Darquin led Morgan and Kordieh into a small lab on Deck 9. A honeycomb-like hologram display dominated one wall. Kordieh looked around slowly, doing almost a full turn before visibly shaking his head, and sought out a place to sit.
Darquin slipped an earpiece comm on. “Kim gave this room a thumbs-up, so this is it,” Darquin said. “We’re coding nav data into the probe now. The probe data will get piped in directly.”
“Ie, thank you,” Morgan told him.
“I suppose we shall see how well that hacked Blacklight kit is working,” Kordieh said. “It was a trickier bit of work than I thought.”
“Yeah, there’s a whole mess of ‘if’s’ on this operation,” Darquin muttered. “Signal from docking bay. The probe is good to go.”
“Good,” said Morgan. Taking a seat at the console beside Kordieh, she settled in to wait.
Darquin signalled back on his link. “Probe away. Online…and on course for the infrared mass.”
A few moments passed in silence. “Boss…” Darquin raised a hand to his earpiece. “Storm Squadron is returning. And they have recon data…on the Dyson sphere!”
Morgan was startled. “Get it down here – we’ll look at it now.”
“Mon Dieu — it really is one?” Kordieh cried.
“I’ll pull it up on the screen,” Darquin said. “From what the pilots are saying, it sounds like the sphere is still getting built. On screen now.”
The honeycomb display rippled, unveiling visual footage and tactical data, numbers and Minbari symbols flickering around the frames of each window. Darquin pointed to the massive image at the center. “It looks more like a dust cloud, a bunch of separate platforms orbiting one sun.”
“That might be the easiest way to build one, then connect those,” Morgan said.
Kordieh’s gaze was locked on the display. “That’s the work of a lifetime — of hundreds of lifetimes … ”
“Like the pyramids were, on Earth,” Morgan said.
“Will the probe be able to get a closer look, do you think?” Kordieh asked.
“We might have a shot,” Darquin said. “Looks like the Blacklights gave Storm Squadron the time they needed to get in close.”
Morgan glanced at Kordieh, smiling faintly.
“Recon data has the alien system here,” Darquin pointed. “It marks a termination shock here, so that helps us plot out the gravitational incline for jumps in and out of the system. The probe should pick it up soon.”
“Hopefully not enough to disrupt the transmissions we get back,” Kordieh said.
“It’ll be slow enough to avoid blowback,” Darquin said. “It’ll start de-cel any minute now.”
Kordieh nodded, continuing to look at the data as it came in. His left hand reached across the console, seeking out Morgan’s almost as if of its own volition. She looked at it, startled, then at him, but didn’t break it.
The holoscreen shifted to a tactical view of the probe’s course. The star system was kept in grey shadow, waiting on one side of the image for the probe to reach it. Darquin muttered something under his breath when the probe icon crossed the first orbit.
“Crossing termination shock…and we still have the signal.”
Morgan let out a breath. “Da.”
“We’re getting scanner data,” Darquin said. “Kordieh, I’m sending it to your console.”
He nodded. “Receiving now … the probe has already gone as far as the fighters had gotten. And it’s still inbound …”
“Confirmed,” Darquin called out, “the probe is still on course. A few more AU’s, then it’ll follow the gravitational pull of the system.”
Kordieh’s monitor was filled with regular shapes rendered sharp and dark against the yellow sun’s glare. Morgan leaned a little closer, to see better. “They’re plates,” Kordieh said. “Thousands of them. Each one dozens of kilometers across… or more… set in orbit, to be assembled–”
“Probe is detecting a hostile,” Darquin said quickly.
While they watched, a familiar silhouette rolled into the view of Kordieh’s monitor. Its barb-like extensions nearly disappeared in the sun’s glare.
“Oh no …” Kordieh let go of Morgan’s hand. “The same that attacked us at Rolui?”
Darquin muttered a query into his earpiece comm. The wallscreen zoomed in on the probe’s location and the alien ship’s track. “Tac says the configuration’s the same.”
Morgan had stiffened anyway. “The same fleet, at least.”
The position of the alien craft shifted. The tactical image redrew the ship’s course. Darquin swore. “Hostile is accelerating, moving to intercept the damn probe!”
At this, Kordieh swore as well. “The Blacklight is still operating — they must be able to see past it, or are picking up on something else, giving it away.”
“Same difference, either way,” Darquin said. “It’s closing in. We’re getting an energy spike.”
Morgan got up, stalked away from the screens so she didn’t have to see it.
The images on Kordieh’s screen were crackling, breaking up into blurs of static. He slapped his open hand across the console in frustration. “No, no, no ….”
“What the…” Darquin cupped a hand over his earpiece. “The signal is getting choppy…but we still have it. And the probe’s course is changing.”
“Changing?” Morgan turned back sharply, interrupting a curse.
“Confirmed, it’s off-course. I think the hostiles are trying to capture it!”
“Should we let them?” Kordieh asked. “Does that probe even have a self-destruct?”
“It can,” Darquin said, “but we have to get the command through.”
“Do it,” Morgan told him. “They don’t need any more about us than they already have.”
Darquin didn’t hesitate, calling into his link, “Probe destruct, probe destruct.”
On Kordieh’s screen, between bursts of static, the barbed maw of the alien ship grew larger.
“No response yet,” Darquin reported. “The probe is getting some interference.”
A shimmer, then a shadow, fell over the probe’s view. “Come on,” murmured Kordieh, “come on …”
“We’re losing it,” Darquin said.
Morgan finished her curse this time, then added to it. Kordieh’s screen went dark, alive with only the crackle and hiss from the probe’s electronics.
“They’re going to reach the probe before we do…damn it!” Darquin covered the mike on his earpiece. “Request permission to plot emergency jump. They might triangulate our position from the probe’s transmitters.”
“Ie, ie. Destination your choice – nothing obvious.”
“I’m on it.”
Kordieh’s screen came a bright glare…then a peal of chattering. “What on earth …” Kordieh blinked hard, then double checked the console settings to make sure it was recording the incoming sound.
“What’s that?” Morgan asked.
“It’s from the probe,” Kordieh said. “Je n’y crois pas…the aliens are trying to communicate! To make first contact!”
“Hold the jump a moment,” Morgan said.
An electronic chirp and squeal came from the screen, quickly replaced by a steady radio pattern.
“Is it anything we can understand?” Morgan said.
“Analysis in work,” Darquin said. “Mathematical codes. Equations. Basic number systems.”
Kordieh burst out laughing. “We sent into space signals like this two hundred years ago! They are attempting first contact!”
“Now they’re saying hi?” Darquin said. “They tried to frag us a few days ago!”
“It doesn’t make much sense, does it?” Kordieh said.
“We’re still tracking that hostile,” Darquin said, “no matter what they’re saying.”
“Ie.” She hesitated, trying to figure out how to continue. “Keep that jump in the computer.”
“We have part of it translated,” Darquin said. “It’ll take a few more minutes to finish the whole thing.”
“Is it anything beyond basic math?” Kordieh asked.
“So far, two things. ‘Do not approach.’ And…’identify.'”
“I was not planning on getting closer,” Morgan said dryly.
“‘We walk in the dark places no others will enter …’ I wonder what they will make of that,” Kordieh said.
“Boss, I say we hold tight till we’re ready to respond,” Darquin said. “This is getting weirder by the moment.”
“Ie. An appropriate reply will take time.” She glanced at Kordieh, who flushed and said nothing.