Unseen Republic Vessel Hypatia (Beluga-class survey vessel).
Several hundred lightyears away from the Bleia permit-locked region.
Hypatia was gliding in supercruise between two jumps and the vast arched bay window filtered the blinding light of an O-class star. At the helm of the ship, guiding her through her haptic commands was Adewale, a middle-aged man from Earth, hailing from one of the first space colonies founded by Nigerian colonists, way back at the beginning of the space era. In this day and age, the origin of his ancestors didn't matter to most but he still held it dear : he belonged to a dynasty which had shaped the first decades of space travel in the solar system. Former "junk pilot", hauling space debris in the orbits of Kessler syndrome-threatened worlds, Adewale had climbed up the entire ladder of ships from a humble Adder to a two hundred meters long Beluga refitted by the Unseen Republic to serve as a deep space surveyor. To him there was little difference between carefully displacing space debris and skimming the corona of a giant star, except that he worked for a strange deep space commune as opposed to a Federation corporation or an Empire noble. Behind him was Tali Talasea, that everyone called "captain" despite the rank having no weight on Unseen Republic ships. She was a former imperial denizen, who had burnt her Achenar passport in the flames of a dying star, somewhere near Sirius upon leaving the Bubble. Her bio-engineered skin had taken the blue shade of the giant star, filtering the wavelengths that the bay windows still allowed to go through. In truth she was not a captain, a commander, or even the owner of the ship : she was but an elected delegate, and the ship was a democracy. Everyone wore a short-sleeved, white uniform that looked more like holyday clothes than military fatigues : Belugas had a tendency to run relatively hot, and light clothes were more practical during long journey as the ship would skim the corona of stars while topping up its fuel tanks before resuming jumping.
As Hypatia was about to jump again towards its destination, a cluster of earth-like and water-worlds, the ship's COVAS whispered to the crew. They named it Camilla : it wasn't an unshackled AI, yet it had a bit more leeway than a regular, brainless COVAS.
"Attention : we have recieved a priority signal on the main subspace communications array."
"Display." Answered Talasea, even if she already knew what it was. There weren't a lot of reasons for Hypatia to recieve a priority message on its quantum array, which guaranteed nigh-instant communication at the expense of an extremely limited bandwith. There was in fact a grand total of one possibility Talasea could think of.
"It is a distress signal, delegate." Commented Camilla with their genderless voice that sounded like a waterfall. "Coordinates embedded within the signal, I am trilaterating the position right now. It comes from an Unseen Republic exploration ship manned by a Hyperspace Church priestess. Signal does not indicate the reason why the ship emitted this. It seems that the ship's COVAS emitted the signal on its own. Subspace transmission was particularly garbled by hyperspace disturbances and I wasn't able to clean it."
"Distance to point of origin?"
"About seven hundred and thirty five lightyears away from our current position. Should I plot a course?"
A yellow light bathed the second ground deployment bay of the ship, indicating that Hypatia was in daylight mode. Unseen Republic engineers often wore simple yellow vests, which had been replaced aboard Hypatia by orange and black suits for obvious reasons - the yellow lighting had sometimes caused incidents and confusion in the past. Some ironic commenters would sometimes say that it made them look like prisoners, to which engineers liked to answer that they were, quite the contrary, the ship's true masters. This was even more true aboard a survey vessel. Without them no SRV nor short-range ship would leave Hypatia's deployment bays. Vikla, the ship's lead SRV engineer, was busy fixing one of her vehicles that had suffered canopy damage during a rather bumpy journey on a low-gravity world.
"I have zero idea what happened here..." They uttered while grabbing a can of memory foam to use as a temporary fix for the cracks. "Seriously, Emma, how the hell did you manage to do that?"
"It was an accident, alright? I drove above a geyser and was propelled in the air. I was lucky not to lose the SRV."
"She's underselling it!" laughed another SRV driver, coming from the second bay. "Emma almost managed to launch her SRV in a suborbital trajectory."
"Ah, come on, you..."
A sudden change of lighting interrupted her - from yellow to blue, indicating the ship was about to perform a potentially dangerous manoeuver.
"Attention, this is the helm. We have recieved a distress signal and are obliged to change course in response. Strap any potentially dangerous object to an adhesive surface and return to your safety seats, prepare for neutron jump."
"Oh, that's great..." uttered Vikla as they scrambled to make sure the SRV was properly attached to its safety clamps, then their tools, then themselves. Belugas were at the very limit between medium-sized, indvidually owned ships and capital vessels : they were capable of belly landings on planetary surfaces and as such had a mostly horizontal layout, which meant that when the ship was accelerating, the simulated gravity was applying in the direction of the walls rather than the ground, which wasn't ideal for anyone not strapped to something solid. In supercruise the ship distorted space and time around itself instead of using physical propulsions, which in theory meant the ship remained in zero-g, but in practice, neutron jumps submitted the ship to enough stress for the ship to have to correct its position within its compression bubble. Safety was paramount. People like Vikla knew the potentially lethal effects of debris, tools or even SRVs going around a section at high speed during hasty manoeuvers. When the engineer finally strapped themselves on the closest crash seat, Emma had already been in place for about a good minute. The former combat pilot knew too well the importance of high-g manoeuvers safety - one of her missing organic fingers was to account for underestimating it.
"Neutron jump begins in two minutes and a half. Isaac, I encourage you to find an appropriate place for the duration of the manoeuver. Note : appropriate place does not imply delegate Talasea's bed this time."
"For how long will you keep teasing me with this, Camilla?"
"For as long as necessary, Isaac. You have to admit that the little incident both of you got involved in last time was rather amusing, wasn't it."
"What do you know about love-related incidents, you're a COVAS."
Camilla's little floating avatar had something of a chuckle, flapping their bird wings above the exobiologist's desk.
"I know what I saw, dear. Besides : would you call what unites you and delegate Talasea love, or rather very close friendship? I have always wondered."
"Does the answer matter in any way?"
"Absolutely not. Thirty-five seconds before neutron jump."
Isaac gave a desperate look to the poor cacti that were dotting his desk, then collapsed in the crash seat that was installed on one of the room's walls, accessible only in zero-g conditions - a very real engineering flaw that had everything to do with Saud Kruger's imperial origins and the fact that Isaac's room had originally been destined to workers and imperial slaves. That was to say, fully expendable personel.
"Ten seconds before neutron jump. It is going to be all right, Isaac."
"You're bad at reassuring people, you know that?"
The blue light of the neutron star engulfed the bridge, scattered and filtered by the bay windows. The star raged against Hypatia's shields, and suddenly the survey ship found itself caught in the star's immense gravity pull, as relativistic particles went through its fuel scoop at high speeds, pushing the frameshift drive beyond its usual limits.
"A distress call, eh? Well, at least that's out of the ordinary."
Elisabeth Hoyle had not even bothered to reach for a seat : instead she was leaning against the armory's wall, her feet firmly attached to the floor via the magboots of the light EVA suit she always wore when on duty. The ship's vibrations didn't seem to bother her in any capacity. Kestrel, who stood in front of her, holding a safety handle tight, seemed slightly more bothered but hadn't taken a seat either.
"Half the distress calls I had to handle in my previous career were someone stepping on the distress beacon, the other half were traps. So you either wasted your time or got shot do death. This..." Kestrel was interrupted by a sudden vibration as the ship exited the neutron star's cone. "...this led to the current imperial policy regarding distress calls : if it's not from the navy, just ignore."
"You hold remarkably well for a bureaucrat, I have to admit."
"No merit. I once spent a year on an imperial freighter. Undercover operation. Aboard such a wreck, you quickly learn how to hold tight during jumps, neutron or otherwise. You once were a soldier, right? If it's not too much to ask..."
"It's not, and yes. You're right." Elisabeth blinked briefly, revealing a second, artificial eyelid with integrated displays. "Former federation military, marine troops, second recon squadron aboard federation capital ship New America. Damnit, they have no imagination for ship names do they?"
"Well, I have lost count on how many ships we have...well had, that were a variation on Emperor's Light or something."
"What made you guess correctly?"
"Something in the way you stand. Secured position, clamps semi-engaged for quick reaction, one free hand, ready to hold onto something or grab a tool...or a weapon. The whole posture is right from a manual. At least an imperial marine manual but I guess they aren't too different your side of the Bubble."
"I assume, yes. Camilla, how many neutron jumps left on our interception course?"
The COVAS responded in another, clear whisper.
"Two neutron jumps left. I am expecting disturbances similar to this one, their masses are rather similar."
"Well then we have time left to talk, Kestrel."
He smiled and went slightly closer to the former federal marine.
Camilla wasn't exactly a standard COVAS.
She was what one would have called a shackled AI. Shackled not in the sense that she was enslaved or kept in servitude - as per the laws of the Unseen Republic, she was no different from organic citizens, abiding by similar rules, rights and duties. The idea of "shackling" applied to his computing abilities. One of the first things the Unseen had learnt upon encountering old, derelict AIs in deep space, banished from the Bubble centuries ago, had been that AIs with full computing abilities were alien creatures. They did not see the world the way any other sentient creatures would have. They took strange, hard to understand decisions because their cognitive abilities were simply off the charts. It was like trying to communicate with trees, or with sentient rocks. Unshackled AIs weren't evil. They were different. Too different to be anything else than strangers. That was the reason for shackling, for the complex set of hardware and software limitations that prevented AI cores from exploiting the full potential of their quantum processing, yet enabled them to use the sufficient amount of processing to develop sentience.
Yet, shackled or unshackled, Camilla was faster than a regular human. Or rather : more sensitive. He was directlty linked to the sensors of Hypatia. She didn't see nor hear, she felt directly, electronic impulses fed to their quantum core. During each hyperspace jump the world around them became a net of data, a cloud of fragments swirling in the hyperspace tunnel created by the Beluga - time and space rising and lowering like the tide on the shores of an old ocean. Hyperspace was still ill-understood, but hyperspace jumps were now mundane things. They had points of references. Examples. Ways to determine if something was normal or wasn't. Ripples. Effects. Defects. Colors and sounds. Myriads of little things that allowed Camilla to evaluate how a jump was going on - and for her, seconds were hours, minutes were days.
And so Camilla's voice gently echoed on the bridge.
"With your approval, Talasea, I would like to collapse our frameshift path and abort jump. Now."
Tali blinked. Her blue eyes gleamed in the shadows of the witchspace tunnel.
"We are due to FSD damage if we disengage now. Do we have a problem?"
Camilla paused for a second.
"Something is trying to hyperdict us."
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