excerpt-beyond

b3_Beyond the event horizon_full_1563x2500_01 Prologue

In 2177, close to the Solar System, scientists discover a source of disturbance to the space-time continuum: radiating gravity waves that did not appear to have the signature of those caused by natural processes.

On the basis of the approximate distance to the source and the intensity of the waves generated, its mass ought to be compatible with the size of a binary star and exert a strong influence on the movement of the planets in the Solar System. However, such a system of heavenly bodies is not known to exist.

Attempts to detect the mysterious object with the aid of Earth-based observatories and orbital telescopes are unsuccessful, but astronomers succeed in determining the location of the anomaly. Its distance from the Sun is estimated to be six light hours, which is within the range of high-speed spacecraft. A research expedition is being equipped to go to its location…

 

1

By the evening of the day of departure, the weather was already beginning to deteriorate. When Steve left the house and got into a taxi, the sky was shrouded in a light mist, changing its colour from dark blue to milky. When he reached the spaceport an hour later, bundled his things together and walked towards the terminal entrance, there were sparse rain clouds overhead.

All those taking part in the expedition were sitting in their seats in a small private conference hall. As he entered, Steve saw dozens of faces turn towards the sound of the door opening. Since working on the ‘Dawn’ project, he had got more used to such situations and had become more relaxed about facing people he didn’t know. Dozens of pairs of unfamiliar eyes directed towards him no longer brought on wobbly knees and a dry mouth as they had done before.

Also, he had now taken his finals. As soon as Shelby had finished checking and marking his work, Steve would no longer be a student, but a fully-fledged adult. An astrophysics specialist. Since the assessment was no more than a formality, it was time to conduct himself accordingly and not look up to his more senior colleagues from below, but consider them his equals.

Steve nodded to them in greeting and looked round for an empty seat. He started by looking along the back rows, but after thinking about it for a second, looked further forward, closer to the podium. The closer to the speaker, the easier it was to take in what was said. Steve knew this from his experience of lectures at university.

Under the gaze of those present, he stepped forward and sat in the front row. It was better that way. He looked to either side. On his right was a gloomy-looking elderly man working away on his tablet. When Steve had approached the seat next to him, he hadn’t even given him a glance, but just took his coat off the seat irritably. To his left, a little further away, was a group of people, clearly scientists, who obviously already knew each other. They were quietly discussing something. Clive was sitting a little further along the same row. They looked at each other, and Steve acknowledged him with a brief nod.

A voice suddenly rang out from the stage. “Greetings, team!”

Everyone stopped talking and turned their heads to the front. Once satisfied that he had the attention of his audience, the speaker continued.

“Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Kimble, and I have the honour of being the captain of our expedition ship.”

Compared to the others, Steve, as a former participant in the ‘Dawn’ project, knew more about the expedition, so he already knew the captain’s name. But this was the first time he had seen him in the flesh. The captain’s appearance radiated the confidence typical of all ships’ captains.

“Our route takes us beyond the limits of assimilated space,” continued Kimble in a confident voice. “This makes our expedition the first of its kind, taking us far beyond the orbits of the planets.”

The captain switched on the screen behind him to show images of the Solar System.

“If you look from the Earth’s viewpoint, our target is roughly in the direction of Mars, but at an angle to the plane of the ecliptic. This will mean that after only a few days of travel, we shall be far away from our entire space transport infrastructure, and should unforeseen circumstances arise, we will have no-one to rely on but ourselves.

“I am not saying this to arouse fear. But each member of the team must realise that the expedition has to be taken seriously; we can’t expect help from anyone. And now please proceed to the exit. We will be taking off immediately, and the shuttle is already waiting for us. I’ll tell you the rest of the details on board the ship.”

Steve, who had just made himself comfortable in expectation of a long and detailed explanation, looked surprised as he had to stand up and make his way to the exit with the others. That was probably the shortest briefing he had ever attended. It was clear that the captain was no lover of long speeches.

On his way out, Steve slowed down. When Clive caught up with him, he again nodded in greeting.

“Well, how did you find the briefing?”

Clive looked discontented.

“I don’t understand why we had to assemble in the hall. We all know where we’re going anyway.”

“Perhaps just so that everyone knows who their captain is.”

“It’s all the same to me,” said Clive in a loud voice, not in the least concerned that the captain himself might hear him.

Steve just smiled. Clive was being his usual self. Previously, Clive’s awkward socialising skills used to irritate him, but he found them rather amusing now. Perhaps Steve was beginning to grow up…

Outside, the weather had finally broken. The spaceport field greeted them with pouring rain, lightning and deafening thunder. A strong wind blew cold spray into their faces, and although the bus was waiting for them under a small shelter, giving some protection to the face, it meant their feet got wet through almost instantly.

The bus closed its doors with a hissing noise and set off immediately. The sound of its powerful electric motor was barely audible against the noise of the rain beating down on the roof. With every gust of wind, water lashed against the windows as if someone was amusing himself by spraying the bus with a hose, its valve fully open.

It was clearly not flying weather, and Steve looked around him in alarm. The dense rain prevented him seeing very far, but as far as he could make out, there was no other movement in the spaceport. The bus, rocked by the strong wind, passed long rows of parked tankers, their lights off.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later, the bus left the field in front of the terminal and was now passing between launch pads. They were weakly illuminated, and it seemed that most flights had been cancelled. Those ships that had not managed to land before the onset of the bad weather were awaiting the end of the storm in orbit. Nor were any launches taking place.

The wind was so strong that even the space elevator was not running. As they passed, its cables stretching up into the sky were barely visible in the glare of the floodlights. They were rocking considerably, despite being thick and under strong tension.

Steve got up from his seat to talk to the captain. The bus was going at quite a speed, so it wasn’t easy to keep his balance. He staggered up to the front where Kimble was sitting, busy with his tablet.

“Sir, why are we in such a hurry? I thought lift-off was scheduled for five in the morning,” said Steve, raising his voice to make himself heard over the sound of the wind and rain outside. Gusts of cold air were blowing into the bus through a slightly-open hatch in the ceiling. The larger drops were trapped by filters, but fine spray still found its way in. Jets of wet air were beating right into the captain’s face, but he seemed to be enjoying it.

“The plans have changed. I’ll explain everything on board the ship,” he answered curtly, making it known by his manner that he had no desire to discuss the subject with every member of the team individually.

Steve said nothing, but looked out through the windscreen. Nothing could be seen apart from the cat’s eyes in the asphalt.

“But won’t it be difficult to take off in this weather?” he asked.

“I’ve taken off in worse weather than this. It will rock a bit at first, but nothing to worry about,” said Kimble to allay his fears.

“Taken off? I thought you were the captain of a large cargo ship,” said Steve, rather surprised.

Large cargo ships, as a rule, transported ore from the asteroids and were so big that they never landed on the surface of a planet. They unloaded in orbit.

“Even I was young once, Steve,” said the captain, smiling.

“Forgive me, sir, but non-flying weather has always been non-flying weather.”

“So it has, but no-one ever told us about it in the SSS,” replied Kimble as if to himself, looking at the screen of his tablet. Glancing back at Steve, he said, “Everything will be OK.”

The trip had already lasted at least half an hour and they had still not reached their launch pad. Steve had not realised that the spaceport was so huge. The glare of powerful floodlights was soon visible in the distance. It seemed they had finally reached the shuttle that was to deliver the team to their ship awaiting them in low orbit.

The bus slowed down gradually, and the light became brighter and brighter then suddenly disappeared, leaving a few floodlights illuminating a launch pad with a squat shuttle mounted on it.

Steve discovered to his surprise that what awaited them was not a civil ship but a military one. Quite small, squat, streamlined, predator-like – it had already opened the entrance under its belly, from which a red light was emanating. The powerful engine nozzles suspended above it looked significantly larger than those of civilian ships of the same size.

The bus drove as close to the shuttle as it could, then finally stopped. Steve was sitting next to the door, so was the first to leave the passenger cabin and come under direct bombardment from the cold rain. The water didn’t just fall from above, it beat into his face from all sides, even from below, bouncing up under his untucked shirt and running in a cold stream down his stomach.

Steve ran for the shuttle as fast as he could. You might think that the faster you run, the less wet you get, but in such rain, it makes no difference. His clothes were soaked through the second he left the bus.

The interior of the shuttle was quite spartan. Everything was functional, with no concern for either convenience or comfort. Steve hadn’t expected anything else. The wide entrance led into something like a cargo hold, which, unlike civilian shuttles, had two rows of seats for spaceborne troops, their backs to the walls. Further on there were illuminated racks for weapons, which now stood empty. Further on still, the compartment narrowed, ending in a door to the cockpit. Unlike the space for passengers, the cockpit had narrow windows, their lower edges roughly at shoulder level. All the lighting above was red, but looking down, there were a vast number of lights of every possible colour. The two pilots were already strapped into their seats, chatting to each other.

One of them, hearing Steve’s footsteps, turned round and took a quick glance at him. Steve, who was looking round the interior of the cockpit with interest, met his eyes. He nodded in greeting, but the pilot simply turned back, ignoring the gesture. Oh well, armies have their own ways of doing things. Not so much formal courtesy, but, on the other hand, more respect when things got serious.

After shaking the water off his clothes and wiping his face with his sleeve, Steve went further into the lounge and sat down on one of the seats. He found and fastened his seatbelt and lowered the stabilising bar, which clicked into place. Cushions immediately inflated themselves on either side of his back, fixing his body in place completely. Cool! There were no such devices on civilian ships.

Steve took a quick look back at the entrance, where the others were still hurrying in. The water was not just trickling off the roof of the shuttle and the engine nozzles, but pouring down in streams. The bright glare from the floodlights lit up the rain, blinding Steve’s eyes as it dispersed. Because of this, it was impossible to see what was going on outside the ship from inside. Shadows periodically appeared as if from nowhere, breaking through the downpour and momentarily opening the curtain of water to the world outside.

The torrential rain forced the team to get from the bus to the shuttle amazingly quickly. Some coped with their seats at once, while others fiddled about for a while trying to strap themselves in. Kimble walked along the rows of seats, strapping in those who couldn’t manage it themselves. Only then did he flop himself down onto a free seat and strap himself in with lightning speed, an action he had obviously done hundreds, if not thousands, of times before.

Once firmly in place, the captain made some sort of gesture towards the ceiling. Steve followed the gesture with surprise, and only then noticed the dark eye of a small camera above them. It seemed that the pilots had been using it to observe them. There had been no need for them to look round from their seats.

“Roger,” said a voice from one of the loudspeakers above Steve’s head. He was sitting quite close to the cockpit, and could hear the pilot’s voice even without the intercom.

At that very second, a deafeningly loud hissing noise was heard from outside. The ship was blowing out its nozzles with compressed air to eject the water that had drained into them and any other detritus. The solid wall of water cutting the interior of the ship off from events on the launch pad disappeared immediately. The water gushing out of the nozzles could be seen for dozens of metres behind them as it swirled around and away into the night sky.

From the direction of the entrance came the sound of hydraulic amplifiers, straining. The entrance door, which also served as the floor, thus making it easier to enter the shuttle, began to rise, sealing the entrance behind it. Once in place, it slammed sonorously, moving sideways slightly into slots that locked it in place. The deafening hiss from outside fell silent immediately.

A small monitor came down to a position just in front of Steve’s face and relayed the image from the external cameras. He could see the water from the rocket engine nozzles still shooting off into the darkness.

Suddenly, from somewhere behind them on the other side of the hull plating, sharp sounds like discharges of electricity were heard. At the same moment, the water from the nozzles stopped flowing in uniform streams, and diamond-patterned shock waves passed through it. The frequency of the waves kept increasing, and, with a bright flash of light, two plasma exhaust jets shot out of the ship’s tail. The shuttle was instantly filled with a low roar, incomparably noisier than on civil ships.

Steve took his eyes off the screen to look at Kimble. It was hard to make out in the semi-darkness of the shuttle, but he thought Kimble looked pleased. The lift-off in the military shuttle must have brought back some pleasant memories from his past.

The violet plasma jets changed their focal length several times, then the engine nozzles were lowered. The ship shuddered noticeably and rose vertically into the air. It was shaken from side to side almost instantly, with gusts of wind trying to throw it on its side and back to the ground.

After gaining only a few dozen metres of altitude, the nozzles changed direction again, and Steve felt the acceleration inclining him to the right. The side cushions were good shock absorbers, preventing his body from bumping painfully against the harder parts of the seat.

The shuttle stopped being thrown from side to side, and, instead, started vibrating like mad. The noise of the turbines continued to increase, and Steve felt the ship accelerate even more. Yes, it seemed the pilots had never heard of passenger comfort.

Steve looked at the image from the front camera, but his eyes could make out nothing but onrushing drops of water. Suddenly the drops were no more, and the amazing sight of the starry night sky and the bright moon shedding its soft light on a dense blanket of cloud opened up before him.

The ship’s acceleration increased significantly. This is really too much, thought Steve. The excess G was beginning to make him feel uncomfortable, and the shuttle was now gaining altitude at an acute angle to the vertical. Under the pressure of such acceleration, the blood was beginning to leave his head and his vision was blurred and fading.

After a few minutes, the ship suddenly changed position sharply, so that its ceiling was now the floor. The shaking had almost stopped, and the shuttle was moving along smoothly and steadily. Describing a huge arc, it left the atmosphere and went into orbit to meet the expedition ship.

 

2

“Visual contact with destination point,” one of the pilots said over the intercom.

Steve woke from his half-asleep state and looked at Kimble, who nodded to the camera.

“We’ll soon be there,” he said to Steve.

Steve again turned to watch the images from the cameras displayed in front of him. The ship waiting for them was still just a bright spot in the distance. It was difficult to tell which way was up and which was down, but it seemed as if the shuttle would have to gain a few more dozen kilometres of altitude to reach the ship.

Steve felt the shuttle turn a little and lower its nose, and the expedition ship was lost from view. About 15 minutes later, however, its belly suddenly came into view floating right above the shuttle.

The expedition ship was enormous. Steve was not very good at recognising types, but it looked like a medium class cargo ship. He had to admit he had been expecting something more compact, but so much the better. The bigger the ship, the more room there would be in the cabins. They were facing a long flight, and he didn’t fancy spending it in a space the size of a broom cupboard.

The space flight proceeded smoothly, and the shuttle seemed to be floating on clouds. It was apparent from the screen that the ship receiving them had already opened its cargo compartment ready for their arrival. The shuttle flew into it with its engines idling and landed softly on the stamped steel floor. After its legs had been clamped in magnetic traps, the shuttle switched off its engines and opened its exit door.

The side cushions deflated, and Steve immediately felt his body floating in his seat, rocking from side to side in the conditions of weightlessness. He unlocked and raised his seat’s security bar and released the straps. Instinctively putting his feet on the floor to get out of his seat, his body began to float up at once. He managed to grab something and stop himself just in time before he hit his head on the ceiling. This was not his first experience of weightlessness, but he still hadn’t been in it very often, so his movements were rather clumsy; he had none of Kimble’s automatic reflexes.

“Take the magnetic soles from under your seat,” Kimble told the team.

Leaving the shuttle and looking round, Steve finally realised why the ship was so big. Half the capacious cargo compartment was filled with various containers covered with camouflage-coloured tarpaulin. He chuckled at his own thoughts: when mankind first discovered radio waves, transmitters and receivers were the size of a large trunk, whereas today they could fit into a pinhead. It was the same with gravity waves, though they were more complicated. Dozens of containers of cumbersome equipment were needed to register them. Maybe a hundred years from now, they too would be reduced to the size of a pinhead.

Walking in magnetic soles was tiring, at least for Steve, but perhaps they just took some getting used to. The floors, walls and ceiling of most of the ship’s compartments were covered in magnetic material. The soles only had to be close to them and they would grip at once, holding the body firmly in place. They automatically adjusted the power of adhesion depending on the load, and switched off as soon as they registered a neural pulse in the muscles of the foot trying to take the next step.

After walking with heavy tread to the exit, which left them very short of breath, the team reached the lock separating the cargo compartment from the compartments with artificial gravity. The lock was in the form of a large-diameter tube divided into sectors, each of which rotated at different rates. The further they were from the weightlessness compartments, the quicker they rotated.

The principle for creating artificial gravity was quite simple. Part of the ship, which included the command compartment, living compartment and some technical compartments, rotated constantly round its own axis. Centrifugal force created acceleration, which in turn created artificial gravity indistinguishable from the natural kind.

This design made it possible to change the artificial gravity inside quite easily; the rotation of the wheel just had to be speeded up or slowed down. For long flights, the doctors recommended Earth gravity, but to extend the life span of the rotation mechanism, it was often reduced to the level of that on Mars or even the Moon when there were no people on board.

Now the ring was almost at rest, creating only minimum gravity, approximately the same as on the Moon. The ship had recently left the servicing dock and been taken by the AI into low orbit to receive the team. There was no sense in wasting the ring’s life span on creating artificial gravity. Energy isn’t free, after all.

Lunar gravity wasn’t particularly comfortable, but was sufficient to keep objects from flying chaotically around in the ship. They stayed were they were put. There is a rule in space, however, that in weightlessness, and in a ship of sufficient size, no matter how thoroughly you fix objects in place, there will always be something floating about, hitting everything it can. Another rule is that the heavier this object is, the more likely it is to hit something fragile, while a third rule dictates that this something fragile will be either an important sensor monitor or the last bottle of the very best wine or spirits.

Kimble seemed to know his way around the ship. He was the first to pass through the gravity lock, before helping the others.

“I expect you all in the conference room in 20 minutes,” he said, when the last expedition member had successfully passed through the lock. “Any questions?”

There were no questions, and the team members dispersed to their cabins. Steve called up a map of the living accommodation on his tablet and lifted his bag from the floor. It was pleasantly easy to carry a heavy bag in a weak field of gravity, but you had to remember that it still had the same inertia. If inexperienced, lifting, lowering, throwing or catching it could give you a nasty bump or a sprained joint. Unaccustomed gravity is a tricky thing.

“Attention, gravity increase in 30 seconds,” warned the voice of the ship’s AI, as Steve was on the way to his cabin. The AI had detected that there were people on board, so had decided to make them more comfortable by bringing the gravity up to Earth level. The bag Steve was carrying became heavier.

Once again, he was the last to enter the conference room. Kimble switched on a small holographic projector which stood in the middle of the table, and signalled to the computer to dim the lighting.

“We all know the aim of our expedition, but that is not the whole story. What you are about to learn is classified ‘Top Secret’. No kidding.”

The captain picked up his tablet from the table and read aloud the text on its screen.

“All information entrusted to or acquired by those present from this moment on is a state secret and must not be divulged to third parties without written permission from a higher authority. Any violation of this rule is punishable by a long term of imprisonment. This directive has no time limit.”

Kimble looked up from his tablet at the team, for most of whom this turn of events was unexpected.

“I am asking the ship’s computer to record the reading of this directive, and each member of the team to confirm by a biometric scan that it has been read and understood.”

The captain passed his tablet round the circle, so that everyone could leave his or her biometric signature. When the tablet was given back to him a few minutes later, he transferred the data to the ship’s computer and turned to Steve.

“You have the floor.”

Steve stood up so that they could see him better.

“Yes, thank you…” he said hesitantly, and then fell silent. In such situations it is always hard to decide where to begin.

“About two months ago the telescope on which I was working at university detected a small asteroid on a direct course for Earth. At first it was observed by the computer automatically, but when its trajectory became too strange, it notified me.

“Our attention was drawn to the fact that it was moving with acceleration. On this basis, we initially took the calculation of its trajectory to be an error. After all, the distance was considerable for an object of that size, but it soon accelerated to sub-light speed. It then performed a few tricks, but those are just details. The main thing is that it soon became clear we were not dealing with an asteroid at all, but with a spaceship. A ship built by a non-human civilisation.”

The team members exchanged looks. Steve continued.

“When there was no longer any doubt that it was such a ship, the military were brought in. A project codenamed ‘Dawn’ was started. Its aim was to make contact with the extraterrestrial civilisation.

“The best scientists on the planet took part in ‘Dawn’, and you have to hand it to them, they fulfilled their task excellently. They solved the technical problems of the first contact within a few days. After that, they entered into a dialogue.”

“So they do exist then?” came a question from somewhere on the left.

“They do indeed,” replied Steve.

“Did they say where they came from?”

“Er, no. That was one of the first questions we asked them. They replied that they didn’t know.”

“How could they not know?”

Steve spread his hands.

“I don’t know. Perhaps they experienced the collapse of their own civilisation, and knowledge of their home planet was lost. There were many questions the incomer did not answer.”

“How old is their civilisation?”

“According to them, about a million Earth years.”

Someone whistled.

“Really! We must seem like Neanderthals to them…”

“Very likely. As far as technology is concerned, they are way ahead of us.”

“If they’ve been around so long, they must surely have spread out across space, right?”

“Yes. They told us that quite openly. The nearest star system to where their civilisation is present is the system of the star Gliese 581.”

“And where is that?”

“In space terms, quite near. It’s one of the nearest stars to the Sun.”

“OK, so what have we agreed on?”

“Unfortunately, we haven’t agreed on anything.”

“How can that be? What did they want from us?” Questions were coming in one after another.

“We don’t know that either.”

“Not much of a result, is it?”

“That’s true, unfortunately.”

Steve was turning his head in all directions. He could hardly keep up with the questions.

“So how did it all end?”

“After its appearance, the incomer did not approach Earth too closely. It probably didn’t want to make us nervous. It decelerated when it got to Jupiter, and stayed in Jupiter’s orbit all the time we were communicating with it. A few weeks after it had been detected, the situation got out of control. It then left the Solar System.”

“What does ‘got out of control’ mean?”

“It means that we fired a cannon at it.”

“Good grief! Couldn’t you think of anything better than that?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Did it threaten us, or what?”

“Not directly, no. But there were grounds for believing that it was playing a double game.”

“Surely we didn’t have to fire at them?”

“It was either a technical hitch or sabotage, we don’t know for sure. But fire was opened without orders.”

“So you mean they flew here to make contact, and we shot at them?”

“One shot was fired at the alien ship, but it remained serviceable. Or at least, it was able to leave the Solar System under its own power. What damage was done to it, and whether anyone on board was killed, we don’t know. Since that strike, we have heard no more from them.”

“Bloody hell!”

“Quite so.”

“This anomaly we’re flying to, is it somehow connected with them?”

“We don’t know for sure, but it most likely is. When the military got involved, they naturally started an electronic intelligence survey. They listened in to all the frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum, and we also monitored them in the gravity waveband. The alien ship did not use the usual means of communication, such as radio or laser. But we did once manage to detect the weak radiation of gravity waves. We believe the aliens know how to use these waves to transmit information.

“The incomer may possibly have started out from some kind of mother ship, which remained in the shadows but observed events from afar the whole time. According to our calculations, this ship or base could not have been more than six or seven light years away.

“After intercepting the gravity-wave transmissions, we began to study the space around the Solar System within that distance. That was how we came across the anomaly to which we are now heading.”

“So we are expecting to find an alien base there?”

“I don’t know what we’ll find there. It is too great a distance for radar scanning. But quite possibly, yes.”

“OK, so we fly to this anomaly, and wow! We see a great big spaceship. Then what?”

“It depends on the circumstances. Our primary task is to find out what we’re dealing with. It is quite possible we are wrong, and the aliens have nothing to do with it. In that case, it will simply be a scientific expedition.”

“You said we attacked it. What if they attack us when we approach?”

Steve was at a loss when he heard this question. He had to admit that this was a thought that he himself found deeply troubling. Kimble, who was sitting alongside him, stepped in.

“What would be the sense in that?”

“Well, we attacked them.”

“You mean revenge?”

“Well, it’s a possibility…”

“They saw us destroy our own weapon after it had fired on their ship, so they must know we had technical problems. Revenge in this case would be out of place.”

“But what if they mistake our ship for a military one? We might have another technical problem.”

“We don’t represent any threat to them. Our weapons couldn’t harm the alien ship when we attacked it in Jupiter’s orbit, and a whole battle group of combat ships were involved in that. They’re not afraid of our weapons. There would be no sense in attacking us.”

“Our weapons? I thought this was a civil mission.”

“Yes, we are armed, but only for defensive purposes. When the incomer took a fancy to orbiting around Jupiter, the military withdrew their forces to the inner planets. They reduced their presence in all lower-priority areas. As a result, the crime situation in space has become much worse. As far as flight security against armed attacks is concerned, we have been set back thirty years. Attacks by pirates have become an everyday occurrence, as they were in the past. Unfortunately.”

“Could you tell us what we’re armed with?”

“Well, let’s just say it would not be an easy matter to take us by storm.”

The questions from the team suddenly dried up, and silence reigned. Taking advantage of this, Steve changed the subject.

“During the flight, we shall naturally be studying the gravity waves emanating from the anomaly. We will also be measuring the parameters of space-time, since the incomer apparently exerted some sort of effect on it during its visit. To some extent, you could say that was the very reason we attacked the alien ship.

“On the back of this, I would like to say to every member of the team: if you notice anything strange, report it immediately. Last time we were too late in noticing certain changes in the structure of space-time. If we had noticed them earlier, we could have prevented the attack on the alien ship.”

“Report what, exactly?”

“Anything at all. Strange instrument readings, problems with navigation, communications, the operation of the reactor or the thrust of the engines, the atmosphere inside the ship, changes in how you feel. Anything, in fact. The alien civilisation is so far ahead of ours that we haven’t even a rough idea of what technologies they have at their disposal. Therefore, we must be on the alert. Throughout our expedition, the same rule applies as in military counterintelligence: nothing happens by chance.”

 

3

After the briefing, Steve returned to his cabin with the firm intention of having a good sleep. There is no concept of day and night in space, so sleeping and waking regimes have to be created artificially. To avoid jet lag, the time zone from which most of the team had come would normally be applied. However, if the team were too variegated in time zone origin, the time zone of the flight control centre would be applied.

After determining the time zone to use on board, the ship’s AI adapted the lighting and climate inside the living accommodation, basing them on natural conditions. Morning began with cool air and yellow light, which became white by midday. Towards evening, the air temperature in the ship was raised, and the light moved more and more towards the red end of the spectrum. At night, however, the light inside the non-working compartments and corridors became like moonlight, which, along with the quiet coolness, created a realistic sensation of night. This impression was increased by a gentle breeze in the corridors.

The longer the flight continued, the more the team enjoyed this breeze, even if it was artificial. If you went out into the corridor and closed your eyes, you were no longer in a tin can in the depths of empty space but on Earth, with a cool evening breeze on your face. Because of this breeze, the expression “Let’s go and get some fresh air” came to be used by the team to mean taking a walk along the corridor. Naturally, the air there was no more or less fresh than within the compartments, but in the corridors the air conditioners blew irregularly, creating a semblance of natural wind.

Steve washed himself and lay down on the bed. He did not feel remotely sleepy, despite the fact that in the time zone from which he had taken off that morning, it was already late at night. He was too busy thinking about the briefing that had just ended. The theme under discussion had really been very exciting. For Steve, unlike the rest of the team, the alien ship’s visit was not a surprise, but man is a pack animal, and the mood in a group affects all its members.

He lay his head on the rather coarse but comfortable pillow and closed his eyes. A picture floated into his head of himself and Maggie returning from a short walk in the park just as the news that the alien ship had been fired upon reached the base and a state of emergency was declared.

To Steve’s surprise, there had been no panic among the scientists. No-one had run around the situation room with a mad look in their eyes crying blue murder. Most of the scientists had just taken the information on board with a laconic shrug of the shoulders. Over the several weeks they had been involved in the project, they had developed an immunity to exciting news, no doubt learning this from the military.

On the same day, after receiving the first detailed information from the blockade group commander, General Rohas, the Space Force High Command made contact with the Academic Council from their secret bunkers. It appeared that the situation, which had been gradually heating up in the past few days and was beginning to come to the boil, had resolved itself of its own accord. The alien ship had simply gone back home without a word.

The Academic Council was kept together for a few more days in case the incomer suddenly made itself known. A few days later however, when nothing had happened, the ‘Dawn’ project was put on hold. By an absolute majority of government representatives from every country on Earth, it was decided not to remove its secrecy rating.

The military removed their stationary weapons from Jupiter’s satellites and dispersed the groups of ships they had formed all over the Solar System, leaving only a few craft equipped with scientific apparatus to study the consequences of the strike against the incomer. The consequences of the explosion to Jupiter’s atmosphere, which were too noticeable to be hushed up, were explained to the public as a test of stationary weapons for use against super-large asteroids.

After that, the space forces embarked on the greatest inquiry ever undertaken. As well they might. It had been the first armed conflict with an alien civilisation in history. Everything was subjected to exhaustive study and critical analysis, including the principle of subordination and interaction of all the offensive and defensive forces in the space fleet.

Naturally, special attention was devoted to explaining the behaviour of the fixed weapon that had made the unauthorised strike against the incomer – the gun with the military codename E1. E1 had been totally destroyed by a series of powerful explosions and scarcely anything bigger than a micron was left of it. Furthermore, most of the material of which it had consisted, mixed with surface ice and water from Europa’s ice-covered ocean, had either been scattered all over the Solar System or had fallen on Jupiter. This made things much harder for the military specialists trying to find out the reason for the unauthorised strike.

All the logs of the weapon’s technical parameters and of the communications between its gun crew, the command group and other ships were taken and subjected to intensive analysis. After finishing the investigation and putting together a picture of what had happened from minute fragments, the military did somehow manage to dig up one or two things.

As we know, the space intruder had been told in the form of an ultimatum to take the dialogue to the political level. When it continued to evade specific answers, the group of military negotiators demanded that it leave the Solar System and withdraw beyond the heliosphere. The incomer had asked for 30 hours to consider this demand, on the grounds that it was obliged to have its actions approved by its superior command structures. With only a few hours left before the ultimatum expired, E1 had somehow become cocked and ready to fire.

The system of subordination within the strike group was such that the command was unable to take complete control of the weapon remotely. The command could only take a weapon off safety and issue a command to the gun crew on site, but firing a shot or preventing one could only be done through physical access to the weapons.

Without any information on the capabilities of the alien civilisation, the military did not want to risk activating remote access to their weapons. After all, the incomer might break through the protective perimeter and seize control of the space fleet. It was this shortcoming in the system that played a dirty trick on the fleet command. When E1 stopped subordinating itself to Rohas, he had no other way of putting it out of action except by destroying it.

General Rohas had unsuccessfully tried to make contact with the gun crew. At that precise moment, the alien ship was outside E1’s zone of visibility. Rohas then ordered the ships of the second echelon, attack ships intended to prevent strike weapons from this very sort of independent activity, to fire a warning shot.

There had been no reaction. Unfortunately, it would never be possible to find out whether the gun crew had lost its nerve at that moment, or if sabotage had taken place, or if they had gone out of their minds or were even dead. Since the incomer was quickly entering E1’s strike zone, the decision was taken to neutralise the combat-ready gun together with its crew.

The second echelon command ship fired, but missed. It tried again and again, each time without success. It then fired a volley from every weapon under its command. Ten powerful ships let loose a storm of fire on Europa to compensate for any excessive targeting error.

As a result of the explosion, the satellite lost about one per cent of its mass. A huge quantity of ice, dust and rock was ejected into space, the temperature of Europa’s ocean rose by several degrees over an area of several thousand square kilometres, and the celestial body changed its angle of rotation around its own axis and its orbit around Jupiter.

Nevertheless, E1 had had time to fire at the alien ship. The delay due to the targeting error of the second echelon command ship turned out to be enough for the shot to be fired.

The incomer, caught at a tangent by the explosion, had been ejected from its former orbit, after which it rapidly accelerated and disappeared into the depths of space.

The command was concerned with three questions, on which the investigation concentrated. Why had the random cocking of the weapon taken place? What had happened to the crew, since there had been no reaction either to attempts to contact it or to the warning shots? And why had the attack ships of the second echelon not been able to put E1 out of action with the first shot?

When it is a matter of military operations on Earth, there always remains the possibility of concealed agents, ‘sleepers’, who can undertake a sabotage operation on the enemy’s instructions. But the idea that Earthlings could be recruited by the aliens seemed absurd, and was not considered credible.

They did not succeed in finding a sensible explanation for the behaviour of the crew of E1 in the minutes before it fired. There was constant monitoring of the atmosphere in their living accommodation, so poisoning by some kind of gas, or loss of seal, could be discounted. The motion sensors did not register any foreign objects. No non-standard activity was recorded. The behaviour of E1’s gun crew directly before it was destroyed remained a mystery. The only thing that was known for certain was that the order to take the weapon off safety must have been given from within. E1 did not receive any order remotely.

There is rarely one single reason for a catastrophe of technical origin. More often than not, a whole chain of circumstances lies behind it, and what happened to E1 was no exception.

The situation in which E1 escaped from the command’s control had been considered possible, so in this case, the strike group blockading the alien ship had included the second-echelon ships. The second echelon had the specific task of destroying weapons not responding to orders, as a last resort. Unfortunately, however, even these safety measures had proved insufficient.

When it became clear that control over E1 had been lost and it would be impossible to restore it within an acceptable time, a shot was fired at it by one of the second-echelon ships. The anti-matter charge missed the target and struck the surface of Europa hundreds of metres from the targeted point. Since the charge had been fired from a distance of only a few tens of thousands of kilometres, a distance from which a miss was not expected, its energy had not had an excess reserve. But it would have been enough to put E1 out of action and possibly to save the lives of its crew.

As was discovered later, the reason the charge deviated from its trajectory was an anomaly that had been discovered a few days earlier by Professor Shelby’s team. At the time of the events surrounding E1, the existence of this anomaly was already known to the Space Fleet High Command. Unfortunately, the facts known about it at that time and the brief time interval had not been enough to work out an effective strategy for counteracting it. The situation was complicated by the fact that the greater the energy of the anti-matter charge, the more the anomaly distorted the trajectory of the space weapon. Not having come across such a phenomenon before, the aiming computer was unable to recognise the distorting factors. The only solution programmed into it was to use excess strike energy.

Using enough force to produce a huge crater in the surface of Europa, E1 was finally destroyed. But by turning the disobedient weapon into fine dust, the second echelon had buried forever the last hope of fully explaining the reasons for the control failure. The Space Fleet High Command had no option but to be content with theories.

The first of these assumed a technical failure of E1’s built-in computer. Obviously, any such failure would have to have affected not only the targeting module but also the communications module, which had made it impossible to establish contact with the command ship. The gun crew might have been trying to restore control, and for that reason did not react to the warning shots, knowing that restoring control was the only thing that could save them from being destroyed. There was simply not enough time to contact the command ship by any other means.

Another theory assumed that E1 had been acted on from outside. Looked on as a false flag operation, loss of control over it followed by a strike at the alien ship made sense, but raised a series of problems of a technical nature.

To break through the defences of E1’s computer would require profound knowledge of its internal structure. Such information could be acquired by re-engineering after infiltrating the weapon system on site or while it was being transported to its place of deployment.

Since mankind had long since mastered the technology of manufacturing and using nano-robots, E1, like any other modern weapon, had the means to protect and counteract the penetration of nano-machines into it, protecting not only its internal electronics, but also living personnel.

For successful and imperceptible penetration, the means of infiltration would have to be smaller than nano-objects, yet possess considerable computing power. The creation of such robots came up not against technical difficulties, but a theoretical threshold. Such unimaginably small devices could not possess such unimaginably great computing power. In this case, the re-engineering and subsequent control of the weapon would require an incredibly impressive computing apparatus.

There also remained the possibility of infiltration at the production stage. This theory also had many weak points. For example, how would the incomer know precisely what weapon would be used in the blockade? It was logical to assume that it could not know this, and therefore would have needed to infiltrate numerous arms factories. If they had, it would mean that most of Earth’s military production capacity was compromised. Furthermore, if the alien civilisation had such means of infiltration at their disposal, what was stopping it from extending its influence to the military infrastructure? With such control over the human race, there was no sense in staging such an incident.

After long discussions, the military investigators were divided into two groups: those who supported the theory of a chance failure, and those who were convinced there had been interference from outside. In spite of the difference in their assessments of past events, their view of the future was identical: the alien civilisation had come to stay. Consequently, we should expect subsequent visits.

 

4

After several days of a sedentary way of life, Steve really missed his bicycle. As some compensation for the lack of movement, he wandered around the ship, looking into every corner with interest.

He spent most time in the engine room, where he bombarded the engineer with questions. The sight of the mighty thermonuclear reactor booming along at 90 per cent power won Steve’s admiration. He, like many other students of the exact and natural sciences, had always been fascinated by massive power plants.

Standing with the engineer on the upper floor of the engine room and looking down, the reactor remotely resembled a seven-pointed star. Thousands of fine tubes were interwoven into an immensely complicated tangle, each one fulfilling its own unique function in the general cause of generating electricity. Cables twice as thick as an arm extended out from the reactor. Immersed in channels filled with liquid nitrogen and cooled to a temperature close to absolute zero, their superconductor cores carried vast amounts of electrical energy from the generator to the engines.

The heart of the ship was the apotheosis of contemporary engineering thought. The reactor itself differed in principle from its predecessors, particularly from the first-generation ones. It had no heat engine, yet the reactor had an efficiency coefficient of almost one.

Mankind first discovered electricity in the 17th century. During the industrial revolution, it learned how to generate electricity on an industrial scale to electrify cities and factories. But for several hundred years, power stations remained the same in principle, although they changed externally, and more and more sophisticated engineering decisions were incorporated into their design.

They used a large boiler to heat water which was fed under pressure to turn a turbine, which in turn turned a dynamo-type machine and thus produced electricity. This principle, dating from the Middle Ages, endured through the era of atomic power generation based on the fission of heavy elements. Nuclear power stations of this period still had the same steam boilers and furnaces, albeit atomic ones. The price of such a number of stages in the electricity generation cycle was low productivity. The old power stations irretrievably lost two thirds of the energy of the fuel burned in them in heating the nearby lakes and rivers, when water from the cooling circuit was ejected into them.

It was only towards the end of the 21st century that mankind finally mastered a technology that managed without heat engines. This simple step had taken about 500 years. Steve involuntarily recalled the words of the messenger from another planet: we judge the level of development of a civilisation by the type of energy it has assimilated. After all, it was true; all the achievements of a civilisation were based on energy. Take away mankind’s power generation capability and it would immediately find itself back in the Middle Ages.

Having looked around the ship, Steve finally reached the bridge. After some hesitation, he knocked and opened the door. In general, there was an unwritten law on the ship that members of the team should only appear on the bridge in the course of their duties or by order of the captain. It was not the done thing to ‘pop in for a minute’, to call in for a chat with the ship’s commander. Steve only had limited space flight experience, but he still intuitively understood the rules of subordination within the crew of a space ship. Nevertheless, his curiosity got the better of him. He subconsciously justified his actions to himself by believing that he was not just a member of the crew, he was also a commander, if only of the scientific part of the expedition.

“Good day, Captain Kimble,” said Steve as he entered the bridge. As usual, Kimble was sitting in his chair reading. Hearing the greeting, he raised one eyebrow slightly on seeing his uninvited guest. That was how it seemed to Steve anyway. Oh, to hell with it… Let Kimble think that he simply didn’t understand their customs.

“Hello, Steve. What can I do for you?”

The captain put down his tablet and indicated that Steve should sit in the empty first pilot’s seat. Kimble turned it away from the console so that it was facing him, and Steve obediently sat down.

“I’m getting to know the ship; I’ve just been in the engine room. I thought I’d call in on you,” said Steve to start the conversation, and glanced at the pilot’s console. “Oh, we’ve already passed Mars’ orbit… By the way, do you know that certain members of the ‘Dawn’ project are continuing to receive intelligence information?”

Kimble’s face expressed mild surprise.

“I thought the project had been wound up.”

“To some extent it has been. The project has been put on hold, but the military have not forgotten about it. Therefore they are keeping Dean Shelby informed of the current course of events and are consulting with him, so as not to miss something if the aliens decide to pay us another visit.”

Kimble heard Steve out and nodded.

“If you ask me, I’m sure the aliens will be back.”

“Really? What makes you think so?” asked Steve.

“Well, think about it. The first contact did not succeed. That’s no reason not to communicate in the future.”

Steve smiled, and pointed to the tablet Kimble had been holding when he entered the bridge. It was obvious that the captain had been reading an e-book. The author’s name was clearly visible at the top of the screen – Carl von Clausewitz.

“For a von Clausewitz fan, you take a very optimistic view of things,” he remarked.

For the first time, Kimble smiled broadly. Steve had hit on a theme that was clearly close to the captain’s heart.

“Where did you get the idea that I’m a fan of his?”

“You finished reading it when we were flying here in the shuttle, and now you’re only just past the beginning. People don’t usually re-read books they don’t like.”

“Anyone who has been in a military academy has read it.”

“A lot of people have read it, but probably not all of them re-read it.”

“Steve, you said that you are receiving intelligence information. Is something in it worrying you?” said Kimble, returning to the previous subject.

“Well, yes. I have seen what’s going on in the asteroid belt. All the large cargo vessels are now only flying in convoys escorted by a military ship. We are flying somewhat to one side of it, but all the same, who knows…”

Kimble got up and approached the main screen in the centre of the bridge. Bringing up a map of the Solar System, he made a gesture to magnify one sector of it. With a few more gestures, he drew several lines.

“The red zone extends up to this limit. Military intelligence considers that a ship like ours, moving there without an armed escort, has a 60 per cent probability of being attacked by pirates. In this sector, the yellow one, the danger is reduced to five per cent, and in the green zone it barely exists.

“Our flight trajectory will pass mainly through the green sector. We only touch the yellow at a tangent and leave it again after two hours. I think the probability of coming up against pirates is negligibly small.”

“It says in my report that there are believed to be two pirate ships parked in the yellow sector. They tried to seize a ship, but, after an unsuccessful attempt, withdrew to here. They are most likely still there,” said Steve, outlining part of the yellow sector on the screen.

Kimble laughed.

“Such information is usually only given to the ship’s captain.”

“But this is not exactly a routine mission. And we are carrying something more valuable than the usual ore. You could make quite a bit of money out of it.”

Steve could see that the captain hesitated for a second, considering whether he should share certain information with him.

“I know where those ships are. I’ve been keeping an eye on them for some days now,” he said, and signalled to the ship’s computer to lock the door to the bridge. “Here’s where those two ships are. Here’s one, here’s the other. There’s another one with them, but I’m not sure that one’s moving,” explained the captain, indicating certain points on the visualisation.

As the intelligence dossier sent to Steve a few hours previously had warned, the two ships were just where they were expected to be. The two points denoting them were marked in red. Lines from them ran to their own ship, showing the best interception trajectories.

“Do you know anything about the type of ship? Or the crew?”

Kimble said nothing in reply, but just changed the map. Steve saw two photographs, apparently taken through an onboard telescope from the ship the pirates had tried to take by storm a little less than a week ago.

The photographs were taken from a very great distance for such small objects. There were no details; all that could be seen were silhouettes. Steve just shook his head.

“They don’t mean anything to me. Can you make anything out from them?”

“They’re old army attack ships, 2110 model.”

“Army attack ships? Where did the pirates get them?”

“They are written off from active service after 40 years of flights and sold to anyone who wants them. The weapons are taken out, of course, and so is the additional armour plating. Without them, they are no different from ordinary civil ships. Except maybe that the engines will be a bit more powerful,” Kimble explained.

“And how many crewmen can they hold?”

“Up to fifty.”

“Really!” exclaimed Steve. “How can you speak so calmly about it?”

Kimble stared at him briefly. This could be read as a mild rebuke for a naïve question.

“It would be child’s play for just five armed fighters, equipped in the right way, to take us over. It’s not a matter of how many there are in the crew. If they make the mistake of trying to take us by storm, it will be their last mistake. Did you notice the tarpaulin-covered crates when you were in the cargo compartment?”

“I thought they were spares of some kind for the ship.”

“Some are, but not all of them. I have something put by against attempts to seize the ship. The high command understands the importance of our expedition, so they’ve given us something to bite back with.”

“That’s reassuring.”

“Put your mind completely at rest. There’s no way they can take us. If they knew what we’re carrying, they’d avoid us like the plague.”

 

5

Steve had only just finished his morning shower when there was a knock at his door. Clive was on the threshold.

“Steve, Kimble asked me to tell you that he wants you on the bridge, pronto. He tried to get in touch with you but he couldn’t find you.”

“Yes, I’ve only just got out of the shower,” Steve replied.

Clive nodded and went to his cabin.

Steve hurriedly dried himself, quickly combed his hair, and, eating his breakfast as he went, set off for the bridge.

“Here, take a look at this,” said Kimble, relocking the door as soon as Steve had entered and pointing to the main screen.

The radar visualisation with which Steve was already familiar was showing on the display. Now the red dots had left their parking place and had started moving towards their ship, exactly following one of the trajectories predicted by the ship’s computer. The dots were now bigger and winking constantly. A warning showed in the corner of the screen:

“Attention, danger of ship seizure.”

“It looks as though they’re monitoring our ship’s computer,” remarked Steve, surprised at how exactly the pirate ships were repeating the interception trajectory predicted by their AI.

“The flight trajectory calculation program is the same everywhere, so there’s nothing surprising in that.”

“What actions will we take? Are you going to notify the crew?”

“Not all of them; just two, so that they can unwrap our surprises. There’s no need to bother the rest.”

“Could I take a look at what you’re hiding in the cargo compartment?”

“Certainly. You are one of those who will be unwrapping them. That young colleague of yours, is he also getting the intelligence information?”

“Clive? No. He said he wasn’t interested and it would just be a waste of his time. He’s not interested in anything much at all, apart from science.”

“I understand. OK.” Kimble signalled to the computer to put him in touch with one of the crew. “Toshi?”

“Yes, Skip, I’m listening.”

Apart from the voice, the loudspeakers also carried the sounds of scraping metal producing a ringing echo. Only the cargo compartment was big enough to create acoustics like that.

“Are you in position? Steve will be joining you; he also knows what’s going on.”

“Roger. An extra pair of hands will be very useful,” replied Toshi. He spoke haltingly, with brief pauses to recover his breath.

After passing through the gravity lock to the ship’s compartments without artificial gravity, Steve, now subjected to weightlessness, was at once conscious of the breakfast he had just eaten in his stomach. It was not a pleasant sensation. Any sudden movement immediately brought on severe nausea. The food wanted to come out. He found an inhaler with a nausea remedy and took a deep breath. After a few seconds, his stomach calmed down and the unpleasant nausea passed.

The cargo compartment was flooded with bright daylight. It now looked bigger than it had seemed to Steve the first time. Something was going on in the far corner.

The shortest route there was in a straight line. He only had to kick off strongly and his body would float there on its own. Unfortunately, free flight was forbidden in such large spaces. The engines were now switched off, but at any moment the ship’s computer might restart them to correct the flight trajectory. You never knew which way the ship would rock when carrying out a manoeuvre, and which wall might suddenly become the floor and which the ceiling. If you should fall from a height of 20 metres, even half a G of acceleration would be enough for you to break something. So he had to put on magnetic soles and trudge wearily to the other end of the compartment, where Toshi was already waiting for him impatiently.

“We have to unload these two containers here and then those three over there,” he said, pointing to some huge iron rectangles. The first was around four metres high and three times as long. The others were no higher than the height of a man.

“Where shall we start, with the small ones?” asked Steve.

“No, better with the big ones; they have drones in them. We can unload them onto the starting platform right away, there will be more room.

“Look, here are the tarpaulin locks,” said Toshi, pointing to some massive metal mechanisms. “I’ll crawl in from the other side and tell you when to open them, and watch out! The tarpaulin is under tension. If all the locks are not opened together, there’ll be a tangle, then we’ll be here all night. Got that?”

Steve nodded. Toshi crawled into the gap between the containers and disappeared from sight. He was agile, and could easily creep into narrow gaps, reminiscent of a black beetle.

“Ready?” His voice sounded as if it were coming from a pipe.

“Yes.”

“OK, we’ll start with the one you’re standing next to. On a count of three: One, two, three!”

Steve pulled a small lever, and, after a few sharp clicks, the lock opened. It turned out there was a spring inside it, which gently released the tension in the tarpaulin strap.

“Well done. Now the next one,” Toshi’s voice was heard again.

“Say, what would happen if the ship switched on the engines while we were taking a tarpaulin off?

“Nothing. The container is held to the floor by magnetic locks. The tarpaulin is just to conceal it from prying eyes.”

“Oh, I see.”

As soon as the other locks were open, Toshi reappeared from the gap between the containers. He waved Steve away, then grabbed the free ends and began to pull the tarpaulin off. It turned out that the tarpaulin did not cover a full-walled container, but only a frame with the walls and roof removed.

Inside the skeleton container, three rocket motor tubes began to appear, then the tail of a drone, then its body, and finally its slightly pointed nose. On top there were two narrow windows glazed with tinted armoured glass. The drone itself was the size of a large army tow truck.

“Well, what do you think of it?”

“Great! But why the windows? Does that mean it can be piloted?”

“Yes. It has room inside for six people, not counting the pilot. It can be used as an emergency shuttle. You can go from orbit to a planet’s surface in it. Great piece of kit!”

Toshi put on the manipulator glove for the crane, raised his arm and made a gesture as if calling someone towards him. Then he pointed to the drone and clenched his fist. In the corner, up near the ceiling, a telescopic jib came to life, a green light winked confirming the task, and it began to extend in the indicated direction.

Reaching the drone, it gently attached itself to a special lock on its roof. Toshi pointed upwards with his index finger, and the drone automatically released its fixings at the bottom. The crane lifted it and froze in anticipation. He then pointed to the starting platform in front of the external lock through which the shuttle had disembarked the crew when they had arrived that first night.

Once the crane jib had placed the second drone on the platform alongside the first one, it was time for the smaller containers.

“The rest is easy.”

“What’s in them?”

“Combat robots,” said Toshi, and opened one of the containers. Inside was a humanoid combat machine like those Steve had already come across at the base, except that this one was rather smaller. Judging by its design, it was a new model.

Steve had heard from engineering students that there was a common belief among them that there was some correlation between a successful design and an aesthetic external appearance. If a ship, a robot or something else was a joy to behold, you could confidently assert that its design was successful. And the uglier the machine, the more design faults there would be in it.

This robot looked more attractive than those Steve had seen at the base. And since each model was an improvement on the previous one, the newer it was, the more elegant it would look. It seemed the engineers were right.

The robot in the box was squatting with its head inclined forwards. In this position it looked more like a cube than a humanoid, but it took up much less space that way.

“Careful! Move back a bit,” warned Toshi.

Steve obediently took several paces back. Toshi took a key from his chest, inserted it somewhere in the small of the metal back and turned it. The robot slowly lifted its simulation of a head. Its optics were hidden behind thick dark acrylic glass, and its head was more like a futuristic motorcycle helmet.

Toshi made a few well-practised movements to initialise the robot. After checking its system, he ordered it to leave the container. The robot obediently straightened up to its full height, and, with a clanking noise, stepped out.

Only now could they see how tall it was. Steve measured it with his eyes from head to foot. It must have been about six and a half feet tall.

After activating and checking the remaining machines and supplying them with ammunition, Toshi wiped the sweat from his forehead.

“Skip, we’re all done here.”

“Roger. Put the robots on duty. Steve, return here to the bridge.”

After passing through the gravity lock on his way back to the bridge, Steve sighed with relief. Whatever you say, gravity is a lot more pleasant than weightlessness. There’s no nausea, and your face doesn’t swell up like a balloon due to the rush of blood to your head.

“Well, let’s see if our pursuers will listen to the voice of reason,” said Kimble with the hint of a smile, and switched on the radio.

Like any other large cargo ship captain, deep down Kimble was longing to take revenge on the pirates. Anyone with twenty or more years of commercial flight experience to the limits of assimilated space could always remember unpleasant stories about space robbers. If you have experienced their cruelty first-hand, any pity for the corsairs instantly evaporates.

“Attention unidentified ships on approach course, this is the captain of EMC1906. I consider your actions an attempt to seize my ship. I order you to cease your pursuit. Change course,” said Kimble, and, after switching off the microphone, added: “I bet they don’t bat an eyelid.”

Silence was the response. Kimble waited several minutes and repeated the warning. The pirate ships continued to fly on the same course, as if they had not heard the captain.

“Attention unidentified ships. This is the captain of EMC1906. Change course. This is the last warning. Keep at a distance of not less than one million kilometres. We are authorised to use force without further warning.”

Kimble grimaced at his own words.

“I hate having to warn the enemy.”

Steve just shrugged his shoulders.

“Flight rules are what they are. You can’t do otherwise.”

“Exactly.”

Kimble patiently waited another few minutes. There was no response from the ships, nor were they going to change course.

“They are not reacting at all,” said Steve, somewhat surprised.

Kimble laughed. “Of course they aren’t. They think we’re ordinary civilians, just bluffing.” He looked at the clock again.

“All right, they don’t want to listen to the voice of reason…” He switched off and contacted Toshi.

“Let the birds out of the nest,” he ordered him.

Toshi could be seen on the image from the camera in the cargo compartment standing next to the drones and saluting, then keying something in on his tablet. Vapour issued from the tails of the drones, and Toshi hurried towards the exit. The magnetic soles made movement difficult, particularly running. Toshi was lifting his knees unnaturally high, trying to run as fast as possible before the cargo compartment became filled with mist.

Eventually, the drones started their engines. The screen showed their tail ends beginning to light up. The first one rose slowly and floated to the exit. A few seconds later, the second one followed.

Kimble switched on communication with their onboard computers. All systems were working normally. Their coordinate system was linked directly to the heart of EMC1906, its reactor. Now they were moving at two and a half metres a second relative to the ship.

When the first one went out into space, the ship’s computer divided the picture into two parts. One part of the screen showed the view from the external camera, the other showed the view from the cargo compartment. A few moments later, the second one passed through the lock. By that time, the first one had already turned and accelerated away from the ship towards the pirates. Its speed rapidly increased to 100 metres a second. The second one followed, a few dozen seconds behind it in flight time.

The external camera tracked them, keeping them in the centre of the picture and gradually increasing the optical magnitude. Then the image suddenly disappeared and reappeared. Now the picture was coming from a telescope. Both drones were clearly visible against the background of the black starry sky, although they were covered in light-absorbing paint. The speed readings increased still further to 500 metres a second. Now the two drones, which so far had been flying in the same direction, accelerated in absolute synchrony.

1000 metres a second, 1500, 2000, 2500, 3000…

After passing the five thousand mark, the computer changed the units to kilometres a second.

6.0… 6.5… 7.0… 7.5 kilometres a second…

“Why have they separated?” asked Steve in surprise.

“They will approach the target from different sides. It’s harder to neutralise them that way,” replied Kimble calmly. He leaned back in his seat and put one leg on the console in front of him.

“When will they be in position?”

“In three or four hours,” replied the Captain, not taking his eyes off the screen in front of him.

“And then what?”

Kimble raised his eyes.

“Then there will be two less pirate ships.”

“Just like that, so unceremoniously?”

“Piracy is a serious crime. They know the risks.”

“Couldn’t you just scare them off?”

Kimble grimaced as if from a nagging toothache.

“If we had not had the drones, we would only have had a few hours to live, Steve. In nine out of ten cases when a ship is seized, the crew does not survive. If we just scare them off, in another couple of weeks they’ll seize another ship.”

“I realise that, but I’m still not happy about it. It seems kind of underhand.”

“Have a chat with Toshi, he’ll tell you a lot of interesting things. He and his friend were the only survivors of an entire crew when they were kidnapped during loading. They spent eight weeks in a shuttle before a patrol chanced to pick them up. And another shuttle with his fellow crew members in it could not be intercepted, because it went too far into space and was lost.”

Steve nodded to show that he understood the seriousness of the situation. After the incident on Mars, he himself knew what sort of people they were dealing with. For distraction, he immersed himself in reading the dossier on the anomaly. Shelby and his group were continuing to work on their research on Earth, and were keeping Steve and Clive in the picture if they succeeded in finding out anything new.

“Drones will be in position in three minutes,” reported the ship’s computer in a matter-of-fact voice several long hours later. Kimble dimmed the light in the bridge.

“Action begins!”

Steve saw the image of the pirate ships taken through the drones’ telescopes. Over the past few hours, they had reached the pirates, turned, and were approaching them from behind. Now they were flying directly behind their targets, within the exhaust of their engines. The picture was partly covered by grey vapour. The drones were photographing from such a great distance that even the exhaust dissipated in space clouded them over somewhat.

“How can they transmit images without the pirates noticing? They are directly between us!”

“The drones sent out a communications satellite, which is flying a few thousand kilometres to one side. The image is relayed through it by laser.”

The live image of the pirate ships was not very varied. Nothing could be seen apart from the light from their rear turbines. They twinkled slightly, and that was all the variety there was in the picture.

“Drone 1 in position, awaiting Drone 2,” came a message from the first drone. Automatic devices provided information about the current combat situation in text form.

“Drone 2 in position,” reported the second machine a little later, indicating its readiness. After that, the status reports from both drones began to come in almost synchronously.

“Drone 1 locking on to target. Locked on to target.”

“Drone 2 locking on to target. Locked on to target.”

“The world will be a cleaner place without you guys,” muttered Kimble. Although the pirates deserved to be atomised, he was clearly deriving no pleasure from the process of killing them.

“Drone 1 attacking.”

“Drone 2 attacking.”

[END OF THIS SAMPLE]

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