Boris J.Voeld was a powerful man, a great captain and a valiant subject of the Empire - at least that was what his autobiography would soon proclaim to the entire Empire, once it would be available on Galnet. Most of his liege's slaves would be greatly encouraged to read it, and given how powerful duchess Saaty was, it would mean at least several hundred thousand readers. The book had a very long first chapter that detailed the origins of his family, down to the first years of the 21st century on Earth. The family was very old even if Voeld was a rather recent surname - his grand-grand-grandmother had decided to choose it in the first years of their allegiance to the Empire, taking the name from a word in an Achenar dialect meaning "opulence."
And opulent he was.
Voeld was among the three richest men in his little moon of the Achenar system, which meant he was richer than about 99.9% of all people in the galaxy, and definitely richer than many a decent-sized planetary community. His brother was a prestigious general, his sister was a squadron commander and both his parents had gloriously died commanding their respective ships during the last war against the Federation. And in the imperial system, such a presence in the higher echelons of the military meant that with each campaign rewards would rain upon the family. Prestigious holdings on foreign worlds. Sprawling vineyards on fertile planets. Financial assets and companies seized on conquered worlds. Yachts and pleasure ships captured during militay campaigns. The finest slaves. And so on and so forth. With time, patience, and a lot of money, the Voeld family had managed to hoist itself to the highest ranks of the imperial circle, finding itself in the service of duchess Saaty, one step below finally being accepted as a noble family on Achenar.
The ship he now commanded was the crown jewel of its career. Two kilometers long, with its own dedicated squadron onboard, a fine complement of space-to-space and space-to-ground weaponry and enough supplies to cross the galaxy twice without resupplying, the Spear of Alune was a splendid ship. It was not the most powerful ship Voeld had ever commanded nor the fastest or the best equipped, but it was the only ship he had ever commanded over which he had almost complete control. For he wasn't in the imperial navy anymore, not exactly. He was in direct service of duchess Saaty, a woman in the inner circle of the Emperor. He had no admiral, no high command, no political officer above him. Nothing but duchess Saaty. Nothing but someone who was dozens of thousands of lightyears away.
The Spear of Alune had been underway for several dozen hours now, five hundred lightyears jumps at a time, travelling at great speed towards its target. In truth, Voeld cared little about the matter of the mission at hand and he hadn't even read the note accompanying Saaty's orders. They were to find a ship, board it, retrieve its secrets and destroy it before it could reach whatever was its destination. Finding and intercepting a ship in deep space was a real challenge, a complex puzzle - and Voeld had always liked such conundrums. As far as he was concerned, his involvment in the matter stopped here. Whatever that ship carried and whoever it could belong to was utterly irrelevant. Voeld was sworn to Saaty and Saaty wanted that ship.
There was more to it, of course. As a teenager, Voeld had quickly understood that what he truly lusted after was power. Wealth was so easy to find and profit from around him that it wasn't even a factor anymore, and to be fair it had never been. His true satisfaction was the realization of his own power. That he could order someone to throw themselves in the sun for him and they would do it. That he could look at a city, order a strike and within an hour the metropolis would lie in ruins. That he could buy someone else's body and do whatever the hell he wanted with them, however and wherever he wanted it.
Just because he had money, and because he had a title attached to his name. And the true reason why he had attached himself to Saaty's fate was that she could give him access to even more, deeper power.
That was why Voeld was presentely commanding a ship fifteen thousand lightyears away from the Bubble, looking for a needle in a cosmic haystack.
As the Spear went closer to its target, the ship's last known position, Voeld ordered increasingly shorter jumps. In the Bubble he would have leveraged the vast wealth of his family to hire hundreds of independent pilots and create a net of interceptors, neatly trapping that ship in a few dozen systems that he would have thoroughly searched, but deep in the unsettled regions of the galaxy, it was a different matter. The Spear of Alune wasn't a carrier and only had a half a dozen ships on board. Major Virrae, the ship's squadron commander, had Voeld's complete trust, but she only had a very limited amount of ships, and those were Imperial Eagles - good in combat, but their range was limited and their sensors left to be desired. Thanksfully, Majestic-class Interdictors had great ears. These ships were very sensitive for flagships of this size and a non-negligible part of their slender fuselage was occupied by two powerful long-range sensors capable of detecting the subtle variations in the structure of hyperspace created by jumps. In the Bubble, these sensors were often used to track down a ship in particular : if they could not give a destination, they could at least give a point of origin once the disturbance of a jump had been thoroughly analyzed. As they were probing hyperspace directly during the frameshift jumps of their ship, and not realspace, these sensors were not limited by the speed of light. In the Bubble their sensitivity was usually kept on lower settings, in order to avoid being blinded by the hundreds of jumps happening every minute and decrease the load on navigation computers trying to reconstruct trajectories, but here, in deep space, Voeld had ordered to put them on maximal sensitivity. This had extended the Spear's sensor range to about two hundred lightyears, and its effective detection range to more than fifty lightyears. It was still a very small torchlight in a very big warehouse, but it was better than nothing. Voeld had faith in his people and his machines. Even if the ship knew it was being hunted down, sooner or later it would make a mistake.
Five silhouettes had met in this distant corner of the galactic discussion networks, alongside one of the highly secure archs that went deep beneath the thin layer of Galnet, at the edge of the galactic deep networks. The words and images exchanged by these five people were encrypted using military-grade algorithms that three, perhaps four organisations only in the Bubble could successfully crack, and even in that case it would have taken them months. Worse - or better - the use of systems entangled at a quantum level meant that any interception of the signal would be noticed and would automatically terminate the discussion. Such a level of secrecy was rather unusual for a conversation that did not involve a negotiation between two Bubble superpowers nor one of the numerous secret societies pulling the strings beyond the curtains, though it was rather natural as one of the sides of this conversation was a state that, for all intents and purposes, was not supposed to exist.
The imperial side of this conversation was embodied by a white-haired, middle-aged woman who wore a long, white, ornate tunic woven in Achenar linen. Valys Lavigny was her name, and she was a member of the imperial senate, a distant relative of the emperor Arissa Lavigny-Duval, and a noted representative of the moderate side of the Empire. She was also one of the rare people this side of Sol who would know about the existence, and more critically the extent, of the Unseen Republic.
On the other side were four people whose background image indicated where they hailed from and who they were talking for.
The first one was an elegant woman, sitting in an office illuminated by the colored lights of a dense city whose architecture evocated a combination of several urban utopias from the past century - she hailed from Babylon Station and talked for the oldest, most populated stellar city of the Republic.
The second one was a priestess as well as a worker, standing by what looked like some kind of altar, except that in place of a deity there was a frameshift drive carved in a gold plate - she talked for Cathedral Station, the religious heart of the Unseen Republic, currently low below the galactic plane.
The third one sat in front of a vast bay window from which poured the scattered light of a dying sun. It was impossible to say whether this androgynous, elegantly clothed ambassador was in a ship or a station. They represented Laniakea Port, home of Deadwater, the armed branch of the Republic, and few knew what the station looked like.
The last one was a farmer, sitting by a tree in the middle of a lush yet semi-artificial forest, inside a vast O'Neill cylinder lit from the inside by a million lights - she talked for Gondwana Station, the youngest stellar city of the Unseen.
"Look." Valis Lavigny's voice was calm and serene, as it always had been and has it would always be. "The terms of our agreement is clear. The Empire shall not interfere with the affairs of the Unseen Republic, and in turn you shall cooperate in matters that do not put the Republic in danger, nor shoumd modify its diplomatic stance towards the other powers, or independent factions. I think sharing the information your exploring ships gathered at the edge of the galaxy isn't breaching these terms, isn't it?"
There was a long silence before the Babylon representative answered.
"This is correct, but premature. As it stands, we have no clear idea of what we stumbled upon exactly and as such do not known whether or not the terms would be breached by revealing what we already know."
Valis nodded calmly. She wondered how much the Unseen Republic knew that she knew - in truth the only tangible elements she had were rumours about an expedition recieved through various indiscretions and a few deep space scouting patrols, which meant absolutely nothing. She was confident, however, that neither the Federation nor the Alliance knew.
"This stance is reasonable, but calls for another question : what is it that you found, exactly ?"
It was risky to formulate her demand that way, because it made it clear that she, indeed, did not know much. But she had nothing to bargain with, and being honest about the whole affair was the best way out for her.
"If we knew for sure, senator, we would not be having this conversation." answered the Gondwana farmer.
Correct, thought Valis. If we knew for sure what you have found at the edge of the galaxy, I am fairly confident that it would be either no matter for concern, or that several people would have already breached the agreement and would be sailing towards your stations to seize it by force.
"However, you can rest assured that nothing that we found is of any concern to the current matters of the Bubble" added the woman from Babylon.
Translation : it wasn't about Thargoids nor Guardians, and this information only made Valis more curious. If it was something else, then it potentially had a staggering scientific importance - and deep down, if senator-Valis was only concerned by the well-being of the Empire, scientist-Valis was starving for more information.
"I see. I assume that if your research was to bear fruits, then you would share them with the galactic community, as you already did in the past, correct ?"
Valis chucked internally. It was true that the Unseen Republic had let a lot of its research trickle down to the Bubble in the past, usually through groups like Cannon or the Colonia Council, but she was also perfectly aware of the fact that many things never left the station of the Unseen, like Cathedral Station's improved frameshift drive modifications. It was a problem, but at the same time she knew how stretched the resources of the Empire were within the Bubble. Forcing the Unseen to reveal their secrets was always a possibility, but it would have been more trouble than it was worth. Besides, deep down, Valis had always felt that there was someone else backing the Unseen. Their little stellar nation was too powerful for its own good for it to be a fully bottom-up initiative. Especially as in the past they had sometimes traded blows with the Club as well as the Pilots' Federations and survived - and anyone capable of that had some powerful backers. Valis wasn't very eager to be found dead one morning, with a note by her desk saying that she had lost the will to live. The imperial political scene was already cutthroat enough to avoid angering secret societies, or whatever was backing the Unseen Republic.
"Yes, we would share this research, provided it doesn't endanger the Republic." replied the Deadwater person.
"Of course, of course..." smiled Valis in response.
Then the interstellar feed was suddenly cut.
When it came back, Valis was still there, but the background for the conversation had changed : she wasn't in her office anymore, and instead stood in the middle of what looked like a deserted conference room, deeper in her palace on Achenar.
"I am sorry for the interruption." she said to the other four diplomats. "But I just received...worrying news. It seems that the knowledge of your expedition has leaked outside of authorized circles. This is probably an internal imperial opsec problem, though not primarily on my end."
"Opsec?" asked the Cathedral representative.
"Operational Security." answered the Deadwater representative. "What leaked, exactly?"
"Well, I have just received news that an imperial capital ship has just left the edge of the Bubble for the last publicly known location of your expedition ship, Hypatia, I think. A Majestic-class interdictor isn't exactly the kind of ship one disturbs for nothing, I might then assume someone knows that you found something and intends on intercepting it before it comes back home."
The woman from Babylon gestured discreetly to open a secure text channel with her Deadwater counterpart, making sure Valis couldn't hear them.
"The exact location of the ringworld and the needleship didn't leak, right?"
"It's impossible." answered the Deadwater officer. "We do not know where Maat's ringworld is exactly and we have forbidden Hypatia from transferring the coordinates of the wreck remotely, the risks of accidental interception were deemed too high, especially as Hypatia doesn't have the equipment to encrypt its communications at a military level. The coordinates and most of the expedition's data are on physical storage."
The Babylon ambassador nodded before turning back towards Valis.
"Can you prevent that ship from leaving?"
"Sadly, no. It belongs to the personal fleet of an imperial noble, duchess Saaty of Achenar, and I have no bearing on the affairs of a noble fleet. I can make sure it will not get reinforcements, but I cannot prevent it from leaving. It is already several thousand lightyears away, in any case."
"Perfect. Valis, you must realize that we cannot let this ship interdict or spy on Hypatia. No matter the content of their discoveries - this would be a very dangerous precedent."
"And you must realize that you cannot afford to destroy or attack it...officially, of course."
"Hmmm. I assume that if it was to be damaged by marauders, or Colonia pirates, or just by something of unknown origin..."
"Duchess Saaty could but accept the loss. And she would find herself in quite a problematic position, having lost a personal ship...though you would also be walking on very thin ice with the Empire. If you botch this and are too direct, even I couldn't cover you. I am merely...suggesting possible routes of action."
"Senator, may I ask a question?"
"Why are you telling us this? Assuming it isn't false intel, and we have no reason to believe it might be, why?"
Valis tilted her head slightly to the side, a way for her to signal a mixture of amusement and disappointment.
"Oh, but this is obvious. Saaty and I are on incredibly awful terms due to a little affair concerning a beautiful slave I snatched from her recently. I have good reasons to think that she spied on me in return, and having her ship not being able to achieve the mission she likely gave it would be...let's say a nice way to return the favor. Aw, don't look at me that way. This is how the Empire works."
Unknown gas giant, uncharted system.
Emma's modified Taipan-class ship-launched fighter pierced the outermost layer of the rogue gas giant's atmosphere. Neither her nor Talasea were very keen on sending such a fragile craft right in the eye of a continent-spanning storm, but it was the best option they had. Hypatia was unable to navigate that deep into a gas giant's gravity well and the Diamondback the Beluga carried as an emergency craft had been even more roughed up by the brutal hyperspace exit they had performed than Hypatia herself. Due to the winds raging around the eye of the storm within which the needle-shaped artifact was located Emma had been forced to perform a vertical atmospheric insertion. In other words : her Taipan had just been dropped right above the artifact, leaving the rest up to gravity.
"Are you alright, Isaac ?" gently asked Emma, turning towards the exobiologist sitting in the copilot's seat, right behind her, in a custom configuration inspired by ancient fighter jets from before the interstellar age.
"Very much so, yes." The Taipan shook and rumbled as it dived through the atmosphere, protected by a discardable heat shield that slowly dissolved away to cool the craft. "I'm an exobiologist, I've got my share of problematic re-entries. So far this one is fairly tame."
"Well, we are in a ship-launched fighter hurling through the atmosphere of a rogue gas giant at approximatively twenty-five times the speed of the sound, so your scale of tameness is clearly a very generous one. Speaking of which..." Emma reached for the COVAS interface. "Hypatia, this is the Taipan, we are dropping our heat shield, exiting ballistic trajectory in fifteen seconds. Now Isaac, that's where the, erm, less tame part of the flight begins." The pilot dropped the heat shield which spiralled away in the wake of the Taipan. Then Emma fired the forward thrusters to slow the fighter down up to a velocity that wouldn't shatter the wings. The Taipan was a sturdy machine and it barely complained when Emma finally angled it on an atmospheric descent trajectory. The Taipan was now descending within the atmosphere like a plane - a plane going at about fifteen times the speed of the sound, and within an atmosphere made of helium, hydrogen and probably a few remnants of carbon elements. Isaac looked through the canopy. Above there were a few stars lost in the blackness of outer-galactic space and then nothing else. Below there were clouds as black as ink, spiralling in a storm several times the size of the Earth - and somewhere deep within that storm was an artifact that did not seem to obey to the expected behaviour of a ship.
Lightning struck a few thousand kilometers below, splitting the clouds open with blue light.
"Talasea said those lightning strikes wouldn't be a problem right?" asked Emma, carefully controlling the Taipan's descent.
"Well the hull is a Faraday cage, isn't it ?"
"Yes...but the raw power delivered by those things is staggering. I don't know. It is not a welcoming place."
"Gas giants never are."
The Taipan kept falling. There was no star light outside, just the darkness of a planet wandering through space. At one point Emma ignited the rear engines again and a pale light started echoing to the lightning strikes below. Isaac realized that the storm was entirely around them. It wasn't a gigantic eye looking at them from the depths of the gas giant anymore. It was just the entire world, from one side of the horizon to the other. Control panels blinked in shades of green and blue. Sparks of continent-sized lightning strikes illuminated the skies for split-seconds. Emma was a stone statue in her heavy atmospheric suit, focused on the descent path of the fragile craft.
And suddenly there was silence and calmness. Emma ceased to struggle with the stick and throttle to maintain her trajectory. Isaac took a deep breath.
"Taipan to Hypatia, we have entered the eye of the storm."
The needle was visible on radar. Exactly nine kilometers and fifty-five meters in length, it stood in the exact middle of the storm, a thousand kilometers away from the Taipan. Isaac reviewed the scanners and suddenly something caught his attention.
"Hey, Emma...the debris field around the needle...those are the remains of a human ship. Anaconda, judging from the shape of the biggest debris. I think we found what Maat was looking for, though the question is how did it end up here."
"Did the needle...destroy it ?"
"No. I do not think so." The Taupan went closer to the debris, and Emma slowed down to avoid a collision. The debris field was made of incredibly regular geometrical shapes, as if the ancient INRA Anaconda had been cut clean. "Hypatia, do you get our video feed ?"
"Affirmative." answered Camilla, as always completely undisturbed by the situation. "I concur with your analysis of the situation. The Anaconda was thoroughly destroyed by the same process that damaged our frameshift drive. What I do not understand is how come the debris, and the needle, haven't fallen through the atmosphere. These poor INRA explorers didn't even have time to realize what happened to them."
Another lighting strike pierced the skies, casting long shadows on the ship.
"Hang on, I'm trying something..." said Emma before moving the throttle of the Taipan close to zero. "Noticed anything?"
"No." answered Isaac.
"Precisely. I almost cut the thrusters and the fighter did not fall, despite having a pytiful amount of lift here. Whatever that needle is, it has the capacity to interfere with local gravity."
"Technically possible." answered Camilla through the radio. "I assume you could counter local gravity via space-time manipulation, the way our frameshift drives bend space to achieve faster than light speeds, however you do not appear to be blue or red-shifted, and your on-board clock reports identical rates to those aboard the ship, which means something else is in play here. The only theoretical possibility I see is that of a force field, for lack of a better word, that would surround the ship and locally deprive objects of their weight. The effects would be the same but the technical details remain obscure to me."
"Don't Guardian sentinels use some kind of antigrav technology?"
"It's unclear. But it has specific aspects that I do not find here, namely electromagnetic disruptions. Emma, could you be a dear and ping that needle please?"
The Taipan deployed its military-grade scanner and emitted several bursts of waves within the needle. Much like when Hypatia had attempted its LIDAR sweep, the needle emitted a deep humming sound in response, reflected in several wavelengths, but this time the waves managed to get through the hull of the needle - whatever it was made of - and give the Taipan a good look at the inside.
"It is definitely a ship." commented Camilla as soon as Hypatia had received the messages. "The structure is telling. It seems that the spherical part is some kind of habitable part, perhaps crew quarters or a deck, as it is the most sealed and protected part, and seems to retain some kind of plant-based network, however I cannot determine if the vegetal parts are alive or not presently. The needle part is...intriguing. I would say it is whatever is the equivalent of an engine compartment but this thing has no exhausts of any kind, just what I assume are basic RCS thrusters for manoeuvering that cannot in any way propel a ship, unless it is operating on energy densities completely unheard of. I think the needle part houses the engines because the disruption field you are observing is centered around the needle and seemed to be shaped by it. So I assume it emanates from this part."
"I assume, I think...such caution isn't usual with you, Camilla."
"I know. It's just very hard to try and make sense of such a thing as I have no point of comparison, human or otherwise. This ship is totally unique in design and origin."
Lightning struck again, this time connecting the needle to the clouds in a pillar of incandescent blue light. The Taipan's screens darkened for a split-second to absorb the sudden influx of energy.
"We are way in over our heads here." uttered Emma.
"Correct." answered the AI. "We do not have the personel nor the technical means to investigate this ship in any capacity that would go beyond a simple surface analysis. Hypatia is rigged for planetary exploration, not atmospheric investigation of a wrecked ship. Talasea and I are of the opinion that we should come back to the Unseen Republic first to officially map the system and come back with a more sizable exploration party."
"And how are we supposed to come back exactly, with a trashed FSD?"
"Well...the debris of our unfortunate predecessor might be of use, Isaac. The repairs aren't staggeringly complex, they just need a lot of raw materials that I see floating all around you, ready for the picking."
"Wait, so we essentially are to transition from explorers to salvagers?"
"I prefer the term interstellar trash pickers, but yes."
Unknown Orbital, above the galactic plane.
Night had fallen on Maat's side of the orbital. She could see the rest of the ringworld illuminated by a distant, yellow sun, making the thin outer structure of the orbital gleam as the habitable regions on the opposing sides were surrounded in daylight. The orbital was angled just so that its slow rotation on its axis would enable a night and day cycle which lasted approximatively twenty hours, with slight variations over the days. Maat could not say if it was intentional, or a side-effect of the ringworld's orbital trajectory. She still had trouble comprehending the size of this structure. The continents and seas she could see on the opposite side of the Orbital were several tens of thousands of kilometers away from her, and the entire ringworld was probably several times the surface of the Earth. Though there was no sign of civilisation around her - she had hoped to catch a glimpse of night lights on the rest of the orbital to no avail - she could easily see billions upon billions of people living on this structure. To a certain extent though, she felt like she wasn't as fascinated as she could have been in other circumstances. Even if the environment of the ringworld was rather tolerable, even nice, she was still stranded on an unknown world and her first focus was survival. For the past two days most of her diet had come from her survival rations, but she had also tried local food sources. After much pondering and several analyses with the biological kits she was equipped with, Maat had found several edible berry-like fruits in the bushes of this coastal region. They were bitter, but hadn't killed her yet. Strangely enough animal life seemed to be extremely limited in this environment. In fact the local wildlife was apparently made of a grand total of three species : strange four-winged birds with asymmetrical eyes, a brand of sweet water jellyfish and ant-like insects that smelled like gooseberries when Maat stepped upon them by mistake. How such a lush and complex vegetal life could sustain itself with such a small subset of animal species was quite a mystery to her but she assumed that fungi or bacteria played a more important role. Indeed she had spent the past two days with a sore throat and blood-soaked eyes, and her suit often told her that her white blood cell count was slightly above normal parameters. A simple inflammatory reaction to local germs, she assumed : at least it wasn't getting worse.
During her third night on the ringworld Maat trued to assess in which part of the galaxy the orbital could be located. At first she had assumed she wasn't very far from her original forced hyperspace exit point, but a simple glance at the night sky had shown her that it wasn't the case. There weren't enough stars in the skies for that. In fact there weren't any stars in the skies, which were utterly empty, with the exception of the Milky Way, a majestic painting visible through the other side of the ringworld. She was far away from the galaxy, but how far was the interesting question. There was a portable optical telescope (originally intended for manual star charting) in her survival kit but at this distance it was useless: she had no hope of actually managing to pinpoint a specific star in the Milky Way that she could use as a first point for accurate triangulation of her cosmic location. There were a few options left for less accurate endeavours, however. The first point of reference she could get was the center of the Milky Way - not Sag A*, just the broad vicinity of the center. A second option would have been one the Magellanic Clouds had she had a strong enough telescope to isolate a bright star in it but it wasn't the case. Instead Maat resorted to using a globular cluster that was clearly visible in the dark sky, like a slightly blurry star. The third point of reference was provided to her by the Andromeda galaxy.
A few napkin calculations later Maat could get a broad estimate of her position relative to the galactic center.
She was located approximatively ten thousand lightyears above the galactic plane, slightly outside of the dark matter halo surrounding the Milky Way, on the verge of true intergalactic space.
Further away than even the most isolated deep space probe.
And then something came with twilight.
It stood slightly above the water, having appeared without noise. It looked like a sewing needle, several hundred meters tall yet thin and weirdly fragile-looking. "Well...there goes Newton's first law" thought Maat as she saw the machine gently stop above the water, sustaining itself in the air without any visible engines. There was no signs of disturbance on the water either : it just seemed to gently hang in the air with an eerie elegance, as if it had no weight. Its hull looked ancient, battered by thousands of small meteorite impacts - the signs of a ship that had travelled far. In fact if it had not been for the mist surrounding the tip of the needle, right above the water, Maat would have been unable to determine the ship's distance relative to her. It could have been microscopic, and located only a meter away. Or it could have been humongous, and several millions of kilometers away. The familiar shape made it even harder to determine.
The ship emitted a deep humming sound, a low-pitched wave sent through the air and the very ground. Maat shivered. A warm feeling went up her spine, as if she had suddenly been plunged into the ocean of a sea planet. Then a strange feeling of emptyness carried her as the humming sound ceased. A pitch-black secretion left the ship, drawing a symbol in the air, a symbol that was incredibly complex and alien, yet had a disturbing familiarity to it.
"Non-agressive" it said. Maat was certain of this. She couldn't say why, but she was, as if this symbol was entering her mind and infusing meaning directly in her brain. Universal meaning. Lines and curves in the air, boiled down to simple, understandable concepts.
WHAT ARE YOU.
It was a question. A simple one. Not aggressive, not inquisitive, just curious. Maat pointed a finger towards her chest and, spontaneously, a series of symbols appeared in the air right next to her.
MAMMALIAN. TWO-LEGGED AND TWO-ARMED. CARBON-BASED LIFEFORM. HOMEWORLD EARTH.
It felt fascinating. She wasn't quite translating the symbols - she was understanding them, the way one would instinctively comprehend the signals transmitted by their nerves to their brain, without even thinking about it. But it wasn't a one-sided process. It was a collaborative one. The needle gave a background, a framework for meaning, and Maat was free to reassemble it the way she saw fit to convey what she wanted to say.
And so, with another thought, the various symbols she had created rearranged themselves to form a new word that the needle did not know beforehand.
Maat pointed her finger at the needle above the sea. Interrogative symbols emerged in the air around her, carved in floating ink.
The needle pondered its answer for a few minutes. Then a second string of symbols were drawn above the sea, and their curves became almost immediately understandable for Maat. Simple concepts, much like the ones that had spontaneously appeared when she had tried to describe her species.
BORN OF STAR DUST. WITHOUT A HOME. AS ANCIENT AS THE SKY. WANDERING BUT NOT LOST. THOUGHTS IN LIGHT.
Then the symbols reassembled themselves again, this time forming a word that the needle knew but the human didn't : the name of their species.
Maat looked around her, pointing her hands at the environment surrounding her. New symbols appeared around her.
WHAT IS THIS PLACE?
A strings of inky black curves came back.
A PLACE IN THE DESERT. A PLACE BY THE SEA. A WELCOMING PLACE.
No, thought Maat, it wasn't this, not exactly. She tried to associate slightly different meanings to the symbols.
Which could be summarized into another word.
The needle asked another question.
HOW DO YOU TRAVEL BETWEEN THE STARS ?
It took a long time for Maat to assemble a series of symbols that would make sense to her and, she assumed, to the needle. What she wanted to express was perhaps too complex and abstract for their enigmatic means of communication, yet she tried nonetheless.
SHIPS. SPACE BENT AROUND. FASTER THAN LIGHT OUTSIDE. BLUESHIFT.
Thanksfully the needle knew those concepts, and had a word that would encompass them - a word that Maat's mind translated immediately into a known human term.
She returned the question.
The answer appeared under the shape of a long string of circles and polygons, that her mind filtered with difficulty.
HERE THEN THERE. TO TRAVEL WITHOUT MOVING. TO JOURNEY WITHOUT TRAVELLING. TO DISPLACE AND REPLACE, NOT TO MOVE.
Then another symbol which she assumed to be their means of propulsion, upon which her mind infused meaning, though she wasn't sure of it.
Another question from Maat followed.
WHERE DO YOU COME FROM?
The symbol that she got as an answer was as simple as they could get.
Maat answered. She was getting better at their strange game of back and forth, though it was exhausting, the mental equivalent of walking in heavy snow : she had to formulate every thought with utmost accuracy to allow for the symbols to materialize it.
ALL SPECIES HAVE A HOME.
The symbols that formed in return surprised her.
WE DO NOT.
Then a correction.
IN FACT WE DO NOT KNOW.
And a string of rapid-fire symbols that she managed to grab the essential meaning of.
WE WERE MADE NOT BORN.
WE AWOKE IN THE VOID BETWEEN GALAXIES.
WE SLUMBER, SOMETIMES.
WINTERS MEASURED IN MILLIONS OF YEARS.
WE TRAVEL AND CREATE, SOMETIMES.
SUMMERS MEASURED IN MILLIONS OF YEARS.
NONE OF WHAT WE CREATE HAS PURPOSE.
The last string of symbols took Maat a bit more time to really get.
WE SIMPLY FIND IT ELEGANT.
Maat focused to ask an additional question.
HOW ARE WE COMMUNICATING ?
The needle didn't seem to understand the question, so Maat reformulated her query.
THROUGH WHAT MEANS CAN WE UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER ?
This time she was understood.
WE HAVE BEEN LISTENING TO YOU.
YOUR THOUGHTS ARE NOT UNKNOWN TO US.
TRAVELLERS LIKE US HAVE THEIR MEANS TO CONVERSE.
This answer invited another question, of course, and despite her exhaustion Maat asked it anyway.
IS THIS OUR FIRST ENCOUNTER ?
The answer appeared blurry yet legible. Maat felt like she was slowly losing her grasp on their dialogue.
IT MAY BE.
Maat found the strength to express one last query.
WOULD YOU HELP ME BACK HOME ?
She fell asleep before the answer could come, carried away by a deep, reassuring hum emanating from the needle.
Ringworld illustration by Hill, Wikimedia Commons.
High orbit of a rogue gas giant, unknown system.
Hypatia was drifting on an elongated orbit in the middle of the system : from time to time its engines would fire for a very short burst, just enough to keep it spinning. There was nothing all around but darkness. The system Hypatia had ended up in did not even have a star. It just had two bodies. A small icy planet the size of the Moon, plunged in perpetual darkness, and a massive gas giant, several times the size of Jupiter, drifting hopelessly in the void. A rogue planet, expelled from its solar system, or perhaps one that had never known the warmth of a star. Alone but not dead. From the observation bay of Hypatia, one could see the swirling clouds of the gas giant, whose great storms were gleaming in a peaceful blue color, lit from the inside by electrical discharges triggered by the endless movements of particles within the clouds. These lights cast elongated shadows on Talasea's living tatoos and they kept reconfigurating themselves on her skin, absorbing the weak residual energy coming from the gas giant. She was alone on the bridge, with the exception of Hypatia's COVAS - but the virtual intelligence was everywhere on the ship.
"This is the first time I lose a ship." Talasea whispered. She was not expecting an answer, yet Camilla gave her one.
"This ship isn't lost yet."
"Well...the hyperdiction trashed our frameshift drive, the repairs have one chance out of two of just pulverizing the ship next time it enters hyperspace, and I cannot broadcast a standard distress signal until I know exactly who or what dropped us out of hyperspace, or this ship will just become another trap."
"Well." Camilla's tone signalled that it was concerned, yet not afraid - but of course a COVAS couldn't be afraid. "At least we can rule out thargoids on this one, unless they developed some kind of stealth ship. Our sensors are completely empty. This system is silent. And no recorded thargoid hyperdiction has ever destroyed an FSD that way."
"And we are 35,000 ligthyears away from the Pleiades."
"Well that too."
Kestrel covered his eyes when he drifted through the heavily armored access hatch. A pure reflex - there was nothing to fear in there and he did not even wear a protection suit. His gaze went towards the vast cylinder in which the faster-than-light engine had been installed. His first thought was that it looked like the gills of a fish, woven into the matrix of the ship, pumping air at one end to create light at the other, a beating heart - one beat a minute, the pace of Hypatia's auxiliary power distributor. Most of the floating debris had been removed but Hypatia's engineers had not been able to do much for the massive crack that went through the frameshift drive, cutting it exactly in the middle.
"First time in a Frameshit Drive chamber, officer?" said Vikla as they floated towards Kestrel from the roof of the cylinder - relative to the entrance at least.
"Second time, but I've never been in a big one. I don't feel so good. My heart rate is all over the place."
"Aye. There's always residual frameshift disturbance around a drive that's only been shut down for a few hours, tends to mess with the nerve systems, giving fake impulses, that kind of thing...nothing major, but that's why we prefer waiting for a complete cooldown cycle before performing manual repairs."
"Never happened to me with smaller ships."
"This one's particularly big, that's why. Capital ship FSD can actually kill you a good day after they've been shut off. Complete nerve paralysis in some cases, and you choke to death, or just have an infarctus. Nice, right?"
"Nice, indeed." Kestrel shivered slightly. "Ok, so what happened to our FSD?"
"Complete failure. Shattered clean. I've never seen that before, and I don't have any idea how it happened. I mean, well, I know when it happened, right when something tried to interdict us, but usually hyperdictions do not result in FSD damage. Well, the only baseline we have are thargoid interdictions, but the gist is that this kind of deep structural damage is completely unheard of engineers, at least among the Unseen Republic. I think that what happened is that the FSD was subjected to some kind of witchspace-bound force that caused critical structural damage that the AFM is powerless at repairing...I'm saying witchspace-bound because if it had been a force present in normal space the entire ship would have been shattered. It looks like whatever caused this was restricted to the part of the ship that was still in contact with witchspace upon exiting, which is the FSD."
"Yes, I know that, the FSD is always the last thing to escape hyperspace, it's a matter of microseconds though. Right, now I assume you brought me here to see if I had any memory of such damage on a ship?"
"Yes. We're off the books here, the only thing we can rely on is field experience. You have a history of investigating weird cases, so I thought, why not..."
"Hmmm. I'm sorry, but I have no memory of seeing such damage on a ship. The closest case I can think of is module damage caused by a penetrating railgun shell, it's a classic pirate tactic to prevent a ship from escaping, but the FSD chamber is completely intact, so it's clearly not that. I...I feel completely useless here. Never seen that in my entire life. I'm...I'm thinking of all the cases I can remember here but really, I..."
"Hey. Kestrel." Vilka put her hand on his shoulder. "It's alright. You'll be fine. I just thought maybe you'd have seen something once that we could relate to our FSD, that's it. If you never saw that, well, you never saw that. Don't feel guilty or anything."
"Appreciate it but..." Kestrel's eyes locked on the thin crack going alongside the frameshift drive. It bled yellow light around the cylinder, casting eerie shadows all around him. And then suddenly Kestrel's photographic memory captured a detail in the way the crack had weakened the drive's lower half. "Hold up. Hold up, hold up, hold up. I might have something. Five years ago, we recovered the failed drive of a ship named the Aldebaran, which turned out to be the twin of passenger liner Antares."
"The liner that suffered from an unknown drive failure in 3251?"
"Yes, this one. The twin ship was busy dying of rust in a hangar, but it had an interesting quirk. To make a long story short : the 3302 investigation on the Antares' wreck showed that the ship had probably blown up due to an already faulty drive - the same drive that had been installed on the Aldebaran. When we recovered the Aldebaran's drive to run our own tests and hopefully cast some additional light on the Antares' fate, we realized that transporting it had caused some serious damage. Cracks, alongside the drive's axis, very similar to what you have here but on a smaller scale. It took us months to determine what had caused it."
"And what was it?"
"Wel in the end we narrowed it down to interference caused by a nearby drive - the drive of the transport ship. I don't exactly remember the details but it turned out that the architecture of the Aldebaran's drive meant that the presence of another, powerful drive next to it was enough to cause witchspace interference that could crack the FSD. Later we realized that we could actually replicate this effect with a more powerful drive and it didn't require the two drives to be on the same ship, just to be present in the same witchspace instance so to speak."
"Right. But Hypatia's drive is not from 3251, and is not an experimental Sirius Corporation product, isn't it?"
"Indeed. We were intrigued by this and carried out further tests. It turned out that this effect can actually be replicated with any kind of FSD drive, but required a truly staggering power difference between both drives. Even a Sidewinder's drive wouldn't be affected by a capital ship one...it's just that the drives used by the Antares or the Aldebaran had a specific manufacturing defect that made them more prone to failure. In the end the whole thing was just classified, we didn't do anything with it. Just issued a security warning to the pilots' federation, they told us they already knew and it stopped there. Too much trouble to turn it into a weapon."
"Our drive doesn't have that manufacturing defect..."
"Probably not, otherwise thousands of Belugas would already have suffered from this failure."
"So the only option left is that we found ourselves in the vicinity of a truly monstruously powerful frameshift device."
"Yes. One that is likely to be in that very system. One that we must find."
"That planet gives me the chills." Isaac's voice on the EVA channels was slightly distorted by its suit, as well as the heavy interference from the gas giant's magnetic field.
"You're not the only one in that case, sunshine." Elisabeth stood right next to him, drifting slightly alongside Hypatia's main axis. The two of them, assisted with drones, were busy surveying the ship's outer hull for defects that might have escaped the on-board self-diagnosis systems after their brutal FSD disengage. They hadn't found anything. The Saud-Kruger ship had perfectly withstood the physical stress. Isaac expected nothing less from the hull, which had been armored and retrofitted by none other than Selene Jean herself, but it was a relief. Now that the hull had been surveyed, they had to check the sensors installed on top of the Beluga - an addition from Unseen Republic shipyards, to increase the ship's pityful baseline detection range, especially in the upper part of the spectrum. As he drifted towards the upper starboard sensor, Isaac couldn't but glance at the gas giant beneath. The dark blue, swirling clouds, looked like liquid metal to him : something natural, something that could exist, yet something too alien for him. As an exobiologist he wasn't very interested in the planetary conditions that had let this poor gas giant to find itself lost in the void between stars, however he couldn't help but ponder about the possibility of life in those clouds. The planet was still very active, probably on the verge of being able to support fusion in its inner layers. The powerful electrical discharges tearing the upper atmosphere apart would provide ample amounts of energy as well as igniting the chemical reactions required for amino-acids to appear. Carbon was probably to be found here and there, though most of the atmosphere was seemingly made of helium. And there was the possibility for liquid water to remain in the clouds at a certain altitude. It was very likely to be wishful thinking but Isaac still had hopes for life to be present down there.
Another discharge - another spark of blue light tearing the clouds apart.
Elisabeth's voice slowly dispelled his dreamy thoughts.
"How's the sensor on your side?"
"It's fine...light damage on some of the surfaces but it's alright. Remarkable engineering on these things. I think they've got some kind of shock-dampening hydraulic system that I hadn't noticed before."
"Yeah, I've just seen those on my side. Probably an addition from the last refit. The people at Lectra station love to do that kind of thing and never tell us what they added. Annoying."
"Aye. Right, bridge, this is the EVA team, your sensors are in perfect shape, I have no idea why you still can't get a proper imaging of the lower cloud layers. Erm, perhaps interference or something like that? The whole planet seems to be emitting slightly above normal standards."
"Bridge to EVA team, we are going to perform an active sweep of the lower atmosphere, get ready for a few disturbances."
"Copy that, what wavelengths?"
"I'm going for a long-range LIDAR sweep first, trying to see if we have any wreck or object on a decaying orbit or suspended within the clouds. Then if inconclusive, active X-ray pings to penetrate the lowest layers."
"Got it. Give us a minute." Isaac opened the voice channel dedicated to the configuration of his suit. "Alright, suit. Engage ocular protections for standard LIDAR emissions." His visor became slightly darker as Hypatia deployed its spherical LIDAR antenna. "Clear, Elisabeth?"
"Clear on my end. You're good to go, bridge."
"Give me one ping, Adewale."
The LIDAR mast flashed, sending myriads of laser sweeps towards the clouds, measuring the way they were reflected back towards the ship to determine the layout of the upper atmosphere.
And then suddenly, something went wrong.
Isaac felt a tingle go down his spine, followed by a deep hum that seemed to emanate from the planet itself, as if it was responding to the ship's inquiry.
Tali stared at her screens.
"Right." she said in a completely neutral tone which was her way to signal complete disbelief. "I'm not mad, correct? Something answered our ping down there?"
"It seems like it." Adewale was already busy repositioning Hypatia using the RCS thrusters to get a better sense of what had just happened. There had been a powerful electromagnetic emission a few milliseconds after Hypatia's first LIDAR ping, followed by three separate pingbacks in the same wavelengths used by the LIDAR mast, and finally a continuous radio emission - the deep hum that the EVA team could still hear on their channels.
"It seems whatever answered our ping is nested within the upper cloud layer, within a rather tempestuous zone. The results of our LIDAR ping aren't very conclusive but I would say that is it rather big, and has a capacity for self-sustenance within the clouds, as it does not appear to be falling." Camilla seemed amused by the occurence.
"Camilla, give me a second ping."
Hypatia emitted another two-seconds long sweep with her LIDAR mast. The same response followed, in the exact same order, and this time Hypatia was able to parse the signals to reveal the shape and size of the structure that was emitting them. It was a ten kilometers long, needle-shaped superstructure, standing exactly in the middle of a vast cloud formation, right in the eye of the storm. Adewale directed one of Hypatia's telescopes towards the object to try and get a better image. The needle was barely distinguishable in visible light, but thermal infrared imaging showed that it was noticeably warmer than the background, which meant it was still under power, one way or another. The shape was completely alien to Talasea. The structure seemed to be made of two distinct parts. A long needle, about nine kilometers in length and a spherical part, much larger, occupying the last kilometer of the ship. The entire thing really looked like a sewing needle, thought Talasea, and was obviously not human-made.
"The great attractor..." thought Talasea, noticing the way a cloud of debris seemed to be ever so slowly orbiting around the structure, undisturbed by the winds.
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