The Mission

This Science Fiction short story is a lead-up to the book titled, Onyalum Wars. The book is part of the Science Fiction Onyalum Series written by NB VanYoos.

Picture of Trilliu Hunter

NSOIM Transmission Log
ID: 22789

Time: 27.39.101 Date: 44.08.4201
From: Arabata Deep Space Command
To: NSOIM Craft 17, Quadrant 21 Asteroid Belt
Ref: Unidentified Infrared Anomaly
Eyes Only: Captain Frenz, Commander Litx, Science Team Leader Harbt

At 25.01.044 today, deep space infrared telescope, Atan Observatory 3, reported anomalous infrared object occultation by Asteroid 65320 in Quadrant 19. Preliminary analysis indicates object 2 orders of magnitude brighter than surrounding environment in infrared (image and data attached).

Best recommendation is to proceed to Quadrant 19 for further study. Preliminary consensus analyses believe object could be unknown comet approaching from outer solar cloud or highly radioactive asteroid composition not yet seen due to occultation by larger asteroid in foreground. If latter, gravitational perturbation by gas giant may have temporarily shifted object into view.

Current scans indicate object once again masked by foreground asteroid. Require distance scans in far solar sector to eliminate or confirm comet. If eliminated, orbital insertion around Asteroid 65320 needed for advanced analyses of companion object. Core samples a top priority if object scans radioactive.

Orbital observatories currently operating high priority scans and cannot be redeployed for 10 days. Mission objectives include anomalous investigations. Order 22789 supersedes current mission. Established mission protocols still in effect.

∫∫

Captain Frenz cleared the message from his screen while Science Officer Harbt waited patiently. The Captain’s quarters were grand by spaceship standards, but the closeness of the Science Officer left him irritated. Clearly they had been on this mission for too long. He yearned for oceans, fresh air, walks along the beach, and sunshine. They were a long way from the second planet from the sun and still had much yet to do.

This was Captain Frenz’s second mission in ten years, and he was nearing retirement when he could pursue his sport fishing hobby off the coast of Lao with sons and grandsons. After thirty-five years serving his country’s military and space exploration services, he was ready to settle down into a more normal life, albeit less exciting.

“Okay, I assume you have finished the deep solar survey and no comet was located at or near the position command sent us.” The Captain concluded.

Officer Harbt hesitated as if confused by the questions. “Yes and no.” He began. “We did detect a new comet in that sector, but the size, distance, and infrared magnitude don’t match the anomaly detected. Also, its current position would place it in clear view from our planet.”

“So it moved out from behind the asteroid since the original scan.” The Captain said.

“I don’t believe so. The scale of the comet simply does not match, or come close, to the object detected by command.” The officer replied. “We barely detected it and we are a third the distance to it than command. I can definitively conclude it is not the anomalous object.”

Great, Captain Frenz thought silently. They were one year into their two year mission and this new wrinkle would extend their completion time. It would mean more money for all on board, but was a poor substitute for the sunshine and fresh air of their home planet. The one thing about space you never adjusted to was the coldness. It seeped into your bones and no amount of artificial sunlight could thaw it.

He touched his control screen and brought the bridge into view. “Commander Litx, please set a course for Quadrant 19 at delta point-two-five velocity. Begin plot of orbital insertion around Asteroid 65320 at distance…” He hesitated as he looked to his science officer.

“I’ll come help you with the calculations—this asteroid is less than spherical and porous.” Officer Harbt stated.

“Did you get that, Commander?” The captain finished.

“Yes, sir. Do you want me to log this as acting bridge officer?”

“No, I’ll take care of it, Captain out.” He turned to Officer Harbt. “I don’t want us too close to this thing.”

“I shouldn’t think it poses a risk to this ship or crew, Captain.” The officer said.

“You’re not paid to think about that, I am.” The captain said. “I want our orbit barely within the gravitational well of that asteroid, and I want a plotted escape vector updated hourly should we need to leave the vicinity quickly.”

“Sir, that seems a bit excessive considering my team will be busy analyzing the anomaly even before we insert. I believe we will be able to rule out a threat long before we arrive.” The officer retorted.

“Famous last words.” The captain said darkly. “If your crew can’t handle the additional load, then I suggest you do it. Dismissed.”

The science officer hesitated as he was about to respond, but finally left for the bridge with a scowl on his face. After the door to his quarters closed, Captain Frenz stared across the room at the picture of his prize catch landed just before departing on this mission. An overwhelming sense of foreboding told him he would never catch another. He shook himself to warm up. Clearly his military background was turning him skittish.

∫∫

Captain Frenz entered the bridge to a flurry of activity and chaos. Everyone ignored him as they stared frantically at their consoles and the main screen filled with static. He calmly took his seat and waited until everyone noticed him and began calming down. It took a few minutes, but Commander Litx finally came to his senses and called everyone to order.

In the silence, the captain surveyed his crew and saw concern written on most of their faces. Something was wrong and they were scared. “Alright, what is the status, Commander?” He said forcefully as several were about to respond.

Commander Litx turned clinical as he reported. “Sir, we are still two days out from orbital insertion and have suddenly run into interference with our scanners. As you can see on the main viewer, we have lost visual reception although we believe the problem is the data feed back to us rather than the scanner itself.” He said. “We are looking into equipment problems, but we also have rather disastrous readings from the x-ray, gamma-ray, infrared, and ultra-violet sensors as well. We have even lost our communications tether with command.”

“So a shipwide breakdown of computer systems or networking?” The captain asked.

“Maybe, Captain, but we also discovered something curious.” The commander replied.

“Such as?” The captain said.

The commander nodded to Officer Harbt who brought the captain his ComPad. The captain took the device and stared at a grainy picture of an asteroid and colorful spikes radiating from it. “And this is what?”

Officer Harbt jumped in. “This was a scan of our target asteroid before communications and sensors went amok.”

“So there is something radiating behind the asteroid.” The captain said. “Command’s anomaly exists?”

“Yes, but that isn’t the curious thing we found.” Officer Harbt said guardedly.

“Continue.” The captain said quietly, tired of this being drawn out.

“This image is not in the infrared spectrum…” The officer began before being interrupted by the Commander.

“Sir, those are radio waves emanating from the anomaly!”

The captain’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Random?” He asked.

The Commander looked around the room nervously before answering. “No.”

Captain Frenz eyed Officer Harbt knowingly before barking orders. “I want everyone on these ship wide problems so we can fix them. I want a new trajectory that will take us far afield the backside of this asteroid so we can see what this thing is.” He stared at Officer Harbt. “I don’t want us within a million kilometers of this thing. Understood?”

Everyone nodded before turning away to begin working the system problems. He nodded towards the door as he signaled Commander Litx. They were silent down the corridor until they were inside the captain’s quarters far from prying ears.

“What did they teach us at the academy, Commander?” The captain asked as he worked his glitchy console.

The commander responded crisply. “Based on current probabilities, anything emitting a patterned radio signal without repetition has an eighty-seven percent likelihood of constituting intelligent life.”

The captain eyed him with concern. “Was there repetition, Commander?”

“No, sir.” The commander replied. “From my vantage, these were not natural emanations.”

The captain nodded as his console finally came into focus. “We have a protocol for this.”

He quickly scanned the protocol before letting his first officer look at it. When both were finished they stared at each other grimly. “Okay, not the welcoming committee I was expecting.”

“You really believe any civilization able to reach us must be hostile?” The commander asked incredulous.

“Look what they already did to our ship.” The captain replied.

“But they could be trying to communicate with us.” The commander insisted. “Until we understand what or who it is, I can’t believe we should assume it is hostile.”

“Why not?” The captain countered.

“I don’t know, I suppose I imagine a ship full of scientists doing what we are, just on a grander scale.” The commander concluded. “Surely you don’t travel hundreds of light years just to fight.”

“You might if you believed you could easily win that fight.” The captain replied.

“But why?” The commander said. “What would they gain from killing us?”

The captain spread his arms wide and looked at the ceiling. “This. We ourselves are out here surveying this asteroid system for the very raw materials our world needs. Suppose they are traveling through the cosmos and need to stop and replenish periodically. What better place than an asteroid belt.”

“But that doesn’t make them a threat.” The commander said.

“It does if they wish to stop for a while. Why stay out here in the cold when a habitable planet waits where you can rest and replenish. Our world!” The captain emphasized.

The commander nodded. “Okay, what do we do until we contact command?”

The captain nodded, pleased his first officer was ready to move. “First, and most important, we don’t talk about this protocol with anyone else in the crew. Second, we get our ship back in order. Once that is done, we contact command and continue our mission, although from a safer vantage point. Lastly, we analyze this signal and look for telltale signs of any attempt at communications.”

∫∫

The last forty hours had come and gone far too fast, but progress had been made. The captain walked quietly to the bridge waiting for the good news his first officer had promised over the comm. He hoped they had figured out a way to contact command. Their home world needed to know there was an alien presence within their solar space. Hostile or not, it represented an unprecedented discovery of incredible magnitude dwarfing all others to date.

The question had been answered, they were not alone. The new question was, were they friendly? He entered the bridge and took note of the viewer with a clear picture of the distant asteroid. No object could be seen.

“Is this the good news?” The captain asked as he pointed at the screen. “I don’t see anything.”

“We think the object won’t be in view for another couple hours.” The commander reported. “But as you can see, we have isolated its signal and have filtered it out within the network before our computers crunch it. We have all sensors back online and they are reporting a multitude of anomalous readings.”

Officer Harbt walked forward before signaling one of his team members. The main viewer changed to a fuzzy picture of the asteroid with rays emanating from the top and bottom of it. “These are x-ray beams emanating from the object from behind the asteroid.” He signaled again and the picture changed once more. This one was even grainier but more colorful. “This is in the infrared similar to command’s but without the object visible. Notice the heat signature. Whatever it is, it is emanating a large amount of heat into the surrounding space.”

“Anything natural explain this?” The captain asked.

“Not that we know at this point.” Officer Harbt replied. “Could be an as yet unknown radioactive process considering the wide spectrum it is releasing.”

The captain turned to the rest of the crew. “Great job getting our ship back up and running properly. Communications?” He asked.

Commander Litx bowed his head. “Everything is working, but the strength of radiation at this distance easily overwhelms our small transmitting capacity. Our signal would be lost in the noise.”

“But command would hear the noise?” The captain asked hopefully.

“Yes.” The commander replied.

“Excellent, I want you and the science team to figure out a way we can embed our signal into the noise. One way or another, we need to communicate everything to command.” He stood up. “Contact me when we have a visual on the object.”

∫∫

Captain Frenz woke from a restless nap as someone rapped lightly on his door. “Come in.” He said groggily.

Commander Litx and Officer Harbt entered. Commander Litx took charge. “Sir, we have ruled out a communication attempt from the signals emanating from the anomaly.” Officer Harbt nodded in agreement.

The captain spoke to Harbt directly. “The commander appraised you of the protocol?”

Officer Harbt nodded. “I had my own suspicions that I shared with the commander and he told me what you two had discussed.”

“Sorry we couldn’t bring you in earlier, but protocol dictated this was a military matter, therefore only command staff were to be alerted.” The captain said.

“I am science team leader.” Officer Harbt said, perturbed.

“Noted.” The captain dismissed. “What has the science team come up with for our communications?”

Commander Litx took control. “We believe we can embed our signal on their noise such that command could theoretically interpret it. We can embed an identifier so they know it is us.”

“Great news, how soon?” The captain asked.

Officer Harbt interjected. “A few hours to reconfigure the transmitter, but there is a problem.” He said.

“What is it?” The captain waited patiently.

“The power we will need to make the signal match the strength of the anomalies will quickly burn out our transmitter.” He said with concern. “We would be without communications permanently.”

“We already are.” The captain said seriously. “Based on protocol, contacting command is our number one priority, whatever the cost.”

“But captain, we don’t even know what this is yet.” Officer Harbt argued. “This may be nothing and I don’t think jeopardizing our mission for protocol over nothing is warranted, regardless if this is an alien entity.”

“You don’t?” The captain said sarcastically. “We have already had our ship wide systems interrupted, you confirm to me the signal is not an attempt to communicate, the object just happens to be hiding behind one of the largest asteroids in the belt, and you think it is nothing?” He paused. “Clearly our backgrounds prevent us from seeing this in the same light.”

“Maybe, Captain, but I don’t think destroying valuable equipment is warranted in this situation.” Officer Harbt said firmly.

The captain sighed. “Noted, Officer Harbt. Commander, begin the reconfiguration of the transmitter and let me know when it is ready.” The commander nodded. “Okay, is the object in view yet?”

Officer Harbt nodded. “Yes, Captain, we are already analyzing the readings from it.”

“And?” The captain asked.

Officer Harbt continued. “Nothing definitive yet, we are still too far from it. However, it is a quarter the size of Asteroid 65320, emanates heat, x-rays, and what looks like a neutron beam.” He stopped without embellishing.

“And what could produce such a thing?” The captain pushed.

Commander Litx interjected. “I believe it is a power source, Captain!”

“A power source?” The captain said as he stared coldly at the science officer.

“That is pure speculation, Captain, but yes, we do know fusion reactors would produce such a thing.” He begrudgingly admitted.

“And you think this is nothing?” The captain asked.

∫∫

Captain Frenz entered the bridge and stared at the impossible on the main viewer. Half the view was dominated by the dusty gray Asteroid 65320 showing little of interest. The other half was an occulted view of their anomaly. His first impression was it couldn’t be natural. It looked like a stack of concentric rings tapered at the top widening at the bottom. The color was gray like the asteroid, but it almost appeared polished as the feeble sunlight reflected off the top of the object.

The bottom, however, was another matter entirely. It was hewn from solid rock as if the object had grown from an asteroid and been ripped from it violently. The jagged edges jutted out from the fat bottom like a broken bottle, and its decidedly dark and rough exterior clashed with that of the upper portion. It belied an unbelievable advancement in spaceship design. They were far more advanced.

The captain eyed Officer Harbt darkly. “Well?” He asked sardonically.

“Okay, Captain, it appears this is a very advanced spaceship of clearly alien origin.” Officer Harbt replied.

The captain sighed. “Give me all the details you have so far.”

Commander Litx interjected. “Object is approximately twelve kilometers long, four kilometers in diameter, partially composed of iron and granitic rock and partially composed of an unknown, polished metallic substance. High reflectivity from upper portion confirms metallic structure. No opening in object obvious from current readings, but, as already noted, emitting high energy readings across the entire spectrum.”

Officer Harbt nodded in agreement. “There hasn’t been any changes in its output since coming out from behind the asteroid.”

The captain slowly nodded as he stared at the dark object dominating the screen. What were they doing here? How long had they been here, and what did they want? Questions he feared they would never answer. Any civilization that could create such a monstrosity, fly it across the galaxy, and park it behind a large asteroid like this clearly possessed more knowledge of physics and engineering than their world. Regardless of its intentions, it posed a threat. Obviously their leaders had foreseen this and thus why the protocol for such an event was created.

“How close will we pass by it, Officer Harbt?” The captain asked.

“Based on our current trajectory, about two million kilometers.” Officer Harbt replied.

The captain turned to Commander Litx. “Communications?”

“We are nearly done with our reconfiguration, but we still need a message to send. We won’t have much time before the system burns out.” The commander replied.

The captain nodded. “Very well, meet me in my quarters so we can draft the message. Officer Harbt, I want our pass by this object doubled and I need a planetary return trajectory plotted based on using the remaining fuel we have. Our mission is over and we must find a way to get home quickly.”

“But, Captain, we don’t even know if there is anyone alive on this thing.” Officer Harbt argued. “We can’t just leave before completing a more rigorous investigation.”

“We can’t?” The captain said. “You know what protocol stipulates, let them send some other ship to investigate. We are neither equipped, knowledgeable, nor prepared for this type of investigation, Officer Harbt, and I won’t jeopardize this ship on your hunch this is not a threat.” He stopped and eyed the anxious faces of the crew before stepping down his rhetoric. “Look, I understand this is the science discovery of the millennia, but we are not capable of performing the initial steps required for first contact. We must return, report our findings, such that they are, and let the powers back home decide the next course of action.” He quieted down and grew more regimented. “Please calculate the new trajectory and report to me when you are done.”

He signaled to Commander Litx and left the bridge. They were quiet as they marched to his quarters. Once inside, the captain spoke rapidly. “I realize Officer Harbt is simply doing what a Science Team Leader should do, but this is far too monstrous for us to handle in this tiny science ship with no weapons, no shuttle, and soon, no form of communications. Our only hope is to floor it back home and let others decide.”

Commander Litx agreed. “He misses the bigger picture when confronted with the fantastical science this object represents. Maybe he is right, maybe this has been here a long time and there isn’t anyone left alive, but it feels tactical to me. Hiding behind a large asteroid doesn’t scream friendly.”

“Exactly.” The captain said. “What chance would we have against something like that? Okay, about our message to command. How much time will we have to broadcast before our equipment fails?”

“Hard to say.” The commander replied. “But my gut says maybe a couple hours.”

“I’m going to assume less than that.” The captain said as he began typing on his console. “Send this.”

The commander eyed the short message and nodded solemnly. “I’ll make sure it is repeated with our identification over and over until our transmitter fails, Captain.”

∫∫

The Captain sat quietly on the bridge as the crew continued executing their escape plan. Based on current levels of fuel, they could slingshot past the third planet and rendezvous with their home planet in less than a month. It would be a long and lonely month as communications with their home world wouldn’t exist. He already had Officer Harbt working on some other non-traditional form of communications.

The object dominated the viewer and looked as lifeless as always. They had been transmitting the message embedded in the alien interference for about a half hour, but they would never know whether command deciphered it unless they found another way to communicate. It was a risk, but all his experience told him the risk was worth the cost. If they were lost, their planet had to know what was out here.

Flashing lights an annoying buzz interrupted his thoughts. He looked over at the crew member whose console was lit up like a dance floor. “What is it now, Lant?” He asked.

“Sir, every emission spectrum just went off the chart from that thing!” Lant said excitedly.

The captain eyed Officer Harbt who moved next to Lant and began reading the data. “He is right, Captain, radio, x-ray, infrared, everything has doubled in intensity from our baseline readings.”

“Theories?” The captain asked hopefully, but Officer Harbt shook his head.

Lant looked between them nervously and the captain noticed his discomfort. “What is it, Lant?”

“Well, sir, it looks to me like it is powering up.” He said sheepishly.

Here we go. The captain thought darkly. “Is it moving?” He asked.

Both Lant and Harbt turned back to the equipment and the wait was long and excruciating. Finally, Officer Harbt turned back to the captain. “We believe it is, Captain.”

Damn it, he’d never catch another fish. Everything he had feared was playing out just like protocol indicated. The alien ship was moving because they had detected his pathetic attempt to communicate with command, and he had no illusions about what they intended to do.

“Commander Litx, I want every ounce of power we have at our disposal to move this ship faster.” He said quietly.

“Yes, sir.” The commander replied. “But, sir, our ion propulsion won’t be able to accelerate us fast enough to elude something like that. As it is, we won’t even increase our velocity ten percent for another two days. This ship just isn’t built for that type of maneuver.”

The captain nodded. “I understand, Commander, but I want everything firing to make this ship go faster. Use our maneuvering jets, anything!”

The commander nodded and began getting the crew moving on the orders.

“Is our message still being broadcast?” The captain asked nervously as he began to discern movement of the larger ship on their viewer.

Commander Litx replied. “Yes, but power output is beginning to fluctuate. It won’t be working for much longer.”

As if being chased by some large predator, their tiny ship tried to move beyond its design range, but the monstrous alien vessel was gaining ground. They weren’t going to make it.

“Sir, something is happening.” Another crewman said with fear in his voice.

“What is it?” The captain asked.

“We are seeing a flurry of infrared radiation coming from the central section where the upper part merges with the rock.” The crewman responded.

“Put it on the main viewer.” The captain ordered.

The viewer went blank for a moment before another view of the alien vessel appeared in infrared colored images. As the crewman had said, a hundred brighter dots appeared to emanate from the central part of the ship. It was like a swarm of insects leaving the nest.

“Not sure what they are, Captain.” The crewman said hopelessly.

The captain knew what they were, and he braced himself as he prepared to inform the crew. “I am afraid those are smaller ships sent to intercept us.”

“But there are hundreds of them, Captain?” The crewman said in disbelief.

The size of the force being sent after them was both overwhelming and unjustified. The intent was clear. Overpower your enemy with superior force to establish the tone of the engagement early on. His academy training came back to haunt him. “They want to make sure the job is done right.” The captain said with finality.

∫∫

Shindi Rasses had been working for over four days straight trying to unravel the mystery of the radio noise coming from quadrant 19 after the communications disconnect from NSOIM Craft 17. They had been investigating the anomaly near an asteroid in that quadrant before all the noise began and communications ceased.

He had tried every single filter he could think of to eliminate the noise from their standard communications frequencies, but to no avail. After so many failed attempts he had almost given up when an idea struck him. What if the noise was the signal?

He searched every one of the thousands of frequencies representing the noise to see if any patterns emerged from the background. But everything was random, no patterns distinguishable. His final scan was nearly complete when his computer gave a mournful beep. He put down his astronomy magazine and looked over the noisy chart the computer displayed. At first he didn’t see any patterns until he zoomed in closer. There wasn’t just a pattern, it was a digital pattern.

He began to decipher the digital elements, but it was jumbled and not every symbol could be deciphered. After about an hour, he had as much as he could pull out of the noise. He confirmed the initial sequence was an identifier for their missing craft, but then the signal was crushed again. It picked up again later, with only part of the identifier and a single word. Again, it disappeared before another word was extracted.

He jotted all three on paper and ran back to the command center. He didn’t observe protocol as he burst into a command meeting discussing the reallocation of orbital observatory assets to investigate the anomaly and disappearance of their ship.

“Sir, I have something!” He blurted out as everyone turned to him in surprise.

“What is it, son?” General Pantin asked calmly.

Shindi handed the paper over to the general before explaining. “This was embedded in the noise coming from quadrant 19, sir.”

The general read the three items carefully before staring down the brash young man who had given it to him. “Are you sure about this?” He asked.

“The signal was weak, hard to find and degraded, but yes, I am sure about this.” Shindi replied.

The general turned to the rest of the command staff waiting patiently. The look of concern on his face was not lost on the others. “The signal starts with an identifier that could only be NSOIM Craft 17” The general began. “After that, there are only two words: alien invasion.”

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