M80: Unknown Earth-Like World
In the seven years since Laure and I had fled the Empire we had traversed almost the entire length of the Carina arm of the Milky Way. I had landed Fell From The Top(...) on an untouched beach on a pleasantly warm Earth-like world on the fringes of the M80 globular cluster, some thirty-two thousand light years from the bubble of civilised space. Laure and I sat on improvised deck chairs in the shade beneath the nose of the ship, keeping a watchful eye on Vanessa, as she splashed happily in the surf, leaping inquisitively into rock pools to see what was hidden beneath the stones.
"Lorcán is hungry today." Laure said as she shifted our infant son from one breast to the other, cradling his tiny body as he suckled voraciously. Laure tickled the pale, downy hair behind his ear with a gentle fingertip, smiling.
"Well, it's very tiring, lying down all day on the beach." I stroked Laure's hair affectionately, glad that she had re-grown it to almost waist length, her natural raven-black curls shimmering in the light scattered from the bright white sands. I called out to my daughter when I saw her head disappear behind a rock as she knelt down in a pool. "Nessa! If you find anything with claws or spines, remember not to touch it!"
"Yes, daddy..." was her exasperated reply. I could hear my daughter rolling her eyes without needing to see her pretty, elfin face. Nessa had already learned that lesson the hard way almost a year ago. If the ship's medical supplies hadn't contained a universal anti-venom, she wouldn't have lived to learn from her mistake.
Once again, Laure's foresight had proved inspired, saving our daughter's life. Not only had Laure overseen the refit of Fell From The Top(...) from a combat ship to an exploration vessel during our brief stay at the shipyard in the fiercely independent system of LTT 4961, but my wife had also ensured that we had enough food and drink in stasis pods aboard to last us for sixty years, along with clothes for all seasons, medicines and first aid equipment, survival gear for every conceivable environment, a vehicle hangar containing two SRVs and an industrial quality 3D printer, capable of producing almost anything imaginable, given the right raw materials. Laure had even left room in the cargo racks for a few luxuries, including five tonnes of my favourite wine and five tonnes of Eranin Pearl Whisky. Though I suspected she might be regretting having brought along the latter, as after a particularly liquid evening spent by a campfire under romantic starlight and the glittering, arched ice rings of a nearby gas giant, Laure had become unexpectedly pregnant with our son. My ears still rang with the terrible oaths she had sworn during the ten hour labour and birth that she would mete out on me, if I was ever stupid enough to do this to her again.
"Hey, little man." Laure cooed, caressing his neck gently and rhythmically, coaxing Lorcán to close his sapphire blue eyes. "Do you want a little sleep now?"
"You're so good with him." I leant over to kiss my wife, happy as I'd ever felt in my entire life. "You're a great mother."
"Well, I had plenty of practice with you." Laure said, looking down again at our perfect baby boy, as if she still didn't quite believe our second child was real. "You, on the other hand, are a terrible father. Go play with your daughter."
"Yes, mother." I kissed Laure long and hard, reluctant to leave her side. Laure gave me a contented smile as she cradled our son, rocking him gently in her arms. I found Vanessa digging away with her hands in the rock pool and tousled her shoulder-length brown hair as I crouched next to her. "Hey, tiger. Found anything interesting?"
"Not yet, daddy. But now you're here we can look twice as quickly!" Nessa beamed up at me with a killer smile and luminous green eyes, her enthusiasm seemingly infinite.
As the sun began to set, Laure boarded the ship to lay Lorcán down in his cot for the night. Nessa had finally started getting bored of hunting for creatures in the rock pools, so I found us some sticks to draw with on the wet sand as the tide retreated back out to sea. Unable to compete with Nessa's fantastical imagination as she carved out crude pictures of dragons and damsels in distress, I stuck to the things I knew and traced three outlines of ships into the sand.
"Come over here, princess. Let's see how many you can recognise." I pointed to the first silhouette, which from a certain angle more resembled a wedge of cheese than a ship.
"Sidewinder!" Nessa exclaimed confidently.
"Very good. How about this one?" The second outline had a long, stiletto sharp nose and fuselage, with thin, forward-swept wings.
"Excellent. Getting harder now." The next outline had a flat, triangular nose that opened out onto a broad lifting body fuselage, which came to an abrupt stop at the rear of the vessel, without winglets.
"Mark III?" Nessa added doubtfully, her nose wrinkling as she dug deep into her memory.
"Good girl." I hugged my daughter and she gave herself a congratulatory cheer and round of applause.
"These are too easy, daddy." Nessa proclaimed. "Give me a more difficult one."
"Okay, you asked for it." This time I drew a small octagon, extended lines from each of the eight corners and traced a larger octagon around it to complete the silhouette.
"I don't know this one. I've never seen it before." Nessa said, staring at the shape in the sand thoughtfully.
"I didn't think you would." I replied, pleased to have outsmarted my precocious daughter on one occasion.
"It's weird." Nessa looked up and pointed, her eyes attracted by movement behind my back. "But it looks exactly like that."
"What?" I turned around, to see where Nessa's finger was pointing in the sky. My eyes widened and I grabbed my daughter, pulling her to me and covering her ears with my hands. "Oh, shit!"
The shockwave from the sonic boom blew us off our feet onto the sand as the immense grey vessel, easily twice as large as my own Imperial Clipper, flew over the beach at an altitude of less than two hundred metres. I dimly heard Nessa's terrified scream, my own ears ringing from the concussion. I picked her up and carried her over my shoulder as I sprinted back to my ship. I sat her down in the acceleration chair that had been installed in the stateroom Nessa shared with Lorcán and kissed my daughter's forehead, massaging her ears to try and take the pain away.
"Daddy, what was that?" Nessa whimpered, tears flowing down her cheeks. I kissed her again, relieved to see that the overpressure from the shockwave hadn't ruptured her eardrums.
"A Thargoid warship. Get yourself strapped in. We're going to need to leave in a hurry." I waited only to see Nessa give me a nod of acknowledgement before running, still barefoot, to the bridge.
Laure was already in the co-pilot's chair, activating the start-up sequence to bring the ship's systems back up out of standby mode. I could see the warship's wake pushing out waves on the ocean's surface perpendicular to its flight path as it skimmed only a few metres above the water. The alien vessel was slowing rapidly and turning about. There was little doubt that we'd been spotted.
"ASTRA, how long until the thrusters come online?" Laure asked, punching controls frantically on her control board.
"Forty-five seconds, mistress."
"He'll be in weapons range in thirty." I said grimly, jumping into the pilot's seat and starting my pre-flight checks, my fingers taut on the HOTAS controllers.
"She." Laure corrected, her voice unnaturally calm.
"Thargoids are all female, remember?"
"Oh, you really think now is the time to nitpick?" Laure and I exchanged a despairing smile, continuing to try and get the ship up and running, despite the seemingly futile situation we were in.
The Thargoid warship was unbelievably fast and agile for a vessel of its size, descending upon us before we could get either our engines or shield systems out of standby mode. It hovered menacingly three hundred metres in front of my ship, but the fatal weapons fire I was expecting didn't come.
"My lord, we're being hailed." ASTRA reported, sounding as surprised as Laure and I were.
"Give me vox and video, if you've got it." I told the AI, taking a deep breath to compose myself. "This is-"
"I know who you are, Viscount Roche. We've been watching you for some time." My introduction was interrupted almost before it began. The voice was reassuringly human, as was the face attached to it. The commander of the warship wore an unmarked black flight suit and appeared to be in his early 50s, with just a hint of silver threaded through his dark brown hair. His features were bland and nondescript, save for a single livid pink scar down the length of his left cheek. "Sorry about the grandstand entrance, but I wanted to make sure that I got your attention."
"You could have just sent a mail..." I suggested, wryly.
"Mails can be ignored. Warships on the other hand..." The commander replied, the barest hint of amusement in his eyes as he arched his left eyebrow. "I'll give you twenty minutes to get your flight suits on and your ship ready for a short trip that I'll be happy to escort you on."
"A short trip to where?"
"All in good time, Viscount. All in good time."
"And if I decline your escort?"
The commander smiled thinly, his eyes cold as ice. "I don't believe you'd do that. This kind of offer only comes around once a lifetime. I'll expect your reply in twenty minutes."
The transmission cut off and I looked over at Laure before selecting the warship with my targeting computer. The name of the ship made my blood run cold. INRA Nemesis. "I thought the INRA was disbanded decades ago. Humans flying Thargoid warships... Whatever next?"
"Only one way to find out." Laure said, sounding more excited than apprehensive, turning her head to gaze into my eyes from across the cockpit.
I studied the odd look on her face, frowning. "This wasn't part of your plan, was it?"
Laure's only reply was an enigmatic smile.