Hraden had always been one for adventure. When he was ten, he'd earned his spending money exploring the wreckage of old, discarded ships and selling scavenged scrap, all the while imagining he might someday build a ship of his own. The prospect of spaceflight – the prospect of going new places and of finding something new – had always fascinated him, and his choice of hobbies had focused around that fact. Even as a young boy, he'd been excited to find new parts and learn their inner secrets – how they worked, how they fit together, and how they moved. Much of that eager inquisitiveness had stayed with him through the years, and while he didn't intend to take anything home from Farpoint, he still hoped to leave with a better working knowledge of Sofie's technology. In the darkest recesses of his mind, however, he dreamed of being able to make a living from selling replicas of the Ctaelan tech. He knew he and Taiya would never want for anything again, but he feared what kind of political situations might ensue – and the danger that might follow.
All around them, the dead hulks of monstrous ships lay in suspended animation; the scraps and broken fragments that floated between their carcasses glittered unnaturally before Verana's floodlights. Farpoint was a literal graveyard, and it certainly lived up to the connotations of the word. Dusty, dead, and dark, the countless wrecks lay in the full shadow of the ominously looming structure he had previously christened "Farpoint Station". Although in a post-apocalyptic state, the technology was far beyond anything Hraden had ever dreamed possible. The ships and station had a strange architectural style in common: instead of Brelyme's sleek silver, their forms held a haunting, curvaceous sort of beauty. Almost all of them had sustained a fair amount of damage – some bore gaping holes, others found themselves bent out of shape, and still others were shattered into pieces. Many of them displayed the eerie blue glow of leaking radiation in their depths, leading Hraden to feel that it might be safest to take no chances in the thicker portions of the field. Instead, he stayed close to a clear, narrow path he'd discovered, which trailed its way outwards in a gentle curve between what appeared to be the broken, dented spheres of ruined warp nodes. It seemed to support the theory that the Ctaelans were responsible for the warp rails' creation. While this particular rail seemed destroyed beyond any hope of repair, Hraden was nevertheless thankful for the tunnel it had cleared from the debris in ages past.
"Look at how advanced this stuff looks,
" Verana said almost breathlessly, her image portraying a mixture of awe and excitement. "Those black panels on the ships must be some sort of advanced armor, and the turret tech looks so alien... their weapon systems must be seriously powerful.
" Pausing, she added in a deflated tone, "Odgen would cause trouble if they got their hands on it, wouldn't they...
Feeling puzzled at her words, Hraden raised an eyebrow and asked, "What makes you think they would cause trouble? You know how poor Odgen is... we don't have the materials or manufacturing plants we'd need. Or
the scientists... I can't imagine they'd initially do anything beyond selling it."
She leveled a chiding glare at him through her onboard camera. "You're a little naïve sometimes, Hraden. Sarlan is the trading type; Odgen is the militaristic one. Now that I've had some time to think about it, I can't see the Odgen government doing anything besides using this tech to conquer their neighbors, probably wiping out anyone who tried to put up any resistance. They might sell a few useless scraps to get the funds they need, but that would be it.
"You really don't have a very good opinion of our government," Hraden noted quietly. "I don't think they'd be that bad."
"Well, you were the one that suggested we keep it a secret.
He managed a sheepish chuckle. "Right... I guess so. Keeping it a secret is
better than having someone monopolize it or start a second Genesis War, anyway."
"And when someone does find it, it needs to be a faction with minimal military interest.
"Probably, yeah," he agreed lightly, and the comm channels chirped off.
Sofie spoke up. "I think she's right, too," she said with a slight hint of amusement.
That surprised him. "You agree with her? I thought you hated her."
"I don't hate
her," Sofie explained calmly. "I mistrust her
. I don't buy her story of why she seemed so eager to be out here... and with a military police fighter. Nevertheless..." She paused, seeming to consider her words. "Odgen, from what I've seen of them... I think the only thing keeping them from waging a 'holy war' against 'nonbelievers' is how impoverished your government is."
"You hardly know anything about Odgen," he countered stolidly. "You're making assumptions."
"I'm filling gaps in my knowledge base with ideas that have a high probability of factuality based on what I know," she corrected him with a hint of disdain, which quickly faded. "But, yes... I'm... making assumptions..."
Hraden nodded slowly to signal that he'd heard, and the pair fell silent.
The more he talked to his companions, the more Hraden felt that something seemed off about them. He speculated that it might be because they were unknown factors: One was an artificial intelligence supposedly designed by an entirely different civilization, and the other was a military policewoman who seemed far more unprofessional than her job required. However, if he was being honest with himself, he was far less concerned about Verana than he was Sofie: the fact that she kept behaving so much unlike an AI had a significant impact on how much he felt he could trust her. An idea was gnawing at his mind that Sofie wasn't an AI at all, but in fact another human relaying her voice over the comms. Unfortunately, with no way to test it, it amounted to little more than an unfounded hunch. With a sigh, he put his thoughts aside, setting his sights on the far-off Ctaelan station as his hauler sped alongside the decayed warp rail.
After a time, the travelling duo finally emerged from the field of debris, staring out across an expanse of empty space towards Farpoint Station. While its glory was but a shadow of what it might once have been, it was still magnificent all the same, and many times more massive than Hraden had ever anticipated: the station was almost twenty-five kilometers in diameter, and nearly twice that in height – a curved-diamond spoke thrust through a multitude of metallic rings. While their size tapered off near either vertical end, even the smallest among them appeared to be well over a kilometer across, and the width of the largest ones was more than sufficient to encapsulate the whole of Odgen Station. The scale was staggering.
Gazing thoughtfully into the distance, he directed a question at his ship's artificial intelligence. "So, Sofie... what do you make of it?"
"We would have to be closer if you want me to run a scan," she said slowly. From her voice, Hraden could almost imagine her as a person on board beside him, gazing off towards the ancient construct. "I don't yet have enough data to be sure, and there's nothing about it on my databases, but it looks like it might once have been a wormhole hub."
The phrase was new to him. "A 'wormhole hub'? What does that even mean?" he asked, raising a brow in curiosity. Then, slowly, his eyes widened as realization overtook him. "Wait, do you mean..."
"I mean a facility that acts as a nexus between numerous wormhole endpoints," she explained. "It shouldn't be too difficult for you to imagine; I know that it's something common to Brelyme's science fiction."
He swallowed. "Yeah... yeah, it is. I have a science fiction audiobook that mentions that concept, actually."
"'The Waters of Thalassia'." It was more a statement than a guess.
"That's right," he said absently, suddenly seeing the distant station in a new light. "So you're telling me that this was once... a trading hub, or something?"
She paused. "I'm uncertain as to its true nature," she carefully intoned. "I'm only making a guess, after all. I'd need to do a deep scan to be sure."
"Right. We'll do that then," he said, with a short, decided nod. "All right, Verana, follow me in," he radioed over the comm, his fingers tapping buttons on the console as he set course for the nearest of the rings, feeling a tinge of excitement in his chest.
They continued steadily onwards, and it wasn't long before the station filled the entirety of his hauler's primary window. From this distance, he could make out towers, landing pads and docking bays smattered across the rings in a way that suggested that it had indeed once been abuzz with activity, so very different from what he saw today. The lights were dark, the station's gleaming surface marred, dented and cratered, and the windows cracked and shattered; the station was but a hollow shell of what it once had been, and a tomb for uncounted millions.
As time wore on, and they grew ever nearer to the station's surface, Hraden found he was still having difficulty comprehending its enormity. After a minute, he sighed, muttering in puzzlement, "I don't understand why they'd just abandon a facility of this size... Sofie, how close do we need to be for you to take a scan?"
Her voice echoed back in her usual soft, pleasant tone. "The radiation is still interfering with the scans at this distance, but when we reach the nearest ring, I should be able to collect some more detailed information."
"Right, got it..." he responded quietly, craning his neck to try look upwards along the station's axis, though there was just as much of the station below him. Then, he paused curiously. "Verana... You're strangely quiet. Something up?"
There was a soft, quick chime as Sofie opened the comms, and Verana's face appeared moments later on his viewscreen semicircle. "Yeah, I'm fine...
" she replied back. "I'm just... blown away, I guess, by the size of this thing.
"You and me both..." he grunted.
"What about you, everything okay?
An odd smile twitched across his lips. "Yeah, I'm fine. I just don't like the comms staying quiet for too long... makes me feel jittery. Anyway, thoughts? Comments? Helpful advice?" he prodded, intentionally changing the subject.
There was a pause before Verana responded, and Sofie took advantage of it. "You don't ever talk on the comms unless you have to," the AI pointed out doubtfully. "And you usually prefer
things to be quiet."
Hraden cocked his head upwards towards the speakers in mild irritation. "It's better than letting her know I feel a little suspicious of her. That's your
fault, by the way."
"My pleasure," Sofie responded in amusement, and they both quieted as Verana's voice came through again.
"I don't know what to think,
" the woman admitted finally, shaking her head. "There's no sign of life anywhere – not even dried corpses. If it wasn't for the severe structural damage and signs of aging, it'd feel like they'd all vanished overnight.
Hraden nodded, drawing his eyes off her image for a moment as he slowed his craft's approach, tilting it sideways in accordance with his intent to follow one of the rings. "We're here now, though. If there's anything to learn, we'll know it soon."
"Yeah, my ship's computer is trying to classify it. Not having much luck, but I guess we're close enough to be able to scan it.
"Got it. Tell me if you find anything," he ordered. After the comms had chirped off, he said as an aside to Sofie, "We should get started on our own scan. See what you can find out about the station, and then give me a detailed report."
"I began our scan three and a half minutes ago," she replied smoothly. "It will be a while thanks to the gamma interference, but I'll let you know when it's done."
Several minutes later, they finally reached the surface of the structure. The nearest ring stretched out before them, so large that the curve of the metal over which they skimmed wasn't even noticeable. Only by looking into the distance, their eyes following the ring's sweeping curve, could they tell that it wasn't actually flat. As they began to glide over its surface, Hraden wasn't even slightly surprised to find rows upon rows of rows and rows of small glass windows – evidence that it had once been home to a sizable civilian population. He kept an eye out for any corpses – or any sign of the life that once had been – but he saw nothing but dust and debris, as if all its inhabitants had simply vanished. He wasn't so superstitious as to believe in the paranormal, but even for someone as firmly grounded in reality as he, it set his nerves on edge.
Suddenly, the ship's AI spoke up. "Hraden... message incoming."
"What does she want?" the miner asked in mild irritation.
Sofie seemed somewhat perturbed. "No, you don't understand. Signal triangulation confirms it's not from Verana. It's coming from the station."
At those words, Hraden bolted upright in a mixture of fear and astonishment, saying quickly, "Let me hear it."
Sofie was right – the message sounded garbled, heavily laden with static, and almost incomprehensible through a thick, unfamiliar accent... but it was very clearly human. "Unidentified vessel, you do not exist within any of our databases and are unauthorized to traverse this area. Please identify yourself.
At that moment, another message came in from Verana. "Hraden? Are you getting this? I'm getting a comm message from the station itself – how old did you say this thing was again?
"Close to two thousand years..." he replied in bewilderment, busily flicking through arrays of menus and camera hardpoints as he checked the scanners. "Sofie, is that scan ready yet?"
"Not yet, but almost," she responded. "I'm trying to do a very thorough scan and
adjust for the gamma interference, so it's taking longer than usual."
"Right. Okay, patch me through." Taking a deep breath, he began speaking in as casual a tone as he could muster. "Ctaelan station, this is Hraden Larus of Mining Hauler LB82, Brelyme origin. I didn't realize I was in restricted space – where would you like me to move? Please advise." And Hraden waited nervously as the seconds stretched onwards into minutes... but there was no response from the station.
Sofie spoke up. "Hraden, the scans are in." At once, a three-dimensional scale model of the station projected itself vividly from the holoscreen emitters, slowly rotating above the center of the console. While sparsely detailed, it quite effectively displayed how the sun-side portion was twisted and damaged from an apparent multitude of impacts. Hraden stared at it in awestruck fascination as Sofie continued, "While it seems to have survived the majority of the ejecta, the structure is scarred from the supernova's gamma rays, and the far side was severely damaged by debris from the local planet's destruction. More importantly, while my sensors are picking up sporadic energy fluctuations, the core reactors are offline, and there aren't any heat emissions from the station at all. I'm not finding anything suggest that the message is anything but an automated recording."
He felt surprised. "Really... So the station itself
is telling me I'm in restricted space?? Like an AI or something? How does it even have power? It's been around for at least two millennia." Moving a hand towards the holoscreen, he expanded a new cam window and zoomed in on the station to his right, studying it closely. "I haven't heard of any batteries that could last over even a decade, and there's no way
Ctaelan technology is that
"I agree," Sofie said thoughtfully. When Hraden didn't reply, she went on, "It's likely that the station was designed to take advantage of the local star. My auxiliary data modules suggest the use of energy beamed directly to the station via positron collectors like these." The projected image of the station disappeared as she used the holoscreen to highlight a grid of blackened panels on the ring ahead of them. "It's a complicated process, but as the local star was likely O-class before the supernova event, it would have produced an incredible amount of energy on a daily basis. They could have gathered it with special orbital satellites and beamed it to the station via concentrated positron rays."
"Okay, got it..." Hraden grunted. "So the station still has some operational satellites, then?"
"No, no – it's possible the solar panels are picking up radiation directly from the neutron star. I can't imagine that any satellites could have survived without being behind the planet."
No sooner had she spoken than the comms crackled to life a second time, seeming a little more forceful than before. "Unidentified vessel, please respond with valid legal identification or evacuate the vicinity immediately. You will be fired upon if you do not comply.
Verana's voice soon followed it. "'Fired upon??' Hraden, are these people still alive? Is there something you're not telling me?
"No!" Hraden responded shortly. "There's nobody there, it's just a recording. I'm still trying to work out the details."
"Better work them out fast,
" she warned. "It's ignoring everything I've sent to it. But firing?? Can it even do that?
"I have no idea... And it's not responding to my transmissions either. Sofie –"
"I don't know," the AI broke in nervously, answering his unasked question. "I don't know if they have operational turrets and there's no way to be sure, but I wouldn't want to risk it. This doesn't feel safe to me."
Hraden gave an uncomfortable laugh, feeling irritated and confused by her words. "It 'doesn't feel safe'? What, it's giving you a 'bad feeling' or something?"
it's giving me a bad feeling," Sofie shot back in annoyance, "We need
to get out of here. Now!
The intensity of her voice stunned him for a moment – she almost felt like a real person. Exactly
like a real person, if he thought about it honestly. Putting it aside for the moment, he gave a curt nod. " Okay, yeah... Let's get out of here." He reached forwards and fired his port thrusters to turn away from the station. "Verana, pull off! We're bugging out. Regardless of whether it does
have operational turrets, I don't want to risk it."
"Agreed. Roger that, I'm pulling off,
" Verana said, following him away from the station.
With full power on the aft shields, Hraden set course to leave the system the way they'd come, sliding his fingers along the integrated HUD as he siphoned energy for Sofie's cruise engines. Before much longer, they started with a rapid burst, thrusting his ship forwards with a jolt of acceleration. For a few tense minutes, Hraden and Verana's ships cruised side by side as they traveled back towards the wormhole. The station shrunk behind them as they drew away until it only filled half the aft camera window.
Suddenly, the comm systems crackled with the now-familiar sound of Farpoint Station's automated systems. "Unidentified vessel, you are under arrest for your failure to comply. Disable your offensive systems and prepare to be escorted to the Z-4 darkside security silo for criminal processing. Failure to comply will be met with lethal force.
Sighing, Hraden shrugged. "Well, it's not like they can hit us from this distance anyway."
"Hraden, they're not trying to hit us," Sofie warned him urgently. "I'm getting readouts of activity from the station – we're out of functional scanner range, but visuals confirm a number of small craft powering up." Several holoframes flew into existence to the right of his cockpit window, showing live visual feed from Sofie
's aft cameras. The displays zoomed in on multiple portions of Farpoint Station, where a dozen tiny, bulbous ships were shaking about violently, attempting to rip themselves free of powerless docking ports. Even as he watched, a couple of them managed to break away, putting on an incredible burst of speed as they cut an arc towards him, the camera struggling to keep up. "Great," Hraden muttered, cursing softly under his breath. "We're in trouble. Sofie, how many enemy ships do we have headed towards us?" He glanced to the left of the screen at his radar map, but it was still blank with static.
Sofie's answer rang out clearly. "While the greater majority of them don't seem to function at all, nine are still trying to break free, seven exploded on launch, and three have started in our direction."
" Verana asked, her worried face appearing above the radar map. "I'm getting visuals of activity on the station... They have functional ships!
He nodded in response, somewhat distracted. "Yeah, it looks like it. I'm guessing they're drones." Instead of a response from his AI, an urgent, beeping alarm briefly sounded, indicating that at least one of them had a laser lock on their position. At that, Hraden frowned and reached forwards to give a little more power to his engines. "They're catching up with us, aren't they?"
"It seems so, yes," Sofie admitted softly. "I don't think we're going to get away without a fight..."
Grimacing, he asked hopefully, "We can take them, right?"
"I really don't know. I don't have stored data on them – at least, not catalogued."
He took a deep breath to calm his nerves. "We'll do the best we can, then." Then, louder, "Verana, stick close to me – they're slowly catching up with us, and if they don't split off, we're going to have to engage."
"Roger that. Weapons on standby.
Moments later, the light haze of stardust and fragmented ships enveloped the duo as they entered the debris field. Apart from the gentle whir of his cooling system's fan and the steady hum of the engines, it was eerily silent in his cabin – certainly much quieter than one would expect it to be in such a tense moment. Sofie still had a few of the viewports open, showing three of the drones in fast pursuit; they did indeed seem to be approaching rapidly.
"At least they're AI controlled,
" Verana spoke up, trying to make light of the situation. "They're probably not too bright.
Her words merely made Hraden's heart sink further in his chest. "I wouldn't count on that... the Ctaelans were a lot more advanced than we are."
"You're right," Sofie interrupted, seeming tense. "They're likely to have AI similar to mine
Hraden opened his mouth to reply, but as he did, her words sank in, and he let out an empty breath. "Probably, yeah... Shit
," he hissed out in dismay, curving his path tightly around a hulking fragment of a supercruiser. "So what are we going to do? I don't suppose you have any ideas, do you?"
For a moment, there was silence, as Sofie appeared to consider her response. Finally, in a small voice, she answered, "...keep running?"
Hraden did the best he could to ignore the panic clutching at his chest. "'Keep running'??" he echoed flatly in disbelief. "Analyze the situation and give me a report!"
do that!" Sofie protested. "This situation isn't one I can analyze like that! It can't be quantified! There are too many unknowns –"
"Then do the best with what you have," he ordered, all but grinding his teeth in frustration as he glanced at the HUD and noted how close the alien ships were. "Shit, they're coming up fast... If they're as smart as you, why can't they figure out we're not a threat? Try to see if you can radio them to leave off. We're leaving their space, so they don't have reason to attack, right?"
"I've already tried that," she replied tersely. "They're either ignoring me or they aren't equipped for verbal communication. Their AI may also be limited to following orders, I don't know. Just because I used to be Ctaelan doesn't mean I know everything about them."
The comms clicked to life. "Hraden, those ships are small,
" Verana said in surprise. "They're not even a quarter the size of my ship. There's only four of them, too – I bet I could take them out.
, Verana – there's no way we can match their technology," Hraden said forcefully.
Her holoscreen image shook her head at him in disapproval. "They're catching up, Hraden.
" she pointed out bluntly. "We have to fight them sometime. Look, I'm here as your military escort, right? This is a military situation. I'm taking over now. Follow me in – we'll take less damage together.
Hraden glanced over at his side window and almost got to his feet as he saw her ship bank in a 180 degree turn. "Verana, no!!
" he shouted in dismay. "Verana, get back here – their technology is far
ahead of ours!"
The policewoman's voice echoed back laughingly. "Relax, it'll be like shooting practice dummies. They're too small to have any armor, and it looks like they don't even have room for shield batteries. Now hurry up – I don't want to take them on alone.
survive," Sofie speculated thoughtfully. "Their shields and hull should
be relatively weak, even if their weapons aren't."
"And how do you know that?" he said in acrid query, gritting his teeth as he turned his ship around.
She hesitated uncertainly. "I... I'm not sure. It's not in my primary database..."
Far ahead of him, flashes off purple fire broke out as the three drones began firing on Verana's cruiser, their weapons dispersing in a conical pattern. She swerved hard right to avoid the spray, but a number of them hit her shield with a rippling blue glow, though she managed to nail one of them as it flew by. "Hraden?
" Verana's voice called out over the comms. "I don't think I can take them by myself – if you're still around I could REALLY use your help right now!!
He raised his voice. "Verana, sit tight – I'm on my way. Just focus on staying out of their line of fire." Then, "Sofie, what's her systems status?" At his question, Sofie outlined a full display of Verana's fighter's stats, glowing text and windows spreading out from a three-dimensional model to his right. From what he could see, Verana's shields had almost failed, and that didn't bode well. Shaking his head in disgruntled resignation, he flipped a few switches and threw on the afterburner. "Looks like we're doing some fighting. I'm not the sort to leave anyone behind."
"Suit yourself, then," Sofie said. After a few moments, she added in a plaintive tone, "Hraden? If you're really going to do this, try to remember that I'm in the hull, okay?"
"Yeah, I'll remember," Hraden muttered, a little too distracted to note her manifestation of self-preservation.
Verana had changed course, veering towards Hraden's mining hauler, but the three Ctaelan drones were still tight on her tail. "If they get here, I'm... I really don't think I'll be able to take much more! They're frakking agile little bastards...
Hraden started to reiterate that he was on his way, but she cut him off with a string of curses as the drones came around for another pass, firing another spray of purple-white stars in her direction. As Hraden watched helplessly, her shields flickered wildly under the blows and died; a stream of explosions flashed their way across her hull. "Hraden!!
" Verana shouted out in terrified desperation.
And then they turned for him