"The precursors. A modern enigma. Enigmatic, ancient civilisations that lived hundreds of thousands, if not millions or billions of years ago. These are the empires that ruled the stars when Sol was occupied by nothing more than primordial soup.
What we know of them is gleaned from ancient databases, derelict starships and the ruins of once mighty civilisations. That is, when we lowly monkeys can even begin to scrape together an understanding.
Take, for example, the "best known" of the precursor epochs. The Stygians. Their ruins are the most prominent across the galaxy. Intact and operational. The Stygians seemed to be synthetic artificers beyond comparison. Crafting AI, and nanites that make the near ascendant warmind AIs of the Coalition look like a calculator. They are the only ancient race to have a living progeny. Depending on your definition of living.
That progeny? The Stygian Automata Ascendancy. An intractable, enigmatic synthetic hegemony that exists beyond the dark space between spiral arms. These ancient machines may not have been born with sentience... Or perhaps they were? Either way this ancient race has menanced the borders of every empire that dares reach towards the void between the arms. Especially those who try to play with their masters' toys."
— Excerpt from 'On the ancient stars' by Dr Hayley Bishop, senior fellow, Solar Academy of Sciences , Circa 2411
The precursor races are a mystery that have dominated interstellar politics from the moment they were first discovered. Where they were discovered, they helped catapult those who found them into the stars. It is rumored that the origins of the Solar Empire came from Stygian ruins on Venus. The first entries into the great repositories of the Fahikh came from an Ancient repository on Indi. Although the truth of this is still hotly debated to this day. Precursor relics, ruins and even the smallest bit of detritus of these once powerful races often get treated as the highest of imperial priorities, universally referred to as artifacts. The technological supremacy of both the Coalition and Directorate speaks to why they’re treated so.
Doctors Gerald Skipson and Hayley Bishop of the Solar Academy of Sciences are credited with establishing the baseline of precursor knowledge. Firstly, by discovering the distinct radiological signature that all precursor technology seems to share, and then by developing a classification system to catalog all discoveries. In the subsequent four hundred years of research and discovery, their work continues to form the foundation of all research into the Precursors, no matter the empire of origin.
The Erandi Codex
Whilst precursor sites have been researched since the empires reached the stars, it wasn’t until first contact in 2320 that a comprehensive profile of those who came before was established. Just over a hundred years after the Directorate and Solar Empire met, the Stygian war would exponentially increase the wider understanding of precursor technology, as a Stygian database was captured following a battle with a Stygian fleet. Named the Erandi Codex, after the system it was recovered in, it became the de facto, declassified database on just what the Stygians and other precursors were.
The Erandi Codex revealed that the Stygians had been a galaxy spanning empire, with a proclivity for developing exceptionally powerful synthetic and artificial intelligence. It detailed how these AI empowered them to spread throughout the stars, uncovering the history of the “Ancients”. However, unlike the empires of the current era, the Stygians saw the relics of the past as an existential threat. They poured considerable resources into cataloging their discoveries into discrete databases, now known as Antediluvian Indexes. Once recorded in an Index, the Stygians would secure them on “vault worlds” that spanned their empire.
It was for this purpose that the Erandi Codex indicated the Stygian Automata Ascendancy (SAA) was created. A force dedicated to the hunt for artifacts, no matter the cost. Like all their AI, it was empowered with what appears to be almost total free will to complete their mission.
The Codex had a notable gap, a break in its recordings where the only translatable references mention a “torrent” and nothing more. Its last, consistent recordings refer to an empire now extinct. On the run from their own servants, the SAA. The codex makes no explanation for why the SAA were hunting and eradicating their creators, but some scholars have argued the last line entered offers some clue.
“We built a garden. A safe… yet we didn’t account for the weeds…Weeds we didn’t even know existed…hidden deep…We built a garden.”
— Erandi Codex , Z-22110-D
Of course, the translation could be entirely wrong. What is known of the Stygian language is cobbled together from the Codex and several Indexes, and even after three hundred years of research, nothing is certain.
A mirror, darkly
Beyond the direct knowledge we have of the Stygians, both through their records, and through limited discoveries throughout explored space, xenoarchaeologists have used quantum dating to identify two other distinct time periods of precursor races. Although any respected expert is quick to insist any understanding claimed is at best flawed, and at worst entirely false.
The Ancients. This is the race or races the Stygians focused on the most. Whilst there is no distinct technological trait for this era, they all have a specific quantum date frame. It is suspected that due to the tenacity of the Stygians and the SAA, very little remaining of the Ancients exists outside of Vault worlds.
Other than the Stygians and Ancients, one other distinct, unified category remains, designated the Primeval by Dr. Skipson. There are very few, physical examples known to exist of this epoch, at least publicly. Their technology is beyond powerful, with even the best scientists admitting they can barely understand their operations; more akin to magic than technology. The presence of a Primeval artifact is widely considered justification for deployment of an entire battlegroup to secure it.
An Automated Ascendancy
First encountered during the “Stygian War” following the near singularity event suffered by the Solar Empire, the Stygian Automated Ascendancy has plagued the civilized words ever since. Existing past the deep void between the spiral arms of the galaxy, their ships will flit in and out of the border edge worlds from time to time, sometimes passing silently, sometimes demanding supplies, and sometimes leaving nothing but ash in their wake.
Long term communications have never been established, and border conflicts with their “exploratory” fleets is common. It is estimated that roughly thirty percent of the ISTO’s total military capacity is aligned to protecting the edge from the SAA. Whilst small in number, any conflict with the Ascendancy has resulted in significant casualties due to their enigmatic, advanced weaponry.
Whilst they have never engaged in long term diplomatic relations, they have clearly influenced interstellar politics, the most recent overt example being the provision of still classified technology that allowed the Federation’s “FTL supergun” to fire, leading to the Shattering.
Following the devastation of the FTL lanes, the Stygians launched a series of raids into Coalition and Directorate space which, whilst eventually repulsed, is arguably the reason the ISTO accepted the armistice, rather due to than the Shattering itself.
Precursor Classification System - "Skipson Scale"
Artifact classification is handled using the Skipson Scale. Developed by Dr. Skipson it features several data points;Firstly, the distinct Epoch, followed by its power level, then by its area of effect, and finally by the appendation of a specialist marker, if necessary.
Split into four distinctly identifiable categories:
Stygians - The most ‘recent’ precursor empire, the creators of the Stygian Automata Ascendancy and of "vault" worlds (like Onia) where they attempted to contain other precursor artifacts. Under the Skipson Scale, Stygian Artifacts are prefixed with an X.
Ancients - Available evidence points to this epoch being a collection of Empires, rather than a single monolithic entity like the Stygians. There can be significant variation in the physical appearance of their structures and technology albeit the chances of finding it working and intact outside of Stygian vault world's is unlikely. Under the Skipson Scale, Ancient Artifacts are prefixed with a V.
Primeval - The earliest of the known living empires. Extremely rare and enigmatic technology, very, very limited understanding. Under the Skipson Scale, Primeval artifacts are prefixed with a C.
Aberration - Doesn't fit any of the established epochs. Esoteric, or unexplainable. Used for artifacts that aren’t easily identifiable as any of the three established epochs. - Under the Skipson Scale, Aberrations are prefixed with a N.
A scale of its power output based on its detectable zero-point energy signature also known as Skipson-Bishop Radiation, or SBR. Using the old Greek alphabet, the first twenty characters are used to describe a scaling amount of detectable SBR from Alpha (α) to Upsilon (υ). Phi (φ), Chi (χ), Psi (ψ) and Omega (Ω) are reserved for specific cases, where the detectable amount of radiation indicates a specific risk that will be identified by the notes.
Area of effect
A measure of its effect on the planet or star system it resides within. A ten point scale ranging from 0 to 10 that goes as follows: 0, the owner; 1, a single individual; 2, a group of individuals; 3, a city block; 4, a city; 5, multiple cites; 6, a single continent; 7, a hemisphere; 8, a planet; 9, a planetary system; 10, the star system.
Artifacts that have no easily measurable range are marked with an A; a range greater than one star system an E ; a range spanning greater than ten star systems an X.
The official list of 'specialist markers' is maintained by the Solar Academy of Science, however various other interstellar institutes, such as the Federal Research Complex on Voltker, maintain competing lists. Additionally some organizations such as the Interstellar Intelligence Agency have their own combination of markers.
These markers can range from a single letter, such as F for artifacts with temporal properties, to a combination like the IIA's marker for Shattering related artifacts, STR.
An example of a fully completed artifact classification would be X-α7-F. This would be a Stygian artifact, with a low amount of detectable SBR but with a suspected effective range spanning a single continent, and holding temporal properties.
With the exception of the WBA, all interstellar powers have exceptionally stringent laws in place to govern who can and cannot interact with precursor technology. Within these states, any individual who doesn’t immediately report the discovery of suspected precursor artifacts to the authorities is liable to face severe fines. Attempting to conceal or sell the items will likely result in a life prison sentence. For those brave (or stupid enough) to attempt unlicensed research, or to smuggle them to another empire, a kill team kicking in their door will be their likely fate. Every empire maintains dedicated special operations units dedicated to enforcing their Artifact laws.
The WBA remains the sole exception. Whilst there are laws about notification and licensed research, they aren’t nearly as stringently enforced or investigated. It’s often left to the local law enforcement teams to handle, and whereas the Coalition and Federation are notoriously stingy on allowing private industry access to precursor technology, the WBA takes a more laissez-faire attitude.
This attitude is largely suspected to provide the corporations that make up the WBA’s primary interests with the latitude they desire when engaging with the numerously discovered vault worlds within the White Belt. Whilst the interstellar powers may openly complain at the attitude taken, it is simply lip service; the lackadaisical enforcement allows their own proxies to operate with impunity within the WBA.