Friday, February 25, 2011

Directions

“I just need a minute.” Alex sat in the tall grass, legs splayed out in front of him and just looking off into the distance with a thousand yard stare. That was the first reaction Carbon had gotten out of him in ten minutes.

“Very well. I will inspect the area.” She turned and walked off with an annoyed huff.

They were inside. Specifically, inside what appeared to be a constructed object. He suspected it was a Dyson shell, a megastructure built around a star to harness all of its energy. From what Alex could see, this one had large parts of its interior surface covered in habitable land. He continued to stare into the distance, shaking his head slowly.

“Structures like this can’t exist. They just can’t. There would be too much pressure, it would just collapse.” He was talking to himself but Carbon could hear him clearly on the open audio link.

“One hour ago I would have told you that these portals are impossible. We seem to have used two in that time.” Carbon came around the small building, blades of grass bending under foot as she walked back to him.

“That’s not even the same.” His voice was distant, still unbelieving.

“It is very much the same.”

Alex laid back in the grass and rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, you’re right. It is.”

“Thank you. Are you done?”

“I think so.” He picked himself up and brushed the grass off his suit. “Did you find anything?”

“Nothing of obvious significance. The building here is no more than an alcove. There is a large lake downhill of our current position, a grove uphill. The grassland appears to stretch several kilometers in every direction.”

“Huh.” He hadn’t noticed the slight grade to the area before now, nor the lake. Deep blue water shined with small waves and stretched off into the distance. The stand of trees was wide and looked deciduous, blue-green leaves waving in the breeze. Both appeared to be about a kilometer away.

“The count down timer - if that is what it is - seems to be set to run out in approximately 20 hours. By Human measure.”

“Well, looks like we have some time.” He looked down at the lake again and broke into a grin. “Want to go for a swim?”

Carbon leveled a particularly unamused glare at him.

Alex held up his hands. “I’m just trying to keep things light.”

“I do not believe now is a good time for humor.”

“Alright. Should we go explore? There’s nothing here.” He gestured to their immediate surroundings, nothing but a squat alcove and tall grass.

“I believe we should.”

“Oh. Well, okay. Lake or trees?”

“Trees.” She started towards the grove, “I do not trust the lake.”

Alex jogged to catch up with her. “Looks cold anyway.”

“It looks deep. Many things can hide in deep water.”

“Well yeah, that too.”

They walked in silence the rest of the way. The stand was short and sparse, plenty of space between each tree. They struck Alex as unusual, reddish bark beneath wide bluish-green leaves and currently bearing oblong, crimson fruit.

“These are thun. I have not seen these since... Before I left Schon.” She reached up and plucked one of the fruit off the branch, looking it over sadly.

“You alright?”

“Yes.” She turned the fruit over in her hands, face twisting with regret. “No. We had a small orchard of these at home, I spent many hours with my mother in it as a child. It has brought up unexpected memories.”

“I’m sorry. If there’s anything I can do...”

Carbon knelt and set the fruit on the ground and gave him a faint smile. She still looked like she was about to cry. “Later. We need to secure this area first.”

“How do we do that?”

She straightened, her expression hardening again. “We will check the perimeter and then sweep through the interior.”

They stayed in a group. Carbon could, in a worst case scenario, punch many things to death because of her strength boosted armor. The exterior was just trees, as expected. They weren't ten meters into the grove before Alex spotted something.

“What... is that a birdbath?” There was a wide pedestal in a clearing in the center of the grove. The sides were carved and the top had a shallow depression. As was his way, Alex started straight for it.

Carbon grabbed him before he stepped into the clearing. “No. We will scan the area first.”

“Fine, let’s do that.” He reached down to grab the scanner out of its cradle and she waved his hand away.

“I have finished, it is clear.”

“Really? Must be nice having built-ins.” He stepped out into the clearing, again heading straight for the pedestal.

“It can be. They have very limited range because of the shields.”

“Makes sense.” He crouched down next to it, inspecting the carvings on the side. “Well, I am freaked out now.”

“What is- Oh.”

The carving was an anatomical drawing of what was clearly a human male. It was surrounded by intricate swirls and curlicues, a female human not far away. “Reminds me of the Pioneer plaque, but... Shit, a million times creepier.”

Carbon stepped back and walked around the pedestal slowly. “There is the Tslao equivalent on this side.”

“How the hell did this even get here?” He reached out and put his hand on the pedestal to pull himself up. It thrummed deeply, the sound spiking and fading down to just barely audible in the span of a second. Carbon jumped away and Alex froze halfway up to standing. A hologram faded up from the bottom of the basin, a gently curved red arc.

“What did you do?” Her voice was low, Alex could only hear it over the audio channel.

“I put my hand on it.” He whispered back.

“Why?”

He gritted his teeth, exasperated. “I was distracted and you said it was clear!”

She grumbled at that and Alex saw her shields pulse to full power out of the corner of his eye. “Very well. Remove your hand slowly.”

Alex took a deep breath and pulled his hand away. The hologram and faint hum remained as he stood and then reached out and touched it again. “I don’t think it’s dangerous.”

“How have you come to this conclusion?”

He gestured into the basin. “Same shade of red as on the small portal. I think everything so far has required both of our races to be present to operate and this is evidence supporting it that. It’s pretty clear that whoever built this knows a whole hell of a lot about us already. In addition, nothing bad has happened to us. We’ve been inconvenienced, sure, but it seems like an awful lot of work just to kill two people.”

“In truth, I have been considering a similar hypothesis.” She stepped up to the pedestal, hand hovering over it. “If we are wrong?”

“I’m sorry in advance.”

Carbon smiled at that and set her hand down. The hum spiked again, a blue arc in the basin completed a circle and they both faded out. A large globe flickered to life above it and started rotating, translucent colors showing a detailed map. At the equator a tiny purple triangle pointed at a grass-green field next to large lake.

“There is no need to apologize.”

“I guess not.”

They stared at the map for a long while, taking in the oceans and landmasses. From deep rift valleys and mountain ranges that were probably thousands of kilometers long, it appeared that most every environment was present.

Carbon was the first to notice a larger second triangle, emerald green and pulsing slowly at the top of the globe. She leveled a finger at it, “what do you think that is?”

“I don’t know. We should go there and find out.”

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Vacancy

An intricate dance had started behind the scenes at the scoutship program when the Tslao asked for help. The program - and the rest of the Confed - would love to get a look at Tslao waveride technology. Therein came the problem of actually getting access to those drives. So they struck a deal.

The Tslao would provide the waveriders and part of the build cost, they get whatever that ship finds. The program would provide a pilot since the Tslao pilots would not interface with the AIs. They wouldn’t give up one of their good, proven pilots, though. There was a long list of rejected applicants who were perfectly capable.

Alex Sorenson was one of these pilots. The problem they had with him was rather insignificant. So small that the whole of the rest of his scores almost overwhelmed it. Unfortunately, it was still very important to the people who set up the criteria for acceptance into the program.

It was projected that if he were given the right motivation, he could act impulsively. This was not ideal for someone who was going to be piloting a ship worth something in the neighborhood of three billion dCred into largely uncharted space.

But the Tslao had picked up more than half of the cost of building the Kshlavo. Once the program had gotten their peek at the drives, they lost interest in this particular social experiment. They had no problem handing it over to someone who would, as an example, jump through an alien portal because it felt like the right thing to do at that moment.

By the time his boots hit the hard floor on the other side of the portal, Alex was reasonably sure that was not have been the best of his ideas. Pain stabbed through his chest, knocking the wind out of him. He staggered and fought for air, lungs unwilling to work for entirely too long.

That gave him time to really notice the nuances of the pain. It burned and rather felt like something was attempting to pry his ribcage apart. He fell to his knees and scraped at the chest plate of his suit with a gloved hand, his lungs finally pulling in cool air. He started asking for help in a not so polite manner before he noticed the audio connection to Carbon was off. Perfect.

Alex turned and looked, still clutching at his sternum. Carbon stood there on the other side looking stunned. Not what either of them had expected, apparently. That was something. She snapped out of it and stepped through, one hand already reaching for him as the pain faded down to something manageable.

Now it was Carbon’s turn. He caught the trailing end of a wheeze as their audio reconnected, then a grunt as she wrapped an arm around her chest and set her hand on his helmet to support herself.

“Give it second. Goes away.” Alex waved a hand, still panting.

Carbon hissed something in Tsla, staring through him as her eyes dilated.

“Exactly.” He patted her hand and waited for her to even out.

It was a few moments before she straightened up, still rubbing at her chest plate. “The... What was that?”

“Don’t know. Not yet, anyway.” Alex slid a handheld scanner out of its cradle on his thigh, the screen lighting up as he flipped it open. He picked through the menu for medical scanning and turned it on himself, waving it over his chest. “Oh, well. That’s normal, right?”

He held the scanner up for Carbon to see, a green holographic snapshot of his ribcage with a red sliver sitting on top of his sternum. “That is not normal. Is it?”

“I’ve never had a little chunk of metal embedded in my chest, no. Can’t say I like it.” He cleared the scanner and waved it at Carbon, getting nothing through several layers of shields and armor. “You have medical in that thing?”

“Yes.” She tilted her head and frowned, “I have received one as well.”

“Perfect.” He stood and stretched, thumbing through the scanner’s menu again. “Same atmosphere in here as out there. Same everything.”

“That is unsurprising.” She turned and looked at the portal, another snippet of Tsla escaping her in low tones. It had frosted over again, leaving them stuck there. The arch was different on this side. No symbols, just two rings of pale blue dots surrounding a bar turning at a lazy pace.

“Looks like a clock.” The outer ring had thirty dots, the inner another twelve. As they stood there watching it, one of the inner dots disappeared.

“It appears to be a timer.”

“So it does. Maybe look around a bit? Looks like we got awhile till it opens again.”

“I do not see any further harm in that, if we do not go far.” She didn’t sound particularly pleased as she crossed her arms and looked out of the alcove, the sunlight still bright overhead.

“Great.” Alex reached up and unlatched his faceplate and flipped it up, his helmet retracting and stowing itself away between his shoulder blades. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, beatific smile on his face. “Ahh, grass. Been a long time since I smelled that.”

Carbon sputtered, arms flailing. “Do not do that! There is- We do not know what is here!”

Alex shrugged and wandered out onto the grass, waving the scanner over his shoulder. “Says it’s clean out here. Besides, this is some nice air.”

She growled and followed him out, squinting in the sun. She shouted at him over the comm using her authoritative voice. “I did not authorize you to do that! Put your helmet back on now.”

“Authorize me? I’m not one of your underlings.” Alex grinned, amused and just a little annoyed at her tone as he scanned the horizon.

Carbon didn’t slow down. “It is dangerous, there are too many unknowns yet. We do not even know who created this gateway.”

“Yeah. Do you see any other signs of life here? I mean, a city or something? A tether or some aircraft?” He twisted and took a harder look around them, shaking his head as worry crossed his face. There should have been something other than a little hut in the middle of a field.

“I- uah? Hn.” She ran out of steam when she saw his expression, her eyes focusing on the horizon as well. “There is something wrong...”

Alex nodded, worry turning to confusion and then shock. He sat down in the grass hard, disbelieving what he was seeing. The horizon curved upwards, away from them in all directions. “Oh my god. We’re inside.”

Friday, February 11, 2011

Open House

Alex squeezed his eyes shut, knees locked and hips jammed against the backrest. He gripped the control sticks so hard his knuckles were white and adrenaline shot through him in preparation for an impact.

Nothing happened. There was no catastrophic impact. The ring was a kilometer across. There was ample space for it to pass harmlessly around the ship. It apparently hadn’t tried to vaporize them, either. There might have been a little jolt, but he wasn’t sure. That could have just been from Carbon’s arms around his neck tightening from loving embrace to death grip.

Alex choked out a noise as his eyes rolled towards her. With her cheek even more firmly pressed to his head, all he could see was the dark tip of her nose, so close that it wouldn’t come in to focus. His heartbeat pounded in his ears, rapid but constricted. Carbon didn’t seem to be inclined to let go of him just yet and as it turned out, she was really damn strong.

He tried again, this strangled sound a little more panicked as his fingers refused to heed his command to release the controls. It seemed to take forever, arms starting to shake from the adrenaline before his fingers finally unwound and he tugged on the limbs encircling his neck. Carbon gave a start and quickly let go, standing back up behind him.

Her hands smoothed his hair, worry in her voice. “I am sorry, did I do you harm?”

Alex sucked in a breath of sweet air and shook his head with a weak laugh and a glance over his shoulder. “No, I’m fine. Just surp-” His eyes darted back to the screen. ”Whoa. We are not in Kansas anymore.”

The ship was inside. The ring or one very much like it was embedded at the apex of a massive dome. For a moment they could still clearly see the Thackeray’s Globule they had been in through the ring. Their view of the globule seemed to frost over and then disappeared, leaving nothing but the unlit dome just beyond the ring.

“Is that-” Carbon leaned against him in that distracting manner again. “Were we teleported?”

He leaned back against her and enjoyed the closeness. “Maybe, never been teleported before. Shoulda been more sparkles, I think. Wormhole?”

“No one has successfully stabilized a wormhole that large. Not for that long, either.”

“You remember that time anyone created teleportation technology before?”

“You have a point.”

The scanners had the same problems detecting this ring as the one in the globule. They had no problem with the dome itself. It was a dense titanium-ceramic material, just about twenty kilometers in diameter and less than half as high. It was ribbed with kilometer long ribbons of light stretching out from the center, leaving the entire floor well lit.

A half dozen walkways radiated from the center one side crenulated and the other smooth, running all the way to the edge of the dome. Channels carved out between them got progressively deeper as they widened. The Kshlavo was heading towards one of the depressions, nice and slow. They were about to land.

Carbon started to pet him again, hands shaking gently. “I do not recognized this style of building.”

“Yeah, same here.” It just didn’t feel Human to him, and Tslao designs usually appeared more organic. Something built by the tkt was right out, they would never make an object with this much empty space. It could have been Ehom, but there was no biotech anywhere.

The ship rocked gently as it touched down, something it hadn’t been explicitly designed to do. The armor was specced high enough to safely support the weight, but this did not make him feel any better about having an unknown force land his ship anywhere.

Alex checked the scanners again and his brow furrowed. “Local gravity is .97 gees. Atmosphere is 77 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen and the usual trace elements. No biological, chemical agents or radiation. Pressure is at one 103 kilopascal and it is a chilly 10 Celsius. Looks like someone was expecting us.”

Carbon stopped petting him and slipped her arms around his shoulders, chin tapping his head as she nodded. “It appears so. Can we leave?”

“I’m still locked out of navigation. Might be able to get a workaround in place...” His jaw worked as he thought about their options. “I don’t know. Do we even have the gear to do that?”

“Operating the primary thrusters manually will not be an issue. The maneuvering thrusters and gravity plates will be far more difficult to control.”

“That’s what I thought. Even if we could get up there, we don’t know how to turn that thing back on. There’s always this.” Alex brought up a live feed from the forward camera. A hundred meters away there was a single small building sitting in the center of the floor. Arches covered it, each pointing down a radial path towards the outer wall of the dome. The one facing them was lit from within by a faint blue-green glow.

“It feels familiar. I do not like that.”

“That is kind of creeping me out, too. It’s the only thing in here that might house some sort of... anything. The walls are smooth, the lights don’t even appear to have any sort of seam or gap.”

“I do not like any of this.”

“I’m not loving this either, but I think we should check it out. Not like we’re going anywhere else right now.”

Carbon straightened up behind him and grumbled. “No. We will- We will begin work circumventing the navigation system. I am reasonably sure we can use the primary thrusters to cut our way out, with modifications.”

Alex swiveled around in the seat, eyebrows raised. “Are you serious? We don’t know how thick the walls are or what’s on the other side of them. We don’t even know where we are.”

She leveled a finger at him, eyes narrow and ears low. “Do you have a better idea?”

“Let’s just go take a look at the structure. There is not a single other damn thing out there. It’d be foolish to go through all that trouble if we could just go flip a switch.”

She started to reply and stopped, lips pursed. Then she started again, finger jutting forward a little more aggressively this time before she stopped again. Carbon considered it for a few more seconds before she replied. “We will inspect the structure, nothing more. Then we will return to the ship. We should still wear protective equipment.”

“Sounds fine. I’d get cold anyway.” Alex slipped out of the chair and stretched before heading for the door.

She followed him out, stopping at her bunk as Alex continued up the passageway. She heaved a dramatic sigh. “I will meet you at the forward airlock shortly.”

He gave her a wave and what may have been a confidant smile. “See you there.”

Alex got a cool response, which didn’t surprise him considering the circumstances. That was fine. They would just go check out the light, hopefully find something that would help them out and then leave. Be back where they’re supposed to be in time for the pickup.

Once in the airlock, he stepped out of his deck shoes and began the process of slipping into a space suit. It was extremely good with hostile environments, but it still felt like overkill. It was the standard off-white and trimmed with flexible armor patches covering the joints and various other soft spots. The suit’s neural wreath embedded in the helmet came on and lit his vision up with a HUD, green across the board.

He didn’t have to wait long. Carbon popped in and hit the inner door lock, at first glance wearing an encounter suit like she had when they’d first started working on board. Alex realized quickly that it wasn’t the same at all.

Carbon’s antenna were slicked back into interface sockets and the base layer was similar - a black, form fitting body suit, though this appeared to be a thicker material. The thin, flexible armor was replaced by heavier rigid armor that covered nearly her entire body. The breastplate was ornately carved, the design flowing onto her shoulders and repeated over her hips.

It looked like combat armor, really. The gentle bulges above each major joint indicated a strength booster. Layers of shield emitters pulsed gently around the armor, providing further protection, the innermost was airtight and covering just her head in lieu of a helmet.

The pistol and swords at her hip were really what sealed it. There were ways to render every sort of man-portable weapon useless, from plasma burners to good old fashioned bullets. A good quality sword or axe would ruin just about anyone’s day and there wasn’t much they could do to stop it, short of adding more armor. There was also a bit of an intimidation factor.

Alex was most surprised at how feminine a shape she managed to retain. The comm light went yellow and green a moment later as the connection formed. At this range, the audio was crystal clear. “Where did you get that?”

“It was a gift.” Like that was supposed to sufficiently explain everything. She looked him over and shuddered when her gaze lingered on his helmet. “I do not understand your willingness to put your head in a container.”

“Yeah, well. My going away gift was a box of plastic bricks. You’re on point.”

She shrugged past him and keyed the outer door. It opened almost immediately, the walkway a short jump down. Carbon went out, Alex following a moment later. The dome felt larger and even more empty in person.

The ground was light gray, edged with a dull gold color, every surface Alex could see textured with whorls and vortices. They walked to the building in silence, Carbon covering the building with what seemed like a ridiculously small pistol. Apprehension and curiosity built in Alex with each step. She stopped at the edge of the arch and waved at him to fall in behind her. The arch was easily twice her height and several times wider than that. She took cover and leaned in for a quick look.

Carbon moved across the open space, torso rotating to scan the interior as she went. She holstered the gun after reaching the far side of the arch. “Clear.”

They stepped into the building, Alex’s eyes adjusted to the dark interior and quickly found the source of the glow. A second, smaller arch was lit up like day. The scene on the other side was obscured by what appeared to be frosted glass, but it looked like tall green grass and blue sky lay just beyond.

Alex walked up to the arch touched the frosted surface, slick beneath his gloves before Carbon pulled his arm back with a very negative sound. A series of glyphs pulsed to life around the edges, four matching symbols on each side and a strange pattern of hashmarks below them, one set blue and the other red. They all dimmed with the exception of a single blue glyph. It was bright, sharp and felt violent.

“Hey, let me see one of those swords?”

Carbon had reached the same conclusion, the shorter of the two halfway out of its scabbard by the time he’d finished asking. The moment the handle rested in his glove, the same sharp glyph lit up on the red side. When he handed it back, it went away.


“No weapons?”

“That is what I’m thinking. This looks like the first... er, portal we went through. The way it’s frosted over.”

“The Kshlavo has no weapons.”

“But one of us does.”

Carbon’s curiosity was piqued by this. She unclipped the swords and pistol, laying them on the ground at her feet. The glyph faded from ‘her’ side and the frost melted, leaving the archway clear.

The other side may well have been a park. Long grass waved in the bright noonday sun below a cloudless pale blue sky. Alex reached out and his fingers passed through where the frost used to be. He looked over his shoulder at Carbon with a grin. “What do you think? Should we give it a try?”

Thursday, February 3, 2011

No Escape

Carbon leaned in over Alex’s shoulder, her cheek almost resting against his as they watched the screen on the auxiliary control console. She was the first to break the silence. “What is that?”

At any other time Alex would have enjoyed the warmth radiating from her, maybe leaned over for a little bit of contact. Now, he was preoccupied by the object that had appeared 500 kilometers off their starboard side. His lips pulled into a thin line and he grumbled quietly. “I was hoping you’d recognize it.”

She shook her head as annoyance crept into her voice. "I know it is shaped like a ring and that you are the one operating the sensors."

“Well I’m not getting anything useful back from them.” He pointed at the display, getting short from the lack of data he could suss from the object. Almost a billion dCred worth of sensor equipment and it was just short of useless. The primary arrays couldn’t pull any chemical composition. Radar was blank, the ring didn’t even exist to it. LIDAR barely had it, but was mostly just showing dust and shadows.

They didn’t find any shielding or fluctuations to indicate a power source. Polyphase bombardment returned echoes and static. The secondaries didn’t even agree on whether or not it reflected light, even though it showed up on the passive cameras.

This wasn’t how the sensor suite was supposed to react with real, solid objects, even in the globule. There may have been some interference, but nothing that would have caused malfunctions this bad. It’s not like it was even unusual to be unable to scan inside of an object; radiation in space was not your friend and most hulls were resistant to it. The inability to pull something as basic as chemical composition was unsettling, though.

So far, all Alex knew was that it is a huge ring of unidentified material, putty grey in color and a little over a kilometer across - but only a meter thick and barely three deep. Despite appearing insubstantial, it was incredibly dense. Around nine million tons, according to its gravitation pull. The crisp edges and smooth surface pointed towards manufacture rather than natural formation.

The thing that really bothered Alex, and likely Carbon as well, was that it wasn’t there when they arrived. It appears to have materialized out of nowhere. Perhaps using some sort of FTL they were yet unfamiliar with, or a cloaking device that also hid its entire gravitational signature. Neither were particularly settling. At the very least, it didn’t seem to be aggressive towards them.

For that matter, it didn’t seem to be doing anything other than hanging out and rotating slowly.

Carbon stood up and stretched behind him, resting her hands on the back of his chair. She just sounded tense now, which was a step up as far as Alex was concerned. “We should move off from it. I do not like it being so close.”

“Yeah, I don’t either.” There was ample room in the globule, a few extra hundred thousand kilometers in any direction wouldn’t matter as long as they were roughly where the distress call had said they’d be. He took hold of the joysticks and snapped out a clean Immelmann, accelerating away from the object with the sublight engines.

In the back of his mind, he was allowing himself to be a little excited. As unsettling as it was, they’d found an alien object. That was pretty cool, particularly if it didn’t vaporize them or something. It didn’t hurt that finding objects came with a big bonus, even more so if it was usable somehow. Alternately, being shot and gravely injured by the Ehom also merited double pay for his entire tour. He was going to make quite a bit of money when they got back to Earth.

As he pushed the throttle up, he started thinking. Things would be really different once they were off the ship. He did love Carbon, but where would their lives take them? If they just got another scoutship and went back to work, that would be great. That was pretty far out of the realm of possibility though. They’d be in decompress and debrief for at least a month, and ships cycled in and out at a fairly slow pace.

How would he explain his relationship to his parents? What would his brother say?

“It does not seem to be moving.”

“Huh?” Alex’s eyes snapped up to the viewer, focusing on the scope. The little marker that represented the ring was 526 kilometers away now. His looked over to the speed indicator, 130 km/ps and still climbing. He tipped the throttle all the way up, accelerating much more rapidly. By the time he looked back to the scope, the marker had drawn two kilometers closer. That probably wasn’t good.

“That is not working.”

“I know.” His lips pressed into a thin line again and he flipped the viewer back to the ring. It wasn’t rotating anymore. It had stopped, facing them like some giant eye and chasing after them. No visible engines, but it had no trouble accelerating faster than they could.

The chair rocked back gently as she gripped it, leaning in over Alex’s head. “We should go faster.”

He gritted his teeth and swallowed a snide comment about their current lack of waverider drives. “I know. The engines are already spun as far as they’ll go.”

She didn’t have anything to say to that and just leaned in further, pressing her chest to the back of his head. That was distracting. He wanted to be able to enjoy it, and in some way he did - a few months ago she wouldn’t have come in contact with him at all. It was nice to know she trusted him, despite the current situation.

The engines went dead. They didn’t spool down like they should have, the output just shut off. Alex hit the engine restart and fiddled with the controls, to no avail. Maneuvering didn’t work, either. Navigation shut off next. “Aw, shit.”

“What? What has happened?” Carbon’s voice pitched up as her hands moved to his shoulders and gripped them, claws grazing his skin.

“Everything’s just turning off.” He found out that wasn’t accurate as the scope rotated. Something was using their maneuvering thrusters to slow them down and had pitched the nose of the Kshlavo down, the belly of the ship now facing the oncoming ring.

The distance on the range finder dropped rapidly, scant seconds before the ring reached them. Carbon’s arms curling around his neck and her cheek pressed against his was the last thing Alex felt before the counter hit zero.