Fabrique Intersolar Deep Space Station
30,000 kilometers from Aldebaran b, Aldebaran
Dianica Botheys awoke with a gasp, her consciousness rising groggily out of a painful sea of nonsensical dreams. She could feel nothing from her body but the static-y sensation of pins and needles, and her vision blurred in a way that would have made her stomach churn if she could feel her stomach.
Zephyr Athabasca was there beside her again, just as before, but she was no longer smiling, “Dianica,” she pursed her lips, “I’m not sure how to say this.”
Dianica’s wits were slowly coming back, but she still couldn’t actually feel anything from her body. “Truh ushing ur erds,” she slurred out, unable to feel the muscles in her jaw. This had been Dianica’s existence since she’d first woken from the hibernation pod. Time seemed to slip rapidly past between her brief periods of lucidity. Each time, Zephyr had been there with words of encouragement. Dianica knew she was trying to help, but she was starting to find the young woman a bit insufferable.
“Your body is not in good shape,” Zephyr said finally. “A lot of the damage will be permanent. You’ve suffered major genetic degradation from the radiation exposure, most of your organs are nonfunctional, and we’re currently keeping you alive on life support.”
“Great,” Dianica mumbled back sarcastically.
“We can repair the majority of the damage by replacing it with cybernetics, but it’s very costly,” Zephyr explained, “Even with workers compensation paid out for your injuries, and even assuming you win the best case lawsuit you file against us for bodily harm, it still wouldn’t be enough to cover the full expenses. And frankly, that’s a shitty path to go down. Alternatively, you can update your contract with us, agreeing that you will continue employment with us for at least the duration of time it takes to pay off the cost of the augments.”
“Thas a shitty offeh,” Dianica complained.
“Yes, I’m sorry I had to present it this way,” Zephyr sighed, “but equipment of that grade is a major investment and we need an assurance that you won’t take it, then turn around and sue us anyway.”
“Ish tepting,” Dianica admitted, “Thish wouldnta happehed ish yohed ushed fushan reashters.”
“The aliens would still have happened,” Zephyr countered, “If you’d had a fusion reactor, it would have been busted by the impact that broke containment. And then you’d have all died in the ablation cascade.”
Dianicia said nothing and shut her eyes. Zephyr was right, that was the problem really.
“Look, I didn’t want any of this to happen, and I want to make it right, but I also want to keep this company afloat. Now more than ever, our resources are going to matter. The future of humanity might hang in the balance, do you understand?”
“Fushure of humanity?” Dianica asked her, “Wush tha sposed to mean?”
“You made first contact with an alien civilisation Dianica,” Zephyr answered. “What happened to you and your ship is going to be in history books. What our company does out here over the next couple years is going to turn the helm of time.”
“Ish all pretteh fucshed up,” she slurred.
“Nevertheless, this is the hand the universe has dealt us,” Zephyr replied, “So please, accept the contract and let me help you.”
Dianicia thought about it for a while, weighing the bad options she’d been presented with, and finally sighed. “I’ll do ih,” she said, “What happesh next?”
“Next we put you under again and get you prepped for surgery,” Zephyr said, moving off to the side. The ocean of unconsciousness once more dragged her under as the anesthetic chemicals coursed through her ruined body.
Horizon Breaker class Exploratory Mining Vessel
Hyperbolic Stellar Warp Trajectory
42,000 kilometers from Aldebaran b, Aldebaran
The MIC of the Stoneburner was severely overcrowded when they fell out of the warp tunnel after one hundred and sixty-two days of travel. Much of the bridge crew from the Jabberwocky had found places in the MIC, and the already vaguely claustrophobic environment was feeling positively cozy to Owen McGregor.
He leaned against Alice Pendragon’s chair as she linked to the Pioneer station mainframe and established a connection.
“I have a link established, what should we say?” Alice asked, looking past Owen at Kaito Pendragon.
“Just send them everything,” Kaito answered her, “All of our data, all the logs, everything. We can talk to them after they get all of that.”
Kaito’s attempts to pace were hampered by the number of people in the MIC, and he leveled a burning glare at Mike Tellerman when he stumbled over the other man.
“Ten seconds left on the exit burn,” Eleanor Murphy’s voice came simultaneously from the pilot’s cradle and the shipwide speakers, “Everyone prep for main engine cut-off.”
Owen grasped a support column and engaged the magnetic locks in his boots while mentally counting down the seconds in his head.
“Stoneburner, Captain Pendragon, this is station commander Gyeong Huygens, what are you sending us?” A voice came through the speakers from the communications array.
“Should I send a response?” Alice asked her husband.
“Pack in a text response, I don’t want to take the bandwidth from the data transfer to do an audiovisual feed,” Kaito said, grasping a support column at the last moment before thrust cut out and the ship went into freefall.
“Anything, in particular, you want me to tell them?” She said.
“Say the mining sites are all compromised.” Kaito said, “Say the Jabberwocky was destroyed with a minor loss of life, but that we saved almost the whole crew. And say that there are aliens in the Hyades Cluster. Details included in data transfer.”
“Copy that,” she said, “Sending now.”
“Stoneburner receipt of last message acknowledged,” was the station commander’s only response.
“I think we spooked them,” Alicia Arrari said from her seat near the pilot’s cradle.
“Given the circumstances, fear seems like a reasonable thing to feel,” Owen remarked.
“We have docking vectors for the station,” Murphy said over the intercom, “There will be a series of minor course adjustments during docking.”
“I’m more interested in what happens after everyone finishes freaking out about aliens,” Alice interjected, “When we decide to actually go talk to them.”
“You think the company is going to send an expedition out to talk to the aliens?” Laura Wolf asked incredulously. The room shifted as Murphy rotated the ship and aligned it with the docking bay.
“Have you met Zephyr?” Alice said with a chuckle.
“Have you?” Laura retorted.
“Yeah actually,” Alice said, “A few times, she is definitely a force of nature.”
“Stoneburner, Zephyr Athabasca and Doug Farragut will be at the airlock when you dock, Captains Pendragon and Arrari are requested to meet them there prior to regular deboarding,” Commander Huygens said over the radio.
“Send them an acknowledgment,” Kaito told Alice, “Alicia, shall we?” he made eye contact with the former captain of the Jabberwocky, and she nodded and began unstrapping herself.
“Alice, Owen, Mike, and Laura, y’all should accompany us,” Kaito said, “Murphy, complete the docking, you and Tom have the deck.”
“Spose it’s time to face the music,” Alicia said wistfully as she floated across the room.
“Relax Alicia, Zephyr’s not going to punish you,” Kaito assured her as he drifted towards the hatch.
“You sure about that?” She snarked, “I lost an entire EMV.”
“But we saved the entire crew,” Kaito rebutted.
“You did,” she said, “I just had a meltdown.”
“You’re too hard on yourself,” he said with a shake of his head as he slipped through the hatch.
“Or maybe you’re not hard enough on yourself,” she replied before the hatch closed and they were both out of earshot. Murphy sighed as the room mostly emptied and the noise level came down to a point where it wasn’t interfering with her focus.
The deck shifted laterally as she began sliding the huge mining ship sideways through space towards the airlock.
“Brace for docking,” Murphy said a moment before they were all thrown to one side as the ship came to a halt relative to the orbiting structure. A series of bangs and clanks reverberated through the hull as they touched the docking points and magnetic locks and clamps began engaging.
The sounds continued for a few more seconds as gantries swung themselves into place and locked in, firmly securing ship and station, and then it fell silent.
“Docking completed,” Murphy said over the intercom, “Welcome back to Aldebaran.”
Fabrique Intersolar Deep Space Station
30,000 kilometers from Aldebaran b, Aldebaran
The implants activated before her mind fully did, throwing up welcome messages and diagnostic screens in crisply rendered detail. The juxtaposition completely violated her groggy half-waking state; the implant images felt like they were being seared into her mind. Thoughts not her own were deposited directly into her consciousness by a foreign agent, and the sensation manifested like a painful screech. Strange feelings that she couldn’t exactly map to prior senses flooded in from limbs that felt bizarrely distinct from her own. After months of numbness, the sudden torrent of sensory data was enough to drown out everything else. And what was that horrible screaming? Oh, it was her.
Dianica opened her new eyelids and the world exploded into light and detail. The multispectral cameras that had replaced her eyes bombarded her mind with more data than she knew how to deal with. The various detectors in her visual cortex started going into overdrive and her visual field started to resemble an acid trip, with objects and faces swirling out of an indiscernible mass of color and light.
“Dianica?” Came a voice that was both all around and within her, and also standing at a precise location in the room they occupied. The face associated with the voice was at once Zephyr, and several varieties vaguely nightmarish imagery from the new multispectral cameras.
“What? Zephyr?” She said. Her voice felt alien to her, it was her own voice, crisp and unimpeded, but hearing it come out after barely thinking the thought produced a strange disconnect in her mind. A feeling of heavy unreality clouded over the entire situation.
“We’re balancing your implant feeds,” came Zephyr’s voice from both close and far away, “relax, this will pass as your mind gets used to the new sensory data.”
Dianica’s perception of time was nonexistent, she had no idea how many minutes or hours had passed in the grip of the dissociative fog of sensory overload before the world slowly began to make sense again.
She was laying in a bed, she could feel the fabric of the sheets against every point of her skin, along with a host of temperature and pressure information that previously had been indescribable qualia, somehow converted into discrete graphs and matrices.
As she slowly learned to control the implants, her visual field became more manageable. She learned to sort out the different spectra of the camera feeds from one another, and the acid trip visuals gradually faded away.
The feeling of regaining consciousness in her new body felt to Dianica like waking up from a luridly intense psychoactive experience. The realization of herself and her circumstances felt like the end of a long and terrible nightmare in the moments before the memory evaporated in the morning sun.
When she finally regained enough of herself to try and move, she found it was actually easy. She sat upright in the hospital bed, going dizzy for a moment as her balance shifted for the first time in weeks. The act of moving her body seemed somehow easier than before, her limbs responded to her effortlessly, and there was no feeling of exertion associated with the process.
“Welcome back,” Zephyr said with a smile, standing up from the chair beside her bed. The voice came from what Dianica thought of as behind her and it took a moment to register the fact that she had three hundred and sixty-degree vision.
She looked down at her hands. She could see the thin seams between her joints where the artificial fingers were stitched together. Her eyes traced up her artificial arms while simultaneously studying Zephyr, the realization then hit her that she was focusing on multiple points in her visual field at the same time.
“Take it slow, it will take some time to adjust,” Zephyr said soothingly as Dianica started to feel a rising panic at her inability to find the place where the artificial flesh gave way to real skin.
“How much of me did you take?” Dianica asked in despair.
“Almost all of you,” Zephyr said softly, “We were only able to preserve your brain and spinal cord.”
“What am I Zephyr?” She moaned, “What did you turn me into?”
Horizon Breaker class Exploratory Mining Vessel
Docked at Pioneer Station
30,000 kilometers from Aldebaran b, Aldebaran
The airlock hissed open and revealed the long gantry running into the station proper. Kaito pushed off the floor and gently floated along ahead of them. Alice and Alicia followed closely in his wake, while Laura, Mike, and Owen, clomped down the corridor in their magnetic boots, preferring the awkward gait to complete freefall.
The gantry terminated in another airlock, which everyone piled into and impatiently waited to cycle. The inner door finally slid open, revealing their rather pensive looking CEO and CTO in the threshold to the station.
“Welcome back to Pioneer,” Doug Farragut said, extending a hand to shake, a somewhat awkward maneuver in the freefall environment of the hangar bay.
A round of handshakes occurred and Zephyr finally spoke, making eye contact with Alice and asking, “so you saw the aliens?”
“We saw the aliens, they’re real,” Alice replied seriously, pursing her lips.
“That’s three out of three then,” she said to Doug, frowning.
“The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg?” Kaito asked her, inquiring as to the fate of the other EMV.
“What was left of her came out of warp with almost no survivors back in February,” Doug explained, “Same aliens you encountered.”
“And they outright destroyed the Jabberwocky?” Zephyr asked, “You sent a lot of logs, I haven’t had a chance to do more than glance at them since your arrival.”
“Actually uh,” Owen said, “We sorta destroyed the Jabberwocky. When the aliens showed up, they kesslered the ring and the primary fusion motor on the Jabberwocky was destroyed by a rock strike. We couldn’t get the ship out of the danger area, so we just loaded everyone into Lighthorses and warped them straight out of the hangar bay.”
“Clever,” Zephyr admitted, her eyes shifted from Owen to Alicia, boring into her with that far-too-intense gaze, “casualties?”
“Twenty-seven,” she said sorrowfully, eyes fixed on her feet.
“That’s…legitimately an impressive job everyone,” Zephyr said honestly.
“It was a hacksaw and duct tape job,” Alicia remarked.
“It was that,” Owen said proudly, “but we did it.”
“You came back alive, and after what happened to the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg, that’s more than I’d hope to ask for,” Zephyr admitted, “After losing one EMV the way we did, I was afraid you might all be dead.”
“You won’t be getting rid of us that easily,” Kaito said with a chuckle.
Zephyr grinned and beckoned them towards the station lifts, “Well come on, let’s get off this deck so your crew can start disembarking. I’ll want to hear the full story of course.”
“Where should we start?” Alicia asked somewhat sullenly.
“Let’s start with the first appearance of abnormality by either of you,” Zephyr said as she led the group to the elevator. Alicia looked to Kaito and he nodded.
“It was actually Alice who noticed something first,” Kaito said, turning to look at his wife, “You noticed the storm on Amateru back near the end of January, and it took a few days to build into everything going completely to shit and the aliens popping out of the middle of the explosion.”
Alice nodded in agreement, “It was one of the stranger things we’d seen, but it didn’t seem dangerous at first,” she admitted, “At first it was just a particularly vigorous storm in the planet’s upper atmosphere. But then after a few days the whole area of the planet just, blew up.”
“How did you escape damage in ensuing kessler event?” Doug asked Kaito as the group boarded the lift.
“We took a lot of damage actually, it’s all logged.” Kaito told her, “but really we got lucky. We were in a relatively thin spot in the ring system when the cascade occurred, so we were warned to start getting out before we took any critical damage.”
“So you escaped the danger area with minor damage, made repairs, and went to Gamma Tauri?” Zephyr asked, mentally arranging the events in her head.
“Right,” Kaito said, “Because Owen pointed out that the aliens we ran into might also have been what took out the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg, and that they might also be bothering the Jabberwocky.”
“If you had arrived a single day earlier we would still have a ship,” Alicia remarked sadly, “They arrived shortly after the collisional cascade destroyed our primary fusion thruster.”
“Yeah,” Owen pursed his lips, “If we’d been any later, they’d probably all have died.”
“The point is, we got lucky,” Kaito said, “We made a lot of good decisions, but at least half of why you’re talking to us is that the dice happened to fall in our favor.”
Zephyr smiled, “That’s never not the case though, and in the conditions, you all performed admirably.”
“Where does that leave us now though?” Alicia asked, still somewhat bitter and pessimistic about the future after losing her home.
Zephyr snorted and chuckled to herself.
“What?” Kaito asked her.
“Next we show up at the alien’s doorstep with a court summons for violating our mining rights,” she smirked.
“I want in,” Alice said excitedly, “Whatever you’re planning with regards to the aliens, I want to help somehow if I can.”
“I might be able to arrange that,” Zephyr said.
“Where does that leave us, actual miners, while you’re doing that?” Alicia persisted, “We’re down two EMVs and we can’t use our mining sites.”
“We have mining rights on the Aldebaran b ring, the Stoneburner can mine that in the interim.” Zephyr replied, “It’s not as many valuable rare earths, but I have a feeling we might have a sudden need for a lot of common structural metals anyway.”
Zephyr paused for a moment like she was sizing Alicia up for a suit measurement, nodding to herself all the while. Alicia raised an eyebrow, trying not to wither under the unintentional intensity of her gaze. The elevator doors opened and broke the contact as everyone shuffled out into the station hub, magnetic boots click-clacking on the deck plating.
“Are we ready to test the printing equipment?” Zephyr asked Doug, “It’s all ready to go on your end right?”
“Theoretically yes,” Doug answered her as the group walked along the wide corridor to a lift into the spin drum. But we don’t have nearly the materials to start fabricating any of the designs you’d initially proposed.”
“Yeah ignore all that,” she answered, “we’ll come back to the colony structures later. Can we use it to whip up a few minimalist EMVs?”
“It’ll eat into our resource pool,” Doug cautioned, “But sure.”
“We’ll get resources faster with all our miners working,” Zephyr rebutted, “Make it happen.”
Alicia realized what Zephyr was talking about and suddenly hugged the smaller woman tightly, “Thank you,” she said, trying not to let her emotions come to the surface yet again.
Zephyr squeaked in surprise and somewhat awkwardly patted Alicia on the back before gently pushing her away.
“Anyway,” she said uncomfortably, “Aliens.”
“Alien miners even,” Alice added.
“Yeah,” Zephyr said, pursing her lips, “Makes you wonder what sorts of things they’re building with all that mass, doesn’t it?”