Far into the embrace of Night go I, to plunder Dark’s riches from a starless sky.
Ursa Knight leaned back in her chair, sipping only water and glancing over at the man who sat beside her. The base’s commissary was only half full at that time of day, so it was possible for Ursa and the minor diplomat she was babysitting to hear the news report playing on one of the screens hanging from the raftered ceiling.
As if there was anyone left in the solar system who didn’t already know it, the reporter announced that the Nye Anomaly Mission would be launching in a few days from Titan’s Prima Doma Space Base, right where Ursa now sat. The reporter failed to mention the mission’s unofficial nickname, the Mission Beyond The Veil, so called for the more than significant odds of the mission crew not surviving the first part of the journey.
The diplomat beside Ursa was a last-minute addition to the crew. He was king of Earth’s only moon, Luna. He was assigned to be the mission’s ambassador, should they have need of one. To his credit, he had made his intentions clear to the captain. A successful mission would catapult him into a position of much greater power and prestige. He would become a historical figure. So would Ursa. So would Captain Cooper, Mutt, Binker, Caspar, Mally, Walker Hati, and all the rest of the crew.
The Lunar King excitedly watched the news report even though he had a file with summaries providing far more detail about the mission than the news reporter had. No doubt he was imagining the even more spectacular reports that would splash across all the screens in the system upon his triumphant return.
Ursa’s shift as ambassadorial escort was almost over. She would soon be relieved of the ambassador’s company by one of her crewmates. So she watched the news report.
“The greatest ship-builders in the system are the Saturnians,” the reporter said. “It has only been two generations since the moons united. While there continues to be political tension, the scientists and engineers of the United Moons of Saturn have banded together to build the most magnificent ship yet known in our system. The Harbinger.
“The Harbinger and its crew are about to embark on a journey to where no one in the Helios solar system has ever gone. Beyond the edge of our system, there lies a cosmic anomaly dubbed the Nye Anomaly. It was discovered almost two hundred Earth years ago. And over the course of those years, it has been scanned, studied, and visited. Probes and messages have been sent through. Some of those probes have been recovered. Images and readings have shown promising evidence of new systems to explore. Promising, but also conflicting. The system’s most renowned and respected authorities in cosmology and dark physics believe the anomaly might be opening up to various different regions of space as it cycles through different energy states. What’s more, in recent decades, another more fascinating discovery was made. There seems to be something…constructed about the anomaly.”
The reporter turned to her colleague and they shared the typical banter about what the new discovery implied. Intelligent life. The anomaly was old. Not as old as their system, but far older than life in their system. It was only when the Earthlings invented more sensitive strange matter detectors that they were able to finally perceive what had been there all along. A couple of hundred years later, an Earthling ambassador, along with a number of Martians, Jovians, and Saturnians would actually travel through the anomaly.
All of the crew had undergone genetic modifications and surgical enhancements so they could withstand the trip through space and through the anomaly. Even with such a ship as Harbinger, the odds of the ship and crew making it through the anomaly and safely to the other side were not encouraging. According to the news report, they had a seventy percent chance of surviving the passage.
The Lunar King glanced at Ursa when the statistic was announced. She was the pilot, after all. They would all be putting their lives in her hands. She raised her cup to the king.
There were always ships hovering and flying around the vicinity of the small but breathtaking anomaly. Artificially “lit” by particles that made it visible to ordinary detectors and to the naked eyes of most system natives, the Nye Anomaly appeared to be a pulsing bubble of silver light with a wispy aura of golden radiance.
Ursa sat at the helm. Beside her was Lieutenant Commander Binker, a Iapetan whose actual name was too difficult to pronounce. All their translators were equipped with special filters to “translate” Iapetan names into far simpler monikers.
Behind her were Captain Rosa Cooper and her first mate, Marcus “Mutt” MacDougal. At the Operations and Weapons station sat the many-armed Walker Hati, who hailed from one of the Norse moons. Ursa’s best friend onboard was a fellow Titanican and the other person who was responsible for getting them safely through the anomaly, Navigator Caspar Laika. Their medical officer, Dr. Mallory Kelly, would have been in the medical bay, deeper within the ship and better protected, so she and her staff could be prepared for the inevitable medical emergency that would result from their passage through the anomaly. But she had been ordered by authorities much higher than the captain, to be at the ready on the bridge, in case anything happened to the Lunar King.
Over the last few months, Ursa had felt both excitement and dread about the mission. She wanted to go through the anomaly and see what was on the other side. She wanted to explore, to have adventures, to have stories to bring back to those who were waiting for her back home. She didn’t want to die. But she knew she probably would.
They had left Prima Doma a few days ago, using only their passive burn system, taking a leisurely pace toward the anomaly. Ursa’s dread had only gotten worse. She told no one. The modifications to all their bodies made it harder for Dr. Kelly to tell what was wrong, even with all the baseline readings and tests that she had established on every member of the crew. But the doctor expected the crew to be troubled. It was only natural. An air of sleepless anxiety filled every cabin and deck of the ship. With a crew numbering less than fifty, and a ship able only to fit as many, it began to feel claustrophobic. The journey to the anomaly, a journey that every single crew member had taken more than once in preparation for the mission, took on the feel of a limp towards execution.
Everyone had long since passed the point of no return. Ursa steadied her breathing as she took the ship into the anomaly. She began to feel its pull on the ship, or imagined she did. Its pull and its press. Her chair was wobbling just slightly from side to side. She glanced between the view screen and her read-out screen. She watched calculations and adjustments come through the navigation panel. They were pressed and pulled. She felt a sheen of sweat forming at her temple. She reached up and swiped it with the back of her hand.
A surge of something filled her chest. It wasn’t fear and it wasn’t anxiety. She began to grin. Maybe it was all the cosmic forces pulling and pushing at the ship, overcoming all the protections.
Or maybe it was hope.
We are the frontier, she thought.
“At least one of us is happy to meet death,” she heard Binker say.
“We’re not going to meet death.”
They plunged into the anomaly.
She blinked. She thought she blinked. Or she tried to. But it was dark. It was silent. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t feel if she was still in the chair.
Dead? she thought. Night? She wasn’t sleeping. It didn’t feel like sleeping. She was certain she was conscious. But she couldn’t move.
No body. I have no body.
She tried to speak, but couldn’t. She couldn’t hear or smell. She had no body. That was the only logical—
What was that?
Something had changed. She couldn’t see.
Of course, I have no eyes.
But something had changed.
There! She sensed something.
A blink. Of light. Red.
A tiny circle of red light was blinking, slowly but surely blinking just ahead of her.
Slowly but surely, shapes were forming. Another light was blinking. A purple light, closer to her. Right in front of her. She perceived something else. Something unexpected. Heat. It felt warm.
She took a weak breath. She blinked. Now she could hear sounds, hollow at first, hollow ticking and hollow sound of rushing air.
She tried to move her limbs.
More and more light was filling the bridge. She could make out figures now. The figures of her crew. Some of them were awake and dazedly looking around as she was. Some were slumped in their chairs. They had passed through the darkness, through starless night, just like that line from the poem.
Ursa, she thought. I’m Ursa.
“Captain, permission to print ‘We survived the Nye Anomaly’ shirts.”
The captain smiled as she said, “Permission denied.” She raised a finger toward her first mate. “Temporarily.”
They were all still shaking off vestiges of drowsiness, disorientation, and dizziness. No one on the bridge had been injured, but there were reports that crew in other parts of the ship had faired a bit worse. At least one reported injury was from someone whose restraints came lose during the passage, which would have to be investigated.
Dr. Kelly tended to the Lunar King first, as ordered. He had suffered no ills. And as the bridge crew seemed all right, she left to tend to more serious injuries.
The captain walked over to the navigation station. “Are we where they expected us to be?”
Caspar shook his head. “No.”
“That’s troubling,” the captain said. “We’ll have to refine calculations before we head back in so we’re sure we end up back home.”
Every time something passed through the anomaly, it shifted the anomaly’s energies. So there was no way to send a probe through to confirm a destination. As soon as the probe moved through the anomaly, the anomaly’s energies would change, and it would open to a different system. The predictions about where the Harbinger would end up, and how long they had before the anomaly shifted to their home system, were based on the changing wave and particle emissions from the anomaly, and the comparison of those emissions to the readings from recovered probes. The captain’s declaration, while spoken confidently, was a tall order for the crew, even with the foremost expert on the anomaly onboard. He should have been the first one that Dr. Kelly checked for injuries.
“The first order of business is to make sure that our crew is all right and that our ship is still working,” the captain said. “You know your assignments. Grab your scan-readers and start on your checklists. And if anyone starts feeling ill, or noticing any odd physiological symptoms, report them immediately.”
Ursa pulled out her SR and clicked to her assignment. She started on her checklist.
First they would do a quick preliminary screen of the ship and the crew to assure that everyone has survived and was all right. They would do a quick scan of the anomaly and the surrounding environment to assure it was safe to hang there. Then would come a more comprehensive systems check. Their sensors, food printers, fuel systems, shielding and weapons, and so on. As that was happening, they would scan for evidence of water and other resources in the system they were currently in. They would calibrate their position to assure they could return to the Nye Anomaly. In approximately three Earth years, according to some of the recovered probes they had sent, the anomaly would shift back to their native system. At that time, they would pass through it from their side and should end up back home, three years older. Time appeared to move the same on either side of the anomaly. It was by all appearances a cosmic doorway, after all. So three years would have passed at home as well.
But if they weren’t where they had expected to be, that meant the cycle calculations were off. They would have to determine how long they really had on the other side before they began with the rest of their mission. Surviving the trip through the anomaly wasn’t the only assignment for the crew of the Harbinger.
“What’s the bad news?”
The captain, the Lunar King, the senior officers and main bridge crew were gathered in the conference room to do their post-passage briefing.
“So far, the only bad news is that we don’t know where we are,” Commander MacDougal said. “Initial system and crew checks are positive. Comprehensive analyses are in progress.”
“Now that we made it to the other side of the anomaly,” Ursa said, “does anyone have any secret mission details to reveal?”
All gazes shifted between the captain and the Lunar King. They were the only ones who might be expected to have such information. The rest of the crew had been laying bets on their being some other motive for the Nye Anomaly Mission, especially after the Lunar King joined. The likeliest rumor was that the system authorities had made contact with intelligent life on the other side, the constructors of the anomaly perhaps. Harbinger’s secret mission was to find out if those people were friend or foe.
“No secret mission,” the Lunar King said. “Only a secret piece of information, for which I will earn no further respect or regard from any of you.” He took a deep breath. “The odds of our surviving the anomaly were far less than you were led to believe. It is a wonder we made it through.” He looked at the captain. “I’m sorry, but I was sworn to keep this information from you and your crew.”
“No worries, Ambassador,” Ursa said. “We already knew.”
Dr. Kelly sat back in her chair. “Quite a discrepancy, thirty percent chance of survival, not failure.”
The Lunar King glanced around the table. “You all knew. But…the rest of the crew?”
“That’s why we had some dropouts over the last year,” Commander MacDougal said.
“It’s not possible for almost fifty people to keep a secret of this magnitude.”
“It was never meant to be a secret from those who were participating, Ambassador,” the captain said. “Only to the public. We accepted the risks. But the people of our system would not have. Who told you not to tell us?”
The Lunar King creased his brow and looked distressed, but he didn’t answer. He had nothing further to share and neither did anyone else. Everyone gave their reports on the status of the ship and the crew. Astoundingly, both ship and crew had fared well during the passage. There was a faulty restraint and a few minor repairs due to ship design errors. Those should not have happened. All of the other damage to the ship, none of which resulted in critical failures, were all caused by stresses from the passage. That was expected. All the simulated stresses they could put the ship through couldn’t predict everything that would happen to it during the passage through the anomaly. Repairs to all identified damage were underway.
“The good news is we made it through the anomaly alive and with our ship in one piece,” the captain said. She did nothing to hide her sigh of relief. “We can proceed with the rest of our mission.”
She brushed her fingers on the control panel on her chair arm. The wall behind her blanked and displayed their mission objectives. There were three things the Harbinger was expected to do during their time in what they were temporarily calling Galaxy Omega.
Their primary objective was to look for sources of faciamite, the elusive element that would make the next wave of technological advancements possible. There wasn’t enough of it within reach of the Helios solar system. Almost three quarters of the faciamite in the system was used in the testing and construction of the Harbinger and its two transport vessels. It was a gamble that all system authorities decided was necessary. The promise of new systems on the other side of the anomaly, systems rich in faciamite, enough faciamite to last for centuries or longer, was far too appealing.
The second objective was to gather data on the Nye Anomaly from the other side. This would be their easiest task. They were carrying three satellite probes that they would release and leave at the anomaly while they fulfilled their other objectives.
Their third objective was to explore: to search for evidence of intelligent life, additional resources, and other interesting things in the near vicinity of the anomaly. Theirs would be a preliminary survey, to be followed up on by future missions once they got the hang of using the anomaly. So to complete the third objective, they would need to know how long they had before the anomaly opened up to their home solar system. Until then, they had to stay close. They had the readings from a recovered probe that would guide them to what characteristics the anomaly would display while it faced their home system. Once they knew for certain what the cycle time was, they could travel out for half that time and then take half that time to travel back and return home immediately so they could deliver the faciamite and report on their discoveries.
In the meantime, they would have no communication with home.
The crew of the Harbinger readied and launched the specialized probes. For days they monitored the probes, made adjustments in the satellite movements, and gathered data. They also started to receive data from old probes that had been sent cycles ago. Mission objective one was in progress.
Ursa moved the ship slowly away from the anomaly, but not out of return range. They soon detected a possible deposit of faciamite-rich ore in a planetoid and they set off to further investigate. So it seemed they would be able to fulfill their second mission objective as well, given some time.
A team of three took down one of the transport vessels and began exploring some deposits for traces of faciamite. They measured a small quantity, but significant enough for them to try extracting some. Their anomaly expert did not yet have enough data to determine how far away from the anomaly they could move while still returning in time to get home. Unable to venture farther out, they were stuck mining whatever faciamite was within a few hours range at maximum speed from the anomaly.
The limitation was beginning to make the crew impatient. Ursa for one wanted to turn to the ship’s active burn engines. To try and fly at maximum speed so they could fly out farther than they had. But she knew the captain would never allow that except in emergencies. The ship’s maximum thrust and speed had been tested, of course, but not by Ursa. She had only been privy to simulations.
When the field team returned and the captain assembled the senior crew for the briefing, Ursa had to force herself to concentrate on Commander MacDougal’s updates and the ensuing discussion about faciamite extraction methods.
They had resolved the discussion and were moving on to a review of the ship’s current resources, still maximal this early in the mission, when the captain and senior crew were called to the bridge.
When they returned to the bridge, Ursa took the helm and saw why.
Their sensors had detected an approaching vessel.
“Looks like we’re about to initiate our third mission objective, Captain,” Ursa said.
“Ship-wide alert. Level yellow,” the captain ordered. The ship went dark, only the control panels and yellow warning lights flashing. The rest of the crew would be scrambling to their stations.
Commander MacDougal stepped beside Ursa’s chair, as if that would give him a closer look. “Crap. These guys probably own the planetoid.”
“Maybe we should back off and show them we recognize their primacy in the matter,” the Lunar King said.
Captain Cooper nodded. “You read my mind. Pilot, back us out, slowly.”
Ursa nodded. The Harbinger was sitting low on the planetoid. Almost low enough that the field team could have jumped out and landed on it if they didn’t want to use the transport vessels. Ursa eased the ship up and slowly back at the same time. If she only moved the ship up, it might have been perceived as a move of aggression. Then again, they weren’t in their home system anymore. There was no telling what might be considered aggressive on that side of the anomaly.
The captain called to the Ops station. “Walker Hati, raise our forward shields and prep missiles.”
“Should I charge the rail guns?”
The captain nodded. “Slow charge. Lieutenant Binker, can you tell what they’re doing? Are they scanning us? Charging or preparing their own weapons?”
“I can’t detect anything, Captain, other than the fact that they are moving toward us. Whatever their hull is made of, out detectors can’t penetrate it.”
“Then I wonder if our weapons can penetrate it,” the Lunar King said.
“If our communications are getting through, I can’t tell,” Binker said. “I’m getting no response.”
Ursa saw the navigation data a split second before Caspar spoke.
“Captain, the ship is accelerating.”
“Back away faster, pilot. Get us out of here.”
Ursa raised the ship faster and higher than she needed to so she would have room for some sloppy maneuvering without hitting any hills or protrusions on the planetoid. She hoped everyone was secured. But she couldn’t worry about broken bones if they were about to be rammed by a ship that was three times as big as theirs. She turned Harbinger. The turn felt so slow. Even though she was ignoring the data from the oncoming ship, it seemed as if she could feel it coming closer and closer. When they were turned all the way around, she shifted all power to the rear thrusters. The ship fell slightly down toward the planetoid, but the thrusters moved it forward.
“Faster, Sparky,” Caspar said. “It’s gaining on us.”
Ursa engaged the active burn engines. They were lined with faciamite. They would contain and direct the nuclear explosion that she had just triggered.
The Harbinger leapt forward. The ship was constructed to absorb the shocks and stresses of nuclear thrust. But Ursa felt herself being pressed into the back of her chair.
Harbinger couldn’t go any faster. Ursa glanced at the rear read-out and saw where the other ship was. She shifted Harbinger just slightly to port. The other ship followed. It was still gaining. It was right on top of Harbinger. If she moved the ship too quickly, it might start spinning and slowing down. The other ship would catch them. It would destroy them. She shifted slightly and kept shifting. The imminent collision alert sounded.
The other ship hit them.
The impact must have damaged the starboard side thruster. The ship began to turn. Ursa cut the rear thrusters. She activated the forward thrusters alternately to stabilize the ship. They stopped turning before the turning could become spinning. Now they were drifting. Other than their rear starboard thruster, the rest of the ship and its systems were operational. The other ship had stopped after ramming them. It seemed to be waiting to see what Harbinger would do. Ursa used the remaining thrusters to maneuver the ship behind a barren meteoroid. The other ship did not follow. But it also did not retreat.
The crew of the Harbinger watched. Ursa knew they hadn’t gone far before the other ship caught up with them, but she was stunned at how close to the faciamite planetoid they still were. They could still see it in their view screens.
The other ship stayed where it was for a few hours, while Dr. Kelly tended to the injured, Walker Hati kept all her many fingers on the triggers of every weapon they had aboard, and the rest of the crew waited at the ready. Seemingly satisfied that it had chased Harbinger away, the other ship finally moved off and returned to the planetoid. It landed there. It looked as if it was there to stay.
The Lunar King watched the screen displaying the replay of the incident with fascination. “This reminds me of those wild animal movies, where a dominant animal chases a weaker, scrawnier animal away from a choice kill.”
“I wonder,” the captain said. “What if that is what’s happening here? What if we just got chased away by some asteroid-sized scavenger?”
“Don’t scare me, Cap,” Ursa said. “It’s frightening enough if we have already confirmed that we are outmatched by an advanced civilization. But if that thing is just a cosmic stingray…”
They were gathered in the conference room once more, having felt secure enough to begin repairs and get some rest before deciding on the next course of action.
“We’re not in our home system anymore,” the captain said. “We need to think outside the box.”
“Then I hope it’s just a scavenger and not a predator,” Caspar said.
Commander MacDougal stared at the screen. “Yeah, Harbinger is pretty tasty-looking.”
The Lunar King frowned. “A creature that big? Surviving in the vacuum of space?”
“Why not?” the captain said. “Once upon a time, your people couldn’t fathom that any creature could exist beyond the atmosphere of their planet. Not in our solar system anyway.”
“If it’s a creature, maybe it will digest all that ore, and if we’re lucky, it’ll poop out some refined faciamite for us,” Ursa said.
“But if it’s a ship after all,” the captain said, “and they only meant to chase us off from their quarry, we might still be able to make contact, communicate, and reason with them.”
Caspar rubbed his chin. “None of the probes ever detected any signs of intelligent life.”
The captain took a breath. “Maybe they did, but they were too far off to send the message back to us in time.”
“Have we started gathering data from those old probes?” Commander MacDougal asked.
“We have,” Binker said. “It’s a lot of data. We’re still downloading. We haven’t started processing yet. And some of the probes are unaccounted for. They’re probably out of range.”
“Launch a few of the ship’s mini-probes and try to maneuver them close to our first contact over there,” the captain said. “Maybe the creature or the ship or whatever it is will swallow one of them, and if the signal can get through, we’ll get some more information.”
“We have a lot of ‘maybe’s’ in play, Captain.”
“That we do. But this is what we all signed up for, crew. Unanswered questions. Unknowns. Don’t just remember our mission objectives. Remember our mission motto. Remember why our shipped is called Harbinger.”
“’To come before what is feared,’” Ursa said. “’To warn. So that you may prepare. We go there first. We find out first. We are the frontier.’”
Captain Cooper nodded. “Let’s do what we came here to do.”
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.