Horizon Breaker Class Exploratory Mining Vessel
Hyperbolic Stellar Warp Trajectory
240 AUs from Gamma Tauri
The Stoneburner fell through the warp tunnel towards Gamma Tauri, dragged along inside a wave of spacetime at two hundred times the speed of light.
“Ten minutes until warp tunnel collapse.” Alice Pendragon said from her console in the Mining Information center. The tension in the MIC was thick enough to cut with a knife. Alice drummed her fingers on the console and Kaito Pendragon had started using a nicotine vaporizer again. Owen McGregor took a deep breath, but despite his attempts to keep calm, his heart was racing.
They had gamed out every possible scenario they could encounter during their time in the warp tunnel. Their ship would exit warp on the edge of the system and train their telescopes down on Gamma Tauri b. Due to the similar relative motion of all the Hyades Cluster stars, they wouldn’t even need to perform a deceleration burn upon exiting warp. If the aliens were there, they would launch a Lighthorse with emergency personnel riding strapped to the outside, which would perform a short warp into the system and attempt a rescue. The Stoneburner herself remain at a perch on the edge of the system, overseeing the operation from a safe height.
The hope was that none of that would be required, and the Jabberwocky would be intact, along with Gamma Tauri b. In that case, they’d just have the Jabberwocky boost up out of the planetary orbit and they’d help install the other EMV’s warp ring so they could return to Aldebaran together.
The countdown clock until their exit from warp ticked down ominously as the ship hurtled closer to its sister. The distorted space visible through the camera feeds resembled a rainbow kaleidoscope of swirling colors; the intense distortion of the warp tunnel blue shifted the cosmic microwave background into the visible spectrum, turning the view ahead into a whirl of light.
“Five minutes.” Alice said again, breaking the heavily settling silence.
“I can read the clock Alice.” Kaito said irritably, taking another drag of his vaporizer.
Alice sighed and resisted the urge to chide him for falling back on his nicotine habit, they were all a bit frayed at the seams.
“Get ready with the telescopes. I want lens covers off and instruments pointed.” Kaito said to the MIC crew, sending several of the lower ranking system specialists into a last minute frenzy of activity.
The return from the warp tunnel into normal spacetime didn’t actually feel like anything. Unlike the jolt associated with the initial kick into the tunnel, the exit just happened. One moment, they were looking at the radial rainbow of the warp fields, and the next, it all vanished like a ripple on still water, and they were back amongst the stars.
“What do we see?” Kaito asked immediately in a tone that didn’t entirely hide his frustration at not having the information simply beamed directly into his head.
There was a moment of tense silence as the images resolved themselves, details appearing with every successive increase in resolution.
It was Alice who spoke first, her lips drawn into a tight grimace as her eyes fixated on strangely massive storm, lit by flickering internal lights deep within the atmosphere of the gas giant. “They’re already here.”
Newton Class Starship
8 AUS from Luyten’s Star
“I don’t actually think the bird-spiders are all that smart.” Cale said before taking a sip of his coffee. He and Ivy were sitting in the small observation lounge, looking out at a telescopic view of the alien ship, during a brief respite from the seemingly endless flurry of activity they had been inundated with since the aliens first made themselves known.
“Supporting evidence?” Ivy asked, raising an eyebrow from behind her own coffee cup.
“Just a hunch really. Something about the way they’ve interacted with us so far.” Cale shrugged and took another sip of his coffee.
“They did build that spaceship that’s bigger than our planet.” Ivy pointed out.
“Which just makes me wonder if they’re trying to compensate for something.” Cale smirked.
Ivy rolled her eyes. “Its impressive though, you’ve got to admit.”
“Oh yeah.” Cale said, “I mean, those rods of theirs apparently row through spacetime like oars somehow? Crazy stuff, but I stand by my thesi–”
The lights in the observation room all flashed to red, and the images on the wallscreens suddenly changed as Emmy stepped in and highlighted the flare of a distant fusion drive; a new ship had appeared in the system.
Jean’s voice entered Ivy’s ears through the room’s speakers only a moment later. “Ivy, Cale, we just detected the MNCV Netwon’s Prism drop out of warp 2 AUs from us, they’re requesting immediate status updates via tight beam.”
“Report shipboard situation nominal and send them all the regular reports.” Ivy spoke back to the disembodied voice. “We’re on our way to the bridge.”
Ivy swallowed the last swirl of her coffee and pushed herself out of the chair, gesturing for Cale to follow her as she slipped out into the main corridor in the aft spin gravity ring.
“They didn’t waste much time did they?” Cale asked rhetorically as they made their way to the bridge.
“Arriving now?” Ivy mentally tallied the days and distances and flight times, “They must have launched within a couple hours of getting our drone.”
As they entered the bridge, Jean jumped up from her seat, “I sent the reply to them, at their current range, we should have a response within a half hour.”
“Good good, is it just the one ship?” Ivy asked.
“So far yeah, but here, let me just play the message.” Jean answered. Her eyes went blank for a moment as she brought up the signal log on her implants and ordered it to play back over the speakers.
“MSCV FSF8 Empiricist, this is MNCV LAF12 Newton’s Prism acting as vanguard to MNCV CV4 Light of Ages and escorts, we require all relevant status updates and tactical data via tight beam. Failure to reply within 20 minutes of field propagation lag will be taken as a sign you have been compromised in some way. Repeat, MSCV FSF8 Empiricist, this is MNCV LAF12 Newton’s Prism–” Jean cut the audio before it’d had a chance to fully loop.
“Light of Ages huh?” Cale asked. “That means they’re sending the entire Third Fleet.”
“I guess we’re not the only ones spooked by all this.” Ivy acknowledged.
“You think Admiral Wallace still hates me?” Cale asked bemusedly.
“Well, you are still just a senior Pragmatist on scout frigate.” Ivy teased. “I’m five years your junior but I already outrank you, I suspect he still remembers.”
“Command track is different and I like this posting, I didn’t fight it.” Cale replied.
“That doesn’t mean you weren’t still stuck out here to have an example made of.” Ivy couldn’t quite keep the amusement out of her tone. “You’ve been at this long enough, if I were to compare you to other Pragmatists with your time in the service, I’d expect you to be the senior Pragmatist to one of the command battle groups by now.”
“That whole cake incident was ten years ago, I’m sure he doesn’t remember.” Cale insisted.
“He has a pretty long memory.” Ivy said skeptically.
Cale shrugged, “I guess we’ll find out.”
Autonomous Cargo Drone
Parabolic Capture Orbit
53,000 kilometers from Gamma Tauri b
Owen felt his body relax as the Lighthorse’s engines cut out at the conclusion of the insertion burn, his mass no longer pressed into the back of his spacesuit by the two gees of acceleration. Gamma Tauri b loomed large through his helmet, it’s pale bands of teal and orange concussing with waves of storms as a shining and bulging conflagration expanded on the horizon like a massive wart on the gaseous world.
Sensors Alice had rigged up fed into his helmet’s heads up display: the bulge in the world had already risen 5,000 klicks out of the atmosphere, and though the blast was in the middle latitudes, at its present rate of expansion, its margins would soon begin interacting with the inner edge of the ring system.
He watched a timer counting down on his HUD: the time remaining until their hastily improvised radio system reached communications range with the big dish on the Jabberwocky. They had outrun the light of the Stoneburner’s arrival on the edge of the system by several hours. Those hours were crucial though; The Jabberwocky still might not actually realize the ring was about to come apart, and while the Stoneburner’s telescopes were still looking at the beginning phases of the alien’s arrival, that was because the light they were seeing through their telescopes was already several hours into the past. In the intervening time, the storm they had seen on their telescopes had deformed upwards beyond the atmosphere, as if it was being lifted from beneath by the maker’s hand.
The Lighthorse was now entirely ballistic, coasting above the planet’s vast ring system as the world’s intense gravity captured the tiny drone ship into its orbital influence. Owen and nineteen other veteran EVA specialists were riding the Lighthorse, strapped to the outside in their suits by something akin to stirrups. The rings below remained placid, their vast rippling clouds of dust and ice interspaced with the ever-shifting glint of metallic asteroids seemed somehow lost in time, as if their destruction had already been witnessed, and he was just watching a rerun.
Timing, it all came down to timing; even after performing an expertly placed warp, dropping the Lighthorse directly into a parabolic capture orbit, they still had to swing a third of the way around the gas giant before the Jabberwocky would rise above the horizon enough for their radio to be in range.
He took a breath and turned back on the inter-suit channel.
“I don’t care who you think you are, I will turn this ship around right no-”
“Murphy!” He barked, silencing the voice of the young woman.
“Boss, tell her to lay off,” came next the voice of Maxwell Anders, “I was just making a joke.”
“You can stick your joke right u–” Eleanor Murphy started, but Owen accessed the administrative settings and simply muted them both at the server level.
“Enough of that, we are now twenty minutes out from contact. If the events at Amateru were anything to go by, we’re going to have another hour and a half at most before everything goes to hell. We are on the clock people!”
“Did you just mute Anders?” Jeffrey Carlton asked.
“Can I as mining foreman, not request twenty minutes to enjoy this ride with a little bit of quiet?”
“That’s a definite negative boss.” Isaac Banks replied, “See I ate this bean burrito before I got in the suit, and the gas just somehow keeps getting keyed up.”
Owen decided it was time for drastic action. He accessed his suit’s music library and started uploading it to the Lighthorse’s communications server.
Horizon Breaker Class Exploratory Mining Vessel
18,000 KM from Gamma Tauri b
“Mike have you ever seen anything like this?” Alicia Arrari asked her senior mining foreman with a frown as she watched the growing disruption on the far side of the world.
“I thought it was a storm at first.” Michael Tellerman answered her, “But it isn’t like any storm I’ve ever seen anymore.”
“Is it dangerous?” She asked, narrowing her eyes as she watched the lightning storms flickering at the margins of the blast.
“Most things in space tend to be.” He snorted, “But then, just about everything that can happen in the atmosphere of a gas giant will already kill you four or five times over, what’s one more?”
“The center of it is already 7,000 kilometers up from the usual top of the atmosphere.” The captain persisted as she tapped on the screen in irritation.
“It’s a big planet,” Mike reassured her.
“Alright, how’s the breakdown going on that chunk of xenotime?” She asked, turning away from the telescope inputs and floating the length of the ship’s Mining Information Center.
“We’re about seventy percent done with it. I’ve got twelve guys out there hacking at it now, so we should have it completely broken down within a few hours.” Mike replied as he followed along in her wake.
“Good, once we finish that I wanna climb up to 45,000 klicks, just to be on the safe side,” she said as she arrested her momentum on the back of an empty console chair.
“You sure about that? This ring has been pretty good to us, lots of valuable rocks here,” Mike asked as he floated past her.
“I don’t wanna risk it,” she flipped herself over the arm of the captain’s chair with the needless acrobatics of zero gee, “there’s an entire planet’s worth of minerals out there. Go find me Tom and Laura, we’ll move the ship once your guys finish with that xenotime rock.”
There were no sensors calibrated to measure the health of the ring system, no robotic eyes watching as the innermost margins of the ring began encountering the rapidly expanding deformation in the atmosphere.
As the faint inner edges of the orbiting ring were struck by the rising gases, they began to slow down and experience drag, pulling them into suborbital trajectories. The disturbance in the ring began to build as a standing wave, with higher velocity material slamming into the slowing flow, sending a cascade of impacts rippling outwards into the larger structure of the ring.
Mike slipped out the entrance to the bridge to fetch the navigator and XO, while Alicia strapped into her seat to avoid floating off and watched the growing storm on the satellite feeds.
The chunk of equal parts silicon and water ices had been orbiting placidly for several million years, tumbling around its siblings in a perfect balance of gravity and motion. At nearly five hundred feet long, its mass dominated its region of the ring, and it cast long eddies and gravitational ripples in its wake.
The initial collisional ripples were almost impossible to see as they propagated through the ring at several times the orbital velocity of the material inside of it, a wave not of fluid in any traditional sense, but an endless procession of successive impacts each leading to further impacts as it flowed silently across the ring structure.
The micro meteors struck the boulder first, peppering its surface like high speed birdshot but otherwise failing to harm the enormous stone. But, on the tail of the micro meteors was a two hundred-foot-long piece of irregular ferrite, which slammed into the rock of silicon and ice with the force of a moderately powerful nuclear weapon. The boulder was shattered into several pieces each with some of the ferrite asteroid’s momentum transferred to them, sending the wave rippling onward. Though the water component of the asteroid was instantly vaporized in the energy of the collision, the remaining, sharp-edged, silicon pieces remained mostly intact, their spinning velocities putting them directly on course for the exploratory mining vessel.
Impact alarms began going off suddenly in the Jabberwocky’s MIC, dozens of them began blaring at once as the cascading impacts sent more and more rocks careening in their direction.
In the time it took for Alicia Arrari to gasp in surprise at the alarms the micrometeor swarm had crossed the distance between the silicon rock and their ship and instantly reduced seven of the EVA miners to shredded meat.
Alicia fumbled for the comms switch and slammed down the shipwide, “Get everyone back inside now! We have an emergency situation!”
“We’ve lost lifesigns on Kellogg, Anderson, Franks, Henderson, Di’Mallio, Xi Tan and Kosca. Giovanni and Mitchell are still alive but injured and losing suit pressure!” Felicia Downing, the communications specialist, relayed to her.
“Get them inside now!” She shouted at the other girl.
The ship had already begun shuddering with impacts as Mike along with, Thomas Engel and Laura Wolf launched themselves through the hatch into the MIC.
“What’s going on?” Laura, her XO asked.
“I have no idea, all the collision alarms started going off at once, we’ve already had seven casualties to micrometeorites, something is disrupting the ring.” The captain explained.
“Do you want me to change our inclination and pull up out of the ring?” Thomas Laurent, the navigator, asked her.
“As soon as-” Her words were interrupted by a fifty-foot chunk of silicon scything through the primary centrifugal smelter. The spinning rock impacted the spinning smelter and both instantly disintegrated in a starburst of liquefied metal, shrapnel, and debris. Chain decompressions tore through bulkhead after bulkhead as the kinetic force spent itself in the hull of the ship. Alicia’s neck was yanked hard enough to give her whiplash as Mike, Tom and Laura were slammed into the far wall of the MIC. The command deck began filling with shouts and screams and cries of dismay, accompanied by a growing chorus of damage alarms and error messages, and something else.
It started faint and crackling but was growing stronger as time went on: the two hundred-year-old sound of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire was coming in on their wideband antenna.
Alicia cocked an eyebrow, trying to hear over the MIC’s din, she wasn’t sure if she was imagining it or not. “Is that…music?”