Horizon Breaker Class Exploratory Mining Vessel
30,000 KM from Amateru, Epsilon Tauri
Alice Pendragon drummed her fingers on her workstation in the EMV Stoneburner’s Mining Information Center. In her head, she was mentally ticking off the seconds until their next automated resupply shipment arrived from the Pioneer Station orbiting Aldebaran.
“You think they’ll finally send a new foreman to replace Higgs?” Her husband Kaito’s voice asked from over her shoulder.
“They’ll have to if they want us to keep working. Company policy says we need an approved foreman on duty to send anyone outside,” Alice answered him with a shrug. She pulled her hair from its bun and put it back up again, collecting all the stray red strands that had started drifting into her eyes in the process.
“They could always just promote someone here, phone in the training, and say they did their due diligence.” Kaito replied. Kaito was, in addition to her husband, also the ship’s captain. The Sino-Europan had captained the Stoneburner since before it had been purchased by Fabrique Intersolar, retrofitted with a temporary warp drive, and launched 155 light years out to the giant world of boiling gas they now leisurely orbited. Along with two other EMVs and Pioneer Station, the Hyades mining operations were some of the largest and most distant harvesting expeditions ever conducted. And yet despite helping mastermind the whole operation, despite holding enough shares to sit in on board meetings, and despite profiting handsomely from it, Kaito still held a rather dim view of the company overall. He usually expected the worst from them in terms of performance, and was always on the lookout for ways the company would try to screw him over.
Alice knew better than to indulge in his paranoia though, Fabrique wasn’t evil or anything, and in her opinion the company was one of the better mining outfits to work for. The CEO, Zephyr Athabasca, was a competent and driven woman, one with a vision for the future of humanity that Alice very much wanted to be a part of. It was a future of enormous gleaming cities in space, wondrous megastructures, and limitless potential.
“Five seconds.” She said to Kaito as she continued her mental countdown.
“Okay, final check on consoles people, look alive!” Kaito said loudly to the rest of the MIC personnel, clapping his hands together as he pushed off Alice’s chair and floated down the length of the room.
The Lighthorse appeared out of a ripple in the starlight, exactly on course and on time. It rotated out of the warp and immediately fired its engines in a bone crushing four gee suicide burn. Velocity was conserved through the warp, and while the vector could be rotated, it couldn’t have its value altered while within the warp tunnel. Thus when the Lighthorse ended its 90 lightyear and 164 day journey, it was traveling at tens of kilometers a second relative to Amateru, and it had to burn that speed off in order to rendezvous with Stoneburner.
A manned vessel would need to exit warp near the edge of the system, match velocities out there, warp closer, and repeat in a series of step downs that would be easier on the human crew. But the Lighthorse was automated, it had no crew, no internal hallways, it was basically just a warp drive, fusion motors, fuel cells, and attachment points for cargo pods. Any people it was carrying would be stored in hibernation tanks, stacked in like the rest of the cargo.
“We’ve got the signal from Lighthorse FI-2238, coming in strong, all its vectors look good.” Alice announced to the room, a tone of excitement creeping into her voice at the thought of new supplies from home.
She then frowned suddenly as a second Lighthorse dropped out seconds behind the first and replicated the flip and burn. “Uh, Kaito…” She said, a sinking settled into her stomach despite the freefall, “A second ship just dropped out, squawking as Lighthorse FI-2453, also perfectly matching vectors for rendezvous.”
“Two of them?” Kaito asked her, leaning over her console. “Why would they send two of them?”
When fully loaded with cargo, the Lighthorses were roughly the size of eight city buses stacked together. However, compared to the massive internal bay on the Stoneburner the drone ships seemed relatively puny, dwarfed by the massive chunk of relatively pure platinum that had been found and strapped into the hold until it could be entirely smelted and offloaded, not to mention the Stoneburner herself. Pressurizing the bay would have consumed far too much air, so it was kept in vacuum and unloaded by EVA workers assisted by robotic limbs. Alice watched all this rather pensively from the observation windows on one wall of the bay. Somewhere behind her, Kaito was drifting about as he read the reports the Lighthorses had brought with them. Unable to pace in freefall, Kaito had taken to gently pushing himself from one wall to the other, then back again, his forehead was creased into a deep frown as he studied the reports on a small tablet. .
“The second ship is nothing but cases of hibernation pods.” He said finally as he stopped studying the manifests. “And only about ten of them have people in them now.”
“They expecting a fight? Planning for us to have to ditch the Stoneburner?” Alice asked him, still following the unloading with her eyes. “That’s enough pods for the entire crew. And if the second Lighthorse stays here, it could function as a deep space lifeboat.”
“The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg went dark. Total loss of contact, no one’s sure what happened. There’s a ship headed out that way now, but it’ll be a while before it reports back. They want us to be ready to jump ship if something happens.” Kaito rotated and pushed off the wall again.
“My father was on that ship.” Alice said tightly.
“Actually, your father is one of the ten people packed into that Lighthorse, he was on sabbatical aboard Pioneer Station and they pulled him as our new mining foreman.” Kaito said matter of factly.
Alice experienced a momentary flood of emotions. First, fear and loss at the idea that her father might be dead, followed by relief that he wasn’t accompanied by dismay that he was in fact about to join them and anger that he was once more intruding into her life, followed by guilt at feeling that way after just moments ago facing the idea that he might have been gone.
This all conspired to turn her next sentence into nothing but a string of unintelligible syllables and half starts.
“You think he still hates me?” Kaito asked lightly.
Alice groaned. “We’re about to find out.”
Owen McGregor’s fist connected solidly with Kaito’s face, the two of them rebounding off one another in the microgravity. “That’s for marrying my daughter without permission!” He said grumpily, still somewhat hungover from the suspension fluid.
Kaito pushed off the wall he was drifting towards and threw himself at Owen, clocking him upside the jaw and sending them flying apart again. “That’s for not giving me permission!”
The two growled at one another for a moment and then both broke into a fit of chuckles. In freefall, most of the force of their punches had been expended pushing them away from each other, resulting in, while not quite love taps, certainly not the wrecking blows that the two men had intended to impart on one another.
“I spose I’ve had that one comin’ fer a while now.” Owen said finally, shaking his head.
“I see you haven’t changed a bit.” Alice said sternly, breaking any sense of the moment between them. “You barge into my life again, punch my husband, and I notice you’re still referring to me as your property as well.”
Owen sighed, dipping his head and attempting to look forlorn, an effect somewhat spoiled by the lack of gravity. “Oh Alice, I know. I’m trying to change, I came out here to try and make amends. Do right by you and your man.”
“Well you’re off to a terrific start Owen, don’t stop on my account.” And with that she turned and floated stormily off.
“You really want to show her you’re sorry, pack yourself back into that hibernation pod and take the next Lighthorse out of here.” Kaito said finally, after watching his wife’s exit.
“We wouldn’t get much mining done if I did that now would we?” Owen said with a small chuckle. “Look Kaito, I didn’t ask to come here, scout’s honor, the company decided I was coming here after we lost the Golden Goose. I’ll stay in my quarters or my operator’s crane, I won’t cause any trouble, just treat me like you’d treat a totally unknown foreman and give me a chance to prove to you and Alice that I’m a good person.”
“That little speech would have been a lot better received if you hadn’t sucker punched me first.” Kaito said with a roll of his eyes. “But we need you, we’re behind schedule and that ring isn’t going to mine itself. But if you slip up, if you hurt Alice again, I will not pull my next punch.”
With that, Kaito turned and drifted away down the corridor, leaving Owen alone outside the medical bay.
Newton class starship
8 AU from Luyten’s Star
Ivy’s generation was the last to be born before the discovery of faster than light travel. She had begun her career as a military woman aboard the older generation of slower than light warships. In those days, it took the fastest ship several weeks to travel from Earth to Mars, and the outer solar system could be many months of travel away.
The distances had generated tension. The vastness of space had induced a new form of scarcity. Space was full of valuable resources, but they were distant beyond the ability of the human mind to easily grasp. Piracy and brushfire border skirmishes were on the rise, and the threat of a full scale war between Earth and Mars had loomed for two generations. That all changed seemingly overnight, with the development of the warp drive. Earth, Mars, colonies in the asteroid belt, even the gas giant worlds and their systems of moons were suddenly only seconds apart.
After the brief inevitable rise in tensions that this produced, the flood of new resources onto the markets began to settle humanity into a new equilibrium. The outer colonies began to actually prosper, the generation ships were contacted in deep space and became new centers of commerce for a growing fleet of superluminals, and a sort of new cosmopolitanism was rapidly becoming the dominant cultural force.
This left people like Ivy, who still considered herself a Martian before all else, feeling isolated and somewhat left behind in the brave new world that was developing. It was a nice place to live, but it had left her anxiously prowling the stars, waiting for something to finally snap, as if it was all some drug induced fantasy that they’d suddenly awaken from.
This feeling of nervous tension, like a lightning storm about to break but which never did, was the result of an epigenetic quirk from the ancestral environment. It was a particular twist in her genes that had activated as a result of her combat experience. It was something that Jean, who Ivy was convinced was going to break one day, either didn’t have the genetics for, or hadn’t the life experience to have activated.
And that was the difference when the two of them stared at the signature their telescopes had filtered out of the sunlight. When Jean Paoloni saw the strange, fractal silhouette, she was merely confused. For Ivy though, there was another response. Fear. Something deep and primal activated in the back of her mind, and she gasped aloud.
The entire bridge though, was silent, as the image fully resolved itself on the telescope. Even Cale was momentarily taken aback by the sight.
“Can it see us?” Ivy said finally breaking the moment of tension that had persisted since they’d left warp. Kestral was perched at the back of the room, and said nothing, Cale continued to gape at the strangeness of the object they were being presented with. “Can it see us? Anyone, do we have any fucking idea if that-” She pointed at the object on the monitors, “Is looking at us right now?!”
“Its uh, it’s a perfect black body.” Kestral finally managed to stammer out.
Cale turned towards Kestral, then back towards it, his words were subdued for him, dulled, “It absorbs all wavelengths of energy that enter it, it isn’t just casting a shadow, it’s also not reflective, it doesn’t radiate heat, we’re looking at the hole it generates in our visual field. If it’s able to get information from all of that light…”
“We’re leaving.” Ivy decided without preamble. “Jimmy start charging the ring, I want us at least a light year out from here, now. Jean, copy all of the data we have on this thing into the emergency courier drone and launch it.”
“It’s 8 AUs away, it will take 66 minutes for the light of our arrival to to reach it.” Cale said in the same calm tone.
Jean and Jimmy had already both launched into motion, Kestral was furiously collecting data, and Cale was alternating between staring at Ivy and staring at the wallscreens.
“We’re not going to stick around for an hour to see how it reacts to us showing up. We need to report back on the existence of this thing before we decide how or if we’re going to contact them. Jimmy, as soon as we complete the first warp, I want you to have a second already plotted up that takes us into the middle of nowhere, collaborate with Jean and see to it that that location is included into the emergency courier.”
“It’s already reacting.” Kestral said suddenly.
All eyes whirled back to the wallscreens as the rods comprising the object all began to extend themselves at high speed. Ivy tapped her foot impatiently as she waited for the warp tunnel to form.
“Emmy, can you calculate the extrusion speed?” Cale asked.
“Extrusion rate is calculated to be 18% of field propagation speed.” The AI helpfully reported without comment. Capacitors continued to dump energy and exotic matter into the alcubierre ring, bending deep space closer to them and wrinkling the fabric space between. Ivy was already mentally counting down the seconds in her head until the violent jolt of the kick hurled them into the warp tunnel.
“This began an hour ago, we’re 8 AUs away, it’s going at 20% of c, they would reach us in five hours,” Cale said breathlessly.
“So they already saw us. They decided to do this around the same time you were proposing we move the ship to get a better look at them.” Ivy’s voice had become just as hollow sounding. The image of the object vanished, its transit in front of the star at an end. “Jimmy, time to ring charge?”
“Seven seconds, command-”He was interrupted by the piercing shrill of a system failure alarm. The lights on the bridge blinked red and Emmy silenced him with a proclamation. “Warning, instability detected in warp conduit, disruptive standing wave forming in pathway, local gravity wave activity detected. Kick sequence aborted.” The lights returned to normal as the error message ended. The swearing started in earnest, with Ivy cursing out every computer ever built right the way back to the first abacus while Jimmy’s hands flew over his console as if he could somehow suck all the dumped XM back into the ring. Bedlam descended.
It was Jean’s voice, quiet and eerily level, that somehow cut through the hubbub. “Emergency courier launching,” She said softly. The ship thudded as the axial railgun discharged the probe at 1% the speed of light. The courier would let itself be flung into deep space before activating its small warp drive and heading for Sol. It would be over two weeks before it reached the nearest human and anything could be done about it, but at least somebody would know what had happened here.
Ivy turned to stare at her, then recovered her poise. “Thank you Jean,” she said, glad but a little chagrined that it was their flighty XO of all people who’d kept her head. “We, uh… should burn away from it, make sure none of those rods actually hit the ship.”
“We’d never outrun them…” Cale warned. “And we’d be smears on the bulkheads if we tried.”
“Oblique, then. It’ll buy us some time at least,” Ivy replied, already rising. “Everyone preset your consoles and begin making your way to the thrust bridge. Jimmy, spin down the torus.”
She turned and had already begun making her way to the ladder when Cale called out.
“Wait, something is happening.” The star was no longer occluded by the central mass of the object, so all that could be seen were the faint lines that the rods drew across the sun. Something had appeared in the object’s center though, a vast and diffuse blue glow came first, it rapidly grew brighter, more violet, and more opaque, wrought through by titanic electrical discharges.
The spectacle brought them all to a halt. The huge storm boiled up out of nowhere in space, sloughing off vast arms of ionizing gas and crackling silently with electromagnetic energy. It vanished nearly as quickly as it had appeared, fading to reveal a gargantuan starship, for that was all that it could possibly be.
“…Emmy. How big is that thing?” Jean asked. She seemed to have gone to an utterly calm and inquisitive place somewhere on the far side of panic.
“The emerging object appears to have an approximate radius of four million meters,” the AI announced, hedging the assessment. Ivy could hardly blame her: She was reporting that it was rather larger than Mars.
Somehow, the neutral and uninflected voice that Emmy used for conveying measurements contrived to make her sound awed. At least she’d helpfully rounded off—Ivy doubted if her nerves could have withstood a measurement accurate down to the centimeter, even though Emmy and her instruments could certainly have delivered an answer so precise.
The new object—the ship, she reminded herself—resembled nothing so much as an immense coral reef. It was a riot of color and organic shapes all splaying out in seemingly random fashion and was only roughly spherical at best. It disdained to have anything resembling a “front” nor any visible propulsion, a thrust axis, any apparent means of generating gravity… and if it did ever turn or spin then it must do so with diurnal slowness otherwise the centripetal effect at its outermost margin would have liquified the crew. Assuming it had crew, which was a big assumption to make about an object the size of a planet.
Kestral was muttering the skeptic’s mantra to eirself while picking over everything that was simply not possible about the new arrival. “If X is true I want to believe X is true. If X is not true I want to believe X is not true, if X is true, I… Cuss it!” Ey gave up and stammered out some frustrated gibberish for a second. “The-uh-tha-bu-it… Th-that… thing should collapse under its own mass!” ey accused. “The tensile forces are just… unless they’re propping it up with some kind of generated field, that whole object is made out of unobtanium.”
Before Ivy could reply to that, Emmy spoke up again. “The gravity wave distortions appear to be dissipating,” she reported. “We are also receiving structured signals along a number of varying electromagnetic frequencies.”
“Sweet baby Newton and all his apples… “ Cale muttered, running a hand over his scalp as he tried to collect his jaw from the floor. “…They’re talking to us.”
“Ivy,” Jean asked unhelpfully. “What do we do?”
Ivy licked her lips, straightened her jumpsuit, and sat down in her chair, scarcely able to believe the words she was about to say.
“…We initiate first contact protocols,” she said.