Meg turned off the engine and let her ship drift with the momentum of her last careful maneuvers. There was still the hum of the backup systems and life support, a small but insistent noise she could never escape - it was the background music of living in space, surrounded by metal, plastic and wiring that kept them all alive. Flipping off the lights on her interfaces, Meg stared out at the stars as her ship slowly turned on its lateral axis.
She could never find Earth in the mess of lights. Granted, she didn’t excel at astronavigation, but somehow she’d always believed that a part of her would be able to point back home, like a pigeon or a salmon in mating season.
"BAT-E, do me a favor," she said to the computer, "find Earth for me."
The artifical intelligence knew her well enough - and was advanced enough - not to intrude into Meg’s solitude more than was necessary. Instead of speaking, BAT-E created a simple overlay for the large frontal window: a succession of glowing rings that pointed to a single, unremarkable yellow star.
"Thanks," Meg said. She’d swept her gaze over that area without recognition or any kind of ethereal feeling before, but now it felt different. Important.
They had left Earth with the best of intentions, all glowing with pride, scientific couriosity and the pioneer spirit. Nothing had driven them away; Earth was, for all her problems, a perfectly viable system that would likely host humanity for hundreds of thousands of years and beyond.
And yet, here they were, seeking something more.
Meg had only a vague idea about their relative position in the galaxy. All she knew was that, as of this very moment, they were still close enough to see the sun.
Meg had about an hour before the crew of the Rheda got antsy and used active scanners to look for her. The Captain knew that Meg needed her time away and let her be as long as possible, but there were limits to her indulgence. There was a fine line between seeking solitude to recharge and having a nervous breakdown alone in the dark. The Captain wouldn’t risk her safety and the expensive piece of equipment - mostly the ship, if she was honest - on Meg’s little whims.
"Valkyrie One, this is Rheda control, do you copy?"
BAT-E hadn’t mentioned their time was up or that they’d been scanned. Meg resolved to find some way to reward the computer for her excellent service as she sat up, flicked on the interfaces and started the engines.
"Rheda control, this is Valkyrie One. Copy."
There was a moment of silence before her comm system came back to life. "Valkyrie One, what’s your status?" There was something odd in the comm officer’s voice. Meg knew her as well as anyone after three years serving on the same ship, but they’d never really gotten close. Still, she could tell that something was wrong.
"Rheda control, we’re coming in. Please transmit landing beacon alpha."
BAT-E chirped. "Landing beacon alpha coming through at 95%. Estimated time of arrival in landing bay three: T-4.6 minutes. Do you wish to assume manual control until final landing sequence?"
Meg looked to her left to find Rheda in the distance. The ship was barely a speck between much brighter stars. The rest of the universe suddenly looked enormous and foreboding. Three years they’d been out here and for three years the most exciting thing that had happened was coming upon empty planet after empty planet, learning what they could about a universe that seemed to be their vast, lonely playground.
"No, I think I’ll let you do the driving today."
The ship’s course stayed smooth, acceleration so even that Meg could barely feel it. BAT-E was a great pilot, faster than her when it came to the safer maneuvers. Meg could easily outperform her in combat, of course, and other dangerous flying close to asteroids or other ships, simply because BAT-E could never do something that would put her pilot in danger. The uses of live combat pilots were obvious - no AI would do something risky, against orders or borderline insane to achieve mission success. AIs didn’t believe in luck.
The Captain was waiting for Meg in the hangar. That alone was beyond unusual, because the hangar didn’t technically belong to the Rheda and was not under the Captain’s control. Usually she let Meg take care of her own house, didn’t interfere with the Valkyrie fighters unless there was some kind of emergency. The look on Captain Pierce’s face dried up every smart-ass comment Meg could think up before she managed so much as a perky salute.
"Commander," Pierce said, her tone leaving no room for speculation. Something big had happened. "If you’re done playing hooky like a romance novel heroine, I could use you in Control."
Meg looked around to find the place deserted. Despite the late hour, there should have been at least two technicians on duty. "What’s going on?"
Pierce nodded to follow her. Meg bristled at the casual dismissivness but had no choice. For all that she and her pilots were technically free from Corp oversight, they were as depended on the Rheda as any of the other crew.
"Twenty minutes ago our scanners found something."
Meg sighed. "What sort of something?"
Pierce shrugged, a gesture that made her look ten years younger. "We haven’t been able to figure it out yet."
"Please tell me you didn’t put the ship on lockdown and scared the shit out of everyone for some space debris." She did not say "again" but they both heard it in her voice anyway. Pierce had a habit of making mountains out of little specks of asteroid dust.
"It’s not like that. It’s nothing we’ve ever seen before." Pierce grasped her arm, stopping Meg in her tracks. Meg turned to face her and couldn’t quite suppress a shudder at Pierce’s disturbed expression. "There’s something out there, Pham."
Pierce so rarely used her family name that Meg had no idea how to judge the use of it now. "Whatever it is, it’s certainly got you spooked."
They continued walking, faster than before. Pierce bit her lip, another habit Meg had filed away under signs of the apocalypse. "It’s not just me. Even Laurence is worried and that man is never worried about anything."
Meg grinned. "He could probably sleep through first contact."
Nodding, Pierce shot her a brittle smile. "Let’s just hope we won’t have to find out one way or the other."
With those words, a heavy feeling of dread settled in Meg’s stomach.