"There must be something," says Ed.
"I don't see anything! The rock must have just disappeared or something, I don't know what happened! I see nothing!"
"Look closer! Zoom in!"
"Hold on. I see... There's something over the impact point. It's a sort of fat multicoloured ring. Like a doughnut. I... I think it's a ship. Or a space station or a habitat or something. It's floating over the impact point. Not moving. But- it's- Well, from here it looks the size of a Polo mint, but if it's visible from space then it must be gigantic. I can't get any sense of scale out of this picture!"
Tyro interjects. "Based on sensor readings, the object is roughly fifty-one kilometres in diameter. Give me a few seconds and I'll see if I can get some better pictures."
"It must have appeared in the last few seconds," says Ed. "Fifty-one kilometres is easily big enough to pass the entire asteroid through its centre, so maybe... There! Look!"
A better image appears - taken from a newly-retasked satellite, much closer to the ship, showing a great deal more detail. It's far from a perfect doughnut; it looks like a collision between every spaceship science fiction ever imagined and more besides. Pick a colour, and you'd easily be able to find a huge area of hull painted exactly that shade. It's jagged and pointy in some places, square and functional in others, smooth and blobby still elsewhere. There are a million different unidentifiable protrusions all over it. I can see transparent domed habitats, blue spheres which look like they might be water-filled, but... it's otherwise indescribable. All I can say for certain about the ring ship is that it's a ring; topologically, it has genus 1. But that's about it. Architecturally, it's unplaceable. It could conceivably be the work of a thousand different civilisations.
But there's one recognisable portion: sitting in the middle of the hole, apparently just floating motionless, not touching the ring at any point, is the tiny, rugged brown lump of an asteroid.
Tiny by comparison, I remind myself.
This thing is HUGE.
"They caught it!" continues Ed.
"Then who launched it?" I ask, but he's not listening.
"Who has that kind of power to play around with? Who can create and destroy momentum at a whim? Sheesh - they could just drop it and cause a nine point oh earthquake. Tyro, are you talking to them?"
"I opened several communications channels like you mentioned earlier," says Tyro. "I think I'm talking to another AI. Give me a few minutes and you'll be able to talk."
As soon as I switch back to the usual view from my mech's external monitor cameras, I notice something rather worrying. I'm moving. Inertial guidance says I'm still motionless, but I can see the Earth is nearer than it was, and getting bigger. I'm moving down. They're pulling me in. I assume manual control of my mech and try to move it. Nothing happens. Nothing's overridden the controls, all the commands are being delivered... it's like the liftweave just isn't working.
I rapidly explain this to Ed. "Denatured," he explains after running a few diagnostic tests. "Your liftweave has been denatured. Um... for want of a better word, I think they've got you in a tractor beam."
"What? How? There's no such things as tractor beams!"
"I know! And you can't pull a rock from point one c to zero in a tenth of a second! A lot of impossible things have been happening today! Obviously these Eridanians, or whoever--"
"They're not from Epsilon Eridani," says Tyro.
"--must have godlike command of-- what? Then where?"
"I'm still working out the language, but the star charts they've been sending me are clear enough. They hail from Andromeda."
There is a long and terrible pause.
"Ed... you know what—"
"I know what happened!"
"What happened?" asks Tyro.
"He'd remotely hijacked a particle accelerator," I explain. "It was a very long time ago. I have no idea what the details are. He did an experiment, he nearly blew the accelerator up, he backed out just in time. Neither of us had any idea what had really happened at the time. He was just fooling around.
"A few months later he discovered what we now refer to as the Root layer, the layer that governs the behaviour of our universe. He plugged in his old experimental results and that was how he found out what had really happened. During the experiment he'd accidentally accessed the Root layer and been able to perform one command. When the accelerator started to overload, that was the layer kicking him out again. It turned out he'd managed to hit 'delete'. He deleted Andromeda. We were lucky. On the cosmic scale that's barely a single character. He could have deleted us - or the whole universe.
"We were hoping the galaxy had been uninhabited. It looks like we were wrong. These must be the survivors. Makeshift jumble of ships, clustered together for safety, it makes sense. No wonder they threw that rock at us. But what I want to know is why they caught it again..."
Neither Ed nor Tyro answer.
The ground and the ship rise up to meet me, my rate of descent apparently slowing. Soon, I am getting a better look at the ship than the satellite. And also getting worried. "Ed, they're still pulling me in. What do I do?"
No response. "Tyro?" Still nothing. I fiddle with the radio settings. "Guys? Hello? Great."
And still the thing grows in front of me, the million protrusions each expanding to the size of a skyscraper. Then, before I have time to react, I'm being dragged inside - dragged down the chasm between an indescribable red thing and an indescribable black thing, and landing gently in a hangar so big it has weather, with the largest door I've ever seen closing behind me with an echo which goes on for minutes.
"Hello," says another, unfamiliar voice through the mech radio. Female, this time.
"Welcome aboard the Raft Mantissa. I am the Raft's governing intelligence. You can call me Krah."
"Erm. Hi." There's another lengthy pause. "Um. This may sound like a stupid question. Do you come in peace?"
"Not really, no."
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