Xenognosis

Xxenognosis (n.): (also “the Big Hello”) The knowledge that sophont species other than one’s own exist; also, the discovery by an individual or species that they exist.

In popular mythology, this is usually conflated with first contact, or at least with the establishment of genuine communications between the species in question – which portrayal, unfortunately, is almost pure nonsense.

Interstellar civilization just isn’t that subtle.

Space is cold and dark. Interstellar life is the exact opposite. Between the EM penumbra, starship drive flares, the gravity-wave ripples of stargates in operation, and even some few modified stellar spectra, anyone within a couple of thousand light-orbits of the Periphery with any astronomical competence at all can have no doubt that there’s exotic life out there – with the only possible exception being those on the wrong side of the Shadow Veil.

If you’re actually trying to make contact, you can’t avoid giving advance notice. In the first first contact on record, the galari identified Extropy Rising – a slowship, not even a lighthugger – light-months out of their system, even before the inbound ship spotted the radio emissions of galari civilization. The deceleration burn of a modern lighthugger is easily visible from the next star over, and highly distinctive to boot; an optimized fusion torch or the double-peaked signature of a pion drive look like nothing else in space. As for starwisps – how many stars do you think there are that shine monochromatic green?

(And if the lighthugger in question is a linelayer, it’s going to leave a stargate megastructure orbiting in their outer system for them to look at for months, maybe even years, before a scoutship gets there. Conveniently engraved with instructions for use, even.)

This does have its disadvantages, triggering social unrest, cultural shifts, bursts of technological development, and the like, or on less developed worlds – the kind whose occupants may go unnoticed until your arrival – sometimes even religious movements. In the case of psychotics-in-waiting like the skrandar, it may well have converted them into the berserkers they ended as.

But if you want to explore the galaxy at all – well, what can you do? Even the Voniensa Republic, who are remarkably prissy about this sort of thing, have had to reconcile themselves to that.

– A Star Traveler’s Dictionary

Echoes

ESniffer Packet hung invisibly in place, far above the ecliptic of this nameless Ember-class star, whose sole distinction was its position nearly 800 light-orbits from Chanq (Vanlir Edge). The starwisp was a speck in a soap bubble; trailing behind it, the flimsy, filamentary acres of its light sail now re-rigged to keep it in position near the star’s pole.

Meanwhile, frantic activity bubbled the surface of the wisp core, its few grains of mass dissolving as the ‘wisp’s nanomachine payload went active. Shielding and raw mass were devoured as core programming took over from the transit processor, using the last fragments of power available in the tiny radiothermal generator to kick off the transformation process, exuding thin fragments of wire mesh plated with magnetic stiffeners, solar collection foil, and nodal nanocomputer signal processors – using the mesh itself as an antenna, capable of acting together as a single radio telescope a mile wide, absorbing all radio bands from the log-2 to the log-9.

The a-chanq civilization had fallen barely a decade before the Worlds had reached them.

But with the help of thrust and fortunate stellar geometry, the Exploratory Service could still hear their echoes.

Trope-a-Day: Stealth in Space

Stealth in Space: There ain’t no stealth in space.

This applies especially to lighthuggers, inasmuch as an antimatter torch at high burn can be detected for light years even if you’re not the star system that it’s pointed at.  If you are, all the more so.  Much the same goes, at least for the destination system, for even the best-collimated of the launch lasers starwisps use.  Any way you look at it, there’s no way to be subtle when engaging in near-luminal travel.

But it applies to everyone else, too.  Even small reaction-drive burns – and vector-control drives of similar energy consumption – are bright enough to be seen most of the way across the system, and more to the point, the heat of operating life-support systems for biosapiences – or even the waste heat for the minimum technology needed to support digisapiences – stands out like a searchlight against the 3K sky background.

It’s not impossible to manage a degree of sneakiness.  It involves making use of thermal superconductors to capture your emissions in most or even all directions, and heat pumps (which, let us not forget, generate even more heat which you have to then capture) to capture them in heat sinks – which will fill up and roast you if you keep it up for very long, so be careful about how long you need to use them.  It involves making maximum use of cover – cold objects in space to hide behind, and hot objects to hide in front of, while being careful not to visibly occult anything, and always pointing the right bits of your ship in the right direction (observer-dependent, so best hope the system’s not busy).  It involves limiting your propulsion to careful use of (hideously slow and inefficient) cold-gas thrusters and leveraging vector-control to get a tow from other ships or celestial bodies (in which case, being careful to ensure that you keep your effect on their apparent mass below the threshold that will trigger alerts in their engineering department or your target’s paranoid skywatching AIs.).  And, of course, essentially none of this will help if someone happens to look out the wrong window or point a telescope in the wrong direction and spot you visually.

But it’s difficult and constrained enough – especially since you have to enter systems via the choke-points of their stargates – or suffer the above lighthugger problems – that it’s usually much easier to pretend to be something other than what you are, or bury yourself inside an asteroid big enough to act as a decent thermal sink, or get an insider agent to plant a You Can’t See Me data worm in their traffic-control systems, or otherwise engage in some kind of tactics that are more masquerade and less outright stealth.

(The ontotechnological engineers are working on – well, technically, working on the possible theory that might just possibly begin to underlie the engineering principles of – an actual bona-fide cloaking device that bypasses at least some of these difficulties.  Still some awkward implications from physics, though: firstly, it’s inescapably double-blind, so while no-one can see you, you can’t see out either.  The possibilities for things to go horribly wrong for you while you can’t see them are… large.  Secondly, it involves basically hiding behind the domain wall of your own personal baby universe, possibly the only thing that does retain heat with 100% efficiency, which is to say, it actually makes the heat dissipation problem worse.  Better have really good heat sinks, or you’ll cook yourself to death in really short order… and then release all that heat in a nice position-illuminating flare anyway.)