The size and shape of the deep space field resolved itself into a million piercing points of light. From a mottled mass of brilliance, it slowly transitioned into the blue spectrum, then white, keeping pace with the Relativistic Engines that powered their vessel. As soon as they finished powering down, the instruments starting humming, beeping, and generally carrying out their functions. And all hands aboard her bridge began to listen very carefully for the desired sounds of contact.
For several minutes, sensor returns came back negative. The far-flung planet in the system, its many moons, and the thin trail of asteroids that constituted all stellar mass this far out were about the only things they were picking up. In time, the Captain began to wonder if they were even in the right place.
“We’re sure about these coordinates?” said Mikka, addressing Thoreau at the nav terminal. His hands waved above his touchscreen, absorbing information through contact and assimilating it at near-instantaneous speed. His eyes cleared as he looked up to see her, momentarily breaking from his sensory link.
“The shippers said they found it at the edge of the space lanes. They said it interfered with their nav console, but they made a note of it after they returned to port.”
“I read the report,” Mikka said. “Not very encouraging stuff.”
A few heads turned towards her. Not every member of her crew was privy to the details and she was sure not to say anything more. Hearing about a strange, floating shape in space, one which had given a hauler some serious lumps and its crew nightmares was not something that would go over well with them.
Taking her seat, the Captain accessed the memory file and ran the briefing notes through her mind again. The particulars were a bore, but the holographic representation, reconstructed from what scanner data could be retrieved from the haulers records, were quite interesting. And naturally, the Chairman’s voice droned on in the background, providing the relevant details…
[“…from the basic outline, it appears that what the ship detected has structure to it. It’s roughly spherical in shape… and though it’s dimensions are unclear, our technicians believe that it should measure the size of a small meteoroid.]
Structure, Mikka thought. A buzzword the xeno-types loved to use, employed whenever they found something they thought conformed to their expectations. Chairman Bukhari continued…
[“what is less mysterious is the effect it had on the commercial ship that made the approach. As soon as they got within a single AU of the object, they detected some high-energy gravimetric field. But instead of being pulled in, the ship was essentially pushed away. The crew tried to engage their engines to fight against the force of it, but that only made things worse. By the time they stopped spinning backwards and regained control of their vessel, they hightailed it back to Lagos station and filed a report.”]
And Explorations decided to send us out, the good old guinea pigs, she thought.
[“Luckily, our astrophysicists have a theory. We believe an approach will be possible if done by a ship that does not have significant mass and is simultaneously running in on minimal power. I don’t pretend to understand the physics, but I’m counting on you and your crew to get it done. Getting within close proximity is key, since we plan…]
“Captain,” said Thoreau, interrupting her Recall. “Sensor returns are coming back and it looks like we have something.”
“Something,” said Mikka. “Care to elaborate?”
Thoreau chuckled, his eyes staring at something far off that on one else could see. “It’s got a gravimetric signature, which is why its coming up at all. But from the looks of it, its not much bigger that a commsat.”
“Helmsman,” she said, calling out to the man in the pilot’s chair. “Plot an intercept course and bring us to within five AUs.”
“Yes, Captain,” said Joshan, relaying the coordinates provided by Thoreau and bringing the sublights on line. The ship slowly began to move forward, her hull shuttering slightly as the engines fired off a burst of ionic propulsion.
The sensors pinged loudly, each chime getting more pronounced the closer they got. Outside the bridge window, the starfield shifted as the ship tilted and groaned as Joshan altered their course periodically. Every course change brought them closer, dodging between major stellar objects and avoiding their gravitational influences.
The chimes reached a crescendo. Thoreau looked up with a start when something new entered into his augmented perceptions.
“Captain, I’ve got the object on my screens. Shall I bring up a visual?”
“Yes,” she replied. “And turn off that damn noise, we all know we’re in the ballpark.”
In the center of the bridge, an image formed as billions of targeted photons came together to form the shape of a red sphere. The surface was mottled and opaque, indicating that they were too far out to get an accurate reading on its features. It appeared the reports had been semi-accurate. At this distance, their sensors should have been able to map out every nook and cranny on its surfaces. Only a powerful gravity well, concentrated in such a small object.
However, they had been off in one respect. Bukhari had said in his briefing that it was “roughly spherical” in shape. But even through an incomplete visual construct, Mikka could tell its shape was anything but rough. In fact, she was willing to bet good money, perhaps even her entire commission from this find, that it was a perfect sphere, right down to its microscopic dimensions.
One had to assume there was something especially significant about that. Perhaps the xeno-freaks would finally have something to pour over after all…
“Coming up on five astronomical units, Captain. Firing reverse-thrusters now.”
There was a quick burst of white light as the stopping thrusters fired, the ionic trails showing up just outside the bridge window. When they came to a total stop, the ship issued one last groan as the structure flexed to absorb the change in inertia.
“We’ve reached pre-specified distance, Captain. Retro thrusters firing to maintain position and attitude.”
“Very good, pilot,” she said. “Maintain our position and prep a shuttle. We’re going in for a retrieval.”
Joshan and everyone else on the bridge turned to look at her. Everyone except Thoreau, who’s senses were too inundated with sensor data to look at her directly. However, he still leered over his shoulder.
“Captain, are you sure about this?”
“Company order,” she said, standing up from her chair. “Whatever this thing is, its need to be brought back.”
“But Captain…” said Thoreau. “How are we going to get close to this thing? The last people who tried we sent back home with their tails tucked between their legs.”
“A theory,” she said. “One which we’re forced to carry out.”
The bay doors slid open to admit the man himself. For those watching, the techs and security personnel called in to guard the object, the sudden presence of the boss was the perfect reason to straighten up and either look busy or vigilant. Of course, none of them could fail to notice the presence of the woman walking beside him. Not exactly prim or proper, and from her flight jacket and slacks to the small protrusions on her face that indicated sub-dermal implants, she looked every bit the spacer.
No one could say why the boss would have a grunt in tow with him, but then again, the day staff didn’t ask questions. They simply tended to “the artifact” – the spherical object that sat within a series of restraints in the center of the room – and kept their speculations to themselves.
Only those who had entered together really knew what was going on and who stood to benefit. And only they were talking on this particular morning as they stepped into the containment area.
“I imagine this is not quite as exciting as seeing it for the first time, no?” said Bukhari to Mikka.
“Well… it’s hard to recreate the thrill of first contact. But this was still very kind of you.”
“Nonsense,” said Bhukari with a wave of the hand. “We all owe its capture to you, so I thought it only fitting you get another look at it before its shipped off to an undisclosed facility, to be poured over by legions of specialists and xenologists.”
She chuckled. “Yeah, we did suspect it would disappear the moment we brought it back to port. Good to see it didn’t.”
“And yet, I imagine when it does move on, we won’t learn a thing. Even I can expect the findings to be classified beyond my level of clearance. Pity.”
She knew exactly what he meant. Seeing it again, she could recall with perfect clarity just how awestruck she was when she first saw it. Hell, she didn’t even need to go through Recall to experience it again, playing the memory back courtesy of the digital backup she had archived. It had been that memorable that she only needed to see it again to remember exactly how small and insignificant it made her feel.
Considering the that sphere was less than a meter across, that was no small feet. But the size was not the issue. It was the intricate patterns it had all over the surface. These consisted of winding lines that seemed to delineate grid spaces, each of which was etched with symbols and grooves off different sizes, lengths, and depths. And at what had been designated the center of the thing, three circles were placed, tiny indentations in a small triangle formation. Nobody in Explorations had been able to make heads or tails of it all. She wondered if anybody back in the Colonies would fare any better…
It was strange, but she felt the oddest feeling again, looking at it. Somehow, the spacing and placement of those three indentations made her think about an interface terminal. Could it be that the species that had created this, whoever they were, possessed this idiosyncrasy as well? Simply place your hand to a touchscreen or finger sized portal, and be able to transmit or receive information?
Looking to her right, she noticed that Bukhari was busy speaking to the head of the security detail. She couldn’t hear what they were saying at the moment, and really didn’t care much. The technicians appeared to be on the other side of the sphere, and the remaining security guards all seemed blissfully unaware of what was going on. No doubt, they were deliberately attempting to not notice the presence of the Chairman and the strange woman he had arrived with.
It was a standard underling thing, she knew. Standing still and doing nothing when the boss was around reduced the chance of making a mistake, and hence being reprimanded.
Looking to the sphere again, she carefully stepped towards it, obsessively checking over her shoulder to make sure no one was looking. She eyed the three holes, once again appraising them to be perfectly spaced apart for her purpose. Three holes, three fingers, making direct contact, achieving a union that would –
“Captain!” The shout rang out just as her fingers landed. Not in time to stop her. She felt a curious sensation, like a big thump or some kind of tremor. No pain, but the sensation of a force strong enough to break her contact with the waking world…
The sounds of hands clapping and a bright light were what she remembered next. She couldn’t tell how long she had been under, whether it had been seconds or days. But she was aware of the fact that she was lying on the deck, and Bukhari and the rest were all standing over her.
“Captain… are you alright?” he asked.
She let out a loud utterance, then drew a deep breath. She could faintly recall something dark and terrible, hanging on her mind and pushing her downward. That darkness seemed to last for some time, stretching on from the last moment she had had before. She looked up again and saw the sphere… and remembered.
Yes, she had reached out to it. Everything after that point was shrouded and black, but she could feel something terrible lurking beneath. And that point in her mind stretched onwards for some time. And now she was back in the light. It was piercing and the sounds around her quite intense, but she could feel her body and mind adjusting. Something was demanding she come back and do something… say something…
After taking several breaths, Bukhari and one of the guards sat her up.
“Why did you do that? Why did you touch the artifact?”
“Artifact?” she said. The word didn’t seem to fit somehow. “What are you talking about?”
“The artifact. You touched it,” he said, pointing. “Why did you do that? No one has touched it since it was procured without protection. You know that!”
She could feel something else rising up from the depths. Slowly, the sense of purpose she had felt a moment ago was taking shape. The word artifact made even less sense to her now, and she was even beginning to understand why…
“Captain, are you sure you’re alright? We have a med tech coming, but I need you tell me, why would you expose yourself like that to the artifact like that?”
“It’s not an artifact!” she said finally. “It’s a message…”
There was a moment of silence. Those around her looked at each other incredulously. “What do you mean, a message?”
“That’s what it contains,” she added, placing her fingers to her temples. The dark space in her mind was becoming perfectly clear now. The transmission, the way it had overwhelmed her when it passed into her body. Never before had anything been so clear, even through Recall.
Slowly, she found the strength to get to her feet and share with the rest of them the terrible knowledge that had come into possession of.
“This thing is some kind of emissary. It contains a message in it, and I made contact when I touched it.”
Bukhari drew a deep breath and stepped closer to her, his eyes now fixed on the sphere with a sudden, reverential fear. “What was the message?”
“The people that built this,” she said, with a slight pause. “They just demanded our unconditional surrender. It says they have an armada heading towards us as we speak, and asks that we lay down our weapons and welcome them.”
“And if we don’t?” asked Bukhari, though unnecessarily. For the tremble in his voice, it was clear he knew the answer.
“Or else, we all die.” Mikka nodded, her face grim and white. “We just made contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence, sir. And they saw fit to give us an ultimatum…”
“An ultimatum,” Bukhari echoed, his voice barely more than a whisper.
And for what felt like an eternity, every face in the room remained fixed on the sphere that hung before them. Whatever trace of awe and wonder they had once felt for it were now gone, replaced instead with a horrid understanding, and plenty of dread!