USS Traveller
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Tick, Tick, Ticking

Posted on Thu Nov 25th, 2021 @ 2:27am by The Narrator & Lieutenant Commander Shadi Zatra & Lieutenant Mar Megara MD & Lieutenant Dinui Locke (loch) & Innocent Bystander

2,126 words; about a 11 minute read

Mission: S2:2: Something Missing Something New
Location: USS Zheng-he
Timeline: Feburary 2390

The Zheng-He was bathed in the grey sea glow of starlight. This close to the centre of Messier 4, all of the 70 light-year bubble of stars crowded in to look down on them. The only one missing was the one at the centre of a solar system, which gravity scans said was there, but optical not a single photon could be seen. Even a black hole would have been glowing, the plasma disk accelerating around its equator as twin jets of radiation exploded from its centre as it gobbled up everything that came within reach.

"Like reaching out into the dark, in a room full of knives," Clee'san said, rolling down the aisle from the cockpit to the main control space of the Arrow class runabout. "Clockmakers are drawn to noise, to organised intelligence acting against their plans. If there are any here, as long as we do not pose a threat to them, we should be fine."

"I suppose, then, that our away team carries a natural camouflage," Ono mused aloud.

"Yes," Clee'san said after a moment of thought. "Technologically your team lacks the ability to take on even a small Clockmaker amalgamation. And lacking a formal military hierarchy would turn any fight into a protracted debate. So yes, your team is well suited to this task."

"I meant to remark on the dearth of organized intelligence on board," Ono said while chewing his cheek, "but kudos on finding the silver lining."

"Ma'am," the co-pilot, sat next to Jolani at the controls tapped a screen. "We're approaching the boundary into the slow space. Should I switch over to battery backups now or wait until we cross over?"

"We will switch over to battery when we are within 5000 meters of the boundary. That way we can coast and save fuel and stay silent."

"Copy that," the co-pilot said. "Been a while since I had to plot a ballistic trajectory. But at these speeds, we'll still get there even if we have to treat the engines like old style chemical rockets."

He flicked a finger over the controls, projecting a wireframe tunnel diagram of their flight path onto the cockpit canopy. The tunnel stretched on, and then began to slowly curve around before vanishing behind a black spot in the distance. It was marked with the simple moniker 'Gravitational Anomaly'.

"Might want to use the sensors at full power before we cross into the boundary," co-pilot said. "ETA to the battery cut off is 10 minutes, and then 120 seconds later we'll be into Slow Space."

It wasn't exactly remote-piloting, but to those bipedal creatures inhabiting their primitive craft it likely seemed that way. IB's humanoid form remained on board the Traveller for all to see as his moth ship sailed with perfect forward motion through that grey ocean. For Jolani and the others, he kept both sides of himself visible for the most part, though registered no overt sign of the kind of life carried by the Zheng-He and Traveller. IB listened to the words they each traded and guided his camouflaged ship at a continuous steady pace. It showed no sign of shifting up or down in velocity or power as yet.

Ono watched every available readout looking for any shred of data. "What's going on out there?" he asked with brow furrowed. "No news is failed news."

Meg resisted the urge to throttle him or roll her eyes, but it was a near miss on both counts. “Sometimes,” she said in a deceptively calm voice, “no news simply means that nothing has happened.”

"Warp core's offline, antimatter containment pod's throwing a fit and we're now on battery back up," the co-pilot reported. "But we're still on course. We should begin our close approach to the zone of needless terror in an hour or so. And...according to the atomic interferometer the speed of light is fourteen meters per second slower than the galactic average."

Fourteen meters per second slower didn't seem like much. But out of the canopy's transparent aluminium viewports, the stars that had shone so brightly now glowered at them, their light slowed slightly so each was tinted a bloody red.

"And thats not-" the co-pilot's voice was cut off as a loud crashing sound came from the rear of the runabout, in its cargo hold.

"My tasty hull!" Shadi shrieked. "If sssome motherless bastard putsss so much as a scratch..." Her epithet was cut off as she darted back to the stern of the craft.

A large crate was overturned where it had fallen off of its fellows, spilling out survival rations. With batteries now powering the runabout, the replicators were offline. The crate that had been under its lid was off, revealing... nothing. It was an empty boxx.

"Not your hull, Lizard Brain, MY HULL," Jolani emphasized in a louder tone that started resembling emotion. "Traveller's my ship and if any scratch gets on him it is because it was necessary to this crew's safety."

"We're on a runabout, you starving mammal," Shadi retorted. "And sssomething else might be, too. Probably another space ghost. Clee'san! Give me readingss! What the famine was in the box?!"

Ono pressed his fingers against his temple from the runabout's bridge. "I am going to die surrounded by idiots..."

“Well, then,” dead panned Meg, “at least you will be dead.”

"There are three extraneous life-form readings in the hold," Clee'san's voice said. "I would have said something earlier, but my focus is on more pressing concerns given I can now attest to the existence of a Clockmaker Dyson Sphere."

Dinui was focused on the readings, she had pointedly kept her mouth shut during the banter and insults from the first officer and the Doctor.

Dinui was fast becoming to the conclusion that the First officer, was going to be an officer that counted among 'Mangled Hell beasts' and not worth the time and effort to actually waste breath upon. She had pulled up all available resources about slow space to be better prepared for this mission. Since she hadn't actively applied such knowledge in quite some time. The definition of a Slow Space zone: an area of space where the Plank constant (the speed of light) is selectively altered. Fusion and antimatter don't work anymore, the latter becoming an inert non-reactive mass. This change in the speed of light should also affect the speed of electrical impulse, effectively killing biological life: but it does not. That was another point of interest for the mission to try and get conclusive reasons for the reason biological life was unharmed.

Dinui regarded the scan again and made notes of a gravity source in this system, comparable to a G-class star though lacking the usually luminosity and spectral analysis that would determine its age and proper type, was going to need for careful attention. With the fact the space the Zheng-he is flying through is a nearly pure vacuum. The interstellar medium is littered with dust, hydrogen atoms, things a deflector needs to push aside so a ship doesn't explode on impact when at warp, however in this area, this space is way below the average count. Its nearly sterile. It was extremely curious, and possibly a point to worry about. At Clee'san's words about the life-forms in the hold as well as the Clockwork Dyson sphere she muttered under her breath. "Ah don't have them on scan, what can ye tell about the Life-forms, Clee'san?" Dinui asked with a frown furrowing her brow.

"Small, cold-blooded humanoids," Clee'san intoned.

Small, cold-blooded- oh no. “Shadi,” said Meg flatly. “Your spawn.”

"Mazerite! Viscera! Dewclaw! Come here right thisss minute or Goddess help me I will disssmember you!" Shadi hissed.

There was a moment of silence followed by the echoing muttered statement from Viscera; 'Do not correct the brood mother's grammar!'. It came from one of the vent covers near the floor.

"One! Two!" Shadi called out. "That's two limbsss! Do you want to make it three?!"

Out beyond the viewports of the canopy, overlaid in a ghostly blue wireframe, the spherical structure came into view. Sensor extrapolation estimated a five hundred million kilometre diameter, as well as the near-certainty of it being a perfect sphere.

It was a cold sphere sat in the gravitational well where a star should have been, radiating nothing but absorbing everything that fell into it. Even the bloodied, red-shifted light of Slow Space painted a perfect circle around the absence of things.

That little moth ship persisted towards this near perfect sphere via dimensions and thus rules denied the others, her forward motion at precisely the same rate as it had been all along. Virtually invisible by virtue of its means of said motion, IB nevertheless knew others outside the Traveller's runabout could detect him. He might be that wayward shark fin in an infinitely vast ocean, cloaked by his ability to dip in and out of these four dimensions, but there were still some flaws to his presence here. He felt the exterior of the moth ship dip, blur, rise and fall, relative to the sheer purity of the cosmic bathwater around him and he noted something else. A hint, an echo of consciousness.

To the Zheng-he, his message was simple. It blinked up in cursive text before both pilot and co-pilot. They awaken. He said, borrowing words from their common dictionary. Look to the South Pole

"Message in a bottle has a point," the co-pilot said. "Nadir point on the sphere has a tapered opening approximately three hundred kilometres across. Indeterminate depth."

As the co-pilot spoke an alarm began to chime, softly and insistently in the quiet of the runabout's interior. One of the passive star trackers had detected several stars vanishing and reappearing, their light occluded by the passage of objects between them and the Zheng-he.

"I want an update!" Ono demanded with an edge of worry to his tone. "What lies inside the 300km opening, and what is eclipsing our view of the stars? Scans, people! I want all the scans!"

"Not seeing anything on sensors," the copilot said. "Wouldomsone with an Op's or Science background please get the star tracker system up and running at speed given it the only thing seeing these things."

IB's moth-ship sailed ever onwards, ever closer to the sphere by design, yet further by visibility. Its remote pilot guided that familiar kite with a peaceful pathway that dipped outwith real space-time and curved dimensions just enough to appear unthreatening and inert. Flotsam on the dark matter between the substance of the perceived reality the upright humanoids enjoyed, harmless and devoid of overt consciousness.

The moth-ship was buffeted by the passage of an avalanche of matter, the sheer mass of it rippling gravity as the swarm of black nothingness slammed scant meters from it. From that near miss, other ripples appeared. Curling swarms of blackness bubbling up from beneath the cracks of space-time. The truth revealed: the Clock Maker sphere might have been a a physical manifestation of them, but they had permitted the void like a fog of atoms spaced far enough apart as to be invisible.

"Sensorsss running!" Shadi squealed with glee. There was nothing greater than hunting potential prey, even if they were in a runabout. Memories of putting the Reka shitbirds to flight made her nostrils flare. "Scans coming back... Starvation! There's interference of sssome kind!" She looked at Ono. "I recommend we fire and see what happens!"

"No," Ono said through his clenched jaw. "Do your job, or better yet, get someone else to do it."

The extension of his being - or at least that was the easiest manner of explanation in this current phase of reality - felt that motion rise, crest and refuse to fall. IB's human expression back on the Traveller adopted an intrigued smirk as those atoms coloured nuance. Meanwhile, out there, the tiny ship bobbed, dipped and bowed in reaction to that outward, deliberate action of motion. He heard it. Not words, but intention? Not emotion, but definitely consciousness.

"To infinity and between," IB whispered, those same words revealed in text upon the pilot/co-pilot console. And then, like a material pawn advancing on an unseen chessboard, the ship proceeded towards that entry point at the base of the sphere, willing to venture within should that unheard voice allow.

"We're being dragged in after IB," the co-pilot said as the surface of the Clock Maker sphere grew larger. On sensors, the clouds of interface began to coalesce into formations of fractal geometry, churning engines of destructive ruin.

And then, from the opening in the spheres pole, a warm light seemed to well up and erupt outwards.

And then there was nothing.


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