Kicking Starward

Newton class starship
MSCV Empiricist
Circular Orbit
15 AU from Luyten’s Star
January 2219

For whatever reason, wake-up alarms had always been designed by sadists. That was, at least, the only plausible explanation that came to the mind of Mission Commander Ivy Czininski as a horrible spike of sound drilled down into a rather pleasant dream about her vacation on Earth, and ripped her back into reality. A reality where, when she examined the time, she found to her disgust that she had slept for only three hours.

She blinked twice to bring up the head’s up display on the screens that had been baked into her retinas. When the cursor appeared, she swiped at the call accept icon and put an arm over her eyes to spare them the worst as the shipboard AI helpfully threw the cabin lights up to full brightness “…Yes.”

“Um… Commander, it’s Paolini here…”

Ivy suppressed a snort. She knew full well who was calling her, her painfully nervous Martian-Italian XO’s name was written in bright blue letters right there in her field of view… but there was no force in any physical model that might keep Paolini from fretting. She’d been dumped on the MSCV Empiricist at Acidalia Orbital and while she clearly knew her business inside and out when it came to the paperwork-and-payroll side of management, she seemed pathologically incapable of making independent command decisions.

“Yes, Jean. What do you need?” Ivy asked, pushing herself up onto her elbows and rubbing at the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger.

“Um… the, um, the warp drive isn’t working, commander.”

That woke Ivy up. “Define ‘not working’!” she snapped, lurching out of bed and ripping aside the curtain on her wardrobe. She grimaced as her head bounced off her over-bed locker again, but she really had more important things to worry about right now than her cabin’s too-low ceiling.

“Um, Chief Corbin insists that there’s nothing mechanically wrong with it…” Paolini hazarded.

Well, that at least meant the news wasn’t so catastrophically terrible as it might have been. It still demanded her immediate attention but they weren’t on the verge of being ripped apart by their own tidal forces or some other calamity, which meant that Ivy had time to grab coffee. Anything short of imminent obliteration could wait for coffee, even if it wouldn’t help the minor headache she could feel coming on..

“Okay. I’m on my way up. Czininski out.”

“Emmy turn those damn lights down.” She shouted into the empty room after the call ended.

The AI spoke back to her, using the calm if somewhat chiding female voice she always used when talking to Ivy. “I’m sorry Commander, but bright blue tinted lights will encourage wakefulness. You’ll thank me for this later.”

“Yeah I doubt that.” Ivy muttered bitterly as she shrugged into a jumpsuit, but her heart wasn’t in it—Emmy was almost invariably right about such things.

The AI’s function, for which she was exceptionally well-designed, was to anticipate and provide for the needs of the crew. This included making subtle adjustments that even the beneficiaries of her attention may not always detect. She had, for instance, an unnervingly accurate ability to decide when to brew the standard ship’s coffee, and when to tap into Ivy’s precious personal supply of the good stuff, which she now did. Ivy sometimes found it a little galling to be so calculable, but this time she sipped at the fresh brew, nodded appreciatively, and made her way to the hatch without further complaint.

Getting from the crew ring to the command ring required a trip in freefall via the central spinal shaft, with the half-litre of her precious Jamaican Blue Mountain safe inside a valved sip-cup. From the outside, she knew the Empiricist might have seemed fragile but in fact the evidence of just how sturdy her ship really was could be seen everywhere in the central axis. That spine had to be strong enough to survive having tonnes of titanium and aluminium anchored to it under a constant steady spin to provide spin gravity. More, it had to be strong enough to survive the strain that the mounted toroids imposed on it whenever the ship accelerated, and to have enough redundant strength to hold together even if damaged. Slender though she was, Empiricist had the same kind of deceptive invisible strength as a ballerina.  .

The spin bridge was crowded for this early in the morning. The petite and brown-haired Jean Paolini had called in almost everybody except Ivy first, which went some way to mollifying her. The fact that the other three members of the bridge crew hadn’t been able to help the XO solve the problem made her feel less like her time was being intruded upon.

Still. It would have been nice if Paolini could just calm down and give a straightforward summary of the facts. The normal shift crew on the bridge took turns between staring at their consoles and glancing worriedly at Ivy, while Jean paced before her nervously.

She was rambling at length, but Ivy had tuned her out entirely when it was apparent the younger woman couldn’t decide if it was more appropriate to self flagellate about how sorry she was this had happened on her watch, or just panic about the possibility of the drive being broken.

The ship had only been out of Acidalia Orbital for three weeks and the list of breakdowns and errors in their systems were rapidly approaching a kilometer long. At this rate, their ship would be entirely composed of spare parts by the time they returned to Mars.

Ivy let her XO continue in the background while she focused on consuming her coffee as quickly as she could without burning her throat.

“I swear I had Mathias check everything, but there could have been some sort of short in the control boards so I went up and tried again from the thrust bridge and it still didn’t work. If the drive really is broken though, then we should send out an emergency respo-”

“Would you stop pacing!” Ivy suddenly barked, causing Jean to freeze in her tracks and the rest of the shift crew to jump slightly in their seats. Ivy drained the last of her coffee. “You’re making me nervous.”

“Sorry.” She squeaked out.

Ivy just sighed. “Go get me a fresh cup of coffee and find Mathias,” she said, holding her mug out for the other woman. Jean took the mug with a slightly ridiculous amount of fanfare and then practically fled the spin bridge.

By the time she had returned with a fresh cup of coffee and Mathias Corbin in tow, Ivy had taken the opportunity to investigate undisturbed and start forming her own hypotheses about their situation. She accepted the drink with genuine pleasure—Jean really did make excellent coffee, Ivy could at least give her that.

“What’s wrong with it?” She asked the elderly Chinese-Martian chief engineer without preamble as he migrated to a place in front of her chair. She trusted that Jean had reported his opinion accurately, but it was always good to double-check just in case something new had come up.

“Nothing.” He said grumpily, having been woken up several hours before Ivy and being a habitual tea-drinker, the poor fool. Ivy liked him, even if there was something vaguely heretical about an engineer who eschewed coffee. “There’s nothing wrong with the drive. I looked over everything myself. The exotic matter is cracking properly, the ring is charging, the warp fields are even being generated properly… But for some reason, when we perform the kick the ship just doesn’t move.”

Ivy nodded, going over the problem once more in her head as she sipped her coffee. The good news was, lack of mechanical failures narrowed the problem space down into the range of not entirely catastrophic potentials. The problem was almost certainly to do with the so-called ‘step’, which was an unfortunately non-optional part of operating the warp drive.

Also known as the Alcubierre drive or even the Roddenberry drive depending on which side you wanted to be on in a bitter and long-standing argument, the warp field was quite capable of breaking planets if used improperly—bending spacetime around a starship and turning here into something more closely resembling there was no small task after all.
The ‘step’ (or ‘kick’ – another argument), solved the planet-smashing problem by moving the vessel along an axis of movement normally imperceptible to humans, pushing off the higher dimensional surface of spacetime before falling back down into three-dimensional space again. The distortion wavefront was thus allowed to relax without releasing its energy, pulling the ship to its destination in the process.

“You checked the boot I assume?” Ivy asked, referring to the exotic matter fueled device buried deep in the hull that generated the kick.

“First thing I checked when I heard about the problem, it’s not the boot, it’s not the field generators, the damn ship just isn’t moving when we kick it.”

“I’m really sorry to wake you over this, I know I did just the other night when the transformer blew in the third ring but I really just didn’t want to risk some sort of acci–” Ivy held up her hand, cutting off the Italian before she went off on another tirade.

“Jean, in the future, wake up Cale, not me, this is more of his thing.” Cale Rouschev was the ship’s Pragmacist, the problem solver. Nevertheless, Ivy was already awake and the coffee was already running through her brain. “Have you always been kicking in the same direction?”

“What do you mean?” The other woman asked, in weird realisation in her tone. She had been, it was obvious.

“Where exactly have you been trying to take us for the last few hours Jean?” Ivy asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Just 10 AUs closer to Luyten’s Star, standard flight plan, the one you approved last night.” The XO seemed to shrink a bit with each word.

Ivy just sighed and took a sip of her coffee. “Jimmy.” She said, turning to James Alderson, the navigator, “set in a new course, five AUs out from our current position with respect to Luyten’s Star, Charge up the ring and perform the kick whenever ready.”

She turned back to Jean even as Jimmy was telling her it would be 30 seconds to charge the ring. “In the future, you need to remember to expand your variable set when you’ve exhausted all the options within a current set. Mathias told you it wasn’t the drive, I’m sure, before you woke me up. The next step to take, is to see if maybe it’s the star.”

“I don’t follow your reasoning.” She said with a frown. “Luyten’s Star doesn’t have the mass to produce that sort of effect this far out.”

Ivy rubbed the bridge of her nose. Mass deformed the geometry of spacetime, and thus made it difficult to perform a kick into a gravity well: due to how gravity interacted with the ship during the kick, it was like trying to roll a ball up a hill. Jean was correct of course, Luyten’ Star, being far smaller than Sol, shouldn’t produce that sort of spacetime geometry unless they were trying to kick the ship into the coronasphere. Still, it was worth testing if for no other reason than to rule out a variable.

“True of course.” She answered the Italian woman, “But this is space, and who know’s what else might be out there distorting spacetime.” Once she actually said that aloud, it sounded a lot more ominous, and the sharp bang that reverberated throughout the entire ship as if a taut cable had snapped under tension didn’t help matters. Ivy gripped her coffee tightly as the liquid splashed within its sealed mug. The wallscreens before them changed scenes abruptly, and Jimmy announced the kick was successful even as Luyten’s Star seemed to grow dimmer and rush away at impossible speeds. Despite the relief upon knowing it wasn’t a problem with the ship that would leave them stranded in deep space, the strangeness of the event settled into Ivy’s stomach like a frozen comet core.

Δ

When Cale woke for his shift at 1000 and discovered the strange situation with the local gravity well, he was absolutely fascinated. The young Martian-Russian paced back and forth the length of the conference room, where he and Ivy were meeting. He was consuming donuts at a breakneck pace as he walked, while Ivy was working through her fifth cup of coffee that morning.

“It can’t be a regular black hole, it’s not massive enough for that, whatever is generating the distortion. It’s more massive than the red dwarf though, and once I got a good look at its track through space up close, it’s pretty clear that whatever it is, Luyten’s Star is actually orbiting it. That has implications for its interaction with Procyon back during the age of sail. But more importantly, the spot Luyten’s Star is orbiting has nothing in it, there’s no visible source of mass.” That was often how Cale communicated, in a strange stream of consciousness composed of hypotheses, facts, and oftentimes pointless diversions.

“Is it a threat to this ship?” Ivy asked over the rim of her mug.

“I have no idea.” Cale answered honestly. “I do think we should investigate though. We should be able to warp to within 8 AUs of the object, and we can cross the rest of the distance using sublights.”

“That would take a frankly irresponsible amount of fuel. And several months of travel at 1 G burn. It would eat into our other survey time. We’re only supposed to spend a week on this star, then we move on to Capella.”

“Not if it’s aliens, if it’s aliens, then it’s worth the time and fuel spent getting there.” Cale said this in the same perpetually energized tone he used for everyone, and it was impossible to pick out sarcasm from the mix.

“Aliens.” Ivy deadpanned.

“Even if it isn’t literally aliens, this is an alien event. An honest to Banks OCP. We’re sitting on the edge of a very novel and never before seen astrophysical object. It doesn’t even fall into a class of object we theorized the existence of. From this distance, we’d be able to see even a totally inert object via the reflected heat from the red dwarf, it’s a gravity field without a celestial body generating it. That’s not something we’ve ever seen before Ivy. Lets go poke the new thing.” He said the last part with an almost childlike glee.

“That’s just it though isn’t it Cale. There’s no object. Our telescopes don’t see anything in any spectrum, the interferometers are registering the gravity field, but there’s nothing else there. You want me to spent a month and a half, burning fuel and time slogging it through this boring solar system so that we can look at a particularly interesting part of empty space. ” Ivy sipped her coffee again, her stomach gurgled as if the hot liquid was interacting with the metaphorical comet core in her gut. The more she thought about it, the more the cold knot seemed to accrete.

“There might be an object, just one too small to detect. It could be a primordial black hole, or a neutron core or a chunk of XM that formed in real space and stabilized somehow.”

“All those things emit some form of energy in some wavelength, we’re not seeing any of that, but that’s sort of the point and I do see that. This could be something totally new, and that makes me inclined to spend a bit of extra time investigating it. We can back the schedule up a week, skip say, Capella H, get in as close as our warp drive allows, and spend two weeks or so looking around, but we can’t hang out here for a month and a half.” Ivy rubbed the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger.

“Unless it does turn out to be aliens.” Cale said with a smirk.

“Just go find me an object.” She said and shooed him out the door.

She sighed as she stepped back into the room alone. She sent a mental command through her implants, telling the wallscreens to stop showing the smooth wood paneling it had previously, and instead turned transparent, making it seem as if the table as floating on a platform through empty space. The dull red eye of Luyten’s Star shone dimly in the distance. It was nearly matched in brilliance by Procyon, off in another direction, and a practical stone’s throw away in warp drive terms.

Procyon had been surveyed six months ago by the MSCV Valley Forge who had found the system devastated by the recent passage of the red dwarf. Planets were cooked red hot and massive arcs of debris twinkled in stellar orbits. Two gas giants were in a tight unstable orbit with each other that would see them collide sometime in the next thousand years, and the ship had even witnessed two of the moons of those worlds slam headlong into each other, sending continent sized shards of rock tumbling in all directions.

Luyten’s Star, the nomad that had inflicted the devastation, was comparatively tranquil. It had one dead rocky world in its orbit, which bore a ring system and deep cratering on its surface, hinting at the violence it too had experienced in the recent stellar past. The existence of the new, invisible body within the system, did resolve a lot of questions about how something as small as Luyten’s star could have had the effect that it did. The conference table shuddered and the view shifted, the red dwarf growing rapidly brighter. Cale had authorized a kick to take them as close to the distortion as the warp drive would allow. Now it was just a matter of collecting the data. Ivy took another sip of coffee and continued in vain to try and melt the lump in her stomach.

Δ

“We should have seen it.” That was how Cal opened the senior staff meeting the next day. Before everyone present for the meeting had even finished sitting down, much less collected themselves and their notes, Cale was already throwing elaborate light cone diagrams up on the wallscreens.

Ivy ignored Cale and started the meeting in the usual manner. She flipped a toggle on her HUD, and a message told her that the AI was now monitoring the room to a high degree of precision. “Okay, it is January 17th 2219, Meeting 31 Mission 11 on the MSCV Empiricist, the topic of the day is Luyten’s star and its mysterious companion. Attending the meeting today are Mission Commander Ivy Czininski, First Officer Jean Paoloni, Pragmacist Cale Rouschev, Chief Science Officer Kestral Schiaparelli, Chief Medical Officer Orion Warrego, Chief Engineer Mathias Corbin, and Conscience Evangeline Daedaelia.” Ivy went quiet but didn’t sit down or cede the floor to Cale. Instead, she just calmly took a sip of her coffee and watched as he danced in place like he had an urgent need to urinate. He gave her a pleading look, and she finally sat down and motioned for him to begin.

“Luyten’s star is only 12 light years from Sol, and astronomers have been watching it for centuries. They would have noticed if it was orbiting some sort of black body. Ergo, the light emitted when this object arrived cannot have reached our Sol observatories yet.” 

“So, wait, what are you suggesting then?” Kestral asked, standing slowly and cutting Cale off mid-stream. “You think this object just popped into existence in the last 12 years?” The white haired androgyne had spent the last day looking at the same data as Cale, but ey had, unlike Cale, refrained from proposing any hypothesis for the anomaly.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying. This object is new, within the last twelve years new. I want to say it’s impossible without intelligent intervention, but we can’t entirely rule out some sort of natural phenomenon. Regardless, I have a plan to get a better look at it.” Cale changed slides and Ivy massaged the bridge of her nose as she tried to think of what they could possibly be looking at.

“How much of an effect has it had on the trajectory of Luyten’s star?” Ivy asked before Cale could start talking again. “Could we have overlooked it from Earth in the past? Could we run back the deformation in its trajectory to estimate an arrival time?”

“Massive, no, and I’m way ahead of you.” Cale said without skipping a beat. He flipped through several slides, and paused on a series of paths through space. The information on it was striking, Luyten’s Star appeared to begin veering sharply off in one direction about four and and a half years ago.

“Anyway,” Cale said, carrying on before Ivy had finished processing the disturbing illustration. “If we move the ship so the object is directly between us and the star, it will drastically increase our odds of seeing something. Even if it’s a perfect black body, we’ll at the very least see the resulting drop in luminosity where it blocks the sunlight.”

“What do you actually expect to see?” Jean asked, tapping her pen against the table absentmindedly.

“Aliens.” Cale deadpanned.

“Aliens?” Jean said suspiciously. “Like, little green men in flying saucers? You realize how statistically unlikely it is for us to find–”

“This whole thing defies statistical probability. Look, I didn’t immediately settle on aliens as a hypothesis. My initial best guess was a primordial black hole, but it just doesn’t match the data. The gravitational gradient around a small mass black hole is severe enough that our telescopes would easily be able to see the lensing effects from this distance. At this point the only thing I haven’t ruled out is a perfect black body, one small enough that our telescopes haven’t caught it occluding a star yet.” Cale looked only minorly apologetic at cutting off Jean mid-stream, but he kept going anyway to avoid breaking his stride. “This thing just showed up in the neighborhood four years ago, matched velocities with the star and started  deforming its orbit. It’s not natural. That doesn’t just naturally happen.”

That managed to shut everyone at the table up for a moment. Ivy felt the pit settling into her stomach again.

“Are we actually equipped to deal with this?” Evangeline asked, drawing the rest of the eyes at the table to her. The small nordic woman pursed her lips, she rarely spoke at these meetings. “There are protocols regarding first contact scenarios. If that’s what this really is, then we should consult them. Whatever this is clocks in at nearly a solar mass, that’s very concerning.”

“I don’t think anyone here is actually suggesting we try to talk to whatever is doing this.” Ivy replied to the Conscience.

“That might not be enough,” the small woman persisted. “If it is aliens, then they’re capable of deforming spacetime at scale we’ve never come close to matching. They could already see us, just being here could represent a potential existential threat to humankind. They’re clearly much more advanced than us.”

“So we’re all just jumping on the aliens bandwagon?” Jean asked skeptically. “Really guys, aliens? Is that the most scientific consensus we can come to?”

“Do you have a better hypothesis Jean?” Cale asked lightly, remaining unperturbed by her disbelief. “Because just about the only other one I have at this point is some sort of secret weapons test by another human ship.”

Jean shrunk back from the attention and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t.” She admitted.

“Don’t be afraid to challenge Cale, Jean,” Ivy advised. “He’s not always right, you know…”

Cale nodded self-effacingly and gave the XO an apologetic smile, which seemed to sooth Paolini’s nerves a bit. “It’s an extraordinary claim I’m making,” he agreed. “Extraordinary evidence will hopefully follow, but…”

Kestral nodded solemnly. “It’s exciting enough to be in a scenario where aliens are even a plausible hypothesis,” ey agreed. “We don’t want to get carried away.”

Δ

From a distance, MSCV Empiricist would have appeared frail: a filigree agglomeration of modules, struts, tanks, and toruses, all dizzily spinning around each other with gyroscopic precision in the vast emptiness of space. Despite this apparent fragility, she thrummed with barely contained power. Heat exchangers glowed dull red as they vented the heat of the fusion reaction into the void, the warp drive ring flickered with electromagnetic current, and her AI hummed along at billions of operations per second, digital thoughts sifting through millions of lines of code at a time.

A query from the bridge generated something analogous to a thought, and dozens of branching decision trees sprung into existence and collapsed as the AI considered and discarded possibilities. In the time a human took to blink, the thought had completed and signals flooded out into ancillary systems as commands.

From a god’s eye view, its white matte surface would seem to twinkle in the dull red light. The vessel rotated herself in space, and then lept away in an instant, vanishing into a ripple in the starlight. Intra-system warps were, from the perspective of the crew, instantaneous, the ship simply didn’t linger in the warp tunnel long enough to perceive.

As the ship snapped out of warp and back into normal spacetime, her telescopes were already panning towards the star, and almost instantly noticed a 3% drop in the luminosity.

Far away, across space, something else stirred, noticing a new star, twinkling in their own telescopes.

 Δ Next Chapter

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