By Robert Lynch
Soundlessly, the Africanus dropped into normal space. Flashes of exotic matter sparkled around the ship, remnants of the warp bubble interacting with R-space.
“Welcome to system ZZ-275K.” The Captain said, “So drab it doesn’t have a nickname. If you look out the port window, you will see the empty expanse of R-space to infinity, and if you turn to the starboard window, you will see the system’s only feature, a single L Class gas giant that nobody cares about. This is just a pitstop Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s get the exotic matter tanks full and move on to Rostos Station.”
I sat at my station with nothing to do. A communications officer wasn’t of much use when there was no one to talk to. This system didn’t even have a relay satellite, so there was no cached data to examine either. I tried to look busy.
“Are you getting this signal?” Lt. Pompe sent from astrocartography, along with data on a sub-light comm signal.
“Sub-light?” I replied, “Pretty old school. I’ll run it through translation.”
“I already did, it’s too short for the computer to decipher.”
I looked at the message; it was short. A repeating message in the K band, just two signals in a repeated pattern. Three of the first signal, then three of the second, the three of the first again; a short gap then the pattern repeated. “Short repeating signals are commonly used as locators and distress signals; I’ll let the Captain know.” I typed.
“Captain, astrocartography has picked up a small repeating sub-light signal coming from the gas giant. It may be a distress call. Would you like me to send on the information?” I asked.
“Let’s have a look at it then.” He replied. I dragged the data to his implant. “I would have to agree; it looks like a distress call. You can’t identify the language?”
“Not from just two signals,” I said.
Commander Flavius, Medic Tavaris, Legionnaire Crassus, and I waited in the shuttle airlock for the pressure to equalise; it didn’t take long. We didn’t get a good look at the outside of the ship as we docked, relying on sensors this deep in the cloud layer; but we could see that the ship was huge. Larger than the Africanus, equal to a large command ship. There was no writing anywhere in the airlock. I tried to plug into the ship’s computer system, but the ship didn’t use a universal port, and an airlock isn’t the place to start rewiring things.
Inside, red emergency lights illuminated the deck.
“Cold grey metal and sharp angles. A very practical architecture, the kind common on military vessels.” Commander Flavius reported back to the Africanus, “No welcome party. I don’t think we should split up until we make their acquaintance. We’ll head for main engineering first.”
There were large painted symbols on the deck walls. I took photos and sent them back to our ship’s computer for translation. There was something familiar about them, but I could figure out what it was.
“This ship is old.” Commander Flavius said to the group. “Metallurgy scans say the alloy is something like bronzium. Similar carbon-vanadium crystalline structure.”
Old. It got me thinking. It had been almost a thousand years since we’d made ships from bronzium.
With a shove from the square-shouldered legionnaire, we stepped into main engineering. “Wow!” Commander Flavius actually whistled, “An antimatter drive! This ship is a relic.” He began wiring in a small generator we’d brought with us. “To think this generator can put out ten times more energy than the ship’s reactor,” he said to nobody in particular. “It probably explains why they were so deep inside the gas giant – trying to gather more fuel.”
A thousand-year-old ship. The script from one of our ships from that far back wouldn’t be in the computer’s translation files. I opened my link to the computer and told it to open archaeological files for ancient linguistics.
“It isn’t one of our ships.” I said, “I would recognise the script on these consoles. It does look familiar though, something I studied in early exolinguistics, maybe.”
Early exolinguistics focused on the communications at first contact with other races, much of it looked at the process of deciphering unknown foreign languages, using the real-world examples we’d made contact with.
With a click, the generator was calibrated, and energy began to flow into the ship. The room filled with warm white light as emergency lights flicked off. Alarms assaulted our ears. Loud, gruff words flowed over the intercom. I hadn’t recognised the written script, but my ear knew the language.
“That’s Carpathian, Commander!” I yelled over the booming message.
“Seriously?” He asked, “Maybe we should power the ship down and log it for an archaeological team; this may be the only artifact left from them.”
“I agree,” said the Captain into our implants. “Return to the Africanus.” Then the commlink to the Africanus cut off.
“Jammer?” I said.
The Commander tapped at the generator, and the lights dimmed again, the red emergency lights returning. The alarmed voice silenced. The ship had been fully powered for less than a minute.
“We are still jammed.” I said, “perhaps it will take a minute for the capacitor to drain.”
I turned to see a thousand-year-old ghost, a Carpathian, fully armoured as though they had walked straight out of the Carpathian war. He raised his weapon and fired at Legionnaire Crassus. The projectile bounced harmlessly off of Crassus’ shield. Crassus brought his electrolance up. The Carpathian dropped his weapon and leapt forward at Crassus.
They grappled, then the electrolance fired. Crassus went limp. I pulled my sidearm, as did Commander Flavius and Medic Tavaris. Commander Flavius fired, but the Carpathian heaved Crassus’s body up between them. The smart bullet stopped at Crassus’ shield. The electrolance fired quickly twice, incapacitating Commander Flavius and Medic Tavaris.
Before I could plot a trajectory so that my smart bullets would avoid Crassus’ shield, I was grabbed from behind.
My gun was knocked to the floor. It’d need to calculate for two targets now.
“She looks like a comm officer, sir.” The Carpathian who held me said. “We can use her to interrogate the others.”
“Please,” I said in the Carpathian tongue, “Our peoples are no longer at war, we understand that we have startled you, but we have no malicious intent. We came because the ship was transmitting a distress signal.”
The large Carpathian who had taken down Crassus sneered. “Not a distress signal. A lure.”
My smart pistol finished calculating for both the Carpathians; it didn’t matter that it was on the floor, my implant controlled it. I sent the fire command.
Two bullets whizzed up and shot each Carpathian in the head. Warm, wet gore-splattered onto the back of my head, beginning to drip down the back of my uniform. Gross.
Both Carpathians fell to the ground. I scrambled over to the electrolance and set it to revive. Awakening the others, we moved in concert, carefully moving back to the shuttle. Two Carpathians stood guarding it, but Crassus’s electrolance dealt with them.
We began to ascend out of the gas giant.
The lights of the Carpathian ship came on, the giant ship slowly turning toward our gnat sized shuttle.
“Africanus!” I said over the comm as soon as we left the jamming field. “There are living Carpathians on that ship; they tried to capture us.”
The behemoth Carpathian ship exited the clouds below us and fired a missile at us. “Brace!” Commander Flavius yelled.
The missile exploded.
The shuttle lurched so forcefully I felt dizzy. “Was that an antimatter missile?” I reached unconsciously for my pack; it wasn’t there, I left it on the Carpathian ship.
“We can’t take another one of those,” Commander Flavius said, “Frankly, I’m surprised the shields held the first one.”
I left my comm panel on the Carpathian ship. Wired into the Carpathian ship. Would they keep jamming their own ship now that we had exited the field? I tried to remote access the comm panel from the shuttle. Success!
“Commander, I have a link to their central computer; I need thirty seconds.” I could never have remote hacked the Carpathian ship, but I had a hard link straight into its brain.
I put it to sleep.
The whole warship turned off. “Got it,” I said. “Unless they take out my comm panel, they won’t be able to do anything.”
“Good work,” the Captain said to me once we had returned to the ship, “We’ve got the Carpathians wrapped up, awaiting a jump ship to take them to Central Command.”
“What will happen to them, Sir?” I asked.
“For now, they will be kept where they cannot hurt anyone else. It seems they awoke from cryosleep only two months ago. They have a big adjustment to make. But they are also the very last of the Carpathians; Central stressed that they want to do everything they can to preserve them.”
“They’ve been bogeymen to a thousand years of children,” I replied, “Can they truly be integrated?”
“They will at least have the choice.” The Captain said. “And ZZ-275K is no longer nameless; it has been named Sleeping Carthage. It’s still drab, though.”