Museum Ship

museum ship
Image from Copyright Michael Tan
Museum Ship

Intelligence implies curiosity and mindkind has always had an innate curiosity about the universe. The inevitable result of this is that objects of interest, whether books, scientific specimens, or works of art, will be gathered together in great collections of libraries and museums. On classical period Old Earth, the Library of Alexandria held all the information of the then known western world. Some of the oldest Cthonid museums seem to predate terragen civilization, and consist of many millions of carefully maintained and cataloged articles. The vast data bases of the Soft Ones are millions of years old. In every intelligent race there have been libraries, museums, and collections of knowledge and objects of interest

For a planetbound civilization, a museum is bound to the surface, usually in a large building. This makes it vulnerable to loss and destruction, as in the destruction of the Library of Alexandria during the classical age, of a number of important museums and libraries during the nanodisaster period, and the magnificent Daharran collections when that race tragically self-destructed. It is logical then, that the best way to preserve this material is to send it into space, and keep it away from centers of conflict.

The first Museum Ship was a humble affair. Work on the Pliny began in Clarke Orbital Docks in AT 270 thanks to a grant by a consortium of Infomining Corporations, including Global Knowledge Transplanetary and Delphi Cislunar, although design problems and constant bickering between the science team (who wanted a ship big enough to store everything), the engineering team (who wanted it to be a viable vessel with sufficient Delta-V), and the corporate sponsors (who were concerned about spiraling costs and constant delays), meant that the vessel was only launched some 12 years after the planned 274 date and was too small for the scientists and too unwieldy to satisfy the engineers. The only ones who were happy were the sponsors, as Pliny was really more of a traveling advertising slogan for these corporations then a viable Museum Ship. Nevertheless, its collections included some ten million biological, geological, and exo-terran specimens (down from the original thirty million, and many of sub-millimeter size, to conserve space), a complete copy of 25 million public domain geneprints , and - thanks to a complicated deal with the then declining US government - the entire American Library of Congress on nanocube. Traveling throughout the solar system, propelled by a fusion drive system that was really too small for the mass of the vessel, the Pliny was a great success.

The popularity of the Pliny in creating goodwill for its backing corporations encouraged other megacorps and even colonies like Mars and the Jovian League to fund and build successively larger and more expensive Museum Ships. By the mid twenty-fourth century the fad had passed, and over the next one and a half centuries barely a dozen Museum Ships were built. Ironically, the initial idea behind the Museum Ship, of safeguarding the heritage of humankind, turned out to be their most effective contribution, as only two of the one hundred and fifty-four Museum ships remaining during the start of the Nanoswarm period were lost; the remainder (including the ancient, venerable, and quite obsolete Pliny) hiding out in the safety for the Oort Cloud. During the Dark Ages, the Museum Ships became important centers of culture and learning, and, along with the big corporate habitats and outsystem vessels, were instrumental in reconstructing terragen civilisation and genomic resources with the movement to the establishment of the First Federation.

The First Federation period in fact marked a high water time for the Museum Ships. In the period from 1150 to 1200 alone, no less than 200 were built, ranging from vessels smaller than the Pliny to behemoths almost as big as Company Ships. However, it was not until the 1300s that the first interstellar capable Museum Ship, the modestly-sized amat-fusion powered Space Beagle, was built. By this time the affection for peripatetic museums was once again fading, and few corporations wished to finance such a project when their Company Ships could do the job far better. And the cash-strapped and increasingly bureaucratic Federation had little resources to spare, despite their constant praise for the Museum Ships. Its ship-building output went into Explorer and Military vessels as it sought, with increasingly futility, to maintain its hold over an interstellar empire.

During the late Federation period the rise of the Nomad Clans meant that old Museum ships were in big demand, as were old Carriers and mothballed Exploration vessels. The Nomads eagerly refitted the old hulls with newly available drives, and many clans were not unsympathetic to the original ideal behind the Museum Ship.

For the upper classes on the other hand, owning your own Museum Ship was a real status symbol, and many of the Corporate Houses vied greedily for the best and oldest (hence most prestigious) Museum Ships.

The Expansion age saw a number of nomadic deep space archivists and collectors take advantage of the new reactionless drive technology to gather and carry specimens far and wide. Buy these were all relatively small affairs, limited by available technology, resources and the need to fit through a standard wormhole mouth (most during that time were far smaller than they are today)

It was to be almost five hundred years before a new generation of Museum Ship would once again ply the space ways. This was the Sentient Ship.

The first Sentient Museum Ship - the Ken Ferjik - originated from Negentropist space - somewhere between Greylag and Gegton - during the late Expansion period. It was natural that some nomadic hyperturings of the Negentropy Alliance, with their concern for gathering and preserving information, and access to advanced ultra tech, acquired peripatetic inclinations, and re-initiated the phenomenon of the Museum Ship. Before too many centuries they were joined by counterparts from all of the other large empires, especially the MPA, the Non Coercive Zone, and the Sophic League.

Compared to its counterparts of the Federation period, the Ken Ferjik was a massive object, some five and a half kilometers long, and over two kilometers across the bows. It seems to have been assembled using material from the Hirthsen Asteroid Belt. Despite the name, there is no known connection with the famous Academic Databasing Planet of the Alliance. In 2581, it reached Irrmorella, a small system about 15 LY Solward of Greylag, the hyperturing sent an envoy down to the surface, requesting geological and biological specimens for its collection. The locals were naturally somewhat nervous about this unusual entity, but when they were given free tours of the vessel, and saw the vast racks of storage cells, with a few already bearing neatly cataloged geological and hydrological specimens from asteroids and icy halo objects, trepidation was replaced by fascination, and they provided the ship with all the specimens it requested, in exchange for a copy of its scientific databanks, which e readily provided.

In the following two centuries, the Ken Ferjik was observed at the Mokupuni, Bei, and Adlinda systems. During this period it increased its storage faculty (and overall size) by a factor of three; thanks to its onboard replication facilities. During this period another Museum Ship was observed, the Wang, near Argyle, also in Negentropist space (Marna Sector). And the following century there appeared the Morovec, the Arrazzma, and also the Diogenes, the first MPA Museum Ship, which was first observed in 2815 in Nuihab orbit, Phoebus Sector, MPA space.

By the Second Federation period, Museum Ships had established themselves as a distinctive phenomenon of Galactic society. Usually (but not always), a ship will approach a system from deep space, identify itself, and politely request specimens, and sometimes also necessary raw materials or supplies, usually in exchange for a partial or a complete copy of its current scientific data storage banks, and/or nano-replicas of some of its more interesting specimens. In a few cases (if a ship is generous and/or has large numbers of a certain item), actual specimens will be exchanged, each provided with an authenticity marker to show it is not a nanoreplica. The ship will generally spend a few days, weeks, months, or years in orbit, during which it is open to visitors. Finally, it will depart, heading into interstellar space, and eventually arriving at a new system, where the pattern repeats itself.

Apart from that usual basic behavior, Museum Ships differ greatly. Not only do ships differ according to empire and ideology, but even ships from the same empire and sharing the same memeticity will be quite distinct, so that no two are alike. Some ships are purely AI controlled, others have a full complement of biont crew and staff, others are crewed by vecs, or foglets. There are even Museum sShips, such as the Charles Darwin, which are totally directed and commanded by nearbaselines, with the AIs simply maintaining the drive, shielding, life-support systems, etc. Propulsion varies among these vessels, with conversion drives being the most popular form of propulsion, due to their flexible nature, but some ships will employ displacement or halo drives, or even go the other way with simple amat. Some ships are smoothly spherical, ovoid, toroidal, or polyhedral in form, but many are completely irregular, and organic, Fractal and shape shifters are also common. Some prefer the well-traveled Inner Sphere, others ply the depths of the Periphery volumes. Some specialize in biological specimens, others in literature (these are more correctly called Library Ships), others geological specimens, or local goo, or virtuals and alifes, or cosmic dust, games and interactives, works of art, alien artifacts, terragen archaeology, or any combination. Some ("Zoo Ships") keep and care for live cargo, others prefer only inert specimens, or keep organics in stasis. Some are run like a corporation, and seek to make a profit from their visit, with credit accumulating in banks in Merrion or Zarauztar, while others are free to all, asking only for a few specimens from the local authorities. Some have collections organised according to rigidly scientific lines, others display of works of art, or arrange natural objects in an aesthetic fashion.

All Museum Ships grow - this is a natural result of having to accommodate a growing collection, and this gives many of the older museum ships a very jerry-rigged appearance, with modules and extra storage and drive units tacked on seemingly at random. Others however - especially the organic and some of the fractal ships, retain sleek and smooth lines no matter how large they grow.

Because their collections often contain at least a few specimens of great value, all Museum Ships are equipped to a lesser or greater degree with varying combinations of weaponry, and will aggressively defend themselves against attack. The bigger the ship, the more firepower it is likely to have, but even a small Museum Ship can be intimidating because of its size, nanohull-distributed processing power, and sheer unpredictability regarding tactical response (just because one ship used offensive goo doesn't mean another won't prefer kinetic or beam weapons). Even the bravest pirate or raider will think twice about taking on a mere ten kilometer ship, let alone one of the fifty or a hundred kilometer giants.

Occasionally a Museum Ship will violate all known codes of conduct. This happens rarely - in about 0.05% of ships, but it is enough to be intimidating to subsingularity sentients. The most famous (but by no means the most extreme) example occurred in one of the Muna Kipasi orbitals (Goldfishnebula Sector, Negentropy Alliance space) in 6992. A Museum Ship identifying itself as the Hume approached the system and requested a number of biological specimens. Rather than being satisfied with simple cheek swabs or blood samples, it wanted entire adult bionts, a male and female representative of each major genotype in the system. When the local authorities refused, the Hume neutralized the planetary defenses using a hyperbright coordinated combination of khaki goo, beam weapons, amat missiles, and fractal fighter drones, abducted more than five thousand sapient and subsapient bionts, and beat a hasty retreat, moving corewards. By the time the Negentropist 24th Quick Response Task Force arrived in the system, the Hume was long gone, and despite careful long-range scans and seeding much of the area with replicator probes, it was never detected.

Such occurrences are extremely rare, but have resulted in a certain caution being displayed towards Museum Ships, especially new ones. While Museum Ships for their own part are often wary of large or aggressive demopolities, especially since the successful 6122 attack on the Professor Mii235 by the Valan Orthodox Hegemony, Cygnus Outer Volumes

In the current era the arrival of a Museum Ship is always a cause for great excitement in a local star system. Because most Museum Ships are far to large to pass through any but the biggest wormhole and many use bright conversion drives, their arrival is often anticipated years in advance. Scholars, artists, journalists, media stars, virch recorders, private collectors, and the general public will crowd to have a look, and few are not awed by the vast size of the vessel and its collections, or impressed by the dedication of the hyperturing and the subsingularity sentient crew and curators. Where ships have biont crew, the long periods of isolation, combined with the ample living space, often means that these may have evolved into completely new subspecies or species over the centuries and millennia of the ship's existence. If the system is connected to the stargate Nexus, then tourism will jump during the visit, because even at the present stardate the number of Museum Ships is relatively small in relation to the vastness of space and the number of inhabited worlds. It is estimated that there are no more than 45,000 Museum Ships throughout the known galaxy, although some have questioned that figure as being overly conservative, due to the fact that some Museum Ships may prefer to visit only Hider Communities, or avoid even them, while others, completely self-sustaining, may simply head off beyond the periphery of colonized space.

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Development Notes
Text by M. Alan Kazlev

Initially published on 20 April 2001.