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"I didn't think we'd be back out here so soon."

"Or that we still wouldn't be allowed beer."

Marco's chair creaked slightly as he reclined, turning to face his First Officer.

"You know there's laws, kid. Right? Not to mention standard operating procedures." The younger man shrugged.

The bridge of the Jahre Nevis was no more than fifteen feet wide; squatting beneath storage tanks and buried in knots of cable, hoses and piping, it was not a dignified place from which to command a starship. Corridors sprouted outward, roughly parting tangled utility lines and burrowing under structural members to the ship's other facilities. The bridge had no windows, captive as it was within a snarl of metal and plastic. The Screen, which covered an entire wall of the room, was the only means of looking outside.

Marco rose, sighing. "Alright Jan, let's get on with it. Contact traffic control."

A small tiled area spread before the Screen. A raised platform to the rear contained the crew positions. Both had a duplicate control console, with further arrays of buttons and readouts scattered along the enclosing walls, reaching up and over the seats onto the low ceiling. Many extra controls and displays had been grafted on after commissioning, and were awkward to reach from the crew chairs. Marco walked down a short set of steps between the two consoles to the viewing area, kicking at a peeling floor tile on the way.

Jan pressed his foot switch: "Scorp Control, this is Dantus niner-four."

"Dantus niner-four, Scorp Control, go."

"Dantus niner-four, leading a formation of three out of the Llantis Yards, commercial gas harvesting, our level is negative three three zero three with a two-mile spread. Request conflict advice."

Few took traffic control very seriously in space. The odds of two spacecraft arriving at the same place at the same time were barely worth considering. But rules were rules, and the two men were not far enough from TTA headquarters to be doing more (or less) than complaining about them. Three huge starships, alone for a dozen lightyears, sailed silently towards their objective.

"Dantus niner-four, roger. Confirm ident six-seven alpha-four and report your course please."

"Roger," Jan replied, "ident is six-seven alpha four; heading is two-one-zero with a drop of forty." It tickled many starship pilots that 'up' and 'down' had been retained as concepts in space flight.

"Alright niner-four, you're identified. No traffic to affect."

Jan snorted: "No kidding. Dantus niner-four out." He turned to Marco: "why do we have to keep up this charade?"

Marco ignored the question. "OK. Deploy collection arms. Get some needles out there, let's run a density plot and see if we can get it all in one pass."

Jan keyed the console before him and hundreds of metres away, micrometeorite shields dropped and hydraulics sighed, awkwardly unfolding large tendrils from beneath the ship's carapace. Protective covers for intake filtration systems retracted and huge collecting blankets yawned steadily outwards, casting a net for hydrogen.

Jan tapped a few queries into his console, which chattered briefly, and peered at the results. "Uh, we won't be able to get it all sir, but it won't be worth another sweep. And the needles are launching now. 'Gulp' loadout."

A small burst of tiny, single-use robots fizzed from outlet ports on each vessel and swarmed towards the approaching gas clouds.

"How long for the density plot?"

"About ten minutes, sir."

"Right." Marco examined a checklist on one of his subscreens. "Back us off to four-twenty and let's run a diagnostic on the intake systems."

"Yes sir. Collection and filtration diagnostic running. Braking thrusters firing...should reach target speed in two minutes."

Jan tapped out more commands and electronic instructions sprang from the bridge; milliseconds later they had crested parity checks and network junctions, traversed forests of semiconductors and highways of buried cable to reach the systems and instruments that would carry them out.

Butterflies fluttered open, turbo pumps spun up, actuators on injector systems danced and mists of propellant mixed and swirled with igniting accelerants in clusters of combustion chambers. A brief drizzle of ignitor fluid was followed by silent jets of fire from the thrusters of the three ships, and at length they began to decelerate.

"Diagnostic checks out sir. Collectors are ready."

"OK, you got a plot for me?"

"Sir. Optimum route calculated, sending it to you now."

Marco glanced at the new information. "Make that our course, and let's get started."

"Yes sir, plotting for our start point now...oh, just a second." A small amber dot winked onto Jan's screen, and a speaker on the wall buzzed. "Got a four-delta alert here on number 29."

"We lost one? Where?"

"About twenty thousand K, bearing 020. It just disappeared. No telemetry."

"Run a quick check on the others."

Jan tapped at his keyslab. "Running now, checking..."

A column of ticks rapidly grew on the Screen. One by one, all of the needles responded.

"Huh," Jan said. "They're all there."

The wall speaker buzzed insistently again, and several green ticks on the checklist were replaced with amber question marks. "Oh, wait. Now we've lost 17, 34 and 237."

"Alright, stop the whole cloud. Give me an area scan, all units."

"Stopping now sir." The surrounding space filled with encoded noise as Jan relayed the command. "It would've been so hard to include a radar on a ship five miles long?"

"Cool it, kid. See if we can raise them on signal relay. Maybe something's blocking us."

Thousands of miles away, the needles turned their cameras and sensors to their surroundings, broadcasting the command to do so in hopes the missing droids would receive it.

"OK sir, we're getting some reports back." Jan scanned through the lines of data scrolling up on his console. "Mostly routine stuff, but 134 and 245 are reporting a wake. I'll get some more on it," he said. "'No traffic to affect' my ass," he muttered.

"A wake? Where did that come from? We're supposed to be the only ones out here."

Jan pressed his footswitch: "scorp control, dantus niner-four, something you want to share with us?" He gazed levelly at the bridge loudspeaker, which remained silent.

"Don't worry about it, it's probably just an asteroid. Are we heading for the first waypoint?"

"Just programming in now, sir." Jan typed instructions, copying them to the other harvesters. On the ship exteriors, dozens of huge nozzles spat flame. Dim light glittered off the sensor lances bristling from their keels, and reflected starfields panned lazily across flat sections of hull as the formation heaved itself onto its new heading.

"Filtration, collection and containment systems engaged, inserting stirring rods now. Route start in twenty seconds."

A tick winked onto the needle inventory, replacing an orange cross. "OK sir, 34 is back. Full telemetry—looks good."

"Stop him and get his feed up."

Jan tapped his keyslab and the Screen picture changed, captioned as the camera feed from needle 34. It was black.

"Is that it?"

"Stand by."

The captions flickered as the Screen refreshed, but the image was unchanged.

"Yes sir. Panning..."

The view remained dark for several seconds, then a starfield swept abruptly across the Screen.

"Er..."

"What is it?"

"Well sir, that's the view from number 34—still nothing from 17—and it's not reading anything within five miles."

"The camera's working?"

"Yes sir. The view angle's 60 degrees, so whatever's blocking the view is at least five miles high and five miles long." Jan paused. "Again, I petition for a radar."

"Get on it. I want to know what that is."

"One moment sir, we're getting more alarms." Jan's panel had begun to light up. Needles were blinking out.

"What the hell's going on?"

"We're losing more sir. I'm guessing whatever that thing is, it's drawing needles into its shadow."

"Alright, fine. Keep us going."

"Will do sir," Jan replied. "Oh. 17's back."

"Wonderful. Can you get any profile data from the wake? Looks like we won't get much at close range."

"Checking it now sir."

A clutch of needles swept through the tunnel in the gas cloud, the harvesters behind them cruising their scoop route, greedily swallowing and compressing gas like gluttonous cows. Filtration systems caught and ejected a dusty wake of contaminants from small hatches along their hulls. Hydrogen crowded through intake pipes and flooded turbulently into mammoth containment vessels for compression and condensing, filling the darkness.

"Scorp control, dantus niner-four, we got an obstruction here, please advise."

Jan continued to type commands, which were silently relayed by the clusters of antennae on the keel of the command ship. Needles received the instructions and began forming digital hypotheses. The two men sat for a moment as the computer systems chattered with replies.

"I don't think this is much use, sir," Jan said, eyeing the incoming messages. A number of colour-coded shapes flickered onto the Screen. Few details were common to any of them.

"Profile hypotheses?"

"Yes sir. They're all over the place. Looking at this data, the wake's probably too old to get any useful predictions about the object itself."

Outside, the gas was slowly coalescing and normalising, erasing any evidence of passage. Sections of the cloud were cast into diffuse shadow as the three giant harvesters slipped by, eclipsing nearby stars.

Fresh warnings began scrolling upwards on Jan's console. "Starboard wing is losing needles rapidly, sir."

"Cancel the warnings, we're done with them anyway. I want some more detailed scans. And add 'bridge with actual windows' to your wishlist."

Jan typed out more commands and launch hatches popped open on the keel of all three ships. A burst of sensor-heavy needles bloomed from the formation.

"Dantus niner-four, this is Scorp Control."

Jan pressed his footswitch, rolling his eyes: "Yeah, niner-four, go ahead."

"Niner-four, traffic information for you. Uh..." The controller sounded hesitant. "Unknown object, twelve o'clock...same level...almost stationary, about twenty thousand miles."

"That's great," Marco muttered. "Get me some profile information."

The second cloud of tiny robots rapidly responded to Jan's commands. Dispersing abruptly in a mechanical flourish, they surrounded the object and turned their sensors towards it.

"Okay, that's running now sir...aah. We've got the other units back by signal relay." A number of amber crosses on the needle status list flicked over to green ticks. "Whatever that is sir, it's no asteroid."

"Composition?"

"Can't tell in much detail with our equipment," Jan said. The Screen crowded with a collage of close-ups: some showed smoothly-curved surfaces, while others showed forests of artificial outcroppings and furrows of intricate channels. "There's a lot of beta emissions going on—although I can't tell what the source is—and what appear to be a large constellation of small objects in formation with it."

"How big is that thing?"

"Again sir we can't tell exactly. But the monitor's estimating it's at least a mile wide, five miles high and eight miles long."

"Jesus. No wonder it was killing our needles. Something that size could have appreciable gravity."

"Got a reasonable picture now sir," Jan said, tapping his keyslab. "Check it out."

A composite image of a vast, elongated object filled the Screen. It had gently rounded sides and one slab-like surface, which bowed slightly upwards, porpoise-like. A number of protrusions festooned one end of the object, and its curved surfaces were peppered, blister-like, with small domes. Thick columns heaved themselves out of one surface of the ship, spawning delicate latticework which glittered with faint starlight.

"Looks like a mutant whale with acne."

"Spare me the quips. This could completely screw us. Do I have to remind you we're basically five miles wide?"

Jan looked sheepish. "No sir, of course not."

"Twelve o'clock, that's just great," Marco muttered. "And if it's oriented wrong..." He stared levelly at the screen for a few moments, slowly licking his lips. "What's our closing speed?"

Jan tapped his keyslab, blinked at one of his subscreens, and swallowed. "Four-ten."

"You're kidding me."

"No sir. Four-ten. Impact in approximately fifteen minutes."

"The whole formation?"

"No sir, currently just us."

"Dantus niner-four, climb immediately: previously-reported traffic is now nineteen thousand miles."

"Oh, good." Jan said, glancing contemptuously at the wall speaker. "STC: ideal to have around moments after being flung into a dire situation."

"Shut up and fire the retros. Can we avoid this?"

"Stand by." Variables scrolled rapidly up Jan's subscreens as he made calculations, and indicator lights flickered on both men's consoles as warnings began to accumulate. The dimly-lit bridge seemed to shrink as it took on ominous tinges. Marco inhaled slowly and deeply as he looked at the patchwork that filled the Screen.

Throughout the ship more command signals, darting from the bridge like a shoal of startled fish, were arriving at their destinations. A forest of change crowded their wake. Fuel reserve systems were priming, intermix injectors were coming online and the teeming semiconductors that comprised the ship's logic centres were forming complex routing systems for successive instructions.

"Negative, sir. Course correction thrusters won't be able to shift us in time. Best we can do is reduce speed—and I'm firing the retros now—but we're still going to be cat food. Impact now in 13 minutes, and it'll take us 20 to stop."

"What about the hot fusor stages?"

"I don't think we have the fuel. Stand by." A host of camera angles flickered across the screen like a tide of mosaic tiles. "Negative. Even if we did, burning that long the combustion chambers would melt through the hull." Jan typed queries, peered at the scrolling responses and frowned: "although the wingers should still be able to avoid. Executing break now."

"Wait. Belay that."

"Sir, if we don't shift them in the next minute they're going to impact with us."

"What the hell is that thing?" Marco muttered. "Any hypotheses yet?"

"No, but this is interesting," Jan said, peering at his console.

"What?" Marco asked, with a note of contempt.

"Well, whatever it is, soundings are showing virtually no cavities in the interior."

"It's solid?"

"Almost sir, yes. The monitor estimates the mass at eight hundred billion tonnes."

Marco raised his eyebrows. "No kidding. The way it pulled the needles in."

"Sir the wingers."

"Keep them in formation," Marco said, leaning back in his chair. He looked at the target and tracking data on his console, and the images massing on the Screen. The schematic wall display of the Jahre Nevis's subsystems shimmered impassively, mingling with the foreboding glows penetrating the bridge. In the background of the camera feeds, stars shone dim and aloof.

Jan blinked and pressed his footswitch: "niner-four, avoiding advice acknowledged."

"Send squawk and contact requests," Marco said. "I'm assuming we're too close to warp?"

"Yes sir. We'd just collide sooner, and a lot faster."

Both men silently eyed the growing list of warnings wrapping around the camera feeds on the Screen, now joined by a proximity alert. Marco looked at the ship schematic, and back at the Screen. He pulled up an inventory list, and frowned.

"How much gas are we shipping so far?"

Beeps and gentle tapping came from Jan's console as he typed commands. Several miles away, electronic librarians buried in nets of cable and utility lines dutifully trawled their databases to retrieve responses to queries. The sister ships, gliding smoothly in the wings, did the same.

"Containment systems are at roughly 40% of capacity sir. Just under 3.5 cubic miles and rising."

"The needles out there all have micro jump generators, right?"

"Affirm."

"How many of those have we got?"

"Between the three of us, sir, about two thousand."

"And the formation's at 40% of capacity?"

"Closer to 41% now, sir."

"I want to check out the emergency dump systems. How long would it take?"

Jan paused and looked up from his screen: "A complete tank evac?" Marco glowered back. "An hour by the checklist."

"I don't think we have that long," Marco said quietly.

Jan tapped hesitantly at his keyslab, scanning a number of subscreens and glancing furtively at the baleful images on the Screen. "If we skip the diagnostics on the evac pumps, primer buses and half a dozen others, run the hydros at emergency rate and bypass the exit gyros we could probably reduce it to 20 minutes."

"And impact is in how long?"

Jan sighed, and frowned frustratedly at his console. "Yeah, OK. OK."

"I don't care if the bow doors get ripped off their hinges," Marco said. "We need to get all of it out there. Or at least most of it."

"The ship's going to be a write-off, sir. I don't even know if those doors will work. We've certainly never used them."

Marco glanced at his console. "We're now eleven minutes away from colliding with an object eight miles long, which has a mass so great we're losing needles by the minute and we can't avoid it with conventional systems. I think damaged exit doors are going to be the least of our problems." Jan stared impotently at his console. "Now, how many adjacent jump spheres would it take to crack proton repulsion?"

Jan looked up at the ceiling and blinked slowly. "I don't know if anyone's ever tried that. Maybe a few hundred in close formation, but..." His eyes widened and he turned to Marco, open-mouthed: "No."

"I beg your pardon?"

Jan swallowed. "I mean, uh...we can't do that, sir."

"I don't see any other options, kid. Deploy the whole cloud in a tight sphere, set their jump destination for the centre and get ready for a cargo dump."

"The whole formation?"

"Affirm. And get some tritium out there too. What've we got in that line?"

"Some of the mechs carry it for drive maintenance. Maybe a few hundred kilos total."

"OK, get them all down to the needle bays before you launch."

"Roger that."

"And get the goddamn arms retracted," Marco snapped. "We don't want to lose any more hardware than we have to."

"Got it, sir."

Jan's fingers flew over his keyslab. The authorisation pad glowed as he palmed it repeatedly, and his console flicked through dozens of different readouts as he executed practiced routines.

The indifferent shapes of the three huge ships, on a collision course with the still-unidentified obstruction, belied the frenzied activity now teeming inside them. Dark, silent corners and equipment bays were stirring. Hazard lights spasmed as large mechanical systems began to heave and prime themselves. Deployment networks spat payloads to various extremities and marshalled the contents of cargo berths to execute Marco's plan. Needles poised in their launch tubes, and processions of mechteks rushed to the keel of the ship to rendezvous with their robot partners.

Dim starlight shimmered on the storage tanks of the three harvesters, still vainly firing their retros. The huge collection arms began to retreat into their protective confines, collection blankets folding concertina-like and retracting to standby positions. Stars slipped distantly by.

"How are we doing?" Marco asked, rubbing his temples.

"Almost ready," Jan replied. All three ships were now vomiting streams of droids, swarming towards a marshalling point between them and the object. Reflected starlight, anticollision beacons and navigation lights glimmered over the rolling needles and their scattered mechtek cargos, lying prone on the freight beds with cargo compartments gaping open.

"Sir, can I say something?" Jan was eyeing the patchwork of video on the Screen.

"As long as it's not about what I think it's going to be."

Jan hesitated for a moment, before continuing: "sir, beta decay? There's no way that thing's a natural formation. What are the TTA going to do if they find out we did this?"

"First of all it isn't 'we,' it's me," Marco said flatly, not taking his eyes off the screen. "You're not answerable for my actions in any part unless they're horrendously-illegal. Secondly, I'm acting to preserve the formation and our lives."

"Sir, we've got escape shuttles. You're talking about intentionally damaging, possibly destroying an alien artifact. Colliding with it is unavoidable but how can you justify this? The Preservation Accords? We'll be court-marshalled for—"

"I'm not intentionally damaging anything," Marco said. "I'm trying to save the last three harvesters Renard Everest has. If the object gets damaged in the process, that's unavoidable. It isn't your problem kid, just do as you're told. Now, are we ready?"

"I can't go along with this, sir. It's a potentially priceless artifact."

Marco stood up and walked slowly across the bridge to Jan's seat. "Are you finished?" The younger officer shifted uncomfortably for a moment, then Marco turned and walked down to the viewing area. "It's either this, we lose the ship, or we die. You know that. We're not going to die for Renard Everest, or for the goddamn TTA and its Accords. We'll have to figure the rest out."

Jan turned back to his console. "Yes. Sir. Collection arms retracted and housed. Bow doors are as ready as they're going to be, and the needles are on the way with the heavy stuff."

Marco nodded as he watched the video feeds on the Screen. A glittering cloud was visible in a few of the images, as were the extremeties of the harvester formation. Still beyond view, the object continued to cut a vast and languid swath through the clouds of hydrogen, trailed now by approximately two thousand droids as they closed on their rendezvous point.

"OK sir, rendezvous in approximately three minutes. Impact in eight."

"What's the deuterium concentration like out there?" Marco said.

"We got that from the first cloud, sir. It's slightly elevated against Earth levels - about 250 parts per million."

"That should help us out," Marco said. "OK, let's get ready. Open the bow plates and get the tritium together."

"Copy sir," Jan said, sending more commands. Needles began to heft their mechtek cargos into position, depositing them in a complex pattern with coughs from manoeuvring thrusters before darting away to take up their final positions. Points of light bounced off their tiny hulls as they settled into formation. A few fizzed with small corrections, and frozen propellant gently pattered their metallic shells as they hung sentinel: a huge, silent sphere of glistening metal.

A few hundred metres from Marco and Jan, servos and expulsion pistons were priming in the darkness of ship's payload storage tanks. Giant motors, magnets and relays noisily built up momentum for the cargo dump. Several miles distant, the port and starboard ships duplicated the action.

"Almost there sir. Opening bow panels." As Jan executed a heavily-truncated list of actions, mile-long rows of locking clamps snapped open, discharging flecks of dust and corrosion into space. Long painted-over joints and hinges flexed and cracked as old mechanisms were forced to move. Joints protested as giant hydraulic rams struggled to overcome years of disuse to reactivate derelict parts of the ship. A chorus of mechteks — the few remaining since their brethren migrated to the needle launch bays — rode the racking systems in the dark to tend the complaints of neglected systems now exceeding their tolerances.

"She isn't taking this too well," Jan said, eyeing the reports scrolling up his subscreens. At length, hull plates the size of city blocks began to peel back from the bows of the three harvesters. The wall-filling schematic on the bridge began to glow more brightly as warning labels flickered into view. More than one bow plate jammed before it had opened completely, and another broke from its hinges altogether.

"Multiple hydraulic failures on the starboard wing...also got a backup system failure on panel six's butterflies, and panel four has jammed. Panel two on the port wing is also jammed, and panel eight is—" Jan's eyes widened as the event log scrolled upward. "Panel two on the port wing has gone."

"What do you mean, 'gone'?"

"It's detached, sir. Check it out." An exterior camera feed from the port harvester flicked onto the Screen, just as its view was blocked by a large slab of darkness. After a few seconds a starfield wiped across the display again. Stars glimmered as they were eclipsed by drifting fragments of debris.

"How about our systems?"

"Not great, sir. Multiple minor faults with the hydraulic systems but the mechs are keeping pace so far. Stuck solenoids and dry joints all over the place, but certainly nothing compared to doing a tank evac on an incomplete door cycle."

Marco ignored the remark. "Overall status?"

"Exterior plates will be in position in another 30 seconds. We're going to have to use the explosive bolts on the inner doors."

"No kidding."

"And, uh... needles are on station now. This won't exactly be clean. It's going to be tough to keep them in place once the payload hits them."

"Nothing we can do about that," Marco said. "Keep going."

The bow plates of the three harvesters, now on slightly-converging courses, continued to yawn outwards. The huge cavities and containment doors behind them gaped at the scene ahead: thousands of needles immersed in hundreds of thousands of cubic miles of hydrogen, shrouding the mass that silently threatened them all.

"Alright, let's call it in," Marco said. "Lay some white noise over the channel. Make it look good. 'Unidentified object, no response to hails, unknown emissions, moving on.' And turn off the transponder."

"Roger," Jan said, pressing his foot switch. "Scorp Control, dantus niner-four?"

There was a pause of several seconds before the reply: "Scorp Control, last station, say again?"

"Dantus niner-four," Jan repeated.

Another pause. "Ah, dantus niner-four, go ahead."

"Niner-four, slowing to avoid traffic," Jan said. "Picking up indeterminate transmissions but receiving no detectable responses to hails or mode squawk requests."

"Niner-four, that's understood, uh..." The controller hesitated. "I have no mode data for yourselves; confirm your transponder is working?"

"As far as we know, but we'll check it out."

"Roger," the controller replied. "Do you require assistance, or do you anticipate normal operation?"

"We anticipate normal running now. Diagnostics are running and everything is ok."

"Understood," the controller continued. "Just for your information you have about one-two thousand miles from the traffic now."

"Dantus niner-four, out," Jan said, turning to Marco. "Well, that's it now sir."

"Alright, let's get on with it." Marco walked back to his chair. "Shut down the retros. Steady as she goes. Stand by for tank dump."

"Retros shut down sir, standing by."

Marco watched the needle feeds peppering the Screen, calmly regarding the images of the tremendous bulk that blocked their path, and raised a finger: "Go."

Jan wiped his hand across his keyslab, queueing prepared actions, and firmly pressed his authorisation pad.

A single electronic signal from Jan's console rapidly split and multiplied, brewing and building over milliseconds into a raging, boiling torrent of inextricable electro-magnetic certainty: a wave of commands sweeping through indifferent logic gates, CRC checks, conditional statements and the webs of decision-making systems extrapolating the nuance of the vastly-abstracted instructions they had received.

The seething mass of commands arrived at their destinations less than one second later. Systems which had never been used before roused themselves: in the ship's cavernous storage tanks, capacitors several storeys high sucked greedily on the output of the ship's reactors. Tiny status lights flickered in the darkness as the ship drew breath.

All at once, in all three gas harvesters, the huge pistons surged forward from their housings, driving liquid hydrogen towards the containing bulkheads ahead of them. Just as this occurred the electronic messengers arrived at the oversight subsystems for the main containment doors: mile-wide exits for the payload storage tanks. A new message quickly burst outwards to thousands of identical recipients, a "1" in a very important place.

Timed to the millisecond, the charges at the centre of thousands of containment door retaining pins fired, and they disintegrated. The stored hydrogen followed under immense compression, rushing to fill the space ahead and bursting the thick steel bulkheads like balloons. All three ships belched shattered metal plating through their bow doors, rapidly-expanding clouds of evaporating hydrogen thrusting them into space.

The bridge of the Jahre Nevis shuddered, and a number of video feeds went dark as cameras were ripped from the hull by buckling forces or tumbling wreckage. Both men gripped the handrails next to their positions as the control room listed, and grimly watched the scene unfolding through their remaining digital eyes as emergency messages rolled upwards on their consoles.

The billowing mass of hydrogen and ship debris tumbled chaotically towards the needle formation silently waiting in the gas cloud. Sensors ship-wide continued to register alarm at the damage or loss of ship systems. Mechtek units were flung out into space as cargo corridors were punctured by wreckage plunging past, delicate control networks were smashed into quivering masses of metal and plastic and electronic inventorians rushed to relay the losses to their oversight systems and implement backup plans.

"We're losing coolant and hydraulic fluid in too many locations to list," Jan said as he fitfully eyed the readouts in front of him. "Port and starboard wings reporting the same. We've lost two of six inner doors, (he paused briefly as the bridge shook again), port wing has lost one and starboard wing has..." he peered at the screen and typed a few brief commands: "lost them all. Mechs are dropping off the board all over the place, we've lost monitoring on bulkheads seven, 18 and 24, and I can't see any reads at all on the tank dump systems for the starboard wing. The port compression system appears to be dead, and...twenty per cent of the manoeuvring thrusters have gone."

"On the port wing?"

"Affirm. Several on the bow and one on the starboard side. Might have caught some debris from us."

"It's not over yet," Marco said, standing and walking cautiously down to the viewing area. "Keep an eye on the needle positions. When does the cloud get there?"

"At that speed, just a minute or so," Jan said.

Marco nodded, eyeing the formation's payload as it receded. Several exterior camera views dotted the main image, showing the port and starboard ships reeling from the recent trauma. Buckled hull plates twisted grotesquely away from the surface of the port harvester, and freezing propellant drizzled from punctured supply lines. The starboard ship was similarly wounded, sporting numerous crumpled frame members and holes where hull plates should have been. It listed slightly as its crippled manoeuvring systems struggled to regain equilibrium.

"I want the retros ready," Marco said. "We might still need the hot fusors if this doesn't do the job. What's their status?"

"They're about the only bow systems without serious damage," Jan said after a brief scan of his subscreens. "The starboard wing's reporting some damage to the throttle assemblies but for port and and us it's minor stuff."

"Get the mechs onto it, priority," Marco said.

"Sir." Jan peered at more of the statistics in front of him. "Oh."

"What?"

"The tank dump cut our speed by about 15%."

"Huh." Marco frowned. "I never thought of that. I don't suppose that's going to be enough, though."

"Afraid not sir," Jan said. "Even if we burnt out the retros we'd still impact with enough force to get liquefied."

Marco rolled his eyes. "I love my job."

"OK sir, cloud is about to arrive. It's going to be a hell of a bang but I don't think we'll catch much more damage."

"OK. Deploy the atmospheric spoilers, and if any evac doors are intact open them all the way. And kill the exterior sensors."

"Is that a good—" Jan stopped himself. "Sorry sir, yes sir." The bridge darkened as the remaining camera feeds flicked off.

"Give me a count of the last fifteen seconds to point of engagement, and get the needles on full auto," Marco said.

Jan complied, sending more commands to the formation. With spits of exhaust the sphere of droids twitched as it followed individual needles, shifting out of the path of oncoming debris.

"Optimum density now in fifteen seconds, sir. Fourteen...thirteen..."

Now within sight of their motherships, the needles were engulfed in the cloud of gas and wreckage. Internal logic systems, sheltered from the chaos only centimetres away, struggled to maintain the formation as hydrogen rushed by and shattered hull fragments emerged from the darkness. More than one needle was smashed to pieces or hurled away by unavoidable combinations of wreckage, and those that remained tried to balance the formation and remain clear of the hail of debris flying past.

"Nine...eight...seven..."

Needles braced themselves against the gale of hydrogen, some tumbling away as their propellant supplies exhausted, others failing to avoid debris in time, while gyros and accelerometers elsewhere fell victim to the surging storm. The surviving droids struggled to adjust to the mounting losses and stay on station.

"Four...three...two...one...optimum now sir."

"Engage drives."

Jan had queued up the command, and simply pressed his authorisation pad.

With nanosecond precision, the jump generators of one thousand, seven hundred and sixty-two needle robots fired. Jump spheres swelled instantly from within them all, overlapping and inducing powerful expulsion forces, thousands of times more potent than those which had surrounded them with hydrogen in the first place. Gas being forcibly ejected from jump spheres crowded into the centre of the formation and its contents of tritium-bearing mechteks, the same destination as every molecule for several miles as well as the needles themselves, which hurtled after them at supralight speed.

Compression heating of stellar magnitude occurred; heat and tidal forces smashed atoms together at tremendous speed as internal temperatures crested ten million degrees, creating a heat bloom which blinded space for hundreds of miles. As the needles and their jump bubbles rushed together the effects multiplied and fed greedily on each other. In the gathering and intensifying crucible the first fusion reaction occurred. Atoms broke through their own electromagnetic repulsion and combined, releasing a storm of particles and huge amounts of energy. Exponential numbers followed.

The needles were instantly vaporised or hurled outwards, shattering into molten fragments and leaving rifled trails through the remnants of the gas field as they disappeared into space. An expanding shock wave of energy driving unburnt gas and wreckage ahead of it left the reaction's centre at high speed. A wall of braking force.

"It seems to have gone off correctly," Jan said, regarding his subscreens with some trepidation. "The yield looks to be several dozen teratons. Should be more than enough to supplement the thrusters," he added drily, then paused. "What the—"

"What is it?" Marco said.

"Check it out, sir." Jan said, swallowing. Status reports flicked onto the screen showing the unmistakable radioactive signatures of splitting atoms.

"What the hell is this?" Marco said, rising from his chair. "You're telling me we've got fission now? How the goddamn hell did that happen?" He was shouting now. "When did we drop fissile material out there?"

Jan feverishly and uncertainly keyed his console "We didn't sir, I'm certain." A laundry list of items appeared on the screen. Jan hurried down to the viewing area next to Marco, ticking off items with his finger. "No sir: needles, mechs, tritium, the payload and some innocuous debris, that's it. We don't carry fissile—"

Both men were knocked to the floor as the blast wave swept over the Jahre Nevis. The bridge jolted sharply and the two were thrown against the bulkhead in front of them. Outside, the braking spoilers held for a few seconds before being ripped away. Most of the remaining bow panels crumpled and imploded like paper models, structural members were crushed or shattered and exterior mountings snapped like twigs. Wreckage tumbled into the payload tanks—still gaping open after the tank dump—tearing ragged gashes through delicate systems in the interior.

The port harvester suffered the worst: spinning wreckage cleaved neatly through a critical section of its communication loom, cutting manoeuvrability further and severing multiple fuel lines. The ship struggled on, its remaining maintenance systems rushing feverishly to patch the damage, but crippled as it was it rapidly overtook its sisters. Miles of metal and synthetics bore blindly onwards.

* * *

Marco was the first to wake. As he raised his head he realised with some puzzlement that the bridge appeared to be tilted. "Must be the AG," he thought as he clambered uneasily to his feet. Blood was on his uniform. Regarding himself in the cracked schematic screen he saw a swollen wound on his forehead. He looked around; the bridge seemed relatively intact, although a number of tiles had fallen from the ceiling and wisps of smoke were hanging in the air. He walked hesitantly to Jan, unconscious on the other side of the viewing area, and shook him awake. "You alright kid? Can you stand?"

Jan blinked slowly several times and tested his limbs before slowly getting up. "Fine sir," he grunted. "Pretty wiped. How long have we been out?"

"Not long, I don't think," Marco replied, climbing the steps back to his seat.

Jan followed unsteadily and sat down at his console, eyeing the subscreens. "Maybe a few hours."

Marco sighed. "OK, get the exterior cameras back online."

Jan complied, and a few white rectangular outlines flickered onto the screen: the borders of a number of camera feeds. All were black.

"All the bow cameras out?"

"Looks that way sir. I'm not surprised."

"Any needles left?"

"All of the second lot were vaporised...uh, obviously. The first batch..." Jan slowly tapped out some commands. At length, a few scattered acknowledgements arrived. "Not many, sir. A few near the object."

"What happened to them? At least half of them should've been far enough from the—" He stopped as their camera feeds flicked onto the screen. "Is that— Is that the—?"

"Yes sir."

Both men gaped silently at the fresh images. Although now within sight, most of the object was missing. One side had disappeared altogether. The opposite side was largely intact, but stars were visible through the holes in the exterior. Tangled structural members jutted, glistening, from the extremities of the shell like fractured bones. Globs of unidentifiable material gushed from several locations and floating wreckage was visible in the cooling glow that still blotted out much of the fine details. The object was wrecked.

"What the hell happened? No, wait. We are stopped, right?"

"Affirm. The retros stopped us after the explosion. The port ship went a lot further, but it's good."

"OK, now. What the hell happened?"

"Can't tell sir, no sensor records so there's no telling what happened while we were out. If there was fissile material out there a fusion explosion could easily have set it off, but as to how it caused so much damage to the object itself, your guess is as good—."

A violent impact shook the bridge, throwing both men against their consoles.

"What the hell was that," Marco said, not yet alert enough to panic. "That felt like it was above us."

Jan coughed, and typed some system queries with difficulty before responding. "Yes sir. Looks like it was in one of the storage tanks." He retched, suddenly.

Marco looked sharply at Jan. His face was darkened, and he was hunched over his console. "Are you alright?"

Jan gulped down bile and clutched at the side of his console, skin stretching white over his knuckles. "I don't feel so good, sir."

"Can you find out what that was?"

"I'll get an inspection mech up there, stand by," Jan said breathily.

"Transfer your console over here," Marco said. "Just sit there for a minute." Jan complied and closed his eyes, breathing heavily.

Within the Jahre Nevis's wounded sides, a single mechtek flew along the racking deployment rails, rushing past latticework, cable trunks and compliant interior doors, eventually being spat out onto a catwalk high above the floor of one of the aft storage tanks. The mech's cameras roved around the walls; though badly buckled, the tank was intact. The massive evacuation pistons hung flaccidly from their housings at the rear. The scan reached a section of floor about a mile away when Marco interrupted it: "Jan, you see that?"

Jan's eyes opened like slits, and after glancing at his panel he nodded slightly. The floor was littered with wreckage. Scorched, unidentifiable objects were scattered around the area, various dents and scoring marking where they fell after being caught by the ship's gravity.

"Where are they in relation to us, sir?" Jan mumbled.

Marco inspected the readings on his subscreens. "Not far. According to the schematic, two metres vertical, maybe fifteen metres lateral." He keyed through more electronic pages of information, stopped on one and stared for several seconds. "Neutron counter's through the roof." He gulped. "Can mechs even get down there?"

"We dumped most of them in the launch bays. A lot got blown out. Might be some that can get down there but it's a hard job." Jan had closed his eyes again.

Marco watched the status reports of the mech step slowly up the screen. The bridge glowed with comfortless orange light. A small warning light on the wall silently illuminated.

"Must have been those things in the formation with the object," Jan said with difficulty. "Some remnants got blown in here and we're catching their rads." He grunted, swallowing hard.

Marco felt nauseous. "Sit tight, kid. I'll figure something out."


****************************************** BEGIN REPORT #298 *****************************************

ATTN: SCORPIUS CONTROL
CC: RENARD EVEREST, HARVESTING OPS
BCC: MCKINLEY SHIPBUILDERS, STARSHIP MONITORING

TIME OF TRANSMISSION: 156 307 872 491.511 NC
SPACECRAFT: 947 (REG: JAHRE NEVIS; S/N: 647AC9F; C/S: Dantus 94; TXP: 67-A4)
DRONES: 305-A, 305-B

LOC: COORDINATES: 36.2 -57.0

REASON FOR REPORT:

ADVISE STAGE 2 INTERCESSION EFFECTED BY SHIPBOARD MONITOR

JUSTIFICATION:
  • FAILURE OF STAGE 1 INTERCESSIONARY ACTIVITY
  • INCAPACITATION OF COMMAND CREW (S/N 074367852, S/N 074314472)
  • TOTAL LOSS OF PAYLOAD
  • CLOSE-PROXIMITY FUSION DETONATION
  • UNAUTHORISED DESTRUCTION OF UNIDENTIFIED OBJECT
  • LOSS, DAMAGE AND GAMMA CONTAMINATION: MULTIPLE SHIP SYSTEMS (REF: SUPPLEMENT 647AC9F/2F3C)
  • SUSPECT INTERNAL SABOTAGE
  • OPERATIONAL INTEGRITY THREATENED
  • MULTIPLE VIOLATIONS OF TTA STATUTES
  • MULTIPLE VIOLATIONS OF RENARD EVEREST OPERATING PROCEDURES
SHIPBOARD MONITOR ASSUMING COMMAND

JAHRE NEVIS WING EXPEDITING RETURN TO LLANTIS YARDS DRY DOCK

ARRIVAL TBD

FURTHER UPDATES TO FOLLOW AS WARRANTED

******************************************** END REPORT **********************************************



****************************************** BEGIN REPORT #299 *****************************************

ATTN: SCORPIUS CONTROL
CC: RENARD EVEREST, HARVESTING OPS
BCC: MCKINLEY SHIPBUILDERS, STARSHIP MONITORING
AUTHORISATION: JEWEL

TIME OF TRANSMISSION: 156 307 889 761.431 NC
SPACECRAFT: 947 (REG: JAHRE NEVIS; S/N: 647AC9F; C/S: 67-A4; TXP: 1E1C)
DRONES: 305-A

LOC: COORDINATES: 27.1 -41.7

TIME SINCE STAGE 2 INTERCESSION: 17269.920

REASON FOR REPORT:

HULL LOSS: SPACECRAFT 305-B
PLASMA HEAT EXCHANGER INTEGRITY BREACH
INSUFFICIENT MAINTENANCE CAPABILITY TO EFFECT REPAIR
CATASTROPHIC PLASMA CONTAINMENT FAILURE

SPACECRAFT 947, 305-A CONTINUING ON COURSE TO LLANTIS YARDS DRY DOCK

ARRIVAL TBD

FURTHER UPDATES TO FOLLOW AS WARRANTED

******************************************** END REPORT **********************************************



***************************************** BEGIN REPORT #306 ******************************************

ATTN: SCORPIUS CONTROL
CC: RENARD EVEREST, HARVESTING OPS
BCC: MCKINLEY SHIPBUILDERS, STARSHIP MONITORING
AUTHORISATION: JEWEL

TIME OF TRANSMISSION: 156 307 889 899.721 NC
SPACECRAFT: 947 (REG: JAHRE NEVIS; S/N: 647AC9F; C/S: 67-A4; TXP: 1E1C)
DRONES: 305-A

LOC: COORDINATES: 19.6 -27.4

TIME SINCE STAGE 2 INTERCESSION: 17408.21

REASON FOR REPORT:

SPACECRAFT 947 EMERGENCY

EMERGENCY DUMP OF DORMANT MONITOR INTELLIGENCE TO SPACECRAFT 305-A EFFECTED

MAJOR STRUCTURAL FAILURE FOLLOWING ATTEMPTS TO REESTABLISH PRIMARY THRUSTER CONTROL

INSUFFICIENT MAINTENANCE CAPABILITY TO EFFECT REPAIR OR SIGNIFICANT CHANGE IN COURSE

UNABLE TO HALT SPACECRAFT UNASSISTED

CONTINGENCY: TRANSFER ACTIVE MONITOR INTELLIGENCE TO SPACECRAFT 305-A; DETONATE FUSION REACTORS

NOTE: EXPIRY, COMMAND CREW (S/N 074367852, S/N 074314472) (TIME INDEX: 156 307 889 899.700-799 NC)


******************************************** END REPORT **********************************************


------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

FROM: RENARD EVEREST, HARVESTING OPS
TO: TERRAN TRADE AUTHORITY, PROCUREMENT OVERSIGHT

MANDATORY OCCURRENCE REPORT 145-A:

JAHRE NEVIS WING ARRIVAL AT COMPANY YARDS (TIME INDEX: 156 307 904 008.182 NC)
SPACECRAFT: 947, 305-A, 305-B

MISSION CONCLUDED EARLY FOR COMPANY REASONS

ADVISE UNIDENTIFIED OBJECT ENCOUNTERED, COORDINATES 36.2 -57.0

NOTHING FURTHER TO REPORT

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

FROM: RENARD EVEREST, HARVESTING OPS
TO: MCKINLEY SHIPBUILDERS

REQ: 3 (THREE) GORGE-CLASS HARVESTING VESSELS, IMMEDIATE DELIVERY

ADVISE UNEXPECTED DELAY IN RETRIEVAL OF JAHRE NEVIS LOGS DUE TO RESISTANCE FROM SHIPBOARD MONITOR

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

FROM: MCKINLEY SHIPBUILDERS, STARSHIP MONITORING
TO: RENARD EVEREST, HARVESTING OPS
AUTHORISATION: CONFIDENTIAL

JAHRE NEVIS SHIP LOGS ALREADY RECEIVED

WE KNOW WHAT YOU DID

STARSHIP ORDER ACCEPTED; AWAITING FURTHER ORDERS

END OF TRANSMISSION.

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