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2791 A Contour Vehicle Comes to Visit.

A strange visitor unexpectedly arrives at Cobol. It is a so-called Contour Systems Vehicle, a giant conglomerate of billions of energy bubbles between one meter and ten kilometers in diameter with a total volume of four million cubic kilometers. Contour incarnations and bubbles are roaming the interstellar sector for three months. There are reports of many contacts between humans and Contour beings, about exchange of information, joint journeys, and unexpected experiences. After several days of spectacular celebrations, the main mass of the Contour vehicle departs. Energy bubbles are sighted for another 20 years, in the Sol system much longer.

The Contour vehicle originates from a more advanced, possibly galactic, civilization. According to Contour beings it is on constant cruise. The vehicle serves as a mobile base for incarnations of Contour beings. Some people get to know small fractions of a huge and fantastic civilization. Human guests are allowed to visit remote centers of the Contour culture. Their real location is not revealed, however. It is assumed that the civilization is essentially delocalized consisting of a network of mobile nodes like the visiting Systems Vehicle. Travel experiences of humans with Contour beings indicate instant communication over very long distances. Yet, it remains unclear if the Contour are in fact capable of long range faster-than-light communications or whether communications are handled by a ubiquitous network of interstellar relays.

During the visit, myriads of microscopic white energy bubbles are observed throughout the Cobol system. It is assumed that these units are data collectors permeating the entire star system. What little is known about the information capacity of the Contour technology suggests that the Systems Vehicle's facilities generate a complete information dump of the human civilization at Cobol. Some people who have been in close contact with Contour beings report about a virtual simulation of the Cobol system at the molecular level and they have even met human Contour incarnations in this simulation. It remains speculation if humanity is merely an object of study or if it has – in some for us unimaginable way – become part of the Contour civilization.

Despite many contacts, few tangible influences remain in culture, science, and technology. It appears that the Contour have managed the flow of information very carefully to minimize the impact of their visit on humanity. The presumed simulation might have been instrumental in predicting effects of interactions so as to subtly tune events to minimize their consequences. That means the Contour might be able to predict the future in real time, though of course within the limits of variations due to quantum fluctuations and the butterfly effect.

The Contour system ship leaves behind so-called buoys: milky-white spherical energy bubbles of various sizes, not only in the Cobol system, but also in several inhabited solar systems in the vicinity. The buoys do not show any activity except for occasional position changes.

In the Sol system 20 buoys have been discovered so far. Most of them with diameters up to 10 meters. The known buoys are scattered throughout the Sol system, one inside Mercury's orbit, two in the Earth-Mars region, eight (!) in Jupiter orbits, and one at Neptune. The remaining are positioned in empty space far above and below the ecliptic. The Neptune buoy is by far the largest with a diameter of 50 meters.

It is unknown why almost half of all sighted Contour buoys are to be found around Jupiter. Apparently, the Contour are particularly interested in this part of the Sol system. So, it cannot be ruled out that there is life on Jupiter after all, perhaps even intelligent life. However, if intelligent life on Jupiter were in fact the reason for the Contour's interest, then this life form has not yet reached a technological level that would make it noticeable, at least not to us.

Jupiter seems to be at least as interesting to the Contour as the rest of the entire Sol system, with Earth, the Moon, all the other inhabited planets, and tens of thousands of habitats in space. This is not surprising, since Jupiter's surface is 100 times larger than the Earth's. So, if there is life on Jupiter, then its diversity might be considerably larger than that from the planet earth.

On the other hand, it cannot be ruled out that the eight Jupiter buoys are a joke. Some people who have met Contour report about their shrewd sense of humor. Some humans tell that they have been misled time and again, only not to know later, when they enlightened, whether they had actually learned the truth or just run into another joke. Apparently, it would fit well with the Contour to intentionally place eight buoys at Jupiter just to make humanity think about their own significance.

2794 The Prophet of the Galactic Traders.

The appearance of a so called Hro causes great unrest among the galactic traders disrupting the interstellar trade in our sector. The Hro is an aspirant prophet, a being that might turn into a full prophet of their species, an Irun. This Hro is probably the first Irun aspirant within several hundred years, at least in our sector of the galaxy. Later, however, when the Hro is consecrated as an adult, no Irun emerges from this process. The individual remains a Hro and the situation calms down again.

A Hro is a young individual of the Mercato species with an outstanding personality. Thousands of clan ships are gathering for the adult consecration of a Hro. Some sources speak of hundreds of thousands of ships. During the consecration ceremony, all Mercato youths become adults within a few weeks. Body and mind transform in a kind of pupation. Sometimes a charismatic leader, an Irun, emerges from this process, captivating all the clans present with their ships drawing them under his spell. It is not known whether this mental influence on the clans present is just a psychological effect, if it is of biochemical nature, maybe an infection, or whether it is an electromagnetic. The Mercatos do not allow for investigations and the event is also much too rare for systematic studies.

Mercatos are traders. The name was very aptly coined at first contact in the Sol system in the 27th century. They travel in individual clan ships and engage in interstellar trade between many species. Each ship houses a family or a group of families constituting a clan.

Mercatos have been around for millions of years and they are probably to be found throughout much of the galaxy. Despite this long history, their ships have very different tech levels. The technology seems to be closely related to the culture of a clan. Clans with low tech levels would have many opportunities for upgrades. However, using the latest tech does not seem to be important to them. There are slow vessels at the tech level of the first solar FTL drive generation that take years to travel interstellar distances. But there are also clan ships with effective speeds we cannot match. Rumor has it that a clan ship has even appeared in distant places at almost the same time suggesting instant travel, but such claims are difficult to verify. Unfortunately, Mercatos do not offer their own technology trading only in products and information from other species.

Young Mercatos learn everything a Mercato trader needs to know in a 30-year long apprenticeship. They learn languages and other ways of expression until they can communicate without automatic translators. They learn without using electronic aids such as memory implants and association boosters. After consecration, the apprenticeship is continued by 80 years of training to be a master trader.

Master traders specialize in individual species, in the specific cultures of trading partners, in certain organizations, and sometimes even in individuals. When conducting negotiations their voice is perfect: pleasant, accent-free and persuasive. In fact, they do not actually talk as they would among each other. Rather they have learned to produce the appropriate sounds that appear like the perfect voice. They master memetics at the highest level, even interpreting and reacting to subconscious emotions of their interlocutor. In this respect, Mercato master traders are on par with the best negotiators among their customer species.

It is believed that Mercatos only trade to keep their ships in operation. Since their overall goal is not to accumulate wealth, they sometimes offer very favorable trading conditions. On the other hand, not having to close deals quickly, they can be tough negotiators. In general, they are more relaxed than their trading partners. Mercatos take their time. They live the same life as their ancestors and they do not seek any change. They are basically waiting for the arrival of an Irun and until that happens their only task is to keep their ships available.

Most Mercatos eventually attend the consecration of a Hro in their lifetime. But rarely is a generation lucky enough to witness an Irun emerging from pupation. This is the so-called "blessed" generation, blessed with the possibility to follow an Irun. The blessed generation takes up whatever task the Irun commands. The arrival of an Irun marks the end of a civilization cycle of the galactic merchants. It seems as if following the Irun and executing his plan is the primary purpose of the Mercatos, their destiny.

An Irun draws together all the clans within a radius of several thousand light years. When called upon they abruptly abandon their usual trading activities - they simply go mad, from the point of view of the other species. Several thousand light years being the observational reach that means that basically all known Mercatos are affected.

Sometime later, after the Irun's death, they just go back to trading in individual clan ships as if nothing had happened. Irun-events are extremely rare. In the local sector, the surrounding 3,000 light years, only three Irun events are known to have occurred, two of them in the last 10,000 years. There are indications of some more, though.

The 700-year long Irun phase, 7,400 years ago, between the reign of the Solemic Empire and the Tren-Vuk-Som interregnum is surely confirmed. At the time Mercatos surprisingly founded an empire, called the Empire of Trade, ousting all other powers. The rise of the Mercato empire probably caused the fall of the Solemic Empire which had been one of the largest and most stable empires in the recent past. Though an Empire of Trade by name, the Mercatos ruled rigorously not allowing other military powers and even prohibiting any military research in their sphere of influence. This posed a serious problem for their client species when the Mercato empire suddenly faltered after 700 years leaving thousands of star systems unprotected which in fact led to the Tren-Vuk-Som interregnum.

The second known case, according to Kisoran records, was around the year 2,000 CE when all Mercatos suddenly disappeared from the Interian Empire – and possibly beyond. Before that happened our – and thus Kisor's – part of the empire relied heavily on Mercato trade. The "great disappearance" led to the so-called eighth Interian economic minimum in the era of Addaja, the Interian Person. Kisor's oligarchy jumped at the opportunity to fill the gap and the trade organizations of the ruling families became the first trade guilds. The guilds dominated and stabilized the sector establishing a trading empire in all but name lasting 1,800 years.

The third documented Irun case is particularly spectacular. It shows how long Mercatos have been present and how varied Irun events can be. In 2681, one of the early solar expeditions, the so-called Buniatishvili excursion, discovered an ancient robotic civilization on Solberg 86 III. The robots preserve the historical legacy of their builders and readily provide information about the history of the system over the past 30 million years. Having struggled with AI outbreaks during their development most species perceive mech-civilizations as a threat. Therefore, the robots of Solberg 86 have had to fend off many attacks over time. Among them was a Mercato fleet.

12 million years ago, on July 8, in the year 12,063,275 BCE, a huge fleet of Mercato clan ships invaded the Solberg 86 system. There are detailed records, sensor data and videos of the event. The Solberg 86 robots report that a total of 983,750 (+/- 20) clan ships were positively identified by their drive signatures. Countless robot ships (in this case the robots refuse to give exact numbers) can be seen starting from many moons to defend the system and especially the third planet. Recordings and time-synchronized sensor data show the battle throughout the system lasting several weeks. They also show the Irun's address to his people before the last desperate attack on the third planet and the fiery end of the Mercato flagship. Then the sensor data reveal how the news of the Irun's death spreads among the clan ships as the surviving clans leave the system in waves as soon as they receive the information at light speed. Presumably, they return to their usual trading activities.

The Solberg robots report that 95,700 (+/- 200) clan ships left the system immediately and 130,259 (+/- 3) remained in the system unable to maneuver with damaged drives. Those were repaired with the help of robots over the course of several years and finally left Solberg 86 as well.

By the way: Participants of the Buniatishvili excursion tell that while the robots are happy to give information about this event, they keep mentioning the rich history of their own builders and seem almost a bit offended if the visitors are not interested.

There are various Kelan legends about Irun-events mentioning numerous different kinds of Mercatos madness. In one case all Mercatos settle down in a single star system. They do not give up trading, but they settle there for a thousand years operating from a home system rather than roaming around as usual. In fact, this legend is later confirmed by the discovery of an abandoned system with clear evidence of a large Mercato settlement on planets and in interplanetary space.

Other Kelan legends tell of Mercatos who:

- collectively destroy their ships shortly after the Irun's pupation,

- stop trading to settle on a planet adopting a pre-spaceflight tech level,

- leave the galaxy with millions of clan ships,

- support other species to take care that their tech level equalizes on a high level,

- suddenly trade only information, but no longer transport physical goods,

- make themselves available to other species as mercenaries for military actions,

- establish protection zones to prohibit external contact with not-yet spacefaring species and save early-stage spacefaring peoples from high-tech marauders,

- combat mech life, such as robots, nanites and computronium,

- engage in large-scale eco-forming creating biosphere reserves in previously uninhabited systems with promising species on the brink of conscious intelligence.

A visitor to the Mansalu complex in 2815 reports about a statistical analysis that claims to cover 900 Irun-events, from a period of 80,000 years and up to 20,000 light-years away. This gives a statistical frequency roughly in line with our experience which is based on only two events within 10,000 years. The Mansalu study claims that Mercatos:

- become warlike in roughly 33% of the cases,

- act in some altruistic way for other species in 25%,

- another 25% retire, whereby it is assumed that they do not simply disappear, but rather turn to a task beyond the reach of the observers.

- The remaining 17% of cases exhibits a variety of other eccentric behavior.

However, the study cannot be found later, at the time of the Yalung in the Mansalu complex. The presumed reason being that the Yalung have a different policy regarding the release of information to less developed species.

Exosociologists explain the Irun phenomenon as a purifying event in an otherwise very static culture: it ensures that sociological development is periodically reset. The drastic interruption creates a break with the tradition of the previous generations where aberrations may have crept in. For the long-term stability of the Mercato culture especially the end of an Irun phase is important, when they return to millions of years old original behavioral patterns thus automatically correcting any deviations of the last millennia.

Some scholars even claim that the other species also benefit from the Irun phenomenon. An Irun event often disrupts the balance of power in the affected sector, as is obvious in the case of the Empire of Trade. Mercatos then put an end to the static Solemic Empire. While this led to the Tren-Vuk-Sol interregnum, a long chaotic period which might have cost hundreds of billions of lives, it also broke the long stagnation during the Solemic Empire. The sector might still be under the stifling Solemic rule, otherwise.

The eighth Addaja-Interian economic minimum after the Mercato disappearance around 2000 CE paved the way for the Kisoran guilds, which stabilized the sector for a long time even after the eventual Interian retreat.

And if Kelan legends are to be believed, even the eco-formation of Kisor-Alpha 10 million years ago including settlement of the Kisoran primates might be traced back to the galactic traders.

The Mercato attack on Solberg 86 is an indication that the extraordinary force of an Irun event can, in a sense, remove "legacy" problems that normal interstellar powers cannot handle themselves. Even if this one attack failed, the very fact that it occurred suggests that the Mercatos do "clean up" every now and then. It is probably not a good thing for more and more old mech civilizations to accumulate in the Milky Way whose builders have long since passed away. The idea that the Mercatos fought many mech civilizations over time might explain why there are so few of them.

If the Solberg 86 robots had been defeated by the Mercatos we would not even know about the attack because they would not have been able to tell us. Almost a million ships were obviously not enough to defeat the robots. The robots seem to be a dormant supercivilization, possibly capable of mobilizing an impact power of 1.5 on the Kardashev scale, difficult for attackers to counter. A civilization at that Kardashev level commands almost the energy output of a small star. Since it is not possible to bring an entire star worth of power along for an attack, such a massive defense can only be beaten by a higher tech level, not with more resources or energy.

Maybe one day an Irun will appear who will gather ten times as many clan ships and will equip them with the highest tech level available to the galactic traders. Maybe it will take a thousand years to prepare for the attack. And even if an Irun-event of this magnitude only happens every 10 million years, sometime in the future, things will probably get tight even for the robots of Solberg 86 III.

The Irun phenomenon not only brings stability to the Mercato culture, it might also be an important cleansing mechanism for our galaxy. If this were true, then we might ask if other galaxies have similar processes. If they don't and if on the other hand removing mech relics is in fact necessary to prevent galaxies from being overcrowded by mech-life, then galaxies like ours which is teeming with biological life where new species continue to emerge may be exceedingly rare. We might be the lucky exception to the rule.

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