2949-10-05 – Tales from the Service: The Sagittarius Sniper, Revisited
At last, Naval Intelligence has cleared me to relay this account, though it is by now several months old. You may recall that very early in this text feed series we published a story called TTales from the Inbox: The Sagittarius Sniper, featuring an enterpreneur’s failed attempt to set up a depot at Sagittarius Gate. The accident that befell Martin Westland there remained unexplainable for a long time, but I believe the work of a squadron of Naval Survey Auxiliary pilots in mapping out the natural objects present in the Sagittarius Gate system has accidentally resolved this little mystery.
One of the pilots involved, an occasional reader and viewer of Cosmic Background content, sent a duplicate of their report along with a lengthy account of their discovery, but as the report is under seal as a file of strategic importance to Seventh Fleet operations, it took Naval Intelligence a long time to go through it and provide me a list of the details I am and am not allowed to include in this feed item.
Their censorious attention to detail has nevetheless given me a vast array of facts to work with. I cannot offer hard numbers, astrographic positions, or anything similar, but the general shape of the discovery is fair game, and it is that general shape which more than adequately explains Mr. Westland’s accident.
Pacey Salo flipped a series of switches on the control panel the Navy techs back on Vigilance had just bolted to the left side of his console, frowning. The Navy’s fancy gravimetric sensors were supposed to pick out the ripples in the cosmic fabric caused by the passage of large masses such as asteroids and planetoids, but after working reasonably well for a few hours, the system had utterly failed, its readouts stuck at their maximum levels and warning lights blinking more or less at random.
Nothing else aboard her little ship seemed to be affected, and she thanked whatever guardian angel looked over her for that. With the amount of power the gravimetrics required, a short could have fried her explorer’s navcomputer or arced through the whole system, leaving her dead in space.
“Brick, Jolly, I just lost my gravimetric unit. Damn thing’s totally dead.” Pacey scowled out into the darkness ahead as she waited for the radio signal to cover the few light-seconds of distance to her compatriots. They were already behind timetable, and the Navy wouldn’t like another delay, even if it was their own damned fault this time. Falling back on radar and visual detection in her sector would quadruple the time necessary to mark all the hazards and bodies that tumbled through the planetless proto-system surrounding bloated blue Sagittarius Gate. The system, a cheerless place by any metric, had been no small amount of trouble to survey already, since the Navy had added battle wreckage to the array of troublesome objects circling the star.
“Copy, Nitro.” This was Jolly’s gruff voice. “Do what you can with standard gear.”
“On it.” Pacey yanked on the control column to drive her ship directly into the heart of her assigned sector, then set the ship’s twin visual-light telescopes to scan the starfield. She was hardly a fan of the slow-boating visual detection method, but could hardly claim it was anything other than what she’d signed up for. The computer would flag anything moving that wasn’t already on the charts or in the data streams from the other two surveyors, and she’d fly to each one to have a closer look. Most likely, she’d pass the bulk of the list off to the others when they finished gravimetric scans of their own swatches of space.
Just as Pacey was telling the ship’s little food machine to make her a coffee, the gravimetric sensor panel’s warning lights winked out with a series of bright chirps, and the readouts had begun to fall back to their normal levels.
“Creative Hells?” Pacey flicked the power switches on the new sensors several times, then watched as they started up to show relatively normal gravitational flux. “Boys, my gravimetrics just came back, but I’ve got no idea how long I’ll have them. Damned Navy-tech hackwork.”
“Watch the chatter, Nitro.” Jolly’s barking reproach had less than the intended effect, since it arrived more than eight seconds after Pacey had finished talking. “Sweep back over the area you passed while it was out, then finish your sector.”
Even before the squadron leader had finished reminding her of how to do her job, Pacey had already yanked the ship’s nose around to face the empty space she’d just vacated. Most likely, she hadn’t missed anything during the little hiccup, but Naval Survey Auxiliary didn’t deal in Most Likely. It dealt in absolute certainty. After all, there was little use in a navigational chart that only included most of the local hazards.
Almost as soon as she’d reversed course, the warning lights returned, and the readouts spiked up to their maximum levels and stayed there.
“Guess that was too good to be true.” Pacey shook her head, her hand hovering over the comms control. Something about the failure bothered her, and she wanted to figure out what before she reported in once more.
As she sat puzzling over the situation, a wrenching sensation pushed her back into her chair. The frame of her little ship groaned in protest. Several system alarms began to wail at once, but by the time they did, the sensation and the groaning of stressed structural members had already ceased.
“Woah.” Pacey scanned the instruments, dismissing alarms as she went. The combination of warnings suggested she had sustained high acceleration – high enough to briefly overwhelm the inertial isolation system – but she’d been coasting without the main drive engaged. Strangely, both her position and bearing were off where they should have been, but the drive showed no indication of having been accidentally engaged. Most tantalizingly, the gravimetric sensor readouts were crawling back down toward normal once more.
Pacey had an idea, and she knew it was a bad one. Even without doing the math directly, she could estimate what it would take to haul her ship off course and heading in an instant. Supposing she’d accidentally performed a gravitational slingshot around an unsighted object, there was only one material – theoretical material, really – dense enough to create so violent a slingshot. It would also cause the gravimetrics to go haywire when she pointed them in the right general direction.
“Boys, I’ve, uh. Got something.” Pacey’s hands danced across the console, pinpointing the exact moment of her sudden course change and estimating the location of the object which had caused it. As yet, she had no proof anything was there, but proof wouldn’t be long in coming. “Something really weird.”
“How weird is weird, Nitro?”
Before Jolly’s cautious response had reached her, Pacey had already estimated the orbital path of the object she’d encountered and had a decent idea of where it was, and where it was going. “How weird exactly is a two meter ball of pure neutronium, boss?”
The silence on the comms circuit lasted far longer than transmission delay could adequately explain. Jolly knew as well as Pacey did that neutronium didn’t exist, except theoretically at the hearts of neutron stars and other super-dense bodies. A chunk of the stuff small enough to do a flyby of should have burst into a spray of loose neutrons the moment it formed, yet Pacey was increasingly sure that’s exactly what she’d found.
To test her theory, Pacey turned her ship toward where she thought the object was now. The moment she did, the gravimetric sensor system flashed warning lights and shot its indicators up to maximum once more.
With a sigh, Pacey turned away from the object, entering its orbital ring as an area of extreme hazard in the database. “That explains that, at least. Why do answers always create more questions?”
While the existence of (relatively) small, apparently natural, masses of neutronium density and nearly zero detectable emissions in the Sagittarius Gate system defies explanation in terms of our scientific understanding, it seems clear that one of these bodies (a smaller one than the one Pacey discovered) collided with Mr. Westland's ship at high relative speed. He's lucky things turned out how they did - a slower collision might have resulted with him and his ship being wrapped around the object like so much solar foil.
Given his adventures since, I'll say more broadly that Mr. Westland is a very lucky man, even if he thinks otherwise.