to safety in a domed city known, ironically, as Troublefree. Alas, trouble has followed them here. For some damn reason I haven’t figured out yet, Our Heroes have to pile into an ice-borer submarine and flee to the depths of Anafi’s ocean, where they encounter strange life forms which the Waisters admit to having placed there. “Aquatica without shores,” they call the creatures; the idea seems to disturb them greatly.
Finally, all the elements come together: with Vadim’s Base Humanity and lifelong familiarity with Waisters, Chen’s autism, Link 15’s fluency with Waister language and emotions, and the superfast thoughts and age-old wisdom of virtual personnae like Ken Jonson, a substantive discussion with the Waister envoys finally takes place. The Waisters repeat their claim that the gas giant and its moon are “gifts” for humanity, and also “teachers.”
They explain a bit about their history, about the “cairn builders” (stone age species) and “stupidlings” (primitive spacefarers) they’ve encountered, the “core voices” and “song echoes” they have heard from time to time. However, in all the star systems they’ve traveled to or examined remotely, the subglacial oceans of gas giant moons are by far the most common harbors of life. They estimate that some 95% of life-bearing worlds are of this type, most containing species which reproduce quickly and compete savagely, and yet of the ~10 more-than-stone-age species the Waisters have known in their multimillion-year history, none have come from icy moons.
At this point, the clarity of communication seems to reach another plateau, with the Waisters clearly trying to convey some additional points, but being largely unable to. Through hard work and cleverness, though, the humans are able to deduce:
(A) That the Waisters believe The Blue Star Plague to be the work of a species that originated on an icy moon.
(B) That the Waisters believe a large, fundamental barrier exists between human and Waister understanding of the universe, which humanity may need tens or hundreds of centuries to “tunnel” across, unless assisted. And such assistance is difficult for many reasons…
(C) That an equally large gap probably separates the Blue Star Plague from the Waisters, else its people would never have arrived at starflight and planetary engineering technologies. Waister technology, like human, could not have developed — or even been conceived — in such a cold, dark, watery environment, ergo the Blue Star Plague must have tunneled straight across both conceptual barriers to some absurdly advanced understanding of the universe’s underpinnings. And yet, no signal from the Waisters has ever brought the slightest reaction from them. The implications are, to say the least, disturbing: the species appears to be both massively intelligent and deeply autistic, possibly lacking even the self-awareness that characterizes all other known intelligences and many higher animals.
(D) That the Waisters’ creation of Creta and Anafi was in fact intended as a sort of visceral communication of concepts the Waisters could not express across the verbal, cultural, and neurological gulfs separating them from humanity. The worlds serve, in effect, as a warning: that even such humanly impossible engineering feats pale in comparison to the Blue Star Plague, and that humble creatures such as the mindless, fast-reproducing tubeworms of Anafi are in fact capable of taking over the galaxy, of remaking it in their image. The human idea of “arming” against this “invasion” is absurd — even after 25 centuries of progress, humans are still no match even for the Waisters.
So anyway, the danger above Our Heroes recedes, the submarine is able to surface, and the threads dealing with Mode Human / Base Human conflict are resolved.
Humans and Waisters have agreed to build a starship together, with separate habitats for each, and common areas which both may inhabit for a time. During construction, it is hoped that the humans will come to understand some of the physical principles involved, but the project’s primary goal is to send a delegation, consisting of Base and Mode humans, autistic humans, Waisters, virtual personalities, and completely nonsentient Artificial Intelligences, in the hopes that some combination of these talents and outlooks will prove useful in making contact with the Blue Star Plague, if such a thing is even possible. And if such contact is not possible, they can at least probe for weaknesses, transmitting back the information against the day when the Plagues expansion brings it into direct contact with human and Waister civilizations. Either way, of course, the travelers’ current lives are forfeit: even if all goes spectacularly well, they will not return to Sirius Gate for over a hundred thousand years…