2946-10-09 - Tales from the Inbox: Mandy's Bangle

Mandy stared uncomprehending at the display for several seconds. The sleek, flattened-teardrop outline of the tiny derelict she had stumbled on had been naggingly familiar from the moment it had appeared on the readout, but now that her suspicion had been confirmed by the Survey Auxiliary’s high-quality recognition algorithm, she found it oddly impossible to process the fact that she was a few dozen kilometers away from Survey’s holy grail: an abandoned Angel starship.

The Angel ship was no bigger than her own Sirius M67 survey ship, and as cold and dead as the interplanetary void in which she had found it drifting, but Mandy still felt terribly alone and unprepared. She’d graduated from the Academy fifth from the bottom of her class, and as a result had been put on the roster of the Naval Survey Auxiliary’s valuable but unglamorous internal survey arm, which sent its pilots into uninhabited systems within the traditional boundaries of Confederated Worlds territory rather than sending out crews to push out the farthest extent of the Frontier.

Until the smooth, metallic object had shown up on her Sirius’s sensor plot, the system Mandy had been surveying had been only an unremarkable binary with no name and only a chart index number, first explored sometime in the twenty-fifth century. Her week-long drift through the system had been only another step in a dull routine of filling in the gaps in four hundred year old data, each flight a means of working her way up to the Survey Auxiliary’s frontier exploration effort. The moment the text “ORIGIN: ANGELS” had appeared on the display, all of that had changed. The unremarkable binary’s chart number, she knew, might be memorized by students of future generations as the place humanity’s steady technological progress took a sudden leap not seen since first contact with the nomadic Reachers kicked off the Second Space Age. In the derelict, she saw her own rather unremarkable surname being spoken in the same category as Columbus, Armstrong, Edwards, Blazek, or Himura.

The ship’s autopilot, ever cautious when dealing with unknown derelicts, crept closer far too slowly for Mandy’s liking, but she didn’t trust her own manual control with a discovery of such enormity. The derelict was in unknown condition, and might in theory crumble if subjected to even the faintest gust of thruster propellant. Somehow she doubted it would; if stories from the War were to be believed, Angel ships of war no bigger than the one she was now approaching were fairly evenly matched in one-on-one combat with the six-hundred-meter-long Rattanai star cruisers of the Earth occupation fleet.

With visions of immortality dancing in her head, Mandy double checked the status indicators of the ship’s recording devices. She didn’t want to miss anything; the techs back at Saunders’ Hoard could wring all the useful data out of everything she brought back. Every detail of the slow, gradual tumbling motion with which the Angel derelict slowly orbited the distant binary stars was of potential value in learning how it had come to be where it was, and when. Mandy wondered idly if it had been there all along, a lost member of the silent swarm which had saved humanity in its interstellar infancy, or if it had arrived since the star system had been first explored. Perhaps it was merely a hollowed-out shell left as a marker by the inscrutiable, secretive Angels, or perhaps it was proof of the old legend that the Angels buried their dead the old Norse way, by packing them into the ships of war that had served them so well in life, and setting them adrift on the currents of the stellar sea.

Mandy was still imagining the sorts of stories her find might reveal when an alarm squealed somewhere inside her cockpit. Startled, she hunted for its origin, and a dagger of icy dread pierced her guts when she found warning lights on the powerplant status board. Before she could do anything to divine the meaning of the half-dozen warning lights, a jolt rippled through the tiny ship. The cockpit lights dimmed, and the familiar vibration of the gravitic drive faded into eerie silence as most of the cockpit sensor readouts shut down. All the warning indicators winked out save one – the ship’s reactor had, in her moment of supreme triumph, shut itself down to prevent a somewhat more inconvenient explosion.

Mandy cursed her luck, manually issuing a gentle burst of thruster power to push her ship’s now unpowered trajectory safely away from the valuable derelict. Though very new and modern, the M67 was still not reliable enough for Frontier service. Reactor panics like the one Mandy had just experienced, along with a host of other teething problems, were why the model was being issued only for internal survey flights, though it was a decade newer than anything else the Auxiliary had in its inventory. If she couldn’t get the reactor back online herself, another Survey ship would come along to investigate her failure to return. While there was more than enough reserve power and provisions for her to survive until rescued by another Auxiliary pilot, her dreams of becoming a legend were already being torn away from her. Another flight would mean someone else to share the glory with – someone just as likely to want to claim all the credit.

Just as Mandy turned her attention to attempting to coax her ship’s temperamental reactor back to life, another alarm sounded – this time, she recognized the insistent shriek of the collision alarm. The autopilot didn’t wait for instructions, quickly shoving the ship sideways violently enough that its pilot felt the maneuver even through the compensators. Though the readout had gone dark moments before, Mandy remembered from the plot that there was nothing out there to collide with – nothing, that is, except for the derelict. Chill dread returned as Mandy, all but blind with the active sensors too energy-intensive to operate on auxiliary power, brought one of the ship’s visual-light telescopes to bear on the orbital track of the Angel relic. It was just as she feared – the enigmatic vessel was not where it had been when her systems had gone dark. Without active sensors, she had no way of knowing if she had simply miscalculated its relative position, or if the dead ship had suddenly come to life.

Though she had no way of knowing what was happening outside her hull, Mandy wheeled the telescope around on its bearings, looking for any sign of the derelict’s sleek profile against the distant stars. All at once, it seemed that the stern, alien eyes of a lone Angel, its mysterious vigil disturbed, were upon her, piercing the hull of the Sirius as if they were a thin shell of brittle glass rather than sturdy titanium alloy. The odd, reclusive sapients had, for their own reasons, interceded to save humanity from extinction twice in its history as a spacefaring species, but she knew that was no guarantee of safety in such an encounter. The Angels were suspicious creatures, their impossible technologies always kept out of human hands, by lethal force if necessary.

Though she saw nothing against the starfield, Mandy found the controls for the broadcast radio and turned its power up as far as the auxiliaries could support. “Is someone out there? This is Naval Survey Auxiliary Flight 406-T-77. I’ve encountered a minor reactor malfunction, and any assistance would be appreciated.” The words seemed lost in the void, even within the confines of the cockpit.

There was, of course, no reply but the gentle background hiss of the binary system’s tangled magnetic field. Mandy shook her head, trying not to focus on visions of silent Angelic wrath fixed on her intrusion, and set about issuing reactor restart instructions.

To her relief, the temperamental Sirius power plant staggered to life on the second attempt. Immediately, Mandy swept local space for any sign of the derelict Angel ship, and was less than surprised when she failed to find it, either at its predicted location, or anywhere else. What did surprise her was that there was something out there – a highly reflective object no more than ten centimeters across. The ship’s computer helpfully modeled its trajectory and demonstrated that this small anomaly, not the missing derelict, had caused the collision alarm and emergency maneuver.

Gingerly, Mandy brought the ship around to scoop up the tiny object which had caused her so much terror. Once it was safely aboard and hoisted into the analysis tank, Mandy put the ship back on its original course and went down to have a look at it. She found herself looking at a polished plate of bronze-colored metal, triangular with two of its corners curled inwards. On the outer surface, a handsome pattern of etching crisscrossed the smooth finish. It looked, she decided, like a piece of simple jewelery; holes on the two curved corners might once have been the places where a clasp fitted to attach the item to a human-sized wrist or forearm.

Using the grippers in the analysis tank, Mandy turned the object over to examine the inside surface, and found a different pattern of etching there. Small blocks of complex etching marched in ordered rows, almost like letters, though she saw no place the pattern used a repeated shape. Mandy found it hard to focus on the etching; the nearly writing-like quality made her imagine letters and words appearing out of the background, but each time, they vanished as soon as she thought they appeared. It was, she decided, nothing that would be drifting in space by accident. The object was undoubtedly related to the Angel derelict; perhaps a piece that had fallen off and been forgotten when it had departed.

As she considered the possible meaning of the object, Mandy’s eyes drifted across the writing-like pattern once more, and she recoiled from the analysis tank in alarm, falling heavily against the opposite bulkhead. For a moment, another odd set of letters had seemed to rise from the complex pattern, bolder and clearer than all the suggestions her imagination had already supplied.

“Mandy, you’re losing it.” She muttered, standing once more and returning to the tank, sure that what she had seen would be only a figment of her overly active imagination. Picking up the metal object with the tank’s grippers once more, Mandy turned it over and once again looked upon the etching on the inside surface.

Despite all her expectations, the words that had so unnerved her were still there. Mandy stared uncomprehending at the thing in the analysis tank, torn between wonder and sheer panic. Etched into the ordered patterns on its inside face, very near the center and impossible to mistake, was her own name.

I'm genuinely shocked this story cleared Naval Intelligence, but it did.

Mandy G. sends us the account of the most eventful flight of her brief career in the Naval Survey Auxiliary. In her account, she claims to have stumbled on an apparently derelict Angel starship. The Auxiliary has never confirmed this incident, but their representative here on Planet refused to categorically deny her account. The usually very open service denied having any data recordings to back up the story, so I can't say I believe it all happened exactly as Mandy claims, but the physical proof of the story - the "bangle" she returned with - is a well documented fact.

According to Mandy, the physical proof she brought back was subjected to a number of analyses at the research station on Saunders’ Hoard, and the technicians there determined the item to have been manufactured by a human mass fabricator of a type mainly used in the early 2700s. How such an item came to have Mandy's name etched on it, none of them could understand, but they let her keep it all the same, finding no evidence it was of Angel origin. Mandy transferred from the Auxiliary to the true Navy shortly after this allegedly happened in early 2944; evidently she has been serving as a launch pilot on a Navy tender for almost a year, and she claims that she keeps the "bangle" on her person every time she straps into a cockpit.

I am interested in the teething problems Mandy reports with the Sirius M67 type - this ship class is sometimes considered the closest competitor to several of our loyal sponsor's offerings, since it is purportedly going to be available to the general public sometime early next year, at a similar price point to analogous Kosseler products. The Sirius model was built to the Survey Auxiliary's specifications, and supposedly in second-line Survey service they've worked most of the kinks out of the type, but I can't find any proof they've been cleared for Frontier service yet, even eighteen months after Mandy's reported bad experience. Is Sirius going to start selling these ships to the public before they're even ready for the purpose for which they were originally designed?