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Chapter Two

The Rheda had a crew of three hundred people, most of them scientists and engineers. Technically the ship belonged to Future Corp, an independent organization that used its private funds to jump start human progress. Whether they invested in deep sea research, helped build schools or other infrastructure, or financed space exploration, Future Corp promised one thing: whatever they did, they did it big.

One of over a thousand ships, the Rheda and her mission were nothing special. Setting out into unknown regions of space to find, well, anything new and exciting, they had very little oversight from even the company itself. Grant Simpson, the CEO and multi-trillionaire, never required a return on his investment - but that didn’t mean they had a license to waste what they were given.

Jasmin Pierce had two simple tasks: explore the galaxy and bring the Rheda and her people back home safe when their five year deployment was done. So far she had had limited success finding so much as a multicellular organism on planets that were almost but not quite like earth, or any sign of culture or technology other than their own. However, the amount of space trash from four hundred years of competing space programs was staggering, and surprisingly wide spread.

“It’s not trash,” Laurence told Pierce and the Commander when they reached Control. "At least, it doesn’t look like any deep space probe we’ve ever seen."

Meg sighed dramatically and it was all Pierce could do to hold her tongue. “I thought that was already established.” Pierce shot her a glance and Meg shrugged. “You made it sound like we’d run into an alien space ship with guns blazing.”

Pierce looked at Laurence, who had wisely chosen not to take sides. “It’s not an alien craft either, as far as we can tell.”

“How close are we?” Meg asked. “You want me and the squad to shoot it down?”

Without gracing that comment with a reply, Pierce walked over to the scanner interface and stared at holographic 3D projection of the item. It looked indistinct. The scanners had only picked up a faint signature and wherever no information was available, the ship’s main computer had tried to guess to create an image. It looked like a low-resolution picture of a shriveled lemon, lumpy and dirty-brown, vaguely oval with a protrusion at each end. Pierce frowned and brought up stats with a flick of her hand. Laurence was right. Whatever the thing was, it couldn’t be an alien space craft unless these aliens fit in the palm of her hand. It was barely a meter in length, and made of some kind of metallic alloy they hadn’t been able to identify yet.

Pierce turned to address the pilot on duty, not quite surprised to find that it was Meg’s second. The Valkyrie pilots were military and not under her control, but Pierce let them switch shifts with her own crew on occasion. It helped with morale if the five commercial pilots actually had a chance to slack off every once in a while, considering they were the only people on the ship who actually had a schedule to keep. Engineering and maintenance was very rarely an around-the-clock job.

“Jamie, what’s your assessment of the situation? If we go in for a pick-up, will it interfere with our jump schedule?”

Jamie was a lean, floppy-haired boy, just out of the EAU flight academy when they had launched the Rheda. He grinned at Pierce with the kind of smugness that would look arrogant and unattractive on anyone else, but on him it was perfectly endearing. Meg and Laurence both sighed behind her and Pierce shook her head, shooting a rude gesture their way. If they wanted to be annoying about an imaginary affair they could do it out of the boy’s presence. Jamie had the air of a puppy in need of adoption and even though as a trained soldier he didn’t need anyone’s protection, Pierce found herself treating him like one of her younger brothers when she wasn’t paying enough attention.

“Ma’am, our next jump is still twenty-one hours and seventeen minutes away. The object is just at the edge of scanner range so we could easily reach it twice with the Rheda and still make it to the jump coordinates.” Jamie’s smiled turned wider. “And even if we didn’t make it, there’s about twenty math-adjacent scientists on this boat who’d love the chance to use their brains for something practical.”

Pierce nodded, smiling absent-mindedly at the dig. “Commander, what do you think?”

Meg uncrossed her arms and launched herself away from the wall. She never seemed to be very comfortable in Control. The only fighter pilot who had never taken a shift steering the Rheda, she preferred the simplicity of the hangar and her Valkyries. “I’d advise against bringing it on board, if I thought it would do any good. But we do have enough time to send out a fighter to get some better readings before we make a decision.”

Pierce nodded. It was the sensible choice and made more appealing by the fact that Meg had brought it up. Maybe that would stop all this nonsense about space debris and safety regulations. A girl could dream.

The Valkyrie fighters were marvels of military engineering but for all their impressive, state-of-the-art technology they looked a little less than magnificent all lined up in the hangar. Not nearly as slick as high-powered personal craft from commercial brands, their focus was neither comfort nor visual appeal, but a stereotypical devotion to efficiency and fire-power. One fighter alone could vaporize a mid-size asteroid up to several kilometers in diameter and weather the inevitable fallout with its shields.

Too bad they looked like boxy, hard-edged toads.

The hangar was still abandoned but Meg didn’t need an engineer for her flight prep when she had two AIs giving her lip. “Standard protocol requires a cool-down period of no less then one-hundred and twenty minutes before a second deployment,” the hangar computer reminded her huffily as Meg keyed in the necessary override commands for releasing Valkyrie One.

“I’m aware of procedure,” she said. “Let’s just skip to the part where I ignore you and do it anyway.”

BAT-E chirped from Meg’s wrist communicator. “Your heart rate is elevated. This implies a high stress situation that may require a switch to emergency protocols.”

Meg rolled her eyes. “No shit, Sherlock.” The AI gave her a little jolt of electricity through the wrist band. “Hey, now, what’s with the abuse?”

“I have learned that you are more susceptible to my input with a physical reminder of my presence. It’s a failing in your nature that I have grown to accept and circumvent.” If an AI could sound like a disapproving old lady instead of a carefully modulated, cheerful young woman, BAT-E would make Meg’s grandmother proud. The two of them would get along like a house on fire.

“Your input is appreciated, but this isn’t exactly an emergency. Or at least I hope not.”

Meg reversed thrusters just five kilometers away from the object. If it was a bomb or some other kind of trap she was likely already too close to make a clean getaway, but at least with BAT-E’s electronic reflexes there was a chance they’d survive. Probably. She waited for as long as she could hold her breath, staring at where the object should be. From this distance, there was no visual confirmation of activity, or really the object itself. No alarms sounded, and continued to stay silent for twenty seconds. Thirty.


“Okay, looks like no one noticed us coming in. Bring us in slow and keep watching for any kind of activity. If it so much as changes temperature half a degree I want to know about it.”

BAT-E confirmed with a series of beeps, but couldn’t stop herself from commenting further. “Captain Pierce would approve of your caution, Commander.”

Meg snorted. “So do you. I’m surrounded by little old ladies too afraid to cross the road.”

“Vehicular accidents used to be number one cause of accidental death, before the introduction of intelligent guidance systems.”

Meg shook her head, smiling. “Don’t be so smug, it doesn’t become you.”

They slowly drew closer to the object. A steady stream of data coming in suggested that the initial assessment had been correct, as far as that went. It was a metallic ellipsoid, the composition indistinct, with two perfectly symmetrical protrusions that made it unlikely, though not impossible, to be a natural phenomenon. Considering the sheer size of the cosmos, anything was possible.

“I want to see it for myself, get us close enough for visuals and light it up.”

Meg stared. She’d expected something that was essentially a weirdly symmetrical asteroid or even something entirely alien. “Not space trash, my ass,” she breathed.

Though the computer still couldn’t make out the alloy, it became clear now that it was corroded metal. Metal that had been worked by human minds. There was something on the side that could be faint lettering, though Meg couldn’t even begin to make out which alphabet. For all that it was clearly human-made, it looked incredibly old. There wasn’t a whole lot of corrosion in the vacuum of space, but this thing looked like it had spent a couple of centuries on a humid, sunny planet getting bombarded by all kinds of reactive atoms.

“Is that thing safe?” she asked, waiting for something to jump out at her. “Is it doing anything, anything at all?”

BAT-E beeped at her. A few moments later, the computer’s voice sounded. “Negative. It appears to be entirely inactive. It has no reaction to radiation, light, electromagnetic pulses, or radio signals.”

“Contact the Rheda. They need to come pick it up.”

Next Chapter: Chapter 3