Story Submissions for Art Challenge 4

As promised, here’s my submission for the story challenge. Sorry for the delay!

I aimed at first below 2K words and found myself just below 2k5. I hope you enjoy despite its length.




The sparkle

– On your console, private Karl!

The cold snapping voice of the warrant officer Beth startled Karl from his daydreaming. He immediately straightened up on his chair and checked his gauges and indicators. As he became quickly relieved to see that nothing was wrong, he silently sighed and let his adrenaline rush settle down.
Going back to his comfortable position on his chair, arms folded, he opened his voice communication to reply in a lazy voice:

– What’s going on, warrant officer Beth?
– You’re kidding me, private Karl? You’re supposed to keep your hands close to the console!
– Come on, Beth, the autopilot is doing just fine! Besides, the Deltas are not going to attack us this deep without being noticed and intercepted first.
– That’s warrant officer Beth to you!

Her last heated response brought a small silence. Karl pondered if he should calm down this conversation… no, he’s not going to lose this argument to a bad-tempered woman.

– Just because our company has agreed to play along by your rules and your “yellow code” doesn’t mean you own us. So let’s keep friendly, Beth… just call me “Karl”.

The absence of reply brought a victorious grin on his face. It was easy to imagine the steam of rage coming out of Beth. Though he never met her in person yet, she didn’t struck him as someone with a quick mind from the beginning of this mining expedition. No wonder she joined a mercenary band. Probably better with her fists than her tongue. Or perhaps is she? He wouldn’t mind testing that from the holograms he…

– You insignificant piece of civilian…
– Calm down, warrant officer Beth. Karl is just teasing you. He’s not a fine soldier like you guys are, but he respects your work. I’m sure Karl won’t forget the titles… right Karl?
– Yes sir, certainly.

Jim’s thick Irish accent could certainly not be mistaken. His voice always seemed hearty, but he knew his superior long enough now to hear that he was getting irritated. Because of his huge competence in asteroid mining, Jim closed an eye on most of his “teasing” with exterior colleagues. However his reprimands could really be burning.
Fine, he’ll play along. The asteroids fields are getting near anyway, it won’t be long before…

– Warrant officer Beth! There’s something weird. My radar is detecting now small echoes but not continual. Maybe…

Suddenly, Hana’s channel crackled then went dead silent. The Bold Eagle flickered then disappeared on Karl’s radar. Alarms triggered, and went soon after drastically red as orders were shout in the communication channels. But Karl couldn’t react. He was utterly bewildered and frozen. The enemy ships magically appeared on the radar out of nowhere. Who are they? They don’t have the typical Delta signature, nor Centauran…

By the time he got hold of himself again, the autopilot flew him out of Beth’s formation.

Easy prey.

Contemplating a planet view in her private quarter was a rare privilege that she never tired of. Best way to meditate and gather concentration before an important confrontation, also.
Sitting in the lotus position, she was preparing herself. This was not going to be an easy fight, probably a long and trying for her first one, from what she learned of her previous Centauran encounters.

A soft warning sound from her desk computer broke the silence. She was receiving an internal call. This better be worth her time, she asked not to be disturbed until the encounter was ready or for anything below urgency. She stood up and crossed the small distance to her computer. Her living quarter would be branded as “humble” on any planetary building, but on a capital ship it was a real luxury.

As she sat in front the camera to receive the incoming call, she noticed that it was the captain, Gregor. What does he want now?
Accepting the call, Gregor’s rough and square face appeared on the screen. He seemed nervous but he tried hard to hide it. Well, not hard enough for her expert eyes not to notice.

– Yes, captain Gregor?
– Miss Rachelle, we just received an urgent message for you from a newly arrived courier.
– … go on?

Now he appeared somewhat embarrassed.

– It’s flagged as confidential and urgent. I know that you wanted no disturbance and disabled any notifications but I’d figure that, hum … you may want to read it before you go.
– I’ll have a look then.
– Do you want me to transfer it to you?
– I can handle it from here. Thank you captain Gregor.

His features seemed to relax and she saw a creak of a smile just when she closed the call.
Strange. She’s pretty sure he knows that he could have directly transfer the message to her and the system would have treated it accordingly depending on the rules and the flags. In this case, as she discovered when transferring the message by herself, the message would have triggered a warning sound. Is he trying to worm his rank up by getting her favors? He should know that diplomats don’t hold that much power over promotion, especially on military. They don’t even get an official title. Or maybe he’s onto her? Bah, she can’t be trifled with such details for now.

She immediately deleted the missive when she finished reading.
So the prototypes were successful on their first field test. Good. They didn’t expect any escort for a mining operation in the Starfold “safe” zone, which explains why one military ship managed to run away. Still, they performed well with only minor damage and no casualties to report.

But this Starfold runaway might be a problem. This news is already two weeks old, and the courier ship must have departed two days after they were gone. Who knows what the Centauran heard?

The Delta government wants to keep the Centauran out of the current conflict. The rebel Starfold scum is causing enough trouble, no need to add another adversary. And that’s precisely what she’s on this Centauran planet for: convince them that the Delta government is not a threat… for now.

Another call. The communication officer this time.
– Miss Rachelle, the Centaurans have sent the signal for the meeting. Your shuttle is ready and prepared as per your instructions.
– Alright, I’m on my way.

– So, do you believe her?
– Which lie do you refer to?

The door in this corridor to his private quarter was a few steps away, but Counselor Hamond stopped to look his assistant Diana in the eyes. He was the oldest on the council and his hair were mostly white. But he was still very spirited and had excellent insight on most matters, which is why the council offered him an extension of his period on the council… and also because they had difficulties electing a new successor for him.

– I know you don’t buy her pirate or mines scenario for the Starfold incident, Diana. They are giving us over-evaluated figures for their front troops compared to our own measures. Yet I am no fool of diplomat Rachelle’s arguments. They want us asleep, let their war with the Starfold go without our watch or intervention. It’s true that if they fight within the galactic treaty boundaries, the war is in balance and we shouldn’t interfere.

He added a pause to note her reaction before continuing:

– Something is amiss though, both in the diplomat’s speech and her Delta’s government actions. They severed all of their trade routes with us for some time now, claiming they need all available resources for their industries. And while it’s true their conflict with the Starfold needs all their attention, whatever they may say, the trade would certainly not be a strain on their economy. Our spies can certainly gather information, but not always study the military wares on site.
– With all due respect, Hamond, is that why you’re smuggling Delta goods from the Starfold?

With a smile, he certified her finding:

– So you finally discovered my little secret now? Some of the other Couselors know, but not all would agree with my methods according to the galactic treaty. Most of the Starfold smugglers still have good connection with their original homeworld and changing a signature from a small cargo ship is not that difficult. Those who offered their services provided us with good intel. We should keep it that way, if we want the Delta military wares to be still accessible in some way.

Pondering his informations, she asked:

– So we need them to think we’re only mildly interested in the Delta’s current politics, is that your point?
– No, no points. Old men like me don’t bother with making points.
– Is that why there’s no young people at the council?

As Counselor Hammond started to continue to his door, he chuckled:

– Good point. But we’re straying off the subject. When we’ll be discussing now with the Couselors, they may ask you questions. Remember to first present facts, then your opinion and advice. It’s always better perceived that way.
– I’ve never been yet to a Council before, can I ask what kind of questions will they have for me?
– The same I asked you, but in a different manner. Which is: do you believe the Delta governement to be a future threat to us?

Leaning against the cargo ship in a small hangar bay, Joshua was feeling increasingly nervous. She’s been waiting for her contact half an hour now and he’s a dozen minutes late.

The planet Selma-II is one of the few remaining neutral trade hub that has not been claimed by Deltas, joined the Starfold or been under the griping Centauran influence. A small harbour were people from any faction and all around space could meet, exchange information, and sometimes trade smuggled goods. And this was the case: she was assigned to pilot stolen military Delta wares to a Centauran planet outpost.
Her Starfold company always paid well those kind of missions, even though the biggest risk was already taken care of. This time however, the contact that delivered the ware had also to accompagny her. A trusted guy, they said, she’ll recognize him when she sees him, they made sure of that.

Still, she was not taking any unnecessary risks. Small incidents were not uncommon around here and the law allowed people to have weapons inside their personal property. The gun inside her hip holster was a proof.

Facing sideways the only entry point of the hangar, she immediately spotted the green light indicating someone was entering. Drawing her gun out, just in case, she waited for the door to open. A bald and rather old looking man entered…

– Hank! They sent you!
– Joshua. I’m glad you’re my designated driver.

Putting back the gun in the holster, she came to him to shake hands.

– Never thought our company would assign the head division of Mineral Department for this.
– Well, here I am. Sorry about the delay, there was more to work on than anticipated. The cargo is ready to be loaded, we’ll talk more inside your ship.

Once the loading was done, they went to a small compartment inside the ship that served as a all-around purpose room, including kitchenette and coffee break.

– So Hank, am I even allowed to ask what’s going on?

Taking a sip of coffee offered by Joshua, he wondered:

– How much do you know of the current space politics between Centaurans and Deltas?
– To be honest, not that much. They don’t see each other eye to eye. Some say the Deltas are looking to conquer them as well, but with the hell we’re getting them into, they’re not risking yet an engagement with another adversary. They may possess the necessary military force but they probably have to keep the most “rebellious” conquests in line.
As for the Centaurans, well… they want to act as peace keepers but ultimately, they would see everyone embrace their “balance” and way of life by any means if diplomacy doesn’t work. Bloody hypocrites if you ask me.

To these assessments, Hank noted.

– The rumors you heard are very close to the truth. You see, the Centaurans are slow to act but still would like any excuse to start pounding some Deltas. They’ve been monitoring them without being really successful so they started taking a look on their military stuff. They had some so far, but not those we’re about to deliver. What can you tell me about mines?
– The “unpredictable death”? A surprise it still exists in our modern times but still efficient in specific situations. Why? You don’t mean…

As her eyes grow wider with fear, Hank reassured her.

– Don’t worry, those we got here are safe, I neutralized them myself. You see, they respond to a specific energy signature which is hard-coded inside them. Either you tell who not to blow up, which is risky if your fleet gets a new ship; or who to blow up, which can lead to some enemies being ignored, but at least your fleet is safe. The latter is the chosen option almost exclusively. But to remain at maximum radar stealth, they only rely on passive sensors and accept no radio inputs from any kind once armed. So far so good?

Slowly, Joshua approved.

– Therefore, once at war or preparing one, the catalog of signatures is given to the manufacturer. And once build, they cannot be overridden unless a manual work is done.
– I don’t get it… Those mines are certainly directed against us, right?
– Yes. And I reprogrammed them with Centauran signatures. Their spies think no one except Deltas has the skill to manually program one and that Centaurans know just enough to disable them. But there are quite a few of us engineers that managed to escape the Delta’s grip before it was too late.

Frowning with reflection, she spoke out loudly her thoughts:

-… and so when the Centaurans get the mines, they’ll think the Deltas are preparing something. And they won’t like it especially that mines are already borderline with galactic treaties.
– Indeed. The Starfold Corporate Assembly has approved this plan. Other similar operations of “smuggling” are undergoing, we’re one of the first batch. And I’m here to make sure that one of these babies gets “bumpy” once we deliver them and get far away. Accidents with mines always happen. Just to stir the hive a bit.
– Ok, I get this part… but why did you accept this?

Hank’s Irish accent grew more distant and cold.

– Why? Well… I have lost someone of my family a few months ago. I want those Deltas to pay for it, one way or another, whatever the cost.

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(2496 words, actually)


Reunion

It had been thirty years that André Vanamonde, presently captain of the old, reliable and beloved XE-62b class long-range explorer ship Jumping Clock, had spent roaming the vast expanses of unexplored space, and yet new worlds still found new ways to marvel him. Glittering crystal fields in lieu of pole caps, planets still ringing from an ancient, Cyclopean collision, islands of strange compounds floating on oceans of mercury…
This one wasn’t. So when a priority-2 message suddenly came from the bridge, the apprehension he should have felt was replaced by the relief of leaving this list of dreary little rockballs for another time.
“Skipper, we got an unplanned probe transmission. Code B3 – looks like someone picked it.”
Now that was unusual.

While hurrying toward the bridge, his mind was already trying to make sense of it.
They were utterly far from inhabited space, about four years away with the skim-haulers of the Explorer Corps, some of the fastest ships ever. Even the Jumping Clock home outpost laid a month away on their own impressive drives, and it was the only known structure in the region.
They could have stumbled upon some other exploration initiative, but then they should have had a running transponder, and code B3 meant there had been none – the mark of outlaws. Criminals had no reason to be that far away from the societies they preyed upon, though.
It could be a failing ship, in bad enough shape to have its transponder down. It had happened before, calling for help through a probe. Some pirates had even set up ambushes that way, but the Explorer Corps was very good at hunting ships down. Survivors had learned not to provoke it.
Exiles, maybe? It had been two thousand years since they restarted civilisation from those of the improbable, run-down convoy that had somehow made it through four decades of Exodus. There had been plenty of time for people dissatisfied with the polity for trying their luck in the great dark. A few succeeded – after all, they now had experience with homeworld-fleeing convoys – and a few of the Federation States, ironically enough, had even started that way. But that was much further than any known exile had ever gone, and even the smallest, “crazy loners” ones would have been detected before reaching the sector.
Then again, it could be their original mission, and the true reason for his presence.

“Cadet Vanamonde, what are your reasons for volunteering for Geodesia Sector?

  • I have always been fascinated by Geodesian and Convoy history. And, quite frankly, I like being that far from home. A few people on a good ship, a few more at an outpost from time to time, far enough from civilisation to enjoy the peace but not just cut-off, and knowing that I will come back some day…
  • Yes, your psychological profile fits this type of mission well. But Geodesia itself is still unreachable, and the Convoy path is pretty much explored there. What exactly are your motivations?
  • Well… Sir, I think we’ve got a better chance to find about the Ark in this region. We can try to guess where it drifted, but without exact knowledge of the hypermap at the time, the exact specs of the Arc and the myriad of little things that would have affected it in flight, our hypotheses on where she drifted are pretty useless.
    “On the other hand, Geodesia is the one place we know hold significance for both them and us. If they survived and rebuilt starships, it’s the one place we can expect them to send them.
  • That’s why our experts think as well, and that’s actually one of the reasons why we pushed so hard to reach it.
  • You still think we can find them? Uh, I mean…
  • You mean that we are doing great finding new worlds and making interstellar surveys, but everyone knows that the Ark is probably dead, or we would have found them by now. You’re expected to, after all our PR is avoiding the subject of that primary mission we keep failing at for a millennium past.
    “But let me tell you, Cadet, the Explorer Corps doesn’t give up like that. Not after one millennium, not after ten if we’re still at it.
    “Now, that’s not the only reason for this push. It’s still the only type of D-type Nova we know of, we don’t know how it works, how it messes hyperspace up or even when it will go off. Or if it really is a factor in our sapience evolving, instead of an absurdly vast coincidence – assuming you ignore the likes of AM- or Earth-theory. With that alone, it would be on our list like Central Black Hole, Dorian’s Shrill or the NSP.
    “And the truth is, everyone is hoping we will find them. Not just the Government or the Admirals, people still hope. Sure, she is probably dead, drifting in outer space or crashed on a nameless world, they say. But they want to know. And secretly, they want to believe the Ark found its beautiful world and founded a peaceful, fulfilling society, that they haven’t found us because they simply focused on their new home.
    “You seems to disagree, Cadet.
  • … If it really was such Utopia, why didn’t they at least try to share it with their lost brothers? They should be searching for us as we are for them. And unlike us, they had carefully prepared terraforming, civ-restarting gear and doctrines. With such a head start, they should be there already.
    “If they survived, it means they hit major setbacks. Pre-Exodus history has many examples; facing that, people don’t build Utopia.
  • Then, why searching for them? Why making it personal?
  • Because time will only make it worse!”
    As if it had struck a long-dormant chord in the young cadet, he suddenly dropped the careful tone of a candidate to his evaluator.
    “How would their culture drift? Did they they go through dark ages? The more we wait, the more we will be set apart – and the more the reunion may turn sour. What if they became, say, full cyborgs? What if they don’t want to have anything to do with us?
    “What if they are cyborgs and want to do the same to us? What if they are stronger than us? Then again, in the last two thousand years, we fared pretty well, all things considered. As I said, if they didn’t turn isolationists, they shouldn’t have much of an advance. And we still have quite some military, if it came to that – one thing the Exile Wars did for us. But in two more millennia? Who knows what may happen? Who knows if it shouldn’t be for them to fear us at this point?
    “In fact, maybe they should already fear us. This is what made me decide, actually – what keeps me awake, some nights. I’ve studied pre-Exodus history. Even with good will, even with seemingly adequate regulations, botched first contacts between unknown civilisations turned into disasters. And now we are the only ones left. We can not allow for a botched first contact.
    “That why I want to be out there. I know that I’ll never find them. I know that even if they are found, it will be as a lifeless hulk. But however remote is the chance, I have to take it – and make sure it goes right if it ever happen.”
    Realizing he was half-standing, he promptly sat again with a reddened face.
    “I’m sorry Sir, I went overboard.
  • Don’t worry, son. For this job, you need to be passionate. And you are right – that’s why we want people like you, out there. Now go pack your things, you shall receive your official assignment before the evening.
  • … Yes Sir!”

Twenty seconds had passed since the probe signal. The bridge, already at full readiness, fell silent as he entered.
"Comm, prepare a burst for Outpost, code 2B3 plus probe ID and known pos. Prepare full datadump capsule, three copies. And keep an ear out. Standard messages, emergency bursts, loud misjumps, anything weird someone could use to try and get a word out.
"Astro, Drive, get us moving for that star, priority 2. Astro, how long to system for us? For anyone else?

  • Eleven days, first approx. Maybe nine, seven if we take risks. Six if we have a death wish. Closest ship is at twenty days minimum, fifteen for a death wish.
  • No unnecessary risks, better late than never. Push the drives hard, though! It’s fine to replace all engines next month if it means getting there twelve hours earlier.
  • Response from Outpost, Skip, we’re clear to go!
  • Ok, Comm, send datadump capsules when ready.
  • Drive ready in thirty seconds, prepare for 1.4g forward, twenty-five minutes."
    It was the first time they were responding to such emergency in real conditions, but all were doing their part as if it was the tenth, instantly reacting to orders, following the right procedures and displaying initiative when needed. They were a fine crew, and he was proud of being their captain.
    Whatever they may find, he wouldn’t have wanted to go there with anyone else.

Preliminary data about the unknown ship were starting to arrive.
Three times their mass. Proportionally bigger fuel tank, but smaller N-drives. Slightly bigger hangar bay. It looked like a long-range exploration ship, but with different mission parameters. Slower in normal space, but less refueling necessary, or less efficient engines.
Armament in pop-up turrets. It seemed relatively light, but it was impossible to judge at at such range, as they were all retracteds.
Parasites on external pods. Pretty rare, as it made hyperjumps harder to manage. Surprisingly, two of the parasites looked like refuelers. Were those ramscoops? So this ship could use in-situ refueling in gas giant atmospheres. If this really was a long-range explorer, it had to be exceedingly well-crafted to actually use the extended range between dockyard maintenances.
Lines were surprising as well. Instead of the straight lines, hard angles and circular curves found on most ships, this one was all in smooth curves and flow. That was the look of a hand-crafted ship, he though, if such a thing existed.
But it wasn’t the strangest part.
“Hey, that’s ceramics on their hull. Does someone know how that’s even possible?

  • I’ve heard about small prototypes a few centuries ago. The theory was sound, but they never found a way to make it as good as metals. Looks like someone actually perfected them.
  • But what kind of industrial base would you need for that? If someone was working on something that big, we would have heard of it…”
    The unspoken question was suddenly on everyone’s mind as surely as if someone had spelled it out. He often kept silence to let his people work. Now was not the time anymore.
    “Everyone keep your calm, you’ve been trained for this. We make sure it’s not a hoax.”
    Engineering a false first contact required incredible skills, resources and organisation, but it had been attempted several times in the past – and never as something innocuous as a prank.
    “We run them on our entire database for identification.”
    The explorer ships carried massive databases containing any information that may be useful, and vastly powerful algorithms to process them. Some ships had been identified by little more than the isotope mix of their hangar doors.
    “Then we see what this really is.”

It was the genuine thing. For all their minutia, their suspicion, their cleverness, it could only be one thing. An exploration ship from the Ark people.
He had spent more than thirty years, getting ready for this moment. It didn’t feel enough.
He had done his best to prepare himself, to prepare his crew. They had never really believed in it, he knew it. Neither did he, in a sense, but they had trusted him and had made sure they were up to the challenge. He knew they would perform admirably. They would follow his lead, whatever may happen.
Later, many would describe how his iron calm, how his unwavering decisiveness had impressed them and helped them keep the same calm. In truth, he felt paralysed by terror. Any wrong move now could have catastrophic consequences. Any mistake could throw them both back toward isolation or spark a war between the last two peoples of mankind. Or it could leave them open and vulnerable to a danger they couldn’t even imagine.
How did the Ark people prepare themselves for it? What were their intentions? What cultural bias may they have that could distort communication? Among all those pitfalls and no one knew other unknown ones, he would have to navigate blind.
He had thought himself ready. For the single most important even in History.
That made him smile.
“Standard Geodesian interplanetary protocol, hail them to open a comlink.”
All ships in the Explorer Corps had kept those ancient, pre-Exodus protocols in function. Hopefully, the Ark people had done the same.

The message, carried at light-speed, was forty minutes old.
On the screen, three people in beautiful white uniform, with the strange appearance of those older than they look, were formally standing.
“Salutations, people of the Convoy, I am Captain Janna Onodiss of the Way Seeker XVII from the Centauran Oligarchy. It has been an immense joy for us to know that you prevailed and flourished. In the name of the Centauran, we wish to meet and share about our respective histories and paths since the Exodus, as there is so much to learn from each-other.”
They had a slight accent, but were easy to understand. In two thousand years, the Deltan main language hadn’t evolved from the Geodesian one thanks to the continuous prevalence of audiovisual media. As she seemed to be a native speaker, it had most probably been the same for them. At least, they didn’t suffer through a true dark age.
Analysis arrived one after another. The image hadn’t been tampered, nor had been pre-recorded. They had emitted it in real-time – no second take.
The other two on each side were probably her first and second officer. Despite composed demeanour, the three of them were under strong, positive emotions. And they were absolutely sincere.
Now was time to respond.
“Comm, prepare to emit.”
He had carefully prepared many options for many cases, and tried to train himself for improvisation. It dawned on him that he had never actually practised his text.
“Salutations, people of the Ark, I am Captain André Vanamonde of the DFN Jumping Clock, from the Deltan Federation, and empowered to act as first contact ambassador. We are sharing your joy, and wish to exchange as you do.”
Then, forgetting an instant his carefully chosen words, he let his, his crew’s and his people’s emotion overwhelm him.
“We never lost hope, you know. We never stopped searching.”

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Great stuff! :slight_smile: Centaurus is still my favorite of the obsolete factions.

Let’s see if we get one or two more stories today before we close the competition and start the voting.

Don’t count me out yet! I now have 400 words! :triumph:

Hooray writer’s block!

/me panics

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Remember that you don’t HAVE to reach 2000-2500. Just stay under them. :wink:

/panics anyway :anguished:

Easy Terran. You do have your general story idea, right? write that down (even if it is ‘just’ a single sentence), then add stuff between the lines, and incrtease the detail with each pass until you reach ~2k words .

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