BOOKSIE COMMUNITY, I AM ASKING A BIG FAVOR. RIP THIS APART. DO NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT BE MERCIFUL. ANYTHING THAT IS WRONG, ANYTHING THAT CAN BE IMPROVED...ANYTHING! DO NOT HOLD BACK!
Kierra scratched her head absently. Nothing appeared on the screen, but the refresh rate on the old device was slow enough to where she could actually see the tiny flashes, hundreds per minute. It burned a little bit, but she stayed at her station, ready and waiting should anything appear. Around her, the eerie quiet of the ship was everywhere. Only the emergency lights where on, giving a weird yellow glow that left many shadows in corners and distorted the dimensions ever so slightly around the edges. The hum of machinery, things like the heating units, the electric power, the computers that where up, and the machines that kept the rest of the crew asleep where the only noise. Without any gravity or friction, she had shut off the engines a while ago, when they had escaped the gravitation fields outside of the rings of Huron, the planet they where departing from. No humans on Huron, which was a gas giant, but the Thendrall Mining Company had dispatched Kierra's vessel, the Halcyon, on which she was the Navigator and Primary Helmsman, to extract iridium dust from the rings. It had been a dull process. The rest of the crew was in Suspended Sleep, and would be so until they returned. Only the Mechanic, Samson, could be woken up, and then only in an emergency. Kierra got to stay awake and sleep in a normal bed the whole journey back.
They where still too close to Huron's sun, Nebach I, to make a Traverse; the heavy gravity from the enormous solar body could blast them through the wormhole to literally almost anywhere. It would be several days before she cleared the field, and many more before she could make the second Traverse, and so on and so forth. It all added up to about four months of isolated work, but there was good pay, and she loved the time in space, despite the quiet and the uncomfortable factors. The Halcyon drifted along, silent in the blackness, and Kierra, her hands idle, watched the screen. There was a window all about her, like that of an enormous flying machine of perhaps four centuries ago, but she rarely looked out for more than an hour at a time, instead focusing on the instruments. Some pilots, she new, could fly solo visual, but she was not one of them. Good, but not that good. A small message appeared in fuzzy lettering, humming as it unrolled itself. The heater was working fine. That was good. A little green light flashed, signaling that the temperature was changing by more than a degree, but she ignored it. Most likely a comet or something leaving a trail a thousand miles distant and out of sight.
She shifted her weight, and put her hands by her side. Later, some music might be nice, but now, Kierra preferred the quiet. Another message hummed up on the computer, the fuzzy white letters notifying her that the oxygen was still good and the ship's atmosphere was stable. Again, lovely. Quietly, she poured over the buttons around her. The ship was steered almost entirely from here, with six instrument and control panels over which she was master. She was also third on the command chain, so half of the eight-person crew where required to listen to her. Kierra much preferred the ship. It was an old model, almost at it's fortieth birthday, but reliable, spacious and easy to operate compared with many of the sleeker, newer vessels. It's exterior was solid gray and greebled, a large system with two great, lozenge engine pods projecting from a squatley prismatic body. Heat and radiation where dispersed through the greebels surfaces, and power came from small reserves of super-charged chemical fuel in the main hull, well-sealed in several protective layers.
Lazily, Kierra lifted, from the side of her chair, a pack of cigarettes, produced one, and lit it. Smoking was frowned upon in almost every circle of society except commercial spacing, when long hours and tired heads kept Helmsman craving cigarettes and surly mechanics loved the buzz after a hard job. She had wanted at first to be a military girl, flying ships for the Aerospace Defense Initiative, but had been turned down for no apparent reason other than that she was slightly too tall. Too bad, she thought. The ADI had missed out on an expert pilot, and, Thendrall, seeing her skill, hired her for a generous contract. She accepted, and was paired with the Halcyon and with Samson, who was fourth in command. The rest of the crew changed after almost every assignment, a new commanding officer pair and new experts for whatever task the company required. Kierra flew, Samson kept the thing flying and the Halcyon did her job admirably. Out in space, nothing still. She opened the keyboard, unlit cigarette still in her mouth, and punched in the check to see if they where free of the major gravity force yet. Negative. The sun still held, if loosely. Damn stars where clingy.
The green light lit up again. Another temperature change. This time, it remained on. Kierra lit her cigarette, and reached over to tap the little glass bulb. Nothing happened. Odd. Perhaps a solar flare had suddenly burst out and was sweeping a light wind a good deal outward. Or perhaps a travel ling body of some kind. Casually, she punched in the codes for the ship's sensor array, and was awarded with a broad X, Y, Z chart of the space around, with freedom to manipulate the axis. Quietly, she took a drag, and watched. Nothing but the reflections of the distant sun and the radiation signatures of the planets. Not even any kind of gas cloud or anything. So why the rise in temperature? Maybe the ship was passing through a sort of molecule field and the friction was messing with the censors. Quietly, she tapped the light again, and, when nothing happened, switch the scan from all wavelengths to only infrared. For am moment, she saw nothing on the now crimson screen she did not expect to see. Then she noticed it.
A small, shapeless mass, no more than a few meters in diameter, was hanging above them, a safe distance away. Curious, she accessed the nobs that controlled the sensor's detection, and, smoke encircling her, adjusted the infrared censor to the object. It was fairly easy, and the anomaly seemed to be getting bigger. Whatever it was it was hot. And getting hotter. Rogue plasma? Was there such a thing? The only time energy concentrated in such a heavy amount was around high sources of gravity, like stars, or around wormholes...
Kierra realized what it must be. It was a wormhole. Or at least, a wormhole was opening up and the end of it, reflecting the negative energy that was gathering at the other end, was dispersing the nearby suns heat and gravity in all directions at a slowly expanding rate. Nobody would be insane enough to Traverse so close to a sun. There was a huge margin for error. Perhaps that was what had put it there, but it was unlikely. More likely it was a stray, not created by man. As calmly as she could, she turned her chair to the manual space flight controls, and booted them up. It took only a few seconds for the two foot-and-a-half wide navigation screens to come up, and to adjust toward the window, the diagnostic computer swinging to a secondary position. She assessed her fuel, current trajectory, speed, velocity, position, as much as she could with a quick glance, and fired two of the compression jets on the side of the hull, steering the ship with a barely noticeably shift away from the now quickly fleeing energy. She wanted to be a good bit away. Once they where leaning out, she turned on the engines, and with a roar that echoed through the ship, the began to heat. It would take a good minute she might not be able to afford. Angrily, she fired the compression jets, leveling the ship back out, and then on the back, lurching it forward.
Extinguishing her cigarette, she took both control sticks in her hand, and flicked several switches to activate her best maneuvering tools. The engines where still heating. Instead of sitting idly, she fired the navigation compression jets again, adjusting their path as straight and quick as possible. The turn had slowed them down, and now negative energy was flashing through, unmistakeable on the sensor array's readings. Kierra reached over and pushed the button to wake Samson. Even if he would not be there for the opening, she wanted another living soul aboard when whoever was coming out found them, even if they where neutral or friendly. She nearly laughed. This was space. No unfriendliness here, aside from the environs and the surly attitudes. There hadn't even been a war in a few hundred years. Mankind had outgrown that.
Behind her, in the sealed cabin, in the comparative silence, she heard a stirring Samson. And then the yellow light for the engines. Grateful, she eased the throttle forward, and was greeted by the familiar chemical combustion roar. They where getting away. The now massively gaping Traversing maw was shrinking. In a moment, she found herself in a safe distance, thanking the ship tenderly. She eased the engine power back down, now out of immediate danger, and turned the jets back up, whirling the vessel back around, still in distant visual range of the opening Traverse. It was now fully open, barely perceptional but for when the black flickers around the edges obscured the stars. Whoever it was was Traversing from deep space. Cautious, but miscalculating, or risk takers. Then, out of the understood opening, the bulge of a Traverse appeared, characteristically. Kierra watched, wary, the engines still warm, but her hands no longer on the instruments.
Watching as the bubble expanded and the wormhole shifted outward, she lit another cigarette. Although it felt silly to admit it, Kierra was nervous. Who would be crawling out of deep space out here? Nobody. It felt eerie. The door suddenly decompressing behind and sliding open to a crash made her jump, and a bleary-eyed Samson walked in, running a hand through his greasy hair.
"What is it Kierra?" She hadn't heard a real human voice in days, and Samson's sounded especially gravelly after the Suspension. Sleep in nutrient gel, suspended, was how humans who did not enjoy space travel or did not fly ships or operate on them directly spent most business flights through the stellar streams. Samson had woken up tired.
"Someone's Traversing out here. Nearly on top of our position." Samson made an ugly noise in response, and bent over the screen. He was poorly shaven, and rough and scarred, and surly, but Kierra liked him generally. "Don't know who it is."
"Hell if I do either. It's a damn big hole, though." He reached for the zoom button, but stopped, and regarded Kierra. It was her ship, not his. She nodded, and he zoomed the diagnostic censors in. The bulge was nearly complete; whoever it was was coming through. "Heard anything from the company? Did they send an extra ship out?" Samson was examining the hole with the negative energy readers. "Definitely a big Traverse."
"I got us out of the way. They where nearly on top of us." Quietly, she leaned back, so to give Samson more room to look. He new more about the actual workings of a Traverse machine and might be able to point out something she hadn't noticed. "Want a smoke?" He took it as she offered it, and then the light, distracted by the screen.
"Yup, they'll be here in...let's see...four...three...two...one." When he finished, a quick white flash illuminated the space around for a moment, not so bright as to damage eyes but still harsh, and then subsided. Suddenly, the diagnostic screen showed a large radiation body, characteristic of a large vessel. "And here they are."
Kierra leaned back over, pushing Samson aside, and bent over the screen, expanding it. All sorts of hot energy coming off. Post-Traverse, the life support signatures, all of it, even the engines. Kierra ran through the scanners, and paused as the screen turned a deep green.
"Samson...Samson!" The man snapped out of his trance, where he was watching the distant mass of flashing lights that where the only visible sign of the vessel.
"Yeah? What is it?" His grouchy voice lightened up near the end. He liked her too.
"Things giving off nuclear signatures. Little like a tiny sun." Her voice sounded mystified. She was mystified. Nuclear signatures? And not even the little orange blips for fission power. This was a tiny fusion reactor! Impossible! Samson voiced what she thought. "No, I'm telling you, look!"
"I'll be damned. Get closer! Try to contact them!" His voice was excited. Cautiously, Kierra turned the communications console toward her, and Samson took a seat in the chair just behind her; one that usually remained unoccupied. If she had not been so curious she might have laughed: it was one of the few times she had not seen the mechanic covered in grease and fluids from his work in the bowels of the ship. He smoked idly, and she began to type.
"THENDRALL MINE SHIP HALCYON. CLASS FIVE VESSEL. HELMSMAN KIERRA DUNNAWAY: CURRENTLY IN COMMAND AND TRANSMITTING."
She sent the message out into space, beaming it off in the form of gamma-rays from the small radon rod in the comm relay dish, and turned back to the diagnostic screen. Still the same radiation signatures, only now the vessel was moving. Parallel to them, if higher up, and slowly.
"Think they've seen us? Maybe they've got a broken transmitter." Samson mumbled. But as he said that, the little message light for and incoming, non-verbal communication lit up.
"I don't get it." Samson said, simply. "What does it mean?" Kierra leaned over the screen, and, in a moment, the numbers appeared again, unrolling onto their full length with a calm, methodical manner. And then again.
"Well." Kierra looked at the fuzzy display. The vessel on the sensor display had stop moving, and she had haled the Halcyon with it's jets. Sounds had died down again except for the computer and the two humans breathing and the ventilation and the still-warm engines. Nothing else could be heard. "They're prime numbers."
"Yeah." Was the man's only contribution.
"Maybe they don't have a full communications board." Kierra suggested.
"Oh, but just happen to be carrying a nuclear reactor on board? I hardly think...so." Samson sat again, and Kierra copied the numbers, and sent them back as a response. It was worth a shot. For a moment, though, her communication remained onscreen, the sending garbled, scrambling, and then vanished, declaring success.
"You see that, Samson? The force of them coming out may have knocked our relay silly. Maybe they're just misinterpretation what we're sending because it's nonsense." Samson grunted and blew out a big cloud of smoke. "Go check it, will you?" Again, a grunt, but this time he got up, and walked out. A moment after, the light buzzed again. More numbers.
They had responded with a new set of numbers. Perhaps they would have done it regardless of what message she had sent, but perhaps she had done the right thing. Maybe it was code. Perhaps it was a military ship and they where trying to identify her as friendly? As another military ship? She sent her original message again, and, a minute later, received the same, original string of numbers. That wasn't getting her anywhere. She entered back into the ships received non-verbal transmissions, and sent back the second string, biting her nails. This was dangerous. A ship, suddenly, crawling out of a Traverse in an open corner of space, and interacting with her through prime numbers? There was no explanation aside from that some equipment was broken on one of the two ships, or human error. Whatever it was, error or broken equipment, either was trouble in space.
The door slid open again, and again, Kierra jumped. Samson laughed, and sat back down, wiping sweat from his brow.
"Sorry, Helmsman. Transmitter and relay are in good working order. Get anything new from our guests?" He had finished the cigarette, and probably just tossed it in one of the waste bins. Kierra would kill him if he ever started an accidental fire, but then it the fire did any damage, killing him would damn her to a damaged ship. She smiled a faintly at the thought, but Samson was too busy looking out into space to notice her. "And they haven't moved?" Kierra shook her head and watched the screen. The incoming message light was illuminated again, now with the next string of numbers.
"I've just been sending back their numbers. It seems to be working, sort of. I get a new response every time I do it." Quickly, she copied the new set, and gamma-rayed them back to their origin point. The vessel remained motionless, a vague collection of light a good obscured several kilometers away. Close. Very close.
"Maybe it's some kind of code. Universal, you know?"
"If it was universal, I would understand it. I know more about ship talk than a lot of pilots, and prime numbers are just for mathematicians and physicists. This isn't code." Kierra waited, watching the screen. Still nothing appeared.
"Or you just don't want to admit you've never seen it before." Samson said, making himself comfortable, still staring out the window. "Hell, Kierra, I don't doubt your ability, but we don't need any trouble. What if they're...space robbers or something."
"Space robbers? What on Earth are you talking about?" Kierra did not look away from the screen as Samson had been glued to the window. The light, again, then a second light. Visual communication. The transmitters where using gamma-rays as well, or at least had a device capable of linking on a radioactivity communications network. Kierra slowly pushed the non-audible button, which produced, as she predicted, the next string of numbers. She responded quickly, and then flipped the visual switch.
The sudden static roar made her jump. It was quite loud, and unexpected. Whoever it was, they where using very imperfect or very very pinpointed communications that where scrambling her disk. Hastily, she adjusted the receiver and transmitter together, trying to even out the garbled static. Nothing seemed to work. Samson shook his head, looking out.
"Any ideas?" She asked him, turning the volume on the lowest audible setting to dampen the noise in the cockpit.
"No ma'am. Get closer to them, maybe? We got suits, right?" He turned away from the window, finally, and looked at her, grinning. "I say we initiate contact. We suit up and go over. They're ships bigger, so we can get up under them or whatnot without sending them careening or anything, right?" Kierra nodded, slowly.
"I'm not sure that's a great idea, though, Samson. How close do we want to get to an unknown vessel?" She paused, waiting for an answer, and then said, "And a fusion-emitting one at that?"
"Close as we can. You know what our motto has been as a species? 'Explore! Learn!'" He seemed quite satisfied for remembering it.
"Didn't know you where the propaganda type, Samson." Kierra turned back to the steering, and put the jets on maximum, warning Samson to hold on. Her heart beat hard in her chest, but she wanted to know. She had to know. Who was out here? And why? "I'm gonna' pull us up underneath...we'll look for a hatch and signal. If it's not below, we'll do a slow fly-around to find it." Samson nodded, and buckled himself into the seat. Kierra did the same thing, and the Halcyon lurched toward it's spacial companion. The old ship rattled at the force of it's own jets. Kierra switched on the navigation lights that flanked the cockpit, turning them with a flick of her wrist upward toward the approaching hull, steering them up, and then down into place gently below.
The ship was very unusual. It was long and wide and pointed, like a broad-head arrow, and the energy signs from its engines where from a honeycombed stack of vents near the back, each one emitting a small amount of nuclear fission energy. The whole vessel was far smoother than their own ship, but still with the same little greebels to let off heat, albeit much shorter and less noticeable. There was a hatch for between-ship ladders, and what appeared to be cameras around it, similar in appearance but different in shape to their own. Kierra flashed her navigation lights up at the cameras, signaling with four short burst and then a quick flash that she wished to come aboard. Kierra and Samson waited a long, silent minute, looking up. Then, the light for a non-verbal communication lit up. It was the next string of numbers, followed by a host of symbols of different sizes and colors. The Helmsman understood none of what it said, and a moment later, when the visual signal flashed on, did nothing.
She turned back to look at the ship above, both of them again unmoving, the eerie light from clusters of piercing white glows radiating from the bigger vessel's top.
"Kierra, look!" Samson's voice was excited, and he pointed, unbuckling his belt. Kierra followed suit, but did not stand. Above, the hatch was opening, with the characteristic slowness of trans-spatial passageways, and the small, lensed devices where adjusting, facing the small ship that had come up below. "Let's get our suits! They're inviting us aboard!" Neither moved, though, and for another moment, nothing happened.
"I don't know, Samson. Maybe it's..." but Kierra was cut off when suddenly, a large ladder, the bars nearly three or four feet apart, lowered down, silently in space, to about twenty yards above them. "Alright, Samson, it's your wish. Go down and get your suit on, and signal when you're ready. I'll bring us in, you hook us up and I'll come join you." The sweaty mechanic nodded excitedly and jogged out of the room. Kierra took a deep breath of recently recycled, plastic smelling air, and turned the jets down, preparing to maneuver the ship. She had only done this four times before, and each time it had been exceedingly difficult. Ships where not built to meet in space, really. But she would give it her best effort. The ship, under her tense control, approached the ladder, shuddering every few moments as she changed the jets in quick motions. The first ten yards where the easiest, far below the ladder and getting the back of their ship, where a Class Five had its hatch, under the general position of the other vessel. When Kierra had achieved a stationary position again, she waited.
In the quiet of the cabin, Kierra felt suddenly alone again. True, Samson was awake and on board, but she was isolated in the front section of the vessel, cut off for a moment from other friendly, living people. And they where with a strange vessel, that, despite knowing nothing about them, was letting them aboard. What if they where space robbers? She had never in her life heard of such a thing, or even rumors of such, but there where first times for everything. Perhaps they where military personnel there to take the iridium? It was certainly valuable, and such an advanced ship spoke of vast funds, which in turn lent itself to the armed forces. The smell of tobacco, plastics and sweat was heavy in the air, and Kierra breathed deeply to calm herself. It was more of a home smell than most others. Getting up out of the chair, she stood and stretched, allowing her dirty tank top with the Thendrall logo stretch and show her midriff for a moment. As she finished her yawn and set her bones back into place, a red light on the diagnostic lit up. Samson was ready.
She opened up visual communications with him, and saw the bubble-face of his suit, and, a moment later, his gloved hands, giving the thumbs up. Returning it, she went back to the controls, watching him disappear up their own ladder, dragging the tether for connecting the ships behind him. It was a thick cable as large around as his fist, and he carried it in the low-gravity of the Transfer Room with apparent ease. Breathing steadily, Kierra fired several jets all about the ship, keeping it at a shaky, painstakingly-slow ascent toward the latter. A message appeared that Samson had opened the hatch. Good, he was ready. Slowly, slowly, she brought the vessel close, keeping just below the ladder. For an agonizingly slow moment, she thought she was going to smash their vessel into it, but then, it ended, and with a whoop on the radio, Samson made contact, the line's hooked end snaking its way onto the bars. Cautiously, and with Samson's word's to guide, she brought the ship closer. A moment later, the mechanic had attached the ladder with the gravity-lock, and the ships where secured.
Kierra shut off all the nonessential systems and left her post at the cockpit. It was a hard thing to do, giving up that kind of control. In the dead, spatial quiet, she proceeded down to the suit room, a heavily-secured area where the team's space and hazardous environment clothing was stored, along with most repair tools and the two firearms kept on board. Inside she found her suit, designed for the tallest person aboard at one point eight meters, and began to put it on. The large green, black and orange construction took a good five minutes to get into, and then strapping on the oxygen, the comm-gear, the helmet, the gloves and the boots took another five. Finally, she was ready, and, putting the heavy polymer helmet in place and activating the vacuum clamp, opened the slow, relaxed door to the air lock to join Samson. It took a minute for the whole thing to decompress, but she was in with her companion, who was standing again at the bottom of the ladder, in no time.
"Ready?" Samson was actually really excited, or at least trying to make Kierra believe he was. The Helmsman herself felt nervous and a little queasy, probably in part to the maneuver she had just completed. Slowly, the two advanced up the ladder, Kierra, as the senior officer, first. The bars where enormously thick and strong, and the gaps between where only navigable because of the extremely low gravity. Had they been planetside, the thing would have been unnavigable. Perhaps they deployed a different one in a heavy-gravity environment. They climbed, up into the light of the open segment of the other ship's lock, and waited, breathing heavily into their helmets and through radio contact. After a moment, the hatch opened, slowly, in an odd circular shape that Kierra had never seen. Very unusual indeed. Pushing herself up with the trained, proper motion, she sailed into the small, cylindrical room, Samson following as he remotely shut their own ship. The tether had been strung through a specially designed hole, and, now seeing a similar, if oddly shaped device inside the new locale, Kierra attached the end that had accompanied her suit. The two spacers waited.
After a moment, the hatch behind them shut, slowly, and the tether fitted itself neatly into the hole, just as they had anticipated. As soon as said hatch was shut, the one above, identically shaped, opened itself. A light, much brighter than any the under-powered Halcyon had seen in weeks, streaked through, and for a moment, the two where blinded. An implied hand reached down in the light, and Kierra took it, feeling it's odd, extremely powerful grip on her own, pulling her up and out of the air lock system. Another reached down for Samson. The light slowly subsided, leaving the room an easy shade of yellow, like the emergency lights on their own ship. Kierra looked down at the hand holding her suit and jumped. Three fingers, each nearly half a foot long, connected to an arm that seemed to be made from a combination of solid metal rods and bundles of hoses, slowly released her. She followed the odd arm upwards, upwards, to a metal plate shoulder, to a broad, armor-like chest, to a head like a spelunker's searchlight, and jumped.
Never in her life had she even considered the idea. Some children and dreamers speculated, some old men swore by it, and some mad spacers said it was so.
They where not alone.