2947-03-26: Tales from the Inbox: Spacers' Limbo

Ning knew holding his breath was utterly useless, but he held it anyway as the huge unknown vessel swept overhead, as it had done several dozen times already.

The shape silhouetted against the stars on the command deck displays utterly failed to convey the sheer size of the incoming vessel. Its sharp-nosed, graceful outline was the sort of shape a human shipwright would assign to a smaller, more nimble vessel like a racer or a Frontier survey ship, rather than to a behemoth outweighing most Confederated Navy cruisers.

Whatever the alien logic behind its construction, the fact that the unknown ship had responded to Linn Rhee’s regulation first-contact transmission with an intercept course had demonstrated its intent. Now Rhee was pinned down, hurriedly set down in a deep-shadowed crater on the surface of a barren moon, while the stranger orbited patiently, waiting.

“He’s not going anywhere, is he?” Ning hadn’t heard Zhen enter the command deck, so focused was he on the silhouette crossing the sky above. When he turned around, she pressed a cup of steaming shipboard coffee into his hand.

“You were right. He means to wait us out, skipper.” Silently cursing the stammer in his voice, Ning set aside the coffee he’d been given, then duplicated the camera feeds to one of the other stations for the ship’s owner. It was a sign of her fraying nerves that Zhen had forgotten that she was the only member of the crew who could stomach food-processor coffee.

Zhen sat down and watched the shadowy alien ship cross the starfield at what, from the surface, seemed an unhurried pace. “We have time. Let’s see how patient they can afford to be.” Confidence rung in her tone; Rhee had been outfitted for long-range endurance in order to operate across the Gap, and could sit tight in its shadowed refuge for months.

A starship of the alien’s size could likely remain in place at least as long, of course; Ning didn’t relish the idea of sitting around for the better part of a year to see whose supply stowage ran dry first. “They won’t wait around long, will they?”

“I sure as hell hope not.” Zhen shook her head. “You’ve been up here two and a half shifts, Ning. Get below and get something to eat, I’ll keep watching him.”

This was a suggestion, not an order, but Ning knew it would be turned into an order if he refused. Blanking his console, he got up, took the untouched coffee, and got into the lift. At least she hadn’t told him to get some sleep – aside from the obvious contradiction between sleep and the offered stimulant-laced beverage, Ning couldn’t sleep properly knowing a vast ship full of malevolent alien creatures patrolled only a few dozen kilometers overhead.

As the lift descended to the cabin deck, Ning wondered whether this was how the first crews to encounter Imperial Rattanai ships had felt, before they were captured and lost to the anonymity of the Imperial chattel market. Nobody aboard Rhee harbored no doubt the sleek alien vessel was a weapon of war; its outline was vaguely reminiscent of a flattened bird-skull, a shape utterly inefficient for hauling cargo but well suited for giving multiple heavy weapons a clear field of fire forward without presenting a large target to return fire.

When Ning stepped out of the lift into the cramped crew lounge, three grim faces looked up from a game of cards, hoping for good news but seeing immediately that he had none. Ning walked past them with a nod of greeting to the food processor, fed it the still-untouched coffee the skipper had given him, and requested a plate of food instead. As the machine gurgled and wheezed through the process of turning inedible protein and starch pastes into barely-edible synthesized food, Ning stared blankly at the card game, needing a direction in which to direct his unseeing eyes but not really interested in the outcome. Taking his food from the output slot, he retreated into his tiny cabin without a word to his crewmates. What was there to say? The alien menace still loomed large, and the best case outcome was that they would trade weeks or months of tedium for the privilege of living a normal span.

Worst case, of course, involved being killed, captured, or dissected. It wasn’t a pretty thought to dwell on while dining on synthetic spacers’ fare, but Ning gulped down the bland dish of facsimile noodles all the same. Zhen had been right; it had been far too long since he’d eaten.

The door chimed, startling Ning into upending his half-eaten meal into his lap. “Dammit.” He could see on his wrist unit that the person responsible for the noise was Danica. Hurriedly scraping most of the food off the stain-repelling smart-fabric of his uniform and back onto the plate, Ning keyed the remote unlock.

Danica, looking as haggard as Ning felt, ducked into the tiny room, then let the door close behind her before she spoke. “You’ve been up in command since we touched down. Do you think we’ll make it?”

Ning let the businesslike greeting from his long-time crewmate and occasional lover pass by without comment, being simply too weary to risk a dispute. “I don’t know, Danica.” Knowing the ship was doomed would, he decided, be a less stressful alternative – the relief of certainty after two nerve-fraying days under the weight of an uncertain future held its own sort of appeal. “I really don’t know.”

Nodding quietly, Danica flopped down on Ning’s bed and covered her face with her hands. “If this is how we go… We knew the risks.” She chose her words carefully, as if the wrong one might bring the alien menace down on Rhee. “But I always expected the end to be…”

“Quick?” Ning filled in, brushing the last of the food off his trousers.

Danika looked up with a look of relief that he understood. “Yeah.” It was, apparently, all she could say.

Brushing the last scraps of food off his trousers, Ning left the cabin’s card-table-sized desk and sat on the bed next to Danica. Hesitantly, he put an arm around her shoulders. There was nothing to say, of course, and there was nothing more to do. All anyone could do was watch and wait.

The Linn Rhee returned from the far side of the Gap early last week, almost three full months after it had been declared missing, and almost a full year since its departure.The Rhee was one of the more well-prepared private Sagittarius expeditions to depart in 2946, and news of its apparent loss was met with widespread dismay here on the Frontier. The return of the ship and its crew has resulted in a fresh wave of widespread rumors, as the story they brought back - along with instrument recordings to back it up - is quite sensational. There can be no doubt they were pinned onto a desolate moon for several months by a curious or malevolent alien vessel of unknown origin - a clear case of first contact with new xenosapient life, but more than that, with highly advanced xenosapient life capable of projecting some level of modern military force on the spacelanes.

There have been a few other, less definite, sightings of similar ships - their narrow, avian profiles and distinctly bluish hull alloy are common features of these stories, as is the odd aggression demonstrated by the vessels. It is possible there is only one ship which several explorers have encountered, but that is not likely - it's more probable there are several. Several more expeditions and solitary explorers have gone missing on the far side of the Gap in the last year, it is possible that some of these were not as lucky as the Rhee crew.

The Arrowhawk squadron has only just arrived here at Håkøya, but its time-table to cross the Gap has been accelerated by several weeks in reaction to these events. Such rocky starts to interspecies relations are quite common (first contact at famously friendly Cold Refuge was quite hostile, for example), so we have every reason to believe that the Sagittarius starship builders will eventually prove to be good neighbors.

Of course, as Ning made sure to mention in his account to me, first contact with the old Rattanai Imperium was equally troublesome. If you are involved in exploration efforts on the far side of the Gap, be careful out there.