“Silver to Eafots Cell: Emergency Call. Best speed R/R Line rimward, depart asap, destination en route, confirm comms and wing up!”
Andrew nearly fell out of his bunk. He had spent the last day trying to analyze patterns in the stellar makeup of the neighboring Eafots Sector, a sector that had been extensively searched by the Children, the Formidine Rifters and other entrepreneurs. This call was highest priority in the Children’s reconnaissance routine and usually reserved for distress calls – or, it seemed, wakeup calls. Andrew dashed to the helm and hit the intercom:
“Operator, this is the Nanshe. Confirming comms at 00:23 GST, leaving Foxtrott Point asap.” He had a glance at the holographic Galaxy Map. “Meetup at Zeta Point, e.t.a. 28 minutes. Over.”
He knew there would be no answer. The tight beam emitter aboard the Nanshe was directed at the nadir point of the nearby gas giant. From there it would surely reach Commander Jackie Silver, the Eafot Cell’s current Operator-of-the-Watch. These days, there were only few of them left out here that far rimward. Even the Heart and Soul Nebulae lay behind them. Andrew’s last assignment there of scouting the recently constructed asteroid bases for a safe haven had proved not very successful so he was eager to do something else.
He grabbed a quick coffee from the autochef, went to the helm and finally fired up the thrusters while plotting a course to Zeta Point, an asteroid rich system that was dominated by the failing sun of a brown dwarf. It was a good point for secret meetings: Radiation and debris caused many sensor shadows and the system held not enough riches to warrant an extensive survey. In former times, explorers would name it a ‘dark system’. When he hit the throttle threshold he engaged the Nanshe’s FSD and dived into the depths of the Rift.
He joined the wing at Zeta Point. There was already Commander Silver’s Diamondback Explorer as well as the Anaconda exploration cruiser of Commander Sajime Chent-Shi and the good old Cobra of Aleister Fox. As soon as they established secure comms, Jackie Silver gave the briefing:
“Crypt Ops has confirmed the contents of a message broadcast by an unknown source in the Tionisla system. The one with the Greek references. We think it’s relevant and it points to a system deep inside the Rift. We are ordered to reach the system asap and do a full system survey. We don’t know what to expect so stick to survey security protocols at all times. If possible, I’ll go in first and call you in once I had a look around. During our approach Sajime and I will take the point, Fox and you, Andrew, will follow and spread to a loose wedge. We’ll go best speed and keep comms low. Questions?”
Several minutes later, the four ships left the dark system.
The Formidine Rift. It is a stretch of space, vast and difficult to navigate. The void between the spiral arms is dotted with small groups of stars, separated from each other by impossible distances; impossible for even range-modified Frameshift Drives. The pilots found that out the hard way:
“Plot a course towards destination, range 1,000 light years, maximum jump range.”
“Unable to plot a route,” came the ship computer’s answer.
“What the…? Okay plot a course towards destination, range 750 light years, deviation five degrees, maximum jump range.”
“Unable to plot a route,” the voice said laconically.
“Boy, where is this going?” Andrew looked at the holographic map again and zoomed in on a couple of systems forming a rough but steady line towards their destination. He marked each with a waypoint icon. When his manual course reached 450 light years he saved it.
“Plot a course along waypoints.”
“Unable to plot a route.”
He had a look at their wing display. Jackie was still well ahead, but she – along with Sajime – were taking a slight curve through a denser starfield. Fox had deviated earlier and was making his way at the fringe of the Perseus Arm. Inevitably, he would have to fly a boomerang to reach their destination. Andrew was somewhat in the middle. Even with a very advanced range of more than 58 light years per jump the trip was streneous. He had to backtrack a few times where several stars had lured him into treacherous stellar one-way lanes.
Finally, three and a half hours later the team was closing in on a remote system at the far fringes of the Formidine Rift. It had been a race, so much was certain, and it had been tedious and painful to get there. They had to rely on the more populated regions around their destination at times, which had cost them some time. If this had been a race, a race against what? The Rift had been searched for almost two years now and the discovery of several desolated and deserted ground bases had raised all kinds of speculation. Several disturbing personal logs, each one some thirty years old, had been unearthed from these bases and they pieced together a puzzle of secrecy, eavesdropping, a major conspiracy and outright murder of the bases’ staff. Naturally, everybody was on edge, knowing not what to expect.
At 03:34 a.m. onboard time Andrew breathed deeply, checked the nav console one last time for the correct coordinates and punched the FSD energizer for the final system. They were deep in the Syreadiae sector now. Jackie and Sajime were already there but comms had been distorted so he didn’t exactly know what would lie beyond; only that they apparently were still alive, which at least was something.
Only a few minutes later the Nanshe dropped out of supercruise on the wakes of its wing mates. It was a rather small system with a comfortable G-type star, much like Sol. Almost immediately, Andrew switched the Nanshe’s sensitive electronics to a full system sweep, but what occupied him more was the scenery right before his ship. He came about less than ten kilometers away from a giant ship unlike anything he had ever seen, except maybe in ages old vid clips. It was breathtaking.
To the port side he could make out Jackie’s Diamondback Explorer and Sajime’s Anaconda class exploration cruiser, tiny against the supersized hull of what must have been a deep space operations ship of some kind. It had a full habitation ring and giant engines with room for landing his ship in. Cautiously, and still awestruck, he let his ship slide alongside the other Diamondback and opened comms:
“Boy, what is this thing? It almost seems… intact.”
“I know,” Jackie said. “Maybe one of the old generation ships? I remember pictures from a Delta Pavonis trip. Then again, this one is different. Hold on tight, people. We don’t know if it has defences. Databases show nothing like it, no ship class, no callsign.”
Sajime chimed in: “I zoomed in through one of the hab rings. Maybe an observation lounge. There’s a name in capitals on what may be a nameplate. It says… wait… ‘Zurara’.”
“Andrew?” Jackie’s voice came across the intercom.
“Hold on, I’ll check it.” He ran some queries through the Old Earth archives he received from his father when he had tried to dig up references to the Pleiades in ancient history. “Zurara, yes. May be a reference to an ancient chronicler from the age of discovery. 15th century. Name’s Gomes Eannes of Zurara; or Azurara. He seems to have tried to compile various expeditions. Also some astrology here it seems. Ordinary guy, not one of the first tier discoverers. Worked for a certain ‘Navigator King’. Had a family and died peacefully. Nothing else.”
“Thanks.” There was a short silence. “Team deploy and move in and investigate. Keep it sharp, people. It may not only be a flying library.”
“Or it may be one with guns,” Sajime muttered into the comm. There were some chuckles on this more than welcome bit of humor.
Together they checked the outer hull of the massive ship. It was unlike anything they had ever seen, resembling a bit of a mix between an Ocellus Station and, as Commander Silver had pointed out, one of the old generation ships from the early days of space colonization. Still, it looked remarkably modern, and it was still powered. The engine nacelles, thrusters and various power couplings were still energized and the habitation ring with the hydroponics modules was actually still spinning. You could almost find yourself hailing for a docking permission and be ready for an answer. But there was none. There was complete radio silence. So the team split and started to search the hull with their searchlights and datalink scanners.
And indeed they found several low frequency buoys in the vicinity, probably having been ejected in what must have been an emergency situation. After another hour of analysis and shocking revelation, the Zurara had told its grisly tale. Apparently it had been part of a mission bent on seeding outposts or sensor stations as part of a forward early warning system. It seemed it was related to the recently discovered ‘Dynasty’ expedition outposts and settlements other teams had found elsewhere in the Rift (and also in the Conflux region and Hawkin’s Gap). That meant that the Zurara’s flight had taken place some thirty years ago, much like the other ‘Dynasty’ expeditions. What was more shocking was the fact that at one point, when the stations had been seeded, parts of the crew had turned against the rest, trying to kill them. If the Zurara’s logs were to be trusted they were brainwashed or mind-conditioned prior to the trip, the goal being to wipe all traces of the expedition alltogether. The logs the Children found ended with the crew having fought off the attackers but at the cost of their main power source, condemning all people left to death by freezing or suffocation.
Another set of data logs the team found near the Zurara’s hull shed some light on this: There were fragments of the personal log of a visitor, apparently a female investigator by the name of ‘R.’, speculating on the nature of the Zurara’s mission and that it was all part of a gigantic contingency plan should the Core worlds be invaded by … someone.
Whatever this was, it was big, it was scary and it was real. And people in the Core were either sleeping this away or ignorant of it in other terms, including the superpowers. Or they were very well aware and did everything to cover it up.
Finally, after another hour of scrutiny and system survey, the small team reached the decision to multi-task and call in reinforcements.
“Alright people, I need a relay race back towards Heart and Soul. We can’t do tight beam comms this far out without a transmitter so one or two need to fall back. Need to call in a full analysis group here. Andrew, you take the point. There are at least two other Children en route so rendezvous with them and brief them. Back at the Eafots Cell, make contact and get a full team here. I think we all agree to keep this quiet for now. Fox and I will scout the nearby systems for other anomalies and Sajime, you’ll stay and hail in newcomers. Questions?”
As nobody seemed to answer, all Commander Silver had to add was: “Move it!”