In a desolate void fifty light years from Dellal, the Faith and the Fox waited. The mysterious ship, invisible if not for the plasma flare and that it was blocking a few stars in the background, had frustrated any further attempt at scanning. On the bridge of the Faith, John tapped his fingers on his armrest. The door behind him opened, and Milly, Dana, and Sparrow entered.
“Report,” said John.
“Richter’s on the ventral fifty,” replied Sparrow. “Aldebaran is on the dorsal gun.”
“Good. Captain Kitsune, are you still monitoring us?”
“Roger,” said Vecky’s voice.
“Are you all ready over there?”
“Okay. Mind if I take the lead on contact?”
“Go for it.”
“Christie, open a channel on all known frequencies.”
“You’re live,” said Christie.
“This is Commander Scherer of the independent vessel Reckless Faith. Identify yourselves and state your intentions. Out.”
The others took their stations and everyone waited. Seconds ticked by until two minutes had passed.
“Maybe they think we haven’t actually spotted them,” said Dana.
“Fine, I’ll prove it.”
John squeezed a trigger on his flight controls and sent a standard plasma shot across the bow of the other ship. Again, they were met with silence.
“Could be a drone,” said Aldebaran over the intercom.
“I’m going to get a closer look. Christie, activate the invisibility shield. Captain Kitsune, defense posture Alpha.”
John pushed the throttle forward. The Fox fell in two kilometers behind them, at their low four o’clock. John approached to within one thousand meters and brought the ship to a stop. Other than the almond oval of the dark ship’s outline, nothing further could be seen.
“It’s like looking into pure nothingness,” said Milly.
“Wasn’t there something like this in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe?” asked Dana.
John grunted. “It’s been awhile for me, Dana. Kitsune, anything new on your sensors?”
“I’m still showing zilch,” she replied.
“Well, I suppose we can just ignore each other for now. Other than acting creepy, they haven’t taken any host…”
A bright flash emanated from the bow of the ship. The lights flickered briefly.
“That was an EMP,” said Dana, working at her console. “Wait, scratch that. It was a wave of fermionic radiation in the ten-to-the-fourteenth electron-volt range. We seem to be unaffected by it.”
“We’re fine over here, Commander,” came the reply. “We’re familiar with that type of weapon and have developed a countermeasure. It’s the same type of discharge that killed the last crew of the Fox.”
“Are you absolutely sure?”
Cane chimed in over the radio. “I’m looking at the data, Scherer. It’s an exact match.”
“Fuck it,” said John, and squeezed the trigger.
An incandescent salvo of blue plasma and 30mm tracers shot out from underneath the bridge, aimed dead center of the dark ship. The noise was almost unbearable. The Faith was already banking away when the rounds struck.
“Ooh, pretty,” said Sparrow.
“Fox, attack pattern Bravo.”
“We’ve lost visual contact,” replied Vecky.
“Same here,” said Dana.
John adjusted his throttle. “Withdraw to one hundred kilometers. Watch your six.”
After traveling the desired distance, both ships came about and waited. The sensors on the Faith were negative, and after a few minutes the Fox also reported no additional contact.
“They seem to have bugged out,” said Dana.
Christie said, “At this distance, I doubt I’m going to be able to find them the same way I did last time.”
John tapped his index finger on the flight stick. “I want to look at the footage from when I fired. Put it on the main screen, please.”
“You got it.”
A moment later, a recording of the requested event appeared. John had turned the bow of the ship before the rounds struck, so Christie switched to the view from the ventral turret. The plasma bursts and 30mm tracers could be seen crossing the distance to the ship, then vanishing. John put his chin in his hands.
“No impact flashes at all. Thoughts?”
Dana said, “They could have energy absorbing technology like ours. To my knowledge we never asked any of our allies what our ship looks like when it takes a hit. I mean, when we weren’t using the invisibility shield, too.”
“I suppose it’s less likely,” began Christie, “though possible, that we were just seeing a projection of a ship that is out of phase with our spacetime. Hell, it could even be some type of anomaly and not a ship at all.”
“Okay,” began John, “If it was a ship, it had no problem following us in superlume. So there’s no point in trying to run from it. We’ll stay here until the Fox is fixed. I want us on full alert for two hours, then we’ll resume our normal shifts. Any objections?”
“That sounds fine with me,” said Vecky.
“Good. We don’t need to be chasing two types of ghosts all over the galaxy.”
“Wake up, K.T.!”
Kalle was startled awake from the message from her PDA. A quick glance at it showed her that it was 0200 local time, and she had been asleep for three hours. She also saw an open channel from Polson, so she grabbed it and groggily replied.
“A ship just crashed about twenty miles west of here,” began Polson. “Not sure what type. It came out of superlume too close to the moon and that was that. Command wants us to go check it out. Marlen is already warming up the Sprinter.”
Kalle switched on her bedside lamp and blinked. “I’ll be in Ops in five minutes.”
Though she felt like death, Kalle dutifully got dressed and armed herself. She performed a quick check of her oxygen system, and headed to Ops. Polson was at the main bank of consoles, looking equally dreadful in the dim light. Their ancient corferic machine gurgled and sputtered in the corner as it brewed a fresh pot of the dark liquid. Kalle walked past a few rows of disused work stations to where Polson was seated.
“Good morning,” she groaned. “At least I think it’s morning. What do we have?”
“Not much. See for yourself.”
She peered at one of the screens. Their sensor data was from their newest ship, the Gosling, parked on the surface nearby. Since the mine didn’t have exterior sensors of its own, they had a constant connection to the ship for that purpose. The information it provided wasn’t particularly enlightening. The ship that crashed was only scanned for several seconds before it went off the sensors, and most of that time it was engulfed in a fireball from its barely controlled entry into Leda’s atmosphere. Still, the crash site could be extrapolated with ease. It wouldn’t take long for the Sprinter to get there.
“All right, then. Dibs on any booze we recover.”
Kalle walked out, eyeing the corferic with mute desire. She made her way to the main elevator and hit the button for the surface. She donned her oxygen mask, flipped up her hood, and watched the doors slide open. Marlen had moved the Sprinter to just a few yards away, so she jogged up to the starboard side hatch and crawled inside.
The Sprinter was a two-seater, the flight deck just barely large enough for both of them. Well suited for both atmospheric flight and space operations, it was nonetheless limited in how long its pilots could comfortably fly it. The wings could fold up for storage in a larger craft, but they had never needed that feature. It was lightly armed per the rules of Cygnian territory, so its twin 23mm cannons were really only useful for defense. Though there were lots of illegal options for offensive armaments, a surprise inspection would quickly detect them.
Marlen gave Kalle a cursory greeting, and waited for her to secure her harness before lifting off. Nighttime on Leda rarely got too dark, depending on where Dellal V and other moons were, but at that moment all that was overhead were stars. Marlen switched on the infrared overlay and brought the Sprinter up to 2,000 meters. After he set their speed to a leisurely 300kph, it only took a few minutes to find the crash site.
The ship had come in at a low angle, and dug a furrow almost half a kilometer long into the surface of a shallow canyon. The ship itself appeared to be intact, and though smoke and dust rose from the canyon, they couldn’t see any fires burning. It was at least a hundred meters long, and a third as high, and in daylight would have appeared a uniform matte gray. It was shaped like a tapered oval, with the narrow end as the bow. Marlen brought the Sprinter through a slow circle of the site.
“I don’t recognize its construction,” said Kalle.
“Me neither. Should I run a full scan?”
“Why not? Take us down to five hundred.”
The Sprinter swooped down as he initiated the scans. On the next circuit, an ugly scar of battle damage could be seen on the starboard side.
Kalle said, “It looks like they were in a fight.”
“Seems that way. I’m not getting a match for any known ship designs in our database. Scans are indicating Cygnian construction… wait, I got a match on its stardrive. Cygnian Heavy Industries Mark VII-B. It was definitely built around here.”
She leaned back in her seat. “Fuck, Marlen. Could it be a shadow ship?”
“It would seem to fit the scant description from those who claim to have encountered one. It could also simply be an unknown entity that purchased the Mark VII from a third party and retrofitted it to their own ship.”
“Yeah, but I’m not detecting any transmissions. Unless their communications system was knocked out in the crash, wouldn’t they be calling for help?”
“I don’t know, K.T.”
“We should call General…”
Marlen interrupted, “We’re being scanned. Somebody’s still alive down there.”
“Is the IFF protocol engaged?”
“Of course it is, by default. We’re supposed to be innocent miners out here.”
“Okay, then we might as well hail them. Open a channel.”
“This is Technician Tulle representing COMET. Please identify yourselves and indicate if you are in need of assistance, over.”
Through a bad transmission, a voice replied. “This is Captain Sikkset of the independent vessel Intercept. We do not require aid at this time. You need to be aware that we have a containment leak. For your safety, quarantine this area to a thirty kilometer radius. Out.”
“Understood, Intercept. If your long range transceiver is not functioning, we can relay a message for you, over.”
After almost a full minute of silence, Kalle shrugged. Marlen looked at her.
“This would make sense if it was a shadow ship,” he said.
“And there’s no sign of a reactor leak on the scans?”
“Not a tick.”
Kalle mulled this over. “At this point I think we need guidance from command.”
“I agree. To be safe, we should RTB and use our secure system to make the call.”
Marlen pushed forward on the flight stick, and guided the Sprinter back toward the east. The pair sat quietly for a couple of minutes. From their six, an impossibly bright light appeared. Glancing behind their ship through the cockpit canopy, they could see a mushroom cloud rising from the canyon. Muttering an indecipherable Rakhar invective, Marlen slammed the throttle forward. He and Kalle were squashed into their seats until the Sprinter hit Mach 2, its top atmospheric velocity.
“Holy fuck,” said Kalle.
“For the love of the core, if we had lingered for two more minutes, we’d be vapor.”
“I wonder how many people were on that ship. What a way to go.”
Marlen grunted. “If it was a shadow ship, they very well may have self-destructed.”
“That would be good news, right? One less thorn in our side.”
“K.T., that ship was shot down. What or whomever did that could be our enemy, too.”
Kalle sighed, and looked up at the stars. “Or the best allies the resistance ever had.”
The command center for the City of the Swan was on the outer edge of its eastern side, five stories above street level. From here, an observer had an excellent view of the city, and a plethora of security cameras covered almost every angle. It was one of the few places that God had never deemed necessary for remodeling; the only addition was to extend the clear dome over the command center itself. At night, with the stars overhead, it had the potential to be a relaxing place. Whether or not that was ever true was unknown to Acolyte Dann, who rarely had a reason to visit it.
He was there that morning, called to an emergency meeting by General Redcliff. His senior staff were vaguely familiar to Dann, though if not for their nametags he would have no hope of remembering their names. When he arrived in the conference room adjacent to the command center, he found them to be wearing the less formal version of their dress uniforms. Whatever the reason for the meeting, it was not in advance of the arrival of another Visitor. The muted gray clothing and subdued rank insignia implied a routine meeting, but the tone in the air was tense. Dann found an empty chair at the large oval table in the center of the room, and sat down.
“That’s everybody, then?” began Redcliff. “Good. Ladies and gentlemen, we have lost the Zeus. Acolyte Dann, I shouldn’t have to tell you that you’re only here as God’s liaison, and you may not reveal this information to any mortal.”
Confused, Dann nodded. “Of course, sir.”
“For reasons that will become clear, you and Colonel Asterson are the only ones here who don’t know what the Zeus was up to, so here’s a brief rundown.”
Dann glanced at Asterson across the table. The dark recesses of his memory were telling him that she was with the Cygnian Public Affairs office. Redcliff activated a monitor on the wall, and brought up a diagram of the Primarian and Matesian systems, which Dann would have had no hope of recognizing if they weren’t helpfully labeled. The General continued.
“The Zeus was on a six month assignment to the Primarian and Matesian systems, some five hundred light years from here. Its mission was the same as any of our Clandestine Fleet, to identify and mitigate possible threats to the SCC. Due to the extreme distance, communication was impossible. Everything that I’m about to tell you was learned only after they returned to Dellal. Several weeks ago, shortly after their arrival in the Primarian system, they discovered, less than one light year away, the Eagle asteroid.”
Various expressions of shock were offered. Redcliff raised his hand for silence. General Moffile, their second in command, spoke.
“Was it confirmed to be a Stymphalian Raptor?”
“That’s what the report said. Please hold your questions until I’m done. So, the Zeus began to gather as much information as possible about the Eagle, which wasn’t difficult considering Eaglite shuttles had been visiting Primarian planets. The main gist is that while their civilization is stable, their primary reactor is offline and they’re seeking local technicians to help rebuild it. This makes it extremely likely that their Progenitor host is no longer present. The Zeus also became aware of an independent vessel that was making frequent trips to the asteroid, a Delphinus-class ship called the Fox. This ship was recently joined by another, yet unidentified ship, with invisibility technology almost as good as ours. When these two ships went light directly toward Dellal, they decided to follow.
“Before they left, they had procured a new weapon from a local source. We don’t have much information on the specifics, only that it was a directed energy weapon capable of killing organic life while leaving technology mostly undamaged. Yesterday, the Fox had some sort of engine trouble and had to drop out of superlume about fifty light years from here. Shortly afterward, the Zeus was detected and tried out their new weapon. It was apparently ineffective, and the other ships returned fire. Seriously damaged, the Zeus went light but dropped out too close to Leda. It was after crash landing on the surface that they transmitted all of this information to us, then made the decision to self-destruct lest our technology fall into the wrong hands. As far as we know, there were no survivors.”
Redcliff took a sip from a glass of water and let his words sink in. It was obvious to Dann that these events were a serious blow to the command staff. For the young acolyte himself, it was the first confirmation that the Clandestine Fleet actually existed. Despite being God’s liaison, he was often the last to know what the hell was going on within the SCC.
“So the Fox and this other ship,” began Asterson. “Was the Zeus able to confirm that they were headed to the Swan, specifically?”
“No, but we have to assume they’re looking for us, and act accordingly. These unknown people have already proven that they’re a serious threat, but for now it looks like they acted in self-defense. Their ultimate goals remain a mystery.”
Moffile said, “Two ships don’t stand a chance against our entire fleet. We should rally against them now.”
“It’s an option. I would prefer to take a neutral stance until we know more. Dann, it’s up to you to find out how God wants to proceed.”
Dann said, “With all due respect, sir, there’s no guarantee God will have anything to say about this at all. I can but ask.”
Redcliff nodded grimly. “I share your frustration. Even without His guidance, we can but hope these strangers aren’t a threat.”
“Yes, sir. If they’ve been to the Eagle, I’m sure we’ll have a lot to talk about.”