“Maximum deceleration. Prepare to come about.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
The crew hung in their straps, eyes bulging and lips distended as the forward screens cleared and a picture of adjacent space appeared.
Captain Boyd Dunlop waited a second more.
“Now, Mister Sung.”
The helmsman began to pull, and their heads, heavy already, began to lower and then to twist to the left as the ship went through the right-hand corkscrew maneuver preparatory to the course-reversal.
“Argh.” A collective sentiment…
It was a good idea to keep things unpredictable on coming about. This was a war zone and everyone was a target.
They all agreed with that.
Fletcher was a third-generation destroyer-class vessel, commissioned only recently. Captain and crew had shaken down pretty well, getting to know each other and the ship. This was their second combat patrol, and the first time they’d gotten any kind of action…not so far, anyways.
They’d been blasting along at Prime-plus-one, just returning to base from their assigned patrol area when the electromagnetic anomalies suddenly went all over the place and it was clear that something was out there—something big.
It also appeared to be invisible, a contradiction in terms that was getting a lot more common these days.
“So you detected something unusual. You turned around and tried to pin it down.”
“Yes, sir. At that point, it accelerated away from us at a speed and acceleration that we couldn’t match.” Whatever it was, it had kept to its original course as far as they could determine.
They had the initial detection point, their secondary detection point, and then the arc of acceleration, gentle at first but building rapidly.
And yet Fletcher was one of the speedier vessels in the Fleet. For her size and displacement, with her five triple-mounts, she was a match for some of the enemy’s older light cruisers and perfectly capable on her own for long patrols. Often enough, it wasn’t expedient to risk a larger ship and crew.
Fletcher was armed with a potent combination of mines, torpedoes, recoilless weapons, rockets and drones. She had the usual countermeasures plus a couple of new jamming systems on a tryout basis. She was very stealthy.
The question was, what in the hell was that thing?
“Relax, Captain. I thought we’d talk informally about this report.”
“Okay, Boyd. Impressions.” This would include anything that wasn’t an established fact, the sort of gut feelings that professional military people were often reluctant to put into words.
“How did you feel when you saw that thing?”
Dunlop exhaled, thinking about the question.
“Very curious, sir. It’s quite unsettling,” The enemy had stealth techniques, and a big ship like Fletcher was a juicy target.
And yet nothing had happened.
Boyd sank a little further into the seat.
“Were you scared?”
“Seriously. Were you frightened? Did you feel threatened, or get any sort of unusual emotional response, either from yourself or any member of your crew.”
The Admiral appeared to be reading off of a small handheld screen.
“It’s okay. And it’s better if you forget all about this as quickly as possible. Go on, Captain. No matter how extraneous your thoughts, all of this may be very valuable.”
“When I was a very small boy…actually about seventeen.”
“A friend and I went paddling in Bar Creek—that’s actually Bear Creek, but that’s the way they still talk down there.”
The admiral grinned faintly.
Yes, it really was like that—down there, still.
It was a thirteen-foot wood and canvas kayak, built by his old man for about seventy-five bucks when they really were kids.
The creek was a series of long, skinny lakes, as Boyd put it, connected by short, narrow little sets of rapids or even just areas of a swifter current. The creek might drop a foot and a half in a hundred feet or so, and then it would level out again. Going upstream, they had to paddle like crazy to make any headway when they came to a set of rapids.
“We were at the base of such a stretch when we hit something in the water. I suppose it was loud enough. A bit of a thunk, actually. It was probably a big snapping turtle. The historical record for snappers is something like three feet across. This one might have been fourteen inches, something like that. I mean, the water was only six or eight inches deep. That was way back in pioneer times. But we watched this dome-shaped hummock of water, essentially, go zooming up the rapids away from us. When it got to the top, the water was flatter and a lot deeper. It disappeared after leaving a few V-shaped ripples. The rapids don’t have a lot of boulders and stuff, but there is a gravel bottom. The current washes the silt away, and it settles in the quieter stretches. The deeper sections are all muck on the bottom…”
“And so, Captain. What’s your point?”
“Whatever it was, whatever we saw, it was sentient. They are aware of our existence, perhaps not much more than that. That’s my impression, sir. But that’s not to say that it was an enemy contact. We simply don’t have enough information to draw that conclusion.” He cleared his throat. “Here’s another thing. It’s all speculation…I’m referring to our little paddling expedition, because we never did see anything other than its effects—the bump in the water going upstream at high speed—and yet it was faster than we could ever go ourselves. It really makes you think.” It didn’t necessarily have to be a turtle.
It might have been a fish, it might have been something completely unknown. However unlikely that might appear. That part of the world held few surprises in terms of wildlife, and yet, new species were still being discovered. There was always some kind of a chance.
It was a universe in which anything could happen.
“We had no real reason to fire on it.”
“I see. And why do you say that?”
Boyd paused, taking his time.
“Because, if the enemy had the ability to create that sort of technology, why not use it to destroy Fletcher? It seems to me that to keep that kind of a secret, taking us out would have been a pretty logical thing to do—” The whole engagement, if it could be called that, had lasted less than five statute minutes.
“I tend to agree.”
So why not shoot?
Therein lay the real question.
It was just that Fletcher, with the most up-to-date detection and analysis systems that money could buy, wasn’t getting much data at all. Just the fact that there was something very small, possibly ship-sized, and very dense, and consequently having an estimated x mass, plus the fact that it was moving to begin with. There was more, of course.
“It seems, and this is just a guess. But the object was, possibly, somehow displaced in time. It’s possible they couldn’t have fired upon us if they wanted to—the price of invulnerability, perhaps.” His impression was that it would have to have been forward in time, rather than behind.
This was just instinct—it made a weird kind of sense. It was pretty esoteric. An event’s effects could precede the actual event by more than one established theory.
Any idiot could have effects after an event, as Dunlop put it.
It was difficult to put into words.
“Think about it, sir. It’s better not to arrive at an event shortly after it happened. You would run into the debris field, for our purposes. Assuming any sort of attack or engagement. So much better to be leaving an event before it actually happens. How in the hell one would shoot from there is anyone’s guess. You’d have to predict the event very accurately. I’d say that’s a bit beyond our own present capabilities. Also. There is no guarantee Fletcher would have survived such an engagement. But, essentially, you’re accelerating outbound when shit hits the fan. Assuming that it actually does hit the fan…at any point in time. Sir.”
“An interesting theory.”
“Yes, sir. Look. There’s much we don’t know about the universe. The more we dig, the more we find out, and the more we find out what we don’t know, and the more complex it all becomes, on even the most superficial examination.” Once they had glimpsed below the surface.
“So you never attempted to fire on it.” Fletcher had pursued it, gathering what intelligence that they could—which wasn’t much.
Only the fact that it existed and that it was substantially faster than anything they had…
“There are considerations. One is identification. Sure, there’s something out there, but as of now, we have no way of linking it to the Coalition…sir. All of their ships, their tactics, have seemed rather crude and unprofessional up until now. Ah. We were wondering, if anyone else has reported such an anomaly?”
“Not that I am aware of.”
“Ah, okay, sir.” Dunlop obviously had his doubts, but that was all the Admiral could tell him.
There were reasons.
“So, if there were such a thing as an unknown entity, not firing upon it was probably the best course of action. You made the right decision, Captain. That being said, if—and when you do find the enemy, we must not hesitate.” The fact that it had been quiet, deathly quiet on that sector meant nothing. “If we get any sort of aggressive action from…ah, an unknown entity, then act accordingly and defend yourselves.”
“Ah. Yes, sir—”
They exchanged a long look.
Yes, the captain wouldn’t hesitate.
That was the thing with ships, men ended up loving them—
As for the enemy, they might be consolidating, they might simply be waiting to see what the Confederation did, or they might be planning an attack. Vigilance was key. The fact that there were no recent contacts was highly suspicious. He said as much to the captain.
Hence the need for their deep, sweep-and-destroy patrols—no matter how uneventful, or boring, or seemingly pointless in some quarters.
Even when nothing really happened for long months at a time.
“All right. I will attach my own remarks to your formal report. In future, if you see anything like this again, please report it promptly. Good work, by the way. How is the ship?”
“Some minor issues, sir. We’ll be ready to go, on time and on schedule.”
“And the crew?”
“They’re doing very well, sir. I couldn’t be happier with their progress.”
“And what about you? What are your impressions there?” The admiral’s eyes twinkled, but then the answer was an easy one.
“I’m doing all right, sir.” That chin came forward, just a bit, but it was enough.
They chuckled together for a moment.
“Excellent. Very well. You’re dismissed, Captain Dunlop. And thank you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
There was only one thing to do, and that was to pass it along.
The Admiral kept it short and to the point, the signal prefix indicating that only staff with the highest clearance should read it or have access.
“There has been another sighting of an Unknown Entity. Complete logs and data of the incident are attached for your consideration.” There were several attachments, including Captain Dunlop’s report, certain technical reports, and his own observations.
That, for the time being, would have to do.
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