The question that was continually asked by the Third Imperium-at least places like Naval Strategy and Planning, Imperial Intelligence Sixth and Ninth Directorates, and their respective Archons-was a simple one.
Where was everyone?
That was the big question and nobody really had a good answer for that. It wasn’t like there weren’t opportunities for races that made it past the Gaian bottleneck and didn’t nuke themselves into oblivion. Once you had the technology to reach the heliopause of your solar system, discovering slipspace wasn’t too difficult. Once you had slipspace technology, the universe was your oyster.
There were a few obvious reasons. Quite a few species ran into the Alphas and the usual way the Alphas introduced themselves was kinetic energy bombardment, followed by industrial genocide and hostle terraforming. There were hints that many species tended to find ways to kill themselves off in fratricidal wars (which is why there is a Third Imperium). And, there is the issue that in the time frame of the universe, any empire is a mere candle-flicker in terms of the length of the universe.
But, once again-where was everyone?
There was the wreckage and ruins of species going anywhere from Class II to Class VII (roughly the range from late 20th Century Earth to current Imperial standards). Hints of even more species. Some of them were even relatively “recent” in archaeological terms (i.e. somewhere in the 20,000-30,000 year old range). Everything suggested that despite the Alphas and their actions, there should be about nine to sixteen Imperial-peer species out there within a year’s round-trip by slipspace courier from Terra, a sphere a thousand light years in radius.
And yet..there wasn’t.
Once the Third Imperium had been formed after the Era of the Five Emperors, the Alphas finally defeated and destroyed, this question grew in importance. One of the theories was that there was a Great Filter mechanism, something that would clean out and eliminate empires that had reached a certain level. But, there was no indication as to what that mechanism was, what the trigger of that mechanism was, and how it worked.
Despite this, Navy Strategy and Planning, Sixth Directorate, and Ninth Directorate were tasked to come up with potential countermeasures. One of these potential countermeasures was the Ghost Fleet concept. The Ghost Fleets were designed around the idea that if there was a filer mechanism, one way to avoid it was to hide. Hide sufficient assets so that when the mechanism was triggered and the filter had swept the universe clean, a restoration of the Empire was possible.
The Archons then drew up plans, and these plans were based on the following concepts-
- Provide enough of everything to ensure Imperial continuity of both the Empire and its people.
- Conceal the forces-both in numbers and in depth-that short of a hard target search of every object Ceres-sized or larger in every single gravity well that had a defined slipspace limit, at least one task group-sized unit (two battlecruisers, four heavy cruisers, eight destroyers, and support ships in proportion for a total of at least twenty-two ships) would survive the filter mechanism.
- Ensure that with the exception of archival data, every single storage facility has no more than a 2.5% commonality with any other facility.
- Long-term storage was a major requirement. Even a “short term” facility would have to be operated unattended for at least 5,000 years without interference or direct contact.
This concept would gain the nickname of “the Ghost Fleets,” and it would stick. Even with all of these requirements, the Archons could easily perform the mission as required. Older ships that would previously be scrapped would be taken up by the Sixth Directorate and renovated to current standards. The only exception would be that ships with antimatter reactors would have them replaced with fusion reactors (storage of anti-hydrogen was considered difficult in the time frame of the Ghost Fleet concept), and the AIs used would be ones with the personalities needed to handle long term operations outside of a chain of command.
Redundancy was a key. The ships in earlier caches had a genetic “spread” of frozen (later stasis-locked) genetic material and plans to create uterine replicators for raising animals and people. Later ships would use WORM-media storage of genetic coding and there were molecular and atomic-spitters that could create the DNA as needed. Complete archival records were stored on every ship as well-from history textbooks to entertainment media-which would ensure continuity of culture. The goal was that if a single Imperial starship survived, a viable human population could be raised up to minimum standards in a century. A single cache of ships could do this in twenty-five years.
How many Ghost Fleet caches exist are unknown. Indeed, the Archons have put in a significant effort in both the emplacement and the concealment of the caches. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, there is no single list or set of lists of the caches and almost all of these lists have specific keying to divert attention, just in case.
One major factor in planning was the “unknown unknowns” issue-could an unknown attack vector render all this planning useless? This dictated a number of planning methods, not the least of which was that almost every single cache was designed to not accept external updates outside of a very specifically defined set of circumstances.
One of the most “common” methods used was a quantum entanglement timer linked to a physical control system. As long as the entanglement remained active, and a “no” message was sent at the proper time, the control system would remain off. If the entanglement failed, the mechanism would engage a specific lock-down and timer system to begin starship revival. If a “yes” message was sent, a specific receiving mechanism was engaged to allow for updates and status checks.
How many Ghost Fleet caches exist is unknown. A rough estimate is that there are anywhere between sixteen hundred to four thousand of them, scattered all over Imperial space. And even this estimate is considered low.