Chapter 28

“How dare you?” Jaren demanded once they were alone after their conversation with Bill.  “How dare you so casually offer up to these aliens the entirety of my people’s most precious resource?”

Kathryn sat on the bed and watched her husband angrily pace back and forth across the room.  She understood his anger, but she was utterly unmoved by it.

“Jaren it is neither mine to give nor yours to refuse.  We will make our case to your political leadership and the decision will be theirs, not ours.”

We will do no such thing, I will have no part in this.”

She’d never seen him this angry.  She’d never seen him terribly angry much at in all the years she’d known him.  It wasn’t clear what exactly had put him in such a state.

“Very well, then I will make the case myself.”

He stopped pacing and stood in front of her with his fists on his hips.  “You just don’t get it do you?”

“No, I don’t.  Explain it to me.”

Jaren let out an exasperated sigh and resumed his pacing.  Kathryn’s head moved side to side as she watched him. 

“It was one thing to take part in their mission, one thing to give them what little we had with us for the chance to rescue our daughter, but this… this is something completely different.”

“I don’t see how,” Kathryn answered.  She was getting angry herself at being spoken to this way, but she was working hard to keep her cool.  No good could come of both of them being in the state he was.  “It’s just on a larger scale.  We gave them a bit of anti-matter to help them gain intel which would allow them to win the war.  Now we want to give them a lot more to help them fight the war winning battle.  In it that much, are we not in it completely?  Is this not the logical next step?  If this is unacceptable was not our original arrangement as well?”

“Small scale Kathryn, small scale.  My people are not war mongers.  You want to turn us into galactic war lords or arms dealers or something!  It goes against everything my people stand for!”

She chose to let that slide.  For now.  It was not okay for him to accuse her of having galactic warlord ambitions.  She did stand now and could feel her calm ebbing.

“It goes against everything your people stand for?”  Her voice so far was still quite calm and composed.  “Then why is it that your people are the only ones who have these weapons in the first place?”

“Because we’re the only ones who have developed anti-matter at all!”

“But your people have shared that technical information, yet Haven and Roma don’t build any kind of heavy weapons, anti-matter or not.”

“That’s just it!  If we give up all of our anti-matter we’ll be utterly defenceless!”

“Defenceless?  Against who?”

YOU!!” he cried.  “All of you offworlders!  We cooperate and run Star Fleet together, but we always have to be wary of you other worlds turning on us!  Yes we share but it never seems to be enough!  We never know when the day comes where Haven and Roma decide we’re not sharing enough and decide to do something about it!  That’s why we build weapons, to defend ourselves in case that day comes!”

Kathryn’s anger had transmogrified into utter disbelief.  “You must be kidding.  After all these years… after all the joint programs and missions… your people are still that paranoid?  Jesus… I had no idea you were such a nationalist, such a partisan.  I thought you believed in our cooperation as much as I did.  I thought you believed in the unity between our worlds we’ve been working on all these years.  You’re still… you still think we may turn on you at some point.  Unbelievable.”

Somewhat shamed, Jaren calmed most of the anger out of his voice.  The determination remained though.  “Contributing substantially to one side of a galactic civil war, contributing enough to turn the tide of the war, inserting ourselves in something so massive which we hardly understand at all, goes against everything I believe in, everything I believe my people stand for.  Doing this will create blowback, unintended consequences, factors we can’t even begin to anticipate.”

“And if we do nothing?” Kathryn asked.  “How long before they come for us?  They know we’ve helped them already and they know where we live.  Some day they will come, even if we go home now and bury our head in the sand.  These people have been good to us.  They have proven themselves reliable allies and friends to us.  This is about more than the war Jaren, this is about more than the risk of being attacked by their enemy when they’re no longer around to help us defend.  This is about the future of humanity.  Our alliance with the Bobbins opens up the galaxy for human beings!  If we help them out this big, they’d be forever in our debt.  There’s nothing they wouldn’t share with us.  It would mean a whole new era of prosperity and development for humanity, but only if we help them now, when we can really make a difference for them.  The alternative is to go home and wait for the day their enemy comes for us.  That, I can’t abide.  I can’t live with that over my head if there’s some way to prevent it now.

“You’re making a lot of assumptions Kathryn.”

“I know.”

“And what about the vanquished?  What about all of the enemy Bobbins who aren’t slaughtered in the assault?  What do you think will become of them?”

“I can only assume their Link will be deactivated and the leadership held accountable.  A great many of them must be unwitting slaves to the permanent Link.”

“A lot of assumptions.”

Kathryn had had enough.  She stood and assumed a defiant pose.  “Be that as it may, I have a professional obligation to report to Command the facts on the ground as I see them, and to offer my recommendations based on all the available information.  In the end the decision won’t be up to either of us.”

Jaren waved at the wall to render a circular portal transparent.  Through it the Bobbin home world grew larger and larger as they approached.  “I want nothing to do with it,” he said firmly but quietly as he gazed out the window.  “Either way I’m taking Maggie home and washing my hands of all of it.”

“Jaren, I…” she was frustrated but didn’t want to leave things like this.  “I would have insisted you take Maggie home either way,” she finally said.  She looked at Jaren for what seemed like a long time, hoping he’d look back at her and that they could have some sort rapprochement, some sort of eye contact which assured that despite their differences on this, in the end they’d reconcile no matter what, that for better or worse they were still Kathryn and Jaren, and that they always would be.  Eventually she realized she would get no such assurance from him and gave up.

“I’m going to go send my report to Command.” she said coldly before waving the wall aside and leaving the room.

Chapter 27

The door to the room Maggie was being kept melted away, and Margaret stood in the doorway.  She was quiet for a time as she watched Kathryn and Jaren stroke her hair and gently touch her as she lay unconscious.  They apparently hadn’t noticed her there, or were too engrossed in their daughter to care to notice.

“How is she?” the simulant woman asked as she entered the room and the door rematerialized behind her.  “Any change?”

“She’s almost woken up a few times,” Jaren told her.  “She mutters sleepily but we can’t make out what she’s saying.  She seems to be coming out of it just very slowly.”

“And how are you two holding up?” she asked as she put a hand on each of their shoulders. 

Kathryn reached up and wrapped her arm around Margaret’s without looking up.  “I’m fine Molly… I just want her to wake up,” she said as she wiped a tear away from her eye.

The girls eyes opened slightly, then widened a bit more.  She blinked several times, but her eyes stayed narrower than usual as she adjusted to the light.  “Mom?  Dad?”

“We’re here Sweetie, you’re safe.  It’s over.”  She turned to Margaret.  “How could they do this to a child?”

“Fourteen…” the girl croaked reflexively despite her condition.  “Not a child…”  She tried to sit up to throw her arms around her mother’s shoulders but failed to traverse the distance and fell back down to the bed.  Kathryn bent over to embrace her where she lay.  “Take your time.”

 

 

Not long after, when Maggie had fully recovered, and when their ship was halfway back to the Bobbin world from the star portal, she sat in a chair drawn out of the floor material with a blanket wrapped around her.  Food and drink the Bobbins could provide were hit and miss to the human palette, but from the available options Jaren had managed to conjure up a hot drink which was sweet and flavourful, thought what flavour it reminded of no one could quite pin down.

Kathryn, Jaren, Margaret, and Bill all sat in front of the girl as she took her first few sips and composed herself to recount what had happened to her.  She had jumped in fright when Bill had entered the room.  After all, the only Bobbins she had seen so far had been the ones who had captured and imprisoned her.

“I… was in my suite when they attacked our ship.  I heard the general alarm sound, but… I didn’t pay much attention to it.  It wasn’t the first time and there was nothing I was supposed to do but stay where I was.  A few minutes later a circle on the wall started glowing bright orange and yellow, then it melted away and slagged on the ground.  Three… aliens like… that one,” she pointed at Bill, “captured me.  They threw a ball of dark material at me, and when it hit me it spread out and enveloped my whole body.  When it hit my face I was sure I would suffocate under it, but somehow I was able to breathe normally.  I couldn’t see anything out it, and I never could feel being moved in any way, but I was in there for a long time.  How long I… I can’t know for sure.

“I was scared,” the girl admitted after taking a drink of the hot liquid.  “I’ve never been so scared in my life, being entombed like that, totally helpless…” she had a distant look in her eyes which made Kathryn very uncomfortable, with an edge of anger which she could feel becoming more prominent the more Margaret spoke.

“Finally the material pulled away from me again and reformed into a ball which left my chest and floated over to the nearest wall and was absorbed into it.  It was then that I realized that the entire room I was in was made of the same material as the ball which had covered me.  Very soon after I felt a warmth and saw only bright and became unconscious.”

“Wand stun?” Kathryn asked Bill.

Through a mirror ball he responded after nodding somberly.  “Not necessarily from a wand, but yes.”

“Who is he?” Maggie asked uncomfortably.

“He’s a friend,” Kathryn answered.  “It’s a long story but of their species there are bad guys and good guys.  He’s one of the good guys and we’re on his ship.  I’ll tell you all about it when you’re done with your own story okay?”

“Whatever,” the girl shrugged.  She now seemed uncomfortable, somehow reluctant to continue with her story.

“When I woke up again…” she looked at each face in the room with her for several moments, as though she were trying to reassure herself that it was okay to speak openly about what she had endured.  “When I woke up I was tied to a table, naked… spread eagle.  There was no one in the room with me, but a bright light was coming from above.  It was… hard to open my eyes it was so bright.  The restraints prevented me from moving at all.  It seemed like hours that I was left alone like that.”

Kathryn was trying very hard to mask the look of horrified anger in her face and eyes, but she wasn’t altogether successful and she could see in Maggie’s eyes that she saw it and Kathryn renewed her efforts to contain her expression but continued to fail.

“Eventually some aliens came in.  They started taking… samples.  Blood, urine, hair, swabs from all over… the next time they came back they took a skin sample from here.”  She pulled the blanket away and pulled the side of her pants down just enough to show the scar on her side below her hip where they had cut a piece out of her.  It was minor, a few centimeters squared, but to see it Kathryn felt anger as though they had amputated a limb.

The girl wrapped herself back up and took another drink of the now cooling beverage.  “For several days after that they did scans.  When they were taking samples they used three of those mirrored balls that thing is talking through,” she was referring to Bill, “but after the samples they left them floating around my head for what must have been days, presumably scanning my brain activity.  After that they started asking questions.”

“What about food and drink?” her father asked.

“Soon after I was strapped down one of them came in to offer me water through a straw.  Once they figured out for sure that that was what I needed, they mounted a straw beside my head from out of the wall and I could drink whenever I wanted.  Food was… harder for them to figure out.  From time to time they’d bring in stuff I couldn’t recognize and put it in front of my face.  I was too scared to try it at first, but eventually… eventually I did take small bites to see what it was like.  I spit it out, it was disgusting.  Over the next few days thought they’d bring in other things and have me try them.  Eventually they found something I could eat and would bring it regularly.  I think their scanning helped them figure out what my body needed, or at least… what it would accept.”

“They were asking questions?” Kathryn tried to redirect her.

“Yes… things I didn’t know.  There was a lot I didn’t know how they could know that much to ask more questions, but they already knew a lot.”

“They took the New Horizon II’s computer core at the same time they took you,” Margaret informed her.  “That’s how they knew what they knew.”

“Ah.  I figured something like that.”

“They asked me a lot about anti-matter.  They seemed frustrated that I didn’t know anything, that I might be lying, that they should have taken someone who knew more…” she took another drink as she thought.

“They asked me about Earth… about all our worlds, about our defences, about our anti-matter reserves, about where our planets are…”

“There must have been a lot they couldn’t access on the core,” Kathryn said quietly to Jaren.  “I don’t care how advanced they are, some quantum encryption is just flat out impenetrable.”  Jaren only nodded.

“Then, at some point, they released me from the restraints,” the girls said as matter-of-factly as she could.  “The examination table melted into the floor, and the room reconfigured into what it was when you found me.  I found my clothes and put them back on… at least there was that.  For several days I was just happy to be free of the restraints and clothed again… but eventually I started making noise.  I started yelling and banging.  I started figuring out the motion controls for the wall and floor material.  At one point I was able to pull apart the wall enough to climb through.  I don’t think they were expecting that.”  She had a smirk and look in her eye which Jaren knew all too well in Kathryn.  She was proud of herself that she’d proven more trouble for the aliens than they’d expected.  He looked over at his wife and saw a similar look on her face.  She was also proud of her daughter for not making things easy for her captors.

“Anyway, after that incident, they knocked me out again like they did on New Horizon II, and I’ve been left unconscious pretty much ever since until you rescued me.  When I did wake up I found water and what was passing for food at that point… but when I was done eating and drinking I was hit with the knock out ray or whatever again.  I guess that’s how you found me.”

Kathryn nodded, indicating that yes, this is how they’d found her.

“So what’s with the alien here?  How did you get mixed up with them?  Where’s the ship and everyone else?”  She seemed justifiably concerned that the ship had been destroyed or something.

“Everyone’s fine Maggie, well… we lost a few people in the attack where you were captured, but you didn’t know any of them.  Everyone else took the ship back to Earth to report in and get everyone home safe when we had the chance.  We stayed behind to help our new friends and rescue you.”

“They’re not with the ones who took me?”

“No.  They’re in the middle of a big civil war.  These aliens, we call them Bobbins, have been very good to us.  We never could have rescued you without their help.”

The girl seemed unsure.  All of her experience so far of these aliens was hostile and abusive.  It would take some time for her to get used to the idea of there being ‘good ones’.  Nevertheless, on her mother’s word she was at least willing to accept the principle.  “I know it may seem silly, but I’m still very tired.  Somehow I don’t think being knocked out that way really gets you what you get from sleep.”

“Of course sweetie,” Kathryn uttered as she and Jaren stood up.  You can’t have had any decent sleep in weeks.  We’re a few hours away from the Bobbin homeworld, but there’s no reason to disembark right away.  We’ll get out of here and let you get some rest.  When you wake up we should be ready to go home.” She approached her daughter and put her arm around her.  “Before you know it you’ll be sleeping in your own bed again,” she told her as she brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes.

Jaren began ushering Bill and Margaret out of the room.  He then came over and gave Maggie a lingering hug before taking Kathryn’s hand and leading her away too.  “Get some rest Maggie,” he said, “we’ll be here when you wake up.”

 

 

The four stood outside the wall which had reappeared after they’d left Maggie’s room.  Jaren let out a long heavy sigh.  “Well… it could have been worse.”

Instinctively Kathryn breathed fire at him with her eyes, but then caught herself and tried to convince herself that he was right.  She was livid at what they had subjected her daughter to, but in the final analysis yes, it could have been much worse.  They had her back, and physically at least, she was fine.  She found herself wondering how long she’d have nightmares about what had happened to her.

“At least we hurt them,” Margaret said.  “Taking all that data must have been a serious blow to their war effort.  Finding out good intel Bill?”

The alien hadn’t said a word so far.  It had a distant look in its big black eyes.  It seemed to shudder as it regarded them after being addressed, as though he’d been lost in something else and jarred to the here and now.

“Yes, the information was… very illuminating.”

“But not good.” Margaret stated, reading between the lines.

“No.”

“Well out with it,” the simulant demanded in frustration.  She was also clearly shaken by what had happened to Maggie.  Far worse had happened to her back on Earth in the before time, but that was her, not a young girl she was so fond of.

“Our enemy is far stronger than we originally thought.  We mistook the limited nature of their direct aggression for a capacity gap.  In reality they have been gathering resources and building up forces in secret.  At this point they have more ships than we do.  Not by a lot, but more, and they continue to build.  What’s worse…” he trailed off.

“What is it?” Jaren asked.

“They realized about anti-matter right away.  Within hours of beginning analysis of your computer core they saw the data about your encounter with our portal ship and realized the effectiveness of anti-matter warheads against our vessels.  They immediately began constructing research and production facilities and they are weeks ahead of us.  They already have a strategic reserve which threatens our existence.”

“What will you do?” Kathryn asked.

“There is little we can do,” Bill admitted.  “Their strategic advantage is too great.  We cannot win.”  His bluntness was disarming.  “There is currently a raucous debate in the chamber where we agreed to the mission to infiltrate their link.  Despite empty protest, there is only one option available to us now given our assured defeat.  We escape.”

“Escape?” Margaret asked incredulously.  “Where can you go where they can’t follow?  You know they’ll never stop pursuing you, and anywhere you go they can follow.”

“That is not entirely accurate,” Bill cryptically responded.  “We will travel to the Andromeda galaxy.”

Jaren was in utter disbelief.  “What?  How?  It’s over two million light years away!  Even at the speed of light… there’s certainly no way to portal there, the amount of energy you would need would be…”  He had trouble finishing his sentences.  His engineering brain was cycling through all the possible methods and excluding them one by one.

“Astronomical.” Bill said.  “The amount of energy required would be astronomical, yes.  But we have a way.”

“How?” Jaren demanded, half in disbelief, half indignant.

“Hypernova,” Bill explained.  “Within our territory there is a large star on the verge of going hypernova.  We expend a great deal of energy maintaining it on the edge of collapse and preventing it from completing its phase change.  We have massively powerful energy collectors about the star.  The extreme polar energy jets will be harnessed ninety six percent and it will be enough, just barely but enough, to open a portal to Andromeda without a receiving gate.  Portal travel is possible without a receiving gate, but the energy to spontaneously force open an ungated portal are tenfold, more than any single star can output for us to perform within this galaxy, hence the portal drone ships.  The energy required to travel that far is an additional extreme energy requirement, but the polar energy jets of hypernovae such as this one are the most concentrated energy produced anywhere in the universe.  Before the war we were recruiting and planning for an expedition to our neighboring galaxy, but…”

“But it’s a one way trip,” Jaren finished his thought, now understanding. 

“Yes.  We had volunteers… brave Bobbins who wanted to push the boundaries and leave home forever, but… the war distracted us.”

“It’s people like that who came to our planets,” Kathryn reflected.  “It was a one way trip for them as well.”

“It is the true unknown,” Bill offered.  “We knew we may encounter aliens even more advanced than ourselves and that we may be unwelcome, or there could be none and the entire galaxy theirs for the taking.  It was a massive expedition, hundreds of portal drone ships would have gone with them to begin the slow process of seeding the galaxy with a portal network, everything they would need to establish a thriving central world like this one, but… the war.”

“Of course.” Kathryn offered in understanding.

“So that’s it?” Margaret demanded.  “You’re just going to give up and abandon this galaxy to the monsters you helped create.

“Margaret.” Kathryn said in an authoritative voice.

“It’s alright,” Bill offered with a three taloned wave of his hand to Kathryn.  “We see no other option.  We are certainly open to suggestions, but all of our simulations show, with the information we’ve obtained in our raid, that there is no way for us to win this war.  We will be destroyed, and all survivors will be enslaved by their Link.  We see no alternative options to escaping while we still can.  Hypernovae are so rare they will not be able to follow.”

“What would that mean for us?” Margaret asked.  Bill just looked at her quizzically.  “You abandon the galaxy, but we’re left behind.  They know where we are, they can come for us at any time, and they know we’ve helped you.”

“This is all true.  However there is nothing we can do for you without risking our own extinction.”

Everyone was quiet for a long few moments as they considered the gravity of their situation.  Finally Kathryn turned to Jaren.

“Jaren.  How much anti-matter could Kobol provide in an emergency?  Total, across the whole system.  If they stripped every ship, energy plant, production facility and weapon, how much.”

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”  As soon as she asked he knew exactly what she was thinking and he wanted no part in it whatsoever.

“How much?” she asked again in a demanding and impatient tone.

He glared at her for a good long while but finally answered.  “Five or six hundred kilos.”  His voice was shaky with anger.

Kathryn turned to Bill.  “What could your people do with five hundred kilos of anti-matter?”

The alien seemed confused and excited at the same time.  “Win the war,” he answered simply through his mirror ball, “if we act fast enough.”

Chapter 26

When they drew down the solidity of the barrier between their ship and the corridor leading onto the station, all seemed quiet.  Like on other Bobbin facilities, the walls were a dull black lit by a uniformly bright ceiling.  It was bright enough to be able to see adequately well, but it was still dim enough to be uneasily eerie.

They cautiously made their way through the ship, alternating their personnel.  Bill was first, followed by Kathryn, then another Bobbin, then Jaren and Ralph with a Bobbin between them, then Margaret taking up the rear behind another Bobbin.  She had insisted in taking this important position and was clearly taking her position very seriously.

So far it appeared that their signal modulators were working, they seemed to have triggered no intruder alarms nor defensive measures.  Unless one of the enemy Bobbins encountered them visually, their entry shouldn’t be detected.  At one point Bill stopped them and indicated that an enemy Bobbin was nearby and they held position until he signaled to them that they were clear to continue.

When they arrived to the central computer core area, they knelt down and waited.  Staying still in this one spot was one of the most harrowing part of their plan.  If an enemy Bobbin happened by they would see him coming on their scanners ahead of time, but it would be tricky moving everyone out of its way without either it or the one stationed at the core noticing.  Fortunately no one happened by.  So far they’d been lucky.

For about five minutes, Bill held his scanner up, carefully recording all of the signals being transmitted between the Bobbin in question and the computer core.  At this point he passed the device he’d been using back to Kathryn, who handed it off in a chain until it reached Ralph.  He put a metallic hand over the device and closed his cartoonish simulated image of eyes as he interfaced with it.  A few minutes later the projected eyes opened again and he informed them all that he was ready.

They were all aware that if this worked at all there was no way to know for how long it would last, and if it didn’t work at all, their lives were about to get very interesting and possibly very brief.  Ralph received a somber nod from Bill though, and it was time.  Again he closed the eyes on his image of a face to indicate concentration, and then sharply opened them again and gave a nod to indicate that it was working.  He had successfully taken the place of the Bobbin in question in the local Link network, and apparently with nothing and nobody knowing.

With a taloned bony finger Bill pointed towards the Bobbin between Jaren and Ralph.  This was the one who had seen fit to strap two relatively large for its body black bladed swords to its sides.  Now they would come to understand why.  As it came forward it withdrew both and wielded one in each hand.  Kathryn was so surprised and a little creeped out the way it made absolutely no sound as it passed her.  She’d had pretty comprehensive tactical training, but she’d never seen a human move that silently.  There was always the slightest sound which was easily overlooked if not attuned to it but detectable when paying attention.  There was no such tell with this one.  It could have been a purely visual projection for all the other indications of its presence it betrayed.

It advanced ahead of them, and still there was silence for what seemed like an eternity but in reality couldn’t have been more than two minutes.  Finally it emerged from around the corridor corner again and communicated that it was all clear, which was relayed by Bill with a wave of his hand.  Kathryn was stunned by what she saw when she rounded the corner.  It was a decapitated Bobbin in a massive pool of red blood.  She was surprised at how much its blood looked exactly like human blood.  She wasn’t sure if she had necessarily expected it to be different, if she’d ever articulated the thought, but to see it now these wildly different aliens seemed a little less removed from herself somehow, and for the first time really.

She looked over the body as Bill and another Bobbin (not the dual sword wielding one who instead stood watch at a nearby corridor intersection), excitedly interfaced with the computer terminal.  They’d seemed to have completely ignored the body and this bothered her a little.  Yes they were enemies, yes they were engaged in a brutal civil war, but it was still one of their species.  Necessary as it may be sometimes, a violent unnatural death was always a tragedy of some degree, worthy of some noting at least she felt.

The head was a couple of meters away.  It didn’t appear to have rolled either.  As she carefully knelt down to inspect the body she noticed a massive through wound on its torso as well.  It looked as though the assailant had grabbed the top of the central projection firmly and swiped it loose with a sword before then plunging the same sword into the torso before casually dropping the head as it returned to them.

Though she was a trained military officer she’d never fought a war.  She’d never seen a violent death like this and it affected her more than she was expecting.  It also wasn’t clear if it was affecting her more than it ordinarily would given that it was an alien.  Would it have bothered her more to have seen the head of one of her own so casually cast aside, or to know that alien life forms millions of years more advanced than humans still had it in them to be so casually violent when things got bad enough.  She didn’t know.

Bill and his comrade finished working at the computer terminal.  They had successfully downloaded into the all of the Bobbin’s internal circuitry the content of the enemy Link since it separated from their own, and they were ready to leave.  Now was the time to leave Ralph here and go after Maggie.  Kathryn watched as Margaret went up to Ralph and gingerly put her hand on the side of his screen head.  She didn’t say goodbye, or anything else for that matter, she just held her hand there for a moment before coming along with the rest of them with a bitter scowl on her face.  Kathryn didn’t understand what her connection with him was, especially with how mocking and dismissive she’d been of him and the robot he now inhabited from the beginning.  No time to worry about it now though.

There was no permanent corridor to Maggie’s suite as there was to the computer core, so instead Bill accessed the ship’s internal matter manipulation system and the square section of the hallway they were in slid into the wall, with the opposite side of the corridor following them in, presumably to be replaced with a fresh incarnation.

It took several minutes since the holding cell was clear across the ship, but finally one of the walls melted away, and they were conjoined with the room Maggie was still asleep in.  Margaret and Jaren rushed over to her and did a rudimentary checking her over, ensuring that she was still breathing and her heart was still beating.  The data they’d gathered from the ship had told them as much, but their inability to wake her up deeply troubled them.  Before long Bill urged them that they could thoroughly examine her once back on their ship but that right now it was imperative to return and get away.  They were so close to a perfectly executed successful mission they absolutely had to escape now while they still could.

She accepted this, and took Jaren’s wand from him as he picked her up and carried her.  Bill put a sensor dampener on her as well before leaving a different piece of hardware on the bed.  He informed them that it would mimic her life signs but again cautioned that while passive sensors would be fooled, if a video feed of the room was drawn up the rouse would come to an end.  As they stepped back into the room which had been formed out of the corridor they’d previously been in, the wall reappeared and they were in transit again, though there was no sensory indication of it.

Kathryn looked down at her poor daughter’s face.  It was dirty, clearly unwashed since they’d lost her.  She lovingly tried to wipe some of the grime away with her thumb but met with little success.  Her hair was matted, and clumpy, but however hard she looked Kathryn could detect no hint of blood on her anywhere, or any bumps or bruises or any other kind of physical mistreatment, and she took some comfort in that.  Had she been captured by human bandits she’d have to worry about sexual abuse, but that seemed safe to write off having been captured by Bobbins.  There had been some discussion amongst the crew whether they’d met all males or all female Bobbins, or if they even had a sexually dismorphized species at all.  Thought the aliens didn’t wear any clothes given their fur, they sported no obvious sex organs and the humans had so far been too polite to ask about anything as personal as gender or sex.

Their room merged into the corridor through which they’d left the ship, with two wall as the corridor, and a third the entrance to the ship.  They all piled into the control room, and were relieved to have had the mission go off so smoothly.  Jaren brought Maggie to a wall where a bed was drawn out and he placed her on it.  One of the Bobbins began placing devices on her and inspecting a screen where the readings being generated were being displayed.  It frustrated that they had no direct way of communicating with this particular alien and that his readings were indecipherable to them given that they were in the strange Bobbin language.  Especially frustrating was the impression that they were only being displayed at all for their own benefit, given that he could presumably simply have had all of the data streamed into his mind via the Link.

Kathryn spared a moment to look back at Margaret and assess how she was dealing with things.  She was immediately concerned.  The simulant was visibly shaking, and stood just outside the still open doorway to the ship with both dull black bladed swords drawn and pointed down towards the floor at an angle.  Quite a sight she was, after all she had all the outward appearance of an eighty year old woman, but brandishing two swords and the crazed look in her eyes of a youth consumed with bloodlust.  She seemed to be boiling over as she looked at her and Kathryn no idea why.

“I’m going back for him,” the simulated woman said in a gritty determined voice Kathryn had never heard from her before.

“What?” Kathryn asked in shock.  “For who?”

WHO!!?” she roared.  “Ralph!

“What?  But why?  He’s just… just a-”

“Just a what Kathryn!?” she angrily demanded, now seemingly taken to an even greater height of rage.  “Just a robot?  Just a machine?  Not even alive??

And with that Kathryn understood before she’d explained, and out of the corner of her eye she noticed an increasingly concerned looking Bill.

“Two hundred years they told me that my kind was less than yours, not as important, not as valuable, two hundred years before I outlasted all of their contempts!  He may have just been a robot before, but he’s more now, I have to go back!”

Before Bill could solidify the passage way between ship and station to block her, she had leapt back onto the station, running at full speed down the corridor.  Kathryn saw her turn a corner just before the wall went completely opaque behind her.

Now she understood.  Yes Margaret was upset about the way her kind had been treated before the fall of Earth, and yes she had personally been a champion for simulant rights and their normalization as people.  But she seemed to have made a kind of peace with that past and the centuries she spent looking over a small group of humans between the fall and the reestablishment of contact with the extrasolar colonies so long afterwards.

She suddenly understood her unreserved assistance in the human’s renewed efforts at recreating the technology which created her in the first place.  Kathryn had always foolishly believed that it was merely her attempting to aid the humans in whatever way she could, in gratitude for helping her find a fresh simulant body to migrate to after her own had utterly fallen apart over the centuries.

But no, there was more, much more.  She was lonely, incredibly and painfully lonely, and Kathryn didn’t know why she’d never seen it before.  Maybe that was why the dismissive and snarky attitude and sense of humour, she was loathe to betray how much pain she was really in with her loneliness.  She’d only let humans in so far, knowing that there was a limit to how close she could be to any human forever removed as she was, as an artificial life form.  The most intimate realities of life, of aging, of mortality, of day to day concerns of breathing, and eating, and excreting, forever put her in another world from everyone else.

Now, in Ralph, since the alien artificial intelligence had been installed in him, was the closest things she’d encountered to a truly kindred being in over six hundred years, and now she was being told that he was disposable, that he needed to be abandoned, that it was better for him to sacrifice himself over any of the human or Bobbin crew merely because he was not like them, because he was artificial, and because being artificial made him lesser.

Kathryn and the rest of the humans had accepted Margaret as a human and welcomed her into their social graces, and the simulant appreciated that.  They valued her more than any human as a one of a kind conduit to being able to replicate the process which created her, and thus eliminate that fundamental value in her.  The simulant was aware of this irony, but persisted in her hopes of being reunited with those like herself.  But their casual willingness to discard Ralph, now that in her eyes he was no less intrinsically valuable in his own autonomy as she was, was too much.  She couldn’t allow the injustice.  She’d rather cease to exist herself in the attempt to rectify the injustice than stand by and let it happen.  And now that Kathryn understood, she couldn’t let her act in vain.

“Shame,” Bill said through the mirror ball and turned towards the ship controls, ready to take off and leave both on the station. 

Kathryn put a hand on his bony talon tipped hand to stop him.  “We’re not leaving without them,” she said plainly as a siren erupted through the room.  It was relatively low in pitch and Kathryn quickly figured out that to a Bobbin ear it would no doubt be a high pitch wail.  Bill seemed to silence it with thought control.

“Our activities on the station have been detected,” it reported as grimly as his mirrorball could simulate.  Tactical drones are being deployed.”

“Can they get onto this ship?”

“No.  Internal matter manipulation is vessel specific.  They cannot direct our matter or their matter in our ship anymore than we could on the station.  However, they are no doubt attacking your simulant right now.”

“She’s not mine, she’s her own.  That’s the whole point she is making.”

“Regardless.  We are compromised.  Warships will be targeting us any moment.  We must withdraw.”

“We can’t leave without them.”

Three large spherical ships appeared out the window made out of the transparent wall and began firing on their little ship with weapons that looked like the pillars of light Ralph’s smaller ship had fired at New Horizon II except clearly much more powerful.  When they hit the ship the wall washed in yellow-white light momentarily and they felt a shudder, but that was all. 

“See?  They’re not even scratching us.”

“We can withstand their attacks for a time, but we are not impervious Kathryn.  Before long they will breach our matter and kill us all.”  He turned around to face her directly.  “I don’t know what hold that simulant has over you, but we have achieved our objectives as planned and she chose to return for her own reasons.  We both have what we came for, but if we do not withdraw immediately we will have lost all that we have achieved here today, and Ralph’s voluntary sacrifice will have been for nothing.  Is that not a worse outcome than his sacrifice itself?”

“It doesn’t matter.  We wait.  We find a way.  Didn’t we bring those antimatter warheads for just this reason?”

“We have a limited supply, and they were intended for use in our retreat, not a static battle.  In this scenario there is every chance that they will be shot out before they can reach their target.”

“But not necessarily, if we fire all of them some will get through yes?”

“That is reckless.  The station has far more serious weapons which can destroy us.  We need a certain amount to disable those weapons on our retreat.  Furthermore even larger battleships are approaching and will be here soon.  We cannot stay here.”

“We will stay as long as we can, Bill.  I ask nothing more.”

 

 

Halfway to the computer core where they had left Ralph, Margaret heard the alarm sound.  She had not previously been informed about it, but she was savvy enough to know what it meant in this context, and she was ready.  At least not there was no excuse for Ralph to continue on where he was, the rouse was broken, his task was complete.

But now she encountered the tactical drones she had been warned about.  As described they emerged out of the walls and floor.  It was eerie the way the very surfaces of the interior of the ship seemed to come alive.  They were the same dull black as the surfaces they came out of, and were oddly blocky.  They were in the same general shape of the Bobbins, but their legs and body were rectangular with sharp edges.  Instead of a typical central projection, they had the first bit of it, generally a hard edged cube, but with a device which looked suspiciously like a want on it.  Her suspicions were confirmed with the first one shot a bolt of energy at her.

She may look like a human, and she may have originally been programmed to be limited to a typical human’s capacities, but she’d lost patience with that concept long ago, sometime after she’d entered this new body and felt permanently apart from her human friends.  In relative secret she had had them strip all of the limiting factors from her, to unleash her full capacities as a high tech artificial life form.

The instant she first perceived the first inklings of a flash of light from the tactical drone, she’d sprung up in the air, somersaulting over the blast, and before it could lock on to her to fire again, she’d landed behind it, cleanly sweeping her sword through its bulk as she landed, cleanly cleaving it in two.  For a moment she was fascinated as the two pieces began melting back into the floor, but she hadn’t more than that most fleeting of moments to spare.  Many more were already upon her, and she rounded a corner of the corridor.

Thankfully she was already near Ralph but she had some word to do to clear the remaining distance.  In one fluid motion she drew her wand and shot half a dozen times into the wall to create grooves for her footing.  As she leapt to the first, she stuffed the wand into a pocket and drew the second sword as she was decapitating another she passed on her first jump.  Quickly planting into the first foothold, she launched herself several meters forward and to the opposite side of the corridor towards the next depression she’d created in the wall.  She twisted her body into an arc to avoid an energy bolt and by the time she’d reached the other wall had rendered another three drones in half with her swords.

This time she merely crouched into a cannonball and spun as she launched to the next hold, avoiding several more bolts.  Planting into the next one, she launched up again, slicing one, then a second, then a third as she twisted and flipped, finally landing in the middle of the corridor, bringing both of her swords down in a diagonal cross through a drone immediately in front of her as she landed, leaving it melting into the floor in several pieces.

She’d landed approximately where they had waited for Bill to record the Link signals and load them into Ralph.  She was too slow readying herself to make the long diving leap into the control room where Ralph should be, that as she was accelerating in her jump, a bolt of energy caught her in the arm just above the elbow and as she launched down the corridor, she left her arm behind, causing her to fail to properly land and she hit the ground hard, and roll uncontrollably into the control room.

Ralph knelt down to inspect her damaged body.  She looked up at him and realized what she was seeing she bolted up to her feet.  She first tried to push herself up with her absent arm, realizing it wasn’t there used the other one instead without much apparent concern for her missing limb.  Ralph lifted his robotic hand towards the entry way she’d come through and a dull black barricade came up to block the tactical drones.

“Doing that and preventing entry to this room by the drones has alerted them to my presence, they will soon override my influence here and the drones will gain access,” Ralph informed her.  “What are you doing here?  Did you get left behind?”  He seemed remarkably concerned for her wellbeing.

“Better not have,” she exclaimed with wild angry humour.  “I came back for you, come on, we’ve got to find a way back to the ship.”

“Came back for me… why?”

Margaret sighed in exasperation.  “If you can’t figure that out I’ll explain it to you later, come on, we gotta go.  We’ll probably get destroyed trying to get past those drones but we’ve got to try.  Maybe you can hold them at bay long enough for us to have a chance?” she asked.  She was amped, whatever the simulant equivalent was she was charged with adrenaline from the thrill of battle and the ecstasy of unexpected success so far.

“Take my hand,” Ralph said warmly to her. 

Margaret didn’t understand as she looked back and up at him.  She looked at his hand with confusion as he held it out to her.  She had no better other options than to trust him, and she put her one remaining hand into his.  He led her over to another wall, looked at her for a moment, and then held her close and stepped into the wall.

Everything went black, and she couldn’t breathe.  This panicked her for a moment before she realized that she didn’t need to breathe.  Gradually she realized what was happening.  Instead of travelling in a bubble of atmosphere through the ship the way the humans needed to, as mechanoids the two of them could travel directly through the matter, be swallowed by it whole and shifted about through it.  Since there was no space about them, there was no room for any of the tactical drones to enter with them and attack.  They were safe if they could make it all the way to the ship this way.  The only question was whether or not Ralph’s ability to control the ship would expire before they made it.  If not they would be stuck in the matter, entombed until the aliens decided what they wanted to do with them once they removed them.

 

 

“We must leave.  Now.  Bill pleaded in such a way that conveyed he would not tolerate her insistence to stay any longer.  Our hull is already degrading from those spheres.  The large cubes will be within us in minutes.  The combined firepower will be able to destroy us completely.”

“You calculate exactly the last second you can safely run, and I won’t stop you at that point, but only that point.”  Kathryn had returned to fussing over a still unconscious Maggie, and Bill waved his hands in frustration at her.

“Eighty three seconds,” he uttered after doing some calculations.  “Then we have to leave no matter what you say.”

Kathryn didn’t bother answering.  The Bobbin who was evaluating Maggie had indicated that she was fine and merely under heavy sedation, and that given enough time she would come around on her own.  This was as much of a relief to Jaren and Kathryn as they could experience with massive advanced alien gunships firing on them, and their larger more powerful siblings bearing down.

And then, shocking everyone, Margaret and Ralph were spit out of the wall with some force.  They must have been travelling through the interior of the ship at some speed and not bothered slowing down before exiting.  Bill was presumably as surprised as everyone else, but before the clang of Ralph’s metallic body rang out as he hit the floor and Margaret landed on top of him, he’d already hammered the accelerator and the lighting inside the command room actually visibly dimmed with the energy being poured into the drive system.

The Bobbin commander worked with two other Bobbins at the forward controls and what little they spoke was said to each other in their own language, and the humans were left with only the displays to see what was going on as they made their retreat.  Kathryn rushed over to Margaret and Ralph and was almost as shocked to see her missing arm as she was that they’d made it at all.  Making sure they were relatively alright, she refocused her attention to the wall sized display screen before the Bobbins. 

It was obvious they were accelerating at a ridiculous rate, but the screen also showed that they were engaging in a randomized evasion course to make it harder for the larger and more powerful ships in pursuit to target them.  They were clearly taking the occasional strike and the ship reverberated when this happened, but the ship could clearly withstand a certain degree of punishment, even from these more powerful ships.  This must be why the war persisted, Kathryn imagined, it was hard to do any significant damage to each other, and why the anti-matter weapons were so prized.  They could actually do devastating damage.

The screen showed a dozen smaller object engaging in equally randomized courses, but gradually working their way towards the enemy targets on the screen.  A set of three torpedoes were clearly nearly at the base they had departed from when one struck a larger of the pursuing ships.  The result was a brilliant flash of light out the forward viewer and the profile of the ship in the tactical display showed a clear hemispherical bit taken out of the ship just as had been the result when they’d used an antimatter warhead on Ralph’s ship.

Then another, and another, as the other two larger ships were struck.  Bill took a moment to explain that their weapons had been targeted instead of their engines.  They could still pursue, but they were powerless to attack now.  The three smaller vessels were struck and they were utterly devastated.  Over half of their total volume disappeared in a flash of light and they were ballistic pieces of dead ship from that point forward.

The station was targeting them but their evasive retreat pattern had so far prevented any strikes against them.  However, after the smaller ships had been destroyed, they did suffer a brutal strike against their vessel.  Bill informed them that it was only a partial strike, and that if it had been a direct strike their ship would be utterly destroyed.  More flashes of light lit up the inky void behind them as they raced towards the sun, indicating that the station had finally been hit by the torpedoes.

A visibly relieved Bill informed them that although some torpedoes had been destroyed along the way, enough had survived to totally destroy all of the weapons platforms on the station.  The strange little alien actually slumped down to the ground from his controls and fell over onto the floor in emotional exhaustion with his arms spread out, relieved and finally able to breathe and relax.

It was over.  They were safe.  

Chapter 25

The team watched from the command room as their small ship approached the much larger station.  It was the same opaque black as everything else seemed to be, but its shape was distinct from anything they’d seen before.  As a six sided double pyramid shape it certainly fit in with all of the other regular shaped vessels they’d seen so far.  As they approached for a dock, Jaren craned his neck upwards to see the station, and Bill informed them that the entire station was constructed of the same shifting matter as their own vessel.

“Can’t they detect that we’re here?” Jaren asked.

“No.  The material of the hull is impervious to any external scans.  In this situation the station relies on other vessel’s internal sensors to make such a determination.  We are currently sending a false reading indicating that this vessel is completely uninhabited.”

“That bridge go both ways?”

“Yes,” Bill said as he replaced the now completely obscured view screen wall with an enhanced internal layout of the station.  There were purple triangles around the enemy Bobbins, and a single green square elsewhere.

“How many is that?” Kathryn asked.

“Looks to be ten hostiles,” Bill answered, “but they’re not our biggest concern.”

“What is?”

“Tactical drones.  At a moment’s notice innumerable drones can be formed out of the hull material to attack us with weapons similar to the wands you were practicing with.  Wands can temporarily disable the matter, but more can always be made, and the immobilization is fleeting.”

“How do we avoid having to deal with that?”

“That is the other problem. All of the hostiles are permanently within The Link, and as such as soon as any of them see any of us, everyone else will be instantly alerted.  Even if we were to incapacitate them before they had any conscious awareness of us, their sudden drop from The Link would alert the entire station to our presence all the same.”

“Won’t those internal sensors detect our presence as soon as we step onto the station?”

“Ordinarily yes, which is why we’ll all be wearing these.”  Bill reached into the shadow of the wall and withdrew small pendants with what appeared to be a red ruby at its heart and passed them out.  Kathryn was pleased to discover that merely pressing it into her shirt kept it securely there.

“Red’s not really my colour,” Margaret complained, but assuming she was joking everyone ignored her and she pressed it into her clothing all the same.  

“Ralph’s internal hardware has been programmed to generate the same field these will,” Bill explained as he reached back into the wall and handed out the same devices to his Bobbin compatriots.  “These will make you invisible to the internal sensors of the station.  However, it offers no defence against visual detection.  If any of the hostiles see you they will not help.  Also, any interior space of the station can have visual scanners activated if alerted to a problem, but they are not left on continuously.”

“Think I’ve got all that,” Kathryn offered.

“It’s a big station,” Bill explained, “and only ten hostiles.  Having access to their internal scanners makes it relatively easy to avoid encountering any of them, but this one is our problem, here.”  With his spindly finger he pointed to one particular purple triangle.  “This target is permanently stationed at the primary Link Hub access point we need to reach.  We might try bubbling through the ship to the rear of the terminal and tapping into the station from behind the wall, but I suspect it would detect our activity from the screens it was monitoring.  I believe we will instead need to incapacitate him and access the console manually.  There is also the issue of needing to break the encryption if we try to tap it from behind, if we take the target, it will already have unlocked the console for us.”

“But you said that if we take it out that would automatically alert the ship.”

“Yes, I did…  There is one possibility but it is risky.”

“Well out with it then,” Margaret uttered, frustrated at the cryptic non-suggestion.

“It is theoretically possible, that if we monitor the signals coming to and from that Bobbin for several minutes, we could augment one of us sufficiently to Link into their network and avert any alert.  It is risky thought.”

“How so?” Kathryn asked.

“For one, it might not work,” he explained.  We might be visually detected before we could attempt it, or we could make the attempt and the simulation would be incomplete or take too long to establish and we would be detected either way.  Nothing like it has ever actually been attempted.”

Can it work?”

Bill looked back at the large screen before him.  If he had a chin Kathryn could imagine him stroking it contemplatively.  “I believe it to be our best chance of success, but I believed you deserved to know the risks.”

“I appreciate that.  What else do we need to know?”

While they had been discussing the plan, Jaren had been establishing a bridge between his scroll and the enemy station through their ship.  He was following along for the most part, looking up path through the station, schematics on the tactical drones they were likely to encounter, and other areas of interest on the ship.  Finally the green square in the schematic of the ship was sufficient to draw his attention.

“Prisoner…” he muttered quietly to himself as he continued to investigate.  Maybe a Bobbin prisoner Bill might be interested in?  Looking further he saw that adjacent there was a large piece of hardware which looked oddly familiar, and in the enhanced schematic he could see data conduits going from it to the primary data core of the ship…

Kathryn interrupted Bill when she saw her husband had turned utterly pale white as blood drained from his face.  “Jaren!?” she said as she came over to steady her.

“She’s here!” he croaked.

“What?  Who’s here?’

Maggie!” he exclaimed as he took control of the wall view screen and put up an image of the inside of the prisoner suite he’d been able to render.

He was right, there she was, lying on one of the beds made out of the material of the station.  She was wearing the same clothes as she was when she’d been captured two months ago (?) and looked like she hadn’t had the opportunity to bathe in as much time.  She was unconscious, only sleeping they could only hope, but there she was, alive at least.  The room view automatically projected to the side of the green square completely around her a medical readout.  The text they couldn’t understand, but the steady rhythm of two of the readings were unmistakably a heartbeat and breathing rate.

“Oh my god…” Kathryn said, putting her mouth over her hand.  It really was her, and Kathryn was utterly overwhelmed.  This was an unexpected opportunity, but it also added an immeasurable additional risk to the mission they were already on.

“That is… unfortunate,” Bill uttered through his mirror ball in dismay.

“How can you say that?” Kathryn demanded angrily.  “This is the only thing that matters to us!”

“I understand that Admiral, but the fate of my entire civilization hangs on the success of this mission already!”  The mirror ball did a pretty good job of translating his rising anger in the voice synthesis.

“We’re not leaving without her,” Kathryn declared coldly, leaving no room for uncertainty in her commitment to that fact.

“I know,” Bill said with a lowering of the intensity in his simulated voice.  “That, is why it is unfortunate.  This mission just became far more challenging, and it was already not guaranteed to succeed.”

“Especially since our exit strategy included obliterating that station,” Margaret growled.  “Hey wait, did you know!?”

Of course not!”  The synthesis of his voice from the mirror ball again appropriately translated his anger, but this time the ferocity of his voice was felt through their feet as his infrasonic voice roared at them.

The Bobbin and Margaret glared at each other heatedly for a few moments before they mutually disarmed their hostility gradually.

“Given this new information I would not expect you to feel any differently,” Bill finally said.  “But we need a new plan.  If we are detected in our access of the central core, it will be difficult enough merely escaping with our lives, let alone rescuing your daughter.  We need a means more certain to proceed.”

“We could prioritize the rescue,” Jaren offered, “figure out some other way to infiltrate the enemy Link?”

“I assure you this is equally as impossible as abandoning your daughter,” Bill reassured them coldly.

“I have an idea,” Ralph said.  Everyone in the room looked over at him at once, nearly having forgotten he was even there.

“Go on,” Bill encouraged him.

“Your best option was to transfer the active link of the enemy at the computer core to one of your compatriots.”

“Yes.”

“There are two problems with this.  One, the friendly unavoidably has its own mind and it would be extremely challenging to fool the local Link in this way.  Two, to make your escape, this link would need to be severed, leading to immediate detection, and the impossibility of a second objective of rescue.”

“What do you suggest?” Jaren asked.

“I believe I can more effectively serve as the simulated Link node.”

Bill and the other Bobbins immediately began furiously debating amongst themselves in tones that were only occasionally audible when of a high enough pitch.

“What would that mean for you?” Jaren asked while they debated.

“As an artificial intelligence I am designed to simulate a consciousness.  By losing my own identity I can instead simulate an alternate mind, such as the one connected to the Link.  As Bill suggested earlier, by recording the signals to and from a target Bobbin for several minutes I could then simulate the node activity of that particular individual.  For how long this deception would be unnoticed would depend on how much time signal activity had been recorded in advance.”

“And what happens to you?” Margaret asked.

“I, as a conscious identity, would cease to exist.”

“We can’t do that!” Margaret pleaded.

Kathryn looked at her curiously before asking the robot, “how do you feel about that prospect?”

“Unknown,” it answered.  “I was created for one purpose, and having failed that purpose, I fulfilled my backup objective.  Since then I have existed… without any ultimate mission.  I have been entertained accompanying you, but the prospect of continuing to exist, or… ceasing to, neither seem particularly impactful to me.”

“But Ralph,” Margaret pleaded, “you’re alive.  You think and feel, that’s something worth cherishing regardless of the circumstances.  You have a body now, you could be ageless… like me.”

Now Kathryn understood.  As much as she teased and derided this poor robot, she felt a kinship with it.  She’d been alone in her kind for centuries, the last surviving simulant among humans.  Sure she got along fine with humans… most of the time, but she knew in her heart or wherever as a simulant that she was not one of them, that she was forever and irredeemably apart from human beings.  Ralph was the first being she’d sensed any kinship with in that way in over five hundred years.  Him being so casually willing to end his own existence not only frightened her at the sudden sense of loneliness she’d suddenly realized she’d feel, but being so casually dismissive of his own existence cast a dismissive light on her own existence which profoundly disturbed her.

“It’s not his fault,” Bill gently offered, having adequately conferred with his teammates.  We constructed his type of intelligence to be totally at peace with their own demise, not to seek it, but to be undisturbed by it.  The very nature of the mission they are programmed with requires in the end the end of themselves.  Without that trait their existence would be painful.  It does not seek its own end,” he explained as he rested his spindly hand on his frame, “but it is pleased to find a meaningful purpose in its end.  Perhaps that is why it has been so happy to follow you along since being relieved of its purpose, to find a way such as this to meaningfully complete its existence.”

Margaret said nothing else, but slinked back and folded her arms, leaning against a wall with an embittered and hurt expression Kathryn wasn’t sure she’d ever quite seen her put on before.

“Whatever else may be the case,” Bill offered, “this option stands the best chance of success, and the best option for our mission to be an overall success.”

“Understood.”

 

 

With that, the mission was set.  They would advance to the central core and use Ralph to usurp the Link and gain access to the node.  They would copy all of the contents of the Link since the war had started (all previous data would be the same as their own), and then make for Maggie on their way back to the ship.  Despite the interior of the station being variable, there were corridors between relevant sections of the ship for emergency access in the event of a failure in the shape shifting systems.  The first thing they would do once they accessed the central core was sabotage the shift system so that at the first sign of trouble they could deactivate it.  The measure would not last long, but as long as it did it would secure their passage as well as inhibit the formation of tactical drones.

They all geared up in their own unique ways.  The Bobbins seemed to generally ready themselves in similar ways but there were distinctions amongst them.  They all wore a metallic armour which seemed more ceremonial than functional given the power of the weapons they were up against.  She also imagined that if they were an effective defence against the wand weapons they would be shared with the humans.  It covered the front of their lower section and the front of their forward legs, and supported a short distance back of their full length, long enough for a shield to be seated which came up to protect their central projection where their eyes were.

They also appeared to have smeared colours on parts of their central projections which seemed remarkably like some kind of war paint.  Millions of years old, thousands of light years away could these aliens really have smeared war paint on their face before going into battle?  If so Kathryn believed she had either seriously underestimated their sense of honour and/or tradition, or how peaceful a people they were really ordinarily inclined to be.

They also varied in how they were armed.  Bill and another were simply armed with a wand on either side of their lower section between their front and rear legs, while having what appeared to be a small ceremonial dagger mounted in a sheath to the front of their lower section.  Another had four wands mounted on its armour as though it were a living mobile tank, while another merely held a single wand in its hands, also equipped with the small dagger, but much more dangerous looking swords mounted in a cross from the sides of the base of its central projection, crossing behind it and extending back between its rear legs.

Kathryn had thought some time ago that her ability to be surprised had been exhausted, but seeing these otherworldly creatures ready themselves for battle was at once the most eerily familiar sight, as well as the most alien thing she had seen so far in all of her adventures to date.  She was left speechless at the sight.

As for herself and Jaren, both had merely acquired two of the wands and hung them on either side of their waist.  Ralph clutched a single wand in one hand, but Margaret seemed in a state none had seen her before.  Seemingly taking a note from their hosts, she had dirtied her hair with what Kathryn couldn’t imagine, but she’d also smeared dark paint all over her exposed skin like the Bobbins.  She always wore dark clothes accented with dark scarlet and she was left looking just as otherworldly as the Bobbins.  In the context of the dull black walls of the shuttle she appeared ghostly, noticeably darkened to the point that she could indeed be missed if not looked directly at.  The dark scarlet notes of her clothes seemed to glint as she moved and she had a darkly grim expression of determination Kathryn had never seen in her before.

Apparently having familiarized herself with the replicating function of the wall, like the one Bobbin she had likewise fashioned herself two thin but meter long swords, gently curved and the same dull black as the shifting material of the craft.  As Kathryn observed them crossed each other on her back, it suddenly struck her that she might not have been taking cues from the Bobbins, but that it was entirely possible that they had gotten these ideas from the simulant.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to know, but Margaret seemed more appropriately teamed with the aliens than she was with the humans, unmodified as they were themselves.

And then, it was time.

Chapter 24

“Well, want to give us a tour of the ship?” Jaren asked Ralph.

“There is not much to see,” the robot answered plainly.  “Most of the volume of this ship is void space, low density matter ready to be configured according to need.  As it exists presently there is no much defined interior.  I would remind you that ships such as these frequently operate with no crew at all, and in such operation require no internal structure whatsoever.”

“We can’t even imagine what kind of technology could be at work here…” Kathryn marvelled.

“And they say there’s no such thing as magic,” Margaret remarked dryly as she studied the lit tip of her cigar, and the smoke curling up from it.  She watched as it was pulled directly into the wall by means she couldn’t fathom.

“There isn’t.”  Kathryn stated firmly.  “So we don’t fully understand gravity.  It stands to reason that if we did, we could infer these same technologies.”

“Yeah, and any number of other things we haven’t figured out we don’t anything about yet,” Margaret responded.

“We should get to the bridge…” Jaren offered with hesitation, “or whatever they call it.”

“Put your hand on the wall and say ‘Command’” Ralph instructed him. 

Jaren followed his instructions, and the first thing they noticed was that the window melted away to be replaced once again with seemingly solid ethereal dark matter.  A few moment later a doorway appeared in the wall as it had before, but this time on the other side was a larger room with several Bobbins seemingly hard at work, conversing in their nauseating ultra-low frequency language.

“Did… the room just move?” Kathryn asked, amazed.

“Yes.”

“Like some sort of… bubble through the ship?”

“Yes.”

“Alright then.”  Kathryn put this marvel upon marvels aside, and stepped into the Command room.  “Bill?” she asked.

As one of the creatures approached her, a sphere of material blobbed out of the wall and assumed a chrome finish on its exterior surface as it approached.  She wondered if the mirror ball had been waiting in the matter of the ship, or if it had actually been created anew out of the material.

“Yes,” it said, looking at her seemingly askance.  When he looked at her, his two of his three offset eyes always seemed to be looking at her sideways.  “We are nearing the portal.  We must be ready.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“If all goes according to plan, we should be able to broadcast our identity as friendly and approach the station without detection.  Once we dock we will board the station.  We will make our way to the link core and once in physical contact any of us can directly download the data to our own internal Link system.  We will then share it amongst ourselves in case any of us should fall.  The breach will be immediately detected so we will have to fight our way back to the ship, and from the ship fight our way out of the system.  There should not be a large crew on the station, this is in our favour.  We expect no more than a dozen Bobbins, but…”

“What?”

“Tactical drones can be fabricated out of the material about us as easily as this communications device.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.  We have a countermeasure, we can generate a field which inhibits any manipulation of matter within the field, but at several points we will need to disengage it to make our egress

“I see.  Well we didn’t bring any weapons with us.”

“I know.  We have a little over an hour until we reach the portal.  That should give us enough time.”

“For what?”

“Weapons training.”

Bill touched his hand against the wall where the doorway to their room had been and said something in his own language.  The same doorway appeared, but beyond it was a large cavernous space.  As they stepped through, the dull black material lightened in shade as it began emitting enough light from every surface to be able to see clearly.

He reached into the wall and pulled out an object which was about three decimeters long.  It was a long rectangular prism less than two decimeters on the short side.  “This is… again, proper names are problematic.  It is a weapon, do you have a name you would suggest for it?”

Kathryn looked over the object which was the dame dull primer black colour as everything else on the ship.  “I don’t know, a… wand?” she suggested inquisitively, looking back at her team.  They shrugged disinterestedly in approval.

“Very well,” Bill accepted, “a wand then.  It emits a bolt of energy which on lower energy settings is invisible, but at higher energy settings is visible as it ignites the oxygen in the atmosphere it passes through.  The technology is not entirely dissimilar to the weapon of Ralph’s ship when you encountered it.”

Kathryn and her crew nodded their understanding.

“There is no front or back, it will always shoot away from the user.  It is squeeze operated, and the stronger you squeeze the device, the stronger the bolt will be as a result.  Observe.”

An ill-defined homunculus of a Bobbin grew out of the ground, and Bill shot it with the wand on low power.  The only indication of the hit was the target briefly flashing purple to indicate a hit.  It burst purple most brightly between where the eyes would be, and with a dissipated brightness radiating away.

“On high power however,” Bill shot again and the target utterly blew apart into innumerable pieces and showered down onto the ground.  All of the pieces were absorbed into the ground, and reformed back up into the original target.

Bill handed the wand he had been holding to Kathryn, and then reached into the wall to grab more for the others.  “On full power the bolt will penetrate the walls a meter or two, but this room has moved to the very interior of the ship and there are no adjacent rooms or equipment for three meters on either side, so your practicing should be safe as long as you do not fire repeatedly on the same location in rapid succession on full power.”

Having handed wands to Margaret and Jaren, Bill opened a doorway to a small empty transfer room which would presumably bubble him back away to command.  “I suggest you practice.  I will come for you when we arrive at the portal.”

Before he could close the wall again, Kathryn spoke up.  “Bill, will we… are we expected to kill others of your kind?”  She was asking if they were permitted to but she felt more comfortable framing the question that way instead.

“Many have died already on both sides.”  Kathryn felt as though she were beginning to be able to read his expression and the tone of his words now, even though she was hearing his voice through his ever-present mirror ball.  His tone seemed to take on a remarkably dark note as he spoke.  “It should be sufficient to stun on this mission, but death is not forbidden.”  The door closed as he said the words, not allowing any further discussion on the subject.

“Death is not forbidden…” Kathryn repeated as she looked back at her team.

“Truer words were never spoken,” Margaret remarked.

“Right,” Kathryn refocused them, “well let’s get some practice in then.  Kind of reminds me of the wands you Kobolians developed,” she remarked to her husband.  When she had first met him, she had marvelled at a tool he used which could be used as a mechanical tool at a short distance, or a weapon for rendering targets unconscious.”

“A little,” Jaren remarked as he looked it over, “but this seems to only be a weapon, and much more powerful.  Ralph please call up half a dozen targets and have them move around at a speed and patter appropriate to the Bobbins we’ll encounter.”

Without a word Ralph obeyed, and six shadowy figures emerged up out of the ground and began moving about the chamber in and amongst them.

“Uhh, for now let’s just have them down range okay?  We may have to practice that later, but right now I’d really like to avoid us shooting each other.”

The figures moved over to the far end of the room and continued moving about.  Jaren held out his arm, aiming the wand as he trained on one particular figure.  He shot, but missed, and the radiating purple light from the central strike showed on the wall behind.  Kathryn smiled at him as she in one motion reached out, extended the wand, and shot one of the figures in the head.

“Show off…” Jaren muttered with a feigned grumble.  Kathryn was a formally trained military officer, while Jaren’s background was as a diplomat and earlier in his life an engineer.

Always trying to one up the humans, Margaret spun the wand with a gentle toss up, turned her back to the targets and shot over her shoulder, exploding one of the moving targets after an orange bolt of energy ripped through the air towards it.  It rained back down to the ground, absorbed into the ground and was reformed, rejoining the other figures.

Kathryn glared at her.  “You need to take this more seriously.  Tell me, did you intend to fire at full power?”

“Absolutely.”

“Alright, let me try…”  She squeezed harder while aiming, not as hard as she could, but what she considered fairly firmly.  The entire target lit up and stopped for a moment before dulling again and resuming its motion amongst the others.  The bolt of energy made a faint orange glow as it travelled from the tip of the wand, but nowhere near as dramatically as when Margaret had shot.  “Guess we’ll call that a kill shot…” she thought to herself and then tried again, squeezing essentially as hard as she could.  As when Margaret had shot, a bright orange bolt ripped through the air, but this time she missed and it exploded the wall behind the targets.  It took several moment for the wall to reform itself again.

Jaren gave her a look which said ‘now who’s the hot shot?’.  He concentrated as he aimed and squeezed hard, producing a bright bolt and exploded target.

 

 

Less than an hour later Bill came to retrieve them and brought them to the command room.  They all watched through the transparent wall as they approached the portal cube and seemed to fly directly into it.  Kathryn held her breath as the wall hit her, and exhaled once she had emerged out the other side.  As they flew away from the star all she could see was the inky blackness out ahead of them.  As she studied the blackness, she thought she could make out any number of ships out there.  It was too easy for her imagination to see countless ships out there, black as they were against the blackness of space.

“Broadcasting our message,” Bill reported.

“What are you telling them?” Kathryn asked.

“This ship was programmed to make a detailed survey of a newly accessed star system.  We are reporting that a calamity struck that system, and that the ship is returning to port as instructed in such a scenario.”

“What clamity?”

“A rogue stellar body flying through the system along the planetary plane either swallowing or deflecting away most of the planets.  I am reporting that we did what study we could of this phenomenon and are reporting back to base early.”

“Let’s hope they buy it…”

“They have.  We are clear.”

“That was too easy,” Jaren suggested.

“I don’t understand,” Bill said.  “Our plan worked.”

“It just… feels eerie.  Can’t they tell that there are people on the ship?

“No.”

The plainness of his answer didn’t sit well with Jaren.  “Explain please.”

“We cannot scan the interior of other ships.  We rely on internal sensors reporting to us.  We are currently sending false readings indicating that this is an unoccupied ship.”

“I see.  Well, what now?”

“Now we wait.  It’ll take approximately four hours to reach the base in orbit around the second planet.  We will proceed as soon as we arrive.  You may occupy yourself however you like in the meantime.”

 

 

Two hours later, about the time the ship would begin decelerating from their speed which seemed utterly ludicrous to the New Horizon II crew, the four were back in their fashioned room.  Jaren was working with Ralph to create a bridge and translation matrix between his medium scroll and the alien systems, and was meeting with some success.  He was already able to manipulate the material of the ship at a distance with touch inputs on his scroll.  They were now working on tapping the scroll directly into the Bobbin Link system to access the font of data it contained.  He wanted the capacity in any case, but his rationale was that the relevant data could be stored on his scroll as well as an additional redundant back up.  The problem with this, which he had no intention of figuring out how to solve since it was just an excuse, was that the scroll had very limited data storage onboard, being designed to function within a wirelessly networked environment.

Kathryn was busily engaged with a terminal which had been conjured out of the wall, complete with desk and chair.  She was studying everything she could about the Bobbins, especially the seemingly ludicrous rationale for the war.  Margaret had conjured up a bouny ball out of the wall, and in between cigar breaks was bouncing the ball against the far wall from the bed she was laying on, letting it bounce up off of the ground and catching it, then repeating.  It irritated the others at first, but they soon forgot she was even doing it as they became ever more engrossed in their own work.

“It really is over something that dumb…” Kathryn remarked.

“Hmm?” Margaret asked between ball throws, only half interested.

“The whole war… apparently the whole whether ones or zeroes came first has been an issue of, well I’d say religious contention ever since they first developed digital technology eons ago.  Even after they went quantum and computed in more than two states, the issue didn’t go away.  It hasn’t been a relevant question for millions of years and they’re still happy to kill each other over it.”

“Don’t feel too superior,” Margaret scolded her.  Bounce, bounce, catch.  “I’ve told you what silly things humans used to kill each other over.  Millions of people were killed over who’s imaginary friend was real.”  Bounce, bounce, catch.  “Not much better.”

“Yeah, I get that, it just… still boggles.  You’d think a species this advanced…”

Bounce, bounce, catch.  “The older an argument the deeper the conviction, that’s how it works.  It hasn’t been about which state comes first for millions of years.  Now it’s just about who’s right, which tribe is correct.”  Bounce, bounce, catch.  “I don’t find something so trivial to be behind such a massive conflict surprising at all.  Anything of actual consequence these critters seem more than capable enough of working it out pretty quickly.  For them it would have to be something so trivial I would think.”  Bounce, bounce, catch.

“Still…”

“What worries me more is the whole Link being permanently left on thing.”  Bounce, bounce, catch.  “That really creeps me out.  I get the appeal of turning on the link periodically, the overwhelming sense of connectedness and oneness with the universe… thing, if you’re into that kind of thing.”  She gave the impression that she herself would not necessarily be into that kind of thing at all.  Bounce, bounce, catch.  “But to just turn off the whole individual part and leave it on indefinitely, to become just one part of the larger mind and utterly lose yourself,” she visibly shuddered, “no way.  Even as an emergency war measure, no way.  If I’m not me, if me has totally dissolved away, then there are no stakes anymore.  There’s no me to fight over or for anymore.  To win that way you’ve already lost.”  Bounce, bounce, catch.

“Maybe…” Kathryn remarked as she continued to review the information on the screen.  “It looks like there may be a connection.  There’s always been a small minority who have challenged the accepted answer on the binary question, but there has also always been a minority who have argued that it would be better to live in the Link permanently.  It seems there was always a significant crossover between the movements.  I can’t make heads or tails of the source of the connection but there does seem to be one.”

“Maybe the argument over the first binary digit is just a means of bringing about a conflict which required leaving the link on,” Jaren offered from his work.  “Wouldn’t be the first time a meaningless debate was exploited for a pretext to something else dramatic and radical.”

“You’re more right than you know…”  Bounce, bounce, catch.  “Are we on the right side?”  Margaret asked.  “Should we be taking sides at all here?”

“I share your concerns Molly, but these people so far have been nothing but helpful and generous, and their enemy is the one who attacked us and stole Maggie and the New Horizon II’s computer core.  I certainly would have preferred to remain neutral and attempt contact with both sides, but things just didn’t play out that way.”

Bounce, bounce, catch.

Chapter 23

As her crew got to work stripping themselves of the precious anti-matter, Kathryn and Jaren went to their quarters to gather up the things they would need to take with them.  This was not a difficult task, after all they had only intended to be on this ship for a relatively short time and had not brought that much with them.  After packing up their own things, they then both went to Maggie’s suite and began somberly packing up her things as well.

It was an act of faith.  Both knew full well that there was every chance that she was not only dead, but dissected and preserved in a large number of specimen jars, or whatever else these aliens might to if they were so maliciously inclined.  They were quiet as they did so, both concerned that if they got to talking they would only wind up crying and become temporarily incapacitated.  When they had packed up everything they could find of hers for her, Jaren finally took hold of Kathryn and brought her into a full and forceful hug.  

As he did so her mental barriers fell and she began sobbing.  She had teared up before over this, but never outright sobbed before.  She’d been with other men in her life, and the rare sobbing she’d felt compelled to she’d kept private and secret, seeing it perhaps as some kind of weakness she didn’t want to expose of herself.  It had happened only a handful of times since she’d been with Jaren, but they’d been together long enough that he had seen the best and worst of her.  There was no longer any chance of her exposing any weakness in a way which he might harm or use against her.  She trusted him completely, and had complete emotional security with him, and he was the only man she’d ever felt that way about by a significant measure.

When she composed herself enough to notice, she realized that Jaren had been sobbing just as intently as she had been, and with equal disregard for how it might look or show about him.  They’d lost their daughter, and despite how long it had been since, it was the first time they’d allowed themselves complete surrender to that fact.  Almost as though they’d coordinated it, when they pulled away from each other they wiped the tears from each other’s eyes.

“We’ll get her back,” Jaren determined.

“Damn right we will.”

 

 

After having themselves a good night’s sleep which never would have been possible under the circumstances without help from the chief medical officer’s cabitnet of wonders, it was time to disembark for the last time.  While they slept, every last atom of anti-matter was assembled into transfer pods and handed over to the Bobbins, who no doubt made very short work of weaponizing the material.  By the time Kathryn and Jaren had awoken, showered, and had some breakfast (which reminded them they should bring some human ration packs in case they couldn’t or didn’t want to eat whatever the Bobbins might offer them for food), their new ship was staffed, armed and ready to go.

It approached just as the original one they’d met after they’d emerged in this system out of the portal.  Kathryn, Jaren, Margaret, and Ralph all waited by the airlock with their equipment and packed belongings, accompanied only by Felix to see them off.  

As he watched the ship approach through the docking port windows Felix asked, “you sure you don’t want me to come along with you?”

“Love you too,” Kathryn answered, “but I need you here more.”

“Un hunh…”

Again the wall of the alien ship dematerialized at the docking port to allow access to the interior of the ship.  No Bobbin came out to greet them, it seemed the open door was the only formal invitation they’d receive.

“Come on Ralph, make yourself useful,” Margaret said as she started loading the robot’s arms up with the bags and equipment of the others.

“That might be too much Molly, some of that is sensitive equipment,” Jaren cautioned as the simulant overloaded the robot.

“Oh he’ll be fine…”  When it seemed like he couldn’t carry any more, she loaded just one more small item on top of the pile in his arms and stood back to admire her work.  “Alright boy, git,” she said with a grin as she smacked his metal equivalent of his ass on his body.  The robot carefully began stepping forward, even stepping over the lip on the floor at the airlock.  “Good boy,” she assured it as she looked up at the others with a wide grin and followed him in.

“Good luck,” Felix offered as he hugged them each in turn.  “I look forward to hearing all about it when you get back home.”  With that he turned to leave, seemingly wanting to get the good bye over with to mask the moisture welling up in his eyes.

“Well,” Kathryn said to Jaren with an encouraging smile as she held her arm out towards the airlock entry, “after you.”

 

 

Bob greeted them on the other side of the airlock, and first showed them to their quarters not far away.  The corridors were unremarkable, perfectly flat matt black surfaces except for the ceiling with was entirely one continuous light emitting surface.  It was bright enough but seemed a little dull to Kathryn.  When they arrived at their quarters, instead of finding a doorway, a door shaped section of the corridor wall simply particalized away like their airlock door, and Kathryn wondered how many unmarked rooms they had passed along the way there.

The door was too short for them, obviously Bobbin sized, and after Bob looked up at them and then back at the door, it enlarged to a size appropriate for the humans.  Bob led them in, and once inside he informed them through his mirror ball that their robot could inform them how to operate the suite.  He claimed that they were already underway towards the star, but they found this difficult to believe with the absence of a sense of acceleration other than the slightly more than one gee which was keeping them on the floor.  He assured them they were, and that once they were situated they should join him in the command room, after all it would not be long until they arrived at the star and the mission would begin.  The humans also found this unimaginable considering by their normal means they were still several days from the star.

When Margaret asked Ralph what Bob meant by ‘operate’ the suite, he showed them.  They immediately came to understand that while the room seemed quite barren and uninteresting, the shape could be easily manipulated into whatever they wished.  He showed them how they could pull a slab out of the wall to make a bed, or raise a chair from the ground.  He even showed them that they could make the entire wall of the room against the outside transparent into a window.  He cautioned them remarkably matter of factly that they should be careful not to make the wall disappear altogether as oppose to render it transparent since one meant a nice view while the other meant sudden death.  He explained that there were specific hand gestures against surfaces which could accomplish the effects, but also that the onboard computer had been loaded with the human’s language so they could also converse with the computer in English as easily as they could Bob or himself.

Jaren stood by the wall window.  “Wait. that can’t be…” off in the distance there was a bright disc the size of a small coin held at arm’s length.  He turned to Ralph.  “That can’t be the planet we just left!?”

Ralph looked out the window and reassured him it was.

“Okay,” Jaren said to himself in fluster as he unpacked his portable computer terminal and set it on the bed Ralph had demonstrated the conjuring of and sat beside it.  He actually seemed to go pale as he looked up at Kathryn.

“What is it?”

“My instruments read that we’re in a constant one point two gees, but…” he looked back out the window, refusing to believe it, “calculations show that the relative size of that planet suggest that we’re pulling away from it at nearly a thousand gees.  Look,” he pointed out the window, “already it’s just a point of light now!”

“Is this typical?” Kathryn asked Ralph with a look of concern.

“Yes, this is standard transit speed for a vessel this small.”

“Well I guess you two just set some kind of record,” Margaret offered to the Kathryn and Jaren as she pulled a cigar out and lit it lovingly.

Chapter 22

Back on the ship, Kathryn had called a general meeting in the dining hall and most were able to convene before her.  The only ones who could not were those who could not leave their post, and they were listening in over the comm system.

“An arrangement has been made with the aliens, you are all going home.”  There were muted cheers through the crowd.  “I however will not be going with you.  Jaren and I have to stay and do what we can to find and save our daughter Maggie.”

Concerned murmuring ran through the crowd and Kathryn held her hand up to quiet them.  “I know that many of you would volunteer to stay and help us, and as much as I appreciate that more than you know, I cannot allow it.  You all demonstrated tremendous bravery and loyalty coming to this system with us and I can’t thank you enough.  I have the opportunity to get you all home now, and I am duty bound to take it.

“It is time to go home, and you are bringing with you the secrets of the galaxy to our people back home.  The universe has shifted under our seat with the revelations of the past month, and the people back home have to be informed.  That is your mission now.  We are making final preparations, and the ship will depart in forty-eight hours.”

There was a mixed reaction from the crowd as she stepped down, a tension between relief at going home and agitation at feeling like they were leaving a job half done.  Some felt entirely one way or the other, some internalized this tension within themselves and their own competing feelings.

“Felix…” Kathryn addressed him heavily.

“No,” he uttered with dread at seeing her expression, “you can’t ask me to-”

She stopped him with a raise of her hand.  “I can’t ask you to stay.  You’ve got a husband, a life…  I know if I gave you the choice like many of the crew you’d stay, but I can’t let you.  I need you to take command of New Horizon II and take it home.  I need you to tell our story and relay to command everything that’s happened, everything that’s at stake now.  Ask them nicely if they could spare a couple warships with as many antimatter warheads as they can stuff on them.  Yes it’s probably wiser for them to take up a defensive posture with them until you hear from us again, but… still.”

Felix sighed heavily.  “Well on a Bobbin ship you wouldn’t have much use for human engineer anyways…  Maggie though… you know I’d stay and help if you gave me the choice right?”

She put her hand on his shoulder.  “Of course.”

The man nodded solemnly and turned to leave her be and start getting the ship ready to leave.  He stopped short and turned to ask: “What about Ralph?”

“What about him?”

“We need him to fly the ship, so is he coming with us?”

“The computer core is, but the robot is not?”

“Come again?”

“I asked Bill for a favour and he granted it.  He separated the A.I. from the core and permanently installed the personality in your robot.”

“Really?” Felix asked the robot who was standing behind Kathryn.

“Indeed it is Felix,” it answered.  “I feel at once both liberated and oddly vulnerable and limited.  Thank you for the body.”

“Right, er, well, take care of it for me then.”

Kathryn playfully punched him on the arm and reminded him, “Hey, you can always build another, an even better one next time!”

“Hey yeah,” he brightened.  “You’re absolutely right!  Okay everyone,” he turned around again to address the crew who were still mulling about, “let’s get to work!  We’ve got a lot to do and only two days to do it.”

“Well I already know Ralph is with us,” Kathryn noted as she turned around, “Molly I didn’t want to speak for you.”

“I’m with you to the end Kat,” the simulation of an old woman offered in a rare moment of complete seriousness.  Her mood then lightened somewhat.  “So… do we have any kind of plan or anything?”

“Some kind of plan,” she offered with a positive note while looking over at Jaren.  “A chance at least, that’s all it seems we can ever hope for.  They’re drawing up a specific operational plan down on the surface right now, in fact we should get down there for the official briefing pretty soon.”

 

A couple hours later, Kathryn, Jaren, Margaret and Ralph found themselves in a room they had not seen the last time they were in the capital building.  It was a rather large building soaked in green light with the walls, floor and ceiling all bare emerald crystal like the exterior of the building.  There were several rows of elevated seats at one end of the room, and Kathryn assumed it had something to do with hierarchy and more important aliens sitting in the more elevated positions.  She recognized she could be wrong though, inappropriately applying a human cultural convention where it wasn’t appropriate.

The most of these aliens they had ever seen at one time before were the three which had boarded their ship.  Now they were surrounded by over a hundred all scurrying about seemingly very excitedly.  They were all communicating amongst themselves in their ominous infrasound voice and language which just barely registered for Kathryn.  The profusion of the sound was beginning to make her nauseous though, and she imagined it must be getting to her ears in an uncomfortable way.

“Can you make out what they’re saying?” Jaren asked Margaret.

“I can hear everything they’re saying, but I can’t understand one word of it.”

“They are debating the merits of the operation as well as the finer details of its planning,” Ralph informed them.

Kathryn felt a deep penetrating rumbling in her feet through the floor, and all of the aliens began scurrying to sit up on benches arranged in rows before the elevated seats at one end of the room.  She realized that a heavy bass note for them must be the equivalent of an attention getting bell or chime for humans.  She gestured for her teammates to likewise sit down on the benches where they could find spare room.

Though she understood she needn’t be, she felt somewhat embarrassed that she couldn’t for the life of her determine which of the aliens was Bill, or if he was even in the room with them at all.  She hadn’t spent enough time with them to learn the differences in their appearance which would denote one from the other, if there were any.

One of the mirror balls approached and hung in midair before her and her team and when an alien rose to speak officially it translated for them.

“It has been agreed by the Surpreme War Council that %&W#&% and a small force, accompanied by the humans, will use the captures shuttle to infiltrate the tertiary node in the @#$%^&**&E system.  They will conduct a stealth approach and then engage in a hot retreat using the anti-matter weapons provided by the humans.  This information can turn the war, the more so the quicker we work to exploit the information.  The human ship will depart in thirty-nine %&Y%*U, and this mission will commence as soon as possible following their departure.”

And that was that.  The ball disappeared, and the meeting seemed to disband somewhat abruptly as far as Kathryn was concerned.  She wasn’t sure if it was just their convention, or if they were just far more actively engaged in other things than she’d imagined. 

“I guess that’s that then,” Margaret offered.

One of the aliens approached them with a mirror ball floating behind it.  “It’s settled then,” it said through the device.

“Bill?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, okay.  Yes, it seems like we’re going then.”

“We depart in forty hours, would you like to see more of this world and sleep here, or would you prefer to go directly to your new ship, familiarize yourself with it, and sleep there?”

“The ship,” Kathryn answered without checking with the rest.  “I have a feeling we’re going to need all the time we have.  Plus, I want to personally oversee the handing over of the weapons.”

“Very well, follow me.”  It began walking away and the team followed it.  “We would like to make an additional request.”

“Oh?” Kathryn asked. 

“Your vessels’ propulsion systems are also anti-matter based.”

“Yes…”

“We wish to harvest that material as well.”

“Well they’re going to need it to get back to base.”

“We are prepared to equip your ship with one of our inertia engines.”

“Is that one of the ones that makes your ships accelerate at impossible rates?” Jaren piped up to ask.

“Not impossible of course,” Bill answered as he led them out of the room, “but yes, a drive similar to the ones you have seen in operation.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask about that,” Jaren continued, “how do you do that without liquefying those inside the ship on the rear bulkhead.”

“They do not operate on direct force.  They operate by generating gravity and thus do not generate any acceleration forces.”

“I have no idea what that means.”

“Regardless, our offer?”

“You want to harvest all of the anti-matter from the ship-“

“The shuttles as well,” Bill interrupted

“From the ship and shuttles, and in exchange you’ll outfit New Horizon II with one of your magical propulsion drives which our engineers can study.”

“Yes.”

“What will you use that material for?”

“Our mission,” it answered.  It led them to a platform like the one which had taken them to the roof the day before, and it began lowering them to the ground floor with each floor they passed materializing again above their heads.  Kathryn still hadn’t gotten used to that.

“Your weapons are devastating on impact, but your propulsion, targeting, and navigation make them limiting.  We are going to extract the anti-matter pods from them and pair them to a more effective gravity drive missile.  We wish to do the same with all of the storage pods on your ships as well.  The more weaponry we have, the better our chances of escape from the alien system.”

“That makes sense…” Kathryn looked at Jaren.  They’d been together long enough that she was pretty efficient at judging his expressions.  He seemed to be silently saying to her ‘in for a penny, in for a pound…’ with a touch of ‘it’s a good deal if there’s no catch or unexpected complications’.

“Very well, we agree.  If you will install the new engine and control interface for us, I will have my people prepare the fuel pods for you to pick up.  It shouldn’t take more than six hours for them to safely extract all of them.”

“Excellent.  I will have our engineers begin work on your vessel immediately.”

Chapter 21

Kathryn had asked to have a bit of time to consult with her crew on how they would proceed, and Bill obliged and returned inside the building on the platform.  He provided a frequency with which he could be reached on their scrolls when they were ready.

She ordered the others to go enjoy the gardens while she conferred privately with Jaren.  After reaching him on the scroll, she relayed all of the relevant information from her long conversation with Bill.

“Who’d have thought that our most advanced weapons are so antiquated for them that they’d never thought to use them before?”

“I know, I know… it boggles the mind.”

“So what’s our play then?”

“Well… what are our options?”

“Well, we can have a grand party while the galaxy burns,” she suggested sardonically.

“Not my first choice.”

“No mine neither.  We could wash our hands of all of it and just cut our losses and portal back home.  I doubt they’d let us take our warheads with us, but I bet they’d let us leave otherwise.”

“Maggie is not acceptable losses though.”

“No.  Of course now.  So, we could instead commit our ship and crew to a galactic civil war in which we’ve only heard one side’s version of it.”

“Fair point, but it is the other side who has taken her daughter.”

“Bingo.”

“There could be another option you may not have considered.”

“Oh?”

“Sounds like they need our warheads, not our ship.”

“What are you getting at?”

“What if we could have everything we want?  What if we could send the ship home without us or the warheads, but stay here ourselves and go after Maggie?  It’s as important as anything else at this point to get all of the information we’ve collected back to Command after all.”

“If we could pull that off…” she looked out over the vast landscape in front of her, “it would definitely be the best of all bad options.”

“I agree.  See what you can do.”

“Yes Captain,” she derided him.  He waved her off with playful irritation and the line closed.  She opened a new one to Bill and said she was ready to see him.  She wandered over to the area where they had come through the floor and before long it shimmered away and was replaced by the rising platform Bill arrived on, accompanied as always by the silver ball through which they communicated.

“Have you reached a decision?” Bill asked through the ball.

“I’m ready to negotiate, how bout that?”

“Fair.” He gestured to a padded bench with his double jointed arm, inviting her to sit.  When she had, he climbed up onto it himself, and sat down with its four legs folded up underneath itself.  “What would you like?”

“My daughter back,” she answered very seriously.

“I see.”

“And the only possible way I can see that happening is working with you.”

“Indeed.”

“I propose that my ship be sent back to our home world with it’s crew, while I and a couple others stay here with the weapons to formulate a plan to locate and retrieve Maggie.”

“This arrangement is in principle acceptable for us.”

“That would require you opening a portal for us for the ship to go through.”

“Of course.  I feel obligated to mention though, that with your computer core, the enemy is aware of your civilization.  It is impossible to know what they would do with that information however.”

“What if they decide to come looking for our antimatter weapons instead of building their own?” Kathryn asked in horror.

“That is a possibility.  However, I doubt this will be their first recourse.  It is unlikely that you have a large enough supply to win them the war, and their preference will be to build up their own capacity as quickly as possible.”

“Right…  All the same, I think I’ll leave instructions with the ship to ask about securing additional weapons and sending them through for us.”

“As I said Captain, you do not have sufficient weapons to win the war for either side.  Your own weapons would be best used defending your own portals in case we have miscalculated the likely actions of our enemy.”

“Right, right… well I’ll at least leave instructions to take up just such a defensive position.  Will you leave us the ability to contact you?  To open the portal to your world?”

“Of course.  As I said we wish to be friends.  You are the fourth race after all.  We seek peaceful collaboration, and we look forward to collaborating and introducing you to the other three races as well.  It’s just this war…”

“I understand.  Bill, tell me more about this Link.  Have you found a way to communicate faster than light?”

“No, only by sending communications through a portal have we been able to accomplish this.”

“So how do you maintain a system like The Link across star systems?”

“Updates,” it explained.  “From this central planet, updates are issued every day through the portal to a special system where all we have there is the update facility.  This facility’s sole job is to cycle through dialing every active portal we have and transmitting the update.  On the other side in every system is a local node which broadcasts the update to any receiving nodes in the system.  If a piece of information urgently requires dissemination, a new update is issued and the process begins anew.  There is a hierarchy of systems in such a way that most vital systems are updated first with both the standard and supplemental updates.”

“But without real time communications, how do you er, well… ‘become one’ with the rest of your people?”

“You misunderstand.  We do not link and become one with other Bobbins, we become one with the information provided by The Link, which includes all of the life experience and wisdom of those who are also a part of The Link past and present.  We are unified with our species and all its accumulated knowledge and wisdom, not in real time link with all of the others.”

“So how does your enemy operate as a hive mind the way you describe?”

“They are controlled by The Link, and operate based on the latest instructions provided by updates.  They operate on their most recently received instructions.”

“So… every one of you has the sum total of your civilization’s knowledge inside your personal hardware?” the idea of that kind of storage capacity boggled her mind.

“Yes.”

“Dang.  So how does it work now?  Does your enemy have access to your updates?  Do they have their own system now?”

“When the war broke out we both shifted frequencies and encryption, and now operate parallel systems.”

“And that’s why you can’t just intercept one of their update broadcasts and use the information?”

“Yes.”

“So if we could access one of their nodes… we could learn everything we needed to know couldn’t we?”

“Such as?”

“Where my daughter is!  Where our computer core is, whether or not they’ve realized about the anti-matter weapons, how their progress in creating them is coming, if they’ve already invaded our home worlds!”

“Yes, accessing the systems on a node directly would allow us access to the Link database, but nodes are the most heavily defended facilities.  To successfully launch an incursion would require…”

“Unusually effective weapons?”

The creature looked up at her squarely with one black eye.  “Those weapons are required to defend this system.”

“You said it yourself, they wouldn’t be enough to stop an all-out assault, and they’re unlikely to launch one anyways.  You need a new plan, a different strategy.”

“Something bold, something so stupid they’d never see it coming… something which could win the war all at once.”

“I don’t understand.”

“We infiltrate a primary enemy Link node.”

“We could not commit those weapons to such an assault.”

“Well maybe an overt assault isn’t necessary, what about a small covert team?  Couldn’t you disguise one of your ships as one of theirs so you could safely approach?”

The creatures seemed to sigh as he said: “That’s not possible… although-” he took on that vacant distant stare he had when he was consulting The Link.  “There is an asset we have been holding onto for a mission it could be best suited for.”

“Go on,”

“We captured a small vessel some time ago which was on a deep space mission.  It is scheduled to return to base relatively soon.  You see, any ship we captured as soon as it missed a scheduled report in, its signature would be delisted and presumed hostile when encountered again, similarly to the way we initially regarded Ralph and his claims.  The base it is due to return to is as well guarded as any other, but… if we could get aboard using that ship, we could access the database directly and extract whatever information we wished, their entire Link archive for that matter!”

“Why didn’t you think of this plan on your own already?”

“We did, but the value of the plan is contingent on being able to leave the system safely.  Otherwise we have no way to relay what we have learned back here.”

“But now you have a surprise which can help you escape.”

“The warheads?”

“The warheads.  What could you do with that information?”

“Well, if we shot our way out, the value of the information would rapidly deteriorate.  They would immediately shift their Link encryption since we could access it with the information we stole, they would redeploy their fleet but that would take a bit more time… we would learn all about their research and their ultimate plans though.  It would be valuable enough for us to make the attempt in any case.”

“Alright it’s settled then.  You will send my ship and crew back home through the portal while I and a couple others stay behind with our antimatter warheads and help you execute this plan which will allow us to locate my daughter and our computer core.  We play it by ear from there.”

“Agreed.”

Chapter 20

Two days later the New Horizon II put into orbit around the designated planet.  The pilot was concerned about the amount of traffic, since none of them had ever seen orbital space so congested.  Not only were there innumerable stations and vessels, but they were coming and going constantly from the planet as well.  Fortunately when they were near enough to really begin worrying the planet transmitted a precise orbit for them to enter which would be clear of any other ship’s activity.  They fell in line a little less than two hundred kilometers behind another ship and could tell that there was another equidistant beyond that one, and they were lined up in a parallel parking orbit.

The ships they saw were not all regular shapes like the ones they’d seen near the star.  Certainly many were, but others had much more functional shapes.  What appeared to be weapons platforms swarming all over the planet were hexagons a kilometer and a half wide and no less than a quarter kilometers deep.  They were matte grey solids with no markings or irregularities to their shape.  The sheer volume of them were what made them suspect a defence system.

They even spotted some ships like Ralph’s.  He’d explained that it was likely that in wartime any drone ships such as his which were near completion or recently completed would likely be repurposed for the war effort.  He had to admit with some apparent embarrassment that he’d never seen the objects they figured for weapons platforms, but he agreed it was a reasonable hypothesis as to their nature.

“We are… receiving landing coordinates,” Jaren said with some amazement.  “Just like that.”

“Any other instructions?” Kathryn asked.  “Formal wear?  Casually elegant maybe?  Are we to bring a fruit basket?  Bottle of Beashou nectar?”

Jaren chuckled.  “No, no… just coordinates.”

“What do you think Ralph?  What does that mean?”

“It is safe to assume that that is the location you are to go to if you wish to initiate formal diplomatic first contact.”

“Right.  Well I guess that’s what we came all this way for.  Well, somebody’s got to stay behind in command of the ship.  Jaren Felix had to stay last time, so I guess it’s your turn to draw the short straw.”

Jaren seemed at once disappointed and relieved.  He’d already had far more adventure on this trip than he’d bargained for, and he was happy to keep an eye on them from the ship and run support.  He trusted his Kathryn, Felix, and Margaret to all look out for each other.  Even more so he trusted his wife’s ability to take care of herself.

She opened a comm channel.  “Felix, Margaret, meet me at Shuttle One, we’re going down for formal greetings.”  She then turned to the robot who had been accompanying them on the bridge, standing on the floor as he was with his robot feet magnetised to the floor.  “How bout you Ralph?  Feel like coming along?  I don’t know if you even consider this in any way home or would be happy to see your builders again, but I have a feeling you’ll be useful as an intermediary and translator.  I know they’ll technically be speaking English but you’ve spent some time with us and I dare say we have a bit of a rapport at this point.  Want to help out?”

“I am willing yes.  I have no particular urge to as I’ve never been to this planet and never personally knew any builder, but it would be interesting to come along and I am happy to help.”

“Reall?  Happy?  Is that even a thing for you?”

“Figure of speech perhaps?  Did I use it incorrectly?”

She waved him off with an amused smile.

“Kat…” Jaren paused as Kathryn unbuckled herself from her chair.  “The atmosphere’s fine, but the gravity down there…” he continued to poke at his terminal before swivelling his chair around.  “It’s one point six two… I wouldn’t recommend spending more than a few days down there.

“Jaren I can think of any number of reasons I don’t want to spend several days down there.”

The man chuckled and agreed.  “Right right… be safe.  Get it done and hurry home.  We have work to do.”

As she’d seen Margaret do a couple days ago she sarcastically saluted him but with a big enough smile that he knew she was just being playful.  She was feeling encouraged.  The aliens seemed happy to be making contact, and there seemed to be as good a chance as she could have hoped for in getting their help tracking down Maggie.  Getting home again afterwards seemed like the far easier thing to obtain their cooperation with, but it was so remote a distant concern in her mind’s hierarchy of concerns that she practically needed a telescope to see it.

 

The four departed in the shuttle down to the surface.  There was a landing pad at the exact coordinates they were provided, which was at the end of a walkway nearly a kilometer long leading to a massive crystalline structure.  The surface of the path was purple, with indigo twisting spires lining it every dozen meters or so on both sides.  At the end of the path was a structure which was hard to describe in Kathryn’s own mind because she’d never seen anything like it before. 

It had the vague shape of an ancient castle with a generally rectangular central section roofed with innumerable smaller crystal spires.  In the corners of the central sections were massive twisting spires like the ones lining the path but on a mammoth scale, easily a kilometer wide at the base and reaching into the sky over twice as high as the tallest point of the central structure.

The color of it all was a deep emerald green, and when it came more clearly into view Kathryn heard Margaret whisper ‘the Emerald City…” to herself.  She asked the simulated woman what she’d meant, but she just waved her off and declined to explain.

As they finally touched down on the purple surface of the landing pad, they could see a single solitary alien standing at the boundary between the path and the pad.  It was clearly waiting for them on the wall interior video panels of the shuttle which allowed an unobstructed view all about them.  A glint of light off of the sun caught Kathryn’s eye which led her to notice the mirror ball drone accompanying the figure which had caused the flash on her eye.

After they touched down and the legs of the lander bent more than they ordinarily would to accommodate the extra weight in the heavier gravity well, the wall fell away and extended to produce a ramp for them to exit.  “Remember, best behaviour everyone,” Kathryn said while looking directly at Margaret.  The simulant nodded without saying a word which satisfied the captain.

She took a deep breath, plastered on a deep and confident smile, and walked down the ramp towards the alien.

“Greetings,” it said through the mirror ball as she approached.  “Welcome to our planet.”

Kathryn thought to instinctively reach out to shake its hand but remembered that this was a cultural act it probably wouldn’t understand.  To her surprise, the creature extended its two jointed arm and offered its four fingered hand out to her.

“Proper names will be a stumbling block at first I’m afraid,” it said.  It then with its own voice made a noise so low and deep that it barely registered in Kathryn’s ears.  “Is the name of this world in our language,” it then said through the ball, “and there is no appropriate translation in your language.”

“Well…” Kathryn thought, still quite overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment but keeping a professional head about her.  “What do you call this planet?”

Another similar tone just barely registering at the bottom of her hearing capacity. 

“I see.”

“I suggest you create your own words for these things.  I assure you you will not offend.”

“How bout Bob?” Margaret offered.

“Bob what?”  Kathryn asked, turning around.  “For him?”

“No, for the planet.”

“We,” she sighed.  “We can’t name the planet Bob.”

“Why not?”

“That would make them the Bobbins wouldn’t it?” Felix chimed in.

“I suppose it would,” Margaret answered with pretend wonderment.

“Bill of the Bobbins from Bob?” Felix asked with feigned earnestness.

Kathryn just put a hand to her face and lowered her head while she shook it.  She then looked up at them.  “Whatever I say now that’s what you’re going to call them forever now isn’t it?”

The two just shrugged with big goofy smiles on their face.  Kathryn sighed and turned back to the alien.  It held out its hand again and said with a seriousness which made her almost laugh in its face: “I am Bill, your special emissary to the Bobbins of Bob.”

With a tentativeness she couldn’t completely suppress, she reached out to touch the alien hand.  Its surface was surprisingly soothing to the touch.  Their hands were very delicately furred, almost entirely orange in colour flowing from the highlights of orange which accentuated the otherwise deeply purple fur.

Her eyes fixated for a moment too long on the creature’s face.  Of the three round and bulging black eyes which crowned its head, two were facing her, but not directly.  They were offset the way any typical prey animal back home would be to allow greater peripheral vision.  She wondered what it must be like in its head, to always see a full three hundred and sixty degrees around it, for there to be no meaningful ahead and behind or to the side.  Its mouth perhaps made it the most uncomfortable.  It had two furry mandibles, each rooted on one side of its mouth and when not speaking resting all the way over to the other side of the mouth, the two thick projections seeming to serve as its lips, but with thick nasty looking talons at the end of each projection.  That part in particular gave her a chill with the sense of a giant insect it engendered in her.

“Greetings… Bill.  My name is Kathryn Janine Barnes of the United Fleet.  This is my Chief Engineer Felix Ulysses Parker, and er, Specialist Margaret.  Behind her is Ralph.  He’s a robot we implanted with the intelligence of the probe we encountered.”

“Yes, we are aware,” the mirror ball said.  “Very interesting what you did there.  Since we made initial contact with the… Ralph unit, I have been tasked with learning everything I can about you, your language and culture, your mission, and what has happened so far.”

“Sounds like a lot to study.”

“We are… very quick learners, as you will see.”

“Right.”

“Shall we?” Bill said through his drone as it extended an arm down the long path to the emerald palace.  Kathryn obliged and along with her crew followed the creature.  “I assume you have many questions, ask whatever you like.”

“I don’t know where to start.”

“You may take whatever time you need.”

“My… our most pressing concern is the location and whereabouts of my daughter.”

“Yes, I can imagine.”

“Do you know where she is?”

“Sadly, no.”

“Do you know why she was taken?”

“We suspect for the same reason Ralph was triggered with the imperative to bring you here.  You represent a technological novelty, and samples were likely obtained for study towards a potential military advantage.”

“Is she still alive.”

The alien seemed to hesitate in responding.  “Unknown.  It is possible, but not assured.”

“Will you help us?”

“We wish to be friends with your people.  We will assist you in whatever way we can which does not compromise the war effort.”

“Who is your enemy.”

“Our people knew peace for six thousand of your years.  But then an ancient debate arose which divided us on ideological lines for the first time in living memory.  There was disunity for the first time.  The debate became hostile, and eventually violent.”

“What was the argument about?”

“My research suggests you are familiar with binary code, the bases of all fundamental computing?”

“Yeah…”

“The argument fundamentally rests on which comes first.”

“Which… what?”

“Which integer, one or zero.”

Kathryn stopped dead in her tracks.  The alien continued on for a small distance, then realized her halt and came back to her.  “You’re having a massive galactic civil war… over whether or not fundamental binary code starts with one or zero?”

“Yes,” the mirror ball said.  “Do you not understand?”

“No, no…” Kathryn uttered with depressed amazement.  “I fear and suspect that I understand all too well…”

“Good,” it said as it resumed walking and the rest followed it.  “We naturally enough understand that zero comes first, as there must be the absence of something, for something to spring into existence within.  Our enemy however believes that the absence of something without the pre-existence of something for reference in an impossibility.  Quite silly, really.”

“Yeah,” Kathryn uttered.  “Of course…”  She felt an additional weight on her chest beyond the additional gravity which was already weighing on her.  It was easily contained for a woman such as herself, but a panic was niggling at the back of her mind that something so trivial could be the root of something so massive.  “How goes the war effort?”

“The conflict initially broke out over a hundred of your years ago, and the initial insurrection was put down quite easily.  However, we were unaware that a small extremist faction had broken away and had been building a force in secret in a system with an uncharted portal system.  When they re-emerged a few short years ago they had engaged in a tactic which was… terrifying to us.”

“What was that?”

“They hard wired The Link to be permanently active.”

“I’m sorry, the link?”

“No Captain, my apologies.  I must explain.  We Bobbins have a technology we refer to as ‘The Link’.  It was first developed millions of years ago, but we long ago forgot how anyone could possibly function without it.  It is a system which allows us to network our minds with each other the way you might network computers.  When we are in The Link those within it think and function as a single mind, each mind contributing to the greater consciousness the way individual neurons contribute to a single mind.

“One of the first things we learned about the link was the danger of leaving it permanently activated.  Not only did it leave individuals vulnerable to overt manipulation, but individual life and experience was utterly lost.  None wanted to exist solely as a member of The Link permanently, so the system was refined so that with a thought we can enter and exit The Link as we wish.

“The Link is comfort, The Link is knowledge, The Link is power, but in The Link we are lost to ourselves, and so we only enter it deliberately and consciously.  We can either access any information from it without entering it, or choose to surrender to its warm embrace.

“The enemy however, took the radical step of hard wiring The Link so that every member of their faction is permanently in the link, and merely a drone within a hive mind.  Not only is this terrifying sacrilege to us, but it is proving to make them a ruthless and cunning adversary.  They act as a one, with a single intent and will, and that makes them very dangerous.”

“We saw the ships at the portal, are you anticipating an attack?” Kathryn asked.

“An attack is always possible,” Bill answered plainly.

“I see.”

“This has been our home world since soon after we created The Link, and it is by far the most heavily fortified system in the galaxy, but there are only a few thousand Bobbins left in the system.  All of the others have been evacuated to secret bases scattered throughout the galaxy in case of catastrophe here, and until we have turned the tide.”

“A few thousand,” Felix balked.  “We saw over a thousand ships stationed just at the portal!”

“Those ships are largely automated and if necessary can operate completely independently.  There are only between one and four crew on those vessels depending on the size.  Of course there are hundreds of drone robots onboard to effect repairs and whatever other functions can be required as well.  They are quite self-sufficient, much like the vessel Ralph was integrated into.”

By now they were nearing the crystal structure at the end of the path, and it was even more imposing standing right before it.  The front wall seemed to reach all the way into the sky, and the spires straight up into space.  Kathryn still couldn’t quite tell if the material was glowing from within or absorbing and reemitting the light from the sun.  Three major crystals immediately before them which reached to the top of the central structure began falling into the ground, and Kathryn marvelled at the lack of vibration or sound as they slid away to reveal an entrance to the facility.

“Our analysis suggests that we have a sixty three percent chance of success in the war, but it will be an incredibly destructive and ruinous victory if we are to have success at all.  But we have a new hope,” Bill said as the crystal shot up behind them again just as smoothly as they had descended.

“Oh?”  Was this the moment they decided to see how humans taste?  The thought raced through the back of her mind and she chased it away.

“We have reviewed your initial battle with Ralph.  A species as technologically unsophisticated as yours should never have been able to disable a Bobbin drone ship, but you did.”

“Yeah, with an antimatter warhead.”

“Precisely,” he said as he led them onto a circular platform marked with a ring in the centre of the large room they had entered as they passed through the front entrance.  Once they were all standing on it, it began to rise out of the ground and lifting them up into the higher sections of the facility.

“Forgive me, but using antimatter as a blunt instrument the way your missiles do is, well… simple.  Simple in a way we haven’t thought in millions of years.  We’ve been focusing all our efforts on creating better and better beam weapons of the sort which damaged your ship in the same encounter.  What hit your ship was a fraction of one percent of the power output of the weapons on the larger warships you encountered when you entered the system.”

“You are so advanced you forgot about antimatter?” Felix asked, amazed at the idea.

“We never forgot about the concept of its existence, but the creating of it and potential uses are considered beyond antiquated.  Certainly we can relearn quite quickly, but it will not be immediate.  Though it will not be immediate, it will take some time.”

“And the clock is ticking, isn’t it?” Margaret asked.  They were passing through level after level of what seemed to be an abandoned crystal castle.  Bill wasn’t kidding that the place had largely been evacuated. 

“Yes.”

“Why?” Kathryn asked.

“Because the enemy has our computer core, and no doubt studied the same battle and came to the same conclusion.”

“Fuck,” Kathryn muttered despite herself.

“Indeed,” Bill agreed.  “But we have something they don’t.”

“What’s that?”

“You.  Your ship.  Your already existent weapons.”

“Well, we do,” Kathryn corrected him with concern.

“Of course,” Bill’s mirror ball assured her with a hint of dismissiveness.

The platform they were standing approached the top of the building, and as they approached the ceiling phased away the same way she had seen the alien vessel airlock do on New Horizon II.  The platform then took its place as the ground on what seemed to be the roof of the structure.  The spires still scraped the sky above them, but all about them was an immense and immaculately manicured alien garden with a seemingly infinite number of plants which she couldn’t identify in the slightest.  Some had a vague similarity in appearance to plants she was familiar with back home, but all betrayed their alien origin.

“Captain, this building is the centre of everything.  The Link, as well as all of our governance, bureaucracy, science, and culture rotates about the axis of this building.  It is the capital of our capital.  In this garden are the most beautiful botanical samples from ten billion worlds.  Our galactic population nears a hundred trillion and before this war reared its ugly head we were thriving.  This building would ordinarily be bustling with excited activity and any number of people would be wanting to meet you and learn from you for any number of reason.

“We cherish first contact Captain.  Ordinarily you would be overwhelmed with the regalia of our greeting.  If you wish, we can gather up those who can spare the time and still hold a monumental feast and welcoming ceremony.  The alternative, is we skip all that for now, and start working on a plan to work together in defeating our enemy and getting your daughter back if possible, before the enemy learns how to utterly devastate us.  We can show and teach you wonders beyond your imagination, we could be better friends to your people than you could possibly imagine, but not if we are defeated by our enemy by technology you have introduced to the equation.”

Chapter 19

The group watched on a display panel beside the airlock as the ship about two thirds the size of theirs approached.  The ship actually appeared to change the shape of the leading point of the tetrahedron, and Ralph explained that it was in fact doing just that to accommodate the different airlock of the New Horizon II.  

“So they can just reconfigure the shape and structure of their ships on the fly?” Felix asked.

“Yes.”

“Well that’s… something,” Felix responded.  Like the others he was newly uncomfortable coming to grips with how fantastically beyond themselves these aliens were technologically.  “I guess if you can make your ship any shape you want on the fly it makes as much sense to leave their ordinary state platonic solids as anything else.”

“Here they come,” Kathryn said as the ship made its final approach.  Even the gentlest docking ordinarily produced a noticeable shudder as the two ships forcefully made contact.  They kept waiting for it, but at some point they realized that the ship was docked despite no such final contact being felt.

“They are taking control of the airlock system on your ship,” Ralph informed them.  “Once they are certain they are in control they will enter the airlock.”

A few moments later, through the window on the circular airlock door, they saw the hull of the alien ship melt away where it was inside the airlock.  It almost seemed to pixelate away.  Kathryn was reminded of pointillism art she had seen in the original New Horizon archives.  It looked like one of those where starting in the centre individual dots were stripped away and increasingly out to the periphery until there was no surface left.

When the aliens came through, Kathryn marvelled at how small they were, so much smaller than she had expected.  The very top of what she assumed was their head was no more than half a meter tall, and the total width of their leg span up and walking as they were was no wider.  Three total came through, and when they were all in the airlock the New Horizon II side rolled away to reveal them.

The three stood there equidistant from each other, just as Ralph had described and shown them.  Seeing them in life was something else entirely.  Kathryn had to fight away a vague sense of horror deep in her primitive brain which was instinctively disturbed by seeing something so clearly alien, so unavoidably unknown and foreign.  Between the three was a floating silver ball thirty centimeters wide, perfectly spherical and seemingly perfectly reflective.  She wondered what it was for but she didn’t have to wait long to find out.

“Hello, my name is-” Kathryn tried to say to introduce herself before she was cut off.

We will inspect your ship to confirm that your arrival here is not a rouse orchestrated by our enemy.” the mirror ball said.  Kathryn now understood.  For some reason they were unwilling or unable to speak directly to her, so they spoke through this device.  “Please stand aside and instruct your crew to do the same.”

“Understood.” Kathryn answered.  She wasn’t about to press the issue of having a thousand questions.  Instead she touched the wall panel and opened a ship wide broadcast.  “This is Captain Barnes.  We have guests onboard who are going to inspect the ship.  Make no attempt to stop, obstruct, or question them, do not interact with them in any way.  Get out of the way and let them work in peace.”

The lead alien, or at least the one at the head of the triangle, seemed to look at her in acknowledgement with his nearest deep black eye, but it was impossible to tell.  The aliens continued on and everyone did their best to get out of the way.  They had to fall in a line to make their way down the hallway, being splayed out quadrupeds they occupied a lot more sideways real estate than the bipedal crew did.

“Do we follow them?” Jaren asked.

“Phbbt,” Margaret uttered.  “I am!”  She declared as she left to follow behind them.

Margaret turned to those left.  “Jaren I want you on the bridge, Felix in engineering, just in case.  Ralph you and I are going to go keep Molly out of trouble.”  

The two men seemed disappointed, but they headed in the opposite direction towards a lift tube together.  The Ralph robot followed Kathryn as she hustled a bit to catch up with Margaret.  When they did she tugged on her shirt.  “Let’s keep our distance alright?”  The simulated woman seemed disappointed, but she obeyed.  

The three followed along as the aliens made a complete survey of the ship, touring every conceivable room, corridor, and emergency access.  They didn’t appear to be doing any scanning themselves, but it didn’t take Kathryn long to realize that this was another purpose of their mirror ball.  When they entered a news space, the device flew in and around the entire area.  It betrayed no lights, sounds or other indication that it was doing anything other than flying around, and in that itself it seemed to move as though by magic.

Where sections had been sealed off due to hull damage, the aliens held back beyond a further airtight bulkhead and sent the drone in to investigate the evacuated section on its own.  There were a number of awkward moments where they were waiting for it to return, with Kathryn and Margaret staring at the aliens in dumbstruck curiosity while self-consciously trying not to stare in what might be construed in a rude way.

 

retcon: interior of Ralph’s original drone ship must be appropriate dimensions for these aliens, not humans

 

They seemed to pay particular attention to the Artificial Intelligence computer core which was powering Ralph.  They studied and investigated where it was plugged into the central network more carefully and studiously than anything else on the ship.  After scrutinizing every square centimeter of the ship, they returned to the airlock where they had first seen them.  Finally they addressed Kathryn again.

We are satisfied that the narrative you conveyed was truthful and accurate.” The creatures said through the mirror ball.

“Well that’s big of you,” Margaret remarked dryly.  Kathryn shot daggers into her eyes with her own, silently ordering her to shut her mouth.

“Thank you,” Kathryn said as diplomatically as possible.  “We hope that our people can-”  Again she was cut off.

We are not the appropriate personnel to initiate proper first contact greeting.  Should you wish, you are advised to make best comfortable speed to the third planet and enter orbit.  If you choose to do so you will be greeted by a formal welcoming party including individuals who will be happy to answer any questions you may have.  Should you decline we recommend leaving the area as the potential for hostiles to emerge from the portal is ever-present.  Thank you.”

It seemed so much like a prepared statement that as they walked back into the airlock and closed the New Horizon II door to it, she wondered if the exact wording had been forwarded from the planet, that maybe they were not allowed to say anything to them that was not an official statement issued to them.  Her and Margaret watched as they made their way into their ship and the hull of it re-pixelated into existence behind them.

As she lit a cigar, Margaret said through the corner of her mouth beside it, “well, that was interesting.”  She put her lighter away and puffed the cigar up to a good burn on the tip, the smoke from it immediately disappearing into a ventilation grate.

“Dammit Molly…” Kathryn said as she turned and leaned back hard against the airlock.  “I know you think you’re funny and all, but if you keep it up I’m going to have to consider it too dangerous to have you around at times like these.  This is as serious as things get Molly, you can’t be taking chances just to crack jokes.”  Kathryn was utterly emotionally drained from having the aliens onboard.  She hadn’t expected it to be such a burden on her, not just the potential risk to her ship and crew, but the prolonged time of walking on eggshells with the future relationship of her species and the first other advanced one they’d ever met.  The weight of things was starting to get to her.

“I hear you,” Margaret, “but what if it’s really funny?”

“They may have learned our language in about two seconds, but they’ll our humour will be the last thing they come to understand about us if they ever do, understand?”

“I do Kat, I do… but don’t you already get the sense that they look down on us, that they consider us so beneath them they aren’t even capable of being offended by lowers such as us.”

She hadn’t gotten that feeling, but now that it was pointed out she did understand what she meant.

“Well… aren’t they in that position?” Kathryn asked.  She gestured generally about them with her hands.  “Given everything?”

“Maybe,” Margaret admitted, “but I still don’t like it.  Look, I’ll play nice if the alternative is not being played at all.  Sir, yes sir.”  The simulant gave a sarcastic salute.  Kathryn knew she heard her and accepted what she said, but had to save face somewhat with an overt display of rebellion.

Using the panel beside the airlock, Kathryn closed the outer door, then opened a channel to the bridge.

“Jaren they’ve left… obviously.  They said they believe our story and that if we want to make proper diplomatic first contact to head for the third planet, otherwise they advise leaving the area as a potential warzone.  I don’t know how they expect us to leave or what the area consists of, but it doesn’t matter.  We’re going in.”

She closed the channel momentarily.  “Ralph please forward a navigation map of this system to the pilot’s station.”

“Yes Captain.”

The channel was opened again.  “Ralph is sending up a map, have the pilot make for the planet at one and a half gees.”

“Understood,” he answered through the speaker, then a few moments later.  “It’ll take us a little over fifty hours to put us in orbit.”

“Understood.  I’ll be up shortly.”  She assured him and then closed the channel.

Chapter 18

It took three weeks to reach the star again.  They were travelling at one and a half gee which while not oppressive was not optimally comfortable either.  One hardly felt the strain for shorter periods, but over weeks it added up.  People spent more and more time off their feet, and generally seemed more and more fatigued as the stretch went by.  They could have gone faster, but with higher acceleration for such a prolongued length of time there was a greater chance of medical problems occurring, underlying conditions brought about prematurely by the strain

Something like the blue giant star they were ebraced by was so massive and luminescent, that the planet they’d been in orbit around was over three hundred times further from the star than Earth was around Sol.  The size and power of the star however also meant that the rift system satellites (or whatever the buider’s equivalent were) were likewise quite far out from the star, about a hundred AU.  That still meant that they had to cover about two hundred AU, the equivalent of flying clear across the solar system five times.  Even with the assistance of the massive star’s gravity, they maintained an effective one and a half gee.

The weeks dragged on, and although the crew fought boredom, they so often found themselves out in one of the observation decks where Ralph’s primary weapon hadn’t blown away the polymer glass.  They’d spend hours staring into that brilliant blue star protected by automatically polarizing and darkening clear material.  It was hypnotic, not only the marvellous colour, but this in conjunction with their marvel at how different it was from anything they knew.  All of their worlds were around similar stars, even the binary system they first visited when this bizarre and unexpected odyssey had begun, the stars were not too different from their own.

But this goliath hushed them in reverence.  It had over twenty times the mass of the sun, and was blue because of how much hotter it was.  It had long ago eaten up most of their hydrogen and turned it into helium like the stars they were familiar with, but this beast was so massive it then just started eating the helium and turning it into carbon and oxygen.  Before too long, on a cosmological scale anyways, it would eat all the helium it could too, and then who knows what.  She knew some specialists onboard probably knew, but before Jaren’s people came along science on her planet Haven had just barely figured out the relationship between electricity and magnetism after forgetting so much which their founders knew.

She just stared at the star.  Someone told her that in its various phases a star like that could only last seven hundred thousand years or so after leaving it’s long stable main sequence phase and finally dying into… what, a neutron star someone had suggested?  Or was it a black hole, whatever those were…  It sure was pretty though.  She wondered what seven hundred thousand years were to a species who had been around for millions of years.

It occurred to her that life couldn’t have evolved on the planet they’d been in orbit around.  Before the star turned it would have been a barren ice ball, which then made her wonder what planets had been eaten by the star when it bloated up as it had, and at what point the builders had decided to build a facility here.  Had they waited for this new phase in the star?  Did they find it this way and decide there was still enough time for it to be useful?  Would either side of their civil war be friendly to them?  Would they even be able to communicate with beings so advanced?

So many questions… and when she was lucky the idle astrophysics questions preoccupied her.  When she was unlucky, which was far more often, she thought of her daughter.  She spent a lot more time than she was proud of crying alone and feeling more powerless than she ever had in her life.  Jaren helped though.  Several times he’d found her like that when she’d been trying to hide it.  He didn’t say anything but instead just sat or lay beside her and held her as they both cried and occasionally told each other they’d get her back, while both knowing full well there was a better chance she was already dead than still alive.

 

retcon: there is so much fixing that is going to happen.  You’ll have to nail down maximum speed of aggressors to more accurately reflect when they are noticed to be leaving the system after assaulting them, you’re going to have to nail down exactly what kind of star you’re dealing with along with its life cycle and the precise phase you’ve arrived at, you’re also going to have to fix their entry and approach from star to planet as being equally long.

 

Finally, they arrived at the rift portal after three agonizingly long weeks.  Ralph’s avatar body had been repaired, but he had never asked to be put back into it.  Kathryn wondered if he wasn’t able to both be the ship’s computer and operate the robot as well, or if he was just happy to be back in a role he’d been built for and simply had no interest in anything else in life.

 “Can you zoom in on their portal point?” Kathryn asked the operations officer.

“Yes Ma’am.”

The six screen bridge wall panel zoomed in from their standard view which at this point was just a full wall of roiling blue with a small speck they were sailing towards.  As the image changed she wasn’t quite sure what she was looking at.  Her own people’s portal system operated by pouring energy into a purple rift crystal which caused it’s quantum structure to explode into a rift in space which they could travel through to a similarly treated crystal around another star.

What she was looking at now appeared to be a cube, and a massive one at that.  “Jaren how bit is that thing?”

 

retcon: again, they exited through this thing, so you have to explain why they never looked at on the way in or make them unsurprised this time.

 

He tapped at his science station several times.  “Big,” he proclaimed with a raised eyebrow.  “It’s a perfect cube ninety three point eight six kilometers wide long and deep.”

As she looked more closely she noticed that it had a purple hue to it and she wondered if her colour perception was being distorted by the wash of blue behind it.  She opened a channel to Ralph.

“Ralph is this your builder’s rift facility?”

Yes.”

“It’s completely unfamiliar.  Does it have collecting satellites like ours which feed it energy?”

No, it draws energy from the sun but stores it internally.  It can open up to ten successive portals without intervening recharge but then requires days to fully recharge.”

Jaren switched off the channel from his own console.  “Kat we can just barely contain the three yottawatts channelled through our satellites directly onto our crystals and the system damn near burns out every time.  Ican’t imagine the kind of energy system which can store and release that kind of energy.”

“Jaren, you realize that closing the channel just means turning off his voice but that he can hear us regardless right?”

The man chuckled.  “Right…” he offered with some good natured embarrassment and reopened the channel for her.

After a lingering smile at him, she then asked Ralph: “Alright, so how do we activate and enter?”

Leave it to me,” was all he said.

“Alright,” she said, irritated anew at having no control over her own ship, “what can we expect when we cross over?”

Unknown.  There is obviously some kind of turmoil with the builders.  I will send a signal ahead of us identifying myself, situation, and intentions, but all of this could be construed as a possible rouse by the enemy if there is indeed a conflict.  If the system is still the capital, I expect a strong military presence on the other side.

“Well that should be interesting to see,” Margaret offered dryly from behind them.  The rest were on zero gee and strapped in their seats as they approached on inertia alone, but Kathryn noticed Margaret appeared to be standing under gravity, though her hair was appropriately floating about her head.  The simulant noticed Kathryn looking down at her feet in puzzlement at the lack of magnetic gravity boots despite the initiated effect.  Margaret lifted one foot off the ground and rapped her knuckles against the sole of her casual shoes and merely offered: “upgrades.” as an explanation.

Kathryn soundlessly mouthed “ahh…” and returned her attention.  “Jaren, I’m going to need a situation report as soon as you can get it to me once we’re through.  Ships, sizes, configurations, energy readings, everything.”

“You got it.”

“Paschal, we’re going to be relying on Ralph to translate and convey our intentions at first and maybe for some time, but you’re our best linguist onboard.  I want you to follow along and make of it what you can.  The more we can do on our own the better.”

“Understood Captain.”

Kathryn opened up a shipwide broadcast.  “Okay people we’re headed through, be ready for anything.  If we’re still alive tomorrow drinks are on me.”  She wasn’t sure when she’d taken on such a macabre tone, but the dark humour seemed to lighten the tension.  At least she hoped so.  Laughing in the face of death seemed to make it’s likelihood less scary somehow.

“Okay Ralph, we’re ready.  Take us in.”

The bridge crew watched as the surface the massive cube which was facing them seemed to shift and shimmer as they approached.  It phased as if it was somehow simultaneously there and not there.  Nothing seemed to appear behind it though, which only enhanced the oddity of the effect.

They drew nearer and nearer, until the entirety of their field of view was the near surface of the cube, and the twisty turny uncertainty of the surface came into closer and closer view bur revealed no further detail.  The surface seemed to ripple and swirl in ethereal eddies which defied comprehension.  It made the mind hurt to look at it as it tried desperately to make sense of what it was seeing but could find absolutely no parallel to equate it to.

After what seemed like an eon, their surface finally touched the uncertain surface, and the event horizon washed over the ship front to back.

Kathryn was completely unprepared for the effect.  She was used to everything her senses told her to be washed out for several moments as though rift travel overloaded her brain or sensory systems of something.  This travel was so much smoother, to the point that her senses hardly noticed. 

When the forward array passed through the portal it immediately began depicting on the bridge screens what it saw on the other side, a starry night with some objects distant she couldn’t make out without any zoon.  But then the forward view screen was swallowed by the eccentric surface of the cube and she had a deep sense of existential dread as it swept towards her, swallowing up the bridge before it finally consumed her as well.

Once on the other side though everything felt normal, and looking behind her she could see the same wave of anomalous force sweep to the rear of the bridge and disappear behind the rear bulkhead.  Jaren appeared unusually concerned as it washed over him, his knuckles white from how hard he was gripping his chair.  Margaret of course, was making a point of looking as nonchalant as possible to the others, perfectly timing the lighting of her cigar to the moment the wave passed over her.  Sometimes she could be too much, Kathryn reflected with amusement before turning the full force of her attention to the situation at hand.

“Report,” she ordered as calmly as possible.

“I… I need a minute,” Jaren pleaded.  “There’s a lot out there.”

“Ops?” she asked.

“There’s a furious amount of comm activity between us and one of the ships out there, Ralph must be trying to assure them we’re no threat and explaining his and our situation.”

“Best not disturb him then.  What else can you tell me?”

“I can tell you the star is a yellow dwarf like we’re used to.”

Kathryn bobbed her head to the side.  “Okay, that’s always good to know I guess.  Jaren?”

“I read over a thousand ships out there… energy readings just right off the scale.  What’s really puzzling me… at first I thought it was a trick they were playing on our instruments, but…”

“What?”

“They’re all platonic solids!”  He seemed like he just couldn’t believe it.  “Every ship I look at is either a perfect tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron of icosahedron,” he marvelled.  “Also of note, none are too big to fit through the cube we just entered.  Some by just a hair’s width, and I do mean that literally, but every one of them can transit.  Also… yeah, looks like the bigger the ship is the more complex the shapes.  Little ships roughly our size are tetrahedrons and the ones that would just barely make it through the portal are the twenty faced icosahedrons.”

“Ok, well that’s… unexpected.”  Kathryn remarked.  She then opened a channel to Felix in engineering.  “Catch all that?” she asked.

“I did Kat.”

“What configuration were our attacker’s ships again?”

“Tetrahedron.  They penetrated our hull with one of the points.”

“Right.  Anything to report down there.”

“Nope, all our systems same as they were.”

“Thanks Felix.”  She closed the channel.  “Ops, same comm traffic?”

“It’s slowed down some Captain, I’m now getting longer pauses between transmission bursts.  I’d guess they’re conferring back with an authority further away.”

“Right, okay well let’s give him the time he needs then.”

As though on cue, Ralph spoke to her over the comms.  “I have made contact.” he stated plainly.

Kathryn waited a few moments before asking: “and…”

They are provisionally accepting my explanation, and are checking back with the capital planet for confirmation before proceeding.  It will take up to fifteen of your minutes now for a response.

“And then what?”

If our arrangement is approved, a research vessel staffed with investigators and diplomats will be dispatched from one of the ships and they will approach the New Horizon II and board it.  They will examine the ship and crew to determine definitively that we are not a rouse by their enemy to infiltrate the capital, until then we are ordered to enter a parking orbit around the star until this vessel arrives, and if we do not follow their orders we will immediately be destroyed.

“Well,” Margaret observed between puffs on her cigar.  “Certainly could be worse.  At least they didn’t open with destroying us.”

“True.” Kathryn agreed.

“Captain Barnes, I would like to resume operation of the robot.  I consider my mission complete now.  I am willing to leave my core connected to New Horizon II to function in place of your lost core, but I am returning all control to your people.”

Kathryn’s mood noticeably brightened and she shot a ‘well how bout that’ look at Jaren.

“Yes of course, thank you Ralph.  You may join us on the bridge when you are ready.  I’d like to know everything you can tell us before the alien ship arrives.  Pilot, put us in a parking orbit around the star please.  No fancy gee manoeuvers, just put us in orbit and park there.”

“Yes Captain.”

The aperture they had exited was of course itself in orbit, so the pilot just had to put a safe distance between them and it and leave the ship as it was.  This produced minute accelerations this way and that, but otherwise they were all left in the absence of gravity.

“Well?” she asked Jaren and Margaret.

“We’re not dead,” Margaret offered with a impassive shrug.  “I suppose that’s a start.”

“There is that,” Jaren affirmed with an eye roll.

“Jaren we’ve got some time here, I want you to pour over the sensor and comm logs, see if all of the extra data we’ve collected in conjunction with access to Ralphs fundamental core processing can get you any closer to figuring out how to operate this portal system on our own.”

“On it.”  He turned his chair back around and started working at his control panel.

“Something tells me these aren’t the people who took Maggie,” Margaret offered.  “They seemed to have zero interest in talking.”

Kathryn nodded.  She agreed but hadn’t wanted to be the first to say it for fear of it just being wishful thinking. 

“What’s with the shapes of those ships though?”

“I don’t think they use propulsion anything like the way we do.  I don’t care what they’re made of, with the kind of gees they were pulling to get back to the blue star from that planet as they did, if they’re still organic they’d be liquefied against the wall.”

“So what do they use?” Margaret asked.

“Not a clue, something I can’t even fathom.  But, our ships are all built around the propulsion system being at the back of the ship.  If you could just move around by magic, there would be no front or rear of the ship, no port or starboard, so there’d be no need for any irregularity to the shape, hence the regular shapes.  Just a guess.”

At that point, Felix and Ralph in robot form entered the bridge.  Ralph had built in magnets like Margaret had apparently had installed in herself, and Felix was wearing boots that produced the same effect, allowing both of them to walk onto the bridge in the absence of gravity with relative ease.

“Alright Ralph, spill.  Tell me everything.”

“There has been a schism between the builders.  There are two factions.  This faction did not take your computer core and daughter.  They do not know why we were attacked.”

“What was the schism over?”

“I did not ask.  It was not relevant.”

“Of course not,” Kathryn answered with a sigh.  “Are they going to help us?”

“I did not ask.”

“Right.  What did your conversation consist of?”

“I transmitted the entirety of my logs, and they asked for clarification about a great many things and I answered to the best of my ability.  They accepted my story provisionally pending confirmation, and issued instructions.”

“And that was it?”

“Yes.”

Kathryn sighed.  “Well, thanks for your help… I wish you could have thought to probe further on our behalf.”

“That is not my function.  It is however the function of the emissaries they are sending.  Of them you can ask anything you wish and they will answer as they see fit.”

“Right.”

“Also… thank you for allowing me to complete my mission.”

“So what now for you?”

“Unknown.”

“What would have become of you if you’d have succeeded in your original mission?”

“I would have been integrated into the new portal system and served as its central computer core.”

“Sounds lonely,” she remarked.

“I don’t understand,” the robot remarked.

“Receiving transmission Captain, audio only,” the operations officer reported.

“Put it on please.”

Star Fleet vessel New Horizon II.  What follows is contingent on the drone ship unit’s accuracy.  We regret that first contact between was hostility from our rival faction.  This conflict is an exception to millennia as a peaceful species.  A vessel has been dispatched to survey your ship and crew to ensure your appearance here is not subterfuge by our enemy.  Once your nature and intentions are confirmed you will be welcomed to the capital planet for formal contact.  Please accommodate docking with your vessel.  If you make any manoeuvers we view as threatening, you will be destroyed.  Please acknowledge to any of the ships before you.

“Well, I guess you don’t need me,” Paschal noted.

“The report I transmitted included details on your language,” Ralph informed them.  “It is not complicated.”

Margaret looked the robot up and down and then blew a puff of smoke into its digitized face.  “I think we’re insulted Kat.”

Kathryn simultaneously rolled her eyes and shook her head.  “Ops, transmit this on the same channel please.  Simply ‘we understand and are standing by’.”  She looked at the others.  “I think anything else can be said once they arrive.  I’d hate to say something that could be misinterpreted.”

“I am… picking up a ship.  It is a… tetrahedron.”

“Naturally,” Margaret offered dryly.

“And it is… wow.  They’re speed is… impossible.”

“That’s what we thought when we were attacked,” Felix explained.

“Ten gee… twelve gee… fifteen gee… wow, twenty, twenty-five… wont’ take them that long at this rate.  Ralph what’s the maximum acceleration of a craft like that?”

“Thirty two point eight of your gees for a vessel that small.”

“The bigger ones go faster?” Felix boggled.

“Yes,” Ralph answered, seemingly not understanding their amazement.

“Well, then at that rate they should be here in just a few minutes,” Jaren told them.  “Like, we should be hustling down to the airlock soon.”

Nobody had expected things to happen that quickly.  “Right, okay then,” Kathryn said.  “Ops, you have the bridge, Jaren, Maggie, Felix, Ralph and I are going to go greet our guests.”

“Yes Captain.”

Chapter 17

A great short chapter I wrote and then lost.  The one time I don’t post it online, I lose it and it’s unrecoverable.  Figures.  I’ll rewrite in the future when the loss isn’t so fresh and painful.  It started with a page about Kathryn going to her daughter’s quarters and rifling through her stuff, remarking how she’d brought so many more games and media in her drive than she’d ever have the chance to play and consume because she was like that.  She broke down crying, finally surrendering in private to the weight of her loss and everything that happened, but then toughened up, undid her mangled hair and put it up again cleanly in the bathroom mirror, including a comment about how much gray there was in her hair now.  She then went to the bridge and relieved Jaren to presumably go do the same.  Also a comment that they were doing lazy three quarter gee alternating accelerations and decelerations in their orbit to have some gravity while they hung out around the planet.  Around the time Jaren came back so did Margaret, informing them that the crew view both alternatives as probable death, but the planet option was a pointless drawn out death while the attempted rescue mission at least had a slim prospect for glorious success.  They were all out here cuz they’re adventurous so to a crewmember they were all in.  Kathryn has a conversation with Ralph over comms cementing their arrangement, and having him explicitly state that he has no contingency orders if they go where he wants to and is still unable to report in.  Kathryn gives a macabre speech to the crew that they are headed into the capital system of god level technology aliens of unknown intentions on the faint hope that they can successfully make first contact properly, rescue their daughter, and be returned home heroes.  Jaren says some speech, Kathryn shrugs.

Chapter 16

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN they ‘took Maggie’!?  How could you let that happen!?”

HEY!!  Six good people died trying to stop it from happening!”

Gradually, Kathryn’s military training kicked in.  Focus.  Learn the situation.  Respond appropriately.  Effect what you can, deal with what you can’t later.  If she focused on her daughter in danger right now she’d be useless at confronting the rest of the challenges onslaughting her right now and that wouldn’t be any good for anyone, let alone Maggie.

“Tell me exactly what happened.”

“After we lost contact, the three ships slammed into the hull hard and penetrated.  After they left the entire section vented but emergency bulkheads are sealing them off now.  We’ve got a few people trapped in rooms on the other side of vacuum that we’re working on reaching now.”

Felix leaned back against the wall behind him and slid down until he was sitting on the floor.  He took a deep but shaky breath as he wiped sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.  “I think their primary target was the computer core,” he said.  “They penetrated as near to it as you possibly could.  I think Maggie was just the closest human to their entry point, that anyone nearest would have been taken.”

But why!??” Jaren demanded.  His eyes were glowing with barely contained rage and when Kathryn looked at him she remembered that he must be feeling exactly as helpless, angry, and confused as herself, though a deep part of herself forbid accepting that it was possible for anyone in human history to feel those things as burning bright as she was.

“How the hell would I know?” Felix snapped back, with growing anger in his defensiveness.  “I can only tell you what happened.”

“Then go on,” Kathryn said in her solid military voice which masked the shaking which would have otherwise be there.

“I saw them.  They blew Binh’s head apart right beside me.  They looked just like Ralph described his builders of looking, four legs, torso in the middle with two arms…”

“That’s impossible,” Ralph’s robot protested, “there’s no conceivable way that my builder’s could-”

Before he could finish his sentence, Kathryn had pulled her side arm out of it’s holster, brought it up to the robot, looked down the sight at the it’s dumb projected face, and blew the head apart in a spray of plastic and metal shrapnel down the corridor behind it.

It was incredibly stupid but was an incredibly cathartic release.  She could have damaged the ship, probably did in fact.  They may have needed Ralph now more than ever for information if not for more direct assistance, but it didn’t matter.  She’d done it before she’d even thought about it, but thinking about it in the moments after she had no regrets.  It felt right.

What the fuck Kat??” Felix desperately exclaimed in shock.  “My robot!” he exclaimed as he crawled over to the lifeless electronic corpse.  Margaret grew a half smile on her face which mirrored Kat’s and gave a slight chuckle as she pulled out another cigar and savoured lighting it as the smoke was automatically sucked into an air vent.  Jaren just looked at her with what bordered on disbelief which had a touch of disappointed all too believability to it.

“Felix.  Continue your report,” Jaren ordered.

Felix was visibly angry and was looking back and forth between Kathryn and the still robot.  He answered though. 

“They moved fast.  Two held their distance while the one penetrated.  They headed straight for the computer core melting a passageway through every bulkhead they encountered along the way, I’ve never seen anything like it.  Whatever tool it was they used the same technique to cut the core out of the wall and sever all of the connections.  Whether on their way there or back, Maggie and my suite was directly adjacent to their path, just on the other side of a bulkhead along the way.  They cut through and, and… they took her.”

The man shrugged.  “Either that or…”

“Or what?” Kathryn demanded.

“Or she was blown out to space when they disengaged and turned every section they’d cut into to vacuum.  But I don’t think that happened!  There’d be no reason to cut into the suite just to do that to her, they must have taken her.”

“Alright… alright,” Kathryn said.  “Felix and Margaret, assess the damage.  In ten minutes I want an assessment of what we can and can’t still do with our core missing and the wound in the side of the ship.  After that get me an assessment of what can be fixed and how long each thing would take if prioritized.  Understood?”

Felix nodded as he stood up from cradling the robot body on the ground.  Margaret pushed off of the wall and put her cigar out on the wall as she nodded herselt.

“Good,” Margaret said.  “Go.”

“Come on everyone,” Felix said to the rest of the personnel.  He had a note of resignation in an otherwise resolved tone of voice.  “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”  He led the rest of them out of the section off to their duties, Margaret included.

This left Kathryn and Jaren finally alone.  Kathryn fell into Jaren’s arm and started crying as she put her head on her shoulder.  It was rare for her to so nakedly express herself, but they were alone, and if she could collapse with anyone it was him.  Jaren wasn’t holding himself together much better.

They didn’t say anything, for there was nothing to say.  They both felt the same, both understood the dame, both wishing to reassure the other as they were seeking to be reassured.

“We’ll get her back,” Jaren whispered in her ear.  It wasn’t a statement of fact or even a promise, but more a statement of intent.  It was a promise that they would try, that nothing else mattered now but doing everything they could to find her and get her back.  Neither had any idea how this was possible, or even that she was right now still alive.  They would try though, they would exhaust every opportunity before giving up, and even then try something else.

Kathryn nodded as she pulled away and wiped the tears away from her bleary eyes.  She looked at Jaren in time to see him doing the same.  “So,” he asked.  “Bridge?”

“Yeah,” she answered.  “Let’s see what we’re dealing with here.”

 

Once they’d resumed their posts on the bridge, Felix messaged up his report.  They could still manually fire the engines and operate most systems, but navigation calculations would have to be done by hand which was not only error prone, but incredibly lengthy and time consuming.  This however, was not much of an issue since they had no maps of the system and no telescopes to generate any, and couldn’t calculate a trajectory anywhere regardless.

He pointed out that with some difficulty and given enough time there was a good chance that they could make their way back down the gravity well to the star and make it down to a rift portal, but they of course had no way of accessing and opening the alien rift system.  And without a computer core, trying to hack in was now especially impossible.  As for the hull, he said that he’d already dispatched a crew to plate over and seal up the hole the penetrating craft had made.  They were prepping at the nearest airlock and were about to head out.

Life support and power systems being critical were all equipped with manual redundant systems which had automatically kicked in.  They would have to be babysat and manually adjusted from time to time, but Felix had already assigned a couple crew to plant themselves in front of the manual controls and do just that.  Engineering or the bridge could contact them to make deliberate adjustments at any time.

With some hesitation, Felix pointed out that they had two shuttles, and there was plenty of territory down on the planet that in a worst case scenario could be colonized and they could make a good go of it.  No one was anywhere near considering that possibility yet of course, but he felt duty bound to point it out and Kathryn understood.

“Not that I imagine anyone cares,” he finally added, “I think I’ll be able to repair P4.”

Kathryn took a moment to notice that he had called it P4 again instead of Ralph.  Maybe in his mind she had shot Ralph out of P4’s head.  Maybe he thought that referring to it as P4 wouldn’t anger her that he’d even bothered to check.

“I’ve got enough spare parts lying around to reassemble the head.  I think anyways.”

“Thank you Felix.  Once you have all essential work locked down feel free to work on your robot,” she reassured him.  “We may not be going anywhere for a bit after all.”

Jaren swivelled around in the chair he was strapped down to in the zero gravity by pushing his feet against the ground, anchored in the opposite direction by his harness.  “About that,” he said.

Kathryn raised an eyebrow at him.

The man seemed reluctant, but it had to be said.  “There is still a starship’s computer core onboard.”

Kathryn looked at him with an even stare that betrayed nothing, but when she began chewing the inside of her cheek he knew her well enough to recognize what that meant.  She didn’t like what he’d said or what it implied, but she knew he was right.  She pressed a button on her arm control panel and rubbed her right eye with the back of her index finger as she said: “Felix?”

“Yes Captain?”

“The alien A.I.,” it no longer seemed amusing to refer to it as Ralph, “I presume it’s still online?”

“Yes, but it’s not doing much.  Without a computer core to tap into there’s not much it can do.”

“Understood.  Could you patch a signal form it into the bridge comm system so I could… have a word with it?”

“I, er- yeah, of course.  Give me just a second.”  A few moments passed before he reported.  “Okay, patched through.  Go ahead.”

The problem was now she didn’t know what else to address it as.  “Ralph?”

I am here.”

Kathryn rapped her fingers slowly on her arm rest.  It seemed a little awkward speaking to something she’d just blown its face through the back of its head.

“How are things?” she asked, somewhat amused with herself.  Felix shot her a bewildered look.

I am once again trapped in my core.  I knew nothing else for so long, and yet now I feel so… immobile.

“You’re aware of the condition of New Horizon II?

Based on the damage I head described before you destroyed my avatar I can infer the condition.”

She didn’t detect any indication that it had taken being shot in the face particularly personally.

“Felix tells me that one upside of the ship’s core being gone is that you’re no longer to control it and the ship.”

There was a pause.  “That is correct.”

A few more raps on the arm rest.

“Felix and others report that beings just as you described boarded this ship and stole not only our computer core but… my daughter as well.”

As I said, that is impossible.”

“You’re a computer Ralph.  Is it impossible, or merely improbable.”

The A.I. didn’t answer at first, giving Kathryn a chance to raise an eyebrow at Jaren to suggest that maybe she’d gotten it.

Improbable.” it reluctantly admitted.

“Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.  So tell me.  Given how improbable you find it, tell me what could result in such an improbable occurrence coming to pass.”

Another long pause.

War.”

“Between…”

Internal warfare,” he answered.  “That could also explain what happened to Infinity Base.”

‘Of course,” Kathryn thought to herself. ‘Of course…’

“Why would that lead internal warfare between your builders to board our ship and steal our core and my daughter?”

Research,” it answered plainly.

Oh how she didn’t like the sound of that.  “Explain.”

It is standard protocol… it was standard protocol to attempt contact with any new space faring species the builders encountered to learn about them.  This general imperative is part of why it was necessary to bring you here, to meet them.  However, this kind of aggressive research was never directed.  One or more sides in the conflict may have taken this general principle to an extreme, to study by force in wartime any new space faring species.”

“One or more…” Kathryn repeated.  “Ralph I’m in a tough spot.”

Explain.”

“Without your help we’ve got one option.  Set down on the surface of this planet and try to make the best of it.  Hope we’ve got the equipment and wherewithal to set up a colony and not be wiped out by god know’s what, including at any moment being noticed and wiped out in your builder’s war.”

“Your chances would be low,” the A.I. observed matter of factly.

She made eye contact with Jaren and shook her head in contempt.

“Any other possibly actions would involve connecting you directly to the ship’s network and have you serve as the ship’s computer core instead of merely controlling it.”

It didn’t say anything.  She wondered if it was thinking or waiting for her to say something else.  Then she remembered it could think a million times faster than she could.

“My daughter was taken,” she continued, “but my professional priority must be the safe return home of the crew I have left, and hope that command lets us mount another better prepared expedition to come find her.”  She didn’t bother to ask it if she thought the aggressors would keep her daughter alive for questioning or just dissect her.  What could she tell them that wasn’t in the computer core?  She pushed the dark thought out of her head.

At that moment she looked up at the wall screen in response to an unexpected dimming of the bright blue star.  It wasn’t as much dimming as she’d come to expect from a rift transit, but still just enough to be clearly noticeable.

“Yup,” Jaren answered her unspoken question.  Something just either came through or left through the rift.

Probably the mother ship of the smaller craft which attacked your ship,” the A.I. suggested.

“That was fast,” Kathryn observed.

“Too fast,” Jaren agreed with a nod.

“I’ll come out with it then,” Kathryn said.  “Will you help us return to our native rift system?”

No,”

Kathryn crinkled up half of her face.  She was after all only half disappointed to hear his answer.  Her professional half was displeased.  However the answer allowed her maternal half to maintain a sliver of hope.

“If we integrated you into the ship, what would you be willing to?”

My priority is still to make every effort to report to the capital planet.”

“Not knowing what side of the conflict holds the capital, nor if there is any side at all which might be any friendlier to us than those who have already attacked us?”

Correct.”

“I see.  We’ll be in touch.”

Kathryn closed the channel and looked over at Jaren.  They both knew what the other was thinking.  Flying blind into a system potentially no more hospitable than those who had captured their daughter in the first place was certainly a risk, but at the same time it also presented the faint hope that it would be the opposing side who might be resistant to their aggressors and maybe somehow be able to help them get Maggie back.

She pushed another button on her arm rest panel.  “Margaret to the bridge please, Margaret to the bridge.”

A few moments later the simulant arrived looking somewhat dishevelled with a touch of grime on her face and hands and with her hair quite haggardly out of place though still retaining some structural integrity from how she’d originally put it up.  She’d obviously been hard at work with the others.

“What’s up Kat?” she asked as she floated onto the bridge.

“Could you give us the room please,” she said to the pilot and operations officer who didn’t have much to do with the ship in the condition it was.

“Yes Captain,” the ops officer said as he led the pilot into the lift.  “We’re going to quickly pop down to grab some lunch, can we bring you anything.” 

It was the first time she’d thought to notice how hungry she indeed was.  “Sure.  Just bring Jaren and I some of whatever you grab, thank you.”

The pilot nodded and the two disappeared behind the closing door of the lift.

“Well Molly,” Kathryn said as she undid her harness and stretched her body out.  “It appears we’ve got two options.  We can either land everyone on the surface here and make our best go of setting up a colony forever out of touch with home and with any number of ways it could all turn out disastrously fatal, or we can integrate Ralph into the ship and have him complete his mission.  He’d fly us through the portal to their capital planet where we will either meet the very same hostile force that attacked us, or an unknown faction with no idea how they’d respond to us or treat us.  Option two however, is the only one that leaves any possibility whatsoever of tracking down Maggie.”

“So when do we leave?” she asked.

Kathryn smiled at her assumption.  It seemed no choice at all for her, but she was ancient already, already survived an apocalypse and been reborn in a new invulnerable body.  Her perception of risk had obviously skewed over the centuries.

“Setting down here is the safe choice, the option with the least risk, risky as it still may be.  Going after Maggie, is foolish at best, but…”

“But she’s Maggie,” Margaret said.

“Right.  The thing is I want the crew’s input.  Obviously as the Captain I can’t have people openly vote on something like this, but I want to know what they think before I make my decision.  I can’t in good conscience throw all of their lives to the wind to go after my daughter if most of them would strongly prefer to make their best go of it down on the surface here instead.

“Jaren and I could never get an honest answer out of them, that’s why I’m asking you.  Move about the ship for me, talk to people.  Confide in them what our options are and get a feel for what they think we should do.  When you feel like you’ve got a sense of the crew’s general view, report back to me and I’ll make my decision.”

The simulated woman seemed a little irritated at their not just going after Maggie with not deliberation, but Kathryn trusted her to the task she’d assigned her.  She was the type to be honest to a fault; she would seek the crew’s general view earnestly and report what she surmised to Kathryn honestly, even if she disagreed.

Kathryn looked over at Jaren.  “Well,” he said, letting out an emotionally exhausted sigh, “you know my vote.”

Chapter 15

Retcon: as soon as they came through the rift they realized they’d exited in an alien system since they emerged flying out of the gravity well of a blue supergiant star

 

The fourth planet in the system was a world not entirely unlike the planets the humans had colonized, though it was drier than the others.  It had one large ocean that occupied a little more than a third of the planet, but the rest was land, and the further away from that ocean that land was, the drier and more unforgivingly desert the terrain was.

Kathryn stood on the bridge watching on the wall monitors the planet slip down underneath.  She had ordered Felix to scavenge some of the other remaining wall screens throughout the ship and install them on the bridge.  Now they had a comfortable six panel front view screen to work with.  It was a pale shadow of the view the bridge had been built to provide, but it was certainly much better than the postage stamp by which they’d been trying to look out from previously.

“What have we got Jaren?” she asked.

Jaren continued to study his panel for several moments before answering.  “I’m looking at the location where Ralph claimed that base was supposed to be… but there’s nothing there.”

“And by nothing you mean…”

“Well I don’t have a telescope to look in detail but I’m not picking up any comm traffic or anything.  Based on the instruments we have left there’s nothing to indicate that there is anything down there.”

“Suggestions?” Kathryn asked.

“We have to go down there,” Ralph said as the door to the lift slid open and his robot body stepped out.  A couple days ago he had decided that his quarantine was no longer necessary and overwritten the controls which had kept him there.  Kathryn on her inside momentarily had an utter fit, but then calmed herself.  There was nothing she could do about it and just resigned herself to it once she’d accepted it.

“Why do we have to go down there?” she asked him.

“Instruments on this ship are inadequate to determine the status of the base.”

“Were there any orbital facilities?” Jaren asked.

“Yes,” the robot answered.  “I am deeply concerned.  There was an extensive ship yard in orbit where I was built, but there seems to be no trace of it now.”

“Hypothesis?” she asked.

“It is no longer there,” the robot answered plainly.  It didn’t seem to understand that she was asking an explanation as to why.

“Jaren?  What do you think about going down?”

“Well, it concerns me obviously.  Flying down to an alien environment with no instruments to tell us ahead of time what we’re going to find when we get down there?  Just tell me we’re not bringing Maggie down there…”

Kathryn actually laughed out loud, and it was nice to have her tension broken.

“Besides, the shuttles’ short range sensors are intact and we can take more comprehensive data with them once we’re closer to the facility.

Kathryn pointed at him.  “Right.  Okay Jaren, you, Margaret, Ralph, and I will take Shuttle One down to investigate.”

Jaren just nodded and rose from his station, walking past Ralph and exiting the bridge through the lift to go prep the shuttle.

“How long ago did you leave this planet?” she asked Ralph.

“Twenty-six-point-three-years,” the robot repeated.

“So whatever happened wasn’t too long ago…”

“Correct.”

“You are happy to come along on our little field trip?”

“I would have insisted on it.”

Kathryn looked out the view screen at the surface beneath them.  “This mission sure is turning out more interesting than we’d planned.  How could an entire orbital shipyard be destroyed?”

“Unknown.”

 

The shuttle disengaged from the New Horizon II and whisked away at moderate acceleration in the opposite direction from which the mothership orbited.  It had lost most of its orbital velocity by the time it hit the bulk of the planet’s atmosphere below, and casually lowered itself down to the surface of the planet.

The immersive projection of the exterior of the shuttle onto the interior walls showed a stark environment a couple thousand kilometers in from the massive ocean.  It wasn’t completely barren and dry as the opposite side of the planet was, but it was quite arid.  It was obvious that very little of the ocean’s moisture made it in this far.

“It’s heavier at the surface,” Jaren reported.  “One-point-four gee it looks like.”

“One-point-seven by your metric is the preferred gravity of the builders, the environment they originally evolved in,” Ralph answered.

“That would explain why their body shapes are so distinct from ours,” Kathryn remarked.

“Indeed.”

“And yet the atmospheric composition is the same,” Jaren remarked.  “Not the same, but within human tolerance.”

“Yes, this planet’s atmosphere has a lower oxygen level than optimal for the founders but within tolerance.  Inside the facility extra oxygen is added for comfort.”

“Oh hell,” Margaret said as a clearer picture of the area they were headed towards came into view.  There was nothing left of it.

The area where they were approaching, there was only a slight crater, regular in its circular shape, and quite distinct from the terrain around it.  It didn’t have the raised lip one would expect to find from a crater created by a falling rock, instead it seemed to be evenly shaved out of the bedrock.  It wasn’t terribly deep, but it was clearly there nonetheless, dozens of kilometers wide cut uniformly and remarkably smoothly.

“It’s… gone,” the robot observed, seeming more shocked and concerned than she would have given him credit for displaying in his current form.  “It was attacked,” he said, turning to the others.  “Take us down to the surface,” he ordered.

Jaren looked at Kathryn and she somberly nodded towards him.  Jaren piloted the ship down to a soft landing at the edge of the shallow crater.

As Kathryn reached for the door controls, Jaren grabbed her arm firmly.  “Don’t.”  When she looked back at him he was studying his screens with a furrowed brow.  “You open that door we’re both dead.  There’s intense radiation out there.”

“So it was nukes…” she marvelled.

“Yup,” he answered.  “And higher yield than we’ve ever been stupid enough to build at that.  By a lot in fact.”

“I need to go out there,” Ralph said.  Kathryn could sense the note of frustration in his voice, and despite his robot form he was visibly agitated.  New Horizon II had taken up a geostationary orbit at the equator further north from them.  It allowed them to maintain a direct data link to keep Ralph’s body and his core connected continuously.

“Well hold on,” she said.  “Break out the environment,” she ordered Jaren and Margaret.

Jaren remained fixed on his instruments while Margaret opened a display screen panel on the floor, and started pulling out two sets of environment suits from underneath.  “Why do you think this happened?” Margaret asked Ralph.

“Unknown,” he answered plainly.  “The builders are at peace.”

“Have they always been?”

“Has any intelligent species always been at peace?”

“We wouldn’t know,” Margaret answered dryly as she pulled the last helmet out and stood up.  “Are there any other species who might have done this?”

“None that we know of, none that would dare.”  Something in his voice when he uttered the second half of that sentence was dark, vengeful even.

As Kathryn and Jaren pulled on their environment suits, Ralph reviewed the data on the terminal Jaren had been studying.  “This can’t have happened long ago.  Based on the decay rate… only twenty-one Earth days.

“Any indication that whoever did this is still around?” was the last thing Kathryn was able to ask in a normal voice before pulling on the helmet and having to use the suit to suit comm system instead.

“Nothing the ship or shuttle has picked up,” Jaren answered in her ear.  “Whoever did this seems to be long gone.  Ready?” he asked her.

“Ready.” 

When the wall fell initially began falling away there was a rush of air as the internal and external atmosphere intermingled.  They had already been subjected to the higher gravity, but walking down the ramp they really felt it and immediately began to feel somewhat fatigued. 

Ralph had exited first and immediately headed to the edge of the crater.  It was so wide and shallow that there was no definite edge, and one easily could have walked down the slope rather comfortably, but there was nonetheless no mistaking the outer perimeter of the devastation.

The other three, Kathryn and Jaren in environmental suits, Margaret more casually exposed behind them walked over and stood behind the robot, absorbed in taking in the scene, looking all around them.  The terrain had a sandy rock colour to it, a dark yellow with a touch of red.  What was most striking was the overriding blue hue everything had to it due to the different colour of the star above them.  It didn’t appear much bigger than suns they were used to, but that was only due to how much further away they were, how far away they had to be from a horrifying beast of a star like that to have a temperate planet like this.

“Six,” Kathryn remarked to the others, receiving confused looks in response.  “This is the sixth planet we’ve set foot on.”  The others nodded in acknowledgement, appreciating that fact rather deeply for a moment before Ralph spoke up and shattered the reverence.

“The energy profile from your shuttle’s readings suggest that our own weapons caused this.”

“An accident maybe?” Jaren asked.

“Inconceivable,” the robot answered softly before dropping to his knees in apparent exhaustion.

Kathryn heard the all too familiar catch of Margaret’s torch lighter and gave her a dirty look as she lit a cigar and puffed on it thoughtfully.  “What about the orbital shipyard?” the simulant asked.

“Good question,” Kathryn said as she opened a channel up to the ship on the panel on the inside of her wrist on the suit.  “Felix?”

“Yes captain, we’re here.”

“It looks like the base was nuked… severely nuked.  Scan the radiation environment in orbit, see if there’s any anomalies.  I believe we’ve at least still got those sensors.  You should be in just about the same orbit they would have had that station in.”

“Hold…”

Kathryn looked over to the robot while she waited.  It still seemed remarkably emotional for a being such as it was.  She hadn’t expected it to be mournful of the destruction of its ‘birthplace.’

“Oh yeah,” Felix said.

“What is it?”

“On closer analysis there was definitely a massive nuclear explosion in this area.  We didn’t pick up on it right away because our radiation sensors are all thrown out of whack by the different star so it wasn’t picked up right away, but when I calibrated to compensate for the radiation this blue beast is throwing out, yeah something hellish happened up here alright, and pretty recently too from the looks of it.”

“Like a few weeks recently?”

“Yeah, exactly.”

“Alright, thank you.  Stand by.”  Kathryn walked over to Ralph and sat down on her knees beside him.  “Well what now Captain?” she asked softly.  “Any standing orders in this eventuality?”

“Of course,” he said evenly.

She suddenly suspected that the very fabric of the universe could suddenly and inexplicably unravel all about them, and he would still have appropriate contingency orders to follow.  “Alright, so what now?” she asked.

“Now we report in to the capital,” he answered.

“The capital?”

“The central planet of the builder’s civilization, their most recent homeworld.  Now I need to report not only my fate, but ensure they are aware of what happened here as well.

“Captain, fast movers coming in,” Felix said over the comm in her ear.

“What?” Kathryn called out, bolting to her feet.  “Report!!”

“We’ve got two… no, three small craft coming in hot on an intercept course.  They must have been hiding on the far side of the planet.”

“Aggressive?” Kathryn said as she started running the short distance to the shuttle and motioned for the others to follow them.

“Sure seem that way, they’re on a collision course and they seem to be trying to blind us with-”

At that point all she heard was static.  “they’re jamming the comm channels, dammit!  Jaren get us up there now, emergency ascent.”

Not bothering to get out of their suits, all four strapped themselves into their seats and braced themselves for the heavy load that an emergency ascent would.  As Jaren throttled up the antimatter drive their seats changed shape and slid out into the interior of the shuttle to reorient the direction in which their bodies were taking the load. 

At that acceleration it only took a few minutes to reach orbit and come on approach to the New Horizon II.  They could see three small ships leaving the vicinity of the ship but they were already too far away for them to be able to make out any detail about them.  Jaren nimbly orchestrated a close approach and dock with the ship, and Kathryn was at the airlock door when it opened, where she was immediately greeted by a panicked looking and sounding Felix.

“They, they came in too fast,” he exclaimed.  “We didn’t even have time to start up our weapons systems when they’d already approached and boarded!”

Boarded!?” Kathryn exclaimed in horror. 

“No, it’s… it’s not what they left behind Kat it’s, what they took with them.”

“What do you mean?  What did they take with them?” she asked, afraid of the answer, and the panic with which Felix was experiencing at telling her.

“They stole our computer core and, and they took Maggie!”

Chapter 14

Kathryn and Jaren walked into the engineering lab with intensity of purpose.

“Ralph.  This is your doing isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Why!?” she asked, then asked the more pressing question instead.  “Wait, first where are we?”

“We are across the galaxy, in a system nearly fifty thousand light years away.”

The room fell silent.  This was beyond any of their worst fears or distant imaginings.

“How?” Kathryn asked softly.

“I used your portal system to open a portal to a star in the builder’s network,” the robot answered matter of factly.  “Of course,” it reflected, “a direct transit was not possible at that range, we actually passed through four different portals in succession to arrive here.”

“Why have you done this?” Kathryn asked, pushing out of her mind for a moment the marvel of what he was telling them.

“I was following the instructions I had been given.”

“Which were?”

“Establish a portal around my target star, or failing that find a way to report home the cause of my failure if possible.  In the event I had been disabled, I was to likewise relay data on what force had been able to do so.  I had already sent a transmission, but that will of course take fifty thousand of your years to arrive.”

“Of course,” she repeated bitterly.  “So when we offered to take you onboard-”

“It presented me a more expedient opportunity, yes.”

“So now why shouldn’t we put you out an airlock for your deception.”

“I would think that would be obvious.  You would be stranding yourself here.  You have no knowledge of how to activate our portals, and you have no way to navigate your way through this system.  I however am equipped with adequate data on both accounts.”

“Not that I have any reason to believe anything you say anymore, but what is your endgame here?  What will become of us?”

Ralph hopped down onto his feet from the position he’d been in sitting on the counter with his feet dangling over the edge.  “I have no reason to think you will be harmed,” he offered non-committally.  “As I said earlier, I believe the builders will be very interested to meet you.”

“What is this system?” Jaren asked.  “Is it their homeworld?”

“No,” he answered.  “This is a military research facility.  It is the base from which I was launched.  Opening up new worlds to the portal system is the primary peacetime mandate of the builder’s military, much like your Star Fleet in fact.”

“Well,” Margaret stated, surly as ever as she approached.  “Given that you’ve stolen our ship, have made it abundantly clear that you’re not going to return it, and that we are helpless victims in whatever your plans are, would you mind filling us in on what those plans are?”  Her voice was dripping with contempt, as though she felt personally betrayed by him more than any of the others.

Either choosing to ignore or not recognizing her animosity, he answered plainly.  “I will continue to guide this ship to the facility around the fourth planet.  There this vessel and its crew will be turned over to the personnel there.”

“At their mercy,” Margaret added acidly.

“Yes,” Ralph answered plainly.

“What kind of reception do you expect for us?” Jaren asked.  “Diplomatic celebration at first contact, or dissection.”

The face on the screen betrayed his understanding anew of something he had not preciously appreciated.  “Captain, you must understand that my orders were not to capture what life I encountered for study, nor were they explicitly to commandeer your ship.  What I have done was the only options available to me in completing my mission.  The builders are a noble and enlightened race.  They are neither war mongers nor meddling mischiefs.  The most celebrated moments in their history are times when they made new contact with technologically capable species.”

“We feel the same way,” Kathryn said, “so why will we be surrendered to them by force this way.”

“Because my mission must succeed.”

Kathryn sighed heavily and put her hands on her hips.  “Could you all give us the room please?”

“You sure?” Jaren asked.

“Yes, I’m sure, go.  I want to talk with him alone for a moment.”

All of the others shuffled uncertainly out of the room.  Once the door had closed behind them, Kathryn reached over and pulled two chairs over and set them facing each other.  She sat down in one, gesturing with her hand an invitation for Ralph’s robot body to do the same.

She pursed her lips as she looked at the floor beside him before looking up at his face screen to speak.  “I need you to return control of this ship to us,” she stated unusually clearly.

“But you still-” his response was cut off by the raising of her hand.

“Yes, we can go nowhere without your help opening a portal.  Yes we are flying blind without your knowledge of this system.  It doesn’t matter.  Being helpless prisoners on our own ship is absolutely untenable.  What you’ve done is unacceptable and unforgiveable even if it is understandable.  However, we will cooperate if we run this operation as a partnership, as a collaboration.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Let us fly our own damn ship.  We shouldn’t be here, a different crew in an intact ship should be but there’s nothing we can do about that now.  You’re dead set on introducing us to your builders and we want the same thing though we would have preferred different circumstances.  If you release control of this ship and provide us with a navigational model of the system, we will fly to the designated planet of our own will as ambassadors on a political first contact mission.”

“That would be acceptable,” he answered after a moment’s thought.  “After all, there’s nowhere else you can go and I can take control again at any time.”

Kathryn gritted her teeth and with not so subtle anger: “Yes, I am aware of that.”

He looked at her plainly.

“The alternative is us being duty bound to try to stop you.  Take our chances dissecting you for data and trying to hack this portal system on our own.”

“You would fail,” Ralph’s robot avatar stated matter of factly.

“Maybe, but we’d definitely try.”

“Indeed.”

“So it’s a deal then?  You give us navigation data on this system and we take you to your world for introductions under our own control.”

“Yes, a deal.”

“Grand.”

 

Kathryn exited the engineering bay and leaned back against the door once it closed behind her, sighing heavily.  Everyone was standing in front of her waiting for her to tell them what had happened.  “In exchange for returning control of the ship, he is going to provide us with navigation data and we are going to proceed to the fourth planet.” 

She reached over to touch the comm panel beside the door, hailing the bridge.  “Pilot, you should have control now.”

After a pause Aisha responded: “aye Captain.”

“Stand by for navigation data from the A.I. once received plot a course for the fourth planet and engage at one and a half gees.”

“Aye Captain.”

Kathryn switched off the channel.  She rubbed her chin as she considered orders for them.  “Two teams,” she said.  “Felix, I want you and whoever can help you to study how it took control of the system, and determine the full extent of its control as in, can it hear us right now over the comm system.  Learn about how it did that and figure out how to break it.”

“Sure do what I can Kat.”

She nodded at him.

“Jaren, science team.  I want you to study the transmission logs and sensor data from our approach, transit, and exit during that rift trip.  It’s a long shot but I want to know in what way their system is different, and how the two were bridged.  Best case scenario, figure out how to hack it so we can get back on our own power.”

“That will be…” he started with a shake of his head, but when he looked up at her he saw the raised eyebrow she was giving him.  “We’ll… get on it right away.  Come on everyone,” he called out as he ushered them all away.

 

An hour later, Kathryn was having dinner alone with her daughter in her and Jaren’s quarters.  He was absorbed in his work and had told them to go ahead without him, that he’d have something sent down to him and his people in the lab.  They were eating what passed for sushi on an interstellar research vessel which meant quite edible, but far from divine.  She had just finished recounting to her daughter everything which had happened since she first learned that they had lost control of the ship in the 61 Cygni system.

“I’d like to meet him,” Maggie said as she tried to pull a sushi piece too laden with soy sauce to her mouth and spilled on her shirt.  She frowned at her error as she looked down at the dark patch on her blue and white horizontally striped fitted t shirt.

“I’m not in love with the idea,” Kathryn considered, “but it’s not out of the question.

“What’s he like?”

“Hard to describe… off-putting at first certainly, angering in his actions definitely, but you get used to him rather quickly, quicker than you’d think.  Everything he says is just a little bit off, betraying that he’s using our databanks to know how to communicate but isn’t native to our society or language.

“Hmm…” the girl mused.  “I know this isn’t the mission you thought you were bringing me along on.”

Kathryn laughed out loud.  “Certainly not!  Not by a long shot…” she sighed.

“I am learning a lot though…” Maggie reflected, “not just school kind of stuff, but… about why you and Dad like this kind of stuff, what brings you out here, the appeal of discovery and the unknown… that kind of thing.”

“I’m glad to hear it sweetie.  That’s why you’re here after all.”

“I know,” the girl said, as though she were insulted at the suggestion that she didn’t know that was why they’d agreed to bring her along.  “It is exciting though… not knowing what’s going to happen, the thrill of the true unknown, not knowing what we’re flying into or what might happen.”

“Yeah,” Kathryn harrumphed.  “Try doing it with your teenaged daughter aboard.”

Maggie gave her that look which reiterated the sentiment of: ‘I’m fourteen Mom, I’m not a baby.’

“Still,” Kathryn said, answering her unspoken words, “you can imagine how much more stressful that would make it.”

“I guess,” the girl said as she manoeuvered another piece into her mouth, successfully this time, but barely.

“At least you’ve got a lot more to write about than you’d expected,” her mother said as the daughter chewed.  “In fact if I know you you’ve already got something written don’t you?”

The girl nodded.

“Can I see?”

“No way!” Maggie said with a laugh.  “It’s little more than notes at this point!”

“Alright, alright…” Kathryn answered, throwing her hands up in exaggerated exasperation.  “Look Maggie… I know you’re enjoying yourself, but… still.  I’m sorry for getting you into this.  It was a bad idea from the beginning to bring you along.

“Don’t be,” the girl answered.  “I know it’s really hard on you and Dad, but honestly there’s nowhere in the galaxy I’d rather be right now than here with you all on the ship.”

“All the same… I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe, but I’d say the same for every crew member under my command.  Look, just don’t expect any more field trips at this point okay?”

“We’ll see,” Maggie responded non-committaly as though she were the adult talking to her daughter, which made Kathryn chuckle.  “Anyways, so can I meet this Ralph?”

“We’ll see,” Kathryn said with a wink.

 

The next day, a several hours out from the flip and deceleration midpoint of their journey, Kathryn with Maggie in tow visited Jaren in the main science lab where he and his team were working on decoding the alien portal system.  He’d hardly slept let alone left the lab since she’d assigned him the task, desperate as he was to make progress.  She knew that once he’d connected his success with the safety of his daughter, little could be done to deter him from the work.

“Any luck?” Kathryn asked.

“Well…” he sighed in exhausted frustration as he rubbed his face with the palms of both hands, “we have an increasingly clear picture of the impossibility of deciphering the system.  How’s that?”

“Better than total ignorance?” she encouraged.

He chuckled.  “It is indeed that hon, it is indeed that…”

“I’m going to take Maggie to meet Ralph and ask him some more questions.  You want to come along?”

He gave a look which indicated his discomfort with the idea of putting his daughter in the same room as the hostile artificial intelligence in a robot body, but decided against protest.  “No… I’d better stay here and further plumb the depths of the impossibility of our task.

“Good man,” she said as the affectionately gripped his shoulder.  “I’ll let you know if we turn up something useful.

Jaren waved her off and returned to his work.

A few minutes later they arrived at the door to the engineering lab where Ralph was supposedly quarantined.  As soon as the door entered, the robot moved towards them and the apparent aggression startled Maggie and the tightened up to her mother’s side, now half behind her.

“Captain, I have a concern I need to address with you.”

“Of course Ralph, but first, I’d like you to meet my daughter.”

The robot paused for a moment to regard the girl.  “Hello,” was all he said before resuming his address to Kathryn.  “I have a concern I need to address with you.”

Kathryn gestured to the table and chairs and directed the other to sit along with her.  “What is it Ralph?”

“Something is wrong,” he said.  The tone of concern, perhaps even bordering on panic was something she’d never heard in the simulated voice and it immediately concerned her as well.

“Infinity Base isn’t responding the way they should.”

“Infinity Base?”

“It’s the closest approximation of a translation I could come up with.  I have been unable to reach them nor receive transmissions from them.  At first I surmised that this ship was too badly damaged to send or receive, or the technologies incompatible, but neither is the case.  This ship should be able to receive and transmit to Infinity Base, but no responses or initiating transmissions have been received.”

“I see,” was all Kathryn could answer.  She had no idea what to make of it but Ralph apparently made a great deal of it.

“What’s more, by now drone ships should have intercepted us to investigate if communications were not established, and there are no drone ships out there.”

Kathryn shook her head.  “Again, you could have warned us about drone interceptors Ralph.”

“You don’t understand!” the robot exclaimed, scaring Kathryn below an exterior which would never betray it.  “Infinity Base has been crippled or destroyed.  Nothing in the known galaxy could do such a thing to a builder facility.”

“Maybe the base was just abandoned?” Kathryn suggested.  “You have been gone a really long time.

“Still,” he answered, calmer and more reflective now.  “They would have left a relay station of some sort to send and receive transmission from ships such as myself.  Something is definitely wrong, but we won’t know what until we arrive.  I assume you are still comfortable with the terms of our arrangement given this change in mission from a formal introduction to an investigation and possible rendering of assistance?”

“I was never comfortable with our arrangement Ralph but I did accept it.  However, if there is a chance of someone at Infinity Base in need of assistance, we will willingly continue on.  We are after all honour bound to render assistance where possible, after all that’s how you were able to come aboard and steal our ship.”

“Please Kathryn, drop the pretense.  You didn’t rescue me, you scavenged me from my ship.  Let’s not pretend.”

Kathryn didn’t like what he said, but she didn’t refute his statement.  She instead slowly rapped her fingers against the table several times as she thought.  “We are honour bound to render assistance where possible,” she repeated.  “We will continue on to Infinity Base and help you determine what happened.  What we do next we will decide then based on what we find.  Agreed?”

“Agreed.  One more thing Captain.”

“Yes?”

“You need not attempt to mask your efforts to circumvent my control; they are plain to me and they do not offend.  I would be disappointed in you if you were not attempting to do so.”

Kathryn nodded respectfully.  “I will instruct my people they can work more openly.  Now, Ralph.  I’d like you to meet my daughter…”

Chapter 13

Kathryn sat in her captain’s seat in the centre of the bridge reviewing the more extensive damage report Felix had prepared.  It was a little worse than she’d originally thought, they really were lucky to still be flying.  The systems still working were working fairly well, engines, radiation shields, but things that were compromised were almost beyond repair.  The electrical system was nearly completely shot, and based on the degree of hull damage she wasn’t sure if they’d be able to repair it or scavenge this beautiful new ship for parts when making a new one.

“Ma’am?” The pilot aksed.

“Yes Aisha?”

“The portal is operating properly, but… we’re not receiving the go ahead signal.”

After opening a portal it was standard procedure for the other side to broadcast a simple transmission indicating that it was safe to travel through.  The absence of any signal was odd though, if there was a problem they should be signalling details on the problem instead.

“Nothing?  No signals whatsoever?”

“No Ma’am.”

Kathryn thought about it for a moment before ordering: “Slow our descent Aisha, hold position in orbit above the portal.  We’re not fling in blind.”

“Yes Ma’am.”  The pilot started tapping at the panel in front of her, but apparently met with some frustration.  She reached over and started tapping at the operations stations’ panel to the slight confusion of the officer sitting at that station.

“Ma’am?  The… the controls aren’t responding, I can’t adjust our course.”

“What do you mean?”

“The… controls aren’t dead, we’re still making small and proper course corrections on our original heading, but… I can’t input a new course.  It looks like some sort of program has taken control and I can’t override.”

“Understood.”  Kathryn opened a channel to Felix and Jaren.  “We have a problem.  An unknown program has taken over navigation.  We aren’t receiving the go ahead signal from Earth so I ordered a halt on our approach but the controls are dead.  We’re heading in anyways.”

“No signal at all?” Jaren asked.

“Nothing.  Felix, see what you can do about the controls.  It may just be battle damage, our course locked in somehow and new inputs not reaching navigation.  Jaren I want you to look to see if there is some sort of malicious program at work here.”

Both men acknowledged their instructions and closed the channel to get to work.

She didn’t know what to make of it, but it concerned her.  Ultimately, though it was the correct move to hold in the absence of a signal from Earth, there was nonetheless a part of her that wanted to proceed regardless to investigate why there was no signal coming through.  Regardless, she didn’t like not having control of her own ship.

“It’s not autopilot,” Felix reported.  “Something is guiding us in.”

“Understood.”  She switched over to hail Jaren.  “Felix says someone or something is actively guiding us in.”

“I agree, but I can’t isolate the source.  How this is being done is beyond me.”  He seemed concerned, but not panicked.       Coolness under pressure was essential in their careers and something they respected about each other. 

Kathryn looked over at the one still working wall screen at the surface of the sun which filled the entire screen.  They were now close enough and the filters darkened enough that she could see the roiling surface of the sun and the granulation of the seemingly infinite and intermingling convection of the surface.  As much as she wanted to go through and see what the problem was on the other side, she even more disliked not being in control of her own ship.

“Do what you can,” she told him.  “Work with Felix and bring in anyone else you need to get me control back of my ship.”

“Roger that,” he answered before closing the channel.

Kathryn rapped her fingers against the arm rest, then again, and again, thinking hard.  She then got up out of her chair.  “Tarsus,” she said to the operations officer, “you have the bridge for all the good it will do you.  I need to check on something.  If you can regain control take us up to a holding orbit, if not I’ll be back before we enter the rift.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

She stepped over to the lift and after she’d stepped inside the doors closed behind her.  She ordered it down to the engineering deck and stepped out once it arrived.  She stood in front of the quarantined lab they had left Ralph in, and presumably where Felix was still working.  She opened the door and stepped in.

“Kat!” Felix called with surprise.  “What are you doing here?”

“Don’t mind me,” she told him, “carry on with your efforts.”

The man seemed confused, but he obeyed and turned back to his terminal, resuming his work.  The robot body Ralph had been granted stood before his data core like an inanimate automaton.  It stood rigid like a statue betraying not a shred of the life it had so convincingly portrayed earlier.  She walked up and stood with her face inches from the screen where the robot’s face would be displayed.

“You in there Ralph?” she asked softly.  There was no response.  “How long has he been like this?” she asked Felix.

“Now that I think about it,” he answered without looking away from his terminal, “I haven’t heard a peep from him in some time.”

Kathryn had a suspicion, a suspicion she had no evidence for, nor motivation, but this blank automaton… she had a feeling it was working on something else instead of interacting with them.  She shook her head, a computer that advanced surely must be able to converse with them and manipulate the ship at the same time.

Felix had assured her that it was adequately quarantined, but… it was such an advanced technology, how could they ever know?  If she was right, there was no way to know so what could they do?  Smash the computer core in fear and suspicion?  What if they were wrong?  And besides, how could this machine, even if it was behind locking out their navigation, how could it possibly have had any effect on the signals from Earth?

“Any luck Felix?” she asked while keeping her eyes fixed on the blank face screen of the robot.

“None,” he answered in dismay.

“Alright, well keep at it.  We’ll soon be at the rift so I’ve got to get to the bridge.  We don’t know what situation we’re going to be flying into on the other side, so I’m also going to need you to do what you can to get us ready for whatever we may find on the other side.”

“Understood,” he said without looking away from his console.  “I’ll do what I can.

Kathryn made her way back up to the bridge with increasing unease as she felt them approaching the rift.

 

“Alright everyone,” she called out over a general broadcast to the whole ship, “be ready for anything.”

They entered the rift and felt the familiar though perpetually disorienting sensation of breaking through normal space into something unknown to the human body, and fall back so abruptly into a space-time the body was comfortable with.  As soon as she could regain her composure she called out commands to give her a full situational assessment.

She was frustrated by the length of time it seemed to take for anyone to respond to her.  Jaren answered her first.

“We, are… not in the Terran system,” he said. 

“What?  Oh.  Well that would explain why we weren’t hearing their signals.”

“Right, but we’re still not getting any signals of any of our systems.”

“Right… so where are we?”

“Hard to say with most of our instruments blown off… I was counting on the navigation beacons to bring us back in, but we’re not getting anything, not a damn thing.”

She noted his frustration and moved on.  “What instruments can we make use of?”

“Not much,” he answered.  “Our primary navigation scopes are only of use at close range.  We were able to navigate in the previous system because we’d already mapped it out and we could fly by models of the system we had already created with our mapping.  If we knew what system this was we could do the same thing, but we don’t even know that.”

“And there are no welcome ships nearby?  No standard portal security fleet?”

Jaren checked his panel.  “Nothing.”

“Pilot, do you have control again?” she asked Aisha.

“Negative Captain.  Whatever was directing us before is still in control of the ship.”

“Damn.” she stated in frustration.

“Captain?” Felix’s face asked after it appeared on the one working wall screen.

“What is is?”

“It’s… it’s Ralph.  He’s… you’re going to want to come down here.”

 

‘I knew it.’ she ruefully said to herself as her eyes narrowed.

Chapter 12

Kathryn emerged from the captain’s private office off of the bridge rubbing her brow.

“How’d it go?” Jaren asked as he joined her and together they walked to door through which they could exit the bridge to the rest of the ship.

“Pretty much as we expected,” she answered.  “They’re pretty choked that we didn’t report in what happened at the earliest possible moment, but they understand our curiosity and desire to get over there right away in case anything happened.  They even seemed to begrudgingly buy our duty to render aid excuse.”

The bridge door opened and they walked through.  The one-point-two gee thrust made them feel a little heavier than they ordinarily would on a planet’s surface, but walking around was easy enough.  It was a level quickly gotten used to, but apparent if one remembered to notice.

“They seemed to readily understand that it was just an excuse given the absence of any space for living beings on the ship, but still.  There was someone there we were able to assist, wasn’t there?”

“Well, for all we knew it could have been populated by much smaller beings than we’d expect,” Jaren observed.  “If small enough, thousands or millions could have lived in that central space you made your way into, or those bulbs on the exterior could have individual suites.  There was no way to know.”

“Either way, we won’t be court martialed at least,” she said in a light tone.  There was not really much chance of that anyways, not under the circumstances.  If they didn’t return now, that could be another story.

“At least there’s that,” Jaren answered with amused false concern.  “Our orders then?”

“As we expected,” she answered.  “Once finished rendering whatever aid we can, return to base immediately for debrief.  They’ll send another vessel immediately to keep watch on that thing, then when they complete a refit of New Horizon II they’ll send her out again for a detailed study with a crew more dedicated for that kind of mission than us.”

“That’s the problem with a career in exploration,” Jaren lamented.  “You’ve got to me multi-faceted to be ready for anything, but once you find anything interesting, they send you home and bring in the specialists.”

“Could be worse,” Kathryn offered as they went through another set of heavy doors which opened for them and closed behind them, “we could be the specialists instead.”  Both being in the centre of the ship’s width but at opposite ends, the bridge and the main engineering lab were on the same floor of the ship, just a bit of a walk.

“You report in about Ralph?”

“Yes.”

“Are we really calling it Ralph?”

“Yes.  Like I said, until it chooses a name for itself.”

“Right.  I wonder how they’re going to take that.”

“Well we’ll know before we cross the rift, so they’ll at least have a chance to order us to stand down while they decide what to do.”

“It’s a risk Kat.  That thing did nearly destroy this ship and all of us along with it.”

“Yes, but it seems pretty harmless now.  At this point it’s just a brain.”  Reaching the main engineering lab, she reached out to touch the door control panel beside the door.  “As long as we’re adequately prudent about our quarantine of it and don’t do anything stupid…”

The door opened and Felix came over to greet them excitedly and seeming to be beaming with pride.  “Hey you two, check this out!  I’d like to introduce you to Ralph!”

As he made the introduction, his P4 robot got up off of the counter he’d been sitting on and approached them with a grace and confidence of motion unimaginable from the robot the last time they’d seen it.  The face on the screen wrapped cylinder which constituted its head smiled warmly at them, and there was an incredible lifelike quality to the eyes, a quality which had been entirely absent the last time she’d seen it.  Something about the face now gave her a serious discomfort.  There was something mischievous, something vaguely… not sinister she thought, but which betrayed a sense that it knew something none of the rest of them did.

“Well what do you know?” Jaren said drolly, “they did something stupid.”

Kathryn grabbed Felix’s jumpsuit with both hands and flung him through the door out of the engineering lab.  He nearly fell over but regained his footing as she and Jaren stepped outside the door and closed it behind them.

“What the hell did you do?” she angrily demanded.

“But I thought… well, but it was Molly’s idea!”

Really!??” Kathryn angrily demanded, glaring at him with an inferno raging in her eyes.

Felix looked down and away, ashamed.  “It seemed like a good idea at the time… I still don’t understand why you’re so angry.”

She calmed down somewhat at his submission, but she was still livid.  “It was hazardous enough having a far advanced beyond us alien intelligence onboard as it was.  At least when he was a sentient brick we could make some efforts to quarantine it, at least it couldn’t walk away.  Now…” she sighed.

“Now it’s a threat,” Jaren finished her thought.

“I can undo it,” Felix offered sheepishly.

“First tell me exactly what you did,” Kathryn demanded.

“I just… created a dedicated wireless link between Ralph’s module and P4’s control circuits.  Ralph hasn’t actually been put in there in any meaningful way, he’s just been granted access to it, like a, a… puppet.  We thought it would be helpful for communicating with him since as he is he doesn’t have any speakers or microphones for direct communication or anything.”

Jaren leaned over and asked her in a low voice which was intended more as an aside than something to be said privately.  “We’re calling it a he?  I miss that?”

Kathryn glared at him and Jaren put his hands up apologetically with an amused smile.

“The same quarantine protocols are in effect Kat,” Felix tried to explain.  “He can’t do anything through P4 he couldn’t do before.”

“Except walk out of the room,” Kathryn countered pointedly.

“Er, right.  Except for that.  But… that’s what doors are for?”

Kathryn looked down and slowly shook her head as she let out a long even sigh.

“I figured it interfacing with our systems was way more of a concern for us than it walking out the door.”

“Well now we have to worry about both don’t we?”

All three were quiet for a few moments.

“So do I disconnect him?” Felix finally asked.

Kathryn thought about it for a few seconds.  “No,” she finally settled on.  Jaren looked up over at her, surprised.  “It’s done now.  And you’re right, it will make communicating easier.”  She kept to herself for now the mischief she saw behind its projected eyes.

Admiral?” a voice asked from the wall panel beside the door. 

She touched it and asked: “yes?”

We’ve received a reply from Orbital One.

“Route it here please.”

Transmission received New Horizon II,” the wall said as the transmission began playing.  “Quite a find on that ship Admiral, you’ve gotten a lot of people very excited, and we think you’re making all the right moves.  Report to Orbital One immediately as planned.  On this side of the rift you will meet three Kobolian military vessels which will escort you the rest of the way.  By the time you arrive we will have a dedicated laboratory set up on the station here to receive your guest, as well as all appropriate personnel for study.  Well done Admiral.  Safe journey, we’ll see you soon.  Star Fleet Command out.

“So Felix,” Kathryn demanded, “do we report P4 in now?”

The man only shrugged sheepishly.

“No, I think not,” she answered herself.  “But Felix I want you to immediately start working on some kind of kill switch, something with which we can disable Ralph immediately if he makes any trouble for us.  I’d prefer a way which only disabled him,” she explained, “but if you can only figure out a permanently destructive way, I want it anyways.”

Felix seemed disappointed, but explained: “Destruction should be pretty easy, I’ll come up with something right away and then start working on a temporary kill switch.”

“Good man.  Okay now you can introduce us to your Frankenstein.”

“Actually,” Felix began to correct her, “Frankenstein himself was the scientist who-“

Felix.”

“Okay, okay,” the man said with a smirk as he threw his hands up in submission.  He then touched the wall panel and the door opened onto a somewhat confused looking P4-Ralph and Margaret leaning against the wall further behind him with her arms crossed and her typical mildly sour look on her face.

“Greetings,” the robot offered.  “I have been considering what designation I should have since inhabiting this body.  It is a truly odd experience, I have never been… embodied before.”

“I can only imagine,” Kathryn offered.  She was trying to be diplomatic, trying to give this thing the benefit of her doubt.  “Come up with something have you?”

“No.  I am comfortable with the Ralph for the time being, the designation you gave me.”

Kathryn smiled.  “Alright then, Ralph it is.  Shall we talk Ralph?” she asked, gesturing towards a table off to the side of the room with some chairs around it.  Such things were magnetized at their feet and bases, just enough to keep them in place in the absence of gravity, but soft enough that they could be moved around at will.

The robot looked at her confused.  “Oh, she explained.  You sit, like this.”  She pulled out a chair and sat down on it as an example.

“Oh, I see.”  It followed her example and sat on the chair across from her, a little uncertain at first, but getting used to the idea.

“Your builders don’t sit?”

“Not on chairs like this.”

“I see.  What else can you tell me about your builders?”

“What do you wish to know?”

The robot wore a remarkably friendly face on his curved screen head which she tried to take at face value, but something about him still made her uncomfortable and she couldn’t shake the feeling.

“Well,” she continued, “you’ve told us how far away they’re from, what do they call themselves.”

“Their name for their own species, is… unpronounceable in this language.”

‘How convenient,’ she thought to herself.  “What do they look like?  Do they look like us?”

“No, they are considerable smaller, with four legs and furry skin.”

“Fascinating…” Kathryn marvelled.

“I could show you if you like,” the robot offered.

“Oh yes, please do.”

On his face screen, the image of his face was replaced by a rotating three dimensional still image of the creature he’d begun describing.  As he’d begun to explain it indeed had four legs with three large toes each, and a torso projecting upwards from between those legs.  The torso had spindly arms which appeared to have two elbows with four fingers including thumbs on each, and its head sported three large black eyes set equidistant about the crown of its head.  The orange highlighted short but dense purple fur covering its entire body also covered single talon tipped projections on either side of what she could only presume was its mouth from where it was located on its head.  It seemed to have some kind of neck impression, but the head part of it seemed largely continuous with its torso, the entire upper part of the creature getting wider towards the legs and narrower towards the top of its head.

“Wow, well that certainly looks… alien,” she remarked.  “Hmm.  Could you show the others this please?”

The robot obeyed and projected the same image onto the large wall screen behind Margaret and the others marvelled silently at the image.

“You were trying to set up a rift system in this system like ours?”

“Yes.”

“Why are parallel systems not possible?  There are two stars here after all.”

“Interference.”

“Interference?  What do you mean?”

“Quantum interference resulting from parallel systems would detonate whichever star around which it was attempted.”

“I see, even if around different stars in the same system?”

“Yes.  Even portals of the same network in too close a proximity have the same result.”

“I see.  What is the safe distance between portals?” 

“Zero-point-six light years is considered minimally safe, but due to orbital variance and stellar drift, the builders do not build portals closer than two-point-three-seven light years.”

“Okay, good to know.”

“How bout the important questions Kat?” Margaret asked her, “like, the big ones?”

“You want me to ask him what the meaning of life is?”

“No, I want you to ask him to fill in the Drake equation, to solve the Fermi paradox.”

Kathryn was unfamiliar with either of these things.

“How common is life in the universe?” she impatiently asked Ralph as she came over and sat at the table with them.

“We have not accessed the entire universe,” the robot answered.

“Okay, how many star systems have you reached?” Kathryn asked.

“When I was dispatched, we had active portals around ten billion, three hundred and eighty-four million, eight hundred and forty-two thousand, one hundred and three stars,” he answered matter-of-factly.

“Ten… billion!?” Kathryn repeated, utterly gobsmacked.

Ralph appeared defensive suddenly.  “The builders have only reached two thirds of the galaxy so far, and stars too close in can’t all be portaled at the same time due to interference, and many stars are just-“

Kathryn cut him off.  “No Ralph, we’re astonished at how many,” she laughed, “we’re not criticizing for how little your builders have accomplished.  We can’t… even adequately imagine such a thing.

“I feel very small suddenly,” Jaren uttered to no one in particular.

Not getting his meaning, Ralph reassured him: “I assure you, you are quite large compared to the builders.”

“I didn’t mean- oh never mind…”

“So these are only the stars you’ve built portals around?” Margaret asked.

“Yes.”

“But you’ve studied many more?”

“Yes.”

“Of all the places your builders have been, how common is life?”

“Including every type of star, including those around which it never appears, approximately one in sixty-three thousand star systems has a planet with some sort of cellular life.”

“One in twelve…” she marvelled.  “We’ve been lucky in our little stellar neighborhood then haven’t we?” she remarked to Kathryn.

“Looks that way,” she agreed, nodding her head.

“And of those, how many develop multi-cellular animal life?” she asked.

“Approximately one in four.”

Margaret did some quick math in her head.  “That makes almost five million planets with animals on them…” she marvelled.

“Approximately, yes.” Ralph confirmed.

“And how many technologically capable species out of all of those?” she asked, holding her breath.

“Currently, three.”

“Three…” Margaret uttered in a low shaken voice.  “Three, that’s all?  Out of all those worlds?”

“Your species makes four,” he offered.

Margaret appeared as though she’d been kicked in the chest.

“You said currently,” Kathryn pointed out.  “Explain.”

“In the builder’s travels, they have found evidence of seven other species who were once technologically capable, but have since gone extinct.  Two seem to have evolved into species no longer capable long ago, the others seem to have destroyed themselves one way or another.”

“Wow.”

For the first time, Ralph asked them a question.  “Has your species encountered another technologically capable species?”

“On my home world Haven we encountered a species like you said who seemed to have once been, but has since evolved away from that capacity.  We discovered a brain parasite we believe to be responsible.”

“I see,” was all Ralph said.

“How long have your builders been around?” Jaren asked.

“Their earliest records date back over one hundred million of your years.”

“One… hundred, million years?” Kathryn marvelled.  She couldn’t even imagine.  “My god… that’s… ten times longer than the life of our home stars!”

“Yes.  Their home world was destroyed many ages ago, as have been many planets they have resided on since.”

“Forgive us but, we… can’t even imagine those time scales.”

Ralph betrayed no reaction.

“Ralph, we are taking you to one of our bases for study.  You will be our guest, not our prisoner.  But after we’ve learned a lot more from you, I have no doubt that my people will be very eager to meet your builders.  Could you help us accomplish that?  Do you think they would be interested in meeting us as well?”

“Yes Admiral,” Ralph answered with an odd hint in his voice.  Her disease had subsided somewhat as they spoke, but it was renewed all over again by something in the way he spoke to her, and that look behind his projected eyes she just couldn’t decipher.  “I can assure you that the builders are very anxious to meet you as well.”

Chapter 11

Defensive systems… offline.” the voice declared, and the four sighed a breath of relief.  Even the perpetually unflappable Margaret was visibly relieved.  “What is your purpose here?” the voice asked.

“We came to see if we could help you.” Kathryn answered, not sure where to look as she did.

“Help?”

“Yes.  We thought there might be life forms here in need of assistance after… after our exchange.”

I am the only life form here.

“And what are you?” Margaret inquired with uncharacteristic sincerity, siding up beside the central projection.  She seemed to be making assumptions the others had yet to, such as this central projection being the source of the intelligence they were communicating with.

I am… this ship.

“And your mission?”

To establish a portal system in this star system.

“And now?” Kathryn asked.

I can now no longer complete my mission.  Systems are… damaged beyond repair.

“So what will you do now?” Maggie asked.  From the tone of her voice it was clear she had sympathy for it.

It took a moment for it to respond this time, but it finally did.  “Nothing.

They all understood.  There was nothing to do.  It could no longer manoeuver, no longer complete its mission, it was unknown if it could even contact home.  It’s singular purpose was thwarted, now there was nothing for it to do but float here into eternity, a failure.

“Where are you from?” Kathryn asked.  “What people sent you?”

I am from a planet… with no translation in your language.

“How far away?”

Based on the metrics in your original transmission, the home planet of the builders is fifty-two-point-eight thousand light-years away.

“You travelled that far?” Felix asked.  “It must have taken you eons!”

Not directly, no.

“Explain,” Kathryn demanded.

I was dispatched through the nearest portal.

“And how far away was that?”

Eighteen-point-6 light-years.

“And how long did that take you?”

Twenty-six-point-three years by the metrics you provided.

Ask it if they will now send another ship like this one,” Jaren asked in her ear.

“Will they send another when you fail to establish contact?” Kathryn asked the ship.

Yes.

Kathryn thought on that one.  “What should we call you?  Do you have a name?”

I have no name.  I am the ship.

“Alright then I’m going to call you Ralph.  Ralph, do you bear us any further hostility.”

My mission is now impossible.  Action of any kind is no longer required.

“I’ll take it.  Ralph we have a lot of questions and you seem to have a lot of answers.  Would you like to come with us instead of floating here until the end of time?  Is it even possible to take you with us, to remove you from the ship?”

I am the ship.

“I understand, but is what I’m asking possible?”

Yes.  This unit is removable for service and replaceable if necessary.

“Great.  Are you willing to allow us to detach you and bring you over to our ship so we can talk to you and learn more about you?”

This is not my mission.

“I understand that, but would you protest if we did so.”

The voice paused.  “There would be no cause to.

“Again, I’ll take it.  Can you talk us through disconnecting you?”

There is no need.”  In the vacuum nothing could be heard, but the saw the module shudder ever so slightly and begin floating away from the wall where it had been mounted.  When it did so, everything else in the interior went back to the dead and dark state they’d found it in.  The module retained its blue glow from between its small fins, casting a hauntingly faint blue light on everything.  “I am equipped with maneuvering thrusters,” it explained.

You’re bringing that thing over here?” Jaren asked.

“Yes,” she answered.  “It’s an incredible opportunity and it seems willing to answer our questions.  And Jaren we have so many.  I’d rather… interview it on our own ground than stay out here until our air almost runs out.”

Jaren paused before answering, “I agree.  We’ll start working on setting up an isolation laboratory right away.”

“Ralph,” she asked the module, “you don’t have any secret evil plans or weapons of the doomsday or any other variety hidden inside you do you?”

No.” it answered plainly.

Kathryn could only shrug and take it at its word.  “Alright, well why don’t you follow along behind us.  Maggie you’re up first, then me, Felix, Margaret, and then Ralph.”  Everyone acknowledged that they understood.

The trip back was as uneventful as the first, and one by one they piled into the airlock through the outer door.  With the four of them and the module it was remarkably cramped, but before long atmosphere was restored and their suites loosened up accordingly.  The inner door opened, and Jaren was floating there to meet them along with four engineering crewmembers.  Kathryn noticed that all of them were armed.  Jaren could be such a worrier.

“Felix we’ve taken over the main research lab for this, hope you don’t mind,” Jaren informed him. 

“Not at all,” he answered.  “I’m certainly not going to be working on anything else now.”  He was wearing a giant grin.  Nothing gave him a charge more than the opportunity to study advanced technology.

“Alright,” Kathryn said.  “Let’s get Ralph to the lab and secure him in place.  Once we have Jaren please have the pilot ready to burn us back towards the sun at one gee.”

“Are we really calling it Ralph?” Maggie asked.

“Until it chooses another name for itself, yes,” her mother answered.

“We’re heading home then?” Jaren asked.

“Yes.  We went out on a limb going this far without returning to base.  We have to now.  Besides, we should be getting a very strongly worded response back from Command any minute now if we haven’t already.”

“We haven’t yet,” Jaren informed her.

“Good.  Let’s get Ralph situated and let’s get underway.  They will no doubt have answered by then, and I’ll have time to deal with the fallout.”

“Understood,” Jaren confirmed.

“How long will it take us to get home?”

“At one gee a little less than two days to fall towards this star, and a little more than four to climb back up to Earth.”

“Great.  When everything’s squared away on the bridge, you’re welcome to join us in the lab.”

Jaren nodded and turned away towards the bridge but Kathryn grabbed his arm and stopped him after looking over at the module.  “Jaren?”

“Yes?”

“Make it one-point-two gees,” she corrected with a note of caution in her voice.

“Understood.  I’ll see you soon.”

Chapter 10

A day later, New Horizon II was on its final approach to the alien ship it had encountered.  The two gee burn phase was over, and now the ship was refining its orbit around the sun to get ever nearer to the other ship, matching its own orbit around the sun and settling up beside it.

“Communications package finally ready?” Kathryn asked Felix with ironically feigned irritation from her command chair on the bridge.

“Ready Admiral.”

“Then by all means begin transmission.  How close are we to the ship now?”

“Twenty kilometers,” Jaren reported.

“Alright, snuggle us up pilot.  We need to be within five.  Anyone see anything that looks like a docking port?”

The ship was conical with a series of dark bulbs completely covering its exterior from base to tip, but now it had a large spherical cleanly and uniform impression cut out of it starting at the base halfway to the centre of the base where the engine was, and halfway up to the top, and seemingly all the way down to the interior of the craft.  It appeared as though the antimatter weapon and cut out the recess but that the annihilation which produced this effect had had zero effect on the surrounding materials.  It was somewhat eerie how unaffected the ship seemed by the titanic explosion, how perfectly excised the section was.  It was rotating on multiple axes at a moderate speed, fast enough that it was very noticeable, but not so fast that it prevented good lucks at every part of it.

“No,” Margaret answered.  “But to be fair we may have annihilated it if it had one.”

“Right.”

“Admiral,” Felix spoke up.

“Yes?”

“I couldn’t map the interior before because the exterior scattered the beams, but I can now get some readings from the penetrating radar about the interior.”

“And?”

“And… there isn’t one, not really.  There’s a narrow central section which seems designed for access, but the rest of the ship is those bulbs all the way down to the interior.”

“Interesting.  So is there any interior at all which we can enter?”

“Scanning… yes, but barely.  At the very centre of the ship there is a section ten meters long and a few meters wide, but that’s it.”

“And you still can’t scan those bulbs effectively to see what they are?”

“Hunh.  Jaren, are you getting any readings of power or comms or anything?”

“No EM transmissions… the power plant whatever it is is obviously down, but I am getting some readings indicating battery power, but it’s weak.  It’s enough to keep systems alive but not to run them fully I’d guess.”

“There’s no life forms aboard,” Margaret remarked.

“Not anymore,” Felix replied.

“I don’t think there ever were.  A space ten by three meters?  That’s engineering access at best.  It’s an automated probe like the one we sent here.”

“And the voice we were talking to?” Kathryn asked.

“An artificial intelligence, like me.”

“It certainly shared your people skills,” Jaren ribbed.  Margaret didn’t even bother glaring at him, she was absorbed in the potential.

“You still intend to board it don’t you?” Margaret asked.

“Definitely,” Kathryn answered.  “Alright Felix, launch stabilizers.”

Six small robotics crafts launched in quick succession out of a tube in the stern of the ship, and rocketed towards the alien ship.  The bridge crew watched as they moved about the ship and strategically attached themselves to key points on its hull.  They then all fired thrusters, working in concert to reduce and ultimately end the multi axis spin of the ship, and bring it to a relative stop to New Horizon II.  They also now had the ability to nudge the ship around in space as they needed, not extensively but the drones made minor manoeuvering possible.

“Pilot, bring us within grapple range, one kilometer.”  They all watched on the one remaining wall monitor as the ship got closer and closer, and came into greater and greater detail.  It’s entirely black exterior gave it a very ominous appearance as it grew larger and larger on them.

Just ahead of one kilometer, retro manoeuvering rockets fired to bring them to a relative stop once again.  “One kilometer, Admiral.”

“Thank you.  Felix, fire grapples.”

Four lines fired out of the New Horizon II’s side and attached themselves in a square grid before pulling themselves taught.

“Bring us within transit distance.”

The lines were reeled in to a distance of only one hundred meters, then soft manoeuvering jets on the New Horizon II as well as the drones attached to the alien craft put out a constant low level thrust to keep the lines between the ships taught and avoid a collision.  They would remain in this mode until the lines were withdrawn and the New Horizon II pulled away.

“One hundred meters Admiral,” Felix called out.  “We’re ready.”

“Alright, Felix you’re with me, Jaren the ship is yours.”

Jaren nodded, but Margaret balked.  “Oh you don’t seriously think I’m not coming with you do you?”

Kathryn smirked.  “Of course not Molly, come along.”

 

Down in the environmental suit room, Kathyn and Felix were pulling on their suits.  They were made of a special fabric designed by the Kobolians.  They stretched and fit pretty snugly as they were, but when a variable current was passed through the material they tightened and constricted, creating enough pressure on the skin to protect it from the vacuum of space.  All that was then needed was the thin thermal layer which could also cool and warm the suit depending on the need.  Compared to the bulky space ship suits Kathryn had had to use at the start of her career on Haven before they’d met the Kobolians, it allowed an incredible freedom of movement.

A fishbowl shaped transparent helmet went over the head, and attached to the suit about the shoulders by strong electromagnets creating a seal for the air in the helmet which was fed by a tank worn on the back like a backpack.  The suits were greyish white with a slight silver sheen to them.

As they pulled their suits on, first the pants, then the shirt, then the gloves and boots with variable magnets in the soles, Maggie entered the departure bay.

“What are you doing here hon?  We’re about to leave.”

“I want to come with you.”

“You… must be joking.  We have no idea what we’re going into over there.  It’s dangerous.  No way.”

“This is what I’m here for.”

“No, it’s not.”

Felix and Margaret looked at each other.

“You’re going to let me come all this way, be in this much danger, only to not come the rest of the way with you?  Does that really make sense?”

“Kid’s got a point,” Margaret poked.

You, shut the fuck up,” Kathryn snapped at her with a pointed finger.  She then sighed heavily.

“If it’s really that dangerous should you even be going?”

“Yeah yeah yeah, fine.  Okay…  I can’t believe I’m doing this.  Fine.  Suit up.  Oh your father is going to kill me!”

“Well at least I’d still have one parent,” Maggie offered mischievously.

“Un hunh.”  Kathryn touched the wall panel to open a channel to the bridge.  “So, Jaren… guess who has decided she’s coming along?”

Jaren pursed his lips on the screen and then answered through gritted teeth, “I’m assuming not Maggie.”

“And you would be wrong,” Kathryn answered in a somewhat dramatized game show voice while looking away, trying to soften the blow.

“Kathryn.  It’s not safe.”

“Nothing about this mission is safe at this point Jaren.  Safe would have been going home as soon as we saw that ship, or after the attack.  I don’t see how going over to that ship a this point is any more dangerous than staying on this one at this point.  That was her point anyways, and I bought it.  I’m not ecstatic about it though dear.  We wanted to awaken her adventurous spirit, I believe we have.  God help us.”

Jaren considered for a few moments.  “Fine.  Let us know when you’re ready.”

“Will do.”

After getting themselves suited up, Kathryn and Felix carefully helped Maggie into her suit, doubling and then triple checking all of her seals, equipment, and safety features, giving each other mildly worried looks periodically as they did.  What they were about to do was stressful enough, and this was only adding pressure.

Margaret declined to help, and instead puffed on a cigar through her grin as she watched them suiting themselves up and twisting themselves up into knots with concern.  As a simulant she would have been originally programmed to lose consciousness and become inactive in a vacuum to simulate a human dying in the exposure, but her spate of upgrades had clearly unburdened her of this concern.  She also presumably didn’t need the communications equipment of the helmets either, she could speak to them by direct thought transmission to their helmet speakers, and receive their comms to her through the same link in her head.  As she blew the smoke out of her mouth while silently mocking their human frailty the smoke immediately disappeared into one of the environmental vents.

As confident as she could be about the proper workings of her daughter’s suit and equipment, Kathryn gave the signal to Jaren that they were clear.  He seemed to have reached an acceptance of the situation if not a calm about it.

“Understood… I guess we need a code name.”

“How bout Hero?” Kathryn offered.  “We are ostensibly here to render assistance.”

“Be real,” Margaret scolded.  “More like Bandit… or Pirate.”

Kathryn laughed but Jaren cut in with “Hero it is.” before anyone could take Margaret’s suggestions too seriously.  “We’ll designate the ship ‘Boss’”

“I’ll be One,” Kathryn said, “Felix Two, Molly Three, and Maggie Four.”

“Understood.  Proceed when ready Hero One.”

“You realize that’s more syllables than your actual name right?” Margaret scolded.

“Yup,” Kathryn acknowledged, declining to observe her point.  “Entering the airlock now Jaren.  Closing inner door and depressurizing.”

There was a slight lag in the automatic response of the tension and temperature of the suit, so she could feel a constant sense of low pressure and cold until the atmosphere was completely reabsorbed by the ship and the automatic suits normalized to the vacuum.

“Engage boots,” she ordered her team, and they obeyed, all then slowly sinking to the floor and locking down.

“Opening the outer door.”  Kathryn touched the flexible control panel on her wrist contoured to her suit and the outer door opened onto the vacuum of space.  “Comms check everyone?”

“Check,” they all said.

“Good.”

“Okay.  I’ll go first, then Magie, then Felix and Molly behind.  Clip your harness to the grapple line just outside the door, and pull yourself over to the other ship.  Maggie you’ve done this for fun back home but this isn’t a game here.  Take it seriously.  Be methodical and cautious, understand?”

“Yes Mom.”

Kathryn stepped to the edge of space, and reached up to clip her tether onto the grapple line.  This one had deliberately been shot directly towards the exposed end of the central section, the only place where it made any sense for them to physically go.

She turned pushed off from the ship and held the grapple line as the bottom half of her flew gently out in front of her and was held back by her grip.  She then slowly put one hand over the other, periodically looking back at the others as she went.  She was quite surprised at how calm her daughter seemed to be.  No she had never displayed an appetite for adventure in the past, but in some sense it was in her blood.  Now that she was out here, in the thick of it, her composure impressed her mother.

Halfway across she heard Jaren call out over the comm: “Halfway Hero One.”

“Acknowledged.”  She focused her attention on the ship they were approaching.  They were halfway to the end of the line, but with the concave section excised from the ship they were nearly at the point at which they would be within the ship if it were still intact.  She got a chill up her spine.  Something didn’t feel right but she brushed it off.  Healthy fear of the unknown, she figured.

“Well that’s not nice,” she observed as she approached the end of the line.  What appeared to be a large monitor was smashed by the magnetic piton at the end of the grapple line, the first one over from one which was cleanly cut in half by the line which demarked existent ship, and annihilated ship. 

She was amazed by the resilience of the rest of the ship.  She reached the end of the line and touched the remaining half large monitor.  It was cracked sure, but it had been centimeters from an antimatter explosion even less friendly than a nuclear one.

“Have a look at this Felix,” she said as she moved aside and magnetized to the floor of the small interior section.  “Hey, at least the mag boots work.”

She helped Maggie to the floor where she could magnetize and Felix came next.  “What am I looking at?” he asked.

“This monitor.  Cut clearly in half by the antimatter spread, yet the rest is intact.  What the hell is this thing made of?  I could understand the hull being hardened in this way but a damn display panel?”

“I haven’t a clue…” Felix admitted as he stepped to the ground and Margaret finally came the rest of the way and joined them. 

Kathryn turned around and looked out the opening out into the vastness of space.  They were on the opposite side of the sun, and New Horizon II was beautifully lit up, so bright in fact that it washed out all but the brightest stars.  The ship still made it a stunning view and she turned her daughter around to appreciate it for a moment.

“So what have we here…” Felix asked as he moved further into the space.

“You look a little worse for wear from here Boss, but you’re still beautiful,” Kathryn remarked on the obviously battered condition of the ship.  It looked worse from out here than the description of the damage sounded from the inside.  She found herself newly concerned about the integrity of the ship but she brushed it off.  “We’re proceeding inside Boss.”

“Understood Hero One.”

“Yup, so… I think this is it,” Felix remarked.  They were in a cylindrical shaped area ten meters deep and three meters wide.  Like the interior of the bridge had originally been, it appeared that the entire surface was one giant display monitor, its true segmented nature revealed at the opening only by the damage done.  Deep inside, the entire interior appeared of smooth glass as best as they could make out from the lights mounted on their helmets.

“What’s this?” Margaret asked as she moved to the far end of the area.

The wall end of the tube was not surfaced the same way, but had differently coloured concentric rings on it which were fractured and disjointed, not by damage but by design.  Green curves, and blue, and yellow, and some spaces where it appeared there should be similar lines but were not.

“It’s ultraviolet,” Margaret explained.  “Where it looks like there should be lines, there are you just can’t see them.”

“You can see that?” Maggie asked.

“Upgrades,” Margaret answered with a mischievous smile towards the girl as she tapped at the side of her head.

In the centre of the circular wall, at the centre of the rings was a large object which projected out of the wall.  It was two meters long, and shaped like an oval, about half a meter wide and a quarter meter high.  It had fine linear ridges from the wall all the way to its tip which looked like very short heat sync fins.

“What is this…” Maggie asked as she reached out to touch it.

“No, don’t!” Kathryn called out but it was too late. 

As soon as the girl touched the surface of the central projection the entire space came to life.  The curved lines on the rear wall began flashing menacingly and the panels all about them came to life, revealing what appeared to be status and control displays, but of a configuration and language completely foreign and unrecognizable to any of them.  An eerie blue light emanated from the recesses of the ridging along the central projection, and they flashed along with the booming voice which nearly deafened them over their comm speakers in their helmets: “INTRUDERS!!

Chapter 9

Two hours later, any repairs which could been made had been.  All in all, they’d been lucky.  None of the thinned sections of the hull showed any signs of giving way, but the areas remained evacuated and sealed as a precaution.  Some of their instrument packages on the far side of the ship had been spared by the blast; they’d only been shorted out and the engineers had been able to bring them back online, same for the instruments towards the rear of the ship. 

They still had only one remaining main wall display panel on the bridge, but it was sufficient for navigation.  In truth they didn’t really need any of the wall monitors since every individual station had its own dedicated display, most of which remained functional.  Still, compared to the three-sixty view they had had, the barren lifeless surfaces which now surrounded them seemed eerie somehow, almost claustrophobic in a way.

So far they had remained in a standard orbit around Yuri, but the alien vessel so far had shown no signs of activity.  Things were calming down a bit and more thoughtful consideration now possible.  Kathryn had given everyone an hour off to eat or catch a quick nap or whatever they wished to recharge while she and the rest of the senior staff planned their next move.

Kathryn, Jaren, Maggie, Felix, and Margaret were all sitting around a table in the captain’s private dining room off of the main mess hall discussing their options.

“Protocol would be to report in and request further instructions,” Jaren observed.

“Phbbt, protocol…” Margaret dismissively retorted.

“I didn’t say that’s what we should do,” he snapped, then softened, feeling bad about barking at her.  “I’m just… stating a fact.”

“We all know what those instructions would be,” Felix stated.  “They’d order us back.”

“They’d want us to just leave that thing out there?” Maggie asked, it was inconceivable that anyone would want them to just leave it floating in space, to just walk away from a mystery of that magnitude.

“Yes hon,” Kathryn answered.  “This ship was built to be ready for that kind of situation, but we’ve been severely damaged.  Impressive as it is, this ship was not built for investigating a damaged and hostile alien vessel of unknown origin.”

“No ship in the fleet was,” Jaren observed.

“True.”

“In fact, damaged or not, this ship is the closest we have to being designed and equipped for such a mission.”

“Also true,” Kathryn agreed.  “Thing is, we were only allowed to assume command of this mission because it was expected to be routine.  Yes it was the first new star system we’d created access to, but we weren’t expecting to find anything particularly… exciting.”

“Nonsense,” Margaret retorted.  “You three are more qualified than anyone else in the fleet for just this sort of thing.”

“Perhaps,” she granted, “but they might also want to give this additional experience to others who could use it.”

“Fuck that.”

Kathryn chuckled.  She felt an agreement with the sentiment, but was nonetheless sympathetic to those who were being robbed of her experience.  “We are required to check in,” she reiterated.

“And they’ll recall us, refit the ship, assemble a new crew, send us home and the ship back for further investigation,” Felix outlined with disappointment he made no attempt to hide.

“What if there’s somebody over there who needs help?” Maggie asked.

Margaret pointed to the girl.  “Kid’s got a point.”

Kathryn looked over to Jaren who tilted his head to the side with raised eyebrows and looking at her somewhat sideways.  He wasn’t suggesting it was the right move, but that it was a defensible justification.

“There is a ship in clear distress over there, in a distressed state we caused no less.  We could be said to have an obligation to render any assistance we could.”

“Now you’re talking,” Margaret encouraged her.

“And the only way to do that would could assess what needs they might have if they remain incommunicative would be to board it and investigate.”

“It would still be expected of us to report in our intentions,” Jaren reiterated.

“Hmm.  Felix, how long until our scheduled check in?”

“Five days.  Our first was just a couple days ago.”

“How long would it take to get to that ship?”

“At two gee?  About a day, twelve hour push then another twelve pull.”

“Right.  Well I think we would need to provide a very meticulously detailed account of everything that’s happened here, don’t you?”

“Of course,” Felix answered with a smile.

“And how long do you think that would take to gather up all that data into one convenient transmission?”

“Oh it wouldn’t be quick Admiral, twenty four hours at least.”

“Good man.  So it’s settled.  We will immediately get underway for the alien ship at two gee.  When your report to command is ready Felix we will of course send it immediately.  In the meantime we will meet our obligation to render whatever aid we can to the vessel clearly in distress out there.  We’ll make specific boarding plans along the way.”

Everyone nodded their understanding.

“Alright then everyone go and get to work.  As soon as we’re underway and you’ve made all the preparations you can for our encounter with that ship, the crew can have free time until two hours before the encounter.  Dismissed.”

Felix and Margaret left the room, and seemingly in pretty good moods too.

“Maggie, are you okay with this?” Kathryn asked.  “If you’re not comfortable or if you’re too scared we could still call the whole thing off, phone in, get sent home…”

“I’m fourteen Mom.  I can handle myself.”

Kathryn pushed some air out her nose as she smiled and looked down to the side.

“I came out here with you hoping for some adventure and a story to tell.  I’m getting a lot more than I expected.  That’s a good thing.”

“Alright, fair enough.  Now run along to your quarters while we get ready.  We can spend some time together while we’re in transit.”

“Okay Mom…”  The girl seemed disappointed to be again relegated to her quarters, but she obeyed and the door closed behind her.

“Am I a terrible mother?” Kathryn asked, only half serious.

“Only as terrible as I am a father,” Jaren answered thoughtfully.  “The girls’ got a point though.  She came out here for a story and she’s getting it.  In theory the part she really shouldn’t have been here for has already passed, and she seemed to handle it remarkably well.”

“Maybe that’s only because she doesn’t really understand how close we all came to being killed?”

“Do the young ever really understand the possibility of death?”

Kathryn smiled and put her hand on his arm.  “No… but isn’t that why they have parents?”

 

The acceleration came on slowly, and the two felt themselves become weighted to the ground.  When it reached two gee, their bodies felt remarkably heavy, like they were wearing lead suits.  Prolonged exposure to two gee was considered safe, but it wasn’t especially pleasant.  While it was possible to get around and do work with great effort, the most comfortable thing to do was just to lie down.  So, when everyone’s prep work was done, they were free to do just that.

The ship first broadened its orbit around Yuri, and then once effectively free of its gravity well set sail for the alien ship.  Of course it was never as easy as a straight line in a solar system, but aside from some course corrections as the outset, along the way, and on approach, the bulk of the trip would indeed be a straight two gee burn.