HIE-233-MPE (Jacks)

jacks -virga
Image from Steve Bowers
The Virga, non-sophont gasbag lifeforms from the atmosphere of YTS 33298-567b

The Jacks (Hamilton Institute catalog number HIE-233-MPE) are a xenosophont species, or possibly a cluster of related species, named for a toy of ancient human baseline origin called a "Jack-in-a-box". Their name springs from the fact that they are apparently neither extinct nor extant; instead they have "popped up" several times in the past and may or may not return at some point in the future. Like their namesake, the "Jacks" appear at unpredictable times, though their appearances have been spaced across millions of years rather than minutes. For this and for other reasons they are one of the more enigmatic of the xenosophont civilizations that have been encountered by Terragens.

In 5655 AT the remnants of a number of outposts on the moons of a Jovian class planet (YTS 32298-567 b) were discovered and explored by a Solar Dominion expedition in the rimward part of the California Nebula. The ruins indicated spaceborne activity on the part of a gasbag "floater" species originally native to a Jovian planet; researchers initially supposed that their origin was local. However, other similar sets of ruins were later discovered on other moons of gas giant planets in widely dispersed M-star systems all across the Terragen sphere. During a data inventory at the HIE in 6112 AT the similarities were noted and new expeditions were sent out to the most accessible locations. A comparison of technologies and styles revealed a common origin for all of them. Even the traces of writing were from the same symbol set. Dating of the ruins using micrometeorites and other indicators suggested ages closely clustered around 1.1 billion, 780 million, 450 million and 90 million years ago, depending on the site. In the case of two sites, Appa Ke and Daimokusei ruins from all four ages were identified.

The generally accepted conclusion was that the Jacks remain dormant in a number of locations for over 300 million years at a time, then "wake up". They certainly visit the local moons, and very probably engage in interstellar travel. Then after less than 100,000 years, and possibly after as little as three or four thousand years, they go back into an inactive mode. Further finds have only strengthened this hypothesis since it was first advanced.

It is thought likely that in between their active periods the Jacks somehow "hibernate" in gas giants, probably in the metallic hydrogen cores. All of the sites explored to date are associated with Jovic life forms in the gas giant's atmosphere, and studies have shown that, as diverse as they are, these life forms have a common ancestor. However, none of them show any sign of sophont behaviour, and none correspond with the morphotypes reconstructed by paleoxenologists based on Jack artefacts. All attempts to penetrate the cores of Jack planets have failed or have come up empty-handed. This suggests either that there are advanced transapientech defence systems able to subvert the probes or that only some planets are inhabited at any time. Interestingly, the cultural remains found in the inactive Jack systems include a few artefacts apparently designed to be found and interpreted by other sophonts. These are usually navigation beacons or warnings of local dangers, and do not reveal much about the Jacks themselves.

The true nature of the Jacks remains a matter of speculation. The moon finds suggest a gasbag biological species, but long-term hibernation in giant planet cores implies a metallic or virtual form. It is not known if all sites become active during a wake-up event or just some of them. What causes the waking is also unknown, as well as whether it is simultaneous or whether it starts with one planet and somehow spreads to the others. The remarkable age of the species suggests a very stable society, but if it remains active for very short periods of time then there may not be much room for cultural change. The reason for the behaviour is also unknown. Many explanations have been suggested; they include a wish to see the future, a long- range project of some kind, guardianship over "lesser" biological species, economic boom and bust cycles in core economies, and avoidance of various hypothetical dangers such as the "Dawn Hunters" that are thought to terminate interstellar civilizations. The Muuh have long been aware of the Jacks, but unfortunately it is difficult for ordinary Terragens to distinguish Muuh fiction from serious Muuh archaeology and so most of their data are considered suspect.

There have been several suggestions that the Jacks should be lazurogened from available data. However, such an exercise would be an imaginative reconstruction, and would not be likely to solve the mystery of the Jacks themselves. It may well be that a final answer to the mystery of the Jacks will have to wait until approximately 250 million years AT, when they will emerge again and presumably interact with whatever sophont species exist at that time.
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Development Notes
Text by Anders Sandberg; expanded by Stephen Inniss
Initially published on 25 April 2006.